It started out slowly and evolved as most torrid affairs do – into promises of everything you’ve ever dreamed of; connection, love, creative fulfillment, riches, recognition, inclusion and belonging.
“Beethoven” played synthesizer in a jazz band where I’d become the copyist in the mid-1970s and I soon became HIS copyist, as his reputation grew as a freelance arranger.
In the beginning, it was a pretty straightforward client-supplier relationship – he’d call, I’d go pick up the scores, run home to extract the parts and then deliver them to the studio – always last-minute. There was built in drama to the timing – will we be ready? can I get there on time? I always did, but there were some really close calls, when he’d still be writing the 2nd chart in the cab on the way to the studio while I was copying parts to the 1st chart so the musicians would have something to play at the start of the session.
He got plenty of work for pop and disco records as well as music for advertising. New to jingles, I was a little surprised and delighted to discover residual payments; after the initial TV and radio cycle, often ad agencies would continue the campaign using the same music, resulting in another payment for the musicians. When you’re self-employed, “money for nothing” gets your attention!
And then there were magic moments; when the musicians would yell out, “hey, Marilyn’s here! NOW we can get this party started!”, or the guitarist would hold my waist to steady me as I squeezed by the microphones to put parts on the music stands, or when the drummer and bassist would start dancing while listening to the playback. It was great to see pretty much the same fantastically musical guys pretty much every weekday, and watch them switch seamlessly from country tracks in the morning to funk grooves in the afternoon – their musical prowess was spectacular!
“Beethoven” was always the picture of casual elegance with his velvet blazer, tailored jeans, gold Dunhill cigarette lighter. He could “pass” in the business world but had bohemian proclivities; one time I came by to prepare music and found him preparing illegal substances and singing,🎶 “this is the way we chop our coke, chop our coke, chop our coke…” 🎶 Drugs added to the mystique, plus I think he grew to rely on them as much as his chain-smoking and alcohol consumption.
It seemed that he never turned down work, and got to a point where he needed help finishing scores; at first only horn parts, or a string voicing, or vocal harmonies, which I was more than happy to do. It was thrilling to hear what I’d written being brought to life by NYC’s best talent in the best studios. And he’d tell me to add $50 or $75 to my copying invoice. I could use the extra money and heck, we all want to be indispensable. Plus it was dramatic to see him “miraculously” save a session, to notice how impressed the clients were with the results, and to know that behind the scenes, I’d helped contribute to the magic.
What do you give the man who has everything? When his birthday came up, I wanted to get him a suitable gift – it was the only time I’ve ever shopped at Tiffany’s.
Over 4+ years, “Beethoven” was never my only client, but he was the most important one for quite a while. I’d check with him about what was on the schedule before accepting other gigs and I never left town if there was a chance he’d need my services. I was constantly reassured that I was an essential and irreplaceable “part of the team” that sustained his professional success. And that was easy to believe since I bailed him out time and again as he “bit off more than he could chew” work-wise.
Promises were made. While I knew I would never have the keyboard chops he had and I certainly never expected to be asked to play, I was a good sight-singer with choir and studio experience and the ability to blend in vocal groups, and I became frustrated that I was only rarely allowed to sing on sessions (potentially much more lucrative than copying or arranging music). It was confusing when what he’d promised didn’t match up with what went down, and I kept being disappointed when his actions didn’t match his words – much like the married man Carrie Fisher is hung up on at the start of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. “Will he ever leave his wife?” Umm… no. At a certain point, I realized I was living a cliché.
Fortunately the stars aligned and a few things happened to secure my freedom; I’d taken a film scoring summer course at Eastman, and in my absence, “Beethoven” had found someone else to ghostwrite for him. Simultaneously I had an epiphany where I realized that if I didn’t stop working for him, I would hurt myself so that I wouldn’t be able to work for anybody. I had no idea how this would happen – I might get hit by a bus, or fall down and break my arm. I just knew it viscerally, and unlike so many other messages from my gut, for once, I believed it.
The kicker was when he called me again for a last-minute gig after I’d returned from Rochester. I rushed over to his apartment, but it turned out to be a false alarm – his wife told me that the session had been cancelled. Then she added 5 words that totally broke the spell: “You’re married to him, too”.
Whatever else I may have been clueless about, I knew for sure that THAT was not the case!
I hadn’t thought about him in a very long time but recently learned that “Beethoven” died a couple years ago; one of the earliest victims of COVID. And it stirred up a lot of feelings. At first I thought, “oh, gee! What a shame he’s gone.” But after only a short while, as the memories flooded back… hmm. Maybe not such a loss after all.