Confessions of a Lapsed Bohemian

Finding inner peace and fulfillment in a Beat universe


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In an old rambling white clapboard colonial on Ash Avenue in Raleigh, North Carolina back in the late sixties there was a second floor apartment that served as an unofficial musician’s enclave of sorts. Its chief occupant was a young guitarist who had come from L.A. to do his graduate work (in microbiology, I believe) at NCSU. He had dropped out to do music full time. His name was Clif Kuplen. I say “chief occupant” because he shared this apartment with his then wife Linda and from time to time other musicians who needed somewhere to live when they weren’t on the road and various small animals, including a Dutch bunny whose name I can’t recall and two Pekin ducks, whose names I do recall- Duck Owens and Adam Clayton Fowl. The apartment was decorated in Bohemian chic—white walls hung with abstract art, homemade café curtains filtering sunlight through tall windows trimmed in black woodwork. The furniture was by and large improvised and the latest and best jazz albums were scattered about—Herbie Hancock’s “Mwandishi,” “Spaces” by Larry Coryell, “East” by Pat Martino, “The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau,” “Bitches Brew” by Miles, “Inner Mounting Flame” by John McLaughlin, the list goes on and on. Perched on a chair in the living room was a road-worn black Les Paul Custom, Clif’s main ax. In his hands this guitar sang and danced; chops screamed defiantly, chords romanced seductively.

Among the musicians in this eclectic enclave were: Oscar Wright, who was one of three guitarists used by Isaac Hayes when he toured; keyboard man Mike Keck, who went on to play with Mother’s Finest and would go on to record “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with Elvin Bishop; Drummer Chuck Leonard, who was the go-to drummer for the Four Tops and who recorded with Marvin Gaye; Chip Crawford, who now plays piano with Gregory Porter; pianist Steve Allee, now playing all over the country when he’s not home in Indianapolis; bassist Don Felix, who now resides in L.A. and other visiting artists playing the local jazz club, the Frog and Nightgown. When you walked into Clif’s apartment you never knew who would be there, listening to jazz while partaking of herbal enrichment and Linda’s gourmet cooking. Lily Tomlin and George Carlin were just two such luminaries.

I was just a high school kid at the time, hanging around with a much older crowd because I was in an R&B band comprised mostly of five-year Design School students at NCSU. The night I met Clif we were sitting around my bass player’s off-campus apartment, jamming. This tall, outspoken stranger joined us and listened while I played what I thought were the chords to Blood, Sweat and Tears’ version of “God Bless the Child.” He then took the guitar from me and said, “That’s nice—but the chords are wrong. This is how it should be played.” He then demonstrated his version and yes, the chords rang true. It was a huge mistake on his part. From that time on he was saddled with an annoying high schooler, who relentlessly showed up on Ash Avenue to pick his brains on into the early seventies.

Clif could be exasperating at times. He considered himself a connoisseur of everything. He drank the best Bordeaux—Chateau Lafite, Haut Brion, Pontet-Canet, Lynch Bages, Pedesclaux, et cetera. The ripest Brie, the best aged Provolone—“None of that bullshit Provolone they sell at Winn Dixie,” he would exclaim. His wife made real guacamole, at a time when I couldn’t even pronounce guacamole. He had a doomsday view of the world at large, often saying things like, “In thirty years cockroaches will be the dominant species.” I don’t think he was referring to the current gaggle of politicians. Perhaps at the time, with Nixon in the White House, Mutual Assured Destruction the order of the day and a war raging in Vietnam, it was a reasonable outlook for the planet. He took up Shotokan Karate, training at a local dojo with a fifth-dan instructor. It was annoying having kicks constantly thrown within an inch of my face during that period, but I got used to it. At least the company wasn’t boring.

Among musicians we had a rating system for players, starting with “He can play,” then “That guy’s a bitch,” “monster” and, at the top, “motherfucker.” Depending on who you talked to, Clif was considered either a monster or a motherfucker. In Clif’s world, Oscar Wright was a bitch, Chip Crawford, a monster, top dogs like Herbie and Chick were the motherfuckers. Me? “Barnes, you can play,” he once said. I considered Clif a monster… but I understand he got so much better over the years.

I left Raleigh for Atlanta, New York and beyond in 1974. I never saw or heard from Clif after that, though someone told me that he had gotten divorced and left North Carolina shortly after I did, vowing never to return. Despite my attempts to reconnect over the years I never found him until his daughter emailed me with the disheartening news of his death. She had found my name from a comment I had left on one of his blogs, a comment I had left not knowing if I had actually found the real Clif Kuplen. He never responded, which is sad… because I only wanted him to know how much he had influenced my life.

This I will say in retrospect: That Clif Kuplen was a BAD MOTHA—
“Shut your mouth!”
Hey, I was just talkin’ ‘bout Clif.


Written by Bill Barnes

February 16, 2017 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Used to play with Clif in the early 70’s. A life changing experience. He pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. Introduced me to modern jazz and all the good pro players in Raleigh. He confirmed all that I thought was right – sleep til noon, stay up all night playing music, the right wines to drink, how to dress, showed me the small cool bars where the local players hung out. He was a fantastic player even then. I was just a little shit kicker from Wilson and he helped me grow up. It was a circus and I loved it – some of the best times of my life. Thanks Clif. Skip Andrews

    Skip Andrews

    February 27, 2017 at 12:23 am

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