I was planning on writing this post about my recent return to London. I had a wacky opening scene of half naked, drunken hi-jinks planned that would be followed by tongue in cheek, goofy, slightly self deprecating retelling of my weekend at Starfury Event’s Vampire Ball 6, that was going to end with me saying how much more personally and emotionally fulfilling this trip was compared to the last time I had been in London for a convention back in 2009 – where I was an unmitigated, alcoholic accident careening across the con like a Guinness soaked bull in the proverbial China shop – wrapped with a witty tagline that would hopefully leave a smile on everyone’s faces.
That was my plan. And then… Scott Weiland died.
I was a moderate fan of Stone Temple Pilots like any young, grungy Gen-Xer in the early 90’s, but I wasn’t fanatical about them by any stretch of the imagination (I did see them in the summer of 1994 at the Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas and it was a good show – they played the hits). Weiland’s battle with addiction (like so many singers, actors, comedians) was widely publicized and we watched as he went through the cycle of sobriety followed by relapse followed by sobriety followed by relapse time and time again. A video emerged a few months ago of him sloppily, slogging his way through some songs in a small club in Texas and the subsequent assurances from band management that he was just tired and his monitor was out. And now, he was found dead at 48 on a tour bus. No cause of death has been listed yet, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. And I know you’re probably saying “Why is that the thing? In two weeks full of bombings and shootings and more shootings, why is the death of a troubled 90’s rock star the thing that hit you the most?” And the only answer I have to that is a cliched saying from some of the rooms I frequent, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
And I know this is going to seem like a strange tie in, but I’m just going with this impulse and seeing where it leads, (because to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to get this done this week. I’d been procrastinating and procrastinating because I was stuck, not knowing what to write about, or how to write it, and afraid that I had no more stories to tell) but this reminds me of how I felt when Robin Williams died.
In the summer of 1989 I was 15 about to be 16. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was no longer the short chubby kid with a bad haircut and last year’s fashions purchased at discount prices from TJ Maxx – I was a slightly taller, skinnier kid with a bad haircut with last year’s fashions purchased from Marshalls (my mother would alternate just to keep things fresh). I was slowly growing out of the abysmally, painfully, shy teenager who always felt like an outsider no matter how hard I tried. The difference was I had found a group of kids to feel like an outsider with. I had discovered Drama Class. By now I was two years in – I had done six plays in two years as well as many a Speech/Debate/Drama tournament and was working on being one of the seasoned members of our Drama Class. For the kid who tried just about every sport and was bad at all of them – I had finally found something I was good at and that I REALLY liked doing.
And I know you’re thinking – okay, Leary, what the hell are you rambling on about, what does any of that have to do with the summer of 1989 (or Robin Williams or Scott Weiland)? Well that is the summer that “Dead Poets Society” came out. And for any kid who was in theater, or drama, or music, or anything artistic – that movie landed like a drop kick to the soul. I don’t remember who I saw it with, but I know it was some friends from Drama class – probably some of the older kids ’cause I was still 2 long months away from getting my driver’s license – but I do remember leaving the theater with tears still in my eyes, feeling emotionally spent, yet for the first time in my brief 15 years on the planet, I knew what inspiration felt like.
Up to that point I had been developing quite a penchant for comedy of the wacky, zany, multiple-voices, over the top variety that Robin Williams specialized in and “Dead Poets Society” was the first time I had seen him in a “serious” role. I realized that an actor could do both – side splitting comedy and tear jerking drama. And the message of the movie resonated like a John Bonham double bass drum fill. It took me a few years, some trial and error, giving up acting after high school because no one ever “made it” in Hollywood. But the themes of this movie just kept coming back to me – the mighty yawp, sucking the marrow out of life, contribute a verse, and O’ Captain My Captain. And I would eventually go to Hollywood and, for a brief period, get to live my dream – to contribute a verse. And for that I am eternally grateful for the man who I first knew as Mork from Ork and would later come to admire as one of the most brilliant performers of his generation.
I also know of the darkness that the comedy hides. The deep, seemingly un-stillable disquiet that resides, I think, in the heart of most performers (whether they be actors, singers, musicians, painters, poets, writers). For me personally, I will never forget the way I felt inside when I was able to make someone laugh, then make a room of people laugh, then make a room of strangers laugh, then make a theater of strangers laugh. It was a high like no other – and for a brief moment, that little voice on the inside that said I was no good, wasn’t enough, didn’t belong, that voice shut the hell up.
Alas, unlike in Shakespeare, the whole world is not a stage, and you can’t perform all the time – so, unfortunately, some of us seek other solutions. Other ways to still the disquiet. And those solutions work for a time, until they don’t – and then, in a cruel twist of irony – it fuels the disquiet, makes it deeper, and darker, and more lonely and works to rob you of all the good things that help make it go away. It blocks out the laughter and clouds over the light all the while fooling you into believing that it is doing the exact opposite. It is a hard battle when your brain betrays you. When chemicals outside of conscious control influence your thoughts, filtering in like destructive mono-filament puppet strings, jerking you away from what you know to be true and good and toward only more isolation and pain – because that is what those chemicals thrive on.
It is hard to come back from. Hard to forge new pathways, trick your brain into excreting different chemicals and when you do, those pathways never seem as deep, as firmly rutted, as the old destructive ones. You have to be ever vigilant to stay on the right path because sometimes the slightest little bump swerves you onto that old road, and it is a well-worn road that feels familiar and comfortable and even though you know it leads to a place filled with pain, there is a part of you that screams to leave the wheel right where it is, hit the gas, and fly to oblivion at a hundred miles an hour.
It takes profound effort to swerve back onto the new path, the harder path, the one where you feel every bump and shake and turn and twist and it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to navigate and a lot of times you get lost as hell and have to stop and ask for directions. But after a while, it gets easier, and the scenery is a hell of a lot nicer and the other drivers aren’t dicks and you learn to love the new path because even though it may be hard and painful at times, the sun always seems to shine at the right moment. And you are not alone.
But not all of us make it back to the path. Some of us, no matter how hard we try, and want and believe, can manage to stay on that new path and the result is always the same. And I think about that every day. When I see someone I know, or whose music I listened to, or whose movies I watched, on the news it makes me sad and scared and grateful all at the same time. And I am thankful for the people I have met that nudge me, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully, back on to the right path when the wheel starts to stray.
I never had the pleasure of working with Robin Williams, I never met him, and didn’t know him personally… but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a part of my life, of all our lives, and that his loss isn’t palpable and deeply felt. His work, his genius, and even his demons leave behind a light – a light that hopefully burns through the dark for those of us that are still here, and maybe help remind us, when we each face our own black days, that even a single match can blaze like a spotlight and lead the way out of a darkened room.
To be brutally honest, I had a full on panic attack while writing this, and I almost deleted the entire thing for fear of seeming self indulgent, or whiny, or silly, or stupid – hell, I don’t even bring this thing back to Scott Weiland. But if even a small part of this helps someone, anyone, or just one… not end up dead on a tour bus, or in an alley, or in their living room, or in a field covered in ant bites, then who am I to keep it to myself out of fear.
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Latest posts by James Leary (see all)
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- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity: Part 6 – Big Empty - December 9, 2015
- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity: Part 5 — ‘Rick James Was Right’ - November 9, 2015
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