“I’m Going to Make a Fire”: The Transmogrifications of Gary Leib




ON MAY 15, 2021, I wrote an email to a dead man. The man was the musician, artist, and animator Gary Leib.

In the message, I asked Gary if he would create an animation to mark the release of a forthcoming book of essays I’d worked on with the philosopher Simon Critchley.

Gary and I had collaborated this way before, in 2015, when I commissioned him to make a short trailer about the origins of philosophy for another collection I’d co-edited with Simon, The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments. That whole enterprise, from brainstorm to final cut, had been a success, and I hoped we could do it again.

It was a little more than a year since the pandemic had slammed New York City shut, and we seemed to be emerging from isolation at last. The door to spring was opening and I was beginning to feel joy again, to feel the itch of creativity inside me. And so I composed the message to Gary, a little self-consciously, in an offhand, optimistic tone.

Subject: Checking In

Hey Gary,

Just been thinking about you. And wanted to say hi. Hope you and your family are well. I am still on Grand Street. Would love to catch up and/or talk about doing some work together sometime.

I told him about the book and wrote, “If I could have somebody illustrate my mind, it would definitely be you.” I signed it “More soon,” and hit send.

#phenakistoscope from Gary Leib
“Skeleton Pie” by Gary Leib

Right away, I began looking forward to his reply. Everything Gary did — even writing obligatory emails to the likes of me — carried a certain Garyness, a spirit of wit and play, of mischief and adolescent delight. I wanted to work with him again, not only because of his genius-level skill as an animator, but because I knew it would be fun.

When two weeks had passed without a reply, I did what you do when you write to someone during a pandemic and don’t hear back. You check the internet to see if they are dead.

It took .65 seconds for the internet to deliver the news: Gary had died, very suddenly, of a heart attack, on March 19, 2021. He was 65.

Shit. Was this right? Usually when you check the internet to see if someone has died, you find they have not. The person is just fine. That is the way it is supposed to go. You’d just let your imagination run away with you. Your search ends in relief.

To say I was completely surprised that Gary was dead would be a lie. In the two-week silence that had passed, the fear had been there, but it was mostly subliminal, growing somewhere back in my lizard brain, where the phantasmagorical characters and creatures Gary created in his work always seemed to proliferate and gleefully reside.

“Page of Idiots,” from the notebooks.

I did the math. At the moment I hit the send button on my forward-looking, optimistic email Gary had been dead for 53 days. For nearly eight weeks he’d been — where? In the ground? In a box? In the next realm? The Bardo? The in-between? The message still sits in Gary’s inbox, unopened.

What happens to messages to the dead?

Perhaps because I got to see Gary’s work and artistic process up close — if only in glimpses — I knew he was a genius. I assumed that this was common knowledge and expected that his passing would be widely noted. There were obituaries in Comics Journal, Brooklyn Vegan, Pitchfork — the latter illustrated with a fine recent photographic portrait of Gary by Orestes Gonzalez in front of the watery industrial landscape of Long Island City, his trademark smile framed by a silvery pandemic beard and wisps of his gray hair flapping in the wind. A slightly older, pandemic-worn Gary than I remembered. There was no Times obit, no New Yorker squib.

The few obits I could find compressed the achievements of Gary’s life into a tight space: born in Chicago. Studied at Rhode Island School of Design. Moved to New York. Played in the Grammy-nominated group Rubber Rodeo in the 1980s and lately in ambient country band SUSS. Founded his own studio, Twinkle, produced animation for the feature films American Splendor and American Ultra. Co-authored the popular comic book Idiotland with Doug Allen. Work appeared in The Times, The New Yorker. Taught at Parsons School of Design and Montclair State. And so on.

Looking for more, I eventually I found my way to a moving remembrance page with reflections from family, friends, students, and fans, of which Gary had many. There the depth of his loss was movingly captured. It was comforting to spend some time with this tribute, an electronic version of the posterboard at an IRL funeral, with old pictures of the departed enjoying life, handwritten messages, and construction paper hearts, a place of pure, unedited appreciation and praise.

Here there were no sad stories. To these folks, Gary was a friend, a rabbi, a “radiant presence.” His friend David Greenberger wrote the line that seemed to capture all of it: “He was the guy with the keys to the sunshine.”

I took note: here was evidence that Gary was truly loved during his time on earth. His mourners were actually celebrants. They resurrected a man with a prolific, uncategorizable imagination, an unstoppable creative energy, but an eager, loving, childlike one whose motivation for all of it seemed to be enjoyment. Fun.

That word again: fun. It sounds trite here as I try to make sense of a gifted man’s untimely death. But fun is one of those words that gathers more meaning the older you get. Over time it grows less akin to words like amusing, enjoyable, entertaining, and more to words like joyful, healing, life-sustaining, ecstatic. Having arrived at what you expect to be the last quarter of your life, with the proverbial clock ticking, fun is no longer just a way to unwind. It is something sacred, profound. In writing to Gary again as we edged back into life I was asking if he would help return me to that place. The hard-to-find place where being grown up and fun meet.

In the days after I learned of Gary’s death I went about my business. I wrote a note to Simon with the bad news: “It’s shit. I’m so sick about it. Incredible fucking guy. This is not right in the universe.” Simon replied: “It’s awful. Really awful. What a lovely man.” It seems that was all we could say.

I returned to work, a little sorrowful, but intact. I soon realized, though, that Gary’s death was affecting me more deeply than I’d expected. I moved from the initial gut shock to a deep, unfamiliar sadness that would spontaneously rupture without warning. On the long, liberating spring walks I’d been taking throughout Downtown Manhattan as the pandemic numbers eased, I’d feel an unregulated emotion coming upon me, the urge to punch something — the light pole, the plywood shed in front of me. To punch the universe, to punch God.

What was this? Did I even have the right? The truth is that Gary and I weren’t “close.” Plus — do I really need to say this as we remain in the throes of a global pandemic? — people die all the time. All. The. Time. According to my last visit to the World Death Clock, they are dying at the rate of about 1.8 per second, or 106 per minute, which means in the time it will take you to read this sentence — from the word “according” to the word “breath” — about 20 people will have taken their last breath.

So why do I give a shit? Why am I so torn up about the death of this one guy?

I’m not sure.

Detail of a still from An Unnatural History of Wall Street, by Gary Leib. Source: vimeo.com/59179607

Gary and I first met in 2008, when he was creating a series of short animations for the New York Times Opinion section. The series was called Concrete Jumble and consisted of a few one- to two-minute clips of nonstop polymorphic weirdness and humor, ostensibly depicting the birth and development of various neighborhoods in New York — An Unnatural History of Wall Street, A History of the Meatpacking District. Gary loved New York. It was all over his work. The absurd, brutal ravenousness of the Metropolis, its illogic, glory. When the series ended, I sent him a fan note, telling him how much I liked his work.

We kept in occasional touch as the years passed. But it was in 2015, as the publication date of The Stone Reader approached, that I got the idea for the animation. I never considered anyone but Gary. I proposed we meet in person and talk it over. Logistically, this would be easy. Gary and I both lived on Grand Street in Manhattan: he on the west side, I on the east. I invited him for lunch at my apartment. This was not like me. I am not the kind of person who invites people to his apartment for lunch. But on this day, I felt expansive, enthusiastic. I thought, sort of Mayberry-like, “Well, gosh, why not? We’re neighbors. And it’s Gary!”

On the appointed day, Gary arrived at the lobby of my building punctually, and I buzzed him in. Despite the high spirits that had inspired my invitation, I began to feel tense and awkward. This would be the first time the two of us spoke face-to-face, without distraction. A little wave of panic worked its way from my stomach to my chest. (Unexplained social anxiety — free-floating, detached from the actual — is one of the burdens of being me.) What if, in the absence of other people, of drinks or music to divert us, our conversation went flat? What if he found me pedestrian or boring? A real artist encountering a charlatan, an insufferable journalist, a wannabe? What if there was actually nothing to say?

I opened the door and invited Gary into my heretofore closed and private space. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. I said something like they do on TV when a guest arrives — “Make yourself comfortable.” Really? Gary, who was neither short nor talI, his wavy brown hair now half-gray, reminded me of an aging version of the Jewish and Italian kids I grew up with in Brooklyn and Staten Island — the kind who would constantly get sent to detention in school for genuinely funny pranks and backtalk but whose grades were too good to allow the trouble to stick. That made me feel at ease.

Gary sat down, and I set out lunch. It wasn’t fancy but it was good stuff: a batch of chicken salad I’d made, some sliced tomatoes and pickles on a plate, and half a loaf of rye bread from Moishe’s Bakery down the street. I knew that Gary was from Chicago, not New York, but that seemed to be some sort of cosmic error. He was a neighborhood guy, through and through. An overly fancy or pre-made lunch wouldn’t do. I was treating this meeting — a rare, uninterrupted block of time devoted to the creation of something new — as special. We commenced assembling our sandwiches, noshing on the pickles, and talking.

Our conversation was easy, entirely natural, as my logical brain knew it would be. I was very conscious of Gary’s status as a working artist, and of mine as mere a worker, an employee of an institution. The artist’s calling was higher. But Gary’s manner had dispersed my anxiety. I attribute this at least partly to the fact that he smiled a lot. Not a forced, social kind of smile. But one I still can’t quite describe. Mischievous? Maybe. Wry is not quite right, but not wrong either. Impish? That’s closer, but incomplete. The smile made me feel as though he was about to furtively slip me the latest issue of Mad Magazine under the desk in the back of math class. It was a “wipe that smirk off your face, young man” kind of expression. Naughty, but also beatific, emanating a field of positive energy, the sort of aura to which I had always aspired but never achieved because I was too beholden to expectations — too fearful, too uptight.

In simpler terms, we were two middle-aged guys who liked the same things. Food was one of them: I make a decent chicken salad, and he said so. We talked about good places to eat in the neighborhood. I told him about the tour buses idling outside Kossar’s and Russ and Daughters, and Yonah Schimmel, spilling tourists on to the sidewalks. I thought he might be sad that the Jewish food culture of the Lower East Side had been commodified. But he wasn’t. He thought it was funny.

Also, not inconsequentially, we were dads. We each had a daughter. Mine was entering high school, unsure of where she should or would go. He had been through this. His was at college, but had done a stint at Bard, a rigorous public high associated with the college of the same name that was run like an academic fantasy camp, with political science seminars and instructors with advanced degrees. The place thrilled him — the intellectually hungry, nerdy kid in him wished he could go back to school.

“I was all in,” he told me. “I was ready to start showing up with the brownies and the casserole dish.” But his daughter hated it and transferred. They were their own people, these young women, these magically powerful creatures. We just loved them and that was that.

Eventually we got down to business. We talked about art, rock bands, animation, philosophy — about Mad Libs, Marvel and Tarkovsky, the Velvets and Glenn Branca and the weird loft performances and art and happenings of the ’70s and ’80s, some of which I was too young to experience firsthand but loved just the same because it all made me feel that I belonged here, that it was part of my heritage as a child of New York, the city that had raised me and now held the gentler, grayer me in its arms.

I proposed my idea for the Stone Reader clip — a one-minute rapid-fire animation, the sort he was already well known for. Gary had a notebook which he had opened on the table, already populated by a menagerie of faces, bodies, body parts, objects, expressions (I later learned he had hundreds of them, filled with sketches from front to back). Every now and then he drew while we spoke. I scribbled my own notes, a stream-of-consciousness storyboard of sorts:

Stone evolves, becomes man (in 2-3 seconds)
Man bangs head on Stone
Man kills fly/spanks kid/hits puppy/kills mastodon, feels guilt, questions self
Sky. Blue. Why?
Big Little Inconsequential Meaningless.
Love! Not practical.
Lie.
Make your bed. Lie in it.
More soon.

Gary liked that. He got it. When we were done eating and all talked out, we shook hands on the assignment and he went home. A few weeks later, when I checked in on his progress, he wrote, “It’s going great! I’m into it in a big way!”

Things moved quickly after that. We got permission from the musical group Matmos to use a bit from one of their tracks, “Rainbow Flag.” When he sent me the rough cut, I flipped and immediately sent it to Simon, with a note: “Fucking genius, it’s going to be great.” And to Gary I wrote, “I love it so much I may cry.”

I might have been overreacting a bit. This wasn’t Fantasia, but the way it went from odd notion to fully realized thing, with no intervention from the usual soul-crushing gatekeepers, truly excited me. 

During the making of the animation, Gary and I had discovered a sort of harmony, a creative compatibility that surprised me and awoke an impulse that had been muted by 20 years of responsible job holding and text editing for the public. With Gary, my job was to be myself — my creative self. Not the New York Times editor I had spent nearly half my life working to become. For two decades, I had been helping others with their writing, always clarifying, always aspiring toward logical reasoning, more sense, more fairness, more circumspection, more clarity. With Gary, I could throw that out the window and just start riffing.

Detail of a still from The Stone Reader trailer by Gary Leib

The finished product featured a pulsing rock floating in space, a screaming gorilla head, a caveman banging his head against a boulder, a light bulb, a fish, a pack of Camels, a melting gun, and a saber-toothed tiger — a head-spinning sendup of the absurdity and danger of human curiosity. When it was finished we published it on the book’s website, and Gary posted his version on Vimeo. We gave it a title: Question Everything.

After that we stayed in touch. We traded news about our families and creative plans, especially his work as a member of the “ambient country” band SUSS. When Gary undertook one his favorite rituals — decorating the Halloween window at Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn — he made sure to invite me. For Gary, Halloween was a high holiday, a time when his weird, ghoulish, and wildly fertile imagination could run dark and wild. When I found time to write and publish a short essay or perform in one of the music improv groups I cycled in and out of over the years, I let Gary know, too. One night in 2017, Simon and I went to 2A, a bar in the East Village where I had spent many an early morning hour in the 1990s, when I was playing in bands myself, to see him project a video stream behind his bandmates performing bluegrass versions of Velvet Underground covers — Velveeta Underground. The crowd was a mix of young and old. No one in the room was trying to “make it.” We were just present, sailing on a sea of gorgeous weirdness, of steel pedal sound and light, with no purpose but joy, on an otherwise uneventful night.

After the 2A show, I remember thinking: this is so odd, I am actually excited to have a new friend. It was very middle school. I thought all that was done. At 50, sure, I loved my family and friends, such as they were, but I couldn’t say I was a big fan of people in general. I never wrote in my journal on New Year’s Day, I really need to get out there and meet new people. Make new friends! But there I was, kind of excited.

A Halloween window at Desert Island Comics, designed by Gary Leib

Over the years, there were unplanned encounters with Gary, too. These little moments were superficially mundane, but they thrilled me, perhaps because they seemed to thrill him. And they often seem to involve food. (I only had to watch his bizarre and hilarious video 101 Quick and Simple Dishes for Fall, to understand the depth of his obsession with it.) I ran into him accidentally one evening in Taïm in Soho, waiting on our falafel. We both knew this was the best falafel that could be had by ordinary people in New York. He lived down the block. I had walked the mile there — in Manhattan, that’s a “special trip.” Another thing in common! An arcane knowledge we shared. For no particular reason, I remember exactly what he said when we spotted each other there: “Oh yeah. It’s one of the best things you can eat.” In his emails, he would sometimes mention the pretzels, schnitzel, and beer we had in the now-defunct German-themed beer hall Paulaner on Allen Street the year before — “Let’s go schnitzel!” he would plead. Maybe it was Chicago soul food for him. His mysterious depths as an artist had not sullied his ability to relish the transcendent glory of warm pretzels and beer. An American Buddha.

As I thought more about Gary’s death, it became clear that I had my own reasons for taking it so hard. I had begun to see our friendship as something that would be a part of my aging happily in New York — a slightly more irreverent and cosmopolitan version of the radiant later-in-life health they sell you in AARP The Magazine. Stupid, right? I imagined us sitting over sandwiches in Katz’s or at the counter of B&H Dairy or shooting the shit in dive bars with other fellow travelers, being joyously crotchety and unattractive, happily retired or unemployed. I was mourning not just the man, but the life I thought I was going to have with him in it.

Getting old didn’t seem to bother Gary. Being friends with him was going to make getting old more bearable. But now that he’s dead things are starting to look fucking miserable again.

“Dateless Overlord,” from the notebooks

This is how Gary died.

He was at a house in Upstate New York with his wife, Judy Glantzman. He had just come down the stairs of the house when she heard him say from another room, “I’m going to make a fire.” There was a bang and a sort of crash, the sound of Gary collapsing. She rushed in and brought him to the couch and stayed with him until the medics arrived. By then, he was already gone. I could not help thinking that the speed with which Gary had died was somehow in keeping with his work — hyperkinetic, sometimes dervish-like animations, in which characters and objects are conjured, obliterated, and transformed in the passing of seconds.

I am going to make a fire.

To the extent that I can, I put the death scene out of my mind. And instead I find myself thinking about the email, about the pathos of my writing to Gary at that moment, in my ignorance, my attempt to reach him long after he’d died, and that message’s journey through the digital ether, landing with a thud in his inbox, then sitting there unopened, with its fun and breezy tone, its hopefulness, unread, while poor Gary lay dead.

What would Gary think of this — my writing a note to a dead man who I thought was alive? Was it terrible or funny? Look at his work, I told myself. What I knew of Gary told me yes, it was funny. Beckett funny. “Life is brutal and sucks” funny.

Lately, I’ve been imagining how Gary would animate this predicament. It goes something like this:

Scene: A simply drawn, middle-aged man (me), hunched over a laptop under a bare, pulsing light bulb hanging from the ceiling of a drab room in an undersized Manhattan apartment. Beads of sweat leap from his forehead. Typing. Stopping. Typing. Tap tapping. Types: “More soon.” Hits send. A paper airplane leaps out of the laptop, circles, and swoops around the room once or twice, then sails out the window of the apartment building, zooming through a landscape of skyscrapers, then up higher into the stratosphere, and higher into the ether, through the empyrean cities of email servers, then swooping back down to Grand Street, among apartment buildings dotted with luminous windows, and in each window, each yellow rectangle, mundane New York residents going about the mundane business of their lives, washing dishes, feeding cats. A couple kisses good night. Curious pigeons peer out from ledges, perplexed, as though questioning the likelihood of New York. The paper airplane finds its way to the open window of the intended recipient (Gary), sprawled on the floor, motionless, open notebook in hand, with some telltale sign of his physical state — a limb with rigor mortis, a few flies buzzing around his body, a dog sitting patiently by his side, waiting to be walked.

Zoom to the open page of the notebook. On it is the same scene, a mirror: Gary sprawled on the floor, open notebook in hand, a limb with rigor mortis, a few flies buzzing around his body, a dog sitting patiently by his side, waiting to be walked. And so on and so on.

I can transform the bare facts of Gary’s death this way for a little while. Not for long. I take things too seriously. I am not in the Bardo. I still have both feet in the world. And so, I move quickly to the shock of his family: his wife, in whose arms he died. His daughter, going on without her father, the man who would love her more than any other man who walked the earth.

Ultimately I believe that Gary would embrace the dark comedy of this situation because his work was not an artistic pose. The pulsating, adrenaline-fueled, bug-eyed, and macabre sense of humor that drove his animations were in fact a worldview. Among the hapless humans and animals that populated his imagination there also roamed skulls, ironic grim reapers, and playful ghouls. The dead and the living hung together, held hands, partied together. They were equals, one and the same. Death was woven into the fabric of life, everywhere.

These death messengers were not there just for laughs. They were there to remind us, like the skulls in the far corners of Flemish paintings, that the laughter, at least as we know it, would one day end. But would the end of that laughter, too, be funny? Another kind of funny, a funny that collapses on itself, so compressed by grief that it implodes into a kind of next-cosmic-plane confetti or Silly String?

“Inked Idiots,” from one of Gary Leib’s notebooks

Why not?

It was clear that Gary’s art was doing a number on my brain, that it was here outliving his bodily form teaching me and shaping the way I thought about his death, and where all that energy he embodied could possibly be now. It was an art — a world, really — as distinctive as those of more famous cartoonists like Matt Groening or R. Crumb, but with an extra transformative funhouse energy, populated by organisms on a sort of hallucinatory hamster wheel — leaping, throbbing, constantly changing, and replicating. Whirling, squirming, exploding, burning. Nothing standing still. And so on and so on, without end.

So maybe, just maybe, when I wrote “More soon” to my friend who was already dead, it wasn’t an absurd error, a factual mistake. Maybe it was a mantra, or a cartoon arrow pointing “This Way” toward impermanence, toward our ignorance, toward all we do not know. Toward all the hilarious energy in the universe that can never be destroyed.

Gary’s longtime friend and SUSS bandmate Bob Holmes told me that, in the months before Gary died, he was working on a suite of instrumental songs for SUSS. While their songs had previously been composed collaboratively, Gary had gone off more or less by himself with these tracks. He seemed to have disappeared into a place of pure sound. The music was slow, ethereal, elongated. Monk-like, intoning. The songs moved slowly into a space that seemed unchartered, undefined, like a desert with a horizon etched in light. After Gary died, Bob told me, the music began to make perfect sense. He was preparing the soundtrack for his passage to the other side.

I am going to make a fire.

What happens to messages to the dead? I don’t know any more about this than when I started. Maybe, like Gary’s dervishes, they become something else. Devotional essays. Little drawings. Pictures that move. Gestures of friendship or love.

But I do know this. I enjoyed my time with Gary on this plane. And I miss him now because he knew something I knew and I knew that he knew it: that there is a delirious, ecstatic quality to being alive, and to every vibrating molecule and motion on earth, and in the universe, if we would only pause to see it. The fact that we were here to witness it all and push the molecules around a bit was just beyond wonderful. It was a gas. With a friend like this you may drink, socialize, and scheme as you do with any other friend and never talk about philosophy or religion or death or the quantumness of the universe, you will just know it. And this relationship will thus remain simple, always pleasant, never fraught. The beer will always be cold, and the pretzels will always taste great.

Song: “Needles, CA,” by SUSS, courtesy of Northern Spy Records

¤

Peter Catapano is an editor at The New York Times Opinion section and the co-editor four books of essays, including The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments and the forthcoming Question Everything: A Stone Reader.

 

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