Tony O’Neill’s Hollywood Frolic
I picked Tony O’Neill up at a taco shop on Sunset Boulevard and we headed east. One thing you need to know about the Sunset Strip is it is always changing. Hotels, restaurants, billboards. There are no sacred cows in Hollywood, but the strip is the least sentimental spot in Los Angeles.
Driving east on Sunset is like going backwards in a time machine after a bad trip into the future. All you can do is look back and cringe, which is something Tony O’Neill excels at. His latest novel, Sick City, is a depraved romp through the dark side of Hollywood, told by someone on intimate terms with its underbelly.
RULAND: What brought you to Los Angeles?
O’NEILL: I was playing with a band in England called Kenickie, like from Grease. We were on the fringes of the Brit Pop thing in the mid-‘90s. We were an all-girl band apart from me and the drummer. We had a couple of hit singles in England in the mid-‘90s, and then we did our first U.S. tour.
RULAND: What’s your first memory of L.A.?
O’NEILL: A big decadent party in one of Howard Hughes’s old houses in Brentwood. This girl was house-sitting the place apparently, and it had been going on for two days. Nobody else in the band really did drugs the way I did. I was up for anything. So we got invited there, and someone offered me some speed. I’d done speed in England, which is a different proposition from meth.
RULAND: Just a little bit.
O’NEILL: (Laughs) Speed in England is like taking Sudafed. It’s really not very strong. It was what you would do if you couldn’t get a real drug. So I did a big old line of this stuff, thinking it was the same. No exaggeration, three days later I still hadn’t slept, and I was in Vegas and I’d married a chick I’d met at the party. That was it. I finished the tour, quit the band, and moved to L.A. to live with this girl. It didn’t work out, funnily enough.
RULAND: Fancy that.
O’NEILL: All that is in the first book, Digging the Vein. And that’s how I fell into using heroin. After that marriage broke up, I was kind of adrift in L.A. with not a lot to do.
RULAND: How long did you live in L.A.?
O’NEILL: I moved out in 2000. It was a good solid four or five years. You know, when I left L.A. I had to leave. I decided to go to London because I knew I could get on a methadone program there.
RULAND: When you say you had to leave, what does that mean?
O’NEILL: I was incredibly strung out. I’d been in rehab a couple of times. I couldn’t get clean. There was something about being in L.A. and having all of my drug connections, I could never stay clean here, you know? The temptation was too much. In London I’d never used hard drugs.
RULAND: Such as?
O’NEILL: To me hard drugs are stuff you inject. I’d never used heroin. I’d never used crack. So I thought I’d go somewhere I didn’t have any connections, get on a methadone program, and sort myself out. It didn’t quite work out like that. But that was the plan. Leaving L.A. when I did saved my life. I owed thousands of dollars to various drug dealers. 18th Street guys down around MacArthur Park. [18th Street Gang is considered to be L.A.'s largest.]
As the chic restaurants and hotels gave way to ancient apartment buildings and beat-down storefronts, we talked about the best street to take to get to The Frolic. But there’s no hurry. If we were really in a rush we’d take Fountain—the unofficial Hollywood expressway—and then turn north and make our way toward the most famous address in the West: Hollywood and Vine, where all the dead stars hang out.
O’NEILL: The whole time I lived in L.A. I never drove a car.
O’NEILL: I relied exclusively on rides or I took busses. Or I walked. I walked for hours in L.A. Everybody thought I’d lost my mind, but I used to like to walk around here.
RULAND: My first year here I didn’t have a car. I’d be at the clubs in Hollywood. “Hey, is anyone going to…”
O’NEILL: You can always get a ride. That’s the thing. I’ve never owned a car. There’s something fundamentally wrong with me; I think I would be too dangerous. There’s something uncoordinated about me. I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. So I’m the kind of person if a song came on the radio I didn’t like I’d probably take both hands off the wheel and start changing it without realizing it. I tried to get my license in the states and I couldn’t get used to the steering wheel being on the opposite side, and it was even worse when I tried to drive in England.
RULAND: So it’s easier to score drugs and play an instrument in a band than it is to drive a car?
O’NEILL: Oh definitely. I smoked crack. Shot coke. Shot heroin. But nothing scares me more than the idea of getting behind the wheel of a car. I know I’d die. I know I would. Or I’d kill somebody else. I’m not to be trusted with a vehicle.
RULAND: Do you think you’re drawn to L.A. because you experienced it at ground level, so to speak?
O’NEILL: It had a huge impact on me. I’m always really excited to come back to L.A. Something to do with the fact I was 18, it was the first other major city I lived in that wasn’t England. And a lot of big things happened at once. You have to understand I grew up in this small town in the north of England where it was gray and rainy all the time. To see palm trees outside of my window, I felt like I’d been dropped on another planet. L.A. really marked me. That’s why it’s a place I always go back to in my fiction.
O’NEILL: Blackburn, a little town outside Manchester. Not really known for anything except the Beatles song “A Day in the Life” mentions it. There’s nothing there. A football team that never wins. Crap weather. Rampant racism. That’s all that Blackburn really has. I left as soon as I was old enough to leave. There was nothing going on there.
RULAND: That bad?
O’NEILL: There’s a certain kind of scuzziness and desperation to northern towns. Everyone starts drinking around fourteen years old, and they normally don’t stop. I go back there and bump into old friends and they’ll have three or four kids running around. They’ve drunk themselves into a stupor because there’s nothing else to do. Drinking is a huge part of the culture. That was the first thing I got into. Thank god drugs came along because I probably would have been an alcoholic.
RULAND: Thank heavens for that…
O’NEILL: I always had a bit of self control when it came to alcohol. I could always rein it in. And then when I started doing drugs I went off alcohol altogether. As a junkie I didn’t drink. When you’re on heroin you really can’t process alcohol properly. It makes you feel sick, so I stopped. As a junkie I got very puritanical about people who drank. “I’m better than these fucking booze hounds,” you know?
RULAND: Everyone is always better off than the next guy.
O’NEILL: I don’t know if I could handle it now. Certain drugs I feel you hit a point with them and I just can’t do them anymore. I’m like that with cocaine. I used to love coke. It was my favorite. One of the first drugs I ever did. The Brit Pop scene was awash with good quality cheap cocaine. Everyone was on it, you know?
RULAND: How are you with it now?
O’NEILL: I’ve been offered it at parties since coming clean. And I’ve done it maybe twice in the past seven years, and both times I got halfway through a line and stopped. I don’t enjoy this anymore. Now I instantly go to a place of paranoia and terror like I’ve been up doing it for ten nights. I bypass the pleasurable part all together, and I just become incredibly paranoid. I’m not having a good time.
RULAND: What’s it like being back? Driving the boulevard, seeing the sights?
O’NEILL: I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with L.A. It did chew me up and spit me out. At one time I was nervous about the idea of coming back here. Since the books have come out, I guess coming back on my own terms, I feel like I’m in a much better place now. That whole temptation thing isn’t a problem. I’ve actually gone down and looked around MacArthur Park, and it’s not the same. I don’t have the urge to relive it anymore. I did it. I did it plenty. I don’t have to go back. I’ve got nothing to prove anymore.
O’NEILL: I always felt L.A. was a very beautiful city on the surface, and what I like about L.A. is you can walk into a bar and all of a sudden you are in this dark, David Lynchian thing. It was sunny and everybody was tan and beautiful and it looked kind of like a movie set, but underneath there was this utter sleaze, and it was a kind of sleaze that no other city has. Maybe New York had it in the ‘70s and ‘80s. L.A. is still hanging on to the underbelly. You can have these places where tourists go and take pictures at Mann’s Chinese, and you can walk ten blocks and be in the scuzziest, freakiest bar with a bunch of male prostitutes. It’s seven in the morning and everyone is drinking and fucked up, and they’ve been in there all night. And I do love that. I love the underbelly of L.A. And places like this place, the Frolic Room… Little pockets of old L.A. still hang on.
RULAND: I must be having a David Lynch experience because I think I saw an open meter right in front of the Frolic.
RULAND: Right here on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m sure you could tell me something spectacularly horrific that happened to you on this street.
O’NEILL: In this bar we’re going to, The Frolic Room, there used to be this old homeless guy with a photographic memory. I think he’s probably dead. One of the things he used to do is if you were reading the paper, he’d take look at it, and bet you that if you said “Page 7, column 3,” he’d be able to read the article back to you. He was also very into quoting Kierkegaard, pages and pages of Kierkegaard. And that’s how he got drinks. He’d bet people drinks they couldn’t catch him out. He always used to win. I’d take him up on it because he was an interesting guy.
RULAND: Like something out of Bukowski.
O’NEILL: Those guys have all been cleared out. I went to a liquor store the other day. I was going to buy Cisco wine. You know Cisco, the bum wine?
RULAND: I’ve never had the pleasure.
O’NEILL: I was going to give it out to people at the reading. The guy was so offended. “We don’t sell Cisco anymore! Hollywood Boulevard isn’t for the bums anymore, it’s for tourists! We stopped carrying that a long time ago.” It’s changed. There’s a W Hotel here now.
RULAND: It’s pretty ridiculous. They’re turning it into Times Square.
O’NEILL: But the Frolic hasn’t changed. The same barmaid is still there. Nothing changes in the Frolic.
The Frolic is dark. How one characterizes the darkness of a bar says a lot about you. I like places that don’t give up their secrets right away. Tony seemed like he was home. He said hello to the bartender, asked her if she’d received the book he’d sent her. The bartender smiled and nodded and thanked him. Tony is a conversation starter, a story teller, someone who brings people together. He doesn’t ask the bartender how she’s doing: he insists on knowing that she’s all right. It’s almost as if he is saying, I’m not the person you used to know, I’m better now, but none of that matters if you aren’t well.
RULAND: When was the last time you were here?
O’NEILL: About a year ago when the last book came out. It’s funny, Gita is still here, the last barmaid that I still remember from my daytime drinking sessions.
So yeah this was my regular spot for me and my old circle of friends. Randall and Steve. It’s funny a lot of them ended up in Cambodia for some reason.
RULAND: Are they sex offenders or something?
O’NEILL: I don’t know. There’s something dark going on out there because the ones who didn’t die or get clean went to Cambodia. I guess it’s a bit more lawless out there. I don’t know what kind of bad behavior they’re up to, you know?
RULAND: Up to no good, no doubt.
O’NEILL: Cheers. Thanks for indulging me for the bar. I understand. If I were interviewing someone and they were like, “Let’s do it in a crack house,” it might be a bit difficult for me.
RULAND: It’s fine. I’m very sentimental about these kinds of places. I’ve actually gotten into more trouble in the Powerhouse.
O’NEILL: I don’t know it.
RULAND: This awful place around the corner on Vine with velvet clown paintings on the wall. I lost a bowling ball in there once.
O’NEILL: (Laughs) There have been a few nights here. We used to stumble out of here and not remember where we parked the car, and have to search Hollywood. I’m surprised we didn’t die, really. It would be one of those deals where whoever was driving home would have the windows down so the fresh air would keep him awake.
RULAND: The Frolic makes an appearance in Sick City…
O’NEILL: When Jeffrey gets out of rehab, the first place he stops is the Frolic Room for a beer.
RULAND: Not a good first step, in more ways than one. Since we’re talking about Sick City, let me ask you this: is it a love story?
O’NEILL: It is. It’s a platonic love story between Jeffrey and Randall. First I had this idea of two guys with a get-rich scheme, but were so messed up they were constantly shooting themselves in the foot. I’m a big fan of The Stooges—the Three Stooges, well, I’m a fan of Iggy and the Stooges, I like stooges of all varieties—I wanted it to be this slapstick thing, but I started to really like them so I made them a little bit smarter and self-aware than that. It’s really a love letter to L.A. A love/hate letter. L.A. is always the biggest character in my books and everyone else kind of drifts in and out. I’m very obsessive about mentioning streets and locations because all the books are about L.A.
RULAND: Is Randall based on the Randall who was a regular here?
O’NEILL: The description is. Randall was not a movie guy. It was a little tribute that maybe ten of my friends would understand.
O’NEILL: That was exactly it. I had this idea to write about two guys who were opposites but bound together by one big thing in common, which is they are both junkies of one variety or another. Then the whole Sharon Tate thing came into it.
RULAND: Where did the sex-tape angle come from?
O’NEILL: I’d heard this urban legend that when the LAPD went into the Tate house they confiscated tapes and one of them was of an orgy with Sharon Tate, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Mama Cass. This is a story that has been around for a long time. And the story goes the cops would arrange private screenings in cop bars. When I heard that, I knew what I wanted to do with Sick City. I didn’t really plan it that way, but when I put those two threads together, it just clicked.
RULAND: How long have you been interested in Manson lore?
O’NEILL: Some people are very into Manson. I’m not. There’s something inherently interesting about someone who was so charismatic that he could convince people who normally wouldn’t have done it to murder. I like that whole decadent Los Angeles musical ‘60s vibe, but I’ve never found Manson as interesting or fascinating as some people do.
RULAND: They’re out there.
O’NEILL: Yeah, and they listen to the albums. He made a great messianic cult figure, but he was no singer/songwriter if you’ve ever heard his stuff. It’s pretty terrible. I was more interested in Sharon Tate than Manson.
RULAND: One of my old spots was El Coyote.
O’NEILL: I know El Coyote.
RULAND: Where Tate had her last meal.
O’NEILL: Right, right. Now she’s a fascinating figure. She was so incredibly beautiful. Someone asked me if I felt bad that I wrote about this myth and people might assume it’s real. I don’t think so. I think now she’s more of an idea than a person. It’s not like I’m writing about Marilyn Monroe, I’m writing about the Warhol image of Marilyn Monroe. It’s the same thing with Sharon Tate. I’m writing about the idea of a young, innocent Sharon Tate murdered by the dark side of Hollywood.
RULAND: Do you know Patrick DeWitt’s work?
O’NEILL: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Patrick’s. Patrick’s excellent. You’ve read Ablutions?
RULAND: Strangely enough, it was the last novel I read before I went into recovery.
O’NEILL: I know the coke dealer in Ablutions. I was actually a regular in the place where it was set. Patrick knows friends of mine. Like Randall who died. Bowler who went to Cambodia. We know people in common, and I’m sure we were in at the same time, but we don’t remember each other. But, yeah, that coke dealer, I ended up ripping off that coke dealer for a lot of money.
RULAND: Just like in Ablutions!
O’NEILL: It was one of those things where I did the old trick of saying “Damn, my girlfriend went out to get money, she’ll be back in half an hour.” And he’s like “I can’t wait.” So I gave him a bum check. Because he knew me he let me do it. We moved out of the apartment, and I never saw him again.
We got back in the car and drove down Hollywood Boulevard toward Tony’s hotel. It’s been almost four years since I lived in L.A., and I miss it, but not while driving on Sunset or Hollywood. There are plenty of interesting things to see, if you know where to look. Every address has a secret. An old soundstage here, a starlet’s apartment there, the place so-and-so bought packaged ham and bottles of beer. But the spectacle of new Hollywood is enormously distracting, and I always gawk at the wrong things. This was once my home, but I’m a tourist now.
O’NEILL: Here’s Musso & Franks.
RULAND: Do you have any stories from there?
O’NEILL: When I was very attracted to the legend of Musso & Franks—Nathanael West and Bukowski and all the rest hanging out here—I was a big fan of the minute steak. Scuffling around on the fringes of the music industry, I had many weird meetings in Musso & Franks with people telling me they were going to turn our band into the next this or the next that, and of course it never happened, they were all just massive coke heads.
RULAND: My former agent took me there a long time ago. I was very impressed with myself at the time, even though the whole thing felt awfully premeditated.
O’NEILL: It is an impressive place. I like that you have to be over 70 to work there. They have those red velvet jackets. Somebody should interview those guys because I bet they’ve got the good stories.
RULAND: They know everything.
O’NEILL: Farther down here on Wilcox is the Mark Twain Hotel where I used to live, a by-the-hour kind of place populated by junkies and prostitutes. And close to that is my other favorite bar in Hollywood, which is the Spotlight Room. Certain times of day it’s all transvestites, at other times its boy hustlers, and some times you’ll get a few lost tourists. The Spotlight was great because it opened up at six in the morning.
RULAND: Oh yeah.
O’NEILL: You were a frequenter of the Spotlight?
RULAND: I’ve got a soft spot for bars that open at six.
O’NEILL: That’s when you know you’re serious. There’s only a handful of places where you can do that. Another bar is the Short Stop.
RULAND: That’s way down Sunset.
O’NEILL: Now, apparently, it’s a hipster bar, but back when I used to go there it was a cop bar. When the LAPD would clock out at six am, they’d all go there, and we’d be in there high on meth. It was just us and the cops listening to Willie Nelson. I could never figure out why we never got arrested. There’s no buzz kill in the world like being surrounded by cops when you’re high.
RULAND: Like Hunter S. Thompson at Circus Circus.
O’NEILL: It’s funny, when a cop is on to you it’s usually because they’re just as corrupt as you are.
RULAND: Sounds like you’re speaking from experience…
O’NEILL: My second wife used to be a fiend for coke. I did it, too, but she was something. She’d inject coke. That was her thing. Every fifteen minutes. Once you start, you are going to inject it every fifteen minutes until it is gone. One time she started having a seizure. I’d never seen this before. Eyes rolling back. Full on grand mal seizure. We had this girl living with us who was a prostitute. I started screaming and she called the ambulance, but then my wife came out of it. “Cancel the ambulance! Cancel the ambulance!”
RULAND: Can you do that?
O’NEILL: I was on the phone. “Oh, no it’s fine it was all a misunderstanding. She just tripped. It wasn’t a seizure. Don’t worry, don’t worry! Don’t come, don’t come!”
RULAND: But they came.
O’NEILL: They called the cops because the place was strewn with needles, and they took us to the emergency room at Cedar Sinai in Hollywood. The cops then came out to the waiting room and as soon as they laid their eyes on me, I got up and started walking out. They followed me out to the back. I didn’t have ID on me or anything. They beat the shit out of me in the parking lot. They got me good. I pissed blood for two weeks after that.
RULAND: Some people can hold onto a job, some people lose everything. How far down did you go?
O’NEILL: Pretty far. I was homeless. I was sleeping in a car at one point. The thing that carried me through is I had this weird self-preservation instinct that would kick in. And I was young, I was always convinced I couldn’t die. It was a weird thing. And I feel like if you really believe you won’t die, then you probably won’t. But I think if I did now what I did then I know I would probably die and pretty quickly.
Tony was staying at the Magic Castle Hotel, which sounds a lot a fancier than it really is––a metaphor for Hollywood, perhaps. As we made our approach, Tony’s cell phone rang. It was his wife calling to remind him he’s got another interview this afternoon, making sure he’s where he needs to be. “I’ve got a tendency of going missing,” Tony explains when he gets off the phone. “Especially in L.A.”
Photos of Tony O’Neill courtesy of Jim Ruland.
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