|Jan/Feb 2009 Spotlight|
Like everyone, I have certain moments that, for one reason or another, stand out like little beacons along life's highway. There are the usual growing pain conflicts, torments of young love and the like. There are the tragedies of loss. Then, there are those rare bits of bliss that float gently to the top of our heap of collective experience. Like this one...
New York City, September, 1984
I was almost a year out of Emerson College, Boston, and I'd finally landed my first job at an ad agency in New York City, working as a copywriter (my first 20 years of work were spent writing/directing commercials, and this is where I started).
The agency also had a production company arm, and this production arm was hired to produce the very first MTV Music Video Awards Show at Radio City Music Hall. Luckily, a few of us in the creative department were brought on to help get things done, and I was fortunate enough to land one of the more (I thought) interesting assignments: assisting one of the show's so-hosts, the actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd. To illustrate how much times have changed, the other host was Bette Midler.
For a couple of weeks, I had to shadow Dan, write some little comedic bits, and stand at the ready as he prepped for the show—all in all a great time because he could not have been any nicer, funnier, or down to earth. He was good buddies with the Hell's Angels, who were always there to do everything, from fetching him smokes to running errands for his (gorgeous) wife, the actress Donna Dixon. This was sort of a bizarre set up, but those guys were very cool to everyone around them. "Ack," as a few people called him, had also just co-opened the Hard Rock Cafe, so he was also busy with that.
As the date got closer, rehearsals started, the show got booked, and it was all looking good.
Madonna was to perform an as yet unreleased "Like a Virgin" (which became a controversial, sexually charged performance—the clip of her writhing still gets played, and for a moment you can see me and Dan Aykroyd by the side of the stage where we watched all the performances together).
Also performing were ZZ Top, Rod Stewart, Huey Lewis, David Bowie, Tina Turner—a solid show for the time—plus, the attendee's list was spectacular. Rock's royalty, for the most part, would all be sitting in Radio City that night.
Throughout show week, celebrities and rock stars came and went to visit Dan, and it was always just a relaxing hang—and fun! BUT... not an ounce of booze or anything illicit was ever present. Aykroyd, as I understood it, had recently stopped drinking, and outside of chain-smoking cigarettes, he did not seem to have any other vices. Then one day he said to me, "Look, when Woody drops by, he'll turn this place upside down for a drink. Don't let him bring anything in. I don't want anything in the dressing room." He was referring to Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, who would be presenting an award with his old band mate, Rod Stewart.
The day of dress rehearsal, sure enough, there he was, Woody, at the dressing room door with his wife, Jo.
Now, I'm a Rolling Stones devotee of a fairly serious order, have been since abut the age of eleven, so I was decidedly star-struck watching Woody look for a drink in the crowded room. It was sort of funny and intriguing, and I really wanted to meet him.
The well-known film director, John Landis, whom I'd gotten to know during the week, saw me straining my neck to watch Woody, and he put two and two together and introduced us. He said, "Chris is working with Danny!" Woody pulled me aside, acknowledging nothing Landis said, and whispered, "Mate, where the hell can I get a drink in this building? There's no bar downstairs, no hospitality set up, nothing, and I'd like a bloody drink!"
(MTV was running a very tight corporate show—no riff raff—no open bar.)
Torn between loyalty to my client and the possibility of being able to help a legend procure his liquid desire, I scanned the room. Mr. Aykroyd was in a serious chat with the singer Ray Parker Jr. about his lawsuit with Huey Lewis over the song "Ghostbusters," which sounded suspiciously like the Huey Lewis hit, "I Want a New Drug." (Huey Lewis later reached a settlement out of court—interestingly, both songs were played at the awards by the respective artists.)
"Ack" was noticing nothing, so I slipped away.
Earlier, I'd seen someone in Bette Midler's outer dressing room filling a cooler across the hall for Bette and her guests. Evidently, no such "Aykroyd rules" applied over there. So I told Ronnie about the stash in the cooler. He began giggling like a kid (looking back, I think he was probably feeling the effects of something stronger than booze), and he whispered, "C'mon mate," sneaking out the door with me in tow.
In the hall, we got on our knees at his command and crept into Bette's "first" room—sort of a waiting area with flowers and stuff. Looking back, I've wondered why we didn't we just go ask her for a drink. Then again, the espionage approach felt appropriate.
So... I crawled in on all fours. I could hear Bette Midler's voice in the next room—much cursing followed by bursts of laughter—as I grabbed a short bottle of Southern Comfort out of the cooler. Bottle in hand, I crawled back to Woody in the cramped hallway. He was smoking a cigarette and cracking up as I tried to shush him. I'd seen Bette get a bit tense during the week, and the last thing I wanted to do was cause a scene that would inspire more friction—and maybe cost me my job, too.
We had the booze, and it was time for a drink—but obviously not in the Aykroyd dressing room.
Then I heard another British voice in the hall, another in the seemingly endless parade of well-wishers on his way to see Dan Aykroyd.
"Well bloody 'ell, wot in God's name is this?" the raspy voice said.
It was Rod Stewart, who had just finished sound checking the song "Infatuation" down in the Hall. In fact, he was still holding a soccer ball, one of many he'd kick into to the crowd during the song the next night when the show went up.
The two exchanged hellos—seemed like they hadn't seen each other in awhile—and I was numb. Could this really be happening?
Woody said to Rod, "C'mon, mate, me and uh, er, uh... me and my mate here, uh, er, uhm...
"Bloody right! Chris, here, we're having ourselves a quick one, so come on."
A few seconds later, the three of us were sitting in a cramped utility closet among mops and buckets, passing a bottle. Like high school, but with iconic British rock stars.
For the most part, I simply listened and tried not to spoil any of the loose, adolescent energy in the room...
Rod: You seen Billy Idol?
Woody: 'E's good! I mean, you know, I've 'eard he's good. Never 'eard him meself actually.
Rod: Yeah, you see Prince down there?
Woody: With Quincy Jones? In purple?
Woody: 'E's good! I mean, you know, I've 'eard he's good. Never 'eard him meself actually. But 'e's good, that Prince.
Rod: Saw Daryl Hall?
Woody: 'E the one with Oates then?
Like some stilted Monty Python sketch gone awry, this went on for maybe ten minutes, but it felt gloriously drawn out. I was in heaven.
In the near dark, with each pull of Woody's cigarette, I saw those two faces in the glow. I thought of all the album covers, the photos, the shows—and here they were, huddled up in the dark and in the flesh with a 22-year old copywriter.
I bummed a smoke from Woody just to produce more light so I could see them in the orange shadows. Their rooster hairdos were silhouetted against a backdrop of paper towel rolls and stacked pails of industrial cleaner.
They talked, and I was more or less invisible. They were happy to be presenting an award together the next night. Wood complained that he had nobody to play with, but that he wanted to do something. Stewart said, "My guys aren't really playing, they're pretending to, not plugged in, or you'd have been welcome."
We heard the din of the party in Dan's room, and Rod Stewart finally said, "We'd better make an appearance in there—he's expecting me."
The booze had created a lovely, warm buzz in the closet, and I could have stayed in there forever. After all, how soon until they'd both feel like croaking out some old blues numbers? We could use the buckets as drums, play as a trio, but then... Stewart opened the door, light spilled in, and we, or I, was back on Earth. A cloud of cigarette smoke spill out into the hallway with us, conspicuous beyond belief, like a Cheech and Chong movie. I also noticed I was taller than both of them. How could that be?
We went into the dressing room a bit sheepishly, and Aykroyd looked suspicious, but he was so happy to see Rod Stewart that all seemed okay. Woody was back talking to his wife, Rod was talking to everyone else, and I figured the moment was over.
A little while later, though, Woody was at the window—the second floor perch looking down on west 51st Street—causing a commotion. Many kids had been camping out to stargaze during rehearsals. They had spotted him, and now they were freaking out. Wood was mugging, waving, blowing kisses. Stewart got wind of it and headed toward the window, but then he said to Woody, "Bring your mate over... our drinking buddy, Chris."
Rod Stewart remembered my name! Woody, the scarecrow caricature of a rock star, of the Rolling Stones, motioned, all excitedly, "Come over, mate!" (I don't think he ever really did get my name.)
They forced me in between them, draped their arms about me, and Woody says, "Isn't this nice, mate? Look down there. This is what it's like!"
On the street, tons of people were screaming and waving at them. Stewart whispered to me, sort of sotto voce in my ear, "Ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, look how they get. But isn't it fun to see it from this angle? Enjoy this, mate—now you can say you know how it feels."
And yes, it was insane, and glorious, and unforgettable.
The party was breaking up behind us, and again, another magic moment crashed to an all-too-soon coda. Rod Stewart actually seemed really together, almost businesslike to Woody's boyishness. He shook my hand before leaving and said in an official way, "Have a good show tomorrow, mate."
The next night during the show, before Woody presented his award, I fixed his woefully crooked collar (he was completely smashed), and then I appeared in a Milk Bones commercial parody sketch with Dan Aykroyd. Trying to find Ack's mark three floors beneath Radio City Music Hall so he could ride the elevator up to do his opening with Bette was tense and amazing. "Twenty seconds to air! Is Dan on his mark?" We bumped into Rod Stewart and his band looking for their elevator in the dark. It was like a scene from The Poseidon Adventure meets Spinal Tap, all of us wandering the bowels of Radio City as the show was about to kick off.
I did a hundred amazing things that night, but nothing—nothing came close to the bottle-swiping, closet-drinking, window-posing escapades the day before with my two "mates."
At the after party (held at the Hard Rock Cafe of course), Mr. Aykroyd got me a nice table for some friends from work. The Hell's Angels were there to make sure we had what we needed. I sat and told this story like a schoolgirl to some disbelieving co-workers. As if on cue, Rod Stewart passed by the table and yelled good naturedly, "Don't believe a bloody word!"
I left the Hard Rock Cafe on cloud nine. The experiences of the evening were magical, plus, I'd sort of fallen for a girl working on the show, and things were looking good on that front. Yes, at this point, I was on a high I had not really ever felt in life.
Goodbyes in front of the Hard Rock featured huge hugs from Aykroyd and his wife. I got to kiss Tina Turner—heady stuff.
I got in my car to drive back to Westchester County at about 4 a.m. It was ethereal—I was hearing little birds chirp in my head—and I had the first new York Doll's dolls tape cranked up on this clear, cold, fall night. I felt invincible.
I headed over to the Westside Highway to go north. Near 12th avenue, there was chaos on the street. Cops were in the middle of busting a bunch of hookers (who hung out there every night to hook the businessman heading home to New Jersey and Westchester).
The NYPD Blues were fanning out, and ladies of the night in huge stiletto heels were attempting to escape, scattering like clumsy birds. It was like those nature videos where the lions stalk and then easily overtake the gazelles and yaks. The girls had no chance.
One of the women, a sort of pretty blonde maybe in her mid 20s with a bunch of miles on her, got stuck in my headlights and looked at me like "HELP." On a spur of the moment, I opened the door, yelled, "Get in!" and then we were off. I gunned it hard up the avenue. I figured, I'm invincible tonight, I'll spread the magic around, I'll save this damsel who deserves better. Hey, I had seen Taxi Driver!
As I sped to hit the sequence of green lights, she was focused on looking out the back window at her past. Hitting every pothole on the Westside, I started making a pious speech (as I do sometimes) about how she's better than this and you know, it's never too late for a fresh start and hey, we all make mistakes and uh, this world is hard but look, a jerk like me was just recently in a closet with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood so like, I know what bright horizons are out there and anything's possible—
She finally turned toward me, staring at the steering wheel, a deep concern in her eyes. She said, "Are you escaped from a mental hospital?"
She was looking at the bracelet I had on. It identified me as full access at the show, but she was right, it did look like a hospital ID. That, coupled with my plaintive speech about life's eternal promise, must have been too much for her.
She started to panic and said, with more than a bit of fear, "Let me out of here!"
I pulled over, saying, "No, no, no really, I just worked the MTV awards. I ate a milk bone with Dan Aykroyd on TV. Me and Madonna are sort of pals now, and I'm a gentleman, so let me get your door and like—"
But by now she was convinced I was nuts, maybe even a Son of Sam, and my little mission of mercy had gone awry. Somewhere near Riverside Drive, she dashed out of my car, SLAMMING the door as hard as I'd ever felt, and bolted into the night.
I sat there—the New York Dolls still droning on only now not sounding so exhilarating. My night had done a 180 the likes of which I haven't replicated since.