Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Nurse the Hate: Hate My Ventriloquism Days

I can’t recall if I had told you about my days as a ventriloquist.  Those of you that are fans of the genre are no doubt familiar with the act “Livingston and Swope”.  I had taken the stage name “Swope” as a lad while woodshedding my craft at the St. Mary’s Home For Boys.  I was a frightfully unpopular orphan and had turned to ventriloquism as refuge from the toughs and hooligans that surrounded me in the shelter.  I had been given my first puppet by kindly Sister Mary Catherine who had fished it out of the River Thames and dried it on the steam radiator.  Even now I can remember the smell of the St. Mary’s basement as I spent hour upon hour perfecting my technique in solitude.  Though it was filthy and missing an arm, I loved that puppet.  I was a sensitive boy more inclined to art, and my art was that of ventriloquism.  I had found my true talent.

The early 1990s were known for two things, grunge and celebrity ventriloquism.  I was quite fortunate to have been living in Portland in 1991 where I worked on an organic chicken farm and worked on my act at night in the small boardinghouse where I rented a modest room.  In a pawn shop near the Portland bus station I was fortunate enough to spot what would become known as the “Livingston” dummy.  I knew at once this was the dummy I had been looking for these many years.  As I didn’t have enough money at the time to afford the puppet, I worked out a deal to pay half down and paint the interior of the pawn shop after closing.  I am forever grateful to Portland Super Pawn owner Fat Manny Sanguillen in providing me that opportunity.  That puppet changed my life. My profile was raised almost immediately with opening slots for Green River as well as an early incarnation of Nirvana.  There was an undeniable buzz surrounding “Livingston and Swope”. 

It might be difficult to believe now, but ventriloquism had a major renaissance in the early days of grunge.  The natural symbiotic relationship of the urgency and power of the early grunge movement meshed perfectly with the Vaudeville traditions of classic ventriloquism.  There was a magic in the air during those early gigs.  Something was happening.  You could feel it.  I fondly recall sitting out on the stage on my wooden chair with Livingston in a zone.  The crowd all enraptured as I closed with our trademark home run joke.  “Livingston, I heard you slept under a car last night?  Why did you do such a thing?”  The puppet then responding with his now famous accent reminiscent of a British Amos N Andy.  “Well Mr. Swope, I wanted to wake up oily!”  Even now I can see a young Eddie Vedder laughing himself almost to tears just off stage.  It was a special time.

Things happened fast for all of us.  The early tours were great, being on the road with everyone in the scene.  It was a whirlwind.  35 dates with Pearl Jam.  Two days off.  Back on the road with Screaming Trees.  I did 300 dates in 1993 alone.  The Rolling Stone feature and then the cover of Spin magazine confirmed what we all felt.  Ventriloquism was back on top.  Livingston and Swope were major celebrities.  Movie stars counted us as friends.  I rode motorcycles with Patrick Swayze and made love to the entire female cast of Beverly Hills 90210.  I thought nothing could touch me. 

The first time I did heroin was with Layne Staley of Alice In Chains at Lollapalooza.  I was playing the side stage for the West Coast leg.  Layne loved Livingston.  He was, admittedly, “never much of a Swope man”.  We would all sit in his trailer killing time waiting for our sets, smoking various exotics, and then stare at Livingston.  I swear one night Livingston started reciting Proust on his own.  The slide into the heroin was gradual but looking back it was completely inevitable.  Things had changed.  It was then that the public’s fickle tastes had shifted away from ventriloquism and right into the swing revival.  Before I had even known what had happened most of my opening slots had been snapped up by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  I had a drug habit and rapidly dropping income.  People I thought of as friends stop taking my calls.

The end of “Livingston and Swope” came quietly.  I was in my chair at Lounge Ax, first on a four band bill with Menthol.  I was dope sick and shaky.  There’s a video out there on YouTube.  I can’t bear to watch it.  At the 12-minute mark I turn my head and throw up on the stage, wipe my face with Livingston and launch into what was the last bit.  “Well Livingston, looks like you have some vomit on your tuxedo!”  That’s no surprise Swope…  Because you’re a fucking junkie!”  The crowd stopped talking and paid attention to what was a man melting down in front of them.  In many ways it was our greatest show.  The curtain was pulled.  I was tossed out the back door.  Livingston and Swope were finished.

There were many dark days to come before hitting rock bottom.  We did things in cheap motel rooms for our fix that shocked even the jaded crowds in therapy sessions when they were recounted.  It was only when I saw the stained Livingston folded over on a flophouse floor in Boston that I said “enough”.  As an act of mercy I tossed Livingston into the Charles River.  I had one single tear roll down my cheek as I saw him get carried down river in the cool brown water.  My days of ventriloquism were over.  I entered rehab.  My life could begin again.


At February 8, 2017 at 11:50:00 AM EST , Blogger Bobdontgiveaf#ck said...

Wow. Before I read this post I considered the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence to be the most impressive documents in Western history. I now respectfully add "Hate My Ventriloquism Days" to that list.

At February 8, 2017 at 11:54:00 AM EST , Blogger Greg Miller said...

This was a personal journey I was glad to share as a cautionary tale.


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