Best known as a musician and magician, Rob Zabrecky has led a suitably mystifying existence since childhood. In his new memoir, Strange Cures, coming in May from Rothco Press, he shares it all, beginning with his young life full of "physical miracles and subversive role models," including an uncle who impersonated an FBI agent and, in a drunken delusion, actually shot and almost killed him.
Zabrecky says the book will take readers back to the nascent days of Silver Lake’s music and art community, when his band Possum Dixon played all around town, focusing in particular on the vibrant punk coffeehouse Jabberjaw, where Nirvana and Beck rocked early in their careers. Zabrecky shares his struggles with drug addiction, love and recovery, all of which made him who he is today, one of the best-known magicians at Hollywood’s Magic Castle and a beloved performer in alternative variety show circles, which also includes the web. His new YouTube show takes guests on a spiritual journey conducting a one-on-one seance with the spirit of their choice. Jack Black, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jason Sudeikis, David Yow, Patty Schemel, David Arquette, Kate Flannery and Will Forte have guested so far.
The following is an excerpt from Strange Cure's chapter title, "Bullet for the Boy":
“Your Uncle Ed will be staying with us for a little while,” says my good mother before scooting me out the door for school. It’s just after Christmas and Uncle Ed’s set up camp in our den, again. His trusty sleeping bag is unrolled right next to the fake Christmas tree that’s still over in the corner, and his suitcase is sandwiched between the bar and the barstools. Based on his other visits, he’ll be here anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Uncle Ed is my idol. When I grow up, I’m going to be like him.
If you don’t know Uncle Ed, you might think he’s one of those cool undercover cops, like the kind you see on TV. If you do know him, you’d be certain of it. His job title, as he often likes to remind me, is a high-ranking Secret Service Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s like having Columbo, Baretta or Barnaby Jones as our very own special houseguest. It’s never boring when he comes to stay.
It’s Saturday afternoon and just the two of us are home. I’m bored flipping through the latest issue of MAD magazine in my room and join him in the den. He’s in one of his typical work outfits: a solid-colored turtleneck shirt under a cardigan that looks good on his skinny body, and pants that are the right kind of tight. Under the cardigan I notice his black leather gun holster, which holds a loaded .38-caliber revolver he needs to wear for his job. At his feet is his black-leather briefcase. It has important paperwork for his job and he guards it with his life. It is never opened in front of my older brother, Gordy, my older sister, Laura, or me. I get the feeling that whatever’s in there can change the universe. His clothes and briefcase give him an air of importance — much more so than the weathered toolbox, lunch pail, worn-out work clothes and dusty boots my father wears to the construction site five days a week.
He’s sipping vodka and orange juice from a coffee mug and studying the 1979 Farmer’s Almanac. Behind his thick, black-framed glasses, his eyes twitch and blink at weird times.
“What are you reading about?”
“The weather forecast. The real weather forecast. Not this bullshit they’re telling you about on TV. It’ll be a nice one tomorrow. Says it right here,” he says, pointing a lit cigarette at the open page. The fact that he uses the Farmer’s Almanac to find out the weather puts him in this super-smart category above everyone I know, who just learn about it from TV. Plus, he curses all the time like it's no big deal. I join him on the couch and pretend to understand the weather chart he’s studying. I couldt care less about any of it. I just want him to think I’m smart like him.
“Oh yeah, I see. Uh huh.”
Uncle Ed smells funny. The combined scent of his burning Marlboro, this grooming liquid he wears called Vitalis and the Smirnoff vodka oozing from his pores smells flammable, but it overpowers my father’s nasty cigar smoke that otherwise dominates our house.
“I need to make a run to the store. Anyone calls, I’m not here.”
He tosses the Farmer’s Almanac on my lap, stabs out his cig in one of the three ashtrays going in our den, and leaves. That’s when I notice the chrome latches on his briefcase are accidentally left open.
I get a sudden urge to check out the cool stuff that must be in there, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I know this is my only chance. I go outside and see him disappearing into the alley at the end of California Street and Burbank Boulevard. The coast is clear, I say to myself, carefully placing the briefcase on my lap like a set mousetrap. My heart’s racing all over the place. I’m about to find out what all the fuss of being an FBI agent is all about. Suspect profiles. Typewritten letters and documents. Fingerprint kits. A magnifying glass. A disguise or two.
Maybe some of that yellow tape you see at crime scenes that says, “CRIME SCENE, DO NOT CROSS,” and things like that. I’m certain it’s all inside, and I don’t have much time.
With both hands, I open the top to reveal its contents: two shiny gold “Special Forces” badges, a nearly empty bottle of Smirnoff vodka, two plastic prescription pill bottles, and the latest issues of Playboy and Hustler magazines. That’s it. I close the top and add up what I’ve just seen. I open it again and take another look. Something’s a little messed up. Where’s all the stuff I’d imagined? The porno mags must be part of a bigger picture; maybe they’re pieces of evidence for some sting operation and contain fingerprints of criminals or something.
The babe with her legs sprawled out on the Hustler cover reminds me of something that happened after he dropped me off one Saturday last year at Golfland, the Valley’s gift to miniature golf and arcade games, to meet some friends. Through the chain-link fence from inside, I saw him in the parking lot and figured I’d see him drive off, but instead, I saw him walk right up to these two teenage foxes with long feathered hair, tube tops and colored Dittos. He held his badge up near their faces and started talking to them. At first they looked tense but then started giggling and had big smiles. Before I knew it the three of them squeezed into the back seat of his freshly waxed metallic-blue Chevy Chevelle and shut the doors. All I could think was Uncle Ed had the best job of any adult I ever knew.
While blowing my paper route money on putting colored golf balls through mini windmills and hobbit houses with my buds, I wondered what those girls must’ve done, and why Uncle Ed was investigating them. As we moved from hole to hole, I couldn’t stop wondering what was happening inside his car, which put me in last place at each hole. I could’ve cared less about losing at piddly golf, because I was daydreaming of the day I’d be a secret agent man like my real-life hero, Uncle Ed.
I froze at the sight of him when later, he exited the backseat. He popped out, looked around, tucked his turtleneck back into his tight pants, tightened his belt and zipped up his fly. Then came those two babes adjusting their tube tops with their hair all messed up. Both of them had this freaked-out look in their eyes.
As my favorite song — the theme song from Grease — pumped through a loudspeaker, I bopped along thinking how damn exciting his job was. While other adults work as teachers, bankers or building makers, Uncle Ed is questioning and messing around with sex dream–worthy chicks at Golfland to solve mysterious sex crimes.
But then another memory came back from when he was staying with us last Halloween. I was making a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich before suiting up in my homemade Dracula costume and heading out for a round of trick-or-treating. Uncle Ed was pouring vodka and orange juice in his coffee mug and telling me about his latest mission.
“Next week I’ll pick up the documents at a secret location and head over to Lockheed Airport. From there, I’ll take a private jet to Hawaii. I stay there undercover there until...”
"Don't believe him ma’ boy, he's lying to you. Uncle Ed’s full of shit. He doesn’t work for the FBI, and he’s not getting on any private jet!" My father abruptly barks in from the den. Even though my father says things I don’t always understand — like how eating bacon makes him walk sideways — he’s making his point loud and clear.
"You don't know shit, Ralph. Shut up and stay out of my fucking business," Uncle Ed quickly responds.
“What business? You don’t have any business, you goddamned drunken mooch!”
Trying to process what my father said, I take a huge bite of my gooey after-school treat and look over at our little brown mutt, Rusty, who’s crashed out on the linoleum floor. Although it sounds like my father’s being a real dickhead to Uncle Ed, he must just be protecting his little brother’s important government job. Uncle Ed must be telling me too much, and my father’s just keeping him in check. His job is top-secret and all.
“It’s nobody’s business but mine anyway. Ah, fuck all. Fuck you, Ralph,” Uncle Ed says to him, and disappears out the front door with his coffee mug.
I close the briefcase and replace it where I’d found it, trying to forget what I’d just seen and thought about.
The front door opens and closes. I hear a paper bag crunch to death and a bottle set on the kitchen counter.
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“Anyone call for me, Robbie?”
“No,” I say, in my best trying-not-to-sound-guilty voice.
As I hear the familiar sound of vodka and orange juice pouring into his coffee cup, I can also barely hear him whisper, “Good. Fuck all anyway.”
A week later Uncle Ed, his briefcase, and his sleeping bag are gone.