Heartbreak Hotel - by John Sealander

Heartbreak Hotel

Grand old hotels gradually acquire a life of their own. After fifty years or so, there are ghosts in the closets and whispers in the hallways. A sense of history permeates everything from the polished walnut elevator paneling to the ornate crystal chandeliers hanging in the Grand Ballroom. The Hotel Cleveland is one of these places. A small brass plaque near the main entrance says the hotel has been in continuous operation for almost one hundred years. It doesn't really matter that the place has gone through several major transformations and now lives on as a somewhat trendy establishment called the Stouffer Renaissance. It doesn't matter that there are keyless electronic cards to unlock your room. Or that a stocked mini-bar awaits your arrival. It doesn't even matter that I'm here on a dubious project that will be quickly forgotten while the hotel itself continues to endure. As I sit nursing a scotch in an immense formal sitting room just off the main lobby, I am struck by the fact that there is still a bit of history waiting to be played out in these halls.

Usually a place like this would be filled to capacity with management consultants, detail men from pharmaceutical companies and the occasional advertising person like myself. That's why it initially seems so surprising to notice a large, eclectic and somewhat disheveled group of hotel guests who might as well be wearing neon signs saying "I'm not a rock star, but I dress like one in hotels."

Even though these people are wandering around like they own the place, it takes me a full ten minutes and another drink before I realize what is going on. While I am in Cleveland to crank out yet another low-budget corporate video. These terminally hip folks are here to set the stage for the Grand Opening of the long awaited Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These aren't Cleveland street people. They're not here attending a convention of aging skate punks. This is the advance guard from the Rock & Roll press. In town for the occasion are a collection of strikingly thin prisoners of fashion from MTV, Rolling Stone and Interview magazine, joined by hipper-than-thou PR flacks and equally colorful advance men for the the dozens of performers arriving to play at the Grand Opening festivities. According to one of the hotel bellmen, there isn't an available limo in town. This self-styled rock and roll elite is ocassionally confused with a similarly attired group of roadies and technicians living high-on-the-hog in the hotel on per-diems while they assemble the gargantuan revolving stage that will soon become the centerpiece of the six hour Grand Opening concert.

The juxtaposition of this calculatedly current looking entourage with the hotel's regular conservative and well-heeled business clientele is fascinating. I would have initially expected a minor turf war to errupt between the business folks and the Hall of Fame rockers. But nothing of the sort is occuring. Instead it is quickly apparent that over 90% of the business people in the hotel really wish they could be rock stars instead. An equally surprisingly percentage of the terminally hip turn out to be nothing more than business people in costume. While the business types stare at the wild clothing and talk about rock & roll fantasies, the rockers themselves talk quietly with each other about gate receipts and demographics.

I take to eating my meals at San Souci, the hotel's pricey main restaurant, just so I can watch this little drama play itself out. The first couple of days my client is still ordering room service meals, so I eat alone at a comfortable corner table where I can be sure to overhear everyone's conversation. It is uncanny. Almost without exception, when a group of traveling salesmen or meeting planners or management consultants notices one of their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame counterparts across the restaurant, the conversation immediately turns to music. From my vantage point, it appears that virtually all of these successful looking business people have seemingly abandoned a promising Rock and Roll career to pursue a life of selling printing supplies and prescription drugs. These business types don't resent the Hall of Fame entourage, they envy them. I continually overhear snips of conversation about parents that made budding rock stars give up the drum lessons just when they were starting to get the hang of things. About high school bands that never quite got that first record released. And about all the business crowd's favorite groups and most memorable concerts.

I know all these things I am hearing are true, because over the years I've experienced many of the same feelings myself. Virtually every job I've ever received a paycheck for has been a makeshift substitute for a glamorous life on the road with the Rolling Stones. Advertising agencies are filled with self-important rock star wannabees, but I never dreamed that banks, brokerage houses and pharmaceutical companies were the same way. We stay at the same hotels. We record our little jingles at the same recording studios. We use the same film directors that the big stars use for their music videos, but when push comes to shove, we're still just singing in the shower. I remember that the high point of my advertising career wasn't winning a CLIO award. It wasn't getting promoted to Vice President or Creative Director. It was when me and four of my advertising drinking buddies formed an inept band called "The Fabulous Has-Beens." It didn't matter that all we could play were three-chord songs like Wooley Bully and Gloria and Louie Louie. We were the talk of the town. For a good three years we were every ad man's fantasy. We kept our well paying day jobs, bought a truckload of the flashy electric guitars and high-wattage amps we never could afford in high school. We played on Saturday nights in our favorite bars because we were friends with the owners. This was living. And it also explains why the four pharmaceutical sales reps sitting at the table next to me, resplendent in their grey Armani and Hugo Boss suits are so fascinated by the rock & roll crowd sharing our hotel

Most of us may not remember all the names of our presidents. We may not remember who went to the moon after Neil Armstrong. We may not even remember where to find Belgium on a map of the world, but we remember The Allman Brothers. We remember Chuck Berry. We remember Jerry Lee Lewis and the Kinks. We remember Eric Burden and James Brown. We remember Brian Wilson and Little Richard and the Pretenders. And every one of us, whatever our generational label, remembers Jimi Hendrix. Personally I think it is a good thing there is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In an age of cynicism and rancor, music is just about the only thing left that has any potential of binding people together again. I overhear bits and pieces about this big concert the folks in the hotel are planning for the Labor Day weekend. They are talking about eclectically pairing people like Chuck Berry and Snoop Doggy Dog together onstage. I wish I could be there to see James Brown singing together with Jackson Brown. I'd love to hear Melissa Etheridge singing a duet with Little Richard. I'd love to think that real life still has the raw emotion and vitality that Rock and Roll often embodies it with.

I'm still holding this thought when my client joins me for dinner in the same restaurant to following evening. We have just about finished our video project and are feeling good. Karen is about my same age and shares the same musical memories. We enjoy a bottle of Chalk Hill Chardonnay and reminisce about the past. It appears that she, like virtually everyone in the restaurant tonight, has had her share of rock & roll dreams and fantasies. We talk about the days when "sex, drugs and rock & roll" was a viable mission statement. The days when virtually anything seemed possible and nothing was too foolish to be attempted at least once. It all seems like a cosmic joke now. The sex did nothing but get me in trouble. The drugs just made the work world that came later more difficult when I was asked to perform miracles with only half my brain cells intact. I'm still a bit ambivilant about the rock & roll though. Thinking back on this self-destructive trinity of values, I realize that rock & roll was one of the last dreams I abandoned. Don't get me wrong, I still listen to CD's in the car and stuff, but I gave away the last of my guitars and amps last year to some neighbor kids who wanted to start a thrash band. My great looking Jim Morrison leather pants don't even come close to fitting anymore anyway.

I watch the business people and rockers eat their dinners as intriguing personal revelations mingle in the air with the smell of cappuccino. It's been a nice evening. My client and I are nostalgic and half drunk. In an earlier incarnation, when sex, drugs and rock & roll were still words to live by, this would have been the perfect prelude to a torrid affair. Times are different now. Today, it's much more enjoyable to have a good traveling companion and a steady source of business income. We clink our glasses together, toasting a grand old hotel and the many unfulfilled dreams it houses tonight. A few minutes later we leave sleepy and somewhat befuddled to find our separate rooms.

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copyrightę1995. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 20321 readers since 3/30/96