Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finding My Mojo in La-La Land

This trip out west was slapped together quickly. First came the idea for a book signing at IMPULSE, the gift shop of Auto Club Speedway, in the Inland Valley due east of Los Angeles. Now I’d had a few private book signings with friends, which were an absolute blast. But I’m leery and wary and suspicious of the standard “book store signing.” The idea of sitting in a folding chair at a table stacked with your books, waiting for strangers to walk up and ask for your autograph seems terribly ostentatious. And cheesy. And a prescription for disaster.

Among various concerns, there is: Who the hell am I? And why would anyone want my signature?

Sure, I had signed a fan’s bare butt at Daytona. But that was on top of an RV in the infield during a crazy Daytona 500, in tight seamless context with the locale and race at hand.

When the track said they’d allow Barbie Robbins (a.k.a., Junior’s Baby88 Girl), along with Tava Miyata (the “Good Vibrations” chapter) to join the book signing, I was in. Sharing this experience – my first public signing – with fans featured in the book would very cool and entirely appropriate.

Barbie lives life out loud. Everyone at the track seems to know her. When the local ABC affiliate came to do their requisite “crazy NASCAR fan” story, they were the bee to her honey. Tape rolled and Junior's Baby88 Girl screamed and shouted about the book she’s in – my book. That just warms the cockels of my innards. Barbie is an absolute pisser who jumps up and down with joy every time Junior’s car passes. On Sunday, also known as Race Day, she is sad, because that means her time at the track is almost over.

Tava likes to have fun (she would show up at our book signing with Mexican coffee – your standard joe spiked with tequila and kaluha – as well as a Bud Light for Barbie). But outwardly, Tava is much more reserved. She’s a business owner and mother of twins who took over Wayne Miyata Surfboards when her dad passed away. A Giangola sandwich between slices of Barbie and Tava bread would be memorable. Plus, unlike most of the fans in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, I’d only interviewed these ladies by phone; I desperately wanted to meet them in person. I was looking forward to the signing even if no one showed up.

The event was set for the morning of the Auto Club 500 race, and then, as we say in Brooklyn, bada bing, bada boom, Sirius invited me to be Mojo Nixon’s co-host for an hour of his national radio show. The Race Gods were saying, “Go west, young man.”

On the way to la-la land, because I’ve been a traveling fool, I was bumped to First Class. No better feeling in the world than to be a Chosen One. You’re jammed into one of those narrow lumpy seats in coach, and a Flight Attendant whisks open the curtain, marches toward the back of the plane, and asks, "Are you (YOUR NAME HERE)?" At first, panic sets in. Your stomach is in your throat as you’re realizing, “Oh Jeez, the FBI is at the door, all those emails joking about the bomb in my Converse high tops have finally caught up. I’m headed for Gitmo.” (Personally, I’m a poor swimmer; I can’t breathe during the crawl without feeling like I’m drowning. I will not be able to handle my face forced down into a flushing toilet.)

But, then, alas, then Flight Attendant is escorting you to First Class...and you can just FEEL the sharp dagger stares of hatred from 200 resentful people stuck in steerage.

That's life, right? Enjoy your bag of 5.2 peanuts, folks, and tip a toast to me in the front row with your 3.6 ounces of diet Coke in the short plastic cup. I will return your toast from the province of the rich folk with a tip of my Chardonnay.

Able to spread out without the proverbial fat guy in coach spilling into my seat, I made notes for the Mojo show. Arriving in LA, I felt hopelessly unprepared, fat, old and pale. In New York, I could not for the life of me find a place to get a spray-on tan. There were no appointments for botox. Avis was out of convertibles. But I was set on doing the best I could as co-host with Mojo, who was a cult figure on college campuses nationwide in the '80’s with songs like, “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with my Two-Headed Love Child,” “Don Henley Must Die,” and of course, “Elvis is Everywhere.”

In the track’s media center, a good 20 yards away from his stuffy radio booth, you can hear Mojo Nixon’s loud voice. He’s a vibrating, pulsating, force field of energy, funny observations, semi-risque riffs, double entendre comments, and southern-fried colloquialisms.

Do you try to match Mojo’s energy? Or be the more placid straight guy? In the back of the room, listening to Mojo exorcise his mojo, I instinctively knew I’d have to get into fourth gear quickly and was glad I had the foresight to have consumed four cups of coffee earlier at Denny’s.

My notes would be useless. They were stuck together because I’d spilled the syrup from my first Grand Slam all over them. At two minutes to air time, Denny’s value meal and the Indian chef’s special from the previous night decided to have a food fight in my stomach. I was thinking this might not end very well.

Worse, than puking on Mojo’s console, what if he didn’t want me here? My appearance on his show for a full hour to yap about my book and NASCAR fans wasn’t his idea. I was worried the music and radio legend might wind up being dismissive or even resentful some schmucky guy from New York flew in to glom onto his show.

But Mojo is a man of the fans. He instantly welcomed me with a warm handshake. On air, he laughed at my silly jokes, and was genuinely interested in how I connected with those in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday. We took fan calls, including one from Tire Man, checking in from Alabama to explain the most photographed valve stem on the circuit.

The hour went fast. I wanted to say so much more. When we opened up the phones, I asked for a pscyhologist or psychiatrist -- or one who played one on TV to call in. Jimmie Johnson's wife was having a baby, and the talk among motorsports pundits was the new arrival could be a chink in Jimmie's armour. I went against the grain, explaining when I had Gaby -- or rather, when Viviane gave birth to our daughter, as I was off in the corner reading the newspaper -- it made my life better. I became a more complete human being. It rounded me and gave me important perspective. That makes me better at my job. Maybe Jimmie would be better at his. I asked for a psychologist to call in with a view.

Mojo looked at me like I had several heads. Jimmie is already otherwordly after winning four straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Are you looking for a psychologist or a psychotic, he asked. Mojo knows his audience a lot better than I do. My last long-form interview was with NPR. This was a different audience.

(Later, I'd get a note from fan who wanted me to know what I said about Gaby was the best part of the show.)

Trying to keep pace with Mojo felt like running a marathon as a sprint. “Come outside,” Mojo said when the hour was up, and in the cool California air, he gave me tips for engaging callers and moving in and out of commercials. You’ll be fine, he said.

You see, the show was a try-out of sorts for me; perhaps NASCAR and Sirius will work out a radio show all about the fans. I’m a PR guy, a sometime writer, a clueless New Yorker in NASCAR Country. I’m not sure radio is in my future. It’s in the hands of others, and will require sponsorship. If Sirius gives me the nod, I’ll give it a shot. As David Lee Roth said, “Sometimes you have to lead with your face.”

For one afternoon, I had a blast as co-host of a national radio show with an American icon. The entire hour with Mojo, I had this shit-eating grin on my face. (If Mojo heard that, he might say, Why is this type of smile called “shit eating”? If you actually ate feces, would you be SMILING? It has to be the dumbest expression coined since humans moved from grunts to spoken language. Yeah, that’s what he’d say.

1 comment:

  1. Would love to have you come and chat on

    live during one of the races.