Did I ever tell you guys about the first screenplay I ever wrote, or, rather, co-wrote? No, I didn't think so. Among other things, I figured that doing so might foster the misconception that I went into criticism as a "frustrated" filmmaker, which is really not the case. But in any event, I'm gonna get into it now, not for any sake except to tell you about a great guy I came to know in that period, and about how you might be able to help him out right about now.
In the very early '80s, when I was kind of poised between flunking out of college and figuring out what I was gonna do with my life after I flunked out of college, a pal I'll refer to as Stefan K. approached My Close Personal Friend (and once and future bandmate) Ron Goldberg and me with the request that we pen a screenplay. Stefan had been looking at the numbers, and doing prodigious market research. He had recently completed a stint working down south for Earl Owensby, understand who will. And he was convinced that with the right concept and $500,000, he could make a splash in the industry with an independent feature. Said feature would have to appeal to the youth market, so the three of us, under the influence, if I'm not mistaken, of a not insubstantial amount of marijuana and a television viewing of Beach Blanket Bingo, came up with the notion of a "New Wave" beach movie pastiche, to be called, in true postmodernist fashion, Beach Movie.
As you may have already suspected, we were being a little to clever for our own good right off the bat. (And the hits just kept on coming; we dubbed the motel the protagonists would stay in the "Sun Ray," and specified that the neon "y" in its name would flash out sporadically, get it, huh, huh?) But that's neither here nor there. As we labored on the script we also went about setting up meetings and getting "letters of agreement" from various talent, local and otherwise. We signed Floyd "Uncle Floyd" Vivino to play the role of the beloved owner of the beach burger-and-beer joint, which, our scenario dictated, was in danger of being run off by a sharklike fast-food sushi entrepreneur (we really wanted Michael O'Donahue for that part but never got to him). Jane Modean and Russell Todd were to play our young protagonists Bud and Dina. And then there were the bands. Since we were doing a beach movie, it behooved us to seek out the band that was The Ventures, The Shadows, The Davie Allan and the Arrows, etc., of our time. Improbable as it seemed, there existed just such a band: The Raybeats.
The Raybeats almost literally rose from the ashes of the very frenetic and confrontational "no-wave" band The Contortions. That band's drummer Don Christensen, guitarist Jody Harris, and bassist George Scott teamed with comporser and multi-instrumentalits Pat Irwin and set about very consciously concocted a distinct alternative form of musical entertainment than was common at the time. That is, they were fun. Unabashed fun. They played a very infectious blend of surf and twang music with various progressive and spacey and jazzy inflections. They offered a combination of originals and extremely knowing covers (their version of The Shadows' "The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt" is very nearly the equal of the near-untouchable original) and they worked their asses off; a typical show for them consisted of two one-hours sets and a generous batch of encores. Their inception was alas marked and marred by tragedy, when Scott died of a heroin overdose in the summer of 1980. The fellows, who'd formed a pretty tight bond by that time, decided to keep on, and they were lucky to find the slightly younger Danny Amis, who had recently blown in from Minneapolis (hence his composition "The Calhoun Surf," which he originated with the Overtones back in Minnesota). When you're in your 20s, an age difference of five or six years seems a lot bigger than it does when you're older, and Danny's relative youth—born in 1959, he was pretty much my age—and the circumstances under which he joined the fraternity kind of gave him the permanent status of "the new kid," with many of the drawbacks that designation almost invariably confers.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Beach Movie team tracked down the Raybeats, set up a meeting, explained our scenario and ambitions, and to our grand surprise, they loved the idea and were incredibly enthusiastic about it. Also to our surprise was the fact that they were among the most approachable, funny, and nice guys we'd had the privilege of meeting in show business, as it were. You have to remember, as fun as the Raybeats really were, if you'd first encountered them as Contortions, they came off as pretty intimidating. Look at the back cover of No New York, the compilation album Eno produced in the late '70s, and check out the blurry individual portraits of all the musicians involved. They look like mug shots at best. But the Raybeats in real life went very much against that impression: they were loose, funny, smart, literate, accessible and not only ready but entirely willing to work with a trio of schmucks from New Jersey who hadn't much of a fucking clue as to what they were on about. The band really got a kick out of the eccentricities of our storyline; in this particular beach movie, the motorcycle gang turned out to be a troupe of performance artists doing a "piece," and Donny Christensen, who knew and worked with Phillip Glass a bit, actually had a notion that Glass might have an interest in playing the "gang" "leader." That didn't pan out. But the 'Beats put us in touch with The Waitresses, the one-time Chris Butler solo lark that transmogrified into a real band after his song "Wait Here, I'll Be Right Back," retitled "I Know What Boys Like," became a sleeper hit. The Waitresses, too, were eager to come on board, as was its saxist Mars Williams' weird side combo Swollen Monkeys, which were led by the great Ralph Carney.
As you can imagine, we were in clover as we began to hang out and become friends with these people we were such huge fans of. As Ron and I worked on drafts of the script, we expanded the participation of the Raybeats so that they actually had speaking parts, and we based their dialogue on their actual interaction, in what we took to be true A Hard Day's Night style; Donny was the sage with the dry sense of observation (I remember in real life how he once referred to sometime collaborator Lydia Lunch as "not exactly what you'd call a team player"), Pat the laid-back quiet one who was also the most studious worker; Jody the skewed mordant wit (Ron and I have never forgotten the particular way in which he said, remembering a particularly bad musical experience, "I just about lost the will to live"), and Danny the sweet, slightly shy goof who was quick with bad puns. And Danny was the guy we wound up hanging out with the most. He was living in Hoboken, in a big multi-floor brownstone apartment with Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, who at the time were collaborating on amusing comic-strip style record reviews for New York Rocker and who would soon form Yo La Tengo. Danny had this amazing vinyl collection of records by celebrities not known for their singing—what Rhino would later designate the "Golden Throats of Hollywood." Ron and I knew about Shatner's Transformed Man, and Nimoy's Bilbo Baggins song, but on various afternoons at Danny's place he introduced us to many wonders: Telly Savalas' monstrous long players, Chad Everett's near-comatose blandness, and of course the epic aural spectacle of Sebastian Cabot, actor, reading the words of Bob Dylan, poet. He was just an absolute sweetheart and great to hang out with.
Things didn't work out with Beach Movie. Modean and Todd, oddly enough, wound up starring in actual movies Spring Break and Where The Boys Are '84, respectively. Our own concept found its way into the lap of David Sonenberg, then-manager of Meat Loaf, or something—there seemed to be some litigation going on at the time—who was very eager to break into film, but somewhat skeptical about our ideas and our choices of bands. He wanted us to take apart the script, which we had specifically engineered to a PG proposition, and add copious amounts of nudity, averring "There's nothing wrong with getting a hard-on in a movie theater." God, I love that line. But that's another story. As the project imploded, the Raybeats went through their own changes, and Danny left the group; their subsequent record, It's Only A Movie, recorded with David Hofstra, showed the group moving in a somewhat more abstract direction kind of at odds with Danny's more grounded rock-and-twang sensibilities. Danny moved to Nashville, an environment that seemed to suit those sensibilities, and subsequently formed Los Straitjackets, a combo that reflected his multiple eccentric and kicky enthusiasms. Among other things, they play wearing Mexican wrestling masks, which has to be pretty uncomfortable. In subsequent years Jody worked with the Golden Palominos before backing out of a full-time music career; Pat enjoyed a stint with the B-52s; and Donny, who was kind enough in '82 to produce a demo for my band Artificial Intelligence, went on to work pretty extensively in a recording capacity with Philip Glass. I haven't really been in touch; Jody and I pointed at each other when he took the stage at a Golden Palominos re-convening at Le Poisson Rouge last year but didn't get a chance to talk. But the Raybeats are reforming next week, Wednesday, June 29, at Hoboken's Maxwell's, playing a benefit for a very good cause. Danny was diagnosed with multiple myolema last year and is undergoing treatment for the condition, which is both dire and, thank God, manageable (that's not really the right word, but bear with me) with the right medical attention. Which costs. Danny himself explains the situation here; the page also has a Paypal widget that I don't need to tell you what to do with.
Now based on the West Coast, Danny won't be attending the Maxwell's show, and Steve Almaas, late of Beat Rodeo (and later still of Suicide Commandos) will be occupying the bassist chair. Jody, who I've been corresponding with via e-mail, promises an exceptional Raybeats set, and he'll also be playing with Ira and Georgia, who are also contributing their substantial musical talents, as will be Glenn Morrow's The Individuals, The Schramms, The Tall Lonesome Pines, Purple Knif and others. I'm happy to report tickets are going fast, but hell, you should buy one or two as well, because it's gonna be a fun night of great music and catching up with old friends. The Facebook page for the benefit is here, and here is where you can pre-purchase tickets.
Hope to see you there. And Danny, if by chance you're reading this, I'm thinking of you, buddy; God bless and keep getting better. Hope to see you soon.