12 months ago
Once upon a time, there was a music industry. Now, there’s just music, and it flops around the universe, sort of like the fish in that Faith No More video. It has shiny sides and it gasps for breath in terror, yet it looks ever so slightly sexy with its mouth open. But this is another story.
In the early autumn of 1993, I was just beginning my career as an A&R person at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles. Atlantic had a couple of floors in a Brutalist bone-white box of a building on Sunset Boulevard, exactly at the point where the Sunset Strip bent into Beverly Hills. It was about a quarter past 7 in the evening, and I was scribbling details on some receipts. I suspected I was the only one left on the entire eighth floor. Outside my window, the skies were turning from bright blue to ash blue, and the orange and red lights of the Sushi gardens, video and liquor stores, and nightclubs of the Sunset Strip were just beginning to blink on.
I became aware that two figures were standing in my doorway.
I then became aware that Evan Dando and Johnny Depp were standing in my doorway.
Some backstory: Evan Dando (with his band The Lemonheads) was a rising young star on the label. I was already a little friendly with Evan: I had first met him in the mid-1980s when a band he played in opened for my band in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his A&R person was a close friend of mine. Also, you could still smoke in office buildings back then (!) and Evan knew I smoked, so when he was visiting the label, he sometimes stopped by to bum a cigarette.
It was common knowledge knew that Johnny Depp and Evan were fast pals at the time.
In a vaguely serpentine way, Evan and Johnny slid into my office – really, they more poured then walked. Steadying themselves on the back of the two chairs in front of my desk, Evan murmured, “Can we bum a smoke and listen to some music?”
They dissolved into the chairs, Marlboros were exchanged and ignited, and Evan waved a cigarette at the fellow seated to his left. “This is my friend John.”
Weak handshake followed.
The room quickly filled up with a pale blue fog of cigarette smoke and the mesmeric, ecstatic music of Stereolab. Honestly, if any words were exchanged, I don’t recall them. Evan was frequently an indifferent conversationalist; it was as if he was functioning with half a brain, and you never knew if you were going to get the working half (which was charming and agile) or the non-working half (which was duller then the third hour of a Seder when your grandparents make you do the whole thing). At this moment, he and Johnny were giggling, slumping into their seats, wearing Cheshire Cat smiles, nodding gently to the music, and occasionally raising eyes, marble-blue and pinned, to stare at me, at which point they would break out laughing. Johnny was going through a decidedly fleshy phase; his face was round and soft, like a favorite Teddy Bear that someone had wrapped in well-kneaded white bread.
This went on for about 20 minutes.
At some point, Evan leaned forward and quietly informed me, though narrow lips that barely moved, that he and Johnny were in the midst of a “trip.” The eyebrow I raised upon hearing this news may still be etched onto my forehead.
Not too long after that, Evan and Johnny flounced/poured out of the room, bouncing through the doorway like puppets on an unseen psychotropic string.
For the next eighty-eight seconds or so, I raised clasped hands to my lips and stared straight ahead – the last yellow sobs of light were cutting their way west from the sea and filling the office with a dull, calming glow – and I thought to myself, “Well, you don’t see that every day. This will make a fine anecdote in 24 years.”
But I was snapped out of my reverie by a peculiar sound.
This would be an exceptionally good place to note that the top two floors of 9229 Sunset Boulevard (floors 8 and 9) were wrapped with scaffolding; some kind of major exterior renovation was going on.
The odd noise sounded like horses thumping down a track, or fat kids running up the diving board at the pool, or like people charging into a general admission concert when the door opened. Whumpa-whumpa-thwump-thump, Whumpa-whumpa-thwump-thump, and the sound was getting closer. It was completely unidentifiable – I really had no bloody idea what it could be – and it was coming from outside the building.
The rumbling got nearer.
And that’s when I looked up and saw Evan Dando and Johnny Depp, their brains allegedly scattered, smothered, and covered by who knows what, running around the 8th floor of the building, on the outside.
Somehow, they had found an opening to the exterior scaffolding and had crawled through, and now they were running laps around the outside of the building. Here they come, laughing their heads off… Whumpa-whumpa-thwump-thump…there they go and the sound gets quieter, and it vanishes…and then it starts getting closer again, and HERE THEY COME AGAIN!
After three orbits of the building, I lifted my jaw off of the floor and tried to get a handle on the situation. Here’s what went through my head:
1. One of the label’s Bright New Voices and a Rising Hollywood Star are running around the outside of the building on rickety scaffolding, 104 feet above Sunset Boulevard, supposedly under the influence of a powerful, uh, something. Heck, I once took two Benadryl and nearly walked out a window, so I did not have great faith in Evan and John’s chances.
2. I am, apparently, the only human being who knew this strange event was taking place.
3. The likelihood that these young icons will imminently plunge to their ugly and newsworthy deaths appeared to be at least, oh, 50/50.
4. Do I call the police? And how exactly would that play out? I ran that simulation in my head a few times and didn’t like what I saw.
5. Since I was new to the label and hadn’t made a mark yet, it’s fairly certain that if – rather, when — these famous gentlemen plummeted to their deaths, it wouldn’t reflect very well on me. I know this seems unimportant in the scheme of things, but you know. “How’s that Sommer guy doing?” “Well, aside from killing Evan Dando, he’s working out fairly well.”
6. I considered going out on the scaffolding to try to reel in Johnny and Evan, but I realized that it was entirely likely I would be the first to taste the bittersweet lips of eternity.
Oh, Calgon take me away, I thought.
It occurred to me that since I was apparently the only person who knew that Johnny and Evan had visited me, listened to some fine motorik rock tunes, smoked roughly three Marlboros each and then crawled out onto the scaffolding, it was likely that if I left the office right now without telling anyone I had been there, no one would know my role in this whole mishegas. Evan and Johnny would be scraped off the sidewalk later that night, paparazzi flashbulbs and police car dome lights would blaze away, and people would probably think they had just snuck past the security guard downstairs.
So I poked my head into the hallway. I called out a firm “Hello?” two or three times, so I could confirm that I was alone on the floor. I then stepped cooly into the elevator, took it straight down to the garage (thereby bypassing any security guy), got in my car, and pointed it east down Sunset Boulevard.
I lived only about eight minutes away – six with no traffic – in a little house tucked behind the Canyon Store on Laurel Canyon. I arrived, walked in, lit another Marlboro and put on the news, expecting to see a bulletin regarding the rather bizarre defenestration of two young men from a building on Sunset Boulevard.
I watched for at least an hour and even crosschecked with both of the all-news radio stations in Los Angeles.
And only a day or two later, once I confirmed that both Johnny and Evan would continue to walk the wide, rapid, and Koyaanisqatsi-perfect streets of Los Angeles in a definitively un-splattered manner, did I begin to tell some close friends, “Something very strange happened to me the other night…”