Letterman: Moths To The Flame
Last week, Stephie spotted me walking toward her coming up the street from the market. She said:
"You might want to check your e-mail; there's a message from Dan Kennedy (our manager, pictured below in baseball cap with Letterman catering donut), it looks like we're doing Letterman after all."
Oh balls, this kind of sucks.
Wait a minute. What? What am I bitching about?
I mean, it's not that I'm not happy about the news, but shit, there's so much crap to attend to. And I'm not even caught up on Season 4 of the Wire.
I've never felt more alone. Maybe it's true what they say, it is lonely at the top. Maybe Randy Newman said that. Whatever, he's certainly right. Edmund Hillary dies the same week I go on Letterman. Hell yeah it's lonely at the top.
Heck, it's all I can do to fasten these new license plates on the van and install the battery I bought for Stephie's car so we don't have to jump it every morning.
Months ago we were in the mix for the show but I'd put all that Letterman nonsense out of my mind.
I don't need this kind of excitement right now.
On the other hand, Hey Ho Let's Go! I may not be happy, but I know when I'm lucky.
People are strange. Indeed. Out on the campaign trail, everyone's jockeying for position. Someone is going to inherit a fucking mess. And they're killing themselves for the chance to sweet-talk the executor.
As for me, walking home I'm thinking I'd almost be happy to just tool around the neighborhood and torch a few of these Christmas trees that cover the sidewalks around the Castro.
Yeah: get one of those clicker lighters and light `em one at a time.
That might be all the excitement I need.
Seems everyone's got their on version of what it means to have a good time.
Either way, we're on. We had been booked weeks before the writer's strike. As I understood it, we weren't booked solid, but "penciled in". Better pencil than invisible ink, am I right klippy?
When the writer's strike came around, we figured that even if the strike was resolved sooner rather than later, we'd still be in the queue behind the guest bookings ahead of us looking to reschedule. Alicia Keyes and the like weren't likely to step aside for us. Well, sure, they probably were, but we're deeply dedicated to helping the struggling artiste. It's not entirely lonely here on the top.
AIR TRANSPORT BECOMES INVOLVED
ANYWAY, crap to attend to. It's off to work I go. I'll need a new guitar tuner. Mine cuts out half the time. There're guitar amps and drums to borrow or rent. And if we do Doubter Out of Jesus (as I'm proposing), we'll need the horn section. Maybe even tubular bells. I'll have to get on that. Who'll write the charts? Who do I talk to? Paul . Shaffer? I don't have a fucking clue about how to talk to Paul Shaffer.
Brad Jones will know. YES! Brad!
I decide to call Brad.
Crap to attend to.
I'm standing in line soaking up the ambience—Toyota Dealership-like beauty of the Guitar Center, waiting to buy said tuner when my cell phone rings. I picked it up and a certain singer songwriter says, "Wow, dude, I heard. Letterman, how'd you get that?"
"I don't know. Guess I just bullshitted my way in there. I'm as surprised as anyone. I'm just a charmed son of a bitch."
Not sure why, but I always answer my cell phone.
Oftimes, I'll call Alejandro and his phone will say: "Sorry this phone is unable to take any more messages". But me? I can go on an 8 week tour of the topless bars and bowling alleys of Tibet, come home and still my phone has plenty of room for messages? I bathe and brush my teeth and everything. So what the heck's with me? Guess I could call Al and as him, but his line's probably busy.
Are we having fun yet? Will we ever?
Crap to attend to.
First call I make is Andy Taub. Why Taubers? Well, in the immortal words of Anne and Nancy Wilson, "Try to understand, TRY to understand, try, try, try to understand, he's a MAGIC MAN."
Calm down. Relax. Andy can do it, Andy can do it, Andy can do it.
If there's a Farfisa organ, or a blue sparkle Kustom tuck and roll PA gathering dust, hiding in some basement in any of the five boroughs, he'll find it and secure it.
To wit: Andy charmed the latter out of the shop owner in Manhattan where he spotted it in the window, how, I'll never know. But I'm blessed: the Tauber's my man.
As for the Mission Express: We will need to rehearse, so we do.
Down at "the Office" we run through the song a couple times, I suggest that the vocal chant at the end ("You could make a, you could make a... " etc.) break into a round inspired by listening to the version of Down In the Hole from the fourth season of The Wire, sung by those Baltimore school kids, endlessly. Stephie sounds great and James picks up the hole she left behind.
Todd's lower back is ailing him, but he keeps that brave face. He's one of two or three drummers on earth who doesn't drool, and I'm lucky enough to have him and Kevin slinging the coal to the locomotive. I start wondering to myself where I might get a syringe of steroids to shoot into his lower back before the show. I mean, Todd's too old to play big league ball, right?, so what would it hurt?
Crap to take care of.
We're allowed 3:30 time for our slot. Non fucking negotiable. We time the song once at get 4 minutes plus; we time it again and get 3:47 or so, finally, like Jacob, we wrestle the Angel into 3:37 and I'm quite satisfied.
Todd points out that if you want the Letterman hand shake at the end of the performance, better shave off a few more seconds. Maybe we should pick up the tempo. Compress the song a little.
We try again a little faster, time it, closer, but it's all luck really....
The idea is to not suck. Anything else is gravy. Kelly Willis taught me that. But really, with these guys and gal behind me? How can I fail?
Fact is, like the man said: all a painter needs is a brush, a poet needs a pen, but a singer/songwriter needs an army. And I'm blessed (blessed? What a gay word) to have Stephanie Finch, Kevin White, Todd Roper and James Deprado deep in the shit with me on the battlefield.
Eventually, we're standing in the cold rehearsal studio with our arms at our sides holding our instruments in silence when James says, "I might need to buy some new jeans..."
I say, "Don't worry, after this rehearsal we're going to take a little field trip. I have an idea"
An hour later, we're a couple blocks away, on the fifth floor of Bloomingdales and James is sporting some $900.00 worth of designer duds.
Bloomingdales is happy to give me a Bloomingdales card and I top it off with a few more items for the fellows.
I make it clear to leave the tags on: Dudes, we're RETURNING all this shit. Who pays $250.00 for a sweater vest? Are you insane?
The next afternoon we fly out to JFK.
NOT IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST, BUT GETTING CHEWED
We arrive zero dark thirty, drive around Brooklyn completely lost trying to find Andy's studio to pick up the Farfisa organ he scored for Stephie.
Eventually, keyboard in tow, we check into the hotel at like 2 AM, east of the Mississippi.
We need to be loaded into the Letterman show by 8 AM.
I'm not sure I'm feeling so hot. There's an echoing cavern in my head.
I wake up at 3:30 AM. My throat is ON FIRE.
Of course I got sick. Why wouldn't I? I'm a charmed son of a bitch after all. I'm fucking blessed.
7:45 AM (day of show). It's hard to prepare yourself for how cold it is in the studio. Say, 47 Fahrenheit or so. But you adjust. As long as you wear a long coat, a scarf and a hat.
Dan and I pose for Shea's camera around the catering with doughnuts.
A truck pulls up and delivers the Tubular Bells. Good sign; somebody got my memo.
Five union guys standing around, trying to figure out where to put this monstrous THING make a real sight. Taking turns holding the mallet. Dumbfounded. I overhear them say, "How do you mike Tubular Bells anyway? Should it be here? No, how about here. Paul won't want his back to the camera. Better yet, here"
We had an okay sound-check, I mange to blow one amplifier, otherwise it's sounding good and I feel myself relaxing a little.
Back to the hotel, for a nap. My throat is ON FIRE.
As I was walking back to the hotel under the Late Show marquee, the thought creeps into my head that we still haven't heard the bells and the horns, and that it's going to be, at the very least, a treat. It was then and only then that I allowed myself to smile inside a little.
MATADOR? SHIT, THAT'S EASY. I CAN DO THAT
Studio 2:30 PM
We're back in the Ed Sullivan Theatre to run it through for the camera blocking and the CBS orchestra.
I allow myself a piece of fruit off the deli tray in the dressing room and two bites of a tuna salad wrap.
Paul Shaffer and the band are running down AC/ DC's Shook Me All Night Long down in the Ed Sullivan Theatre. Arguing over the chords and where the bumps are.
Paul Shaffer looks up, comes around and says, "Hi Chuck, listen baby, we got your notes. I'm thinking Will on the glockenspiel, Felicia on the percussion, and maybe—and I'm not sure how you feel about this baby—but would you mind if Anton hit an electronic drum on the claps?"
I said, "If we'd had one of those when we made the record, you know we'd have done it. Hell yes. Get all Bette Davis Eyeswith it."
We run it down once. It's rough. We run it down twice and it's nearly there.
Every time Paul would hit the bells, he'd look at the hammer/mallet/whatever thing and then slowly turn to look at me, with a look of—dare I say, seeking approval.
He clammed the first few times. But he settled in. And then he'd turn to me with a kind of look that said, "did I just do that?" Strange. Strange to me like, Dude, you're the master cylinder here, don't be looking at me for approval. Get a fucking grip, man.
Felecia took the wood block part. But the pattern wasn't quite right. And I had to correct her. I didn't really want to correct her. I didn't want to correct anyone. Shit, who else is going to do it?
We got through it.
If I didn't know better, I'd think Paul Shaffer was BAKED.
Paul takes me by the arm into the basement, to listen to the mix. I allow myself a few suggestions about the mix and they are duly noted.
Will Lee appears, puts his head next to me in the tiny room hovering over the board and says, "awesome". When the horns come in he makes a face like someone just farted, turns to Paul and says, "there's something wrong with the horns". Paul looks at me and says, "they're just a little out of tune". Will says, "Yeah like a half step!". Paul motions to rewind and squints his eyes, leans way into the speakers, puts his hand up as if forming a chord and says, "No baby, that's the organ, she's playing a dissonant note. Oh yeah, the rules are made to be broken, baby."
That's it. Back to the safe confines of the dressing room.
Make up applied.
Tom Brokaw holds the door for me as I pace down the hall, Stratocaster around my neck.
Tom looked like he was dressed up to be the captain of some sort of pretty large boat.
James had already tangled with Morgan Freeman in the elevator. Maybe Morgan wasn't impressed by the Bloomindales tags hanging from James' clothes.
Elvis and the Beatles are staring back at me from the walls. This is the Ed Sullivan Theater bitch.
Some friends and guests arrive too late to get a seat in the theatre and we're all crowded into a closet size dressing room.
Andy pulls a bottle of elixir like Felix the cat out of his doctors bag. I squirt it down the back of my throat and I feel it cooling like Vick's vapors.
We take the elevator down. The stairs are off limits.
Tune up guitars.
Set up in the empty space in 2 minutes flat, long enough for CBS to sell some cans of Ensure and maybe a few boxes of Lucky Charms. The Letterman is playing loud three feet away.
Letterman announces us. Todd counts us in, Stephie plays the intro and we're off.
Felicia locked eyes with me and beat on that muted cowbell.
Ka, ka ka, ka ka ka ka.
And a as soon as it starts, it's over.
Handshakes all around from The Dave.
Afterwards, Paul hovers around the Farfisa, talking to Andy and Stephie.
On the way out, he says, "See ya next time Chuck".
Now I'm standing out on the street waiting for a van to pick us up and deliver us back to JFK, as we were flying right back home. Tom "Bones" Malone, who you might remember from the Blues Brothers film, came out the stage door, recognized me and smiled and said, "That was cool. Really cool song." And I was like, "Uh... nice charts, (and, unable to think of anything else to say:) I hope they paid you for that."
(I had heard a rumor that these union guys get paid double or something if they compose the charts).
"Bones" looked down at the briefcase he was carrying and said, " Did I get paid? Shit, you see this briefcase? It's full of money."
Actually, he had called me the day before about the charts, but my phone was dead and I never got the call. Bones got the briefcase and I never got the call.
Ate a piece of sushi at the Airport. Boarded the plane. Fell asleep, only to be jostled by Stephanie Finch, who said:
"Dude, you might want to check this out..."
Jet Blue has TV sets mounted in the back of each seat and there it is, Letterman in all his glory (east coast time).
You know, we sounded pretty goddamn good.
We fly into Oakland. The battery in the car is dead. We get a jump and make it home, 3 AM or so. Ah: home, home. Christmas trees to be burned, sure, but home.
The next day I charge up my cell and for the first time ever, my phone is so full of messages, it's unable to take any more messages.
My mom said, "Honey, it's not my favorite song of yours but, I'll tell you what, it's got a great beat."
Barry Sobel called told me after he saw "Prophet on Letterman", he's now "halfway through his bucket list".
I received an e-mail from Joan, "Oh you're so big now, you can't answer your phone? Your cell phone is not taking any more calls."
And finally a phone message from Alejandro. Alejandro called and asked me, "How's the air up there, bro? Is it really as lonely at the top as they say?"
Lisa says my guitar sounded "MEAN".
And for anyone that's curious about these kinds of things, I wrote that song with klipschutz. AKA Kurt Lipschutz. All the best lines are his. We've written tons of songs, among my favorites in my song bag.
There's one more final verse that got left out. Goes like this:
I'll be here as if you never left me,
Waiting for your footsteps on the stairs
Let the neighbors talk all night about me
I don't care
And if I'm not the only one
I promise I won't come undone
All over you
All over you.
Got to go. Clothes to return and Christmas trees to torch.