James Leon resides in an undisclosed desert sanctuary with a beautiful significant other and their tribe of furry kids. He writes screenplays...read more & essays, in addition to shooting his own films. His first feature, Dropping Like Flies, is due in 2017. Currently editing 3 books and working on a 4th.
IT WAS THE FALL OF 1990 and it was my senior year in Racine, Wisconsin. I had gone to this laid-back school (grades 6 through 12) the previous year, that had much more freedom and better academic results any of the public high schools in my neck of the mid-western woods. However, because I took advantage of the freedom my junior year at Walden 3, in the dangerous gang-infested downtown section, it was back to the high school named after a tractor company engineer (J.I. Case), a few yards away from cornfields, but near suburbia. Public education generally sucks in the United States, but its worse when you're a "freak" and wedged between inner city thugs and farmland jocks in middle America. 1990 was the beginning my last year in high school and being under parental control, which in my mind, meant that I was going to be unstoppable. Not much was expected of me after graduation. The proposed blueprint was: graduate, get a job, get married and have kids. Needless to say, this was an outline that so many of my family members followed the to the T (sans a few high school dropouts). As early as age fifteen, it was clear to me that would not be my chosen path. I wanted nothing more than to live my life to the fullest and not be bogged down with any forms of imprisonment or over-bearing responsibilities that I couldn't handle. At age seventeen, I had finally got to experience sex, enjoy certain drugs (marijuana and psychedelics) and carry on with my love for Rock and Roll! Midway through the first day back at Case, I decided to bail and go to Walden and talk to the principal, with the hopes to get back into that school. However, it didn't work to my advantage. It was the 1990s and Skinheads were everywhere and if you were white, with combat or DR Marten boots and were Punk Rock, you unjustly could be associated with a racist movement. The principal was an African-American man who grilled me because friends of mine had identified as being Skinheads that previous year and he thought I was one of them. Also, having a very German last name to some is considered guilt by association, even though my grandparents were born in this country before the Great Depression and were working class farmers. Also, more insult to injury, most of the Nazi andr Racist Skinheads gave me shit thinking that I was gay or Jewish. Go figure! So, to be an individual, before it became trendy to be a "freak", you really had to stand up for what you believed in, own up to who you were, even if you didn't have any clue of where you were going. If somebody challenged you, there was no choice but to be yourself. That year, I learned many of these lessons the hard way and wasn't always pleased with the end results, but I developed good survival skills in addition to street smarts that could never be learned in a classroom's text book. They don't teach you in gym class how to outrun gangsters, jocks and skinheads, much less teach self defense courses in effort to stop bullying in schools. (What a concept!)
Roaming the school that I hoped to graduate from, I visited friends and tried to re-connect with some of the teachers. Much of it seemed futile, but such is life when you're a teenager. During this excursion, I put on some eyeliner and lipstick, but it wasn't the first time. At Walden that previous year, I became comfortable with my cross-dressing tendencies and wearing make-up was a way to push the envelope of tolerance and explore my own identity. Transvestism, before the term was relevant to me, had entered my consciousness at the young age nine, but growing up in a homophobic and sexist environment, made people shun and hide their differences. Putting on make-up was just what I needed to propel me into self-discovery. Plus having an eclectic taste in music and films made me more of an outcast, but seeking out others who were similar to me was usually rewarding. As I wandered around, from room to room, it was a creative writing class (if memory serves well) where I met one of my friensd who most influencedl and inspired me. We never attendied the same school, but we rode last wave of irresponsibility during our teenage years together and to this day, we are still bonded. His name was Matthew Arnold, to which I later surmised he was named after the poet, given that his mother was a painter and a radical feminist. He was an only child and had grown up in Kenosha, a fifteen minute ride from where I lived, but still considered a long distance call. Matthew, his mother and step-father had moved to Racine so he could go to Walden during the 1990-91 school year. Through that chance encounter, we met the first day of our senior year and became connected tightly. I never understood it fully, but never questioned it. The weekends were a great time for two seventeen year old boys to go on crazy adventures, but they also happened a lot during the week after school. We hung out a consistent basis and he turned me on to more music, art and books than anyone in my later years of high school. There were times, where I revered Matthew as the older brother that I never had, even though I'm 3 months older than him. If I was the chaotic Sid Vicious wanna-be, then he would have been the logical Johnny Rotten counter-part. We both fancied ourselves poetic writer guys, clad in black, he in leather jacket, me in a trench-coat, and both if us wearing berets, with erratic black hair that was shaved in some parts. Both of us were confirmed bona fide hedonistic shaman in the making and about to be unleashed into the world of minimum wage jobs, unstable relationships and certain poverty. We would also bounce back and forth between our hometowns on the weekends. Sunday was usually our "come down" and regrouping day before enduring another week of school. Usually we would play music, lament about our girlfriends and look forward to the next good time. During one of these days, Matthew put on Christian Death's album Ashes. Both of us being raised with hints of Catholicism, we gravitated towards its epic and poetic tales of religion, sex, identity and sadness, as we thought we understood them as teenagers.
Shortly around this time, Matthew made it a point to mention the versatility of Gitane Demone's voice. Particularly noting her on the cover of Jimi Hendrix's "1983", whom I had yet to really discover aside of "Purple Haze" and "Are You Experienced". Up until then, most of what I was listening to was angry white guys in punk and industrial bands. I liked a variety of music, but wasn't really into female musicians no matter what genre. Sure there was Joan Jett, Deborah Harry, Vanity, Madonna and Siouxsie Sioux, but didn't readily gravitate to them. Something about Gitane's voice resonated deeply and I started to be less afraid about embracing my eclectic tastes in music. When you're a teenage boy growing up in Mid-Western America, you're not often raised to appreciate beauty, other cultures or lifestyles that differ from your family's values. It was also around this age that I became convinced that god was dead and that religion along with politics were designed to keep people repressed, blind and dumb. There didn't seem to be any great expectations expected of me upon being released into the adult world, so I only knew how to please myself. Nobody around me was as supportive as Matthew and a handful of a few other people. (Maryl S, Jamie H, Nate G, Chris H, Joe C, Jeremy H, Anne R, Kerry D, Becky B, Marla G, Debbie R, to name a select few.) I simply just kept writing and longing for the days where I could truly be myself. Free from institutionalized schooling, pressures from peers and the control of parental units ... who were splitting up. The biggest plan in my life was getting out of my home state. The how didn't really matter, all I knew was that it had to happen. I was born in Wisconsin, but my mum took me to Oceanside, California, where my dad was stationed with the Marines. We lived on the top half of a duplex house and across the street from our living room window was a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean. At the age of threes was when I woke up in the world! I found my first black cat in the alley behind our house. I rode around with my mum calling her "Batman" and I was "Robin". It was also the age that my dad and his buddies found it funny to get me drunk on wine. I even remember the day when my mum came home from the hospital with my new-born sister, Jean. It was where we got our first dog, a German Shepard puppy named Bruce. However, we only lived there for a year and, then it was back to the Midwest, trading an ocean for a lake, warmer temperatures for seasonal and some times extreme ones. By the age of ten, I felt cheated from an upbringing in a beach community, not far from the glitter and grit of Hollywood. Alas, had things played out differently, I might have become a different person based on geological placement. And I would have never met Matthew. He didn't have much responsibility placed on him, either. Upon graduating in the early summer of 1991, we both joined the work force. Toward the end of that summer, I would later be seriously injured in a car accident and my life would be put on hold for the next three years until the case was settled out of court. It wasn't until August of 1994 that I finally got a chance to see Christian Death in Chicago and the Electric Hellfire Club was the opening act. By then, Valor had taken over the band that Rozz Williams had formed originally and Gitane Demone was no longer involved with it either. By then, Matthew was living and going to college in Ohio. Meanwhile, I had been in Milwaukee for over a year, working a full time job in sub shop and part time in a liquor store. Once my settlement from my car accident arrived, my days in Brew City were numbered. In the fall of that year, when a check for $11,653.00 (originally $25,000.00, until the lawyers and doctor took their cuts) arrived, I sat on it for 2 weeks, quit selling booze to drunks, but kept making sandwiches and mapped out possibilities of where to go next. California seemed to have been forgotten about for some reason, but the interest to go to Europe appealed to me, simply because I had never been and when would I have this opportunity and money to do it again?! Amsterdam made sense on a lifestyle preference and no worries about being stopped by Wisconsin cops for smoking a joint or having any amount of weed. To further influence this decision, a documentary "Sex, Drugs & Democracy" centered around Holland's laid-back laws had just come out. Shortly after that, "Pulp Fiction" was also released. Another deciding factor was I had been keeping a correspondence with various members of one of my bands, the Legendary Pink Dots. I felt so inspired by their music that I wanted to do videos for them, but had no experience or samples of work! That was the year I bought my first video-camera. With all my belongings in storage, I arrived at the Chicago O'Hare Airport with my then girlfriend, Julie. (A one way flight to Amsterdam only cost $325 & a passport was $65, back then!) The plan was to stay in the Netherlands for about 2 years, but found out then that I could only be there (or any other country in Europe) 3 months without a visa. Not much of a traveler in my own country and everybody and everything that I knew at that time was in the states. Plus, with my inexperience with film making, I was reluctant about seeking out the Legendary Pink Dots about being their video director! (However, later that year in October, I would finally get to see them live and videotape their performance, through sending them an email!) After five days of the January temperatures of Amsterdam in 1995, I re-thought my strategy about how I was going to go about being a film maker or even as a writer. For years, I had been spending time in Chicago with the intention to live there, but it never manifested until this moment of uncertainty. I was weeks away from turning twenty-two and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life! Going back to Milwaukee was not an option, but Chicago was close enough to family members and the few friends I had, most of which were becoming scattered in more ways than just one. I found an apartment in Rogers Park, the area I was most familiar with through Matthew and his one time roommate Rob McVay (who died of a heroin overdose in the late 1990s or early 2000). The first job was telemarketing for Greenpeace and I enrolled in Columbia College for film and writing, but would be starting until the fall of that year. As for a social life, thankfully I was in touch with Chicago's Queen Of The Scene, Scary Lady Sarah. We had met at one of her parties a few months prior and eventually when I moved to the Windy City, she was my main connection to club world, artists, musicians and other odd collective eccentrics. I didn't really enjoy many of the clubs in Milwaukee and in those days, they had dry ones and alcohol driven clubs in both states. Eventually I would get my first record store job in at mom and pop goth shop called Armageddon Records. I would become known for showing up to parties and concerts and videotaping everything that I could get on a hefty VHS camcorder with auto-focus. I would later meet Michele, the love of my life for the next 6 and a half years, who was also starting film school at Columbia in the fall and was recently transplanted from New Orleans. But by the Spring of 1996, she and I would drop out of film school, drift into self-inflicted isolation, then go on to live in three different states in the space of one year. On April 1st, 1998, the former lead singer and founding member of Christian Death, Rozz Williams, committed suicide at the age of thirty-four; coincidentally, it was Matthew's twenty-fifth birthday. I don't remember where we were when we got the news, but life was pretty chaotic for Michele and me, re-adjusting to Chicago after a year of traveling and relocation attempts. By May of that year, I started working in another infamous record store, Record Exchange. It was just what I needed to continue my love for music. The film and writing bugs never left me either; many screenplays were being written, but the possibilities of them being made seemed to be lost in fantasy. In early 2002, my long term lover and I called it quits, but I carried on with the dream of doing films, which was the reason I moved to Chicago in the first place. I loved the record store that I worked in and it gave me a chance to discover new things as well as re-connect with forgotten treasures. I did a lot of the ordering for the store and kept a good stock of classic goth and industrial along with the newer stuff too. Gitane Demone's solo albums were only available at import prices ranging from $15-$19, but they would always sell, giving me an excuse to keep re-ordering them. However, that didn't keep me too up to date with her current material and I think she dropped off for a bit. Matthew had been living in NYC and when I briefly went out there in early 2001, he gave me a place to stay and was always helpful when he could be, but then I lost touch with him as well. He had outgrown the goth phase before the end of the 1990's, but I still considered it to be at my core, despite exploring other musical interests. Fast Forward: May 2009, Berkeley, California. I had been living, DJing and working in the Bay Area for over two years. My club night, Death Rock Dive Bar, was a month away from celebrating its one year anniversary and doing well on a monthly basis in Oakland. Plus, I was organizing this two day event called Nekro Festival. After one late night return from San Francisco to my own apartment in Berkeley, I got on Myspace, the network that helped me launch my club night, and there was message from a guy I had never met who lived in Seattle. His name was Sioux City Pete of the bands, the Beggars and Stabbings. He was booking the West Coast tour of Gitane Demone's new band the Crystelles and wanted to know if I get them a show in the later part of June. My heart dropped and my eyes widened with the excitement that was similar to being reconnected with a long lost friend. She and I had never met, but that was soon to change. I sent a date request to the Stork Club, where I based my events. After a few emails we had set the date for June 28, which would mark my year anniversary of quitting booze. A major accomplishment after six years of being an alcoholic amongst other things due to difficult times. Eventually, Gitane and I communicated via email, despite her preference for letter writing, which is something I enjoy also. It was hard to get an understanding of her through the digital whirlpool, but she seemed sweet. I started spending more time with her music again, particularly "Facets In Blue" and a re-recording of a Christian Death song, "Golden Age". On "The Scriptures" album, the track is mixed unfairly for the caliber of her voice, but on "Facets...", the bare piano and naked vocals, strike emotional chords that weren't masked in the original version. Then the lyrics, even though she didn't write the song (Valor did), evoke the emotions of someone who has lived through a lot of love and happiness in addition to pain and suffering and despite it all is happy to be alive. Finally after all these years, I could truly empathize. That last weekend in June, I had gone to Glendale to stay with a new friend and fellow Aquarian, Kristen, from a band called Demonika and the Darklings. I was on a mini-vacation from my full time gig at what would be my last record store job, but looking for sponsors and venders for Nekro Festival . Kristen agreed to take me around parts of Los Angeles and even to my old house in Oceanside, a place I hadn't been to since the 1970's. Connecting with her at first through Myspace and meeting her for the first time was like finding a kindred spirit. We drove around, trading stories of our pasts, discussed journal writing and our love for Californian bands like Jane's Addiction, X, and Christian Death. Kristen told me she had babysat for Gitane's daughter and drummer Zara Kand, when she was younger. Once again, I felt youthful angst toward my family moving back to Wisconsin instead of staying in Southern California. We always want to believe that the grass is greener when we're on the opposite side of the fence. No matter how hard I tried to imagine myself growing up in a completely different environment than the one that I was raised in, it would never mean that I would have been the same person or be possible to know that everything was going to play out to any great expectations. Even the paths we put ourselves on can get derailed by unseen forces. As we drove down the Oceanside street where I woke up at the age of three there didn't seem to be any identifiable traces of my youth due to renovations. However, near the set of address numbers of my childhood home and a set of steps away from the beach, was Wisconsin Street! I surmised that it was a minor detail that made my parents pick that area to live in, simply because the sign reminded them of home, where they would eventually return. When I got back to the Bay Area the day of my show with the Crystelles, the Beggars and Stabbings, there was a few errands that I needed to do. It was being booked as a Death Rock BBQ, so I had to get a lot of food and thankfully a woman named Emily/Mariana gave me a ride. I got to the Stork Club early; it was a Sunday and they wanted to wrap up the event by midnight. An employee of the bar fired up the grill in the back porch area, while I waited for the bands to arrive. There was slight bit of worry that something would happen to cause them to cancel the show and I tried not to not let it get the better of me. Everything that weekend was falling into place too easily. Was it all just a dream? Just then, a warm breeze blew into the gated, but open, doors and a charming woman's voice called out: "Hello…" The voice was familiar even though I had only ever heard it sing songs before. The woman at the door had bleached white blonde hair that was a wavy beautiful ocean. She had blue dots on her eyelids and was wearing a tan jacket that had even more eyes painted all over it. This was Gitane Demone and once the gate was unlocked, she greeted me with a hug. It was a real honor to have my event's first big name musician to be her. I wanted to please my guests and take care of them as best as I could. All three of the bands had been on touring a lot, with limited funds and staying where ever they could in DIY gypsy style. The BBQ was the bar's influence and well, why not?! However, that Sunday was the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, so hardly anybody was at this early show in Oakland. Also, most goths aren't publicly into BBQ! The bands all had the bare bones rawness that I was looking for when I started the event. In between their sets, I played a variety of music from swamp blues to country and of course the classic death rock staples, sans Christian Death for the obvious reasons. (Although, I did have a vinyl copy of Catastrophe Ballet with me that was later autographed!) Gitane loved my selection of music, but notably when I put on Marianne Faithfull's "Summer Nights" which gave her a pleasant surprise and she turned to me and smiled. Even though there was a small crowd of people, it was a close and personal vibe. A perfect way to celebrate one full year of sobriety. The following night, they were all playing at Kimo's in San Francisco's Tenderloin hood. Gitane had put me on the list, which was great, even though the day before I was a bit bummed about them booking that show originally. The worry was that it would interfere with my night's attendance. As it turned out, with regards to Gay Pride on Sunday, by Monday, SF was almost a ghost town and their second show in the Bay Area wasn't well attended. None the less, it was a wonderful time to absorb the bands and slowly come down from my mini-vacation. During the Beggars' set, Gitane came up to me and rested her head on my shoulder. It took pleasantly by surprise and the warmth that she generated was something that never left me. Later, we exchanged numbers, agreed to stay in touch. After the gig, as the bands loaded their minimal gear down the treacherous stairs of the venue, a small collective of friends stood outside the door on the sidewalk. Gitane told an amusing Rozz story and they were going to be staying at the Oakland division of Hell's Angels. At some point, consumed with a tidal wave of passion and inspiration, I blurted out to her: “I'm going to do film!” Gitane responded with an encouraging smile,”Great, I can't wait!” For the year that I had be doing Death Rock Dive Bar, I had been writing a script entitled “Lost World”, from a title of a Lydia Lunch song. Within the first few weeks of sobriety of late June of 2008, I would sit at the Albany Landfill aka The Bulb, overlooking the bay, parts of the ocean and the sunset, coming ideas and characters for the script. As time progressed, I had an outline, but for the next two years it would be carefully fleshed out. As DRDB kept gaining popularity and the more artists and bands I dealt with, a story was crafted with multiple layers, dealing with subjects that anyone could identify with. Alcohol and drug abuse, bad relationships, over-blown egos, club politics, struggling artists, etc. Writing has always been very therapeutic; if I didn't kill demons by that process, things might be much worse for my existence. Plus, I was tired of seeing talented people lose themselves to unhealthy situations and wanted to make a statement regarding the scene, but do it in an entertaining and non-judgmental way. As time went on, the screenplay became more coherent and developed through living with one of my partners and muses, Zania Morgan, whom fronts Headless Lizzy and Her Icebox Pussy. When her band first played my event within the first few months of its insurgence, I found out that she was in film school and decided to make her my partner in crime. What comes next will be explained another time. (See the Making of Dropping Like Flies journal and documentary.) In October of 2010, I had re-scheduled a show that for was booked originally for July of that year. It had been postponed due to riots in Oakland. The Crystelles with Headless Lizzy and Her Icebox Pussy were on the bill, with myself as the DJ at the Submission in San Francisco. I arrived with flowers. Gitane, Zara and their tour guy, Bob, were waiting outside the taqueria next door to the venue. We went inside for a quick bite to eat and I gave her the completed script for Lost World. Without reading it, Gitane said: “Well, I guess we'll be doing this the next time we come back.” Needless to say, I was quite touched. To have a musician that I admired to be a part of my first film, was more than just an honor. It had been a long time in the coming. So many scripts had been written from the age of sixteen, along with an attempt at film school and even doing things myself with my first camera in the mid-1990's, finally becoming a film maker seemed to closer to a reality than just a dream. None of it would've happened had I not started my own club night or if I hadn't been sober. It was a small price to pay. Through being a buyer at my full time record store gig in Berkeley, my record collection had grown to be biggest that I had ever had in my life. Early on, I had the thought there might come a time where I would sell them to buy the camera that I needed to make my film. As 2010 came to a close, it was agreed that by the end of January, a small crew and I would embark on shooting it with cast that was solidifying. By mid-January of 2011, I had been laid off from my job, but with unemployment benefits coming in and my two monthly club nights on both sides of the bay, there was only a little to fret about. Before that mixed blessing came in. Just as we were about begin production, Gitane had sent an email saying that she would be happy to be a part of the film. Briefly, I considered changing the title to Life Is Stranger Than Fiction, but it was too long and The Lost World was a film in the Jurassic Park series in addition to a television show. The Firewater song, “Dropping Like Flies” was the one of the first songs I picked for the soundtrack because I thought it would be good for the open credits. Also, after several searches, there were no other movies with that title. In June, the crew and I were fully assembled and number of shoots were scheduled. The Crystelles came up for the weekend of Death Rock Dive Bar's 3rd Year Anniversary and stay the house where Zania and I lived. Somewhere along the line, through social networking and after a more then ten year absence, I found my dear friend Matthew Arnold again. It was a full circle that remains unbroken even with all the distance between. When I reflect upon all the miles that have been traveled, all the dead ends that had to be knocked out in order to find the paths to greater roads, the thought of “being lucky” enters my mind. Which might have been a subconscious reason behind adapting the name DJ Death Boy. I cheated death so many times and walked a twisted trail with detours that could sometimes be treacherous, as well as tedious. Yet, the journey is far complete. There will never be perfection in my world and it was a hard fact to learn at the young age of ten. Which was the same time I put myself on the career path of my own choice and its manifestation wasn't easy. However, if it was, then the thrill of any form of victory might not mean as much. Now, thirty years later and despite whatever obstacles that had to be weaved around, I can finally say these words: “Yes, I'm happy to be alive...so happy to be alive!”
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