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Stu Coy



"You keep playing where you shouldn't be playing, you keep thinking that you'll never get burned..." says Stu Coy, his lips sarcastically curled. He sneers, "You keep saming when you better be changing," then barks abruptly, meanly, "Now honey, you better run."

Stu looks menacingly into the video camera. Sweat beads and slides down his clean-shaven head as his band Oncoming Traffic slams out "These Boots Are Made for Walking." In between the butchered lounge-act standards--"Wildfire," "Reunited," "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves"--and Stu's own songs, Stu belches into the mike and glares out at the audience. His music, as someone once said, "is something that no one wants, but everyone needs."

In the video, shot a couple years ago at the Avalon, he is daunting: over six feet tall and well over 200 pounds, he wears a white T-shirt stretched over a formidable belly. He scarfs beer from a plastic cup. Puffs on a Camel. The three-man band behind him is a deadpan backdrop for his massive, wound-up presence.

The day that Stu Coy arrived in the world was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The day that Stu Coy left the world, 29 years later, was an otherwise unexceptional gray December day. His band waited for him to arrive for rehearsal, but he never showed. Instead, he taped a tube to the exhaust pipe of a borrowed car, ran the other end in through the front window, and breathed carbon monoxide until he died.

At Leo's Lunchroom, where Stu worked for a while as a waiter, he enjoyed telling customers who wanted to place an order, or wanted more coffee, to go to hell. When someone sneezed he would say "Fuck you" and when they farted, "Bless you." He would say "Two days to get ready and one to paint," or "Countless hours of pointless toil."

"He was so large and bald and intimidating," says his friend Charles Wirstrom, nicknamed "Bhuck." "It was funny because he just wasn't what he looked like."

Last year Stu's mom, Marilyn Coy, went to one of his shows at Phyllis' Musical Inn and sat in the front row with one of her other sons. That didn't stop him from performing his crowd pleaser "Masturbate," complete with explicit, um, choreography. "He stood there onstage acting out the lyrics," she remembers, laughing. "I thought, 'I'm your mother, you're not supposed to do this in front of me.'"

But he could. He shared many things with his mother. He told her about the first time he fell deeply in love. He told her that the fact that his dad had killed himself 23 years ago didn't bother him because he had been too young to know him at all. He told her: "Mom, the only thing I really care about is my music...and art." And when he told her this summer that he had started using heroin, he said it was because it was the only thing that gave him "total peace."

A few years ago Stu hooked up with Chicago artist Tom Billings and some other artists and gallery owners, and he had begun working on collaborative pieces with them, multidimensional paintings and sculptures. This work and some of his things are now on display at the Layaway gallery in Wicker Park.

One of the things in the exhibit is the metal clipboard he always carried with him. It's decorated with a Magic Marker drawing of a Brazilian cartoon character named Sambolina. Billings says the name means "stinky onion." Sambolina also appears in some of his drawings and paintings and on his motorcycle helmet, which he covered with shellacked-on photos and cartoons but never wore.

He first came across Sambolina when he was painting the south-side home of a Brazilian family. The mother saw Stu admiring a doll that belonged to her daughter and offered the toy to him.

"Oh mama, no, please, not Sambolina," the child had whimpered. When the girl left the room the mother gave Stu the doll and told him that the girl would never miss it. Whenever he drew the figure or toted the doll with him his friends would whine "Mama, please, not Sambolina."

It took a while for his friends to figure out why he changed so suddenly last spring. And when they did, no one was sure what to do for someone so relied on for his recklessness, energy, and inspiration. He began to disappear for weeks at a time.

Once, when he surfaced in late October, a few friends dragged him to the Ozarks for a week to try to dry the heroin out of his system. He took the metal clipboard with him. He seemed to respond to the reprieve from city life. He had stopped painting, but while he was in the mountains he bought a can of shredded pork at a country store. His drawing of the can of Kelly's pork with barbecue sauce, "potato flakes added," done in bright crayon, his hand holding the can included, is still clipped in place on his board.

Oskar Friedl, who showed a couple of Stu's works at his River North gallery, says it meant a lot to Stu to make art with other people. Friedl met Stu just before he began his entanglement with heroin. Friedl shot 15 or 20 minutes of videotape of Stu painting. "He had a calm and lightness about him. He would work and then stop and talk to me, but then go back to what he was doing as if he didn't know that I was there.

"But then the second time I met him, he came into the studio and he was all shiny with sweat and he didn't recognize me. And I was so disappointed."

Stu didn't recognize himself. In August, he started house painting for a woman named Dee Smith and her husband. "What he was and what he appeared to be were two completely different things," says Smith. "I really never saw that whole 'go to hell' bit. I think the more people put up facades the more sensitive they probably are. One day I came into the house and he was there playing with our sheepdog. He was down on the floor burying his face in the dog's fur--playful. I just liked the way he thought. I was really touched by him, and when he finished painting and left, I really felt a loss--after just two months of having him there."

After that Dee Smith wrote Stu's mother a 17-page letter telling her how much she liked Stu and how she had encouraged him to enter a rehab clinic and get on methadone.

In another video made by Tom Billings, Stu has donned a Ward Cleaver-style businessman's hat that softens his stark look. He peers pseudosweetly into the camera through a pair of heavy, black-framed safety glasses. He had gotten a job as a repairman for Speed Queen washing machines, and he's in his company van. While he drives he talks about paying the tax man, and holds up his tax return sealed, stamped, and ready to be mailed. "I'm not sure about the zip code, but I bet it will get there," he says. He comments on neighborhood landmarks. He is smiling. Someone you want to know.

He takes his friend to his basement apartment in Wicker Park. The camera zooms in on several cat-food dishes, and then on the glossy cat nestled into the layers of quilts on a white iron bed. The refrigerator door is painted, a collaborative work by Stu and Billings, and on top of the fridge is another, a sculpture that looks like it's made out of tree branches and cans.

Stu moves quietly, comfortably around the apartment, talking; he offers the silent cameraman a beer. He gravitates toward the kitchen, begins to make salad dressing in a new bottle that, he explains seeming pleased with himself, he bought just for that purpose. His mom says that he was a natural in the kitchen.

I'm sittin at a bustop

On a bench outside a Mr. Submarine

My rockin arms are folded by

The radio that's blastin on my knees

My clothing defies fashion

My hair is oily

And my blood it runs too warm

And I can't fake it anymore

I see people watch me acting strange

I know they hear me when I'm talking

But they look away--I'm someone who it's hard not to ignore

And I was always waitin round

For someone just to take my hand and pull me from the sea

Up to the shore--But I ain't waiting anymore --Stu Coy

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bobo Hackenmeister and Tom Billings.

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