Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Idolatry


The Bible pooh-poohs false ones, he noted sacrilegiously, but there was nothing false about my boyhood idols. I never cared that much for Davy Crockett, but a few months after his popularity peaked, I was gigantic on Robin Hood, as depicted on television by the British actor Richard Greene. The opening theme (He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green/ They vowed to help the people of the king/ They handled all the trouble on the English country scene/ And still found plenty of time to sing) was of course the corniest in the history of popular entertainment. The guy who went on to become The Beatles’ music publisher sang the closing theme, but that meant nothing to one who wouldn't hear The Beatles for nine more years. 

By 1957, I’d transferred my allegiance to the pop/folk singer Jimmie Rodgers, who sounded like a cross between Burl Ives and Buddy Holly, and had actual Elvis’s Jordanaires velvetly exclaiming, “Doo-wah!” on my favorite of his hits, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” containing what I thought at the time must be the most heartbreaking line in the history of Western music in Now that I’m old and I’m ready to go. (Admissions of mortality always fog me up.) I’d walk over to the grocery store near where I lived with my parents in Playa del Rey and stare for hours at the photograph there depicted, wondering if I’d ever achieve a cigarette, big guitar, and greasy kiss curl like my idol’s.

By 1960, I’d abandoned Jimmie for Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Norm Larker, though all I knew about him was that he was a good clutch hitter. I died a little bit when, on the last day of the season, he lost the National League batting title to Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, finishing .002 behind. I have since learned that he was from Alabama, of all places. I would like to think he wasn’t a redneck, but there are no photographs of him kissing John Roseboro, as there are of Sandy Koufax.

Pop music was largely dreadful in those days, unless you knew where to find the good stuff, and I had no inkling, so my 1962-1963 idol was another athlete, basketballer Hot Rod Hundley. In college, he’d been the Pistol Pete Maravich of his (earlier) era, the most exciting white guy in sight, but wound up as the Lakers’ team clown. At the end of a game in which they were very far ahead or very far behind, they’d put him in to perform dribbling and other stunts — presumably, when the Lakers were ahead, to the other teams’ intense annoyance. He lived one street south of my family’s place just outside Pacific Palisades. I walked past it an awful lot hoping that he might invite me in for a beer or some sunflower seeds, but never actually glimpsed him.

I came to adore The Beatles, after almost a year’s staunch (and misinformed) resistance, but never idolized them as I later idolized Pete Townshend, for being ridiculous and brilliant and hilarious and scary and funny-looking in a perfectly wonderful way, and for not being much of a guitarist, but playing his guitar as no one else on earth had ever thought to. I idolized Wes Wilson, the (West Coast) Fillmore Auditorium’s Beardsley-influenced poster artist, and Tom Wolfe, and maybe Philip Roth for a while there, and Johnny Rotten, until his schtick got really stale. I idolized Mick LaSalle, the best movie critic in America, and Meryl Streep, the best actor ever.


In 2014, the closest I have to an idol is my friend and mentee Arturo Lima, whose implacable good cheer humbles and inspires me. I hope you get a chance to meet him one day.