Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Birthday Story.

It was in the late 80s. Jim and I had just arrived in Los Angeles. We moved here because we weren't getting work on the east coast, and he had a lot of contacts from his days out here writing for Sid & Marty Krofft.

We didn't really have much in the way of money, so we were living in a flophouse which used to be a glamorous Hollywood high rise on Franklin and Cahuenga, which was dusty, noisy and filled with old furniture. We lived on the second floor overlooking Cahuenga, facing west. In the late afternoon, with no A/C, it was gas fumes, horn honks and dust. Lots and lots of dust.

I was anxious to do something in L.A. that involved music. The place suggested for me was the National Academy of Songwriters. A friend said, "Just show up and volunteer. Best way to learn the business." There, I introduced myself as a wayward ex-Gospel singer / Neil Young lover turned rock musician turned musical director for a lounge act turned piano bar singer.

They put me on the front desk answering phones.

One day, the managing director, Dan Kirkpatrick, a guitarist from Kansas, told me a friend of his, a TV producer who made it big with "Married With Children," was looking for a musical director for a club act, one night only, and would I want the gig? I said sure.

The Producer, a woman, had a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. He had one last wish before going out. A fantasy he had harbored his entire life:

To sing and perform a night club act.

The Producer told him she would make it happen. So, she hired me to put together his act. Also, a band of musicians (who all turned out to be straight, but called themselves The Nancy Boys).

AIDS was all around me, but since I had been an itinerant musician up until the day I met Jim aboard the Galileo on that fateful trip out of New York, I hadn't been really touched by it. All my college friends were Baptists and I had long left them behind. And in Dallas, where I came out, I had left before the plague hit and had spent most of those years living hotel room to hotel room, gig to gig.

If my friends back in Dallas were dying, there was no way to know.

Meeting The Star that night, where we had a lavish feast from Pollo Loco, I was anxious because a lot was at stake. I could tell he was sick. But he was headstrong. His goal was to make this the biggest night of his life.

I could just imagine how many years he must have put in, in front of the mirror. He had expectations that this would be his vindication. This would be the greatest show ever conceived.

He had chosen nearly every song in the American Songbook for inclusion in the show. It was gonna run about five hours long. So, my first job with him was editing. Every song we pulled was like driving a dagger deeper and deeper into his "last big moment on earth" finale. But I knew he wouldn't have been able to sustain a show like that. And I was right.

As we rehearsed, I could tell he wasn't really a performer. His ambitious show was overwhelming him. There came a time in the process where eliminating a song was an act of mercy and I could see the sense of relief wash over him as he let himself be talked out of this song or that song.

I took my role very seriously. I had to weigh what he was fantasizing against what was possible. I would not let him get up there and make a fool of himself.

Finally, the big night arrives.

The Nancy Boys, who I had just met, were setting up. The venue was a New York style piano bar with a big room, where people sat at tables, though I think they might have cleared out the tables to accommodate the crowd. Everyone had come to see him.

And then I get a phone call.

He's too sick to go on.

His body had finally started failing and he was too weak to stand. "He wants you to go on," The Producer told me over the phone.

"To what?"

"You have to go on in his stead and sing the songs he would have sung. Do his act! This is his request."

I have to sing his program and, what, be him? Say a few words about him? Are any of the attendees really coming tonight to "enjoy" a night on the town, a fun-filled evening of show tunes, frolic and laughs? No. They're coming because they love him and they want to see him.

Why would any of them even remotely care to listen to me sing? They don't know me. Honestly, I felt embarrassed. But it was his wish. He was insisting. He wanted them to have a party and he was supplying the party.

By now, the band has set up and we're ready to go. I start scanning on the music, trying to remember the lyrics so that I don't have to do the night with my head pointed down. But, worse, this isn't my music. Sure, I've done some piano bars, but this is Liza stuff. Barbra stuff. I don't sing this!

I can't remember much after that except that I think he drifted in at some point during the night, wrapped in blankets, sitting there watching me do his show.

I never felt so out of place in my life. Every move felt like the wrong move. Like an overweight girl in a narrow room full of glass figurines. Every word out of my mouth, "He said he wanted to sing this for you..." felt clumsy, awkward and leaden.

And this ghost of a person watching me use his toothpaste and wear his clothes and kiss his date.

But I finished his show with a big smile on my face. I know that, on the outside, I was cool and present and uplifting and gracious because everyone said I was. But, on the inside, I felt this dead numbness of not knowing what truck just hit me.

I was an impersonator of a person I had never seen perform. A person with AIDS. A person dying of AIDS.

I know I was thinking of him when I was writing the songs for The Last Session. My original idea was that I would gather all my friends at the Hollywood Roosevelt and just give myself one last concert.

And the great miracle of that night was that it actually happened. Except it wasn't a concert; it was a musical. And that was me at the piano. I was coughing and hacking, but I did it.

But in the back of my mind, no matter where or when I sing, I will always think of that guy who had dreamed his whole life to have his own night club act -- but who had to watch someone else do it.

So, guess what I'm getting for my birthday tomorrow?

Yep. A house. A piano. And a bunch of people who have to listen to me sing.

And that's all I ever want for a birthday.
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