Archive for the ‘Russ’ Category

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.

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As I think I said before, I used to sit by myself and practice obsessively. Piano, songwriting…whatever.

Mom: When the answer comes back “yes”, you need to be ready. If you’re not ready and they say yes, you will fail. And it will all be on you.

Such thoughts did their job, I suppose, in that they spurred me along. While she was crazy in the specifics, in general it’s not a bad principle: Be ready when opportunity knocks. I’ve had to water down some of her kookier stuff and put it in a normal framework. I’ve kept what I could, and threw out (or tried to…it’s easier said than done) what wasn’t any good. If I were to ever write a book on it, I’d call it The Tao of Crazy. It would be some eye opening shit.

Anyway, I kind of got a big head. I thought I was the baddest, biggest, best musician. Best actor. Best…whatever. I was making a ton of money (I had gotten booked on quite a few accounts – that means that whenever they did a commercial for a given product, I was called. I had Kool-Aid for a while and all of General Mills, among other things). I got to sing on a record with Micheal Jackson. This was like…I dunno…’93 or maybe ’94. He recorded a Christmas song…don’t recall the name of it, but I think it had something to do with a star. It was at the Hit Factory in New York – this was a big, big studio…they had a special freight elevator that celebrities who were recording would come in and use. It was sort of a back entrance to get away from the press and whatnot. Anyway, it was me and maybe a dozen kids, singing background on this song. Micheal was pretty cool…gave us all signed copies of Dangerous (which I still have) and Game Boys. This one kid, who I knew was a piano player, kept trying to chat me up. He was way into jazz, and he was pretty good. I was so self centered at that point, I didn’t have time in my world for anyone else. Anyway, he asked Micheal if he could play for him. He went over to the grand piano and starts playing – like I said…he was good. Nice kid, too. The more I watched, the more irritated I became. I had a competitive streak about a mile wide, and to watch someone else doing something that I considered my “thing” was like slapping me in the face with a dead mackerel. After the kid was done, I jumped right in. I played Micheal an original song. It was a quasi Rockabilly number (I was also into Jerry Lee Lewis at the time). I had to be better than this kid. He was nice, but I had to blow him out of the water, for the sake of my own ego. My hours of honing my skills, the “games” I played with myself to get better, payed off. Micheal really enjoyed it, but had to be rushed away by his bodyguards. We shook hands. I relaxed a bit…I had re-attained my place (in my mind, at least) as top dog. The kid came up to me…he was stoked.

Kid: That was amazing! You’re really good.

Me: …thanks.

I didn’t give a shit what this kid thought, but it was nice to be recognized. Since I had affirmed my belief that he wasn’t better than me, I had no time for him.

Kid: Let’s jam sometime.

Me: Maybe.

I was the king, he was a peasant.

Uncle Richard noted my shift in attitude, I think, and I think he realized I didn’t have anybody to give me a real lay of the land. Mom was constantly pumping my head full of fantasies. Not that Uncle Richard didn’t believe in me, but he didn’t want me getting an unhealthy outlook or anything. My ego was just the outward manifestation of a flawed worldview.

Uncle Richard: There’s nothing wrong with having an ego. Every artist needs one…it’s what keeps him going. But don’t feed it too much. You understand?

I told him I did, even though I didn’t.

Uncle Richard: Shakespeare was one of the most humble people. Have you ever read his letters?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: Read them. He wrote plays that were lauded the entire continent over. Royalty came to see him. Yet he was never proud. If the Bard could be humble, you can too.

I got the point – I was no Shakespeare. I might have had reasons to have an ego, but no reason it should be overinflated. I’m surprised this got through to me, but Uncle Richard had a way with words.

Russ put it differently.

Russ: There’s always someone out there better than you. Doesn’t matter. Keep your head down and do your own work. Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look at them. Look at your work.

I sat down a bit later with a group of kids my age – we were doing some sort of improv class together. For some reason, probably because I was (over)confident my peers took me very seriously and paid attention when I talked. If my head wouldn’t fit through the door before, it certainly didn’t now. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I decided to play some stuff on the piano. I played a bunch of songs from memory, ending with “Piano Man”. Sort of iconic, sort of cliche, but every piano guy ought to know it. This kid who had been quiet for most of the time, gets up after me.

Kid: You’re playing it wrong.

I probably made a noise.

Kid: Mind if I drive for a while?

I smirked, and scooted off the bench. He played the hell out of the piano, and – though it took me weeks to admit it – he was right. I was making some mistakes in playing the song. There is nothing quite like getting kicked in the balls in so personal a way just when you think you’re bigger than anything else in the world. I licked my wounds for a long time on that one, but I didn’t need to be shown twice. I got the message – Russ, Uncle Richard, and the Universe were trying to tell me the same thing: Take it down a notch or two, kid.

And I did. I realized there would always be somebody better, no matter how hard I worked. There was no finish line, there was no “ultimate” anything. At least not when it came to artistic endeavors. Someone always has a different spin, a better technique, or whatever. I contented myself with mastering my own abilities, not worrying about comparing myself. It was a lot more pleasant of an experience.

Now I look back at how I was, and I can’t help but wince. I truly was full of myself. I carried myself in such a way as to say “Do you even know who I am?” but the truth is, I wasn’t anybody. Not really. My competitive streak – which was way more than just a streak – I whittled down bit by bit. I watered the embers and tamped them down. Competition is a driving force, I suppose, but it makes me an ugly person. I try not to open that door. At the same time, I have to wonder if I haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater (as I’ve done with so many things). Maybe being a little competitive is good. Maybe I ought to crack that door just a bit. And a little ego really never hurt anybody – emphasis on the little. Sometimes I miss it. It can be a great cure for depression.

 

 

I got a call from an ad agency I did a lot of work with – no audition, no nothing, they just called me direct and asked me to do a commercial for them. When that happens, I always considered it a big honor – it was a huge acknowledgement of your talent and success for someone like a client or an ad agency to know you by name, let alone book you without an audition. It was a kind of hush hush thing…all I knew is that it was an ad for Coke. One of the ad agency guys came out and explained the spot to me.

Ad Agency Exec: So, the CEO of Coke is retiring. And we want to send him out with a new commercial, and acknowledge the new guy coming in. We’re re-doing a classic add – the one with Mean Joe Green – only with the outgoing CEO and the incoming CEO. You’ll play one of the CEOs.

Me: Sounds pretty cool.

Ad Agency Exec: So we’re going to dress you up like an old man, Danny.

I was about 10. I could immediately see how hilarious this ad was going to be.

If you haven’t seen the original Mean Joe Green commercial (in the re-do, I was the Coke CEO as the “kid”)- check it out here

Anyway, it was never aired or anything – it was just an internal thing within the Coke Co. as far as I know. I have a video of it somewhere amongst my things, but as of now I can’t put my hands on it. You’ll just have to use your imagination for this one, and take my word that it was pretty funny.

They went all out – they didn’t just dress me up in a suit and tie and all that, they actually sent me to a top FX artist to get a mask done. It was an interesting process – I had to lay down in a chair for a couple hours, perfectly still while they did a mold of my face. I don’t remember what exactly he used (I asked, I’m sure – I was always full of questions), but it looked like plaster and he used gauze. I felt a little claustrophobic initially – after all, you’re not even really allowed to move your face. Opening your eyes is out of the question as well – they’re laden with a heavy plaster of Paris-like substance. The FX guy told me that I was the most calm kid he’d ever worked on – invited me to come back in a few months for Halloween and he’d make me any mask I wanted. I thought that was pretty badass. In the end, 10 year old me ended up looking like a miniature version of a 60+ year old CEO – the mask perfectly fit my face (it was stuck there with some sort of skin sensitive glue). The only downside was that I couldn’t eat or drink anything while it was on (and it was on for quite a few hours). If the mask got ruined, that was pretty much it. I’m sure they had backups, but it would have been time consuming and expensive. I did not want to be the guy that cost the production an assload of money because he had to stuff his face with a cheese danish.

Throughout the process, Mom was practically giddy with excitement. At first I thought it was because I got called direct, and it was a huge feather in my cap. But, as usual when it came to what she was thinking, I was wrong. We got in the car, and Mom rubbed her hands together with excitement. My Grandfather used to do that, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up too. I’ve only ever seen her do it maybe a dozen times in my life, that’s how excited she was.

Mom: This is it! You’re in!

Me: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet, isn’t it?

Mom: I wonder if they’re going to call you again soon.

Me: Maybe. It’d be cool to get the Coke account.

She looked at me funny.

Mom: Yeah, that. But I meant with them. You’re in with them. don’t you get it?

And I did. It suddenly dawned on me – the mask, the “secretive” commercial – was this it? Was I really being invited to be “made” by the Mafia? Was everything Mom ever told me coming true?

Me: Yeah. I do get it.

Mom: This is how they do Russ. It’s all a mask, just like that. I was right! I knew it.

I didn’t have much to say – I was processing. I suddenly felt bad that I had ever doubted her – she was right, of course she was.

Mom: Now they’re going to sit down and talk to you – give you a new identity. They might need to arrange an accident or something. We might have to drop everything and go in the middle of the night, you never know. But you’re going to have to not make any mistakes. They’ll be watching us to see what we do.

She chattered away excitedly for the whole ride home – a good 2 and 1/2 hours. I had never seen her so perky and happy – and haven’t since. The one thing that upset me is that Mom told me not to call the FX guy and ask him for the promised Halloween mask. She said it might “complicate” things with the Mafia or be some sort of test. Although I was really disappointed, I abided by her decision. It would have been cool, though. She stopped at a payphone to call Russ with the good news. I admit to being somewhat curious, and staying within earshot so I could hear the conversation.

Mom: Russ!!! We did it!! It’s happening! The Answer is finally coming back as a YES! But you know all this, already, I’m sure. I’m sure they’ve told you by now. I can’t wait to see you soon, and we can talk all about it!

Looking back on this as an adult (and knowing that the Coke commercial was a coincidence that happened to play perfectly into Mom’s delusion) I know Russ knew exactly fuck-all about the commercial. It makes me chuckle a little bit to think of him listening to another long, rambling message (but this one very excited, because she had been mysteriously validated overnight). She must have seemed absolutely bonkers.

She even let Tim and I play in the arcade at the rest stop – a true rarity, and a sign of her supremely good mood. We played Ninja Turtles while she ran back over to the phone booths to make more calls – whether to my agent, or Russ, I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter to me because I was busy with Leonardo and the gang kicking Foot Soldier ass.

In the end, of course, none of us got new identities as famous people. No mysterious meeting was set up between us and the Mafia. I didn’t become famous or more successful with the help of a shadowy group of powerful men. Life just went on as it always did. As the months passed, Mom became more and more unsettled by this fact. I did too, but I didn’t tell her that. I started to wonder what all this meant. She began to worry openly about whether or not they changed their minds. Did we do or say something wrong? Was another person picked in my place? Did they not think we were good enough? Russ and I were peppered with such questions – and I knew exactly as much as he did. Long, rambling conversations ensued – none of them very positive. Late night chats where Mom wandered into my bedroom at 2 AM became more of a regular thing. She worried a lot. So did I.

I do find it somewhat amazing at how this played into her fantasies, but obviously special effects makeup and masks exist. So do surprise celebrations for outgoing CEOs. It bolstered my faith in my mother, at least until I got a little older. It covered up cracks that had started to show in her delusions and made it look a little more plausible. I know now that she would have taken almost anything and formed it to fit her world – and she would have done so with the same faith that others would tell you the earth is round or the sky is blue. To someone with her condition, everything means something and everything could mean anything. It is to be analyzed, refined, obsessed and wept  over. As Freud once famously said, though, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a mask is just a mask.

 

No story about Russ would be complete without talking about Harlan. He started coming to Russ for lessons maybe a year or two after I did – I think he always had the time slot after us. This guy was huge – I mean huge. Like, 6′ tall, easily. And he was built like a dump truck. He was easily 400 pounds and it wasn’t fat. At least, not all of it. The thing about Harlan was that he was nuts – I mean legitimately off his rocker. He was coming to Russ for music therapy (which probably worked to some degree – he stuck with it for 20 years as far as I know). You never knew what this guy was going to do, and even though he was nice enough there was always this slight aura of danger about him. He was very well versed in CQC combat, Judo, and several other martial arts – built like he was, I have little doubt he could have killed someone with very little trouble. He constantly put cigarettes out on his hands or tongue. Once, for a $50 bet, he opened a beer bottle with his teeth. Broke nearly all his front teeth in the process. He had several psychiatrists quit on him – one story I heard was that he found out where his shrink lived, went there at night, and painted his entire fence bright red (it had been a white picket fence). His shrink was pissed. Despite being Jewish, he read Mein Kampf on a regular basis – I can’t tell you how many times I saw him in the waiting room with that tattered book. Not sure if that meant he was an ardent follower Hitler (one wouldn’t think so, but with Harlan it was a possibility) or if he was looking for something in there. I’d come out of the lesson room, and he’d be sitting in the waiting area at Russ’s desk (usually a spot reserved for Russ), smoking and reading Mein Kampf, or possibly a CQC book. Despite his incredibly intimidating visage, he was always very nice to me – always went out of his way to say hi. He’d rise from behind Russ’s desk like a bear waking up from hibernation, and rumble a greeting.

Harlan: DANNY!

I’d wave. Mom was scared to death of this guy – she was convinced he was nuts – and didn’t want any of us to get too close.

Harlan: Come over here! Got somethin’ for ya.

I’d amble over, and he’d present me with something – usually some knick-knack he found or made. I got dozens of presents from Harlan over the years – a bullet keychain, which he made himself (Mom was horrified, and made me throw it out), some art he painted (again, Mom threw this out – there wasn’t anything offensive in it that I could see, though. I just saw a lot of shades of blue), and – wait for it – an honest to God Star Wars Millennium Falcon from the 80s’. That’s still in my closet somewhere. I insisted on keeping it. As a kid, he just seemed like a strange guy that Mom didn’t like. She told me repeatedly that he was dangerous – but then she told me repeatedly that pretty much everything was dangerous. As I grew up, I started to see signs of his illness – part of this may have been my matured perception, and part may have been Harlan’s own illness wearing him down. I started to notice he would shuffle instead of walk, for instance. Sometimes he’d stare off into space – not too unlike Mom, actually – though at the time I thought that was fairly normal. Sometimes he’d be so doped up on anti-psychotics he’d sit there and drool. I could almost watch his brain cells vegetate. It was kind of sad.

Anyway, because Mom was convinced Harlan was a nut, and because Harlan was Russ’s last student for the night, it gave Mom an excuse to stick around long after our lesson was over. We’d wait around – literally in front of Russ’s studio – until Tim or I complained enough. Then we’d run down to Dairy Queen or Checker’s or something, swing back, and eat our food in the car. Now that I think of it, it was kind of like we were on a stakeout. We’d wait for Harlan to leave, then go in and say hi to Russ again. Under the guise of “making sure he was okay”, Mom would again pepper him with questions about the Mafia, or the Answer, or whatever. Maybe she’d give him a letter or card to give to “one of the Russes”. What I’m saying is, Russ basically started getting a double dose of Mom when Harlan started taking lessons.

Harlan would do art – not just paintings, but he’d do weldings of different objects. He gifted Russ part of a metal grate, a small-ish hubcap (at least, I think it was a hubcap) and some metal he twisted up so it looked like a flame. He attached it to a mobile and Russ hung it from one of his windows. Considering it was art, and considering it was in public, it was open to being viewed (and interpreted) by anyone in the waiting room. One lady was waiting for a lesson, and started interpreting Harlan’s work.

Lady: Oh, I get it.

Harlan looked up from Mein Kamp, and crushed his cigarette into an ashtray with his massive paw.

Lady: The ring is like, the goal. The thing you want.

Harlan stared.

Lady: The fire represents you, and the fence is life trying to keep you from your goal.

Harlan kept staring, but his stare was turning into a glower. The lady was clueless.

Lady: Right?

Harlan blew up – I’ve seen few other people go from 0-60 that fast.

Harlan: NO GODDAMIT THAT IS NOT WHAT IT IS! FUCK YOU, LADY. GODDAM!

He stood up, which wasn’t a good thing. The lady quickly apologized, and Russ rushed out to calm the situation. Somehow, he could always talk to Harlan. Maybe he had a gift for dealing with crazy people. Who knows.

Russ: Harlan, she didn’t mean anything, man. Just chill out and have another cigarette. We’ll get to your lesson in a minute, okay?

I heard the screen door slam – the lady was out the door and halfway down the street already.  I don’t blame her. I’d have had the everloving piss scared out of me if I had been her. Then again, I don’t blame Harlan either – as an artist, it pisses me off endlessly when people don’t get my “art”, and I’m expected to just be okay with it. I’m really not. It’s one hurdle I’ve faced when opening up my music to public consumption. I imagine a lot of artists share that feeling. Sometimes I wish I had the balls Harlan did and was able to say “No, goddamn it, that’s not what the song is about. Your interpretation is not correct.” I’m learning (slowly) that art can have more than one interpretation and that’s okay.

Russ closed the door to the lesson room and sat back down. He made an exaggerated motion of wiping sweat off his brow.

Russ: Close one. We got the immovable object out there.

Mom and I laughed.

Russ: And have you smelled him? Guy smells like a Jewish deli. 

I’ve been in a few Jewish delis in NY, and Russ was right. Harlan did smell a bit like pastrami.

One thing Harlan did teach me, though, is about persistence.  When he first started coming to Russ, he was terrible. And I mean terrible. He couldn’t hold a tune, his rhythm was awful, you name it. If there was something that could be wrong with someone’s singing, Harlan exemplified it. But by the end of my stretch at Russ’s – 20 some years or so – Harlan sounded good. Not just good, actually. Really good. If you’re bad at something – hell, even if you’re really freakin’ terrible – but you really want to do it…stick with it. You’ll get better. Maybe only incrementally, and it may take you 20 years, but you will improve.

I always wondered at how Mom was so sensitive to “crazy people” despite having so many problems herself. I have a friend who worked in a psych ward once tell me that the crazy patients will all congregate. You can tell a patient is getting better when they start to separate themselves and the others stop talking to them. Mom has – at least to some degree – been concerned about “crazy people” and had a fairly good eye for what constitutes a crazy belief. If a friend of hers believes in the Illuminati, she will immediately dismiss it as nuts. I’ve always wondered if she dismissed these things because she knew they were crazy or because she “knew the truth”, and her delusion trumped theirs.

 

It was decided – I don’t remember how, why, or by who – that I ought to start making demos of the songs I was writing. I had done one or two  before, when I was around 9, but at 12 I was writing several songs a week and it was time to start doing something with them. This is one thing that I’m very glad I did – going to the studio gave me a lot of experience, and as a writer there is nothing like hearing your music brought to life and reduced to tape or CD (though in those days, it was tape). The first few songs I did by myself – they were simplistic, and I was able to knock several out in just a few hours. I played piano myself and sang on them. Conversations were had between Mom, Russ, and myself, about picking a genre of music and sticking with it. At the time, I was writing literally everything – I wrote Reggae, I wrote Pop, I wrote Rap, Rockabilly, whatever came to my mind. In the early 90’s, Country music was enjoying a bit of a boom – Billy Ray Cyrus was dominating the air waves with Achy Breaky Heart  and I think Cotton Eyed Joe had come out around then too (if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and don’t). I remember having a conversation with Mom about which genre I should focus on.

Mom: You should do Country. Joey Lawrence will never go country in a million years. That way, he can have Pop and you guys can both be successful.

I didn’t really care, and I thought Country was pretty good (some of it still is, but let’s face it – most modern music sucks regardless of genre). Somehow, Mom got it into her head that Russ should produce my demos. Initially, he was reluctant – I honestly don’t think he wanted to spend any more time with Mom than necessary – certainly not in the close proximity that a studio would have demanded. Eventually, though, she won him over with the thing that rules us all – the checkbook. She offered him a ridiculous sum of money to produce me. She paid him for lessons he’d miss on either side of any studio gig, plus gas and expenses – in addition to whatever she paid him for coming into produce. Between paying Paul (the studio tech) and Russ, each demo probably cost around $1,000 – easy. That’s not counting if we needed to go back in and remix, either, which we usually did. So the final product was probably a bit more – maybe closer to $1,500.

Don’t get the wrong impression, here. Russ was (in my opinion, anyway) a top notch musician and producer. He may have also been a top notch bullshitter, but anything involving music was relatively bullshit free – at least in my estimation. My feelings about him are complicated – especially looking back over the years with the benefit of hindsight – but my respect for his talent has never waned an iota. Watching him work in the studio was a learning experience in and of itself, and it went a long way to making me the musician (and producer) I am today. He’d come in to Paul’s studio and sit in the “Captain’s Chair” (a rolling desk chair that he commandeered specifically for his use – no one else was allowed to sit in it). He’d rock back and forth, listening to a take.

Russ: No, no. More strings. They need to swell.

Paul played the strings with more swell.

Russ: No, Paul, like this!

And he’d draw an illustration in the air of what he wanted the strings to sound like. Paul got it. If you’re a musician, you can probably understand this too. There’s a secret language among us – a nod, a raised eyebrow, a fist above the head waving in time to a beat. We get it. We know what it means, even if others don’t. From my perspective, Russ looked a bit like a sorcerer – throwing invisible bolts of magic at some unseen enemy. He’d look over at me and grin, smoothing his hair back into place.
Russ: You feel that!?

Me: Yeah!

And I did. I could feel the strings, but it wasn’t just that – the Muse was in the room with us. That’s what he was talking about, I think. It was a trip.

Russ would pack that song with so many tracks it taxed Paul’s systems. Paul used to joke that Russ would look at a blank track sheet and start to go snow blind – he needed to fill that sucker up. Brilliant arranging and producing aside, it always irked me that Russ and Paul never let me play on my own recordings (the ones Russ produced, anyway). As a kid, it pissed me off to no end. They’d let me sing on it (who else would sing on it, anyway? Hiring a studio singer would have just been more money) but Paul played all the tracks via a Midi keyboard. I argued with Russ that I could easily play it live – a real guitar or piano would sound so much better. He waved me off every time. I get it now, though – it was just easier and quicker for Paul (who knew his own keyboards) to jump in and play. Although granted, I did know my own songs better. Having someone else take and mold your songs into something other than your vision can be a horrifying experience – and of the hundreds of demos I recorded with Russ, that happened more often than I can count.

Me: Uncle Russ, the drums shouldn’t do that.

Russ: Oh, okay.

Then he’d tell Paul to keep doing what he was doing.

I’d be furious – I’d spend the whole session glowering at Russ’s turned back. But in the end – when I listened to the track objectively, I’d hear that Russ made the better call. It wasn’t what I had in mind, maybe, but maybe what I had in mind wasn’t quite as good.

I am of two minds about this whole process. Firstly, it didn’t make any sense to do things the way we were doing it. If Russ argued about it (and he surely knew better than Mom or myself) I never heard it. Maybe he just knew that Mom wanted what Mom wanted and there was no point in standing in her way (he’d have been right about that). The way things normally work (at least in Nashville) is that songs go through a process – you bounce it off a lot of people before it becomes the final product you hear on the radio. So, for instance, if I bring in a demo that I just spent $1,200 on, and the head of Capitol Records tells me the chorus needs to be changed totally, I’ll have to re-record my song. Thus, $1,200 down the drain. It ended up locking me into some songwriting decisions I might have rethought otherwise – when hearing from different publishers (or artists, or whoever) that such and such a thing ought to be different, I would realize that the song could have been made much, much better. But to redo it would be too costly, so instead I went on to the next one and tried to make it “perfect” without the benefit of industry opinion (spoiler alert: it never was). The way things seem to be done is you record something simple and relatively cost effective, bounce it off of people, and then do a “final demo” once everything is basically all tightened up song-wise. So I can make a pretty convincing argument (and have, at least to myself) that a small fortune was flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, it was worth every penny to learn the things I learned in the studio. I would be nowhere near the producer I am today (or the writer, for that matter) if I hadn’t watched someone who really, truly knew their craft as closely and often as I did.

On studio days, Russ was either early by half an hour (or better) or late. If he was on time it was a true rarity. Paul, ever sarcastic, called him the Guru of Soul. Tim and I laughed a good bit at that. But you know what? He did have soul – quite a bit, in fact. Sometimes, in my head, I am back in that room – the one that smelled like Yankee Candles and inspiration. I am a child sitting on a couch watching The Guru of Soul work his magic.

We had just sat down in the studio, and Uncle Richard was talking excitedly about a book.

Uncle Richard: Have you ever heard of the Bermuda Triangle?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: It’s interesting. Amelia Erhart’s plane got lost there. Countless ships go through there and never return. Sometimes they see old ships that have sunk hundreds of years ago. Sometimes they see ghosts.

Goosebumps prickled on my arms, and I was instantly intrigued.

Me: What do you think it is?

Uncle Richard: Some say it’s a natural phenomenon – like gigantic magnet. Some say it’s a doorway to another dimension.

He was so excited about this book he was reading, and so impressed with this author that he actually went to hear her lecture on the subject. The thought of a place that sucked ships in – a place where people saw ghosts – stuck in my head. In many ways it never left. I asked Russ about it the following week, and a funny look came over his face.

Russ: There’s something to it, man. I went through there once. I was doing a gig on a cruise ship and we went really close to the Triangle.  Anyway, during the night my Dad walked into my room – we had this huge conversation while I was laying in bed. I’d fall asleep for a while, I’d wake up and he’d be there. This happened a few times. Then, one time I woke up and he was gone. My Dad had been dead for like, 10 years, though. Swear to God.

I imagined being on a ship and seeing people who weren’t really there – and maybe being stuck in that place forever. I got goosebumps again. Thinking about such things was a nice diversion from the other things going on.

By this point in my life, I had begun to have severe headaches – migraines, really. They’d come on suddenly, and I’d clutch my head and just scream. My stomach, too, was in knots all the time – it felt like I was digesting balls of icy glass. We went to several doctors, but nothing ever showed up on the tests. As a kid, I didn’t understand what was going on, which only added to the phenomenon. As an adult, I see that I was under severe stress – the Mafia was watching us, and Joey Lawrence was plotting to ruin my career (I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course). Mom’s delusions about people being out to get me got more and more elaborate. Every day, she’d issue new warnings.

Mom: I don’t care where you are, if you put a glass down and walk away from it, you never drink from it again. Understand?

Me: Because it could be poisoned?

Mom: Or drugs. Someone could be trying to get you high so you get addicted to drugs and arrested.

I took the advice to heart, and to this day I never drink out of a glass if it’s been out of my sight for even a second. While as a kid this was fueled by pure paranoia, as an adult it is simply an empty habit which annoys and confounds people (though maybe there’s a little paranoia peeking out every now and then).

One day, Mom appeared particularly happy. I asked her why.

Mom: Because I made a deal.

Me: Oh, did The Answer come back?

Mom: I wish! No, it’s nothing like that. But I think I found a way to get Joey off our backs.

Me: Okay, good.

Mom: I told Russ that if they’d let you have music, Joey could have acting. You guys can split it, that way you won’t compete with each other.

Again, looking back, I was no competition whatsoever to Joey – he had a totally different look. He played the teenage heart throb, and any acting roles I got would be the egghead. Besides the age gap, we wouldn’t have been going up for the same roles in anyone’s wildest imagination. Regardless, Mom was in no position to make deals of any kind – let alone the kind she thought she was making. The whole premise is ridiculous, and I see that now. I imagine that it’s a lot like a cult, though. From the inside, everything makes perfect sense. You hear it every day and you live with it, you breathe it, you eat it. From the outside, it’s utter nonsense. Thank God I’m on the outside now.

Anyway, she had absolute blue convulsions when Joey came out with an album. She literally threw fits – she felt that “they” had gone back on the deal and now we would get nothing. She stormed into Russ’s studio to confront him about the whole thing. As usual, her anger completely melted when she saw him – she kind of went into a trance and got that far off, glassy look. She did ask repeatedly things like “Is The Answer coming back?” and “Did Joey take our spot for real?” Russ gave his typical assurances (which were somehow both positive and vague at the same time) and Mom was mollified temporarily. The Joey thing flared up repeatedly, though, and still does to this day. Not always with him specifically but every once in a while she’ll latch onto other people (usually celebrities or semi-celebrities) and insist they are plotting against us. Most recently, she’s been telling me with a straight face that The Jonas Brothers took my spot and I have lost another shot at superstardom. What the hell do the Jonas Brothers have to do with whether or not I’m a successful musician? Still, she insists they plotted against us and sidetracked my career. It would be funny if she wasn’t completely serious. It is kind of funny, though.

I remember sitting in a makeup chair, on a commercial set. The hair and makeup lady was fooling with my hair – combing, spraying, styling. Suddenly she paused.

Makeup Lady: Oh, hey.

I raised my eyebrows.

Makeup Lady: You’ve got gray hairs.

Me: I do?

Makeup Lady: Yeah, you totally do. A couple, actually.

Me: Huh.

She called over a colleague who also marveled over this.

Makeup Lady: I wonder how a kid your age gets gray hair? Must be a sign of high intelligence.

Or stress. When you spend enough of your childhood in the Bermuda Triangle, gray hairs happen.

Woah.

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Russ
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

With Nancy in the mix, Mom started getting concerned that Russ’s other students were vying to take my place. She was concerned with stuff like that in general – she’d be at auditions, checking out the “Competition”. She’d get worried if some kid came along that looked similar to me but gave a great read, or was more handsome or had a cooler look. She had these little rivalries that went on in her head with people – they rarely ever even came to the surface, beyond private conversations with me. She would decide (based mostly on whether or not they were “Competition” and whether or not they were any good) that the mother was nasty, or the kid was ugly, or they were out to get us. I remember one kid, who was always at auditions with us, and his mother would sit there and talk to my Mom. Now, I grant you, this lady was a little creepy. She was always talking about how hot her son was or how if she were a girl she’d be into him. This went on for, oh…maybe a couple of months. One day – for no reason anyone was aware of – Mom blew her top. If there was a conversation that preceded this, it was simply the average banter of stage mothers sitting in a casting office.

Mom: Tommy has had his day in the sun! He’s finished! It’s our turn.

Tommy’s Mom: …what?

Mom: And…and…if you think he’s so hot why don’t you just sleep with him, then!

The kid’s mom was flabbergasted. Her jaw was open and she was just stunned into silence. She never talked to Mom again, which was just fine as far as she was concerned. I thought it was kind of funny, though a little uncalled for.

Occasionally – and this happened maybe a dozen times over my career – Mom would latch onto someone and consider them a real threat. Usually this was someone we had zero contact with (or maybe, at best, saw them once or twice) – yet somehow she got it into her head they were behind the scenes scheming against us. One such person was Joey Lawrence. You guys might remember him from the 90’s sitcom Blossom – he was famous for saying “Woah.” a lot.  He was one of Russ’s students – hence, we had a tenuous (at best) connection with him. To my knowledge, though, we never met him in person so I really don’t know how he popped into her head like he did. I remember Mom insisting Joey and/or his family were tapping our phones (they weren’t), or that Joey would try to set me up to go to jail for drugs. This is literally the conversation we had, at least a couple times.

Mom: Danny, I want you to keep your backpack zipped up all the time.

Me: …okay? There’s nothing anyone would want to steal. Just books…

Mom: No, I think Joey might want to put something in it.

I knew exactly who she was talking about – she had been fussing about him nonstop. She had even called and asked my agent if she knew and worked with Joey. I guess she was trying to find out information or something.

Me: Mom, nobody is going to plant drugs on my backpack.

Mom: Well, they might! And if they do, your career is over! You will be in jail!

There was no point in arguing – she was really wound up. I have only ever seen fervent defense attorneys and earnest TV Preachers speak with as much passion and emphasis as she did.

Mom: You. Will be. A DITCH DIGGER.

I laughed – I couldn’t help it. The word struck me funny.

Mom: I AM SERIOUS! If you don’t zip up your backpack and keep it with you AT ALL TIMES, you will rot in jail and be a ditch digger.

Me: Okay, Mom.

I had to look out the car window – I could no longer suppress the big smirk that was coming and I didn’t want her to see it. This whole conversation – especially how grave she was being – struck me as amusing for some reason. Besides – I was about 80-90% sure she was confused, at best. But there was that little part of me that wondered if she wasn’t right – I was a kid after all. As far as I knew, my Mom knew more than I did (at least, she claimed to have a lot of important knowledge about things I “couldn’t know yet”). Even today, with years of therapy under my belt I question my own perceptions often. I am sure – fairly sure, anyway – that I perceive something a certain way. But maybe I’m wrong. And then the self doubt sets in. As a result, I’m probably the most thorough person I know (besides my brother) – I research things to the end of the earth, just to be conclusively sure. Still, doubt sometimes lingers. I think it’s habit formed from growing up in a household where questioning perceptions was a daily (even hourly) activity.

She’d harass Russ about Joey too – asking Russ if Joey was conspiring against us (Russ told her he was not). Asking Russ if we had anything to “worry about” in regards to Joey. Russ would usually tell her no or give her one of his ambiguous answers. Regardless of what he said, she would analyze the hell out of it. If he was straightforward and told her “No, Joey Lawrence isn’t plotting against you” she would inevitably decide it was not the “right Russ” that told us this – it was possibly a Russ who was in league with Joey and the shadowy powers aligned against us.

I asked Mom a few times why all these people I didn’t even know were out to get me. I assumed these people had lives and families – surely they couldn’t have time to just come after me 24/7. I don’t remember her exact wording, but the upshot was that i was so talented that I was a serious threat to the “system”. And they either needed to “make” me (i.e. the Mafia backing me) or they needed to get rid of me – get me thrown in jail, or assassinated. I don’t care how old you are – if hearing that doesn’t give you one hell of a complex, I don’t know what will.