When I was younger, a callow young military officer, I occasionally got involved in some hair-raising escapades, dangerous standoffs and amazing capers that to this day, when I think about them, make me shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through my mind at the time. For instance:
- I've talked my way out of a potentially dangerous and fatal encounter with a gang of armed, tough-looking Rastas who surrounded me one night in a dark neighborhood in the hills above Charlotte Amelie, St. Thomas, V.I....
- I somehow found myself alone and unarmed deep within a favela in Rio De Janeiro, with only a very few words of Portuguese at my command and many miles between me and safety... and
- I've come to from a booze bender in the wee hours in downtown Panama City (not long after the Noriega regime was toppled and the place was designated a war zone) having no idea where I was or how to get back...
I have definitely had some colorful and memorable adventures, in locations all over the world. For various reasons (heh), others need not be revisited here... but there are some scams and shenanigans I pulled back in the day that still hold a warm, special place in my heart. This is one of my all-time favorites - probably because it DIDN'T involve the risk of my life or limb.
A couple of weeks after I moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the austral winter (the northern hemisphere’s summer) of 1993, the government announced that construction would soon commence on the first-ever casino in the country, right there in the city. The entertainment facility would be located on a then-vacant triangle of land between Victoria and Durham Streets, directly across from the Crowne Plaza, the city’s top hotel. The building effort was scheduled to start that month, and it was estimated that it would take about eighteen months to complete.
Needless to say, I was completely jazzed to hear this news. As I’ve pointed out time and again on this blog, I’m an inveterate gambler, who has managed to do pretty well at it over the years. In my previous duty station in the Washington DC area, I made many a foray up to Atlantic City and back in the two years I lived there, and got fairly proficient at the games that I loved to play (first blackjack, later craps and finally no-limit poker). I’d never be (and never had any desire to be) a professional at it, but after a while I knew that I could hold my own, and more times than not come away from such trips with a tidy profit. Plus, I enjoy the mathematical and psychological challenge of it all, keeping track of odds and trying to ‘read’ opponents. As such, I was sort of bumming during my first few days in New Zealand because, as fun and entertaining as the nightlife appeared to be in Christchurch, having no readily-available access to a craps or blackjack table was going to be a heavy blow. So this announcement was news from heaven, as far as I was concerned. I told everyone I knew, both my old friends back in the States and my new friends in Christchurch, that I was going to BE at that casino on Opening Night, no matter what.
All that austral summer, and throughout 1994, I watched that place go up (I passed it quite often, as it was a couple of blocks away from one of my favorite weekend haunts, The Club - in fact, one of my buddies, a bartender at The Club, had applied for a job at the new venue). It wasn't particularly a flash-looking, Vegas-style building... but it WAS going to be a casino, so I didn't care - I would've played sitting on a stool under a canvas tent, just so long as the games I liked to play were available.
Soon I began to hear about the government's plans to celebrate the opening later that year. It was going to be a swanky black-tie affair, with dignitaries and celebs from all walks of life flying in from all over Australasia. As such, the guest list was going to be very exclusive, with the vast majority hand-picked by the feds and the casino operators. However, apparently as a sop to the general population, the word was that some members of the public could also choose to be part of the opening gala - for only $1,000 per ticket.
Of course, I didn't have a cool grand to blow on something like that. So all that year, I tried to leverage my few New Zealand connections to help me wrangle one of those "dignitary" invitations. For example, I knew someone who knew someone who knew the mayor of Christchurch, and I thought they might put in a good word on my behalf; I made friends with some high-ranking NZ Air Force officers out at the old Wigram Air Base who I thought might be helpful; and I had some commercial connections through my work who I thought might be 'big' enough to make something happen. But no luck. As the year passed, and Opening Day crept closer and closer, I still found myself as one of the "outside looking in" crowd. I wracked my brains for a solution, but got no closer to finding one.
While all of this was going on, I went back to the States for leave that May/June (I returned to New Zealand the day after the infamous O.J. Simpson "Bronco chase"). Shortly after I arrived back to Christchurch, one of my good friends and fellow officers at the base, Rod, the Communications Officer, transferred back to the States. His replacement was another young lieutenant (let's call him "Phil"), a loud, brash New Englander who, at first, I was sure I wouldn't get along with. But we quickly became very good friends, hanging out together in town, hitting the clubs and chasing the local chicks when we weren't at work at NASU.
One night, a couple of months after he arrived, I went over to Phil's house in the center of Christchurch, to hang out for a bit at his invitation. We just chilled on the couch for a couple of hours, having a couple of Canterbury Draughts and watching a VHS tape he'd brought over from the States with him, a movie called True Romance written by some relative unknown newcomer named Quentin Tarantino. I'd never heard of the guy before, or knew any of his other work - but I enjoyed the film immensely. Phil told me that Tarantino had another film coming out later that year, a crime yarn called Pulp Fiction, that I should keep an eye out for. I figured it might be pretty good, but nowhere near as good as True Romance... (how wrong I turned out to be...)
After the film was over, he fired up some tunes, playing an album by a group which up to that point, I was unfamiliar with. The CD cover featured four rather nondescript guys, facing the
Weezer was formed in Los Angeles on Valentine's Day 1992 by a bunch of mostly East Coast transplants who gradually made their way to California during the late 80s/early 90s. Bassist Matt Sharp was born in Thailand to American diplomat parents, but spent most of this early teenage years in the suburbs of Washington, DC. He moved to San Diego in the late 80s and joined a number of short-lived goth and thrash bands. During this time, he struck of a friendship with Buffalo, NY native Patrick Wilson, who had recently moved to LA and was drumming for a local band called Bush (no, not THAT Bush - this is another one you've never heard of). When that band fell apart in early 1991, Wilson and Sharp recruited a couple of friends of theirs, including Oakland, CA guitarist Jason Cropper, and formed a new band called Sixty Wrong Sausages. At the same time, Wilson was participating in Fuzz, another short-lived local band whose members included yet another out-of-stater, Connecticut-born Tower Records employee and erstwhile roadie Rivers Cuomo. Cuomo eventually joined the lineup of Sixty Wrong Sausages, which evolved into Weezer.
After some early practices, Weezer got its first gig later in 1992, in front of about sixty people at a crappy Los Angeles club called Rodgies; they opened for another local band also making its live debut that night - Dogstar, featuring actor Keanu Reeves on bass. While that show didn't exactly make Weezer a household name in the area, the band kept practicing, progressing and gigging, and inside of a year had slowly begun to make a name for itself in the Los Angeles Basin. On the strength of that local buzz, the group was courted and signed by Geffen Records in June of 1993.
Almost immediately, the label flew Weezer to New York City, to cut their debut album at Electric Lady Studios. The band wanted to self-produce, but Geffen wasn't about that at all, and pressured the group to select an outside producer - they settled on former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek. From all reports, the session went very smoothly, with all of the basic tracks laid down in a single day, and all in one take. The band's working relationship with Ocasek was cordial and productive, with the producer making only minor recommendations to improve the band's sound. The only disconcerting note during the entire recording process was the departure of founding guitarist Cropper (for years, the reason behind his leaving the band was a well-kept secret; it was only recently that Cuomo revealed that Cropper's personal issues - specifically, a pregnant girlfriend - began to affect the band's work, and led to his being asked to leave the group), immediately replaced by Brian Bell. Even with that, Weezer successfully completed the recording and mixing of their debut before the summer of 1993 was out.
Geffen released the album in the spring of 1994. The label initially put no money or promotional efforts behind the band's first release, wanting to see if word of mouth could propel sales. After a slow start, this strategy paid off - Weezer went gold before the end of the year, and reached platinum status (1 million copies sold) by New Years Day 1995, eventually peaking at #16 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Three singles from the album ("Undone - The Sweater Song", "Buddy Holly" and "Say It Ain't So") made both the U.S. Modern Rock Top 10 and the overall British Top 40 charts as well. I was fortunate enough to have heard it at Phil's house long before its more mainstream success; with that first listen, I instantly became a Weezer fan.
I went back to the States again that October, for a Navy Supply Corps conference in San Diego I had absolutely NO interest in attending, but one which my commanding officer insisted that I go to. Not that I was adverse to heading over to sunny California for a while... but like I said, I had just returned from a long vacation back in the country just a couple of months earlier. Plus, the conference was a complete boondoggle - no major policy decisions or changes were expected to come out of it; it was just a chance for a bunch of officers to hang out in Southern California for a week. I told the CO as much, along with the fact that the command's budget really couldn't absorb what I considered "unnecessary trips" like this (I know it sounds like I was pissing on my own potential parade... but I did try to keep a close eye on the government's purse strings). But I was overruled; he insisted that I had to go, to "keep in contact with my peers".
I was like, "OK, fine - yes sir", and started making arrangements that would benefit MY schedule. The major change I made to my itinerary was to arrive in San Diego three days prior to the conference, rather than on the day of - I had plans of my own I wanted to take advantage of...
My transpacific flight landed in San Diego on a Thursday afternoon, just before 2 pm. By 2:30, I'd collected my luggage, acquired my rental car, and was hauling ass through the desert on I-15, on my way to Vegas (I punished that car during that drive - it was over 100 degrees outside, I was traveling 85-90+ miles an hour, and I had the A/C cranked down to below 60 degrees; I'm still stunned that car wasn't a heap of smoldering slag by the end of my term with it). I made that five-hour-plus trip in a little less than four, threw my bags down in the cheapest place I could find
I powered through two and a half days of nonstop fun in Sin City, gambling until I couldn't see the dice or cards, then stumbling back to my room at the La Concha for a couple hours' sleep before charging out again. Yup - I was a total degenerate. But I made a fucking FORTUNE - that town was all but handing me money that trip! And occasionally I took a break from my debauchery for other pursuits - I had a couple of really good meals at some decent restaurants in the city. And on my last afternoon there, I went off down W. Sahara Boulevard to the now-long gone Tower Records store and spent some of my newly-acquired largesse on tunes. I bought a ton of CDs, including the Weezer album I'd heard back home. These new tunes accompanied me back to San Diego that weekend and, at the end of that week (which was, as I suspected, a useless conference - although I did have some fun and saw some old friends in town and up in LA while I was there) back to New Zealand. By the time I returned, they were putting the finishing touches on the gambling joint . . . and of course, I still didn't have a ticket to attend the opening gala.
I watched the television coverage for a while . . . then thought for a few seconds and finally said aloud to myself, “Fuck it; let’s give it a shot.”
As I carefully pulled my uni on and checked my white dress shoes for scuffs, I thought over my strategy for getting into the casino opening event. My plan was to drive downtown, park nearby, walk over to the building entrance, and boldly declare that I was the “official U.S. Navy representative” to the ceremonies, while defiantly looking the doormen/gatekeepers in the eye and all but DARING them to challenge my credentials. If, however, they did work up the gumption to ask to actually see my invitation, the next phase of my plan was to begin slapping my pockets awkwardly, and claiming I must have inadvertently forgotten it. In the worst possible scenario, I figured that I would ignominiously be sent packing down the street with my tail between my legs in front of all the locals and TV cameras (as you can tell, my mind was very narrowly focused in regards to consequences - the potential of instigating a minor international incident for something like "fraud" or "misrepresentation of a foreign military entity" never really entered my head). Otherwise, I was pretty confident that, with my “clever plan”, I could successfully crash the event.
Before I left the house, I had the presence of mind to grab some tunes to bring along with me, to steady my nerves as I made my way towards an uncertain outcome, one that could possibly lead to some minor personal embarrassment and humiliation, and at the most could... well, again, I didn’t really consider any worst-case scenarios. I jumped in my car, pulled out of the driveway, and left my Casebrook neighborhood for the ride downtown. En route, I stuck Weezer into the in-dash CD player, and tooled down the street while "My Name Is Jonas" blared through the car speakers.
Oh, I forgot to mention the car I was driving... When you transfer overseas, the Navy allows you to ship your privately-owned vehicle (POV) over to your new duty station at government expense, along with the rest of your household goods. This was my POV:
My pride and joy, a gold 1982 Porsche 928... at the time, one of six in the entire country, and the only left-hand drive model on the South Island. I bought this car a couple of years earlier from a dealer in Virginia and absolutely loved it, so much so that I wasn’t about to leave it behind when I moved halfway around the world. It arrived in Christchurch nearly two months after I did, but it was well worth the wait; I suddenly owned one of the (if not THE) hottest, fastest cars in the region. Not to brag, but to say that my 928 was of great assistance in my social life in New Zealand is putting it very, very mildly... and I’ll just leave it at that.
I made my way across town, down Papanui Road and across Bealey onto Victoria Street towards the venue; Victoria has a minor left-hand bend to it a couple of blocks down, so I couldn't quite see what was happening further down that road at the casino site (although I did notice that there seemed to be more people out on the streets than usual). As got closer, I saw what the deal was - and a funny and unpleasant feeling began to build in the pit of my stomach...
A cordon of police had the intersection blocked off at Salisbury Street, directing any unauthorized cars and non-guests to the event off in another direction. If I was going to bail out of this caper, now would be the time to do so - I could just follow the instructions of the cops, quietly make that left, and be on my way back home. But for some reason, I decided to 'take the plunge' and deal with whatever came my way; instead of turning, I boldly pulled right up to the barrier, turning the music down and rolling down the automatic window for the authorities there to get a full view of me in my regalia. Needless to say, I was a little tense, but I looked at the cops there manning the gate with the attitude and air of a man who's SUPPOSED to be let through... and it worked. Before I could say a word; they moved the barrier aside and waved me along.
Whew! So far so good! For that brief moment, I was feeling very positive and confident; if that was the best they had for security (and the worst I had to expect to get through), I was good to go. Then I looked ahead, and felt my nuts crawl up into my belly...
It appeared that my interpretation of the TV coverage was woefully incorrect. Instead of the light security I was anticipating, there was a massive and significant presence around the casino. The powers-that-be had pulled out all the stops for this event; the joint was practically ringed with local, federal (I forgot about the government bigwigs who were scheduled to attend) and corporate security personnel, and the streets were cordoned off with security barriers on the far side of Victoria Street and all the other roads around the casino building, with cops roaming around behind those barriers to keep the sizeable crowd of "unauthorized" spectators at bay. Between all of this, the streets were kept almost completely empty, except for the limos of the arriving guests/dignitaries...
And my dumb ass, tooling down the middle of the street in uniform, in my Porsche. I was as naked and obvious as a bug on a plate, and I KNEW that my ride and I were the cynosure of every person in the immediate vicinity. The moment of truth was about to arrive for me - and I've got to admit that in those moments, I wasn't feeling very confident. But it was much, much too late for me to bail.
I slowly pulled up to the entrance to the underground garage and stopped, and my car was instantly surrounded by at least a dozen stern-looking cops and casino security personnel. Inwardly, I was thinking "Oh shit - the jig is up!" I could almost feel the eyes of every spectator and the lens of every camera boring into the back of my head as I sat there - and it was then, finally, that the realization came to me that if I got busted now, I was going to be embarrassed on a nationwide level, and possibly be in for some savage shit when I went back to work at the base the next day. But outwardly, I tried to remain as cool and nonchalant as I could. I turned "Say It Ain't So" down on the car CD player, and reached over to press the button to open the passenger side window. The guy who I assumed to be the Head Cop jammed his head in; I could tell he was a bit confused at first, as he expected me to be sitting in a right-hand drive NZ car instead of my left-hand drive American model - I had a fleeting hope I could use that confusion to my advantage. He leaned in as far as he could, while the rest of his team gathered in tightly behind him and all around the Porsche. Instead of panicking, I calmly smiled, looked the guy dead in the eye, and said, "Any more parking down below for this event?"
The Head Cop looked hard at me - white uniform, gold braid, multicolored ribbons and medals on my chest - then he looked back and forth slowly at the interior of the Porsche I was in - then back at me. He paused for just a moment... that's the moment I assumed I was screwed. But the guy then broke into a huge welcoming smile as he said "Yes Sir! Happy to have you with us!"
Another "Whew!" moment! Instantly, two liveried casino employees sprung out from seemingly nowhere. The gauntlet of cops parted like the Red Sea and made room for me as these carhops, with one trotting on either side of my front hood like Secret Service agents, guided me inside the garage and right into one of the best reserved spaces, right by the basement entrance. From there, these two guys practically carried me to the casino elevator; I daresay I welcomed the assistance at that point, because I was a bit shaky from that make-or-break encounter at the entrance. I couldn't believe my luck so far!
But I knew that I wasn't out of the woods yet. From my observations over the past months as the place was being built, I knew that the gaming area was up on the second floor of the building, above the street-level casino entrance. During the street tete-a-tete with security, I had the presence of mind to glance over and observe that there was a reception/welcome committee set up on the ground floor, to greet the guests (and presumably to check their invitations/credentials) before allowing them to go upstairs where the action was. I had no stomach for another scene like the first two I'd been through. So as I entered the elevator, I quickly punched the button for the second (casino) floor, figuring I could bypass all of the rigamarole in the lobby, quickly exit onto the main floor and instantly blend in with the crowd (well, as much as a guy wearing a snow-white uniform could blend in). As the lift began its slow upward journey, I relaxed a bit. I figured I was home free.
So imagine my surprise when the fucking thing suddenly stopped on the lobby floor and the doors began to open! They had rigged the elevators that night not to go up all the way. By the time I thought about hitting the "close doors" button, it was too late - I was face-to-face with a bevy of dignitaries and facility major-domos, who I KNEW were going to request to see my invite. I imagine that I sagged visibly, like an animal taking a bullet - I KNEW the jig was well and truly about to be up. I stepped into the space and all but threw my hands up; I felt like a complete criminal.
The main guy there barely looked at me. Instead, he pointed towards the escalator. "Just go right upstairs, sir. Welcome, and have a great evening!" I was so shocked as his response and my reprieve that I stood there stunned for a moment. Then I hightailed it in the direction he indicated. Success!
The rest of the night turned out great - mostly. One of the first things I did when I got up to the casino floor was head straight to the bar - after all of the twists, turns and tension experienced in getting into the place, I needed a drink. And as fate would have it, the first person I saw when I reached the bar was my friend, the former bartender from The Club; apparently his application to the gambling joint was successful He was shocked to see me - "Jesus, man - how did YOU get in here!" I told him my story and we had a good laugh about it
I then sauntered over the gaming area - sadly, no craps or poker, but plenty of blackjack, my old reliable moneymaker. I found a seat, set my drink down to get my money out... and proceeded to elbow that full glass of brewski over, swamping the table! I was VERY glad I hadn't gotten a drop of that spill onto my whites; however, I did have to sit there and endure the dirty looks of the casino staff and other players as they mopped up my mess. That was the only sour note for the rest of the night; I stayed at the event for hours, hobnobbing with New Zealand's "beautiful people" (of course, none of whom knew who I was - no matter; I was "there", so I HAD to be "somebody"), chatting up women, partaking liberally of the free spread and gratis booze offered... and ended up winning more than $600 at the $10 blackjack table. I felt like James frickin' Bond!
There was one thing I didn't end up doing during my event infiltration that I had every intention of accomplishing - getting my face on TV. I had an unstated goal of making an appearance in front of the television cameras, both for a laugh and as incontrovertible evidence to my boys that I HAD followed through on my plan. But in the end, I figured I'd pushed my luck that night juuuuuuuuuust about far enough. The last thing I wanted to happen was to be called on the carpet by the CO the next day, demanding specific answers on why I was at such an event in uniform, blah blah blah. So as tempting as immortalizing my infiltration on film would have been, in the end I just let it go. Besides, my buddy from The Club had seen me there, so I had some independent corroboration to fall back on!
All in all, it was a fun night, and a great story to tell my friends in town and at the base the next day and for the remainder of my time there. And all it took to succeed was the balls and chutzpah to follow through - well, that, and a little luck.
Here for your listening pleasure is the album that helped steady my nerves on the night I pulled that secret-agentesque scam, 23 years ago today: Weezer (The Blue Album), the debut long-player by the band of the same name, released by DGC Records (a subsidiary of Geffen Records) on May 10th, 1994. What I'm providing here is the 10th anniversary deluxe edition of this classic album, released in 2004, containing a second disc ("Dusty Gems and Raw Nuggets') of Weezer live takes, demos and rarities. Enjoy... and as always, let me know what you think.
Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP: