Watching Paul Anka
I went to a Paul Anka concert a couple of years ago and I learned something that I use now, every day, in my writing. Do you remember Paul Anka?
He was a teen idol back in the days of Fabian and Frankie Avalon. He’s still an extremely popular performer, who sells out shows around the world. Paul Anka wrote the Sinatra classic, “My Way,” along with hundreds of other songs. He tours with a band of about fifteen and he delivers a terrific show. Here’s what I learned from watching him onstage.
Throughout the performance, Mr. Anka communicated to us in the audience—by his body language, his smile, and by direct statements—how much fun he was having and what a unique and special evening this was. This particular show was at the University of Southern California, where apparently two or three of Paul Anka’s daughters had gone to school—so that may have contributed to the emotion of the evening. But it’s a pretty safe bet that Paul Anka says and does the exact same thing in every show he puts on—every night, in every venue.
Paul Anka is a pro. He’s been a headliner for fifty years. It wouldn’t surprise me if, sometime back in the day, an old-time, vaudeville-schooled manager took him aside backstage and told him, “Kid, you can’t just deliver the performance, you gotta sell the performance.”
The audience needs leadership. We in the seats want to be told that we’re having a great time. Otherwise we might not realize it. So Paul Anka steps lively, flashes a brilliant smile, prances to the edge of the stage and sells the fact that he’s having fun and so are we. How many times has Paul Anka sung “Diana?” Has the song gotten old to him? If it has, he can’t show it. “Hey, this is great, you guys are a blast, we are having a ball tonight!”
You and I as artists and entrepreneurs have to do the same thing. We have to shape reality. We have to shape it for ourselves.
It’s not hard to start a project—a book, a new business, a philanthropic venture. Novelty and excitement will get us rolling and carry us through the initial stages. But inevitably we will arrive at what David Mamet calls “the middle term.” Act Two. The belly of the beast.
That’s when we need to sell. We need that megawatt smile, we need that happy patter. We need to turn them on ourselves.
In the middle term the high-minded goal has devolved into what seems to be a quotidian, mechanical and ordinary drudgery: now we are not trying to establish a Jewish Homeland but negotiating a contract with a stationer to supply the paper so that we may write fund-raising letters.
We as professionals must keep reinforcing to ourselves the notion that we are having fun, this is art, this is innovation, this is a gift for others. This is our soul’s calling and our life’s passage. Because it is. We need to take a lesson from Paul Anka and be a pro like he is.
Paul Anka understands that it’s easy to get psyched for the playoffs. Any fool can amp himself up for the World Series. But what about Show #23 out of 47 in January in Terra Haute? What about us, dancing bone-on-bone in ballet class, stuck on page 63 of our screenplay?
The joke has it [says Mamet in Three Uses of the Knife]: remembering you set out to drain the swamp is hard when you’re up to your ass in alligators.
Paul Anka understands that. He knows that Show #23 in Terra Haute is just as important as the tour’s big-bang finale at Carnegie Hall. Terra Haute is the capital of the universe. Every show is The Show; every night is The Night.
That’s a pro. That’s hard-core. That’s killer.
If we could crawl inside Paul Anka’s head in his dressing room before the show, we’d see him turn to the mirror, straighten the tie of his tuxedo, and look himself square in the eye. “This is it, kid. People drove ninety miles through the snow to get here tonight to see you. Husbands have brought their wives, parents have brought their kids. Respect them. Respect yourself. Respect the art. Respect the lifelong process of night-after-night, show-after-show. That’s your calling, that’s your life. You chose it and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Get out there and give it everything you’ve got!”