The first full-length screenplay I wrote was a semi-autobiographical account of an out of control party I threw in the summer of 1987. My script was an attempt to capture a time and place, much in the same way George Lucas and Richard Linklater had done in their wonderful films, American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. That summer in ’87 was my first taste of independence. While my parents were vacationing in Hawaii, my brother (a recent college grad) was the sole adult supervision. Needless to say, I came and went as I pleased, cruising around in The Whomobile and consuming as much alcohol as possible (between work hours at The Original Cookie). The trouble with my screenplay wasn’t so much the dialogue or the plot; rather, I never quite achieved capturing the mood of that summer the way I’d hoped to.
The first couple drafts contained a scene that took place in a Denny’s restaurant, some time in the early morning, after the party had ended. The scene was drawn from the many late nights my friends and I hung out in the local Denny’s, idling away the wee hours of the morning on Friday and Saturday nights. Back then, smoking was still permitted in restaurants, and even though I was a non-smoker, several of my friends had the habit. This meant that we all wound up sitting under a two-foot cloud of cigarette smoke devouring our Moons Over My Hammies, drinking Cokes or coffee, and trying to make each night last until the sun came up or until someone collapsed from exhaustion or drunkenness. In the best of all worlds, had my script been produced, the film would have featured the immortal Otis Redding singing “Cigarettes and Coffee” under the scene. Redding’s soulful ballad was able to do everything I was trying to do in 100 pages, but in a mere 4 minutes. With its plodding drums, dreamy horns and Otis’ impassioned singing, this song sounds like it really was recorded sometime in the AM, with a microphone set up in a corner booth and the wait staff standing by to pour another cup of joe.
I had just discovered Redding’s music during the winter of ’86 and ’87, so it felt new and fresh, despite having been recorded twenty years earlier. Coming of age in the 1980s, actually hearing Redding’s catalog on the radio was pretty unusual. With all great ’60s soul relegated to the “oldies” stations that were suddenly taking over the frequencies of former AOR stations, the best you might hear from Redding was his posthumous triumph “(Sittin’ On the) Dock of the Bay.” Moreover, most of the Stax label masters like Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket, Carla Thomas and Joe Tex received little to no airplay ( “Soul Man” on occasion, or “Land of 1000 Dances”). What you heard was the Motown sound of soul. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but once I unearthed the rough, gritty soul from Stax records, Motown felt a little… safe.
The Blues Brothers introduced my friends and I to the alternate universe that took place outside of Barry Gordy’s kingdom. And then there was Duckie. Jon Cryer’s character “Duckie,” from the film Pretty in Pink, stopped me in my tracks when I saw it in early 1986. His manic, over-the-top lip syncing performance of Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” made me say, “Whoa! Who is this singing?” The end credits revealed that the performer was Redding, and I eagerly pursued more of his music. Unfortunately, the corporate shopping mall record stores that supplied me didn’t stock any Otis Redding LPs or cassettes. For one reason or another, I never placed an order at with a clerk (probably my intense fear of speaking to people) and sadly, Otis slipped my mind after a couple weeks.
Approximately a year after the Duckie epiphany, I was in Washington DC on a weeklong trip to learn about how our government functions. Between tours of the Capitol building, bus rides to historical landmarks, and dreadfully boring lectures about checks and balances (plus a secondary education from my California hotelmates on Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Bugle Boy pants and clove cigarettes), we were permitted to explore some of the city on our own. As was my custom, I sought out one of the local record joints. I used to love discovering local bands or finding obscure records that never popped up in the Cleveland suburbs. Although I didn’t come across any underground band that would go on to fame, I was elated to find The Best of Otis Redding (a 1985 compilation) on cassette. My world was shaken when I slid that tape into my Emerson Personal Cassette Player and began blasting the music though my headphones. Hearing the gutsy voice of the late Redding shout, cry, moan and wail on the verge of tears with such passion had my head spinning. I wondered, “How is it possible that radio stations aren’t playing this music?”
From that point on, any time I needed a quick pick me up to ease my mood, I fast forwarded to “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song).” When I wanted to rock out, I played “Mr. Pitiful.” The morning after my best concert ever (the ’87 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/Georgia Satellites/Del Fuegos show), as I cleaned my friend’s smeared vomit out of the red van, I wasn’t listening to Petty, as would be expected. No, I was listening to Otis Redding. I do believe Matt and I heard “Love Man” five or six times that morning (it wasn’t Matt’s puke, by the way). Finally, whenever I wanted to sit back and reflect on the good friends I’d been blessed with, or reminisce about the girls I pined for (or the ones I’d been a dick to), I played “Cigarettes and Coffee.”
Those late-night trips to Denny’s were magical, and had a lasting effect on me. By the time we all graduated from high school, the group of friends I had began to disperse and fracture. As minds and mores became influenced by the political and social surroundings of college or the work force, the idea of hanging out until some ungodly hour in the morning at a Denny’s lost some of its appeal. We grew up, and sadly, we grew apart as responsibilities began to deepen our roots into adulthood. Soon, the trips to Denny’s started to feel like we were trying to recapture the past instead of prolonging the onset of the future. “Cigarettes and Coffee” always takes me back to those nights, sitting with Sally, Matt, Brett, Phil and others. For some reason, I never shared this song with them, not even Matt or Steve, my closest friends. I’m not sure why I kept it to myself. Perhaps, like those private moments I’d have, tilting back in my chair under the layers of smoke, observing my friends in the twilight of a Denny’s morning an appreciating the joy I had in their company, I wanted “Cigarettes and Coffee” as my own. Not anymore.