HOW TO SURVIVE A GRATEFUL DEAD SHOW WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR FRIENDS IN THE PARKING LOT * By Zach Selwyn
My old college friend Bernard (Or “Burner – for reasons that don’t need to be explained) called me the day before Father’s Day. He had an extra ticket to the 50th Anniversary Grateful Dead concert in northern California. I informed my wife that I would be traveling to the show the following Saturday night.
“Haha yeah right,” she said.
“No. I’m going.”
“Stop it. Now, what do you want to do for Father’s Day? Should we meet the Bartons for brunch? Or do you want to have people over to bar-be-cue?”
“I hate the Bartons,” I said. “I want to go to the Grateful Dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, take your son with you, don’t you think he would enjoy it?”
I didn’t think that was the brightest idea. The smoke and the dancing and twirling was completely mind-blowing to me when I was at my first show at age 18. Back then I was scared shitless. Too many drugs, too many lost souls… too many people having a lot more fun than I was. I told my wife that I’d rather let my son find his own musical path. (Then again, if he’s following 5 Seconds of Summer around the country in 10 years I may have failed somewhere.) Plus, I told my wife that a 9-year-old boy does not need to see his 40-year-old dad clink Absinthe cups with a dude in hiking shorts who made Silicon Valley millions by inventing the Nook.
“Do NOT drink Absinthe,” she demanded.
“I won’t, I promise.”
Eventually, I got the green light – and I called Burner back and committed to his 70-dollar ticket. Which I soon found was WAY too expensive for my shitty seats behind the stage where just a few songs into the set a man would face-plant and nearly die on the concrete right next to me.
Recent online ticket prices for the Santa Clara shows had settled at $20-$40 depending on where you were seated, way down from the rumored $1500 nearly a month earlier. This was due to the “Soldier Field Panic Purchase” that nearly every Dead Head and ticket scalper had fallen for when their final two shows of this “Fare Thee Well” concert were originally announced… Thinking the tickets to Santa Clara might be listed at the same price as the Chicago shows, folks bought up dozens of seats at face value, only to find themselves losing money when trying to unload the tickets in the parking lot the afternoon of the show. (Steal Your Face Value, anyone?) Even Burner was left with a handful of tickets that he ended up trading for “pieces” (pipes or chillums), 50th anniversary bandanas, T-shirts and at one point a foot long joint being sold by a spritely blonde nymph out of a giant cardboard box.
Now, a fair amount has already been written about these shows – if you want to hear about the set lists and the fan reactions to Trey Anastasio and the supposed $50,000 “fake rainbow” – go Google that now. This is my personal adventure about smoking a lump of hash with a crazy looking scallywag who was dragging a dirty pet pit bull named “Iko” around on a hemp dog leash – and becoming so cosmically altered, that I managed to lose my friends for the duration of the show long before the first note of Truckin’ was even played.
It was a surreal experience to say the least. When I last saw the Grateful Dead in 1995, the crowd was pretty much the same… just about 20 years younger. But now, those folks have grown up. Gone are the days of living in the Vanagon and hopping from town-to-town. The “Only Users Lose Drugs” shirts I used to fawn over had been replaced by at least 25 men happily wearing a t-shirt reading “Grateful Dad.” (Thank you, honey for not getting me THAT for Father’s Day.)
A vast majority of the well-off crowd could be found eating sushi and sipping wine in the safe “red” parking lot, while the more traditional “Shakedown Street” blue parking lot catered to the jewelry designers, pushers, providers, dealers and, yes, the guys selling veggie burritos. (At $5.00 a steal – considering it was $11.00 for a nitrate-riddled hot dog in the stadium). Bottom line was, it was a very balanced scene. Which is how I went from talking about music with a doctor who lived in Marin County – to witnessing a hippie trade a T-shirt for a Churro – to eventually asking the aforementioned scraggly looking pit bull owner if I could have a hit of his joint.
“It’s hash bro,” he said.
“Nice,” I said.
“Nice,” he responded.
I took a long drag from the tightly rolled spliff. It was licorice-like in flavor… and reminded me of smoking hash on a Eurorail with a Spanish stranger during a train ride from Switzerland to Germany in 1996. I exhaled.
“Nice.” I said again.
“Real nice,” he said and pulled off the joint again.
I stared up at the clouds.
“Nice,” I laughed.
“Totally nice,” he replied.
We stood and watched the sky for a few minutes. I started to realize that for the past ten minutes, I had managed to keep a totally coherent conversation going by merely uttering the word “nice.”
I shook off my daze and decided to gather myself to find Burner and our other friends and head inside. We were 30 minutes away from the opener and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked back at my hash-providing friend and we shared an ever-knowing look of “I’ll never see you again, but thanks for the time together.” I threw up a peace sign. As I walked away to find my buddies, I heard him utter one final word as a fare thee well to our little session.
Back on Earth, I was suddenly totally confused. Burner was gone. Swirls of dreadlocks and weathered faces engulfed me. I wasn’t sure if I should head back to the blue lot and skip the show altogether or saunter forth inside all alone. Like a wilderness-trained tracker, I decided I’d take some photos to document the beauty of the signage and the sky and the colorful people and cars all around me. Scrolling through my camera roll a day later, all I can find is a few pictures of the stadium and a wasted girl passed out on a lawn. I definitely could not find my friends. I was high and wandering… but at least I had a ticket to my seat.
Having lost buddies at concerts over the years, I am somewhat used to making friends and surviving. This was certainly not the first time I had been alone at a Grateful Dead show… In fact, at the LA Sports Arena in 1993 I accidentally left the concert mid-song and walked 23 blocks away until I was lost in a Ralph’s parking lot deep in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, the night cashier slipped me a Fentanyl and called me a taxicab. Once I lost my buddy in Santa Barbara and ended up sleeping in a bush after a Neil Young concert. At the Dead show, however, I wasn’t truly worried, because nowadays we are all lucky enough to have cell phones.
I looked down to text my friends. No service. Of course. No fucking service.
I made my way inside and ogled the crowds flittingly dancing along. Anticipating the first note of the show that would send me into another stratosphere. They started with Truckin’. The place went nuts.
Then the guy next to me almost died. His friends pounded his chest until he sat up and they forced water down his throat. Scared and afraid, I went to get a beer. I met some kind gentlemen in the beer line. We spoke about how awesome the show was that we were missing… by waiting in that beer line. I looked around. A girl next to me made sure to use all 9 pockets of her leather fanny pack. At least three guys purposefully wore cargo shorts to show off the “Jerry Bear” leg tattoos they had done in the 90’s that they were waiting all these years to uncover once again… Finally, a woman carrying a six-month old baby in what seemed like a paper bag attached to her back came dancing through the crowd. The kid’s head bobbled furiously, unstable and terrifying. In Los Angeles, the helicopter moms of Orange County would have screamed, rescued the baby and brought it to the nearest hospital. At the Grateful Dead show, however, grown men laughed and spewed forth dragon breaths of marijuana smoke into the sky as the baby drifted right through the haze. It was absolutely disturbing. I could not imagine my kids in this environment. As much as I would want them to appreciate what the music can do for everybody, the last thing I would want is my kid getting a second hand weed buzz around a group of folks sending wafts of OG Kush into the atmosphere.
A few songs later, I had settled down. It suddenly hit me that I was completely alone and that my conversations with strangers were fun but fleeting. I wasn’t making any new friends… I wasn’t analyzing every note Trey played… The worst part was, I was barely even seeing the show from my seat behind the stage. I watched the majority of it on a big screen. So, I wandered around and decided to talk to the security guard. His name was Reed.
“What’s crazier, a 49ers game, or this?” I asked.
“Well, different crowds, ya know?” He said. “Niners fans drink a few beers and try to look tough. These folks drink 10 beers and dance around like fools!”
“So is this the rowdiest show you’ve ever seen here?” I asked.
“Oh hell no, the worst was the WWE Wrestling event. I broke up about 30 fights, had to throw a guy down some stairs.”
“What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever seen here?”
“Kenny Chesney. Was like a Gay Pride Parade met the deep south.”
He shook my hand and walked off.
A few beers later, I was overwhelmed by hippies praying to the miracle rainbow in the sky yelling out things like “It’s a gift from JERRY GARCIA MAN!” (If you can imagine a bunch of high people reacting to a rainbow at a 50-Year Grateful Dead anniversary show, it’s EXACTLY how you picture it…) The argument that the rainbow has been faked is everywhere online, but in truth, if the Dead had 50K to blow on a holographic rainbow, I would hope they at least should have tried to construct a hologram Jerry Garcia instead. (Shit, I’d have settled for hologram 2Pac.)
As the evening went on, as a way to remember what I was going through, I began dictating voice notes into the “recorder” app on my iphone. These are the translations as best as I could decipher them:
A: I have just spent the last hour hanging with a giraffe
B: (Me singing a song idea for my band to record in the future) – “Sunday Ticket, who’s got my Sunday ticket… man are you with it? I wish I could stop and smell the roses – but the elements of elephants are lost among the doses – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead” (Then yelling): “WAY OF THE DEAD!!! MY NEW SONG WOOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!”
C: Hot dogs, nachos, chicken fingers… hot dogs nachos chicken fingers…
D: What hole have these people been hiding in since 1995?
The last note made sense. A lot of these fans were folks who looked like they never recovered from Jerry Garcia’s death. They had been in exile, awaiting the return of the Grateful Dead for years, sort of like those Japanese soldiers you read about who were trapped on islands with their loaded weapons unaware that the war had ended months earlier.
The highlight of my night came during the song St. Stephen. I had never heard the tune live – nobody really has – and it lifted my spirits high. For five minutes, the long drive alone had been worth it. So had the hash and the lost friends and the $70 seats. I reached high for the sky and let out primal screams of joy and happiness and thought about my kids, my wife, my career, my goals, my dreams my family. I was genuinely ecstatic. I had found my top of the mountain… It was one of those moments that I remembered having as a kid – worshipping this band for slices of perfection like that – when everybody is smiling and nothing can go wrong. A moment of calm and peace I hoped would never end…
Of course, an hour after the show I found myself cursing technology and feeling depressed about having to wait in a two-hour line for an Uber.
I left the venue alone. Got to the hotel alone. I was in bed by 1:00. I woke up before my friends – who had stumbled in at 3:30 – and shook off the cobwebs before beginning the long drive back to L.A. As I listened to the radio and heard reviews of the show it became clear how awesome the evening had been. I re-played to my voice memos and shuffled Dead songs on my iphone the whole drive, wondering how I could call my work and get out of it Monday so that I could stay and watch the second night show instead. Thankfully, I decided one amazing show was enough and I rode down California 5 with Santa Clara and the Grateful Dead in my rear view mirror. As I watched northern California disappear behind the rolling hills, one word came to mind as I smiled and traveled the golden road home…
Recently, on social media and my website, I have made no secret of my modern return into the world of competitive basketball. I play full court four days a week at the Hollywood YMCA and recently entered a Three-on-Three tournament against other fathers at elementary schools, which I happened to have won. (My proudest athletic achievement in my life to date – not counting the time I took Colton – the star 7-year-old pitcher – DEEP in a father-son Little League game last summer…)
I have re-discovered a love for the game I haven’t had sine 1993 and I’m actually a better player now than I have ever been.
Throughout my life and into high school, basketball was everything. As a 6’2” inch eighth grader, I was groomed by my coach to become the next great Arizona Wildcats big man. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown an inch since eighth grade. I switched to the wing, where I lacked certain skills, but was still able to hold my own mainly because I was actually grabbing the rim with ease and in top physical shape. However, around age 18, I discovered the usual pitfalls – Weed, beer and women – and decided that since I had no chance, or interest in walking on my college team, I would hang up my Air Jordan XII’s and I only stepped on the court a handful of times over the ensuing decade.
A few years ago, however, I was listening to UCLA great and fellow Grateful Dead-Head Bill Walton broadcast an Arizona- Oregon basketball game, when something he said struck me deep inside. After he spent a few minutes comparing some obscure 1970’s Bob Dylan song to the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break technique, he discussed his history of injuries he attained while playing. At the end of this sidebar, Bill Walton claimed to have broken his nose 13 times.
“That’s what happens when you play defense with your face,” he exclaimed.
He also mentioned his surgically fused ankles, incinerated spine, broken wrists, 36 surgeries and broken leg – all suffered on the basketball court. Walton’s lifelong injuries, along with his 1978–1979 year-long protest of the Portland Trail Blazers unethical treatment of his injuries, gave him the record of missing the most games during an NBA playing career, when taking into account the number of years he was officially listed as a player on a team roster. He spoke of how debilitating it became to walk and I researched even deeper to see that Walton once even contemplated suicide due to severe depression from debilitating back pain.
However, Walton then made a comment that made his life on the disabled list seem even more surreal… He observed a certain move power forward Solomon Hill had made and remarked, “That is a move to study – for those of you who are still lucky enough to play basketball…”
Lucky? How could 13 broken noses and suicidal thoughts be considered lucky? I felt that I was lucky to have quit basketball with my original nose still in place. What was Walton talking about?
Attempting to find out, the next day I dusted off some 10-year-old shoes and made my first trip to a court in what was nearly five or six years. I checked out a basketball at the YMCA that looked as if it had spent a good majority of its life underwater, and went to shoot around. It took me awhile, but eventually I was making short jump shots and working on my cardiovascular fitness while running up and down the gymnasium floor. Some of my old spin moves came back to me, and I put up a couple of nice finger rolls and hit some three pointers. It actually felt amazing.
About an hour later, a few guys asked me if I wanted to play “21” with them, but I declined, afraid of shooting 9 air balls and getting embarrassed. Instead, I continued to work on some post moves and drives and watched them from the corner of my eye. They were laughing, having fun and playing just above the level where I was – which made me think I might have hung in there if I had accepted their challenge. Instead, I returned my ball and went home and told myself I’d be back the next day.
I did come back the next day. And the next. I ran that court nearly every other day for months until I was actually joining the games of 21 and winning a good majority of the time. For the first time in over a decade, I was having a lot of fun playing basketball. I soon found myself in the full court games and now, three years later, found myself coming home and discussing the games with my wife as if I was playing in the NBA Finals. It became an obsession to the point where if I missed a lay-up during a game, I got depressed for the rest of the day. Still, it drove me to come back again, improve and remedy the situation.
My wife thought I was nuts. Every time I would bring up my day on the court, she would roll her eyes and remind me that I’m more Kevin Arnold than I am Kevin Durant. She also warned me to be careful, to which I reminded her that I was playing against a bunch of guys in their 30’s and that I was in better shape than most of them.
And then, about six months ago, I got smashed in the nose by a teenager who lowered his shoulder into me on a penetration. My nose now cracks in both directions when I try to move it, but I luckily avoided a full break. Then, a couple weeks later I was slightly concussed after being run under by a guy who was pissed that I was outplaying him. I ended up sitting out two days nursing my brain – which luckily was not permanently damaged. In December, I took an elbow to the bridge of my nose, which caused it to bleed profusely all over the court and earned me 75 “likes” on Instagram.
In February, I jammed my left thumb so hard during a rebound that I am still having trouble operating the zippers on my jeans. Then I jammed my right pointer and ring finger in consecutive games. I’m consistently fighting shin splints and a bone spur. Finally, last week, I discovered that I have bursitis in my right shoulder and that I might not be able to play for three weeks or so. This will be my first trip to the disabled list in my athletic career. And I’m a month away from 40. According to my dad, the injuries will now just start piling up. In short, I am about to enter my Bill Walton years. Now, my family is giving me all kinds of advice.
“Maybe think about not playing anymore,” my mother offered. “You know, you’re no spring chicken.”
I hung up on her.
“A spin class is much better on your body,” my dad suggested. I simply sent him pictures of my three-on-three trophy and told him I’d be back on the court in a month.
“Don’t do anything stupid, you don’t want to really hurt yourself,” my wife told me.
I rolled my eyes and studied Russell Westbrook highlights like it was important game film.
During the past week, I have found myself watching Bill Walton again. I guess recently there have been petitions to remove him from the Pac-12 broadcast booth, which upsets me entirely. Sure, he can go on tangents about the time Bob Weir and him spoke Arabic to camels in the Egyptian desert, but his unique and loveable qualities are what make him a treasure in the booth. He’s not a cookie-cutter color guy. He’s quotable and full of basketball wisdom. In fact, he may be my favorite college basketball announcer working today. Not only does he know the game, he makes it fun. I know he seems like he might be high or severely “out-there” once in awhile, but his love for the game is like nobody’s I’ve ever heard before. Not only that, his passion for the game is what got me playing basketball again.
Without Bill Walton, I’d still be jogging three miles on a treadmill. Not competing and not getting any sense of accomplishment.
For that, I thank you Mr. Walton. For inspiring me to lace up my sneakers that early morning three and a half years ago and return to the sport of my youth.
The evening after I won the three-on-three “Dads” championship, my wife said I had a “glow” about me. I knew what she was talking about, because I felt it. It was a sense of invincibility and achievement. I felt young again. Above the rim. It brought to mind a famous Bill Walton quote I had read years ago when he said, “You don’t win championships by being normal, by being average…”
I may have only defeated a bunch of dads in a Saturday pick-up tournament, but for those of us who are just hanging onto the final glimpses of what we might be able to accomplish as men, it was as if I won an NBA Championship.
Now if you excuse me, I have to go ice my shoulder. I’m planning on returning to the court earlier than expected…
The following is an email chain I exchanged with my Hollywood agent, who I have paid 10 percent of my income to these past ten years. In that past decade, he’s brokered a deal or two for me and has also bought me lunch three times. His agency is a big one, but I am a lowly peon in the cable TV hosting game, dwindling way beneath the Seacrests and Trebeks of the world. However, I am undoubtedly the biggest sports fan on the roster. Which is why, as a die hard NBA fan, I began asking him for tickets to the agency “luxury suite” four months ago to watch the Los Angeles Clippers play the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Staples Center on January 16, 2015…
Oct. 12, 2014.
From ME: Yo – Looking for Clippers – Cavs tickets on Jan 16 2015. I think the Cavs are gonna be great this year – and their new coach is a mastermind. Clips look strong too. Both teams will be in top playoff mode around January. If possible, might I be able to get into the agency box seats that night? Asking early to make sure… Thx – Z
From AGENT: Z! Of course buddy. Emailing tickets guy. You need two, right?
From Me: Yes Thank you so much.
Nov. 8, 2014.
From ME: Checking in on Clippers – Cavs tix for January. Has anyone asked about them? Thx – Z.
From AGENT: You’re #1 on the list. I got you covered big Z.
From Me: U Rule. Thx.
Dec. 9, 2014.
From ME: Hey brother – any news on those tickets? It’s getting close and I want to make sure I get in here before the office shuts down for holiday season.
From AGENT: Thank you for your email. Our offices have closed until January 7, 2015.
Jan 7. 2015.
From ME: My dude. Zach here – Hope your holidays were awesome… I was in Seattle with the fam. Checking in on Clippers – Cavs game for January 16. Wanted to see if you could email the tickets to me? Or maybe messenger them? Very excited – thank you sooo much.
From AGENT: Hey Z. Checking in with tickets guy again today.
Jan 8. 2015.
From ME: Any news?
From AGENT: Hang tight.
Jan. 12, 2015.
From ME: Hey man, sorry to bother you – but game is in 4 days – trying to figure out babysitter and all that stuff… Looking forward to seeing LeBron.
From AGENT: (No reply).
Jan 16, 2015.
From AGENT: Hey Z, so sorry bud but we had an overflow of ticket requests for this game… Apparently both teams are playing really well. Matthew Perry snapped up a pair this morning and Giuliana Rancic is top of the list for the other pair. Sorry bud. We’ll get you into a game. I know we have seats for the Lakers – Nuggets on February 10… Chace Crawford just turned them down.
In the world of celebrity, free stuff is king. Matthew Perry and his 500 million dollars does not need free basketball tickets… Plus, he’s sober, so all the free booze in the luxury box was going to be ignored anyway. Giuliana Rancic? Or DiPandi or whatever her name is? Are you kidding me? She makes fun of celebrity dresses for a living. She probably heard the word “Cavs” and thought it was a leg workout. And Lakers – Nuggets tickets? The Lakers are led by a guy who is famous for being Iggy Azaleia’s boyfriend. Kobe is out for the year. They’re not exactly a hot ticket. The point was, I was not considered successful enough to snag the Clippers tickets. I was looking at some washed up pretty boy from Gossip Girl named Chace Crawford’s rejects… Perry and Rancic were gonna be on their iphones in the suite the entire time and most of the so-called Hollywood celebrities who were going to the game probably think “Chris Paul” is a type of champagne.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers were all that mattered. They had Del Harris, a young Kobe, Van Exel was being name-checked in Jay-Z songs, Eddie Jones and huge NBA stoner Sam Perkins. (Who looked blazed in 99% of his games). My friends and I would drop $25.00 to sit in the nosebleed section of the Forum just to catch a fading glimpse of what the legendary teams of the 80’s left behind. They were likeable underdogs who fought hard and always battled. Then came Shaq. And Phil Jackson and Kobe became Kobe. Those were the last years I liked the Lakers. Kobe lost his appeal when he shaved his mini afro and faced his legal troubles. Still, going to games was fun because, hey – going to the games are always fun. Still, these last ten years I stopped rooting for them and began just appreciating all professional basketball in general.
Now, Los Angeles is all about the Clippers. A recent text from a buddy read: Lakers are for Fakers…I’m going to the Clips game. The abundance of Lakers flags that people used to display from outside of their car’s windows are long gone. The sea of purple and gold has been replaced by red, white and blue. And let me tell you, I have never seen anyone play pick-up basketball while wearing a Carlos Boozer jersey.
Still, the luxury box is indeed, luxurious. I emailed my agent back a few days later and accepted the Lakers – Nuggets tickets. At least I could see Arizona Wildcat-alum Jordan Hill and possibly watch a few Jeremy Lin up–and-unders. Plus, my brother is a huge hoops fan as well and neither of us are Matthew Perry – sober. Watching two out-of-the-playoff race teams loaf up and down the court over free hot dogs and Stella Artois isn’t a bad way to spend a Tuesday night.
I emailed my agent a week before the game to make sure he could send the tickets over.
Feb. 3, 2015
From ME: Hey man – excited for Lakers – Nugs game on Tuesday… Can you messenger the tickets or email them? Thx brother – Z
From AGENT: Yo, Z – Hey man… looking into this. Looks like Chace Crawford might want the tickets after all… but it depends on if we can get him seats on the floor or not.
From ME: You’re fired.
When it was all said and done, Chace Crawford ended up not going, so I snagged the tickets. The game was poorly attended and didn’t even get exciting until the 4th quarter. Jack Nicholson wasn’t there. Neither was Leo. Or any other familiar celebrity face that we have all come to associate with the Lakers. Instead, it was my brother and myself, sitting amongst a bunch of 22-year-old agent assistants in the luxury suite, sipping Stella Artois and filling up the stat sheet with junk food.
I looked long and hard down at the floor as the game wound down. I was having the time of my life. I guess watching LeBron James would have been a lot more entertaining, but this was still a pretty awesome way to see a basketball game. As a sports lover, sometimes it doesn’t even matter who is playing. And after Swaggy P made a three-pointer and did the eye goggles gesture with his hands, I suddenly became a Lakers fan again for the first time in ten years.
And as I squinted hard at the row of folks seated on the floor, I believe I recognized a celebrity typing away into his iphone three seats down from the Lakers bench.
It was Chase Crawford.
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My 25-Year Obsession With Beverly Hills 90210Recently, I was in a bar amongst a group of young screen-addicts who were drinking Moscow Mules and comparing Instagram followers. When the bartender gave me my beer, I noticed that his nametag read, “Nat.” As a joke, I said, “Aww, what happened Nat? Did the Peach Pit close down?”
Nat wasn’t amused. Neither were the 20-something bar patrons surrounding me. In fact, nobody around me even recognized the reference to Beverly Hills 90210, one of my all time favorite TV shows that had been off the air since 2000. I quickly tried to explain to everyone that “Nat” was a solid gold reference from the 90’s, but they promptly rolled their eyes and went back to discussing a recently posted Instagram photo uploaded by the Supra Shoe Company.
“Supra is killin it,” one of them remarked.
I took my beer and walked to the end of the bar to watch basketball.
You must understand. Beverly Hills 90210 was to my generation, the single greatest television phenomenon we had ever experienced. The show debuted the same day I began my sophomore year of high school. Brandon Walsh had sideburns at 15-years-old, Kelly Taylor had already had a nose job and been raped by a college guy. Dylan McKay was balding and had already beaten drug and alcohol addiction. All of this at age 15. Growing up where I did, these guys were already living way beyond their years. At 15, my biggest accomplishment had been when I learned how to waterski during Jewish summer camp.
Donna Martin had a terrible boob job. David Silver’s friend shot and killed himself accidentally. Steve Sanders’ mom was a recovering coke-fiend actress.
My friend’s moms? Well, one of them was considered a local Tucson celebrity because she once taught aerobics to Dyan Cannon at Canyon Ranch.
Nobody I knew drove a Corvette. Nobody knew where to even get drugs OR a nose job… And finally, the most facial hair we could scrounge up at the time was an occasional lone straggler poking its way from the bottom of our chins. Of course, I had no idea that the actors were really 25-years-old. So, intrigued, I studied them. Imitated them. I grew sideburns. I edited my school paper like Brandon Walsh did and treated it as if it was the West Beverly Blaze. I squinted like Luke Perry when I went on dates and I did my best to turn my small table-bussing job at the local 50’s diner Little Anthony’s into my own little private Peach Pit.
Of course, at my high school, the white trash rednecks got all the hot chicks. The dudes who stayed shirtless most of the time, dipped Copenhagen and listened to Metallica. The dudes who drove souped-up 1982 Fords and went jackrabbit hunting and drank Budweiser and sported long hair. The dudes like Randy Gatemouth, a 17-year-old sophomore with two missing teeth and three earrings who wore a T-shirt that said “Big Johnson’s Casino: Liquor Up front; Poker in the Rear.”
I was more of a Brandon Walsh type. I listened to Sting, Dire Straits and rap. I spent 45 minutes blow-drying my hair into a pompadour every morning. I took my dates to my diner and shared milkshakes and maybe got away with a French kiss at the end of the night. Meanwhile, Randy Gatemouth was rumored to have sired a child with a girl from Palo Verde High School who had hidden her pregnancy and given it away for adoption at age 16.
To put it bluntly, Randy Gatemouth did NOT watch Beverly Hills 90210.
But I did. And I followed it religiously. I recall how I was shocked when Dylan and Kelly hooked up when Brenda went to Europe. I remember Brandon losing his virginity. I cried when Dylan’s dad was murdered. (Sorry, spoiler alert for those of you planning a binge watch this weekend). I even WROTE about the show for the school paper, comparing the lives of these fake people on this ridiculous show to the lives of the average Tucson, Arizona high school kid in the early 90’s.
The love affair continued into college, when I rushed a fraternity and was given the pledge name, “Brenda.” Every Thursday my entire frat would gather in the common TV room and watch the show like we were executive producers in a ratings testing lab. I played air guitar to the brilliant opening riff. Much to my surprise, I found kindred souls who never missed an episode.
“Dude, Kelly or Valerie?” Was a common question amongst the guys.
“Bro, I’m from Manhattan Beach,” a brother and fellow fan exclaimed. “No way these bitches can afford a house like that on the Strand.”
“How’s Luke Perry’s movie career going since he left the show?” I would occasionally toss around. (Note to readers: I did see – and enjoy – 8 Seconds.)
After graduation, turning 21 and discovering that the real world existed outside of college, I sort of lost interest in the show. I stayed through an extra year or two, always amused at Steve’s KEG house antics and eventually his wife Janet, but soon it just dried out and became ridiculous. It probably had been for years, but around 1997, I finally decided that I had graduated from my obsession with Beverly Hills90210. And then I began working as an actor.
The only other guy I knew in college who followed his dream into acting was a friend named Marc. His first job? Playing a character known as “The Man” on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. I never admitted it, but I was so jealous. I refused to act like it was a big deal, but God Damn, it was as if he had “made it.” Here I was, scrambling to get a SAG card, and this kid had swooped in and landed a role on my favorite TV show of all time. I harbored a certain hatred for that for about a year… Until I was asked to audition for the role of BRODY on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. The character was described simply as, “Steve’s Old College Buddy.” I remember the lines so well. Here is what the script and audition looked like:
STEVE and JANET sit at a table. They gaze into each other’s eyes.
Thanks babe. You’re a great guy.
Steve smiles and holds her hand. Suddenly, BRODY, 23, Steve’s old KEG brother walks up to the table holding a beer. Even though he’s out of college, Brody is still very much living the party life.
Woah! Sanders! The legend, man! I see you’re still scoring as many chicks as in college!
Steve looks horrified. Janet stares daggers at her husband.
I knew it, Steve. You haven’t changed one bit!
Offended, Janet stands and leaves. She covers her mouth crying. Steve looks at Brody, upset.
Woah! What’s up with her?
Steve angrily tosses his napkin on the table.
Thanks a lot, Brody.
Steve walks off, leaving Brody at the table. He sips his beer and returns to the party.
BOOM! That was it. I knew I could nail the part of “Brody” and I worked those two lines as if I was auditioning for Richard III on Broadway. The day of the audition came and I went in, overly prepared. A bunch of other young actors (One who I SWEAR was Jeremy Renner) sat in the waiting room running their lines. When my name was called, I went in and auditioned and walked out with a confident swagger that screamed, “ I NAILED it.”
I didn’t even get a callback. I was crushed. My dream had been shattered. I was so sure I was going to play “Brody” that I cried myself to sleep that night and wondered if I had made a bad decision dedicating my life to the world of acting. My agent, Iris Burton (Legendary rep to child stars who passed away about 7 years ago) called me the next day. Through a cigarette-tinged trachea she told me the bad news. “Zach, it’s not going any further with 90210, but they like your look,” she said. “They wanna know if you’ll do extra work. I said no. We’ll get the next one.” “Wait!” I screamed. “Tell them YES! I will TOTALLY do extra work for the show!” “Are you fucking serious?” “Yes, Iris – it’s my favorite show of all time. I have to be in at least one scene.” “I don’t work with extras, Zach.” She demanded. “I work with stars.” “Please Iris? I’ll only do this once.” Iris Burton hung up on me and I was called in for a day of extra work on Beverly Hills 90210 the next morning. A bunch of young actors, most of who were in high school and/or community college were shuttled from a parking area on a backlot to the actual 90210 set. (I can not recall where this was). When we got there, I managed to find a script and I read through the dailies. I quickly noticed that the role of “Brody” was nowhere to be found. I located an assistant director and asked who was playing the role “I was born to play.” “The Brody role got cut after the first table read,” the assistant director said. “Oh, thanks,” I replied. YES. I now had an excuse on why I didn’t get the part.
I returned to “extras holding” and sat with the crowd of kids I was convinced would someday be lining up to be extras in my OWN TV show. Suddenly, a woman came in and said, “I need four men for a scene at the Peach Pit.” I threw up my arms like Donna Martin over the toilet on prom night. The woman pointed at me. “Red shirt guy, come with me,” she said. I fixed my hair and walked over to her along with three other dudes. Holy shit, I was going to the Pit. The set was a mess. Cables and cameras were everywhere. Lighting guys and grips strolled through their routines as if this job had become a burden. Some even complained about the set up of the scene. To me, however, it was as if I had made it past the most exclusive velvet rope in the world.
This was the time of the show when only Steve, Donna, Kelly, David, Brandon and Valerie remained. When I glanced at the call sheet, Jason Priestly and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen were the only ones scheduled that day, but I doubted they would even be in the same scene as me. Imagine my surprise when I glanced out the window and saw Priestley stub out a cigarette before strolling up to the set for “last looks.” I studied him. In high school, I had actually bought a pair of “Pepe Jeans” because he was the face of the brand for about two months. I idolized him. He was in Tombstone. Hell, he was even in Calendar Girl. I was in awe. He was so suave, so cool. He looked so intimidating… Until I realized he was about 5’8”.
As Priestley got his makeup worked over, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen entered the room next. She was stunningly beautiful and seemed extremely happy. She very charming and took time to shake everybody’s hand. At one point, I tried to “eye-seduce” her, but I think she got a little creeped out by my gaze and turned away. I went back to standing around and waiting.
“You, with the red shirt, you wanna take money from Joe?”
I wasn’t sure if that was meant for me. I looked for the female Extras Wrangler. Sure enough, she was talking to me. She said I had one job to do in the scene.
“Take money from Joe.”
Whatever that meant. As it turned out, JOE was Joe E. Tata. “Nat” himself. The owner and king of the Peach Pit. I nodded my head ‘yes’ and went to my position in front of the cash register.
The scene played out like this: Brandon’s old “sports bookie” was in town for some reason or another and Brandon was freaked out. Valerie was there to comfort him (I think). My role was to take my change from Nat at the beginning of the scene and promptly exit through the front door. They set it all up. I was nervous. They rolled sound and began the scene. “Action!” yelled the director as the huge 35-millimeter cameras spun their thousand-dollar-a-foot film. Nat handed me a few fake bills.
I took them from his hand and responded, “Thanks!” I walked out.
“CUT!” The director yelled. “Did anyone tell this fucking kid to speak?”
I turned bright red. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong, but I was quickly reprimanded by the Extras Wrangler who told me to not talk. Little did I know it, but I just cost the producers roughly $3000 dollars in 35-millimeter film because I thought I could sneak in my own line on the show. Lesson learned. Don’t speak.
“Just smile and take the money from Joe,” she said to me.
So I did. And I did it again. And again. And at the end, I heard the director say, “moving on” and I fully expected him to come up to me and offer me a recurring role on the show right there. Instead, the Extras Wrangler told me that my day was done and that I would receive my $50 paycheck in the mail within a few weeks. I signed a contract and left, knowing that I was forever immortalized on screen of the TV show that had shaped most of my teenage years.
All these years later, I have had many encounters with cast members of the show. Janet (Lindsay Price) is actually a close friend of my family. Priestley and I have mutual friends and you’re damn right I own his autobiography. David Silver (Brian Austin Green) and I had a West Beverly High “dance-off” at Comic Con 2008 (See YouTube link below). And I’ve hung with Tiffani Thiessen, Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth through mutual actor pals. I once shared a joint with Luke Perry in the smoking section of a club, but we didn’t keep in touch. And last year I failed at trying to get Ian Ziering to be a guest on my History Channel show. (Sharknado made him too big I guess). As for my friend Marc, his acting career took a small detour, and he invented the brilliant “Drop Stop” car crack filler that is revolutionizing the way we stay focused on the road. Couldn’t be more proud of him.
I’m guessing that Jimmy Fallon is days – if not weeks – away from doing some sort of fun Beverly Hills 90210 reunion sketch on The Tonight Show and he’s gonna be lauded and praised for bringing us all back to 1992 again. Heck, if I had a show like that it would be my “sweeps week” cornerstone. Still, for me, the show meant a lot. It made me want to move to California as much as the Doors and Neil Young and posters of hot blondes posing on Ferraris beneath the caption, “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” Whenever I meet a cast member, I revert back to the teenager I was in 1992, dreaming of an acting career and a night partying at a hot club with Shannen Doherty and her 5-day husband Ashley Hamilton. Suddenly my fading youth speeds back to me like Steve Sanders in a street drag race in 1990. These folks are forever in my references and mind and heart.
So, whenever I meet a bartender named “Nat” I am going to reference the Peach Pit as if it were 1993 and I was playing air guitar in my fraternity in front of the big screen TV. No matter what the ultra-hip Instagram crowd at the bar thinks about it. By the way. I eventually saw the scene in the episode where I took the money from Nat at the Peach Pit. If you look closely, you can almost see the tip of my sideburns as I walk out the door…
*Watch Zach’s new video for his song “Too Old for Molly, Too Young for LSD” !*
see below! Zach brings his worldwide knowledge of slang words to Sirius XM/ Shade 45’s hip-hop radio show “THE ALL OUT SHOW” once a month. Make sure to listen in and hear Zach and Jude play origin games and chop up the English language… on SHADE45 Sirius/XM