Saturday, February 27, 2010

This Twilight World in Which I'm Trapped

I used to love listening to a Teri (she’ll spell it her way, and I’ll spell it mine) Gross Fresh Air interview every Friday afternoon on the way up to Santa Rosa to pick up my daughter after school. Often, if I’d enjoyed a particular interview, I’d listen to its early evening re-broadcast, and would be amazed to remember exactly what I was driving past as Teri was posing a particular question or her guest responding to it.

I’ve realized in the past week how often I do the same thing with my own work. There’s a verse in my song "House Arrest", about suicidal depression, that I vividly remember coming to me while I waited for Claire in a little plaza in downtown San Sebastian, Spain, in 2004.

In this twilight world in which I’m trapped
There’s no settling in. I can’t adapt.
My gifts are worthless, best left wrapped...

About a year before that, when we took a tourist-oriented coach trip to Stonehenge and its environs, we were collected in front of a hotel in London’s Oxford Street. I’d had the idea a few days before to make a new song I was working on (I always write the music first, and then the lyrics) about domestic violence, sung from the perspective of a battered woman. En route down to Victoria Station, where we were to collect others for the tour, we traversed a particular roundabout, and this verse came to me whole:

I say the wrong thing and I get slapped
There is no right thing that I can say. I feel trapped.
This territory’s unmapped.

The clarity with which I can remember this (not failing, by the way, to note that both these moments involved the use of the easily rhymed trapped) makes me ponder the possibility of divine intervention in creativity. And yes my tongue’s indeed in cheek about “divine”, but I genuinely did feel myself a conduit at that moment those lines came to me, just as I had, I now remember, almost 30 years before, when I wrote the chorus of may well be my best song.

Then the memory of feelings dared and secrets shared
Returns each morning that I wake up all alone
Now I find myself a little scared but nonetheless prepared
to love again.

I’ve been working recently on the second, much-improved second version of Anthems of Self-Loathing, the album that will contain both "House Arrest" and the domestic abuse song, "Quake". I first composed and recorded the whole thing in 2006, but was displeased with the results, and so set about starting over from scratch during the lonely 10 months I spent in the Midwest after my 2007 repatriation from the United Kingdom. Retooling arrangements for existing songs, I came up with two new ones. When I listened to them the other day in my little studio in the Hudson Valley for the first time in months, they took me right back to the awful loneliness that threatened to swallow me whole in Wisconsin, where the few friends I made were musicians who were either on the road or married or both, and thus not very accessible, and where I felt even more than usual that there was no place for me in the world. I spent many a melancholy evening alone in the studio apartment I’d rented trying to lose myself in my work.

Working on my most recent album, your reluctance to buy which hasn’t gone unnoticed, I went for the first time in my illustrious songwriting career with my original lyrical impulses, however wacky. While composing the melody for a song that wound up being about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, "Nights of Cinnamon", for instance, I found myself singing, “Days of sulfur, nights of cinnamon,” just to have something to sing. In days gone by, I’d have reworked that. But in 2009, inspired by news of the death of Frank McCourt, whose books I enjoyed so much, I went through the door at which instinct had pointed, with results that I can’t imagine anyone failing to find remarkable. Or maybe I’m just saying that because it’s been Snowmageddon around here the past 48 hours, and I was mortified not to have posted a new essay yesterday (my first unintentional miss in 2010!), and can’t allow it to happen anew!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Crystal Bowersox and the Goblet of Fire

The most heartbreaking moment of American Idol this week so far has been when brave Lacey Brown, sent home last year just before the Final 24 were chosen, sang dreadfully, and had to keep from bursting into tears while all four judges defecated on her performance. Is it not for such moments of rare courage that a lot of people watch the program, rather than for the mostly very boring singing?

How not to hope that someone named Crystal Bowersox, with dreadlocks, won’t win? Well, it’s actually much easier than I’d have imagined. She’s aloof and unsmiling, our Crystal, and exudes a sense of imagining herself too hip for the show, and it isn’t endearing. I’m reminded of the great discomfort Paul Simon used to affect at awards shows at which he knew he was going to be given armfuls of awards; sure, he’d accept the damn things, but only with the most palpable reluctance. If you’re going to play the game, play it with grace. When La Bowersox performed a song by the unspeakable Alanis Morisette, it contained a lame harmonica passage apparently intended to demonstrate that she may be in American Idol, but is not of it; no way!

Lily Scott, who looks like my wife, is quirkily jazzy, very distinct, altogether terrific, and surely doomed by having nothing to do with the WhitneyMariahLeona tradition of technique-based divastry. Haeley Vaughan, with the biggest mouth I’ve ever seen — she could swallow Ryan Seacrest’s head, whole — might make the Final 12 on the basis of being an oddity: a black girl country singer. But the record shows clearly that anatomically quirky contestants can go only so far, as witness neckless Melinda Doolittle from Season 17, or whenever it was.

Several years ago, while I was living in the UK, the BBC tried to challenge Pop Idol (later to metamorphose into The X Factor) with a show called Fame Academy. The second season was won by a little lesbian from the hinterlands called Alex Park, who seemed, whenever she opened her mouth, to be singing to save the life of someone she loved; she broke your heart with every song. American Idol contestant Siobhan Magnus has that same quality, and breathtaking range, and will of course get nowhere near the final because America, far more skittish than the UK, will find her frightening, just as it found Adam Lambert last year. We as a people would much sooner read John Grisham than Scott Turow, though the former isn’t fit to install updates of the latter’s text processing software.

This year’s male crop is pretty undistinguished, lacking a single jaw-dropper in the Adam Lambert class, and I’m speaking solely of singing ability, rather than panache. The human mountain Michael Lynche phrases engagingly. Casey James, who will spend the rest of his career trying to live down having eagerly exposed his pigeon-chestedness for Victoria Beckham and the leering Kara at his first audition, is a reasonable rock dude in the tradition of Bo Bice, over whom America ultimately chose Carrie Underwood back in Season 18, or whenever it was. I’d like to see the very ethnic Andrew Garcia make it into the last couple of weeks, but I suspect his gang-tattooed neck will ultimately terrify America, which, presented last year with a choice between the incandescent Lambert and the soporifically bland What’s-His-Name, chose the latter. The smart money’s on Jermaine Sellers, whose own neck tattoo is offset by his self-identification as a church singer.

You read it here first: this year’s winner will be the blandly gorgeous, unmemorably virtuosic Michelle Delamor, who is everything Lily Scott is not, and the rest of the world will snicker at us anew.

My own album, containing supremely unvirtuosic singing, wonders why you haven't yet read all about it here. Subscribe, my hearties!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Raising Twins the Ethnomethodological Way

We already had our daughter, Missus the First and I, and were increasingly at one another’s throats, so the last thing we had in mind was to have two more children, but apparently one of my spermatozoons found one of her eggs in the wake of our last-ever lovemaking, and nine months later we welcomed the twins Moishe and Brandon to our household, in which we agreed to maintain an atmosphere of civility, if not mutual admiration, at least until they were college-age.

My favorite course in college was Dr. Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, one of the most provocative precepts of which was that much can be learned interesting things about the way we interact with one another using what he called such “cuckoo” techniques as responding in conversations according to a predetermined schedule of affirmation and denial. For instance, we were encouraged, over dinner, to be gracious twice in a row, and then obnoxious, regardless of what had actually been said to us. It was with Dr. Garfinkel in mind that I laid plans for the twins’ upbringing. Beginning at age three, I would be cruelly hypercritical to one for six months, and unflaggingly supportive of the other. Then, for the next six months, I’d treat each as I’d treated his brother.

This idea quickly went out the window, though. From the first week we got them home, Brandon was the more aggressive, the more typically masculine. If he didn’t like the temperature of his formula, he would fling it at one of our heads, and snatch Moishe’s away. He had a good arm, and I dared hope he might be the quarterback I’d never been, the alpha male. Mush, as we called Moishe, promised to become a bully magnet. I decided for once in my life to bet on the front-runner. At the sight of Brandon, I would whoop, "There’s my strong, brave, handsome, little man"! I would pretend not to notice Mush.

By third grade, Brandon was already the captain of his school’s touch football team, having beaten out two sixth-graders for the starting position, and Mush wasn’t yet speaking. He still sucked his thumb, though I coated it in ant poison each day before he left for school, and had bitten his nails down to the quick. He was commonly beaten senseless on the playground. At MTF’s insistence, I asked Brandon to look after his brother, but winked as I did so. I didn’t want him to take a chance of injuring his throwing arm.

Mush finally began speaking — with a stammer that made the bullies’ ears perk up — in seventh grade. We’d done a lot of research on line and realized he was probably autistic. The high school into which students at the boy’ middle school were promoted after completing ninth grade negotiated with the middle school to enroll Brandon immediately. They needed a quarterback. Between beatings, Mush became an accomplished short story writer, and won the school’s creative writing contest two years running. His prize was a $50 Borders gift certificate one year, and a $25 gift certificate the next, after the recession forced across-the-board budget cutbacks. Brandon, meanwhile, was given a new Subaru Forester, just to ensure he didn’t miss practice in case the bus drivers went on strike or there was a blizzard. The Forester had all-wheel drive.

When Brandon got the cheerleading captain, Kristi Dugan, pregnant, a bunch of parents chipped in to enable her to exercise her legal reproductive freedom. She overdosed on her dad’s antidepressants the night before her…procedure was scheduled, but it was kept from Brandon for fear of an adverse effect on his performance in the big game against Smidgenville. It wasn’t Kristi’s overdose that slowed him down — he’d already moved on to homecoming princess Krystelle Brisbin — but that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Smidgenville went on to beat “us” for the first time since 1997, and Brandon, who’d thrown two interceptions and no touchdowns before his injury, was advised that even if he regained the ability to walk, he’d better think twice about doing so on Maine Street, or even Vermont or New Hampshire Streets, in daylight for a decade or two. We take our high school football seriously here.

Mush went on to write a succession of often macabre psychological thrillers, most having to do in one way or another with the psychological abuse of children. All but the first made the New York Times bestseller list, and the third and fifth were made into very popular, even critically acclaimed movies. He bought himself an estate overlooking the Hudson, married Kristi Dugan — who acknowledged that some would surely find the idea creepy, but pointed out that there weren’t two more dissimilar twins anywhere in the world than her former boyfriend and new husband — and was elected to Congress on the new Asperger’s ticket.

I like to imagine that I made a substantial contribution to his success.

Subscribe already.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Hostage Crisis

A lot of people don’t know this about me, but a couple of years ago, while living in Wisconsin, I got fatally sick of government intruding into my life, even though George Bush and Dick Cheney, good guys by any reasonable measure, were its kingpins at the time, and decided to kill myself and a bunch of bureaucrats in hope of other lovers of freedom around the country following my example, and my daughter never feeling the jackboot of oppression on the back of her head.

Leave it to me to have second thoughts. I got all my weapons and ammunition together, my whole arsenal, printed out my manifesto, cleared the history in my various Web browsers so none would blame what I was about to do on my healthy, perfectly normal interest in heterosexual pornography, and headed for the local IRS office, only to remember when I found its parking lot deserted that it was Presidents Day. I pretty nearly fainted from embarrassment, hurried home, and forgot the whole idea until my next electric bill arrived. Once more I felt the jackboot of oppression pushing my face back into the muck.

This time I ensured that I hadn’t chosen a federal holiday, and headed for the Department of Motor Vehicles. I’d been driving with an international driver’s license, and it was about to run out. I figured if I lost my nerve, I could always leave my arsenal in the trunk and renew it. I found, as I took a number from the little machine at the entrance, that I hadn’t lost my nerve. I was No. 82, and they were now serving No. 31. How like the jack-booted oppressor to waste everyone’s time so cavalierly! I asked the security guard, whose florid complexion, watery blue eyes, and bulging gut left little doubt that he was a native Midwesterner, if he had any idea how long I might have to wait. He didn’t understand the question, and didn’t understand the question, and finally snorted, “Do I look like a friggin’ mathematician or something? In my world, the use of friggin’ is a capital offense (if less offensive than frickin’, but we may be splitting hairs here), and I hastened his reunion with his creator.

There was pandemonium, of course. Within minutes, the building was surrounded by police. No. 47, who’d saved up for a special Green Bay Packers license plate for which he’d come in to apply, said I’d better prepare a list of demands. We could hear helicopters overhead. I don’t know how they got my cell phone number so fast, but they did, and someone phoned me to ascertain my demands. “Believe me now?” No. 47 asked, sneering. I shot him and told the guy on the phone I hadn’t decided yet. He suggested that, while thinking, I release all the women and children hostages. I hadn’t to that point regarded those cowering on the floor as hostages, but realized it wasn’t a bad idea.

There wasn’t a child in sight. Maybe they were all at school. I let the women go. No. 53 said to someone whose number I couldn’t see that I was really a dunce, having gotten nothing in return for the hostages. I shot both of them and used the automatic callback function on my phone to call the police guy I’d just been talking to. I said if he wanted more hostages, he’d have to be prepared to give me something. You’d never heard so many sirens. He asked what I wanted for 10 more hostages. I said for the jackboot of oppression to be lifted off the back of my head. He said, “You got it!”

I didn’t feel much different, but didn’t want to appear a welcher. I freed the nine hostages of color and a guy who said he had a dental appointment that he’d be charged for even if he didn’t turn up because he hadn’t canceled 24 hours in advance. The police guy offered to send someone in to negotiate with me face to face in exchange for five more hostages. I said three. We settled on four.

The hostage negotiator they sent in reminded me of Ricky Abbott from my class at Santa Monica High School — an alpha male you hoped would like you, rather than wanted to poison. Every time he looked around as though to ensure that none of his superiors had somehow sneaked to within hearing distance, and then said, “I’m going to be honest with you now,” I knew he was going to play me, but hardly cared. I was so flattered by his whole we’re-in-this-together manner that when, in response to my asking him to promise I wouldn’t prosecuted if I surrendered immediately, he sighed and said, “I honestly can’t to that, big guy,” I said, “Oh, what the heck?” and surrendered anyway. As noted, I knew he really wasn’t my new best-friend-forever, but it still hurt when, after they got the cuffs on me, he seemed to lose all interest in our friendship. I was sentenced to four to 10 at the ominously named but not really that bad Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island, where I learned a useful, but not marketable skill.

You get what you can in this cruel, rotten world.

Subscribe to these little essays already!

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Mariah Medley and Why It Failed

When I was an American Idol contestant a couple of seasons ago, the hard part wasn’t the singing — having extraordinary vocal ability is something you’re born with, and I was born with enough for triplets — but coming up with autobiographical information that would make America root for me. The production assistant I was assigned, Staci, made no secret of her frustration when, after inviting me to tell her something sad about my life, I recounted my parents not getting along well, and leaving adolescence having never known a whole day’s peace. She rolled her eyes, began sending a text message, and said, “What else you got?” I told her how excruciating arthritis in my right shoulder had compelled me to have it surgically replaced some years before. She rolled her eyes and said, “What else you got?” I told her I’d been estranged for years from the person I’d loved most and best in my life, my daughter. She looked up from her cell phone for the first time and said, “Tell me more.” When I was through recounting my terrible job of hiding how much it hurt when my daughter treated me as the booby prize and her mother, who’d insisted on divorce when our daughter wasn’t yet three, as the grand prize, she actually closed her cell phone entirely and said she thought we might have something to work with.

“You’ve entered the competition not only because you love singing,” Stacee thought aloud, looking at the ceiling, tapping her pen against her teeth, “but because you think that winning might make your estranged daughter love you again, right?” Her expression made unmistakable that I was supposed to answer yes. “Yes,” I said. “Exactly right!”

“Awesome,” she said, yawning as she scribbled a note to herself. She flipped to another page on her clipboard and called the next name on her list.

I wasn't surprised to be in one of the roomfuls of Hollywood Week contestants that got good news. I hadn’t imagined them able to say no to my Mariah medley, which had inspired Simon to muse, “You know, I think you’re even better than you know.” I replied, “Oh, I doubt it. No one’s that good.” But there was a twinkle in my eye when I said it, and I winked at him for good measure. “Cheeky,” he noted, approvingly. A very special look passed between us.

Now the 51 of us hoping to become the Final 24 who would sing for America’s votes — and be paid, if only nominally, to perform on the annual finalists’ tour — were herded into another big room to wait to be summoned for an announcement of the judges’ decision. Production assistants circulated among us, urging us to try to look like passengers on a newly hijacked jetliner — that distraught, that apprehensive. They turned the thermostat up very high to make us sweat, and then very low to make us shiver. We weren’t allowed to use the restroom. Two contestants who shared a joke and laughed nervously were told either to get with the program or go home.

It appeared, as the long day dragged on and on, as though I'd been forgotten. There were only nine of us left, and then six, and then only four — I, another guy, and two girls — with only two slots still open, one for each sex. We compared the various tragedies our various production assistants had helped us develop. The other guy, a rock dude with long hair and generic vocal gruffness, had a four-year-old son with a slight stammer. He’d been urged to say the boy had a serious neurological condition he wouldn’t be able to afford to have treated unless he won the competition. The mother of one of the girls, a generic soul mama with gigantic eyes and very glossy straightened hair, had been an unwed teenager who’d run away a couple of years after her birth; the young soul mama had grown up with her grandparents. The producers had told her to say her parents had been killed by a drunk driver while walking home from church.

Finally, there was a blandly pretty young blonde who shared my enthusiasm for Mariah, but of course didn’t have anything like my chops. She’d led a charmed blandly pretty blonde life, and could think of nothing sadder than that her younger brother had asthma. The producers suggested he be dying of lung cancer — oh, the cruel irony in view of his never having taken even a puff of a cigarette! She had learned that she intended, if she won, to give all the money she would make over the course of her career to medical research in hope of sparing anyone else the premature loss of a younger sibling.

I was pretty sure I was doomed, and blamed Stacee, whom I saw again just before I went in to hear the judges' verdict. She told me to be sure to point out, quaveringly, that this was my last hope of realizing my most cherished dream. Randy affirmed that I was by far the best singer they’d heard that season, and that he’d bet his children’s college money that superstardom awaited me, but that they'd had to pick Mr. Gruffvoice because of his sadder back-story.

Naturally, they showed none of that when the show was actually broadcast.