part 1 of 3
What was left of forty-year-old Jeff Dahl was placed in an incinerator, reduced to ash and poured into a modest urn.
That didn't bother Gary Watson, Jeff's best friend. He believed that Jeff would have okayed the cremation of his remains. But Gary didn't like Jeff's burial site--a small, unmarked spot near a main road in a Westport, Connecticut, cemetery--and he was disturbed by the sight of an anonymous worker idling near the small knot of mourners gathered to bid their farewells to Jeff on that late October day. The man held a shovel in his hands, but not for long. Acting instinctively, Gary stepped forward, seized the tool and began to dig. No stranger is going to bury Jeff Dahl, thought Gary. That's my job.
Jonathan Dahl, Jeff's younger brother, watched Gary nose the shovel into the soil, his head swimming with contradictions. Jonathan and Jeff had been inseparable as kids: Dwayne, the eldest of the three Dahl children, referred to them in a school essay as "those two." But as the pair grew older, they took divergent paths. Jonathan graduated from Columbia University in New York City and landed a high-profile reporting job at the Wall Street Journal. But Jeff struggled with drug abuse and mental illness; at 27, after an argument with his well-to-do parents, Ted and Sheila, he simply dropped out of sight. Six years later, in 1988, when Ted was near death, he asked Jonathan to find Jeff and bring him back into the family. After more than a year of searching, Jonathan located Jeff in Denver, where he was living the life of an itinerant musician and still suffering from the afflictions that had led to his initial disappearance.
Thanks to an article Jonathan wrote about Jeff for the Journal in 1991, their reunion caught the national imagination. Television appearances were scheduled, book and movie contracts were signed. The attention Jeff had sought for so long seemed finally to be within his grasp. But there was to be no happy ending for Jeff Dahl. Despondent and lonely, he hanged himself in the psychiatric ward of Connecticut's Norwalk Hospital on October 20, 1995. Jonathan and his wife, Jessica, stood by when Jeff's life-support system was disconnected the next day.
As he watched Jeff's friend dig, Jonathan wondered if anything could have been done to prevent this lamentable last scene even as he envied Gary for being so decisive. "I was very close to Jeff and loved him very much," Jonathan says. "But my proper upbringing wouldn't have let me take the shovel out of that guy's hand. It was absolutely the sweet, right thing to do. But I couldn't do it."
Perhaps nothing could have been done for Jeff Dahl. But although his story mirrors the fate of a great many homeless people, he was far more than a statistic. To Jonathan, Dwayne and Sheila, he was astoundingly bright, witty and open--the only Dahl who was comfortable telling the others that he loved them. To Gary, he was a man who felt emotions more intensely than anyone else and returned them with equal ferocity. To Jeff's ex-wife, Michelle Fox, to whom he was married for most of 1994, he was a person whose severe pain often overwhelmed his finest instincts. To his fellow musicians, he was a gutsy performer who would do anything--absolutely anything--to produce a reaction from his listeners. And to patrons of Cricket on the Hill and the other Denver clubs where he plied his craft, he was scatological and hilarious. What they didn't realize was that his compositions--songs with names such as "White Trash," "Give Me Food Stamps" and "The Man With the Giant Right Arm"--weren't simply gags. They were his life. And they were true.
These tales drew precious little from Jeff's upbringing. He was born in 1955 in the prosperous Connecticut community of Darien. Ted was an IBM executive who planned corporate conferences; he would make films for the presentations and line up guest speakers such as former President Gerald Ford and astronaut Neil Armstrong, as well as entertainers like magician David Copperfield. The work was exciting and paid well; the Dahls wintered in the Bahamas and spent much of the rest of the year relaxing at Darien's exclusive Tokeneke Club.
Jeff got along well with Dwayne, the quietest of the Dahl boys and four years his elder, but they didn't grow as close as he and Jonathan, who was born three years after Jeff. The younger boys shared a room and proved remarkably compatible: Sheila says that for all their clashes in later years, they almost never squabbled as children. Jeff delighted in drawing pictures for Jonathan or making toys for him from pieces of cardboard. Later, he defended Jonathan from neighborhood thugs, and once saved his sibling from choking on the strap of a toy gun that had become snagged on a tree branch. As Jonathan wrote in his Journal article, the incident "went down in family lore as the day Jeff saved his brother's life."
As children, the Dahls were very athletic--Jonathan was a fine tennis player and Dwayne competed in track--but Jeff stood out. He taught himself to swim at age five, and within a few years, he was winning swimming awards at Tokeneke. His I.Q. was rated at 135; Sheila remembers that when he was in eighth grade a teacher told her that Jeff was already writing at a professional level. His musical and artistic creativity made him a soulmate for Ted, who would consult Jeff whenever he was putting together a conference.
Still, Jeff was not an easy child to raise. While Dwayne and Jonathan were always well-behaved in school, Jeff spoke out; if he didn't like an instructor, he'd announce it to the world. He also showed signs of what Sheila, who classifies herself as a depressive, describes as the same obsessive-compulsive behaviors from which Ted suffered. "Although we had mental illness on my side of the family," Sheila says, "Jeff's was from his father's side. Ted used it constructively. But Jeff..."
The first indications that Jeff might be suffering from serious mental problems surfaced shortly after his graduation from high school, Sheila says. Dwayne had attended Columbia, but the Dahls were reticent to send Jeff there; Sheila feared that his interest in "crazy music" might cause him to spend more time in Greenwich Village than in his classrooms. So she and Ted picked the University of Delaware, known for its strong graphic-arts department. But Jeff, who had developed a major marijuana jones during the previous year, dropped out of the university and fell into a deep depression. His parents consulted psychiatrists, and when none of them seemed able to help, they checked Jeff into the Silver Hill Foundation, a tony mental institution in New Canaan, Connecticut--Bing Crosby had once been a patient there, and Rita Hayworth was then a resident.
So was a girl named Liz Miraglia, who stayed at Silver Hill for fourteen months, from July 1976 to late 1977. She shared a great deal in common with Jeff: They both came from wealthy families, they both were prone to depression, and they both were interested in the visual arts--photography, in Liz's case. Before long, they'd struck up what was to prove an enduring, if erratic, friendship. Jeff played Liz songs on his guitar, which he was still working to master, and enlisted her in various shenanigans, several of which involved costumes, a lifelong preoccupation for him. She remembers Jeff disguising himself as an old man and escorting her and a friend--outfitted as floozies--into the dining hall. The trio caused quite a ruckus, much to the chagrin of the other, stuffier convalescents. "We had as much fun as you can possibly have in a mental hospital," she declares.
Jeff left Silver Hill a few months later, only to return shortly thereafter. The next time he checked out, it was at the request of Silver Hill management: He'd been caught sneaking marijuana into the facility.
Thus began a cycle of new starts and fresh disappointments. Jeff agreed to take classes at C.W. Post, a Long Island school known for training professional artists, and did very well for one semester. But during the next term, Jeff stopped attending class. Concerned, Ted spoke with administrators, who agreed to give Jeff one more chance, and Sheila volunteered to ferry him back and forth from Connecticut to the campus. But after Sheila dropped Jeff off each day, he would join friends at a dorm and smoke pot until his mom arrived to pick him up again. His experiences were much the same after he signed up at Norwalk Community College, and a stint at a halfway house also failed to get him back on track. He landed a job, and Sheila and Ted gave him a moped on which to ride there, but Jeff threw the vehicle in a ditch and vanished.
Over time, behavior like this became habitual. Jeff would go away--sometimes to a local hospital, sometimes to area parks or shelters--only to pop up again without warning. Sheila joked that Jeff was half Gypsy, but she also recognized that he was becoming more unstable. Jeff smashed furniture, swiped his parents' car and threatened to burn down their house during numerous outbursts. Jonathan, too, became wary. In early 1982, Jeff showed up at Columbia, where Jonathan was attending school (Ted and Sheila knew that Jonathan could be trusted there). Jeff found his brother at his fraternity house and asked to crash in his room for the night. Jonathan, to his ensuing regret, turned him down.
Initially, Jeff's ultimate departure seemed little different from his previous exits. He had agreed to help paint the family house, but Ted had told Sheila not to pay him until he'd done the work; he was afraid Jeff would use the money for drugs and skip the painting. Sheila told Jeff about this decision while driving him back to the apartment where he was living at the time, and he reacted angrily, kicking the side of the car. In Sheila's telling, Ted's response was to tell Jeff not to come home when he was on drugs. "But Jeffrey always twisted things," she says. "He interpreted that as, `Don't ever come home.' And that's when he disappeared."
It was August 1982 when Jeff departed, and only once during the next eight years did he attempt to contact a family member. On that occasion, he phoned the home that Dwayne shared with his wife, Beth, and their two sons, Christopher and Jonathan. But Beth's mother was the only person home at the time, and she didn't understand the importance of the call. Jeff chose not to tell her where he was and left no number where he could be reached. Years later, Sheila discovered that his call to Dwayne was placed from Fairfield Hills, a mental hospital in nearby New Town, Connecticut. Jeff remained in proximity to Darien throughout most of the early and mid-Eighties. Although he spent some time drifting, his primary base was Westport, Connecticut, a community even more artsy and affluent than his hometown. The presence of famous residents such as Paul Newman inspired its apt nickname: Beverly Hills East.
While in Westport, Jeff met Gary Watson, an Arvada native who had taken a circuitous route to Connecticut. After a brief stint in the Navy, Gary had moved to New York City with a high school buddy. But money soon ran short, and the twosome's attempt to get some more, by drunkenly breaking into a Westport gas station, ended with a robbery conviction and a couple of months in jail. Upon his release, Gary fell in with the homeless population of Westport, which congregated at the town's two main shelters. The first of these, dubbed the Youth Room, was founded by the Reverend Theodore Hoskins and initially was based in a local church. Its successor, the Gillespie Center, was a slightly more elaborate facility that owed its existence to Hoskins's tireless advocacy for the homeless.
As Gary remembers it, Westport's street people were an outlandish lot. Among them was Pete, an heir to a publishing fortune who played in a band called the Noise Boys and had a serious addiction to drugs. His favorite outfit, a white tuxedo sans shirt and shoes, contrasted nicely with his flaming red hair. Pete's sometime girlfriend, Robin, was a regular, too--Gary remembers her once announcing to a restaurant filled with people that she'd just had sex with a German shepherd--as was John Hines, tagged "The Human Skull" because of his tightly drawn visage. Hines's guitar- and harmonica-playing was made memorable by a chronic twitch that struck when he performed. Joe Downer, a street poet, and Vinnie Venooch, whom Gary labels the most pleasant junkie imaginable, also were part of the crew. Some years later, Downer died of AIDS and Venooch overdosed.
Also part of this group was Jeff, whose incessant talk initially annoyed Gary. When Gary bothered to listen to this babble, though, he discovered that Jeff was well-read, passionate about music (they shared a fondness for the punk rock then flourishing in New York) and almost preternaturally intuitive. Within a few minutes of meeting a person, Gary claims, Jeff was able to discern the key to his personality--the one thing he could say that would make that person feel best or worst. Whether he used this skill as a reward or as a weapon was determined by how he was treated. If you were dismissive, he would rip you to pieces. But if you showed him respect, he would pay you back a thousand-fold.
Once Gary took the latter tack, he and Jeff became fast friends--and a shared familiarity with Colorado cemented their relationship. Jeff's visit to the state had come about by chance: A few months earlier he had embarked on a trip to Bellingham, Washington, but en route to the Pacific Northwest, he was stranded outside Denver. After falling asleep in a cornfield there, he awakened under the delusion that he was Jesus Christ. He ended up in Fort Logan Mental Health Center and stayed there until he realized that he could not walk on water. As his head cleared, he fell in love with the scenic area.
Back in Connecticut, the Jeff that Gary got to know seesawed between extremes. When he was singing and playing his guitar on the streets of Westport or running around with Gary and their homeless pals, Jeff was the great entertainer. No one was quicker with a quip, and his stories could reduce his pals to convulsions. So, too, could the often pornographic cartoons that he doodled; Gary particularly prizes a piece commemorating a grope-fest with a pair of underaged girls that Jeff titled "Gang Date."
But Jeff could also be too needy, too exhausting. When one of his friends was staying somewhere other than a shelter, Jeff had the ability to turn a brief visit into the equivalent of a military occupation. He captured this quality in his song "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave":
I'm eating your food
And I'm doing your wife
I'm totally screwing up
Your whole fucking life
I'm sleeping on your couch
And I'm watching your TV--oh baby!
I'm the thing that wouldn't leave
Jeff's self-deprecating humor couldn't keep his black moods at bay forever--and when the gloom began to descend, he sometimes attempted to blow it away once and for all. During a stay at Fairfield Hills, he tried to hang himself, but the sheet he was using came loose; when he awakened, coughing and choking, he was surrounded by nurses. Those in his orbit believe destructive acts like this one were motivated by constant emotional pain. Gary and Jonathan say that they've never seen anyone in such agony without a visible injury.
For relief, Jeff turned to drugs--periodically heroin or cocaine, but most often marijuana. He spent every dime he could find on weed, and if too much time passed between tokes, he became absolutely unbearable. Once, while staying at a Westport apartment Gary rented with money he earned working at a joint called the S&M Pizzeria, Jeff demanded that Gary drive him to a rendezvous with his dealer. When Gary asked him to wait for a few minutes, Jeff became so infuriated that he sought to goad Gary into a brawl, first by threatening to hit him, then by trying to spit on him. Jeff was too upset to work up much saliva, but Gary decided to cooperate with him anyhow. He beat the hell out of him, then took him to score.
While Jeff was mired in ghastly circumstances, Jonathan was living up to his potential. He graduated from Columbia, and before long he was hired by the Journal. Nonetheless, he says, Jeff was never far from his thoughts. The same was true of Ted, who always felt responsible for Jeff's disappearance, in spite of reassurances from family members that he was not at fault.
In 1988 Jeff's parents were living in Clearwater, Florida; they'd moved because of Ted's deteriorating health, but the new environment failed to slow his decline. Ted had picked up hepatitis years earlier, and this ailment, complicated by aplastic anemia, eventually destroyed his liver. As the end neared, Ted became more certain that Jeff's problems were a result of mental illness, not drug abuse. We wouldn't have thrown him out if he'd lost an arm, he'd sigh to Sheila.
Sheila says she supported Ted's decision to set up a trust for his sons but urged him to leave Jeff out of it, knowing that Jonathan and Dwayne wouldn't have access to the funds while Jeff remained at large. Ted took her suggestion, but he wrote Jeff a letter stating that his brothers would take care of him so long as he kicked his drug habit. He also asked Jonathan to find Jeff--to make sure he was okay--and to help however he could. And then, in May 1988, Ted died.
Jonathan's search for Jeff began in earnest in the fall of 1989. He began by phoning acquaintances of Jeff's from high school and calling any Jeff Dahls for whom he could find listings throughout the U.S. This probe turned up little usable information--not even word of another musician named Jeff Dahl, best known for his stint in the nationally recognized punk group the Angry Samoans. But a subsequent conversation with a onetime friend of Jeff's produced a solid lead: Jeff reportedly had been seen playing his guitar in a public park in Westport. Jonathan traveled there in November and was soon directed to the Reverend Hoskins. The pastor recognized Jeff's photo and told Jonathan that his brother had been on the street for years--sometimes sleeping at shelters, other times staying in junked cars. Together, Jonathan and the reverend went to the Gillespie Center, where a counselor revealed that Jeff had left Westport three weeks earlier, allegedly because he owed a local drug dealer $4,000 he didn't have. The counselor didn't know where Jeff had gone.
During the first half of 1990 Jonathan called shelters and police departments across the country and conducted scattershot expeditions into the dodgier portions of New York City, all without coming across Jeff. He also undertook numerous return visits to the Gillespie Center, and when someone there said he once heard Jeff talking about heading to Florida, Jonathan's ears perked up. Perhaps Jeff had discovered that his parents had relocated to Clearwater. But after flying to Florida that October, Jonathan discovered only disappointment. The clues he investigated were false, and his encounters with others searching for homeless adults only reinforced the difficulty of his task.
But November, and the Gillespie Center, brought new hope. Joe Downer gave Jonathan the number of a Jack Klee, who lived in San Antonio, and Klee said that Jeff had just left there for Denver. Jonathan then returned to Westport and pumped Downer for more information. Within a day, Downer came up with some: He remembered that Gary Watson once lived in Arvada. This nugget led Jonathan to Gary's mother, and after speaking with her, he booked a flight to Denver. Upon his arrival, he went to Mrs. Watson's home, where he was told that Jeff had recently been in town. She added that, not long before, he'd been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. This time he'd used a razor blade.
The number of Jeff's unsuccessful suicide tries was nearing ten, in large part because many of them were somewhat halfhearted. He'd take a blade to his wrists, but he wouldn't cut too deeply; he'd merely nick himself, then get frightened and stop. But the attempt to which Mrs. Watson referred, made while he was living in a dive near the intersection of Ninth Avenue and Pearl Street, was far more serious.
The motivations this time were romantic fixation and despair. Jeff had seen a woman at Cricket on the Hill who'd piqued his interest, and a cartoon he drew (a caricature of himself trying to work up the nerve to ask her out) temporarily attracted her to him. But before long, she was spooked by Jeff's compulsiveness and broke off the relationship in its nascent stages. Jeff reacted by staking out her home for days on end. She moved to get away from him, but he found out where she'd gone and began stalking her. When she rejected him again, Jeff told Gary, he'd returned to his apartment, held one arm in midair and brutally slashed through his flesh until blood spurted in torrents from his veins. Terrified, Jeff wrapped his arm in a towel and staggered to a nearby convenience store, where he dialed 911. Gary cleaned up the mess.
During the periods when Jeff was in Denver--and from approximately 1987 on, he lived here more often than anywhere else--Gary tried his best to take care of him. When Gary had a place, Jeff knew he could crash there, eat there, smoke grass there, write and sing songs there. And when Gary was working somewhere, he would try to find a job for Jeff. This was no snap, since Jeff wasn't particularly employable. Shelters would line up positions (generally of the janitorial variety), but he wouldn't keep them for long. Jeff's unreliability didn't matter to Gary, though. He would even invent assignments for Jeff--like dusting the sex toys on display at Kitty's South, the Broadway porn palace Gary was managing at the time of Jonathan's Denver visit. Jeff griped about the task: "I've got an I.Q. of 135, and here I am dusting dildos," he'd say. But he liked hanging out at Kitty's, because the women on site, usually wearing nothing but their underwear, would fawn over him. He immortalized these experiences in the tune "Goin' to Kitty's":
Well, it's Friday night and I just got paid
It's been ten years since I got laid
A couple friends told me a place where I
They've got blow-up dolls and Acu-jacks
They've got nasty movies in the back
And the girls behind the glass all know my
But as much as Jeff craved the attention of scantily clad women, he craved performing more. He frequented open-stage nights at various Denver clubs (particularly Cricket on the Hill, where sets were overseen by either local scenester Dave Delacroix or singer-songwriter Baggs Patrick) and took great delight in throwing everyone present for a loop. He'd perform his most grotesque songs--like "Fetus for Sale," in which a preserved human embryo is on the block at a garage sale, and "Don't Feed the Homos," a straight-faced satire many found ultra-offensive--in the most emphatic manner possible. A bulky figure (he was trim as a boy, but by his thirties he'd ballooned to over 200 pounds), Jeff had a gruff, booming voice and an acoustic-guitar style that generally favored big gestures and power chords over subtlety. He'd stomp around the stage, challenging his listeners--poking them, prodding them, seeing how much they could take. At the conclusion of his sets, he'd often be on the floor--either on his back, his legs kicking wildly into the air, or on top of his guitar, his hips thrusting into the shapely instrument's midsection.
Not everyone who saw these displays was captivated by them, and that was fine by Jeff. In fact, Gary's role at these gigs was to heckle; he'd rank on Jeff for his singing, his songs, even his choice of shirts. If these efforts riled the crowd, Jeff would be pleased. If not, he would sometimes verbally abuse customers until they reacted. His behavior angered numerous Cricket on the Hill bouncers and bartenders over the years. More than once, Jeff was banned from the club for life--something of an accomplishment, since the Cricket's clientele can be among the roughest in Denver.
Jeff's response to the first of these expulsions set the pattern for those that followed. On that occasion, he donned an overcoat, a wig and a false beard, then signed up under a phony name for a slot on another open-stage evening. When his turn came, he stepped up to the microphone, tore off his camouflage and shouted, "I'm Jeff Dahl, and nobody's kicking me off this stage!"
And no one did. Gary says, "Eric Clapton could have walked in there that night and people would have gone home talking about Jeff."
end of part 1
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- NFL's Marijuana Ban the "Correct Policy," Says Commissioner Roger Goodell
- Reader: I Own a Subaru Outback and I Admit I Can Be an Ass on the Road
- Denver's Ten Best Restaurants for a Great Date Night