I knew this very good-natured and boisterous guy named Andy in college. He was, an I’m being mild, an enormous Bruce Springsteen fan. All Bruce, all the time.
Once, when we were recording a video presentation, Andy REFUSED to let go of the boom microphone because he had to sing “Badlands.” Twice. In full. With gusto. Very loud. Excruciatingly off-key. EXCRUCIATINGLY off-key.
One Sunday morning, he banged on my door demanding, in his perpetually happy and friendly way, we go “get some grub.” In order to be my alarm clock for the occasion, he sang “Thunder Road.” Twice. In full. With gusto. Very loud. Excruciatingly off-key. EXCRUCIATINGLY off-key.
And, it WAS alarming.
The first half of “Thunder Road” requires a little delicacy and the last thing you could describe Andy’s version was “delicate.”
For, a few years, I don’t think Andy actually had conversations:
Me: Hey, Andy. What’s going on?
Andy: Sings the entire lyrics of “Born to Run.” Twice. In full. With…..
Andy died September 11th, 2001. He was in one of the World Trade Centers. Fifteen minutes after calling his wife to assure her he was okay, the building collapsed.
The world was a better place with him in it. I think about him this time of year. And, the joy Springsteen’s music brought him.
Despite the sadness I feel about the friends I lost that day, I can’t help but smile a little thinking about those hideously tuneless versions of Bruce’s songs.
And, the huge grin on Andy’s face when he sang them.
Originally written on June 18th, 2011, and posted here by request.
I’m a pathetic Bruce Springsteen fan. Been one since, pretty much, day-minus-one. I can’t count the number of Springsteen concerts I’ve attended. In the low hundreds is my guess.
Springsteen’s saxophone player’s name is Clarence Clemons, a very large and muscular former football player who could knock over Stonehenge with a single solo. His presence and personality are integral to Springsteen’s shows. His powerful, soulful sax solos take some great songs and make them extraordinary.
Clemons and Springsteen are a sight to see on stage. Every night Bruce introduces Clarence as The Big Man. They freely share the fun, energy, music, excitement and love between them with their audience. Especially, love. A very real, fraternal love. One average-sized Italian-American and one enormous African-American. Devoted blood brothers who, together, bring the very bright light of their friendship to their entire audience. The Big Man and the Boss. There are, of course, plenty of bosses in the world. But, only one Big Man.
Clarence Clemons died today.
He’d suffered a major stroke a few days ago. Appropriately, he didn’t linger in a significantly compromised state. Legend has it Clarence decided to introduce himself to Springsteen by going to the bar where Springsteen was performing and, when he entered the bar, the doors flew off their hinges. Guys like that don’t fade away. He kicked the door open to show up and he kicked the door open when it was time to go.
I have quite a few concert recollections of Clarence but there is one indelible memory I have of him from a 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert in Baltimore, MD. At that point in his life, he was rundown and in poor health. A shell of himself, he was arthritic and could hardly stand for more than a few minutes at a time. For most of the concert, he sat on a bar-stool stage right but still managed to cast quite a presence. A smile from Clarence Clemons could light up a small country. He did his best to look happy and engaged but it was clear to see he was running on empty. At first, his musical contribution for this particular concert was, at best, pedestrian. He was tired. And, due to the pain, probably a little distracted.
Clarence’s saxophone can be heard often embellishing Bruce’s recordings but there is a particular song where his saxophone solo is elemental. Without it, there’d be no song. It’s quite a long and very challenging solo requiring equal parts power, determination, delicacy, focus, precision and endurance.
It was close to ninety minutes into the set when that song started. Clemons was sitting at stage right in darkness for the first part of the song before gingerly moving to front and center for his solo. He looked exhausted but when his time came, he stood and, with what he had left to give, he delivered.
He delivered with majestic power and emotional force. The solo was just a few minutes in a show that lasted over three and a half hours but those few minutes took that concert to an exceptional level. The sound of his saxophone filled the arena and provided ample evidence that one person’s spirit can throw a very large shadow.
Near the end of the sax solo, my wife whispered, “Look around.” What I saw was thousands of people standing and giving Clemons their complete attention. There was no dancing or talking or milling around or walking towards the restrooms. People just stood still and focused their attention on Clarence Clemons. Almost no one said a word. Now, there were around 14,000 people in this arena about half of whom were drunk. Included in the 14,000 were plenty of kids who, until this moment, appeared to be poster-children for attention deficit disorder. And, they all stopped talking in order to just watch and listen. I had never seen anything like that at a rock concert before and haven’t seen it since.
After I stopped scanning the crowd, I looked back at my wife who is, also, a Springsteen fan. She looked at me and said, “He earned that silence.”
He did. He really did. His body of work with Bruce Springsteen earned it. His performance that night earned it, as well.
Once Clarence’s solo was finished, Springsteen helped walk him back to his position on stage, they had a very long embrace, had a brief conversation and Clarence, clearly exhausted, sat down on his stool. It was the last time he ever performed that solo on tour.
There was something about that solo with the audience’s full attention and respectful silence that was almost overwhelming. It was a brute-force, mind-over-matter effort by Clarence and it’s a memory I hope I don’t lose anytime soon.
I don’t doubt Springsteen will carry on although I’m not sure how. What I am sure of is if you’re looking for the ultimate challenge in your professional life then be the person who replaces Clarence Clemons. Good luck with that. Because no one can. I don’t know what Bruce’s band will look like. It’ll certainly be different. It may even be better.
In my dream, I walked through my life in reverse chronological order. I started today, in a village, and just kept walking through my past. It was silent and I was alone. No cars, no people. Just me. It was sunny, the grass was green and the road was newly paved. Trees were everywhere and they were magnificent. The houses were modest but well cared for. The whole place was clean. And, nothing was out of place.
The only sound I heard was of me breathing as I walked. Feeling pretty content.
A block ahead of me were two people. As I got closer, I recognized them. A couple coworkers at a previous employer from 30 years ago. Two people with whom I shared mutual disdain. They weren’t moving. As I walked closer, I could see them glaring at me. I got within 10 yards of them, stopped and said, “Well, uh, hello. Yes, right. And, how’ve you both been?”
The only reply I got was their continued somewhat hostile looking stares.
I always found them annoying and this was no exception. “Oh, me? I’m doing fine. Thanks so much for asking.”
“Well, listen. It’s been thrilling speaking with you, your limited vocabulary not withstanding. No, really, I must be going. I gotta go…flush the radiator. Yeah, it’s urgent. You know how that goes. Cheers.”
I walked past them. After 100 yards, I looked back and saw them still standing and still staring.
After walking another block, I came across an old girlfriend. After our unpleasant breakup, initiated by me, she stalked me and even threatened bodily harm if I didn’t take her back. I always wondered what her thought process was with that strategy.
Next to her were two other women I had cast aside in previous lifetimes. I gave them a nod of recognition but they just glared at me. I kept walking and, appropriately in their cases, never looked back.
At this point, the day had turned overcast. The wind was beginning to pick up. The houses weren’t nice and tidy anymore. The vibrant color at the beginning was now getting gray. I walked towards 8 or 9 people standing together. They were ones who died when I was in my 20s. I was close with many of them. I wanted to run over and hug some of them but I didn’t because they were all throwing me some very angry looks. I didn’t stop to say anything.
I picked up the pace. It was getting darker and colder. As I walked back in time, those houses and buildings were decaying quickly The road was breaking apart. The warmth of the day was gone. The grass was brown and the trees were bent over with only a few leaves remaining. There was almost no color at all.
And, the people. All those people. The ones I left behind, the friends who died, the girlfriends I discarded or who discarded me. They just stood and stared at me. Angry, contemptuous stares.
I stopped. I didn’t want to walk further. I wanted to go back where it was sunny and warm. I turned around but all the people and places I walked past were gone. All gone. Instead, there were huge, random piles of trash. I couldn’t go back.
I stood in the cold darkness. I couldn’t return and I couldn’t escape. I had to keep walking but that was becoming difficult. The ground was cluttered with debris, potholes and broken pavement. There were now hundreds of people surrounding me. I had to sidestep them as I continued. They still said nothing but I felt their rage.
I walked past my college. The friends and teammates I left behind stood and stared. Sides of buildings on the campus were missing. Houses looked as though they were beginning to cave in. I walked faster. Past high school. It was too dark to tell for certain but it looked like someone torched the place. I tried running but kept falling down. I saw my elementary school. It was gone. Reduced to rubble.
I was exhausted and thirsty. My legs were tired, I wanted this to end. I thought about giving up. But, I kept going.
I ran into a clearing and stopped. I saw my childhood home to my left. It was barely standing. The windows were broken. I looked behind and saw thousands of corpses piled right behind me. All those people died. I looked at all the dead bodies and wondered what happened to them. Did I kill them when I left them behind? I looked ahead and saw blackness. There was nothing in front of me.
I turned back to my run-down and battered childhood home. The front screen door opened and Ken appeared. Ken died when we were seven. He was my best friend. His mother was behind him but partly obscured by the screen door.
I only saw Ken’s mother once. She had bruises on her face. Other than that, she was a voice behind a screen door. Ken never talked about his life at home and, even though I was only seven, I knew enough not to ask.
He walked towards me. He was still seven years old. He had on his favorite sweatshirt but there was blood all over it. He came closer. His eyes were jet black. There was a messy bullet hole in his forehead. He looked me over for a long time before he spoke. He stopped four feet in front of me. He was looking amused.
“What the hell are YOU doing here, you pariah?”
He tilted his head and smiled.
“Nice to see you, too,” I replied. We stood motionless and stared at each other.
“So, decided to visit the scene of the crime, did we? Or, are you just checking property values? Perhaps I might interest you in a dame de la nuit. Got a dozen of ’em ’round back. Take two, they’re small. Maybe you feel like getting your ass kicked some more. I’m sure I could find hundreds of people willing to help with that. In fact, I could….”
“Why are you talking like this?”
He snapped back, “Why are you here?!”
I had no answer.
“C’mon, Squire! What sayeth thou, eh?” He’d adopted a British accent. “Didja walk all this way with a purpose or have you simply lost the plot entirely? Out with it, Mate! Why…are…you… here?”
“Well, I can’t exactly turn back what with the big pile of stiffs behind me. I could have kept going, I guess.”
Ken looked puzzled. “And, yet, you didn’t keep going. You stopped. Right here. Of all places. Why didn’t you run when you saw this place or me?” He had dropped the British accent. “I would’ve. I’d be gone already. So?”
I glanced back to the bodies and wreckage behind me. I looked at what remained of my childhood home. It looked so damaged. Pitiful. And, sad.
“Ya know, Ken. Ever thought of doing a little makeover on the old homestead there? Not to be critical but this place looks like….”
“That’s a good starter word. But, I’m here. I got nowhere to go. It’d take months to climb over the dead bodies behind me and this definitely looks like a dead end street. So, I’ll help you fix the place.”
I got the puzzled look again. “Fix it? Make it better?” He paused. “Did you come all this way to fix things around here?”
I said, “Well, no. I was just trying to get away from…”
“Well, YES!! That’s exactly why you came back here!!”
My unclever retort was, “Uh, okaaaay. Well…hell, who knows? Maybe that is why I’m here. I dunno.”
Ken smiled. “It could use some fixing, no doubt. Do you think you can fix all this? Things did get pretty bad here.”
“Well, okay. I, uh, suppose…”
“Good. Where do we start? We need to get rid of all this garbage once and for all.” He actually looked anxious to start. “Everything that went bad goes. How about everything that went wrong? That’s gone, too, right?”
“The pain? The hurt? Would you be able to get all that out? I mean, you came here for a reason.” He sounded excited.
“Ken, I don’t quite know what you’re…..”
“Oh, and the shame. Gotta fix that, too. Fact’s a fact. You came here to fix this whole thing. I know it even though you don’t want to admit it.”
“I think you’re making more of this than there is. I mean, well, I just….”
“Dude. You came all this way just to exchange recipes? No. No way. You are here to fix things here that have been broken for a very…very long time. And, you know it. Took you long enough. Shit, you’ve been wanting to fix everything here for decades.”
I stood staring at the house while Ken continued. “Finally! You’re here! Right here, right now. It’s time to get to work and get this taken care of. You KNOW you want…”
“Okay, fine! Dammit. You win. I’m here to fix the whole damn thing! All of it. I have to fix it and I’m going to fix it. And, when I’m done, I’m gone. Outta here. I’ll fix this damn thing, make everything right and never come back here…ever.”
“Great. Let’s get moving. If we’re gonna fix all this. No time like the present. To make it right, you said? Well, good. Oh, just one small thing about fixing this and making it right.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
He shot me a big grin and turned around.
I watched as he slowly walked back into the house. His mother opened the door to let Ken in. Before he walked in, he turned to me, smiled and said “See you on down the road. Or, not.”
After Ken walked into the house, his mother threw open the screen door and stepped out. She stood before me. Before going inside, she smiled and waved goodbye. There were no bruises on her face.
I looked back. The bodies were gone. I turned to look at the house again but it was gone as well. I looked ahead and saw a road.
I was in Nashville doing a voice over back in the days when I had this very nice bass-baritone voice. For some reason, the recording engineer wasn’t simultaneously drunk and hungover. This was a first for me.
This very suspicious sobriety on his part meant I finished all my takes before 10am.
I had the time so I figured I’d wander around Music City. Nashville was struggling after the recession of the late 70s. I wanted to walk slowly through the city and imagine how the locals managed their lives and life’s priorities, consider their joys as well as sorrows while wondering how they reconciled the considerable gap between their dreams and their realities. So, off I went for a day of exploration through the legendary city of Nashville, Tennessee.
That lasted about 20 minutes because in the early eighties, other than music, Nashville sucked. Nothing but a bunch of dirty streets, beat up pickup trucks and used tire stores. Music Row was filled with homeless guitar players singing their hearts out just to get the loose change from people walking by.
I passed a couple strip clubs with greasy and mostly burnt out neon lights where the proprietors insisted their well-trained, professional staff were quite eager to accommodate any perversion I could possibly come up with.
I couldn’t think of any so I kept waking until I stopped in front of a very seedy strip mall. On one side was a bar. The complete other side stood a diner that was turned into a Pentecostal church. The name of the bar was The Bluebird. The church probably had a name, too, but I never found out because I didn’t make it past the bar. God hadn’t figured in my equation at the moment.
Besides, it was before 11am on a weekday. The bar was open. The church wasn’t.
Inside, The Bluebird was dark and smelled exactly like cat urine only worse. The floor was covered with some very sticky beer. The bartender was a Jamaican gentleman named Smokey. Smokey’s outfit consisted of a mini-skirt, a bright yellow tube top, red pumps and some heavy fluorescent pink eye shadow. The place was empty except for one person who was enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke at the far end of the bar. After schmoozing with Smokey for a few minutes, I asked for a double-shot Jack Daniels on the grounds that it’s 7am somewhere. Smokey pointed towards the smoke cloud and said that guy purchased the last three full bottles of Jack Daniels.
“The last three bottles?”
“Woulda been four if we had ’em.”
Smokey replied, with a smile and a shrug, “Gave me $100 tip. Makes him a nice guy.”
“Been here long?”
Another shrug. “Couple hours.”
“Hitting the bottles hard?”
“Sucking ’em down like a $20 hooker at a batchelor party. “
I gave him a slight grimace. “Smokey, that is an image that will haunt me for years to come. No pun intended.”
“Yeah, me, too. Maybe you can hit him up for a couple shots.”
Seemed like a fine idea. I mean, this guy outright bought three full bottles of Jack Daniels from a bar and threw in an extra $100 for the effort.
I thought this was really someone I should meet. I walked towards him.
As I got closer and could see through some of the smoke, I made out a silhouette wearing a black vest, an untucked button-down white shirt, black jeans, snake-skin boots and a very proper, dark grey fedora. He was fully involved reading a very large book.
He’d poured himself a generous amount of bourbon in an old-fashioned lowball glass. Presumably, a shot glass was simply not nearly large enough for this guy.
This scored him big points with me.
I approached until he shot me a sideways glance that stopped me at once. His glare startled me.
“Uh, yes, hello, good morning or wherever you are in your day. The nice transvestite behind the bar suggested I seek you out and establish some reasonable common ground that would result in me taking a couple shots of that fine bourbon off your hands.”
He had three lit cigarettes going at the same time: one in his mouth and one each in two separate ashtrays.
He didn’t actually look my way. He leaned forward to the other side of the bar and pulled another lowball glass. He filled the glass, handed it to me, turned to me and said, “‘ere. Shee-ahs.”
“Ah, thank you, Sir. You’re very kind. Cheers to you.”
I then looked at him and saw none other than Keith Richards. My all-time favorite guitar player and leader of what you might consider the greatest rock and roll band in the world. At least, I would consider it.
Keith was my guy and the coolest human being on the planet. Even though he looked like someone who survived a 10 year heroin habit, it didn’t matter. Keith Richards was my hero.
“Hmmm, you look familiar. Well, this is a pleasure. Here’s to you and your better-half and your 5-stringed guitar in open G. Long shall you all three prosper and multiply.”
“Yeh un kee yer [unintelligible mumbling] arse oo the sunseh, heh,” he replied with a knowing smile before we each tossed back half a glass of bourbon.
“Cheers, again” Clink, again.
My first thought was, “I wonder how many times this guy has flat-lined since he’s been here.”
My second thought was, “I have no fucking clue what you just said.”
Before I said anything more, he refilled my glass.
“Oh, um, whoa, okay, wow, yes, thank you, gosh, yeah, thank you for your generosity. Mind if I sit down on this barstool because it’s closer to the ground so when I fall down it won’t hurt as much?”
“‘Eh, ‘ere’. [Unintelligable], Wha'”
I took that as a yes. I sat down but wasn’t sure how to start a conversation with someone who, so far, hadn’t uttered a single word I could possibly understand.
On the wall directly in front of us was a 1950s poster of Buddy Holly singing at the legendary Apollo Theatre located in Harlem, New York. The Apollo made it’s name in the first half of the century as a showcase for the great black musicians and singers of the time. It was the coolest place on the planet. How Buddy Holly ended up there is beyond me because you couldn’t get more uncool than Buddy Holly.
This gave me a great conversation starter because the step-father of my girlfriend at the time worked backstage at the Apollo during its heyday. In the 50s, the musicians played a rotating schedule of 20 minute sets every hour and a half all night so you could play 5 or 6 sets in one night which meant you had a lot of time sitting backstage at the Apollo while all the other musical acts did their sets.
Now, one thing is true with any theatre in the entire world and that is if you get a bunch of young musicians, actors and entertainers backstage at the same time then they will mingle.
By mingle, I mean have sex. Lots of sex. And, they do not clown around. In five minutes, every green room, office, prop room, utility closet, cubicle, bathroom, catwalk, electric room, snack bar and trash dumpster will be filled with 2 to 6 people having sex.
I mention all this because, according to my girlfriend’s step-father, when it came to sex, Buddy Holly set the standard. Raised the bar as it were. Ol’ Buddy could not keep his hands, among other things, off the women. Skinny, dweebie, silly-looking, horned-rim-glasses-wearing Buddy Holly was a completely out of control sex machine.
I relayed this and a couple other behind-the-curtain stories to Keith. He enjoyed them and even threw in some witty recollections along the way. For the next couple hours, we talked. A lot about American Blues of which he knew….everything.
He described some of the unique guitar playing styles of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a southern bluesman from the early 1900s, and Robert Johnson. Johnson was a mysterious character from the 1920s whose guitar playing seemed almost physically impossible. It was easy to tell Keith was in awe of him. I remember thinking how amazed I was to be getting a guitar lesson from Keith Richards and that my life was now officially complete.
I asked him about his 5 string guitar tuning. I was expecting a very elaborate if indecipherable response.
“Eh, jus’, ya’ know, foun’ a 5 s’ring banjo, so [unintelligible] off wen’ th’ low E s’ring and jus’ G, D, G, B, D an’ [unintelligible] voila.”
There’s a key in decoding Keith-Speak. You have to get drunk. He makes much more sense that way. And, I was getting drunk in a hell of a hurry because, as we talked, he continued refilling our glasses.
“What brings you to the home of unemployed songwriters? If memory serves then you’re already in a band with a record deal.”
“Eh’, [unintelligible] on a track, uh, heh, Scotty, ya know, Moore [unintelligible] haven’t seen in donkey’s years, sooo, heh, heh, laid down a track er two, ya know, wha’.”
I was drunk enough to actually understand what he said.
I steered clear of mentioning the Stones. I’m not sure why.
“You met Howlin’ Wolf, yes? He looked scary as hell on stage.”
“Fuckin’ sweetheart, e’ was, heh, right [unintelligible] geezer, love th’ man. ‘Ad class. Son ‘bitch. Giant an’ [unintelligable] gentle.”
We ran through some others. Chuck Berry, as it turns out, was a “‘orrendous shirty pain in the arse. Worse tha’ [unintelligible]. Johnnie Johnson duh all duh [really unintelligible] work. Got fuck-all fuh ‘is trouble.”
Muddy Waters was, without question, God. The mention of Muddy Waters caught him off guard. It was probably the only time he held eye-contact with me. Waters had been dead for a couple years but he probably meant quite a bit to him.
Keith did a concert tour in the late seventies with a band called the New Barbarians who were probably the world’s most talented garage band. One of the songs he sang lead on was “Apartment Number 9” which was a ballad by a country singer named Tammy Wynette. It’s a lament about her loneliness.
There was bad-ass Keith Richards on piano singing about being alone and broken-hearted. He said, with a little venom, the song was “real” and that’s all that matters. Period. The end.
I asked about the significance of his famous skull ring. As far as he was concerned, “tha’s what we all err unnerneath all deh “[unintelligible] bullshit.” He felt that’s about the only thing real with most people. He seemed bitter on that score. Years later, I heard this was around the time Mick Jagger decided to leave the Stones for greater glories as a solo act. It didn’t work out. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been joined at the hip for the previous 25 years. I’m guessing Keith felt betrayed and insulted.
Keith was terribly concerned about Johnny Winter’s excessive heroin use which I found seriously amusing. If Keith Richards is worried about your drug use then, Brother, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.
I asked what his dessert island records were. He said they change everyday. He told me about some very old records by Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams and the great Robert Johnson. Those three weren’t shockers. What did me was surprising was the inclusion of records by Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, the Carter Family (traditional southern gospel) and Django Reinhardt. I remember assuring him that I strongly believed “Exile on Main Street,” a record released by The Stones in 1972, was the greatest record ever made and while, yes, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” had its moments and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was fine in its way, they were both, let’s face it, baby-shit compared to “Exile on Main Street.” Further, those who thought otherwise should be immediately sterilized lest they be tempted to procreate.
He liked that. “Weah, boss yer unckuh den, ain’ ee.”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
What did I just agree to?
“Odd question but if there was no Bill Wyman [the Stones bass player at the time] around then what bass player would you want in your band.”
Without hesitation, Keith rattled off six or seven very obscure names. The only one I recognized was James Jamerson who played bass on most of the big Motown songs. I had to break it to him that James Jamerson died a couple years earlier.
I asked about guitar players he wouldn’t mind having as handmates. He immediately responded with about ten names.
“Drummers?” It seemed like the next natural question to ask.
This time, he hesitated, stared at one of the numerous lit cigarettes in front of him before finally responding, “Charlie Watts.”
I wondered if Keith was drunker than I was because Charlie Watts was already in the Rolling Stones. He’d been there since 1961.
Uh, Keith you might be more of a big picture guy and don’t really get caught up in the details but, jeepers, after 25 years, I’d have thought you’d know the name of your drummer. Shall I arrange an introduction?
I thought that. I didn’t say it.
“Charlie Watts? Never heard of him. Anyone else?”
He stared at his most recent glass of Jack Daniels for a moment and said, “Nah.”°
“To Charlie, then.” Clink.
I know this sounds like an interview and not a conversation but Keith did ask me questions along the way, such as what I did to make the rent. I told him my main source of income was from singing the National Anthem at street fights. He felt my conservative appearance belied my complete irreverence for almost all American institutions.
“Yes, guilty as charged,” I replied. “I had to clean up my look because I just took a job in the Human Resources department for the Gambino Crime Syndicate and I’m here at a job fair. Job openings tend to pop up rather suddenly. Are you interested in joining? The benefits are fantastic. The trick is not to get killed. That’s really the key to the benefits program.”*
Keith actually found that statement hilarious.
We talked about the hallowed musical ground of the Ryman Theater (located in Nashville) and the musicians who planted roots there: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, just to name a few. Hell, Helen Keller did a gig there. I’m not kidding. Sold the place out.
My memory gets cloudy at this point because I was approaching the “I love you, Man” stage of inebriation. This was due to the fact that, for the past couple hours, I had been keeping up with Keith Richards drinking shots of Jack Daniels.
This is something you must never do. Trust me. It’s not going to end well.
It was at this precise moment I knew, thanks to the ridiculous amount of bourbon I’d thrown down, I was in serious trouble and it was best I leave before I descended into the “Let’s crank up the fuckin’ Enola Gay” stage. So, I thanked him profusely for the booze. We shook hands. He said he enjoyed the chin wag and even claimed he was glad I stopped by. I assured the pleasure was all mine and would, someday, include our interaction in my memoirs. He went back to his book.
As I staggered past Smokey, I asked for a glass of water as though that was going to undo any of the damage.
“Uh, um, yeah, Smokey. Wondering if you can help a brother out. Do you know when the next flight to Western China leaves? Because, after two minutes of careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s best for all concerned for me to immediately become a Tibetan Monk. I see no alternative. I’m in deep and I think I could very well sober up in a Buddhist Monastery in, oh, I dunno, ten years. More water?”
Smokey smiled and gave me a refill.
“I’ve always been interested in Buddhism. Is that the one with Vishnu or something? No? Maybe that’s Judaism. I always get those two confused. Anyway, off I go to become a Buddhist Jew. Could you tell me where the door is?”
I plopped down $20 on the bar and walked off singing, “I’m a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”
How the hell I ever made it back to my hotel room is anyone’s guess. I have no recollection. I woke up on the floor. The room was very neat. I figured the housekeeping person worked around me. It took a week for my head to stop feeling every air molecule hitting it.
To this day, I consider having a conversation with Keith Richards a significant resume item. He was very nice, elegant, extremely well-read and very British. And, he wore his heart directly on his sleeve.
In 2018, I saw the Stones in concert. He had on a woman’s blouse, a red and yellow bandana, black jeans and green sneakers. Keith Richards is the only adult male on the planet who could make an outfit like that work.
That night, the Stones opened the show with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Jagger stepped on to the stage and, behind just the percussion and piano, sang the first verse. Keith then sauntered to the front of center stage. As Jagger got to the refrain, Keith let loose with six riffs that knocked the audience back five feet. When done, he casually walked to the drum riser and lit a cigarette before picking up the song again.
He played better than ever.
And, he looked so cool.
———- THE END ———-
* Those are lines from a Peter Falk movie. They sound lame. They look lame on paper. But, they’re fall-off-your-chair funny when Peter Falk says them.
° [03/23/2022] This was written before Charlie Watts died. It was easy for me to see Keith thought the world of Charlie. He adored him and must have been devastated by his passing. The Stones are carrying on with a new drummer, Steve Jordan, who’s fabulous. But, he ain’t Charlie Watts. And, the band ain’t the same.
You can learn alot from cat fights. Especially, if you’re in corporate sales.
Allow me to explain.
Cats generally fight other cats over territorial imperatives. You have the invading cat and the gate keeper cat. The invading cat, probably named Fluffy, wants a piece of the kingdom. He/She marches up to the gate-keeper, we’ll call him/her Muffin, and said, “Step aside, unworthy adversary! For I shall proclaim this land as….Fluffy…uh…Fluffyburg!”
The gate-keeping cat is not unlike the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail” and says, “None shall pass.”
“I command thee to…..”
“None shall pass!”
“Then prepare to do battle to the death as I shall….”
“Then prepare to die for no cat shall ever invade Muffinville!”
Here’s where the stare down starts. Muffin and Fluffy are eyeball-to-eyeball. Motionless but in attack stances. Two inches apart. They don’t even blink.
I am old enough to remember George Foreman, the boxer. Now, this wasn’t the jovial, amusing, endearing, charming, friendly and grandfatherly George Foreman of the 1990s. That was George Foreman TWO.
George Foreman ONE was of the 1970s. Look at all those nice adjectives I used in the previous paragraph about George Foreman TWO. George Foreman ONE was none of those things. GF ONE was the bad-ass version of Mike Tyson multiplied by ten.
Before a boxing match starts, the two fighters face each other in the middle of the ring to receive final instructions from the referee. The boxers are three feet from each other and they stare each other down. Sometimes they try to look mean or intimidating. Usually, they just look constipated.
Except for George Foreman ONE. He’d stare at the opponent with a fairly dispassionate look that said, very believably, “I’m going to kill you. Wanna know how I’m gonna kill you? Dead. Gonna kill you dead.” After the final instructions, the referee would tell the fighters to go back to their corners. George’s opponent, once he was done urinating on himself, would retreat to his corner. George wouldn’t. He stood in the middle of the ring just staring at the adversary. He wasn’t going anywhere.
George Foreman ONE was, in our cat example, Muffin. He was the Black Knight. The ring was his territory and you were intruding.
Because Muffin, just as GF ONE back in the day, ain’t moving, Fluffy has a decision to make. Good ol’ Fluff could call it a day, turn around and high-tail it the hell outta Dodge. This would be a tough way to go because Fluffy made the time and emotional commitment. Besides, that’s a really bad look all around. The other cats would laugh at Fluffy which is an issue because the thought of watching a cat laugh is personally distressing.
Fluffy could decide to keep staring at Muffin but what’s the point? Muffin’s not moving because Muffin has to maintain a certain standard in the neighborhood, too. If Muffin backs down then forget about it. Muffin’s toast. His/Her only next move is to get an apartment in another state. In terms of street credibility, Muffin will have none. Due to peer pressure alone, Muffin has no intention of going anywhere and it’s up to Fluffy to do something about it.
Now, let’s say this is Fluffy’s first time doing this sort of thing. Invading another cat’s kingdom, that is. It may take a while before Fluffy realizes the only useful move is to barge ahead with the attack plan. But, Fluffy really doesn’t have an attack plan. That’s because Fluffy is a cat. Cats have walnut sized brains. Strategic planning isn’t in Fluffy’s wheelhouse. The cat knew enough to go to the territory with the intention of taking it over but didn’t devote any time devising a way to do it. This means Fluffy has to do something for which Fluffy’s not prepared: think.
Within their profession, I’m given to understand rookie baseball pitchers aren’t admired for their intellectual prowess. The only instruction a pitcher receives from coaches, teammates, fans, family members and friends is, “Don’t think. Just throw. If you start thinking then you’ll only hurt the team. Don’t think. Just throw.”
The same applies here. If Fluffy attempts to think then Fluffy may do something really idiotic. If Fluffy starts to make a move and starts thinking about it then Fluffy may suddenly hesitate. If Fluffy hesitates then Fluffy is done. It’s over. Because, at that moment, Muffin will pimp-slap Fluffy back to the stone-age. Which is exactly what happens. Fluffy, being new in the world of territorial conquests, gets repeatedly body-slammed by Muffin early on but it’s a process. Over time, maybe Fluffy will learn some strategies.
In a corporate sales meeting, Fluffy is the newly hired account representative and Muffin is the potential customer. The meeting’s generally on Muffin’s turf. It’s up to the Fluffy to attack. However, being new, Fluffy only knew how to get to the customer’s place of business but hadn’t figured out what to do once he/she got there. This is not unusual. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bad-mouthing corporate sales people. Not at all. It’s just that, as a new sales person, you don’t have clue-one what you’re doing. You don’t know what you don’t know. If you actually try to figure everything out first then your head will explode. I say this from experience. I’ve done corporate sales. The best advice I ever received in my first year was, “Don’t think. Just throw.”
So, there you are. Fluffy and Muffin. The new sales person and prospective client. Sometimes there is a moment where Muffin will stare at Fluffy the way George Foreman ONE stared at his opponent. Conversation has stopped. Nobody is moving. The rep is stuck. The silence is horrendously loud and the sales meeting feels like it is falling apart.
This is a very dangerous moment because the new sales rep may be tempted to think. Now, chances are the rep doesn’t have a walnut sized brain. It’s probably of a normal size. It’s just he/she doesn’t know how to use much of it. Remember, ìf you’re new to corporate sales, you can’t afford to think. It’s not helpful. You just throw. But, the silence has gotten worse and you, the sales rep…Fluffy, realizing it’s time to attack by saying something useful, important, insightful or highly intellectual to move the meeting forward.
This is generally the moment you say something stupid. Why? Simple. You hesitated. Why? You panicked and attempted to think. Don’t do that. Stop it. You’re too new to think. Why? Because, thanks to all that attempted thinking, what ever comes out of your mouth will be thoroughly brainless. You don’t intend to sound like a dense, vacuous twit. But, the mental contortions you’re experiencing are killing you as you attempt to come up with something to say.
So, what can you say?
One thing the Sales 101 Handbook says you can do to break the ice is to ask a pertinent question to re-initiate a dialogue. But, remember, your mouth may be made up but your brain is still quite undone. Thinking is bad enough. Thinking with your mouth open is almost lethal. So, you ask a question but, because your brain hasn’t caught up to your mouth, you’ve mistakenly put it in the form of a YES/NO question. That’s bad. Here’s why:
You – “Mr./Ms. Smith, would you like to see the incredible cost savings your company can enjoy just by implementing my product thereby reducing your capital expenditures by $1,600,000 over the next two years without increasing your operational expenses allowing you expand your business and improve profits? Wouldn’t you really, really, really LOVE seeing that?!?!?!”
Customer – “No.”
If you want to roll the dice then you can ask a more personal question on the remote chance this will endear you to your prospect. This is, also, a terrible idea because you have no idea what the response will be and you’re very liable to step into a great pile of horse manure. For example:
You – “That’s a lovely family portrait on your wall. Really, beautiful. How old are your children?”
Customer – “They died in a plane crash.”
Another option is to pretend you have the slightest idea what the prospective customer’s company does by dropping some industry initials or acronyms into a question. You’re skating on very thin ice with this one because, let’s face it, you don’t have any clue about the industry your customer’s in. Let’s say your prospect is in the trucking business. You don’t know anything about the trucking business other than trucks seem to play a factor somehow. However, you believe, due to the attempted thinking on your part, your prospective customer will be impressed by how well versed you are on the subject. Oh, you’re totally screwed:
You – “What 3PL do you have in place to make sure your CSA requirements are being met?”
Customer – “Today, we have an OBD2 for an AVL system integrated with the DOT GIS for routing which also connects to an MDT to meet HOS requirements plus it gives us real-time IFTA reports for our CMVs. Can you tell me what GPS system you have for trucks with GVW over 26K lbs with a sub-zero REEFER trailer that can measure hydrolic PTO as well as enforce DVIR before a truck leaves the geo-fence?”
Customer – “We just received a ULEV fleet that require 16-PIN harnesses. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier.”
Customer – “Oh, yeah. Of course, with NAFTA, we have to distinguish GAWR, GVWR, GCWR, OSOW especially with our O/O vehicles.”
Customer – “Are you okay?”
You – “I gotta go pee.”
Strike three. Over. Au revoir. Get lost.
There are plenty of stupid questions sales people have asked me:
“What’s more important to you, quality or cost?”
“You got a budget or what?
“How important is money to your business?”
“Is your company interested in making a profit?”
However, there is one monumentally stupid thing to ask. Because they’re attempting to think, people new to the world of corporate sales insist on asking this question during customer meetings when they’re stuck. It’s a lame question uttered in a feeble effort to get a customer to open up about some troubling aspect of his/her business. The question is:
“What keeps you up at night?”
This question sucks.
Asking it is essentially saying, ” I am a moron.” Metaphorically speaking, you’re cerebral needle is stuck on “dumb.” If you’re a sales person and you actually ask that question then just pack up your stuff and go home because the party’s over.
Your customer is so sick of low-rent sales people asking that question. You may as well put a dunce cap on because you’ve basically said to your customer, “I have NO idea what I’m doing.” And, your customer couldn’t agree more because it shows you’re totally unprepared and you’ve now gone from the rank of “account executive” to something closer to “door stop.”
Customer – “Does your hosted VoIP system remove embarrassing stains from contoured bed sheets?”
Sales Person – “Uh, well, yeah, absolutely, you just need to make sure your bed sheets are on the latest firmware version and, like, verify your bed sheets use an open application protocol interface then, uh…, yeah. Sure. Definitely. Yep. Uh-huh. No doubt.”
The sales guy for the company that won the bid to build the Panama Canal probably told the U.S. Government, “Hey, it’ll be cheap, it’ll be easy and you’ll have it next week.”
I should mention, I’m the technical guy and attend lotsa customer meetings with the new sales folks. So, enter the third cat. Fluffy the Rep, Muffin the Business Owner and Lurch the Technical Guy. Lurch is an appropriate name because I’m tall and bear a close resemblance to the character of the same name in “The Addams Family.” I sound like Lurch, too. Mostly the the mornings.
I think we’ll name our next cat Lurch. It’s different. Not alot of cats out there named Lurch and it would make for entertaining conversations at the vet’s office with the other pet owners:
Pet Owner, looking at my cat – “Just look at your sweet little kitten. A beautiful little ball of fur. And, so friendly. Such a precious little kitten. What’s his name? Buttercup? Maybe, Tinker Bell? Snowflake? What adorable name do you give this lovely little kitten?”
Me – “Lurch.”
Pet Owner – “Oh…..”
Anyway, back to Fluffy the Sales Rep, Muffin the Business Owner and Lurch the Technical Guy. There can sometimes be a little tension between the new sales rep and the technical guy. That’s because the rep will promise just about anything in order to make the sale.
Let’s say your prospective customer wants to know if you can customize a one-off product that defies the laws of relativity, is physically impossible to construct and, even if it could be built, would cost $1,750,000,000. As the technical guy, my inclination would be to ask a few “clarifying questions.” The clarifying questions might be along the lines of:
1) “What, exactly, are you hoping to accomplish with this product?
2) “In your product trial, what are your expected outcomes?”
3) “Have you thought about backing off a little on the Angel Dust?”
These questions run contrary to the rep’s primary goal which is to close the deal and get the hell out of there. He/she isn’t interested in clarifying anything and doesn’t want to get caught up in details. Hence, the tension.
I’m reminded of a particular sales meeting a few years ago that took a very strange turn. Fluffy the new rep, who clearly did his homework, kicked things off by asking the customer, “Uh, yeah. So, okay, um, like, my first question, I guess, uh, exactly what is it that you do….do? As a company, I mean. Like, for business…..purposes.”
He may as well have asked, “Why the hell am I here?”
Before the Muffin could answer, Fluffy started rattling off a list all the great services the company could offer which was complicated by the fact that the company really didn’t offer most of what he listed. But he did assure this prospect that these services, even though they didn’t exist, helped his long list of clientele who are “doing pretty much, uh, the same thing, basically, that you do…whatever that is.”
His response to every question the prospective customer asked was, “Uh, yeah, good question. Um, I’m….. I’ll, um, uh….. yeah, we can definitely do….that. Sure.”
It got worse because this particular prospective customer (aka Muffin) knew the rep had no idea what he was talking about. So, Muffin started asking about services he knew didn’t didn’t exist just to see what Fluffy would say.
Muffin – “Are you sure you can do this?
Lurch – “Let’s just make sure we’re clear on what you’re looking for. Do you….”
Muffin – “Wait, you mean to tell me you actually support this?”
Lurch – “If we can just review what you’re wanting to….”
Fluffy – “I got this. We can set up a trial. No cost.”
Muffin – “Oh, so you’re willing to pay for the entire infrastructure for a free….”
Lurch – “Before we start down this road, I think….”
Fluffy – “I got this! Yeah, not a problem. We can do this.”
Muffin – “How?”
Fluffy – “With a concentrator.”
[Very long pause]
Lurch – “Okay. Why don’t we…..”
Fluffy – “I said I got this…”
This meeting had, officially, gone sideways. I started to speak once more just to see if we could manage to keep the Titanic away from the iceberg but the rep, who had just made the fatal error of attempting to think again, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Wait, I do have one important question first.” He looked earnestly at the customer and asked:
“What keeps you up at night?”
At this point, I picked up my phone and started sending in a take-out order to this Chinese place close to home because, well, why not? No point sticking around. Probably best to leave before this guy shoots us dead which any jury in the country would consider justifiable homicide.
Instead of gunning us down, the guy stood up, walked to his desk, pulled out a picture of his recently-wedded wife, put it on the desk for us to see and said, “THIS is what keeps me up at night. This is what keeps me up every night.”
Well….., to say the picture was merely attention-getting would be doing it quite a disservice. The woman in question was certainly striking: tan, statuesque and exquisite. The picture appeared to be taken at the beach.
Along the bottom of the picture was written, “Sunday in Marseille.” What followed was a startling description of the strenuous and harrowing sexual exploits she intended to do to and with him later that evening and every night thereafter. Half way through reading it, I was tempted to say, “This woman is a total animal!” I mean, this was some serious Caligula-type shit. All-night debauchery. And, she’s talking about doing this every night. After reading the rest of what she wrote, I almost asked, “Has she considered some sort of in-patient therapy?”
Because, based on what she wrote, if they were to complete all the erotic hijinks on her to-do list then they would be, in the very best of scenarios, dead. And, that’s after Night-One.
There were some very subtle nuances in the picture. If you looked very closely then you might notice one distinguishing feature of the photograph was that the young lady, even though she was at the beach, seemed to have forgotten her swimsuit.
This may not have been the first time because, upon further examination, I noticed she had no tan-lines. As is the case with practically all men, tan-lines are always the first thing I notice when looking at a picture of a woman with her clothes off.
The picture certainly turned the direction of our meeting in a way we hadn’t expected. The sales guy was just staring at the picture. His mouth was open but he wasn’t saying anything.
I figured, by showing us this picture, the customer was saying, among other things, that our meeting was officially over.
So, while trying to pry the rep away from the picture, I said, “Hey, listen. Thrilling meeting you….and your wife. Dazzling ensemble. She seems…uh…, yeah. And, based on what she wrote, quite ambitious. Taken on Sunday, I see. Were these taken before or after church service? If these were taken after then that must have been quite a sermon. You wouldn’t happen to have a transcript, would you?
“Personally speaking, reviewing this photograph has been a very educational experience. Lends significance to the ‘thinking outside the box’ saying. We certainly understand your hands, at the moment, are tied…literally… The Little Lady does have some unique thoughts on alternate uses of pearl necklaces. Certainly nothing I had ever considered. And, I’m sure I’ll never look at the word ‘masticate’ in quite the same way for the rest of my life.
“At any rate, we can clearly see you’re a very….VERY….busy man. And, despite the extreme sleep-deprivation, you seem to be bearing up rather well as evidenced by the fact that you’re not currently dead. So, we’ll leave you in peace, no pun intended.
“Perhaps, between one of your joint sessions of congress, as it were, you might have a look at this information and let us know what crumpets you have.
“Questions! I mean, let us know what QUESTIONS you have.
“We’ll be back next spring assuming you survive the winter months which I severely doubt. Personally, I’m thinking you’ve got no more than 40 days before going to that great orgasmitron in the sky. Remember, you will be making the ultimate sacrifice. On behalf of all heterosexual men, I just want to say thank you for your service. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers. Thoughts, mostly.
“If on the remote chance you don’t leave this mortal coil before we meet again then you’ll probably be in some sort of assisted living arrangement. I think we can all agree on that point. Let’s face it, the only functional part of your body will be your, well, your, your, uh, yeah.
“I mean, hell, you won’t be able to walk in a couple weeks. When the time comes give me a shout. I can get you a great deal on wheelchairs. I know a guy.”
I left with visions that remain with me to this day. The rep stayed behind looking at the picture while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.