David Chase's Rock & Roll Fantasy
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger
Early in the filming of 'Not Fade Away', Chase indulged in a sentimental moment. The crew was setting up a period-appropriate Gretsch drum kit, and between takes, Chase inched closer and closer to the kit, then picked up the drumsticks, sat down, and began to play. "He was great," recalls John Magaro, the 29-year-old actor who plays the film's lead character. But when cast and crew started gathering to watch, Chase stood up and put the sticks down.

Chase once had the same drums, and it's hard not to see 'Not Fade Away' as a version of his own story, especially when the lead character eventually shifts his interests from music to film. "It's not autobiographical," Chase protests. "I'd call it personal." Magaro assumed otherwise. "There's definitely pressure when you're playing the guy who wrote and is directing the movie," he says. "You find yourself picking up his mannerisms, which hopefully doesn't offend the person."

The band in the movie achieves some local success, but Chase's own musical efforts didn't go that far: The closest thing he ever had to a band never actually played a gig – one member would always say, "We're not ready," a bit Chase included in the film. He did once go to a recording studio with his friends, a scene echoed in the movie, having earlier told the lead singer, "I think I can sing that song better than you." He did, and the results were good enough that the studio owner offered them a contract. One of the other guys was convinced they could do better, so they turned it down. That was it for his musical career.

But as the film suggests, even unfulfilled rock dreams can be powerful. "The Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Dylan – that music changed my life," says Chase. "With the advent of the British Invasion, I began to see that I might be able to do something artistic. With John Lennon and Dylan and these people, it began to be about death and redemption and work and self-loathing, self-scrutiny, and love on an entirely different level. It dawned on me, 'Oh, what do you call this stuff? I don't know. It's kinda like art.'"

That other Sixties liberator, LSD, was also important to Chase. "It really influenced my writing," he says. "A lot of the stuff you saw on 'The 'Sopranos'', the interest in other levels of consciousness, I think it all came from acid." He took about 10 trips during his film-school days at Stanford, including watching '2001' while tripping: "That was great. It was unbelievable."

Three weeks later, he had an experience that ended his acid days. "I went to see Fellini's 'Satyricon,' and as the movie progressed, I became convinced that the Zodiac Killer, who was around then, was gonna come and get me. I couldn't stop thinking about him. That was it for me." He laughs, looking very young for a moment.

Instead of making trippy, boundary-pushing movies, Chase more or less fell into the steady craft of TV writing – a couple decades' worth, working on 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker'; 'The Rockford Files'; and eventually, 'Northern Exposure.' "The way I analyze it now is that I was too chicken-hearted," he says. "I had a facility for writing. I could write good dialogue. I could contribute in a writers' room. And television, they just need material. I began to enjoy the artisanship of it. But while I was very proud of being associated with The 'Rockford Files,' it wasn't the same as going to see 'Apocalypse Now,' or a movie by Bergman."

Chase was taking studio writing assignments the whole time, but he'd always get replaced. "I blamed the movie business most of the time," he says. "I probably should have blamed myself more. I was going to do this comedy for Universal in the early Eighties, about these women who were low-life street criminals in New Jersey. So I went to see 'Raging Bull,' and I thought, 'Oh, OK. I've got it figured out now.' Well, 'Raging Bull's not a comedy! So who should be blamed for that? Who drew the wrong conclusions? Whose expectations were off?"