I stopped watching David Letterman’s Late Show regularly a long time ago when he seemed to be falling back on stale bits and spending most of the show on digressive grumblings that went nowhere. He wasn’t the quick-witted, anything-goes sardonic young host I grew up with while living in NYC as a bachelor in my mid-20s during the go-go 1980s. By “go-go,” I mean there was lots of drinking and copious amounts of cocaine in the bars, jazz joints and after hours clubs I frequented from the Village to the Upper West Side. Bruce Willis, who I knew from Montclair State College, was still bartending at Cafe Central in 1985 — the year I pulled a geographic and moved to Hawaii, in part, to avoid the fate of people like John Belushi and others who were part of that scene.
Generally speaking, I’m not the nostalgic type who likes to post a bunch of old photos on Facebook and tag people I hung out with way back when. Yet it’s hard for me not to reflect on the passing of the Mad Men television series and Letterman show because of personal connections to both that remind me how far I’ve come or gone, literally thousands of miles away, and how old I am. Aging sucks — unless you consider the alternative. Just surviving long enough to grow into a crusty, cynical curmudgeon like Dave, can be considered a success in itself. It’s like that old song, “I’m Still Here” from Follies: Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all.
The other day I had a business meeting with a former New Yorker and during our chat, this younger woman asked how old I was to compare notes about our respective time frames in the Big Apple. I hesitated, thought about fudging by saying “I’m in my 50s” or “mid-50s,” then shrugged and admitted: “Fifty-eight. I’m old.” Ugh. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for not being young any more?
She appeared to be caught off guard. Her New York and mine were decades apart. She only knew the Disney-tized Times Square version. My NYC was dirty, dangerous, dying from the AIDS epidemic, yet still retaining some of Don Draper’s Mad Men business trappings from the 60s and 70s. I even interviewed at Grey Advertising, one of the biggest agencies in the world, rivaling the agency that swallowed up Don’s firm. At the time, I was news editor of my college paper and a friend’s dad at Grey introduced me to their head copywriter — a woman, just like Peggy on Mad Men! She looked over sample commercials I wrote, liked a couple, suggested I write more, then get back to her after she returned from vacation. But I needed a job fast, so I never followed up with her and wound up stumbling down other career paths.
After I moved to Manhattan in the early 80s, I got a marketing job in publishing down in the Greenwich Village area. I ducked into a jazz club to get out of the rain one summer evening, and that’s where I met musicians from the Late Show band and Saturday Night Live orchestra. It was named Seventh Avenue South and was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well-known jazz musicians in their own right. It became my pau hana hangout, where I held court with Hiram Bullock, the original Letterman band shoeless guitarist (played with David Sanborn often too); Sammy Figueroa, a percussionist (the conga player on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”); Will Lee, still playing bass with the Late Show band; Paul Shaffer would pop in; Jaco Pastorius, the late great electric bass player with Weather Report was a regular… plus a host of other young actors, musicians, artists and riffraff. Hiram told me how Belushi was at his place one night, found a box containing all of Hiram’s tax info and receipts, and proceeded to throw them out the window. A few months later, Belushi would OD.
I also befriended David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet, who I learned was related to Walter Murray — the UH football receiver, best remembered for dropping a pass that would have given the ‘Bows their first victory over vaunted nemesis, BYU. As it happened, on my final night in New York before getting on the long flight to Honolulu, a co-worker scored tickets to the Late Night show as a going away gift for me. I had always wanted to see it live, so it was a big deal. However, David Murray also offered to put me on his guest list for a gig he was doing with another jazz legend, Ron Carter, at the Lush Life that same night. I opted for the Lush Life instead of Dave. Sigh. That was New York in a nutshell — too many choices, too much to do in too little time.
It’s strange how things come full circle. Three years later, I was married, had gone through rehab for alcoholism, got sober and started growing up at the age of 31. That’s when I began writing screenplays based on my wild nights in NYC and 28-day stay at Castle’s treatment center in Kailua. Eventually, I would get to meet staff writers for Mad Men, who were doing a UH screenwriting workshop. They had worked on the Baywatch Hawaii series, along with former Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist, Charlie Memminger. He got that short-lived TV staff job as a result of winning the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest — the same one I came in second place for a script that was set in NYC a year before 9/11 would change the skyline forever.
In 2006, my wife and I stopped by the Late Show theater to see if we could get tickets but none were available. We did get to meet Rupert Jee, the Hello Deli owner and frequent guest on Letterman (often put in amusing, uncomfortable situations when Dave would fit him with an earpiece and instruct Rupert to do odd things to unsuspecting parties outside the theater).
I’m still searching for that illusive first big script sale. Heck, I’d settle for a small low budget straight-to-video deal. I used to snicker at shows like Baywatch Hawaii, but now that I’m older, wiser and less full of myself, I realize what it takes to be a professional screenwriter no matter what you or I may think of the quality of the show itself. The Mad Men writers I mentioned had gotten to know Matt Weiner long before he achieved critical acclaim with his series about a Manhattan advertising agency, and the characters we watched grow up (or not) before our eyes. Most don’t know what a hard sell it was for the creator of that series to get it on the air. It’s really an inspiring story for any writer, artist or entrepreneur. You can read the Fast Company piece by clicking here.
The last night I spent in New York, I remember coming back to my apartment on 14th Street, still intoxicated and high from the Lush Life show. Down on the corner, there was a lone sax player I could hear through the open window, blowing sad, sweet notes — a serenade for no one in particular. But in my heart, I believed he was playing his song for me. I miss the city… I’ll miss Mad Men and Dave too.