Public Access


I've had one experience with the television business.  And in what I consider to be a metaphor for my entire life, it was only public access.
      A couple years back, I was living on a couch in Richie and Carol's apartment.  I spent about 15 hours a day on the moth-eaten thing, scarfing Korean take-out, watching "Twilight Zone" reruns, getting stoned, whatever.  The couch was up against the window, and the room was so small it wouldn't fit any other way, so I was freezing all winter.  Blaring horns, police sirens and people on the sidewalk relieving themselves of various bodily fluids kept me awake year round.  One time, on the way to the bathroom for a late-night piss of my own, I got tangled up in some exposed electrical wires and nearly hanged myself.
      But what the hell, Richie and Carol only charged me $75 a month, plus my share of the utilities and telephone bill, so I was willing to put up with a little inconvenience.
      By day, I worked as a security guard in the lobby of a college dorm, incessantly asking students if I could "See ID?"  By night, Rich and I were rock and roll superstars in training.
      We'd met a few years earlier as undergrads.  Since then, we'd played in plenty of bands, getting kicked out of every one.  At the time we did our public access gig, we mostly performed as an acoustic punk duo on the alternative club scene.  We'd come up with hundreds of tunes.  "Flaccid on Acid," "Wot's It to Ya?," "Fecal Torture—A Love Song."
      Richie had a regular gig as a reporter for a community newspaper.  It didn't pay very well, but it gave us something to talk about.  I'd been kicked out of the journalism program at school for making up all my stories.  Suspicions were raised when I quoted Ted Kennedy calling the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, "a scum-sucking maggot."
      Richie's girlfriend Carol majored in English Literature.  She'd written a thesis proving George Eliot was really a man.
      Carol worked as a part-time cook/helper for a 90-year-old guy named Kreplitz who lived down the street.  The geezer wasn't having much luck in life.  He'd owned a successful meat packing company, but was forced to retire when an especially fatty rib-eye fell off a truck and broke his toes.  He was living in the same kind of crappy one-bedroom apartment as me, Richie and Carol.
      Carol wanted to be an actress or model or an anchorwoman.  She was all hot to get some recognition.  Who can blame her?  Me and Rich were the same way with music, I guess.
      One time, Richie got the "Neighborhood News" photographer to come over and take some head shots for Carol.  The pictures came out looking like hell.  I guess the guy wasn't used to doing portraits.  At the paper, he worked mostly on police stories and arson calls.  Maybe if we'd set Carol on fire, he'd have done a better job.  The snapshots were overexposed, streaked with greasy globules of light.  Carol looked like Casper the ghost with curls.  She sent them to local TV stations, modeling agencies and casting companies.  No one ever called her back.
      Carol resented my living on the couch, and she was jealous of the time Rich and I spent working on our songs.  But I tried to be a good roommate and gave her some advice.  I'd read somewhere that public access news programs would put anyone on the air, and I told her that was a way to get some experience.
      "That's not fair!"  Carol stamped her foot like a spoiled brat.  "I don't give a damn about the news!  I just want to be on TV!"
      Carol volunteered for the Urban Access Network.  She did one story, an interview with "Officer Pete, a Kid's Best Friend," a cop who went around to inner-city schools and gave talks about safety.  Carol's piece was pulled when Officer Pete was busted for possession.
      The next day, she told me and Rich that we were the cast of "The Happy Hour," a "cutting-edge comedy program."
      "We can send tapes to Lorne Michaels and get on 'Saturday Night Live!'"  That was Carol's logic.
      We never rehearsed, never had writing sessions or anything like that.  Carol jotted down stuff she thought was funny.  Richie and I would be her musical guests.
      The day of the taping, Carol locked herself in a bathroom at the Urban Access studio, ostensibly to "prepare" for the show.  She ran the hairdryer nonstop for one solid hour and blew some fuses in the control booth.
      While we were waiting, Rich and I chatted with Todd, the director, a college kid with facial acne the size of gobstoppers.  I knew him from my job at the dorm—I'd seen his ID many times.  The cameraman, Heinz, was a doughy German who took film courses at the Harvard Extension.
      "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille," Carol kept saying to no one in particular.  Her hair was so overblown, she looked like Casper the ghost with a pompadour.
      "Welcome to . . . dum-da-da-dum-dum-dum . . . The Happy Hour!"  She held a microphone and told dumb jokes for nearly 15 minutes.
      "I shot an elephant in pajamas this morning.  How he got into my pajamas I'll never know!  I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy!  What's the best way to catch a squirrel?  Climb up a tree and act like a nut!"
      Carol performed the "Who's On First?" routine, playing both Abbott and Costello.  She segued into a rousing chorus of "Here cum da judge!" and closed with a selection of Chevy Chase pratfalls and John Cleese silly walks.
      Rich and I clapped enthusiastically.  It wasn't that much worse than the stuff they put on Comedy Central.
      "Carol, are you ready to try for a take down there?"  Todd, over the speaker from the control booth, chimed in about three minutes after she finished her routine.
      "I just did it!" Carol shrieked.
      "We weren't rolling," Todd said.
      "That was the best I can do!  I'll never do that well again!  I'll never get to be on 'Saturday Night Live!'"  Carol kicked Heinz's camera mounting and ran back to the ladies' room.
      Heinz scratched his head, clearly unaccustomed to dealing with temperamental American performers.
      Todd came back on the speaker.  "You guys have something else ready?"
      Richie and I felt kind of bad.  The whole thing had been Carol's idea.  But what the hell, the show must go on.
      Decked out in torn jeans, tie-dyed T-shirts, purple sunglasses and metal-studded ski caps, we got ready for our set.
      Heinz helped mike our guitars.  Todd gave us some visual effects.  We ended up covered with bubbly blobs of illumination, sort of like Jefferson Airplane in their heyday, jamming in front of a trippy light-show at the Fillmore East.
      I smeared on black lipstick and put in an earring.  Now I was ready to rock!
      Todd said he'd give our voices some compression.  Richie was suspicious, but I was caught up in the moment.  "Just go with it, man!"
      And with that, Heinz counted us down:  "Eins . . . Zwei . . . Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!"
      We launched into our signature number, "Legal High."  Mostly C chords, with a couple of Ds and Fs thrown in.  Those were the only chords we knew how to play.  I sang lead, Rich jumped in on the chorus.  The lyrics, which we'd composed on the backs of some empty antihistamine boxes after an over-the-counter drug binge, went like this:
Hey there Sugar Bear,
Don't you act so square.
There's just one way to play,
Go legal all the way!

High, high—legal high!

Helps you breathe
When you kiss the sky.
High, high—legal high . . .
Do it when you wanna fly!

Hey there little fool,
Don't be so uncool.
Run out to the store,
They've got boxes by the score!

High, high—legal high!
Helps you breathe
When you kiss the sky.

High, high—legal high!
You don't need a reason why!
We quieted our strumming and I delivered a stirring spoken-word bridge:
Coke's a felony!
Forget the penitentiary!
My druggist's my pusher-man!
It's a-okay with Uncle Sam!
The big finish, screamed at the tops of our lungs:
Uncle Sam!  Legal high!
Uncle Sam!  Legal high!
Uncle Sam!  Legal high!

One nation under God . . .
Twenty-four capsules for $6.95!
      We were sweating like pigs at the end.  I high-fived Rich and gave him a many slap on the ass.  We felt just like rock stars.  Like Lennon and McCartney, or Bono and the Edge.  Except we weren't English or Irish, but of Italian and Slavic descent.  We did have one thing in common with famous rockers—before going on, we'd swallowed enough acid to choke a horse.
      "Gud!  Gud!  Gud!"  Heinz was tapping his toes and swaying like a palm, our music no doubt still playing in his head.  His appreciation meant more to us at that moment than a five-star review in "Rolling Stone."
      We were tuning up for our acid-reggae version of "Gimme Shelter" when Todd emerged from the booth, smoking a joint and looking haggard.  He mumbled something about how we'd convinced him to take his dad's advice and gone to medical school.  Heinz shrugged.  The energy level in the studio had fallen to zero.  Richie and I packed our guitars and headed for home.
      We forgot all about Carol, who'd been crying in the bathroom all that time.  She caught a cab and came in around midnight.  Rich and I were strumming and watching a rerun of "The Twilight Zone."  The one with Gary Crosby as a folk-singer whose songs foretell his demise.  It fit the mood perfectly.
      "You guys suck!"  Carol slammed the bedroom door, knocking over our halogen lamp and setting the rug on fire.  Richie singed his toes stomping out the flames.
      We never finished "The Happy Hour."
      Rich and I parted ways after an especially rowdy rendition of our political opus, "Vigilante Bitch," got us kicked off stage at the Near East Cafe.  I considered it a badge of honor.  All those Holier-than-Thou Harvard Square-types hucking ashtrays and bottles of Zima at the stage.  An honest-to-God riot.  Oh yeah!  Rock 'n roll!  Rich got kind of freaked out after that and he broke up the act for good.
      These days, I've got a job in a Spanish grocery store around the corner from the basement where I live.  I haven't seen Richie or Carol in a while.  Sometimes, when I catch "Saturday Night Live," or a local newscast, I look for Carol, hoping she got her big break.
      Stranger things have happened.  Heinz got his own show on the Urban Access Network.  He looks straight into the camera and mumbles in German for a half-hour every Wednesday night.  Most people can't understand a word he says.  Heinz is a cult sensation, that's what all the papers say.
      I wrote and told him the show was "Gud!  Gud!  Gud!"
      The station sent me back a five-by-seven glossy.  
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