Da Vinci Code | Billy Preston | Kurt Vonnegut | Weekend Notes

'Da Vinci Code' Cryptex Revealed

The one piece of movie merchandise everyone will want soon cannot be bought. It’s the Cryptex decoding puzzle from "The Da Vinci Code." All over the Internet, enterprising inventors are selling their versions of it.

But yesterday, I got to see the real thing. A picture was even taken of me skeptically inspecting the Cryptex. In next month’s Premiere magazine, you will see a more complete background of how the one and only Cryptex was made.

The real one is nothing at all like the ones I’ve seen for sale online. It’s a heavy, antique-like brass cylinder, for one thing. If you can figure out the trick of unlocking it, the Cryptex pops open and reveals a glass-capped tube. In this one, the liquid inside the tube was vinegar. As someone explained, there was no vodka at the time.

Imagine/Columbia pictures is hopeful that the Cryptex will take on the same meaning as the "Star Wars" lightsaber, the "Men in Black" memory stick and E.T.’s Reese’s Pieces. I’m betting it will. While buzz about "The Da Vinci Code" is all over the place, one thing’s for certain: When it opens on May 19, the Tom Hanks-Ron Howard thriller is sure to have at least one blockbuster weekend. By then, "Mission: Impossible 3" — which opens two weeks earlier — will have already established itself as a monster hit or be fading from the box office.

How will we know? It’s too bad the Cryptex can’t tell us.

'Fifth Beatle': Court Battle Today

Billy Preston was always considered the real ‘fifth Beatle.’ He was drafted to play keyboards on the Beatles’ later sessions and is prominently featured on their 1969 hit, “Get Back.”

In the early 1970s, Billy had two huge No. 1 hits of his own, “Nothing from Nothing” and “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles.” He played on The Concert for Bangladesh, wrote the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful” and had one more hit, “With You I’m Born Again.”

Like a lot of musicians, though, Billy could not rise above drug addiction. It wreaked havoc on his health, prompting a kidney transplant. But his body rejected the kidney, forcing Preston into a life on dialysis.

Three years ago, he decided to leave Los Angeles — where his demons were plentiful — for Scottsdale, Ariz. His business manager, Joyce Moore, lived there with her husband, Billy’s old friend, “Soul Man” Sam Moore. Plus, Preston would get four-star medical care at the Mayo Clinic.

Billy was so happy with his life in Arizona, his renewed health and his still-active career that he gave Joyce Moore his durable medical power of attorney in case something happened to him. He was quite clear about not wanting any members of his extended family or half-siblings to be in charge of his life. I know this because we spoke about it often. It was a little like “Million Dollar Baby”: He did not want one of those bedside hospital scenes.

This morning, a judge in Maricopa County, Ariz., is going to have to deal with the future of Billy Preston. The great musician fell into a semi-coma on Nov. 21 after being unable to resist taking drugs while receiving dialysis. Moore responded by doing what Preston instructed: getting him the best health care, with no family.

Joyce Moore made sure the people who did mean something to Billy knew about his condition. I will tell you something no one knows: Eric Clapton flew at Christmastime from his home in the United Kingdom to Arizona and spent two days at Preston’s side. Music is played constantly in his room. Special therapy was developed for his fingers in case he awoke from his drifting sleep.

But now, like the family in “Million Dollar Baby,” the relatives have descended. They want conservatorship of Preston, access to his finances and the right to move him from his top-notch health care facility back to Los Angeles. They do not seem to care about their half-brother’s wishes. Two weeks ago, in Los Angeles Superior Court, they failed to tell a judge that a durable medical power of attorney existed. By omitting certain facts, Preston’s sisters — represented by one of their sons — managed to achieve temporary custodianship.

Earlier this week, an email went out over the Internet from Preston’s half-sister Lettie, accusing Moore of hijacking her brother. I can’t quote from it because of potential libel issues. Consequently, this column received a number of phone calls from people in the music world, wanting to know what was going on. This is my answer.

Twice last year, I had the privilege of watching Billy Preston perform. I wrote about it here. One time was at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The other time was at the Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas. On each occasion he was in his element, smiling, happy and alive. He credited his renaissance to his manager, who’d driven him three times a week at 6 a.m. to dialysis treatments. Not only that: Billy had reconnected with Sam, an old friend, and that had been a significant change for the better in his life. He was surrounded by good people, and flourished because of it.

The judge in Maricopa County will have to weigh the desires of an estranged family, perhaps feeling a lot of guilt or embarrassment, with those of a patient who can no longer speak. But Billy Preston was highly communicative until the day he became ill, and was incredibly specific about leaving instructions. I can only hope his positions are honored today. Otherwise, nothing from nothing will leave nothing.

Kurt Vonnegut Gets Jazzy

Only a handful of literary giants remain in our little world, and remain active: Vonnegut, Roth, Updike, Oates, Lessing, Gordimer.

So there was Kurt Vonnegut last night, at age 83, showing off the text he wrote for Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” with New York Philomusica, a nonprofit group that meets in Harlem at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. Every seat in every pew was taken, too, as a group of talented actors and musicians re-staged Vonnegut’s original 1993 production.

She didn’t want the credit, but Chevy Chase's mother Ethelyn Chase, herself a patron of the arts, helped make the night possible. (Her husband and Chevy’s dad, the prominent editor Ned Chase, passed away last June.)

Vonnegut spoke a little before the performance, which included an offering of jazz compositions that first appeared at the same as Stravinsky’s work in 1918. This featured a superb trombonist named John Allred, who plays in Harry Connick Jr.’s band, and jazz guitarist Joe Cohn, son of the late great sax player Al Cohn. Drummer Eddie Locke, who played with Coleman Hawkins and was in the "A Great Day in Harlem" photograph, was another welcome member of the band.

Vonnegut transposed Stravinsky’s World War I composition into a story reflecting his own experiences in the Second World War. He wrote a story about Private Eddie Slovik, the last American soldier to be executed for treason and desertion. He was also the only American soldier in World War II to suffer that punishment.

Vonnegut, in good health and spirits, joked with the audience that his high school music teacher “told me to quit” while he was ahead. He called Slovik’s story “an American history lesson that has faded away” and said what keeps a soldier going during war are his “comrades.” Slovik never had time to make friends when he arrived in battle, Vonnegut pointed out.

As for the production, Vonnegut recalled that the last time it was performed with his text, Stravinsky’s grandson showed up. “He said it was a piece of crap,” Vonnegut said, and paused. “I hope he’s not here tonight.”

I guess he wasn’t. The author got two standing ovations.

Weekend: A World With Love

Tomorrow night, Peter & Gordon make their second area appearance in more than 30 years. The ‘60s duo, whose big hit was Paul McCartney’s “World Without Love,” have agreed to perform at BeatleFest at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Jersey Meadowlands. P&G were so good at last year’s Dave Clark Five tribute in New York, it would be a mistake to miss them. Who knows when Peter Asher — a big deal in the record business — will be convinced to do this again?

Also at BeatleFest: The group’s engineer, Geoff Emerick, who’ll be signing copies of his excellent new memoir, “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.” It’s the best, most accurate Beatle memoir in many years … Friday and Saturday night at The Cutting Room: actor John Corbett shows off his country chops, with opening act Jessica Domain. Expect a high percentage of famous audience members … And Chesky Records’ terrific Marta Gomez plays Joe’s Pub on Saturday night.

Finally: CBS’ “As the World Turns” begins its 50th anniversary celebration today. Helen Wagner’s been on since day one, and Don Hastings and Eileen Fulton have been there since 1960. It’s still the best written, acted and directed of all the crazy soaps, with a strong current cast (my favorite is Kelly Menighan Hensley, who plays neurotic Emily Stewart) and lots of talented alumni (Julianne Moore, Meg Ryan and Marisa Tomei, among others). It’s the guiltiest pleasure on television …