Black Eyed, Please
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Morris Usatinsky
The moral right of the author has been asserted
For Wendy, Aaron, Elizabeth, Bella & Cassia
This is a story about irony. Irony as thick as pea soup. Black-eyed pea soup.
When William James Adams, Jr. was born in East Los Angeles in March of 1975, I’d already been writing songs for about two years and had just formed my first band, Strange Magic, with a seventh grade classmate of mine. By the time Adams, known better today by his stage name, will.i.am, and his cohort Allan Pineda (aka apl.de.ap), hit the L.A. club scene as teenagers in 1988, I’d already enjoyed a five-year career fronting the popular L.A. band Café Society and had moved on to bigger and better things, namely having gone to Spain to pursue a short-lived stint as an aerobics instructor in the Andalusian city of Granada. (What I couldn’t accomplish with my guitar and voice in L.A.—getting girls—I was able to effortlessly with spandex shorts and black high-top Reeboks in Granada!).
While Café Society never made it big, I can say with a great deal of pride that I accomplished a lot in those five short years in L.A. I played on the same stage that The Police first played on at Madam Wong’s in Chinatown; wrote and produced a song for L.A. Musicians for African Relief at the height of the Band Aid/USA for Africa movements; played on bills that included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cock Robin, Los Lobos, Steve Vai and Agent Orange; and, more than anything, enjoyed writing songs and fronting a local band that had a pretty decent following where I was fortunate enough to play with some fantastic musicians performing for some of the best music-loving audiences in the world.
So nearly thirty years after having played Wong’s and The Troubador, I found myself, like most frustrated rock stars, married (for the second time), a stay at home father of four, and still—in one way or another—chasing the dream of fame and fortune. That was until my teenage son decided he wanted to become a rock star. And did.
Having started piano lessons at age three, Aaron, like all my children, was musically inclined from a very young age. While piano came easy to him, it was clear to see that he was learning to play because I was taking him to classes at a neighborhood music school twice a week and at three, though he didn’t seem to mind, didn’t have much say in the matter. By the time he was seven he had had enough of the piano and despite being the best pianist in his class he wasn’t accepted into the municipal music conservatory because of a technicality (you had to be able to sing at the audition, something that Aaron hated and refused to do come audition day). So after four years he said goodbye to the piano and hello the guitar.
By the time Aaron was ten, he had already surpassed me musically in just about every way: ability, agility, ambition and aptitude. The kid was a natural. And it wasn’t enough that he was able to learn Jimmy Page’s emblematic guitar solo on “Stairway to Heaven” in just one weekend, but he had soon learned every rock classic from Aerosmith to ZZ Top; and it was exactly one month to the day after his thirteenth birthday that he made his professional debut playing lead guitar on all but three songs on Danish singer Mads Langer’s self-titled album and hit single, “You’re Not Alone,” recorded at Medley Studios in Copenhagen in December of 2009. Søren Mikkelsen, who co-produced the single with Langer, insisted that Sony Music, who had put up the funding for the project, push the release date back to accommodate the young guitarist who had to wait until the start of his Christmas holidays to be able to fly to Denmark for the recording sessions.
Aaron’s playing came to the attention of Langer and Mikkelsen when the two had travelled to Aaron’s hometown of Valencia, Spain and saw him performing at an outdoor concert during Valencia’s famous Fallas festival in March. They had come to Spain to scout studio and touring musicians—and to escape Copenhagen’s harsh winter—and Aaron was just what they were looking for: young, attractive, dynamic and by far one of the finest guitarists they had ever heard. However, they were shocked when they overheard another audience member telling a friend that the guitarist on stage was just twelve years old. After the performance, not believing what they heard, they made their way to a small white camper van parked at the side of the massive soundstage and asked where the band that had just finished performing could be found. They were directed to some circus-like tents behind the stage and spotted Aaron packing away his black Les Paul. They approached him and introduced themselves; I caught a glimpse of them shaking hands as I walked into to the tent to help my son pack up his gear. Aaron introduced me to the two young men who told me who they were and asked me if they could invite us out for supper as they wanted to discuss the possibility of Aaron doing some session work for them back in Copenhagen that autumn.
We had dinner at Oscar Torrijos in the calle Finlandia, the two Danes dining on stuffed oxtails while Oscar prepared a scrumptious vegetarian paella for Aaron and me. After dinner, Oscar, who sensed the evening was about to become celebratory, produced a bottle of Lustau Añada 1990 Vintage Sherry which the men at the table of drinking age enjoyed immensely, almost as much as the chocolate soufflé with raspberry coulis and homemade vanilla ice cream that Oscar whipped up for Aaron, which he devoured with the utmost delight.
Soon after, talk of Valencian cuisine—and the curiosity of the hundreds of sky-high wood and papier-mâché monuments which were to be burned the next evening—turned to the business at hand: would Aaron be interested in coming to Copenhagen in late October to record with Langer and if so, what financial arrangements would be acceptable. Aaron listened carefully as Langer and Mikkelsen explained the details of the recording sessions and subsequent tour, which they weren’t sure Aaron would be able to accompany them on due to his age and the fact that he would be in school until mid June. But nevertheless they wanted to secure his services for the sessions, especially because they had just come from Madrid where they met with Robin Taylor-Firth, who with Tim Kellet, co-wrote the 1997 Olive hit “You’re Not Alone,” and secured permission to record a version for Langer’s upcoming single and music video.
The offer was very generous, as was their insisting that any family members who wanted to come along to Copenhagen would be well accommodated and their air fare and lodging paid for. The only obstacle was that Aaron would be in school in late October, which might not have been a problem except for the fact that he had exams. Mikkelsen immediately reached for his mobile phone and called his rep from Langer’s local label, Copenhagen Records, who was in charge of coordinating everything with Sony in New York. The rep said there would be no problem moving things back to December after Aaron’s exams and when his Christmas holidays began. Aaron was ecstatic, his first professional job as a musician. And eight months shy of officially becoming a teenager.
The recording sessions in Copenhagen were a huge success, as were the string of club dates that Aaron accompanied Langer on throughout the remainder of December, culminating with a big New Year’s Eve show at the Magasinet in Odense and two shows at the Vega in Copenhagen on January first and second. As any father would be, I was proud beyond words of my young son’s accomplishments and in awe of not only his talent, but his levels of maturity and professionalism. While sharing this amazing experience with Aaron was incomparable, watching my son in a recording studio, being asked his opinion by musicians—seasoned pros—and then seeing him on stage so completely at ease and focused, was almost as remarkable as what happened on our last night in Copenhagen.
As Aaron agreed to be back in Valencia by January sixth in order to celebrate the festive Epiphany, or King’s Day as it’s known in Spain, with his mother and sister, Langer, Mikkelsen and some of the other musicians and road crew treated us to a farewell dinner at one of Copenhagen’s finest eating establishments, Noma, in the old Christianshavn district. Just before dessert, Langer excused himself from the table returning a few minutes later carrying a vintage Fender guitar case. He quieted the table by tapping a knife on his water glass and after speaking for a few minutes about the success of the past six weeks, he not only singled Aaron out with rousing praise and gratitude, he presented him with a three-color sunburst, 1963 Time Machine Series Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. Aaron stood up slowly and as Langer removed the guitar from its case and handed it to Aaron, my soft-spoken son, who more often than not lets his guitar do his talking for him, took the guitar with his left hand while briskly shaking Langer’s with the right, looked down at me and said so that everyone present heard, “You were born is 1963, and for all you’ve done for me throughout my entire life, I’d like you to have this guitar.” And as tears began to flow from my eyes, the others present at the table—as well as nearly every diner in the restaurant—began to applaud. I can’t imagine any father being as proud of their son as I was at that moment.
After returning to Valencia from Denmark, life went back to normal. Aaron returned to school and continued playing with his band on the weekends, and I to my routine of spending three weeks per month living with my second wife and our two daughters in Amsterdam, where I ran a successful chain of vegetarian fast food restaurants and wrote a popular internet music blog under the pseudonym of Curt Gordon (a cryptic homage to my two favorite musicians, Curt Smith from Tears For Fears and Sting—born Gordon Sumner). During the next two years, Aaron’s guitar playing would prove to be in great demand and he was beginning to make a name for himself as a reliable and extremely proficient studio and touring musician. While still in high school he would travel to Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and London performing and recording with some of the most popular artists of the day, including Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Zak Starkey, Morrissey, Harriet Wheeler of the 80s alternative rock band The Sundays and Eliot Sumner of the British indie rock band I Blame Coco, who it seemed had become quite fond of Aaron during the recording of her second studio album which included three songs he co-wrote with the band’s leader, Coco, who just happened to be the daughter of pop icon Sting.
By the time Aaron finished high school, he was a seasoned pro and highly sought after for his skillful guitar playing dominated by rich, melodic riffs and brilliantly crafted solos. He was also coming into his own as a composer and the majority of his own band’s repertoire consisted of songs he penned. At sixteen, his band Constant Summer (a play on Coco’s debut album “The Constant,” and her surname Sumner), signed a multi-album deal with Island Records (which by no strange coincidence was Coco’s label and with whom Aaron was now officially dating). He released not only a platinum selling debut album, “La-Joy-La,” but also a follow up, “Prayers and Anger,” which has sold more than three million copies to date.
Things were going well for Aaron, and for me. I had just opened my 20th restaurant in the Liverpool One commercial district in Liverpool, England, and my son was ever busy with a torrent of musical endeavors. On the eve of the Liverpool restaurant opening, Aaron surprised me by flying over to spend a few days with me and his sisters. He brought Coco, whose mother, and Sting’s wife, Trudy Styler was giving a lecture on women in film that week at Liverpool Hope University, and we all stayed in two suites at the Hard Day’s Night Beatle-themed hotel just a few yards away from Mathew Street and the world famous Cavern Club. That evening at dinner, Aaron mentioned that he had received an email earlier in the day from Interscope Records executive Mark Williams who, in hearing that he was in the northwest of England, thought he might be interested in catching the Black Eyed Peas who were playing on Saturday night at the Manchester Evening News Arena just forty minutes away. Aaron suggested we take the girls, who were big fans, despite his knowing that the Black Eyed Peas weren’t exactly my favorite group in the world. In fact, I had already been involved in a war of words with wil.i.am over a number of severely critical articles I had written (under my pen name) earlier in the year which he—and his lawyers called, and I quote, “inflammatory verging on libelous.”
I can’t say just why it is, but I had never held another musician (though in the case of the Peas I use the term lightly) in such low esteem as I have for these, what I often refer to in my now widely syndicated music review column, “peas in a pod.” I had found their music baseless, empty and completely irrelevant since day one and had made a name of sorts for my alter ego as a crusader for all things anti Black Eyed Peas. Luckily my anonymity has remained intact, though I have seen one site on the internet claiming that the real identity of Curt Gordon was Perez Hilton, another claiming it to be TV mogul Simon Cowell, who apparently has had a string of very public run ins with Fergy, and finally one website went as far to suggest it was the band itself using the hullaballoo for some free publicity. In the end, my alter ego had become the world’s most famous Black Eyed Peas basher. Needless to say, the revenue from syndication in over 1,000 print and online periodicals almost makes me happy enough to sing “I Gotta Feeling!”
Fast forward to the day when I received an early morning phone call from Aaron who had returned the night before from a week-long holiday at Coco’s parent’s house in Tuscany in Italy. For the usually mellow Aaron, he seemed excited and wanted to know if he could fly over to Amsterdam for the weekend to discuss, what he called, something really crazy. He arrived at the house just before noon on Saturday morning and immediately sprung his news on me. He said he got the idea while he was at Coco’s house in Italy the week before when one evening before supper Coco’s father, Sting, played us some old demos he had made while he was still with The Police back in the early 80s. He said he’d been offered millions to release or re-record or re-master the songs but he’s kept them under lock and key and has, to this day, refused to consider the matter any further. He tells his children that when he dies they can do what they want with the recordings, but as long as he’s still alive no one but family and close friends will ever be party to them.
Then Aaron dropped the bomb. He said he wanted to take some time off playing with his band and explore some different kinds of music. To be more specific, he wanted to explore my music; songs that I had written and performed back in the 1980s. What he wanted was to dust off my entire Café Society repertoire, release an album of the best dozen or so songs and then take it on tour. He wanted to call the project Daddy Can’t Dance and that he had already gotten the green light from his A & R at the record label who made Aaron a producer on the project. Of course I thought he and the whole idea was crazy, but then Aaron told me from the start that it would be.
We recorded the album during the summer over a period of six weeks at the famed Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, about a forty-minute drive from Amsterdam, flying over a few of my original band mates from Café Society including bassist Greg Neeves, now a high school baseball coach in northern California, keyboardist Ken Wong, an L.A.-based special education teacher, and drummer/percussionist Lee Nichols, a noted professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkley. I have to admit that I’d never had so much fun as I did during those six weeks with Aaron, Greg, Ken and Lee, we must have spent as much time laughing, reminiscing and goofing off as we did recording. I can honestly say those were some of the best days I have ever lived.
Island Records had been supportive of the project since day one and invested a good deal of money and effort in promoting the album. While the record was by no means a huge commercial success initially (selling just shy of a half a million copies), “Best Years of My Life” won single of the year at the American Music Awards which helped record sales soar in the weeks that followed.
With the single now charting in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands, the label suggested we tour. At first, though the idea was appealing, I wasn’t so sure the world was ready for a middle-aged me on stage with a group of young kids with long hair, piercings, tattoos and heavy metal guitars, but as time reveals all, it turned out that I was dead wrong.
That summer we hit all the major summer music festivals in Europe—Pinkpop in The Netherlands, Glastonbury in the U.K., Sziget in Hungary, Rock am Ring in Germany and FIB in Spain—and played to tens of thousands of concertgoers who couldn’t seem to get enough of an old thing. I mean there I was, playing shows with the likes of Coldplay, The Strokes, Motörhead, U2 and Foo Fighters. And after the summer festivals tour, we performed sixty shows in the U.S. and another fifty dates supporting Irish pop rock band The Script on their first American stadium tour. But the biggest surprise of all was yet to come.
Aaron called me from Spain a few days before Christmas where he had gone to spend the holidays with his mother’s family. As soon as I picked up the phone Aaron started laughing uncontrollably and I could barely make out what he was saying. His infectious laugh soon had me in tears and after a few minutes we both collected ourselves and I listened as he told me about an email he had received earlier in the day, though he barely got through it without losing his composure. It was from none other than will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who apparently had caught one of our summer festival shows in Europe and had taken a liking to our music. His email said that the Black Eyed Peas were doing a string of charity shows that spring—to raise money and awareness for will.i.am’s i.am home fund, which he set up to help Americans at risk of losing their homes pay their mortgages and overcome some of the financial burdens that the recent economic crisis had left in its wake—and wanted to know if Daddy Can’t Dance would share the bill with them and four or five other acts he said he was reluctant to name until he had their commitments to come on board.
Needless to say, I was flabbergasted and Aaron and I had another good laugh before realizing that the offer was genuine and no matter what my opinion of the Black Eyed Peas was, the cause was a noble one and I didn’t think twice telling Aaron I thought we should get involved. Now the story should really end there; we played twenty shows in twenty cities in twenty days on what was billed as the I Am Home America Tour. The tour was a huge success with over 20 million dollars raised from ticket sales, merchandising and revenue from the CD. A DVD of the tour was produced by Oprah Winfrey, a long-time friend and fan of the Black Eyed Peas, who personally donated a million dollars as well as footing the bill for the production of the documentary.
And so my story ends on the last day of the tour, which coincidentally was at the United Center in my own hometown of Chicago. We arrived at the venue after an early supper—guests of famed Chicago restaurateur Rich Melman at his Paris Club restaurant on West Hubbard Street—and I found myself back at the United Center relaxing in the green room with Aaron and Todd Wild, our bass guitarist, when will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas arrived for our sound check. Just as everyone had left the green room I looked back to see will.i.am kicking a side table that was near the sofa and I went back inside to see what all the ruckus was about. My first mistake. It seems that someone had left the latest copy of Rolling Stone in the green room, which was not such a rare thing and certainly not enough to perturb anyone, except in this case. For there it was, smack dab on the cover of the April edition, a huge empty silhouette of a man’s face, similar to those blank Facebook profile pictures, with a big question mark inside of it and the headline caption that read:
WHO IS CURT GORDON AND WHY DOES HE HATE THE BLACK EYED PEAS?
The cover story was about the seemingly endless efforts of one of the most influential popular music critics of the day, the anonymous and enigmatic Curt Gordon, (me!) to bring down one of the most influential popular music acts of all time (him!). It seems that will.i.am had taken Gordon’s latest scathing review of the Black Eyed Peas’ new album very personally as he thought it to be the band’s best work to date and it appeared that the more than three million fans, ones who had already made the multi-platinum record their biggest selling album to date, agreed with him.
So there I was watching will.i.am, a respected and well-admired pop star, in full meltdown mode, and just two hours before the last concert of our tour. Walking back into the green room I picked up the table and tried to see if I could offer any words of comfort to try and diffuse the situation, or at least calm him down to the point where we could talk through what was bothering him. But he was furious and began a tirade that lasted for a good ten minutes where he blasted Curt Gordon, repeating time and time again, “What did I ever do to that guy to make him hate my music so much?” I tried convincing him not to take these music critics too seriously, that they were just out to make a buck like the next guy and that this Curt Gordon had been using the Black Eyed Peas all these years as his cash cow. But will.i.am became even more enraged, picking up the Rolling Stone and starting to read passages of the article about his nemesis. Finally, he threw the magazine at the refreshment table knocking off a few bottles of Perrier and a glass vase with yellow tulips that fell to the floor breaking into pieces. Then he came up to me and looking me right in the eye said that if and when he ever came face to face with this Curt Gordon fellow, he would take him down and it wouldn’t be pretty. And with those words he let go an air punch with his tightly closed fist that accidentally found its way smack dab into my left eye sending me straight to the floor and flat on my back.
Not believing what he had just done and seeing me there lying on the floor with my hand covering my eye, will.i.am knelt down beside me and began apologizing profusely. He stood up and grabbed a tea towel from the sink and wrapping some ice cubes from the refreshment table in it, he handed the towel to me insisting that I hold it on my eye until he could locate the house doctor to look me over and make sure he hadn’t damaged the eye and that I’d be able to perform that evening. By the time the doctor arrived—and everyone having got word what had happened—I was sporting a classic shiner, even better than the ones Wiley E. Coyote got in those old Road Runner cartoons after having an anvil dropped on top of his head. Keeping an ice compress on my eye right through our sound check and up until the very moment we went on stage, I guess I could say that—in a way—I had it coming and that destiny had finally caught up with me.
And that’s how I came to be friends with will.i.am. And while I still can’t stomach the music he makes—though continuing to exploit my renown as his biggest critic—the man I’ve since befriended just happens to be a pretty swell guy, with a heart of gold and someone who would do just about anything for a friend or a stranger in need. And I guess I could add that he’s got one hell of a right hook.
Finally, there’s a photograph of myself taken on stage during the fifteen-minute standing ovation we received after that last benefit concert in Chicago that I keep on my desk alongside photos of my wife and children. In the picture I’m standing in between my son and will.i.am, wearing the biggest smile my face had ever worn and the blackest eye you’ve ever seen.