Cover photography: Marcia Ward
All Shook Up
as always for Marcia
JW McCullough was one of those rare creatures that had been given, without asking for it, a second chance in life.
After a tour in Viet Nam in the Merchant Marines, JW returned to the Philadelphia area (he was born in Vineland New Jersey) and became a performing artist, playing guitar in rock and roll bands and in an Elvis Impersonator band. His favorite guitar riff, he told me, was the one he scored for the Impersonator Band’s rendition of “All Shook Up.” He also took up creating antics as performance art. Sometimes poetic often comedic his skits caught the eye of a producer in Philadelphia who was able to hook JW up with a slot on a soon to launch NBC TV show called Saturday Night Live. Three producers – one from Philly, one from Chicago, and one from New York - were cooking up this skit-centered take on comedy. A month before production was to begin, however, Chicago and New York conspired to dump Philadelphia and, consequently JW lost his chance. On the brink of standing in the national spotlight and now back in the Philadelphia dark, JW had a melt down and attempted suicide by overdosing on alcohol and pills. He had since Nam been somewhat depressed; the VA eventually told him he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a result of transporting munitions from America and transferring them to destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Viet Nam War. He did not die, however, as his producer found him and Hahnemann Hospital pumped his stomach clean. Thus that second chance I mentioned earlier. For the rest of his life JW had a perspective on life quite different from everyone else’s. If you’ve given up the ghost and are somehow brought back to life, you see things differently. And JW saw the world as his stage for the next bitter-sweet sixteen years.
I met JW at Jerry Record’s on Colfax when I was making my first feature movieo Sylvia and The Green Bird in 1984. I was showing John Loquidis, the proprietor of Jerry’s Records, some preliminary footage I had shot of Loquidis’ girlfriend, Juliet Johnson, in the role of Sylvia. JW was hanging around the counter and he looked over my shoulder at my camera’s viewfinder and announced, “If you’re making a movie I want in.” Picking up on his Philly accent and sensing a kinship because of it, and digging his attire – JW dressed with more flair than most rock stars (he was wearing striped pants, turquoise painted penny loafers sporting Gold Coin Saloon tokens where the pennies would have been, an embroidered baseball cap depicting an elephant, and a collarless paisley button up shirt (the buttons also were painted turquoise) – I said, “Sure.” And thus began our ten year friendship as JW and I went on to finish my movie together – he as actor, co-producer, and singer. In the process, he became the brother I never had and godfather to my youngest son, Zenith Star.
JW’s most lucrative “job,” his means of acquiring money was to participate in drug studies, mostly back in Philadelphia, and he split his time between Denver and Philly, often staying with my family for short stints. We got along well, although I did come to realize JW was a closet alcoholic after finding sundry empty pints and half pints of exotic whiskies left about my house. John admitted to me his serious predilection, claiming, however, he was clean seventy-five percent of the time. “My binges last about a week,” he said. He also told me he never had a drink in his life until at age twenty-five he heard the word mimosa, and liking the sound of it, he ordered one. Then another. Then another. And the next day he went to a liquor store and bought a half dozen pints of assorted whiskies and rums thus beginning his see-saw life-long battle with John Barleycorn which he used to self medicate his manic depressive condition. If truth be told, his drinking never really impacted our relationship. I’d had alcoholic friends before, hell, my father was one, and you take a brother as he is; still, I’d have preferred him sober. And I was always glad to have a companion whenever he returned from his participation in lock-down experimental drug studies back East. JW’s justification for taking such risks was that “You get a placebo half the time; so it’s only half-dangerous.”
After release from a drug study in 1988, he was clean and sober and met up with a performing artist by the name of Vesna. Soon he and Vesna became a couple and an act, presenting what they called “The Butterboat Show.” They wowed the underground South Street art scene in Philadelphia and even won a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant to take their Butterboat Show on the road, eventually winding up in Florida. As I learned later (like last month after re-connecting with Vesna on Facebook) Vesna had wanted to end things with JW (too manic and controlling and isolating, she said) but he had followed her to Florida. You might say he stalked her to St. Petersburg. But because he was unable to rekindle anything with Vesna, he again took up with his other love, alcohol. During his six month passionate affair with booze in Florida he sent me dozens of incredibly sophisticated addressed letters filled with manic yet comedic poems and rambling paeans to his artistic heroes, Prince and Elvis Costello. Even my taciturn mailman remarked that he loved delivering my mail as he got to handle the art objects that were JW’s envelopes. “Who is this guy? Whoever he is, tell him I’m a fan.”
And then one day JW appeared in the elevator door of my loft, drunker than I’d ever seen him, asking if he could stay with me until he got sober. The loft I lived in had a glass wall as the second floor of 1444 Wazee Street had once been the corporate headquarters of Fashion Bar. JW was so out of it he stepped off the elevator, walked into my living area and then into the glass wall with such inebriated recklessness that he knocked himself out. He stayed a week, secluded in my loft, fighting withdraw and depression before returning to the world mostly clean and sober. He had enough bread left from his last drug study to pay a month’s rent at the Newhouse Hotel at Grant and Colfax around the corner from Jerry’s Records. He painted his room to match the color of his turquoise shoes that matched the color of his newly acquired pawn shop electric guitar. During his last months in Denver he took up antics as performance art again, but his performances were more in the real world than on stage. Once, as he told me - “to give downtown workers an unexpected holiday in the middle of the week,” - he super-glued the locks of dozens of office buildings on the 16th Street mall. Awarded to Anonymous, his stunt received the “Best Prank of the Year" award from WESTWORD. JW got away with his prank despite being videotaped by multiple security cameras as his disguise included a wig and a dress and a slinky put-on sashay to beat the band. Eventually, however, he decided to – as he told me - “give Hollywood a chance” and he moved to LA.
JW’s second – and in this case successful suicide attempt – was his final piece of performance art. It unfolded over the course of a week. After the June 28, 1992 Landers earthquake rattled Los Angeles, JW left a phone message for me on my answering machine: “Ed, I’m drinking again! Been sober the last year but this is just too much! Really, I’m all shook up and feelin’ whiskey deprived! By the way, did I tell you I’ve finally made it: my name’s in the Hollywood phone book!” When he did reach me a day later we had a three hour long distance phone call in which he manic-ed his way about dozens of topics, alluding to many reckless behaviors, that shall remain unmentioned, he had taken up. He also told me how he had called everyone he knew long distance as he wanted to create the largest unpaid telephone bill in the history of Ma Bell. I missed the innuendo and didn’t get the hidden meaning of “unpaid.”
Now, I had visited JW three months before the quake and he had been his normal prankster self, living in a “residential” low rent Hollywood hotel, doing performance art (guitar and poetry) at assorted bars and galleries and at midnight on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. We made the rounds of LA friends I had turned JW on to: Tony Scibella, Marsha Getzler, SA Griffin and Frank T. Rios. JW had wanted to visit my ex-wife with whom I had hooked him up, but when I called Carol to set up a meet, she told me, "You can come alone, but don’t bring that man anywhere near me,” as JW had apparently worn out his welcome at Carol’s Beverly Hills Film Production headquarters. At the time of my visit, the sober JW had a cassette recorder, a guitar, an iron, a manual typewriter, and sundry wild “outfits.” When I said “Later, man” to him in early April, little did I know it would be the last time I would speak to him in person.
Anyway, after the Landers quake, JW scrambled to accomplish a few items on his bucket list of antics. First he convinced SA Griffin, a successful Hollywood actor and poet, to rent a brand new Cadillac convertible. JW wanted to superstar it around Los Angeles and they did. SA had always enjoyed being a wheelman – his performance art troupe was called the Carmabums - and together they toured for some six hours or so, top down with Elvis Costello tapes blasting on the stereo. JW honked and waved to all the street artists and street people he had befriended. A night later, JW called a local national public radio station that was hosting its annual fund drive. JW told the hosts, two comedian DJs pleading for money, that he was one hell of guitar player and he would give the radio station $100 every time they mentioned “the guitar player, JW McCullough.” Well, the comedians ran with it, and over the course of the next half hour they worked the phrase -“the guitar player, JW McCullough” - into their spiel some fifty or sixty times. JW recorded what ensued on the radio with a cassette tape recorder and mailed me the tape that I’d characterize as the funniest radio bit I’ve ever heard. Sadly, I received this comedic masterpiece two days after SA called to let me know that JW had committed suicide. Apparently, JW, who had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder for over twenty years, had stock piled a years worth of assorted medications the VA had given him. He cured his anxiety and manic depression once and for all, by washing down handfuls of pills with sweet aperitifs and rum. Believe you me, the guitar player JW McCullough, his choice to end it all, and the performance art it was, shook me up as much as the earthquake shook LA. The final riff, the last twitch of his fingers most likely accompanied the thought: “I’m all shook up, hey hey. I’m all shook up.”