Chapter One of
Death In The Jingle Jungle
In the dream, I couldn’t move my left hand. Helplessly, I stared at it, clenched clawlike around the neck of the guitar, my fingers grotesquely frozen into a chord out of Hell. My right hand, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop moving. It swung back and forth across the strings, over and over, as the grinding, gnashing, eardrum-inverting sound blared out of the instrument like a thousand fingernails on a blackboard. I tried to sing but my voice was a death rattle, bleeding from my throat. From behind a desk that seemed to be four stories high, a hooded figure glared down at me. All I could see of his face were his eyes, two pinpoints of fire. Behind him, thunderheads growled in a malevolent sky.
“You insult me with this crap, Ernie,” he rasped. “It’s the worst piece of shit I ever heard.”
“Please, give me a chance,” I implored him, but only to myself, because my voice was still trying to break clear of the horror and produce the beautiful song I knew I’d written.
Suddenly, the sky turned a dazzling blue. Puffy white clouds with mouths sang in angelic voices, bathing my moaning in glory. The hooded figure became a beautiful woman, singing to me in a low, soothing voice:
Everything’s gonna be all right
Every night’s gonna be a good night
Don’t you worry, just sleep tight
My eyes popped open and stared at the clock radio. The commercial that had invaded my dream kept playing, the music growing softer while the announcer talked about gentle relaxation. The sultry, dusky, female voice began to sing the jingle again, as the owner of that voice snuggled up to me and kissed me on the back of my neck.
“Mmm, they’re starting to play that spot again,” whispered Annie as she slipped her arm over my side.
I rolled over and held her.
Our cats, Pyewacket and Velveeta, marched up the bed on either side and started to purr, shoving their faces against the backs of our heads. They always slept a good bed’s width apart because they hated each other.
“God, I was dreaming about Harold Gordell,” I groaned. “This is going to be the worst day of my life.”
The radio had turned to news now, and was saying something about President Carter speaking to the country tonight about inflation, as Annie snuggled against me.
“Then call it off,” she said. “Tell Fred you’ve got the flu or something.”
“I can’t.” I gave her a kiss and rolled over into a retreating cat, as I climbed out of bed. “I already wrote the jingle, and Fred’s meeting me at Harold’s office to present it to him.”
“Even though he knows what happened between you and Harold yesterday?”
“Even though he sort of knows. I avoided the gory parts.”
By now, we were both up, and she scampered ahead of me into the bathroom. I stood against the doorway and watched her. Even doing something as unattractively functional as brushing her teeth, she was breathtaking. She leaned over the sink, the ends of her long, honey brown hair lightly touching the edges of the basin, her beautiful breasts in profile.
We’d met nine years before that, in 1970. I was the bass player and lead singer for Generation Gap, a group that had been big for a brief time in the late ’60s. We’d had a couple of antiwar FM hits, “Body Bag Rag” and “Good Tokes for Good Folks,” and actually made it to Woodstock. Annie’s success preceded mine, but was just as brief. Her group, The Love Notes, topped the charts for 12 straight weeks in ’62 with a song called “Promises at the Prom.”
They and a lot of other groups and artists had gotten screwed out of their royalties, and when I met Annie, The Love Notes were down to working in clubs. Didn’t matter. I quit Generation Gap and became their bass player, going in less than a year from Woodstock to a backup bar band. Wasn’t the greatest career move I ever made, but it was far and away the greatest life move. And so it remains.
“I still think you should call Fred, tell him everything, and cancel it,” she said through the toothpaste.
“Then I may as well quit the business altogether.”
She rinsed her mouth, even managing to look good doing that. “What’s the worst Harold could do to you?”
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, a bleary-eyed schmuck who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “Trash and compact my tune,” I said, “then make sure I never work again.”
She put her arms around me and we held each other.
We’d been in the “jingle business” for about three years. Just two months before, we’d finally felt secure enough to move out of our postage-stamp Brooklyn Heights apartment and into this beautiful garden apartment on 89th off Riverside, where we now stood clinging to each other, as the previous day’s events torturously played themselves out in my head for the zillionth time.
* * *
I was in the semi-palatial, 43rd-floor office of Harold Gordell, music director for Picknitter and Ogrely. His desk wasn’t quite four stories high, but it was impressive enough. I was sitting on the large leather sofa across the room from it, guitar in hand, flanked by another freelance songwriter, Bobby DiMango, and Stan Hook of Hooks Unlimited.
Hooks Unlimited is what’s known as a jingle house, a music production company. They’re usually small operations but they can make big money, since ad agencies invite them to compete for the lucrative rewards of putting music on a commercial.
In this case, Harold had invited Hooks Unlimited. Stan, in turn, had called on two freelance writers, Bobby DiMango and yours truly, to write one tune apiece. If either of ours got picked, Hooks Unlimited would win the account.
They’d supplied us with the lyrics, and we each had to write a melody. I’d spent the better part of the previous night agonizing over mine, and now I hoped I was about to blow Harold Gordell away with the memorability and charm of my music for Crummy-Cake. With an introductory guitar chord, I began:
One bite of Crummy-Cake and you’ll see
We make it rich and buttery
’Cause it’s made especially
Moist, moist, moist as can be
Crummy-Cake takes the cake for me
I concluded with a tasty guitar lick that took precisely four seconds, enough time for an announcer to say, “Crummy-Cake, the cake that’s good to the last crumb,” and waited through an eternity of silence for Gordell’s reaction.
He gazed at me. “Hmm…” he said, triangulating his fingers and looking pensive. “Let me see the music while you do it again.”
Dutifully, I rose, crossed the room, and gently placed the sheet of music in front of him, next to the picture he always had on his desk. It was taken at a golf course, and it was of him and Richard Nixon.
I retreated to the couch between Hook and DiMango and launched into the tune again, sans music and lyrics in front of me. It was okay because, by then, it had been burned into my brain.
He glanced down at the music one last time and shook his head. “I don’t know how you so-called rock ’n’ roll composers think you’re supposed to treat a lyric, but you’ve succeeded in totally missing the thrust of what we’re saying.”
“I have?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said wearily, looking up at the gods. “You downplayed the most important line.”
“Well…” I said, treading water and trying to figure out what he could possibly mean, “I thought ‘moist, moist, moist’ suggested a strong melody figure, so that’s what I gave you. And of course the hook line ‘Crummy-Cake takes the cake for me’ had to be strong, and that’s how I thought I made it, but I guess not.”
“You guess correctly.” Harold Gordell was a heavyset man with jowly cheeks and aggressively receding, dyed black hair that was pulled into an ear-to-ear comb-over. He had a perpetually dour manner. Even when he was kidding around with you and being friendly, there was a certain gravity to it. He wasn’t being friendly at the moment.
“We intended to throw away ‘moist, moist, moist’ musically,” he explained to his manicured nails. “The reason we made it repeat like that is so we wouldn’t need music to emphasize it. You know, Dick Rodgers really knew how to put music to a lyric.”
Dick Rodgers. Before he got into advertising in the 1950s, Gordell had been under the delusion that he could compose for Broadway. He never got any closer than 9th Avenue. His biggest effort, a musical about Captain Kidd entitled Oh You Kidd, got shot down at the backers’ audition.
“Nobody knows how to write great melodies anymore,” he intoned. “Only beat, beat, beat. Rock ’n’ roll is not music, Ernie. Maybe some stoned-out hippies in the sixties thought you were groovy, but it doesn’t mean you can write it.”
Stan Hook and Bobby DiMango squirmed on either side of me as I sat there, my mind recoiling from this ugly little moment. I had a fleeting memory of those days of idealism and purpose, when my music had been a part of something vitally important to millions of people. More recently, though, I’d written a jingle for Flake-Off Dandruff Shampoo that had lucked into a Clio Award. Which was why I now had the honor of being puked on by a guy with a picture of Richard Nixon on his desk.
“The entire thrust of the campaign,” he finally revealed, “is that anyone can claim their cake is moist. We’re the only ones who claim that it’s moist AS CAN BE. Now, you’ve got the melody going down at that point, and it’s entirely wrong.”
“Then, how about this?” I said gamely. With a smile on my face and bile in my gorge, I sang the phrase with an ascending melody line. “We can even hold it out while the group repeats ‘as can be’ behind it.” I tried to demonstrate the effect as best I could.
“That really makes the difference, Harold,” Stan Hook earnestly put in. “We can bring it out in the arrangement.”
“Or we can arrange for something else,” said Gordell. “Bobby?”
DiMango was erasing something on his music, which I assumed was the melody going down on “as can be,” and was caught by surprise. “Huh? Oh, sure, Harold.”
He got up and walked over to the piano, writing on the music as he went. “I just realized I’d written a couple of the words wrong,” he said sheepishly, as he settled onto the piano bench.
I don’t remember how his tune went. I do remember it predictably wailed on the “as can be” part, but I was beyond caring. I was concentrating on how far I could drive my fingernails into my palms, as I wondered what the guys in my old band would’ve thought if they could see me.
DiMango finished, and Gordell gave it another of his weighty silences.
“Okay. Good, fine,” he said at last, in simultaneous approval and dismissal. He looked over at Hook. “Stan, I’d like you to demo Bobby’s version, just piano and voice. I’ll play it for the Creative group, and we’ll see where we go from there.”
“Great. Great, Harold.” Stan Hook lifted his lanky six-four frame out of the sofa in segments, nodding his head briskly as he reached for his coat. “We’ll get it up to you later today.”
I packed my guitar, gathered up my coat, and was perfectly prepared to slink out of there like all good business sense dictated, but Gordell had to go and put the icing on the Crummy-Cake.
“If you want my advice, Ernie,” he said, as I was reaching the doorway, “instead of assaulting me with jungle music, you should spend more of your time listening to the great melodies.”
Hook and DiMango were ahead of me. I turned and walked back.
“You mean great melodies like this?” I said, and sang at him:
Ooey ooey, they’re so gooey
They’re so scrumptious and so chewy
All my taste buds go kerblooey
When I’m eating Gloppers
I was singing the jingle Gordell wrote in 1957, when he was a lowly copywriter. According to the story, the client played the demo of the cretinous two-note tune for his three-year-old, and the kid had launched Gordell’s career.
“Let me tell you something,” I said, leaning closer to him, my voice rising in volume. “Cole Porter would’ve given his left testicle to write something as poignant and powerful as that. You’re a musical genius, Harold. Maybe when you’re dead, you’ll finally get the posthumous recognition you deserve. I’d really like to see that.”
Not waiting for his reaction, I wheeled and stalked out, shoving my way past Hook and DiMango, who were frozen in the doorway. I stormed through Gordell’s outer office, past the open mouths and wide eyes of Hilda Kravitz, his secretary, and Melvin McIntyre, his assistant, and hit the hallway, where I stood panting.
It was somewhere around the third pant that I realized the full extent of the carnage I’d wreaked upon myself. I remembered that I was due to be right back in that office in less than 24 hours. I was meeting Fred Allenson of Allensongs there, to present, God help me, another jingle for Harold Gordell.
* * *
And now, that moment was near. Clutching my acoustic guitar in its leather bag in one hand, and the Fender bass I’d be needing later that day in the other, I slowly pushed open the heavy, polished oak door to Harold Gordell’s reception area. It was the size of a modest hotel lobby, with not one but two Chesterfield couches, several wing chairs surrounding them like dutiful attendants, and, at the far end of the room, sitting at her desk, Hilda Kravitz.
Hilda was a natural blonde with big blue eyes who, if she weighed 40 pounds less, would have been sensational-looking. I figured if I got there early, maybe I could get a read on what the mood was. Hilda and I had always had a good rapport, at least as of yesterday afternoon. She looked up at my entrance.
“You?” she said.
“Hi, Hilda, how’s it going?”
“What are you doing here? He’s going to kill you.”
I took off my coat and laid it across the back of one of the Chesterfields. “Is it really that bad?” I asked, approaching her like a supplicant to a queen.
She shuffled some papers around, avoiding my eyes. “If I were you, I’d leave before he gets here.”
“What if I used all my charm and diplomatic skill?”
She stopped shuffling the papers. “I’ve never seen him so pissed. You were all he could talk about yesterday.”
“Then, can I ask a favor? Can we not mention this in front of Fred? I didn’t tell him the full extent of what went on.”
That made her laugh. “Boy, you really are a masochist.”
The door opened and in stepped Fred Allenson. Fred had airline-pilot looks: clear, hazel eyes that bespoke confidence; tanned, ruggedly handsome face; graying hair around the temples. He’d been the first music producer to hire Annie as a singer, and he’d given me my first shot at writing a jingle. Even though I’d won the competition for him, he said I would write 20 that didn’t sell for every one that did. He turned out to be right.
‘Wow, look what they did with this place,” he said, looking around the room. “Hi, Hilda, good to see you again.” She nodded demurely. “How’s it going, tiger?” he asked me. I tried not to smile in a sickly way, but I don’t think I succeeded.
Hilda glanced at her watch. “I guess Harold’s running late. He should be here any minute.”
“That’s fine, we’ve got plenty of time,” said Fred, settling onto a couch and opening his book of crossword puzzles. I sat down at the other end and became intent on fiddling with the fringes on my guitar bag. Several minutes dragged by.
Fred looked over at me with a knowing, satisfied smile. “Here’s one for you,” he said, reaching over to show me the cryptic crossword puzzle. “What’s a safe leap? Five letters.”
“I have no idea.”
“Vault,” he said. “A vault is a safe and ‘to vault’ is ‘to leap,’ see?”
I thought about it. “You’re always trying to get me into those, and they always make sense when you explain them. But I just can’t make my mind work that way.”
“You should learn to. As a lyricist you should be into all the different meanings of words.”
“I can’t understand this,” Hilda said. “Maybe he meant to leave me a note and he left it on his desk. He’s done that before.” She produced a key and went over to the door of Gordell’s office. “That’s funny; he left it unlocked,” she said, trying the door.
“Here,” said Fred, showing me another one. “Gateway to charm—entrance, or entrance. See what I mean?”
We practically leaped, or vaulted, or anything else Roget would throw at you, across the room to where she was standing, staring wild-eyed into the office.
Gordell was sitting behind his desk, a half-eaten Chinese takeout dinner spilled across it, an expression of utter amazement on his face, a small, black hole in the middle of his forehead, and the music to my Crummy-Cake demo in his right hand.