“We all have skeletons in our closet, but mine is belting Stephen Schwartz’ ‘West End Avenue’ in a cellar club on Bleecker Street.”
I suppose desire for fame and fortune, to “make it big,” is as powerful and pervasive an idea as any to ever have woven its way through our personal stories and popular culture. From Golden Boy to The Sweet Smell of Success to Catch Me if You Can, is there any narrative more ubiquitous and quintessentially American than the canard of building self-esteem through achievement? My own journey has led me from child actor to singer/songwriter, record producer, brand manager, store manager, artist manager, songwriter’s’ manager, marketing strategist, A&R man, and now writer and blogger. I’m reminded here of the great Lily Tomlin line, “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”
To wit: a recent afternoon of shopping along the newishly-tony Bleecker Street corridor brought back the memory of a long-ago evening that occupies a particularly exalted level of shame in an overcrowded section of my brain: the Self-indulgent Experiment Department. As I looked for t-shirts in the lower level of the Juicy Couture on the corner of Bleecker and Charles streets, I was suddenly possessed by the sound of my own voice singing Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed, and not in a good way. As my eyes darted about the space looking for a clue to the melodious musical fragment, the answer announced itself with a gusty symphonic blast: Juicy Couture is the former site of the Trocadero Club, the very spot where I simultaneously began and ended my career as cabaret singer on Halloween Night 1987 with a show called “A Night of Serious Music.” Indeed, the set list included Maybe I’m Amazed, which was, at the time, warmly cited by many in attendance that night as a highlight; at least my mother and cousin Roni.
You see in my mid-twenties I was studying voice and writing songs, eager to break through with one or the other. I was okay at both but not really excellent at either, and at that time, before the scourge of auto tune, being a great singer was actually a prerequisite to being a professional singer. What I lacked in raw ability I compensated for in drive and the willingness to take risks, a not-uncommon trait in the very young or the very delusional. In my case it was a bit of both, which explains how I ended up fronting a clumsy trio in a cellar club on Bleecker that autumn night.
The novitiate or out-of-towner who has never seen a vanity cabaret show might good-naturedly ask, “well, how bad could your club act really have been, David?” The experienced among us who has sat through that musical journey inside a narcissist’s hall of mirrors will tell you: very bad indeed! In my case, it was so bad that my piano player’s primary instrument was the saxophone; so bad I’d had my eyebrows dyed the day before the show so I would seem more expressive but I wound up looking like Groucho Marx as I tore through an insipid set list; so bad I wore a floor-length navy blue duster that made me look like Bad Animals-era Ann Wilson of Heart; so bad that the audience was only made up of friends and family and half of them couldn’t get across Sixth Avenue because of the Halloween parade and we were forced to start over 45 minutes late!
In fact my 1987 club act did have one attribute: the audience, though admittedly comprised entirely of friends and family, was a huge cognitive step above the audience of my one previous gig when, as a senior in high school, I took the elderly denizens of a south Jersey nursing home hostage for a two-hour exploration of every Adult Contemporary ballad of the period. Like Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, I “stayed all night and I sang them all,” and my audience that night—infirmed and in steep decline—was absolutely powerless to stop me. Fortunately, no video record survives of the nursing home gig, which cannot be said of the West Village Halloween show. That footage exists but I am, even today, after 25 years, far too uncomfortable to share it or even watch it for more than five minutes myself.
I opened the show with Billy Joel’s obscure Where’s The Orchestra, which is probably what the audience was wondering as they watched my saxophone player fumble around the piano keyboard with the skill of—well—a saxophonist. Who opens a show with a lugubrious Billy Joel ballad that immediately draws attention to one of the evening’s primary vulnerabilities, a certain lack of musical cohesion? An equal opportunity song-ruiner, I proceeded to tear through a set list as disparate (and desperate) as Bruce Springsteen’s Because The Night, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s Skylark, Stephen Schwartz’ West End Avenue, and Elton John’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, to name just a few of the casualties that lay bleeding and strewn about the floor of the Trocadero by the time I finished. Neither the songs nor anyone associated with their cruel treatment emerged unscathed.
To show that I was nothing if not egalitarian in my ruthless dismemberment of the popular (and not-so-popular) American songbook, I also included a few self-penned numbers, most notably, Painful Corners, a plodding ballad about how urban landmarks can become baleful buoys of psychic hurt. Painful Corners’ chorus included the lyric “can’t run from painful corners/the concrete tombstones of the night!” Wow! Or this, from the song’s soaring, Wagnerian bridge: “Beneath every painful corner lives the love I’ll find before I’m old/See the haunted skyline blur/Press hard enough/Within my eyes your image stirs!” Jim Steinman had nothing on me in the bombast department.
The whole musical massacre was itself a concrete tombstone of that night, forever memorializing, as it were, what can only be described as the world’s shortest career as a cabaret singer: a single hour, or to put it another way, about the length of time it took my cousin Louise to get through the parade across Sixth Avenue to get to the venue. In fact the very best thing about “A Night of Serious Music” was the intentionally ironic invitation, a photo of me reclining in the meat section of the Waldbaum’s in Whitestone Queens, which indicated my intention to announce my arrival to the world with a certain cheeky insouciance for which I am still known. A brassy big-voiced howler from way back, I was never one to fail sotto voce.
But I am no Debbie Downer. Having survived the AIDS-era Scarlett O’Hara style—belting out songs while Atlanta burned—I am grateful to still be here to tell my stories. From this vantage point, when I think back upon my Trocadero experiment, I recall the words of Miss Florence Foster Jenkins, the mid-century coloratura soprano, who was known for having far more musical desire (and money) than actual skill, who was said to proclaim after a largely self-financed Carnegie Hall debut, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing!” And don’t be alarmed if you hear the chorus of Maybe I’m Amazed the next time you’re shopping in the basement of Juicy Couture, it’s just the echo of my youthful aspirations banging around the painful corner of Bleecker and Charles, letting you know that “I was here!”
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