Sunday, September 11, 2011

What I Will Never Forget

Everywhere I’ve looked in the last few days I've seem to come across the words, “Remember” or “Never Forget.” On signs in windows, on the television, on newspapers, on the Facebook status of friends, on Tweets. And of course in many of those instances I wonder what it is they’re remembering, or making certain not to forget.

For me, I remember needing to step away from watching the events unfold on the television screen. From my parents’ back yard I had a clear view down to Manhattan. I chose rather to watch the smoke on the horizon. I was nearly shaking at the thought that it was only a few days earlier that I had walked through the World Trade Center plaza feeling triumphant coming from my first live interview at WNYC radio. All other radio interviews I’d done to that point were over the phone. The feeling that somehow everything had changed that day will be forever with me.

I remember being thankful at learning loved ones who were around the World Trade Center site were okay. I remember the heartache at hearing friends’ voices when they told me they were waiting for news—news that would change them forever, too.

The sadness, the anger, the sense of innocence and complacency lost—these are things I still carry with me from that day ten years ago. I also get strange sense memories of that day too. Still, sunny mornings frequently give me a chill. The quiet in particular takes me back to that day and the days that followed while all air traffic was grounded. And then a few days afterward, after my ears had become accustomed to the sound of silence in the skies, I remember hearing that first airplane in the sky, louder than any had ever seemed before when passing over my Westchester neighborhood.

I remember being unable to cancel my travel plans for the following week. I had a cruise to Bermuda booked and the cruise line stated the trip would go on as planned, just out of the port in Philadelphia rather than New York. It was a very bizarre feeling embarking on a vacation only a matter of days after those events.

I remember the insensitivity of the bus driver who was shuttling the cruise passengers from New York to Philadelphia when he put on the movie Air Force One for the drive. I had not seen the film before. It involved terrorists taking over an airplane. Some of the passengers actually started crying during the scene. No idea what he was thinking. The trip turned out to be somber and low key. I remember everyone we encountered while on the trip being especially warm because we were American. Even more so when they learned we were from New York.

I remember returning to New York and then the anthrax scare began. I learned that the book signing events that had been planned for me in Manhattan were cancelled. Nobody was gathering in groups we were told. I didn’t mind. After what occurred I said myself, ‘they’re flying planes into buildings, anthrax is being sent through the mail, who gives a shit about some movies that were made fifty years ago?’ Priorities in our collective conscious were changing. Maybe this was the one good thing to come out of such horror, to come out of a mass murder of thousands.

In the years since that day, I’ve lost some loved ones, I’ve grown very close to a number of wonderful people, I nearly lost my sister and thankfully did not. All in all, I am very blessed and appreciative of everything I have. It can all be taken away from me in the fraction of a heartbeat. That is something I can’t ever forget.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reflections on Winnebago Man

It’s hard to believe that it was nearly fourteen years ago that I first became aware of Jack Rebney. I did this in the way that most people did, through a fiftieth or hundredth generation VHS compilation of outtakes and between-the-scenes footage that came to be known variously as the Winnebago Man, Angry RV Salesman, or The Angriest Man in the World.

Like most Winnebago Man virgins before and after me had, I laughed my ass off throughout the first viewing and when it was over, asked immediately to see it again, as if the tape was some amusement park ride I had to experience repeatedly. Instead of the climbs and dips and whipping around sharp corners accompanied by the laughs and howls of the riders, the thrill was in the “fucks,” “shits,” and “sonofabitches” spewed by Jack Rebney on this blurry video recording that ran not much more than five minutes.

But unlike the Fuckin Bruge montage that compiles into a rapid fire cuss-fest all the cursing in the movie In Bruge, the curse words in the Jack Rebney video had very little to do with the longevity of its cult popularity. For Jack Rebney’s unintentional rant to resonate and bear repeated viewings, whether on the countless well-worn VHS tapes passed from friend to friend, straight through to its viral explosion on YouTube, there had to be something more to it than some pissed-off guy ‘cussing up a storm.

The humor and pathos comes from Jack Rebney’s genuine frustration given the situation he was in. A hot, sticky, fly-infested two-weeks of shooting an industrial film without benefit of a teleprompter. This was real. This was something with which nearly every viewer could find a connection. We’ve all had “one of those days.” Jack Rebney had two weeks worth with a camera rolling. And yet, in between the swearing, which one could hardly blame him for, is an almost unexpected eloquence. Phrases like “do me a kindness,” “it doesn’t make any difference to me at this juncture,” and of course (French pronunciation, please) “Accoutrement! What the fuck is that shit?”, have been referenced in pop-culture all due to Jack Rebney.

Having been on shoots under less than ideal conditions, and having seen bad days and mishaps from both sides of the camera, I can appreciate where Jack was coming from. And for that reason, I always felt a personal connection to Jack’s plight. In recent years I’d show it on my iPhone to anyone who would watch. But for me, it ended there. I’d watch it or show it to other people who hadn’t seen it whenever the mood struck or there was a need for a good laugh.

I sometimes thought to myself, “am I watching this thing way too much?”, but that never seemed to stop me from watching it again. And then to my delight, I learned of Ben Steinbauer’s documentary, Winnebago Man. I felt vindicated. I had admired and analyzed the video from afar. But Ben Steinbauer felt compelled to get behind the story, the rumors, the myth, and the legend of the Winnebago Man. And he’d done it! The result is an excellent film which is often hilarious, but there are so many layers to it. It’s part an examination of the phenomenon of unintended celebrity. It’s a quest film—as we are taken on the journey along with Steinbauer as he sets out to find Jack Rebney. And without revealing too much, it becomes a real human story. Dare I say, it’s actually quite touching. The human side of Jack Rebney is revealed and in it you may see your father, your grandfather, that elderly neighbor next door that tells great stories but you know not to get him started, and some of us may even see ourselves.

I saw the film in what I would consider the optimum conditions as Jack Rebney was in attendance. So there was this whole meta-cinematic vibe going on, since the film nearly concludes with Rebney meeting his “fans” and participating in a Q&A in a movie theater. So here right after the film ended was Jack Rebney meeting the audience and doing the Q&A thing. As for Ben Steinbauer’s journey being such a big part of the film, it totally works. It reminded me in many ways of my own experiences in tracking down and interviewing figures from old Hollywood. I only wish now that I had documented my interviews on video as well.

So, do yourself a kindness...if Winnebago Man comes to your town, by all means go see it. And I owe thanks to my friend, Michele, who first exposed me to Jack Rebney all those years ago.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Will write for ...

What can I say? I’ve been feeling pretty inspired lately, and so I’ve been doing a great deal of writing. Which is good. And it seems the more writing I do, the more I think about writing. And of course I’m thinking about all kinds of writing. Screenwriting, naturally. Writing about screenwriting. Writing about film. Non-fiction, novels, plays, essays, my next blog post, podcast, status update on Facebook or whatever.

So naturally, the question comes up. Why? Fuck if I know. It’s just something I have to do, I suppose. Fortunately, I get to make money doing it. But if I didn’t, would I still do it? Probably. Goodness knows I certainly went a long time doing it before I got paid to do it. And goodness knows I’ve been paid to write all kinds of things I would never tell you about here. And there are some things I would deny having written if you were to ask me directly!

Years ago, whenever I would meet my agent for lunch or dinner or drinks, he’d always stop me as I reached for the check. “Talent never pays,” he’d say. Many times I pointed out the double-edged meaning in his little catchphrase whenever a project of mine got passed on by an editor or production co.

During what I sometimes like to call my apprenticeship with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, I came to learn what the writer’s way of life is or at least can be. “It’s a precarious way of life,” he told me. “Because there's no tenure, there's nothing. You can be successful today and a flop tomorrow. And lots of producers, screenwriters, and novelists have demonstrated that. Nobody knows why. Fads change, your talent changes, and sometimes your luck changes. Luck is a part of it. But to be a writer it's not something you do on the side. It's a way of life.”

So with my latest baby out in the world, waiting to be accepted or rejected, or more than likely sent back to be altered to fit someone else’s idea of what it should be, I’ll sit back and observe, go about my daily routines, see people, visit friends, engage with loved ones, and every now and then you’ll see me drifting off somewhere.

Know what I’m doing then? Yeah, I’m writing.

As I always say, just because you don’t hear me typing, it doesn’t mean I’m not writing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ace Frehley: Back in New York, Back on Top

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Ace Frehley in concert at the Nokia Theater, in his first New York appearance since the release of his latest effort, Anomaly. Musically, Anomaly ranks among the guitar legend’s best work both as a solo artist and with KISS, and arguably, it’s his most mature effort to date. Frehley set out to produce something in the spirit of his 1978 solo album and achieved just that—a solid, hard rock guitar album, that combines his signature style and a few tracks that showcase the broader range of his musical taste and influences. After twenty years, anything less would have been a major disappointment.


For me the real build up to the release of Anomaly began when Frehley played the same venue two years ago. He was in top form then, with a tight band, that rocked through a twenty-three song set list (yes, I'm counting the parts of songs from the medley as individual songs) that had the crowd blown away. I had anticipated another amazing show this time out, and that's just what he delivered with another twenty-plus set list that included the standard crowd pleasers—Rip it Out, Speedin' Back to My Baby, Rocket Ride, Shock Me, Deuce, Cold Gin, Love Gun—and a few surprises along the way. One of which was Talk to Me from KISS's Unmasked which had many in the audience staring at Ace's guitar on the video screens, wondering why the E string was pulled up over the toggle switch on his Les Paul (the song is played with open-G tuning, as is Two Sides of the Coin from the same album).

My only disappointment with the show was the decision to include just two songs from AnomalyPain in the Neck and Sister. Definitely the most "Ace" like tracks on the new album, but I’d loved to have seen him do Foxy & Free, Too Many Faces, or even the drop-D tuned Outer Space. Not that I'm saying it’s time to retire 2,000 Man or even New York Groove from the repertoire, but your new material rocks, Ace…

Still an awesome show which will surely surface in its entirety on YouTube for anyone that missed it. And if you'd like to get the feeling of jamming with Ace right in your own home, there's the recent DVD release of Ace Frehley: Behind the Player, which includes a mini-documentary, lessons for a pair of songs, and some great jam footage... but the stars of the show are Ace, his Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp, raw and unaccompanied.

Behind the Player

Growing up in the Bronx, I'd always felt a certain affinity for Ace Frehley. With all due respect to my grandfather, whose 1937 Gibson archtop was the first guitar I’d ever strummed, it was Frehley who made me want to learn to play. My first up close in-person encounter with Frehley was in the summer of 1983. I was a high school student in Westchester County and a few months prior my friends and I had heard that Frehley had been arrested in a now infamous DWI charge involving a DeLorean, the Bronx River Parkway, and a couple of County Police cruisers. Being fans and aspiring musicians at the time, Gerry Cusack, Frank John Hughes and I rode the #20 bus up Central Avenue to the court house in White Plains on the day Ace was to appear before the judge.

When we arrived, we learned there had been a postponement. Ace's trial would be the following month. When the later date rolled around, Gerry, Frank and I were there, again, but we found out from one of the court officers that Ace would not be appearing in the courtroom. The judge agreed to accept a plea in chambers. Disappointed, we left the courthouse. But I spotted a limousine on the other side of the street and wondered if that could be for Ace. We decided to wait a while and find out.

Before long, an ABC News van appeared. A camera crew had gotten out of the van along with a reporter and suddenly the side door to the courthouse opened. Someone signaled the waiting limo and out the door strolled Ace, flanked by his attorney and a court officer. The camera went on, the reporters asked questions, and as Ace waited for the limo to pull up, I stepped up and asked if I could have his autograph. He said, "Sure." He took my copy of the sheet music to his song Shock Me, which was the first KISS song in which he sang lead vocal, and signed it for me. He handed it back and as he stepped into the back of the limo, he gave a thumbs up to my friends and me before driving off.

That had been my closest brush with Ace Frehley til that time, and although it would not be my last, it was also not my first. Years earlier, while KISS was on a world tour promoting their fifth studio album, Rock and Roll Over, I actually had an occasion to be inside Ace Frehley's car. The father of one of my sister's friends worked at a Cadillac dealership in Yonkers. It was the dealership where Ace had purchased a new silver Cadillac Seville. While KISS was touring though, the dealership had stored the vehicle in its garage, and so one night we were taken to see Ace's car.

In retrospect it was no big deal, really. But to a boy net yet ten years old, it was a very big deal. I got to see Ace's DMV registration — which said Paul Frehley — and something which puzzled me as much then as it does now… there was a Kojak doll in the glove compartment.

A few short months before that, I had seen my very first KISS concert. It also happened to be their first performance at Madison Square Garden. That concert left an impression on me, to be sure. In the years after that, straight through high school, I’d been to dozens of concerts, and no arena ever seemed as big, no music ever as loud, and no band ever as lively as KISS at the Garden on their Destroyer tour.

In the mid-1980s, KISS leased a warehouse in the West 30s of Manhattan, where they stored costumes, some instruments, and other stage and concert gear. My friend Frank's dad was a vice president of the company that rented the storage space to KISS. Every so often, Frank and I would head into Manhattan from Westchester, to browse the music stores on 48th Street, to look at our dream guitars and drum kits. Occasionally we'd hook up with Frank's dad, who would take us to lunch, and then to the warehouse, where he’d give us a VIP tour through KISS's stuff. The tour was usually preceded by a warning “not to take anything”, which we heeded more often than not.

It's great to see an artist who has had ups and downs back doing what he does best and doing it so well. I hope Frehley keeps the momentum going and that we don't have to wait another twenty years for another great album.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry, ahem.... Christmas

It's Christmas morning, and although calls have been placed to loved ones back home, it's just not the same. I think this is only the second time I will have spent both Christmas Eve and Day out of New York. Sometimes you need to do something like that just to remind yourself of what you've got. And while the time spent elsewhere is with people that are well meaning, caring, and loving in general... Dorothy was right... there's no place like home.
So the traditional seven fishes were scaled back to three, and with the exception of a single hiccup by having the audacity to include "Christ" in the pre-dinner blessing, everything came off without a hitch. I suppose one could have easily left Christ out of the offering of thanks, but on Christmas? Really?
Like I said, sometimes breaking from tradition for even a single occurrence just helps reinforce your values and the very fiber of who you are. So I hope you all are spending this day with someone you love, that you get to enjoy a hearty meal, a few laughs, some fond
rememberances of those no longer with us, and remember well what today is all about.
Merry Christmas, all.
Steven DeRosa
Sent from iPhone