Jeff Laughlin was beardless when he sang in his band’s farewell show. For most folk singers, such a thing wouldn’t be all that noteworthy, but in this case it is. It’s not just that Jeff’s beard has long been a hallmark of his face, a face that beams with the boyish dude’s-dude charm of a young Jason Lee, yet maintains the humble gravitas of an older Krist Novoselic. And it’s not just that Jeff’s folk quintet is actually named “Beards,” and when Jeff is beardless, that means the beardless members of Beards outnumber the bearded members 3 to 2. The big deal has more to do with the unfortunate events which led to Jeff’s beardlessness, which compounded the even worse thing that happened afterward, which then led to what might be the most beautiful musical moment I’ve ever experienced.
It started back in May of this year when Jeff responded to a Craig’s List ad seeking reviewers of local businesses in his neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Unfortunately for Jeff, however, the ad turned out to be fake; instead of paying him to write reviews, the wretched bastards behind the ad ended up sneaking into Jeff’s bank account, leaving him $2000 in debt. When your day job is Used Bookstore Clerk, that’s a deep damn hole. So to pay off the debt, Jeff took a second job working part-time at one of New York City’s most famous theme restaurants.
Now, one might reasonably assume that a restaurant which bases itself on a Victorian Gothic novel would welcome a beard as accomplished as the one Jeff boasted at the time. Or, at the very least, one would think they’d ask him to re-shape that beard into some kick-ass mutton chops. But no; The Man at this particular eatery told Jeff he had to shave off all of his beloved beard if he wanted to serve Create-Your-Own-Monster-Burgers to novelty-starved tourists.
Then in early July, Jeff’s father died. Though Jeff had vague premonitions that something was wrong, his father never told anyone he was ill. So on top of unspeakable grief and shock, Jeff and his mother and his sister also inherited the responsibility of paying the mortgage on the family’s house. Which meant Jeff could no longer afford to live in New York City, and would have to return to his home state, to what he calls the “browner pastures” of Greensboro, North Carolina.
“There’s a sense of martyrdom making its presence felt/ I’m a marginalized version of the light over my shelf.”
When I see Jeff for the first time since his dad’s death, it’s on a warm late-August evening in a near-dive in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few hours before he’ll sing in Beards’ farewell show. He greets me with an enthusiastic “Now here’s a guy!” and even though he pretty much greets everyone in that sort of way, it never feels like he’s insincere. I ask him how he’s been and he says “Awful,” but he’s smiling, and he quickly moves on. He’s not going to lie, but he won’t fish for pity, either.
I waste little time asking if his absence from New York will be indefinite. He has to think for a second. In that moment I’m suddenly reminded of something Jeff said a few months earlier. In fact it was just a couple days before those loathsome scammers raided his bank account. Patti Smith had just given an interview where she said that aspiring artists in New York should “find a new city” because our city has been “taken away” from us, and this was Jeff’s response:
Really, Patti Smith? I should find a new place to live because you don’t think I can “make it” as an artist or songwriter? I should move because you were afforded opportunities? How about I have fun, meet people and live an honest life in a city and you shut up because you have nothing to be bitter about? Anyone who uses this to bemoan living in this city should know this: people don’t have to make a ton of money or be recognized and if you do, that sucks.
After thinking over my question for a second, Jeff says, “Yeah, indefinite. That’s a good word for it.” Something in his tone suggests maybe he’s just doing some wishful thinking for the both of us. But I’ll take it.
“There’s a puddle of appreciation/ forming around me/ it’s grotesque and gratifying/ like a hooked fish gasping on the shore.”
It’s well after midnight when the members of Beards start tuning up. The small, dark room, sealed off from the front of the bar and its billiard players and west coast baseball games and Seinfeld reruns, is packed with dozens of young New Yorkers saying goodbye to a dear friend. I’m standing at the front of the crowd when Jeff ambles over to me in a blissful and anxious daze. “I’m gonna fall apart,” he says, but of course he’s still smiling. I reach up and pat the heart-area of his tree-trunk chest, and then he ambles away just as quickly.
He sits on his stool and sips from his can of Schaefer beer, and then he shouts “Chris Sabo!” (as in the 1988 National League Rookie of the Year with the funny-looking sports goggles). It could be an inside joke with someone in the crowd, or maybe just another example of Jeff’s penchant for random silliness. Soon, many of the dudes in the audience are also shouting out melliflously-named baseball players from the late ’80s and early ’90s: “Delino DeShields!” “Andy Van Slyke!” “Benito Santiago!” If you know Jeff, this is a perfectly logical way for the show to start.
Once the band’s all tuned up and ready to folk, Sammy Gallo strums the chords to a slow version of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” It’s Jeff’s late father’s favorite song, and his grandfather’s favorite as well, and the way Jeff sings it should make them both very proud. His voice is soft but not mushy, with just a pinch of country-road gravel, and he even hits that high note on the second half of the word ‘moon’ just like Patsy Cline did.
After this song though, the mood hangs in the air, dense yet wispy, like a mercury fog. Everyone here knows this is goodbye, and it really, really sucks. Sammy’s sparse acoustic guitar gently nudges the songs forward, like a parent prodding a shy child into the classroom on the first day of kindergarten. Lily Olive’s electric guitar-playing is even gentler and sparser, and the violins of Jamaal Jones and John McKinney sigh solemnly, albeit gorgeously. Pretty much the only levity in Beards’ music comes from Jeff’s lyrics (“Familiarity is not healthy/ it’s a cheap steak dinner/ 24-hour sports coverage”), but because of the room’s acoustics, those lyrics aren’t easy to hear. Only Jeff’s goofy between-song banter can save us from complete melancholy overload.
Before the last song, “Truer Words Were Never Etc.”, Jeff offers a misty-eyed farewell to his New York City family and downs a shot for his departed dad. Then the really beautiful thing happens. The #1 musical moment of the year for me. Maybe the most moving musical moment I’ve ever witnessed first-hand.
I’m not just saying this because Jeff is a bro. I’ve seen dozens of bros play hundreds of shows, and while some bros have blown me away with their talents, I’ve never felt anything remotely like what I feel at the moment that starts around 4:19 in the video below, where everyone in the room joins together to sing the song’s chorus: “Oh Lord, let us believe.”
I don’t consider myself a religious person, and if I had to guess, I’d say most of the people in the room probably aren’t very religious either. Yet here we are, singing to the heavens, to whatever Higher Power might be listening: Let Us Believe. Let us believe things will get better. Let us believe that Jeff will come home again, with his beard bigger and bushier than ever. That one day, assholes will no longer sneak their way into innocent people’s bank accounts. That eventually, the great city of New York will stop chewing up and spitting out scores of good people who deserve to live here. Deep down, of course, we all know we probably shouldn’t believe most of these things. But for this moment at least, Jeff’s song has convinced us otherwise.
“Static situations rise and fall/ like the last breaths in our lungs/ we talk despite our swollen tongues.”
Jeff came to New York last week, his beard back with a vengeance. He couldn’t stay long- he’d be heading back to North Carolina in time for Thanksgiving. But he did stick around long enough to sing in the first full Beards reunion since their farewell show. (There was a partial Beards reunion show back in October when Sammy and John met Jeff in Greensboro.)
The crowd might’ve been, at the very most, half as large as it was back in August. Still a decent turnout though, considering the show was booked just a few hours earlier. Naturally, the band closed with “Truer Words Were Never Etc.” Only this time, we didn’t sing along with quite the same spirit. The moment just wasn’t right. We weren’t quite ready to suspend our disbelief again.