In the Soup
Why do we glorify the dead? Did our impulse to amplify the character traits of dead people give birth to the heroes in our myths? Embellishment does tend to make a story more interesting. I suspect we exaggerate the details of the departed out of some sense of respect, and perhaps to lend meaning to our own lives before we join them. In either case, we owe it to ourselves to remember them honestly at some point.
As I write this, I’m seeking a sense of closure. I’ve lost a friend. It was sudden, but I think anyone who knew him could have seen this coming. His death is painful to consider, yet I am already feeling the balm of reflection as I gather my thoughts on this man’s journey.
I’ll do my best to avoid any over-amplification of my dead friend. However, his tale and his impact on my life are adequately powerful in their natural, unadulterated states. It may sound like I’m lionizing him to say his saga needs no tailoring to make it more dramatic, more compelling, more unlikely, or more tragic. However, I can say with a clear conscience, my telling of his story is lacking in fantastical detail, rather than being overpopulated with it. The best I can do here is to give you an honest reckoning of one of the most complicated, intelligent, lovable and dynamic men I have ever known; my friend, Alex.
Alexander Major, born in Mississippi in 1947, was what many people would call a character. It was true, he was a character. It would also be true to call him a wild man, a thoughtful man, a gifted and well-spoken entrepreneur, a con-artist, an articulate apologist for the green movement, a snake-oil salesman, a passionate crusader for terminally ill children, a liar, a pilot, a disgraced pilot, a talented musician, an average musician, an ex-con, an innocent man, a terrible friend, and a good friend. He borrowed money he never repaid and made good on loans on which he voluntarily paid interest. He had perennial and various grand-visions, including plans to start a biofuel company with no money of his own, and a plan to refurbish and fly the very first private jet ever made around the world with celebrity pilots, raising funds for St. Jude. For all of the time I knew Alex, he lived on the backs of those plans as they floated down a river of trusting investors, helpful friends, and good intentions.
Before I knew him, Alex had breathed the rarified air at the top of the mountain of financial success; living in a penthouse in New York, while developing a whole city block in Manhattan to be a world-class recording studio, with lofts, and a media production facility. He also breathed in the dank and wretched air at the absolute depths of sadness after the death of his only child, Jesse, at the age of 4.
Before any of this, Alex’s band, “The Wallabies”, were among the very first bands to record with the legendary Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN. In 1969, Alex and his band made it out to San Francisco, in spite of being discouraged to do so by the producer of Norman Greenbaum, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Chris Isaak, and others; Erik Jacobsen.
After arriving in San Francisco, and receiving an earful of “Great Honesty” from Erik, Alex proceeded to fire his band and offer his services as a carpenter to Erik, who was then remodeling a houseboat in Sausalito’s famed, gate #5. True to his word, Alex was a competent builder and became fast friends with Erik.
Alex stayed in the San Francisco Bay area throughout the heat of the explosion of counter-culture and consciousness expansion, and sold LSD under the oddly common moniker of “Magic Alex”. I say oddly common, as it turns out, the other “Magic Alex” people may be familiar with was doing business with the Beatles around the same time.
Alex left the Bay Area, got married, had a child, opened up a recording studio called “North Star” and a green-goods store called “Earthly Goods” in Boulder, CO. Alex was successful in his business dealings and had a relatively happy existence until his young son fell ill, and died tragically at the age of 4, from an autoimmune disease.
Alex shared many of these stories with me over the years. Recounting them fills me with a familiar sadness and guilt. This sadness comes from having a third-person, hindsight perspective of the past, with all of the horrible, unavoidable and unfolding momentum it carried right up to the moment of death for Alex. I feel guilty, because I am so absorbed with myself, I do not remember details, like what exactly took his son’s life. What I do know, is Jesse’s death, as you might expect, changed Alex forever.
He spoke of his son, but not in recollection of what it was like to spend time with him, or what he was like as a child. On the rare occasion when he and I made it to the subject of Jesse, Alex was vague and focused on the effort to raise money for children, and not the memory of his own son. He did write a very touching song, which he played for me a few times, about the pain of that terrible loss. I never pressed him on it, I have no reference for that sort of agony…I can only hope I never do.
Alex was genuinely complicated. He didn’t talk on deeply philosophical subjects often. Instead, he would jump from topic to topic, speaking of a biofuel project using material from Central America, to creating a music studio on the island of Sardinia, to his exploits in New York in the eighties, back to his languishing dreams of his round the world flight. He was obsessive, not a great listener, and would regularly hijack conversations with details about his wild and unfunded schemes. His conversations eventually struck me as just possible enough to not be completely dismissed, but delusional to the point where I never took anything too seriously; that was not always the case.
I met Alex in 2004 at my shop in Memphis, TN. I had opened up a renewable fuel business, using discarded cooking oil to power diesel engines. A little bit of press had helped bolster my business, and things were going well. I was also full of grand and unfunded plans. One evening, while cleaning up some spilled vegetable oil, a bright-eyed man in his late fifties came walking into the large bay door of my shop; Alex entered my life. Confident and unannounced, he launched into action.
After a whirlwind introduction, Alex began testing me to see if I knew what I was talking about when it came to renewable fuels, and renewable energy in general. Question after question, he tested me. Eventually, he gave me his number and told me to call him in the next few days to discuss a business venture. He came across like a guy with money, who was interested in funding my dreams. As it turned out, he had lots of borrowed money and was considerably more interested in telling me about his dreams – past, and future.
We became friends fairly quickly. He was an inspiration to me the way a sprained ankle inspires an athlete to train harder. Alex’s madness made me want to focus. We cooked together, smoked pot and talked for hours (he talked, I listened). We played music on my front porch, and he met the woman who would later become my wife. He told me I should marry her, long before the thought occurred to me.
He told me about his time in prison. At the height of Alex’s financial success, he owned and was remodeling an estate in Provence, maintained an apartment in Manhattan, flew a private jet all over the world, and had played a part in developing large cargo planes, retrofitted to help with wildfire suppression. In the midst of all of this, Alex managed the finances of a group of individuals who were bringing “Thai Sticks” (marijuana) into the American market. This is, of course, completely illegal, and by a crazy twist of fate, Alex was implicated in the scheme by a couple of fishermen arguing in a bar about who was paid more to bring the goods to shore. A federal agent was listening-in on this argument and brought the whole operation tumbling down. After a lengthy and ill-advised legal battle, Alex was eventually convicted and sentenced to many years in prison.
I later heard about an incredible interface with Alex and the warden of the prison where he spent most of his time. When the writing on the wall was becoming clear, and his eventual sentencing became more and more likely, Alex devised a plan to scope out the prison which would be his home for years to come. Under the guise of a journalist writing a story about life in American prisons, Alex arranged a tour of the facility with the warden. Throughout the tour, Alex peppered the warden with questions about the daily life of inmates, and managed to find out the very best places for an incoming prisoner to position himself.
The warden told him that operating the prison’s dairy would be the most lucrative, as success was rewarded with gallons of ice cream. In that particular prison, ice cream was a mighty currency.
After sentencing, and reporting to prison, the warden met Alex, remembered him, and took a liking to him. He ended up with a glut of ice cream, and found a niche for himself as an inmate with resources.
I met him many years after he was released. His time in prison was something he did not share with people. I found out about it by doing a background search after he hinted at doing business with me. He didn’t tell me about it for a few years. I eventually told him I knew about it, but didn’t care about prison time for a drug bust. I have strong feelings about the absurdity of prohibiting marijuana while you can buy liquor and baby formula in the same store.
I helped him load his airplane, a Beechcraft King Air, onto a flatbed trailer when he moved from Memphis to Kansas. I remember feeling deeply sad when he and I shared our last meal at an Indian restaurant in Memphis. I loved him and would miss his regular company.
At one point, when a couple of young guys from New York came down to Memphis to interview me for a documentary film on renewable fuels, I reached out to Alex to see if he could set up an on-camera interview with Morgan Freeman. Morgan and his partner, Bill Luckett, had loaned Alex a great deal of money to initiate the “King Air Foundation” (Alex’s effort to restore and fly that crazy airplane around the world). Alex lived above Morgan’s club in Clarksdale, MS for some time, and considered him a friend. The young filmmakers and I met with Mr. Freeman at his club in Clarksdale. The interview with Morgan made it into the 2006 film, “Greasy Rider”.
On a trip to Europe, after selling my business in 2007, I met up with Alex in Geneva, Switzerland. He invited me to join him at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibit, to help him with the only non-profit booth in the whole show. In spite of being shoved to the very back of the exhibit hall, Alex made his way confidently around the sprawling exhibit, shaking hands with CEO’s, Saudi Princes, billionaires and worker-bees, all with the same enthusiasm and easy charm.
He once took me to a Grammy Awards gala in Memphis, honoring local musicians and creative luminaries. His sister, Babs and her husband Jerry were with us. We had a blast and watched as Justin Timberlake was honored by the organization. Babs had been tipping back the Chablis in earnest. Near the end of the evening, I saw her chatting up a lovely woman whom I recognized as an actress. Babs had cornered the actress, and was talking nonstop when I approached. The conversation was absolutely incredible to me. Babs was addressing the woman with great enthusiasm as if she were in-character in one of her films. I reached out, touched the actress on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, would you mind if I borrowed Babs for a moment?’ Cameron Diaz turned to look at me, widened her eyes to the size of the dinner rolls we had just been served and silently mouthed the words, “THANK YOU!” She politely turned back to a still rambling Babs, shook her hands warmly and told her goodbye.
Alex and I would often go many months without speaking. Mostly out of a great reluctance on my part to talk on the phone. Those who know me are likely aware of my disinclination to engage in phone calls. This aversion to being on a call was compounded by the long monologues about improbable and complex projects with which Alex was regularly consumed. Our conversations, when they happened, would last for at least an hour, and would often end without ever sharing very much with my friend about my own life.
To be sure, Alex’s life was often much more interesting than my own; now that he is gone, I am faced with the fact that I resented being subjected to someone else’s self-indulgent rambling, without being able to subject them to mine in return. Alex’s lessons continue to sink in.
He was flown around the world, at no cost to himself, to speak at conferences about the necessity to develop “bio-jet fuel”. He regularly delivered a presentation titled, “Can We Still Fly Jets and Save the World?” Every time I spoke with him, he was in negotiations with some company for donations for his airplane, or a hangar space with on-staff technicians to help rebuild it. He even managed to get new brakes for his car, via a donation. He was so incredibly convincing and charming; I believe he could have done anything, so long as he didn’t have to work for someone else.
In 2012, I got a somewhat desperate sounding email from Alex. I called him right away, and heard a voice I almost didn’t recognize. Alex’s manic-high had given way to a despondent-low. He had been staying with his longtime friend Erik Jacobsen in the San Francisco Bay area for almost a year. It was time for him to leave, and he didn’t know where to go.
I didn’t quite understand just how low Alex was. I had no idea depression could change a person’s voice. I felt for my friend and told him he could come stay with me.
Tiffany and I lived in a small, one bedroom shotgun-style house in New Orleans. We had a long sofa in the front room I offered to him. It was meant to be temporary, while Alex figured out what to do next. Unfortunately, he was in no state to be able to do that. It wore on Tiffany. She did not like Alex in any condition. In his depressed state, he was especially irritating to her.
To be fair to Tiffany, she was not alone in disliking him. Some people saw him as a free-loader, self-absorbed, sometimes smug, and quick to take advantage of his friends. I was not blind to those aspects of his character, but I also saw, in a way, myself. Alex and I were equally restless. Like him, I am undereducated but remain confident in my capacity to make my way in the world by learning on the fly. I saw my potential future in him. It still frightens me.
I also saw a vulnerable friend who needed support. His depression struck a chord with me, and I wanted to be able to help him through it. Tiffany wanted him off of our couch and out of our house. It was stressful. After several months in New Orleans, I bought him a one way ticket on Southwest Airlines, where he made his way to a friend’s place in the improbably named city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
I learned a great deal from that encounter; the limitations of friendship, the impotence of good intentions in the face of deep trauma, and the need for better mental health care in this country for the vulnerable. I also learned about the type of person I am and the type I want to be.
I am not religious, but I do take inspiration from the archetypes in religious myths. Jesus had shitty friends but stood by them. Siddhartha spent a little bit too much time alone in the woods but made it out with a heroically relaxed attitude. When Lao Tzu got fed up with city life and wandered off into the wilderness, the resulting book he was forced to pen was one of the best ever. If Muhammad had been a little bit more explicit about his successors, life might be a little less interesting in the world...you get the point. In other words, I saw my relationship with Alex as a chance to practice what I felt I believed. I failed often. He was not always easy to like, but I loved him anyway. If I listened to what others said about him, I would have written him off long ago, but to do so would have been a self-betrayal as much as a betrayal of friendship. I’m still conflicted about what sort of friend I ended up being to Alex.
Alex spent several months bathing in the healing waters of Truth or Consequences, where he had daily access to hot springs, high in lithium. He eventually resurfaced from his depression and made the decision to buy a van, and live in it. It would become his roving office, and base of operations. He would tell business associates he was staying at the “Grand Hotel”, a cheeky reference to his Chrysler, Grand Caravan.
A few years later, after Tiffany and I moved to Sonoma County, California, I got a call from Alex. He said he would be visiting his friend Erik, only 20 miles south from where we were living. He invited us over for a July 4th barbecue, where we met Erik for the first time.
Erik and I have since become good friends, and he has been kind enough to hire me to work for him for over three years. It was interesting for me to spend time around two men whom I admired, Erik and Alex (Al, as Erik called him). Watching these two old friends navigate their 50+ years of friendship was hilarious. Erik could be a little tough on Alex, but it was good to hear someone challenge Alex on his assertions and craziness.
I’m not sure if is my age, or the fact that I trend embarrassingly towards the extreme ends of politeness, but I tend not to challenge people unless the bullshit is exceedingly thick. Erik does not have this problem.
Over the past few years, I saw Alex a handful of times. Living out of his van was taking its toll on him. There would have been plenty of room in the back of the van for a mattress, but a large wheelchair lift was in-place. When I asked why he didn’t remove it, he told me he had plans on donating the vehicle and getting another one. That never happened, and he slept in the front seat of that van for years.
Our conversations often landed on his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and her son, Dylan. Alex had developed a very close bond with the boy. He spoke of him often and in glowing, paternal tones. I met Dylan once, when he was about five years old, and found him to be an adorable and bright little guy. Alex loved that kid dearly.
Alex was eventually exiled from his ex’s life, and subsequently from Dylan’s. He maintained a semi-ongoing relationship with him until a teenaged Dylan told Alex he didn’t want to see him any longer. As devastating as this must have been, Alex told himself Dylan would grow out of it and make his way back into Alex’s life when he was older.
In the same year Dylan told Alex he didn’t want to see him any longer, Alex suffered a string of heavy losses. First, his sister, Babs died of heart failure. Then one of his oldest friends and former bandmates was killed in a car crash. His best friend, Bruce, died a few months later. Bruce owned the place in “Truth or Consequences”, leaving Alex with one less place to land in times of need. I can not imagine how deeply sadden he must have been by this cascade of loss.
When Tiffany and I decided to take our van-based journey, Alex had many tips for living out of a vehicle. He was incredibly supportive of our journey and enthusiastic about our podcast. He even left a thoughtful review on iTunes. The last time I saw him in person was on my way to Topanga Canyon to meet and interview, Dr. Chris Ryan. Alex helped calm my nerves, and encouraged me, “Say hello to brother Chris for me!”
The last time I spoke with him was a few days before Thanksgiving, 2018. I was visiting Erik and his wife, Lala at their home in the Bay Area. We called Alex and put the phone on speaker, so we could all talk to him. His tone was completely despondent. His health was poor, his back hurt, his teeth were falling out, and he had nowhere to go.
I could not host him, Erik could not host him, and he could no longer live out of his van, as the pain in his back from sleeping in the front seat was causing him great discomfort. The friend with whom he was staying had asked him to leave. For the first time since either Erik or I had known him, Alex dejectedly told us he could not imagine a single one of his many schemes ever working. He had been hit by the weight of this realization quite hard. The result was devastating for him, and an impossibly deep depression set in.
Erik offered him financial support in exchange for writing his autobiography. Alex didn’t have the energy to accept. Even in the throes of depression, he took a moment to tell me, one last time, that he was enjoying our podcast, and really liked all of the characters we had been meeting on our journey. He trailed off and ended the conversation on a rather sad note.
Alex sent me a text the following day, asking if we could talk privately. I texted him back later the next morning and never heard from him again. I still have a string of unanswered text messages in my phone. My final message to him was somewhat desperate, and I told him I was worried about him. I didn’t know he had been dead for two days when I sent it.
Alex decided to end his journey on his own terms. I don’t know what was on his mind when he decided to do it, but making the decision to kill himself seems to me one of peculiar bravery. I can only imagine, when the weight of the unknown, which lends heft to the other side of life, is less than the weight of depression, and existential futility, the will to live must be mighty hard to carry. On January 3rd 2018, my outlandish, complicated, charming, reverse barometer of a mentor, confidant, and friend ended his life by walking in front of a train.
I am writing these words now in a room often occupied by Alex. That room is in the basement apartment of Erik Jacobsen’s home. It is a surprisingly well-lit apartment, for having only one wall with windows. The view is delightful from almost any angle in the room. A large and old rose vine hangs above the small side yard, and fragrant vines crawl along the fence which separates Erik’s yard from his neighbor’s.
I’m sitting here thinking about potential and the madness of life; preoccupied by the way we dance along the knife edge separating serendipity from catastrophe. In the cosmic soup of the conceivable, with ingredients like chance, tragedy, opportunity, fate, and intention, we float in a quantum state. We are like little flies, disgusting the great customer. We also bob like tasty little dumplings, toothsome and plump, delighting the big-lady with the spoon. If, like me, you take no comfort in the concept of an afterlife or supernatural deity, this metaphor may seem empty and unsatisfying. In any case, whether discarded in disgust or consumed in delight, much like soup, the experience is also quite brief.
I loved that man…although I told him so, I’m not certain he knew it. Rest in peace, Alejandro.
On your journey
Tell a friend
How much you love them