Our December 2020 nonfiction is an excerpt from chapter 2 of Sophia Chang's memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room. In this excerpt, Chang travels to New York City, where she meets Joey Ramone, decides to move to the city, and gets her start in the music industry as an assistant to Paul Simon. Available for purchase here or wherever books are sold.
-Grace Jahng Lee, Creative Nonfiction Editor
During Christmas break in 1985, my junior year of university, I leapt at the opportunity to visit my brother’s friend Steve Palmer in New York. He was doing his graduate studies at Columbia. I stayed with him and his roommates in a four-bedroom apartment close to campus. I loved the Upper West Side, with its brightly lit diners and cafés filled with students bristling with ideas, but it was the East Village, at the opposite end of the island, teeming with punks in leather and kohl-laced eyes, that spoke to me. Here was the epicenter of New York City nightlife, from clubs like the Palladium, the World, and Pyramid to live venues like the Cat Club and CBGB.
One night after poring through the show listings in The Village Voice, I dragged Steve down to one of the city’s greatest live venues—the Ritz, now Webster Hall. I don’t remember who was performing, and it didn’t matter. I was determined to see a show in New York. By the time we got to the venue, we’d just missed the show. The crowd was filing out as the video for Stevie Van Zandt’s star-studded anti-apartheid song “Sun City” filled a screen onstage.
Shit, that’s it? This is my one evening at the Ritz? Maybe I’ll see someone famous. Shortly before arriving in New York, I had seen a video of a blue-eyed English soul group called Curiosity Killed the Cat that featured the highly telegenic band with coiffed hair performing in a New York alley. I became obsessed with the fantasy of running into the pretty lead singer somewhere in the Village. I scanned the crowd from the balcony, hoping to spot him. Just as I was about to give up, Steve pointed toward the stage at a tall, gangly man with a mess of black hair covering his face and wearing a black motorcycle jacket, black jeans, and dirty sneakers.
“Sophia, isn’t that Johnny Ramone?” Steve said.
Holy shit, standing alone by the stage was the guitar player for the Ramones.
“I’ll be right back!”
I raced down the stairs and elbowed my way through the crowd that was moving in the opposite direction. I marched up to him and stuck out my hand.
“I’m Sophia Chang. You’re Johnny Ramone, right?”
He took me in for a second and peered down at me over his rose-tinted, wire-framed glasses. “No, I’m Joey.”
FUCK. A massive fumbling entrée into the inner sanctum of the New York punk scene.
“Well, you all look the same,” I offered, playing off the fact that all the Ramones rocked matching bowl cuts and biker-esque uniforms and shared a last name. Joey spread his lips into a crooked smile and didn’t say anything. I’m in!
I kept babbling and didn’t inhale for three straight minutes. My verve and sense of humor must have worn him down and worked up an appetite because he invited me out for burgers. I asked Steve to come along. Joey and I walked slightly ahead of him, gabba-gabba-heying. At one point he slowed down to talk to Steve and asked, “I’m not causing a situation here, am I?” Steve told him no.
We went to a small dark spot near his apartment at Ninth Street and Third Avenue. We stood at the jukebox and played music for each other. He was smart and funny and so very New York. It was a magical night. I had been hoping to find the singer of an utterly forgettable one-hit-wonder band, and here I was, with the man who fronted the band that had defined the punk rock I grew up on back home. In retrospect, that single act of fearlessness had set into motion the events that would shape my entire career. It was my first big networking move, and I’ve been honing those techniques ever since. I spent the next several months drudging through classes, dreaming of breaking out of Vancouver. New York was so amazing, but Paris was the obvious choice for me as a French major.
In the summer of 1986, I went overseas for the first time on a tour of England, France, and Italy with Jen Fraser. We shopped, visited landmarks and museums, ate great food, and it was the only time in my life I drank coffee. The soundtrack for the many hours we spent using our unlimited student Eurail passes was the Fine Young Cannibals, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Talking Heads, which we listened to on my Walkman by splitting a set of headphones. But seeing the Ramones in northern England was definitely the highlight of the trip. Their show was exactly as you’d expect: a nonstop jackhammer of three-chord rock and roll. And after the show we all hung out at the hotel. Joey slouched forward at one point and tugged gently at my big white plastic hoop earring (yes, it was just as ugly as it sounds). To his surprise, it slid right off my lobe. He pulled back suddenly and said, “Did that hurt?” It didn’t because it was a clip-on.
Paris was exactly as I’d hoped—les musées, les parcs, les cathédrales! Le pain, le fromage, les pâtisseries! But everywhere I went, there were les Parisiens. I thought I would move there after school, but I didn’t feel like I could fit in. I would speak French with a near-perfect accent in the stores, and they would respond in shit-ass English. The women were so impressive with their makeup and looking tirées à quatres épingles—dressed to the nines—that I felt even more invisible there than I did in Vancouver.
Having visited the City of Lights, I was more convinced than ever that the City That Never Sleeps was my destiny. Joey and I talked weekly over the phone, and I wrote him letters about my life in Vancouver. I loved making him laugh. His laugh sounded as if he were awkwardly reading a script, “Ha-ha-ha.” Those conversations made me feel connected to New York in an almost palpable way.
On April 22, 1987, at twenty-one years old, I left home for New York. My friend Julianna Raeburn and I were up all night working on my French honors thesis on Racine’s Andromaque. I wrote my hurried thoughts onto a yellow legal pad, tore off the perforated sheets one by one, and handed them to Jules, who typed them up. We alternated between drinking Earl Grey tea, rolling around on the graying yellow wall-to-wall shag carpet (no respectable 1970s home was without), and working. I was writing until the moment I left for the airport. I was so anxious to get to New York that I didn’t stay for my graduation. In fact, I didn’t even confer with my parents, which seems remarkably selfish, in retrospect, particularly in light of the fact that I didn’t have a real plan: no job, just a couch to stay on, and a couple of friends my folks didn’t know.
My folks and I never had conversations about my future. For myself and any first-generation Asian immigrants, going to college was fait accompli. It never occurred to anyone in my family that I wouldn’t follow the road to academia, that I would instead pursue the path of a hustler. My parents couldn’t have been too surprised that their daughter ran off to New York—risk-taking was in my DNA. I sat them down in the living room and told them that I was going for six months, but I knew in my heart that it would be longer than that. I told them I had a place to stay and they didn’t need to worry. They didn’t have much of a response or any questions. They knew I had made up my mind.
When I arrived in New York, Joey had arranged for me to stay with his friend Legs McNeil, a renowned music journalist, and his girlfriend, Carol, on the Upper West Side. Carol worked for Paul Simon and got me a gig there as an assistant. It was a great first step into the music business, of which I so desperately wanted to be a part. Paul had just enjoyed a massive resurgence in popularity with Graceland, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year and sold more than fifteen million copies. My parents were relieved when I told them I was working for Paul Simon, because they had heard of him and it seemed solid.
It was a lush learning environment because Paul was a self-contained ecosystem: his whole team—manager, tour managers, business managers, travel agents, and publishing— was located on the fifth floor of the legendary Brill Building. Some of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century— Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, and Neil Diamond had walked through those same pristinely polished brass double doors. It wasn’t until I learned more about the music industry and became a manager myself that I realized the genius of Paul’s business vision.
I became particularly impressed that he owned all his publishing and had hired someone to administer it. For every song, the record companies typically own the recorded masters, and many artists do deals with publishing companies that give away half of their publishing income because they need the advance money. In return, the publishing company administers the songs and collects monies due the writer. They are also supposed to solicit work for the songwriter, which includes composing songs for other artists as well as placements in TV, film, and advertising. This means that every time you hear a Paul Simon or Simon and Garfunkel song, no matter who has recorded it, Paul is getting a check. That’s extraordinary when you consider the depth and breadth of his catalogue.
Working with Paul, I was exposed to the most elite echelons of the music business. This was where I met the mighty Mo Ostin, who started his career in the 1950s at Verve Records, where he worked with jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. He was then hired by Frank Sinatra to run Reprise Records and went on to run Warner Bros. Records, where he signed Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I have to add that Mo would bristle at the adjective mighty. He is by far the humblest person I’ve ever met, despite his colossal accomplishments. I was also fortunate enough to meet Lenny Waronker, producer and president of Warner Bros., and Michael Ostin, Mo’s son, who headed A&R at Warner Bros. Michael and I connected immediately. We shared the same dry sense of humor and a love of music and food. He would become my lifelong friend and mentor who taught me key lessons about parenting, family, and graciousness, all by example.
One of the greatest privileges of working with Paul was watching him create. It was one thing to see an artist perform or meet them backstage after a show; it was completely different to work in close quarters with one. Paul would sit in his office and play the acoustic guitar, but it was the studio that I found the most bewitching. Witnessing Paul interact with top producers and musicians opened a whole new world for me. This was the art of storytelling. Paul has one of my favorite voices of all time, but his songwriting gift, his ability to tell the story of someone’s life in just a few minutes, is astonishing.
My direct bosses were Danny Harrison (rest in peace) and Marc Silag, Paul’s tour managers. Danny and I had a great rapport. He took me out to eat and taught me my first Yiddish terms, though he was an Irishman. Danny, in a stroke of genius, got me my first working visa by adding me to the application that Paul’s agency was putting together for a tour. The list was long because of all the talent on the tour, and there was one standout name. It read something like this for about twenty-five names: Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, Bakithi Kumalo, Joseph Shabalala, Headman Shabalala . . . and the very last name was Sophia Chang.
I quickly learned that to succeed, you have to be loyal to the right people—and have a backbone. One day Paul’s manager, Ian Hoblyn, an intimidating, handsome, well-dressed Brit, came storming into the office waving a piece of paper. I was alone.
“Who left this on the copier?” he yelled.
I didn’t know what it was, but clearly it was highly confidential.
“I did,” I said, without hesitation.
“Well, you have to be more careful! Things like this can’t be left lying around!”
When Danny got back, he went in to see Ian, who complained to him that I had left the paper on the copier. He could have let me take the fall, but Danny told him that he was the guilty party. My action and his response were both exercises in loyalty. And I believe I gained the respect of both those men that day.
Danny appreciated my efficiency, work ethic, and hunger to learn. He presented me with increasingly complex and difficult tasks, which I devoured. Less than six months after I’d started, Danny entrusted me with an assignment far beyond my pay grade.
On December 13, 1987, Paul put on a monumental benefit concert at Madison Square Garden that included Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Lou Reed, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, and Nile Rodgers, among others. The proceeds would benefit a mobile medical unit that would provide health care to homeless children. Warner Communications, then headed by Stephen Ross, underwrote part of the show. Danny put me in charge of creating the financial reconciliation package that Paul would present to Stephen. I had to account for every penny spent—from lighting to sound to ground to laminates and catering—and provide all the backup receipts and in- voices. It was a huge and daunting responsibility for a twenty-two-year-old with no business background, but Danny’s belief in me was more important than my own. I knew that he would be judged as much as I would. I quadruple-checked every number and was thrilled to hear that everything went off without a hitch once it got to Stephen.
By the time I went home for Christmas that year, the six-month time limit I’d imposed on my stint in the Big Apple had passed, and it was clear that I hadn’t gotten it out of my system. My parents must have been concerned. There was no such thing as a gap year back then, even between undergrad and graduate school. They must have suspected that I wasn’t moving back any time soon; they knew their daughter better than I knew myself. My mother told me recently that their friends used to tell my folks that they were crazy for letting me run loose in New York. I think it’s pretty fucking amazing that they never buckled to that peer pressure and insist that I come home. I’m really proud of them for that, especially considering how gossipy the Korean community can be.
When I tried to explain to my mother what I had been doing, the only thing she understood was that I was somehow in business, so her natural response was “come back to Vancouver and get an MBA.” I lied and told her I’d think about it.
On that first visit home, Vancouver felt so small, so provincial—how people dressed, the shopping options, the restaurant opening hours. The fresh air and beauty of Vancouver never escaped me, but it wasn’t enough to contain a twenty-three-year-old who had big dreams of being in the music business. I hadn’t been away long enough to really miss Vancouver, and the excitement of living in the Big Apple overshadowed any kind of nostalgia I might have. Everything felt the same: the people, the restaurants, the streets, the theaters, the stores. Whereas New York felt like a city of endless adventures and possibilities. I remember on that first trip doing that annoying thing of talking about how everything was so much better in New York. Decades later, I would see my kids do the same and told them to reel it back because it might make their friends who lived there feel bad about their hometown.
Once back in New York, I told my roommate Kevin Bruyneel, a friend from Vancouver, that I was afraid to tell my parents that I wasn’t going home. Other than suggesting the MBA, my parents didn’t harp on me. It occurs to me now that they never asked Why don’t you get married? When are we going to get grandchildren? or Why don’t you get a real job? which was pretty damn extraordinary and gave me the freedom to chase my dreams.
My first five apartments were on the Upper West Side, with a brief stint in a studio above a Burger King near Grand Central. Then, after fully settling into New York life, I made the move to my sixth place in two years, this time downtown, where I spent all my nights. One of the women who worked for Paul sublet me her second-floor walk-up 360-square-foot studio on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue, surely the noisiest corner in the Western Hemisphere. The floors rumbled as the trains passed below, and there was a steady sound of sirens from the ambulances racing to St. Vincent’s Hospital, just two blocks away. My roommate at the time was Loren, whom I had met in the summer of 1984 at a French language program sponsored by the Canadian government at Laval University in Quebec.
We were two broke girls, but we didn’t care because we were in New York! We slept on the floor and reused plastic plates. Every time we washed them we would laugh and say, “Too good to throw away!” which was the brand slogan printed on the bottom. My boss Danny took us to Macy’s and bought us our first set of real plates, and Loren’s boss, Michael, gave us two futons.
Going from our little hovel on Fourteenth Street to Paul’s world was like stepping through the looking glass. Paul invited Loren and me to our first Yankees game. Our buzzer rang at precisely the prearranged time. Loren and I flew down the filthy stairwell and burst onto the sidewalk to find the Paul Simon smiling in front of a pristine black stretch limo. His driver rushed out and opened the door for us. We had never been in a limo. It felt endless, as if we could swim in it. We bounced about the leather interior, fiddling with the knobs that controlled the air, stereo, and windows. Paul sat back, watched us, and smiled.
Reprinted with permission from Catapult Books.