Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interacting with the Famous - Record Store Tales

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, April 27, 2008)

Working in Hollywood record stores a good portion of my life has enabled me to meet a lot of well known people. Even when I started, down in Tustin in Orange County, I still managed to meet up with some famous stars. (I wrote about my meetings with Ringo Starr two weeks ago.) But it wasn't until I moved up to North Hollywood that I really hit the jackpot. My favorite meeting when I was at the North Hollywood Licorice Pizza was when I hosted an in-store by the early New York punk band, the Dictators. That in-store actually angered the powers-that-be at the store, despite how successful it was, (I organized it without approval) and it led to me leaving the company after many years of loyal service.

I bounced back with a short working stint at another now defunct record store chain, Music +. I worked at the store in Sherman Oaks, just a block from where I now live. While at that store, I met a non-pretentious and completely sane Michael Jackson, and most of the members of Parliament/Funkadelic, who were impressed by this white boy who knew the whole P-Funk lexicon. (Years later I would meet George Clinton on a flight home from the Netherlands after a Thin White Rope tour, then hang with the band on a subway ride into New York to attend the CMJ Music Festival.) I also had an unpleasant run-in with actress Talia Shire (Rocky), when I didn't recognize her and refused to take her credit card without ID. But my favorite memory has to be that of Kenny Loggins. At the time, he had just gone solo after the breakup of his collaboration with Jim Messina. He came into the store and liked what was playing over the store sound system. When it came out the selection was my choice, he asked me to pick out five records that I thought he should buy. Keep in mind that this was the beginning of the punk rock era. I don't remember what I was playing, but it had to be something loud and challenging, so I was a bit impressed that Mr. Loggins would trust my opinion on things. (I had seen Loggins & Messina live several years before and had to admit I wasn't that much of a fan, although I do think he was, and still is, a very attractive man.) I picked out five records that I thought would challenge him the most (I remember that the first Pere Ubu album was in there) and sent him on his way, fully expecting to never see him again. A week later he was back, asking me to pick out five more albums for him. This went on for quite a few months, with me picking increasingly difficult listening albums for him, until I lost my job at Music + due to unfair fallout from my Licorice Pizza days. I was trying to see if I could push him too far, but I never did. He always came back for more. Several years later, Mr. Loggins had changed his sound, had a huge hit with "Footloose" and became a New Wave icon. To this day, Skip claims that my influence is responsible for that song. I guess I should be ashamed, but secretly I'm pretty proud of myself.

From there, I went on to Moby Disc (also now defunct), where I met Metallica (great guys), George Harrison (not so great guy), Robbie Krieger of the Doors (also not so great), Fergal Sharkey of the Undertones (a downright asshole), Doctor Demento (I kicked him out when he tried to take albums from my personal stash) and many others.

And from there, I ended up at Vinyl Fetish. Vinyl Fetish was a place like no other. It was opened by L.A. scenesters Joseph Brooke, who still promotes dance concerts here, and his longtime boyfriend (now split up), Henry Peck. The store didn't carry anything close to mainstream, concentrating on UK imports and underground American bands.
There was a big push on the New Romantic and Goth Rock bands rising in popularity at the time, as Joseph and Henry also ran a popular club called The Veil, that brought out the best dressed poseurs in town. I loved working there and always had a blast. While there, I met and hung out with Duran Duran (I didn't get along with Simon), Depeche Mode (threw out their girlfriends and they thanked me for it), Siouxsie & the Banshees (almost got in a fist fight with a drunken Siouxsie, but loved the other guys), Steve Strange of Visage (wonderful), Billy Idol (threw the obnoxious jerk out), ZZ Top (amazing guys), Tom Hanks (when he was in "Bosom Buddies"), Matt Groening (he was so poor I would give him rides home after we closed), PeeWee Herman (who worked next door at the Groundlings Theatre) and about a zillion others that I can't remember at this time. I was pretty well known for not putting up with any bullshit from any of these people. I wasn't going to give them a pass on acting like idiots just because they were somewhat famous. There were times when Joseph and Henry would ask me to stay home for certain in-stores when they knew I probably wouldn't get along with the person appearing, but on the whole, I enjoyed meeting these people, especially when they turned out to be normal people who enjoyed conversation while partaking in strong drink, one of my favorite pastimes.

At this time, I was still known around town as Jet, a nickname I got in the early 70s that stuck through the punk rock days, and I was still dressing in a suit and tie with a shaved head, a fedora hat and wrap-around sunglasses. I had been dressing this way for years in response to my disgust with hippies at the time. I was also quite portly, so I had gotten used to going to shows or just walking down the street and having some unoriginal jerk scream "Blues Brothers" at me. To be fair, I didn't look at all like a Blues Brother, although I could see the similarity to John Belushi to some extent, and I had been dressing like that for years before there was a "Blues Brothers". It aggravated the hell out of me. (Last year, I found a felt pork-pie hat at the County Fair with a red & yellow feather in it and have formed an affection for it. Over the last few months, I've had idiots yell, "Blues Brothers" at me at least a half dozen times, even when I'm not wearing my suit coat. I never wear a tie anymore. Some things never change, especially when it comes to public morons.) There was even one time that I saw the Blues Brothers live at Universal Amphitheatre and found myself surrounded by fans who thought I actually was John Belushi.

One day, in early 1982, I was working at Vinyl Fetish by myself when I heard the door open. I was extremely surprised to look up and see John Belushi standing there staring at me. I nodded a hello to him and he said, "Like your style". And that's how it started. I laughed and told him all about how I had been dressing like that for years, but now I couldn't walk down the streets without being called a Blues Brother. He surprised me by telling me that he was walking down Melrose Blvd a few days before and a car went by him. A girl leaned out and screamed, "Hey Jet!", but when she saw who it really was, she took off without further word. He now knew what that was all about. I was amazed that it worked both ways.

And thus began a nice, although short friendship. I was never friendly enough with him to be invited to his apartment at the Chateau Marmont, although that might have changed had I known him longer. But he started coming into the store every few days and we would discuss the state of things animatedly. He was amazed that I was one of the few people who loved the film "1941". I still consider it one of Spielberg's best movies. We talked about the intricacies of that film for hours. I also really liked his film, "Neighbors" and he talked me into reading the book so we could discuss the differences. A few times, when the conversation was really going great, we would head to a local bar after I got off work and keep talking for several more hours. I loved talking to him. He was intelligent and interesting. And he was funny. He also liked the fact that I thought Lucille Ball was the funniest person ever, as she was one of his biggest influences. ("I Love Lucy" is the best TV show ever, to this day. I've seen every episode a number of times and still roll on the floor with laughter each time.)

This continued on for a month or so and then it was time for me to go on vacation. Skip and I decided we wanted to go to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. We were going to go hiking in the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. We were going to be gone two weeks and Belushi gave me his phone number, asking me to call him when I returned to work.

That vacation is a story of its own. Skip and I walked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again, against the advice of the park ranger on duty. We thought we could do it in one day and we did, although we almost died in the attempt. We were literally crawling up the path to the north rim after dark, thinking they would find our bodies lying there the next day. But we made it. The park ranger took one look at us the next day as we were a mess and he was not pleased. He still ended up laughing about it with us. We spent the rest of the vacation in agony, but refused not to hike every path we could. It must have been quite a sight to see these two punk guys walking around the beautiful Bryce Canyon like Frankenstein monsters since our muscles were so stiff and painful.

While we were at Bryce, I decided to check in with home and called Henry at the store to see what was going on. (When we go on vacation, one family member has contact information in case of emergency. I never used to leave a contact number with friends as we don't want to be bothered unless we need to be.) It turned out that he had been trying frantically to reach me. He told me right off the bat to extend our vacation for at least another week. (We visited my family in Marysville, California.) It turned out that John Belushi had died of a drug overdose. (For the record, I saw him drink alcohol, but never saw him take drugs. And I was taking drugs myself at that time.) Somewhere, somehow, the media had found out that he had been hanging around the store and talking to me. Henry was being hounded by reporters who wanted to interview me. He knew I would want nothing to do with them, and he was right. I didn't feel that I knew Belushi all that well, and so I didn't feel qualified to talk about him. I probably wouldn't have talked even if I knew him better. I didn't like entertainment reporters back then, and I dislike them even more these days.

So we stayed in Marysville for awhile longer until a new story hit the airwaves and distracted everyone from the Belushi story. I felt that I could return home safely without being bothered. Once I returned back to work, I think I got one phone call from a reporter. I told them to go screw themselves and that was that. It was forgotten and I never heard about it again. One friend of Belushi came into the store weeks later and told me that he talked about me frequently and had expressed how much he was enjoying our conversations. It all made me really sad. What a waste.

I left Vinyl Fetish to go on tour with Choir Invisible, and when I returned, I started working at another small indie store and record label in Santa Monica called Texas Hotel Records. Once again, I had the opportunity to meet several artists, including the Fall, who I idolized at the time (and still do to some extent).

And then I went on the road with bands full time. With Thin White Rope, Poster Children and other bands, I met and got to know members of Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Mekons, Undertones/That Petrol Emotion, Swell Maps, Pixies, Babes In Toyland, Throwing Muses, Swervedriver, and many other people I liked and enjoyed meeting and knowing. I also met quite a few I didn't like (Natalie Merchant, Robyn Hitchcock, the fat guy in They Might Be Giants and some others).

Then I quit touring and went back to work at a record store. This time it was Rhino Records in Westwood. Lots of television, movie and music stars came through there. I met Benicio Del Toro one night when he came in with a very drunk Alicia Silverstone. She was wearing a surgical mask. When he asked me if I knew who she was, I answered "Michael Jackson?" and in his drunken state, he collapsed in laughter. He started coming in all the time and we discussed movies a lot. He was very happy and impressed that I loved "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas" after he asked me to see it. I thought he was a great actor and I still do, so talking movies with him was a special treat, especially hearing his stories about Steven Soderbergh while he was working with him on "Traffic". He's one of my favorite directors.

One day I was standing at the counter and a voice asked me if I could show him where the Hugh Masekela records were. I looked up and froze. James Spader was standing there. I don't usually act that way in the face of celebrity, but I had had a huge crush on Spader for years and here was the extreme cutie standing right in front of me, talking to me. I stammered a few unintelligible words and took him over to the Brazilian section. Now, I know Masekela is South African. I've always known he was South African. But my brain was full of bad thoughts and I wasn't thinking straight. Spader looked at me and said, "I think he's South African". I felt like an idiot and literally smacked my forehead and slurred out an apology.

Then I took it a bit too far. I looked at him and said, "Look. I'm sorry. But you have to understand. I've had a crush on you for years and when you suddenly appeared here right in front of me, my brain just quit working."

He just stared at me, then turned, grabbed a Masekela CD that was displayed on a shelf and promptly left. One of our major label reps, who was working on a display near me, had heard the whole exchange. She laughed and said, Boy, you sure handled that well." I felt like a complete idiot.

A week later, I was working in my office (I was the head buyer), when I heard a knock on the door. I got up and answered it. Standing there was James Spader. He asked if I would help him with a few recommendations.
Nothing was said of my awkward "crush" speech. In fact, it was never mentioned again. But he started coming in every week, sometimes just buying stuff and sometimes asking for my help. We also discussed movies. "Crash" had just opened and I had seen it and loved it. It was close to the perfect adaptation of the wonderful book by J. G. Ballard, in my opinion. I watched the movie with no emotion and left the theatre with no emotion. It wasn't until I got into the driver's seat and started the engine that I suddenly felt the horrifying impact of that film and I just started shaking. It took me quite a while to get myself together enough to drive home. I explained that to Spader and he thought I had understood the movie perfectly. He told me he was going to tell director David Cronenberg about my reaction and that made me very proud, as he is also a favorite.

This went on with both Del Toro and Spader until I left Rhino a year or so later. I really enjoyed my conversations with them, but never felt as friendly with them as I did with Belushi. I doubt they'd even recognize me if I ran into them now, almost a decade later.

I've said before that celebrity has little impact on me and I'll stick by that statement despite this long conversation about celebrities. It doesn't have to be a celebrity to interest me. I've met people in clubs and bars that I've enjoyed talking to as much as any celebrity, once they get through my personal defenses. (If they can get through my defenses, then I consider them well worth my interest.) I met Skip in a rock and roll club and here we are years later, still talking. But it's a great opportunity to sit with an artist and discuss the work they created and I love when I meet someone I respect and get the chance to do so with them. And although I don't work in any of the businesses that allowed me to meet these people, I hope I still get the opportunity to do so in the future.

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