Sunday, August 24, 2014

Charles M. Young:
Remembering a Pioneer
of Punk Rock Journalism


Rock and Roll
Should be Frightening
(Not Unlike God)

August 24, 2014

By Brian Bentley



On Tuesday, August 19th, my friend, Carlos “Cake” Nunez, called to tell me the sad news that legendary music writer, Charles M. Young had died from a stage four brain tumor. A dozen years ago, Carlos introduced me to Chuck by forwarding him a story I wrote. So it was only fitting that he be the person to inform me that the great CMY had left this earth at 63.

I had the unique privilege of a 10-year correspondence with Chuck Young that was an irreplaceable source of inspiration and creative ideas. Over the years, we exchanged more than 100 emails and IM’s with dizzying regularity. He tutored me on writing and the writing markets, gave me legal advice, discussed Oregon college football, our mutual love of comedian Bill Hicks and delved into touchy topics like how to connect with women who were emotionally available.

In short, Chuck became a friend I would chat with at all hours of the night about any subject, professional or deeply personal. He was holed up in New York and could never quite make it out to L.A. to visit, except the time he dropped by Carlos’ apartment in the late 1990’s for research on a book he was writing about The Butthole Surfers. Carlos knew plenty about the band as a longtime writer for the legendary punk fanzine, Flipside. (The book about the BH Surfers never came out, but that’s another story.)

Charles M. Young was a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism when he won a national writing competition sponsored by Rolling Stone. In no time, he was a major contributor at the magazine, specializing in witty, humorous and deeply researched profiles of punk, country, blues and rock artists – often captured at the peak of their careers. In 1977, he was the first rock journalist at a mainstream publication to write an in-depth cover feature on the Sex Pistols, “Rock is Sick and Living in London.” Chuck introduced the Ramones to mall-rat America with his breakthrough portrait, “The Ramones are Punks and Will Beat You Up.”

In 1985, Chuck was instrumental in producing the TV show, Punks and Poseurs, the first authentic program dedicated to punk rock ever featured on MTV (and maybe the last). In the debut episode (check the You Tube clip), a scholarly Charles M. Young, decked out in wire framed glasses and a motorcycle jacket, patiently explains the bizarre ritual of slam dancing and how punk fashions influenced everything from studded wristbands on Ozzy Osbourne to Madonna’s punkette stage look.

Chuck was attracted to difficult, contradictory subjects of all musical genres. His knack as a fearless Method style interviewer who physically integrated himself with interviewees, often found him locked in psychic combat and at the mercy of unstable, egomaniacal musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Henley of the Eagles.

There weren’t a lot of punk rock critics who were passionate about the Eagles, but Chuck regarded them as uniquely human, dug their songs and wasn’t afraid to say so. He found Don Henley’s hypocrisy, blatant sexism and hatred of the East Coast music establishment annoying, but respected his ambition, intelligence and dedication to songwriting craft. Young hammered Henley to expand his thinking and open up to different kinds of music. They became lifelong friends the day the Eagles took on the Rolling Stone team for a spirited softball game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans. The Eagles took their softball so seriously they rented the pricey facility and invited their friend, California Governor Jerry Brown and an abundance of national media.

The Eagles won the game but offered to let Chuck Young follow them around for the better part of a year. In 1979, he was along for the ride as a first-person witness to every fist fight and line of coke while the band struggled to complete their swan song album, “The Long Run.” It was a mammoth and draining marathon which yielded a so-so album but a masterpiece story about the band, and a flaming coda for the 70s, “Hell is for Heroes, the Eagles Slow Burn in the Rock and Roll Inferno.” Young’s piece was funny, playful and revealing. Preconceived notions that the Eagles were simply pompous careerists were proven wrong, reminding us that it’s rebellious kids who form rock bands. Who knew a dour, S.O.B. like Henley had a silly delinquent side and was capable of blowing up a laundry cauldron with a cherry bomb?

Southern rock overtones could be heard in the Eagles’ tunes and Chuck was fond of Southern music in general. Maybe it was spiritually linked to his great-grandfather, who had fought for the Confederacy and once owned slaves (the latter being something Chuck was not thrilled about, but in his typical wisdom, understood). Chuck was born in Wisconsin, the son of a minister, which is a long way from the Mason/Dixon line. But he admired how many of the Southern bands didn’t conform to conventional or hip thinking. Young was attracted to contrarians and libertine outsiders and anyone who challenged rigid or conventional thinking. Southern rockers seriously embraced the manifesto of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and implicitly understood the commitment involved in partying to the bitter end.

In the fall of 1976, Charles M. Young was the editor of Random Notes at Rolling Stone. Probably the most consistently-illuminating music column in history, Random Notes was a behind-the-scenes glimpse of rock stars at their most enlightened, dangerous or ridiculous. One day in ‘76, it was suggested that Chuck go downstairs to a hot dog joint inside the mammoth building that served as Rolling Stone’s New York offices, to interview the South’s most notorious rock band, the original Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The hot dog stand story symbolized the circus-like excesses of the era. I have a fairly deep knowledge of Southern Rock and the original Skynyrd, so when Chuck told me what happened that afternoon, it was a wholly-formed, first-person confirmation of everything I had heard about only in fragments. We sent pages of emails back and forth about the chimp that MCA Records brought to the event that was guzzling a bottle of Jack Daniels with the band. This unusual pairing resulted in one of the most bizarre and iconic rock photos ever. Away from the cameras, Chuck and the chimp hit it off immediately. Young was a master at getting drunk with musicians to loosen things up and make the interviews jump.


“The Monkey and Me” Lynryd Skynyrd drink Jack Daniels
with a Chimp at NYC press party, 1976

This was a dangerous proposition with a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant was a lyrical genius, but also a ruthless, violence-prone thug who would have fit in nicely with the guys in Compton on Death Row Records. Van Zant was arrested 11 times for fighting and public drunkenness. Given that the rate of arrests compared to incidents without an arrest, is probably weighted 40-1, you get an idea of the unsavory risks involved. But for an adventurous journalist like Chuck, the interview was a priceless opportunity to mix it up with fellow pros at anarchy.

Taken from our IM’s and e-mails, here’s what Charles M. Young had to say about drinking with a chimp, getting kicked in the balls by Hunter S. Thompson, allowing The Ramones to steal a song title from him and how hard it is to make it as a writer. I can say without hesitation that you won’t find these quotes in the other stories out there about CMY.

BB: So what are your memories of the Lynyrd Skynyrd day? Was it like a meet and greet with the band?

CMY: Lynyrd Skynyrd rented a hot dog restaurant called Nathan’s that happened to be 23 floors below Rolling Stone. It was chosen because of its proximity, on the theory it would be easier to coax us writers to go if we didn't have to travel far. And it was chosen because the record company figured that if the band busted it up, how much damage could you do in a hot dog restaurant?

As the writer of Random Notes in the fall of '76, I arrived at the restaurant and got drunk with (band members) Allen Collins and Artimus Pyle. For some reason, they had a chimp there, who shared our Jack Daniels. We all got drunk, me, the guys in the band and the chimp. Both Collins and Pyle warned me to stay away from Ronnie Van Zant, who was extremely drunk and very mean. I observed him closely, but didn't ask him anything, because he was so obviously volatile.

BB: I heard Van Zant's violent instability was really unsettling to be around.

CMY: Yes! The rest of the guys were decent fellows but Van Zant appeared dangerously out of control. Later, he indeed beat the crap out of somebody on the sidewalk, and Pyle had an LSD freakout. I wrote a Random Note about it, and Russell Baker, the humor columnist of the New York Times, plagiarized the whole thing. Just took my Random Note and changed the name of the band. Fucker.

BB: I once heard a quote from Billy Powell (Skynyrd keyboardist). "When Ronnie was drunk and picked on you, you didn't fight back. Because if you fought back, you'd get really hurt."

CMY: Before I was at Rolling Stone, I remember an editor at Crawdaddy (magazine) telling me that Van Zant had told him that he liked fucking groupies in the ass, because he had a small pecker, and that way it would seem bigger and they'd remember him. So he definitely wanted to be bigger than life.

BB: Al Kooper found them in some beat-to-shit Florida club and immediately signed them to his “Sounds of the South” label. Right after, he booked studio time for their first album and brought them up to New York. Talk about fish out of water.

CMY: I didn't know what to think of Lynyrd Skynyrd in their prime. I admired their let-it-all-hang-out ethos, but I was terrified that they'd let it all hang out on me. While most of the great bands were simultaneously inspiring and frightening (not unlike God), Skynyrd was really frightening up close.

BB: More scary than G.G. Allin?

CMY: Never saw G.G. I remember George Tabb used to say, "Chuck, you gotta see G. G. Allin."

"Why?" I would say.

"Because he shits onstage and throws it at the audience."

"I don't want to be in the same room with that act."

"Yeah, but the last time I saw him, he stuck his finger up his ass and chased people out of the club."

"You go see him and tell me about it later."

BB: Obviously one of the most crazy and charismatic guys you ever met was Hunter S. Thompson.

CMY: I tried to strangle him at the Rolling Stone office Christmas party in 1980.

BB: You wanted to kill him? What happened?

CMY: I was actually (in drunken jest) trying to kill (publisher) Jann Wenner, and someone pulled me off him. Hunter was next to him, so I decided to kill him instead. He kicked me in the nuts and I went down like a sack of potatoes. It was one of the low points of my drinking years, but it's kind of a fun story. (Chuck’s drinking led to a departure from Rolling Stone that lasted ten years, but he emerged sober for life.)

BB: Does anyone really know exactly what happened on the Vegas trip that led to his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

CMY: I'm sure he did that stuff and the Hells Angels book is true. He had the artificial hip and bad vertebrae to prove it. But after Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, he was making a lot up. I thought he was at his best when he did the reporting, and then hallucinated. Hunter was true to himself, to his own style in the first three books. After that, it was somewhat hit and miss.

BB: Given Hunter’s love of guns, his depression and his flair for the dramatic, was it a shock to you that he committed suicide?

CMY: He was very depressed from all the physical pain he was in. It's one thing to decide rationally that you don't want to live with the infirmities that Hunter had, which were many. It's another thing to off yourself in front of your family. I'm not sure what that statement is. Hunter had just told his son Juan where all the important documents were, then he went in the next room, called his wife on the phone, and shot himself. To me, it was a bad scene, an act of anger.

BB: I think if he had died right after he wrote the 1977 piece, The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat, about his late friend, Oscar Acosta, the writing establishment would have put him on Mount Rushmore.

CMY: Well, he still deserves to be on Mount Rushmore.

BB: I saw Thompson give a lecture at UC Santa Barbara. He showed up several hours late after getting drunk in a bar in Goleta and when he finally arrived, people were so pissed and freaked out, it caused a riot.

CMY: His lectures were usually riots. That was part of the show and why you were there.

BB: That classic 70’s piece you wrote on The Ramones was flawless.

CMY: Oh thanks. I was upset by some of the editing, but I'm the only one who knows what could have been. Here’s some trivia for ya. The subhead on that article was “Teenage Lobotomy.” The Ramones stole it for their song. I saw Tommy Ramone recently, and he reminded me. I'd forgotten.

BB: Were there any successful punk bands you didn’t like?

CMY: I confess I didn't like The Clash much. I wanted to like them and felt I should like them, because of their politics. But once I'd seen the Sex Pistols, nobody else quite measured up. Even if it weren’t for the Sex Pistols, I’d have found the Clash boring, although Mick Jones had something. My favorite Clash song was, "I'm so Bored With the USA." Me too. I also hated Motley Crue and some of those other terrible hair bands from the 80s.

BB: I was reading an article recently about the 50 worst bands of all time. The Doors easily made the list, but I always thought Morrison’s stage attitude influenced punk rock.

CMY: I'd put The Doors on my best AND worst lists. When they were good, they cut through everything else on the radio. When they were bad, they sucked the entire mop. The later singles, "Touch Me," and "Riders on the Storm" were dreadful.

BB: What did you think of the Oliver Stone movie on The Doors?

CMY: Ray Manzarek hated the way he was portrayed in that, because it made him look like a disconnected, hippie intellectual doofus, but that's exactly how the guy talks, on and off camera. My favorite Door is John Densmore, because he refused to let the songs be used for commercial jingles when Manzarek and Kreiger insisted they sell them to Madison Avenue. Densmore argued that Jim Morrison would have viewed it as selling out. I agree. I also loathed hearing "Rock & Roll" by Led Zeppelin on Cadillac commercials. To this day, whenever I hear "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," I think of that fucking dancing raisins commercial.

BB: At the height of punk, you were writing for a national magazine. How much flack did you take from underground bands when you would go to see them?

CMY: For a national magazine, RS was always trying and I give Jann the credit. We were out there and willing to write up bands that had something to say. There has been a continuum. Now Matt Taibbi gets to say what he wants, and he's said some things about Wall Street and the economic system that needed saying. And yeah, I do wish RS would give me the freedom they give to Taibbi. But that's not going to happen in this incarnation. I try not to think about it a lot.

BB: I know that you were writing music reviews for Playboy and more recently, a blues column for The Atlantic. Is that your favorite music right now?

CMY: Yeah, I listen mostly to old blues these days. Hardly an original taste in someone of my age, but that's what I like, and that's what I play. I feel fucking sorry for kids coming up on Justin Bieber. Bubble gum has always been out there, but us baby boomers were extraordinarily lucky with the music we came of age to. Now, Corporatism is killing everything, including the arts.

BB: What do you have going on in the story pipeline?

CMY: I'm doing a story about Skunk Baxter right now. Then I’m going to go hang out with Jerry Lee Lewis and see what happens. Everyone's waiting for a band to come along and change things again. Nirvana was the last band that really resonated in the culture. It's been a long time.

BB: Is it possible to actually survive as a freelance magazine writer? I took a break from advertising copywriting in the 90's and gave it a go and found it a dead end.

CMY: Ya know, it's pretty much impossible to make a living doing what I'm doing. I don't recommend it to anyone. I make it worse for myself with fear and perfectionism and shit, but it's mostly unattainable. I remember, when I was in journalism school, some guy came to my reporting class and outlined the finances of free lancing. He said it was impossible to make a living, and I didn't believe him, but he was right. I got published in Crawdaddy before I was ever in Rolling Stone. The Crawdaddy clips gave me something to show other magazines, even though Crawdaddy paid for shit.

The state of magazines is very discouraging. Most magazines sell a lifestyle – and now nobody can afford the magazine, let alone the lifestyle. They all seem stunningly irrelevant. These days, you have to be a machine or a hack to make it work. Or strike it rich somehow as a celebrity, like Hunter. I'm always scrambling, and it's unpleasant. But it's better than having a corporate job. You should go for it, if that's what you want to do. But don't have any illusions about how tough it is.

BB: I have a question for you. Why do you think the life expectancy, even for writers, in rock is so short? Robert Palmer just passed away. It seems like musicians, writers, anybody in rock goes out before their time.

CMY: Well, hard living is a tradition in rock writing, and there's not a chance of getting rich. A sociologist in England figured out that people at the top of any social hierarchy live longer than the people at the bottom. Rock writing is pretty fuckin' low in prestige. Lotta stress. Timothy White (Chuck’s close friend and fellow writer, who died at 49 in 2002) had his father killed by a heart attack at a young age. But mostly in Tim's case it was stress. Billboard was hard on him. Billboard is an awful, stupid, corrupt magazine. I'm talking about the management at that place. They're all dirtbags.



My last question to Charles M. Young, regarding the short life spans of rockers, is one that hangs heavy with irony in the air tonight. I never thought I would be writing this story. I figured Chuck would be around for another 10 to 15 years to bounce ideas off of. The only real friend I ever had in the publishing business was always reachable and inexhaustible in his support.

Chuck cared greatly, which was his blessing and his burden. He was a mentor and a confidant. Whenever I wrote something important, he was one of the first people I sent it to. He was a “made man” in journalism, and his informed opinion was the most valuable. Sometimes I would phrase a piece a certain way just to impress him. He mattered like the teacher in high school who drove you to your best work. In his indomitable spirit of encouragement, he was “Mr. Miyagi” in the Karate Kid. He gave me the greatest compliment ever when he said we were “peers.”

In the mid 2000’s, restless to find a freelance market that magazines like Rolling Stone could never offer, Chuck dived into writing incendiary articles for thicantbehappening.net. The website is a blog collective Young co-founded, along with an impressive stable of other writers, that begs to be censored or investigated by all branches of the government that suppress independent thinking. Thiscantbehappening.net skewers both the Right and the Left, but more often, addresses how corporations and their massive influence on politics and world economies continue to pollute the planet. Chuck’s tribute to comedian Bill Hicks is a reminder that a true satirist attacks everything.

Always fond of politics and searching for a cause with impact, Chuck immersed himself in the Occupy Wall Street movement, chronicling it in his blog and sometimes marching in street protests. His outlook was energized in a way he hadn’t felt in years. But with the highs came an increasing number of lows. After his parents died in 2008, Young withdrew and indicated that he was in the throes of a great depression. His despondency reached alarming proportions. Chuck’s usual cheerfulness had always been tinged with a certain fatalistic, funny cynicism as in, “we’re all fucked, Brian,” but lately, his heart seemed defeated and veering toward capitulation. Friends say he was a virtual recluse and had mostly stopped writing or returning calls. His last Rolling Stone piece was a Solomon Burke profile in 2010. Technology and the decline of magazines painted his career into a corner. Chuck never humped his accomplishments via social media, a numbingly redundant practice these days for anyone “artistic.” At the time of his death, he had no personal Wikipedia page and only three photos of him appeared in Google Image Search.

In late 2012, a few months before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and while he was reportedly dropping out of contact with many of those who knew him closely, Chuck’s rate of emails to me doubled. Often he was effortlessly brilliant and could sum up or dismiss a lifetime of expectation in a single sentence. When I rambled on about how I had found the game of No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker to be almost a religion, based on the mastering of psychology and the optimization of personal performance, Chuck replied curtly, “I’ve never had any luck at cards.” But more and more, he would repeat details of the same stories over and over, like a child might or an old man. In retrospect, the Glioblastoma that had invaded his brain may have been affecting his mind and behavior.

Chuck Young was not necessarily alone. Hundreds of veteran journalists like him have become fossils of a bygone age, dinosaurs with no museum to house or honor them. Long, expansive music articles that delve deeply into philosophy and complicated truths have been extinct for years. Few people possess attention spans and freely admit to avoiding any block of copy that takes up more space than a mobile device screen. Writers such as Chuck, who used to fight like frightened monkeys to preserve their original editorial edits, now settle for bylines on 100 word sidebars, right next to the Katy Perry bendover photo. At any dollar rate, the money is laughable. I still remember the perception that writers who got paid “$2 a word” had it made.

Many writers in Charles M. Young’s “New Journalism” generation addressed their subjects from the top down, straining to be intellectual, aiming for high-brow epic-ness at the cost of clarity. Chuck wrote from the bottom up, for the average guy, for the guy who waited in line 8 hours for a ticket to a rock show that meant everything. Chuck was a music academic, but also a man of the people and never forgot that many people think academics and musicians are full of shit.

At the heart of Chuck’s writing was the concept of absurdism. From Wikipedia: “In philosophy, ‘the Absurd’ refers to the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any. Absurdism is very closely related to existentialism and nihilism and has its origins in the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who developed existentialist philosophy.”

There were many tired sacraments in rock journalism and one was that the artist was to be deified and placed on a pedestal (see Bob Dylan). Chuck’s Midwestern school of thought (see Creem Magazine out of Detroit) embraced absurdity and argued that legends could be the biggest clowns, and to worship them simply for being legends was kind of funny. From his 2006 Rolling Stone Jerry Lee Lewis story “The Killer Reloaded.”

“The last of the original Sun Records pioneers of rock & roll, and by far the least likely to be walking around in the twenty-first century, the only guy in all of music who makes Keith Richards look about as dangerous as Jessica Simpson, the Killer continues to rage into the night. Outside in his front yard. he is wearing only his underpants — bikini briefs, not boxers — and it appears that the most rock & roll of all rock & rollers might be having a senior moment.

He marches to the middle of the driveway, which goes up a short rise from Malone Road. Over the white fence that surrounds his forty acres and pond, the headlights of the passing cars seem to be gaping at the Killer, who is illuminated by the garage lights as if onstage. Hunched but unbowed, after six decades over the piano, he flaps his arms, he jumps up and down, he screams vowel sounds at the cars, daring them to gaze upon his nakedness in the humid night air.”

Chuck Young was a man of wit and grace, a writer who readers trusted because there wasn’t an insincere, dishonest bone in his body. Somehow, he managed to be intellectual without being snotty, tough but also sentimental, supportive but sometimes discouraging. “Real” is the term that would best describe him. Because he was a fan first and a prominent writer second, musicians believed him and he became their best friend. He once hung with The Butthole Surfers and drove them all over town (reportedly after the band had given him some acid).

From guitarist Paul Leary’s website:

“He was a champion for the band, writing reviews for us in big magazines. He let us sleep on the floor of his small mid-town NYC apartment for more nights than I can count. We almost got him kicked out of there a couple of times. I still remember the times he bought us all BBQ sandwiches for lunch. We were hungry. When we were living in Winterville, GA, he flew down to hang with us, showing up in a rental car that had an unlimited mileage agreement. This was at a time when we had absolutely no vehicle of any kind to get around, and were living in the middle of nowhere. We started calling him "Charles 'Unlimited Miles' Young".

Paul Leary was like many musicians and writers who Chuck sponsored. The closest I ever got to him was when he came to my emotional rescue – before, during and after my one foray into magazine writing. For years, I had been an advertising copywriter specializing in music and movies. I had written for most of the record labels and film studios in town. My taglines had appeared on one-sheet posters for Dances with Wolves and Blade. I had worked with a difficult Vincent Gallo to write the video box synopsis for Buffalo 66.

But nothing compared in stress, effort and emotional turmoil to the experience of trying to place a story I had written about a Silver Lake, CA woman I knew who died in a house fire under suspicious circumstances. No charges were filed but the arson investigator went to his grave believing the woman’s boyfriend was involved. I approached a local L.A. magazine of national prominence and they paid me upfront to deliver the story. After a year of negotiations and tense rewrites, the article was killed. My theory was that the piece was a little too edgy and weird for both the magazine’s readers and its advertisers. But what I mostly remember was how Charles M. Young was the best friend a writer could ask for – supportive in good times and bad.

Chuck, I will never forget you buddy and I thank you for everything. I hope that somewhere out there you are reading my tribute and that I got it right. This email you sent me about the story that was killed is something I will treasure for the rest of my days.
Later dood. Yerz, Brian.

CMY: Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Brian. I'm so sorry to hear this.

You cannot win a battle of wills with these shitheads. If you make a frontal assault, they have all the weapons, and you'll lose. Do NOT insult them, even though they deserve it. If you do, the mag will feel justified in screwing you over even more. Do everything you can to suck up, make ‘em feel like they owe you (which they do).

The problem is, they've paid you money. You've cashed the check. You can't take it elsewhere until it’s officially killed. If you publish it elsewhere to the vast acclaim you deserve for your excellent reporting and writing, the editor will look bad. Being an autocratic jerk, he lives in constant fear of looking bad. He doesn't want to publish it because it's different and good, and he doesn't want to kill it, because then you have a chance to thrive somewhere else at his expense. So he's going to sit on it until it's too old to publish elsewhere.

You're totally fucked.

The times in my life when I got into a direct fight with an editor, I lost even when I won, because they find a way to stick the knife in your back in some way you're not even expecting, like putting a stupid headline on your story, or shrinking your byline to microscopic size. So I would try sucking up to the sonofabitch. If he still doesn't slot it, ask in the nicest possible way for him to kill it so you can sell it elsewhere.

Chances are, nothing will work, and you'll still be totally fucked. That's how freelance writing works. Keep in mind that your task is to get the article into print. Insulting him is fine for your imagination, but in practice, he's impenetrable. Don't give him any reason to want to fuck you over. You are at his mercy, and that's just the fact of it.

Shit like this is why I've been fighting depression for decades.
Keep at it. Don’t give up. You have talent. You rule.

lemme know what happens
chuck



Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Robin Williams: A Funnyman Comes to a Sad End
August 11, 2014

By Brian Bentley




Robin Williams, who was found dead at his home in Tiburon, CA at noon today, was a giant of film and comedy and his shocking celebrity suicide has rattled the nation in a manner not seen since the death of Kurt Cobain. Whatever you were doing, when you heard the news that Williams had killed himself, the sobering effect dominated your thoughts for the rest of the day.

How could it not? Robin Williams was an actor who made us feel good to be alive whenever he walked into a room. He was 63 and in the twilight of his career – but what a career it was. The traditional media can provide an exhaustive list of his credits and a complete blow by blow retrospective. But how about the movies “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” for starters?

Williams’ cinematic masterpieces came long after he had helped define the essence of drug-fueled comedy that ran manic through the streets of the 1970’s like a coke fiend on fire. Richard Pryor and George Carlin re-invented comedy and set the stage for Williams’ contemporaries like John Belushi, Andy Kaufman, Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin. “Crazy” was the term that defined most of these acts. There was silly-crazy like Martin’s “wild and crazy guy;” smartly-cynical crazy like Aykroyd; weird, foreign-guy wacky like Kaufman and stone cold fucking nuts crazy like Belushi and Pryor – two radically creative comics who seemed intent on capping their volatile careers with early exits.

It is impossible in 2014 to appreciate how new and exciting all this was in 1978, but the country had emerged from a relentlessly repressive decade of war-mongering, assassinations and racial turmoil. People were fed-up with “the establishment” and lies and bullshit and Watergate and bummers of all kinds. Society was suffering from a sense of collective nihilism and anarchy was a popular notion. Punk rock stars were singing songs declaring there was “no future” and whether you subscribed to that bleak a philosophy or not, everyone seemed to agree it was time to let it loose and party.

Comedy and music took the lead in burning the candle at both ends. Drugs, decadence and living on the edge were badges of honor and achievement. Back then, the country was addicted to the image of hard living and getting high the way we are junkies for Facebook now. Guys like Belushi and Pryor and Keith Richards were considered marvels of modern medicine and self-determination.

Robin Williams wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone with his inventive, hit TV series, “Mork and Mindy.” He was a superstar stand-up comic known for boundless energy. It was exhausting to watch him work a stage and impossible to separate his amped-up routine from his offstage personality. To keep that rush going, he did copious amounts of cocaine, often in the company of his fast lane peers. Nobody has ever provided evidence, but it’s apparent to anyone who followed this story that Williams was shooting speedballs along with John Belushi at the Chateau Marmont Hotel the night that Belushi OD’ed – and managed to get out of town about five minutes before the cops slapped him with a trumped-up conspiracy charge that would have fallen apart in court but dealt a severe blow to his brazenly clean-cut public image.

Surviving those times, when many of his professional friends did not, was no mean feat. But Robin Williams (who was never a cast member) did something phenomenal that most of his buddies from the original Saturday Night Live could not – he became an extraordinary dramatic actor who made great movies. There was often a sly sadness and wistful melancholy ingrained in his roles and this was reflected in his private life. Williams entered rehab on numerous occasions and confessed in interviews to prolonged bouts with cocaine, alcohol and depression.

In one of his greatest roles and certainly against type, he played a lonely, creepy photo-processing clerk in “One Hour Photo.” As Seymour Parrish, Williams stalks a young suburban family, using their cheerful and “normal” photos to fill the holes in his empty life. While his character spins down a drain of psychosis and obsession, Williams enters into uncharted waters for a comic actor. The aching sadness in his eyes and longing for human contact chillingly capture the insecurities in all of us to belong.

After the events of the last 24 hours, it is difficult to know just how much Robin Williams was acting in real life. When a man who seemingly has everything – money, family, prestige, a beautiful home overlooking the San Francisco Bay, decides to take his life, it sends a message to us all that depression does not care who you are or what you have accomplished, just what you are missing and what you believe you lack and will never attain. That loss of purpose is more dangerous to one’s survival than any drug.

As the Boomer generation drifts into their final years, there has been much discussion that suicide will become a natural and increasingly popular remedy for the slow and painful disintegration of old age. When an accomplished and respected director like Tony Scott has the strength and willpower to climb a bridge scaffolding to leap to his death, one wonders if these precedents had an impression on a fitness freak like Robin Williams, whose body was fit enough for marathon bicycling but whose mind and heart had quit. Williams has several films yet to be released and these will be viewed, as will all his work, with a fresh perspective and a search for answers to the kinds of questions that can never be answered.