Thursday, August 27, 2009

Michael Lo's recollections of Carlos, AKA Buttershoes

(pic by Garnett Soles)

Michael Lo just sent me an email and asked if I might post the following. It's definitely worth a read, if you have a few minutes. Thanks so much, Michael, for sharing some of your memories:

They say dynamite comes in small packages. Carlos Alvarez was nothing short of human dynamite. Only he was dynamite in reverse – never destructive, only constructive.

I first met him in 1998, and I should note that I wasn’t living in NYC at the time, but rather in the hinterlands of the Lehigh Valley, PA. I had a band that was booked to play at the old Cooler on 14th St. with the Mooney Suzuki. After the show, I struck up a rap with the Mooneys’ then-bassist, Joao Ribas (then calling himself Johnny,) an 18-year-old kid from Newark, NJ. Joao took enough of a shine to me and an interest in my musical tastes to invite me to come and be his guest DJ at a party called Shag, hosted by drag queen celeb Mistress Formika, in the basement of the old Vain on 1st Ave. We spun mostly all old heavy soul and raw funk cuts, and the queens actually dug it, as did the straight crowd. When I think back to it now, we really got away with murder, musically speaking!

At some point in the evening, Joao introduced me to his friend from the neighborhood in Jersey, a compact, intense-looking Puerto Rican kid named Carlos. I shook Carlos’ hand, but he didn’t say much – he seemed shy and/or aloof, and so I let it drop. I assumed he was just Joao’s tag-along anyway. As the night progressed, however, the little Puerto Rican kid emerged from his shell, if not in a verbal sense then at least in a kinetic one. At one point, I looked over, and this kid was just getting DOWN! I mean, commanding attention, and mind you, this is in a room full of barely clad drag queens! Carlos was dressed in a simple black blazer and white dress shirt and he stole the show away from these 6’2” dudes in ripped fishnets. As the night wore on into the wee hours, the crowd began to dwindle, as did the overall energy level of those that remained, but not for Carlos – he remained committed to supporting the music by dancing on the floor speakers! By 2am, what people were left were mostly sitting down but instead of cozying up, they had all eyes on Carlos. They’d be pointing and whistling, cheering him on. Carlos himself had his eyes shut, oblivious, simply enjoying himself, dance partner or no. He literally didn’t stop until we played the last record and the lights came on. As we shuffled out of the bar at around 3:30am, Carlos suddenly became talkative. He started ruminating on the New York soul scene and how basically, there was none, and how it was up to us – me, Joao and him – to keep the flame alive. I just laughed and said “oh yeah?” but I have to admit, his enthusiasm was infectious. That was my first time spinning that kind of music in NYC and the experience was so positive, largely due to Carlos, that I knew I wanted to keep doing it, when and wherever possible.

My next DJ engagement was the biggie: the old Shout! party at Bar 13. This Sunday night hang attracted so many people over its ten-year run that it was inevitable that you were going to meet scores of like-minded individuals to hang, rap and dance with. And it was a real music lover’s club – hundreds of people would gather there and communally sweat it up on the dancefloor, eventually losing all pretense of fancy dress and styling, to a cornucopia of sounds provided by the roster of Djs that eventually became regulars there, myself included. The Djs there provided so many different styles and genres – `60s garage , soul, funk, vintage rock, Latin boogaloo, freakbeat, you name it – yet all tied together by a common thread. A super-hip mixed bag of music you weren’t going to hear anywhere else, for people who knew where it was at. I discovered it in `98 and started turning up there regularly, meeting up with Joao and Carlos. Eventually, Joao and myself began DJing there.

At Shout! it became a rite of passage for the fellows in attendance to really strut it up on the dancefloor. It was a very congenial competition, as we were all serving the same purpose of igniting the dancefloor, but there were clearly guys there who made it a point to outdo all the others. But when Carlos hit the floor, all bets were off. No one could outdo him. His first time on the floor was like the parting of the Red Sea, I remember it so vividly. He slid out onto the floor like he was on ice skates, and from there, all eyes were on him. His footwork recalled some of James Brown’s most fiery moves from his TAMI Show performance. Mouths were agape at first, but within minutes there were cheering and whistling. They fellows trying to outdo each other all threw in the collective towel. No one could outdo the boy wonder that would earn the nickname “Buttershoes.”

Within a few short months, Carlos became Shout!’s official mascot. People expected to see him there every week. If they didn’t, the energy in the room seemed noticeably stiff as people buzzed about with inquiries as to his whereabouts. They had no reason to worry though – Carlos never did miss a week. If he was not on the scene, he would be eventually, and the room would immediately light up, the party could officially start. If no one happened to be dancing yet, Carlos would use the opportunity to full-slide across the floor and it would be like sounding the gun – BANG! – and within minutes, the crowd would take his lead and join him on the floor. Which was what was so great about him – he could outdo everybody there with his moves but he never let that make him appear unapproachable or superior. Indeed, just the opposite – when he hit the floor, it was an invitation. Come out and join me, let’s everybody do this together, it’s easy
and it’s liberating, let me show you the way.

I discovered that Carlos had a few favorite records when he was at Shout! and so when I was the DJ there, I always worked these tracks into my set at the appropriate time to set the stage for Carlos’ floor magic. In particular, he connected with Arthur Conley’s “Funky Street,” which was his initial rallying cry, with those staccato handclaps on the verses allowing him the chance to hold his hands aloft while he clapped, galvanizing the whole room to do join him. I swear there were a few times where that room sounded like it could have had a thundering herd of horses in it when that clapping part came on. He also really had a thing for some other tracks: “Mini Skirt” by Otis Goodwin, “Ain’t Nothing But A House Party” by the Showstoppers, “Any Dance’ll Do” by the Rascals, and “I Just Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell and the Drells, which was basically his theme song. But the one record that I always will associate with Carlos will be a funky instrumental called “Broad Street,” an obscure B-side to a track called “Keem-O-Sabe” by a faceless Philly studio group called the Electric Indian. Carlos really let loose on this track, particularly during the middle drum break, which gave the audience plenty of room to cheer and whistle as Carlos would be breaking it down at an astonishing breakneck speed, arms and legs akimbo, sweat projectile spraying everyone in proximity to him. “Broad Street” was presumably a reference to the main drag in Philly, but there was also one around the corner from Carlos’ Newark home, and so the association became even more appropriate.

Speaking of Carlos’ home, around this time (late `98, early `99) I began giving Carlos a lift to Shout! Where I lived in PA was right off of the I-78 corridor, which goes straight on through to Newark, NJ, and I had a car and was on my way into the city anyway, so it was no big deal for me to pick Carlos up on my way in. Which led to me learning a hell of a lot more about the kid than I, or anyone, probably realized was there. Just through the few times I visited his house, I developed an actual friendship with him, rather than just the nightlife-based acquaintance I had previously. It’s worth noting that around this time, Carlos started expanding into a flashier dress style as well, as we all did. A lot of the Shout! regulars at the time were still very much under the influence of a kind of “Mod” mindset and it was no secret that dudes rocked their best pimped-out peacock feathers when they went over there. I went for velvet blazers and scarves. Carlos went for red belts and shoes. Now I was living in a cushy suburb and safely in my car. Carlos was a kid who dared walk around Newark’s mean streets wearing shiny red shoes. Which just goes to show what kind of guts he had even back then.

At home, however, his new dress sense wasn’t quite so appreciated and in fact was a source of consternation for his mother. One time around the holidays I went to pick him up earlier than usual because I wanted to beat holiday shoppers’ traffic. He came down to let me in to his apartment, a humbly appointed second-floor crib in a remote corner of Newark. Before he opened the door to his apartment, he said “do me a favor, compliment my mom on the Christmas tree.” I would have anyway – it was a nicely, if a little garishly, decorated tree. But seeing as how he made point of this being such a dear issue, I offered my respects to his mother in my best lumbering Spanish. I was rewarded with a bowl of some rice and beans concoction she prepared earlier as result. It was great – I can still taste it. A very spicy dish, with Spanish peanuts and hot sauce, if I’m not mistaken. It was a Spanish dish, not an Asian one, yet curiously, Carlos chose to eat it with chopsticks. He had a special pair of chopsticks made out of brass-tipped wood with ornate designs on them. I admired them while he was eating, and when he finished, he washed them and gave them to me. I refused, of course, but he insisted, saying “you’re a great friend and my favorite DJ, you give me something to do every weekend.” I still have the chopsticks.

I recall sitting on his bed waiting for him to get ready for Shout! and taking in his sparsely decorated bedroom. It was quite a revelation. Carlos loved the Beatles! Now this is hardly a revolutionary band for someone to be partial to, but for an 18-year-old Puerto Rican kind in Newark, one could safely assume it was a bit of an anomaly. I only knew him as “Carlos the soul dancer,” but he had half a dozen newspaper clippings up on his bedroom wall about the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, who he idolized. He liked Bowie a lot too. Even more intriguing than that though was his bookshelf – Carlos was a reader! Again, our discussions previously had all been about fairly trivial topics but upon me perusing his book collection, he would duck out of his closet, half-dressed, and take random books off the shelf and stick them in my hands asking “did you ever read this?” I hadn’t, and so he said “keep them, you have to read them, they’ll blow
your mind.” The books had titles like Cannibals and Kings and The Roots of Evil. I still have those as well, although sadly, I never got around to reading them while Carlos was alive. Finally Carlos emerged from his closet and we were ready to go. Upon stepping out into the living room, Carlos’ mom let out an audible gasp and covered her mouth before repeating “los zapatos!” and pointing at Carlos’ fire-engine-red loafers. She must have though he was going to killed…or that he was off to a gay club, whichever was worse. Carlos tried to calm her down but she refused to let him leave the house. I took it upon myself to explain to her in my best diplomatic voice and broken Spanish that I was going to look out for her son, and that he was in good company and nothing was going to happen. As I was wearing a cravat, a velvet blazer, a medallion and eye makeup as well as carrying a six-inch ebony-handled Milano switchblade in my pocket, I don’t
know that I made a very convincing argument.

Carlos came to visit me in Pennsylvania a couple of times. He was one of my only New York-area friends to ever do so. One time he took a Greyhound out, and we had plans to go out to Silk City in Philly that night, where I was DJing. It just so happened that Carlos had been in touch with a young lady in Philly that he had major designs on and wanted to get to hang with her that night. I went over the club before he did because I had to get set up, and besides he wanted to take his time getting ready and make a grand entrance when he knew this particular girl would be on the scene. So I got set up and started DJing, steadily a crowd streamed in, and suddenly there was Carlos, wearing three bandanas and his recently longer hair teased out with some kind of gel, collar on his sort leather jacket turned up. He gave me a nod, and I spun “Broad Street.”

You should have seen Buttershoes do his thing. If his moves took New York by surprise then they absolutely stunned Philly. During the drum break, Carlos broke into a how-low-can-you-go type floorspin, literally resembling a toy top, just a spinning blur, anchored only by his gaudy white patent leather cowboy boots. Suffice to say, he and the girl had something to talk about after that. A moment of hilarity ensued later that evening when all of us and a couple of other folks wound up over at the notorious Melrose Diner, a strictly working-class blue-collar greasy spoon in South Philly. Carlos, still a vegetarian, ordered a soy latte. The 50-something weatherbeaten bottle-blonde waitress just started at him slackjawed and everyone within earshot, including all the rest of us, erupted into whooping laughter. A soy latte. At the Melrose Diner. Tee-hee. Poor Carlos didn’t realize that they probably though he was ordering Chinese food.

Another time he came out to visit me, I took him record shopping at a place out by where I was that sold tons of rare 45s for $.50 a pop. He spent $10 and walked off with a load of singles, half on my suggestion and half on the suggestion of Kym Fuller, otherwise known as DJ “Miss Shingaling,” who accompanied Carlos on this particular trip. Rumor has it Kym took his virginity that weekend in my living room, although that will never be confirmed. On this particular trip, Carlos continued to amaze me further. I took him and Kym over to a friend of mine’s house at the time, an Irish chick. Upon meeting her, Carlos volunteered to demonstrate his ability to do an Irish jig. I’d never seen an Irish jig before, so for all I know, he could have been totally bullshitting me, but my friend knew, and she confirmed that he had it right. Just where does a kid from Newark who’s just out of high school learn an Irish jig?? He also was familiar with her piano, a Laffargue. I’m a musician, and I’d never heard of Laffargue. But he did. And he proceeded to lay out the details about it for his audience. In an attempt to disprove this as some Cliff Klavon bullshit, I Googled “Laffargue” when I got back to work that Monday – he had been right about everything. The third time he amazed me that weekend was when I took him and Kym out for breakfast and I sat with amazement and a twinge of envy as this little skinny guy put away linebacker-sized portions of home fries – two orders! It didn’t matter – Carlos would burn off every calorie and more that night at Shout!

As time went on, the scene progressed, and with it Carlos. We soon would find that we didn’t want the party to end at 4am when Shout! was over, so we found ourselves at an afterparty spot called the Ridge St. Art Space, where no art was ever produced and/or displayed, but they did have Djs and a steady crew of people hanging out, doing their drugs of choice very openly – which may have had something to do with the place having no official bathroom. Ridge St., as it eventually just came to be known, also had a tire swing in the middle of the space, which of course Carlos made full use of, often jumping off into the waiting arms of his increasing fan club. One night, I rolled over to Ridge St. only to find Buttershoes himself perched on a stool in the doorway. I was like “what’s up?” and he responds “I’m working!” It was a riot – no one “worked” at Ridge St., no one got paid. Even the bartenders, when there were bartenders, got paid
in coke.

I moved back to New York in 2000, and, it appeared, so did Carlos. He somehow managed to secure himself a room living with a bunch of artists on Eckford St. in Greenpoint. How the hell did he get the funds together to do that? He suddenly was an artist’s assistant, maybe. Or a women’s hairdresser, maybe. Or a fashion consultant, maybe. No one knew but Carlos. He was still a Shout! regular at this time but by now he was nobody’s “kid brother” anymore, he was totally legit and a law unto himself. Around this time, I became involved in playing music a lot and eventually went on tour for two months in 2001. When I returned, it was just after 9/11 and the city was a ghost town. Even Shout! was lower key. I didn’t see Carlos around for awhile, but certainly not for reasons due to any kind of falling out. Rather, we just started living lives that people ten years apart often do. I was trying to get serious with music and not hanging out so much. Carlos meanwhile was in his prime – he had just moved to a desirable neighborhood and everybody wanted to hang with him, including a whole new crew that I wasn’t familiar with. I still saw him around, but he was getting pretty far out, and dressing the part as well. One day I ran into him on Bedford Ave. wearing a red turban and gold chains.

Although I didn’t see him around as much after awhile, he was still always there, somehow, woven into the tapestry of local legend. Carlos was making a film, Carlos was doing a magazine photo shoot, Carlos won a tricycle race in Red Hook, Carlos was seen wearing a full panda bear costume in Bushwick. I didn’t recognize him as the same “Buttershoes” I knew from back in the day, but it was at least comforting to know he was still kicking around, somewhere.

Eventually, within the last two years, I got word of the fact that Carlos was now a DJ. Now the cynic in me would normally say “of course – who ISN’T a DJ these days?” But for Carlos to be one made absolute sense – he was always connected to the music, he had a true reverence for it for as long as I’ve known him, it only made sense for him to take the next step and get involved in promoting it himself. He certainly didn’t have an enviable collection, and often played very obvious cuts that, in another DJ’s hands would seem absolutely laughable or just like an “oldies” radio station. But with Carlos doing it, you suddenly saw the possibilities. Normally I would say “someone spinning ‘Rockin’ Robin’??? It’s a great song, but come on! A DJ resorting to that has got to suck.” But when Carlos is spinning it, and a new crowd of 20-somethings is totally going wild for it, you think “what was I thinking? That is a great song! Who cares if it’s a moldy oldie? It’s still a great song and it’s totally driving the dancefloor nuts.” Not only did Carlos not suck as a DJ, but he brought the whole theme that was so central to the Shout! vibe back into focus – it’s all about having a good time, to music that’s not what they’re currently playing on Top 40 radio. In the mindset of someone obsessed with record collector snobbery, it’s easy to forget that. If you’re rocking a 2008 dancefloor with music that was recorded 50 years ago, that alone is a revolutionary act.

I finally came into regular contact with Carlos again when he started up his night with Mr. Fine Wine at the Legion Bar in Williamsburg. It was like 1998 all over again. Carlos had lost any pretense of bizarre dress and weird mannerisms and was right back to being an exuberant, healthy-looking clean-cut kid in a black blazer. It was incredible. I recall him teasing me in `99 at Shout! when I failed to match him in fancy footwork floor skills. He would jibe at me “come on, old man, you can do better than that!” My bitter riposte was “wait until you’re my age, we’ll see if you still have those moves.” Well, when Carlos was dancing at Legion, he was the same age as I was when I said that. And I can attest to the fact that he did indeed still have the moves, and then some. Carlos’ scene with Fine Wine at Legion was so impressive that I asked to be a part of it, and they happily agreed to book me to spin there with them in June of 2009.

My last conversation with Carlos was unfortunately via email, when he contacted me a week before I was due to spin with him to tell me the night had been canceled – possibly forever.

My last words to him, ever, were in my response: “Ah well, stay the course, man – nothing’s forever.”

Carlos was indeed dynamite, and that dynamite had much too short of a fuse. The comfort of knowing I may eventually run into him has been neatly dashed, and too many promises went unfulfilled.

One can only take solace in the fact that, in his short 29 years, Carlos seemed to live life to the fullest. Physically, intellectually, spiritually. Learn from this lesson. Savor each day. A life not lived richly is not worth living at all. I’ve always believed that it’s not the person who has the most things that dies richest, it’s the person who has the best stories. In that regard, Carlos may have died richer than any of us could hope to be. And they must be covering the floor with talcum powder in heaven waiting for his arrival.

If this missive seems a little long – good. People should continue to share stories about Carlos as often as possible, and the longer, the better. I, and am sure everyone who came in contact with him, always miss him.

Take it easy, soul brother.
Michael Lo

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