Near-Clapton Experience

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The year: sometime in the late 90s in August.

The place: Village Recorders in Santa Monica.

It smelled of rock stars. Their sweat, cigarettes and booze had all soaked into the 70s shag carpet, become part of its DNA, and it slammed me in the face the moment I stepped inside.

images (3) On every inch of the this dimly lit, bad faux-wood paneled museum to Rock was a concert poster with signatures from every band you could ever think of. Aerosmith. Johnny Cash. Elvis Costello. The Doors. Janet Jackson. George Harrison. Little Richard. Mariah Carey. Ringo Starr. Elton John. B.B. King. John Lennon. The Stones. The Who. The Beatles. Fleetwood Mac. Dr. John. Janis Joplin. It was dizzying, really, when you walked down the halls and saw this shrine to the Musical Gods of our time.

I thought that any second, I’d see some brooding guitar great pop out of a studio. Or I’d run into some hot mama songstress in the ladies’ room. The place felt alive  – electric – with adventure around every corner.

But once again, here I was in LA working on yet another batch of JC Penney Christmas spots. At the helm of this undertaking was a husband and wife music team.  Both were virtuosos and lovely. Hip and young. There was a good vibe between us.

One morning during our week of finessing the tracks for the spots, we were sitting in the studio. The engineers were busily adjusting little black nobs up and down on the ginormous sound board. Such a mystery to me, the luddite, to watch them zero in on raising the level on the spine-rattling bass or dulling the timbre of a shrill, eardrum-splitting horn or softening the snare drums on a track. It’s like surgery. Boggles the mind.

images (2) The woman of the husband/wife team had gone upstairs to the coffee room.  When she came back, she looked like she had just swallowed a mouse.

“They’re up there,” she said. “Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.They’re taking a break upstairs in the coffee room.”

As if on cue, I stood and said, “Well, this means I’ll just have to get some coffee, too.”

In those days, I just reacted. Without thinking. I charged ahead into adventures without thinking of what I would say or do, or what would happen. I just trusted the universe.

As I entered the coffee room, which was no bigger than a walk-in closet, I smiled at Eric, Robbie and another unidentified man. The quarters were so cramped that they each had to move out of their way as I offered pleasantries. Since it was so small, I am sure I was overpowering them with my Clinique perfume, which I had sprayed on myself prior to my sojourn upstairs. It’s strong to begin with and I think I saw Eric Clapton wince as I moved passed him.

imagesUQ7V3CQ6 imagesJK3W4NGY“Excuse me, gotta have my joe,” I said as I walked between them. I was about six inches from both Eric and Robbie, as I passed through their personal spaces. Each smiled. Each were pleasant. Each were non-remarkable in their presence. Except that in my mind I was screaming, “THEY ARE ROCK STAR GODS.”

Eric was surprisingly short, while Robbie towered over me. Not sure why I thought Mr. Clapton would be tall. I suppose on screen and on the screen in my mind they are all immortal, statuesque – like Goliath.

Nevertheless, Eric has graying hair and wore glasses. He had a kind face. Robbie had a mass of curly dark hair.  He looked kind of wild and wooly. Eric wore a t-shirt and jeans. Robbie, all black.

I filled up my coffee mug, turned on my heels, smiling at each as I left. My heart was kind of pounding as I raced away, burning my hand with overflow from my too-full coffee cup.

I arrived back in the studio, breathless with my skin tingling, and reported my encounter, such as it was, which was really inconsequential. Neither of them did anything remarkable other than just behave like good humans, stepping out of the way as I moved towards my destination.

I don’t know what I thought they’d do. Perhaps drop to their knees and launch into air-guitar solos?

Nevertheless, we all giggled, glowed and were atwitter about the Greatness that was gathered above our heads on the premises.

Our production lasted a week. I didn’t see them anymore, Eric and Robbie, but I did see one of their crew nearly every day: Eric’s guitar tech, Lee.

We chatted each other up a bit each day, learning teeny pieces of info about the other. (See Lee below in his official duties pose.)

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On the last day of our production, as I was walking out the door, he asked me for a date. I declined, as I was dating someone in Dallas. He then said, “If you’re ever in London, look me up.” He tore off a piece of paper and gave me his number. And that was that.

 CUT TO SIX MONTH LATER

In the ad commercial music world, when you hire musicians to play and sing on your track, you pay them something called “T & R,” or Talent and Residual.

(We always called it “T &A,” but that is something else entirely.)

Nevertheless, it is sometimes customary to buy out the talent for a fee, and it made sense from a budget standpoint, in that, we’d realize a savings. But here’s the thing: this stipulation was not applicable in the U.S. So where did we go?

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London

Yes, we flew over to London to work with the music company. But not just any music company. We worked with a true patrician – Lord David Dundas.

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Yes, he was royalty. He had worked with George Harrison’s HandMade Films as well as many other prominent Brit Pop stars.

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We stayed in Chelsea at this quaint, oh-so-British place called the Sydney House.

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The elevator was so old and small, it could not fit both me AND my luggage in at the same time. Now, I will say I had a reputation for over packing and taking steamer trunks (full of inappropriate spindly heels, mostly) on production trips so my bag was sizeable, but honestly, this elevator was the size of a phone booth – if that. So the porter took my bag up without me. Then I followed, as did my art director, Mitch Jackson aka Miss Jackson.

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After I got settled into my matchbox-sized room, I remembered what Eric’s guitar tech, Lee, had said: if you’re ever in London, get in touch.

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So I rang him up. He asked if I would like go to see/hear Eric play at Royal Albert Hall in a tribute to Robert Johnson titled something like “24 Nights of the Blues,” during which he would play NO songs of his own.

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Lee and I arranged to have dinner before, then go to the concert. Dinner was lively, lots of chattering about my life in Dallas and my white lab, a subject that Lee was quite interested in for some reason. Unlike me, he didn’t have a cocktail, as he told me since Eric was sober, he only hired people who didn’t drink. I imbibed in what was (back then) my signature buttery chardonnay.

When we got to Royal Albert Hall, we breezed right in past security through the backstage door.

Jimmie Lee Vaughn, Stevie’s brother, was opening for Eric.

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The green room was lit with harsh fluorescent lights and on the table was a spread from craft service. But not what you’d typically expect like crudité, chips, evil sugary snacks and gum, for example. No, the table was filled with a brownish substance that looked like cole slaw as well as gherkins, mackerel, anchovies, black and green olives, a smattering of cheese and cold, hard bread. When they say that the English are not known for their cuisine, I now get the full distasteful picture.

Jimmie and crew were talking in a group so we just kind of observed and hovered for a bit, awkwardly, then we left.

“Come up on stage,” Lee said. “I’ll show you Eric’s guitars and what I do.”

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As we walked onto the stage, people had started to arrive a mill around inside the Hall.

I am glad he suggested that we do this because until that point, I had no idea what a “guitar tech” might do. Would be repair busted strings? Strum a few bars then hand the guitar off to Eric? Come in on cue, guitar in hand, and dance a robotic jig to tech music?

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I’m sure that a true guitar afficionado would have been on cloud nine as we traipsed around admiring all the cool guitars on stage. But their distinctions were lost on me.

I did though walk away with a few of Eric’s guitar pics. I gave them out years later to various guys I was vainly trying to impress.

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So while Jimmie Lee was on stage, we hung out in the green room. Lots of assistants and long haired, tatted dudes were flying in and out of the room.

Finally it was time for Eric to go on so Lee escorted me to my seat, which was up on the left side in a small balcony very near the stage.

Jimmie Vaughn’s opening set was good. But I could tell that the audience was a tad restless. Not a lot of catcalls or hollering out to him.

About 10 p.m. Eric took the stage. He was basically alone, save for my friend, Lee, bringing him guitar after guitar.

Eric played a lot of different kinds of electric guitars and a variety of acoustic. He wailed soulfully and crooned like the old Robert Johnson himself. His range was impressive, as was his sweaty brow that screamed his passion for the heartbreak of the songs.

He was on fire.

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After one song, some (obviously) drunk person yelled, “Layla.” He was summarily ignored.

This night was not about Clapton. It was about the blues, the iconic, mythic Robert Johnson from Mississippi.

The concert was astonishing. Amazing. I “got” Clapton, which I must admit, I didn’t before. I attribute this to the fact that radio stations played “Layla” OVER and OVER during the 70s. However, I do love the song “Bell Bottom Blues.” That one never gets old. But the repetition of “Layla” obscured my fondness for all other Clapton songs. Silly, I know.

There were a couple of encores at the end. The crowd was bold and full of camera snaps and hoots and whistles.

They loved him. Clapton killed.

Since the concert was over quite late, I had to wait for Lee to finish up. I had hoped I would get to see Eric again, but alas, I didn’t.

The closest I got was within inches of him in the Village Recorder’s coffee room and the guitar pics I clutched in my hot little hands. I twiddled them, and played with them. I felt kinda cool.

Lee finally came out and I ooohed and aaaawed about Eric. We then agreed to get a nightcap.

I was going back to the States the next day so I couldn’t stay up too late.

We entered my miniscule room at the Sydney House. The only place to sit was on the bed. There was also a mini-fridge that housed some adult beverages.

At the concert, I had a few plastic cups full of some house wine. So I was feeling no pain, kind of teetering from side to side like a sand-bottomed punching bag doll at this point.

I flung open the fridge and didn’t see anything. So I picked up the phone and dialed Mitch.

“Got any beeehhhr in your room?” I asked him, slurringly. But just then, there was a knock as I had forgotten that I had ordered a full bottle of wine from room service.

“Oh don’t worry, we’ve got some whhhiiine now.” Then I hung up.

It was 2 a.m.

Mitch was not happy.

From that point on, I remember bits of pieces of my conversation with Lee and him asking if he could smoke out. I said, “Suuuuure! Whaay not?”

We talked more about my dog and then there were long periods of silence as we were both on the brink of incoherence. Or at least, I was.

Then he left.

(My boss, who unbeknownst to me was in a room below mine, asked me the day I got back to the office, “What were you doing in your room that last night? Moving furniture?” No more need be said.)

The next morning, after this most colorful night, was one of the most painful experiences that I can recall.

I awoke with a dry mouth that could not be quenched by any sort of liquid or food. Not even another drink helped. Hair of the dog was useless at this point.

My head felt like it had been split open by a hatchet.

And I moved in slow motion.

But this was not good: I was already about two hours late to get to Heathrow to catch my flight. Mitch and my boss had taken an earlier flight so I was on my own. Again, not good. I needed assistance. Like a walker or a Segue. My legs just didn’t want to move. Well, they couldn’t move.

As I walked, it was as if I was walking through a muddy river as I gathered my things, donning shades. I then realized and understood the name “Muddy Waters.”

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He must have felt like this when he was hungover, as if he was crossing a river with murky, muddy water – his feet gouged, immovable, firmly embedded into the sludge on the river bottom.  It was so apt. Sadly with this revelation, it did not inspire me to anything other than sickness.

I called downstairs, frantically as I could, given my condition, and told them of my plight. I needed a cab. And I needed it now.

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The cab arrived and I was shoved in by the porter and away we went.

He ran red lights, took back ways, and generally broke the law the entire way there. Luckily, no Bobbies pulled us over.

As we pulled in, I threw a ton of English money and coins at my driver, and ran towards the gate.

The British Airways flight attendants were hurrying me along and frowning. (Imagine the lady below with down-turned lips.)

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The doors closed five minutes later.

After take-off, and we could “move about the cabin,” I had some crackers and soda and began to perk up.

But my head was still a mess.

I needed to be lying down flat. But since I was in Coach, no such luck,

Then I saw a spot that was calling my name: right underneath the movie screen that was positioned in the middle section of the plane.

I went there, laid down on the cool floor right underneath it, and stayed there all the way back to Dallas. I actually passed out, with sleep, and my feet were sticking out in the aisles (I was later told) and I was a roadblock for the carts that went by.

The attendants were not happy, but they understood. Or so I told myself.

So this story is admittedly not that spectacular because I never really did have any meaningful interchange with Eric Clapton, just walked past him, perhaps invaded his personal space… met his tech, got a tour of his guitars and snagged a few pics.

Further, it ends with me not in my finest hour. However, it serves as reminder to me for a couple of things:

I am happy I no longer drink.

Leave plenty of time to board international flights.

Seize the day.

Had I not run upstairs to get coffee, this entire hijinks-sy story, though both exhilarating and painful, would have never happened.

Life is to be lived. All of it. Good and bad. But in the end, the bad can sometimes be a meaningful teacher. This has been true for me.

So what’s the moral?

Life is gone in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Be in it.

Don’t succumb to fear.

Live it.






Julie Newmar: Real-Life Super Hero

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So as the story goes, I was in LA visiting friends in 2006 over Labor Day. I decided to treat myself as well as indulge in a little bittersweet remembrance of times past when I had a per diem and wined and dined on JC Penney’s dime during shoots in the 90s.

I booked a room at the very green and white, posh hotel, the Viceroy, with interiors by Kelly Wearstler, international style icon with dreamy, fresh colors that pop admist neutrals. Very yummy.

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However, the only wrinkle is, well, wrinkles.

Mine.

Those facial lines and crow’s feet that I could not escape seeing when I was there, as on every bedroom wall there was a collage of MIRRORS. Big mirrors inches apart. So everywhere I turned, I was faced with myself. The good, the bad and the ugly. I decided to not make eye contact with myself, but look down at the carpet when walking about the room. I got dizzy doing this. I just gave up after a while. What I saw was what I got.

One night, when I returned from dinner, I walked up and there was a long snaky line out front that was topped off with a doorman and a dreaded velveteen rope. I say “dreaded” because in New York when club hopping, especially during winter, unless you were a super model (not me), a movie star (not me) or on the list (not me), you shivered out in the cold in blustery winds until you either miraculously got picked, tailed in after someone, or gave up and decided to go to an old, broken down, has-been club like Danceteria got to be in the 80s, ashamed and defeated, and sipped on watered down Manhattans.

So I had a visceral reaction when I saw this, a bad flashback flinch in my gut. Luckily, I was a guest! I was not only on the list, I was sleeping there. So I walked right up in front of everyone, flashed my room key and waltzed right in. Liberation, at last.

The party was at the pool, a pool area that glistened in style and populace. The hotties were out tonight! The area was swimming in tanned legs in spindly tall heels upon which gazelles teetered when they hobbled past. I saw guys with hipster stubble and matching baldish, fuzzy heads with sunglasses on at night. Some wore hats, porkpie hats a la John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise.”

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Note: I don’t do hats. I can’t. I look like an egg head and I feel like Marty Feldman – my eyes always wide with fear and awkwardness about the said hat I am trying to pull off. MV5BMTIwMjA5ODc4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDEwOTg2._V1_SX640_SY720_

This night, I wore no hat or any Daisy Dukes or anything remotely revealing. In fact, I wore jean shorts to my knees – JORTS. And mules. I baby-stepped my way down to the pool – I don’t walk too well in backless shoes. Been known to topple over and sprain my ankle on occasion so I wasn’t taking any chances.

I took a seat alone on a little tree stump. It probably wasn’t a stump, but it felt like one it was so uncomfortable.

I was about knee/butt height to all who passed me so it was an odd vantage point. But I liked it. I felt safe. I could sit here, inhale the electricity and dynamic of the night while gazing at the soft, blue waters of the pool. The palm trees were as tall as skyscrapers and added a nice ceiling to the evening.

Then he appeared. A man. Dressed in white linen from head to toe. He was tanned, too. But thankfully, not like George Hamilton.

New York Premiere of "Hollywood Ending"

He asked if he could join me. I smiled and said, “Of course.” As soon as he sat down, he started talking. We exchanged the usual pleasantries like name, where from, what doing here, etc. Turns out this man was a lawyer. On and on we chatted about everything and nothing.

Then somehow, some way, he asked me if wanted to go work out with him tomorrow…at Ryan O’Neal’s gym.

What was I hearing? Seriously? As if I would be seen in a leotard exposing my extra 30-pounds-since- college body to the starry, Ken doll beau of “Love Story?” Getting into certain undignified and highly awkward work out poses, some spread eagle? In my mind, I screamed, “NO WAY!”

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But, as if by it’s own will, out of my mouth came, “Why YES, I’d love to!”

I winded down in my responses, yawned, then excused myself. Told him I needed to get some rest for tomorrow morning. We exchanged vital contact info and off I went.

As I was walking away, I was still reeling from my decision – what my renegade mouth had said. That night, I didn’t sleep very well, obsessing about the morning. But I made one big decision: I would wear a butt wrap with my leotard. You know, a SOFA – Sweater Over Fat Ass. An appropriate camouflage. Oh and I wouldn’t get into any machine that required me to spread my legs like at the gyno (inner thigh machine). Not pretty.

What would I say if I was introduced to him? And what about makeup? Without it, I have no eyebrows. I look very Elizabethan.

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So I decided I’d wear brown eyebrow pencil. I had to.

My mind, on a loop, didn’t calm down until around 2 a.m.

I awoke with a start and popped out of bed waiting for my friend to call. I ordered breakfast. Then I looked out, well, no, I craned my neck to see the ocean view I had been promised. There was big busy street between the hotel and the Pacific…then there was a good chunk of buildings, THEN the ocean. If I looked carefully, I could see a bit of it, but a bit was better than none – coming from landlocked, concrete Dallas. (See my view below.)

Viceroy

I dawdled around a bit more. Still no call. So I called him. Turns out he had stayed up a bit late, or that is what I heard in his gravelly voice. He asked if we could go to Ryan’s gym the NEXT day.

WHAT? I had wrung my hands and thoughts for no good reason? Lost sleep?

I was not happy. But I agreed to his offer to get a burger at a diner. With all the outdoor places to sit in the sun, I was not crazy about doing this, but I decided to just go with it.

The diner was in Brentwood. It felt kind of like an old Hollywood place that Lucy and Ricky might have frequented. He had his burger. I had my soggy, sad iceberg lettuce Chef salad.

He then said, “You know, there is someone I’d like to introduce you to, a friend of mine.”

“Who would that be?” I said.

“Julie Newmar,” he said.

I had heard the name, but couldn’t immediately place her.

“Catwoman, the original Catwoman. I have done some work for her and she’s really a great person,” he said.

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This was finally getting interesting – an Old School super hero! I was psyched.

“Let’s go!” I said.

Julie’s house was very near the diner. So off we sped through the winding streets of Brentwood.

When we arrived he drove up the driveway all the way to the back. The house was California chic and as those houses go, smallish and deceptively expensive.

We walked in through sliding glass doors. There she was. Julie Newmar.

She was standing and feeding a young adult man who was seated at the table. He has some sort of disability – I believe he was Down Syndrome.

She was glowing. Her face, her hair, her smile. All glowing. She was very, very thin – a former dancer.

We said “hello,” and introduced ourselves. She introduced me to her son who she said was deaf. At that moment, I was obviously struck deaf because I said to her son, “Hi John,” at which point, both my friend and Julie in unison said, “HE’S DEAF.”

I shrunk a foot. My mouth had a mind of it’s own yet again.

My friend told me that Julie had John when she was around 50. Since then, he said she has been a selfless, dedicated mother to her boy.

As she stood and talked, she delicately, lovingly lifted spoonful after spoonful of food into her sweet son’s mouth. He had rich, dark hair. Doleful big eyes. I was touched by her composure and unflinching grace. She kind of purred.

She then gave us a tour around her house. It was marvelous. Tasteful design and decoration. She even took us around the outside of the house and told of a feud she had with her neighbor, Jim Belushi, concerning a fence. I am not sure of the details but it was pretty brutal. She talked about it with passion and fervor. I could see a bit of her claws coming out, but they quickly retracted.

She was alive and moving fast – it was hard keeping up with her as she scampered around her property.

I believe at the time she was near 80.

When I got close to her face, it was shining and flawless. My friend said she had not had any work done. No cosmetic surgery. Nothing. I believed him.

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In her heyday, she was an exotically gorgeous dancer, singer and actress – the daughter of a Ziegfield Follies performer. Her career had been magical, kissed by fate at every turn. (There was even the movie “Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” that she did later, but one I never saw nor had any desire to. Really bad title.)

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“Well, now, I don’t ever have to see that film because I have met the real thing!” I thought to myself.

Julie Newmar was as beautiful then when I met her as she was as Catwoman.

But she was leagues more beautiful to me now. Her adoration and care for her son shone brighter than her outer physical God-given features. To me, now she really was a super hero. A woman, a mother, who loved her son unabashedly, a mother who would undoubtedly take a bullet for her son.

The juxtaposition between Julie’s physical perfection and her son’s handicap ripped my heart right out of my chest. Her son’s seemingly compromised life seemed so unfair. But life as we well know is decidedly and often, not fair.

Once she was leaping tall buildings in a single bound. When I met her, she was gently depositing food into her deaf son’s mouth, nourishing, I’m sure, his soul as much as his body.

I am so blessed to have met you, Julie Newmar, especially, now that you are in your role of a lifetime.

You are, indeed, a real live super hero.

 

 

Devolution

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Mutato. This is the word I think of when I think of Devo. The word “mutato” (according to Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer) is a mash up of “mutant” and “potato.” Thus the word, “Mutato”, which is the first part of the moniker for Devo’s commercial music venture, Mutato Muzika, and is the very place and way that I came to work with this epic band. images27OYON2A The year: 1998. The project: the JC Penney Holiday Campaign. The client had selected 15 “hot gifts” (read: cheap/affordable) that ranged from generic, slightly festive teddy bears to mini colorful TVs (yellow, pink, blue – they were cute as buttons) to somewhat okay sweaters in mostly unnatural, scratchy blends. We decided that for the maximum media punch each should be :15 and run back to back. The consumer would get a quick flurry and assault of cool stuff they just couldn’t live without.

Some spots were live action and we shot with Robb Pritts from Backyard Productions. Some required more complicated shoots so we worked with Rhythm and Hues, the company famous for the Coca Cola white polar bears and the film, “Babe: Pig in the City.”

We looked at a few music companies to work with, but decided that Mutato Muzika was The One. I mean, who could pass up the opportunity to work with Devo? Not us. untitled (21) The tracks were always done after the shoots and after the editing. So when we traipsed into Mutato, we pretty much had the final product. Each :15 spot required a different musical approach. If my memory serves me, (and it usually doesn’t so apologies will abound after this), different teams were responsible for each of the spots. My art director, James, and I worked on a number of them.

But the one in particular that stands head and shoulders (sheep’s, that is) was the spot for wooly sweaters. (Sheep don’t have shoulders, but I couldn’t resist.) The concept was simple: the sweaters, each with wintery, earthy tones and crazy patterns, were from sheep who had grown these unique patterns on their fuzzy, woolen bodies –  as if the pattern was in their DNA.

It was as if JC Penney found these mutant (a theme!) sheep, shaved them then turned their little patterned coat into sweaters.

Can’t picture this? See this work of art here.

Nevertheless, it was the late 90s and the whole production took many days involving green screen, layers, lots of post work, and yes, live sheep. The idea was that the sheep would cross in front of the camera. Problem was, the mama sheeps wouldn’t budge. Only when we positioned their babies on the opposite site of the set would they come a’ runnin’. And when they’d come a’ runnin’, they each left a trail of nice poopy pellets behind. The PA’s would run after with a shovel scooping up their smelly trail, thus their moniker (instead of Production Assistants) “Poop Assistants.”

Other spots involved golden retriever puppies pushing the mini TVs, puppeteers a la mimes operating the frolicking teddy bears, and a stunt mouse. Yes, the later had a  “wrangler” (full-sized human) who worked with him in a little “practice set” that was a shoebox. In it was his bed, a sardine can lined with a thin layer of cotton. The mouse’s job was to totter over in front of the camera and rub his nose, as if he was waking up. Cheese was put on his nose so when he was supposed to be rubbing his eyes and “waking up,” he was actually using his little mouse hands to eat the cheese. The proximity of his eyes and mouth were so close that him stuffing his little face could be mistaken for him rubbing the sleepy out of his eyes. Very intricate and nerve wracking, the whole kit and caboodle.

This particular spot was for one of those modern things called “online shopping,” and his cue line was, “…not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Ba dum dum. Big hilarious punch line. Rumor had it that our budget for this entire project was $2.5 million. I think it actually was, as it was the tail end of the Clinton 90s, the good old days.

But baaaaack to the sheep spot.

As was the practice, we’d have a conference call with the music guys/gals before the production, give them ideas about music, the direction, the vibe, etc., then after the shoot, gather to hear the track played up against the rough cut.

For some reason, we didn’t do this with the Devo dudes. We all showed up at their Sunset Boulevard address without a plan, at least, this was the case with the sheep spot. The building was decidedly, mutantly cool. It was a round building from the 50s that used to be a bank – a solid, green orb, that was painted in their signature Mutato green. untitled (20) We all filed into the work room. At the helm was Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark’s brother. He sat in the engineer’s chair at the sound board tapping away, moving buttons, doing all the mysterious things that sound guys do. Above him was the monitor.

James and I sat down on the comfy couch. It was just the three of us, and our producer. So there we sat, enduring the silence and waiting for Bob to spin around from his perch (his chair and board were elevated a tad) and talk to us. After the typical intros, requisite questions and discussion of where we had lunched, we started discussing music for the spots. The wooly sweater commercial came up and unlike the others prior, we were kinda stuck. We tossed around a couple of ideas, then decided to look at the spot one more time in hope that it would jog loose a crumb of something.

Then, it happened.

Deep from the recesses of my childhood came a melody from my soul, one that I could not not share…and just like Old Faithful erupting at Yellowstone, I, too, erupted with the song, singing at the tippy top of my lungs:

“Have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that…go THIS way and THAT way, go THIS way and THAT way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and THAT.”

The look of shock on everyone’s face was as if I had just stood up, pulled up my shirt and revealed my bare breasts. Luckily, at that very point, in walked my salvation: Mark Mothersbaugh. The head guy. The one with taste. The one Who Knew that I had hit upon something. He asked me to sing it again…and again, I sang.

I could then see the uncomfortable looks on my colleague’s faces transitioning to that of delight, their heads bobbing “yes” to one another. (I’m so glad no one high-fived.) Mark, Bob and our team continued to discuss what instruments and then before we knew it, Mark brought out his accordion. As if he were atop a mountain replete in Tyrolean splendor (I even imagined him in lederhosen), he played the tune again – sans my lyrics or singing. The accordion breathed, expanded and contracted mightily – it was alive! We all watched in amazement as Mark cranked out this simple, yet highly jaunty tune on his giant squeeze box. imagesXY5QHJM2 Beaming, we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. But it wasn’t over. As I was walking out the door to go to the ladies room, I sensed a presence behind me. It was Mark.

As I walked down the circular hallway that wrapped itself around the building, I felt Mark’s hand clasp mine.

And then… …we started skipping together, hand-in-hand, down the hallway, laughing and giggling about the childhood song I had birthed from my memory and heaved out with my lungs. “Skip, skip, skip to my loo, my darling,” is the refrain we sang. We skipped nearly all the way around the building…and then our hands drifted apart and we laughingly separated.

Cut to the next day.

We had sent the tracks to the agency to get approval before we did any more work, any polishing. So we gathered once more in the room with Bob and Mark. We cued up the tracks and played several of them on the speaker phone so our Dallas crew could hear them. The response for all of them was resoundingly enthusiastic, especially the sheep spot. But one track just wasn’t doing it for the folks.

When Mark heard the lack of love for one track, I could tell he was rattled. After we hung up the phone, Mark said with a sullen, sad face, “I’ve got to stop hurting people. I’ve got to get back in therapy.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Mark actually cared what his clients thoughts, so much so that he felt personally responsible for their reaction! And his sharing of his need to go back into therapy, the transparency he displayed… it just broke my heart.

In my ten-year stint working with a large number of musicians in commercial houses, NEVER have I thought any of the people cared – to this extent. I could be wrong about my assessment. I hope I am. Nor during this decade had I ever met someone so willing to be vulnerable. Indeed, he was an artist of the highest caliber. A fine, dear man.

The overriding feeling I walked away with was that Mark, superstar that he was, didn’t put himself “above” others. He didn’t think himself a God like so many rock stars do. Despite what the band’s name represented, which was the DEvolution of society, Mark had actually done the opposite: he had Evolved from the disposition that some rock stars possess – egos the size of Alaska.

Mark’s demeanor, his soul, was so refreshing and startling…just so cool. The other very cool thing about working with them is that we all walked away with Mutato Muzika knee socks with each word stacked vertically on each sock so that you would read “Mutato” on one side and “Muzika” on the other. AND…we snagged some “handsome man” hats!  (See pic below.) What a kick they were. devo-new-traditionalist-hair-shot These days, when I hear “Whip It” or any other Devo song, I am reminded of Mark, his lack of egoism and his kindness. And…in honor of that fanciful day with him, when I hear a song, I without fail seem to always get just a little more bounce, a little more skip in my step. Imagine that.

Cranston Christmas

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When you work on ads for a retail company, your seasons are always all mixed up. Like crazy mixed up. During the Spring we were writing ads for Fall. During the Summer we were creating campaigns for Christmas. Everywhere,  everything was freakin’ Christmas – fluffy green plastic trees decked with festive shiny balls, frosty snowflakes on the walls, fleecy white tree skirts hugging the tree bases, red and green bows on large boxes that adorned the room – even some scary elves. These sinister miniatures with pointy hats were positioned in nooks in store shelving we had created, next to the classically unsightly patterned sweaters – patterns that were akin to a tornado or at the very least, pizza upchuck.

We endured all of this prep and production in record heat. Some days got up to 108. So in Cali where we did all of our work, it wasn’t just hot. It was Africa hot. I recall one shoot that was especially insufferable. We were in the desert handling sweaters and courdoroy jumpers for a Back-to-School sale. We got so sweaty and haggared that we looked like we had all been out changing a flat tire on our scouting van.

Finally, we decided that we’d had enough of near heat strokes, sweaty pits and smeared mascara running down our (female) collective cheeks. We decided to shoot in the store. This meant that we would have to shoot inside an actual JC Penney store – but after business hours. So we’d start shooting at 9 p.m. and break at dawn.

Prior to our LA shoot, during the “concepting” phase at the agency, we usually all got together to write the script in a cluster – and we all had positions. There was Mr. Beginning. Mr. Middle and Mr. Ending. (This was the classic structure of a :30 spot.) I didn’t care if I was called a mister. In this group, being a “mister” was an honor.

As was per usual, we all gathered in one of our very brown, dull conference rooms, cranked out a script quickly then spent even more time trying to figure out where we’d go for lunch.

We then took it to the client, presented it, and bing, bang boom it was approved.

We shot all of our spots in LA. In fact, we had to go to LA, as our big boss (head honcho guy) saw something that we had shot locally, was horrified because the film was so sub-par, and demanded that we not do this again. We didn’t.

So off we jetted to Hollywood to prep.

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We hired a very hip, very glittery Hollywoody couple, who were married, and who had names that went well together, kind of like Sam and Libby, but not Sam and Libby. I think it was like they had one name that was a mash up of their names like Nancy Michael. Something that rolled off the tongue and a name I’m sure our client (God love him) could drop when he was picking up girls at Champs.

The Man Director had a shock of black curly hair and a goatee, way before it was The Thing to Grow. The Woman Director was slim, brunette and sexy. She was interesting. Not a Barbie Doll.

A few days before the shoot in LA we usually did our casting. We needed someone funny. We would have loved to get a famous comedian. At the time, Seinfeld was IT. THE guy to hire. Could we get Jerry Seinfeld? Uh no. I don’t think any of us really thought Jerry Seinfeld would hawk any JC Penny sansabelt slacks. But we could dream.

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What about Carrot Top, someone asked?

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No. Too frightening. We would get slammed with customer letters for sure. Plus, my art director had a fear of red-heads, you know, ginger people. They were from the devil.

And then we hit upon an idea: if we can’t get Jerry Seinfeld, what about someone who was ON Seinfeld?

Enter Bryan Cranston, Elaine’s re-gifting dentist boyfriend.

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We had hit the jackpot.

The day of the shoot arrived and for some reason, I was the only writer on the set along with my brilliant boss.

There I was, all self-important and smiling about the script. All our witticisms, turns of phrases, and so on that we had birthed.

In walked Bryan. He was handsome. Cute handsome. Cute boyish handsome with dimples that grabbed my heart and yanked it out of my chest.

I think he even sparkled.

He examined the script, read it to himself, musing (I thought) over our clever monologue he was to deliver.

In the spot, we had a series of things that Bryan was to “interact” with as he made his way through the store ostensibly Christmas shopping: old man jeans, jewelry (teeny tiny chip diamond stuff), perfume, stuffed animals puppety things called Pillow Pets, and finally, roller luggage.

See this work of art here.

For the last scene, he had to deliver a line that went, “I got in, I got out. Nobody got hurt.”

Bryan gave us oodles of takes. All good, all different…but they just weren’t what I had in MY mind.

I stood back and let the directors do their work ….but not without yammering in Glenn’s ear (my boss, best one ever) about this one last take. He who was accustomed to (God bless him) putting up with my crapola calmly told me to hang tight, that “we’d get it.” But I could see he was irritated.

I finally walked up to the directors and gave them a line reading.

“You know, it needs to be more…more…off-handed…casual…no, I mean, it needs to be more…proud…” On I went. What I wanted to say was that it needed to sound like ME. But how would I tell them this?

The Woman of the Man-Woman team gave him the line reading…and my skin started to crawl. It was so NOT the way I had said it. It needed to be FUNNY.

She was not funny.

But since they were being paid thousands each for their day rate, I clinched my hands and smiled a Charlie Brown smile.

So again, Bryan delivered the line, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.”

By this time, I wanted to hurt someone.

The Man of the Man-Woman team looked at me. He turned from his director’s chair and gave me a thumbs up, as in, “Do we have it?”

I inched closer to the directors’ chairs and asked that he try it again.

I could see that Bryan was growing weary. So again, nice guy that he was, he did it again.

Still…it was not exactly what I had in mind.

I got a look from the frustrated directors and heard, “Lisa, why don’t you give him a line reading?”

I was already overstepping my bounds and awkwardly lodged between their two spindly-legged canvas chairs. So when I heard this, I made a beeline for Bryan, jostling them each a bit when I busted through with my child-bearing hips.

Trying to be coy and flirty, tense as I was because the clock was ticking (and I could see the crew giving me a lot of rolled eyes and frowny faces), I gave him the line reading.

I inched close to his face and said, over articulating, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.” He looked at me. I looked at him. We connected.

Then the heavens parted.

He did the line. It was perfect.

And prince of a guy that he was, he kept on repeating the line a few more times just the way I liked it…just for grins.

The directors called “cut” and it was a wrap. I had gotten my way-too-important line reading.

The truth is that he made each scenario in our TV spot LEAGUES funnier than it had originally been scripted, just by being himself.

After the shoot, he and I got a Polaroid of us together. I cherish it, as it shows my younger, thinner self and him with more hair.

Here it is:

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Cut to many years later.

I knew Bryan had landed the dad role in “Malcolm in the Middle,” which tickled me.

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But when he became Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” I was elated.

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Unlike his comedic role on Seinfeld and in our TV spot, what emerged in Walter was this genius actor who revealed his true talents to the world. I hung on every episode and stayed up until the wee hours watching, unable to tear myself away from each gripping, cliff-hanging story.

I was an addict.

These days, his career has exploded and he has arrived. I feel really lucky to have worked with him.

Looking back, of course, I am embarrassed of my hubris – me, the average Jane copywriter giving the lauded Bryan Cranston a line reading. When I think back on his humility, good humor and humoring of me being so self-important, I just have to smile.

Every time I see him on TV, I experience a fondness for him and gratitude for his giving me this ridiculous memory of myself during his rise to the top.

And I must admit, to twist his iconic phrase, I am Breaking Happy each and every time.

 




Crowe’s Feet

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In 1999, I was in LA on a job. I was producing a radio spot I had written for JC Penney. At the time, my mother was in the Russell Crowe fan club. She and her friends, both in the Crowe’s Nest and the Silver Crowes, were agog about all things Russell: his latest movie, where he was filming, who he was dating (sleeping with), where he was last spotted, who he was with and I’m sure, what he had for breakfast and if it gave him gas.

She and I had travelled to Austin a number of times to see his band, TOFOG, perform. TOFOG is an acronym (sort of) for a film term: Twenty Odd Foot of Grunts. You heard me. Grunts. As opposed to laughs, or snorts, or farts.

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During my trip to LA, she suggested I contact some LA fans as there was a party where TOFOG was playing they were going to that I must attend. It was a wrap party for the movie, “Mystery, Alaska,” starring Russell and Judith Ivey. It was at the Viper Room, the place where River Phoenix tragically died.

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I didn’t know any of my mom’s friends. They were all sizes, shapes and ages. Gray hair retiree. Young tall blonde dentist/actress. Another who had tattoos up and down each arm. Totally sleeved out and wore a pair of overalls and t-shirt to display her body artwork and of course, endured pain. One woman in particular was an email pal of Russell’s.  I don’t have any idea of how this was possible. It remains a mystery to this day.

So prior to the fete, we decided to meet for dinner then go to the Viper Room, where we could be on The List.

It was not dark yet, perhaps around 6 p.m. We arrived, the motley crew that we were. In front of the door was an enormous, round black man the size of a bus. He wore a black suit, white shirt and shades. He did not smile.

Up walked one of us, the tall blonde dentist/actress. She had pretty white teeth and was herself lovely, so we thought she was our best candidate to approach this formidable wall of a man.

They exchanged pleasantries and then, the velvet rope was lifted and we were in.

Inside the club looked like a 40s nightclub. All around the room were white leather booths. Atop some of these sat white, crisp name cards that read “Reserved.” There were a few tables in the middle and on one wall, the stage, where TOFOG would play.

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En masse, we moved towards the bar, of course, to get our adult beverages. I got a house chardonnay. The others indulged in stronger fare: vodka, tequila, and whiskey. The lights were dim and moody, except for the wall of bright white light behind the liquor bottles that were on shelves behind the bar.

The crowd was thin. Guys with hipster dark hair, goatees, soul patches, in worn sexy jeans.  There were a few older guys with gray beards who looked like they might be electricians, gaffers, etc. There were some beautiful young women in revealing, hipster clothes who milled around who gave lots of hugs to everyone – air kisses, too.

We had trouble finding a table, as they were all reserved so we decided to assume a position at the back of the room.

Then it happened.

The buzz. The whispering. The gasps.

Russell Crowe was in the house.

With lots of craining of necks and subtle (and not-so-subtle), secret pointing we located him.

His hair was wild and wooly. He wore a navy blue shirt and jeans. Nothing special.

It was at this point that I felt it. The urge to go up and meet him. My mother had been so nuts about him. Every conversation ended up being about Russell. As I said, “All roads lead to Russell with mom these days.”

I felt I had an obligation.

I threw back a big gulp of the terribly average chardonnay. And made my approach.

Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “Hi, are you Russell”? Looking back, I am awed at my talent for stating the obvious.

“What’s your name?”, he said.

I told him my name.

“My mother is huge fan so I just had to come over and meet you and shake your hand.”

His eyes were blue, stained glass windows, a kaleidoscope of sky blue and deep azure. His Aussie accent was thick, as was his five o’clock shadow.

“You tell your mum hello for me,” he said.

Then all of sudden, I got short of breath and was stricken with panic. The awkward silence was reigning down inside of me. We were face to face, locked in a gaze that was heavy with interest from my side and perceived (mine) slight interest from his side. At that point, I just slid my hand out of his manly grasp and stepped back. He smiled. I smiled. That was it.

For now.

I ran back, breathless, atwitter, exhilarated. I was a mini-celebrity within my group! Then the questions came: what were his eyes like? How did his skin feel? How close were you to his face? And so on.

TOFOG was slated to play in about a half hour so we refueled with a variety of spirits: gin, vodka, whiskey. And of course, my mediocre house chardonnay – sadly, un-buttery.

The place filled up pretty quickly around show time. We craned our necks to see Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger at those hallowed reserved tables. I did get a glimpse of the shine atop Danny’s cue ball, bald head.

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Kim was nowhere to be seen.

Then the lights dimmed…and the crowd cheered.

Russell and band were about to hit the stage.

The velvet curtains opened, parting like the Red Sea, and the drums struck and guitars wailed.

All eyes were on Russell.

Now, our valiant group had managed to work out way through the crowd to be on the front row. I was just left of the microphone and pressed up against the stage. My wine glass sat atop the very edge.

They started their set with an all-time favorite, one with jaunty, jangly guitars and lyrics about crossing a river. Russell then sang about heartbreak, lost love – each with a pained look, expressed through his eyebrows and furrowed forehead a la James Dean.

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I had imbibed a few more chardonnays so I was feeling a bit daring, even more so than I had been when I met Russell.

I was eye-level with the stage…and Russell’s feet…and Russell’s feet were bare. I could see the hair on his toes.

They were so tempting! They looked so cute, like little pink (albeit hairy) shrimps right in a row!

Then, as if I was possessed with some foreign spirit, all reason escaping me, I reached out and grabbed his foot.

Without flinching he yanked his foot from my grasp, and launched into another song.

Then, he looked at me. He smiled and wait for it…he winked at me.

I then let out a hideously “yahoo/squeal” like a wildebeest.

I had been validated. I existed. I was A-Okay.

Why was this so important? Why did I need a celebrity to validate my existence?

My take on this: we hold up celebrities in our society as modern day Gods from Greek society who possess immortality and/or super powers.

We don’t want to be invisible. We want to matter. We want to be loved.

If we are approved of by this lot, then somehow we, too, become elevated from the masses.

And then, for a brief moment, we shine.

When the concert was over (and after two encores), the band escaped out a side door. Our group rushed as well as we could through the cloggy crowd after them to beg for autographs. One even went out the front and around to the side to see if she could see The Man, or better still, snag a band member. They were more accessible than Mr. Crowe and many of my group actually knew them, emailed then, had phone calls with them.

But alas, they had vanished.

It had been rumored that they were staying at the Bel-age (nicknamed the “Gar-baahge” by my former ad world colleagues) so we got the bright idea to go in search of them at the hotel.

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We snuck in and then took to the stairwells, yelling their names, opening doors on each floor to see if any heads popped out of any doors. I’m surprised we weren’t arrested.

This continued for a while until we gave up. No such luck. It was time to go back to our hotel.

That was over a decade ago. Since then, Russell has won an Oscar, had two kids and gotten a divorce. And until his recent starring role in “Noah,” (a far cry from the young, strapping gladiator years earlier), he has seemingly slipped from Hollywood’s radar.

How quickly one can disappear, like a vapor, from the limelight. How fickle the studios can be.

I wonder if Russell ever felt invisible during those days of non-screen time. Perhaps.

The last pic I saw of Russell reflected an older, greyer man. The man whose foot I grabbed, now had, yes, crow’s feet.

Time can be cruel to the beautiful.

Happily, though, my memory of meeting him is not tarnished. Both of us, he and I, will always be young, less wrinkled and vibrant. No sagging, high LDL, or dark circles.

I can safely say this man, Mr. Russell Crowe, and this memory of meeting him that star-filled night will always bring me to my feet.