“I hate myself and I want to die.”
That’s what I woke up to every day in the winter of 1994-95. A massive poster of Kurt Cobain with one of his favorite quotes adorning the lower third of it. It hung on the wall in which my dormitory bed was pushed up against. So every morning for a period of weeks and months, that’s what I saw. It so irritated a girlfriend I had at the time that she made a point to scold me about it. She never scolded me about anything, in fact, I never even thought she liked me that much until I broke up with her that Spring. I found that the poster suited my black sense of humor and my obsessive love of the band Nirvana. She thought it was a dumb cop-out and quite possibly the least inspiring mantra that had ever existed. She was right. This was probably why we spent most of our time in her room.
I had my first craving for booze this weekend. I shouldn’t say booze, I’ve mostly drunk beer the past few years. I hadn’t really wanted a beer since the first few weeks of “Sober October”…it’s Thanksgiving weekend now. I don’t think it was the actual taste that I coveted, but more the camaraderie it brings this time of year. The tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram pics make Thanksgiving weekend seem like this magical paradise where you float back into your hometown the night before and whimsically reminisce with old friends at a tavern. The next day you coyly sip beers during football with your relatives, slosh down a couple glasses of wine with the meal, then top the night off with a return to the tavern for about 4 hours of “nightcaps”. If that weren’t enough, after reversing your path from grandma’s house back through the woods and over the river you still have 2 more nights (or 2 nights and 1 day if you’re feeling frisky on Sunday) to fade into oblivion before starting the yearly December ritual of happy hours and holiday parties. What a cliche. Just writing that down seems gross to me, but it’s what we all live with…year…after year…after year…after year. Resistance is futile.
I watched a movie last night called The Hunger. It’s Tony Scott’s first movie. You know, Ridley Scott’s brother. One day in 2012, Tony hated himself and wanted to die enough to jump off a bridge in the San Pedro port of Los Angeles. In this 1983 film, however, he seems inspired. More inspired than when he did Days of Thunder anyway. Creative juices and heady doom themes puddling up all over the place. This got me thinking…what if old Tony Scott never met Jerry Bruckheimer and that incorrigible coke head Don Simpson?
A couple of years after The Hunger bombed, Tony was enticed to make a movie called Top Gun and spent the rest of his life making entertaining popcorn films with sassy dialogue and macho, yet sensitive leads. He never made anything remotely like The Hunger again…which is about lesbian vampires and features a sequence in which David Bowie ages 75 years in two days. What if Scott just wanted to keep making weird shit like that? I would argue the world of film would be much better off (considering Scott’s talent and world-building acumen). What if Scott DID make Top Gun and then used his newfound cache & money to start making crazed monuments to cinematic visual excess like Stanley Kubrick? Instead, Tony went and made Beverly Hills Cop II.
How often in our lives do we just “fall into” stuff and just stay there in that prefabricated rut? Maybe that rut is lucrative, maybe it’s easy, or maybe we just “fall into” something and become really, really good at it like Tony Scott did. How many times have you pushed yourself in another direction? The exact opposite direction of the way you’re used to going? I can only count a scant handful of times in my life that I’ve done this.
It is the winter of 1994-95 and I decide to skip the horrible cafeteria dorm dinner and get a start on drinking. I am sure I’ll end up at a keg party somewhere anyway. I am 19 and I have acquired a nasty habit of “pre-partying” before any type of social event I go to. In my mind, I am being prudent…have a few now and then I won’t have to worry about long beer lines or god forbid sobering up once the booze runs dry.
There is a 3/4 full bottle of Root 100 in the room – this is 100 proof Root Beer Schnapps. I don’t know where it came from…maybe it’s my roommate’s, maybe someone left it there last night? I decide to drink it even though I have a mini-fridge full of Busch beer, which I also have no idea how I got as I am nowhere near 21 and have no fake ID. The album I am playing will burn itself into my memory for the rest of my life. In fact, I was unable to bring myself to listen to it again for over a decade after this night. Unbelievably it wasn’t anything by Nirvana, it was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.
I don’t remember how fast I drank the Root 100, but the ensuing blackout was as fierce and ferocious as any I’ve experienced before or since. I was in and out of coherence during Dancing Days and by No Quarter I was in a full-on “dogs of doom” spiral.
“Close the door, put out the light. No, they won’t be home tonight. The snow falls hard and don’t you know? The winds of Thor are blowing cold.”
What a spectacularly awful song. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it again for 10 years.
I black out again and come to for a few minutes. The dorm room is now pitch black and tomb-like quiet while I vomit profusely. Then I am out again. Way out. So out… that I go on a little journey while I sleep and wake up in a strange white room. This room seems to be a hybrid hospital room/prison cell. I have to pee worse than I ever have in my life, and there is no toilet. I gingerly move towards the door, still groggy and unsure if this is a dream or reality. The heavy steel door is locked tight and there is only one tiny rectangular-shaped window.
I am officially freaked out now. I scream bloody murder about my urinary woes until someone comes in and tells me I cannot leave. I am strapped down to a hospital bed by two faceless snarling humans, like something out of a David Lynch movie. They give me a bedpan and I furiously try to get my fly down and pee into a blue plastic kidney bean. “You fucking idiots! How am I supposed to piss in this with my arms strapped down!”, I hiss. I manage to sort of make it work for a few seconds before drunkenly peeing all over myself. “Fuck You!” I yell. Then I flick the half-full kidney bean as hard as a shackled loon can do with drunken, limp wrists. I hear the piss splash on the gleaming white tiled floor. A short time later an elderly janitor comes in with a mop to clean it up. I laugh in his face. He just shakes his head at me, like he’s seen this a million times before and is completely bored with it. In hindsight, this is the absolute nadir of my life.
After what seems like an entire day in solitary confinement (but is probably only a few hours), I talk my way out of the room. I tell them I am sober now and need to get back to the dorm. However, the person at the front desk puts me right back in the room and says “I’ll show you how sober you are.” She gives me a breathalyzer and it reads .15. “Do you know what time it is?” I have no idea. “It’s 7:30am”, she says in a motherly, yet stern tone. They make me sit for another half hour or so, but I am such a pain in the ass they finally call me a cab. I have no money. They force me to take the cab anyway and won’t let me walk.
Later, after my yellow limo arrives at the dorm, I can’t get into the building. I have no recollection where my keys are. So I sneak in when someone else goes in and make it as far as the 2nd-floor room of an acquaintance. I watch to see how long the cabbie waits until he realizes I am not going up to get money from my room. He squeals out angrily and I laugh like a hyena. Serves them right for not letting me walk home. My parents were never notified of any of this happening by the way, until a $500 ambulance bill appeared in my name at my dad’s house. He didn’t pay it.
Last week I watched Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born in a nearby theater. That morning I saw a video for some unearthed Chris Cornell song starring his son. The son is riding a bike around Cornell’s neighborhood doing Cornell’s old paper route. After the movie ends, all I can think about is what Vicky Cornell would think of that ending. She still thinks the drugs killed her husband though… so then I think about the pivotal scene in which Cooper’s doomed cowboy Jackson Maine pisses himself in a very public and shameful way. I think about the time I pissed all over myself in the Hennipen County Medical Center in the mid-90s. It’s the first time I’ve thought about that moment in years, perhaps even a decade or more. I was once at that level. I hated myself and wanted to die… but only because Kurt Cobain said it was okay.
One of the scant handful of times I truly pushed myself in the opposite direction of what felt natural was the Spring of 1995. I started actually going to class, toning down the booze, met a new girl, and completely untethered myself from a whole section of friends I had. This was one of the greatest 3-month spans in my life. I think I got 3 As and a B that quarter. I only drank light beer instead of hard alcohol. I started playing basketball again, even going as far as playing in some pick-up games with the 300 pound U of M football behemoths on the outdoor dorm courts (they were all much faster than me btw).
When I moved back home and the girl went back to Wisconsin… all hell broke loose. She simply stopped talking to me after school got out. That was it. Never gave a reason and I never talked to her again. I was devastated and returned to drinking harder than ever…even dabbling in hard drugs for the first and only time in my life. By the time the fall rolled around I went right back to the party boy lifestyle I had left behind that spring. Hell, it felt like THAT lifestyle was “slowing down” since I raged so hard the entire summer. There’s a quote that says “Only dead fish go with the flow”…that was me. I met my wife a few years later and the natural progression of marriage, children, and father time kept the dogs of doom at bay.
As I sat in that theater next to my wife watching Brad Cooper’s depress-o-rama, something reignited in me. An old fatalist sensation. I think I actually enjoyed self-sabotage at one point in my life. I never once felt like I wanted to off myself in any way other than swimming in a volcano-sized pool of the finest craft lager, but there is certainly an over-arching fatalism amongst my age group. Perhaps it was a rite of passage, or perhaps it’s the remnants of growing up during the 80s under a mushroom cloud of Russian nuclear war threats and 80s “War on Drugs” excess. I don’t know what it is, but it still persists. And now there is a new crushing burden of raising children in the era of school shootings, Trump, and Khashoggi. For some of my ilk, the path seems pre-ordained. Suicide is at an all-time high, all of the heroes we grew up with have killed themselves in some way. It started with Cobain…then Michael Hutchence from INXS…then Staley (that was a suicide, I don’t care what the coroner report says)…Elliot Smith…Cornell…Chester Bennington…the guy from Emerson, Lake & Palmer… And there are others…Bourdain, Kate Spade, Alexander McQueen, Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, professional wrestlers, professional football players. Google it. The list is enormous. The druggie list is even worse…Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Scott Weiland, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley. My point is…the reason A Star is Born is so popular and resonates with so many is not the music or “star-making” in the age of social media…it’s the fatalism of Generation X. Hollywood taps into the zeitgeist and out comes a schlocky version of our inner id.
I heard that Bradley Cooper followed Eddie Vedder around for a week in preparation for his role as Jackson Maine. Perhaps instead of going the way of Cobain & Cornell, his character should have been more like Vedder. What’s it like to see all your friends and contemporaries die all around you? What’s it like to be “washed up” and just be okay with it? What’s it like to be Mick Jagger corpse-dancing with Keith Richards’ skeleton on stage as a septuagenarian? What’s it like to churn out albums on Spotify that nobody listens to? What’s it like to be a 57-year-old female actress that nobody wants to hire anymore because she’s past her prime? What’s it like to be Fred Durst pivoting to movie directing because his music is so rancid and outdated nobody wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole? What’s it like to play the State Fair circuit? What’s it like to drop from 15,000 seat venues to 500 seat venues and be okay with it? What’s that like? Nobody wants that story though. They want noble seppuku.
You know what the best part of Tony Scott’s The Hunger is? Seeing David Bowie act. The man lights up every frame he is in with uber coolness, even though he is under 6 lbs of old man make-up half the time. Remember how good he was in The Man Who Fell to Earth? Remember how electric he was (pardon the pun) as Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige? You probably don’t. That’s too bad. Just like Tony Scott’s lesbian vampire film, this kind of craft deserves to be honored. Imagine if Bowie just said eff it and went into acting for the last 20 years of his life? His best musical stuff happened in the 70s. What would we have missed? The hideous “Dancing in the Streets” video he did with Jagger? The swan song doom of his last album? By the way, his acting in those final music videos outdoes anything he put on wax. Bowie was an enigma, a once in a lifetime Haley’s comet. There was no harnessing him, he did what he wanted on his own terms. We should all be so lucky.
What’s the best thing about life? There are a thousand answers and a thousand doors which lead to more doors and more answers. But the one thing that remains constant is our ability to simply stop, change course and swim in another direction. If you get conked on the head with a coconut and float back to where you were, it doesn’t mean you are destined to stay there.
Keep. f*cking. going.