Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm One of the 99 Percent, and Am Committed to the Greater Comfort of Somalians

Twenty years ago today I was working on my ill-fated (as never-to-be-published) biography of the entertainment mogul and dickhead David Geffen, and pondering whether his having given $1 million to a gay charity whose identity I’ve forgotten constituted generosity. Having just sold his record company for $800 million, he had months before been ordained as a billionaire. Is one who donates one one-thousandth of his fortune, and in the process quite mindfully positions himself to save a bundle on his taxes, truly generous?

Yesterday, I got involved in a little Facebook shouting match regarding Steve Jobs. One of the many Facebook friends I wouldn’t recognise as such if he sat down beside me on the bus to Margate groused that many hi-tech gadget fetishists seemed to think of as the newly deceased Steve Jobs — an industrialist, the CEO of a corporation known to use Asian subcontractors who don’t always treat their employees with the utmost tenderness — as Lennon-like, almost as a martyr. I asserted that Jobs’ integrity may well have exceeded Lennon’s, and that Jobs didn’t only make himself and his shareholders rich, but also created great beauty. (I have been using Macintosh computers with the utmost delight since shortly after my Geffen book got quashed, and am in awe of the whole Apple product line’s gorgeousness. Even the Styrofoam in which my latest iMac was braced in its box seemed to have been designed with loving care!)

Another person commented that Apple products might indeed be much prettier than Microsoft’s, but that, unlike Bill Gates, Jobs wasn’t known for his philanthropy. Which led me to infer that, before one can revel in the beauty of a work of art (or a computer), he or she must first examine its creator’s tax returns.

But that’s another question. The one I really wanted to consider today is that the Occupy Wall Street movement, about which I’m intermittently very enthusiastic, seems based on the reasonable notion that it’s unfair for a microscopic minority of Americans to own a huge percentage of the country’s wealth. The idea seems to be that those, for instance, who got rich betting on the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2007-2008 should voluntarily hand over their ill-gotten megariches to the rest of us.

I do very much like this idea (I believe, in fact, that those who encouraged people to invest in things they were themselves betting against should be publicly disemboweled and fed to rabid mongrel dogs), but another Facebook comment I encountered this morning has me in a quandary. If we down here on street level have the right to demand a greater share of the country’s wealth solely on the basis of the current arrangement being patently unfair, doesn’t the entire Third World have a comparable right to demand from America a greater share of global wealth? Once having persuaded the financiers and Masters of the Universe to hand over their multimillions because it’s outrageous that anyone should have both a penthouse overlooking Central Park and a nine-bathroom mansion in the Hamptons while someone else can’t make his monthly mortgage payment, will we be prepared to help Somalia, say, attain the same average standard of living that Nebraskans enjoy? Some of the Masters of the Universe have their nine bathrooms in the Hamptons because they bet against large numbers of American homeowners being able to maintain their mortgage payments. Most, if not all, Americans benefit indirectly from our forebears having stolen our resource-laden hunk of the continent from the Indians. Are we, when the domestic playing field has been levelled, going to pretend there’s a big difference between the two?

If my giving away a thousandth of my worth isn’t generous, then what is? A hundredth? A tenth? How can I justify having any food at all when children in the world are starving?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Way It Should Be

[Please read yesterday's entry first!]

The bride’s father, who, after all, is the one out of whose pocket the band’s deposit came, gets on the phone with the bandleader, though he is at first too furious to speak coherently. As she sputters and hisses, the bandleader is tempted simply to break the connection, but instead becomes lost in a reverie about an earlier bride’s father he made furious. It was about a year before, and the happy couple’s guests were getting on the bandleader’s tits by requesting nothing but songs he loathed playing. They asked for Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, for instance, and for several Abba favourites. Instead of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, he sang Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, complete with an uncanny recreation of Tina Turner’s orgasmic screeching. That shut them up for a while; the bandleader took particular delight in noting that someone’s auntie actually required fanning. He liked to imagine she’d fainted, though he hadn’t actually seen it. But his respite was short-lived, as someone’s uncle came up and slipped him a fiver to sing Abba’s Fernando.

There were many problems with this. First, the song’s fatuity -- Swedes conjuring a Latin American freedom fighter — had always made him itch. Second, as one who’d had a deal with Sony not that long ago, five pounds was an insult. He could imagine that when Elton John played private parties for billlionaires, people would give him the keys to Ferraris to sing particular songs, or the deeds to beachfront homes with nine bathrooms, not bloody fivers. So what he did was sing Carly Simon’s That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be, a feminist meditation on the fact that a bad marriage can be a prison.

People stopped dancing two verses into it, and the bride scampered from the dancefloor with mascara streaming down her cheeks. Both the groom and his new father-in-law converged on the bandleader and wrestled his hand-mic from him before he could sing, "You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds, but soon you’ll cage me on your shelf. I’ll never learn to be just me first, by myself." But the damage was already done.

“What’s your bloody game?” the bride’s father demanded. The bandleader said someone had requested the song, and showed the bride’s father the bedraggled fiver the Fernando man had slipped him. The groom demanded that the bandleader point out who’d done the slipping, but the bandleader wasn’t one for grassing, and tried to get his two antagonists to consider that the song might have been one of the most exquisite of the second half of the 20th century, along with the Linda Ronstadt-popularised Long Long Time — which he and the band also knew, in case the groom and his father-in-law fancied hearing it. “Will it stop everybody feeling miserable?” demanded the groom, whose own taste the bandleader guessed ran more to heavy metal bands from the Midlands, and who obviously had never heard it. The bandleader said all he could guarantee was that it was gorgeous, and that he loved singing it.

The father of the bride, meanwhile, sought an alternative solution. He asked the guitar player if anyone else in the band could sing, and the guitarist said the girl keyboard player could. Indeed, she’d been singing harmony vocals all along. The father of the bride said there was an extra 50 quid in it for everyone in the band if, for the balance of the afternoon, they told the bandleader to sod off, and let the girl keyboard player sing. The guitarist got him up to an extra 65 quid for each of them. The girl keyboard player, who was overweight, though with luminous smooth skin, thought this might be her big break, and the other musicians, who included a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic, welcomed the extra dosh. Only the bandleader, who realised he would now have to put together a new band — he had no intention of sharing a bandstand with turncoats — was miserable.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Diciness of English

Surmising, from the indiscreet utterance of one of her bridesmaids, that the band isn’t going to turn up, the bride herself gets on one of the bridesmaids’ iPhones to say WTF. It isn’t that one of her bridesmaids has multiple iPhones — imagine how expensive that would be! — but rather that several of the bridesmaids have them, and one, Tamsyn, has offered the bride the use of hers. English can be dicey in such matters, and simply isn’t very good on pronouns. Two sentences ago, for instance, we had Tamsyn, the bridesmaid, offering the bride the use of her iPhone, but it’s impossible to ascertain from that whether the phone is the bridesmaid’s or the bride’s.

The bridesmaid’s, and the bride, who should be primping and getting increasingly nervous, uses it to phone the leader of the band, at whom she howls indignantly. How can he even consider ruining what should be the most wonderful day of her life? To what does he expect her family and friends, and her handsome groom’s, to dance? A boombox? When was the last time anyone even saw a bloody boombox?

It isn’t half-one yet, but the bandleader has already downed nearly as much alcohol as the National Health Service recommends for an adult male to consume over a week. (Predictably, it recommends that children consume rather less.) He is, as usual, trying to placate his demons, to render unintelligible the cruel voice in his head that demands to know if he isn’t fatally embarrassed or even ashamed playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and what-have-you to keep himself in lager, fags, and ready-meals (Iceland’s chicken tikka lasagne being a particular favourite) when only nine years ago he had a deal with Sony.

Yes, of course, he is mortified, as who could fail to be? The A&R person (talent scout) who signed him predicted he would be The New George Michael, though neither gay nor a native Cypriot), and here he is not a decade later not singing his own songs at Wembley Arena, but Elton fucking John’s at weddings. Occasionally, the over-perfumed divorced 46-year-old aunt of the bride or groom will notice the charisma that attracted the Sony talent scout in the first place, and spend the rest of the afternoon making his life a misery, leering at him as he sings, chatting him up when the band takes its hourly ten-minute break, but mostly everyone’s too busy dancing and being joyous for the happy couple even to notice him. He might as well be a bloody CD!

“Why don’t you just hire a bloody DJ?” he asks today’s irate bride. “Google or something. I’ll return your deposit on Monday.” In fact, he’ll do no such thing, as he’s already drunk and smoked her deposit. And she’s not having the idea anyway. She doesn’t get shrill in her increased indignation, but actually lowers her voice. She says, “Actually, with only 42 minutes before I’m to exchange bloody vows, I’m not going to go on the bloody Internet. What’s going to happen is you and your band are going to get out here now.”

The bandleader loses the ash of his Marlboro — he’ll revert to rolling his own when he’s spent the last of her deposit — down the front of his Adele T-shirt and plays the alcoholism card. Does she really want him to drive out to the wedding site in view of his being well over the limit, and thus constituting a threat to other motorists and especially pedestrians? Would she really want an innocent’s death or dismemberment on her conscience?

“Listen, mate,” she says, in a register beneath that of the chainsmoking actress they brought in to voice the demon inhabiting Linda Blair, “you’ll honour our bloody contract or I’ll hire unemployed Albanians to come break your bloody arms and legs.” One of her bridesmaids, Prim (as in Primrose) bursts into frightened tears at this. Tamsyn and another of the bridesmaid, older, better acquainted with the bride, and thus more familiar with her (the bride’s, not Prim’s) penchant for threats, go all maternal, consoling her, stroking her lustrous strawberry blonde head and murmuring, “It’s just rhetoric, love. There, there.” English to the core, poor Prim finds all the attention upsetting, and is sick.

There are lots of unemployed Albanians in the UK these days, but of course there are lots of unemployed everything everywhere.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Audrey Mendelsohn lived out the final couple of years of her life in a thick fog of dementia in one of those old folks’ depositories with an incongruously cheerful name and meticulous landscaping, in Gurnee, Illinois, a state I suspect she’d never visited while sentient. When I visited her there for the first time after not seeing her for six years (during which she’d essentially ceased to be herself), I exploded in tears. In my profound foolishness, I’d always imagined I’d have a chance to apologize for how awfully I’d treated her during her last years in California.

There was never a question that my mother adored me. Nor was there ever any question that, the meagerness of my accomplishments notwithstanding, she was hugely proud of me. But when my father died, I lost both of them — her because it suddenly dawned on me how she’d made me her mouthpiece for her ever-growing contempt for him. Thinking it would make her and me closer, she’d always encouraged me to share her low opinion of him, and I was overcome with shame when I realized how avidly I’d done so.
I’d realized in the last months of my dad’s life how my mother had always wanted me to be weak. We would pick my dad up at the convalescent hospital to which she’d banished him (because if she “allowed” him to come home after the stroke that left him unable to walk, the house would inevitably catch fire, and she’d be unable to pull him to safety) and drive somewhere for a little outing. When I’d get his wheelchair out of the trunk, she’d frantically try to persuade me not to try to do it without help. Reflexively thinking myself unequal to every physical task, imagining myself always to require the intervention of someone stronger, I’d been regarded throughout my early life as a hopeless wuss, and I blamed her. Oh, did I blame her.

I visited her regularly in her last months in California, and she was always delighted to see me, even when I put my back into being as sarcastic and disdainful as possible — to treating her, in other words, exactly as she’d always treated my dad. I shall take to the grave the shame of the way I treated the two people in the world who loved me most.

So there I was with my mother in northernmost Illinois in the early autumn of 2007, weeping prodigiously at the realization that I’d lost my chance to apologize, when a very shrill fire alarm went off in the convalescent hospital. A voice on the PA system said it was a malfunction, and that there wasn’t really a fire, but the alarm couldn’t be placated. I could feel my mother tense; she, the most fearful woman on earth, remained enough of herself to experience panic on some very primal level. And still the alarm kept shrieking. And still. And still.

I could leave her alone in her panic while I ran through the place, trying to ascertain why no one was turning the goddamned thing off. Or I could hold a pillow over her face until she had never again to panic.