Ross McConnell – Part 1

Ross McConnellPHOTO CC: MJ Vilardi some rights reserved

Last month my lifelong friend Ross McConnell died near Tbilisi, Georgia in a freak traffic accident. He was on his way to a Black Sea resort in Turkey, and had just stepped off the bus at a rest stop when he was struck by a speeding minivan. He died shortly thereafter, in the “reanimator room” of a nearby hospital. Ross was 55, and had been living in Tbilisi for several years. Here is a news report by Georgian State Television, with English transcript courtesy of Ross’s friend, the expatriate writer Brian Adrian, who also lives in Tbilisi.

NOTE: The remarkable life and untimely death of Ross McConnell is the topic of our first MJville podcast. If you knew Ross and would like to share your thoughts and memories, please leave a comment on this post and we’ll work out a time for a phone or Skype conversation.

I first met Ross back in the 70’s when we were both students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I was trying to sleep off the effects of a long night of partying, when I heard a loud noise at my dorm room door. It wasn’t knocking, not even pounding, but an insane hammering, like they were tearing down the building. I peered through the peephole and spied a big guy using a brick to nail something to my door. “What the hell-?” I yelled as I swung the door open. A preserved fox face fell to the floor. This is what the mystery man – obviously inebriated – had been trying unsuccessfully to mount. Without further comment I picked up the furry mask and held it in place, while Ross nailed it securely into the wood.

Ross McConnell FoxfaceDRAWING CC: MJ Vilardi some rights reserved

I will never know how he came to acquire that fox face, or why he chose my door for it. At the time, it seemed no stranger than all the other cosmic events happening constantly at Antioch, a school that seemed, at times, to levetate. Ross and I shared a beer etc. and talked about the cosmological knowledge of ancient civilizations… Mystic Crystal Revelations late night in an undergrad dorm room… a familiar way to pass the time. Typically talks like these are fueled by beer, weed, and the sweet imagination of youth… but Ross seemed to offer the real deal: primary experience of mystical forces and divine revelations. And he knew his shit!

Ross was tall and solidly build – not like a Venice Beach muscle boy, more like the frantic, impassioned heroes in the paintings of William Blake; naked or trailing wispy gossamer long hair and beards, these figures take mountain-high steps on tree trunk legs, and implore the moon with arms that almost reach it. But Ross’s arms were almost always filled with books: rare old tomes from the collection of his grandfather (a famous WWII general); astronomical journals, the works of Plato, even a history of Atlantis by the sleeping prophet of Virginia Beach, Edgar Cayce. Ross brought plenty of theories and challenges to get us motivated… I say “us” because almost overnight Ross had himself a following: smart kids looking for inspiration (and something more interesting than the predictable liberal art curriculum were were getting). Some of these kids had rich parents, so intoxicants were always available to keep our reality engine adequately lubricated…

Ross and I taught two classes together, and used our “instructor” status to rent films at educational rates for free showing to classes. But we’d publicize them campus-wide, and charge admission, using the money to rent better films. Extra profits funded extravagant pre-film parties with spiked punch and electric brownies … it was the 70’s, after all. Eventually we could even afford Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, which we showed in Main Hall with yours truly manning the giant projector. Tense moments (audience riot) when, during the crucial ape scene, the film got stuck under the hot-as-the-sun xenon bulb and some frames burned. At least one person in the crowd thought it was the end of the world, because there were screams. Ross calmly locked the projection booth door and together we figured out how to splice the film back together and get the massive Simplex projector running again.

Other films in our series included:

  • Titicutt Follies
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • Metropolis
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
  • Greaser’s Palace (hard to find now, but truly worth seeing)

And then our season finale: The Paranoia Festival. Anyone unwilling to experience true paranoia should stay away, we warned. Of course the warning just made the event irresistible, and we sold out in two days.

We started with a huge party that, in one way or another, left most of the folks in an altered state of some kind. Then the first flick: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which a small group of friends slowly realize that their town is being taken over by pod people: they’re replicates from outer space that grown in pods to look like you — when they hatch, the human goes bye-bye. “There’s yours. Do you want to watch it grow?”

The second film was a campy ’50’s Cold War terror play, Red Nightmare, in which a nice suburban man (Jack Webb) wakes up one morning to discover that his entire town — even his own wife and son! — have become communists!!! A little scarier than the first film because of the political implications.

The final film was the French documentary Night and Fog, an award-winning and horrific, unflinching look at the worst atrocities committed by the Nazi in the death camps during WWII. The mood of the audience changed immediately. There was squirming, crying, jumping up from seats … especially when, midway through the film Ross and I switched on powerful searchlights mounted on the balconies and played the beams over the crowd.

The Paranoia Festival was designed to transition the audience from laughs and entertainment, to apprehension and gnawing fear, to the awful realization that sometimes the paranoids are right. Sometimes evil forces ARE out to get you, and if you don’t run away when you have the chance, you die. It’s a harsh lesson. For some, it was too much.

We got a little flack from the administration about the way we ran the film screenings, but that was mild compared to the ass-whipping we caught for our two classes. “Irregularities” and “non-conformance to College standards” were mentioned more than once. Threats of revoked credits and even expulsion were waved around for a bit, but in the end nobody was stung too badly. Stay tuned for the story of how we hijacked an entire class and took them 2000 miles from Ohio to San Francisco in the middle of a semester. I chat with Tim Leary’s wife, crack up Carl Sagan, and kiss the hand of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Ross McConnell 2 — coming soon. Please check back in a day or two, or subscribe to our RSS feed so you’ll know when there’s fresh content.


  1. Grace Bennett said:

    on June 28, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    If I close my eyes very very tightly and think back to the Antioch Dorm Ross McConnell frequented…I can still smell the stench of his feet….or perhaps it was the stench of the boots his feet were in before they (the boots) litered the floor of MJ’s room…What was the big deal about this oversized feeding machine called Ross? We just never hit it off…but flocks of students looked to him as a leader. I must have missed something, somewhere….Well, at least he didn’t chicken out for “The Streaker Picture..” there he was, NAKED with DARK SUNGLASSES..and he seemed pretty tolerant and accepting of all kinds of other people…almost an innocence about others…Calm and wide-eyed…but those smelly feet! What was THAT all about?!

  2. MJ said:

    on June 28, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Hi Grace

    You’re right about those feet! That is one sense memory that never dies! And he certainly was an “oversized feeding machine.” You had to eat fast around Ross, because he would consume every morsel in sight. And the negatives get worse, really, as I will describe in the continuation of this post: alcoholism, self-sabotage, and a maddening arrogance that made him almost impossible to live with. Yet–

    He had an energy, intellectual curiosity, and exalted perspective that generated excitement, and made those around him experience the universe as a much larger place. There were times when he really inspired me to push my creative powers further.

    And times when his ego and drunkenness drove me to despair. But I loved him like a brother, smelly feet and all.

  3. Harry Young said:

    on July 16, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Per Dr. Baum in The Testament Of Dr Mabuse, Ross McConnell was, The Messenger, the Archetype, the Superman who alone could save us, the One Man who could build, could create… a New State of Being. He left us the plans to create the New Order, the New World.

    Inspector Lohman: Do you have these plans?

    Dr. Baum: No.

    Ross: It all ties in:
    Le Petit Diable Ashtaroth, Gematria, Greek, Hebrew and English Numerology, Notarikon, Themura, Clearly these numerical sequences shew simplicity, order and harmony in design, Marcolis, the Cubit Stone, the Canon of Ancient Egyptian Proportions, Xipe, Our Lord The Flayed One, The Great Old Ones, The Mind Parasites, Moloch, Mabuse…

    Ross on alcohol: I know a poison when I see it.

  4. Juliana Swanson née Haynes (AKA "Julie") said:

    on July 17, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Greetings, to Ross and all who love him!

    Ross’ spirit came and told me he was moving on. He also sent me here today during the Grace Light Full Moon to share the juicy Ross Vibe.

    Ross and I “lost touch” over the years, but I have always cherished my secret memories of our good lovin’ times at Antioch and beyond. I hardly remember smelly feet because he was my heart-throb.

    When we broke off our love fest, it took some powerful witchcraft to help me get over him. Well, part of me never did get over him because we are soul family.

    There is no death, so party on, and let us celebrate Ross’s life with these wise words of Don van Vliet, one of our old favorites back in the day~

    I like the way the doo dads fly
    With just a kiss I blew you up into the marrow sky
    Twirled n’ swirled ripe like rotten gold
    Cold like silver in a bed stream, trees cracked like egg creams
    The swarm wet green fingery hives
    I like the way the doo dad flies
    Neopolitan landscape runs wet my eyes
    I like the way the doo dads fly
    The pink startled morning giggles just ahead behind the bush
    A dark hollow echo streams
    Views me from a circle formed of fiber eyes
    Speak seek n’ sing babble, magnify
    Like wet shapeless babies
    Clearly the dew drops cry
    Spill n’ pass from hand to hand
    N’ layed gently ready to explode
    N’ the sand combed streamed
    N’ the trouts blur like herdled sperm rainbows
    Bubbles like glass spurs paddle ‘neath the foot bridge
    Lily’s pad bulb, orange spotty
    Frogs lick God’s lucky green tongue
    Dragon flies bi-planes
    The sun hung like a lone orange
    N’ a blue tree fell over ripe into the sea
    N’ swam like a giant starfish

    Thank you, Ross, with all my heart here now.

  5. Bryan Adrian said:

    on October 12, 2008 at 9:11 am



    Ross, It is like a huge crater here in Tbilisi now without your massive bear-like presense. What a surprise. 110 minutes after you phoned me from the bus you were riding on towards Trabzon , Turkey, you bent over to pick something up at the first rest stop, that dropped out of your bag, or pocket, and you put your head right in the way of a speeding minivan.

    What did you drop onto the road, Ross? What do you want me to do with all your books? I have watched you collect books and photos and movie production equipment for over 20 years now. Just let your live-in housecleaner sell it like used stereo equipment? Miss Nino here a Lingua House said to remind you that all those classic and collectible Russian books I lent you, from our/her Lingua House collection, should be returned, if you ever get the chance. By the way Ross, i found 4 cheap and clean and reliable hotels for you in Trabzon, after you phoned me at 10:30am, and had the addresses written down for you by noon. When you didn’t pick up your cell phone…..I thought you were disregarding all calls cause you were so damned happy on that bus.

    They told me on your cell phone –after your accident –that “he only hurt his hand and it is not serious”. Man did it hurt when 2 hours later when the chief of police of Haskhuri told me on your same cell phone “he just passed away”. It came out of the blue like a lightening bolt. Miss Nino here nearly cried. She and i were at the Tbilisi Zoo with some children and Jeffrey was there too. He says “hi” and how is the weather up there? Jeffrey also wanted you to know that he and I arranged for 2 reporters to go out to Haskhuri and 2 to Lingua House — where Miss Nino and me praised your talents and uniqueness –on camera — and they also sent a camera team out to where you died; they filmed the two old street vendor ladies who witnessed your accident, and the head nurse of the hospital where they took you, and the spot where you dropped something and stooped into traffic to pick it up. I had on-hand to show the reporters only two photos of you wearing my Turkish hat, remember, after my Istabul trip, you tried on your aviator sunglasses too, and so, the 5-minute piece on you on National News [8:23pm to 8:28pm, Monday night on Georgian State TV, Pirveli] made you look more like a Turkish expert rather than a Georgian expert. Sorry about that slip up Ross, but i did not have time to hunt down any other photographs, the reporters were in a hurry to meet their deadline. You and me often spoke of the spirit world ross, together you and me, over many liters of wine, here in Georgia.

    If there is a spirit world, Ross, you betta send me a message or two, won’t you? Don’t welsch on me Bro. Bryan

    Bryan Adrian ( Tbilisi )

  6. Mark Malmberg said:

    on March 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I’m so heart-broken to have found this page. I knew “Rosco” from the early 70’s, when he would visit a group of friends at Ohio U. in Athens, Ohio. The stories are many – we burned holes through clouds together looking for Kahoutec, and I remember hearing how just before I met him he had made a series of visits to this group of friends with a large bag of opium to which he got everyone addicted, then disappeared. He spent some periods of time sharing the dorm room I was in – he was so energized and physical that the room just didn’t seem like it could contain him as he did jumping exercises back and forth over a wooden chair. He and someone from the film school made a film in which I had a bit part, wherein I think he played the outlaw dealer we named “Chulo” and somewhere therein I came flying out the door and off the porch of his hideout shack on my motorcycle with Bruce Mitchell on the back with a machine gun to fend off the attacking federal agents. Someone, maybe Mark Clark, was one of the agents and had a 50 mm elephant gun someone had come up with, out there in those Ohio hills.

    Once when I visited him at a farm he was living in, down in West Virginia, I let him ride my bike and he burned out the clutch so bad, when I opened it up it all fell out like burnt toast; he was duly embarrassed but it was all in good fun…

    When I first met Rosco, friends had been gathering up all their food and all their recreational drugs and piling them on a table chanting “Rosco”, to summon him. They said that every time they did this, he would show up within the next day. It wasn’t ’til much later I figured out that it had been him, summoning them to gather up the supplies he would need. He was so voracious at that time that he would eat everything available, down to uncooked beans or whatever it might be.

    Every few years over the past 25 or so, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to track him down. About 22 years ago I made contact one year with his father who directed me to his mother who gave me a number I called, up in Washington state, where he was passing through on his way to an epic journey to make a film about the psychedelic rituals of indigenous people around the world. We had a great phone call, with promises of getting together next time he was in California; that was the last I spoke to him.

    I’m happy to hear Ross continued his adventures, and his making of new friends, and can only hope to reconnect somewhere on the other side…

  7. MJ said:

    on March 9, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Hi Mark — Anyone who spent time with Ross will appreciate the characteristics you note in these great stories. The guy was not only physically big, his cosmic perspective made US feel the texture of an expanding universe. Is that why we all put up with so much shit from him? Could be…

  8. Lee Barckmann said:

    on October 4, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I think I must be the first person from Oregon to find this page.

    I googled him this morning, I think because I saw something in a news article about a McConnell, probably that gasbag Republican Senator, and it made think of Ross. I find he’s been dead for almost 18 months and I missed the memorial which I would have found a way to go to if I could …

    I had been living in Eugene a couple of years when I met him. I moved there with intentions of writing the great novel of our generation, but I smoked too much dope and what came out of the typewriter never seemed as good as it seemed when it was being typed.

    I hung out with other ‘artists’ and fell in with some filmmakers. That was where I met Ross. I discovered he was smarter than he acted and loved to dive into discussions of history and conspiracy and how it intersects with our lives. His appetites were huge – he was a big guy with immense energy and I guess I am not surprised to see he made it to 55 with his powers still intact. That gives me a sense of solace – I was afraid when he left Eugene in the early 80’s he was destined to flame out – thank God he didn’t.

    Ross had many friends and one of his most endearing qualities was his ability to make all of his friends feel special, like they were his real true friend. That was certainly true in my case. We had the usual adventures together – drunken double dating where things sometimes got confusing as the night wore on. We took lots of drugs, back when drugs were profound explorations rather than merely a way to take the edge off. I see some posts that talk about his alcoholism and self-destructiveness and in some ways he was my angel of redemption – the idea of every getting out of that race to oblivion never seemed to occur to him and I think that might have forced it to occur to me. I couldn’t havr lasted as long as he did so I had to cut back on my imbibing.

    I think a lot of people found themselves measuring themselves against the infinite yardstick of Ross. He had huge dreams, dreams that wouldn’t scale to anybodies life. He never scaled them back and watching him I guess I realized that it was possible to have dreams and still scale them back enough to live in this world.

    His energy was promethean – He clearly continued the way he was going. Back in 1980-81 (On October 12, 1981) about 5 – or 6 of us (3 of them women, who certainly held up their end as far as they possibly could) drank 45 bottles of Champagne I think his birthday was in mid October as was mine so it was kind of a BD party – I seems incredible now – a night like that would kill me.

    He was a good athlete too – I remember towering home runs he hit playing league softball in Eugene. Not a bad glove either.

    The parties at his oversized apartment across from Max’s tavern on 13th Street were legendary – Robert Crea and Curtis Salgado (the inspiration for Blues Brother’s) would be playing, Ken Kesey would show up – we were both in our early 30s single and with big plans. But then he moved to DC. I guess Eugene was too small for him, or maybe it was his creditors, I was never sure – Where from what I understand he set up shop the same as here in Eugene – old truck up on blocks, deteriorating film stock in the fridge, where he continued to study Russian.

    He was the one of the inspirations for me to study Chinese and go to China in 1985. If he could learn Russian I could learn Chinese I thought. At least it was his vision of the faltering communist world as a place to go to see because that was where the action would be over the next 10-20 yr. The gap between what he knew and how unserious he took him self because of his knowledge was the largeet gap I have every known. That was inspriational too – in a way it was almost Zen like. He did the Russian thing, in DC hanging out with the Russian Émigrés – at least that was what I gather from letters and phone calls (collect) he made before I took off to China..

    Not much else to say – I wish I could have found him before the end. I wish he would have read my novel. I wish he was sitting here now, smelly feet and all.

  9. MJ said:

    on October 5, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Lee, thanks for the reflections on our mutual friend Ross McConnell.

    You’re right, he did have a way of making each of his friends feel like that “really special” friend. Those big dreams of his always pushed me to dream bigger, as Ross would jibe: “Well MJ I think you should be operating on a higher level of sophistication.” No matter what I proposed, Ross would find a way to outflank the idea, making it better, but often undoable.

    When he moved to DC he and I became business partners in a film company for a (short) while. Can you imagine that? In one of our first client meetings I quoted a reasonable price and Ross said: “MJ we could do it for half that much!” We did produce a funny music video together, as well as a handful of other projects. After an exhausting shoot day we walked around DuPont Circle smoking cigars and Ross noted that a good day of film production “makes you feel like a superman, like you’re floating over the ground.”

    Fascinating that he inspired you to learn Chinese and visit China. I spent some time there in 1989 too –– just before the uprising, when it seemed like a quiet revolution of political and social freedom was beginning to blossom. Then Tiananmen Square …

    Sorry you missed the memorial. I will finally get around to blogging about it (now, a year later)… it was an odd affair, but Ross would have appreciated the awkward moments.

    I saw your novel on Amazon. it looks fascinating. Congrats! Too bad I didn’t know you a few months ago, I was just in Portland on a project. Let’s keep in touch!

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