A story about the dark side of fame.
Some built-in Hollywood trivia here. Frank Capra (Amercian Madness, It's a Wonderful life, State of the Union ), was one of top Oscar studed director among several others who was black listed and finished off by openly politicised and hugley manipulated HUAC (House Un-American Activites) .
In 1947 the committee’s purpose was threefold:
First, it intended to prove that the Screen Writers' Guild had Communist members.
Second, it hoped to show that these writers were able to insert subversive propaganda into Hollywood films.
Third, J. Parnell Thomas, head of the committee, argued that President Roosevelt had encouraged pro–Soviet films during the war. Although none of these claims was ever substantiated, the committee’s tactics worked to force many talented and creative people to leave Hollywood.
Fresh after the onset of Vietnam war that lasted twenty one years and cold war with Russia, Republican senator McCarthy worked the system with paranoid right wing effciency that can blush all the dictators and despots funded by U.S.A. across the globe.
Many thanks to my dear friend Asha Jacob who proofread this story despite having a DJ-like son, a job and a husband. Some F word slang here, so you are warned.
Our New Year Eve
“Tak takk takakat ttttttt tkat.”
That was Willy knocking the door with his Mustang’s keys but I didn’t want to burn the omelet. I removed the frying pan from the stove and placed it on the kitchen table before opening the door. He walked in with his air of ownership.
I poured some melted butter on the yellow rim of the omelet and put the frying pan back on the flame. Onion fumes filled the room.
“All papers in order? Let’s go figure out the place,” he said.
“Let’s have some grub and then—” I turned the omelet.
“Okay.” Willy came near me and sniffed the spices.
That giraffe-like bend and sniffing habit have not changed. Otherwise, he has begun to button his florescent shirts. The gaps between his teeth have widened. His outlandish long hair has lost most of its sheen. Those guitar-fondling fingers are now roughed up with cable handling. His rum-drinking days are over. Three stretched out stays at the public hospital to cure his ‘mild touch of liver infection’ have taught him that. Now he drinks only beer. In Willy’s Bible, beer doesn’t have enough alcohol content to affect him. I know better than to get in an argument with him for something like that.
Willy doesn’t swing into his rhyming moods any more. For the bad weather, he used to say ‘slime clime’. For a knocking session, he would say ‘chic prick.’ For a wild drive in the country air, ‘windy sandy.’ For a good foot-tapping guitar riff, ‘footsy cutesy'. Not any more. He is all dried up and brittle and sour now.
His changeover has taken a long decade to arrive. From the heights of wanna be music stars to the scruffy hirers of speakers, strobes, and light equipment; this is a big, nasty slide of ours. He still has his prima donna ways from our bohemian days. We lose a lot of business because of that. The thing that still doesn’t get inside Willy’s drug-fucked head is the fact that you can’t behave like Elvis without Elvis’voice and Elvis’ success. Our equipment is hired because of my buffer-buffoon skills, my contacts. Some crowds in this business still have corners and crumbs for us.
We had our fifteen minutes of fame, when we arrived on the music scene. We were all fired up, hot, hot, hot. Were it not for Willy’s cussed skullduggery with the record company and the police raid on our pad for drug possession, we might have pulled off a big one. The real New York-Paris-London concert circuit stuff. We could have blasted our kind of music to the big blue sky. Some stuff that Willy wrote was solid gold: things about dirt life in the street; lonely nights in the last subway train; heartbreaks in the flophouses. Our songs were edged with dark dirt and grime. Kind of gritty-weird. But then, they might have been lapped up just for that.
We had already recorded five songs. Then the record company’s marketing VP came up with this fuckfix caveat of dividing their risk. The Armani clad vampire wanted just three songs, to promote with two other new bands in a single CD package. That kind of deal was too much for Willy’s Everest-size ego. Willy went wild and damn near strangled the suit right there in the company’s marketing office. Willy overdid it all right, but who is normal in this sickfuck music business anyway?
The second break was less spectacular but it was a break of sorts, no doubt. We had done the scratch recording of other eight songs for a demo purpose. So, we started making the rounds and plugged the demo cassettes all around. In this business, pimps find the whores, not the other way. One thing led to the other, the buzz went out of the door, and we were one day from a three nights a week contract with a glitzy, big time nightclub. We decided to celebrate in advance. Ever the street cat, Willy brought eight vials of real, quality stuff.
That same fucking night the drug enforcement people broke in and caught us doped. The six unopened vials were still on the coffee table, waiting to be booked when they barged in. For his own reasons, Willy has only hazy details of the raid, but I remember myself toppling down the dingy stairs in the wee hours of that chilled morning. We were handcuffed and pushed into a NYPD van. All the way, I tried to wake up Tony C, who was so zonked that he had to be carried from the van to the police station. The buzz was that the cops got the tip-off from the record company we had tangled with. After a while, you got to be philosophical about these snakefuck things.
So, 3-somethree (Willy, me and Tony C), the fusion-cult band was grounded before it could take off. I never got to wear my satin pants and leather thong and brass studded thigh-length boots. I recently traded them in a pawnshop, and bought a toolbox. Those days are like ugly old scars that don’t hurt any more, but you have to look at them in the mirror every day.
Tony Chaikosky, our piano guy (Willy never acknowledged him as a co-writer) killed himself. Some say because of the troubles that his spitfire girl friend gave him, but I know better. Tony C was an ok guy. He should have got somewhere with his songs and piano but he swallowed 30 Mandrax instead. He had called me the night before the suicide: “Have you read The Catastrophe Of Success? This is like the HUAC fucking Capra under McCarthy, I don’t want any of this.”
Tony C was from a very upper crust, white-collar, Russian immigrant family. Probably some second-generation aristocrats, he never spilled his back story. If Willy was the right brain of the band, Tony C was the left. He had this maddening, uncanny way of to whipping Willy’s unwieldy, shapeless lyrics into something fine-tuned and music worthy. Every time Willy wrote a song, Tony C disappeared with the stuff, for weeks at times. Then he showed up with his version. Willy and Tony C would be locked in a battle, haggling over each stanza, each word, each note, each pause. Tony C simply refused to sit on the piano stool until he made Willy see his way. He could cut Willy’s song in half, or transform it beyond recognition. If you knew Willy, that took lot of balls. Tony C would sit quietly and politely, and wouldn’t budge an inch. A riled up Willy would finally say, “Ok, let’s twistfuck this your way.” In the final recording, Willy would call all the shots, but the studio would not be booked until Tony C had fiddled with the song enough.
When the police busted our place and slammed us in, it was Tony C’s first and last run-in with the law. He was a family reputation type. The nights he spent in lockup screwed up the wiring inside his head. If that was not enough, this local yellow rag did a little story on us, photographs and all, quoted our songs, going as far to call us closet communists. Overnight we became red poison for the record companies in the entire U.S. of A.
Every week or so, Tony C comes in my dreams. He wears these Gothic wigs and dark flowing robes. Sometime he is dressed as a transvestite cowboy and sings like John Denver. ‘Country roads take me home… to the place where I belong…’ He and his huge Steinway sway on the clouds, his long, feminine fingers float, moving like liquid porcelain. Sometimes he just smothers the white piano keys without making a sound.
Willy went to the hospital for his advanced cirrhosis and I was drifting a bit after the jail episode. But Tony C’s death had really rattled me. I wanted to make a connection to the real, sane world. I had no fancy ideas about my drumming talent. You know it when you have a gift, and you know it when you are a foreman working shifts in a fucking assembly line. I looked around and latched on to the guys who used to give us the lights and equipments at the club where we occasionally played. I grease-worked the entire concert circuit with them. By the time Willy came about from his liver treatment, I had a rough business plan ready. It was an awful comedown for Willy. Took him almost two years to realize that rum had finished his voice; that no one but he saw any potential in our kind of rant. We shelled out some money together, bought the speakers and other equipment. My deaf cousin came along to handle the lights. That is how our equipment-hiring business got going.
Back to present. We finished eating the onion omelets and toast I had cooked, and hit the road. Willy drove the beat-up Mustang with his reckless bravado and flung us on the location in record time. I showed the contract papers to the wrinkled sentry huddled at the gate. He let us in. The place had the silent charge of deserted public premises. We crossed the snow-covered compound, and entered from the side door of the huge modern structure.
The stars like clusters of halogen lights dangled from the dome ceiling at least a hundred feet above us. Our shoes squeaked on the shining floor. A keyboard piano, some guitar cases, drums, an African bongo set, microphone stands, and spools of wire on the stage platform looked like small toys from here. The circular, stadium-like place was big enough to hold a dozen tennis tournaments simultaneously. “The kind of place we always dreamt to gig in,” I almost said aloud as I looked at the awesome interior.
“Here,” Willy’s gruff voice boomed, echoless. I walked along the circular border of the floor clockwise while he shuffled anticlockwise from the same point, keeping an eye for my pace. I checked my watch. It took us almost seven minutes to complete the circle and face each other roughly at the same spot where we started. Willy handed me the end of a measure tape and crossed towards the opposite side, unspooling the reel in his hand. He made sure that the tape touched the center of the floor area; the figure gave him the radius of the circular floor. The measurements helped him decide on the speaker’s capacity, number of strobes, and electricity requirements for the big concert night-- the New Year’s Eve:
The place filled up with the excited cries of a colorful, wild, wanton crowd. After the firecrackers and laser show, the stoned, long-haired, leather clad zombies emerged on the stage one by one in artificial clouds of candyfloss colors. “Ladeees and gentlemen” the lead singer paused to remember what else to say, but the shrieks from the audience compelled him to signal his band right on. His spittle flew, the microphone danced, the bass guitars swung in wide shining arcs, the key-boardist plunked with fervor, and the drumsticks went berserk. The psychedelic lights roamed the concave spaces in the ceiling and laser beams cut through the over-excited air. That yell-your-guts-out-and-punish-your-instruments routine. They started with their ‘Riders of the Storm’ imitation. Soon, the young crowd on the floor begun to sway with the high voltage flow from our mammoth speakers. They lit their happy joints, opened their cans and bottles, and tilted. The sharp, sweet needles found their home in the warm-blooded veins. The gyrating youth worked up a frenzy, like a big cattle on the run. The fluorescent shirts and leather jackets flew overhead. They all danced like maniacs. The songs, the sounds, the screams, and the noise rose and fell in big crashing waves. They sang along, sweated, their bodies moving with frantic energy. Stoned-out couples clutched each other fiercely and lusted for more. As the night screamed on, so did the pounding on the floor. The dozen bouncers and armed security men tried their bit to make sure that no one got mauled or gang raped. By two a.m., the mad crowd still stamping, the floor was covered under the gum wrappers, empty cigarettes packs, chewed-up reefers, empty liquor bottle, Ecstasy blisters, twisted syringes, crushed vials, condoms, and occasional bras and broken sandals.
We are perched here, in the closet size box above the stage, with a sound engineer sitting on the equalizer and blinking controls. My deaf cousin handles the strobe lights with this fixed look on the crowd. For every new song, he mutters “Thrill-fuck them all anyway,” and throws down a fistful of confetti on the sea of pulsating bodies.
Grim faced, Willy and I pass my battered binoculars between us and look down from the glass partition. Willy as usual, resolutely ignores the band playing on the razzle dazzle stage.
We search our faces, our music, our antics, our mistakes, our excess, and our bitter bygone youth in the mad, milling crowd below.