Visual Healing: A mysterious eye ailment sidelines "Mr. Charlie" | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Visual Healing: A mysterious eye ailment sidelines "Mr. Charlie" 

Published January 16, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” wrote art critic John Berger, whose Ways of Seeing was a veritable ode to the visual environment. Though it was not meant to do so, his simple sentence speaks volumes about the kind of loss suffered by the vision-impaired. But which is the crueler fate: to be blind at birth or to become so later in life? The former might at least manage without the sense of tragedy, or even the sense of handicap, that accompanies the loss of sight in a person with visual memories — and dependence.

Imagine this nightmare scenario: being blind in one eye and living with a constant threat to the other. That’s the situation in which Richmond resident Charlie Frazier has found himself since December 4th, when the vision in his left eye seemed to explode with color, then disappear. In fact it was a horrible déjà vu, a repetition of another morning five years earlier: “I got up, walked into the kitchen, pushed the toaster down and, boom, I was hallucinating,” he recalls. “It was like I saw black paint running down my eye. I freaked out trying to make it go away.”

It did go away, then came back, and went away and came back again. In the end, Frazier lost about 20 percent of his sight in the right eye — “the residual damage from blood being gone,” he says.

When it happened again last month, his left eye was not so lucky. “Now it’s like looking through the bottom of a purple soda bottle,” Frazier describes.

Though a stroke was suspected after the first incident, a follow-up battery of tests was inconclusive until Frazier himself suggested a blood test. It turned up a condition called toxoplasmosis, which can be caused by protozoa passed on by “cats that scratch you after they’ve been in their box,” he explains. The microbial critters were hell to get rid of: “You have to do really strong antibiotics and steroids,” Frazier says. “They told me I’d wish I were dead before [the treatment] was over.”

When the second incident occurred December 4th, his doctor was astonished, insisting, “No way could toxoplasmosis happen twice.” Whatever has happened in his eyes, it is rare; older people are sometimes afflicted, but it’s usually caused by a stroke, explains Frazier, who is 50. “My friends say my head is too hard to let a clot in — I’m a stubborn old Scottish Taurus.”

The testing resumed. In the past few weeks Frazier has had three MRIs, a CAT scan, TKE and EKG, had 17 vials of blood drawn, been injected with dye four times and had his eyes propped open for tests. “I’ve even gone to a homeopathic physician for acupuncture,” he recounts. He likes the “kinder, gentler approach” of the latter, and his two sessions so far have helped with residual problems in his sinuses, he notes.

But no one has been able to tell Frazier for sure what happened to him December 4th. “For the time being they’re just monitoring me,” he says, “hoping the ship doesn’t take on any more water.” Mean-while, he dreads the first 10 minutes of his mornings, just in case — that’s when most strokes occur.

Even if he has no further incidents, however, the fact remains that Frazier has lost a significant amount of vision. But is he disabled? And if so, who will help him cover mounting medical expenses and routine costs of living? He does have health insurance, “but disability is another matter,” Frazier says in reference to potential unemployment options. “The doctors are saying, ‘Well, you can still see out of one eye, so I don’t know if you’re really disabled.’ Basically, they’ve told me to go back to work.”

As the front man and harmonica player for the “psychedelic improvisational blues-rock” band Blues For Breakfast, Frazier depends on his eyes as much as anybody — though heaven knows plenty of sightless musicians have made their mark in his genre. He even jokes about adding the adjective “Blind” to his performing moniker: “Mr. Charlie” — a name copped from the title of a song by his beloved Grateful Dead.

But a further deterioration of vision would spell the end for both of Frazier’s day jobs. As a deejay at WIZN, he obviously needs to see what tunes he’s putting on. His Sunday-morning show, also called “Blues For Breakfast,” is nearly 11 years old, and he logged seven years at the station before that, as well as six and a half years at the University of Vermont’s WRUV. But all his experience doesn’t help with incomprehensible digital readouts. Since the incident in December, light sources — even the tiny lights on CD players — look “sort of puffy,” Frazier explains. Oncoming headlights are unbearable, so night driving is out.

His window-cleaning business, which Frazier says he bought some 26 years ago to support his rock ’n’ roll habit, is more critical — its income pays the bills. But his lack of depth perception is a problem on a ladder. “Everything a window cleaner does depends on peripherality,” he notes. There’s an irony in the fact that this occupation — which includes contracts with Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and the Burlington Airport — helps others see more clearly.

None of this is lost on Frazier, who has certainly retained his sense of humor. Even “sight gags” are not excluded. “He’s handling it extremely well,” confirms his friend and former bandmate Eric Bessette. “His attitude is, ‘I can’t just lie down.’”

Bessette, the principal in Shadow & Light, an exhibit design firm in Burlington, has known Frazier 20 years. In winter they are skiing buddies, and spend a lot of time in the mountains. What his friend would miss most if he couldn’t see, Bessette surmises, is the outdoors. And that includes the acre and a half of land he’s been transforming into perennial gardens in Richmond over the last seven years. A nature lover who majored in landscape architecture in college, Frazier is “constantly warring with woodchucks, deer and invaders from the nearby Audubon Center,” notes Bessette.

He’s got more than flowers to gaze upon. A self-described “pack rat of rock ’n’ roll,” Frazier has crammed into his rural bachelor pad a vast collection of memorabilia: “really special stuff,” from his original tickets and program for the 1969 Woodstock festival to hundreds of posters — many of them signed by the artists — to thousands of albums and CDs.

“The first year I was here the floor sank three feet from all the musical stuff I’ve got,” he says with a chuckle. His most treasured item? It’s a tough call, but one of them came from Jimi Hendrix’s neck. “I just walked into his dressing room after the show and he handed me his scarf,” Frazier says, still in awe. “About 10 girls practically ripped it to shreds, but I had the death grip.”

Frazier has been into the sights and sounds of rock music since his school days in Hoosic Falls, New York. His first album, he remembers, was Freddy Cannon’s Live at Palisades Park. After he saw The Doors in 1967, “my parents didn’t have a chance” against their son’s ensuing long hair and substance-laced lifestyle.

A serious Deadhead who took in some 300 shows, he nonetheless earned a college degree from Syracuse University. But rock ’n’ roll still claimed him — and brought him to Burlington. “Our guitarist’s wife was going to school at UVM,” he explains. “It was a choice between Hoosic Falls and nothing going on, or ‘let’s try Burlington.’”

The Queen City has been as receptive to Frazier as he has been to it. “No matter where you go, you’re always going to run into people he knows,” marvels Bessette. “He’s extremely outgoing, and makes friends easily — the ultimate people person.”

That goes double on stage. Guitarist Tim Johnson has played with Frazier about 10 years, the last two in Blues For Breakfast. At a gig “he’s quite animated, he throws his soul into it,” Johnson says. “Whenever he finds out another harmonica player is in the room,” the red-headed front man “encourages them to come up and play,” Johnson adds. As for the audience, think interactive sport: Mr. Charlie is not above crowd-surfing.

One of his favorite gigs is surely “Jerryfest,” a guest-filled tribute to the late, great Garcia that Frazier has organized for six consecutive years. But his musical tastes embrace the living — and local — as well as the Dead. He is the “wizard” behind four volumes of Best of the Green Mountain Blues. The CD compilations benefit Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a local camp for kids with cancer.

The discs have also brought international exposure to the Vermont bands on them: Frazier is a nominator for the annual W.C. Handy Awards, so has ties with “40 record companies and close to 100 radio stations.” He’s sent all of them copies of Green Mountain Blues, and received rave reviews from “places I couldn’t believe — Greece, Belgium — saying things like ‘best blues compilation we’ve ever heard,’” he enthuses.

Next month, some of those musicians will turn the tables and throw a benefit for Frazier at Higher Ground. Even this stubborn Scotsman concedes he could use some help with his medical bills. He’s not about to live in fear, though. “Whenever he’s been faced with adversity,” says Johnson, “he always tries to make the best of it.”

If anything, Frazier has become philosophical about what George Bush the Elder once called “the vision thing.”

“In our twenties and thirties, we’re so full of piss and vinegar, [that] death, sickness and injury are something that happen to other people,” he says. “The forties and fifties come and, suddenly, it’s you these things are happening to, people you know start dying. Especially when you’ve led the life of a musician, burned the candle at both ends, drank and had all the other accoutrements and condiments known to the lifestyle… one minute your life is normal and in the next nanosecond, you can’t see.

“It’s like anything — you don’t miss it until it’s gone,” Frazier concludes. “All those clichés are truth.”

Contributions to Charlie Frazier’s medical fund can be sent to P.O. Box 271, Burlington, VT 05402. Make checks out to Charlie Frazier. A benefit concert will be held February 6 at Higher Ground.

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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