DETROIT (Crain's Detroit Business) -- By now, you've read or heard that opening night of Charlie Sheen's new roadshow was an unmitigated, seven-gram catastrophe.
The former "Two and a Half Men" star launched his "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option Show" -- a 20-stop, month-long tour -- in front of 4,700 people people at the Fox Theatre Saturday night, and I was there live tweeting everything as the wheels came off the wagon -- and his fans leapt off his bandwagon.
In retrospect, it felt like being present at a historic moment. And not a good historic moment, like the Beatles at Shea Stadium in '65. No, this was more like Custer's annihilation or the sinking of the Titanic.
The first warning sign of trouble ahead was an opening act comic, who bombed and was aggressively booed. Never before had I seen an audience so angry with a performer. The guy was painfully unfunny, on par with the dreadful George Lopez. Less funny, even, and the crowd devoured him. Sheen came out at one point to plead the guy's case, but it was no use. He eventually left, and I figured it was a ploy by Sheen's camp to set the expectations low so he could look like a hero on stage.
For awhile, it worked. The audience was on its feet cheering him when he came out. He burned a 2.5 Men bowling shirt, then donned a Detroit Tigers No. 99 "Warlock" jersey, and said profanity-laced nice things about the city and its fans. The crowd was with him at that point.
It didn't take long to fall apart. The show wasn't seamless. It felt professionally done in parts, thrown-together in others. Sheen at one point was on a presidential-style podium with teleprompters, and read a long speech in his trademark style, with his creative weird expressions. But it went on for 20 minutes, and the crowd grew restless. Boos began in earnest.
After that, there were some videos, attempts to tell stories, some music. But things were sloppy and going downhill.
It was all disjointed, and the crowd's sense of disappointment and anger was the only consistency of the night. About a half-hour into the show, people were starting to leave. After Sheen chastised the audience for not being quiet while he was trying to talk, the exodus increased. It was painful to watch. He made jokes about Detroit's population and crack in the city, which were duds in a town with fierce civic pride.
At one point, Sheen tossed a baseball a couple of times with Todd Zeile, former infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals and nearly a dozen other teams. Todd Zeile? Really?
The crowd was out for blood. Tiger blood. And it got it. The nadir was the premiere of a Snoop Dogg video called "Winning" -- Sheen's catchphrase slogan -- that was difficult to hear because of bad audio in the theater. When it ended, the house lights came up. That was it. An abrupt end after 70 minutes. The confused crowd streamed out.
After about 10 or 15 minutes, Sheen walked back on stage amid the roadies tearing everything down. Maybe 500 people were left and Sheen called them to the front of the stage. He thanked everyone for coming and said the show would be fixed. Just too late for Detroit.
I will say this in Sheen's defense: Probably a third of the show drew intense cheers and laughter. That tells me it probably could be fixed -- starting by making it seamless, cutting down Sheen's opening homily of weirdness by about half, and dumping or trimming some of the video segments. It's not beyond salvage, but good grief, it needs work. And probably some A-list guest stars.
Also, another essential fact largely missed in postmortem media reports: There were people booing before the show began. Clearly, some people showed up angry-drunk or were there simply to antagonize Sheen. The actor and his handlers failed to manage crowd expectations beforehand, so much of the blame is on his head for that. But that said, I'm not sure anyone was going to succeed at the Fox last night unless they were an established act.
No one had any idea of what the show was going to be, but what it was failed to satisfy even the vaguest expectations of Saturday night's crowd. Perhaps they thought he would be doing standup comedy, or a 90-minute version of his raving radio and TV interviews.
Then again, what kind of crowd does one expect to show up at a Charlie Sheen show?
The show's failure on just about all fronts can be exemplified by this: Because so many people walked out while it was going on, there was no one available for the post-performance meet-and-greet. We were lingering outside the front of the Fox and saw that doormen and security staff were quietly pulling a few people aside and leading them to a side door -- to meet Sheen. Tickets for the meet/greet had been priced at more than $500, and apparently not many were sold.
We were led inside after a security guard said I could meet Sheen only if the guard held my reporter's notebook and pen.
I agreed, figuring I could remember what I needed to know or could simply text it to myself. There wasn't much to it: We waited in a hallway, then were led down a set of stairs into the bowels of the Fox to a hot, bunker-like room where Sheen posed for photos -- taken by his staffers -- in a cattle-call style meet/greet. It was very brief, formal and mechanical. Other than the handshake, we were told no touching, no bad language, no threatening gestures, etc. There would be no impromptu fun with the Warlock and his fans.
It was over before it began, really. He looked haggard and ready to be gone, and mumbled something like "Well done, sir" to me. The Fox security guy handed me back my notebook and pen. Everyone got a show poster on the way out the door. The we were quickly herded up some different stairs and out a side door, back out into the chilly Detroit night. The room felt like a gathering of generals in the losing side of a war that everyone wanted them to win. Forced grins, etc. A little sad.
This morning, there is no shortage of cynics, haters, reactionaries, pearl-clutchers, fuddy duddies, naysayers, wet blankets -- and that's just the media commenting about the show. The journalist schadenfreude isn't surprising: The establishment press pronounced the sudden emergence of wild-man Sheen, a toxic pop culture manifestation, many weeks ago. They consider his entire lifestyle one long criminal act, and are reveling in his failure today. And they've been waiting for him to be humbled, and are delighting in their unoriginal "I told you so" moment today.
There's clearly disdain, on the part of some, of anything escapist and dangerous, and that's exactly what Sheen's over-the-top iconoclast-malcontent gonzo act is. He's an adult Pied Piper leading fan-boy acolytes down a path that diverges from the safe and established -- which offends and frightens many in the media. They drag out professionals and doctors to warn us that Sheen is a man in need of help, a dangerous Svengali or simply a boorish jerk rather than a Peter Pan.
Let's face it: Some of these critics are the people who saw nothing wrong with the dancing ban in "Footloose," and thought Kevin Bacon's Ren McCormack was a trouble-making hoodlum. They thought Judge Smails was a sympathetic character in "Caddyshack."
And while Sheen and his followers may consider the criticism to be the fearful senile ravings of bitter old trolls, today's harsh assessments are, to a degree, correct.
The show failed and the freaks, fun hogs, ne'er do-wells turned on him in droves. Yet I give people credit that they understand Sheen is very different from themselves, and no one is going to try to match his lifestyle. He's not Hunter S. Thompson, whose followers mainly have stuck to impersonating his clothing and writing rather than his booze and drug intake. Common fans can't afford to break drug laws on national television and shatter social mores the way celebrities can. It takes a certain moxie, and even more money, to be able to march to the expensive beat of Sheen's drum.
"Jesus! What's happening to this world? What indeed? The bag-boy grinned. The desk clerk grinned. And the cop crowd eyed me nervously. They had just been blown off the track by a style of freak they'd never seen before. I left them there to ponder it, fuming and bitching at the gates of some castle they would never enter." -- Hunter S. Thompson, excised portion of "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas" that appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, but not the book.
I think that quote largely sums up much of the anti-Sheenism.
In America, we love celebrity flame-outs, and Sheen's Warholian 15 minutes that have lasted more than half of his life may be nearing its end. That said, I credit him for trying to capitalize on his situation. Most celeb meltdowns end up in a staged cathartic moment on Oprah, and then she proclaims his or her redemption. But with Sheen, we may have been witness to how things will be done in the age of social media, when celebs can directly reach fans without vampiric intermediaries.
After Detroit, Sheen limps off to Chicago to lick his wounds, reportedly $150,000 richer but maybe slightly humbled. But maybe not. Those who bought his tickets are that much cash poorer, but we have a lot of stories to tell. We can say, "Yes, I was there, that night in Detroit, when Charlie Sheen exploded before our eyes." And maybe that was worth the price of admission.
UPDATE: TMZ.com reports that Sheen's audience in Chicago on Sunday was chanting "Detroit sucks" and that as part of a quickly revamped show he read a poem about how much he hates Detroit. Twitter updates sound like it's a better show, but still not a good one. Little or no booing, people not leaving. Sheen is able to tell hecklers "Go back to Detroit" to cheers.
UPDATE II: The New York Times takes not only Sheen and his show to task, but blasts the Detroit audience and media critics, too (link). Best-written analysis I've read, and wish I'd written it. Sample: "The ushers, in their black gold-braided uniforms, retained an air of inscrutable dignity in the midst of an orgy of depthless vulgarity. Everyone else in the room -- onstage, backstage, in the $69 orchestra seats -- had to swallow a gag-inducing, self-administered dose of shame. And no, the journalists who traveled to Detroit to gawk and philosophize at the spectacle are not exempt from that judgment."
UPDATE III: If you're not following me on Twitter, you can do so here. My live tweets from Sheen's Detroit debacle are there. I pasted a few highlights below.
~ I felt like I was present at a historic moment, and not a good one.
~ People are pouring out of the Fox. Like Opening Day for the Tigers, this is a bomb.
~ This is a bit like a high school play without any adult supervision.
~ I'll be charitable and call the show Dada-baroque. Needs work. A lot.
~ Sheen starting to lose audience with long meandering Sheenspeak. Recovers a bit.
~ First blow-up sex doll of the night in audience at Fox.
~ "Napalm-dripping brain" ... crowd happy.
~ Fox guys looking for weed smokers in our section.
~ Thank god I have an aisle seat. Crowd could be out for blood, tiger or otherwise. They mean business in here. Tense but mirthful vibe.
~ Freakin Peter Griffin's ginormous head is in front of me. Stage left view obscured.
~ Wondering if show will be cross between a Rocky Horror night and cockfight.