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.
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.
“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.
“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.)
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?
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.
Yes, he was royalty. He had worked with George Harrison’s HandMade Films as well as many other prominent Brit Pop stars.
We stayed in Chelsea at this quaint, oh-so-British place called the Sydney House.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.