Monday, September 6, 2010

My First American Gig

My first American gig was a lesson, hospitality,opulence, poverty, celebrity, celebration.

All in one tangled, multi-faceted dollop.


I was sought out and confronted by American persons unknown who wanted to know whether I had any experience with large budget event parties?
I replied that performing at retired Japanese starlets 21st parties was not unknown to me and that I had done 'party' work in the largest indoor nightclubs in Europe,
[I had spent an entire season on Ibiza.]

I was in London while this little email adventure/misadventure played out.
They replied that they could tell me very little other than they sought to employ me for a private party, that James Brown and Aretha Franklyn and a 300 strong choir would be there, that it was to be held in an old ballroom Al Capone had had built and would I please sent them a contract and a rider.

What?

I knew what a contract was, I believe I had sold my soul to the Catholic faith at around twelve, and had a great many contracts since then, always delivered to be scrutinised and signed, usually with a sigh of feigned indifference at the latitude taken.
OK sure you own my image and can use it commercially any way you see fit,and yes I know as well as providing celebrations of art you also sell laxatives.

But This? I was as a matter of course being empowered by these Americans, They wanted me to formulate an outline of business with them, very quaint from my perspective.

A rider?
Obviously a term in some sort of 'buzzspeak' I was uneducated in.
This was in the late nineties, the Internet was new.
I pregoogled and found out that a 'Rider' is a luxury certain artists employ, wherein they request a shopping list of pre performance requirements provided for them backstage as a basic requirement in providing a level of comfort inside which said artist can best, 'do their shit'

So I replied; As to the contract, I will be satisfied with a gentleman's agreement in which you agree to pay me X for services provided Y.

As to the Rider, I have two, the first primitive, the second less so.
The primitive is a dressing area containing something I can sit on while getting my stilts on, quantities of ice water and or softdrink
and the second involves four cheerleaders, a therapist and a puppy.
I hit 'send'

The next day I received a brief reply, "What kind of puppy do you need?"
I liked that these Americans were playful.
I ran with it.
Explaining that as a clown I had studied this and found that the funniest puppy was the Irish Wolfhound given it's paws were about half it's body weight.
Then got to business.
They would fly me, put me up, feed me and pay me then return me for X In return I would provide them with 3 hours of my services and whatever other times I needed to inspect the venue.

They agreed outright, stating that I would be flying United as their employer, whose party this was, owned a great deal of the company.

I decided at this point a hissy fit was called for, I only charged them X? What is it with me and catholic residue? I could have charged them XX, This guy owns airlines! I could have charged XXX!

But then I calmed. I was going to America, James Brown would be playing at a private party, I was being paid to attend and be disdainful, it was all good.

The seat was first class, it was in the economy section but I was very impressed with it, it had a window and a perfectly weighted sense of humility. Which suited me as I was deliberately penniless. I had decided to live the dream, to arrive in America without a cent to my name, achieve great wealth and one day buy the very plane I was now traveling in as a recursive indulgent memento.

To this day I wonder about these dreams I have, whether they're in fact the bow of a vehicle that leaves a wake of unrealised potential. It is only after a few years that most people remove themselves from the bow to have a look at their entire vessel, check the rudder, gaze at their wake.
Sometimes that's all it takes to see that for example you had been sailing in circles for years.
I arrived in Chicago.

Customs was a breeze, 4 days, return ticket, invited to a party, have fun Sir, Welcome to America.
I use a brooks brothers suit and shirt I bought for $2 now when traveling but in Chicago I was employing my fail-safe 'shoes and sunglasses' social signifier gambit. My sunglasses cost $500, my Italian boots just slightly less. You only need to signify you have the means to spend discriminately and without reserve to glide through any number of social layers. I was looking forward to paddling briefly in America.

I was met by an extremely tall black American holding my name on a card. He wasn't just tall, he was rock and roll tall, freakish, suited up impeccably and he either had feline grace or a piece of shrapnel stuck in him somewhere.

He led me outside, not to the carpark but to a nearby area where his stretched black Limo sat.
This was classic stuff, I was loving this.
I explained to my driver that he needed to know straight up that I couldn't tip him. I had no money at all. I apologised. He gracefully informed me that everything had already been taken care of.
So I got in and started drinking, the back of this limo was salted with hidden compartments and baskets filled with impulsive treats, Champagne, Chocolate, Beer, Cognac, fresh fruit, while outside the highways seemed filled with lesser vehicles. Poor non stretched limousines.

We eventually swished into some huge downtown multinational hotel, I thanked my driver and went to introduce myself to the staff, I shrugged off the bellboys, "I'm penniless, I'll get back to you."
I informed the front desk that I had no credit card to give them however if they were to allow me one local phone call I would arrange a suitable deposit to be made. They humored me, I again fought off the bellboys advances and went up to my room, it had an on-suite and large windows and most importantly a telephone.

I lined my couple of bottles of limo-swag up to drown my sorrows if this didn't work and picked up the phone.
I rang my employer, got one of his secretary's , explained that I was checking in with them and could they arrange a trip to the venue the next day, the day prior to the gig so that I could look at it and additionally could they please immediately advance me 20% of my fee and have that be a deposit on my hotel account so that I might eat. I had travelled a long way and needed to eat and was reliant upon them in this.

She told me she'd ring me back in moments and sure enough, within five minutes rang back to tell me that it was all taken care of and that I was free to use the services the hotel offered at my leisure.

Roomservice and I got on famously. I would give them $20 tips and they would bring me whatever I asked for. I asked for a typewriter, they brought one, I hadn't planned on using it but I just liked the look of it, I typed a couple of hundred words so it looked all latent and creative then ignored it. I asked for copious amounts of food and drink, I'd sign for these and write $20 in the tip portion.

My room was fun, I had my costume and props scattered about artfully, 100 year old baby doll here, 3 pairs of stilt trousers draped thus, triangle, flyswat, Swedish tank-helmet. Outside Chicago looked grey, I was looking down from a high floor and myself in a forest of skyscrapers. I planned to walk it the next day but my day of arrival was all about gorging in my new habitat, fueling up for a party in 48 hours. I handled about two hours of American TV before discarding it. Hard, it's quite hypnotic. I found it's cartoon pace seductive and insulting, the adverts clumsy hallucinations.
I read a book, "The Box Man" by Kobo Abe, with some of my own selection of music playing, while drinking and gazing at the typewriter for it's Feng Shui.
I read and drank until I could no longer focus.
America was not so different.



My first morning in America found me full of Vim and Vigor .
I ate a stupefyingly large breakfast in bed worked it off by
dancing round naked for a bit, answered the phone,
I was to be picked up mid afternoon to visit the venue and there was something downstairs for me to pick up from reception.

I showered then grabbed the morning paper and did the sociological thing I always do where I look to see how sex is framed.

Every large newspaper contains sex and how it is framed illustrates the character of the society it represents.

Some societies NZ and Australia have pages devoted to the sex industry in the major papers, others hide behind euphemisms like 'escort' or 'massage' and yet others are further disguised under 'counselling services'.
Personally I don't avail myself of sexual services, I've lived with partners who dabbled in providing them but to me the transaction is too transparently humiliating to be worth papering over the cracks of your own inability to achieve intimacy by using simply cash. [scares the shit out of me.]

In most things I've noted that the purchaser risks more than the provider. To define a need is a form of nakedness no amount of money can obscure.

I settle for the overview, perhaps I'm a coward. Some large missing inner asshole or something.

The Chicago newspaper was neutered, how strange. The yellow pages in my hotel room screamed sex with an inch or more of escort services but the daily reality was scrubbed clean.

I formed a judgement,
the society was in arrested adolescence with a strong and overtly repressed sexual Calvinism that was dour and depressing overlay-ed with a plastic American coating of free will and limitless choices which grated like an exposed nerve on the social subtext that had at it's foundation that God had already chosen his friends on earth and that most of us were hellbound by statistical probability and just needed to be steered away from the depravity that is our natural state by the good folk who happened to own newspapers.
This was confirmed by the hotel porn which was littered with obscuring post production lampshades and 'objects de-mask-the-genitals'.

So with a surplice of inner bacon and eggs and a deficit of sexual confidence I ventured downstairs to flirt as best I could with America.
Reception greeted me warmly and passed me an envelope full of money. My fee in full. So I was off the hook for room-service, sweet!
It was in the thousands rather than hundreds so for day one I felt I was settling in well.
And where does a newly rich Clown shop while in America? Why the first Dollar shop he comes to, of course.

One large bag of industrial bi-product metallic tinsel and a handful of cheap plastic props later and I was briefly back at my hotel room, decorating.

Out again, observing, lot's of power dressers, pinstripes, wannabe Titans clutching their brittle slavery and attempting to project it, in a breathtaking attempt at style over substance, as confidence.

Oh well, from what I'd been led to believe the whole country was constantly hallucinating it's existence, I was just here to temporarily trip with them.

Down town was all business. The buildings were muscular and neo-Gothic, the only shopping mall I found might as well have been in Tokyo, London, Barcelona, France. Same stuff, same prices.

The only interesting distinction was the high exposure corporate branding on clothing. Amusing to train a population to pay to wear cloth sandwidge-boards.
Loyalty cannot be bought, but selling it seems to be another matter.

The underclass shone shoes on the sidewalk, I saw no one playing any instrument, no individual expression not off the peg of some retailer. Go Ford Go! How about those Zerox's!

Given time I could have found some soul and later I did. I have, my natural optimism aside, a weakness for being overwhelmed with despair. Creating my own entertainment is my antidote. I left Chicagos grim steroid-taut inner city rendition of itself and circled back to the hotel to get my ride to the venue.

A simple taxi arrived, a heavily fortified gentleman seemingly locked in a tiny cell with a steering wheel sped off with me in the padded holding cell behind him. He knew where he was going. All I knew was that Al Capone was involved and that where I was going was the Aragon Ballroom.

The Aragon Ballroom cost 2 million dollars to make in 1926. Get your head around that.
A ballroom that today would cost 40 million dollars but with 1920's tech.

It was designed to replicate a Spanish palace courtyard with its crystal chandeliers, mosaic tiles, garishly painted plaster, terra-cotta ceiling and beautiful arches. The shiny bent wood floor was created for dancing and rests on a cushion of cork, felt and springs. It appears to be a palace of illusions, where artificial stars twinkle overhead and projectors beam clouds scudding across the domed roof some 60 feet above the dance floor...

...Opened in July, 1926 more than 8,000 people jammed the Aragon to enjoy its unprecedented beauty. It was dubbed the most beautiful ballroom in the world.

..The Aragon enjoyed near capacity crowds every day. Weekly attendance regularly topped 18,000 during the 20's, 30's, and 40's...

...Playing the Aragon was regarded as having obtained "big-time" status. Acts like Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Dick Jurgens, Harry James, Xavier Cugat, Eddy Duchin, Carmen Cavallaro, Kay Kyser, George Olsen, Benny Goodman, Sammy Kaye, Art Kassel, Artie Shaw, Ted Fio Rito, Jan Garber, Frankie Masters, Russ Morgan, Orrin Tucker, Griff Williams, Ben Bernie, Tommy Tucker, Abe Lyman, Henry King, Bernie Cummins, Shep Fields, Gus Arnheim, Ted Weems, Eddy Howard, Wayne King and many more frequented the Aragon....

...And in the Midwest those who weren't dancing perhaps sat at home by their radios and waited impatiently until the announcer ended his station break by saying: ".... we return you to our studios in the Aragon Ballroom, where the dancing is now in progress." The announcer spoke of the beauty and described the happy crowd enjoying the music of the best orchestras in the nation. Radio broadcasts were of paramount importance to the Aragon for advertising. These broadcasts were made live six nights a week from 10:05 PM to 11:00 PM on WGN Radio...
http://www.teknowiz.net/kalendar/cli...e/history1.htm








I walked in. There was all sorts of setup going down and sitting somewhat central were the two head honchos on directors chairs. They were lounging, not sitting up tense but layed back and splayed.

I love those first moments of contact. I know and recognise people who look at you like one expendable wheel on the locomotive they are tasked with .
We said hello. I share with a good number of my fellows the blight of being hyper-vigilant. Gruff people = Brittle self inflating reactionaries
Playful people = disciplined all encompassists with a mission. These guys were the latter and with the whole , 'puppy' thing behind us we knew where we stood.
I introduced myself, they smiled ruefully, I excused myself to put my stilts on and take a wander . Just checking for challenges generally. I found I could get everywhere, stairways are a speciality of mine. I looked for niches and cubbies and pillars and corners. The fact that it was all based on Spanish architecture and I had delt with that in Spain suited me.
There was a grand dual stairway entrance, statues of egyptian/african giants at their base.
I found my way up to the choirstands overlooking the dancefloor, the second story of the plastered spanish courtyard, interesting,

On the night Aretha Franklin would have 150 on each side as her choir, then James Brown.
I found myself even higher in a loft and took it for my dressingroom.

I knew all they wanted to know was that I was confident. I walked the set, took my stilts off and let them know that I was pleased and ready and I'd see them tomorrow, the day of the gig.

They offered a taxi, I refused, stating I preferred to walk for a bit.
I saw the cultural jar, they flinched. I was about to learn why.
I saw the same flinch in Tokyo where a friend, after about a 40 hour flight with holding lounge stopovers, after getting to our room in Tokyo, took his shoes off and walked barefoot out of the house and up the road. There is no greater sin than this in Japan. To walk on your bare feet in public =automatic flinch
Japanese anecdotal olympics aside,

The surrounding Chicago burbs were unattractive.

Taxis knew full well the densians were desperately poor. I walked a long way back home before a taxi picked me up. I was white.I was male, I was incongruous . I hadn't been mugged yet.
I arived back at my hotel and tipped heavily. I finally gave the bellboys something for nothing, went up to my room and ordered industrial quantities of of food and alcohol. I had just under 24 hours to the gig.


Next morning I woke early and wrestled with my hangover. I got on the phone.

"Yes may I have a Hot Toddy please. Oh, OK, 2 fluid ounces of bog average whisky, 2 fluid ounces of boiling water and a half teaspoon of honey, a dash of lemon and between 5 and 15 cloves. Nuke them I don't care but I want them close to boiling when they come through the door, yeah make that two. Thanks very much."

A trolley was wheeled in, two shot glasses sat in a steaming copper heater. I tipped, he went, I drank, sipping appreciatively, then ordered a heavy breakfast, gorged and went back to sleep.

Woke again mid afternoon, ordered a brace of juices and smoothies, time to fluid up before massive sweating.

Finally used the typewriter. Killed a couple of hours recounting an amazing story an Icelandic bartender had told me a couple of months prior. There is an internal symmetry because Iceland was the last time I had lived off free room service. I liked linking the surreality.

I got myself in order, shower shave etc; Then did that thing which is peculiar to me; I got my shit together. Triangle and chimer,/check/ scary baby doll,/check/ plastic flies,/check/ singular juggling ball,/check/ pen with different colored pop-top,/check/magnifying glass,/check/hand held mirror,/check/ industrial tinsel,/check/ medium size bathroom towel, /check/flyswat,/check/tankhelmet,/check/ makeup,/check/ gaffer-tape,/check,/shin-pads,/check/ tips of stilts,/check/stilt tighten,/check/Costume,/check.

I was about to go to a soiree of some mogul who started his career as a radio DJ and had evolved/devolved into spectacular financial carnivore in the 80's/90's.

He held a party every year, around 300 hundred guests.

The year before he had got special dispensation from the powers that be to have his party-goers meet in their own cars at set locations and then follow the second white line drawn on certain streets and roads to the party.

The guy had new white lines lay-ed just to direct people to his shindig, which, the year before was in the large rented circus soleit tent, flown in from wherever.

The patron had a complete branch of his operations dedicated to these parties full time.

This year the line up was, James brown, Aretha Franklyn and a 300 strong choir, Redmoon theatre, myself and a concrete suited slowmoving statue with a camera in his hand and an open laptop strapped to his back, who walked slowly and took pictures all night. [When everyone left, down the main hall, all the stills he had taken were there framed and for the picking] getting ahead of myself here, I'm just walking in.

The foyer was a vast ancient American social esophagus, It's been part of America's dream of itself since 1926.

Personally this foyer reminded me of the scary piano player in a Thailand hotel I stayed at who crooned meaninglessly with demonic chipmunk cheer and whose cracks in her smotheringly thick facial foundation had me imagining spiders living in her face. But that's just me.

Briefly looked into the ballroom. A sushi chef [the James Brown of sushi chefs no doubt] had his own island with the most expensive large fish on ice money could buy.

There was a Da Vinci helicopter rigged in the ceiling, Redmoon theatre were using that. There were a few other food islands, you had to browse yourself, there were waiters as backup for those unused to not being waited on.

I went up to my lair to get ready, no puppy, no cheerleaders, no therapist, there was ice, various softdrinks and someone must have accidentally left a joint on the table.

I put it away, it messes with my timing and for a non vocal performer timing is prime, then stretched for 30 minutes, spent a further 40 getting makeup and stilts on, a luxury, I can be ready in 15 ,and then made my way down a variety of carpeted steps from my belfry to the event just before the first arrivals.

The place was abuzz and these things usually are, with formally dressed waiters and waitresses and highly strung caterers doing that self important theatre that is their stock in trade.

The guests some more formal than others, began to arrive.

My first bamboozlement was that, apart from the evening gown wearing women, everyone was made to wear orange T shirts given to them upon entry. They were told it was so that staff could identify them.

It made no sense to me. I thought it could have been some ridiculous American affectation but the surprise on the guests faces as they donned dumb bright Tshirts put paid to that idea. I figured it was the host simply being an overbearing asshole right off the bat.

"Hi welcome to my party, do what you're told, I'm in charge and as there's too many of you to actually kiss my ass you get to wear this Tshirt to show yourselves and me where the power lies in our arrangement."

Made me feel a bit sorry for them. Not good, pity is my enemy however insecure people are my stock in trade so it balanced out.

Most of the guests struck me as a little overawed, a little off balance. I thought the guest list must have been political rather than fraternal, interesting. That would give me a great deal more leeway in where the line denoting acceptable behavior by me might lie.

I spent the evening ridiculing folk, mimicking them cruelly, glaring at them with malicious disdain, dumping tinsel on their heads leaving small post-it notes stuck to them that read,

"If you can read this you're not as drunk as me." and, "I've been mocked...and it's not the first time." and dancing.

Aretha Franklin and her 300 strong choir opened the evening, 150 each side in the balconies with her and band onstage. The strange thing about the dynamic, well one of the strange things about the dynamic was that the audience were presented with the acts without advance notice. They didn't know who would be performing, it was all a surprise.

Only 300 guests in such a big space meant that critical mass and the usual group dynamic where people gel via common passion, expectation and a certain mutuality was missing.

Still, a good set and I didn't let the vague group discomfort inhibit my need to boogie. I'm a paid acerbic lubricant after all.

This was followed by Redmoon theatre, a Chicago based arts collective that specialises in visual spectacle.

The Di Vinci helicopter descended on cue piloted by the protagonist who then had various adventures with dry ice and groups of dark and somber stilt creatures and strangely clad musicians. [sigh]

They were good and I actually worked with them a year later throughout Chicago as a principle in a show that played the airport, the museum and various eclectic venues but having myself graduated from a dark and somber stilt performance group [Stalker] some 10 years before I used their set to rest and grab some liquid.

I did like the way they integrated their show into the midst of the party-goers.

Waiters and waitresses bustled, hither and thither, a few canny guests had taken the seating vacated by the departed choir for an overhead view. I made a point of visiting them and trying to conduct them in some choral manner. Sometimes others annoyance to me is a sweet nectar.

I negotiated my way downstairs again as Redmoon climaxed. Dry ice hung in the air as they took their bows and left.

Now James Brown was next. But James Brown isn't the kind of guy who shuffles onstage and whispers, " Hello, my name is James, I hope you're all well, here's a song I wrote."

James band play for 20 minutes without him, building up atmosphere, building up expectation and then some pre-James takes the stage and hypes the imminent James.

"ARE YOU READY FOR...?"

"DO YOU WANNA SEE...?"

"I CAN'T HEAR YOU...!"

"LET'S LIFT THIS ROOF OFF FOR...!"

"EVERYONE TOGETHER NOW, JAMES BROWN!, JAMES BROWN!"

The guests, mostly ultra-rich sophisticates, did their very best to simulate a passionate rabble, an uphill battle and the pre-James tried as hard as they did to convince himself that his efforts were working.

I thought to myself at the time that if the crowds collective enthusiasm was an erect penis and long enough it would still be soft enough to tuck backwards and attempt self sodomy. My bizarre musings were curtailed by the appearance on stage of JAMES BROWN.

Now James was old. That's true. But James was also the right kind of old. The 'don't give a shit about being old' kind of old.

He was a master, he had the moves, all the signature vocals, his own tight band and a commitment to original excellence.

Personally I had no problem immersing myself in his real live, here and now, legendary groove.

Having stilts on usually means you are given room to move and if I do say so myself I move well.

James gave it his all and it was the least I could do to try and keep up.

"Living in AMERICA."

I can't really recall the specifics. I remember he collapsed sweating at the end and the pre-james picked him up and he shrugged it all off and did his encore. A classic piece of theatre he had made his own.

I was spent for real. I'd been up 3 hours, paced myself well and spent the last 40 minutes on turbo. My job was done.

I made my way back to my dressing room, showered and went on a backstage trawl, met Redmoon, exchanged numbers and chatted. I figured James and Aretha were well gone. They were.

Back out front of stage some apparently well known local coverband were winding down the night.

I had a pass rather than a bright Tshirt and started ordering drinks and food and getting it delivered to a particular table. I then used that table as a half way point, transferring the goods back to my dressing room in shifts and filling an empty suitcase I'd brought with booty to be taken back to the Hotel. Old habits die hard.

I packed up, cleaned up my room after myself, [another old habit] then discovered I'd run out of cigarettes.

I hunted down my boss, got thanked for the work and he arranged for security to accompany me across the road to a bar to buy some. I crossed the road with my personal man mountain, we got peered at though bullet proof glass and buzzed into what anywhere else in the world would simply be a downtrodden seedy bar full of downtrodden seedy people.

It struck me that the point of all this protection was that the neighbourhood itself was more dangerous than the bar and that made me recognise how dumb I'd been the evening before strolling round the hood like a neon dipstick.

I got my cigs, stood outside the Ballroom, got my nicotine fix and smoked half a joint before popping back inside to grab my stuff and taxi out of there.

I make a point of not hanging round too long after the gig, the impression you have better things to do I find is ultimately more important than actually having anything better to do.

This time I let the bellboys take it all, I went up to my room, sorted out my sweaty stuff and rang the front desk for some late night laundry.

Laid my purloined food and drink about artfully and I confess I scattered industrial quantities of leftover tinsel over furniture and carpet.

I was leaving the next evening.

I'm quite happy in my own company and spent the next few hours eating and drinking merrily.

I looked down from my window at the greater downtown Chicago and marvelled at the life I lead.

I flew out the next day.

2 comments:

Stacy said...

Thanks for sharing this story! I saw the Pixies play at the Avalon a few years back, so I'm familiar with the theater and area and can just picture you walking around there (on your stilts, even!). Sorry, I don't have anything real witty or deep to say, just wanted to state that I really enjoyed reading this.

Cheers,

~ Stacy (from the Newsvine)

Martin Ewen said...

Thanks Stacy.