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The Making of a Video—and Southside Johnny

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For years the team of Eddie Vorkapich, director, and Len Lipsom, producer, has created some of TV’s glossiest advertisements, showcases for the likes of Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Victoria Principal and Sophia Loren. Maybelline, to the pair, always meant eye shadow, not Chuck Berry’s rock classic. But on a cramped, sweltering Manhattan soundstage, their focus is beginning to change. Dry-ice fog fills the air, mangled mannequin torsos litter the floor, and Vorkapich’s camera is aimed not at some voluptuary but at a wry, humble New Jersey rock vet named Southside Johnny (real name: John Lyon). The object? His, and their, first MTV video. Lights. Action. Rock and rolllll!

With MTV emerging as the hip electronic mecca of rock, the bands of the ’80s need dailies as much as demos to get to the top. For Southside, 34, the video is a chance to break out of East Coast cult status. For Vorkapich, 53, and Lipsom, 47—who have forgone their usual $7,500-a-day fee—it’s an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a creative, and potentially lucrative, new art form.

The clip will accompany the title cut to Johnny’s new LP, Trash It Up!, and the set is heavily in the art-kink bag. Fifteen black oil drums are clustered together, covered with a Plexiglas dance surface. Lights glow up from inside the 55-gallon barrels, eerily shading the drifting artificial mist. Atop the Plexi, Johnny dances with three sensuous dancers who sport little more than enviable muscle tone and dreams of being discovered. The tune could be called King Leer: A guy fantasizes about a madonna/ whore who sheds her 9-to-5 office suits for a tarty Frederick’s look at night. The concept is Vorkapich’s, developed from the album cover and title. Johnny’s and the dancers’ moves have been choreographed by Ronn Forella (whose credits include Liza Minnelli’s 1982 tour), and the frames and angles have been planned in advance (and are shot out of sequence, as in features). Two thousand eight hundred feet of film will be spent to get the 140 in the final cut (less than five minutes).

To Vorkapich and Lipsom, MTV offers a creative outlet unavailable in pretested, storyboarded ads or even plot-laden features. “This is a freer form than both,” says Lipsom. “We’re trying to create a purely visual rhythm, a film that will stand by itself.”

His assistant, Marlene Kawalek, seconds that emotion. “I sliced butter at an ad shoot last week for 12 hours,” she says. “Sure, the money is great, for slicing butter. But rock and video are so much more exciting—this is a brilliant, fabulous set.” And that’s not counting the perks. “I now know,” says Kawalek, “where every Merry Widow corset and garter belt is in New York.”

As the first day of the two-day shoot wears on, simple waiting stretches into serious tedium: The song is cued up and repeated perhaps 50 times, and there are delays for makeup and lighting changes, rests and meal breaks. For Southside, the Trash LP is his first studio release in three years. In the past when he moved his hips it was for a club audience not a lifeless camera lens; when he moved his lips it was to sing not synch. “Lip synching isn’t easy,” he says. “I’m not that great at it. This is the director’s show here. I’m what they euphemistically call the talent. Sure, if there’s something I don’t like, I’ll ask Eddie about it; but I’m not going to go around telling him how to work.” As for the dance routines, he cracks, “With me, you are talking severely limited. It’s all a matter of how foolish you want to look.”

Johnny’s getting moral support from his manager, David Sonenberg, 36, a Harvard-issue attorney who accepts “as gospel that MTV sells records. It was automatic we’d do a video. I wouldn’t take a client now who isn’t committed to being visually oriented.”

Sonenberg, the man who turned Meat Loaf into rock sirloin in the late ’70s, won a “substantial commitment” from Atlantic/Mirage records to help finance the $40,000 project. Indeed, “it was a critical part of our negotiations to sign with the label,” he says. “MTV is more adventuresome than radio in presenting new acts.” But the power of video can cut both ways: “A blatantly ugly video can ruin a record by diminishing the groove of the music,” he allows. “But by planting a tremendously hot image on the kids’ brains, the video can tangibly focus on the song’s message and motivate a buy.”

If the hook is, in fact, heat, then Trash should splash big. The mood in the bleak, stiflingly warm studio picks up immediately during an extended dance sequence involving a compact, stunning blonde, Edyie Fleming, and a sinewy black dancer, Allison Williams.

Fleming has taken two personal days off from a twice-daily Radio City show to put out her best Trash moves. Williams is due back each evening for her role as an understudy in Dream-girls. “It’s great exposure,” says Fleming, a former model, now withered between takes in her robe and nearly nonexistent bikini underwear and bra. The heat atop the Plexi, she says, is “like dancing on coals,” but MTV is a free close-up ad for any dancer’s talent. Cindy Rhodes, whom Sly Stallone reportedly first spotted in Toto’s Rosanna video and later cast opposite John Travolta in Staying Alive, is already a legend as the Lana Turner of video. “That’s why I wanted this,” says Edyie. “With luck, it’ll bring more dancing and acting work.”

After coming in tight on Williams, Vorkapich is grinning. “She’s hot, like nitro, she can sell anything. Pure dynamite.” Assistant Kawalek beams: “Eddie is definitely thrilled.” Southside, too, is taken with Williams’ remarkable, not to say erotic, contortions. “That is exactly what I had in mind for the song,” he muses. (Ironically, only Fleming survived the cuts in editing.)

By the end of the shoot, the studio looks like a bombed-out delicatessen. “We went through a thousand pounds of everything here—dry ice, bagels, cream cheese, sushi, cold cuts, Italian heroes,” says Kawalek. Certainly, the pace has been grueling. Synching fast after two days of rock-mime under 10,000-watt lights, Johnny admits he’s “nervous but excited” about his maiden MTV clip. “Hell, this is a great way to keep my voice in shape,” he says, smiling. “If I could lip-synch onstage, I could stay out on the road forever.”

Actually, how well Southside does on the road or anywhere will be determined, in part, by the success of the video. Trash It Up! premiered on MTV in mid-September. According to an MTV spokesperson, it’s still too early to tell if Trash will clean up.