True Fame Waits

Michael Masley's catastrophic documentary is par for his course.

Michael Masley should be famous by now: A Berkeley street musician deity, a Tom Waits collaborator, and, most importantly, the star of a Sundance-caliber documentary. But the disorder and disaster surrounding that still-hypothetical flick, Art Officially Favored, might explain why Masley hasn’t quite hit the big time yet.

“It was a handshake between friends who had a vastly different scope of skills and experiences,” explains Mihai Manoliu, a mutual friend to Masley and first-time director Michael Sloan. “It was good in that it got more mileage than I expected, given the unprofessional approach.” Manoliu is using the past tense because the doc’s subject and first director, respectively, are no longer on speaking terms.

Billed as a “documental” (a documentary-instrumental fusion), Art Officially Favored was supposed to center on the life of Masley, a Berkeley-bred street musician who has earned notoriety for his ten-fingered approach to playing the cymbalom, a variation of the hammered dulcimer. Though largely a Berkeley phenomenon, Masley has achieved some national critical renown for his innovative use of “bow-hammers” — clawlike finger appendages made of brass and horsehair that he uses to strike and scrape the strings of his unusual instrument. His music became a mainstay at NPR, and his session work includes stints with Ry Cooder, Chris Isaak, and the rock band Garbage.

Sloan, for his part, had long wanted to make a movie, an artistic respite from his day job as a real-estate appraiser. So when he approached his old friend Masley about the documentary in 2001, both men saw Art Officially Favored as their chance to break into the big time. Especially the cymbalomist himself.

“From the beginning of the production, myself and other members of the production crew felt that Masley was hoping to make a fortune from this film,” says Field Etienne, an AOF cameraman. Sloan, too, had high aspirations, investing nearly $20,000 of his own money with the hopes of earning a spot in the Sundance Film Festival. But he also hoped to make Masley famous: “There is only one thing that I can do to satisfy my desire that the world … hears and knows about Michael,” Sloan said as AOF‘s production began. Gushy, yes, but the sentiment seemed genuine. The pair had collaborated in the past as musicians, in addition to enjoying a twelve-year friendship. Art Officially Favored, it seemed, would solidify that bond.

Wrong. Bad planning and relentless power-struggling marred AOF from the outset. Masley and Sloan resisted drawing up contracts, relying instead on friendship and what they believed to be a shared vision. But as is the case with many such collaborations, each man had his own idea about where the film should go, and those ideas grew increasingly disparate over time. Masley saw himself not as a subject but as a full-fledged collaborator, a vision Sloan and his crewmates would come to regard as meddlesome.

“Masley, I think, saw the film as a vehicle for himself, and that’s one major problem in documentaries — making sure that the medium is as unbiased as possible,” says Jason Clopton, the film’s assistant director. “The subject is not necessarily allowed to have a part in the production, because that can skew it.”

Masley insists that he was always more than a subject, claiming he actually co-wrote several scenes. “I would think of shots, and they would agree with me,” he explains. “That’s why I call it a documental, which is a hybrid form. It’s documenting a subjective reality and an objective reality about an alter ego I created.”

That alter ego is the Artist General, Masley’s Emperor Norton-meets-C. Everett Koop take on creativity and politics. Under the rubric of the Artist General, Masley juggles dual roles as costumed antihero (he served as grand marshal of 2002’s “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade) and a one-man spam e-mail campaign of pun-filled leftist sentiment. (Example subject line from an Artist General e-mail: “RUBEgoo(tm)MEDIEVALdoo~Lickety Spit+Dogma-Stylist VP Rx=’Major -League’ Orifice Lube!”) But for many in the crew, Masley’s flashy scene-staging was a no-no, a conceptual rift between journalism and theater.

AOF’s director, meanwhile, soon endured a series of personal disasters. After dumping a ton of cash into the project, Sloan discovered that he had let his real-estate license lapse, causing him to lose his job, his apartment — everything.

Masley, too, was enduring a rough financial year, earning a fraction of his bounty from previous years as a street performer. Still, AOF‘s crew toiled on, collecting some seventy hours of footage. But tensions were mounting between Masley and Sloan, and it seemed inevitable the situation would come to a head. And on a warm September evening last year in Santa Cruz, that’s exactly what happened.

“It was a perfect event for a movie like this,” Masley says, sitting agitated and cross-legged in his Berkeley apartment. “It’s so stupid not to have two minutes of that in there.”

The event in question was “Only in Santa Cruz,” a two-night festival comprised entirely of street performers. Included on the bill were the Flying Karamazov Brothers, guitarist Bob Brozman, and cymbalomist Michael Masley, a featured act on the show’s closing night. Masley thought the soiree would make for some amazing footage, with him performing before a live, paying audience for a change. But because of a miscommunication between him and Sloan, the show never got filmed, which Masley interpreted as a missed opportunity in a life full of them.

Michael Masley should be famous by now: A Berkeley street musician deity, a Tom Waits collaborator, and, most importantly, the star of a Sundance-caliber documentary. But the disorder and disaster surrounding that still-hypothetical flick, Art Officially Favored, might explain why Masley hasn’t quite hit the big time yet.

At age 51, Michael Masley is a virtuoso like none other, a master of an instrument with an indescribably cool sound. His proficiency and innovation earned him a spot in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, as well as endorsements from Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and producer Jack Douglas, who has recorded such heavyweights as John Lennon and Patti Smith, and who calls Masley “a marvelous artist.” (Both are slated to appear in Art Officially Favored. )

And yet Masley languishes in a one-room apartment behind a garage in West Berkeley, its sole, tiny window obscured by a sun-starved spider plant. The cramped floor is cluttered with the street musician’s tools-in-trade — battery-powered amplifiers, Celtic and Middle Eastern percussion instruments, a ceiling-high rack of recording equipment — with patches of aged white carpet peeking through underneath. Clearly, this is not the environment Masley had envisioned for himself, nor the life anyone believes he deserves.

“He’s played with Ry Cooder, Butch Vig — major accomplishments, but they were some time ago. A decade ago,” says Sloan, 46. “He wasn’t supposed to spiral down and end up with nothing.”

The irony is that Masley’s eccentricity — the source of his incomparable technique and musicianship — is often what prevents him from advancing. Even when he’s in the right, he seems to have a knack for alienating his supporters.

One such incident involved the singer Tom Waits, whose music Masley idolized and whom he met by chance at a music store several years ago. The two exchanged pleasantries, and Masley offered Waits some CDs and a flier. Within a few days, Waits called the cymbalomist and invited him to record a session for his upcoming album, Mule Variations.

According to Masley, the four-hour session went off without a hitch, and when he asked Waits whether his work would appear on the album, the singer’s response was unequivocal: “Oh, you’ll be on the album,” Masley said he was told. When Masley later asked if he could plug the session in interviews, he said Waits gave his blessing.

But the song Masley played on didn’t make the high-profile 1999 album, and Masley began calling to find out why he’d been snubbed. By now he couldn’t even get ahold of Waits, who had delegated the matter to his assistant. “She said they decided to put me in the thank-you notes,” Masley says, “as ‘Michael M,'” a reference the street musician couldn’t possibly use.

Humiliated, Masley began writing what he estimates as twenty pages of dark poetry parodying Waits, whom he felt had betrayed his image as a champion of the downtrodden. (One verse depicted the singer wearing mud-caked boots, torn jeans, and a pair of hot-pink panties.) He then sent the pages to Waits’ label, Epitaph. “I didn’t think he would read any of it,” Masley says now.

But alas, the singer read every word; Field Etienne, an AOF cameraman and friend to Waits, urged Masley to tone down the rhetoric, as the singer was considering calling the FBI. (Waits’ publicist declined comment on the matter, saying only, “It was a scary thing. Tom’s got kids.”) Anyone who knows Masley knows he’s a bona fide hippie unlikely to hurt a fly, let alone Tom Waits. Yet Mule Variations went on to win a Grammy, while Masley had burned a valuable bridge. When the AOF crew asked Waits for an on-camera interview, the singer flat-out refused.

After Sloan and crew failed to show up in Santa Cruz, Masley was again humiliated. He called the director to register his distress, lambasting Sloan for the missed opportunity.

“I said, ‘Where the hell was Jason? I put him on the guest list, I alerted people to watch for him,'” Masley says. “I look stupid, and more importantly, I get no heads-up, and we don’t have this in the film.”

“I was moving into my new house and starting the quarter for UCSC, getting ready for school,” counters crew member Jason Clopton, adding, “I don’t think that got communicated to Michael.”

After that exchange, Sloan pretty much shut down, going into hiding and refusing to return Masley’s phone calls. As with the Waits incident, the lack of communication incensed Masley, who peppered Sloan’s answering machine with a couple choice rants. “I was not worried about a decorous tone, but on the other hand I certainly wasn’t hateful,” Masley says. “But I was pissed.”

Sloan reacted by retreating even further: “Me being unemployed, down and out, really threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing.”

A few months later, the two began using their friend Mihai Manoliu as a mediator, with the hopes of somehow getting the project finished. “The bottom line for me is that they’ve got raw footage — they’ve got unusual Bay Area musicians,” Manoliu says. “They’re sitting on a gold mine, and it’s going nowhere.”

Now, that may change. Though it’s doubtful Sloan and Masley will work together again, Masley has enlisted the services of Martín Yernazian, an Argentine director who has agreed to edit the footage and will now be Art Officially Favored‘s official director — assuming the group can find the cash to finish the film.

How does Yernazian feel about taking on a project steeped in so much negative energy? “I don’t mind,” the 22-year-old filmmaker says coolly. “It’s a matter of professional respect.”

Well, in a Berkeley sort of way, maybe.

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