This isn’t a story I’d intended to tell until my “memoirs”… I’d held it inside as one of those great stories to tell “someday”, but a couple things recently changed my mind.
The first is that I recently read Steven Tyler’s autobiography; “Does the Noise In My Head Bother You”. I’d been reading research and project-related books at a rate of 4-5 a week, making copious notes during the process, and found that I wanted… desperately… to read something “light and mindless”. Tyler’s book wasn’t mindless, but the humor and insight he brought to the page served as the “break” I needed, and also reminded me of my experiences with him back in 1987-88.
Which brings us to reason #2 for writing this… Namely, that there have been a lot of deaths lately. Actors, artists, musicians, and astronauts… people who inspired me or brought something to my life over the 40-some years I’ve been stomping around on this Earth. With each unexpected passing, I’ve been served up the painful and brutal reminder:
“Don’t assume you have until later to tell a person of the impact they have had upon you.”
So, whether he sees this or not, I think it’s important to tell the story while he is alive.*
(*Not that I am assuming his death is eminent, of anything of that sort, mind you. I just… urgh… I’m going to stop explaining the logic behind it before I dig this hole any deeper.)
So, then… it’s 1987.
I had just finished my first year at Art School (Otis/Parsons, which was located in sunny South Central LA at the time), and rather than head back to the safety of my Mom’s house in small-town Washington State, I decided to spend the summer working. This was partly driven by ego… proving I could “make it” on my own in a very sketchy part of one of the biggest cities in the US… and partly driven by the cold, practical reality that if I didn’t, I would have no way to pay for the upcoming 87-88 school year. Mom couldn’t really help out financially, and even with Student Loans, State and Federal Grants, and work study, I would still need to raise around $7,000 before September if I was going to attend my second year.
Through an ad in the LA Weekly, I’d found a job at an “adult” magazine as a “Paste-up artist” (Go ahead and make the pun-based jokes now, I’ll wait for you.). The job, which sounded great on the surface… Mon-Fri, $700 a week, working in an actual art production department for a publisher… ended up being horrific. This was 1987, pre-indoor smoking codes, and EVERYONE (myself included) chain smoked in the 20’ x 20’ enclosed room that was the art department. I was scared shitless to spend ANY money, as I worried incessantly about that huge $7,000 total looming in September, and so I lived on a box of Mac and Cheese or a pack of Top Ramen a night, staying upright during the day through non-stop black coffee and cigarettes. By the end of July, I had dropped down to around 120 lbs… you could see every rib through the skin in my chest. The chemical and alcohol abuse (provided for free by helpful friends) didn’t help matters. By August, I knew I’d have the money I’d need for the coming year at art school, but I was also hyper-aware of another fact…
If I stayed in LA for another year, under these conditions, I likely wouldn’t live through it.
I spent weeks tormenting myself about this… leaving = failure. I’d set out to prove that everyone I went to High School with was wrong. I was meant for bigger and better things than small town life and a job at the mill. I was meant for the Big City. Now, I was facing the struggle of… do I go back and live, or do I stick it out and die? To say that I hated myself by that point, would be an understatement in the extreme. Self-loathing however wasn’t enough to overcome the tiny part of survival instinct, and so I decided to pack up, head back to Washington, and try to figure out a different school to go to… a different route to take. One that wouldn’t end with my premature death.
I was in the process of packing up when I received a phone call from John Caldwell. Two summers prior, I had worked for John on an “extended form rock video” called Motown’s Mustang. It was basically a 90 minute commercial celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Motown and the Mustang, tying the two icons together in a narrative that spanned from the 50’s to modern day. It was the first professional art gig I had ever had… doing over 200 pages of storyboards… the summer before my sophomore year in High School. I have no idea how John tracked me down, or got my phone number… this is WAY pre-internet, and so it was very easy to lose contact with people, especially when they moved frequently… but he was calling to see if I was available because “they need a storyboard artist who GETS rock”. The gig would be a couple of weeks, and would pay a pretty sizable hunk of money, so I agreed to it without even finding out what band it was, wrote down the address in Beverly Hills, and made arrangements to meet them the next day.
After getting stopped twice by Beverly Hills police officers (who wanted to logically know what the long-haired junkie-looking weirdo in the Datsun spray-painted with zebra stripes was doing in the “respectable” part of town) I made it to the location… a secluded and stylish house with a Frank Lloyd Wright feel in dark woods and stone. John introduced me to Marty Callner, who had become the “man of the hour” for directing videos in this seminal era of MTV such as Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” (With Tawny Kitaen writhing about on the hood of a sports car) and Cher’s infamous “Turn Back Time” (on the Navy Destroyer). Marty and I had a long talk, shooting the shit about the visualization of music… what videos worked, what didn’t… what bands we liked (both old and new) and after a while, he evidentially decided I “passed” as he began to talk about the video they were working on.
The first shocker was that the band was Aerosmith. Being a musical addict, devouring both music and news related to it like a starving man, I had heard the rumors that Joe Perry was back with Aerosmith after the less-than successful outing without him, “Done With Mirrors”. I had no idea however that they had a new album in the works, much less that it was DONE. I had been a fan of Aerosmith for years. I thought their swagger and gritty mix of the street hustler and carnival barker was something that never got enough credit. So great was my appreciation for the band that, when I inexplicably was elected Senior Class President, I insisted on having “Dream On” as our “Class Song”. When one of the “popular girls” protested that “It sounds negative! Like ‘you think you can graduate? Oh, dream on’!” I (barely) kept my patience when I suggested that she needed to actually listen to the lyrics, and that perhaps she was the one suffering from a negative world view, as the song encourages the listener to follow their dreams, not give up, and “dream until your dreams come true.”
Marty put on a “Studio copy” of the album… a blank white cassette with the names of the songs typed on the cardboard liner, and watched me as I listened. The tape rolled, blasting through the surround speakers in Marty’s home editing bay and right from the start, I was stunned… this was the Aerosmith I knew… but better. Song after song, you felt like the band had something to prove, that they were determined to show the naysayers that they weren’t has-beens. That in a world populated by Aqua Net, Poison and Great White, that THEY were the real deal. Song after song played, and I got more and more excited. The taped ended, and Marty asked me point blank; “Which song do YOU think should be the first single?” I said that there were a lot of great tracks, but that “Dude” seemed the obvious choice, especially as a “Comeback” song. Marty settled back with a smile… I’d passed the test. “Yeah, that’s the video we’re working on right now. You’re doing the ‘boards for it.”
Over the next two weeks I drew Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. A. Lot. Close-ups of Steven kissing a woman’s taut belly. Pictures of Joe bursting through a Promo Poster on a brick wall. A worker with a jackhammer that turns out to be a woman. It was a joy. I was getting paid to draw out the scenes for a new video from one of the bands I loved. Marty and I talked a lot about music, about the album, about how we thought it would do when it came out. Both of us thought it would be a monster if the label got behind it. That it would push the band into the upper stratosphere. The label, however, wasn’t behind it. As we were wrapping pre-production and all the storyboards, Marty called the team in to explain that Geffen wasn’t willing to pay the budget. The shots were too expensive for a “Band that was risky”. All of us were pissed and we dug in. Boards got re-drawn, concepts got thrown out or re-worked, scenes were scrapped or added, and locations got changed. Finally we had boiled it down to two days of shooting… one for the “story” sections, and one for the “performance”.
When I arrived at the set for the “performance” shoot, I still hadn’t met the band in person. I didn’t want to be a “fan”, or an annoyance, because I knew how tight our shooting schedule was so I hung back and watched… even though the “little kid me” inside was very excited to see Joe, Steven and the rest of the band walking around, checking out the length of the stage, and the like. Marty called me over and introduced me to Joe and Steven… Joe gave a polite nod, while Steven told me how much he dug the storyboards, saying he loved comics and that the drawings I had done made him feel “like a superhero!” I stammered my thanks, told him that I thought the album was the best they’d done since Toys in the Attic, and backed away to let them finish getting ready.
That would have been enough of a cherished memory for me, but moments later, as the crew was setting the lights, Marty yelled to me to “Get up on the stage”, so they could do the lighting for Steven (since I had long hair, and was about the say height, and skinny-no-eating-build). I made my way on to the stage, struck by how weird and surreal this was… me standing in for Steven Tyler… while he’s right below me, watching and getting his makeup done. Me, the small town escapee who wanted more from life than the fate of becoming another drone at the Mill. Marty told me to “Move around, rock out a bit” so that they could check the lighting… the music started blaring over the speakers, and I started moving around, doing all the “rocker moves” I’d practiced so many times in the mirror as a kid.
The music cuts, Mary yells “OK, that’s good!” and then Steven yells to me from his makeup chair;
“You look great, kid… like you belong up there!”
I managed to stammer out my thanks as I stumbled off the stage, and they went on with the business of the shoot. I’m sure that, for Steven, it was just a bit of polite banter. Something said to show appreciation, and to break up the long, boring process of the shoot. For me… at that time in my life… when I felt worthless, a failure that was leaving in defeat… Having the man who sang “Dream until you dreams come true.” telling me with a grin that I looked like I belonged on a bigger stage… that was fuel. Fuel that gave me power and strength during some very cold days.
So, to Steven Tyler… thanks, man. Truly, thank you.