Dear Book Person,
Ask any gifted, but not talented sixth-grader what Vincent Van Gogh did. "He cut off his ear and sold one painting in his lifetime." What an underachiever!
To watch a video of Don Becker on stage, click here.
I cut off my arm during a psychotic episode. I was a promising stand up comic in Denver, twice voted Denver's Best over Roseanne Barr. I wrote for Dennis Miller Live, optioned the rights to my play Lucifer Tonite to the Executive Producer of the Reba Show and if that doesn't blow your skirt up I have recently completed my autobiography, One Hand Clapping or My Life as a Bipolar Intellectual, God-fearing Anarchist, One-Armed Media Darling. The book is 17% gut-wrenchingly painful, and 83% hysterical to the point of ventricular fibrillation. Trust me, I'm a lot funnier than Vincent Van Gogh.
The cover letter is written on yellow legal paper, in clean but childlike handwriting. Its author, a southpaw, used his right hand, unable to manipulate a pencil with the hook on his left.
But the fate of Don Becker's autobiography depends on more than the whims of any "book person." Friends who've been charged with tending to his estate have to decide whether it makes sense to try and publish the manuscript without Don around. Don, who was 53, died in mid-May in his Capitol Hill apartment. He had talked so fondly of snubbing Oprah when he would occasionally envision his triumphant book tour. Now it doesn't seem like it will be as fun of a ride without Don on it.
I had heard about Don Becker before. As a standup comic in this city, it was hard not to. His name would pop up at a road gig opening for a local veteran or in the green room backstage at the Comedy Works. Or if not his name, at least his story: the gifted, crazy jokesmith who could have been something huge had his demons not told him to lay his arms across the train tracks two blocks from Union Station one night in 1986.
Even so, Don continued to cut a swath across the cultural landscape after surviving the train with his life, if not his arm. So, too, did his story bleed into Denver lore. As tales of tortured artists go, his was a pretty good one. Don knew this. It's no coincidence that he name-checked Van Gogh in his cover letter, well aware that society's a sucker for the crazed-genius archetype, the artist walking a fine line between insanity and brilliance. But in researching his past, I realized that Don Becker was more than this, and to paint such a portrait would be to sell the man short.
"I would caution you to resist romantic angles concerning doomed comics or 'darkness' or Don's mental status," Steve Stajich, a former Denver comic turned television writer in Los Angeles and a friend of Don's, wrote me in an e-mail. "It only has value as a means of entertaining dumb people who can't follow a story about a really bright guy who beat some mental complications to spend all of his adult life creating compelling, funny work that mattered on an intellectual level."
And it's the quality of that intellectual level that was so truly remarkable about him. Too often in Denver — and I imagine in other, similarly ego-challenged second cities — the tendency is to negate our intellectual level, to dismiss it as not on par with that of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Particularly in the hollow vacuum of show business, the notion that art has no merit unless someone signs a check and points a camera at it reigns supreme. Don was susceptible to such thinking. His letter to book editors flies the flags of his national accolades proudly, listing his successes in relation to their importance in larger forums. He was trying to get a book published, after all.
But despite his success or lack thereof on a national scale, Don believed in art, and he captivated and challenged Denver audiences for 25 years with that belief — from behind a mike telling jokes, on the radio airwaves, and on slam-poetry and theater stages, where he shook the floorboards and howled at the moon. In the process, he created fans from many backgrounds and generations, their one commonality being that they were all curious as to what the man would come up with next.
To many who knew him, Don was the most unique, intelligent individual they had ever come across, and one of the most troubled.
Donald K. Becker was born August 13, 1954, and grew up in the Harvey Park neighborhood of southwest Denver. His mother, Marion, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Dick, was a weatherman and anchor for Channel 7 and later sold real estate.
Like his son, Dick suffered from bipolar disorder. Patrick Gerace, a childhood friend of Don's, recalls visiting him one day only to find Dick Becker (who passed away several years ago) sitting out on the front lawn in his underwear reading the paper; he had completely reassembled the living room outdoors.
Don had one sister, Beth, who was born deaf, and his mother remembers that he always seemed to understand and communicate with her better than anyone else. He was very enjoyable as a baby, his mother says, and he was a very smart, bright child, but by the time he got to junior high school he started acting up a bit — albeit in his own way.
"You know how kids will hide a comic book or something behind the book they're supposed to be reading?" Marion Becker remembers. "Don got in trouble for doing that with Buckminster Fuller." Marion knew her son suffered from mental illness, but the attitude toward such diseases in the 1960s was a far cry from what it is today. She simply dealt with it the best she could. "Handling it with Don was one thing," she says. "I could deal better with Don, but it was much more difficult to live with his father." She and Dick Becker divorced shortly after Don graduated from high school.
Gerace recalls his buddy as eccentric and clever, funny and cool. He remembers going to Don's house for the first time as a kid and noticing idiosyncrasies, like the fifty pairs of sunglasses nailed to the ceiling of his room. But he was more intrigued by his bespectacled new classmate at Kunsmiller Middle School, who was turning him on to Charlie Parker and obscure literature like The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Don attended East High School as part of the school's voluntary enrollment policy, but after his parents discovered how frequently he was ditching class, they transferred him to Lincoln High, closer to home. It was there that he and his buddy Gerace penned a poem dedicated to Lincoln's then-principal, "Doc" Brainerd, on the front page of the December 8, 1970, edition of the school paper, The Lincoln Log.
Fellow Lancers give a cheer
Understanding that Doc' is here
Cheer loud, cheer strong
Keep cheering all day long
You give us courage you give us concern
Optimism and the will to learn
Understanding is your major trait
Doc' in our hearts there's no room to hate
Open minds in these halls are yearning
Contract a desire for much more learning
It wasn't until after the paper came out that sponsors realized the first letters of each line spelled out the phrase "Fuck You Doc."
"We would hang out under the bleachers with the artists and the actors and the misfits," Gerace says, adding that Don grew his hair to his knees just to piss people off at straitlaced Lincoln. "It was kind of like That '70s Show, hanging out in the basement, talking and taking copious amounts of drugs. I remember the very first time he ever gave me LSD. I was heading out to work in about twenty minutes, and he knew better and said, 'Don't worry, this will be in and out of your system in about ten minutes.' So I'm sitting in the kitchen at Green Gables Country Club surrounded by boiling pots and giant knives, and I'm starting to peak for the first time in my life and just flipping out. Don thought that was the most hilarious thing he'd ever heard. Typical Don."
After graduating from high school, Don flirted with classes at the University of Colorado at Denver but never really buckled down. He worked briefly as a roofer and at a printing shop, earning enough money to afford rent at an apartment, but he would take off on hitchhiking trips and get fired for not showing up. A creative bohemian, he haunted bars and coffee shops, chain-smoking with friends at Paris on the Platte or Muddy's. But it wasn't until taking the stage as a standup comedian that he found his first home.
Standup comedy was virtually non-existent in Denver until George McKelvey, a young comedian from Los Angeles, planted the seeds in the late 1970s.
McKelvey, who is mentioned several times in Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up, came here after a doctor suggested he move his asthmatic son out of Los Angeles. He started an open mike on Monday nights in Glendale at a bar called the Chicago Speakeasy. Don was one of the first through the doors, and unlike so many standups who struggle initially, McKelvey recalls, he got it.
"He had good stage presence right from the start," McKelvey says. "He had wonderful lines, some really good material. I remember he had some line about how "innuendo" sounded like an Italian suppository. And every time he would do a joke that didn't work, he wouldn't get flustered. He would just slowly explain the joke and then really condescendingly say, 'Hence the humor.' It was great stuff."
With the help of a few others, McKelvey moved the open-mike night to the Basin's Up nightclub in Larimer Square. The club later moved around the corner and became the Comedy Works, the nationally renowned comedy institution that McKelvey had a hand in founding in 1981. Though McKelvey soon left, opening a club of his own on Hampden and then heading for New Mexico, the foundation of the scene had been laid.
And Don, hired on as the new-talent coordinator for the Comedy Works, was an integral part of it. His job was to cultivate up-and-comers, and he was the keeper of the keys to the kingdom for many a rookie comedian — alternately loving or tough, depending on whom you asked. But he was never afraid to let you know what he thought.
"He was the guy who came up after my first few terrifying times on stage and said, 'That was funny. You should come back and do this more,'" recalls Reid Harrison, a comedian at the time. "I never became a very good standup comedian, but I knew what it was like to put yourself out there with the potential for complete humiliation. If I had bombed that first night, I might never have come back. But Don...Don made you feel like you wanted to come back and keep trying."
"It took me three years to get on because of him," laughs Lori Callahan, now a regular headliner at the Comedy Works. "He was such a pill. After I did become a regular, we got along fine. We became friends, but it was tough going at first. He was very, very smart. He didn't go for the cheap, easy laugh; he made you think about what you were doing as a craft."
"Everyone had much respect for Becker," agrees Louis Johnson, another nationally touring comedian and Comedy Works headliner. "He gave me one of my favorite jokes that I still use today:
I don't understand the Nazi supremacist skinheads. They claim to get all their inspiration from the Bible. What, do they have a secret decoder ring or something? See that bit where it says "Love thy neighbor"? Well, if you rub that with a magic ax handle, it says "Kill the niggers and Jews."
Don knew he couldn't get away with it, so he gave the joke to Louis, who is black.
A tape of Don doing a twenty-minute set at the Comedy Works in 1983 reveals him to be everything anyone acquainted with him at the time says he was: clever, caustic, political, absolutely polished. He's skinny, with a tie and glasses that he says make him look like Sherman from Rocky and Bullwinkle, and he delivers his material in a rapid-fire monologue that would seem perfect for a spot on The Tonight Show.
How many of you used to be left-wing radicals and are now involved in sales?
I went to a boxing match the other night. It was an amazing fight, even if you're not into anthropology.
I used to box. Golden gloves, two years. I was a cancer weight. They used to call me the Great White Blood Cell. At my weight, the only people I could fight were dwarf Chicanos. It's really hard to hit someone named Jesus.
Girl Scouts are weird. I wasn't one, though I ate a lot of Brownies as a kid.
I hate all holidays, because my parents are gay, so it was always really tough. My dad used to get drunk and beat up my father.
Westword voted him Best Local Comic two years in a row, in 1986 and 1987, each time over Roseanne Barr, who was exploding nationally at the time.
The early '80s were a boom time for American comedy, one that brought out the good and the bad. "Live comedy was an event in popular culture," Stajich says. "Cable TV — suddenly expanding and grasping for anything cheap to program — would put a camera on a standup and run with that for an hour at a stretch. Alas, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Brilliant, creative talent was given a path to find audiences and later success. Simultaneously, extroverts who had struggled with the rigor of high school would position 'Did you ever notice...' in front of everything and suddenly become standup comics."
McKelvey agrees, but insists that Denver was a sort of mountain oasis for smart humor. "You talk to anybody who was around the country a lot in those days. There were only about three or four hotbeds of what I call intelligent comedy. San Fran was one. Chicago was one. And Denver was definitely one," he says.
As a result, the Comedy Works became a frequent stop for top comics like Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Louis Anderson. And they all respected the hell out of Don. "He was the real thing," says Anderson, who worked regularly with Don and played poker with him whenever he was in town.
Anderson was so impressed with Don that he tried several times to set up industry auditions in L.A., but Don declined every time. "Don wanted to be guided and shepherded and assured in," Anderson says. "He was a fragile genius, but, man, he was good. Such a craftsman. He tried to smarten my act up. He would give me suggestions, and I would say, 'Don, thanks for the advice, but I don't need that. My audience won't get it.' At the time, I was still trying to get on The Tonight Show. I didn't need the smartest laugh, I needed the biggest. I was there to entertain. But knowing that someone like Don was even taking stock of your act really mattered to you as a comic."
But most of the people who knew him could also tell that there was something a little dark about Don, a little off — a remarkable statement among standup comics, who, for the most part, are all a little dark and a little off.
He's described by fellow comics as being very intense. At a bar called Soapy Smith's, around the corner from the Comedy Works, where the comics would hang out and drink after shows, Don could go from being completely calm and cogent to screaming in someone's face about trivial, occasionally nonsensical, issues. He never seemed to sleep. At times he acted paranoid. Most of the comics dismissed it as coming with the territory, genius kissing insanity in the arts, no surprise there.
None of the other comics knew Don was battling bipolar disorder and psychosis, paranoia and delusions. They didn't know he was taking the mood stabilizer lithium or about a mental breakdown in high school after a bad trip.
But on August 12, 1986, Don's troubles were made all too clear.
How he lost his arms is a story that has been told and retold and mis-told a thousand times, often by Don himself. Some fell for his lie that it was an injury sustained in Vietnam. Others swear it was a drunken accident, that for his 32nd birthday he wanted to hop a train, and his wish went horribly awry.
Don's version of what really happened — or at least the one he told in magazine articles and in a documentary made by local filmmaker Robin Beeck in 2001 — was that about a week or so earlier, he had wrecked his car. Although Don wasn't hurt, the crash shook him up and left him with the paranoid conclusion that he was going to die and that he was going to kill someone else in the process. The delusions intensified over the next few days, and he became convinced that if he sacrificed his arms, he would be able to live. So after a card game with friends that night, Don walked down to the 15th Street viaduct, made his way to the tracks and laid his arms across them. Doctors were able to reattach one of his arms. The other would have to be replaced by a hook.
"He told us that he did it to save his life," says Brent Johnson, who first met Don years later when the comic took a yoga class with Johnson's wife, Denise, and later became his good friend. "We can think about that and say that's a psychotic who is not thinking clearly, and I don't think he would argue against that. But what strikes me is that in all the years since that incident, he didn't disown that part of himself. I think to him it sort of made sense all along. I never heard him say things like, 'What a stupid fucking thing I did,' or 'God, I wish I had never done this.' It was in his mind at the time he did it as his only option. It was the price he paid to stay alive."
After numerous painful surgeries and unimaginable psychological trauma, Don bounced back onto the comedy scene. In 1987, Westword again named him Best Comic, and the Comedy Works hosted a benefit for him at the Rainbow Music Hall, which drew Roseanne Barr, Louie Anderson, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Dennis Miller (whose HBO program Don would write for ten years later).
"He was backstage," Louis Johnson remembers. "And I watched him pull this shit on three different people. He'd go up to someone and go, 'Thanks for doing this.' And then he'd put his arm with the hook up and go, 'Can you twist that hook down for me? It's loose and I can't really reach it.' Then he would scream like he was in serious pain, and whoever it was would jump back. He thought that was hilarious."
Don incorporated his arms into his routine, but it really didn't set him apart.
"The Denver comedy scene at that time included Chris Fonseca (cerebral palsy), Art Carlson (a dwarf) and Roger Rittenhouse (born without one arm)," recalls comedian George McClure. "While emceeing a gig one night that included all of those performers, Rittenhouse cracked, 'You know, folks, you'd usually have to be underneath a big top to see a show like this.'"
The laughter was there, but close friends say Don began to resent having to mention his arms and feared that people only viewed him as the mentally ill, one-armed comedian as opposed to just a comedian. He didn't want his mental or physical problems to define him, and although he continued to perform until 1992, hosting a radio talk show on KNUS from 1989 to 1990, Don eventually hung up his comedy hat.
With a creative fire still burning inside him, though, Don turned his attention to his lifetime hobby of writing poetry. In 1993, Hang Fire Press published a book of his poetry titled Three Sheriffs in Bethlehem; during that era, he became a fixture in Denver's burgeoning slam-poetry scene, performing at Muddy's, the Mercury Cafe and Penny Lane in Boulder, and finding receptive, appreciative audiences wherever he went.
"His shtick was between comedy and poetry," recalls Clarissa Pinkola Estés, also a poet in the scene at the time. "He used everything he had — his injuries, his demons, his great humor, his great writing — to create this crazy, mad poetry. One time we did a benefit together at the Bug. Don got up there, and every word was an F-word; he used it like people use the word 'the.' He definitely grabbed people's attention and held it."
In researchng this story, I read seven or eight of Don's poems. My favorite is titled "Sometimes Love Is a Class 4 Felony."
Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and I really try
but there are still a few adversaries I would like to sodomize
with a claw hammer, and blind with knitting needles, and castrate them
and force them to eat their own testicles, and put M-80's in their assholes
and have them beg for mercy while I am torturing their loved ones
with a cattle prod.
I would, of course, never do this, and I try not to dwell on these
seemingly antisocial musings
But deep within me lurks a demented brute, so ugly that I can't
believe in a loving God, or personal redemption
Only my ugliness is real.
My damnation is certain.
The feeble urge towards goodness is merely the egotistical fear of my own face.
I learn to pull my own strings,
Because I'm trying to teach you that God has left us
and all we have is each other,
and maybe love is still possible,
but it would probably be better for both of us
if you don't piss me off.
"There's a membrane in the psyche between the conscious and unconscious," explains Pinkola Estés, who is also a psychoanalyst and author of the bestseller Women Who Run With the Wolves. "And people are sane when they stay on the conscious side of that membrane, but it's on the other side of the membrane, in the unconscious, where creativity comes from. Don spent so much of his time on that side — the dark side, the shadow, where the horrible and scary things come from. But that's also where all the gifts come from, and I think that's where Don lived."
In the documentary on his life, Don talks about the focus and exploration common in a great deal of his works. "A lot of people quit asking the fundamental questions of the day," he says. "Why do I suffer and die? What are my responsibilities to other people? What is truth? What is reality? And most people kind of go through that in their teens, their early twenties. They don't get the answers, so they either just stop asking them or they buy into a ready-made religion."
Don wasn't able to do that, and as he continued to grow as an artist, he continued to search. "He kind of tried different religions throughout the years," says his mother, noting that he was in a Unitarian youth group in high school. "He was in a Quaker group for a while, then he was into divine science. Then I think he went back and started going to a Unitarian church again there on Cap Hill. He may have gone to the Episcopal Church, too. He was always looking."
"I think that after losing his arms, he started looking at more serious issues," explains Brent Johnson. "God and life and where we are going and why are we here and what it's all about. That started to bleed into his work. History is full of people who were mentally ill and very creative, and maybe sometimes stability is at odds with creativity. I don't know that Don ever had the choice, but I think that if he had, he would have taken creativity over stability anytime."
Nowhere is Don's spiritual quest and creativity more apparent than in his play, Lucifer Tonite, a piece he described on his resumé as a "highly-acclaimed one-man show about God, Satan, good, evil, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll."
A series of monologues ruminating on the vexations of science, religion, time and other heavy topics, when it was first staged in 1996, Lucifer featured Don in the role of the Devil — although his version was a bathrobe-wearing, beer-slugging philosopher who patiently explains how evil is dependent on human beings, how it's not all his fault. The two-hour play never relents, never slows down to explain the weighty material, but rather charges at its own deliberate pace toward several brutally honest moments.
In one scene, Don strips shirtless and removes his prosthetic arm, faintly pleading, "Jesus, if you love me, leave me alone." In a video of the production, the audience sits completely transfixed, silent, agitated.
"Lucifer Tonite is without question the most important piece of avant-garde theater I have ever seen in Denver," Westword's theater critic wrote at the time. "The most truly experimental, iconoclastic and intelligent work by a contemporary performance artist.... Nothing stands between the viewer and the meat and meaning of the stream-of-consciousness monologue by the Devil himself. Becker is in your face for two hours, and his performance will shock viewers not used to cutting-edge excess."
Though Don penned and acted in several other plays — his first, Back on a Limb, which is highly autobiographical, Kurt Cobain Was Right and Subgenius Police — Lucifer remains his legacy and has been staged multiple times around town.
Actor Nils Swanson, who for years went by the stage name Nils Kiehn, is intimately familiar with Don's work, having played the title role in a 2000 production of Lucifer. "The way Don's characters thought was just out of this world," Swanson says. "To me, he was like Sam Shepard and David Mamet on acid. There were all these great characters that he so cared about, but it was like, 'Where did you come up with this?'"
Denise Johnson met Don at a yoga class nearly eighteen years ago. A week later, she saw the one-armed man again at a garden party hosted by their instructor.
He was acting strange.
"He started chewing up food and then putting it on his plate," she says. "Then he would spit it out and put it on my plate. At some point he got up and went into the bathroom and started running a bath, and then suddenly he streaked out of the bathroom naked. I was laughing because I thought it was some sort of comedy routine or something. I didn't recognize it then, but I learned later he was going through a psychotic episode. Later that night, he tried to stab his eyes out with a screwdriver."
Such an initial impression might be off-putting to some, but Denise was intrigued. "I was just fascinated by him, really," she says. "How he could harm himself like he did. How he could be so creative. I've always looked to the light, and he seemed to find his creativity in darker places. But I never worried about my safety or anything with Don."
The next time she met Don was in the lockdown ward of Denver General Hospital (now Denver Health), after he'd stopped taking his medication. It was the only time Johnson, who became friends with Don, can recall him doing so. There would be days when he'd forget to take the lithium, and he would call her when he was "feeling a little manic," as he would say, but Denise learned to recognize the warning signs: not bathing, not wearing socks, not shaving. During those times, she would try to help him out of the valleys he was in, to talk him off the ledge, so to speak. "It wasn't easy being Don, but I do think for the most part, he stayed on those meds," she says.
Friends of Don's agree that there were far more peaks than valleys in his life, and it was during those peaks that they all fell in love with his humor, forgave him for any slights or perceived meanness. He was just too clever to stay mad at for long.
Laura Baxendale was walking down Colfax with Don recently to pick up some beer when they encountered a homeless guy in a wheelchair. Don had a fresh haircut and was wearing a trenchcoat. He leaned in and whispered something into the homeless guy's ear — Baxendale didn't hear it — and all of a sudden the man gave Don $10.
"Don said, 'I can't take your money,'" Baxendale recalls. "And he handed it back. Then he said to me, 'I guess my new hipster look is really paying off.'"
Baxendale met Don through some mutual friends who had cast him in an independent film they'd made. Those friends shared a story about how they had taken him to a party on a Sunday, only to find that the host had neglected to buy any beer in advance. Don was so pissed that he raided the fridge and ate an entire pound of cheese. He wasn't even hungry. He was just angry that there was no beer, and the wholesale devouring of cheese seemed the only proper recourse.
But he was decidedly sweet, too. As Don said of himself in the documentary, "I hope I've become more compassionate. I was really an asshole. I mean I was really egotistical. And I still am an egotistical asshole, I want you to know that. But I'm a kinder, gentler egotistical asshole."
Particularly around children. One of Don's ex-girlfriends had a child, and Don fell in love with her, doted on her, made up stories for her.
Brent and Denise talk about how Don would come over to their suburban home for dinner and regale their children with wild, fascinating stories, the children wide-eyed and mesmerized by the one-armed storyteller in their living room. It gave him an outlet to unlock his goofy side, his softer side.
And he was always there to listen. "He was kind of like my therapist," Baxendale says. "I felt like I could open up and tell him anything, he had been through so much. If your best friend is the only person you feel free enough to say certain things to and the one person who is completely nonjudgmental of you, then Don was my best friend. In that case, I think he was the best friend of a lot of people."
"He always had an amazing, eclectic group of women around him, usually younger," Swanson says. "In all the years I knew him, he really only had one steady girlfriend. I just don't think he wanted a relationship. He just wanted to be with someone on his own terms, and I respected that about him, because he was very honest about it."
But Don's real best friend — and most likely foe — was his work, his creative output. His mind was constantly working, and there was little rest. Even at laid-back dinner parties, he was always pacing, opening the refrigerator door again and again. For Don, there was always some project to be completed, polished, another on the horizon. He was working on a graphic novel with a friend titled The Hate Fairy. He kept up his occasional column, It's Always Something, which appeared in Life on Capitol Hill. And for the past three years straight, Don had been working furiously on his autobiography — the one he was sure would bring book persons to "the point of ventricular fibrillation."
Having recently finished it, he was experiencing the doubt and sense of emptiness those close to him say always came with the completion of a major project. Did I do a good job? Is it actually done? What's next?
"He worked the last three years on it pretty steadily, and he was really relieved to be done with it," says Denise, whom Don considered his personal manager and who was helping him find a publisher. "And yet he didn't know what to do with himself after he was done with it. I think he expected that it would get published immediately.
"I think he was also concerned that the book would define him. Just like he didn't want to be the mentally ill, one-armed comic, I think he was worried about becoming the mentally ill, one-armed writer. Plus he really wanted that book to be something that would give people hope — that I've been to the darkest place you can go and I'm on the path to healing. But he was still really nervous about what was next," she says.
"He talked to me about his 'postpartum' depression with the book," Baxendale concurs.
But then he stopped talking to anyone. In the last few weeks of his life, those who were around him agree that he had definitely entered a valley. Phone contact fell off. He was drinking heavily, taking a lot of drugs. He and Denise got into the first fight they had ever had in their eighteen-year friendship.
"In some ways it was a relief, because he had been really wanting to talk a lot about the book," she says. "So he kind of got into a fight with me a little at the end and said, 'Don't call me, don't come by.' And I was a little hurt, but I said I would let him get over it and give him a couple of days to come around."
"I told her to just enjoy the break," Brent says with a laugh.
But Denise caved and left her friend a voice message. Sensing that he was feeling paranoid, she made her words simple and sweet: "You know, Don, you're a friend of mine, you've always been a friend of mine. I love you, and you know that."
Don never returned the call. A few days later, Brent got a call from Don's mother, who'd been phoned by a resident at Don's apartment building and informed that something was wrong. Brent headed to the apartment and found the police and a coroner already there. They told him that Don appeared to have been dead for two to four days. It was May 15, 2008.
After Don's body was removed, Brent went into the apartment and found a blood stain on the kitchen floor. One of the residents in the building told him that the medic had said Don had a wound on his head. There was also a lightweight wooden TV table found near Don's body. It had been splintered into pieces.
At the Comedy Works, news of his passing was met with shock but not surprise. No one had ever expected Don to live to one hundred.
When I told some of the old-time staffers there, they all expressed sadness over the loss of a great comic they hadn't seen in many, many years, then immediately went into Don stories as though he had just headlined the night before.
While some people speculated about suicide, Brent says Don had been complaining of dizziness for months, had written poems about it, and even had an appointment at Denver Health to be examined the week he died. He believes Don simply fell. The results of an autopsy won't be released until toxicology tests come back in the next few weeks. "At this point the cause of death is pretty speculative," Brent says. "It could be all kinds of things."
Don's mother is more direct. "I was just stunned when somebody called me and said that there were some problems that made them think something had happened to Don," Marion Becker says. "It's really a hard thing to deal with, losing a child. It's been very hard on his sister, too. We're both just working on being strong."
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But no matter what factors led to the death of Don Becker, creative genius and Denver icon, it's not lost on his many friends just how prescient his final moments may have been. Don kept a MySpace page with 21 friends and general descriptions of himself. And, as was always the case with Don, his own words seem the most fitting.
His "About Me" section reads as follows:
My first memory is my infant baptism — I remember looking at the ceiling and thinking 'here we go again' — I was a pre-Ritalin ADHD kid — if somebody had sought to hook me up with some Dexedrine back then I might've been somebody — I was an underachiever and I REALLY WANTED PEOPLE TO LIKE ME — then the universe dropped me on my head and I gained a clearer understanding of what friendship is — I write for love and money — local celebrity status — I hope the world is automated soon — I want to give away my writing for free — I'm no longer a spring chicken.
I think about death a lot — I am trying to program myself to die from a fall — I think it would be great if my last word was 'oops.'