Since becoming immersed in my latest work-in-progress, I find myself awash in the angst of the coming-of-age milieu.
This is when young women are set loose in the exhilarated world, while also at the same time being introduced to the inexorable weight of adulthood. I recall memories of the party-seeker on the cusp of realization, learning, gradually, that the more you chase thrills in lieu of happiness, the faster it evades you—and the more the delusion depletes you. In that light, I present song lyrics I’ve written and almost forgotten, which drape over my brain like a watermark pressed onto a page years ago:
MOST OF THE LIGHTS
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
Now it’s time for me to put my sandals on, let them scratch across the street.
They leave little scars like Jesus’s as they learn to settle on my feet.
And the people roll like traffic cars,
And they never look the same way twice.
A delivery boy hears me talk to myself.
Still he whispers I look nice.
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
So tomorrow I’ll meet a passing fool who is famous, or almost.
Flirt with nameless, light-eyed bartenders.
Swallow cool against my throat.
And it’s dark in here, but it’s atmosphere, and it’s everything to go.
I won’t blink—I can’t—I won’t miss anything.
For what it’s worth, I make the most of the lights.
I wander out of a neon crowd, meet the guy who played guitar.
And my ears are ringing in my driver’s seat.
I get robbed right in my car.
So I’m staring numb at this girl outside
Who has earrings longer than her skirt.
Got a ticket stub and a purse strap left.
I am silent.
I’m not hurt.
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
Garden balconies and men with tin cans.
Is it brighter here by day or by night?
I’m alone and I’m afraid and I’m tired.
Will this world take my life?
photo, Laureen Runkle
** Winner, Third Place, Poetry, Pennwriters 2017 “In Other Words” contest
I was challenged recently to post my choice of videos from the 1980s. Boy, did they pick the right girl. I thought I’d share my selections along with my commentary, for those of you who maintain a sense of nostalgia for the best decade in musical history. Enjoy.
Don’t be envious, Millennials. We’ll continue to share our sensibility with you.
The Police: King of Pain, 1983
To start us off, from The Police’s Synchronicity album, the above is some rare Australian video for this song, complete with a stuffed goat and a flaming dial telephone. This kind of eerie, Imagist camera work was considered artsy and cool at the time.
I went to the acutely famous concert promoting this album that took place at Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY, in the summer of 1983. I was 19 years-old. The LIE was transformed into a parking lot stretching across Queens, and I was twice rear-ended waiting in near-stop-dead traffic. We were so late to the event that we missed both opening bands, REM and Joan Jett, respectively. I didn’t even know who REM was yet.
According to Internet reports, it was after this one-night-only show that Sting decided to break up the band and go solo, because playing Shea Stadium (as did The Beatles) was a performance epitome for him, so he decided to move on to other pastures, where, say, the Blue Turtles roam.
Anyway, just listen…
Echo and the Bunnymen: Lips Like Sugar, 1987
Here is a quintessential ’80s dance song, although I don’t think I ever saw this video at the time. Remember, friends, there was no YouTube, and MTV had actually just emerged. Not everyone even got cable TV. So we mostly viewed these videos in the background as we danced at clubs. I hope the end of this one was supposed to be campy, because it’s as bad as some of the Godzilla films my son watches. However, the song is AWESOME, still. One other thing the rest of you ’80s people might experience: These guys all seemed so mature and intimidating at the time. Yet viewing them now, they look like babies. Oh my Lord, the perspective of a 22 year-old.
And dig that hair.
Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime, 1980
Presenting the lead track to the movie of my life, and the theme song for my crew of girls in college. We made up a poster that had lyrics from the song magic-markered on it back in our dorm. We taped it to the ceiling, so that whenever one of us awoke on the rug the morning after a party, we’d see the lyrics staring down at us:
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?!”
David Byrne is a freaky-amazing genius and I adore him. He better not die any time soon, as losing David Bowie was enough of a blow.
Herbie Hancock: Rockit, 1983
This breaks out of my typical new wave mode, but still fits the technotronic synth-y club vibe we all grooved to at the time. I recently rediscovered this song and played it full blast, dancing through my house, remembering how wild it was with all its funky scratchiness and such.
Even my son, whose hobby is mixing “beats” all day on Mixcraft, leaned over our stair rail to ask, Hey what are you listening to?
This video was a gas in the ’80s and one of the earliest I remember seeing on MTV. The musical artist, Herbie Hancock, is funked-out fantastic. And the guy who put together these half-humanoid, half-obscene robots, a British artist and inventor named Jim Whiting, was quite The Bomb. I recall rumors at the time that the scene in “Blade Runner” where they visit the toy maker/android designer in his apartment, wherein life-size robotic toys wander aimlessly, was inspired by this guy. Although a current Internet search doesn’t back that up.
Not exactly Disney’s version of animatronics.
** I just learned I can’t post The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” as an ’80s video as it was actually 1979. Dang it. Can’t use “Rock Lobster,” either. Same problem. Argh! ** Moving on …
Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen): Hot, Hot, Hot, 1987
I’m going more late-’80s mainstream this time, although we didn’t know back then this song would become a wedding conga-line classic. Mostly I’m posting it because I have the real inside guff this time, as I was AN EXTRA in this precipitous piece of film making.
Left: Blonde in bustier. Top right, Sharon with long red curls. Orange arrow, head below Sharon with dark bangs: ME. I think.
Alas, hard as I try, I can barely see myself in it. Although refer to the arrows in the screen grab to the right. That’s us at the table in the indoor concert scene at the end. For four seconds. I see the exact table where we were sitting. I recognize the blonde woman in the black bustier dress who was sitting across from me. I see a fuzzy likeness of my friend Sharon who I dragged out to accompany me, and there’s my head below hers. The shot is nearly as grainy as a sonogram, but it’s us.
Here’s what happened: I was working at Columbia Pictures as a script researcher and had to call a club downtown, the Latin Quarter, to fact-check something for a script. The manager said, Hey, we’re having a party for David Johansen tomorrow night because he’s filming a new video. Why don’t you come down? I grabbed my buddy Sharon and we got painted up and trucked down to the place. I asked for the manager who had invited me.
An older gentleman in a bedazzled tuxedo coat met us at the door. He looked me up and down and said (and this was cute–not sure what he was expecting):
“Oh, sweetie — you’re much more attractive than I thought you’d be. Come with me!”
Next thing you know we were signing release contracts and he sat us against the stage. They filmed the end of the song repeatedly and shouted for us to dance, throw our hair, and scream. Which we did. It was a blast.
At the time, we thought it was some weird number that no one would ever hear of. Because frankly, it was David Johansen, former cross-dresser from the New York Dolls, in a 1950s pompadour hairdo and a formal suit singing a Latin song — not something you thought would become a major hit in punky 1987.
As it turns out, I’ve been able to tell this story at every wedding I’ve ever been to.
Tears For Fears, Everybody Wants To Rule the World, 1985
Screen grab from the Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” video. Tin-foiled camera visible in mirror behind keyboardist.
I’ll sign off with this one, because the video for The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” in retrospect seems vaguely racist, and I can’t find the original video for that Thomas Dolby song. And the Flock of Seagulls video for “I Ran” is just too corny, with the cameras covered in aluminum foil, reflecting in all the spinning mirrored backdrops.
Soooo … I was studying a semester in England when I bought the album Songs From The Big Chair on cassette, because all I had with me was a SONY Walkman. I’d hide away in the tiny basement of our flats and play this, and literally bounce off the cinder block walls. When I hear it, I’m re-infused with the excitement and fear and wonder and expectation of my life finally beginning. I turned 21 years-old in London. And for a few moments, in my little head, I really did Rule the World.
I’m in a state of mourning, and for more than just the loss of a music icon (or two) this month. I’m stricken by the fact that there is no one to succeed David Bowie—and I’m downright rancorous over the reasons why.
For someone who experienced college in the mid-80s, it’s particularly wounding to realize that a major creative engine of the new-wave fueled era has ceased to exist. To us post-modern, mini-skirted, artsy new wave chicks whose hair was stiff with BOY LONDON gel, Bowie was God. The Internet has since become overrun with tribute slide shows that far outnumber commentary on his contribution—especially discussion of who might continue his legacy. It is apparently easier to gather clips of his ten best videos and costume changes and movie roles than it is to contemplate the environment left in his wake. The slide show parade itself is symptomatic of why no one is waiting to take up that mantle.
Why will there never be another David Bowie? Because the current entertainment industry would never tolerate him. It has become mind-numbingly easier and cheaper to depend on recycled and homogenized entertainment than to put up with the inconvenience of nurturing an actual artist.
Genuine talent is unmanageable. It does not adhere to a contract. It is sexually confused. It throws televisions out the window and says f@ck in public. It gets pissed off at its bandmates. It will not be judged by a panel of well-styled celebrities with buzzers in their hands for the public’s general amusement.
Right now, I imagine there are a hundred Millennial Bowies out there. Instead of being fabulous, at their boldest they are mimicking contrived Disney protégés at network-sponsored national cattle calls. More likely, they’re hiding their true preferences and creative impulses so they can keep their jobs, afford their apartments and justify their unwarranted degrees. They are settling for Instagram as an artistic outlet.
Don’t think another innovator of the Bowie variety just can’t happen. As freakishly brilliant as he was, and as devastating as his loss is to popular culture, talent of this magnitude is not an isolated occurrence. Case in point: John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up in the same region of Liverpool. At the same time. If the world is ready to ingratiate itself to the next genius, he or she will emerge.
The deluge of online slide shows point to something deeply askew: Rather than expound on David Bowie’s legacy, resulting in fresh insights and unique prose, the more effortless route is to embed videos or repost a collection of existing images and call it a memoriam. Such is easily digestible, and the content is free.
YouTube has become the new vocabulary of our emotions. We are a civilization that communicates via a series of regurgitated flash cards instead of thoughtful narrative.
A watershed of top ten lists is a disservice to what any genuine artist stands for: The conception of material that never existed until, magically, it is brought into reality by the sleight of the artist’s hand. Art is born, not linked.
This is why a whole generation of hipsters have devoted themselves to retro culture, rejecting the artists and even the technologies of their own era and declaring themselves aficionados of material that was conceived and produced long before they were.
I’d like more opportunity to glorify those who originate as opposed to reconstitute. Priority needs to shift back to supporting the strange and unbearable and tortured, instead of the managed and choreographed and sanitized. Until that happens, we will never see another Bono and U2. We will never see another Sting and The Police, or David Byrne and the Talking Heads. We certainly will never see The Doors, The Stones or Led Zeppelin again. Ever.
To that dormant Bowie in the audience: Please recognize a glimmer of yourself here. Please stand up and put on a dress and dance. Write yourself out of the cultural stupor you’ve been born into. Masquerade in glitter eyeshadow and spandex and don’t care what the world thinks about it. Date men. Date women. Dye your hair. Do drugs. Shun the X-Factor auditions. Please, I beg of you—quit your day job, lay off the freaking Pinterest and spew out something amazing.
I recently watched “Love and Mercy,” the biopic on Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys, and last week took a look at “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch.
I am reminded how torturous it is to watch people who are inherently genius, yet are so deeply troubled that they have to suffer for it their whole lives. I am also reminded of a conclusion that I’ve held for years:
Maybe this is an intrinsic part of being brilliant.
Maybe you have to have a few things missing from your brain in order to have quite enough flexibility for all that cool stuff to happen as it does. Maybe authentic creativity requires a brain that does not function like a normal person’s. Creativity is in fact a side-effect of impairment.
Not to categorize myself as Miss Brilliant, but I’ve always had an affinity for the tortured artist type. I’ve felt my brain on occasion go to off-beat places because it had to, because of aberrant dyslexic flashes where I can’t put two and two together. The signals in my brain don’t make the jump from one synapse to another like a regular Joe’s. It skips over the traditional thought process and crafts a new way to interpret stimuli.
I’ve sometimes remarked that all my creative impulses may be one big, undiagnosed dyslexia symptom.
Scary thing is, my brain is so good at compensating that there have been times I have surreptitiously seen and heard and things that weren’t there. (Or sometimes didn’t see something that was there.) Usually I hear something musical, or narrative, where a story or a melody start running in my head.
There are scenes in Love and Mercy where Brian Wilson lies down and hears things… people talking, melodies and harmonies singing, sounds in the background. I’ve had instances of that. I’ve lain back, or dropped half-asleep, and heard songs playing or people speaking dialog that I’d never heard before. I hit a state where things start writing themselves, and I sit back and listen. It’s a weird and beautiful experience. It is magic. But sometimes it is spontaneous enough that it takes you by surprise and makes you wonder about your reality.
My husband insists I fabricate these kinds of things to position myself as special. It’s not true. I’ve walked through my life seeing certain things backwards or further away or closer than they are. Or sometimes I don’t see an object in front of me at all—it blanks-out and fades into the background. Yet my brain bridges the gap.
No one has ever really asked me, but this is my life:
Have you ever had that moment when you pick up a glass, and you think it’s full but you’re mistaken?
You lift it, and the glass goes flying and you spill water because your muscles were bracing for a different level of heaviness. You were fooled. Your brain misperceived it.
That’s my existence. I walk past a door jamb or a coffee table, and my brain tells me it is twelve inches from my body when it is actually only three inches away. I smack my shin on the table or bang my shoulder against the molding. I have dealt with unjustifiable bumps, bruises and scrapes my whole life. I am a grown woman who walks into things.
One day when my brother and I were in a band together, we were practicing in his room. He played the bass line to The Police’s “Roxanne.” I said, No, Jim, wait—you’re missing a couple of cool notes here, that’s not how it goes. Where are those two other notes?
“What two other notes?”
I mouthed the bass line. “You know, DAT DAT – dat dat… DAT DAT – dat dat… Loved you since I knew ya’…”
He said, No, what are you talking about? That’s not how it goes.
I said, oh please, I’ve listened to this song a thousand times.
I sang it again, and he argued. Finally he sat me down with my ear next to an enormous speaker and played the record. He turned up the bass on the equalizer. He said, “I want you to take a deep breath and listen.”
Wait, I said, where did those other bass notes go? I swear they’ve been there all this time.
He said, “YOU WROTE THEM.”
“You wrote them, Sue. You hear them in your head because you wrote them into the song.”
And then there was the day I sang in my high school talent show. A fellow theater student played piano behind me … and then he just stopped. I kept singing, because that’s what they teach you to do when something screws up on stage. You keep going. The piano kicked back in.
After the number I went to the accompanist and said, What happened?
He said, “What do you mean?”
“You stopped playing. In the middle of the song.”
He gave me the face. The expression people deliver when I inadvertently admit I’m not experiencing quite the same world as they are.
“I never stopped playing,” he said.
I asked another friend in the show, What did you hear? Did he stop playing?
There was the look again. The tilted head and squinty eyes. “Of course he didn’t stop playing,” she said. “He was fine.”
I thought to myself, Jesus, it’s me. My brain stops perceiving things sometimes. Yet I always push on.
Flash-forward to the few weeks I tried to learn piano. A friend in a band gifted me his cast-off Moog keyboard. I commandeered some rocker guy with long, carbon-black curls to give me keyboard lessons at Focus II Guitars in Babylon, NY. He made me practice scales, and sent me home with a few measures to learn.
Next lesson, I swung open my workbook and banged out the piece. It was a lovely bit of music.
Rocker guy scratched his head. “That was nice,” he said.
“What was it?” he said.
I pointed to the sheet music. “It was this.”
He tried not to do the face, because he otherwise kind of liked me. “No,” he said. “It was pretty and all. But that wasn’t the music I gave you.”
He stood behind the keyboard and played the measures as they were written.
A whole different piece. I had developed my own version.
I never did learn to play keyboard.
There was also a rehearsal for “Godspell,” the first show I ever did outside a school production. I was eighteen. The cast sat around a table so Eddie the director, who also played Jesus, could teach us the harmonies to “Prepare Ye.”
“Do you know how they go?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah.” I had in fact had been listening to the original Broadway soundtrack on vinyl since fourth grade.
He said, “Okay, Kerry, please sing the melody and Suzanne, you sing the harmony.” I sang it the way I’d been doing since I was 10 years-old.
“Cool,” Eddie said to me. “Where is that from?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who taught you that part? Is that from the movie soundtrack?”
I shrugged my shoulders. No one taught it to me. “I just thought it was pretty. Isn’t that what’s on the album?”
“No,” he said. “This is what’s on the album.” He and Kerry sang the harmony that was written for the show. Which completely diverged from what I’d been singing half my life.
He said, “Now you sing your part with us,” and I chimed in. It was gorgeous. Suddenly, we had three different parts going, one of which had never appeared in any other production.
Eddie said, “Sing it that way in the show, Suzanne.”
Recalling a little incident from a journal, one that I didn’t even remember until re-reading it…
I convinced my buddy Sharon from Queens to come with me see China Crisis, one of my favorite bands from college. She and I had an unspoken pact: Whenever one of us wanted to do something and needed a friend to do it with, the other was automatically in. Sharon owned a car—a great amenity in New York City—so if I wanted to get back and forth anyplace at night, she had to drive me. And when she needed to bring up the sophistication level of whatever party she planned to go to, in order to impress whatever guy she was trying to affect that week, I was obligated as a chick from Long Island to accompany her. It was subtly known throughout the boroughs that Long Island girls were classier than Queens girls (if a tad less exciting). We were mellow and smart and sensible. They were turbulent and street-savvy and bold.
Sharon and I dutifully filled each other’s friendship needs and usually had a riotous time doing so. That is, if we did not get thrown out of whatever club we were in. Because as much as I classed-up any party she took me to, she amped-up the crazy/fun quotient at any place we went.
So, she agreed to see this bunch of obscure English guys play at The Ritz, one of the biggest new wave clubs in the city. By this point in my life, I was skilled at muscling my way to the front row at general admission concerts, despite being smaller than most of the rest of the crowd. I planted myself against the stage under the lead guitarist, who had rather fabulous European bone structure. He played there right above my head all night. I would not even let Sharon herself elbow in front of me. When she tried, I took her by the shoulders and supplanted her so briskly that she fell on the floor, and I apologized.
Anyone else, Sharon would have belted them with a beer bottle. Me, she let slide. I was the only one who got away with that stuff with her. I was the only one who even tried.
Before the end of the night the two of us swore we’d figure out a way to take the freaking band home (although we hadn’t decided which of us would say uncle and let the other have the lead guitarist). At this point in my life, I wanted to be a real groupie, but thus far the only musicians I ever went home with were the few I had already been dating before the show. Yet when you hung around with Sharon, sometimes that kind of thing was possible. She was this exquisite little wild-woman who never said no to anything. Men worshipped her.
Also consider this was Manhattan, and the party wasn’t over until you had to get ready for work the next morning. When the band’s set ended at 12-ish, we were just getting started. Sometimes we didn’t even go out until that hour.
In an effort to secure the attention of the guitar player post-show, we waited a safe gawking distance from what was labeled a stage door, next to a table that several place cards designated as reserved for the band. A nebbishy, older guy in a black suit and glasses hit on Sharon repeatedly, insisting he was the band’s photographer, despite the fact that he didn’t have a camera. He looked more like he had just come back from a prayer group than a new wave concert. She flirted back, even though she was way above his league.
“Sharon,” I whispered sideways in her ear. “This guy’s a bullshit artist.”
She ignored me.
“Sharon, I’m tellin’ you, he’s not with the band.”
She ignored me. The guy had to take off. He gave her his card.
The Ritz was gothic and cavernous; everything was awash in in black paint. She held the card up to what little light was available.
“Jeweler,” she read. “He said he’s a fucking rock photographer, and his card says Jeweler.”
“Told ya’.” One point for the Cynical Long Island Bitch.
A thin guy with blondish, mussed hair emerged from the door marked stage. Sharon pointed at him. “That’s one of the guitar players,” she said. She yelled to him. “Hey you! Come ‘ere!”
He came over. Guys listened to Sharon.
She asked if he was in the band.
“Yes, I play the bass,” he says, in one of those early-Python-esque British accents that’s such a rapid and choppy cascade of syllables you can barely tell it’s the same language we speak in New York. The band had announced they were from Liverpool. Like the Beatles.
He talked to us. It was loud in the club; they blared the music once the show ended.
Sharon smiled. “You know, I love your accent, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” she shouted.
I spent a semester in London, so I recognized the lilt and I somewhat understood what he was saying, although I don’t remember a thing and didn’t write down specifics. Likely he was deflecting our advances. Or maybe I piped up about living in England. If I was able to gather my thoughts together.
He was friendly, an ordinary guy. Except one who we could scarcely comprehend.
“I’m Sharon.” She shook his hand. He turned to me. We shook. “Suzanne,” I said.
He said his name. Me and Sharon looked at each other like WTF?
“What was that again?”
He said something that I wrote down in the journal as Gaesa, assuming it was maybe Gaelic. It was my best guess. You never know. I had met a guy from Ireland a few weeks before (relocated to Woodside, of course) who pronounced his name “Ian,” but spelled it something like EOINEN. I swear there might have been a “w” in there somewhere, like a Tolkien character.
I asked him to spell his name but couldn’t hear the answer.
Note at the time there was no Internet to look things up, so if there was no photo of the band or list of names prominently on the album cover, then you didn’t know what the guys looked like or who they were until Rolling Stone did a feature. But you listened to the music anyway. So I let this encounter go, not even convinced that the guy honestly was one of the guitar players, wondering if instead he was just running with things because two cute groupie-types waved him over. We girls who hung around stage doors learned early: The guy who comes out after the concert is not always in the band. Sometimes he is just a guy with cool hair who moves amps.
This guy seemed far too polite to be a rock star, and he was about as young as we were.
However, in the here and now, I can look up the names of the members of China Crisis from that year. One of them is listed as Gazza Johnson. This was, according to reports, a nickname for Gary— also the name of the black-haired lead guitarist we were drooling over throughout the show. There were two Garys in the band that year, so I guess they needed to differentiate, like me and my four roommates from college, all of whom were named some variation of “Sue.”
I’m sure me and Sharon made a play for this guy to come out with us, but it did not work. However, my notes say he was very sweet, so he must have found a diplomatic way to sidestep our invitation.
So… here’s to Gazza Johnson of China Crisis in 1987, for making nice with me and my buddy, even though we could hardly decipher most of what he said. Even though Cynical Long Island Bitch didn’t believe he was who he said he was. Let’s give one point to Sharon, the Crazy Little Queens Girl, who believed, and who had the balls to yell loudly enough across the Ritz’s pitch and earsplitting mosh pit to get him to come over and talk to us.
And here, also, is to a life in which I have forgotten things that are way cooler than what many other people ever get to do, ever.
Note that Gazza Johnson was actually an exceptionally talented bass player, and some of the numbers from that year’s album are still my favorite tunes. I will share one of my faves, then.
“Safe as Houses”
Why I didn’t recognize the guy who played it even as I shook his hand is beyond me. Apologies for having eyes for the other guy, who was close enough to step on my fingertips. But apparently not nice enough to come out and say hello.
Note I have purchased and repurchased “What Price Paradise” in every format that it has been issued in since the ’80s, starting with the record album, moving on to a tape cassette for my first car, then a CD, then a download on iTunes after the CD was destroyed in a move, and a second download from Amazon after the iTunes stuff wouldn’t play on my phone anymore. So the band has gotten their share of royalties from me on that recording, in addition to the concert ticket.
I have a certain affinity for bass guitar anyway, since I grew up listening to bass lines being plucked out daily, repeatedly, maddeningly. My younger brother played. And played. And played so much that sometimes I’d march into his bedroom and yank the cord out of the amplifier at 9:00 in the morning on summer weekends when I had a hangover. Certain days I would stand there like an idiot ordering him to mow the lawn before my father had a conniption fit. Until I got fed up and flattened my hand over the strings, it was as if I weren’t even there. At that point he would finally look up as if to say, oh, sorry, you’re in the room with me?
I don’t know if that qualifies me to judge anything. But I do love a good new wave bass line.
That, and thanks to my brother Jimmy, I will have the bass notes to “Tom Sawyer” etched across my brain cells till I die.
Recalling a Brief Career as an Actress/Singer/Whatever
I am reminded now and then that I wasn’t always a writer. A few things happened: I recently watched the film “Birdman.” And I read my writer friend Kathryn Craft’s lovely novel The Art of Falling, which deals with a modern dancer who has body image issues. As a big show-off, I loved performing like nobody’s business in my youth. But these two pieces of work reminded of how screwed up it was, trying to be an actress/singer/whatever, especially in Manhattan.
This is what they taught you in theatre classes (I minored in theatre at Pitt, and I later actually went to the Lee Strasberg acting school in Manhattan for a semester, so yes, I actually trained somewhat for this stuff): They said, subscribe to Backstage and send your headshot for absolutely everything. Apart from getting naked, take every little thing you can get.
Whatever they ask you to do, say you can do it. If they ask if you can ride a horse, you say yes. If they ask if you can tap dance, say YES. Do you model? Yes. Do you do improv? Yes. Would you dye your hair? Would you relocate to Guam for three months? Can you bounce on a pogo stick and read the news while eating a yogurt? Yes, yes! (I can actually do that.)
Then if you get the job, you immediately LEARN to do whatever it is they hired you to do right away. You learn to tap dance ON the horse if they ask you to. And you do it in the one week they give you before you leave for the job. So, I took the photos, and I sent out the headshots to EVERYTHING.
I got called for auditions to model shoes, because that’s supposedly what petite girls do. But I was too small even for that. The shoe models were all size a six, and I was so tiny I was barely a size five. I still had trouble finding adult shoes to fit me at 23 years old. Besides that, two different shoe companies told me that my right foot was bigger than my left; I am sadly asymmetrical. I got one modeling job my whole life (in approximately seven years of auditions), for a Redken hair products industry trade show. Some semi-famous cosmetologist from London cut my hair live onstage, and I walked his runway in the finale.
Here’s a rock-and-roll promo shot, taken by a photographer named Michael Haus, who was based in Stony Brook, NY. I met him at a showcase and he invited me to do a couple of test shoots; he was young and trying to break into fashion photography. Wanted to be the next Francesco Scavullo. We became friends. He was quite talented, and was responsible for the one headshot I had that everybody called on. Directors would sometimes hold it up in the air and rather than say, “Who’s this girl?” they’d wave it and call, “Who did this headshot?” I gave out a lot of endorsements for Michael.
I’ve tried to look him up to see how his career turned out. I hope he changed his name or moved to Milan and is outrageously successful. At the time, he was trying to drum up high profile projects to kick-start his career, like a “Girls of Long Island” calendar. As a day job, he was the guy who took public school pictures. When he pulled a few of his backdrop screens down behind me, I recognized them from high school photos.
I was 112 pounds, and the dress I wore to the hair show audition was a Victoria’s Secret size three.
Yet when I asked my friend Michael if I could get involved in his Girls of Long Island calendar, he said:
“Do you know what kind of shape you have to be in to pose for something like that?”
This is why young women in the performing arts develop eating disorders. I was one of the tiniest girls I knew. I did aerobics like a hyperactive machine at least three times a week. I still was not skinny enough for this industry. (Note I have never had an eating disorder, unless eating too much is a disorder. At worst, I could be classified as one of those yo-yo dieters, losing and gaining the same 4 to 8 pounds for 20 years. But I get it.)
I did some decent, leading roles in regional musical theater, though: on Long Island, in Pittsburgh, in Florida. I was good live; I had a big voice. And when you are physically tiny in theater, you “read” younger than you are, and you fit into the ingénue category. I was still playing 16 year-olds at 28.
As an alto, I was usually a “second lead”; the first singing lead is typically a soprano. But no kidding, second leads have a lot of fun and get good solos, sometimes multiple songs per show. You always get paid better than the chorus. And you don’t have to be as good an actress—it doesn’t require as much dialog as the main lead. I was fairly lacking as an actress, disappointing more than one director, although I might have improved with time had I stuck it out.
I worked hard. I was all-business on stage. I got pissed off at the people who fooled around. I danced on tables and risers and fell off them and got bruised. I stayed at rehearsals until 11:00 at night.
My character was murdered on stage three times a week at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, NY, during a scene that called for my throat to be cut.
That theater had a miniscule dressing room for the girls, and an expansive one for the men, so I did my make up daily in the guys’ room in protest. When the boys complained about changing in my presence every day, I flashed them, after which time they let me stay.
The joke was on me, however. Once that production got underway, I had such a rapid costume change that I had to stand in the wings and literally jump out of one dress and into another in front of not just the actors, but the entire stage crew. Two cast mates stood off-stage holding open my next costume, zipping down the back of one dress as I climbed into the other and ducked back on stage before the lights came up. We had about a twelve count to make the transition.
I played a string of ethnic, singing peasants in Brigadoon, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof. I learned the whole production of Fiddler in only six days, as I was hired as a replacement for one of the five sisters who had quit the show. I sang at nursing homes, in restaurants and in parades with a roving production of Godspell, led by an aging hippie and ex-heroin addict who portrayed Jesus Christ. I sang with several different cover bands that barely made it out of the garage.
I choreographed a community production of Annie, and my little girls performed “It’s a Hard Knock Life” at the Suffolk County Arts Council Awards presentation. When one of those girls grew up, she reproduced my choreography in her high school production. I choreographed three numbers at Pitt’s “Greek Sing” for the fraternity where I was a little sister, and our guys won first place.
I was an extra in David Johansen’s “Hot Hot Hot” video, although a magnifying glass is required to identify the blur that is me. People still dance conga lines to this song at weddings. At the time I never imagined anyone would hear it. At a new artist showcase, I lip-synched to a recording of a song I co-wrote, in a little Manhattan joint called the California Club, where I later learned that Sandra Bullock supposedly was a bartender that same year. I hope she was present that night.
I also surprisingly got hired by an improv troupe in New York City. I fell asleep on the train on the way to the audition and forgot to apply eye make-up. So when they called to say I got the gig, I thought to myself, maybe this one isn’t just because they think I’m cute. So I screwed up my courage and got on stage with this bunch of WILDLY talented people who cracked me up every minute of rehearsal. I was by no means the stand-out of that crowd, I was the novice. But I learned I could think on my feet, and be amusing and spontaneous if I said the wacky things that popped into my head. I held up my end of the skits, God dammit. That was amazing training — for everything, not just for stage work. Thank you, cast of The Improvables circa the early 1990s. I have put this skill to work in public relations incessantly.
Of course, the parts I didn’t get were much better than the ones I did.
I was called to audition as a cable TV talk show host with a fake Australian accent, who was scheduled to interview Bridget Fonda. For comedic reasons, my male co-host was required to be shorter than I was. I listened to hours of early Nicole Kidman movies to prepare and showed up in my highest spike-heeled boots. They announced that they loved me and rehearsals started Monday, instructing me to call such-and-such on Friday for details. Then they never got back to me.
I auditioned for a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady where the directors looked so bored, one almost dropped off to sleep at his card table. They shouted THANK YOU!!! with fervor in the middle of my song, like you see in the movies. That shit really happens.
I seriously contemplated going to the open call for the original Footloose on Broadway, even though I had just found out I was pregnant with my son. I figured they wouldn’t realize for a few months.
I rocked a Paula Abdul number at an audition for a cruise ship singer/dancer troupe until the dance captain gave me moves to follow in a mirror and I got dyslexic.
An executive from Polygon Records described my voice as “wedding pop” in a rejection letter. Around that time, I was dating a long-time studio drummer who played with the original Broadway company of Godspell. In response to that rejection, he said to me, “Do you know how long Pat Benatar did weddings?”
I stood in line at 8:00 a.m. in Manhattan with 800 other girls to audition for VH1’s “Be a Diva” program, in the pouring rain, my babies at home with a sitter. I got so disgusted after four hours of the line not moving, I gave away my call sheet and number (something like #786) to the nice girl behind me who had temporarily departed to buy dry stockings right before they passed around the sheets. I got back on the train and went home.
I was called by the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Huntington, NY, to play 1920s tap dancer Ruby Keeler in a stage biography. However, they didn’t mount the production until two years after I auditioned, by which time I was about to move to Pennsylvania. I’d lied about knowing how to tap dance anyhow. I figured I’d learn.
But I really can bounce on a pogo stick for nearly five minutes straight, people. I swear. I inherited one of those from my cousin Valerie when I was eleven. I should have put that on the theatre resume, which also notes that I can giggle on cue.
During the time I was doing stage work, I had several simultaneous careers on the burners. I wrote fiction, which had been my major at Pitt. I did journalism. And I worked at an ad agency in both local broadcast radio production and PR. I made a pact with myself that I would follow whatever trail panned out first—no regrets.
Hence I became a public relations director.
It’s a hard job, and I’m good at it. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I continued to pour the same amount of energy and blood and tears into acting. Or novel writing, from the start. Because if I can be successful at PR, which is a dang challenging profession, maybe I could have been just as successful in one of those other disciplines …
Note that goes against the No Regrets policy, however.
If you were not whatever you are now, what would you be? Tell me…