Really Old Gossip

The discovery of an old folder of notes prompts the recollection of a summer spent with celebrities, many moons ago.
In the summer of 1989, I had a gig as an intern at a TV production house in Los Angeles. A student at the time, the concept of working for absolutely nothing was acceptable if it provided you the opportunity to work in the industry you were studying for. Since I was film major, working in TV was the next best thing to working in film. My interest in film was already on the wane, courtesy of my film professors who had completely politicized our school’s program and sucked the enthusiasm out of our collective marrow.
The company I worked for specialized in doing quick interviews for channels such as VH-1 and M-TV, and any TV shows that might require a no-frills shoot and run. For example, if M-TV had booked a sit-down with Eric Clapton, they would typically contact a company like ours and hire us as camera and crew for the job. A typical crew was a cameraman, sound guy, producer, and someone like myself as grip/driver/assistant. A peon, if you will. We’d shuttle about from location to location in Los Angeles, set up shop, interview the celebrity, break down, and head to the next venue. It was fast-paced, interesting work, especially if you had a short attention span.
Our office was a little hole in the wall, tucked in a bland corner of LA’s bleak, industrial wasteland. It was well guarded, as it contained a gazillion dollars in video equipment. We interns were allowed to sleep, free of charge, in the upstairs apartment; a faux-wood-paneled, shag-carpeted, swanky number straight out of a low-budget “Austin Powers” set. There was nothing in the neighborhood aside from a bar that opened at 6:30 in the morning, which we never had the time to patronize.
We had a cute receptionist whose claim to fame was that she was friends with the daughter of Tommy Chong. In retrospect, a whoop-de-frickin-doo is in order, but at the time we thought it was cool. She’d regale us with stories; how she went to Tommy Chong’s house for Tommy Chong’s birthday, stuff like that. Very Los Angeles.
She presided over a dry-erase board that had the month’s interviews scheduled. In particular: who was being interviewed, where, what show it was for, the crew assigned and the equipment they’d need. There were a few teams at the company. Naturally, the head of the company and the veterans got to pick and choose the gigs they wanted to crew on. In most cases, I got the scraps; an interview of a policeman for “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” for example. Occasionally they’d throw me a celebrity bone, either because they were nice or had a scheduling conflict.
These are the bones:

Eddie Murphy, unhappy with being a successful comedian and actor, ventured into the music business, unfortunately. If I remember correctly, his first major release was “My Girl Likes To Party (All The Time, All The Time, All The Time)” which was a completely believable title for Mr. Murphy, because at the time he hadn’t been caught “giving a ride” to a transvestite.
Due to the nature of the music business’ arrangement with Satan, the song enjoyed a level of success unwarranted for a ballad of such crap nature. Naturally, the business wants one success to follow another. A songwriter was assigned, an album shat out, and we were sent to cover the music video shoot for “Put Your Mouth On Me.” He still hadn’t been caught “giving a ride” to a transvestite yet, but in retrospect the song titles were starting to make more sense.
At the time, “Put Your Mouth On Me” no doubt had a place in the Top Ten Worst Songs Ever, but has since been replaced by quality tunes from Hanson, the U.K.’s God-forsaken Romanian import “Touch My Bum” and that Michael Jackson abortion where he thinks he’s Jesus.
Mr. Murphy’s video was being shot on a soundstage. His brother, whomever, loitered about a limousine with an entourage which could have been Mr. Murphy’s or his own. As will happen, the entourage and all the other cling-ons who surround celebrity wanted nothing more than to get in front of our cameras for their day in the sun. It was the responsibility of the producer to repel them diplomatically.
Inside the soundstage, a large group of sexy females was being handed musical instruments: trombones, saxophones, trumpets. This was the first time most, if not every single one of them, had ever touched a musical instrument; however, they were to play the role of the background musicians in the video. The ladies pawed the instruments and no doubt tried to channel the spirits of Gillespie, Miller and Goodman from the afterlife to see if their spirits would be kind enough to point out what end they were supposed to blow into.
The rumor was that Mr. Murphy was mad at us. Not us, per se, but M-TV in general. Since M-TV wasn’t there, and we were, it would be taken out against us. I assume it was because they weren’t playing his music as much as he’d have liked them to. This is perhaps the only time in history that I believe M-TV contributed positively to society.
We contented ourselves for the time being by interviewing the “co-writer” of the song. By “co-writer” I mean the guy who obviously wrote the entire song, and then got large sums of money to sit back so Mr. Murphy could take credit. This became very obvious during the interview as he told us how much Eddie had contributed to the album whilst wink-wink-nudging us the whole time to make sure we understood that in all truth he did everything.
As the cameraman made his way around the set, I trailed behind him, attached by a cable that went from his camera to a portable monitor hung around my neck. I shuffled behind him, head bowed, staring into the monitor. Though my memory has failed more times than Sri Lanka’s power grid, I vividly recall seeing Mr. Murphy look straight at the camera, frown, and turn to an assistant. Shortly after, we were escorted off the soundstage.
We sat, for a very long time, waiting for the opportunity to interview Mr. Murphy. When he began to grant interviews, he went to BET first. Then everyone else. We set up, waited, waited more, and at long last were graced by his presence. Even though the crew was annoyed that we had been booted off set and made to wait, this was Los Angeles; the celebrity gets a great deal of leeway. When the lights came on and the cameras rolled, Mr. Murphy became the Eddie Murphy that I was familiar with from TV: energetic and funny. At one point, he made me laugh out loud. It got picked up on the microphone and I got in trouble.
After the interview he quickly left us. We packed up, dodged his brother and annoying entourage, and headed back to the office.
At the time Ms. Abdul was shooting the video for “Cold Hearted Snake” and her star was only beginning to rise. She had choreographed for someone whom I can’t recall, and this song was a big break into the music business for her. On this interview the crew was small and I had become the sound man by default. My job was to hook up a lavalier microphone to her. This is done by running your hands underneath the person’s shirt.
This was very awkward for me. I hadn’t run my hands up a stranger’s shirt before. At least while I was sober. I made this very obvious, and told her repeatedly how awkward I felt. She was quite sweet and told me not to worry about it. Afterwards, I told everyone that she was lovely. In Los Angeles, the stock response to declaring a newly rising star as nice is: “You just wait. She’ll be a bitch.”
Apparently, nobody in LA thinks it’s possible to become famous without becoming a bitch. Though I’d imagine that to be quite often true, she still strikes me as quite sweet based on what I’ve seen on “American Idol” which returned her to some level of prominence again. So, you just wait.
We were on the set of “Right Here Waiting” which was being shot inside a concert hall of some sort. The hall was dark, a spotlight illuminated the piano and Mr. Marx on the stage, and some bastard was spraying Pina Colada-scented fog everywhere. I will never forget the smell; pineapple and coconut invading every pore in my body, crawling into my lungs and up my nostrils. Every time I see the video, which fortunately isn’t often, I can recall the smell vividly.
I didn’t know who Mr. Marx was at the time. This song was to be his big hit. I remember his hair. Lots and lots of fluffy hair. He was very excited, as you probably would be when on the verge of fame and fortune. After the interview he told us he wanted to shoot some “funny” scenes. And so, we started shooting Richard Marx, singer turned comedian. He picked up a phone, said something, hung up. It was light on the funny.
He gave us a walk-through of the tour bus. He was genuinely excited about the thing, and rightfully so. as it seems like a great way to travel. Overall, he came across as a nice guy. Maybe a little bit nerdy, but nice. Again, every time I mentioned this to people I was told: “You just wait. He’ll be an asshole.”
In this case, they may have been right. A year or longer afterwards I remember hearing that he trashed his tour bus; angry about sagging record sales or something.
Oh goodness.
Our van was buzzed in to the Vandross Estate. We were greeted by Bubba. Bubba was a tall, body-built, lisping, effeminate white guy with an earring. He led us through the house to the poolside where the interview would be conducted. We went through a room that I remember as being all silver. Silver curtains, silver bedspread. Silver, silver, silver. Or maybe it was gold. Regardless, the room, the house, all had the accoutrements of someone with lots of money but whose taste might be considered … disabled.
Mr. Vandross was very nice, but I spent the whole time wondering What the hell is going on? Who is Bubba? What’s with the curtains? Doesn’t this guy sing songs about loving the ladies? I was very confused.
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, was and still probably is, amazingly wealthy and had one of the loveliest estates I’ve ever seen. Gaining access to his hilltop domain required having our licenses photocopied by the security detail at the foot of the hill. We were then allowed to head to the top, passing tennis courts and arriving at his lovely house.
But it wasn’t his lovely house. It was his lovely pool house. I had been fooled into thinking the house-sized pool house was a people-house. In fact, it was the entryway to the pool, and the view of the real house, which sat at the top of the hill, presiding over everything.
Bimbos were everywhere. They were past-their-prime bimbos. Probably in their late 30s, early 40s. Actress and singer wannabes no doubt, all lingering around Mr. Gordy’s pool. One woman in particular stuck out to me. No matter where we set up our camera, she would magically appear in front of it. If we wanted a sweeping view of the estate, she would happen to be walking in front of it. If we wanted a shot of the pool, she wanted to swim. Presumably, if we were shooting a tree on the property she’d magically acquire an axe and start chopping. She was a worn out, big-boobed, bleach blonde, 40 something. Her tenacity at getting in the shot was amazing, annoying, and ultimately very, very sad.
All around the property, all-weather speakers played Motown tunes. Apparently 24 hours a day. He was not troubled with having neighbors as it was pretty much his hill. The inside of Mr. Gordy’s house was all about the Asian vases. Super-sized, 8-foot tall deals that would have required moving crews to relocate and reeked of being really expensive.
The biggest surprise was that Smokey Robinson happened to be hanging out there. He had stunning blue eyes which I can still recall. Seemed like a nice guy.
We set up the interview for Mr. Gordy and had him sitting on a low wall near the poolside. Within seconds, the Bimbo #1had relocated right next to him, fake-laughing flirting, and mugging the camera. Eventually she was shooed away. The lesson I learned here was if you’re not careful, having lots of money can result in being surrounded by such people.
I was excited about the Beastie Boys interview because I kind of knew who they were. I’m not the most interested-in-music type, but I had a mix-tape once. Around those days I was an avid Public Enemy listener, until I finally caught on and realized they hated white people. As far as the Beastie Boys went, I knew they sang the song about fighting for your right to party. I just didn’t know what they looked like. This turned out to be a problem.
The occasion was the release of their album “Paul’s Boutique.” It was being held atop the Capitol Records building, which in Los Angeles passes for a landmark because it’s round and looks like a stack of records. They’re short on culture, you see.
We arrived on the rooftop, and for the first time encountered the reasons why a horny 20 year old might want to be a rock star. Girls everywhere. Hot girls. Models. All about the place. There were some guys. They looked like slackers. I assumed they were the Beastie Boys. How wrong I was.
They noticed we had a camera and immediately approached us. They wanted to do some comedy bit (a la Richard Marx) which they called the “milding.” At the time, there were a series of brutal attacks in the news which had been dubbed “wildings.” This was their version. They proceeded, in slow motion, to remove my watch, wallet, unbutton my shirt, remove my sunglasses and feign molesting me. All the time I thought this was being done by the Beastie Boys and that I was laying my pride on the line in the name of comedy. Turns out they were just cling-ons. They gave me back my watch, wallet and sunglasses, but after I realized that they were not the Beastie Boys, I felt very violated.
We were then directed towards the actual Beasties. I remembered seeing one, acne from chin to chest, being pawed by several girls. Whereas an unpleasant complexion might be detrimental to your social life, in Los Angeles any form of exterior or interior disfigurement is absolutely okay – if you’re a celebrity. Girls stroked his arms as he talked and laughed at everything he said. It was awesome, if you were him; pathetic if you were th3e dad who raised a daughter who pawed acne-scarred rappers.
It got much worse.
The three Boys sat down for the interview in a cordoned-off section of the rooftop. It was my job to wire them for sound, running lavalier microphones under their shirts. After I had finished the third, they un-clipped the mics and let them drop back down their shirts. This was apparently cool, you see, or at least meant as entertainment for the gathering of dunces on the rooftop. I stepped back in, and could only smile as I re-hooked their microphones, which they then unhooked as soon as I stepped off camera. I looked over at the head sound man, who signaled me to gather up the lavaliers. He decided he would instead hold a boom microphone over their heads.
The interview began, they talked about their new album “Paul’s Boutique.” At some point, one of them reached up and squeezed the sound man’s $5,000 microphone. I glanced over at the guy; he was beet red. The Boys continued talking, but every so often would reach up and squeeze the microphone, apparently for entertainment value. Every time they did, I would look at the sound man. He was livid, on the verge of exploding.
The moment the interview ended, the sound man furiously swung the boom away from them, pulled off the microphone’s windscreen and inspected it. To his credit, the Adam Ad-Rock Rabinowitz – whatever his name – Beastie approached to apologize for their having messed with the guy’s equipment. he explained it was “shtick.” The floodgates opened. The sound man let him have it: This was his bread and butter. This was his life. Money may come easy to them, but if his microphone was broken his family doesn’t eat. Adam beastie offered to replace it if it was broken. We packed up and got out of there, the sound man cursing the whole way home. To this day I can still see that angry, screaming sound guy every time I hear the Beastie Boys – which isn’t too often.
Having grown up listening to the Dr. Demento Show on the Westwood One Radio network, I was quite excited for the chance to work on the Weird Al interview. Weird Al was a regular on the top-ten comedy charts. I was quite familiar with all the songs he had parodied, and was quite impressed that someone could actually make a good living doing something that required such little talent. I was also mad that the job had been filled.
I think the interview was held on a college campus somewhere. He showed up with a girlfriend in tow. Geeky, for sure. It was decided we should do something funny for his segment, which had something to do with him introducing a video for M-TV, if I recall. Ideas were exchanged. I suggested hitting him in the head with a boom microphone as he was talking during the segment. That’s what we went with. Admittedly, I thought of this not because it had really funny potential, but because I wanted to go back to college and tell people I hit Weird Al Yankovic on the head with a microphone. We did many takes, with me standing on a ladder off-camera, repeatedly hitting him in the head with a microphone. Life was good. Real good.
At some point it seems we interviewed a few cast members of “Weekend At Bernie’s” but my diary notes say “Eh…” so I’m going to assume that means I found them dull.
In retrospect, all these experiences were priceless. I developed a healthy contempt for Los Angeles, which is requisite to prevent it from ruining you. I learned how to be humble and grin under abuse from young millionaires and their evil cling-ons – a great skill that can be applied to waiting tables. I learned that fame can be fleeting (Marx, Beastie Boys), and that there is a just and vengeful God who occasionally punishes the mean-spirited (Murphy). I learned that not every celebrity becomes a jerk (Abdul) and that wealth doesn’t necessarily buy you taste (Vandross), good friends (Gordy), or protect you from being struck on the head with microphones (Yankovic).