Getting Away With It

OPEN ON: the exit ramp behind the St. Louis Coliseum. ZOOM IN ON: the backseat of a white stretch limo. Door slams behind two guys who have just made it through the back halls, engulfed in thunderous cheers for “More, more!” and trailed by a fistful of rabid fans who have slipped by security, all the backstage hangers-on and assorted cops.

The Who has left the building.

One of the guys is Kenney Jones, replacement for drummer Keith Moon, dead of a drug-induced rock ‘n’ roll overdose. The other guy is me, Tim Arnold, Ad Man. We are headed for Dominick’s, an Italian restaurant on “the Hill” in south St. Louis that we’ve managed to have opened up on this Monday night for a private dinner for one of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands. We’re following Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, each in their own limo. This is about to be some semi-serious shit.

Back story: This Who tour is sponsored by Miller. I’m the account guy for Budweiser, but this is St. Louis and I know the promoter, so I work my way right onto the stage for the entire concert. If I wanted to, I could reach out and touch Townshend; we’re separated only by the piercing blaze of a spotlight, a lifetime of exotic drugs and some fundamental career choices.

CUT TO: Dominick’s. Ad Man says he’s buying all the beers—as long as they’re Anheuser-Busch products. The promoter cringes as I rise to make a toast: “Guys,” I say. “This Bud’s for Who!” What the hell. Daltrey smirks. Townshend laughs. And not long after, goes on the wagon.

FADE TO BLACK.

FADE UP ON: first-class cabin, Miami to LGA, 35,000 feet. With a big sale behind us down at Burger King, we’re cocktailing our way home and feeling full of our advertising selves. A flight attendant, already running short on patience, serves a plate of what my fraternity brothers used to call bait: chilled prawns, garnished with parsley and lemon. La di da. So I do the obvious: I challenge my flightmate to a prawn race.

We find some thread from God knows where, each tie on a prawn and trail our strings down the aisle from the cockpit door. Two things are noteworthy at this point: a) This is clearly in the days before anti-everything security; and b) Diane Sawyer, media mogul and gorgeous girlfriend (at the time) of Mike Nichols, is in an aisle seat two rows in front of me, along with all the other corporate, suited, aren’t-we-wonderful businessmen. And everybody’s loving it—except the flight attendants.

Sawyer gets into it: Menu rolled up for a microphone, she approaches us for pre-race interviews. “Training, prep?” “Is your prawn a past winner? Or just an appetizer?” Some guy says “Go!” and we coax our prawns along, aided by the strings. Everybody’s cheering, including Sawyer. I lose by a feeler.

Now she’s back for post-race interviews! “What were you thinking when you won?” “Will they retire, retrain, or just be eaten?” She’s seriously into it. A few cocktails later, we land and go on our way to more advertising or something.

Except six months later, here comes my fellow prawn-puller with a Vogue magazine. Check this out, he says. Diane Sawyer, feature interview by Liz Smith. And I’ll be damned: Halfway through the interview, here’s what she has to say: “The nicest thing that ever happened on one of these business trips for me was that we were sitting in the cabin and they served halibut with these little red crabs on top [actually, it was prawns, on the side]. And here were all these exhausted people [we were jacked] who didn’t know each other, business people, with ties loosened [off], and someone [me] got the idea that we would have a crab [prawn] race, and we would tie these little crabs [prawns] to strings, and just for a moment, at the end of the day, it was Animal House [well, not quite]. And the stewardess was very upset, protesting. I did the pre-match interview and the post-match interview with the winner [and loser]. So just for a moment, our business gains and losses of the day, and our failures and achievements—none of it mattered for a tiny little moment [actually, all of our achievements and failures still mattered]. I’m trying to turn that into a speech coming up.”

FLASHBACK: a rehearsal studio in San Francisco. We’re auditioning Journey for a Budweiser radio commercial. These guys have sold millions of records and filled huge stadiums to the rafters, but today they’re auditioning for a commercial, and Ad Guy is there to listen, and approve.

Gregg Rolie, Neal Schon, Ross Valory, Steve Smith and Steve Perry. Rolie and Schon started with Santana and performed at Woodstock. Perry is a recent Journey addition, a fabulous vocalist. Before I can say you’re-fantastic-you’re-hired-please-when-can-we-record?, Valory puts down his bass guitar and says he has to go. Thing is, the rest of them want to keep playing. So Perry goes to grab the bass when Ad Man lurches for it. And amid much disbelief and ass-grabbing, I say, “No sweat, let’s jam.” And we do.

For me, it’s like multiple orgasms (a lie in life, truth in rock ‘n’ roll). It’s a genuine, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here fantasy. In fact, it’s good enough for them to include me on their next album, Evolution. “Auxiliary bass man, Smokin’ Tim Arnold.” Dig it.

CUT TO: Backstage, dressing-room door. Sign says, “James Brown. Do not enter.”

I’m about to enter. I’m about to meet one of my all-time show-stopping whammer-jammers, the Godfather of Soul, the master of funk, the hardest-working man in show business. The meeting is set under the pretense of a possible commercial deal; I’m pretending for J. Walter Thompson. It’s way past midnight, and Brown is waiting to go on at the Garden, but first he’s agreed to meet with some ad guy. Me.

I knock. I hear a “Yeah,” and I open the door.

All I see are three middle-aged women in various stages of casualness—robes, curlers, slippers, smokes. The one on the left is matronly, white and sorting through what looks like The Man’s wardrobe. I remember all of it was shiny. The one on the right is … large, wrapped in a robe the color of 272 straight days on the road and slung across a bench, smoking a cigarette. None of them seem to give two shits about yours truly. The one in the middle is facing a mirror, back to me, black Pomaded hair pressed around what looks like eight or nine juice cans—ultra pre-show casual in a tattered, neon chartreuse housecoat.

The door shuts behind me, this person turns around—and it’s James Brown himself, Mr. Please Please, say it loud I’m black and I’m proud. I’m face to face with My Man—in full makeup. Lipstick. Eye shadow. Rouge. God knows what else. Curlers. He’s “done up,” and it is scary. But I’m cool. This is a moment. I take a step back to take it all in and discover his chartreuse robe is all he’s got on. The rest of him is dangling out there like some kind of wayward participle. This is way more than I bargained for. Papa’s got a brand new bag! We talk about God and women, Jesus and music and advertising. He ends up telling me he respects me and he’s looking for a million-dollar deal, not necessarily in that order. After 30 minutes, I’m back out in the hall. No deal for James—but I’m still on salary, getting paid for being in another ad-like moment. And getting away with it.

DISSOLVE TO: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. 32nd floor. Sylvester Stallone’s suite.

We’re there to talk about Burger King advertising. Seriously. I’m there with the ninth BK marketing director in six years. Sly is way cool, way on purpose, surrounded by assorted minions and smug about his latest movie. He does not need us. We need him.

Halfway through our 28 minutes with him, my client offers up this brilliant negotiating tactic: “You don’t really want to do this, do you?”

“Well,” he shrugs. “You know. Whatever.”

And it’s over. But first I emerge from my Ad Man phone booth as unabashed starfucker and ask Sly if he’d mind signing something “for my kids.” Sure, he says, what’s their names?

“Julie and Scott.”

So back he comes with an 8-by-10 glossy of himself in some jungle. It’s Rambo. But all I can see is his inscription: “To Skip and Julia. SLY.”

FLASH CUT: Ballroom, Sheraton Hotel, Manhattan. Lou Rawls has just opened on Broadway, and has invited hundreds of fans and assorted whatevers to an intimate gathering after the show. I’ve known Lou since I hired him to be the first-ever black spokesman for a general-market national advertiser—Anheuser-Busch.

And here come two Amazons, stunning in their beauty, presence and stature. In other words, I’d drink their bathwater, no ice. The one on the left is easily 6 feet tall, glowing latte skin, a plunging top and legs longer than Lou’s concert. The other one is even taller, and has the look of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. And bookended by these two, arm-in-arm, is a pale, diminutive waif with a shock of straw-white semi-hair and Coke-bottle eyeglasses. Andy Warhol. And they’re headed right for me.

“Hi,” I say. “What am I doing here?”

“We’re jstld xxit fre cckoltl toed the trypy und the sprrttual bxxxszzz of it all,” he says, near as I can tell.

“Cool!” says Ad Man. “Me too.”

“So, this Budweiser thing,” says Andy. “You should advertise in this magazine we’re starting. It’d be perfect! We’re naming it Interview.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “So, what the hell and everything, I’d be, like, honored to have a special something to remember this encounter by.”

And stick out my VIP invite. Shameless.

And Andy Warhol draws me a friggin’ beer can and signs it, “To Tim, from Andy Warhol.”

Today it’s worth $3K, minimum.

CUT TO: Rush Street, Chicago. It’s 4 a.m., and it’s me and Harry Caray, looking for yet another bar. We’ve hired Harry to do some Chicago Budweiser commercials; eight hours earlier, we were celebrating the occasion with a big group dinner at the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel, where, upstairs, Harry has lived with his wife Dutchie since he moved there from St. Louis. Now it’s just Harry and me. And the residual throngs along Rush Street.

Back story: I grew up on St. Louis Cardinals baseball, when the KMOX radio team was none other than Hall of Fame broadcasters Harry Caray, Jack Buck and Joe Garagiola. This was heaven. The Cardinals were owned by Anheuser-Busch, and in 1969 Caray left their employ over a “dispute with management,” but not before he held a notorious press conference and saluted the city of St. Louis, home of Budweiser—with a Falstaff beer. Before he could get out of town, he was mysteriously run over by a hit-and-run driver crossing Kingshighway, which delayed his departure and conjured up all kinds of speculation and rumor.

I land at D’Arcy some years later, and before long I am running the Budweiser account. This is heaven. And we want to hire Harry, now the voice of the Chicago Cubs and the unofficial mayor of Rush Street, to do commercials. But first we have to get special dispensation from A-B, just in case his “dispute with management” was still in effect. It wasn’t.

And now I’m trying to keep up with this 65-year-old whirlwind, who responds to every “Hey, Harry!” along Rush Street with an offer to buy a round of Budweisers. And everybody says it. And I pay for every one of them. By 4 a.m., I’m thinking there’s no more fans, no more bars, no more beer. Wrong. Harry knows one more place. They have to unlock the door to let us in. After two more Buds, I uncle. Harry carries the night, and the morning, and I stumble off in the hope I can find my hotel. I must have. I lived to tell the story.

FADE TO BLACK.

FADE UP ON: the interior of L.A.’s Power House, which we’ve booked to record BB King for a Budweiser radio track. B, as his friends call him, is mid-gig on one of his legendary 300-days-on-the-road tours, and he’s just come up from San Diego. It’s 3 a.m., and we’ve laid down the rhythm tracks, horns, background vocals and B’s lead vocals. Only thing left is his lead-guitar licks.

Trouble is, B doesn’t play notes. He plays the blues, not jingles. But he’s such a gentleman and professional that he’s out there in the studio by himself, in the middle of the night, trying his best to pick out “This Bud’s for You.” He’s dying trying, and he’s sweating bullets, but he can’t find it. I look over at his music director, and his look back is all I need. So Ad Man, who’s idolized BB King for a white-guy-lifetime of blues guitar playing his own self, goes out into the studio, gets down on one knee next to the greatest bluesman in the history of the bidness and says, “Man, forget it. Just play your own thing.” He smiles, gratefully. And then he slays it.

Forever thereafter, I’m accused of telling BB King how to play guitar. And yep, getting paid to do it.

You cannot make this stuff up. And if you’re lucky, you don’t have to. This is one great business, ain’t it?

Tim Arnold is an agency veteran and a regular ‘Adweek’ columnist. He can be reached at possible20@aol.com.