There are rock 'n' roll stars who sometimes take unaccompanied walks on the rarest of occasions. Like, say, St. Swithins Day. If they do, they go to great pains not to be recognized by the mentally-challenged, poorly-dressed, shit-throwing monkeys who have made them rich and famous — meaning you and me who, heaven forbid, might ask for an autograph, tell them that a particular album got them through a vicious bout of shingles or just say, "Hey, thanks for the great music."
To avoid this, said stars wear sunglasses, hats or clothes so distressed and smelly, that you figure they've been thrown out of homeless shelters. In any case, it must be said: John Waite is not one of these guys. In fact, if you should ever see John Waite, go up to him, hug him and make it clear how much he's meant to you over the years and that you're not mistaking him for someone else. John Waite really needs it. Trust me on this.
I found this tragicomic fact out the hard way, one temperate spring day in 1990. As usual, I was doing my absolute best to avoid writing. Despite my seemingly prodigious output, my work habits are several notches below those of Snuffy Smith. You know, that slack-jawed, inbred, jug-swilling hillbilly, who rocks in his hammock all day, singing "The Wabash Cannonball"? Snuffy is a Type-A compared to me.
So, after a good 30 minutes of looking at a blank page, I put on a denim jacket and went for a stroll in Upper Manhattan. I walked in the Central Park West area, window shopping, hoping the various overpriced objects might inspire me to come up with something to write about. Although, if a cop asked me, there'd be no way to justify my spending 35 minutes staring into a woman's clothing store. Still, I had my story ready. I'd tell the officer that I once had a serious cross-dressing problem and how pleased my therapist would be that I merely looked and didn't go in, re-emerging in a provocative pair of culottes.
Moving on... During that day in 1990, I walked and walked until I found a bookstore. Now, I know this sounds like something out of mythology or something, but there really use to be bookstores in New York City. And they weren't just temporary or simply space-fillers for Starbucks. In I went. Sure, of a least one thing: that they didn't sell culottes there.
I bopped around various sections, doing my usual good deeds like moving Donald Trump's autobiography to the fantasy section, hiding L. Ron Hubbard's novels behind books on deviant sexuality — stuff like that.
Eventually, I grabbed a copy of Mojo, the English rock magazine which is so expensive you have to pay for it on an installment plan. I got in line with the magazine and saw the legendary Mr. Waite. Hey, if you tell enough people you're a legend, they start to believe it.
Now, unless this was a day I forgot to take my meds, I believe Waite was just standing on line like the rest of us mere mortals. He had one hand on a book and one hand somewhere else. I'd spell it out, but it wasn't anything you can mention in a family magazine.
It was around this time that things got, well, goofy.
John Waite is, of course, different from those other rockers that slink around the city streets wearing battered hats and clothes from the Boxcar Willie collection. Take this day. Not only was Waite wearing a snakeskin jacket, he also sported a spiky pompadour. That with its stiff tufts of hair, of varying heights and shapes, looked like a tribute to the New York City skyline. He also had a feathered earring, dangling from the left ear, that I was sure was some Native American tribute.
John Waite is also different from those other characters because it's never been quite determined if he actually is a rock star. Waite is one dude who really messes up the curve. He spent most of the '70s in a group called The Babys — A band with a great name and an even more grating sound. People knew of them, but no one can really tell me the title of one of their songs. In the '80s, spiky hair and chiseled features featured prominently in videos.
Waite did have a monster hit, called "Missing You" — a nice power ballad that he has, unfortunately, re-released in different musical genres in every decade since. There was the folky version with Allison Krause, the ska version, the metal version and I think he did it with Biggie, too. Waite also had a minor hit with the tune, "If Everybody Had A Heart," from the movie About Last Night — the sort of film you watch, when you've seen Miss Congeniality one too many times.
He then joined a group called Bad English with Neal Schon of Journey, a band who, just when I was started to accept them, played at the Republican National Convention in 2012, ruining what little good will they'd engendered and insuring them a spot in the 7th Circle Of Hell when they die. However, since Journey may already be members of the undead, this probably doesn't apply.
What I'm getting at here is, no one quite knows who John Waite is. But standing on line that day at the bookstore, he was about to do his damnedest to let us know.
First, John struck several moody poses, most of which I recognized from his videos. When his classic, tormented looks didn't get a reaction from people standing near him, Waite went into hyperdrive. And even I, a hardened, cynical New Yorker, had his mind blown. John opened his mouth and began to sing. I'm still so shook up about it, I can't reliably relate what happened next. But I think it was a medley. The first 14 songs were probably Baby's songs, because I didn't recognize them. Then, of course, Waite went into "Missing You." People on line, began to smile at John Waite, but they weren't the happy smiles of recognition. They were mostly the smiles I imagine attendants at Bellevue give a patient, who is holding a broken bottle to his own throat. They were, "Come on John, put down that bottle," smiles.
Waite mistook this for rabid fandom and swung into "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which nobody had the heart to tell him he hadn't written. Thankfully, before someone in a white jacket jabbed him with enough thorazine to knock out the entire borough, Waite was called up to the register. I didn't see what his book was. I was hoping it was one of two titles — Some sort of self-help book or some sort of book that could help the rest of us.
In any case, John Waite paid up, took his purchase, and, if I remember it right, sang his "Thank you!" to the person who rang him up, then strutted out. And despite his bebopping stride and the wind that blew when he opened the door, his rigid hair did not move at all as he left. Had he made an impression? Indeed. Although, probably not the one he had intended.
No one that I looked at seemed to know that a rock star had been in their midst. It was more like the aftermath of a six-car pileup. We were all shaking tremulously, looking peaked and asking each other if everybody was okay.
Still, I sort of grin when I look back on that day. Because, for certain people who play rock, any reaction is better than no reaction at all. So, if that was his intention, John Waite certainly got what he wanted.
It's been years since that warm spring afternoon in New York City, but nobody, especially yours truly, will ever forget the time they got to see John Waite perform live. Sure, I know the venue was a bit out of the ordinary, but, hell, you can't have everything. Am I right?