Actor Michael O’Keefe shares an excerpt from his memoir in progress.
I want you to know two little known facts about me. One: I don’t like name-dropping. Hate it. Loathe it. Abhor it. Really. And I don’t like name-droppers either. Shameless people. Avoid them at all costs.
Secondly, Bonnie Raitt is my ex-wife. Pretty cool. Right? I know.
We divorced in 2000, after nine years of marriage and over a decade of being together. Because we had a prenup, it was a relatively simple chore. Aside from my devastating sense of failure, loss, shame, my deplorable behavior leading up to the divorce, her understandable rage, and her excoriating manner, (I mean, that girl can talk smack that only blues musicians adept at the dozens could truly appreciate), it was no big thing. Ahem.
When we met, we fell very much into ‘A Thing Called Love,’ which gave Bonnie ‘Something To Talk About,’ and, you can probably guess where I’m headed here, something to sing about.
Allow me to give you an inside look at that phenomena the partners of Rock Stars are all too familiar with but fans can only guess at. While I was not quite the Yoko Ono of my generation, thankfully, and can’t claim to have broken up the Beatles, I did break up with Bonnie Raitt. And she sang about our life and me for a decade or so.
I went from a VIP pass holder, which included, dinners at the Springsteens, touring with Clapton, and front row seats at the Grammys, and Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, to that fucking asshole who broke Bonnie Raitt’s heart. But that story, like all stories, is something of a one-sided one, told in the glare of the light favored by those who had a vested interest in the perpetuation Bonnie’s rising star. There’s another version and it goes something like this.
Nick of Time. Bonnie wrote that before we met; it’s an upbeat number about choices being hard to make and, “life being mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” Initially, you may think that “finding love in the nick of time” might be a reference to a lover of Bonnie’s who came along and showed her, “how to leave it all behind,” and much to her surprise she found love in the nick of time.
But this song is not about a person. It’s about reaching a bottom when all attempts to medicate, and alleviate, the suffering we all endure fail. For lack of a better phrase: it’s about finding God. Not an easy thing to do, or even admit; particularly difficult for slide guitar players fond of keeping a hip flask of Jim Beam handy.
Before that record took off enter “Me.” I’m happy to report Bonnie hit on me at a fundraiser for the homeless. Yes, like so many young lovers of our generation, we owe our introduction to the Republican Party’s domestic policies.
I wooed her, she wowed me, it all happened like it’s supposed to and I moved in.
One day I came home to find her at the dining room table with a large pile of mail, two-dozen roses, and a Mona Lisa grin.
“What’s up?” I said, aware that something was out of the ordinary.
“Oh,” Bonnie began nonchalantly, “talked to my Dad. We made dinner plans for tonight. Got nominated for four Grammys. Elton John sent me these flowers. And I’m doing laundry. Got any whites that need cleaning?”
“Wait a minute, can we go back to the four Grammy thing?”
She won them all. That was a pretty good night.
On New Year’s Eve that year Bonnie played a gig with the Grateful Dead in Oakland. One minute I’m hanging out with Jane Fonda, Bonnie’s singing, Cry on my Shoulder directly to me, and the next morning she’s looking at me like I just sold her dog into white poodle slavery.
“Odd,” I thought. “Aren’t we supposed to be in love?”
That night I didn’t sleep; instead I wrote, “One Part Be My Lover,” which Bonnie cut on “Luck of the Draw.” About her I wrote, “To her he might be the man of her dreams to find where she’s been hiding inside. Broken or battered, it really don’t matter, her heart’s like a wave and he’s the tide.”
About myself, “He’s like a boxer who had to retire after winning but killing a man. He’s got all of the moves and none of the courage. Afraid to throw a punch that might land.”
About us, “They’re not forever, they’re just for today. One part be my lover, one part go away.”
Love is fine while you want it; once you get it, it can scare the hell out of you.
After Bonnie wrote a haunting melody with pennywhistle ghosts blowing through we realized we were not only pretty good together, but wrote well together too.
One thing led to another and I wrote, “Longing in Their Hearts,” which Bonnie won a Grammy for.
“Let me tell you ‘bout a friend of mine; he’s a short order cook. Long on speed, short on spice, he reads his customers like a book. He’s seen this, he’s done that, he’s made fried eggs an art. But there’s one thing he can’t fix no how, there’s a longing in his heart.” That thing about wanting love not being love is a favorite theme of mine.
After the female side of the story Bonnie sang, “Well, you and me we’re just like them, we never wanted to be alone. So, we made a pact sealed with desire for a happier house and home. Only to find it doesn’t untie the knot where feelings die. There’s a longing deep inside our hearts and no one to tell us why.”
We both believed that you can’t really make anyone happy but you can try to make yourself happy and share that, which turned out to be easier said than done.
And in that admission was the seed of our undoing.
Back then I knew what I wanted. I wanted Bonnie. What I didn’t know was that I didn’t know that I didn’t know what that meant, who she was, and, more importantly, who I was. See, the man I was at thirty-six, was not the man I thought I was. And now that I’m fifty-seven, married again, and hopefully a skosh wiser, I’m here to tell you unless you know what not knowing means, you have no idea how bad an idea self-knowledge is.
Upon our divorce many of our friends became ‘her friends’ and not ‘my friends.’ This was also true of ‘our house,’ which became, ‘her house,’ and ‘our town,’ which became off-limits. And so I was flung out of my gravitational pattern, spiraled in and out of control, in and out of bars, beds, lives, and loves until I was convinced that my love life most resembled an unfinished August Strindberg play. Something even Strindberg, that Zola of the Occult, found too spooky to take out of the drawer.
Then, I met someone who brought to me, and brought out in me, all those feelings in love’s pantheon, but, if I am to be truthful, had only darted in and out of the night sky before we met. Even Bonnie’s star paled in comparison when my wife Emily’s light lit my life.
That was over two years ago. And, as you can imagine, I not only want to appear different, but be different. Does this essay make me look fat? No? Thanks. Really.
Anyway, Bonnie and I got over the initial hurt and have always been in touch. She had a rough run of death recently, losing both her parents, one to stroke, one to Alzheimers, her brother to brain cancer, and her best friend to another horrible cancer. When these folks passed I wrote that no matter how much she struggled with her parents her passion for reaching out to them was evident and meaningful. No matter how painful the loss of her beloved brother Steve hurt, he died knowing that his sister adored him. And though her friend, and mine, Stephen Bruton, died an agonizing death he closed his eyes one day knowing that his best friend was there to take care of his legacy. I loved all those people too, and I was one of the few people that could remind Bonnie that her loves were their loves. That’s a pretty good thing.
When Bonnie made her first record in seven years she called me to say, “Baby, I’m so miserable without you it’s just like having you here.” Actually, she didn’t say that. She said, “I’m cutting one of your songs on my record. Wanna come to my show at the Greek.”
“Wow,” I replied. “Maybe we should have lunch first to break the ice,” which we did on my birthday. After reminiscing for two hours we left the waterside restaurant, and took a walk on the San Francisco Bay. It was there I said the words, “Bonnie, I love you.” She replied, “Michael, I love you too.” I never thought the day would come. But that’s redemption for you. And for Bonnie and me too.
Michael O’Keefe is a Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated actor best known for his work in Caddyshack, The Great Santini, A Rumor of War, Split Image, Nate and Hayes, Michael Clayton, Ironweed, and The Pledge. He was a regular on Roseanne and has also made guest appearances on M.A.S.H., The Waltons, The West Wing, Law & Order, Ghost Whisperer, and numerous others. He has appeared on Broadway in Reckless, Side Man, The Fifth of July, and Mass Appeal, for which he earned a Theater World Award. His lyric writing credits including the Grammy winning “Longing in Their Hearts.” He has an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College.