Monday, January 14, 2019

Eyewitness to Genius: I Was Tom Petty's Valet

The world was my oyster. Such was my gorgeousness that I couldn’t walk through a bistro, heading toward or back from the men’s room, without half a dozen beautiful women handing me their phone numbers, hurriedly scribbled on paper napkins with eyebrow pencils as they saw me. I lived in a penthouse apartment with a view of the Hollywood Hills and drove what was left of my 1962 Porsche Speedster. (It was fashionable at the time to treat one’s luxury items with disdain.) “I Hate Everything About You”, a song of mine covered by Joey Amygdala & The Torsos, had been No. 1 in seven countries, and my mailbox was stuffed with royalty cheques. My screenplay Swish  McAllister, Gay But Unimpeachably Masculine Action Hero (“swish” referred to his basketball skills), was in development, with a major director attached, and Sylvester Stallone tabbed for the title role, though slightly antsy, Stonewall having been only eight years before. Rolling Stone had just paid me more for my cover story about Foreigner, the most boring band in the history of popular music, than for any other profile they’d ever published, and were begging for more. Did I mention that I had the world on a string, or did I use a different metaphor?
No matter. I was someone to whom others yearned to be introduced, and one summer night when my orchestra was performing at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, some sniffly record-biz type in a shiny tour jacket of the sort radio program directors were being given closetfuls of at the time asked if he could introduce me backstage to a shy little fellow with lank blond hair, a hare’s visage, and the handshake of overcooked linguine. His name was Tom Petty, and I had no way of knowing at the time that he was my destiny.
Fate’s fickle. It wasn’t so long after that inauspicious first meeting, during which Tom didn’t make eye contact and murmured, “How you doing?” so faintly that I had to read his very thin lips, that I was at the bottom, and he at the top. I had thought the Joey Amygdala royalties would never cease to clog my mailbox, and had squandered every nickel on blondes, blow, and broads. I scrawled Will write hit songs for food a little sign on a disreputable piece of cardboard with a borrowed eyebrow pencil, and huddled wretchedly in front of a Bugatti showroom on the very street on which I’d once been unable to walk for fear of being waylaid by well-wishers and seduced by lingerie models.
Passing me one night with a Playmate of the Month on each little arm, surrounded by a rang of bodyguards, Tom noticed me on his way into the nightclub at which he was to “jam” with Bruce Springsteen. He dropped a $10 bill into my little Styrofoam cup and mumbled, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” He said he’d pay me $100 to hold his child-sized black motorcycle jacket while he and Bruce did their thing. I recognized it as act of great charity. One of the Playmates of the Month would surely have been happy to perform this service, or maybe even both.
At evening’s end, I rode back to Malibu in the bodyguards limousine — Tom and his Playmates and stylist and personal chef rode had their own. I was shown to the servants’ wing of his hilltop mansion, the grounds of which extended all the way down to the beach, and issued a uniform bearing Tom’s logo. The next morning, I began a week-long crash course in servility taught by Tom’s French majordomo, whose name I was unable to pronounce. How the mighty had fallen, I thought — at least until the majordomo pointed out that such thoughts were likely to negatively impact my performance. I no longer had the world on a string, nor was it my oyster, but my belly was full and my cot very much more comfortable than the scavenged sleeping bag and flattened appliance carton I’d been sleeping on in front of the Bugatti showroom.
My first assignment was as a doorman. When his fellow stars came up to visit Tom, it was my job to open the doors of their limos. I wore white gloves, as no celebrity wants to see an ordinary person’s unmanicured fingernails. No few of Tom’s guests were smokers, and would be finishing a cigarette or cigar as they arrived. A boorish few simply flicked their butts into the topiary, inspiring Tom’s squadron of groundskeepers to curse them in Spanish and more exotic tongues. I was to encourage them to put their cigarettes out in my palm. It hurt awfully, but usually for no more than a day or two.
I won’t deny that I was iffy about greeting people I’d interviewed. A few said, “Don’t I remember you from somewhere?” before putting their cigarettes out in my hand, and at one point I considered cosmetic surgery, but Tom wisely advised that I just let time work its magic. When enough of it had passed, no one would remember me. In this, as in almost everything, he was absolutely right.
Tom wasn’t only a brilliant songwriter and singer, but also one the great wits of our times. He once marveled at one of the dinner parties at which I was privileged to offer famous guests delicious canapes at no one having understood that his song ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was tongue in cheek. “I’m 4-11, weight 88 pounds, and have the handshake of overcooked linguine, and I’m not going to back down? Hello?” He was comparably amused by Rolling Stone having taken at face value his tongue-in-eheek Tale of the Switchblade Knife. It seemed that his record company had decided at one point capriciously to raise the price of Tom’s records and cassettes. Tom, incensed on his fans’ behalf, demanded a meeting, whereat he pointedly pulled a switchblade knife out of his boot to make the evil greedheads more considerate of his fans. Recounting Rolling Stone’s eager gullibility, Tom laughed so hard that champagne came out of his nose.

I’ve never met a more generous person. When an especially resourceful or devious Girl Scout made it past the security gate and offered him cookies, Tom, if he wasn’t on tour, would buy her entire supply. It became my job, after I was promoted from limousine door-opening, to award any fan who managed to elude security and knock on Tom’s door or windows, a whole box of his or her choice of Thin Mints, Caramel deLites®, Peanut Butter Patties®, Girl Scout S'mores®, or even Do-si-dos®. The Thin mints were by far the most popular.  

In the ninth year of my being a member of his staff, Swish McAllister finally began shooting, with Channing Tatum in the title role and Kevin Spacey as his accountant and co-foiler of evildoers, domestic and foreign. The movie, now streamable on Netflix, earned $781 million worldwide, and I became the in-demand screenwriter I remain. My most recent sale is of the script for the forthcoming biopic I Won’t Back Down, with Macauley Culkin playing Tom and Ryan Gosling the cocaine addict music-biz villain he intimidates with a switchblade knife.

Both USA readers and UK readers can now read my latest short fiction collection!