Posts Tagged ‘Russ’

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

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

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

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

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

Russ: I think that looks better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Okay…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom told him.

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

We passed along the info to him.

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

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

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

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

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

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

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

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

Russ: Oh, yeah…

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

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

Mom: Will you be there this time?

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

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

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

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

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

Me: Really?

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

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

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

Me: A test?

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

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

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

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

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

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

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

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

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

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

He took a moment to consider.

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

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was openly glaring at her.

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

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

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

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

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

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

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

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

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: …thanks.

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

Kid: Let’s jam sometime.

Me: Maybe.

I was the king, he was a peasant.

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

Russ put it differently.

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

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

Kid: You’re playing it wrong.

I probably made a noise.

Kid: Mind if I drive for a while?

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

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

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

 

 

I’ve written a lot of negatives about my childhood – the constant running around, money woes, Mom’s paranoia and delusions. But it was also an age of wonder, at least for me. Someone told me once that everything casts a shadow –  the bigger the thing is, the longer the shadow it has. I think now that the good that happened must have been significant indeed. My tendency has been to focus on all those negatives (the shadows, if you will) because many of them are manifested in the issues I now struggle with daily. But today I feel as if I’ve gained a fresh perspective – It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good. Maybe that’s life. Actually, scratch the maybe. It is life.

Let me explain what I mean about it being an age of wonder for me. Everything was electric. Possibilities abounded in such a way as if they were almost tangible. Every possible future lay before me, in a series of alternate universes – and they were all exceedingly wonderful. In a very real way, magic existed for me. I had amazing, wonderful mentors who thought the world of me. And if knowledge was truly power, these men were princes and kings. I was doing things with my life that most adults only dreamed of, or struggled for years to achieve and yet still couldn’t make happen. It was almost (at least to my young mind) as if I waved my hand and willed this life into being. Maybe I did. I was seconds away from writing the next top 10 hit song (none of my songs ever charted or anything, but that point I’m driving at is the feeling). I was seconds away from a big break in film or TV, or booking a huge commercial and feeding the family for months on end with a couple hours work (this latter did occur, and the thrill – the feeling – was tremendous). Moreover, I was a Wunderkind – Mom said so, Uncle Richard knew so, and everyone I met seemed to think some glorious future was unfolding before me. I’m sure a lot of kids get this, but Uncle Richard once told me – quite seriously – that I could be President. We sat down one day and charted out what my campaign platform might be.

Me: I want to do that, maybe. But the music and the acting…that comes first for now. I’ll get to that later.

Uncle Richard laughed.

Even the delusions themselves had a sort of upside to them. Mom’s fear that I would be assassinated or was being stopped by shadowy figures who feared my success was the shadow. The thing that cast the shadow? I was incredibly important – possibly monumentally so. Destined for greatness. Yes, it gave me a big head. But it’s a hell of a nice thing to think every once in a while. I wish I could believe it with the same fervor I did as a youth.

If I wasn’t in the act of conquering, I was planning my next conquest. I was doing. I was being. I was on fire. Even if some part of it – say, 50% – was an illusion, it wasn’t a bad one. I miss it.

I got a call to work on Home Alone 2 – not as an on camera actor, but as someone who sang for the soundtrack. I sang My Christmas Tree (which, if you’ve seen the film, you no doubt know). I got to meet Alan Menkin – the guy who would go on to score Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and all that. My path actually crossed with him several times over the years, but I’ll get to that. It’s not a story that belongs here. The song itself was actually a proper song – much longer than it was portrayed in the film. Menkin was pissed that the Powers That Be insisted he whittle his song down to a nub. They also ran into some problems because Macaulay Culkin couldn’t sing – and in the movie, he’s supposed to do some sort of solo. Well, they auditioned a bunch of us from the recording to be his voice. I didn’t get the part, but I was pretty damn proud to be in the project. The composers even autographed my sheet music for me – it hangs in my studio to this day.

Mom excitedly pulled me aside as we left. She pointed to Jack Feldman, the other composer from the song, and whispered in sheer delight.

Mom: It’s a Russ!

Russes were popping up everywhere it seemed. That was also magic, I suppose.

And what is magic, really, but the ability to change the world in which we live and make it something more? A bush that speaks and burns but does not consume itself, for instance, or a statue springing to life? What I’m driving at is that it’s a change in perception. Perhaps that statue didn’t spring to life at all – perhaps it was a trick of an overactive imagination.  Perhaps that bush will eventually burn up, and we are hearing voices because we’ve skipped our daily medications. We take this to be magic, and it becomes such because of our belief – regardless of how mistaken that belief may be. Looking back at this with the practiced eye of a skeptic – and believe me, I have learned the hard way that it’s safer to be skeptical – much is missed. The skeptic is safer in his cozy armchair, with his books and his charts and his diagrams than the mad prophet out in the desert searching for magic. You can get burned out on magic – I certainly did – and I traded a world where I was a king pursued by shadowy hordes for one of logic and reason. I thought, then, that this was the only way to stay sane – after all, Peter Pan’s companions couldn’t stay in Never Never Land forever. They had to at least touch base with the real world and put their feet on the earth. But in doing so, they forgot how to fly. So my point, if I have one, is this: Time has made me a skeptic. I have put away foolish beliefs. I have tossed out once treasured truths that, when held up to the cold light of fact were little more than fantasy. But I’m learning – slowly, because I can be rather thick – that there is more to life than logic and reason and things visible only to the naked eye. I am a skeptic that wants to believe.

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

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

Me: Sounds pretty cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom: This is it! You’re in!

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

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

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

She looked at me funny.

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

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

Me: Yeah. I do get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Harlan: DANNY!

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

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

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

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

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

Lady: Oh, I get it.

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

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

Harlan stared.

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

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

Lady: Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and I laughed.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Me: Mom.

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

Mom: What.

Me: Um.

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

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

Mom: I’m thinking.

Me: Oh, okay. I didn’t know.

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

Me: So, uh. I’m reading this book.

Nothing.

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

Silence.

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

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

Me: …what do you think about that?

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

Mom: Danny.

I felt cold. She did not sound very happy.

Mom: Shut. The fuck. UP.

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

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

Mom: I am trying to THINK!

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

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

Mom: THANK you.

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

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

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

Me: Okay.

Mom: I just…have a lot on my mind.

Me: Alright.

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

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

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

She was clearly distracted.

Mom: Uh, yeah. Cool.

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

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

Me: A joke?

Mom: Yeah. 

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

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

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

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

Me: Hm.

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

Me: Oh?

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

I was pissed.

Me: Oh, ok.

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