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Suicide Not Painless

When they started to make M*A*S*H*, I thought, “Good. Bob got a little break there. He’ll deliver this film, put a few bucks in his pocket, and get out of debt.”

I go out to the set, it was like the third day, and there he is with this mash-last-supperpicture of the Last Supper in his hand, and he’s laughing at it.

I’m thinking, “Jesus, now it’s going to be blasphemy, and they won’t want to release it.”

—Michael Murphy

So my character, Painless, is some dentist from the Midwest who is physically endowed and has trouble on a sexual level. The interesting thing about that scene at the Last Supper, when he’s decided to commit suicide, is the doctors and all the others could have been mean-spirited how they handled Painless, you know? But it wasn’t. Bob made sure there was an understanding that we are all failing on some human level and would like to get out of it, just go to sleep and not wake up.

—John Shuck

When I got there, the first thing he was going to shoot was the suicide thing. We’re sitting around one night and he says, “This is the first thing I have to do. It’s just dead air with everyone walking around putting Scotch and Playboy in the casket. We need a song. It’s got in the boxto be the stupidest song that was ever written.”

I said, “Well, we can do stupid.”

He starts thinking and says five minutes later—we were a bit ripped at the time—he says, “The Painless Pole is going to commit suicide. The name of the song is ‘Suicide Is Painless.’ I used to write songs. I’m going to go home and see if I can come up with something.”

The next day, he tells me, “There’s too much stuff in this forty-five-year-old brain of mine. I can’t get anything nearly as stupid as I need. But all is not lost. I have this kid who is a total idiot. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.”

—Johnny Mandel

I was writing a lot of poetry at the time. I came into the living room one night and my father was sitting there with [producer Ingo] Preminger and they were having their Scotch and smoking dope and talking about their thing. And I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” And he goes, “We were just sitting here talking about this scene for the movie, and we need a song. Why don’t you write it?” And he goes, “We got the name of it, its called ‘Suicide Is Painless’ and blah, blah, blah.” He says, “You go write it. If it works we’ll use it.”

The next day I left and went to my grandmother’s. I was staying with her ’cause nobody else would have me. And I wrote like a hundred and twelve verses. Just the most atrocious crap you’ve ever heard in your life. It was just awful, I mean, “I hear the sound of gunfire from over the hill. Come on, boys, let’s kill, kill, kill.” got itYou know, just terrible shit. I tore it all up and threw it away and called him up and said, “I can’t do it. Forget this, I tried, there’s nothing that I’m willing to give you.”

So the following week I went back to Bob’s and I’m in the backyard and I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes. Just boom, wrote it out like that and I walked in and handed it to him. I go, “This’ll work.” He goes, “Oh, okay. Put some music to it.” So I grabbed my guitar and I do this C-F-G, you know, Bob Dylan chords. I did a little A-minor. Maybe C. Just real basic crap. So they got one of those crappy little cassette recorders, you know, where you hold both the buttons down, and I recorded the thing. They took the tape and shipped it to Johnny Mandel. And he threw some sevenths on it and put a bridge on it and there it is.

—Michael Altman

It’s the only song I ever wrote dead drunk. I only write sober, but this particular song I couldn’t get together. I had to get loose enough to come up with that. Finally, out of desperation, I got bombed and wrote it. I don’t recommend that.

I didn’t have to make many changes—verse, chorus, verse, chorus construction. Threw in a couple of odd bars to make it sound home-made. He wrote a very good lyric for what it was. When we were done, they liked it so much they started putting it in over the main titles. With the helicopters. I said, “That doesn’t belong.” They said they liked it. I said, “That’s the stupidest answer I ever heard.” They said, “Well, we like it.” I said, “I’m not going to be part of this stupid conversation.” I’m glad they didn’t listen. It became my biggest copyright.

—Johnny Mandel

They paid me five hundred bucks and gave me fifty percent of the song. I went and took that five-hundred-dollar check and bought myself a big, beautiful twelve-string guitar. Fucking gorgeous, man; it was amazing. That was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. And then a couple of years later, after the TV show came out, it went into killsyndication. You know Bob hated the TV series, right?”

—Michael Altman

M*A*S*H*, this movie, was about foreign wars. And then, every fucking week on a Sunday night, to have a drama about that, in which they had these platitudes about liberalism and whatever the current issue is. It’s still bringing a foreign war into your home every week for twelve years. And even though the bad guys in the script were from your own military hierarchy, you’re really presenting the bad guys as the brown people with the slanted eyes who’re you’re fighting. I don’t get the joke, and I don’t like the joke.

—Robert Altman

Anyway, after the series came out, I got another check for, like, twenty-six bucks. And then the second check was like a hundred thirty dollars. And I’m going, “Oh, this is nice.” And the next check was like twenty-six thousand dollars. And then it started, the whole thing started with the royalties. I think I ended up making close to two million dollars. And Bob had gotten paid seventy-five thousand dollars to direct the movie and no points, right? And it made Fox Studios what it is, right? It was their biggest hit ever, you know? Then the TV show and stuff like that. And Bob’s just been livid about that for years.

—Michael Altman

The amusing thing is that Michael Altman made more money out of this picture than his father.

—Ingo Preminger

Oh, by a what bob gotlong shot. I’m cool about it all, though, because what I got out of it was better than money.

—Robert Altman

I squandered the money away. All of it.

Here’s what happened. After I got out of school and got this paper signed saying that I was responsible for myself, they released the money to me and I bought a big camper thing, a big hippie van. You know, like the Magic Bus. Just painted it all up and hopped in the thing and traveled for several years and just caravanned around the country. And every three months we’d get a check for about twenty-five grand, thirty grand a pop, which was a lot of money back then. I had never paid taxes; they just used to send me checks. They did for years. And then like ten years later I was up in Washington state and I went down to a car lot and I decided that I was going to buy a car. I go, “I’ll pay cash.” And the guy goes, “just bring in your income-tax returns and we’ll use that to give you a loan.” And I go, “I don’t have any income-tax returns.” I started thinking, “Hmm, I wonder who’s been doing that all this time for me.” So I call up the IRS and they go, “Well, all right, with the penalties and interest you owe a quarter-million dollars.” And so I disappeared for another ten years and didn’t bring it up again. And then I tried to get it straightened out and by that time it was like close to half a million dollars.

It took years to straighten it out. I went to Bob for help. He got some of his lawyers and his army of guys on it. And they made this deal. So I did a bankruptcy. Bobtoday bought the song from the trust-deed guy for thirty thousand dollars. He bought the rights to it, or bought the royalties off. So he finally ended up getting the royalties, and he still has them or his estate does, I guess.

I was irresponsible and unbalanced to begin with. The money certainly flavored it and shaded it, but it wasn’t the cause. I take responsiblity for who I was. I don’t blame it on Bob or on my mom or on the business or on anything. That’s bullshit. I might have done that a few years ago, had I not tried to get involved in a program where you take responsiblity for your own actions and become accountable. But I don’t believe any of that anymore.

Have I published any other songs? No, nothing that’s gone out. I’ve put together quite a few. I’ve got a ton of stuff. I’ve worked with a few other songwriters and put some stuff together. And quite honestly, by my personal standards, I never liked the suicide song. I wasn’t that impressed with it at all.

—Michael Altman

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Only The Top

Early in our relationship, I told a joke and it became the metaphor for everything in our lives.

These two musicians decided they were going to the jazz festival in Montreux, but they always flew. One says, “We should take one of these cruises, man, the topand just get out there and have four days and just lay out and see what that side of life is like.” So they were out in the middle of the Atlantic. And the water was calm and glassy. The moon hung high in the sky. The musicians broke out a spliff, and they lit up and took a hit, gazing quietly out at the magic of the moon and the water.

The first musician said, “Man, look at all that water.”

And the second musician said, “Yeah, and that’s only the top.”

Bob [Altman] went crazy. He went out. So anytime we were someplace and somebody said something, Bob would look at me and say, “That’s only the top.” And when somebody would come and aggravate him, and she ran her mouth or something, as she took a breath, Bob goes, “That’s only the top.”

—Harry Belafonte


When I Worked

May 2015
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