"Someday," John Callahan once wrote, "a pathologist will be squinting through a microscope at hunks of my cadaver, and he'll exclaim, 'By God, Jenkins! These are not human cells at all! These are the cells of a cartoonist.'"
The iconoclastic artist and musician died last weekend at age 59. He had suffered for more than a year from complications from bedsores, a not-unusual condition for someone who, like Callahan, was confined to a bed or a wheelchair 24 hours a day.
Twice in the past 12 months Callahan underwent surgery in which doctors scraped away dead tissue around the bedsores to try to prevent infection. The procedures failed; in addition, Callahan appeared to have become dependent on the Oxycodone doctors prescribed to kill the pain.
On July 19, Callahan was admitted to Legacy Good Samaritan hospital for additional surgery, but doctors were pessimistic about his prospects, according to Callahan's family. While bedsores themselves rarely cause death directly, the complications from bedsores—infections, sepsis, respiratory issues—often can. Five days after Callahan went into the hospital, an ambulance carried him last Saturday, July 24, to a hospice center in Southwest Portland. But before he arrived, he suffered respiratory failure. The ambulance returned to Good Sam and he died there later that day.
Those are the details of Callahan's final week. The details of his remarkable life—and his prodigious body of work—are more difficult to capture.
He wrote 10 books, painted and created two animated TV shows. In 2006, he issued an album, Purple Winos in the Rain, which WW's then-music editor, Amy McCullough, called "painfully honest and heartbreakingly sad."
Most Portlanders, however, knew him best for the cartoons he drew for this newspaper for 27 years. Crudely drawn, with almost unreadable captions, his work struck a chord with an audience that either loved—or hated—his puncturing of conventional wisdom.
He was an equal-opportunity offender—liberals, conservatives, women, men, Catholics, corporate America. No contributor to WW ever caused as many problems as he did. Advertisers left and readers screamed (and, in some cases, boycotted the paper) because of his scribblings.
He loved every minute of it and pointed with pride to dissident feminist Camille Paglia, who said, "John Callahan is one of the most important anti-PC voices we have in the country."
Born in Portland to an unwed mother and adopted at 6 months by a Catholic family, he was raised in The Dalles. Callahan became a heavy drinker at 12 or 13. An alcohol-fueled car accident (in which he was a passenger) left him, at age 21, with no use of his legs and only limited use of his hands. He quit drinking at 27.
For the next three decades Callahan was as familiar a sight around Northwest Portland as a slice of pie from Escape From New York Pizza.
Beyond Portland he became, by this city's standards, famous. In 1992, The New York Times Magazine devoted a cover story to Callahan, called "Defiantly Incorrect." One year later, he appeared on 60 Minutes. On Aug. 14, 1995, Judge Lance Ito said from the bench of the O.J. Simpson trial that he felt he was living in a "Callahan cartoon." And for many years, comedian Robin Williams held the life rights to Callahan's autobiography, hoping to make a movie about him. Callahan once said he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to star.
In an interview Callahan did with WW reporter Beth Slovic in December 2006, he revealed that a woman who was not a family member had sexually abused him as a young boy. (He would not say who.) He acknowledged that the abuse may have contributed to some of his meaner cartoons directed at women.
Callahan's sense of humor was palpable, not just in his work, but also in his daily conversations. Anyone who knew him was also aware of the painful sadness he carried with him in his motorized wheelchair, a despondency that may have been created by his quadriplegia, or just aided by it. It makes little difference. He was a Portland son, and few who met him were left untouched by his wit, his courage and his complete genuineness.
Several months ago, racked by pain that most of us could only imagine, he applied to Portland State University for an advanced degree in counseling.
"I call him the oracle of Portland," says Kinky Friedman, the Texas humorist who was a friend and champion of Callahan's work. "He was a very wise man, multitalented, very courageous and very funny." This Wednesday, July 28, Friedman perhaps plans to honor Callahan by playing some of Callahan's songs at a previously scheduled Portland appearance at the Roseland Theater. (See here for an interview with Friedman.)
Callahan's funeral service will be held 1 pm Friday, July 30, at St. Mary's Cathedral, 1716 NW Davis St. Several of his friends are planning another memorial, likely to be more ribald (details to follow). "Comedy is the main weapon we have against 'The Horror,'" Callahan once wrote. "With it we can strike a blow at death itself."