Listen to an audio version of this interview.
Musician Adam Chester, like many of us, has received thousands of letters from his mother since he left home. The letters are funny, affectionate, embarrassing, inappropriate. Sometimes all at once. For years, Chester kept the letters in a box, some of them unopened. One day he started publishing them as a blog called “Please Don’t Eat Sushi! Love, Mom!” The blog, now called “S’Motherboard,” led to this month’s publication of “S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him.” Mother Jones spoke recently with Adam and his mother, Joan, about maternal advice, their relationship, and Adam’s side job as ‘the surrogate Elton John.’
Joan Chester: Hello?
Mother Jones: Joan, hi; can Adam come to the phone?
JC: Hold on, I’ll get him. Adam! It’s some guy on the phone for you.
Adam Chester: This is Adam.
MJ: Adam, hi, this is Tim.
AC: Hello! Mom, why did you answer the phone, by the way?
JC: It was ringing!
MJ: My first question is for Joan. Joan, what do you think of the book’s title?
JC: I think it’s very interesting.
MJ: Have you read the book?
JC: Yes, I read it. Yes.
AC: Have you really? I thought you just skimmed over it.
JC: Yeah, well I skimmed over it.
AC: She really didn’t read it at all, actually.
JC: I did skim over it.
MJ: Adam, you amassed this collection of letters from your mother for almost 30 years, not even opening some of them for awhile.
AC: That’s correct.
MJ: And then you have this epiphany where you bring the box into your living room and decide to deal with them. How did you get from that point to developing them into a book?
AC: I have no idea. You know what, it just started happening. I just decided somebody needs to know about this, maybe the authorities, maybe some doctors, I don’t know. I wanted to share it with people. So it first started out as a blog. My wife got me this book, How to Blog. I didn’t even know what a blog was, that’s how crazy this is. And I started this blog that was based on one of the letters my mom sent me, which was nothing more than “please don’t eat sushi. Love, Mom.” And I thought well that was odd, and there was a little newspaper clipping of some guy who had a worm in his stomach from eating sushi. That was attached in the letter. So I started blogging, and it seemed to develop a little audience, and one thing led to another, and the book came from that. It was pretty cool.
MJ: What was that process like, of the book coming together?
AC: Well, I had to put everything in chronological order, so the first thing was to go to Staples and buy these huge containers and labels, and so I had these labels on the containers. There was one for all of the last wills and testaments she sent me, and I think there were 19 in all just to be exact, and there was another for her curious discoveries, another box labeled for letters written to me in the college years. Everything had a label. There were about eight boxes in all, and they were filled to the brim, and there’s still another box in the garage that I haven’t even touched yet.
MJ: Maybe we could read one of the letters to get people a feel for what this is like. Joan, would you feel comfortable with that?
AC: You want to read that letter?
JC: Oh, if he wants me to I’ll read it.
AC: Okay, I think that’d be good. Pick the one on page 36, that’s a good one.
AC: It pretty much sums it all up here.
JC: Okay. “Adam, I couldn’t love anyone or anything as much as I love you. You are my constant inspiration. Love, Mom. PS: Don’t go skiing yet; give your hip a chance to rest. Don’t trust that guy Gene that I’ve been dating and no longer am. Keep drying the dishes. I’ll keep you informed of current events. I love my Poppyseed.”
MJ: That was great.
AC: God, it just makes me cringe.
MJ: So, explain to us about “Poppyseed.”
AC: Yes. Well, do you want to explain to him about “Poppyseed?”
JC: No, it’s just a…
AC: It doesn’t stop. We’ll put it this way: It doesn’t stop at “Poppyseed,” just so you know. And so everybody understands this, I am in my 40s now and I’m married and have two beautiful kids. “Poppyseed” is just the tip of the iceburg.
JC: Yeah, but wait a minute. I have to explain something.
AC: Okay, go ahead.
JC: In my defense, you have to understand my motivation for writing the letters. First of all, I didn’t have idea that it would turn into a book, that’s number one.
JC: Somebody gets a letter 20 years ago, they read it, and throw it out. I’ve never heard of saving…
AC: Not me!
JC: Anyhow, but the thing is, these letters were personal. Adam was, when I first started writing the letters, I was living in Miami.
AC: Is this explaining poppyseed? That’s all I want to know.
JC: Yes! I’m getting to it.
AC: Okay, really.
JC: Anyhow, Adam was in college at USC, 3,000 miles away. At that time they didn’t have cell phones, you know. Anyhow, I wrote letters to him. I wrote letters while he was 3,000 miles away because I was worried about him, I couldn’t see him, I saw him like twice a year when he was in college. So I wrote the letters and actually the letters were a form of catharsis for me. After I wrote the letter, it was like talking to him, and I felt better.
JC: Little did I know I would suddenly be in a book.
AC: And it doesn’t end with “poppyseed.” I’m “Dolly-poo-poo,” I’m “Chicken Livers.”
JC: I call him names like…his wife said to me…
AC: Kill me. Somebody, please.
JC: His wife said to me–I call him these endearing names like when he was a little boy.
AC: Yes. When I was 47 I was still getting called this.
JC: And his wife said, “Joan, he’s not a little boy anymore,” and I said, “Oh yeah, I forgot.” So that’s it.
AC: You know, I do love her, don’t get me wrong. There is an endearing quality to all of this, but at times I just want to run outside and find a rope for myself. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nutty.
MJ: Adam, what effect did knowing that your mother, or for that matter your kids, would eventually read this book have on you when you were putting it together?
AC: It certainly was heavy on my mind. Because I knew that the letters were insane, and I knew that there were some curse words that I was using, in my explanation of some of the letters. But you know, this came up last night! I read my oldest son Truman a book before he goes to bed every night; and he wanted to read “S’Mother.” And I thought, well, what the heck? You know? It’s got some nice pictures in it; and we went over some of Nanny’s letters, and he was laughing. Hysterically! I got beyond the curse words, of course. I know that one day they’ll end up reading it. And I imagine they’ll understand why their dad is so effed up! I think it’ll all start making sense. It weighed a little heavy, but they need to know the truth at some point in their life.
MJ: What about Joan?
AC: Oh, who cares? No, you know, for awhile, I don’t think she knew I was writing the book. So there was this release. I mean, it was an absolute release writing it. I really wasn’t quite sure if I believed she would ever read it. And I’m not sure she ever will, even though she says she has skimmed over it. But if she does, well, well, good! Maybe this’ll shake something loose in her, and she’ll realize how nuts she really is! But, no. That won’t happen.
JC: I don’t worry about it. I’m the kids’ grandmother. I don’t worry about it, because my grandchildren are beautiful. One’s five, almost, and one’s seven, and they think I’m “Nanny,” and they think I’m a little crazy, but they love me regardless.
AC: See, the funny thing is that it really didn’t start with the letters as you’re claiming it did. This started long before I ran 3,000 miles away from home to go to college. This started, if you remember, Mom, in high school, really. Actually, in junior high. Junior high it was, as the book sort of goes over, there’s a story involving a sweater.
JC: Oh, right.
AC: You remember that.
JC: I remember that, yes.
AC: You do, yeah. Let me just tell the audience about this sweater story. I was in seventh grade. We were in our phys ed class and we had just finished phys ed, and I was in the boys locker room with all of my friends, and there was the coach’s office in between the boys locker room and the girls locker room. So phys ed was over, everybody was changing, and it was in Miami Beach. It’s a hot, humid kind of day, and I’m in my underwear, I’m changing into my pants, and I hear this voice calling my name. Would you do that voice? Just say “Adam.”
AC: There you go. So, I’m changing and I hear…I’m thinking, Jesus, it can’t be. I’m at school. It can’t be. And she’s coming closer, and closer, and she walks into the boys locker room.
JC: There wasn’t anything there I didn’t see before. What’s the big deal?
AC: I’ll let that sit for a second…. She had my sweater in her hands, and she said it was going to rain today and I needed my sweater. I think I blacked out at that point. At least, that’s what I remember. I’m pretty sure I was gone, because, you have to understand, as she was walking in, all the girls from their locker room came rushing out. The coach came out from his office. I think everyone who lived in South Florida at the time was in that locker room when she was standing there.
JC: Oh, that’s not true.
AC: It’s got to be.
JC: For heaven’s sake.
AC: So the whole excuse about the 3,000 miles away, it paints it out to be a very–you know, she really is a sweet mother. She is a loving grandmother.
JC: I didn’t write the letters till you were in college.
AC: That’s right, yeah.
JC: And people have to understand that you lost your father when you were eight years old.
JC: I lost him.
JC: And I did become overprotective; I’m a very protective Jewish mother, so sue me!
MJ: I think the book comes across as very affectionate.
AC: There’s definitely a love. I don’t hate her, usually.
JC: No, I just drove him into therapy, or whatever they call that, analysis.
AC: Yeah, analysis. Which you should be in, by the way.
JC: I was.
AC: Well. You should go again. Anyway, where were we?
MJ: Let me digress for a minute here. You mention, Adam, in the book that you’re the surrogate Elton John. Can you explain a little bit about what that entails?
AC: That is probably the coolest job. I’ve loved Elton John since I was a little kid. Eight years old, seven years old, I had posters of this guy up in my room. I was pretending to be him on the keyboard, and—because I started playing piano at a very early age, when I was around five. And the oddest thing through the years out here in California where I live, I got to be very good friends with Davey Johnstone, who is Elton’s music director and lead guitarist. He’s been his lead guitarist since 1971, on the “Mad Man Across the Water” album. And, one day, he knew I was playing piano and writing and singing, and one day he called and said, “Listen, the guy that we use to sit in for Elton,” because Elton doesn’t come to all the rehearsals, you know he doesn’t have time, “the guy we’ve been using doesn’t sing, and would you mind coming to one of the rehearsals and sitting in as Elton? Play the piano and sing as him so we can run the shows.” And I said yeah, I would love to. So I started doing that in, I think it was 2005. And it sort of evolved from there. They made a CD of it, just for the band’s listening, and they got a CD of it to Elton, and Elton said, Hey, let’s bring him to Boston and New York and have him rehearse you guys there. And so that began. And then I guess it went well and they asked me to join them on stage for their shows in Boston and at Madison Square Garden. And from that point it evolved again, and I arranged and conducted a huge choir for him for the 60th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, and I just worked on the Leon Russell and Elton rehearsals. So it’s an amazing, amazing gig where I get to pretend to be Elton, basically, with the band.
MJ: That’s a fantastic job.
AC: It’s amazing. I wish it took place every day. But it doesn’t. So I do it anywhere from zero to eight times a year, it can vary.
MJ: In the book, you downplay your mom’s suggestion that it could be turned into a movie. But if it did become a movie or a TV show, are there any Elton John songs you’d consider for theme music?
AC: Yeah, that’s a very good question. He has a song called “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” I think that’s a good one. I think that would make a great theme song, because all of his other songs are so used in movies, so I really think that one needs to come out at some point. It’s from “Honky Chateau.” I think that would be very, very appropriate.
MJ: Will there be a sequel to the book? Maybe “Annette’s Turn?”
AC: Oh my god, Annette, my mother-in-law. I think she really wants a book about her.
JC: No, she doesn’t.
AC: At least she’s telling you she doesn’t.
JC: No way.
JC: She feels sorry for me.
AC: Really? Why would she feel sorry for you?
JC: “What if you have to go on TV?” she asks me, “and people will see you.”
AC: Well, we are going on TV.
JC: Oh my god.
AC: Yeah, we booked a show in New York, which is very fun.
JC: “Your son is making fun of you…”
AC: No! I’m not making fun of you.
JC: “…the whole book, and you’re going up there…”
AC: I’m really not.
JC: “…and showing everybody: Here’s the idiot!” [Laughs.]
AC: Do I ever say that in the book? Never once.
MJ: The book talks about a lot of stuff that goes on between mothers and sons.
AC: Right. It really does, and…
JC: All this came to the fore because he saved the letters. And if I had known that this would be shown to the world, believe me, I wouldn’t have written him anything. This is all very personal.
AC: Well here’s the question. You are still writing me letters. Maybe not as much, but you are.
JC: Well, the only reason that I’m still writing you letters is because if I should happen to call you and start saying something you hang up on me. I don’t get to finish my thought.
AC: May I explain that hanging up process? The reason I hang up is because if she calls me at work to tell me to dry my dishes before I put them away, yes, I hang up. Because it’s not important. I don’t need to hear that when I’m at work. Do I? Maybe I do. Do I not dry my dishes?
JC: That was a long time ago when I told you that.
AC: Oh, alright.
MJ: So we’ll probably run this interview close to Mother’s Day. Do either or both of you have anything you want to say to our listeners on the subject of mothers?
AC: Oh god, save your letters is all I can tell you, or your emails.
JC: Or don’t write! [AC laughs.] That’s the thing. Don’t write. Don’t put anything down in writing, because I know…an attorney told me one time…
AC: Thank god. Actually, you did sign a release for the…
JC: Yes. I had a gun to my head. [AC laughs]. I’m just kidding. No, but you don’t put anything in writing, the lawyer said. You put only…it doesn’t count unless you put it in writing, or something to that effect. Whatever.
AC: Love your mother. That’s what I’ve got to say. They’re good.