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This weekend, two icons of my youth passed. One was a fiery musician, Chuck Berry, the other a fiery journalist, Jimmy Breslin. I didn’t know either of them well but had great encounters with the two.
When I was 19 or 20 years old, I started my concert company with a partner named Corky Burger. The first concert we produced, because our university ran out of money, was Stephen Stills’ The Manassas Tour at what was then called the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. We borrowed money from relatives, friends and local businessmen. We even took money directly from a wedding. We raised the money to pay for the concert and, amazingly enough, paid our investors off in one night and made profits. It wasn’t a lot, $8,000. But when you start with zero, then eight thousand may as well be eight million. The second concert we booked was Chuck Berry and we added a ’50s show to it – The Shirelles, The Platters, Jay and the Americans – one band, six acts on a nostalgic tour through the ’50s, this of course being in the ’70s. It sold and it sold and it sold. It was a Saturday night and it became a magical event that captured the fancy of the town from rock ‘n’ rollers and stoners to people in suits, ties and dressy cocktail attire reliving nostalgic moments from their youth.
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Chuck Berry came alone with his guitar and needed backup. Of course, everyone in town wanted to play behind him – it was the easiest recruitment ever. Every top musician was there, each happy to earn the $1,000 being offered to play behind Chuck. The ’50s part of the show went over amazingly well – professional, on time like clockwork and with the audience cheering on and loving every minute of it. Then intermission hits. Guitar in hand, Chuck looks out from backstage and says, “Wow, there are a lot of people here.” We told him we were surprised at the number of people there as well. His contract gave him a $10K bonus based on attendance, which he earned. We were happy to tell him that and had a check waiting. He said there were too many people and I could sense the impending something-or-other because I’d been warned that Chuck Berry could change his mind in a nanosecond and he was famous for paper bags filled with money. Well, change his mind he did.
In a wonderful eulogy, Taylor Hackford recounts an incident during the filming of his documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll. When Chuck Berry showed up to St. Louis, where he got his start, for 10 days of filming, he called Taylor at 7 AM and told him to bring $20,000 in a paper bag or Chuck wasn’t going to do the documentary. Taylor was strapped for the money but found it. And it was worth it, especially given he needed Chuck’s cooperation. Only this time, backstage in Buffalo, after looking out at the crowd, Chuck Berry demanded $50,000 in a brown paper bag instantaneously. This would have bankrupted my small company, and when I say small, it was me, Corky and an assistant. That’s small!
I’m the product of an uncle who was a policeman in the Bronx. My partner and I learned early, during our first concert, not to hire rent-a-cops but to hire talented, smart and sympathetic policeman who weren’t bothered by long hair or the refreshments of the 1970s world. They had bigger fish to fry – real criminals. They knew we were kids and knew we catered to other kids. They’d been foolish, had fun and had overindulged in their own youth, so they were capable of understanding.
So when faced with Chuck’s demand, I went to our heads of security. I’m going to call them Joe and Ben, though those weren’t their names, to protect the innocent. They were members of the SWAT team and said if Chuck didn’t go on, we could have a riot. It would have been a real safety concern, but if we paid him the $50,000, we would be in deep bankruptcy hell. Joe and Ben came into the dressing room to talk to Chuck. I looked at Joe and Ben and knew I had seen that look before. Corky had seen it too — a quiet air of confidence. It’s the cool that can only come from being comfortable in these pressurized situations. Joe turned to Chuck.
“We understand there’s a problem,” he said.
“We only want a peaceful solution, what can we do?” asked Ben.
Chuck just looked at them and said, “$50,000 gets you peace.”
We told him we didn’t have it. Chuck said he saw the size of the crowd and told us to go to the box office and take out the money. Ben said that wasn’t Chuck’s call to make, that he was paid for the gig and quite respectfully so. Chuck just said he wanted more. We told him that wasn’t the deal. He said he knew, but he was changing the deal. A beat goes by.
“How about ten grand?”
“Nope, I want fifty.”
“Nope, I want fifty.”
Chuck started strumming his guitar.
Joe: “You know what, I carry an instrument too.”
Chuck: “What do you play?”
Joe unholstered his .45 which was tucked in the back of his pants and concealed under his shirt.
“I call my instrument Maybelline – I hear that’s what you call yours,” he said, pointing at Chuck’s guitar. Chuck looked at him and actually smiled. Joe went on. “My Maybelline is temperamental, like you are, and if you don’t go on stage right now and perform, Maybelline is going to get angry. And frankly, I don’t know how angry.”
Chuck looked at Joe, then at Ben. He didn’t look at me or Corky because we were cowering in the corner. He knew they were serious. “You guys aren’t the normal rent-a-cops, are you?” No, they were both SWAT lieutenants. “Holy shit – OK, I got it. There won’t be any problems, officers, I promise.” But before walking out of the dressing room, he turned around and looked at Joe’s gun.
“Do you really call that Maybelline?”
Joe just smiled back and winked.
Chuck stepped out onto the stage, looked at the backup band he had never said hello to, nor learned the names of, and performed one hour of some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll anyone has ever heard. As he packed up to leave after the show, he turned to Joe, Ben, me and Corky, smiled broadly and just said, “Touché.”
The company grew from a concert company into a film company. I probably saw Chuck six or seven times from there, saying hello over drinks over the years. He told me I was one of the only ones where the paper bag filled with goodies didn’t come. He told me he’d followed my career from then on and got a laugh whenever he saw the Miramax, or later, The Weinstein Company, logos. Each time I saw him, he was good humored and an always-brilliant musician. The older he got, the more wisdom there was in his music. It was clear that serving time for armed robbery at 17 left him with demons that only his music could conquer. The bag of money he asked for wasn’t vitriolic but a symbol of who he was and the untrusting nature that prison breeds. It reminds me of when Richard Pryor asked his manager how much he was worth. Three million dollars, his manager replied. Richard told him to bring it over. When? Now. Richard told him to go to the bank and put it in a suitcase so he could see it. It isn’t easy to form trust when you’ve never received any.
Jimmy Breslin wrote about Queens, where I grew up. I was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Flushing in rent-controlled apartments across the street from city-controlled apartments called Pomonok. Jimmy wrote about the heroes of my neighborhood, and the scoundrels as well. His poetry was meaningful because he was one of us. Jimmy was an opinion-breathing John Ford movie. Today, I think of Maureen Dowd’s brothers as the only comparisons I can make to that bygone era. One thing about Jimmy and his buddy, Pete Hamill, was they couldn’t stand corruption and they wouldn’t tolerate bullshit artists. They exposed both in their blistering columns. When the cops went south, they nailed the cops. When the cops were getting nailed wrongfully, they nailed those blaming the cops. They were on one side only, the side of justice.
In 1969, my dad decided he’d had enough of clubhouse politics – he was supporting Norman Mailer for Mayor and Jimmy Breslin for President of City Council. I thought that was absolutely the coolest thing ever, so he got me wrapped up in the campaign. I was handing out banners, putting up signs, telling people where the next rally was and attending myself. I was essentially a PA, but I loved it. I saw Norman and Jimmy speak and voraciously read all their books and columns. The columns, dear reader, were read on a device called microfilm, in a library. Their sense of outrage and compassion was the tonic our city needed.
I met Jimmy Breslin later on, over the years as I’d built my company. We had Queens in common and I loved his descriptions of gangsters and politicians. I told him the best piece of his writing, which I always came back to, was an article in New York Magazine that was anti-Vietnam War. Jimmy had written that when Dominic Palumbo of the iron workers says that the war is wrong, that’s when the war stops. He was right. You have to get to the people and make them believe. It can’t just come from the hippies, as we were referred to at the time, or the liberal elite, which we’re probably referred to as now. It needs to come from the people, and they need to recognize the injustice because when they do, that’s when America is at its best. He might have been John Ford sometimes, but he was often a walking Frank Capra movie as well.
I read Jimmy in Newsday, The Post and The Daily News. I loved those tabloids when they had Mike McAlary (another fire brand), Denis Hamill, Max Lerner and so many other local columnists with national impact. I still buy my newspapers. Sure, I have the apps for when I’m in China or somewhere like that, but I like buying the newspaper. It’s like the line from Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence is asked why he likes the desert. He says because it’s clean. Why do I like newspapers? Because they’re real. They remind me of the journalism of my youth, of which Jimmy was the best practitioner. He was a symbol for journalists everywhere, showing them they could stand up for what they believed in, torpedoes be damned. His campaign gave me a political conscience, and I’ve been working for Democratic candidates all over the country ever since. Jimmy inspired me when he ran and when he wrote.
A larger-than-life character with the soul of a poet, Jimmy was always the real deal when I saw him out at a dinner, for drinks or at a party. He was the personification of what he wrote – charming, tough and with an incredible conscience. I waited for his columns the way I used to wait for the new Beatles record. Chuck Berry turned me on to rock ’n’ roll, and Jimmy turned me on to politics. They are icons who will be sorely missed.
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