Friday, June 19, 2009

"Requests"

You know how it works. An entertainer completes whatever they had planned for their concert, and at the end of the show, they ask the audience for requests. Audience members shout out suggestions, and the entertainer performs them.

I never shout requests. It’s an ironclad rule. Just like, when a magician asks for a volunteer, I never raise my hand. Other people shout requests, volunteer to be sawed in half, that’s their style. I sit quietly in my seat. Why take chances? Chances of what? I don’t know. I just don’t take them.

Okay.

It’s back in the seventies. I’m on a date. Not a first date, it was more like our third. Things were moving ahead. There was a possibility something could happen.

The plan was dinner and a show, the show being a concert featuring my far-and-away favorite singer-songwriter, Randy Newman, who was appearing at a Toronto coffee house called Grumbles. My date was enthusiastic. It looked like clear sailing.

Dinner was fine. We head off to Grumbles. Randy Newman’s opening act was Jim Croce, which was funny, because, at the time, Croce had three songs in Billboard’s Top Ten, and, as Randy sardonically declared later, his most popular tune ranked “a hundred and forty-ninth.”

The show’s going great, Randy gliding through his repertoire. “Cowboy.” “I Think It’s Going to Rain (Today)." “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.” (This was before “Short People”, “Rednecks” and “I Love L.A.”) I’m eatin’ it up. My date’s happy. Everything’s going perfectly.

Randy finishes his show. He gets up from the piano, walks offstage – applause-applause-applause – back he comes for the “encores.”

“Anything you wanna hear?” he inquires, to a rapt and adoring audience.

Okay. This was my time, my moment to shine. Nobody knows the Randy Newman oeuvre better than I do. Tonight, I would break my ironclad rule. I would shout out an inspired and unexpected request. Randy would smile subtly at my suggestion, and perform the heck out of it. The audience would go wild. And then buzz.

“I’ve never even heard of that song. That guy who requested it? He must be really special.”

My date couldn’t help but be impressed. There was a possibility something could happen? Well, this could…well, whatever.

What flashed in my mind was the deeply moving though lesser known “Old Man”, which Randy had neglected to perform that night. “Old Man” chronicles a son’s efforts to connect with his dying father. It is brilliant, simple, and sad. Everything I like in a song.

“Everyone has gone away

Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

No one cared enough to stay

Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

You must remember me, Old Man,

I know that you can if you try

So just open up your eyes, Old Man,

Look who’s come to say ‘Good-bye.’”

Randy had barely gotten out “Anything you wanna hear?” when a voice I recognized as my own, though it was speaking with an uncharacteristic authority, called out,

“Old Man!”

Randy heard my request – he couldn’t help it; it blasted noisily over all the others – and he politely replied,

“No.”

He then went on to play the suggestions requested by everybody else.

My confidence, and the rest of the evening, spiraled downhill from there.

POSTSCRIPT

Years later in L.A., I was at a party whose guests included Lorne Michaels. At the time, Lorne was writing The Three Amigos with Steve Martin and Randy Newman. (The party was at Steve’s house.) Randy Newman was also in attendance.

I asked Lorne to introduce us. He did. After telling Randy what a huge fan I was, I immediately followed with, “You ruined my date.” Such behavior is probably why I’m rarely invited to any parties.

Randy remembered playing Grumbles. I filled him in on the part that was more memorable to me, the part where he refused to perform my request.

“What was the song?” he asked.

“Old Man”, I replied, adding, to compound the inexplicability of his transgression: “It’s a really good song.”

Randy agreed. He then went on to explain why he couldn’t perform it. “Old Man” was too big of a “downer” for the audience.

“I could never get them back.”

It was a totally credible explanation, and I immediately accepted it.

Realistically, the slight, now more than three decades old, had never been deliberate. Hearing my story, Randy Newman had been gracious, sensitive and kind. Isn’t it long past time to bury the hatchet and forget the whole thing?

You would think so, wouldn’t you.

7 comments:

angel said...

As a veteran concert goer, I immediately realized why he would not play that song. Toward the end of the show, you bring out the bouncy, upbeat ones, to get everyone off their chairs and dancing. So even though Randy is probably a different experience, I bet he used I Love LA as an encore song (after he wrote it, of course).

A. Buck Short said...

Newman's on our dance card too, and this was a nice read.

The encores to take requests don't bother me. What get's my goat are the honorifics. The audience expected to sustain applause as an indication that life would have no meaning if the performer didn't come back for 1-2 more numbers. The implied insult if it's generally agreed the show was long enough as is. On Broadway, does the audiencde have to go absolutely bananas in order for the cast to come back for the final act?

And please don't get me started on the mandatory standing ovation for anybody less than Mother Theresa.I don't know what's worse letting the first guy who rises just stand there and be accused of not getting with the program, or letting everybody else rise in worship, and you be the only one sticking to your principles -- and seat?

One minute you're an engaged audience member, the next, just because some fool got restless leg syndrome, you get stigmatizes as obstinate? There are consequences.
If you stand and applaud for Carrot Top, whatayagottado for Pavarotti? Cartwheels?

That's why I never want an audience with Queen Elizabeth. Nothing against the woman, but she's not my queen -- or for that matter anybody's outside the Commonwealth. So why shout the rest of us be expected to bow and engage in all those other ritual behaviors? We're a democracy. It would actually be UNAmerican. It would be like taking a golden calf to shul, because that's the kind of bling they expect in Beverly Hills.
s He'll s

growingupartists said...

Earl, I can't get enough of your iron clad rules. Afterall, you've lived it. What better lessons are available than that?

Anonymous said...

So...he really did ruin your date? "Something could happen," didn't?

Max Clarke said...

Speaking of encores, I attended a concert back in the 1970s, Art Garfunkel was touring on his own. He did a short concert, then left the stage. He then came back sooner than the applause would have warranted. Garfunkel said, "Okay, we can get to the encores now." We all laughed, and then he did the songs everybody paid to hear.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your Randy Newman story, Earl. My wife tells me that too many of my stories begin with, "Back in the seventies", but you know, somehow things seemed more interesting and funny then. I don't know, maybe I was just more interesting and funny then.
"Anonymous Brian"

gottacook said...

Wait a minute: Someone mentions Art Garfunkel here, but doesn't mention that he also recorded the song "Old Man"? (on his first solo album in 1973)