The subject of Ray “Flippy” B. comes up from time to time. I've been a bit under the weather, and a few days of low-energy lying around gave me plenty of time to be ambushed by some unanswered questions from the land of long, long ago. The Flip File came around, and this old mystery presented itself. There is at least a seventy-percent chance that this event actually happened, but it's been a while, and all of it was second hand. I never had the opportunity to talk to Ray about it.
These are the facts. Over the course of a few years, Ray became unmanageable. Beginning in 1968 and really becoming troublesome in 1970, Ray got himself addicted to barbiturates. He was still doing band work in 1968, but he was drinking too much and it was all getting out of hand. He attended my wedding in 1969, but he was a shadow of his real self. He had always been so lively, vivacious even, but all of a sudden he was unconscious much of the time.
We were no angels, mind you. I'm not being critical. We all took the more socially responsible drugs, like weed, acid, a couple of beers, but mostly we kept the pills to a minimum. By 1970 Ray was on an all barbiturate diet. That's a terrible addiction. The tolerance builds up very quickly, and before you know it you're taking four or five upon waking, just to get straight. It's fifteen or twenty to get loaded, whereas the first one, just one, had knocked you on your ass. It put Ray into another world, another stream of commerce, another group of friends. We didn't see much of him for a couple of years.
Onto the mystery. I remember hearing this story about Ray taking a road trip down south. It was all very vague. The version of events that came back to us was that he took the bus, the Greyhound, alone, with the intention of soaking up some musical influences from southern music. I don't know what the plan was, but he didn't make it very far. Somewhere around Nashville he was in a bar, probably a music bar, that would be a country music bar, with his broad smile and his stringy long hair, and his heavy New York accent. Some locals treated him to some southern hospitality. They gave him a terrible beating. After a few days in the hospital, he made his way back north.
That's the way the story was told to us, second or third hand at first. Later on, one of us got confirmation of the broad outlines from Ray himself. He got straight about that time, or not too long after. It's all very hazy; there are a lot of questions but not many answers. Did he take the trip to force himself to get straight? Was the trip some kind of misguided drug run? (The industrial providers for barbiturates were in the south. All of the downs in New York came from the south, in sealed fifty-five gallon drums.) Did the beating knock some sense into him? Unknown.
He did get straight there for a while. He got a job that he seemed to like, working for, what? A set builder? A stage builder? Something at the intersection of entertainment and carpentry. He started playing again. He had a new girlfriend, a cheerful little thing from the next town. I saw him once or twice, a few of us did, and he spoke with former band-mates about getting a jam going. He was somewhat sheepish about that lost couple of years, but he did seem like his old self.
And then he died, burned to death in a fire. Those are shocking losses, twenty-two years old and suddenly gone.
Between the ages of twelve and twenty, Ray was a social genius, beloved by all. The entire town loved him. His entire high school loved him. All of his friends loved him. Then, somehow, the light went out. Could the year 1968 itself have had something to do with it? That was a terrible year, all around the world, and it affected many of us deeply. Speculation is probably a waste of time. We'll never know what happened.
RIP, Flip. We still miss you.