Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation With Gary Wilson

The seventies was an era where musicians, such as KISS and Alice Cooper, dressed up in crazy outfits, wore makeup, and performed wild stage shows at their concerts. Yet, no one could match solo artist Gary Wilson when it came to dressing up and putting on a stage show. While KISS and Alice Cooper performed heavy/hard rock, Gary’s music was more avant-garde and experimental. His music mixed lyrics of sexual frustration with Steely Dan-like melodies. At shows, Gary would dress up in cellophane or duct tape, or had paint or flour spilled over him.

Gary also played with his own band, the Blind Dates. The Blind Dates would dress up and sometimes pour flour or paint over Gary mid-song.  While the Blind Dates performed with Gary, they never recorded on any of Gary’s albums. Some of his stage shows were so off the wall that the electricity would be cut off so Gary and the Blind Dates would stop playing.

In addition  to an original look and stage show, Gary had a unique process of recording his 1977 avant-garde rock album You Think You Really Know Me. He played nearly all of the instruments (bass, keyboards, guitar). Gary recorded and edited the album in his parents’ basement. He released the album, pressing 300 copies in 1977 and then another 300 in 1979. Well known songs on the album are “6.4=Make Out,” “Groovy Girls Making Love on the Beach,” “Chromium Bitch,” and “I Want to Lose Control.” He continued playing shows and released a few singles in the 1970s. A native of Endicott, New York, Gary would move to San Diego in 1978 (where he still lives today) to find a record label deal. In the beginning of the eighties, Gary had ended his stage shows and no longer recorded music.

Although Gary was no longer pursuing a solo career, he continued to play professionally for other artists such as Roy Bird and the Coasters. In 1996, Beck mentioned Gary Wilson’s name on his hit song, “Where It’s At,” on the Odelay album. As a result, fans were interested in Gary Wilson again. Motel Records wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me, but Gary was difficult to find. Motel Records had even hired a private detective and were unable to find him. Eventually, in 2002, Gary was found in San Diego playing piano for lounge singer Donnie Finnell (whom he still plays with today) part-time and working at an adult film theater at night.

Motel Records re-released the album in 2002, and Gary’s solo career would “resurrect,” as he calls it. In 2005, a film documentary titled You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, portrayed Gary Wilson’s life and was shown at the Lincoln Center in New York. Gary released more albums and toured during the 2000s. Some of the albums were released by Stone Throw Records, a hip-hop label run by DJ Peanut Butter Wolf. In addition, Gary had quite a few famous fans, such as Beck and the Roots. The Roots invited him to play with them on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2010. Simpsons creator Matt Groening and rapper Earl Sweatshirt were other famous fans as well. Sweatshirt sampled Gary’s song, “You Were Too Good to be True” for his song “Grief.” In 2015, Gary would appear with Sweatshirt and BadBadNotGood on Jimmy Kimmel Live! At the time of this writing, Gary continues to tour with his own outrageous shows.

In this interview, we talk about the beginning of Gary’s music career. We discuss his album You Think You Really Know Me, as well as his shows during that time. In addition, we talk about his solo career ending and being revisited decades later. We also talk about what Gary is currently up to. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but mainly I want to thank Gary for his time. 

Jeff Cramer: What inspired you into the world of music?

Gary Wilson: My father was a string bass player. He had a good gig. He played in an old house band with a quartet at a hotel for twenty-five years. All the Wilson family played instruments throughout our school years. My sister played the cello, and I loved cello and bass.

When I was eight or nine years old, my father would go to a store on the weekends and buy me some singles. At that point in time—it was 1960 or 1961, I believe—I became a big fan of Dion and the Belmonts. I was a big fan of him and his song:  “Runaround Sue” and “Lovers Who Wander.” Anyway, I was in fourth grade and that’s when I wrote my first song, which was very much influenced by Dion. My mother would curl my hair to look like Dion.

The Beatles came out when I was in sixth grade. I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was still a Dion fan at the time, but I quickly changed by the seventh grade. I was twelve years old and played with a band. At that point, my dad bought us a Farfisa organ, a piano with an electro-amplifier. We had a Lowrey organ in the house as well. The Wilson family had a few instruments: string bass, cellos, a tuba, and a big old Lowrey organ. In the beginning, we used to transport the big old Lowrey organ, but that was a pain in the neck.

By the time I hit the eighth grade—I was thirteen—I joined a rock band called Lourde Fuzz, and they played a lot of gigs. They were good. They were a bunch of Italian kids who lived within a four-block radius of Endicott. They needed an organ player, and in the late-sixties, there was some of the best rock music. Our mothers or parents would take us to the gigs. We worked all the time. Lourde Fuzz actually had a good chemistry. You know, bands can sometimes look good, but if they don't have a good chemistry, you can sometimes hear it or see it.

In the late-sixties, there were a lot of places for kids to play with bands, with psychedelic lights, for example. I remember playing the Hullabaloo Club. I think we played there with 1910 Fruitgum Company, which had a single, “Simon Says,” a bubblegum song [1967].

I was in a rock band and we were playing all the big stuff—some Stones, some Jimi Hendrix, Grass Roots, the Turtles, you know, all those bands back then, and we did them well. Plus, I was playing in our school orchestra.

Then all of a sudden I became interested in more weirder stuff, weirder music. I gravitated toward bands like the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. That was fun, because when I was in high school— I was fifteen or sixteen—I got a chance to meet Captain Beefheart and give him a demo tape. He came to Ithaca, New York.

Then I became interested in painting—Robert Rauschenberg and Pollack—all those avant-garde artists. I was interested in anything avant-garde, so it could be jazz, it could be theater. Back in those days, they used to have cultural shows with hosts and my dad would wake me up on a Sunday morning to see Allen Ginsberg or Robert Rauschenberg. It kind of fascinated me (we had cable in a very small town in upstate New York, but a lot of people didn’t). That inspired me to be interested in Varèse and Schoenberg, so I started writing classical music and eventually I became interested in John Cage. [Note: John Cage is one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the twentieth century.]

JC: Obviously, John Cage would be a huge influence.

GW: That became a real turning point, you know. My brother was going to SUNY [State University in New York] Binghamton. They had a good music library, so I went there and listened to music on headphones. I put on a piece from John Cage called “Concert for Piano and Orchestra with David Tudor on piano.

It was recorded in 1958 at Alice Tully Hall, and I’d never heard anything like that. So, when I heard Cage and that particular song with David Tudor, who was my favorite piano player, it was just . . . wow. I brought my tape recorder and taped it. They allowed you to do that—tape off a library recording.

I would listen to that all the time, in the shower or other places I used to hang out at home. That got me into the stranger music. I was in a rock band, but Cage just kind of drifted into my direction, incorporating influence into my rock band.

JC:  You would meet John Cage.

GW: I met John Cage when I was fifteen. I was in the tenth grade. I had been writing music for our high school’s chamber orchestra at that time. My violin teacher said, “Well, why don't you try to get ahold of him [Cage]?” I got ahold of a New York City telephone book because I was from upstate New York in Ithaca. And lo and behold, Cage’s number was listed in the phone book, so I gave him a call and he gave me a post office box to send some scores to him. I followed up the conversation two weeks later by calling him and he invited me to his house. My mother drove me up there. He lived in Haverstraw, New York, at the time, outside of New York City.

I still look back at that incident. I was just talking to somebody last night about that story. I can't figure out how that all came about. There I was, a kid from upstate New York, one hundred fifty miles away from New York City. The finest music colleges would love to have a one-on-one with John Cage—

JC:  Yes.

GW: —let alone to be invited to his freaking house.

JC: Yes.

GW:   My mom drove me up there, and we got lost in the woods. There was a general store in that area, and I called John Cage from the store and said, “Hey, Mr. Cage, I can't find your house.” So, he came down in his car. I think he had a Thunderbird—a big Thunderbird, not the sporty one. He picked me up at the general store, and my mom followed behind in her car.

I was making small talk with John Cage as we’re driving to his house, and then for hours we went over my scores and he would correct me. He'd say, “Okay, how do you think a trumpet is going to interpret that?” Or, he would scribble something out of my score and tell me to do it a certain way. That was probably one of the more magical moments of my life. He had a big influence on me.

JC:  How did the ideas come up for You Think You Really Know Me?

GW: Well, that took a few steps. I was still searching for who I was—Gary Wilson. I would even go sometimes to a John Cage show in New York or at the local university wherever he was showing. I thought, “Wouldn't it be nice to see somebody in front of this John Cage show with a bucket of flour on him and wailing about some chicks?” Or, “Wouldn't it be nice to see Tony Bennett come out in front of the John Cage show with a sack of milk over his head or something?”

Everything was kind of developing in my brain. When I got out of high school, I recorded my first album, Another Galaxy [1974], which was  just re-released on Feeding Tube Records [2016], where I was playing acoustic bass. It was an instrumental album. At that time, I wrote a lot of fusion music. At that time, you only had to be eighteen to get into bars, so I could go to New York City to see Don Cherry or Pharaoh Sanders in these small clubs in the Bowery. I would go see all these guys and then the fusion thing was happening, so that led to the first album. I did a single called “Dreams.” The B-side of “Dreams” was “Soul Travel.” Both “Dreams” and “Soul Travel” were a fusion-oriented instrumental. [To hear the single for “Dreams,” click here.] I still wasn't quite famous.

At the same time, I joined a band led by Peggy Lee's piano player playing bass. Peggy’s piano player was a real good jazz guy. I joined his lounge group which had a girl front singer. I learned a lot from the piano player. Like my dad, I’m a professional musician and a bass player.

We played the better places around the area. I had a lot of things going on. There were some moments where I wondered if the band would do a total avant-garde show even though they weren’t an avant-garde band.

So, on my own time, I would do these shows, very John Cage. I would dress up in duct tape and paint straw and hay—it was total avant-garde.  I'm thinking, “Okay, I got to put a little more musicality into this somehow.”

All of a sudden, I made these demos and tapes of songs like “Chrome Lover” and “I Wanna Take You on a Sea Cruise.” I still wasn't ready to make You Think You Really Know Me, but my solo stuff had taken a turn, and I focused on my solo stuff more than my professional gig.

I had submitted a couple of demos to Bearsville Studios, which was near Woodstock. Robbie Dupree, a singer-songwriter from the seventies, had a few hits like “Steal Away,” “Brooklyn Girls,” and some other songs. He was the producer who produced me because he liked the demos. He brought me up to Woodstock. Bearsville Studios was the best studio I'd ever been in. I always tell people about it. I don't use studios that much, but that was just insane the sound of it.  I was around twenty-three at the time and we ended up recording the “Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach,” “6.4,” “I Wanna Lose Control,” and “Chromium Bitch,” but we had the drummer from the band Orleans [Orleans is best known for the hits “Still the One” and “Dance With Me”]. He was on drums, and we had a vibe player [the vibes are a percussion in the mold of xylophone or glockenspiel]  and the most beautiful piano.

We finished four songs and I stayed in Woodstock for about four nights. I remember that it rained every night. Then I came back home and Robbie Dupree’s career took off. He didn't have any more time to devote to this project. To make a long story short, I said, “Well, I'll just go back to my cellar, and since I did the demo, I'll just do the whole record.” So, I started the process and returned to You Really Think You Know Me. There was a lot of editing, scissors, you know . . . just cutting the tape.

Gary making You Think You Really Know Me (1976 or 1977)

I was finally liking it and actually wanting to put my name on something. [To watch the official video for“6.4=Make Out,” click here.]

You Think You Really Know Me album cover (1977)

It was always, “Where's Gary Wilson?” I did all these funk instrumentals, but I needed to find who Gary was, and that was the turning point of growing up. I finally reached a point where I felt happy to have my name on the album. When I put that out in 1977, I pressed it myself, tried to promote it myself, sent it out to radio stations, and then I got my first gig at CBGB.

JC: That was in 1977, at the time when punk bands, such as the Ramones, were often playing at CBGB.

GW: Yeah.

JC: And you mentioned writing jazz fusions on the first album. There was a lot of jazz fusion music on You Think You Really Know Me. A place like CBGB expected straight-ahead punk music, rock like the Ramones, but they weren’t getting that kind of music with you.

Gary Wilson at CBGB (sometime during the ’70s)

GW: Well, it's funny, because a lot of the New York City audience would yell at me. I don't like to use words like “punk” and all that, but a lot of the audience members would actually get mad at me because I'd drag up a Fender Rhodes piano or something like that. They'd start yelling at me. Back then, a lot of guys didn't like Woodstock. Things change, but I have to say New York City was always pretty good to me.

JC: One thing I want to say about the album is that you played a majority of the instruments on You Think You Really Know Me.

GW: A few of the tracks have a drummer named Gary Iacovelli. He played the more technical parts of some of the stuff. I used him on my first album, Another Galaxy. He was a real jazz funk drummer. He could play anything. We basically grew up together. I tried to play everything. That's kind of the way it always seems to work best for me. I don't know why, but I can concentrate better when it's mostly me and my vision. I kind of picked up some instruments along the way, so that's the way it works.

JC: Okay. But you would tour with the band, the Blind Dates. With the whole stage show, how did the idea of being covered in flour or covered with plastic wrap start?

Gary covered in plastic wrap

GW: Well, when I got interested in weird music, classical and all that other stuff, one of my favorite painters was Robert Rauschenberg. As a teenager, I got into a lot of painting shows—these big shows where I would take six-foot-by-six-foot plaques of wood and chairs and tires and hay and red paint. I remember a few of these art shows where I'd be in these arenas and I'd have these huge six-foot three-dimensional things. I would stand in the distance and watch. There was a lot of fine art there and potential art buyers would walk by everybody's art. The buyers would always stop at mine. I'd have titles like, She Kissed Me Last Night, and I'd have an eighty-thousand-dollar price tag on it. Nobody ever bought them, but I was learning how I could make myself into one of these messy paintings that I used to make. 

The Blind Dates, with Frank Roma and Vince Rossi, was a band I played in, and we all grew up together. Because we lived in a small town, it wasn’t easy to find outlets. Luckily, we were close to New York later, but as a young kid, I was looking for any outlet I could get into and I tried places where we shouldn’t have been in. The Blind Dates and I were looking for kicks. So, I'd go into a place where they were expecting a polka band and I'd bring in the Blind Dates. Frank Roma liked to put contact mics on chalkboards screeching with fingernails and do that for forty minutes. I guess we were having a good time.

Gary Wilson (2nd from left) and the Blind Dates

JC: Obviously, you had a good time, and I'm sure the Blind Dates did too, but I was reading that at times during these shows, people were pulling the electricity to try to get you to stop.

GW: Yeah. Well, that happened quite a few times. I remember we'd need a police escort. We'd go into these small towns in upstate New York where they didn’t even want us, and crowds would just want to kill us or something. We encouraged it in a sense that we would irritate the audience while they wanted to nail us. Our guy would pick up his mike stand and try to get out. It was dangerous in some ways.

You know what's funny about that too? The Blind Dates and I did a show with Arial Pink at the Echo a few years back and they pulled the plug on me. That's funny because I got to play the Echo on Sunday, but all I could remember was that I was on the ground and the bass player had some kind of waterproof paint that he was pouring on me. The feedback was going off as that was happening. One of the bouncers was screaming in my ears and I couldn’t see him because I was covered in paint. There was stuff in my eyes and he was yelling at me to shut up, and he was screaming at the bass player. Of course the Blind Dates were enjoying it. Now we were really fucking aggravating the guy. Next thing they yanked the plug on us.

That's what John Cage told me in one of the small talks: “If you don't irritate the audience, you're not doing your job.” Somehow, that stuck in my brain.

JC:  While you and the Blind Dates were having fun, the fun ended in the eighties.

GW: I started playing and people weren't interested anymore. I never really quit even though people say I did. Funny enough, I never really listened to blues much growing up, but I ended up being in a blues band in 1980 because they had the gigs and they needed a bass player. That led me to play bass for the Coasters and Roy Brown and Big Jay McNeely, and all these real legends of blues. One of the real gigs we did at the Whiskey a Go Go was with Roy Brown. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He had “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

JC:  Oh, yeah. Elvis did a cover.

GW: Yeah, Ricky Nelson did a remake. A lot of guys did remakes, but he had hits like in ’49 to ’51, so I had the privilege of playing with him. He was trying to make a comeback. So I ended up playing bass with him for a while and that was real interesting. People talk about Chuck Berry. I thought Roy Brown was doing rock and blues before Chuck.

Roy Brown was headlining at the Whiskey a Go Go and it was a good one. I think we had Sir Douglas Quintet opening for us. It was electrifying. It was wild. It was the real thing. The original sax player from all of Roy’s old albums was playing with us.

During the 80s, I met my long-time girlfriend for a while and she was a student at UCSD. She was into the visual arts. She and I would do a lot of performance art. She lived in California and she made two films. I was in the center of the film wearing a wedding gown. We were just a real avant-garde show. We kept doing that. We did public access and once in a while the Blind Dates would play a reunion show, but that was pretty much it. In 1997, Beck came out with the Odelay album. Then people got a bit of interested in Gary Wilson all of a sudden.

JC: When were you aware about Beck’s interest in you?

GW: Well, that's what was funny—the whole thing. At the time, I was getting into my depressing years where I was working the midnight shift, and I was duct-taping my goddamn sneakers together—that's how bad it was sometimes. I would get on the bus at midnight and head up to my old job at the theater.

Gary sometime during the 90s or 2000s 

I was watching the MTV Music Awards when all of a sudden Beck comes out and starts quoting “6.4” and “I Want to Lose Control.” I'm like, “What the . . . ?” That was before I even heard that he knew about any of my work. I didn't even know my name was on the album because I didn't have the album, but I knew he was talking about me.

So around that time in the 90s, some record company from Olympia, Washington, came down because they went to some Beck shows and he was playing “6.4” or something, and they wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me. But nothing came of it. All of a sudden, they all disappeared and that's another story in itself.

It’s 2002, I was still working the midnight shift at the old store and I didn't have a phone. I was at work when my guitar player from the original Blind Dates, Vince Rossi, contacted me from Endicott. He still lives in Endicott. He said, “Yeah, some guy from a record label in New York is trying to get ahold of you. They can't find you. Can I give them your number at work?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So Motel, the New York record label, gave me a call. I didn't know how serious they were or anything, but they promised me a little bit of money, so I said, “Yeah, sure. It’s fine if you want to re-release You Think You Really Know Me.” They said, “You know, you were name-checked on [Beck’s song] ‘Where it's At.’” I was surprised to hear that.

Motel Records re-released my album You Think You Really Know Me in 2002 and it just overwhelmed me. All of a sudden, everything exploded. The New York Times ran a story with Neil Strauss writing. People from the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and all these papers were coming over to my apartment and interviewing me. Then all of a sudden, I made my first trip back to New York. [Documentary film maker] Michael Wolk  shot a documentary about Gary going back to New York in 2002.  The documentary would be released three years later.

You know, I'm real thankful that everything kind of worked out that way. It's persistence in some ways, you know?

JC: Right.

GW: I always call it my “resurrection” in 2002.

JC:  Having the 2005 documentary, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, play at Lincoln Center is a tremendous thing.

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story documentary film poster

GW:  And, like you say, the Lincoln Center thing. That's watching your story on a state-of-the-art screen. One of the film screenings was  sold out, and Lincoln Center Film Society threw a big shindig for me at the Lincoln Center. I was hanging out with these ninety-year-old Russian ladies and all kinds of people. It was really neat. I've had some pretty good moments in my life.

JC:  One of them had to be going on the Jimmy Fallon show and playing with the Roots.

GW: That was really a marvelous time, for sure.

JC:  How did all of that take place where you got to be on the Jimmy Fallon show?

GW: Well, that was because of Questlove [drummer of the Roots] who has been a big supporter of mine for a while. I released one album, Electric Endicott, [2010] and then the label told Questlove I had a new album out. Next thing, I’m on Jimmy Fallon. Yeah, that was really neat. I still remember Questlove walking into the dressing room, and right before we went on he said, “Gary, you know, I've played with a lot of different people, but you're the one I'm most excited about,” or something to that effect.

 JC:  Yeah.

GW:  Rehearsing with the Roots was a real kick. You know, it’s hard to tell these musicians how to play your music, because they do it real well. They would put my record on the computer and each track would be each musician within the band, so they would try to match up as close to the original track when you're playing. So, I felt a little intimidated trying to correct the Roots. [To watch Gary play with the Roots in 2010, click here.]

I just thank God all the time, you know? It's great. As a matter of fact, I did the Jimmy Kimmel show, too. Remember the one with Earl Sweatshirt? [To watch Gary play with Earl Sweatshirt in 2015, click here.]

Gary (2nd from left) on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

JC: Yeah.

GW: That association with Sweatshirt came from Stone Throws Records. They’re a big part of my being resurrected. Actually, Stone Throws Records, or shall I say Peanut Butter Wolf [Peanut Butter Wolf is a DJ who runs the hip-hop label Stone Throws Records] wanted to re-release You Think You Really Know Me.

JC:  Really?

GW: That kind of blew my mind as well. In 2004, I read an interview with Peanut Butter Wolf, and he was saying, “I wanted to do that album and then Motels Records beat me out of it," and then we hooked up and he ended up releasing Mary Had Brown Hair. He’s a good friend of mine, actually. I've done some shows for a Stone Throws Records party. Some of the crowd didn't like me or something.

JC: Really?

GW:  Peanut Butter Wolf jumped on the stage and scolded the audience [laughs]. A few times, Stone Throw Records threw a shindig at an LA club. I would come in with a sheet on my head or something and they wouldn’t let me in. I remember one time the band was vamping. They were playing my intro and the doorman wasn’t letting me in. All of a sudden, I had to make an emergency call to Peanut Butter Wolf to help me [laughs]. [To watch Gary and the Blind Dates perform “Linda Wants to be Alone” for a Stone Throw Records party, click here.]

JC: But in general, how's it going on the stage now? For the most part, the audience must be expecting a wild performance from you this time around.

GW: Well, when I was resurrected, I wasn't sure how far I could take it. What I find now is the wilder the better in some ways. But when I played at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, the owners got mad at me. I don't know if you're familiar with that club, but—

JC:  No.

GW: That club docked me because of the mess we made up there on the stage, so the Bottom of the Hill still hates me [laughter], but that's the owner. With the audience, I can do what I want now and totally know it’s acceptable. The people want it and that's kind of neat.

I always try to think, "Well, what do I want to see Gary Wilson do? What do I wanna see him play?" And I kind of throw that into the context of what I'm doing with usually an enthusiastic audience. It’s been great. I mean, it's been what, thirty years since I started?

Recent picture of Gary (center) and the Blind Dates

JC:  Do you also play with other musicians besides your own shows?

GW:  Yeah, I play with Donnie Finnell. I’ve been with him since ’85. He's a little older than me. I would just play piano and bass behind him. Sometimes left-hand bass, on a separate keyboard of a piano, or another keyboard. And we got a trio with a drummer, and then he sings. We do music like Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, you know, all of the standards. We play lots of stuff. He likes jazz. He’s a jazz pop singer.

I always did keep my music persona with Donnie separate from my persona for my solo stuff. I play with these real conservative bands that are playing real straight music. And that’s an audience that doesn't even know anything about Gary Wilson. [You can hear Gary play with Donnie Finnell by clicking here.]

JC:  Yeah.

GW: They're just thinking about their Johnny Mathis song [laughs]. Then, I will do my other thing with my original music and the two music personas would keep my sanity, one way or another.
I appreciate good musicality—my love for Debussy and the well-organized song. Some of my favorite music is impressionistic classical music. That can bring a tear to your eye. I'm just fascinated with how it can make emotion happen within the chord structures. It's such pretty music. I guess you could say that’s how Gary Wilson happens.

JC:  What was the wildest gig? Can you recall the one that had the most volatile reaction?

GW: Well, one of the top three wildest performances was actually a conservative gig. I was playing a New Year’s gig for the president of a top timeshare country in the world. It was situated in San Diego, so we played at their New Year's Eve party. I was at the president's house, you know, this mansion. He and his wife had the whole place decked out beautifully. The men were wearing tuxedos. The women wore gowns.

Also, my band was finishing the night and it was nearing midnight. Suddenly, we hear all this crashing going on in the other room. I look up and all of these women wearing gowns—and they’ve got blood on them—are running down the hallway. It’s getting noisier and noisier. Then there’s the sound of breaking and raging, and all of a sudden there's a fight between the son and the owner or something, and one the guys goes flying through this huge picture window. Boom!

JC:  Oh my goodness.

GW:  They go through the glass and are rolling along the glass outside. Some people are trying to break it up, getting cut by the broken glass. The band is like, "Holy Jesus. Let's get out of here."

JC:  Wow!

GW: But as far as my own show, I'm not sure which one sticks out. In one Blind Dates’ show, one of the Blind Dates was smashing his keyboard right next to me. I was on the ground and I had to move out of the way or I was gonna get hurt. I did fall off the stage in Seattle not too long ago. That was an injury, actually. The shows all have their own characteristics, I guess. I can't think of which one was the wildest.

JC:  What’s next on the agenda for Gary Wilson?

GW:  I've got a Christmas album coming out.

JC:  Oh, really?

GW: That’s my newest one. I think it’s coming out in October on Cleopatra Records, but it's composed, new Christmas-themed songs, Gary Wilson-style, so that'll be fun [laughter].

I’m doing these shows in New York and Brooklyn. I got an eleven-piece band back with me. There are strings and horns, and an opera singer and kind of like a chamber ensemble with a band, so that's kind of neat to hear. As for me, I just grab a goddamn bedsheet or something, throw it on me, and I feel comfortable with what I'm doing, how far I can go with it, and what I should do with it.

Recent picture of Gary in costume

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Mike Skill

Mike Skill initially started as the guitarist for the Romantics in 1976. He was also instrumental in the band’s songwriting. Mike played guitar on the Romantics’ first two albums, their self-titled debut and National Breakdown. The self-titled album  included the band’s most known song, “What I Like About You.” Shortly after the second album, Mike left the Romantics in 1981 and was replaced by guitarist Coz Canler, in which the band recorded Strictly Personal. In 1982, Mike rejoined the Romantics as the bass player for their most successful album In Heat. That album had their highest charting song, “Talking in Your Sleep,” and a hit single, “One in a Million.” Yet, despite the breakthrough of In Heat, the band experienced a great amount of difficulty. Jimmy Marinos, the drummer and vocalist on “What I Like About You,” left the band in 1984. Also, the song “What I Like About You” had been used in a Bud Light commercial and the band had not seen any money from it. In addition, the band’s management had been misapplying the profits from their records and live performances. As a result, they sued their management to get the copyrights to their music.

In 1987, the lawsuit with management would keep the Romantics from recording. The Romantics continued to tour while they weren’t recording. (They only recorded one album in the eighties after In Heat.) After they were successful in their lawsuit with their management, the Romantics recorded an EP in 1993 titled Made in Detroit, and they recorded an album titled 61/49 in 2003. In addition, their victory in the lawsuit enabled the band to receive future licensing revenue from their music.

Despite their time away from recordings, the Romantics have been able to capitalize on the eighties nostalgia wave. At the time of this writing, they are touring with other eighties artists, such as Rick Springfield and Night Ranger. The Romantics will also do a cruise featuring themselves and other artists from the eighties in 2017. The current lineup of the Romantics is comprised of Mike on guitar, with original players Wally Palmar (guitar/lead vocals), Rich Cole (bass), and new drummer Brad Elvis.

In this candid conversation with Mike Skill, we discuss the history of the Romantics from their beginning days to their peak in the eighties. We also discuss the Romantics’ disappearance in the mid-eighties and their comeback on the eighties nostalgia tour. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview. Most of all, I want to thank Mike for taking the time to tell me the story of the Romantics. 

Jeff Cramer:  You played guitar and bass with the Romantics. Which instrument did you initially learn to play?

Mike Skill:  I got a guitar when I was eleven or twelve, but I didn’t really learn until I was thirteen or so. I taught myself guitar one summer and played all through high school. Various bands needed bass players, so I learned how to play bass on the guitar, and then I finally got a bass guitar. One summer I learned all the new songs that were around at the time. I learned all the bass parts in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so that’s how I learned my craft.

Jack Bruce from Cream came out, and I liked Jack Bruce. Chris Squire [who played bass in Yes] was really good. He played actual bass lines and melodies instead of sixteenth notes through the whole thing. I still had a guitar, so that’s what I wrote the songs on. When the Romantics came around, I was mostly on bass. I was writing, and I submitted songs to the band. Even though I was on bass, I had written songs on guitar. The whole band wasn’t thinking about me as the guitar player. They were thinking about getting someone else to play guitar.

JC: How did the Romantics things come around?

MS: The New York scene started happening. The New York Dolls were around. Of course Lou Reed was around earlier, but Bowie, the Ramones, Blondie . . . everybody was filtering in to New York. It was a big scene in Max’s Kansas City. The groups had been written up in the magazine Hit Parader. I went to New York with the Motor City Rockers, a small group I played with before the Romantics. It was me, the drummer Jimmy, and two other guys. We actually played at CBGB in ’74 or ’75.  

I came back and just kind of regrouped with Jimmy when I heard the Flamin' Groovies and the Jam. So, I went over to Jimmy’s house. I played him the Flamin' Groovies’ record and showed him the Jam article on Melody Maker. I said, “This is a good thing—I can write this stuff and you can play this stuff.” We started thinking about it in terms of a more pop/hard-rock Kinks-y kind of thing but with a punk edge. I’d met Wally a few years back. I heard he was playing at a nearby high school, so I went over there, scrambled up the wall, and looked through the window. He was handling the crowd pretty good, so I went back and talked to the drummer, called them up, got a jam together, rehearsal together, and that’s how the Romantics started.

We were going to get someone on guitar, but there was no one who was really interested in playing Chuck Berry. The guitarists we auditioned didn’t want to play simple three chords. Most guys wanted to do the long jams and whatever, which was fine, but we wanted to do a straight-ahead thing like the New York scene, so I just ended up on guitar. I always played straight-ahead and played more like the Groovies and the Jam. It worked out because we had a bass player who was a friend of Wally’s. We just wanted to write songs and put out a single and put out a record.  

JC: How did the Romantics get a record deal?

MS: As we wrote songs, the guys from MC5 [a rock band that hailed from Michigan] were putting something together. The MC5 guys came over and asked us to play a show that they wanted to do in February. In ’77, we got a gig with them at a place called My Fair Lady in downtown Detroit. It was pretty much a showcase. Record companies would come in and radio people were going to be there. We were just rearing to go. The Romantics were jamming and playing and having fun. We picked up these orange iridescent suits and we were all over the stage. The Romantics played short pop songs . . . good jams. We had a lot of energy.

We were asked to come back. Our record came out, and two weeks later we were opening for Mink DeVille. We sold some of the records. There was one woman there, Gail Parenteau, who was married to Mark Parenteau, a DJ in Detroit at the same station who put on the show.

Our manager talked to Gail about playing a show that was coming up at the Pontiac Silverdome, which is a huge eighty-thousand-seat arena. It was Peter Frampton, J. Giles, Steve Miller, and the Romantics opening. We got the gig. We were on early, at 6: 30 or 7: 00. There were probably seven thousand people there, which looked like nothing in that arena, but it was really cool to us. It gave us another goal to keep moving forward. I’m sure we went to the studio right after that to record some demos. We did sixteen originals in one afternoon. We just started shooting out to places that were six or so hours away, like New York, Boston, Philly, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, etc. We would get there and find a cheap hotel or whatever, and play a show. Then we would come back and play Detroit.  We created a vibe in Detroit, so our fans were growing in Detroit as we went back and forth. The same thing was happening in those other cities, so it just kind of grew. We played in Boston, as well as a few other clubs. We played at a hot club in Philly with the Heartbreakers and with the guy from the Stray Cats . . . what’s his name?

JC: Oh, Brian Setzer.

MS: Brian Setzer was in a band called the Bloodless Pharaohs. They all wore these Egyptian robes and it was an arty kind of rock band. The next thing you know, a few months later, the Stray Cats came out.

It was still fun. In New York, we finally got some response. CBS Records took a little bit of an interest. A friend of ours was a photographer from Detroit. The photographer sent Bun E. Carlos [Cheap Trick’s drummer] tapes. Bun E. was a real supporter and forwarded those to CBS. Capitol Records took an interest and we did demos for Capitol. John Carter, who produced Rick Springfield, produced us.

Bomp! started coming around, and our second single came out on Bomp! Records. Then we got in a bigger booking agency in Detroit. We were doing shows with Ted Nugent and other groups on the roster. Ted just played guitar. He did speak crap, but he spoke other crap. It wasn’t political at the time. The crowds were growing, and we met people from Nemperor Records with Nat Weiss, who worked with Brian Epstein and the Beatles. They liked what they saw and we signed with Nemperor Records in 1980. It took almost four years of traveling back and forth playing music to get signed.

The Romantics’ first album (self-titled) on Nemperor Records(Mike second to left)

Each time we didn’t get signed, we were not happy about it, but after the fact, my realization was, “Well, wait a minute, I was really ready.” Each time it was like a step up. We would say, “I’m glad we didn’t get signed because look at the good songs we have now.” It was really cool that it took time, because it gave us the time to build the whole thing instead of it all happening really quick.

When the first record came out [The Romantics, 1980], three singles were released. “What I Like About You” was the third one, I think. The first was “When I Look in Your Eyes,” which was a twelve-string kind of Who song. Then “Tell it to Carrie” was a straight-ahead pop song, and “What I Like About You” came out and they all charted. I think “What I Like About You” went up to forty-nine or so.

Our manager signed us to go to Europe. Before Europe, we were playing on the West Coast, and we got a call from the promoters in Holland and they wanted a video. We were in LA playing the Whisky a Go Go for a couple nights, and a guy came in during the sound check. He just had one camera to film the band live, and then he filmed each guy far away and close up. We wanted kind of a “Hard Day’s Night” look, with close-ups on our faces and all of that, and they put it out in Holland. The record went off the charts in Australia and climbed to number one. Things were happening. [To watch the video for “What I Like About You,” click here.]

JC: You talked about the video. Can you go into the recording of “What I Like About You”?

MS: We were probably in our second or third year. I think it was ’77 or ’78 and we were still playing in little clubs in Detroit. We had a rehearsal studio. I came to rehearsal one night and I was usually late. I don’t think I had a car at the time; my mom dropped me off. I got there early and the drummer was there. Funny enough, I had the idea of a three-chord basic idea, something like Buddy Holly. The drummer and I were just messing around for a minute. I had these three chords, his beat fit my style of playing, so it worked.

Then the other two Romantics members showed up and we started playing it. It was still a loose jam. It wasn’t there. I suggested “uh-huh”—that little part that kind of comes from a Chuck Berry song. “Uh-huh, oh yeah.”

JC: Okay.

MS: It was kind of a little impulse there, but then came the vocal parts and then the backups. The “heys” in the song came from something like Mitch Ryder or the Yardbirds in “Over Under Sideways Down.”

JC: Yeah, I know.

MS: So, the little bits and pieces came along at different times and we were doing it for a couple years. We needed a third verse, so the drummer, who was singing it, wrote the third verse. Sometimes, it takes time for a song. You' either get it all at once or it’s bits and pieces, or you might have a verse or two and then you are making up stuff on the third verse or whatever. However, it finally came together. We never thought it was much more than a good dance chord or just good fun rock ’n’ roll.

JC:  Did you ever guess the song would have this popularity?

MS: We didn’t think the song was any different as far as acceptance of any other song. You capture lightning in a bottle but you don’t realize it. Somewhere around that time MTV came about and “What I Like About You” was playing on it, so the song got its own life. It’s an organic thing. No one is hyping. We didn’t have the big money hype that a lot of bands were getting, but it turned out good for us because everything was more organic.

“What I Like About You” has been in twenty to thirty movies, commercials, TV shows, etc. It just has a life of its own and each generation of kids picks up on it. That’s the really cool thing.

At the time when “What I Like About You” was written, all the disco stuff was coming out, which was fine music for dancing, but it wasn’t raw rock ’n’ roll. So, with all the disco stuff coming out, “What I Like About You” came out at the right time. It had the attitude and energy. It just kind of grabs people. It’s rock n’ roll, that kind of thing.

JC: Okay, let’s go back to where the Romantics were in 1980. Both the first album and the single “What I Like About You” is out.

MS: “What I Like About You” fell off the charts. The record had only been out roughly a year when Bud Light came calling to do a commercial. We didn’t even get a chance to negotiate anything for the band. It was a red flag without us realizing it was a red flag at the time. The money went to a bank account that wasn’t ours.

We may have gone into the studio for our second record. We had been writing for three or four years, the first songs for the first record. Out of all the songs we wrote, we picked the best songs for the first album. Now, in three and a half months I had to come up with songs, which was an unusually short time to come up with a second album. Since we recently opened for the Ramones and Cheap Trick, the songs on the second record were a little faster and more live.

JC: Yes.

National Breakout, the second album in 1980 (Mike second to left)

MS: We wanted to have that energy and just the whole punk attitude thing. More attack. However, if we slowed them down, they would have been a little more, I don’t know what to say . . . they could have been better.

JC: Some of the songs, like “Tomboy . . .” [To hear “Tomboy,” click here.]

MS: It’s really fast.

JC: Yeah, that’s probably your fastest song.

MS: Right, there’s “New Cover Story” and “Girl Next Door . . .”

JC: “Girl Next Door” is from the first album. The second album National Breakout contains “Tomboy,” and “21 and Over.”

MS: Yeah, the songs on National Breakout are a little faster and they are done with less attention than we wanted at the time. After that second record, I think there were creative difficulties. I left the band for one year and they put out Strictly Personal [1981], but it didn’t do much.

JC: Yes, but you came back a few years later to do what would be the Romantics’ biggest record, In Heat [1983].

MS: I think they had talked about getting me back for writing, because the last record, Strictly Personal, didn’t do much. I came back. I had an idea for something like the basis for “Talking in Your Sleep.” At the time, all these bands were coming out of London, like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. They had all these great looks. It wasn’t really rock ’n’ roll, but it was a new thing coming out. That’s where “Talking in Your Sleep” kind of fits in. It fit in with the stuff that was on the radio at the time and video even though it had Detroit attitude or a Stones’ thing, or whatever you want to call it. It’s just a dance number, so it went number one on the dance charts. [To hear “Talking in your Sleep,” click here.] We had a couple of other songs come after that.

The Romantics’ In Heat album (1983) (Mike top left)

“One in a Million” was in the top 40, I think.

JC: I notice Peter Solley produced the Nemperor albums you had played on with the Romantics. How did you come across him?

MS: We had a list of producers. At the time, Peter was living in Australia; he’d just finished recording bands in Australia and had some success there. He was also doing commercials. We wanted to have someone who was musical, like a George Martin kind of thing, and could say, “Oh, you might want to sing that note instead of that note. And you might want to end that bridge on that chord instead of that chord.”

That’s kind of the way it worked, and he was the guy who could do that. He did the last tour with Terry Reid and the last tour with Procol Harum. He played keyboards with—

JC: Whitesnake and Eric Clapton.

MS: Yeah, he probably played on their first couple of albums. He played keyboard with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown as well. He’s been around. He’s from the sixties. If you couldn’t get Steve Winwood, you would call him.

I think it was a mistake to keep Pete on as producer, though. I think we should have probably bowed out after the second record. You can’t complain about the fourth record; it was top notch for the radio and the charts. But it would have been nice to call up Dave Edmunds and say, “Dave Edmunds, come over to the Romantics,” or Jack Douglas. We even sent Bryan Adams’s producer some music.

JC: Oh, I think that’s Jim Vallance, who later produced Aerosmith.

MS: We liked the guy who produced early U2. Steve Lillywhite was good. We liked him too. But it was still up in the air whether those guys could work or not. You didn’t know if it was going to fit even though you liked it. You didn’t know if a certain producer was going to get the vibe. When I was briefly out of the band, they worked with the guy who was an engineer for Roy Thomas Baker [producer of Queen, the Cars, and Journey] and he recorded early Fleetwood Mac . . .

JC: Right, Mike Stone was who they got.

MS: Yes, Mike Stone. Let me put it this way:  it didn’t work out.

JC: Getting back to In Heat, the Romantics had hit their peak. “Talking in Your Sleep” was the highest charting of all the Romantics’ songs, but during that time, the band was coming to an end. First, the drummer, Jimmy Marinos, who is the vocalist on “What I Like About You,” left. And then you only did one more album after In Heat.

MS: Yeah, we were in the stride, but sometimes other things could change your mind. We were together all the time, being on the bus for a year. We were on the road for eleven months for the In Heat record, which was crazy. We didn’t make Europe, which we should have. Our managers kept deciding to go against Europe because it was a little bit more expensive to play in Europe. You had to pay a little more for the hotels and more for equipment and gear.

Jimmy just wasn’t happy at that point in time and felt he could do better on his own, so he was going to become a vocalist instead of a drummer. We just kind of barreled through, going forward, and then fired our managers.

JC: Right, because this is what you were talking about earlier when your managers used “What I Like About You” in the Bud Light commercial.

MS: Exactly. Our managers weren’t totally upfront, and if I could say anything to any band it’s to get your own accountant and have everything go to your accountant first. And then, everyone else is paid. That’s what we should have done. We should have had our own accountant instead of those guys handling the money. The money went to a band account, which they handled. The checks went to our managers and into a band account that we didn’t see. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing. It was down and dirty and ugly. You trusted your friends. You trusted people that you worked with who helped you get up there and you helped them get up there, you know?

You fought through the same stuff. We got through that and retained our copyrights eventually, got our song, and that’s that. It took a good seven years to get through that whole thing.

JC: That’s why you weren’t able to record any music during that time.

MS: Yeah, as we were fighting for our copyrights, the record labels didn’t really want to get involved with our band if we were in the middle of a lawsuit. Plus, we didn’t really want to put anything out that someone might get their hands on. That happened then, and now we have another business manager . . . well, I shouldn’t probably go into it all right now. I won’t get into the specifics. We are kind of going through a lawsuit stuff now and we’re halfway through it. That’s all I’m going to say about that.  

We just keep on going. Not too long ago, the other guitar player, Coz Canler [the guitarist who replaced Mike when he first left] left, and I took over at guitar.

JC: Right, so you are back to your original position.

MS: I have to get the whole guitar-music vibe back together and have the same guitar sound that was there when the band started. We had three guys up front now who sang, so there were the harmonies and the vocals, and the  guitars bashing together. I’ve had some time off, and I am more confident to be up front on guitar again. I’m much better and much more in it. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to come back, and it’s a good experience. The band sounds great. We’ve got clean, raw guitars. We found Brad Elvis to be our drummer. We had Clem Burke drumming with us in the nineties. We also had a humungous drummer, Johnny B. Badanjek out of Detroit, playing with us in the 90s and 2000s. He’s a great guy with great credibility and a great player. He’d been with Mitch Ryder in the sixties.

Brad Elvis came out by recommendation of Clem Burke.  He has the same kind of kick-and-snare thing going on that Jimmy, our original drummer, had. Brad also has that Keith-Moon thing and English-pop thing going on, so it works really well. It fills in the gaps and it’s got a lot of attitude. It’s a really good band right now.

JC: What is this band doing right now?

MS: We just finished mastering the latest album. I think we’re on our last song. It’s six or eight covers and a few originals. We’ve got three originals, but I think we are putting two on there. The daughter of the guys who founded K-Tel Records came to us and begged us to do a record with her. She said she had some songs she thought we could do. We picked them up and threw them on the floor to see which ones we liked. We picked a few out, and then she brought back more, and we just kept going at each other. We came across a couple songs that she could use in commercials and TV and whatever she could sell. That even made us happier, so we recorded those songs and hopefully it’s coming out in the next few weeks. We’ve released a few covers, “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” by the Animals and “Daydream Believer.” It’s all guitars on “Daydream Believer.” I worked out a whole thing. The original is all orchestrated with an orchestra.

I had to do something more like the Yardbirds to do it with all guitars. There was another song earlier this year, “Coming Back Home,” which came out during Christmas with the song “Deck the Halls.” I don’t think we are going to do another single. I think we will probably just release the whole shebang and put the record out. I suggested the title for the record, Up from the Rubble, because of all the crap we have been through. I also got the title from when you were a kid and you sat in your bedroom and had a pile of records. We figure it’s like the rubble, the pile of songs. We’re getting a really good response on “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” It’s like kicking up some dust.

JC: I understand you are back on tour again. Right now, you are about to do a date with other eighties artists, such as Rick Springfield and Night Ranger.

MS: We did shows with Squeeze and we might have been there with Berlin or the Smithereens. But this is 2016, and things are working out. We are with Rick Springfield in Brooklyn, and we have to travel right after the show to Belgium—the Vostertfeesten Festival. Yep, and then there is Raleigh. We have Ashville, North Carolina, which is very cool. Raleigh, Charlotte, and then a show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In the coming week, we’re playing outside of Detroit and Molin, Illinois, and then Council Bluffs, Iowa. So yeah, it’s working out.

JC: Who is singing now on “What I Like About You” since Jimmy was the vocalist?

MS: Actually, the whole crowd sings it. Because of the situation with the song growing and growing beyond any one of us now, and it’s like any one of us would have to be singing it. It’s everybody’s song now. Five Seconds of Summer just did it.

After the Bud Light commercial, then TV shows and movies, it’s like anybody can be singing it. I mean, Wally starts it off and then I sing it, Wally sings verse, I sing a verse, etc. We were going to have Rich sing a verse but he didn’t want to sing a verse. It still kicks ass. [To hear “What I Like About You” by the current lineup of the Romantics, click here.]

JC: Yes.

MS: This whole thing has been really organic. I mean, the Romantics have been bounced around like a pinball game—bounced around, bounced around, and we just keep bouncing back. We have our side projects—Brad has a little thing he does on the side, Wally has a little thing on the side, and I have stuff happening. But with the Romantics, this is the main deal, the real deal. It’s just something you can’t recreate. There’s some kind of energy, the attitude, some kind of lightning that comes across to the crowd live. This is the Romantics.

Mike Skill today

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Very Candid Conversation with David Engelbach

In 1979, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli filmmakers, bought Cannon Films. Throughout the 1980s, they released many low-budget films until they went bankrupt in 1987. Their most successful films were the films that starred Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Recently, a documentary on Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo  was released. I have already interviewed one Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who wrote most of the Chuck Norris films. That interview can be read here. David Engelbach is my second Cannon alumni in this blog. Engelbach wrote two of Cannon’s most well-known projects: Death Wish II, and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling picture, Over the Top. However, his scripts for both films were much different than what finally appeared on screen. He also wrote and directed another Cannon feature, America 3000. That film is a futuristic comedy set in a post-apocalyptic age when there is a literal battle of the sexes: women and men are at war with each other. In addition to Cannon Films, David also wrote some episodes of MacGyver.

While fans of Cannon Films are familiar with Engelbach’s work, they may be surprised to learn some of the other people he also worked for. David assisted Steven Spielberg on Jaws and helped with the US government  after the 9/11 attacks.

Today, David is a screenwriting professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He recently appeared as an interview subject for the Electric Boogaloo documentary.

In this candid conversation, we discuss David’s time with Cannon Films and the three films he made with them. We also discuss his work on Jaws and with the US government. In addition, we discuss his current days as a professor. I want to thank David for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: All right, so how did you get into writing?

David Engelbach: Well, it was the route to become a director, which is what my background is in. I had an undergraduate background in theater and drama, and I went to USC Cinema for grad school to learn film. One of the routes to become a director was to become a writer, and one of the ironies of my career was that I ended up becoming more of a writer than a director.

JC: What had interested you about going to film school?

DE: It was a choice to either go into theater and direct theater, or to go to film and direct film. I always loved movies, and I had that kind of assumption that a lot of young people do, which is that somebody has to do it, so why not me? I went off and found out that one, I seemed to have a talent for it, and two, I was pretty good at it, so I pursued it.

It was also a time when I was in school, which was a period where there were young filmmakers getting into the business before it all became about the latest $400 million blockbuster.

JC: So what did you do in the industry before you came into contact with Cannon?

DE: Well, I had sold some scripts to the studio, as well as a few development projects and a couple original ideas. I had previously done some work after I got out of school. I worked for a couple of smaller production companies shooting commercials and directing commercials. Later, while I was doing some additional documentary shooting, and I met Steven Spielberg. He had seen a film I had made when I was in film school. I ended up working with him on Jaws.

JC: What exactly did you do with Spielberg on Jaws?

DE: I was Steven’s assistant.

JC: Oh, you were his assistant?

DE: I wasn’t his assistant director, but his assistant. Not a personal assistant—he had a gofer for that. I did background action. I did local casting. I worked with the casting director. I supervised some of the original tests that were done on the shark, which didn’t work, and a lot of the dialogue. For example, from Robert Shaw, who plays Quint, I found an old Yankee fisherman who had this very colorful way of speaking, and I spent a lot of time recording him and transcribing. That became a lot of the basis for the rhythms and the expressions that Quint used in the film.

I had met Steven earlier before he did Sugarland Express, and he wanted me to make a documentary on the making of Sugarland, which I was prepared to do and I created a budget for him. He said later that Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who produced Sugarland, didn’t want to spend the money on a doc. I mean, it was not common as it is today—everybody makes a film about the making of something.

That was kind of unusual then. So, he went off to Sugarland, we stayed in contact, and then he was about to do Jaws. I was going to do a documentary on the making of Jaws, which probably would have been fascinating given the problems that they had. And again, Zanuck and Brown didn’t want to make it or put up the money. So Steven said, “Well, why don’t you be my assistant and come out to Martha Vineyard’s with me?”

JC: The problems with Jaws, as I understand it, was that the shark models were not working.

DE: Well, part of the issue was the fact that the shark had originally been designed by Bob Mattey, who had done the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He was brought out of retirement to do this shark and he designed it to operate with hydraulics. A lot of the shark was designed to have a lot more articulating parts. When they finally picked the location on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the State had passed some really stringent antipollution laws.

They would have been fined so heavily if there would be any leaks from the hydraulics, which happens—it’s oil and water. So he had to remodify the shark to run on compressed air, and, consequently, that’s part of the reason that it didn’t work the way it was designed. It didn’t have the same dynamic pressure to articulate some of the things in the shark it was supposed to work, like the eyeballs and teeth and mouth, because it was dealing with the resistance of the water. The shark didn’t work as well as it was intended, which turned out to be to the benefit of the film actually. The less you saw, the scarier it was. Had it worked originally the way they intended, I’m not sure the film would have been as successful as it was.

JC: What did you do after Jaws?

DE: I was at Universal as a potential television director and worked on a couple TV series and discovered that I really didn’t want to direct television. I wanted to direct my own work, so I started focusing more seriously on writing. The way that Cannon came to connect with me was that I had written a movie called Over the Top, which was supposed to be produced as a low-budget movie. Columbia was going to distribute it, but it turned out that the original producer, who was also supposed to star in the film, didn’t have the money to make the movie. I only found that out after spending a year on the project.

A couple of years later, somebody who had been involved in trying to finance the film—after the original producers failed to do so—had introduced the script to Menahem Golan and he fell in love with it and we went ahead. I ended up writing Death Wish II for him in return.

JC: So it was Over the Top that had led you to write Death Wish II?

DE: Well, they wanted to make Over the Top, but they could not make an agreement initially with the original producer/actor. Menahem had called me up and said that they still wanted to make a deal with me and have me write and direct something for them. But before I would write and direct for them, they had this project they had gotten the rights to. Menahem described it as a sequel to one of the big films of the 70s, and I said, “Are we going to do Godfather III?” He said, “Close.” He wanted to do Death Wish.

I had actually turned it down the first two times. I didn’t want to do a sequel, and I didn’t want to do a sequel to that movie. I didn’t dislike the original film. I thought it was okay for what it was, and I had always been a fan of Charlie Bronson, but they made me an offer. If I did the film, they would finance a film for me to do, so I did that. Have you ever seen the film?

JC: Yes, I have seen the film.

DE: To be honest, I was kind of appalled by Michael Winner’s work on it. I have said this before. He added that totally gratuitous rape scene with the Hispanic maid, which I thought was unnecessary and turned off a lot of people, particularly any women who would be interested in seeing the film. Michael Winner was an all-around bad guy. I don’t know anybody who worked with him who had anything good to say about him, but Bronson would not do the film unless Michael Winner directed it. Originally, Menahem wanted to direct the film, but neither he nor Globus had a hit before, and they had only just acquired Cannon from its original owners. They really needed to have a box office success to put them on the road, and so Death Wish II was their film. [Click here to watch the trailer for Death Wish II.]

Death Wish II poster

JC: Well, first off, you’re not the first person on my blog to speak ill of Winner. One of the people I have interviewed on my blog, Sally Kirkland (who got an Oscar nomination for Anna), worked with Winner on a film. She had this to say about Winner: “I never knew what a misogynist was till I met him.”

DE: That’s correct, absolutely. That was my opinion of him at the time, and that was before I knew that was apparently a sure belief. You saw the Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo?

JC: Yes, I did.

DE: The comment that came from a lot of people was that he was a misogynist. In fact, the original cameraman for Death Wish II, quit after they shot that scene. He said he wouldn’t have anything to do with that. Winner later said that he fired him, but as far as I know that was not the truth.

JC: On YouTube, there’s a discussion of Winner with an English critic and an actual rape victim about the Death Wish II rape scene. Needless to say, the victim is appalled by the scene and tells Winner how offended she is by it. I don’t know the exact words of Winner’s response, but I do know he isn’t going for sensitivity here.

DE: I think the reason he made the film was so that he could do that rape scene.

JC: It’s obvious once Winner came in he took control of this project. What was your script of Death Wish II like? Was any of it similar to the finished product?

DE: Well, let’s put it this way: he took pieces of my script and cobbled them together to make his film, but the original script was more about the idea of lightning striking twice and that the character really resisted falling back into becoming what he became. That is why I created a relationship with the woman. In the end, he sacrifices his relationship with the woman to indulge his vengeance. He had to make a choice, and the choice was to pursue his vengeance, and he would never be the same again.

I did like the one last image of the film with the shadow of Bronson against the stark downtown wall and this kind of ominous figure. I think that was an image Winner came up with, but my film puts it in context. It was originally set in San Francisco, first of all. So the idea of finding a place where these punks hung out and tracking them down was a much more believable situation because it was a much smaller city. In Los Angeles, they could have been anywhere. I believe they chose LA for budget reasons, because it was cheaper to shoot there.

The other thing is that there was a whole subplot involving the fact that the character that emerged, the Bronson character that I was writing in the sequel, was an amateur the first time. The second time, there is a sequence after his daughter dies and he goes off to the woods. His friend, who owns the radio station, says, “Ah, take my cabin and get some time away.” While he’s there, he encounters some hardcore survivalists who are waiting for the future race wars to happen. They recognized the character from a newspaper about his daughter having died and having been the victim of something. They erroneously assumed he was a kindred spirit, but the net output is that they end up outfitting him with body armor and road-killing weapons, and he is no longer running around with a little pistol.

They did keep the thing where he sets up an alternative identity for himself in a rundown apartment somewhere, but he was no longer just walking around with a little pistol and shooting muggers. He was a guy who was seriously out to find the people who did this and destroy them no matter what it took. Apparently, some of those ideas found their way into later Death Wish movies. To be honest, I never saw the other sequels. I have seen pieces of a couple of them, but I really wasn’t interested.

I didn’t have the rape scene. I did have where they broke into his apartment. He struggles with them, and the daughter, who is having her day out from an institution, throws herself out the window and gets impaled on the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the Bronson’s property. I’m not sure I remember this in the movie or not, but the police say that she threw herself out of the window because of her mental state, and that even if they’d found the guys responsible for it, they probably wouldn’t charge them with first degree murder. He decides not to help the cops go after them and find these guys himself.

JC: Can you talk about some of the other projects you were involved in with Cannon?

DE: There was a script called Déjà vu, and a French producer had the rights to some project. I had actually developed this script from that idea. It’s about two old detectives who get together on a case because of a woman they were both in love with—the femme fatale who broke both of their hearts twenty years earlier. Her daughter, who marries a very wealthy man, has been kidnapped and the ransom demand was a priceless necklace that neither of the two guys was ever able to find. They both get reconnected with this woman, and it turns out that the daughter is one of theirs but we’re never sure who.

It was originally intended as a property for Yves Montand playing this former European detective and Robert Mitchum. The script was set up funny, but it was kind of in the noir style. Mitchum had a manager for many years—a woman whom he later left—and she didn’t want him working for Cannon because they had not quite established a reputation. It’s ironic because he later ended up doing a couple of movies for Cannon including The Ambassador, which Menahem had also offered me to direct and then later changed his mind about. He said to me, “You should do something more personal.”

JC: Is that how America 3000 came about?

DE: That was actually a script that I had originally written and the original title for that movie was called Thunder Women. It was one of my earlier scripts. It was kind of a comic book adventure set in the future. I always wanted to make it, and when Déjà vu couldn’t come together because of casting issues, I told Menahem that I had this project I wanted to do. It was kind of a farfetched funny, futuristic comic book and I wanted to reacquire the rights. The original producer, who owned the rights had left the business primarily. Yet I wanted to reacquire it, not even for the subject matter, but I wanted to get the title back. I always thought Thunder Women was a great title for that kind of tongue-in-cheek story. The irony, of course, as you know, is that it’s called America 3000, which I thought was a dreadful title. I had serious discussions with Menahem, and he said, “No, no, no, films with women in the title don’t make any money.”

He was dead wrong, but that’s another issue, so I reacquired the rights. I was trying to finance the original story and shoot in the US. He basically gave me two choices, which was to shoot it in Israel. He said, “Desert is desert,” or to shoot it in South Africa. At the time, South Africa was still under the old apartheid government and I didn’t want to do anything in South Africa then. Now, looking back on it, I should have. It would have been a different kind of film. I rewrote the script and then we went ahead and did it. It was quite a difficult shoot. It was very physically stressful.It was very hot. We were shooting by the Dead Sea in June. It was 130 degrees. It got down at night to about 100 degrees. [Click here to watch the trailer for America 3000.]

JC: With all that heat, it had to be a real problem for leading actor Chuck Wagner wearing that nuclear radiation suit.

DE: The real problem was the character who played the monster Aargh the Awful.

Aargh the Awful

JC: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.

DE: That costume had been made in LA and the guy we got to do it was a basketball player. He was a very nice guy. After the first time he wore it, he was sweating so much that I thought that he was going to have heat stroke. We tore a lot of the stuffing out of it, and the minute we finished a take, he would take it off and we had this big fan, like you would use for making small hurricanes. They would hold it up to try to dry out the inside, so you could put it back on. Yeah, that gold lamiae president’s suit was not the most comfortable thing for Chuck to be walking around in, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Aargh the Awful.

JC: You’ve also invented language for the film. The only translated word from this new language the viewer gets is “Woggos,” which means “crazy.” I could follow somewhat what the characters were saying, but I couldn’t understand every word because of the new language.

DE: I assume you saw it on either VHS or—

JC: YouTube.

DE: They recently released a DVD as part of another package. It was released with the wrong soundtrack.

JC: Oh.

DE: The film that you had seen and most people have seen was not the same soundtrack as the original release print. I didn’t like the original mix. I didn’t like some of the voices of it. I was very unhappy with the original music that had been created for it, so I went to Golan and I said, “Look, I would like some more time to recut this. It’s not so much the picture, but the soundtrack. I wanted to make some changes too.”

He said, “Okay, we won’t pay for any new music, but you can use anything in the library that we currently have.” I did re-voice a couple of the actresses mostly. Victoria Barrett, who is kind of a heavy-set blonde, was actually Menahem’s girlfriend at the time. He was married, but she was his girlfriend. She had this West Virginia accent, so I re-voiced her and changed some of the narration. I got to pair some of that down and I changed some of the other elements, mostly the soundtrack. The picture track was pretty much the same and that was the theatrical release. When they went to go to video, I told them, “Look, contact me. I’ll supervise the transfer because I wanted to make some color adjustments and things like that as well.” One day I swung into my local video store and I started to play it, and in the first couple seconds I realized it had the wrong soundtrack on it. It was too late; that was cast in stone.

It irks me that it’s popular in video and weird cult markets. Apparently, it’s very popular in places like Finland. But they are seeing it with the wrong soundtrack. Some of the narration helped to clarify some of the language. I made up a language for it. Part of the visual design of the film, which was a little harder to do well, was impossible to do in Israel actually. I wanted the film to look like it was surrounded by wrecked Americana, but not the good stuff, only the garbage. You know, the really good stuff didn’t make it, but the trash did.

So, for example, the original design I had for the encampment—the camp where the women were—there was this big gate that was supposed to protect them and I wanted to make it out of Cadillac tail fins, which was impossible to find in Israel. Also, the design of the camp itself was a much more imaginative design than what I ended up finally having to work with. Cannon built sets that were so heavy that nothing could be moved, so I was kind of stuck with the productions. The visual qualities were not what I wanted for the film, but at that point, we were all pregnant together, so I had to go work with what I had.

I had designed a marketing plan for Thunder Women and I still call it Thunder Women because that’s what it was to me. In fact, I had even hired a company to do title search. They had done one of these research things where they talk to people who are standing in line for movies and did titles with them. It was like an 87 percent interest in seen something called Thunder Women. There was like a 21 percent interest in seen something called America 3000.

I didn’t want them to release it as they did their normal release pattern. The film was already in profit before it was finished. I was starting to shoot the film when Golan and Globus were at the Cannes film festival. I front-loaded my first weeks shooting to really push the action stuff. My editor put together a quick cut, which we sent to Menahem in Cannes, and he showed that, so they basically presold the film. They were in profits in the movie before it was ever released.

That was part of it that helped me get it made, but it worked against me. Once I was done, the guy was running the distribution for Cannon—I forget the guy’s name—looked at me and I said, “You have never seen my film.” He said, “I don’t have to see your film to sell it.” And I said, “Well, actually you do.” I just wanted to do midnight screenings for it for a couple weeks to build up some word of mouth for this kind of funny, offbeat adventure movie, and they just threw it out there as another one of their B movie action films. It never hit the audience it was intended for.

JC: Actually, the movie, I thought of when I saw it was not Mad Max. I was thinking more of that Ringo Starr movie Caveman, a pre-historic comedy, where they invented their own language for that movie.

DE: You’re not wrong. It was closer to that. It was funny because Caveman was written and directed by Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the shooting script for Jaws. Carl and I were living in Spielberg’s house during Jaws, so it was Carl, Spielberg, and I living in this rented house he had in Martha’s Vineyard. I always appreciated Carl’s sense of humor. Yeah, it was closer to something like that. It wasn’t supposed to be a straight-ahead action movie. It was never supposed to be sold as that. It was really supposed to be sold as kind of a goofball six-pack movie or smoke-your-favorite-thing-and-watch-this type of film.

Cannon never paid any attention to it, so I was pretty bummed by that point. Also, Cannon was running into money problems. They were stealing money out of release for films to spend the money to make offers to keep themselves alive. At this point, I believe they were burning the candle at both ends, although they did not foresee anything about that. It was part of the reason that led to their demise.

JC: Around that time, Cannon made Over the Top with Stallone.

Over the Top movie poster

DE: Yeah, Stallone did a rewrite on the script and so did Stirling Silliphant and I had nothing to do with it. I saw the film at the screening and was very upset about it. [Click here to watch the trailer for Over the Top.] The script was actually much more focused on the relationship between the father and son and that was originally the script that Stallone had committed to. It was more like Rocky and less like Rambo. But Rambo had just been a success for him and I think his managers had said, “You can’t have a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old as your nemesis,” so they built up the part of the grandfather and had ridiculous scenes where he drives his truck into the grandfather’s house and stupid stuff. I was really disappointed with it because the script was very different than what the movie was. I mean, Death Wish was Death Wish—it was never going to be anything other than kind of a revenge story or a cowboy movie set in the contemporary environment.

But Over the Top is actually a much more heartfelt story about this strange relationship between this father and son. For example, the truck driver character that Stallone played was not your typical truck driver. He was a guy who recognized what he didn’t have in his life, so he would listen to book on tapes in his truck, not country music. He was a guy who was trying to educate himself and confront the fact that the break up between him and his wife, which he always blamed on the kid’s grandfather, played a part in that. He let himself be bullied by this guy and so the grandfather was a presence in this story, but I didn’t have some of the B movie White Line Fever stuff that they subsequently added because they think they felt they had to pump up the action on it. I think it was a mistake, but to fully explain the difference, they would have to make a movie on my script and then compare the two movies to see the difference.

JC: In your script, was Stallone’s character an arm wrestler? Did it also have an ending at an arm-wrestling championship like the movie did?

DE: Well, the original script did have his fixation with the arm-wrestling thing and he would hustle along the way. I think there is a scene in there where he’s with the kid and he’s at the bar. He hustles some guy at arm wrestling to pick up some extra money. But the reason he wanted it was to buy this little island he saw when he was in the merchant marine, so the whole idea was going to be his big payoff. And he realized that through the process of the story that the real payoff for him is this relationship with his son, and that’s really what’s important to him. And not this island, which he probably would never be able to get to anyway.

But the payoff and also the cast was different when I was in the process of preproduction for Columbia initially. The kid in the finished product is a sweet, little, nice, gooey thing. The kid I had in mind had a chip on his shoulder. I had casted a young actor in Chicago who never had done film. He was really terrific and it would have been a very different film, because it would have been a much stronger part for the kid, and when he challenged the Lincoln character, he had to come to grips with his own failings.

The last act was the arm-wrestling contest. The kid is with his grandfather after his mother’s funeral in the end of second act two. In the third act, Lincoln is selling his truck, wanting the money, trying to win this arm-wrestling contest. The real payoff is still the payoff that they have, but the kid finally comes and cheers on his dad and that’s the end of the movie. So that part was right, but they took the heart out of it and kept the bones.

I was very disappointed when I saw the film.

JC: Cannon imploded with that film and Superman IV. Did you have any involvement with them before they finally close their doors down?

DE: Not with them.

JC: What did you do next?

DE: I did some television.

JC: I noticed you wrote for MacGyver.

DE: Yeah, my agents at the time specialized in television and they had gotten me a gig on MacGyver. I had never seen the show, but my mom watched it. So I called my mom up and said, “What’s this MacGyver show? Who is this guy MacGyver?” She kind of gave me a distinct and accurate description of the show. I called the producer up. They shot the show in Canada outside Vancouver. I think it was in January or something, and I said, “What are you guys looking for? You know, in your episodes.”

And he said, “Snow.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We got a lot of snow and we want to make use of it.” So I came up with an episode that depended on snow.

I ended up doing a lot of development and original writing. I made some serious studio money, but I didn’t get to do another movie again the way I wanted to.

JC: I remember those days when screenwriters were paid very well. When I was a dramatic writing undergrad in the early 90s, I was constantly hearing these stories about screenwriters getting millions for their original work.

DE: I was one of them.

JC: You were? Good for you!

DE: Post Thunder Women, yes, so I was one of those people paid for those million-dollar original scripts.

JC: Was there a particular script that you wrote that you would have liked to seen hit the big screen?

DE: Yeah, I have got a few of them, actually. Some of them are different. One of them was a romantic adventure that Matthew McConaughey was going to do.

JC: Oh really?

DE: Yeah, but he went ahead and did Sahara. I have a film that’s very different from that, which is actually based on a true story in Hawaii in World War II, but I rather not talk about that because I still have somebody who is trying to get it set up somewhere. I’ll let you know what happens and I’ll be happy to give you a follow up interview.

JC: Okay, sounds good.

DE: Most writers have one or two or three or four projects that didn’t get made, that didn’t fit in, or whatever that narrow window was for that hour that Hollywood is looking for that are still substantial or worthwhile. I have a couple of projects that I would like to see get made, whether I direct them or not at this point. I don’t have the same energy or interest that I did when I was younger, but I would like to see the movies made.

JC: There is something I read about you. It’s quite a coincidence to mention after Paris, but I read that right after 9/11 you and Joe Zito, another Cannon alumni, and maybe a few other people were called in by Washington to think of creative ways of how terrorists might attack.

DE: That is correct. There was actually a group of about twenty people who were asked to participate in this group to kind of brainstorm outside the box since the government, the CIA, the FBI, and all the agencies were stunned by 9/11. There is an organization in LA called the Institute for Creative Technologies. It is actually run out of USC but was funded by the Pentagon, and it was originally set up to use technology to train leadership, and brief military leadership on how to deal with issues. For many years, they were teaching people how to drive tanks or fly airplanes using trainers, but how do you apply emerging technology to teach a lieutenant on how to deal with a riot while they are on some kind of peace mission? So they had this entity there that existed. They asked them if they would contact people in the film industry, mostly producers and writers and directors, to come together and make an ad hoc think tank to come up with some ideas about potential terrorist activities. Joe was there for one or two meetings. I don’t really remember Joe being that involved.

But there were people there . . .  I’m trying to remember his name. The guy who did Training Day and Fury, the tank movie with Brad Pitt.

JC: Oh, David Ayer?

DE: David Ayer, yes. There were some other people, and our number kind of got wheedled down. It finally ended up with a small core group. Two years later, we were asked to go to DC and meet with George Tenet, who was then head of the CIA, right about the time we got involved in Iraq, to discuss ways to deal with what they saw was this growing Jihadism across the Middle East. They asked if we had any ideas and we came up with a number of ideas. Most of the work that we did, from what I understand, was actually well received by the government agencies. Whether it made any difference, I don’t know. I have no idea.

It was challenging, and I was impressed at the time. A lot of people joked about it, and I know it was mentioned on the Daily Show. I think it actually showed that they were willing to look in different places to come up with ways to deal with issues that they had not thought up before. It was literally outside their comfort zone and they said, “There are people who make their living coming up with these kind of ideas,” so it was kind of a natural connection.

JC: Today you are a teacher at Savanah College of Art and Design. How did you become a professor?

DE: I spent nearly forty years in the film business, and I was seeing that the kind of films that I had been working on writing and wanting to make were becoming harder and harder to get financed. What we see now are sequels and superheroes.

JC: Yes.

DE: These were not the things I wanted to do. My wife and I were talking about other options. You know, leaving LA. I had been in LA for a number of years and no longer wanted to live there and the environment had changed. It was becoming Manhattan with palm trees.

A close friend of mine had been a producer and had ended up teaching at Savannah. He invited me to come and visit, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. While I was there, he asked me to give a guest lecture to his class. I did and it was fun. I didn’t think anything about it, but a year later, there was an opening for a position for somebody to teach screenwriting at the college. He called me up and said, “You should think about that.” I said, “Well, teaching was never anything I was interested in doing. It wasn’t on my bucket list, let’s say, and certainly not living in the South.” He said, “Well, are you happy with what you are doing now?”

And the truth was, no I wasn’t. The business was changing. I was tired of chasing money as so many people do. I said, “Well, okay.  Let’s see what happens.” He gave my résumé to the then-chair of the department, and he said, “Call me up. We would like to meet you and talk to you. We think you would be great for here.” I thought about it and talked to my wife. She said, “We’ll try it for a year and see how it works.” So we went east instead of west. I enjoyed the experience of it and I liked the connection with the kids and the energy I got back from them. I thought, You know, this is not bad for a second career. I have been doing it for a few years now. It is rewarding in ways I never thought it would be.

I have been teaching long enough that I have students who came in as freshman and are now out in the business. They still ask me questions and people send me notices that they have sold their first script, or they are getting to make a movie, and it’s kind of nice to know that I have been able to make a favorable impression on the next generation of filmmakers.

JC: That’s good. It’s interesting because you are my fourth screenwriter I have interviewed for this blog. Two of them went into teaching. One of them is Barry Sandler, who wrote Crimes of Passion with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. He’s teaching in Florida now and he’s been teaching for a while. It started the same way like you did. There wasn’t really much going on with him in LA. He was a little burnt out and he initially started out in Florida for one year, but he’s been there for a while, so it’s very similar to your story.

Likewise, another Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who is another guy who did work with Cannon, he wrote the Chuck Norris movies.

DE: Yeah, I know James, as our paths crossed as they tend to in that kind of Cannon environment.

JC: Right, he taught for a year at a film school in Jordan.

DE: That’s funny. It’s just strange, and the business that I got into is not the business that exists today. It was losing its rewards and like anything you do long enough, you get a little burned out. This is a way to keep me engaged. By helping my students with their scripts, I can engage in part of the same part of my creative energy that I had as a writer, only I don’t have to deal with the existential dread that happens to all filmmakers, where you are halfway through a project and you know you have to start working to sell your next one.