Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Last Tango in Los Angeles: John Lennon and Robert Fiedler.

Last Tango in Los Angeles: John Lennon and Robert Fiedler.: "Robert Fiedler (bending, middle of photograph) in How The Other Half Loves, Springfield, Missouri, 1981. Thirty years ago today I was getti..."

John Lennon and Robert Fiedler.

Robert Fiedler (bending, middle of photograph) in How The Other Half Loves, Springfield, Missouri, 1981.

Thirty years ago today I was getting some god-awful coffee at the vending machine right outside the 'green room' in the theater department at SMSU where I was in the middle of my sophomore year as an undergraduate.  My buddy, Robert Fiedler, who passed away last year, rounded the corner and looked as though someone had just punched him in the gut.  Robert and I had become close friends over the past year.  He was definitely a renegade, of sorts, in the theater department, our stand-out 'rock and roll' actor.  Very talented guy and very smart.  We were to remain friends for a long time, through good times and bad, and were together in NYC for a few years doing our best to raise hell there. 

So, on this particular day, Robert looked more agitated than usual.  "What's wrong?"  I asked. 

And that's how I discovered John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his Dakota apartment on the upper west side of New York City.  Later that night Robert and I got very drunk together and he cried inconsolably for a long time.

Later in my life I was to live a few blocks from that very spot and often walked past it.  I'm a bit ashamed to say John Lennon was never a super hero for me.  At least not then.  Later, of course, as I matured and began to do a little thinking on my own, he became a hero.  But not then.  But he was Robert's hero.  Robert loved and adhered to everything John Lennon stood for.  So, now, all these years later, when I hear a Lennon song or think of John Lennon in any context, it is Robert I think of.

Robert lived a doomed, painful and incredibly difficult life.  He was destined to live a life of 'adolescence prolonged' as the poet Louise Bogan once wrote.  He left college early and moved to NYC to be an actor.  To be honest, he had a real shot at it, too.  Robert was a gifted performer.  I was still in college but would write to Robert in NY every now and then.  I had naive visions of Robert conquering that city overnight.  I envied him his courage for leaving the safe cacoon of education and pursuing his dreams in the big city.  He landed a job at a small restaurant on 36th and 3rd called Lilly Langtrees.  Later when I moved to the city it bacame a regular drinking spot for me as I waited for Robert to get off work from his waiting job so we could go out and find trouble together.  And we usually did.

Strangely, I don't remember Robert ever auditioning for a single thing in New York.  He may have, but I don't remember it.  But it didn't matter or seem particularly worrisome back in those days because we were far too busy drinking and doing every drug know to man.  I've never been too circumspect about that period of my life, so I think this comes as no surprise.  The difference between Robert and I was that I eventually (took me a while) pulled out of that abyss.  Robert never did.  I don't know why, but I managed somehow to pull the diving plane up at the last minute.  Robert didn't.  He, like so many others I've known, plunged deeper and deeper into the lifestyle of the doomed.  Like myself, he came from a background of addiction and fell into it as naturally as breathing.

A few years later I found myself visiting Robert in a program for the 'mentally unbalanced.'  We got some laughs from that one.  He would pull himself together there and then go back out and do it all over again.  He spent a lot of time on any number of couches in any number of apartments I had throughout the eighties and nineties in New York, newly released from the hospital and promising he would never drink again.  Of course, he would, and the cycle would start all over again.  Once, it appeared, he'd had enough.  I gave him plane fare to get to Alabama where his family had moved.  I lost track of him for several years then.  Late one night some time later I got a call from him.  He was in Los Angeles.  He was very drunk.  Said he had just been cast as the 'head Klingon' on the new Star Trek movie, I forget which one.  Said he'd changed his name and the make up would prevent me from recognizing him in the movie, but it was him.  Not a bad fantasy, I thought later.  Not bad at all.

A few more years went by.  Got a call from Boston.  He was very drunk.  It was late at night, of course.  Said he'd found the girl of his dreams and was going back to school to become a professor of American literature.  Said he was very happy now and then fell asleep holding the phone.  In the background I could hear John Lennon sincerely singing, "Imagine there's no's easy if you try."

A couple more years went by.  Late night call.  He was back in Mobile, Alabama.  Very drunk.  Said he had bought a lot of land there and was working as a DJ on the radio.  In the background I could hear John Lennon screaming the song 'Mother.'

A few years ago I got an email from him out of the blue.  He was in Florida.  Said he was clean and sober and working as a columnist for the local paper.  I looked it up online.  And you know what?  He was.  He had several journalistic essays online from that paper.  He was a featured political columnist.  We began to talk now and then on the phone.  He was deeply involved with AA.  Knew all the catch phrases, all the jargon, all the inside dope from that sometimes noble, sometimes crippling organization.  He sounded good.  He was married.  Had a little girl.  She had down syndrome and was the light of his life.  He seemed happy.

Then the emails stopped.  I lost him again.  And last year, quite accidentally, I discovered from a mutual acquaintance, he had put a needle into his arm in a dingy hotel room in Springfield, Missouri, a few miles from that coffee vending machine where on this day, in 1981, he'd told me about the death of John Lennon.

Today I'm thinking of my doomed friend, Robert Fiedler.  He was a good guy.  He tried hard.  It wasn't enough.  I think of him everytime I hear John Lennon sing a song.

See you tomorrow.