VOICES — 'Death and Texas'

Updated: Jun 21


(EDITOR’S NOTE — 1120 Press, which aims to give voice to writers from all walks of life, is proud to present Patrick King’s essay “Death and Texas,” a riveting account of a young filmmaker’s journey to Texas through a haze of booze, drugs, and art to shoot a documentary on an underground literary legend. The essay at 1120 Press – reprinted with permission — is an edited excerpt from King’s excellent book” “King Acid and Other Essays” (Alien Buddha Press) now available on Amazon, Audible and iTunes.)


In 2004, I was taking some film classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and decided I wanted to make a movie. It would be my first short documentary, the subject of which would be “Wild” Bill Blackolive — a heroic madman who self-published a violent psychedelic Western novel that took place in the 19th Century.


The book featured characters based on people he’d grown up with in Port Aransas, Texas. Bill always claimed that the story was autobiographical, adventures that he and his friends had literally shared in a past life.


By the late 90’s, Bill had become a Zinester, sending his Last Laughnewsletter to anyone with a few bucks and a friendly letter to spare. If he liked you, he would send you copies for free. I think I only paid for my first issue. I eventually accumulated a stack of the things. Though Bill was older than my father, I started to feel like he was an older brother.


Given that I was living in Alabama at the time, taking a crazy overnight drive from the Birmingham suburbs to east Texas was certainly feasible. Why not go make the 12-hour drive? And why not bring along a good friend? One should always take any opportunity to have an adventure, after all.


I had always wanted to take a road trip with my friend Adrian Wilder, an alcoholic, drug-addicted, hyperactive, and hyper-intelligent guy who I’d known since 1998. I was shy and reserved and he was an extrovert who was attractive in a slightly unconventional way. Dark hair and a brooding disposition, he had naturally thick muscle tone, strength with which he seemed to have been born. Girls and women of all sorts of ages and backgrounds wanted to take care of him. Drugs and booze brought us together in our late teens and soon we were best friends and roommates.


So it was only natural that I picked this more-than-slightly unhinged man as my travel partner. And anyway, I thought perhaps Bill and Adrian might get along. They were both madmen. They might vibrate on slightly different wavelengths, but I figured there would be enough insanity overlap that they’d be able to connect on some primal level.


We headed west on a hot August evening, two 24-year-old guys, driving to the sounds of Rammstein, Nine Inch Nails, and Pink Floyd. I pushed my foot hard on the pedal as we traveled from Alabama through Mississippi, not stopping for gas until Louisiana.


When we did finally stop, Adrian looked mesmerized in the pale white light inside the gas station. Not only did they sell beer and wine coolers, but they sold hard liquor, too. Adrian looked around the place, quite happy indeed. Jack Daniels, his favorite, available 24-hours a day. Imagine that.


“I want to live here,” he said as he grabbed a pint of whiskey, romantically wide-eyed at the scene. The gas station attendant got a kick out of Adrian’s excitement. He rung us up, chuckling a little under his breath.


And then we were back on the road.


I drove most of the way because Kathy, my wife at the time, didn’t want a maniac drunk (she had no idea about the pills) driving her car. But a guy gets tired on an all-night tear through the southeast. So Adrian took a few turns at the wheel, pushing the gas pedal almost to its limit. Not that the thing went very fast, but still. This would have scared the shit out of me just a few years later, but in my early twenties, death wasn’t real. So I just rolled the window down and enjoyed the warm air whipping across my face.


*


Somewhere near the Texas border, myself in the driver’s seat again, Adrian grew serious.


“I had a dream about Texas,” he said. “A hollow-eyed woman named Ecco led me by the hand and told me that she would see me when I got here, and that she would make everything okay.”


Strange story, but not out of the ordinary for Adrian. He always had weird dreams and visions. Once, he’d been curious about the afterlife, so he asked a group of us to drown him, giving us specific instructions on how to revive him. He got angry when nobody agreed to this lunatic assignment.


Eventually the sun came up and we were well into Texas. Outside the passenger window, the biggest tornado I’d ever seen up close was heading in the opposite direction a few miles away. But with the land so flat, it looked like the thing was dangerously close to us. A little while later, I was at the wheel again when Adrian, who had been silent for almost an hour, said, “Holy shit! This is Texas Chain Saw Massacre territory!” (It was a statement that unbeknownst to us would be a weird foreshadowing of a meeting to come.) Indeed, the desolate scenery was quite familiar. It felt like the famous farmhouse where Leatherface made skin masks from the faces of unfortunate young men and women could be nearby at any moment.


We pulled into Aransas Pass, the little town where Bill lived that bordered Port Aransas, at about 9 a.m., winding around some wild country roads. We couldn’t find his place at first, but then we saw an old gray two-story house and a figure standing in the dirt driveway with a pit bull. Bill stood shirtless and barrel-chested holding Medicine Dog on his leash as we pulled into the driveway. “Holy shit!” I said. “There’s Bill!” He was an incredible specimen. But Adrian couldn’t keep his eyes off the slightly menacing pit bull. “Holy shit!” he said. “That’s a giant fucking dog!”


We got out of the car and I turned on my little mini-DV camcorder and pointed it toward Bill as I walked up to him to shake his hand.


“Are we doing this already?” he said, looking at my camera.


“Eh, sort of,” I said. “I just want to get as much footage as possible.”


There were greetings all around, and the dog said hello by way of nipping me in the balls. He was just being playful, but little buddy had powerful jaws. I jolted back. Bill smiled. “Medicine Dog says he likes you.” Well, I thought, I could do without the love taps.


We followed Bill inside his house. It was a cozy little place. Two floors, with the bedrooms upstairs and a living room. There was also an art studio downstairs that belonged to Bill’s mother, Lyla, who was in her late 80’s. Layla had trouble getting up the stairs, so she just slept in her studio, which was nice because that meant Adrian and I would each have our own room upstairs.


I wanted to go ahead and get right to work, so I asked if it would be okay to do the interview as soon as possible and then head out to Port Aransas to see some of Bill’s old hippie friends, the ones he’d written about in his books.


Bill was game for anything, so he sat down in his old brown armchair and relaxed as I set up the tripod. Adrian sat on a nearby couch, his leg already bouncing wildly up and down because of boredom. He was restless. He wanted to move. He wanted to get some drinking done.


Nevertheless, I spent about an hour interviewing Bill about his writing and his life. Adrian did his best to look patient.


“If I’m having trouble learning something, I take LSD,” Bill said. “I taught myself to ride a horse bareback when I was on acid. I learned to chop wood left-handed that way.”


He talked about the time he was living in Mexico in the late sixties, in love with a married woman whose husband abused her, and so he sought the man out, gun in hand, thinking to murder the guy if he found him. Luckily for the husband, Bill did not find him.


Bill talked about his daughter, Madrea, who was living in Florida with Bill’s ex-wife: “Madrea and I are cosmic soulmates. We’ve been together for many lives. She understands me like no other.”


“I am like sasquatch, untamed,” he said.


He told me about the time he was arrested for beating up two police officers. “I was in the store and I had a headache. I put a bottle of aspirin in my shirt pocket without thinking too much about it and did the rest of my shopping. On my way out, some cops accused me of being a thief. I was in a state of great confusion, so I went savage on them. I do not like aggression, but, always, I will defend myself.


“I once stayed with a homosexual at his house in Colorado,” Bill said. “Every night he would get drunk and ask to suck me off. I would tell him ‘no’ each time. One day he asks me, ‘How do you know you won’t like it if you haven’t tried it?’ Well, I havetried it, and I didn’t like it.”


It went on like this, drifting from topic to topic almost haphazardly. We didn’t talk much, if at all, about his books. His life was interesting enough, and his books were an extension of his life. So now this movie would be an extension of both.


Adrian, restless, insisted we go somewhere, anywhere. And so we got into Bill’s car, which was at least 20 years old, rusted, rustic, and beaten down. We were on our way to Port Aransas, but first a stop at a liquor store so that Adrian could buy himself a bottle.


I was worried. We’d been awake for over 24 hours now. We were tired. Drinking and Xanax were the last things Adrian needed. But I wasn’t going to say anything. I was afraid of the great capacity for violence inside Adrian that surfaced when he blacked out. We’d been in some scary situations before, when he was too far gone to completely realize what he was doing. When he got back into the passenger seat a few minutes later, he washed a handful of pills down with the whiskey as Bill pulled out of the parking lot.


This was not good.


*


As Bill drove toward the ferry that would take us across a mile of ocean to the island, Adrian started feeling sentimental. “Hey Bill,” he said, “will you be my dad?” He kissed Bill rapidly on the neck. Little love pecks. This was weird. Bill took it in stride, though. “I’m already someone’s father,” he said. “I can be your friend. That is all.”


It was too sad to watch, because Adrian had never met his biological father, though they had exchanged emails, and the stepfather he’d grown up with was terribly abusive.


After we were off the ferry and onto the island, we were greeted with all sorts of kitsch beach shops selling overpriced bullshit like T-shirts, plastic shark toys, souvenir cups and ocean floatation devices. Hard to believe the place used to be wild and desolate when Bill was growing up, where hearty Texas artists and writers raised all sorts of hell. Still, I needed a hat because I was starting to get sunburnt. So we went into one of these awful stores. The place was as ugly inside as it was out. Stale white lights and kids running around chasing each other. So this was what the locals were being priced out for? Anyway, I got my hat.


We drove to the beach. There weren’t a lot of people around. Two redneck guys were standing around their truck drinking beer. Adrian, now quite delirious from the pills and the booze, hobbled up to them and asked for a beer while I got some shots of Bill hanging around the ocean. I asked him to stand just in front of the breaking waves holding a little American flag on a stick that we had bought at the gift shop. By the time I’d gotten the footage I wanted, Adrian was engaged in an animated conversation with a redneck in cutoff jean shorts and his buddy, who had a mullet down to his shoulders.


“Ah, I guess we better go get him,” I said.


“Your friend easily finds trouble,” Bill said.


“Yeah.”


And so we went to go collect him.


The sight of Bill, barrel-chested with a huge handlebar mustache, gave the rednecks a chuckle.


“Your friend’s a goddamn mess,” Mullet said, laughing at Adrian, who didn’t seem to take any notice.


“What’s ya’ll’s deal anyway?” Jean Shorts said.


Bill either didn’t realize or didn’t care that we were being made fun of. “We’re writers who are too crazy to get published,” he said.


I looked at Adrian, who was leaning against their truck, trying to stay upright. “Let’s go meet Bill’s friends,” I said.


“Nah man,” Adrian said. “I’m gonna stay here,” he said. He pulled the bottle of pills out of his pocket and waved them in the air. “You guys want some of these?”


“Holy shit!” Mullet said. “Put those things away. You wanna get us arrested?”


Adrian winked knowingly at Jean Shorts and Mullet. “I gotcha.”


“We should go,” I said.


“Let him stay here,” Bill said. Seemed like the best idea. Sure.


“You guys got another beer?” Adrian said to Mullet.


Mullet took a bottle of beer out of a cooler in the bed of the truck and handed it to him.


“We’ll come back for you in a little while,” I said. This did not seem like a good idea, leaving a drunk maniac on the loose in a place with which he was completely unfamiliar. But there was no point in arguing.


Nevertheless, on the road we went.


*


We arrived at Steve Vaughn’s house a few minutes later. Vaughn, a skinny guy with a big smile, scraggly hair, and a nice big hippy beard, greeted us at the door of his two-bedroom house. He hadn’t seen his old friend Bill in a while — months, probably. Despite being great friends, Vaughn didn’t like talking on the phone and Bill hated getting on the ferry — or driving at all for that matter. So even though Bill lived in the next town, it was a big occasion that he stopped by.


Vaughn asked his wife to call some people and then he took us to the detached art studio next to his house where he did most of his work and socializing. The studio was a very large rectangular wood shed. Quite rustic. Quite impressive.


The floor and walls were covered in paint. The studio itself was as much an art project as the paintings inside, all of which were magnificent. Some of the subjects were of expressionistic figures, people seen through LSD vision. Other paintings were completely abstract. It was a place of wonder for sure.


I didn’t talk much. I’ve always been shy and anyway I had a movie to shoot. So I moved my camcorder between Bill and Vaughn as they talked wildly of art, literature, and old times. Steve brought a joint out and Bill took the biggest, most passionate puff I’d ever seen in my life. He had amazing lung capacity. It was a sight to see.


My cell phone rang. It was Adrian. He was freaking out.


“You’ve got to come get me, man. Now!”

Oh shit, I thought, had he gotten into a fistfight with those two rednecks?


“I need you to piss on me, man.”


“What the fuck man? I’m trying to get some footage.”


“It can’t be helped!”


“What the hell happened?” I said.


“Well, I saw a jellyfish stranded on the beach and felt sorry for it. I decided to push it back into the ocean. Those guys said, ‘Don’t touch that thing,’ but you know how it is. The fucking thing stung me. I don’t want to piss on my own leg, man. I need you to do it for me.”


I turned off my phone and found Bill. I told him about Adrian’s peculiar situation.


“Your friend is a madman,” he said, as we walked to his car.


*


“It fucking hurts like hell,” Adrian said from the back seat of the car as Bill drove us back to Vaughn’s studio. “Pat, you’re gonna piss on my leg, right?”


“It ain’t happening.”


And what a strange introduction as Adrian stood in Vaughn’s dirt driveway, his dick out, trying to draw some piss out, pointing at his leg, yelling, “Come on. Fuck. Come on.” But nothing came out.


I sat in a lawn chair in the studio. We were now joined by a balding man whose hair was completely gray.


“He’s gonna get himself arrested doing that,” Vaughn said as he watched Adrian through the open studio door. If I hadn’t been drunk, and a cocky young man in his early 20’s, I might have been mortified at Adrian’s behavior, which, of course, is the only rational response. Instead, I walked out of the art studio and up to Adrian, who had by this time, thankfully, put his dick back in his jeans and was playing with Vaughn’s dog, chasing it around the yard and laughing.


“Maybe we can go sit down in the studio,” I said, my hand on Adrian’s shoulder.


“This dog,” Adrian said, smiling. “This fucking dog.”


“They’ve got beer.”


“Ah!” Adrian said as he followed me to the large wooden shack. He’d either lost or drank all of his whiskey back on the beach, and he needed to refuel.


Vaughn had paintings everywhere. Hundreds of canvases. The man was a workaholic who painted compulsively, and it showed. There wasn’t a lot of room to sit, but Vaughn had put a few lawn chairs here and there. I sat down next to the balding man with gray hair.


“Are you a writer?” I asked him, assuming that most of Bill’s friends were artists of some sort.


The man grinned at me. “Yeah. Kind of. I’m Kim Henkel.” The name sounded familiar.


“What kinds of stuff have you written?” I asked.


“Well, I wrote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”


Holy shit.


Adrian, overhearing our conversation, said, “Goddamn! I fucking love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre! It’s our favorite movie! Hell yeah!” He high-fived Henkel.


“I guess you get kinda tired of this,” I said.


“Yeah,” he said. “Kind of.”


But we kept it up. The conversation continued and eventually Henkel said that he’d written and directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, which was an objectively bad sequel, though it’s really not in good taste to mention these things in front of the author.


“My god,” I said, “that movie was awful.”


“I liked it,” Henkel said, fairly quietly. Later I would feel fucking terrible for what I said, because what the hell, and of course the man put his best effort into the thing. Besides, it was the only film he’d directed. Nevertheless, he agreed to let me videotape him for the documentary. “As long as you don’t tape me doing this,” he said as he took a big puff off the current joint being passed around, though not nearly as big a lungful as I’d seen Bill take earlier.


“Holy shit!” Adrian said. “It’s Ecco!”


A painting of a woman in a state of great existential agony stood in front of ten or so very large paintings that were leaning against the wall like one side of a roof on a playing card house.


“I told Pat about Ecco on the way here,” Adrian said. “She came to me in a dream and said she’d find me. And there she is!”


The woman in the painting had black holes for eyes. No light could escape. And though she was neither smiling nor frowning, she looked like someone existentially torn between sympathy and horror, wearing both expressions in almost equal measure.


Adrian stood up to get a closer look at the painting, but he slipped and knocked Ecco over, as well as the six or seven canvases behind her. Luckily, Adrian fell on the floor next to the paintings and not on the works themselves.