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the vice reader

The Origin of JANE, the Hollywood Cowboy

James Franco wrote us a short story inspired by his upcoming film with Gia Coppola that explores the genesis of JANE, the Hollywood Cowboy—a Ziggy Stardust–style rock 'n' roll Jesus who embodies the best and the worst of us.

by James Franco
Sep 9 2014, 1:40pm

I’m a funny guy. I’m not a comedian, just a clown. I don’t care what you think about me. I’m like a photograph... a series of fucked-up photographs: a knife going into a person; a black-and-white shot of a kid in a trailer; a faded and stained image of an arm with a needle in it and a tattoo of a heart that says “Sandy”; a pink milkshake; and some palm trees against a light blue sky. That’s how I think of myself. I am paradise and the skids; heaven and hell; the satisfying feeling of seeing two lit-up signs outside 7-Eleven—the light blue ICE sign and the oven-red HOT in the hot-dog sign. That’s me. I’m fast food, like a McDonalds burger. I’m the trash mixed with the goody-goodness of those slim burgers. And that’s me too, slim. You can call me slim because I’m a cowboy, a Hollywood cowboy. Because I know that real cowboys are dead and Hollywood is dead, like a wasteland. But it’s one wasteland that I can gallop through with my personality and my tunes and create a mystery that everyone wants to be a part of.

Damn. E’ryone wants a piece.

Jane wrote that for me because I asked him to. It was much later, after the persona of JANE took off—the whole Hollywood Cowboy thing—and he started to really spiral out of control. Or maybe his out-of-control was really in-control? Whatever he did seemed to be what everyone wanted. He was a more popular and more sought-after the more he became like JANE—and the less like Jane or James. I mean, we didn’t even call him James after the first few months. He was just Jane off-stage and JANE on-stage. Whether it is in all-caps or not, it pretty much sounds the same when you say it out loud. So he was JANE all the time. Even from the beginning, he was becoming the creation, and the creation was something that drove him. JANE was something he had created, but had also not created, because it was the public thing, and the public thing had a life of its own. What I mean is that it was created partly by him but partly by what people expected from him. JANE was shaped by who they thought he was.

OK, let me just try to tell the story and then maybe you’ll get the idea.

I was this college graduate. I studied writing and some photography in the East. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do? Just submit to Saturday Night Live and pray they take me? (I did, and they didn’t.) Or intern at the New York Times? (There were about 10 million smarter people who got there first.) Should I have worked at Starbucks and wrote a blog? (I did and nobody read it… Well, my mom read it and got really upset when I wrote about a guy’s crooked penis. I tried to tell her that I had made it up because I was technically a virgin, or at least... Yeah, I was a virgin. It was pathetic.)

I was good at a lot of things and I had a lot of things to say and I was pretty funny, but I guess I was always better when I had other people to work with.

In college I wrote this monologue about this girl who just loves peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, just loves them. I even gave a recipe at the end that I would read to the audience (the two times I was allowed to do it at our scene nights):

THE UTILITARIAN, AMERICAN-STYLE PB&J: AN ARTIST'S BEST FRIEND

I am not much of a cook. Maybe it’s because I don’t remember my mother cooking much when I was young. She cooked a meal every night, but my favorite was always Thursday nights when she would just lay out sandwich fixings with some nice French bread. That was the special meal of the week. And hell, I can’t blame her for not spending time on cooking. She was raising me while still finding time to do her paintings.

She never made me eat school lunches at elementary school. I was spared the sloppy joes and scary-looking meat in the hot lunch tins. Instead, I got the same thing every day: a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on wheat bread. It was a simple and dependable meal (with an apple and a Sunkist juice squeeze) that I could quickly down in order to use the maximum amount of my lunch break to play dodgeball or handball.

The PB&Js continued into junior high (they sold pizza on campus, but it was greasy as shit) and then into high school. I was given lunch money in high school, but I just saved it to buy alcohol on the weekends. And my mother kept making those PB&Js.

I’ve worked on movie sets during summers and stuff. I worked on two Lindsay Lohan movies, as a producer’s assistant. Depending on the size of the movie, the level of snacks can range from a few bags of Doritos and a bowl of carrots (my friends’ student films) to tables full of soups, fine breads, chocolates, candies, and crudités (Mean Girls). I am usually content with a PB&J. It is simple and safe and keeps me going. On a movie set, a PB&J is good around 11 AM, around the time you’ve put in some good work on the first scene. You might think that it will ruin your lunch, but it can actually serve as a pre-lunch. I actually don’t eat a ton on movie sets. And I usually don’t trust the meat (a holdover from my fear of sloppy joes?), so I’m a vegetarian on movie sets and a confirmed PB&J lover.

I think PB&Js go along with my mother’s utilitarian/artistic nature. It’s about the work. So don’t let your food take time away from your writing, or acting, or filmmaking, or whatever. A PB&J is the perfect thing to hold while you're doing other things.

There is nothing like a PB&J. It is sweet and savory. The sticky stuff is kept in check by the fluffy bread, and it all goes down well with a soda. I stopped drinking Diet Coke because of all the chemicals in it, so I drink Ginger Ale. Just thinking about a PB&J and a familiar can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is making me hungry.

Sometimes I even put a pickle on the side. NOT IN the sandwich, just on the side to add a little sour/salty tang to the sweet and savory mix already going on in the sandwich.

PB&J Recipe

Bread: Two slices of wheat bread. Not too thick. You can also lightly toast the bread, but not too dark. You want a soft sandwich to absorb the jelly. If it’s too hard, the fixings will slide out the sides.

Peanut Butter: The key here is the right amount. It should be balanced with the jelly so that neither one overpowers the other. It can be chunky or smooth depending on your preference. Some people like to switch this ingredient out for almond butter or Nutella or some such crap. But I’m a down-to-basics, American kind of gal when it comes to my PB&Js. My preference for wheat bread over white might betray a bit of European pizazz, but that’s where such flashiness ends. A PB&J needs the PB or it ain’t a PB&J!

Jelly: I’m partial to the berries: strawberry, raspberry, or grape. Apricot and orange don’t go well with the peanut butter. So go with the reds and purples and stay away from the orange-colored jellies.

Optional Additions

Ginger Ale: Canada Dry is my preference because it reminds me of picnics on the beach with my family back when my dad was around. But most drinks will go with a PB&J: black coffee, bottled water, Sprite, or even a glass of milk (the old classic).

Pickle: This is my thang. Do not put this in the sandwich. Some people put bananas or potato chips in their PB&Js, but those are not PB&Js. They’re mutations. But a pickle on the side gives a tang of sophistication—a good palate cleanser.

As I said this monologue, I made a PB&J onstage. I had this idea that I would have like 200 of them ready to go beforehand that I could hand out to the audience, since this was a kind of performance-art thing. I thought it’d make everyone happy—art these days doesn’t make people happy enough. I mean, some of it does, but the art that usually tries to make people happy is not really art, it’s just a product, and the people that make it are not really trying to make people happy, they’re just trying to get people to buy whatever it is they’re selling. I’m talking about making people really happy, like the happiness I get eating a PB&J, because it triggers so many memories, the same way that a song will remind you of a time and place.

I didn’t end up making the 200 sandwiches because it would have cost too much money, but that ended up not even mattering because only about 15 people ended up coming to our scene nights. I even made 15 sandwiches the second night after I knew how many people were going to be there, but I left them on the counter in my apartment.

Xavier, my roommate from school, had this little Chihuahua named Tomato that jumped up on the phone books to the trash can to the counter and ate most of the PB&Js, or at least took a bite of each one. Tomato crapped all over the house for two days after that. I heard that peanut butter was bad for dogs, but it was fine for Tomato. Except that he shit everywhere, even in the bathtub. Our other roommate, Alexis, drew a bath that night without knowing the shit was in there. When she got in, the floating turd bumped against her boob. She leapt out, fell, and almost killed Tomato, who always went in the bathroom when water was drawn—the little pervert.

Anyway, I wanted to be a writer or a comedian or something. I would always go to the Comedy Store on Sunset because I was trying to get into their amateur sets. The guy wouldn’t let me do my peanut-butter thing, so I was writing new stuff about being a virgin and lying about seeing crooked penises on my blog and how my mom was the only one who read it. The night they let me on and I performed it, I got some laughs, which was cool. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I felt like I had learned something about using the real material of my life. The embarrassing stuff especially played well. And maybe because I was so young and little and cute in a dorky way, people seemed to like it. The others, to be honest, were not very good, just telling punch-line jokes: set-up, set-up, joke, set-up, set-up, joke. I felt like maybe I was the best that night.

The last person to be announced was JANE, the Hollywood Cowboy. This guy came out in all denim and a blond bobbed wig. He was carrying an acoustic guitar with butterfly designs. He was obviously a guy because he had stubble. But he was wearing this wig and lipstick and eyeliner. He mumbled a deep-voiced "hello" and started playing. It was this weird Bob Dylan–sounding song. He didn’t have a very good voice, but he made it work the way that Bob Dylan makes it work. Later, down the road of time, after we started having sex—yes, he was my first—I got the lyrics to the song. Here they are:

Liz and Monty

I.

Liz, Liz, Lizzy
Grand dame, Gorgon Martha
Versus your sliver tongued beau
Sir Richard as George.
That was the later you,

The you that passed through Cleo-
Patra, and brought down a studio;
The you that was James Dean’s
Shoulder to cry on in Giant;

The young you that played Monty’s lover
In A Place in the Sun, and his heart’s support
In life. Could you comfort him
After his crash in the Hollywood hills,

When his face was readjusted
And he became frail and busted?
You climbed into the accordioned wreck
And pulled teeth from his throat.

Poor Monty, he became a shadow,
A slouched figure in too-big pants.
You got big and drunk and weird,
You went on General Hospital.

Every once in a while they would drag you out
To give an award and you’d slobber on the mic.
But you were all those things from before
And all those versions of you, frozen on celluloid,

Especially in long-lens close-up,
Opposite Monty, at the dance,
So young and natural,
And that look right at the camera:

“I love... [gasp] are they watching us?”

II.

Monty, Monty Clift,
You were the first.
Before Brando and Dean.
A new American way of
Fucking with the camera.

Your soul fluttered
Behind your stone-still face,
A Donatello statue emanating
Deep life on the flickering film.

Burly Burt Lancaster feared you
Because of your latent power,
You played your character in
From Here to Eternity like a human

Knife in a Hawaiian shirt.
In A Place in the Sun, the longing
And sorrow and sociopathic
Intensity vibrate through

Your handsome mask.
Like nothing before or since
A minimalist artwork,
Motionless as it clobbers.

Afterward, the audience was silent. They didn’t know what the heck to make of the act. It’s not like it was funny; he wasn’t even trying to be funny. He was just playing a song in a weird outfit. He looked out at us with these kind of dead eyes. But his eyes were also kind of sensitive in the corners. It was like they were glistening of knowing something more than we did.

Then he stood up and walked off. The MC, this loungy, slimy kind of guy who was losing his hair, did this sarcastic weak clap and said, “The Hollywood Cowboy. Well, what the fuck? I don’t know. I don’t book 'em. I just announce 'em. See you on the range, Hondo. Heh, heh.”

I couldn’t find the Cowboy backstage. And he wasn’t in the bar with the rest of the amateurs talking about their comedy troops and YouTube channels. He wasn’t out front, either. I looked both ways down Sunset—nothing. I went back in the lot to get my car, and there he was, still with his wig on, behind the building. A stout little man with black curly hair was yelling up at his face.    

“...Now, you go the fuck back to freak town and don’t come back here no more. This is a comedy club, funny town, not arty fucking freak town.”    

“Fitty,” he said, cool, despite the little man shooting pellets of spit every time he talked.

Fitty? Fitty? Oh, you want fitty bucks? Ha, ha, ha, ha, fitty bucks? Ha, ha, ha, ha, you want fitty bucks? Ha, ha, ha, ha,” he was forcing the laughter and his face was a tomato. “You can have fitty fucking licks of my cock, you fucking fairy cowboy dumbshit.”

“I want fitty,” said the cowboy. He had a cigarette in his lips and he lit it.

“You know what? I wish you had done this shit on stage, because you are fucking hilarious! I mean hilarious. I ain’t giving you fitty. I ain’t giving you one. You’re a fucking amateur. Amateurs don’t get paid, especially dumb fucking Andy Kaufman rip-offs trying to be funny by not being funny. That crap don’t work no more. It didn’t work when Andy did it. Why don’t you go to Silver Lake and put this shit in a hipster art show, because you ain’t ever coming here again.”   

“Lana said I could.”

“Yeah, well, fuck Lana. I know the score. You fucked Lana, and that’s how you got your fucking bullshit on stage. Well, I don’t know what she saw in your fucking ass, but it’s bullshit, fag shit. No more fucking Lana and no more coming on my stage. Now get the fuck out of here.” The little man waddled inside, huffy.

The cowboy leaned against the wall and smoked. I went to him.

“Hey, man, I thought you were the shit.” He looked at me but said nothing, just sparkled his eyes a little, the same sad watery thing he did on stage. “I mean I thought your act was awesome. I know it wasn’t trying to be funny. I know it was different.”

“It was supposed to be funny.”     

“It was? Oh, yeah, I mean, I know. I get it, like weird-funny.”

“You didn’t laugh?”

“No. I mean, a little. I was laughing on the inside. My brain was laughing.”

“Your brain was laughing?” Now he was looking hard at me, and it was like a sad ray gun right into my core. I could smell something potent and sour from the alley, like rotting cabbage.

“I get it. I get what you’re doing. I just think that these people didn’t get it because they’re trying to tell stupid jokes to get onto sit-coms or whatever. You should do this thing somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“Like on YouTube or something.”

“On the internet?”

“Yeah, on the internet.” He flicked away his cig like he was leaving.

“Come on, let me just record you singing one song.” I took out my phone.

“You want me to sing? Right here?"

“Yeah, and I’ll record it.” I held up my phone to show how easy it would be. He looked at it and said, “Fine. Fitty bucks.”

“You want me to pay you? I don’t have fifty dollars. I have… Let’s see… Maybe ten?” I only had 20, and I was going to use that for my dinner and breakfast.

“Twenty.”

“Here, I’ll give you fifteen, OK?” I put the two bills in his hand and closed it. His hands were big and strong, like the hands of a sculpture. He held the bills and looked at me, thinking.

“For fifteen, no guitar.”

“Fine, no guitar.” I opened the video app and aimed the phone. “You ready?” He stood there for a moment, then started. I pressed record.

Here’s the song. It was almost a rap, but it was slow and steady. I learned later that it was called “Love.”

Love

I looked around for love,
And I knew by then
That love wasn’t worship,
That love was ease.

Love was the smooth river
Of forgiveness that takes all
Obstacles, pollution, and debris
(Love is of man, he sets the rules),

Pushes them downstream,
And leaves them in the ocean.
I like the beer bottles that collect
Along the shore, the trash

From diaper boxes, and Clorox.
These are the rainbow-colored
Punctuations stuck into nature;
They are the man-made things

Corroded by my love.
I assume things will pile
And pile until the piles
Take over. But sometimes

Things are washed clean,
Like when a hurricane comes
Through and takes out houses
As if they were cardboard.

Love is not of man;
Nature sets the rules.
I’ve lived a life,
I’ve learned a few things,

And this is a new lesson:
It says, surrender.

It was strangely good. Eerie, and not really like anything I had seen or heard before. Like Bob Dylan, but fucked up. He lit another cigarette. The blue and white Parliament Light package made me happy, especially when he tucked it crumpled into his front jacket pocket. His lighter was light pink, like a little piece of candy, tiny in his big paw. After the tongue of fire lit the cig, he slipped on some Ray Bans, and still with that wig. He held up my money.   

“Lez get something to eat.”

I drove. He directed me over to Swingers on Beverly. The night was thinning into the wee hours, but there were little pockets of people between the neon and florescent lights of West Hollywood, where clubs were closing, spilling out their contents onto the sidewalks. He said nothing in the car, just looked out and smoked. He was funny in my little black Prius—they were two things that didn’t match, like Chewbacca in an episode of Gossip Girl. I know. Stupid.

At the place we sat in a booth by the window, periodically cars vroomed by in the milky streetlights. He kept his glasses on, even though it was pretty dark inside. There were people in plaid and leather ambling about the dimness. We had black coffee and cokes and water from the tap with ice. I ordered a tuna melt, and he had a cheeseburger, well done. My sandwich wasn’t good. They tried to get all fancy with it and made it too oniony. I ate the fries with ketchup.

“So your name is Jane?"    

“James, Jane, doesn’t fucking matter." He was pretty focused on his burger and the nothing outside.    

“Where are you from?”

“Minnesota or something.”   

“Or something?”    

“I don’t fucking know. Who cares, you know?”

“Yeah, I guess. So I think your music is cool.”   

“Thanks.”

“I mean, I think the whole thing is cool. Like this performance that you’re doing.” He was quiet again, but now the black Ray Bands were on me. He took a sip of his black coffee while still looking at me and finally said, “What do you want?”    

“I don’t know. I just want to get to know you, I guess.”

“Why?”

“Because I think you’re cool.” That sounded so stupid, especially because I had just said it, so I said, “Because I don’t know what to do with myself. I want to be something too. But I don’t know how. So I figured I would just try to see what you’re all about, because I think I like it, and fuck, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this whole thing, this whole be-an-artist thing. Because being just an actor is boring. And being just an artist like a painter seems so silly. And being a comedian, like a real comedian, making people laugh, seems lame. And music, I don’t know, I guess music is cool, but I’m never going to make it as a musician or a writer, I guess. I don’t know. I guess I just saw you and thought I’d see what you had going on.”        

Boy, I said a lot, but I figured I should just get it all out, because, what the hell? I thought maybe this was the thing, the thing in my life that was supposed to happen. I ate another fry, but they were getting cold. The coffee was cooling off too, and I hate cold coffee. I wished the waitress with the fishnets would come back and top me off or I could know what else to say or I could just do something cool or something would happen. The black glasses looked at me, cold. The wig was shouting out in the darkness, a white beacon.

Finally, he started talking, a low mumble that kept rolling:    

“I’m a bitch and a traitor, know what I mean? I’m a dream and a nightmare. They all say, be good, be sexy, be something, be who you want to be, but they don’t mean that. They don’t mean that if you want to be a family person or a public person or a person in the mix. They, they, they say. And I, I, I say. And it’s news, and it ain’t news. There ain’t nothing but violence, sex, and high-stakes money that matters to anyone. OK, let me tell you: I had this girl, right? I had this girl, the girl of my life, the love of my life. We do it all. We do the live together, we do the work together, makin’ music, ya know, makin' movies, makin’ art. We starve together. We make it happen together. And you know what? She say she want to be married, she say marriage is the way. And I say, fuck marriage. I say fuck this, fuck that. I say marriage in music is the way. Marriage in the law ain’t the way. I also say, this earth ain’t bound for no good damn thing. How could it be? So why create kids just to be burned up in the after-generation?

“I’m also mad at all the motherfuckers who takin’ all the money and say we got to be living by they rules. And the shitbags that be saying we make money off art, off music, off personality. I be against all that shit. See, I’m a digger. I be digging in, searching, doing, and being. I ain’t about all that try’na get ahead. Fuck that shit. Get ahead to what? The fucking Skybar? The fucking Chateau Marmont? What? The fucking Staples Center? Fuck that Madonna bullshit. Fuck that Jay Z bullshit. Fuck that make-money bullshit. I be me. I be real. I be about no money.”

“You took my money.”    

“Mothafucka gotta eat, don’t he?”    

“I guess so.”

“Muthafucka gotta eat.”

“Bitch gotta eat too.”

“I be about no boundaries. I be a meld. I be a witchcraft. I be a religion. Know why? Because science and politics and all that shit? It’s failing us. I use the bit that allow me to say, 'Hey, I’m a surface, I’m a creation, human ain’t fixed, ain’t jus’ come already made, it a creation, a performance.' Human is a performance, an’ all them scientist be saying, we don’t need the human. An’ all them writers be boring us to death with they old technology. And all them artists is trying to be avant-garde, but they is really about being cool and taking all the money, and raisin’ they value an’ about placement of they shit in the right collections and what else?

“Fuck it all, jus’ be. An’ if them fools don’t recognize, they don’t recognize. It don’t matta to me, I just be cruisin’. I be riding the waves from here to paradise. I be singin’, and doin’, and fuckin’. Like a champion.”

Then we sat for a while. He was done talking and done eating his burger. The last third of it sat on his plate, pressed together from his grip. The fishnet waitress came over and gave us both more coffee. The steam made me happy. Later I would post the video from the alley on YouTube, and he saw that people were at least responding to his work. Not tons at first, but enough. 

We did a whole thing, and yes, I fell in love with him. And we posted more things, and he became pretty famous. There was a lot of buzz about JANE. The whole wig was made to look like the hair of that girl who wanted to marry him back in the day. Her name was Jane, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, there is a lot to say, about what happened, and what he became, but that first night we didn’t say much more. I just remember him saying, right before he tipped the last of the coffee in his mouth and abruptly stood and rushed out into the milk light, leaving me there to think about how my life had been shook:

“Shit in a bucket, mother, motherfuck it.”