Remember Me When I'm Gone
Jan's response to a request from Larry King of CNN (with a little help from a friend) . . .
Remember Me When I'm Gone . . . by Jan Berry
hen I was young I had all the advantages. My father worked for Howard Hughes, we lived in Bel Air. I went to the best schools, and got the best girls. My intelligence quotient was well above average; and yet I could be a rebellious, troublesome punk who brought more than a little anxiety to my parents. That sounds normal enough; but the truth is, nothing about my life has been ordinary.
I was famous before my eighteenth birthday; and I relished all that came with that. Hit records, national television, and beautiful women. We were golden boys in an era when things like rock-n-roll and television were in their infancy. But I stayed in school, taking music theory classes in college, majoring in zoology, and eventually entering medical school. I lived two lives -- vocal harmonies and biochemistry. Recording studios and lab specimens, Dick Clark and bright classrooms. I couldn't get enough. I wanted to do it all. I wrote and arranged music, and produced hit records at all hours of the night and weekends. In a one-year span at our peak, we had five top-ten records in a row. We had movie and television deals. What didn't we have? And through it all, it was my way, or the highway. Take it, or leave it. I'll admit that. Have I mentioned that I'm an Aries?
That's a brief sketch. But that's who I was. That's how I operated, blazing my own trail (some would say) leaving people in flames around me. It's a popular notion about me; and I can appreciate it, to a degree. But the fact is I had plans. I had big plans. I knew exactly what I wanted -- for my life, for my career; and let me tell you a little secret: I was pulling it off. Things were slowly falling into place for me, despite a weary string of business and personal problems. I mean, a few dim spots notwithstanding, my future never looked brighter. Can you appreciate that?
But that's when it happens -- when you're on the brink, when your ducks are all lined up, and you have them just so. Never assume you have everything pegged. Never tweak that last duck, and pat yourself on the back, and take everything else for granted. Because that's when god rips the mike out of your hand and says, out of nowhere, you might not come back from Dead Man's Curve. Say what? That's when you wake up in darkness, fumbling for the light switch.
Nine days after my twenty-fifth birthday I smashed my Corvette into a parked gardener's truck on a residential street in Beverly Hills. A gardener's truck -- can you believe that? The old steering wheel sandwich, with a windshield wrap, and fiberglass on the side. And yes, I was speeding. Why? Ask people who knew me, and they'll offer some wisecrack about my hell-for-leather driving. Why? Because that's who I was, and let's face it, god hadn't yet declared that my show (my life) was being canceled. What else can I say?
I use the word god, by the way, to acknowledge whatever higher power is running this ride we're on. God, nature, fate, karma; call it what you will. But it's there, and it knows everything. Just ask all the dead people.
I woke up a month later -- in some frightening new universe, dark and lonely. People were there, but at first they didn't mean anything to me. I tried to speak and couldn't. My body was different, broken -- and my mind didn't have complete control over it.
Listen carefully. It's a complicated situation; but we'll reduce it to three foreign-sounding clinical words: aphasia, apraxia, and hemiperesis. Taken together, they mean simply that the language mechanism for communicating my thoughts was damaged; an impairment in the sequencing of speech sounds left me groping for words; and the right half of my body was partially paralyzed. I'll take Why Me for one thousand, Alex. I'm Mr. Everything with a genius-level IQ, and this is how I end up? This is what I get for my efforts?
I was enraged and bewildered -- to understate an understatement. My parents were told to prepare for the reality that I may never walk or talk again. How's that for a pretty picture? But I was alive. My family and friends lavished warmth and attention on me. But seeing the pain, horror, and pity in their faces (and knowing I was the cause of it) made me long for the darkness again. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Pride can bore a hole in even the hardest sense of self; and the resulting infection can kill you -- if you let it.
I worked with speech and physical therapists. La, La, La. Calamity, calamity. Speak the speech as it is spoken. Lean on the bars, and drag one foot in front of the other. Cake and cookies, cheese and crackers, make silly faces and play like you're chewing. Tongue straight out; lick around lips in a circle. Is this really happening? In an effort to overcome the obstacles, I applied the headstrong drive and determination that has always been with me. No. Do it myself. But progress was slow, and I suffered high degrees of frustration and severe depression. I lashed out at people who loved me -- at people who were trying to help me.
But you set goals, and chart a course toward achieving them. That's how I've always operated; and music was the light at the end of my dark tunnel. The right hemisphere of my brain was less affected by the trauma, thus preserving a large portion of my pre-accident musical abilities. The mysteries of cerebral circuitry are still confounding the best scientists and doctors. But my circumstances offer supporting evidence that the nervous system processes verbal symbols and musical symbols (and abilities) in different ways. I'm slow, but I can still read, write, and arrange music. Words are a different matter altogether. I can't tell you about it easily, but I can do music, if you give me the time. Think about that.
I had a lifeline, and with the help of some special people and friends, I threw myself into making a return to the studio -- long before others thought I was ready. My assortment of lawyers, accountants, and business associates (both new and from my previous life) saw me as a bothersome individual who might limp into their offices with mussed hair, no shirt, perhaps a straw hat, or rumpled clothing, making belligerent demands that were difficult to understand. Then they said I called on the phone too much. He's a telephone problem, they said. I, oblivious to how others saw and heard me, just wondered why it was so damn hard to get down to the business of getting me back in business. What is wrong with you people?
I was impatient and aggressive. I was childlike. I scared people. I caused problems for people, for my family, and I caused enormous sums of money to be spent in the studio. But guess what? I started producing music again; and in time I started singing on my own again. Melody flows more easily than the spoken word. What is right hemisphere, Alex? Meanwhile, my doctors and psychiatrists dutifully took notes on it all. In another life I was fascinated by science; and now I'm fodder for those doing the studying. I'm someone else's experiment. That's a nice, scary little circle to contemplate, isn't it?
My father was my conservator. He made adjustments in his own busy life to help me live mine. He made tough and important decisions on my behalf. And I have to admit that I often fought him over it, fiercely at times. He preserved the documentary evidence of my life and career, and took notes chronicling my long journey toward recovery. That must have been a nightmare diary for him (and my entire family) to keep. But it has helped preserve my story -- and my legacy. It's not always pleasant, but it's there. If I haven't said it before, I'm saying it now. Thank you, Dad. I love you. My family has been through the ringer over me -- my wonderful mother, my brothers and sisters. I love you all.
Things progressed for me -- but the road was not a smooth one. I continued to write, produce, and release music. Journalists wrote about my struggles; and a fictionalized account of the story was told in a movie on national television. Suddenly, there was a lot of new interest in my life and career; and my partner, Dean Torrence, helped pave the way for us to return to the stage for live performances. I wanted to re-connect with the fans. All these years later, people -- young and old -- still enjoy seeing us on-stage together. Thanks, partner.
Now a biographer (a writer and historian) is examining the documentary evidence of my life and career -- my own voluminous archive of materials detailing both the workings of my public career and the often-sensitive details of my private life. In fact, he's helping me write this piece you have in your hands here. But you probably already guessed that. It's liberating -- a fluid voice by proxy. He's interviewing scores of my old friends and professional associates. When I think about that, it scares the righteous hell out of me; but at the same time it fills me with a sense of hope. My own voice is in there, among all the musty papers, and the memories of others. A story I could never tell on my own is emerging; and yet I'm the one telling it all along. Can you dig that?
Brain damage. It's a trip you don't come down from -- a permanent, surrealistic jaunt in the express lane. You live with it. You learn to use it. I have an augmented memory -- recollections of the original me from another life, recollections from this life, and things people have told me about my past. My memory can often be triggered in a meaningful way by specific names or items from my own history -- and that's always interesting. But thirty-seven years on, I still grope for the right words; and I still have to study the lyrics to even my most famous songs -- one line at a time -- in order to remember them and deliver them on-stage. It's difficult for me to move around. I know what I want to say, but it's hard to say it. Could you repeat the question? And it gets worse with age. I know what I mean, but sometimes it sounds to others like I watch the couch and sit on the television. I freak over changes in my routine. My wife takes care of me. It's hard for us. We make each other crazy at times, but we're still here. I love you, too, baby.
You live with it. You embrace it. Because there's only one alternative -- which brings me to the whole point of this little exercise. How do I want people to remember me when I am gone? Creepy question, Larry, but I'm glad you asked it. I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon; but I'll play along. It's a simple question, with two simple answers.
First, I want to be remembered as one of the best record producers of my era. There it is. I'm not ashamed to admit that. I want my due, and not one bit more. I was good; and I influenced some close associates who went on to become well-known artists and record producers. I haven't had a public voice for a lot of years, and my professional legacy has become distorted and half-buried. Some important longtime friends and creative associates (you know who you are) have always acknowledged who I really was -- and they're beginning to make it more public. Stay tuned.
But more importantly, a curious thing happened along the way, during this long strange trip I've been on. I became a high profile inspiration for survivors of traumatic brain injury. I didn't see that coming, and never would have dreamed it. But all of a sudden, there it was. The mantle was thrust upon me -- and I embrace it wholeheartedly. People who have had similar misfortunes come up to me after performances, some of them in wheelchairs, and explain how my story has inspired them to find their own way again. They send me letters, and tell my family members of their experiences. It's overwhelming, and it's humbling -- because I know where they are. I know where they've been, and I'd like to have an impact on where they're going, spiritually and emotionally. It's one more reason why individual struggle and accomplishment is so important. And it's why we started a center for the brain injured in my name back in the Eighties.
So take it from me, right now. You have to keep on going -- no matter what your struggle is, regardless of your handicap. I know it sounds clich, but humor me for a moment. You have to fight the good fight. Let's just get all of the old chestnuts out of the way up front: Never give up. Persevere. Stay positive. You can do it. Stay focused, one day at a time, blah-blah-blah, ad infinitum. They can be hollow words, and you have to dig deep to reach the core truth they represent. Don't be afraid to find it; and don't be afraid of what people might think of you along the way.
Because the darkness will come, trust me on that. It will find you, and it will scare you like you've never been scared before. It will cloak you with a negative force the likes of which you've never known. It will make you question reality, and disbelieve all answers to the contrary -- and it's not a one-time struggle. That's the kicker. You don't beat the darkness permanently. It returns, relentlessly; and you have to be prepared to battle it on your own terms, with your own proven tools for coping.
Believe me when I say I've been there. I know what it's like to be unable to communicate effectively. I know what it's like to be cast aside as though you're not important. I know what it's like to have people sneer and snicker at you. I know what it's like for people (even in positions of authority) to automatically assume you're drunk, on drugs, or mentally challenged. I know how it feels to seek friendship and companionship, only to be taken advantage of by others for their own personal gain. My family's good-faith efforts have gone awry in some cases, allowing my recordings and sensitive information about me to get into the wrong hands over the years. It hurts.
It's a tough row to hoe. And the truth is, I haven't always been successful in dealing with my circumstances. In spells of weakness, I turned to substance abuse to help numb the pain. Think about that -- an already damaged brain under the influence of illicit poisonous chemicals, in tandem with goodly doses of prescription medication. Let me tell you, that scared people. I mean, I spooked a lot of people with that. It's hard to pull out of a downward spiral. Thank god I was able to get my act together again. Once again, it was the music. To everyone who helped me through that, you have my eternal thanks and appreciation. I'm still clinging to the light. Never give up on me.
I'm no saint. I'm not perfect. Lord knows, I've made my share of mistakes in life -- and some of them have been real doozies. I'm not proud of them. But you have to admit to them, learn from them, and move on. There's no hiding from your mistakes; and there's no magical solution to coping. You have to want it; and you have to be willing to fight for it. You have to welcome the genuine people who want to help you. Remember the alternative. Remember the reason for this little essay.
So when the darkness comes, keep an eye on the light -- whatever that is for you -- no matter how far away it seems. Think of me, and people like me, with similar handicaps, and know that we understand and that we're telling you it's okay to move forward, even if you're frightened. Things will get better. Look at Christopher Reeve for a shining example of how to face adversity, real adversity, with courage and dignity. Fate is not selective. It doesn't ignore the rich and famous. Just ask Stephen King. The same tragedies can befall anyone, no matter who you are or where you come from -- but the road home is a common highway. We can all share it. Write that down, and remember it.
That's rock-n-roll, baby. Let's keep on playing. To my partner of 45 years, I say, No hard feelings, buddy. You knew who I was from day one. To all of our fans out there, you're a big part of the light at the end of my tunnel. Thanks for being there. I wouldn't be here without you. And like I said at the end of Second Wave: be cool, take care, and I love you.
Jan Berry's entry for Remember Me When I'm Gone is © Jan Berry and jananddean-janberry.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.