Chewbacca: A Living History
For the past 30 years, Chewbacca has been nothing short of a recluse.
When I finally meet Chewbacca it's not what I expected at all. He had agreed to a sit down interview at a restaurant on La Grange called "Taco La Raza" and everything I knew about him made me think he would be surrounded by body guards and towing an entourage bigger than anything a rap star could muster. Instead he's wearing a slightly sweat-stained and well-worn hoodie from Old Navy, a pair of neatly pleated khaki slacks, and a baseball hat for the Florida Marlins. The Marlins aren't too big here in Chicago, so I think it's a bold move. "Maybe a month ago," he muses, "these days it makes me look like a south side native, helps me blend in."
Going against everything I had been lead to believe about the man, Chewbacca is modest, polite, and very soft spoken. The waitress brings some tortillas and a pair of horchatas in tall unmatched glasses. Chewbacca thanks her and smiles, she asks him to sign an autograph and he whispers something in her ear. After she's gone I ask him what he told her. "I just told her that they have the best damn tacos in the tri-state area. Really, fucking incredible tacos. Like Zeus just unloaded in your mouth."
We have a lot to talk about besides the tacos, and as Chewbacca crams still-hot tortilla chips into his mouth I ask him about his new book "Player and the Game". It's due out in a little over three weeks, and the buzz is already hot about it, with rumors that the reclusive star will debunk some legends surrounding him and provide the seeds for a hundred new ones.
"You know, there's this cult that surrounds anyone who has been in the industry as long as I have. I'm not bragging here, in fact I hate it, but it's the truth. The media, the fans, they take any scrap of information - true and untrue - and they just run with it. Like a game of telephone where every call is about me, about my personal life. I wanted to write the book so people could hear it from me. You know what I mean. I don't think I have anything particularly important to say, but if I'm the authority on anything it's my own life."
Chewbacca explains that the breaking point was the documentary "Long Strides" which, among other things, delved into the federal investigation into his phone psychic venture, his infamous breakup with longtime girlfriend Rose McGowan, and a rumored addiction to prescription mule tranquilizers. Chewbacca has always denied almost everything said in the film, but he offers me some insight into how he addresses it in his book.
"It's this little glimmer of truth to everything they say, and then they just run with it in any direction they think will sell the most copies of a paper or rent the most DVDs. Like the mule tranquilizer thing, those were dog tranquilizers, and I wasn't addicted to them." He sighs with mock exasperation. "My doctor prescribed them to me once for a problem I was having sleeping. The Ambien wasn't working so he said, since I share as many chromosomes with dogs as I do with people, that I should try a Great Dane's double dose of Acepromazine. Not many people know this yet, although it's in the book, but I'm over a century old and on medication for high blood pressure and my cholesterol. The Acepromazine interacted with my blood pressure pills and I had some sort of seizure. Needless to say I never took it again; I've just been dealing with the sleeping problems holistically."
He laughs as he explains the methods he's been trying to correct his sleeping problems at the behest of his current girlfriend, French pop singer Alizée Jacotet.
"Yoga, raw foodism, meditation, I would rather you not even print anything about the high colonics."
The food arrives and I tell him I'll be sure to leave it out.
"Good, AJ said they're great but it felt like they were pulling my soul out through my lower intestine. After three times I told her 'exit only' honey. She's dealing though, she's a great gal."
I can tell that he wants to talk about her more and his infatuation seems quite genuine, but their relationship is all over the tabloids. I remind him that I don't want to rehash the sensationalism.
"Let's talk about ancient history then. I can tell you about the Kessel Run but I think that's in every Social Studies text book currently in print."
I assure him that I'm more interested in his terrestrial exploits. So he begins to tell his story, starting with his move from Minnesota to Paris in 1938.
"Things were wild back then. You couldn't pick up a paper without reading about an impending war in Europe, and here I was packing up everything I owned into two beat up suitcases and relocating to France. Not to downplay what's going on in the world now, but things were much more serious than they are now. We're talking about millions killed less than twenty years ago and the whole planet sitting on the edge of it again. Of course I was only in my forties at the time, so what did I know about the world? My foster parents [Emily and Hubert Glick] told me not to, but it was time for me to set out on my own."
Chewbacca moved to Paris with barely a dime to his name, making just enough money to survive by panhandling and publishing poems in the renowned Parisian newspaper "La Grande Sèche D'Artsy". He had several love affairs with relatively popular French and expatriate songstresses, but nothing that made an indelible impression on Chewbacca. What did leave its mark was the city itself.
"The way Paris lit up at night - in every way imaginable - was stirring to me on a level that is hard to describe without resorting to iambic pentameter. It really was the heart of the world; in the way that New York or Tokyo is today. Paris just gleamed with every kind of fire."
The honeymoon did not last long and with the outbreak of war in 1939 Chewbacca attempted to enlist in the French military.
"You know I had a lot of expertise in fighting against evil empires and I think I could have really brought something to the table. Too bad the French government was not so tolerant and accepting of me as the people of Paris were. They stamped the equivalent of '4F' on every single form I filled out saying I couldn't enlist because I didn't have opposable thumbs. Well what are these?"
He wiggles what medical professionals have since classified as "dexterous quasi-digit protrusions" to emphasize his point.
"It was awful just watching. I mean I mostly stayed in Paris because I was so broke and it was spared from the fighting but you could see the trains and trucks just filled with these poor guys going off to die uselessly. It was a horrible feeling of futility, no, impotence that filled me. Like I was wearing a Czerka slave collar."
He gets very serious as he describes the fall of France, at one point even stopping his narrative to steady his emotions. When he regains his strength he continues.
"Seeing the Germans march through Paris was probably the most heartbreaking thing I have ever experienced. There was just this endless stream of them, marching like Trade Federation droids in perfect lockstep. Hell, the only way you could tell that they were alive was when the officer's horses crapped and the formations weaved around the piles."
This famed picture of Chewbacca expressed the grief of the free world.
I ask him about the famous picture taken of him crying as he watched.
"Oh, yeah, that's such a perfect image, because I couldn't have hidden my emotions if I had tried. I just wish that they had taken a photo of a Parisian instead. I was seeing the symbolic rape of my adopted home; the French were seeing their real home being overrun."
We sit in silence poking at our food for a few minutes and each of us thinks about that terrible moment in the spring of 1940. When we resume the interview he changes the subject himself.
"The fifties were a wash for me personally, but the sixties were heady times. People were starting to get over the fact that I was an eight-foot tall merkin and I think, more than anything else, I have drugs to thank for that. Wild stuff, marijuana was like tap water and you could get an LSD high from leaning against the wrong wall in a bongo club. I hung around for a while with Thompson and he somehow convinced me that the world was ready for 'Chewbacca and the Outlaws'. I released the first Outlaws album in '63 and it was an instant success. I think it was the drugs again, because listening to that record now…I mean, only chemically impaired judgment could explain its popularity."
Chewbacca and the Outlaws released a total of three albums from 1963 to 1968, starting with "Sweet Chin Music" and following that with an eponymous second outing that turned popular success into critical recognition. Their legendary third and final album was "Starship Heart", which coupled psychedelic guitar solos with extremely experimental synth music and Chewbacca's magical contralto singing voice.
"If it weren't for the album covers people would have thought I was a woman," the burly mercenary admits. "I don't know where that voice comes from but I do know that it sells records."
In fact "Starship Heart" was so successful that Chewbacca was invited to meet with President Richard Millhouse Nixon in 1970; two years after the band had actually broken up.
"I was still solo touring in Vegas when Ron [Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler] called me and told me the president wanted to give me an award and have lunch. I was floored. I mean I knew we had really smashed the charts with that last album and I had been doing a fair amount of charity work for the Red Cross, but I still would never have expected the President to want to sit down with me."
Scheduling problems and Chewbacca's less than stately manner upon arrival at the Whitehouse ensured that his meeting with Nixon was scarcely more than a handshake.
"I don't know what Nixon was thinking," Chewbacca laughs. "I was heavily involved in the peace and militant civil rights movements. I guess since you couldn't really hear that in our music Nixon thought he could just score some points from a photo-op with a rocker. Win over the kids."
Nixon suffered in the polls for his meeting with Chewbacca.
"I got so blotto the night before that I had to keep leaning on Ron as he walked me towards the oval office. There must have been fumes coming off of my fur because Nixon got all bleary eyed and started doing that great vibrating neck thing he would do whenever he was mad. He shook my hand for the camera but I could see the realization in his eyes that the whole thing was a mistake. I tried to give him a poetic statement about the war in Vietnam - you know, something like that Mohammad Ali line - but I was so shitfaced I just babbled."
According to reporters who overheard Chewbacca's comments, what he actually said was "this is like, the right, the wrong time, for this in here", which did not prove to resonate very much with the anti-war movement.
We get the bill for lunch and I offer to pay, assuring him that Something Awful will be reimbursing me for our luxurious eight dollar lunch. Politely, Chewbacca insists on paying. I get the feeling that he is not ready to end his story; that he doesn't want to leave the tale half told. Before I can devise a way to keep him going he suggests that we walk together to "The Ring Zone", a cellular dealer on Coruscant Avenue.
Our conversation continues as we make our way along the salt-stained and seasonably cold Chicago sidewalk.
"I disappeared from the public eye as best I could not too long after that." I notice that he has an easy and very natural way of telling his story, but at the same time it seems so well told that I feel sure he's been jotting it piece by piece on note cards for his ghostwriter. "I wouldn't say that I went into hiding, but I stopped making official appearances. I broke my contract with the Sands in Vegas and almost got sued. I ended up settling for half a million dollars, which was a huge amount at that time."
"I had a mansion in Reno that was a real hotspot for the people who might, in retrospect, call themselves the intelligentsia. Free thinkers, radical liberals, communists, the sort of people that associating with might have gotten you shot in the 1950s. As time wore on though it just stopped being my scene, it got boring, and I guess in my own way I grew up a little bit. I think Thompson called it 'the death of Horatio Alger' in one of his books, and he was right in a way. So many of us had just burned up so much energy being against everything that we'd worn ourselves ragged."
I point out that drug abuse might have also contributed to his exhaustion and he chuckles.
"Yeah, probably, they were just starting to get into the really wild designer stuff by the time I swore it all off. I was running out of money for stuff like that and once you stop surrounding yourself with drugs you get to find out who your real friends are."
Chewbacca found a real friend in an unusual person; his previously estranged stepbrother Delbert Glick.
"Delbert had gone to fight in Vietnam while I was breathing Bacardi 151 in Nixon's face and getting arrested for phoning bomb threats to National Guard barracks. Most of the vets I had bumped into prior to that were either burnouts or just traumatized husks. Delbert had really come through that same ordeal stronger. He was a horse of a man with the brain of a scientist and he sort of became my moral compass."
Chewbacca and I pause to light cigarettes in the wind-sheltered corner of a US Bank building.
"I sold the mansion because I was bleeding money, fired all of my various assistants and hangers-on, and moved back to Minnesota. I just bought a simple house and focused on getting my life together. Delbert was living not five miles away in my foster parent's old house. Both of them were dead by that point and we just sort of naturally got together and started talking about the past. Delbert really encouraged me to get back into shape, I mean I was weighing in at like eight or nine hundred pounds at that point and I knew it was important for my health to get back down to around six fifty. I ran with him every morning and sometimes we would go out in the woods and just shove over trees. Okay, I would shove over trees and he would encourage me, but it was a great time."
"Delbert told me to set goals for myself and my mind sort of immediately hit on the idea of returning to space. Not go back to it and stay or anything, but I had seen the moon shot and all of that and I still had a yearning to work on spacecraft. I think it was sort of like in France in the late thirties, I realized my expertise was something special and that I could offer something no one else could. Delbert helped me realize that goal as best he could. Besides getting me into shape he helped me make contacts at NASA and study for my masters and ultimately my doctorate in astrophysics."
Most of this information is new to me, so I listen intently and without interruption as he unburdens himself.
"It was 1979 when I first applied to the space program and I was almost immediately rejected. They said that I was too tall, that some of their testing equipment wouldn't even work on me. Basically they made excuses to keep me out. At Delbert's urging I tried a different approach and contacted Roy Carter, who was at the time one of the biggest wheels in NASA's engineering team for the space program. Delbert had told me they were working on a next-generation reusable spacecraft and I thought that if I got in good with the top engineers working on the program I might make some stronger inroads."
"Roy was a good 'ol boy, the kind of guy who is always friendly but doesn't make a lot of friends, if you know what I mean. Despite some hesitation, we hit it off, and he eventually let me into his confidence on the shuttle program. I clued him in on a system we used to have on the Falcon [the famous Millenium Falcon, from an episode of Chewbacca's life that took place long ago] called a High-Yield Cascade Array. Basically it was a system designed to collect the electricity from high-energy strikes on the surface of the ship and then channel them along a burst-vented argon stream safely away. It wasn't rocket science, just simple space defense tech, but I could see that the Shuttle could use one. I agreed to draw up plans for something similar for the shuttle to use in the event of lightning strikes and other sudden electrical pulses in exchange for serious consideration for a shuttle mission."
Chewbacca coughs and tosses his cigarette away with apparent irritation.
"So I cobbled this thing together from memory and it worked. Carter took it and renamed it the Dissipation Array System and took full credit, but he held up his end of the deal and got me a golden ticket into space camp. I passed through that thing like a bowling ball on a greased slide, and I did break some of the machinery in the process. While I was there I more than doubled some of the stamina records and scored in the top percentile of graduates in nearly every single academic exam. It was two years of easy training after that and then I got to meet the crew I was going to be heading up with."
"You know this is all in the book," Chewbacca says seriously, "but it still chokes me up thinking about it."
I point out that I never knew he went on a shuttle mission and he nods sadly.
"That's right, I was cut at the last minute. They told me that an eighth crewman was unnecessary and they wouldn't even let me near the shuttle to do a last minute inspection. I mean shit, I have been tinkering on starships for over ninety years at that point and they still don't trust me with an astro-spanner next to one of their damned stone-age coolant ducts. The crew I trained with, my crew, lifted off on January 28, 1986, aboard the space shuttle Challenger."
He gets agitated and I see a flicker of his legendary temper.
"Jesus Christ! What a horrible, horrible mess. They shoe-horned that poor teacher into a fucking death trap and…I could have done something, you know? I could see the schematics for that ship on the back of my retina with my eyes closed. If there was a problem that I could have possibly found, I damn well would have. O-ring my ass! It was no fucking O-ring that caused that, it was gross incompetence and pressure coming down the food chain to launch, launch, launch."
Chewbacca quiets himself but I can see his fists clenching and unclenching for the next few blocks that we walk. He doesn't say anything for the entire time. At last I finally interrupt the silence and ask him about his phone psychic program. This lightens the mood.
"I came up with that idea in the early nineties." He grins broadly and emits that guttural roar known to make women swoon with delight. "I was so low on cash that it wasn't so much a 'get-rich quick scheme' as it was an 'avoid debter's prison' scheme. I was up to my Forneac Oblongata in unpaid bills. Even my modest house had been repossessed out from under me and I was living out of my pickup truck and crashing on friend's couches. I was reading an issue of Hustler while on the john one night and I was thumbing through the ads for the phone sex lines. As I walked back into Delbert's living room there was an infomercial on TV and it all just sort of clicked immediately."
"I don't think I have the voice for phone sex, but I learned enough from my adventures years and years ago to know a thing or two about two-bit mysticism. I figured that mumbo jumbo like 'the force' probably wouldn't fly here on earth, so I read up on human legends. Psychics were the natural choice. They're non-religious, so I didn't have to worry about getting any hackles up at churches, and they are just believable enough that the same sort of people who can whack it to a fat woman breathing heavy into a phone could probably be easily duped into calling for a psychic's advice."
We can both see the glowing sign for "The Ring Zone" ahead of us. Chewbacca deliberately slows his pace so that he can continue his story without hurrying it.
"I sold my truck to a farmer for about three grand and rented a shoebox of an office in the worst part of Minneapolis. I know that doesn't sound too scary, but I would rather be wading in the poisonous swamps of Kashyyyk than have to go home at three in the morning in this neighborhood. I got a desk, a telephone, and lamp. That was it. I spent every dime left on producing a simple infomercial and buying ad time on local cable outlets."
The Madame Chewbacca persona, at its height, could be seen on at least one channel at any given moment.
"I called myself Madame Chewbacca," he affects his infamous Jamaican accent. "Call up Madame Chewbacca! I guarantee you a 100% accurate psychic reading. I can see the future like it done got writ in my day planner!"
"That 100% accurate guarantee part was what cooked my goose in the end, but the times were good for over seven years. My business kept growing, the goofballs and yokels called me in droves, and I started adding employees to help out. Eventually I had the money to produce national late night spots and minute long commercials full of spinning clock graphics and zodiac signs shooting light out of them. That stuff was expensive, but I think the pretty lights really convinced a lot of the more simple folk to call in. Most of them were just glad to have anyone to talk to, and I think they just sort of bought into the psychic aspect of it because it let them believe I could really help. Maybe I did, I think we helped some people anyway."
"I ended up making almost thirty million from my Madame Chewbacca shtick, all told. Of course the champagne and caviar couldn't last forever, and in 1998 an FBI investigation opened on me followed almost immediately by this massive class action suit. I'm ambivalent about the whole thing in retrospect. I mean I realize we weren't totally 'on the level', but it's not like it was an actual scam. The people got exactly what they were paying for and there were no real hidden charges. Just because we couldn't stop a frog's heart or guess computer-generated numbers in court doesn't render every piece of advice we offered invalid."
"The jury felt differently, and awarded a judgment that amounted to just about every dime I had to my name. I appealed it and got a reduced settlement, but it didn't matter too much because the attorney fees nearly made up the difference. Madame Chewbacca was no more and I was once again nearly out of cash and seemingly out of options."
Chewbacca drifted from job to job after the Madame Chewbacca telephone psychic operation was shut down. He accepted almost any work he managed to find, at one point even working as a security guard at a nuclear power plant. Eventually he found his way to the Plumper Enthusiast, an ocean-going freight vessel flying the Panamanian flag and usually booked to carry medical waste to dumping points in Haiti, Nicaragua, and points in the Mid-East. After serving aboard the Plumper Enthusiast for some three years, Chewbacca bid the seaman's life adieu and moved to Iraq, where he soon found himself unwittingly in the midst of a war.
"I could once again hear the drums of war beating. Don't get me wrong, I'm an American through and through, and I hated Saddam, but I'm getting a little tired of being caught in the middle of an invasion."
Unbeknownst to Chewbacca his name had been added to a watch list by the CIA for suspected dealings with the Al Alal-Jalal terrorist network.
"I admitted it to the government the first chance they gave me. I knew these guys, and I knew they were terrorists, but what am I supposed to do when I'm put in a situation where they want to know how to turn a Nissan pickup into a land speeder and if I don't tell them they're going to kill me? It's not like they offered me a six figure salary and stock options, they told me 'do this or we kill you' and I did it. When I saw they had strapped a jury-rigged thermal detonator to the back of it I knew I was in some serious hot water."
In October of 2003, the US military caught up with Chewbacca.
This dramatic leaked image shows Chewbacca only a minute or so after his capture.
"I was laying low in the city of Kirkuk, you know, being cautious because I knew there were patrols looking for me. I didn't know what else to do but run from them, and I couldn't hope to find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than Kirkuk. I went all Sand People and dug a hole about twenty feet deep, climbed down in it, covered it up, and started hibernating. It's the first time since I've been on this planet that I've done that. It still wasn't enough."
"They came in the dead of night, probably almost a hundred Delta Force and Navy SEAL types. They threw a flashbang down the hole and believe you me that woke my ass up. The next think I know I'm being hauled out by my short hairs and thrown on the ground by some asshole with a knee that felt like a spear-tip right in the middle of my back. I could have torn the guy's arms out of their sockets, but he was an American, and I'm not about to do that."
Chewbacca was poked and prodded to verify his identity, then was handed over to the CIA for a grueling three week period of questioning. Without further evidence, and basically believing his story of imminent peril forcing him to do untoward things, the government released Chewbacca.
"I boarded the first flight I could book to Paris. I only had a small nest egg, but I figured getting back to France would get me away from the US media, the CIA, and the accusations."
Chewbacca stayed in Paris for less than two months and returned to Minnesota to spend Christmas with Delbert, who had fallen ill, and his family.
"Delbert is doing okay now, the chemo seems to be working, and he really got along well with AJ." Chewbacca beams. "I've been writing a lot lately and she, as well as Delbert, have been real inspirations to me. If 'Player and the Game' does well, Hyperion has promised me a three book deal with allowances for two of them to be fiction. I've been reading a lot of Dr. Phil and Atkins Diet books lately and I think I might fill out that third spot with a self help book. You know, something like those 'Chicken Soup' books, only with the added insight that only a Wookiee can provide."
He winks and opens the door to "The Ring Zone". A chirping customer buzzer beeps out the first few bars of the "Star Wars" theme and I can see an uncomfortable smile flicker across Chewbacca's face. I wait by the door as he approaches a sales clerk and begins discussing a slightly misshapen and possibly burned cell phone with the man. Their disagreement becomes increasingly heated and I begin to worry. Chewbacca glances at me and in a flash of almost Madame Chewbacca-like precognition I see severed limbs and sprays of blood in the near future.
Risking life and limb I intervene in the argument and calm things down to the point that a deal can be negotiated. The clerk takes the damaged phone and Chewbacca begins filling out paperwork for a new one.
"Every day is an adventure when you're me," he laughs, struggling to hold the pen.
I don't doubt him for a second.