"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production." - Hunter S Thompson.
Lee Lyons is dead at 35 years old.
Lee isn’t going to get a front page obituary anywhere but here, so I’m going to make this count.
He was the strangest person I’ve ever met, and that’s not an exaggeration. Keep in mind that for many years I frequented circles of punk rockers, goths, junkies, hippies, LSD users, ravers, cocaine dealers, pot dealers, journalists, political scientists, historians, rail fans, comic book fans, Star Wars geeks and prostitutes of all persuasions.
Not one of them comes close to Lee.
I first met him when I was in the late middle school early high school years, between the ages of 12 and 14. I can’t pinpoint the exact year or the exact date, but I can make a hazy estimate: Lee was already armed and dangerous with a VHS camcorder, and already had at least one movie under his belt.
He had already christened his movie company: Giant Terd Productions.
I met him through a friend. Lee and I didn’t go to the same school — I was part of an arts magnet program that Lee probably belonged in, while Lee went to conventional public school. Lucky for me, a neighbor of his was in my school, and that neighbor, Hunter, shared with me an artistic talent: we both played cello.
Hunter was already part of Lee’s inner-circle of actors and off-camera collaborators, which we affectionately dubbed “The Terds.”
Aside from his movies, which I hope are preserved and remain unseen by any law enforcement agencies and future employers, Lee was also a avid musician, visual artist and writer. Though he created a lot by himself, in his ‘workshop’ where he made our movies using an old analogue, throttle-based video editor, he also collaborated widely with anyone who was interested in playing a role.
As a young, geeky high school kid who was part arts geek and part culture nerd, I envied the way Lee seemed able to attract members of different cliques among the youth of our home town. Lee’s movies featured black, white, Asian and Latino kids in what was essentially a self-segregated city. He featured rich and poor kids, jocks, ‘gangsters,’ preppies, punks, both the beautiful and the disfigured, all equally respected and ridiculed.
Members of the circle of Terds came and went – a few of the actors who preceded me left as Lee’s behavior and his artistic choices became more erratic, or as they matured and became concerned about their reputations. For a time, I was a regular, spending time not only playing roles, but also helping to edit and score Lee’s movies.
See, Lee and his camera became ever-present factors of every weekend gathering during our late middle school and high school lives. So all of our embarrassing moments, all of our skeletons were documented and catalogued in his expanding collection of VHS tapes and what I can only now imagine is gigabytes of video files.
He shot film of our experimentations with drugs and our encounters with sexuality, all of which he edited to emphasize how ridiculous teenage boys are.
Much of the footage is humiliating to watch as an adult.
As we grew older and began to go our separate ways, I became concerned with Lee’s collection of footage. As social media networks came into their own, my concerns were justified as Lee began posting some of our nostalgic footage for the world to see.
At the time, I didn’t want my name associated with movies named “Pervert’s Quest” and “Assblast.” I didn’t want people to see me partially nude, or simulating sex acts and drug use (much of the drug use was NON simulated, if I recall correctly). I was trying to build a career and a reputation. I cared.
Lee, on the other hand, never learned the burden of giving a shit. Even after becoming a father, he still lived more freely than I ever could. Lee faithfully uploaded our movies, posted them on Facebook, and tagged us in them.
Lee was the kind of guy who almost never had cigarettes, but when he did he would bum them out generously. He was the kid who spent the balance of his allowance on a dimebag of pot just to get his friends high. He was the guy who would call everyone out-of-the-blue on a boring summer day to get together in a public park to create something — chaos, if not art.
Lee was the kind of guy who would wake you up at 3 a.m. to dose LSD and just walk around the suburbs — which sounds kind of lame in hindsight, but with him it was always an adventure.
The character of Charley Kelly, from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” bears a striking resemblance to Lee in his creativity and strangeness.
I lost touch with Lee around the same time I married my wife. Our lives were moving in different directions. While we were working our way through school, Lee was calling us up looking for places to buy drugs we weren’t even using anymore. He was knocking at our door unannounced. Some times we would pretend like we weren’t home to avoid the awkward conversations.
Though, for a time, it looked as if he might grow up, Lee struggled with some addictions, some personal turbulence, and type 1 diabetes. In the end, it was the diabetes that got him.
But, because Lee was such a creative soul, he’s left behind a treasure-trove of media for his family and friends to sort through. He has one of the best documented lives on the planet. There’s no chance that any of us who knew Lee would ever be able to forget him. Trust me, some of us tried.
I’m a little ashamed of trying.
See, when we moved away from Lexington to chase a career, my wife and I were acutely aware of how limited our time in our hometown would be, so we started to closely guard when we were coming back to visit so people like Lee wouldn’t be able to find out and dominate our time. I didn’t have precious hours to devote to his silliness. It was a difficult decision to make, but we decided to prioritize family and a subset of friends who were taking their lives in directions similar to ours.
I feel a lot of guilt about that decision now, even though I came to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that.
Now I know I’ll never get one of those weird phone calls again, I’ll never play music with him again, I’ll never drunkenly sing Nine Inch Nails songs with him again, I’ll never get throw-up drunk off of Montezuma Tequila with him again, I'll never walk five miles in the rain while on LSD with him again, and I’ll never be a Terd again. It’s breaking my heart.
But I’m also so grateful that for a couple of years I was a part of his life.
Lee passed away on Christmas day, leaving behind a son, an ex-wife, heartbroken parents and siblings, and too many friends to keep track of. I can't imagine what they're feeling - yes, I lost a sibling during the holidays many, many moons ago, but he was an infant. Lee's fingerprints are all over their lives.
Lee made us all laugh, and he made us all laughable. He knew he was ridiculous, too, he broke down all your attempts to be the ‘straight man’ — in Lee’s world, there was no room for Bud Abbott or Zeppo Marx, we were all Lou Costello or Groucho or Harpo. Everybody was a punchline. In a way, through Lee’s eyes, we were all equally dumb and awkward and silly and broken, but we all had creative potential.
That’s a damn beautiful way of looking at the world, isn’t it?