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From Linda Ronstadt and Robert Redford to James Galway and Robin Williams: The Box of Interview Tapes

 

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When Gary Shandling died recently, I found myself thinking about his wonderful The Larry Sanders Show. But then,suddenly, Hey, didn’t I interview him? popped into my brainpan. I was a busy boy back then doing the journalism thing, and writing about the famous, semi-famous and not-quite-yet famous at such a rapid clip that I moved on quickly to the next. Had I really interviewed Shandling, or was that some celebrity fever dream?

That’s when I remembered the big plastic box of cassette and micro-cassette interview tapes that I hadn’t been able to part with. I found the box and pulled off the lid. Stacks of tapes stared back, more than 100 of them. Would Shandling be in there? I’d have to burrow in to find out.

Right on top were cassettes labeled “Ronstadt,” and that set my mind wandering back to a 1980s sit-down with the well-famous singer. It had occurred in the office of her manager, Peter Asher, which was on Doheny Drive in West Hollywood right around the corner from The Troubadour, the seminal music club where Linda had started her climb to renown. I had seen her perform there, barefoot on stage, several times. In the interview, I remember her telling me that she had moved to Marin County in Northern California and had a cow there named Luna. She was dating some governor. Some things you never forget.

Here are other memories from those old tapes:

  • There was Mil Batten, former New York Stock Exchange chairman. I sat in his huge Wall Street office in while the amiable West Virginian shared his views on many subjects. One was the impending breakup of AT&T, intended to erase its monopoly status and increase competition. Worst idea ever, Batten said. Why? Because the “Baby Bells” produced by the breakup would inevitably coalesce over time to form other near-monopolies, he said. That, of course, is exactly what happened. And one of them is now named AT&T.
  • I picked up a cassette labeled Robert Redford and recalled that we had once compared backgrounds–he wanted to hear about me first before talking about himself–and found that we had both lived as kids in Los Angeles’s Beverly Glen Canyon. Then I smiled and remembered that the actor and director had later called me at home to fill in some gaps in our discussion. My wife Patti picked up the phone and  asked the name of the person calling for me, and when she heard “Bob” Redford was on the line, the look on her face was as if she had just heard the word of God. It was a priceless moment.
  • I met Quincy Jones for lunch at at a favorite restaurant of his, Wolfgang Puck’s Chinoise in Santa Monica. The music producer did talk about his projects, including one with Michael Jackson, but mostly he talked about food.
  • When Esa-Pekka Salonen came to California as new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I was the first writer to interview the Finnish conductor and composer. He had barely gotten off the plane from Finland when I picked him up after a rehearsal at UCLA, and while I drove him to the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles I thought it would be funny to welcome him to Los Angeles by playing the Monty Python song honoring his homeland. It begins: Finland, Finland, Finland; Pony Camping or Trekking; Or just watching TV; Finland, Finland, Finland; It’s the country where I want to be.  He had never heard it. I thought it would be hilarious. He didn’t agree.
  • My dubious inspiration for interviewing blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs was to go on a saloon crawl with him in San Francisco, where he lived. It devolved into a long night of hopping between drinking establishments, in one of which we met a genial biker who told us he had that day changed his name legally to Joe Dirte’, pronounced Dir-tay. A couple stops later, after an unfortunate encounter for Joe in the Balboa Cafe, he ended up stuffed rear-first into a trash can, both legs and arms poking out. That’s where we left Joe, grinning up at us.
  • David Geffen has a fearsome reputation for ruthless business practices, but the billionaire music and film business entrepreneur has never been anything but cordial to me. Once we met for a luncheon interview in his Beverly Hills mansion, which he told me was actually rented from actress Marlo Thomas. His staff served us pork ribs, I recall, and afterward he promised that he’d always take my call. I’m keeping that in my back pocket until I need investors for my next can’t-miss inspiration.
  • For decades, Steve Allen was admired as a nonstop creative force in television, publishing and songwriting. His output was so prodigious it was easy to imagine he had little need for sleep. But the most surprising thing he told me was that he was worthless unless he had 10 hours of sleep every night.
  • Once I went on a road trip with the Los Angeles Lakers, during which I learned how boring such multi-city jaunts really were–grinding travel and hotel time punctuated by a few hours of game, usually every other day. In Atlanta, some players used the down time to go to a shoe store patronized by many NBA players. I remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and teammate Gail Goodrich sitting on the edge of a baggage carousel playing chess. During a team shoot-around on a practice court in Cleveland, I found an unused basket and was throwing up a few awkward baskets when I felt a presence behind me. When I turned around it was Kareem, staring down and me and shaking his head sadly.
  • Robin Williams always seemed a hyperkinetic whirlwind of energy and quips, as he was on the set of Mork and Mindy while I watched the show’s taping prior to our interview afterward. But when I was shown into his trailer later, Robin was slumped in a chair, exhausted. He was perfectly pleasant, but it seemed draining for him to simply answer questions, much less crack jokes. His performances exacted a tremendous toll.
  • Before I knew better, I assumed that classical music artists were serious and solemn even when not playing for an audience. James Galway set me straight about that. I met the flutist from Northern Ireland on board the long-gone small French ship Renaissance during a remarkable two-week classical music cruise in the Caribbean. Galway was one of the solo artists, who also included Daniel Barenboim,  Maurice Andre’ and Gidon Kremer. The entire English Chamber Orchestra was also on board. From the first lunch at a big round table with several of the musicians, it was clear that classical artists knew how to kick back. One night gathered in a cabin and fueled by multiple bottles of good Champagne, Jimmy, Daniel and a few others grabbed their instruments and engaged in an impromptu jam session. I never looked at classical music the same way again.
  • Before I met Tom Waits in the seedy West Hollywood motel he called home, I thought the singer-songwriter-actor’s down-and-out persona was calculated. But I changed my mind when I entered his disheveled ground-floor apartment, carpeted from wall to wall in crushed beer cans. Pushed against one wall was the battered upright piano on which he composed such bleary paeans to drinking and disappointment as Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night. Even that distinctive gravel growl was authentic. When we went for a late-night drive in his pink Cadillac convertible many hours later, I understood how wrong I had been.
  • I didn’t know it at the time, but English artist David Hockney lived very close to us in the Hollywood Hills, our mutual canyon immortalized in his Nichols Canyon. It was close enough that I could walk to my interview with the acclaimed painter and collage artist. He couldn’t have been more pleasant. He let me into his house and introduced me to his beloved dachshund Stanley. He showed me his high-ceiling studio with its north-facing windows and unfinished works scattered around. We sat next to his backyard pool, its bottom painted in those trademark squiggles, and talked of California and England, of fame and privacy, of creative energy and ennui.

Yes, along with many others, Gary Shandling was there, too. I had interviewed him. But I can’t tell you a thing about it. Some things you never forget. Others you just can’t remember.

 

 

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Going to Barbados forget the camouflage

 

Boilerplate PA announcements made upon arrival in port are usually pretty tame.  The ship has been cleared blahblah…we sail at yaddayadda…the temperature is yeahyeah.  

This time, shortly after Silver Shadow had sidled up to the quay in Bridgetown, Barbados, our endlessly chipper cruise director Kirk ended his welcoming speech with an intriguing final sentence that managed to yank us from shipboard torpor.

“Please do not wear camouflage clothing ashore,” he said.

What!

If CDK had hoped to slip that advisory tidbit in without anyone noticing, he hadn’t counted on bulldog reporters—that would be us—among the passengers.

I turned to Patti, doing the mysterious Internet things she does on her laptop. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she said, a little peeved at the distraction.

“The announcement that we shouldn’t wear camouflage clothing ashore,” I said.

“You probably heard it wrong,” she said. “It probably said not to wear Crocs ashore, since that footwear offends nearly everyone.”

But I don’t usually mishear when my senses have been fine-tuned by a pair of potent double cappuccinos. “No,” I said, “it was definitely camouflage.”

Patti gave a small nod of acknowledgment, but my mind began racing as long-dormant journalistic instincts kicked in. Maybe the shipboard lack of hard news, caused no doubt by the curse of the international satellite television channels that blanket the oceans of the world with endless cricket scores had obscured some earthshaking event in Barbados. Had some terror plot sent Barbados into a spasm of fear? Was there a coup attempt that has turned the island into a dangerous armed camp? Or, more sinister, had the local rum supply, ravaged by the hordes disgorged by ever-larger cruise ships, sunk to historically low levels?

While none of that seemed plausible, Barbados being a largely placid, friendly place governed by British niceties, laws, and language, we nonetheless  swung into action—and action aboard Silver Shadow means  tracking down Cruise Director Kirk for comment on why camouflage clothing was such a big no-no here. Cruises being what they are, however, that task took several days, since he is usually up to his elbows in the ebb and flow of Team Trivia. Finally, we found him in his office off the reception area.

What he did was to chuckle, which seemed inappropriate given the potential gravity of the situation.

“There was a bank robbery here years ago when the robbers wore camouflage clothing, and ever since it’s been banned on the island,” he said.

Really?

“Really,” he said. “We’ve had some passengers turned back.”

Well, there it was. One bank robbery was all it took to keep Barbados free of clothing that might, at any moment, be enlisted in the commission of crime.

All we could think of was: Where does that leave the Barbadan hip-hop community? Perhaps left only with Rasta-style Jamaican gear? Oh, the horror!

 

 

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LOOK AT THE RIBS ON THAT HOLLYWOOD GRILL

PERFECT BBQ RIBS

 It’s fortunate that I have a penchant for perfection, because everyone around me expects it. That includes the victuals for which I am correctly famous. Just the other day, after a swooning response to my BBQ ribs—one I can only fantasize extends to other areas of my fraught existence—the Diva got a request for my recipe for same from her niece.

Well, sure, I warned Linda via e-mail. You can try to recreate Los Angeles backyard magic in the wilds of Manhattan. Just don’t expect perfection until your apprenticeship has extracted its toll. And don’t forget the silicon BBQ mitts.

This quest is no cakewalk. First, one must forswear three wrongheaded cornerstones of contemporary barbecue grilling: the propane grill; manufactured charcoal; and lighter fluid.

All three are about flavor, two are about health, and one is about direct heat.

The charcoal grill will allow you to impart real smoke flavor and cook slowly with indirect heat. (Fat will drip into a pan, not onto the fire, which can create carcinogens.) You must get one with a grilling area large enough so the fire can be on one side and the ribs on another. (That’s tough with a gas grill.) They’re inexpensive. Mine is a Char-Griller that cost $119 at Lowe’s and has lasted five years so far. It has a high domed lid that allows me to smoke a turkey, something I did yesterday to what I modestly admit were breathtaking raves.

Use real hardwood charcoal, not the best-selling briquettes with the name that begins with a “K”. Word on the street is that these contain coal dust, which is probably why the instructions include allowing the briquettes to completely ash before beginning cooking. I use briquettes from Trader Joes that have no potentially toxic binders or fillers, but I also use chunk mesquite too. And I don’t wait until that white ash forms because I don’t have to. I also use hickory chips that I soak in water for a half hour or so and add from time to time to maximize smoky flavor and to help reduce the temperature if it’s too high.

As for the best way to light the charcoal, use a $10 chimney lighter with crumpled newspaper below and charcoal in the top part. This is much cheaper and easier than the lighter solution, and there’s no kerosene odor to impart to the finished product. Since you’ll also need a water/drip pan to put beneath the ribs (see more below), one of my fast-lighting tricks is to soak newspaper in the left over fatty water from the drip pan. I let the newspaper dry out over a few days and then use it to start the charcoal in the chimney. That eliminates having to dispose of the left over gunk and it makes the ignition fire much more intense, just like the fat wood kindling starter used in fireplaces.

The drip pan is placed underneath where the ribs will be and is filled with an inch or so of water. This helps keep the ribs moist over a long cooking period. As noted above, it also provides the raw material for lighting future charcoal.

Now that you’ve got the hardware, here’s the recipe I gave Linda:

  1. Buy baby back ribs. They’re smaller, meatier and easier to work with than the big ones. Cut them into pieces of 3-4 ribs each.
  2. Pat the ribs with a spice rub. I mix brown sugar, tumeric, Chinese five-spice, garlic powder, chili powder and a good multi-spice dried herb (an Italian one works well). Find a mixture you like by experimenting, but my advice is to stay away from too much salt. I don’t use any salt, which is why I recommend garlic powder and not garlic salt. The ribs will taste so good you’ll never miss the salt.
  3. Do not use BBQ sauce…ever. It ruins the pure meaty taste of the ribs.
  4. After the flames in the chimney charcoal lighter begin coming out the top, they’re ready to dump into the right or left half of the grill. Don’t bother waiting for the fire to get any hotter. Put the grates over the fire and the prepared ribs, meaty side up, right over that fire. After a minute or two slide the grates with the ribs on them over the water pan. Put a little more charcoal (this is when I use the chunky mesquite) and those soaked hickory chips on the fire. Close the top but make sure the smoke can vent.
  5. Cook for about 2 hours with the lid on. At first the temperature will be 300+ but it will moderate in a half hour or so. If the temperature stays too high, throw some of those soaked chips on the fire. The last hour should be 225 or so, but even 200 is fine.
  6. Now the ribs will be smoky, tender, delicious.

See # 3 above.

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THE TORTURED TALE OF A “LEGIT” RENTAL CAR STEAL

There I was, anxiously walking the huge Long Island Rail Road parking lot in Ronkonkoma, New York searching for my rental car. I had parked the Avis Hyundai Sonata sedan there earlier that day before boarding a train for New York City. Several hours later I was back to reclaim it, only to fail to locate it.

I had searched for more than an hour, thinking that I might have forgotten where I parked it that morning. I knew better. I had found one of the few remaining spaces at the far western end of the lot near a tree line. I remembered that precisely. The day was beginning to fade, the lot was nearly empty, and the car was nowhere to be found. I was expected in Montauk, more than 50 miles away at the eastern tip of Long Island for a dinner I now knew I would not make. The car was stolen.

I flipped open my phone, its battery already drained from a day of use, and called Avis to report the absent car. I called 911 to report to the police, apologizing for not being a true emergency.

“That’s all right, honey, you didn’t know what else to do,” soothed a female voice. “I’ll call the Suffolk County police.”

The Run-Around Begins

 

What followed was a nearly half-year saga punctuated with dawdling inefficiency if not outright evasion and unexpected demands that inserted me between Avis and American Express. Meanwhile, an invoice from Avis for $22,649 hung over my head.

I had used my American Express credit car to rent the Hyundai after declining the additional damage and stolen-car coverage, depending instead on the “Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance” as promoted by American Express to its cardholders. I knew my personal automobile insurance did not cover the rental car if it was stolen or damaged, so the American Express coverage would be considered “primary”. 

 The car was in my possession for less than 24 hours, the mileage driven less than five. It had been locked and I had the keys. Nothing was visible inside for thieves to see, no GPS unit beckoned to them. What’s more, it was a Hyundai. Who steals a Hyundai? Who takes one for a joy ride? No one, confirmed the cops.

I made numerous follow up phone calls the following day to Avis, American Express, my insurance agent in California and the detective assigned to the case. It quickly became apparent that the system is calibrated to deal with wrecked or damaged cars, not stolen ones. Among the most important of those next-day calls was to the regional Avis security executive, a contact only painfully wheedled from other Avis representatives. Unlike every other person I spoke with at Avis, he actually knew how to deal with the situation.

Using the incident report number supplied by the Suffolk County Police Department officer who investigated on the scene (with me in the back seat as she checked every corner of the parking lot), he checked the database that lists stolen cars. He also said that he personally visited the scene of the crime and the surrounding area and found nothing. “It’s a legitimate steal,” he said. He also said he would close out the rental contact immediately. Which I later learned he promptly did.

(He also said I would be charged for one hour’s rental, which turned out to be a hollow victory since Avis policy is to rent for a minimum of one day, which is what I was finally billed for. The charge to my credit card also had an “under 75 mile flat fee” fuel charge of $13.99, even though the closed contract shows 1 mile driven and no gasoline used. With taxes, the final credit card charge was $108.45.)

Am I Covered Or Not?

 

Though it is found nowhere online or in the pages of fine print American Express provides its customers, phone calls soon revealed that I was covered for up to $50,000 when a rental car is stolen. At fleet prices, the Hyundai surely cost Avis less than half that amount. I was confident that I would have no liability and that the matter would be shortly and simply resolved.

Not exactly. After I returned to California, Avis and American Express—through its underwriter, AMEX Assurance Company, and its administrator, Cambridge Integrated Services Group—proceeded with a blizzard of form letters, online status reports and e-mail exchanges. Given that I had been deemed innocent of wrongdoing by the police agency involved and was covered by insurance according to American Express’ own guidelines, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the process was designed to exhaust patience and resolve.

I knew when Avis sent me an invoice nearly two months after the Hyundai was stolen that I was facing a war of attrition. And when the company followed with a two-sentence form letter eight days later, it seemed I had been found guilty after all. “Based upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the above referenced rental, Avis has decided not to rent vehicles to you in the future, for the following reason(s): Other: Theft.”

“They’re accusing you of theft,” bellowed an outraged criminal-defense attorney friend when I showed him the letter. “You are the victim.

 

The Anxiety Mounts

 

What also did not arrive in a timely manner was a theft affidavit form that the Avis security executive told me to expect in short order. One finally arrived in the mail more than three months later. And it came from American Express/Cambridge, not Avis. And it came long after American Express/Cambridge had informed me that “no further documentation” would be required of him.

What’s more, Cambridge had started a clock ticking. “If all documentation is not received within 60 days of the report date, we will close our file,” read the letter.

I was in the middle of a tug-of-war between the Avis claims office in New Jersey and the Cambridge team of adjustors in Ohio. First came Cambridge’s demand for a written police report, first from Avis and then from me. Meanwhile, I had been told by the SCPD records department representative reports were delayed eight months and more. I should not expect one before then.

The records supervisor advised me to apply online and print out the form requesting a report, which would not expedite matters but would at least prove that I had tried to obtain the report. Avis also tried to get a police report, to no avail. Without the report, the Cambridge supervisor told me 2-1/2 months into the process, nothing could happen.

Three months after the vehicle was reported stolen to all interested parties, Cambridge finally attempted to obtain a police report on its own. The adjustor told me that the SCPD told her “no record was found” of the stolen car. The adjustor asked if I had “more specific information” regarding how to identify the stolen car. I emailed back to point out that the supplied incident number was the specific record locator and had always worked for everybody else. Cambridge did not respond.

Though it was clearly not my responsibility, I finally called the SCPD detective squad involved and was fortunate to find the newly assigned detective on whose desk the file and report had quite literally landed. It was right in front of him, he said. I gave him the most sympathetic story I could muster, and he agreed to copy the report and mail it to me. It arrived a few days later, and I shared it with AE/Cambridge and Avis.

Welcome to Wonderland, Alice

It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Cambridge began asking Avis for documents to back up its invoice. Among other items requested were the purchase invoice for the car and a “fleet utilization log” to show there wasn’t an idle rental car to take up the slack of the stolen car. “American Express knows we don’t supply fleet utilization logs,” the Avis claims examiner told me with frustration in her voice.

Cambridge had a few other tricks up its sleeve. Next it required a follow up police report stating that the car had not been recovered. The Avis claim examiner was beside herself. She told me that her supervisor had called Cambridge to point out the impossibility of the request, but got nowhere. “He doesn’t know what to do,” she lamented.

If it felt as if stalling tactics—if not outright intimidation—were being used, a file that grew to about three inches thick did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. For example, Cambridge asked Avis for its “salvage receipt,” patently impossible with a stolen car.

Finally, five months after the Hyundai was stolen, a letter from American Express Car Rental Loss And Damage Insurance arrived advising me that $19,792.55 had been paid to Avis’ Houston-based attorney. (This implies a legal tussle hidden from me, though that is speculation.) Still pending were Avis’ invoice items for loss of use and an administrative charge, but the language used in the transmittal letter seemed to indicate the matter was resolved. I can only hope. 

As postscript, I have since discovered an alternative to reliance on American Express’ cardholder coverage that allows car renters to decline additional non-liability coverage at the rental-car counter while keeping their personal automobile non-liability insurance safely out of the mix. It’s called American Express Premium Car Rental Protection and offers primary coverage (which means one’s own automobile insurance isn’t involved) of up to $100,000 for a flat rate of $24.95 ($17.95 for California residents) for up to 42 days. That’s a total of $24.95, not per day. You sign up and it applies automatically for almost every kind of car every time you rent. However, the policy is underwritten by AMEX Assurance and administered by Cambridge. .

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Poke Dick Pietschmann to Write More Great Copy

This is Patti Pietschmann urging you to comment or email Dick Pietschmann to post more of his great writing on this site.That’s Richard and Patti at the Palm in West Hollywood.

He is one of the best writer/journalist/travel writer/automotive writers in the US and needs his fans to poke him, get him going, cheer him on.

To the right is Richard with friend Chris Barnett, also an ace journalist.

Below our neice Linda Covello who is one of the world’s top photographers (www.lindacovellophotography.com) with her Uncle Richard.

And our best pals Bob Clampett (creative/talented writer),  and Jules Valentine-Clampett  (lovely person, knows her flora and landscaping) of Seattle.

Okay now get out and get Dick Pietschmann to WRITE.

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