Captain Gas, From Ken Kesey to Steven Spielberg

1970, There was a time I was known as Captain Gas. The gas was Nitrous Oxide, and Ken Kesey turned me on for the first time sitting in the Hog Farm bus I lived on, parked in Joyce Mitchell’s driveway in Malibu.

My card in those days, handmade by Howard Cohen. The tiny bus peeking out on the right is the one I was living on

Ken came aboard pulling the big blue tank up the stairs into our old Greyhound, settling it in the seating pit at the front. Someone found a length of garden hose, someone else attached it to the nozzle with gaffers tape, and Ken cracked the valve. I stuck the hose in my mouth, and the gas flowed into my belly “The lung is shaped like a pear” he said “fill up the bottom of the pear…” so I did. I was transported. I was modified. I was given a glimpse of magic and eternity, a universe I had never experienced, all brand new. And then I was back.

Another night for The Captain — photo, thanks to Lisa Law (copyright)

I took another hit and another.

I was gone.

I was back.

Another.

I was gone.

I was back.

I was sitting in the middle of the bus, in the cluster, breathing this god gas, I was floating in front of the goddess, I was part of the allness…I was back.

I was changed by that afternoon. Ken or Wavy or maybe the hive mind named me Captain Gas, and from that day I was. For years I returned again and again to the hose trying to find those first overwhelming sensations. They called to me, almost in reach, a bigger hit, a fresh start, a whole tank laid down by my bed, the hose in my mouth till my lips were blue and my roommate screamed when he found me, all everythingness still just a little out of reach.

Nitrous musings. I love the precision of the time stamp, I wish I understood why.

I never found my way to those heights again but I never quit trying. It became my quest, a journey to regain the heights and to bring back the experience. I kept paper and pen next to the bed and as I came back to consciousness I would scrawl down the wisdom of my transports. Here are two things I learned, things that I struggled and fought to bring back with me from beyond nirvana. “Tick tock, tick tock, ultimately at even flow, life is boring” and “Take good care of your feet.”

I became a fixture at the right parties, welcome backstage at the Palladium, I was all access in the rock and roll world and friends with drug dealers who welcomed me as an exotic diversion for those Hollywood nights. I partied.

On Sunday, after 36 hour binges I would will myself out of bed, my head paying full price for picking up the tab, stumble out to the car and hurt my way to the Brown Derby on Vine St. Sitting in the darkened room slowly spooning a bowl of Madame Liz into my mouth, drinking coffee till I could see the landing strip I made my way back to earth. Somehow through years of this, I could still pull myself together on Monday morning and go to work.

By 1980, work was the Louma Crane. I was on the first American film to use it, Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Steven liked me. I was the high priest of this new technology and most days I could make the damn thing work. We were shooting film of course, and we were doing it the way real men did, no video taps. Directors asked operators after each take “Are we OK?” and operators answered “Got it” or “we need another one.”

My crew badge for 1941, made by Phil Stern

Except for the Louma. Because the camera was separated from the operator by twenty-five feet of crane, the operating was done through a dim flickering crappy black and white video image. We bowed to the necessity of course, but we tried to keep it in its place. Steven had the grips build a three-sided enclosure every time he used the Louma with just enough room inside for his chair, one for Billy Fraker, the DP and Dick Colean, the operator. A little further back there was a chair for the script supervisor and a space for me. I got to know Steven pretty well during the months we worked on the picture.

I got to know a lot of other people on that show too. Treat Williams, John Belushi, John Candy, the party crowd. Steven hated drugs, but he had a gang of party people on board.

Near the end of the show, someone put together a little party to celebrate the last day that all the principal cast were working together and Treat asked me to bring a tank. Sure I said, why not?

A few nights later we all gathered at Ray Paret’s party house on Miller Drive up in the hills. I settled into a small room with my tank to hold court. Pretty soon the room was filled with pretty people getting high, and I was The Captain. Around midnight someone brought Penny Marshall into the room and asked me to get her high. I cranked open the valve, showed her how to breathe and got her off real good. We had a fine time for a few minutes and then she was off to another room. I stayed with the tank till morning, breathing my outsize share, snorting coke and drinking, keeping high till around six when the tank finally ran out. I stumbled home, showered and headed off to work. It was a shaky morning.

When I got to the set, I grabbed coffee and headed to the Louma controls knowing no one else would be there that early. I closed my eyes and tried to will myself into a workable state. Then Steven came into the enclosure. “Good morning Captain Gas” was what he said… “Uh good morning Steven…where did you hear that name” “Penny told me all about the party last night” he said, and my heart was filled with fear. I knew at that moment I was done and I was. Steven used the Louma again on Raiders, but never again with me and never again took my call. Belushi died, Candy died, Treat straightened up, or so I heard and after a few more years, and the third time I almost died I went into therapy myself and slowly began to build a different life.

Captain Gas on Kings Road, probably 1978

Coda. After I finished this story, I sent it to Ray Paret, the guy who had the party house and asked him for a reality check. Here’s what he wrote back: Nice — no reason to make any changes but there was an incredibly funny scene before the tank ran out when you dragged it out to the swimming pool and I do mean “dragged” with the sound of clanking metal resonating clearly in the still morning air as you and Belushi manhandled it through the front door and up the concrete and stone stairs to lie by the pool like two beached whales with the tank between you and an occasional visitor from the house begging for a “hit”. That is where the tank and you ran out of “gas.” I did have one of my famous Polaroid shots of that scene, but I made the mistake of giving it to you or John never to be seen again! After that, I NEVER gave the originals to anyone!

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