It's 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I'm on the roof of Solas waiting to see if I'm going to get to drink vodka out of a glass skull with one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
After Dan Aykroyd became a superstar for his work on Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers and got an Oscar nomination for a straight role in 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, he gradually faded out of acting roles, with 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank his last really good sizable role. In recent years, he seems to have focused less on acting and more on business ventures, such as his multiple wineries and now his skull-themed vodka.
One night last week, Aykroyd made what was apparently a quickly organized jaunt through Raleigh nightspots to support his vodka line, Crystal Head, inspired by the 13 crystal heads located around the world that inspired last year's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
On Crystal Head Vodka's Web site, Aykroyd has an eight-minute video where he explains his intense belief in the paranormal and how the extra-normal energies around us can create a sense of enlightenment. I'm not sure what this has to do with vodka.
He's heading through Raleigh to make a series of appearances at local clubs, starting with a signing at an ABC store in the afternoon, then working his way through a number of Glenwood South establishments in the evening. It's been set up by a promotional publication called Social the Magazine, and while there's a set time for each appearance, it's not clear exactly what will happen. There's no guarantee I'm going to get face time with the man, but as someone who saw Ghostbusters about 20 times in my youth, I'm giving this everything I've got.
At one stop—Cashmere—I wonder how many of the 50 or so inside are just here for the evening and how many are here specifically for Aykroyd. It was easy enough, really: Some are wearing evening gowns, others are wearing Ghostbusters T-shirts.
At about 9:40 p.m., a large tour bus with a crystal skull on its side pulls up. Shortly thereafter, Aykroyd appears behind the bar. He extols how Crystal Head Vodka received 91 points from Anthony Dias Blue's tasting panel, so "you're drinking the good stuff tonight!" He's then escorted to a back booth, where fans line up for autographs. A few with passes get to skip ahead; one is identified to me as former N.C. Secretary of State and Attorney General Rufus L. Edmisten. Not even 15 minutes elapse before Aykroyd is gone ("Like a fart in the wind!" grumbles one disgruntled fan). As it happens, though, the person next to me in line has a pass and is an Independent fan. The plot thickens.
Escorted to the roof of Solas down the street, I'm introduced to the promoter from Social the Magazine and to John Alexander, the artist who's partnered with Aykroyd in this venture. Alexander enjoyed a 40-year retrospective at the Smithsonian in 2007, but for now he's off in an isolated corner as Aykroyd repeats his introduction to the evening-wear crowd at the bar. "I'm not sure I'm attractive enough to be here," I say to Alexander. "Me either," he smiles back.
Alexander explains to me how he designed the skull bottle and how the Indiana Jones film came out after he and Aykroyd had set their plans in motion. He explains in detail the difficulties of getting the skull bottle just right and admits he's not 100 percent sure of the connection between paranormal crystal skulls and vodka. "But it's a cool name, isn't it?"
Samples of the vodka are provided for attendees. In the name of journalistic integrity, I order a vodka and cranberry. I'm no expert, but Crystal Head does boast a smooth, clean taste of vodka. Also, the empty bottle makes an excellent bookend or possibly a receptacle for spare change.
As Aykroyd leaves again, Alexander has me follow him down Solas' stairs to Aykroyd's bus, from which I'm promptly kicked off by security. Then I'm allowed back on again. Then I'm kicked off again. Then invited back on once Alexander puts in a word for me. The door closes behind me.
On the bus, I'm sitting in a leather chair, inches away from the man who played Dr. Ray Stantz. For the first time this evening, I've got a good look at him. He's wearing the black button-down shirt with the Crystal Head logo worn by the rest of his entourage and sweating profusely from his busy evening, his dark hair wetted into a spit curl brushed across his brow.
Even in his exhausted state, Aykroyd talks at the speed of a 1930s screwball comedy character on caffeine. Naturally, the first thing he wants to talk about is the vodka and how it's gotten some awards from tasting panels. But what exactly is the connection between vodka and mystical crystal skulls? "I'd like to convey a message of self-empowerment, of positive thinking, of enlightenment," says Aykroyd, before going on to discuss how the Mayans, Aztecs and Navajo used crystal skulls as sacred objects, the concept of the Mexican Day of the Dead and how the design creates a point of discussion for those about to "imbibe in an enlightened fluid."
"Drink enlightened, think enlightened, and good things can happen to you," Aykroyd says. Fair enough. Vodka always helps me feel enlightened.
He mentions that his father, Peter Aykroyd, has written a book, due out soon, for which he's written the introduction. "If you're interested at all in mediums, channelers, parapsychology, the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Survival Hypothesis, then this will be for many years the definitive reference on mediumship and spiritualism."
Aykroyd's enthusiasm evaporates when I ask what's coming up in his acting career.
"I had 30 good years in that business, amazing years," he says, adding that he thinks he's on the "back end" of his career before launching into a list of his House of Blues, Blues Brothers and Patron Tequila projects.
Recognizing I'm going to be kicked off the bus soon, I ask him what his favorite North Carolina story of the paranormal is. "Well, you've got these mysterious lights in your mountains, like the Marfa lights in Texas, the kind where you look and you think it's headlights or flashlights but it's not, it's a mystery."
I mention that it's comforting to know there's still mystery in the world. Aykroyd's face lights up in a big smile, and I remember one of the reasons I saw Ghostbusters so many times. "You think we've figured everything out, but we haven't," he says. "Come on."