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!
Out of Touch at The Dream Hotel * 2015 By Zach Selwyn
It was two-o-clock in the morning and I was standing on the street outside the Dream Hotel in New York City when a slick looking hustler in a Panama hat sided up to me.
“You looking for girls tonight?” He said.
“Naah man, I’m just trying to get some air.”
“You sure? Just up those stairs across the street is all kinds of hoes… I’m talking Thai girls, Russians, Mamis… You ever bang a bad bitch?”
“What exactly is a bad bitch?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, then you’ve never banged one…”
I have been in New York City for roughly 36 hours. In that time, I have averaged 4 hours of sleep a night, eaten 7 street hot dogs and drank close to 19 cups of bad deli coffee. I have also realized that I am the most out of touch loser in the city. The average Manhattan man around my age is sporting a hundred dollar undercut and a long beard – which is eerily similar to L.A. (With only a few less Man-Buns). The difference is, these guys are also rocking 3,000 dollar Ted Baker suits and wingtips. As for me, I am wearing a 1970’s – era Wrangler cowboy shirt, some Lee Riders from the early 80’s and a pair of ¾ boots I scored from a TV show wardrobe department about 4 years ago. My hair is pretty tame and I still have Beverly Hills 90210-era sideburns. I’m also wearing a trucker cap that reads “Roy Clark” on it, bellbottoms and a belt buckle that features Chester the Cheetah riding a Harley motorcycle beneath the inscription “Cheesy Rider.”
I feel a little like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy because NOBODY is dressed like me. Funny thing is, this is how I have been dressing for 15 years. A few years back, in the early 00’s, everybody started dressing like this. Now, those days are long gone and I’m the only guy on 8th Avenue wearing a shirt that unsnaps when you tear it apart and a turquoise ring.
And apparently, I have no idea what a “bad bitch” is.
I realized I was grossly under-dressed when I attended the first business dinner with the company I am working for. I figured it would be a quick bite at a local bar, but it turned into the type of place where they asked me to remove my hat as I sat down. The next day, at the company’s request, I made my way to a J. Crew to try and find something respectable that I would feel comfortable wearing. I settled on a checkered red, white and blue button-down and some horrendously skinny jeans. The price? $254.
When the sales associate asked me “how my sock game” was, I told him, “Fine. I buy all my socks at Ross: Dress for Less.”
“How’s your shoe game?” He asked.
“I have these nice ¾ boots,” I said.
“Uggh, please – nobody is wearing ¾ boots anymore,” he retorted. “You need some wings!”
I walked out of the store.
I couldn’t place my finger on it, but Manhattan had begun to seem too cookie cutter. I guess I was aware of the Duane Reade explosion and the Starbucks on every corner, but I was not prepared for the fashion clones that had sprouted up everywhere. Sure I was ten years older than the average guy out on a Wednesday night, but even I could sense a lack of originality. New York City, which was once full of punk street kids, trendsetters and Mapplethorpe-worshipping leather daddies sticking whips in their asses and walking into a Saks Fifth Avenue, had become somewhat tame.
I recently read an interview with AdRock of the Beastie Boys talking about how the “New York of his youth had disappeared.” I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. Manhattan in the 70’s and 80’s – before the crackdowns and the $8200 a month rent – was an artistic and fantastic place to be. These were the days before the smelly Times Square Jack Sparrows. Before Hell’s Kitchen was a gentrified hipster paradise. In the late 80’s I would visit my second cousin and roll down Canal Street to buy fake Gucci jackets, leather African medallion necklaces and a bootleg cassette of LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. The tape-dealers would offer me “smoke,” which scared the crap out of me. At one point, my mom dragged me away from a couple of black guys who were standing around Washington Square Park discussing the new Bobby Brown On Our Own song from Ghostbusters II. I tried to inject some white boy wisdom by saying I thought Bobby should’ve written a second rap verse instead of repeating the “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold” line and they ignored me as if I was “Chester the Terrier” following around the bigger “Spike the Bulldog” in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
The only exception I could find was in the Dream Hotel. The first couple of nights I was in town, I took it easy, stayed in my room, watched TV and had sex with the full-length pillow. However, a hotel room can only hold you captive for so long and eventually I came downstairs to find out where the notorious dark side of this fantastic city had wound up. I now believe it all centers around the Dream Hotel. Within an hour of hanging in the lobby, I was propositioned by more pimps, hustlers, hoes and drug dealers than I have seen in 20 years in Los Angeles. Methy looking skinny teenagers were offering me weed, cocaine and what they claim is “Government pure MDMA.” The lobby was crawling with hookers and late night denizens of the rooftop nightclub, which is named “PDH.” An acronym for what I can only imagine is “Pimps, Drugs and Hoes” based on the army of thick women standing around comparing 9 inch Indian weaves and elastic black twat-length skirts that barely cover their clitori. (Is that the plural for “clitoris?”)
The new Manhattan underbelly had become what Jay-Z sang about in Empire State of Mind. “Ballplayers, rap stars, addicted to that limelight…” Everywhere I went folks were talking about money, cars and rap music. If Los Angeles is supposedly a vapid, material city full of superficial idiots, New York City has embraced a lifestyle full of flashy watches, bottle service, velvet ropes and hangers on… So much so that when I tried to get access to the PDH nightclub on the top floor, the bouncer looked at my “shoe game” and instructed me to “please wait in the other bar.”
I didn’t really want to go up to PDH, but it did seem like it had to be part of my Dream Hotel adventure. So I waited in the bar drinking 17 dollar glasses of shoddy tempranillo wondering how anyone can listen to this much house and trap music in one day. The hotel sort of felt like Miami, but it was 40 degrees cooler and Pitbull wasn’t here singing some shitty song about how “white girl got some ass.”
Finally a large Puerto Rican man came over and told me that since I was a guest of the hotel, all I needed to do was show my room key and I could gain access to the club. I sauntered up towards the door, bypassing the line of desperate gold diggers and club kids and flashed my hotel room key. It was the first time in my entire trip that I had felt somewhat cool.
The nightclub was everything I always hated about nightclubs. Expensive drinks, a DJ mixing Calvin Harris with Blondie, hairy men pouring vodka-cranberry drinks for girls who were most likely being paid to hang around them and intimidating looking security guards who mad-dogged anybody ordering a single beer instead of a 2500 dollar bottle of Grey Goose.
I stayed for 8 minutes.
On my way downstairs, I decided I had to get outside and just see the street. I was sick of the lines, the attitude and the fact that a cast member from Real Housewives of Atlanta had demanded to cut the line… and was placated with a free bottle of vodka. I had to walk to a deli and buy some water and eat a sandwich and try to get some sleep before my work event the following day.
I came back to the hotel with my snacks and drinks – which, by the way, were shoved into about 11 plastic bags by the deli owner as if the plastic problem doesn’t exist in New York – and stopped to listen to the sidewalk pimps do their thing. They were like the dude selling Eddie Murphy’s gold hair dryer in Coming to America. I heard some remarkable stuff:
“You wanna table shower my man?”
“I got one tranny but she visiting her brother at Riker’s right now.”
“Playa, I can get you three at once, but you gotta wear three rubbers.”
I guess Manhattan hadn’t changed that much. Instead of bootleg tapes, men were looking for the booty. These hipster hotels had become infidelity dens and the cops just seemed to look the other way. And as for the falling crime rate – well – as this night was coming to a close, NBA player Chris Copeland was actually stabbed in an altercation outside of 1OAK nightclub just a few streets away from where I was staying.
As I strolled towards the entrance, I passed by my friend in the Panama hat one last time.
“Yo, son – I got you. I know you wanna find out what a bad bitch is,” he propositioned.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “I gotta get to bed.”
I went up to my room and had sex with the full-length pillow.
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…
After Reading Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ Piece, I Decided to See What my Old Pot Dealer From High School was Up to…
Recently, Sean Penn made headlines when he bravely traveled deep into the heart of Sinaloa to meet and converse with the notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Right after the story went to press, El Chapo was captured – and his latest elusive time on the lam abruptly came to a close. Penn’s piece was published in Rolling Stone this week and I found it to be an engrossing piece of long lost Gonzo journalism at its finest. Penn, an actor, long known for his political involvement, put himself in the direct line of peril and danger all while partnering with a famous Mexican film actress to infiltrate the most impenetrable depths of Narco activity. He shook hands, broke bread and slammed tequila with a man that the DEA and Mexican authorities have been unable to locate for close to six months. In my opinion, Penn’s story was a hell of a lot more ballsy than anything else any pampered Hollywood actor has attempted in the past twenty years. (Sorry, Julia Roberts. Playing an AIDS-sensitive doctor in The Normal Heart may have been considered “daring” but it pales in comparison to a 55-year-old Oscar winner risking his life to traipse deep into a jungle of death for an interview for a rock-n-roll magazine).
So, inspired by Sean Penn’s courage, I decided that the recent stories and essays I have written have felt a little too “soft.” I realized that had to step it up. Knowing that I was traveling back to my hometown of Tucson to visit my mother on Martin Luther King, jr. weekend, I made up my mind that I was going to turn the trip into my own personal “El Chapo rendezvous.” I had a great idea…
My goal was to track down Ernesto Gregory, the most successful marijuana dealer in my high school. The last I had heard of Ernesto was through a photograph taken around 2011 by our mutual high school friend, Erik. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook drinking in the desert. Erik had captioned the photo with He’s finally out! Welcome home boss!”
Assuming that this caption insinuated that he had just been released from some high security prison, I was under the impression that Ernesto had built up an El Chapo-like narcotics network of hundreds of foot soldiers and truckloads of contraband over the past 18 years. Why else would he have been in jail? Why would Erik call him “boss?” Plus, he was wearing the typical outfit. A Large Polo Horse logo situated on a blue collared shirt on top of True Religion designer jeans. DEA agents call this look “Narco Polo.” Now I have seen Sicario. I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I had no doubt that Ernesto had risen from low-grade weed dealer at Rincon/University High School into a southwestern drug legend – living in ranches and mansions sprawled across the Tucson and Mexico landscape.
And I was going to interview him.
I was set to fly into Tucson International Airport on January 17th. My plan was to eat a bunch of food at my mother’s house, drink wine and play three games of Scrabble all while hearing her talk about how amazing The Revenant was. The following day, I would travel deep into the center of Tucson to meet up with and interview the most intimidating and bad-ass pot dealer my high school had known.
Back in 1993, Ernesto Gregory had owned the school’s finest lowered mini truck. He had a 200-dollar Motorola pager. His “system” – or car stereo – was as custom as they came, complete with an Alpine tape deck, a Sony Discman attachment, two 12-inch Kicker woofers, some Kenwood tweeters and a constant bass thump of MC Breed, DJ Magic Mike and Wrecks ‘N Effect blasting from his trunk. He had his own apartment on Speedway, decked out with a two-foot bong, a television with cable and an unlimited financial account on a sort of early 90’s YouTube video-on-demand predecessor known as “The Box.” He always wore a black Colorado Rockies cap and Marithe and Francois Girbaud jeans beneath over-sized t-shirts of ridiculous animated Looney Tunes characters wearing 90’s hip-hop clothing. His pager code for weed was “907.” His girlfriend was the hottest girl in the senior class – a dark-haired Mexican sex goddess named Racquel Hernandez. And he was tough. As far as we knew, he had never lost a fight. In fact, I recalled him once putting my friend from Hebrew School – Adam Richford – into a headlock and smashing his nose repeatedly until he apologized for “mad-dogging” him in the parking lot. He claimed he had connections through “uncles in Nogales,” where his product came from. And everybody knew, anyone with “uncles in Nogales” was always in the drug game… In short, Ernesto Gregory was the most accomplished 18-year-old kid I had laid eyes on in my young life.
After I landed, I told my mom about my plan.
“Why the hell are you meeting with this criminal?” My mother asked on the car ride from the airport.
“He was the king, mom!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the Sean Penn article?”
“Sean Penn’s an idiot, going to interview that drug dealer!”
“I thought that story was genius,” I said. “Besides, what else am I going to write? Another story about my kids not being allowed to bring refined sugar to school?”
Following a few glasses of wine at the house, my mom was trying to convince me to go to Wal-Mart to buy a knife for the meeting. I assured her that Ernesto and I were in good standing and that no concealed weapons would be necessary. She broke into a desperate sweat. We played two games of Scrabble before deciding to put the third one on pause because we were so tired that word like “uh” and “is” had begun appearing on the board.
My final memory of the evening was listening to my mom curse my name before she went to bed in the other room.
The following morning I fueled up on eggs and coffee, not knowing when I would be back to the house. The afternoon’s plans had been Facebook “messaged” to me by Erik, who I quickly learned from his profile hadn’t left Tucson since graduation. Erik wrote me that Ernesto wasn’t on social media, but he mentioned that he did watch a lot of TV and he had even seen my History Channel show and had once commented, “I know that fucker!” He also told me that Ernesto had demanded that Erik take down the aforementioned photo he had posted in 2011. Sure enough, when I searched for it, it was no longer online… All this solidified my drug-lord theory even more.
Ernesto had agreed to meet at 12:30. I took off in my mother’s Acura and sped over to an address located in the shadow of the bar-heavy downtown area. A place much hipper and enticing than it had been back in the 90’s when druggies and skinheads and homeless wandered Congress Boulevard scaring off any young people looking for a good time. Must have been all the drug money given to the city by Ernesto, I theorized.
I parked in a dirt lot and immediately recognized Erik, who looked like he had been a meth fiend since about 1994. He wore a saggy shirt, filthy pants and sported a patchy beard and shaved head. He had a kid’s BMX bicycle in his pick up truck bed, which I took as also a sure sign of a man on crystal meth. For some reason, heavy meth addicts seemed to always travel on way-too-small dirt bikes. Erik wasn’t unlike them.
I looked up just as a helicopter darted above us in the sky. DEA drone, I thought. Of course. We were most likely being followed. Hell, who knew what corner or alleyway was outfitted with a hidden camera tracking Erik’s every move. Shit, maybe the FBI had caught on to my story as well? I mean, who’s to say they weren’t tracking Erik’s Facebook page when I sent him my original message? I was starting to hit an all-time level of paranoia. Even a pigeon that flapped above us and landed on a telephone wire looked like it had a hidden camera in its eye… I tried to keep my cool.
Knowing some of the narco protocol, I began preparing for my meeting with Ernesto.
“So, should I give you my iphone for safety precautions?” I asked Erik.
“What for?” He replied.
“Oh, I just assumed I wasn’t allowed to bring any electronics to the meeting,” I said.
“We aint goin on no airplane or nothin,” he replied.
At this point, my entire drug kingpin theory went out the window. After all, in the El Chapo story, Sean Penn was told to turn his phone off in Los Angeles, nearly 14 hours before he even made contact with the cartel in Mexico. He had been forced to travel to in two separate SUV’s, two single engine planes and armored vehicles just to meet with El Chapo’s henchmen before gaining approval. He was most likely given a full body cavity search, frisked and water-boarded. Ernesto’s lone henchman was a meth fiend named Erik who was allowing me to bring my iphone into a meeting as if I was about to pitch him a new Angry Birds app to finance… Ernesto’s notorious drug cartel was crumbling before my eyes.
“Follow my truck, we’re going to shoot pool at Pockets,” Erik said.
“Pockets? We’re not going to his house or something?” I asked.
“What house?” He said. “Ernesto likes to play pool. You play pool?”
“Sure, man – I love pool,” I said.
I hate pool.
Pockets was a stale billiard hall way too brightly lit for a Wednesday afternoon. A few biker types with chain wallets and denim jackets drank Miller High Life at the bar. A Mexican guy who looked to be on his 5th or 6th Corona sat watching a soccer game on TV. One lone female, a waitress who would have slept with Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart after he played a set at a bowling alley, served beer. In the far west corner stood a chubby man in an Arizona Wildcats baseball cap chalking up his cue. I recognized him immediately as Ernesto Gregory.
His face had filled in and he had put on close to 35 pounds. By his footwear and saggy jeans I could tell that he hadn’t done much to change his fashion choices during the past 22 years. He wore Jordan sneakers, which were probably eight years old and had accumulated a slew of new arm tattoos, including one portrait of a woman who looked a lot like a fatter version of Racquel Hernandez. He drank what I would soon learn was Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and was constantly adjusting his pants from the crotch area. My first thought was that the most accomplished 18-year-old I had ever known had become the sloppiest 40-year-old I had seen in some time.
“Zach Selwyn!” He announced as I nervously approached the pool table. “What up Hollywood!”
Oh boy. He was going to call me Hollywood the rest of the day, I knew it.
“I seen you on that TV show about the words and shit!”
“Yeah, America’s Secret Slang, thanks man.”
“Yeah, American Slang! That’s it, what up big homie?”
“Nada man, just trying to catch up with some old friends, ya know?”
“Well shit, let’s shoot some stick.”
Ernesto racked up some balls and began rattling off shots. He was a damn good pool player and I knew that even at my best – which was pretty terrible – I was about to be embarrassed. But, he told me to pick a cue and even though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, I ordered a pitcher of Bud Light. The waitress brought it over and charged me for it. It cost $3.75.
As Ernesto sank shot after shot, we never once discussed drug dealing. In fact, we spent most of our time talking about girls from high school that he had always wanted to screw. Turns out, he thought I was some Olympic-level cocksman in my teens and he assumed that I had slept with every cute girl in our high school. As he dug up names from the past, I could only laugh and try to remember who some of these girls even were. Most of them I had never been intimate with, but to placate Ernesto, I played along.
“Paula Schrapner? Yeah, I nailed her,” I said. Not true.
“Jen Robbins? Blow job,” I lied.
“Did you ever get together with Laura House?” Ernesto asked. “She was DOPE!”
“Uh, we just kissed,” I said, which was actually true. One New Years Eve 1992, we had briefly kissed.
“Man, I wonder what she’s up to now?” He said, staring off at a neon sign.
As the beers flowed, I was finding that I was having a hard time getting anything out of Ernesto. He was stuck in 1993, still pining for girls who were long married, divorced and even had kids in high school of their own. He remembered football games that I hadn’t even thought about in 20 years and quoted our Economics teacher Mr. Franklin from a class I didn’t even recall taking. When I took a second to ask him about Racquel Hernandez and what happened to their relationship, he grew silent, took out a vape pen and pulled long and hard.
“You know we have three kids, right?”
“I did not know that,” I said. “Congrats. I have two. How old?”
“19, 17 and 15,” he said. “But the 15-year-old has blue eyes and blonde hair – aint no way that kid’s mine. We broke up 12 years ago. My second wife bailed on me last year. Bitch.”
Wow. Here I was, stressing out about my 9 and 5-year-old kids in Los Angeles and this guy had been divorced twice and had three kids in high school – one who he was convinced wasn’t even his. I suddenly felt like every pampered Hollywood asshole I have come to despise.
“Hey Hollywood, you never slept with Racquel, did you?” He asked.
“What? Hell no!”
There was a sudden silence. Erik looked ready to tear out my jugular. Ernesto stared me down. This was what Adam Richford would call “mad-dogging.” My mom was right… I should have bought that knife.
“Man, I’m just playing!” He said. “You should see your face, you looked like a little bitch just now!”
Everybody laughed. I pounded my beer. It was then that I decided that I had to get the whole story right here or else I was going to end up on the wrong end of a bong in the south side of Tucson come six o’clock, getting high and watching some show like Ridiculousness on a Futon. I found my courage and lowered my voice to a whisper.
“So, Ernesto – you still in the weed game?” I asked.
Ernesto looked at me and laughed. He looked at Erik and then back to the pool table.
“Man, I aint dealt weed since high school,” he said.
“I thought you went to jail or something?” I inquired.
“Shit man… I shot some endangered pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season. Thank God it didn’t die… Luckily I only did two nights in county jail, man. Sucked ass.”
He had shot a pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season? He did two nights in county jail? El Chapo had done something like seven years in maximum security before his first escape… As far as I know, he never complained either. Here was my one-time narcotics hero admitting to me that he was scared after doing two measly nights for shooting a fucking lizard. My story was falling apart.
“So, what about the last 15 years? I mean, what have you done for work?” I asked.
Ernesto sunk a 9 ball and looked up at me.
“I repair windshields, man. Over at Glassworx on Speedway.”
I watched him return to the table. My heart sank as he finished off the game by dropping the eight ball perfectly in the side pocket. My story was over. The most notorious drug dealer I had known had become a windshield repair guy. There was no mansion in the hills, no ranch house in Nogales… and no harem of sexy Mexican women. Ernesto had gone straight and my story was dead.
“Why do you ask, homie?” Ernesto inquired. “You need weed?”
Being that my story was a bust, I figured that the very least I could do was to go on one more pot buying deal in my old hometown. Maybe the dealer would be the drug kingpin I was looking for and I could write something about him instead.
“Yeah, sure man. Just a little bit to get me through the next two days.”
“Well, my dude sells dime bags over at hole 14 at the Golf N’ Stuff on Tanque Verde if you want to pick one up,” Ernesto said.
Dime bag? Golf N’ Stuff? I wasn’t interested. The last thing I needed was to buy Mexican weed from a kid at the same place where I had celebrated my 11-year-old birthday party. It just didn’t seem right.
“No that’s cool, man,” I replied. “I gotta get home anyway – maybe we can hook up tomorrow or something.”
“Are you sure?” He said. “This kid gets good shit… he has a couple of uncles in Nogales.”
Of course he did. I threw a five-dollar tip on the wooden table and finished off my beer. I high-fived Erik and Ernesto, promised to be in touch and promptly drove back to my mother’s house where I found her nervously pacing the living room like I was 15 again and out with a senior at my first high school party.
We opened a bottle of wine and finished our game of Scrabble…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
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.
Buy Zach’s newest album “Skywriting” on itunes NOW!
As far as we know, nobody has ever attempted to read from a BOOK out loud at The Powerhouse – BUT ZACH IS GONNA DO IT Wed. June 18 at 7:00 pm
Because they are shutting the doors on this venerable bar for good next Monday –Yes, the rumors are true.
Those of you who have seen Zach’s band here know how much fun it is. Sadly, we cant play any music anymore, but I can read a drunken passage from my book, dammit! And I hope you can all come down for one last PBR from the best bartenders in Los Angeles…
When: Wednesday Night June 18, 7:00 pm
Where: The Powerhouse 1714 N Highland Ave, Hollywood, CA 90028
Why: We need to say good-bye to this historical dive bar in true fashion. Elvis, Jim Morrison, Janis and the Beatles all drank here! (So has Johnny Knoxville and many other Hollywood barroom regulars…)
In 1995, I had hair to my back, owned 329 bootleg Phish cassette tapes and dated a girl who didn’t shave her armpits with whom I shared a cat named “Fee.” Phish was more than a band. They were a way of life, and whenever they sauntered within 300 miles of Los Angeles, I was out the door, in my Honda Civic that I had named “Hayley’s Comet” (After an obscure Phish song), en route to another show somewhere down the road. In the 19 years since my first concert, I have seen Phish in 13 different states (and many altered ones). I have snuck into their dressing rooms during long, improvised jam sets and taken pictures of their guitar cases. I even made a long trip to Europe in 1996 to follow them around as the opened – yes opened- for Santana. The highlights of this trip included meeting Trey Anastasio in an Amsterdam café and shaking Mike Gordon’s hand outside of the venue in Paris… (As well as making out with plenty of European women, who didn’t speak a word of English). Yes, I was fanatical. Phish was even the reason I decided to “join the internet” – just to check out their website Phish.net – and they were the benchmark by which I held a person’s character. Did you like Phish? No? Sorry, we can’t be friends.
Every one of my close friends was right there with me. We would write letters of set lists from East Coast shows to buddies stuck in LA, send tapes, make mixes and throw listening parties. Throughout the years, some of us had been cited for possession, arrested for selling bootleg t-shirts and handcuffed at DUI checkpoints. One friend – Frisco Freddy – in an ecstasy-fueled dare – once got married to a girl he met at the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas at a drive-through chapel following the show. The danced to “If I Could” and made love in a hotel room shared by 12 people that night – as we all giggled listening to Frisco Freddy reach his climax. It was all part of the adventure. (The marriage was annulled 2 days later. Frisco Freddy is now Fred Goldfarb, commercial real estate agent).
It seemed so normal. It was our existence. If we timed our chemicals right, we might peak during a terrific “Chalkdust Torture” that would stoke college apartment discussions for weeks on end. My favorite moment/lyric of any Phish show was in the same song when Trey erupted into the brilliant line “Can’t this wait ‘til I’m old? Can I live while I’m young?!” The lyric clanged through our heads like the National Anthem.
The words were a true celebration of our freedom. Of being young, making our own bold choices and not wanting to face any responsibilities of the reality of survival in the real world. That lyric was my unofficial catch phrase for my way of life.
When Phish concerts were announced, a plan was hatched to buy tickets and block out the dates roughly an hour after the show was revealed. We traveled anywhere, drove in any state of mind – and slept five deep on friend’s apartment floors. It was all part of being 20 and being in love with a band of 4 vagrant virtuoso musicians from Vermont who had captured the hearts of our generation. Nothing could ever distance me from my brothers – both onstage and in that endless, dancing crowd. The nameless faces who said to me “Have a good show” before every gate opened – and the post show strangers who would sell me a Pheelin’ Phine sticker and joint for ten bucks in the parking lot to help face the impossible comedown on the drive home.
And then, something happened.
Around 1998 – somewhere between college and the real world, something changed. I remember going to the July 20, 1998 show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds – and for the first time, at age 23 – feeling as if the band and I had suddenly grown apart. Maybe it happened during “Poor Heart” when I didn’t get up and dance like a maniac like I used to do – or maybe it happened somewhere in the second set during “Maze” when I suddenly developed a bunch of insecurities about my career choices and lack of girlfriend – I was never quite sure. All I knew was that there was definitely a grand abyss that suddenly presented itself before me. And my old friends in Phish somehow took the unlucky slack. I contemplated a drive to the following night’s show at Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix– site of some of the most memorable concerts of my youth… and I decided against it. It somehow seemed a little irresponsible and desperate. It seemed like another distraction from chasing my new path.
Don’t get me wrong, plenty of my friends attended and sent me letters telling me that they couldn’t believe I missed my home state gig – but I somehow didn’t care. (I think I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Derby in Hollywood that same night and felt pretty damn good about myself…) Needless to say, the tides had turned. I was a different man.
I guess it seemed like Phish was a band that would keep me treading in the same spot rather than blazing a new path forward. The recent passing of a dear friend – who I last saw at a Phish concert a year prior – had brought a vague sorrowful cloud over the frivolity of my youth. It was as if a window of life had closed and a dream had ended. I sold Hayley’s Comet that summer and bought a more sensible 1998 Honda CR-V. It went unnamed.
My final show was September 17, 1999 at Shoreline. I sort of wandered around during a long jam session during the second set, seemingly bored. It was as if the drug had worn off and I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and climb into my bed. I was only 24 years old, but I had peaked. It was time to settle in, make some money and follow my own dreams of leading my own band – instead of just following someone else’s. I felt like the pupil who was about to overtake the instructor. When I finally got my band together, in 2002, the goal was to outdraw Phish in five years… Didn’t quite happen. (My band went on to hit some extremely minor success on the zombie country – rap music movie soundtrack circuit, but other than that, we never quite sold out Madison Square Garden…)
Oddly enough, a year after my last show, Phish would break up. I felt like I had timed it perfectly. For six strong years, I followed a band to the ends of the Earth – Draining my wallet while feeding my head and my soul. I was 25, and engulfed in Hollywood – listening to new finds like The Band, Gram Parsons and Little Feat. Suddenly, Phish seemed like a tiny speck on the musical map and I was done with their guidance. It had been a gorgeous journey but it had to come to an end. The CD’s and tapes began collecting dust as I opened my mind into a deeper track list of song and only occasionally reminisced about getting to do the clapping thing along with 13,000 people during songs like “Stash.” The band had broken up, my hair had been cut off and things like set lists and rides to shows no longer mattered. I didn’t think I’d ever see Phish live again.
The phone call came in two days before the concert. Our old friend Larry had bought four tickets to the 2012 West Coast summer tour kick off show at the Long Beach Arena. His first instinct was to gather the tribe back together for a reunion show. It was brilliant. Larry had assembled a crew of former fraternity brothers and Phish-heads alike, none being bigger than me – a man with nearly 35 shows to my name – including some back as far as 1993. Our pal Mike was coming – his first show since 1997. Also along for the ride was a man known as “The Sauce” for his heroic drinking capability back in college – a longtime fan who had seen over 12 shows. And Larry. As advanced a partier as I have ever known. Never without a pocket full of Percoset and a bottle of 18-year-old scotch in his back pocket. We were four old warriors returning for one more battle with the great gentle giant of our past. Prepared to run the place, the way we did in 1997… Prepared to experience an earth shattering revolutionary moment of clarity. Perhaps at a time when we all needed it the most.
All of us are in our late 30’s and married. Three of us have steady every day high-paying jobs. I’m the one without one. (Still coasting along in the entertainment industry). Amazingly enough, whereas we used to compare make out stores and conquests, now, all these years later, there are 9 children between the four of us. There is one stepdaughter and one baby on the way. It was a far cry from the days of smoking an ounce of weed in an old Ford Explorer with our sorority girlfriends. It was our time to prove that we could pretend we were 20, but always be aware that we are 37.
Larry’s offer was impossible to refuse.
See, I had actually broken my Phish hiatus a year earlier. The summer of 2011, I had gone to see Phish at the Hollywood Bowl, my first show in 12 years. It had blown my mind. The songs were familiar and inspiring and even new jams like “Backwards Down the Number Line” had me believing for a few glorious hours, that my life with the band was all worth it. I hit peaks, flashed back to marvelous memories on highways and in hotels, with girls and old friends and eventually simmered into a state of serenity as I took a $5.00 cab home from my neighborhood venue. I had never seen a more perfect concert. So, the possibilities a show in Long Beach held were endless. Old friends gathering once again in a beach community to smoke a little, drink a little and dance a little? It was a no-brainer. I signed up immediately. Mike and the Sauce were in too. The stage was set. We would meet down at the Long Beach Hilton around 5:00 pm and pre-party before hitting the show. If all went too crazy, we’d share a hotel room. We’d even try to carpool down to save money for parking and gas. We were planning on being more responsible, trying to spend a night not thinking about the troubles at work, our kid’s schooling and whether or not to sell our Facebook stock. Larry had even mentioned ecstasy. After a minute-long consideration, we all passed, but the knowing smiles we shared with each other only reminded us of a time more innocent when rolling on a tab of E was a guaranteed path to a brilliant Phish experience. Now, we decided to just have a few beers and maybe split a joint. We had grown.
The 5:00 meeting did not happen. When work let out, the traffic to Long Beach from Los Angeles was unbearable. I left my house at 3:30 and met up with the Sauce at 5. We then spent another hour and a half on the 405 and 710 to the LBC. It took us roughly three hours to get to the concert. I was fuming.
Back in the day, a two- day drive to Texas for a show would have never been out of the question. Now, however, spending three hours in a car these days is not my idea of a “night out from the kids.” And years ago, joints would have eased the pain of the ride as we blasted some live tape from 1992 smiling at the cars we crept along the freeway with. Now we were afraid to hold our cell phones up to our ears to avoid getting pulled over for not having “hands-free” devices.
The Sauce and I made a wrong turn off the 710, but somehow ended up meeting Mike and Larry at the hotel. After long lost friendly pleasantries were exchanged, the immediate recognition of spotting the familiar Phish army sank in once again. Kids showed up in John Fishman dresses – kooky Phish t-shirts from 30 years of merchandising gone right and plenty of MAN-dals. It was all as familiar as a “Bathtub Gin” guitar riff. As we approached the venue, we became aware that we were definitely amongst the older generation – probably by 7-10 years – and we quickly noticed the similarities between 1995 and 2012. Except for instead of being the longhaired young kids with hot girlfriends, we were the dirty old dudes drooling over hot 20-something hippie girls who were there with their boyfriends. It should also be noted that the hairy armpit girls of the 90’s were nowhere to be seen. The California crowd was HOT. Young, bountiful, blonde, sexy, natural, curvy and gorgeous. A far cry from the dreadlocked smock-wearing wanderers that would hitch rides with us from town to town in the 90’s. Somewhere in the past 15 years, Phish’s female fan base somehow got SMOKIN’ hot.
I smoked a joint with my old friends. We laughed, shared pictures of our kids and split decent gyros we bought from some dude on a bicycle. It started to feel like home once again. As we saw the throng of concert goers celebrating the very fact that it was a religious night we began smiling like we were all young and innocent again, We were transported back to a time of peace and incorruptibility, purity and clarity. We were in heaven.
I’m pretty sure I made my first mistake when I stood in a 30-minute line to get a wristband to buy beer. Nobody had told me that inside, there was a smaller line – so I freaked out and wasted a half hour. I also made the mistake of not using the port-a-potties outside. I saw five people waiting to pee and got frustrated. But when I went inside, the line was 75 dudes deep. Took me another 20 minutes to hit the head.
Still, as the anticipation mounted, the familiar feeling returned. I knew I was seeing one of my all-time favorite bands and I couldn’t wait to get into the music like I did one year earlier at the Hollywood Bowl. It had been five hours since I left my house. I had drunk a few beers and took a long hit off of another friend’s chillum pipe. I was flying high when they opened the show with “Suzy Greenberg” – an old school jam that I used to LOVE. I hadn’t even thought about the song in 16 years. But it sounded as boisterous and thunderous as it had all those years ago. The set continued. “Kill Devil Falls” is one of my newest favorites. “Bouncing Round the Room” made me reminisce of old friends and women dancing around my apartment. Just young and dumb and free… Fucking FREE.
The funny thing was, back in the 90’s I would have been able to tell you what song was beginning by the first three notes. I knew every opening riff, line, bass thump, drum kick, you name it. Now, it took me half a song to even recognize what it was. I wasn’t as up to the familiarity as I thought I was. Still, it didn’t matter. That first set was perfect. We were all happily stoned, shrugging off the $10.50 Miller Lites and ignoring the fact that the Long Beach Arena should really have been reserved for a WNBA game – and not a Phish concert in a fine-looking slice of California near the sea. Even the dozens of people near us smoking cigarettes didn’t bother us just yet. We were all in a Phish trance, heckling stadium vendors trying to sell kettle corn and churros to a bunch of drugged out super fans and doing our best to remember our killer dance moves.
Everything was conscious. Everyone was free. Everyone was happy… Until they played “Stash.” It was then that I decided to make my first journey into my iphone to see what the name of the song was. (Back in college I would have had the lyrics tattooed on my arm, but now, I was struggling with the title). As I looked at my phone, my wife’s name appeared in a text. As did my brother’s. And a text from a possible business opportunity. Suddenly, Phish was GONE. I had to return my wife’s text to make sure the kids were OK. I had to send my brother a pdf file. I had to go talk to my business contact about the TV show idea he had. I was distracted. I suddenly realized it was Wednesday. Oh man, I had shit to do.
The classic “Stash” lyric “Was it for this my life I thought? Maybe so, maybe not” began.
It made sense when I was 20. It made perfect sense again.
I made sure I clapped at the right places and sang the “Ohhwooahh woah woah ooh” part in the song somewhat properly, albeit less enthusiastically than I had all those years ago, but I listened to that lyric repeat itself as I embarrassingly dove back into my phone. Afraid my friends would make fun of me for not being as entranced in the show as they were, I was pleasantly surprised to look over and see that Larry, Mike and the Sauce were all frantically texting into their phones as well. We were once slaves to the music. Now we were slaves to technology, wives, kids and work.
I decided to wait to go outside to call my wife until after the first set, which was a good move. But when Phish crushed the arena with “Quinn the Eskimo,” I was as as festive as anyone my age can get. As I drooled over some ridiculously hot dancing brunette who reminded me of half the girls I had dated in the 90’s, I began whispering to my friends about how old I felt at the show. We all nodded, laughed and high-fived.
I think The Sauce was the first one of us to yawn.
Still, I knew I had to go find a quiet place where I could calmly call my wife in peace and let her know I wasn’t wasted and that I would be home on time to wake up with the kids so she could go to work in the morning. As the set ended, and the place erupted, I darted for the doors. Somehow, I beat the bathroom line and even got a beer before getting stuck in sweat-filled traffic towards the front entrance where a full cell phone signal awaited. I called. It rang. My wife was asleep. I looked at the time. 9:45 p.m. Once, the beginning of my nights. Now? Fucking LATE,
I looked around at all of the fans around me. Most of them were texting, tweeting and updating Facebook pages, which I chalk up to the generation. However, when I saw the crew I had rolled with come outside, it was thoroughly predictable. We were all blowing kisses to our wives, checking on kids and even taking business calls. (Larry opened and closed a lawsuit between sets).
The Sauce took a 10-minute business phone call.
Mike went off to buy a churro and didn’t return for 40 minutes.
I sent photos of the crowd to my brother.
The guy next to me played Angry Birds.
30 minutes later, we were all exhausted and ready to call it a night. Still, we forced ourselves back inside. The anticipation was gone, the reality of an hour long drive back to L.A. sank in and we all crowded around the Long Beach water fountains for free cups of polluted tap water – just to avoid $4.50 twelve ounce Dasani’s from the concession stands.
As we sat in our seats, the lights came back and an unfamiliar tune came on. After five minutes of pretending we knew what it was, a guy behind us finally used his “Shazam” app on his phone and figured out it was “Rock and Roll” by Velvet Underground. The Phish version went on for 25 minutes. It was amazing. But then. The pdf file I sent earlier didn’t go through. Larry’s lawsuit took a turn for the worst. Mike’s churro sucked and The Sauce had to discuss hotel design with somebody in Macau. We were suddenly no longer the four Phish phreaks who would bed five girls before the night was through. We were grown men with responsibilities and allergies, children and long drives home. We were fading fast. When “Ghost” started, I shrugged it off. It was never one of my favorite songs, but I knew it well. It was one of those songs I had heard back when I began to separate myself from the band. Still, the song sounded great, and my body seemed to once again start buzzing… Until I realized it was just the buzz from another iphone text from my wife. Our two-year-old daughter was awake and crying. I felt guilty for not being there.
I’m pretty sure I was the second one to yawn.
Larry soon informed me during “Guyute” that he had a place for me to crash on his hotel room floor. My contact lenses were burning – and the drive home seemed impossible, but I figured it would be better for me to get home and not wake up in Long Beach hitching a ride back to Hollywood at my age, so I decided to go get some water from the tap once again. Four glasses later, and I was in the bathroom, staring at the bags below m eyes in the mirror while listening to two 20-something kids discuss some Festival in 2008 that I had obviously missed. I heard “Guyute” climax into that space age three chord re-birth that always made me happy and I smiled again. I was back inside, full of energy and ideas and resilience and glee. Until I returned to our section to find a good amount of the fans in my section seated and unconsciously bored.
“I’m bouncing like a newborn elf,” sang Trey.
Really? I didn’t see any newborn elves dancing near me. I saw four guys who were exhausted, rubbing their temples and beginning to worry about their hearing.
I stuck it out for “Julius” – one of my all time favorites – but when I noticed that our crew was all in the wife-texting mode we all looked at each other with an unspoken knowledge that it was time to go home. Yes, we had blossomed into the OLD GUYS AT THE PHISH SHOW. We weren’t quite what we used to be. And I think, truthfully, we were all a little grateful that we weren’t.
I remember waiting in line to buy Phish t-shirts as a kid to wear around college and try and instigate conversation. I made it a ceremonial task to buy a shirt at every show I went to. I have something like 22 Phish t-shirts in a closet in my house and I’ll hold onto them forever. Mike, Sauce, Larry and I thought we’d take a look at the newest merch and maybe drop a few bills. Of course, the only item that appealed to us was the baby onesies. Mike bought a toddler t-shirt and a newborn onesie. Larry got a onesie as well. I decided against it, as my kids were a little older, but it was the final moment of truth. We were now here just to tell our kids that we were there. The thrill had somewhat faded and we were all just looking forward to a decent night’s sleep.
It was the first time I had ever left before the encore. It was the first time I was happy to do so. It was the first time I hadn’t bought a beer, weed or burrito in the post-show parking lot. It was the first time I hadn’t left completely blasted out of my skull.
When Mike suggested taking a taxi back to the hotel three blocks away, all four of us smiled. Yes, a taxi! Brilliant! We were close enough to walk, but forget that idea, man. When we arrived at the Hilton, We split the $5.25 charge amongst four of is, said some pleasant good-byes and split apart. We had come to do what we came to do… sort of. It was a new experience on an old battlefield. WE were the decorated aging generals of yonder.
On the way home from Long Beach in my car, I fired up the MP3 player to “Chalkdust Torture.”
There was that magical phrase again.
“Cant this wait ‘til I’m old, can I live while I’m young…”
Well, I guess I let it wait ‘til I was old. I lived when I was young! And even though 37 still seems young in a way, when there are babies to feed and diapers to change at 6:00 in the morning, 37 is really fucking old.
Still, Phish will forever hold a deep piece of my heart – and should they play anywhere within 10 miles of me (haha) I will go anytime. The band is one of the reasons why I became a confident stage performer, a songwriter and a well-traveled man. They were a part of my youth, but also of my adulthood. They continue to offer inspiration and wild creativity but they also continue to keep me grounded. To know that nothing lasts forever… be it friendships, bands, trends, beauty, money… you name it. All we have is belief, love and music. And that ain’t bad at all.
Still, if anybody has an extra ticket for tomorrow night’s San Francisco show, I’m totally in… I’ll drive….