Posts Tagged ‘Music’

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

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

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

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

“How was your drive in?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next,” he said.

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

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

Again, the tape was deposited into my reluctant palm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I waited for him to gather his thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got more to show me?”

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

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

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

“You a Jew?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“No…” I said.

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

“Well. Nice meeting you.”

“You too.” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

He walked out, whistling.

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

“How’d it go?” she asked excitedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

 

One of the privileges of growing up in the business is having access to things other people – particularly people my age – didn’t have access to. I’m not talking about rubbing elbows with important people (though there was that), and I’m not talking about money (there was that, too – though I didn’t really care about it at that point). I’m talking about getting into places or doing things you have no business doing when you are that age. The moment you say you’re an actor, or that you’re researching a role, or that you’re there because you’re a part of the show, it’s almost like you have carte blanche. Let me give you some examples.

When I was still quite young – perhaps 7 – I was doing a lot of singing appearances. This was mostly with the variety show I was on. Most of their stuff was fairly kid friendly – malls, the piers at the shore, that sort of thing. At least once, I went to a casino. I remember being led by my dad past slot machines and bright lights. They made me think of my Nintendo back home, and I really wanted to play with them – of course I wasn’t allowed to. Perhaps my access at that age didn’t extend beyond all reason, but I can’t imagine many kids my age getting to see the inside of casinos (maybe the eating areas, I suppose).

Another time, we played at a race track. I’ve never been back since – never saw the need to gamble, at least not on that – but when I was still pretty young, around 6 or 7, I played a show at a race track. I was semi interested in the horses running around, and in the frenzy of activity from the gamblers. Dad decided he wanted to gamble, after pondering his choices. I asked him to explain what was going on, and he did. It was a largely unnecessary, since I understood the gist of it. I didn’t get the idea of odds, or what amount you might get if you won, but I understood that people were betting on horses. I don’t know why, but I heard the announcer boom a name and it caught my ear.

Announcer: IT”S CHOCOLATE SIS!

I lit up. I decided that was my horse. There are some obvious racial connotations to that name, but I didn’t get them at the time. I just thought it was referencing somebody’s sister who was literally made of chocolate. For me at 7, that was a pretty badass concept. I insisted to Dad that he place a bet on Chocolate Sis for me. He ignored me. I pulled his sleeve and pestered. And pestered. He finally quieted me by assuring me he had placed a bet for me (whether he actually did or not, I have no idea). I think he must have won, because we went up to the counter afterwards and he turned in his ticket. I watched other people irritatedly throwing their tickets on the ground – it kind of looked like a sudden explosion of confetti. I saw a guy running behind them, picking them up. I had assumed he was just on cleanup, but I didn’t find out the purpose until years later. Evidently professional gamblers pick up losing tickets to use as tax write offs, since it’s considered a loss.

I have dozens of stories like this, but I’ll just tell one more to illustrate my point. When I was about 12, I had to audition for an anti smoking commercial. The idea behind the commercial was this slob of a kid – undoubtedly a “bad seed” – smoking cigarettes. Clearly the role called for somebody comfortable with smoking, and I clearly was not. I don’t know where this came from, whether Mom or the casting director or the agent, but supposedly they wanted you to bring cigarettes to the audition. Mom pulled over on an NYC street corner and told me to go buy a pack. I looked at her incredulously.

Me: I’m twelve.

Mom: I know, but I don’t have change for the meter.

Me: Um. Aren’t they not allowed to sell to me?

Mom rolled her eyes.

Mom: They’ll sell them to you. Tell them you’re an actor, and it’s for a role.

And damn it if she wasn’t right.

I walked in and asked for a pack of cigarettes. I told them it didn’t matter what kind. The guy behind the counter gave me the eyeball.

Cashier: Uh. I no do dis.

He pointed to a sign – we’ve all seen them – “If you are born before this date you can’t buy cigarettes”.

I sighed, partially because this was kind of a hassle and also to show that I wasn’t trying to put one over on him. Sort of like, sorry we’re both in this position, buddy, but I gotta do what I gotta do.

Me: I know, I know. It’s for a role. I’m an actor.

His face lit up.

Cashier: Actor?

He emphasized the “or” at the end, so it sounded like acTOR?

I nodded.

Me: It’s for an anti smoking commercial.

He seemed swayed, but a little suspicious.

Cashier: Is for TV?

I told him it was.

He pushed a pack of Kools to the middle of the counter, considering. Then he pushed it the rest of the way, beaming. I guess he thought I was famous or something. Anyway, I got the cigarettes. I didn’t smoke them – didn’t even like having them in my mouth, actually. I was scared to death I would get addicted, get cancer, and die. (I didn’t get the gig, by the way).

I would argue that people who have grown up in the Business are a bit more worldly than others – as a general rule, they tend to be more mature, in my opinion. It’s one reason I didn’t “rebel” like a lot of teens did – I had already tasted alcohol and didn’t like it. I had bought cigarettes, had them in my mouth, and didn’t like it. I thought drugs were possibly the dumbest thing you could do to yourself. I would never have dreamed of shoplifting. I did act out as a teen, but it was in other ways that were much more subtle. Nothing illegal, at any rate.

That experience thing went both ways, by the way. Sometimes you had to audition for a role so far out of your depth you had no idea what to do with it. I was supposed to audition for this one project – can’t remember the name off the top of my head – but it was a movie about a kid who discovers he’s gay. The script was extremely explicit. Not pornographic or anything like that, but extremely frank sexual talk – very graphic. Anyway, even though I was worldly in the sense that I had experienced things most kids my age didn’t, I was also sheltered to a woeful degree. Hell, my Mom never had a birds and the bees talk with me. By the time I was old enough to sort of figure things out, her advice was very forthright.

Mom: Do not ever have sex with a girl. Do not get her pregnant. You will ruin your life.

And that charming little thought has done wonders for my sex life, let me tell you. Anyway, being so sheltered and reading a script that was so frank and openly sexual made me extremely uncomfortable. Hell, I couldn’t read the thing without getting beet red and stuttering. Mom insisted that I audition for it – even though I told her I didn’t want to. It felt so weird that I was in no way comfortable auditioning, let alone performing the role. Evidently, I was in good company – there were a lot of kids who wouldn’t even consider auditioning for it. Mom thought that meant I had a good shot, since competition would be low. Still, it was a very tough role to even read. She made me bring it to my acting coach (I had gotten one in NY, in addition to Uncle Richard – besides, by that point he had moved well beyond the sphere of simply an acting coach). I gave it my best, but I just couldn’t do it. After only a few minutes I was red-faced and embarrassed. I could not even meet the eyes of my acting coach. At best, I could only spit out the lines. Ultimately, my acting coach pulled Mom aside and told her there was no way I could reasonably audition for this. I just wasn’t even remotely comfortable with the sexual nature of the script. Mom was a bit deflated, but I was relieved.

At some point, Mom became convinced that kids in my age group were taking pills to stay small. I guess that’s feasible – I’ve heard of this happening with child actors, but I can’t imagine a parent wanting to do that to their kid. I wouldn’t think it was a common practice, though Mom seemed to see it everywhere. Supposedly (in Mom’s view, at least) they were doing this to be more competitive – they were older, but they were small enough to still play younger roles. Mom pondered at one point trying to obtain such pills for me, but was quickly discouraged by my doctor and agent. Her next thing was trying to make me taller – I don’t really know why. She had me put lifts in my shoes, or wear shoes with tall heels. I guess she thought if I was taller I could look older and go for older roles. Again, she turned to medical science – she asked our doctor to give me growth hormones. He didn’t exactly refuse, but he didn’t exactly endorse it. In the end, it was dropped – though I do kind of wish I were taller.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Paul played the strings with more swell.

Russ: No, Paul, like this!

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

Me: Yeah!

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

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

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

Russ: Oh, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

Me: What do you think it is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Because it could be poisoned?

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

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

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

Mom: Because I made a deal.

Me: Oh, did The Answer come back?

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

Me: Okay, good.

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

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

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

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

Makeup Lady: Oh, hey.

I raised my eyebrows.

Makeup Lady: You’ve got gray hairs.

Me: I do?

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

Me: Huh.

She called over a colleague who also marveled over this.

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

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

Image

The doors at Colony Records – I always thought they were pretty cool.

Image

Colony Records, NYC, circa 1980

I just got news that an old friend has passed. It may be unusual to think of a store as a friend, but it was a big part of my childhood during that time in NYC. For those that don’t know, Colony Records was a huge music store in NYC – one of a kind. It had records, cassettes, CDs, sheet music, and books. It was the size of a city block, and it was THE go-to place if you were auditioning for a musical and needed some new songs. I feel like Mom and I were there often – navigating the narrow aisles of tapes and music books. During my time as a musician, I’ve amassed a fairly significant number of music books and sheet music – probably in the hundreds. 3/4 of that was probably bought at the Colony. What made the place unique – aside from the fact that it was freaking huge – was that you could get anything you wanted there. If they didn’t have it, it didn’t exist. Looking for an obscure song from a forgotten 1800’s opera? They probably had it. Hell, they might have even had the original manuscript (I joke…mostly). Whenever I had an audition for a show, or when my voice teacher would inevitably give me a new song – they’d say “Run down to the Colony and pick it up. I’m sure they have it.”

I won’t go into how the place succumbed to the inevitable advances of technology – about how people began buying songs and music through digital downloads. Or about how music stores in general have bravely stood against the rising tide, facing a sad, inevitable end. Just suffice it to say that when I was a kid, and I had time to kill, I was at a record store or a book store (and those won’t be here much longer either – don’t delude yourself).

New York in the 80’s and 90’s was a place of filth and wonder. As someone fairly sheltered, I saw some real eye openers there. I was eating pancakes in a diner when I saw a biker get into a fight with a cabbie. The biker pulled a chain from his backpack, the cabbie had a crowbar. I think the argument was over the fact that the bike tried to pass the cab while it was turning right, but really…does road rage ever have a good reason? I saw a homeless woman with a babydoll in a carriage, asking for help to feed her kid. People gave her money, not realizing the baby wasn’t real. I saw hookers wearing next to nothing trotting up and down the street. We were attacked by what Mom used to call The Squeegees – they used to stand outside the entrances to the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels and assail your windshield with squeegees. After they cleaned your window, they’d ask for money. Psychologically, this worked phenomenally better than straight up begging – people felt guilted into giving them at least a buck or two usually. Sometimes they’d wash the window and Mom wouldn’t have any change to give them. I remember one bearded and disheveled looking gent screaming at Mom and beating on the car door as she drove away.

One day, I came out of the Colony clutching a newly acquired book – the Complete Hits of Irving Berlin. I had heard of some of his music, and thought it’d be fun to learn to play it. On the way out the door, I was heard a voice mumble something barely intelligible.

Man: EES A FEET. A FEET.

I was perplexed, wondering if there was something wrong with my feet or his. Mom was straggling, making her way out of the building, so I stopped.

Me: What?

The man barely had any teeth, which is probably why I couldn’t understand him. His level of sobriety probably wasn’t doing much to help the situation either – I could smell his breath from 3 feet away. He was holding a very nice, but worn looking violin, however, and I pegged him as someone who probably wasn’t a threat. Street musicians were sometimes crazy – sometimes even crazy talented – but usually harmless as far as I knew. Besides, we were both musicians – members of the same tribe. The man angrily pointed to my book and enunciated.

Man: Irving Berlin. He’s a thief. A thief.

Me: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Man: He stole EVERY ONE OF HIS SONGS.

The guy was getting really worked up. I wondered if he knew Irving Berlin personally, or maybe had one of his songs stolen. He began gesticulating wildly, his violin in one hand and his other waving in the air.

Man: He’s a con man. Ask anybody. Fuckin’ thief. Fucking JEW THIEF.

Mom had come out at this point, and grabbed me by the elbow.

Mom: Lets go.

We walked quickly to our car – we had found a good parking place on the same block as the store. The man didn’t try to follow us, but he screamed invectives against Irving Berlin until we were out of earshot.

We learned very quickly not to acknowledge anything on the street but what was right in front of us. Ignore the people – especially if they seemed crazy – walk fast, and don’t gawk at the scenery. Keep up with the crowd.  If someone spoke to you or asked you for help, pretend you didn’t hear. I hear a lot of people talk about how New Yorkers are cold or indifferent – they’re not, it’s just how you survive in the city.

I think I still even have some of that sheet music in bags from the Colony. Heh. I still remember the logo – it was a drawing of a girl, perhaps from the 40’s, jumping in the air and holding a record. In script below, it said: “I found it! at the Colony” (the grammar mistake always irked me a little).

My kids – and maybe yours – won’t know what the hell a record store even is, probably. That makes me said. Like Uncle Richard once told me, though…time is a son of a bitch.