Time flies by far too quickly.
It’s been a grey, gloomy day here in SoCal, the remnants of a late winter storm only just now starting to clear up a bit, but even if it was brilliantly sunny I’d be wandering around emotionally suckerpunched as I have been for the past couple of hours, after a chance comment in my Facebook news feed suddenly alerted me to the tragic news that Clay had suddenly passed on last night after a short illness and heart attack. In the rush of comments so many of us have been leaving on his page — many fellow KUCI veterans but covering so much more than that — the single core reaction is shock. This was a blindsiding, this was not what I or any of us who knew him expected to be reading and thinking about today.
Clay and I hadn’t really talked much at all in recent years, I should be clear from the start — no bad or sad reason, it was just that through Facebook and before that MySpace we were essentially just in casual touch, no more. The last time we spoke at length about anything was some years back when Octavia Butler had passed on — another huge loss, to the writing and imaginative fiction world, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that Clay had been a huge fan of her work, honoring the knowledge and talent that she brought to the table constantly. That seems in character with him — an enthusiast, who sought to learn more, to take advantage of doors opened or unlocked instead of passing by silently. As noted, that was some years back; I’m sure we wished each other well on our birthdays and the like, and then today…
But we kept in touch casually due to a time when we were all regularly in touch with each other, he and I and so many people posting on his page now, due our time at KUCI. Eras are hardly discrete things as they might seem — when I started regular work at the station as a new and very young grad student in 1992 wasn’t the same place at all (literally — the station had moved twice in the interim) from when I decided to concentrate on other work and stepped away from it in 2000, having long been a regular UCI staffer at that point. But so many of us worked there in one capacity or another for so long that I mentally group it in my head as ‘the nineties at KUCI,’ where a lot of my spare time was spent, friendships forged and even more of my personal aesthetic, however skew-whiff or insular, stumbled forward step by step. The impressions in my brain from that time, covering so many people and locations and get-togethers and parties and more, are near-endless.
Clay was a huge part of that; radio stations are social groups as much as anything else and so no surprise that someone as engaging and sociable as Clay would make a mark. The mental picture — mental caricature one could say, not meant in a negative way but in a way that all caricature strips down a person to key points — finds him smiling, talking in his low-key voice, an easygoing passion, always there in the moment but never hyperactive, laughing, involved with this and that. Like all of us there his love of music was widespread and not easily or simply summed up; as DJ Claptrap he had a heck of a fun time on the air and at KUCI events and get-togethers — he knew his funk, his rock, his hip-hop, his breaks, his vintage soul and jazz (more than one poster today celebrated his deep and abiding love for Alice Coltrane) and much more; again, he never stopped learning, building on what he already knew while honoring what he long loved. Learning as I did today that he spun at friends’ weddings’ makes perfect sense; it would have been weird if he hadn’t done that, I realize.
One memorable time courtesy of Clay happened to a whole lot of us in the mid-1990s — we decided it was good for a KUCI manager’s retreat, and Clay offered to host us all at his mom’s place in Santa Barbara. A good excuse for a road trip and a lovely house too — in meeting his mom you could sense the connection, a gentleness of heart and a desire to create and share, and the house felt cozy, warm and strewn with care and love, as did the great backyard under many trees. Memorably the only thing we really got done in terms of work there was a three hour manager meeting that consisted mostly of a discussion about DJ mailboxes — yes, for three hours. I still have a series of photos around somewhere from the meeting of all of us sitting around looking rather deflated or bored, great unintentional hilarity. And it was because most of the time we were having a blast, a weekend away from our usual haunts, checking out restaurants and record shopping, cooking with Clay’s mom, having a fun time. Clay didn’t have to offer and his mom could have said no but they did and I still remember that weekend well when so many other moments have slipped aside.
I can’t remember when and where Clay and I first met, presumably sometime shortly after I started at KUCI in 1992, and I can’t remember when I last would have seen and chatted with him directly — quite possibly over at the Gypsy Den near where I live, where he worked for some years, or perhaps at a mutual friend’s party, or shopping at Noise Noise Noise, or somewhere else. The moments slip through the mind and quite often there’s just no sense of finality — after all, why would there be, when humanity as a whole is not conditioned towards ‘well this time I see you today could be the last ever’ for every encounter we have. And in the same way that KUCI was a key part of my life but not all of it, so too did Clay, and so many of us, move on into other things and pursuits, musical and otherwise, our characters hopefully only improving as we go while maintaining that which made us all enjoy each other’s company. In seeing the many comments on his Facebook wall from those friends who I’ve never or seldom met but knew him well from later years or other collective friendships or much deeper personal contexts than I had realized, it’s clear that he was still his good self all this time.
I wandered out for lunch today still digesting the news, walking through Aldrich Park and thinking about lost hours and lost time here, his and mine both; working at the campus often promotes a feeling of change-that-isn’t — I’ve been here almost nineteen years now in one capacity or another — so this couldn’t've help but interrupt that too-complacent feeling, rightfully so. The grief from his closest friends and family already shared further underscored how wrenching, how simply wrong it all was.
Somehow, though, it also called up a funny memory — in the late nineties there were a series of in-house ads we did for our program guide that parodied the KCRW ad campaign shots that were slightly omnipresent at that point. One of them, referencing an ad featuring Chris Douridas sitting at a greasy spoon diner or the equivalent along with some buddy of his and a slightly disdainful looking waitress, was shot at the Gypsy Den; my friends Jake and Mackro replicated the Douridas-and-dude roles while in the background of the shot Clay, probably sneaking in some extra time while on the job, looked at them with an appropriately down-one’s-nose ‘And you are?’ expression. Far sterner than Clay ever was in real life, as I knew him, which made it all the more funnier.
The memories keep being added to his wall today, from the funny to the deeply sorrowful, stories of just how much he’ll be missed, how strong an inspiration he was, from musicians, artists, academics, more. It’s a good legacy to have left. I count myself glad and lucky to have known him. RIP, sir, and rest well.