Posted tagged ‘seventh avenue south jazz club’

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

 

 

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Halloween, Past and Present

October 22, 2013

artaddictaHmm, who was that masked man?

(NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for the defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which was published in their Sunday editorial section back on Oct. 28, 2007. I used to do a weekly column about addictions and recovery, and thought this was an interesting take on why we like Halloween so much.)

Halloween is a drunkard’s dream — a strange brew of revelry, scary stuff, and for many adults, copious amounts of alcohol. It’s one of the few occasions on which the crazier you behave, the more people cheer you on. Any other time you’d be arrested.

Before I got sober, it was my favorite holiday because I could be whoever I wanted to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth.” Give him a flask though, and it gets trickier to tell whether it’s honesty or the booze talking.

Throughout history, masks have been associated with man’s two-faced nature. Shamans wore them to ward off evil spirits, heal the sick or communicate with the dead. Ancient Greek actors used masks to convey emotions and amplify their voices. And of course, masks have been used for comedic effect dating back to the first Neanderthal who put on a boar’s snout for yuks.

Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of costumes that make Halloween parties so much fun. When you see a man in drag, what is he really saying about his sexuality or phobias? Is the office assistant in that skintight Elvira dress hinting she’s not so prim?

Then you have the “witty” costumes that make reference to current events or historical figures. Those people are saying, “Look at me! I’m much smarter than that schlub in the Austin Powers get-up!” Avoid them at parties unless you are Mensa material.

In college, like most young adults, I tried on various personas. But my Halloween creations were more like bad performance art. One year I was the back half of a dining table, with my head sticking through a hole so it appeared to be sitting on a plate. Another time I was the fictional frontman for an awful punk rock band, Nick Nucleus & The Amoebas. I told everyone we “split up” during our first performance of “Mitosis Boogie.”

My sophomore year, I became a demure Geisha with the help of heavy make-up applied by a girlfriend who loaned me her kimono. I didn’t think I was going to fool anyone; my hairy eyebrows were a dead giveaway.

However, I forgot about the “beer goggle” effect that lonely men experience after too many drinks. While I was at a frat party on campus, I went over to the keg for a refill. Loud disco music thumped from the speakers. A clean-cut guy held the tap open for me, smiled and shyly asked me to dance. As I raised my bushy eyebrows in bemusement, he blurted: “Oh, shit.” Then he laughed and suggested we could still dance. I think he was joking.

I’m not sure why so many guys enjoy being a woman on Halloween. Women tend to stick with their own feminine gender roles — just trashier. Naughty nurses, sexy school girl uniforms, and the old standby, slutty kitties. It makes you wonder whose fantasies they’re acting out, and why they so willingly objectify themselves. Not that I’m complaining.

Another reason to like Halloween is the paradoxical aspects. It started as a Celtic pagan festival to mark the change of seasons, a time when the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. Yet the same morbid holiday gives young ladies an excuse to display their inner kinkiness. It’s sex and death in the same Trick or Treat bag!

A psychologist could explain better what our costume choices reveal about us. All I know is in my younger days, the masks I wore allowed me to morph from an introvert with stage fright into a trickster who did things my “normal” self never could do. Like hijacking a New York City parade.

I used to live near Greenwich Village where they have an outrageous Halloween parade every year. The only costume left in the store was one of those cheap boxed sets that kids wear over their clothes. It was the “Joanie Loves Chachi” set. Somehow I wound up in front of the parade as it meandered towards Seventh Avenue South, where I frequented a jazz club by the same name. Musicians from the “Saturday Night Live” band and David Letterman show were regulars at that bar, so I thought it would be fun if I led the parade there.

I was like the Pied Piper of drunks and degenerates. Hundreds jammed into the small building. It got so crazy that the ungrateful club owners ordered me to stop partying and work behind the bar as unpaid help. On the bright side though, my homage to “Joanie Loves Chachi” won the Worst Costume prize.

Alcohol was the elixir that fueled my alter egos. But the hangovers and blackouts left me feeling empty and spent. There was no real me. Just stories about someone I didn’t recognize as myself. The Wolfman probably felt the same way the morning after a full moon.

I have a picture of myself from the day I checked into rehab, four years after the parade fiasco. On my face is the same look of bemusement I had when the guy at the kegger realized I wasn’t a chick. It’s as if in that moment, the mask had come off and I finally knew the truth. I was an alcoholic in need of help. Thankfully, I got it.

Many addicts don’t get that opportunity. Maybe it’s because we see their mug shots and they scare us — they are monsters, who will corrupt your children or kill someone. They have to be banished, locked away like the boogeyman who hides in our bedroom closets. The reality is most of them aren’t much different than me or you.

What we see in the masks worn by others, more often than not reflects our own fears and desires. Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. I look at them now and they remind me of addicts, caught between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. I was one of them. But that party monster has been laid to rest, along with my other alter egos.

Timeliness

February 14, 2012

Most of my ideas for TV or movie projects are inspired by actual events or people I read about in newspapers and magazine articles. The twists I add usually come from either some personal connection to the subject matter, or playing the “what if” game that combines elements from two different, seemingly-unrelated stories.

But the news angle doesn’t stop there for me. As a former journalist and marketing professional, I’ve always tried to tie my pitches into today’s headlines, while anticipating what might be trending tomorrow. The problem though is you will often find that the people you are pitching to are more interested in what’s doing well right now at the box office, and your idea might be ahead of its time. Then a few years go by, and you see a new movie/TV series or book come out, which is similar in concept because other writers were inspired by the same news item or event… and they stuck with it, while you (or your agent/manager) felt you should shelve your draft if it didn’t get any traction.

Sure, I agree you should move on to new projects if your work is getting passed on when it first goes out. However, as a veteran screenwriter once told me, good screenplays or books are like real estate. Just because it didn’t sell right away, does not mean it won’t sell later depending on what’s currently hot in the marketplace. Sometimes you can find a new, timely angle that can transform a fixer-upper into a property with great potential.

I’ll give you a personal example. When Whitney Houston died, my first reaction was sadness. As a recovering alcoholic. who did copious amounts of cocaine in the ’80s and smoked a lot of grass in the ’70s during my college days, I’m no stranger to substance abuse. I also party’d with a number of talented musicians in NYC when I was hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village. Whitney’s mom, Cissy Houston, used to perform at Seventh Avenue South, my home away from work. It was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well known jazz artists in their own right, and frequented by members of Dave Letterman’s house band, along with guys from the Saturday Night Live orchestra. I remember seeing a black and white flyer posted on the SOS door announcing the appearance of Cissy’s daughter, Whitney. She looked so young and cute. Although I didn’t go to that gig, I heard she was great — high praise coming from a tough crowd that was accustomed to seeing the best jazz talent in the world perform on that small stage upstairs.

After I moved to Hawaii in 1985, it didn’t surprise me her career blew up big time. But it never occurred to me that I’d meet someone who was related to Whitney here on Oahu. As it happened, I wound up doing a little freelance copywriting for James Arceneaux. In prior blog posts, I’ve recounted how he went into the music biz, then became Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant. Over the years, we’ve collaborated on a few ideas for TV series and movies. Anyway, James never made a big deal about it, but had told me Dionne Warwick was his aunt. Dionne’s cousin is Cissy Houston, so he’s also distantly related to Whitney. He had a much more direct connection to her though. James moved to L.A., where he lived with Anita Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) in her Beverly Hills mansion. At the time, he was one of Bobby Brown’s managers.

Since I was working on TV pitches for him and Anita, I sent them my REHAB series idea. He said Anita was especially interested in that one because her younger sister, June, had a drug problem. James asked if I would be willing to talk to June about my rehab experience. I said, yes, of course. But she never called. Around the same time, James told me that Whitney’s drug problems were creating problems in regards to Bobby Brown’s career. I thought I was hearing things, because Bobby was the one with the bad rep — not Whitney. In time, news reports would confirm everything James told me off the record years before it became public knowledge.

Eventually, I wrote a bible for REHAB that was shopped around briefly to a few studios. The small prodco that was taking it into meetings said the studios were only interested if I could turn it into a reality TV series, the hot new trend back then. I told them that would be difficult because of anonymity issues with treatment centers, which is why I presented it as a scripted drama/comedy series that would be “ripped from the headlines”… those headlines would include Whitney’s arrest in Hawaii for possession of marijuana, along with other famous entertainers who were in and out of rehab.

In the subsequent years that pitch was sitting in my desk drawer, I saw reality TV series such as A&E’s Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew become solid hits for those channels. I’ve seen scripted medical dramas come and go. I saw Breaking Bad score big with dark comedy about drugs and addiction… and I kept thinking, sooner or later, someone will either make my REHAB series or greenlight something just like what I had in mind.

So when Whitney’s death and history of drug problems hit the airwaves this past week, I took a chance and emailed an updated version of my REHAB pitch to one of the big agencies. Less than an hour later I received a reply from an agent in their television division saying he was “definitely interested” and would be reading my bible this week. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you believe in the core concept of your project, don’t give up on it. Markets and attitudes towards the topic material can change with the zeitgeist. You may think I was being opportunistic or you can accuse me of trying to cash in on a personal tragedy. The way I see it is my TV series could help troubled souls by showing them there is life after sobriety. In Whitney’s case, I think her real addiction was to fame.