Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty-one ... Coming down.

Editor's note: I do not condone, nor recommend drug use. I am merely retelling an account which made a great impact on my life. Please take it for what it is: a cautionary tale. It is not meant to glorify or romanticize drugs (LSD in particular) in any way. If you take it as such, that is your choice. People will, and do, make their own decisions. I certainly have, and will continue to do so.

Thanks,

F.A.J.


Continued from 4.29.08:


I was hurt. Bad.

How hurt, I couldn't even begin to speculate. All I knew was that in addition to the meteor shower and the LSD visuals, I had my own stars I was seeing. Much like in the cartoons, when someone gets hit over the head with a frying pan; those kind of stars. And each pointy star seemed to be jamming its beveled edges into my back after a short lap around my head.

Julie had come running back from a her frenzied sprint down the wet beach.

"Oh my god! Alex? Are you okay?"

"I ... I don't know ... I ... I can't move. I can barely breathe ... holy shit!"

Barry and Jim weren't much help. They kind of wandered over and gave me some cursory sympathy.

"Man, you okay?" Barry said.

"Uhh ... no ... no, I'm not okay at all."

"I've got it ... I know how to heal you ... come here," said Julie, who was still frantic but had calmed down considerably.

"We'll let nature heal you," she said." ... I know just what to do. ... Follow me."

Oh great. Nature, huh? Well, I had already let chemicals make my last decision, why not try nature. I tried to stand again, but the pain was too much. I grabbed hold of part of the lifeguard stand and tried to hoist myself up, but I fell down immediately. Julie was halfway to the water. Like I said, she never could stay in one place for very long. I crawled along the sand on my hands and knees, feeling like I had a piece of lit coal lodged inside me. I could feel every joint working hard to stay in sync as they compensated for the injured area.

The visuals had returned and I noticed patterns in the sand that looked like lace, then spiderwebs, then spiders, millions of them. Then the ground beneath me started to open up like a volcano and I was suddenly riding on top as it as it emerged from the ground below. I dropped to the ground and started to grab clumps of wet sand and throw them to either side to keep me from falling off the top.

"Baby, what are you doing?" Julie said.

"Watch out! ... What the hell are you just standing there for? ... Do you want to die!?"

She put her hands on my back and whispered in my ear.

"I'm going to heal you."

I looked around and realized I was still on flat land--still at the beach. Safe.

"Okay. I'll give it a shot."

I got back on my hands and knees and crawled until she told me to stop. The waves were not far away, and the sound was so loud I thought I was in the midst of a massive coliseum cheering with a hundred thousand other people. We were cheering for the moon, which had gotten my attention again. I looked back and saw Barry and Jim running up and jumping off the lifeguard stand. Man, it looked so easy.

Julie laid me down on my back and told me to lie still. The sand I was on was wet and cool, but it was still rough. I tried to lift my head and the pain came again; this time, even worse.

As I looked to my right I saw Julie feverishly digging in the sand. She was digging a grave, I was sure. For me? Maybe. She dug fast and deep for a good ten minutes, then she looked at me.

"Get in."

"What?" I said.

"Get in and let nature heal you."

And so, still on my back I moved like an inverted crab, sideways, until I came to the edge of the shallow ocean grave that had been dug for me. I summoned all my power and rolled myself in to the hole.

I landed on my side.

"Aaahhhhgggg!"

"Shhhh ... it's okay ... shhhh ... you'll be alright ... shhhh ... ."

I lifted myself up and over until I was flat on my back. The pain was excruciating. I felt the first clump of sand on my belly, then a two handed parcel of it, then it came faster and faster. Before I knew it I was covered up to my neck with cool, wet, heavy sand.

Julie carefully stepped on the sand to firm up the area. My back cooled instantly.

It felt good.

Then I tried to lift my arms.

Oh boy.

I quickly realized that I was trapped in this god damned thing and couldn't move an inch. I was in a beach cast, practically paralyzed. What the hell? I tried to crane my neck to look around and the pain came again, so I just stared at the moon.

The moon became my mandala. And the stars became the lashes around my eyes. And the water, as it crept slowly towards me with the rising tide seemed to be calling my name.

The tape had flipped and I heard the Police again. "Walking in Your Footsteps" was playing and I let it calm me down.

Fifty million years ago
you walked upon the planet so
Lord of all that you could see
just a little bit like me

walking in your footsteps
walking in your footsteps
walking in your footsteps
walking in your footsteps


Andy Summers' primal screech of guitar, coupled with Stuart Copeland's mesmerising drumming, took the visuals to new levels. Vines seemed to come out of the sky. A panther suddenly appeared and licked my forehead, then scampered off with a friendly roar. I was completely out of my mind. The obligatory paranoid thoughts came. Were we safe? Was anyone safe? I decided these were questions best left unanswered.

The Police took me on a most magical journey. Still, to this day, Synchronicity holds a special place in my musical consciousness as a most comforting guide through one of the more trying times of my life (with the exception of Andy Summers' one vocal contribution,"Mother" which made me want to end it all).

The one tape we had brought ended again. No one flipped it over. Everyone was starting to come down, including me.

When my blood pressure returned to normal (as far as I could tell) and the immediate shock of the injury had subsided, I attempted to free myself from the confines of the sandy tomb that I had spent what seemed like a few hours in. It was more likely the better part of one.

I got to my knees, and Julie came running over.

"Alex ... how are you feeling?"

"Like I want to go home."

"Me too, let's get out of here. Can you walk?

"I can try."

And I tried. I walked, slowly. Very slowly. I found a piece of driftwood to use as a makeshift cane.

Barry and Jim were ahead of us and I think they were pretty bummed that they had to deal with an accident like this one on a massive trip. If they only knew how I felt.

I probably shouldn't have walked. I obviously hadn't broken my back, but I should have been brought to a hospital. In retrospect, it was most likely a good idea to keep me away from the doctors. They might have kept me there for a while, if you know what I mean.

It was light now, and we walked for what seemed like a mile. I did my best to hold up. Barry and Jim had been hitchhiking with not much luck at 5am. Finally, a pickup truck stopped, and we all climbed in. I was so happy to not have to walk that I threw myself on the back of the open flat bed, clenching my teeth from the pain. I straightened out and sat upright and looked back. My feet hung off the edge of the tailgate. The jolt from the acceleration almost tossed me to the pavement.

I looked around me and marveled at the landscape.

The flora and fauna of Martha's Vineyard is some of the most intricate and unique in the Northeast. Spindly ferns, puffy pinwheel shaped orbs perched atop long, tall, green stems. Better still, they were all sticky from the morning dew. Long rows of pampas grass that seemed to be bidding us a farewell as the truck bumped and chugged along. It was all so unbelievably gorgeous. It made the pain go away for a few precious minutes as I took it all in. I looked at Julie and she smiled and patted my leg.

We were on our way home.

The truck dropped us off in Vineyard Haven, one town away from our destination in Oak Bluffs. We both decided to wait for the bus. As I sat on the bus stop bench, I started to notice the summer sun gleaming off what appeared to be fishing lines stretching down from the trees. What the hell? I stood up and felt something drop on my head.

A caterpillar.

A tiny, brown and green caterpillar had been rappelling down from the oak tree it had been born in, and was making it's way to the ground to start the next chapter in its life. I wondered if it had any idea what it was to become just a little on down the road.

I looked up and then it all made sense. Hundreds, if not thousands of caterpillars were slowly, intently, spinning themselves down from the tree above. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. I looked for Julie who, by this time, was collecting the caterpillars in a her hand.

She came over and her palms were covered and eerily alive.

"Cool," she said.

"Yeah," I replied. "Cool."

I kissed her on her forehead and she smiled.

The big yellow bus pulled up and we got in. Barry and Jim had made their goodbyes earlier, and were on theie way off the island. I had thanked them for the doses, and they said, "No worries!" They both said they had a good time. Despite the disastrous lapse in judgement, I had too.



I'm not used to hearing music on public transportation. So, when I cautiously stepped up and sat down in my seat and Crowded House's "Never Be The Same" started playing, I was a bit shocked. Temple of Lo Men which the song comes from, is a fantastic pop album from 1988. Tiny percussion creeps around corners. Guitars chunk and scrape out hooks that stick with you long after listening. The record sounds great in any circumstances: straight, or high.

But on this summer morning, as the bus pulled away from the stop, leaving the thousands of caterpillars to chance everything and throw themselves into a world unknown, I felt much like them.

I knew I would never be the same.

I sat back, still very much in pain, and listened to the music. I looked at Julie whose head was on my shoulder. She was asleep.

It had been a very long day.




but we might still survive
and rise up through the maze
if you could change your life
and never be the same
and never be the same


Thanks for reading

F.A.J.





R.I.P. Albert Hoffmann
January 11, 1906-April 29, 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty ... "I ... I can't move ..."

Editor's note: I do not condone, nor reccomend drug use. I am merely retelling an account which made a great impact on my life. Please take it for what it is: a cautionary tale. It is not meant to glorify or romanticize drugs (LSD in particular) in any way. If you take it as such, that is your choice. People will, and do, make their own decisions. I certainly have, and will continue to do so.

Thanks, F.A.J.




Certain names in this post have been changed. The story, however, is unfortunately 100% accurate.

I probably could have gotten by with a half a hit, but I took the whole thing.

So did my girlfriend, Julie.

We were living on Martha's Vineyard. It was the summer of 1991. I had just turned twenty-one in May, but Julie would have to wait until that August. That certainly didn't stop her from getting in to, and drinking her ass off at, the many bars which peppered all but one town on the island: Vineyard Haven. Yuck! who would want to live in a "dry" town? That must be where all the loser, ex-alkies end up. Sounds pretty depressing if you ask me.

Live and learn-- if you're lucky, that is.

But we took a whole hit of "Red Robot" acid together, along with a couple of guys Julie had met at the beach-- a couple of miscreant college dropouts like us.

I can't remember their names so, for the sake of this story, I'll call them Barry and Jim.

Julie and I had been living in a rented room in a pink gingerbread style house in Oak Bluffs. It was more or less a boarding house. Two small bathrooms serviced about 15 tenants. Our room was the only one on the bottom floor. It was small, round, and dark. The couple of windows that we did have had been boarded up due to hurricane Bob.

It was owned by a woman named Breezy. Yes, Breezy.

Breezy was something else. A boisterous black woman in her 50's, she was about five foot two and 300 lbs of pure energy. Breezy would start her day, every day, at 6am by vacuuming the whole house. She, whether vacuuming or not, habitually wore a Walkman and would sing at the top of her lungs to no one in particular.

"When a man loves a wo-man ... yeah, yeah, yeah ... Oh baby ... pleeeze ... baby!"

The real words seemed entirely inconsequential. It was the feeling that mattered. Each song would start out correctly, and then morph into some interpretation that bordered on a exorcism.

I'd occasionally crack my door open and witness her in action in the living room across from our bedroom, waving her hands--complete with multi-colored nail extensions-- in the air, as if she were underwater and trying to save herself from drowning.

I'd close the door and, if I was lucky enough to have a day off, crawl back in bed with Julie who could, and would, sleep all day if she felt like it.

Love is blind and, apparently, quite lazy.

But, this particular day, I did, in fact, have to go to work at one of the three or so restaurants that I did time at. Pete's Seafood was the place, a little lunch joint on the Oak Bluffs pier.

The day ended, and I headed to my usual bar, The Rare Duck, on Circuit Ave. to wait for Julie who was at the beach. She finally made it in, buzzed from beers and burnt from the sun. She introduced me to her new friends.

"This is Barry and Jim and they just came here today and they say they have acid and they want to take it and they want to give some to us and they want to go to the beach. What do you think?"

"I think you should slow down, honey."

And Julie ordered a Sea Breeze and I paid as usual.

"Hi, Barry. Hi Jim ... I'm Alex"

And they sat down, and we had some drinks.

Barry and Jim were our age, early twenties, and seemed friendly enough. They were wearing the requisite Grateful Dead t-shirts (the hard to find ones, not the ones from the gift shop--always a good sign) and were on break from tour. Of course, as most men were, they were both taken by Julie.

She was young, beautiful, and trouble with a capital T. Long, golden-brown hair, a kind and optimistic smile, a petite yet curvy figure, and wide brown eyes like lighthouse lanterns, warning would be travelers of impending danger with every blink. She had, and still has, a magical spark about her. An energy field that seems to shatter any and all negative forces from entering her world. She is a bit manic, but that comes with the territory. Many a man has been dragged under the bridge by this unsuspecting, desirable, free spirited, ingenue. My scars have healed, and we are now good friends.

But back to the story at hand.

Afternoon turned into evening and we eventually made a plan: we would drop, and then hitchhike to the beach. We knew a great spot out in Menemsha where the moon rose over the water. There was to be a meteor shower that night. It was perfect.

As I said earlier, I probably could have gotten by with a half a hit, but I took the whole thing.

It's tough to tell from a half inch by half inch piece of paper, what the potency is. The best you can do is hear through the grapevine what "brand" is best, and which to stay away from.

The "Red Robot" acid came highly recommended.





We brought some supplies. Some weed, a bowl, a lighter, and a boom-box with one cassette.

One side of the cassette contained David Bowie's Diamond Dogs. The other side, The Police's Synchronicity.

It started to hit both of us in the giant Chevy Impala that we had been picked up in. That subtle kink in the neck, the dry metallic taste on the tongue, and the first trail you notice as you focus on an object in motion, like a sign post; that's when you know it's going to be a long night. But that's the last rational thought you can possibly have: that it's working. Everything else is controlled by your surroundings and your subconscious.

I looked at Barry and Jim and they were both smiling and staring out the rear window. I turned to look too, and watched the blinking red traffic light fade away.

I looked at Julie and said: "You ready?" And she nodded her head and smiled. She was on her way, no question about it.

We got dropped off close to the beach. I remember the look the driver gave us as we fell out of the roomy and ancient back seat in hysterical fits from nothing in particular. It was as if he were saying to himself, I remember this. And I wish I could do it again. Enjoy it while you're young, kids.

We set up our minimal camp at a lifeguard stand. It was about 15 feet high and immediately engulfed by four tripping maniacs.

I pressed play in the boom-box cassette deck and was practically shot in the chest by the opening, staccato, slightly atonal keyboards on track one. And then Sting sang:

with one breath
with one flow
you will know
synchronicity

a sleep trance
a dream dance
a shared romance
synchronicity

And I climbed down the lifeguard tower, peeled off my shirt, and ran into the salty sea ahead of me feeling every piece of my skin moving on my body.

The darkness had taken over, and the moon had risen. It was like a giant, brilliant, cotton-ball, precariously balanced as the stars around it banged and bounced on the blue-black trampoline that was the sky. Words meant nothing, and egos were out the window. It was discovery time. Time to learn who is inside our psyche as we forever alter the person who we will become.

I know it has changed me, most definitely for the better.

For the uninitiated, the psychedelic compound, LSD, is an extremely useful, and unbelievably powerful tool which Dr. Albert Hoffmann stumbled upon in 1943. It has potential for abuse, but due to the inherent emotional and physical toll it takes on a person, is not likely. It has been used to treat alcoholism, depression, and other psychological disorders, with--like many legal drugs--many positive results.

From Wikipedia: "LSD is generally considered nontoxic; it may temporarily impair the ability to make sensible judgments and understand common dangers, thus making the user more susceptible to accidents and personal injury."

And from Time Magazine: "To such recognized LSD experts as Los Angeles' Dr. Sidney Cohen, author of The Beyond Within (TIME, Dec. 18, 1964), the "acid head" who is "taking a trip" is more likely to become passively fascinated by the glories or horrors of contemplating his own navel than to react violently against others."

A person can read all they want about LSD, but, until one has taken it, their opinion is merely hearsay.


We sat on the sand and let the water engulf us slowly. The shine of the moon off the waves was brighter than a 100 watt bulb. The lighthouse's beam blinked and bobbed like a drunk firefly, slowly spinning around to match the swirl of the wind. Meanwhile, Barry and Jim were busy jumping off the lifeguard stand and onto the sand below. It looked like fun.

Julie disappeared, once again. She never stayed in one place long. There was always just too much going on everywhere to be somewhere in particular.

Now, she was jumping off the lifeguard stand too.

The title track from Bowie's Diamond Dogs was playing distortedly loud from the four inch, sand specked speakers in the stereo.

In the year of the scavenger
the season of the bitch
sashay on the boardwalk
scurry to the ditch

just another future song
lonely little kitsch
there's gonna be sorrow
try and wake up tomorrow ...


And I ran up to the lifeguard stand where the music was living. As I did, I felt every atom of air, every grain of sand, every droplet of wind-whipped water cascading over and past my body. I ran my fingers through my hair and patted both my cheeks with my hands. I grabbed hold of the white, wind-weathered ladder and climbed up.

One ... two ... three ... four ...

Each step brought the music closer to me. Each step brought me closer to the maniacs on the playground lookout tower. With each step I felt more and more insane.

... come out of the garden, baby
you'll catch your death in the fog
young girl, they call them the diamond dogs
young girl, they call them the diamond dogs ...


As I pulled myself up and over the last rung and onto the platform I watched both Barry, then Jim, then Julie, jump off the tower, and roll in the soft sand below. I peered out and tried in vain to judge the distance. I had climbed what, maybe six or seven stairs tops, right? How high could I be?

I had no idea.

I balanced, crouched, with both feet on the edge and my right hand holding on to the railing.

"Jump!" they yelled.

"Come on, Alex. Jump!"

I looked over the edge and the ground was waving back and forth and coming up and saying hello and goodbye at the same instance. My eyes were pulsing and my breath was quick. I must have been sweating, but the cool air was keeping it from collecting on my goose-bumped skin. I looked at the sky and couldn't tell if the trails of light were from the acid or the meteor shower. It all seemed so explosive.

I pushed off with both feet. I felt my body shifting into a horizontal position as I fell ...

... and I knew it was not going to end well.

I hit the deceptively unforgiving sand on my back with my legs and arms outstretched. My head met the ground a millisecond later. I felt a viciously sharp electrical vibration and then it all went black.

As I came to, I heard Bowie singing in the background, much quieter this time ...

beware of the diamond dogs
beware of the diamond dogs

Julie ran over to me and bent down as if to kiss me, but stopped short by about an inch.

"Alex ... are you okay?"

"I ... I can't move."

And I heard Julie's voice, softer on each word, as she ran down the beach screaming ...

"Oh my god ..."




To be continued ...

Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

Editor's note: I was made aware, several hours after this post was written, that Albert Hoffmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, passed away on this very day in Switzerland at the age of 102.

R.I.P.

January 11, 1906-April 29, 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day one hundred and eighteen ... Trading up.

I spent a lot of time in Newport, Rhode Island growing up.

My Uncle Alex spent most of his life in the Navy. He lived, for a few years, in a home on the Newport Naval base with my Aunt Norma and my two cousins, Dirk and Heather, both three and six years older than me, respectively.

In 1980, their house was where my mother picked me up in her green Volvo, and told me that my grandmother had died. I was 10.

I have only once cried more exhaustively than that day, and that was when I was told that my mother had passed. I was 37.



It was Newport where, as a teenager, I worked at Almacs Supermarket in the dairy department, stocking the shelves with milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, butter and other sundry dairy products. I remember the spoiled, fetid, stench that accompanied each walk back towards the dumpster. In the summer, the air around it was cloudy with flies and hummed with an almost ecstatic buzz. I remember the crusty, whitish, film which would coat my hands as I secured hundreds of color topped containers of milk in their proper position in the cooler, working from the inside out, like a bowling pin setter. It was bittersweet relief from the summer sun outside.
Dark, damp, cool and alive.

It wasn't a bad summer job, but it was still a job.

Occasionally, I'd get carry-out detail. This was an exciting opportunity to make some extra cash. The carry-out boy would bring the bags of groceries from the end of the register to the wheel- laced conveyor belt. The belt stretched along the inside front of the entrance and snaked its way out a small doorway and around to the outside of the building. The carry-out boy would have to make sure the bags made it down the line and outdoors, not far from the yellow painted curb. Then, as the tanned, trimmed, and tailored Newport clientele pulled up in their luxury cars, the carry-out boy would load up their purchases, carefully and quickly. The bags would go either in the trunk or the back seat or both. Then, one would smile and wait patiently in hopes of a gratuity.

Many tipped, just as many did not.

I find the inside of the trunk of a person's car to be very revealing. Some people keep them immaculate: possibly a sign of defiance from a life lived amidst mountains of indispensable memories. Others, couldn't fit a Frisbee on top from years of hording. It sometimes didn't stop the latter from opening their trunk, just in case there was room.

People are so strange.

So, a smile, some elbow grease, and some non-invasive small talk could earn a hardworking 16 year old carry-out boy an extra five bucks on occasion. Five bucks was a lot back in 1986. Now it won't even get you two gallons of gas.

A couple of years later, F. Alex Johnson would become the proud owner of a fake I.D. which he bought from a mail-order service that several of his classmates had discovered.

I remember going to the camera store to have the passport size photo taken. I wore a dark green, cashmere sweater with a white button-down shirt underneath. Gotta look the part, right?

Of course you do.

I sent that photo, $40, and a copy of my signature to a company in Bozeman, Montana. A few agonizing weeks later, my "Non-Government Issue Identification Card" arrived in the mail. The paperwork I had to fill out stated that the I.D. card would be stamped, "Non Government Issue" in "red, indelible ink."

When I received the card on an unforgettably glorious day in 1987, I immediately took a cotton swab, dipped it in alcohol, and gently wiped away the telltale "red, indelible ink" as I was instructed to do by the other nervous 17 year olds who were already in possession of the magical, laminated rectangle.

I was good to go, as it were.

Alex Johnson, from Milford, CT, D.O.B. 05/09/1966 was ready to enter the world of the legal adult.

This stuff writes itself. I mean, really. It all makes perfect sense when you think about it.


One day, after a particularly grueling shift hauling milk crates stacked on shaky dollies, I decided to try my new accessory.

I found the bar: a nice bar, an old bar, a bar with music blaring out of the doorway which I had passed on many a lunch break: a room which was very off limits to this 17 year old schoolteacher's son.

Until now.


"I.D. ?"

"Um ... (fumbling with my wallet) ... here you go ... "

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one ..."

And the doorman stared at it. And he stared at me. And then back to the card. And then he said ...

"... O.K. have a good one."


And so, another extremely important piece of this puzzle was placed along the edges. A corner piece that made me feel like a king: a very paranoid, very overwhelmed, very recently appointed king. A king who needed ... no ... who wanted a drink.

The need was far in the future. For now, it was merely a desire.

To that end, thank goodness for frozen mudslides. I can taste that Kahlua, vodka, Bailey's, and ice cream as sure as I can breathe. It is my turning point. It is my starting gun. It is my jump from the nest.

I, Alex Johnson, from Milford, CT, D.O.B. 05/09/1966, in the confines of a very exciting, very historic, Thames Avenue bar, was an adult.

I even wore that same dark green, cashmere sweater with a white button-down shirt underneath to the club that first time just so it would seem more authentic. Gotta look the part, right?

Of course you do.




Today, twenty years later, I returned to work in Newport, RI. My job today wasn't to stock a supermarket's shelves with dairy products, or carry bags of groceries to waiting Aston-Martins.

No, my job was to play guitar.

It's what I do.

So, at 9 this morning, I strapped my guitar gig-bag on my back, threw my travel bag over my shoulder, hopped on my bike and rode the half a mile to the Clarion Hotel in Northampton, where we traditionally meet before departing on a trip.

I was the last one there, rolling up on my 7 speed.

Needless to say, I got a grand ovation upon my entrance.

"All right, Freddy!"


9:00 - 11:30 am: The ride went by quickly, and two and a half hours later and we were in Newport pulling up to the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center.

We were greeted and given delightful tote bags filled with a box lunch and some other Newport specific goodies.

12:30-1:30 pm:

Time for a quick rehearsal on stage.


Ken Maiuri, Billy Arnold Jim Armenti, and I were placed in close quarters here up front. Dan Richardson and John Laprade worked from early in the morning to get both the sound, and the lighting just right.

The lovely, talented, and ever-so-patient Diane Porcella gave us the rundown of the rest of the day's events.

As it turned out, we were given some down time. I took a walk outside.

Once again, the line stretches down the block. It is quite entertaining for me to see the big ol' bus waiting. It's so rock and roll.

2:00 pm: The place filled up quick and many purchased the freshly popped popcorn that had perfumed the whole theater.

I mean, who doesn't love popcorn?

Meanwhile, the chorus was treated to a bus tour of Newport's many mansions. Steve, and myself had to stay and take care of the merchandise so we got to see the movie. I hadn't actually seen the final edit of the film. It was surreal to see such familiar people and places in such gigantic proportions. Much laughter, applause after certain songs (strange for any film), and tears wiped away conspicuously from many around us left me feeling confident that I was not alone in holding this documentary in high regard.

We set up and waited for the performers to get on stage. The director of the theater said a few words and then the chorus was introduced ...

... which prompted the first of several standing ovations we enjoyed that day.

4:30-5:30 The chorus put on a spectacular show. Brief, concise, powerful, and alive. The Young at Heart Chorus is getting better and better with each show.

Above-the view from where I sat.

And before we knew it, it was time to go to the reception.

5:45-7pm: We packed up and headed up the street to the Vanderbilt Hotel where there was a meet and greet in our honor. $100 got you a reserved seat, a few appetizers, and the chance to catch a little face time with a chorus member or two.

7:00-8:00: After that it was down a flight of stairs for dinner.

Chicken noodle soup, chop salad, beef tenderloin, mashed with gravy, gnocchi, wild rice pilaf, and sole stuffed with crab meat and lobster made for a relaxing, sleep inducing ride back on the bus.

The director of the theater had given Steve a case of Stella Artois, Belgian Ale. This was shared with whoever cared to have some. It did not bother me in the slightest.

At 10:15 we arrived back home, safe and sound.

This is my life now.

I've given up the days of pouring sour milk down the sewer and trying to stave off the inevitable swarm of flies, for pouring my heart and soul into my music. I've traded helping customers get their bags of groceries in their cars, for helping my extended family get their luggage where it needs to go at the airport. I've traded in feeling awkward in a cramped bar I shouldn't be in, for standing ovations in a theater that rolls out the red carpet for me and my group.

And I've traded my fake I.D. for a "Government Issue" passport. As for that "indelible ink," it now reminds me of the places I've been to, not the places I'm trying to get in.

These days, no longer am I the kid trying to prove he is old enough to hang out with the adults.

I am one.

Thanks for reading,

F.A.J.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day one hundred and sixteen ... Anything for Fred.


My mom wouldn't get it for me.

My aunt wouldn't get it for me.

Santa wouldn't even get it for me.

But my grandfather took the plunge. He bought me my first guitar.

I'm pretty sure that he did it for two reasons. First, because I had begged for it for years, claiming that the violin I had played since first grade wasn't very "cool."

Secondly, because he knew it would peeve the rest of my family.

Such an enabler.

But he bought the guitar for me, and gave it to me at my birthday party. Actually it was a combination birthday party which included my mom and I. Her birthday is coming up on May, 14. Mine is the 9th.

My grandfather heard my pleas for a guitar, and couldn't help himself. It's not that the rest of my family didn't want me to play guitar. They just wanted me to finish learning how to play violin. Needless to say, bringing projects to completion has never been my strong suit.

Regardless, I was given a learner guitar with six strings and six pegs and a sound hole and a pickguard and the inevitable inclination to become a rock and roll musician.

There goes the neighborhood.


I remember the first thing I played on it, too.

Taps.

Yes, Taps. It can be played almost exclusively on the middle open strings. One note must be fretted, but the rest is quite simple. Simple for me, at the time.

I called up my girlfriend, Lisa Seridonio.

"Lisa,"

"What, Fred?"

"I got a guitar!"

"Really?"

"I got a guitar! I got a guitar! I got a guitar! I got a guitar! I got a guitar! I got a guitar!"

"Awesome, Fred"

"And I can already play it."

"No, way."

"Yes, way! Listen!"

And I played it for her: Taps. The saddest song in the world, but it was all I knew.

She loved it. I had done it. I had impressed a girl with my music.

I'm sure millions have nearly the same story as I. Only the song is different.




My grandfather had a few words of warning when it came to keeping me on the straight and narrow. He knew from musician friends of his what lay ahead for this budding troubador.

"Stay away from booze and drugs, Fred. It'll get you in a lot of trouble."

Man, was he right.

But he wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to have it all. He used to say he'd buy the moon for me if I wanted it.

Anything for Fred.



Music is one of the most powerful forces in the known universe. It can induce joy, sadness, regret, longing, envy, and contentment. It can brag. It can beg. It can ask a question no one can answer. It can bore. It can confuse. It can incite violence or it can quell a riot. It is limitless. It is confined. It is exact. It is approximate. It is personal. It is formal. It is objective. It is subjective. It is complex. It is simple. And it is everywhere, all the time, and it will never, ever stop.

It is.


And that's all you have to know.


This one's for you, Gramps.


Thanks for everything.

Love, your pal, Fred









F.A.J.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Day one hundred and fourteen ... The soft shoe.

I couldn't have been any more than four years old.

I know I hadn't started elementary school yet, that part of my childhood I recall so vividly. Like making my first friend in first grade, Carlos Garcia. I remember how he approached me on day one at Ralph M. Small Elementary school, in September of 1975, and asked me my name.

"My name is Fred-er-ick," I replied. My mother had taught me to say it proudly like that, stressing each syllable like the precise and careful woman that she was.

"Mine is Carlos. Do you want to be my friend?"

"Uh-huh," I said.

"Here," Carlos said as he handed me a tiny paper American flag, small enough to take up half the length of the toothpick it was attached to.

"It's the flag," he said. And I remember exactly how his face looked: light brown complexion, bowl hair cut, a big smile verging on a grimace, and his eyes: watery and wide, staring at me with anxious expectation as if he was giving me something he knew I had been wanting for a long time.

"Yeah. It is," I said. "Thanks."

I took it and put it in the top pocket of my Wrangler, pearloid-buttoned, short-sleeved dress shirt: the shirt my mom approved of and had watched me wearing earlier in the day; my form growing smaller and smaller as I walked with the other kids the quarter-mile to school, clutching a pencil bag full of new pencils, crying quietly.

But what I'm alluding to had happened at least a year before. It was the first time I had experienced it, and I knew I wanted more.

Life for me was pretty much easy right from the very start. I was my mother's only child. My aunt did not want children, and my uncle was living the nomadic military lifestyle with his wife and son and daughter. I was the only game in town.

I, Fred-er-ick Alexander Johnson, was king. My kind and noble caretakers were more than willing to bring me anywhere and everywhere in order to both quell my nagging, and to provide me with the proper balance of entertainment and education in my formative years.

Quincy Marketplace, in downtown Boston, was where it happened.

I used to love to go to there. There was oh so much to stimulate the senses of a small child. Brigham's Ice Cream shop was great for a cake-cone of chocolate chip. Another perpetual favorite was the puppet store. I'd go there and stare longingly at the nylon stocking faced puppets attached to poly-fil stuffed bodies clad in tuxedos or dresses. I'd play with the Styrofoam, neon-boa bird marionettes that were all the rage in the mid seventies. I also loved to sit at the outdoor cafes and suck on fruit Popsicles and chase the pigeons away. I believed that they had as much fun as I did in this scenario. Who knows? Maybe they did.

A constant at the outdoor cafes was music: live music. Usually a piano player, a guitar player, or maybe a saxophonist or even a small band: from jazz, to rock, to dixieland.

It was here that it happened. It was the summertime. I was with my mom and my babush (which is what I called my grandmother). My mother and I were enjoying a couple of cold Pepsis with long plastic straws. There was a piano in the corner of the small outdoor cafe. A man was playing ragtime and I was eyeing a conspicuous gaggle of pigeons.

Then it hit me.

I saw, from the vantage point of three feet above ground, the tapping of the cafe customers' feet. I saw the bopping of their heads. I looked at my mother and she smiled at me and took a sip of her Pepsi. What a joy. A son. Her son.

I looked in the direction of the piano man who was about fifteen feet away and looked back at my mother.

"Go on," she said. "Go say hello."

I started to walk. I tripped on a cobblestone. I took three staggered steps. The fourth step was a hop. The fifth step was a slide. And then my feet came together and I jumped in the air.

"Ooohh ...!" My babush exclaimed, "Judy, look at your son."

And I looked at her and we exchanged a smile.

Unexpectedly, I was in the center of the public dining area, a ten by ten grid of cobblestones devoid of tables or chairs, and I was being watched.

And then, I started to dance.

As I let the ragtime piano music, replete with counterpoint and jumpy rhythms, absorb in my body and soul, I moved like I had never moved before. I had flash, I had sass, I had energy.

I had no idea what I was doing.

But I looked at my mother and babush as I shook my arms and pounded my feet on the cafe stones and they were beaming. And they weren't the only ones. Many of the other fifteen or so patrons were staring at me, some with a plastic spoon midway from the chowder bowl to their mouths. And the ones who hadn't yet been alerted to this impromptu spectacle were soon made aware with a tug on the arm from their companions.

I heard the tension build in the last section of the ragtime piece. I felt the end drawing near. I could tell it was almost over. I looked at the piano player and he winked at me. As I felt the last four bars hit, I hugged myself with both arms, threw them out to the sides, and spun around two or three times. As I saw the hands of the piano man reach for the last chord, with a head still fuzzy from the spin, I took off my corduroy hat, threw it to the ground, dropped to one knee, and bowed my head.


And the place went berserk.

I slowly looked up at my mother and babush and they were clapping and smiling. I saw a tear stream down my mother's cheek.

They had no idea what had just begun.

"What's your name?" the piano man asked me as my mom approached.

"Fred-er-ick Johnson," I told him. "You play really great."

"Thanks, Frederick. You're a pretty good dancer yourself."

"Thanks," I said. "I like music."

"Good for you," he said with a smile.

And I felt the warm, protective palm of my mother on my head. I looked up and put both my hands on hers.

"I think they liked me, Mom."

"Yes, sweetheart ... I think you're right ... I think we all did."





Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Day one hundred and twelve ... and the crowd went wild.

When I arrived at room #1222 on the first day of this journey, I encountered a new amenity I hadn't expected: an ipod dock on my alarm clock.

I am new to the world of ipods, but in a short period of time I have fallen deeply in love with the little black and chrome gizmo. In fact, I have all 300 or so CD's in my collection on it. This includes my band, Drunk Stuntmen's newest album, State Fair.

It took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to get the little music box to make sounds. I had been listening to our new record on the plane, so it was already cued up.

I jogged it back to track one and pressed play.

As I opened the shade that was covering the window of my balcony, the first line of the first song came from the tiny speaker. It is sung by Steve.


"What did we do to deserve this? What do we do now that we're all here?"


Sometimes things happen, and you don't know why, but it makes you wonder if someone is watching the proceedings from afar and thinking: that was perfect.

Well, that was perfect.

And up until that moment, in my head, I have always heard that line as being said in a negative sense.

As in: Aw, man ... what did we do to deserve this?

I have since changed my perspective on said line.



So, three days later and we've successfully done both TV shows.


And now, it's dinnertime.





And once again the line pops into my head: What did we do to deserve this?


What do we do now that we're all here?


Maggiano's was the place. Italian, as you could probably guess. As we entered, it was as if we stepped into 1940's Hollywood. Big, dark, mahogany China cabinets filled with movie trinkets lined the faded, plain, paper-covered walls. Imposing fans hung from the weathered tin paneled ceiling. Big, tan, expensive leather couches that could comfortably fit five, awaited customers who might either be faint from hunger, or bloated from gorging.
It was the kind of place you see in the movies, as it were.

A burly man in a brown suit played at a baby grand piano, while waiters with white towels on their arms flitted about seeminlgly fighting over who got to show us to the handsomely appointed banquet tables.

One sign of a good restaurant can be found in the first matter of business: the napkin. If a napkin's weight can be felt on one's lap where it is properly placed, one may assume that the food to follow will be of a caliber made to suit the most discerning of palates. The napkins at Maggiano's were made of fine, heavy, white linen. I knew I was in for a treat.

A team of tidy service professionals appeared with small plates which were immediately filled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the fresh, hot, hearth-made bread, brought to quell the appetites of a small army.

Much more food followed: too much in fact.

Caesar salad, chop salad, stuffed mushroom caps and bruschetta for starters. Broiled salmon, chicken cacciatore, linguine with pesto, penne with chicken and mushrooms in wine sauce with sun dried tomatoes were offered for our rabid devouring.

And then, natrually, dessert; a course I half-heartedly joked I wasn't ready for.

Now, I'm getting to be a pretty experienced food lover. I'm no foodie. Not yet. But I fear that I'm starting to get a bit jaded. Nevertheless, I have to say that Maggiano's served a creme brulee that was possibly the most exciting confection that I have ever dug a dessert spoon into. Creamy, sweet, a bit tart, and a bit crunchy. Perfectly flame-toasted on top and served a little cooler than room temperature. It made my already intoxicated taste buds sober up and report to duty. Simply exquisite. I may be changed for life.

Yes, it was that good.

At this time I should mention that Steve Sanderson and John Laprade had missed a good portion of the post appetizer festivities. They, most honorably, were en route to fetch a rental car which we planned on using for the night time gig planned for later. As broiled salmon and creme brulee don't travel well, I saved the gloating until now. Thank you John and Steve. You rock.

We left Maggiano's and headed back to the hotel.

An hour later and Steve, Ken, Billy, Dan, and Jeff and I were at Taix lounge in Echo Park. We had recruited Billy to play drums, and Ken to play bass a couple of weeks prior to our departure, and had only gotten to rehearse a couple of times. Regardless, it was a fun show and we made some new friends. We did most of the songs on State Fair and "Downtown" off of Iron Hip. Our very wonderful pal, Liza, was there with her boyfriend, Dan. They made the right side of the room come alive with applause to match the sounds coming from the middle. The left side of the room was a bit sluggish, not for lack of trying. Thanks to Greg for the loan of the amp and thanks to Dogweed (who made comfortable, lazy, country-blues sounds) for the rest of the gear.

I slept very well that night.

The next morning, I got lunch to go from the hotel. How does this this sound?

A duet of a 4oz Angus tenderloin with Hollandaise sauce and broiled organic white salmon with passion fruit beurre blanc served with house made mashed potatoes.

Yeah, it was good. Real good. But you've never had a lunch like that until you've eaten it with a plastic fork and knife set.

I had to get it to go because we had to get out to the Wilshire Theater by one, and I was still full from the pancakes and apple smoked bacon I had at 9.


The Wilshire theater is a grand palace indeed. Built in 1930, it has all the glamour of a golden age of Hollywood, set in a backdrop of pure Art Deco. Above: Steve Sanderson and John Laprade.


The Chorus arrived around 2:30 and took the stage for a run through of the show.

Ken, as usual, was in command of the band and ready for anything.

Fox had sent a crew of 3 cameramen to film the afternoon and evening's events. They kept pretty well out of our hair, and were professional and courteous.

We finished rehearsal, and broke for dinner. This was the first time on the whole trip when I felt a bit less than kingly. Supermarket platters of crudite, deli meats, and pedestrian cheeses sat under clear plastic domes. Neither the room temp fruit platter nor the cases of warm soda helped in this odd dinner detail. Someone dropped the ball on this one but it was okay. I was still full from my extravagant take-out plate.


Then, as is usually the case in my adventures, a few funny things happened.


First off, I don't have cable. I let my bill slide over the winter and they shut it off like they do when you don't pay. Therefore, I was not up on my American Idol as I have been over the previous 5 years. Therefore, I was not aware of the latest "shocker" of a cast-off from this season. His name is Michael Johns and he is an Aussie. We were told that he was going to be dropping by for a chat.

So, right as the whole chorus was enjoying room temperature potato salad in a cramped stairwell of a dining room, in waltzes Michael Johns with a three person crew from Access Hollywood.

Here is a very friendly Michael Johns with, from left to right, Grant Milner, Emmy Chang (Fox publicist) Joe Mitchell, a non-plussed Bob Cilman, Dora Morrow, and her son-in-law Billy (partially obscured). Partially in view on left is Louise Canady, Len Fontaine, and Stan Lynch.

As you can see, it's a bit tight. How about if we add the USC a capella group to the mix who all have to sneak by to the stairwell to get to their dressing rooms.



I decided to beat it, and head to the auditorium.





Guess who tagged along.

Above, we have, Eileen Litke, Norma Landry, John Larareo, Gloria Parker, and Michael Johns. When he was asked if he got his shirt at a Stones concert he stated: "No, unfortunately, I bought it at a store, and you don't want to know how ridiculously expensive it was." No, Michael, we don't brag about how much clothes cost where we come from. Food maybe, but not clothes. That's tacky. I must admit he was a nice guy and even remembered my name a few hours later. He must have a coach or something.


Well, how about if I head outside with Billy for a bit of air.












Not so fast.



This lovely woman is named Steph. She and her friends spied myself and our soft-spoken drummer and me and called us out by name. She said she loved us in the movie and asked for some autographs. Then she asked if it was ok if she had her picture taken with us ...










































... and of course, it was.





I gave Steph my card and she said she'd keep up with my exploits. So, Steph, if you're out there ...

... Hi.


Billy even got to see his nephew.
My motto stands alone: always bring your camera. Always. See, Billy knows.




Back inside for a bit more fun.


As I was walking around I came upon Patsy Linderme, Jean Florio, and Dora being interviewed by VH1. When the girls spotted me they pointed and said, "He's the one you should talk to. That's Freddy over there."


The interviewer turned quickly to her right and took a look at this guy in the seasonable mid-spring wool threads ...

... and quickly turned back to the chorus members and continued the interview.

I shrugged and smiled at the girls. They're awful sweet.

Twenty minutes later, I happened upon Bob Cilman being interviewed by the same woman. Bob, like the girls before him, said, "That's the guy you want to talk to. That's Freddy Freedom over there," putting the accent on Freedom, as if that might hold some water.

Once again, the host looked in Captain Apropos' direction and exclaimed loudly, "Oh ... yeah ... we already saw him."

Well ... she had.

Thanks for trying, Bobby. But they didn't come to see the guitar player.


By 5 o'clock a line had formed at the ticket window.




I watched and took some pics as it grew ...






... and grew ...





... and grew.

... and grew some more.






Kill the house music and cue the lights.


The show, ladies and gentlemen, is about to begin.


The evening's entertainment kicked off with the aforementioned USC a capella group. They were good, but a bit too slick. They kind of had that Up With People vibe, or as if it were a matinee performance at Disneyland.

I don't know why, but each of the 3 or more a capella groups I have seen opening for the Chorus always seem to include "Somebody to Love" by Queen. It's a pretty song, but, at this point, it's become de rigeur. A wedding band's "Chicken Dance" if you will.

The band and chorus were ushered on stage and the performance began as all the "concerts" start: with a short film of clips of the chorus from TV shows over the last ten or so years.

The screen was raised and the crowd went wild. Loud, boisterous, sincere screams of delight emanated from a good portion of the 1,900 people in attendance, screams and applause from people who knew they were in for something special, something that may not happen again for a long time. US appearances outside of the Pioneer Valley have been scarce, to say the least.

The first song was The Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" which had to be started 3 times as the applause just wouldn't let up. It has a quiet intro that kept getting lost in the pandemonium.

"Come As You Are," by Nirvana was next. It wasn't immediately recognizable until Pat Cady started singing. Then the screams came. It was soon clear that what had happened before the first song wasn't just a polite hello.

Sonic Youth's, "Schizophrenia," which has become a Youtube favorite, delighted the crowd next. I'm sure if Thurston and Kim (from Sonic Youth and incidentally, Valley residents) had been there, they would have been happy.

We played one of the best shows I can personally say I was a part of. The band was hot, the chorus was excited, and the energy in the room was almost intoxicating. Never have I experienced the madness that ensued after many of the songs began, as the crowd quickly realized which popular tune they were about to be turned on to. It was only when we threw a curve ball with The Flaming Lips "All We Have is Now" that the audience could collect themselves and regain their composure. A couple more tunes and it was time for intermission.

The second set was as rowdy and raw as the first. It included the big hit of James Brown's "I Feel Good" which we had just pushed on the NBC lot mere days prior.

It was amazing. It was thrilling to be a part of. And, for a change, it was nice to hear what cheers and whistling, and yelling sounds like away from home, yet still proudly atop American soil.

The Europeans have had it easy.

It was time to give it and get it-- to, and from our own.


There was a champagne reception (I had a Coke) and I met some nice girls. One of whom books contestants on Survivor.


I gave her my card.



I'll let you know if she calls.



In the meantime, here's some audience footage of "Purple Haze" sung by Lenny and Gloria, with some guitar that I think sounds nice.








And here's some footage that the fine folks at Fox put together from the same night.




There's still one more day.



Come on back and I'll tell you more.



Thanks for reading.



F.A.J.



Here's the complete setlist:


Young at Heart Chorus
Wilshire Theater Beverly Hills, CA 1.17.08


(Opening film)


You Can't Always Get What You Want
Come As You Are
Schizophrenia
Fake Plastic Trees
Dancin' in the Dark
Somebody to Love/Purple Haze
All We Have is Now
Heaven

Intermission

Film: "Stayin' Alive (from Young at Heart)

She's Not There
Please Send Me Someone to Love/Please, Please, Please/Shotgun
Disappear/I Want to be Sedated
Bicycle Race
Walk on the Wild Side


Encore:

I Feel Good
Yes We Can
Forever Young

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Day one hundred and ten ... The big cheese.

Hi there.

This is my new buddy, Jay Leno.

He calls me "guys." Why, I don't know. As far as I know, I'm just me, one guy. But when I approached him to get this picture, he said, in a very friendly and extremely recognizable voice, "Hey guys."

He has one of those looks that can be deceiving. It appears that he is looking at you, but he really is not. He's far away. He's so far away in his own world that all of his actions seem as if they're being done in a blackout. Like he can't see beyond about a foot in front of him.

As I was saying ... "Hey, guys."

"Hi, Jay," I said. "Could I get a picture of you and me?" (as I quickly hand the camera to Steve Martin, age 80, one of our lead singers).

"Sure, why not?" Jay says.

"Thanks Jay, it's great to be here. Thanks for having us."

"No, problem. See you later."

Yep, it was pretty intense meeting an American legend. Now, I must admit I'm not the biggest Leno fan. I like Letterman, and even then, I can take him or leave him. Late night ain't what it used to be when Johnny ruled the midnight hour and a half.

But Jay Leno is one of the most recognizable people in the world. I mean, if you didn't know that other guy in the picture above was me, you would definitely recognize the prince of denim. Hell, I've even watched him in Europe on many a late night re-broadcast.

But, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Wednesday began like any other day: with a forty dollar breakfast.

Steve and I both had omelets. Mine was made with goat cheese, black forest ham, mushrooms and onions. It came with hash browns and I complemented it with a side of hash, carrot juice, and a pot of Earl Grey. Oh, and the requisite seasonal fruit plate.

Yes, it was good. No, I decided to not take a photo. Sometimes it just doesn't feel right.

We left for the studio at about 9:00 am. Myself, Steve, Jim, Billy, and Ken all piled into a roomy black van and headed out for the West Alameda Ave. studios in Burbank that we were in the day before.


Wow. As an aside, I must share this sudden emotion. As I sit in my bedroom, after a 5 hour red-eye from LA, and type this information into my computer, it's all coming crashing down on me. How I was lucky enough to be a part of these proceedings over the last 5 days. How I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life, planned out and paid for. I'm getting chills sitting in my computer chair thinking about it. I'm realizing that I indeed went back to the same studios in Burbank where I had performed the day before. The studio where, as a child and young adult, I would sit and dream about attending a taping as an audience member. This was was my late grandfather's favorite show of all time. From the day I was old enough to sit and watch Johnny with my family on any given weeknight, I remember watching the credits. Because I loved to see the words: "To be a guest in our audience, send a self addressed stamped envelope to The Tonight Show. 3000 W. Alameda Ave. Burbank, CA 91523." Once in a while I'd actually write it down, wondering if I should send away for tickets, just to have them. To what end, I never knew.

Now, I have a backstage pass on my guitar case.

What the hell is going on? I mean, really. What the hell is happening?



OK. Whew! I'm back. I'm jet lagged and emotional but I must share this part of my week while it's fresh in my mind.

So, we arrived at the studio and pulled up next to Jay's car du jour.

It's nice, don'tcha think?

Funny, Ellen has a Porche Targa in an unmarked spot. I can't tell you how I know this, but it's true.

Weird.

Anyway, We were helped in with our gear and brought to the security desk where we were all given these:


This complements the neon green one I got at the Ellen show.








The building is massive, as you could expect. There are huge dollies lying all over the place with props like bedroom sets and phone booths. It kind of looks like a giant race track flea market. They film a lot of soap operas here as well as talk shows and sit-coms. It was all pretty interesting to see.

Here is a picture of an overstimulated man with a funny looking orange pass on his hat. The dressing rooms were understated and nice. Shortly after we arrived they were stocked with water and juices. A giant plate of bagels and pastries was a delightful sight as well.



I looked up at the flat screen in the corner of the ceiling and this was what I saw.
This is our leader, Bob Cilman, walking around a stage that I had not yet seen. It was as if I was watching a freaking moon landing. How did this happen? What crazy fates collided to bring me here, minutes away from walking out onto the stage I have stared at hundreds, if not thousands of times to watch A-list performers and comedians ply their craft. Legends. History makers. And I am soon to become part of it all.



This is, of course, the band stand where Kevin Eubanks and his boys pound away before, during, and after commercial breaks. Seeing it from my vantage point it is not much different than most club setups. The pedal boards and accessories seem a bit more firmly planted, and there are a few mementos around giving each performer's station a personalized feel. Otherwise it's kind of cramped. The way the cameras display the band makes it looks much more glossy and a lot more comfortable than it appears from eye level. Still, I could definitely get use to a gig like this.



The whole studio and set is much smaller than I ever would have imagined. It seats about 300. There's not a lot of room between the end of the stage above, and the first row of chairs. It's about as big as a medium sized college lecture hall. On TV, for me at least, it seems like it would be the size of a small ice rink. But no. It's very homey and intimate.

Here's a panoramic view shot by yours truly. The man at the end is a security guard who is taking pictures of an intern celebrating her last day. No one, I mean, no one, is allowed to sit on the couch or, god forbid, Jay's chair.

video



This is my area. We all got lovely little risers to sit on. The sitting part was nice because, unfortunately, the positive stress (there is such a thing, believe me) got the better of me the night before and my back pain returned, leaving me as stiff as a 10 % tip.

This isn't the best timed shot, but it does give you a nice glimpse of our hometown boys, Steve (percussion/vocals/mic-stand arranger), Dan (sound), Bob (director), Jim (bass) and John Laprade (lighting) in the midst of it all.


As I wandered around the set, feeling like a Chinese spy, I couldn't help but take some sneaky shots. The numbers next to the names indicate which dressing rooms contain which guests.


Below is a synopsis of Jay's monologue. Some were funny. Most of them, sadly, made me cringe.






This is the schedule of guests for the week of 4/14-4/18. It's pretty funny to see what I normally see on nightclub bathroom walls, earmarked with the band I'm playing with, amidst a sea of stars. Below it, out of camera range, slated for Friday 4/25 is a man named after my favorite spaghetti: Prince. Um, pretty cool, once again.


Back on stage for a quick sound check. And, below, the view from where I sat.

I got the funny feeling from the people staring at me with the headsets on that I wasn't supposed to be taking photos.

Perhaps the sign above should have tipped me off.


Then I got the not so funny feeling when the producer came up and told me straight out that I had to stop taking photos. Funny how you can just ignore stuff, sometimes.


Especially when you've got a bunch of people milling about in front of you.


This doozey of a shot was taken with the stage partition down, while waiting for a cue from above. Those are not sparks, the are graphics painted on a see-through canvas. It is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken.


During the rehearsal, the producers attempted to arrange this performance to their own liking. Now, I know that it's part of their job. Unfortunately, we ended up with the public interest producer from hell rather than the music producer. Said music producer went so far as to tell us she had angled for our segment, but was shot down. Our gal was hell to work with. At one point she asked the chorus to "dance around a bit more" "look happier" and then she said, "Can we get the old people in the front ... um ... well ... I mean ... you're all old people, but can we get the oldest ones up front?" She seemed frustrated and very unclear on the concept of the group. This was quite a contrast to Ellen's producers who had shuttled the whole studio audience to the movie theater to watch "Young at Heart" before the taping. Sadly, Leno's people did the least amount of prep possible.


I must, at this time mention that everyone else, including Jay, was super helpful, professional, courteous, accommodating, and excited as hell that we were there. The ones who caused the trouble were sequestered in a tiny enclosed box at the top of the studio and only came down when they couldn't physically change things with their voices.


We went through a bunch of songs including, "Purple Haze", "Heaven", "Yes We Can", and a couple others that I'm forgetting. Ultimately, they settled on "I Feel Good" segueing into "I Want to be Sedated." This, still, they were not happy with. I don't know what they expected. I don't think I really want to know. Maybe they'll let us do what we want to do the next time we're on.

After soundcheck, it was back to our dressing rooms for more tea, bagels, and pastries. I even took a shower in the bathroom. Life's tough on the road.

The band was given two dressing rooms. Each one had this placard on them. Some time between soundcheck and our return to the rooms, one of them vanished. "Tiny" Jim Armenti graciously gave me the one he had snagged at the end of the day. As for the placard that disappeared, one can only speculate. Things in this group have a tendency to just kind of walk away unnoticed. This goes for people, as well as things.




Time for a bit of makeup. In the picture above we have, from left, Dora Morrow, Jean Florio, and Steve Martin.


And Ken and Jim. Ohh ... that tickles.




And Billy "Mr. Clean" Arnold.




And, of course, yours truly, F.A.J.

I am in heaven.


Then we were off for a bit and did some shopping at the NBC store.

Upon our return things started to get a bit more exciting as showtime loomed. I was wandering around downstairs, as I am prone to do, and I happened upon Jay and the lucky three who were picked to sit on the couch and chat with Jay.


As I take this picture above, I am saying the words, "Do you mind if I get a picture or two?" to no one in particular.























And then I actually took one for real.





Remember these guys? This was all an amazing series of actions which happened in under a minute's time. It was as if in a dream where you don't know how long you were actually asleep. Could have been 5 minutes, could have been 5 hours.



Then it was time to wait. We were relegated to our dressing rooms until the stage manager came to fetch us. We watched the monologue which we had seen already in rehearsal. We saw Charles Barkley who had arrived minutes before and hadn't even gone into makeup. Then Dora, Steve, and Jean took the stage and we watched from the first floor where we had been brought to wait some more agonizing minutes. My muscles, sore from a recent workout, were tingling with energy, and the butterflies in my stomach were beating down the door for release. A few more minutes, and we were called to go. I was first in line. Walking around the back of the set with a full house, Jay, Barkley and the others already in place, and the house band playing is a 60 second piece of time I will never forget. I'm getting nervous just thinking about it. But we took our postitions. The chorus was aligned in front of us. And, one by one the stage crew quickly made last minute checks and left via stage right. I plugged my pedals in and carefully picked up my Les Paul. I put the strap over my hat and around my back and plucked a muted string to make sure I was plugged in properly.

The stage manager looked at the band and said, "Have a good time, guys. We'll see you later."


And then the last stage hand gave us the thumbs up and pulled the side of the right side wall closed. It was a heavy piece of the set, and it moved with sluggish reluctance. We were now strapped in to the most amazing amusement park ride ever created.



For real.



We played. My hands were initially tensed up but relaxed after a few seconds and I got into the funky James Brown groove. It was awesome, it was surreal, and it was quick. In a matter of three minutes and ten seconds it was over and the applause came. This cursory acknowledgement had been politely summoned from the crowd of vactationers who, I'm going to assume, had not seen the movie. At the time, it was only out in LA and New York. Most people on vacation in LA usually don't go to the movies. They go to where movies get made, and then they go home and watch them. But the crowd clapped nonetheless at a performance of a song from what, I predict, will soon become the hit of 2008.


Jay came over and shook a few hands as he said goodnight to the cameras and the closing theme song played. I felt as if I was swimming above water as I put my guitar down on its stand and stood up.


Back from commercial and I got to take this from stage left as Jay did a few promo shots.






Sir Charles let me get this great shot taken by chorus member, Joe Mitchell. Mr. Barkley shook my hand and said, "Peace, brother."



But there was still one shot to get. One shot that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble. But I hovered around the set as the techs cleaned up and wondered if it would happen. Dan Richardson was with me but soon started walking away. I asked the stage manager if what I wanted to do was OK. She paused ... and then she said ... "Go for it," and walked quickly away.



I yelled for Dan. He came back with a big smile on his face. He gladly took my camera and focused on the overstimulated man in the hat.












































And this all happened before dinner. My, oh my.


"Goodnight everybody!"


Thanks for reading.



F.A.J.



Coming soon: The post Leno gig, meeting an American Idol, the very interested record executive, and the gig that they'll be talking about for a long, long, time.