When I was sixteen, or thereabouts, my father rented a five acre ranch in Topanga Canyon. Near Malibu. One day at the racetrack he bought me a broke-down stakes horse named My Chief. We paid one silver dollar (a gelding worthless for breeding) and took him back to the little hobby ranch. Next, my father bought a herd of black-faced sheep. He built a barn, and bought more horses at the L.A. horse and mule auction. Then, at the racetrack and in the card rooms, he proceeded to gamble his way into bankruptcy. He went to jail. The paint peeled off the barn. The race horse strangled to death in barbed wire, and mountain lions ate the sheep. If we’d had an old grey goose I’m sure it would have died at the bottom of the well, standing on its head, because our Nursery Rhyme childhood was turning mighty Brothers Grimm. Know what I mean? But wait.
One day, before it all went down, I was hanging out at The Topanga Canyon market. I saw a nervous little guy standing by a garbage bin. It was the former child actor, Bobby Driscoll. Grown up. Haggard. Sullen. Maybe strung out. He’d been the voice of Peter Pan, and played the cabin boy in Treasure Island. An icon for us kids. I walked over and told him that I’d really liked his work in Treasure Island. He was the best actor Disney ever had. He turned slowly and said, “Go away, kid, and leave me alone.” Jeeze. Mommy never told me Peter Pan could turn mean. And bleed.
It was a two-second coming of age. The race horse in the barbed wire. Peter Pan strung out. Dead sheep in the meadow. Cows in the corn. Fast forward to two years ago. I picked up a book called The Semina Culture, about a Beat-Art movement which transpired around Venice Beach California in the 1950’s. Jazz, hard drugs, and collage art. Actors and musicians and junkies. Most of them died young. A few, like Dennis Hopper, moved on to success. There’s a page or two on Bobby Driscoll. How his acting career bottomed out, then he made art. He was a good artist, but the junkie yen took its toll. His downward slide was Promethean.
The conclusion to this tale, children, is this: some kids playing in a vacant lot in New York City, in the early 60’s, found a body in the weeds. No one identified the corpse, so it’s buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field. A perch for migrant crows. Years later they realize it’s Bobby Driscoll. I think he’s still there, in Potter’s Field, near Riker’s Island.
But cheer up! And as the credits roll, your troubadour begins to sing: “Second star to the right, straight on ‘til morning, my little friends. There’s an island called Neverland, where childhood dreams never end….Farewell Never Never land….Goodnight Bobby.”
(This is the third song on the coming record.)