THE LONG VIEW
Lots of folks have been asking me what I think about Hunter S. Thompson killing himself.
Now, the people posting me emails and calling me up on the office phone and sending me smoke signals and whatnot mean well, they do. But most of these cats aren’t people who know me very well. If you’ve spent more time with me than it takes to drain a pint, you know I don t really care overmuch about “celebrity deaths.” I’m a more private joe, I am, and I keep track of me and mine and that’s tough enough as it is. I never met Thompson, but I’d worked with those who had. I think what most mean when they ask me my take is: what do I think about a dude who put it out there, and did his thing, himself? Local guys in San Francisco remember his stint at the Examiner and figure I ride the same roads. Which is real flattering, even if they do mean it in a literal sense.
Even I gotta admit that bit in Generation of Swine about the big orange STORAGE sign on Geary and Masonic resonates like a boot to my head when I read it…
But this isn’t so much about that as it is about this. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and all, with all apologies to Robert Herrick.
I’ve seen what my friends and colleagues have been writing, eulogies to astound and underline about what Thompson’s work meant to them.
But, me? I’m not going to do that. Rob Lavender, and Tom Mudd; maybe Mike Warshaw, and Steve Goldberg. Whitty, God rest his soul. These guys might know what the work meant to me, when I first read it. But so what? What good are flowers at the funeral when the guy you’ve bought them for isn’t there to enjoy them?
So this one isn’t going to be so much about Hunter S. Thompson, and more about me buying some flowers for my friend Harlan for him to enjoy now.
When I was a kid, living in rural Vermont, I used to read a lot of science fiction. I was an angry young man, back then, stuck in rural Vermont after having been born in Cleveland and raised in Dallas. I was a city kid. Well, suburb kid. But I liked action instead of crickets, even as a boy.
The thing about rural Vermont, though, is that it’s cold in the wintertime. When we first moved up there, my dad told me it was gonna be cold. “Sure, cold,” I thought. “I’ve seen cold. We ve had ice storms in Dallas in the dead of winter. Heck, I’ve seen 20 degrees.”
Yeah, and that first winter I spent in Vermont it was twenty below for a week. I wouldn’t go outside because I thought the Earth was leaving its orbit.
So when it’s too cold to go out, you do a lot of staying in. Me? I did some reading. Our town had an excellent library, and I went through all the big, obvious ones: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein. I’d read any sci-fi anthology. Planet of the Apes, of course. I liked Farnham’s Freehold quite a bit. I somehow ran across The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, and I think that did it. I read any Harlan Ellison I could find. I’m pretty sure there’s still a picture of me in my blue shag-carpeted bedroom reading Deathbird Stories in one of my mother’s scrapbooks, somewhere.
Anyway, thanks to Harlan Ellison and Linda Carter and George Lucas and Virginia Cameron I made it through a difficult adolescence and in my early thirties I was living in San Francisco, where, as everyone knows by now, all the cool stuff happens. Ever since the days of the Barbary Coast, San Francisco is where you came to do your thing.
And in 1994 I watched Harlan write “Keyboard” in the window of The Booksmith, and I stuck around long after the crowd dispersed that had gathered to watch Robin Williams give him the seed of the idea.
Harlan, you see, de-mystified the process of entertainment for me, right then. He set up his 1959 IBM Selectric in the window of the shop (I know, that probably wasn t the make nor model, but here’s a thing HE has taught me: a specific detail sets a mood and serves the story. I mean, c’mon, doesn’t “1959 IBM Selectric” put a taste on your tongue much more palatable than just the word “typewriter?” I ask you.), and called out for a name of one of the audience members. “Chris Hudak,” Chris Hudak said, and Harlan just started writing.
If anyone has ever observed the process of writing, you’ll know it’s not exactly slam-bang. Lots of pensive looks, lots of staring into the middle distance. Lots of turning it over in one’s own head. Which isn’t exactly that fun a thing to watch a guy do, once Robin Williams has left.
Me, though? I was transfixed. I sidled up to the window and Harlan looked over. “I’m just vamping now,” he said. “Something will happen while Chris’ wife is making French toast.”
So right then I learned an important lesson: you point the ski tips down the mountain and you kick yourself off. Some folks are gonna be better than others, have more style or a tighter turn. Some are gonna be medal winners and others are gonna hurt themselves. But everyone who makes the run shares something in common: they’ve got the wind in their hair.
A year or so after that, I started my weekly review zine, Planet Lar. In the mission statement in the first issue, I wrote, in my usual bombastic style: “There is only one George Lucas. There is only one John Byrne. There is only one Harlan Ellison, although the world would be a better place with more than one. There is only one Sonny. Only one Cher. Only one each of Siskel and Ebert. There is only one Larry Young.” Sent those acetate-covered monstrosities all around, to every big-shot in comics and entertainment I could find.
Harlan Ellison called me up and gave me some kind words of encouragement. Told me he liked my stuff, and we chatted a bit. When he asked why my family had moved around so much when I was a boy, I’d told him my father worked in dimensional stone and that “when the Earth cooled, marble and granite formed in a north-south way in America. So we went back and forth, as my dad chased promotions, but there was one thing he’d never do, and that’s take marble for granite.”
“Oh, you are a real writer,” Harlan had said, impishly, and that was like getting blessed by the pope, I can tell you.
A year or so after that, and I was doing promotions and marketing for Brian Hibbs’ world-class comics store, Comix Experience. I had occasion to talk to Harlan every once in a while, and I have to say, I always had kind of a thrill chatting with him. It’s easy to listen to a guy who can spin a yarn, I’ll tell you that.
So when Mimi and I were on our honeymoon, we decided to swing back home through LA, and see if we couldn t take Harlan out to lunch. We were at the Grand Canyon, and although it was a bit late, we figured we’d chance an eight pee-em call to Ellison Wonderland and see if Harlan and Susan weren’t available in the next day or so.
“Harlan, this is Larry Young,” I said, a little excitedly. “I just got married, we’re at the Grand Canyon, we’d love to take you out to lunch.”
“It’s eight-thirty, you maroon; I just had open-heart surgery. So you got married?” and the like. I gotta admit I don’t really remember this part very well, because the red haze of panic was gripping me. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I’ve pissed off Harlan, somehow. Dear Jesus.”
I remember hanging up the phone, numbly, and turning to Mimi and saying, “I’ve pissed off Harlan, somehow. Dear Jesus.” Shine it on, she’d said, and tried to cheer me up, but I gotta say, that nearly ruined my honeymoon.
But we went on to LA, anyway, and after a day and a half or so, got to a hotel where we could check our email. Even in 1996, the cavemen back then, gentle reader, still connected.
I was stunned to have email from Joe Straczynski and David Gerrold and other luminaries all basically saying the same thing: HARLAN NEEDS TO TALK TO YOU RIGHT AWAY.
I called him back, and he explained I’d awakened him out of a sound sleep. He’d thought I was another guy he’d worked with years before, who’d been married several times so it wasn’t a big deal he’d married again. The next morning, he and Susan realized that the guy calling was their comic book pal from San Francisco, and they mobilized the troops to make sure Mimi and I came to see them.
So instead of a nice little lunch and a chat and a handshake, Harlan and Susan had us over to their house. Susan made us waffles, and Harlan showed us around, and the both of them were absolutely charming and warm and hospitable and basically just treated us like lost relations. It was absolutely one of the most memorable times of my life, and I’ve never really ever said so to the man.
The moral, here? If there’s someone whose work you enjoy, or who’s made a difference in how you view the world, or who’s acted as a good role model or positive influence or has just been noteworthy and decent to you, don’t wait to tell them.
Harlan, if you ever need anything, man, you let me know. Thanks for everything.
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