ImageMaker

ImageMaker
Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

ANGELO




Cover photography – Marcia Ward
Angelo

A feisty – or should I say fiery – first generation Italian from Paterson New Jersey, Angelo di Benedetto was an artist who set the bar high in Colorado when he moved to Central City after World War II. He was temperamental, once knocking Jack Kerouac down because the at-the-time seemingly homophobic author insulted an opera singer who Kerouac believed was flirting with Angelo. During the War-to-End-All-Wars Angelo never used a weapon; an aerial photographer and cartographer in the campaign against Rommel in Africa he later served as an artist whose task it was to disguise Manhattan. “Disguise Manhattan, what does that mean?” you might ask. Well, the deceptive aspect of art can be very useful in war and the United States employed artists to trick their enemies. Cardboard tanks would be built and set on hillsides and the sound of tanks maneuvering would be broadcast loudly in the hopes of directing enemy firepower in the direction of unmanned positions. The rooftops of strategic buildings would be painted to look like something else or camouflaged so as to be unrecognizable. At one point Angelo came up with a smoke and mirrors scheme to disguise Manhattan in the event German bombers ever got as far as the skies above New York. When I asked Angelo in 1987 about the artful trickery he told me his plan was still classified, and he was not at liberty to discuss it. Too bad it wasn’t in play in September of 2001.

I met Angelo in 1979 when he sculpted a grave marker for the poet James Ryan Morris. Jimmy and Angelo and the filmmaker Stan Brakhage all lived in Gilpin County – Morris in Wondervu, Angelo in Central City, and Brakhage in Rollinsville – and they were pals, artists and intellectuals who would talk on the phone for hours at the local rate of ten cents a call. Cabin fever is real when you live in the mountains, and during the bitter cold long night-short days of winter, they would explore ideas and rage against bourgeois art and, in the case of Brakhage and Morris, government funded art. Brakhage told me that when he made a short film of Morris playing the roll of Doc Holliday, it was the most dangerous behind the camera experience he ever had as Morris carried and fired a loaded gun for the shoot and possessed an existential drug-addicted stance to match Holliday’s. Stan told me that filming Morris as Doc was “Even more dangerous than filming calving icebergs from a canoe where death would be instantaneous should the canoe overturn and dump you in the water.”

Well, Angelo’s tombstone sculpture consisted of a pair of moons, a quarter and a full, welded a top three steel rods affixed to a ground level nameplate that read POET. The large full moon was somewhat bowl shaped and the smaller quarter moon that fronted it was flat. At six feet in height the tombstone resembled a sculptural expressionist’s take on a poet’s lyre; the play of shadow and light on the sculpture itself was almost musical as the sun progressed across the sky. I was part of the volunteer beatnik crew who helped poor the concrete to set the sculpture on the southern side of the hill in Dory Hill Cemetery outside Blackhawk Colorado. At the time there was a rusty iron revolving gate that you’d pass through to enter the cemetery grounds and Morris’ tombstone to the left near the top of the hill was a visual complement to the eerie metal on metal creaking sounds of the gate as it revolved. You just knew you were entering a not so ordinary otherworldly place.

That day of the sculpture installation I also met a young woman, Kelley Simms, who assisted Angelo. A talented artist herself, Kelley was both Angelo’s assistant and muse. Almost instantly Kelley and my wife became fast friends, the result of which was that we, Marcia and I, became good friends of Angelo as well. Our friendship was further cemented when I hooked up Angelo with a regular customer of mine at The Boston Half Shell where I waited tables, whom I overheard talking art. Against my better judgment and contrary to waiter etiquette I interrupted Charlie Barnett (Charlie was a wealthy scrap metal entrepreneur and an over the top Bronco fan (he personally had coined the phrase “Orange Crush”), butting into his conversation with my assertion that I was friends with the greatest living Colorado artist and that if he was interested I would set up a meeting and tour of Angelo’s studio, which, as it turned out, happened the very next day. Before we’d been in Central City an hour Angelo had a check for thousands in his hands because my call party customer friend Charlie Barnett bought a few small paintings and a large assemblage for his office consisting of arranged polished brass gear wheels on an orange panel that resembled – in Charlie’s mind - a offensive football play diagram. A win-win for everyone, well everyone except me. When all was said and done, I must admit, I harbored a little resentment that neither Angelo nor Charlie had tipped me for making it all happen. But I got over getting stiffed and put it in my bank of petty grievances under the column marked Oversights and Slights of Others.

Well, over the next decade I visited with Angelo many times and we talked art and the politics of art in his studio atop the Mermaid Café. I learned of his friendship with scientists like Einstein and artists like Diego Rivera and of coming to grips with fame when, in 1940, paintings Angelo had created in Haiti were centered folded in Life Magazine. Together we co-produced multi-media art events in both Denver and Central City. The same year we met we were simultaneously awarded Colorado Arts Awards from the James Ryan Morris Society – Angelo for art and me for poetry.

The building where Angelo lived and worked, which he had purchased when he originally arrived in Colorado, was the largest building in Central City, having been built to house a mining-supplies warehouse during the boom times of the Colorado gold and silver mining industry. To this day, it is still the largest building in Central City. Outside of major museums I had never seen so much art in one place. Sculptures, paintings, drawings and assemblages, monumental and small, filled the cavernous building. Of special note were some sixty large conte crayon studies of the figures used in, at the time of its making, the largest mural in the United States; Angelo and his assistant Phyllis Montrose painted legal giants from history on asbestos concrete panels for the ceiling of the breezeway of the Colorado Judicial Building at Thirteenth and Broadway in Denver. The mural was 3000 square feet of art weighing 7400 pounds! Everything outside the studio – outside being a steep slope with a cruel pitch - was artfully divine as well: I’m talking birdbaths and bird feeders and fountains and fences and furniture. Stonework was reminiscent of Ireland and no item’s placement was haphazard. Within his personal space, his kitchen table was utterly like no other because over the years dozens of visitors had carved their names or initials into its surface and his visitors were some-bodies, both local and international. Summers when American high society visited Central City to attend the opera at The Teller House, invitations to supper at Angelo’s studio were sought after. Eating garlic pasta at Angelo’s with Kelley and Angelo and Marcia and looking at the names carved into the oak table I came to realize that the very seat that supported my humble Irish ass once supported the asses of America’s greatest cultural stars. Marcia sat where the burlesque entertainer famous for her striptease act, Gypsy Rose Lee, liked to sit.

Well, the last years of Angelo’s life were hard as are most everyone’s. He had always been a prominent figure both in Colorado and in Central City and against the prevailing and naive opinion that gambling is good he fought the arrival of state sponsored gambling and lost. He sold then refused to sell his building, a bad faith renege that cost him dearly. He had been dealing with cancer but a stroke took him away in 1992. When his sister arrived from the East Coast to sort out his affairs she contacted me and asked if I would conduct a memorial for Angelo. Because Angelo had been one of the prime movers in the creation of the sculpture park in Burns Park at Colorado and Alameda Boulevards – his is the large yellow double arched sculpture - we held his memorial there on a Sunday afternoon. Hundreds attended and I was witness to one of the most unplanned cinematic events of my life. It rained off and on all day. Setting up the gear for the event – we’re talking gasoline generators for power and a PA for the musicians and speakers was difficult. The event was scheduled for 4 PM and it was still raining on and off when that time rolled around. Every available space near the park where a car could be parked was occupied and the small parking lot on the south end held five times the amount of cars it was built for. And when I turned on some music to announce that the stage was set, hundreds of people who had taken shelter from the intermittent rains got out of the cars and advanced en masse down the small slope at the south end of the park, all carrying umbrellas. A moving quilt of a myriad of colors approached, an unplanned Cristo like happening if you get my drift. And then at 4:15 when everyone was ready, the sun came out!

A week or so after the memorial Angelo’s sister contacted me and told me that because Angelo’s remaining art had been catalogued and already appraised for tax purposes I, along with any of Angelo’s friends who might like to purchase something from the collection, could come to Angelo’s studio. Angelo’s art had always sold for high dollars, well beyond the financial reach of me and my friends; but because the family was trying to escape paying a huge inheritance tax bill, everything, she said, had rock-bottom prices. Sculptures and paintings that had sold for thousands were priced in the hundreds. Drawings were even less. So along with a number of di Benedetto aficionados I went and indulged myself and came to owning a number of paintings and drawings and sculptures, two of which need further explanation.

When my friends and I were about to leave the studio, Angelo’s nephew remembered that there were a number of paintings not on display that he had found just that morning, paintings which had escaped the scrutiny of the IRS and the purview of the art dealer who was handling the art of the estate. The nephew had been walking across the floor of the top studio where Angelo did most of his sculpting and he heard a strange squeak emanating from the floorboards. He recalled that Angelo had told him once that “a poor artist was one who sold everything,” and so the thought of a secret stash came to mind. And, sure enough, a thorough scrutiny of the squeaking hard wood floor revealed an access point where with the aide of a large screwdriver he unearthed a stash of some thirty canvases rolled into a log, most of which Angelo had painted in the 1930s before joining the military and before his Haitian experience that had catapulted him to fame. The stash of paintings had obviously been hidden the entire time Angelo lived in Central City, works he obviously cherished for personal reasons. Most were realistic oil portraits of the avant-garde of Broadway circa the early 30s: actors, writers, Prima Donnas, opera singers and musicians, the New York artistic intelligentsia if you will, who looked the parts they played in American culture with wild hairdos, clothing and appurtenances. But two of the paintings were like no other. Painted in 1937, they were a pair of Diego Rivera-esque murals illustrating a di Benedetto family farm in Connecticut circa the early Twentieth Century. In one the farmers were clean-shaven unadorned men and women, plainly dressed, who looked as if they just arrived from Italy fresh off the boat, tilling and planting a hillside in spring with manual implements and an open book. In the next the autumnal hillside was prolific with fruits and vegetables ready for harvest and the farmers had grown into their true selves with beards and mustaches, forsaking the clean cut look they’d employed to pass through Ellis Island.  As they were not priced I offered the nephew a C note each for the pair because they were the same size as paintings priced likewise. He accepted my offer because of what I’d done for the family in terms of arranging the memorial and I walked away with what I’m sure were two of Angelo’s most prized possessions, things he had hidden because he did not want to sell them, because he did not want to be a poor artist, an almost other worldly chain of events starting with, if you will, a squeak from beyond the grave that more than made up for me not getting a percentage of the deal I brokered a decade earlier.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

A MIX of PHYSICS, ALCOHOL, GAMBLING, JIMI HENDRIX, BOB DYLAN and SEX: THESE THINGS DON'T NECESSARILY ADD UP TO LOST VIRGINITY


Cover art – Edwin Forrest Ward

A Mix of Physics, Alcohol, Gambling,
Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Sex:
These Things Don’t Necessarily Add Up
to Lost Virginity

A little more than fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, I was working for the Atomic Energy Commission in an unpublicized basement laboratory of the Customs Building on Houston Street in Manhattan. Drexel University had arranged the prestigious paid internship as I was, at the time, majoring in Physics at Drexel. The six month commitment involved intellectual and spiritual challenges - I mean there was a war going on in Viet Nam and I was working for the government responsible for the war; there was also petty conflict – my three math major roommates and I couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory formula for a division of labor, for sharing our one bedroom apartment in Queens. Add to this the uneasy euphoria of living away from my inner city row home (and mother) in Philadelphia for the first time in a place where the drinking age was eighteen. Throw a wonderful young woman of a girlfriend who was very much in love with me into the mix and I was overwhelmed with prospects and commitments and confusion. Not to mention I was Catholic.

At the time of my internship I paid more attention to Bob Dylan than I did to my studies, my work at The A.E.C. and my faith (or lack of). Bobbie D truly seemed to be the prime mover in changing my world.  He was responsible for bringing white America – people like myself who grew up in uber segregated overtly racist Philadelphia into the Civil Rights Movement and singing a language that could be employed to protest injustice in America and abroad. Two years earlier at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was followed by Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Whereas I had memorized all the words to every Dylan song released at the time (some 90 or so), I could not recite – other than E=MC squared - any of the differential equations and quantum theorems necessary to express an understanding of modern physics. I originally had chosen physics as my major because I wanted to rock the world as I believed Einstein had in 1905. I sought someday to shed new light on the nature of things (and people) and change understandings of how the world works. Also, practically speaking, what better way to wow the women of my dreams is there than Einstein-ing them? “I’m majoring in Physics” had the kind of cache that I believed got a girl’s attention. That’s how I had met Ann at a college mixer in the spring of 1966.

Ann was a bright-eyed blonde who went after what she wanted with a fierceness that was beyond the norms of 1966. And she wanted me. She’d do most anything to be with me. She lied to her mother and father, climbed out her bedroom window to rendezvous with me after her exceedingly protective parents went to sleep, stole cartoons of Kool cigarettes for me from the Mom & Pop store where she worked part time, cut classes at Beaver College to play Frisbee with me when I was out of class, and had friends lie to cover for her when she came for the weekend to visit me in New York. Put crudely yet succinctly, Ann had more balls than the entire Rugby team at Drexel.

As I shuffled through my days at the AEC – measuring particulate matter in the air in ventilation systems pre and post filtration – something as uninspiring as the office politics that surrounded me, I knew I already was on my way to the underground where there was “darkness at the break of noon,” where there was poetry not physics, where there was love not war, where there was art not religion, where there was risk not steady employment. Ann – or what she represented – meant more than cold fusion. Love meant more than a new unified theory of the universe.

At the time my sister Carol worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a keypunch operator; not the greatest of jobs, but one that came with passes for all family members to ride the Pennsylvania Railroad; hence, I could travel for free from Philly to New York and vice versa. Most weekends, for reasons of economy, I went home. I needed to save as much money as I could from my job, in order to pay my tuition, as my family had not the means to do so. I kid you not when I say: my family was never more than a dollar or two ahead.

On Fridays, during the ninety-minute train ride from Grand Central to Philly, I usually played pinochle for money with a bunch of older men. Initially they took me for a novice card player whom they hoped to fleece, but a novice I was not. I’d been playing pinochle with my family since I was seven years old. My parents and sisters and I played for pennies and the focus-as-a-family playing cards allows, whereas the guys on the train played for dollars and the braggadocio that playing cards allows. We snarked, broke balls, bragged, and snide-commented our way the entire train ride as we shuffled, cut, dealt, bid, played and wooed the three card kitty; the patter of card playing Philadelphia wise-guys belongs to a universe where Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t apply, and feeling like one of the older men - counting cards, counting trump, counting losers, counting suits, counting coo, gambling and winning money, bragging about Irish luck, plying the card skills I’d learned from my mother – was exponentially more rewarding than the prestige of my Atomic Energy Commission credentials.  Fortunately, rare was the time that I didn’t arrived at Holmesburg Station in Northeast Philly without having double or tripled in an hour and a half the pay I’d received for working forty hours at the AEC, thereby learning early that there are ways outside the norm to make a buck. I had January’s tuition in the bank by October! Punching a time clock was not nearly as thrilling as making a forty hand - against all odds - in spades, a sort of differential equation I took to heart.

As I said, Dylan was the hat I wore although I did have hair like Einstein; thus when Ann came to stay with me for an overnight in July of 1966, after rendezvousing at Grand Central, we chased after music and poetry, not science. After drinking  half of the bottle of wine I had concealed in a paper bag, we went in search of the ghost of Bob Dylan, to Greenwich Village on a hot summer Saturday night and paid two eight dollar covers to enter the Cafe Wha?, where a coke was another eight dollars, and where a skinny twenty-four year old black kid with hair curlier than mine wearing blue denim bibbed overalls sat in a corner with a pair of guitars, a microphone, and an amplifier with a reel-to-reel on the floor. He exhorted the audience – mostly suburban kids from Jersey – to get enthusiastic because a demo was going to be recorded this night and crowd appreciation would go along way to his getting, as he said “that contract in the sky.” I had been expecting an acoustic Dylan-esque folk scene – as I knew that Dylan had played his first gig in New York City in this very room in 1962, but what ensued was like nothing I had ever heard. The guitar playing was ear dazzling and driven and mad and improvisational and outrageous while the singing was sensual and intimate. “Crazy, wild, psychedelic, sexy, furious” is what Ann said. I was too blown away for words. The guitar player’s name scribed in gold and silver across his black guitar case was spelled strangely: Jimi.

Now after the show, Ann and I returned to my place in Queens. It being the weekend, my roommates were not around, as they regularly went home to their parents in Jersey and Maryland and Pennsylvania, meaning Ann and I would have the pad to ourselves and we would probably get around to the elephants in the room of our relationship: our virginity. Of course we were not virgins when it came to orgasms. But sex as in copulation was just not something we had had the opportunity to partake of. In cars and movie theaters and on blankets at the beach, these are not places where full nudity and penetration are going to happen. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as dreamed.

When we climbed into bed a bit tipsy from our finishing off the wine, dizzy with Hendrix sounding in our heads, enthusiastic and shy with the puppy love that we owned, inexperienced with nudity and flesh against flesh, it so happened that we when we began to embrace, skin to skin, and kiss, I got had the most monstrous erection I would ever have. And when Ann took me in her hands I had the most monstrous ejaculation I most likely would ever have. Embarrassed by my inability to control myself and by the amount of cum that seemed to come from me and cover Ann’s stomach and thighs, my ego was tattered and my manhood so spent there was no way on earth I would be able to penetrate her safely, if at all, and thus I resorted to something I had only fantasized about: the cunning linguist within orchestrating an intense climax for Ann. Spent and satisfied - however awkward our technique - we felt bliss . . .  and, upon reflection, blessed in a strange 1960’s parochial Catholic sort of way: the silver lining amidst the cloud of a bungled first-time was that we were able to bring virginity to the people we would later meet and marry. To this day, I can still see Jimi in his overalls playing guitar strings with his teeth and with the brass buttons of his outfit and I can envision Ann in her birthday suit, so beautiful, so willing, so loving. Sadly, not long after this Jimi-Hendrix-not-five-feet-away-from-me-CaféWha?-Saturday-night experience fifty years ago, Ann and I broke up for no good reason. Puppy love is after all only puppy love no matter how pure and intense.

And because I do believe in “taking what you have gathered from coincidence,” it must be noted that some fifty years after I heard, really heard, music for the first time in my life, after not losing my virginity, and not getting Ann pregnant as would most likely have happened given our lack of contraception and our Catholic belief that making love was purest when engaged in for the purpose of procreation, a grandson was born to me whose name is Jonah Hendrix!


Monday, October 24, 2016

Doobie


cover photo - Marcia Ward


Doobie

as always for Marcia

This story is not about the rock band, The Doobie Brothers; likewise, it does not concern itself with reefer madness. The only music it references is quacking and the only pot in the story would be a reference in the description of the belly of its principal character, our “pot-bellied” drake.

When my youngest son was a sophomore at East High in Denver, he, along with twenty other students, won a lottery in biology class. Zenith Star was very excited about his lottery win and asked if he could accept the prize, a fertilized duck egg. Accepting an egg would be easy; accepting what might hatch would be a wee bit trickier because the behavior and longevity of pets is not easy to predict. I mean, I’ve had dogs and cats and birds that have shared decades with me, and knowing nothing of ducks, I was leery to say “Yes” to the prospect of a duck taking up residence in my back yard. I mean, I already knew the ropes when it came to teenagers and pet responsibilities: all in for a day or so, but by week’s end, all responsibility would be on Marcia and me. I had already disappointed my son on numerous occasions with my refusal to get him a dog, an easy “No” on my part because he was enamored of pit bulls; nonetheless, with great reluctance and much trepidation, I bowed to the pressure of Marcia’s and Zenith’s pleading eyes and agreed to accepting the egg from his teacher.

Meanwhile back in Paul Harbaugh’s biology class, twelve of twenty duck eggs hatched. By day two, nine of the twelve hatchlings died, yet, as luck would have it, Zenith’s duckling lived and the tiny baby got to go home with him on a Friday afternoon. Saturday morning found me buying a dog house at Home Depot, a sack of turkey chow at a feed store in Aurora, and a plastic kiddie swimming pool at Target, totaling close to two hundred dollars for a duckling that didn’t weigh a pound, a duck which by Monday had doubled in size, and which seemed to double in size every two days for a week plus.

The duckling that Zenith named Doobie was a domestic Mallard, the kind of bird that is bred to be fattened up and eaten Peking style in about six months, not a duck to fly the sky-ways and swim the river-ways. As it turned out, however, Doobie got to float the kiddie pool and roam the back yard and sleep in the dog house for close to four years, and, despite my initial reservations, I found him to be one of the most fantastic and loving pets I have ever had the pleasure of caring for, although, I must say, he was a menace when he was horny. He was also more intelligent than you can imagine.

The everyday routine of caring for Doobie was written in stone. First thing in the morning we (mostly Marcia, the earlier riser) would refill his turkey chow bowl in the yard. Next the duck would be let out of the locked dog house where he’d spent the night safe from the neighborhood predators – there was a fox den in the sewer intake around the corner at 12th and Glencoe and a raccoon could occasionally be seen midnights scampering along our privacy fence. Now Doobie was very amorous and much effort had to be put into avoiding his attempts at affection, i.e., taking a nibble on any exposed skin. It was a wild dance we did, fending off his duck kisses. In late spring and early summer when male ducks are in heat, mornings after unlocking the dog house door, Marcia would literally race back into our house screaming “No no no” because Doobie somehow just knew her to be female and he wanted to mount her feet and get intimate with her ankles, his intent obvious given the lightning bolt appearance of his eight-inch long corkscrew penis. Proof of his frenzied rapture were Marcia’s puckered ankles and the scar above my right eye that looks like a birthmark, the result of him planting an affectionate smooch on my forehead with the bristle-like serrated edges of his bill that ducks use to filter the bugs out of water. Had his aim been a few inches lower, I’d be looking like a one-eyed pirate. After a morning wandering and scouring the grass of the yard for insects and such, Doobie’s afternoons were generally spent serenely floating in the pool enjoying the treats we added: lettuce, cabbage, bread and similar duck edibles. Sometime during the day (when Doobie wasn’t amorous) we’d change the duck poop laden newspapers that lined the doghouse. Such summer stench was nauseating and the chore was no one’s favorite, especially when bent over as was necessary to accomplish the task, what with one’s butt and ankles prone to attack. Another true chore was the replacement of the water in the pool, something we did with an immersed sump pump; fortunately, the duck waste fertilized water was spread on our lawn and flower gardens and was an unexpected benefit. At night the duck routine would end when we locked him up at sundown.

But as I said, Doobie was also caring and intelligent. He loved to be held on one’s lap and petted. He quacked quietly and nuzzled deep into our embrace whenever we indulged him. His down and feathers presented a soft and rare chance for such unique tactility. He also was respectful and never once did he give chase to our cat that spent hours in the yard with him at a safe distance perched on a windowsill or on a fence post. The cat had a way of examining the backyard scene every time she went outside, making sure Doobie was not within pecking distance of the opened door before cat-sprinting to a place beyond reach of the duck. One of my favorite things about Doobie was that he thought Marcia and I were his parents, because when he first arrived we were his caretakers. OK, we didn’t teach him to swim but we did teach him to heed our call. When ever I returned home to an empty house and quietly entered the back yard, no matter how quiet I had been, Doobie was immediately either on a happy waddle towards me, or, if he had been floating in the pool, he’d raise up with his wings and practically dance on the water in delight at my presence, his webbed feet splashing the surface water in a spray of delight. His “Welcome home Daddy” was as heart-warming as that of any pet I’ve ever had! Doobie’s eyes would literally sparkle with joy as he skirted the edges of the pool on dancing webbed feet or lay snuggling against my shoes imploring me to pet and ruffle him. And when it came to his birdbrain, well, he did, in fact, actually teach me a thing or two.

We kept his pool beside of our back yard’s southern fence, where grew an abundance of Virginia Creeper vine. Now ducks love certain grasses and the leaves of many plants although Doobie had no truck with Virginia Creeper. Once upon arrival home I went into the yard to find Doobie floating about, and I expected his usual dancing on the water welcome, but got only a mean stare. In fact his intense glowering more than got my attention given its unusual fierceness. Then he paddled over to the Virginia Creeper at poolside and pulled off the vine a mouthful of the inedible Creeper leaves. Then he literally spit the leaves in my direction, as if to communicate, “I can’t eat this. Go in the house and get me some damn lettuce.” In fact, he repeated this action twice, before I understood and acted on his pantomimed message. When I returned to the yard with a handful of lettuce and stale bread, I got the dance-on-water webbed feet routine I was so fond of, and Dobbie quacked a quack-quack that almost sounded like “Thank You.” He seemed to be gloating in the knowledge that ducks can teach an old Dad new tricks. His communication with me had been spot on.

Sadly, the fourth of July in 2002 marked the end of Doobie’s backyard life, an Independence Day tragedy that I think of to this day when I hear fireworks exploding. Marcia and I were visiting her parents in Wyoming for the holiday weekend. We left our high school senior son in charge of Doobie. As we should have foreseen, Zenith Star took the opportunity to party with his high school buds, returning home late on a Saturday night. When he went to the yard to secure Doobie for the night, the duck was nowhere to be found. Just a few feathers scattered about the yard. But no tragedy is simple and Zenith missing sundown to secure the duck was not the only factor in our duck’s demise. Ella, our cat at the time, was the kind of spoiled brat cat that wanted in the house and then out into the night yard all evening long. She’d scratch at the door every ten minutes wanting to come back in to eat a nugget or two of dry cat food in the kitchen and then scratch the wood of our back door to go back out. And because we loved her so, we accommodated her. But getting up and down every ten minutes became so annoying that I had taken to leaving a bowl of cat food on our picnic table, out of Doobie’s reach, where Ella could intermittently nibble to her heart’s content. That the bowl was empty every morning should have alerted me to the fact that some hungry marauding critter was eating nightly whatever Ella left uneaten. My guess is that I had been attracting the neighborhood fox with the aroma of cat chow. And under an exploding fireworks sky, the neighborhood fox had celebrated scoring a hearty meaty meal. For years after Doobie’s disappearance, Ella looked for him every time she went outside. As do I, still.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

LIZ


Liz

as always for Marcia 



Liz, and I don’t mean Taylor, one of the world’s best actresses, is a rarity. Well, I would think so, as I expect there are not too many who go to the extremes she has gone to in order to ply her craft in walking this world.

When I first met Liz she was dating an actor/director friend of mine, and, boy, did she ever look the part of the aspiring actress: sophisticated, literate, wealthy, glamorous, stylish, beautiful, sexy, and clever as a sardonic screenwriter; Liz simply oozed star potential. Her steel blue eyes were always drinking in everyone and everything around her. After flirting with the stage she took up writing in earnest and began writing magazine articles, mostly historical and journalistic. I remember a documentary film script she wrote about Colorado trains that was produced by PBS. In the late 80s, although Liz was in her late thirties, she lived on her exceedingly wealthy elderly father’s ranch near Parker Colorado as her Dad required assistance. But once she hit forty Liz hired a house keeper/caretaker for her father as she had decided to go for a big-league career and she started bouncing about, a year in LA, a year in San Francisco, and the next decade with dual residences, with apartments in both the Upper West Side of New York and one in Moscow’s Kitay-Gorod neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. She smoozed with the New York intelligensia and nouveau rich free Russians. In the mid-90s, she began digging deeply into Russian culture and the dynamics of new non-Soviet Russian wealth, and her essays and reviews concerning art and economics began appearing in The Wall Street Journal and sundry then-new conservative on-line magazines. Liz especially enjoyed demonizing the Federal Reserve, the IMF, The World Bank, American Presidents, and Harvard University for its role in poorly advising the new Russia on what to do with its assets. In 1997 she wrote a manuscript on these subjects, but due to its incendiary nature, it was never published although, according to The New York Review of Books, it was “widely read.”

All during this time, I was in contact with Liz as she had always been quite the marijuana aficionado and I had been a connection to some of the finer strains of newly cultivated Sativa and Indica crossbreeds, and against my better judgment, for years, I mailed her weed; thank god for turkey basting bags and vacuum Seal-A-Meal systems. Everything I ever sent reached her as did the cash laden novels she sent me.

In 1997, Marcia and I visited New York and New Jersey, New York because an old friend, Michael Bergt, was having a major art show in Manhattan across from Trump Tower and Jersey because a niece was getting married “down the shore” in Stone Harbor, and we spent two nights and a day with Liz in her brownstone condo overlooking the Hudson River. Not having seen her for half a dozen years, our first sight of Liz in her doorway shocked us. Gone was the movie star, and a beat bohemian drug addled writer stood before us. Whereas she had previously looked like a fashion model worthy of the cover of Cosmopolitan, she now looked like a model for the cover of a 50s Black Ace lurid detective novel titled Hollywood Lady Junkies. The beautiful long blonde hair had been chopped short and dyed black. Her attire consisted of sweat pants and hoodie. I’m sure she had a serious Vitamin D deficiency as she claimed she rarely left her crib. Food, pot, cocaine, clothing, whatever was ordered over the phone and delivered. She looked like she rarely bathed and she certainly had not cleaned her residence since purchasing it in 1990. Enough groceries to feed an army had been delivered in anticipation of our arrival, and a dozen paper sacks of foodstuffs and booze sat inside the doorway. She apologized for not having cleaned her place, but assured us our sleeping situation would be first rate as she produced a complete set of brand new thousand-count Egyptian bed linens, complete with a down-filled duvet cover that probably cost more than both our airline tickets. After we helped her set our bed up, she simply deposited the dead linens and old bedspread in the trash shoot. An odor of pot, alcohol, mildew, dirty dishes, dust, tobacco, and cocaine-induced night sweat permeated every nook and cranny of her flat. She was the complete opposite of the aristocratic, father-doting fabulously coiffed Liz we knew in Denver; nonetheless, our time together was groovy and wonderful, gossiping about mutual friends in Colorado, talking American art and Russian film, listening to her conspiracy theories involving Bill and Hillary Clinton, Harvard University and Boris Yeltsin, drinking copious amounts of fine brandy and expensive French wine, and eating what I assumed to be the best of deli munchies available in Manhattan. Said succinctly: the caviar was extreme. When Marcia and I left Liz and traveled to Jersey, we felt as if we were returning to the real world after having climbed back out of the rabbit hole abode of one crazy, paranoid, generous old friend.

Two years later, my oldest son turned twenty, and seeing as how he was at the time a baritone saxophone-playing jazz enthusiast, I took him for a week to New York City to experience the Blue Note and Birdland, Greenwich Village and subways, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry. Out the window of our hotel room were the Twin Towers that then dominated the southern view, a scene I got to paint, one that would be gone in less than six months. Passion and I also made plans with Liz for an evening out on the town, beginning with dinner at an exceedingly trendy SoHo restaurant. She had always been as gracious with her money as she was chameleon like. Liz was currently making the rounds of conservative TV talk shows and doing internet interviews and at out table when we arrived was a TV producer/handler who would be meeting Liz for the first time in preparation for an upcoming on-air interview during which Liz would discuss her recent testimony before the Banking and Financial Services of the United States House of Representatives concerning the shenanigans of Harvard, the elder Bush, Bill Clinton, the IMF and the Federal Reserve. Liz, as it would turn out, was two hours late for dinner, something about not being able to secure a last minute limo for the night. While waiting I consumed more than my fair share of exotic aperitifs and fine wine, and I probably talked a little too freely to Liz’s new producer about my old friend who had changed from a Marilyn Monroe into a Charles Bukowski. But when Liz arrived I was once again surprised for she had changed back into the elegant, well dressed, and superbly coiffed sophisticated mostly sober potential superstar I had originally known. Liz was at the height of whatever game she was now into and it was one hell of a wild night (the restaurant tab for the four of us was close to a grand), a night that ended in a private Russian after-hours club where my son got to experience the sight of some fifty stylish perfumed Russian beauties all in search of wealthy Russian or American husbands. My last sight of Liz in New York was through the window of a taxi just before sun-up. She blew me a kiss as only a great actress can.

Fast forward a decade or so and I see Liz for the last time. She’s in Denver. She looks like a spoiled brat purple-haired Gothic heiress about to travel on a tramp steamer to some far away forgotten island. She’s come through Denver to score some good weed to take on her travels.

We spend an entire morning and afternoon breaking down a half-pound mixture of Blue City Diesel and Lemon Sensimilla.  We grind it into powder and compress it. We carefully open and empty two boxes of tampons and replace much of the inner tampon absorbent materials with the fine dust of cannabis after Seal A Meal-ing the herb, making sure both boxes weighed the package amount before re-gluing the Cellophane wrapped boxes so as to appear un-opened. Liz confided in me that she was disavowing her American citizenship and would become an expatriate, as she feared for her life because of her late 90s’ exposes. Her landline had been tapped, she said, and she just knew that she was under scrutiny if not under downright surveillance. She had rattled the cages of some very corrupt and powerful financial warlords and too many people and organizations wanted her gone, including the CIA, its Russian counterpart, world bankers and criminal financiers. She had paid a fortune for a new identity and she was on her way to Ecuador where she could, with her new identity, establish citizenship. She had paid an alchemist artist to melt down and disguise a couple of pounds of South African Gold Krugerrands as a cheap steel alloy that was refashioned into jewelry. The belt she wore was worth more than a Washington Park house she quipped. All her jeweled accoutrements looked like Gothic heavy metal costume junk. Once relocated and set-up in South America she would transfer the remainder of her inherited wealth as well as the millions she made on the sale of her Upper West Side pad via some off shore nonsense so no one, not even the CIA, would ever find her.

And so Liz, who used to star in little underground beatnik theater productions in Denver that my good friend Richard Collier produced disappeared from my life in 2012 although - when I dropped her off at DIA with a few pounds of disguised gold and pot laced sanitary devices – she did promise me that one day she’d return under who knows what name to pick up a painting of mine she had purchased and asked that I keep safe. And she promised she’d look neither like a movie star, a bohemian junkie writer, an economics talking head, a Russian art critic, nor a faux Goth heiress, all of which characters had been, apparently, conscious choices on her part; she had not a clue as to what her new face to the world would be.

In short, Liz never ceased being the talented actress I had met years before, one who used the world, rather than a theater, as her stage. Plays for her are still being written. Who knows: next time she might appear as a ghost! Hell, she could be here in the room tonight and chances are I wouldn’t recognize her. Well, OK, I might recognize her very stoned blue steel actress eyes.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Spiritu

 


Cover photography – Marcia WardFrom the Poets' Bridge


Spiritu

as always for Marcia

Many years ago, as a young artist, I was falsely tagged with the opprobrium, “street,” as if my talents were unschooled, like someone who sprays graffiti or writes in poor imitation of Kerouac. Hell, I went to Jesuit schools and I sometimes think in Latin, Quid agam, amicus meus? Bothersome also was the uglier implied characterization of “street:” thuggish. Now normally such mislabeling is of no consequence in the real world, but on occasion such innuendo can lead to violence.

In the early 80s I came into possession of a Panasonic video camera and immediately took up making short artworks, some poetic, some narrative, some simply eye dazzling, and some to accompany live music at stage shows. I had no editing equipment so most were multiple do-overs until I achieved what I was looking for in one take, an arduous and time-consuming task to say the least, but a process that demanded planning and an economy of concept. One of my “movieos” – as I called them - I was especially proud of, one in which my wife danced with an erotic quality and nonchalance that was both an intellectual and physical turn on. It aroused a haunting desire for knowledge of her whole being, not simply lust for her.

In 1987, at a literary festival and book fair where I had a booth, I was selling poetry chapbooks and my literary magazine, Passion Press. I knew dozens of attendees at the fair and many asked in English, “What’s up, my friend?” – Quid agam, amicus meus? I spoke of my video adventuring the last few years and everyone wanted a look-see.  Because I had a number of poetic movieos with me on VHS tape and because there was a large television and VHS player in the lobby where my booth was, I arranged for an impromptu screening of my compilation. A dozen or so of my interested contemporaries gathered round and I began screening my work. First, a rapid cut take on the great Colorado poet, James Ryan Morris, then a documentary of my youngest son’s costumed third birthday party parade at Alamo Placitas Park, led by my wife, Marcia, wearing a feathered headdress and a dress-that-sings, and pounding out a march on a toy tom-tom. Marcia was literally at the height of her maternal beauty. I followed this with the one of Marcia dancing.

Well, a minute or so into my piece, “Dancing,” there is a piercing wail of a scream and a verbal protest from the event organizer’s wife. “Turn that porn off! There are woman and children here!” I look around the room to see if something “pornographic” is going on and seeing only attendees perusing the publisher’s wares, I come to realize that the distraught woman – a college professor, no less – is talking about my movieo. I ignore her and turn back to watching my video with my friends; however, without warning, the screen goes black and I realized a plug’s been pulled as I see the festival organizer, let’s call him “Mr. Censorium,” standing with a disconnected electrical extension cord in hand. If looks could kill I’d be dead, I think. Steam’s coming out of his ears, and he’s glaring like someone who’s been cuckolded. Rather than cause a scene or even ask Mrs. Censorium what she was so upset about, I leave the room with my friends and venture outside where we hold an impromptu poetry reading. Half the people at the fair join us outside, despite the fact that there are featured literary presenters  - mostly academics and non-profit administrators - on stage in the auditorium talking about literature. Outside we are sharing literature, not talking about literature, with the likes of Larry Lake, Art Goodtimes, Woody Hill, Gregory Greyhawk, and Lucy McGrath riffing off each other. A couple of cases of beer also miraculously appear and add a lacking festivity to the otherwise staid festival.

Now I did have a little history with Mr. Censorium. He used to come poetry readings that I ran in the 70s, and I had sensed his animosity towards me, something I attributed to my never having asked him to be a featured poet at my readings. I knew he thought himself to be the cat’s meow when it came to poetics, but I found his writing, its style, to be derivative, a 3.2 take on Pablo Neruda, not my cup of tea, and certainly not the outside-the-box vernacular kind of poetry I was interested in featuring. I was producer and host, and I only featured poets I was truly interested in. Censorium told others my scene was clique-ish and “street,” that “Ed Ward wouldn’t know a poem if it bit him on the ass.” I guess he took my personal tastes personally. In fact, when the literary festival that the book fair was part of, had been organized, the book fair coordinator,  Tom Parson, one of closest friends at the time, had given Censorium a list of the small press publishers in Colorado to invite, my self among them. But Censorium had excluded me and my friend and mentor, Larry Lake, Denver’s most polished small press publisher, from the invitation mailing. Only when I mentioned my lack of an invitation to Tom Parson was the omission righted and I was granted booth space.

Flash forward a couple of years. I had passed on the mandate I’d been given by Larry Lake, you must publish others as well as write, to John Macker, and my Passion Press literary magazine had been replaced with Macker’s Moravagine. John was also one of Denver’s alternative event producers, and to celebrate his latest edition of Moravagine, he rented a new restaurant bar on Blake Street, let’s call it “Spiritu.” Spiritu was closed on Mondays and John had arranged for a Monday night private party featuring some poets he was publishing, a painter by the name of Paris Butler, and myself. He guaranteed the owner, let’s call her Connie Candle, a full house. He’d turn her dark night into the most lucrative night of the month, a promise, as it turned out, he kept.

I was going to show the world premier of my latest and most ambitious video extravaganza, E the Movieo, that featured three separate takes playing simultaneously on three monitors of my narrative fiction, Early Light, The Sage the Sniff, and Conspired with an original score created by Denver’s most popular band at the time, the heavy-metal Gothic foursome, The Soul Merchants. I was as excited about E the Movieo as I had ever been.

I arrive at Spiritu early on the evening of the party to set up my gear: three VHS players, three large screen TVs that I had rented, a stand to pyramid-ize them, numerous patch, extension and sync cords, and a PA and speakers to broadcast the soundtrack, if you will, “a ton” of equipment. After bringing my gear into Spiritu’s main room, a youngish – in his late twenties – man bursts out of the swinging doors to the kitchen, approaches me threateningly, and asks “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I can’t imagine where he’s coming from; hence, I respond diplomatically, “Hello, I’m Ed Ward. I’m one of the featured artists at this evening’s private party that Moravagine magazine is sponsoring here at Spiritu; I’m here to set up these monitors for the world premier of my latest project, E the Movieo. Please tell me, what’s your name and who are you?”

His response is totally out of left field. “No way are you going to do that and ruin the ambiance of my dining room and chase away customers with these fucking TVs. No way.”

Looking for a win here, I remind El Ass – that’s the name I’ve given him as he never told me his – that one: Spiritu is not open to the public on Mondays and two: that I am the featured artist at tonight’s private party, adding “In two hours there are going to be over a hundred friends of mine here to spend money at Spiritu’s bar and enjoy my video installation, Paris’ paintings, and readings by Moravagine’s contributors. As far as I know: serving dinner is not part of the equation. Neither is being open to the public. John Macker made arrangements with Connie Candle.”

“Well as of tonight, we are open on Mondays, and there’s no fucking way you’re going to ruin my serving dinner.”

Needless to say, the tension in the room is thick as incense at a Catholic bishop’s installation. I can’t seem to assuage El Ass’s anger, understand his inhospitality, nor alter his unwarranted and implacable stance. He’s not even considering compromise. I do know that John Macker won’t be here until the party starts at 7, and I’m alone with El Ass in Spiritu. I realize it’s going to take an hour plus just to set up my gear, let alone doing a practice run-through, and that if I don’t get started soon, the magic of just turning on my movieo when it’s show time will be lost if I wait for John Macker to arrive and straighten things out with El Ass.

I study the interior of Spiritu. There’s a mezzanine where I might be able to set up and I offer this as a solution, reminding him there are going to be a hundred people here to see my show. He doesn’t say “Yes” and he doesn’t say “No,” he simply walks away and disappears back into the kitchen. So I do set up my gear on the mezzanine, even though I would have preferred the dining room wall where everyone could watch from the comfort of the bar and dining room seats. In years past, I would have never made such a compromise, but the evening was as much about Paris Butler and Moravagine as it was about me, and I felt it was not my place to jeopardize the party as a whole.

Well, when John arrived (at about the same time as fifty or so guests), not wanting to put a damper on things, I chose not to express to him my disappointment at being marginalized on the mezzanine. Soon the room is packed, Paris sells some paintings, poems and stories get read, and I premier E the Movieo (to a standing ovation, I might add). I had noted the absence of any general public, as I knew every person in the room, all one hundred and thirteen of them (I did a head count while people watched E). So when the lights came back up and the evening was winding down, I went to the bar that El Ass was tending, got right in his face, and asked with all the barbed sarcasm a Philly boy can muster: “How many fucking dinners did I ruin, Asshole?”

In a heartbeat, like a stuntman in a Kung Fu movie, El Ass leaps over the bar and pushes me through everyone behind me, knocking over tables and chairs, slams me up against the wall where my monitors should have been, and shoves me to the floor. During this assault I decide not to defend myself or strike back. I’ve been in confrontations with coked up club owners over the years and know if the police arrive it’ll be me, not El Ass, going downtown to Cherokee Street, because when it’s patron versus employee, the employee is always deemed innocent. Well, as I’m lying stunned on the floor, John Macker rushes over to find out what’s going on, and he’s strong-armed by the Spiritu staff, hustled to the door, and pushed outside, with the staff baring his reentry. El Ass backs away from me and announces, “The party’s over. We’re closed. Everyone out!” And the remaining party attendees, not having a clue as to what just went down, depart. And now again, it’s just me and El Ass, plus my wife, in Spiritu. He’s balling his fists and stewing in his anger. I know he’d like to clock me, but there are dozens of people outside watching us through the front window. “Get your shit and get out,” he barks before disappearing into the kitchen.”

And I do, break down my gear and load it into our van that Marcia has parked in the alley behind Spiritu. I’m still high on the reception E the Movieo had received while simultaneously trying to process the assault I’d just experienced. Granted, I’d pushed his buttons, but he’d been wrong, ignorant, thuggish, mean, and combative since the moment I’d walked into Spiritu, a stance the genesis of which was a mystery to me. To get some semblance of calm into my being, I smoke a joint, and upon reflection I realize I have not done a final check to make sure I’ve not left any gear behind. A lost sync cord would be a fifty-dollar hassle. So I return to the alley exit and attempt reentry, but the door is locked. I knock, wait, knock again a little louder, wait, and then pound on the door. It opens and through the doorway steps El Ass. He’s got a strange look on his face, something between flirtatious and solicitous. He tells me, “You’re the kind of person I admire. It’s artists like you keep things interesting. I love you, man” and then he embraces me in an uncomfortable hug and, and without warning, kisses me, attempting to insert his tongue in my mouth.  I push him away and tell him, “Fuck you, Asshole. Twenty years from now, you’ll be gone, Spiritu will be gone, this Denver – as we now know it – will be gone, but I’ll still be making art despite the likes of Neanderthals like you.” And I get back into my van and head towards 16th Street.

Next day, Marcia and I, dealing with post show blues, are eating lunch at Green’s on Colfax Avenue. We’re on the long bench that spans the east dining room wall at a two top. And who should be seated at the two top to my right: no one other than Connie Candle, Spiritu’s owner. I can’t help myself and introduce myself. I tell her my take on what went down last night at her club. She listens but addresses none of my concerns. Never offering an apology, the only thing Connie Candle tells me is this: “El Ass, his name is Dean Diavolo. He’s married to my pastry chef. He’s not my employee. He was there last night because a man named Ray Censorium, who sometimes holds literary events at Spiritu, warned me and my chef that John Macker and his friends were street thugs who would wreck my club. Diavolo volunteered to be bouncer and make sure things did not get crazy.”

Flash forward another twenty years. Connie Candle comes to my studio to buy a painting of mine that she’d seen at Scum of the Earth Gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District. She has no memory of meeting me at Greens. She makes no connection between “Ed Ward, poet and filmmaker” and “Edwin Forrest Ward, watercolorist.”  I don’t bring up my night at Spiritu. She buys two paintings and tells me she’ll be back again someday to buy some more. She kisses me on the cheek politely and asks, “Were you ever at my club, Spiritu?” I respond, “Yes, I once had an unforgettable night there.”

So, to close the circle of this story, the petty animosity of Censorium, combined with the violence of the sexually conflicted sadomasochistic Diavolo, resulted in a great patron for me. Connie’s spent a goodly sum on the purchase of my paintings and I expect to see her again. She told me, as did Diavolo, “You’re the kind of person I admire. It’s artists like you keep things interesting.” 

Monday, May 23, 2016

ALL SHOOK UP

 

Cover photography: Marcia Ward


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 ALL SHOOK UP


  © 2016 Edwin Forrest Ward
& the IMAGEMAKER
Printed
May 27, 2016

IMAGEMAKER
PASSION PRESS
5475 Peoria Street 4-112
Denver CO 80239
 303 322 9324
                                                    theimagemaker@qwestoffice.net
                                                  www.theimagemaker.qwestoffice.net

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.   bands and in an Elvis Impersonator band. His favorite guitar riff, he told me, was the one he scored for his solo 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 dealing with depression; 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 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 bittersweet 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 his 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 filled a shopping cart with 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 sophisticatedly 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 Wazeee 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 withdrawal 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 pawnshop 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 ending that it was, shook me up as much as the earthquake shook LA. The final mimicked riff, the last twitch of his fingers most likely accompanied the thought: “I’m all shook up, hey hey. I’m all shook up.”