Posts Tagged ‘Business’

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.

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.

 

When I was about 10, we went on our first (and last) actual vacation as a post divorce family. I’m not sure what prompted it, exactly, but I think Uncle Carlo’s death had something to do with it. Mom was having a hard time adjusting and needed to get away – she felt that our only ally in “The War” was gone, and we would never get accepted by the Mafia. What do sad, confused, mentally ill mothers do when worried about such things? They go to Disney World.

Uncle Dave lived down there too – he was my mom’s half brother. He was a cool guy, and to me is a last link to my Grandfather. He looks a lot like him, and even talks a bit like him too. We decided to make it a nice, 2 week trip.  I had been very successful and we could afford to take some time off (granted, this whole shindig was on my dime – even though I got to make very few of the decisions about the trip itself). We loaded Grandma, Tim, Mom and myself onto an Amtrak train and went down. It was decided that we would visit MGM Studios – this is what Disney’s Hollywood Studios used to be called back in the day. Now that I think about it, that may have been a big reason for the trip – Uncle Carlo used to be a bigwig at MGM, and Mom may very well have felt she might find a “message” there. She certainly seemed to feel we were related to Arthur Freed – a famous producer from old Hollywood who helped get the Wizard of Oz made into a film (he did Singin’ in the Rain, among other things). We may very well have been – there was a whole set of cousins who shared his last name. She seemed to feel that she might get some more information about him from the theme park. Yeah. I know.

Anyway, almost as soon as we hit town, Mom starts cruising the main drag to get the lay of the land. All of a sudden she pulls over. I notice she’s thinking intently and gripping the steering wheel. My first thought was that Dad had somehow followed us – I checked behind us and saw no one. I shook Mom’s shoulder because she seemed to be trancing out.

Me: What’s going on, Mom?

Mom: Stay in the car.

She pulled into a parking lot and hopped out. She walked to a building that had a lot of neon signs out front, as well as arcane symbols. What do upset, confused, and mentally ill mothers do when they’re worried about the future? They go to psychics. It was just some $5 palm reading place, but she took it so serious. She popped her head out and gestured for me to follow her in. I did so, and sat patiently in the waiting room. I believed in the power of psychics – or at least the supernatural – because Uncle Richard and I had multiple conversations about such things. He assured me that there were more things in heaven and earth than I could possibly conceive of. I agreed. Still, I didn’t think any answers would be found from a $5 palm reading, and I didn’t like how serious Mom was being about the whole thing. During the course of our stay, she made several appointments – I think she went back a total of 4 times. I don’t know what was talked about – for some reason I wasn’t entrusted any further than the waiting room. Mom talked a lot about what the psychic told her, but the conversations were fluid and constantly changing. One minute, the psychic said only such and such a thing. The next, entire dialogues popped up. As usual, Mom was “adding” stuff to the conversation in her head and thinking it was real. I started catching onto this phenomenon rather quickly – she did it all the time with Russ, after all. Whenever I called her on it, though, she got really pissed off.

The other eventful thing about the trip was that Mom insisted I go to this acting seminar. I thought that was totally asinine. You got to audition in front of a “real director” for Nickelodeon who gave you tips on what to do. You’d learn all about improv and the acting business as well. I protested – why in the hell did I need this? I was already working. Mom thought it might land me a “break” – God knows why – and plunked down the few hundred dollars that it cost to get me in. Somewhat amusingly, the director didn’t seem to think I had what it took to be an actor.

Mom was always looking for an angle – whether it was trying to get me into ridiculous seminars like that one or pyramid schemes. She was always looking for a quick way to make money or to hit the big time. I told her over and over again, even as a kid – there’s no quick way. It’s a myth. Work hard, do your best, and you’ll be successful. If she spent half the time working hard that she did on trying to find ways to get rich quick, she’d have been very well off. While we were down there, she attended several seminars  that were clearly pyramid schemes. She drug me along, and I was bored as hell. I tried to read, but she would nudge my shoulder and make me listen. I could see the speaker was bullshit from 10 feet away.

Speaker: Do you want to live the life you’ve always dreamed? Have money in your pocket? Travel the world?

The crowd shouted it’s affirmation.

Speaker: I can’t hear you!

The crowd shouted louder.

Speaker: Well on my plan, you can do all that! It’s a simple system – it’s so easy to learn that anyone can do it. If you’re willing to work just one hour a week, you can quit your job and be rich!

I’m still unclear as to what exactly he was peddling. For all I know, he was selling the secret of turning lead into gold. Mom was one of the first in line after the speech, trying to get more information. Turned it out was some package – I think it might have been a book or some tapes – that showed you how to get money. She started arguing with him.

Mom: FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS? For a BOOK!?

Speaker: Yes ma’am, but it’s not just a book. It will change your life!

Mom: Can’t you just tell me what to do?

Speaker: Well, the nice thing about this is, you have the full support of my team. If you buy the book, we’re always available to answer any questions you might have on your journey to riches.

Mom: Is there a cheaper plan?

Speaker: Well, I can offer you a $750 plan, but it doesn’t include the help.

Mom: How am I supposed to do it without help?

Speaker: Then you need the $1,500 plan.

Mom: But that’s stupid. I’m not paying that much.

Speaker: The advice is invaluable!

Mom: Do you know how much we make?

The speaker was getting annoyed.

Speaker: How much?

Mom: Thousands. A lot. He acts for a living. We don’t need this shit.

She grabbed my arm.

Mom: Come on, Dan, we’re leaving. He was rude.

I’m not sure what she expected – nobody gives away get rich quick tools for free. That’s how they get rich.

After maybe the 4th or 5th day there, we got a call from my agent. Evidently a client had called and wanted to book me directly, no audition. The commercial was for Chuck E. Cheese – it was a voice over, but it was going to be national net. It was expected to run very well – I’d make thousands. There wasn’t much of a discussion – we flew back early the next day, ran into the city, and did the job. When I was a kid, flying used to mess with my ears horribly and by the time we landed in the city I had a sore throat and messed up ears. Even sick, though, I knocked it out of the park. Looking back, I wonder if it was actually worth it from a financial standpoint to buy last minute plane tickets and jump through all the hoops we did to get back for the booking. I guess it was. I was kind of pissed that we had to cut the vacation short, though.

Mom: You can have a life or you can be successful. You can’t have it both ways.

Me: So this means we don’t get vacations and stuff?

Mom: You’re on call 24/7. That’s how it works.

And it’s true – I was almost like a doctor. Checking my pager, calling my agent from payphones to check in or (later, when the technology was there) having my phone on all the time so I’d be available for that last minute call.

One thing I am happy about though, is that I did get to go to Disney. I spent some time with Mom there, of course, but I also got to hang out with Grandma. I’m happy we did this, because it’s still one of my fondest memories of her. She had a heart condition and couldn’t go on most of the rides – she sat on benches a lot and waited for me to get off the rides. We did go on the Jungle Cruise together, though, and we had a great time. She had a blast looking at the hippos and whatnot. Even some two decades later, I still remember her clearly in her green sun dress and oversized granny glasses while we waited for the boat. To me, that’s worth the trip.

99% of the people I’ve ever worked with were total professionals – great people. I earned a bit of a reputation in the industry as “One Take Danny” – meaning I could give the client whatever they wanted in just a couple of takes. If they hired me, it was unlikely I would cost them more than an hour of studio time – sometimes even much less. I loved the feeling of getting a “day’s work” done in such a short amount of time – it was very gratifying. I think that has bred a need in me to see the immediate outcome of a project – it’s very hard for me to just put my head down and work on something for an indefinite period without seeing a clear result. It’s why I have an easier time writing short stories than novels, and why I have such an easy time blogging – I post it, it’s done, people read it and comment.

Anyway, sometimes I would get a client who didn’t know what they wanted – those were always difficult. I’d have to do fifty million takes.

Client: That was great, Danny. Now, listen, we loved the way you did that – we really did – but can you give us a little more…I dunno. Something. You know?

No, I didn’t know. But dammit, I tried. You might not think a lot of fretting went on about my inflection in the word “waffle”, but you’d be wrong. In some cases, you’d be very wrong. I remember doing a voice over for a Batman action figure once. For those who might not know, a voice over is where you walk into a recording studio and read a script. If it’s for TV, they’ll usually have everything filmed and want you to match it to the picture. Back in the day, the clients, director, and writers were all right there in the room with you. These days they do it all via internet – the client can be in Micronesia, it doesn’t even matter. Anyway, this Batman commercial was cool – I loved the comics, and knew every nuance of the characters. All through the session, though, I could tell this guy – I think he was a writer – was getting agitated. Sensing he wasn’t quite satisfied, I asked if there was anything specific he had in mind.

Writer: Yeah. Can you make a noise?

Me: What kind of noise?

Writer: You know, like the kind of noise the Penguin makes?

I imitated the Penguin.

Writer: No, not like that. Like a quack.

Me: A quack?

Writer: Yes.

Me: Like a duck?

Writer: No, like a penguin. Penguins quack, right?

I thought I knew what he was talking about – the cigar chomping, umbrella wielding Batman villain did make birdlike sounds sometimes. I gave him what I thought was a dead on impersonation of it.

Writer: No, no. I need you to grunt.

Me: Grunt?

Writer: Yeah. Grunt like the Penguin.

Like I said, I was pretty familiar with the character – and he didn’t grunt, as far as I knew. I did some more takes, and grunted as requested – which, in my opinion, sounded nothing like the Penguin. The writer was growing more frustrated.

Writer: No, that’s not it. That’s not right.

Me: Okay…

Writer: Just GRUNT! You don’t know how to grunt?

Me: Yeah…you mean quack or grunt?

Writer: Just grunt!

I did some more takes, which sounded like I was passing the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. I was sounding less and less like the Penguin and more like a guy who hadn’t eaten fiber in ten years.

Me: Was that…better?

Writer: No! That sounds nothing like the Penguin.

No shit, dude.

Writer: Okay. Can you quack and grunt at the same time?

I was starting to seriously question this guy’s grasp on the characters in the DC universe – much less reality – but I gave it my best shot. I prayed to everloving Christ that I got it. He listened back to my takes, and hope crept into my heart.

Writer: No. No. That’s not it.

Me: Well, what do you want?

Writer: I want you to sound like THE PENGUIN!

Me: …okay. Well, you’ll have to explain what you want, then. Because I have no idea.

The guy put his hands over his face for a minute before he spoke again.

Writer: Okay. You know the Penguin?

Me: Yes. From Batman.

Writer: Yes. The umbrella guy.

Me: Right.

Writer: He GRUNTS! Do the Penguin.

I did dozens more takes – I imitated the Penguin, I grunted, I quacked, I even squeaked. By the end, nearly an hour had passed. My voice was raw from grunting and his co-workers were looking at him kind of funny.

He opened his mouth to speak and the lady sitting next to him stopped him. Her voice spoke in my headphones.

Girl Writer: Danny, that’s fine. I think we have what we need.

I walked out of there on watery knees, but the writer – the guy who seemed to want to hear the Penguin taking a dump –  was red faced and sweaty. He looked tired, pissed, and frustrated. I could relate.

 

Uncle Carlo was always telling jokes – usually, I never understood exactly why they were funny but for some reason my brother and I always laughed at them till we were out of breath. When I tried to retell them later, nobody else seemed to get them. I’ve come to the conclusion they were funny only because of Uncle Carlo’s infectious personality – his accent also made the jokes have a certain rhythm, which made any jokes he told even better. I remember him telling me about sitting in traffic with a famous singer – I think it was Bobby Darin, but I’m not sure – when this guy pulls up beside them in a brand new BMW. The traffic is at a standstill, and the guy is just laying on his horn – he wasn’t affecting traffic, all he was doing was drawing attention to himself. So Uncle Carlo rolls his window down and shouts “Hey, Buddy…what else you got for Christmas?” He laughed rather uproariously while telling this tale. To this day, it still makes me chuckle out loud, although nobody else I tell the story to seems to find it as amusing as me. Maybe it’s because I see his face and hear his voice in my head, and that’s what makes it funnier. It was his story – not mine – after all.

I remember he invited us up to the Poconos with him – he had spent a week or two in a hospital in NY.  He had developed pneumonia, I think, but they had finally got it under control and cleared him to leave. Thinking he needed some fresh air, he decided to take a vacation to the mountains. I don’t know how long we were actually there – my guess is not very long – but it felt like a month to me. He brought his good friend Gasper along, who was basically his chauffeur, barber, and butler. I spent days in a hotel pool looking out at the mountains. I bought comic books at a local 7-11, and read them in my room at night. We’d eat at a local diner that had an arcade – my love for arcades was fully grown by then, and any time I saw one I had to at least try it. My favorites were Golden Axe, The Avengers, and Ninja Turtles, but I wasn’t terribly picky – I’d even play Donkey Kong or Pac Man. This particular arcade game was a driving one – it was probably a precursor to Grand Theft Auto. It had a pedal you could press to accelerate, a steering wheel, and a gearshift. This thing had clearly seen some action – nicks and scuffs were all over the case, which displayed a cartoon cop chasing after a cartoon robber. I think the cop may have had a donut, but I’m not sure.

I ran over to the table where the adults sat, begging for quarters. Like many kids my age, arcade machines turned me immediately into a pan handler. Uncle Carlo laughed, and reached into his pocket. He dropped a fistful of change into my eager palms. He winked at me as I scampered off. The game involved a high speed chase to get away from the cops, which seemed to amuse him even further. I must not have been very good at it, because I was back asking for more quarters within a few minutes. When the rest of the adults at the table turned me down, Uncle Carlo was ready with yet another handful of quarters. I ran off again, pacified. By the third time I ran over, Mom was starting to get annoyed. She tried to warn me against asking for more quarters with her eyes, but I studiously ignored her side of the table. When I approached Uncle Carlo, however, he looked at me regretfully.

Uncle Carlo: No more quarters, Kid. Sorry! Why don’t you come sit with us?
I did, and listened while they talked. Uncle Carlo told stories from the Golden Age of Hollywood (he once talked Judy Garland down from walking off the set of a holiday TV special), and we all listened. Mom fretted and complained about Russ and The Business (a.k.a auditions, bookings, and acting in general), and Gasper chimed in with stories of his own. Those were good days. When I think back, they were some of the most carefree of my childhood. I was surrounded by adults, clean air, and mountains. The hotel pool and the comic books didn’t hurt either.

Uncle Carlo was a bit like a second grandfather to me. All of my “uncles” that I adopted were different – sometimes even polar opposites – but in one respect they were all the same: they had the heart of a teacher. Uncle Carlo was constantly buoyant and upbeat – always humming or singing. He had a comic strip from a newspaper taped to his front door – it had a little bird on it that said “I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing!” Anyway, he used to give me things – I assume he though they were things a kid would like, and I did like them because they came from him. Mostly it was men’s accessories, oddly enough. I think he gave me cufflinks once, and once he even gave me an ascot. More often, though, he gave me newsboys caps – I had like, 5 of them from him. For a while, I insisted on wearing them everywhere. He used to call me “The Kid” – I mean, he’d call me by my given name too, but if I walked in the door he’d shout “It’s The Kid!”

As I think I mentioned before, a lot of his students were either influential or famous in some way. He made sure we got invited to every party possible  – this was easy, because he was invited to every party. His students held big birthday dinners for him, usually in the form of a recital. They were huge affairs, and often they’d rent out entire restaurants for this.  I distinctly remember a summer party at a Congressman’s estate – it was gorgeous. There were fountains, pools, and even an ice cream truck. A full service ice cream truck with an unlimited supply of ice cream? I was in heaven. They had these chocolate covered cherry pops that had a picture of a vampire on them – I don’t remember what they were called, but they were like crack to me that day. I would finish one, toss the wrapper, and then make a beeline right back to the ice cream truck. I probably would have loaded up on them all day if Mom hadn’t stopped me. She wasn’t worried about the sugar I was consuming – she was concerned I was jacking up the Congressman’s ice cream bill. Somewhat regretfully, I ceased my gluttony and found other things to occupy myself with.

The Congressman himself was a cool guy – I remember talking to him quit a bit. He was a pretty good singer, as I recall, and did a nice rendition of “Jeepers Creepers“. He, Tim and I talked a bit about alligators – I seem to recall him telling me he was really into them as a kid. I think he may even have talked about alligators in the sewers (I can only imagine he was joking).

At every party, I was practically treated like royalty – mostly because Uncle Carlo was. He’d put his hand on my shoulder as he introduced me to people. “This is The Kid.” he’d tell them.

He really liked my music, though by that time I hadn’t written very much. He pulled all the strings he could for me, and actually got me a meeting with David Bowie’s manager. He was very nice and spent a lot of time he didn’t have to listening to my music and making suggestions. I remember him stopping the tape after hearing “Rockin’ Dino” (one of my earliest songs was about a dinosaur).
David Bowie’s Manager: How old are you again?

Me: Ten.

David Bowie’s Manager: Ten. And what do you want to do? Be a singer? A songwriter?

Me: Yeah.

David Bowies’ Manager: I don’t see a market for this stuff, to be honest. I mean…is it kid’s music? I don’t know. I mean, it’s not Adult Contemporary, or rock. I don’t know how marketable it is. Have you picked a genre of music?

Me: Can’t I just do all of them?

He laughed good naturedly.

David Bowie’s Manager: I think you’re going to end up being pretty big. Just not right now.

I was pretty happy, because somebody important was listening to my music, and he thought enough of me to have a meeting with me.

 

 

Even as I write these recollections, I have to admit to being a little nervous. I have told close friends about some of this before, but rarely have I been so open with so many. Having had it pounded into my head never to say anything, yet saying things in a “public” forum can make someone a little tweaky. I remember the first time I told someone about anything like this – I was probably 17 or 18. I swore them to secrecy, convinced they were going to die. When they didn’t, it was a bit of a revelation for me. Of course, by that time I had begun to see gaps in my Mom’s logic and that was my way of “testing” it further. By that point, we had a near total breakdown in our relationship.

I remember sitting in the office of what would become my new acting agent, JMB. The carpet was green, the color of money. Beautiful (and probably one of a kind) paintings adorned the walls of the spacious waiting area. There were modern art sculptures in the lobby that looked like giant mushrooms. We were here, looking to sign with them. You see, as I became more and more successful, my Mom’s focus began to shift towards “The Business” – running the day to day operations of my career. She had determined that Shirley wasn’t the best place for us. While Shirley doted on me, Mom decided that other people in the office were plotting against us. She insisted they refused to send me out on calls while Shirley was away. Shirley insisted that wasn’t the case. Mom disagreed, and broke our contract. I have serious doubts as to whether or not Mom’s perceptions about Shirley were factual – in fact, people “working against us” would become something of a pattern throughout my career. An alphabet soup of talent agencies pursued me – wanting me to sign an exclusive contract. We had decided on one of the biggest, and most reputable at the time, JMB. We didn’t decide this based solely on facts, feelings about the people we’d be working with, or anything. Mom decided that one of the owners was a “Russ” , and being offered a contract by them was tantamount to them offering to “make me”. I didn’t argue, because I was getting to do what I loved to do – I let the adults hash it all out, and I trusted Mom to know what she was doing.

When the dust was settled on the legal wrangling, we paid Shirley a percentage of whatever I made – on top of whatever commission JMB took. I still made money, somehow, but I think it was a bad deal – especially considering the whole premise was based on a likely delusion.

Anyway, sometimes there would be 5 auditions a day – all in different places. Some were last minute, and some were at the same time as other auditions. We had to prioritize, decide which commercial would pay the best if I booked it. I learned to eat fast food, and eat it fast. Sometimes I’d be running so hard and fast I’d only get one meal a day. We’d rush into McDonald’s, wolf it down, and go. I ate fries by the fistfull, and burgers in huge, gulping bites. The whole time, Mom was panicked we wouldn’t get to the audition – I had to hurry, we wouldn’t make it in time. In all the rush, I had to worry about not getting food on my clothes. Somehow, I managed to eat lightning fast and not get messy. It was a real high pressure situation. I don’t blame Mom for this…she was already sort of excitable, considering her mental health situation and this just amplified some of those traits. And it’s tough when you have two casting calls that both start at 2, and are across town from each other in NYC traffic.