The Waiting Game

Yesterday morning an old friend called from Los Angeles and recounted how earlier this month he and his band had their first real meeting with a bona fide record label. By all indications, the encounter went well and ended on a positive note with the record executive saying all good things about their music and hinting toward a time when they, record company and band, would share in a relationship both symbiotic and copacetic. He said he'd be in touch. Two weeks down the road, however, there's been no word; nor is aforementioned executive returning any of my friend's phone messages or e-mails. Seemingly a case of "Don't call us, we won't call you."

I told my friend that things are not necessary what they seem.

The thing is, he and I used to work in the service industry–transportation–where every aspect of our company's performance was measured daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly; this data was then shared with our customers so that they could better decide whether to use our services or our competition's. The idea of not returning a phone call or not replying to an e-mail is as unconscionable to him as it is to me. Except . . .

For the most part, that's not the way things work in entertainment–music, books, movies, whatever–where unreturned calls and unanswered e-mails are more the norm than the exception. Which is really ironic, if you think about it, given an industry whose ultimate goal is to please its customers.

But therein lies the answer: When we–musicians, writers, filmmakers, artists one and all–are doing our best to interest them in our wares, we're not their customers but rather their suppliers. Or at least we hope to be. Until they actually put a contract in front of us and we sign on the dotted line (which, come to think of it, is never dotted, at least not on the contracts I've seen and signed), we're nothing more than the unwanted call from the telephone company, the knock on the door from the missionaries, or the takeout menu left in our mailbox by the new sushi restaurant around the block.

What I told my friend was this: "Don't forget that right now, as we speak, there are probably hundreds, nay, thousands of guys around L.A. in bands who are wondering, What the hell's up with that guy at the record company? What you need to hang onto, in the midst of your completely understandable frustration, is that if the record executive were to reply to all of his phone calls and e-mails, he probably wouldn't have enough time left in his day to do what you're hoping he'll do in the first place: sign you and your band to a record contract."

Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it fair (to say nothing of good business or in the realms of politeness)? Of course not. I had a magazine editor tell me once, after expressing displeasure because I continued to follow up on a pitch after not having received a response in more than six months: "If we were interested, clearly we would have gotten back to you." "No," I wanted to reply, "if you weren't interested, clearly you should have told me so." Unfortunately, this is not uncommon; the delete button has become the answer to many a busy editor and agent's overburdened calendar and workload. Even enclosing an SASE with snail-mail queries no longer guarantees a response.

A line from Woody Allen's masterful 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors reminds us that all this is nothing new:

Show business is dog-eat-dog. It's worse than dog-eat-dog: it's dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-calls.

The Internet has just taught an old dog new tricks.

Could it be handled differently? Sure–and often it is. When I first submitted my short-story collection to the man who became my agent, he immediately e-mailed me to say that he'd received it and cautioned me that he was going to be out of the office for a while. "Therefore, if you don't hear from me for a week to ten days, it has nothing to do with my response to your writing."

But, then, he's a gentleman.

As for my friend, the days when a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen can walk into John Hammond's office, play their songs, and almost literally walk out with a recording contract are sadly gone. Long gone. And so he waits.

It's how he's having to wait that's the problem.

“It’s showtime, folks!”

Today on CBS Sunday Morning, in a segment devoted to interviews with five prominent octogenarians (including entertainer Elaine Stritch, White House correspondent and resident thorn-in-the-side Helen Thomas, Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post/Watergate/Woodward and Bernstein fame, and Playboy incarnate Hugh Hefner), TV producer Norman Lear was asked if he had any advice for writers: “Write,” he said.

And Lear’s secret for living healthily and happily beyond eighty?

“Every day’s a production,” he said. “You produce.”

Fear, Dread, and Anxiety

First things first, I hereby swear not to do any more YouTube-related posts for at least thirty days. I’ve whiled away much too much time over at that copyright-infringing, time-sucking, Stuckey’s-on-the-Web (though, I must admit, I did enjoy seeing again, for the first time in years, “The Contest Nobody Could Win” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati).

Second things second, this clip from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s often brilliant thirtysomething epitomizes what it’s like not only to be self-employed, where you’re dancing as fast as you can to pay next month’s rent, but also what it’s like to work in a creative field (in this instance, an ad agency), where you’re only as good as your next idea.

In this scene, Ken Olin’s Michael and Timothy Busfield’s Elliot perfectly portray the battle constantly waging within the creative psyche: each of them anxious to welcome, then almost automatically dismiss, whatever idea, no matter how good, they come up with.

As Elliot concludes: “Mike, you gotta relax. It’s just fear, dread, and anxiety. I mean, we’re gonna deal with this on every job.”

“Radio Nowhere”

When I interviewed Bruce Springsteen a few weeks back for my book, among the many fond memories he shared of his friendship with Paul Nelson was how, in Paul’s review of The River, he had correctly identified the influence that London Calling had had on that album. Springsteen told me about the great affinity he’d always had for not just the Clash but punk rock as a whole. “I felt a deep connection to those things,” he said, “and it kinda runs right through [The River].”

It’s a connection that continues, as demonstrated by the recent release of the first single from Springsteen’s upcoming album, Magic. Following in the tradition of great radio songs like the Clash’s “Capitol Radio” and “Radio Clash,” Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” and Van Morrison’s “Wavelength,” “Radio Nowhere” is an all-out rock & roller that best describes itself:

I just wanna hear some rhythm
I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices
Speaking in tongues

Flat out, “Radio Nowhere” is the best thing to hit the airwaves in years.

DiCillo’s Dilemma

I don’t think it’s funny no more.

—NICK LOWE,
“Crackin’ Up”

In his latest blog post, director Tom DiCillo reports this disheartening news about his new film, which opened last week: “Delirious has just been pulled from its two original screens in NY and and moved to a different single theater. The same thing has happened in LA.”

Using his shoestring advertising budget as a theme and a launching pad, DiCillo produced a series of amusing YouTube videos that, in retrospect, are probably more sadly prophetic than they are funny. Delirious is a gem of a movie that deserves to be seen.

DiCillo’s dilemma, as is every artist’s, remains just that: finding a way to get his work in front of his intended audience.

Delirious Marketing Meeting


Buscemi DiCillo Fight


Gina Gershon Sex Tape

Casting Michael Pitt

Seek out Delirious. You won’t be sorry.

Hot Diggity!

Yesterday, Tom DiCillo kindly reviewed my review of his terrific new film Delirious. Check out “gracias” in the Comments section.

In doing so, he inadvertently addressed a question I raise again and again in my book: beyond providing a guide for the consumer, does criticism in any way serve the artist?

DiCillo’s response echoes what Jackson Browne told me about Paul Nelson’s writing: “it made me feel that I was being received, that I was being heard, by people who really got it.”

Delirious

I’ve got this camera click, click, clickin’ in my head.

—ELVIS COSTELLO,
“I’m Not Angry”

Although it doesn’t appear until the end credits, Elvis Costello’s classic 1977 spitfire anthem serves as one of the best movie theme songs—theme in every sense of the word—of recent years. Jealousy, voyeurism, paranoia, acceptance, rejection, denial, the potential for violence, the recognition that it’s all so damn unfunny that it becomes funny—Costello’s song has it all, and so does the fine film to which it’s now been wed.

Director and writer Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, which had a special screening last night in Manhattan at the Angelika, works effectively on so many different levels that it gives new meaning to the term cross-genre. At once a comedic and dramatic Midnight Cowboyish character study of downtrodden friendship, it’s also a love story, a meditation on fame (those who have it vs. those who want it), and a potential stalker flick. Despite its vastly disparate characters, shifts in tone, and wildly divergent plot lines, the movie hangs together remarkably well. Its debts to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver aside, Delirious is the best movie about wanting to be famous since that other great Scorsese paean to obsessive behavior, 1983’s The King of Comedy. (Both Scorsese films starred Robert De Niro, who receives mention several times in Delirious.)

“Sometimes I see too much,” says Steve Buscemi’s Les Gallantine (even his name is a worthy successor to Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle) to Michael Pitt’s Toby Grace. What he doesn’t see is how his chosen profession—that of paparazzi—with each click of his shutter takes something away from his subjects. He proudly displays on his apartment wall two long-range photos of Elvis Costello (who effectively appears as himself in the movie) as if they were big-game trophies.

Following last night’s screening, Tom DiCillo spoke about the making of Delirious, which he spent the last six years bringing to fruition. He couldn’t say enough good things about his star Steve Buscemi, who delivers what might well be the best performance of his career (right up there with his starring role in DiCillo’s 1995 indie classic, Living in Oblivion).

One thing DiCillo couldn’t stress enough about his new film and whether or not it succeeds: “Tell your friends about it.” Indeed, in a movie marketplace where big-name films boast advertising budgets larger than what it cost DiCillo to make his movie (he had to reduce his budget from five million dollars down to three million), word of mouth is more important than ever.

DiCillo told The New York Times last week: “‘Look at the movies people are watching…. They’re about nothing. You invest nothing.'”

Not so with Delirious.

Good Writing Writ Large

There is a problem with writers. If what a writer wrote was published and sold many, many copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold a medium number of copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold very few copies, the writer thought he was great. If what the writer wrote never was published and he didn’t have enough the money to publish it himself, then he thought he was truly great. The truth, however, was there was very little greatness. It was almost nonexistent, invisible. But you could be sure that the worst writers had the most confidence, the least self-doubt.

— CHARLES BUKOWSKI,
Women

François Camoin made a similar observation in a Writers at Work workshop in Park City back in 1988, noting that those fledgling writers who sweated and stuttered and apologized as they handed in their work were, as a rule, better writers than those who proudly and unflinchingly proclaimed their word-processed scribbles as masterpieces.

Over the years, I’ve discovered the same to be true. The best writers treat writing the way a truly devout person treats religion: something practiced, not boasted about; lived, not preached.

‘Round Manhattan

Wondering what to do in the city on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon? How about doing as we did yesterday and partaking in the Algonquin Round Table Walking Tour.

Presented by the Dorothy Parker Society of New York in the person of society president Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, the two-hour tour covers a 30-block vicious circle that includes visits to more than 40 Round Table-related locales: speakeasies, hotels, homes, offices, and theaters frequented by the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, and more.

Fitzpatrick, who wrote the book A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York and conducts the tour several times a year, makes the jaunt fun and informative — and, as a bonus along the way, recommends some of New York’s best bars. Beginning and ending at the Round Table’s headquarters, the Algonquin Hotel, he’ll let you in on the ins and outs of the New York literary scene gone by but, thanks to his efforts, not forgotten.

Fitzpatrick proves wrong Parker’s famous quip: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

Tom Snyder (1936-2007)



Anyway, my doctors assure me this is nothing to worry about, and I have to accept that, I guess. They say this kind of leukemia is not fatal, that people can live with it for thirty years…. I ain’t looking for thirty years, but fifteen more would be nice!

— Tom Snyder,
April, 2005

Alas, his doctors were wrong, as Tom Snyder passed away last night in San Francisco at the age of 71.

In 1973, I was bedridden for several weeks with a torn-up knee and, unable to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, plagued by insomnia. Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show became my late-night pal. His interview style was artful in its artlessness and, unlike other talking heads who pretended they knew everything, Tom was unafraid to let on when he just didn’t “get it.”

Just as David Letterman was Warren Zevon’s music’s best friend, Tom Snyder was Harlan Ellison’s writing’s best friend, inviting the writer on his show (and its various permutations) many, many times over the years. And while it’s these memories I’ll cherish most, I’ll never forget the good humor and class with which Snyder handled John Lydon and Keith Levine of Public Image Ltd. in 1980:

I loved the music of PiL, but Lydon and Levine came across as feckless dicks in the face of Snyder’s pure class.

I’ve missed Tom Snyder ever since he went off the air in 1999. Today, I miss him even more.