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April 1976

Musician Out of Tune

A concert tour took him around the world in a continuous daze, with high notes of disaster

SO THERE we were, the three of us, headed for a series of concerts on a worldwide tour--the star, his business manager, and me. The star was world-famous for his voice and his clean, no-smoke, no-drink living. His manager was a nice, tidy man with a mind to match.

I was the conductor, arranger, and composer, a musician by trade, a drunk by instinct, and the type who scattered his clothes about the room, sometimes while still in them. Accepted and esteemed by these two good people, I was still working well; there was no question about my ability to do the job.

The job was extremely lucrative, and there was an exciting schedule of distant and exotic places to play. I had only one reservation: I was paranoid about the possibility of arriving in a country and finding no liquor stores. With all my problems, I nearly waited too long to get the shots necessary for legal reentry to the United States. In less than three weeks, the doctor punched me so full of holes, I thought I leaked. On the last day of the series, he asked me almost idly how much I drank. I held up thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, indicating my dedication to moderation in all things. He looked at me as though my head and body were glass, as though he could see the liver swelling, the pancreas aching, the head demanding alcohol and more alcohol.

As I left the doctor's office, my passport validated medically, I was lured to a large mirror. Everything looked normal: yellow skin; attractive red eyes buried deep in a drawn, haggard face. My breathing was shallow; pulse, doubtful; general state of feeling, just rotten. Yes, everything was normal.

I have no clear memory of the Los Angeles-to-London flight, except for two details. As the jet became airborne, the manager turned and asked me how I felt. Not wanting to breathe in his direction, I inhaled as I mouthed "Okay." Laundry could have been hung on my breath. The only piece of luggage I'd carried aboard was my briefcase, which everyone had been led to believe contained the scores and manuscripts we'd be rehearsing in London. The briefcase I clutched to my bosom contained only two bottles of Scotch.

I have no clear memory of being in London. There are only snatches, maybe nightmares, maybe not. I can see London's Palladium as spectral figures served cocktails during the performances, I cannot remember whether or not I reached down from the stage to lift a drink from a passing tray. I can only remember the desperate urge to do so.

In Birmingham and Manchester, my only concern was my never-ending search for Scotch whisky. Gin was plentiful; but Scotch, meant for export only, was scarce and expensive. I had not yet had to resort to my briefcase. As we were leaving London's airport, I noticed a sign reading "Duty-Free Liquors"--only for those leaving the country. Since I qualified, I allowed the other two to walk on ahead while I made a purchase. But all my luggage had already been loaded on the airplane, and there was no room in my briefcase. I solved the problem by buying an airlines shoulder bag, just large enough for one jug. I literally danced aboard the plane, my briefcase in my left hand, the airlines slung over my right shoulder.

Rome was next. There, the only real item of importance was, upon leaving the Rome airport, the discovery of another duty-free bar. I bought another shoulder bag for another bottle of Scotch.

In Athens, I stayed more and more to myself, shunning the company of the star and the business manager, avoiding almost totally the social demands made upon us as visiting VIPs. Upon leaving Athens, I added a third shoulder bag. It figured. I wasn't greedy, certainly not insecure, I reasoned; it was simply a matter of balance: two shoulder bags on my left shoulder, one over my right, the briefcase clutched in my right hand.

Nairobi, Kenya. Another performance. Another shoulder bag.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, we spent the first three days in rehearsals in preparation for the city's biggest social and cultural event of the year. My drinking tapered off as my excitement mounted. And for one day, the first in many years, the day before our opening, I had nothing to drink. While music was, and still is, my living, it was then my path to glories granted to only a handful of my peers. But drinking alcoholically was my total obsession. That day, that one day of abstinence, however brief one 24-hour period can be, was made even briefer by the business at hand. There was a feeling of elation, of freedom. For the first time since the tour began, I threw myself into the job, and I worked brilliantly.

The Johannesburg Concert Hall, an auditorium with four tiers of balconies, seated a shade over 35,000 people. Nervously, I waited in the wings, stone-cold sober. As the moment approached, it was suddenly no longer tolerable. My insides were repressing one long, silent scream. My head began to pound with the noises all around me, expanding and contracting with the swelling sounds of the multitude. The star and the manager were nervously pacing nearby. And I stole away to my dressing room, around a bend and down a corridor. At last, I opened one of the bottles in my briefcase. Several long gulps restored my immediate world to its manic serenity.

Then I heard the announcement. I found myself walking slowly across the stage toward its center amid a hushed expectancy. I faced the orchestra, not really seeing it. Slowly, I turned and bowed to the audience. I turned back, facing the orchestra. I raised my arms in preparation for the opening downbeat. I brought my arms down dramatically--and fell off the stage into the laps of the first-row audience.

To most, it was a regrettable accident. The star and the manager accepted it that way. But I knew better. It was the booze. During the past six years of professional services, I had not performed up to my full potential. Falling from the stage was a revelation. I was sick with humiliation and fear.

Now the drinking accelerated. Next stop, Durban--three more performances, one more shoulder bag. A return to Johannesburg--three more shoulder bags.

In Salisbury, Rhodesia, we were met at the airport by an embassy car. Upon being waved through customs, I had set one of the shoulder bags on the floor a bit harder than I'd intended. Unnoticed, it had begun to leak. The star, the manager, and the conductor were ushered into the embassy Rolls-Royce along with the ambassador and his under secretary. Midway from the airport to the hotel, the smell of Scotch began to pervade the limousine. All five of us stared ahead, studying the emblem on the front of the hood. Once again, in slow motion, I was falling off a Johannesburg stage, this time into a vat of Scotch whisky.

Had the ambassador and his people had their way, I would have been reduced immediately to a shrunken head. The star and his manager were compassionate and understanding. But having the spotlight turned on me was more than I could stand. The blackout that followed was welcome.

Germany: I arrived there with my eight shoulder bags. Cairo: a blank. Bahrein: Now I was in the center of Islam, the religion that forbade by law, not only the drinking, but the possession of any alcoholic beverage. And there was I, a walking distillery, about as popular as an Arabian bagel salesman. New Delhi: another blank; nothing to report. Now I was in the center of Buddhism and Hinduism, two more religions opposing alcoholic beverages.

As the jet rolled to a stop at Calcutta, I stood first in line, leaning against the door. It was jerked open, and I fell out upon the platform. More of those shoulder bags began to leak. There was a red carpet waiting for us VIPs, leading to a beribboned, bemedaled group of Calcutta officials. I interpreted their stern, troubled look as a reaction to the leaking shoulder bags. But they scarcely noticed the trail of Scotch spotting the carpet.

We were greeted gravely and told that our performance had been canceled because of a cholera epidemic. I said a silent thank-you to the good doctor who had given me the shots. We were police-escorted to the hotel. Our progress was impeded by a procession of ox-drawn carts filled with bodies that were being carried across the river to the burning fields. It was of little importance that I, too, was dying.

On to Bangkok, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, in Quezon City, about four miles from Manila, I had a daily six-mile walk to the liquor store. Then Guam, Wake Island, Honolulu--and the tour was over. We were wanted in other areas, both in the U.S. and abroad, but we three principals agreed that it should be over.

There must have been much more to that trip. The blacked-out portions may one day surface. From time to time, uncertain shards of memory do crackle through to the top of my mind. In the clear light of sobriety, they can now be examined without self-recrimination. I am no longer burdened by guilt. I found the program of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1964, about two years after the tour.

How good it is to see the truth. For me, life has just begun. How good it is to contemplate the mountains, sea, and universe. How good it is to have a thoughtful conversation with my Friend upstairs. How fascinating it is to see my own eternal contradictions. My ability to deceive myself once held me prisoner in a corner of my mind. But that was then. Now, in a brand-new world, I walk with trust, feeling dignity. How good it is that I can see how good it is.

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