It is simply one thing to be young and a gourmand of substances and experiences. It is one thing, when you are young, to have an extensive collection of glassine bag junk art, a large cocoa tin full of rigs in various states of distress, and notebooks in which you thought squirting blood over the pages was the ultimate expression of artistic fatigue and frustration. It is quite another to go on a methamphetamine fueled rage against the ghost in the machine at the grand old age of seventy something.
Billy has taken a pot of red paint to the outside white walls of the Beastie, our old campervan. He picks up the phone whilst rustling through stacks of paper, destroying all he created in years of life. All his lovely old notebooks of songs about non-nonchalance and beach bunnies and surfers and battles with the bottle. He never did write “She Put the Sad into Saturday,” or maybe he listened to me when I said he would never make much of a country star, and it was too corny a title even for that. Maybe. Perhaps it is more that he was simply lazy and diffuse, rather than fixated and hard working. I used to say to him, “Billy, you know what Andy said?” He would look at me and always say no, he did not know what Andy said. “Andy said, work! Billy…work!”
It is all well and good to tell me what you could have been. You should be it, not just bitch about it. But Billy never really worked hard enough at all on anything except getting drunk and high and building fences both physical and psychic. In the end he was not too weird to live, he was mundanely boringly impaired. An ignominious end. He was not rushing to the grave in a squeal of brakes and hot scent of rubber burnt on blacktop on a hot Californian night. He was hurtling distraught and out of control towards a fate he did not want, and was incapable of bearing. It was not excess and rebellion. It was a painful slow dissolving of personality, body and psyche.
It has been exhausting to watch, and devastating to fail to help. He left me far behind. I am a very different person nowadays. I love deeply. I hope when it is my last day on this planet, that there are people who will say I was a force for the good. I hope to leave something behind that is worth something. Billy gets none of that. Everyone that loved him is hurt and angry at him. Billy failed at life.
He drew beautiful pen and ink sketches, thick bold lines and acid twisted images of Vietnamese women holding lanterns on sticks, their heads hooded and hair long and thick. He drew goblins and tiny men with large imposing mothers looming over them in their all castrating fury. He wrote songs and poems. He was an artist, and a bum. Was. Was. Was. Was. I am trying on the new mode of referring to him, in a vague attempt to steel myself against the inevitable imminent loss.
His balance has gone in more ways than one. He has had numerous falls over the last few days. Someone sold him a bag of pot in a parking lot, or so he says. He insists he had no idea they had put a tiny bag of meth in the bottom of the bag. Rule number one, it is never Billy’s fault. The best you can hope for is that he will consider something a faultless event. Of course in Billy-World dealers give away hard drugs all the time…Billy said that he was not sure what it was. A hard core speed freak for years this is beyond belief. Then, in a drunken attempt to defend himself and his actions, and forgetting that I am not his innocent ex-wife, the Jesus-crazed church freak with not an ounce of kindness or decency or humanity in her starched white soul, he proceeded to tell me that he thought it might be chicken soup, and so took a taste on his fingertip. Realizing it was not improbable chicken soup, he proceeded to pull a Burroughsian move: Billy is a drug snob: Billy wont snort it, or parachute it into his stomach. Having no needle for his spoon he apparently cut his arm open and rubbed the speed into the wound.
Part of me was vaguely impressed. Part of me wanted to give him a round of applause. If you are going to die in squalor and desperation, then you might as well make grand gestures at the intersection that comes before death. I had fallen into the romanticization of the junkie death. I had fallen into the twisted thinking of the anarchistic gonzo world of Hunter S Thompson, Burroughs, of Kesey and the acid tests, and as I saw the ruins of my old friend through the screen of my phone, the state of his arms, and the blood on his head from falling, and the reality made me step back from the ledge. I could see him disintegrating before my eyes, and all I felt was irritation. It didn’t have to be like that. I didn’t want to watch it go like this. I can’t persuade anyone who can help to be interested in what Billy is doing, or how he is doing it, and I certainly can’t help him myself.
The phone was thrown dizzily onto the floor at his end, so I was treated on a stomach jumping leap and an eventual view of the ceiling, whilst I heard the beep of car horns and younger (men in their thirties perhaps) voices. They were telling this broken old man to grab his guitar, to get his amp, and to come with them to a party, to come play. They were hauling him and his things into their truck. I was shouting down the phone to no avail. This was a bad idea. A death party. The freaks and the needle boys would throw my old friend a barely living wake with drink and drugs and rock and roll. I begged him not to go. I told him he was too hurt, his ribs broken from falls, he had drunk too much and was crashing from the speed come down. I told him he was cared about. I asked him to go to detox. I suggested a special residential place I had found for older people who are addicts. People like Billy. He refused. He was Eddie Van Halen, he was Joe Strummer. He was Sid Vicious, and he was going to party. Hearty. In a pandemic. This was his party and he would die if he wanted to.
So here I am, trying to persuade myself that there is nothing much I can do about anything. That no one can stop him, not even me. He is going to die. And to be frank I am selfishly squeamish at facing another loss: I will have to survive another piece of me sliding under the veil.
He needs putting forcibly into psych ward. If he survives tonight I suspect he will wake up in a jail cell. This is generally how these things go with him. He cannot drink in company without creating trouble. He is disastrous with booze. If he survives this and they lock him up, it will be a relief, to be frank. At least I won’t feel wrongly responsible for his behavior, behavior that I cannot help him control.
When I first met Billy, he was in his 40s. He was strong, kind and doomed. It is a miracle he lasted this long. He did try and help me. He failed. He was never able to be responsible. I probably should write and remind myself of the man who skips stones on lakes, who builds beautiful campfires, a man who whittled me bears and cats out of sticks, a man who took me to see buffalo, and big sky. A man who pulled into that parking lot in Los Angeles, and safely hauled me and my terrorized children into a twenty six foot RV, and drove us away from my violent husband, and to safety.
He was a man whom, when sober, is a kind gentle person, an artist and a musician. A man who had a lively and varied mind. He came from a family who mocked reading, mocked learning, and threw cold water on any intellectual pursuits Billy wanted to follow. They were hillbillies of the worst sort. Haters of art, and books and learning. The only book that they read was the Bible, and man did they smash Billy over the head with it, repeatedly, determinedly trying to beat the Lord into him. I have no respect Philistines! He was a man who loved me like he was my mother. A man who saw beyond the tiny fucked up junkie that was using and being used left, right and center, and saw something within that was still pure, still a human being instead of human trash, good only for screwing and destroying. A man who held out his hand on the streets of New York, and stayed on the periphery of my life for years, before being wholly within it for the last seven or so. And I once loved him too, for being the Angel with a dirty face and boots that he was, for his mind, his soul and his friendship, before the tumor and the stroke-driven personality changes and alcohol whittled him down into something lesser than he was.
Yes, Billy was alright. I’m not sure I am going to be. Not sure at all.
I woke up to a text that read, “You were right. It went bad.” He appears to not be in jail, or in psych ward. I am disappointed. Those two outcomes are the only hope he has of survival. He is both prodigiously drunk and stupidly high. I used to say I thought he was Peter Pan. I never meant it was a good thing.