Am I Dead is a feature-length documentary cataloging the life of an unsung musical hero, Eddie Roache, an African-American afro-Cuban-style percussionist who exemplifies a tragic and common chapter in music history-the musician who slips from the spotlight into the shadows of poverty and collective amnesia. The film began as a biography, taking place during visits to his house over a 5-year period. As the visits progressed and our relationship developed, Edward began developing Alzheimer’s. Throughout the filming of this project, Ed’s memory began to decay and I began to expand the focus of the film from a biographical approach to explore a narrative around memory recollection and the idea of mortality.
David Romberg - Am i dead01:15:00, 2011, Documentary
I had originally heard about Ed through an old band mate and friend with whom I was playing Latin music. He wanted me to improve my rumba playing techniques and suggested that I visit an old legendary musician who lived alone in a small apartment in south Philly. Eddie Roache, who was in his late 70’s, as I had been told, disappeared from the music scene over 40 years ago. Since this man had no phone, I told my friend to personally arrange a meeting. On the day of our meeting, I prepared my drums and bought a few 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and a bit of weed to bring as gifts.
I arrived at his house a bit nervous, not really knowing what to expect. As he opened the door, I saw the face of an old man with the wrinkles of a hard life etched upon it. We exchanged a few words as we proceeded to go in his house. Once inside, he just told me to put my things down and grab a drum. We both grabbed our drums and we began to play a beautiful Guaguancó (a sub-genre of Cuban rumba). As we played, I sensed that this was his way of introducing himself to me without using words. Each call and response became sentences in a musical conversation, each rhythmical accent, a physical gesture. After playing, we began to talk a little about my goals as a musician and I proposed that we try to play together every week. I would bring a few necessary supplies, like cigarettes and beer, and he would teach me to be a better musician. As the weeks went by, music began to only occupy a portion of our weekly encounters. He began to tell me incredible stories from what was being revealed to be an incredible life.
As I was one of the only visitors he would get, these stories naturally began to pour out like water and one hour sessions quickly turned into three-hour sessions. It was during one of these early sessions that he mentioned a book he always wanted to write about his life. He had expressed a desire to chronicle his experiences, but also noted that he did not feel he would have the necessary skills to do it. I had just begun taking classes in video production and, although my knowledge was limited, I offered to bring a camera along for our next session. Initially, the idea was to just document his stories on video so that we could later transcribe them in a written format. I did not realize until much later, but his desire to transmit his memories though documentation, a kind of immortality, was the catalyst for my discovery of the desire to be a filmmaker. This journey became my first experience in filmmaking, my first film, which ironically has been the film I have never been able to finish.
Once I started bringing the camera, playing music became less and less important as I realized I had the unique opportunity to document an aging man’s life through storytelling. As the months went by, the production team grew and the scope of the project had changed from just recording his stories for a book to developing a documentary film about his life and musical career.
Documenting his past proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Ed had been smoking pot pretty heavily for about 50 years and there were days when he just wasn’t there mentally. There were also days when he would become very depressed and he would ask not to be on camera. He would drift off into a different world, a world of forgotten memories and pain. It was during these difficult days that we would talk as friends, drink beer, smoke cigarettes and listen to music without the pressures of the project.
In the second year of shooting, something strange began to happen that took me a little while to realize. Ed began to repeat himself, telling me stories that he had already told me before. At first, I just assumed that it was a sign of old age, or a result of his heavy reliance on marijuana. One day during the second year of shooting, I arrived at his house and knocked on his door like I had done countless times before, but, as he opened the door, his expression became stiff and he paused. He did not recognize me. After a few seconds, he looked at me, smiled and said “How you doing Jack”. ‘Jack’ would become my second name.
That day, the scope and importance of the project changed drastically. Ed was losing his memories and entering the initial stages of Alzheimer’s. Everything was different, not only in terms of my relationship to Ed as a filmmaker, but also as a friend. I felt a sense of urgency, as though it was race against time to try to capture an entire life of memories. I also began to feel as if I were more of an observer, more of a filmmaker. Watching his degeneration became very painful, and the fact that I was aware of something he could not perceive made me feel guilty as a friend. As a filmmaker, my task was to show the "truth" or, in the case of this film, "several truths" created by the degeneration of the mind. This dichotomy between our friendship and my role as a filmmaker still haunts me today. There were days that he would repeat the same story three or four times within the matter of an hour.
Every time he repeated a story, it was slightly different. Like a good joke, the punch-line was always the same, but the details were always slightly different. Where one version of a story would leave out an important detail, such as a name or a year, another would provide new information. As I accumulated these repetitions, I began to analyze and combine them, creating a singular narrative. Through this narrative, I found a more complete and relevant way to understand and connect Ed’s past with his present reality.
What I started to realize, was that our memories really exist in the present and that even the great collective historical narrative has been changing, adapting to the evolving needs of its creators. Even though Ed’s degeneration was causing him to recreate his past, it was being done in order to define the kind of person he wanted to be in the present. Over the years, his stories began to focus less on his musical career and shifted to stories about his time in the navy, his childhood, his career as a police officer and his spiritual connection with the universe. As we change and grow, our memories must also change. Thinking of my own memories of Ed, was I also changing my memories to define who I wanted him to be for the film?
Edward passed away over a year ago, while filming was still in progress. This left me with an unbelievable challenge. Not only did I lose a close friend, but also the pressure of re-telling Ed’s story weighed heavily on my shoulders. Thankfully, I had captured material for 5 years, though I was unable to reconnect to the project in the same way after Ed’s death. Over the next year, the challenge of this film will be melding research, interviews, and memories from both my own recollection and also Eddie’s peers, framing this material within the storytelling atmosphere Eddie laid out in the 5 years of footage already captured.
DirectorDavid RombergProducerDavid RombergCameraDavid Romberg, Nick Lerman, Pat MurryEditorDavid RombergCrewOriginal sound- Alban Bailey