Friday, March 19, 2010

Pretty in Pink

That I am writing today about The Psychedelic Furs’ "Pretty in Pink" owes nothing to the fact that lead singer Richard Butler is now, nearly 30 years after the fact, a neighbor of mine, albeit one I’ve glimpsed only fleetingly, bespectacled and coming out of a Main Street gallery that was offering for sale one of his paintings.

I’d actually met him, interviewing him for Creem, but I don’t think either of us would have recognized the other on the basis of that meeting, as I had never before and have never since seen anyone seemingly trying so hard to give himself emphysema over the course of a single afternoon. He lit one cigarette from its predecessor throughout our extended chat, and his hotel room was as smoggy as Los Angeles on a hot Thursday afternoon in August.

"Pretty in Pink" is one of those tracks that I’ve heard several hundreds of times in my life, but nonetheless rarely fails to thrill me every time I hear it. The musicianship’s pretty ragged (when I saw them live, they were a mess), and the main riff is a brazen Velvet Underground cop, but oh, Mr. Butler’s voice, a cross between Johnny Rotten’s and Lee Marvin’s, and oh, the clamorous production!

And oh, for that matter, the wonderfully perplexing lyrics, which Butler doesn’t sing so much as growl. Without making any traditional sense — and without rhyming, or adhering to meter — the lyrics manage to suggest cruelty and exploitation. They may well be about a transvestite prostitute who “lives in the place in the side of our lives where nothing is ever put straight,” and elsewhere we learn that, among her suitors, “the one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name.” The fact that I am unable to say with any confidence what the song is about doesn’t diminish my fervent enjoyment of it.

I have come over the past couple of decades, and with considerable dismay (since I’ve always been good at them) to realize that lyrics matter very little indeed in pop music. I mean, the wit and craftsmanship of a Cole Porter or Sammy Kahn or Lorenz Hart lyric certainly add to the pleasure of the song, but I love a lot of music in which the lyrics are impenetrable, unintelligible, or just idiotic. I regard The Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas album, on which Ms. Elizabeth Fraser sings gibberish, as a work of humbling beauty.


Freshman Year

I may have worn velour turtlenecks and Cuban-heeled boots, and consequently been perceived as sexually ambiguous, but I was still a pretty unimaginative 18-year-old. While others went away to college, I continued to live at home. My decision had to do in large part with the fact that my first girlfriend (whom I intended to marry, as I couldn’t envision another girl ever agreeing to go out with me) staying put. Even worse than remaining at home, I signed up for Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), to: follow in the footsteps of uncle Bunny (a Lt. Colonel), impress my future father-in-law (my first girlfriend’s dad was also a colonel), and ensure that when I went to Viet Nam, it would be as an officer rather than as someone more likely to be shot at).

My being in ROTC meant that I had to keep my hair short, thought I was dying to become the Semitic Brian Jones, wear my uniform to school every Tuesday, and salute anyone who outranked me (and no one didn’t outrank me) when I encountered him (ROTC was a no-gurls club) on campus. That wasn’t very embarrassing, and American pizza isn’t usually round.

What a very alienating experience that first year was, especially for one prone to find most experiences alienating. Classes for freshmen were generally held in big auditoriums, where you’d be surrounded by 150 others like yourself listening to some poor untenured schnook at the bottom of the academic food chain drone at you boredly. You never heard a fellow student’s name; our instructors wouldn’t have recognized us if they’d found us in the trunks of their Volvos.

I had declared myself a psychology major, my intention having been to become a psychotherapist. It seemed to me that you didn’t have to be Mr. or Ms. Mental Health yourself to help others in emotional pain, and I was clearly right, as witness HBO’s glorious In Treatment series. But one semester of physiological psychology scared me away — too much…science! — and I switched to sociology, which wasn’t especially sexy, but interested me.

The only class I enjoyed was English, even though the instructor — not even an associate professor, but a graduate student, Mr. Ferretface — clearly envied my brilliance as a writer, and kept giving me B-pluses on everything, such as my brilliant analysis of the difference between Mickey Spillane's and Ian Fleming's writing about food. Or maybe it was because I wasn’t the hotshot Santa Monica High School’s Mrs. Viola Cool had led me to imagine I was.

A pretty girl of the sort I wouldn’t have dreamed of approaching — an actual sorority girl with shampoo commercial hair — sat down beside me the first day of class, and never left. I hadn’t attended a single fraternity party for fear of being made to feel as I had back in junior high school, when I felt at all times as though wearing, saying, thinking, or doing something very different from than that which the cool kids were wearing, saying, thinking, or doing. I gently rebuffed her advances (while of course encouraging them) in a rare display of fealty to my existing, uh, relationship.

After class, I just headed home, especially on days when some pompous little dickhead was apt to step in front of me expecting to be saluted, but occasionally I lingered on the outdoor free speech area adjacent to the Student Union building, and there listened to fellow students and others aggrieved rant about racism, abortion, and other topics that struck a callow freshman from not far away as terribly spicy.

Summer took forever arriving, and when it finally did arrive it might have been the worst in history for locals with pollen allergies; I don’t think I went longer than five minutes without sneezing, explosively. I nonetheless managed to let my hair grow long (for the time), and to reconcile myself to the realization that the United States Air Force would probably be far better off without me.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


You’ve heard the (apparently apocryphal) Chinese curse May you live in interesting times. I attended Santa Monica High School, self-styled Queen of the Setting Sun, later alma mater of Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr.m and Emilio Estevez, at a time slightly less interesting than it would get in a year or two. In my senor year, The Byrds, with "Mr. Tambourine Man", demonstrated that Americans could grow their hair long and stand toe to toe with The Beatles, but there was no trace of long hair or marijuana on campus; those particular roofs would have to wait two years to cave in, and it was up to the usual greasers and surfers to supply sociological interest. The former were going to go on to own or at least work in body or brake shops, and to keep wearing their duck’s-ass coiffures well past the style’s sell-by date, while the latter would spend every available minute in wetsuits, or studying oceanography. The well-scrubbed kids with perfect straight teeth from north of Wilshire Blvd. would go on to college, and lovely white-collar careers.

In accordance with California law, boys vice principal Porter I. Leach (I have never trusted anyone with a flaunted middle initial) was a moron, but quite a handsome one, as only befitted the younger brother of the ultra-glamorous film star Cary Grant. If he was the handsomest man on campus, our rent-a-cop, with the distorted features of an ex-boxer, was the least. There were lots of latino and black kids, but those from the right side of Wilshire Blvd. would interact with them only in PE. Academically, there was a sort of subtle segregation in effect, whereby well-to-do white kids were presumed to be getting ready for college, and everyone else herded into average-intelligence (T) or remedial (R) classes.

There was actually a black faculty member, an English teacher. I suspect they wouldn’t have hired him if not for his Ph.D. I never had him, but I did have Mrs. Viola Cook, an early recognizer, bless her heart, of my brilliance as a writer; a (very) young and majorly foxy young Asian social studies teacher whose name I’ve forgotten, but who I know to have gone on to become a documentary filmmaker of some note; and Mr. Andrew Dimas, a wry and sharp-dressed English and journalism teacher who I'm pretty sure was in love with me, and who didn’t conceal his distaste for my and (very!) green-eyed Gail Hickey, also in the class, having conspicuously become an item.

In later years, he apparently confided his gayness to such followers in my footsteps as Steve Randall (later Playboy’s West Coast editor). Naturally, nobody was openly gay at the time, though the supposedly tell-tale limpness of B. Roberts’ wrist inspired considerable speculation among those he taught French, and male cheerleader Danny Brown wasn’t often glimpsed sneaking smokes and speaking defiantly ungrammatically behind Auto Shop with the most stereotypically macho among us.

In my senior year, after three semesters of abject loneliness and isolation, I finally began to blossom a bit. I worked up the nerve to ask out the luscious Joy Ketner — who drove me half-insane in civics by picking bits of fuzz off her black nylon legs and dropping them elegantly into the chasm that separated us — only to learn that she was romantically entangled with an older man, one who’d moved on to Santa Monica Community College (Samohi With Ashtrays) the previous year. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and lowered the boom on La Hickey, whose extraordinary eyes were a function of tinted contact lenses, and damned if she didn’t say OK.

Suddenly, because she was hot stuff, I was one to reckon with! Then I formed my first group, The Fogmen, and served as campaign manager for Mr. Eric Thiermann, who was running for student body president. That he won had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the impressive magic tricks he performed at his self-nominating speech, but my status was nonetheless enhanced. The Malibu Optimists Club gave me a $100 scholarship because I had the highest grade-point average on the bus. I bought drums with it.

At my class’s five-year reunion, Ms. Sally Willsher, who’d come to look exactly like supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, made me not miss La Ketner, but had eyes only for her date. By our 10-year-reunion, which La Willsher didn’t deign to grace, three-quarters of the class had already gone badly to seed, and Thiermann made loud jokes at my expense because of my very long hair and deafening attire, but I didn’t care because social situations make me uncomfortable, and I’d gotten almost too drunk even to stand.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

I was driving from San Francisco up to Santa Rosa one Friday afternoon in 1994 to pick up my daughter after school when I heard Ian Frazier read aloud on Fresh Air the last paragraph of his newly published book about his family. It brought tears to my eyes then, and brings them to this day.

At every step I would compare myself especially to [his father], would judge if I was doing better or worse than he had done at being middle-class and putting kids through school and not terrorizing my family and staying between the lines while trying not to forget what it is I actually want to do. And unknown things would happen, and sooner or later I would die, too — I understand that now, clearly, the way you suddenly became aware of the sky and the diving board after the person in front of you has jumped — and my kids perhaps would see me off as I had seen my parents off, or perhaps not. And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us; perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and none would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.

I believe many of those of us who are parents will find most heartbreaking the realization that our children won’t long remain in the state we leave them. If humankind hasn’t destroyed itself, or made the planet uninhabitable — and are not both possibilities terrifyingly easy to conceive? — our children will one day be the people we’ve seen our parents become, that feeble and pathetic. And we, having been gone for decades, will be powerless to tell their woefully underpaid, perhaps resentful caregivers, “Hey, wait a second. Let me tell you how gorgeous and smart and full of life this person was when she was little. Let me show you photos!”

I find it so hard nowadays to look at photographs of my own and my friends’ parents as very young people. I’m overwhelmed with guilt borne of having half-imagined in my own youth that they were examples of trick photography. My parents, young and raven-haired, sparkly-eyed and gorgeous in the photos, bore little resemblance to the people whose home I shared. Wasn’t I the center of the universe? Didn’t people exist only as I knew them?

That first night on Ed Sullivan, the only good thing either of them had had to say about The Beatles, who were manifestly The Way Forward, was, “Well, at least they pick nice songs to sing.” That was Audrey Mendelsohn after Mr. McCartney warbled “’Til There Was You.” Maybe they’d been through the Depression, and then through World War II, but had they ever smoked pot, or repudiated racism, or repudiated sexism, or repudiated homophobia, as we'd eventually get around to doing? Had anyone ever been as uncool as my parents?

I began in 1973 writing a song, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” about how people see their parents. The lyrics have changed many times over the years; they keep getting just a bit wiser. In the most recent version, written when I was the age my mother was when she blessed “’Til There Was You,” the first and fourth verses became:

We were gorgeous. We were clever. It was obvious that ever we’d be thus.
We had genius beyond rating. History clearly had been waiting just for us.
Like a diver from the cliff at Acapulco at the moment that he dives,
we were so exhilarated as we waited for the best years of our lives.

Now as we become our parents, it’s apparent that appearances deceived
Our beauty has been looted. Life’s refuted everything that we believed.
We baby boomers, growing tumors, arm ourselves with irony and knives.
We’ll go, but not so quietly, in these, the waning best years of our lives.


The Rancid Mist of Permissiveness

The students of Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, won’t be having a prom this year. For this they can thank the chipmunk-cheeked little brat Constance McMillen, who’d threatened to attend the event in a tuxedo, and with her girlfriend, and the ACLU, who of course peed all over themselves in their haste to chip away at yet another brick in the fabric of American life. But even more than little brat Constance and the American Coalition of Loathsome Undesirables, as I think of them, the poor kids of Itawamba County can thank the permissiveness that’s settled over our culture like a rancid mist the past 40 years or so.

Really, were our lives so awful back before shenanigans of this sort became commonplace? So there weren’t a lot of dark faces on television; was that really such a tragedy? Was The Honeymooners less funny because Art Carney wasn’t whatever they like to be called nowadays? Was I Love Lucy less funny because the Latino guy in it wasn't swarthy, but the light-skinned European type?

A person knew where they stood back then. Nobody cared if you were queer so long as you had the common decency to keep quiet about it, or stuck with one of the traditionally homosexual occupations, like hairdressing, female impersonation, interior decoration, or the theatre, and stayed out of sight of decent, God-fearing neighbors. You didn’t ruin the lives of your classmates in those days by threatening to come crossdressed to the prom with one of your own sex!

Honestly, what did this McMillen brat imagine she and her so-called girlfriend were going to do if the Itawamba County school district hadn’t cancelled the prom altogether to keep her from making a mockery of it? How many glasses of punch can anybody stand around sipping over the course of an evening? Surely she couldn’t have imagined that she and her date were going to dance! Even if the sight of two people of the same sex dancing together hadn’t made the band stop in disgust — or the DJ, if there was no band, run out to the parking lot to puke — do you suppose any of the other kids would have stayed on the dance floor with them? I sure don’t! And who wants to be alone on the dance floor, being glared at by everybody?

I’ll tell you who: homosexual exhibitionists!

But don’t they just stick together these days, the perverts and discontents and so-called persons of color and so-called progressives? Hardly had CNN reported little McMillen’s assault on decency than this apparently homo-run Website called started raising money for an unofficial prom, with an anonymous donor (big surprise that he, she, or he/she won’t face the music!) promising to match up to the first $25,000.

Take some small consolation in the fact that Elton John probably wouldn’t walk across one of his living rooms for $50,000, let alone fly to Fulton, Mississippi. The little brats will have to settle for the guy from 'N Sync, or the one from Judas Priest, or some really lame country band from Jackson murdering the hits of Carrie Underwood. And yes, I do indeed recognize that allowing the guy from Judas Priest, a known devil-worshipper, to entertain impressionable children would very much be a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It really galls me that nobody’s offering a dime in matching funds for all the decent hard-working normal kids in Itawamba County who dropped out of school at 15, long before they’d even had a chance to consider going to any fancy prom, because they’d gotten their first cousins pregnant and had to get a job at the Tast-T-Freez to afford diapers, snuff, formula, and beer, and to pay the rent on the trailer.

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen if we keep encouraging selfish little brats who don’t seem to want to recognize their responsibility to reproduce: we’re going to come to be seriously outnumbered by, for instance, Indians (not the good kind, who run casinos or drink themselves into unconsciousness, but the creepy ones with red dots on their foreheads and a knack for IT), and the unthinkable will become entirely too thinkable. Give these brats their way and I wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetimes we’re in debt to the Chinese or something!

I call on all right-thinking readers to deposit funds into my Paypal account immediately to stem this appalling tide of depravity!

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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Narcissism of Altruism

My fourth life partner, N— came from a big, loving, attractive, largely blond Anglo-Swedish family from New Jersey that put me in mind of Diane Keaton’s character’s family in Annie Hall, except none of N—‘s family was a lunatic. They all welcomed me warmly, and it made me terribly uncomfortable; couldn’t they see who and what I was? Their all being so generous and accommodating with one another was utterly alien to me, and I reacted as I have traditionally reacted since junior high school — by being acerbic. The more forbearing they were in response, the more acerbic I got. It was as though I was daring them to continue to pretend to like me.

(That, of course is par for the course for us damaged types. Because we believe ourselves deep down to be undeserving of love, someone loving us has the effect of making us fearful — surely the love will be cruelly snatched away when The Other realizes whom he or she is dealing with. In an extremely maladaptive way, we try to prevent this by beating them to the punch. Our taking control and making them cease to love us will be less hurtful than their ceasing to love us on their own.)

Anyway, I appointed myself N—‘s family’s authenticity monitor. When N—’s elder brother’s wife and N—‘s elder sister would laugh far too loudly at each other’s jokes — would try far too hard, in my eyes, to appear to be reveling in the pleasure of each other’s company — I would sneer and say something scabrous, which the family, scrupulously gracious, would usually pretend to find darned amusing too.

How not-amusing they’d found it became clear after N— and I called it a day after 11 years and I, against all odds. became quite good friends with her elder brother, one of the sweetest people on earth. We began playing a lot of racquetball, and a bit of basketball, and even had a couple of dinners together. But then I discovered that his wife S—, having apparently found my mordant sense of humor just barely endurable all those years, had forbade him to invite me over.

Fair enough. But then, in September 2007, my mother died, and S— was quick to convey her condolences, and her doing so pissed me off. She wanted no part of me in life, but if I my mother died, I could count on her doing The Right Thing? It seemed to me that she was trying to inscribe her great graciousness all over my loss.

A former friend of mine used to do something in the same vein. At any party, he’d make a point of making the most alienated, awkward-seeming person on the premises feel irresistibly charming. It was an extremely kind thing to do, but I began after a while to wonder how much narcissism was involved. Look how selfless and wonderful I’m being.

Or maybe that’s my own deep insecurity speaking. Two things would have kept me from a similar course of action. Less salubriously, it’s with the glamorous and desirable I want to be seen, not those as awkward as myself! But another fear, which I don’t think my friend shared, was that the person would fall in love with me, and then I’d be in a position to hurt her terribly when I revealed that all I’d found attractive was her need of me. Over the course of our friendship, I saw my friend make more women than I could count fall in love with him, and most of them wound up getting at least slightly bruised.

While working for Dada Entertainment last winter, I suggested as a promotional idea distributing Dada-branded blankets to midtown Manhattan’s homeless. Another friend of mine was appalled, believing that any such contribution should be anonymous. It seemed to me, though, that the whole thing being in large part a brazen publicity ploy wouldn’t make the blankets any less warm. Why shouldn’t the company enjoy greater brand-awareness as a result of an act both self-serving as altruistic?

My distaste for S—‘s having done The Right Thing after my mother’s death used to feel irreconcilable with my finding unobjectionable putting Dada’s logo on blankets for the homeless. Now, though, I realize why it isn’t: in the second case, no bones are being made about the self-serving part.

I'd like, as always, to hear your thoughts.

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