Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heckling Billy Crystal

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

In 1975, just before the time I started going to CBGB, I was an undergrad at Kingsborough Community College (KCC), out on a cold and windy peninsula in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. One of the friends I made there was a married woman named Sheryl who was a few years older than me (I was 19, she was about 26).

Sheryl had really dark hair, with some premature gray strands mixed in, which was a cool look. Her husband was not jealous of me, and rightfully so because we were not having an affair. However, the person he should have been jealous of was a biker type who also attended KCC, with whom she was spreading the love.

I was just getting into Harry Chapin (which started when I heard the song, “Sniper”), and was generally interesting in seeing some live music. I’d been to a few concerts, like Melanie (Carnegie Hall), Roxy Music (Academy of Music), Linda Rondstadt (Heart Like a Wheel tour at the Beacon!), and Foghat/Montrose/Black Oak Arkansas (also the Beacon), and was open to new sounds (as long as it wasn’t disco or MOR rock).

[The Bitter End, New York]
Sheryl announced one day that one of her favorite artists, Dan Hill, was going to be playing at the… Well, honestly, I can’t remember now if it was the Bitter End or the Other End, two names for the same club at different times. I suppose I could look it up, but I’m being lazy right now. Anyway, the club was on Bleecker Street, just off LaGuardia Place.

Dan Hill, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian folk singer. I had never heard of him before that, as his one big U.S. chart reacher, “Sometimes When We Touch,” had not hit the radio just yet. As of that point, he was more of a cult singer. She asked me to go, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to spend money on him. Then she told me that the opening act was comedian Billy Crystal.

[Billy Crystal, 1970s]
I knew who Crystal was. He had just been on the sit-com, Soap, and he had appeared on a bunch of talk shows doing a stand-up routine he did back then about an old jazz musician who called him “Face” when Crystal was a child. Crystal’s dad owned a jazz record label when he was a kid, and little Billy had the opportunity to hang out with many famous musicians of the day. Since I liked Crystal, I figured what the hell. Somehow, Bernie Kugel got mixed up in this whole thing, and came along, as well.

We paid our cover (and overpriced two-drink minimum, I might add, as the drinking age back then was 18) and we sat at a table near the middle, waiting for the first set. The place wasn’t packed, but all the tables were taken, and the audience that was there was filled with mainly women who wanted to see Hill. Seemed like only the two-thirds of our table was there to see the opening act.

Billy Crystal came out, and was funny, of course. Not side splitting, but he definitely kept us entertained. He even did the “Face” bit. He did about 45 minutes and was a class act. We were happy.

[Dan Hill, early 1980s]
After he left, Daniel Grafton "Dan" Hill IV came on. Hill is a short guy who was a guitar-and-stool performer. He also had a pretty long, but scraggly beard. And he seemed to go on forever. His songs were kind of listless and bland, which reminded me of a review by Dorothy Parker, who once famously described the talent of Katherine Hepburn as running “the gamut from A to B.” Bernie and I kept looking at our watches. Between songs, he would smile and banter, while picking at his beard and pulling out things stuck there (old food?). Not a pleasant experience.

Finally he was done, and none too soon. There was a second set, which meant another two-drink minimum, so the two of us were ready to go. But Sheryl had other plans: she wanted to see Hill play again. And, she was adamant about it. Bernie and I talked it over while she was in the bathroom, and we figured, well, at least we get to see Billy Crystal again, so it’s not a loss. The whole audience felt the same as Sheryl, so nobody left, and we all stayed to see the second set.

After what seemed like a long time, Crystal came back. Then, despite it being the same audience, he started doing the exact same material in the exact same order. Damn!

About 15 minutes into his set, he said something like, “Did you hear what happened out on Long Island?” I replied, louder than I realized, “Yeah, about two hours ago.” He turned bright red, literally threw down the mic, and stormed off the stage. He’s a big star now, but I think perhaps back then, with his career sort of plateauing pre-Saturday Night Live, his ego was bigger than his career, and it touched a nerve. I never meant to tread; part of me is not sorry I said it, as it was true to what I was feeling, but at the same time I thought he’d at worst laugh it off or insult me, not leave in a huff.

For the rest of the night, I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting him to come out and clock me. It was my own paranoia, I know, but it was palpable. Hey, I was not a fighter, but I guess I was a heckler. I was at least that night, anyway.

Dan Hill finally finished his second set, and we got ready to leave. I kept looking around all the way out of the club, and didn’t relax until I was on the subway home. Bernie got off the stop before me, and Sheryl and I got off the same one. She didn’t speak to me for a few days after that. Bernie and I still occasionally kid about it.

Postscript: Sheryl moved out to the West Coast after graduation (if I remember correctly to follow the biker guy, or perhaps to get away from her husband…or both). Bernie went off to college in Buffalo and formed The Good, and became a cult icon in his own right. Dan Hill had one big hit in the U.S. (perhaps more in Canada), and had a funny mention in an episode of SCTV, but essentially has disappeared from the music scene. Billy Crystal went on to do one of the best opening monologs in the history of SNL, which he hosted before he became cast member. Now he is rightfully a star.

And every once in a while, I wonder if he remembers that night.

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