Posts Tagged ‘Danny’

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

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

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

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

Russ: I think that looks better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Okay…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom told him.

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

We passed along the info to him.

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

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

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

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

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

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

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

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

Russ: Oh, yeah…

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

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

Mom: Will you be there this time?

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

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

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

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

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

Me: Really?

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

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

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

Me: A test?

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

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

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

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

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

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

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

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

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

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

He took a moment to consider.

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

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was openly glaring at her.

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

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

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

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

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

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

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

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

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

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

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

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

I 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.

 

There is an island somewhere in the world called Snake Island. Don’t remember where it is, exactly, but it’s absolutely full of extremely venomous snakes. If it’s on the island, it will pretty much kill you within minutes. When you’re on the island, you’re never more than a foot or two away from certain death. I think that was essentially Mom’s view of the world when I was growing up. I couldn’t go visit my friends at their house (at least 90% of the time) because she was afraid something would go missing and I would get blamed. I wasn’t a thief, by any stretch of the imagination, though I did steal something once when I was about 4 or 5. I kept pestering Mom for a Peppermint Patty – I think they were maybe 5 cents at this diner we were at – and she kept telling me no. Well, when she was paying, I decided I wanted one anyway. So I snatched one from the jar when no one was looking. In the car, Grandpa saw me eating the Peppermint Patty (rule #1 of thievery: don’t flaunt your spoils) and asked Mom what was up. She slammed on the brakes, and interrogated me. I buckled under the pressure and admitted that yes, I did take it. I got a very long lecture about it – one of the few reasonable lectures I ever got from her, actually – and perhaps most importantly, my Grandfather was extremely pissed. That made the biggest impression, because I really looked up to him. They made me go back into the diner with a nickel, admit what I’d done to the manager, and apologize. Mom kept threatening me with jail time on the ride home. I was pale and sweating. That was the beginning and the end of my career as any sort of thief.

Anyway, she knew I wouldn’t steal anything, but I think she had this paranoia that I would get accused and there would be a big problem, and it’d be a black mark on my career. Nowadays, if you steal something, you end up having the opposite problem – media flocks to you and you tend to become more famous (or infamous, as the case may be). Whenever I went to someone’s house, I was always nervous and antsy. I never took anything I was offered – not even water, and not even if I was dying of thirst. I would pretty much sit as still as I could wherever I could find a perch. I was (and still am, unless I know the people in question very well) extremely uncomfortable.

She was afraid to let me ride my bike around the block, or walk to friend’s houses. It was practically a given that I would get hit by a car or snatched by a child molester. We lived on a quiet street that wasn’t exactly frequented by cars. Even then, the speed limit was 25. I think I’ve talked before about being suspicious of almost all food that was put in front of me (potentially poisoned, naturally) and never, ever leaving my drink unattended anywhere (and if I did, just get a new drink – who knows, someone could be trying to drug me). Leaving my backpack out of my sight was also a no-no, because someone could plant drugs or other incriminating evidence on me. If someone spit on me (something which hasn’t ever happened that I recall) I should immediately go to the ER and get tested for AIDS. Unless there was no other option, truck stop restrooms – or really almost any public restroom – was out of the question, no matter how clean. I could easily get diseases from the seat. When I was old enough to drive, I had to fight tooth and nail to get a license. Even then, she refused to let me drive on the highways (I would be killed in a terrible, fiery crash that would be visible from space). When I was in college, she would freak out if I took a class at night. When I asked her why, she told me that I could get attacked by a bum, who would punch me in the throat and I would never be able to sing again. Hoping to assuage her very specific (and very insane) fear, I assured her I would only travel well lit routes and give any deranged bums a wide berth.

She came by these fears honestly – my family, at least on my Mother’s side, were well versed in the art of hysterical paranoia. My Great Grandmother was so afraid something would happen to my Grandmother, she wouldn’t let her go next door to her Aunt’s house. And this was back in like,  the 30’s when crime was a lot less rampant and cars went 15mph. If you left the house, she feared and fretted that something horrible would happen to you. From what I hear, she pretty much paced back and forth until everyone was back in the house and within her line of vision. Hell, she didn’t even let my grandparents date before they were married. Well, they could date, but they could only “date” if Great-Grandma went with them. It wasn’t a propriety thing, at least I don’t think that was all of it. She was honestly paranoid something awful would happen if she wasn’t there. She very reluctantly let them go on their honeymoon alone. Grandma was very similar (though not quite as bad, at least with Tim and I – she had more of a Grandmotherly concern than full on paranoia most of the time).

I have to admit, I handled none of this very well. As I grew up, I started exhibiting symptoms of serious OCD. I didn’t know what this was at the time – actually not until my late teens – I just knew that I had rituals that I had to perform and when they got disrupted, I got very very upset. For instance, I carried probably close to a pound of change in my pockets and about $60 in ones in my wallet. I memorized the serial numbers of the bills, and the dates and imperfections of the coins. I determined that this was my “lucky money” and I could not possibly spend it for any reason. When I felt stressed (which was pretty often) I’d play with the coins in my pocket or the bills. It wasn’t very long before the bills were little more than rags. I became convinced that I couldn’t write songs without them, or that I’d not be able to book auditions without them. Once, when Mom needed change for the meter, she asked for a quarter from my pocket.

Me: No, you have to find some other change.

I didn’t tell her no very often, but this was a subject I was passionate about.

Mom: Well, I need a quarter.

Me: Can’t you find something in the ashtray?

Mom: There isn’t any in the ashtray.

Me: Well, break a dollar somewhere then.

Mom was taken aback.

Mom: I’m not going to break a dollar, Danny. Give me some quarters.

I freaked out.

Me: But this is my lucky money! I can’t give it up.

Mom was pissed.

Mom: It’s just a fucking quarter. Now give it to me! I need it for the meter, we’re going to be late!

With a great deal of regret and reluctance, I fished in my pocket. I began studying the coins – deciding which I would be willing to give up. Should I give up the one with the red dye marks, dated 1956? No…I liked that one. What about the one with all the nicks from the ’30s? Or the one that looked like it had been chewed in a shredder? I couldn’t decide, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t calm down. These were my safety net – I realize now I was creating a sense of security for myself. It’s what allowed me to hold it together, at least mostly. When that security was threatened, I lost the capacity to cope with the world and couldn’t handle it. I would give her one of the latter-dated coins, I decided – one that was relatively insignificant to me but had found its way into my pocket somehow and thus became lucky. I handed it over.

As she fed the meter, I opened and closed the car door several times, stuck my foot out and put it back in, and locked and unlocked the doors repeatedly. If Mom noticed, she said nothing. I didn’t have an exact count – it was never really about that, anyway – it was about doing it until I felt better.

I also had a “lucky comb” – how or what caused it to be lucky is completely lost to me now, although it was possibly because I happened to book an audition or write a great song while it was on my person. It was just a typical black comb you’d get at any drug store – probably cost less than a buck. But again, I would take it out and play with the teeth of the comb – running my fingers over it until I was soothed. By the time I threw it away years later – and I do mean years later – many teeth were broken and bent. There was gunk (probably old hair gel) stuck between the teeth. It looked like the grin of a lunatic.

I had a ritual for when I finished writing songs, too. I would open and close the piano lid a certain number of times – again, no specific number but it was usually even and I usually stopped whenever it felt “right” to do so. Then I stood with my hand on the lid for several seconds until the heat from my hand left an imprint on the lid. Then I would arrange the sheet music on the piano just right. Always the same sheet music – Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Judy Garland‘s face peering out at me, and Harbor Lights. Sometimes Elton John joined them if I was feeling in a particularly light mood. If anyone touched my piano, I freaked the fuck out. If anyone played my piano, God help them. Actually, it was more like God help me. I paced, wrung my hands and was very, very agitated until they were done (if they were a stranger or someone I felt I couldn’t be direct with, at least). If anyone had ever asked me to explain this, I didn’t have the words – one of the few things in my life that I could never clearly communicate. I just would have stammered something about “things need to be this way” and hoped they understood.  The one and only time I completely lost my shit with my brother was when he decided he was going to come up and play my piano. I had finished writing, and my ritual was done. The piano was “closed”, as in it couldn’t be touched again (except by me) until whenever it was I was going to write next. I heard plinking on the keys and became immediately concerned. I rushed down the stairs to find Tim tinkling on the keys. He was old enough by then to know how to play a bit – he had taken some lessons with Russ as well – and there was certainly no reasonable expectation that he would damage it. He knew how to treat an instrument respectfully.

Me: What are you doing?

Tim: I’m just fooling around.

Me: Well don’t.

Tim saw I was quite serious. I was on the balls of my feet and my hands were in my pockets, jingling my lucky change.

Tim: Why not?

Me: Because I have a system, and you’re ruining it.

He laughed. I think he thought I was joking.

Me: It’s not funny. Get the hell out of here.

The change was jingling faster now, and I was sweating.

Tim: What’s your deal, dude?

Me: I don’t have a deal. Don’t ever touch this again. You’re not allowed.

He got up, then, a question on his lips. It never reached them, because I shoved him away from the piano – one of the only times I’ve ever actually laid a hand on him.

Me: I play piano. Not you. Buzz off. Never touch it again.

He left, and I went immediately into my ritual – with a few elaborations to make up for the “impurity” of someone else having soiled the keys. It was a long time before I felt settled, but when I did, I finished up and went to bed. I added a new ritual after that night – checking the piano to make sure nothing was disturbed. I did this several times a day, maybe more. I would be in another room, and start to panic that something had been moved – despite the fact that I heard no one playing. I would drop what I was doing, run upstairs and double check. Once relief washed over me, I could return to whatever I had been doing.

There was a time in my life when I was a complete nutcase, at least in private. I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m rather ashamed of it. But it’s part of the story, and so it goes in here. I always felt bad about what happened – Tim never touched the piano again, at least not when I was around. He fiddled with playing guitar and even played drums for a bit. But once I came to my senses a bit more (many years and therapy sessions later) I came to realize I was a pretty freaking horrible older brother, at least in this incident. My therapist would tell me that I was just a kid, that I was trying to cope too. She may have a point, but I should have known better. I should have risen above the situation – I was smart enough to do that, even if I was just a kid. But I didn’t, and there it is.

The change and money that I felt was so lucky eventually got put away. After the day with the meter, and a couple other close calls where Mom needed to borrow some cash, I became too paranoid about keeping it on me. I worried that she would need it, or it would get spent accidentally by me (there was exactly zero chance of that happening, because I was way too attached). I ended up shoving them in pirate treasure chest I had gotten – it ended up being a sort of catch-all for random stuff that was important to me. A pair of cufflinks from a tux I wore on TV once, a mini troll doll, some Mardi Gras beads someone had given me backstage, a Chinese coin I picked up somewhere. And of course, the lucky money. I ran across it recently when I was going through the pirate chest – they bills were barely discernible as cash at all. George Washington’s austere gaze had faded so much that he could barely be made out. They almost looked like tattered grey strips of napkin. The coins – with only a couple of exceptions – were indistinguishable from any ordinary, garden variety quarters. I remember looking down at them as an adult and asking myself “Why in the hell did I save these? Why were they so important?” In the end, there’s only one real answer that makes sense: because I needed them.

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.

 

That’s how I used to feel when I tried to talk to Mom. Like I was placing a call and the number just wouldn’t connect. I knew the number, dialed, and waited. Sometimes it would be 20 rings, and she’d pick up. Sometimes I’d get an error message. Sometimes we’d talk, and it would be clear as a bell. Those conversations were somewhat rare, though. At first I didn’t notice it so much – when I was a kid, I’d just chatter away. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I was talking at her, not to her.

I used to be quite the little chatterbox when I was little. I used to wander up to adults (I’m talking like, when I was 5 or 6) and just talk to them about dinosaurs or whatever. It really didn’t matter who it was – a casting person, an agent, Tim, Mom, or some stranger at a truck stop. I’d find something to talk about. I remember us going to a buffet when I was a kid, and for whatever reason I started talking to this lady. She wandered around the restaurant and I followed her. My parents realized I had wandered off, and panicked. They found me just chatting away about whatever. Turns out the lady was the owner, and when she found out I sang and did shows, she hired me to do some singing gigs.

When you’re in the car – especially on long trips, like the drives to NYC were – there’s long silences. Anyone who has ever been on a road trip understand this. If you’re lucky, those silences are comfortable. If you’re not, they can be awkward. When your mentally ill mother is driving you, and you have no idea what she’s thinking about, those silences can be anxiety inducing. Long silences meant she was thinking, usually. If she got that thousand yard stare, that was very bad. She might burst out crying (that was typical), she might become very, very depressed and suicidal, or she might become angry. She might harp about Russ and the Mafia, and become paranoid. When she thought – and she had plenty of time to do so in the car ride – it was like spinning a roulette wheel where every slot but one or two was pretty bad. The only answer I could come up with was to try to distract her – to try to engage her in conversation, about whatever. Mostly I’d talk about comics or books I was reading, or dinosaurs, or TV shows. If she tried to steer the conversation towards Russ, I tried to keep it positive. This was sort of my Hail Mary play – if she insisted on making the topic Russ or the Mafia or something, I would insist on it being positive. I wasn’t sure she was crazy yet – I still trusted her – but I was sure things weren’t quite as bad as she seemed to think.

Remember when I told you that Mom and I used to be very close, and then a series of breaks happened? This is the first of them, and it happened like this. I was about 12, and I had spent some time quietly reading in the car (another gargantuan novel – I don’t remember what it was now). I finally looked up, and saw her staring off into space. I called out to her. No response. I waited. I called her name again. Still no response. Gingerly, I put my hand on her arm.

Me: Mom.

She snapped out of it, but I could see immediately she was pissed.

Mom: What.

Me: Um.

Mom: What, Danny. I am trying to THINK.

Me: I was, uh, concerned. You looked tired.

Mom: I’m thinking.

Me: Oh, okay. I didn’t know.

The hell I didn’t. I knew perfectly well what was going on. She was inside herself, replaying some event (real or imagined) and would come out with some new thing to be worried or obsess about. I went back to reading for a while. When I looked up again, she was still distant. I decided she’d been zoning out long enough (the fact that she was zoning out while driving wasn’t a big concern to me, though it probably should have been). I decided to take some tentative steps into a conversation.

Me: So, uh. I’m reading this book.

Nothing.

Me: It’s about this guy…and he’s a time traveler. And he goes back to King Arthur’s court.

Silence.

Me: It’s really cool. He invents electric fences and stuff…

Hearing no response, I continued talking. I pretty much gave her a full, running narrative of the book. Every once in a while I would look over to see if she was listening. I wasn’t sure if she was, but she did look a little less distant, I thought. That was good.

Me: …what do you think about that?

I had been talking for maybe 20 minutes. I watched her. She was tilting her head in this funny way. Remember the old RCA dog? The one that listened at the Victrola and heard “his master’s voice”? That’s kind of what she looked like, though I have no idea what voice she might have been hearing.

Mom: Danny.

I felt cold. She did not sound very happy.

Mom: Shut. The fuck. UP.

I shrank. My plan had backfired. I was supposed to bring her out of her trance, not piss her off.

Me: I’m sorry. I just, uh. Got bored. Was trying to talk to you.

Mom: I am trying to THINK!

She jammed two fingers into her temple when she said “THINK”, emphasizing her point. At this juncture, all I wanted to do was calm her down and get back to the status quo.

Me: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’ll stop talking.

Mom: THANK you.

I stuck my nose back in my book. I was hurt and angry.  I don’t think I looked up for most of the ride home, until she spoke again.

Mom: It’s just the things you talk about, they’re so far over my head.

I looked at her. I didn’t think they were that difficult to comprehend. It was a book for God’s sake.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I just…have a lot on my mind.

Me: Alright.

She tried to open up the conversation again, but I was having none of it. I was pissed at having been yelled at just for talking.

I did get over it – eventually – but it took me a couple weeks. We went back to the old routine of me chattering away to her while she drove. Hell, I even talked while she didn’t drive. I remember we were walking through a mall and I was just going on and on about some idea I had for a commercial. I was excited about it.

Me: What do you think? Pretty cool, right?

She was clearly distracted.

Mom: Uh, yeah. Cool.

Later on, we got a call from the agent – I had an audition where I had to tell an original joke. I told her I didn’t have one ready, and I’d have to think about it.

Mom: But you do. Didn’t you tell me that joke in the mall?

Me: A joke?

Mom: Yeah. 

Me: That wasn’t a joke…that was an idea I had for a script.

It dawned on me then that she wasn’t listening at all – in fact, I don’t think she paid attention enough to have any idea of what I was talking about most of the time. I reflected on many of our past “conversations”, and saw that she wasn’t actually listening, but rather letting my words wash over her – like I was a wave and she was a pier. I shouldn’t have reacted like this, but it was too much for me to handle. I shut down. I stopped talking to her almost completely, unless she initiated it. I kept my nose in my book and inhabited my own inner world. In an ironic sort of way, I wasn’t much different than she was.

It took her months to notice I had stopped talking, which upset me more. I had hoped she would notice and say something. When she did, it wasn’t in a way that I anticipated.

Mom: You’ve become a bit of an introvert.

Me: Hm.

Mom: I don’t think that’s good, Danny.

Me: Oh?

Mom: You’re not outgoing with people anymore. I think it’s bad. It makes you look like you’re not interested at auditions. You need to be more outgoing. Like you used to be.

I was pissed.

Me: Oh, ok.

I put my nose back in my book. Sometimes, when you keep trying to place a call that doesn’t go through, you hang up.

She threw the fabled Red Book in my lap – the book contained the phone numbers of important people we had come across; agents, managers, casting people, directors…whatever.

Mom: Here. You call.

I felt a little panicked.

Me: Me? You want me to call?

I was like, 10 or 11. I had talked to these people, of course, but hadn’t talked business with them – I had never negotiated before in my life, that was Mom’s job. And I had certainly never seen them in the context of anything more than a social call. Sometimes Mom would tell me to bring up cookies or flowers to my agent’s office and I would do that. It mostly involved me talking about whatever book I was reading, or asking them how their families were doing. (Take note, readers – that stuff goes a long way).

Mom: I want you to be the one to talk to these people from now on. You negotiate the deals.

Panic fluttered in my chest. I didn’t know the first thing about any of this. I never liked the business end of things – I wanted to be creative. I could give two shits what I was paid. The specter of making horrible business decisions arose in my head. Those shadowy figures making back room deals rolled through my vision – I worried I would make mistakes and fall into a trap. After all, the world was out to get me.

Me: But why?

Mom: Because.

Panic was turning into anger.

Me: Because why?

My Mother looked straight down into my eyes with an intensity I had rarely seen.

Mom: Because I’m not going to be around forever.

There was a long, pregnant pause.

Me: But…how do I do this. And what do you mean you’re not going to be around?

Mom: Everyone dies, Danny.

I blinked back tears, thinking of the horrible ways she could die – killed by mysterious hit men, or an “accident”, or poisoned. I thought of running my life without her and became even more overwhelmed.

Me: Is there another hit out on you?

Mom: Not that I know of. But I’m on the way out and you’re on the way in. You need to do this yourself.

I stamped down my anxiety as best I could, and picked up the phone. I hoped like hell I wouldn’t say something stupid, or my voice wouldn’t sound as nervous as I felt. It was a simple call – checking in to see if there were any last minute auditions. It went rather well, I thought, and I hung up the phone with a sigh of relief. I felt somewhat empowered, thinking it wasn’t so bad.

Mom: Well? Did you ask them about the audition you went on yesterday?

Me: No…I just checked in.

Mom: Dammit, Danny. You were supposed to ask about that!

Me: I didn’t know…

Mom: Call them back.

I didn’t feel right turning around and calling them back – in my limited experience, I felt it made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing (I didn’t, really, but I didn’t want them to know that – I had trusted Mom to make all the decisions thus far and that was fine with me). Embarrassed, I called them back like I was asked. With my agent talking in one ear, Mom was literally bent down by the phone and talking in my other ear.

Mom: What did they say? Ask them when the callback is.

It was confusing to carry on two conversations at once. I managed to get Mom’s questions in before the agent got too impatient and I started to get too stressed out. The phone calls went on like that. She would have me make a phone call to whoever – then dictate what I ought to say and ask questions or make comments during the phone call that I was somehow supposed to convey to the person on the other end. It was like a fucked up game of Telephone.

It extended further than simply phone calls, though. Sometimes we’d be in the studio with Russ, and she’d lean in and whisper something in my ear.

Mom: Tell Russ you think the drums need to be louder.

I didn’t necessarily agree with her assessment, but with some hesitation I relayed the message.  Russ would nod in acknowledgement and then do whatever he was going to do anyway. She’d nudge my shoulder, and then give me another message to repeat. It was something I quickly got tired of.

Sometimes we’d be out in the car, after a lesson with Russ, and she’d get thoughtful.

Mom: Dan, run back in and ask Russ if the answer is coming back.

Me: Mom, I really don’t want to do that.

Mom: Just do it.

I did, and relayed his response to her. This resulted in no small amount of pumping me for every detail and going over every scrap of information. What did his eyes look like when he said it? What was his body language like? Did he seem positive or negative? Did he answer right away, or did he pause?

Like I said, her propensity to do this hasn’t changed much over the years. Even today, she’ll literally ask me to write e-mails for her. Hell, when she took grad school classes she actually had me write her papers for her because “I was so good at it”. A family friend once said that she wants to be the power behind the throne, so to speak. She wants to be the one pulling the strings but not the one actually out there doing stuff. At least in my experience, I think that’s accurate. But I think it has more to do with her confidence level than anything else – she’s perfectly capable of writing e-mails or making phone calls. She just feels the need to hide behind other people.

So, at a young age I started making business deals and doing things (mostly) on my own. I don’t think this was necessarily a bad thing, and it’s come in handy over the years. I have to admit, I still feel under prepared sometimes when I make phone calls. I have to stuff down that rising anxiety. I worry that I’ll get it wrong, that I’ll miss something, that I’ll forget to ask a question that’s relevant. In the end, I take a deep breath just dial the damn phone.

 

The point of the blog for me isn’t self aggrandizement – it’s to say things as they were (or at least as I saw them at the time) flaws and all, including my own. So I hope you’ll forgive my use of the word “prodigy” and “boy genius” in regards to myself. In this case, they’re there to paint a more full picture of how I was seen by my Mother and certain others in my life. Not the least of which, they also illustrate how I felt. I was Extremely Talented, so much so that the Mafia either wanted to “make me” or assassinate me. Yes, it was a fearful time but it was also a time of great possibility and pride for me. All that in mind, you can imagine the blow to my ego when, years later, I finally put the pieces together and realized I wasn’t important enough for anybody to want dead. At the time, though, it was me and Mom vs. the World – along with a small cadre of allies (Uncle Richard and Russ, and Uncle Carlo).

By the time I was 2 1/2, I was carrying full on conversations with adults. By the time I was 4, I had written a short story (well…I call it that liberally. It was probably half a page, about finding a fox in the yard – so, a short short short story?). By 6, I had written my first song. By 10, I had recorded it in a studio, sang on it, and played on it. I somehow got the idea in my head – I’m not entirely sure where this came from, possibly even Mom – that I ought to be a published songwriter. I wrote and produced a jingle for a local diner (the theme of the diner was trains – I made sure the arrangement sounded very train like), and approached them. I remember standing red-faced with embarrassment in front of the counter, asking for the owner. When he came out, I asked him (eyes firmly planted on my shoes) if he would like to hear a jingle I wrote for his diner. He listened, and was delighted. Within a week, it was airing on a local radio station. It was in this way I became the youngest (or one of the youngest) published songwriters in the country.

I wrote from time to time, when the inspiration struck me – perhaps a song a month, or a few songs a year. Mom got it into her head somehow that we needed to keep Russ’s interest, and to do so meant writing a lot of songs. Like, writing songs EVERY DAY. Maybe several a day. Hot resentment bubbled up inside me – I did not like her stepping on my creativity. This felt wrong, this felt like an incursion. Yes, her nocturnal visits where she woke me up and asked insane questions were ridiculous, and yes her constantly dragging me into her rehashing sessions of what Russ said or didn’t say were exhausting, but this was a bridge too far. For the first time in my life, I actually protested. I insisted that creativity was something to be nurtured, it wasn’t a factory – I couldn’t crank out dozens of songs a week.

Mom: Then you’ll never make it. You’ll fail. And they’ll never let you in, or Sit Down and Talk to you.

I was quiet. I did want to be successful, but this felt wrong. In the end, I decided to do as she asked (not that there was really a choice – she would harass me endlessly until I did it anyway). I wrote a song a day, minimum – sometimes 3 a day if I could manage. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, it was important to develop and hone my skills as a writer – the only way to do that was to write consistently and have Russ (himself a seasoned songwriter) critique it. But that also meant churning out what amounted to musical slush. I mean, I turned out some real turds. And I knew full well they were turds as I was writing them. But I bravely typed out the lyrics, recorded the music on my little tape recorder, and presented them to Mom and Russ. About every 10 songs I wrote, I’d hit one that was actually worthy of more attention. We’d spend the lesson with Russ reading over my carefully typed lyrics, listening to me play my songs, and considering what I had written.

Russ: Well…why on earth would you write a song about not being able to get to sleep?

Me: I don’t know…I guess I just felt like writing it.

Russ laughed. Mom laughed.

Russ: Uh. Not your best work, Danny. Next.

And I’d show him the next one, again feeling those hot embers of resentment glowing in my chest. He was complicit in all of this and it made me very angry. I wouldn’t say I hated him for it – I didn’t hate him yet, not then – but I had hoped he would step in on the side of free creativity.

I wrote. I cranked out songs. Between running to auditions and banging out songs at the piano, those were my days, my weeks, my years. If I didn’t write, I was harassed either by Mom or Russ.

Mom: You need to write. You haven’t written yet today.

And I’d gamely sit at the piano and slush out a tune.

If I walked in and didn’t have anything for Russ (which was very, very rare) Russ would shake his head.

Russ: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work. You gotta keep writing, Danny.

The difficulty is that they were probably right – the best writers write every day. I think I just resent the way I was thrust into that world – kicked through the door, if you will. I still struggle with that issue. I still write – not all the time, and not as much as I should. When I don’t write, I’m beating myself up for not writing every day. When I do write, and it’s junk, I beat myself up. Maybe I’d have ended up with this same dilemma regardless of Mom’s machinations. It’s hard to say, but it is one of the bigger issues I’ve wrestled with out of my childhood.

By the time I was 13, I had 600 copyrighted songs to my name. By the time I was 18, it was over a thousand. I stopped counting after that, though I did keep writing. Let’s just say I am prolific.

Genius. Prodigy. Boy Wonder. Many strangers and friends pronounced these names over me. Maybe I was. Who knows? But it became something else to live up to – another pressure. I had heard somewhere that really smart people – people like Einstein or whatever – suffer severe depression. I think they struggle with – and sometimes collapse under – the weight of their own genius. I totally get that. Once that is declared over you, once that label is affixed, that is what you are. You can’t be average any more, you can’t be just alright. You have to be amazing. And that is pressure. And God, do I know it well.