Big Apple Dreamin’ (Parental Advisory)

An account in words and pictures of a young man’s trip to New York City in pursuit of the American musical dream – a record deal. The story takes place shortly after the collapse of the World Trade Center but not yet before the collapse of the music industries – which would include labels, production, marketing, retail and mail-order distribution.

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JANUARY 21, 2002. 6:30 A.M. – DAY ONE

Sitting in Tampa International Airport, I went over my checklist again: underwear, socks, toiletries, press kits, CDs, winter coat.

I was scheduled to touch down at JFK at 10:30 a.m. and would have 5-and-a-half hours to kill in downtown Manhattan before loading into the legendary CBGB for soundcheck. It was CBGB tonight, Mercury Lounge tomorrow.

The purpose of the weekend trip was to showcase the band, The Saturn 5, for some major label reps in hopes of scoring a record deal. They had just released their first CD, entitled Mission Control, a record that sounded something like Fishbone and Smashmouth trapped in an apartment on Clearwater Beach. The A&R guys from major record labels had already described it as “positive rock,” and “perfect for a post-9/11 world.”

I was not in the band, but my purpose for joining them on the trip was two-fold.

  1. They were my friends – I probably wouldn’t even be where or who I was if it weren’t for this group of guys. They were the ones that inspired me to put my first real band together. And friends in bands deserve your support. Sometimes this means showing up to the shows and buying a ticket. Sometimes it means standing in the front row so that they can see you sing along to every word, or telling all your friends about a “great band playing on Thursday night,” or offering to stand behind a table and sell their CDs.
  2. They were currently the only band on my tiny little Florida-based record label other than my own. And while I, of course, have my own CDs buried somewhere deep in the liner of my suitcase, the strategy was to get The Saturn 5 signed to a major label so that all of us could win. As my lovely girlfriend Jennifer reminded me at 4 a.m. on my way out the door, “This is not your shot. Your shot will come. Just have a good time.” I suppose I was going because I didn’t want to wake up in a cold sweat when I was 40 years old wondering, “What if I’d gone to New York City back in 2002 with The Saturn 5?”

I was a little biased, but The Saturn 5 was a great band. Probably one of the best. It featured a veteran lineup of musicians who had been in various projects with each other for years. And it felt like with this project, the planets had finally gotten in line. They had the right guys, the right songs, the right energy. The right stuff.

One of them was my mentor, Ronnie Dee. He was the son of Joey Dee (of Joey Dee and The Starlighters). In the 60s, Joey Dee had a weekly residency at the Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan, when their song (that eventually became a huge dance sensation) “Peppermint Twist” was climbing the charts. An early version of The Starlighters even featured a young man named James Hendrix on lead guitar. Joey Dee gave James Hendrix $200 so that he could fly to Paris and “find himself.” Eventually, James returned as a far more experienced player named Jimi and played the arena across the street from the Peppermint Lounge.The other guy I looked up to in the band was Greg Zink. He was the former lead guitarist of The Hazies. The Hazies were signed to EMI/Chrysalis in 1994, and the band recorded their major label debut, Vinnie Smokin’ in the Big Room, at NYC’s famed Power Station studio. The Hazies toured in support of bands like Tonic, Candlebox and Deftones. The band was on top of the world virtually overnight, with a successful single, “Skin and Bones,” that saw lots of play on MTV. They were set to release a follow-up single, “Spin” (including a new orchestral arrangement), when the Chrysalis label abruptly folded.

Dave Walker, the bass player for The Hazies, remembered the phone call from his friend inside the A&R department vividly.

“I’ve got your [master] tapes,” he said. “They’re in my desk drawer, but you’d better come get them. They’re going through and taking everything.”

The band was left with nothing. No new record, no money to tour, and no legal representation. After seeing national fame and exposure, they literally had to start from scratch.

In fact, the relationship between Ronnie, Greg and New York City went back to at least 1990, when The Hazies (called UROK at the time) were playing with Ronnie’s band, Deeforce, in the bars and clubs of Tampa Bay (ML Chasers, The Rockit Club) along with bands like Deloris Telescope, Men From Earth and Freaks Rule.

Ronnie’s mother, Lois Lee, had a management company and booked an East Coast showcase tour called “Oranges to Apples.” It was a wordplay on bands from the Sunshine State that were making the trek to the Big Apple. The bands, which included UROK and Deeforce, were to play at Mercury Lounge for some higher-ups at EMI Records. The strategy (just like it was on this trip) was to get Deeforce (Ronnie’s band) signed and the others would follow.

But after the 1990 show, it wasn’t Deeforce that got signed.

Davitt Sigerson (then-president of EMI Records) approached the guys from UROK in the parking lot of the Mercury Lounge and said, “Don’t leave town without making a record for us.”

And, so, UROK changed their name to The Hazies and Grammy-nominated producer Frank Aversa (Spin Doctors) took the band into the studio, spending $25,000 in two weeks, recording the band on 48 tracks to two-inch tape.

These guys were no strangers to New York. Ronnie lived there for years, and Andy Beer, the keyboard player of The Saturn 5, was born there.

The plane was about to board.

NYC

New York was just like you’d picture it from the movies, only better. It was hi-def, more colorful, taller and more intimidating. It was raining in Times Square and the gigantic billboards and television screens and molded marquees were spinning my head around. The scale and scope was dizzying and I hadn’t even gotten out of the cab yet. There was smoke billowing out of all the manhole covers. I was in New York City!

The cabbie asked where he could drop me off. I wanted to say, “Drop me in front of the Viacom building.”

I fantasized about walking through the front doors, up the stairs, into the elevator, out and into the first office door I saw – Promotions, A&R, Accounting, whatever – and dropping that CD onto somebody’s desk.

Boom.

“I just flew all the way from Florida to hand deliver this CD to you personally,” I’d say. “CBGB’s tonight. Don’t fucking miss it.”

Wouldn’t that be a great story?

“How did you get your record deal,” people would ask.

“Well, let me tell you about that …”

Instead, I asked the cabbie to drop me in front of the Virgin Mega record store. It was the first thing I could think of because, well, I loved records and it was the biggest record store in the city.

For someone who liked to systematically browse by category and alphabetically, shopping at Virgin was literally overwhelming. I was accustomed to Clearwater’s Vinyl Museum or the big Peaches store in Tampa. Here, the inventory was better, the lighting was better, the end cap displays were better, the employees were more attractive. I took the escalator (yes, the escalator) to the floor that housed the “folk” section. You can always judge a record store by whether or not they have a healthy selection of Buffy Sainte Marie in stock.

Not only did they have a great selection of Buffy, but standing next to me, flipping through the folk and world beat bin, was none other than actor Paul Giammatti. He was polite enough to wait while I awkwardly asked a stranger to snap a picture of the two of us with my digital camera. Paul had recently starred in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes and he told me to keep an eye out for him, that he was the only ape with blue eyes. I told him I was in town to showcase a band at CBGB around 7 p.m.

“I live right around the corner,” he said, “I’ll try to make it down.”

I met someone on the escalator wearing a Spiller t-shirt. Spiller was a band from back home in St. Petersburg. I complimented him on it and he turned out to be the former drummer for a Tampa-based band called Home. He’d been in New York for a few years now, he said.

A sound crew was setting up a PA in the corner of the main level for an in-store performance by Tenacious D, and just as Jack Black and Kyle Gass were escorted directly past me to the stage, I realized it was time to go.

It was still raining. I wa even dizzier now. I couldn’t stop looking up at the buildings and the lights. There wasn’t enough time to take in all the detail. I had a full backpack and a carry-on and I was bundled up in the best layers I could find. I probably looked homeless. I was already mentally and physically exhausted and I’d only been there for two hours. I grabbed a copy of the legendary alternative newsweekly, the Village Voice, and ducked into a Starbucks to regain some familiarity and watch the city from the safety of a heated storefront window.

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CBGB

I arrived at CBGB at 4 p.m. sharp. A woman at the door stopped me and asked where I was going. I tried to explain the situation without trying to sound too ridiculously excited. She told me the club wasn’t open yet and that I could wait next door at “the gallery.” So I sat and drank (more) coffee, stared at the paintings, bought  a CBGB t-shirt, took a picture of the inside of the place (which for some reason really pissed off the bartender) and waited for the band to show up.

There was a band loading their gear into what I can only call the “basement” of the gallery. They looked like a bunch of metal dudes who were just as excited to be there as I was. Even if you’re playing at the gallery (or in the gallery’s basement), it’s still CBGB. Even if it’s drizzling out, and your gear is soaked by the time you get to the door, you’re still in New York City.

I was starting to get really excited about tonight’s show. According to Ronnie, the guest list for tonight and tomorrow was solid. Four or five industry reps had all been contacted today and had confirmed that they would be there. We would quite possibly have a bidding war backstage if everything went as planned.

The reps included “Alessa” who worked for a “Peter M” (Peter managed somebody really big); “Sara” who used to work for Universal and now worked for AOL; Roseanne Gallo with McGaphy Promotions (McGaphy handled management for Three Doors Down) and “John” at Island/Def Jam. John had called around to the record stores in Clearwater, St. Pete, Tampa and Ft. Myers and asked, “Who’s hot right now? Who’s selling CDs?”

When all the clerks in those cities told him about The Saturn 5, he contacted the band through their website and requested a press kit. We sent him a CD, a glossy photo and a bio. He loved what he heard. We told him we were in town. He said he’d be there early. John was a sure thing.

Eventually, I heard car doors slamming and voices outside in the street. I grabbed my bags, and ran out to hug and greet the guys. They thanked me for making the trip, and I helped them quickly unload all the gear from the rented 15-passenger Dodge van and into the back of the club before everyone scattered and went their separate ways.

I ended up tagging along with Greg Zink and the bass player, Lemonjello, as they hoofed it to Two Boots Pizzeria to grab a slice. I asked them how they were feeling about tonight’s gig and if they thought that any of the people on the guest list would show.

“I’ll believe it when I’m signing on the dotted line,” Lemonjello said.

“All you can do,” said Zink, “is get up there and do what you do.”

SHOWTIME

The soundman at CBGB was a complete asshole.

I suppose if I had to soundcheck punk and metal bands every night of the week, I’d be a little cranky too. Ronnie had given him an input list and a stage plot when we arrived and he said, “What do I need that for?” Now the guitars were way too loud and the saxophone (their primary lead instrument) was totally buried. He was mixing them like an alternative rock band.

But the band was already on stage. The show had begun.

They made their entrance in their signature blue NASA jumpsuits, and they were now midway through a searing set that had the relatively small crowd on their feet and clapping. I could even see Ronnie’s dad — the one and only Joey Dee — sitting against the wall, smiling, looking proud.

I was alternately shooting video, standing behind (or next to) the merch table and checking on the DAT recorder at the soundboard to make sure the input levels weren’t creeping into the red. The set was going great. The drummer, Don Stahl, (one of the best drummers I’d ever seen) had a near-perfect night. The songs were being executed flawlessly in front of a crowd that was singing along to every word. It was as if it were their last show ever.

If I were a record guy, and I saw this band in a bar, I would have totally signed them.

Ronnie now had his jumpsuit half-off, tied down around his waist, sweat soaking through his white tank top, giving everything he had to the people in the front row.

The set came to an end, and I helped the guys hustle their gear off stage to make room for the next band.

I cornered Ronnie backstage, who still hadn’t caught his breath.

“Well?,” I asked, wondering if John from Def Jam (or anyone) had checked in.

He chuckled.

“Look around,” he said. “We’re backstage after the set. If anyone was here, they’d be hanging out with us, shaking everybody’s hand. No, if they were here, we’d know by now.”

I looked around. Sure enough. I was the only one backstage with the band.

Nobody on the list had come, not even Paul Giammatti, who damn near promised he would be there. Sara had texted “Good luck guys!” and that she wouldn’t be able to make it. Alessa, it turned out, actually was there, and e-mailed us the next day.

“You guys rock!,” she said. “I was standing next to a bunch of people who knew all the words to your songs and it was pretty amazing! Good luck to you!”

John from Island/Def Jam had gotten caught up in the studio. We received a voicemail that said he was working on a last minute, late-night session with a new artist he said we’d never heard of but was sure we’d be hearing about soon. Her name was Vanessa Carlton. And, yes, very soon, her single “A Thousand Miles” would be unavoidable.

It turned out the whole room had been full of Ronnie’s family and other people who had flown in from Florida that I hadn’t even recognized — hardcore fans of their bands and years of playing the covers circuit and the beaches.

Ronnie’s dad told him they “did good,” but was giving Ronnie hell for not hitting a couple of vocal notes just right. I guess when you’re Joey Dee you can do that.

AFTERMATH

The streets of Manhattan were still in shambles.

It had been four months since the September 11 attacks, but there was a kind of white fog visible under the streetlights and the smell of concrete dust hung in the air. Some of the streets were still closed off with orange and white sawhorses and yellow crime scene tape flapping in the cold wind that whipped between the buildings.

Flyers promoting local bars had been stapled to the barricades. Cheap, black and white sheets of paper with big, bold type that read, “Closest Beer to Ground Zero.”

After the show, we stopped off at a piano bar owned by Ronnie’s cousin. It was a stark contrast to CBGB — dueling pianos, classics from the American songbook, Gershwin and Broadway. I began to drink and the night became a blur of faces and footlights.

Despite the unspoken disappointment, we had a legitimate reason to celebrate. We had mounted this hill and given it our best. We had come to New York City and left everything on the stage. We would continue to toil away in the studio and in the clubs and save enough money to return again one day. And maybe, just maybe, that would be our time.

We would continue to entertain people and exchange our heart and soul for whatever people were willing to pay, because music was in our blood. We knew of no better job in the world.

We spent the remainder of the night drinking at the Shark Bar. When I arrived, Zink was holding court.

“The Deftones are great, man!” He was red-faced and all toothy smile.

“There could be a hurricane blowing through the place and the band would still be playing. That’s what it’s all about. The moments when nothing can take you off the stage! It’s a battle and you’re on the front lines and you just gotta dig in!”

The last thing I remember was someone shouting, “The next time we come to New York, we gotta get a hooker. No one has to fuck her, they’re just fun to have around.”

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“Big Apple Dreamin'” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wisdom Teeth: A Memoir by Joran Slane Oppelt, coming soon.

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