Jeff Bridges and his blissfully unending quest for answers
Jeff Bridges and his blissfully unending quest for answers
by Stephen Rodrick
Jeff Bridges wants you to take it easy, man. Read this story, don’t read this story. But here’s a thought. You really don’t want to read it? Maybe then you should read it. Embrace the unembraceable, as Buddha, the Dude, and Bridges himself — who is dudier than the Dude — might say. Just keep your eyes open. Unless you want to keep them closed and have someone read this to you. That can be nice.
Be patient. It will all happen, unless it doesn’t.
Mostly it will. Jeff Bridges will cry. He will dance. He will serenade a blind girl. He will wear a clown nose. He will talk to Buddhists about giving head. He will propose to his wife because of a shooting pain in his ass. He will quote Solzhenitsyn. He will use ejaculate in a sentence twice. He will spend 50 minutes picking out T-shirts. He will see heaven outside of a casino. He will rehearse anecdotes. He will forget songs. He will tell you the difference between describing an orgasm and having an orgasm. He will tell you about getting his director’s name wrong on national television. He will tell you it doesn’t really fucking matter, man. He will tell you he has no idea who he is. He will urge you not to give me shit for ending the previous sentence with is.
This is a mixed-up, bifurcated world; chances are, some of the Jeff Bridges Story will not interest you. That’s fine. Jeff wants you to read only what you want to read. Think of this as a DVD. Episodes are titled. Something sounds lame, skip to the next one. Or read them out of order. Jeff does that sometimes.
We begin with the birth canal.
THE WOMB & SOME OTHER STUFF
It’s early afternoon in the hills above Montecito. The marine layer burns off the Pacific. Everything is toasty and golden. Sunlight slips through a crack in the door outside a home recording studio. Inside, four men with perma tans encircle a familiar face wearing granny glasses, a psychedelic shirt, and a sunburst guitar. Jeff Bridges gazes over his spectacles and grins.
The band starts playing. The guitarist lays out a Joe Walsh–era guitar solo. The rhythm section kicks in. Bridges starts to growl-sing:
Executives getting blown by sweet young things
Spiritual vampires living like kings
People are running, trying to keep an iron grip
On the reincarnation of Billy Budd’s ship
But the lox was fresh and the business was good
The day Vincent van Gogh came to Hollywood
Whoa. This song is definitely harshing the mood. We were having such a nice California moment, and now Bridges — a guy who has seemingly glided through four decades of Hollywood with nary a psychic scratch — is getting all Day of the Locust. The band works through “Van Gogh in Hollywood” for 15 minutes. They play it rock, they play it funk, and they play it pop. Then they play it as funky pop-rock, winding down with a squawk and a bang.
“Hey, man, you like that one? It’s by Johnny Goodwin, my best friend since fourth grade. We took tap dancing together as kids. He lives in Nashville. He wrote one of the Crazy Heart songs. He also is a great crocheter. He makes amazing sweaters.”
Bridges scrunches his forehead and gazes at the ceiling. He looks happily confused, his default setting.
“But can we play that in Canada?” he asks. “Do you think talking about blow jobs is going to freak people out? I don’t want to freak people out.”
Next month, Jeff Bridges and the Abiders play their debut professional gig at a casino on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls. Bridges has been playing music his entire life, but there wasn’t exactly a clamor for him to perform live until he won an Oscar this year playing singer-songwriter Bad Blake in Crazy Heart.
The guitarist makes a salient point.
“Jeff, it’s your show. You can play whatever the hell you want.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, man.”
Canada seemed like a good idea at the time and will seem like a good idea later, but right now Bridges is freaking out. Well, as much as Bridges freaks out. His meltdowns are more like a kinder Van Winkle waking up after a nap and not being able to find his Prius keys.
“I figured if I was going to get serious about my music, there wasn’t going to be a better time than after Crazy Heart,” says Bridges. “But, man, I don’t know.”
Practice rambles on for another hour. The band rehearses “Somebody Else,” a song from Crazy Heart particularly apt for an actor who played a musician and is now trying to be a musician in real life, with a new album in the works. Bridges sings this tune in a twang.
I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow is anybody’s guess
Sometimes the L.A.-bred Bridges sounds like the Texan Blake. Sometimes he sounds like Jeffrey Lebowski. He rarely sounds like himself except when he starts a song in the wrong key.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s my fuckup. My standard fuckup. Sorry, man.”
Everyone tells Jeff it’s going to be fine. Bridges runs his hands through his lanky, gray-blond hair and gives the pained, conflicted smile for which he is famous. Now 61, he could pass for Brian Wilson’s kid brother, with Bridges being the golden boy who surfed the California myth to the good life without succumbing to the undertow. His blue eyes light up and he tries to explain.
“You ever see that Disney cartoon where Goofy’s got two guys sitting on his shoulders? One voice is telling me, ‘Man, you’re going to kick the bucket; you better do it now.’ And the other voice is like, ‘Man, will you fucking relax? You want to turn your life into one long homework assignment?’ ”
The band packs up; somebody has to pick up a kid. Bridges says goodbye and then cranks the volume.
“You want to listen to more of Johnny’s stuff?”
He turns on an iPod that is plugged into his studio’s speakers. There’s a song that could be a forgotten Leonard Cohen classic. Then a funny tune about losing weight. And a wry one about the intelligence of country music fans that might not aid Johnny’s career. Then a demo Goodwin recorded with Bridges’s friend Michael McDonald.
We leave the studio and go for a walk to the top of his property.
“Johnny’s fearless with his art. I wish I was more like that sometimes.” We sit on a bench that looks down on his house and into the ocean. Bridges adjusts the positioning of my tape recorder. “I’ve done a lot of interviews — I start telling a story you already heard, you let me know.”
We start talking and yeah, some of the stories are ones I’ve already heard. How his dad, Lloyd, talked him into appearing on his TV show Sea Hunt by saying Jeff could buy toys with his earnings. How the director Lamont Johnson had to shame Bridges into doing the film version of The Iceman Cometh, an early break in his career. How his friend T Bone Burnett had to talk him into Crazy Heart. How he had to be dragged into his marriage to Susan, his bride of 33 years. And then there’s the Post-it taped above his computer that reads: “Is this task absolutely necessary to keep my life afloat?”
We head back down the hill for lunch and Bridges expounds on reluctance as a way of life.
“You’ve heard of rebirthing?” he asks. “The theory is that if you take your birth experience and you kind of superimpose that over your first remembered trauma, you’ll see some parallels going on there.”
He gives a shrug.
“I don’t know how deep I should go into this,” says Bridges quietly. “My mom and dad had a child before me who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They went in and he was just dead in his crib. The doctor convinced my mom to get back on the horse. She got pregnant with me. This was in the days where they tied the woman down during labor and gave her a big spinal shot. But she was allergic to it and I just turned my body in the womb, didn’t want to come out. She started to die and I started to die. She started to pass out and they started counting ‘one, two, three’ and slapping her, screaming, ‘Dottie, wake up! Dottie, wake up!’ She sat up; I turned and came out.”
Bridges pauses for a moment. He has a good sense of timing. “OK, then my earliest remembered trauma is when I’m three or four years old. I’m in the living room. My mom used to have this beautiful, waist-length hair. And now the front door opens, and I see her there, fur coat and really short hair. She is smiling. I go, ‘Oh, fuck,’ and I ran and I locked myself in the bathroom. That’s me turning around in the womb. And then my father comes and says, ‘Jeff, I want you to come out of there. I’m going to count to 10. One, two…’ — that’s the doctor slapping Mom.”
He lets out a laugh and slaps me on the shoulder.
“I applied that to my life and my problems. That is basically how I deal with all of them. I always have kind of a ‘fuck it, fuck this, I’m not going to do that’ attitude about everything.” Bridges smiles. “And then I do some of them and they turn out OK.”