On September 29th, while reading some posts on Facebook I learned that my best friend from 1986 was no longer with us. I am still trying to wrap my head around the death of my friend, Rick West. It's funny how life moves you in different directions. And try as we may, you cannot escape your origins.
I grew up in Tampa, Florida. All my life I dreamed of living in a big city. I knew that one day I would find my way to New York City. As an art student at Hillsborough Community College, I would sit on the fire escape of the apartment I rented in Ybor City back in 1986 and imagine I was anywhere else but Tampa.
My first year of college is about the time I met Rick. I was exploring my sexuality and my sense of fashion. I had a fake ID. I had slept with a guy named Melvin Isadore Wilson and talked him into letting me use his birth certificate to go down to the DMV to get an identification card. I lived above a vintage clothes store called Bon Ton.
And every Saturday night I would go to the El Goya (which would later become Tracks). There were a group of alternative patrons who would dance to the alternative music for a gay bar (Depeche Mode, The Cure, Shriekback, The Cult, Front 242, CCPR, etc.). And I bought all my clothes from thrift shops and vintage clothing stores. In that scene was a group of nightlife celebrities like performance artist John Dean and the ultra fabulous Maurice who performed as Prince in Rene's talent show on Mondays. Feeling like a big fish in a small pond, I wanted to be as well known as they were. Mind you, I had just graduated from King High School where I was known more for dressing like Michael Jackson. So, I had some work to do to get rid of that image. I would show up at El Goya in silk pajamas or some ensemble with rhinestones and a trench coat.
I hung out with a girl named Ann (don't remember her last name, but I called her "Ranking Ann" from a Scritti Politti song). She looked like a cross between Aretha Franklin in the "Freeway of Love" video and Grace Jones. She was as tall as me and very athletic. She was always in some sport biking outfit. We would be on the floor most of the night and really enjoyed the alternative sets that DJ Bobby Caldwell and his lightman Jimmy Strickland would do while the drag shows were on.
There was a group of kind of clean cut kids who would come and dance during those sets. I don't remember everyone, but the main people were Christopher Little, Richard Riccio, Rick West and his friend Sabrina. Chris was the most outgoing and introduced himself to Ann and myself one night. So, we were all dancefloor friends. And then one day some of the non-alternative folks started complaining about the alternative music and started calling us "twinkles". Chris Little came up with the idea to have "The Great Twinkie Party" one Saturday night out of rebellion. Our theme song that night was "Since Yesterday" by Strawberry Switchblade. Rick and I somehow really connected over their cover of "Jolene" and struck up a conversation. We discovered that we both loved music and wanted to be DJ's. I had already started working at the Northside Lounge without even being able to mix. Rick had already started mixing, but only in his bedroom.
Rick West, myself and Chris Littel in the front hallway at El Goya (Tampa, Fla)
I'm not sure how it started, but Rick and I would go record shopping every Thursday. Our favourite store was Vinyl Fever on Fletcher Avenue in North Tampa. Eventually we would expand our shopping to Yolanda's Record Store on Henderson in West Tampa. Then we both joined Suncoast Record Pool. We spent hours at his house out in Seffner breaking the seals on our new records and practicing mixing.
I remember once I kicked him out of my apartment off Bayshore in 1987. You see, Rick (for as long as I had known him) lived at home with his parents. Because he didn't have expenses like rent and utility bills, he could afford Technic 1200 turntables. I was out on my own and could only afford some belt driven turntables and a Realistic 2 channel mixer from Radio Shack. Of course, we got past this incident. I don't think he ever really knew how important his friendship was to me.
Rick West and his best friend, Sabrina near the dancefloor at the old El Goya (Tampa, Fla)
Even though I began my DJ career before him, I don't think that I would have ever learned to mix without his help. He dreamed of spinning at Tracks. I explained to him that he would have to take a shitty job first. So I got him hired with me at Paradise Lounge on Nebraska Avenue just north of Fletcher. I had already set the format to Commercial, Pop, R&B, Jackswing and Rock. After all, it was a lesbian joint. I changed it from the Country and High Energy Dance that Jimmy Strickland had programed. There's a rule when you are the head resident DJ of a club or bar…..never hire anyone better than you to work with you. And even though I knew Rick was a better DJ than me, I knew he would never take my job from me. He hated the place, but it was experience and extra money. Plus, the owner hated him. Rick just never looked happy to be there.
When I talked the owner, Larry into hiring my brother (who really was not my brother), Anthony Evans, it gave Rick some relief. We really didn't need another DJ and I knew that Larry would only hire another one if I said Anthony was my brother. And then it became common knowledge that Anthony was my brother on the Tampa scene. Larry actually seemed to have a crush on Anthony. Larry really didn't care for me either, but the customers loved me because I brought a new sound to them. Rick and Anthony would curse my name for playing Joan Jett and Bobby Brown. They were already into House Music and would talk for hours about it. When I got House records in the pool, I'd give them to Anthony. I was always the one out of our group who appreciated the Commercial Pop hits. They didn't understand me at all. And I couldn't understand how they didn't love playing for the audience we had. I built my name off of Paradise, Rene's and Puzzles in St. Pete. My last job in Tampa was at BVD's on Busch Blvd in 1991. By then, Rick had finally made it into Tracks where he always dreamed of working. But it was not the dream job he thought of. He had to play stuff he didn't want and didn't connect well with the customers.
BVD's got shut down after the owners were busted by the IRS and FBI, so,all the employees were out of jobs. I had worked at all the clubs in Tampa (except for Tracks) and there weren't really any other options for me. I was dealing with the fact that I was HIV+. I was seeing a guy named Wilfredo Cosme who was from NYC and HIV+ as well. Anthony and I lived together in an apartment on Westland Avenue near Howard and Kennedy Blvd. Rick was spinning at Tracks and working for Richard Riccio at his new record store in Hyde Park called "Digital Wave". Wilfredo was going back to NYC and I wanted to follow him. I didn't want to have to tell too many people about my status. I told Rick and Anthony, but very few others.
After Wilfredo left, I met Michael Gagne (a Tampa celebrity because he had just sued the ROTC and won for losing his grades before graduation because he was openly gay). When I met him, I had no idea who he was. He was just this skinny kid who sort of looked like Clark Gable. I guess he took a shine to me because I didn't know who he was and I wasn't political. I quickly learned about him and politics. Before I knew it, I was helping him with his public access show and attending ACT UP rallies. But the problem with him was that I truly believed he only dated me because I was HIV+ and it looked good politically. We weren't having sex and I started suspecting he was cheating on me. So, I called an ex of mine who lived in NYC and asked if I could come up to look for work. Plus, I wanted to find Wifredo.
When I left Tampa, I guess that's where the slow-down in my friendship with Rick started. With so many miles between us, expensive long distance calls and no internet, friendships took harder turns back in those days. Plus, my education in The Big Apple was taking up most of my time. I would see Rick when I came back for visits, but those were two or three years apart. I think the last time I saw him was around 2003 when Anthony and I stopped by his house for a visit. I had come down to handle the arrangements for Lady Charlotte's funeral. By this time, Anthony was the head DJ at The Parliament House and Rick's career as the top Break Beat DJ in Central Florida. He was the ol' Rick that I remembered. Still making jokes about his mother and her interrupting us while listening and talking about our new records. He and I used to call his mother, father and brother Jonathan "Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam". He even had a dance he used to do imitating his mother if she was at the club. I would always burst out laughing when he would do it. I was never really into the Break Beat scene and being that I lived in New York at this time it was not something I had an interest in. Break Beat was not a huge thing in New York City.
Rick tried to explain this genre to me, but it just sounded like he had taken those old 2 Live Crew records and put them with other songs. I never knew that he was such a huge deal. I would read articles every now and then and see that he was spinning at events with my other friend Chris Milo (who I had spun with for an alternative night at Rene's). It all seemed like another world since I no longer lived in Florida. It was weird to come back and find Ybor City this mecca of night clubs. When I hung out there, it was a lot of abandoned stores and cigar factories. The big city that I wished for had happened. Tampa grew and grew while I was away.
The last time I spoke to Rick, he called me to apologize for being incoherent in our previous conversation while I was in town (April 2011). I wanted to see him while I was there. So, I called to see if he could come into Tampa for lunch or dinner. I had no idea that he was on prescription drugs. I could barely understand what he was saying. And he suddenly hung up in mid-sentence. So, when I got back to Toronto, he called and apologized. He explained that his medication was really strong and had that affect on him. We promised to stay in touch, but it didn't happen. I feel guilty for not reaching out more. Rick never seemed happy. He had some fun moments and plenty of laughs, but I never heard him say that he was truly happy with his life. And many will say I am wrong for saying so, but I told him a long time ago that he needed to move out of his parents’ place. I could not imagine how different his life would have been if he had spread his wings and saw more of the world.
Whenever I go back to Tampa, I always see some of my old friends and they look pretty much the same. They are doing pretty much the same things they did years ago. The ones who seem happy have at least left Tampa at some point and returned. I truly hope Rick is seeing a new world of places and things he never got to see while he was here. I hope for his sake that it is not like that Albert Brooks' film "Defending Your Life" where they show you all the things where you made poor decisions and didn't take chances. Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe he was happy with his life. Maybe his title of top Break Beat DJ was exactly what he wanted. Perhaps he stayed because his parents lost his younger brother all those years ago. Our connection faded too long ago. I'll never know because we did not stay in touch like Anthony and I did.
Rick West's Obituary
What I do know is that Rick West was a very loving person and a really good friend to me in some of my formative years. His patience and guidance help develop me into the DJ that I am today. I call Walter Winston my mentor. I call Rick West my savior. There would not be a DJ Relentless without him.