TOBY ELLIS IS… Cut Off – “Dream On”

Updated: April 1, 2005

The night started out calmly enough. One table was sat and there was no server around, so I left the bar and took their drink order. As I walked back behind the bar, I can recall thinking “This sure is an odd set-up for a restaurant.”

The room was more like a hotel banquet room wit ha portable bar than anything else. And I don’t know who set-up the bar before I got there, but I couldn’t find anything. It felt like Tavern on the Green all over again. (What a joke that place was.) Anyway, after what felt like a half a day, I made their drinks and returned to the table only to notice, to my horror, there were now seven tables sat, and still…not a server in sight. So I kicked it into overdrive and grabbed all seven orders. And of course, the last one was absurdly long. And the drinks these freaks ordered: vodka and gin on the rocks, rum and grapefruit juice, gin and milk?? C’mon. I’m telling you I nearly busted into tears trying to bang out all seven orders behind this makeshift bar. The following few minutes were kind of blurry but the next thing I remember, I notice that the next dining room over, which I can see through a small doorway, is starting to fill up. Thankfully though, I see a couple servers in the room….finally! Still, it seems like no matter how hard or fast or smart I work, it just keeps getting busier and busier so that it is impossible for me to get out of the weeds. Have you been there? I felt like Mickey-freakin-Mouse in Fantasia with all those damn multiplying broomsticks. In nearly fifteen years of bartending , I don’t remember ever having a night like this one. It was a nightmare. I even remember thinking to myself at one point “how the hell did I ever take a job here??” Have you ever said that to yourself? Have you ever had a night so bad, you wondered what on earth possessed you to take this job in the first place? Well, fast forward a little later in this horrific night and you’ll understand why I love this business so much. But I have to preface what happened next. Stay with me.

I’ve been really, I am mean REALLY lucky, in my career . I’ve landed some of the tightest gigs on the planet. I’ve bartended concert after-parties and private engagements for Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Ja Rule, Pamela Anderson, Jerry Seinfeld, The Billboard Music Awards, Howard Stern, blah blah blah blah blah. I’ve made drinks for Carmen Electra, Kanye West, Ben Stiller, the entire roster of the New York Yankees, half the Los Angeles Lakers….the list goes on and on. I’ve traveled around the world as far off as Bangkok and Kathmandu bartending, speaking, demonstrating, and performing shows. I’ve been on TV almost as many times as I’ve changed the color of my hair. It’s just been a wild ride, and I’m grateful for every treasurable moment of it. But realize, in every silver lining, there’s a lot of clouds. These moments of glory are very few and far between.

CoorstwinsIn fact, if you or anybody you know has had a similar run of high-profile gigs, especially doing the celebrity A-list thing, you know the truth about these after-parties.

The truth is not half as glamorous as you’d want to believe or imagine. Nine times out of ten, the real stars never show up. And at the events where they do, usually if you get one peek at them from 50 yards out, while they are surrounded my 9-foot bodyguards, you’re lucky. And no, you don’t ask for a picture. More times than not, these parties are attended by the cousin-in-law of the guy who loads the amps on the truck for the band, or the boyfriend of the publicity agent for the actual star… and a bunch of other freeloading friends.

But every now and then, something wickedly cool happens. Like the night I ended up talking to this guy for like a half-hour while working a private party for the band Dirty Vegas. I made a specialty cocktail menu that played tribute to them, in a way probably only they would appreciate. Turns out the guy…was one of the band members. He kept a menu. That was cool. Having the idea for Ken and Jim to barback for JB Bandy at Legends this year while he did his truly infamous Hippy Hippy Shake round. That was priceless. Shooting the shit with an “in-cognedo” Greg Kinnear at Shadow Bar. Good times. Talking shop with Ted Danson from Cheers. That was a thrill. Flipping bottles in front of Dr. Dre and the Coors Light Twins at the same time. That was dope. Yes, sometimes, my stint as a bartender becomes larger than life. And often, it happens at the most unpredictable times. Like this hell-night I’ve been telling you about, in this oblique, bizarre thrown-together “restaurant” buried inside some random hotel lord only knows where (and why). Or so it seemed.

So yeah, I’m behind this bar, which by this time, I’ve managed to re-piece and re-stock so it’s workable. But still, I’m just silly in the weeds and it’s no fun. I was miserable. Who should not just walk into the room, but actually strut behind my bar right next to me with a
shit-eating grin of coolness on his face, but Steven Tyler. Yes, as in Aerosmith. Walk this way. Dude looks like a lady. Dream on. Understand I don’t get star-struck very easily. But dude….this is fucking Aerosmith’s front man. The legend. Steven motherfuckin’ Tyler. I mean…what do you do? Cat just slips behind MY bar and starts nodding and grinning. I mean, seriously…what would your next move be?

GlamWell, before I could think of anything terribly smooth to say or do, my boy….no joke… picks up a tin, puts a half spin on it, fills it with some ice, and starts looking around at the bottles. “No fucking way!!” I say to myself. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t bust out into a shadow pass or columns, but still… obviously he was no stranger to the stick, despite hopping on the wagon years ago. Liv’s dad knew his way around the bar and the bottle. (This was too cool.) Again, the whole experience was almost too much for me, and I sort of blacked out a little from all the adrenaline.

The electricity I remember being in the room is hard to describe. It seemed like something from out of a movie. And yet it was so…. karmic. Especially since just months earlier, I was called one day and told I had 12 hours to put together an after-party for Aerosmith, which somehow I pulled off, complete with gourmet specialty menus (themed to the band and their guests) in leather bound books, in a very private back VIP room in Vegas (that not even Boogie has been in, lol, and that’s saying a lot), which I set up for their arrival. It was one of the three “official” after-parties for the Aerosmith/Kid Rock concert which was taking place across the street at The Joint at the Hard Rock Casino. That’s another thing you might not have known.

Whenever there is a huge event with a lot of A-list celebs, they plan two or three of “official” after-parties, in addition to the gaggle of complete-hype after-parties that clubs and promoters lie about, to bring in the crowds. They do this many times, to keep the packs of fans guessing, so the celebs can actually enjoy themselves, slightly. Or sometimes, it’s that they change things up last minute, and the “official” party at your club is canceled (without you knowing it) and moved elsewhere. This one was legit. You can usually tell by the army of private security that shows up to your club hours in advance, poking around every corner. Anyway, apparently Kid Rock changed his plans at the last minute and blew off this party to go to The Whiskey, Randy Gerber’s place at Green Valley Ranch. So Pamela went with him. And Aerosmith, well, they were in a limo heading to the airport while the crowd was still holding up lighters waiting for a second encore. So I missed the opportunity that night. There’s more. Tyler was supposedly to come in to another club I worked at one night, but reportedly couldn’t get an underage “guest” in with him, so he backed out. I have no idea if that is true or not, but still…that was twice I was to be pouring drinks for, and you can bet your bottle-bumpin’ sweet ass, throwing it around for …. an honest-to-goodness larger-than-life rockstar of rockstars. And then bam, finally, here I am…sharing a fucking well with him. Surreal.

Well, every incredible experience has to come to an end sooner or later, and this one came sooner. I had the good grace to let Steven play bartender and mix up…. I don’t even know what he put in that tin. Some Jack, some Jack….some more Jack, some SoCo, some Jack. Whatever. He didn’t drink it. I don’t remember what he did with it. Didn’t matter. I just knew it was my turn. Toby “El Gato” Ellis was about to show Mr. Tyler that Janie ain’t the only one who got a gun. “Boya Cagar” amigos, step back, “The Cat” is in the house. I was pumped and ready to rip it up. Until I looked up.

StevenI know it was just my imagination, but if felt like there were 30,000 people staring at me. I looked to my right, Mr. Rockstar was staring at me like “don’t look at me… I did my shit. It’s your turn.”

I looked back out into this sea of people that truly made me feel like I was on stage at Giant Stadium. Do something, Toby, do something. I reached down for a bottle. Nothing. I looked around desperately for a shiny stainless steel mixing tin. No dice. And that’s when it all came crashing down. It was awful. I looked down, and sitting in front of me, while this mob of fans impatiently waited for me to entertain them, was not a single bottle to flip, not a glass, not one dang ice cube, but instead… are you ready for this? A keyboard. Synthesizer. Electric Keyboard, whatever you call it. Turned on, plugged in, ready to rock, with only one problem: the semester of piano I took in College combined with the half a week’s lessons my mom made me take when I was eight weren’t gonna cut it. Somehow playing “the Pink Panther Theme” or “Chopsticks” didn’t seem right for the moment. Fuck me. Don’t ask my why, but at that moment in my life, as terrified as I was, I just took my left index finger, slowly dropped it down onto one of the fake ivory keys….and let my hands sing for the moment, sing for the years. It was… awful. And boring. And humiliating.

And luckily for me, it was all a dream. Every last minute of this night. And it took me that moment when I actually thought I was on stage in front of 30,000 people with Steven Tyler, trying to pretend I could play a musical instrument, to realize it. I was pissed! A dream? Are you kidding me?

Can you believe it? Those damn bartending dreams. Those “I knew I shouldn’t have gone to bed right after a busy shift” nightmares. And like the biggest sucker on the planet, my subconscious strung me along into believing, while I was hours into Rapid Eye Movement Nirvana, that this was all actually happening. Me and Aerosmith. As if.

Didn’t it occur to me that this misty, hazy banquet room kept “growing” into a maze of more and more rooms, with more and more tables nobody was waiting on? How did my frontal lobe not catch the fact that in the course of what felt like 30 minutes, the room somehow morphed from banquet hall, to a restaurant in Manhattan, back into a club 3000 miles away, and once more into a Stadium filled with 30,000 screaming groupies? Nope… in dreamland, everything seems perfectly normal, doesn’t it? “Oh look honey, there’s a walrus driving a school bus filled with bald women all named Larry…into a brick wall. How nice.” I believed every minute of it was completely real. Man I felt duped. Can you relate? Oh wait… I made you read this. Nevermind.

I do have to admit, though, this was by far, the coolest “bartending nightmare” I’ve had. Most of them just suck, don’t they? I worked with a woman in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia who told me she has a recurring bartending nightmare where she woke up in bed, only to find herself three deep. I laughed so hard when she told me that, I snarfed. Just picturing her in her PJs, sitting up in bed, only to see a mob of people waving money and screaming for drinks. Too funny.

CamBut seriously…. don’t you just hate it when you go to bed too soon after work and the night picks up where it left off, only now your entire reality is in the hands of some twisted maniacal bastard in the darkest corners of your mind who wants nothing more than to fuck with you for the next six hours. It’s not bad enough you had to be in the weeds all night at work, now you’re in the weeds… in bed. Pure Hell. Have you had the one where you start making a gin and tonic and then, without thinking it’s even a tiny bit strange, you somehow now feel obligated to make what has magically turned into a peanut butter rimmed beer tankard of Salmon that you are franticly trying to fill with a mixture of frothed milk and….Legos. Only you don’t have any milk. Or any Legos. Or maybe your post-work nightmares aren’t as bizarrely detailed as mine. (Who am I kidding, nobody’s mind is as delightfully deranged as mine. Or at least, for your sanity, I hope not.)

Maybe you just have those generic “in the never-ending weeds” ones where you just keep falling further and further behind in the service well and you keep tossing and turning but you can’t wake up. Or worse…you do wake up. Then, no matter how many times you fall back asleep, the nightmare wages on, and you get absolutely not a moment of peaceful sleep.

And your ex-girlfriend wonders why you go out for a couple beers after work. Or my favorite “if you got off work at 3am, how come you didn’t get to be until 7?” (insert whiney, annoying voice of any ex-whatever here). My reply was always “what time do you get off work?” (She’d say 5pm.) I’d say “so do you run home and hop into bed by 6pm?” (She’d sheepishly say no, that she had to eat, unwind, and relax before bed.) “Well so do I, Einstein.” (Her name wasn’t really Einstein.)

Bartenders do whatever we can, to somehow try and make our nocturnal nature feel more….normal. Anything so that when the face hits the pillow, we can dream instead of wining Legends or Roadhouse, or maybe having several hundred Maxim models sing “I’d like to Teach the World To Sing” while naked and throwing tiny little pickles at us, or whatever else our twisted, warped, jaded minds can concoct. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll end up behind some bar in the back of our minds, where it’s always 10 deep, sensibility is on a Permanent Vacation, and you can never find the damn soda gun. But then through the smoke, a rockstar will Walk This Way with some Sweet Emotion, and everything will come Full Circle. It could just happen, you never know. And that’s the problem. So take my advice and stay up late, have that beer, eat that Jack in the Box, watch SportsCenter…twice before bed. Do whatever you have to do, to put your night to rest, so you can sleep easy. Sweet dreams and April Fools, Baby.

My name is Toby. When I’m not imagining I’m a rockstar, I’m pretending to be a Flair bartender. Sometimes, I’m both.

p.s. Having trouble when you’re at your busiest part of the night keeping those big tips flowing? Sure, it’s easy to make percentage when it’s slow, so you usually give in when you’re buried, and just go for volume, right? Me too. But here’s a little trick that works hundreds (by the end of the night anyway) for me. Give it a crack. As you drop change in front of your male guests (and you should, by the way…drop it on the bar. So they have to both pick it up and hopefully count it, but more importantly…so they have to pick it up. It’s a lot harder, psychologically, to stiff somebody when you have to pick your change off the bar, then if it’s put right into your hand. Easy to just slip that money right into your pocket and walk away. So don’t make it easy for people to stiff you.). Ahem…so as you drop the money in front of the guys, even though you’re moving at light speed…just hold up the hand you dropped the money with, make a fist and hold it out in front of the guy. Daps. Bumps. Whatever you want to call it. You know…that “handshake” that replaced the “high-five” about five years ago that everybody seems to do now? The genius in this move is that you are calling every guy out, in a subtle, nice, rapport-building way. If they leave you hanging, they’re the dick. In front of the entire bar, you are putting yourself out there to them, as if to say “thanks, you da man!” or “you’re my boy blue!” What kind of a prick is going to give you bumps, and then stiff you? Ok, it’s gonna happen. But a lot less than if you just drop their change and mumble “thanks.” Sometimes, I point at them. Right at them. I smile and very clearly mouth and say the words “THANK YOU.” It works. Just try it. There….now you can’t be mad at me for taking you on this April Fool’s ride. After all, I brought you back home, right where we started, in front of your computer, just a hop, skip and a bump away from your precious Flaircos, tins, DVDs, and piles of odd barwares. So throw in some Aerosmith, and go flip your crazy little heart out for a while. And next time you’re behind the bar, real or imaginary, when the music starts pumpin’ your blood, do what I do: Don’t Stop, Just Push Play, Kiss Your Past Goodbye, Let the Music do the Talking, and Lay It Down. Oh, and when it doubt….make it Pink. Who knows: maybe you’ll get some Love in an Elevator. (Dream on). Amazing how Crazy I am, isn’t it? Sing with me.


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