The Life and Death of Captain Preemo
Bob Woodward vs. John Belushi and Me
There was a knock at my door in 1978, I opened it, and there stood John Belushi. One moment earlier, I had been playing guitar on the sofa, writing a funny song, and if you had asked me who was the one person in Hollywood I wanted to meet, it would have been John Belushi, the man at my doorstep, smiling broadly.
"Are you Michael Dare?" he asked.
"Yeah?" I replied.
"Can I come in?"
Turned out that day was his first on the set of 1941. It was his first big Hollywood picture after the success of the low-budget Animal House, which had just come out. He was in a great mood, having spent the day on the set with Steven Spielberg trying on costumes and developing the character. Turned out a friend who was also working on the film had bummed a joint from me the day before. Turned out he shared it with John. Turned out John was used to New York brown Colombian dirt weed, full of seeds and sticks, and had never had anything like fresh green pungent sparkly California sensimilla. He grabbed my friend by the lapels, pinned him to the wall and said "Where did you get this?"
At this point, my life could have turned out quite different, but my friend dispensed with all the standard drug protocol and just told John all about me. Armed with my address and phone number, John ignored the latter and headed towards the former. He knew he didn't have to call first. He was John Fucking Belushi and he knew he was welcome anywhere, especially somewhere that was a source of fine bud. He was right.
I whipped out the bong, we both took a couple of blasts, and John headed for my record collection, complaining I didn't have enough R&B. We found stuff to listen to anyway, I sat at the piano, and he started singing, picked up the guitar and banged at it, we played together for hours.
At one point, he asked me if I could get more of that pot. I said sure. He pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills two inches thick and handed them to me, saying "Take what you need," turning his back to look through records, showing not a care in the world for how much I took, an astonishing display of trust. I peeled off a couple bills and handed back the rest.
The next day, I went to my dealer and told him all about my visitor. He flipped out, took the money, gave me some pot, then asked "Do you think he might want some mushrooms? How about some hash?" before fronting me his entire inventory which I gladly accepted.
The next day John came by again, this time with Dan Aykroyd. I got my first glimpse of the Blues Brothers, who didn't really exist yet, when John picked out a record and they goofed off singing to it. They bought my entire stock.
The next day, John brought by another actor from the film (not Toshiro Mifune), then another actor, then an Eagle, a couple of directors, the head of a studio, and basically everybody he met in Hollywood. My house became his hangout during the whole shooting of 1941. Clearly a friend's living room with musical instruments and a record collection and piles of dope was infinitely preferable to whatever high-end hotel the studio was putting him up in.
|Dan Aykroyd and Treat Williams on the set of 1941|
His stamina was astonishing. I've narrowed it down thanks to Michael Palin. On Friday, April 7, 1978, he came by after shooting 1941 all day, hung out till way too late, took his limo to the airport, flew to New York, went straight to Rockefeller Center, saw the SNL script for the first time, rehearsed all day, and I watched him live that night doing THIS sketch...
|Captain Preemos, on Poinsettia above Sunset|
There was never a point at which I actually decided to become drug dealer to the stars. I just couldn't say no to all the fabulous people I was being introduced to, despite the fact that what they were after was more drugs than my companionship. Within months, I had to move to a bigger house which became known as Captain Preemos, a hippie Algonquin speakeasy where stars not only got high but hung out. Any paranoia I would normally have had concerning strangers appearing at my door looking for drugs was obliterated by the fact that I recognized them all. They were my heroes, people I admired, people whose doors were closed to me during the day just showing up at my house at night.
|Me inside Preemos in John Belushi's hat|
|On the set of 1941|
John invited me to the set of The Blues Brothers where I took a Polaroid of him in his dressing room. I got to be in the movie as one of the soldiers chasing them through Daly Plaza. He showed me Chicago. We jammed at the Blues Club, across the street from Second City, John on drums, me on Keith Richard's guitar. On the day The Blues Brothers album came out, John brought it over and sang along with the whole thing in my living room.
A year and a half later a jilted ex-lover of mine wrote an anonymous letter to the LAPD telling them all about me, including bodies buried in the backyard. Two detectives showed up to check it out. They barged in and busted me, taking everything, including pictures of my cat.
I was charged with five different felonies, including possession of drugs, possession of drugs with the intent to sell, and maintaining an establishment for the purposes of selling drugs. If I'd been found guilty, I'd be getting out of the slammer just about now.
There was an interesting look on the judge's face when the evidence against me was presented: Bags of pot, mushrooms, hash, coke, boxes of every conceivable size of Ziplock bag, dozens of gram bottles, and a sign saying "Welcome to Captain Preemos" with a menu listing "California Sensimilla: $10 a gram, Hawaiian Sensimilla: $15 a gram, Colombian rock: $100 a gram, Peruvian Flake: $120 a gram, mystery grab-bag: $20." It would have been difficult to claim it was all for my personal use.
But the most damning pieces of evidence against me were the pictures of my cat, who was their only excuse for conducting a search in the first place. They said they heard a noise. For officer safety, they had to search the house, including a tiny room hidden under the stairs where I kept my inventory. Turned out to be the cat. Pitiful. The judge called it an illegal search, threw out the evidence, and the case was dropped.
|Brad Davis tears down Captain Preemos|
My scandalous past gave an interesting spin to my new life as a film critic. Hardly a week went by that I didn't see a movie or TV show in which the bad guy was not a drug dealer, and I always got momentarily annoyed because I was a drug dealer and I was not a bad guy. I didn't sell to youngsters, I didn't carry a gun, I didn't sell heroin or crack, I didn't kill anyone, and neither did anyone else I knew in the business. They were all pretty nice and honest folk. We got people high, just like a good bartender, and I made as honest a living as any of your standard vice-presidents at the WB.
It was 34 years ago, March 5th, 1982, and I was riding through the tulip fields outside of La Conner, Washington with Tom Robbins when the news came over the radio that John Belushi had died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont. I started crying. It was the worst thing I'd ever heard. Here I was on one of the coolest writing assignments of all time, adapting a Tom Robbins novel with the man himself, and I was blubbering like a baby. It must have seemed a bit extreme.
"Did you know him?" asked Tom.
"Yeah," I said, "I did."
When I got back to Hollywood from La Conner I was anxious to find out what really happened to John, so I started asking around. Through my old drug connections, I found that the drugs that killed John had come from the LAPD, that it was a sting operation gone bad.
Apparently Cathy Smith, a snitch with drugs from the LAPD evidence locker, was getting high with John at the Chateau Marmont. She had told her police connection that Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro might be coming by. This bit of information tantalized them. Smith was told to keep getting John high till Williams and DeNiro showed up so the bust could be bigger and higher profile. Three for the price of one.
Williams and DeNiro showed up briefly and at different times, splitting out of disgust with the presence of Smith. Cathy kept getting John high till he overdosed right in front of her. She immediately called her connection, a woman who was sleeping with the officer who supplied the drugs. He got on the phone and told Smith not to do a thing, to just wait for him. He showed up at the Marmont, told her to leave and come back in an hour. He then prepared the scene the way he wanted it to be found, then went down the block and waited for the body to be discovered. Basically, if the LAPD hadn't gotten piggy for the big bust instead of just arresting him alone, John Belushi might still be alive today.
Smith's early release, plus the total lack of police investigation into the source of the drugs, seemed to back this story, but with my drug past, and with none of my sources willing to go on the record, I sure as hell wasn't going to write about it.
A year went by.
The phone rang and it was Bob Woodward.
"Sure it is," I said.
"Hang up," he replied, "call information, ask for the number of the Washington Post in Washington D.C., call the main number and ask for me." I did. Got the same guy. He told me he was writing a book about John Belushi and had heard that I knew him. I told him I did, but expressed justifiable reticence in telling him my story. He told me everyone was cooperating and I should talk to Judy Belushi, then call him back.
|Judy and Jim Belushi|
Maybe I kept picturing Robert Redford in All the President's Men. Maybe I had this fantasy of being the new Deep Throat. Hell, maybe I just wanted to be in the book. All I know is that I called him back and told him "Follow the drugs. You won't believe where they lead."
"How do you know all this?" he asked.
In order to prove the reliability of my information, I told him the whole back story of my drug escapades, including how I met John and the life and death of Captain Preemo.
Who knew he would turn the assignment around and destroy John Belushi with the same fervor he used to destroy Richard Nixon? When Wired came out, it mysteriously included absolutely none of the story about the sting operation, not even as a wacko theory. It was a vast compilation of "just the facts, ma'am" that managed to totally mistake lists of information for truth.
I later found out that my version of events had been corroborated by several other sources. "It was going to be the story," one of Woodward's research assistants told me, "but Bob went to L.A. to meet with Daryl Gates, came back and killed it." (A trip where he had promised to take me to lunch but didn't.) Woodward did manage to include all of the back story concerning Captain Preemo, which did me no good to put it mildly. He somehow structured it so that I looked like the bad guy. John's life was going along just fine until he moved to Hollywood and met me. The very first excerpt from the book was printed in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. It was the story of Captain Preemo, naming me by name, clearly one of the bad guys leading to John's demise.
How come the man who took on Richard Nixon refused to take on Daryl Gates? My theory? He's an alcoholic. He's never done drugs and knows nothing of the scene. Thinks booze is good and pot is bad. He's an anti-drug warrior, eager to point out that "the scene" killed John, not just the drugs. His book subtly proposed that people like John deserved to die. My picture of him as Robert Redford was quickly replaced with one of Satan.
I was actually out the door on my way to the first day of a new job as film critic for the Z Channel when the phone rang and it was them telling me not to bother coming in. They never explained why I was fired. I only found out hours later when I saw the Herald.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the opposing attorney in the custody case for my son walked into the courtroom with Wired under his arm and tried to introduce it into evidence, claiming it showed I was a drug dealer, therefore an improper caregiver for my children. "I've read the book," said the judge, "and you may not introduce anything from it into evidence unless you have Mr. Woodward here to corroborate it." Right on, otherwise you could bring in a Jackie Collins novel or a National Inquirer to use as evidence against someone.
The judge was Stanley Weisberg, who went on to judge the McMartin Preschool case, the Menendez Brothers, and Rodney King. A guy with a future history of letting people off. He ordered that any mention of Woodward's book be stricken from the record, but obviously it wasn't stricken from his brain. Opposing council got what they wanted. Weisberg now knew I had a drug history, one he could look up at home. I got custody anyway, no thanks to Bob Woodward.
Then the film of Wired came out and it had one scene that wasn't in the book. John would have loved it. In the scene, John's dead body is wheeled into the morgue by an attendant who accidentally leaves a half-eaten ham sandwich on the body bag. The temptation is too strong. John unzips the bag from the inside and reaches out for the sandwich. Finally, he crawls out of the bag and says "What happened? How did I get here?" His guardian angel comes down in the form of a Puerto Rican taxi driver and gives him a tour of his life that thankfully did not include me.
Meanwhile, John's widow hires Bob Woodward to do some quick detective work and try to discover the truth about her husband's death. The film is a race between Bob Woodward and John Belushi's ghost to discover why John died, building to a final showdown between the two of them.
I like that idea, and there are moments in the film of "Wired" that are under-appreciated. Woodward is accurately portrayed as the Sgt. Friday of journalism. In the movie, John gets the opportunity to tell Woodward off for only writing about the bad things. Good for him.
Unfortunately, the prevailing message of Wired, the book and the film, was simple, do drugs - die. This may be a popular thing to say but it is a lie. Everybody who does drugs does not automatically die. Some people do drugs and then get on with their lives, like I did. If everybody who did drugs died a horrible death like John Belushi, illegal drugs would be a very small industry. What is the growth potential of a consumer item that guarantees certain death? Obviously SOMEBODY is doing drugs and living or the enormous drug trade would have no repeat customers.
I wouldn't expect a film about James Dean to be an endless diatribe against Porsches, though speeding around in one is indeed what killed him. When I remember James Dean, I like to think of that black and white poster of him walking down a wet New York street, not his mangled body in a sports car. I don't want to see a film called Speeding about Dean's obsession with driving fast and his determination to own faster cars. I would feel cheated. I would want a film about Dean to focus on his life, not his death.
But Wired was almost exclusively about John Belushi's death. Without the death, there's no movie. What Woodward and the other perpetrators of Wired were inferring was that John Belushi's life was meaningless and not even worth exploring. His only use was as a momentary anti-drug poster child. They reduced a complicated man into a wretched cliché in order to further our country's ludicrous anti-drug campaign.
It's decades later and I can't help but think if somebody who never heard of John Belushi looked at Wired, they would wonder why anybody bothered to make a movie about such a pathetic human being. So let me reiterate. Wired, the book and the movie, got it wrong, even though they kept sporadically reminding me of a man I loved. A man I remember.
At Sunset was a secret nightclub next door to the Whiskey on Sunset Blvd. The front was boarded up, but there was a back entrance that hosted a party every weekend. The meat locker in the kitchen was the hippest place to hang out. Loud music would be playing and the kitchen would be packed. It was where you went to do drugs, so that was where you normally found John, and anywhere you found John immediately became the hippest place to be. He gave validity to a whole scene that was screaming out for recognition. Members of such obscuro L.A. groups as Fear and Black Flag would go home bragging that John Belushi had been in the audience.
John's west coast wake was held at At Sunset. Somebody scrawled BELUSHI'S ROOM across the meat locker wall in crayon. Years later, At Sunset closed and it became the new Dukes Coffeeshop, where I have as yet to order any meat dishes.
The last time I saw John, he was obviously tired. He was sitting at the back of another club, the Zero Zero, watching people dance, listening to very loud music, aware that his presence in the room was known by all. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone and TV Guide that very week, so he was royalty.
He was sitting in a chair near the dance floor when somebody dancing accidentally spilt a beer on him. John did nothing, just sat there, neither indignant nor angry, no reaction at all. The dancer laughed and spilt more of his beer on him, obviously hoping for some sort of response. He got none. A bunch of others joined in, and pretty soon it turned into "Let's Spill our Beer on John Belushi Night."