Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Auld Acquaintances, Not Forgot

New Year's Eve and I have never been well matched. When I was 20, I was invited to the home of my precocious 17-year-old college freshman girlfriend, she of the glorious Jean Shrimpton mane and wild dancing. She’d gotten all tarted up for me, in a very short skirt and sparkly stockings, the idea being that I would relieve her of her virginity. But my squeamishness (she wore a colostomy bag) trumped my horniness, and I made up a not-very-credible excuse to go home well before midnight.

When I was 22, I went to the home of another girlfriend. There was a lot of singing along to the then-recently-released Abbey Road; my fellow revelers exchanging cute, knowing smirks on the title line of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" made my flesh crawl. I sneaked upstairs several times to phone a former girlfriend, M—, who’d just been left by the guy for whom she’d left me two years before, and who’d phoned that afternoon to ask if she might come down to Hollywood and stay with me while she recovered. I was still a little bit in love with her, and eagerly — foolishly — agreed. Her subsequent visit later inspired one of the bitterest songs on the Christopher Milk album. Against all odds, I am now Facebook friends with her, as with the girlfriend at whose house the Abbey Road sing-along occurred.

When I was 26, I took P—, the universal object of desire, to dinner at Au Petit Café, a French restaurant on Vine Street in Hollywood that I adored. It may have been the only time I actually paid to dine there. Ordinarily, a record company publicist (P—, for instance) would pick up the tab, which sometimes, almost inconceivably, exceeded $40 for two.

By the time I was 27, P— had left me, as I’d given her abundant cause to do, and I welcomed the new year by getting very drunk at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Blvd., where some weeks before, The Kiddo and I and Earle from Sparks had gone to forage for prospective procreative partners. I, the shyest of the trio, had stayed behind at our table while my two companions approached a gaggle of prospects. Said prospects made it known that they found me the cutest of the three, and asked my friends to convey that they would return on New Year’s Eve. A few minutes after midnight on which, nearly too drunk to slide out of my booth, I staggered over and invited them en masse back to my slightly greasy bachelor pad high above Sunset Blvd. (in what today is the Hotel Mondrian). They seemed not to find charming my disinclination to distinguish between them, and I drove home alone and unfollowed, gravely endangering the lives of both pedestrians and fellow motorists.

When I was 32, I went with The Kiddo to Flipper’s Roller Disco (formerly La Cienega Lanes, where P— and I had happily squandered many an evening playing pinball). I was myself a universal object of desire by this time (as the preternaturally good-looking Kiddo had been for years, though you wouldn’t have known it from the way the maidens of Hollywood bypassed Christopher Milk’s dressing rooms en route to others’), but no less shy, and spent the first few hours wishing I had the gumption to strike up a conversation with one of the spandex-encased sexpots who clogged the place. As the new decade drew ever nearer, I resolved to greet it with my tongue in one of their mouths. As the countdown started, I tapped a gorgeous young thing on the shoulder and then, when she turned around, kissed her with fervor. Boy, was she not amused. Boy, do I feel a jerk remembering this.

When I was 34. I took my first wife (The Kiddo’s ex-girlfriend) to dinner at an expensive, allegedly Italian restaurant on Beverly Blvd., all of whose wait (and, presumably, kitchen) staff were patently chicano. Though we got along famously the first four years, and even had a daughter together, my first wife and I were severely mismatched, in that she was fervently fun-loving and I anhedonic, innately fearful of pleasure. Five years later, she looked spectacular in a sort of tinsel wig on New Year’s Eve, which we spent dining at a Japanese restaurant in Petaluma with friends, and we shouted at one another in the car on the way home to Santa Rosa. It would be our last New Year’s Eve together.

When I was 40, I went with a friend from the fascist law firm at which I worked to a chic Boz Scaggs co-owned nitespot in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow. My friend was connected, and we were able to breeze past the plebes lined up on the wrong side of the velvet rope. When she saw that we were about to get the royal treatment, a tall redhead who looked a lot like Jerry Hall mused pointedly about how much she wished she were going in with us, but the old shyness kicked in. I spent the evening getting drunk with my pal and gnashing my teeth.

I had a couple of wonderful New Year’s Eves with my daughter when we lived in San Francisco. One year, we had Korean barbecued chicken at our favorite place, on Polk Street, and then drove into the Castro as midnight approached. When the new year arrived, loudly, my daughter was flabbergasted, and not a little amused, by the spectacle of dozens of gay men dropping their trousers in unison. But the following year was even better. She wasn’t feeling well, so we came home early and watched Nickelodeon, snuggled together on my big garage sale recliner, for a couple of hours before we both nodded off.

On the last night of the 20th century, Nancy and I watched the bombs bursting in air over Seattle’s Space Needle from our pleasant hotel room in an art deco hotel while nibbling Trader Joe’s pralines. At my insistence, we’d earlier dined for the second evening in succession at my favorite restaurant in the Pacific Northwest, Wild Ginger, and then been pulled over on the way home by over-zealous cops who were pretty displeased with me for having had only one Tsingtao. We woke up the next morning to discover that there’d been no Y2K cataclysm, and drove to Vancouver for a look around.

At the end of 2001, Claire and I invited my daughter, seething because she didn’t have more glamorous plans with other teens, to accompany us to see Ali in San Francisco, and then dine at the Stinking Rose, famous for its immoderate use of garlic. We had to miss the end of the movie to arrive at the restaurant in time, the food wasn’t very good, and within three months my daughter had ceased to speak to me, as she continues not to.

Back in the USA (specifically, Madison, Wisconsin) in 2007 for the first time in five years, I went to a big jamboree sponsored by the local alternative newspaper for which I was about to begin writing so controversially. But if I’d been shy when I was a universal object of desire, I was even more shy as a withered old embarrassment, and soon beat a reluctant retreat down to the Brazilian restaurant where a couple of friends from a local Gypsy jazz band, with a dreadful pickup drummer, were entertaining the local carnivores. Last year, in Beacon, New York, I took a solitary walk on Main Street, and was wished a happy new year by a trio of young men in very baggy clothing I had half expected to try to mug me — the young men, not the clothing.

This year’s will be the third successive New Year’s Eve I’ve spent alone, but if I’m not accustomed by now to the feeling that the rest of the world is having a lot more fun than I, to what would I be accustomed?

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Truth About Blood Tests and Lady Gaga!!!

I was getting gasp-inducingly sharp pains in my chest that, had they been on the left, would have struck me as Nature’s way of saying, “Time’s almost up, pal.” But they were on the right, so I summoned up all my courage and went to see the only GP in my neck of the woods who seems to accept the AARP-brokered insurance for which I’d been paying for nearly two years. Dr. Njad, white-haired, tiny, Iranian, sad-eyed, stuck his finger up my ass more gently than any of his fellow healers ever had, pronounced my prostate reasonably proportioned, given my advanced age, and said I should get a blood test. When it turned out that my insurance paid in full for my brief consultation with him, I hummed "C'mon Eileen" and danced gaily round the room.

When the fine folks at Quest Diagnostics sent me an apparently satirical $1012 bill for my blood test, I chucklingly phoned United Health Care once more, only to discover this time that they intended to pay only $312 of it. For the first time since I repatriated to America in the fall of 2007, I wished I were back in the UK.

I phoned the fine folks at Quest and advised them of my incredulity. I pointed out that I’m unemployed, and that it wasn’t as though I’d gone into Emporio Armani and splurged on a sports jacket whose price tag I could clearly see. If I’d had any idea what their services were going to cost, I’d have urged Dr. Njad just to guess, or to read my palm or something. Who, I wondered winsomely, had ever heard of a $1012 blood test? Well, according to the woman I spoke to in Quest’s billing department, she had, lots of times. This put her in a category very different from that of everyone else I spoke to, including the good doctor, who was flabbergasted at the lab’s audacity.

I related all this to the woman with whom I spent the 90s, whose aversion to authority has made her long career at a famous California zoo a very bumpy ride indeed. At her urging, I phoned the New York state attorney general’s office, by whom I was advised that health care providers are free to charge whatever they please — and aren’t legally compelled to tell you in advance what they charge. I marvel at having heard not a syllable about any of this during the whole health care brouhaha.

Speaking of my already long-suffering publicist Lady Gail-Gail (who's working so hard on behalf of my new album), as we were in my most recent post, I neglected to note that accusing someone like Lady Gaga of being a genetic male is far from new. In the Christopher Milk days, our guitarist asserted with great vehemence that Nico, the celebrated Warhol-patronized chanteuse, was a guy, though he declined to divulge the source of his information. Judy Collins was also said to be transgendered, and Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Janis Joplin, Michelle Gilliam of The Mamas & The Papas, Goldie Hawn, Chrissie Hynde, Donna Summer, Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Morgan Fairchild, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, all three Dixie Chicks, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice, Beyonce, Madonna, Castor Semeyana, Amy Winehouse, and Taylor Swift. My own theory is that it’s all about male musicians, actors, and politicians trying to get back at women whose greater success they feel has somehow emasculated them.

[Facebookers: Lots more For All In Tents and Porpoises essays, and the opportunity to subscribe, here!]

Sunday, December 27, 2009


As my excellent friend and (already!) long-suffering publicist Lady Gail-Gail will ruefully affirm, I am avidly into retro porn — but more for aesthetic than prurient reasons. That is to say, I don’t look at it as I used to look at the Lili St. Cyr ads in the backs of gentlemen’s magazines, in order to work myself into a priapic frenzy. I just think it’s cute and endearing.

It’s probably no coincidence that my favorite stuff is from the early ‘60s – that is, from right around the time my own hormones were beginning to shout, “Hey, you! You’re almost 15; reproduce already!” I swoon at the sight of the bouffant hair and excessive eyeliner (inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s in Cleopatra?) so fashionable in that era, and then am overwhelmed by simultaneous feelings of regret and relief. At the time, painfully shy as I was, I’d have been as likely to try to talk to one of the bouffant hotties at Orville Wright Junior High School as to have tried out for the US Olympic team as a gymnast, and my natural clumsiness made the weeks that we concentrated on gymnastics in PE purest torture. Thus, it’s a relief to realize that the big-haired young beauties on the retro porn sites, now in their 60s and even 70s, would no longer intimidate me. The downside, of course, being the realization that I’m in my 60s or even 70s now too, old enough to be asked, not entirely credulously, by people who see photographs from the days when I was a smoldering Semitic rock and roll sexpot, “Izzat you?”

Speaking of bouffant hair, I think we can agree, now that rock and roll is officially dead, that The Who, circa 1967, were the greatest rock and roll group ever. All they had, and were, was…everything. They were glamorous, and funny, and terrifying, and tuneful, and pulverizing, cerebral and brutish, deeply introspective and wildly exhibitionistic all at once. Nothing was what it appeared with them, with the possible exception of Mr. Moon taking too much of whatever he was taking. The smallest and most effeminate-looking of them, Roger Daltrey, he of the bouffant orange hair and antique shawls, was actually the group thug. They recorded sweet, airy three-part vocal harmonies, and then, on stage, scared you half to death. Even the one who barely moved on stage was intriguing in his own right -- jaw-droppingly virtuosic. God, how I loved them. The last 42 years haven’t produced a group who can begin to challenge their memory.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some glorious music being made. As far as this century is concerned, I believe that Sigur Ros’s inexpressibly beautiful, mournful recorded music towers over everyone else’s. (For two decades in a row now, my favorite music has been recorded by artists who don't sing in recognizable English; Ros sing in their native Icelandic, and the Cocteau Twins sang gibberish.) The UK’s Delays and Brooklyn’s Depreciation Guild are quite wonderful too, and I’ve never enjoyed a rockabilly group more than I enjoy The Lucky Cupids, whose Andrej Rudolf might be thought of as the new Chris Isaak, but with an irresistible Slovenian accent.

I can’t help but believe that Western tastemakers’ energy would be far better spent trying to foment a Slovenian Invasion than in writing 25 more biographies of Iggy fucking Pop. He was indisputably revelatory in his day, but his day was 40 years ago, for Pete's sake.

Some of my Ramones T-shirted cohorts’ disinclination to investigate new music reminds me of how people of my parents’ generation dismissed The Beatles. Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman…now that was music.

[Facebookers: Read lots more little For All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Praise for a Great Man

The night of Barack Obama’s election, I literally danced in the street. I don’t remember whether it was Happy Days Are Here Again or Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead I sang while I cavorted in the middle of Route 9D, but I clearly remember my feeling of elation.

I’m not feeling so elated now, boy. I can’t think of a front on which the guy hasn’t sorely disappointed me. I was disgusted on hearing Ralph Nader’s post-election prediction that Obama might well turn out to be a pawn of the big corporations, but isn’t that very much what we’ve seen? When I pull myself back from the realm of woulda-shoulda-coulda and re-enter the real world, though, I realize that if it weren’t Obama in the Oval Office, it would be John McCain, with that smug, sanctimonious little imbecile Palin down the hall, and the whole situation becomes just a bit less painful.

But let us praise a great man today rather than bemoan the dismal performance of a not-so-hot one. I think it’s appalling that so few Americans have even heard of hhe great man I have in mind, the Australian-born British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who I think might very reasonably be described as the gay Martin Luther King Jr.

He first gained notoriety in the UK in 1990, when he he founded the gay rights group OutRage! But he hasn’t been concerned solely with gay issues, having also fought apartheid and capital punishment, and assorted international despots — and having demonstrated breathtaking courage over and over agin. When he tried in 2001 to make a citizen's arrest of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in Brussels for civil rights abuse, the monster’s bodyguards beat him so badly that he was paralyzed down his left side for days. He hasn’t seen clearly out of his right eye since homophobic thugs attacked him during a gay pride parade in Moscow two years ago. In all, he’s been attacked over 300 times, and suffered brain damage that’s left him with permanent symptoms of severe concussion.

A far, far better choice for the Nobel Peace Prize, I think, than the guy who won it.

[Facebookers: Read lots more For All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

John Mendelssohn's Prison Diary - Part 1

Prison wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been led to fear. The COs (correctional officers, you see — guards) were generally no surlier than the college wrestlers who pat you down before you enter concerts, or the guy at Home Depot who grumblingly helps you find the right part to repair your toilet. Occasionally, some of them would even bring in banana bread their wives had baked, or fresh tomatoes or zucchini from their gardens.

The warden could be pretty moody — it was widely rumored that he wasn’t only bisexual and bipedal, but also bipolar — but at his best he was the nicest fellow you could ever hope to meet, and a heck of a backgammon player. The more incorrigible among us might deny it, but I think we all looked forward to being invited to dine at his table.

In our culture, getting old and creased and receding-hairlined is generally a pretty rotten idea. Young women who at one point might have scrawled their phone numbers backwards on their side windows in lipstick when you pulled up beside them at traffic signals look right through you, and prospective employers do double-takes when you hobble in for a job interview. But a hint of decrepitude for a new prison inmate works well, as it significantly reduces the number of fellow inmates who want to rape you.

The mixers that the various inmate cliques host the first Friday night of every month to welcome the recently sentenced are very much like those at which college fraternities assess prospective new members at the beginning of the school year. Crips Behind Bars offered a delicious soul food buffet, and the best music; rather than the profanity-laden hip hop one might have expected, it was heavy on Motown and Stax classics, with even some Nat King Cole thrown in. The Latino mixer offered the most beautiful transvestite dance partners — if my favorite of them, “Pilar”, and Salma Hayek had entered a party from opposite ends of a room, no one would have noticed that Salma Hayek had arrived — and some zesty salsa sounds, as well as the inevitable Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin hits.

In comparison to the former two, the Aryan Brotherhood mixer was dullsville, and, because of the courts’ disproportionate incarceration of persons of color, by far the most sparsely attended. The music, by a British skinhead group whose name I didn’t catch and Guns N' Roses, was pretty nearly unlistenable. Moreover, Ralph, the big toothless, tattooed motorcycle outlaw type who asked me to dance, insisted on leading, and had frightful body odor, and made mincemeat of my toes. Worse, at song’s end, he noted that our slow-dancing together meant that I would henceforth be responsible for doing his laundry and procuring methamphetamine for him. I pointed out that I’m married, and bade him a crisp good night, only to discover that the exit was blocked by a trio of even more prolifically pockmarked, tattooed, and menacing lowlifes.

In spite of his lack of formal education, Ralph turned out to be very much a man of ideas, which, in terms of my conviction for possession of stolen intellectual property, was certainly felicitous. We have spent many a pleasant evening together, I with my head on his incongruously hairless, if tattoo-laden chest, discussing the work of Alfred Adler, Bertrand Russell, and even Kierkegaard, while our fellow inmates, in their own cells, bray shrilly at the moon, though it's visible only from N-Wing.

[Facebookers: Read lots more little For All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Body Doubles [2002]

[I wrote this hilarious little satirical piece in 2002, but, like so much of my work, it is as fresh and zingy years later as on the day it was composed.]

See him clothed, and you'd have no reason to imagine that 21-year-old Kevin Levine, a sophomore business major at DeWayne State University in Dearborn, Michigan, is anything other than an ordinary American college student. He enjoys the music of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and favors preposterously baggy clothing. When conversing with others like himself, he begins every sentence with the word "dude," and finds a way to work the adverb "totally" into his every utterance. He vaguely aspires to a sexual relationship with Pamela Anderson, though he acknowledges that he will probably never have one, and identifies Vin Diesel as the living American he most admires. He maintains a B-minus average, a pierced left nostril, and a fractious relationship with his parents, who he believes love him, but don't understand him. The fractiousness of their relationship doesn't keep him from calling them an average of twice a month for money.

But where his average classmate earns $5.75/hour making unbelievably overpriced coffee beverages at Starbucks, or flipping hamburgers, Keith Levine makes $1800 a month without lifting a finger. Where the average American undergraduate has 2.7 tattoos, you see, there isn't a square millimeter of Kevin Levine between his waist and neck on which a bellicose, unintelligible, or unintelligibly bellicose pronouncement isn't tattooed.

Therein lies his remarkable earning power. None of the sentiments expressed on his epidermis is his own, but rather that of DeWayne sophomore guard Sh'niquaa Hairston. Kevin Levine is one of a growing number of so-called body doubles, persons who, for a monthly retainer of between $200 and $2000, walks around sporting tattoos for which their student athlete clients have no more room on their own persons.

For Levine, who, after failing to make his high school team in his freshman, sophomore, and junior years, and pretending in his senior year to disdain the whole idea of high school basketball, the arrangement could hardly be more ideal. "Ordinarily, Sh'niquaa totally wouldn't even speak to someone like me, dude," he exults, "but as one of his three body doubles, I'm like totally a member of his 'posse,' which like totally elevates my social standing on campus, especially during basketball season."

A product of the same Oakland mean streets that produced the Seattle Supersonics' Gary Payton, Hairston ran out of tattooable skin two weeks into his remarkable career at Skyline High School, where his stellar play inspired no fewer than 302 institutions of higher learning to tender scholarship offers. "If not for people like Kevin," he admits, "my self-expression would be substantially attenuated. Know'm sayin'?"

The idea for Body Doubles was originally that of senior economics major Josh Morgenstern, who, since recruiting body doubles for all of De Wayne's most notable student athletes, has put his own studies on hold and begun to recruit for such National Basketball Association notables as Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. "The sky's the limit," he predicts. "Tats have actually become more, rather than less, de rigueur the past five years, and there's no end in sight."

The ideal body double, Morgenstern notes, is stout (the more skin, the better), but not flabby. "When you get folds, the tats get hard to read. It's a real balancing act."

It isn't only athletes he's signing up nowadays, but rock musicians too. "As the biggest names in youth culture run out of places to have pierced," he predicts, "you're going to see more and more Morgenstern Body Doubles in rock and rap entourages."

Body doubling isn't without its downside, of course. Many of the sentiments an athlete or rock star may ask his double to express elicit very strong, and often even violent, reactions. Kevin Levine recounts "chilling" with Niq one afternoon in Dearborn recently when the athlete decided to go to the lakefront with a female admirer and his two other doubles, leaving the shirtless Levine to get back to this dormitory on his own power. Hitchhiking, Levine attracted the attention of an off-duty homicide detective who took umbrage at his/Hairston's Fuck Da Police tattoo and beat him into unconsciousness.

[Facebookers: Lots more like this on my blog For All In Tents and Porpoises, to which you can subscribe!]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tough Times and Prayer Meeting Bagels

A year ago yesterday, I started what may be the last 9-to-5 job I’ll ever have (because, through no fault of my own, I’m ancient, and the economy’s in woeful disrepair), as art director at Dada Entertainment in New York City. After not having been officially employed since August 2000, I was pretty exhilarated about the prospect; as you read a couple of days ago, I was excited even about the daily pair of two-hour commutes, on foot, train, and foot again. I found that I actually enjoyed squeezing myself into the heated waiting room on the platform at Beacon station with my fellow employees at 6:50 each morning. We were all headed…to work! And I especially enjoyed that, during my three-month probationary period, Dada would be paying me $60/hour.

I didn’t like the already-there putative designer I was supposed to be supervising, petulant and talentless as she was, and you could have spread her reciprocal resentment of me on toast. I didn’t like that, when my boss, a dour little Italian woman of around 40, was in the big, messy room in which around nine of us sat at our respective computers around a huge table, nobody actually spoke; instead, though we could have leaned over and removed one another’s glasses, we communicated via Skype instant messages. I didn’t like that when she headed downstairs to smoke — and she must have gotten through a couple of packs a day — the place turned into hip hop kindergarten. My co-workers chattering excitedly about hip hop figures of whom I’d never heard made me feel old and excluded. Why did they never talk about the Dave Clark Five, or the Bobby Fuller Four, or even the Three Degrees?

I didn’t like that when the dour little Italian woman encountered me downstairs, where she did her smoking, she gave me the look she’d have given someone she’d just watch murder everyone she’d ever loved. It became clear very quickly that one was expected to have his lunch at his desk — or, more accurately, at his portion of the big table.

I loved that every Tuesday morning there was what I came to call — because doing so amused me — an employee prayer breakfast, at which the most delicious bagels in the world were provided, and one of the company’s higher-ups would explain the workings of his or her department, sometimes in an intelligible Italian accent.

I have neglected to mention that the company was mostly in the business of selling ringtones for mobile telephones. Because they were selling exactly the same ringtones, at the same price, as countless dozens of other, better-established companies, it seemed to me that, instead of agonizing about miniscule differences in the numbers of new subscribers attracted by different color “landing pages” (the Web page someone would get to by clicking a Dada advertisement on another site), the dour little Italian woman ought to be thinking in terms of increasing brand awareness. The big picture, you see, as opposed to the narrow.

Toward that end, I had a variety of glorious brainstorms. It was freezing outside, and I suggested that the company distribute blankets bearing the Dada logo to New York’s homeless. It would be brazenly self-promoting, granted, but would also keep the blankets’ recipients warmer, and engage the press. I suggested that we make a series of wry videos for YouTube.

On hearing that the company wished it could call itself rather than, and that the person who owned the desired domain name lived down in Greenwich Village, I felt sure that the company should charter a couple of buses to take us all over to picket in front of his home, to chant, “No justice, no peace,” and wave zany placards. I felt certain the press would love that too. But the closest the little Italian woman came to trying out any of these ideas was to give me $150 to hire the actor seen here.

Even worse than her lack of vision was her lack of taste. In her eyes, the generally very good work I was doing was indistinguishable from the dire C-minus work they’d gotten from freelancers before my hiring. Their existing logo looked like a bad soldering job, and wasn’t even competently kerned (that is, spaced). They were perfectly content with it.

The work quickly ceased to be fun, no small accomplishment in view of how much I love digital design. When I wasn’t designing yet another landing page that proclaimed “10 bonus [they weren’t allowed to describe them as “free”] ringtones” with a numbing catalog of design restraints in mind, I was designing microscopic banners for cell phones. Very soon, a combination of Herself’s lack of discernment and the tediousness of the job had me thinking what I’d known I mustn’t allow myself to think, and what I always seem to wind up thinking — that I was too old and too talented to be stuck doing what I was doing.

Every morning on the train, I’d remind myself not to be an idiot. The Poughkeepsie Journal’s front page would invariably have a headline like “IBM To Lay Off 150 More,” and here I was being paid nearly $500 a day. Then I’d get to work and discover that the 25 Fall Out Boy banners I’d designed the day before would all have to be re-done because the act’s record company had a newer photo they wanted to use. Or the little Italian would be in a tizzy because my latest landing page had enticed two fewer subscribers over a similar period than the one before it.

I got pissed off, and my disgruntlement led inexorably to inattentiveness, which led in turn to some frankly imbecilic mistakes on my part (like not noticing that I’d been viewing something I was putting together in Photoshop at 67 percent, with the result that the actual image was way too big). Which of course led finally to my being invited to spare myself the long commute.

I missed neither the microscopic banners nor the little Italian’s dourness and myopia very much at all. I missed the devil out of the big bucks, though, and the wonderful salads I’d been getting myself for lunch on E. 35th Street, and even dashing through the snow, not in a one-horse open sleigh, but on foot, from Grand Central Station to 34th Street every morning. And of course the prayer meeting bagels.

In the nine months since they gave me the bum’s rush, I’ve applied on line for approximately 50,000 jobs, and been invited in for exactly one job interview, by a mattress company in Poughkeepsie that wanted me to do a big design project on spec to affirm that I deserved the princely $14/hour they proposed to pay.

Times is tough.

Attention, Facebookers: Read many more of my wee For All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Last Thoughts on Tiger

After this, I promise to say no more about Tiger Woods. But don’t deny an old boy his parting shot.

Nike and all the rest of the corporations that pay him obscene amounts of money for his endorsement will probably all forsake him now. Because the few compensatory endorsements he’s sure to be offered by the manufacturers of prophylactics and antifungal crèmes won’t pay nearly so well, he might have to offer on eBay one of the Third World countries Nike gave him.

I honestly don’t get it. Golf is very much the preferred sport of corporate wheelers and dealers, a great many of whom are surely unspeakable dickheads who, learning that Tiger cheated on his gorgeous young wife, felt envy rather than distaste, and wondered how they might cheat more effectively on their own gorgeous young wives. They’re going to stop buying preposterously overpriced Nike products manufactured in Third World sweatshops because of the scandal? I strongly suspect the opposite would be the case, though I understand that Nike might tarnish its glowing reputation by being seen to exploit that realization.

We’re quite comfortable as a society with politicians condemning Special Interests even while welcoming their campaign contributions, but we become all discombobulated when they lie about sex. I’m all in favor of the lives of homophobic gay hypocrites like Larry Craig being ruined when they’re discovered playing footsy in airport restrooms, but must confess that I don’t really see much point in reflexively trying to banish to perdition someone like Elliot Spitzer, the disgraced governor of New York, when he’s discovered to have patronized a whore. Had I liked Bill Clinton a great deal more than I did (centrism sucks), I wouldn’t, in view of his not having made condemnation of extramarital fellatio a cornerstone of his presidency, have minded in the slightest his getting blown by Monica Lewinsky.

I want in office non-hypocrites who are also effective politicians, regardless of how kinky they may be on their own time. If there’s somebody out there who can, for instance, implement universal affordable health care, what do I care what he or she does in the bedroom (or atop the dining room table, or in the shower, or in the back yard (assuming impressionable young neighbors won’t see), and with whom (over the age of consent)? If somebody can revise our insane drug policy, or make legal abortion inviolable, or offer tens of millions of underprivileged children genuinely equal opportunity, it’s A-OK with me if he wears a butt plug to work, or chases chubby, or likes crosseyed Asian women in latex catsuits to use his mouth as an ashtray. As who, if we're being honest with one another, does not?

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Race Relations in America

So, anyway, my sensationally spotty employment history. Before we get into what a perfectly rotten – mouthy, defiant, passive-aggressive — employee I’ve traditionally been, we’ll look at race relations in America as I’ve observed them during a couple periods of rare non-unemployedness.

A few months after our daughter’s birth, I persuaded her mom to move with me to the northern California wine country. After 37 years there, I’d come to loathe LA, with its phlegm-colored air and police helicopters and leering hotshots in expensive sports cars they’d leased with their recent development deals. My Kinks book had been published a couple of months before, but showed every sign of generating no royalties, so I did the responsible thing and got myself a job as a word processor at San Francisco’s biggest law firm, which was mostly in the business of defending a big oil company against environmental and other plaintiffs.

Aside from my brief friendships with the extremely tall attorney son of the implacably iconoclastic former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and with former Janis Joplin guitarist Sam Andrew (how heartbreaking to see one of his former stature reduced to proofreading legalese!), I can honestly say I hated nearly every second there. Boredom made me rotten at the job, which comprised such exhilarating tasks as transcribing the taped mumblings and dronings of attorneys and, worse, legal assistants, and trying to decipher the sub-infantile handwriting of newly ordained junior associate attorneys, few of whom were capable of writing a coherent English sentence, and nearly all of whom were hugely self-infatuated. As one of three straight word processors in the firm, I was the target of much subtle heterophobia.

My inattentiveness and increasingly open disdain for those I was ostensibly there to serve resulted in my being banished from a succession of assignments. At one of them, I objected to one of my co-workers, a Ms. Jan Broadnax, regularly taking 45-minute 15-minute breaks. “I’m prepared,” I affirmed in a memo, “to do 100 percent of my fair share of the work, but not 50 percent of Jan’s fair share too.” I was essentially told to shut up, the reasons being that Ms. Jan Broadnax was (a) black, and (b) a woman. The same forces — primarily, fear of an embarrassing lawsuit — that kept them from firing me even after I began deliberately to try to provoke them with my dangling earring (‘twas 1986, you see), eyeliner, and garish clothing kept them from firing a black woman.

La Broadnax had her revenge for my memo. My daughter had begun going to preschool, and there had learned a children’s song called Three Little Monkeys, about a young primate who, against doctor’s orders, jumps up and down on the bed and suffers a presumably painful head injury. I’d amused my daughter, who of course didn’t know him from Cookie Monster, but who thought my imitations of feedback and so on were pretty zany, by trying to imagine the Jimi Hendrix version of Three Little Monkeys. After I regaled La Broadnax and two fellow takers of very, very long cigarette breaks with this, they reported me to Personnel, accusing me of calling them monkeys.

Then there was Destiny Telecomm in Oakland in 1996 and 1997, the first place to hire me as a graphic designer. The company, the brainchild of a vaguely Elvis-ish evangelical, turned out to be an elaborate pyramid scheme; it didn’t actually sell telecommunications services, but rather the idea of selling others on the idea of selling whatever the company might have on offer at any given moment. When I was hired, they were mostly selling phone cards. By the time I was given the old heave-ho, it was salad dressing and skin lotion; many of us believed it to be the same product in different bottles. My boss was a roly-poly hyperneurotic who framed the otherworldly landscapes he created in a briefly fashionable software program called Bryce (take it from me — inconceivably uncool), and ingested enough Valium to pacify a small Third World country, and who hired another designer every 48 hours or so, seemingly so he could give them pretentious titles like Studio Manager, but I became big pals with several of my fellow employees.

There was Paddy, an evangelical who looked exactly like Homer Simpson, except with smaller eyes, who didn’t mind being teased mercilessly about being an evangelical, and who fervently signed onto every zany prank I, the eternal brat, conceived to exasperate the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Alison, a female bass player with blindingly bright blonde hair and the weight of the world on her shoulders, but much, much healthy disdain for the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Vinod Abeygunawardena, s Sri Lankan techie/troubleshooter in whose name I loved answering the office telephone. “Mr. Abeygunawardena’s office,” I would purr. “How may I help you?” There were Thorn, an unreconstruct, self-renamed hippie who was bubblingly positive about everything and everybody, and impossible not to like, and a salt-of-the-earth type racer of motorbikes, and the Taiwanese Jesse Wong, whose excellent work in Illustrator inspired me to up my own game.

Unfortunately, there was also Dre, a, uh, brother from the ‘hood who had no perceptible talent as a designer, but who was absolutely brilliant at…playing Those Higher on the Food Chain, winning their patronage by pretending to have detected their inner blackness. He’d call them dawg or homeboy and they’d nearly burst into tears of joy. He wouldn’t sneer if they asked him, “Yo, wassup?” or shook his hand ghetto-style. One of the design department’s chief antagonists, a female vice president who’d been promoted out of all proportion to her competence, and who could be counted on to hate anything any of us designed, would come down to upbraid us, and he’d fire up Illustrator so she could show him just what she wanted. While the rest of us bit our lips to keep from guffawing, she’d draw a straight line, and he’d rhapsodize as though she’d just recreated the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Yo,” he would marvel, shaking his head in wonderment, “you’ve got some serious talent, girl.” They adored him, and it made me sick.

As you’ve noticed, I don’t do “African American.” I think it’s PCspeak at its silliest, and would feel, using it, as though jumping through a hoop. I don’t refer to the Greek neighborhood as the Greek-American, or to the Italian as the Italian-American. Most of my black neighbors’ families have been in this country for seven or eight generations, and thus could be said to be very much less African than I am Russian, German, and Latvian, my grandparents and great-grandparents having come over probably 150 years after the Africans from whom my black neighbors are descended. Would not a white immigrant from Johannesburg be more an African American than a person whose antecedents came here in the eighteenth century?

Anyone who infers that my reluctance springs from racism is exactly as accurate as La Broadnax when she ascribed to racism my unwillingness to pick up the slack resulting from her 45-minute 15-minute breaks. Let’s deal with one another as genuine equals.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I've Been Where Tiger Is

I can understand that Tiger Woods probably isn’t hugely enjoying being exposed as what the British tabloids call a love rat. But he should look at the bright side. All his Other Women seem to agree that he’s a fantastic swordsman, as wags of my dad’s generation might have put it, and has a great big one.

I’ve been where Tiger is, though on a much smaller scale, and without my own personal Rachel Uchitel even being offered the opportunity to affirm my immensity or great skill. I attended a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium one evening in the spring of 1977 with my second live-together adult girlfriend, M—, and shortly thereafter received a phone call from P— saying she’d found me terribly attractive from a couple of rows away and hoped we might meet.

I suffered badly at the time from what I’ve read may have ailed (or still ail) Bill Clinton. My sense of my own attractiveness was so abysmal that I found it nearly impossible to turn down a reasonably presentable woman who said she fancied me. We agreed, P— and I, to meet for lunch. I liked her lipliner and her pushup bra. I loved her liking me. I said we’d have to get together soon.

The following Saturday, I phoned her after my weekly impromptu basketball game at Fairfax High School. I, who until the age of 17, would have been as capable of asking a pretty girl out as of swimming from Malibu to Maui, asked if she might be interested in licking the sweat off me. I honestly don’t know what had come over me; I think the decent, responsible part of me was going for self-sabotage. But she gasped, “Yes!” And when she greeted me at her front door, it was in a corset — out of whose top she seemed about to burst — garters, black stockings, and high heels. I seemed to have left the decent, responsible part of myself back at Fairfax.
After we’d cemented our close new friendship, if you will, she pointed out that there was a mirror with two nice lines of coke on the bedside table to my immediate right, and would I excuse her to finish making my gourmet lunch?

I started skipping basketball on Saturday mornings, and heading right over to her. It was the highlight of my week, at least until I was overcome by guilt, and said we’d have to stop. She was beside herself. She phoned me every 45 seconds. When she threatened suicide, I told M— I was going to go see a friend. I gave him P—‘s number and asked that he phone me immediately if M— called looking for me. Naturally, he forgot to, and when I got home from telling P—, in the sexiest outfit I’d seen her in to date, with the most delicious smells wafting out of the kitchen, that we really did have to pull the plug, M— jumped me, pummeling me hysterically. I let her wear herself out, and begged her forgiveness. I told her, truthfully, that I’d decided it was her I loved more.
We staggered on, M— and I. She kept bringing the affair up, and I kept imploring her to try to forget it, for her own sake no less than my own. She asked one evening as we watched TV if my mother, to whom I was very close at the time, had known about the affair. M— (correctly) took my hesitation as affirmation, and was so crazed with humiliation that she tried to put her cigarette out in my face. It didn’t hurt much more than had seeing the hurt in her eyes every time she looked at me.

Eighteen months passed. It became ever clearer that, for reasons that hadn’t anything to do with P—, M— and I didn’t have much of a future. I had in the meantime taken myself in hand and learned to suppress my heretofore-immobilizing shyness. Beginner’s luck: the first woman I ever approached stone cold — a pretty would-be blonde model we’ll call D—, in a Century City boutique called Heaven — eagerly agreed to go out with me. I continued to lack the courage just to break it off with M—, and instead suggested that each of us have a couple of nights a week when he wasn’t accountable. She said OK, but when I got home from my first date with D—, she attacked me even more ferociously than the first time.

A few more months passed, tensely. I finally worked up the nerve to tell M— we were done. Doing so made me feel so guilty that I told D— we too were over. I moved into one of the many bedrooms in an art hovel on the western edge of Koreatown, and suffered great loneliness for several months. It seemed only fitting.

When it felt as though I’d suffered enough, I phoned D— and said no obstacles remained to our becoming the couple she’d so wanted for us to be. Now, though, she seemed no longer to want it. I got the impression my already having a girlfriend had made me more attractive to her. I had several more months of loneliness ahead before “meeting” (I’d known her eight years before, when she was dating another member of Christopher Milk) my future first wife. What had gone around had come around.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Toil and Trouble - Part I

My friend Handsomeboy, the intellectual thug (he reads Nietzsche in German on the bus on his way to brawls) recently observed that there are few existential ills that hard work can’t cure, or at least mask. I, who have been out of work (the somebody’s-official-employee kind) for all but 11 months of this decade, wholeheartedly believe him to be right. I can subsist for the time being on the money my parents left me, so the hardest part isn’t paying for groceries or shelter or a fast connection to the Internet, but making sense of each day, feeling purposeful in a world that, until a few weeks ago, felt fervently indifferent to everything I do.

For instance, on losing my most recent job in March, I, brave little soldier that I am, immediately undertook to write a commercial Stephen King-ish novel, with lots of characters, thrills ‘n’ chills by the crateful, wit, topicality, and far lovelier prose than King's. I worked hard on it, was pretty pleased with what I’d come up with, and invited around 120 literary agents to consider taking the project to market. Around 45 responded. Of those 45, 39 lamented that the book Didn’t Sound Quite Right for [Them]. The other six, to whom I sent the first 20,000 words, and a synopsis of what was to follow, thanked me for my interest and declined to represent me.[Want to see for yourself? Email me.]

It’s been like this for decades. Since co-winning the PEN Syndicated Fiction Contest in 1986, the only fiction I’ve actually published was what I sneaked into the two music biographies, of Kate Bush and The Pixies, I wrote for a UK publisher earlier this decade. In both cases readers were too incensed by what I said about their heroes (I love around a tenth of La Bush’s work, find around 70 percent of it unlistenably self-indulgent, and loathe The Pixies) to notice how sublime it was.

I’ve had a great many jobs over the years, from assisting a guy who drove around Playa del Rey peddling fruit off the back of a big truck when I was 12, to being one of the first designers hired by Deloitte & Touche San Francisco’s ultradeluxe (and ultra-ill-conceived) Web Division 122 years later. The ones I enjoyed most were assisting the fruit truck guy, taking money from motorists who sought to park at Zuma Beach, parking cars at the Tonga Lei restaurant in Malibu, and designing phone cards and other, you know, collateral for Destiny Telecomm (an elaborate pyramid scheme overseen by a charismatic evangelical) in Oakland in 1996. Those I hated most included washing dishes at the Malibu Pharmacy, busboying at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant in sort-of-Malibu, senior-editing Larry Flynt’s Chic magazine for three months that probably lopped five years off the end of my life (stratospheric stress, you see), and processing words for a big fascist law firm in San Francisco, where I was condescended to, at nearly 40, by 25-year-old recent bar-passers who couldn’t write a grammatical English sentence.

Nor was my most recent job, in New York City, from a year ago tomorrow to the beginning of this past March, a day at the beach, though I mostly loved (honestly!) having to get up early, trudge down to the train station through snow and ice (on which I took more than a few spectacular pratfalls), ride, ride, ride down to Grand Central Station, and then hurry through the armies of fellow employed people to my office a couple of blocks from the Empire State Building, all of which took no less than two hours. The job itself wasn’t much fun — I’ll tell you about it tomorrow — but for 13 hours a day, I didn’t have to confront any agonizing choices about how to make sense of the endless hours that loomed accusingly before me, and was only fleetingly beset by existential doubt ‘n’ dread.

I’ll mention briefly in closing today that I’ve gone back — at my age! — to wanting to be a rock star, toward which end I’ve just made a new album that you’ll just love if you give it half a chance. Smirking emoticon.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poetic Justice

At our gala pre-Xmas get-together last weekend, we played Stack o’ Questions. After one guest revealed that, as a victim of childhood sexual and other abuse, she greatly envied anyone raised by sane, loving parents, we began to debate the relative importance of nature and nurture. I noted that my wife and her brother, only 30 months apart, and thus products of pretty much the identical home environment, could hardly be more different. Where Claire is sweet-natured, hard-working, and gregarious, my brother-in-law is corrosively cynical, implacably indolent, and misanthropic, quite happy (in his profound unhappiness) to sit in his gloomy bedroom playing video games and cursing the world for failing to recognize his brilliance as a musician, which he never actually puts on display.

The divergence between me and my younger sister is nearly as great — and great enough for us to have been completely estranged (as in not speaking) for the past year, after not being able to stand one another for most of the present century.

In at least one key way, each of us has embodied the personality of one of our parents. My mother was shy and self-conscious, my dad — to my mother’s infinite discomfort and disgust — an implacable back-slapper and flirt. I can’t remember a morning after they’d gone out socially together that she didn’t slice him to shreds with her razorblade tongue for having either embarrassed her or left her to fend for herself while he did his life-o’-the-party routine.

I’m my mother, and my sister’s my dad. It has often felt to me, when we’ve gone out together, that my sister’s far more interested in being seen as the soul of vivacity by third parties than in her companions’ comfort. We’ve entered restaurants together, and half the wait staff and a couple of fellow diners were her new Best Friends Forever even before our menus were presented. I, meanwhile, wanted to duck under the table. She’s mortally offended when I tell her she’s embarrassing me — to the point of not having invited me to her (third) wedding last year, or even told me it was going to take place.

But maybe poetic justice of the sort responsible for the situation with me and my daughter is to blame. I honestly feel, even while wincing at the thought of a thousand things I said, or did, or didn’t do, that over all I was a fairly sensational dad to Brigitte. God knows I couldn’t have loved her more than I did, and do. But every time I feel like bewailing the hideous unfairness of our ongoing estrangement, which will enter its ninth year next spring, I remember, wincing, how brutish I was with my own parents in the final years of their lives. Am I not getting exactly what I deserve?

Close to 40 years after the fact, I’m consumed by shame at the memory of taking my sister, than 14, to her first concert, the Moody Blues at the Forum in LA, and acting embarrassed about her, rather than a jaw-dropping blonde actress or model, being my date. If I’d had even the faintest sense of self-worth, I’d have been able to revel in her excitement and delight, but all I could do at the time was exactly what my mother, for whom appearances were ever paramount, would have done in the same circumstances — think the world was looking at me and thinking, “God, what a loser, having to come to this with his kid sister.”

I’m so sorry, Lori.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whores and I

I have never paid for sex. God knows there’ve been stretches, such as after the crumbling of my first marriage, when I thought that, at 40, I’d lost my looks and would never find another gal to love me. It certainly isn’t that I didn’t consider paying for it, but that I figured I’d wind up feeling a chump, as I had on those few occasions when I’d ventured into strip clubs, or whatever they were actually called. The girls there were invariably slightly misshapen, several had bad skin, and all of them leered accusingly, as though to say, “I hate you, and I hate what I have to do here to feed the child I had at 15, and I’m really a lesbian anyway, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

When I was a teenager, my dad had offered to introduce me to sex by taking me to a prostitute. I found the prospect terrifying. I had every reason to believe that he would embarrass me terribly, flirting up a storm with her before finally leaving us two lovebirds alone together.

My zookeeper girlfriend Nancy took me to the Mitchell Bros.’ famous San Francisco porn emporium for my 43rd birthday. (It had turned out that I’d only just begun to lose my looks!) She was the only woman patron there, and we got lots of daggers stared at our throats. As we sat down to watch a succession of surgically enhanced young women behave lasciviously on stage, another girl came by offering lap dances. The guy beside me asked for one as Guns N’ Roses’ "One In a Million," in which Mr. Axl Rose condemns “niggers” and “faggots,” began to play. I’d read about the song while researching my ill-fated David Geffen biography, but never actually heard it. I was surprised by what a blatant ripoff of a Stones song (“Sympathy for the Devil,” if memory serves, but it might not) it was, and said something to Nancy along the lines of, “What a piece of shit!” Whereupon the girl on the lap of the guy beside me launched into a passionate defense of the group even as her customer began to moan pre-orgasmically beneath her. I don’t think I’ve ever debated the merits of a particular artist or group of artists in more unusual circumstances.

I have never paid a prostitute for sex, but I briefly dated one, during the days when I would go to the Starwood, the West Hollywood nightclub popular with those who found the atmosphere at the Whisky a Go Go too rarefied, drink black coffee for alertness and vodka for courage, and swagger through the place letting promiscuous young women observe how much like a rock star I looked. When one on whom I lowered the boom late one weeknight confided that she was a call girl, she immediately became very much more attractive; I found exciting the idea of getting free what others had to pay $250 for. But I soon discovered that her company made me feel more, rather than less, lonely, and broke her heart. Of gold. Actually, I think she found me weird, as did so many of the maidens I met at the Starwood. I used big words they didn’t know and hadn’t much interest in cocaine.

In 2001, I wrote a song for the Mistress Chloe album Like a Moth to Its Flame called "The Prostitutes of London," which I later dusted off and rammed manfully into the repertoires of two of the sketch comedy revues I directed while living in the named city. There isn’t a single mention of prostitutes, though, on my forthcoming Sorry We’re Open album.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Woody Allen Effect

I once heard Woody Allen speaking on the radio of going through several stages in the making of a movie. At the beginning, he’s all a-tremble with the possibilities of a new idea. By the time he actually finishes it, though, all his early exhilaration has long since been washed away in a river of stress, and all he wants is for the suffering to end.

It’s very similar with me and my music. Virtually all my songs begin with a melody. It’s quite exhilarating to sit down at the piano and discover a new one. Having become more fluent over the decades, I now find that if this doesn’t happen within the first 90 seconds of my sitting down, it probably won’t happen. After that, I cease to be instinctive, and start playing more with my head, going in predictable directions, doing the “right” thing. This is fine if you’re a Brill Building piecework-type composer, one expected to churn out a certain number of songs per week, but I strive at all time to be more about inspiration than craft. Which isn’t, of course, to pretend that craft doesn’t eventually intrude.

Once having composed a melody (actually, at least two, and probably more like four melodies — at least one for the verse, and another for the chorus), I must next write lyrics to ride atop them, and here it begins to get tricky, as often the rhythms of the tune make for tricky, constraining arrangements of syllables.

At this stage, a song is often completely transformed. Several months ago, for instance, I wrote a wistful little melody that fairly cried out for words about love or its loss. It wound up as Xenophobia, an angry, often sarcastic salsa-flavored denunciation of America’s hostility toward Latino immigration, after these words hopped, for no good reason, atop the tune I was reviewing in my head one afternoon.

Underneath the interstate
Refugees are sleeping. Wait!
That’s forbidden. Let’s destroy their camp.

This Supermodel began life similarly, with the first two lines, Endless shoots for French Vogue in the sun/ In these boots, be assured, aren’t much fun attaching themselves to the tune in my head. Imagine my surprise, given my low opinion of those I’ve dated, to find myself writing an apologia for supermodels.

In writing lyrics for the other 12 new songs on my forthcoming album Sorry We’re Open, I did something I’ve rarely done before – allowed the songs to tell me what they wanted to say. To sound less pretentious about it, I let what I’ll call a scrambled-eggs idea (Paul McCartney’s Yesterday was famously called Scrambled Eggs between his composing the melody and deciding what the lyrics should be) dictate the lyrical course of at least a portion of a song. In this way, the chorus of We’re Golden came to open with Put your little hand in mine/In Timbuktu and Palestine…, as it seemed to want to, and the title line of Nights of Cinnamon to be preceded by days of sulfur. Swastikas in Drag, a little diatribe against Republicanism, pretty much insisted on having All these four-leaf clovers starting to bloom in the chorus, though they had in the end to settle for Line 3, rather than Line 1.

In a few cases, I had the words first, and had to compose melodies whose rhythms would accommodate them. I wrote the whole of the chorus of I Followed My Bliss on my way out the door of a local amateur gospel concert at which a very well dressed local clergyman sang just dreadfully while a great many church ladies heaped their plates with one another’s cooking and ignored him, and didn’t it look and smell scrumptious?

I wrote the first verse of Dancing About Architecture on the train home from Manhattan one Friday night in the very early spring. Working on a short story would have made me feel less guilty (yes, I'm driven!), but writing lyrics was a step up from watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPod. (I hate when TV shows or movies ask us to believe that 26 and 27-year-olds are in high school.) The Field I Want to Plow, featuring a defiantly clumsy metaphor to express heterosexual lust, was also written mostly on the 6:45 to Poughkeepsie, albeit with an existing melody in mind, as too was the song that was provisionally entitled Waltzing With An Architect until I remembered that vainglorious bully Frank Zappa’s famous and spectacularly inane suggestion, almost certainly in response to a bad review, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture.

But back to the Woody Allen Effect. Over the course of recording a true solo album, one on which he plays, sings, or programs everything, one ceases to be able to hear the song’s original promise, and begins to hear only the flaws in his own performance. For someone such as I, who doesn’t sing very well, hearing his own vocals over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over in the course of mixing becomes downright excruciating. Every iffy note, every trace of strain, starts to leap out of the mix bellowing, “You’re not really going to leave me in, are you?” You start pushing the voice farther and farther down, and of course wind up only with a rotten mix, making it necessary to start over — and to hear every iffy note and trace of strain another million times. By the time you’re finished, there is no music in the world — not Kiss’s or Motley Crue’s, not Madonna’s or Barry Manilow’s, not even Frank Zappa’s — that you hate more than your own. When finally you whimper, “Enough already!” and burn the CD that you will send the Library of Congress's copyright office, it’s with no assurance whatever that you’ve actually done your best work, but rather with the feeling that you simply can’t endure any more.

I think this may be why people hire producers.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Monday, December 7, 2009

What's In a Namath?

My wife Claire is from London, and baffled by American football. Why, she wonders, must they wear helmets and all that padding when English (and other) rugby players wear none, and are no less intent on dislodging one another’s internal organs? Why, more annoyingly, do they keep interrupting the game to show Budweiser commercials?

During our recent excursion to Cape Cod, I tested her knowledge of the NFL, and found it predictably scant. But in the course of seeing how many teams she could identify by nickname, she came up with some sensational new names for several of them. Instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance, she suggested the Jacksonville Fives. The Miami Dolphins, rather less inventively, became the Miami Vice, and the Denver Broncos the Denver Colorados. My two favorites are the Tennessee (presently Titans) Williams and the Houston We-Have-a-Problems, followed closely by the Dallas Shoulderpads, which I gather is a reference more to what Joan Collins and Linda Evans wore in the 80s TV series than what the current Cowboys wear to preclude shattered clavicles and what-not. For the country’s biggest city’s NFC entry, she suggested the New York, New York, and the New York, New York (with the New Yorks in different order, you see) for the AFC entry, presently known as the Jets.

Trying to get into the spirit of the enterprise, I came up with the Detroit Alarming Crime Statistics, which I readily acknowledge has little of the panache of the Tennessee Williams. I suggested further that, rather than the Tornados, the Kansas City Chiefs consider renaming themselves the Dorothies, though Claire’s idea would probably be slightly more intimidating to opponents.

What the heck. While we're here, how about the Seattle Coffeebeans, the Oakland Theres (honoring Gertrude Stein's famous putdown of the place, you see), the San Diego Illegal Aliens, the Arizona Cacti, the New Orleans Flood, the Atlanta Humidity, the Washington Special Interests, the Cincinnati Inbreds, the Minnesota Hypothermia, and the Buffalo Boredom.

I have in the past bored Claire to tears marveling at how several professional sports teams over the decades have moved to different cities without changing their names. For every Baltimore Ravens (wonderfully renamed in honor of the Edgar Allen Poe poem after they fled Cleveland, where they’d been the Browns, in the dead of night), there is, for instance, a Los Angeles Lakers. Lakers made a world of sense when the team originated in Minneapolis, the biggest city in a state with more lakes than people, but makes no sense at all in my semi-native LA, where there are no lakes whatever, unless you count the fantastically hip Silver Lake, which is actually no lake at all, but a man-made reservoir.

The city’s baseball team, the Dodgers, were originally the Trolley Dodgers, but by the time they relocated from Brooklyn before the 1958 season, there were no trolleys left in Los Angeles, the public transit system having been effectively dismantled at the behest of the oil and rubber companies and automobile manufacturers who stood to profit from its dismantlement. But my favorite absurd holdover is the Utah Jazz, who came from New Orleans, where the music was born, to the unfunkiest state in the country, one in which 1.32 percent of the population is black. It’s like having a team called the Las Vegas Understatements or the Tuscaloosa Urban Sophisticates.

In the UK, football (that is, soccer) teams wear jerseys that have their sponsors’ logos on the front. Thus, a fan (or, as they prefer it in the UK, supporter) of Chelsea, say, will pay bucks galore (all right, pounds aplenty) for the privilege of walking around with the Samsung logo across his chest. I can’t imagine why this concept hasn’t caught on yet in America. Just give it a couple of years.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

The Most Depressing Place in the Mediterranean [January 2006]

Sardinia is one of those Mediterranean destinations that’s comically cheap to visit during the winter (RyanAir will pay you 79p to let them fly you there, but no meal is served, and there’s a 20kg/person baggage allowance, and I was only joking about the first part) because no one in his right mind – or who wants to get away from Blighty’s arctic chill — would visit when vengefully frigid winds are still chasing budget-minded Brits and Germans with chattering teeth through the narrow streets of the picturesque Centro Storico, or Old Town.

When visiting any Italian destination, it is imperative to keep in mind that the whole country, islands and mainland alike, stops dead in its tracks every weekday afternoon at around 13.00. There is no more depressing experience available to the foreign visitor than to arrive in a new place half an hour after everything has shut down and everyone pissed off home. My bride and I – I, who live, but seem never to learn! -- managed exactly that when we took the bus down the coast to Bosa, which, on our arrival a few minutes before 14.00, seemed the most depressing place in the Mediterranean, if not on earth, with no sign of life anywhere.

Of course, the town’s desertedness might have been a blessing. The winding, narrow coastal road that links Alghero and Bosa had seemed to make our approximately 95-year-old driver imagine himself behind the wheel of a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti rather than an Iveco City Class CNG bus. Having spent the entire journey from Alghero gasping prayers and gripping our hand rests hard enough to render our knuckles translucent, we needed a few minutes to collect ourselves.

Once having done so, we then had three hours (the next bus back to Alghero wouldn’t leave until early evening) to wander the deserted streets wondering if Bosa would be where we would finally find the Holy Grail of refrigerator magnets, one both depicting Jesus and including a tiny thermometer guaranteed accurate to within 20 degrees Celsius.

No luck.

We visited the spectacular cave at Neptune’s Grotto. Because the boat doesn’t start operating until later in the year, we had to walk down 654 steps along the edge of a very steep cliff behind a tour guide in a Nike (that is, I Condone Slave Labour) baseball cap. He asserted in a Swiss German accent, the least lilting on earth, that the Grotto is even more spectacular than the Cheddar Caves in Somerset, and we had to concur. After our tour, we ascended the same 654 steps we’d only recently descended, and our quadriceps wailed in protest.

There isn’t an awful lot else to see in the environs of Albergho. As in other Italian locales, there are, nearly everywhere you look, quartets of old men sitting together mumbling into space, and graffiti, at which, given that their painters kick-started the Renaissance, the Italians are remarkably awful. Because I would prefer to live in a world with very much less American cultural imperialism, I was no more pleased to see Red Hot Chili Peppers and Korn artlessly spray-painted on the side of an ancient building in Alghero than I was to see Bon Jovi on the side of a hut in central Borneo last autumn. It is troubling and incomprehensible to me that a McDonald’s can apparently thrive in a city in which it was difficult to have a non-delicious meal, but I suppose I should be heartened by Pizza Hut’s absence.

I become woozy with pleasure at the memory of the pizza romana I was served at the Bella Napoli in Piazza Civica, the contageious melancholy of our server notwithstanding, but very nearly weep at the memory of my dinner at Trattoria Al Refetterio in nearby Vicola Adami. My spaghetti with sea urchins wasn’t better than sex, but it was as good, and my bride had to restrain me from trying to get into the kitchen at meal’s end to kiss the hands of the chef, a genius, a wizard, a superstar. It was her view that I would only embarrass everyone, and she is commonly right about such matters.

Leaving Borneo [October 2005]

When the immigration officer at Gatwick asked me how long we'd been gone, I'd told him, without trying to be funny, 10 years. It felt as though we'd spent around nine years on planes, as coming home from Borneo involved nothing more than a 90-minute flight from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, a six-hour stay at KL's airport, a six-hour flight to Dubai, a two-hour layover at Dubai's airport, and a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London Gatwick. We intend to be recovered from our jet lag some time before the New Year.

We observed orangutans — mobs of 'em — in their native habitat. We rode up a very Apocalype Now river to longhouses inhabited by the indigenous Iban people, gave them gifts of festively packaged junk food (our guide's idea!), and danced with them — a fact that, thanks to the miracle of digital video, I am able to prove. We nearly swooned from the heat and humidity, and spent lots of time in air-conditioned rooms in the Kuching Hilton and Hilton Batang Ai Resort. At the former, I ate around £35 worth of smoked salmon every morning. Buffet, you see. I'd also get a couple of platefuls of tropical fruit, scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, teriyaki fish, fried noodles, and vegetable sushi, and washed down with freshly squeezed melon, watermelon, and carrot juice. I left with a 32-inch waist, and came home barely able to get through our front door.

Everywhere you turned, there was unbelievable food at extremely low prices, the problem being that, until it rained late every afternoon, it was too beastly out for turning; we became unhappily accustomed to the unnerving sensation of sweat dribbling between the cheeks of our bums. In the basement of a shopping mall, I found a sushi place where little dishes of my favorite food paraded past on a conveyor belt. For the equivalent of £3, I gorged myself. And we're talking very fresh, very delicious, and very unusual. Naturally, the missus, a vegetarian whose idea of exotic is Italian, was miserable. Indeed, when she saw what was on offer at the buttet the first night at Batang Ai, she snarled, "We might as well be in Poland," where she is famous for having subsisted on cabbage and potatoes for four days when she visited in the early 90s to view Europe's last surviving buffalo herd. I am not making any of this up.

Coming back by (inadequately air-conditioned) motor coach from Batang Ai, we stopped in an extremely Third World little backwater to put air in the tyres and use the toilets (virtually none of which was anything other than appalling, the ladies' reportedly being two inches deep in urine), and I espied a local in a bin Laden T-shirt. I asked our Malaysian Muslim tour guide Masri if the locals think highly of old Osama, and learned he's generally perceived as a friend of Islam, and highly preferable to George Bush. I bought myself a vile canned soft drink in which little bits of jelly seemed to be floating. An unnerving experience!

Masri was relentlessly informative. We learned, for example, that Malaysian motorists are taxed according to the size of their engines, that littering is a capital crime, and that the Chinese are not allowed to buy homes in the Malay sector. I was joking about littering, though, in the afternoon, grizzled persons with nets on poles collected debris and rubbish from the muddy, crocodile-laden Sarawak River. I wish the Richmond Council would institute a similar policy for the stretch of the Thames near which we live, as the locals seem to regard it as a good place into which to hurl empty plastic beverage bottles and the like.

I was disheartened to see Bon Jovi graffiti on the side of a hut near where we boarded the (motorised) canoes that took us to the Ibans, and horrified and incredulous to see a great many locals bypassing the glorious local food in favour of KFC and McDonald's. I kind of wished American basketball and British football hadn't been on TV. I much preferred music videos featuring what appeared to be Muslim boy bands in songkoks.

Our first Saturday night in Kuching, we went to an otherwise deserted (drag!) club called Cat City, where a group comprising six little Filipina foxes in inconceivably short leatherette skirts and platform boots, led by a boy who later told me that his idols are Tom Jones and Engelbert and that he himself was 35, were scheduled to perform. They were so delighted to have an audience that they all came over and shook our hands. They sang (phonetically!) such favourites as Tina Turner's Simply the Best and that horrid Ciccone woman's La Isla Bonita, all to the accompaniment of a Casio keyboard. Their choreography was ragged, and three of the little foxes couldn't get anywhere near their high notes. As you might expect, we adored them, to the tune of planning to go back the night we realised at the last possible second that we were actually expected on the bus back to Kuching Airport. Claire had hoped to promote their first British tour.

After having been out to the Ibans', there wasn't much to do at Batang Ai. One morning we went on a nature hike that involved traversing a flimsy suspension bridge high above the jungle. I found doing so considerably less terrifying than Malaysia Airlines' Flight 2526 from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Once back in our habitably cool room, I annotated the first draft of my novel-in-progress The Mona Lisa's Brother and read The Da Vinci Code while Claire, who'd ingested something that disagreed with her, devoured Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Nearly Everything. Later, I enjoyed playing one-on-one water polo in the swimming pool with a stiff upper lip British colonel type. It was the first time I've been able to throw right-handed repeatedly since I had my right shoulder surgically replaced ten years ago. He was remarkably spry for his age, and trounced me, though I bellowed a lot more exultantly at my few goals, this to the considerable displeasure of the corpulent Prussians arrayed around the pool.

We were surrounded by middleaged British couples, including a gay one that didn't seem to like me. As usual, I felt much younger than nearly everyone there, a rock fan among crooner fans. (While waiting in a restaurant (luscious black pepper squid, RM8, a Malaysian ringgit being worth about 16p/25¢) for one afternoon deluge to end, we heard Mr. Sinatra's really swinging version of Jim Croce's Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which I believe to be one of the three worst pop songs ever composed) For the first time, I realised that I was probably actually older than about half of them.

Praying for Those Departed [January 25, 2007]

A few months back, while celebrating my own inability to suffer fools, it occured to me that he who’s proudest of such an incapacity is almost invariably the biggest fool of all. It's kept me underemployed through most of my adult life, dependent on the generosity of family and the kindness of strangers. In very large part because of my perennial lack of an income, I’ve suffered enough depression for half a dozen lifetimes. At one point in my life, of course, I thought the (self-) tortured syndrome was pretty chic and groovy. The last 25 years, though, as it’s grown ever more life-threatening, I’ve come to see the hopelessness and self-loathing at which I’ve always been so good as simply ugly and boring.

Now, as I approach 60, I’m desperate to be rid of them at last. As I write this, I’m going through one of my rare buoyant periods, during which I can not only recognise the wisdom of such advice as Try to see the glass as half full, but actually act on it. I need look no farther than the missus to know that I have been generously blessed. Even in my darkest moments I like to think that I will feel a duty to remain alive to praise the memory of those I have failed most egregiously. Every night I pray for my dad, my aunt and uncle, assuring them that their memory is a blessing to me. I like to imagine it would please them to know that they’re ovingly remembered. I like to imagine that, especially in the cases of my uncle, who killed himself at 35, and his elder sister, my aunt, who I believe to have been euthanised a year or two before that, it does please them, in a way that’s no less genuine because of my inability to conceive them. As that physicist mused on TV the other night, why is it so hard for us to imagine time going backward as well as "forward"?

We’ve just subscribed to yet another DVD-by-mail service, imagining that, because they’re in cahoots with my favourite daily newspaper, the unusually beautifully designed and left-leaning The Guardian (which, like the rest of the United Kingdom's newspapers, would prefer that I not contribute, thanks so much), they might be slightly less devious than the competition. Fat chance. Just like all the others, [Name Withheld] sends you all the most sought-after, recent stuff during your honeymoon period. Then, when they’ve got your credit card details, all you get is obscurities you can barely remember having added to your wish list -- and then only because [Name Withheld] sent you a succession of shrill emails reminding you to keep at least 350 films on your wish list, just in case they happened to be out of the stuff you really wanted to see. The Johnny Cash biopic, for instance, has been out on disk now for what…six months, and we still haven’t seen it.

Speaking of Cash, I’ve had it pretty much up to here with his posthumous deification. Mumble a Nine Inch Nails song in your mid-60s and the next thing you know, you’re looming large in the legend of a whole generation that had never heard of you before. I have reason to believe The Man in Black's heart was in the right place, and I revere Ring of Fire as much as the next fellow (not until I recorded the Mistress Chloe album with the missus in 2001 would such sublime backing vocals be heard again), but the whole Live at Folsom Prison business really annoys me. The whole event was meant to be an affirmation of the indomitable spirit of The Revolution or something -- we’re meant to believe, I think, that he was performing for political prisoners – victims of racism and Nixonian fascism – and the odd kid who’d been busted for dealing something spirtitually elevating, like pot or peyote. How about the rapists and murderers and arsonists and thieves and meth dealers and sociopaths — they were all asked to stay in their cells that night? And that roar of delight at the line about shooting someone just to watch him die! How not to find that very disconcerting indeed? One word to those who would romanticise sociopathy: Altamont.

Getting back to DVDs, ore and more of them seem to start with 15 minutes of commercials for upcoming, uh, releases, and very often there’s no skipping through them. And here the whole idea of renting movies, at least in my mind, was that they offered a more exalted experience than ordinary broadcast TV, with its relentless advertising.

I propose that, on a designated day, every subscriber to a DVD-by-mail service take a nail file to any rented DVD that starts off with unskippable advertising, and then send it back complainingt that the disk was defective. The [Name Withheld]s of the world then receive a flood of anonymous emails pointing out that the disks that lack or let you skip the advertising seem to be less prone to defect.

You want a revolution? I got some revolution for you right here.

Trust No One Over 35..In a Ramones T-Shirt [January 26, 2007]

Nothing could be less hip than something intended to confer hipness automatically. In the Summer of Love, I, in the long hair for which I'd had to suffer (threats and taunting, but still), I seethed with self-righteous indignation when teens in the backs of station wagons flashed the peace sign at me. Now, many years later, I hate persons of A Certain Age (I've Goggled it until my guitar calluses cracked and bled, and still been unable to discern the origin of this phrase; can anyone help?) wearing Ramones or Iggy Pop or CBGB's T-shirts as emblems of their inextinguishable young-at-heartness. If The Ramones' or Iggy's was the last music to change your life, your young-at-heartness was extinguished a long time ago, pal; you're every bit as with-it, arty, and cultured (43 years after the fact, I still can't stop quoting A Hard Day's Night) as your old man was in 1969 when, in his matching white plastic belt and loafers, he insisted through the smoke of his menthol cigarette that Al Martino was the living embodiment of Real Music.

I was joking about the calluses. I haven't any, having realised early on that I had no aptitude whatever for stringed instruments (an ineptitude that sharp-earred listeners to my recent recordings will surely notice). But the other day at the gym, it dawned on me how it must feel for someone with genuine aptitude to realise he or she has it. I was on the Seated Leg Press machine, the only one in sight on which I'm likely to impress anybody, and decided to see if I could max it out -- do the exercise with the greatest resistance possible. I strained. I strained. I strained. And damned if the 335 pounds didn't ascend. It occurred to me that the sensation was probably very much like that a good musician experiences at some point in his early development. He tries to play something tricky, and his fingers rebel. He tries to play something tricky, and his fingers rebel. He tries to play something tricky, and plays it. And thinks to himself, "Whoa, I can do this."

It isn't a pleasure I've known often in my life.

It's All Downhilll From Here [February 10, 2007]

It’s occurred to me the last several mornings that my day never gets nearly as good again as within the first few minutes of waking, that, in terms of sheer, pleasure, nothing for the next 16 hours will even begin to compare to lying there semiconscious beside the missus in the heavenly warmth of our bed. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I had my right shoulder replaced in 1995, and they put me on a morphine drip. When doctors and nurses periodically stormed in to breezily demand, “How we doing?” (isn’t it heartening how recovery is always a team effort?), I, feeling as though sinking slowly, ever sinking, into a big warm cloud, would invariably sigh, “Never felt better.” I suspect they thought I was being sarcastic, but every syllable was true.

As noted in an earlier entry, I’m trying with all my might to train myself to see the glass as half full. My revelling in the sublime comfort of our bed suggests that I might be making some progress, Not so long ago I’d have gnashed my remaining teeth and tortured myself thinking that I wouldn’t be able to so revel if it weren’t for my unemployability.

As recently as the spring of 2000, I was earning the equivalent of £40K per annum not designing Websites for the San Francisco office of a multinational consulting firm – not designing them not because of any recalcitrance on my part, you understand, but because the big multinational consulting firm had hired a Web design team expecting that they’d be able to keep it very much busier than was actually the case. I spent most of my days alienating my immediate supervisor, of course, and exchanging emails with the missus, though at that point she was just someone in whom I confided ever more profoundly in emails. We hadn’t even met face to face yet.

Within a few months of moving to the outskirts of London, whose editors I’d wrongly supposed would trample one another trying to offer me commissions, I was applying for a minimum-wage job at an off-licence (that is, wine-seller) in Teddington just to try to keep my boredom and feelings of uselessness at bay. My application was unsuccessful (at this time) because of my lack of experience. I later applied to become a bus driver, and for my trouble received a nice letter from the transport company advising that they didn’t want me, and were under no obligation to explain why.

At least they didn’t say "at this time,” a phrase that to me is like the squeaking of Styrofoam (that is, the worst sound in the world). It is always — always! — intended to mislead. I’ve received around 4 million emails in this country advising me that my application for employment has been unsuccessful at this time, from which I suppose I’m meant to infer that if I try again in a few months, the outcome might be very different – this in spite of my having not even been invited in for an interview, let alone made it onto The Short List.

Don’t start me talking, as Mr. C crooned. I could talk all night.

How many times over the course of my non-career has a might-have-been employer told me, lying through their corporate teeth, that they’d like, assuming it’s all right with me, to keep my details on file? Just to amuse myself, I have taken in my old age to always replying, “No, you most certainly may not! I would appreciate my details’ immediate return.” But not a single might-have-been employer has yet emailed back a copy of that remarkable work of fiction, my CV.

In Praise of Older Women (In Contempt of Younger Men) [January 31, 2007]

31 January 2007 |

Beauty changes as you get older. A lot of the little blonde hotties I know would have got my private parts all engorged with blood (yet another self-reference, you see — my 2002 song Love Lumbered In begins, “You get my private parts all engorged with blood,” which I prefer to imagine to be that rarest thing in Western popular music, a unique expression of lust) do nothing at all for me. I can see the small imperfections in their momentarily taut, unlined faces, and anticipate how the years will amplify them. I can’t recall the last time the cover of any of the so-called bloke’s magazines inspired me to do anything other than snort with derision. And I will admit that seeing GQ cover stories on the likes of Lindsay fucking Lohan takes just a wee bit of the sting out of the fact that their media darling editor, could never be troubled to respond to any of the many query letters I sent him, even when they contained mentions of mutual acquaintances who’d encouraged me to invoke them. Would I want to write for a men’s magazine that would put a 20-year-old dimwit with implants on its cover? (Yes, you’re quite right: of course I would.)

Truth be told, I’ve come to feel more and more lately that you can’t accurately judge the beauty of a woman much younger than 40, before which nature grants a whole raft of concessions. The beauty of a beautiful woman over 40 seems more deserved somehow, more genuine.

I’ve come to understand further that it isn’t necessarily self-neglect that ruins the physiques of men in late middle age. Take me (please!). The mind is willing, to the tune of my going to the gym six days a week, but the body resists. After a year on the Nautilus machines, I recently began to work with free weights, and oh, what a price I paid, feeling as though a spike were being driven into my right shoulder, the one so precociously arthritic as to have to be surgically replaced in 1995. So it’s back to the machines, though everyone’s agreed that they make for a much less gorgeous physique. Ditto with running. God, how I used to love it when I lived in West Hollywood and Santa Monica; there’s absolutely no antidote to depression to match it. But for me to run at my present advanced age would be to ask to feel as though the nail were being driven into my left knee or ankle, both operated on so fruitlessly a couple of years after my stainless steel shoulder was installed.

During my short flirtation with free weights, don’t imagine I failed to notice how the lips of the gym’s 24-year-old regulars curled with disdain at the sight of how little I was lifting. They clearly feel, as I used to, that becoming middleaged or older is what happens to the unforgivably uncool. I get some small satisfaction from the realisation that the sexpots at my junior high school who didn’t know I was alive are all close to 60 themselves now, but none from the realisation that that the sneering 24-year-olds at the gym will one day have arthritis, male pattern baldness, and receding gums of their own. I won’t be around to see it, you see, and doesn’t the world begin and end with Johnny?

Choosing the Laughter [2 February 2007]

At last week’s group therapy, Young Chef (he and I were the only ones to turn up) revealed how furious he’s made by his mum and stepdad advising him to Just Get On With It (life, that is) rather than allowing himself to be ravaged by the memory of his biological dad brutalising him while Mum pretended it wasn’t happening.

I know the feeling. As one who’s been depressive since around age seven, I’ve always wanted to shriek at anyone urging me to see the glass as half full. “Don’t you fucking think I fucking would if I fucking could?”

But damned if I didn’t hear myself noting that brilliant advice lurked inside Mum and Stepdad’s impatience and seeming lack of empathy. One does indeed have to pull his socks up, as the Brits say, stiffen his upper lip, and Get On With It. Things look very different when you’re sane.

As I’ve been the past six weeks or so. I’m not quite sure how I got to this place of feeling able to fight my demons off, though I’m positive it’s nothing to do with Prozac, since I quit taking it several weeks ago. My best guess is that sometimes I just get so fed up aching all the time, finding absolutely everything in the world painful, that I begin to ascend in spite of myself. That’s very much what happened on Xmas Day 2000, as it became increasingly clear that I would neither see nor even hear the voice of my then-16-year-old daughter, though she was domiciled (with her mother, my first wife) only a couple of miles away. By around noon, the pain had become nearly overwhelming. I thought, of course, of ending it all, but then, thank God, suddenly recognised with great clarity that the whole thing was in my hands – that I really could, if I took a deep breath and kicked myself smartly in the arse, choose to enjoy my day in spite of what life was hurling at me. I set about writing the most optimistic song in my canon — or, more accurately, letting it write itself, an experience I’d had only once before, glowing with pride as I wrote, among enough other verses to have made the song 10 minutes long:

The water gets murky sometimes
but I can refuse to drown
Gazing into the mirror
I can stare my accuser down
Any day you can nearly die laughing
or curl up and ache with despair
I choose the laughter
I accept life’s dare

I find that my natural vindictiveness, of which I’ve so often been advised to rid myself, can actually be an asset in this regard. As I will point out to Young Chef at next Monday, when we live in barely endurable anguish, we’re very much letting our tormentors win. Young Chef can most eloquently bellow Fuck you at his dad’s memory by being happy.

I’ll note in closing that, while I never forget a slight, I never cease to cherish a kindness either, to the tune of sending my first wife, for whom I have few but the least tender feelings, an email last May telling her that I hadn’t forgotten my birthday in Siena in 1982. She’d bought me a variety of Coca-Cola-related gifts (I collected between 1971 and 2002) in the Italian cities we’d visited the preceding two weeks, and lugged them around with her from place to place, never letting me glimpse them. As all the shops closed, as they do, maddeningly, early every afternoon in Italy, I went for a birthday passagiatta while she donned the sorts of garments a fellow wants to see his bride in on his birthday (and at all other times), pulled the curtains of our little pensione room, and lighted candles. After our fervent birthday lovemaking, she directed my attention to where she’d carefully laid out my array of presents, all artfully gift-wrapped. (She’d studied art in college.) All these years later, it still makes me mist up a bit to recall how loved I felt that afternoon.

The Case for Elitism [February 4, 1997]

Someone famous (albeit not quite famous enough to be linkable with his or her quote by Google in 2007) apparently once observed that the public is a pig.

Apologies, I think, to the pig.

The Brits, among whom I have resided for nearly five years now, would prefer to imagine that they are less swinish than Americans, but one need only stroll along the Thames between our home in Ham and Kingston, where I think Eric Clapton attended art school, to see that English swinishness takes some beating. The riverbank is absolutely strewn with litter --- empty Lucozade and Coke bottles, plastic carry-bags, crisps bags, and the inevitable, uh, fag butts. (The world is their ashtray!) In the actual Thames, Her Majesty’s swans glide gracefully among hideous plastic flotsam. It makes you want to cry, or to pull your own hair out.

Or to pull out the hair (if not vital organs) of the local litterers. Wait a few minutes for a bus in Kingston and you’ll see half a dozen teens asserting their burgeoning masculinity, openly disdaining the notion of anyone as hard (in American English: tough) as they being constrained by the rules before which others cower, by blithely letting their KFC boxes and Burger King cups and wrappers fall where they stand.

And the boys, as Bob Hope would surely have said, aren’t much better. Ta-da-DUM!

Last year, while unsuccessfully trying to pitch an idea for a TV documentary series called Rubbish!, I came up with the idea that every resident of the UK should be issued three plastic bottles, and that all beverages should, after a certain date, be sold from the tap. Lose your bottles; die of thirst. This, I thought, might substantially cut down on the amount of plastic flotsam fighting it out with the swans. Also, since savourers of fast and junk food seem by far the most prolific litterers (I cannot recall having glimpsed even one Tesco’s Finest container in the woods across the road from our little house), it seems to me that such food should be taxed very heavily, to enable the local councils to hire enough cleaners to pick it all up. A Big Mac and a Coke, sir? That’ll be £27.30.

Which, of course, isn’t that much more than it is already.

I have often wondered how many person-hours are wasted each year in the production of signs, made to be displayed in shop windows, reading Now Open. If such signs were simply to decree Open, would passers-by scratch their heads and mumble confusedly to themselves, “I wonder if that means right now, or at quarter past eight this evening, or next July.”

Oh, I’m so much cleverer (in American: smarter) than everyone else, aren’t I?

Several years ago, outside a big do in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park sponsored by Absolut, I was trying to get the attention of people to whom I hoped to hand flyers advertising a performance of my scripted sketch comedy troupe, The San Francisco Hysterical Society. I found that bellowing, “Absolut vodka shown to cause intoxication in mice!” got lots of people turned round smirking. Disdaining the flyer I tried to hand him, though, one not so easily duped snorted, “Well, duh!” One apparently had to get up a lot earlier in the morning than I had to fool this, uh, dude. Whom I recognised a few weeks later at my local polling place, where he was accorded exactly as many votes as I, prodigiously clever though I yam.

I say all this by way of prefacing my admission that I have lost my faith in democracy, especially as it’s practised in America. I have quietly believed this since George W Bush was re-elected in 2004, and came to believe it even more passionately after seeing The Guardian’s online coverage of last November’s midterm elections. I acknowledge the possibility that the filmmakers were probably tacitly encouraged to depict as many geeks and yahoos (both in the pre-digital sense) as possible to make Guardian readers feel all lovely and warm and superior, but still. The rampant stupidity of most of these people – including those who were going to do the only sensible thing and vote against the Republicans, mind you – made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

And now today’s entry’s money shot: I can’t bear the thought of having exactly as many votes as the guy in Golden Gate Park, or some Dairy Queen waitress in Fungus, Nebraska, who regards George W Bush as a rilly, rilly great man, and am hoping that someone can explain why the vote shouldn’t be reserved for those who have a rudimentary grasp of history and political science. Can’t say which Middle Eastern country is largely subsidised by America, to the intense displeasure of its neighbours? Can’t identify the country in Southeast Asia in which America was involved in a controversial war in the 60s and 70s? Can’t identify the martyred leader of the American civil rights movement? On your bike, pal.

Martyred. Controversial. I was only trying to see if you were paying attention. Minimise bias by having the prospective voter’s test devised by people from across the political spectrum. And don’t dare tell me that’s impossible, that even Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky, say, couldn’t agree on the neutralness of a question like Iraq in the 90s was involved in a long war with its neighbour (a) Venezuela, (b) Kenya, (c) Iran, or (d) North Korea. I’m not talking about needing a BA in Poli Sci here, but about having slightly greater socio-political sophistication than that of an empty Lucozade bottle.

Absent this change, it will continue to be less and less about what a candidate believes in, or even about his or her character, and all about how much money he or she has to spend on television advertising, and the deftness (and ruthlessness) of the ad agencies he or she hires. (Have you no decency left, sir, indeed!) In many areas of life, we all recognise that the only ones who come out ahead in the end are the lawyers. Well, in this, it’s only the image consultants and ad agencies who come out ahead, and just marginally at that, since they have to live in the world they’ve helped create.

Speaking of character, I gnash my teeth at its mere mention in regard to political candidates. If someone’s an effective politician, and committed to decriminalising drugs, say, or implementing free universal health care, why should it matter if she enjoys looking at photographs of men with hairy backs, has deficient personal hygiene, or loathes cats?

Oh, yes, yes, it would cost an awful lot of money putting in place a system to disenfranchise those whose IQs are lower than the air pressure in their tyres. Probably a few bucks less than the war in Iraq, though.