Will asked many of us, including Jonathan, Hans, and I, to come down to the restaurant a couple hours early to eat some free pizza and watch EVIL DEAD 2 (one of the greatest gore films of all time, and one of the very few sequels that is even better than the original). It was his way of getting the old group that used to watch shitty horror movies in his shitty apartment back when he was sober to get together one more time. And it was great. We sat there and watched the movie and made stupid comments. Will didn't have one drink, and we all had a good time, just like we used to.
I played fairly early, and as the other bands went on, I found myself mostly standing just outside the front door smoking. Jonathan and Hans were scheduled to go on last, so I spent a lot of time talking to them. After an hour or so, I caught Jonathan sort of keeping an eye on Will as Will went in and out, making sure the bands could get their gear in and out, and announcing each act.
Jonathan seemed to be giving Will a lot of extra scrutiny, and whenever Will passed by, Jonathan would make a face. So I asked him about it. And he just sort of shrugged and told me he'd noticed Will had disappeared for a while with a person that we all knew to be a notorious drug dealer. We didn't know exactly what Will took, but as the night wore on, it became more and more obvious that it was a little more powerful than a bag of Acapulco Gold.
Over the next hour, things just went to hell. Will had a lot of trouble walking, his speech became increasingly nonsensical, the band introductions just got bizarre. Finally, at about midnight Will took the stage to play a brief set before Jonathan and Hans were supposed to play. I had been looking forward to that all night. I hadn't heard Will play solo since 1990, and I had nothing but hope that it would be just like the old days.
It was a fucking train wreck. I'd seen lots of bands play drunk before, but I had never seen anyone make a bigger ass of himself as much as he did that night. He couldn't finish songs he'd been playing for ten years. He was wheeling about randomly, getting tangled up in cables. People would try to help him, and his responses ranged from profusely apologetic to total belligerence, sometimes to the same person in the space of a few seconds.
Jonathan and Hans and I had stood there all night watching this happen. And as Will stumbled around in there, Jonathan just sort of shook his head. Without a word, he and his brother quietly went into the place and gathered up their equipment. I watched them pack it in the car. I don't remember exactly what Jonathan said to me as he shook my hand, but it was something to the effect that he couldn't watch this anymore.
Jonathan had the bad luck to meet Will when Will was sober. So did I, and so did a lot of other people. We caught our first impressions of him in that five-year period between his last drink and his next one. In that time he could be annoying and bitter and sometimes dishonest and always obsessive. But he was also focused and genuinely humble and often reliable and always sober. We made fun of those long rants he would deliver during PLANET ED shows, but I think he knew we also admired the guts he had to stand up there and do it. Nobody else was really doing that at the time, and whatever anyone thought of it when the show was over, when Will was talking, people were listening. They were paying attention. That's all any artist wants.
A few weeks after PLANET ED broke up, Will started drinking again. I remember going over to his apartment one day to work on some 4-track stuff with him, and he had an open forty of Milwaukee's Best sitting on the table. We talked about it a little bit, and then we did some recording. That was 1992.
As Jonathan and Hans drove away, I thought I might go back into the restaurant to see how this all might play out. But instead I just passed the door and went to my car. I remember looking through the window and seeing that Will was on the floor.
That was the last time I saw Will but not the last time I talked to him. Over the next decade, he would call me three or four times a year, and we e-mailed back and forth often. He drifted from Dayton to Portland to San Francisco to (I think) Washington, DC and maybe to New York for a while. Every so often he would go to rehab. But it never worked.
At the beginning of this post, I said that we lost Jonathan back in February and Will died last week. I choose my words carefully, and those two different verbs are exactly what I meant. We lost Jonathan this year. But Will? We lost him twenty years ago, and we've all just been watching him die since then. Last week he did it -- finally.
When you spend two decades watching someone you care about kill himself, you have a lot of time to feel a lot of things about it. It's frustrating, it's painful, and it makes you very, very angry.
But eventually there comes a time when even frustration is no longer frustrating. The pain doesn't really hurt that much. And the anger doesn't make you very mad anymore. You still feel those things, but it gets more and more like you're just watching yourself feel them. Or maybe it's simpler than that: maybe you don't feel those things at all. You just really, really wish you did.
To put it even more simply, you lose hope. I lost hope in Will. It didn't happen that night at Picadilly Pizza. I don't know when it happened, but five minutes after I learned he was dead, I knew it had happened some time ago. And it wasn't an epiphany or a moment of clarity or something else St. Luke or Sherwood Anderson or Bill W. would write about. It was more like a... "hey... I lost hope... how 'bout that?"
Jello Biafra, one of Will's idols, tells a great story about how he ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 (to fill the office left vacant by George Moscone, who had been assassinated along with Harvey Milk the previous year). At the end of the story, he talks about how before that campaign he had often had doubts about his career as a musician -- that he wasn't a good singer, that his lyrics weren't as good as Iggy Pop's or Jim Morrison's. But after that he realized he had just done something that none of the artist's he looked up to had ever done, so he felt more confident about his career.
When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a short story for my English class that the teacher liked so much he read it out loud to the entire class, and then we all talked about it for twenty minutes. I remember being pretty embarrassed by that but also thrilled. It was the first time I remember having any positive indication that I might have some talent for telling stories, something I had wanted to do since I looked at the pictures in Spider-Man comics, years before I could even read.
Just about everybody has those moments like Jello Biafra and I had, moments when we figure out that we might not be quite so bad at something as we thought we were, when we realize we might have somehow inexplicably stumbled onto something we're good at, when the evidence shows that we can do it. Just about everybody has a few dozen moments like that over a lifetime. Those moments keep us going. They are the only reason we do anything more than throw shit at each other all the time because those are the moments that give us hope.
I don't think Will ever had one moment like that in his whole life. Don't get me wrong: he had a talent for music, he had a talent for entertaining, he had all sorts of talents that he carried around with him all the time, I'm sure right up to the moment he died. But he took no comfort, no hope from any of it.
And he didn't lack those moments because he was an addict. The one constant between drunk Will and sober Will is that he never truly believed in a better future for himself. And he was not an addict because he lacked hope. There are plenty of addicts out there who have enormous faith in themselves. Will was just a drunk, and he was hopeless.
And like Jonathan, I couldn't look at it anymore. As much as it saddens me that he's gone, I'm glad that I don't have to look at it anymore. I have about a thousand words in a notepad file that I'd like to work in here about all this, but I'm tired of thinking about it. And I won't spend any more of your or my time on him.