When we got out to the parking lot the cars all had a thin sheet of ash on them. Lev didn’t notice. We drove back in silence. I didn’t know if he wanted to sleep over and I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to. I didn’t want his sweat to soil my bare mattress.
'Where do you live?'
'Over the hill,' he said.
'Can I see?'
The night was going away and the sky was turning a bright blue. At the horizon it was the bluest, brightest. I wanted to say azure. It was the first time I’d seen it this blue in a long time. It got darker and darker behind me. There was one star and one moon and the palm trees looked black against the sky. They were long and slender and swayed in step. It looked like a postcard and I wanted to be in it.
He said no. He dropped me off in front of my apartment and said he’d see me later. He kissed me as I fumbled with the door handle. I could taste the soup. I could taste the meat and gristle. The sprinklers were on and I tried not to get my bare legs wet as I got out. He drove away and turned down the street toward the Twin Palms and I knew that’s what he was leaving me for.
~Karolina Waclawiak [buy]
Though Skippy and Israel were both big, and getting bigger, as the band got more and more successful, they began to fight more often. It went beyond sibling rivalry, although Israel, in typical little-brother fashion, delighted in being a thorn in Skippy’s side. Ultimately, Skippy thought Israel didn’t take himself, or his music, or the band, seriously enough. Israel missed rehearsals and was late for gigs. ‘Skippy was real business, but Israel was on Hawaiian time,’ says Del Beazley, a Makaha friend who served as a quasi-roadie for the group and who drove Israel to shows at Hank’s Place in his Ford Granada. Skippy was always early for rehearsal. Israel didn’t even own a watch.
In part Skippy was angry because he worried Israel was coasting on his preternatural talent. ‘Skippy used to fight with Israel,’ says Mel Amina. ‘He’d say, ‘You know how long it take me to learn to sing and play at the same time? And you just pick it up!” The intricate double duty of playing a tiny ‘ukulele and singing four-part harmony was easy for Israel, who couldn’t understand why other people had trouble with songs he found simple. ‘He used to tell a bruddah — ‘Just do it!” Mel laughs. ‘He don’t understand how hard it is to just do it.’
And Israel’s beautiful voice — ‘the Keale gene’ — was a boon to the band but a source of jealousy for Skippy. ‘Skippy always used to say, ‘God! He doesn’t even have to try!” said his wife at the time, Donna Leialoha Amina (now married to Mel). ‘He just opens his mouth and he can sing! Me, I have to try really hard.’
Everything that was hard to Skippy came easily to Israel, including songwriting. At one point, Israel thought about finally earning a diploma from Wai’anae High, according to Moon. Needing to complete three classes to graduate, Israel — already a local star — struck a deal with the school’s administration. For his math credit, he needed to spend a semester running numbers and balancing the books for the band. For his social-studies credit, he needed to write about the people he met on tour. And for his English credit, he needed to write a song. So Israel wrote a catchy ode to the pleasures of smoking marijuana, ‘Pakalolo,’ which begins, ‘Woke up early this mornin’, smoked a roach from the night before,’ and whose chorus goes:
It was oh so sweet
It was heavenly
If you’re ever down on the Leeward side
Pakalolo will tickle your feet
The Makaha Sons released the song on their 1978 album, Keala. ‘And it was so popular!’ Moon laughs. ‘But when he turned it in, they said, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t the kind of song we were expecting.’ And he says, ‘You didn’t specify what kind of song!’ So they only gave him half-credit. And Israel said, ‘The heck with this.” It was classic Israel: all kinds of natural ability, and an inability to take it seriously, even when some ambition, or at least some seriousness, might help him reach a goal.
Skippy was also upset at Israel’s drinking, drug use, and temper. Israel landed in county lockup in 1981 after open-handing a white guy in Waikiki. The story, as told, makes very little sense: Supposedly, a man pushing a stroller had crossed the street in front of the Kamakawiwo’oles’ van. Israel, feeling the man had endangered his own baby, got in an argument with him, which ended with Israel shifting the guy’s face with one crack. Whatever really happened, it’s hard to argue with Israel’s twelve-weekend sentence for breaking the jaw of, it turned out, a priest. In the O’ahu Community Correction Center, a bunch of Samoans reportedly jumped Israel in the cafeteria line. After a stint in the hospital, he went right back to partying, smoking, using coke.
Moon, a career soldier in the army reserves, married to Israel’s sister Lydia, and the polar opposite of Israel in temperament, sided with Skippy and suggested the band take a hiatus to cool off. They reconnected a few months later at the ‘Ohikilolo Ranch in Makua, for a festival of indigenous Native Hawaiian and Native American music and culture called Our Celebration of Hawai’i. The band played a raucous set for an adoring crowd.
Skippy sat out Israel’s wedding to Marlene Ku’upua Ah Lo, a Hawaiian girl from the Pearl Harbor area, in September of 1982. He skipped the reception, at the same ‘Ohikilolo Ranch where they’d last played together. Skippy knew Marlene; he and Israel had been friends with her since childhood, when they played Chase Master together on the grounds of the old airport near her house. When she and Israel met again in high school, Israel wrote her phone number in red Magic Marker on his family’s living room wall — and not small, either. And when Israel was in the hospital after his stint in prison, it was Marlene he called. Now they were getting married, and though more than a thousand guests came, Skippy didn’t.
At the end of September, according to Mel Amina, Skippy wrote letters to several members of the Makaha Sons, telling them he was leaving the band. The same day Mel got his copy of the letter, October 1, 1982, Skippy died of a heart attack. He was 28.
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