2011 Bookshelf: Wired – The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi

Wired – The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi (1984) by Bob Woodward

I’ve read a lot of eyebrow raising material, some of which has been reviewed on this very site; serial killers (see: Manson, Zodiac, Bundy) , military accounts (see: Vietnam, Unbroken, Children of the Flames) and, of course, many a “wayward celebrity” bio (see: Morrison, Elvis).  Nothing, however, could have possibly prepared me for the assault on the senses that is Woodward’s account of the life of John Belushi.  I do not say that lightly.  While I’m sure it had something to do with reading the last 150 pages at a frenetic pace (which were, not coincidentally, about someone moving at a frenetically suicidal pace), by the end of Wired, I was both physically and mentally exhausted.  Completely drained.  Exhausted in a way that made me feel like I’d spent 4 straight weeks of my life shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, getting very little sleep, yelling at/fighting with a lot of people who loved me and, most importantly, consorting with others whose sole pupose in life was to leach and get as f***ed up as possible on weed, coke and heroin.  And doing all of that without, say, ending up dead in the bedroom of a non-descript bunagalow toward the back of the Chateau Marmont off of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Such were the final days of Belushi, a cleary talented yet tortured comedian that helped usher in, along with many of his Saturday Night Live contemporaries, modern comedy.

This is not a book for the faint of heart or those prone to a queasy stomach.  In fact, it is so graphic and paints such a ludicrously disasatrous situation, many of those who served as primary sources for Wired later accused Woodward of sensationalism at the expense of depicting “the real John.”  To these criticisms, I’ll say the following: as with most accounts of this nature, I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between, but, that said, Bob Woodward is hardly an author who deliberately embellishes or goes for the red-meat without establishing complete confidence in his sources (see Throat, Deep).  If initiating the downward spiral of a Presidency as a reporter with the Washington Post taught the man anything, it was to double-check sources and make sure he had the facts as straight as possible before going to print.  It might also be worth noting that no one sued Woodward for libel of any kind, in The Cupcake’s mind legitimizing this book as a more-accurate-than-not portrayal of the events contained within.  (NOTE: For a much broader examination of the criticism of Woodward’s account, check out Roger Ebert’s essay on “Why John Belushi died…“)

This is a sad story.  And certainly one that makes the L.A. star-culture of the late 70’s and early 80’s sound about as appealing as jumping from an airplane without a parachute.  In other words, the Belushi of L.A. was dramatically removed from the Belushi of Chicago and New York, repsectively, the two locales where his career began and blossomed.  Once the movies came calling and he was cruely forced by his chosen trade to frequent southern California, the reader detects a subtle but important shift in his attitudes toward drug abuse, his career (and the power to control it) and listening to those around him that offered help.

If there were a definitive, catalyzing moment of cliff-jumping, it seems to have come during the making of Neighbors (a film that, oddly enough, The Cupcake has always enjoyed).  Belushi, despite being cast alongside his creative soulmate Dan Aykroyd, clashed continuously with director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid), with each altercation getting more acerbic and violent in magnitude.  He also became obsessed with punk music during this period, at one point attempting to hijack (the only word for it) the soundtrack in favor of his punk band of choice, Fear.  With all of this, his drug abuse simply accelerated to race-horse proportions.  Ounces of cocain per day, likely dabbles with heroin (my assumption of which is based solely on hints Belushi himself was alleged to have dropped at the time), schedules that included weeks (that’s weeks, plural) without sleep…

It all came to a head during the final two weeks of his life.  After several perceived insults that included a poor critical reception to Neighbors (along with dismal box office receipts), a poor reception to a screenplay adaptaion he had co-wrote with Don Novello (better known as Father Guido Sarducci) and a final indignity of being told he had to star in The Joy of Sex simply because it would refortify the comedic image he had built as the infamous Bluto Blutarsky in Animal House, Belushi appeared to lose his will to deal with adversity – not exactly one of his stronger traits from the get go.  He sunk even deeper into a drug binge that had been going on for weeks prior. He hung out with people that made, for example, Raging Bull-era DeNiro uneasy.  Several people who saw him in the immediate days and hours prior to his death report to Woodward a “darkness” and “despondency” that was unshakable.  Add to that mixture mutiple speedballs during his last 24 hours and you end up with a tragic scene of unfulfilled promised undone by an insecurity that had, counter-intuitively, grown larger as he became more accomplished.

There are very few moments depcited here that bring Belushi (or the reader) back to happier times.  There are brief interludes of sanity; summer vacations on Martha’s Vinyard away from the drugs and Hollywood, truly loyal “keepers” that protected John from himself for stretches that led to equilibrium of sorts, etc.  At the end of the day, however, Wired is a lot like launching off the first crest of a roller coaster that never comes back up, instead continuing straight down until impact.  While clearly not an uplifting story, it’s certainly one that will help put even the most religious teetotaler in a thoughtful mood about how actions beget reactions.

More stuff:

- The screenplay for his final stab at independence, Noble Rot, can be found here

- A short but interesting account of Belushi scouting winery locations for Noble Rot…

The Smoking Cupcake, November 2011

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