Talkin' Broadway
Talkin' Broadway

Nik Venet - The Last Session
by Steve Schalchlin

Venet is dead. Nik Venet is dead.

Personally, I didn't know a force of nature could die, but finally, after months of chemo, days of lying in a virtual coma -- Nik Venet, master, artist, iconoclast, True Believer in the art of the song, worshipper of great art, artists and songwriters -- proud, determined, frustrated, peaceful, forceful, opinionated, hilarious, indispensible, irascible, singular, and most of all: Teacher is gone.

It happened mid-afternoon on Friday and soon a storm front moved in to wash away the tears and the tragedy so that El Lay could go on and on just as it always has.

The news was delivered to me by phone. Curiously, I had almost no emotional reaction. I spoke to the newsbearer as dispassionately as if we were discussing recipes or talking about a distant relative we barely knew. But inside, like paper made of sugar, my heart was dissolving and I knew it would soon get to me.

You see, Nik Venet gave me a great gift before he died. Last year, Nik nearly died of stomach cancer and when he attended my birthday concert out on the Santa Monica Pier in October of 1996, he pulled me aside and said, "You know why I've been praising your music so much?"

I said I had no idea. He said, "Because your music made me want to fight to survive." And from that moment, Nik and I had a -- an understanding. It was a moment of true Knowing in the highest and most ontologically possible way.

That gift he gave me was total and true belief in myself -- and in the songs of THE LAST SESSION. People around him will tell you that his love for my songs was uncommon. How so, you may ask? Well, Nik was not known for praise. In fact, he was known for getting in songwriters' faces and telling them they were completely and utterly full of shit if the songs they were writing were not dragged from the deepest part of the most protected and strongly felt corners of their souls.

He could sense a cop-out before you even breathed the words. I watched him take a group of songwriters with talent -- some of whom I thought had only the barest smidgen of talent -- and drag from them words and thoughts and music that were breathtaking in their honesty and heartbreak. He would accept absolutely nothing else.

He made a very large impression on everyone who ever came in contact with him. This is a man who came into New York City with Bobby Darin -- both of them penniless -- and who rented a closet in the Brill Building as their office, the 20 year old A&R exec of Capitol Records who signed The Beach Boys, who found Linda Ronstadt...

Nik Venet was a legend who told such incredible stories, you had to simply had to accept them because if it were anybody else telling them, you'd say they was full of shit. Remember back last summer, he casually mentioned that he knew Pablo Picasso? (And I misheard the name as Paul LoBagasso?) Well, do you blame me? Do you expect a person you know as a pal to be talking about hanging out in villas with Pablo Picasso?

Jeff Casey at Evening Star said that for all Nik Venet was, he had this habit of leaving great works of art in his wake. This is a man who could produce the Hello Dolly! cast album and then turn around and find Jim Croce or Don McLean or...

...or Steve Schalchlin and The Last Session.

I used to visit Venet down in the Wilshire District where he held these tempestuous and fascinating songwriting seminars. Like a football coach, he would lecture people on reaching down and discovering truth. He had no time nor patience with anyone who just wanted to write as a lark. If he caught someone slapping out some generic El Lay love song, he'd rip them to shreds. Out on the street corner between sessions, he would smoke cigarettes and keep me in hysterics telling me his mission on earth was to rid the world of bad songwriters.

When I was recording the duet with Harriet Schock on her CD, Rosebud, under the watchful eye of Mr. Venet -- he and I would (again) sneak out to the street corner between takes where he'd smoke and regale me with opinions and stories. He laughed so much and he loved it when I poked fun at him. I think many people were too afraid of him to do this.

More than anything, though, Nik Venet was a very private man. He's the one that's been in the hospital that I've been talking about in this diary -- the one behind the hospital room curtain. I found out only recently that it wasn't so much that he was hiding from the world -- it was doctors orders. No one was allowed in except the people he needed to do business with at Evening Star and Harriet Schock, the woman he loved most in the world.

I told Jeff Casey that in the Myth of Nik Venet, I think I can claim something no one else (that I know) can claim. From the very first day I played him "Connected," until the entire score was written, Nik Venet never gave me one single note. Not one correction. Not one suggestion. Not one criticism. In fact, mirroring what the magazine PAPER just said in describing TLS as the "ultimate AIDS musical," Nik said to me early on at a Songwriter Campfire at Genghis Cohen, "After this, there is nothing else to say."

He co-produced our cast album from his bed. It was he who conceived the graphics for the CD -- faithfully rendered by Scott Wilson. And if you look at the graphics, you'll see something no other cast CD that I know of (by an unknown songwriter) has. It has the composer's big face and arm stretching across the full tri-fold sleeve. This caused no small controversy, by the way.

My last phone conversation with Nik was last month because, to be frank, the packaging embarrassed me. I thought, If people think I've got a big head now, what are they gonna think when they see this?

But he responded: "That arm. That is the arm that has been poked and needled and hooked up to bags and meters. That is the arm that gave blood and felt the pain of near death. There is no other show on Broadway -- maybe in Broadway history -- where you have a biography of a person who is still alive. But it's also about the kid next door. It could be anyone."

(In fact, the version you see on your CD is a modified version of his original design where he took baby pictures of me, pictures of me in high school, in bowties and splashed the whole inside with them. You can see an earlier original.

Jeff Casey and I spoke about how Nik had this wall around him. A protective, proud wall. I told him I knew Nik had this mythical wall, but that I never saw him this way. I always saw Nik as a big emotional baby. It seemed to me that his walls were total fabrications erected for those who did not have the eyes to see through them.

Jeff, to prove his point, asked me, "Did you ever see Nik cry?"

Immediately, I was returned to that last conversation he and I had. I was in Kim Espy's office with the door closed. My purpose in calling him was to get him to back down and let us put more pictures of the cast on the CD fold-out. I told him I feared others who did not know me would assume I had engineered this "Steve Tribute" in order to take the spotlight away from Jimmy and the others.

But he wouldn't have any of it. He was adamant. He would brook no compromise. Once I realized I was not going to change his mind, we let the issue pass. Then, with tears in my eyes and a huge lump forming in my throat, I simply said to him, "I miss you."

And with that, I heard huge heaving sobs come through the phone. "Oh, Stevie," he cried out almost wailing, "What they've done to me. There are people putting their hands on me and cleaning me. There are needles hanging from every vein. I can't stand for anyone to see me..." (...except for his beloved Harriet who stayed by his side faithfully for months on end.)

And from the bottom of his soul, a primal weeping emerged from that little phone and shook the building. My heart was ripped from me because I knew this very proud man. This man who never backed down, who never gave in, who would not cry for anyone, was trapped in what for him was the ultimate physical indignity -- an emotional and psychic pain that cannot be described or shared.

Unless you've been there.

The Last Session was his last great mission. He believed in it as much or more than anything he had ever "discovered," and Jeff Casey said to me that he had only seen Nik cry once in his long association. It was when Jeff brought the final mix of the cast album into his room and played it for him.

What gift did Nik give me? He gave me the gift of truly believing in myself and what I was capable of. Not that I didn't already believe or that others hadn't also given me confidence, but when you get a person like Nik, who "hated everything," whose standards were so high they were barely perceptible by those who are only looking for a good beat and a catchy hook -- when someone you know will NEVER bullshit you, tells you you have created a masterpiece of songwriting...

..the whole world opens up. I told Jeff that "Save Me A Seat," while not written about Nik, *IS* Nik. Somewhere, somehow, we'll probably have a memorial service of some kind. And somewhere, somehow Nik will hear about it and watch, but I promise you.. as soon as one single person launches into a "...he was the greatest man I knew" speech, Nik will be out of there, standing on the street corner, smoking a cigarette and laughing at himself, at the world, and at us.

I would like to thank Steve Schalchlin, the lyricist and composer for The Last Session for writing this tribute and, unknowingly, column for Talkin' Broadway. For those of us who did not know Nik personally, let Steve's words act as a love letter to a truly great man who has made a difference in this world.

Thank you Steve, and thank you Nik.

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