Pulling up in front of a nondescript apartment building in a sketchy part of Hollywood, a guy in his early thirties did a double-take before checking to see that he’d reached the correct address. Puzzled, he climbed out of his dented Toyota and walked toward the front door, then climbed to the third floor.
Finding 3-D, he took a deep breath before knocking.
Footsteps were heard before the door was opened by a sleepy-eyed man in his late 70’s with a goatee and an ancient Brooklyn sweatshirt.
“I’m Barry Pearl,” announced the visitor. “Doing an article for a magazine called ‘Blues & Rhythm’?” When no response was forthcoming, he added, “You and I spoke Monday and set an appointment for today at 10?”
“Right,” said Flip Rosner with an absence of certainty. “C’mon in.”
Leading the way into a living room filled with an eclectic mixture of CDs and vinyl, plus takeout food containers, vintage photos, and a dazzling array of gold and platinum records, Rosner cleared some newspapers off an armchair. “You okay?”
“I-I didn’t expect –”
“To find me living in squalor?”
“To catch you off-guard. Sure this is a good time?”
“As opposed to when my music meant something?”
“The songs you wrote will always mean something.”
“Co-wrote,” Rosner corrected.
“I’m someone who focuses on lyrics.”
“And once-upon-a-time they mattered.”
“To me they always will.”
“To me, too,” acknowledged Rosner. “Get you some coffee, tea, water?”
“Nonsense. Wait till you taste the green tea somebody brought me from China.”
“Okay if I tape our conversation?” asked Pearl, pulling a small tape recorder out of his pocket.”
“As if anything I say matters,” answered Rosner dismissively.
“To me it does.”
“So you’re still trying to reconcile a string of hit records with a dump like this,” Rosner said five minutes later while handing his guest a cup of tea.
“Try four disastrous marriages with painful settlements. Want to know why?”
“I like wedding cake. Add time I spent feeding my nose. Plus some rotten investments and a cockamamie belief the hits would keep coming forever. So, want to talk music? Or simply cut to the chase?”
“How Flip Rosner and Claudia Rosen of Brooklyn became the team of Rosner & Rhodes before one rose to stardom while the other faded away.”
“I wouldn’t call the song you went on to write for Gladys Knight fading.”
“Which is no different than Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Pomus & Shuman, Barry & Greenwich, Sedaka & Greenfield, even Bacharach & David.”
“Somebody knows his shit.”
Barry Pearl’s response was a shrug.
Driving home after a nearly two-hour session which ended when Flip Rosner grew weary, Pearl ran through his mind the topics the two of them had covered. First was the innocence of the era in which Rosner… then Rosner & Rosen… and finally Rosner & Rhodes carved their niche. It was a world of singles – 45s – played on jukeboxes, at sock hops, and on AM radio, a time in which the aging pioneers of rock & roll – Ike, Chuck, Bo, Fats, Ray, and Jerry Lee – were largely succeeded by the Manhattan-based record biz, with “Maybellene,” “Hey, Bo Diddley,” “I’m Walking,” “What I Say,” and “Breathless” replaced on the charts by “Poison Ivy,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Uptown,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
The songs were birthed in a place called the Brill Building (and neighboring 1650 Broadway), where white songwriters – plus the talented Otis Blackwell, who penned “Breathless,” “Fever,” “Handy Man,” and “All Shook Up” – churned out future classics which, unlike their Rhythm & Blues predecessors, were designed for a burgeoning youth market.
Rosner also confirmed what Pearl had always assumed, that there was no sense whatsoever that the records would last, or that one day there would be something known as the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
The genesis of the hits, Pearl learned, varied significantly. Often, with the Drifters, the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, or someone else scheduled for a recording session, songs would be solicited from writers, or occasionally written on the spur of the moment. Then there was the time Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler spotted Goffin & King walking down the street and yelled, “Give me a song with ‘Natural Woman’,” yielding a smash for Aretha Franklin. Pearl’s favorite tale, however, was how “Save The Last Dance For Me,” was inspired by the emotions stirred within polio survivor Doc Pomus, who wasn’t able to foxtrot with the bride at his own wedding.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re weird?” Pearl’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Libby asked that evening as the two of them were chowing on a Hanoi-inspired dish called Cha Ca.
“I get the feeling you’re about to.”
“Preferring stuff by mainly dead guys? I mean your taste in music and in film –”
“Whoa! Aretha doesn’t outrank Beyonce? Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland aren’t 100 times better than Jay-Z or Diddy?”
“I didn’t say that –”
“‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘Ninotchka,’ and “Once Upon A Time In America’ don’t put away ‘The Avengers,’ the ‘Harry Potters’, and ‘Fast & Furious 47’?”
“That’s not how I meant it –”
“Pick one you’d rather attend: Coachella or Woodstock?”
“If I’m weird, I’m proud of it. I’m also happy to prefer food from China, Ethiopia, and Vietnam over kale and quinoa. And not to live in fear of glutens.”
“Finished?” teased Libby.
“Just getting started,” replied Pearl with a chuckle.
“Then you don’t want me to ask when you’re going to start focusing on your career instead of on all the writing you do for free?”
Barry Pearl took a bite of his fish and noodle dish, then frowned. “Exactly.”
“Gonna spend your whole life reading mediocre scripts that’ll make movies you don’t want to see?”
“As opposed to getting indigestion while eating my dinner?”
“I’m only thinking of you,” said Libby.
Libby sighed. “So,” she said, “what do you think of Rosner?”
“Sad, lonely, and talented as hell.”
Tossing and turning that night, Pearl found himself dwelling on the most painful of Libby’s questions. He had arrived from New Jersey with the dream of making a mark first as a screenwriter, then as a director. But the more he learned about the film business, plus the kind of movies that by then were getting made, the more disenchanted he became. It wasn’t “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” or “The Maltese Falcon” that were sought by the agent who signed him, or by the producers and studio execs to whom Herb Klein and his partner Gene Broder introduced him. Nor was it “Petulia,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” or “Annie Hall.” Instead it was what were termed franchises, tent poles, and branding. Cringing at the constant refrain of remakes, re-tools, sequels, and prequels, as well as new spins on superheroes, Pearl segued from writing scripts that earned him pats on the head – but zero offers – to doing what’s called coverage, first for a small agency, then for one of the larger ones.
Free to read scripts and write synopses at home in shorts and a t-shirt, with a work schedule largely of his choosing, Pearl channeled his creative energies into his other great love: music from eras he preferred. To his surprise, the articles he wrote were happily embraced by niche magazines both in the US and Britain, which then clamored for more. His first published piece posited that Rhythm & Blues began on LA’s Central Avenue after World War II. The next dealt with the fact that the term Soul Music was created by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler because the great Solomon Burke, who was a minister as well as a soulful vocalist, couldn’t have his records in a category – R&B – that was considered by black clergy to be the devil’s music. The third dealt with Ike Turner’s career after his breakup with Tina then a stint in prison.
The fun for Pearl was the rush from seeing his work both in print and online. The downside was that the fees – when there even were fees – did not cover his bills.
“I bet somebody wants to hear about Claudia,” Flip Rosner stated when he opened the door for Barry Pearl three days later.
“Only if you’re up for it.”
“C’mon, admit it.”
“That you’re a starfucker like everybody else.”
“Only for lyricists like Frank Loesser –”
“‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ and ‘Guys & Dolls’.”
“Willie Dixon –”
“‘My Babe,’ ‘Wang Dang Doodle’, and ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’.”
“Jerry Leiber –”
“‘Hound Dog,’ Yakety Yak’, ‘Kansas City’. And me?”
“But,” said Rosner, “it’s Claudia who became the star.”
“Funny how I don’t have any of her records.”
Rosner shrugged, then pointed to a chair before heading into the kitchen to make some tea.
“So whatd’ya want to know?” he asked when he returned with a cup for each of them.
“What do you want to tell me?”
“Not a single bad word about her.”
“I’m not looking for dirt.”
“If there’s dirt it’s about me.”
“So how did you two meet?”
“She was an aspiring songwriter who reached out at a time when I was disenchanted with my writing partner.”
“Since I’m about as good at the piano as I am a ballerina, instead of just talking, I put her at the keyboard. Pretty soon, instead of being mentored, she was coming up with the melodies.”
“And then what?”
“One song we wrote found a buyer. Then another. Then another. And when my first wife started getting jealous –”
“I suddenly had a new partnership in more ways than one.”
In what proved to be at times a conversation, and at others an interrogation, the two men chatted for a while longer. Then suddenly Rosner stood. “Want to indulge me?” he asked.
“There was a time when I cheated on my wives. Now it’s on my cardiologist. Up for some cholesterol?”
As the two of them were led to a booth at Langer’s Deli, Rosner turned to Pearl. “New York may be the pastrami capital of the world, but it’s nothing next to this place.”
Once their sandwiches arrived, Rosner watched with approval as Pearl took his first bite. “Hand-sliced,” the older man stated with pride. “On double-baked rye.”
“So when did you sense,” Pearl began after taking a sip of iced tea, “that Claudia wanted to be more than a songwriter?”
“I should have known when she announced she was changing her last name. She said Rosner & Rosen sounded like a Jewish funeral home. But that didn’t stop Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne. Or Leiber & Stoller. Or Sedaka & Greenfield. Or Yip Harburg. From Day One I should’ve realized she had her eyes on bigger things. But I was too worried about coming up with words that rhymed.”
“So what do you think about Claudia’s records?” asked Pearl as, with stomachs full, they walked toward his car.
“More importantly, what do you think?”
“They’re what I call sensitive.”
“Give me that in English.”
“You won’t get pissed?”
“Only if you bullshit me.”
“Compared to the originals done by black artists –”
“They’re pretty wimpy.”
“You’re tough,” said Rosner.
Rosner smiled, then shook his head before climbing into the passenger seat of Pearl’s Toyota.
As they pulled out of the Langer’s parking lot, Pearl spoke again. “Even though there’ve been some pretty good ones, for the most part I’m not big on cover versions.”
“I get it.”
“But if you want to know what really drives me up the wall –”
“It’s people who think rock & roll started with Elvis,” Pearl said. “Or the Beatles. Or Springstein.”
“Forgetting Chuck, Bo, Clyde McPhatter, and the Drifters?”
“Exactly. I call those people Rockists.”
“Which,” said Rosner, “must really piss ’em off.”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
The next day, as he again sat across from Rosner, Pearl asked, “So what do you think of singer-songwriters?”
“Overall, are they as good as Cole Porter? The Gershwins? Willie Dixon? Leiber & Stoller?”
“Or Rosner & Rhodes?”
“Not for me to answer. Look, early Dylan was talented.”
“Before he got boring?”
Rosner nodded. “Early Joni Mitchell, too. But what I can’t handle is autobiographical stuff that’s first and foremost whiny.”
“And Neil Young.”
“So, do you have favorites?” asked Pearl.
“Lou Reed for one. Van Morrison, especially that first album. Plus that guy who once had a voice but now sounds like a frog.”
The following morning the Q&A continued. “How did a song come to life?” asked Pearl after accepting a cup of tea.
“On assignment? Or one I generated?”
“With an assignment, the key was who was it for. For someone who could preach – say Solomon Burke, or Chuck Jackson – you wanted there to be a life lesson, or maybe a sermon. So you’d start with a phrase like Life can be tough, or My heart is aching. With me?”
“With a girl group,” Rosner continued, “it’d be something wistful, like I’m hopeful, or If only. Still on-board?”
Again Pearl nodded.
“But with something fresh, something on spec, in those days everybody had a go-to thing. With Bert Berns, often it was crying: ‘Cry To Me’ for Solomon, ‘Cry Baby’ for Garnet Mimms. There was one guy who, whenever he was stuck, or blocked, or frozen, would break up with the gal he was going with. Want to know why?”
“Invariably he would hear something – Where has our love gone? Or I thought we had it all or I’m broken-hearted now that we’ve parted – that he could turn into a song.
Pearl chuckled. “And with you?”
“With me,” said Rosner, “it usually begins with a phrase, or a word I heard somewhere. Or something that pops into my mind while driving, taking a shower, or watching TV.”
“Without you. Or maybe Beware. Or Sometimes I’m lonely.”
“You play with it. Sometimes I’m lonely, sometimes I’m blue, sometimes I find myself thinking about you. Follow? You start with a spark, then milk it.”
After two more sessions with Rosner, Pearl had pretty much all the information he thought ne needed. But even as he moved from organizing the material to thinking about a narrative, then starting his article, he found excuses to reach out periodically by phone, and even to lure the songwriter out for a Thai lunch one day, an Indian buffet another.
Then one Tuesday night Pearl woke up with a start as a question surged into his head. Unable to fall back to sleep, he fidgeted for an hour or so, then read an Ian Rankin detective novel until the first rays of sun appeared.
At 8 AM, having already done three sets of push-ups and crunches, Pearl at last called Rosner. “What’re you up to?” he asked.
“You tell me.”
“Okay if I come by for a cup of tea?”
“So what’s this curiosity at the crack of dawn?” Rosner asked as he opened the door for Pearl.
“There’s one question I never asked.”
“Want to ask it before or after I pour the tea?”
“How about I ask it now, then you answer while you’re pouring?”
“Are you still writing songs?”
“That’s a ridiculous question,” Rosner barked as he headed into the kitchen.
“And that’s not an answer,” replied Pearl as he followed.
“Why in hell would I still be writing?”
“Because it’s what you do.”
“Without a writing partner? Or a deal? Or anything going on?”
“Are you or aren’t you?”
Rosner frowned as he poured two cups of tea, then turned to face Pearl. “So what if I am?”
“Because you’re a great songwriter.”
“And I’m not so sure about great.”
“I think you are.”
“Forgive me for saying this,” sad Rosner sadly, “but in the scheme of things, who the fuck are you?”
Two days later, after spending an unpleasant morning writing coverage first of an Asian knock-off of “Get Out,” then a “Lord Of The Rings” ripoff set in outer space, Pearl switched gears.
Re-reading his almost-finished article about Rosner, titled “The Last Lyricist Standing,” he replaced a comma with a semi-colon, then made a couple of tiny tweaks. Gritting his teeth, he hit Save, created a pdf, and sent it off to Britain’s “Blues & Rhythm.”
As a reward to himself, he laced up a well-worn pair of Air Jordans, then hit a playground to shoot hoops.
That evening, at an Italian restaurant well beyond his price range, to which he had taken Libby for a birthday celebration, she smiled as the two of them toasted with glasses of Pinot Grigio. “So,” she then asked Pearl, “did he ever answer your question?”
“Better than that. He showed me a couple of new lyrics.”
“I don’t think they’ll ever make it on the Hip-Hop charts.”
“Or be recorded by Bruno Mars or Ariana Grande.”
“I’d love to get ’em to somebody who’d see how good they are.”
“John Legend? Steve Tyrell? Maybe Dolly?”
“Or Claudia Rhodes?” asked Libby.
“Now that would be interesting.”
As both of them took another sip of wine, a bearded guy pushing forty did a double-take while passing by their table. “The cult writer who never phones,” the newcomer exclaimed while approaching.
“So as not to have my calls returned?” countered Pearl, who then turned to Libby. “Libby Saks, say hello to Herb Klein.”
“As in his beloved agent,” explained Klein, who studied Pearl. “So when am I gonna see something new?”
“I haven’t been writing scripts.”
“But knowing you, you’ve been writing something.”
“He just finished an article,” Libby interjected.
“Nothing you’d be interested in,” stated Pearl.
“Which makes me want it even more. Email it to me.”
“It’s not even published yet,” said Pearl.
“It’s got a publisher? Now I really want it!” With that, Klein turned to Libby. “Pleasure meeting you.”
Libby watched Herb Klein amble off, then shook her head. “Am I wrong, or is he a cartoon figure?”
“No dispute from me.”
“Ready for this?” Herb Klein exclaimed the next afternoon when Pearl answered his iPhone.
“Depends what it is.”
“Three meetings, bro! Three face-to-faces with the hottest of producers.”
“Your new story, dude.”
“You read it?”
“C’mon, man! A story this good you don’t even have to read.”
“That’s a joke, Barry. Remember those?”
“But it’s not a story. It’s an article in a niche music magazine.”
“Niche, schmiche. I’m calling it ‘A Star Is Born’ meets ‘The Sunshine Boys.'”
“Do I sound like I’m kidding? We’ll email you the where-and-whens.”
“Why whoa?” asked Klein.
“What you’re billing as a story has no story. It’s about a songwriter who’s been put out to pasture.”
“Not with the ending I came up with.”
Pearl’s stomach sunk. “And what might that be?”
“When what’s-his-face is dying of cancer –”
“Flip Rosner –”
“Whatever. Anyway, his ex-, who’s now a superstar, adds music his words.”
“Lyrics, Herb. And that’s not what happened.”
“But it’ll play like a motherfucker on-screen! So how do we close? With the concert to end all concerts before what’s-his-face dies a happy man. Killer, huh?”
“Herb, one question –”
“What kinda question?”
“Did you actually read it?”
A moment passed before Herb Klein spoke again. “Isabelle did.”
“And Isabelle is?”
“My new assistant, who graduated from Brown last month.”
Begrudgingly, Pearl went to the first meeting scheduled, where a producer named Tina McGuire told him with a straight face that she could envision Beyonce and Bradley Cooper in the starring roles.
That was followed by a lunch in which a chubby guy named Mitchell Baum explained to him that his tale would be a perfect vehicle for Lady Gaga to star in and direct.
Then came meeting number three, in which Rich Graser, a prolific maker of films Pearl had never deigned to see, stated that he could imagine a marquee bearing the names Jennifer Lopez and Robert Downey Jr.
After the first meeting, Herb Klein called to express his delight. After the second, delight morphed into relentless gushing. After the third, the agent was positively orgasmic. “First I thought you were the flavor of the week,” he began. “But now you’re the absolute shit! If this were the mob, bro, you’d now be a Made Man!”
Despite the skepticism he had wore as protective armor, in off moments – while tossing and turning at 3 AM, trudging to the laundromat, or gulping at prices when he dared venture into Whole Foods – Barry Pearl found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, Herb Klein was right.
Would that, he wondered, allow him not merely to be somebody in Hollywood, but also to get out of his stuffy studio apartment on a block where gunshots were heard through the night? And buy a car not always in danger of breaking down? And maybe replace the cap on his incisor that was turning yellow?
Though it disturbed Pearl that his grandiose dreams of following in the footsteps of Billy Wilder, Robert Rossen, and Jean-Luc Godard had given way to musings about not being eternally consigned to a marginal existence, it was gratifying to have something ressembling hope.
As an aficionado of movie cliches, Barry Pearl had long considered certain ones to be favorites. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you topped his list, followed closely by It’s not what it looks like and I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
But he was even fonder of the trite sayings used in Hollywood shop talk. A Martian wouldn’t say that he considered a classic, and the same was true of You’ll never eat lunch in this town again.
To those, after an extended period of silence, he added one that was painfully autobiographical: There’s no such thing as a bad meeting, just zero follow-through.
That was what happened… or worse, failed to happen… with his tale about Flip Rosner. For what ensued was nothing but silence from all corners. Not a word from the producers, nor even a peep from Herb Klein.
Hope of salvation simply gave way to more coverage of monster movies, superheroes, and scripts about teenagers trying desperately to lose their virginity.
Only when copies of “Blues & Rhythm” arrived from England was there any further discussion of the article that had brought him fifteen minutes of Hollywood fame. That was when Barry Pearl drove Libby and Flip Rosner down to Langer’s Deli to celebrate the publication over pastrami sandwiches, egg creams, and sides of cole slaw.
ALAN SWYER is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
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