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…
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” !*
I live about a mile from the building that was once the famous swing dance club known as “the Derby.” In the mid-late 90’s, when the swing music revolution twirled its way across the streets of Los Angeles and turned regular farm boys from the Midwest into Rat Pack wannabes, “the Derby” was the swing club to frequent.
In 1996, Jon Favreau was so inspired, he made a pretty great film about it called Swingers and suddenly star Vince Vaughn had the entire town looking for “beautiful babies” and saying that everything was “money.” I passed a bootleg VHS tape of the film around my college friends and soon fell in hook, line and sinker. After graduation, I dove head first into the post-Swingers madness that raised dirty martinis all over Hollywood. Lines formed around the Hillhurst/Los Feliz street corner where the Derby resided awaiting entrance into the ultimate haven of swing-cool.
I owned 15 bowling shirts, white “creeper” shoes, Cadillac-emblazoned pants, shoulder-pad heavy sport coats, a flask, three Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CDs and a t-shirt that said “It’s Frank’s World, Were all Just Living in It.” I went to Las Vegas monthly, drank gin and tonics and swept my hair up into a James Dean-inspired pompadour. I remember feeling so confident that my “swinger” image would live with me for the rest of my days, I traveled to New York City around 1999 and searched out underground West Village swing clubs to show Manhattan that a “Real Life Hollywood Swinger” was in their presence. Somehow the façade worked and after ringing up a $290 credit card bill, I managed to make out with a girl named ‘Kitty’ who had a Stray Cats tattoo on her shoulder before retiring to her floor mattress in Brooklyn where she woke up six times during the night to smoke Marlboro Reds.
It was all because of Swingers.
And then, about five years ago, it was announced that the Derby was going to be transformed into a Chase Bank. The bar where I spent my early 20’s was suddenly going to be a place where I would curse the teller for charging me a checking account fee… The club where I once dated the hottest bartender in town was turning into a place where a gal named Evelyn would inform me my mortgage was ten days late. When I heard the news, I knew this was not good. The Derby? I thought… A bank? WWJFD? (What Would Jon Favreau Do?)
Turns out, Favreau had bigger fish to fry. Even though he could have easily bought the Derby and used it to store his Iron Man memorabilia, he ignored my twitter plea for him to buy the bar and turn it into a museum. I’m sure Vince Vaughn most likely drank at “Mess Hall,” the restaurant next door, toasting the ghosts of the barroom that made him a movie star… but he was also too busy and uninspired to save the bar. I even tweeted actor Patrick Van Horn, who played SUE in the film. He at least took the time to write me back by quipping “End of an Era.”
A week before the Derby was to be gutted, I gathered my old “Swinger buddies,” – now dads who had traded in slick sport coats and suspenders for Old Navy hoodies – and we poured out some gin for Favreau and Vaughn, for Sinatra, for dirty martinis, for the incredible wooden Derby ceiling, for the memories we had shared at the bar and for the debauched nights spent watching amazing swing bands like Royal Crown Revue sing “walk right in, walk right out…”
We even quoted the movie a few more times to make sure we still knew all the classic lines. “Get there…” “This place is deaaad anyway…” “He’s all growns up… I would never eat here.” “You’re the fun-loving out going party guy, and you’re sweating some lawn jockey?” The night went on and on.
As the evening died down, we all retired a lot earlier than we had in the late 90’s and excused ourselves back to our families. The next week, the Chase Bank transformation had begun and the last remaining memories of my first few years out of college were carried out and discarded.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in line at the Chase, staring up at the exact same wooden ceiling that I had spun girls beneath in the past. The ceiling beneath which I had done shots of Crown Royal a hundred times. The ceiling that watched over me as I tried to find assimilation with a unique sect of people during those weird times when you’re not yet quite sure who you were – who you are – or where you are going.
I got up to the bank teller and deposited my meager check, taking a moment to remark that this building was once my one-time favorite nightclub.
Without making eye-contact she mumbled, “Yep, every one of you middle-aged guys who comes in here has the same story.”
“Fuck off,” I whispered under my breath.
I took another glance at the ceiling and thought of the days gone by. Hollywood is forever a town of transformation. Very few restaurants and bars make it ten years… hence the stories you read about now defunct clubs like The Trip, The Cathouse and Gazzari’s that were the most happening places to be. In my life, the Derby was certainly my place. The place where I was part of a nationwide fad that engulfed my youth when I was a mere lump of clay awaiting to be molded into the lump of Play-Doh I am these days.
As I looked down at my bank receipt and realized how far this journey in Hollywood had taken me, I thought of the dreams I had at age 22 that were still somewhat unrealized. When places that mean so much to you as a kid disappear, you fail to immediately recognize that they will be gone for good and the memories will fade or melt into new ones until all you have left are a few photographs and some journal entries. I look back at my two years as a pseudo-swinger as important remembrances that I will take with me through all of my life. At the time I thought I’d be 22 forever, twirling cute tattooed ladies across slick wooden floors only pausing to sip drinks and wipe the sweat from our brows. I never thought I’d be 40-years-old and in the exact same room looking down at a bank statement stressing about the fact that I barely had enough money that week to cover my DWP bill.
Again, my thoughts turned to Jon Favreau. As the worlds most in demand director, he probably never imagined he would achieve the level of success he has back when he was simply searching for familiarity amongst the Hollywood night-crawlers of the mid 90’s. I reached back out to my old swinger buddies and arranged another drinking night to sit back and reminisce about the Derby days gone by, and we all agreed to get together on a following Tuesday night.
Of course, by Monday morning, everybody had flaked and the plans were cancelled so we could spend some time with our families. We all agreed to try again later, and I thought about how a little piece of all of us died the day the Derby did…
And a part of me knew, that somewhere, high up in those Malibu Hills, Jon Favreau was feeling the same thing…
Buy Zach’s Book “Talent Will Get You Nowhere” on Amazon.com!
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…