Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom: A contractor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

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

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

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

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

Girl: You don’t drink?

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

Me: Um. I’m 14.

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

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

Mom: Make some calls.

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

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

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

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

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

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

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

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

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

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

Me: I think so, yeah.

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

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

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

 

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Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, head in her hands, and reading a letter. She wasn’t freaking out, which I thought was odd – freaking out was a fairly typical reaction for her. But from her body language, and the body language of Grandma (who was reading the letter over her shoulder) I knew that the letter did not bear good news. I asked what was up. Mom got up…I could see she was shaking a little.

Mom: I’m calling the accountant.

Me: Mom…whats up?

Grandma gestured to the letter, and I picked it up. A quick scan told me everything I needed to know – we were being audited. I listened while Mom flipped the fuck out on the phone to Patrick (our accountant). I would credit her with being initially calm, but I don’t think she was – I honestly think she was shell shocked.

As I may have mentioned before, the finances were a complete disaster. Aside from somehow gaining the interest of federal tax agents, we rarely had any money to speak of. All the funds – mine, Tim’s and mom’s were co-mingled. No savings accounts, nothing set aside in a CD or a mutual fund. Everything in checking, everything together, and nothing tracked appropriately. Obviously, I didn’t have my own checking out – something Mom insisted that the bank refused to do for me since I was under age. I bought that for a while, but then I started to realize I knew plenty of people who had junior savings accounts. Didn’t matter, I suppose…I never pushed too hard, and the subject inevitably got dropped. On a slightly unrelated note, I didn’t get my own checking account till I was 18 and legally able to do so. I not only had to fight tooth and nail to get that accomplished, I had to do it behind Mom’s back because she refused to allow it. I was proud of that little checking account – proud when I put $25 in to open it, and proud of that little stab at independence. But that came later. For now, the routine was this: If I got a check in, I signed it over to her. If Tim got a check in, he signed it over to her, and it all went in the communal account. I didn’t know I was signing over money – nobody explained what was going on, Mom least of all – all I knew is “that’s the way it’s supposed to be done”. Looking back and knowing I could have refused to sign the checks over at any time, taken them to a new account and had my own money…well. It leaves me a bit dismayed. I could have managed my money better as a kid than my mother did as an adult. I probably would have kept more of it too. But I digress.

The accountant we had hired had been our family accountant for years – when Grandma worked at the courthouse, she met his mother on a bus. He took care of our finances ever since, and we were probably one of his bigger (and more complicated) clients. We made a lot of money in New York, so that meant a New York tax return in addition to the state we lived in. Plus, if I flew somewhere and did a commercial in ,say, CA…another tax return. Not counting Federal, of course.  Anyway. Mom spent the next few weeks flipping out.

Mom: Someone tipped them off! Someone sent the IRS after us!

Me: Who?

Mom: I don’t know. Maybe someone who wants to keep us from Russ! Or maybe Bob.

Me: Would Dad really call the IRS? Why?

Mom: I don’t know.
There were several meetings – we met with Patrick and the IRS agents in his office. They asked lots of questions, most of which Patrick answered. They seemed actually pretty nice, considering. You don’t imagine IRS agents to be nice…maybe sort of like Agent Smith from the Matrix. But these guys struck me as just people doing their job. Anyway, as they were wrapping up, they sort of looked at each other – the agents, I mean – and I could tell there was something in that look.

Agent: We’re just about wrapped up. We just have a couple questions for you…

I had a feeling I knew what was coming – Mom had coached me extensively. She didn’t seem to be worried about anything else, just this one specific thing.

Mom: If they ask you if you signed those checks, you tell them yes.

Me: But I did sign them. So, just tell them the truth. Right?

Mom looked a little uncomfortable.

Mom: Don’t give them a big speech. Don’t say anything. Just tell them that you signed them if they ask you. That’s all. Do you understand?

I told her I did.

Mom: If you say something wrong…if you tell them anything but that you signed the checks, I will get taken away and sent to jail. Then you’ll have to live with your Father.

This was her Ace card, and she knew it – still, she dropped it way too often. Despite that, it still had a dizzying effect on me. I certainly didn’t want my mother in prison. Besides, I had actually signed the checks…I was telling the truth.  It was all just the way things were supposed to be done. Right?

Anyway. The moment of truth.

Agent: Dan…did you sign this?

He handed me a copy from the back of a check. It was stamped from the bank – my signature, Mom’s signature, and our account numbers.

Me: Yeah. That’s my signature.

He seemed perplexed. It almost seemed like he thought he hadn’t heard me right.

Agent: You signed this?

Me: Yes.

Again, the agents exchanged a glance. And all at once…the meeting was over. They were packing up their briefcases. They said they’d call.

Some time later, they did – turns out we took off more deductions than were allowed, or something like that – and they hosed us to the tune of about $6k. Based on what I was making – which was in the hundreds of thousands – this was a pittance. Still. Mom called the agent at his office and visited her wrath upon him. I only heard her side of the conversation, but based on that alone I can’t imagine the agent said much.

Mom: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!? I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THIS IS – IT’S EXTORTION! EXTORTION FROM THE GOVERNMENT. WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING IS ILLEGAL!

I could have pointed out that, technically, anything the government does isn’t illegal – since they make the laws – but the point would have been lost on her. Regardless, I don’t even think she took one breath during that phone call. Her propensity for epic fits is truly astounding.

Mom: HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO EAT? HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LIVE?

Eventually, he managed to calm her down. I can’t imagine her explosion helped the situation at all. Most people in that position understand that you can’t fight City Hall. I think she knew that too, but she wanted to make damn sure they came away with the imprint of her hand on their face (verbally speaking, at least).

As in all times of trouble, we turned to Uncle Richard. He was furious, but he didn’t think Mom’s screaming fit was a great idea either.

Uncle Richard: They’re bullying you. You know what you do with bullies?

Mom sat forward.

Mom: Bully them back?

Uncle Richard shook his head.

Uncle Richard: Tell everyone what they’ve done. Tell them everything.

He turned to me.

Uncle Richard: Write a book, Danny. I bet they leave you alone if you bring their actions to light.

I liked the idea, though I thought the subject matter was a little dry.

Mom: He can’t write a book about that. He doesn’t understand what’s going on.

Uncle Richard: He can read, can’t he? Just have him look over the files.

Mom shifted in her chair.

Mom: I don’t think anyone would want to read it…

Uncle Richard: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if it gets published. The threat is there. If the public sees the IRS beating up on a kid, it’s all over. And they know that.

I went home that night, and fired up my computer – a trusty Compudyne 486. As in 66 mHz. As in 3 1/4″ floppy drive. As in, for the early 90’s…it rocked pretty hard. I spent a couple hours on the word processor – I started with the title page, of course: THE IRS vs A 12 YEAR OLD KID. I had what I felt were good few pages, and showed them to Mom. She hated them.

Mom: It’s…not very good.

Me: I kinda liked it.

Mom: You’ve written better. You should probably stick to music. This book isn’t going to go anywhere.

And then and there, it fizzled out. I hate to say it, but I craved her approval (still do…probably always will). Uncle Richard asked about my progress on the book, and I halfheartedly told him I was working on it. It eventually got dropped. And why was Mom so intent on me not writing the book? I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I do now. I’d have had to research, which meant I would have had to go through the files and finances and figure out exactly what was going on in order to make my case. If I researched, I might find…other things. I might realize that the money was flowing like wine at a medieval feast. It might dawn on me that the funds should not only be handled differently, but actually kept track of and no longer be pooled in a common account. Which might end Mom’s free and easy access to big wads of cash. In short, I might get ideas. Me having ideas was the opposite of what Mom wanted, I think.

I’ve had years to think about this, and I’ve come to some conclusions. I don’t think the IRS was concerned with what my deductions were – I think they were concerned with whether or not my mother was committing fraud with my money. I think someone – I still don’t know who – tipped them off to the idea that embezzlement might be occurring, and lots of it. Based on the reactions of the agents, I think that was the main concern. As for the other stuff – the deductions and whatever – well, they had to find something, didn’t they? They had to justify their efforts. I get that. But what they didn’t count on, and what whoever tipped them off didn’t count on, was the depth and breadth of my naivete and how immersed I was in my mother’s world. Still, whoever was behind this was probably ultimately trying to do a good thing – they just didn’t understand the circumstances. I would have had to have known what was going on with my money (a virtual impossibility, since I was both underage and kept in the dark), and I would have had to lie and say I didn’t sign the checks. Even if both factors were in play, there was no way in hell I was going to send my mother to prison. Or be forced to live with my Dad. Still, the fact that someone knew what was going on (or thought they did) and cared enough to call both puzzles and comforts me. Who they were will probably remain another one of my life’s mysteries.

 

 

Ah, hairspray. And hair gel. And hair products in general, really. These were a daily part of my existence. My hair had to be perfect – Mom was always fussing with it. All the other actors in my age group were well coiffed – quite a few had the miserable existence (like myself) of being Helmet Heads. Helmet Head is what I called it when Mom sprayed way too much hairspray (CFCs be damned) and/or used so much gel that my hair wasn’t going anywhere. Literally not one strand out of place. I felt like it gave my hair a stiff, artificial look – under no circumstances would it have blown in the wind (which was kind of the point – the hair-do wouldn’t get messed up). Thus, I called it Helmet Head. It kind of felt like a helmet too. Back in the day, there was a huge emphasis on the actors looking “perfect” – you had to have great teeth, great hands, great hair. Ideally, blonde haired and thin. Look at commercials from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly thin, but I had perfect hair damn it. Mom would fuss and worry about my appearance. Some of this was stage mother stuff – lots of kids in the business had that experience. Sort of a helicopter mom who quasi-worshiped her son and obsessed over everything. The hair was such a big deal to her for whatever reason, though. She even insisted I get a perm at one point (a horrible experience at a cheap cut and blow place). Every once in a while, she’d just start picking on something else, though.

Mom: Let me see your teeth.

I showed her.

Mom: They’re horrible. They’re so crooked!

I couldn’t argue, but I had seen worse – regardless, I didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction. She acted as if she had never seen my teeth before in her life.

Mom: Let me see again.

I showed her again.

Mom: They’re so yellow…come closer.

After a while I got tired of holding my mouth open for her to peer in – I wasn’t at the dentists, for God’s sake – and shut my mouth. Cue a never ending parade of retainers, cleanings, and dental visits. They’re still not straight, by the way – a little better, I guess, but by no means the perfect, bleached white teeth Mom fervently sought.

Sometimes she’d just be looking over at me and blurt something out.

Mom: God, you’re getting really fat Danny.

I was surprised because this came out of nowhere.

Me: What?

Mom: Look at your gut.

I looked at my gut. I was kind of getting a pot belly, I guess.

Mom: You’re not going to book if you’re fat. You have to lose weight.

She decided on a whim to enroll us all in a weight management program. I don’t remember which one it was – I think it may have been Weight Watchers. The first day, she got into an argument with the lady leading the group.

Weight Counselor: So portion control is a foundation to weight loss. You can’t just have a big plate of spaghetti. You need to limit your intake.

Mom became alarmed.

Mom: Well, what do you mean that I can’t have a big plate?

Weight Counselor: You need to measure your portions. Like maybe an amount the size of a baseball.

Mom: A baseball?

Weight Counselor: Yes, that would be about the most you should eat in one sitting.

Mom: That’s not enough to live on! That’s hardly anything.

Weight Counselor: Well, you can have a salad, or add vegetables.

Mom: Salad?! I don’t like salad. And why would you even have vegetables with spaghetti. That’s stupid.

The counselor argued valiantly – offered up nutrition facts and figures – but Mom was getting more and more steamed. Finally she stormed out of there, muttering about baseballs and vegetables. We tried Nutri-System, but she hated the food (I didn’t think it was so hot either). Thinking we could use exercise, she enrolled us in karate classes. We went to one class before she got into a heated argument with one of the instructors.

Mom: I thought the uniforms were free.

Instructor: It’s a free uniform or a week of free classes.

Mom: Well, why do they even need uniforms?

Instructor: It’s required, it’s part of the training.

Mom: That’s silly. He can just wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. The uniforms are expensive.

Instructor: Well, if you take the free classes you have to buy the uniforms. Or you could just pay the enrollment fee and get free uniforms.

Mom: This is a racket. You people are thieves!

She stormed out, and we never went back. Kind of a shame, really…I sort of liked it.

It wasn’t long before we were back into old habits – her weak efforts at getting us to eat right and be active gave way to piles of spaghetti and drive thru dinners. I don’t think I did this consciously, but watching her erratic behavior made me more cautious and steady. I hate risk. I hate not knowing. I hate abandoning things. I crave consistency at all costs – sometimes to my detriment. Change is a part of life, but it makes me incredibly nervous. Change calls to mind my mother bouncing madly from obsession to obsession, never accomplishing anything of value.

We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. Sometimes I’d forget a script at home, and we’d have to get it faxed to a rest stop en route to the audition. Sometimes we wouldn’t get a script that we were supposed to have gotten, and I’d walk into an audition cold. One time, we got a last minute call to audition for Les Mis on Broadway. I had auditioned when I was much younger, but the casting person took one look at me and turned me away.

Casting Lady: He can’t play a street urchin. He looks too intellectual.

I couldn’t argue. Mom was kind of pissed, though. Anyway, this audition happened to be for Tim. Since it was last minute, we had forgotten the sheet music he was going to audition with at home. He didn’t even really want to audition. He whined about it, but in the end Mom twisted his arm. He weighed the pros and cons of protesting versus being temporarily put out for a 5 minute audition. He chose the latter. I should point out that Tim was a regular kid by every standard – he went out and played in the dirt (something I never, ever did – I was never dirty). He caught frogs. He was loud. He jumped and ran up and down hallways when he took a notion to. He literally ran into the audition and jumped up and down and fidgeted during his interview. Somehow, they thought this was funny and he got the role. I’m not saying he wasn’t good – he was a great singer and actor, too. But the role required lots of energy and Tim had it in abundance.

Several days later, after it was confirmed that he indeed got the role, it became clear we’d have to move to New York. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but rent is insane in the city. Mom actually debated running back home daily between the shows. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but she actually sat down and did a cost analysis. Turned out it was cheaper to rent an apartment than schlep back and forth every day for 4 hours round trip.

Mom: I guess we’re moving to New York, guys.

And we did – but not without first packing copious amounts of hair gel.

Whenever we were in New York (which was often – several times a week if not more) we would run up to my agent with flowers or candy or whatever and just kill some time chatting. Very rarely did they have any time to chat – or at least not much. Phones were ringing off the hook, and people were running back and forth to fax machines or meeting with clients. Because I booked a lot of stuff, I got a little more face time than the average Joe Schmoe, but it was still limited. We might sit in the office for half an hour to talk to our agent for 10 minutes while she scarfed down an egg salad sandwich. If they got too busy, we just excused ourselves and left. A lot of people might consider this a waste of time, but it was essential for staying on top of their minds and growing a working relationship. It is a fine line, though – you need to not be a pest. And yes, there were “those clients” who called constantly, dropped in unannounced on a regular basis, and just beat the bush to try to get some extra auditions. If you did it in the right way though, you could ask without asking, if you know what I mean.

One of the things a lot of actors freak out about is being type cast. Some people just are naturally type cast – if you look like a big, hulking goon, you’re probably going to go out for roles as a big, hulking goon. Someone with a more “average” look might be able to fit into several different roles, and these people had the most to worry about I think. If they booked a role where they played a serial killer, and they did it really really well – they might only ever get cast a serial killer. I know of some actors who did their jobs so well that casting people were only able to see them as that one, iconic role. They were never able to do anything else. It happens. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I referred to as “charactery”. In agent-speak, this meant that I had glasses and was bookish. I could be cast as a brainy prep school kid, or a boy genius, or a nerd that gets picked on, or…well. You get the idea. I wasn’t going out for roles as a surfer. I was one of those people who was typecast because that’s what they were. People always saw me with glasses and a book in my hand, and thought “Oh, that’s the smart kid. Let’s have him play the role of the kid who discovers a new chemical element.” I didn’t mind being seen as smart – in fact, I was secretly very proud of that – but as I got older, the feedback started to shift. I started trying out for more “normal” roles, and the feedback was basically this: He’s not credible as a “real” kid. He’s not a real boy.

I couldn’t disagree with them. I didn’t know how to play, at least in the sense that other kids did. In general, I didn’t know how to relate to other kids – at least the ones that weren’t actors. Actors, at least the ones I’ve ever run across, are usually pretty smart. With rare exception, I’ve never had problems connecting with them – maybe because we had at least acting in common. But put me in a room with “real” kids, and I had no idea what to do. They thought I was weird. I thought they were dumb. A typical conversation might go something like this.

Me: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Kid: My what?

Me: You know, Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and stuff.

Kid: We had to read it for school. It was alright I guess.

Me: Oh. Well, have you read any Micheal Crichton?

Kid: No, but my Mom read one of his books I think.

Me: Oh.

Kid: You skateboard?

Me: Not really.

Kid: Oh.

After my interactions with them, I’d feel odd and isolated – almost like an alien having just observed an entirely different race and culture. I couldn’t understand people who didn’t discuss politics, or books, or didn’t have intellectual curiosity beyond hanging out at 7-11. I’m not trying to bash normal people here. I’m just saying that as a kid – with little social skills and living in a bubble – I had little time or patience for them. I was a bit of an elitist in a lot of ways. So no, when a role demanded I “just be a kid” I was utterly lost. I’ve been 35 years old since I was 6.

One of the ladies that worked in the agency once pulled my mom aside.

Agent: You should have him play with real kids sometime.

Mom: Real kids?

Agent: Give him as normal a life as possible. He’s going to need to draw on that for his roles.

Whether Mom had taken this advice to heart or not (she didn’t, by the way), it simply wasn’t going to happen. Public school was out – mostly because I’d have to be pulled out of class on a regular basis. And where to find friends and connect with so called “normal” kids, let alone normal people Mom would trust? Even if I did, where would I find the time to hang out? Add Mom’s paranoid fantasies about Russ and the Mafia into the mix, and the chances of a normal life just slipped to zero.

Any success I had in film and TV work was basically because I played a brainy kid well. My role in a Babysitter’s Club episode was basically as a smart (but very smarmy) kid of dubious moral character who was running for class president. I auditioned for a lot of roles that I ultimately didn’t get – Jumanji, Newsies, The Good Son. I came this close to landing the role of Reggie in Richie Rich. Basically, they were looking for someone to really build the character of an aloof, slightly evil genius. Not that I was necessarily an evil genius (though I admit, I did admire some comic book villains), but it wasn’t a stretch to play someone who was aloof, intellectual, and un-relateable. I got to 3rd callbacks to play this role – everyone really seemed to like me, from the director on down. We even got a call directly from L.A., asking us to send them some candid shots. I didn’t really do anything candid – I was far too tightly wound for that – but in this case it probably worked in my favor and made me seem more like the character. In the end, the role I was auditioning for was cut down from being the major villain in the movie to almost nothing, and they ended up going a completely different way with the character. The kid that booked it had frizzy red hair and wore bow ties – he was actually a friend of mine, and I was really glad to hear he booked it.

It followed me all throughout my life, at least until fairly recently (again, therapy – it helps) – that feeling of being separate, of not being “normal”. Ironically, in my teenage years I would have given anything to be “normal” – to go to the mall or school or movies. To have friends to hang out with all the time. To be not a real boy meant being out of place nearly all the time, except in a very limited set of circumstances. It took me a long time to realize that even if I could relate to so-called normal kids, I would never actually be normal. They would always look at me as an oddity – maybe because I was jumpy and twitchy (I could be assassinated at any moment, after all), maybe because my mother was eccentric, or because I used big words and talked about books. Or because I was “famous” – I insisted to them that I wasn’t, that it was all just a job but they didn’t understand. I told them I was just like them, but they didn’t believe it. I can’t exactly blame them – neither did I. I couldn’t even begin to act like one of them for a 2 minute audition. So I sighed, shook my head, and went back to reading. And when the calls came in for the nerdy kid, for the socially awkward brainiac, I gladly took them. I knew what they were asking for, and it was a part I could play.

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.

 

 

So I found out a couple days ago that my old friend Gasper died. Ironically, he’d been on my mind for quite some time – a couple years, in fact – and I had been intending to call him. Turns out he died in 2009, and I never even knew. The guy was a close friend and confidant of Uncle Carlo – he was his driver, his butler, and even his barber. Uncle Carlo didn’t have a lot of hair, so it was a fairly easy job. Gasper and his wife Carmella were always very sweet. He had these giant old man glasses and she had a beehive hairdo – they were very New York Italian, if you know what I mean. Of course, his real name wasn’t Gasper – I don’t even remember if I knew his proper name – but it was a nickname that Uncle Carlo always called him by. Gasper would tell you a story about anything – didn’t matter what it was. Uncle Carlo told me once that if a peanut fell on the floor, Gasper would tell a 3 hour epic about the peanut falling on the floor. That wasn’t too far off the mark. I think that’s where he got his nickname – he talked so much he needed to gasp for air (at least, that was one of Uncle Carlo’s jokes about him). Gasper and Carmella were often around when we were with Uncle Carlo. After Uncle Carlo died, they really reached out and tried to maintain a connection. It was hard, though, because my life was constantly in motion. It wasn’t easy to run up to Brooklyn and visit, especially when we had put in a full day of driving to New York City. They invited us over to their house a couple times for dinner – Carmella made a great eggplant parmigiana (first time I’d ever tried eggplant, since Grandma didn’t like to make it). Gasper even took us to Little Italy once and showed us all the old places. It was certainly a singular experience to be showed around Little Italy by an old, dyed in the wool New York Italian.

After Uncle Carlo had died, Gasper took care of everything. Uncle Carlo had no immediate family any of us were ever aware of – he had no kids, and his wife had died years before. Really, the only family he had were Gasper, Carmella, along with myself, Mom and Tim. Another close friend insisted that Uncle Carlo would have left us all some money – he was certainly well off and he was an old school immigrant. It’s entirely possible he hid money in the walls of his apartment (he didn’t trust banks – in light of the recent financial crisis, I can’t say I do either). But, supposedly, he didn’t have a will – some people were very suspicious of the fact that Gasper took over everything. I thought it kind of made sense, though, all things considered. Gasper pooled all of Uncle Carlo’s stuff at his house and invited us over one day.

Gasper: You wan annating, you take it eh?

There wasn’t a whole lot that was meaningful to me – maybe a few pictures. He did give me all of Uncle Carlo’s sheet music (a gigantic treasure trove of it that 20 years later I have yet to fully explore) as well as his writings (he was the author of at least 2 books on singing) and some vocal exercises he had personally created. I remember him looking at Uncle Carlo’s full size grand piano – a piano that had been played by legends, and on which I had been taught by Uncle Carlo himself.

Gasper: You wanna piano?

I would have loved it. I remember thinking, at 10, that even though I had a piano that meant the world to me I would have loved to have this particular instrument. There was so much to it. I told him I’d love it, but Mom intervened.

Mom: Where are we going to put it, Danny? It’s huge.

Me: I dunno. We could find a space…

Gasper scratched his well oiled gray head.

Gasper: Well, I dunno what to do wit’ it.

I remember him being so angry with some of Uncle Carlo’s students – the famous ones, anyway – for not thanking him when they got awards or publicly commenting on his death.

Gasper: Who are dey? Dey ain’t nobody. HE was somebody. He was the Maestro!

As far as I know, that piano sat there for 20 years. I’ve thought of it – and him – often. I don’t think Gasper would have gotten rid of it – he had too much reverence for Uncle Carlo to do that. Had he kept it, I could have simply called at any time and asked for it. I would have gladly paid a fortune to piano movers to get it here. Regardless of whether or not he kept it, it’s likely gone now though – along with the rest of his stuff. I have to admit feeling some pangs of loss regarding that, too.

He called us once, a few years back. Evidently Carmella had recently passed away. He was really upset and lonely and looking for someone to talk to. Mom totally blew him off – she talked little (but politely) – and never called him back. I remember being a bit down hearing about Carmella – she was a sweet lady. And I feel bad that he reached out and we never really did anything with it.

It’s times like this I feel old, even though I’m 30. Another strand from the life I had – and the people I knew and loved – has come permanently unstrung. I grant you that many of my friends were older – some even in their 70’s when I was just a kid – but as I grew older and the losses piled up I feel old. I remember one of Grandma’s friend dying – someone she grew up with and knew well. This lady came to our house practically twice a week. We broke the news delicately to Grandma, expecting an outpouring of emotion. Instead, she just sat on the couch in the den. She sighed.

Grandma: Yeah. Well.

One might think her reaction was callous. I don’t. There was so much emotion packed into those two words. She threw up her hands and raised her eyebrows. I knew what she was saying. Another string had come unstrung. It can’t be replaced, it can’t be retied. There’s nothing to do about it.

Uncle Richard, too, knew the feeling – perhaps better even than I do. I remember walking into his studio, just after he got news a friend had passed away. He was – understandably – brooding.

Uncle Richard: I can’t do this.

I raised my eyebrows and listened.

Uncle Richard: I can’t miss anybody else. This is selfish as hell, but I want to be missed. Not miss more people.

I got it. I understood. When I get up in the morning feeling depressed, and I roll my bones out of bed, and I shuffle to the bathroom to take a piss and a shower, I look in the mirror. I feel much, much older than the reflection that stares back at me. I remember coming to the shocking realization not too long ago (which culminated in another round of therapy for me) that all my friends were dead.

I sigh. I look in the mirror and I shrug.

Yeah. Well.