Drunk on the Cathode Glare - Gene Suicide

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 Ive 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 confusion.

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 theyd 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 on.

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 it called..."

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...