A Decade of Higgins Gone

John M.Higgins in his element, on the streets of New York City.

I was on the train when I got the call that John Higgins had died.

It was a Tuesday. I had taken the commuter train into DC. We had just pulled into Union Station when my cell phone rang. Higgins had died during the night of a heart attack.

It’s been ten years, but I still struggle with processing his absence. He was someone so much a part of life, it’s hard to grasp that he is no longer.

I think we met right after Thanksgiving in 1990, because my very first memory is him telling me that he had just bought Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. We bonded over music.

We attended Lollapalooza together in 1994, in West Virginia. Concerned about traffic, we drove in the night before and stayed at one of most brutal-looking motels I’ve ever seen, an establishment with a real Cell Block D vibe. We shared a bed, surrounded by painted cinder block walls, which contributed to The Shawshank Redemption imagery.

He attended the festival dressed in his traditional white dress shirt and black jeans. That was what he wore almost every single day, for almost every single occasion (If he was working, he’d have his bag slung over his shoulder). His closet was filled with identical shirts and jeans.

We shared an obsession with collecting Christmas music. In December of 1999, we were in Los Angeles, hanging out after a trade show. We went to go see L.A. punk veterans the Vandals play at the Hollywood Palace. As we’re enjoying the show, I suddenly become aware that we’re surrounded by Santas. However, these are kind of grungy-looking Santas. Slovenly, drunk, licentious Santas.

Men and women, dressed up as Santa Claus, wandering around the club and getting out of hand. There must have been a hundred of them. They were moshing and crowd surfing; at one point, they formed a conga line. One vivid moment was when they all started chanting at the stage: “HO! HO! HO! HO!

Later, we found out it was part of a Santa Rampage, staged by the L.A. chapter of the Cacophony Society. I chalked it up to John’s gift for finding adventure everywhere he went.

Higgins was a reporter covering the television business and he always had pals at various companies. He was extremely well-connected, with moles everywhere. He was especially close to the executives at MTV and was present at the taping of Nirvana’s Unplugged session, in November of 1993. One highlight of the show was their rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Higgins became obsessed with it. The song is actually a traditional American folk song that goes back to at least the 1870s, with a wide variety of names, including “In the Pines” and “Black Girl.” In some versions, it’s a train song; in others, it’s a murder ballad. Higgins dug up an academic paper on the song. There are hundreds of versions and he collected a bunch of them.

Here’s a long twisted classic Higgins tale…

May of 1994, we attended a trade show in New Orleans. We were both excited to see that psychobilly legend Reverend Horton Heat was going to be playing at Tipitina’s. We took a cab out to the club and bought tickets. The first opening act was playing as we entered and then finished their set. After a break, a second band came on and played. We looked at our watches. It was getting really late and we were both going to have to be up in the morning. At this rate, the good Reverend wasn’t going on until 2:00 in the morning. We bailed.

In November, Higgins was visiting me in Maryland for a few days. My wife had already left for California to attend still another trade show. In her absence, Higgins and I were hanging out. I dropped him off at a Metro station and then drove to Dulles Airport, so I could join my wife.

Six months later, in mid 1995, Paramount was distributing the syndicated version of The Jon Stewart Show (at the time, about to be canceled; don’t worry, Stewart goes on to better things). Even though the show came on at 2:00 a.m., my wife and I sometimes were accidentally up that late and we watched. Jon announced his musical guest for the evening: the Reverend Horton Heat.

My wife was confused. Who is this? I explained that Horton Heat is a musician. She then tells me that when she had flown home back in December (she had returned before me), she had arrived to find a snowstorm and some weird religious bumper sticker on the back of our van, which exclaimed “I Was A Sinner Until I Saw The Reverend Horton Heat.” She had stood there, amidst swirls of flying snowflakes, scrapping off the offending sticker. By the time I came home a few days later, she’d forgotten all about it.

I knew exactly what had happened. That night at Tipitina’s, Higgins had bought the sticker. He’d held onto it for six months and then surreptitiously applied it to the back of my vehicle. I blindly drove around for the rest of the day, never noticing it, and then flew off. Jon Stewart brought it all together.

I immediately confronted him and he roared with laughter.

Higgins was quite acerbic. His favorite rhetoric was the knife attack, which would invariably wound deeply, being based on truth. One time, he wrote a long, detailed, negative news story on MTV. He knew they would be upset; he knew he would probably lose access. He wrote it without hesitation, because it was true.

As much of a tough guy as he was, he was typically very open-minded. Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defined a cynic as, “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Higgins could be quite cynical, but he was also a devout Catholic who believed in doing good and being moral.

He packed an enormous amount of living into only 45 years. He is still missed, deeply and daily.