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.


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.

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.


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.


Unknown said...

so awesome! I watched the show, sitting close to my tv on my living room floor. I'm so proud of you guys. who woulda thunk it? a couple of my friends are in sleepercar, will be performing on leno on may 1. check it out if you think of it. much love.

Running Hard Out Of Muskrat Flats said...

Freddy What an amazing, amazing piece of literature. I was especially moved by your description "We were now strapped in to the most amazing amusement park ride ever created."

There is not a picture on this blog which can compare to the fantastic mental image this line conveys. I am so proud of you and your contemporaries both in the Chorus and the Band.

You said to me, the opening line from the Drunk Stuntmen song "Every Third Thing" kept going through your head ... "What did we do to deserve this? What do we do now that we're all here?"

I've got my own ideas which are personal and private and not appropriate for this forum. But I'm sure you have your own as well. When you figure out "what to do now that we're all here" - please, share! I can't wait to hear it.

Once Again ... I'm Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.

Anonymous said...

Awesome Freddy! I watched the shows from the Left Coast with pride.

I also read your column with pride. Keep it up. I think you figured out what to do now that you are there...

You write it down.


Katherine said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE the pic at The Desk ... and the suspense leading up to it! The whole blog is great, actually. Rock forth, FAJ