Dialing in a Nervous Breakdown in Tinseltown - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Dialing in a Nervous Breakdown in Tinseltown

Dialing in a Nervous Breakdown in Tinseltown

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because seeing the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness is no joke.

By Eugene S. Robinson

He stood in the middle of our kitchen, the veins in his neck standing up and out from his neck. 

“Call her!!! She’ll explain it ALL to you!” James shoved the phone toward me as I asked, “Who?”

“Yoko. She’ll explain it all!” James was a photographer and a die-hard Yoko Ono fan, and he’d been fortunate enough to have his photos attract enough attention that she and John Lennon had befriended him. His photos of them and President Jimmy Carter, among others, were what had drawn us together initially. We became roommates and sometimes worked together on magazine stories.

“I don’t have anything to say to her, man.” James stood, naked, in the kitchen of the house we shared and pushed the phone into my hand. Part weapon, part entreaty. “Hello?” It was Yoko. I recognized the voice.

“Sorry for calling,” I said. “James has been a little … overworked.” Then I hung up as James ran around the house making animal noises. I called his parents to come get him. He was in his early 20s. And he was gone.


Weeks earlier, James and I had made a roadie to Los Angeles. We had scored an interview with Russ Meyer, noted sexploitation director and darling of film critic Roger Ebert. Meyer’s overamped B-flicks from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to the almost mainstream Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, scripted by Ebert, routinely featured buxom badass women who tossed muscled but none-too-bright men around like toys. 

I had been putting in 22-hour days. … I had been using crystal meth to do this. Six days straight. That kind of thing.

James, author’s friend

On the drive down, we picked up another friend and Meyer fan, and conversation was full of chatter on Hollywood, image production, art and commerce and an exchange James had recently had with his boss at the tech company where he worked when he wasn’t taking photos like this for small art publications.

“I had been putting in 22-hour days,” James explained. He reminded me of actor Montgomery Clift. Not in looks, but in the halting way he spoke, carefully deliberating before saying just about anything. “I had been using crystal meth to do this. Six days straight. That kind of thing. That’s why you couldn’t wake me up that time,” he said, referring to a time when he slept through an alarm ringing next to his head while I physically tried to shake him awake. “I had crashed,” he added.


James’s boss had called him in for a meeting to check in. He asked if James was OK, and James figured it was as good a time as any to tell him that those insane hours had been fueled by meth. His boss heard him out and then paused: “Look, if money is a problem…” James was appalled that corporate America was concerned — not with his illegal drug use, but his ability to bend that to productivity.

We pulled up to Meyer’s house at the base of the Hollywood sign; he invited us in and proceeded to give us a rough ride immediately. Apparently he had lost funding for a film that day, and his mood was foul. Righting the ship took a mix of flattery and the kind of deep research that comes from loving the subject at hand. Twenty minutes later, Meyer relented and we were off to the races.

James’ notes were the first indication that I had that he had completely lost his mind …illustrated with lines, doodles, formulas and a single word underlined until the page underneath was black: PIMP.

James had been furiously scribbling on a yellow legal pad, and only toward the end of the interview did I relax enough to wonder what he’d been writing. I glanced over as Meyer waxed on about Germany’s perception — which he agreed with — that he was a genius, when a cold chill crawled up my spine. James’s notes were the first indication that something was amiss. Nothing he’d recorded made any sense — illustrated with doodles, formulas and a single word underlined so hard that the page underneath was black: PIMP.

“Do you have a bedroom?” he asked Meyer without looking his way.

“Yes.” Meyer looked at me for some reassurance. I smiled wanly.

“Take me to it.” We all stood and marched off to his bedroom. “Get in the bed,” James ordered, and Meyer obeyed. James took six photos and said, “I’m done.” He then turned on his heels and bounced out the front door, leaving it open in his wake. We emerged to find him smoking by our parked car.

Meyer would later send me other photos, requesting we use them instead, noting how James had made him nervous.

James, meanwhile, lit into me on the ride home, noting his disdain for the sexploitation style of Meyer. “Everyone I know has been raped, including me. How dare you?” A shouting match ensued and continued for much of the drive back. Which brings us to the Yoko call, my refusal to talk to her and James fleeing the house unclothed. He was eventually picked up by the police and has spent the time from then until now in and out of custody.

The last time I heard from him, he called to tell me he had gotten married. As I congratulated him and wished him well, I could hear him starting to sing a song before wandering off into the night, leaving the phone dangling loose from its cradle.

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