In 2002, when I was finishing the first of my four films about Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – Breakfast with Hunter - selecting the music for the sound track was one of the easiest tasks. A few years earlier, Hunter had an assignment from EMI to pick tunes for a compilation album – the songs he would prefer to have when left on a deserted island. The resulting CD called “Where Were You When the Fun Stopped” was released only in England, and if you can find one anywhere, I suggest you grab it. ( a new copy is almost $200 at Amazon )
So, it seemed fitting to limit my musical possibilities for the film to the rock & roll tunes that Hunter had already picked. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was one of those songs, and Hunter had also chosen that song – Lou’s only top 40 hit – to open our 1986 short, the Gonzo Pilot aka Gonzo Tours. Since the Pilot was meant to be exactly that – a “sizzle reel,” as they call it now, to sell the idea of a TV series with Hunter to HBO – I never tried to license or “clear” the song for use in the film. I’ll invoke the doctrine of “Fair Use” to show the opening of the pilot and how well the song Hunter chose worked, even though the lyrics about a transvestite coming to New York are heard over a very macho image of Hunter S. Thompson emerging from the Woody Creek Tavern in the snow. Clearly, Hunter had good musical instincts.
18 years later, I could not resist also opening Breakfast with Hunter with Lou Reed’s ode to the wild side, and assumed that it would just be a matter of money to clear the song. Hunter and Lou Reed shared the same agent – Andrew Wylie – and were both outsider icons of sixties and seventies counter-culture, although they had never met.
Note to aspiring filmmakers: never try to license music yourself. Music clearances are an arcane and ingrown minefield that requires a professional. When the amazing woman in Hollywood who does music clearances for me ( and now TV show “The Voice” ) – Jeanne Fay – called to say that Lou Reed had personally denied use of his song in the film, I was shocked.
“Did they say why, “ I asked Jeanne. “Any chance that he might reconsider if I show him the film?”
“They told me to never call again about Hunter Thompson,” replied Jeanne coldly.
Ironically, in the end the song was more appropriate since that tune also plays an important role in my second film about Hunter’s funeral and monument – When I Die. The songwriter Norman Greenbaum, who was reported in the eighties to be surviving as a dishwasher, was by then living more comfortably with his cats in Sausalito on the royalties from the use of his most famous song in commercials. Greenbaum was a true gentleman, allowing me to use the song for a reasonable price. But, I still wondered what was up – or down – with Lou Reed, so I asked Hunter.
“Something happened in New York on that last trip,” the Beast muttered.
“What? Did you throw a drink on him?” I ventured.
“He felt insulted, ” admitted Hunter. “I guess he’s easily offended.”
And that’s all he would say on the matter. I always wondered what weirdness may have occurred, and when Lou Reed passed away the other day at the age of 71, beating Hunter by 4, I called up my colleague from the Owl Farm kitchen – newspaper publisher and film producer Curtis Robinson – to find out more since he was with Hunter on that ill-fated New York trip.
In 2000, when the second book of letters – Fear and Loathing in America - was published, Barnes & Noble held a book-signing event in Manhattan for Hunter. I had a paying gig on another film, so I didn’t go, and instead Curtis drove up from Washington, DC where he was living at the time to help advance the trip. According to Curtis, Barnes & Noble was a nightmare with a huge unruly crowd lined up outside. He had trouble getting through security, and once inside the venue found that Hunter was already an hour late. Curtis was finally able to reach Hunter on his cell.
“What’s security like?” asked Hunter, searching for any excuse not to show.
“Not bad,” reported Curtis. “They wouldn’t let me in at first.”
“Are there stairs,” Hunter inquired suspiciously. His back was beginning to go out by 2000 and walking up stairs was quite painful.
“Just an escalator,” Curtis reported.
Out of excuses and with a crowd waiting, Hunter couldn’t dally more. He showed, along with Johnny Depp, and the book-signing was a success. But, the after party was what Curtis was looking forward to: Lou Reed was going to meet up with Hunter in the VIP room of a trendy Manhattan bar/restaurant. Curtis left Barnes & Noble before the Beast to advance the late night event.
The restaurant had an easy entrance at street level with no steps, but once inside, a narrow, endless staircase, like the entrance to an old speakeasy was the only way to the VIP room above. Reluctantly, Curtis called Hunter on his cell.
“You didn’t tell him about the staircase, did you?” I asked.
“Of course, I did. I wasn’t going to be thrown under the bus when he got there and saw those stairs.”
Curtis ascended and found a few folks waiting around for Hunter, including Lou Reed sitting at a table impatiently with a friend who may well have been their agent Andrew Wylie. Reed was obviously getting pissed off and staring coldly at Curtis. Evidently the word was getting around the room that he was Hunter’s advance man.
“Clearly, these were people with many other options for the night in New York City and would rather be somewhere else,” Curtis observed in hindsight.
Everyone hung around the VIP room drinking listlessly for an hour or two while Curtis kept trying to reach Hunter again on his cell with no luck.
“Everyone’s nightlife options seemed better than mine,” Curtis lamented.
After hearing Curtis’ scouting report, Hunter left Barnes & Noble with Johnny Depp and Demi Moore and a decision was made to go to a restaurant with no stairs. Once at the walk-in venue, they became consumed with the logistics of getting Hunter to Washington, DC – the next stop on the book signing tour. Somehow Johnny sweet-talked Demi into giving Hunter the private jet that she and Bruce Willis had at the time. For months afterwards a bill for the cost of the jet kept being passed back and forth between Simon & Schuster and Hunter. I suspect Demi and Bruce were never reimbursed for their jet fuel.
Across town, Curtis paid his own bar tab, and slunk away, leaving Lou Reed and his friend sullenly drinking, still waiting for Hunter and a meeting of the icons that would never be.
Thus, Lou Reed’s revenge was to say “No” when we came calling for his music two years later.
In the world of rock & roll, getting even is also an art.
Copyright 2013 by Wayne Ewing