You Got the Gig, Kid…Dispatch from Nantucket Film Festival
For the past few years, I have had this website with the ironic title of Part Time Man of Rock. We all know there is not supposed not be any “part time” in “rock.” When my wife was a kid, she misheard the Kiss song “Rock & Roll All Night” lyric. It famously goes, “I wanna rock & roll all night and party every day.” She heard it as “I wanna rock & roll all night and part of every day.” I mean, in our minds, that’s still a pretty good level of commitment to The Life of Rock. Even just part of every day seems a worthy goal now that I am 45.
But I still find myself caught between the rock & roll and multiple other worlds on a regular basis. I sell real estate in Lexington, Lincoln, and other western suburbs. Sure, I get some maturing rockers buying modest homes, but I get many folks buying and selling swankier digs and they tend to be running in different circles than I do. And I did not exactly grow up poor. But nothing prepares me for the rarefied air of Nantucket.
Each time I go, I am astounded by the consistency of that life’s (truly, deeply, profoundly) rich pageant: men in “Nantucket red” pants from Murray’s, whale belts, and open collared Brooks Brothers, and skinny ladies with perfectly blonde tresses flowing down over their Lilly Pulitzer sundresses, gliding across finely manicured, croquet-court-quality lawns at evening garden cocktail parties. It is rare when you see someone in something as shabby as even Banana Republic chinos or (gulp) jeans. Listen, I can be as cranky as anyone about the slob-ization of Americans on holiday, but that’s a costume party down there for cryin’ out loud.
I was on the island this past weekend, invited to be a featured guest at the event’s Storytelling Night. Other participants included such up-and-comers as Brian Williams, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Tom Perrotta, and director, Dave McLaughlin. The packed house of 250 people included Chris Matthews, and a lot of people with extremely white teeth and the sort of healthy glow that yacht-loads of aged money brings. This is not my typical crowd. I sensed that I should be reconsidering my story about getting strip-searched for drugs at the French border and then spit in the face by a skinhead chick at a club in a squatted factory in Paris 20 years ago (story linked).
I was under no illusions of why I was there; I am a FOM, a close friend of the host, Mike O’Malley, who is riding the kind of hot streak that only someone with such a giant heart who has paid his dues for decades deserves. Mike has been going down there since he was in college, but he also hails from a different world than most regulars down there. Yet his success, his willingness to always help out worthy events, his extreme talent as an MC and host (never mind as a charity auctioneer) and his ties to the island make him a natural choice, even if he is a bit — let’s say earthy — for the finely bred folks there.
Years ago, I was pleased to be able to introduce Mike to Tom Perrotta, whom I had met at one of the legendary Earfull nights at the late and lamented Kendall Cafe, when authors would read and rockers would stomp. Tom, while able to hobnob with all strata of society, also seems far more at home at grittier events like those. And Tom’s success as a novelist and in Hollywood (Election and the Oscar nomination for his screenplay adaption of his own Little Children), also made him a natural choice as a storyteller.
Tom, his wife, and I shared a ride down with Dave McLaughlin, who directed the film On Broadway, for which I provided th musical score, and which starred Joey McIntyre, Eliza Dushku, Lance Green and (have you picked up the connections yet?) Mike O’Malley. Dave is the youngest of 11 kids in a West Roxbury Irish family, has written at least two screenplays, one of which played at an earlier Nantucket Film Festival, and worked for the Mayor for a while. You think he has some stories? Again, slam dunk as a choice.
Then there is me. A real estate agent who also played in a modestly successful post-punk rock & roll band called Buffalo Tom (polite applause from the man in the blue blazer and the perfect hair in row three, two seats over from BriWi, as Anchorman Williams is affectionately called by the locals). The organizers like to mix in some local, non-celebs to tell five-minute stories, like the Moth Radio Hour on NPR. So, it is not like I was the only person there of little renown — unlike the time Mike brought me to Nomar Garciaparra’s “Nomar Bowl” charity bowling event circa 1999. I thought I was going to that shindig to rub elbows with ballplayers. I did not expect to be enlisted onto a team as a “celebrity” when someone else did not show up. Neither, it seems, did the visibly and audibly disappointed hedge fund managers on my “team” who had paid good dough to be at that event.
Mike has such famous friends that anywhere he turns, he could get some big names. And Tom Perrotta is not exactly just low-hanging fruit. The fact that Mike invited me, even though we have been best buds for a dozen years, was still flattering, and I was glad to accept the challenge. Though I have performed in the course of 25 years on some huge stages (60,000 at the Reading Festival a couple of times, e.g.), I am not a good public speaker. I will not say that the only speech I gave as a best man at a wedding was the worst of all time; I will only point out that it was the only one I have ever given. I believe I have since been passed over for the role after word of my deficiency got out.
But I think I can write well enough and I have a couple of good stories from over the years in a rock band. But I felt the night, the theme of which was “off on the wrong foot,” was indeed off on the wrong foot for me. First, the extremely sweet and efficient organizers asked if I would also consider bringing my guitar to provide a little music and, mainly, to signal to the speakers that they were nearing their five-minute mark. But as the first speaker went closer toward the 15-minute mark, despite my polite gentle, harp-like arpeggios, I knew I was sunk. How could I possibly be the Bad Guy, up on stage, while this person is soaking in the laughs? Next up was my buddy, Tom, followed by Jerry Stiller. Who am I to play over the comedic genius who brought George Costanza’s father to life after decades as a headlining act my parents enjoyed? Never mind that I am simply not the “give ‘em the hook” type; I had to tell my own story later. But the hosts of the event became increasingly strident in their throat-slitting gestures from the side of the stage.
Mike had the crowd in the palm of his hand all night. Anne played off of him expertly. And when Jerry came on, I really enjoyed having the best seat in the house. I greatly relished watching this legendary husband-and-wife comedy at work. They may look their age, but their timing has never been better. I watched as Anne’s lips twitched, anticipating Jerry’s story, and jumping in at just the right time, only to have him comically swipe back, as if this was just muscle memory. It was as if you saw an elderly couple slowly shuffle up to a tennis court for a doubles match only to shed off their years and destroy all comers like they were Navratilova and Agassis in their prime. Tom told a story about a high school fight that conjured up the perfect mix of comedy and pathos that he mastered long ago. And Dave told a story about losing his virginity while wearing a brace bolted into his head after breaking vertebrae in his neck. BriWi slayed the audience with a series of one-liners about Nantucket — not exactly a story, but perfect laugh lines nonetheless. And talk about skinny — someone at the cocktail reception afterwards described him as “lady skinny.”
I managed not to collapse in a puddle of sweat, stammer, or otherwise embarrass anyone during my turn at the mic. I was just glad to be able to get a couple of laughs. But it was not my audience. This was not a “rock & roll all night,” or even “part of every day” crowd. But there were a few who knew the band and the story went fine.
As I packed up my guitar, I wondered why the hell I had lugged it into a minivan, a ferry, and a cab, only to pluck a few notes. I did no songs. The audio techs just faded up classic rock in between performers. But after the reception, it seemed there were enough people who wanted to keep the party flowing. Mention was made of heading “around the corner” to the Summer House Bar/Restaurant. Sounded good to us. Dave, Tom, Tom’s wife, Mary, and I literally felt our way in the foggy darkness down sleepy narrow lanes, and over a footbridge. A few wrong turns and a leap of faith later, and we had finally arrived, the warm yellow glow welcoming us as if we had traveled over the misty moors to a local pub in the English countryside. The place only had a handful of people there, but it was hopping and the martinis were flowing. I had not even sat down when a slightly older fella named Jamie saw my guitar case, opened up the piano, shouted to the bartender to shut off the music on the house stereo, and asked me what songs I knew. I sat on a couch and started “Tupelo Honey.’ I looked up to find another dozen or so folks had made there way over from the Story Night. It turned out that Jamie was an old pro. We all ended up harmonizing on about a dozen classic rock and country songs, Van, Neil Young, Petty, the Stones, Merle Haggard, etc. We had the whole place singing along until last call (hear a snippet here, captured on Dave’s iPhone). It was a perfect, spontaneous end to a fun night. The lubricated owner told me, “be here tomorrow night, kid. Dinner and drinks on me.”
Well, he probably did not say “kid,” but that was how I heard it. I had the Nantucket gig if I wanted it. I guess if I can’t join ’em, I can at least play some songs for ’em. Its good to have a contingency plan. Even as the Part Time Man of Rock.
Crossposted at bostonmagazine.com