I was probably practicing a guitar lick in my Church stall, on a day the waterbed store was closed, when George called me to come downstairs for some cake. It was his birthday. As I descended the stairs, I heard a note from a pitch pipe followed quickly by the opening lines of the most over-the-top, enthusiasm-on-steroids, opera-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” I had ever heard. Belting it out was a short, sweating gentleman dressed in a blue blazer and red bow tie, his eyes ready to jump out of their sockets, his dark hair slicked back. The performance was post-eccentric. The volume he achieved was astonishing. Could have filled an auditorium. “Ozzie,” said George. “I want you to meet John-John.” John was an opera singing tenor who could hit high “C.” He was a friend of George’s from his Baker University days in Kansas—just the sort of person who would fall into George’s orbit. George had served as John’s protector from the louts who populated the pin ball parlor near Baker. He was the kind of person who had been mocked all of his life for being too boisterous, too different, too unique, too much.
Look around where you are right now, then proceed ten years into the future. How could I have possibly known that a decade hence I would utilize John’s talents to promote a television channel that no one had yet conceived, in an industry that had barely been born. At this moment, I was not conceiving anything beyond the birthday cake that John was devouring. This guy could eat.
Here is a compilation of some of my work with John Andrews, one of the most sincere and indefatigable performers I have ever encountered. The first video is pulled from Not For Chowderheads, the 1982 special produced by KTWU, Topeka. The videos that follow were part of a seasonal campaign for MTV while I was marketing director at Sunflower Cablevision in Lawrence, KS.
“We will never run
out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private
dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big
basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my
freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my
first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the
fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an
The promise of delicious,
plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once
hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free
meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the
state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option.
What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?
It rankled me,
though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that
moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These
were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on
One of my duties
was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone
un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch
item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined
the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper
napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most
popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the
trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took
one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire
burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and
When the staff
bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me.
Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s
youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel
was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was
crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a
dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied
the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff,
went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more
pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine
article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction
of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed
The food service
manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was
an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m
sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam
or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray
suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18;
he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,”
I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the
Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my
fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing
During one back
dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always
hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock
with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something
about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I
began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the
dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are
bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from
the corner of my mouth.
Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.
The advertising industry is fueled by seminars, conventions and cocktail parties. At an after-work Holiday cocktail bash sponsored by a now-defunct cable channel, I ran into a friend who worked for MTV. Between sips of punch, we commented on the general lameness of everything in sight, how shallow and full of shit so much of the industry was, especially most of the anointed rising stars. This is what you do when you are not a rising star yourself and are generally skeptical at the power dynamics that have passed you by, even though you wanted to be passed by. That was the goal.
This exercise in mockery eventually
meandered into a discussion of things that we considered to be worthy of our
praise. That’s when we discovered our mutual love of the Rolling Stones. We
settled into animated chat of our favorite Stones tracks. Sway. Spider and the Fly. You Got the Silver, Moonlight Mile. I
relayed my story of speaking to Bill Wyman on the phone while I was in high
school. My cohort had a story about a Mick encounter. Then she dropped the
bombshell: How would I like two passes to the live taping of a Keith Richards
and The Expensive Winos concert that VH-1 was producing locally at WTTW’s soundstage?
And maybe an after-show introduction to Keith! This is why we work. It’s not
just for the money, it’s for the opportunity to meet Rock Gods. If offered the
chance to meet any musician from any era, if Robert Johnson was busy being
chased by a hellhound, I would have chosen Keith.
On the day of the taping, Linda
contracted stomach flu but was going to give it a try anyway. After all, it was
Keith! Sadly, on the way to the show we had to turn the car around and return
Linda home to deal with her gastric misery. This lost opportunity amplified her
illness. She was now both sick and devastated. After dropping her off, I didn’t
have time to think about anything other than threading through expressway
traffic and getting to WTTW on time.
The studio held about 200 standing
fans. A low-key, pre-concert buzz filled the room, emitted by rock fans in the
know, sharing stories of other times they had seen Keith or the Stones or other
famous rockers. We were the chosen ones and we knew it. This wasn’t some stadium
show with 30,000 anybodys in attendance. This was a hyper exclusive event to
witness a legend. I wormed my way to the very front, pressed against the stage.
A small camera tethered to a cable zipped behind me. The director was
practicing a shot that would swoop over the crowd, right up to the Winos. Just
before the band appeared, I heard my name over the studio public address
system. “Bain! Move to the back. Your bald head is in my shot.” I knew the
woman who was directing, and she had recognized me. I moved about twenty feet
back. Still a great spot to see the band smash through Take It So Hard and about ten other tunes including Time Is on My Side, sung by Sara Dash.
The set ended with no encore
because it was a television taping. I headed for the stage door where my MTV
friend had told me to meet her. As I made my way to the backstage door, I said
hello to Winos drummer, Steve Jordan and sax legend, Bobby Keys. “Great set,
guys!” What else could I say? The rock royalty was looking for the room where the
buffet was. Because of the small, private nature of the show there wasn’t much
security. I walked in. Backstage was a non-descript, dark-ish room with drapes
on the walls and a few overhead lights. The gathering was just me, the MTV gal,
the President of VH-1 and a guitar maker with a custom guitar for Keith to
autograph. As we waited for Keith, we were all equals.
I was making small talk with the
VH-1 President when a hush seemed to settle over us, a barely discernable
change in atmosphere like the pressure drop that precedes a tornado. From the
shadows, Keith materialized and noiselessly glided our way. He simply appeared,
as if waved in by an unseen wand. I swear I detected an aura surrounding him.
He seemed in good spirits but how would I know? Had he just smoked hash? Had he
just looked at his bank account? Had he just had a plate of bangers and mash?
In any case, there was no pretense. I could tell that he had done this meet and
greet hundreds of times. It was the retail part of his rock star god job. He
was polite, gracious, at once both all-knowing and oblivious.
What do you say to an icon? I hadn’t rehearsed any questions. I thought that a prepared question would seem hokey. Do stars ever get tired of being told how much we love them? Or how many times we have played their first album? I settled on blurting out, “My wife got sick this morning and she’s going to die because she didn’t get to see the show and meet you.” Without missing a beat, Keith says, “What you want from me mate? To pay for her funeral?” He was busting my balls. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied, “but could you tell her to get well soon?” An assistant who had slipped into the room handed Keith an event invitation postcard and a sharpie and Keith scribbled, “To Linda. Get well soon,” and signed his name. I posed for a quick photo with Keith and the others. For reasons known only to God and Elvis, I never got a copy. It slipped through the cracks of my life. What I most remember was the handshake. Keith’s hands were incredibly soft.
Consider the business suit. Wrapping up in one of these once or twice a year for some special or somber occasion is fine, but to do so every day, for me, is overload. I view the suit as a costume. A fancy uniform. But that’s just me. You might feel differently. You might be among the millions who love to play dress up.
When you wear a suit, you are frequently in the company of others wearing suits. Part of the club. It signifies that your job does not require digging, heavy lifting, sawing, mowing or a tool belt. In a nice suit and tie, as you step off the train, enter an elevator or get seated at a restaurant, the world sees a person that can at least afford a suit, who is going somewhere and whose drudgery is more likely mental than physical. In the preferred job of my dreams I would dress for work the same as I dressed for a Saturday afternoon with the kids. Work is no more important than family, right? Why dress differently for it? Yeah, I know. On the job, you dress to impress. You dress for success. But what if your definition of success doesn’t require a business suit? Mine doesn’t.
When I accepted an offer to work for the Centel Corporation (not a fake name), it went without saying that a suit would be standard attire. During the previous ten years, my jobs had never required a suit. My work apparel had been some combination of jeans, boots, sneakers, khakis, aprons, work shirts, collared shirts and even a Santa Claus outfit. Now, things would be different. It was time to play dress up for real.
I would need at least three suits to rotate through the work week. I already owned a tan, summer weight number, and one other now forgotten garment. Let me tell you about my third suit. I found it at Irv’s Men’s Warehouse, sort of an outlet store for suits. (Note: Irv’s Men’s Warehouse no longer exists but has been reincarnated into a luggage outlet.)
The lighting at Irv’s was a bit dim, either to cut down on the electric bill—after all, this was a discount emporium—or because the merchandise was better viewed in crepuscular light. I was searching for something of a different color than the two suits I already owned. After swiping through the racks that were in my size and price range, I settled on a cheap brown thing made of some indestructible material that claimed to be wool but was more like thick burlap. At the very least, this wool was from a scrawny, low grade sheep. There were better suits at the Warehouse but not in my size or price range The brown one would have to do. Leaving the store, I felt that I had done something terribly wrong.
To say that this suit was vapid would be an understatement. Its hue was similar to chewing tobacco or dog do. It had no give. It didn’t drape. It was stiff and could almost stand up on its own. It was the opposite of fashionable. The suit would have been banned in Italy. When I looked in the mirror while dressed in this third suit, I actually felt embarrassment. It was hideous.
This nasty garment came to symbolize the oppression of my job. I never donned the suit outside of work. The only time I wore it was in my cubicle, in the bland office on the 6th floor of a featureless office building near the airport, home base for this rather boring corporation where I was trying to fit in. I went through the motions clad in brown. While wearing the brown suit, I felt mirthless, but I continued at the job because I had two kids. I had rent, obligations and now a cheap, brown suit.
Removing the suit was a daily highlight. On my after-work dash to the car, I tore off my suit jacket and loosened my tie. Soon I would be in jeans and a t-shirt. Upon arrival home, the kids often hid behind the draperies as I wondered aloud where could they be. When they could stand it no longer, they came bounding out. I was surprised every time. They didn’t seem to mind the suit.
When I left Centel, I vowed to never again wear the hideous brown suit and I have kept that vow.
I Meet The Champ
The summer of 1965, my 16th year, a friend of my parents had snared me the exotic job of car hiker for Z Frank Chevrolet in Chicago. Every workday Mr. Burr picked me up on Blodgett Street in Clarendon Hills and drove me to a six-story garage on Federal Street on the south edge of the loop where Z Frank Chevrolet had leased some space. My singular duty was to shuttle (hike) rental cars from one Z Frank rental spot to the next.
One morning while shooting the breeze with some fellow hikers, a white convertible Cadillac with red leather upholstery pulled into our garage on South Federal Street. Moments before we had been tipped that The Champ was coming and here he was. Hardy, a short dude with a limp, the head car hiker, instructed all of us to not call him Cassius Clay. His name is now Ali.
With great controversy, Cassius Clay had recently changed his “slave name” to Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim name. The name change didn’t bother me. He had just beaten badass Sonny Listen for the second time a couple months prior, this time by a knockout in the first round, another controversy. I thought he was impossibly cool. As the big white Caddy convertible whooshed into the garage, the five or six of us car hikers gathered around. Ali sat alone in the middle of the back seat with both arms spread out on the red leather seat backs. A driver and a bodyguard—sure looked like Black Muslims to me—sat in the front seat. Ali looked extremely relaxed when he got out of the Cadillac. He was all business but gracious and rather soft-spoken, quite different than his public persona. We all briefly crammed into the tiny garage office and he shook everybody’s hand. Not a crushing handshake. Just a regular shake.
For a second I looked into the eyes of the most famous person on earth.
And that was it. I have no idea where he was going or why he parked his car at our garage but I had met the Champ. It never occurred to me to get his autograph. Who had a camera handy in 1965?