- 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.
Monday, October 31, 2016
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 1994. 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
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
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 behind 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. Essentially he had a sweet nature, with a side of sadness; but, as I was soon to learn, he was 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.)