Do I want to post this? An old friend just killed himself. It’s been lingering in the background since I found out yesterday. I’m reluctant to deal with it publicly, but I’m having trouble finding a way to deal with it at all, otherwise. I don’t even want to tell people - I’m keeping it secret, for instance, from my Mom, who has one of this friend’s early paintings in her living room. She doesn’t really need to know - he wished her a fond greeting last November, the last I heard from him, which I hope I relayed, and I’d rather leave that as his last word to her. It seems better that way - more in keeping with what he might want, if he were alive and thinking clearly. She's too sweet, too fragile, and death has played too big a part already in her recent years.
I met Thomas Ziorjen at Andron Video in Maple Ridge in the early 1990’s. I was working midnight shifts, and this rather odd looking fellow came in - skinny, in shades, wearing a stylishly long coat, as I remember, a look that I came to describe as that of a “displaced urban hipster” - and commenced walking our aisles with a list of titles, looking for specific films, and ignoring altogether the New Arrivals section. That alone was enough to raise my antennae; working at a video store in Maple Ridge meant renting a lot of new releases to customers, so for someone to even deign to look so attentively at the older stock meant that he was an unusual type - either a cinephile like me or possibly a wingnut (one can never be too careful with first impressions, especially on midnight shift). That he visibly had a LIST in his hand further piqued my curiosity. I half kept a watchful eye on him, waiting to see how he would behave, and eventually - when the suspense grew too much - I walked over and asked him if I could help him find anything, whereupon he explained that he was looking for films by Paul Schrader. I perked up instantly (and felt a bit of relief: he probably wasn’t a nutcase). Schrader - who, around about 1990, when this transpired, was still fairly respected and well-known among cinephiles - was hardly known to the average Andron customer. He was best known at that point for his screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and his own films American Gigolo and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (we’ll strive to forget about Cat People). I’d recently bought and read the Faber filmbook Schrader on Schrader - which was published in 1990, so that allows me to date the encounter within a year or so, since the book was newly published when I got it. Knowing my stuff - knowing about cinema and little else - I directed him instantly and excitedly to the most obscure Schrader title on our shelves, Old Boyfriends, written by, but not directed by, Schrader, whereupon this odd, hip looking guy elaborated - probably unconvinced that the fat, odd video store clerk who was assisting him would merit a detailed response, but indulging me - that what he wanted was films directed by Schrader, because that what he was really interested in was Schrader’s design sensibility.Thomas - somewhere in that conversation, he explained it to me - had a background in design.
Believe me, folks - I’ve worked in two Maple Ridge video stores, putting something like three years into the job. They're to be expected someplace like Videomatica, but out here, customers like this just don’t come in. In my early 20’s, I was singularly unworldly - I wasn’t even sure what a “background in design” entailed - but I was also very isolated in this town; if you think I’m “alienated in Vancouver,” consider what the suburbs were like, particularly back then (....especially since this was some ten years prior to my first going online). Given my isolation, I was very excited to meet this man. We began a conversation that very night that covered various bases, none of which I remember that clearly now. I think he told me that first evening that he’d worked at a bookstore in Toronto; he might have told me his anecdote about meeting William S. Burroughs. I'm reconstructing more from logic than memory, but that might have been how I told him I was more interested in Bukowski - which I was at that time - and he told me he had a signed Bukowski/ Purdy Letters, which he later either ended up either selling me or giving me (I don't still have it, alas). Come to think of it, the first time he visited me in the room where I lived in my parents' apartment, when we began actually socializing, he went over to my bookshelves and excitedly observed that I had a “Black Sparrow” section - Bukowski’s then-publishers; I explained that actually he was just looking at my Bukowski selection, and that my other Black Sparrows were elsewhere (I had a couple of Paul Bowles and maybe a book of poetry by Diane Wakoski and perhaps a John Fante), filed alphabetically by the author's last name. Thomas was an unusual enough fellow that he sank a little at that revelation, then explained that he and his Torontonian friends used to look down on people who filed their books alphabetically. I also sank a little too, perceiving that he had a pretty good point there, but with my prime models for owning a collection then being bookstores and libraries, it had never occurred to me to do things any other way. It is probably due to Thomas’ lasting influence that nothing I now own is filed alphabetically - not CDs, DVDs, books, or records. Everything is organized, but by genre, or occasionally by region, or a combination thereof.
I imagine Thomas would approve of that system of order much more.
From that first meeting at Andron Video, though he was some thirteen years my senior, Thomas and I became the closest of friends. I was privileged to see the start of his attempts to teach himself how to paint. I remember bringing him to a pond where I used to catch frogs so he could photograph water lilies, to attempt paintings in the fashion of Monet. (His recent work is digital and photographic and very, very different from those early paintings). We consumed hundreds of films together (including Schrader’s Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, and Light Sleeper, which all came out on video around the time of our knowing each other). My earliest explorations of Tarkovsky, some of my first viewings of Herzog, and my discovery of Marat/Sade - a favourite of both Thomas’ and mine, that he suggested I rent for us from Videomatica - were done together. I remember renting a sweet, sad film because he said it was his favourite - A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards. I tried to get him into Cassavetes - a rough fit for a guy like Thomas, though he was impressed, as I recall, at the visual sensibility of Love Streams, not having been prepared for how much care it was crafted with.
We also explored lots of music together. When one of his friends, then going digital, gave me his vinyl collection, it led to a burst of enthusiasm on my part for free jazz, which spilled partially over onto Thomas - though he never got quite as into the aggro stuff as I did; he was more into Monk and Mingus and Dolphy, never really joined me in Ayler or Cecil Taylor or the Art Ensemble of Chicago (tho’ I gave him enough tapes of the stuff, never quite giving up; they're probably still filed away somewhere, wherever his stuff is these days). We shared a great enthusiasm for early Ornette, however, up to and including his seminal Free Jazz album, and he had at least some interest in Don Cherry’s solo stuff, though I don’t remember him being as keen for it as I was. Miles, we got into together, too (the scratches on my Bitches Brew CD box set are his fault, dammit!). I would visit him once or twice a week in his basement studio; we would sometimes alter our state, which definitely enhanced the bond between us, and made for many interesting and psychologically intimate experiences. We'd talk late into the night, sometimes all night, almost always with music playing, with Thomas providing snacks and beverages and playing host. I remember one evening - his wife had come down into the studio, and my altered perceptions focused on her words; I was most amused to discover language itself turning into jazz. Another evening, I can recall that there were bizarre reflections of candlelight in the bowls he'd brough us ice cream in, which fascinated both of us. Almost always, on those evenings, he would end up at his drawing board, doing something with art. Sometimes we would paint and draw together. (The two sort of overlapped back then, as Thomas began his visual art - he was using chalk pastels, which sort of are an in-between medium... I have early pieces by him somewhere in my closet, as well, and he likely has a few drawings by me).
Occasionally Thomas would get enthusiastic about music I would introduce him to, which was sometimes, but not always, rougher, noisier, and uglier than he cared for - or else simpler and punkier. He had no use for Sonic Youth and found Eugene Chadbourne too deranged (he once forced me to take off Shockabilly’s “Born on the Bayou,” talking about not wanting to listen to “this abased creature” that he heard in Doc Chad’s vocals). I managed, on the other hand, to get him well into Captain Beefheart (Thomas observing shortly after "getting it" that Beefheart was a surrealist - an apt observation. Trout Mask Replica was our favourite). I believe it was me who turned him on to the music of Terry Riley (Church of Anthrax especially), and John Zorn (I entitled an early Masada tape I made for him - or maybe some other Tzadik release - "Jews with Horns," which he found pretty amusing; I also made him a series of mixtapes with anagrams on the labels - "Tape for Thomas" transformed, for instance, into "Paste of Mothra"). We also both really dug Fred Frith (we listened to Skeleton Crew's Learn To Talk together a few times), and when I got to meet Frith I passed on some music made by Thomas' younger son, and got Frith's autograph for him. He would encourage my "found art" cassette covers, clipped from National Geographics, mostly. Occasionally I would attempt to get into his more minimal, orderly music - I listened at least once to the whole of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach at his insistence. Michael Nyman, another favourite of his, worked better, or gamelan music, but some of Thomas' stuff was just too damned ORDERLY for me. He scored far better when turning me on to pop music that he had liked as a younger man, surprising me that the Psychedelic Furs and Roxy Music had good albums out there, which I'd never have guessed from the stuff of theirs I'd had exposure to (he was the man who first played me “The Bogus Man” and Manzanera's “Miss Shapiro,” reciting some of Eno’s lyrics for that song from More Dark Than Shark, which he had on his shelf. Thomas had Eno's "oblique strategies" around, too). We went through phases of sharing more "normal" stuff, as well - we both dug Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. He was the guy who introduced me to Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which is still the Cohen album I have the most interest in, of his studio works. None of this might seem so remarkable to people who are used to sharing information over the internet, but you have to remember - it barely EXISTED back then (and I came later to it than most). Myspace, Google, and so forth were all things of the future - knowledge was something you got person-to-person, and Thomas and I shared a LOT of it with each other.
Those were the peak years of our friendship. Thomas got me involved in a life-drawing group that meant a lot to me at the time (most of my art from that period didn’t survive the bedbug infestation in my previous apartment - it seemed safer to throw it all out that keep it). I also watched Thomas raise his children through those years - when I met him, both his boys were very young. Since I always was more aggressive than he, and inclined to meddle in the psychology of my friends, sometimes I would delve into his past and his psychological quirks rather intrusively, though he was always quite open and trusting with me, talking about his problems with depression, his previous suicide attempt, his migraines and so forth. We knew each other pretty well, didn't judge each other, tried to support and encourage each other however we could.
Then things began to change - mostly for me. Thomas continued pursuing a career in the visual arts and raising his family - he was a stay-at-home Dad most of the time I knew him - but in the mid-1990s, I went through some radical life changes, at the behest of a charismatic Lakota “spiritual teacher”/ guru figure I was dealing with, and became quite conservative for a time, and suspicious of the path I’d been on, which had seen me exploring a lot of psychologically unhealthy blind alleys, degenerating a bit as I avoided the challenges of getting my shit together. What can I say - my mid-20’s were a very difficult time for me, and I created a lot of shit for myself so that I wouldn't have to face the challenges of building a life, which seemed pretty much impossible (and very intimidating). I was, frankly, doing too many drugs, and doing weird stuff to myself - experimenting with self-scarification and razorblades, getting into some pretty weird masturbatory scenarios (!), reading too much Nietzsche and Robert Anton Wilson and playing around with voodoo, transgressive pornography, sadomasochism, and other things that I’m glad I ultimately abandoned. Really, I was well-primed for a swing towards conservatism, though I was also, I admit, inclined to blame my friends at that time for not having stepped in to stop me on the self-destructive, that-way-lies-madness path that I was on. Thomas was a key focus for that blame, as he knew more about that stuff than anyone else, had stood by not judging me as I plunged into some pretty weird, unstable shit. There was a definite "why didn't you step in to STOP me" moment or two between us as I gained perspective and control - a blame that took me a long time to get over.
Somewhere in there, anyhow, I finished my degree and got my first “real” job after many pointless minor ones, teaching English in Japan. If my conservative phase - where I sometimes aggressively lectured Thomas about over-indulging in art and avoiding dealing with reality - wasn’t quite enough to alienate him as a friend, my living for three years in Japan sure didn’t help. He also moved, around that time - up to the Sunshine Coast, away from the town that had brought us together. When I visited on breaks from Japan, I would sometimes head up there, but those visits were never quite as intimate as our basement days on Tamarack Lane. We still watched a few films together, but after I returned from Japan and moved to Vancouver, we never really connected quite the same way. We had a few nasty fights, for one - with me being the aggressor, as always. Other things came between us - judgments, resentments, even money issues. It wasn’t easy patching up our differences and getting close to each other, either, when we lived so far apart.
We shared a few experiences, still. We saw John Zorn’s Electric Masada together in Vancouver, I guess in 2001 or 2002; Thomas made the trip out for that show - though we fought that night, as well, over something minor and regrettable. We barely hung out when he came to town to see Ornette Coleman - I’m not sure why - though we did see an Acid Mothers Temple concert together one night, I think with his older son, then a teenager. We had a few good moments together, though they were few and far between. I wasn’t against the idea of staying in touch, but I was a different person from the one I’d been when we’d known each other best, and I suppose part of me was threatened by what he represented - a past I was trying to put behind myself, or at least didn't know how I felt about. Which is funny, because in recent years, many of my enthusiasms from that time have gradually crept back in. I’m as passionate about music, film, and so forth now as I was in my early 20’s. I'm as crazy an "explorer" as I ever was (though I know Thomas would have no patience for my recent enthusiasm for heavy metal). In fact, I think that Thomas and I would probably be pretty good company for each other now - think that I’m finally stable enough in who I am that I could relax with him, that I wouldn't need to be so bullying or judgmental, that I would be far more accepting of his virtues - his kindness, his playfulness, his humour, his urbanity, his keen intelligence, his practicality (because unlike me, Thomas was always comfortable with tools and cars and technology, wasn't the type to get intimidated by such things). I’ve been really kind of focused on myself in the last while, or family matters, on my studies - but getting together again with Thomas, trying to rekindle our friendship, or at least having a few good visits with him are definitely things that have been on my To Do list these last years. "When I Get Around To It, Someday" stuff, maybe - but definitely pencilled in there.
Except I can’t hang out with him ever again, because he killed himself a few days ago. He left a phenomenally self-involved, meticulously crafted and very, very sad visual suicide note, reflecting where his art has been in recent years (it fills me with a variety of anger that I probably directed at Thomas a few times too often - I want to scream “bullshit, get over it” at him but I can’t). One image on his website in particular haunts me, because if I’d bothered to look at his art in the last while, I would have seen beyond a doubt where he was at - an altered image of Marat’s suicide, side-by-side with a picture of one of the pills that, I presume, he would ultimately overdose on (they also feature in said public suicide note). The title, “Different But Deliberate” gives away everything; I think, if I’d seen this image, I would have known - neverminding the rest of this recent work, which is equally despairing. From this image, I would have known what was coming… more than other people to visit his website, perhaps, since I watched Marat/Sade with the man at least three or four times; it was one of “our films,” along with Stalker (one of mine) and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (one of his). I could have done something - except I haven't looked at his website in a year or more, because, what can I say, my mind has been elsewhere. It fills me with a very particular sadness and grief - because, in fact, had I been closer to him these last years (or so I reason), I might have been able to talk him out of this final spiral. We spent a lot of time in the past, talking about his depressions, and I wasn’t afraid to provoke him to rise above them - which at times I’m sure had a positive effect (I can't say that my net influence on him was positive but sometimes, surely, it was). I would have made a try, anyhow - if I'd known, if I'd been paying attention.
I sure wasn’t there for Thomas this time ‘round, though. A mutual friend texted me the other day to get me to call him, because he had heavy news. One of the first things that came to mind, as I made the call, was "Thomas has killed himself." I wasn't at all surprised that I turned out to be right.
(Stupid bastard - why’d he need to go and do this? Why not tell me he was down? Why not call out?)
I’ve missed Thomas for awhile now, but now there’s no fixing it. My condolences to his family and friends, and especially his two remarkable children. Thomas was a very, very good man, very unique, with his greatest failing being that he didn't really realize this, or value it much. I wish he'd made better choices. Wish I had, too.
Guess that's it.