Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Dupe's Facsimile

I used to marvel, while living in the UK, how nothing in pop music ever seemed to get discarded. You had a No. 16 hit in 1978? Well, of course you can go on tour in 2005 with some expectation of ending up in the black; of course you can! Recently, I was horrified to discover that the same thing now goes on here in my own country, until I realized that the Black Crowes — whose new album the Woodstock radio station I listen to in the car because the only NPR you can get is the station in Albany, and it stinks, plays constantly — actually sold something like 30 million records in their heyday, in spite of the fact that they were and are to The Real Thing — Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and that whole bunch — approximately what Fabian was to Elvis, a dupe's facsimile.

How can anyone voluntarily listen to these characters’ pallid 60’s-style Southern soul? How would one go about writing a more tuneless song than “Jealous Again,” which WSTD has been playing as though its loan officer gets songwriting royalties?

But stop the presses; there’s another song, roughly along the same lines, I don’t just disdain, but actively loathe, and have loathed for 36 years now. If you set out to write a really awful song, how could you hope to sink as low as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Sweet Home Alabama"? It’s not just that it’s tuneless, but that it maintains the identical level of tunelessness through both verse and chorus, and there is no middle-eight! Why interrupt something so good? Then you toss in the fact that the words are stupid at best — they contain this brilliant assessment of Alabama’s vile segregationist governor, George Wallace: Boo, boo, boo — and belligerent at worst (the Neil Young business), and you’ve got one spectacularly awful piece of pop music.

Not counting the really obvious stuff, like everything KISS ever recorded, or everything Motley Crue ever recorded, I believe "Sweet Home" may be the worst song in the history of popular music, but as I type this, it occurs to me that America’s "A Horse With No Name" is probably even worse. Melodically, it makes "Sweet Home" seem like Paul McCartney near the height of his powers, and in 38 years, no one has ever been able to convince me that In the desert you can remember your name/ ‘cause there’s no one there for to give you no pain aren't the worst two lines in the history of songwriting in English.

Gosh, what fun to vituperate wildly on a gorgeous October morning; why stop now? I think Marilyn Manson has real panache. I’ve never enjoyed the music much, but I think the presentation’s fab, and I like that he was romantically entangled with Dita Von Teese. Thus, when I noted recently that he was a big fan of HBO’s Eastbound and Down, I thought I’d give the show, about a self-deluded former major league baseball player, another chance.

No sale. I’ve watched the first two episodes of the new season now, and smiled — not laughed — exactly once. Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers is an unspeakable dickhead; I get it! But I’m not very amused by it, not at all. There is absolutely nothing about the guy that isn’t loathsome. Compared to Kenny Powers, Don Draper is my buddy in the UK Rod McDonagh, the nicest guy in the world.

You’ve led me astray, Marilyn. I won’t get fooled again!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reviewing My Suitability

I radically altered my opinion of Donald Trump on hearing that, if he wins the Republican nomination for president in 2012, he will ask Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the celebrated White House party crashers, to be his co-running mates. Then Beth Orton materialized, smaller than I’d expected, and far deeper into middle age, and brassy in the way of people who are trying to hide vulnerability. I asked if she might enjoy singing her sublimely languid “The Sweetest Decline,” which is on my iPod, and which has been a favorite of mine from the first time I heard it. She began immediately to sing, but angrily, not at all as on the record. I was having a devil of a time accompanying her, as paper serviettes were held loosely around the fretboard of my guitar by rubber bands. Then I woke from my dream and came in here, the study, and learned that I had been passed over for the design job in Manhattan for which I was interviewed last Friday, in spite of having devoted last weekend to working up a lot of stuff intended to demonstrate that I wasn’t only the best designer they’d seen, but also the one most eager to work with them.

Their email read as follows:

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to review your suitability for our recently advertised design position. We regret to advise that we have chosen a candidate whose skill set more closely conformed to our expectations.

BTW, did you honestly imagine that we would consider offering the job to someone your age? Oh, that would have been smart, wouldn’t it? We give you the job, and get an important new client, and halfway through your work for them, you get prostate cancer, or dementia, or some other geriatric infirmity, and we’re left holding the bag. Or maybe, because you quit smoking before most of us here were even born, and eat reasonably well — though you’ve been pretty lax about the five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables per day — and work out daily, you won’t get prostate cancer or dementia, but just lose continence, and won’t the smell of your adult diapers be a treat for the rest of us here in the confined space we share. Or maybe you’ll have the presence of mind to change them frequently, in which case you’ll be distracted from your work, and someone else will have to pick up the slack, and the festering resentment around here will be even worse than the stench would have been.

Honestly, don’t you think it’s time, instead of coming in for job interviews, that you went gentle into that good night, or at least checked yourself into one of those mesmerizingly beige assisted living centers, the magazine advertisements for which invariably show fantastically attractive over-60s in polo shirts playing golf and tennis and grinning at each other at cookouts with their perfect straight teeth? (You probably imagined that you’d be that sort of person yourself — one who looked at 60 pretty much exactly as he had at 35, but with thick white hair, rather than thick black. But it didn’t work out so well, did it, old-timer?)

As for your…creative, maybe it looked really slick to the rubes in south central Wisconsin (though we notice you weren’t able to get a job there either), but you’re — or at least we’re — in the Big Apple now, sunshine, and drop shadows and layer masks don’t thrill us so much. And what’s with the relentless retro? Ninety-eight percent of your stuff looks exactly the same. And the copy! You’re trying to sell to average, harried people here, sunshine, and not college sophomores. Maybe you should save your wordplays and self-described “sparkling wit” for your blog, at which we had a long enough look to get really tired of trying to plow through sentences that seem never to end. We notice it’s attracted a whopping 18 subscribers in the 11 months you’ve been writing it; does that not tell you a little something?

Again, we thank you for interviewing with us, and wish you the best of luck in the future.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Like It Friggin' Is

I haven’t seen The Social Network, but my guess is that it suggests that being really bright has a lot to do with becoming fantastically rich. In many cases, that’s obviously true. Someone comes up with a brilliant invention or innovation that the world really needs, and gets rich off the royalties or licensing fees. (Not that there aren’t countless cases of someone coming up with a brilliant invention, and dying a syphilis-ravaged hobo; it’s my understanding that Philo T. Farnsworth, who pretty much invented television, barely had a pot to pee in when he kicked the bucket, ho ho.)

I suspect, though, that great success in business is every bit as much a function of blind luck as pop stardom is. Some schmo stumbles along at exactly the right second, guesses right about a couple of things, gets rich, and spends the rest of his life being buttered up by persons who can’t take a chance on his or wealth being the result of his or her being wonderfully prescient or shrewd.

All of which is to say, a little floridly, that I refuse to believe that Donald fucking Trump is bright, however many gleaming towers in Manhattan might bear his name, however many stretches of freeway in the tri-state area may be maintained because of his generous donations. I have never known the guy — and I’ve been seeing him on TV and reading about him since the late ‘80s — to be anything other than boorish, vulgar, self-inflated, and just generally sickening. I hate his hair. I hate his pout. I hate his ex-wives, and his present one, just for having married him. I hate that when we went last year to Atlantic City, where he owns a casino (or casinos), his photograph was on the label adorning plastic water bottles dispensed for $5 each at his overpriced seaside nitespot.

And now, apparently, I’m going to have an opportunity to not vote for him for President! “Somebody has to do something,” he has declared, “because we are losing this country." As we apparently weren’t during the glorious Bush/Cheney years, during which something approaching $1 trillion was spent on ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein so that GWB could finally feel more manly than his dad about something. And now we've got Maureen Tucker, formerly of the Velvet Underground, telling interviewers at Tea Party rallies that she, like so many very stupid Americans, is sick and tired of Obama's wastefulness!

Do we dare look forward to debates pitting The Donald against that waste of protoplasm Mitt Romney and the exquisitely preposterous Palin? Can’t you just imagine? Responding to a question to which she doesn't know the answer (and doesn't want to know the answer, because that sort of knowledge is the province of the sort of elitists who are ruinin' this great nation of ours), Palin will chirp something about how, for anyone who’s given birth to and raised five kids, being president will seem like a day at the beach, and her fellow mama grizzlies in the audience will whoop and applaud, causing The Donald to do what he’s always done when he feels outflanked — launch an ugly ad hominem attack. “How can anybody take anything you say seriously,” he’ll wonder, pouting adorably at the audience, “when you don’t even got big tits?” And in bars from one Portland to the other, men in greasy baseball caps will high-five each other and snort, “Tell it like it friggin’ is!”

I can see America's future, my friends, and it don't got a lot of pretty.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Emptying Mad Men's Ashstray

Whatever impression my impressive vocabulary and wonderful way with words may give to the contrary, I’m a middlebrow. I believe that the optimal duration of a piece of music is three minutes, 20 seconds, and thus don’t appreciate anything much more classical than Rhapsody in Blue. I never read poetry for pleasure. I suppose there’s a chance that some day I might enjoy a Shakespearean production, but I can’t read more than a couple of pages without nodding off. As I have said here repeatedly, I regard most modern art as a joke played on the eagerly pretentious by the undertalented.

Maybe this will help to explain why it took me such a very long time to learn to enjoy Mad Men. Bumpkin that I am, I took as given that I should root for the principal character, flawed though he may have been. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that no such thing is the case. By virtually every measure, Don Draper’s a woeful human being — a liar, a philanderer, an alcoholic chainsmoker, a rotten dad. (Because I’ve always regarded my own work as a parent as some of the best work I’ve ever done, I could forgive him almost anything if he were attentive and loving with his kids, but no such luck.) Also, the show asks us to believe that his handsomeness is such that a succession of beautiful (and other) women are quite happy to fuck him in spite even though nobody in real life could smoke and drink as he does without his mouth smelling (and tasting) very revolting; nobody’s that handsome.

Tony Soprano wasn’t exactly Mr. Lovable, either, but I’m not so sure he was much more distasteful than Draper. Yes, he killed people, or had them killed, but didn’t Draper’s callousness contribute substantially to his half-brother’s suicide? “T” had a much better sense of who he was, and was able to mock himself, as Draper never does. He was crazy about his daughter, and, in his own deeply flawed way, adored Carmela. It doesn’t appear to me as though Draper is capable of adoration. He makes Tony Soprano look in comparison like the embodiment of emotional integrity and mental health.

Maybe I should have been smart enough to guess that Men’s to-root-for character wasn’t played by the top-billed actor, but by the second-billed. How can one not root for Elizabeth Moss’s plucky Peggy, who’s managing to get ahead in a world in which even one as enlightened as her writer boyfriend scoffs at the notion of women having it as bad in many ways as…Negroes? When I reflect on how much less naked misogyny, racism, and homophobia there is in America now than when I was a child and teenager, it’s actually enough to make me forget about Gingrich, Palin, the Tea Party, and other modern horrors for a minute or two. (The key word, of course, being naked. I have women friends who assure me that they’re expected even in the fall of 2010 to defer in all situations to male counterparts.)

Even with having to learn to enjoy Mad Men, I don’t begin to understand why writers for the likes of Slate and Salon, for instance, think it good enough to ponder every line of the script; yesterday Salon's TV critic found great significance, for instance, in Draper asking his secretary to close his office door at one point, in a way the line in no way warranted. At such moments, one is distressed to find himself thinking, “Get a life!” Good as it may be, Mad Men fit to empty the ashtrays of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Friday Night Lights, and you can quote me, though you won’t.

Monday, October 4, 2010

God, I Love October

I’ve just come upstairs from watching what I think must be the worst half of NFL football I’ve ever seen. The Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, couldn’t seem to embrace the concept that if he kept holding on to the ball too long, he was going to keep getting sacked, as he was approximately 25 times while I was watching. The Bears were gaining an average of 7.6 centimenters per offensive play, so you’d have imagined that the New York Giants would be making them wish they’d never been born, but the half ended with their leading only by a field goal.

When things aren’t going well for the Giants, those of us watching on TV are treated to endless shots of their head coach, Tom Coughlin, squinting murderously, exuding disgust from every pore, and I’ve finally realized of whom he reminds me — the “chef” at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway who hated me on sight when I worked there as a 17-year-old busboy, and who did everything in his meager power to make my life miserable.

Both teams are wearing a lot of shocking pink — shocking pink chin straps, gloves, sweat bands, caps, and even towels. The idea, one of the announcers finally remembered to mention, was to Increase Awareness of Breast Cancer, but I’d venture to guess that not a single person attending or watching an NFL game all day hadn’t heard of the disease already. In my own case, I became more aware only of how poorly shocking pink goes with almost anything.

During the endless commercials, I was reminded that America’s biggest breweries regard me as having the mentality of a not-terribly-bright 11-year-old. Their supposition is that I will want to rush out and get myself a six-lack of Coors, for instance, because the mountains depicted on the can turn a different color when the can is chilled to a certain low temperature. Awe-some! Alternatively, I might opt for a rival brand of lager-flavored soda pop, Miller Lite, because of thrilling new Vortex Bottle, with “specially designed” grooves inside the neck. Awe-some!

On the other hand, I saw a Geico commercial that actually made me laugh aloud, as I’d earlier laughed aloud at the one with Abraham Lincoln admitting to his wife that her dress really did make her butt look bigger. In this one, a little piggy, being given a lift by a smoldering soccer mom, does indeed squeal, “Whee whee whee,” all the way home. I was reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers ever — What if the hokey-pokey really is what it’s all about?

And I just remembered something else I really loved about this gorgeous, chilly weekend, with its bright blue skies and spectacular sunsets, and the tops of some of my favorite trees offering sneak previews of the spectacular colors they’ll soon have turned. It has been at least 72 hours since I’ve heard anything by Tom Petty, and it isn’t as though I haven’t been to the gym.

I’ve customarily told new acquaintances who’ve revealed themselves never to have seen The Sopranos that I envy them because they have a whole world of pleasure to experience. I feel the same way about the novelist Scott Spencer, in whom I, foolishly, have never been very interested by virtue of his having written a book on which a Brooke Shields movie (Endless Love) was based. My foolishness has this huge dividend, though: I can now look forward to gorging on the man’s glorious fiction, as I’m doing now. Consider this, about an upwardly mobile black couple, from A Ship Made of Paper:

Iris understand that Hampton, when he needs her, feels vulnerable and somehow trapped beneath the ice of his dignity. Often, he will cover his own desires with a protective irony…He visits the pleasures of her body like a tourist who behave on vacation in a way he never would dream of at home. And like the tourist who raves about the island hospitality, there is, in Hampton’s adoration of her, a bit of colonial condescension.

In Mr. Spencer’s fiction, you rarely go longer than a paragraph without encountering a perception so acute and so gorgeously expressed as to make you want to stop and re-read it. The realization that I have virtually his whole oeuvre ahead fills me with delight.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chartreuse Mustard and the Prospect of Employment - Part 2

The day of my first job interview in forever got off to a bad start. I’d gone down to the basement in the middle of the night to ensure that it wasn’t flooding, and it wasn’t; apparently the sump pump I bought a few weeks ago was working. But when I got up for the day a couple of hours later and went down to the basement, I discovered that it was back to its old tricks. I told the sump pump off in no uncertain terms, got it working again, and crossed my fingers, at least metaphorically.

I got a ride down to the City with my pal Michelle, who needed to see her dentist, and was reminded in the early going how much most other people’s driving terrifies me. When I used to hitchhike up and down the central California coast, I often had to pretend I’d fallen asleep because I couldn’t bear to watch. Before we crossed the Hudson, though, I realized I was in good hands, and we arrived less than two hours after we’d left in spite of the vengeful rain and wind. After Michelle reported for her appointment, I, with nearly four hours before my own, headed for the main branch of the New York Public Library, on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. In one of their WiFi rooms, I had my first good look at the iPad I received for my birthday several months ago. What a gorgeous display! Then, having saved the price of a train ticket from Beacon, I treated myself to a magnificent salad at a little place on Madison Avenue. I was struck by how very friendly and solicitous both the guy who made the salad and the cashier were.

I still had plenty of time, so I walked down to Herald Square to see if Daffy’s, which sells Italian and other clothing at discount prices, and at which I bought much stuff when I was last employed in Manhattan, had anything of interest. Not a stitch. I headed across E. 34th Street to Conway, a huge Third World-evoking department store on Broadway where I’ve found many a bargain, but in which I can hardly stand to be for longer than five minutes because it’s so dark and cluttered and dismal inside, and because most of their stuff seems to have been made in countries of which I've never heard, and I do a lot of reading.

The wind and rain were playing havoc with my appearance. My hair is very long these days, and a little thinner on top than I’d prefer, and the wind and humidity conspired to make me look to the casual observer like Albert Einstein, though no one said anything. I found the building in which my prospective employers do business, and went up to their floor, intending, since I was very early, to quietly ask the receptionist for a key to the men’s room, in which I intended to pull my hair back, tuck my shirt in, button my sports coat, and generally make myself more presentable. But there was no receptionist. The woman who finally responded to my standing there looking like a soggy, tall Albert Einstein was actually the Chris I was scheduled to meet. She managed not to look horrified, and we beamed at each other. She directed me to the lavatory, and told me to help myself to some water or something in the kitchen.

Once having finished in the lavatory, it seemed to take me forever to stop sweating; it felt as though it were around 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the office, but maybe I was just in love. I sat at a big table in the conference room failing to become engrossed by Scott Spencer’s typically sublime A Ship Made of Paper, which I’ve been enjoying so much, until finally one of the agency’s named partners came in to speak to me. I was delighted that he was approximately my own age; there’s nothing quite as dispiriting as going for a job interview at a place where everyone looks three years out of high school. This guy had a longtime weightlifter’s gigantic arms, and a pleasant, low-key manner. He wanted to see my portfolio, but I hadn’t brought one; virtually all my stuff’s on line. We exchanged manly handshakes, and he left me to Chris, who was comparably gracious, but who gave me the impression they were seeing a great many…candidates, the majority of whom had probably had the presence of mind to bring in something tangible to show. I resolved as I left that I would spend most of the weekend working up stuff demonstrating to them that I’m capable, highly creative, and eager to work for them.

More news as it breaks, as it smashes like crystal on a concrete floor.