Michael Belfer and his Bay Area-based bands the Sleepers and Tuxedomoon were mainstays, along with Crime, of the San Francisco punk and post-punk scenes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Influenced by the Stooges and artier fare like Eno and Joy Division, they were pulled in two directions, even as Jon Savage singled them out for praise in England’s Dreaming. Belfer’s career, however, was dogged by bad luck, bad drugs and bad timing. He has detailed it all in a new memoir When Can I Fly? Richie Unterberger spoke with Belfer about the good, the bad and the ugly of San Francisco’s music scene.

Just a few months after their first San Francisco show on Christmas night of 1977 at the Mabuhay Gardens, the Sleepers were one of the top bands in the city’s burgeoning punk scene. They played the Mabuhay, San Francisco’s top punk venue, numerous times in early 1978, opening for Suicide and Crime, before headlining packed weekend gigs.

“When Can I Fly?”-The Sleepers, from Painless Nights:

Also in early 1978, they recorded their first EP, hailed by Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming as “the sound of the unconscious.” With a charismatic lead singer and a blend of bristling punk energy and foreboding gloom, they seemed poised to make a mark as a major group as punk morphed into post-punk. Sleepers guitarist Michael Belfer was also playing and recording with the more arty fellow San Francisco underground band Tuxedomoon.

And yet, by fall 1978, Belfer had left both bands and fled the United States. He was in fear for his life, after having been forcibly injected with an overdose by thugs and left for dead. On top of that, a Hell’s Angel had stolen his car, used it in a robbery, and then vowed vengeance on him after he told police of the theft. For the next few years, Belfer would bounce between Toronto, New York, Belgium, and San Francisco, sometimes recording and performing with Tuxedomoon and a revamped Sleepers, but never quite gaining enough traction to rise to the top of the underground rock scene. What happened?

The long answer is in Belfer’s new memoir When Can I Fly?: The Sleepers, Tuxedomoon & Beyond, written with Will York (on Hozac Books).

“If I had stayed still at certain times, things would have been very different,” Belfer speculates not long after the book’s publication from his home in Boise, Idaho. Tracing his career from the Sleepers’ formation while he was still a Palo Alto teenager, it’s an unusually direct, plain-spoken account of a journey through the tangled early punk and post-punk world, usually though not always in San Francisco.

His memoir contains plenty of seedy drug use and music industry corruption, which seeped down to the lowest grassroots level of the city’s thriving yet commercially unrewarding punk scene. Yet there’s also as much attention paid to the music, which found Belfer embellishing both the Sleepers and Tuxedomoon with all manner of inexpensive but ingeniously applied guitar effects. Much of it is also the story of Belfer’s partnership with his closest musical collaborator, Sleepers singer Ricky Williams. But the bond could not sustain itself due to Williams’ mental health problems, fear of success, and manic energy that sometimes seemed as hell-bent on destroying his career as advancing it.

“No one else has ever written about the scene that I was a part of back then in the late ‘70s,” explains Belfer. “It was a real magical time. I wanted to talk about the music scene in San Francisco at that time, that period, and try to really depict an image in people’s minds as they were reading. I was trying to immerse people in that time, with the book. I was trying to transport people, while they were reading it, to be in that world.”

Sleepers by Sue Brisk

The Sleepers

Not long before immersing himself in that world, Belfer was living far away from San Francisco’s countercultural scene as an aspiring high school guitarist in Palo Alto, even if the town was less than an hour’s drive from the big city.

“When I first met Ricky and Paul [Draper], the first bass player in the Sleepers, we would jam in the bass player’s apartment in Redwood City” near Palo Alto, Michael remembers. “People would call the cops on us. There’s like searchlights coming into the apartment living room while we were trying to feel each other out. I was kind of being auditioned. I just sort of improvised and went wild with this band. They liked that, and responded in kind. It was very quick that we were able to come to an agreement that we should try to put a band together.”

When Williams came to a rehearsal bearing a copy of the first Crime single (one of the first punk 45s in the U.S.) that sported a black leather-jacketed Ricky on the cover and listed him on the credits as drummer “Ricky Tractor,” Belfer’s passion for punk was ignited.

“Hot Wire My Heart”-Crime, debut single, Ricky Tractor (Williams) on drums:

Even then the Sleepers’ scope wasn’t limited, as Michael was getting turned on not only to the first punk records, but also to the edgy art-rock of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. As much as he wanted to emulate the guitar loops of No Pussyfooting, as he writes, “I kept thinking that there had to be a digital way of doing what they were doing using analog machines, because I couldn’t see myself carting two reel-to-reel tape decks to a gig at some nightclub.”

Using the sort of subversion of the more expensive way of doing things that permeated punk, Belfer compensated by using Univox’s $99 “poor man’s Echoplex” that ran on a small cassette. With Tuxedomoon, he’d also play Univox’s Super-fuzz stomp box to conjure a specific form of distortion.

“I wanted to explore the possibility of limitations adding to your work,” he emphasizes. “It forced me to just work with what I had, which was limited just by the fact that it was not the top of the line product.” When he used the Univox on Tuxedomoon’s debut EP, as he told me in a previous interview about ten years ago, he even “brought a friend to help me manipulate some of the effects that I was using, because I think my hands were tied up playing guitar, and I’d have [the friend] turning knobs and stuff for me” to help produce the tape echo.

Before Tuxedomoon, however, came the far more rock-oriented Sleepers, whose greatest asset—and greatest liability—was singer Ricky Williams. Although his erratic behavior would eventually scuttle their chances at wider success, Belfer is eager to credit Williams for his vital role in getting the Sleepers off the ground in the first place. “He made it so much fun to be a guitarist, because he could sing to anything,” he writes. “Having been a drummer, he had fantastic timing.”

Drummers-turned-frontpeople aren’t so common in rock (Iggy Pop being a much more famous fellow exception), and I’m curious as to how that experience could work to a singer’s advantage. “I loved the way Ricky played drums,” Michael elaborates. “He was fantastic. He was a left-handed drummer; I think that that makes for a different brain, if you will. He would do his fills backwards. I’ve never seen anybody play like him. It was really fun. So I tried to get him on the drums as much as I could.

“Now I knew Ricky was a drummer, but he also had an incredible voice. So I coaxed him into singing. He tried it, he really liked it, and he had a great voice. Ricky did a lot of strange things with his vocals.” And not the usual aggressive rasp more common to early punk bands, as Williams’s deeper and more somberly emotive tones foreshadowed the birth of post-punk.

As to how his background as a drummer enhanced his vocals, Belfer says, “He always knew when the break was coming up. We were basically doing like 16-bar blues, but we were putting really psychedelic stuff on top of it. There was a certain amount of formality to the way I was writing—16-bar blues, and I would fill the bars up with strange things. But that’s how we counted.

For the Hell’s Angels, he exclaims, “‘Up to the Mabuhay, let’s go beat on some punks’—that was their idea of fun.

“And Ricky knew that, as a drummer. It’s instinctual; when you reach the sixteenth beat, you can feel that it’s time to go back to the beginning. That’s what the best blues players are all about. They have that feel. I love people like Albert King and Buddy Guy. But I also loved people like Todd Rundgren. I loved Iggy Pop.”

Pop excepted, it’s an unusual stew of influences for a first-generation punk guitarist. It helped make their 1978 debut EP start to win them a small cult flowing outside the Bay Area, Williams’s menacing phrasing sometimes sounding like stream-of-consciousness messages from a psyche on the verge of instability. Although the EP is recommended to those looking for more melody and refinement than the usual early punk release features, not many people got to hear the five tracks in or out of San Francisco, as just a thousand copies were pressed.


San Francisco in the late ‘70s, Belfer enthuses more than forty years later, “was an incredibly creative scene. I could meet people to collaborate with, like, all day long. It was just amazing. I haven’t seen anything like it since.” One hotspot was, unsurprisingly, the Mabuhay, though not always for the usual reasons you might suspect.

As Michael told me in our 2011 interview, the way “promoter Dirk Dirksen would book the Mabuhay, one day in the month was booking day. He’d have free chicken wings and beer, so that would get everybody down there. ‘Cause we were all broke and starving, so it was a day that you knew you were gonna get fed. All the other bands would be there, so that’s how I met all the musicians in all the different bands.”

It’s also where Belfer met the musicians in Tuxedomoon, whose music wasn’t all that similar to the Sleepers. But as he points out, “I was really a split mind in those days. I really loved the Eno solo records in the ‘70s, so I was stoked in a band that was kind of doing stuff like that.” There was another, less pleasant factor at work. As he writes in When Can I Fly?, “Ricky had thwarted everything that was going on with the Sleepers…At least Tuxedomoon weren’t sabotaging themselves in that way.” He didn’t realize he was being auditioned when he went to their house to jam, but soon he was playing EBow lead guitar and the Univox on their debut EP, 1978’s No Tears. Perhaps it was more arty electronic rock than punk, though the title track just about fit into San Francisco punk’s most experimental side.

“No Tears”-Tuxedomoon:

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“Initially, I had a lot of fun writing songs with them,” says Belfer. “The way that we were composing back then was like, someone would come in with a part, and then everyone would react to it in some way and pull it together, as a song. It was a lot of fun. And we had this guy, Tommy Tadlock. Tommy was a great composer on his own. He wrote these really funny little ditties. I just loved his tunes. He finally made a record of it. But I never got a copy.” (Tadlock did issue an obscure single on the local Subterranean label in 1982.)

“He was kind of like the manager of Tuxedomoon. He was from the Beatnik era, in the ‘50s, so he had all these stories about hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. And Tommy was an electronic genius. He could build anything. He built this system for Tuxedomoon where rather than having individual amplifiers, we would just plug into these direct boxes. Tommy would mix the band live on the stage. So he was like a member of the band, so to speak.” With a Tadlock-designed sound system that worked on diesel batteries, they were able to play an overnight concert in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert at a sculpture by Christo assistant Ann Labriola.

Belfer’s time in both San Francisco and Tuxedomoon was rudely interrupted, however, by a stranger-than-fiction episode that takes up several pages in his book. Told (incorrectly) by a drug (speed) dealer that Michael wanted to sell his car, a Hell’s Angel got the keys and took off with it, forcing Belfer to sign over the pink slips at gunpoint. A character named Crazy Charlie visited Michael’s apartment uninvited in hopes of finding the Hell’s Angel there, and then forcibly injected Belfer with enough “purple crank” to make him overdose. After waking up with the needle still in his arm and contracting hepatitis C, he was subpoenaed to testify that the Hell’s Angel had stolen his car. The upshot was that Belfer fled for Toronto, where he had relatives, after the Angel vowed vengeance on Michael and got out on bail.

This was the ugly flipside of not just the city’s punk scene—which saw, as detailed in the book, some overdoses that led to deaths, not just hepatitis C—but San Francisco’s peace and love image that had hung over since the Summer of Love. For the Hell’s Angels, he exclaims, “‘Up to the Mabuhay, let’s go beat on some punks’—that was their idea of fun. I would always duck and cover, that was my strategy. But people were getting pounded on, man. Those guys were brutal. You did not want to get into a beef with any of ‘em. They were just looking for trouble. They came in there and if you just said something, it didn’t matter what you said, they would just jump on you right away. ‘What did you say, motherfucker?’”

New York

Although Toronto had its own alternative music scene, with acts like Martha & the Muffins, Belfer couldn’t get anything going there and moved on to New York with no connections but three phone numbers. The last one answered and got him a roommate, and somewhat to his surprise, he found the Tuxedomoon EP was already known by some of the in-crowd.

Getting redirected to the Mudd Club by some guys hassling him at Max’s Kansas City, “I just walked in and walked into John Cale, and he’s talking to Joey Ramone about something. I get a seat at the bar, and all these people are like checking me out and shit. It made me really nervous. I sat down next to this guy and it turned out to be Glenn O’Brien, the writer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He started interviewing me, kind of, and when he got it out of me that I had played in Tuxedomoon, he didn’t believe me. He made the DJ slide the record down the bar. I go, ‘That’s my name there. I’m Michael Belfer.’”

As it happened, Tuxedomoon were booked for some New York shows within a couple weeks of his arrival. They found him, he rejoined, and he moved back to San Francisco, where they recorded their second EP at the Residents’ studio. “Only this time, I said, ‘We’ll each write a piece, ‘cause we’re four of us in the band,’” he notes. But his time in Tuxedomoon came to kind of an awkward end this time around.

“They rode on the fact that I had encouraged them to make that second EP,” he feels. “They got to Europe because of that record, and I don’t know, I kind of felt like I got left out of things. I started feeling like I didn’t want to work with this project anymore.”

One point of contention, as Belfer writes, is that “I wasn’t really digging the material that Steven [Brown] was writing at that point—songs like ’59 to 1,’ for example. The idea behind that song was that out of every minute, there would be 59 seconds against him. I just didn’t get it. I certainly don’t feel that way.”

Getting redirected to the Mudd Club by some guys hassling him at Max’s Kansas City, “I just walked in and walked into John Cale, and he’s talking to Joey Ramone about something.

As Michael explains in our recent interview, “Steven was nihilistic during those days. He’s a great composer. But he was kind of writing some, I would call it, myopic material at that point in time. I just didn’t feel that way. So I followed my muse.”


Tuxedomoon followed theirs too, following through on their vow to leave the U.S. if Reagan was elected president. After a short return to New York, as Belfer frankly states in the book, “I crashed and burned and got shipped back to San Francisco, almost on a stretcher, from all the drugs that I’d been doing.” There he and Ricky Williams would reform the Sleepers, with a new lineup and even more volatile times ahead than they’d gone through the first time around.

The Sleepers Reform

Collaboration between Belfer and Williams hadn’t been totally suspended since 1978, as they recorded a 1980 Sleepers single with Tuxedomoon’s Steven Brown and Pink Section’s Stephen Wymore. With yet different musicians, they recorded the sole Sleepers LP, Painless Nights, in three weeks in September 1980. It might have been quick, but it wasn’t entirely painless, as they actually kidnapped Williams and drove him to Ricky’s grandparents to make sure he didn’t disappear for a few days on a speed binge.

“Walk Away”-The Sleepers, from the Painless Nights album:

Painless Nights comprises a good chunk of the Sleepers’ recorded legacy, and has also generated its share of comparisons to Joy Division, who’d disbanded in the wake of Ian Curtis’s death a few months before the sessions. Belfer has a lot to say about supposed similarities to Joy Division, both in his book and in our conversation.

“When Joy Division came out with the first record, god, that was just such an awesome record,” he remarks. “It bowled us all over. I wanted to get that drum sound that they had exactly. I’d been sort of pursuing that sound before Joy Division came along and did it.

“It’s funny, ‘cause now I do have that reverb that they used in my computer, based on the original AMS digital delay and reverb. Martin Hannett, the producer of Joy Division and many other bands on Factory Records, would carry that reverb around with him everywhere. It was like his prize possession, man. That thing just sounded incredible. And that was the sound of those Joy Division records.

Painless Nights comprises a good chunk of the Sleepers’ recorded legacy, and has also generated its share of comparisons to Joy Division

“But you know what? That reverb cost like $4,000. It was just like no way that I could ever get my hands on something like that. So I did my best to try to replicate those kind of reverbs and spaces that the sound could be performed in, and played in.

“Looking back, I think we made some good sounds. We got it in a few places. But Joy Division, comparing to that to the Sleepers? I mean, anyone who says that, I’m extremely flattered, but I don’t agree with them. We were not Joy Division. We were nothing like that.

“But we did have an odd singer,” he concedes. “He had like a crooner’s voice.”

“Los Gatos”-The Sleepers, from the Painless Nights album:

Painless Nights nonetheless has a decidedly greater guitar focus than Joy Division did, in part because of the absence of keyboards, as well as a somewhat more fluid, growling tone to both the vocals and material. It’s best heard on the leadoff track, “When Can I Fly?,” the inspiration for the title of Belfer’s book.

The Sleepers Disband

Shortly after recording the LP, the Sleepers undertook a tour of the East Coast even before Painless Nights came out in 1981. This first and only concentrated attempt to break them to an audience outside of California could have hardly been more disastrous. On the way to a show at New York’s Hurrah club, Williams jumped out of the band’s cab to buy Tuinals from a dealer, insulting the band amidst rants and howls when he did manage to take the stage.

“The band quit the next day,” says Belfer. “It was all led by the saxophone player,” Romeo Void’s Ben Bossi. “He was a fucking shit-stirrer, for sure. I don’t know if he really knew that about himself. But if there was some kind of trouble going on, Ben would always dig into it and kind of wheedle his way into the core of what was happening, what the problem was. Then he would try to make it better.

“It was all too much for Ricky. He’d never been to New York, he’d never been to a place like all these cities that we were gonna play in. And he just sort of freaked out. I had to talk him down many times. I wanted to do some of the gigs that were left. I ended up putting together a pickup band with really good musicians, and that’s how we were able to play the Mudd Club and Club 57,” though planned shows in Boston and Washington, DC had to be canceled. As he writes, he flew back to San Francisco at the end of the tour “with no band, no guitar, and no album,” though Painless Nights would appear relatively soon on the Adolescent label.

Ricky, Michael, Paul, Mab. 1978

Belfer still had hopes for the Sleepers, even on their troubled last legs. “Towards the end, we were doing these little jams, or improvisations. Like you walk out on stage, and you get the band rolling a little bit, and you just play. It’s really fucking out there. It would either be great or you’d come up terrible. But I really like the feeling of that. I talked the band into, ‘When we walk on stage, we start improvising.’ I was always playing with good enough musicians that could do that.” Another ad hoc Sleepers lineup performed a few more gigs in San Francisco, with Alex Gibson (who had played on a few Painless Nights tracks) of Los Angeles group the Bpeople on bass and original Sleepers drummer Tim Mooney. After a few more gigs in San Francisco, however, the Sleepers played their final show in spring 1981.

“The Sleepers stuff, I put a lot of energy into that,” he reflects. “Sometimes—most of the time—Ricky put equal amounts of energy into it to destroy everything. Ricky was on a mission to destroy.”

Michael did hope to somehow continue working with Williams. But in Belfer’s eyes, Ricky started to become repetitive, both in some of the later Sleepers’ songs and material from the band he was subsequently a part of with Mooney, the Toiling Midgets. “It became not a good version of itself. I couldn’t get Ricky to sit down with me and write lyrics. I couldn’t get him to do very much, actually. He was a very strong-willed person, and suffered from a lot of mental health issues. He should have been on something like Prozac, that would have probably really helped him a lot. The rest of us didn’t suffer from that. We were all very ambitious, that second version of the Sleepers.”

The Sleepers took pride in constantly introducing new and unfamiliar material at their shows from their outset. But their discography is fairly slim, amounting to Painless Nights, their 1978 EP, and their 1980 single, though a bit more has appeared on compilations. They still got to release more than plenty of their San Francisco peers. “A lot of the bands no one’s ever heard, because they didn’t make any records,” Michael acknowledges.

Why wasn’t such a hopping scene more fully documented on vinyl? Wasn’t there interest from labels, whether from the Bay Area or elsewhere? “There actually was, but they didn’t like any of the bands at the Mabuhay,” in Belfer’s opinion. “They shunned us. It came down to Bill Graham, who was like the lord of San Francisco. Like, he makes this proclamation – ‘We will have nothing to do with those vagrants that play over on Broadway! Just forget about them!’

“That just trickled down into everything that people in that world subscribed to. There was definitely a line drawn in San Francisco at the time early on, where there were some bands that were struggling to self-release their music. Everything we did was like self-published, so to speak.

“When Eno did My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne, they recorded [some of] it in San Francisco. While they were there, they came to performances. The guy that was helping the Sleepers out at Adolescent Records, he was like schmoozing Eno somehow; I don’t know how he insinuated himself into that world. And Eno, he just sort of was like, ‘Meh.’” Belfer laughs. “That’s what we got. ‘Meh!’ We might have been playing a bad bar at that time. They just sort of walked in and walked out.

“We were looked down upon, I think, by a lot of the labels in New York. New York stuff, they seemed to really not like San Francisco,” though in contrast, “L.A. liked San Francisco. A lot of the early bands, like the Germs, they loved the Sleepers. We always had a very warm reception when we’d go down to L.A. to play.”

Blaine Reininger and Black Lab

After the Sleepers’ demise, Belfer played in the Clocks of Paradise, who included—as odd as it might look on paper—Mark Isham, who’d later record for ECM and Windham Hill in addition to composing for many television and film productions, and Patrick O’Hearn, then between stints with Frank Zappa and Missing Persons. Michael also briefly worked as a cook in New Orleans and electrician in Florida, with a yet shorter stop in Manhattan before suffering cold turkey heroin withdrawal when he drove back to San Francisco. There Winston Tong asked him to fly to Brussels to rejoin Tuxedomoon. Soon Belfer was touring Europe with the band.

A lot of the early bands, like the Germs, they loved the Sleepers. We always had a very warm reception when we’d go down to L.A. to play.”

“I don’t know what the deal was with labels in Europe, but they were very interested in Tuxedomoon,” he comments. “That’s why I ended up joining them after they’d kind of established themselves. I played with them for quite a while.” Then Tuxedomoon’s Blaine Reininger “and I started doing projects together, and we recorded one really great album, Night Air.”

“Night Air”-Blaine Reininger and Michael Belfer:

With a spookier, more gothic cast than Belfer’s previous projects, sometimes drifting outside the boundaries of what usually would be called rock, Night Air had a smooth assurance belying the fraught circumstances in which it was made. Literally out of food in Brussels, Belfer and Reininger begged a Belgian label for a $20 advance; they got $12.

“April of 1983, I’ll never forget that month,” he reminisces. “It was brutal. In the end, Blaine’s girlfriend found a bunch of cans of sardines that were priced at like 25 cents a can. It was horrible food, but we didn’t have anything else. She did her best to help us make it taste a little better, like she had some ketchup. If you could put ketchup on these fish, it would help.”

While he was pleased with Night Air, Belfer still rues the way it was packaged, as the album was billed to Blaine Reininger as a solo artist. By then “I was back in New York, and it was like, what could I do? My hands were tied. The MF just cut me out of what was a duo. It wasn’t the Blaine Reininger show. It was Blaine Reininger and Michael Belfer. That’s what it said on the bill for our shows. It wasn’t just one person.”

It wasn’t the only time disputed credits bugged Belfer. After a subsequent decade-plus in which he struggled both with drug problems and gaining musical momentum—not only in San Francisco, but also in New York, Seattle, and Boston—he found a firmer financial footing with the more mainstream Black Lab, who signed to Geffen in the late 1990s. Epic then offered them an advance of $150,000, which singer Paul Durham, writes Belfer in his book, “and I were supposed to split evenly. This would have been the most money I’d ever made in my life. Instead, he went behind my back, cut me out of the deal, and walked with the entire record advance…I had to sue him, and I barely got $10,000. Meanwhile, Black Lab would end up getting dropped from Epic before putting out even one record.”

As Belfer tells me in our interview, “The drummer had quit, the bass player had quit. We still were writing songs together, and he swore up and down we were gonna do 50/50 on all the songs. I don’t know who it was that advised him, but he had to come back at me and tell me, ‘I’m really sorry, man, but they told me I can’t do that.’ So I got aced out of a lot of shit. That’s how the music business goes a lot of times.

Sleepers Ricky and Michael

“Once people become a little more famous, they have a little more power. Most of that money went to the singer. It was horrible what he did. He lied to the whole band. He said it was going to be equally apportioned, and then when push came to shove, he was handing us minuscule amounts. I don’t see any royalties from those records I made with Black Lab.” Subsequently he produced some indie bands in Los Angeles and built a studio with the late producer David Bianco. As he reports in his memoir, “But then I relapsed, which caused me to lose everything, including my share of the studio and my friendship with David Bianco.”

Looking back in our conversation, Belfer muses, “The things that have happened to me in my life have been really strange. I’ve come really close to having a really good career. But my drug addiction always got in the way.” Yet, as he adds with a laugh, “I have no bitterness in me for all the injustices that I’ve lived through. And I can maintain a good sense of humor about it.”

Writing When Can I Fly?, “I was hoping that other musicians would relate to how my life’s been.”

When Can I Fly?: The Book and the Song

The book has sold out of its initial run of just 400 copies and going into another printing. He’s pleased with the reaction so far, especially as “it’s brought out some really old friends of mine that I haven’t heard from in a long time.” Nonetheless, “I’m really surprised. No one has asked me what the title is about.”

So I ask him: what is the title about? Besides obviously also being a title of one of the Sleepers’ most celebrated songs?

Sleepers Ricky and Michael

“We had a song on our first album called ‘When Can I Fly,’” Belfer answers. “Ricky wrote it with my girlfriend Kim. Ricky, he just was amazing. That was one of the songs where he really broke away from what he’d been doing. It was all about New York and San Francisco, and traveling back and forth between the two cities. Ricky was really obsessed with my girlfriend at the time, who was addicted to heroin and alcohol. Ricky didn’t like it. So he sang about it.

“The reason I grabbed that from the song was it spells out a kind of metaphor for me not ending up in a better place, musically, or within the music industry. It’s all due to my addiction. If I had stayed still at certain times, things would have been very different. For that, I’m sad now. There’s nothing I can do about it. Well, except I’m totally clean now. I don’t dabble in that crap, and I don’t hang out with people that do.”

With the book’s title, he adds, “It’s me literally taking the lyric, and I’m asking that question. By flying, I’m talking about many of the people that I have played with over the years.” Especially Ricky Williams, who died in 1992, and who’s honored with an entire chapter in When Can I Fly?

“But you know what? I hope I don’t sound like I’m laying out regrets, because I don’t have any regrets about my life. I think my life has been really fun so far.”

Sleepers 1981 by Clay Holden