Performers (singers, actors, etc)

Travis Warren

 


So, for most of my life, my favorite band has been Hall & Oates. I know … I know—Hall & Oates!? Rich Girl? Private Eyes? How corny. How cheesy. How … how … how—Sigh. I know. I get it.

The thing is, diehard fans of any musician will tell you that it’s really about the songs mainstream listeners don’t know. For example, I loathe Maneater, but I friggin’ love Georgie. I detest Adult Education, but I’ll listen to Las Vegas Turnaround all day. On and on it goes.

Point is, to appreciate a band—to really, really appreciate a band—you need to understand the music behind the hits.

Enter: Blind Melon. As far as much of the world knows, Melon had one song—No Rain—then sorta vanished into the abyss of some 90s musical netherworld. But, truth be told, the group’s three albums are insane. Rich. Detailed. Textured. Nuanced. Soup is my all-time favorite song. Change is close behind. Top to bottom, some of the absolute best music I’ve ever heard. Blind Melon was great. Beyond great.

Then, sadly, Shannon Hoon, the lead singer, died of an overdose in 1995, and—poof—Melon vanished.

Well, they’re back. In 2006 the four living members of Blind Melon invited Travis Warren, a 20-something native Texan, into the group. Fans were skeptical—Hoon was a unique talent with a unique voice and an even more unique world view. Warren was, uh, some guy with tattoos and a guitar.

In the ensuing years, however, Travis Warren has emerged as a legitimate Blind Melon frontman. Why? First, because his voice sounds a lot like Hoon’s. Second, he has a genuine appreciation of the band’s history, and hasn’t tried to replace or obscure Hoon. Third, he’s a genuinely decent guy who seems truly appreciative to be singing with the band he always loved. Fourth, he’s gifted.

When he’s not performing with Blind Melon, Travis works in a bunch of different musical areas. He and drummer Sarah Scarlata perform as the duo, The LookOut Kids, and will be playing Los Angeles’ Viper Room on July 13.

It is with great joy that I welcome Travis Warren to The Quaz Dome …

•••
JEFF PEARLMAN: When Shannon Hoon died in 1995, I sorta assumed Blind Melon was dead, too. Then, one day, I randomly hear about the return of Blind Melon—with new lead singer, some Travis Warren guy. How did this happen?

TRAVIS WARREN: Well, I grew up in Amarillo, Texas. I was dating a chick and her whole family lived out here in San Luis Obispo. She ended up moving to California and I was super bummed. A month after I turned 17 I dropped out of school, loaded up my buddy Logan’s car and followed her out here to California.  My buddy stayed two weeks, got itchy feet and also went home. I guess I could have gone home, but wasn’t much there. So I stayed out in California, in San Luis Obispo. I was there until 2006, and then the band I was in, Rain Fur Rent—we moved to Los Angeles. Pretty quick, within a month, we had management. Within three months of moving to L.A. we showcased for nine major labels. We were a strange fit—we had a violin player who played like Jimi Hendrix, we were a bunch of different genres combined with these long, drawn-out songs. Anyhow, in 2006 my manager and I had lunch with an A&R guy from Atlantic Records. He asked a bunch of different questions, and one was ‘Who is your musical influence?’ I said, ‘Shannon Hoon.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? Chris (Thorn) and Brad (Smith) have a studio up in Los Angeles. Do you want to meet them? I was like, ‘Uh, yeah.’

So he set up a meeting for the fall. I went in there, brought in all my Blind Melon memorabilia—bootlegs, the Letters from a Porcupine DVD, a bunch of stuff. I had them sign everything. At the same time they were trying find an artist to take under their wing and produce. They came out and saw us play; they liked me, but they didn’t get the band. Right around that time my band called it quits, and Chris and Brad asked how would I feel them producing and recording a few of my songs. I said absolutely. We did that for a couple of months … recorded few my songs. Maybe the third month in Christopher had a BBQ at his house. He said that I should bring my guitar and we’d sing some songs. We had a really chill day. When I about to leave, they said they needed to talk. At first I thought, ‘Shit—no money, no budget, no more.’ Then they sat me down and asked ‘How would you feel about singing for Blind Melon?’ It totally threw me off guard … didn’t hit me until after I left. It’s hard to understand that feeling.

Of course, I said yes.

J.P.: Can you explain your love of Blind Melon?

T.W.: I turn 31 this year. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve always been a huge Melon guy. When the first record came out I was 12, and I just fell in love with that band. I remember putting that record in, and every song kicked ass. It’s funny, because my least favorite song on the CD is No Rain—which, of course, is Blind Melon’s trademark song. Man, I turned so many people onto that band. I’d say, ‘You have to forget about the Bee Girl song. Just listen to the whole thing.’ Shannon Hoon had one of those voices unlike anything that came out. They weren’t a grunge band, they weren’t a rock band. They were special. Guitar wise, there was no rhythm and no leads. It was like rhythm leads, and if you took one of them out, musically it would make no sense. Each band member brought special things to the table. A huge day was when I turned 18—I had a tattoo of Shannon Hoon put on my back. It’s the picture from Rolling Stone magazine, where they’re all wading in the water. I cut the picture out of the magazine and brought it to the tattoo parlor. It didn’t come out that well—the girl who did it didn’t know what she was doing. I said, ‘Hey, can you do this?’ She said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I never even got it finished. It’s just the outline. One day I’ll have it completed.

J.P.: You guys released an album in 2008, For My Friends. I recently read an interview in which you sorta dumped on it. Why?

T.W.: It’s so funny—I recently had this conversation with a guitar player for Marilyn Manson. He found me on Facebook and told me he loved the record. I’m one of those artists—I’m rarely happy with anything I put out. I’ve recorded more than 200 songs, and I only like a handful of them. I just think, in this case, we all had high expectation for the record, and it tanked. It didn’t sell. Plus, we were all in different places in our lives for the record, and that had an impact. When Blind Melon recorded their first two CDs, they were all coming up, working together, etc. This time, they’re married with kids. It’s different. I do think there are some great songs on it, but because it didn’t do so well, I think we all see it as a failure—even though that’s probably a stupid way to judge success. But putting politics and bullshit aside, I think there are some high moments. I don’t think it’s a horrible record. But we could have done better.

J.P.: Blind Melon loyalists are a smallish lot, but they worship Shannon Hoon. He’s a legend; immortal; etc. And you were asked to replace him. That seems like a next-to-impossible task.

T.W.: You know, the Blind Melon fan base might not be the Kiss Army, but the fans are so loyal, and they’re Hoon freaks—just like I am. They’re so loyal, and they love Blind Melon. Well, a lot of those fans didn’t get to catch Blind Melon the first time because Shannon died in 1995. Now, even though it can’t be the same, they can. Even though Shannon’s not up there, a lot of people tell me they close their eyes and hear the music and forget I’m a different singer. We’re playing for those people; for those fans who didn’t get the chance to catch Blind Melon the first time. One of the challenges, I will say, is there’s not all that much material. Three albums, two when he was alive. But the material that exists is amazing. Take the album Soup, for example. I remember when it came out and Rolling Stone savaged it. Just killed it. That ended any respect I had for Rolling Stone, because Soup is fucking amazing. Rolling Stone is the same magazine that gives Brittney Spears four stars; the same magazine that bagged Led Zepplin. I remember them mutilating Soup, and it was a joke. Blind Melon could have put out regurgitated shit, and people would have bought it. But they went in a totally different direction. That took balls.

The funny thing is, the song Soup didn’t make the album. I think one of the members wanted another song on, so Soup got bumped. And Soup is, in my opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written. First, the guitar riff is amazing. I put that riff right there with Stairway to Heaven and Sweet Home Alabama. I’m a guitar player first, and I’m blown away. Still. And melodically, the song is genius. There’s no other way to put it. I’ve never heard of anyone walking away from Soup and saying, ‘Eh, not so great.’ Where Shannon goes with that melody is genius. Soup, Mouthful of Cavities, Sleepyhouse—those were the three songs I’d use to introduce Melon to people. Nine times out of 10 I’d be greeted with, ‘Uh, did they do the Bee Song.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck the Bee Song—listen to this!’

J.P.: You’re 31. The other four members of the band are in their 40s. Is there any sort of age gap? Generation adjustment?

T.W.: Not really. They’ve always respected my input, and I obviously respect theirs. There are a few things, though. I came into the business when we had the internet and piracy, and they come from a time when that wasn’t the case. They were used to having records, and making good money off those records. When out CD came out, they might have had the same mentality—we’ll put out records and hopefully get a hit. I was hoping for the same thing, obviously, but it made me a little nervous, because I had the feeling that records were, more or less, irrelevant. I hate that it’s true, but they are. A lot of people who buy music download songs before buying an entire record. And, truthfully, I don’t blame people who steal music, because the labels did the opposite of that they should have done. They should have lowered prices on CDs, because CDs are super cheap to make. They could have sold them for $5 and still make huge overhead. Instead, they raised prices and the kids said, ‘Screw this. Why pay $15 when I can steal it for free?’

Christopher was telling me how, in the 1990s, they were giving away record deals. If you had a certain look or a certain sound … now I have one buddy with a deal. One. That’s harsh. But, on the bright side, you don’t need labels to get your music heard. Kids are recording in their bedrooms …

J.P.: That’s how Justin Bieber emerged.

T.W.: Exactly! That kid doesn’t even have any hair on his balls and he’s a gazillionaire. He puts some songs on YouTube, Usher catches on, sees he has talent and signs him. There you go. And there are good things about that. But in Blind Melon’s case, a lot of things contributed to our CD not selling. The label didn’t pump it, we didn’t have any write-ups. We were playing Toledo or somewhere and some guy says, literally, ‘What band are you?’ I say, ‘Blind Melon.’ The guy goes, ‘What?’ He had no idea we were playing—in Toledo! There were people going to the shows not knowing we were the band. It was crazy. Our manager would book us places with no rhyme or reason—three shows in New York in the span of a month, stuff like that. It’s the cliché—the management puts out a product, then does nothing to support it. I’ve had friends who’ve had bad management, and it’s like a plane crash. Now I know. So after that we split up, went our different ways.

Then, not all that long ago, Chris and I had lunch. He brought up the idea of working together again, doing some one-off shows. I was in. And here we are. We all live in different areas, and we fly in and don’t even rehearse. Everyone does their own homework, then we show up and play.

J.P.: Back in 2007, when Blind Melon reappeared, you played a show in Chicago. Nico Hoon, Shannon’s then-12-year-old daughter, stepped in on lead vocals for a few songs. The video is chilling. What was that like?

T.W.: That particular show has always stood out for me and, certainly, for the other guys. There were people crying, crying, crying. Nell, Shannon’s mom, is still close with the guys. She came out to our first show, in Columbus, Ohio, and Nell and I went out to dinner. It was amazing and surreal. I got to hear stories not too many other people have heard. I got to know her, and then she came out to the show and gave me her blessing. That really meant a lot to me. In Blind Melon circles, she’s like the mother bear. The fans really hold her up high. She easily could have been unhappy with the whole thing, but she was so cool. The guys are also really close with Lisa, Nico’s mom. And Nico came out and said that she’d like to sing. She was such a sweet kid. Shannon died a few months after she was born; she was only a few months old, and she never got to know him. I thought that could have been a huge story—Nico coming out and singing with us. I’ve had so many people who were at the show, or saw the show on YouTube, who get really emotional about it. You don’t have to be a Melon fan to get that.

J.P.: Do you feel like, at this point, you understand Shannon Hoon?

T.W.: I feel like I do. I think he was a very free-spirited person. You talk to anyone who knew him and they all say the same thing. He was very charismatic; he came into a room and lit it up. I think for him the whole thing was a big party. Unfortunately, there is a very bad side to drugs, and he did too much. And it ended. I don’t think he wanted that—I just think it happened. For whatever reason, drugs and artistic people go together. Once you get on stage and you have that feeling–a lot of artists wants to carry that feeling always. And they do drugs. It was just a big party to him—with a really dark ending.

J.P.: Do you remember his death?

T.W.: Oh, yeah. It’s a crazy story—one of the biggest regrets of my life. Maybe the biggest regret. In October, 1995 Blind Melon was playing in Dallas, which is a six-hour drive from Amarillo. I hung out with a bunch of thugs at the time, being stupid and all. Well, a bunch of buddies of mine bought tickets to the Blind Melon show in Dallas. I bought one, too, and we were all gonna drive out together. It was exciting, because we all used to drive around, get high and listen to Blind Melon. We just loved Melon. Well, I told those friends I’d meet them there, and I got hammered with these other guys, and I didn’t go to the show. I missed it. All my buddies saw the show; my friend, Wade Daniels, still has my ticket stub. When he came back to Amarillo Wade called me and said, ‘You idiot! We were so close I touched Shannon! And you missed the fucking show!’ I was 15 at the time, and I was devastated. How stupid could a guy be.

Well, they played that show in Dallas, then another one in Houston, then they went to play a show in New Orleans and he overdosed and died. My buddies saw the second-to-last show Shannon played. And I missed it.

When I found out he died, I was at home. My dad came in and said, ‘That singer for Blind Melon who you love so much? Yeah, well, he died.’ I didn’t believe it. It’s one of the few times I remember getting teary eyed and crying over someone passing away who I didn’t even know. I was so fucking bummed. I love Nirvana, but Shannon Hoon’s death was, to me, much bigger than Kurt Cobain.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TRAVIS WARREN

• Five Favorite Bands/Singers: Blind Melon, Tool, Led Zeppelin, Pinback, Elliott Smith.

• You quit smoking two years ago. How hard was it?: It really wasn’t that hard for me. To make a long story short, my girlfriend and I took a vacation to New Mexico. I woke up, felt great and went to smoke. I automatically felt lethargic. I always felt like shit after I smoked. Plus, I was starting to lose something in my voice. I’m a singer—it was a no-brainer, and should have been a long time ago. I did the gum for two weeks and that was it.

• How do you feel about American Idol?: I despise it. I think part of being a band or an artist is playing the dive bars. I look at it like going to college. You have to know the struggle to appreciate the success. Loading up on a stinky van, going on tours—you learn that way. These people on Idol want to bypass that and hope to get a break on TV by singing someone else’s songs. I just think it’s a joke. Look at Adam Lambert, as an example. Guy has an amazing voice. Then they give him songs to record that are shit. Just shit. What a waste.

Celine Dion or Justin Bieber: I’m gonna have to go with Celine. Whether you like her music or not, she has an amazing voice. I respect that. If Bieber can get past this kiddie thing and grow into something else, I wish him well. Am I a little bitter about it? Probably so. I’ve been dong this shit a long time, and it’s hard. Then to have someone signed off of YouTube … fuck.

Casey Anthony—innocent or guilty?: That is fucking crazy. I think guilty as all hell. I was one of the millions of people who said, ‘What, are you kidding me?’

• Worst movie you’ve ever seen?: Shit, oh, God, I don’t even know. Oh—I do know! Twilight. I’ll go with that whole series. I don’t get it. How does that exist?

• A dried booger affixed to the tip of your nose for five years, or you work as the lead guitarist in a Brittney Spears tribute band?: I have to go with the booger. A Brittney Spears tribute band? That sounds like something you’d expect in hell.

QUAZ DATABASE:

Quaz 1: Wendy Hagen

Quaz 2: Chris Burgess

Quaz 3: Tommy Shaw

Quaz 4: Russ Ortiz

Quaz 5: Don McPherson

Quaz 6: Frank Z.

Quaz 7: Geoff Rodkey

Quaz 8: Meeno Peluce

Quaz 9: Karl Mecklenburg

Quaz 10: Amra-Faye Wright

Quaz 11: Phil Nevin

Quaz 12: Jemele Hill

Quaz 13: Drew Snyder

Quaz 14: Roy Smalley

Quaz 15: Michael Shermer

Quaz 16: Kathy Wagner

Quaz 17: Travis Warren

Amra-Faye Wright

 

Last November, I wrote this blog post. If you’re too lazy/busy to read, I’ll fill you in.

A young woman I know, Lucy Shulman, attended the Broadway production of Chicago with her grandmother. Lucy suffers from social anxiety, and, as she waited at the rear entrance of the Ambassador Theatre, froze when it came time to ask Amra-Faye Wright, the show’s star, for an autograph. Lucy penned this heartbreaking account of the incident for my blog.

Unbeknownst to Lucy, I looked up Amra, found her lovely website and alerted her to Lucy’s polite. The next day (like, the very next day), Amra responded, and promised to send a signed photograph to Lucy. Which she did.

That, to me, speaks of the character of Amra-Faye Wright, Broadway superstar, native South African, major Reggie Bush fan and today’s Quaz guest. She made her Broadway debut in Chicago in 2006, and has emerged as the show’s signature face. She’s a marvelous singer, dancer and actress, as well as one helluva interview.

It’s my great honor to welcome Amra-Faye Wright to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You made your Broadway debut at the Ambassador Theatre in 2006. I imagine this must have been a huge moment in your career—but I wonder why. In an interview you called Broadway, “The place where I should be.” So what I mean by this question is—everyone seems to talk, talk, talk about Broadway. But why is performing in New York any bigger a deal than performing in Los Angeles or London or Monte Carlo or, for that matter, Gary, Indiana or Newark, Delaware? I’m actually being serious, as dumb as it might sound. If people are people, and audiences are audiences, what difference does it make where the performance takes place?

AMRA-FAYE WRIGHT: I can’t speak for the greater American audiences, but I can say that any time South Africans, and therefore most probably any other foreigners, go to a Broadway show, they expect to see something that is of a standard they won’t see anywhere else. If this is true of audiences, it’s also true for performers. Broadway is considered the goal of all your training, and the pinnacle of a stage acting career. It carries with it the history of performances by the actors you idolized. The connotations are endless. As Frank Sinatra put it, it’s “the cream of the crop, top of the heap, A number one!”  It’s the reason why A-list movie stars clamber over each other to be in a Broadway show.

J.P.: I know a guy, Tommy Shaw, who sings and plays guitar in the rock band Styx. I’ve asked him how he gets motivated to play the same song for the, oh, 5,00oth time. Your world is different, but not entirely. And I’m fascinated—you’ve probably played Velma Kelly, what, 1,000 times? So how do you stay motivated? How do you get up for performance No. 876, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when maybe you’d rather be out picnicking in Central Park? And do you ever have moments on stage when you’ll be thinking, “Boy, I wonder what’s gonna happen on American Idol tonight?” or “What’s that rash on my ankle?”

A.F.W.: Sure I have those moments (Celebrity Apprentice—hooked!).

I’m motivated by a number of things. One is money. This is how I make my living. No performance, no rent!  Sure, there are easier and more stable ways to make a living, so I have to say that’s probably about No. 5 on my motivation list. Actually it’s quite simple: I love to perform. I’m never blasé about it. It has taken sweat, blood, guts and massive sacrifices to be able to perform this role on Broadway. I never take it for granted. On days when my body feels less than human, I warm up longer, and sometimes, because you focus more on those days, you end up doing your best performance. When that happens, when your performance comes together, the reward is magical.

J.P.: You speak English and Afrikaans, and a bit of Xhosa and Zulu. Last year you learned the entire Velma Kelly dialogue in Japanese—a language you don’t speak. Then you performed in Japan. I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been. So, Amra-Faye, how hard was it? And how nervous were you for that first performance?

A.F.W.: Terrified! I learned the script phonetically. The plan was to learn the script like that and then once I got that under my belt, I would take on the Japanese language. However, I developed a system of memorizing sounds and syllables (sometimes the word would remind me of a Xhosa sound, or a color or a memory) and when I tried to learn Japanese as a language, it interfered with my system. The problem with my system was that if I lost my place, I was in deep trouble, and also … I didn’t know what the other actor was saying to me word for word! ( I knew the gist of it because I know the English script so well). So I was terrified of the day that I would lose it on stage. Fortunately, that never happened!

I learned that I have a terrific short-term memory, and that fear is relative. After all, I wasn’t saving lives out there.

J.P.: According to your biography you grew up on the Eastern Cape in South Africa. What was your childhood like? Were you an average South African kid? Were you the popular dancer? The shy nobody? And what started you down this path … of being a performer?

A.F.W.: I grew up running barefoot in the streets and on the beach. We had no TV in South Africa until I was a teenager, even then it was only a few hours every night and I was not interested in the least. I grew up in a small town and took ballet lessons as a hobby. As kids we made up plays from the movies we saw. The one theatre in my town produced amateur productions and I got involved in that. But I had no real aspirations to have a career on the stage. I didn’t know what I wanted until I was 27, when I had my very first audition to be in a professional dance show. When I got the job, I realized I might have some real talent, and that’s when my first spark of ambition showed itself.  It would be another seven years before I realized I had a voice!

J.P.: Give me your absolute greatest moment on stage; and your absolute lowest moment on stage.

A.F.W.: Greatest moment was the 10th anniversary of Chicago on Broadway, the final curtain call, I was on stage with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, and many other stars and as Bob Fosse’s name was mentioned a silver leaf floated down from the proscenium. I’m a very practical person and I’m not into signs and zodiac stars etc, but I got the warmest feeling that I was absolutely in the very place I was supposed to be.

The lowest moment was having to perform a show after hearing that one of the dancers and a dear friend had passed away from the AIDS virus.

J.P.: When I entered your name into the Internet Movie Database, I came up with Sarah Faye Wright, who was born in 1983 and played Ashley in The House Bunny. I’m no detective, so I’m thinking this is not you. Which means you don’t have any experience of performing in film. I’m wondering, with your incredible skill set and background, why? Has this been a conscious decision? A lack of opportunity? Neither? Both?

A.F.W.: I’m a true opportunist—if the opportunity arises, I take it. I guess that would be true of screen acting. I’ve never sought it. I have a feeling it might not be something I would love that much. No applause?  Most of all, no arc of performance. You can’t carry the audience on a journey of discovery with you. That’s the editor’s job in movies … I think I would love the salary though!

J.P.: I don’t get cabaret. What I mean is, well, I don’t get it. Bluntly. I don’t have an appreciation of it, or any sort of real grasp. Please explain to me why this is one of your passions … why you love it so much and what it gives to you.

A.F.W.: Cabaret is the art of interpreting a song within the context of your story, be it biographical or educational. Traditionally, audiences who enjoy this genre have a deep appreciation for the American Songbook, composers such as Gershwin, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, etc. For the most part cabaret singers excel in story-telling and breaking through the fourth wall of the theatre to involve the audience in an intimate experience. It’s a whole different set of skills necessary to perform in this genre. I grew up listening to jazz standards on the radio, and I have had many opportunities to perform with big bands and jazz ensembles. Most of all, I have hundreds of stories to tell. Putting those stories into a form and illustrating them with songs is a very rewarding experience.

J.P.: Here’s an odd one, but I’ve always wanted to ask. Why the heck, in 2011, do so many performers still smoke cigarettes? I don’t know if you’re a smoker or not, but I know tons of actors who are. Is it insecurity? Boredom? And have you seen it change over the years?

A.F.W.: Ha! must be the company you keep! Where the heck do they smoke in New York City?

J.P.: You grew up in South Africa when apartheid reigned. I have never, ever, ever asked a white person this, because it’s sorta awkward and probably stirs some very uncomfortable memories. But since this is over e-mail, and you can’t hit me with a shoe, I’ll ask: What was that like? Were you aware, as a kid, how wrong it was? Did your family know how wrong it was? Or, as was the case in the U.S. through much of its history thru the early 1960s, was it so ingrained in culture that it was just sort of accepted as the way things are?

A.F.W.: Wow! I generally try to avoid this subject and surprisingly few people ever ask me about it. And now I will probably take the rest of the day to write and delete a million times!

It’s a difficult question to answer without coming across as the poor little privileged white girl. It’s hard to have empathy for white South Africans from that era, whether you opposed apartheid or not. I guess like Germans after World War II, you are lumped together with the people that created the horror.

I cannot claim to know how it felt to be a black South African at that time, I had friends who told me, I saw things, and I was there, but we were separated, and I did not experience it. All I know are my own experiences, and this is how I perceived it:

Living under the shame of apartheid emotionally crippled my entire generation of white South Africans. While black South Africans struggled just to survive the everyday inhumanities of that time, my peers struggled to cope with the knowledge that our existence was based on lies, deceit, cover-ups and hypocritical leadership. There were many movements and underground organizations such as The Black Sash who continue to do great work, and were comprised of mostly women campaigning against inequality and repression, but for the most part our efforts were futile and the danger of being ostracized was real.

Historically, the question that haunts every society which has had to deal with injustices in their midst is, Why didn’t we try harder? There is no one answer to that, not everyone had a social conscience, and it’s always easier to pass judgment in retrospect.

When I was a child, I accepted things as they were. Black children went to their own schools, I assumed they were receiving the same education as me. There were times we played together, but both black and white kids simply accepted that we would all return to our own “places.” There were instances which confused me, such as I remember hearing about black scholars burning down their schools and believing the propaganda fed to my parents and reported in the papers. I couldn’t understand why any children would want to burn their schools down. As I grew into a teenager, the truth began to dawn on me … education was not free for black children, the conditions were  close to impossible for any learning to take place, and eduction was forced to be in English and Afrikaans, and not in their native language. More and more I became aware of what was going on in my country, the terrible stories came to light. My school friend from art class had access to BBC broadcasting (no TV in South Africa until I was about 15—only radio), and came to school with stories we could hardly believe. Stories of the true nature of Steve Biko’s death while in custody were whispered, and Donald Woods, the editor of our town’s left wing newspaper, The Daily Dispatch, went into exile, and the warnings from my parents were constant.

Propaganda filled my parents with fear of  “the Communists!” who were supplying arms to the “terrorists!” wanting to kill us all in our sleep! (These are things I heard all the time). Fear was everywhere. Even though we were living the free life as white South Africans, the grown-ups were always terrified of something. There was no freedom of press, and propaganda was rife. But the winds of change were beginning to blow, and they were so afraid I would get involved. Arguments broke out regularly at the dinner table … our family was split in it’s beliefs. My father was very liberal, my mother not so much. It was a commonly held belief that apartheid, which had apparently been invented to protect the white population, had pushed black South African’s to their limit and the result could only be massive bloodshed. (No one could have foreseen that the forgiving spirit of Nelson Mandela would dissipate all that anger and bring all colors of the Rainbow Nation of South Africa together). Riots and uprisings became commonplace, and white university students, away from their parents, finally found their voices and the courage to speak out against the system, and were protesting, and being locked up. I took the first opportunity I could to get out, and became an AFS exchange student when I was 18 and spent a year in Kansas City, Missouri.

It seems to have been a pattern where young white people in South Africa would spend their youth protesting for change, and then when they married and had children, they turned into their parents, full of fear for the future.

I returned to South Africa after my year in Kansas City, at age 20, and lived a pretty secluded life on a farm. Funny thing, my headman, who was a Transkeian and of the Xhosa Tribe, allowed me to think I was running the farm, but in reality, he was completely in charge!

For six years while on the farm, I was able to forget the circumstances crippling the rest of the country. But within a few years Mandela would be released and I would be witness to the miracle of peaceful change. That was when I began to see myself as a South African, and not as some displaced soul on borrowed land.

J.P.: In 1999 you returned to South Africa to create the principal role in Elvis Las Vegas. I tried Googling this, but with little success. What is Elvis Las Vegas? And, more important, why do you think people in South Africa care about Elvis? I’ve never fully understood the appeal.

A.F.W: OK, this just made me smile! South African audiences are a peculiar lot. You can never be sure what will work there. But one thing you can be sure of … they love a compilation show. This was a huge extravaganza of costumes, sets, dancers and a “kicking” band. I rose out of the stage on a staircase that would put MGM to shame. I never understood the Elvis appeal either, I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan … apparently millions in South Africa are.

J.P.: I love going to Broadway. Love it, love it, love it. But I don’t exactly love paying $100 or more for tickets. My question is—are the prices justified and, if so, how? And can the argument be made—and I’d love for you to make it—that going to the theatre is 10 times better than going to a movie (considering it’s about 10 times the price)?

A.F.W.: Yes! It is 10 times better than going to a movie! The problem is you only ever realize that when you are sitting in the theatre and the curtain goes up. The thrill!

Of course it’s worth the money. The people who would pay $100 for an outfit, or a pair of shoes, a meal for two with wine, a mani/pedi, a massage, or … hello, a movie for two with popcorn, drinks etc. plus the inevitable stomach ache after are the same people who moan about paying $100 for the incredible thrill of seeing a live Broadway show. And lets not begin to talk about the price of tickets to a sporting event. … how am I doing?

Having proved that its better than a movie, I really would also love to see theatre ticket prices lower. But I guess there are things I don’t know about, like producers having to cover a great deal of things including union payments, benefits, safety measures that take care of us, and keep us in a position to continue doing live theatre.

It’s a matter of priorities. Teach your children to love theatre—the live experience in real time is emotionally enriching.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AMRA-FAYE WRIGHT

• Why, when South Africans and British sing songs in English, do they rarely have a noticeable accent? You, Elton John, the Stones, etc … etc—you’d think everyone is from Cleveland: I’ve always wondered why, too! Maybe we all want to be American! Ha!

• Mel Gibson offers you $5 million to play Mary in The Passion of the Christ II: Jesus Goes to Chicago—do you take the gig?: Cool, I always wanted to be in a Mob movie!

Reggie Bush or Vince Young?: I had to look them both up. Even though Americans believe football is a world sport, and there’s even a world series, right? Nobody else in the world knows anything about it. BUT … I’ll take Reggie Bush! (Know anything about rugby? There’s a world cup for that, too!)

• Five all-time favorite productions: Chicago, La Cage, Sophisticated Ladies, Jesus Christ Superstar, Ain’t Misbehavin’.

• Most talented singer you’ve ever worked with: South African singer Vicky Sampson. She had a huge hit with a song called My African Dream.

• Five things in your purse: Phone, credit card, stilettos, lipstick, laptop.

• Celine Dion or John Lennon?: John Lennon.

• In all your travels, have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I always think I’m about to die in a plane. I take calming pills and I recall nothing.

• I’m an absolutely dreadful dancer. How long would it take you to teach me to be mediocre?: I’m an absolutely dreadful teacher. It would take too long.

• Estimation—how many times have people said to you, in some variation, “Great legs!”: I’m trying to read into this—does this mean that you’ve seen my legs and you think they’re great? Or do you just ask this of everyone? Just want to know, because I happen to have really good legs! And, OK, estimated answer: Once a week for half a century.

 

Quaz 8: Meeno Peluce

Quaz 9: Karl Mecklenburg

Quaz 10: Amra-Faye Wright

Meeno Peluce

 

Back when I was growing up in the early 1980s, kid-oriented television was mostly junk. Crap cartoons, followed by more crap cartoons, followed by more crap cartoons.

Then, in 1982, Voyagers! came along. The show combined two of my interests—history and the idea of traveling through time—and starred a pair of likable characters. The adult time traveler, named Phineas Bogg, was played by Jon-Erik Hexum, a handsome, charismatic 25-year-old model/actor. The kid time traveler, Jeffrey Jones, was portrayed by a boy with moppy dark hair and a high-pitched voice. His name was Meeno Peluce.

Voyagers! was axed after one season, then Hexum died tragically in 1984, but I never completely forgot about the show. Whenever there happened to be a re-run or some inane Where are They Now? segment, I’d find myself hooked. Specifically, I wondered about the plight of Peluce, the oddly named lad also happened to:

A. Be the brother of Soleil Moon Frye, the star of Punky Brewster.

B. Guest star in a gazillion different 70s and 80s programs.

C. Leave acting to become a high school teacher.

D. Turn out to be a dazzling photographer (his current profession).

Meeno and I have struck up something of a friendship via Facebook, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have him take part in The Quaz. I’ve interviewed thousands of people in my career, but none who’d ever uttered a sentence as brilliant as, “When offered the panacea of the A-Team you realize why TV really is the deadening opiate of anything great America may aspire to.”

Meeno Peluce enters The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You were a child actor in the 1970s and 80s, and, as far as I can tell, you’ve never killed a cat, robbed a convenience store, appeared on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew or snorted cocaine off of a hooker’s left ass cheek. In other words: What the hell is wrong with you?

MEENO PELUCE: There may have been some cocaine when I was about 15 with Bobby Blotzer, the drummer for Ratt, in the VIP lounge of Limelight, a cathedral turned nightclub in Midtown Manhattan. But that’s an unsubstantiated claim and my mom was a few tables away and it was all in the name of fellowship and I was pretty much over heavy metal by then anyway and I was never able to develop a taste for the go-fast. I’ve had the freedom and opportunity to go to many extremes in this world. And I’ve also been blessed with a general sense of morality that has sent me chasing after the big good things instead of the big bad.

I owe it all to my mom. She saw to it that my childhood was not painted over with the neuroses of adults. She let things stay childishly simple for both my sister and I. That she did the same for her men wasn’t necessarily such a positive thing, but at any rate, we were just kids growing up in apartment buildings in Hollywood, poor without knowing we were poor. I was six years older than my sister and had become a successful kid actor when she was still in diapers.

I believed I could do anything, and that’s pretty much what I did. I rode my big wheel down the slide and my mom applauded me. I starred in 4 television series and guest starred on every piece of shlock the big three networks could dream up. That was fun too. Fun and games. And I could afford to buy my own skateboards and guitars.

J.P.: You starred in my favorite childhood show, Voyagers!, which lasted for 20 episodes in 1982-83. For those not in the know, you played Jeffrey Jones, a young history buff randomly plucked to travel through time and correct history gone wrong. A few things: A. How’d you land the gig? B. In hindsight, was it a good show? C. Was it a fun experience?

M.P.: By the time I was cast in Voyagers! at 12 I had been a successfully working actor for almost half my life. I was an old pro. I seem to remember somehow skipping the whole cattle call process of early interviews—I was probably shooting something else—and the casting was quickly rounded down to two kids and two swashbuckling guys, all of us dueling it out for the parts of Jeffry Jones and Phineas Bogg. The four of us made very different pairings the day we went in to audition for the network brass. The other kid was blond and nerdy with glasses. The other guy who didn’t get the show was older, more Harrison Ford. He and I read together first and it was solid. Then Jon-Erik and the other kid went in and I’m sure they were fine.

Picture it, we’re in these stolid network offices with the decor of the 70’s aging in the cubicles around us and we’re running lines, pretending to be actors in the midst of all the other shows, eras past and present, staring down at us from framed posters. You have a sense that you’re about to have a shot at contributing to that same pantheon of telegogic puff and you’re not sure which you want to be more real, the sandy banks of the Nile River that you’re conjuring up in the scene or the nubbly brown upholstery that you’re actually sitting on. That could be high stakes, unnerving. Unless you’re just a kid and you don’t take any of it seriously, it’s all just play to you and you’ve been doing it so long that you know that if you don’t get this show today you’ll be rollerskating, fast, downhill, in the tuck you’ve been perfecting all week and that’s what really matters, getting that tuck just right, and then next week you’ll probably be shooting something else. But then there’s also that possibility that there’ll be magic.

And that’s what happened. The other two went in and Jon-Erik and I started running the lines. We knew we had it licked right then. We were just too perfect together. We went in to the room full of execs with their chairs pulled into a semi-circle all staring at you, waiting on something great that they’ve certainly got all their hopes and dreams pinned on, and we gave it to them, served it up steaming, hot and golden. Jon and I looked at each other as we went out. We knew we had it and we did. It was that glance between us that the whole show was based on.

It was the most amazing working relationship I’ve ever know. We were like two jazz virtuosos constantly riffing off each other, and add to that we were total naturals. I had no formal training and he had no experience: his entire resume was faked. The first day on the set he took me aside and asked, “How come you’re on the other side of the camera?” “Jon-Erik,” I told him, “this is your close up.”

J.P.: Here’s a truly random one: If I recall correctly, there was a Voyagers! episode where you and Phineas Bogg go to the Titanic. Bogg falls in love and wants to save a women from dying on the boat—but is convinced (by you, I think) that you can’t interfere with the correct course of history. That Titanic is supposed to sink, etc. I don’t know if I had this thought watching Voyagers (I was just a kid), but I definitely did during the film, Titanic—when we’re talking about a tragedy where 1,517 people died, is it OK to create a fun, fictional narrative about the situation? Like, I enjoyed the whole Jack-Rose saga of Titanic. But truth is, that was a horrific nightmare without a redeeming aftermath. Nobody’s heart went on—the people either died, or were traumatized for life. Should we be toying with that for entertainment?


M.P.: Always fuck with the dark side for entertainment. That way you might, underline might, get drama. TV rarely did that back then, things were so prickly safe and when they got the slightest bit actual prickly—see my episodes of Eight Is Enough or better yet, The Love Boat where Captain Stubing rips off my shirt only to find the bruising of parents rotten enough that I’d stow away to be done with them—drama!

And in the Titanic episode it was me that wanted to stop the disaster. And then, even after being counseled by Bogg that you absolutely cannot change history, I try anyway. I run with news of the impending iceberg to the bridge to tell the Captain—this time not the cocky young boy’s clothes ripping Stubing but the actual Captain of the Titanic herself—and he wont hear it, writes it off as just the rantings of a kid. Only one old lady listens to me, Molly. I turn to her, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown?” “Considering the alternative, I certainly hope so,” she says. And we make it to the life boats.

But yes, if you don’t want to go to the dark side, I highly recommend re-runs of the Christmas Special with Dirk Bogarde and Charo and Julie and Isaac, Gopher and Doc and the whole crew on that loveliest of all steamers along the coast of Puerto Vallarta. And me, of course. Though somehow I got gypped and didn’t get to be on the episode with Andy Warhol.

J.P.: Your co-star, Jon-Erik Hexum, was an incredibly dashing, handsome man who died tragically at age 26 in 1984 when he accidentally shot himself. What do you remember about Jon? What was your relationship like—adult actor, child actor? Do you recall where you were when you learned of his death? And how did it/does it impact you? Does he enter your mind with any sort of frequency?

M.P.: The best working relationship I ever knew. The most seamless and fun interaction. The work was all pure bluff and goof and all the while we were shooting at Nazis or fighting alongside Spartacus. Towering good nonsense. The crew was infected by our special camaraderie and we all were one big family. It was an interesting situation in that it was a big production but with only two main characters. Everyone else was a guest star, coming into our uniquely working machine for a few days. Even the directors changed with every show. But the writers, producers, crew and Jon-Erik and I had this way of playing off each other. Each new person was ushered in and encouraged to engage in the same improvisational simplicity.

Most of them got it and the thing worked really well—as far as TV pap goes. It was overly broad, as was most entertainment of the 80’s. But it wasn’t overtly violent or too queazy emotional. And it had this one really cool trick, it taught kids something in a way that seems to have stuck, according to the fan mail that I still get to this day.

A big part of that was Jon-Erik’s innate charisma. You couldn’t help but love the guy. And I think most of the women who played that week’s love interest did. He was funny and magnanimous and totally self-effacing, never took himself or his gift or his luck seriously.

I can only imagine—hope—he was just fooling around when he carelessly put that prop gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was already on to his next series, Cover Up, where he played a male model who’s really an undercover dick—you’ve got to unabashedly give it up to the 80’s for that one—and the story goes that he was fooling around when he pulled the trigger. A blank is a cartridge with a little gunpowder in it so it goes pop. Instead of a bullet, there’s a wad of paper to hold the gunpowder in. At point blank that wad coming out can bruise you as many a stunt man will attest to. But against the soft of your temple …

“Something’s happened, there’s been an accident and Jon-Erik’s in the hospital,” I was woken one Saturday morning. I can remember it well. My first thought was that he’d stupidly hurt himself, the price for always kidding around, we were always hurting ourselves, and we always healed. Especially him, he was the closest thing I’d ever know to a real-life super hero. Later that day I heard the term “brain dead” and it was the first time I’d ever heard that. I pictured him running around, with that smile, catching a football, and those blue eyes, and just no brain, but all the other happy, light heartedness still intact. And then that thought passed and I realized the first person I ever knew to die was now dead, and he was the best, least deserving to die, most full of life person I had ever known. You grow up a bit in that moment.

J.P.: Your sister is Soleil Moon Frye, the one-time star of Punky Brewster. [Jeff’s note: Meeno poses above with his mother, Sondra, Soleil and Jon-Erik Hexum] and I’ve gotta think, to some degree, that you benefit by being in a show that didn’t last so long. I mean, Punky Brewster was sort of iconic for an era—which means Soleil remains, in many minds, Punky. Did your sister ever tire of being known for the show? And does it still follow her?

M.P.: An irony of early 80s TV lore: No preponderance of cable yet. People still wanted to get what felt like unvarnished info from the box. 60 Minutes was king. No. 1 on the Nielsen Ratings list every week. Voyagers! was up against it and thus at the other end of the Nielsen’s. Voyagers! was expensive to make and so with consistently bad ratings—and despite rave reviews and a huge fan following—we were soon canned. A little show took our time slot, the only show to ever flourish there: Punky Brewster.

It was the zeitgeist. Punky was inevitable and with Soleil at the helm when she was that natural and cute and sincere, that’s the pure magic every creator, big or small, hopes for. She had only recently come out of a shell of being extremely shy and introverted. She had grown up on sets with me, she tiny, mostly hiding behind my leg and then one day stepping forward and saying, “Now it’s my turn.” I was nearing the end of my acting career as hers began to take off. It was a passing of the baton as I moved on to rock-n-roll and girls and the general excitements of being a teenager. I never did the celebrity angle but it took her by storm and without her ever seeking it—she was just a tiny kid. But mom leveraged it into family vacations all around the world masked as press junkets and I even once got to strum a guitar in Puerto Rico to a thousand screaming girls in the Telemundo studios—that means many million more screaming across Latin America, a zenith of sorts for me …

Soleil is always best when being Soleil and that’s why Punky was such a hit: that was Soleil’s true and innate sass and guileless gentility. Girls glommed onto that roll model. And to this day Soleil is able to sell herself as a role model. She’s just become Target’s Mommy-Ambassador, making all things Mommy cool. She has a line of eco-friendly children’s clothing called The Little Seed that’s become a huge hit and that I do all the photography for. And she’s got a book coming out this summer called Happy Chaos that’s all about her celebrity youth and transition into adulthood and mom-hood.

Her daughters and my daughters are growing up together and our mom is a very proud grandma. Her success from an early age didn’t warp her, it taught her that all she had to do was dream shit up and she could make it happen, that the Soleil brand was applicable everywhere. She’s still little and cute and bright-eyed and more enthusiastic about any given week’s proposition than you can imagine. I’m not even allowed to say the two things she’s got schemed up for next week. But very fortunately I get to take pictures of it all and keeping it a family affair seems apropos to the kind of grounded-ness we’ve ultimately been taught to seek.

She can really light up a room and she still uses that to her advantage. I’ve seen it in senator’s offices in DC when we went to lobby for Alzheimer’s benefits—her dad’s got pugilistic dementia bad.  And I’ve seen it when she’s gotten us comp’ed in to some very swank places, just like our mom once did, turning celebrity leverage into family vacations. I’m still tickled when grown women admit that they were hugely influenced by Punky, and I’m even more tickled when a newly grown woman recently remarked to me, “Who’s Punky Brewster?” We’re all getting old, and one would hope to do it with as much honest panache as Punky always brought to the table.

J.P.: I’m just gonna throw this in here, because it’s total random and I’m feeling super funky. I’m sitting in my nearby coffee shop, and an employee just approached me with his idea for a video game where you go through all the Biblical stories—Noah’s arc, David and Goliath—until you reach the end and travel to heaven with Jesus. He thinks it’ll sell a million copies. I think it’s really stupid. What should I tell him?

M.P.: Make sure to add lots of war-play. Every war that’s been waged in God’s name has been hugely profitable.

J.P.: I don’t think there was an 80s TV show that you didn’t appear on at some point: Happy Days, The Incredible Hulk, The A-Team, The Jeffersons, Silver Spoons, Diff’rent Strokes, Benson, Starsky & Hutch. Give me you absolute best experience as a childhood guest star. And how about your worst?

M.P.: Remember, half of those or more were 70s shows. The only one I never bagged was Charlie’s Angeles and deep down I’m still trying to get into that club.

J.P.: I’m a fan of childhood actors who grow up and say, “Fuck it.” It seems to me you said, “Fuck it.” You went on to become a high school history teacher, and now are an insanely talented—and, judging from your work—successful photographer. How hard was it to walk away? And do you ever itch to go back?

M.P.: Watch. Go back with me. I’m little with big dark loop-curly hair and eyes to match. I’m going to the set with my mom who’s catering. I pop my hands through Styrofoam cups to make wrist bands, grab a stick and duel with the air for hours. They see me and want me to be in this or that. My mom says, “No. He’s too young.” When I find out about this I’m pissed. All I want to do is make believe. “Can I act?” “No.” My mom knows Hollywood’s a racket, “You’re too young.”

I get a play at school with Milton Katselas‘ wife directing and I don’t tell my mom about it. They call to ask if I can stay late to rehearse. “Rehearse what?” she asks. So it comes out and I ask again, “Can I act?” “If you wait till you’re seven, you can give it a try,” she says. And on my seventh birthday I went to an agent, they signed me up and I got Starsky & Hutch the next week. I didn’t even have front teeth when I did that one. Shortly thereafter I had to get tiny dentures and that was my sole concession, ever, to being different because I was a child actor.

Things never got any more or less weird than it was for any latchkey child of divorce in a big city in Southern California in that era, with the added piece that sometimes I was on set shooting. There was football in the street and summer camp. There was this really cool little hippy school that was a constant for me to come back to after each job. There was my bike and step-parents and long weekends up in Topanga and my mom piling all the kids into the back of her pick-up to drop us at Grease playing in a theater on Hollywood Blvd. where we’d watch it over and over again till she picked us up that night. There were the first hard-ons and a million subsequent hard-ons and there was the time I walked into Margot Kidder‘s trailer to find her stark naked. Very dark bush, mesmerizing. And there was a baseball team, only it was called the Bad News Bears and we preferred football, tackle, between takes. There were the Wright brothers and Babe Ruth and Cleopatra and Abe Lincoln, only they weren’t in history books, they were in the dressing room next to my motorhome. And then there was me inside that little box on the shows that I’d be watching anyway. It was all make believe. On set it was scripted, off set mom made it up as we went along.

By the time I was a young man though, I wanted to make real. I went off to college and gave myself a critical education and then I traveled and grew my own set of morals and friends and ideals and then won myself a wife, the amazing Ilse, and we made daughters, our CHICKS, Bindi and Mette, children to set the clock of your life by and we built a home beyond any make believe—see our Los Angeles Times articles here and here and the one that really gets it from Edible LA here—and all the while I taught myself a craft that I could make business and constant poetry out of, see meenophoto.com for the body of it, my Tumblr diary, and my blog with such chronicles as our recent trip to India where we took our girls to see the floating palace where their parents were married a decade ago covered in marigolds in a Hindu ceremony at dusk.

Acting on TV was never something I wanted to do—creation, on a big scale, was always what I wanted to do. Professional acting was the first expression of that. Photography and writing and childrearing and homebuilding and merry making with the music ringing are all the matured expressions of that original urge.

J.P.: Your mom is named Sondra. Your sister is Soleil. Your dad is named Floyd—which isn’t so exciting. But, hey, he’s a CPA. I know you’ve been asked this a gazillion times—but what’s with your family and funkadelic names? And what’s the background of “Meeno”?

M.P.: My parents split the country when I was conceived. They traveled across Europe looking for the perfect place to have their perfect child. It was 1969, a voice had spoken to my mom. It said, “Go to India.” Then a short time later it said, “You’re pregnant.” They had been married 10 years and my mom was not supposed to be able to have kids. But the voice spoke and so they left America behind and headed for the world. They made great friends in Yugoslavia, one had the perfect name. Miroslav, Man of Peace. So I was named after him, but not in Yugoslavia. We were thrown out when my mom tried to throw a party for the People at the People’s Hotel and the People’s Police showed up and said we couldn’t do that and that we’d have to be moving on.

My folks pulled into Amsterdam on a snowy night with all the lights glistening and my mom knew it was the perfect place and that’s where I was born, their little man of peace, Miro.

A couple years later we were in Katmandu at the foot of Swayambhunath where Buddha had come to make his last speeches. A monk came over, picked me up, and asked my name. “Miro,” my mother told him. “No,” I corrected her. “No more Miro, only Meeno, only Meeno.” And I wouldn’t answer to anything else. Once one ordains oneself, one aught never to go back on it.

J.P.: The photo of your daughter Mette reacting to her first love note is priceless. Absolutely priceless. As a photographer, how do you know when a moment is about to happen? Do you just shoot everything? Do you have a sense of anticipation? Can you feel something about to bubble over? Or is it just dumb luck?

M.P.: There is always a moment on the horizon. One of my gifts is the ability to tune into it and use the science of photography to capture it. Discipline and intuition. Science and artistry. Yang and it’s perturbative, quicksilver, sexy and quixotic mate yin. You’ve got to zen it out. Be present and do the thing that is to be done well. That’s the secret to parenting, to business, to a happy marriage, to art, to life.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MEENO PELUCE:

• Number of TVs in your house?: One little screen, in the girls’ room hooked up to a dvd player so they can watch movies. No cable. No commercial television. But ever since the box set came out, Voyagers! has been in heavy rotation.

• Better show—A-Team or Silver Spoons: Who fucking cares? Sit-coms post The Jeffersons generally suck, but when offered the panacea of the A-Team you realize why TV really is the deadening opiate of anything great America may aspire to. Hell of a lot of fun to shoot that A-Team nonsense though [Jeff’s note: Watch Meeno and Mr. T right here]. And lest it be forgotten, Joel Higgins was my father first in Best of The West before he was Ricky Schroder’s.

• Someone calls with this offer: “Meeno, we want you to be in the upcoming Voyagers! made-for-TV movie. You’ll be co-starring with John Goodman as Phineas Bogg’s older brother, Fred Bogg.” Do you consider?: Free money and a month with John Goodman? The only thing better would be if we could spend the whole show dealing with Lebowski’s historical arc, and beverages.

A few years ago a casting agent called to ask if I’d come in to read for a character called Meeno. Turned out the writer was a childhood fan and had actually written the part for me, based on me. I hadn’t acted in years but it was a Bermuda Triangle show and that meant taking the family to the beach and getting paid to do it. Of course I’d come in and read for the part. Didn’t get it. Too old.

• Coolest person you’ve ever photographed—family members not included: Courtney Love was the heaviest experience. Gut wrenching to bear witness to such a tormented genius and burnt out soul, but that’s good in artistic terms.

• You would/wound not steer your children toward a career in acting: I believe you do not steer your children. I apply myself to the Holden Caulfield school of parenting. I’m the catcher in the rye. I stand in a field of tall grass, at the edge of a precipice. When the kids get too close to the edge I push them back into the field. They are free within the boundaries of safety I set for them. I want them to feel as limitless as I did as a kid, and I want them to know that I’m constantly there for them, but not in their face about it.

If they want to act, they can give it a try. They’ve been comfortable in front of the camera since birth, because that’s where they’ve been since birth, in front of my camera. And they’re really good models in that they know how to turn it on without being cheesy. They could do all of it professionally really well, if they were so inclined. But as yet neither has expressed an urge to do it. It was my choice to act as a kid, it was my sister’s choice when she began. If our kids want it, the impetus will have to come from them.

• Celine Dion or Styx?: Never owned albums of either. And wouldn’t. But I just discovered a version of Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight by Nazareth that really rocks. And now that I’m grown and wizened Leonard Cohn makes a world of sense to me. And I can listen to Nick Cave all day or a new favorite I’ve just discovered: The New Mastersounds. And I’ve recently been teaching myself all of Beggar’s Banquet in all the open tuning. Keith’s Richards’ book Life was a tremendously good read.

• How do you have such a great Afro?: I work on it all night.

• Three favorite movies of all time: Tommy, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Warriors—obviously the dye was cast when I was 9.

• How’d you meet your wife: It’s my favorite brilliant love story. On the day I got dumped from the big love affair of my 20’s, I saw this beautiful woman. But I said to myself, “Of all days, this is the day you do not need a beautiful woman.” She went home and mentioned to her then boyfriend that she’d been snubbed.

Four years and a lot of soul searching later I was finally ready for love again but didn’t have it. I had been substitute teaching through this lost period of my life, drawn in because the kids needed me and I had no one else in the world to be needed by. I had fallen in to teaching history at Hollywood High for a couple years and it was good. But I new I had to get back to being an artist so I had finished the semester and said goodbye to teaching. But just before the new semester started I was having a beer with my pal from the History Dept. and he said the the position wasn’t filled yet, that they still needed me. So I went.

But the morning I got there the woman in the office says, “We’re so glad to have you back. But you’re not the history teacher anymore. Now you’re the Ballet teacher.” What the fuck?

At that moment I asked the universe, “Why? Why am I here in this room, on this day, at this hour? Why?”

And as I turned to leave the new art teacher walked in. “Oh, that’s why.” I didn’t remember her, but it was the woman from four years earlier. All I knew was that this was the reason for my whole journey to that moment. I’m thinking to myself, “Here’s the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.” And she’s thinking, “Not that asshole.”

That was January. We became fast friends. I learned ballet in order to see her everyday. By spring we were in love, in June I proposed in Thailand and we were married that December in India. We came home from a three-month odyssey and promptly started our first child. I knew instantly, genetically, that I could create with this woman, and that’s what we’ve been doing for a dozen years now. We make art and family and home, and our daughters star in all of it.

• Number of times Voyagers! is mentioned to you a year?: If I read my fan mail or the hundreds of Facebook friend requests it would be quite a few, and from all over the world. But my life as a child actor is a lifetime away and not something I truck on at all. I’m working constantly at becoming known for my photography, seeking a celebrity of sorts that will open the doors to shooting everything, all the time, even wider.

• Bigger concern for you: Global warming or scratched lens?: I’m not a simpering ass and I’m not some cruel, short-sighted conservative. Climate change is real, it’s here, and we’re really, really fucked, all the more so because protocols to reverse the effects of pollution are not being enacted by leading industrial nations, and in many cases they’re being poo-poo’d.
That kind of skepticism is allowable under two world views: 1. You come from such a place of privilege that you can’t imagine that aprés-moi-le-deluge being taken away from you, and certainly not your oil revenues or 2. You are among the world’s majority of impoverished people who just need to get through today at any cost and can’t really fathom what things will be like when they get worse, much worse.

But when you’re in the middle and you’re sane and you make some daily bread and plan for the future and you desperately love your children and you’ve seen the awesome beauty of this planet and the awful mess that man’s footprint can place upon it and you are bright enough to read between the lines when your government subsides oil and coal and gas fracking and tar sands and even in the face of Godzilla nightmares coming to fruition more nuclear power and all the while spends zip on alternative energy infrastructure development, because it’s too costly, but you can do a little math and realize that the cost of climate change and the devastating weather it will bring dwarfs everything, but business can’t factor those kind of numbers in, and the government’s interests are too swayed by those lousy math businesses and for the time being there’s money to be made still on oil and then there’ll be money to be made off catastrophe well …

It’s called profiteering and it’s what’s steered our national agenda for at least the last 200 years. Very hard to overcome that kind of mindset. But read this month’s Discover magazine. The climate models show that we’re fucked, especially because we’re not doing anything about it. But there are some different scenarios that the models churn out, and they hinge on only 2 degrees difference. If we heat up only 2 degrees, things get this bad. But if we heat up 4 degrees we kick in an astronomical number of positive feedback loops and then the process gets really supercharged and things really begin to change.

Tremendous climate changes have occurred many times in earth’s history and the fossil records show that with every huge change there is the ascendance of a new form of life taking top dog on the food chain. This is because whoever else was in charge dies off, usually in huge sudden calamitous events that lay waste to a broad swath of what’s living at the moment because they’re tied to how things are and then things change. Life goes on, but with a very different face. How do I explain to my daughters that their hegemony over the planet may be supplanted by jellyfish?

Geoff Rodkey

 


A bunch of years ago Jon Wertheim, my ol’ SI colleague, told me about a friend who happened to be a screenwriter. “You’d love this guy!” he raved. “He has an interesting take on the business.” Unfortunately, I have yet to meet Geoff Rodkey, whose credits include such films as Daddy Day Care, RV and The Shaggy Dog, and who has also worked on Beavis & Butt-head and Politically Incorrect. I’m thrilled, however, to have him here on the Quaz.

I don’t have a whole lot of Hollywood experience (a couple of meetings here and there; a book option back in 2004), but I do know finding an honest, up-front take on the business can be harder than watching a week of Mets baseball. Geoff, however, is brutally clear. He’s a man who has his name attached to a film he never even watched, and a man whose best work has yet to be made. He’s experienced the ups and downs of the movie business, and doesn’t hold back. He’s also never seen The Cable Guy, which is pretty friggin’ messed up.

I’m thrilled to invite Geoff Rodkey to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So, Geoff, you’ve written scripts for some pretty successful films, including Daddy Day Care (which grossed more than $100 million in the U.S.) and The Shaggy Dog. Factually, screenwriting is a profession, oh, hundreds of thousands of Americans dream of breaking into. What’s your background, and how did you break in? And did you actually have a singular break that took you from point a to point b?

GEOFF RODKEY: I got into screenwriting more by accident than design. I always wanted to write—in high school, I wrote humor pieces (mostly satire, although at the time, I didn’t know what that word meant) for the school paper. When an issue came out, I could gauge how good a piece was by how many people came up to me in the hallway to tell me they’d liked it. That feedback was addictive, and it’s probably the biggest reason I’m still writing. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever had as satisfying a creative experience as I did with some of the things I wrote when I was 16.
But it didn’t make me want to be a screenwriter—it made me want to be P.J. O’Rourke.  Which, it turns out, isn’t a viable career path—if you think screenwriting is tough to break into, try counting all the political satirists in America. You only need one hand, and you’ll have fingers left over.

In college, I studied political science and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. To the extent that any one thing was a singular break, it was getting on the Lampoon, because it suddenly made writing comedy seem like a plausible career. After college, I went to L.A. to try to write sitcoms—which in retrospect was a dumb idea, because I didn’t particularly like sitcoms, but coming from the Lampoon, it seemed like an obvious first step. After a year of being mostly (and predictably) unemployed, I was miserable, so I left L.A. for Washington.

I spent a year in D.C., doing public policy research for a small economic think tank. Then I got a call from a college friend who was at Saturday Night Live and knew Al Franken, who was leaving SNL to write a book of political satire and needed a research assistant—which was probably the only job in America for which my resume made perfect sense. Al hired me, we hit it off, and when the book was finished, he put me on salary to write jokes for him. As someone who wanted to be a political satirist, it was a dream job—and also left me enough free time to write on the side. I wrote a bunch of short magazine pieces, and managed to get a couple of them published, but I realized the odds of my making a living at that were astronomically long, because there’s next to no market for that kind of writing.

So I went back to a story idea I’d been sitting on for years—it started in college as a novel about an English teacher in fundamentalist small-town Indiana, and it somehow mutated over time into a screenplay about a high school football coach in Texas. It was a weird, slightly dark satire about America’s obsession with sports—in the script, the team loses the big game, and the townspeople react by lynching the coach under the goal posts.

I wrote six or seven drafts, then sent it to a handful of people in film who I knew from my year in L.A.. One of them gave it to an agent, who took me on as a client and eventually sold it for a lot more money than I’d ever been paid for my political writing.

So I followed the money, and for the next 13 years I wrote nothing but screenplays and the occasional TV pilot.

J.P.: I hate when my books get slammed. I mean, I really, really hate it. It’s personal to me—something I’ve slaved over. So how do you take it when Roger Ebert calls Daddy Day Care “a woeful miscalculation” or the Chicago Sun-Times says of Daddy Day Camp, “Stale jokes, poor acting; And another waste of talent and time for Cuba Gooding Jr.”?

G.R.: The full sentence of that Roger Ebert quote is worth savoring: “Daddy Day Care is a woeful miscalculation, a film so wrong-headed audiences will be more appalled than amused.”

That was his opening sentence. And his TV show review was, if possible, even worse—he did it with Richard Roeper, and Roeper was so angry at the movie that he started raising his voice, and it built to this crescendo that ended with Roeper literally yelling, “One of the worst movies of the year!” and Ebert yelling back, “Absolutely!”

Didn’t bother me a bit.

No. It was painful. And kind of a cosmic joke—because, again, what got me hooked on writing was the positive feedback from an audience. And by the time the movie came out, it had been six years since anything I’d written had reached an audience (I sold my first screenplay in 1997, Daddy Day Care came out in 2003, and in between I’d written more than a dozen unproduced screenplays), so I was starved for feedback.

And to have it come in the form of a bucket of puke dumped over my head by Roger Ebert felt pretty lousy. Particularly because I come from a small town in Illinois, and when I was growing up, Siskel and Ebert were the only film critics anyone had ever heard of, and a lot of people, myself included, made their decisions about a movie’s quality based on what those guys said on their TV show.

And it was complicated by the fact that I don’t necessarily disagree with some of what he wrote. There were things he hated, like the anti-intellectualism of the way Anjelica Huston’s rival day care center was portrayed, that were not in the original script but wound up in the film for reasons as prosaic as casting.

To me, it’s funny and wrong and sick to teach SAT prep to 3-year-olds. But while it’s very easy to write “a room full of stone-faced, motionless three-year-olds” into a script, you can’t actually shoot that, because you can’t get a room full of 3-year-old extras to sit still and look stone-faced. So to get the shot, the producers had to cast a room full of 7-year-olds, and then it wasn’t funny, and not even particularly wrong, and I can see as how Roger Ebert would take umbrage.

Leaving aside things like that—which probably sound like insane nit-picking to anyone who’s not me, or maybe Roger Ebert—it’s not like Daddy Day Care was trying to win any Oscars. It’s not going to make anybody’s list of cultural treasures of the American cinema. So on some level, of course he hated it.

It’s much harder for me to get worked up over Daddy Day Camp reviews, because I wasn’t really involved in that movie beyond writing the first draft. My name’s on the credits, but when I read the shooting script for the Writer’s Guild arbitration, I think I found maybe three lines left of my original dialogue. To this day, I’ve never actually seen the film.

J.P.: Clearly, you’ve made your mark writing movies for kids. How, as an adult, do you succeed in understanding the wants of a child moviegoer? Do you have to place yourself in a certain mindset? Or do you just slam your head repeatedly against a wall, drink 20 glasses of cherry Kool Aid, then sit and write?

G.R.: I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to understand the wants of a child moviegoer.  The closest I’ve gotten is to come up with something I think is funny, and then ask myself if a kid would think it was funny, too.

I was the last of something like nine writers on the Shaggy Dog remake, and one of the contributions I’m proudest of is that I put a monkey in the third act. But it’s not in there because I was thinking, “Hey, kids love monkeys!” I was thinking, “God, I love monkeys. I wonder if I could put a monkey in there.”

And I never set out to write movies for kids. I wrote a lot of scripts for an adult audience, but they never got made. Then my career stalled out, and I found myself stuck at home with a newborn while my wife went back to work. And I was kind of miserable, and misery can be funny if it’s happening to someone else, so I thought, “Maybe I can sell a script about this.” And that’s where Daddy Day Care came from.

But even then, I didn’t intend for it to be a kid’s movie—I was trying to write a movie for adults that kids would enjoy, too. A lot of the humor in the original script reflected that—there’s a sequence in the movie where Jeff Garlin’s character, out of sheer desperation, pulls out a guitar to entertain the kids. In the original script, he played them Black Sabbath songs—which I really liked because, among other things, Iron Man has a very sing-songy, nursery-rhyme quality to it.

That got thrown out in a hurry by the studio—I remember a script meeting where I kept lobbying to keep Black Sabbath, to the point where the studio president yelled “THERE’S NO IRONY IN CHILDREN’S MOVIES!” at me. Pretty early on, rather than argue, they just replaced me with other writers. So what’s in the movie is partly my sensibility, and partly shots of Jeff Garlin getting kicked in the nuts. Which was what the studio wanted.

And honestly? If they’d shot my original script, Roger Ebert might have liked it better (or at least been less offended by it), but it never would have made $100 million domestically.

So I think the studio was right, and I was wrong.

But I still wish they’d kept that Black Sabbath joke.

J.P.: In agreeing to this interview, you hinted at some animosity—if that’s the right word—toward your profession. Just as there are people who dream of writing for Sports Illustrated, and who don’t believe me when I complain, there are people who dream of writing movies and won’t believe there are drawbacks to the profession. Well, I believe you. What are the drawbacks?

G.R.: Animosity’s the wrong word—it’s more frustration with the bitter reality of the film business. But it’s been the same bitter reality for as long as the film business has existed, so the fact that I’m bitter is my problem, not Hollywood’s.
The two big frustrations—and I think this is true for almost any screenwriter—are both creative: Your best work rarely reaches an audience, and what does reach an audience may not actually be yours, even if your name is on it. The first thing is true because screenplays aren’t the finished product—they’re a blueprint for a movie. And since movies are incredibly expensive to make and market, studios are highly conservative about what they produce. No matter how good a script is, they won’t make the movie unless it fits some relatively narrow marketing parameters.

In practice, that tends to mean that your best work—the original, the unusual, whatever it is that makes it unique—might be the writing sample that gets you hired to write, say, a sequel, or a remake, or an adaptation of a board game, or whatever the studio thinks they can market without too much risk … but will otherwise only exist as the blueprint to a building that never gets built. That’s demoralizing.

The second thing—that what seems to be your work may not actually be yours—is more complicated (and boring) to explain, and involves not just the way studios make movies (in which almost every movie has multiple writers) but the Writer’s Guild arbitration process (in which most of the writers on a film never receive screen credit).

I touched on this earlier talking about Daddy Day Care, but I’ve had other, much more substantive and painful experiences of being rewritten on other projects, and I can say that as lousy as it feels to be praised for something you didn’t write, it feels even worse to be criticized for something you not only didn’t write but actively argued against.

J.P.: You wrote several episodes of Beavis & Butt-head, which seems as far away from Daddy Day Care—humor-wise—as something could be. How’d that happen? And what was it like writing for such a show? At the time, did you know it would have such cultural resonance?

G.R.: I had very little to do with Beavis and Butt-head–I co-wrote (with my writing partner at the time, Stewart Burns) three five-page scripts, of which only two were produced (Cow Tipping and Health Club.) That’s two scripts out of probably a couple hundred. But I feel lucky to have been able to contribute to it, even in a small way—I’m a huge Mike Judge fan, and Beavis and Butt-head were more like the kids in my junior high locker room than any characters I’ve ever seen on TV, before or since.

The show was already a phenomenon when we sold the scripts. Stewart and I were living in L.A., and the show’s offices were in New York, so our only direct contact with anyone at the show was via phone calls with the story editor. We got the job by cold-calling him—we got his number from a friend, who’d gotten it third-hand from somebody, and when our friend passed it on, he made us promise not to reveal how we knew who to call to pitch our ideas. I’m pretty sure we mailed in our scripts. That’s how long ago it was—nobody had email.

And while the audiences and the tone were worlds apart, I’m not sure the humor was that far from Daddy Day Care. For one thing, people get kicked in the nuts in both of them.

J.P.: In 1995 you wrote a 96-page book, NEWTisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Newt Gingrich. Now that Newt might actually be running for president, can you share with us your favorite fact/story/bit of information about the man? And would you vote for him were he running against a soda can?

G.R.: It wasn’t written so much as researched—it was a quickie book that got put together in about ten days over the Christmas holidays in late 1994, right after the Republicans took over Congress. I was living in D.C. and had been sending magazine pieces to a literary agent in the hope that she could find a home for them—she couldn’t, but a book editor happened to ask her if she knew anyone who could compile a book of Newt Gingrich quotes at incredibly short notice, and she suggested me.

I don’t have any favorite facts about Newt other than the well-known ones—like how his first wife was his high school math teacher, who he eventually cheated on, then served with divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery; or how he was actively cheating on his second wife while orchestrating Bill Clinton’s impeachment for essentially the same thing.

I wouldn’t vote for him for dogcatcher, but I don’t think there’s any danger of him ever becoming president—American voters tend to go for candidates they want to hang out with, and who wants to hang out with Newt Gingrich?

J.P.: I stumbled upon this in the September 16, 1997 Hollywood Reporter: “In a pre-emptive strike, Universal Pictures has paid Geoff Rodkey an estimated $250,000 against $550,000 for his first spec script, “Dave the Ox.” Al Ruddy and Andre Morgan will produce.  The football comedy is described as “Apocalypse Now” meets “Hoosiers.” Uh … what?

G.R.: That was the script I mentioned earlier—the first one I sold. The plot’s a little convoluted, but it really is like Apocalypse Now meets Hoosiers. And even after 25 screenplays, it’s probably still the best plot I’ve ever written. But it’s also a sports satire in which the team loses the big game—so in marketing terms, that means people who like satires (all six of them) won’t go because it’s a sports movie, and people who like sports movies won’t go because the team loses in the end.  So its natural audience is nobody. Looking back, I think selling it at all was a enormous stroke of luck. It helped that 1997 was the tail end of the spec boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s—I think if I’d tried to sell the same script even a year later, it never would have sold.

What’s a shame from a creative standpoint is that, after I’d worked in film for a while, and seen all the scripts I wrote because I thought they’d make really interesting movies die on the vine of the studio development system, I learned to instinctively avoid any movie idea with a built-in marketing problem … the result of which was that my scripts started becoming movies, but at the price of becoming a lot less interesting.

J.P.: I’m fascinated: What’s the writing process like? I mean, do you get an idea and just sit and write away? Does it take weeks? Months? Years? Dod you lock yourself in a room, head to a coffee shop? What?

G.R.: Film is collaborative, and a lot of scripts start as conversations with producers—either you bring them an idea, or they bring you one. You talk about it, make some notes, talk some more, come up with a three-act outline. Back when studios bought pitches, you might turn it into a pitch (basically a 15-minute standup routine, performed on an office couch while holding a bottled water). Now it’s more likely to be written on spec, in which case you write a draft, get the producer’s notes, write another draft, give it to a screenwriter friend, get their notes, write another draft, get more notes …
A few drafts after that, you give it to your agent. Then they try to sell it. Then they fail, and you start all over again with a new idea.
I’ve written a script in as little as six weeks from the initial idea to the draft my agent tried to sell. I don’t recommend that—you pick it up years later, and it reads like something that was written in six weeks.

I’ve also written scripts that took two or three years—usually in fits and starts, where you write a draft and then work on something else for a while before you go back to the next draft—and some that I wrote, put away for years, then pulled out again and re-wrote.

I used to work at home until I had kids. Then I worked in coffee shops—every script I’ve ever had made into a movie was written at the now-defunct Cosi on 13th Street and 6th Avenue. When I got sick of working out of a backpack, I rented an office—at which point my productivity plummeted due to the constant availability of a land line, broadband Internet, and a couch to nap on. So I eventually started going back to coffee shops to write, using my office for printing and phone calls. Then I realized it was stupid to pay rent when I wasn’t even writing there, so I gave up the office.
Now I work at a communal writers’ space, where I pay by the month for 24/7 access to a desk in a room full of carrels.  It’s been fantastic—I’ve never been more productive, mostly because I don’t know the wi-fi password.

J.P.: In 1996-97 you were nominated for an Emmy for your work on Politically Incorrect. Man, did I love that show. I enjoy Bill Maher now, but there was something about seeing, oh, Gene Simmons and Betty White arguing politics that did it for me. That was pretty shocking TV for the time. What do you remember about the experience? And was Maher as difficult to work with as I’m imagining?

G.R.: I only worked on Politically Incorrect for a little over two weeks—eight shows during the political conventions, and one on election night in 1996.  It was while I was working for Al, and he and Arianna Huffington were doing both live segments from the convention floor and a nightly routine on the show called “Strange Bedfellows,” in which they dressed in pajamas, sat on a bed on stage, and had scripted arguments about politics.

Like a lot of things I did with Al, it was hugely fun—and hectic, because everything was done live, so we’d spend three hours on the convention floor doing short pieces (mostly interviews with various politicians) that aired during commercial breaks on Comedy Central, then we’d climb into a van and drive to the studio where the show was shooting, rehearsing the Strange Bedfellows segments in the back of the van as we drove.

Arianna was great to work with, too—and for about a year after that, I did occasional ghostwriting for her as well as Al. This was back when she was a Republican, so I got to work both sides of the fence.

But even though I was technically writing for Politically Incorrect, it was only for Al and Arianna—I can’t remember even meeting Bill Maher. And it may be the least amount of work anyone’s ever done to get an Emmy nomination. But I have nothing but fond memories of it.

J.P.: You’ve had more success than 99 percent of screenwriters out there. But I’ll take a stab and say you haven’t written your Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Were you to never write another movie, are you comfortable with your resume? And is there a story out there you’ve been itching to tell?

G.R.: I’ve written my Taxi Driver—I just can’t get anyone to make it. It’s called Founding Fathers—it’s the story of the Revolutionary War, if all the founding fathers got involved for incredibly selfish reasons.  It was my attempt to do an American version of a Monty Python movie, and it’s easily the best script I’ve ever written.

The problem is that it’s an historical comedy, which are ridiculously hard to get made, and an ensemble piece, which makes it even harder. Every few years, a producer—or occasionally an actor or director—will read it and go, “This is fantastic! What are you doing with it?” And I’ll say, “Nothing. It’s yours!” And they’ll say, “We’re going to make this!” Then six months later, they’ll come back and say, “Nobody wants to make an historical comedy!” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I probably should have told you that six months ago.” And then it’ll go back in the drawer for a couple more years.
So what it is, basically, is a writing sample. Which is depressing.

What’s even more depressing is that over the past couple of years, two historical comedies actually have gotten made—Year One and Your Highness—but I’m pretty sure they both lost money. So the odds are even longer now. To continue the Scorsese analogy, if Dave the Ox had gotten made, I think it could have been my Mean Streets.  Despite how weird and off-center the script was, it came very close—there was a director attached, and the studio was actually scouting locations in Texas at one point—but it fell apart over casting and never came back together. If that movie had ever existed, I think I would have had a very different career trajectory—because even though it probably wouldn’t have made much money, it would have stood out for its sheer unusualness. And maybe five years later, I wouldn’t have found myself so desperate to get something going that I resorted to writing a script about a guy who opens a day care center in his home.

To get back to your question—am I comfortable with my resume? God, no. Who would be?

But I’ve gradually come to accept the fact that the film business does not exist to satisfy the creative egos of screenwriters, so unless I want to try to direct—which I don’t, for a whole raft of reasons—I need to seek creative satisfaction elsewhere.

So over the past year, I wrote a book—the first in what I’ve planned as a trilogy of middle-grade adventure novels—and a few weeks ago, I sold the series to Penguin. The first one should be out in the summer or fall of 2012, and I’ll be writing the others over the next year or two.

I’m way beyond thrilled about this—I had more fun writing the first book than anything I’ve done in over a decade, and I’m really looking forward to having something reach an audience without getting rewritten by someone else. The books might not sell, and reviewers might hate them, but at least they’ll be mine.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GEOFF RODKEY:

• How fake is the world of Hollywood?: Not necessarily fake—the people who seem shallow and vapid really ARE shallow and vapid. And there are plenty of smart, talented, thoughtful people working in the business. Plus everyone’s very pleasant and friendly, especially the shallow and vapid ones. But there’s a lot of insincerity. After Daddy Day Care came out, I had a meeting with a producer who was doing development for Todd Phillips—you know, raunchy R-rated Hangover Todd Phillips. This guy was maybe 25, single, and looked like he’d just gotten back from an after-hours club. He started the meeting by telling me he “loved” Daddy Day Care. I said, “No, you didn’t.” He insisted he did. We went back and forth for a few minutes until I finally got him to admit that, in fact, he did not actually love Daddy Day Care. It was awkward, and he never spoke to me again after that, and I probably shouldn’t have been such a jerk about it. But, come on—if I were that guy, and somebody forced me to watch Daddy Day Care? It would have been excruciating.

• Best movie you’ve done? Worst?: I don’t know. The worst is probably the one I never watched, but I can’t be sure. I will say the one I’m least conflicted about is The Shaggy Dog—because I was the last writer, not the first writer, so I had no emotional investment in it. And when I started work, pre-production had just been shut down, and the studio wasn’t sure they were going to make the movie. They ended up making it—so while the movie might not have been great, at least there was a movie.  If I’d screwed up, they would have killed it. Plus there’s a monkey in the third act. And I put that monkey there!

• What’s it like seeing your movies for the first time as completed works?:
Disorienting. Because when you write a script, you have a movie playing in your head.  And even the best version of what ends up on screen will be a different movie than the one in your head. And it’s not really “your movie.” Especially if you’ve been rewritten, but even if you haven’t—many, many people contribute to the final product, and sometimes you find yourself thinking things like, “Why’d the costume designer put him in that?”

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: So far, that hasn’t happened to me (knock on wood). But when I was an unemployed writer in L.A. in 1994, I did live through the Northridge earthquake – and I remember standing in the doorway of my bedroom as the building shook violently back and forth, wondering if it was going to collapse on top of me. And I remember thinking, “Death might be preferable to this.” I’m not kidding.  Being an unemployed writer in L.A. was that bad.

• You live in New York, not Los Angeles. Isn’t that a bad idea, career-wise?: Terrible, terrible idea. It has unquestionably hurt my career to live 3,000 miles away from both the film and TV businesses. On the other hand, I don’t have to live in L.A.  So it’s a net positive.

• Five favorite films of all time?: Tough question. But off the top of my head: The Princess Bride, Apocalypse Now, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Star Wars, Strange Brew.

• I love The Cable Guy. Love it, love it, love it. Think it’s genius. Save for my neighbor, Orli, nobody ever agrees. What’d you think?: I’ve never seen The Cable Guy.  Kind of embarrassed to admit that.  I will Netflix it and get back to you.

• Celine Dion: Live! or swallowing a spoonful of my dog’s shit?: Celine. Not even close. I would rather sit through two hours of ANY kind of music than swallow a spoonful of animal feces. That’s a no-brainer, right? I mean, wouldn’t anybody?  Maybe I just don’t know your dog like you do.

• Can you put a stop to all the superhero films? Please?: When superhero films stop making money, studios will stop making them. It’s nothing personal.

• Sarah Palin offers you $5 million to film her propaganda flick, “Sarah: American Legend!” You know, by doing so, she’ll be our next prez. Do you take the money?: Of course not.  That’s even easier than the Celine Dion question. I think you should put more thought into your dilemmas. Otherwise, this has been great.  Thanks for the opportunity to talk about myself ad nauseam.

Tommy Shaw

 


Back in 1995 a cool thing was sweeping the nation—something called the information superhighway. There were, like, websites and chat rooms, and by dialing up on your computer you could access them, and look, and even (gasp!) communicate. You should have been there … it was amazing!

At the time I was a 23-year-old pop/rock/rap music writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean. One day a preview copy of a new CD arrived in the mail. The artist was Shaw/Blades—the newly formed tandem of former Night Ranger singer Jack Blades and former STYX singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw. I got home that night and played the disc. Then I played it again. And again. And again. And again. Absolutely loved it. A few days later, I reviewed the CD, Hallucination, and gave it a big thumbs up.

Shortly thereafter, I somehow managed managed to track down Shaw’s e-mail address. I fired off a random message, wondering if he’d consider doing an online Q&A. A day later, he responded with, “After your great review—of course!”

In the ensuing years, Tommy and I have stayed in loose contact. I’ve quoted him a couple of times; he once left me tickets to a show at Radio City during STYX’s reunion tour. As soon as I thought of The Quaz, I thought of Tommy—a great guy, an insanely talented and accomplished musician and the owner of a wonderful new (and adventurous) bluegrass album, The Great Divide (which debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass chart—Mazel tov). Tommy Tweets here, and continues to tour regularly with STYX—one of my all-time favorite groups.

It’s an absolute honor to welcome Tommy Shaw to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So I’m gonna start with a curveball, because there’s a question that, for years, I’ve been wanting to ask someone in your position. Here’s my chance. You wrote the song Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) more than 30 years ago. That means—taking into account your time with STYX, your time with Damn Yankees, your time with Shaw/Blades and your solo work—you’ve probably performed it live, oh, 5,000 times. At least. I’ve heard the clichéd answer from other artists that “Every time you sing a song you reinvent it and blah, blah, blah”,” but I know you’re not a cliché guy. I want to know, seriously, how do you get up for playing Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) for, oh, version No. 4,654 at, say, the Tennessee State Fair on a 100-degree day? Is it often just going through the motions, or faking a certain feeling that can’t possibly still exist? Are there still times when playing Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) kicks ass, or is it now mere rote? For the record, I love the song. Love it. But were I forced to sing it every day for 30 years, it might get a bit tiresome …

TOMMY SHAW: These days I get to introduce Chuck Panozzo, bass player emeritus, who comes out and plays a couple of songs with us. Chuck is a thriving HIV and cancer survivor. We watched him step back from the brink in 1999 and saw the power of music that lifted his spirits and made him want to fight his way back to health. He’s been my friend and bandmate for 36 years, and to see him on our stage, the joyful world explorer, author and humanitarian he’s become, gives that song a new meaning. It’s also a challenging song to perform and cannot just be turned in. You either play it with all you’ve got or it just won’t float. That’s the thing with STYX—we have such a varied range of songs in our song list, we can pick and choose a set of the ones we love and leave out the ones we’re not so excited about and still have a musically fulfilling and exciting show. It’s life affirming and that song rings true for us every time.

J.P: You just released a bluegrass CD, The Great Divide. Back when I was a young writer in Nashville in the mid-1990s, everyone loved bluegrass. Bluegrass! Bluegrass! Bluegrass! You need to listen to Bill Monroe! Bluegrass! Bluegrass! So I listened to Bill Monroe—and I just didn’t like him. Very twangy, very banjo-centered. That said, I’m a huge Rage Against the Machine fan—so who am I to judge?

I ask two things: What the $%^& is Tommy Shaw doing with a bluegrass album? And what am I missing about the genre? Being serious—because I’ll listen with an open mind.

T.S.: When I grew up [in Montgomery, Alabama] my family liked music. All music that we considered good and performed well. It wasn’t until I became a recording artist that I saw how fragmented audiences can be. I hate this, I hate that, I only listen to this. I can understand preferring one style at certain times, but there is so much good music, why discriminate and miss out on something magical? If you like country, you need to listen to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams to hear where it began. Rock and blues—Robert Johnson, Muddy and the originators. Bluegrass, you should definitely listen to Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and so many other founders for reference but then move forward to Blue Highway, Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Infamous Stringdusters. Expand your horizons, listen to jazz men Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, to Buddy Rich’s Big Swing Face. These are the sources of modern American music. Keep going! Have you ever heard Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma before? If this doesn’t move you, it’s time to see a doctor.

You can always go back to your touchstone favorites, but there is such a journey in time and space you can enjoy if you take the time to let these other sources into your life. So, that said, I really only wanted to try my hand at writing a bluegrass song with my friend Brad Davis. We wrote I’ll Be Coming Home. It poured out, fully formed and I didn’t even understand exactly what we’d just said in the lyrics until later. It was this sweet song that flowed from us. One after another these songs and stories came, and the only challenge was to be respectful to the form as I became more educated. The more I learned the more I loved and respected it. It reminds me of a flying dream I had once, the best one I’ve ever had. Not only was I flying, but as far as I chose to look, that was how far I could clearly see.

J.P.: In the mid-1970s, immediately pre-STYX, you were a member of “Harvest,” the house band at Kegler’s Kove at Bama Bowl in your hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Playing nightly in a bowling alley strikes me as a scene out of a movie—lots of cigarette smoke, fat guys named Earl Bob Joe, greasy slabs of pizza and Harvest unleashing their cover of Light My Fire. What was it really like? Because, the truth is, the most joyful parts of life often come during the build-up to something big, not the bigness itself.

T.S.: Kinda, yeah, like what you said. Were you there? It was the most fun gig I’d had up to that point and still in my top 5.

Disco music and the oil embargo ended MS Funk (the eight-piece horn band I was in before Harvest) and thousands of other bar bands and that’s how I ended up returning to the sanctuary of my hometown friends in a lounge in the local bowling alley.

There wasn’t much of a dance floor but nobody wanted to dance there. Uber-Sanctuary for that moment in time. People came to hear us play our covers and our original songs.  We had been singing and playing together since we were teenagers, just never in the same band. These were my friends Jimbo Jones and Eddie Wohlford who were, in my opinion, the best singers around for the type of music we were playing. They innately understood it and we sang like one person with three voices. We had a great drummer, Tommy Beavers, who was able to play with the kind of dynamics we needed in that small space. I still get messages from people who were there. It was pure magic and we all knew that it was a bright burning flame that might not last long so we all cherished it. I wrote Crystal Ball there. We did a demo of it on a weekday afternoon and were shooshed by management because bowling league was in session. Even then we laughed at the irony. You said it right—one of my most joyful life experiences.

J.P.: You spent six years in Damn Yankees, performing alongside Ted Nugent. As an ultra-liberal, pro-gun control New Yorker, I consider this—from afar—to be right there with water torture and the Gitmo vacation package. I don’t know your political leanings, Tommy, but I’m wondering if there’s something about the Motor City Madman I’m missing; if you just agree with his stances or if the professional relationship of being in a band with someone renders political positions irrelevant.

T.S.: I like to keep my political beliefs and other personal beliefs to myself. There’s enough of that being shouted about out there. I like to avoid getting into debates regarding such things. Your parents taught you to never discuss politics and religion in places where alcohol is being served, right? These days I think it’s safe to avoid it in any public situation unless you’re looking for a spot on a cable news channel.

I’m a musician, recording artist and performer, so I like to be all-inclusive.  All are welcome. Turn off the TV and enjoy something that brings us together instead of dividing us!

Ted Nugent is one of the brightest, most talented and enthusiastic people I know. He doesn’t just go off half-cocked. He walks the talk. And believe me, there’s more walk than talk. He’s passionate in his beliefs and he has a sense of humor and a laugh that is so infectious you cannot help but feel good in his presence. He is sentimental, a tremendous parent, incredibly charitable and creative in more ways than you could imagine. I love the man. If I had to choose one man to stand beside in mortal combat, it would be my friend Ted Nugent.

J.P.: In his song, Not Afraid, Eminem recently dismissed his last album as semi-mediocre. I remember hearing that and thinking, “Man, there are a lot of people who loved those songs. How do they feel now?” Mandy Moore has done the same thing with some of her earlier work. In the STYX Behind the Music from eight or nine years back, you came across as pretty critical of some of STYX’s music—particularly Babe and much of the album, Kilroy Was Here. It’s not that I disagree with you—I don’t. But I’m guessing Babe and Mr. Roboto are loved by many folks out there. Did you ever think back and say, “Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have given that take?” Or does honesty—especially in music—trump all.

T.S.: It was a difficult time in STYX history. We worked things out and have had a peaceful coexistence for years now. It was good television though, wasn’t it? Love what you love. Love STYX any way you choose.

J.P.: I’m not just saying this—the two albums you’ve done with Jack Blades are two of my all-time favorite pieces of work. I remember being a writer at The Tennessean in 1995 when I received a copy of Hallucination. I gave it a great review, and really thought it would blow up commercially. It sort of didn’t. You came out with your second CD, Influence, in 2007, and it was equally wonderful—but didn’t sell wildly. Your solo album, 7 Deadly Zens, from 1998, included a tune, Inspiration, that I’ve probably played 500 times. Also, not an enormous seller. My question is this—does that matter? As in, after you’ve sold millions of records with STYX, do you particularly care about total units moved? Or, at this point in your life/career, is it solely about the music?

T.S.: I realized a while back that I don’t live for money. I’m fortunate to be comfortable financially and am still gainfully employed doing what I have always loved to do. But when it comes to music it’s about what’s in you, about what you can express. STYX is successful enough that I can afford to be completely unbound in my solo endeavors. It’s been a wonderful life so far. I survived my own youthful escapades long enough to be enjoying it now more than ever. To read what you just said is very nice for me. Each solo project has been a learning, growing experience and made me a better man and bandmate when I returned to STYX.

But this bluegrass project snuck up on me. I didn’t mean it to happen. It began with one song and I felt this awakening, and every time Brad Davis and I got together we wrote another one that we loved. In 2009 everyone in each of our camps and homes agreed we should set the time aside and complete the album. When all was said and done it was in my blood and once it was finished I found myself woodshedding Sam Bush’s mandolin parts night and day so I could go out there and promote it. Two days ago in Nashville someone said “You’re a great mandolin player.” I almost fell over. If I seem over the moon with love and enthusiasm for this experience, please know that it is the tip of that iceberg. I’m doing my best to try and be cool. My only wish is that I could go back in time and get 35 more years of practice in. And here’s what’s making that harder—since it came out a week ago, I have played the Grand Ole Opry and been invited back, it’s aired on WSM in morning drive time, Steve and Johnnie had me on their show a couple of nights ago on WGN and they were extremely complimentary. It is being judged on its merit and getting really nice reviews. This morning I got the news that we entered at No. 2 on the Bluegrass chart.

I’m fulfilled already but if it becomes a huge success, I won’t fight it.  😉

J.P.: Can you explain to me how Kiss is not in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? And do you believe a case can be made for STYX? If so, please feel free to make it here …

T.S.: The Hall of Fame starts by requiring an act to have been around for 25 years. It is a slow and thoughtful process. Kiss will be there, I’d put money on it. Bad Company too. I’d be willing to bet Journey is close. How about YES? They are just getting around to our era. Alice Cooper was just inducted. This is a good sign. These are music fanatics, not just of what was ever popular, but what moved and influenced Rock ’n’ Roll. It’s complex and I appreciate their rigid and unflappable pursuit of getting it right. Patience, my friend.

J.P.: As I type these questions, I’m sitting in a Cosi coffee shop, sipping away, elevator jazz filling my ears. That’s how I write. How do you write? Like, when you write a song, what are you generally doing? Where do the thoughts come from? I once read that Gene Simmons would jot down 100 songs for a Kiss album, then narrow them down to 10 or 11. That seemed odd, because one would think a lot of sweat and pain goes into every song. So, for you, what’s the process like? And do you immediately know when you’ve got a winner?

Also, you’ve written songs for Alice Cooper, Vince Neil, Cher, Aerosmith—among others. Does the same satisfaction exist in writing for another artist as it does writing for yourself?

T.S.: I need to get away from the process of touring and gigging because that takes up so much time and energy it’s hard to stay focused on anything else. My favorite thing to do is get a batch of songs started and then let them tell me what to do next. One will speak up and that one will get attention and so on …  I get totally immersed in the creative process. It’s very fulfilling and satisfying to produce something that didn’t exist before.

It’s also an honor to be asked to write songs for and with other artists. You’re invited into their heads and you create something outside of yourself that becomes all about them. Kinda trippy, huh?

Songs are entries in your life’s diary. The one with STYX started for me in 1975 and continues today. I grew up in those pages.

J.P.: STYX still tours regularly, though you and James Young are the last remaining regulars from the band’s commercial heyday. I think from afar people see bands from the ’70s and ’80s touring/playing state fairs and casinos and such and sometimes think, “Why don’t they just give it up?” I assume the answer is “Because I love the music,” which is fair. But are you ever playing, say, the Belterra Resort and Casino in Florence, Indiana thinking, “Crap, this used to be Madison Square Garden?”

T.S.: We still play arenas, festivals, amphitheaters, but I would warn folks not to ever disparage the places where their fans go to hear them play. The reality is rosters from state fairs and casinos includes almost every touring artist new and old because so many of those casinos have state-of-the-art venues separate from the gambling. This is where many people go to hear live music now. They are the new Forums and Madison Square Gardens of our age, built with the money you lost at the tables! Schedules there include the top country, pop, rock and even metal bands.

This is not your father’s state fair or casino.

But remember, Sinatra played those other joints. He loved to perform, so he went to where the people were.

Audiences rule. Everywhere.

J.P.: What was the absolute lowest moment of your musical career? And what was the absolute highest moment?

T.S.: It was in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1974. We (MS FUNK) were playing a bar. There was a sign at the entry, one of those ones where they fit these black letters into the upper and lower slots, like a small version of the old Holiday Inn signs. This had menu items on it but at the top it said:

MS FUNK 50¢ and right below it read COKE 75¢

The best was when I stood at Ground Zero in 2002 and handed George Lorens of the Port Authority Police Department a check for a half a million dollars that we, along with other classic rock artists, raised to benefit the family members who lost wives and husbands in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOMMY SHAW:

Celine Dion or Snoop Dogg?: Snoop

• I just went to the STYX website, and was greeted with this message—“STYX’s Very Own Coffee Blend! Exclusively from Coffee Fool And Available Here!” Uh … what?: Have you ever tried it? It’s spectacular. Just had some as a matter of fact! You’d be impressed with the list of folks who are Coffee Fool fans. Believe me, it’s aptly named. Our camp has been fueled by it since the first cup. Some folks sell booze, we go for a different kind of buzz. You can drive on ours!

• Would you rather have $10 million or the super power of your choice? And what power would that be?: I’d like the power to go back in time so on September 11, 1963. Instead of asking for just a guitar for my birthday, I would have also asked for a mandolin, a banjo and a dobro.

• Afterlife—exists or not?: I’ll try my best to let you know at a later date.

• Animals you shot alongside Ted Nugent on the Damn Yankees bonding-together meat-a-thon: Zero.

• Hit Song That You Were Shocked Became a Hit: The Macarena (now it’s in your head isn’t it?)

• Ever Think You were About to Die in a Plane Crash? If yes, what do you recall: We were on a plane with the Atlanta Rhythm Section way back when.  We hit the worst turbulence I have ever experienced, kind of like the scene in Almost Famous where the drummer spilled the beans a little too much.  I looked behind me and a couple of the ARS guys had bottles of Crown Royal turned up. The flight attendant spilled an entire tray of Cokes on ice on Chuck Panozzo. I’m actually on a plane right now as I write this answer and I’m laughing my ass off recalling that image. Ha!

• Five biggest musical influences: The Beatles, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, CSNY, Wes Montgomery.

• Was Nirvana good or bad for music?: It needed a reset. Nirvana provided it.

This is my all-time favorite song. I’m genuinely curious if you like it: That was pretty spectacular, albeit sad to see. We met Shannon Hoon just a few weeks before he died. Such a talented young artist.

• Will you pass my demo on to your manager? I’m sort of Tupac meets Anne Murray: What, no bluegrass?