Jeff Bridges and his blissfully unending quest for answers
HEAVEN, TEARS AND THE LOJONG PRINCIPLE
Two weeks later we move on to the continent’s rusty interior — 22 miles from Buffalo, in Canada, the land of Tim Hortons and bad pizza. Outside, Niagara Falls tumbles. But we’re inside at an Indian casino, the modern adult playground. The Avalon Ballroom at Fallsview Casino Resort is hallowed ground: Bacon, Costner, and Willis — the Holy Trinity of actor-rockers — have all failed to hit the right notes on this very stage. Now Jeff Bridges stands on the same spot with just one request.
“Can someone bring me a cup of tea with lemon? That would be very nice.”
Jeff Bridges has a cold. This has ramifications.
Yesterday’s rehearsal was a mild disaster, and he’s a little nervous. Sure, there was that charity warm-up gig last week in James Cameron’s front yard, but Bridges and the band seem not quite ready for 1,500 folks — some of whom have paid up to $90 a ticket.
He plays a couple of songs and then stops.
“I want to go over the Heaven’s Gate story,” he says. He takes a breath.
“Thank you all for coming. You know, I’ve always loved music. And a lot of that has to do with my buddy T Bone Burnett. We met while filming Heaven’s Gate. Another one of my heroes, Kris Kristofferson, was in the movie too. T Bone played my maid. But every night, we’d all get together and just jam. It was a wild, great time.”
Bridges then spends considerable time contemplating whether he should take his jacket off after the third or the fourth song. I guess it shouldn’t have been a terrible surprise — Bridges is a notorious overpreparer for his films — but hearing the Dude rehearse spontaneous patter is still a bummer, like seeing Santa Claus eating at Chipotle in street clothes. It doesn’t help that his guitar strap is from Crazy Heart and reads BAD. It makes me wonder if moments with Bridges are real or just an American Masters performance.
The next night’s show is a shambling mess of a success. The audience skews very Golden Girls-ish. Bridges is a movie star here in nowheresville, so everything he does is right. The jacket removal and the Heaven’s Gate story both kill. No one even notices when Bridges plays the wrong song on the set list, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if the rest of the band weren’t set up for another song in a different key. He plays Johnny’s “Van Gogh in Hollywood” and then apologizes for the subject matter.
Afterward, Bridges sits in the backstage lounge with the band. He has a vodka and water in his hand. (“White Russians are too sweet.”) The band, the promoter, and his manager tell him it was great. Bridges doesn’t quite believe it.
“Was it really OK?” he asks before heading off to bed.
The next morning, we go for the requisite field trip. A VIP van whisks us down to the falls. Bridges is wearing a cap and poncho, but he’s still recognizable, and he poses for some photos with tourists. Then we take an elevator to a viewing platform under the falls and Bridges is just another slack-jawed visitor.
“Man, think how we have harnessed this for power. If we could do that, what else could the world do?” He looks out at tourist boats creeping toward the crescendo of water. “We’re going to do that next, right?”
First, though, there’s a stop at the gift shop and an hour debating T-shirt choices for his girls. Bridges’s reluctance-as-religion carries over to the consumer thing, too. Finally, we jump into the van again and drive down toward the boats. The falls have put Bridges back in his philosophical mode: There’s talk of mild fence-mending with his wife after Jeff let the American Masters folks take over his house for a shoot.
“It got back to a recurring theme,” says Bridges with a sad chuckle. “My self-centeredness. There’s a Buddhist school of thought called the Lojong Principle. If the thing you hate most about yourself is your ego and you want to get rid of it, the thing to do is embrace your ego and try to figure out how to use it creatively. I’m trying to figure that out.”
We are whisked to the front of the tour boat. Bridges shakes the hand of Kenny the boat owner. “Let me ask you a question,” Bridges says to him. “You ever forget what’s right in front of you?”
Kenny laughs. “Many times, but then there will be a day where I’ll go, ‘Look what the hell is right in front of me.’ ”
We head toward the cascading waters. Immediately, sheets of water douse us all. No one cares because it’s a goddamned Cecil B. DeMille film. We look up at 188 feet of falling water and Bridges starts to holler.
“Positive ions! I think this is what heaven looks like. This is like the difference between talking about an orgasm and having an orgasm! Wow, wow.”
The whole trip is maybe 25 minutes and takes decades off Bridges’s age. The tension of the shows is gone from his face, and the hopeful man that we want him to be returns.
That night, after sound check, we sit down for a final time. We talk quietly, just the two of us. Oh, and an American Masters cameraman. I stumble around the issue of whether he is conscious that he is still singing in the voice of a character rather than as himself. He doesn’t quite cop to it, but he admits that he worries he thinks too much about the melancholy lyrics of Johnny’s tunes and the Crazy Heart songs.
“I found when I really engaged with the songs, the words were so powerful, they were too strong,” he says, his voice rough. He searches for words.
“It’s like the guy today at the falls,” he says. “I might talk about it tonight, but it might shut me down.” Tears fill his eyes. “Every once in a while you realize what’s right in front of you. It’s so fucking strong. Every once in a while you realize you’re alive. What an opportunity. How do you…”
His voice trails away. I ask him about the song “Somebody Else” and if that’s what he’s talking about. He nods his head with force.
“Yes! I don’t know who the hell I am,” says Bridges. A triumphant looks comes across his face. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
We wrap things up and shake hands. The PBS cameraman gives us a smile. “Great stuff.”
Bridges ambles toward the elevator and his room for an afternoon nap.
It’s just five hours until the next performance.
Check out our photo gallery of outtakes from the Jeff Bridges shoot here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.