April 27, 2011

My Career As A Rock Star
Part 1: I Pay For The Party

The LP is out! Just click the album cover to visit "The Parallel Universe" and listen to it.

I felt poleaxed standing in the middle of Tower Records Store on Sunset Boulevard. A thigh high block of stacked LPs, over 1,000 of them, sat fat together in prominent display, all with the same cover staring back at me and the face on the cover was mine. I wondered how many more thousands of copies were crammed into a warehouse somewhere and who outside my immediate family and friends was going to buy all those albums.

In the weeks to come, Elektra Records would  release a single to radio, distribute to record stores and I would tour the country, following the record around from town to town. I’d be opening concerts for Townes Van Zandt, Leo Kottke, the Persuasions and Phil Ochs, scheduling radio and press interviews from New York City back to Los Angeles.  There was basic tour support offered from the label but not enough for a band. I could afford to take one accompanist. I called on creative guitarist and friend Al Billings to join me on my four month tour.

Al didn’t own a worthy instrument at the time so I went to Elektra seeking an advance to buy him a guitar. This meeting led to a bit of a yelling session between the Vice President of the New York office and myself. I could have benefited from having a manager who would take on these sorts of negotiations but I was on my own. After Elektra spent tens of thousands of dollars on production of the record and were so modest in tour support a few hundred dollars for an instrument didn’t seem all that unreasonable for me to expect. Apparently I was mistaken. I paid for the guitar out of my own pocket.

The Vox "Student Prince" Guitar

Al and I also found a great little guitar in a Santa Monica junk shop. It was called The Student Prince. I first spotted the Student Prince perched on top of a five foot pile of tangled odds and ends. It seemed to sing out to me. Untangling it and brushing away some of the dust and grime we discovered it was in pretty good shape. There were a few dents and scrapes and the strings were probably thirty years old, at least, but the wood was rich and resonant. The crusty old fellow running the place had no idea what it was worth. We offered him ten bucks and the Prince was ours. Some new strings and a higher nut and we had ourselves a funky little acoustic lap slide guitar.

I believe it was Marlin Greene who referred me to a potential manager named Denny Bruce. Denny was the original drummer for the Mothers of Invention and he represented two of my guitar heroes, Leo Kotke and John Fahey. Denny invited me to his home in the Hollywood hills. He was tall and lanky with an impressively deep voice and a dry wit.  We agreed to work together with the understanding that it would be difficult for him entering into negotiations after the record contract had been signed and the album was ready for release. He would organize tour dates, travel and accommodations and do what he could to establish good relations with Elektra. In retrospect, I am amazed at what a good job he did.

Al and I rehearsed for a couple of weeks in my tiny garage apartment in a Venice alleyway. A vine grew through the kitchen wall. We ate omelets with Wolf Brand chili every morning until I got sick. Once we honed a polished set list we boarded a plane for New York City with four guitars and two duffel bags. Our green station wagon rental car was waiting for us at Kennedy airport. I drove into Manhattan for the first time tingling with excitement, quickly adjusting to the clamoring pace of city traffic. It tickled me to see vast herds of non-chalant pedestrians picking up pace and then scattering across the wide boulevards, fleeing the onslaught of taxis never once turning their heads in acknowledgment as if they possessed invisible radar.

Pulling up to our apartment building we were greeted by a bevy of black prostitutes elaborately and outrageously costumed in tube tops, skimpy skirts and impossibly high heels. Their skirts kept riding upward and their tops kept sliding downward while they half heartedly wrestled everything back into place all the while offering us grinning, enthusiastic promises of exotic pleasures. Once they got a better look at us under the street lights clutching armloads of guitars they realized the futility of their efforts and went clacking and giggling on up the dark street.

We climbed a few flights of stairs to be greeted at the door of our loaner apartment by a smiling record promo dude. He looked to be not much older than me, with shoulder length hair and a skimpy mustache. In one hand he held a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other a vial of cocaine. This was Johnny, son of a record distributor in Texas and head of record promotions for Elektra on the east coast.

He led us to the living room where two beautiful girls, one blonde one brunette, sat book-ended on the couch. Johnny sat down between the girls and introduced them to us declaring the party had already begun. We could see that well enough. There was a shortage of comfortable furniture so Al and I sat tailor style on the carpet. We passed the bottle around and jammed on our guitars while Johnny and the girls consumed most of the coke. When they finally left us alone the distinct odor of bullshit still lingered in the air. This was my introduction to the elaborately expensive party called record promotion that I would ultimately pay for.

* * *

New York in the 1970s

Al and I squatted and sat on the warm concrete curbside of a Manhattan side street waiting for our laundry to finish tumbling in a squawking coin operated dryer. We had been in the big NYC for a week and had begun to sniff test our dirty stiff socks in the morning hoping to find a less offensive pair for the days outing. This still left T-shirts and underwear of a similar questionable state for inspection. We were in a tricky spot.

 

Little did I appreciate how precarious our social situation was until just the day before when we were invited to lunch by a resplendent group of young women who worked in the record company art department. We were to join them at a popular Japanese restaurant. Yokel from the midwest, I had never been to such a place and I was shocked to see everyone removing their shoes at the door and sitting on cushions around the low tables. Beneath my scuffed Frye boots I wore mismatching malodorous socks with holes in the toes. I hesitated a beat too long so that our entire party zeroed in on my predicament. Trying to remain cool I popped off the boots and quickly shoved my offensive flippers under the table hoping my shabbiness would go unnoticed. Hearing the poorly suppressed titters around me, my ears flared red. For a second I thought I could see small waves of pungent aroma emanating from below. I folded my feet under my ass and sweated through lunch, which did nothing to improve my odoriferous state.

Humiliation has always had a way of motivating me. So, today we did laundry. We would be new men soon. Fit for any social occasion. Well, any occasion where boots, jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets were acceptable attire. Every sock with a hole in it was discarded. I even bought two extra miniature boxes of detergent from the machine so I could wash clothes in our bathroom sink when necessary.  Waiting for our load to finish we sipped Budweisers, smoked Marlboros and recounted the weeks adventures.

In those days my hands were rarely at rest and neither was my mouth. I chain smoked Marlboros from a hard pack, played guitar, peeled labels off beer bottles and let forth a steady stream of anecdotes, complaints, oaths and tall tales unconcerned about who I might offend, and there were more than a few. Between shows there were days and nights with not much to do. In New York Al and I struck up a friendship with a couple who lived in the same apartment building we squatted in. Tohru was a talented photographer from Japan who introduced us to Japanese food and the sights of  Manhattan. His wife Ellen was a gregarious clothing designer from a nice Jewish family in Brooklyn. It sounds odd to say now but back then I had rarely shared the company of such exotic, creative people. Discovering New York City with them as our guides was one of the highlights of the entire tour.

* * *

The Entrance to Club Passim in Cambridge, MA

Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, originally Club 47, remains one of the few surviving folk houses in America. In 1973 it was legendary for the cavalcade of great folksingers and songwriters who performed there. Bob and Rae Anne Donlin were the operators of Passim by the time I arrived there. They were as legendary as the place itself. Bob was a beat poet who had appeared in a couple of Kerouac novels as the character Bob Donnelly and Rae Anne was a former English major from the midwest. Bob was a bit edgy but he deeply cared for and respected songwriters. He tickled me when he introduced me as “Daner Coopa.” Rae Anne treated me with such great kindness she could have been my own mother.

I opened several shows for Townes Van Zandt at Passim over three nights. Townes was already a figure of mythological status as a songwriting poet and I was a little intimidated to open for him. I was also anxious about the New York Elektra office muckety mucks who were flying to Boston to witness my debut at Passim. Andy, the east coast record promo rep, tried calming me down by organizing a pre-show dinner at one of his favorite Cambridge eateries. He brought along his lovely wife and about twenty of their close friends and family. I tasted raw oysters for the first time. Didn’t go down too well. Andy taught me the art of eating a lobster, which I managed to take to fairly well. So did everyone else in our sizable dinner party. The bill for everyone’s lobster, bisque, oysters, Heinekens and Boston cream pie was added to my record “promotion” account.

Once the plates and bowls and schooners were cleared away Andy asked if I had ever tasted Ouzo. Well, no, I hadn’t. “You have to try it,” he said. No, I want to stay somewhat sober for the show tonight I said. I must admit, Andy was a persuasive guy. He convinced me of the benign effects of this anise – flavored aperitif. Andy’s cajoling wore me down so far that I downed two shots of Ouzo and was about to go for my third when I realized my face was going numb. I was freaked. In two hours all these people from Elektra were turning up to show their support for me and I was drunk on Greek liqueur. I quickly excused myself from the table and set out on my own to sober up and make my way back to Passim.

Wandering through the narrow, twisting streets of Cambridge I grew increasingly disoriented. The natives I encountered weren’t particularly friendly or helpful so I just trudged on. Now I was not only inebriated but beginning to feel anxious to the point of panic. Time rushed on heedless of my predicament and I feared I might not find the club at all. Ever. Blindly I turned every corner I came to then, suddenly, Passim appeared. Columns of sunlight shot through the gray Cambridge sky like guiding beacons pointing straight down onto 47 Palmer Street. I rushed downstairs, squeezed along the narrow hall and shut myself into the tiny dressing room.

There was just enough time to run over the set list with Al and meet and greet the Elektra folks. Today that night seems comical. In the moment it was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. My nerves conquered me. For the entire forty minute set I never felt in control. My face kept flushing red, my hands trembled, my knees knocked together visibly, all my tempos were too fast. Afterward everyone graciously commended me on a good set saying it was just too bad I was so nervous. In their faces I saw how far I had fallen on this my first gig of the tour.

Townes Van Zandt

Alone backstage I slapped my face and threw my body against the wall. I was on my fifth or sixth body slam, dust sprinkling down from the ceiling, when Townes Van Zandt flung open the door stepping into the room with a horrified look on his face. The look passed quickly as I covered the few feet between us hand extended. Townes was open and personable as we introduced ourselves. Embarrassed by the impression I had made on everyone that night I slunk away leaving Townes some privacy to prepare for his show.

Jump to Part 2: From Phil Ochs to The Persuasions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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