Three Recent Deaths: Breslin, Berry, Barris

Jimmy Breslin. Chuck Berry. Chuck Barris. These men died recently and I’d like to share my somewhat unique connection to each one of them.

Jimmy Breslin first. He passed away at the age of 88 after a long career as a NYC newspaper columnist and author. He wrote probably the most famous column of all time, “Digging JFK’s Grave was His Honor,” in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Breslin found an angle for the story where no other reporter even dreamed of looking. I’ve used the column in writing workshops for years as a way of instructing students how to look for an original angle to a story, and that story could be themselves. The prompt is: where am I not looking? I also wrote a column years ago called “The Breslin Angle” where I went to the beach during the Super Bowl and found some truly incredible stories of people (and their dogs) who had no interest in watching the game. Those people included a group of homeless men and women barbecuing hot dogs and drinking cheap beer. They didn’t even know the Super Bowl was being played!

In recent months, I have thought a lot about the Breslin Angle for the life-altering story I am living right now. Where am I not looking? I keep asking myself this question as more and more unexpected events and feelings unfold. I’ve written a lot on that prompt, lately, and it invariably leads to fresh insights on how to survive.

Breslin’s comic novel about the mafia, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, is also an inspiration. It provides the perfect model for the teaching novel I want to write one day, a definitive book, THE BOOK, about teaching high school that no one seem to be able to write. I completed a teaching novel back in 2012 but it never went anywhere—it was an attempt by a rank amateur—and I can see now that its tone and format were the wrong approach, very wrong approach. I think there was one short scene with any humor in it. I see now how important a role humor can play in telling a certain bleak or unjust story, fiction or nonfiction. I certainly plan to inject humor into the book I am writing about my current situation as a newly-minted sex offender who never had sex because at times this story is funny in a black comedy kind of way. I keep reminding myself how funny some of the scenes are in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If I hadn’t found humor in my situation, I would have gone down the drain with it a long time ago.

Next Chuck Berry. He died at 90. I saw him in the flesh when he opened for The Grateful Dead at Portland Meadows on May 28, 1995. The sound was terrible and it pushed 90 degrees that day but I got close enough to the stage to see Chuck, in a suit, then in his late 60s, do his thing for 45 minutes. I’ve always wondered what Portland pickup band he played with for the gig. And to think he would he keep gigging another 20 years after this show! Will I gig in my 80s?

After Chuck, the Dead played one of their final shows before Jerry died three months later. It was completely forgetful performance except for the unforgettable incident where one of my then Hillsboro High School students, buck naked and body-painted, twirled up to me and informed me that she was flying on acid and did I want some? I declined the gift, introduced her to my girlfriend, and then she gave me a big hug and said, “I love you Mr. Love.” Back in class the next Monday, she barely remembered a thing.

I have listened to Chuck Berry’s immortal rock and roll music my entire adult life. His tunes are littered through most of my 500 or so mix tapes. They are raucous or lilting two-minute sonic novels about lust, wanderlust and social upheaval. “School Days” is the best song about high school I’ve ever heard. (Nirvana’s “School” is a close second.) It still holds up because it chronicles a certain endless American teenage desire that is exactly the same as it was in the 50s when he wrote it—get me out of class! There is something better waiting for me! Hail Hail rock and roll / deliver me from the days of old!

Chuck Berry was also a superb author. His, autobiography, published in 1987, begins with this sentence: “This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.” He wrote the first draft in jail, serving time for tax evasion. I consider it the best rock memoir I’ve ever read and I’ve read about a hundred of them. Hmmm, maybe there is something to be said for writing a draft of a potentially great book while behind bars. Maybe I’ve got that going for me now.

Finally, Chuck Barris. He gave up the ghost at 87. He was the creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, which Barris also hosted. Remember The Gong Show, with a cocaine-fueled Barris running all over the set and introducing truly bizarre acts? I sure do because I watched it almost every afternoon in junior high when I wasn’t playing sports.

Chuck Barris was also an author of several books, one of which was his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In the book, (which I have read) Barris claimed to have worked for the CIA as an assassin during the 1960s and ‘70s. George Clooney directed the cinematic version of it (I’ve seen it).

I met Chuck Barris once, in 2007, and I will certainly never forget our three minutes together. It was in the liquorless green room of Wordstock, a huge and boring literary festival in Portland. At the time the event was staged in the Convention Center and had a cavernous, industrial feel to it. I was there promoting my book about the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1977 NBA Championship and Barris was there promoting a book I no longer recall. He would have been 77 then and barely stood over five feet. I did a double take when I saw him, but sure enough, it was him! We were the only two authors in the room and he was sitting on a couch drinking a Coke. I got myself a 7-Up and came over to him.

“Mr. Barris, my name is Matt Love and I am an Oregon author presenting at the festival. May I join you?”

“Sure, have a seat,” he said.

We shook hands and I sat across from him in an overstuffed cartoon chair.

I had only one thing on my mind and it wasn’t his book. It was The Gong Show. I launched into a story about me being a high school teacher and having witnessed various student councils raise a lot of money for good causes over the years with The Gong Show concept. I thanked him for that and said it probably happened all over the country and was probably happening right now as we spoke. I told him his idea helped a lot of students and made them laugh at the same time. That is an excellent combination to pull off.

Barris waited for a moment. His face appeared a bit puzzled. “No one has ever said that to me before,” he said. “Thank you.”

He held out his soda pop and we clinked glasses and it resounded through the empty room. Chuck Barris! I was smiling. He was, too.

I knew he had a gig coming up soon so I got up to leave him alone to prepare. I had a gig, too, same time as his. He was in the big room; I was in a little room.

Barris reached out and shook my hand. “Good luck,” he said. I thanked him, walked out of the room, and went and did my show. I don’t recall a single thing about it.