Though this is a blog about my work, I have lost another old friend in a sudden and tragic accident (see Simon) and I feel the need to express how much I miss him, how special he was to me, and how lucky I feel to have had him in my life. I am joining a loud chorus of others who have also been singing the high praises over the past two weeks of our pal Joe Williams, including Oliver Stone! The most repeated sentence is “He was a good, good man.”
I’ve mentioned here that I grew up in a suburban neighborhood with mostly large Catholic families. The children in the Williams family and the Flynn family grew up together and I don’t remember a time we didn’t know one another. Joe was the oldest of his clan of 8 and I was in the middle of our 5.
When I finished 9th grade I was young, only 14, because of my summer birthday. I had my first kiss that summer and my first car date. I was seeing a boy who had just graduated from high school and some people didn’t take our age difference well. We heard many snickering references to Jerry Lee Lewis and we were both relieved when I turned 15 to his 18.
I started going to parties with my beau’s classmates and I was worried I would not know anyone and have to follow him around like a puppy dog. I was anxious but when I walked in to that first party, on my first car date, I saw my neighbor Joe Williams. “I know someone here!” I thought. But then I realized this could go one of two ways. Joe might be happy to see me or he might react like my brothers, after all, Joe had a sister my age. He might look at me with disdain and say what I imagined my brothers would have, “What are YOU doing HERE?” But as I walked toward him, Joe saw me, his face lit up and he gave me a big smile and hug and then he said “What are YOU doing HERE?” It was such a relief to have a friend and someone to talk to and our friendship solidified that summer. I became a part of his group of close friends from the class of ’76 and Joe helped to give me street cred with them.
Joe went off to college and I went off to high school but I saw him during holidays and he remained friends with my brothers and a friend to our family. I believe it was while I was in journalism school at the University of Missouri that Joe was working at a TV station in St. Louis at Euclid and Lindell behind the Chase Park Plaza. It was housed in the apartment building that my Mom had grown up in and my Dad’s Grandmother had lived in for years. So after giving me a tour of the station, we went creeping around to have a look at the very beautiful and architecturally stunning building that contained so much of my family history and which is now gone.
Toward the end of my undergraduate study in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Joe arrived to get his Master’s in Journalism. It was great to see him in Columbia – I was thrilled to have him near again – but he was surprisingly anxious. I had never seen him like this though I knew there was a shy side to him. He was really nervous and felt maybe he was too old to be there and people would think he was creepy and he would be shunned and wouldn’t make any friends. My maternal nature took over and I told him to leave it to me, that I was going to handle this. I said, “Here are my four friends. Here is the J-school. Here is the cool music club where I used to work.” I was feeling very protective and called him a lot and had him over for meals.
Then something strange happened and I can remember this like it was yesterday though it was 30 years ago this month. It was exactly two weeks after he had arrived in Columbia and I was coming out of the J–school which anchors the main corner of campus. Joe was standing on the corner surrounded by a throng of people. I just happened to glance him at the center of this gathering but it would have been difficult to get to him because there were at least 15 people circling him. He saw me and a big grin lit up his face but someone was saying something to him and it would have been difficult to remove himself. He gave me an apologetic wave and a sheepish smile and when I looked at the people around him I realized that these were people I had seen around campus for years. But they were people I had mostly never spoken to because the “cool quotient” of this gathering was leagues beyond me! I saw then that Joe was going to be fine, in fact, Joe had left me in his dust! Joe thrived during his Mizzou years. He started a cool band, Pineapple 69 and he then joined the Mizzou migration to LA which included Brad Pitt and Sheryl Crow.
At one point in the late 80’s, two Flynn brothers and three Williams brothers were living in LA. At the time I was living and working in Naples, Florida where I had found a job editing a lifestyle magazine. Whenever I traveled during these years I went to Chicago or LA because that’s where my brothers were and also because I needed a big city fix. My recollection of those years is that Joe was always living with one of my brothers and every time I went out there Joe was part of the gang. Those were some fun times!!
When Joe’s brother Paul died, his brother Peter ran first to my brothers Matt and Paul (sounds like a litany of the saints, I know!) for help and consolation. And years later, when my brother Paul died, Joe was so helpful to me. I can remember him holding the back of my elbow knowing that I was barely standing upright. The grief was immense but to be with someone who knew, understood and loved my Paulie so well meant a lot.
I have my own definition of a great artist as someone who gives voice to something we mere mortals feel but don’t have the ability to express. When I look at a painting and my soul sings “Yes, that’s what I wanted to say!” I call it great art. When I close a book and say “That is just the story I wanted to tell” it’s a great feeling. Great art always feels personal to me.
In a way, Joe was my own personal great artist. He was so intelligent and expressive and eloquent and articulate and sometimes my mind is a jumble of ideas I can’t make clear. Yet I could always give my half formed thoughts to Joe and he could fashion them into perfect paragraphs with topic sentences and give them back to me beautifully formed and straightened out. The most recent example was about Ferguson, Missouri.
Before my Mother moved to that beautiful apartment building behind the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis she was the fifth generation living in a house in Ferguson, Missouri built by slaves on a parcel from a land grant from the Revolutionary War. Land grantees received one square mile or 640 acres of acreage and Ferguson Missouri happened to be the furthest westernmost territory that no one wanted. All around them the neighbors were on similar large plots of gifted real estate. The closest neighbor, the Darsts, banded with my Grandfather Hereford to build a Catholic church. One gave the land and one gave the money.
But over many years and many generations these families didn’t necessarily have the money to keep up 640 acres nor were they using it to farm. They were doctors, builders, manufacturers, newspaper men. They started to sell off parcels, yet Ferguson was not a hot spot and St. Louis’s expansion was heading west, not north where Ferguson lay. So they sold off very small plots upon which very small houses were built. Thus Ferguson is a strange city of very large plantations surrounded by very tiny houses. The haves and the have-nots is intrinsic to the area.
This was a jumble I put in Joe’s lap and of course he gave me a tidy rendering of thoughts on this phenomena, leaving me saying “Yes, Joe. I know, Joe. Exactly, Joe. That’s what I’m saying, Joe.” Except I wasn’t able to say it. Once again, Joe had to say it for me. My own great artist had to give voice to what I, a mere mortal, could not articulate.
I know there will be things, for the rest of my life, that I will want to talk to Joe Williams about. One thing we both loved to discuss was the assassination of JFK and we shared books and resources about that for years. I loved to listen to Joe when he was talking about something he cared about or when he was returning my chaotic thoughts to me or when he was teaching me something because when he was in this “mode” he changed. His speech became very precise. His mouth even looked different. He used his hands close in, in front of his chest. His eyes brightened. I thought he was a born teacher and that would have been a great next phase for him. It was wonderful to be with him when he was like this. A great artist with his passion articulately expressed is a beautiful thing!
For the past many years, when I’ve visited St. Louis it has usually been for a weekend and usually for an event like a wedding or funeral. I always tried to call Joe and sometimes there was so little time we would just meet at a bookstore and walk around or meet at a coffee shop and sit for a while. Once we met at Whole Foods and walked around sampling food. But it was always a highlight of the weekend for me. I’m sure that we loved each other equally which is always a good thing in any relationship. When that is out of balance it can make for an awkwardness that doesn’t work. But Joe and I were happy to be in one another’s company and so these short captured moments were brief but always full of ideas, love, and laughter.
I was happy to introduce Joe to my husband one night in St. Louis when many of us went to hear a band with Mizzou roots, “Mike Ireland & Holler.” The lead singer, Mike, and I had been on a small study abroad program in England and it was great to catch up with him again. The drummer of the db’s was playing with Mike’s band and I was excited to catch him after the show to tell him I knew his daughter Hazel and his ex-wife Amy Rigby. Joe and I were both fans of these “small world” connections and he came with me to speak to the guy. But the drummer not only didn’t look up from packing up his drums, he grunted something very rude and stormed off in a huff mumbling under his breath. For what ever reason, it struck Joe and me as just hilarious we howled with laughter!
Joe ended up in St. Louis working as the film critic for the St. Louis Post dispatch for the past 15 or so years. The week after his fatal car crash, the paper ran excerpts from his writing and his editor spoke at his funeral about how impressed anew she was searching through his writing samples. It is the world’s great loss that this wonderful talent with a fascinating mind is not going to be telling us his about movies anymore. He was so insightful and could explain to us WHY we love “It’s a Wonderful Life” in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I saw many of Joe’s beloved friends at his funeral, many from the Mizzou days, and I’m glad to know there are so many others that loved him as I did. That was a great comfort to me and I’m sure his Mom, Marie.
I spent time in LA last week with Joe’s good friend Tom and he had a great montage that Joe had made of one of their annual sojourns. When Joe went to LA for the Oscars he always met up with Tom and they had a themed evening together. This was perfect for two friends who shared a passion for music, literature, movies and beer! It may have been a noir bar hunt or a search for the exact location at Griffith Observatory of the knife fight in East of Eden, or a Charles Bukowski pub crawl.
My final thought is remembering being stuck in traffic in LA once with Joe and I can promise you that being stuck in traffic with Joe Williams was more fun than dinner and a movie with most mere mortals.