The Broken Promise Land


By Marcia Muller

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Someone is bent on getting revenge on Ricky Savage, Sharon McCone’s brother-in-law and a two-time Grammy Award-winning country singer. The danger escalates as Sharon realizes that more than one person has been playing underhanded games–and that the music industry is truly a broken promise land.


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Thanks also to:

Joe Bradley, Bertelsmann Music Group, for his insights into the recording industry

Mary DeYoe, Winterland Productions, for merchandising lore and South Beach companionship

Jan Grape, for use of Jenny Gordon's name and her own persona

Lindia Toole, for use of her name, and for her friendship for Sharon McCone

And to Bill, for many reasons, including

for giving me one of the best lines in the book


July 21–23, 1995

Billboard, June 3, 1995:

Los Angeles—Country recording artist Ricky Savage, attorney Ethan Amory, manager Kurt Girdwood, and former Arista VP of sales and marketing Wil Willis announced this week that they are forming a new label, Zenith Records, with headquarters in Los Angeles and recording facilities at Little Savages Studio in Saguaro Junction, Arizona.

Zenith has received financial backing from Time Warner and will be distributed by WEA.

At a press conference, Savage, whose contract with Transamerica Records was fulfilled upon delivery of his forthcoming Midnight Train to Nowhere album, stated that signings with other artists will commence momentarily. He declined to name which acts are being considered.

Savage also stated that Zenith will join in Transamerica's promotional efforts for the new album by organizing a 25-city nationwide tour three weeks in advance of its August 16 debut. Transamerica will release a single of the title song to radio to coincide with the tour kickoff.

"StarWatch," Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1995:

Record industry reaction to the news that country star Ricky Savage is forming his own label in partnership with his manager, Kurt Girdwood, his music attorney, Ethan Amory, and former Arista VP Wil Willis is mixed at best. Several acts, including Blue Arkansas, who will open for Savage on this summer's Midnight Train to Nowhere tour, have indicated a willingness to enter into negotiations with Zenith.

Freelance publicist Andrea Fallaci, whom Savage fired early this year, commented, "I wish I had a dollar for every artist who's become enamored of his press, gone off to form his own label, and completely disappeared." Rival country star Crompton Culver was less restrained: "Ricky must have his head up his butt."

When asked his reaction to losing one of his foremost artists, Transamerica CEO Sy Ziff responded, "Ricky Savage, a loss? Give me a break! I've seen dozens like him come and go. If there was any way to deliver product without them, I'd eliminate them all." John Geller, VP of marketing at the label, told this column that the news was "not necessarily negative. Frankly, Savage's career has peaked to the point where he'd be more good to us dead than alive. A dead superstar is a hell of a lot more marketable than a live one on the way down."

Why such vehement response to a not-unheard-of business decision? Transamerica has poured millions into Savage's career and was hoping to enrich an anemic cash flow with the proceeds from his future releases. The label's financial position is so poor, in fact, that it was unable to finance the singer's summer promotional tour, and his defection could very well sound the death knell for this weakest of industry independents. Also, Savage has never ingratiated himself with the establishment in L.A., New York, or Nashville. He's not a game player, guards his family's privacy, and listens to a drummer that few artists are able to hear—which may explain the innovative quality and wide appeal of his music, which often crosses from the Country to the Pop charts…

June 12, 1995:

Whatever happened to my song?

June 19, 1995:

Whatever happened to my song?

June 26, 1995:


July 5, 1995:


July 10, 1995:


July 17, 1995:



The six notes that were spread out on my desk next to last month's Billboard article and the gossip-column item radiated a strange and threatening quality. I studied them longer than was necessary, trying not to betray my alarm. But even if I managed a calm, professional appearance, I wouldn't fool my client: He was my sister Charlene's husband, Ricky Savage, and had been able to see through my pretenses since he first laid eyes on me some eighteen years before.

Besides, the notes were good cause for alarm. They'd been sent to Ricky at his unlisted home address, one a week since the Billboard piece appeared. The first was neatly written and centered on a sheet of plain bond paper, but with each subsequent mailing the quality of the penmanship and coherence of presentation deteriorated, as though the writer's personality were disintegrating. Scanning them was like watching a normal person ask a simple question and, after receiving no reply, repeat it over and over while descending into madness.

"Which is probably what's going on here," I said.


With difficulty I took my eyes off the notes and looked up at my brother-in-law's handsome face. Frown lines had gathered between his thick dark eyebrows.

"Just thinking aloud."

"Worrying aloud is more like it."

"Look, I'm not all that concerned. They're probably the work of a harmless crank, but they should be checked out."


"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're doing that thing with the corners of your mouth."

"What thing?"

"The thing you always do when you're worried or upset—or scared."

"I am not scared."

He smiled—the crooked, almost pained smile that was a Ricky Savage trademark and only one of his many endearing traits. "Okay, maybe I'm projecting my own feelings onto you. Because I am scared. More scared than I've been in a long time. Not so much for me as for your sister and the kids. What if this weirdo goes after one of them?" He spread his hands, smile fragmenting into anxiety and frustration.

At thirty-six Ricky radiated that indefinable star quality and looked as prosperous as anyone I knew. But his admission that he was scared brought vividly to mind the terrified, scruffy eighteen year old who had come calling to tell my parents that he'd knocked up my little sister Charlene on their first date and wanted to marry her.

To ease our mutual tension, I indulged in a long-standing private joke. "You've cleaned up nice, Brother Ricky."

At first he looked startled, then said, "So've you, Sister Sharon," and motioned around my new office at the end of Pier 24½.

"Thanks." McCone Investigations and Altman & Zahn, Attorneys-at-law, had occupied the upstairs suite on the north side of the pier for only three weeks; in spite of some obvious flaws, I was entranced by the new location.

"Okay," I said, calm enough now to turn a hard eye on the matter at hand, "you say these notes started arriving at the house the week after the Billboard and 'StarWatch' items appeared?"

"A little more than a week, in the case of Billboard. And every week after that, except for July third, when it was two days late because of the holiday."

"Then it's probably no coincidence. Did you save the envelopes?"

"No. They were postmarked L.A., though."

"Zip code?"

He thought. "Can't remember. Sorry."

"Obviously you've handled the notes a lot."

"Well, yeah. Why?"

"Makes it more difficult for a lab to pick up on anything useful, like fingerprints. I'll go ahead and have them examined anyway. Why didn't you bring them to me sooner?"

"I wasn't all that concerned at first. In my position you get a lot of strange mail."

"But not at your house; nobody's supposed to know your address."

"Right. I guess my mental alarm should've gone off sooner, but… The first one—I shrugged it off, tossed it in a drawer in my office where I keep stuff I plan to look at later. The next I showed to your sister, and she said she didn't think it was anything to worry about. The others… I kept hoping the whole thing would go away. But it didn't, and it sounds like whoever's sending them wants a response from me and is more and more upset because they're not getting one. Trouble is, I can't figure out what the question means."

"'Whatever happened to my song?' That doesn't signify?"

"Seems I recall a song with similar lyrics, but I haven't been able to place it."

"Well, it's worth checking into." I made a note on a legal pad. "Now, what about possible senders? You must've given some thought to this. Could it be somebody at Transamerica who's seriously angry with you for leaving?"

"Doesn't fit their corporate image."

"What about another artist or songwriter who's unhappy with the way you've interpreted his or her work?"

"No. I never cover other people's material; all my songs're my own."

"Perhaps somebody's accusing you of plagiarism?"

"Doubtful. The first thing anybody does when they suspect plagiarism is contact their attorney, and nobody's attorney has contacted mine. Besides, people're up-front about things like that; they badmouth you to the media or they file suit. These notes, they're sly and devious—and strange." He glanced at where they lay on my desk and shook his head.

My eyes were drawn to them, too. I gripped the arms of my chair, picturing the five Savage children who still lived at home. I thought of the isolated location of the new house the family had just moved into in the San Diego County hills; the surrounding twenty wooded acres would provide ample cover for someone intent on harming them.

When I looked up, Ricky was watching me closely. Fear had sharpened his features and put a curious sheen on his hazel eyes. Quickly I said, "I'll get right on this, but in the meantime we've got to take steps to insure your safety, as well as Charlene's and the kids'. I don't like the fact that the writer knows where you live."

"We've got security gates, we've got motion sensors, the whole property is wired with a state-of-the-art system. Plus we've got what sometimes seems like half the population working for us. How's anybody going to get past that many people?"

"Did it ever occur to you that the notes might be from one of them?"

"The gardeners? The housekeeper? Come on!" But I could tell I'd given him something else to worry about.

I compounded it. "Besides, what about when you and Charlene are away from home? Or when the kids're on the way to school or at the mall? And then there's the recording studio over in Arizona; it's way out in the middle of nowhere."

"Well, Jesus, what're we all supposed to do! Travel with bodyguards?"

"Actually, I'm surprised you don't employ one for when you're out on the road."

He looked down at the floor. "I tried that for a while, but… it didn't work out very well."

"Why not?"

A shrug, still not looking at me. "Cramped my style, I guess."

"How so?"

His lips twitched in annoyance. "I'm a private man, Shar—just read 'StarWatch,' if you don't believe me."

Something there about the bodyguard, and I thought I knew what. Ricky, like many musicians, had been known to play around while out on the road; an indiscreet guard could carry tales that he wouldn't want my sister or the gossip columns to hear. "Well, I wasn't thinking of anything so drastic as round-the-clock armed guards," I said. "Some basic precautions should suffice. What I'd like to do is bring RKI in on this." Renshaw and Kessell International was a corporate security firm in which my lover and best friend, Hy Ripinsky, owned a one-third interest. "I'll ask Hy to handle it personally, if you like."

"God, you must think the situation's pretty dire." He bit his lip and looked toward the window, gaze moving along the silvery span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge to where it disappeared among the trees on Treasure Island.

I pushed away from the desk and swiveled slightly. Through the tall arching window I could see a sizeable stretch of water; in the distance the East Bay hills shimmered under July heat haze. Around me tan walls rose to the pier's sloping roofline, broken at the top by multipaned windows that admitted soft northerly light. The furniture I'd brought from my old office at the now-defunct All Souls Legal Cooperative went well with the wall-to-wall Berber carpet. About the only discordant note was a ratty old arm-chair I'd rescued from the converted closet under the stairs that had been my first working space at the co-op. It sat beneath a potted schefflera by the window—my thinking chair, I called it. Sentimentality had not prevented me from covering its ugly chintz and bleeding stuffing with a hand-woven beige-and-brown throw.

Had it not been for two drawbacks, the eight-room suite at a prime location on the Embarcadero would have been obscenely and prohibitively expensive. But Pier 24½ was right next to the SFFD fireboat station; when the sirens went off they were loud enough to wake the dead. And the span of the bridge hung directly overhead; a cacophony of traffic sounds played continuously above us. In the past three weeks, however, I'd learned that you can get used to anything if the price is right.

I glanced back at Ricky; he was slumped in my visitor's chair, his gaze still on Treasure Island, his thoughts possibly light years away. He barely resembled the down-at-the-heels man I'd known in the early days, when he'd been a backup musician for a seemingly endless series of dreadful bands. During the past few years he'd lost a fair amount of weight, although his shoulders still bulked powerfully under his tan suit jacket. I suspected he'd begun dyeing his thick chestnut hair, but it looked so natural that I couldn't tell for sure. Dye job or not, Ricky Savage was both the image of success and the genuine article, with a minimum performance fee of two hundred thousand dollars, two Grammys, numerous other awards, and four platinum albums to his credit.

But more than Ricky's appearance and tax bracket had changed: At dinner the previous evening, his son Mick, Hy, and I had all noticed an uncharacteristic lack of animation on his part. When he spoke of his industry, his words were larded with cynicism and bitterness; his reactions were detached, as if there were a glass wall between him and the world; and, if anything, he seemed more than a little sad.

After a moment I said, "Do I have your go-ahead to sub-contract with RKI?"

"Do what you think is best."

"Okay, Hy's unavailable this afternoon, but we'll talk when we see him tonight. As far as my investigation goes, I'll start by gathering background on your business associates, friends, employees—or anybody else who's recently touched your life. You'll need to pull together a list of them, plus clear some time over the weekend to discuss them with me." As I spoke I realized the enormity of the task ahead. "What about these people who were quoted in 'StarWatch'? They sound like sharks."

"Goes with the territory." Unless you knew country music, you'd have thought his accent didn't go with the territory; instead of a nasal southern twang, it was pure California. But it was pure country as well; Ricky hailed from Bakersfield, the West Coat's equivalent of Nashville.

"Isn't this libelous?" I jabbed my finger at the quote from the CEO of his former label.

"I'm a public figure; it'd be damned hard to prove libel—if I cared to, which I don't. Name-calling doesn't get to me and, besides, Sy Ziff and John Geller apologized a couple of days later. We all made nice, and things're copacetic."

"Sure they are."

"Sure." He winked.

"Okay, while we're on the subject, let's talk about your partners in the new label. Kurt Girdwood's been your manager for years; you've spoken highly of Ethan Amory; and you tell me that Wil Willis is nothing short of brilliant. Do you trust them?"


"But you're going into business with them."

"Lying down with dogs is more or less an industry tradition." He hesitated, grimacing. "You know, there's another side to this, one that doesn't concern me nearly as much as what might happen to Charly or the kids, but it's got to be taken into consideration."


"The effect this situation could have if it was made public on my upcoming tour for the Midnight Train to Nowhere album and the new label."

"How so?"

He got up and began to pace around the office, his booted footfalls soft on the carpet. "The recording industry has changed, Shar—at least on the surface. Was a time when I could stagger onto the stage in my jacket and jeans, hair down to my ass, high as a kite, and nobody saw anything wrong with it. That's out now, and it's probably a good thing, because the dope and booze weren't doing it for me anymore, and my doing so much of them sure wasn't doing anything for my family. No, what's in now is credibility."


"Personal integrity. You've gotta be worthy of the respect of your audience and peers. You gotta do good works—benefits for this or that cause, like this thing tonight in Sonoma County. You gotta help along the less fortunate—like my opening act tonight, that piss-ant Maxima." He snorted.

"Maxima? Sounds like a Japanese car."

"Stands for maximizing your potential and all that crap. The band's four guys and a girl singer. You read their press, you'll find out they're about all the correct things: antidrug, antibooze, anticrime, anti-premarital sex. They're vegetarians, pro–animal rights, pro–the environment. And they've got a nice ethnic mix: two blacks, two whites, and a Native American."

"So why're they 'piss-ant'?"

"Because that's only their public image. In private they eat meat, do booze and drugs, and the girl singer hops from one guy's bed to another's. For all I know, they litter, pollute, and torture cats. But because of a good publicity campaign, they got cred."

"Then why do they need you to help them?"

"Because their music sucks and their records don't sell."

"And why are you helping them?"

"We've got the same booking agent."


Ricky went on, "Anyway, the industry has gotten so faux honorable that I could puke. The music critics buy into it and parcel out praise accordingly. Of course, the business is still rotten to the core, but who the hell cares about anything that's not strictly surface, right?"

He was pacing in a long, angry stride now—more lively than I'd seen him in quite some time. Get mad, Ricky, I silently urged him. Show me some of that spirit that sustained you during those early years of frustration and rejection.

"So are you credible?" I asked.

"I sure as hell am. I'm doing the goddamned benefit for victims' rights tonight, aren't I? Not that I'm against victims' rights, but it happens to be Jamie's fifteenth birthday and I would've liked to be home for it. And I'm letting that piss-ant Maxima open for me, aren't I? Don't I give money to save the whales and the rain forests and the spotted owl? Hell, I don't even know what a spotted owl looks like. Where does it all end, I ask you? Given the new political climate in the country, by this time next year my agent'll be signing me up to do benefit concerts against the spotted owl!"

Abruptly he stopped pacing and leaned across the desk toward me. "You know, what really pisses me off about acts like Maxima is that I come by my credibility honestly. Part of the cred thing is that the artist's supposed to suffer. Hell, we're supposed to bleed. Everybody knows the story of those years I spent playing clubs in places like Needles and Wichita and Saginaw, staring at the ass end of some broken-down, third-rate singer whose road agent'd hired me at less than union scale. I've never been on the receiving end of help from anybody in the industry. No hit act ever let me open for them; nobody ever put on a benefit concert for my hungry wife and kids. But those years're finally worth something: Ricky Savage has paid his dues, bigtime. He's got everybody's respect, hot damn!"

He was on a roll now, translating his anxiety about the current situation into anger. Easier for him to cope with, probably.

I said, "So if word of these notes got out to the media, the speculation about what's behind them might harm your credibility. And if something really nasty surfaced, it could blow the Midnight Train tour, damage the new label, and possibly wreck your career."

"Yes to all of that."

I moved back to the desk and leaned my forearms on it, toying with my letter opener for a moment. "Okay, then let me ask you this: Is there anything nasty that could come out?"

I'd thought the question might further anger him, but instead he sat down and considered. "There's stuff. There's stuff in everybody's life, and more than the average amount in a performer's. But I can't think of anything that would relate to those notes."

I waited to see if he'd elaborate, but he didn't seem so inclined. "Well," I said, "I'll get started on it right away."

"I'm surprised you're willing to take it on."

"Why on earth wouldn't I?"

"Charly wasn't too sure. To quote my wife, 'Sharon might feel there's a problem with working for a family member. Don't pressure her if she says no; she's got very strict professional ethics.'"

My face must have reflected my astonishment; Ricky smiled wryly.

I asked, "Does this mean I've got… what do you call it? Cred?"

"You got more than cred. According to Charly, you're practically in line for sainthood."

Oh, little sister, if only you knew! If only you knew


Ricky and I settled contractual details and he gave me a retainer that I felt vaguely guilty for taking from a family member. Only vaguely.

Going out on my own the year before had been scary enough, but I'd still been under the umbrella of All Souls, whose partners would have forgiven a late rental payment for the rooms in their Bernal Heights Victorian that my nephew Mick and I occupied. And Mick was working for free in exchange for room and board at my house—sent north by Charlene and Ricky to remove him from the scene of a dreadful transgression involving the Pacific Palisades Board of Education's computer. The overhead was low, the surroundings congenial, and it seemed I had all the time in the world to start generating a profit.

But this spring All Souls had rounded the last curve of a steadily downward spiral: Infighting among the partners became fierce and disruptive; Hank Zahn, the co-op's founder and my oldest friend, decided to leave and form his own firm with his wife, Anne-Marie Altman. And I, flying high and reckless on the wings of a quarter-million-dollar reward I'd received for services rendered to the federal government, agreed to set up shop next door to them.

Now I had a full suite of offices and an unforgiving landlord. I had new and costly equipment, as well as a nearly new fuel-guzzling company van. Add to that salaries and Social Security and health-plan contributions for two and a half employees, and you had a situation that bore a frightening resemblance to a house of cards. True, most of the reward was tucked away in various conservative and easily liquidated investments, but I'd been poor for far too many of the years I worked at All Souls to let a dollar flow out without fretting.

"Are we all set for this evening?" I asked Ricky as I countersigned our contract.

"Yeah. Do any of your office gang suspect our surprise?"

"I don't think so. They've been working too hard at weaseling it out of me."

"Mick might. He said something about somebody he wants me to meet tonight. You have any idea who that could be?"

I did: Charlotte Keim, one of the data-search specialists with Hy's firm. And that was something else to fret about. Instead of going into it now, I simply said no.

"Then I guess we'll just have to wait and see." He got up and moved toward the door.

"Ricky, one more thing. Do your partners or any of your other people know about the notes?"


"Why not?"

"Like I said before, I can't really trust anybody in the industry. I learned that early on."

"So who does know?"

"Only you and Charly."

I would have liked to ask what my sister thought about them. She was a passionate and possessive woman; throughout their marriage she and Ricky had done some heavy-duty battling over what might or might not go on in the part of his life from which she, by choice, distanced herself. Surely she'd considered the possibility they might be from a woman.

He must have read the question in my eyes. He said softly, "I don't know what Charly thinks about anything these days, Shar."

"Things aren't good?"

He shrugged, pain twisting his lips and melancholy creeping across his face. "We'll talk about it later, okay? Right now I want to go say hello to my son before I head out." At the door he paused. "By the way, I don't want Mick to know about any of this. Don't use him on the investigation, okay?"

I frowned. His son was my computer jock and invaluable in gathering essential background information. If I couldn't use him I'd have to temporarily hire someone else.

"I know you rely on him," Ricky said, "but this is one time when you're going to have to get along without his help."


On Sale
Feb 2, 2016
Page Count
400 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

Learn more about this author