Friday, October 23, 2009

Mr. Pitiful

Sitting on the deck of the gay disco Paradise Garage, Otis Redding watched the planes fly away. New York shone at night, and the view of the illuminated skyline was magnificent from the rooftop patio atop the West Village nightspot. The fall air was crisp and Otis needed to cool down, his powder blue jumpsuit drenched with perspiration from the ruffled sleeves down to the flared cuffs. He’d just come offstage and, after stopping at the bar, made his way upstairs. He passed by the movie room, filled with people watching Mark of the Devil.

“Otis, my man!”

An effeminate black man greeted Otis cheerfully. Why were people saying this to him all the time? He’d noticed that the phrase came up over and over again since mid-summer, but why? Folks say the strangest things, he thought as he sipped his grapefruit juice. The Garage didn’t serve alcohol, but Otis didn’t mind. He wasn’t much of a drinker, or a drug user, for that matter. Occasionally he’d smoke a reefer, but not often. He thought back ten, or was it eleven, years ago to Monterey and all those cats taking stuff - smack, weed, acid. He never was shocked by it, hell, even Shang-a-Lang was hooked on junk. As long as he could blow his horn, Otis didn’t mind.

Monterey. Was it really over a decade since then? Otis loved those rock and roll kids, they really got the groove he was laying down and he got where they were coming from. He dug Dylan and The Beatles, and it changed him. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” couldn’t have been written if he hadn’t heard those rock songs. He went with the flow, becoming a rock star because that’s what the people wanted. The more he got into the psychedelic scene, the further he got from his pure soul sound.

He always had that voice, sometimes soft, sometimes hard, sometimes weak, sometimes boastful. He was “The Big O,” the man who supplanted Elvis Presley as the greatest vocalist alive, but like the King, Otis fumbled his way through the musical fashion of the moment – soul, psychedelia, funk, Philly soul and now disco. He had lost his way. One of Otis’ inspirations, Jackie Wilson, suffered in similar ways, led into musical dead ends and winding up collapsing in some place called The Latin Casino in New Jersey back in ‘75. For three years now poor Jackie was lying in a bed someplace in a coma. They used to play together in “cattle call” shows, a slew of acts running out on stage to sing a couple of songs at fast tempos. They’d do their thing, and then run off to make way for the next singer. Man, Jackie could belt ‘em out.

What the -? The force of a hard back slap sent Otis’ drink flying. “Hey Otis, my man.” Reaching down to pick up the glass, Otis sighed, stood up and looked at the stars. Almost 37, Otis’ afro was showing specks of gray, his midsection puffy enough to strain the polyester of his outfit.

Monterey Pop, June 1967. Three days of beautiful music and far out people, almost 100,000 hippies grooving during the Summer of Love. Otis was the headliner on Saturday. All day long, the great bands wowed the crowd, one after the other – Electric Flag, Janis and Big Brother, The Byrds. Otis thought back and could see himself, younger and finer in his aqua jacket and pants, and light green shirt, almost square, hanging off stage, and digging Jefferson Airplane. When they finished, he was on.

After smoking a quick joint, Otis hit the stage at 1 AM and, with Booker T. and The MG’s grooving from the first note, blasted “Shake” with a power that shook the crowd and lifted them from their seats. Monterey made Otis Redding an international sensation. Now, in 1978, he was belting them out in a gay black disco club, singing novelties like “Disco Shake,” “Love Man Boogie,” and a discofied “Knock on Wood.”

Another plane roared over head. Otis put the empty glass to his lips and chewed some ice to cool down further. The rooftop reverberated from the beat of the records played below. This shit all sounds the same, Otis thought.

“Hey Otis.”

Otis was deep in his mind. Gotta get back to my thing, straight ahead rhythm and soul. Maybe call the old band together. Get those old Stax guys like The Bar-Kays, Booker T., Steve Cropper, “Duck” Dunn. Steve and “Duck” were deep in their Blues Brothers scene, but Otis knew they’d want to be back with him, the real thing. This disco shit was ruining him, he knew that much.

“Otis, my man!”

Otis was in his own head, thinking of all his wrong turns. He had been on top of the world, adored by all, but slowly, year by year, he was falling. Everything had gone wrong. He lost everything he had and, as he went through all this in his mind, he knew he had to go back to what made him great, to be able to sing his song to everyone.

“Hey Otis! My man!

“WHAT?” Otis was shaken from his reverie. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

Up close now, Larry the DJ lowered his voice. “Otis. Hey, man, relax. You’re on.”

“Oh, oh, yeah, OK. Sorry I yelled at you,” Otis replied, his voice filled with sadness. Larry walked away, shaking his head, puzzled.

Otis descended the stairs to the stage floor, red lights glowing, rhythm pulsating, the heat unbearable.

Otis Redding, along with four members of The Bar-Kays, were killed on December 10, 1967, when their plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Paradise Garage, the legendary disco club at 84 King St. in the West Village, was a member’s only club that catered to a mainly gay black clientele. It closed in September 1987.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Trace of Doubt in My Mind

“Cut! Cut! Cut!”

Director James Frawley sprung out of his chair and made a beeline for Stephen Stills. Micky, Davy and Mike casually sauntered to the side of the set, stage left, glad to be out of the line of fire.
“Stevie, baby, you’ve got to be staring at that chimp. You’re wandering off into space. You’ve got to concentrate.”

“Mmm, OK,” Stills muttered.

Concentrate. Concentrate! On a staring contest with a monkey! This is a big mistake. I should be writing and playing with the band. Just last month we were wowing them at the Whisky, now I’m facing off with an ape. I never should have auditioned for this show, and now I’m stuck.

"That’s right Stevie, a blank stare, just like the one you have on right now,” Frawley went on, congratulating himself on getting what he needed from his “actor.” For a first time director, it was a challenge working with the musicians in The Monkees, Stills and Nesmith. The show biz guys, Jones and Dolenz, were fine, happy to ham it up without feeling self-conscious, without thinking they were selling out to the man.

Stills turned to the chimpanzee on the stool before him.

We were set to take off in the summer of 1966 and our shows at the Whisky a Go Go were our coming out party. All the labels were there, itching to sign us on. All of them spouting the same pitch, “We gotta have Buffalo Springfield. We’ll make you guys big stars.” But I couldn’t do it. I was spoken for. I never should’ve gone to that audition, but that was in September of ’65 I was going nowhere, the band didn’t even exist, Neil was still in Canada. So, what the hell, why not try TV? I knew it wasn’t my bag, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. They liked me and, for what it’s worth, that was good enough for me.

Frawley pushed back his dark hair and hiked up his white slacks.

“Stevie, come on, I know you’re the sensitive type, but you have to clown around more. Get into it, man. Have fun. Free up.”

“Free up?”

“Yeah, remember our improv classes, be free, be bold, be committed to your role.”

I should be committed, committed to my music, not this slapstick shit. Here it is, the middle of June, and instead of writing songs I’m playing with a monkey. Hell, I am a Monkee! I wish I could find a way to freedom, but what’s the cost of breaking a contract?

“Action!” Frawley yelled. Stills held his gaze on the simian before him. The chimp looked back. Was that a sympathetic look?

“Cut! Nice job guys, nice work Stevie. Head to costumes for the war scene.”

The war scene? What the…? Oh yeah, camouflage and greasepaint. Meanwhile there’s a war taking place for real out on the streets. The heat were pressing hard down on the kids on the Strip, kids just grooving to the sounds coming from the clubs like the Whisky and Pandora’s Box. Battle lines were being drawn out there and I’m in here, putting on a beret and uniform.

Micky was working it like a pro from his platform, breaking his pointer on the map, but Stills was drifting off again, thinking about his music, thinking of the electricity the Springfield created on stage. Frawley noticed but did nothing, hoping Stills would snap out of it. He wouldn’t.

“Cut! Cut! Cut!”

Stills slowly looked up and Frawley was already on top of him.

“Stevie, baby, you have to pay attention. When Mike and Davy turn their watches over you have to be ready to turn yours over too, kapish?”

“I don’t have a watch.”

“I know, I know,” Frawley was exasperated. “You don’t have a watch, that’s the gag. You have to turn over a big hourglass. Where’s your hourglass?”

“Umm, I must have forgotten it in the dressing room.”

“Props! Bring out the hourglass.” Frawley ordered loudly.

A stagehand scurried out quickly, huge comic hourglass in hand. She began to attach the band to Stills’ wrist.

“OK, Stevie, timing now. Be alert. You have to turn over the hourglass after the other two boys turn their watches. Ready. Now…action!”

Now ATCO wants to sign us for an album and they’ll have to do it without me. Even though they won’t let me play on The Monkees tunes, I can’t play with the Springfield. Over here, they prefer ‘studio musicians.’ Well, I did session work too, but that’s not good enough for them, I guess. Time to turn my hourglass.

Stills turned his hourglass upright on cue. Scene over.

“Cut! Print! Nice job boys. Good work Stevie. Next shot is the hotel room. Don’t forget Stevie, you get to play a footstool in this scene. It’s gonna be a gas!"

A footstool! Figures; that’s how I feel anyway, a piece of furniture with nothing to do but get walked on.

As Stephen Stills left the set, stage right, he noticed the sign by the fire extinguisher on the wall – “In Case of Fire, ‘Run’.”

In early September 1965, Stephen Stills auditioned for The Monkees television show. While the producers liked him very much, Stills declined, realizing it was not for him. He recommended his good friend Peter Tork, who got the role. From May 2 through June 18, 1966, Buffalo Springfield, featuring Stills and Canadian pal Neil Young, played a series of legendary shows at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. After the Sunset Strip “riots” in November, Stills penned “For What It’s Worth,” the song which catapulted him to stardom.