By Dom Cioffi
Throughout my high school years, there was one kid who stood out for his brains. Appropriately, his name was Eugene (although he would throw a fit if you called him anything other than Gene).
Gene was head and shoulders above the rest of us in terms of intellect. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much else, having come from a fairly poor family, which limited his social endeavors. Gene also sported Coke bottle thick glasses and greasy hair that did little to enhance his already geekish looks.
Nevertheless, Gene earned a full scholarship to an Ivy-level college and dusted as soon as we graduated from high school. Four years later, Gene returned to our hometown (along with the rest of us) to figure out what his next life move would be.
At the time, my friends and I had a pathetic little garage band, which was basically an excuse to party together. One day, Gene showed up with a guitar in hand and asked to join in. Within minutes of seeing him again, every preconceived idea I had was washed away.
Gene now had long, flowing, shoulder-length hair and was dressed in a casual style not unlike a late-60s poet/hippy. He also sported contact lenses that allowed his shiny blue eyes to stand out. When he pulled out his guitar and started to play, we all stood mesmerized. “When did this happen?” we all thought.
I remember being completely taken aback by his physical transformation and the level of expertise he displayed on the guitar. But I was really blown away when he started to play his own material. Song after song was layered with catchy melodies and interesting chord progressions – far from the basic stuff we were all playing.
After that, I started to occasionally play with Gene on the side, curious to learn some of his songs and pick up whatever tips I could. I’d often ask how he learned to play so well, but his answers were always cryptic and unenlightening. “I just try to let the songs in my head flow out through my fingers,” he would say.
One day, Gene showed up at my house and asked if I was busy the following Tuesday. He had secured a spot at a small underground club to play a one-hour set and wanted to know if I was interested in accompanying him on rhythm guitar.
I had never played in front of a real audience and had zero confidence in my abilities so I wasn’t eager to try it. But after some coercion and reassurance, I agreed. Truth be known, I think Gene just needed a ride to the venue and I had reliable transportation.
Regardless, we headed up that next week and trucked our guitars into a small, dingy pub whose stage was no bigger than two beach towels stuck together.
There couldn’t have been more than five to seven people in the bar that night but Gene played like it was a packed house. At times I thought he was theatrically over-the-top; in other moments he seemed to be a genuine talent.
We both left the club that night jazzed by the experience. And I can honestly say that I was inspired to become a better guitar player, even thinking that tagging along for a few club dates now and then might be a fun way to make some extra cash.
However, some weeks later, Gene informed me that he was leaving town – saying he was heading to the big city to make his mark. He left and I didn’t hear from him for years.
When we did reconnect via Facebook, Gene was a different person again. He was no longer interested in music and instead had become a political sociopath. Gene trusted no one and was certain that government conspiracies were behind every ill of the world.
He would write me long-winded manifestos about the end of democracy and the infiltration of evil forces.
I marveled once again at his boundless intellect, but also grew concerned that he was becoming mentally unhinged.
And then one day Gene was dead, succumbing to a cancer that he never bothered mentioning.
I miss that odd duck and how interesting he made my life at times, and often wonder what he may have become had life pulled him in a different direction.
This week’s film, “The Disaster Artist” starring brothers James and Dave Franco, details another odd character who wandered into Hollywood in the late 1990’s and proceeded to write, direct and star in what is widely believed to be the worst motion picture ever created.
The bizarre story of Tommy Wiseau is about to become mainstream. His film, “The Room,” can only be understood by watching.
If you’re interested, check out the available clips on YouTube to get a taste. Then go see this film to get a better understanding of this strange and oddly remarkable individual.
A quixotic “B+” for “The Disaster Artist.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]