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From a 1996 L.A. Weekly article.
In July 1960, in a tiny town in Ohio near the Kentucky border, two guys were born a few days apart. One was me, the other was JohnO'Brien. Twenty-two years later, in a bizarre coincidence, we met as nextdoor neighbors in Venice, California. We had a lot in common, me and John. We both had long, kind of horsey faces, we both drank too much, we both wrote about the discarded, the hopeless and the lost. Like a lot of people those days, we were kind of human garbologists, hoping to find some inherent truth about ourselves in what our culture threw away. The FBI looks through dope dealers trash to find out whats up; we did the same, only in our case it was the people who got thrown out who told the story. Poets, hustlers, theives, magicians, barflies, hookers, dealers, blah, blah, blah. Hardly the most original of concepts, but John, especially, deserved a A for effort. Trouble is, with that line of research, the researcher can get pretty swallowed up, its only a matter of time, really, if you're doing it right.
So John and I drifted in and out of each others lives through the years. We both lived in Venice, and we both were getting pretty ripped up by time and jive and the general bullshit that tears up a lot of people these days. John, in particular, was going pretty hot and heavy with the bottle. He got warned several times in hospitals and such that one more drink could pretty well kill him. Good, he'd think, and drink a fifth of vodka for breakfast. He was pretty serious. One time he was DT-ing, and he swore he saw the devil rip the wall open and lunge in to grab his throat. That put him off for a couple of days, but pretty soon he was back on it. His wife, Lisa, did what she could, but you know how it is. Amazingly, though, no matter what level of hallucinatory madness he was living through, he still managed to type out ten immaculate pages of prose every day, before he'd stagger from his apartment and scare the shit out of people with his armed, hell-bend trip. About 200 of those pages ended up being his first published novel, called Leaving Las Vegas, about, oddly enough, a guy who wants to dirnk himself to death. And ultimately succeeds. I was by this time sort of trying to get my own shit together, making records, trying to leach the horror of the 80's and the Reagan-Bush years out of my system, trying to make a nice, inoffensive pop record. John would call up at 3 in the morning, crying and shit, and I'd go over and hide the bottle and guns and stuff. One night, I went over and his girlfriend, Debbie, was trying to deal with him. He was out of it, clutching a long-barrled .22 pistol and listening to a song over and over. "Foregiveness, foregiveness, doesn't mean a damn to me, just a bitter apple...blah blah blah." I kind of tucked him in, took the gun and went home. A few days later he showed up at my house and demanded the gun back. I didn't feel good about it, but I gave it to him. He told me we were spirit brothers, and had the same kind of primeval pain, and he needed to learn from me how to cope. He said I was the only guy he could trust in the whole wide world. Anyway, he had other guns.
Well, my basic job on this inoffensive pop record we started was to sort of come up with a 'shiny phrase', a topic, a hook line, a chorus. I thought John would dig it if we did one on his book. So on the way to Pasadena, where we were recording, I started humming, "Death springs eternal on a gaudy street", blah blah blah. I picked up one of the guys in Hollywood, and we took a couple of hits of acid and went into the studio. We cut the song that night. "Leaving Las Vegas, lights so bright, palm sweat, blackjack on a Saturday night." It was cool. Not as cool as the book, but what the fuck, it was a pop record, there's only so much you can do in three minutes. So far so good. I played John the tune, and he said, "Great, just make sure I'm thanked." He was pretty adamant about that. Then the record comes out. I took a look at the credits, and there's Dave, and me, and Bill and Kevin and Sheryl, but there's no sign of John. UH-OH, I think. I call him up, and say, "Uh..." I call the artist and the A&R guy and say, "Where's John's name?" They say it's just a mistake, it'll go on the next pressing. Sounds reasonable. So I tell John. I manage to convince him. Okay. Sorted out. Everything's cool. Then the artist goes on a late night talk show to promote the record, and she says yeah, that song is autobiographical. Vegas is a metaphor for L.A. Well, true enough, but it's John's autobiography. So he went utterly insane. I don't know exactly what happened, but friends who saw him that night said he just got drunker and drunker and bitterer and bitterer, and finally he broke his lifelong rule against drunk driving and set out to find me and have it out. Some people say he had a gun. he only made it a few blocks before he got pulled over. He spent a few days in jail.
First I heard about that night was when our friend Melody called me and said, "John shot himself. He's dead." End of story, basically. I mean the bullshit goes on, the denials, the guilt. But end of story. Life goes on. And now they made a movie out of it. Cool. I hope it's a better memorial than that god-damned song. I'm not saying that John wasn't hell bent on suicide from the first day I knew him, or that I or anyone is responsible for his death. He just didn't have to go away mad. Not at me.-
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