“Out! I want you out!” screamed Connie Manzo, teacher and head coach of St Rita’s Tigers, my grade-school baseball team.
“Why?” I demanded to know, as I approached the team bench all puckered and pouty.
“Be-cause-you-day-dream, out there. What is my outfielder doing lying on his back, sky gazing? That’s why you keep missing the base runs and pop flies! You are benched, mister!” she replied from the dugout, a bit too audible for my sensibilities.
I woke up feeling a little clammy, lying between the stiff, Borax-laundered sheets of the Orange Motel, with a vivid recollection of being torn between my grade school-sport obligations and my uncontainable bent for checking out and wandering into the blue yonder at the most pressing moments in life—such as: a tied, ninth inning game.
It was most always music that drove me out of the present and into some mysterious dimension of its own. I loved baseball, hockey, soccer, swimming, but I loved what those invisible waves that snaked their way to my ears did to me much, much more. I sat up in bed trying to decode one of my many reoccurring dreams, for a moment lost, and wondering where I was.
There we were, in the fall of 72, Joe and I, sharing a one, double-queen room at the Orange Motel on Sunset Blvd for five dollars a day. IHOP, just across Sunset, had a three-dollar breakfast; and a little farther down the road was an all-you-can-eat Sizzler.
I had already auditioned for a few major labels in the first few days of our stay in LA. It was always the same puzzled reaction. In a way, thinking back, I could hardly assign blame to most of those perplexed listeners. It might have been something about my Chia-pet do, open-flowered shirts, gold chains and painted-on jeans that just didn’t square with most West Coast folks in the early seventies.
Everyone in LA I had met thus far wasn’t quite sure what animal kingdom I belonged to. Even the brightest luminaries looked like scruffy sea dogs in flannel—many had a Messianic fashion sense, replete with long whiskers and flatiron oily hair—although denizens of West Hollywood didn’t mind me too much.
“I will introduce you to the Pope, declared, Pasquale,” a friend from Montreal, who came to visit with Joe and me. Pasquale had seen our band at Chez Dominique’s in Montreal and volunteered to offer some help with a few alliances he had forged during his California days as Jane Mansfield’s personal hairdresser.
“The Pope, what are you talking about, Pasquale?” I asked.
“Frank Sinatra, I mean See-na-tra,” he replied with a hint of exasperation, and an accent only found in the province of Quebec.
“He will to dig you, ba-lieve me,” he insisted with a glimmer in his eye.
Next thing I know, we are standing at the threshold of a doorway to a very chic apartment flat in Beverly Hills.
“Oy! He looks like a young David, lyre and all,” blurted Mary, with a heavy New York Yiddish accent, as I walked into her snow-white carpeted Wilshire digs with my guitar in hand.
“The easiest way to Frank is through Al Bonita, his friend and personal chef,” stated the sun-bronzed woman with platinum hair.
“He’s the Maître D’ at Jilly’s in Palm Springs. Just tell Al who sent you and he’ll get you to see Sinatra.”
It was about a three-hour ride, with stops, to Palm Springs from the Orange. Again I found myself completely enchanted by an alien landscape. I’d never seen the Low Desert but for some old western flicks. Seeing a cactus and a succulent pop out of sand for the first time looked surreal.
“Well then, Motel 6 it must be,” declared Joe, keeper of the stash. (In those days, true to its name, it ‘was’ six bucks a day.)
One room, three fellows—I preferred sharing an old mattress with my cousin’s collie in Queens. At least he didn’t snort, break wind or saw logs in his sleep.
“May I spoke wit’ ‘Hal Bonita,” inquired Pasquale, in his unique patois, a rich blend of English, Italian and Quebecois French.
“There, there he is. Al! Al! These out-o’-town gents wanna speak to you”, cried out one of the staff members at Jilly’s.
“What can I do fa’ you,” said Al Bonita, stone-faced and low keyed.
“I wan’ you to met this kid. . .he will be bigger to the Beatle’,” said Pasquale.
After Pasquale went on with his sales pitch, soon detecting skepticism and wariness on Al Bonita’s expression, he opted to drop a few wise guy names like, Skinny D’Amato, owner of the 500 Club in Atlantic City. That seemed to pique Al’s interest. He told us to wait a moment, as he walked to the nearest phone.
“Are you out of your mind,” I whispered to Pasquale.
“You can’t just drop names like that and not expect to be busted.”
“Dun’ worry,” smiled Pasquale.
“Okay, the boss is gonna meet you boys in the morning. Be at Radio Shack tomorrow morning at nine,” said Al, when he returned.
“Sharp!” he warned with a clip tone.
“Oh, n’ by the way,” Al added, “Jilly Rizzo, Frank’s right hand man will be there too. Whatever you do, don’t look at his bum eye. He’s still sore about losing it.”
“Frank Sinatra!” Joe cried, like a kid with passes to Disney World.
“Heh,” moaned Pasquale confidently, as we drove back to Motel 6 in our rented Volks’, “bigger to the Beatle’”.
Each time Pasquale would say things like that, it would conjure up images of a plate of fettuccini al pomodoro thrown up against a wall, leaving me no choice but to contemplate how many dangling noodles would stick.
I was indeed jubilant about the prospect of meeting Mr. Sinatra in less than twelve hours, but my inclination toward the dark side rendered me more concerned with two troubling questions: What was such a great singer and towering figure going to think about me and the music I had to offer. Even more daunting, I reflected, nibbling at my lower lip in bed, I hoped I wouldn’t look into Jilly’s wrong eye.
There was a bad sandstorm that morning in Palm Springs. I could feel the sting on my cheeks as we walked toward Radio Shack.
As we waited inside, looking through the storefront window, I soon saw a burly man approach the premises.
“Frank didn’t wanna deal with this shit and trash the Rolls, so he stayed home,” Jilly mumbled, dusting himself off, as he entered, moaning like a giant frog.
“Now what you got that made me get out o’ bed this morning,” he bellowed, down below middle C, much like a Buddhist monk’s throat chant, only with a New Jersey accent.
“Oh God,” I quietly panicked, “ I can’t tell which eye is good or bad. I’m screwed, maybe even dead!” I pondered.
“Sweet Jesus, give me the wisdom to address the right eye!” I breathed to myself.
Suddenly, my Eastern philosophical explorations became of practical use to me, viz., striving for the golden mean, the middle ground. And so I did, by conversing with Jilly while looking at him right between his eyes, fixing my gaze like an unwavering bird watcher, locked on to the topmost bridge of his flat, boxer’s nose.
“Ok, we’ll see what Mo thinks, said Jilly, after I played him a couple of tunes.
“Mo?” I questioned with courtesy.
“Mo Austin, at Warner Brothers. What’s the matter with you, don’t you know what’s going on,” reprimanded Jilly, as we were walking out of Radio Shack.
“ What the f…k you looking at!” he yelled out at a passerby, who happened to gaze for a Nano too long.
“I’ll meet you Monday afternoon at three, at Mo’s office in the Warner’s building. Be there,” Jilly added, as he turned to me, walking to his car, with an expression that implied more.
I wondered what mysterious power this man possessed in order to arbitrarily initiate a meeting with a top record executive without conferring with him first. What’s more, what was I doing running with someone who could casually threaten an everyday man in the street merely for looking his way. What was I ready to give up, in order to get what I wanted? At twenty-one I didn’t know. But I would, soon enough.
To be continued. . .