Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where Do Maybe Babys Come From?

When a writer and a historical moment fall in love, they get together and...

Well, it's true. All Maybe Babys start the same way. An important piece of rock history that I’ve already known has entered my mind or, through my constant thumbing through books and rifling through old albums, a new idea comes forward. My neighbor, who suggested I name my sources, was startled when I told her that, really, the only source is the historical fact. Ultimately, everything is made up by little ol' me; only the spark is real.

Once that fact has appeared, the next step is deciding how the story should go. Some Maybe Babys are about things I want to happen (saving Curtis Mayfield); some are about things I'd like to stop (John and Yoko). Some are simply remarkable anecdotes I'd never known and can make into a tale wholly new (The Kinks assault, or the terrorist attack on The Rolling Stones). All Maybe Babys can be divided into four categories: it happened and was good, it happened and was bad, it didn't happen and was good, it didn't happen and was bad. Simple right?

Maybe Baby is as much about writing as about rock 'n' roll. For me, it has become an exercise in stylistic diversity and points of view. Part of the, dare I say, "magic" of it is that I can approach a story from any angle: interviews, first person reflection of the hero, third person historical. Did I interview Ray Manzarek and Paul McCartney in 1973? I was ten years old then. Do I know what Stephen Stills was thinking when he chose to be a Monkee? I couldn’t possibly, and, anyway, Stephen Stills never was a Monkee!

Once the subject and the approach have been chosen, the research begins. Library books, Rolling Stone and Creem archives are summoned. Every Maybe Baby must be grounded in historical accuracy and real knowledge of the characters involved. They must ring true to make their falseness feel real. And the music, don't forget the music. I completely immerse myself in the work of the artist in play and snippets of lyrics morph into bits of dialogue, inflection and manner of speech go from the singer to the text. YouTube helps with getting the patois just right. The reader (that’s you) has got to believe that this fanciful fiction could’ve happened.

The greatest reactions are from readers who aren’t quite sure what’s going on. I’ve been asked if I really did talk to George Harrison, or how did I know what Paul Simon said to Art Garfunkel in a private call? That’s when the stories work the best. And when I get an email from a musician in Minneapolis, or a Tweet from a London reader, I know I’ve hit emotional pay dirt.

Twists are important. A Buddy Holly story may seem to be about saving the bespectacled genius from a plane crash, but don’t be so hasty. It’s more than that. What did happen to Bob Dylan when he departed from the rock scene post-Blonde on Blonde? They end up writing themselves, in about 1 1/2 weeks from idea to final product.

The pictures help. I've found photos that fit perfectly and more than once I’ve been shocked to find a shot that looks as if it were taken explicitly for the story. If I need to change the written description of, say, Ray Davies’ clothes to make the text match the photo find, I gladly do so. It heightens the alternative reality. There’s been a small amount of Photoshopping, but no one here is very good at that.

Oh yeah, the titles are key. They’re either song names that fit, or snatches of lyrics that make the reader get a feel for what's to come. The best title is Maybe Baby itself, which came from Karen (Mrs. Maybe Baby herself). When I thought of putting the stories up as a blog, I told her I needed a song, or lyric, that reflected what I was attempting to pull off, an alternate rock world. It couldn’t be too obvious.

“Maybe Baby,” she said without skipping a beat. It was pure inspiration and just what was needed. The subtitle, You Know That It Would Be Untrue, gives a little more insight into the blog, courtesy “Light My Fire.”

Once the story is written, it’s filed away to wait its turn for posting. Emails to about 150 people provide clues as to what the coming feature will be about. Those emails are used as Facebook and Twitter updates, as well as messages to the occasional fan site. Daily Tweets highlight a piece of rock history and a link to the relevant Maybe Baby story.

And there you have it; a new Maybe Baby enters the world on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month. So far, there have been 34 offspring set free. There are many more written, waiting to be officially born.

Read on!

(Thanks to Kate Roth for suggesting this piece).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get Back

Staying at home was more enjoyable than John thought it would be. Playing with Baby Sean, baking whole wheat bread for his macrobiotic diet – that would never keep him happy, he thought, but Yoko insisted, so there you are. One of the joys of being around was that he was available when friends came to call. George was in New York for a Monty Python show at City Center, and Paul was going to drop by tonight. Paul and Linda were in town to promote Speed of Sound, Paul’s new album that already had shot to the top of the charts.

Now in April of 1976, John was scornful of the pap Paul was putting out. Well, OK, he liked some of it and was very much tempted to surprise Paul a couple of years back and drop in while Wings was recording Venus and Mars in New Orleans. But Yoko caught wind of it and pulled him back, away from Paul. She wasn’t going to have that again, and word got back to her that John and Paul were getting along very well indeed, the McCartneys having visited John and then-girlfriend May in Santa Monica and New York.

But Paul was visiting and he was allowed to ring John up, which he did. It was nice to have his old mate back and their friendship was finding its way through both the breakup of the band, the endless lawsuits and their different, grown up lifestyles. Paul was churning out the hits and ready to tour, John was no longer riding on the merry-go-round, having bowed out of the scene after his last album in ’75.

Paul and Linda arrived at the Dakota around 9 PM that Saturday and were sent right up. How does he do that, John wondered, traipse through security without a look? He was the only one who could pull that off. John answered the door, looking very thin from his steady consumption of brown rice, Thai stick and heroin. John led Paul, who had brought a guitar, through the apartment to a small room where they could relax, talk and watch TV. Since the birth of Sean in October, a month earlier than the due date by Caesarean section to have the baby’s arrival “magically” fall on John’s birthday, Lennon had been slowly rendered useless in his own home with the addition of a full-time nanny and had retreated to one corner of the apartment. Everything he needed was there – a couch, a color TV and a few guitars. Tonight he was keen to watch John Sebastian, former leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful on Saturday Night Live. Sebastian was in the midst of a comeback after a long period out of the public eye.

In the comfortable company of his old friend, Paul talked excitedly about his upcoming tour and wondered if John would show up for the May dates at Madison Square Garden.

“Everybody’s been asking me if I’ll be there, you know,” answered John.


“I don’t really know. I might, it’s all up in the air with the baby and Mother.”

“Let me know. I’ve asked George as well, but he doesn’t know if he’ll still be here. If you wanted to come up and do a number, like you did with Elton, that would be fine too.” There, Paul laid it out as plainly as he could. If John could join Elton John on stage to sing (and sing Beatle songs no less), then why couldn’t he do it with Paul?

A heavy silence. No answer. John seemed to want to say yes, but hesistated, unsure. He passed the joint to Paul. It was past midnight and the comfort of the evening was gone. Both of their heads turned to the television, tuned to Channel 4 and Saturday Night Live. A young man with a dark jacket sat behind a desk, wood paneling behind him.

“Hi, I’m Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night.”

“Have you seen this show?” asked John.

“Heard of it. Good?”

“Yeah, very funny. Reminds me a bit of The Goon Show and Python.”

“…if I may, to address myself to four very special people-John, Paul, George and Ringo,” said Michaels.

John and Paul heads snapped to face each other, and then back to the TV. At the peak of Beatle reunion offers, some in the tens of millions, here was the producer of a comedy show offering, wait, was that three thousand dollars? The boys laughed.

Michaels continued. Holding up a check from NBC, he laid down the terms. “All you have to do is sing three Beatles songs- ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ That’s a thousand right there. You know the words-it’ll be easy.”

“We do know the words John.”

“That we do. Fancy doing it?”

“When did you have in mind? The Wings tour ends in June.”

“Now, I fancy doing it now. It’s live, Saturday Night Live,” John spit out the last word. It was more than 20 blocks from the Dakota to the studio at Rockefeller Center, but the show didn’t end until 1 AM. They had time.

“Let’s go.”

John called down to the lobby to have a cab waiting. The two quickly put on their shoes and hurried to the elevator. In the rush, McCartney left his guitar upstairs.

They arrived in short order. As they burst into the lobby, the elderly security guard looked up, wondering who these young fellows were and why they were in such a hurry. He slowly got up from his stool. Like a flash, Neil Levy, the show’s talent coordinator swept in, having been sent to the door by Lorne as a joke, in case any Beatle showed up. He kept his cool as he escorted John and Paul to the studio.

“Lorne, Lorne, they’re here!” Levy yelled as he made his way through the halls backstage. He found Michaels, who snapped out of the boredom of listening to guest host Raquel Welch belt out “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

John and Paul stood face to face with Lorne Michaels. The producer, though stunned beyond belief, had a show to produce and had to forego any small talk, for now. After the show there’d be time.

“John, Paul. We’ll get you on next. What do you need?”
John, feeling the leader again, spoke first. “Two guitars.”

“Any lefthanders in the band?” asked Paul. “If not, I can play upside down.”

Michaels grabbed one of the assistants. “Get two guitars for The Beatles!”

Word was travelling. Half the cast, still in bee costumes from the last sketch, hurried to see the Fab Two. Even seeing wasn’t believing. They hadn’t performed together for almost ten years.

A commercial break was scheduled, but as Welch sashayed off, the din from backstage led the live audience to suspect something was up. Don Pardo, the show’s announcer, was on mike.

“Ladies and gentlemen, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” The two entered together, laughed a bit and began to play. Barely heard through the hysterical crowd were the opening strains of “Two of Us.”

On April 24, 1976, Paul McCartney visited John Lennon at his home in the Dakota Apartments. They watched Saturday Night Live as Lorne Michaels presented NBC’s offer of $3,000 to The Beatles, split however they saw fit, in case they wanted to give Ringo less. John and Paul thought about going down to the studio but, as John told Playboy magazine years later, they were “too tired.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Even the Losers

I decided to drive down to Florida for spring break in 1983. Not having much success with girls in college, I figured my chances had to be better in Daytona Beach. After all, girls went down there for anonymous sex, didn’t they? At least, that was the premise I was going on, and probably what was on my mind, when I missed the exit off I-75 for the eastbound road to the Atlantic coast.

Let me make it clear that I am not at all comfortable out of the city, let alone in rural Florida. I saw Deliverance and, let me tell you, it left a mark. But, with Gainesville ahead, I felt brave enough to pull off the highway. It was a college town, wasn’t it, and had to be a little civilized.

I was starving and found a McDonald’s drive thru. My gut told me to stay in the car, but I decided to be tough and enter the restaurant. It wasn’t bad. The local crowd wasn’t particularly scary and there were no signs of backwoods hunters forcing strangers to squeal like a pig. Maybe my images of the south were a tad skewed. Could be.

After I finished my three minute meal, I noticed a bar called The Cypress Lounge and, with my newfound inner strength, decided to stop in for a beer. Not my style, I know, and about as out of character as when I drank from the community bottle of Jack Daniels at a Rolling Stones concert. This seemed well thought out by comparison.

The bar was dark and almost empty. It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the dim lights. From the corner, there was the neon glow from a jukebox playing “Bits and Pieces” by The Dave Clark Five. I sat down, ordered a Bud, figuring that was the safest choice. I didn’t want to stand out, you know. Two seats over I noticed a guy with shoulder length greasy blonde hair and the sunken appearance of a skeleton. He looked familiar. Was it Tom Petty? Tom Petty had a couple of great albums a few years back, with some amazing songs – “Breakdown,” “No Second Thoughts,” plenty more. Then he disappeared. I never knew why.

“I love the Dave Clark Five,” I said, hoping to make a connection.

“Uh-huh,” he mumbled into his beer bottle.

“Excuse me, are you Tom Petty?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I’m a big fan.” I stuck out my hand, but he didn’t turn his head. Awkward, but I didn’t catch the hint.

“What’ve you been up to lately? I have both your records. They’re great. I love ‘Hometown Blues’ on the first album.”

He turned slowly to look at me, realizing I knew his work. Maybe that’s what broke the ice.

“Thanks for not forgetting about me, man.”

“It’s not that easy. Those were my favorite albums at the time, but you haven’t done anything in, like, five years. Are you working on something?”

Petty took a swig from his bottle of Bud, placed it on the bar and gave me a ferocious stare. “Don’t read the music magazines, do you?”

I got a little nervous. “Umm, no, I don’t. Sorry.”

It got quiet. “Hey, I’m really sorry if I stepped into something bad. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just curious.”

“Ahh, forget about it.” He paused. “You know anything about the music business? You know that it screws over hungry kids all the time?”

“Sure, I’ve read about guys getting ripped off. The Beatles, Springsteen, everyone, I guess. What can you do about it though, they’re powerful dudes.”

“Yeah, well I thought I could do something about it. Wanna hear about it?”

I nodded. “You want another beer?”

“Sure, you buying?” I said yes.

“You see, we had made those first two records and were doing all right, you know, but I realized I was getting ripped off. They stole my publishing for pennies. I signed those songs away – I thought it was, like, a contract making songbooks or something.”

I laughed, after he did.

“So, I was already screwed, like what more could they do to me, right?”

“Yeah, right,” I quickly agreed. This was really cool, sitting in a bar with a bona fide rock star, listening to his story. I didn’t want to lose the moment.

“Here’s where I fucked up, big time. After, the second album, it was on Shelter, remember, our label got sold from ABC to MCA, but we had a deal that we couldn’t be sold. I was scared to be in the hands of people I didn’t know, and I pushed back, hard. Gotta keep a little bit of pride, you know.”

He was getting a little drunker, and a lot angrier. Who knew how long he’d been sitting at that bar? I never met a guy whose records I had. I was going to keep this going for as long as I could.
“What did you do?” Not a great question, but enough to make him talk some more.

“Well, my manager told me I had no money. I was half a million bucks in debt and, if I declared bankruptcy, I’d be out of my contracts. So I said, let’s do that. I can tell you, the music suits were not happy and came down on me pretty heavy.”

“I still don’t get why you’re not making records anymore?” And I didn’t.

“I’m getting to that. There was this executive board meeting, and this big man comes in and says ‘Let me tell you something, kid. You’re going to forget this whole thing, make your records and shut up.’ I didn’t take to that very well.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah, it did. So, after hearing that, I pull out a switch blade and look at it menacingly. Then, I look straight at that guy in his expensive office and his fancy suit and say, ‘I will sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you. You can’t make records, you can’t sing.’ Then I got up and left. That’s the kind of guy I was then.”

“That’s cool.” And it was.

“Was it? I really thought they’d cave and I told the band that, but, you know what, they didn’t. They used their lawyers to get an injunction – we couldn’t tour – and they made it clear to every record company that we were through. Blackballed us up and down, there wasn’t a label that would touch us.”

Petty wasn’t angry now, just sad. I could see in his face that being a tough guy, a rebel, may have been a great image for a rock star, but it was a lousy approach to business. He knew it too and lived with it every day. What a wasted life, I thought. Was it worth the fight?

“You still playing?”

“Sometimes, around Gainesville. We started out in places like this,” he waved his beer holding hand in a circle, “and that’s where I’m back.” He got quiet for a while. Then he spoke.

“Hey, can you pick up another round?”

“Sure. I have a few bucks, even on a college student budget.”

We talked long after dark, countless sad stories of a guy who once was king, if just for a while.

Tom Petty’s early career was marked by a series of legal entanglements. First signed by Denny Cordell for Shelter Records, Petty gave up his publishing in return for a record deal. He later sued, and won, resulting in a royalty rate greater than the penny a record deal he was on. Shelter, distributed by ABC Records, was sold to MCA. Petty’s contract contained a clause that he could not be transferred without his approval. He balked at the move, MCA threatened and Petty declared bankruptcy. Since bankruptcy would void all contracts, Petty’s move shook the music industry to its core as scores of artists could follow suit. After a prolonged fight, MCA gained an injunction to stop Petty from touring. With new backing, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers embarked on their “Why MCA” tour and, soon after, a settlement was reached.