Saturday, April 3, 2010

Neither a Cub Scout Nor a Boy

My principal memories from my first couple of years at Loyola Village School, the first elementary school north of Los Angeles International Airport, are of Jan Richter, with whom I was secretly in love in third grade, throwing up all over her own poodle skirt, and with that one act transforming how I felt about her, and my fourth grade teacher, Miss Gabby, inspiring some of my most ardent early lustful thoughts. But she seemed to have eyes only for Mr. Eisenberg, the Sandy Koufax lookalike who taught fifth grade. And I'd have made her so happy!

I was good at drawing and writing, and was probably reading three or four grade levels above my own, but rotten at the monkey bars, tetherball, and other masculine recreations at which an LV boy needed to be good. My ineptitude was reflected in my low standing in the pecking order. I was neither a Cub Scout nor a Boy. The thought of having to learn to tie a lot of different knots was just too daunting; I had enough trouble with my shoelaces.

In fifth grade, though, my scholastic brilliance finally paid a small dividend when I was chosen as a Junior Helper, an honor accorded only the high-achieving and docile. My first assignment was to make sure that not too many second graders tried to crowd into a particular restroom at the same time; if I’d been smart, I might have been able decades later to parlay the experience into a job as a doorman at a trendy disco. My second deployment was even more glamorous. I (in association with a Mr. David Aaron, later a teen suicide) got to push the milk cart around at lunchtime, selling hits of the nutritious beverage to its many young addicts for five cents — $14.35 in 2010 dollars.

Both my best friend and most implacable tormentor were the mercurial Mr. John R. McWilliams, who I wished, during his Mr. Hyde moments, would be a pre-teen suicide. He would turn at such times into a seething little maelstrom of rage — would dash back and forth across the playground disrupting every game in sight, even those in which the sixth grade alpha was playing. His complete indifference to his own well being made him all the more terrifying.

At eight, I enjoyed playing on the wonderful rock formations on the east side of Pershing Drive, north of Manchester Blvd., which looked like a miniature Bryce Canyon. Judging from Google Maps, though, persons much smarter than I decided at some point that it was important to have wall-to-wall ugly cheap cruddy fucking ugly apartment buildings obscuring them.

I was flabbergasted to learn around this time that I was soon, at last, to have a younger sibling. I couldn’t have explained the physiology of impregnantion, but I had a hunch that a physical expression of affection was involved in some way, and I’d never seen my mother so much as kiss my dad. On the evening my sister Lori came home from being born, I was trying to watch my favorite TV show, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and her crying made it almost impossible. Our relationship would remain rocky.

One Sunday afternoon, when I was helping my dad work on our postage-stamped front yard on Earldom Avenue, I was nearly hit by an arrow some careless young archer who couldn’t see us had shot from the adjacent hill. My dad’s fury made me think he really cared about me. I have long since realized he always did.

When I was 10, we moved even nearer to the beach, and I amused myself by starting a stamp collection and joining an informal gang specializing in petty vandalism — uprooting plants neighbors had been foolish enough to leave on their front steps, for instance. I came to idolize folkabilly singer Jimmie Rodgers, of “Honeycomb” fame. It was one of the happiest stretches of my childhood. That wasn’t saying a great deal.

He Is Risible (A Deluxe Easter Grammar Rant!)

I honestly don’t remember the imbecile’s apostrophe (I put the book’s down over there) being very widespread until about 20 years ago, and have a theory I’d like to run past you. I wonder if it didn’t start — as “go for it” started with football fans — with baseball fans seeing the names of such teams as the (Oakland) A’s and (Baltimore) O’s (that is, Athletics and Orioles, respectively) and assuming that pluralizing other nouns requires not just an s, but an apostrophe as well.

I was reminded of this watching American Idol, in which the verb change is never not accompanied by up; one does not change an arrangement or her style of dress in the world of Idol, but changes it up. Am I foolish to wonder if this might have to do with the pitch in baseball thrown at a speed below that the batter is thought to be expecting?

If you or I had a nickel for every time we heard something characterized as very unique, we could run away together to the Azores, there to live in luxury for the rest of our days. The battle for unique as absolute and unquantifiable (something is either unique or it ain’t, much as an electric light is either on or off, and is never said to be very off) seems lost, but I will not give up on nauseous; I will not! The fact that virtually everyone misuses it doesn’t mean that nauseous doesn’t mean "causing nausea", rather than nauseated. And there’s a certain small pleasure in hearing someone say, “Ooh, so I’m nauseous,” and being able to think, “You can say that again!”

Valley Boy

I attended kindergarten and first grade in a portion of the San Fernando Valley that only a year or two before had been farmland. Then the farmers realized they’d make a lot more money selling their land to developers eager to toss up cheap tracts for World War II veterans finally ready to start families than growing plums. At Melvin Avenue School in Reseda, I had classmates who believed that chocolate milk came from brown cows, and that him was a possessive pronoun. I got in lots of fistfights for disputing such allegations.

I trace my love of melody back to the pop music I heard in the house in Reseda where, as was traditional for six- and seven-year-olds in those days, I lived with my parents. I’m well aware that people of my vintage are supposed to believe, fervently, that there was only crapola before Elvis, but how I loved some of it. Even at six I found "Where Is Your Heart?" (Theme from Moulin Rouge) poignant and beautiful, Frankie Laine’s "I Believe" moving and inspirational, and Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” absolutely heartbreaking. In my own defense, I point out that I detested “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” from first hearing.

I remember gazing out of my bedroom window at our desolate back yard the Sunday afternoon before I was to begin first grade and marveling that I would soon be able to spell. I remember too discovering genital self-stimulation at around that time, and thinking it wonderful fun, but possibly depraved, though of course I, who couldn’t even spell yet, wouldn’t have used that word. It never occurred to me to discuss my discovery with Stephanie, the girl next door, who, as was traditional at the time, would play the helpless maiden to my brave cowboy or soldier. For my seventh birthday, I resolved to stop stimulating myself, and have never masturbated since. The foregoing sentence may contain inaccuracies.

It was in the desolate back yard of the house on Keswick Street that I was first aware of playing a character outside of traditional children’s make-believe of the sort I enjoyed with Stephanie. My dad had made a little clubhouse in the corner of the yard, with a sign proudly proclaiming Varity Club because there were no online dictionaries in those days, nor even a line to be on, and I suspect we didn’t even have a traditional dictionary; he erred in the direction of brevity in trying to spell variety. In any event, the day of the club’s launch, I was discombobulated by the level of interest it had generated among other children on the block. As I winged a welcoming speech about the wondrous array of enjoyable activities members would soon be enjoying, I felt as though channeling some smarmy television MC. Within 24 hours, all that remained of the club was the sign.

I have always been a little anhedonic, and naturally blame it at least in part on my parents’ deep distrust of pleasure. I wanted passionately to be allowed to stay up past my bedtime once a week for Superman (the TV series starring George Reeves) in those days, but was never allowed to. And it wasn’t as though there were VCRs then, or Netflix. There were barely TVs!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The person with whom I duked it out most often was Mr. Michael Schultz, from next door — the door not Stephanie's. All I ever saw at home was my parents capitulating — my dad to my mom, my mom to everyone in the world but my dad — and I became a reliable thrower-in of the towel myself. One day, though, Mike really pissed me off, and I could see unprecedented fear in his eyes as we exchanged punches. Then he got me right in the trachea, and I couldn’t breathe, and had to forfeit the bout. It would be the closest I’d ever come to winning a fistfight. It may have been the last fistfight of my life. From that point forward, I just naturally assumed I’d lose.

There was no San Diego Freeway in those days, and just barely automobiles, so any excursion to the glamorous other side of the Santa Monica Mountains involved a fairly arduous drive over the Sepulveda Pass. The good news was that coming home we would always go past Liberace’s house, with its piano-shaped swimming pool. I cannot remember a single instance of my thinking, “Some day I too will have a pool like that.” But of course it would be years before I’d conquer my fear of water and learn to swim.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Hell of Hormonal Imbalance

There has never existed a group of young virgins (with maybe a few non-virgins) more likely to plunge a shy young man into the hell of hormonal imbalance than that at Orville Wright Junior High School when I was a ninth grader there. Susan Purcell! Barbara Meyers! And then, halfway through eighth grade, Marilyn Monroe’s younger double, Pat Wymer. How was a boy supposed to think straight, much less win the coveted (by maybe around four of us) Creative Writing award two years running, as I did, with these beauties two rows away, exuding desirability and unapproachability in equal measure? Not even the alphas among us got anywhere with them, for they reserved their favors for older men — boys at the local high school with their own cars. And me on my bicycle! I drew La Purcell cartoons like those in the surfing magazines all the cool kids read, and mailed them to her anonymously. She broke my heart by not hiring a private detective to ascertain my identity.

Back at Loyola Village School, the alpha boys, imagining themselves to be emulating Elvis, had taken to going beltless, and wearing their trousers very low. Vice principal Mr. Dickhead (I may not be remembering correctly) had instituted a policy of tying a length of twine around the waists of all such delinquents. Naturally, a length of twine quickly became my school’s most coveted badge of honor. Mr. Dickhead’s counterparts at OWJHS weren’t quite that stupid, but the boys’ monobrowed vice principal was known be quite happy to use the paddle in his office on the butts of the rebellious. For her own part, Mrs. June Gerber, his female counterpart, was content to drone on and on at us at assemblies about how important it was to be mature, whose second syllable she pronounced tour.

I, the dutiful Jewish son, got in trouble only once, for cheating. Miss Titangos, whose surname and well-filled bullet bras launched a thousand nicknames, asked me, as one of the stars of her English class, to administer a makeup spelling test to Lance Matson, who was no great genius, but who had done me no wrong. When I asked him to spell schedule, I sounded it out, skeh-do-lee. Miss T pretty nearly had a cow, man. I played percussion in the school orchestra.

All the coolest kids professed to be fans of Soupy Sales' late-afternoon children's show. I think the idea was to demonstrate you were developing an adult's sense of irony, but suspected at the time that the whole thing might have been the result of one of our lower IQ-ed alphas finding it genuinely hilarious. I do know that I didn't enjoy being told I resembled Soupy, and that his two sons went on to play with Bowie.

Given the huge Jewish population at OWJHS, there was an awful lot of overt anti-Semitism. Tough boys would roll a cent (we don’t have pennies in this country, you know) at someone he hoped to humiliate. If the second boy stooped to retrieve it — and let’s bear in mind that a cent in those days would get you a delicious Tootsie Roll or piece of bubble gum — the tough boys would gleefully rub their noses so as to indicate they’d recognized him as a Jew. But Jewish patsies had it soft compared to poor Billy Snyder, whose cerebral palsy inspired the most appalling acts of cruelty I’ve ever witnessed first hand. I think his tormentors were a little easier on Walter Daniels, our sole black kid (unless you count the gorgeous Sandra Lucas, who was sticking to her story about being Spanish) because he was good at sports. Billy was perfectly awful at them.

I scored in the annual Faculty vs. Ninth Grade All-Star basketball game, which I got to play in because of my diligent, if inept, participation in after-school sports. I happened to be standing under the basket, trying to appear purposeful, when a teammate’s missed shot bounced right into my hands. I banked it in and my teammate Tim Thomas, who at 15 was already 6-2, marveled, “Way to go, John!” It was even better than getting to make a speech at graduation after winning the class-wide public speaking contest. I can honestly say that nothing I’ve done since has made me much prouder.

The Dirty Dishes of Others

Years and years ago on Pacific Coast Highway south of Malibu, in the shadow of Castellamare, where now there are only a few weeds at the asphalt’s edge, Ted’s Rancho Restaurant once stood. I became a man there.

Actually, while working there first as a busboy and then as a parking attendant, I became a slightly older teenager.

The gruff, ass-pinching boss, Lucky Fields, was right out of bad film noir. He had beady eyes, slicked back gangster hair, and a pencil mustache, and exuded venality and corruptness — and grandiosity. When I first ventured down the hill from my parents’ house to ask for a summer job, he said I would be no more busboy, but a junior waiter. His pearlescent blue business card said

“Your Courtesy”

at the top. I have spent hours of my life pondering what he imagined himself to be conveying.

I didn’t take naturally to busboying. In my household, the cutlery was sterilized after every meal, so I was neurotic about hygiene, and not thrilled about having to handle the dirty dishes of others. The horrible greasy gray plastic tubs in which I had to carry them back to the kitchen — to be washed by a small black schizophrenic who must have lost 10 pounds in sweat per shift, and who’d started weighing around 90 pounds — were even worse.

One of the alleged perks of the job was getting a free dinner every night, but I wouldn’t have put in a compost heap what we employees were offered. The waitresses (there were no waiters) were supposed to give us busboys 15 percent of their own tips, but none seemed able to embrace the concept that 15 percent didn’t mean one-fifteenth. My trying to explain it only made them observe, snarlingly, that I was a smart alec. It wasn't the last time I would endure that cruel epithet's awful sting.

The restaurant was right over the Pacific Ocean. Restaurants right over oceans, or rivers, lakes, or fjords, don’t have to try that hard with the food, and Ted’s didn’t, except approximately once per evening, when some high-roller intent on impressing his date would order (for $13.95!) the chateaubriand. For the excitement this turn of events would engender, you’d have thought Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had popped in for a couple of highballs and a look at the ocean.

The waitresses always had lighted cigarettes waiting for them back in the kitchen. My pal Chief and I mocked them for their addiction, and then, of course, took it for our own; ducking back into the kitchen for a drag on a Kool seemed so terribly worldly.
The summer I worked there was that during which A Hard Day’s Night came Out. There were lots of Beatles tracks on the jukebox, and Mary Wells’ sublime “My Guy,” and Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” of which I was never not tired. But my own favorite was Ray Price’s “The Night Life”. I’d be swabbing the deck in the moonlight at 1:45 in the morning while the Pacific gurgled beneath me, and old Ray would sing, “Well the night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.” I, a self-romanticizing 17-year-old, would think, “Hear hear, brother.”

When the little schizophrenic was fired, he was replaced by Collins Hall, the first black person with whom I ever had an extended conversation. Even one as thick as Lucky Fields could see that Collins was extremely diligent and extremely reliable, and Lucky soon promoted him to chef, to the palpable consternation of the existing chef, a redneck motherfucker named Bill. A combination of the tension their hatred for each other generated, my distaste for the gray plastic tubs, and the fact that a junior waiter, thanks to Edd “Kookie” Brynes of 77 Sunset Strip, was lots less glamorous than a parking attendant, inspired me to ask to be moved outside.

It's possible, as we speak, to buy a Ted's menu on eBay for $75, for which you could, back when I worked there, have eaten chateaubriand for five days. But if I were rich, it's one of Lucky's "Your Courtesy" business cards I'd buy.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I Save American Idol From Itself Again!

Yo, check it out, man. I’ve got some more ideas for American Idol, still the most watched program in the history of television — watched by more people each week than have watched all the Super Bowls and the last episode of M*A*S*H combined! — but watched by slightly fewer now than in seasons when 80 percent of the contestants weren’t excruciatingly boring — and not watched very regularly by me since the American public sent Lily Scott home even though she was sublime in every way, and what a travesty 'twas, but I'm not bitter!

The themes for the various theme weeks — Motown, The Beatles, No. 1 Hits by Women With Bisexual Alcoholic Manager Husbands — are numbingly over-familiar by this time. But who could not tune in for a Velvet Underground week, a NIN week, a Music From America’s Shameful Racist Past week or Substance Abuse week? In the penultimate case, imagine, for instance, little Aaron Kelly, America's Virgin, singing Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit", about racist lynchings. Or how about little Katie Stevens, America’s Other Virgin, making the Velvets’ "Venus In Furs" or "Heroin" her own? Think the pleasant but insipid Big Mike needs to venture out of his easy-listening soul comfort zone? Let's hear him tackle "Fuck You Like an Animal"!

They’ve also got to rethink the whole mentoring schtick. As it stands, they get some non- or semi-entity like Miley fucking Cyrus or Usher to urge the various contestants to Give More of Themselves, and then, while the contestants shuffle back to their hotel rooms to ponder this imparted wisdom, mumble dutifully about how each of them has An Incredible Voice and surely has a glittering career ahead. How much more entertaining it would be if they encouraged the mentors to say what they really think. Can you imagine Aretha Franklin commenting candidly on Katie fucking Stevens’ version of "Chain of Fools"? “Are you pulling my leg, girl? Tell the truth now. Ain't you just being uppity? I’m the most celebrated female vocalist of the last 45 years, Lady damned Soul, and you’re an insipid little white girl from some leafy small town in Connecticut whose voice is suited to a high school talent show, and you’re going to sing one of my iconic hits? Are you tripping, girl?"

Saw on HBO the other night a documentary about a recent American Idol-like singing competition on TV in Afghanistan. If Idol's producers had real panache, they'd invite the guy who won (the women contestants received death threats for their lasciviousness, which consisted in one case of dancing and exposing hair) to be one week's guest mentor, or to fill one of the guest spots they'd otherwise allocate to the latest Lady Gaga knockoff. The public relations benefit would doubtless be incalculable; can you imagine how proud would be the average Afghan, whose heart I understood America to be intent on winning?

I continue to want to know what the tattoo on poor Andrew Garcia’s neck signifies. I’m guessing that it means he was initiated into one of those gangs whose prospective initiates drive around at night with their lights off until another motorist flashes his own lights, and then kill that other motorist and eat his pancreas and lymph glands with guacamole, but I may very well be mistaken.

25: Anything for Art!

My band’s latest manager arranged for us to perform in Reno, at a club next door to a laundromat on the town’s outskirts. Three and a half years before, I’d been much impressed when, performing at a White Front department store-sponsored concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Pete Townshend had hurled a mic stand like a spear at a stagehand who’d displeased him in some way. I tried to include a little tantrum in my own every performance, but the little club in Reno was the wrong place for it. I made a big display of wreaking an awful vengeance on a mic stand that refused to stay upright, with the result that when we finished our performance, the club’s manager pulled a gun and told us to pay the fuck up. We reached the following compromise: we wouldn’t pay for the mic stand, and he wouldn’t give us a dime for having driven up from LA. Anything for art!

I managed to persuade Procol Harum’s young producer, later famous, to produce us too. I think he agreed mostly so he and his little family could spend a mouth in the sunshine. His first official act was to demoralize us completely — to tell us, at the end of the first night, that he despaired of getting anything listenable out of us. It didn’t even occur to me to try to strangle him. Against all odds, a young executive at Warners with quirky taste was eager to sign us, to the profound horror of everyone else at the company. At our live audition at the Paradise Ballroom, I spent most of the performance trying to make it appear as though I was on my belly intentionally, and not because I’d become hopelessly entangled in microphone and guitar cords.

We opened for Foghat at the Whisky. P— overheard two girls talking about us between songs. They agreed that I had nothing going for me but my looks; I wasn’t sure, when I heard that, if I felt bad. Folk rock heartthrob Neil Young came to jeer at us because I’d jeered at his Harvest album in Rolling Stone. I introduced Rod Stewart even though he wasn’t really there, and hugely pissed off the club’s management when a waitress got knocked over in the resulting stampede to the corner in which I’d said he was seated.

P— and I went to Europe. My photograph appeared every week at the top of the column I wrote in the UK for the snappily entitled music paper Disc & Music Echo. In Selfridges, a quartet of teenaged girls recognized me and squealed, as though at David Cassidy. My friend Bev Bevan, earlier of The Move, introduced me to the work of Monty Python, and I nearly died laughing. We went to dinner with the Bowies, and were seen in a whole new light by the previously snooty staff of the trendy hotel in which we stayed in a room with a round bed. While P— shopped on a drizzly afternoon, I played pinball in an arcade in Soho while the latest Slade No. 1 thundered over the PA system. I thought I might be in rock and roll heaven.

Our record came out. It featured some glorious orchestral guitar arrangements, but was otherwise woeful, in no small part because of my own dreadful singing. When Rolling Stone said it was the worst music that anyone had ever made, many gleefully agreed I’d gotten what was coming to me.

I was taking a lot of speed. It made me feel really positive and confident, and then really horrible when I ran out. I kept getting famouser and famouser. The Porsche kept running and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in person continued to love me, but there could be no mistaking that there was something severely wrong with me. I got home from San Francisco, where I’d been treated like a bona fide rock star while doing radio interviews, to the stylish home in Laurel Canyon I shared with the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in person, went downstairs to the bedroom, and wept. Everything seemed so boring and futile.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some to Tear, Others to Grind

After my fourth or fifth wife Debbie drowned off the coast of Arizona, I went through a protracted period of mourning, in the afternoon and evening as well. She hated “Debbie”, but I could never remember how she spelled Deborah, or Debora, or Debra. I decided, in any event, to distract myself from my grief by enrolling in dental school. There was a time when dental school was regarded as the province of those not smart or ambitious enough for medical school, but those days had long passed. An orthodontist could make as much as an anesthesiologist, especially an anesthesiologist who insisted on working from home, and I’d long been fascinated by teeth. I loved how, unlike other body parts, you got two sets of them, and in many cases were paid for losing the first set, as though it were a matter of volition, rather than predestined. I loved how, over the millennia, different ones had come to perform different functions — some to tear, others to grind. It fascinated me to imagine a time when hominids’ molars were in front and incisors in back. I could easily envision those with that configuration being eliminated from the gene pool over the course of evolution, and chuckled at the thought that at one point frontal incisors might have been as big a turn-on as huge, absurdly globular breasts are to the readers of modern men’s magazines.

Dental school turned out not to be as glamorous or fun as I’d hoped it might, though I can honestly say I’ve never laughed as much as at the nitrous oxide parties we would have on weekends. I was sorely disheartened by the realization that during my residency I might be required to work four or five consecutive 16-hour shifts, and decided to opt for a career as a hygienist, the horror stories about repetitive strain injury and bitten digits be damned.

I believe there’s something very beautiful about the patient/hygienist relationship, which involves the former placing enormous trust in someone he or she has in many cases never even met, essentially saying, “You are complete stranger to me, brother or sister, but I shall allow you to look with little mirrors into the darkest corners of my second most intimate orifice, and even to insert your rubbery fingers therein.”

As regular readers of these little essays know, my sense of humor has been called zany, wacky, and even cruel. While leaving it to you to judge for yourself, I will admit that, after humming along off-key with the radio at the beginning of my career, I took later to being very conversational with my parents for no reason other than that I was immoderately amused by their attempts to speak intelligibly with mouths full of my hands and instruments. “So what line of work are you in?” I would ask cheerily, and then, before they’d fully cleared their throats, say, “Wider,” or, “Close a little bit,” or even, “Turn toward me.” If someone came in wearing a flag lapel pin. or with a Bush Cheney bumper sticker on his or her forehead, I could be counted on to steer the conversation, one-sided though it may have been, to favorite movies. I would talk about how much we hygienists love Marathon Man, in which Sir Laurence Olivier performs dental torture (all right, enhanced interrogation technique) on Dustin Hoffman. I would speak of how that scene had made me realize what excruciating pain I could inflict with just the tiniest slip.

Yesterday at the gym, after I finished my half-hour on the stationary bicycle and headed for the strengthening machines, I found myself surrounded by fellow fitness enthusiasts who made me feel short. This doesn’t happen often, as I am 6-1, but when it does happen, it is profoundly demoralizing. Cynical as I am, I have come to believe that that which doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger, but sometimes just almost kills you.

24: Snake-Hipped and Svelte

My star kept rising. No sooner than I’d introduced David Bowie to the readers of Rolling Stone than Warners threw a big party for Faces at one of their big soundstages in Burbank. I’d reviewed their most recent album for Rolling Stone, and said, with rare accuracy, that much of it wasn’t very good. They regarded me with bruised expressions when I made my grand entrance; the very gods cowered before me! Rolling Stone invited me to write a feature article about my own aspirations to rock stardom, newly boosted by the interest of a young go-getter at an actual major label.

My band was taking up more and more of my time, and how I was enjoying it! I felt at last as though part of a gang. We rehearsed in the guitarist’s parents’ garage in West LA, or, very much more glamorously, on the A&M soundstage. We dined together at a place in Westwood where it was said that no man had ever managed to finish their gigantic seafood salad, and this decades before the obesity epidemic. I finished it and ordered dessert, and was nonetheless snake-hipped and svelte. The bass player and I chased skirts together. My egomania clouded my judgment, and I allowed one of our succession of managers to talk me into moving out from behind the drums to stage-center. I went from being a mediocre drummer to a worse lead singer, but after we played the Whisky, someone asked, not sarcastically, at least as far as I could see, if I were a professional dancer. I’d never felt more complimented in my life. But I was about to feel a great, great deal more complimented.

My No. 1 friend had gone to work for the selfsame old-school Hollywood publicist who six months before, at Elton John’s famous debut at the Troubadour, had scurried around in a huge cowboy hat screaming, “Fan-fucking-tastic!” into the face of anyone who looked vaguely like a writer. Said publicist had also come to employ P—, literally the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in person, and I began inventing excuses to visit my friend at his office. I made one such visit the week that hot pants hit Hollywood. P— was wearing a pair, and I’m not sure how I lived through it, or even how — after my friend ascertained that she was commuting to work for hours from her mother’s home in Orange County — to offer her the use of my apartment while I went to New York to advise that city’s tastemakers of the glory that was Procol Harum’s new album. While in New York, I was made to feel hot stuff by Lisa Robinson, and worked up the gall, with the help of much vodka, to call P— just to shoot the breeze.

She picked me up at LAX in my Porsche when I got home, and then drove me to West Hollywood. Her bags were all packed, but when we got back to Selma Avenue, I asked her to stay, and to my astonishment she agreed. So now the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in person and I were as one, and living together in über-hip Laurel Canyon, Rolling Stone was printing my little autobiography over four pages with photos by Annie Liebovitz, albeit not very good ones, the Porsche still looked really nice, and I had a small fortune in the bank. When I and P— went to Pasadena together to see Badfinger’s local debut — I no doubt smirking smugly, and in new platform boots made for me in London’s Kings Road — we schmoozed afterward with Gus Dudgeon, Elton John’s producer, but, much more important, formerly the Bonzo Dog Band’s. Spencer fucking Davis suggested we have lunch together. The world finally seemed repentant about having made me suffer so as a boy.

I continued in print to play the same character as which I’d first become famous — an acid-tongued curmudgeon with strong, usually negative, opinions about everything. The guitarist in my band noted that I wasn’t loved and respected, but feared. Gene Clark, once of The Byrds, was apparently telling a mutual acquaintance that I was doing my karma irreparable harm. But I wasn't yet a believer in karma.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

23: The Iggy Chair

There appeared in the Rolling Stone record review section, in which I was now appearing regularly, a new writer with a unique conception of what a record review was. Rather than commenting on the recording artist’s material or performance thereof, J. R. Young would write a little fictional vignette, a miniature short story, in which a character would be listening to, or would have heard, the record in question. I was amused. When Warner Bros. asked me to write a print ad for the forthcoming Joni Mitchell album, I did my best J. R. Young imitation, and it proved no less successful than my earlier Nik Cohn imitation. A&M Records offered me twice what Warner Bros. was paying, and didn’t flinch when I said I didn’t want to have to come in to an office if I wasn’t in the mood.

The first day I did actually show up, to show the workmen where in the office I wouldn’t be required to actually occupy I wanted everything, a sexy blonde promotion woman I’d lusted after when visiting my friend Bob Garcia on The Lot (formerly Charlie Chaplin’s, mind you) came up to welcome me in a way guaranteed to delight a libidinous 23-year-old. Everything was coming up roses!

Well, not everything. Heading for the Grand Canyon with two pals, I pushed too hard the VW microbus my parents had given me for my college graduation. We spent three days in charmless Barstow waiting for it to be replaced. I decided, on getting home, to get something sexier — a 1962 Porsche Super-90.

I never had a friendship quite like that with the guy who picked it out for me (I deferred to him on the basis of the huge stack of motoring magazines in his apartment), a veteran of the Barstow debacle. There were a few weeks in the early summer when, bedazzled by his high intelligence, sympathetic to his neurotic’s self-torment, and hugely amused by his wit, I couldn’t spend enough time with him. Then, after we both saw The Stooges’ LA debut at the Whisky, I made the mistake of suggesting that we form a similar band of our own, with him in the Iggy chair. Thus was reborn Christopher Milk, with which I’d fooled around in college. But it turned out he saw himself much more as Mick Jagger than as Iggy (whose zanier shenanigans, like chewing the shoes of the audience, he essentially refused to emulate). By the time I persuaded the others to expel him from the band, we weren’t speaking.

The first of my acquaintances — a guy with whom I’d played a lot of Frisbee in my college’s Sculpture Garden, and his high school sweetheart — married. On a hill. With an extremely non-traditional clergyman. Reciting vows they’d written themselves. I generously gave them as their wedding gift the dreadful latest Bob Dylan album, which I’d probably received free. I was getting huge piles of free records every week now, and being invited to lavish record company parties.

What remarkable displays of corporate masochism these parties were, with armies of grotty little self-anointed rock critics eating and drinking themselves sick while sneering or even throwing canapés at the invariably mortified new recording artists the parties were intended to promote. The more boorishly one behaved at these parties, the more ardently he was seen to have repudiated the greed and inhumanity that corporate America embodied.

Getting wind of how badly the Grand Canyon expedition had gone, a pair of feminists next door — one young and zaftig and in love with me, the other ancient (31!), gorgeous, and the sort of ardent ballbuster who found misogyny in the most innocent remark — invited me to accompany them to San Francisco. I had to sneak out the back of the kitchen of the restaurant in Bakersfield where we stopped for dinner, as some of our fellow diners found my appearance homicide-justifyingly objectionable. I’d have bet that I was spending four times on my haircuts what they were spending on their own, trendy layered English pop star cuts being very much more labor-intensive than crewcuts.

About 24 hours into the San Francisco excursion, I admitted to my zaftig neighbor that it was her ancient roommate in whom I was much more interested, and for my trouble was emphatically urged by the latter to find my own way home once I was done fucking myself.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

The Second American Civil War

Frank Rich suggested this past week in the New York Times that it isn’t really healthcare reform that’s made furious a certain element in what La Palin calls This Great Nation of Ours, but rather “the conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman.”

Where I and Mr. Rich diverge is on his observation that it’s “a dwindling and threatened minority” that’s increasingly terrified of disenfranchisement; my great fear is that, far from dwindling, the threatened-feeling minority is growing ever bigger — and ever more furious. And because defiantly stupid Americans — wearers of Sarah 2012 T-shirts, say, or persons with fading We Kicked Their Ass and Took Their Gas bumperstickers, brandishers of Keep Your Filthy Government Hands Off My Medicare placards — are considerably more likely than the educated or even bashfully stupid to own and enjoy using firearms, those of us ‘way over on the other side are going to be in big trouble when the second American Civil War breaks out sometime before the beginning of the next presidential term.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Discover David Bowie - Part 2

Back in San Francisco, I photographed Bowie, in his dress and flowing hair and handbag, in front of the Holiday Inn. He was unnervingly pretty, and I found myself flustered, as I'd never before found another man unnervingly pretty. He, very much more sophisticated in such matters, detected my discomfort and mischievously played the coquette, resulting in my becoming even more unnerved. Bastard.

We went upstairs to his room. You're expecting this sentence to get juicy, but all I did was interview him. Actually, he pretty much interviewed himself. I was still reeling from discovering myself capable of finding myself attracted to another man, I hadn't found his music irresistible, and he was speaking of things of which I knew nothing. He talked about having been a mime and a Buddhist. A part of me yearned for a whoopee cushion, as, perhaps wrongly, I believed mime and casual Buddhism to be the provinces of the very pretentious.

He referred to pop music as the Pierrot medium. I hadn't a clue what he meant, but, rather than revealing myself to be a hayseed, confined myself to an occasional murmur of acknowledgment. He seemed to have an extensive agenda, and was quite happy to pose his own questions. He said something about being caught in bed with Raquel Welch's husband that I thought quite saucy. I suspect he thought it would make it into print and get him some attention. It made it into print, in Rolling Stone.

We flew down to Los Angeles, where Rodney Bingenheimer first collected him at the airport, and then, with another scenemaker, threw a party for him in the hills above the Sunset Strip. Bowie happily unnerved a number of luscious young starlets who arrived in the height of Valley of the Dolls chic, enormous at the time, by greeting them effeminately. Some sort of legal snafu had precluded his performing in an actual venue, but this was his party, and he'd play his guitar and sing if he wanted to. To the considerable discomfort of many of his guests, he did indeed want to. Many an eyelid got heavy during his interpretation of Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam". An apparently rather more swinging party, without Brel, for the Andy Warhol superstar Cherry Vanilla was said to be raging somewhere up the hill. Many murmured of abandoning the one for the other, Bowie among them.

He was said in the following days to be cavorting with a young groupie called Kasha who had a remarkable physique. He didn't bring her to my band's rehearsal on the A&M soundstage. He did, though, ask if we might play the Velvets' "Waiting for the Man" together. A couple of months later, he generously listed my band as one of his three favorites in an NME poll of C-list rock stars. He admired my Porsche, not least because it was much like the one in which James Dean had perished.

The day he flew back to Britain, Kasha was on the phone to me, inviting herself over, hardly before he'd taken his seat in coach. We spent a steamy couple of days together, and then I determined she was 16.

The following September, my girlfriend P— and I holidayed in Britain, and stayed in London at the Portobello Hotel, whose extremely trendy staff were ritually sniffy with us until the evening we and the Bowies shared a minicab home from the chic Kings Road bistro where Bowie and I renewed our friendship and Angela was all over P— like a rash. He played me a test pressing of the album he'd just helped produce for Lou Reed. I thought it wasn't very good, and still do.

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