No post in nearly 2 months! What’s wrong with me? Did I die? Has something horrible happened? No, quite the contrary. I’ve been busy with moving. I also slowed down on posting a bit to start working on a full fledged memoir. We’ll see how that turns out. Still, writing all this stuff feels good and I think I’ll keep doing it now that I’m settled.

I’ve recently moved to Nashville, which has been an aspiration of mine for a while. I think I may have mentioned several posts back that I was a songwriter as a kid (among other things) – pushing out cheesy MIDI demos and throwing them at anyone who even stopped to look at me. I was billed (by mom, and – somewhat reluctantly – by myself) as a Kid Genius. A Boy Wonder. A Musical Prodigy. It made me feel like a gimmick, like a circus act. But somehow, I got attention. Publishers listened. Although nobody took my songs, they were supportive and offered advice. Except for one. Moving to Nashville has put me in mind of that incident, and it got me thinking I ought to confront it.

I remember getting off the phone and being totally psyched – a friend of a friend knew the head of a giant publishing house. He had agreed to meet me one on one and listen to my music. My friend had graciously talked me up, and piqued his interest. I began to suspect later that the publisher’s interest was more in the vein of arm twisting than interest, but that’s neither here nor there.

I brought my best songs along – all in all, about ten – and mentally tried to prepare myself for a meeting. I hoped that he would listen to some of these songs (which I was sure were hits, because I was a Boy Genius) and decide to give me a publishing deal or something. At minimum, I thought it would be a contact I could pitch music to later. My biggest contact, certainly – I had never set foot in such a big publishing firm, much less seen the top guy’s office. I waited in the lobby for him, and was surprised when he came from the street instead of the elevators. He brushed past a secretary trying to give him a message and flicked his hand my way. Come on, it said. Let’s go. I’m a Very Busy Person. I’ve been around my share of Very Busy People (or Very Important Persons, or Very Late Persons), so right off the bat I knew my time was limited. We rode up in the elevator together, and I tried to break the ice with him.

“How was your drive in?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said, glancing at his watch.

For all I knew, he wasn’t even aware I was in the elevator with him. He was staring silently at the doors. Unable to read his mood, I canned the banter and rode all the way up in silence.

When he got to his office, he seemed to relax a little bit. I could see him expand, almost like a peacock. He gestured for me to take a seat across from his desk, and I did. He kicked his  feet up on his desk, and I was surprised to see scuffed white tennis shoes as opposed to something more fitting for someone of his caliber. I looked around the room at the gold and platinum records hanging on the walls, the nicely appointed furnishings. I looked at the large window behind him and saw the city beneath us. I felt like I had arrived. Maybe not at my final destination, but certainly I was in the presence of greatness. And certainly, that greatness would recognize the same in me.

I watched him settle into his office chair (leather, of course) and stroke his salt and pepper goatee.

“Well. Let’s hear what you got,” he said, lacing his hands across his midriff.

I pulled out what I considered to be my best song. Russ had advised me against doing this, for whatever reason – he insisted I should always lead with my second best song, and then surprise them with a really good one. I wanted to impress right off the bat, though, and I hit him with my equivalent of heavy artillery. I listened as my song snaked its way through the boom box speakers. I had heard it many times, of course – was even sick of it by now – but to hear it in that space was a rush. I tried to read his face as he listened to the song.

“It sucks,” he said, jamming his finger on the EJECT button.

I was speechless. I went over the song again in my head, trying to examine it for flaws. I did see some, but I didn’t think it “sucked” by any stretch. He plopped the tape in my hand.

“Next,” he said.

I carefully selected the next song – one I thought would surely get his attention if this one didn’t. I don’t think it even made it through the first chorus before his sausage finger had jammed the EJECT button again.

“No. Heard the same song fifty times already. And every one was better than this.”

Again, the tape was deposited into my reluctant palm.

I studied his face, but found it rather stoic. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t hostile. He was just matter of fact. That’s what made the shredding I was taking worse.

He raised his eyebrows, indicating that he was ready to hear more. I gave him another one – this one was an uptempo about a factory worker who was forced into retirement. Every other publisher had been positive about it, assuring me that my writing was “heading in the right direction”. He listened through the first chorus and stopped the tape again. It echoed like a gunshot.

He was shaking his head. It was the type of weary reaction you might give to a dog that has shit on the carpet so frequently that it wasn’t a surprise anymore.

“No. Just,” he seemed to be searching for words. “Where are you from again?”

Philly,” I said, which was more or less true. Nobody outside of the area would have known the suburb I was from anyway.

“Philly.” he repeated, in a tone I couldn’t quite discern.

I waited for him to gather his thoughts.

“You know what they make in Philly?” he asked

I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question or not. I didn’t answer.

“Cream cheese. You know what they don’t make in Philly?”

I was doing my best to maintain eye contact – the treacherous orbs in my head wanted to look everywhere else but the face sitting across the desk.

Country music.” He slapped the tape on his desk, and slid it across to me. The plastic cackled against the wood grain.

“You’re from north of the border. You understand? You don’t get country. You don’t play country. You don’t live it. Go do something else.”

Tired of struggling, my eyes were studying the pattern of the expensive rug beneath my feet.

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked sullenly.

“If you want to be a writer, go write rock or something in California. You don’t belong here,” his voice was matter of fact. A judge passing a sentence.

“You got more to show me?”

I did, but I most certainly did not want to continue to be eviscerated. Still, I passed him another tape. Within the first few seconds, he was already shaking his head.

“You’re nowhere near the caliber of writers here. No. Anything else?”

I shrugged. I had at least three more songs, but I didn’t want to hear how awful they were. I tried to stammer something about how I was pretty good for my age, and I had no doubt I would only grow as a writer. He looked at me impassively, then scanned some printed lyrics I had passed him earlier.  Studying my contact info (listed neatly at the top) he tried to pronounce my last name and got a reasonable (though incorrect) approximation.

“You a Jew?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“No…” I said.

“Huh,” he grunted, as if he thought I might not be telling the truth, but it didn’t matter much to him either way. Suddenly he was up on his feet.

“Well. Nice meeting you.”

“You too.” I mumbled.

We rode back down on the elevator together. There was no conversation. He was staring at the doors, and I was staring at my feet.  I felt like my face was burning up, and certainly my ego was stinging. He was tapping his foot, as if that would make the elevator go faster.

On the way out the door, I stopped him to shake his hand.

“Next time I’m in town, would it be okay if I stopped by with some new songs?” I asked.

“Sure,” his voice said. But his face said “Don’t bother.”

He walked out, whistling.

Shell shocked, I walked out to our idling Ford Escort. Mom was behind the wheel, her seat reclined.

“How’d it go?” she asked excitedly.

“Uh…fine,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it.

“Did he like it? Did he say he’d pitch any of the songs?” she pressed.

“Um,” I said, trying to find words, “he wasn’t really interested.”

Mom’s reaction was almost comical. She practically slammed on the brakes and pulled over.

“He wasn’t interested!?” she practically shrieked in surprise, “What did you play him?”

I told her I played him almost everything. I listened while she rattled on – what went wrong, what I should have said, that I should have argued with him about how good the songs really were – but I didn’t have the energy to interact. I was totally deflated.

To say I went home with my tail between my legs is an understatement. I spiraled into a black depression that lasted for six months. Plenty of people thought I was good – plenty supported me. Hell, I even had an open door to some publishers whenever I was in town. But this. This hurt. And it carried more weight, because he was a Very Important Person.

My writing stagnated. I didn’t stop writing completely, exactly – mom and Russ still pushed me to come up with songs every week – but my efforts were halfhearted and sparse. I convinced myself that I must have sucked pretty hard to warrant that reaction. I went back and listened to all the songs I had written, and read the lyrics. I furiously hated them all. There’s a story that Picasso spent months on a series of paintings, and an art dealer came over to look at them. He marveled at Picasso’s work. After he left, Picasso slashed every painting with a box cutter. I don’t claim to be Picasso, but I completely understand.

It took me a long time to get over that, and even longer to be willing to come back to Nashville. I took the man’s lukewarm advice, and began to write pop/rock. I even had some success. I’ve learned a lot in the fifteen years since, though. I learned that I wasn’t ready, at age sixteen, to be a writer in this town. I was good – probably great for my age – but truly, I wasn’t on the level of some of the greats. So, in that sense, some of what the publisher told me was true. He was, I suppose, just being unvarnished and direct. Or, he was an asshole. I still haven’t decided. I’ve also heard writer’s tell tales of publishers who ripped you apart – really ran you through the wringer – because they wanted to see what you were made of. They wanted to see if you had the drive to come back even stronger. Write a better song, maybe. I don’t know if that works on most people, but it certainly didn’t work on me. If he was looking to see what I was made of, he discovered it – the black jelly of depression and self criticism. The stuff that quits, and can’t get out of bed or shower.

I’ve exorcized some of those demons, I think. Medication helps. If you’ve read the blog at any length, you know I had a lot of them to deal with. Maybe this meeting was just icing on the cake – the final straw in a mountain of straws that created a shit avalanche.

I’ve also learned that self criticism has a place, but it’s important to keep it in it’s place. The opinions of others – both the criticism and the praise – also has a place. And it matters, but not as much as you might think it does. I’ve decided to do the best I can. I always gave the criticism such weight, and paid no attention to praise. That’s not healthy. Neither is the converse. The answer – at least, I think – is to do the best you can. Of the criticism and praise, use what you can and forget the rest. Be happy with your art, and don’t let it be influenced by too many opinions.

And it doesn’t matter how nice of an office you have. You can still be an asshole.

 

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

Life defines us, not always but what happens, but by what doesn’t happen. When I look back, a lot of things almost happened to me – some good, some bad. My dad almost killed me a couple times. He didn’t. My grandfather almost took a hot stock tip back in the 50’s that would have made us all millionaires. He didn’t. We almost moved to L.A. – according to Mom, at least one agent begged us to go out there. We didn’t. I always liked the West Coast, and wonder what might have been different. When I was 13, I almost made music and film history. Almost.

After Tim wrapped up Les Mis, he ended up booking a movie – his first. Uncle Richard was so proud he could have burst, and I thought he was already proud as hell he to see Tim on Broadway. I remember him coming out to see the show one winter. He was bundled up in a long black topcoat and scarf – he looked like a gentleman who stepped out from a different time. Anyway, I was writing everything back then – I wrote songs based on books I was reading, on movies I watched…I literally was writing anything and everything. Sometimes I was inspired, sometimes I was just trying to fill my quota of writing a song a day, and naturally needing something substantial to show Mom and Russ. Anyway, I don’t know how this got into my head, exactly, but I got the idea that I could get my foot in the door by writing a theme song for a movie. Theme songs were kind of a thing at that point – not every movie had them, but a lot of them did. It helped sell soundtracks, and movie tickets. Anyway, I read the script for the movie and I loved it. In a brief fit of inspiration, I wrote a song loosely based on the movie. At the time, it was one of the best songs I’d ever written (I was 13). I played it for Russ, and he flipped.

Russ: This is pretty good, Danny! You should change this…

He leaned over with a pencil and crossed out a line. He wrote something new above it.

Russ: I think that looks better.

Mom was excited, practically bouncing up and down in her seat.

Mom: Do you think it could get in the movie?

Russ: Maybe! We should record a demo and pitch it to them.

We went into the studio the very next week and recorded a demo. I was “handling” the business end of things myself by that point, so I talked to the director personally. When I say “handling”, what I mean is, I made the decisions and the phone calls, and Mom second guessed them and/or suggested things I should have said instead (Did you tell them you’re a genius? A prodigy?). I explained to the director that this song would make music and film history, in one fell swoop – it would put his movie on the map, at least in terms of the record books. He was very intrigued, and began to seriously consider the song. Granted, he had so much going on – hell, he was directing a film for God’s sake – and I don’t think a theme song was on the top of his mind. But I was flattered and emboldened that he even considered it seriously.

He eventually came back and suggested we do some different things with the song – maybe make it more general, maybe not have the title of the movie in the song, etc. Thus began a series of rewrites and different incarnations of the song. I tried a full on gospel version, sung by an African-American choir. I tried a blues/gospel version, with a semi locally famous soul singer. I tried a country version, a pop version…you name it. Mom had even decided – for whatever reason – that we should do one with Tim and I singing together as a duet. It was horrible. I mean, really horrible. Tim and I hated doing it, and he objected the entire time. We finished the recording, shoved along by Mom and the fact that we were actually paying for studio time – time spent arguing on the clock was money wasted. Still, that recording haunts my dreams. I don’t wake up in a cold sweat over it anymore – thanks to years of therapy –  but trust me, I am mentally and emotionally scarred.

Anyway, none of these versions seemed “right” to the director – who definitely seemed interested in doing something with the song. He pointed us to the movie studio, who gave us some insight.

Studio Executive: We don’t really want to put any money into this.

Me: Okay…

Studio Executive: Basically…if you find a big name artist who wants to sing it…we’d be interested.

So, essentially, they wanted it gift wrapped, with a bow on it and delivered to their door. I had zero contacts with “big name artists”, so how the hell was this going to happen? Still, that didn’t deter me – I was a ballsy little fucker. I spent hundreds of hour tracking down info on people – specifically, managers of artists who might be interested in singing the song. It was risky – most artists don’t want to be pitched to directly. They want to hear from a reputable publisher or record label guy. They don’t want some 13 year old off the street to throw a demo in their faces, explain what a genius he is, and ask them to sing his song. Still, that’s what I did. And – amazingly – I had some success. I’m not saying it was easy. For every 30 people I called, I got 1 “maybe”. But I worked the hell out of those maybes. My “script” for talking to people went something like this.

Me: Hi, I’m a 13 year old genius songwriter trying to make music and film history. I’m writing the theme song for an upcoming movie starring my brother and released by a major Hollywood studio. I’m currently looking for a high profile artist to sing it. Would you or your client possibly be interested?

I got it all in in one breath, if I could – if you gave them an opening to say “no”, the game was over. I had no shame. Of the people that asked me to send them a demo, only about half took me seriously. Keep in mind, I was negotiating directly with adults – seasoned entertainment attorneys and agents – and I wasn’t even shaving yet.

Of the people I met with, a couple stick out in my mind. The first was an agent out of Nashville, who worked with quite a few singers. I don’t remember how we got in touch with him, exactly, but he listened as Mom and I sat across the desk from him.

Agent: I’ve got a couple people I want to pitch this to. Let me see what I can do.

He played it for Bob Carlisle – of “Butterfly Kisses” fame – who loved it and wanted to cut it. Unfortunately, he had just finished cutting an album so there was no real way for him to record it. Still, it was an open door for me in Nashville.

In the meantime, Mom invited the director over for dinner – Grandma was a hell of a cook – on the premise that we would discuss the theme song possibilities with him. We asked Russ if he would be there – he had a lot of musical experience, and he had several hit songs under his belt. Him being there and talking to the director may have made an important impact.

Russ: This is a great idea. Yeah, I’ll be there. When is it?

Mom told him.

Russ: Great, great. I’ll clear my schedule, guys. Hey, by the way, do you have the number for the studio executive you’ve been talking to? I might want to give her a call…

We passed along the info to him.

The night of the dinner, the director and his wife showed up – we had a lovely time. A place was set for Russ, right near the head of the table – between me and the director. It was empty the entire night. Mom called Russ several times, and got no response.

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

I don’t know whether she was assuring the director, or assuring herself. For my part, I didn’t feel terribly assured. I tried to call him, too…left a couple messages. We never heard back.

I soldiered on the best I could, but I was a kid who had literally done nothing in the field – it was hard to be taken seriously. Especially when the director kept staring at the place setting where Russ was supposed to be. Whether this was true or not, I felt Russ’s silence damning everything I said. It was almost the opposite of a ringing endorsement, and I felt judged. Inch by inch, I shrank in stature throughout the night – or at least I felt I did – in the director’s estimation. I’m sure he wondered, as I did, just where the hell Russ even was. Besides, if this was such a good thing, wouldn’t someone of Russ’s caliber be there endorsing it?

The night ended pleasantly – the director and his wife were very nice. But what started out earlier in the evening as a positive tone regarding my song ended with “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

Russ: Oh, was that last weekend? I thought it was this upcoming weekend.

Mom: But you cleared your schedule for it. Remember?

Russ: Oh, yeah…

He made some jokes, and Mom quickly forgot that she was upset in the first place. I didn’t forget. I hadn’t decided yet if Russ was completely unreliable or actually trying to hinder my progress, but the wheels were turning in my head. Looking back, I see a third possibility: He wanted nothing to do with my loopy mother. If I had asked him to come along to a one on one meeting between me and the director, I think he might have – provided Mom wasn’t involved. Considering, though, that Mom was a helicopter parent of the worst order – and obsessed with Russ, to boot – that wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway, I somehow managed to get through to LeAnn Rimes’s manager, who expressed an interest and wanted to meet. He invited me backstage to meet with him before a show. Again, Mom put her faith – wrongly – in Russ. She told him when the meeting was going to take place, and where.

Mom: Will you be there this time?

Russ: Oh, yeah. This is a big deal.

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

I asked too, but my faith was shaken. I fervently hoped he wouldn’t let me down again, but I had a feeling he would.

The day of the meeting came, and Russ was nowhere to be found. We went to his studio, but his car wasn’t there. Hoping for the best, I knocked on the door. No answer. The lights were off, the doors were locked. How could he forget such an important meeting? We called him, no answer there either. Mom left a few long winded messages – I tried to tell her that wasn’t going to help, but she did it anyway. Mom made me leave a message of my own, and I did so with great reluctance. I was pissed and disappointed. Stressed, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I called Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: I can be there in 5 minutes. Just let me get ready.

Me: Really?

Uncle Richard: Yes. I can tell them I’m your agent. That way you’ll at least have someone credible. I don’t know much about the music business, but it may help.

Relief flushed through me. Whatever came, I knew I could depend on Uncle Richard. I told him I’d talk about it with Mom and call him back.

Mom: I don’t think it will help. Besides, it may be a test.

Me: A test?

Mom: Russ and the Mafia might want to see how well you do on your own.

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

I knew this was no test from Russ – and I doubted the actual Mafia cared enough to orchestrate one.  This was negligence, as far as I was concerned – I hadn’t yet decided whether it was malicious negligence or Russ was simply down at the race track or something. I called Uncle Richard back. Though I really wanted him there, I did as I was bid and declined his offer. He wished me luck, and gave me some pointers .

Uncle Richard: Look them right in the eye. you’re their equal. You’re not some snot nosed brat…you know what you’re doing.

I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing – not having any backup shook me. Still, cancelling the meeting was out of the question. Excited, scared, and disappointed, I walked into the meeting backstage. I asked for the manager, and waited amongst crews moving equipment. When he appeared, he seemed perplexed. I think he was looking for an adult – an agent or manager or some other representative. I don’t think he wanted to deal with a 13 year old kid, and I don’t think he took me seriously. Taking Uncle Richard’s advice, I squared my shoulders and went into my speech: I was a 13 year old boy genius and this was an opportunity to make music and film history and the studio wanted a name artist attached to the song and LeAnn would just be perfect, and blah blah blah.

He was polite enough, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. He asked for some lyrics and a demo tape – which I was obviously prepared with. He said he’d listen to the tape and think about it some more. I walked away hopeful, but I had a feeling it didn’t go as well as it could have. When I tried to make followup calls, I was shunted right to voice mail or told he was unavailable, and never got a phone call back. After a few weeks of this, I got the picture and stopped calling. To the uninitiated, this may seem rude, but it actually wasn’t. That’s how business is – if they’re interested, you hear. If they’re not…they’re not going to waste their time calling you and telling you “no”. I didn’t take it personally, I just moved on.

At the next lesson, we again asked Russ where in the hell he was.

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

Mom never held his feet to the fire, never asked him hard questions, never took him to task for things like this. It didn’t matter how pissed she was, when she saw him, she just melted into a puddle of puppy love.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really hold him to account either – and when I did, it was extremely polite and in a roundabout way – but that’s because I was afraid of reprisals from Mom for upsetting Russ. I was genuinely upset this time, though, and I really wanted to know what was so important.

Me: So what, uh, what did you have going on? Nothing bad, I hope…

He took a moment to consider.

Russ: Uh, my brother Joe had to go to the hospital.

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

I mumbled that I was sorry. Not that Joe wasn’t sick – he may have been – but Russ had three go-to excuses: Either Joe was sick, or a pipe burst in his basement, or he twisted his ankle going up the stairs. In the 20+ years I knew the guy, I probably heard each excuse hundreds of times. Mom – who had been so agitated before the lesson – was now as calm and meek as a sunbathing kitten. She sat there making googly eyes at Russ throughout the entire lesson.

Russ: Oh, hey…do you have LeAnn’s manager’s number?

I kept a poker face, but I was incensed. He had nothing to do with the meeting – I had gotten that contact myself, worked for it myself, and even met with the guy all on my own. And Russ wanted to piggyback off my success? Fuck him.

Me: I may have lost it. He never called me back, so.

Mom and Russ both looked shocked – they expected me to jump and say “of course!”. Anything less – at least to Mom – was heresy. I could see the panic in her eyes. She was worried about not giving Russ what he wanted. It was all in her mind, though, because really…what was he going to do? Her fear, I think, was wrapped up in her delusional world – that the Mafia was connected with Russ and could make or break my career, that we needed to watch our Ps and Qs, that we were being watched and tested, etc.

Mom: I can dig it up. I’ll get it for you.

I was openly glaring at her.

I sincerely hoped that she’d forget about the whole thing, but she didn’t.

Mom: Russ wants that number…did you get it for him?

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

Me: I doubt it. He probably wants to try to pitch his own stuff. He couldn’t even be bothered to come to dinner, let alone a meeting with this guy. No. He’s not getting the number.

Mom: But he could be calling to help you! To make up for the fact that he wasn’t there!

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

At the following week’s lesson – despite having several private discussions with her about my wishes – I watched in horror as she opened the address book and recited the number to Russ. I was freaking furious. In the car, I practically yelled at her.

Me: What the hell do you think you’re doing? I asked you not to give him the number!

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

Me: You couldn’t help it? Oh my God, Mom. It was so easy. Just don’t give him the number.

Mom: I know, but when I get around Russ….you know.

I knew. I shook my head and glowered the entire ride home.
In the end, I almost made music and film history. Almost. The song didn’t get picked up by anybody, despite my Herculean efforts. Even if it had, I don’t think the movie studio would have been down with putting it in the movie – turned out, the movie sort of bombed. They knew it was a bomb, and put off its release for several years. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I was pretty crushed it didn’t happen. I was only going to be 13 once, and only going to have this chance once. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about this stuff. I do. But I think of it less often than I used to, and I guess that’s good. I’ve also started to think of it more positively – it got me experience, and certainly allowed me to cut my teeth in the adult world. You don’t always get what you want, I suppose, and maybe my life would have been totally different – in a negative way – if I had.

I think I’ve mentioned before that Mom got deeply involved with psychics. Like a lot of things in her life, it went in cycles – sometimes she’d be very into it, maybe for months or a year. Then she’d decide (seemingly randomly) that they “didn’t know anything” and she’d quit going. But when she was into it…she was into it. Weekly sessions, the whole nine yards.

We were driving through town, and Mom noticed a building with a sign out front: Readings by Ann. She practically pulled the car over right away.

Mom: That’s the psychic from the beach! The one that knew everything!

I was skeptical. The psychic Mom had met so many years ago (see this post) had grown to legendary proportions. Mom had difficulty keeping most conversations straight – she would frequently add stuff that wasn’t said or didn’t happen, citing it as fact. Almost everything that happened since, Mom would nod to herself in affirmation.

Mom: The psychic said this would happen.

Me: Oh, really?

And then I’d hear Mom repeat (supposedly verbatim) a long conversation between her and the psychic – such conversations were usually cryptic and vague. I could often tell when something she was saying had the ring of truth to it – which was rare. The things Mom reiterated to me were not things normal people would say, at least outside of movies or something. Anyway…if you compiled all Mom’s stories from this psychic, you’d probably have easily 3 or 4 hours of material. And the session itself lasted probably 45 minutes. I wasn’t even sure this psychic’s name had been Ann –  I hadn’t paid that much attention, though.

We were met at the door of the office by what I can only describe as a decrepit gypsy woman. She had a head scarf, a cane…the whole works. I remembered the psychic Mom had seen before as being much younger. Still, she was convinced.

We sat down in a sparse room at a small table. This lady was laying on the schtick pretty hard – she even had an accent and a crystal ball. I had researched psychics of course – had read several books about the hustles that are often played on unsuspecting victims (a segment of the population my mother was about to join). She didn’t have to work her game very hard, though…Mom was so open and suggestible it wasn’t even funny. After talking with us some, and gazing into her crystal ball (I almost cracked up here, but somehow I kept a straight face) she sat  back, apparently exhausted by her efforts.

Psychic: No guuut.

Mom was sitting on the edge of her chair.

Mom: What do you see?!

Psychic: I haff berry bad noos.

Mom: Bad news…?

She said something that even I couldn’t follow – it sounded like Foot Woman. I couldn’t imagine what she could be talking about, but with her fake accent, it could have been anything. Mom asked her to repeat it.

Psychic: A Futona. A curse. You haff a curse.

I could see the panic in Mom’s eyes.

Psychic: Is why you no successful. Is why you fail. Someone curse you, you see?

I half expected her to fork her fingers and spit through them. Meanwhile, Mom was practically beside herself.

Mom: What do I do!? How do I get rid of it?

Psychic: Is berry powerful. But I know how to do. But I must meditate. Come back later tonight. I tell you what to do.

The psychic refused payment from Mom – something I was initially impressed by, but which I later learned was just a “hook” in a confidence scam. At home, Mom was practically pacing.

Mom: Do you think she’ll really know what to do? What if the curse is too powerful?

Me: I dunno. I don’t know that we’re cursed, Mom.

Mom: But it explains so much! And didn’t she say…

And then she spun off into a whole part of the conversation that the psychic most definitely did not say. I was sitting right there. Still, I knew better than to argue – she never listened. When we returned after dark, the place was obviously closed. The gypsy lady unlocked the door and led us in.

Psychic: I haff seen what I need to do. You must bring me four white candles. A red scarf. A lock of your hair. And $20, all in 5’s.

I wanted to laugh, but Mom was enraptured and the gypsy lady was so freaking serious. Even I was a little taken in.

Psychic: Bring to me tomorrow, at dusk.

Still, she refused actual payment from Mom – she claimed she was doing this out of good will. We were so bad off, evidently, that she just wanted to help.

When Mom returned the following day, the meeting was short. The gypsy insisted that she had to do her “work” in private. Days passed, and we heard nothing. As per usual, Mom left countless messages on her machine – pleading for an update. Finally, we got a call…she wanted to see us.

Psychic: Is difficult to break, this ting. I try very hard, but I no can yet. Is more difficult than I ever imagine.

Mom: What do we do?

Psychic: Is another way. Give me again four white candles, a red scarf, and $40, in 10’s.

This hit a bit of a nerve with Mom – spending money usually did. I don’t think she picked up on the fact that she was being had, exactly, but I think she understood that the price for fixing the “curse” had gone up.

Mom: Why did the price go up?

Psychic: Is not price. You must understand, I give as offering. I do not keep.

Mom: Why can’t it be $20, like before?

Psychic: Because the denomination must increase, to show our sincerity.

Somehow, this washed with Mom. I had no illusions that this woman was sacrificing the money or giving it to charity.  We left to buy some candles and a scarf, and Mom forked over the money. This time, the psychic asked for payment.

Psychic: Is berry difficult, dis work I do. I giff you all my attention, no time for other clients.

Mom peeled off another $20, and handed it to her. The gypsy gratefully accepted it.

We had to wait, but not as long this time. The gypsy needed to see us urgently – could we come right away? Mom, of course dropped everything and booked it to this lady’s office.

Psychic: I haff good news. I am almost done. There are only a few more steps to complete. But things are getting more serious…

I knew where this was going, even if Mom didn’t. Four white candles, a red scarf…

Psychic: …and $80, in 20s.

Mom wasn’t terribly happy, but after further assurances that this would break the curse – along with a generous donation to the gypsy herself, of course – Mom went along.

I could bore you with details, but it was all so similar – the same thing happened again and again, until we started to hit the $400 mark. Mom was getting visibly agitated, and the psychic asked to see her immediately – urgent news from the spirit world.

Mom: I’m not doing this. This is too much.

Psychic: It must be done! We are so close…

Mom: How much more expensive is this going to get?

Psychic: I only do vat spirits tell me. Close, berry close.

Mom: Isn’t there some cheaper way to do this?

Psychic: It is berry powerful curse. It takes great sacrifice to undo.

Mom reluctantly forked over the cash.

Mom: This is it. That’s all there is. I want it broken this time.

The psychic nodded, and then had the cajones to ask for another “donation”. Mom angrily refused, which started a minor shouting match between the two of them (mostly it was Mom yelling, and she quickly quieted down and apologized. Evidently she didn’t think it was wise to piss off the person who held your spiritual well being in her hands).

We got absolutely no word from the gypsy lady, and Mom was getting nervous and pissed. She started staking out the office, looking for a chance to talk to her. When it finally came, the results were unsurprising – the psychic wanted yet more money. This was the worst and most difficult curse she had seen in her long and illustrious career. For a mere $1,000 (and a generous donation) she was sure – absolutely sure – it would be broken for good. Mom practically burst a vein. I feel the need to reiterate that it wasn’t that she didn’t think this stuff was real – she most definitely did – but she felt it ought to be able to be done cheaper, if not more efficiently. Mom refused to fork over the money. They shouted at each other, but I did my best to extract myself from the situation. I walked out of the office into a small living room, where I waited for it to be over. I noticed that the gypsy’s accent disappeared when she started yelling. I can’t say I was surprised. She probably wasn’t even as old as she pretended to be.

For months, Mom brought up things that I am positive the psychic never said. In fact, she insisted that the psychic cursed her for not giving her more money.

Mom: She said she would trade places with us! She said she would become successful and we would become poor! Is that even possible?

Me: I doubt it, Mom.

I wasn’t sure I even believed in curses – at least not ones delivered by fake gypsies. But Mom fretted, and the conversation that they supposedly had elongated like taffy. We eventually returned to the office, but it was closed. We discovered that she owed taxes or something, possibly even had committed some crimes. We also heard conflicting stories regarding her fate – she was either arrested or skipped town. My money was on the latter.

Mom: She said that the only way to undo it would be to find her again. And she said I’d never find her!

She scoured the phone book, and even went driving to different towns, hoping to find a sign with this woman’s name on it. I pointed out that “Ann” may not even have been her real name (I was convinced now that this person was a criminal) and besides…how many people in the world are named Ann?

I tried to assure her that it was bullshit, but it was like sticking my finger in a leaky dam. I knew that my words had no effect on whatever waves were boiling inside her brain. And I knew that, eventually, she’d get caught up in another psychic – or at the very least pursue another exhaustive search. I had to address the issue on and off with her for quite a while before she dropped it. I was hopeful that it was over, but I knew that could never actually be the case. That’s the thing about being right in a case like this – when your suspicions are confirmed, it’s neither a surprise nor a cause for smug celebration. It’s like a doctor trying to find a cure for a disease, and he’s all too aware that what he’s working on is definitely not it. He hopes, yes, because hope keeps you going. But when the results come back as another failure, he meets it with a wry smile and takes cold comfort in having his theory validated after all.

Special thanks to Bad Books for inspiring the title.

As I think I mentioned before, when I wrote music before it was very scattershot – I wrote basically every genre under the sun. Hell, I even wrote a (bad) Reggae type song. But, ultimately, it was important for me to pick a genre and stick with it – and, ultimately, it was decided that I should do country music. At the time – early to mid 90’s – country was exploding. It was also deemed by Mom to be the “easiest” to break into. So, she bought me boots. And hats. And Western style shirts, with fringes. I’m not exactly joking, but I wish I was. I looked like a Nashville tourist, except I was walking around NYC. I didn’t quite have the sense of self to realize I looked like a moron, but as I write this I am literally slapping myself in the forehead. I was cranking out songs by the dozens – by the time I was 16 I’d have over 400 – and each week I’d bring them in to Russ and he’d critique it, deciding if it ought to be recorded. The stuff I was writing at the time was total garbage. Good for my age (12-13) but really bad. To make matters worse, the arrangements were really bad MIDI recordings. Don’t get me wrong – Russ was a brilliant producer – but bad fake synth versions of real instruments make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, that’s what we had to work with – we weren’t going to be hiring live musicians…it would have just been too expensive.

The next step was how to break into the industry. I had a hand in it, in that I agreed that we should go about things this way, but Mom masterminded the whole thing. So how to do it? By going to shows of famous singers and hoping to talk to them in the autograph line. I’m not joking, but I wish I was. You hear that sound? That’s me slapping my head again. So we went to show after show…trying (somehow) to corner these singers and slip them my demo. Even though it rarely worked (I don’t think we ever got close enough, really, a lot of the lines were just too long) Mom wasn’t discouraged. Autograph lines were clearly the way to get discovered. The realization came (painfully slowly) that perhaps trying to accost the headline act wasn’t going to be fruitful. Instead, for whatever reason, Mom decided we should try the opening acts instead. I met some very nice people who graciously listened and took my demo, but it went no further.

A guy came by the back stage door once, when Tim was on Broadway. I don’t remember why or how, but Mom struck up a conversation with him, noticing that he had a Southern accent. She just assumed he was from Nashville (he wasn’t) and that he knew people in the music business (he didn’t – he was some sort of contractor or something). Mom insisted on taking them out to dinner, getting them a backstage tour (which they really appreciated), the works.  They didn’t realize that they were the unwitting recipients of Mom’s craziness. He had a daughter roughly my age, and Mom had it in her head to hook us up.

Mom: I’ll set it all up. He’s very rich…you guys should date.

That was basically the only time me dating people was okay with Mom – if they were rich or influential. Otherwise, they could go to hell. It was almost like she viewed the world in terms of some sort of middle ages royalty type thing – I could only marry “up”. Preferably way up. I really had no interest in the people she wanted to hook me up with, specifically because she wanted to hook me up with them. This was a nice girl and everything, but I wasn’t going to date people for money or influence. I thought (and still do) that was backwards and asinine.

Anyway, Mom talked a lot about my music, and we passed them demos. They graciously listened, but admitted they knew nothing about the music business. Mom seemed to think that was bullshit, and pressed them on the subject anyway. They were really nice about it, and we exchanged numbers and information. After several months (and several demos), Mom kept calling them. Finally the guy threw up his hands, and in as nice a way possible, told her to fuck off.

Guy: Listen…I really appreciate how nice ya’ll have been. But I honestly know nothing about the music industry. I’m a contractor.

Mom: A contractor?

Guy: Yes. I mean…the music’s great, but I can’t help you. I really can’t.

Mom amazingly took no for an answer and dropped pretty much all contact.

I did get a piece of advice from Dolly Parton that was actually rather useful – she directed me to an organization that helped songwriters with their craft. We thought we were getting the brush off, and didn’t really pay it any attention (even though she took the time to write a very nice letter). So clearly getting the attention of famous singers wasn’t working out…what next? Contests. For God’s sake, let’s try some more contests. I did every country contest under the sun. I auditioned for theme parks, for God’s sake. Every year, Opryland (a now shuttered theme park in Nashville) had open auditions for people to sing at their theme park. These people would walk around the park singing or performing or whatever I guess. We spent money on plane tickets to fly down there, hotels, money to enter the contests…etc. I was, of course, very under age – a lot of these had cutoffs of 16 or above. Ironically, even if I had won, I’d have been ineligible to win and thus been disqualified, probably. Anyway…I was always going there singing to tracks of my own original songs –  it always made me feel a lot more like a pageant contestant than an artist. Add to this the fact that everything I did was over-rehearsed – so over-rehearsed that the spontaneity was wrung dry out of every performance. Mom would keep asking me to go over and over and over and over the song, looking for that “one time” that I got it right. When I got it right…I could never get it again. That’s not to say I never got it right in reality. She would just watch and shake her head.

Mom: You know, three times ago? That was it. You don’t have it. You lost it. You’ll never get it again.

Panic would rise in my chest, and I’d think back on what the hell I might have been doing differently three times ago (I could think of almost nothing, and in reality…I was probably correct). I’d try it again and again, hoping for approval.

Mom: It’s…okay. I don’t think you’ll win. If you do it like you did that one time, you’ll get it. But you’re just okay.

She would walk out of the room, concluding the practice session and leaving me with nothing but fear and paranoia that I had somehow missed a shot at greatness.

Anyway, this one time – I think it was my 3rd or 4th  time auditioning for Opryland – this girl auditioned right after me. She was sticking to me like glue the entire time…and finally I got that she liked me. She was like some sort of runner up for a beauty contest or something (I remember her telling me all about it). I was completely oblivious socially, and in my head most of the time, so I had no clue I was being consistently hit on (and hit on very hard, at that). Finally, I think she gave up and just went the direct approach.

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

Me: Oh, I dunno. Probably going back to the hotel.

We bantered for a while about where we were each staying. She kept laughing and touching my arm, which really creeped me out (I really didn’t like being touched as a kid). Finally she leaned in.

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

Me: Uh. I guess I could have iced tea…

Girl: You don’t drink?

I took a moment, as it sunk in what was going on. This girl was in college, at least – I’m guessing maybe 19 or so. I rewround our conversation and realized that she was coming on to me. I was both flattered and perplexed.

Me: Um. I’m 14.

Her jaw dropped, and she walked away red faced and embarrassed. To her credit, I always looked a lot older than I was. Even when I was underage, I was never carded going into an R rated movie, even if all my friends were.

I still remember the first time I went down there. We literally had thrown our bags on the bed, and Mom grabbed the Nashville phone book and plopped it down in front of me.

Mom: Make some calls.

Me: …to who? You want pizza or something?

Mom: No. Call record labels and publishers. See if they’ll meet with you.

In sales, this is known as “cold calling”. It almost never works. More than half the time, I got a disinterested secretary – a secretary who, I have no doubt, received several hundred similar calls a day (conservatively). I was inevitably patched to someone’s voice mail or simply told not to bother.

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

Mom: Did you tell them you were 13? And a prodigy?

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

I sighed, but did as I was bid. I got similar results. One thing I learned as an adult is that you never, ever do what we did when I was a kid. You never go to Nashville waving your demo in everybody’s face, and you certainly don’t go around in a 10 gallon hat. That pretty much screams at everyone that you have no idea what you’re doing, or you’re just an ass. I think I got away with a lot of that because I was a kid, but I certainly would never try such a thing as an adult.

Anyway, after probably hundreds of calls, I got a couple people who were willing to listen (mostly small publishers). I counted this as a victory. They listened very graciously, and offered me their input on my music.

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

Publisher: I want to encourage you, because you are very good. But you need to get a little bit better. You need to be even better than what’s on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Me: I think so, yeah.

Publisher: I’d love to hear more from you whenever you have something new.

I felt at the time that what they were saying was that – because of my age – I really needed to rise above what was out there, ability wise. I think that was true, because it would have been hard to justify hiring a 13 year old if they weren’t the best thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think I was also a curiosity, which sort of went along with the prodigy/genius thing. I often felt like a zoo creature, or an organ grinder’s monkey (considering the clothes Mom put me in, that probably wasn’t far off). I felt like the people that were interested were interested because I was an oddity, not because they necessarily thought I was amazing.

Looking back, even though I made some inroads, I despise the music I created and the way I went about doing things. Not because I hate writing, or hate country music or anything of the sort, but because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t real or true. I was just a monkey in a ten gallon hat, dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.

 

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

I had terrible eyesight as a kid. When I was in 3rd grade, before I was home schooled, I had trouble copying the numbers from the blackboard. The teacher didn’t like me, so she kept putting me in the back of the class for some reason. Anyway, after it was discovered I needed glasses, I was in for yearly checkups. For a while, I felt like I was constantly getting new glasses (which I probably was). I remember one doctor I went to, who insisted my prescription hadn’t changed after I took the eye test.

Me: But it’s all still kind of blurry.

His face got red, and he was clearly pissed.

Doctor: Doesn’t matter. Your prescription hasn’t changed.

Me: …but why is it so blurry?

He puffed his cheeks out and glared at me.

Doctor: You don’t need things to look crisp and sharp all the time.

By this point, I was getting kind of agitated – of course I wanted things to look crisp and sharp. What the hell, dude.

He called Mom in, and explained it all to her. He got more and more irritated as the conversation went on.

Doctor: He’s eating minus.

Mom: Eating minus?

Doctor: He’s addicted to seeing crisper and clearer. He doesn’t actually need new glasses. He can see fine.

I was kind of steamed. Mom was pissed, too. I don’t remember if there was a blowup or not (knowing Mom, there probably was…they all kind of run together, honestly) but if there was I wouldn’t have minded it. There was actually a reason for her to be mad this time.

Anyway, as a kid I always had “trouble” with math, which Mom always attributed to my eyesight. That’s what Mom and Grandma always called it – “trouble”. But it was “trouble” like the Cuban Missile Crisis was a minor disagreement. I could understand stuff like addition and subtraction – usually. But when it came to multiplication and division I was lost. I can’t tell you how many hours Grandma sat with me and the math flash cards.

Grandma: What’s 5×5?

Me: 15?

Grandma: No, try again. Think about it. What are five fives?

Me: 10?

Grandma: Add it up.

It took me a long time, and I used my fingers.

Me: 25?

Grandma: Right. Do you know why it’s 25?

Me: No.

Grandma: Because it’s five added up five times.

I just looked at her blankly. This was gibberish to me.

She tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get that multiplication was a “faster” way to add – it just seemed to be a harsher form of Chinese water torture. We would do the flash cards until I wept – literally wept – in frustration. I eventually figured out that I didn’t need to understand it, just memorize it. I was able – with a great amount of effort – to memorize the times tables up to about 5. After that, I couldn’t keep the numbers in my head. I would cry and yell and throw things. Absolutely nothing in this world made me feel worse than math. Nothing made me feel more like a complete idiot. What’s worse, is because I was “smart” (according to Mom and many, a “genius”), it was an impossibility that I couldn’t understand math. I was just not applying myself. I busted my ass with math, all with meager returns on my investment. I had to use a calculator, or my fingers. I usually eventually gave up on my home schooling tests and cheated my way through them – reading the answers in the teacher’s key. I got A’s and B’s in math, but I knew I didn’t earn them – I didn’t deserve them, because I was too stupid to “get” the math. It made me feel miserable and dirty.

To further add to the irony, musicians are supposed to be great with math (at least, that’s the myth). I remember being in the studio with Russ while he puzzled out how to end a song. He and Paul (the engineer) were going back and forth on what would be the best ending. I piped up.

Me: What about da da daaaaaaa da. That makes sense, right?

Russ was impressed.

Russ: Yeah…that’s it exactly. You must be really good at math.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t – that I was actually pretty terrible – but I closed it again. How could I possibly explain it to someone?

It has haunted me throughout my life. I’d panic when I had to make change, or when I gave someone cash – sometimes it wouldn’t be enough, or sometimes it would be way too much. I could never be sure I was doing it right.

When I took my SATs, I got perfect or near perfect scores in English and below average scores in math – and at that, I had to work my ass off with a tutor several times a week. I wept in frustration over my SAT books, just like I would weep in frustration over my college math textbooks. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever cried – literally cried – over anything as much as I have math.

In college, I realized I’d have to take math. The professor was Russian or something, and had a  thick, hard to understand accent. If you had any questions, he’d say “Red Ze Buk” (I assume this meant “Read the book”). If you were a girl, he’d answer all your questions while ogling your breasts and practically drooling. Anyway, I worked hard on the homework – for the first half of the semester. I’d try something, I’d get a tutor, and I’d feel like I totally got it. Then I’d realize it didn’t stick at all. Not only was what I did for homework wrong (almost invariably, I got D’s and F’s on it), but when I went back to it I couldn’t even remember what I thought I had understood in the first place.

You’re supposed to be a genius? I’d tell myself. Some fucking genius.

By the middle of the semester, I had stopped going to the class altogether – it made me too anxious and depressed. Even though it was in the middle of the day – I think it was at 1 PM – I’d just stay in bed the whole day instead of going to class. I didn’t realize until much later that depression had started to get its hooks in me by this point, which probably didn’t make learning math any easier.

I ended up with a D in the class, by the way, which meant I had to retake it. The professor was nice enough to give me a 2nd crack at the final – he said if I got an A he’d bring it up to a C which meant I’d pass. I studied hard and finally took the final. I felt confident and prepared – my roommate who was a math major helped me, as did several other people who gave generously of their time. I even got to use a calculator, which I sort of felt was my ace in the hole. I got an F. I wasn’t angry though…I was just resigned. I looked at the transcript.

Me: Of course. I guess I’m D material.

It wasn’t until about a decade later that i would get tested. I would come to find out I had a legitimate learning disability, at least in regards to math – it had nothing to do with my eyesight after all. I could see the numbers just fine. It explained a lot – why I could never read maps, why I got lost all the time, and why I had difficulty telling time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t tell time – I could – it just took me about 400x longer than normal people. If someone asked me for the time, I’d look at my watch for a long time and they’d think I was being rude and get fed up. But I would actually be looking at the hands and counting in my head (five…ten…fifteen…twenty). I’d come up with the right answer…eventually, but by the time I did they had gotten their answer elsewhere. I could have gotten a digital watch, I suppose, but the irony of it is I really like analog timepieces. Plus I just thought I was stupid when it came to math.

When they tested me, they also did an IQ score, which was humbling. The verbal side of my IQ was really high – I think it was almost “very superior”. But the math side was awful, and brought my combined score down so low that it was “average”. After spending my life believing I was a genius, I stared at the paper. I had answers, sure, and they explained a lot. But now I had hard numbers to go with them. In looking at my score, I don’t think I ever hated numbers more than I did that day. Having the air sucked out of a long held belief is a real kick in the balls. The doctor testing me assured me that I wasn’t “average” just because my total score was. I nodded like I agreed, but I really didn’t. She explained that it was just an aggregated score, and that if you looked at the English side it was really quite high…but I kind of tuned her out at that point. I was well into my own head, beating myself with a cudgel. I had spent a lifetime believing I was smart…and staring me right in the face was proof that I wasn’t. It took me a long time to see past the numbers. Perhaps that’s not surprising. I had so much of my identity wrapped up in the idea that I was different, a genius, or whatever, that it really was a crushing blow to get at the age of 28. I had to come to terms with it eventually, though, and I decided that – numbers aside, I am what I am. Whatever that is.