A peerless songwriter — and an unforgettable human being — has died
The songwriter Paul Kopasz has died. He was my close friend and I loved him very much.
There’s not going to be a funeral. Paul’s friend group is probably the most collectively immuno challenged in the country, so with coronavirus raging, it’s just as well. And as I said on the radio during Ken Katkin’s beautiful tribute, there’s no one among us who could memorialize Paul as poetically or powerfully as Paul himself. He’s been doing a pretty good job of it the last year, and I encourage everyone who reads this to buy all three of his amazing career retrospective double-CDs, Res Ipsa Loquitor, Curriculum Vitae, and Sotto Voce.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But Paul himself knew that I do a decent job of farewell. When my mom died, his deep enjoyment of my obituary for her was one of the things I remember most.
The first time I met Paul was at the Jockey Club in Newport, Kentycky, on March 19, 1988, when his band The Weathermen opened for my band Green. He played his famous acoustic through an electric amp setup and that was only one reason the whole situation reminded me so much of Bob Dylan. The words just bursting forth from this super tall and rangy dark man. Years later, Paul would cover Dylan’s “Isis” and he and my then girlfriend were the only people I knew who could remember all of those words. In fact, Paul could remember gigantic passages from any number of the thousands of books and magazines he consumed, partly because of his God-given hard drive but also because of his training as a debate champ, which had earned the Detroit native a scholarship to the University of Kentucky.
I lured Paul K several times to play with my 90s band The Lilacs. The first was on my 24th birthday, October 23, 1992, where we played together at Lounge Ax. It became kind of a legendary show. The other Lilacs and I spent months promoting it. We put flyers up on every possible streetlight, and we even used Tom’s apartment on Clark Street to erect an illegal billboard advertising the show. We went on the radio to promote it and it worked. The show was standing room only, half from The Lilacs growing presence in the city and half from curiosity to see a songwriter who was finally earning some buzz. A couple months later, Paul and I wrote a song together that appeared on The Lilacs best record. I named my radio show at WHPK “Amphetamines and Coffee” after one of his songs (and two of his preferences).
The following summer, the endless stream of personnel changes in his band had struck again. He asked me to play bass for a quick Midwestern jaunt. We played in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. He was in a ferociously ugly mood the entire trip. He constantly criticized me and the drummer Jimmy Cummings (who I had nicknamed “Spider” after the Michael Imperioli character in Goodfellas, and I think that nickname stuck), while scowling and drinking cup after cup of coffee and plenty of flasked booze during the long drives.
But somehow, when we got to my apartment, where he was staying overnight in Chicago, he was kind to my girlfriend. She made him strong coffee and he asked if there was any ice cream in the house. She said sure and scooped him a bowl of Cherry Garcia. I watched in amazement as he took half of it and plopped it into the coffee. I’ve done that a few times myself since, and it’s awesome.
After I moved to New York City, I saw Paul as often as he came through. His career had some moments of real promise. The Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker – who I adored for being not just the drummer in my all-time favorite band but one of my few fellow rock ‘n’ roll right wingers — produced a couple of Paul’s records. And Alias, a quasi major label, seemed to get what was special about him and invest some real money in promotion. The Afghan Whigs covered two of Paul’s songs and even though there seemed to be a little rivalry between Greg Dulli and Paul, the Whigs actually brought the Weatherman on tour with them in Europe.
As prolific a writer as he was, Paul’s covers were equally mind-boggling. Both for how strongly he made others’ songs his own, but also the strange mix he chose. Songs like Nothing by Townes Van Zandt and Wild Horses and Thousand Dollar Wedding were naturals. But how about Faded Flowers by Shriekback, which he managed to make me rehear the original — and it’s just phenomenal and I never even noticed it. One time my wife and I were in Los Angeles and happened to see in the LA Weekly that Paul was playing a showcase. When Paul noticed us in the audience, he broke into Afternoon Tea by The Kinks. Probably not what the record executives wanted to hear, but exactly what we needed to hear.
Ultimately, Paul’s diarrheic prolificness and constant flipping from one genre to the next made it impossible for him to find a real champion. His work was eventually banished to Mekons territory — beloved by critics but too arduous for radio stations and record stores to classify.
But man, song after perfect song. Has any artist anywhere written a better song than Radiant and White? Leave Me In Tears, Stolen Cars, My Knife, The Grid, Deer Dutch, Poor Man’s Eyes, and a hundred others.
When I turned 40, I asked Paul to come to New Jersey and perform at my birthday party. He asked if I could cover his bus fare. I told him I’d pay him as much as he wanted – my ship had come in a little bit and I owed this guy a lot. I really felt like his music had saved my life at least a couple times. He said how about $500. We settled on $1000, and it was like it physically hurt him to accept it.
At that show, Paul entertained the guests but told me his greatest pleasure was meeting my friends and speaking to everyone from David Carr to Charlie Kushner. A filmmaker called John Bosch was there shooting footage of Paul for what became the documentary A Wilderness of Mirrors. Paul forged a strong bond with my ex mother-in-law and winded up hanging out with her a lot. The reason Paul’s songs were vivid and real is because he was interested in people. For a guy who talked more than almost anyone I ever knew, he was also a damn good listener.
It is fitting that Paul leaves this mortal coil amid a pestilence of the exact variety he loved to predict and describe in his songs. If you go onto Musixmatch, you get to read a lot of his words, most of them put up by me years ago amid appreciation and a feeling that his songs deserved to endure. I misheard a bunch of them of course so when I sent him my transcriptions he’d write back with corrections and explanations. I treasure those emails.
Paul couldn’t believe it when I was named editor in chief of the New York Observer at the beginning of 2013. Neither could I, neither could anybody, but Paul got a huge kick out of this turn of events. He would write me with tons of suggestions of books we should review or artists we should cover and he just loved picturing me hanging out with Lou Reed and Mick Rock and Norman Mailer, even though none of that ever happened. He was as proud of me as my father would have been.
One time, I interviewed Martin Landau for the Observer and I mentioned to Landau that Crimes and Misdemeanors was my favorite Woody Allen movie. Paul had read the story and emailed me: “I totally agree on Crimes and Misdemeanors…his best movie by a wide margin, perfect middle ground between his early and late artistry… very heavy morally and yet funnier than almost anything else he’s done (in certain spots only, especially the Alan Alda/Mussolini juxts). So what are Crimes’ top competitors? Manhattan, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, I’d say. Among his post-Mia stuff, Hollywood Ending did ok by me, mainly cause Treat Williams is so good at playing an asshole. Also Stardust Memories is top notch…”
Paul will live on through the tremendous catalog of tapes, records and CDs. But as much as his music meant to me — and as I’ve remarked, there were times it meant everything – I’m realizing as I write this that I’m really gonna miss my friend more than the songwriter. You should’ve seen his face when we visited last summer. I think he knew the end was near. But he smiled and was so glad to meet Melody, and show me his house and just sit and talk, even though he barely could with a tube in his throat.
One time I was going through a bad break up. I played Paul K’s song Everything Is with its chorus “everything is gonna be all right” repeated over and over.
The heat is rising that is true
The foot is on the other shoe
The sun is turning powder blue
Spring is gone and so are you
Everything is gonna be all right
Everything is gonna be all right
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