My Best Friend Bill, Whom I’ve Never Met

IMG_1210.JPGIt’s been a couple months now and I still can’t wrap my head around it. It’s like, when you find out something about a person and it completely changes everything you’ve known for your entire relationship. A chill runs down your spine and your mind melts into a puddle at the same time. That’s the awful, cold, confused feeling I’ve had since it happened, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same. Will any of us?

I got a call from a friend I made up in Toronto when I was there covering a music festival, asking me if I’d like to come up and do some stuff for the Toronto International Film Festival. Of course I said yes immediately. Toronto is a great city and their film festival is second only to Cannes in prestige. He said there would be a few things I would HAVE to cover, but the rest of the time I could do as I please and my pass would get me into any movie that was playing. For a guy like me, that’s like Christmas morning and my birthday and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one. I mapped out some programming I wanted to see and hopped on a plane to out northern neighbor.

There was no shortage of great films playing: Whiplash, Maps To The Stars, The Theory Of Everything, Birdman…the list goes on and on. One thing I made very clear with my friend was the fact that I would NOT miss Bill Murray day. This point was non-negotiable. As a lifelong fan of his work, I think everyday should be Bill Murray day.

So the day came. September 5th. Bill Murray Day. What a great deal of fun! Ghostbusters and Stripes on the big screen (I’d never seen either in a theater before), a Q&A with the man himself, and then his newest film St Vincent. Always a joy to see the brilliant actor at work. While the movie itself wasn’t great, it was pretty good. And Murray was terrific as a jerk with a heart of gold that just needed some polishing. He got a standing ovation, of course. And that was how Bill Murray Day ended. For most.

After the movie some people around me said they were going for a drink, so I tagged along. We went to Tequila Jack’s which is right near Princess Of Wales Theater where the movie played. Drinks were a little expensive so I was sipping a whiskey while the rest of the group pounded shot after shot. About an hour and a half later they all took off to go mingle among other Canadians. I stayed at the bar, planning to leave after I finished my drink (I mean, I paid 14 Canadian dollars so I’m not leaving a drop). Then it happened.

People had been in and out of the bar all night, so when a new body showed up in the seat next to mine, it didn’t really register. I continued drinking, obliviously listening to Drake or Buck 65 or whatever Toronto-based rapper the DJ was playing. Then a voice said “Can I get an 1800?” I recognized the dulcet tones of Murray’s voice immediately. I always heard that he shows up in random places, not one to let his fame interrupt his good times. I looked over quickly to confirm and one glance was all I needed.

Now, when one is seated next to Bill Freakin’ Murray, one has two choices: 1) Completely bug out on him, list all your favorite movies he’s in, ask him what he said to Scarlett Johannsson at the end of Lost In Translation, and alienate him completely, or 2) Play it cool. Drink your drink and hope he says something to you. As much as I wanted to just go to the extreme of the first option, the sheer shock of the moment my mouth couldn’t make any words anyway.

He paid for his drink with a $20 and told the completely ignorant bartender to keep the change. He sipped his tequila a couple times before saying “It’s a lot warmer here than I expected. You think Canada and you immediately think cold. Is it always this warm here in September!” I looked around making sure it was me he was talking to. With no one else around I was confident he was expecting a response from me, so I said quietly “I think so. I’m not from around here.” He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Chicago his eyes lit up. We chatted for a few minutes about this and that. I told him I was a fan and enjoyed the movie. He thanked me and asked if I knew any blues bars in the area.

I had heard of a place called Rex Hotel that had a jazz and blues bar that was only a few blocks away. He said “Great. Let’s go.” I was jumping out of my skin, it definitely felt like it could happen. This was the greatest day of my life. The walk was only about six minutes, but I was shocked no one badgered my new best friend. It was like he was hiding in plain sight.

We got to the hotel lounge and he said “Oh, this is fantastic. We should start a tab. Go give them your card.” If anyone else had asked me to do such a thing I probably would have smacked them in the face for disrespecting me but, seeing how it was Bill Murray and all, I let it slide. I ran to the washroom to splash some water on my face and make sure I wasn’t dreaming. When I found Bill sitting in a little booth alone, I noticed a bottle of AsomBroso tequila. I’m not really in the know on alcohol prices per bottle, but if your theory is the more phallic the bottle the higher the price, this thing must have been a million dollars. My credit card balance had a few hundred dollars of wiggle room, so I was hoping this was one of Murray’s patented hilarious pranks.

We started talking about the movie while Hogtown Syncopators played on the stage. It sounded like everything came out as expected and he took great pride in his performance. He told me a story about some mischief he and Dan Aykroyd got up to back in the early eighties before Ghostbusters shot them both to superstardom, and before Aykroyd became obsessed with UFO’s and vodka.

“His vodka sucks!” Murray laughed. “The only good thing about it is the skull, and even that’s derivative of another brand they used to make in the 70’s.” Since we had been getting along pretty well, I went ahead and asked him, “What’s your relationship like with those guys? Akroyd, Steve, the whole crew?” He told me Steve Martin is a class act and always has been. Never met anyone smarter or more kind. Gilda Radner was a doll, which jives with every other story I’ve ever heard about her.

He didn’t say anything about Chevy, to no surprise. When it came to Aykroyd, he said “You know, when Harold Ramis was about to die, I realized a few things about myself. We hadn’t spoken in 20 years, and I didn’t care if I ever talked to him again. Then someone told me that if I don’t do it now, I’m gonna regret it when he’s gone.” Maybe it was the four shots of tequila he had in 15 minutes, but his eyes welled up here, “We talked for hours,” he sighed. “I went out to his house and had lunch…it was like we didn’t miss a beat. He was such a funny guy. And a great friend even when we weren’t talking.” He paused. “I think if Dan gets sick I’d just live with the regret.”

Murray had a couple more shots of the AsomBroso. I was still recovering from the first (that 100% blue agave is no joke). He said something about Hunter S. Thompson being really cool and I realized I’d totally forgotten that he played the gonzo journalist in the movie Where The Buffalo Roam. When I asked him about making that film, he got really quiet.

He was looking up at the stage where Hogtown Syncopators lead guitarist was finishing up a 20 minute solo on “Cherry Red Wine,” but he wasn’t listening. The bottle was now firmly in his hand, taking pull after pull off the manly bottle. He looked straight ahead for a long time. Maybe it was only a couple of minutes, but it felt like lifetimes passed before he spoke again.

“Thirty-four years,” he said softly and to no one in particular. “Thirty-four goddam years.” He put his hands to his forehead as if to pull his brain out to stop it from running over whatever he was thinking again and again. His demeanor had changed drastically from amiable and fun to that of a hysterical new widow whose husband had just been shot in front of her. He was murmuring something under his breath I couldn’t make out. I asked if there was anything I could do and he yelled out in anguish.

The whole bar turned around to see what was going on. Hogtown Syncopators stopped playing, like someone had lifted the needle on their backing track. Still, no one recognized Murray. It was as of we were living in some alternate universe. “He’s fine,” I lied. “Just too much AsomBroso.” I smiled as they all turned back and the band went back to the 70-minute jam that I think started as “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss,” but it had twisted into some weird Canadian song and I lost interest.

I was starting to get a little freaked out as Murray sobbed uncontrollably. “Bill. What’s happening? Are you okay?” He pulled my shirt and tugged my head in close to his. “I’m a liar,” he yelled. “I’ve been lying all night! Iv been lying my entire life!” My attempts at calming him were clearly not working, so I just rolled with it. “Of course you’re a liar, Bill. You’re an actor. That’s your job and you’re great at it.” Now he looked me dead in the eyes and I could tell he was not amused by my comment.

“My name isn’t Bill Murray. I’m not from Wilmette. I’m from Bend, Oregon and my name is…” If this was a joke, my drinking companion surely wasn’t letting on. He struggled for a minute before starting again. “My name…is…Keith Strandson. I roadied for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the late 60’s. Neil did the music for Where The Buffalo Roam, and they called me up after…” He stopped cold and looked away again, my head still resting inches from his. “After what, Bill!” I yelled a bit louder than I had intended, but the place didn’t come to a half like it had earlier.

Bill or Keith or whoever this guy was let go of my shirt finally. I moved back a little bit, but not all the way across the booth. I wanted to be able to see this man’s eyes whenever he got the gumption to tell me what in the hell was happening.

“I shouldn’t say anything. I’ve been drinking a lot…just forget I said anything.” He flashed a pirate smile and put the near empty bottle back on the table. There had to be more to this story, so I just asked him flat out with a stern look in my eye and a whispered scream, “Look, man. You had me give my credit card to the bartender so you could get a bottle of tequila that costs god knows how many thousands of dollars, and I was willing to go into a great deal of debt because I was hanging out with Bill Murray! If you’re some impostor you need to tell me right freaking now!”

“I’m not an impostor,” he assured me. “I am the Bill Murray that you know from such films as Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Rushmore, blah blah blah.” He seemed completely defeated now. He had the look of a man who’s resigned to living in absolute solitude for the rest of his life. “It’s not as simple as that, though. In 1980 things got…complicated.”

My mind was going into overdrive trying to figure out what that could’ve meant. He called the bartender over and ordered another bottle of AsomBroso. He also ordered some mozzarella sticks and when the bartender told him they don’t have that item he said to run someplace that does and bring them back. I didn’t even care about the second bottle of liquor. It’s not like my card can get double declined when we settle up. I had the focus of a million tweens on Adderall as I listened intently to hear this tale unfold.

“When Bill came to Colorado to work with Hunter, they got along famously,” he began. “Drinking, shooting, drugs of all kinds…that was Hunter, you know? He always just did whatever crazy thing he could come up with. So that’s what Bill started doing. One day Neil was up at the ranch, working on some music for the score to the movie and I had tagged along to help out with some equipment. Now, at this point they had just about wrapped shooting the thing so Bill wasn’t around much. We spent a couple days up there, and Hunter took a liking to me for some reason. He told me multiple times, ‘Boy you look just like Billy.”

“We were almost done and Bill had to come back to shoot a couple of establishing shots that Art Linson wanted to use. So he came by and it was me, Neil, Hunter, and Bill. We went for a drive after Bill finished up his day and we ended up out in the mountains somewhere.” He stopped to open the new bottle of tequila and take a swig. I have no idea how he managed to keep talking. I would’ve passed out half a bottle ago.

“Neil saw an elk in the woods and told Hunter to stop the car. We pulled over and Hunter went around to his trunk and pulled out a giant rifle.” His eyes got big as he made this point, “I mean, this thing would take down an elephant!” Another drink. “We all laughed at how ridiculous he looked holding such a massive firearm. Neil said something about how tiny Hunter’s hands looked and Bill chimed in, calling out how ladylike his fingers looked on the trigger.” I felt like something big was about to happen, big I couldn’t quite figure it out.

“Hunter told Bill he thought he saw the elk go behind a bunch of trees and that he should go spook it out.” Here it comes. The eyes welling up again. “Bill didn’t hesitate for a second and got out of the old Buick. He walked briskly out into the woods and started laughing, like he saw two bears doing it or something. Hunter let out a scream and then fired into the trees. I was looking for the elk but I never saw it.” My mouth hits the floor.

“Neil yelled out ‘What are you doing you crazy bastard?!?!?!!’ but it was already done. Hunter walked out into the woods slowly as Neil and I freaked out in the car. He walked back even slower, with something draped around his body like a cape. It wasn’t until he got closer that…” He stopped again. Chugged on the bottle for a long time. Wiped away the tears on his face and began again.

“We could see that it was…it was Bill. Dead cold. Hunter shot him right in the neck. Neil glared at me with a look that said ‘keep your mouth shut’ and I was in such a state of shock that I probably couldn’t say anything anyway.”

“We drove back to the ranch in silence. When we pulled up the driveway, Neil said ‘Do you have any kind of plan for what we’re gonna do now? You just killed a movie star!’ Hunter wasn’t having it though. He just said ‘Movie stars are a dime a dozen. We’ll just fix up the kid here. He already looks just like Bill.’ Neil didn’t think this was a great idea, but I agreed out of fear that one of us would be next. Hunter called a friend of his and the next day I had a new haircut, new clothes, and Bill Murray’s wallet.”

My mind can’t process this information at the time, so I just say “And then?” as if this is all totally normal.

Stripes and Caddyshack were both already shot, so I could coast for a while. I acted a bit in high school, and Hunter got me a coach to help me be more like the real Bill Murray. At the time, Bill had only done a couple seasons of SNL and a few movies. I mean, by now who is the real Bill Murray? Would his career have lasted so long if I hadn’t taken over? You never know. I didn’t really have to work until Tootsie, and I mean, if you can’t deliver a good performance for Sydney Pollack you’re not an actor anyway.”

At this point he was starting to perk up again. He didn’t seem like he felt they had done anything wrong. In fact, he was talking like it was a good thing that Hunter Thompson had brutally murdered Bill Murray so that this Keith whatever could go on and have a long career as a film actor.

I decided to call it a night even though “Bill Murray” wanted to stay and talk more. He thanked me for being such a good listener. I honestly couldn’t decide what was happening. Was this guy really telling me that he assumed Bill Murray’s identity in 1980, so every performance since then has actually been a fraud, or was the real Bill Murray just screwing with me?

It’s been two months and I still don’t know if I believe it or not. I’ve been re-watching a lot of Murray’s movies, and I think from now I’m I’ll consider myself a fan of Meatballs-era Murray and that’s it. I do know that when I left that bar I called my credit card company and reported my card stolen. No way that experience was worth ten grand.