A man is dead and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
I know who it is on the other end of the line. I know who desperately wants to reach me. I know he won’t stop calling until I answer.
Somehow he has the uncanny ability to know where I am at all times. As though he’s the devil himself. This isn’t the first time I’ve imagined him the devil. On more than one occasion I’ve called him the devil.
The truth is he is my father. At the very least, he is the man who raised me like a father. I never knew my real father. I don’t even know my real father’s name. I don’t know what my real father smelled like. I don’t know if he wore a beard, or perhaps, he shaved every morning in the shower. I never even heard the sound of his laugh.
But I do know the man on the other end of the phone line is Bix Broughtagan the man who raised me since I was six-years-old. He thinks that gives him the right to have me call him “dad.”
Bix Broughtagan is also my manager. He is the person who controls every aspect of my life right down to what I eat for breakfast, what time I go to bed at night, and what town I will wake up in tomorrow. He has created the person I am today. The person people see when they turn on MTV or pick up one of those glossy magazines while they wait in line at the grocery store or when they pick up one of my cassette tapes in a music store. For the past ten years, since the first song I ever sang at the Church of Light in Burbank, California, he has been perfecting my image. He has been controlling how the world sees me. He claims that is his most important job. On more than one occasion, Bix continually reminds me, the audience has to perceive me as a star before they can accept me as a star. It is his job to create the perception. He never lets me forget that this is the hardest part of the job.
Now that a man is dead, his job kicks into high gear. There are a lot of moving parts to a story like this. So he has to get out in front of the story. He has to climb inside the machine before the wrong people start putting the parts into place.
Death can be a real career killer.
That is why he won’t stop calling until I pick up the phone. He needs to know what happened last night. He needs to know how a man has died. He needs to know how I am involved.
Dozens of writers and photographers work exhaustively every moment of every day trying to grab a headline before Bix can get out in front of it. These people will go so far as to make up a story if it means it can hit the papers before Bix has a chance to meddle with it. For the past ten years, there has been a constant battle between Bix and the tabloid journalists to craft the story of my waking life.
I can only imagine that at this very moment, as Bix listens to the phone buzz unanswered in his ear he divines the headlines that will run in this morning’s newspapers: “Unidentified Man Falls to his Death at Pop Concert,” “Impromptu Concert Leads to Death,” “Pop Song Plunges Man to his Death,” Suicide Vibrato,” or “Melodies of the Dying.”
Perhaps I’m being too poetic for tabloid journalism. You have to remember I’m a songwriter. A lyricist. A poet. (If I can be so bold.) Although some of my most recent reviews might argue against such a claim. Of course, that is their job—the critics—to find my fatal flaws and splash them across the magazine columns. And why not, it is easier to write bad things about someone than good. When you have something nasty to say about someone the witty banter nearly writes itself. That’s why little kids on playgrounds never compliment each other. They zero in on the weakest member of their group, target the most obvious flaw, and grind them down until their ego is dust. Rock critics are like playground bullies. Ironically, they were probably the ones on the receiving end of the bullying when they were little. Now that they are grown up and they have cultivated their own sardonic wit they want their revenge. Who better to take their revenge on than the new version of the popular kids? Because isn’t that who we are pop stars, rock gods, sirens, kings of the airwaves? Who better to set your sights on than the person on the stage?
Bix would say a dead body is less of a problem when the reviews are good. It is easy to get away with things when you are on top. There is going to be a press conference regardless of whether I answer Bix’s telephone call or not. There is always a press conference. When you have sold as many albums as I have it is a requirement of the job that everything in your life is judged in front of a microphone. A person like me never gets judged in a court of law, instead, I am judged every day in the court of public opinion. There is no jury of my peers to cull from and put in a box to weigh the evidence. I have no peers. That may sound obnoxious. I cringe just thinking about it. But it doesn’t make it untrue.
Think about it for a moment. A jury is made up of twelve peers. So, in order for me to have a jury of my peers, I would need to find twelve people who exist on the same planet as I do. I would need to find twelve people who have sold over 100,000,000 albums before they were legally old enough to drive.
That’s why I don’t want to answer the phone. I don’t want to answer the phone because everything that comes from the moment I pick up the phone is inevitable. It is pre-ordained. There are certain things that come along with the money, the fame, the talent that I have to accept. Perhaps accept is not the right word for it. Surrender. That is a better word. There are certain things I must to surrender to in exchange for the blessings of being a god who walks among mortals. I know I shouldn’t say that. Another thing Bix has tried to impart to me over the years—humility. Since I was a small child, Bix has impressed upon me the importance of being humble.
The problem is when the lights shine this brightly it is hard to cling to humility. When everybody worships you it is hard to remember you are only human.
Everything that happens after I answer the phone I know before I answer the phone. What I don’t know is what happened last night.
You have to understand, given the position, I was in it is nearly impossible for me to know what happened.
I was on the roof when it happened.
I didn’t know a man was dead until long after I saw the lights of the police and fire trucks trying to break through the crowds in the street. There were so many people in the streets I couldn’t make out a square inch of pavement. It was like a sea of moving bodies. It was nearly impossible to distinguish one from another. When I am on stage, above a crowd of thousands, I no longer can make out the people as individuals. They become a mass, a blog, a collage of body parts. When viewed from above, ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand people cease being unique flowers. They are a horde.
I had the best vantage point of the scene. From up there on top of the roof, I could see everything. I could see all the way to the edges of the city. Above me the moon was full. Beyond the cliffs, the Adriatic Sea churned
What I couldn’t see from the rooftops were the small details. I never saw the man fall from the hotel window. I didn’t see the blood pool between the cobblestones on the street. I can imagine the blood running like water between the stones creating a red maze as it found a path. But from where I was singing I could not make any of this out. From what I could see it looked like any other crowd moving and swaying to the hypnotic sound of my voice.
You don’t sell as many albums as I have sold if your voice doesn’t heal the afflicted.
The sound of the ringing phone has shattered my nerves. I can’t think for the racket of that phone.
I apologize for getting ahead of myself. There are important details about last night that I have left out. There was more to last night than just a dead man.
The problems started long before the man died.
The problems began as soon as my plane landed in Italy.
The first problem: We landed in the wrong city…
“…The city of love,” Jacque says as he aims his hands at me. His fingers and thumb form a rectangle. Jacque is looking at me the way the camera will look at me. He is framing me with his fingers. He wants the perfect shot.
The cityscape around us is a metaphor for romance is how he puts it. Every commercial director I ever met thinks the city they choose for location is the city of love as long as the moon is full. Budapest, Istanbul, Venice, Zurich, of course, New York and Paris. Each director thinks he knows why. They’re not afraid to squander half the night explaining why. All the while a fan blows through the thin, muslin dress draped over me, and my body is covered with goose bumps. I haven’t eaten in two days. So excuse me if I don’t really care if Trieste, Italy is so doomed. I just want my jacket.
Jacque tells me: “You are like the city herself. Your beauty of another time.”
Which is so not true. Half my day is spent ensuring my beauty—if that is even what you would call it—matches this time perfectly. A team of experts is paid very well to ensure I look exactly how people want me to look. Of course, I don’t pay them. I don’t have any money to pay them with. I don’t have money; I have worth. I know this because I read about my worth in Forbes Magazine. I have never had so much as a dollar bill in my pocket my entire life. It’s a funny story, actually. I was doing a string of dates in some fly-over state somewhere, and I just had to have Coffee Bean. I don’t know how so many places out there get on without Coffee Bean. It’s a crime. I just had to have it. So, me and three of my favorite people from the back-up dance team—maybe they couldn’t care less about Coffee Bean just wanted to get off that mid-American dirt patch—climb on my plane. We fly to LA. Literally, walk off the stage, hurtle ourselves onto the Leer, and we four hours later we stand outside Coffee Bean on Ventura just as this kid with a total Point Break—literally the best movie in the last five years—surfer-do unlocks the front door. Frosted blonde locks swaying in front of his impossibly blue eyes. I mean, hang-ten, bra’—spot on. Like half the people on planet earth—guy takes one look at who showed up at his Coffee Bean at the crack of dawn— the power of speech gone. Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of years training for those moments. Happens all the time. Each symptom requires a different approach. I mean, you get dumbfounded, the screamers, I’ll pull my hair out in the middle of the street (the worst), and the criers. There are a hundred types. This guy is the dumb one. (I don’t like mean dumb that way. In the Biblical sense is how I mean.) My heart really went out to him. He fell all over himself behind the counter. It was early. We were the only ones in the place. People don’t show up at this Coffee Bean when they unlock the doors. People have more sense than being up that early unless they just dropped in out of their private jet because they were desperate for chocolate chip mocha with extra whip. He drops cups everywhere. Nearly burns his hand on the steamer. I want to go back there and help the poor kid out. But that would have been worse. I’ve learned that the hard way. Trust me. The three of us do the best we can to be polite. We don’t focus on him.
Finally, he set the drinks on the counter in the little cardboard holder, another real challenge, those things can be a pain separating. I want to pay him and get back in the limo. We have to fly back. We have another show to do that night. There are rehearsals in the afternoon, makeup, the whole business. I reached into my purse, a little gold cube of a thing, cost more than a used Sentra—I watch The Price is Right, I know these things. There wasn’t even a dollar in there. Here I stand just off my own private plane, limo parked outside on the street, and I don’t even have the cash to pay for coffee. That about sums up my whole life.
When some French guy who is explaining to his crew where they should put the camera and how the light shines best off my hair starts spouting off about my timeless beauty my love-tank should be full. But I just can’t take it anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Jacque.
Problem is, we both got screwed on this deal.
Most people assume I get my own way in everything. Why shouldn’t they? After selling a gazillion records everybody assumes I call all the shots. In truth, no matter how powerful you think you are, how famous, how rich, there are still forces out there that control your destiny. Unless you are actually God, someone will always screw things up for you.
Jacque and I met three months ago at the most authentic Cubano sandwich joint in L.A. A blink and you’ll miss it hole-in-the-wall off Pico. The kind of dive Bix would kill me if he knew I frequented. The two of us share the house special and order coconut water. Jacque might be the only person I’ve met who is actually skinnier than me. I suspect that’s the heroin. If you avoid all the sins you might miss the genius.
We hadn’t even taken a bite and he starts telling me his vision for the fragrance commercial. Nobody ever saw one of these two-minute spots how Jacque did. I dreaded the whole thing until I met Jacque. Hearing his pitch turned the corner for me. I left the restaurant stoked to make this commercial.
The two of us had a chance to do something nobody else had done. I can’t explain how rare that is.
First of all, the shoot was supposed to take place in Rome.
Let me just explain the massive gap between Trieste and Rome.
Maybe I’m being hard on Jacque for calling it the city of love. It’s old Europe after all. Romance is in the air wherever you go. That’s the difference between America and Europe. America is a quick bang in the back of a bus. Europe is the seduction.
I don’t have the heart to tell him Trieste is actually known as the city of cliffs? Although, when you think about it, there is a doomed romance about cliffs.
Begs the question, how do I know? It’s become a habit of mine. This little bit of in-flight reconnaissance I do. Once I hit the ground it’ll be all-out war with the cameras up in my grill, the pencil-behind-the-ear-pop-journalists, the rumpled, off-the-rack Banana Republic sports coats. One of them will pepper me with the what-do-you-know-about-the-place-where-I-live question. As though my knowing the place somehow makes it more legitimate or tangible. Suddenly the whole troop of pencil-scribblers will stop and gape; hold their breath to hear some gem about their dirt-patch.
So I read up on whatever place I’m about to land at while I’m in the air. I have one of my assistants photocopy a few pages from an encyclopedia or maybe get a brochure from a travel agent. I don’t like to walk into some strange town without at least a small arsenal of information.
There’s always a meet-and-greet before any decisions are made. The company behind the fragrance set up the meeting. If I have to spend forty-eight hours listening to this guy tell me what to do we are going to have a lunch first.
Jacque spoke so reasonably. He even ordered a sandwich that sounded so good I had to order the same thing. Before he ever starts breaking down his vision for the fragrance commercial my confidence in him grew. Just by the way he ordered his lunch I knew I could trust his vision.
When I saw Jacque’s samples I was pretty stoked. He made this short film about Parisian pickpockets. The movie was visceral and angry. It made a real statement about the marginalized. The cast was stacked with professional, French inline skaters. I had no idea what a hardcore group they were. Squatters hold-up in an abandoned factory several blocks from Rue de Secca. They turned the basement into an inline skate park from the proceeds of ripping-off day-traders shuffling home along the Champs Elysees.
Over the most authentic Cubano sandwich, I ever tasted and coconut water Jacque lays out this whole montage he wanted to shoot where I play this heroin-sheik pickpocket working the subway of Rome. The idea was edgy and way outside the box. Nobody in the world would have had the courage to try and film something like this for a huge brand in the midst of launching a new fragrance. It took courage to see a vision like this through to the end. Who is always the first to be martyred? The visionary. The person who sees the world how it could be rather than how the world is. That is always the person who gets killed first.
Now, do you see why it was such a big surprise for me to wind-up on the roof of the Museo Revoltella in Trieste, Italy swallowing some cliché about love? While the costume assistant twisted me up in BC/GB runway originals. We had a plan. This commercial was the first thing I had really been excited about in a year.
It is the same for Jacque. I can see the disappointment written all over his face every time he tells me where to stand or what direction to look in. We can both hear the banal voiceover playing in our heads that some studio will record once the images have been looped together. A ponderous sorrow marred Jacque’s face every time he stops the action so his DP can change a lens or so the Grip can rotate a light.
After that first lunch on Ventura, we probably exchanged a dozen phone calls. For me to do a dozen of anything means I must love it to death. I won’t bore you with my schedule, but it doesn’t leave time for chats on the phone, I’ll put it that way. I never heard anyone talk with so much passion about camera angles and shading and the texture of a subway wall. It was real and gritty and I could almost smell the filth. That is not something I would normally find romantic, but if you heard how Jacques described it, you might think differently about the next homeless person you walk by clinking a tin cup for spare change.
I should have known the pitch was doomed from the first flavor-burst of smoked pork and spicy mustard I tasted. Good ideas are always doomed once adults that want to make money get their grubby hands on them. I have faced this every day since I was seven or eight years old. Since the first time, I sang Amazing Grace in front of a packed congregation at Morning Light Church of the Redeemer on Wilshire and Figueroa. That was the day adults learned that my voice could print money. Since that morning, every decent, original idea that has come out of my mouth has been shot down. According to the people in charge of the money, fresh concepts and out-side-the-box thinking were anti-capitalist. Without capitalism, there was no art. Religion and capitalism fuel art. It would not exist without those forces Bix often explained to me. There would be no Michelangelo without the Pope. Goya wouldn’t have been able to afford a brush if the political chambers of Spain didn’t need tapestries painted. “What did Michelangelo paint?” He liked to remind me. “He painted God. There is no more unoriginal idea than God,” Bix would say.
Once the shadowy cabal of executives from the fragrance company wearing tailored suits and black wingtip shoes shiny enough you can see your reflection like Narcissus at the pool trembling at the thought someone out there in the vast world might ever stop loving him met with Bix Brautigan one week before Jacques and I was supposed to shoot in Rome our grand scheme to create something truly original went up in smoke. From the banality of their photographs and commercials, you wouldn’t guess, perfume companies were staffed with murderous thugs and leg-breakers. I am here to tell you, they were worse then teamsters. They burned the script Jacque and I came up with on a sacred pyre. I imagined them dancing around the burning pages while chanting some ancient verse about the offactory zone. Once Jacque and my dreams were dashed, the executives scribbled a few benine images on paper, called it a script, and sealed it in a brown envelope. That envelope was entrusted to some mid-level executive who was stuck with the thankless job of babysitting the crew once we arrived in Italy.
I thought Jacque would breakdown when he opened the envelope. I think I caught a glimpse of his eyes welling up with tears once he witnessed the contents of the envelope. Not a single tear escaped the corner of his eyes. He simply stood like a stone statue with the pages flopping in a passing breeze.
Although Jacques is older than me, he is younger by decades of life experience. Celebrity ages a person. I may be only sixteen in human years. But I am far older when you calculate my lived experience. Fame eats the soul. Every year you are famous ages you by nearly a decade. Sure on paper, I might be sixteen, but I have been famous since I was thirteen. When I say famous, I mean, real famous. Sure, people, I don’t know have known my name since I was ten and eleven years old. However, it wasn’t until my first album was cut that I became truly famous. In fame years, I am at least thirty. Jacques is twenty-two years old. He is twenty-two in real years and emotional years. Having your dreams crushed still affects him in an emotional way. When people step on his hopes it still hurts. It’s not exactly the same for me.
The second unit direct calls Union break.
In an instant, Vivian, the new assistant, practically tackles me getting my coat over my shoulders. It’s not like I haven’t been freezing for an hour. I’m not dead yet.
Vivian ushers me over to the table she set with all my favorite things. She picked the corner of the roof overlooking the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia—so I have that to thank her for. My phone is already buzzing before I reach my private enclave. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Jacque and the D.P., who doesn’t speak any English and has yet to introduce himself, blow smoke at the Alps out there somewhere beyond the dark. I don’t smoke, but I’d rather hang with them than answer a call from Bix. One advantage of being in another country should be not having to answer a call from my dad/manager. But that’s not how it works when you get paid the amount of money that could elect a president to walk across a rooftop with fans blowing your hair and moonlight shining on your dress.
Bix was already talking before I have a chance to say hello, bonjour, hóla, hallo, whatever it is in Italian. That was something I probably should have brushed up on.
He’s fully aware that I’m disappointed with the concept change on the commercial. So he doesn’t even wait for me to speak.
“We just didn’t think it fit your brand. You get that, don’t you? This is a crucial moment for you and we don’t want to start getting our wires crossed with how people see you. There are plenty of examples of people… How easy it was for them to get knocked down. It’s a slippery slope when you start angling for the edgy stuff. It’s hard to control. That makes sense, right. You get that. You’re smart.”
It has been a crucial moment since I was six years old singing in the Van Neys Church of Christ at Morning Light Chapel. Don’t worry, Bix wasn’t dragging me off to church for my moral edification. Some of these Evangelical monstrosities welcomed three, four, five, even six thousand worshipers on a Sunday. That was a great audience once a week to work my chops. Bix believed the church was a better way to gage the masses desire than Disney. There were plenty of kids getting their taste for the limelight on Mickey Mouse Club or singing back up on some Saturday morning show. Not me. Bix wouldn’t have any of that. He wanted me in church on Sunday morning. Always some white or yellow dress except around Christmas when it was black velvet and the red sash around my waist. He believes more sustainable stars come out of the church circuit than the pre-fab television model. He doesn’t trust moving pictures. Maybe because of how my mom died. Maybe it was too hard for him. Bix was on his way to make my mother a big star when something went wrong on the set of her last movie. After her death, he never stepped foot on a studio lot, movie set, or soundstage. Instead, we dressed to the nines and drove out to some mega-church between the valley and the desert with so much glass it practically blinded us like Paul on the road to Damascus.
As far as I could ever tell, Bix had no time for God. I think he slept through every sermon. He put his faith in crowds. He only believed in the reaction of the masses. For his money, Bix believed there was no better focus group than a sanctuary filled with the pious. There was no better seat of judgment than pews stacked to capacity at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning.
Sure, Bix could have found a gig for me with Disney. Plenty of my contemporaries sang their hearts out on the Mickey Mouse Club. Others tested their mettle on Star Search or some other Saturday night variety show. Bix didn’t have faith in television. He wanted to feel the energy of an audience that felt their soul was on the hook.
Bix is still blathering in my ear: “I didn’t want to get inside your head before you got on that long flight. I know how anxious you get. Twelve hours in the air, you and Jacque would have festered. I know how you two get.”
You did screw me I want to say. You don’t say that kind of thing to Bix. Instead, I say, “Not even Rome…”
I can hear him breathing over the phone. Bix put on a lot of weight last year, and I can hear it in his breath. It comes out thick and wet.
“Oh, honey,” says Bix.
Honey is not a good word coming from Bix. It clangs around in his mouth like a marble. His voice is like syrup when he says “Oh.” Then he follows it with the phrase, “Rome is so obvious.”
It’s like a kick in the stomach when he says it. Like I’m this small child who just finger-painted all over the walls of the kitchen.
“Trieste is a special place,” he goes on. “It’s the city of cliffs.”
I glance past Jacque and his smoking buddy to where the Alps would be if it weren’t too dark to see.
Jacque cigarette looks like it is about to burn his finger. He smokes the filter at this point. I imagine the stink on his fingers. Gauloises have a distinct rank from how American cigarettes smell. He flicks the sparking butt over the edge of the building and his little second unit guy waves the crew back into position before Jacque turns around.
“They’re rolling again, Bix.”
“Love you, baby.” He always says that before I hang up. Just like a real dad, I guess.
After I put the phone back on the table, I take a step to the edge of the building. Behind me, the crew is still fussing with the lights. I glanced down at the piazza. All I really want to do is take in a small taste of the enchanted, little city before being dragged back in the laborious machinations of a commercial set. There is no romance in filming—regardless if it is a commercial or a feature. It’s like watching paint dry. That’s what makes it more insulting when the one thing I was passionate about got stolen from me. Sure I get paid boatloads of money, but what good is that. There is a certain threshold where money no longer matters. I passed that threshold a couple years ago. I won’t ever run out of money. More than likely, my kids, if I ever decide to have any, won’t run out of money. So I don’t do anything for the money. That’s Bix’s deal. He is always angling for more money. That’s fine. Bix created me. He has every right to profit off the product he made. Plus, these companies that use my face will sell a ton of product. They’ll make plenty of dough. Bix should grab every penny he can. The first rule of a negotiation, never leave cash on the table.
When I look down from the rooftop I gasp.
I don’t know what I expected. But this certainly wasn’t it. I had hoped for just a glimpse of this enchanted city before being pulled into the mendacity and frenzy of the crew behind me.
The streets are jammed with thousands of people. Necks crane. The white parts of their eyes gleam under the white light of the moon. Waiting. Praying. Pleading for just a fleeting glimpse. Who knows how long they have been waiting?
As soon as my face appears over the stone ramparts the cries ring out. The night stillness is shattered by the exhortations of five, maybe ten thousand people who have just caught sight of their God. That sounds pompous, I know. But there is no other way to describe it when the masses fall to pieces at the sight of you. It begins with the scream of one lone spotter. Then a melody of voices swells from the ground. They call out for my attention. I don’t even think they entirely know whom they have spotted, yet. Somehow word must have gotten out that I am shooting a commercial on top of this building. That word spread through this tiny seaside town like a wildfire. It was whispered in cafes, shops, outdoor markets, and schools. Friends called each other on the phone. They told their neighbors.
The fact of the matter is the throngs of people cry out because they imagine it could be me. I am pretty high up from the street. I doubt they can distinguish my facial features. But they have been holding their collective breaths. Praying for a sign of life to reveal itself from the rooftop. They are desperate for the tiniest sliver-of-hope the rumors that passed through town like a virus might be true.
Now they have been graced with the outline of a person. A head and a torso appear through the stone embrasures. The collective anxieties of the masses brought together by the allure of fame.
Jacque has to see it for himself. He stands beside me. He shakes his head. There is something illogical about it all. The mayhem. Not only is it impossible to describe, it is too surreal to witness. It really is like I am a god to them. I am the closest thing to a god any of them will ever witness in their lives. But the strange part is: they created me. I would not exist if crowds like the one down in the piazza didn’t form every time word got out of where I would be. When people gather around me they build me up, they strengthen me, they reinforce to other people who might not be watching that I am a force to be reckoned with.
Honestly, I would not exist if these throngs were driven together by my arrival. What I offer them, what they offer me, has all been carefully choreographed. A team dedicates an unreasonable amount of time to figure out how I should be positioned. They decide where I go after certain songs drop. They choose which magazines are permitted to ask which questions. Different segments of my fan-base read different things in different places. It is important the right presentation of my personality is present to the proper demographic. You don’t want a mother in Peoria reading about some club I was spotted at with some flannel-clad, Seattle sad-face while waiting for a prescription at Rite Aid. These are specific people with specific expectations and they need to be satisfied. The gods need to satisfy the people in order for the people to offer their sacrifice and worship.
“I no want to know how that feels,” Jacque says.
For the first time since my plane touched down, I remember what it was about Jacque that won me over that afternoon at the café.
“Now you have that love thing you were talking about before,” I tell him.
Jacque gives a sarcastic laugh. Although with French guys everything is ironic, so maybe I misjudge.
“At least we add sound mix later.”
Now it’s my turn to laugh.
“How many more times do you want me to walk across the roof, you think?”
Jacque rubs his finger like a toothbrush across the nicotine stains yellowing his teeth. “All filters are wrong. Max and I discuss it. We are right. The color won’t do.”
This means he wants to do everything again from scratch. That’s the difference between artists and marketing departments. Everything is an unfinished canvas with these guys. His whole life is an accumulation of unfinished work. Which is kinda sexy.
For me, it’s scheduled. Everything planned down to the minute. What does it matter if we wrapped early? Not like I’m going to go find some Italian discotheque. I won’t get blitzed and kiss some guy. Bix pays my bodyguards the best in the business to make sure I am back in my hotel room after the job is done. Asleep on time.
“We make it right,” Jacque adds.
“Of course, Jacque.”
I give the crowd a double-handed wave, as though I’ve just crossed the finish line after a marathon. The whooping starts up in full force again.
After the third time the crew resets the scene, Jacque pulls me aside. Over his shoulder, I can see the two P.A.s lighting all the candles with plastic Bic lighters. Dozens of candelabras have been placed around the rooftop. Every time a breeze picks up it’s another fifteen minutes resetting. The effect is cool. But the resets are tedium.
“Maybe I have an idea,” Jacque whispers in my ear.
Jacque says he has a friend who knows a guy who has a club a few blocks from the piazza. He can get some sound equipment for us.
He tells me he thinks this idea is played out too. The romance. The flickering candles. The bolts of white linen billowing in the diffused glow of the kickers. I know my lights. It was a personal obsession of my mother’s. I read an interview once where she spoke at length about how a woman in Hollywood is powerless if she doesn’t understand proper lighting. Since I was about nine years old I have been collecting every scrap ever written about my mother. All that I have been able to gather fills a single box in my closet. I don’t know if she refrained from interviews after a certain point, or if journalists stopped being interested in writing about her. She granted a lot of interviews during the time of her first movie. At that time, she was only two years older than I am now. Nobody knew her yet. It is interesting to read her perspective as a late teenager before she was famous. I have to ask myself sometimes what is the similarity between her and I. What parts of our personality are formed genetically, and what comes from experience? By the time I am the age she was when she made her first movie I will have experienced lifetimes more than she ever could.
I read those articles over and over again. Sometimes I think it sheds light on who I might have been had Bix not turned me into a superstar at such a young age. From those early articles about my mother, I can see she wanted to be famous. She speaks sometimes the way Bix wants me to speak. But it is different for me. I am already a star. I am a bigger star than my mother ever could have been. Very few people ever get to the level where I am.
There is one interview she gave where she speaks about actresses in the 1930s and 1940s, and how some of them had it written in their contracts what kinds of lights could be used on them. These actresses even had it in their contracts where a camera could be positioned when they were in the frame. That power. That attention to detail. That kind of control. My mother wanted to be like those actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was thinking about these things before she ever made her first movie. She studied the starlets of the eras before her to be better prepared to take control once she found herself in the right position.
I read those interviews and articles over and over. I search for clues. I seek her wisdom from the grave through the stories I read in twenty-year-old film magazines. It is strange to learn about your mother through the words other people write about her. But I read between the lines.
Jacque jars me out of my thoughts. He points to the spot where we were standing when the crowd began to howl. “You sing for them,” Jacque says.
He has a vision. The passion that first attracted me to him that afternoon in the sandwich shop has returned. It is the first of seen of the Jacque I was excited to work with since stepping off the plane in Italy. Something inside him has caught fire.
“We don’t do any work,” Jacque says. “The crowd is here doing it for us.” He waves his hands all over the place like he is swatting a hundred flies all at the same time. “We will steal it.”
I can see that he can see that I don’t understand. I glance around at all the P.A.s desperately trying to get all the candles to burn at once without the fans blowing them out.
Jacque sees what I am looking at. He tells me to forget all that. He says we should forget about the makeup company. He uses much stronger language than that, but I know what he means. He wants to clear the set. This idea is going nowhere. The ad is worthless.
I think about reminding him of how much money is on the line. But in the back of my mind, I can hear Bix’s voice. I am very young when he tells me this. Perhaps I am nine or ten years old. We are standing outside of a church. I have just performed Amazing Grace for five thousand people. There is a flock of people gathered around me. They gush about how beautiful the song is. Bix leans down to whisper in my ear, “Don’t talk about money in polite company.” I don’t remember what I said to inspire him to tell me that, but I remember the authority in his voice when he told me that.
I think about what Bix said when Jacque uses the word worthless. He has no concept of how much money is on the line for this commercial. I know the fee the company is paying him. But he hasn’t even a hint as to the amount of money the company is spending to launch my face as their new brand. It is the kind of money that can overthrow a small, island nation.
Jacque is a normal person. He thinks the way normal people think. It would be very difficult for someone like Jacque, or any of the other people on this rooftop, to understand what is at stake when I am brought into a project. It is hard to comprehend the kind of money they will shell out to have my face in their commercial, my face on their billboard, my face on the marquee at the entrance of every department store that carries their line of cosmetics. But what is even more staggering than what they are willing to pay me is how much the company will make by having my face to launch their new line of cosmetics.
But I hate the commercial too, so I keep it to myself what is at stake when we abandon the company’s directives.
Instead, I say, what did you have in mind?
Jacque explains what he means by, steal the shot. He wants to send his cameramen into the crowd with small handheld cameras. He wants to set a stage on top of the roof. He wants to shoot a music video or a concert video. He wants to seize on the frenzy that is taking over the streets.
The news spreads through the city like a virus. For the edge of the building, Jacque and I can see for nearly a mile. People are clambering out of their houses and apartments. The initial gather I witness moments after hanging up on Bix was just the die-hard fans that heard a rumor of my presence. Now that it has been confirmed. Now that there has been a sighting, people flock to the streets. Even way up here on top of the Museo Revoltella, I can feel the frenzy. It is palpable. These are the moments that feed me. I feel most alive when I feel the pulse of a crowd radiating towards me.
Watching the swarm of bodies flow through the streets like a river, I can’t help but think this must be what a god feels looking down from heaven.
I see Jacque’s eyes as he glances at me. He is afraid to look too long. Something happens to me when I am in the presence of my fan. People have told me before. Something emanates from inside me the moments before I step out on stage and the madness of the crowd is deafening. Right now, I know that Jacque bares witness to it, and he wants to say something, he just doesn’t know what. He doesn’t understand what he witnesses. He’s afraid to speak. He knows that anything he could say would sound foolish. This often happens when someone is confronted by the full impact of celebrity. Don’t get me wrong nobody can fully be divorced from the totality of fame that surrounds me. It would be naïve of me to believe they ever could. However, on rare occasions, and under certain extraneous circumstances that have to do with how and where we meet, a person can discover the ordinary that still exists inside me. That was what happened with Jacque and I the first time we met on Ventura Avenue. The place was so common, so rundown, I could disappear into its plainness. That way we could meet on common ground. It gave him the confidence to express his ideas. So, even today, he felt that commonality we shared that first day. He could direct me because he didn’t feel the threat of my notoriety. The longer we stand together watching the gathering storm of fanatics, the farther he moves from me. What he doesn’t understand is that I want him to see me as that person he saw that day when we shared Cubano sandwiches and coconut water. I don’t want this other person to consume him. I don’t want him to shrink in fear, and shuffle away.
He has moved two paces away from me. Then he turns. He says, “We got to do this.”
I look him in the eyes. My smile beams, I can feel the heat radiating from my open mouth.
He turns and flees across the rooftop. With in seconds his troop of assistants and the director of photography’s assistants are all being loaded down with camera equipment. They are packing the cameras with fresh cartridges. When they run out of professional equipment, Jacques roots around in the black canvas bags until he comes up with handheld video cameras. He doesn’t want to miss a thing. His team is like an army preparing to venture into the fray. Their weapons are cleaned as shiny. One of the boys polishes a lens with a small square of rag he kept in his back pocket.
The noise of the gathering storm rises off the street in waves. They are hungry. There is no other way to describe that sound. Once the frenzy has stirred the cadence is that of animals in the wild. Humanity slips away. The baser instincts take hold. They need sustenance, nourishment only I can provide. A need only my songs can placate.
Within a half hour, a crew of young, Italian teenagers arrives with the equipment. They set the stage. They stumble across the roof with speakers on their backs. Miles of cords are unspooled. They move quickly with deft competence. These boys accomplish what it takes a team of professional roadies an afternoon to accomplish.
My attention is drawn to Vivian. She stands near the table where my waters stand neatly in a row and the telephone lingers. Her manicured nails tap the plastic, rotary numbers on the faceplate. Her thoughts are as transparent as the screen used to diffuse the lights.
I slip up beside her.
She jumps when she turns to see who has approached her.
I rest my hand on her hand.
“What’s going on?” Vivian wants to know.
“Relax. Everything is fine.”
“Uh,” she stammers. “But…”
“I know what you are thinking,” I tell Vivian. I say, “Ever fiber of your being cries out that you should call Bix. You think Bix will fire you.” Her eyes are so wide I can see all the white. I can practically make out the retina. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him.”
Vivian stammers, “But you shouldn’t…”
I lean in close to her. I create a space of intimacy between us. Very few people have the power to overcome “I need somebody I can trust, Vivian. Can I trust you?”
“Ummm….,” she struggles. “But I don’t work for you.”
“That’s only what he told you,” I explain. “Don’t you think if I told him to let you go…”
“This’ll be fun, Vivian. Trust me. Have you looked down there? Have you seen all the people? We are doing a public service for the city of Trieste. What if I left without singing a song? They might riot. Don’t you see how something like that could happen?”
I lead her to the edge of the roof. I watch her face as she peers over the ledge as the street below. The color drains from her cheeks.
The crowd spots me, again. The cries rise like incense. I can almost smell the fury of their anticipation.
Vivian turns to see my reaction to the howling mass surging through the streets like a cresting wave. “I can’t imagine,” she says.
I shake my head. There is nothing I can say that would help her comprehend. No one can understand unless it happens to them. She trembles.
The two of us step to the edge of the Museo Revoltella. We watch the massive crowd of people clamber through the streets.
If I had to guess, one of the reasons we have been stuck on the same shot for an entire night is Jacque’s cold paralysis under the strong arm of Bix and the makeup company’s simple concept. He doesn’t know how to work like that. Which is why we hit it off so much that first afternoon over coconut water. Because I am nothing like him.
So when he proposes a breakaway from the commercial devised by Bix and the company I can feel my breath come up short.
I was born to sing. This is something I have been raised to understand. So the fact that I will be giving that to the people that want it only seems reasonable.
“We will steal it,” Jacque says.
He lights the new cigarette off the last one still smoldering between his trembling fingers.
He will send two of his cameramen into the crowd with handheld cameras. He says there is a frenzy in the piazza. There might be a riot if I don’t give them something. They want more than a simple wave. They want my soul. Everybody wants my soul. But once the crowds start to swarm it becomes palpable. It is impossible to describe if you have never experienced it. But it is like they are draining me. They suck my energy. It is as though my energy is the sustenance they need to survive. And I can feel it oozing out of me as the crowd gathers.
I can see Vivian anxiously watching me. I don’t pay her. She is only beholden to me so far as it is her job to do what I need to be done. But I don’t decide that any more than I decided what clothes I’m wearing right now. Bix hired her. She why shouldn’t I suspect she is spying on me even now as Jacque begins to unwind his plan. She can see by his excitement something is happening. A sea change is taking place. How am I supposed to know the lengths of her authority? What will she tell Bix? What role she plays in all of this. I’m going to take a chance.
What do I have to lose? When the shoot is over I will only be whisked back to my room in the hotel. There is no romance waiting for me under the dark underbelly of this strange Italian city standing on a steep cliff above the Adriatic Sea. All day long I am shuffled from one variation of a prison to the next. So why shouldn’t I seize on Jacque’s offering to steal something from this night? Even if that something was stolen is just a few shots of the crowd in euphoria at the sight of me offering in an impromptu show from the belvedere of a late renaissance palace where until a hundred years ago men shed their blood for an independence that is only the illusion of people willing to believe.
When I say yes Jacque can hardly contain himself he grabs me and pulls me into an embrace. He smells of sweat and unwashed hair. I can feel the bones of his ribs through his thin silk shirt. I think he might start dancing.
The phone in my hotel rings.
At first, I can’t place the sound. Phones in Europe have a different ring from America, and I don’t recognize the sound. I’m still asleep is why. My body feels like lead against the bed. I can’t wake myself up.
The ringing continues.
Somewhere in my mental fog, I come up with it is the phone that I am hearing.
Last night, we kept shooting until close to three a.m. That is why I am so tired. That’s why I can’t move to get my hands on the phone. The sound just keeps pulsing in my head. The noise is somewhere between a rattle and a trill. It is horrible. I head throbs, and the phone just makes it worse. It is like a tiny hammer swinging wildly inside my brain.
As the sound drags me from sleep, the events of last night flood back. I remember how Jacque convinced me to toss the ideas the makeup company came up with for the commercial. The simple plan for me to light across the rooftop of a museum in Trieste, Italy with fans blowing in my hair and candle light and men dressed in tuxedoes falling all over themselves to get close to me went out the window.
But that was just the beginning.
I was made about the change too. I can blame myself for what happened. I can share the blame with Jacque for ignoring the express will of the company and Bix who put the deal together. A lot of money had been invested in this two-day shoot in Italy. Granted piles of that money would end up in my bank account. But I don’t care about money. Perhaps that is my problem. Money doesn’t drive me. I want to be part of things that excite me. So when Jacque came up with the idea that we should shoot an impromptu concert on the roof of the Museo Revoltella I jumped at it.
As all half-baked plans do, this one sounded great, until it actually started. Until the person died.
Now I’m suddenly awake.
Now I suddenly remember what happened.
The night flashes before my eyes.
The phone is still ringing.
I roll over and stare at it as though I have forgotten how it works. I think I know who is on the other end of the line. Only one person I know is so persistent to keep dialing the same number even after it has rung over fifty times. I’m sure whoever is at the front desk has already tried politely to convince him that I must have stepped out of my room. I can hear the hotel clerk’s pretentious, Italian accent as he says it. Hoteliers always speak the same way. At least the ones who work in hotels like this one. It is as though working in a place like this has raised their social status and they are trying desperately to play the part so no one sees through the veneer. Anyway, I can hear him speaking to Bix over the phone, convincing him that it would be better if he just tried back later today. But the poor front desk clerk doesn’t know what kind of person he is dealing with. He doesn’t realize that Bix is a dog with a bone. He won’t let go unless you are strong enough to rip his teeth out.
Bix has heard the news. He knows what happened last night, and he won’t rest until he hears it straight from my own mouth.
A person has died. This is now an international incident.
He needs to talk about it. This is the kind of situation he loves. In order to get out of this place the way we came it, Bix will need to put some spin on the situation. That is one of his favorite words—spin. He was born to get out of sticky situations. I’m sure that is why he went into law school. He could talk the devil back into heaven if God would just give him five minutes.
The fact of the matter is it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t actually do anything wrong. Jacque didn’t do anything wrong. At least, we didn’t do anything wrong to the Italian people. We betrayed the makeup company that is for sure. Nobody would argue against that. We gave them a big old middle finger.
Let me just make one thing clear. I know who holds all the cards. I am the one with the talent. That is why they are willing to pay me the money they pay me. I understand there is a line of other talented, young musicians panting to take me down. They would claw my eyes out in a heart be to be where I am. But that isn’t the point really. There is a lot more involved than people realize to get to the place where I am at. This is something most people will never understand. They see the talent. They see the charm. They are taken aback by my beauty—or what they call beauty—because I don’t know if it is a real beauty. But once you get to the position I am in there are talented people who can make you beautiful. That’s another thing people don’t always understand. Beauty can be created. Really talented people create beauty in a laboratory every day. That’s why makeup companies can pay people like me so much money. They create an illusion. People will always pay more for illusion than truth—I think one of the Romantic poets said that better several hundred years ago. But the sentiment is still the same.
Don’t worry. I’m smarter than you. I have had better people educating me since before I could read that you have ever met. So don’t gasp when I misquote Romantic Poets. Don’t let my music fool you. It is created to fool you. But I warn you, don’t let it. My music is carefully designed to sound dumb. But that is for your sake. It is dumb because you want dumb music. That’s what people don’t understand. Most people, anyway. They don’t grasp that they hold all the cards. People like me will make whatever you want. That is what pays the bills. That is what puts me in the kind of house I live in; that’s what pays for the fuel in my jet; that’s what gives me the opportunity to create the music I create. But you have the power to change all that. And you are the ones that dictate how dumb or bubblegum or pop the stuff I create is.
This whole business of aesthetic has distracted me. The reality is the phone still rings in my ear. I’m still buried in the sheets. The pillows are piled on my head drowning out the sound. The man is still as dead as he was when he fell out the window of the building across the street from the Museo Revalto while I played the number one song on lasts Sunday’s Top Forty. A song that has already gone double platinum and it was only cut one month ago.