- Matthew Thorsen
It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world, wrote art critic John Berger, whose Ways of Seeing was a veritable ode to the visual environment. Though it was not meant to do so, his simple sentence speaks volumes about the kind of loss suffered by the vision-impaired. But which is the crueler fate: to be blind at birth or to become so later in life? The former might at least manage without the sense of tragedy, or even the sense of handicap, that accompanies the loss of sight in a person with visual memories and dependence.
Imagine this nightmare scenario: being blind in one eye and living with a constant threat to the other. Thats the situation in which Richmond resident Charlie Frazier has found himself since December 4th, when the vision in his left eye seemed to explode with color, then disappear. In fact it was a horrible déjà vu, a repetition of another morning five years earlier: I got up, walked into the kitchen, pushed the toaster down and, boom, I was hallucinating, he recalls. It was like I saw black paint running down my eye. I freaked out trying to make it go away.
It did go away, then came back, and went away and came back again. In the end, Frazier lost about 20 percent of his sight in the right eye the residual damage from blood being gone, he says.
When it happened again last month, his left eye was not so lucky. Now its like looking through the bottom of a purple soda bottle, Frazier describes.
Though a stroke was suspected after the first incident, a follow-up battery of tests was inconclusive until Frazier himself suggested a blood test. It turned up a condition called toxoplasmosis, which can be caused by protozoa passed on by cats that scratch you after theyve been in their box, he explains. The microbial critters were hell to get rid of: You have to do really strong antibiotics and steroids, Frazier says. They told me Id wish I were dead before [the treatment] was over.
When the second incident occurred December 4th, his doctor was astonished, insisting, No way could toxoplasmosis happen twice. Whatever has happened in his eyes, it is rare; older people are sometimes afflicted, but its usually caused by a stroke, explains Frazier, who is 50. My friends say my head is too hard to let a clot in Im a stubborn old Scottish Taurus.
The testing resumed. In the past few weeks Frazier has had three MRIs, a CAT scan, TKE and EKG, had 17 vials of blood drawn, been injected with dye four times and had his eyes propped open for tests. Ive even gone to a homeopathic physician for acupuncture, he recounts. He likes the kinder, gentler approach of the latter, and his two sessions so far have helped with residual problems in his sinuses, he notes.
But no one has been able to tell Frazier for sure what happened to him December 4th. For the time being theyre just monitoring me, he says, hoping the ship doesnt take on any more water. Mean-while, he dreads the first 10 minutes of his mornings, just in case thats when most strokes occur.
Even if he has no further incidents, however, the fact remains that Frazier has lost a significant amount of vision. But is he disabled? And if so, who will help him cover mounting medical expenses and routine costs of living? He does have health insurance, but disability is another matter, Frazier says in reference to potential unemployment options. The doctors are saying, Well, you can still see out of one eye, so I dont know if youre really disabled. Basically, theyve told me to go back to work.
As the front man and harmonica player for the psychedelic improvisational blues-rock band Blues For Breakfast, Frazier depends on his eyes as much as anybody though heaven knows plenty of sightless musicians have made their mark in his genre. He even jokes about adding the adjective Blind to his performing moniker: Mr. Charlie a name copped from the title of a song by his beloved Grateful Dead.
But a further deterioration of vision would spell the end for both of Fraziers day jobs. As a deejay at WIZN, he obviously needs to see what tunes hes putting on. His Sunday-morning show, also called Blues For Breakfast, is nearly 11 years old, and he logged seven years at the station before that, as well as six and a half years at the University of Vermonts WRUV. But all his experience doesnt help with incomprehensible digital readouts. Since the incident in December, light sources even the tiny lights on CD players look sort of puffy, Frazier explains. Oncoming headlights are unbearable, so night driving is out.
His window-cleaning business, which Frazier says he bought some 26 years ago to support his rock n roll habit, is more critical its income pays the bills. But his lack of depth perception is a problem on a ladder. Everything a window cleaner does depends on peripherality, he notes. Theres an irony in the fact that this occupation which includes contracts with Dunkin Donuts, Burger King and the Burlington Airport helps others see more clearly.
None of this is lost on Frazier, who has certainly retained his sense of humor. Even sight gags are not excluded. Hes handling it extremely well, confirms his friend and former bandmate Eric Bessette. His attitude is, I cant just lie down.
Bessette, the principal in Shadow & Light, an exhibit design firm in Burlington, has known Frazier 20 years. In winter they are skiing buddies, and spend a lot of time in the mountains. What his friend would miss most if he couldnt see, Bessette surmises, is the outdoors. And that includes the acre and a half of land hes been transforming into perennial gardens in Richmond over the last seven years. A nature lover who majored in landscape architecture in college, Frazier is constantly warring with woodchucks, deer and invaders from the nearby Audubon Center, notes Bessette.
Hes got more than flowers to gaze upon. A self-described pack rat of rock n roll, Frazier has crammed into his rural bachelor pad a vast collection of memorabilia: really special stuff, from his original tickets and program for the 1969 Woodstock festival to hundreds of posters many of them signed by the artists to thousands of albums and CDs.
The first year I was here the floor sank three feet from all the musical stuff Ive got, he says with a chuckle. His most treasured item? Its a tough call, but one of them came from Jimi Hendrixs neck. I just walked into his dressing room after the show and he handed me his scarf, Frazier says, still in awe. About 10 girls practically ripped it to shreds, but I had the death grip.
Frazier has been into the sights and sounds of rock music since his school days in Hoosic Falls, New York. His first album, he remembers, was Freddy Cannons Live at Palisades Park. After he saw The Doors in 1967, my parents didnt have a chance against their sons ensuing long hair and substance-laced lifestyle.
A serious Deadhead who took in some 300 shows, he nonetheless earned a college degree from Syracuse University. But rock n roll still claimed him and brought him to Burlington. Our guitarists wife was going to school at UVM, he explains. It was a choice between Hoosic Falls and nothing going on, or lets try Burlington.
The Queen City has been as receptive to Frazier as he has been to it. No matter where you go, youre always going to run into people he knows, marvels Bessette. Hes extremely outgoing, and makes friends easily the ultimate people person.
That goes double on stage. Guitarist Tim Johnson has played with Frazier about 10 years, the last two in Blues For Breakfast. At a gig hes quite animated, he throws his soul into it, Johnson says. Whenever he finds out another harmonica player is in the room, the red-headed front man encourages them to come up and play, Johnson adds. As for the audience, think interactive sport: Mr. Charlie is not above crowd-surfing.
One of his favorite gigs is surely Jerryfest, a guest-filled tribute to the late, great Garcia that Frazier has organized for six consecutive years. But his musical tastes embrace the living and local as well as the Dead. He is the wizard behind four volumes of Best of the Green Mountain Blues. The CD compilations benefit Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a local camp for kids with cancer.
The discs have also brought international exposure to the Vermont bands on them: Frazier is a nominator for the annual W.C. Handy Awards, so has ties with 40 record companies and close to 100 radio stations. Hes sent all of them copies of Green Mountain Blues, and received rave reviews from places I couldnt believe Greece, Belgium saying things like best blues compilation weve ever heard, he enthuses.
Next month, some of those musicians will turn the tables and throw a benefit for Frazier at Higher Ground. Even this stubborn Scotsman concedes he could use some help with his medical bills. Hes not about to live in fear, though. Whenever hes been faced with adversity, says Johnson, he always tries to make the best of it.
If anything, Frazier has become philosophical about what George Bush the Elder once called the vision thing.
In our twenties and thirties, were so full of piss and vinegar, [that] death, sickness and injury are something that happen to other people, he says. The forties and fifties come and, suddenly, its you these things are happening to, people you know start dying. Especially when youve led the life of a musician, burned the candle at both ends, drank and had all the other accoutrements and condiments known to the lifestyle one minute your life is normal and in the next nanosecond, you cant see.
Its like anything you dont miss it until its gone, Frazier concludes. All those clichés are truth.
Contributions to Charlie Fraziers medical fund can be sent to P.O. Box 271, Burlington, VT 05402. Make checks out to Charlie Frazier. A benefit concert will be held February 6 at Higher Ground.