the Cathode Glare - Gene Suicide
JOHNNY GONE TO TORONTO:
What Happens When You Assign the Coverage of a Major Film Event In a Foreign Country
to a Xenophobic Malcontent With Serious Female Troubles
(Note: Not being one to correctly determine the level of personal incrimination
unleashed in my own memoirs, certain names have been changed to protect the "innocent")
SEPTEMBER 13, 1999
I was at my computer, speaking
via typed messages to my ex-girlfriend, Monica. The new Johnny Thunders film by Lech
Kowalski premiered that night, and I was due to leave for Canada within the hour
to take pictures and gather enough strange anecdotes for a story. This I planned
to use both for DEAD ON CAMERA, my upcoming book on the dark side of the 1970's New
York art scene (which, to a great extent, is about Lech Kowalski), and another column
in the not-so-sacred pages of the Waste.
Anyway, it was a terrifying night. The hands on the electric clock read 4 a.m. They
seemed to be twitching. I had been up for three days or longer, my system flooded
with sugar, nicotine, and little else. The air was damp and I'd pushed myself into
a state of serious exhaustion.
It was hard to leave. I felt like an extension of my own baggage, dragging "me"
with me in a metaphysical trance. As I opened the door to my apartment, ready to
make the final leap, I witnessed the one and only Rufus Jacoby climbing the stairs
towards me, pulling behind him, by the hair, a screaming girl with translucent skin.
He shot me the grin of a satiated hellhound as they continued to ascend the stairs,
leaving me there quite stricken for perhaps 20 seconds, until a fire alarm sounded
and, inexplicably, the couple crashed downward to my 4th floor landing. Through my
peephole, I watched them pass again, now back to the street, and then, god only knows
where. Tonight, with Monica out of my system, some food and beer in my flabby gut,
and Van Morrison playing softly on the stereo, I'd laugh. But at that particular
moment, it was a serious omen. Sinister mojo to heighten the mounting fear.
I entered the Brooklyn dawn of dogshit and panhandling half-wits, gritting my teeth
all the way to 33rd street in Manhattan. At Penn Station, I fumbled with my only
nourishment: warm coconut nectar and pastry... probably the most disgusting breakfast
Iíve ever had.
My hands were shaking, drenching my lap in sticky crumbs, so I threw the muck out.
Sitting in a crowded waiting area, my eyes darted frantically through the crowds
in search of Monica. I sat for only seconds at a time, dizzily wandering out for
cigarettes, examining a murky sea of burnt out faces, bodies struggling with luggage
at 6 a.m.
In my mind, our involvement had been kick started and then taken to an abrubt halt.
I had pushed too hard, and subsequently left myself open to torrents of guilt-tinged
My skin seemed to be dissolving, my blood turning to acid. An enema or an electro-shock
session was clearly in order. Somehow, every young woman from a distance seemed to
be her, and I persisted with the delusions.
Inside, the track and time board tiles flip flopped every few minutes. All the way
at the bottom was "TORONTO". It wasn't moving. Prestige, journalistic obligations,
and Johnny Thunders would not wait were my departure to be delayed. "Oh fuck,"
I thought, deeming my endurance quite senseless. "There's no way I'm gonna see
this one through."
The train came. My baggage included a briefcase and 2 army bags. I had packed a compact
Kodak camera, birth certificate, notebook, address book, and a few of my BORN TO
LOSE posters. I was not totally prepared, but enough to capture what minimal documentation
there would be time for.
A hard collapse in an Amtrak seat was my only chance at avoiding a public fainting
scene. I couldn't sleep. When I managed to doze of intermittently, I'd jump back
to consciousness still carrying on a conversation for several seconds, not realizing
that the speakers were imaginary. I tried to focus on the film, BORN TO LOSE, but
equilibrium was necessary, and Kowalski had promised that I'd be caught off guard
by the film anyway. Hours, minutes... there was no telling. Hours later, chewing
absently on Wonderbread and distinctly rancid salami, I sat rigidly, rather unsure
of whether or not I could endure the obsessive need swelling against the interior
of my skull.
Panic was working its way out. How would I manage to cover this thing minus my sanity,
left temporarily stranded by my own human dignity? Hadn't I done enough already,
and if so, what was I doing traveling to Toronto? My dedication to the film I loved
was nevertheless impossible to extinguish. I came to the conclusion that my creative
investments in the film so far were too great, and that an extreme respect both Lech
Kowalski and Johnny Thunders alone merited the distance. If I had more to offer,
all personal melodrama be damned, I had to offer it. This was the beginning of the
end in a nine year saga, for Christ's sake. Every Thunders fan within a hundred mile
radius (those worth their Dolls badges, anyway) would be in attendance, and besides,
Lech was paying for the room.
Customs held our arrival back by two hours. Strangely, they interrogated everyone
on the car but the strangest of the lot: a wide-eyed, spazzed out aberration with
unwashed hair and three days beard growth, whose forearms bore garish signs of self-abuse,
who had wrapped a cat-hair caked sweater halfway around his head and whispered half
thoughts. Of course, that was me. Something seemed to be afoot, and I wondered if
it would be a good idea to remind them to check my stuff. They were holding out,
waiting to take me by surprise to some dimly lit basement corridor underneath the
customs office where theyíd sic the drug dogs on me.
But the train started moving again, and arrived within 30 minutes. The crisp air
went to work on my mood immediately. Toronto is a beautiful town, made me feel good
just to be there. I wondered how to call Lech and let him know I had managed to make
it out of New York. I had no Canadian coins, nor a clue where to exchange money.
I was surprised to find that the payphone took my American quarter. Within ten minutes,
I found myself shaking hands with a harried Kowalski, in his room on the seventh
floor of the Colony Hotel, a posh and dignified establishment packed with PR people,
directors, anonymous ticket holders. The Toronto International Film Festival was
Kowalski paced about the room, which was in slight disarray, as I made a feeble go
at masking my nervous condition.
Apparently, the travel had worn us all down, though it was not a time for rest. At
9 PM we only had a few skittish hours in which to prepare for the world premiere
of BORN TO LOSE. I quickly took to the streets once again in search of some film
and cigarettes, quite comforted to see along the way that a city as seemingly perfect
as Toronto had its share of bums too. When I returned to the Colony, Kowalski was
gone and I began talking to his girlfriend, Odille, who had stayed behind to recuperate
and watch their angelic 6 year old daughter, Coraly. It was also Odille's first trip
to Canada. A few minutes passed, and the phone rang.
"It's Lech", she said. "He's at a party with the festival programmer.
He wants you there as soon as possible." Out again I went, no less fazed but
at least with some vague knowledge of the exchange rate from my last tour of the
streets. I looked forward to some fine food, or at least free food, and hoped I'd
be able to act appropriately. The Dynasty Restaurant on Bloor Street, adjacent to
the Cumberland Theatre where BORN TO LOSE would have it's premiere, has to be one
of the finest Chinese restaurants in Toronto. It's one of those where the meal is
served in a dozen courses, with a revolving table on which there are bottles of wine
passed around and you behave with class, affluence. I knew from the start that I
was in trouble.
Strange looks then as I crashed through the heavy rain into the imperial gates, dripping
and weaving slightly over to the table in a V neck t-shirt. The dinner was already
in progress, with a dozen or so high profile industry people, exuberant filmmakers,
and TIFF personnel deep in conversation. Bette Wanderman, co-producer of BORN TO
LOSE, was dressed to the hilt and offered a reassuring smile. When I sat down next
to him, Kowalski exclaimed, "this is my Kim's Video connection!". I nodded
hello. To his right was Colin Geddes, programmer of Midnight Madness, which is traditionally
comprised of the most motley, abrasive, or controversial offerings of TIFF. Colin
runs a business called Suspect Video, which Kowalski had described to me as the "Kim's
of Toronto". I promised to check out one of the two locations. To my right was
Po Chih Leong, director of Hong Kong 1941 and a new film starring Jude Law and Elina
Lowensohn titled The Wisdom of Crocodiles. Colin raved about the film, in which a
vampire, played by Law, vomits up stomach full of blood accompanied by a "love
crystal", the materialization of his undead lust. That sounded good. A fellow
named Dan was present, who had directed The Item, a film about a forty pound telekinetic
worm on life support.
Kowalski continued: "Gene's published interviews with me in his magazine...what's
I froze for a second. "Sex...", I lisped. "Sex and..."
"Sex and Guts. Yeah, he's a writer. He did the poster for the film."
At this point, the wine was directly in front of me. I went for the bottle, poured
a glass, drained it. Conversation began to flow, with Kowalski's sarcasm and appropriately
sadistic humor never far behind. The food was impeccable and the wine kept coming.
I ate at first with a calm voracity, but mostly forgetting about the food and taking
in these spectacular figures around me...and the wine. Having neither eaten nor slept,
save for brief touches, for what was now over three days, the fifth glass had me
in a dead complacency. There would be no more clarity, at least not that night.
As I reached for a refill, I noticed a hunk of meat on my plate which I decided I'd
eat. Maybe the god of wine would give me points for trying. I had my fork deep into
the dark mass when I realized this was not meat, but the crisp, blackened head of
the duck. I was not the only one to notice. There was some laughter, and I had to
laugh too, while mulling over the option of sighing "oh well", cracking
the head open and sucking out the brain...for the sake of further amusement.
Before that idea got any further, it was time to go. I doubled back to snatch the
drink of the fellow who directed the psychic slug film, and made my exit with the
requisite guilelessness and white wine dripping from my stubbled chin. Vito Genzale,
Johnny Thunders' son, had just rolled into town with his wife, Johnny's sister Maryann,
and her husband Rusty. We were to meet them at the theatre. The atmosphere was rich
with static electricity, with the kind of overloaded elation only a constant bombardment
of the senses via projected image can inspire, that only a major film event such
as TIFF can provide. All the hyperactive glee would soon culminate in the screening
of BORN TO LOSE: The Last Rock'N'Roll Movie.
photo: Lydia Lunch © 1999
We had less than ten minutes
to reach the sold out theatre. And I was already seeing double.
To be continued...