The Day the Music Died

By Tyler Gray | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted July 21, 2002

 

Jim Faherty has a lot to do -- maybe too much for a promoter without a club, an entrepreneur without a business, an artist without a medium.

In days before gray hairs, Faherty opened a cornerstone club on a strip of downtown sidewalk that usually rolled up after happy hour. Today, police stop traffic at 2 a.m. on the same strip just to funnel tens of thousands in a shiny-shirt, cash-carrying mass to parking lots and garages spread across downtown.

In the climate he helped create, Faherty is struggling to find his way again -- with sweat equity and almost no cash of his own.

He carries around a yellow legal pad, each day's page filled from top to bottom with chores -- flier-ing, poster-ing, meeting, booking parties at his home and at clubs where he gets an evening or two a month. Chores are propelling Faherty through the blackest time in his 41 years.

The list is a product of his hyper-positive, wiry drive. His decade-long reputation as Orlando's countercultural impresario might never have been tarnished if being bad at business were his only mistake. This is the man who helped start Orlando's music scene, after all -- ask any group of plugged-in, longtime Orlandoans and someone always pipes up with that.

But in the past year, the guy synonymous with Orange Avenue, with Orlando music, lost every business he owned here -- Dante's restaurant, Sapphire nightclub, Baraka Café -- and left a trail of debt that follows him almost everywhere he goes.

To anyone close to Faherty, that's not the surprise. Even when he did make a profit, he always dumped it into his next event. He's a fitting martyr to the rock 'n' roll cause, quicker to worry about making a reputation as a music guru than making a dime.

But the piece that sticks out in Faherty's story is the chore missing from his daily to-do list.

"Every day, I make this 30- to 40-item list," he says.

Nowhere are the words, "Go to prison."

"I keep having this recurring fantasy that I'll win the lottery," Faherty says. It's not the money but the point a winning ticket would allow him to make about the latest chapter in his life. "I'd give you the ticket and say, 'Will you cash this for me?' "

That's how he views the biggest in a series of expensive mistakes that have changed his life and livelihood. He cashed a winning ticket from a McDonald's pull-tab game for a friend and a lump sum of winnings -- $490,000, he says. Federal prosecutors say it was fraud and actually worth $1 million, a combination that could send him to federal prison at his October sentencing.

Faherty says he took the ticket to help family friend Andrew Glomb of Fort Lauderdale. He listened to the explanation -- that Glomb feared a higher tax bracket or sharing the winnings in a divorce -- and knew he owed Glomb a bundle. Friends always invested enough to keep his ideas in motion, but Faherty was deep in all sorts of debt and lawsuits, and only getting deeper.

The ticket, says Faherty's attorney Mark NeJame, "was an opportunity to pay off the debt, make some money to pay off the other bills. And it came from a person he trusted."

"He just kind of went along, rather than simply saying no. He looked the other way," NeJame says. "He was in a state of denial."

The winning ticket he cashed was traced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a monthslong probe of an alleged scam to rig a Monopoly-themed instant-prize game and defraud the McDonald's Corp. of millions. The suspected plot dated back as far as the 1980s.

Faherty is a vegetarian. He doesn't eat fast food, much less know any mastermind in a McDonald's scam, he says. Regardless of whether he knew he was cashing a bogus ticket as a favor worth thousands or remained ignorant of the whole situation, Faherty is fully engulfed in the plot now.

In February, he pleaded guilty to a federal count of mail fraud -- for mailing in the ticket in exchange for a check -- and found out he could spend up to five years in federal prison and owe as much as $250,000 in fines. It's money he doesn't have.

NeJame advised against Faherty pleading guilty to the charge. "I wanted to fight it," he says. But Faherty chose to plead guilty, he says, to keep his family and friends out of a public court battle.

"He just wants to take his medicine and move on," NeJame says.

Never mind that pleading guilty meant the end of Faherty owning a liquor license or another bar. It was the threat of a jail sentence that has undermined his can-do mentality and started eating him alive.

"I look at it like the five steps a person goes through when they find out they're dying," Faherty says. First, he denied it. Then he bargained. He asked, "Why me?" He got angry. He became depressed. Now he has considered the worst-case scenario, a long prison sentence, and says he would make use of the time. "I will make it work," he says. "I will make it happen."

How he'll do that is a matter Faherty doesn't ponder aloud, if at all. He could while away a prison term by reading, if he knew he would be allowed to bring books. "I wish they'd give me a manual, so I could know what I could and couldn't bring," he says.

But what does a man who lives and breathes by a to-do list do if a judge decides to strip him of all diversions, all of the tasks that keep him living for the day in a town he helped build? He falls back on his chore mentality, writes a really long to-do list.

"I almost would create a new manifesto," Faherty says.

Red-carpet treatment

"I've had incredible luck for 17 years," Faherty says. "And I've just hit the wall, that's all."

The Jim Faherty story sounds like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. It has that rise-and-fall, rock-star quality -- the high points with stories about him swinging from bar rafters spraying bottles of champagne, the laid-back, open-door pool parties at his Delaney Park home. For all of his work, there was always plenty of fun.

But the bills started catching up with him several years ago. The storm of debt and legal troubles he faces today makes his break into the business seem like a breeze.

He started here in the early '80s as a Pittsburgh transplant managing J.J. Whispers nightclub on Lee Road with future business partner John Brown. He was using a degree in hospitality management earned at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania.

He put on punk rock shows on the side to satisfy his passion for raw, vital music. He never worried much about profit or the bottom line, or even who would clean up the venue the next day.

When fans trashed the Syrian-Lebanese American Club in Orlando during a 1985 Dead Kennedys show, Faherty promoted, he apologized profusely and handed over all the profits to the hall owners. When ska band the Toasters came to town, he put them up, threw a party for them at his house and took them out for drinks. At the 1993 show, he took them to Scruffy Murphy's Irish Bar next to his club, handed over his credit card to the server and said, "We're going to drink until the credit-card company says stop."

The red-carpet treatment became his calling card and a reason so many artists would play his shows.

"If I'm going to do a show, I want the band to remember the show," Faherty says. He always spent his profits achieving that goal. "I took a blood bath," he says. But he has punk rock stories that would impress the Sex Pistols.

"He's too nice," says Ron Faherty Sr., Jim's father, who runs American Road Line Inc., an international trucking company with about 130 offices. He's proud of his son's honesty and generosity, he says. And he's proud that his son never got caught up in the seedy side of the entertainment industry -- drugs, in particular. He believes Jim made an honest mistake in taking the McDonald's ticket. But Faherty's father says, professionally, Jim always sacrificed profit for passion.

"He would bring bands in and just pay them or put them up in a hotel and give them anything they needed," Faherty Sr. says. "Is that good business? Did he make anything with them? No."

Michael McRaney, a longtime friend and chief booking agent for Faherty's Figurehead promotions company, agrees.

"He's got a huge heart. That's what you have to love," McRaney says. "He doesn't have an ulterior motive. He's doing it for the love of it and maybe gets tangled up somewhere along the lines."

McRaney met Faherty through his own band, Braille Closet, in the mid-'80s. Faherty was booking national acts. And he let McRaney's band and the handful of other original acts in town open the shows for their heroes.

"Picture all of these young guys in bands egging on the guy who had the means and the energy to put together a music scene," McRaney says. "He made us all feel like rock stars."

He spent money on personal causes, too. There are many stories of Faherty bailing out friends in trouble. When Michael Schmidt, another member of Braille Closet, hit bottom, lost a business, most of his money and his ability to say "no" to a self-destructive party lifestyle, Faherty moved him into his home, quarantining him in a back room.

"He basically pulled me out of the lowest part of my life," says Schmidt, now 44. "He gave me a place to live. He lent me money. He found odd jobs for me. He was a turning point in my life."

Schmidt says he'll owe Faherty forever. "I wish I could do the same for him," he says. "But his situation seems to be more dire than mine."

Team player

There are two things I never wanted to do," Faherty says. "I never wanted to own a club. I never wanted to own a restaurant."

Passion for his vision, quick success outside of the music business and maybe some ego drove him to do both. He proved along the way that he could make the most of the salesmanship he inherited from his father. But he spent his earnings feeding great ideas that never made him rich. Now, almost every business he left behind is mired in lawsuits, liens or debts.

By 1990, Faherty had teamed with former J.J. Whispers partner John Brown at a club called Sleep Out Louie's. Brown offered an opportunity to help run Kilowatt Saver, a lighting-fixture company. Faherty and Brown said they maxed out 15 credit cards to buy the fledgling business for $40,000. Neither knew a thing about lighting; Faherty says he's terrified of electricity. He sold his personality instead.

In six years, that personality would help create an $8 million venture. Kilowatt Saver even retrofitted lighting fixtures for a slew of Space Coast-area McDonald's.

"It was a 9-to-5 job," Faherty says. "At night, I got to wear the punk rock hat."

His money went into putting on more shows and eventually led him to take over a downtown club, where he would get in over his head.

"Maybe if he would have had a great partner, it would have worked," Faherty Sr. says.

He did, for a while.

In 1994, Faherty and Cleveland transplant Shayni Howen started taking over Beacham's Downtown Jazz & Blues Club, first opened as Valentyne's. Faherty had promoted legendary shows at the club Howen ran next to Valentyne's, the Beacham Theatre. Alternative rock was surging, and the two had brought in bands such as Fishbone, Primus and the Cramps.

But being an originator in the music scene meant constant reinvestment of profits in looks and sound at the space they rechristened the Sapphire Supper Club. "We wanted a place in Orlando that was a great club," Howen says. "But it was always churning back into itself."

Between Faherty's relationships with bands and Howen's knack for style, the two made Orlando a tour stop for edgy, alternative bands and Sapphire into a club rivaling underground hangouts in cities twice Orlando's size. But Faherty and Howen failed to make the place profitable.

In 1999, Howen decided to move to New York. Sapphire had closed its kitchen -- the food never drew as many patrons as the music. "Honestly, it was a situation where the club wasn't making any money," Howen says. She didn't take any profits with her. There weren't any. "I might not have had the money in my pocket," she says, "but I certainly have the good times."

Faherty's good times were thinning out. McRaney took over most of the booking duties at Sapphire while Faherty ran the business. "I think it got more difficult. I think it consumed him more than he wanted to be consumed," McRaney says. Faherty let go of his stake in Kilowatt Saver and made the club his full-time duty.

"It changed him in the sense that he now had to deal with the beast," McRaney says.

Mountain of debt

In early 2000, Faherty tried opening other businesses geared more toward profit. Dante's restaurant, still open today under different ownership at 1912 S. Orange Ave., gave Faherty an opportunity to take over payments on an eatery in the old Kilowatt Saver space and turn it into Sapphire South. But within a year, the power to the place was being shut off due to unpaid bills. Bad checks left him with negative balances. A last-ditch effort to take on new partners backfired, and Dante's landlords took back the business.

"The money I had saved working for 10 years at Kilowatt Saver, I lost at Dante's," Faherty says.

His charm and reputation still had some equity, though, enough to recruit investors in yet another restaurant venture. In early 2001, Faherty opened Baraka Café across the street from Sapphire. Named for one of his favorite films, the restaurant was shared with more than a dozen partners -- everyone from friends to real estate investors and Faherty's own lawyer.

Baraka, like Dante's and Sapphire, didn't turn a profit. Shortly after Baraka opened, debts from all of Faherty's ventures started piling up, according to court and state records.

Tax liens, unpaid bills to food suppliers and negative bank account balances left him tied up in legal knots worth more than $25,000. Some accounts are settled. And in some cases, Faherty says, he was unfairly stuck with bills he didn't rack up. In other cases, he just didn't have the money to pay.

Sapphire was left deepest in debt. There was a $22,390 state tax lien against the now-defunct business and a lawsuit from David Rigby of Fort Lauderdale, who claims that Faherty gave him seven shares in the company stock in exchange for a $20,000 investment. Rigby sued but settled for a promissory note of $26,000, which has not been paid. Faherty says he has a private agreement with Rigby, and they remain friends. Rigby says he never got as much as a business statement from Faherty, as he was promised. The debt is not settled between them, he says.

"Through all of this trouble, I haven't heard a word from Jim," Rigby says. "He has made no effort whatsoever. I just wish he would do right by me."

Rigby, for one, doesn't accept Faherty's passion for music as an excuse for unpaid debts. The business, he says, was always handled like an art project. "I think that's the big failure," he says. "Of course the bands loved him. They got away with murder."

Kitchen duty

"I had no idea I had such a high profile until this came out," Faherty says of his tangle with the law and McDonald's.

Of his many acquaintances, few knew the extent of his troubles. But there was plenty of fodder for those watching the house of cards topple.

"People like to see him fail," says William Waldren, a longtime friend, former investor in Baraka and Dante's and another who lived at Faherty's house during his own tough financial times.

"They see him as living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, living a dream where he's able to make money and have fun bringing all the music he likes to town," Waldren says. "People who live their humdrum lives are always looking at him, saying it's going to crash one day."

It has.

His punishment is still months away, but Faherty has admitted the crime. He cashed in the McDonald's ticket and received a check on his 40th birthday in April 2001. It canceled his debt with Glomb, but he wouldn't get a cut large enough to make Baraka work or to pay off other debts he accumulated.

Before the FBI came questioning, Faherty did what he knew best. Every day, he took on a list of chores involved in opening his last restaurant. And he avoided calls from debtors, according to claims in lawsuits.

All the while, Faherty worked double shifts cooking day and night in Baraka's kitchen.

"I was trying to keep the place surviving," he says. "But I'm fried from trying to run the business end of it. I suck at it."

Faherty claims full responsibility for his situation, but says he was taken advantage of when he was desperate.

He trusts fewer people these days. Asked if he'd ever get involved in restaurant or bar ownership again, he says: "My entrepreneurial side says, 'hell yeah.' Hopefully, my common sense says, 'no.'"

Though he's deep in debt and facing jail, Faherty's visibility in bars and clubs downtown, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, have overshadowed his federal sentence. Many still consider him a player in downtown nightlife. People still credit him with bars he never owned.

Longstanding gossip has Faherty giving away Bar-BQ-Bar to Ashley McCammon -- the two dated for a year and a half while Faherty ran Sapphire. McCammon opened the dive-by-design Bar-BQ-Bar as a subsidiary of the neighboring Sapphire. She acknowledges Faherty's contribution.

"He did help get us on our feet," she says, but adds, "he doesn't have a single dollar in Bar-BQ-Bar and never did." The then-25-year-old paid her own bills, quickly turned a profit and started helping pay Sapphire's costs.

"I was purely jealous of how Bar-BQ-Bar was raking in money," Faherty says.

In fact, as he was racking up debt, Faherty watched from across the stree had to see his ex -- the club, that is. McCammon and partners took it over. She changed the name to the Social, hired Waldren to remodel it, McRaney to book shows there. She opened upscale bar Sky60 on the roof of the club and plans a fourth bar in the same building.

"Every day I walk by the Social and it hurts -- it's this sense of failure," Faherty says. "That's where I envisioned myself, 60 years old working the door at Sapphire."

Still dreaming

Listen to Faherty long enough and he'll convince you that lawsuits, liens, debts and prison are all just more chores he'll deal with and get past, something to cross off the to-do list while he plans events he hopes will make him stronger when he comes back. People who have known him for years say that's exactly what he'll do, even if he does go to prison. They say he'll bounce back as a promoter. They all say it's his strongest skill.

"He's a charmer," McCammon says. "He'll make you believe anything."

In the months leading up to his October sentencing, Faherty has gone back to promoting while his attorney, NeJame, tangles with federal prosecutors. NeJame also owns the Beacham Theatre where Faherty got his start downtown, and he has taken on Faherty's plight at a deeply discounted rate. NeJame has argued that the ticket Faherty cashed was not a $1 million ticket -- he got a lump sum of $490,000. The distinction might become important.

"Jail time is a possibility under any circumstance," NeJame says. "It's just that it becomes less of a possibility if the amount of the ticket is less."

Probation is a possibility, too. With a clean record, it's unlikely Faherty would receive more than two years in prison for mail fraud, NeJame says.

But even inside of two years, prison won't give Faherty more chores or challenges. It will take them away. He jokes about it, calls it his "down time." But not even he knows just how much his world will change if it slows to a crawl.

For now, he's keeping busy. He's slowly selling off some of his possessions, but hardly packing his bags. He is promoting events around town and has had offers from potential employers to work as a promoter again. His to-do list is what propels him through days of waiting.

"Right now, I have 20 events that I have to do in the next two years," he says. "My ultimate goal is to do a music museum."

He has talked about this for years. He would open up a band practice space, somewhere the public could tour and watch songs being created. The place wouldn't make money. But so what? There's plenty of time to plan. And there will always be investors who love him for his passion.

"It's not so far- fetched, really," Faherty says. "I think I could pull it off.