Friday, July 20, 2012

The Light Dreams Are Lit With

Two friends have died. Influences. Pals. Confidants.

Tom Davis finally succumbed to the cancer that plagued him for years. Brian McConnachie, who phoned me with the news, said that according to Tom's wife, Mimi Raleigh, Tom slipped away with a smile on his face.

Of course he did. Tom accepted his fate long ago. He still made plans (he recently invited Brian and I to a book party he was assembling), but he was realistic. He never lost his sense of humor. Did not surrender to self-pity. Conveyed a humane outlook.

I've written about Tom many times and have nothing really new to add. My thoughts can be read here, here, and here.

I loved and respected Tom. When I talked comedy with Tom, my inner-teen who grew up on the original SNL couldn't believe it. I was honored that he quoted me in his memoir and put my blurb on the paperback version.

Tom will always make me laugh. Farewell sweet friend.

The other death surprised me, though it really shouldn't have.

I haven't written that much about Nelson Lyon, apart from what I laid down in Mr. Mike. It was that portrayal that forged our friendship.

When in LA, I stayed with Nels and his then-wife Angie Brown. Their hospitality quelled my early anxiety about the book. Nels helped tremendously with my research. He vouched for me, convinced doubters burned by Bob Woodward's Wired to trust me, opened up his past to me.

Nels was large. Passionate. He shaved his head and dressed in black. He spoke quickly, musically, directly. Film and literary references flew about. There was nothing too obscure for Nels.

He had one of the most precise minds I've ever encountered. I could see why Michael O'Donoghue valued him. They shared a certain sensibility, but Nels' energy was physical as well as intellectual. Not in a threatening way, but tangible. You knew he was in the room.

Nels also had a temper. He bristled at any perceived slight or sign of disrespect. He had a lot to be angry about.

Most of his anger stemmed from his infamous final hours with John Belushi in 1982. Though he was hardly the only person to get high with Belushi, including that fatal binge, Nels was blamed by many in SNL circles for Belushi's death.

It was and remains a bullshit charge. Nels was sacrificed. Thrown to the wolves. It was hypocrisy of the rankest order. His career was pretty much destroyed.

Weirdly enough, it was Dick Ebersol who threw him a lifeline. At the time of Belushi's death, Nels was writing for SNL. A lot of his material got on, including gems like Executive Stress Test and The Mild One, where Bruce Dern and Tony Rosato played Zen bikers who disarmed opponents with koans and riddles.

Ebersol invited Nels to return the following season. He would become a featured player, delivering satirical film reviews on what was then called Saturday Night News.

Nels seriously pondered the offer. Being on camera would boost his career. But O'Donoghue scored a film deal with Paramount and wanted Nels to write with him. Out of loyalty to Michael and a desire to work in film, Nels left SNL and returned to LA.

They wrote several screenplays together: The Dreammaster, which anticipated Nightmare on Elm Street and The Matrix; Biker Heaven, a sequel to Easy Rider which anticipated The Road Warrior; and Factory of Fear, a short film for HBO about alien dobermans who turn New York's Beautiful People into dog food.

None were produced. Michael moved on and Nels was left on his own. He developed into a renowned photographer, produced spoken word albums for William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern, became creatively involved with Devo founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale.

But the larger career, which Nels was on the verge of realizing, eluded him. Belushi's ghost trailed after him. He wasn't blacklisted, but his dark reputation kept him from jobs he would have excelled at. Years later, a number of SNL/Lampoon vets conceded that Nels was scapegoated. But it was too late.

Nels and I spoke on the phone every few months. We had expansive conversations, punctuated by Nels' booming voice. "Den! What's the story behind this Iraq business? What's the dirty secret? Enlighten me, Den!"

At Terry Southern's wake, Nels and I were stared at by Kurt Vonnegut, who was having a smoke. When I asked Nels if we should approach Vonnegut, he said, "One iconic writer at a time, Den. Today we honor the late T. Southern!"

I last saw Nels a year ago. We had dinner at Musso and Frank, the old Hollywood restaurant where Nels held court. I noticed something wrong with his voice. There was a clicking, gagging sound when he spoke. When I asked if he was okay, Nels brushed it aside. "I'm fine," he insisted. But he didn't sound fine.

Since then, we spoke intermittently. I told him about Tom Davis, who Nels hadn't seen in ages. As he expressed his admiration and regard for Tom, the gagging seemed worse. "You're sure there's nothing wrong?" I asked. Again, he dismissed it.

It had been a few months since I heard from Nels. Then yesterday, a writer for the Los Angeles Times emailed, asking for a statement about Nels' death. I was shocked. On reflection it made sense, but I was unprepared for the reality.

I immediately called Nels' cell, heard his recorded voice, hung up. Then I phoned the Times reporter. She confirmed it. I gave her my thoughts about Nels. They appear in his obituary.

I'm sorry, Nels. I wish we could have spoken one last time. But you know I love you. You were loving and generous with me. Goodbye vibrant spirit.