Posts Tagged ‘Tim’

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

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

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

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

Russ: I think that looks better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Okay…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom told him.

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

We passed along the info to him.

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

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

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

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

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

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

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

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

Russ: Oh, yeah…

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

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

Mom: Will you be there this time?

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

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

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

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

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

Me: Really?

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

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

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

Me: A test?

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

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

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

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

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

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

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

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

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

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

He took a moment to consider.

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

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was openly glaring at her.

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

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

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

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

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

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

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

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

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

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

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

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

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

Harlan: DANNY!

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

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

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

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

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

Lady: Oh, I get it.

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

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

Harlan stared.

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

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

Lady: Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and I laughed.

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

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

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

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

 

I’ve thought for years that the rift between Mom and myself started when I was a teenager – now I see it was actually quite a bit earlier. Right around the time Tim and I started to bond and create our own little world, we started taking her threats and hysteria a bit less seriously. I don’t remember what happened, exactly, but Tim and I were talking in the car – I think about alternate universes and whether or not they existed (we determined that they probably did, in some form) and Mom decided to go off about something. I think she felt I had done badly at an audition.

Mom: Show me what you did in the audition again.

I knew this was foolishness – it’s very difficult to replicate exactly what you did, especially for me. With music, acting, or anything else, each time I do it is slightly different – it’s kind of a one time shot. Still, I tried my best to approximate.

Mom: NO! That was terrible. You just bombed that audition.

I reflected back to the audition itself – I didn’t think I did such a bad job.

Me: Well, the casting person seemed to think I did okay.

Mom: This was a big one. This was the one that was going to make you. And you flushed it down the toilet!

I looked at her mildly. I had gotten so used to these outbursts I was barely responding anymore. I sighed, turned, and resumed my conversation with Tim.

Me: So, bro…when people time travel, do you think they end up creating alternate universes?

We tuned out Mom ranting and raving with our discussion. I glanced over, and saw that her eyes were literally bugging out of her head. She was clenching the steering while with a white knuckled fervor. I had a suspicions an unscheduled stop at Russ’s was in the offing. No doubt she would apologize to him about how badly I did on the audition, and ask for a second chance (aside from the fact that he had exactly zero to do with my acting career, this all seemed rather silly. Still, I bit my tongue).

Tim got fed up with her ranting, and with a shrug and a glance that said Sorry, bro he popped on his Walkman and disappeared. I grabbed a book and instantly buried myself in it. The problem with reading a book – especially when Mom was hyped up – was that I did not quite have as good a cloaking mechanism as Tim. He could ignore her with near impunity, considering his headphones were blasting. I could only attempt to be so absorbed and distracted with what I was reading that she didn’t even bother to disturb me. It didn’t always work. I got to hear about how awful I did, how I didn’t prepare well enough for the audition (even though I did), how I was going to be a failure and blow my chances. It was up to her to fix everything now and I better pray really hard that Russ would be understanding.

When I say that I was able to let her explosions roll of my back a bit more, that doesn’t mean I was unaffected. It’s just that her explosions stopped making me outwardly cry or yell – I did my best to keep a relatively calm demeanor. Inside, though, I alternated between worrying that everything she said was was true and trying to calm myself. Usually it was too much to deal with and I did my best not to think about it much. Still, I was usually inwardly roiling.

Looking back, I think that a lot of what she did was basically wage psychological warfare on her kids – Tim agrees. The thing is, I’m not sure she was even aware of any of this. Even if she was, she had (in her mind, anyway) a “good reason”. Like I said before, she’s basically a good person…just mentally sick.

Once home, Tim and I would hop on the Nintendo to play Super Mario or whatever. This was actually a really good method for drowning out the chaos, because there was a visual element as well as an audible element. Grandma didn’t understand it – she was suspicious of video games to begin with – and she didn’t like how engrossed we became. She could throw fits too – even more epic fits than Mom – but hers usually had a reason behind them. She was a little old Italian lady, so she was prone to fits of high drama and loud speeches. Either she had taken a sleeping pill and we woke her up by being too loud, or we didn’t come to dinner right away, or we didn’t clean our rooms, or whatever. We were so sensitive to outbursts that we shut off anything even remotely resembling them – and sometimes, that included Grandma.

Grandma: You kids aren’t even listening to me! It’s That Damn Nitenda.

Tim: NinTENDO, Grandma.

Grandma: Nitenda. Whatever.

For as long as she lived, it was not a Nintendo – it was That Damn Nitenda. All video games systems – and games themselves – were “Nitenda”. Tim and I laughed our asses off thinking about her trying to buy stuff from our Christmas list. We could just imagine her walking into Toys R Us or whatever and asking for a “Nitenda” (meaning a game, not the system), and the worker being horribly confused. Somehow, she managed to get it right most of the time – probably because we wrote stuff down for her.

I got a callback for that audition, by the way. I felt extremely validated – I knew, after all, that I had done a good job. I had prepared well, and gave a great read on the script. Mom had just been bugging out. She looked over at me with a very calm, almost beatific smile on her face.

Mom: You better call Russ and thank him for getting you that callback.

 

 

When I was 8, my Dad killed my dog. I don’t have any proof of this, but I believe it in my heart. I guess that makes it true. I had been away doing a play in New Jersey (long time readers may remember some earlier posts about it), but we came home on the weekends. Things were bad between Mom and Dad – I remember them going away to have dinner or lunch and try to patch things up. From my point of view, it wasn’t working. I was rather glad of that, frankly. He issued an ultimatum – that I quit acting or he’d leave. The ultimatum wasn’t to me, mind you, but to Mom. I grant you that she had the power to decide, but it was my career after all. Regardless, this caused something of an impasse between my parents and drove even more of a wedge between my Dad and I. When I was home, we barely spoke, which was fine. Sometimes we never even saw each other, which was better. When we did see each other, and he tried to talk to me, communication was difficult. I had grown a lot during the play – I had gained a certain level of confidence and independence, I think. If he didn’t know how to relate to me before, he certainly didn’t now. He spoke to me as if I was 2 or 3, and in a high falsetto several pitches above his normal speaking voice.

Dad: Hello, Dan-dan! How are you today, little buddy?

I looked at him like he was an idiot. I couldn’t help myself. For what it’s worth, he more or less talked to Tim that way as well – the high falsetto, calling him Tim-tim, etc. Granted, Tim was about 4, and it was slightly more appropriate (but still rather stupid). It’s clear to me now looking back that he had no idea whatsoever on how to relate to children in general.

Anyway, when I was home, I’d hang out with Rocky. I didn’t see him half as much as usual since I was gone most of the week, and I missed him terribly. One weekend before I went back to the play, I got a terrible sinking in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I assumed at the time that I was just sad to be leaving home for the next few days, and missing Grandma and Rocky. I knelt down and put both my arms around Rocky’s gargantuan neck. I kissed his nose, and he licked mine, and I left. I never saw my dog again.

When I got home the next weekend, I didn’t see Rocky. Dad didn’t tell me what had happened right away – I think I was home for quite some time before he told me his tale. According to him, Rocky had supposedly gotten loose and ran out into the road. Right about the time he was hit, Dad was coming home from work. He saw the whole thing, the people were apologetic and Dad and them took Rocky to the vet. Supposedly, the vet tried to save him and couldn’t and he died in the vet’s office. He told me all this rather matter of factly – no real intonation to his voice. I was crushed and inconsolable for days.

Within seconds after hearing his story, even through my grief, I had doubts about the whole thing. I asked a lot of questions – when did this happen, where is he buried, can I go visit his grave. For perhaps the only time in my entire life, Dad wasn’t irritated that I peppered him with query after query. He answered quickly and smoothly, with no emotion I could detect – certainly no regret or empathy. I could not, it turns out, go visit Rocky’s grave – he was buried “somewhere in the woods” and Dad couldn’t remember exactly where. He promised to take me out there and said we could look, but he sounded doubtful of ever finding it again – not that he appeared to care much either way.

I was suspicious of his story at the time – still am – because I knew he hated Rocky. Rocky was my dog – not the family dog, but my dog. I believe animals choose people sometimes, and I was who he picked. He protected me – made sure I didn’t wander down stairs or near dangerous areas as a toddler, herded me back into the yard whenever I strayed, and was especially intolerant of Dad’s beatings. If Rocky saw Dad coming at me with something, he would get between us. He wouldn’t attack him – wouldn’t growl or anything either – just stand there and move between us. He even took the hits for me sometimes. When Dad couldn’t get to me for whatever reason, he wailed on Rocky – we were the only two in that house that he physically abused. I remember clearly him literally chasing Rocky around the house waving his belt in the air and screaming invectives. When Rocky hid behind a couch, Dad litterally tipped the couch over, cornered him, and wailed on him until he was pulled off. I couldn’t imagine any version of reality in which my father – who despised this dog almost as much as he despised me – would stop at the scene of the accident (which was conveniently timed and conveniently happened right on his route home, where he saw the whole thing), and rush Rocky to the vet for lifesaving measures. Do I doubt this? Hell yes, I do. Added to my calculations were his disgusting and malicious treatment of squirrels and other manner of woodland creatures, and I decided he didn’t have very great respect for animal life – most animals, at least. If he would swerve in the road to hit a squirrel or a woodchuck, would he swerve to hit a dog? I thought so. Add this to the fact that Rocky wasn’t exactly prone to escape per se. He was a smart dog, and he did like to chase rabbits and such, but he never strayed terribly far. Even when he did, he knew to go for the fields rather than the roads. My Grandfather had trained him to be careful of roads – at least, as much as you can train any dog in such a thing. I concede the possibility that he did wander too close to the road, but in my heart of hearts I know Dad’s story isn’t very likely. I give it a 5% chance of being true.

What I think happened, and I’ve had 20 years (give or take) to think about it, is that Rocky was crossing the road (or near to the road), Dad saw him, and ran him down. Or Dad got mad and in a fit of rage went a little too far and beat Rocky a little too long. Or maybe he just took him to the vet and had him put to sleep – no reason, really, other than that Rocky was an extension of me that he could more easily get away with hurting. And bonus: It would hurt me like hell, at least emotionally.

I wasn’t the only one that thought this – Grandma, who was well known for being unable to keep her opinions to herself, seemed to concur with my basic premise; Dad killed Rocky, probably deliberately, and timed it in such a way that it would happen while I was home.

Later, during the divorce, I had other animals that met grisly ends – I had an outside rabbit that was killed with what appeared to be a hammer, for example. Was it Dad? I think so. I know he skulked around our property quite a bit after he left. Besides, killing someone’s pet – particularly with a hammer – is a rather personal thing. No one else would have reason to do such a thing.

Thus, he was tried and convicted in the heart of an 8 year old boy. As an adult, and with a couple years of therapy under my belt, I am able to concede the possibility – no matter how slight – that Dad’s story is in any way true. At that point in my life, if you had told me that my father was Satan incarnate, I would have likely believed you. Now I see that he was just a very disturbed man, and perhaps had reasoning behind what he did – however twisted it may have been. Surely he wasn’t just an evil bastard just for the sake of being an evil bastard. Right?

The thing with Rocky helped heap hot coals on my already burning resentment and anger. I started slamming doors a lot. And believe it or not, I thought about suicide – I remember looking just a little too long at some of the sharp knives in the utensil drawer, and picking one of them up thoughtfully. I had a pretty good idea of what to do, and I have no idea if I actually would have gone through with it, but Grandma came in and asked what I was doing. Just like that, the bubble that encapsulated that moment popped. The deep, aching anger was back – like a churning in my chest. I decided in that moment that I didn’t want to kill myself – I wanted to kill that son of a bitch that killed my dog. I really, honest to God hated that man. It was that hate – the anger, the resentment, the fury of the injustice of it all – that brought out my belligerence and set Dad and I on a collision course.

My first thought was he lied at every word. That’s from T.S. Eliot‘s The Wasteland – years later, I would realize that applied to Russ. He rarely gave a straight answer about anything – if you asked him his opinion of something one day, he’d tell you one thing. The next, it’d be totally different. I’ve wondered for years if it was a defense mechanism to keep Mom from getting to know too much about him,  if he was sort of goading things along in his own way, or if he was just a people pleaser. Rarely did he give straight answers to anything – everything was almost always somewhat ambiguous. This was excellent fodder for Mom, but it sometimes annoyed me. For example, we never knew his birthday. It wasn’t that he made it into a state secret, it’s that he gave us a few different dates when we asked. I’m sure he thought this was amusing somehow, but it doubled and tripled his letters and gifts from Mom – ultimately reinforcing her idea that there were different Russes. After all, they all had different birthdays. They couldn’t all be the same person, right? I think he honestly forgot most of what came out of his mouth the minute he said it, because he seemed genuinely surprised when Mom brought him gifts on his “birthdays”. He’d tell us about people he allegedly knew in the industry – and I suppose he knew some – and he’d talk about how he was going to call them to see if they could help us. One day, he’d promise great things up and down. The next, he would have forgotten all about it and was back to speaking in vagaries. One thing I got from him that wasn’t bullshit – one of the few things – was musicianship. He was a hell of a musician. I remember him sitting me down one day and showing me something on the piano.

Russ: There’s only 3 people in the world that know this besides me, and 2 of them are dead.

I think he was joking. I laughed.

Me: What is it?

Russ: It’s the Boogie Woogie. See?

Me: That’s really cool…

Russ: Ok, let me show you how it is slowed down.

And we went on like that. He taught me songwriting as well, but that came a little later – he was always fairly critical of my songs. I think this was ultimately a good thing, but I also think he loved to burst my bubble. Russ would shake his head when I thought I brought in a monster hit.

Russ: Not top drawer stuff, Danny.

Mom’s opinion of things would instantly change once Russ’s opinion was voiced. If she loved a song before, and he said it sucked, she’d insist that it sucked and she thought so all along. If he thought an audition song was great for me – something she may have hated in private – she would suddenly love it. There were some exceptions, but they were few and far between. And still, at the end of every freaking lesson, Mom would intone the weekly benediction.

Mom: Russ…?

Russ: Yeah, Donna?

Mom: Am I ever going to see the Right One again?

Russ: Oh, he’s around. He’ll show up.

Mom: But when?

Russ: Just be patient.

Mom: Are they ever going to sit down and talk with us?

Russ: Oh, I don’t know…that’s up to the Powers That Be.

Mom: Wow. Who are the Powers That Be?

Russ: You know, the people who gotta approve.

Mom: Is the Answer coming back?

Russ: Yeah, someday.

Mom: Is the answer coming back yes?

Russ: We’ll have to see.

And on and on and on this went. Sometimes we’d be 20 minutes walking out the door. “The Answer” was her ultimate EVERYTHING all rolled into one. It was the Mob “making us”, it was finding the Right One, it was power, success, money and happiness. Somehow along the way, she determined that Russ said something about an “answer” and the answer “coming back” – I’m not sure he actually did, or if he did it wasn’t in any way shape or form in the context she took it in. Regardless, it became part of the litany of questions that she’d ask at the end of every lesson, or leave on his machine, or write in letters. Regardless of how long a letter was, or how long a message was (and believe me, his machine ran through more answering machine tape than you’d believe) it ultimately boiled down to this: Is the Answer Coming Back?

His response to the question would be dissected and analyzed and re hashed on the ride home. It would dictate her mood for the next day or week – at least until the next lesson. I always tried to put a positive spin on things for her, but it was hard to know what I was working with. She would insist they had these long conversations that I never heard – always while I was either in the bathroom, or too soft for me to hear. Even as a kid, I was skeptical – I was sitting right next to the man on the piano bench.

I would go to sleep in my room, and inevitably I’d be woken up by Mom. She had this irritating way of waking me during these times – it was very passive aggressive. I think the theory was: I’m not going to wake you, I’m just going to make some noise until you wake up. She’d pop open the door, shuffle over to the bed, and sit down at the end. She’d sit there, clearing her throat and shifting until I eventually woke up, fuzzily.

Me: What, Mom?

Mom: Dan…do you think The Answer is really coming back?

Me: Yeah, Mom. I guess. I’m trying to sleep.

Mom: Is it really?

I knew this was a minefield, so I always forced myself into mental clarity to handle her questions.

Me: Yeah, Mom. I’m sure it is.

Mom: Okay.

And then she’d get very quiet, and I’d think the conversation would be over. But she’d just sit there, at the end of the bed, sometimes for half an hour. Eventually I’d have to acknowledge her.

Me: Yes, Mom…what is it?

Mom: Did Russ say…

And oh, God. Thus began the Spanish Inquisition. I was grilled over what Russ said (or didn’t say) and HOW he said it and what his EYES looked like when he said it and what his BODY LANGUAGE was like. Her opening salvo was always “Did Russ say…” and good Lord, it was awful. I hated it. Even today, that phrase makes my skin crawl. Inevitably she’d follow up her opener with something cryptic and kooky.

Mom: Did Russ say…”we’ll see how the kite flies from there”?

Me: No, Mom.

Mom: Well, did he say anything *like* that?

Me: No, not that I heard.

Mom: Well, I think he did. It was just too quiet for you to hear.

It ultimately didn’t matter what Russ said (or didn’t say). It was *always* cryptic, it was *always* packed with more insinuations that I would ever be able to pick up on, and it was *always* “too soft for me to hear”.

I probably lost thousands of hours of sleep at night to these benign, nocturnal  intrusions. I sometimes would try to pretend to still be asleep, but it just drew the whole thing out. My patience would eventually run out, or Tim’s would (he shared the room with me). One of us would kick her out, telling her we needed sleep, and assuring her that we would talk about it in the morning. Like it or not, talking about it in the morning was one thing you could guarantee.