Philip Seymour Hoffman

Like everybody else, I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman was a tremendous actor. His death is a damn shame. But you know, I’ve known way too many dead junkies. You kind of lose sympathy after a while, and I lost the empathy ages ago. The secret is not to mourn too much. They knew goddam well what they were getting into, and what it meant for those around them. Hoffman had three kids. They always seem to have kids. Imagine mom having to explain why daddy died. How daddy died. Saddest thing of all for the rest of us is that when a brilliant junkie dies a lot of young junkies are born. The more excuses we make, the more junkies are born. He was depressed we say, no wonder. He had self-esteem issues, no wonder. He had to put so much of himself into those roles, no wonder. We always make excuses for these guys. Hank Williams was in pain, no wonder. Janis Joplin was a white girl singing the blues, no wonder. Charlie Parker was a genius, no wonder. And it’s true…Hoffman did lose himself in his intense roles. Hank Williams was in pain, Janis was lost in the blues. And Bird was undoubtedly brilliant despite the fact that he was a goddam junkie. But his heroin addiction became something cool or even worse, became associated with his mindblowing jazz concepts. You couldn’t blow like Bird, or even dig what he was doing, I mean truly dig it, without doing smack. Who knows how many Charlie Parker took with him when he died. And who knows how many began this weekend. Not by themselves, but around their user friends. Because you know how junkies commemorate the death of an esteemed junkie? They get high. Oh, the romance.

Sorry to be such a creep, but somebody had to say this. Otherwise all we’re doing is glamorizing the lifestyle. You may not see how, but ask a junkie sometime. Ask how many junkies quit because Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Then ten years from now ask how many started. Afterall, if you’ve been clean twenty five years and are brilliant and become a famous movie star and win an Oscar and decided to start up shooting up again, then what does that tell you? It tells you that something was missing in his life: Heroin. It might not tell you that, but then you were never strung out. Nor was I, but like I said, I’ve known too many dead junkies.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, which I think was my favorite of his roles. Even more than Capote.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, which I think was my favorite of his roles. Even more than Capote. For now, anyway, favorites always change.

Charlie Parker

I just saw this picture of Charlie Parker on Facebook:

Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker’s funeral.

He’s in the box. I see Leonard Feather there, a pall bearer. Charlie Mingus watches from the church door. That was the day they buried Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker. The man that changed everything in jazz. Everything. There was jazz. Then there was Charlie Parker. And then there was a new jazz. All the jazz before Charlie Parker was rendered obsolescent, unless it could deal with Charlie Parker. The “Now’s the Time” that’s playing here, in my room? It was war. Revolution. A scythe. Either you played it like Bird played it, or you settled into the big band circuit.  There you become instant history, you were nostalgia. Now was the time and you weren’t from Now. You were Then. Rarely does a cultural change happen with such annihilating suddenness. Charlie Parker was the Revolution brought to music, as merciless as Lenin.

I wrote that paragraph and listened to Bird and got angry. Charlie Parker died a junkie. I couldn’t forget that. Couldn’t let that go. I’ve known too many dead junkies. Dozens. I’d rather see a picture of Bird playing than Bird being buried still full of opiates. His wasn’t an honest death.  It was a pathetic death. A junkie’s death is best forgotten. Sorry to be so harsh, but there was yet another memorial show for a junkie the weekend I wrote that, and people pretended they didn’t know how it happened, that death. People always pretend that. But I am sick to death of dead junkies. And I happened to be listening to Bird when I saw this, a sheer coincidence, which only made the casket with his 34 year old bones seem even worse. “People said that Bird was gone”, Jazzbo Collins intoned (on the CD that I was listening to), “Bird was gone.” Jazzbo pauses for a moment. “And now that he really is, it’s like he was never really more here” and Bird Gets the Worm explodes through the speaker. Explodes. Except that explosions release energy in all directions, sheer violence, while Bird knew exactly where every note he played was going. He released the harmonic potential and it exploded in its own crazy violence, changing everything, and laying waste the idea that jazz could ever again be truly popular. Not like it had been. No more jazz millionaires. Jazz was beyond that now.

Bird did that. He was so alive he was scary. He was as vital as a musician could be. He was as innovative as anyone can be. He was certainly one of the most transformational figures in not only jazz, but in western music itself…indeed in western thinking itself. No one truly hip thought the same after Charlie Parker. He did to smart people in the 1940’s what LSD did to smart people in the 1960’s. Bird dismantled everything they knew and put it together in whole new ways. You take a melody, turn it inside out and all these new melodies appear, like magic. Same notes, expanded realities. You could never see anything the same after that. Hidden meanings and subtexts and structures were everywhere, latent, waiting for you to find them. Bebop opened up the world, fragmented it, turned the pieces into new things that were still the old things, just different. We don’t even realize that now, we’re too close to it all. And be bop is still too hard to think about, like Einstein’s physics, or transformational grammar, or the new science of the brain. But they will know who Charlie Parker is a thousand years from now. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have been around to see it. Not even ten years later. He was dead at 34. Slow motion junkie suicide.

I lost my best friend to heroin. He lingered high but alive for fifteen years before they found him facedown in a parking garage, stone dead. The needle was still in his arm, but he hit the pavement so hard it shattered his face. It was Easter morning. He’d just seen his infant son. A talented guy in his own way, a musician, or had been, he lasted a decade longer than Charlie Parker. He’s buried up in the Whittier Hills, and as I drove up the 605 Freeway today this all came back to me again and I sighed.

I watched a guy nod out a few weeks ago. Right in front of me. He tried to pretend he was just sleepy. But he was nodding out. He’d been a junkie his whole life. twice as long as Charlie Parker. You know how you can tell?  A junkie–one of those life long junkies–is always pouting. Even when he’s happy he pouts. You spend most of your life nodding out, you never smile. You never smile and the facial muscles you use to smile go limp from disuse.They lose all their muscle tone. You look at a junkie and he’s nodding out and pouting. They’re not really pouting, they’re too high to give a fuck. You have to give a fuck to pout. Something has to mean something to be poutable. Junkies are just high. The pout just gives them an appearance of humanity. But by the time they get to the permanent pout, they’re well beyond that. Pouting is something you or I do. We have emotions. Junkies, well. they’re just high.

But Charlie Parker had a beautiful smile. He was famous for it. That beautiful smile. I always figured he was spared the pout because he played the saxophone, and that would have left him with enough facial muscle tone to smile and beam and make everyone round him happy, right up to the end, when he keeled over dead watching television up in the Baroness’s room.

It’s too bad he took so many with him. Hundreds easily, maybe thousands. They filled the morgues with young jazz musicians in those days. A good mortician could put a smile back on their faces, too. Stone dead and smiling, just like Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker feeling no pain.

Charlie Parker feeling no pain.




(unpublished essay–2011)

Heard the Small Faces “Wham Bam Thank You Mam” over the weekend and it’s been going thru my head, and just found myself wiki-ing Steve Marriott to see when exactly he died. I remembered he was an old geezer at the time, one of my heroes. Well, that was 1991, and he was the ancient age of 44. I was 34 then. Funny how ten years seemed a much longer time when you’re 34 than when you’re 54. But there was that whole musical revolution between us, too. He was a hippie, me a punk. But goddam was Steve Marriott cool. I remember being hit kinda hard when he died.  I suppose all the Humble Pie I’d grown up on. Then a couple days later when Johnny Thunders died it was more of a thank god he’s finally gone, that pathetic junkie. Harsh, maybe, yeah. But he was. I’d known too many junkies and junkies-to-be that idolized him. Poor Johnny. He might be alive if he was his hero Keith Richards, maybe. The stupid, stubborn fuck. Great sound he had on that guitar, though. One of the great rock stylists. Of course he wasn’t original, but then neither was Keith Richards. So what, it’s just rock’n’roll. Not art, just great rock’n’roll.

I was at Raji’s a couple weekends after the two of them died, at the bar upstairs. It was the coolest joint in Hollywood for a stretch there, God what a place that was in its glory days. Anyway I was at the bar there in the upstairs lobby talking about Steve Marriott dying with some pal of mine, can’t remember who. There was one of those Hastings Hotel junkies standing next to me, listening. He woke up. Steve Marriott is dead? Yeah, man, a couple weeks ago. He shook his head…..oh man. Yeah, he died just before Johnny Thunders died. Silence for a long second. Johnny Thunders is dead? I said yeah. Oh man. He shook his head and you could nearly see emotion on his face, and he slunk off.

That’s that story. The junkie wandering off into oblivion, all his heroes dead or dying. Nowadays you’d say LOL. Back then we just watched and shook our heads. Sometimes I wonder what happened to all those junkies when they tore the place down? I wonder if any are still even alive. Maybe the found Jesus. Or L. Ron Hubbard. LOL.

Actually, one of the most heartbreaking incidents in my entire life happened at Raji’s, though I didn’t know it at the time. Maybe you remember how the Hastings Hotel upstairs was notorious as a hang out for old queens and the young men who serviced them, the skinniest, creepiest, saddest little fags you ever saw in your life. You rarely saw the old queens, though. They were more into chanteuses and drag bars, like the Gaslight a few blocks over, but the kids, all in their teens and twenties, would sometimes hang inside Raji’s for the rock’n’roll and because so many of them were strung out and hell, so was a lot of the Raji’s crowd, gawd bless ’em. Well, way back in the early 80’s before there even was a club at Raji’s (it was all about the Cathay de Grande then, a couple blocks west) me and my buddy Chuck were trying to put a band together (which was realized in the madness known as Renfield Brick, but that’s another story.) One of the guys we tried out for a while was this kid we’ll call Ron. Ron from Ventura. He was a tall, lanky, good looking rock’n’roll kid, a great guy. He was paired up with Connie, one of those hot Debbie Harry-esque blondes all us guys were so taken with back in that era. Connie (we’ll call her Connie) was a hottie, too, a tightly built badass little thing. Everyone wanted to do her, even girls wanted to do her, but she and Ron were tight, to the point where Ron’n’Connie became like Brick’n’Fyl–one name. Anyway, they all lived downtown in a loft at 5th and Los Angeles, right at the epicenter of Skid Row, this horrible, stripped ancient wreck of a turn of the century flop house. It looked like what was left of Berlin in 1945. A great place for band practice, but a horrible place to live. (Remember the Fear song: “A man with no legs crawling down 5th street/Trying to die or get something to eat?” It was exactly like that outside.) Heroin, you’ll remember, was sold openly–no, blatantly–on Spring Street just a couple blocks over. You put some kids in the 20’s and heroin next to each other and experimentation is inevitable. A little chipping. They still call it that, just chipping a little smack. Just for kicks. Chipping turns into a habit in no time, sometimes just a couple weeks. Every one of the kids living there got strung out. Every fucking one. Even my best friend Chuck, who’s buried on a shady hillside far from all this. But I thought Ron had been spared. He and Connie moved out soon enough, into Hollywood. But Ron had been chipping afterall. Connie hadn’t. You can score junk readily in Hollywood too, a better class of junk off a better class of dealers. Go from that black tar crap to the nice white stuff preferred by rock stars. Soon Ron wasn’t just chipping anymore. I didn’t know that, though, and wouldn’t have believed it anyway. Not Ron. I did hear later that Ron’n’Connie were sundered, split into two words again. But she was a hot blonde chick, and hot blonde chicks who move to Hollywood from the sticks always eventually split their small town men. You can sleep with a better class of men in Hollywood, stars even. Amazing how hard and cynical you get in this town after a too many years living here, but that’s how we saw it then. And I had no idea she split because he was a junkie. Or maybe she split because he was chipping and then he became a junkie. That way you can pin the blame on her. I put the blame on him. My pal on her…but they’d dated somewhere at some point and he was still bitter years later. But who really knows why Ron and Connie split, and I lost track of him completely. Forgot about the two of them. We were busy, our lives full and exciting and that was so long ago and insignificant.

Five or six years later (an eternity at that age) I’m at Raji’s. Maybe 1990. This ghostly figure, thinner than thin, pale, made up and in ghastly drag right down to the ridiculous nail polish sidled up next to me while I was watching some band. Hi Brick. I looked and didn’t recognize him but said hi back. He tried to make conversation and if I remember right he even told me his name but I didn’t know who the fuck he was and he realized it and said see ya and so did I, ever polite. I remember he looked kinda hurt but seemed resigned about it. I’d been around the scene a long time and a zillion more people know me than I know them and my memory has been so wrecked by epileptic seizures that I’m used to not recognizing people. He was just another of those people I don’t recognize.  Raji’s was full of freaks, anyway, like all the best clubs were back then, and I was pretty buff in  those days and was used to confused if gutsy queers hitting on me every once in a while (thought typically they wore leather.) But there was something a little disconcerting about this time, like maybe I did know the guy somehow, enough so that it hung with me for a long time. But hey, that’s life in the big city. These were hard ass times, the tail end of the Reagan Bush years. Everyone was broke, embittered, fucked over and surviving despite all that. No room for sentimentality. Fuck all that. The world would end any day anyhow, the streets are full of crackheads, cops are shooting people, AIDS is epidemic and no one gives a fuck about us anyway. We just wanted to rock out, raise hell, fuck and party. Whoever the hell that dude/dudette was certainly never bothered me any.

Years later I was talking with a pal about Ron’n’Connie. Asked whatever happened to them. Connie was married or divorced maybe and working at a studio somewhere, just another aging blonde at some shit studio job in Hollywood. And Ron? My buddy looked at me funny. He’s dead, didn’t you hear? OD’d. They found him dead at the Hastings Hotel. What the fuck? He overdosed? Yeah, he was living there at the Hastings. Totally strung out. He was doing the old queens upstairs just to score enough shit to keep him going. He wore make up and painted his nails and was just this side of being a drag queen. He was a male whore. I looked stunned. Sorry. I thought you knew. No, I’d had no idea. Yeah, man, it was the saddest thing ever. Sadder than sad. It was better that he died, since he was already dead.

Fuck. Ron? Our Ron?

Yeah, Ron.

Holy Jesus.

And suddenly I realized who that ghostly figure had been–or once been–at Raji’s years before.  Why he came across like we were friends. Because we had been. Hell, we’d been band mates for a little while, something deeper than being a friend. We’d made rock’n’roll together. We’d hung out and played records and argued music and drank and smoked big fat joints and watched girls walk by and talked about their legs and asses. All the stuff young men do…. My heart just broke. Man, this town is rough.

Of course, the building that comprised the Hastings Hotel on the upper floors and Rajis underneath is long gone, a victim of the Northridge Earthquake. It’s a parking lot now. Every parking lot in Hollywood was once something else. We used to hang out in the parking lot behind Raji’s and pass joints around. We’d take deep hits and keep an eye out for cops. Then we’d all go back into Raji’s through the back entrance because the bouncer was cool and we’d rock out to the next band.  What a scene. What a blast. None of us knew then that the parking lot in back had once been the Hollywood Legion Stadium, the boxing ring. The stars would all hang there to watch the fights and bet and mingle with the mob. It was one of the hottest places in all Hollywood during Hollywood’s glory days.  Now you’d park your car there. $5 most nights. Today that lot is the Hollywood Athletic club, and where Raji’s stood is a parking lot. $10. Being a parking lot, there are no ghosts at all. Memories blow over the asphalt till the rememberers die. Then there’s nothing left at all. When that time comes, Ron will cease existing altogether. Not a trace left. Not a memory, not a name, not a meme. Like he’d never been.

Nothing beside remains.

Nothing beside remains.

You can find more of my stories here and essays here and humor here and even jazz writing here.