Spalding Gray


posted to on March 12, 2004


Apparently Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island ferry on January 10--the last day he was seen alive. His body finally washed up from the East River on March 8. As somebody who has both seen him perform numerous times over the years and gazed into the waters from the side of the ferry on the way to Staten Island, his disappearance and death has been more on my mind than that of other deceased personalities.


Gray was a true genius. He virtually invented a new art-form in the 1970s, which combined autobiography with stage performance. Sitting at a table on a bare stage with nothing in front of him but a couple of sheets of paper, he spoke for an hour or two without interruption about important events in his life. As a story-teller, Gray was unmatched. With a flair for the telling detail and a dry self-mocking wit, he could hold an audience in the palm of his hands.


The last time I saw him perform was back in 1993 in something called "Gray's Anatomy". It had to do with his search for a cure for macular degeneration in his left eye, which can lead to blindness. Before opting for surgery, he tries a Filipino psychic surgeon and other "alternative" therapies. This was as much a function of fear of the knife as it was of a Christian Science upbringing that was reinforced by experiments with Eastern mysticism throughout the sixties. Stephen Soderbergh, who also directed "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and other films, made a movie of "Gray's Anatomy" in 1996 and it is well worth tracking down. This year, when I developed a "floater" in my left eye (and then in my right) because of retinal deterioration, I thought about "Gray's Anatomy" a lot. Fortunately, my problems were mild by comparison.


Before that, I saw "Monster in a Box" in performance, which is about his often futile efforts to turn an enormous sprawling manuscript into a novel. It too was turned into a film (directed by Nick Broomfield) that is available in video/DVD. It is a meandering but hilarious account of his various procrastinations to avoid completing the novel, which mostly takes the form of vacations to far-off spots like the USSR.


I love to tell one of Gray's stories to friends who are as addicted to coffee as me. Since he knows that you can't get real coffee in a Russian hotel, he brings his own with him that he brews in his room in the morning. The hotel's ersatz chicory brew not only doesn't taste right. It can't help you get that first bowel movement going in the morning. When desperate members of his tour group discover that he has the real thing, they come to his room to get a "fix" that he charges a premium for.


Another bit from this performance sticks out. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room. For Gray, that quaint but human form of communication has the same kind of charm as that expressed in objects of "Ostalgie" in the former East Germany.


The only other Gray performance I attended is not only his best known and highly-regarded but a highly acclaimed film as well (also available in video/DVD). Directed by Jonathan Demme, "Swimming to Cambodia" is the story of Gray's involvement with the film "The Killing Fields", in which he plays the US Consul in Cambodia. Once again, there is a passage in his narrative that has stuck with me over the years. He cites some academic study using quantitative indicators that maps abnormal human behavior to the stresses of wartime, especially involving bombardment. The study states that on a scale between 1 and 10, people begin to exhibit abnormal and destructive behavior when the stress level reaches 4. Based on all available data, the stress level reached 8 in Cambodia just around the time that the Khmer Rouge was getting off the ground. That bit of information helped me (and him) to understand the killing fields more than any article in the NY Times or the left press for that matter.


Gray spawned a number of imitators, including an ex-girlfriend who was an aspiring director before she launched a career as a performance artist. One morning I was up at my mother's house in the country when she came on the air on Mike Feder's show on WBAI, the local Pacifica affiliate. Her story was basically about her relationship with me and what a bore I was. All I was interested in, she complained, was radical politics. She said that despite my admiration for Cuba they would never let me into the country because I had an expensive stereo. I should mention that her venues are church basements generally.


Feder, I should add, did the same sort of thing as Gray, but not nearly as successfully in professional terms. Gray's persona is New England and waspish, while Feder is the quintessential neurotic NY Jew. ( Over the years, his shows have been filled with complaints about how he hasn't been able to "make it". That being said, I consider him one of the more interesting figures on WBAI and an exception to the "preaching to the choir" monotony that prevails. Even though it is good that the network resisted the Nation Magazine-supported takeover, they still have a long way to go to reach the level of professionalism and creativity that was on display through most of the 1980s.


As most comrades know, I have agreed to review fiction for As anxious as I am to read a good novel, the pickings are rather slim. Over the past couple of months, I have begun reading one or another recent work, but have put them aside because they lacked one basic element, namely interesting characters. What made Gray's work memorable was his ability to convert his own confused and futile search for a meaningful life into something that engaged your mind and your heart. He was the ultimate character. Even though I never met him or spoke to him, I really feel like I have lost a friend.