We shared an apartment in Hollywood on the top floor that offered a little view of the town. On smoggy days, the garish purple of Frederick's of Hollywood two blocks up was as far as you could see. The old Fontonoy apartment was just across the way. Crispin Glover, who kept his apartment lighted in bare-bulb red, occupied its top floor "penthouse." On clear days you see Century City and hopeful glints of the Pacific lying farther west. At night, Hollywood PD helicopters would keep you awake.
When you walked down the halls, you could hear all the Guitar Institute dorks in various states of distorted noodling, a sonata of puddle-haired chaos. It was as if they were all searching for the right note. My guess is it was never found.
Buka, the gay, beer-drinking Buddhist living two floors down, told me that the apartment building was first a hotel, built just as talkies became an evil and deadly virus to the careers of many silent stars. In those days, Marlene Dietrich was a frequent visitor, entertaining rich foreign businessmen while Clara Bow, John Gilbert and Pola Negri had retreated to insanity, early death or both.
In the building's basement lived a couple of junkies, Rik Wilder and his girlfriend, whose name I don't recall. Wilder would spend his days shooting dope and coke and wandering the streets of Hollywood, dapper in the Artful Dodger/Sticky Fingers garb of gentleman's junkie, while his girlfriend gave head for dope money. In the punk years, Wilder fronted two myth-making Hollywood never-wases called the Berlin Brats and the Mau Maus, and is said to have been the shit.
But by this time, Wilder looked beyond even the most exaggerated version of someone defying death's odds, an anemic praying-mantis frame, big red sores on his bloodless face. And his girlfriend had tortured herself beyond ever looking good in the short, tight dresses that she wore.
My wife would often disappear for days, too, copping on streets near downtown L.A. Unless you're in love with someone who's lost in horrible neighborhoods and shooting up with drug-cracked strangers, you don't know the kind of agony that no amount of beer, self-help groups, moms or Disneyland can relieve.
After a year or so she became sick, was hospitalized, and wound up in a Santa Monica rehab. Twelve steps later she was clean and sober. Soon after, we both agreed that I was unemployable, and she left. It was horrible.
Five years ago I heard from a friend that Rik Wilder's girlfriend died of a weird HIV-like liver virus called hepatitis C. He said Wilder had it, too; it had given him cirrhosis. The Wilder thing was the first I'd heard of the disease. A couple years ago my ex-wife called to tell me that she had hepatitis C.
Now I can't even count on two hands the number of friends I have who are infected with the virus. Except for Wilder's ex-girlfriend, they are all musicians, and not all of them junkies.
Hepatitis C is a virus that casually devours the liver, leaving chronic liver disease in 70 percent of those infected. Once infected, a person can go sans symptoms until the liver has reached the point of cirrhosis. And it may lay sleeping for years -- decades even -- and then kick without signal.
One in 50 Americans is infected with hep C, more than four times the number of those believed to be HIV-positive. Drugs like interferon have been effective in inhibiting the virus, but it works in fewer than half the victims.
Hep C and HIV share the same high-risk groups -- people who share too many needles and genitals. All one has to do is come in contact with microscopic amounts of blood from an infected person.
Steve Davis, bass player for the Phoenix band Glass Heroes, is the only stricken musician I know who would go on record about the virus.
Davis was born in 1956 and moved with his mother and stepdad to Phoenix from southern Illinois. At Camelback High, he was listening to the Dolls, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex and other stuff hated by both kids and teachers. He was often drunk by eight in the morning on pills and booze, yet managed to graduate from Camelback in 1974. He describes himself in those days as "someone who didn't want to do anything." After high school he went straight to "food and phones," which is time-honored muso speak for restaurant work or phone sales.
His grandmother bought him his first bass, and Bruce Connole gave him his first lesson back in 1978. He joined his first punk band called The Ties a year later.
A couple of hairdressers gave Davis his first taste of heroin around this time. He contracted hep B -- a less virulent, curable form of the disease -- from a dirty needle in 1979. He had been strung out off and on until a few years ago.
Davis used to get high with Mike Corte, the Billy Clone and the Same front man who died after doing and being dumped in front of a hospital. In the early 1980s, Davies was in a group called, fittingly, the Shivers, which consisted of five guys all strung out on heroin. Davis says Shivers rehearsals were a nightmare, that "at least one guy would be nodding off at all times." Band members would often be too fucked up to make shows. Davis himself was in jail when the band opened for its hero, Johnny Thunders, so they did it without him.
Throughout the '80s, Davis was doing the typical nail-down-a-good-feeling-fuck-the-consequences junkie things. He wound up getting arrested twice for possession and robbery and suffered brutal withdrawals in jail. There's been homelessness, pawnshops, sickness, 12-step prayers and on and on. All told, he spent a total of three years of combined jail time and treatment.
By the 1990s, he got himself together enough to work with a couple of bands; first with a short stint in Hellfire, then as bass player in the Glass Heroes. He had a baby with his girlfriend and felt the tinges of duty, so he switched to methadone to get off the dope. A year and a half ago he got off methadone completely -- quite a feat, since most consider that harder to kick.
A 12-step program ensued. He's now engaged to be married. A happy end of sorts for someone who nearly cashed in the game. That is, until he got the news of his hep C virus.
"I was bummed," he says. "I just figured I was gonna die."
He learned more about the virus and started taking better care of himself. He has fibrosis of the liver, which has enlarged the organ, but he doesn't have cirrhosis.
"I'm grateful that I took the hep C test," he says, "and I'm grateful that I am still clean. I mean, talking about it will help others.
"Now I can take care of it."
He monitors his viral load and liver chemistry -- which fluctuate -- eats vegetables and takes vitamins. He has met others in the 12-step program with hep C, which he says has been a form of support.
He hasn't gone the interferon route because of its alarming side effects and small percentage of effectiveness in users. He's checking the naturopathic route.
"I was a like poseur all those years, trying be tough, I guess," Davis says. "But now I think I have a chance."
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: [email protected]