This is a story I wrote around 1992. It’s kinda long, but if you like showbiz dirt, stick with it.
It was never published but got thisclose three times. The first magazine decided I didn’t bash celebrities hard or fast or famous enough. The second magazine changed hands before the piece could run, and it got lost in the shuffle. The third magazine, whose content typically derived from repeating other mags’ reportage, demurred because they didn’t understand where the quotes from named sources came from. It’s called “getting an interview,” dogs — bite me!
The story appears here in its original 1992 form, except for a few updates and outtakes too good to leave out. Therefore, some information will seem dated. It is what it is. Real good!
A hack director wants to make the Springsteen story. A desperate band wants a recording contract. A bad actor tells everyone he’s a rock star. A bargain-hunting backer gets a surprise windfall. What do you get?
Go ahead—name one good thing about movie musicals.
That’s right. Unless you’re a Julie Andrews fan, you can’t. That’s because most musicals are on autodestruct. They cost too much. They rarely turn a profit. They age badly, and they ruined Elvis. Often, stars as untalented as they are famous must be dubbed surreptitiously. Poor Marni Nixon is still apologizing because bad swimmer Natalie Wood really wanted to sing in West Side Story.
Sadly, movie musicals often launch stars from other media into the footnotes of film history. Remember Light of Day with Joan Jett? The Allnighter with Suzanna Hoffs? One Trick Pony with Paul Simon? Didn’t think so.
Drifting in this swamp of flotsam is a pair of floaters that were all this and worse. They were low budget and looked it. Their plots defied credulity. The first one’s music was blatantly anachronistic. How the cult bombathon Eddie and the Cruisers got to be the innovative musical of the 1980s is really two intertwining tales of how Hollywood steamrollered a perfectly good novel twice, and a small-town bar band rescued two panting dogs from B-movie hell.
It all started around 1980, when former Ashley Famous (now ICM) talent agent Martin Davidson decided he could make a better dead rocker film than 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, or even 1979’s The Rose. Davidson had a hook. His dead rocker would be Bruce Springsteen.
Davidson, you may remember, was immortalized in Julia Phillips’ 1991 Hollywood tell-all You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again as a writer-screwing philistine. [Phillips produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Taxi Driver, and was the first female producer to win a Best Picture Oscar, for The Sting. At a party she and Davidson both attended, he screamed at people that Charles Webb, who was cheated out of screenwriter pay for the Oscar-winning film adaptation of his book The Graduate that used the dialog he wrote verbatim, deserved to be a shoe salesman in the East Village (which he was).]
After co-directing the sleeper hit The Lords of Flatbush in 1974, Davidson optioned the novel Eddie and the Cruisers, an entertaining yarn about the premature dispatch of an enigmatic rock‘n’roll idol. He then convinced Canadian investors Aurora Film Partners to give him $7 million to film it.
It was a perfectly good book, but because Davidson couldn’t leave well enough alone and Aurora was essentially an investment outfit, Eddie wound up as a tax shelter for dentists.
The production values say it all: Actors’ mouths sing when the soundtrack doesn’t; a boom mic swoops through a shot; props move by themselves; a car drives into oncoming traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. Lines of dialog howl. “You got your Edsels, Norges, Dumonts — and Eddie Wilson, together at last, creating our own incredible monument to nothing!” Sheesh.
The book Davidson adapted deserved better. Former Wall Street Journal reporter P.F. Kluge authored the lively mystery about a fictional 1950s New Jersey band and its Rubic’s Cube of a front man, Eddie Wilson. Strictly a seashore cover band at first, the Cruisers switch to original material and catch fire. Mistakenly thinking he’s Mozart, Eddie embarks upon an overly ambitious, ill-fated musical experiment. He and the session tapes disappear, and the grumpy Cruisers disband at their career apex.
Thanks to a fairly convoluted plot line, everyone is hounding the surviving Cruisers now, two decades later. The story’s narrator is former keyboardist Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), whom we find mired in a midlife crisis, brooding about his year as a Cruiser and searching for Eddie’s lost tapes. Frank’s sojourn is rudely impacted by bad people who are also chasing his maguffin.
From 1980 to 1982, everyone involved with the cinematic Eddie was chasing something too — a film start. Along the way were financing delays, two fired screenwriters, and an unusable score by, of all people, Joe “You Light Up My Life” Brooks. Brooks was canned [and indicted on 11 counts of rape] and the screenplay was finished by Davidson and his sister Arlene, with uncompensated and uncredited assistance from Kluge.
In another time-honored Hollywood tradition, the final script diverged wildly from the source material. For example, the 1950s flashbacks moved to the 1960s. Eddie’s groundbreaking jazz fusion foray morphed into a post-medicated-Beatles style concept album. The book’s linchpin, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, became Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. A homicidal Rolling Stone writer and his oversexed girlfriend were replaced by one character, an insipid Diane Sawyerish TV reporter who never takes notes (Ellen Barkin). In the book, the missing tapes are in someone’s sock drawer; in the movie they’ve sat in a junkyard for twenty years, miraculously undeteriorated.
From the time he sold Martin Davidson the film rights to his novel, Kluge never really expected his creation to survive intact. “If a butcher buys a cow,” he says he told friends, “is he gonna make changes?”
On top of all that was the Eddie problem. Kluge’s character was a skinny, no-frills Buddy Holly sort. Davidson’s unswerving vision was Bruce Springsteen.
The director denied having a fixation, claiming in interviews that Dion and Jim Morrison were his true inspirations. But someone sent Springsteen a script. And Springsteen’s then-girlfriend, actress Joyce Hyser, was a finalist for the part of Eddie’s girlfriend. Davidson even asked Springsteen’s sound-alike friend, Southside Johnny Lyon of the Asbury Jukes, to produce the score.
No one was bothered that Springsteen, then 33 but not dead, was a tad hoary to play an 18-year-old. No one considered that he might be a budget buster, too. Or that the E Street sound was neither technologically nor historically possible in 1962. In any case, Lyon declined, Hyser lost, and Bruce never called back. [Southside Johnny did record three songs for the film as himself with the Jukes, all of which were cut out.]
A more cost-effective unknown won the Eddie role. Twenty-four-year-old Michael Paré looked like a Calvin Klein ad, had an intractable Brooklyn accent, and couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Paré’s main talents were effecting a smug superciliousness and filling out jeans nicely, the only skills Davidson apparently figured a rock star needed.
Paré had twelve lines of dialog. But he — and not top-billed Berenger — got the star treatment: a feature in Interview, fashion layouts in Vanity Fair. He careened over the top in interviews, claiming he was a Culinary Institute of America grad (he dropped out halfway through the program), Tavern on the Green’s head chef (just a cook, says Tavern), and a top Zoli model (the agency has no payroll record of him). [An actual top Zoli model of the era told me he saw Paré at some go-sees; that’s apparently as far as he got.] Paré also allegedly studied acting with Uta Hagen. Judge for yourself.
In 1981 the Irish guy with the French name played an Italian kid in ABC’s “The Greatest American Hero,” and a Brooklyn kid in the TV movie Crazy Times. [Paré told Seventeen magazine he also was a crowd scene extra in The Chosen and Fort Apache the Bronx.] This was his entire resume when he was cast, without a test, as rebel wasp Eddie Wilson.
Arlene Davidson boasted to Cosmopolitan magazine that Paré didn’t need to test. “We took one look at him and knew we’d found our Eddie.” [Whatever. In the Seventeen story, Marty Davidson says he thought Paré was “a breath of fresh air” when they first met. After filming started, Davidson tried to fire him.]
Long story short, in the end it took three people to build Eddie Wilson. Paré merely supplied the Thighmastered body. The virtuoso lead guitar licks were provided by Gary Gramolini, and the rhythm guitar work and suspiciously Bosslike singing voice are John Cafferty’s. Both musicians are from a Rhode Island-based band called Beaver Brown. The other members — don’t call them Cruisers, thanks — are keyboardist Bobby Cotoia, bassist Pat Lupo, saxophonist Michael “Tunes” Antunes, original drummer Kenny Jo Silva, and new drummer Jackie Santos.
The band honked around the same club circuit for twenty years with (and managed to outlast) the now-defunct E Street Band. The two white groups with black saxophonists and whisky-voiced front men have been compared relentlessly.
“When you have a group of people the same age, who basically listened to the same radio frequencies at the same time, there are certain things that you all draw from,” Antunes explains without even waiting for the question he still hears every day. “We think of it as a compliment.”
The main difference can be summed up pretty quickly. Cafferty is one of the great underrated vocalists of the century. By comparison, Springsteen croons with all the mellifluousness of a garbage truck on pick-up day. Bruce singing anything makes you want more beer. Cafferty singing “Drift Away” makes you weep in it.
Rolling Stone called Beaver Brown “perhaps the most popular bar band on the East Coast.” Nevertheless, the group couldn’t get a recording contract during its first decade. Bands that sound like Springsteen, recording poobahs kept telling them, don’t sell.
Then in 1982, along came Martin Davidson. He had a deal with Scotti Brothers Records for a soundtrack album for Eddie and the Cruisers. Scotti Brothers is best known for supplying Stallone film soundtracks to your neighborhood bargain bin.
The Scotti sibs are Ben, Fred and Tony. Ben’s an ex-football star (Redskins, Eagles, 49ers) and pugilist (he KOed teammate John Mellekas during an argument over who killed JFK). Tony was a colorful casualty in the granddaddy trash film Valley of the Dolls, and more recently oversaw the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. Fred’s the one who got permission for Weird Al Yankovic’s Coolio parody “Amish Paradise” that Coolio claims he never gave. All three Scotti brothers exec-produced the tranny comedy mess He’s My Girl. The Scottis know talent. They planned to release the Eddie soundtrack through CBS — Springsteen’s distributor. All they needed was musicians.
Beaver Brown was Davidson’s fourth attempt to invoke Springsteen (unless John Mellencamp and Alex Chilton also declined). [As it turns out, Rick Springfield was a contender.] The band was recruited by Davidson’s long-suffering musical director, Kenny Vance. Vance was with Jay and the Americans once. Check it out: His is the tenor singing voice of Cruiser bassist Sal Amato (acted by Axis carmaker shill Matthew Laurance). [Laurance made German car ads for American TV.]
In a neat in-joke, Vance also plays Lew Eisen, the despotic mogul of the film’s Satin Records — the kind of creep you know Vance has met a few times for real. Vance/Eisen hasn’t heard “Revolver” yet and rebuffs Eddie’s artistic experiment. Vance gets the enviable cinematic task of telling Paré/Eddie he’s no musician.
Eddie takes the news personally and drives his ’57 Chevy off a bridge. He doesn’t bob up with wacky Kennedyesque excuses and a limp date, so everyone assumes he drowned. Except the next day, the Cruiser tapes maligned by Eisen inexplicably vanish from the studio. Is Eddie really alive? Duh.
The movie relies heavily on flashback to 1962-1964, when the Beatles still backed Tony Sheridan and the Boss still hid girlie magazines under his bunkbed. Here the soundtrack falters only in that stylistically, some of the songs couldn’t have been performed that way at that time. But the music is great, as its cult-like legion of followers still attests. That includes “some real rabid fans from Japan that fly to the United States to see us play,” says Beaver Brown bassist Pat Lupo.
“Marty pretty much gave Kenny and the band a free hand in the music,” says Lupo. “He liked us a lot and he trusted us. Marty took a big shot in giving us as much creative control as he did. We had never scored a film before.”
To help with the visual cues informing the film’s period look, Vance recycled Southside Johnny Lyon as his technical adviser. Lyon was tasked with shaping six unknowns into the onscreen Cruisers, a massive feat considering four weren’t musicians and two weren’t actors. The latter — cabaret veteran Helen Schneider and Beaver Brown saxophonist Michael Antunes — turned in the only authentic performances as band members: Schneider as Eddie’s dishy squeeze Joann, and Antunes as Wendell Newton, a doomed character from the novel whom Davidson admitted to Rolling Stone that he rewrote with E Street’s Clarence Clemons in mind. Davidson gave himself a role, too, as Barkin’s clueless news colleague.
The period costumes were covered by expert shopper Sandy Davidson, Martin’s wife. In bowling shirts, skinny lapels, and pre-Spandex stretch knits, all the Cruisers look correct. All of them, that is, except Eddie. Somebody dressed Eddie like … well, like John Cafferty.
Cafferty’s trademark rolled-sleeve black Ts, tatty jeans, and Cuban heel roach-chasers are the exact same not-very-’62 costume Paré wore in the film. Arlene Davidson says the vintage outfits worn by the rest of the cast looked stupid on Paré’s overpumped chassis.
“We were forced to use the only clothes on hand that fit,” she recalls. “The T-shirts and jeans are what he looked best in.” So it was just a coincidence. Really.
No one would go on record about the very special relationship between guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Cafferty and pseudo-guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Paré. In a press release, a quote attributed to Tony Scotti lauded the “tremendous collaboration between … Michael Paré and John Cafferty” — a collaboration, say insiders, that consisted of Paré catching exactly one of Cafferty’s performances, which he left early and then parroted shamelessly.
Officially everyone scoffs at any rivalry. But Paré stated in many interviews that he “played” Cafferty’s music. (The only “playing” by Paré was in the rooftop scene where the Cruisers perform “On the Dark Side” for the first time, accompanied by a loud and painfully off-beat whumping sound. It’s Paré’s foot.)
Paré did, in fact, make an album of his own. An album, in fact, that you’ll never hear. It consists of nine songs in which he pathetically apes Cafferty, who (among other things) can hit every note and doesn’t sing through his nose. [And btw, there’s no “playing” by Paré on his album, either, only “singing.”] The producer shopped it around for years before finally giving up.
Cafferty doesn’t like to talk about Paré. Pretty much all that’s on record is what he told Rolling Stone in 1983: “It’s really hard for me to deal with the fact that ‘Tender Years,’ my most important song, is in a film and somebody else is lip-syncing it.”
But one memorable night in 1991, he made up for years of silence. At a gig at the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York City, a free-range zombie actually asked him, “How did that guy in the Eddie movies write all those great songs?” Cafferty went ballistic. “That guy,” he exploded, “didn’t write nuthin’!”
Cafferty and Paré collided head on and fast, creating their own incredible monument to nothing when Eddie and the Cruisers was released in September 1983. Promotion was cryptic and minimal. The ads were all pictures and no words. Roger Ebert called the film “all buildup and no payoff.”
Variety crowned it “a mish-mash of a film.” The New York Times deadpanned: “Eddie’s final declaration, ‘If we can’t be great, then there’s no point in ever playing music again,’ stretches the material’s potential for melodrama to its limit, and beyond.”
Other reviews proclaimed it flat out stank, with Rolling Stone using four pages to say just how much. “A dumb, hackneyed melodrama,” wrote Steve Pond. “Isn’t it a little early to make The Bruce Springsteen Story?”
The film opened in only eleven cities, shrank to two after five weeks, then disappeared. Filmgoers were more interested in seeing Risky Business and Return of the Jedi. According to Variety, Eddie grossed just under $1.7 million, or about 24 percent of what it cost to make. [In a 2000 IndieWire interview, Davidson blamed Embassy Pictures for botched distribution.]
The soundtrack went begging too, at first. It was released as an Eddie and the Cruisers record, with Paré on the cover instead of the band that made it. Some of its ten Cafferty/Beaver Brown cuts smack of E Street circa 1977. Others, however, pay delightful homage to Elvis Presley, Dion, and Bobby Freeman.
In July 1984 HBO began a 26-time national run of the Eddie movie, and 17,000 soundtracks sold within a four-day period. Rather unexpectedly, it was soon number 9 on Billboard’s album chart.
The press was all over the then-12-year-old band, hailing them as overnight sensations. In early interviews, Cafferty dismissed his iconic song “On the Dark Side” as “a vehicle for actors.” A year later that stoogemobile reached number 7 on Billboard’s singles chart and number 1 as an MTV music video. It’s still his biggest hit. [In 2015 Spin ranked it number 14 on its 50 Best Fictional Songs of All Time list.]
In August 1984 the soundtrack went gold. By October it had gone platinum. Eventually it sold over 3 million copies, although no one was sure to whom.
Citing what they called an “independent study,” Scotti Brothers claimed Eddie had an astounding 90 percent recognition rate among film viewers age 12-24 following its cable debut.
Perhaps. But the most compelling thing about what happened is actually this: Before Eddie, cable was considered solely an instrument for squeezing the last dollar out of Hollywood flops. Post-Eddie it was perceived quite differently — as a powerful sales tool for direct marketing. Putting it another way, you may very well have Eddie and the Cruisers to blame for the Home Shopping Network.
Eddie and the Cruisers is singular in moviedom for another reason: It’s the only dead rocker picture with a sequel.
Released in August 1989, Eddie and the Cruisers II — Eddie Lives! picks up the story where Eddie I dumped it. Eddie’s body was never found, it turns out, because he swam to Canada and got a day job.
The Davidsons weren’t involved with the sequel, which the Scotti brothers commandeered.
According to P.F. Kluge, the Scottis didn’t like the first script they’d commissioned from screenwriter Zev Cohen. They hired Kluge to cowrite a replacement with executive producer Jim Stewart. The Scottis didn’t like that script, either. Kluge says they had Cohen rewrite the Kluge/Stewart script. Then they retooled Kluge’s sequel fee by deducting his screenplay fee from it — after they’d grossed $18 million from Eddie I soundtrack sales.
Eddie’s creator is admirably restrained about being treated like an ATM by the Scottis. “I don’t resent their making money out of it,” says Kluge. “I hope they’re satisfied with the work they do.”
Although Variety called it “one of the most commercial indie pics since Dirty Dancing,” the work in question is exactly what you’d expect from seven producers, a splatter pic director (Jean-Claude Lord — Visiting Hours, The Vindicator), and Aurora, which got in on the action again mostly to take advantage of a new 166 percent Quebecois film tax write-off. It shows.
In Eddie II it’s 1984 or thereabouts, and “dead” Eddie has become a legend. The lost experimental tapes have turned up at last. The same unscrupulous music company exec who called Eddie a jerkoff in 1964 is now issuing recordings of “new” Eddie material, a la Jimi Hendrix. Cha-ching!
Eddie’s really torqued now, and he’s dying to tell someone he’s not dead. His passion for life renewed, our hero straps on a new girlfriend named Diane, slathers on some hair product, and organizes a new band with a black saxophonist who play music ahead of their time. Bloodsucking opportunists glom onto Eddie. He goes looking for a bridge in a used Chevy. Diane convinces him that music is more important than greedy sleazebags. Eddie triumphs.
Eddie II lasted about four weeks in theaters, grossing (according to Variety) five figures or less. Scotti Brothers won’t talk about it. The film then retreated to video and cable.
People who wouldn’t be caught dead watching it in movie houses apparently felt more benevolent at home with their blinds drawn. Eddie II spent three months on Variety’s Top 50 video rental list. The soundtrack recording sold over 500,000 copies.
Michael Paré reprised the Eddie role. John Cafferty and Beaver Brown wrote and performed all ten new numbers for Eddie’s ’80s band. The soundtrack album cover has a photo of Paré “playing” them.
The band’s popular Eddie catalog alternates traditional rock‘n’roll with smoldering, throbbing stuff about death, resurrection, and devil women that Cafferty wrote to order for directors in the habit of requesting abstruse nonsense. (“Music with Eddie’s pulse” was one such directive.)
Still, it’s all solid stuff, and the Eddie scores stand as a textbook example of astute soundtrack craftsmanship. They transcend being just good music as they adroitly cover details the scripts leave out, such as plots, and what might have constituted artistic rebellion against stultifying Eisenhower-era Top 40.
What happened to Beaver Brown’s careers then, or didn’t happen, is weird. They made two other albums with Scotti Brothers, who didn’t bother promoting either one. Two singles from the first LP, “Tough All Over,” made the Top 20 anyway. The other album, “Roadhouse,” was even more textured and sophisticated and gone in a blink.
[Author’s update: In 1997 Cafferty sued Scotti Brothers Records in a landmark federal case for copyright infringement, false advertising, unfair competition, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. He wasn’t paid royalties for an album of live performances and other records (Scotti Brothers claimed they gave them away to customers). Cafferty also claimed that the release of previously unreleased Beaver Brown music and rerelease of Beaver Brown albums as Eddie and the Cruisers records were breaches of contract, and forced him to unfairly compete against himself. He asked the court to order Scotti Brothers to return his property. Cafferty lost the case, and Scotti Brothers (now All American Communications) retained ownership of his recordings.]
We are now left with one nagging question: Would today’s discriminating moviegoers, after sorting out seating arrangements with their Glocks, be receptive to Eddie III?
The Scotti brothers are certainly ready. Like Satin Records, they keep releasing music outtakes from the first two movies, without notifying the band or paying them.
Beaver Brown’s Pat Lupo says, “I really don’t know what their plans are. Then again, you’re talking to a band member. We’re probably the least informed of anybody.”
Asked if he had news of Eddie III, P.F. Kluge replied, “Good Lord, no!”
Michael Paré was too busy making straight-to-video flicks to return calls for this story, but back in 1989 he claimed in an AP interview that Eddie III was a done deal. He has since appeared in many non-Eddie films naked and on a Spy Magazine list of celebrity prostitutes.
[Fun Fact: Paré portrayed a demonic rock star who gets BBQed by Satan in the 1995 crapfest Raging Angels, directed by the incomparable Alan Smithee.]
Arlene Davidson, the frequent target of low-wattage admirers bearing Eddie scripts, says it’s a short bus she won’t drive again. “There was nothing to work on on Eddie II — no real story. The movie had nothing to say. No way will there be an Eddie III.”
[In 2015 Paré told the Washington Post he’s writing a script for Eddie III himself.]
Meanwhile, Beaver Brown still plays clubs. Kluge still writes books and teaches college in Ohio. Martin Davidson went on to direct the box office turkey Heart of Dixie. Scotti Brothers keeps releasing Cafferty/Beaver Brown albums with silly fake concert photos of Paré on the covers. [And Kenny Vance produced an Eddie and the Cruisers stage musical in 2001 and kinda forgot to notify all the movie people about it.]
In 1991 Scotti Brothers issued a CD called “The Unreleased Tapes.” It featured “lost” Eddie songs (four Cafferty/Beaver Brown numbers lopped off the last soundtrack) and a super-special bonus, presumably to save money by not buying new material from Beaver Brown: gripping dialog from both movies! It’s deja vu all over again.
Above: Michael Paré and Matthew Laurance explain the magic.
“We were horrible. Southside Johnny worked with us as a band. He would get really upset.”
Above: John Cafferty and Beaver Brown performing on American Bandstand in 1986.
Above: Michael Paré 1989 interview about Eddie and the Cruisers II.
“I take [the band] out on the road. We put together a whole new bunch of songs. [They never actually played them. — ss] We had two weeks to rehearse.”
Above: Michael Paré 2012 interview. About Eddie and the Cruisers II (17:35):
“The director came to me and said, ‘I can’t stand this script or the music in this movie.’ And I had to work for this guy for seven more weeks knowing he hated the fucking movie. You can’t print this.”
Above: This is Michael Paré’s demo reel. Eddie Wilson isn’t on it.
I can’t resist reporting that a decade later, advances in the entertainment biz for musicians were nonexistent. The vocalist who actually sang the Wonders’ songs in 1996’s That Thing You Do!, Mike Viola, suffered a far more ignominous fate than John Cafferty. In that film’s credits Viola is listed after “First Aid,” “Catering,” and animal suppliers. “There’s one horse in the movie and I came after that,” he told the Washington Post, “so it just bummed me out.”
Read this interesting scholarly post by Oxford University Press about Eddie and the Cruisers!
Text copyright © 2011 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Photo of Michael Paré and Nancy Donahue © Vanity Fair.
Photo of Michael Paré in The Greatest American Hero © Stephen J. Cannell Productions/ABC.
Eddie and the Cruisers book cover © P.F. Kluge
Photos of Tony Scotti and Ben Scotti © Twentieth Century Fox, © Philadelphia Eagles.
Photo of Fred Scotti © Kevin Cable and David Rossi.
Photo of Kenny Vance © Kenny Vance and Josh Aronson.
Advertising photos © Lee Barnes and © NaturesJoy’s Clippings Pinups Books.
Album covers © Scotti Brothers Records/All American Communications.
Eddie and the Cruisers III movie posters © Kevin Matterson (left) and © Jeff Webber, Andrew Huff, Shylo Bisnett for Gapers Block (right).
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