It’s a sad story. A kid grows up tough in a low-rent suburb of New Orleans. He's repeatedly beaten and abused by a sick drunken excuse for a father who steals his money to spend on booze and whores and brags about it. And his mom? She escapes her hellish marriage via Jesus and the Catholic church. And for a while the boy probably sought solace from the church as well, that is until a priest or two sought their own personal comfort by digging around in the kid’s trousers when no one was looking.
Living through crap like that can mold one bitter teenager, and this one escaped all the bullshit in Louisiana one day and scammed a ride to New York to scrape together a new life. Call it self-medication, youthful hedonism or just plain inevitable, but the streetwise kid was soon abusing drugs and causing trouble on the streets of the sleazy underbelly of the mid-80's Lower East Side, where it made sense to be wild and young, and either fucked up or angry. And now he’s dead.
That said, you’d think this guy probably met his demise at the other end of a gun, knife or needle. Or maybe was just a victim of some awful medical problem brought on by years of self-abuse and self-hatred? Nope. Nothing like that. Not even close.
When I met Luis Fernandez de la Reguera he was a bartender at the Lakeside Lounge. It was 1997 and I had just moved to the into a cheap little East Village sublet that happened to be right next door to the place. I spent plenty of nights on a Lakeside barstool, often enchanted and entertained (and occasionally disturbed) by the antics and anecdotes of Luis. And as I’m writing this I wish I could remember more of his wild ass stories. But quite often, our time together at the Lakeside would last far beyond closing time and some of the details are rather blurry.
By that time, Luis had tethered many of his demons. I recall that for a time he was actually a teetotaler (but that didn’t last). Getting to know Luis, you would eventually pick up that there was still a bit of a madman in there somewhere. But that lunacy was contained in a rock-solid compassionate guy. His mischievous sense of humor was graced by a generosity of spirit and the frank honest way he lived his life. Although he was so much more, Luis was in some sense a perfect bartender. He was fully in control of the bar (if something went wrong, he was right on it), incredibly entertaining, and had just the right sense of empathy to deal with drunks and pathetic drunken stories. More importantly, he commanded respect without escalating bad situations. Then again, if a customer pissed him off, he could be merciless. The overwhelming first impression of meeting Luis from the other side of the bar, was that this guy was full of some raw barely-bridled charisma– something I've rarely seen up close.
And he quickly became a good friend. I was more than a little broke at the time, looking for work and then getting kicked out of my illegal sublet. While it was nice getting slipped a few cans of Milwaukee's Best a couple nights a week, more importantly he treated me to some tasty meals in Chinatown when times were tough. I still remember the address of a massage parlor down there where Luis told me of certain masseuse who offered special services at a good price. Nothing fancy. Just practical relief.
When he was in the mood, Luis just oozed charm. In fact, I would be remiss in this remembrance to not mention right out that Luis was a true and natural chick magnet. While he wasn't handsome in a typical or obvious way, I repeatedly saw (and heard stories about) how Luis could win over women he had just met faster than any operator I've ever seen. And he didn't even have to be "operating. I recall more than one evening at the Lakeside Lounge where women would wait for a chance to cram into the photo booth with Luis and disrobe to create some compelling art photography. I remember one snapshot in particular where two large pink breasts were cushioned up against each side of his grinning oblong head. Luis was the kind of guy who could go into the subway alone and come up somewhere else in the city with a cute young thing he had befriended underground, and they'd be on their way to do something more interesting than just riding a train.
Since I’ve been in New York I’ve met more than a few people who were busting ass to get into the movie business– getting gigs as extras, writing screenplays, or standing on street corners with a headset and clipboard acting important. Much to my surprise at the time, Luis had the same ambition. But instead of lingering for years on the fringes of the industry, Luis just started making movies. In short order, he quickly made connections, spent money (and plenty he didn’t have), and put almost all of his energy into becoming a film director. It seemed kinda crazy to me, but he’s not the kind of guy you discouraged with common sense.
His first outing (“Differently Able”) was a characteristically warped short feature about a loser playboy (played by Luis) and his “crippled” brother. This small movie has plenty of Luis– good, bad and ugly. Instead of me talking about it, why don’t you go ahead and watch it here. It’s a low-low-budget micro-masterpiece.
And then he made a movie, a real full-feature deal. It was a documentary on the life and death of Rockets Redglare (aka Michael Morra). I had seen Rockets around at the Lakeside Lounge (at his size, he was hard to miss) for a while before Luis clued me into who and what Rockets was, or had been. More that just a local downtown character, or another drunk or junkie (although he was all of that), Rockets also had some amazing bit roles in over twenty big time movies (Down By Law, Mystery Train, Talk Radio...). And not only that, he was the official "bodyguard" and drug dealer for Sid Vicious, and was present the night of Nancy’s demise. It all made for an often sordid, but damn interesting life. And Luis packed it all together into one hell of a flick.
While Luis came to manage most of his really bad habits, like Rockets, he had both a checkered past (with some of the same characters) and a tragic childhood. Understanding that kind of darkness gave Luis the creative vision to cinematically examine all the facets of Rockets’ life and deeds with an unflinching candid empathy that makes the movie both riveting and full of love. Rockets was somebody who fucked up almost everything he touched, but still managed to be one hell of a major media performer, and a friend to many people (some quite famous), despite being a mess most of his adult life.
You can check out an 18 minute chunk of “Rockets Redglare!” at this site (in streaming Quicktime). And if you’re intrigued by what you see, go out and buy or rent the DVD. I found one at my local video store to watch just the other night.
Oh, and what I didn’t mention about this film... Is that it was actually screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 to a sold-out crowd! And it also received an “Honorable Mention” at the Raindance Film Festival in England that same year. Mind blowing. See Luis in all his glory (with his executive producer Steve Buscemi) as he answers questions from the audience after the Sundance screening. (Download WMV file here, and part two here-- and a special thanks to Bill Murchu for this.) Not surprisingly, the documentary received a nice helping of positive reviews as well.
"Rockets Redglare!" was both his first feature and his last. Instead of launching into a show business career after his success, Luis had other ideas. He moved to Mexico.
The post-Giuliani Lower East Side didn’t appeal to Luis anymore. Unlike all the stock brokers and fashion photographers living on Avenue D these days, Luis felt more at home when there was open-air drug dealing and an occasional crack murder in the neighborhood. His character made the most sense when he had to fight for (or against) something-- to have some challenges around to overcome. The new stable and safe (and some might say more sterile) downtown Manhattan wasn't his style. But not only was Mexico more of a fitting environment for a guy like Luis, but he also had lots of distant relatives down that way. And since his immediate family in the states didn’t work out so well, he was probably looking to get closer to kin who didn't choose to become Americans.
So, outside of some good emails now and then I haven’t heard much from Luis over the last couple years. He setup and ran a bed and breakfast on the Mexican west coast, and then last I heard he was living above a cantina on the Atlantic coast trying to figure out what to do next. Then a few weeks back, he emailed to say he was going to be up this way soon and wanted my number. He really wanted to meet my little daughter. That was the last time I heard from him.
From what I’ve learned, Luis was in the middle of changing plans. He had a bought an RV in Florida and he was driving around the northeast visiting friends. And his mission was to pick up the rest of the stuff he had stashed away and haul it all down to Costa Rica and start all over again. Another challenge. Another adventure.
The most prized possession he had left behind was a big beautiful BMW motorcycle. A few years ago Luis took it out to California and back. And I recall one night at the Lakeside Lounge when he recounted how he roared that thing down Avenue B at over 100 M.P.H. one exciting evening. He might have been exaggerating, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t think he ever told me anything that stretched the truth. I don’t think he needed to.
Two weeks ago he was at a friend's place where the bike was stored, and he wheeled it out of the garage to take a look at it. Despite sitting still for over two years, the beast started right up, ready for business. Not
to pass an opportunity for a little excitement, Luis took it for a test ride (or joy ride) out on the surrounding Catskill two-lane highways. It must have been a lot of fun.
No one knows exactly what eventually happened next, but someone who lived a few houses away from where Luis was staying saw him suddenly fly up over his handlebars and land hard down on the side of the road. The tire tracks show that he briefly swerved into the other lane and back again as if he was trying to avoid something (an animal crossing the road?) and then lost control of the bike. And he wasn’t wearing a legal helmet. Instead he had on one of those cheap little black half-helmets, the kind you wear just to “look” legal and avoid getting pulled over. I’m sure it’s more exhilarating to have the wind fly over your ears with a light and stylish little black cap on your head instead of a bulky padded real helmet, but...
Anyway, it was bad. There was massive head trauma and Luis never regained consciousness. He was air lifted to a hospital in Albany, and after a couple days on life support he was taken in for surgery. Once the doctors got a good look at what was left of his brain, the decision was made with relatives on-hand (his aunt and uncle) to let him go.
However, besides a busted collarbone, everything on Luis from the neck down was in good shape. And with the family’s blessing, many important parts of Luis will live on in the bodies of others. If some of his spirit remains in those organs, I wouldn't be surprised if some recipients may be in for a jolt of life they never had before.
Luis Fernandez de la Reguera was 39 years old. He lived more life in that time (good, bad and magnificent) than a few dozen ordinary folks get to experience on the planet. He was somebody who managed and made friends with his dark side-- a strong and powerful dark side. Luis cared deeply, about everything. He cared about people and the world, and ideas. And if you were his friend he cared about you in a way that was rare and wonderful. All that said, if you tried to get him to do something he didn’t want to do, or if he just got too much brown liquor in his gut he could still get a little scary now and then.
And in all that caring, if something bad happened to somebody or something that he really loved, he would take it hard. In all of his strength, Luis was filled with empathy and sympathy, almost to a fault. The Katrina debacle in his old home town made him really angry, sad, and bitter all over again.
I try to make it a point not to blog much about my personal existance, or about my friends. But Luis was much more than just some important character in my little life. While Luis wasn’t my best friend, he was one of the biggest friends I've ever known. And I’m not talking about fame or size or goodness. Bottom line, Luis was a spirited being who freely gave you energy and hope just by being around him. Sure, he was a bit twisted. And sure, he did some really stupid stuff over the years. But his life narrative was one of overcoming bullshit, and turning it into something useful and positive. And in general, he did pretty much whatever he wanted to do and came out on top, no matter how improbable that choice might have been. He was a smart guy with a good heart. And he could always make you laugh.
More than anything, Luis was a real individual, somebody who ultimately defies description. Just to get a flavor of his life in Mexico, let me offer you a brief excerpt from an email he sent me last Christmas:
I was sitting next to a cute girl in a cantina, and she kept farting. I said, "hey, if you keep that up I am gonna stop buying you top shelf drinks." She said, "smell my neck, that's where I put the perfume." I replied, "well dump the other half of the bottle on your ass and maybe we'll be married in the morning." She knocked my brandy into my lap and left me there alone. I was better off that way. The bartender laughed and gave me a piece of meat on a beige plate. I don't usually eat things I can't see especially in cantinas, but I risked it and I didn’t get sick. Then I thought of all the time I have spent being angry and that made it worse. I remembered calling my mother after 25 years and her telling me, "Jesus said you would call." I remember hanging up impulsively and never calling again. I remembered eating matches under the bed. I remembered my grandma that made good cornbread. I gotta quit remembering.
The girl came back and said, "I am sorry." I said "no you aren't, you feel guilty and there's a big difference."
I guess I’ll just stop typing now, before I get all mushy and sad, or try to come up with some insightful conclusions on fate or death, or why things happen. I'd be foolish to pretend I have something meaningful to pass along on such weighty matters. But I will say that when a big life ends, there’s so much more grieving to do.
And please, if you ride a motorcycle (or a bike for that matter) wear a real fucking helmet. Otherwise, you might make a lotta people cry.