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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 57


Yep, hot pants. (Bad scan of photo by Norman Seeff for my album cover)

I love writing on planes. I find my voice easily at great altitude, along with focus, inspiration, and the odd sensation of being assisted. One could say that, if help comes from heaven, then we are closer to heaven inside that speeding silver bullet, aloft in the outer atmosphere. (Except I don’t believe the afterlife is high in the sky, or even in a separate place. I prefer to think of fellow spirits as living in the next room, and we share a wall that doesn’t actually exist.)

On this particular flight from LA to New York, the last thing I expected to be writing was song lyrics. I was no stranger to channeling music, though it hadn’t happened in a very long time – more than a couple of decades before boarding this plane. In my twenties, when I was a recording artist, I used to receive snatches of songs from my late grandfather in the lull between dreaming and waking. I would be fed an idea, an image, a phrase, a melody. In the morning, I would finish the song, in the manner of a collaborator. These episodes were uninvited and ultimately frightening. Thankfully, they ended once I had completed the assignment: a one-act musical that was produced in 1981, after which I stopped writing songs entirely.

Channeling is not for me. I’ve never liked working with another writer. As a collaborator, I do not play well with others – I can blow on my own soup. Neither am I a candidate for “automatic writing,” which my mother’s father did after his mother’s death, allowing her spirit to guide his pencil on paper as his hand traced her words of advice and comfort.

But when I suddenly started jotting the words for a song on that plane, there was no ghostly pressure pushing my pen. And yet, the voice wasn’t mine. For one thing, I was alive, whereas the person writing the song was deceased and thought being dead was funny.

I’m over
Over and out
What was that
All about?
I’m over
Over and done
Sorry to
Miss the fun
Hanging in the air like a fading star
I’m just a breath away, yet so far
I’m over

That was all. The moment passed, the voice withdrew, and I looked at what I’d just written. The wordplay, the humor, the touch of wistful nostalgia…

I smiled. Hi, Harry.

Also: I’ll take it from here, thanks. 

I completed the song and recorded it on MIDI equipment I set up, to my husband’s displeasure, in our dining room. Though I wrote the rest of the verses as well as the music, I considered the whole of  “I’m Over” so suffused with Harry Nilsson’s sensibility that it felt weird to claim sole credit. I couldn’t discuss the song’s provenance with anyone, since my reputation as a rational person was already frayed.



(read complete lyrics here)

With the song finished, I felt I had done what Harry had asked when he visited me after his death. I was grateful for the nudge that got me composing again, which enlivened the tedious months of waiting for my next script job.

Time passed; no ship came in. My mind wandered back to the idea of writing a script about my dissolute “lost weekend” with Harry, John Lennon and May Pang in Palm Springs. The logline would be easy: “A world-famous pair of pop stars attempt to dry out and compose songs for an upcoming recording session on which their careers depend. Bringing a couple of female companions for sustenance, the musicians book into a stolid Palm Springs hotel. From that moment, our heroes proceed to do everything possible not to succeed.”

That sounded like a movie I, for one, would want to see. I’d have to change the names, set it in the present, and delete myself from the story, since my own behavior made me sick to remember. Owing to the buckets of alcohol consumed, there was plenty I didn’t remember, too: holes in the narrative. I assumed my behavior was sickening there, too. By fictionalizing, though, I could paper over the holes. And some scenes would be wicked fun to write. For example, the tram incident! I recalled that escapade in detail because I was not drunk when it took place. It began like this:

Harry and John woke up in the late afternoon as usual. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was undisturbed. Palm Springs was quiet on any day, but Sundays, at least in 1975, didn’t even have a heartbeat. Yet the clock insisted this was the happy hour. The lads were out of drugs, which was providential because they were supposed to detox and had been putting it off. On the other hand, songwriting was out of the question until one’s consciousness was altered or askew. Liquor seemed both attractive and appropriate.

None of us liked the idea of hanging around the hotel bar, where all these terminally sedate guests were giving us the hairy eyeball. May’s denims and mine were cut off an inch below the pubes, for easy access, and between us we didn’t own a single bra. Harry and John looked seedy and uncouth in their patchwork denims, porkpie caps, and famous-person shades. I doubt if any of those clueless fossils recognized there was a Beatle on the premises, except maybe the concierge, who was all for getting us off the premises.

Harry asked the concierge if there was a bar that was out of the way and relatively uninhabited. (The boys were supposed to stay out of the public eye, since their misadventures in L.A. had been all over the press recently.) The concierge recommended a mountaintop cocktail lounge in the area. During the day, people took a scenic tram up to the summit, to eat lunch in the restaurant and admire the spectacular view, but at this late afternoon hour almost everyone would’ve gone back down the mountain.

Our driver (of the same limo that delivered us to Palm Springs) was Mal Evans, the road manager who had been with the Beatles since the early days of mania, a burly, sweet-tempered man who had seen too much of everything. Mal dropped us off at the tram and parked the limo nearby to wait for our return.

We had the tram to ourselves, a welcome sign that the day traffic was done and the lounge would be quiet. As we began our ascent, rocking on the cable, I glanced out the wraparound windows and fell into a panic. No one had informed us that we would climb to 8000-plus feet above sea level over a two-and-a half-mile vertical drop. Because of my vertigo, I’d never so much as been to the top of the Empire State building. I spent the endless 15-minute trip with my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in Harry’s shoulder, praying not to blow my lunch, which, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t eaten. My knees wobbled so badly he had to help me off the tram when we arrived. Feeling the solid floor under my wedge platforms, I made straight for the bar. For once, I needed a drink more than the boys did. And I wondered how the hell I was going to get back down the mountain again without full-on primal screaming.

Only about twenty visitors remained in the lounge, an older crowd, couples at intimate tables, a few dancing to music from a jukebox, no loners or barflys. The ambience was quietly convivial. We parked at the bar with our backs to the people to make sure no one recognized Lennon. I sank my muzzle in a beer, and Harry ordered four double Brandy Alexanders for himself and John. I don’t remember what May drank, or if she had anything; of the four of us, she was the designated grown-up.

The sun dipped behind the mountain, the sky faded to black, and the small crowd got a little rowdier as closing time neared. We realized we had wandered into a nest of single (or cheatin’) geezers, all looking to hook up in a discreet romantic setting. The bartender announced last call. We bought ourselves a round for the road.

And then the jukebox played the opening bars of Yesterday. That’s how John knew he’d been made. “Someone sees me and thinks it’s cute to play ‘Yesterday’ and I hate it. Or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Hey Jude.’ They’re Paul’s songs.”

A few emboldened people approached the bar to talk to him. Time to get away: we abandoned our drinks, moving out to the tram platform – but not before John went over to the jukebox, located some of his songs, then plugged in enough quarters so that ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number’ would play repeatedly. Let the fuckers try to dance to that.

We were first onto the tram when it arrived, but it didn’t take off immediately as we hoped. People streamed out of the lounge: it turned out to be the last tram of the day; everyone was headed home. Surrounding us, the geezers packed in tight, until there was barely room to breathe. Harry, John, May and I were mashed into the middle, turning protectively inward to face each other. The door slid shut; the tram swung away from the platform and proceeded downward.

I didn’t have to wrestle with vertigo this time because it was dark out; the night obscured the steep drop; only the lights of Palm Springs sparkled through the ink, growing closer as we descended. There was silence in the car, but for communal breathing.

Then some wag started to hum “Yesterday.” We heard suppressed laughter. I felt a hand on my butt. I looked at Harry but his arms were pinned to his side. It wasn’t his hand. May gave a little yelp and turned to John: “Is that you?” – “Me what?” Then I felt another set of fingers sliding up my leg. May’s eyes bugged; she whispered, “They’re feeling me up!” -– “Me too,” I said. “Me, too,” said Harry, said John.

We were trapped, unable to move as people groped and prodded our bodies. The crowd’s hilarity overflowed. They were in command, and they were horny. “John!” One grandma fought her way through the crush, jamming her boobs against his back. “John! Bite my tit!”

Clearly Beatle frenzy wasn’t just for teenyboppers. It can happen that in advanced age, we grow unruly and shameless all over again. I am a fogey now, so I know.

The tram touched ground. The people who had been pressed to the door spilled out when it slid open, the crowd parting just enough for us to make a break for freedom. We all four sprinted toward the parking lot, with a pack of rabid, frothing seniors in pursuit. Mal Evans, trained by Beatles’ tours, instantly appeared with the limo, jumped out and opened the door. We piled inside as he thrust the crowd back.

The limo peeled out. After we recovered our breath, with the too-quiet streets of Palm Springs sliding past our windows, Harry suggested we look for another place to get a drink. And that led to the next adventure….

That scene would be fun to write, too. If I wrote the script that I’d refused to write for so long. Oh just do it, I told myself. You’re bored. Write the first page and see what happens.

I opened a blank script file.

What happened next was of far greater moment than my little tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; of channeling and Schmilsson’s ghost. By the end of three weeks I had lifted a little closer to heaven.

(To be continued.)

For those requesting, here are the complete lyrics for "I'm Over":


I'm over
Over and out
What was that all about?
I'm over
Over and done
Sorry to miss the fun
Hanging in the air
Like a fading star
I'm just a breath away
Yet so far
I'm over, over, ah…


I'm over
Over the falls
No one writes, no one calls
I'm over
Over the hill
Hardly time to drink my fill

Stranded in the space
Between here and now
Seems I lost my place
Don't know how
I'm over, over, ah…


I been underprivileged undermined Undersold undersigned
Underrated
Overlooked overthrown
Overcooked overblown
Overmedicated
Overtaxed underpaid
Oversexed underlaid
Underprepared
Overloaded overdosed
Over easy over toast
Overscared
Whee-hoo-hoo…
 

Overhunted overrated overcomplicated
Oversaturated overstimulated
Overrun overdone
Over knocked over raked over fucked over
Run over hung over warmed over leftover
Overruled overused overheated overshoes
Overwhelmed overfed overbred overspent over
Bent over keeled over reeled over
Head over heels over dead oh
Whee-hoo-hoo…


I'm over
Over the moon
Out of sight, out of tune
I'm over
Over and above
Is it too late to show you my love?
My love, my love…

 

Monday, October 31, 2016

At Home With a Ghost - 56





A touch of Schmilsson in the night

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)



He sat looking at me with a neutral expression. He was in a white room with blurred corners, and I couldn’t discern what he was sitting on: possibly just atmosphere. When I woke up I told my husband, “Harry Nilsson just visited me.”

My husband assumed I meant that I’d had a dream about Harry, who had died a few months before, in January of 1995. But I’ve come to know the difference between a dream and a visitation. A dream has a plot, and dead people whom we knew when they were alive sometimes make surprise appearances in these phantasmagoric dramas; their presence can be so vivid that the dream haunts us for days.

 A visit is another matter. It seems that the departed, once they’ve adjusted to the eternal, may take the trouble to salute the people they’ve loved or who were important to them, before moving on to their next job. The visitation can take place soon after they pass, or a much longer time if they weren’t expecting immortality, as in my dad’s case.

 My father was an atheist until his death, so it must have been fairly confusing when he met his end and the lights didn’t go out. Almost a year passed before I got a visit from him, and I had been waiting with some impatience. After all, he had promised me that after he woke up in the ether and realized he was wrong (as I was positive he was) he would let me know I was right (as he was positive I wasn't.)

Instead, he was a no-show. It was like sending your kid off to college and he doesn’t call or write and then acts irritated when you finally get him on the phone because don’t you realize how busy he is? Between orientation, classes, new friends – he’s getting a life, for God’s sake.

At last, just when I’d given up, Dad visited me one morning in the few seconds before I woke up. He didn’t look anything like he did when I knew him. He appeared to be about eighteen, wearing knickerbockers and saddle shoes and a college sweater, young, vital and handsome with a full head of hair. He seemed impatient, too. He gave me a hurried nod; unspeaking, he delivered his message directly into my mind, to the effect of, “Okay, you’ve seen me, now can I get back to class?”

When spirits of recently dead friends or family come to me in those moments before waking, there is no story going on: my dreams are done for the night. The person is simply and suddenly there, in an idealized form. He appears as he did when he looked the best in his life, at the peak of vitality. And there is something else: he is lambent, suffused with an uncanny glow that enriches his colors, like the beautiful intense light that grass and trees take on just before a thunderstorm. Communication is clear but subtle. The spirit doesn’t move his lips to speak. You don’t hear his words; you know them.

But Harry Nilsson had nothing to say; he merely gazed at me.  He was a few years younger than I’d seen him back in 1974. When we began dating, he was already puffy-faced due to drug and alcohol abuse, and expanding in the waist due to heavy cream overdose in the Brandy Alexanders he gulped in quantity.  Now, post mortem, sitting on air, he was slim and radiant, lit from within, each blond hair on his head and in his beard limned with gold.

I was surprised and somewhat flattered by his visit. Our pairing had only lasted about seven months, hardly a wink in his fifty-two years of life, and we’d had no contact since. Still, there had been mutual admiration, even love on his part, so perhaps he was acknowledging that. Then again, he’d been a social creature; maybe he was running through his Rolodex to visit as many people as possible, even minor players, on his way out.

Except he came back the following night. I’d finished dreaming, rose toward consciousness, and then there he was again, seated and staring, downright lovely in the afterlife glow.

The third and last night he appeared, I was finally able to intuit his message. I woke up and told my husband, “He wants me to write about him.”

I pondered what that might be. Really, the only incident that made a story worth writing was that berserk and depraved weekend I’d spent with Harry, John Lennon, and May Pang in Palm Springs. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to write about that. I’d told only a few people about the details of those two days, mainly because I was ashamed of my own behavior, or what I could remember of it. Even May had blocked out the worst memories, like an attempted strangulation in a jacuzzi. These guys were two dead icons, best left preserved in public reverence. I certainly lost my awe of them in the course of those seven months. Why on earth would Harry want me to write about him, when I would inevitably be casting him and John in a bad light?

Still, if I fictionalized the account…but no, I didn’t want to write it. Not at all. Harry’s ghost was asking too much. Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will recall my musical collaborations with a dead composer, whose advice and imperatives I felt free to reject if I didn't like them. So I ignored Harry’s posthumous request.

I was extremely busy, anyway. My screenwriting career was at its height. I had my pick of job offers, working for famous folks and ripe money. This streak culminated in my directing my own screenplay, a teen comedy titled The Hairy Bird. The film was an homage to my prep school days at an all-female academy, Rosemary Hall. With a cast of mostly adolescent girls, it was a weak prospect according to industry wisdom; the project took seven years to get its financing, $5 million, from the Canadian company Alliance Films. The summer of ’97 saw me shooting in Toronto, with Kirsten Dunst, Gaby Hoffman, and Lynn Redgrave in the leads: some of the most joyous months of my life.
 


On the set of The Hairy Bird aka Strike! aka All I Wanna Do with Lynn Redgrave and Gaby Hoffman, 1997





And then Harvey Weinstein happened. He purchased the U.S. distribution rights for his company Miramax for $3.5 million. I thought this was fantastic news. With foreign sales from other territories already in the bank, my picture was in the black before I’d even finished editing. However, my producers Ira Deutchman and Peter Newman had a different reaction: dread. They knew what I did not yet: that Harvey was likely to crunch the film between his molars and subject everyone involved to humiliation and torment.   

Not many know that there is a tenth circle of hell, deeper than the deepest dungeon; go any deeper in the earth and you’re at magma. And Harvey Weinstein owns it. 

I had final cut, but Harvey threatened not to release the picture unless I re-edited it. He changed the title twice (which causes confusion to this day), had the film cut and re-cut and tested – all at the producers’ expense. At last he announced that there was no way to market movies to teenage girls. He put his own editors on the job of re-cutting the movie for young males. The test numbers didn’t budge. He demanded more cuts, when the producers finally pushed back, telling him the orgy was over.

I delivered the finished film. Harvey threw it into a Seattle theater for a week to fulfill his contractual obligations to Alliance, and then tossed it on the shelf. I waited, as the picture opened in foreign territories to good notices and decent profits, for him to get over his snit so my film could at last play to its natural audience, American girls. 

Eventually, three years after I shot the film, Harvey gave permission for a New York release – if I paid for it. Emptying my savings, I was able to afford to open my movie, now titled All I Wanna Do, for one week in one theater.  Nonetheless, I got some good reviews and blurbs for the VHS box, as the film went immediately to video.

During the time I was waiting for Harvey to take the film off the shelf, I looked for a writing job. This should not have been difficult. Although I’d been off the radar for more than a year, my cred had not diminished. Even so, nothing materialized. I tried harder, accepting assignments I had no interest in, only to have them fall through. I seemed to be under a curse, plus I was wallowing in ennui. I needed to write something, anything, yet my Miramax experience had cost me my confidence, and I was bereft of ideas. I thought of tackling that story of running amok in Palm Springs with wild and desperate popstars, in script form. Once again, I recoiled.

To hold the panic of unemployment at bay, I meditated daily. In my altered state, I said to the Great What-Have-You: I give up, you take over. Your will, not my will. Use me.    

On a flight back to New York, after another dispiriting business trip to LA, I took a break from writing notes on a script, closing my eyes to meditate. That was when a phrase suddenly popped into my head. My eyelids flew open; I grabbed the pen and began scribbling on the script cover, my hand seeming to race ahead of the words swarming in my mind.     

Lyrics. When I had not written a song in twenty years.   

It appeared Harry would have his way.  

(To be continued.) 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Personal Remembrance of John Lennon












John Lennon’s birthday passed recently. At readers' requests, I am re-posting a personal reminiscence I wrote five years ago for this blog. The story relates, in a woo-woo way, to the paranormal memoir I’ve been unfurling over time, "At Home With a Ghost," 55 chapters in all by now. (Those who are coming to this serialized memoir for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


Regular readers of this saga will remember that in 1974, when I was 27, I visited a psychic named Frank Andrews (see chapters One, Two and Three). I was being troubled by a spirit presence in my parents’ house, and Frank helped me learn more about the ghost’s identity.
 

It was in this same year that I was dating singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, off and on. John Lennon was in his “Lost Weekend” period, and also producing Harry’s “Pussy Cats” album. I’d met John before, when he and Yoko moved to New York, so I already knew him. John and Harry were stoned to the eyeballs whenever I saw them. The L.A. recording sessions were reportedly a zoo with the cages open.

They both came to New York to mix the record, checking into a two-bedroom suite at the Pierre Hotel. To clear his head for the work, John was trying to get a handle on his over-indulgence, and even Harry went on a fast (which he ended after 24 hours by ordering up a double Brandy Alexander). John was also trying to get back with Yoko. He was on his best, subdued behavior when she came over to the Pierre and the four of us sat down to a room-service dinner.

John and Yoko seemed rather tentative around each other, so I tried to fill a silence by telling a story that had taken place only a few nights before. I’d been eating at a sushi bar next to an exquisite young Japanese woman by the name of Maiko who struck up a conversation with me. For some reason she confided in me that she was Mayor John Lindsay’s mistress.She described their trysts at her apartment, whose high picture windows looked down on the glittering Manhattan nightscape. Lindsay would stand at the window and tap-dance, stark naked except for hat and cane, laughing with glee at the city he owned.

At one point Maiko suddenly remarked, “Sometimes I am psychic, and I have a feeling that you will be famous.”

I responded: “That’s funny, because a professional psychic just said the same thing to me.”

“Oh yes,” she said, with a weird confidence. “You mean Frank.”

How could she have known that? I wondered to Harry, John, and Yoko, then continued to describe my visit to Maiko's apartment, when Yoko interrupted to demand the name of the psychic. She wanted to see him. Immediately. (She was addicted to soothsayers.)

So I put her in touch with Frank. Yoko went to see him alone; John was too afraid to go (he went later, though). The next time we all had dinner, she reported that Frank had impressed her hugely with his predictions. The one that struck her the most was a cryptic statement about John: “He sleeps in blood.”

She and John had discussed the meaning of Frank’s words, and both decided he was seeing something from the past, not the future: the blood referred to the miscarriages Yoko had suffered when they'd been trying in vain for a baby.

The image returned to me six years later, when I heard that John had been shot and killed. I pictured him the way Frank must have seen him: lying in his own blood, as if asleep.

‘Night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

At Home With a Ghost - 55

1974 RCA publicity photo with clean hair


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


1974 was the year RCA released House of Pain, my first album as a singer-songwriter. It was the year I loved and lost a man, so my songs poured out the sweet and the bitter in equal measure. Once I was done recording, I rolled up my sleeves to begin my new project: self-pitying wine-soaked self-destruction. I had gotten off to an impressive start when I met Harry Nilsson.

The album’s title song came from the Charles Laughton horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Laughton played a mad scientist grafting men to animals in his lab, which his unfortunate victims – now “manimals” – called “the House of Pain.” I spent my record advance making a weird short film to accompany the title track, including animation and clips from the horror film. This was before music videos. I urged RCA to use their newly developed video players to show the film in record stores, to see if it had any effect on my sales. They failed to see the point. However, the video did result in my meeting a long-adored idol.

I was fresh to art of songwriting, and my early efforts didn’t fit any genre or show any other artist’s influence. They were what they were: my insides turned out. (I had not yet begun my later collaboration with a dead composer – my grandfather – whereupon my songs took a turn towards the musical theater genre.) However, if there was any singer-songwriter I worshiped, it was Harry Nilsson. He suited me right down to the ground: his antic humor, his insouciance, his entwining of musical styles both quaint and contemporary, his impeccable taste in arrangements, brilliantly layered background vocals and, above all, his gliding golden voice.

RCA was Nilsson’s longtime label. One late winter afternoon, on a visit from LA, Harry popped into the office of his product manager, who showed him my strange video. I happened to be next door with my product manager when I was told Harry wanted to meet me. 

The following dawn, I remembered nothing. I had probably been out of body. Clearly my body had gone ahead and celebrated without me. My idol was standing by the hotel room window, smoking, and gazing at me sort of wistfully. He said he’d recently become enchanted with a young waitress from Ireland, who had gone back home but would rejoin him in LA in the spring. Now that he’d met me, he was feeling confused. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home, too. (My clothes smelled like the floor of a bar.)

I didn’t expect to see Harry again, assuming that I had behaved badly as I often did during blackouts, which were common enough for me in those days of wine and bloody noses. But it was a shame to have no memories to savor of my one night with Nilsson. I hadn’t even grabbed a hotel matchbook to prove to myself I’d been there. The RCA product managers knew more about what happened than I did. They were the ones to tell Harry, a few months later, that I was in LA. They gave him my number.

At 5 a.m., I was sleeping soundly on a bare mattress, the one piece of furniture in my West Hollywood sublet except for a phone, which rang. In the blue light of this second dawn, I arrived at Harry’s La Cienega apartment, where I found him on the phone in hoarse conversation with his attorney. Flopped in an armchair was John Lennon. Harry was discussing the text of an apology to be delivered to someone, while John peered at him myopically because his glasses had been lost in a fistfight. Harry instructed his lawyer to send flowers with the apology, and hung up. It seems I had come on the scene right after Harry and John were thrown out of the Troubadour for brawling with the Smothers Brothers.

John repaired to the guest bedroom. Harry downed a quart of milk and a couple of repulsive hoagies from the 7/11, and then fell asleep with his foot hanging off the bed and jiggling, still animated by all the cocaine and brandy he had ingested earlier. (“Ole Coke-foot,” I used to call him.) He favored Brandy Alexanders because the cream lined his stomach; thus the alcohol wasn’t absorbed, allowing him to drink more double Brandy Alexanders until the dawn like this one. 

Harry had introduced John to this noxious drink, which was also Ringo’s favorite. Now, Harry could hold his mud. No matter how much he drank, he seemed fine, mind sharp and words unslurred. Ever primed with witty banter and guile, he was a world class motormouth. He was also, as I was soon to learn, a raging alcoholic. And he was spurring John to commit brandy-kiri alongside him. John, for his part, was terrible at booze. Two drinks, and the darkness fell; you never knew what demon was going to ride out of the murk.

By now their escapades had hit the press. RCA was understandably anxious. John was supposed to produce Harry’s new album Pussy Cats, with recording sessions to begin in two weeks.  The word came down from the higher-ups: get out of LA, spend a weekend at a spa in Palm Springs, and dry out.

Women were allowed on board. RCA must have thought we would act as nannies. This was not my strong suit. May Pang, on the other hand, didn’t mind being a minder. She was John’s new love, in the wake of his split with Yoko. She and I packed our weekend bags, jumped into our hot pants, and rode down to Palm Springs with our patients.

I will not go into detail about that long and disorderly weekend. Suffice it to say, the boys took “dry out” to mean: no alcohol. Nothing wet. That left drugs. And Palm Springs was dead boring. The sun was too bright. The shades got pulled down; calls to locate a dealer went out. Some white powder was scored. Perhaps it was coke. If so, it had been stepped on so many times, trampled you might say, that it was mostly suitable for babies with diaper rash. Whatever it was, Harry became more than usually loquacious. Hoarse to begin with, he talked, and talked, and talked until he was down to a rasp. A trip to the hospital ensued. He was handed some antibiotics, and told very sternly not to smoke and to go on a complete voice rest for the remainder of the weekend.

Harry tried the pantomime thing for about four hours before he caved. Alcohol was restored to the menu. Swallowing the pills with cognac, he lit up a cigarette, and proceeded to talk. With a vengeance. He wouldn’t shut up. The rasp now sounded like he was gargling blood. Yet he talked on.

And so I was present to witness the tragedy of Harry Nilsson willfully murdering that beautiful voice I loved so much. It never really came back.

I was back in New York when he and John arrived to finish Pussy Cats. I was horrified to hear Harry’s vocals. There was no trace of the swooping heaven-kissed tenor he was born with. He sounded like he was being flayed alive. The album was one big drugged-out gangfuck of the ears.

Meanwhile I was pulling away, for my own preservation. I lost my nerve, recognizing I had neither the stamina nor the capacity to keep up with his tireless, unending binge. Harry scared me. His self-destruction made my own attempts look feeble.

Besides, I had my second album to record, and Harry’s waitress was flying in shortly. What should he do? Harry asked. He was in love with two women. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home.

I knew if I stayed with him, I was going to die. Instead, he died – twenty years later, in 1994. By then I was happily married (as was he, to his waitress) with one child (to his six). He hadn’t been sober for most of those years, so the news of his death from heart failure, while sad, came as no surprise to me.

I hadn’t loved him, though I’d tried because he was a genius and I am partial to them. Nonetheless I was still and forever in love with his music. I mourned Nilsson’s death by playing his poignant “Turn On Your Radio”:

         I don’t know where I’m goin’
         Now that I am gone
         I hope the wind that’s blowin’
         Helps me carry on
         Turn on your radio, baby
         Baby listen to my song
         Turn on your night light baby
         Baby I’m gone

I’d said goodbye to him many years before, and fate had not arranged for us to run into each other since. This time I knew for certain I’d never see him again.

But I did.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

At Home With a Ghost - 54


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Me in 1994


The year: 1994. Location: bed. Propped up on pillows, eyes closed, I was in a trance, and I was bored. Meditation seemed like flying coach from New York to Guam with an hour’s layover in Tahiti: that is, a few minutes of halcyon mindlessness hardly seemed worth all the effort of getting there.

Letting go of mind shouldn’t have been so hard for me. I blamed my mantra. I’ll tell it to you right now. I figure this is no longer verboten, since I’m not using it anymore. It was “hirim.” It was pronounced “ee-reem,” with the ‘h’ silent and a wet guttural ‘r’, on account of being purchased in France.

Now, a mantra is supposed to be a shred of nonsense that has no associations whatever, to lure the mind away from its usual perch which is lording it over consciousness. However, every time I’d begin inwardly reciting my mantra, the frog accent sucked my mind into a whirl of associations: remembering that one winter in Paris, 1990; the room where for six sessions I met with my French TM instructor, who was uninspiring, mechanical, and smug. The bastard made me give up smoking grass before he would sell me my mantra; what's more, the mantra was wildly overpriced, given the exchange rate…

…And so on. So much for quieting the mind. To get through the snarled traffic caused by my French mantra, I wound up having to break up the mayhem by head-butting my mind out of the way.

One cool thing happened while meditating in my instructor’s presence. In trance, I was transported to a beautiful pavilion, where his guru appeared and huffed on my third eye. Afterwards, I assumed that my 20-minute twice-a-day meditation practice would feature more thrills of this kind.

Sadly, no. Twice a day I flew to Guam with no movies on board.

Still, I needed those layovers, however brief, in Tahiti. With my thoughts finally quelled, I would suddenly be lifted up, as if by elevator, to a plane where my head filled up with sunlight. But the moment was too brief. Too soon, thoughts returned and blocked the light; I would feel the elevator descending. My Self clamped back on and started whining that mindfulness is actually kind of boring.

One day, just as I began my descent, I asked no one in particular: is that all? Where’s the cool stuff? Where’s the guru?

To my surprise, I got an answer. Not a voice, but rather a thought, instantly imbedded in my mind, and translated into words for my benefit. Weirdly, it was in French.

Vous avez oublié de composer le ‘un’.

You forgot to dial the 1.

I burst out laughing, breaking trance. Eyes open, I knew what the guru meant. I’d been reminded to connect with the One. Not God. The ‘1’ was Unity, the Flux to which all souls and spirits belong, the Everything, the Great What-Have-You. That’s where the cool stuff is.

It’s not somewhere else. No elevator necessary. We’re already there. It’s like waking up in your bedroom, which your sleep momentarily erased. You’ve traveled in your dreams, and forgotten where you came from, but upon waking you realize that all along you’ve been lying in your bed.

Henceforth I would begin my sessions by dialing the One, to wake up in the Flux. The idea was to breathe, since breath itself is fluctuation. Different from reflexive breathing, I breathed with purpose, putting my full consciousness into it, as if to say Here I Am. Awareness dawned, and I’d wake in the true Here. Our real home, empty of furniture, blazing with blank light.

It also became my habit, on my way back from that place, to pause for a lesson from my guru, to ask questions and receive answers. Clearly the teacher was not some Indian guy. It was I, with my little third eye. I had held these answers all along, was born with them, and was now learning how to access them, as if a locked drawer had suddenly become unsprung. I suppose this source is what’s called our Higher Self by some. In any case, it was inseparable from my being.  

For example, in one session I asked how to handle my persistent digestive problems. In answer, I was shown a bar of soap on a shelf. I was told to wash every part of my body with it – inside as well as outside. I reached it down from the shelf. The wrapper said Appomattox Soap. This I took to mean: in order to end the Civil War in my body, I would have to surrender to the Union (the ‘1’ again), and maintain peace by faithful physical and spiritual cleansing.

But the lesson wasn’t over. I felt suddenly invaded by a heavy paralysis. I couldn’t move a limb. And then some presence took hold and lifted me free, to observe my body from above. The splendor was dazzling. It shimmered like a palace, richly appointed, to be lovingly maintained. I had never truly felt the beauty of our mortal housing, and when I was gently placed back inside my body, I was able to revel in it for the first time. I emerged from this meditation with tears flowing down my face.

Another time, the message I got was: “Food dies.” I wrote the interpretation in my journal: “To fill up the stomach is to feed life that dies. To fill up with Spirit is to feed the life that lives.”

The most memorable of all my lessons came when I was shown a park scene. A light wash of green and blue suggested trees and sky. Vague calliope music played in the distance; amusement rides, horses and ponies, chattering people were sketched in pencil, like a rough draft for an animation sequence. That’s what this life is, I was told, a beguiling sketch that will lead, in the end, to a majestic finished creation – or Creation itself.

After I emerged from this meditation, I went for a walk in Central Park. The carousel music was playing, passersby chattered, love was everywhere, and my nostrils filled with the aroma of flowers that weren’t there.

The last experience I’ll relate here was also on the subject of creation. In one of my trances, it was depicted as a luminous shower, as if a ladle of pure radiance had overturned. I was shown that to be a creator oneself, a single step sufficed: simply step under the shower and be a part of it. Stand still and receive. True creation is co-creation.

While I noted this lesson in my journal. I understood it, but not how to apply it. That would come later, with the death of Harry Nilsson.

(To be continued.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

At Home With a Ghost - 53

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


I felt his fingers on my shoulder, tapping. “Sarah.”


I stubbornly kept my eyes shut. He was interrupting my fun. I was busy behind my eyelids. Honestly, having jet fuel pour out of every cell in your body as you shoot into the stratosphere, where you make crazy loop-de-loops with supersonic ease, almost but not quite exploding from the immensity of this freedom, this weightless flight, with your cape flapping behind you, is not the moment when you want to be nudged.

Sarah!” He tapped me again.

I opened my eyes. His head lay on the pillow beside me. He was looking at me and I didn’t know who the hell he was, and besides, his eyes were swimming all over his face like trapped tadpoles. I glanced down at our two bodies on the bed, and they were running away too.

We were in his dorm room on a yellow spring afternoon at Sarah Lawrence, where I double-majored in music and promiscuity. My bedmate had transferred from Princeton, one of a handful of male students being inducted experimentally to this single-slut institution of higher learning. The fox entered the henhouse; the hens made mincemeat of the fox. Some of my schoolmates openly resented my bogarting the best guy, forcing them to queue up for the inferior ones.

He and I had whiled away many such afternoons, prone on sex-scented sheets and taking mescaline. But on this day, when I opened my eyes, I had no knowledge of him, or, for that matter, my own identity. I had no knowledge, period. I was reduced to a state of pure instinct. And my instinct told me that things were going hideously wrong.

He moved his lips with difficulty, as if speaking underwater: “This isn’t mescaline we took. It’s acid.”

I stared at him uncomprehendingly. A second ago, I was flying around the heavens. Now I was dying.

“That fucking shithead sold me acid instead of mescaline,” he continued. “This is going to take a while longer than we planned. You’ll have to cut your harmony class.”

Not one word he spoke had any meaning. What was acid? His tone was serious. So “acid” had to be something…fearful. Terrifying. It explained why the walls slithered, the ceiling bulged, and everything, everything was rushing away so fast, beyond the reach of understanding: my flesh and bones, my name and address, my mind and its contents. Anything of significance no longer signified anything. Which left nothing.

I felt whirled away in a mad current. Panic took hold and I began to gulp for air. With nothing left to define me, I hurtled headlong toward the falls, to extinction.

I could hear his low voice speaking, its mild cadence, and while the words had no meaning they seemed meant to calm me. The tide carrying me away slowed. Fear gave way just enough so I could breathe.  

Then breath itself fascinated me. This simple in and out, rise and fall, accept and deliver, buoyed me out of my body, and I emerged in a place of simplicity. For what could be simpler? than to be.

I have sometimes been, in my life, so happy I couldn’t stand it. This, though, was happiness I could stand because there was no I anymore to contain it.

The ineffable, without words to describe, can only be met with laughter. I laughed a long time, until my ribs began to ache. I’d forgotten about ribs: those hard hoops for restraining breath and laughter and heart from leaping completely free. I felt them now, and little by little I shrank back into my body. Back too came the walls, the ceiling, the bed and the sophomore beside me, whatshisname.

Later we remembered to put on clothes before leaving the room. The rest of the eight-hour trip we spent in a hammock, exclaiming with that coming-off-acid smug certainty, wow, I’m one with the universe, I can see through my hand. We admired fluorescent flashes in the shrubbery, and then I yammered on about Ken Kesey until my companion told me to shut up.

I only took LSD a few more times, but in minor dosage. Short commutes. The last time was a bare four years later, on the opening weekend of my documentary Marjoe in New York. I stood with a hippie friend across the street from the theater, watching the line form for the 7:00 show, and when the “Sold Out” sign went up we both cheered and split a tab of acid. Eventually I wound up alone in my hotel room, flat on my back, watching the ceiling bulge with colors, and I thought, this has gotten old. Bored, I took a Quaalude and slept through the rest of the trip.

I never sought to repeat the bliss of my first. That afternoon was too precious to me, the time my soul blotted out everything including my self. It became my touchstone: whenever I got too knotted up in my earthly so-called sufferings, I would remember the simplicity place. I’d recall that the answer in the back of the book is a blank page.

I figured I’d get back there permanently when, at the end, death would replay the moment, like a long-lost reel discovered in attic dust. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait that long. It came again, without drugs, in middle age, on another bed. I’d encountered ghosts and poltergeists; now the time had come for Spirit.

(To be continued.)


 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

At Home With a Ghost - 52





(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Spielberg had a one-line idea for a movie: a mother, who’s struggling with loneliness after her kids’ departure for college, suspects there is a ghost in her house. To flesh out his story, Steven brainstormed with production heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald for several days. Nina faxed me a transcript of the meetings, so I could get a sense of what they wanted.

It was a fun read. There was clearly a lot of excitement in the room as these three movie machers spitballed ideas. (I’d love to quote some of the dialogue, but this was 1995, when fax machines used that quaint roller paper where the printed text vanishes like disappearing ink after a few years.) Notably, they wanted to defy horror movie convention by designing a ghost that was not threatening or murderous or tragic. Instead, this ghost used to be an ordinary housewife in life, who continued to go about her chores after her death. Her manifestations would take the form of, for example, the house filling up with the smell of cinnamon cookies baking, even though there was nothing in the oven. Bathwater taps turning on by themselves. Rugs rolling up. (Trash taken out?)

Further, no one believes the mother character when she insists there’s a ghost haunting the place; even her husband thinks she’s merely suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Nevertheless her relationship with the ghost deepens, as the dead housewife reveals herself to the living mother more and more openly. The two women touch across the dimensional divide, and help each other to let go and move on.

Steven was intent on making the ghost glimpses as realistic as possible. This would not be Poltergeist but rather Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to convey the awe and wonder of contact with the other side. He believed in ghosts himself but had never had any personal experiences with them, though he’d always wanted to. It was time to bring in a writer to convey that right balance of sweet and spooky onto the page.

I told Nina it wasn’t a stretch for me, because I’d had plenty of experience with ghosts. “Fantastic,” she said. “I’m going to run down the hall right now and tell Steven! He’ll be so jealous.” I was hired immediately and flew out to LA to meet everybody. In the single confab I had with Steven and the DreamWorks, they kept saying what they loved most about the story was it was so unexpectedly small and intimate.

This was October. Steven wondered if I could turn out a script in two months, because if it was good he’d like to shoot the film in February. I’d been warned by an A-list screenwriter friend that Spielberg always had a gazillion projects in development and ended by filming only one or two (and he typically didn’t release the other scripts to any buyers because if he wasn’t going to direct those films he didn’t want anyone else to, either). Still, even though eight weeks was going to be a marathon, I wanted to come through for him.

Only one thing mitigated my enthusiasm. I worried that if I began writing about ghosts I would attract them back into my life, which I’d established as a no-fly zone since my marriage.  Then I’d be back in the supernatural soup, which was a lot to manage when you have responsibilities like a husband and a child and a deadline. So I sent a silent request via the ether: any spirits intending to trespass were not welcome, unless they had ideas to contribute for plot and dialogue.

For two months I was a nervous wreck, holed up in my office, deaf to my family; my daughter left claw marks on the locked door. I chain-devoured family-size bags of Werthers butterscotch, courting both cavities and gas. And though I stuck to the story concept as explained by Steven, Laurie and Walter, a thought kept nagging at me: This doesn’t feel like a Steven Spielberg movie. This was no theme park ride. It was gently spooky, a lovely lyrical entente unfolding between a needy human and a housebound ghost. Would he really abandon his usual MO to make a very small film, a miniature instead of a mega-epic?

I turned the script in on time. Initially it was greeted with congratulations and a complimentary fax from Steven (which I would also love to quote, but that paper too turned blank in a year). Then we all got on the phone together for his notes. His big problem was that the film felt kind of…small. He missed the climbing graph of fear and tension. The ghost should be more frightening. (Like, a scary housewife.)

I got to work on revisions, throwing in some gaspy moments, like an unseen hand suddenly roiling the bathwater as the mother lies soaking in the tub, a fire spontaneously erupting, a door opening onto thin air, and the reveal of a horrific trauma in the ghost’s past.  But it still didn’t feel like a Spielberg movie.

In the end, it wasn’t. I waited for notes so I could complete the polish on the script. The word came back that they didn’t know what they wanted. I had done exactly what they thought they wanted. It turned out they wanted the wrong thing. Laurie and Walter wondered if the basic story could be sexier. But sexy wasn’t Steven’s thing, and he moved on to Jurassic Park. I had to move on as well. I was juggling two other script jobs, and a film I’d written and would direct (The Hairy Bird aka All I Wanna Do) had gotten its financing. I asked DreamWorks for, and received, an honorable discharge.

(Years later, I ran into Steven at the sixth grade graduation of our kids from the Ethical Culture School. “By the way,” he grinned, “we’re making your movie.” I phoned my agent: was this true? – “Oh, he’s just saying that. I haven’t heard anything.” Three years after that, What Lies Beneath was released, with Robert Zemeckis directing; it had been rewritten as a sexy ghost story with a scary husband.)

Back to 1996: my breakneck writing marathon was over. As I re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in my life, my nerves were a tangled mess. For one thing, I badly needed to withdraw from Werthers. And I had no idea how to create calm for myself, in the moments when I wasn’t working or mothering. Unless…

Suddenly I remembered that I had a mantra. My family and I had lived in Paris back in 1990 while making the film Impromptu, when I decided to take up meditation. I received private lessons at the local Transcendental Meditation center. I loathed my teacher, who delivered his instruction robotically (in French of course) with a sneer and eyes half-closed; they flew open whenever I interrupted with a question, as if he had received an unpleasant jolt. I felt he was much better suited to be a waiter than a spiritual teacher. But I was committed to six lessons before he would give me my mantra.

Finally the day came, and I arrived at his office for the induction ceremony, bearing the symbolic offerings of some oranges and a white silk cloth. We were seated on the rug together half-lotus style (an excruciating position for my knees), when he leaned over and whispered two syllables in my ear. I am pledged never to tell anyone my mantra, but I will say that it has a guttural French r in it.

He announced we would end the ceremony by meditating together. I closed my eyes, feeling impatient to leave and be rid of him, and started silently chanting my new and personalized mantra. And then, suddenly, my thoughts fell away and I found myself seated on the wide wooden floor of an open-air temple. Hanging from the columns, gossamer yellow drapes wavered in the breeze. A cobra came toward me, sliding over the floorboards in silken undulations and pausing in front of me. Though I was terrified of snakes, this one’s presence seemed perfectly natural and in the order of things. As the cobra lifted its head, a man’s face appeared inches away from mine, blotting out the snake: a long-haired, bearded Indian man; he smiled, opened his mouth, and blew lightly between my eyes.

And with that, the temple disappeared. I was back on the rug with my waiter-teacher, who was looking at me inquiringly. “Alors,” he said, “was that agreeable for you?” I told him what had happened, describing the Indian man and how he huffed on my “third eye.” My teacher’s expression changed to something human like surprise. He got up, fetched a framed photo from a desk drawer, and wordlessly showed it to me. “That’s the man,” I said in amazement. The longhaired gentle-faced Indian man in the photo was my teacher’s guru.

At home, twenty minutes twice a day, I began my meditation practice with great optimism. I felt singled out for specialness by a guru I’d never met, and consequently I expected mucho magical mystery tours whenever I went into trance. Nothing much happened, however. My two daily sessions dwindled to one after a while, and then I stopped altogether, for the same reason so many do: after a while, calm is boring.

But then came Spielberg and the “Untitled Ghost Story” saga: now, in my crazed state, I needed nothingness like nothing else. I dusted off my French mantra, cranked my knees into half a lotus, closed my eyes…. And so began the greatest spiritual adventure of my life.

Unless you count my first acid trip.

(To be continued.)