I don't remember exactly how I first became aware of Spalding Gray, but it was probably via his somewhat bizarre turn in the Talking Heads' 1986 film, "True Stories." To be honest, I'd actually seen his big screen breakout in "The Killing Fields" back in 1984, but in all candor, despite the seismic impact the experience had on him, he's on screen for all of about three minutes in that amazing, harrowing film. But yeah -- "True Stories" was probably where he struck me as someone to watch.
I didn't see "Swimming to Cambodia," his celebrated monologue about his "Killing Fields" experience, until way after the fact. I think the next thing I caught Gray in was a broadcast of his performance in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" on PBS. Around the same time, a friend gave me a copy of Gray's book, "Sex and Death until the Age of 14." Before I knew it, I'd become an avid Spalding Gray fan, and started hunting down his other work. Like an equally neurotic, WASP incarnation of Woody Allen (though not a native New Yorker), Gray exuded a sensibility that I found entirely entertaining and intellectually compelling. Like Allen's, his work certainly wasn't for everyone, but for those that didn't mind his somewhat self-absorbed schtick, Gray's perspective on the world always delivered.
The afore-cited "Swimming..." is obviously his most beloved monologue, but my favorite piece of his remains "The Terrors of Pleasure," which Showtime or HBO or one of those outlets taped in 1988 and the Comedy Central used to show all the time. I remember repeatedly watching it with my mom during my post-college years. It's a shaggy-dog rumination on Gray's attempt to buy a rustic country house in the Catskills wherein to compose his Great American Novel. Though spliced with fleeting snippets of film, it's largely just Spalding sitting at his signature desk, unspooling his quirky yarn. It's still steeped in his typical bouts of existential dread, but it's comparatively breezy and totally engaging. I still own it on CD and VHS, actually (though I no longer own a VCR). Regrettably, it was never put out on DVD, even after his passing. Strangely, I can't find any of it on the `net either.
From that point on, not only did I make it a point to see Gray's performances (my mom and I saw both "Monster in a Box" and "Gray's Anatomy" onstage), but I also used to spot Gray himself around town. I shared a revolving door with him (I was entering, he was exiting) at a court house downtown, leading me to speculate how he'd behave during a spell of jury duty. I also spied him once or twice in SoHo back in the early 1990s (before its makeover into the pricey, outdoor shopping mall it is today).
Time went on and I kept up with Gray sporadically. I think the last thing of his I read was "It's a Slippery Slope," which documented his foray into skiing and his new phase as a parent. I always meant to pick up "Morning, Noon and Night" from 2000, but never got to it. Then came news of his car accident in Ireland that left him scarred and irretrievably depressed.
When word first started circulating in 2004 that Gray was missing, like everyone else who'd followed the man's career, I was particularly saddened and expected the worst (there being a well-documented strain of suicidal thought in Gray's story). By the same token, when the news came that his body had been recovered and that he'd evidently thrown himself from the Staten Island ferry one night into the dark, impossibly cold waters of New York harbor, I couldn't fathom it. How do you do that? How do you bring three children into the world and then check out on your own will like that? I pray that's a realm of depression I'll never know. Regardless, it was a desperately tragic end to an extraordinary life.
Eight years later sees the publication of his journals. I spotted the book (edited lovingly by Nell Casey) on a recent trip to Shakespeare & Co. and couldn't resist. I'm currently only about a third of the way into it, but it's somewhat exhaustive and, well, truly depressing. Though Gray would often let what seemed like huge swathes of his deep-seeded neuroses into his work (often solely for comedic effect), those eloquently confessional moments on the stage, the page and the screen only hinted and the deeply unsettled, roiling storm of doubt, confusion and crisis that was perpetually spinning in the man's head.
If you're a fan of Gray's, it's assuredly interesting, but at the same time, I'm worried that it may forever alter the way you experience his work. Approach with caution.
The photograph at the top comes courtesy of the Galinksy NYC blog. Strangely enough, that memorial tile can be found in Tompkins Square Park. I always considered Spalding more of a SoHo guy than an East Village type, but go know.
Below, meanwhile is the original trailer for "Swimming to Cambodia." I put up a great NYC-centric snippet from same a little while back as well.
Cheers to you, Mr. Gray.