Michael Blake, the writer who adapted his own book into the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film Dances With Wolves, died Saturday of heart failure at the age of 69. The Doors drummer John Densmore remembers his friend in a tribute:
He told me that some Nevada cowboys sent him a couple death threats after his “own” count of how many wild Mustangs were left. He used his Dances dough to fly over in a helicopter and what he came up with was about half of the “official” count. The two of us had paid for a couple of giant billboards at crucial entry points to the state where residents don’t pay any state tax. Nevada folks are freedom lovers. . .they don’t like anyone telling them what to do. Michael and I are also freedom lovers. . .we figure if there aren’t at least a few wild horses running around, then America’s inner “freedom” will suffer. The billboards depicted several Mustangs being wrestled to the ground with ropes tied to their legs – not a pretty picture. Sort of like the feeling one got from watching the last film that Montgomery Cliff, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe did – The Misfits.
When I heard the news of Michael’s crossing, I immediately took out one of my drums, and played “Break on Through.” I knew his leaving was imminent because we had stopped our ritual of monthly phone calls about a half a year ago. The reason – Michael said he couldn’t remember names and was having trouble writing. . .Uh, Oh. Then John Doe, the very soulful lead singer of X, told me he visited Blake in Tucson and he wasn’t making much sense at all. MB was a true writer. He wrote everything in long hand; and I knew if he couldn’t write, he couldn’t live.
His love of the American West was palpable. He drove old trucks, but he drove them to the library. He couldn’t get enough of the Native American culture and devoured books on the subject. He didn’t go to the “Rez” for research on Dances With Wolves – he sat in the library and imagined a time when there were more buffalo across the country than ants on a picnic table. His writing wasn’t embellished with flashy prose; it was sort of like Hemingway – simple, but packed with soul and feeling. There’s a reason the film Dances is now in the Library of Congress; it changed the consciousness of the country. How many stupid westerns in the Fifties and early Sixties depicted “Indians” (Native Americans) as the bad guys. Blake created a cultural shift, from Manifest Destiny to hey. . .maybe our forefathers almost committed genocide against these “first” peoples. Hey. . .maybe we almost wiped out the very culture that could teach us how to live on planet Earth.
When Dances hit, Michael’s grandiose streak surfaced. He talked of running for president and went to the primaries in New Hampsure. He started a publishing house and wanted all the authors to do unabridged audio tapes (10 cassettes for each book!). He did book readings with slides of himself struggling with medical issues (of which he had many). He said he’d written the ultimate Western (Slade) and with the way I looked, he wanted to cast me as the bad guy. He called me up, “JD! MB here. . .listen I got an idea. I think we, along with Viggo (Mortensen), should ride three horses into the Nevada Mustang roundups whistling and screaming like it’s a raid.” He felt that would change their minds – or at least blow their minds. Over the top, but how can one not love the passion.
Obviously, I’m going to miss my writing bud. He used to say, “Being a writer, John, is like having homework the rest of your life!” Years ago he told me to just start out putting in an hour a day, then increase it and pretty soon you’ll look up and say, “Wow, I’ve got 50 pages!” We both gave blurbs to each other’s books. Just recently, the Doors’ first album was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress, so we’re both in a bunker in D. C. that will probably outlast Fukushima. I’m proud to have called Michael Blake my friend, and will see him “on the other side.”