The Storyteller: Coppola and the Apocalypse

By the time the 1970s came to a close we had come to expect summer blockbuster movies — “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Halloween” — each one more exciting to young impressionable minds than the previous. By 1979 some of the top movies included “10” with Bo Derek, “The Jerk” with Steve Martin and “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver — all of which fit our new sense of what a movie should contain: action, a touch of sophomoric humor and a large dose of titillation or fear.

But that year another type of film broke onto the scene. These movies brought social issues to the surface in an honest and riveting manner. And although the top grossing movie that year was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a story of divorce, another movie that set the bar for such films was “Apocalypse Now.” The director for this groundbreaking movie was Francis Ford Coppola, a local Napa Valleyian whose kids attended the same public school as me and my slightly less famous cadre of friends.

In 1975 Coppola had purchased Inglenook winery in Rutherford and moved his entire family there soon after. My friends and I were first aware of their entrance into our quiet town when a real-live sand creature from “Star Wars” showed up at school one Halloween. The rumor was that the Hollywood director’s son, Roman Coppola, was under the monk-like brown burlap robes with their red-light staring eyes.

The outfit was over-the-top cool, but we didn’t give it much more thought. Roman and his younger sister, Sofia, seemed like nice kids who just wanted to fit in and be normal. Besides, there were plenty of wealthy and famous people starting to find their way into the valley. Running into Julia Child at Keller’s Market had become a normal event. Catching sight of movie stars, limos and film crews scoping the area for “Falcon Crest” was no longer a surprise.

Being surrounded by such creative and famous influences gave me and my friends the courage to believe that anything was possible. Add to that the type of entertainment we were being exposed to and the fact that we grew up at a time when free expression and loosening social mores had become a way of life, we did what only seemed natural: We started a rock band.

“Who wants to sing?” Paul asked one day as we stood throwing rocks off the Pratt Avenue Bridge.

“I can play guitar and Paul plays a little bass,” John said.

“Tim. Why don’t you sing,” Steve said.

“No way. You sing. I’ll play drums,” I said.

Steve shrugged. “Fine.”

Paul looked at me doubtfully. “I didn’t know you played drums.”

“I don’t, but my brother does,” I explained.

The group nodded their heads in unison, apparently convinced that a familial transfer of musical skills made perfect sense.

“So, what’s our name going to be?” Steve asked, eating yogurt from a plastic container. I’d never seen yogurt before. It looked strange, with its semi-solid whiteness stained with streaks of purple berry puree.

“How about ‘The Idiots’?” John said.

“It’s been taken,” Paul said.

Paul was the oldest and could drive, but he was a mystery: He was quiet and secretive, yet we all knew that if there was anyone who knew obscure band names, it was he.

Undaunted, Steve continued, “Okay. How about ‘The V-Ups’?”

“What’s the name mean?” I asked.

“Some sort of exercise for pregnant women,” Steve said, licking the back of his spoon.

We all agreed to the name, and within a couple weeks we’d found equipment and practice space and even cobbled together a few original songs. Well, not songs exactly — more like instruments being abused while our new lead singer did his best to distract anyone listening with screeches, jumps and lunges.

Besides being an entertaining singer, Steve turned out to be a proficient band manager, and we’d get our first sense of the depth of his artistry at a Coppola event later that summer.

Word had spread through the valley that there would be an “Apocalypse Now” release party at Inglenook. Steve procured valet jobs for each band member at the extravaganza and asked that we meet at the job site early. I was mainly focused on making a few bucks in tips parking cars, but Steve had other plans.

The big day arrived in late July. By 11 o’clock the sun was high in the sky and beat down on us as we got ready to park the cars of the rich and famous. Before the guests arrived we surveyed the site.

The grounds looked like a plantation with sprawling lawns dotted with large oak trees. An elegant pale-yellow clapboard house with peaked roofs covered in brick-red tile was nestled among lush foliage, its wrap-around porch looking inviting and homey. Just north stood the winery: a majestic ancient stone structure built in 1879 by the Finnish sea captain, Gustave Niebaum. It was surrounded by manicured gardens that blended into large open spaces and the vineyards beyond.

Continuing past the winery we came to an area that had been transformed into a war zone with jeeps, sandbags and camouflaged netting covering the otherwise pastoral landscape. Three helicopters sat at the ready in a field just beyond what looked like a medical evacuation camp. Smoke billowed from a deep pit where a few enormous flayed pigs lay on coals, their flesh already seared golden, the aroma of savory roasted meat permeating the air.

Heading back to our station, Steve pointed to the lawn out in front of the main house. “That’s the best place for us to set up the equipment,” he said.

“What?” I asked. “Are we playing tonight?”

Steve nodded, a sly grin creeping over his face.

“Does Roman know about this?” Paul asked.

“Probably not,” Steve said.

“You’re nuts,” I said.

Steve smiled a toothy grin. “Yep,” he said.

For the rest of the day we stood in the searing sun, sweat dripping down our faces and necks. As we directed cars, Paul reported who was who.

“That was Duvall,” he’d say. Or, “I think that was Brando sneaking in the back way.”

Of course I had heard these names before, but for me the most interesting guest was Stewart Copeland, the drummer for Sting’s band “The Police.” If we did actually end up playing that night, I hoped he wouldn’t be watching.

Later, as the soft rays of the setting sun glowed on the surrounding mountains a mass of starlings flew overhead, their flock twisting and bending, looking fluid, the flutter of their wings barely audible over the pleasant sounds of music and laughter. Smells of food and cigar smoke filled the air. As the sun’s last rays slipped behind the hills a dim whirr of helicopters grew. Then, softly at first, “Ride of the Valkyries” intensified until finally it blared over the loudspeakers just as the helicopters passed overhead. Fireworks burst above, their white smoke drifting threadlike into the darkening night sky. After a moment’s pause, cheers erupted from all those in attendance.

Steve gathered the band around him, “That’s our signal,” he said. “Get the equipment.”

We ran to the car and grabbed our gear. After a few trips we’d set up on the south lawn. Steve procured extension cords from somewhere, but just as we plugged in two big guys in dark suits came up and asked what we were doing.

“Francis okayed it,” Steve said, confidently.

The two men looked at one another and then one quickly walked away.

“We are so busted,” I said in a loud whisper.

Steve just laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it covered.”

A few minutes later we were being escorted away from our gear, each man holding one of us in their surprisingly strong grip.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” a deep voice boomed from somewhere behind.

A man with a dark beard, a large-brimmed hat and thick eyeglasses walked toward us, cigar in hand. He had on a beige linen suit and sandals.

“Let’s run for it,” I said and tried to pull away. No luck, the man’s grip stiffened.

“Sorry, sir,” one of the men said apologetically. “We’ll get these kids off your property.”

The man in the hat scanned the scene for a moment. “Let them go,” he said.

A few minutes later we were playing our music for one of the greatest directors of our time. He pulled out a chair, sat down and listened to our songs with genuine interest and a large dose of patience. Our music was awful, but there he sat, puffing away on his cigar, nodding, once even closing his eyes to concentrate on our unique sound (or perhaps trying to block out the cacophony). That night I learned a lesson that I still carry with me today: people who are open and willing to listen seem to make all the difference in the world.

With the wind at our backs and our first gig behind us, we were ready for more. A few months later Steve had us opening for a band called “The Dead Kennedys” at The Mabuhay Gardens nightclub in San Francisco. But that’s another story.

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Originally Published in the St. Helena Star.