Something or someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight.
“This shirt is dry-clean only…which means it’s dirrrty!!”
-‘Mark Howard’ (Comedian)
I am not good at many things, which causes me constant irritation and humiliation, as i believe i should be good at everything.
I experience many problems when engaging in simple DIY tasks, for example and ALWAYS need to phone someone with the requisite skills to come and rectify whatever task i have currently made a complete bollocks of.
I don’t shop well, often becoming pale and fatigued within the opening five or ten minutes of the expedition, at which point i start emitting whining, groaning-type sounds, not dissimilar to those of a toddler, which can tend to see me sent away to the cafe or the front door, where i cannot be heard.
I should not be allowed to EVER open, and venture, under the bonnet of a car. I have no idea what anything does and have no business being there, although i have learned the names of a few of the major players down there and will happily trot them out whilst in the company of other men. It must be painfully apparent to all, that i am a clueless tit, as i begin prattling on, trying to make friends with, and gain unqualified approval from, the proper men of this great land; men who regularly use ‘Swarfiga’ and who have skin so tough they are able to use disposable razors, without complaint.
I am not naturally athletically gifted, and even if i was, i smoke far too much for it to be of any value to me now and although quite adventurous and full of derring-do in my drug-fuelled sexual exploits as a younger man, frequently find i just can’t be arsed with all the effort these days, and have recently, and with distaste, realised that, far from possessing the lithe and attractive body of yore, i now very probably (for ‘probably’…see…’do’), and with uncanny attention to detail, resemble a bull banging away at an old sofa.
Plus; i’m hung like a three-year old boy.
Now, i’ve begun listing the things i’m not good at, i’m starting to wonder if i am actually good at anything at all and, for that matter, why i started listing this stuff in the first place.
Oh yes…that’s right…comedy
I do have a gift for comedy you see, and for this i am extremely thankful.
I think it may stem from my younger years, always finding myself in the shit with someone or other, and desperately searching around, attempting to acquire tools and strategies, to get me out of the shit, without actually making the situation worse.
Also, as a control mechanism in unfamiliar settings with unfamiliar people, all milling about hob-nobbing and being nervous and stuff, comedy has no rival.
If you’re gonna pull this off, this getting people giggling and removing nervous energy business, it’s advisable to learn a few stock come-backs and lines for use in any situation; well it’s either that or pull down your trousers and pants, hold a couple of grey tissues around the hip-joint area, and boldly ask “does anyone wanna see my elephant impression?” – which is something i now use only at funerals and the occasional workplace disciplinary meeting.
“Last week I helped my friend stay put. It’s a lot easier’n helpin’ ’em move. I just went over to his house and made sure that he did not start to load shit into a truck.” – MH
Drugs and alcohol DO NOT improve comedic delivery EVER; this is an important thing to remember.
Timing is everything in comedy and alcohol completely wrecks your timing, plus it imbues one with the false belief that everything you say is utter genius and without your swift and astute observations, mankind would cease to exist and the planet would finally give up the ghost, stop rotating upon its axis, drop out of position and plummet off into the void, with the few remaining survivors clinging to tree stumps, legs flailing and screaming, like some drunken uncle on the new ride at Rhyl.
The reality is that you forget what you were going to say, and what you come up with in its place, is shockingly dumb and deserving of nothing more than immediate ejection from wherever you are, and a really prolonged and brutal kicking.
Amphetamine sulphate, meth-amphetamine crystal and crack all cause you to start exploring the ‘comedic’ areas in the darker spaces of your head, which often culminates in the airing of topics so off-key, universally shocking and offensive, that after calling a meeting to discuss this, and after much discussion, would very probably cause Beelzebub himself and all his little wizards to pronounce that “Yeah, that was was some pretty off-key shit that guy just said”.
“I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.” – MH
And, anyone foolish enough to attempt being funny whilst under the influence of heroin or any of the hallucinogenic drugs will no doubt receive a reaction with about as much substance and affirmation as the puddle of drool , which will almost certainly be collecting on the floor at their feet, which no doubt, their face has lowered itself to about an inch away from, in the constant struggle between gravity, the floor, and the habitual opiate user’s head.
So…at the top of this post, i believe i mentioned genius, and wish now to bring some clarity as to why.
Sometime in early 1998 i was holed up, once again, in my apartment in San Francisco sitting watching Comedy Central and smoking heroin, as i was doing most of the time back then. They were showing a ‘special’ of a comedian i’d not seen before and he was not only extremely funny, he had a presence about him and a delivery style that caused me to actually stop smoking drugs for half an hour in order to pay him my full attention; not a common occurrence back then, i can tell you.
For various reasons i’m not going to mention his real name, but will call him ‘Mark’ for the purposes of this blog.
“I had a parrot. The parrot talked, but it did not say “I’m hungry,” so it died.” – MH
Firstly, Mark looked really sharp and was wearing a black 1970’s style waist-length leather coat, had light-brown shoulder length hair and was sporting a pair of blue aviator sunglasses.
After watching clean cut, beige Chino and polo shirt-wearing comics, trotting out average and safe material for what seemed like decades, Mark provided a massive breath of fresh air just by simply walking onto the stage. Finally, someone who looked like i did and wore what i wore; please God let him say what i need to hear; give me some hope and faith in humanity once again, let him be different, let this one fucking package do what it says on the tin.
I sat forward hopefully, but with trepidation, waiting for the inevitable let-down: it never came.
Everything that came out of his mouth was a stunningly funny, astute and wildly intelligent observation concerning the most banal of everyday subjects/objects and delivered in a way that is difficult to describe.
“I’m sick of Soup of the Day, it’s time we made a decision. I wanna know what the fuck ‘Soup From Now On’ is.” – MH
He had this nervous, twitchy way about him, which clearly betrayed his fear, but somehow also made him all the more funny. Watching him caused me to feel protective of him as he clearly had his eyes closed behind the blue lenses and i could palpably sense his vulnerability. He would at times emit this nervous little laugh, which often acted as a punchline to one of his gags, but every time he did it, i found myself giggling right along with him, egging him on almost, wanting him to succeed whilst all the time being nervous that he wouldn’t, which only added to the attraction and produced a unique sensation of anxious hilarity, which on paper really shouldn’t work, but did…and in a truly wonderful way.
And then, to top it all off, was his voice, and more specifically the meter of how he spoke.
“I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut. I’ll just give you the money, and you give me the doughnut… end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I just can’t imagine a scenario where I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. Some skeptical friend: “Don’t even act like I didn’t get that doughnut! I got the doc-u-men-tation right here… oh, wait it’s at home… in the file… under ‘D’… for doughnut.” – MH
His words were chosen very carefully and delivered in a kind of slow southern drawl, with accents on specific words, which had the overall effect of causing a metronome-like, hypnotic effect which was not at all unpleasant, and above and beyond the usual comedy experience, and absolutely addictive.
By the end of the show, i was elated and sated on many levels and made a mental note to find out more about him, and then went right back to my heroin use, and quite predictably, allowed myself to forget this moment of inspiration, amidst the perpetual grey, which was my life at that time.
Until about a month later…
when my friend, and the only other person i knew who had caught the show on TV, called me to let me know that “that guy from comedy central” was coming to ‘The Punchline’ comedy club in San Francisco in a few days.
We went and saw the show, and it was as great as we had expected, an extended version of the TV special and possibly funnier still, which i never thought possible. In person, that presence he had, was much more defined and i was once again riveted.
Later, after the show, my friend and i were drinking at the bar and Mark came out with his wife and sat down. I bought them a drink and began chatting with them both, letting Mark know how much i appreciated his humour and we all had a good laugh. I found out he was from Minnesota, which made absolutely no sense, as his accent was more deep-south than far-north, but in person was less pronounced.
Not long into the conversation, mark leaned over to me and asked me a simple question…
“Do you know where to get any heroin, man?”
…so that’s why i connected with him huh?
Heroin is the ultimate ‘Pandora’s box’ situation, but once you have had a peek inside the box, and you are a thinking person, it is somehow important to seek others of a similar mind. Why this is, i have no idea; perhaps it’s got something to do with seeking absolution, or identification, or solace on some level; i truly don’t know, but it happens, and it happened in a comedy club in California…
…and i said “sure man, but i can’t get hold of my guy till 9.00 am because he doesn’t work after 9.00pm”
“See, this CD is in stores. The only way I could get my old CD into a store is if I were to take one in and leave it. Then the guys says, “Sir, you forgot this!” “No, I did not. That is for sale. Please alphabetize it.” – MH
Mark seemed shocked at how quickly i could sort it out, introduced me to his lovely, charming, and wonderfully funny wife ‘Sarah’, who had opened his show, and made plans to swing by my apartment the next day.
So began a strange friendship between the three of us, that staggered its way around the country like a hilarious, but desperate six-legged beast, fumbling around, lost in a cloud of smoke, which beat the odds, but only just, and was in constant danger of capture; hunted by hounds of indertiminate origin, with foul and dark intentions, toying with us and allowing us to dream of escape, when there was never to be one.
Mark and Sarah came to visit me in San Francisco many times, often flying in when they had days off from touring, spending a couple of days it my flat, lost in a waking dream, safely wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, safe at least for a while.
I taught Mark how to freebase cocaine, and wished that i hadn’t. All three of us wore a groove in my carpet from shuffling back and forth to the cooker to boil us up some more.
Up and down we went, heroin, crack, heroin, crack…sleeping, then leaping around, then quiet again, then back to the cooker…music constantly playing in the background – Dr John, Dandy Warhol’s, Led Zep, Beatles – if the music stops, your head will begin chattering in situations such as these and you’ll realise that you’re really very fucked, more fucked than you should be; dangerously fucked in fact; ‘medical intervention might be an option’ kind of fucked; hiiiiigher than is right or good – so keep the music playing, and the cigarettes burning and the cocaine cooking and never open the curtains.
Sometimes a couple of days would come and go; the only indication of the passage of time being the low level the candles would reach, and occasionally one of us would engage in the gargantuan task of replacing one, lighting it and then return to the default position of utterly horizontal, save for head and shoulders, propped against the chair back, aluminium foil resting on shirts, which were by now carbon black.
“An escalator can never break–it can only become stairs. You would never see an “Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order” sign, just “Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience. We apologize for the fact that you can still get up there.” – MH
Then a run of shows in the north east or midwest would interrupt the madness for a couple of weeks and then Mark and Sarah would be back to find me sick and struggling.
Money was no object when Mark was around as he earned a lot of money doing what he did and was extremely generous, but the amount of drugs we all did together caused our tolerance to rise at an alarming rate and by the time they left, i had a ridiculous addiction to feed. I did my best to get the money, i was working (but god knows how) and i got a few extra bucks from here and there but it was never enough and i was constantly dope sick until they came back and normal (ridiculous) service continued.
Mark and Sarah seemed to appreciate my sense of humour and after a while Mark mentioned that he was putting on a series of shows in his hometown of Minneapolis/St paul and then asked if i would like to be one of the opening acts.
Had the ghosts of Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Peter Cook and Richard Pryor all showed up and started playing poker in my front room, i would have been less surprised.
“I saw a lady on T.V. She was born without arms. Literally, she was born with her hands attached to her shoulders… and that was sad, but then they said, “Lola does not know the meaning of the word ‘can’t.'” And that to me was kinda worse… in a way… ya know? Not only does she not have arms, but she doesn’t understand simple contractions. It’s very simple, Lola, you just take two words, you put them together, then you take out the middle letter, you put a comma in there and you raise it up!” – MH
I was pretty scared of the idea but agreed almost immediately, as an opportunity and experience like this happen seldom in life and when they do, i tend to get hold of them firmly, as i seem to have some form of suicidal compulsion to experience as much as possible before i come to rest, all fucked and worn out at the gates of hell, where i expect to be greeted by many great friends, and incidentally, where i know the owner and have a pitch-fork proof booth reserved, right next to the ice machine.
This turned into just one of the strange locations/situations that Mark, Sarah and i found ourselves in over the next few months.
I was in a real state of flux at this time and really unsure of where i wanted to be or what i was doing. My addictions had me backed into a corner and things were seriously out of control. I tried telling myself that things were ok and that if i could just get some sort of handle on stuff, some period of calm perhaps, time to think just for a fucking second, then things would work out; but i couldn’t and they weren’t working out.
There is something that people with addictive personalities often do, which is known in certain circles as ‘doing a geographical’.
Anyone thinking of doing the same, please remember this simple little phrase:
‘Wherever you go…there you are!’
It isn’t the places that you go that are the problem, or the people, or this or that, it’s YOU…you are the problem.
I didn’t know this, so i just kept moving.
Within the space of six months i travelled to the following places:
England; looking for some support from my family but found only anger and alcohol in its place, so i then flew back to…
“A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.” -MH
New Orleans; where i thought i might like to re-settle but something in me prevented me from doing so; some restless unease, gnawing its way through my confidence and eroding my self-esteem. The fear of being on my own seemed unbearable and prevented me from sitting still for even a second.
When i told Mark and Sarah i was in New Orleans, they wanted to come and meet me there right away. Mark had never been to New Orleans, which i found strange as his whole persona was strikingly similar to someone who was born and raised there, maybe it was his spiritual home and he just didn’t know it, but whatever the situation, Mark loved New Orleans from the moment he first set foot in the french quarter.
I still have a lovely image of him standing outside an apartment in ‘Da quarter’s’ and calling the number on the ‘To Let’ sign outside on his cell phone. He had decided that he wanted to rent the apartment immediately and use New Orleans as one of his main ‘bases’. He wanted to pay the deposit right there and then and just COULD NOT wrap his head around the fact that the person on the phone wasn’t in fact sitting within the building that Mark was standing outside of. He kept saying “i want to rent the apartment…which one?…well, this one with the sign…just come outside and i’ll make you an offer right away”.
Sarah and i stood and grinned.
“I want to hang a map of the world in my house, and then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve traveled to. But first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.” – MH
We had difficulty scoring heroin as we didn’t have a regular connection in New Orleans and it was waaaay risky buying it on the street, being the extremely violent city that it was and being shot in the head didn’t appear too attractive a proposition. We did mange to score some at some point but it wasn’t enough so in order to stay as well as possible, we bought the entire stock of poppy seeds from the A & P store on royal street in some misguided attempt to extract any traces of opium contained therein.
Mark had demons too i guess, and his vulnerability he wore like an invisible cloak, the discomfort hidden just below the surface, round a corner and out of sight, but it could be sensed. Sometimes i would catch his eye (which was rare as Mark made eye-contact only fleetingly) and it was almost as if it caused him physical pain for someone to see ‘into’ him. His face assumed the expression of someone looking directly into the sun, for a little too long, and caused him to look away and pause for a second, before once again regaining his composure and cool; returning with a smile.
Almost all of the time, Mark was a real gentleman; extremely generous, kind, thoughtful, respectful and compassionate, yet at times he became unsettled and twitchy and his demeanour could change swiftly. At such times, he could be quite hard to be around and became quite well-defended even though nothing was attacking him. I sometimes felt the focus of his anger and it wasn’t a pleasant place to be. I would feel ashamed that i was often reliant upon him to help finance my out of control drug use, and his resentful behaviour suggested that i may well have been right.
Addiction gives nothing yet takes everything, and at the time i felt angry that our levels of trust stalled at a certain point and motives for our relationship were silently called into question, due to the chemical wall which stood in the way. I would have liked to have been closer to Mark, and Sarah too, but for all of us our primary relationship was with narcotics and that is all there is to say about that.
When Mark and Sarah left i once again had no focus or direction so i followed them to the next point on my ‘geographical’, which just so happened to be:
…New York; the Chelsea Hotel to be more precise, where Mark had a room on a long-term lease being the hipster that he was.
‘Tis a strange place the Chelsea, steeped in bohemian history:
Sid killed Nancy there…Dylan Thomas died there…Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ there…Jimi Hendrix lived there…as did Janis Joplin…William Burrows was there often for one reason or another…Leonard Cohen wrote songs about the place and Dee Dee Ramone was living there during the time i visited…
…amongst many, many other notable people and events which have taken place there.
It says ‘Hotel’ on the tin but was wonderfully unique, in the fact that there seemed to be no ‘service’ of any kind, except a receptionist whose sole purpose was apparently to see how many obstacles he could put in between himself and you acquiring whatever ‘service’ or ‘thing’ for which you may have asked.
Of course, the rent was utterly ridiculous.
“If you find yourself lost in the woods, fuck it, build a house. “Well, I was lost but now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!” -MH
Comedians in New York can spend an evening playing at five or six different venues, just dropping in at the appointed time, doing the set and then getting a cab to the next one, which was usually very nearby in Greenwich village or someplace. If an even bigger comic turns up out of the blue, then everyone on the bill gets ‘bumped’, as was the case when a very well-known black comedian showed up at one of the venue’s we were at waiting for Mark to do his set. He was working out material for an upcoming TV special, so no one got to do their set, but he was fucking hilarious, which just about made up for Mark’s loss of exposure.
…Then it was on to Minneapolis/St Paul for the week of shows, which i was to be opening….
The shows went down a storm as the prodigal son had returned. My set seemed well received, and i’ve never experienced a rush like it before or since. I often think about getting it together and doing some more stand-up but life somehow always seems to get in the way.
A couple of days into the run, we began to run low on heroin and it was getting pretty dire. Clearly we were going to run out very soon and the decision was made for me (who was starting to withdraw quite badly) to fly from Minnesota to San Francisco (because we knew the drugs were good quality and we wanted a lot of them) and back in a day, and still play the show that night.
This journey, by the way, is over three thousand miles and looking back on it now, was just madness, but there is very little a person won’t do when they are starting to feel like they have the worst flu they have ever had, coupled with the most strychnine-filled and potent LSD they could imagine; if told that a 3000 mile flight will totally remove all the symptoms of heroin withdrawal, every addict that i personally have ever known, would most definitely be at the designated place, at the appointed time, sporting flight socks and a disappointingly moist brow.
“I just looked in the mirror and things aren’t looking so good…i’m looking California…and feeling Minnesota” – Chris Cornell
Anyway, i managed it somehow, and we were all ok again; at least for now.
We visited Mark’s mum’s house for thanksgiving, which coincided with the shows, and were fed a wonderful meal. It was clear to me that his parents loved him dearly and that perhaps they also worried about him.
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.” – MH
As i ate my dinner, my eye was distracted by the photograph on top of the TV of Mark shaking hands with David Letterman during one of his performances on ‘The Letterman Show’. It seemed strange that this was the same man who was now passing the peas and who had spent an entire evening with me in a hotel room in New Orleans boiling poppy seeds in a pan.
I also went to visit Mark and Sarah at their new home, outside Los Angeles in a mountain community. I took a lot of drugs with me on the plane stuffed down the front of my trousers, as Mark had wired me a fair amount of money to do this (these were the days pre-911 and security was much more lax) and when i got there, my bag didn’t come round on the carousel and we had to fuck about dealing with the lost luggage people who said they’d send it on. Mark, for one horrible moment, thought that the drugs were in my bag and the relief that came from him when he realised they weren’t, was palpable.
“Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus…or just a really cool opotamus?” -MH
We did lots of cocaine at the house and i spent three days convinced that they were both the police and behaved appallingly the whole time, nothing being able to convince me that i wasn’t about to get busted at any moment and my world come crashing down.
Soon after LA, i returned to England in a frightening condition, to somehow get myself through the worst withdrawal i have ever experienced, the memory of which helps to keep me clean to this day.
I decided to stay in england and attempt to get my life back on track but did keep in touch with Mark and Sarah over the next few years.
Mark was arrested at the airport in Austin, texas in 2003 charged with drug possession (some syringes and trace amounts of heroin inside a can) and during a routine medical exam at the jail, they discovered a massive infection in his leg, which resulted in him having to endure a 13-hour operation to save the leg.
“A fly was very close to being called a “land,” cause that’s what they do half the time.” – MH
It seemed Mark was now using needles.
I’ll let an extract from the US magazine ‘Entertainment Weekly’ bring this particular blog to a close:
“Sunday night, March 20, 2005. The last moments of the last show. Caroline’s comedy club in New York City , table after table of devoted fans, jealous rivals, and even a few rock stars. All there to see him. The man on stage. And they were roaring.
‘Mark Howard’ blinked into the ocean of applause and let slip a lopsided smile. The 37-year-old comic was crushing. After almost two decades in comedy, the former fry cook had all but been handed the deed to the most important stand-up joint in the country. So he grinned and ambled off the stage into the arms of his wife, ‘Sarah’. Later that night, with the crowd still swirling, the couple slipped out the door into the neon embrace of Times Square.
Over the next week, they went off the grid, moving from hotel to hotel, dodging phone calls from increasingly concerned family and friends. On Tuesday, March 29, nine days after the Caroline’s gig, they holed up in an upscale hotel in Livingston, N.J. Early the next afternoon, ‘Sarah’ called her husband’s publicist, who called his manager, who called his parents. One of the greatest comedians of a generation was dead.”
Mark died of ‘multiple drug toxicity’…he was thirty-seven.
I am still in contact with Sarah, a fine comedian in her own right, and would like to thank her for giving me permission to write this…love you ‘Sarah’.
I have incredibly fond memories of my time with them both and i know that till the day i die i will be constantly reminded of one of Mark’s killer one-liners or another.
“My manager saw me drinking backstage and he said “Mark, don’t use liquor as a crutch.” I can’t use liquor as a crutch, because a crutch helps me walk. Liquor severely fucks up the way I walk. It ain’t like a crutch, it’s like a step I didn’t see.”
MH- Live at the 40 Watt Club, Athens, Georgia, April 9, 2002
Just this morning i was in the supermarket and had about fifteen individual items on the belt being scanned through. The cashier asked me that most predictable and dumb of questions that people often get asked at times such as these,
“Do you need a bag?”
With a slight pause and a withering look, i responded
“Oh no my dear…iiii juggle!!”
Love you Mark…God bless you.
Thanks for reading…