DAHL PARTS TWO
part 2 of 3
Jonathan had spent most of 1990 talking about Jeff, and his conversation with Mrs. Watson convinced him that he was closer to finding his brother than he'd been all year. He thanked her, then drove to Kitty's, where Gary was working that day. As Jonathan remembers it, Gary greeted him warmly, noting that Jeff had spoken frequently about his little brother. But when Jonathan asked where he could find Jeff, Gary revealed that the two friends had fallen out after an argument: Jeff had been mad that Gary wound up with his handyman job at the University Club after the suicide attempt. Gary didn't know where Jeff went after that, but he suspected that he'd left town again.
Back at his hotel, Jonathan tried to resign himself to returning to New York and starting his hunt all over again. But that night, Gary phoned with a tip: A musician called Skinhead Bob claimed that Jeff was still in Denver. Jonathan met with Bob at 2 a.m., and at the end of what seemed like a fruitless interrogation, Bob gave him Jeff's phone number. Jonathan drove around for the next six hours, wondering what he was going to say. When he finally dialed--and Jeff answered--Jonathan hung up. Five minutes later he called back and said, "Hello, Jeff. This is Jonathan, your brother."
Jeff invited Jonathan to the Capitol Hill apartment he was sharing with musician Darin Kavanagh. In his Journal article, Jonathan described the place in dour, neo-Dickensian terms--peeling paint, a roach-infested stove, a mattress on the floor, a Christmas tree festooned with condoms. (Kavanagh, for one, found the description overstated: "He made it out to be some kind of druggie's crash pad, which was absolutely not the truth. But I guess he needed some fodder for the public.") Jeff, drinking vodka from a jar, his hair swept into the same quasi-rockabilly pompadour he'd worn when he was a teenager, seemed as awkward as Jonathan, and his first question--about his mother and father--only added to the tension. When Jonathan broke the news about Ted's passing, Jeff was remarkably stoic. Gary says one of the reasons Jeff never returned home was his fear of learning that Ted had died. But Jeff didn't let his guard down in front of Jonathan--at least not to the degree that Jonathan wished. Jonathan had been devastated by Ted's death; his father's birthdays were particularly difficult to get through. Jeff's reaction damaged him profoundly.
Outlining his time in limbo (the stays at drug rehab centers, mental hospitals and jails) left Jeff aching, too--and his poor physical condition only compounded the situation. His marijuana smoking had damaged his lungs, but Jeff didn't want to go back into drug treatment, which hadn't worked in the past. He was just as reticent to undergo more psychiatric tests. When Jonathan gave him $40, he gladly accepted it. But he wasn't yet ready to take much else.
Dwayne and Sheila were just as cautious about the notion of inviting Jeff back into the family. They were thrilled that Jeff was alive, but his continuing use of drugs particularly unnerved Sheila, who by that point had moved to her current home near Annapolis, Maryland. "The last time I'd seen Jeff, he'd been violent with me," she says. "So I was very frightened, and I was not eager to get in the middle of a drug scene. One reason I never moved him here was because Maryland is very hard on people into drugs, even if it's only pot." Neither did she want to travel to Denver to see him--not yet, anyway. Jonathan, too, was unprepared to put his life on hold in order to become his older brother's de facto guardian. He felt that he couldn't solve Jeff's problems for him.
But Jonathan needed Jeff's help. His superiors at the Journal had been very patient with him throughout the past year, but they also expected him to write a memoir about his quest--one that would link his personal story with the nationwide epidemic of homeless adults. This was a juicy topic, and if Jonathan handled it well, he might wind up on the fast track with other reportorial stars launched by the Journal--like Alex Kotlowitz, who turned an Eighties article on public housing in Chicago into the book There Are No Children Here. Oprah Winfrey had made a television movie based on Children. Jeff's tale of woe might have just as much appeal.
So Jonathan decided to stay in Denver through Christmas. He gave Jeff a guitar case and a harmonica; Jeff reciprocated with a cartoon captioned "Man seeking lost brother finds Elvis." Jonathan also got a chance to see Jeff perform at the Cricket, and although he acknowledges that Jeff's tunes weren't to his taste, he appreciated the experience behind them: "They were raw, funny, right to the bone," he says. "And once you learn about the unbelievable cruelty and the lack of affection of his years on the street, it's totally obvious where they all came from." Before they parted, some kind words were exchanged--Jeff told Jonathan, "It's great to have my brother back"--and some caustic ones were tossed back and forth, too, especially after Jonathan declined to give Jeff more money. They also argued about the upcoming article--whether it would publicize Jeff's music or simply exploit him.
After Jonathan returned to New York to write "Missing in America," he says, a similar blend of conflict and contrition marked his telephone conversations with Jeff. Before long, Jonathan, who had begun his probe with such single-mindedness, was more confused than ever. And he admitted it in print.
The headline on page one of the Wall Street Journal on March 18, 1991, read, "Missing in America: A Lost Brother Sends One Man on a Search With Few Guideposts: Jeff Dahl, Addicted to Drugs, Vanished Into a Vast Sea of Drifters and Lost Souls: `Just Missed Him,' They Said." Supplementing Jonathan's poignant descriptions of looking for and finding his older sibling were sketches of Jeff at ages 18 and 35 and a snapshot of Jeff as a child, sitting beside Jonathan in front of the Dahl Christmas tree in 1962. Dwayne had been in the original photo, but he played a minor role in the article; the Journal's art designers cropped him out.
The background of the story was not unique. According to data Jonathan cited, more than 40,000 people a year contact either the government or the Salvation Army for assistance in tracking down missing adults. No definitive figures exist to determine how many of the individuals sought are homeless, victims of foul play, or simply folks wishing to start over. But the fact remains: Men and women disappear every day, all over the country.
Few of them, however, had vanished on the front page of the Journal. Furthermore, Jonathan's tale had about it elements of classic melodrama: a wealthy golden child gone wrong, a dying wish, a crusading young journalist using his training and skills to rescue his own brother. The ending wasn't uplifting--Jonathan concluded with images of "tattered figures curled up on New York's sidewalks and the panhandlers rattling cups on 42nd Street." But the narrative provided hope. Jeff had been found by a loving relative who had dedicated his life to the goal. Surely everything would be all right now.
The response to "Missing in America" was immediate. The Journal switchboard was flooded by calls. Hundreds of letters poured in, with a number of those writing offering to help Jeff heal himself. (A Harvard professor's cure entailed drilling a hole in the back of Jeff's head and forcing an electric charge into his brain.) Jeff never got to see any of this correspondence, but he suspected that some of the envelopes contained money that he never received. People see a story on TV about a sick dog and they're ready to send the cur their last dime, he'd say to friends, and surely some of them would have done the same for me.
As it turned out, Jonathan says, the Journal readers hadn't sent cash--but media types were eager to use the Dahl story to make some for themselves. Producer Don Hewitt contacted Jonathan personally to discuss the possibility of a 60 Minutes segment. A spokesman from the quiz show What's My Line wanted the brothers to appear side by side. (Jeff was game, but Jonathan nixed the idea--too degrading.) And a representative of Good Morning America asked Jonathan to drop by for a chat. Jonathan accepted this last invitation, and the very next morning he sat opposite host Charlie Gibson and talked about homelessness in general, and Jeff in particular, for a few minutes before a very special visit from Mickey Rooney.
Jonathan says the Good Morning America staffers didn't ask Jeff to appear on the show--and besides, it would have been logistically difficult to transport him to New York in time to participate. But, Gary notes, Jeff nursed indignation over this perceived snub anyway. In his fantasy of guesting on the program, he saw himself bringing his guitar with him onto the set and asking Gibson mid-interview if he could play a song. After Gibson gave him the go-ahead, Jeff would have launched into an original composition--maybe even one the network's censors would approve of. Could the attention he'd dreamed about for so long be far behind?
But it wasn't to be. Jeff may have been the impetus behind "Missing," but Jonathan was the Dahl who became the focus of the acclaim it received. Journal reporters were hot then: Among the staffers who'd recently skyrocketed to success were Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, who wrote Barbarians at the Gate (the HBO movie of the same name, starring James Garner, won an Emmy); James B. Stewart, author of the insider-trading drama Den of Thieves; and Susan Faludi, whose book Backlash was a response to anti-feminists. The Journal had become a virtual farm team for publishing houses, and one of the biggest, Random House, saw Jonathan as the next slugger. The company asked him to produce a book-length version of his piece at around the same time that a film producer bought the rights: 20th Century Fox hastily began developing it for the screen. Jonathan was overwhelmed by the response and by his newfound status as a spokesman for the homeless. As a former colleague of Jonathan's recollects, he began showing up at the office clad not in the usual Journal uniform (an expensive suit, a tie, braces) but in tattered sweaters and other rumpled, threadbare clothing that visually symbolized his empathy with street people.
Jeff, meanwhile, had a roof over his head, but in other ways, he was no better off than he'd been before. He had agreed to help Jonathan with the Journal article, a copy of which he usually carried with him, and he said he'd pitch in with the book and the movie. But he hadn't experienced a windfall: He received half of the $10,000 option amount for the film rights, but he wasn't part of the Random House pact, which included a $50,000 advance for Jonathan. Sheila was sending Jeff money--$250 a month to start, increasing to $600 a month--but his need for pot was such that he still couldn't afford a decent place to live most of the time. According to Gary, Jeff understood that Jonathan's projects might eventually pay him dividends, but that didn't stop him from feeling that his little brother was taking advantage of him to a certain degree. Sometimes he didn't mind. For example, he greatly enjoyed helping Jonathan put together a story about cost overruns and assorted boondoggles associated with Denver International Airport that made page one of the Journal in September 1991: "I read him the drafts, and we would go over the details of it," Jonathan says. "He was a very good writer and a spectacular editor." But, Gary says, he sometimes became so angry at perceived injustices that even pot couldn't make him feel better.
Love and bitterness, bitterness and love: After Jonathan took a leave from the Journal in 1992 and moved to Denver to work on the book, Jeff showered him with both. "It was just a lot of unbelievably wasted energy," Jonathan says. "One minute everything would be great, and the next minute we would be screaming at each other."
Jonathan wanted to absorb the essence of Jeff's downbeat life. So rather than set up shop in an office or condominium, he flopped at Jeff's latest ratty apartment. They slept side by side on bare mattresses, ate virtually every meal together and seldom went anywhere without the other.
It was the kind of enforced closeness they hadn't experienced since their boyhoods, but this time it didn't go down smoothly. On a daily basis, Jeff was asked to delve into the most agonizing experiences of his life, which he recalled all too clearly. In spite of his marijuana smoking, his memory was sharp and precise--so much so that Jonathan, aided by occupancy records from shelters and jails, was able to compile a virtual day-by-day record of where Jeff was during his lost years. Jeff also wrote accounts of his experiences; Jonathan says they were stronger and more revealing than any of his own writing. And there was also Jonathan's omnipresent tape recorder, which seemed to be whirring 24 hours a day. Gary recalls that during a drive to Estes Park, one of Jeff's favorite places, Jonathan immediately repeated almost everything Jeff said into the recorder in case the microphone hadn't picked up the bon mot the first time around.
Putting so much weight on Jeff's every word inevitably led to fights--epic fights. They argued about everything from their father to negotiations with Hollywood (Jeff was certain they weren't getting the best possible deal). "It was very combative," Gary says. "It got to Jeff after a while--having to relive all his horrors and having to do it in front of his brother, who had this great job at the Wall Street Journal. They got into huge arguments about that. I never had to pull them apart, but I sure thought I was going to have to." Jonathan confirms Gary's description: In the midst of one scrap, he says, a man in an apartment that adjoined Jeff's yelled through the thin wall, "I know you guys love each other, but could you just shut up?"
Shutting up wasn't Jeff's forte, but oftentimes his blather was utterly charming. When a screenwriter who'd been assigned to turn "Missing in America" into a workable script arrived in Denver to quiz the Dahl boys, Jeff was at his most magnetic; Gary and Jonathan agree that the astonished young writer was soon trailing after Jeff like a faithful puppy.
Over the phone, Jeff worked the same magic on Sheila. At one point she agreed to travel to Denver--they still hadn't seen each other--but a bout of dysentery that struck her just before flight time forced the postponement of the trip. Jeff kept after her during their conversations, though, and she finally arranged to join him for a Colorado Thanksgiving in the company of her new fiance, a businessman named Albert Cozzi whom she later wed.
Sheila and Jeff's first embrace in a decade was affectionate but awkward. Sheila was caught off guard by Jeff's new haircut (a radical punk crewcut) and the overalls he wore; he tried to explain the look away by claiming that he'd affected it to further his music career. But after the initial shock had worn off, she believed they got along well--far better than she had expected. When Sheila and Albert retired to their hotel room, she was brimming with good feelings. But her optimism soon began to dissipate. Jonathan and Jeff were staying next door and, like the man in the apartment building, Sheila spent the next several hours listening to their aural fireworks. She says she was distressed by this sound and fury, but Jonathan was by then used to the fights--they came with the territory. As he said at his brother's eulogy, "An hour with Jeff was like all night with anybody else."
Jeff's fellow musicians understood the truth of this observation as well as anyone--and that's one of the reasons they loved him. Mike Elkerton, Bill Houston and the other members of the Denver punk band Babihed, with whom Jeff grew close, were among the most flamboyant on the scene, but their stunts paled by comparison with his. At a memorable Cricket on the Hill open-stage performance, for instance, Jeff appeared wearing a hat that resembled two bare breasts. At Jeff's request, Darin Kavanagh passed out lollipops shaped like penises--"cocksicles," they were called--to all the ladies in attendance.
Many of Jeff's songs matched these exploits in lasciviousness. Take "Teenage Mutual Self-Stimulation:"
Well, I took it out
Put my rainbow on
I couldn't feel a thing
Then she told me I could take it off
And my heart began to sing
Teenage mutual self-stimulation
That's how I spent my summer vacation
By the early Nineties, the rudest of his material predominated. Even some of Jeff's admirers, like Baggs Patrick, wished it were otherwise. "It was amazing that he could take stories of this bottom-feeder lifestyle and make them fun for most everyone," he says. "But he also could have been genuinely commercial if he'd just learned to take some of the edge off sometimes. I'd say to him, `I know you've got a lot of other feelings that would make just as legitimate song subjects.' But after a while, he wouldn't try anything else but something totally mad."
Jeff didn't want to push the edge of the envelope; he wanted to rip through it--and this desire led to situations as dangerous as they were absurd. He would smash his guitar for a big finale, sending chunks of wood flying into the crowd, only to realize afterward that he didn't have an instrument to use for his next show. Or he'd insult the largest, most inebriated person at a gig and wind up with a beer bottle bouncing off his skull for his trouble.
The closest Jeff came to being murdered for his music was at a private holiday-season function Babihed had been hired to play. According to Elkerton, the Babihed mates asked Jeff to join them on the bill, thinking that the party would be attended exclusively by college-age types. But upon their arrival, they were startled to discover that for each student, there was a well-dressed, middle-aged relative unlikely to appreciate power chords and slam dancing. Not knowing what else to do, the musicians tossed aside their song list and began cranking out surf instrumentals that, to their great relief, everyone seemed to enjoy.
The Babihed players had just finished their set and were accepting the congratulations of the older generation when Jeff showed up, with Gary in tow. Jeff wanted to play, and Elkerton said that would be fine as long as he bore in mind the diversity of the audience. After agreeing, Jeff did the opposite; seizing a guitar, he belted out "Dick in the Wind" and other unsavory favorites from his repertoire. The partygoers were not amused. The older relatives began grumbling, and several athletic-looking students decided that Jeff was purposely insulting their family. At last, a man told Elkerton that the guest of honor's grandmother was offended, and ordered him to remove Jeff from the stage.
Elkerton knew that carrying out these instructions would be asking for trouble, and he was right. Rather than slink away, Jeff erupted, cursing and proclaiming that no one respected his talent. In an effort to drown Jeff out, Babihed collectively returned to the bandstand and kicked off another surf ditty. But Jeff wasn't going to leave quietly. Chugging from a bottle of champagne, he smashed Babihed drummer Mark D'Agostino in the face with a fistful of cake, then began playing catch with Gary using pieces of the family's nativity scene. When a ceramic baby Jesus flew over Elkerton's head and landed in the fish tank, everyone realized that the party was over.
Things got worse on the lawn. After Jeff called one of the jocks a "faggot," they jumped the singer and began beating him. "You're kicking my ass now," Jeff told them cheerfully--but he lost his bravado when one of the students tried to bite off his finger. He was pummeled almost to unconsciousness.
Gary, who recalls trying to pull the men off Jeff, received the same treatment; he was so damaged in the assault that he aimlessly wandered the neighborhood for three hours, certain that someone was after him. The next day, he discovered that his friend's injuries were just as severe as his own. Jeff was battered, bruised and had difficulty breathing, but the only thing that worried him was his finger. He was afraid he'd never be able to play his guitar again.
By the spring of 1993, Jonathan was back in New York: He called Jeff frequently with questions for the book, but he was having difficulty getting the information down on paper. At the same time, script problems were preventing the film from moving forward. The project eventually shifted from 20th Century Fox to Columbia, but the transfer resulted in little more than additional delays. Jeff, who Gary says was itchy for change, decided he couldn't wait any longer for Jonathan's enterprises to make him famous. Babihed mate Bill Houston's brother Pete was living in Austin, Texas, one of the nation's most vibrant music communities, and with typical impulsiveness, Jeff decided to move in with him and take the city by storm.
It didn't quite work out that way. Pete, a part-time drummer who is pursuing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Texas, says Jeff found Austin's open-stage scene less inviting than Denver's, in part because the competition was more daunting. He eventually hooked up with Big Ed, a band that had been around for a while. He opened shows for the band a few times, but his primary role was as sound man. Jeff performed these tasks passably, but he didn't like being in the background.
Another of Pete's brothers, John, sometimes hired Jeff to do odd jobs. But Jeff spent most of his time on Pete's couch, smoking marijuana and watching television with the volume turned up to the pain threshold. He suffered from a chronic smoker's hack (he often had to suck on an asthma inhaler to catch his breath between puffs of pot), and his stomach was giving him problems. He munched Rolaids like candy and guzzled gallons of milk, but nothing seemed to help. These difficulties shortened his temper. Pete says he'd blow up at the littlest thing and storm out of the house, vowing never to return. Ten minutes, an hour or a day later, he'd casually offer his apologies and flop in front of Pete's TV again.
Even so, Pete liked having Jeff around and expected that he would return to Austin after a holiday season trek to Denver to attend the wedding of Babihed's Mark D'Agostino. But someone prevented his immediate return: Michelle Fox.
Michelle, a bright young woman with a graphic-design business she runs from her Lakewood duplex, wasn't exactly a Babihed groupie, but she was certainly a fan. She seldom missed a show and had become close enough friends with the musicians that no one was surprised to see her at D'Agostino's wedding reception, held at the Brown Palace Hotel. Jeff drove with Bill straight from Austin to the bash, and he immediately took to Michelle.
Gary, Jeff's self-appointed guardian angel, was worried by her attraction to his friend; he figured that Jeff would fall hard for her, only to be shattered when Michelle realized that he wasn't a routine date. What Gary hadn't counted on, though, was that Michelle was as interested in Jeff as he was in her. "Jeff was just as crazy as I was, which I thought was good," she says. "I like people who are nuts, and he certainly proved to be that." Jeff and Michelle spent the reception talking about music (they both admired Robert Johnson) and a potpourri of other topics, and when Jeff invited her to watch him play at an open stage the next night, she agreed. While Michelle admits to being a bit perplexed by the entire display, it didn't scare her off; in retrospect, she believes that Jeff tempered his performance somewhat knowing that she was in the audience. In the days that followed, Michelle actively pursued Jeff by concocting a story about a tape he'd left in her car and tacking a note with her phone number on the door at Gary's place, where Jeff was staying. Jeff called her immediately, and they arranged to go out the next night. The next thing anyone knew, they'd decided to marry.
Jeff's friends were agog--even Bill Houston, who'd gladly played the matchmaker at the D'Agostino reception. He huddled with Michelle, advising her to slow down, because she didn't understand what she was getting into. But she and Jeff were smitten. Eleven days after they met, they went to an area courthouse, sans witnesses, and exchanged their vows.
end of part 2
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.