Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Girl Named Bud

I saw a familiar name on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday. A name that consumed a big part of my life for six years. I knew at the time this affair would end with me crying in my beer, thinking of all I had put into the relationship. But I knew at the time my love would be unrequited.

That name was Budweiser. The headline said, "Rebuilding Bud bandwagon." Actually the headline had put a positive spin on a rather devastating situation. A telling figure: 4 out of 10 people in their mid-20's have never even tried a Bud. Sorry to say, Budweiser is no longer the King of Beers. Barely a Prince. It fell from its throne some time ago. Actually overthrown by a mob of young drinkers who felt no connection with the brand. Done in by misdirection and myopia. Bud's share of market has declined from 26% in 1988 to just over 9% last year. That's a worse record than Bernie Madoff.

Okay, enough marketing data. I don't like it any more than you do.

Why do I care? I don't drink Bud anymore, don't own AB/InBev stock, my son isn't a beer distributor. I care because I was Creative Director on Bud for 6 years, back when D'Arcy Advertising was a big name in the business, not only in St. Louis but nationally. Today D'Arcy doesn't exist, except in distant echoes and dusty images conjured by aging Mad Men and Women who remember "back when we had fun." And we did.

As I read the article, I felt as though I had just run into an old girl friend. Once she was the stunning, vibrant object of my desire. Now before me stood a stooped, frail woman, chain smoking Camels, her face deeply lined, her arms and neck covered with a swirl of tattoos in an effort to appear young and hip. One of the tattoos said, "Whassup?" Whatever that meant.

"What happened to you?" I said.

"They did it to me,": she replied in a voice that still carried faint promise. "They sacrificed my honor, my soul, to the gods of easy fame and hearty guffaws."

"You poor thing," I said, still unwilling to touch her.

I worked on the Bud brand from 1982 through 1988. Good years. Advertising well thought out and beautifully crafted. Commercials that still move me. Then came The Frogs. I still tremble at the thought of them. Talking Frogs. Lizards named Louie. Even ants carrying a bottle of Bud. Ants!!! Yes, people talked how funny and clever they were. But, like termites, they bored from within.

And that was just the beginning. Throw the desecration of the Clydesdales in there while you're at it. Once they were a symbol of Bud's heritage. Unhitched, they became a circus act frolicking in the snow.

So now AB/InBev thinks it can resurrect Bud in the U.S., bring it back to its former glory, make it "relevant" again. Sure, and Burger Chef will sell hamburgers again and TWA will fly again and my next car will be a Pontiac.

You can check out this site to see what it used to be about.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Man & Me

The woman behind the counter at Barnes & Noble took the Sports Illustrated from me and noticed the man on the cover. "What a wonderful person he must be," she said. "I'd love to meet him." I segued into my bragging mode and told her I had spent an evening with him, many years ago.

"You should write about it," she said.

The year was 1960. I was living in San Francisco, drawn there by Jack Kerouac's On The Road and having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was just out of the Army and had decided to balance those two years with the life of a beatnik. Poetry and jazz and black clothes and an air of despair and ultimate cool. So I headed west that year.

A month later my father called from St. Louis to tell me that the Cardinals were going to be in SF to open the Giants' new Candlestick Park. Two of his friends from St. Louis would be there: Henry Ruggeri, who ran one of The Hill's most popular restaurants and a favorite with ballplayers; and Doc Morrow, an optometrist. Would I like to join them? Absolutely. Given I was barely scraping by on minimum wage, here was a chance to see a game, be with people I knew, and maybe catch a good meal with it.

That Saturday night I found myself seated between Henry and Doc at Candlestick, enjoying hot dogs, peanuts and a couple of beers. I don't remember who won the game, but I can still see Musial easily roaming left field and getting two hits. I had seen him play in the '46 World Series against the Red Sox, and here he was, fourteen years later, still a beautiful sight at the plate. (Who knew that, fifty years later, I'd be buying an SI with his picture on it).

After the game, we headed for the players' entrance. We waited. "Who are we waiting for?" I said. "A couple of guys," said Henry. Doc just smiled. Fifteen minutes later, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola walked out, threw big smiles at Henry and Doc, shook hands and hugged. Then I was introduced. When I shook Stan's hand, he looked at me like I was really there, not a passing glance and "nice to meet you, kid." Joe said "Welcome to the party." His voice by now was familiar to Cardinal fans via radio.

We grabbed two cabs - Henry was a very large man - and headed for the North Beach area, home for restaurants, bars and clubs. One thought dominated my mind: What the hell was a skinny, semi-beatnik kid doing with Stan and Joe? We hit several lively places. But one singular event remains clear and focused.

We had entered a popular piano bar in Chinatown called The Rickshaw. It was tucked away in an alley. The piano player was a tall, dark-complexioned Jewish guy who wore a white turban. As we entered, several people turned to looked at us. Comments ran through the crowd. "It's Stan Musial." "Hi, Stan." "It's The Man." Some recognized Joe, but most eyes were on Stan. I just tried to act cool and revel in his aura. The piano player stopped the song he was playing and launched into Meet Me in St. Louie. Everybody sang. Musial smiled and waved, shook hands with several strangers.
I learned a lesson from Stan that night. No matter how big you are, never forget to be gracious to everyone.

Years later I was at an event in St. Louis and Stan was there. Retired now, he still looked as though he could play nine innings. I went over to him, introduced myself and said, 'You probably don't remember - ."

"Sure, I do," he said with a smile. "San Francisco. That bar in the alley with the piano player in the turban. You and Joe and Henry and Doc. That was a good night."

Yes, it was.

If you want to read Joe Posnanski's excellent story on Stan, click here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Close Brush with Musical Fame

I saw a familiar name in the NY Times today. Mitch Miller. If you're under 50, you probably have no idea who Mitch Miller was. To put it simply, he was an influential figure in pop music during the 1950's and '60's. Yes, ancient history, back there with LP's and AM radio stations. There's a reason I'm telling you about Mitch. You see, Mitch almost catapulted my songwriting partner and me to fame and riches. Unfortunately we weren't aware of how the music business worked, and ended up hiring a lawyer. I'll get to that.

Mitch was head of A&R at Columbia Records, and helped establish singers such as Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Patti Page. And Frankie Laine - he of "Rawhide" and "My Heart Knows What the Wild Goose Knows" fame. (Mitch also hit it big with his sing-along albums and TV show, where people actually sat at home and sang along with him and his chorus. Times were different then.) But the key here is Frankie Laine. My buddy and I had been writing songs and trying to peddle them, with little success. Actually no success. We'd even traveled to New York, called on music publishers in the Brill Building, and sang our songs to disinterested men in wrinkled suits and stained ties. But we were sure this extraordinary song was destined to become a hit. It was called "In the Beginning. Yep, the first 3 words in the Bible, book of Genesis. We knew it would be perfect for Frankie Laine, at Columbia Records in Mitch's jurisdiction. Here are the opening lyrics, just to stir your imagination: "In the beginning there was nothing at all, other than God and a fiery ball. Then one day a piece broke away, and the Lord called it Earth, so they say." Now can you see why we were so excited about this? And that's just the first chorus.

So we contacted a DJ in St. Louis named Ed Bonner. He played pop, he was the go-to guy before the term "go-to guy" was invented. (Ed urged his fans to frequent his sponsors and tell them "E.B. sent me." Funny how some things stay in your mind forever). So Ed sent our song - the lead sheet - to Mitch Miller. We waited. A week went by, two weeks, four. We figured Mitch was talking to Frankie, working out arrangements, and it'd be just a matter of time before our song was released. We kept waiting. Living in St. Louis, what the hell did we know about how the music business works? Just be nice and patient. Talent will win the day, right? Wrong.

Three months after the song had been mailed, Columbia released a record by Frankie Laine, called "In the Beginning." Only problem was, it wasn't our song. Not the melody, not the lyrics. Same catchy, Biblically-inspired title. Frankie's song wasn't bad, it just wasn't our song. Not even close. To add insult to injury, it was released as the "B" side. I forget what was on the "A" side; it's a mental block, I think. We were hurt, we were sad. And then we became angry. So we found a patent attorney and filed a lawsuit against Mitch and Columbia. Not a smart way to move ahead in the pop music business. To end this charade, I'll just tell you nothing happened. The lawsuit was dismissed. Our lawyer received, as I recall, a letter saying "forget it." The closing scene on this travesty took place in the Saturday Evening Post (that was a popular magazine in those dark days). An article on the "genius" of Mitch Miller made mention of the fact that Mitch no longer accepts unsolicited songs "ever since two St. Louis songwriters tried to sue him for a song they wrote called 'In the Beginning.'" The article then quoted Mitch, as he proclaimed in court, "How can they claim ownership of that title. It's the first three words of the Bible." I hadn't realized till then that Mitch was a biblical scholar.

I still have the lawyer's letter, the Saturday Evening Post article, and several lead-sheets of the music. So if you know of anyone looking for a really terrific song to record, let me know. Just promise me you'll release it as the "A" side.