This week’s Westword cover story features a look at the life and untimely death of legendary Denver comic Don Becker. The choice of Adam Cayton-Holland as writer is both inspired and frustrating. Cayton-Holland is himself a stand-up comic, so he brings a real insider’s insight to the story. On the other hand, he never actually met his subject, which gives the piece a certain “Citizen Kane” vibe as he tries to piece together the story from second-hand interviews and Internet videos. On balance, it’s a strong piece (especially the haunting ending, which I won’t ruin for you here) that’s well worth your time.
If you’re looking for additional insight, I’d recommend following up the Westword story with this 5280 profile of Becker from 2005, which includes a chilling, first-hand account of the now infamous night Becker’s demons commanded him to lay his arms across the railroad tracks in Lower Downtown.
On that evening of Aug. 12, 1986, over a game of gin rummy with friends, Becker began to feel the chill of death in his feet, clawing its way up his body. As he added and discarded playing cards, he made a plan. Then he threw down his cards and a few dollars, ran from the room, and drove his Subaru wagon to the 15th Street viaduct.
In the dark car he stared at the nearby train tracks, mustering up the courage to carry out the voices’ ultimatum. He sprinted from his car to the tracks and–just to be safe–he deliberately, calmly pressed both arms to the quivering track. Beneath the sound of grinding metal and screeching brakes, he recited the Lord’s Prayer. In an instant, the train was upon him. The wheels tore through his flesh. Blood darkened the dirt beneath the rails.
The heavy rumbling and haunting whistle faded as Becker fell back from the tracks, battered and bloodied. He looked down at his mutilated limbs and felt a searing, powerful sense of relief. He remembers musing that he’d never play the piano.
A passerby eventually noticed Becker sitting calmly in the dark, mangled arms still dangling from his body. When the man offered help, Becker asked him to pull a cigarette from his bloody shirt pocket and light it for him. The comic smoked, slowly pulling the hot smoke into his lungs while the panicked stranger ran to find a phone.
The award-winning photo of Becker, which opens the piece, is one of the most brutally honest portraits you’ll ever see.