It’s November of 1971. Danny, Jimmy, Greg, and Casey – ‘Bones” – are getting ready to play for a gathering of Hollywood elites for the first AFI Film Festival. The gig turns almost surreal in a most unexpected way. For Danny, issues arise concerning image, performance and staying true to oneself.
We were gathered in back of the stage behind a wall of speaker cabinets. I sat on the left rear corner of the riser behind a P.A. column, facing the back of the hall. We’d already done our sound check, playing to a sea of linen covered tables as young men and women, attired in black slacks and white shirts, scrambled to set out the dinner ware and flower arrangements. The amplifiers were now switched on ‘standby’, their backsides illuminated by the warm glow of power tubes. The horn on my Leslie speaker circled steadily. It brought to mind a ball player pin wheeling his bat as he waited for the first pitch. I turned my head to the left to look at my band mates. Greg, his head wrapped in earphones, sat slumped over his black Les Paul guitar as his fingers pulled and hammered the strings. God, he was diligent! My brother Jimmy, the group’s main lead singer and songwriter, held the top end of a ball point pen to his mouth, deep in thought,before scribbling some words on a piece of paper. He was mapping out a set. Our drummer, the ever cagey Casey Cunningham, stood with drumsticks in hand, laughing and kibitzing with Skip, our new manager.
I loved these guys. We’d been together for four years, the first year as the Peppermint Trolley Company and the following three as Bones. We were tight – both as a band and as friends. Through the good times and the bad times we’d had each other’s backs. Yea, we were survivors. The previous year we’d sequestered ourselves in a Marin County pad intent on wood shedding until we found our own sound. In January we’d moved back down to L.A. and right away, people had begun to take notice and respond. It was exciting to see fans lining up at the local clubs, and to be wooed by record companies and managers. The pace had accelerated palpably. Oh what a heady few months it had been!
Casey, Jimmy, Greg, and Danny. Bones in their prime.
In April, we’d moved into a house high on a bluff in Malibu. The view of the blue Pacific through the large bay window was spectacular. On our first day in the place we saw a whale surface, dive and surface again as it stitched a pathway northward. That spring held some of the happiest moments of my life. It was just the four us – gigging nearly every night (still schlepping our own equipment), rehearsing every day, and making the rent payments. Our lives were totally immersed in the music.
By summer, we’d tossed the dice, made our choices, and signed on the dotted lines. We had a record deal, a production deal, a publishing deal, and a management deal. A lot of our future now lay in other people’s hands. We knocked on wood and held our breath.
Chasing the Dream
It was now November and no longer was it just the core of the band living in the Malibu house. We’d taken on two school buddies, Ron and Billy as a road crew, and brought in a P.A. guy, Bill, and his assistant, Bruce. On top of that, Jimmy and Greg had each fallen in love with a woman who had a small child, and their girlfriends and the kids had now become part of the household. Casey’s ‘on-again-off-again’ relationship with his high school sweetheart was ’on-again’ , bringing another female face to the mix. In addition, we usually had a house guest or two… or three, and many friends who frequently popped in. Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, it was an amiable bunch of people, and there was a lot of mirth to go around, but I missed the simplicity and singleness of purpose that we had known.
An inevitable feeling of transition hung in the air. It’s funny how we can chase after the future while at the same time fearing what it will bring. I sensed that a fork in the road lay ahead. My brother had recently written a song that expressed what I know we all felt.
Changes comin’! I don’t know if they’re good or bad.. Changes comin’! Make you happy or make you sad.
Skip glanced at his watch. A glint of light reflected off his upturned wrist and caught my eye. Pueblo Indian jewelry was very much in vogue with the counter culture at the time, and his watch band was a fine specimen of stamped silver and inlaid turquoise. He was also sporting several turquoise rings on his fingers.
“They should be arriving any minute.” he said.
We were expecting a crowd of people to be coming from Grauman’s Chinese Theater across the boulevard where they’d been attending the AFI Film Festival’s first ever screening. It was a movie called “The Last Picture Show”. Skip had been at the theater and seen most of the flick before ducking out early.
“It’s really cool.” he said. “It takes place in this West Texas town and they use a lot of old Hank Williams recordings in it.”
“Wow! ” I said.
“Yea. I know you guys like Hank. You’d dig it.”
Jimmy broke into song. - ‘Hey, good lookin’. Wha-t ‘cha got cookin’?’
Greg and I joined in with harmony, “How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me.”
The Malibu band house.
Skip laughed. He wasn’t your typical music biz guy. Oh yea, he was smart and savvy. He’d come up through the William Morris Agency. But he didn’t have the edginess that so many of these guys seemed to thrive on. I don’t think I’d ever seen him get riled or lose his cool. He was pretty mellow, and with his beard and long hair he looked more like a hippie than a high powered manager.
” I was just telling Casey, ” he said. “we’re working on lining up a short tour for the band in December. Concerts and club dates. Mostly in the Midwest, including a big concert extravaganza in Indianapolis with Alice Cooper, Canned Heat , of course, and Dr .John the Night Tripper.”
“Yea,” Casey added. “Apparently Alice remembers us from when we opened for him at U.C.L.A. and digs the band.”
“We know we remember him!” Jimmy responded.
“Yea, it’s hard to forget a guy in drag kicking a doll’s head into the twenty-fifth row!” I said.
We all laughed.
The idea of Rock as theater had been bantered about by music critics for years, going back to the Doors and Jim Morrison. Now, bands like Alice Cooper ,and Iggie and the Stooges were making their mark. Although I was cool and open minded about the concept, I knew that the four of us came from a different place. For us it was all about letting the spirit move us, being in the moment, and above all – being real. We were counter culture cats at heart who hated phoniness. We’d performed pro bono at so many peace rallies, sometimes putting ourselves in precarious situations because we believed in the cause. After walking away from our record contract as the Peppermint Trolley we’d vowed never to ‘sell out’. At the same time, in order to keep the creative train rolling, we needed to be commercially successful, which required our dealing with the phony Hollywood music biz scene. It was a dichotomy, and a confusing situation to be in.
Skip continued – “We’ll start spreadin’ the word about the band.”
“Bones hits the road, Jack!” Greg exclaimed.
Peace rally in Oceanside – 1970
“And don’t you come back no more, no more…” Casey answered.
Suddenly I heard laughter, and a rustle of fabric wafting in through the open door at the front of the hall. I peered through a gap between two speaker cabinets and saw people beginning to trickle in. They were elegantly dressed – men in tux’s and women in evening gowns. I ran a finger nervously over the embroidery on my vest, stared down at my feet, and wiggled my naked toes. How was it that I’d started performing barefoot? I couldn’t recall, but the bare feet, along with a wide flat brimmed hat had become part of my stage persona. What’s wrong with this picture? I mumbled to myself.
We were to play for about a half hour as the dinner guests were served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. It occurred to me that the Mark Five, Jimmy’s and my old prom band from high school would be a more appropriate match for this event, providing some nice non-threatening dinner music.
“Hey, Jimmy,” I shouted.” Shall we open with Moon River?”
He laughed. “No, I think … um… I Left my Heart in San Francisco.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it.” Skip said “They knew who you were when they hired you. Just go on and do the show you always do.”
Filling the Void
We took our places on stage. Greg, stage right, me, stage left and J.P. in the center. Jimmy turned to make eye contact with me, then turned to Greg, and finally to Casey in back. “One, two , three…” he counted, bobbing the neck of his bass. We all entered on the one and off we went with a blast of sound. The song -Honey Baby- which could best be described as rock n’ soul hoedown music, was a number guaranteed to get crowds up and dancing at venues like the Topanga Corral. It was our standard opener. After the four bar intro, Jimmy snuck up to the mic.
“Well, I don’t know why these other women have to treat me low down dirty.” he sang.
I turned my head to face the tables and my eyes began sweeping over the crowd. I liked to work the audience, engage them. Some faces looked a little shocked or perplexed by our performance, while others seemed to dig it. I noticed a smiling young woman bobbing her head to the beat. That was reassuring. I recognized a few actors I’d always admired. There sat Lee J. Cobb, and Gregory Peck, and, oh wow, there was Bette Davis.
Lost in a stream-of-consciousness jam.
“Honey Baby! Oh, Honey Baby. . .”
Jimmy finished the chorus and gave me a nod as he stepped back from the microphone. I pulled out some of the Hammond’s upper draw bars, switched the Leslie to tremolo and swept the palm of my left hand up the organ’s keys in an aggressive glissando that climbed to a wicked right hand flare. I bent at the knees and stamped my feet as the phrases poured through the circuitry from brain to keyboard, some driven by yearning and others by rage. When the solo reached its climax I leaned my head back and gave out a wild cat scream. Casey played a ’round-the-horn fill and Greg picked up where I’d left off.
I lived for the expression that music and performing offered me. I didn’t have much of a personal life. My wife and I hadn’t lived together for two years. Although the marriage was in its last throes, I still clung desperately to the idea of being married. It seemed to stabilize me as I negotiated my way through an environment that was fluid and even chaotic at times. Oh, I’d tried playing the field, but a string of one-nighters with women I had little in common with had left me feeling hollow. Only music could fill the void.
” Cause I’ve got the strangest feeling , girl, I don’t believe you’d ever hurt me. . . ”
Up north I’d gotten into a disciplined regimen of stretching ,exercising, and eating healthy food. I was limber and fit – in the best shape of my life. I’d found myself experimenting with moving and dancing on stage, each night trying out something new and daring. It had gradually evolved into a routine. Lately, though, I feared I might be losing my mojo, that my performance was in danger of turning into shtick.
“Well I’ve been in love before but this love just ain’t like the last one.” Jimmy sang with conviction.
Hear No Evil
I checked out the tables directly in front of me. One face stood out. The man’s pale white skin was almost washed out by a shocking flash of bleach blond hair. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but those dark lenses were focused on me like a laser beam. He began shaking his head with obvious disapproval. Unmistakably, it was Andy Warhol, the artist. “No…no…no.” his body language said, “This does not please me.”… “This cannot be allowed.”
Needless to say, it was a bit disconcerting. I felt like a fly in the ointment , a pimple on the Mona Lisa.
I didn’t know that much about Warhol. I remembered seeing him interviewed on television by Louis Lomax, the late pioneering African American journalist. He was frustratingly uncomfortable and reticent, allowing the women in his entourage to do most of the talking. When I was still in school my roommate had a copy of the Velvet Underground LP, which featured a Warhol rendering of a banana on the front cover and a photo of the artist’s face framed by a tambourine on the back. We’d listened to the record quite a bit, and I did dig the song – Heroine, which featured Lou Reed ‘s hypnotic, and intense monotone.
“Honey Baby!. . . ” We were in the last chorus heading toward the finish.
My eyes fell on Andy once again. In addition to shaking his head, he was now sticking his fingers in his ears to telegraph his displeasure, as if to tell all the world – “I refuse to listen to this”.
“Yea, it’s all about you, Andy!” I thought to myself.
The ridiculous image of this guy plugging his ears with his fingers reminded me of the ‘Hear-no-evil monkey’. In my mind I could see a picture of his face in a Warhol style repeating panel. The idea made me chuckle. On an impish impulse, feeling I had nothing to lose, I smiled and gave him a wink.
Jimmy and I turned to look at each other and started laughing. We played another couple of tunes before Skip told us to wind it up. All the while Warhol stared at me, shaking his head and plugging his ears.
Backstage, we gathered around Skip. “You know,” he said with amusement. ” Warhol was threatening to leave the dinner if Danny didn’t get off the stage.”
“You’re kidding!” I said.
“No, honest to God.”
“We’ll never work in this town again.” Casey said in mock admonishment. “And It’s all your fault.”
” Yea, Danny! Why did you have to go and piss Andy off? Jimmy joined in.
“What’d I do?” I pleaded with palms up, suddenly feeling in the hot seat.
“Our career …” Casey piled on – “up in smoke.” He snapped his fingers.”Just like that!”
“You know what you should do?” Greg said.
“You should take a chair up on stage, sit there, and stare him down.”
We all began laughing.
“Maybe he’ll start pelting you with soup cans!” Casey added.
“Isn’t it interesting how quickly everyone wants to kiss Andy’s kiss.” I said.
Greg began shouting like a carnival barker. “This way, folks! Form a line! Okay, now down on your knees!”
“It’s like a little kid who threatens to take his ball and go home.” I declared. “What a jerk!”
“Think of it this way, Danny,” Jimmy said. ”You’ve managed to be the focus of this little shit’s attention for a quarter of an hour or so. Do you know how many assholes would kill for that opportunity?”
Greg and Jimmy get down as Danny mounts the B3
I nodded and laughed. “Yea. Fuck him!”
All the while we’d been talking, Skip had been cutting lines of coke with a razor blade on the woofer speaker of the P.A. column. This business was hidden from general view by the tweeter which sat on top. He handed me a tightly rolled twenty dollar bill and said – “I think you should get the first toot.” Cocaine, new to us, seemed to be ubiquitous in the music biz in 1971. Everyone was doing it. So there we were snorting and partaking the illicit drug behind the PA speakers at a Hollywood gala. It was bizarro world!
Skip informed us that we would start playing again after the guests had finished dining. I felt hopped up and antsy. I couldn’t wait to get back on. But wait we did.
A Crowd Pleaser
After desert and coffee we again took the stage. I looked out. This time there was no shaking white head. No doubt, Warhol had probably been among the first to split. People were rising to their feet, many shuffling their way to other tables to say hello and schmooze. We’d only have time for one tune. Better cut to the chase. Jimmy called Potatoes., Although a throw-away as a musical piece, the instrumental was always a high energy crowd-pleaser.
An RMI piano sat atop my B3, and the tune was basically built around a funky left hand figure on this instrument. I kicked off with the left hand into. After another four with the band I began punching out the horn- like lead on the organ with my right hand. When we got through the head of the piece Jimmy, Greg, and Casey dropped down into a one chord killer groove as I danced to the front of the stage with a hand held mic. Strutting like a rooster, I began to deliver rhymes in the time-tested braggadocio tradition. After the vocal, I shouted ‘Watch me shake a tail feather!’ and tore into my wild, crazy legged dance. Steaming to a frenzy, I mounted the organ with my right foot positioned on the one inch ledge in front of the keyboard, and my left foot planted on top in the space next to the piano. I slipped a small piece of cardboard in between the organ keys to allow the chosen pitches to continue screaming as I played piano with my left hand. To the audience it gave the illusion that I was playing with my feet. On top of this I began to swivel my hips. I turned my head to caste a cocky glance out at the audience the way I’d seen Jerry Lee Lewis do. Instead of the multitudes Jerry Lee would encounter, however, there were perhaps a dozen or so people standing in front of the stage taking it in. The rest of the crowd had made an about-face to the exit. The room looked like a flood of dresses pouring out the door.
After I dismounted, we played the head one last time, and ended the song with an aggressively sustained chord. As the decibels rumbled, I climbed back up and on the closing hit leaped from my perch to land near the front of the stage. By now the room was nearly empty. The people who’d stayed gave us a small but heartfelt applause. As I stood there trying to catch my breath, a woman approached. I recognized her as an older character actress whom I’d seen many times in film and television. She took my hands in hers and looked directly into my eyes. Surprised by this warm and unexpected human connection I felt the tears begin to well.
“That was wonderful!” she said. “You… are a marvelous performer!”
Bones first album cover.
Photo by Phil Hartman
Art work by Bryan Faragher
I was recently contacted by Bill Brown who was the sound man mentioned in the story. He writes…
I am hoping you remember me from long ago when we all shared the house in Malibu … (the house was slipping off the hill, empty swimming pool). I was the guy who had the sound system Bones used. I shared the front room with Casey Cunningham.I read some more of your website and saw myself mentioned ( Chasing the Dream) my assistant was Bruce Darling. We had Earmouth Sound, an off shoot of Bob Luly’s Solid Sound. I ended up going to work as a sound man for Earth Wind & Fire.
I have thought of you guys over the years; hope your brother is well. I remember a brief potential producer relationship with Richard Perry.Anyway, just reaching out…hope all is well!! Best for 2014!!
Incidentally, our two buddies who handled the equipment and busted their asses to make a Bones show possible were Ron Smith and Billy Funk.