I've been trying to write this post for almost two weeks now, maybe three. Almost four. But the words haven't come easily. It is after 3AM and I'm up listening to the song "Night" by Zola Jesus on repeat while reading about VAT on Wikipedia. Losing my mind. It has been a hard few weeks. So hard, perhaps, that I've avoided writing any posts. Haven't had the brains, the words, or the passion to ponder it all. Zilch. Spent. Just endlessly reeling from the reeling. No, really.
The morning after my return from Texas and all that SXSW bafoonery, Tam and I learned that our friend Johnny had committed suicide. I went to bed with a backache, exhausted by six days of GWAR and hipsters, and when i awoke, just like that... the landscape changed. The blur of life came to a whispering halt.
Two years ago, after a near fatal illness, Johnny left NYC to convalesce with his family in Oregon for a spell before quietly moving to Los Angeles. For the last year, unbeknownst to us he'd been living in a Silver Lake apartment. Less than two miles from our place here in Echo Park. Just one block from The Kitchen and Akbar. Had we known his whereabouts, we could've been to his home in, say, five minutes. We could've played much more of a role in his life this past year. We would've... could've... should've... sigh.
Since moving to Los Angeles last year, (and hold on because this is where it gets spooktacularly sad), Johnny must've phoned or texted Tam two dozen times in the wee hours of the night. Frantic and juiced up on God only knows what, he'd call to say hello and suggest we get together. Strangely, he never wanted to give us his address or arrange actual visits. He'd say he was too busy or on the other side of town doing blah blah blah. Dubious.
Sometimes he'd call and say "Let's get together, RIGHT NOW, BITCHES!," all sassy and full of swagger. Like, do it in the next ten minutes or no dice. Sadly, each time he made these sorts of calls, we were always away working in other states. A year of cryptic text messages, randomly placed phone calls, and voice mail messages offering ass loads of enthusiasm but... always... few... details....
In retrospect what can a person say of this? I knew the man 13 years and would've never suspected it'd end this way. To call it Fate is idiocy. People invoke Fate perhaps to absolve themselves of responsibility or perhaps to avoid dealing with the deeper considerations. Upon detail of his death, a friend said to me, "There's nothing anyone could have done, it sounds like he came to Los Angeles to die." This is probably true enough. But in the end this just amounts to a shrug and a sigh.
To say I'm tired of suicides is redundant and obvious. Duh. Much to my very real dismay the topic gets a lot of juice on this brog, seemingly with no end in sight. Johnny's is the third such death in the past 12 months. My heart can't hack it, but without writing about it, i know no other way of dealing with it. And to be sure, my friends, that is exactly what you do, you deal with it. You contend with it. You try to make sense of it. You grapple. Over and over. From Travis Tyler almost twenty years ago to Sharon and Johnny this past year, the heartbreak hasn't gotten much easier. It just aches.
Despite the ache, life goes on. It does because it must. There is nothing one can do but eventually get on with it.
When people die by their own hand, the aftermath is almost always the same. Shock, anger, sadness, and then a sense of almost permanent dismay. As the years roll on, suicide causes the people left behind to say very little about the person. Often, the reasons and methods of the demise come to loom somewhat larger than memories of the person in life. It consumes most of the brain space that would otherwise be used for conjuring fond remembrances of the good times. Ah, the good times... carried off in a slow oblivion of vapors, echoes, and espers.
In the common parlance of our generation, (and I am nothing if not common), I have only one recurring thought about Johnny's death. And that is, "fuck." That's it. My most basic instinctual response is simply, "fuck." Said quietly and with exasperation. No capitalization. No all-caps. Just a whole lotta lowercase blues. The word slowly slipping from the lips... hanging for a moment in the air pregnant with meaning but otherwise utterly useless. That's all. Wind permanently knocked out of my sails. Adrift on an ocean of guilt, regret, and embarrassment.
Parallel to the movie running in my head of all the actual fun we had with Johnny, I now have a movie running in my head of all the fun we'll not have with him. A cognitive dissonance of all the things that did, did not, and maybe should have happened but now never will. Of all the places we'll not go together. Of all the things we'll not see together or say. Now that we know where he was living, my heart sinks and my face goes bloodless every time I think about it. Holed up just a block from The Kitchen. "fuck." Ridiculous.
The proximity of our overlapping neighborhood haunts; the closeness of our distance. It would've been good to have Johnny in our lives here in Los Angeles. Tam would've loved it. And he would have loved being close to her again. It would have done him good. And, it probably would've done the same for us. In many ways, this end of town could've really benefitted from Johnny's life experience and general vibe. Wherever he went he shined and blew minds.
We met through mutual friends in New York. He owned an independent production company. During those years I was a penniless asshole, frequently in NYC on tour and/or between tours, and I almost always needed work. He used to hire me to work during New York's fall fashion weeks. A gigantic LaCoste show, an inventive/low budget Donna Karan show, an obnoxious Coty Perfume show, and a mind numbingly dull Tommy Hilfiger show. Shows.... shows.... shows... A high stress, back breaking slog. Johnny taught me almost everything there is to know about events production.
Working with him, there was always a fantastical expanse of astronomically wealthy overlords, run-of-the-mill jerks, maniacal middlemen, self-serious fashion divas, very tall girls with long elegant limbs, skinny boys with sunken chests and pouty lips, steroid enhanced macho men, sissy crybabies, truly beautiful women, humorless security guards, battle axes, miserable personal assistants, talented hacks, lonely/powerful fashion industry lifers, celebrity crybabies, unwashed hobos, and bathroom attendants with breath mints and fresh towelettes.
He knew most everyone by name, and for those he didn't, he bestowed painfully appropriate nicknames. Contrary to all one might assume, creating runway shows was not glamorous work. His was the art of facades, of appearances and ephemera.
In his own right, Johnny was all flowing blond Farrah Fawcett hair, leather pants, motorcycle boots, wife-beater, handlebar moustache, silver chain maille bracelet, and enormous brown eyes. He loved 80s glam rock. Absolutely loved it. skinny as a paper plate, he had the limpest wrists on earth. Blessed with a superhumanly loud, crass voice. Gay as a rainbow. Tart as a queen-sized kosher dill.
After my first production job with him, I remember thinking he worked harder than anyone I'd ever met in my life. He really did. Johnny worked his ass off. And he did it all living on hot coffee, beef jerky, and jokes. He laughed and enjoyed life. He loved people. He was considerate, generous, and lavish with money; he shared the wealth and treated all people equally well. He loved to be comfortable. He loved personal style. He loved flair. He loved to indulge. His flat in New York was the most fantastically ornate personal space I've ever been in. He could turn absolute nothing into something surprising and wondrous. And comfy.
But when he crashed, he crashed hard. And when he'd vanish, he'd disappear for months, sometimes even years. Which was the scenario this last time.
In very real ways, Johnny put food in my guts and money in my pocket, and his work ethic and creativity helped shape my character. He was a quixotic combination of conflicting personality traits and spiritual beliefs. He was an awe-inspiring set designer. He could out-slang, out-bullshit, and out-bust balls on anyone. He was an exceptional listener and he offered excellent advice. And he was a natural born problem solver.
And, Johnny was like a brother to Tamarra. She played the well-mannered straight man to his preening queen. When Tam and I met, they were business partners. Specifically through Johnny is how and why we know one another today.
It's gonna take a long time for either of us to process this death. While I have experienced a great many suicides and other types of untimely and tragic deaths over the years, this is the first time Tam has experienced the suicide of anyone in her life. As far as firsts go, this one hell of a first. I know she is suffering greatly right now.
Even though I've been through this vibe so many times, this one is so bewildering to work out. It just doesn't seem like something he'd do. But sure enough he did it. Wrote four letters, and then he watered the plants, parked the car on the opposite side of the street so that it wouldn't get a ticket, and then went inside and 20 minutes later made the biggest commitment of his life— his death.
Through a chance meeting with a rare character like Johnny I've learned to love life for all its weird and surprising circumstances. Because of him, I learned to appreciate cock rockin' classic rock through the world's hardest working queen. I can tolerate throw pillows and enjoy talk of color theory in large part thanks to observing the passion and camaraderie with which he and Tam used to jaw on about such things. Maybe that sounds trivial but it is not. It is the stuff of which life and love are made.
I met Johnny at a pivotal time in my life when I was still young enough to believe I had the world figured out and knew who all the good people were and how to steer clear of the bad ones. Meeting Johnny was one of those experiences that showed me I was wrong about almost everything. By that time in my life I'd already met a lot of folks and traveled a fair many places, but Johnny was like no one I'd ever met. With him in it, the world was a more varied and beautiful place. I owe him much.
So after all this writing and reeling, where have I come to? Where is my mind on all this? Where is my heart? I write to honor my friend, and I write to get on with the living. Have I arrived intact? Yes, but worse off for the loss. This is the way it goes and goes and goes....
The universe has no center and no edges. Only through a delicate balance of memory recall and predictive cognition do we anchor ourselves in reality and conceive time and space. That's it. That's all our failing brains and broken hearts have to guide us through this mystery. Love your people, and whether you're living hard times or not, let your people know you need to be loved.