Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Troubadour

I was an Angeleno for 15 years, and in that time I experienced the good, the bad and the decidedly ugly.  Most of them are the perennial "only in LA" stories that are so frequently told they become practically cliche.  E.g., my sister's yoga teacher has Harvey Keitel in her class and he agreed to read our script...which, legend goes, is how Tarantino got him to do "Reservoir Dogs."

However, most L.A. stories are far less grandiose.  They can be painful, awesome, excruciating, unnerving, but never dull.  I had so many in my decade and a half of life there and I'd love to put them all down in "print" at some point.  Now six months removed from my tenure as a Golden State-er, I'm able to take advantage of both the time and the distance to reflect and truly appreciate what I experienced and how such episodes enabled me to both grow and change, and perhaps even to see the world just a little differently.

As I've said before, pain is funny, and L.A. has a habit of producing those soul-crushing stories, but that's not where my head is at today.  Rather, I'd like to focus on a dude I met in one of those "only in Hollywood" ways and who became one of my favorite musicians.

So it goes like thus:

In February 2003 I was working on a now-forgotten (I hope) TV show called "Oblivious," the premise for which was that it was a hidden-camera game show.  The host, Regan Burns, would, over the course of the various setups, drop questions into conversation with the marks.  If they got em right, that increased their eventual takeaway.  (The marks were often then "turned around" so that they in turn would ask fresh marks the same questions--with Mr. Burns coaching them via hidden earpiece.)  The premise produces a mild chuckle, and the results were often somewhat more generous in hilarity.  But it didn't last, which is probably for the betterment of the world's aesthetic.

Anyway, so one week early that month I was asked by the production coordinator--a true Hollywood douchebag--to go over to the soundstage on the Hollywood Center Studios where lunch was being set up to inform the caterers that the production meeting was in fact running late.  I was to keep them "happy" and assure them the company was in fact coming soon and so, I guess, not to allow them to let the food go cold.

So off to the soundstage in question I went.  There were only two people working the meal: a woman of probably 30-plus and a tall dude with jet-black hair and an indeterminate, practically occluded, accent of nebulous origins (turned out to be Swedish).  So we three began shooting the shit over the heated tins and bread and lemonade.  Only folks like us who truly work the bottom rungs of the Hollywood food chain really understood the fine art of simultaneously bitching about our crappy jobs while doing our best not to pretend that we are in fact holding out some hope of eventually getting on to bigger and better things.  It's a fine line between being a miserable son of a bitch and an astutely observant miscreant.  These two were definitely on the same page.

The meeting ran even longer than expected.  At one point when we started talking about the lesser points of the local dating scene, the woman chuckled and told us that women basically have "one good week a month."  (I've met some who have four "good" weeks a month and some who PMS 28 days out of each moon...but men can be just as much moody pains in the ass, so I'm actually gender-neutral on this one.)

Shortly before the company came down for lunch, the dude, Martin, said that he was actually a musician--a cliched Hollywood trope if ever there were one--and that he was in fact playing a gig that Friday night at the Kibbitz Room, the music space attached to the famous Canter's Deli on Fairfax Ave. In L.A. you typically get about ten such entreaties from new acquaintances, but I took it in stride and said "perhaps."  The guy was nice and he had a natural charisma that I appreciated.  And since we three had spent the past hour kibbitzing, we were best mates for life anyway.

So that Friday night happened to be Valentine's Day.  I was then smack in the middle of a three-year-plus dry spell and thus tragically unengaged for the evening.  My first stop was the Norris Cinema Theatre at USC, my alma mater.  Every Friday night they would play recent films for cheap and this night was "The Ring," a film that was both better and more frightening than it had any right to be.  (I'm a horror movie freak, and I freely admit that I had trouble falling asleep for like three nights thereafter.)  The film got out around 10:30.  The night was still young.  The prospects were go home and try not to ponder my perpetual singlehood, or...

I phoned up my buddy Chris, a childhood chum from New Jersey who came out to California five years after me.  Was he doing anything, I asked.  No?  Well, here, I have this idea: Would you like to come along with me to the Kibbitz Room at Canter's to hear this guy I met the other day at work and see him play some tunes?  Chris, who was usually up for an ill-defined adventure, immediately agreed.

I parked on Melrose (this will be important later) and met up with Chris in front of Kibbitz.  We paid the small cover and went inside.  Immediately I recognized Martin from a distance.  I came over and re-introduced myself.  Bless him, he recalled meeting me a few days either but could not remember my name.  (I never said there wouldn't be at least a few cliches, kids.)  He seemed even taller than he had that day on the soundstage, and for the first time I noticed that his arms were absolutely plastered with tats.

Chris and I bought some brews and took a booth close to the stage.  This being Canter's, of course they had a beer called "He'Brew, the Chosen Beer," which demanded to be sampled.

Don't believe me?  Check it, yo:

Martin soon took the stage with his ax.  He plunked out those first chords with his backing band taking up the cheer.  When he opened his mouth out came a vocal styling that was somewhere near supreme joy and strained, painful pleading.  He had a fabulous range and a gruff, projecting voice that filled the small room.  His tropes were somewhat typical of a troubadour of his type: love and loss, pain and regret, bitchy ex-girlfriends and ex-wives who left him out to dry.

But there was something different about him than the millions of other wannabes around town.  When he sang, the emotion and the hurt seemed all too real.  Not only that, but the dude was incredibly talented as a guitarist and vocalist.  And it certainly helped that his songs were good!  As we got progressively drunker Chris and I shared many quiet asides as to the pleasant surprise we were having.

Valentine's Day was saved.

During a set break, Martin bought Chris and I a round of drinks.  He handed us copies of one of his CD's, "Subject: Crazy Girl."  A barfly who looked just like my high school drama teacher dropped into the conversation with us.  Martin spoke with another barfly in Hebrew.  I was starting to get fuzzy.

We stayed for the second set.  When he left for the night, Martin and I hugged like old friends, which, in the Hollywood sense, I suppose we were (since, you know, we'd met twice and stuff).

Chris went to his car and I walked back up Fairfax toward Melrose.  I knew then, and I know now, that I was far too intoxicated to drive my 93 Toyoto Paseo home to Altadena, but the list of things I've done in my life that were probably better left undone would take volumes to exhume.  Anyway...not only should I not have driven, but upon walking up to the Paseo I saw that both of the hubcaps on the driver's side had been bogarted.  This was in addition to the passenger side front hubcap...which now left me with a grand total of one.

Valentine's Day may have been salvaged, but as it was closing time, February 15th was starting out as a pisser.

Chris and I agreed that Martin had been the best local act we'd ever seen in L.A.  We started getting notices for future Martin gigs, and we basically chased him around town with the small horde of other "Martin-heads" who trolled about town in his wake.  It became a running joke between Chris and myself that Martin could NEVER seem to remember Chris's name, despite the fact that we invariably showed up to gigs together.  Chris and I go ahold of the new CD, "Roll Up Your Sleeves," and brought along other friends to become new disciples.  A personal favorite night was an album release party at Club Lingerie on Sunset Blvd. preceded by the documentary "Foot to the Floor."  It's always nice to say "I'm with the band," especially when you actually care about the music and the man.

Later that year I was working on "The Man Show" when it was re-hosted by Joe Rogan and Doug Stanhope.  When that gig ended, I joked to Martin that if he needed a roadie, he needn't look very far.  However, as Martin was in America on a visa, that August he had to leave to return to Sweden.  He had a going-away party in Hollywood.

Over the next three years, Martin would come and go from Malmo, Sweden, back to Los Angeles with each new visa he was granted.  New CDs and new gigs ensued.  Chris and I were always there right in the front to support.  We did our best to bring along friends and whatever girls we were dating at the time.

Fast forward to the end of 2006.  Martin sent out an email that he was performing at Genghis Cohen with some "fellow students" from Santa Monica City College as "The Martin Sosinski Show."  Unfortunately, the gig was two days before Christmas and I was already booked on a flight back to Jersey.  Chris went alone.

That was the last time either of us really heard from Martin.  There were no further gigs or CDs.  Emails bounced.  We assumed he had returned to Sweden again or moved elsewhere.  Our nearly four-year fandom threatened to come to an end.

Still, we had between us several CD's to continue to enjoy the man's music.  Recently I've been spinning one called "Breath of Life: The Story of Fay and Valentino."  I got in touch with Chris about burning me a new copy as mine has audio problems with the first few tracks.

On a lark, I decided to do some Google-ing to see if I might find our old pal Martin.  Turns out I found this:

Turns out Martin is now using the name Martin Marks.  Apparently he's still in L.A. teaching guitar, but that gig in December 2006 was in fact a farewell performance.  After 20 years he decided it was time to take things in a different direction.

If nothing else, I'm glad to know he's still out there and still playing the guitar.  Not so thrilled he put down the performance mic, but I can well understand why.  It's a grind, especially when you're trying and trying and trying to make a living at it--to say nothing of making it "big."

So this is the somewhat melancholy end of this particular tale.  It's nine years since I first heard him play in public and I miss him and his music.  I have great CD's and memories.  I'm going to try and send him a note through his website to see what he's up to and how he's doing.  If you're so inclined, I'd *highly* recommend checking out his site and listening to some samples.  Grab a CD if you can; it's better than giving your cash to Lady Gaga, whom I assure you is doing fine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My Parents Are a Broken Record: The Hazards of Living at Home in Your Thirties

I'm 33.  And I live at home.  Not by choice but by necessity.  I've been unemployed for seven months and, shortly after my last job ended last summer, I took the trip of a lifetime to Australia and New Zealand, for which I remain in a substantial hole compounded by the insistence of my creditors that I continue to pay my bills.  (I swear, I'm about two variables away from making my bills pay themselves in my prize formula.)  All things considered, I really shouldn't complain.  For the better part of 15 years I lived on my own in California, first attending college and then making my way through the worlds of entertainment, publishing (more on that later) and of course the table-bussing arts, one big step on the Hollywood hierarchy below the venerable bourgeois class of waitrons.  Last summer my career brought me to New York, next-door-neighbor to my home state of New Jersey to work on a bridal magazine (more on that later as well), a contract position with both a start and a defined end date.  When my term ex officio expired, I tossed all caution to the wind and dumped a tremendous chunk of Chase Manhattan's cashola into my journeys Down Under.  (Who knew the good folks at Chase would actually want their money back interest...?)  Upon returning to California from the Oz, with no job, no home, no prospects and a rapidly diminishing bank account, I made the pride-quashing decision to pack up my 2010 Scion tC--as a non-parent, my only "child"--with as much of my personal belongings as would fit and hit the road east.  (Most of the remainder remains in pal Nermfgo and his Mrs.'s basement.)

After 15 years as an honorary Californian, my tenure as a Golden State-er for the moment was finished.

(Note: The above pic is from happier times: the day I picked up the Scion in July 2009.)

Living at home as an adult is not easy, especially for the simple reason that our parents ever allow themselves to believe that their children have ever graduated to the level of equals in earning, intellectual acumen and freedom from their influence.

But then you come home.  The rent is unbeatable; the psychological barrage less so.  I've been back up in my childhood room in Readington Township, NJ for four months now.  I'm still alive...but not really kicking.  I need to pause to say that I'm grateful for the option.  They took back their adult (bum) son in when options simply ran out.  I realize that in this modern world we live in, many, many others are as bad off (or worse) than I am and who simply don't have the option to come home and shack up with Mom & Dad rent-free.  So for that, I can be grateful.  In the meantime, I fire off on average 100 resumes a week, send query letters for my completed novel to numerous agents in New York, attend as many networking events as possible...and in general whittle away the remainder of my days sleeping, drinking, uh, drinking some more, making love to my Netflix account, four-hundred-and-twenty-ing, and seeking out the next adventure or date that can be supported by the joke that passes as my remaining bank account (thank you, ladies, for caring not that I'm a pauper).

My old standup comedy teacher in L.A. used to tell us that from pain comes comedy.  I have enough compounded heartbreak to last me a lifetime, and from which I got OK-if-not-awesome standup material.  Living at home with my aging parents has presented many challenges, not the least of which is my headstrong, fiercely independent and territorial personality crashing headlong into those two of similar characters who spawned me (or who adopted me after finding me in a field after the Martians left me behind).

As I said, this has produced some rather hilarious results.  Not the least of which is repetition.  I'm convinced that once the human brain reaches a certain age, it becomes incapable of retaining new information or making new connections.  In laymen's terms: senility.

To wit, on any given day, my father is guaranteed to drop any one--or all--of the following phrases into the conversation:

"I'm just testing my memory."

"I'm having a senior moment."

"Not that it matters very much, but..."

"...not that it matters very much."

"I don't talk about movies very much, but..."

"That's the most interesting thing I've heard all day."

"Mother Nature is ill, and she's not going to take this from us very much longer."

"Goddamn, fucking airplanes."

This last one, I should explain: We live very close to a very small private airport, the beacon for which the jetliners on their way into Newark utilize upon final approach from the west.  Heaven forbid my dad is ever actually in the yard when a plane happens overhead.  I shit you not, the man will literally flip off the mechanical bird that is "impinging" upon Dad's "space."  When asked about this, his inevitable response is:

"Well, they're low enough that they could see me."

We all have our inner voices, and I fight mine very hard from spilling out in utter frustration.  I'm an ADD child of the '80s, and I get super-bored VERY easily.  And nothing, and I mean nothing, bores like repetition.

And so in the meantime I find myself in a bit of a hard place.  They're my parents, and I love them dearly.  But man they can be boring!

I'll end with a laugh.  I think George Carlin said it best:

"I like people, but I can only tolerate them for short bursts.  Once you get up around...minute, minute and a half, I gotta get the fuck out of there."

George Carlin: People Are Boring