Posted tagged ‘Jaco Pastorius’

Mad Men, Letterman, Rupert Gee and Me…

May 22, 2015

Late Show signI 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.

Me and Rupert JeeIn 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.

Hello Deli sign

 

 

The Black List – Part 2

April 6, 2013

Been awhile since I posted here for a few reasons. Mostly though, I’m just tired of slogging through other blogs, forums, Tweets, Facebook posts and e-newsletters telling me the ins and outs of “successful” screenwriting. Then I turn on the TV and watch the latest “edgy,” dark adaptation of a movie, book or rehashed crime procedural in which both the protagonist and villain are brilliant eccentrics who are simply misunderstood by ordinary people like ourselves, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry in the face of actual crimes against humanity committed every day… which are largely ignored or quickly forgotten. And it makes me wonder: what’s the point of all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over whether a script got a 5 or a 7 or the magic number 8 on the Black List?

Who the f@#k cares! That is not why I started writing in the first place, it’s not what motivated me to take up screenwriting, and it’s not why I’ve kept at it all these years. Yet even I get caught up in the contest/ratings game mindset because unless you’ve sold a script and gotten it produced, what do you really have to show for all your efforts?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… it’s an old song every artist, writer and musician who hasn’t broken through, has heard and sung themselves. As it happens, I “re-discovered” an early draft of just such a personal story I turned into a script a few years ago based on my relationship with the late great jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. He played electric bass forĀ  Weather Report — that’s him soaring on “Birdland” and pouring his heart into “A Remark You Made” on the same Heavy Weather album. Sadly — or maybe not — Jaco was bipolar, subject to wild mood swings, depression and heavy use of drugs and alcohol. I went along for the ride with him a couple of nights that became the talk of Seventh Avenue South, the jazz club in Greenwich Village where I met Jaco and other semi-famous jazz musicians.

Anyhow, in my script, a young college guy who works part-time in a supermarket doing security surveillance, meets a bipolar jazz genius and his lovely lady friend… who the kid is instantly smitten with. (She was based on the girlfriend of another great musician I knew in college — and we developed a relationship while she continued to live with this rock guitar idol of mine.) In the script, the kid doesn’t exactly get the girl, and the musician meets an untimely end just as Jaco did… possibly as a result of him not taking his meds, while continuing to self-medicate with booze and cocaine.

What I later learned was Jaco felt lithium robbed him of his ability to play music. It did “flatten” out his moods, creating a semblance of normalcy and stability in his chaotic life. But it killed his creative urges and made him impotent as well. Which presents a terrible choice for an artist — would you trade your manic highs/lows and bursts of creativity for a more ordinary existence? As someone who has dealt with bouts of depression and mania, I can only say for me, I’ve tried to balance things so I can write when I feel like it, and live a fairly productive life when I’m not up to facing the inevitable rejections.

When I reread my old “Lost in the Supermarket” script, which I had shelved long ago for more “commercial” specs that were edgy, dark permutations on psychopaths and gory stuff, I was struck by how fresh it felt — no shootings, no stabbings (well, one near stabbing), no psychos or brilliant heroes/villains! It was about real people, albeit one or two bigger than life characters, wrestling with the meaning of life and art, and art as life. It made me laugh and cry because I wrote it at a time when I didn’t know where screenwriting would lead me… I’d get close to breaking through, but I just never got over the hump.

So what did I do with it? What do you think? I submitted it to the Black List, of course, to see how it would rate. Except this time I put a fake name on the title page to test a theory. When BL first launched, I was an early adopter and put up my most “successful” scripts in terms of contest wins and prize money (a couple had been optioned by reputable producers as well). There is a space on the submission form to include “Previous Awards.” So I listed some notable contest results — Nicholl quarterfinals, Austin finals, AFI scholarship, etc. I think that was a mistake.

What happened was my first paid script reviews were bombs. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest), the anonymous readers gave me 2s and 3s. At first, I thought it had to be a mistake. But the readers’ comments were so barbed, I got the feeling they were making a personal statement about the contests I cited — keep in mind, most of these readers are wannabe screenwriters themselves. I doubt many of them have come close to winning or placing in as many contests as myself or others who got equally dismal scores. Their pointed comments gave me the impression they wanted to take me down a notch. Or maybe they just thought my script sucked.

The next couple of scripts I submitted, I purposely left out the contest results info (again these were finalists in fairly well known competitions) and the scores went up to the 5-7 range. The median scores are around 5, so anything above that is better than average. An 8 or higher though is what gets promoted by BL, and since there is a follower’s mentality among agents, managers and producers, you need at least an 8 to get much notice.

So how did my old Lost script do when I didn’t include my contest results and used a fake name? Both paid reads were 7 across the board. Every single category. It’s like getting a “consider with reservations.” If someone else rated it 8 or higher, that reader can say, “I liked it too — just wasn’t sure my boss would!” If another person rated it lower, that same reader can nod in agreement and say, “It was pretty good. Just not good enough to recommend.”

Franklin Leonard, who created the Black List, had told me in an email that he had fired some of the first readers, but did not elaborate on why. Probably because they were overly harsh in their scoring or written comments, which is bad for his business model. Much safer for them to hand out mostly 5-7s, which is like Vegas slots that make you feel as if you “just missed” the big jackpot when the truth is the odds are no closer than if you scored 2s and 3s.

The funny thing for me though was my 777s felt like a jackpot that reaffirmed something I knew all along. When I write for myself, I can come up with stuff that I feel good about, regardless of whether it ever sells or not. It reminded me why I choose to create art that lifts my spirits, instead of succumbing to the mindset that psychopaths and sex are the only things that TV and movie producers are interested in.