A lot of people probably don’t remember John Belushi, but he accomplished the rare trifecta of simultaneously having the number one TV show (“Saturday Night Live”), number one movie (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and number one album (“Briefcase Full of Blues” by the Blues Brothers). He remains a unique figure in American popular culture, both for the way he lived and the way he died.
I was a college freshman when he passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. My whole idea of college, in fact, was formed by Animal House, and I did the best I could to live up to that, to my detriment. I even dated a girl who named her dog Belushi, which she shortened to “Booshy” (one reason we quit dating).
So Belushi, beyond his skill as a performer, represented something to me and my generation. Each generation has a similar tragic icon, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, but those figures always seemed to end up on pedestals; Belushi, on the other hand, seemed to be someone you could approach if you happened to encounter him. Dan Aykroyd called him, “America’s guest.”
In 1984, two years after Belushi’s death, Bob Woodward–half of Woodward and Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame–wrote Wired: the Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. It painted a vivid picture of late 70s/early 80s drug use among celebrities, and pissed off pretty much everyone involved in Belushi’s life. That’s understandable: it focused on everything but the things that made Belushi memorable. Still, it’s a great book as a time capsule, and Woodward managed to get the cooperation of everyone involved in Belushi’s life. (If you can find it, there’s also a movie version, starring Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” as Belushi; it’s not good by any means, but it’s the kind of surreal disaster that has its own entertainment value.)
In 1990, Belushi’s wife Judy wrote the touching memoir Samurai Widow, about life after her husband’s death. And “The Best of John Belushi,” from his years on Saturday Night Live, is a great DVD primer on what made him a star in the first place.
But if you want to know what Belushi was like, and why his loss was indeed a tragedy, you need to seek out the 2005 coffee table book Belushi. It consists entirely of comments and interviews with people who knew him, from his family to co-stars. In fact, the only notable absence is Robert De Niro, who saw Belushi on his last day. It’s also loaded with terrific photos. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years, but I’ve tap-danced around it, because I was pretty sure of the effect it would have. But over these Christmas holidays, I finally read it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. But it’s not an easy book, if you’re old enough to remember Belushi in life.
Doom hangs over it from the start, both because the reader knows what’s coming, and so do most of the commenters. It makes the memories of Belushi’s talent and performances that much more touching and vivid. And that’s where this book exceeds Wired: you do get a sense of the mess Belushi made of his life, and the cost to those around him, but you also understand why it mattered, both to them and to the world at large. It dwells far more on his talent and good qualities than it does his flaws. And it accomplishes the thing tragic biography always should: you miss him when he’s gone. You feel his loss the way you would someone you actually knew.
I was in tears by the time I finished. I cried for the loss of this unique talent, for the pain of those around him, and for the time in my own life that he symbolized and encapsulated.
And then I watched The Blues Brothers.