Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Californian Misadventures of Fran and Shaley

I met them many years ago and it’s been a very long time since I have seen them, so please accept my apologies in advance for my memories being somewhat splotchy. It was around 1999 when they moved into my apartment complex.  I saw a slender five-foot, one-inch, red haired woman carrying a box in, then a blonde girl of the same or slimmer proportions hauling some stuff past me.  They were both attractive with high cheekbones and a polite, folksy manner.  Fran, it would turn out, was a year older than me, and Shaley at this time was fifteen, just about to turn sixteen.

When the second one, the blonde one, passed by my door, I said hello.  I was always a bit hesitant with new people in the building, but they both appeared fun and energetic.  There were a couple of steps up from the pool and common walkway area to the hallway in front of my apartment, and their apartment, it would turn out, was inside the building from mine.  So it was impossible for us not to have crossed paths rather quickly after their arrival.  I thought to myself that I hoped they were moving into the vacant unit near me, and then, with their new door wide open I verified that they were indeed.  I wanted good folks on my end of the hallway. Their three-bedroom unit sat on the corner facing the park, while mine faced the pool on the inside of the complex.  I was paying nine-hundred fifty dollars per month at that time for my one-bedroom, and I knew that their unit went for one thousand seven hundred fifty dollars per month.  Did two women need all of that space?  Maybe they had a lot of clothes and shoes.  Maybe they liked to shop a lot and needed the extra storage.

The next time I saw them was when I was walking into the front gate from a jog I had done, and I noticed them with their small red SUV hatchback open and loading groceries into their apartment bucket-brigade style; Fran, pulling the bags from the vehicle, and Shaley, standing on the balcony, reaching down as far as she could to ground level with all of her might to carry the filled barrel sized paper bags up and into their apartment.  They both seemed to be at their extreme capacity in completing this task, rushing as if some timer would go off and their sliding glass doors would shut permanently.

Upon seeing them this second time, I had several thoughts.  They certainly appeared to work together to accomplish things.  They seemed to like to save time and energy with their grocery assembly line.  And they seemed in some way to be winging it in their lives.  I don’t know what exactly gave me this third impression, but I tend to make very quick assessments of people.  I consider it bad and good.  Bad because I often stick steadfastly to my first impressions, and good because, being that I had to be somewhat street smart as a small child, my first assessments are usually quite accurate. 
Maybe a week later, I was reclining in my apartment unit, enjoying a quiet evening of relaxation and contemplation after a hard week in production, when I began hearing a lot of noise in and around the hall outside of my door.  I peeked out to see many youngsters of sixteen and seventeen entering the unit two doors down; Fran and Shaley’s unit.  It seemed that they were having a party for high school aged kids.  I thought to myself that it must have been some of Shaley’s new friends from the local high school here in the east San Fernando Valley.  It was a wonder how quickly she had made all of these friends, like at least fifty of them, and she must have found a couple of days when her mother, Fran, was out of town in order to have this party.

I spent more time that evening in my unit, having made some delectable spaghetti and warmed sourdough bread while watching my pre-taped and weekly heavily anticipated show, “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser,” when suddenly, like the San Fransicquito Dam walls giving way to unforeseen pressure, I heard by then what had become about sixty kids pouring out of Fran and Shaley’s apartment and into the hallway.  I paused my VHS machine and then opened my door more than a crack out of curiosity.  Sure enough, the whole village of high-schoolers was departing, well actually, was being expelled out by none other than Fran.  She said such assertive things such as, “All right, the party’s over!  Everyone out! Out!” in her extremely thick Kentuckian accent; an accent which, by the way, she was very proud of, and she would later proclaim to me, “My accent stops traffic!.”

As the apartment emptied of it’s temporary teenaged citizens, I finally got a good look at Fran as she corralled the last of them down the hallway.  She glanced over to me with the weary look of someone who’s just lost control of all the horses in her barn, and said, “I’ve had it with this party for the night. They were smoking and drinking in there!”  I replied, ”Yeah, it’s probably a good idea to end it then,” as more of a response out of a bit of fear I now felt about her, rather than actual agreement.  I was slightly perplexed. Why had Shaley had a large party so quickly after moving in, and what was Fran doing exactly during that whole time.  Was she mingling with the teens, or was she just laying back in her bed in her own room watching television while all of the proceedings were occurring elsewhere.  Ahh, questions which couldn’t be answered that evening.  But, due to a serendipitous passing of Fran and I in the hall the next day, I did find out that she had allowed Shaley to have the party in an effort to get to know the other students better in her school since she had just joined the high school.  Fran said that it was originally supposed to be Shaley’s sweet sixteen party, but that it had quickly gotten out of hand as high school parties are wont to do.  She said that Shaley had gotten upset with her at the end of the evening because Fran had so quickly shut it down.  Shaley apparently didn’t speak to Fran for the rest of the evening.  

Because of their proximity to me in our complex, and because Fran had a big personality, which was always friendly, outgoing, and ready with a new story, I felt drawn to them and I got to know them better.  I love stories and I love people like that.  There was also neighbor of mine, a woman named Rita of about my age with two young children, who had lived right next to me for the past two years.  We were friendly and I would often bring her children plush toys from the Walt Disney Company store since I worked there, but Fran and Shaley quickly became my favorite neighbors.  I say this because it is rare in my experience that I take onto people that quickly.  I usually require a slower getting to know period.  But I just downright liked the two of them.  They were a sort of dynamic duo, and being that they lived on their own, I felt a bit, not only like a friend, but also like a protector of them.  I had relocated from the beach areas about two years prior to be closer to the studio, and now I felt like I had some friends I could count on seeing regularly; people I could take care of.  About a year prior to their moving in, I had gotten into country music.  As it turned out, Fran and Shaley were from a heavily countrified area when it came to music, so we had in common our love of country music stars and songs.

Fran told me that she worked for her sister’s contracting company.  This was not her full sister, but a half sister who was the product of an affair that their father had had at one time.  Fran didn’t enjoy working for the sister, but she made the best of it because the work was her way out here to California and could sustain her in their oversized apartment and L.A. lifestyle.  Her work here involved resurfacing flooring in industrial buildings and markets, often in the middle of the night when the businesses were closed.  I would often see Fran return from one of her work projects very late at night, or early in the morning, looking rough, frazzled and slightly unapproachable with dirty Levi’s and huge steel-toed work boots, shoes that were slightly out of proportion compared to her small stature. In all the time that I knew them, I never got the skinny on why they left Kentucky; I think it was just to have an adventure in California.  But Fran did tell me that Shaley’s father had not been in the picture since she was two years old, and had even gone to start another family, so they were definitely on their own.  I had to guess that their move out here was a way to start anew and have some different experiences, leaving all of the old behind.

When Shaley graduated high school, they asked me to attend the proceedings, which were on the football field.  Fran, her half sister, a few of her sister’s office workers, and a young man that Fran and Shaley knew from back home in Kentucky, named Paul, who had flown out here to watch her graduate.  Shaley was impressed that he had come all of that way to watch her graduate. Paul was sandy blonde, and in good physical shape.  He had just enlisted with the U.S. Military and was about to go to Iraq, and so this was one of his last outings as a civilian.

Fran had purchased two similar styled, yet different colored dresses for each of them to wear on the day of the graduation ceremonies.  They were made of thin, silky material with light flowery patterns; akin to half-length sundresses.  The lengths were midway between their knees and a short skirt line.  Fran said several times jokingly that she thought they both looked like two-dollar hookers.  I took this to mean that Fran felt she hadn’t been able to spend enough money for more elegant dresses.  I told her the truth, “I think your dresses are pretty. You two are gorgeous!”  I had compassion for how Fran must have felt inside to say something like that, and yet, I knew she was free to make jokes even at her own expense.  I liked that about her.  I would soon buy Shaley her prom dress in an effort for Fran not to have to feel that way again.

We all sat in the bleachers and watched under the warm June sunshine as Shaley walked through the graduation line to receive her diploma.  She wore a white tassel and white shoes to distinguish her from the rest of the graduates, where were dressed in the required darker colors.  Afterwards, we were all walking to our cars to then meet up the local El Torito Mexican Restaurant when a young, thin, curly brown-haired boy named Andrew, came up to Shaley to give her congratulations on her matriculation.  He handed her a greeting card, which Shaley tucked away in her tiny purse and gave him a hug.  It was a little awkward because I sensed right away that both Shaley and Fran knew that this boy had a crush on Shaley, and yet, there standing beside her was Paul as part of our party, who also seemed to have eyes for Shaley from back in their history together.  I quickly took a couple of photos of Fran and Shaley in their dresses standing together for posterity, and with that, we went off to get an early dinner.

While at the Mexican restaurant, which was busy with other graduates that evening, the four of us, Fran, Shaley, Paul, and I were huddled at a makeshift arrangement constituted of two small single dining type tables pushed together.  We were also seated smack in the middle of one of the server walkways.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of settings, and yet, we were all present in good cheer.  Paul quickly spilled a carafe of ice water, which mostly missed me, but directed itself immediately onto Shaley’s dress, with a bit of it getting onto Fran’s dress as wall.  Shaley was soaked, and Paul, embarrassed, played it off like it was all part of a good time.  Fran and Shaley took it in stride and just kept smiling and enjoying her evening.  I think that moment is what made me like them so very much.  Neither of them let little things throw them off.  It was probably the way they were both raised in Kentucky, the southern style of rolling with life.  I, on the other hand, am an anxious ball of frenetic neurons.  So I deeply appreciated her good humor in that moment of the dinner, and, as you can imagine, I even more deeply appreciated that it wasn’t me who spilled the water on Shaley and Fran.  During that dinner, Shaley’s cell phone rang.  It was Andrew.  “How did you like my card, Shaley?” he asked.  She said, “Oh, I liked it a lot.”  He probed further, “Did you like what I put inside it?”  At that moment, Shaley, who had been hurriedly digging in her little purse to find pull out the card that she had not actually read yet, discovered that it was not there, and that she had lost it, probably on the walk to the car.  She told him about this new development.  He reacted, “Oh my God, Shaley, I put a crisp new hundred dollar bill in there for you.”  When Shaley relayed this information to the rest of the table, we all thought that he and she were kidding.  But we realized that in his unending infatuation with Shaley, he in fact really had done so as a gift to her, and now, I was sure that there was some very happy graduate or family member who had left the high school ceremony earlier and found Benjamin Franklin’s crisp face staring up at them from a greeting card left on the sidewalk.

One time, in Fran’s understandable ignorance of the fact that even within moderately safe areas of Los Angeles, there are still pockets of dredge and unsafe zones, Fran made an almost fatal error.  After having received a frantic call from Fran’s half-sister at night that the family dog had gotten loose, she and Shaley drove to the southern most end of Glendale and began searching the residential streets of her sister’s home.  They crept along, combing the dark residential roadways in their SUV with windows open surveying left and right every dark corner and bush that they passed.  They came upon a dead end and Fran stopped the SUV to turn it around when three Hispanic gang members charged up to the car, two of them with handguns drawn, asking them who they were and what they were doing in the neighborhood.  Fran and Shaley shrieked with fear and started crying, which fortunately, was enough for the gangsters to know that they were harmless.  Fran never called the police on them.  When Fran told me the story the next day, I quickly taught her that one has to always know where one is in the Los Angeles area.  The change from good neighborhood to bad or violent neighborhood can occur within a block or two.  Her half-sister should have known that and not allowed them to go out searching like they did.  And apparently, the sister had stayed at home, “in case anyone called on the dog tag.”  Boy, thoughtful sister!

Sometime in about the year 2002, I had scheduled a two-week vacation during which I would visit several cities, beginning with Seattle, then Minneapolis, Chicago, Memphis, Nashville, St Louis, as well as a few others.  Just before the trip, I thought it would be fun to go see Fran and Shaley’s town of Shepardsville, Kentucky, and I grabbed a few photos of them in case I saw their relatives; I could prove that I actually knew them.  I knew that Fran had a brother and family in Shepardsville.  We had a common interest in things historical, and he managed some sort of historical society in the area. He and I had once spoken about the subject on the phone will I was at Fran’s apartment.  So, on my travels, I made a quick excursion into Kentucky and drove to Shepardsville, where I found via the local phone book her brother’s house.  I thought I would just ring the doorbell and say hi telling him who I was.  But amiably, he and his wife invited me in and we talked a while. I presented some photos I had of Fran and Shaley, two of which had been the graduation photos I had taken.  This family was very welcoming to me.

After leaving their home, which had been in the local suburbs, maybe ten minutes outside of downtown Shepardsville, I drove back into town and found an Applebee’s Restaurant.  I thought it would be funny to tell Fran where I was.  I found a payphone since my cell didn’t have service there, and Fran picked up.  “Hi Fran, it’s me, Fred.”  She was surprised. “How’s your trip going, Fred?” she asked.  I said, “It’s been great.  There’s so much to see out here.”  She replied, “Oh, wonderful, Fred.  Well, we miss you.”  That’s nice of her to day, I thought to myself.  “I miss you too!  It’s cold here,” I bated her.  She asked, “Where’s here?”  I said, “Shepardsville, Kentucky.”  Silence.  “You’re where??”  I repeated my location, “Shepardsville, Kentucky.”   “Well, what are you doing there?”  I said, “I just wanted to see your home town.”  She said something about how tiny and underdeveloped it probably looked to me. I said, “It looks like a nice town.  I just met Johnny and Kimberlina" (her brother and sister in law).  Again, “What??  Are you kidding me?” she still couldn’t believe it.  I said, “No, I just looked them up and went over.  They were really nice to me.  I showed them some photos I had of you.”  Silence again. “Which one’s?”  I said, “The one of us by the pool railing, and the two pics of you at the graduation.”  She exclaimed, “What???  The pictures of us in our two-dollar hooker dresses?”  “Fran,” I reminded her, “You two looked very pretty that afternoon in your dresses.”  I had also brought them because they were very recent photos of both of them.  She never forgave me for bringing those specific photos.  I’m sure it was a bit odd for them all, but I thought it would be a different way of bringing them to each other.  I had just been with Fran and Shaley two days before, and now I was with her brother and sister in law.  It was kind of a cool thing, for me at least.

Fran met my parents twice.  Once when they were dropping me off at my complex, and the other time, I invited Fran to a family dinner in Studio City at Teru Sushi Restaurant.  She and I first went to my parents’ house, and then we all regrouped at the restaurant.  Both of my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousin and his new girlfriend and his daughter were all there.  It was a fun evening helped along by the fact that Fran was her talkative self, and so was my family.  My parents loved her.  My parents loved people who were from smaller towns and were not a part of the city chaos.  They loved stories about families, people, and different ways of life.  We all had a nice time with this mixture of people from Studio City, Beverly Hills, Kentucky, Northern California and Denmark. 
Fran and I often had long conversations in the hallways and inside my unit.  One night, we were talking at my door when a blonde woman, Michelle, who lived in the apartment just around the corner and adjacent to Fran and Shaley, came around the corner with her dog, Mayer, a mixed little black thing that looked like it had at least some terrier in it.  Upon seeing Michelle, Fran hissed at her, putting her hands up like claws.  Michelle abruptly stopped, and without saying anything, turned around with her dog and went the other way.  I asked Fran, “What the hell was that?”  She said, “I hate that woman.  She always gives me dirty looks whenever I’m going through the hall.”  I thought to myself, I don’t know what that’s all about, but whatever. I won’t ask any more about it.  And then we continued talking about other things.  But it was one of the funnier things I ever witnessed in my life.

Another time, our complex had a fire alarm go off at about 3:30am.  The alarms in that building were both outside of the units as well as inside.  This meant that with their excruciating decibel levels, there was no way one could stay inside and endure it, always resulting in clusters of people congregated near the bottom of the stairs.  This occurrence was no exception.  And next to me happened to be Rita from next door with her two children, Fran and Shaley, and Michelle.  Michelle, knowing better of it, kept some distance between herself and Fran.  But in the early morning hours, as dulled as my perception would be at that time, I sensed that no one was talking to each other.  It was an inconvenience to be out there in pajamas and the woman having no make up at that hour, I get it.  But it seemed that a minimum of neighborly acknowledgement was appropriate, and yet, it was a cold feeling among us.  We were eventually cleared to go back into our homes by the fire department.

The next day, Fran happened to stop by my unit, and in catching up on the day’s events, she recalled the evening before, asking me if I had sensed some frigidity in the air.  I said, yes indeed that I had.  She said she could explain it.  Rita, who had known me before Fran moved in, really liked me a lot.  She had told Fran this upon first meeting her, before Rita knew that Fran would become good friends with me.  The passing of that information, apparently, had been Rita’s indirect attempt at letting Fran know, hands off me.  Fran also sensed that Michelle felt the same way about me as well.  Fran said that since she and I had hit it off so well, that she had gotten the cold shoulder from both of those neighbors, Rita and Michelle.  “Oh, so that explains it!”  I realized.  Strange, because Rita had never given me the direct feeling that she was interest in me, but that may have been the way of her personality.  She probably appreciated that I had always been nice to her kids, giving them plush toys during Christmases and on their birthdays.  Inversely, I did have the sense that Michelle had intermittent feelings for me.  We had hung out a lot before Fran and Shaley had moved into the complex.  Michelle and I used to sit in my apartment, drink beer and binge-watch episodes of, “Sex in the City” together from DVD boxes I had collected from the library.  When Fran moved in and we got to know each other, all of the other stuff stopped with Rita and Michelle, other than friendly hellos.  So I might have also been part of the tension as a result of my change of behavior.  But there was no comparison for me.  Fran was just so fun and full of life.  I wanted to spend time with her over any of my other neighbors and friends.  And as we got to know each other, Fran had gotten a bit territorial about me in all of this, but I honestly didn’t mind, because as I said, I enjoyed Fran’s company and felt closest to her.  I remember feeling the same way when I went to the laundry room one time to find a well built, athletic guy from one of the other apartment units flirting with my Fran.  It pissed me off.  “Stay the hell away from her,” I felt like saying.  So there was definitely a mutual feeling that had grown between us with some sort of belonging to one-another.

I deliberately made myself available for Fran and Shaley.  One evening I had just gotten off of work, and I had turned my cell phone off.  When I turned it back on, I discovered a recent a message left maybe forty-five minutes before from Fran who was sobbing.  She said that their little white Chihuahua, Widget, had gotten very ill and she needed to take him to the emergency hospital.  She had mentioned one in Glendale near Interstate 5, which I had never heard of and didn’t know of its location.  I felt that whatever was going on, the call was really about Fran not wanting to be alone and that she was scared to lose her dog.  I wouldn’t let her be alone.  After some quick searching the phone book, I located the animal hospital, and with Fran’s cell going directly to voice mail, I ripped my sapphire blue Mustang across the 134 freeway and down Interstate 5 directly to the clinic.  When I arrived, Nan was nowhere to be found.  Just as I was about to leave, my phone rang and it was Fran.  She said that she had made it there to the hospital about a half hour before and that Widget was now okay.  I was relieved for her, and in my heart, the real lesson from all of the rushing and speeding and wanting get to Fran, was that I loved both her and Shaley.  I cared for them like family.  I really would do anything for them.  Fran confided in me one time that she and Shaley had a joking rivalry about me.  When Shaley took note that Fran and I had become good friends, Shaley said to her pointedly, “I saw him first!”  She was just a girl then, but still, that was a sweet thing to say.
There was a time when Fran was over at my house and while we were talking, she started to feel very badly.  She made a run for my bathroom, where she threw up.  I held her hair and got water for her.  There was also a time when Shaley first found out that her boyfriend had started cheating on her.  She came to my apartment, sobbing inconsolably on my couch.  I had pulled the coffee table so that I could sit directly across from her and could be as present as I could for her.  Her eyes were red with tears and when I gave her a nose tissue, I saw that she had been crying and blowing so hard that her nose was bleeding a little.  I felt so badly for her, and I felt lucky to be the person to be sitting with her as she went through this.  She wasn’t alone.

I had the lapse of good sense once while they were living in my complex to consider moving somewhere in another part of our same city.  I looked at an apartment that was about two hundred dollars per month less and was considering taking it.  Then I thought to myself, is it worth two hundred dollars to be away from the two people I so much enjoy being around?  No.  I told the owner when he called me at Disney during lunch one day to collect his deposit and first month’s rent, “No, not interested anymore!”  It was a stupid thought to try to save money and give up neighbors who felt like family.  I’m glad to this day that I made that decision.  Because things don’t always last forever, and I wanted as much of them for as long as was possible.

As a sort of humorous and inexplicable example of how we were on the same wavelength, I was driving back from Disney one evening, and as a form of self-entertainment I suppose, I was saying the Sylvester the Cat dialogue out loud, “I taught I taw a puttie tat!  “I taught I taw a puttie tat!”  I must have said this five or six times while driving up a street towards my complex, trying to perfect my Mel Blanc impression.  I parked my car, walked up the stairs from the garage, and sitting against my door is a little gift bag from Shaley, who had gone to an amusement park that day.  I opened up the bag and there inside it was a plastic Tweedy Bird cup.  The hair stood up on my head.  How could that have happened?  It’s more than a coincidence!  I had somehow known with my spirit that something of Looney Tunes essence was in my immediate future.  And the three of us were somehow of the same mind.

Like Fran, Shaley could make me laugh with her basic instinct about things.  I had a friend at that time, a sort of scientist type, who though he was a genius, had a very flat affect in his speech.  He didn’t really have an exciting personality to girls at face value. I was talking to this friend in my apartment, when Shaley knocked on my door for something.  I let her in, and as a kind of prank, I just handed her the phone and said, “Say hi to my friend,” thinking to myself, this will be interesting because the friend on the phone is not the most improvising of souls.  Shaley got on and said, “Hi, this is Shaley.”  I was standing there, and there was absolute silence.  I assumed that he was saying something to her.  Just then, she handed me the phone and said, “Well, no conversation here!” and continued on into my living room to get whatever she had come for.  I took the phone back, trying to hold the laughter inside of how she has just assessed both my friend’s affect and success with girls with such preciseness. 

Sometime later, Shaley got a new boyfriend who I really didn’t like very much.  Was it the surrogate father in me? He lived in the area, and they had met by accident in our complex.  I sensed that he just wanted to use her, and also that his family was manipulative towards her.  The boyfriend wanted to see her when he wanted to see her, and then made her wait until he wanted to spend time with her again.  He also cheated on Shaley, which he admitted to her; I refer you to the sobbing episode on my couch noted earlier.  Sometime in there, Shaley, who had experienced no religious inclinations at all up to this point, decided to convert her religion from the Southern Christian faith of her family’s heritage, to Mormonism.  Now, I have nothing against Mormonism.  I was raised Jewish by my adoptive parents, and before my adoption I had been lightly brought up Roman Catholic, but was never baptized.  But in all of this, I was never raised with a lot of religion in my life and have never been die-hard about any one faith, other than that one should treat people well and equally.  I would have had the same concern if she had said that she was converting to Judaism or to Catholicism so seemingly quickly, and so I had no dogs in this fight.  But it felt like the boyfriend and his parents pressured her to change her religion, partly to be more similar to them, and partly on some idea that Shaley's mother, Fran, somehow hadn’t brought her up right or done a good enough job, which was not at all true.  To me, something about the decision to convert felt undermining.  And I also didn’t feel comfortable that Shaley was considering doing this with what seemed like nil forethought at age twenty.  When I asked her why she was considering it, she said that she liked the religion, but she didn’t give me any specifics as to why she was drawn to it.  For that reason, I felt that it was something rash and impulsive motivated by the appeasement of her boyfriend’s family.  The bottom line was that it didn’t sit well with me.  And yet, Fran didn't seem to have any problem with it Shaley's choice to do this.  This stumped me, and yet, looking back, I should have not given any of it another thought since, ultimately, it was none of my business.

But, in fact, this opened up a short-lived rift between Fran and I.  Fran called me one Wednesday evening and asked me if I would go to Shaley’s Mormon confirmation the coming Saturday.  I said, “This Saturday?”  She said yes.  The problem was that my girlfriend, who I was getting closer to as time had gone on, had her birthday the same Saturday.  I told her that it was not possible since I had made plans for my girlfriend’s birthday during the daytime followed by a dinner.  I told her that if I had known about it sooner, I am sure my girlfriend would have understood and we could have had her birthday another day, but that it was just too short notice now.  Fran seemed to understand.  But then two days later, I received a note on my door, just kind of taped together in a wad without an envelope.  The note was handwritten by Fran and said something on the order of how I had disappointed Shaley, that I was like a father figure to her, and that the lesson from my being unable to attend the confirmation, still a day away, was that Shaley couldn’t count on any man in her life.  It was really kind of a load of heavy emotional accusations, which I felt to be untrue.  Both Fran and Shaley could always count on me.

I called Shaley up and asked her if she was upset, and she said she wasn’t at all.  That her mom had decided to invite me.  I told Shaley that I was sure that if it had been really important for me be there, that I thought she would have invited me herself, and sooner, to make sure that there were no plans on that day for me. She said she totally understood and that it was my girlfriend’s birthday and that she didn’t feel hurt at all.  I then called Fran and asked her why she had written the note instead of talking to me about it all.  She said that she had done it impulsively.  I got angry with her and yelled at her on the phone, telling her that a friend shouldn’t put another friend in a corner like that.  And if they had wanted me to come, they should have invited me sooner.  Fran cried on the phone.  Afterwards and ever since, I have felt bad about that conversation because I feel that I shouldn’t have responded to her letter with anger, but rather, with understanding.  And I should have calmly explained to her why I didn’t think that the content was fitting to write to me in the way that she did.  But I felt hurt because I had indeed happily done so much for them and to read what she had written made me feel like I hadn’t been appreciated at all.  At the same time, another reason I wished that I hadn’t gotten angry is that, I believe that for Fran, the note was really about my choosing to spend time with my girlfriend over them, and that as my relationship with my girlfriend was strengthening, it meant to her that there would be less room for them in my life.  That perception and resulting disappointment must have been very painful for her, and I was insensitive in those moments.  The truth is, that would always be a place for Fran and Shaley in my life, no matter what, and my girlfriend has always known and been okay with this.

Though Fran and I had discussions about it later, and Fran passed off the whole argument that we had as being in the past and not of importance anymore, she became more distant and reclusive in her apartment.  She didn’t want to go out as much anymore.  Shaley and I continued to interact and I would help her when she needed something.  I once left the Disney Studios at lunch, drove Shaley, who didn’t have a car at that time, down to her boyfriend’s university in Orange County, and then made it back to Disney only a half hour late, which I had already arranged with my production manager, so there was no problem.  Another time, my girlfriend and I were just leaving Manhattan Beach on a late Saturday afternoon, when Shaley called me and said that she and her boyfriend had just had a terrible argument.  She was again way down at his university and asked if I could pick her up.  I checked with my girlfriend, and we agreed to go down and get her.  We arrived some forty minutes later and parked outside the student housing of her boyfriend.  I called Shaley’s cell phone.  She picked up and said that they were just finishing their discussion and that she would be out in just a minute.  Tens of minutes went by, and I called again. Same thing.  A third time. Same thing.  It was now an hour later, and my girlfriend was beginning to get upset for agreeing to come down to Irvine when Shaley didn’t seem serious about leaving.  I finally called one last time and told Shaley that my girlfriend and I needed to leave.  Shaley said she was really sorry, and to let my girlfriend know that she was sorry that she had wasted our time.  Shaley stayed there and we left, and that sort of changed things with Shaley and I.  She seemed a little irreverent and maybe confused at that point in her life. 
But as a little more time went on, a few more things happened.  Fran and Shaley stopped getting along with each other in their California adventure.  Fran didn’t like her half-sister, or the work that she was doing and just stayed at home.  I could sense that Fran really didn’t like being out here in her California anymore, and that staying in her apartment and watching television in her pajamas was more to her taste than going out into the city and getting together with people.  She missed her home and her family in Kentucky.  Shaley, after graduating, never got a job while with her mother, and instead, stayed at home all day, rarely doing chores either, waiting for the opportunities to see her boyfriend at his university an hour away.  This lasted for a good year.  Fran got fed up with everything.  And I also felt that she saw me as someone who had failed her in some way.  She wanted something more with me rather than being only friends, though we never went beyond the friends boundary other than friendly kisses goodbye.  During this time, I was driving out of the subterranean garage with my girlfriend, passing the elevator, and we saw Fran coming back from throwing her trash out.  She had pajamas on and a short t-shirt.  She looked defeated, tired, and ready to give up.  She was cordial to us, but I could tell that her California adventure looked about done.  Such a shame because this was a very special woman.

To my complete surprise, one day Shaley called me and said that her mother had left.  “What do you mean, she left, Shaley?”I asked in almost utter confusion.  She said, “I mean, she just left me. She’s gone back to Kentucky.”  I asked her, “So what does that mean for you? Did you guys pay like six months’ rent for you to stay here or something?”  She said, “I’ve got one month left here since this month is ending, because there’s the deposit.”  “Oh crap,” I said to myself, realizing that she was not understanding her situation. “No you don’t,” I told her,  “The deposit has nothing to do with rent.  It’s just held for damages.”   Fran, in being ready to leave her California adventure, had given Shaley the choice to either come home to Kentucky with her, or to stay and start her own life independently.  Shaley chose to stay…alone in their apartment with her mom gone, without really understanding how rent and lease terms work.  And sure enough, Shaley received on her door on the fifth day a pay or quit notice, then on the seventh day she received an unlawful detainer notice, followed by the Sheriff’s department asking her to leave on the fifteenth day.  They gave her four hours to get out. 
The complex manager agreed to hold a few things for her until she could get them out including a huge, wood framed mirror, I recall.  But there was no way, other than a bed and a few other things, that Shaley would be able to move all of the contents of the apartment.  My girlfriend and I went with Shaley and her boyfriend, caravanning in tow, and we drove around looking for storage facilities for her to put whatever furniture she could in from the apartment.  I co-signed for the storage facility, and Shaley was able to get someone to move a few of her things to the storage unit.  She then moved in with the boyfriend’s family for a few months, then in with a family from her church.  After that, we lost touch.

Relationships are an interesting creature.  They can fit two people’s lives well at one point, and then they can be outgrown later.  It just depends on the people and the circumstances.  I think Fran and Shaley worked well together when Shaley was younger and needed a parent close to her.  And Fran wanted to have a fun adventure with her out west.  But because Fran’s dreams of being in California, whatever they were, resulted in a lack of fulfillment for her, and also because Shaley grew up and I suppose wanted something different from her mother, they no longer needed the same things from each other or for their lives.  Fran wanted Kentucky again, and Shaley had become used to Southern California and wanted to stay. And for better or for worse, that’s just the way it happened.  Life is messy, isn't it.  But when I think of the times we had a close neighbors and friends, well, that was definitely a sweet spot, and I enjoyed it thoroughly!  Just as a sort of emotional tribute, I went back and walked by their old apartment just the other day while writing this piece to see how being near their door would make me feel.  It made me feel sad…happy…thankful.  Mostly happy and thankful for having known them. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Casey's Tavern

It’s been a long time since I came to see him play.  He gets together with a bunch of guys every Thursday evening at the same place, still, after all of these years.  The last time I saw him, he was playing piano at the Bel Air Hotel, where my parents, Brenda and I had a nice dinner and watched him run through all of the standards with his Louisiana style of playing.  Lloyd Hebert is from Baton Rouge, and he has a slightly hard-hitting, sometimes brash attack in the keys.  His voice is precisely the same; a hard Louisiana accent with a kind of aggressive cadence.  I am always expecting him to talk about catching shrimp or motoring through the bayou.  Yet, in his melodic piano playing, he has all color hues and subtlety of a watercolor painting.  He passes through and even makes an issue at times of major 7th notes in his playing, which gives his improvisations a layer of melancholy.  I’ve always loved that.  It speaks to me. 

I first met Lloyd at U.S.C.  I had taken a summer jazz performance session at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and now back in the U.S.C. dorms, one of my dorm mates, who seemed to always be attached to a small Casio type keyboard he was carrying with him, did a little jazz-blues run in front of me.  I asked him to do it again. When he did, I told him to please reveal to me where he had learned this. 

“I’m taking a Jazz Performance Piano course here for a couple of extra credits.”  I asked, “You’re not in the School of Music here, so anyone can take this?”  “Yeah, I believe so,” he answered.

The very next day I went down to the music school asking how I could add on this music performance course.  It ended up being an easy addition and I arrived at my first music lesson with the then head of the jazz piano division of the music school.  Lloyd introduced himself to me and immediately asked me to sit down at his piano and play a little for me.

Right away, I sense that he was a gentle, encouraging man.  He liked what I played for him (“Misty,” or one of the standards I had learned).  I had endured one terrible piano teacher when I was in grade school, and then, through an older neighboring kid on my block I stumbled upon a much nicer piano teacher in middle school.  They were both classically trained, but since by the time I worked with the second instructor, I was more desirous of learning popular tunes, such as “Grease,” and “The Star Wars Theme,” on the piano, that’s where my focus landed.  I should add that those were very simplified versions of the songs, so I never really did Frankie Valli or John Williams any justice. 

But this new instructor for me at U.S.C, Lloyd, was dynamic right away.  An accomplished jazz musician, he taught both theory and jazz voicing’s in a way that I had never experienced.  I continued my lessons with him throughout my time at U.S.C, and then once I graduated, I took lessons from him at his house.  He lived in a modest house in Burbank with his wife.  In front were a living room with a television, a kitchen, and then two bedrooms.  Beyond that in the back of his home was a recessed area where he had his music studio.  A medium sized grand piano, his horns (he was also a trombone player), and lots of sheet music everywhere like a mad scientist in a music lab.

Sometime near the beginning of my career at the Walt Disney Company during, “Boy Meets World,” I stopped taking lessons simply due to the time that had narrowed in my life with a busy production schedule.  And yet, I would go see him play with his quartet at, Jax, in Glendale, and at various other locations around town.  But once my parents began to get ill around 2006, even my visits to his shows curtailed.

So tonight, after so many months and years of thinking to myself, “I need to go see Lloyd play,” I go to the spot where he has had a standing gig for all of the time that I’ve known him.  His group at this venue is usually more of a Dixieland band. Or at least it was the last time I visited this weight station out in the west San Fernando Valley. 

I find the last parking spot along the busy street where the meters don’t need to be fed after 6:00pm.  I make sure there is nothing sitting in the seats in my SUV that might look like something worth stealing.  Casey’s Tavern is on a busy, somewhat grimy part of Sherman Way in Canoga Park, CA. This section of the boulevard is made up of small, old business buildings; stores that might have once been nail salons and the like, but many of which are not visible from the outside, or are closed and locked, and not identifiable in the evening. 

I ask myself a question I remember asking myself the other time that I saw him here.  “Does he really like playing here?  I just can’t imagine him driving from Burbank all the way across the valley floor to this area where I wouldn’t be surprised to see a street-walker or a biker fight.”  Then my alter ego, the more level headed, less fearful, non-snooty one, the ego that appreciates people and art and the fabric of the city retorts, “How is it that I can be so superficial about these things sometimes?  What does it matter where the club is located?  All that matters is that people are getting together and making something great happen. Music. And it happens to be here.  Big deal where it is!” 

I walk down the sidewalk westward towards Casey’s, and on the way I pass an all night make shift billiard hall, again probably created from two smaller former stores with a wall removed.  I get to Casey’s, the front of which is just a tan and brown themed wood and stucco wall from the front with an old “Casey’s Tavern,” sign steadfastly protruding from the roof’s eve.  No windows facing the street.  But I can hear the thudded bass of amplified sound from inside.  “That’s the band, Lloyd is in there playing!” I tell myself. I’m excited. I’ll bet he’ll be surprised to see me. 

I enter into the club.  It’s set up differently than last time.  The club is shaped like a shoebox with an “L” near the doorway.  Eight years ago when I visited, the seating was such that people sat in the “L,” and the band was in the center of the place.  This made it difficult to see the players for some of us who were seated at the very outreaches of the “L,” because there was a wall between ourselves and the band.  But now, it is the opposite.  As I let the wooden door close behind me, the musicians are immediately to my right, and I cross along their side to get to the seating area, which is towards the back of the club adjacent to the bar.  

Right away a bar tender comes to my tall table and asks me what I’ll have.  “A Coke.”  I don’t drink and drive, so it’s always a Coke unless I can walk or take a cab. It’s a much easier rule to follow than trying to gage how much alcohol could be in my system, given the time I’ve been somewhere, eating, etc.  And tonight, I’m about fourteen miles from my doorstep.  So I’m drinking a lot of Coke tonight.

I’m seated in a good spot only about mid way back in the place, but in front of me are low tables, so mine is the first tall table in line of sight to the band.  I finally focus on the musicians.  Lloyd is sitting on a stool holding a trombone near the piano with tan Khakis, a short sleeved print shirt with soft purple colors, and he’s wearing silver rimmed glasses.  A young man with a Hawaiian shirt, probably his son who I recall played piano as well, is vamping on the piano.  There is the bass player who I recognize as being a part of their band for a long time, a drummer, a jazz blues guitarist, and then an old, short, plump man also sitting on a stool in front of the band.  This man has a trumpet in his hand and seems to have taken the position that Jack Sheldon used to at his own shows; that is, trumpeter and emcee with a few jokes thrown in here and there.  This man’s solos are not as virtuosic as Sheldon’s, and his puns not as edgy, but he fills the role well enough.

I will insert here that I was once at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, and I hit a great night when Jack Sheldon and his band had Ross Tompkins sitting in with them.  They were musically effusive that evening.  They ended the show with Jack singing, “What a Wonderful World,” with only Ross Tompkins accompanying him.  The rest of the band stayed silent. I left there that night with my hair standing on top of my head in disbelief of what I had just witnessed. 

Tonight at Casey’s, the band is playing, “Summertime,” and the players have a jazz sound to them.  As they finish this tune and another song begins, I realize that they have generally dropped their “Dixieland only” status, that was so much a part of their identity at this venue, and they do more of a mix of jazz with a little Dixieland thrown in.  I prefer this because I am less partial to Dixieland and more to jazz.  In fact, it was exactly the last time those eight years ago that I was at this club with my girlfriend Brenda during which Lloyd, as he was heading the band that night, said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard him say.  They were playing all Dixieland that night, and Lloyd and another player were throwing in some thirteenth notes and such, and one of the band members complained that they were getting away from Dixieland by doing that, to which Lloyd replied, “Oh Hank, you can never take a little discord, can you?”

I laughed inside hard that time, because it’s so true; true for me.  Dixieland is a much more, how would you say it, “fixed” way of playing than jazz.  There is not only less improvisation if any in Dixieland, but also, the notes are more “on the nose” if you will.  I liken Dixieland to Ragtime.  The notes are there and you play them.  They are often intricate and weave in and out of each other, but they are played straight on and pretty much straight as written. 

Jazz music allows for a lot more variation in melody, chords, and timing.  If you take a jazz standard like, “Meditation,” or, “I Love You,” the performers will play the melody over the basic chords for the piece, but then the players will add in more complex voicing’s to the chords, eliminate some of the roots (because, for instance, the bass will have the root and other basic notes in the chord covered), and even fifths or thirds will be eliminated to allow drop in’s of seconds, sevenths, ninths, eleventh’s and thirteenths.  All of this, plus the player who is carrying the melody will improvise and contort the tune’s melody.  Well, all of it makes for a wonderful soup of emotion that is created the instant that you are experiencing it; something that is really glorious when you realize what is happening. 

So, without any intent to make Dixieland extinct at all, I am glad that they are more jazz oriented nowadays at Casey’s.

As I look closer at Lloyd, I can see that he is much more frail than he used to be.  He is thin, appears more brittle, and he’s not quite in charge of the band like he used to be.  The trumpeter in front calls out song ideas to Lloyd, who then chooses from amongst them.  Lloyd moves from trombone to piano. His playing is still there, perfectly timed, but it’s slightly more faint.  Is it because they don’t have him mic’d as well tonight?  No, I think it’s because he’s slowed down a bit.  In fact, I can see that all of the guys in the band are older now, and that the ensemble as a whole is fainter in their playing; less energetic, less attack in their solos.  But all the same, I love being here because I love the sound of live jazz.

The intermission comes at about 9:00pm, and the musicians take a break.  I look around the mostly wood walls that have mirrors and old advertisements on them.  The room is pretty full, and people are now milling about. At the tables in front of me, there are people of mature age, some of whom I have to assume know some of the band members.  They sip glasses of wine and dress in a lot of white clothing; a definite indication of their retired, relaxed years I suppose. 

The bar is filled with a mixture of people, several of whom are turned around in their stools who came to see the show, and probably several locals who just like to come in, have a drink on a Thursday night, and hear some music.  The music may be more of a background accessory for them.

I turn to my right, which is towards the back of the room, and there is a tall table like mine with a young couple; a white young man with a Latina woman.  They look like it might be one of their first dates together because they are keeping pretty tightly to themselves as if to keep reminding themselves, “We’re on a date, and we’re drinking drinks, and we’re watching music.”  Something lacking in their fluidity, but they seem like they’re enjoying being with each other.

At table back from them is a quartet of three guys, also in their twenties, and a gorgeous, lively, young brunette with a casual black top and white shorts.  My peripheral vision picks up that this girl has stellar legs.  I need not look any further to verify this.  No wonder all three guys seem to be happy to be sitting at that table!

Now Lloyd happens to walk towards me.  Oh good.  He probably just noticed that I am here tonight and wants to say hi.  But as he walks, his directionless eyes reveal to me that he is just moving through the room, and I happen to be in his path.  He gets near my table.

“Hi Lloyd,” I say.
“Oh, hello.”
“How are you doing?”  I figure that in a few words, he’ll realize who I am.
“Good.  Say, what’s your name?”
“I’m Fred.  Fred Herrman.”  He seems stumped. “We recorded one of the songs on my album at Curt’s house in Burbank.  You were my music instructor at U.S.C.”
“Oh, I don’t seem remember Curt.”  He gives a kind of shug of his shoulders, an indication of, “How can everybody remember every name that they come across in life?” 

Lloyd knew Curt for a lot of years in the professional musician’s circle.  And then with a moment or two of additional thought, I realize that he really doesn’t remember who I am. 
“Well, I’m really enjoying your set tonight,” I tell him.
“Oh that’s great.”  And then he stiffly leans into me, as if confidentially, “Listen, I have to get over to that bathroom before I run out of time.”
“Haha, of course! Okay Lloyd.  It was great to see you.” And he walks to the back where the bathrooms are located.

I feel sad now.  How did eight years make him forget who I am?  He was so patient with me all of the years that he sat with me explaining why you would overlay a flat five with a diminished arpeggio, or a flat nine with an augmented arpeggio.  Lloyd showed me that implication is important in music.  That when stand close to a painting, you can see that there are swaths of colors that the painter has put down; shapes, lights and darks.  Then, when you stand back from the painting, you see that these lights, colors and shapes show you leaves and mountains and reflections in water.  He said it's the same with music.  You don’t have to put down every little note that you want to convey, but rather, you can imply ideas through your choices for the listener.   

He also told me how you have to play from the feelings that you experience throughout your life.  That when you hear a really good player, it’s because you are hearing their life reflected in their playing.  You hear the joys of their love, and their heartbreaks that tore at their souls.  And likewise, when Lloyd would play for me, “Green Dolphin Street,” or “I’ll Remember April,” I swear that I could hear his own childhood, maybe the longing for the simple days in Baton Rouge, in his improvised melodies.  I could hear the girl that he likely experienced a summer with, but who got away, and of whom he always wondered, within the key voicing’s he chose in his playing.  And I could hear his the love and security of the life he made with his wife in how he gently raised his ending of a song a half tone up, then to the four, then resolved into the original key. All of those kinds of nuances that told deep stories and were just further proof of his philosophy that dictated, “Go and live some life first and get your heart broken; and then you can come back and give people something to hear about in your playing.

I love this man, and I love what he gave to me.  His time, his passion, and his caring.  And it makes me sad to see that he is fading. 

But I will look at it like this.  I have an appreciation of music from the people who have taught me to listen, such as Lloyd Hebert.  Understanding both the feeling and the mechanics of music enhances my enjoyment greatly of it.  And Lloyd is responsible for a lot of that.  He’s gotten older, and that’s just part of life, and in that way, a part of what he's been playing about.  The old Lloyd too will assuredly work into someone’s music somewhere; maybe his son’s, maybe mine someday. The music that he plays with his band seems to keep him going and active, so God bless him for keeping on.  He doesn’t have to remember me.  I’ll keep visiting him at Casey’s and will be a part of his music.  I’ll remember April, and Lloyd.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Minding the Gap

I’m always perplexed at how some people get to know movie stars and other forms of celebrities with ease.  I’ve never had the schmoozing gene in my body, so that kind of thing doesn’t easily fall into my lap, though I can flash a great smile.  I see my share of well-knows around town since I live in the Los Angeles area.  But now and again, I’ll hear from someone that they met and spoke at length with a star at a party or event, and somehow it comes so easy to them.  I think that as much as I hate to admit it, even though I grew up in Studio City (or maybe because of it), I am a star struck guy, and I still get a little nervous around well known people.  That frame of mind puts a distance, a sort of emotional gap, between myself and someone who has been on television, or in a movie, or in the media for some reason.  They’re not just a normal person to me. 

And I think I have a point there.  They are really not normal.  They are outstanding in some way, or I wouldn’t be familiar with them.  They got to their position or status through a lot of hard work, self-determination, confidence and some luck, and I’m always impressed with people who get themselves through years of fire like that.

I was recently talking with a woman who had stayed with a man who was the head of a huge industrial company.  I won’t name his name, but the person is very well known in our society.  It knocked my socks off when she told me this.  And this woman became friends with him, traveled with him, even lived with him, and to her, it’s just like another person who had a lot of responsibility in his life at one time and was noteworthy for sure, but it wasn’t such a big deal to her.  And yet it amazed me that she even knew him at all. 

Back when one of my favorite musicians was still alive, an acquaintance of mine happened to be at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and met him.  Now, I had met my bass playing idol, John Entwistle several times through my life I’m happy to report.  But this guy I knew ended up sitting at one of those tall two-seater lounge tables, drinking and smoking with Entwistle and talking for forty five minutes.  What the hell?  How did that happen? 

There is still something about a person, a celebrity, who seems normal enough and who I might see at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s in the evening.  And yet there's a good chance that they probably just walked off of a sound stage a few hours earlier, or that they were running a giant financial corporation or media company during the day.  This juxtaposition still puts me off balance. 

Two weeks ago on a Saturday, my girlfriend and I were walking on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when none other than freaking Hilary Swank walks next to us coming out of The Gap.  My girlfriend said hello and told her how much she liked, “Million Dollar Baby.”  It was humbling for me to see her in her black cut off shorts and a casual teal colored top kicking in on a weekend, and yet, knowing that she was in those two stellar movies, “Boys Don’t Cry,” and that mentioned above.  Whew!  It just blew me away!  

My favorite celebrity story happened right here in Burbank. I had a friend in from out of town (from Spain...so way out of town), and after seeing the sights around L.A. that night, we ended up at Bob's Big Boy for a late night malt.  We had just sat down in our assigned table, which had a low divider separating the small gap between the neighboring booth and ours, when my friend said that she would love to see a celebrity while she was in town.  Literally just as she was saying these words, from around her back came someone with a light tan safari jacket and a baseball hat.  He came around and sat down across the divider next to us.  It was Rob Lowe.  He had probably just finished shooting, "The West Wing," at Warners for the night and was meeting a buddy.  My friend didn't notice him as she was finishing her thoughts in her broken English.  I pointed with my finger under the level of the divider and she looked over at the man next to us, then looked back at me as if needing verification from me that it could actually be him.  My smile back gave her the answer and her olive skinned face turned a deep crimson.  "Haha!" I thought.  "Do I deliver or what?"


Monday, August 11, 2014

Growing An Album


One of the most spectacular feelings I’ve ever experienced happened while I was working at the Walt Disney Company in Feature Animation when I created a polished demo CD of music that I had written.

About ten years earlier, while I was living at any number of beaches in Southern California, I had been actively writing songs.  It actually started much earlier during my junior year in high school.  As many kids of my generation had discovered, I had found that by doubling up on recording equipment, audio or video, I could edit pieces of things together.  This included hopping from one VHS tape for video to another, and also worked with using two audio tape decks.  The editing was a bit clumsy and there would remain artifacts of all sorts; rainbow streaks on video taped edits, and unsmooth transitions of audio cuts.  Oh, where was Apple’s GarageBand at the time?

My Casio Keyboard
With some more experimenting, I began to see that I could also overlay my voice using an input microphone while copying an audiotape from one machine to the next.  Pretty quickly I began to use this process to the maximum by playing an instrument, my cheap little Casio Keyboard or a guitar that I would painfully teach myself the few necessary chords to embellish a song, and I would sing at the same time while copying whatever I had already pre-taped to a second audio cassette recorder.  This process was far from optimal as during the copying of cassette tapes, there was an audible hiss, which would grow louder with every transfer.  So implementing three transfers (three overlays) was about the most that I could do without the hiss becoming unbearable.  I continued to create these recordings while either covering songs or writing my own short songs.  Because of their poor quality, I threw them out long ago.

A couple of years later, a friend of mine bought himself a TEAC Tascam 244, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder Portastudio.  This was about a two foot wide by one and one half foot high recorder with four rows of mixing pans, pots, and faders.  You would put a plain audio-cassette into, and it would record input at about two times the speed of a regular audio cassette player, thereby improving the quality of the recording.  He also had two synthesizers, an electric bass, and a drum machine.  The first thing my friend did was to lay down keyboards, bass and drums for one of his favorite oldies, “Barbara Ann,” by the Beach Boys (and probably the Wrecking Crew), and then we put our harmonized vocals onto separate tracks.  His ability to record was at such an improved level to my ears as compared to my double cassette player transferring that buying one of these contraptions became an instant goal of mine. 

My TEAC Tascam 246
And after working the summer at Hughes Market as a box-boy, I was able to save the money to head down to West L.A. Music and buy the newest model; the TEAC Tascam 246, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder.  This newer model had now SIX rows of pans, pots and faders and a few more bells and whistles.  The other capability of these mixers at the time was that they allowed one to bounce tracks.  This meant that you could take a recorded track and then record it into a new track while adding instruments.  It was kind of the same idea as I was doing with my two cassette tape machines previously, but using the Tascam, you would maintain much better sound quality.  If you continually bounced tracks, then you would start to gain a hiss as well, but there were few times where I needed to bounce a track or two more than once.  Incidentally, at about the same time, Bruce Springsteen recorded his “Nebraska” album on the earlier Tascam 144 PortaStudio model, which I believe may have been the first model in the series.  So I figured I was in good company.

So I got to work experimenting with the recording process on my new mixer, which proved to be heavenly as compared to my prior technique.  And while I still only had a little battery operated Casio keyboard, I was able to lay down better sounding tracks.  This version I did of, “If I Only Had The Nerve” was one that I did with just three tracks; one vocal track, one keyboard track for main chords, and one for keyboard track for embellishments.  I should explain too that I went for an effeminate voice and sped up the vocal track in the end for effect on this little experiment.

My Roland D-20
I was soon off to U.S.C. and studying.  In between my classes I would write songs here and there and then realized, as everyone who is aware of what they could have, that if I bought a better keyboard, my songs might sound more professional.  So I went to West LA Music again and bought myself a Roland D-20 synthesizer, which was the lighter model of the Roland D-50.  The D-20 had 61 non-weighted keys and was capable of creating hundreds if not thousands of variations of sounds through programming, and had a drum machine on board as well.  I generally used the multitude of pre-programmed sounds to get the point across in my songs.  My only displeasure with the machine was that the keys weren’t weighted.  But it was a small price to pay for all of the new orchestral sounds I could access.

My Fender Jazz Bass
This new addition gave me a great sense of power over my song-creating because I could lay down strings, set a drum track. I also eventually bought two electric bass guitars, a Fender Jazz Bass, and a Warwick Buzzard Bass, and I taught myself how to play at least well enough to lay down parts for my songs.  The on-board sequencer could handle up to something like eight simultaneous instrument parts, which reduced the number of tracks I would need to use on my Tascam.  Now I could get a clean sound.  Three example of songs I did during this time were, “Why Did We Go Wrong?”, “Something’s Come Alive,” and “Tell Me Why.”  I must have made about thirty songs during these years, whose time span extended from about 1988 through 1995.  This period covered my years at U.S.C. through living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica and in the Venice Canals. 
My Warwick Buzzard
My goal was always to use my rough demos as blueprints.  I had friends who when they made music were so meticulous about getting everything correct and balanced that they seemed to get themselves stalled in the mud.  I always had it in mind that the musical gear I had served only the purpose of giving a rough illustration of what I might do with a song.  I always reserved the right in my head to take those rough demos to instrumentalists and vocalists later to polish them up.  I never saw myself as a performer or a musical technician; only a songwriter.  That is, a person who composed words and music.

During the time I was living at the beach, I was also able to get private song writing instruction from a very patient women named Robin Randall who was a teacher at an adult music school, and who had written myriads of songs, including some recorded by Jefferson Starship.  She and I would meet in her mother’s Hollywood home, a dark quasi-mansion of sorts at the top of Beachwood Canyon, and we would regularly work out some of my songs on her piano.  I always had a strong sense of melody and chord structure, as well as a natural understanding of how and where to use key changes.  However, my lyric writing when I began was not focused enough for songs to be sold as “popular songs.”  Though I essentially knew what my songs were about, their lyrics would meander with a style that was on the verge of free-verse and ultimately were not clear enough. 

Robin was able to help me narrow my focus to the story or idea that I was trying to tell about in my songs. She also helped me to find ways of shortening interludes that I naturally put into songs.  I had a tendency to put several instrumental breaks into my songs, a kind of, “place musical solo here,” peppered throughout my songs.  But, like the treatment of a screenplay, a song has to be concise enough to be able to sell it to a performing artist in one or two playings.  Then, at that point, they can do whatever they want with it.  Robin greatly improved my ability to express ideas in the musical medium in this way.

By about 2002, I was working in an area of The Walt Disney Company that was called, Special Projects.  My work ebbed and flowed a bit more than it had during the full on feature productions I had been working on up until then.  So I had more time for myself here and there and decided that I had enough time and money to pull four or five songs that I had written in the past fifteen years and demo them at a higher quality level. 

I found a music producer, Dave Waterbury, who had formerly been a touring guitarist for the band, Berlin, and who had a nice studio.  He played several instruments such as keyboards, a wicked guitar, bass, and he also had great recording equipment.  So I notated out my music sheets for each of the songs and hunted around for singers, some of whom I pulled from the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.  Concurrently, I was producing a short film called, “Jack’s Gift,” and we thought we might be able to use a song for the credits, so I wrote an additional, new song and included it in the batch of music I was producing.

I met with Dave at his studio once he had laid down some of the tracks, and they sounded great.  We pulled in the singers that I found and recorded.  It was an easy process because I had planned it all out pretty well; both the notation and the laying down of vocals and harmonies.

Ross Tompkins and me.
There was one song I had written a few years earlier as a jazz standard type of tune called, “How I Loved You.”  It was about a girl I dated at U.S.C.  I showed it to Dave, but it really needed professional acoustic jazz players.  So I hired my U.S.C. jazz instructor and four professionals he played the jazz circuit with and we recorded the song in a couple of takes.  These guys were true professionals. My heart raced as they played my tune. After this, I brought in Ross Tompkins, the piano player from, “The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson,” to come in and put a piano track on as an alternative.  I was very proud to have met and work with Mr. Tompkins.  He arrived in a gold Corvette and looked very tan.  That’s a day I won’t forget.

I also had a talented graphic designer friend at Disney, named John Alexander, who helped me create the CD cover templates and artwork.  He was very helpful and did a stellar job for me. 

I remember delivering my finished tracks to a CD replicating company in Burbank and being very excited about being close to finishing the whole process.  And when the boxes CD’s that I had ordered were ready, I brought them to my car, broke a box open, unwrapped the CD packaging, and loaded it into my Mustang’s CD player.  And here it was.  My project was finished.  I remember feeling a glee that I’ve never felt before.  This album was something I had totally created and had brought to fruition of my own doing in small, creative steps.  I thought to myself, “Pete Townshend has lived nearly his entire life doing this, and yet, this is my first time.”  It was very satisfying. 

In order to compare one of the songs I created on my TEAC Tascam PortaStudio with a finished demo, listen to “Something’s Come Alive,” and then compare it to the final demo of, “Come On Come On.”  By the time I put the polished demo onto my CD, I had rewritten many of the verses and retitled it.  But at heart, it’s the same song about the same subject; two people who meet and risk the fear of failure for one more chance at love.

All of the tracks are available on iTunes under the artist, “Fred Herrman.”  The five-song album is called, “Watercolers Over The Sea.”  The title is a remembrance of my time writing songs in the Sea Castle apartment and watching winter storms roll in over the ocean. 

And now, I think it’s time to write some more.  All of that old equipment that I had is long since gone.  So I just need a piano, a synthesizer, a guitar and an electric bass again…but then, I should really start with a pen and paper. 

I love the rainy days and stormy nights
The watercolors over the sea
The wind sweeping through the pane
Has made it possible for you and me

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wormhole to Arizona - A Place of Pain


I had a strange thing happen a long time ago when a girlfriend who I had been living with for three years, up and moved out on me literally without any warning.  It was very odd, and several of my family members, who had already seen some questionable behavior from her in their presence, reacted with words to me such as, "That's a very uncommon thing for a woman to do.  Usually women like to talk things out when they have issues. It was likely one facet of a woman who was already very impulsive and who had little sense of introspection."  I don't have too many negative feelings towards her anymore, other than that she had trashed me to her own family, and her friends, some of which we had shared, and also that she had begun to see someone while she was still with me.  She shouldn't have done any of that.  Because of her own complicated childhood, I think that she was destined to gravely mishandle the way in which she separated from her relationship with me, and that she was also destined (at that time at least) never to have taken a long, hard, look at herself and how she interacted with the world.  Hopefully, that either has, or will change for her.  But that's all water under the bridge now.

With all of this in the past, one aspect of the experience remains poignant to me.  It was that when this was all happening (about the fall of 1993), it was extremely painful for me.  This caused me to go into a really strange place in my head, which will be difficult to describe here since I haven't completely made sense of it even to this day. 

I am not and have never abused chemical substances in my life.  The most I have ever experimented with was pot when I was fifteen, and that was only because I had a couple of friends who smoked it now and then, so I gave it a try a couple of times.  Two friends and I also took mushrooms at Disneyland once during our time at university, which was pretty interesting.  We chalked it up as a perceptual experiment.  I have pride in myself about my lack of interest in chemical substances because I had a biological father who drank excessively, so one might expect that I might have had an inclination to have either experimented with or have leaned on substances.  But I never have had the desire to mute my own pain at all.  I have always felt that surviving through pain directly strengthens me.  Having been adopted by a mother who was a child development specialist may have helped in this regard, as I was mostly open to my own feelings throughout my life.  I wasn't perfect with handling them, but that expressive channel was always there in myself.   

During the weeks and possibly months after the woman that I lived with moved out, had I been a different person, this would have been the time to have abused substances.  Believe me, I was in such pain from this experience, that I was destroyed inside.  I felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and swung it as hard as they could targeting the glass menagerie of my heart and internal organs, and they all lay shattered as hanging shards with no hope of reconstitution.  Any person who had an inclination to take a drink, smoke dope, snort blow, or insert a needle, would have done it then without passing "Go" and without collecting a hundred dollars if they had been laden with the painful feelings that were weighing on my entire body.  But I didn't, and I never would have.  I'm not someone who would put poison into my body in order to feel better, or jump off of a building, or use any other vice to end the pain.  Somewhere deep within me I have always had the sense that as long as I am alive, I will always have the possibility of making a better life for myself, and watching the sunset on a tropical beach somewhere, hearing the ocean surf hit the rafters under me as I lay in my beach house.  Anything and everything is possible.  This, I know to be inborn in me.  I came into this world with this.  And it was reinforced from having come from virtually nothing with my biological parents and knowing even at age four that I could survive by myself on the streets while my father was passed out from whiskey. 

But those weeks and months after she moved out from me were literally terrible for me.  I was working as a Production Assistant on,"Boy Meets World," at the Walt Disney Studios, and during my very long working hours, I remember going into the bathrooms of the old Animation Building on the lot, and also in the production bungalows, and sobbing inconsolably.  I had lost the woman that I loved.  I recall one day when I had delivered some lunch and noon-time production reports to our, "Boy Meets World," Stage 2 of the Walt Disney Studios lot.  I made it there without breaking down and crying.  Upon leaving the stage, I was walking back to the production bungalows, relieved that I had kept myself together for the fifteen minutes needed to do my work on the sound stage, and then as I was walking back down one of the faux Disney streets, I started balling because I thought that no one was around and I could let some of it out that I had been holding in.  

Then, to my horror I realized that the stage manager of our production had exited the double-doored sound stage doors right behind me, had caught up to me, and was walking to my right.  She sensed right away that I was crying, and had heard about what had happened to me.  She stopped me, put her arm around me, and said, "You'll make it through this, Fred."  I thanked her and we went on.  It was very kind of her to have done that just then because in her assurance, I extrapolated that she, like every one else, had experience their own heartbreaks in the past and understood what I was going through.  The stage manager's name was, Lynn M. McCracken, and she is someone who to this day played an important role as a casual observer in helping me know at the time that I would indeed make it through the pain.  It was like having someone way up the ranks give me a stamp of approval that I was a good guy and that I would be fine in the end. 

But to finally get to the gist of this story.  During times when I was alone and without much stimulation, such as when I was either alone on a bench somewhere, or walking by myself outside, or the worst, sitting in the little loft that my girlfriend and I had lived in together, but which she had since left, I would go to this very strange place in my head.  It wasn't a hallucination or a delusion; I'd be willing to go as far as to call it a dissociated state of meditation.  It was simply a place my mind would drift off to for lack of better distraction.

The place was in the middle of the Arizona desert at night, looking almost straight up at the cold stars in a clear sky.  It was a surreal place because it was as if I was actually standing on the sand and gazing up at the last possible hint of blue crescent twilight conceding to a black starry background over a barren wasteland of loneliness.

I've thought over the years of how I could describe the experience to someone.  The only thing I could think of, which still seems mild to me, was for a person who always had spent Christmases with their close family and friends for their whole life to be suddenly sent into the middle of a mountain range alone on Christmas Eve, and with nil warning.  

In my desert, it was as if civilization itself had dropped off of the horizon and I was there cast off as a lone human being under a vast, eternal universe.  The atmosphere was either warm with a summer evening breeze, or it was very cold, as if in the midst of winter.  I experience both of these conditions there in my head during my visits.  And the feeling I had inside was of utter desolation. 

And in the abject desert silence that I would experience with each visit, whatever warm or cold wind that might be moving across the sands would literally blow through my body without regard to my own mass as a physical being.  I was unprotected and exposed to the elements of the unbounded cosmos.  I would continue to drift off to this place for the first few months after the break up, and then my visits gradually became less frequent. 

I believe that I had a very strong reaction to my girlfriend's leaving me because I have some issues regarding my biological mother who abandoned me both physically and emotionally when I was very young.  So the experience that my girlfriend, the first woman who I had ever had a long, ongoing, intimacy with, put me through by virtue of her surprise exit from my life was magnified by this earlier experience.

And as for my mind's choice of location:  I think that I conjured it up in relation to a place my girlfriend and I had previously visited.  Maybe a year earlier, we had gone to visit her relations in a small town in Arizona.  It was a small town where her uncle worked for the government.  And somewhere either in her aunt and uncle's small town, or during our nighttime travel to or from there, I had surely glimpsed at and been impressed by the clear, starry nighttime sky there and had filed it into my memory banks, which I obviously drew upon later. 

I have to think that the place that I would go to in my mind during that period of pain was a location and a means for me to represent the loss that I felt from my former girlfriend, and also tangentially connected with harmonic shades of emotions from my early childhood, experienced and presented in a visual way for myself.  As odd and distasteful as it would seem, somehow this very stark, calm place I went to helped me cope with that pain.  But when I think of that place even now, it feels as alien to me as it did back then.