I was chatting with my buddy "Fuzz", a friend who has been involved with the rock and roll “industry” for as long as I have, and the conversation always turns to the phenomena of brushing the brass ring with your fingertips, but it invariably always evades your grasp. It’s happened so many times to the both of us, that now we actually find these stories amusing, but at the time, they are the farthest things from it.
"Fuzz" road manages “Otis Day and The Knights” (the penultimate frat house party band of “Animal House” fame) as his bread and butter gig. He was advancing an upcoming gig for a private party to be held at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and was bitching about the amount of paperwork and hoops you have to jump through with the Secret Service and National Security wogs (basically, every member of the band and entourage has to be completely vetted, just in case a terrorist/axe murderer happens to be the bass player, for example).
And, yup, you guessed it, every one in the band either has a past as checkered as a chessboard, or long standing drug issues, so getting them cleared by various governmental security agencies is...
a stone bitch. It’s a lot of extra work on top of the normal hurdles that need to be negotiated (either leapt over, walked around or crawled under) to make it a smooth experience for the act you happen to represent.
As he was kvetching about the succession of dis-organized assholes from the RNC and Secret Service that he was dealing with on an hourly and daily basis leading up to ushering a posse of substance abusing, non-payment of parking tickets, arrest warrants issued for various misdemeanors musicians to a high paying gig, I had to tell him about my own brush with the Secret Service and the N.S.A, one of many of the files stored in my “Epic Failure Folder” of memory:
It was the spring of ’97.
I had just booked The Shuffling Hungarians (for those uninitiated, a 15 piece greasy soul orchestra-circus, fronted by yours truly) at a club in Martha’s Vineyard called the Hot Tin Roof (owned by Carly Simon) for Saturday August 30th.
The premier club, at the premier Eastern Seaboard vacation spot, on the premier night of the summer season.
The Hungarians had a lot of national buzz behind them, as I had just released a double “LIVE” recording and was furiously trying to get it noticed, and doing pretty well at it, quite frankly, which is why I got the gig. (Insert the sound of me patting myself on the back here)
Immediately after the signed contract was returned to me, I got a phone call from a 202 area code -- we were doing a lot of marketing in DC at the time, so that wasn’t too unusual.
Me: “Good Morning, Queen Bee Brand Records and Furniture O' Rama. How may I help
202 Area Code: “This is the Office of The President. May I speak to Mr. George Rossi, social security number XXX -XX-XXX?”
Me (in my internal monologue): “What the Fuck?”
Ok, here’s the skinny: somebody in Martha’s Vineyard talked to somebody in DC, and somebody on the Bill Clinton's PR team thought it would be a good idea to have him show up at The Hungarian’s Vineyard Wing Ding (we were pretty media “warm” at that point) and leak it to the press.
Sounds good to me. little did I know what I was getting into.
On a daily basis, I had to deal with some knucklehead from the Secret Service, the NSA or The Office of the President. I had to hire a lawyer to clean up all the arrest records of various band members (constant conference calling between the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago, the Secret Service, and myself on the behalf of our percussionist was a particular “head in the pencil sharpener” exercise of note), which of course put a marginally profitable gig squarely in the red financial “loss” column.
The thing evolved from President Bill showing up, high fiving, and cruising back into the limo to President Bill wanting to sit in with the band. The set list had to be vetted for questionable lyric material. Charts were Fedexed directly to the White House. I had to go back into the studio and mix five songs in a “Music Minus One” format so he could practice along with a recording (Bill took his saxophonage seriously, evidently).
This was a ton of extra work and expense, but it was going to be a big break -- live feeds from every cable and “big three” network, print media, magazines...you name it, they were all gonna be there, all at once.
A global puff piece, but a piece shot ‘round the world. So well worth the monetary and sweat equity investment.
And of course, everyone in the band was well aware of what was going on, due to the total invasion of his or her collective privacy. But they recognized it a big break as well, and it was heartening to finally be able to deliver a big one to my extended “Hungarian Family”; all of us had been working hard, and it was morale-boosting to finally have something concrete in the form of a pay-off.
As we approached the big day, an Eagle Tour Bus was rented (you gotta fake it before ya make it, friends -- and another pre-programmed morale booster). The gear was stowed in the cargo hold, and we all piled in (getting 15 nut balls to collectively pile into a bus with surgical precision is a feat unto itself), and started the long trip from the East Side of Syracuse to the Wood’s Hole Ferry, for our date with destiny, well earned and long deserved. It was a fun trip.
When we arrived at the Hot Tin Roof for sound check, the parking lot was already starting to fill with mobile broadcast units from various global news agencies, their rooftop satellite dishes armed and ready to raise heavenward, for the eventual world wide broadcast of a sound bite of “The Hungarian Manifesto”, beamed into potentially millions of homes.
Everyone was frisked, metal-detected, every bag rooted through, every instrument case opened and every instrument thoroughly inspected, just in case the kick drum was packed with C-4 explosives or the trumpet was rigged for automatic rifle fire.
Amidst many individuals in black suits with earpieces, chatting into their sleeves, I relished this moment. It was time to go out and grab the ring, and I had been preparing for this moment my entire life.
The room was packed, and the excitement was palpable. The Novena candles were lit (about 300 of 'em... our trademark), the intro tape cued, the fog machine belching out its unique sickly-smelling cloud of noxious gas, and we started the show, a confident army of friends, battle tested and blazing. Five minutes before “The Prez” was about to make his grand entrance, a Secret Service Agent walks on stage and hands me a note. It read:
“Princess Diana has just died in a car accident. The President WILL NOT be appearing.”
That’s it. Just two sentences. The cabal of black suits disappeared from the wings of the stage, the camera crews de-materialized, and the limo pulled out of the lot. Just like that.
And I was left with the thought of my life and career crashing and burning around my brain pan just like Diana’s car crashing into the thirteenth pillar of a tunnel in Paris, all while looking at the lone fourth music stand in front of the horn section that would go unused that night and trying to entertain about 700 tweaking revelers and extended family members who had assembled for your big moment, fronting a band that was blissfully unaware of the disappointment that they were about to experience -- and making sure that know one knows anything that’s going on in your head, because that’s what entertainers do.
It ain’t your day kid. Only you can’t hit the showers. You still have to pretend that it is your day. Keep smiling, monkey boy.
This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me, and it was going to be the last. Unfortunately, I'm actually good at gracefully fiddling while Rome is burning. I've had lots of practice. The Universe likes to bat me down, hard, at the most inopportune moments it can pick.
I have become philosophical about these types of moments.
You may shoot for the stars and end up in a back alley behind Pluto, beaten and bloodied, but at least I dare to dream, and that’s better than being Earthbound.
I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.
The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right.