July 25, 2015

The Flickering Flame


by Bruce McCulloch

The two posters that were hung on people’s walls as I was growing up were ‘stoned again’ with the melting head. Black light. Soft and satisfying to the touch, as scary as it was funny. The other one was ‘smile pass it on.’ Corny, simple, but as time has gone on, perhaps not so simple.

I have not been offered any, nor have I required any religion. Even in the dark times when belief would have given me comfort, the only truth that seems to flicker inside of me is “believe in the human spirit.”

As I walked through the streets of a bombed-out Baltimore, the day after the curfew was lifted, I saw how savage things can be; Drugs being sold in the open, cops too tired to care, babies being balanced on the hips of seemingly homeless mothers. I was reminded that there is a war going on. Positive versus negative. Dark versus light. What adds to it and what chips away at it. A war between what ravages the human spirit and what protects it. I think we are all an amalgam of everything we have ever done, seen, or thought. Then maybe it’s important to keep seeking the light.

At night when I can’t sleep, I no longer think about the garbage of the day, the to-do list for the next that never seems to get done, I imagine flying. I rise out of my bed in my mind and go. Pajamas on without waking my wife, I float out the window. Up into the night sky, I move past the people I know. I stop and look in on them and see if they are okay. If they have fallen asleep with the TV on, I turn it off and tuck them in. I put my hand on their foreheads – exchanging our warmth, and I move on.

I move out past lonely people walking dogs or sleeping in cars. I imagine looking into the eyes of those I was afraid of that day in Baltimore and saying “buddy we are all in this together. You are going to be okay even if there is evidence you won’t. I don’t know how I know that, but I do.” This is what I think humanism means. Belief in our spirit. Belief that we can carry on, no matter how tough the burden.

It’s nurturing our love for each other. Us with our little dreams and hopes that don’t usually come true. We all crave the same things; a place, a warm friend, someone to tell our secrets to, someone to know us. Someone to love us. What stops us from reaching out to each other? What are we afraid of? What do we know about ourselves that we feel we can’t tell each other? If we can only realize we are all the same; Lost little kids waiting for Mom or Dad to come home or notice us. Carrying our indignities and disappointments as we go. Dusting ourselves off. Recharging our own hearts after loss. But we can mutter “people are stupid,” or we can try to understand them, and in that understanding, for me there is humour, levity and love. We can enlist our love into the war against the human spirit that rages in every bar, office and home. We all know the world is chaotic and stupid but it is also beautiful too.

We all want to reach out, but we don’t know how. We wander around looking for connection, busy and afraid. Hoping our wit or money will protect us, but it won’t. We only have each other, even if saying that out loud will get us laughed at. We are all protecting ourselves. Life it too hard even for people who it’s going pretty well for. And for the others? Of course it is easy to look away. It’s almost logical.

I have a good friend (luckily, for me happens to be my wife) who looks at life not at what she can achieve, but as a series of small and large (mostly small) encounters. These encounters are what we give to the world. How we treat people incrementally makes up our life’s world. A series of small exchanges that hopefully leave the world ever so slightly better than before. And us better for it.

As a young man I didn’t realize the power of a compliment. Of a “thank you” of “I’m sorry.” But now I do. Even if it is at times hard. I don’t want to get ‘stoned again’, even if I know there are so many good reasons to. I would rather “smile and pass it on.” I would rather believe in the flickering flame that falters but does not go out.

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May 29, 2015

Vigil (excerpt from “Let’s Start a Riot”)

Excerpt from Let’s Start a Riot: How a Young Drunk Punk Became a Hollywood Dad.

by Bruce McCulloch

When I think about suicide—not that I think about suicide—I don’t think about how I’d do it, but how I would write the note. You see, my handwriting is so terrible that people wouldn’t be able to understand my dark decision.

“Why did he do it?”

“Let me try and read his note . . . Maybe something about ‘goody buys crappy warpaint’?” (Goodbye cruel world.)

But if I didn’t write a note by hand, what would I do? Put it on my computer? That seems sort of cold. Well, suicide is a cold and selfish act, but still. A suicide note on a computer is like someone emailing you flowers. Not so touching. (Unless you’ve emailed me flowers, then thanks, yours were different.) If I did put it on my computer, what would I call the file? “Note”? Or “Suicide”? I wouldn’t want my writing assistant to stumble across it one day as she was cleaning up my desktop.

“Bruce, what is this?”

“Oh, just a new idea I’m tinkering with.”

Would I then, to keep up with the times, make a heartfelt suicide video? Or how about a nice, up-tempo “My life is shit, I’m in a pit” kind of music video? Okay, just ’cause I’m thinking about it now, doesn’t mean I’m thinking about it. Or would I do this all on film? I mean, it’s more expensive, but it just looks better. Makes your eyes look warmer. Kind of old-school cool, right? What would a budget for a suicide note video be? It wouldn’t kill me to crunch some numbers. Could I apply for a grant for such a thing? And if I did, how long would I have to wait to hear back from the suicide grant people? And maybe if I could get a grant to make a suicide music video, I wouldn’t even feel like killing myself in the first place. Not that I ever feel like killing myself.

I was thinking about all of this on the plane ride to Seattle. The Kids in the Hall show had been on the air about a year and we were on tour. We were performing in Seattle the next night. Kurt Cobain had just offed himself, so suicide was on our mind. Scott knew for sure that Kurt had planned to come to see our show. He had no actual knowledge of this, but he just “knew.” As assuredly as Scott knew that Kurt was a “big, big” fan of ours. Truthfully, I don’t think Kurt was even a “small, small” fan of ours, but I didn’t want to burst Scott’s dark bubble. Scott said if, the next night at the show, he looked out into the audience and there was an empty seat, we would know “that was Kurt’s.”

The next night at the show, as we looked out, there were plenty of Kurts. Most of the balcony and scattered throughout the floor were several Kurts. I blame the promoter for not spending more on advertising.

We heard people talking about the vigil the moment we got off the plane. Honestly, I didn’t really know what a vigil was. I had some idea, though, that it involved candles. The lighting of candles, the making and breaking of eye contact, sad shrugs and words that weren’t like “hmmm” or “ahhh.”

I’d never been to a vigil. At that point in my life, I had never even been to a funeral. Well, I’d been to some bad parties that people said reminded them of funerals. But there was no corpse, unless you counted the food table, where people would pause, shake their heads and move on. The closest thing to a funeral? Three turtles I flushed down the toilet in 1972. After they died in 1971.

A vigil isn’t even a funeral. It’s like going to a drive-in with no screen.

The bluest skies I’ve ever seen weren’t in Seattle. The greenest hills I’ve ever seen weren’t in Seattle. When my silly-skit troupe arrived in that coastal town, there were only shades of grey. Anyway, we arrived in Seattle ninety minutes prior to Kurt’s vigil. I hate to admit it, but for a selfish, confused instant, I thought the attention might have been about us. But no, they did not want to “crush our heads.” Or even have us sign our own faces on pictures they held.

I saw two young guys holding a placard with a picture of Kurt on it. I studied it. Locking eyes with a cardboard Cobain. He looked little, long-haired, alone and powerful, like Mother Theresa must have looked in her twenties. His eyes said to me that he wanted to be somewhere else.

And I guess he had gone there.

Our Seattle van driver told me about a good place to eat steak and that he’d driven Kurt on New Year’s Eve and that he was “really messed up.” But they always say that. Whomever they drive anywhere, ever, is always “really messed up.” Which really meant that he was probably quiet or didn’t tip so well.

I could just see two girls in a Seattle suburb—if Seattle even had suburbs; I didn’t know, I had just landed. I hadn’t even eaten my steak yet. I could just see two teenage girls in a Seattle suburb: “What are ya gonna wear to the vigil?”

“Well, black, of course.”

“But, what would he want me to wear?”

“Plaid. Dirty hair. Arlene. For real: do not wash your hair.”

In my hotel room, I just stared into the distance. Well, all right, I’m lying: I watched TV. I was torn between a nap and going down to the square. I just didn’t know if I was in the mood to see beautiful seventeen-year-old children in dreadlocks, white hippies celebrating his dark demise. Cynicism is my whiskey, so I had a few;

“Are the other two guys gonna get a new singer? Robert Plant could use a job.”

“Do they split the money differently, now that they are down to two?”

“I guess that Courtney Love album just sold about two million copies.”

“Would the square be full if he had simply slipped on a small hotel soap, gargled his tongue and was gone?”

Truthfully, what if he hadn’t been a beautiful, blue-eyed, black-hearted blond boy? What if he’d looked like Aaron Neville? I think there would be sixty people, max. And perhaps they would move the vigil to a smaller location—even the Sea Vista Ballroom in my hotel. If the vigil had been in my hotel, I might have popped by. Stuck my head in. But it wasn’t, so I decided not to go.

Instead, I fell asleep watching Jeopardy! The life-affirming ding when contestants pressed their buttons, eager to answer. They wanted to be part of the world. Why didn’t he?

Don’t get me wrong. Someone forlorn and confused had done something stupid and left a lot of stronger people behind. There was not a lot else to be said.

The next day, I went for a run along the ocean. Well, I went for a run on an asphalt path along the ocean. Twenty minutes in, something up a hill caught my eye. As I sprinted towards it, I could soon make out what it was. Someone had taken some wood—long cedar planks—and with them spelled out the words “Bye Kurt.”

I took a big Seattle breath, looked up at the city and wondered, “What didn’t he see?” I thought of a little boy grown up. Now gone.

And I whispered, “Bye Kurt.”

And if I’ve ever been to a vigil, I guess that was it.

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May 27, 2015

Bruce at Skylight Books in L.A., June 1

Join Bruce at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on June 1 at 7 pm, where he will be reading from and signing Let’s Start a Riot, as well as taking questions from the audience.

More information can be found here.

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