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
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
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
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
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
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
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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