True Fame Waits 

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

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"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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