The Trouble with Drugs: A Cautionary Tale

My friend John says I hate technology, which isn’t true; not really; okay well, maybe a little.  It’s true that I’m intensely un-fond of the automobile (i.e. all the pavement in America is equal to all the arable land in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania combined, an infrastructure costing over $200 million a day to maintain); and I’m also not keen on flying (being in an airplane gives me the same sensation as being a tinned sardine); and even though I have a website (which I have no idea how to navigate), I spend far too much time, as it is, on the Internet, a miracle of modern technology which I’m convinced will explode one day, covering me in google goo.  I’m also weary of living in a society in which two thirds of the people (even when in groups) stare at tiny handheld screens at all hours.  Who do they think is going to phone?  The Pope?  Simon Cowell?

My scorn, however, is reserved mostly for television, a once promising device, now relegated to the exclusive use of hucksters and amateur theatricals (if you promise not to tell me about all the great TV dramas you’ve watched, I won’t tell you about all the great novels I’ve read).  No other single device has been more successful in the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture.  Beyond the endless, mindless, cliché-ridden programming is the reality of being subjected to roughly 30,000 commercials by the time we achieve maturity.  And if you don’t think that that has an effect on the neurons and synapses in your brain, think again.  Commercials are, in a very real sense, talent diminishers, not enhancers, which is the lead-in to this story.

I first met Emerson Palmer about 30 years ago.  I was introduced to him by the woman who became his wife (let’s call her Amanda) and whom I had known as a part of a group of performers (mostly folkies), years before, back when the few remaining folk coffeehouses were about to expire.

Amanda was blonde, sharp-featured and had taken courses in musical comedy at an arts college.  She wasn’t a bad singer, but she also didn’t have a terribly compelling voice or personality, I think the best you could say about her presentation was that she was on key; however, she did have that blond, porcelain skin look going for her.

As groups of people do, we drifted apart and Amanda and I lost touch, but over the next few years, I would run into her occasionally as she passed through various relationships, including one with a successful TV director.  The next time we met she introduced me to Emerson, a man from Chicago, about 15 years her senior, who made an extremely good living directing TV commercials.  You might remember his best known effort—the Charlie Cheese Mouse commercial, with Charlie running up the Eiffel Tower chased by Frenchmen, avid for a taste of Canadian Cheddar (done in the pre-digital days with a real mouse, a studio Eiffel Tower, special effects and animation), and designed I suppose to demonstrate that Canadian cheeses were tastier than French ones.

Amanda had met Emerson when she auditioned for him, and after a few weeks had moved in with him.  Within a short time, because we lived in the same city, I had been invited to get to know Emerson; had taken a liking to him; and, I believe, he to me.

I soon understood how much Emerson hated advertising—and advertising people; but—unlike me—his unfailing civility, his need not to reveal his loathing for his employers and his natural reticence wouldn’t allow him to rant or rave.  When he needed to vent, what he did was to make a drawing or etching, into which he threw all of his spite.  On the wall above where I write, I have one of his framed etchings, entitled “Our Sponsors”, depicting a group of corporate suits, all with faces like gargoyles on Gothic churches, fiercely clutching each other’s throats and stabbing each other in the back over a boardroom table.  It’s so outlandish, so completely exaggerated—so bleak a representation of a world he saw as wasteful and fake—that it never fails to make me laugh.  Something of his glee in skewering the people he worked for and hated always gave me the sensation of being tickled.

Almost all of Emerson’s art had the same misanthropic bent.  He suffered no fools in a business that was rife with them.  He once told me he was working on a directory for the industry to be entitled, Slimeballs, Carpetbaggers, Wankers and Dilettantes:  A Who’s Who of Advertising and over a period of six months showed me wonderfully grotesque drawings in a sketchbook (where is that now?).  His relationship with the people who paid him so generously, who must’ve sensed his antipathy on some level, was symbiotic:  the ad business tolerated him because he was talented, and he countenanced their Peckniffery because his fees enabled him to live well.

As you might imagine, his real work—his art—though brilliant, wasn’t popular.  He attempted to mass produce lithographs from his work and sell them by advertising in glossy magazines; but no one responded, and certainly no dealers rushed to place them on their gallery walls.  I was continually surprised by this.  In the case of one gallery owner, a former Latvian seaman turned art impresario, the response was surprising.  The Latvian (let’s call him Fjodors) owned a coffeehouse at which we occasionally performed, and had persuaded the government that his coffeehouse was actually a gallery, a vital showcase for Canadian art.  So the government funded him to seek out new original Canadian art for showings.  I had decided to put a word in for Emerson, but when I mentioned his name one afternoon over coffee, Fjodors’ response was adamant.

“He’s not an artist,” he said dismissively, and for a moment I was confused, as though he had just said, ‘the earth is flat’.  Glancing at the ‘art’ on his walls, I realized that all the paintings hanging there, and all those I had ever seen hanging there, were all the same:  a style of meaningless pop psychedelic ‘art’ of the early 1970’s—splotches of abstract, geometric nothingness.  Fjodors was spending government money on what could be best be termed hippy art or ‘stoned’ doodlings; while Emerson, who had trained at a prestigious art school, and whose work could be traced back through the influences of Pieter the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch, yearned painfully for any recognition.  I knew at that moment, that Fjodors just another buffoon and that Emerson, because his art didn’t let us off the hook, would experience difficulties all through life.  I didn’t know how difficult.

That early period of knowing Emerson was a glorious time.  We were young, shared an acerbic sense of humour (he had actually liked some of my writing, which was also often bleak although not as remorseless as his drawings); and I was always keen to see what new corrosive new work would emerge from his garage studio (which he referred to as the ‘vomitory’).  He would spend days on end there, drawing, barely conscious of other commitments.  He work ethic was intense; his conversation erudite without being pompous; his demeanour unfailingly courteous.  He was, however, forever baffled and angered by incompetence—“the human factor” (i.e. finding crumbs on the floor of his Italian sports car after having it expensively detailed).  When he felt wronged, or taken advantage of, he would write an eloquent but reprimanding letter, often so beautifully worded that I wondered if the recipient would take in its meaning.  I was asked often to meals with him and Amanda; and, as I was always poor, he was infallibly generous.

What I came to learn was that his talent came with a price.  He suffered from migraine, among other ailments and also, apparently, depression.  He never complained, nor did he (to outward appearances) seem affected by it, so I rarely gave it a second thought.  I wish now I had; I wish I had been less callow.

This is not a long story but, to me, a tragic one.  During that last period of time that my ex-wife and I spent time with him, I was aware that he’d been taking medication to deal with the migraine but more importantly with the depression, with Amanda’s encouragement.  After all, no one wants to live with a depressive, especially in a middle-class society where everything is supposed to be fine, or ‘tutta biene’ as the Italians say.  I don’t know; but I suspect that much experimentation was necessary to find the right drugs—and combination of drugs—to dull the edge of the depression, although the last few social occasions we shared before losing touch, he didn’t seem much changed—I have a drawing of a man eating a dog—entitled ‘It’s a Man Eat Dog World’—which he gave me as a birthday gift.  Looking back, I thought even then that his focus—which had always been keen—did seem slightly muted.

As happens, people differ apart, and I’ve only seen Emerson and his wife twice in the past 15 years.  Once at a gathering six or seven years ago, when I noticed that there seemed something odd about his behaviour, almost as though he was playing a role., but uncertain as to what his part was.  Where his personality had been sharp-edged, now it seemed blunted; but I was preoccupied that evening so he didn’t have my full attention.

The real indication of change—that something else was at play—came roughly at the same time, on the only other occasion that I saw him.  He had persuaded a restaurant he frequented to allow him a showing in one of their small banquet rooms.  I hadn’t seen him in at least a year and looking forward to seeing him and his art.  I was not a little surprised to see his drawings—beautifully framed on the walls, some with a red dot beside them—consisted of sparse pastels outlining mountains and trees on dark paper.  I wondered if I was missing something, and examined them closely.  What was the point?  A child of eight could draw simple pastel lines on coloured paper and produce something more arresting.  I’d hoped my surprise didn’t show; although, if he was on drugs, would he have noticed?  Where were the mordantly amusing pen and ink drawings of his response to the absurd world around him?  Where were the gleeful, spiteful drawings?  Where was Emerson?

The last connection we had was about 6 months ago.  I had sent him an email with some pages from a story I was working on, asking him if he thought they were funny.  To my surprise, his response was fuzzy, as though he was unable to work it out.  What surprised me more though was that he had shown them to Amanda who was also uncertain about their amusement factor.  I knew then I was living in the past.  I had vetted the pages with a two writer friends who found them very funny, and brittle.  I was hoping to see if any remnant of the old Emerson had survived; but you can never go home again, so I was obviously dreaming, as they say, in Technicolor.

I know these are only assumptions.  Obviously, I don’t know what changed his art, or him; so my thoughts might seem judgmental.  Concerned, and seemingly pro-drug, Amanda was no more responsible for Emerson’s subsequent loss of voice than I.  Emerson, if he did make the decision to mute his depression, well, it was his choice to make, he wanted the depression to be smothered; to be able to live out his life in quietude, without living with demons, but was he aware of what he was risking?  And what might have happened if he hadn’t spent his working life in advertising?  Was it the world of “Slimeballs, Carpetbaggers, Wankers and Dilettantes” that caused, or exacerbated, his depression?  Would the depression have been as great?  Away from the ad game, would his depression have been no more or less than anyone else’s?  And would he have been able to focus on his drawings, turning out a significant body of work, delineating our inherent madness, known as ‘normalcy’?

I recently read about actor Rod Steiger, suffering from depression, spending months in bed as a young man, contemplating suicide in a boat in the open sea.  Years later, I met someone who’d worked on a movie starring Mr. Steiger.  He told me that Steiger’s contract called for the production company to supply him with two cases of Chivas Regal.  Is that how he coped?  Samuel Beckett, I read somewhere, having achieved financial independence in his later years, always kept a case of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey in his closet.  Many a great artist suffered from depression.

Did Emerson really need the drugs?  Did the drugs swallow not only his depression but also Emerson?   I’ll never know but, as it is a cautionary tale, I’ll leave you with Carl Jung, who said something the effect that our refusal to be depressed has led to all our mental illnesses.

Two final thoughts from the internet:  “We never really grow up.  We only learn how to act in public.” And from George Orwell, “Advertising is a stick rattling in a swill bucket.”

Good Night, Gracie.


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