Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Discover David Bowie - Part 1

On the strength of my slashing wit and glamorous self-presentation (I wore ruby satin suits from London and had a layered $15 haircut, while other writers-about-rock all looked like Lester Bangs), I was now on the LA A-list, but longed for a getaway. When the new publicist for the notoriously clueless Mercury Records offered me an all-expenses trip to San Francisco on the condition that I interview an obscure British folkie someone at the label hoped might be up to something, I eagerly accepted.

I was sent some albums. Their covers showed a frail young fellow with bad teeth and a terrific perm. I found most of his stuff tedious and wordy.

Mercury Records were already paying for my hired car, so they asked me to collect him at San Francisco International when he arrived from Houston. The guy who got off the plane bore little resemblance to the one on the album covers. This one had long flowing hair, was wearing a dress and carrying a purse. I wondered how he'd got out of Texas alive, and admired his audacity immediately. I liked also that he seemed to appreciate my slashing wit, even when manifested deadpan. I liked his too.

We were bivouacked in adjoining rooms at the Holiday Inn, in whose downstairs lounge a remarkable duo, who simultaneously played drums, organ, and two horns between them, were, uh, entertaining. They hooted at the sight of a man in a dress. We retaliated by braying implacably for songs we supposed they'd be deathly sick of playing.

Rodney Bingenheimer, the famous LA scenemaker, phoned to find if David craved a groupie. (Sight unseen, David was of interest to Rodney by virtue of being English. A Brit could write his own ticket in LA in those days.) David did; oh, boy, did he! When she showed up, she was considerably more interested in me. Gracious host that I was, I demurred. He asked with a gleam in his eye (the blue one, as I recall) if she fancied a guitar lesson. I thought that wonderfully debonair.

Mercury Records hoped to save more money, and prevailed upon me to drive him down to San Jose, where a radio station had agreed (probably with the greatest reluctance) to interview him on the air. We improvised a ribald new version of Edwin Starr's "War". Instead of War, what is it good for? we sang Tits, what are they good for! Good clean heterosexual fun!

The disk jockey looked like Lester Bangs and was clearly appalled by my new pal. Cutting short their very brief interview, during which he demonstrated himself immune to Bowie's slashing wit, the DJ asked if there were anything Bowie wished to hear. "The Stooges," I whispered to Bowie, who hadn't heard of them, but trusted my judgment. He loved them, as how could one not? I would later become as rich as a rajah on the back of Bowie's collaborations with Iggy Stooge, later Pop, and be mentioned in many of the biographies that came to be written about them.

More tomorrow!

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Friday, March 26, 2010

I Attempt Adulthood (A Beer With Zeus)

On the Monday after the Friday that I graduated from college with a baccalaureate degree in sociology guaranteed to open any door, I went to work as a writer of marketing copy for Warner Bros. Records. A Mr. Stan Cornyn, who was putting together what he called a creative services department while writing witty Volkswagen-style print ads for Warner’s many underappreciated geniuses, had liked what I’d written for the student newspaper about The Kinks, whose Ray Davies had come to be sorely underappreciated himself. I had my own office, with a component stereo system, a stylish Olivetti electric typewriter, and all the felt-tip pens I wanted. According to a Website I commonly consult when in the mood for self-torture, my annual salary provided over $44,000 in “buying power” in 2010 dollars. I felt rich beyond imagining.

And had no idea how good I had it. I left at a few minutes after four each afternoon to try to beat the traffic on the Ventura Freeway, though I had nothing to hurry home to. I’d moved to Ozone Avenue in Venice to make myself miserable, and it was working. Right across the walkway was a Jewish widows’ home. Around the corner, on Ocean Front Walk, there were lots of sunshine-loving junkies. I got to spend much time around them after Cornyn decided my office would be better used by someone willing to stay until 5:30. The good news was that they kept paying me my full salary to work remotely. The bad news was that working remotely increased my feeling of alienation. My depression lifted only intermittently that long summer, as when I received a letter from Pete Townshend. For one who worshipped The Who as avidly ss I, it was kind of like getting a letter from Zeus.

I took mescaline for the first time and discovered, with considerable relief, that I wasn’t queer; I lusted silently after the female half of my two traveling companions, though the other, at her insistence, was the prettiest boy in Los Angeles. At my pre-induction draft physical in Oakland (where I stayed at the home of the later-to-be-celebrated culture critic Greil Marcus), I told everyone in sight that I was indeed homosexual. That no one believed me had much less to do with my manliness than with everybody and his boyfriend having taken to feigning homosexuality for purposes of not going to Viet Nam. I was invited to play drums in a band called Halfnelson. They gently insisted that I submit to a stylish haircut. I was only too pleased to do so.

Warner Bros. flew me to New York to welcome The Kinks, who’d supposedly been banned, back for their first American tour in four years. I’d no sooner checked into my Manhattan Holiday Inn room than I received a phone call from Ray Davies, suggesting a drink. It was as though Zeus wanted to have a beer with me.

That my star kept soaring ever higher baffled me. I had little idea what I was talking about (in my review of Santana for the Los Angeles Times, I identified their guitarist as Carlos Montoya, actually a celebrated Flamenco musician), and wasn’t much of a writer, but the more opinionated I pretended to be, the more people seemed to like it. I read Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop and realized that writing a boring critique of a performance that had bored or befuddled me benefitted no one. I resolved to write music criticism much as Townshend played guitar, with enough showmanship to overshadow my glaring deficiencies.

Halfnelson invited me to stop being in their band. I like to believe, because the guy with whom they replaced me wasn’t an improvement musically, that it was less to do with my being a mediocre drummer than with wanting to be scary, like my beloved Who, whereas they aspired to great cuteness. Some of them would later be the briefly very successful UK version of Sparks.

I moved to West Hollywood, a block from the Chateau Marmont, and at a nearby mostly-gay boutique bought some English-pop-star clothes that I hadn’t the nerve to wear in public, and about which I told you many weeks ago. There was no stopping me now!

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Always We'll Remember Graduation Day

I couldn’t bear the thought of being surrounded by another new crop of newly minted freshman hippies, and so before my senior year I moved at last from the dormitory. Alone in the studio apartment I was going to share with two others, I dashed off a diatribe against The Doors out of sheer boredom, and thus was my career as a music critic launched. Within a few short months, I was getting my copy of The Beatles’ white album free, and lots of others besides, and invited to historic parties, such as that at which folk singer Phil Ochs tossed a basket of fruit into Tommy Smothers’ swimming pool — to protest the war in Viet Nam, if memory serves. In those days, the most unlikely tantrums were commonly explained away as a function of the misbehaver’s outrage over the war. Caught cheating on your wife? “I wouldn’t have done it except for this goddamned unjust war!” Caught propositioning male hustlers? The war! Underperforming at work or school? The war!

The next thing I knew I was writing not just for the student newspaper, but for the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, and getting into the Troubadour free, with a tab for drinks, and the Whisky. My little head spun. I asked out Ms. Cynthia Morin, who had the longest, straightest, shiniest chestnut hair in the world, and she said yes.

I and my roommates didn’t get along famously, but it got no worse than one of them chasing me with a carving knife just because I’d punched him in the kisser. He didn’t catch me because he’d had polio as a child. I wouldn’t have punched him if he hadn’t. I could be such an asshole.

Ms. Cynthia Morin decided she wasn’t that fond of me after all, and what a fix I was in. What good did having two free passes to the Troubadour do when there was only one of me? I felt as though back in sophomore year, when I’d bolted my dinner every night to preclude being seen dining alone. But there was no getting into the Troubadour, seeing a performance, and getting the hell out before others could come in and witness my solitude. In the UK, they'd have called me Johnny No-Mates.

Militancy was thick in the air. I joined a mob of people one afternoon marching around shouting, “On strike! Shut it down!” They apparently had a list of non-negotiable demands, as who did not in those days? While marching, I encountered Ms. Annie Sokoloff, who’d been one of Sproul Hall’s universal objects of desire when I’d lived there. To my considerable surprise and delight, I soon found myself making out with her in the library, to the consternation of scholars in the adjacent cubicle. I began turning up at the Troubadour with a universal object of desire on my arm.

She moved in with me; I now officially old lady! But then, a couple of weeks later, she thought better of it, and of LA in general. She didn’t come home all night from her waitressing job in Venice. When she finally did call, it was to say goodbye. I couldn’t win for losing!

Having cut not a single class in four years, having scrupulously done all the recommended reading, and so on, I felt entitled to relax my final quarter of college, and enrolled in the easy-sounding Sociology of Sports, only to discover that the instructor expected an elaborate term paper. I did mine on the sociology of the Will Rogers Beach amateur volleyball scene. I never ventured within miles of Will Rogers Beach, and never spoke to anyone who played volleyball there. My paper got a passing grade anyway and must thus be adjudged one of the most successful of my many, many unpublished works of fiction.

On the last day of my college career, with my degree assured, I had a choice between sitting anonymously in the middle of a big field with a few thousand fellow graduates — with no one shaking our hands or handing us a sheepskin, and nobody calling any of our names — or interviewing my idol, a Mr. Pete Townshend, for the Los Angeles Times in advance of The Who’s life-changing performance of Tommy at the Hollywood Palladium.

I wish all my decisions since could have been that easy to make, though now, all those years later, it occurs to me that my parents might have been sorely disappointed not to be able to attend my graduation. I could be such an asshole.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Junior Year

Over the Summer of Love, three-quarters of the young college-bound males in America seemed to have allowed their hair to grow long, to have started smoking pot, and to have bought an album by either The Doors or Jefferson Airplane, both of whom I loathed. My Cher-haired second girlfriend had left me for another over the summer, which I’d consequently spent pretty well beside myself, but damned if I wasn’t able a few weeks into the school year to lower the boom on a 17-year-old freshman girl with gigantic eyes and excellent long hair who enjoyed making a spectacle of herself while dancing at dorm dances. Thirty-four years later and 400 miles north we would meet again, she as an attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, I as one who, trying to make ends meet while my agent tried to get me a publishing deal, processed words for attorneys for the City and County of San Francisco on comically outdated Wang computers.

I have told you before about, and won’t bore again with details of, my embracing the new hippie zeitgeist by attending class barefooted, in a bead necklace I’d strung myself. All week, I’d hear black militant classmates bellowing about racism, and every weekend I’d go home and give my dad a hard time about not having repudiated racism thoroughly enough for my taste, though his racism had never extended past thinking blacks were predisposed to be better dancers than whites, and worrying that my sister going out with a black guy might create a lot of trouble for her. Gays and women still had to fend for themselves, without me very much on their sides yet.

An election was imminent, and I joined a group of ragtag smart alecs who purported, for comic effect, to be in favor of the election to the Senate of the ludicrous reactionary Max Rafferty. When moderate or even insufficiently radical candidates would speak on campus, we would loudly chant our purported hero’s name (Max! Max! Max!, heard as Smack! Smack! Smack!), causing no little discombobulation, since we looked like yippies. On a couple of occasions, we made ourselves roll around on the grass screaming with self-delighted laughter.

Late in my sophomore year, I’d become chummy with a curly-haired imp I’d remembered seeing my freshman year in a cap like that Bob Dylan wore on the cover of his debut album. I’d unsuccessfully auditioned for his band, which was calling itself The Electric Prunes even though they knew full well that another local band had beaten them to the punch. He was embarrassed about having a Mexican dad, and passed himself off as a Basque. Fantastically musical, he would gather huge crowds every time he sat down in public with his guitar and started singing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through, except of course for the song that required Indian instrumentation.

On weekends, occasionally barefoot, I sold black-lite posters I’d drawn on Sunset Blvd. I looked enough like a hippie to impress kids from the hinterlands, and to get into frequent shouting matches with young servicemen on leave. I impressed a student nurse in last year’s bouffant coiffure, and we became an item, though she thought me a wuss for my unwillingness to shoot methedrine with her and stay up all weekend. We would meet again on line 33 years later, she as a psychotherapist widow in New Zealand, I as someone who has consulted a great many psychotherapists over the years.

The dormitory in which I continued to reside was crammed to the gills now with little newly minted hippies who might never know what it was like to be hooted at by the football team for their long hair. To get away from them, I took lots of long solitary walks at night, imagining myself to be the loneliest boy in town.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Sophomore Year

When finally, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I actually Went Away to College (that is, moved into an on-campus dormitory around nine miles from my parents’ front door), it was with the utmost trepidation. My parents hadn’t been big on vacations, and I might have spent half a dozen nights in my 19-1/2 years not in my own bed.

One of the first things I heard out of the mouth of one of my fellow residents of Sproul Hall’s fifth floor was that if I didn’t cut my hair — which I’d encouraged to grow (marginally) long over the summer — I could be assured that my new neighbors would cut it for me. Just what the nervous new boy needed to hear!

At first sight of my roommate, my heart sank. He was so very not-groovy, so hopelessly square, so…ancient. I think he was 24, a folk dance enthusiast (he’d probably have said “buff”), studying engineering or something comparably unsexy — and one of the nicest people I’d ever met. He invited me to join him and his friends at dinner, but fat chance of my allowing myself to be seen with folk dance buffs with plastic pocket protectors — I who’d smoked marijuana, and lost my virginity, and thus had my reputation as the living embodiment of cool to think of!

I made it my custom to go down to dinner at a few minutes before five every afternoon so I could be first in line. I’d eat really quickly (something at which I’ve always been terrific, mind you) and get back up to my room before anyone could see me eating alone. Lonely, lonely, lonely, and back to the ancestral home like a shot every Friday afternoon.

It all changed when I was able to persuade the dorm president to hire my little combo, The 1930 Four (earlier the winners of the Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, and semifinalists in an ongoing similar competition on KHJ-TV’s Boss City), to provide the entertainment at a Friday night dance. Between sets, a leggy, Cher-haired freshman dance major who’d apparently glimpsed me dashing ashamedly from the dining room came over to ask if I’d teach her to play the drums. I’d have figured out a way to teach her Urdu if she’d asked.

The film stock of my life changed, going from black and white to Technicolor; there were twice as many girls in the world who liked me as previously imagined! I was high as a kite on the fourth of July. And then flat on the back in the hospital with strep throat. By the time I recovered, I’d missed literally half the quarter. This was particularly disastrous in Music 101, in which they’d spent the weeks of my hospitalization working on ear training. In Italian, the artist futurely known as Russell Mael and I exchanged cool appraising stares at each other's long hair, but never spoke.

There were maybe a dozen boys on campus that year with long-for-the-time hair; the moral watchdogs of the fifth floor hadn’t followed through on their threat. At the sight of my former future Air Force officers in their stupid fucking uniforms saluting each other, I’d snicker with relief at having escaped. I bought a Mr. Zigzag pin at the local head shop to wear on the blue denim jacket there was no getting me out of, and exchanged knowing nods with others newly arrived at enlightenment.

In the free speech area in the shadow of the Student Union, black militant students who idolized the Black Panthers grew ever more strident. It became impossible to eat lunch without hearing a bellowed list of nonnegotiable demands. As the school year progressed, the per capita usage of hallucinogenic drugs in my dormitory must have been the highest anywhere south of the Haight Ashbury. There wasn’t a time of day or night when fewer than half a dozen kids could be observed marveling slack-jawed at the ceiling of the main lounge. I didn't try it for fear of discovering myself queer, as the manager of my band had supposedly done just before they flung me out for gross incompetence.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Grandparents

I’ve believed for 16 years that the final paragraph in Ian Frazier’s Family is the most beautiful in the English language, but only today did I start plowing through the dense biographical minutiae of the first chapter, which served to make me ashamed that I know so little of my own grandparents.

I believe my paternal grandfather, Lewis Mendelsohn, to have been the son of a butcher who immigrated to this country from Berlin in the late nineteenth century. Lewis became a father in around 1914, when his wife Rose, whose own parents were from Lativa and elsewhere in eastern Europe, gave birth to their son Irving Philip in New York City, followed in March 1917 by my father, Gilbert Robert Mendelsohn. The family later moved down to the coastal resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey, where Lewis ran his own butcher shop. I gather he did reasonably well even during the Great Depression. I surmise from my dad’s allowing my mother to browbeat him mercilessly throughout their marriage that Lewis’s family was very much a matriarchy, and Lewis pretty passive. The only time I met him, when I was around four, I found him pretty frightening.

As I observed here before, the tradition at the time was for everything to be invested in the older son. My understanding is that my uncle was nicknamed Bunny in infancy because a neighbor supposedly told Rose Mendelsohn that he was as cute as one; in my household, having a brother, brother-in-law, or uncle Bunny was as natural as breathing. He married a gentile woman and served in the U.S. Air Force. I always marveled at how very impersonal were his and my dad’s letters to each other.

The grandfather after whom I was named (Jewish tradition precludes naming a child after one’s self, as is so popular among gentiles, so no Gil Jr. for the author), Jonchif Nissen (I’m guessing at the spelling) Kaufman, and his future bride, Celia Kaufman (no relation) both came to America with their respective parents from the environs of Odessa in the southern Ukraine a generation after Lewis Mendelsohn’s parents came over from Berlin. I’d always bought the idea of fervent Jewish solidarity, and was shocked to learn through my reading that the German Jews who came over in the 1880s treated with naked contempt the Russian ones who came over with my maternal grandparents.

I have no idea why the Kaufmans headed for the Midwest, which was crawling with Scandinavian and German farmers, but they did, winding up in Minneapolis. Celia’s parents ran a boarding house. I have no idea what John Ned’s (his name was anglicized at Ellis Island, I think) did, but I do know he was a roughneck. He and Celia married young and had their first daughter, my mother, in their early twenties. John Ned was commonly brought home bloody and semi-conscious. I suspect he and Lewis Mendelsohn would have found each other immensely distasteful. A little more of his eagerness to put up his dukes would have served me well on the playgrounds of my childhood.

During her girlhood, my mother was repeatedly traumatized, both by her family’s poverty and by her father’s open disdain for his kids. On one occasion, she was sent home from school for smelling, and was forever after painfully self-conscious, and fastidious about her appearance. A conspicuous stain on her clothing one night in around 1996 was the first indication to me of the dementia that would later obliterate her a few years before her death.

The world’s a strange place. After the repeal of Prohibition, John Ned Kaufman made a fortune in the wholesale liquor business; Jews are taught to think of alcohol as the province of the goyim, but it was Jews who started Seagram, for instance. John Ned bought his family a gorgeous home in a swanky part of town, but wasn’t a more loving father than he’d been as a hooligan, and was dead at 42.