DAHL PARTS THREE
part 3 of 3
At first, Michelle says, everything was perfect. Jeff displayed his sensitivity, his humor, his good-heartedness. But he was keeping a lot of secrets. She didn't learn much about the horrors of his homeless period until months later, and she discovered only after he died that Jeff had (in Sheila's words) "made a habit" of trying to terminate himself.
As for Jeff, reining himself in took its toll, and after two weeks or so, he couldn't be good any longer. The location of his first post-marriage explosion was the Lion's Lair, an East Colfax bar where he had been told he could play before an appearance by Babihed. But the opening act played longer than expected, eating into his allotted time, and Jeff, frustrated, erupted into a screaming fit and demanded that Michelle and a friend who had accompanied them to the club leave with him immediately. Reluctantly, Michelle did so, hoping that the outburst was merely an aberration. But she soon discovered it was a permanent part of his personality. She called it "the dark side."
Not all of Michelle's moments with Jeff were so black. Jeff incorporated her and a friend, Tina Hedlund, into his act, dubbing them alternately the Dead Virgins or the Donkey Girls. The three of them would dress up--the outfits varied with each show--and deliver Jeff's songs in a manner that struck friend Baggs Patrick as kinder, gentler and better than his trademark shtick. But Jeff's obsessiveness eventually sucked much of the amusement out of the performances for Michelle. He would spend days before a gig agonizing over every aspect of it, she says, and if the tiniest thing went wrong during the show itself, he would sink into a rut. And when Jeff was depressed, Michelle says, "he'd throw a tantrum. If he didn't get his way, nobody was going to be happy."
Of course, Jeff was also under pressure. Michelle, according to Bill Houston and Gary, tried to turn him into an approximation of a suburban husband--dressing him in better clothes, encouraging him to keep up his appearance and giving him housekeeping responsibilities. A few of these chores he handled with aplomb. Somewhere along the way, he had become a good cook; Michelle says she's still trying to lose the weight she gained because of his culinary skills. But because he ate so much food himself, she was soon urging him to find at least a part-time job. At one point, he claimed to have done so, but she later discovered that he was only pretending to work.
Before long, the drug use became an issue, too. Michelle tried to convince Jeff to enter a treatment program, but he refused. A few times, he pledged to quit on his own, but after three days or so without the stuff, he'd be back in his dealer's good graces. Hiding his stash didn't do any good, either: She says he would tear the house apart to find it or spend money he was supposed to be donating to household expenses on it. He expressed some guilt over this behavior, but not so much that he wouldn't behave the same way the next time. After all, Gary and Jonathan say, he felt that his pot use was medicinal, not recreational--a buffer between him and the rest of the world.
Attempts by Michelle to interest Jeff in something other than music failed. She tried to teach him how to use her computer and was heartened by his genuine efforts to learn its secrets. But after mastering some of the basics, he became bored and stopped. His vow to work toward a college degree was broken as well; a bill for a film course at the University of Colorado that recently found its way to Sheila is practically the only evidence of this aspiration he left behind. Confirmation of Jeff's fits was easier to find. During various rages, he punched or kicked numerous holes in the duplex's walls, smashed cups and dishes, and once broke Michelle's dresser.
In October, with Michelle herself near breaking, Sheila and Albert came to town. Sheila knew that things were not good between Jeff and Michelle: Jeff had called her, asking for tips about how he could prevent himself from verbally abusing his wife. She gave him advice, but in many ways, she was more sympathetic to Michelle than to her own son. Sheila believed that Jeff had tricked Michelle into marriage by not leveling with her about his past or the extent of his problems. During the stay, she took Michelle aside and said as much to her. "I told her that Jeff wasn't her responsibility," Sheila notes. "I told her she had to think of herself."
And so Michelle did. In November, less than a year after they met, and fearful that Jeff's verbal attacks would eventually lead to physical ones, Michelle told him they should part. Jeff put her off for a time, but Michelle thinks that even he knew that the match would never work out. When she reiterated her demand for a divorce, Jeff made no empty promises and threw no fits. Instead, he sat down with Michelle and cried. They both knew it was over.
The high hopes that once accompanied Jonathan's Jeff-inspired projects had been dashed, too. Jonathan was back at the Journal and doing well (he was promoted to news editor in charge of overseeing the newspaper's travel section, a post he still holds), but the ventures intended to catapult him to national prominence had come to naught.
Two screenplays were written in an effort to bring "Missing in America" to the nation's multiplexes, and by the last of them, the story bore little resemblance to the article that had inspired it. Jonathan, in this version, was married, as he is in reality, but the scripter also provided him with a teenage child--a screwup drifting into drugs and despair. Against this backdrop, the reporter character began his search for Jeff and found him, Jonathan says, "in about ten minutes." The fictional Jonathan then brought Jeff back to New York with him but was unable to check his brother's downward spiral. Fortunately, Jonathan's "son" saw the possible result of his conduct reflected in his doomed uncle's. Jonathan claims not to remember precisely what happened to the Jeff character: "I didn't read it all that closely. But I think he just wandered into the sunset." He adds, "As it was explained to me, it was really hot in Hollywood at the time to have a father-son team, like Jeff Bridges and his dad. So they wanted it to be about me and the son. Once Jeff had served his script purpose, he just went away."
Jonathan isn't particularly critical of the script. It's a nice story, he says, but it isn't his--and he continues to believe that the actual details of his and Jeff's get-together are more compelling than the screenwriter's concoction. But it hardly matters at this point. Columbia Pictures gave it a thumbs-down, and no one has stepped in to salvage it.
Random House was more persistent; the editors there wanted the book, and they kept pestering Jonathan to get it to them. But they weren't satisfied with the first half of the draft that he forwarded to them. They wanted "improvements," and Jonathan tried to incorporate them as best he could.
A number of factors defeated him. The working relationship between him and Jeff had become poisonous, he says. They couldn't concentrate on the tasks before them because of their constant bickering. In addition, Jonathan concedes, "I was very slow both through working with Jeff and through my own horrible writer's block--something I've experienced before, but never like that." Gary elaborates, "Jonathan would write a word and then erase it and then write it again. He would write sentences over and over and over and over. Jeff would be like, `It's fine the way it is,' but it wasn't good enough for Jonathan."
Additional pressure was created by the unspoken assumption that the book would be a guarantor of Jeff's financial future. Looked at in this light, Jeff's future was in Jonathan's hands.
Today Jonathan sees this notion as severely flawed. Sure, Jeff needed shelter; everyone does. But what Jeff required more than anything, Jonathan believes, was love. He received it from his family, but with strings attached. Jeff knew they loved him, but, he told Gary, he thought they'd care more if he put away his marijuana and fulfilled the promise of his youth. They couldn't accept him as he was, and neither could a woman--any woman. He'd spent years without the companionship of a female who wasn't dancing naked in a glass booth, and now his one shot at happiness, with Michelle, had detonated in his face.
Jonathan knew that book royalties wouldn't change any of that--at least he did when he was at his most rational. But staying rational while interacting with Jeff was not easy. So after Jonathan blew the last deadline set by Random House, he decided to put the book aside until he thought he and Jeff would be ready to tackle it once more. But they never were.
As most of his friends expected, Jeff was torn asunder by the breakup of his marriage with Michelle. Initially, the couple did their best to remain friends. When Michelle stayed in Boulder for a few days to attend a seminar, Jeff slept at her home and looked after her five cats. But when Jeff began lobbying for a reconciliation, Michelle rebuffed him. After that, she says, "he got really nasty on the phone, called me names." She formally filed for a divorce at the end of February, a few weeks after his birthday--the last time she saw him. On that day, Jeff called her to ask for money, and she drove over to the apartment where he was staying and gave it to him. That night, she says, he got drunk and left what she'll describe only as "threatening" messages on her answering machine.
This time Jeff's threats were empty. Michelle says he never stalked her. Gary adds that the mere thought of her prevented him from going to the western Denver suburbs. "That was hard for him," Gary says, "because one of his best dealers lived there."
Before long, Jeff put even more distance between him and Michelle: He packed his few belongings and took off for Pete Houston's place in Austin. Big Ed, the act he'd played with during his previous stint in the Texas capital, was no more, but several of its members had formed a new combo, a jug band dubbed Dickie Dunckin and the Dunckineers, and they asked Jeff to join.
Although the Dunckineers didn't turn Austin on its ear, the outfit quickly gathered a following. Jeff's work situation was improved, too. He kept busy helping Pete replace the roof and redo the plumbing and electrical wiring on a house he was renovating; in exchange, Pete provided him a place to live and gave Jeff his old car, a run-down Mazda. But by midsummer, Jeff was hankering for the road. He told Pete he was going to take a vacation, perhaps at Big Bear Lake in California.
In actuality, his destination was Colorado--or, more specifically, Michelle. But there was to be no cheery reunion. The Mazda broke down on I-25 south of Denver, and Jeff called Michelle from a pay phone and asked her to come get him. She replied that she was finishing up work on a project that needed to be delivered in two hours and told him to call her back after that. Gary says Jeff took her request as a rejection. When Michelle, her assignment completed, drove to the place where Jeff had been, she found the car, but Jeff was nowhere to be seen; he'd abandoned the Mazda and taken a taxi to the city (Pete Houston recently received notice that the vehicle is sitting in a Denver-area auto impound).
Upon his arrival in the city, Jeff looked up Gary and some other old friends and stuck his toe back into the open-stage scene. But the fire within him that usually burned so brightly when he was in front of an audience only flickered. His last local appearance, on July 30, took place at the Cricket on the Hill, before a tiny turnout. Jeff, bloated and pale, played several of his roughest pieces, winding up, as usual, with his signature song, "The Donkey Show"--a ditty inspired by a Tijuana sex show involving a young woman and a burro:
I want to play in the donkey show
I want to know what the donkey knows
The lovely Juanita, she stole my heart
The crowd goes wild when the donkey farts
Jeff tried to rev the song up by running around in a tight little circle during the number's flamenco-esque instrumental section. But at its conclusion, he couldn't work up the energy to hump his instrument or flop on the floor for some thematically appropriate donkey kicks. He just strummed a few steady strums, waved his hand dismissively and walked away. In describing the performance as a whole, Baggs Patrick, who was standing at stage right during Jeff's act, uses a word seldom associated with Jeff Dahl. "It was very polite," he says.
After that, Jeff lay low for a few weeks, communicating mainly with Liz Miraglia, his old friend from the Silver Hill Foundation, who was still living in Connecticut. He and Liz had drifted apart until the Journal article, after which she had tracked him down through Jonathan. She had spent the years since she'd seen him wrestling with depression and bouncing back and forth between photography jobs. During the early Nineties she traveled to Somalia and Kenya with a charity organization, and she sent some of the pictures she took to Jeff. His response was a cartoon--a self-portrait of him holding open a newspaper under a caption that read, "Damn, those photographs of people starving and suffering really do make me feel better."
In 1993, before Jeff met Michelle, he and Liz had discussed getting married, and she had even sent him a plane ticket so that he could join her in Connecticut. But shortly before he was scheduled to fly there, she says, "I chickened out. I told him I'd spoken with my doctor and I just didn't think it would work out." Jeff was incensed by this reversal, but he made good use of the ticket, using it to fly east for his mother's wedding to Albert.
Liz and Jeff stayed in contact, though, and in August 1995, she invited him to come to Westport again. He was willing, but he had little money and didn't want to spend too much of his nest egg on a bus ticket. She advised him to wait until he received the next check from his mother, and he concurred. Then, at six o'clock the next morning, her phone rang. "I hope you still want me to come out," a check-less Jeff said. "Because I'm coming."
Gary drove his friend to the bus station. His last image of Jeff was of him sitting inside a Greyhound, bound for the land of his birth.
This time, Liz insists, marriage wasn't part of the picture--not from her perspective, anyway. Jeff was just visiting for a while, and because she was on welfare (she says she lost her previous job as a result of "a medical problem"), he'd be helping with expenses, too. But things didn't work out that way. He ate anything and everything Liz brought into the house, but all of his own money went toward pot. Soon, like Michelle, she was urging him to get a job, but she had no more luck than his ex-wife had. The anxiety she felt as a result of his passive resistance was exacerbated by Jeff's morose mood. He still cracked a joke like no one else, but less often than before. According to Liz, he was more apt to burst into tears than to say something funny.
After half a month of this, Liz says, "I had to give him the boot." Jeff supposedly had a friend with whom he could stay, but within a matter of days he was back at the Gillespie Center. "That was my worst fear," Gary says. "He'd come full circle, and I'll bet Jeff knew it. He was a really reflective guy, really poetic, and I knew if he wound up in that fucking shelter for even one night, things would get really bad."
A week later Jeff returned to Liz's place. He said that he would pay her $100 if he could stay with her until the first of October, and she accepted, thinking that the money would be the first of several payments meant to reimburse her for the expenses she'd already incurred. But Jeff didn't come up with any more cash for her. He needed what he had for marijuana and other drugs. Liz maintains that Jeff came home with some heroin one evening and convinced her to do some of it with him. There's nothing really harmful about it, he asserted. Neighbors of yours, friends of yours have done heroin, too. And so they nodded off together. When she awoke, Liz says, she felt deeply ashamed.
For Liz, the last straw came in early October. Jeff went out during the daytime and didn't return until sunrise the following morning. When she asked him about his whereabouts, he cursed at her before revealing that he'd spent the evening smoking crack cocaine. You just want to have a pity party, he barked at her. Then he stormed out, reportedly to get a beer. Upon Jeff's return, Liz asked him to fork over the keys to her apartment. As he gave them up, Liz recalls, "he said, `Oh, you bitch, you're doing it again.' Which meant that I was saying goodbye to him again." She left a message for him at the Gillespie Center the next week, not knowing that he was in Norwalk Hospital by then.
Staffers at the Gillespie Center took Jeff to the hospital on Tuesday, October 17, claiming that he was suicidal; he'd been throwing himself against the walls at the shelter, trying to injure himself. At first, hospital personnel refused him admission, because he didn't have insurance, but at last they relented. The next day Jeff wrote a note of apology to his mother, with whom he'd recently argued by phone: Sheila had been upset that Jeff was back at the Gillespie Center despite the fact that she'd given him $3,500 over the previous three months. In the letter, which Jonathan says he has misplaced, Jeff wrote his mother that he had wanted to pull his life together while his dad was still alive but had failed. Now he wished to accomplish the same goal before Sheila passed away. He knew he'd never succeed as long as he was on drugs, and he scribbled his pledge to shatter the hold they had over him. The note made no allusion to suicide, and it appeared to be unfinished. Jeff never signed it.
That night, Jeff reportedly went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the hospital. Another was scheduled for Friday evening, and Jonathan says the facility's staffers expected to see Jeff there, too. But he never showed up--and even though the attendants knew that Jeff was suicidal, they didn't assign anyone to find out where he was. While most of the people in the hospital's psychiatric ward, where Jeff was housed, were attending the AA session, Jeff was in his room. No one knows exactly when, but at some point during the early evening, he fashioned a noose out of one of his bed sheets, looped it over his head, hooked the opposite end to a hinge on his bathroom's door and leapt off a lounge chair. He was barely alive when hospital employees found him.
Jonathan had lost contact with Jeff and didn't know that his brother was in Connecticut until earlier that day, when Gary had called inquiring about Jeff's status. Jonathan was still at the Journal at eleven o'clock that evening when the hospital called with the news: Jeff had hanged himself and wasn't expected to make it through the night.
At the hospital, Jonathan was met by what he refers to as the "don't-sue-me team." These representatives--one a higher-up in the institution's management, another a doctor--ferried him to the Intensive Care Unit. Jeff's eyes were vacant. Jonathan could see that he was already gone.
That evening, Jonathan, having consulted with other family members, decided that there was no choice other than to disconnect the equipment that was keeping Jeff alive. Even though there was virtually no chance that Jeff could feel pain at this point, Jonathan's wife, Jessica, a nurse, demanded that a morphine drip be connected to him. Jeff's face was tense while he was on the respirator, but the tension in it eased when the machine was unplugged. Then, when the morphine hit, his body jolted--bam--before relaxing again. Gary was especially pleased that the last sensation Jeff felt was "the greatest high in the world."
The funeral service, conducted the day before Halloween at a beautiful old church in Westport, was primarily a family affair. Jonathan spoke, as did Dwayne. To this day, Dwayne (now in the computer business) is a man of few words, but his anecdotes about Jeff as a young man were incisive and heartfelt. Gary, flown to the service by the Dahls, chose not to speak at the service. He says he was afraid he'd cry. As a result, the foremost representative from Jeff's Westport period was the Human Skull, John Hines, who played an appropriate song, twitching and convulsing in rhythm just as he had back when Joe Downer, Vinnie Venooch and Jeff were still among the living.
The most cherished possession Jeff left behind was a guitar, purchased shortly before his death, likely with some of the $3,500 Sheila had sent his way. Gary wanted the instrument himself, but he realized that it would mean more to someone else: Christopher, the elder of Dwayne's two teenage sons. A guitarist in a garage band, Christopher had met Jeff when he'd flown to Maryland for Sheila's wedding to Albert and immediately took a shine to his mysterious uncle. They talked for hours about music, establishing a relationship that they nurtured during another visit and numerous phone calls. Gary says that when he and Jonathan presented Christopher with the guitar at the service, the young man was overwhelmed.
Christopher was just as taken aback by what he found inside the guitar--the outlines of a tune, complete with chord notations, written in Jeff's hand. The untitled composition was, surprisingly, a sincere love song unmarred by references to prostitutes, pornography or any other of Jeff's traditional themes. The opening verse takes place on Venice Beach in Southern California, where the protagonist, walking on broken glass, begins to cry. He vows to an absent lover, "If you take me back/I would do anything/Sell this guitar/And dump out this drink." After that, the scene changes: The main character wakes up in a field, suffused with sadness and unsure where he is (a flashback, perhaps, to the cornfield where a delusional Jeff spent his first night in Colorado). But he's not so lost that he can't offer one more declaration of affection:
You made me feel somethin' strange
Somethin' to think about when I'm sleepin'
in the rain
You gave me a love so true
That's why I keep writin' all these corny
songs about you
Sheila was certain the song was about Michelle and hurried it to Jeff's former spouse. But Michelle, who did not attend the funeral, isn't nearly so sure. She appreciates Sheila's gesture but sees the ditty merely as one of Jeff's sporadic efforts to stretch. "He'd write much more beautiful songs, much more interesting songs than a lot of them he'd play. They weren't full of horrible images," she says. "But he didn't like them, because they weren't horrible. So he'd write them and then destroy them."
But Michelle wasn't so cynical that she didn't mourn Jeff. Two days before the funeral, she held a wake at her duplex that was attended by several of the musicians in Jeff's circle. As news of his demise rippled through the Denver music community over the next few weeks, several of his peers, including Bill Houston and Mike Elkerton, floated the concept of assembling the scattered recordings Jeff made, rough though they were, for a tribute CD. So far, nothing has come of the idea. In the meantime, Perry Dino, a local filmmaker, is trying to figure out what to do with footage of Jeff he shot over the years. Included among it is film of Jeff's last-ever Cricket on the Hill show and The Jeff Dahl Movie, a ten-minute clip that consists of Jeff glowering menacingly as he watches Jonathan's appearance on Good Morning America.
Gary has plenty of Jeff mementos, too, from carting away the belongings his friend left in the apartments he abandoned over the years. He gave some things to Jonathan to aid him with his book, and now wonders when or if he'll get them back. Gary's married now, to a German native named Grit who makes her living selling European rail passes. The couple is hoping to relocate to Berlin mid-year and open a small pool hall. Gary is disappointed that Jeff won't be around to visit him in his new home, but he tries mightily to see an up side to the suicide. "Michelle said to me, `I'm really pissed off that he did this. I'm angry,'" he recounts. "And I'm like, `Right, you're angry. But he was the one in pain.' I mean, how can you be angry? I'm going to miss him the rest of my life, more than I can say. But at least he isn't hurting anymore."
Sheila and Dwayne are also buoyed by this realization, but by little else. Right now they're choosing to mourn quietly, privately. They don't want to make a stir. Jonathan sees possible negligence in Norwalk Hospital's handling of Jeff's case--specifically, staffers' failure to keep closer tabs on a suicidal patient--but neither he nor Sheila envision filing a lawsuit at this time. They knew that Jeff had tried suicide numerous times before. Norwalk Hospital just happened to be the place where he succeeded. (Maura Romaine, assistant director of community relations at the hospital, declines to comment about the matter on the grounds that "patient information is privileged").
Not that this understanding has made things any better for Jonathan. He may have gotten caught up in, and chewed up by, the star-making culture at the Wall Street Journal, but he doesn't admit to regretting his decision to turn his search for Jeff into something of a commodity. He insists that "Missing in America" served an important purpose--to remind the nation, at a time when politicians cavalierly discuss the slashing of social programs, that there are weak, defenseless people out there who desperately need help. On a more personal level, he believes that the article, the book and the movie forced him to spend more time with Jeff than he otherwise might have.
"Those drives up to Estes Park--it was just great when you could somehow remove him from the stress of where he was living," Jonathan says. "It took me back to when we were kids, just walking through the woods together. A big brother gives you this kind of confidence that nobody else can. It's not just that he beat up bullies for me, although he did do those things. It was more letting you know every day that you're okay--and even at 37, I got that feeling from him. When I went back to the Journal, I was afraid. And he'd tell me, `Everything's going to be all right,' in just the right way. He could seem worldly instantly, without ever having been here and seeing this world, and that would turn on the confidence in me and other people immediately. But he never had that confidence in himself. I couldn't convince him to even apply for a job at McDonald's."
Jonathan blames himself for that, and for plenty more; at one point, he asks, "Could I have done more for Jeff? Yes. If maybe I'd stayed on my toes more..." He's just as self-critical when he considers the question of homelessness as a whole. "The other day I was going to play racquetball, and I walked past a guy who was lying on the street--someone who might not make it through the night. And I walked on even as I realized that it could have been Jeff." He pauses before adding, "I'm a lot of talk, obviously. I didn't take Jeff home with me, and I didn't take this guy on the street home with me, either. At least I'm shocked. I always feel bad wherever I go, because I see my brother in all of these people. And they're very special people. They're just broken toys."
Jeff's story hammers home this point, but Jonathan can't make himself write it. "Missing in America" was as memorable a story as any the Journal has printed in the Nineties (it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), but Jonathan didn't pen an obituary for Jeff, and the publication didn't run one by anyone else. Those thousands upon thousands of individuals moved by the article in 1991 haven't read the final chapter.
Nor are they likely to find any answers in a bookstore. Jonathan is not yet ready to do battle with his aborted opus again, even though the finished product might serve as Jeff's eulogy--and his legacy.
"I could see Jeff being really bitter if I was to finish it," he says. "I could see the ghost of Jeff haunting me, saying, `Why didn't you finish it when I was alive?' And things would have been better if we had. I could always see in my mind it being successful with Jeff alive, because it all would have been with his approval. And even though finishing it with him gone makes it a lot easier legally, it doesn't morally, because he's not there to be by my side.
"As much as we were fighting over it in the beginning, ultimately it was our dream to do it together as brothers. Because that's what we were. Brothers."
end of part 3
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.
- Reader: Heroin Crisis Caused by Mexican Cartels Losing Pot Money in Colorado
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00pm
University of Denver Pioneers Volleyball vs. University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks Women's VolleyballSun., Oct. 11, 2:00pm
Wed., Oct. 14, 8:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 12:00am
- Wanted: A Brewery for DIA's New Hotel
- Anti-Gang Activist Terrance Roberts Found Not Guilty of Attempted Murder