Thursday, February 16, 2012

Deporting the Poor

Writer. Composer. Videographer. Husband. Father. Brother. Senior Vice President, Development. Taxpayer. Conscience of his generation. Contact lens wearer. Voter. Allergy sufferer. There are many things you can call me, but first you must call me a patriot, by which I do not mean expatriate. They’re two different things — they are apples and oranges, Beatles and Stones, chalk and cheese, as my present neighbours would probably prefer.

I am full of non-alcoholic cider and love for country. I have never been prouder to be an American than I am this morning after the passage of the historic Deportation of the Disadvantaged Act, whereby those Americans living below the poverty line must choose, within one calendar year, between being deported to Liberia and making their eyes, lungs, hearts, livers, and kidneys available for harvest by the rich’s personal physicians.

I by no means wish blindness or death from organ failure on fellow members of the privileged classes, but I will admit to hoping that the vast majority of the poor opt for deportation. I am sick to death of seeing them loading their shopping carts with highly caloric junk food in the Korean-owned supermarkets in which they shop. I am sick of their causing traffic jams in the decades-old, pollution-spewing luxury cars they buy with their welfare checks, and of reading about the moronic, semiliterate tweets with which they befoul the ether. I am sick of their producing most of the nation’s running backs and soldiers and Jerry Springer guests. I am sick of their exclaiming on such shows, “But I couldna gotten Sha’niq’ua pregnant; we only partied the one time!”

(The misplaced “only” is the champagne and caviar of grammatical mistakes, an Ivy League-educated rich person’s mistake. You will see it in the glossiest magazines, those that reek of perfume samples, those with high-priced copy editors in bowties. We partied only the one time.)

If the poor imagine their living conditions are woeful now, let’s see how they feel about Liberia, where the average annual income is less than $4, and where the national dish is boiled sewage.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

[My Music, Not That You Asked] — I Quake

[Decades hence, I will surely be celebrated posthumously as one of the great songwriters of the last quarter of the 20th century, and of the first quarter of the 21st. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t begin a detailed consideration of my oeuvre right now, while I’m still around and able to comment.]

So this Miranda Lambert person, who apparently isn’t a character on Sex and the City, but a country singer, was miffed at this Chris Brown person’s being featured at the Grammys, and tweeted that he needed to listen to her song about domestic violence.

Well, I’ve got a song about domestic violence of my own. I wish I were able to play you a version with a woman singing it, as nature intended, but the right woman hasn’t come along in the seven or so years since I composed it, so all the singing is my own. (No pitch correction software was harmed in the recording, but not for lack of trying; I was just never able to get Autotune to work as advertised.) The backing track is of course an homage to Memphis’s Stax Records, though there will almost certainly be those who will imagine, as ever, that I am trying to sound like The Kinks. (Because I wrote adoringly about them before I completely stopped liking them, circa 1971, people have traditionally imagined that I am trying to sound like The Kinks. No such thing has ever been the case. Which of course isn't to deny that I have aspired to write songs as heartbreaking as Shangri-La.)

I find that I can quite vividly remember moments of inspiration, in which the creative process was pretty nearly unconscious, many years after the fact. I remember very clearly being in the upper deck of a London bus in a roundabout just south of Marble Arch, talking to the missus about her brother, when I say the wrong thing and I get slapped/ There is no right thing that I can say/ I feel trapped/ This territory’s unmapped came to me all at once, in one lovely piece.

Lyrically, I was writing for a British audience. Keeping schtum is equivalent to the American keeping mum. When Brits go to the pub, they order their lager and beer by the pint. Going mental means going crazy.

I’ve never struck a woman, not even when one was striking me with all her might, not even after the one tried to put her cigarette out in my face. Not even, come to think of it, when another made me watch the second Sex and the City movie with her.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

[My Music, Not That You Asked] - Sadie Sings' Wombats

[Decades hence, I will be celebrated posthumously as one of the great songwriters of the last quarter of the 20th century, and of the first quarter of the 21st. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t begin a detailed consideration of my oeuvre right now, while I’m still around and able to comment.]

Not long after moving to the UK for the first time, in the summer of 2002, I resolved once more to become a famous producer, a dream I’d entertained briefly in 1973, with the Reform School Girls. I ran an ad somewhere or other and heard, among others, from Sadie Sings (I’d changed her last name, because changing singers’ names is a time-honoured tradition), an extremely pretty young theatre student who also happened to be a real sweetheart. She had a theatre school vibrato, but reminded me a bit of Ronnie Spector.

I wrote the posh girl's rap Wombats for her, about the unlikely fashionability at the time among London and other UK nymphets of jungle combat trousers. This was a rare case of my writing the words first. I got the missus to sing background vocals, and, as ever, did the balance of the backing track myself. I also got Sadie to sing I Hate My Audience, which I’d written on my honeymoon after reading about Roger Waters' penchant for literally spitting in the faces of Pink Floyd audience members. Let me know if you'd enjoy hearing it.

I thought of making a video with Sadie. I thought it might open with her dressed as Alice in Wonderland, and that the camera would pan down to reveal that she was wearing white dominatrix boots with eight-inch heels. But my computer at the time wasn’t powerful enough to edit video very effectively, and dominatrix boots aren’t inexpensive. I contented myself with designing a Website on which I made up an elaborate story about her being the erstwhile scion of French aristocrats. It made Sadie giggle.

I leaned on the famous English producer Chris Thomas, who decades before had produced my own group, Christopher Milk, to give me some English record biz names and contact details. The only one he coughed up was Geoff Travis, at Rough Trade. Geoff wasn’t remotely amused, but at the same time Rough Trade was pushing The Libertines with all its might, and I found The Libertines horrid. I hadn’t much liked The Smiths, his earlier Big Discovery, either.So there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

[My Music, Not That You Asked] - Me at My Worst

[Decades hence, I will be celebrated posthumously as one of the great songwriters of the last quarter of the 20th century, and of the first quarter of the 21st. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t begin a detailed consideration of my oeuvre right now, while I’m still around and able to comment.]

As with virtually all my songs, I composed the music for Me at My Worst before the lyrics. In devising the arrangement, I will now admit that I was inspired by Ms. Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time, which achieved remarkable propulsiveness in spite of its sedate tempo. That which I worked hardest on were the false-alarm endings of the first three verses. I aspired to make the listener feel each time as though the big chorus were imminent, only to make him wait through another verse, and then another. Coitus interruptus! The greatest pop records, and I always think of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline in this context, land on the verse-ending five-seventh chord in a way that makes the arrival of the chorus almost a physical necessity. It was my hope that when my chorus — It turned out that an iron fist… — finally arrived, the listener would experience huge relief, and that it would feel exactly like exhilaration.

Up until the gorgeously evocative Drive, I always detested The Cars, whom I regarded in many key ways as a lame rehash of Roxy Music. And yet you will notice that the second line of the chorus begins with an uh-oh of the sort Mr. Ric Ocasek deployed so implacably. The attentive listener will detect that it’s there simply to provide the additional beat required to make that second line match the first and third metrically. I don't often sink so low!

There are entirely too few good rhymes for love in English.

As for the lyrical subject matter, I had begun corresponding with the thoughtful Englishwoman who would later become my second wife around the time I composed this song. The lyrics were inspired by her account of her 44th birthday celebration at a restaurant in Hampstead, north London. She’d invited the first great love of her adulthood, whom she'd eventually left, with the utmost regret, because of his alcoholism decades before. Although she knew very well that she shouldn’t, she’d been mightily miffed by his bringing along to her party a too-attractive date. Recounting how she’d reacted petulantly to Too-Attractive's being gracious on top of too attractive, she noted, “I used the olive branch to spear the dove,” which I thought far, far too good not to use in a song.

This is from my self-produced 2002 album Sex With Twins, the first I recorded with modern music software, in this case Logic, which enabled me to do the instrumental backing track on my own. My daughter Brigitte, who hadn’t yet stopped speaking to me, found the idea repulsive, so I changed twins to twinge.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

We Visit Egypt

It’s tricky leaving a very cold place for a week’s holiday in a supposedly very warm one. You don’t want to freeze while waiting for the bus to the train station, or while awaiting connecting trains, but you also hardly want to land in Egypt weighed down by the gigantic hooded winter coat you bought during your brief self-banishment to Wisconsin. You wear a hooded sweatshirt, resolve to think warm thoughts, and hope for the best.

The first train takes you through a panoply of wondrous places with names like Pluckley and Headcorn and Wye. When the soothing recorded voice on the intercom advises, “Our next stop will be Wye,” it is quite impossible not to think, “Well, why not?” When you arrive in Tonbridge, though, there to await the train to Redhill, there to await the train to Gatwick Airport, you are too cold for further self-amusement. But wait; they turn out, 100 metres down the platform, to have a heated waiting room, in which perhaps 20 Brits are doing what they do best, at least while in transit — pretending not to notice each other’s presence.
At last you arrive at Gatwick, in whose vicinity you will spend the night because you’d never have made it from easternmost Kent in time for tomorrow morning’s early-ish flight, and decide to abandon the second person, from this point onward, for the first.

We fly to Sharm El-Sheikh on easyJet, one of the UK’s two principal budget carriers. We have bought a big bagful of delicacies from Marks & Spencer at the airport because not serving an onboard meal is one of the ways in which easyJet can afford to fly us from the UK to Egypt for a pittance. Because they save further money by not having reserved seating, we are lucky, to get aisle seats in the same row. Once aloft, I listen to Fresh Air podcasts and curse iTunes, by which I remain hopelessly baffled, as I search in vain on my iPad for the Bill Maher shows I had thought myself to have downloaded onto it, but apparently have not. Instead, I watch Final Cut Pro X tutorials. I am a very nervous flyer — even though it has occurred to me that it would in many ways be much preferable to die in a plane crash than from cancer — but there is wonderfully little turbulence.

We land safely in Sharm, the elegance of whose airport surprises me; I’d expected Third World squalor, as in Kuching, Malaysia. A local called Aqmad herds us onto a comfortable coach for our ride to the hotel, en route to which he regales us with his views on polygamy, as practiced even as we speak by Egypt’s Bedouins, and tells us to tip in paper money because the locals dislike coins. Because I have only £20 notes, the locals will have to grin and bear one-pound coins.

We arrive at the hotel, and how delighted I am by its luxuriousness, and by the warmth of the Egyptians who get us all signed up, and who attach bright green plastic bands to our wrists, and by the complimentary glass of orange juice an Omar Sharif doppelganger brings us on a tray. We are taken by golf cart (the resort, comprising multiple dormitories and as many swimming pools as there are lakes in Minnesota, is roughly the size of Rhode Island) to our room, which is huge and swanky, albeit with a window through which one can see easily into the bathroom. We head eagerly for the dining room, using directions supplied by a couple of young men from Moscow, and I am there delighted anew. The hot foods look no more appetising than they did in Tunisia in 2007, but what a gorgeous array of cold salads, and tahini, and hummus! For dessert, I get myself a whole honeydew melon that would cost £3 back in easternmost Kent. It is the sweetest honeydew melon I have ever tasted.

I take a long walk each morning while Spousie snoozes, but there is little to see outside our compound. There are the tawdry souvenir shops, and the Bedouin teenagers hawking camel rides in front of them, and the desperate taxi drivers. Behind the souvenir shops there is only desolation, either great expanses of sand, empty but for trash or the occasional uncompleted edifice. I buy myself a long-sleeved T-shirt from the proprietor of a little shop (actually, a glorified stall) called Jamaica T-shirts. He claims to be Bob Marley. I wasn’t born yesterday, and, moreover, have always regarded Marley as significantly inferior to Jimmy Cliff.

I go alone (Spousie is afraid of being abducted by masked Bedouin gunmen, as two American women were in the area in the past 24 hours) to the actual town of Sharm El-Sheikh, the Old Market. I hope not to be kidnapped (what a prize a Jewish American would be!), and to see the locals living their real lives — buying provisions for their dinners, for instance. I am sorely disappointed. Several shops sell spices, but otherwise it’s all tourist crapola. As I wander around, a couple of shopkeepers try to coax me into their shops. I finally allow one to do so, and quickly regret it, as he makes an extravagant display of disgust after failing to sell me anything. I’d have bought a fez, except my head seems to be larger than the average Egyptian’s, as it is larger than the average American’s.

We go on excursions. We ride quad bikes in the desert, and I think I must be the stupidest person on earth for having imagined I’d be able to do so without discomfort in spite of my hard contacts lenses. By the time we’ve gone a kilometre, I am blinded by the grit in my distance eye (the other is corrected for reading), and by the dust of those ahead. One of our Sherpas keeps pulling up alongside me and exhorting me to close the gap between ourselves and the bike just ahead. Easier said than done when blind, bruv! When finally we stop, I curse myself for not having had the sense to bring along my contact lens case and some wetting solution. I literally spend 10 minutes trying to blink the grit away.

We go star-gazing. We are collected by Aqmad, from the evening of our arrival, in a huge coach. He reminds us of his views on polygamy. From the moment we emerge from the hotel, a local with an ancient huge video camera is braying at us to do this and that, to give him the thumbs-up, for instance; it is customary on these things for them to try to sell you a video of the experience. Little imagining that the missus will prove to want one, I studiously ignore the guy.

We ride camels. Mine is led by an adorable Bedouin tyke named Ahmad, who is enormously solicitous until the moment when, after dismounting, I slip a 10-(Egyptian)-pound note into his little hand. We ascend a slope and observe the sunset. We are treated to dinner, and then invited to buy trinkets. We dance around the old campfire, though no one refers to it as such, and then traipse back into the desert to look at stars through digital telescopes. I am sorely disappointed by the near-barrenness of the heavens, but the missus is delighted by the photo of the moon our Sherpa takes through his digital telescope.

We had hoped to sign up for the overnight excursion to Cairo, passing the pyramids en route, but the Sherpa advises it has been temporarily withdrawn in the wake of the 73 deaths at the football match in Port Said 24 hours before. We content ourselves with a snorkelling excursion on which I see too few fish, and ingest far too much salt water; there seems to be something amiss either with the snorkel I bought myself on Amazon, or with the person using it.

We are home in time for me to enjoy the water slides. I go on the two straight ones, and then on the spiral, whose entrance one can’t see from the pool. Two-thirds of the way down, time stands still as I collide with a little boy of around 10 who apparently imagined it would be fun to traverse the slide backward. I marvel at the horror and embarrassment on his little face. I am able to bellow at him, “How could you be so stupid?” in full before we hit the water. As he staggers away whimpering apologies, holding his head, snivelling, I realise my left hand hurts like the devil; it will remain swollen for the next five days. Even as I write this I am unable to make a fist. What’s the matter with kids today?

We stuff ourselves at dinner, as every night, and then, much later (because someone somewhere decided that discos weren’t discos unless they opened at bedtime), after having imbibed much complimentary (we are on the all-inclusive plan) alcohol, to dance. My body craves a workout, and we dance up a small storm. I have no way of knowing whether it’s admiration or amusement that makes the mouths of the gay Russkis with whom we share the dance floor drop open, but I do know they’re gaping.
Speaking of the Russkis and Ukrainians, who together make up around 90 percent of our resort’s clientele, at every meal they pile their plates high with food, most of which they then proceed to abandon, although none seems old enough to have survived the siege of St. Petersburg. We witness instances of stomach-turning Russki rudeness and high-handedness to our Egyptian waiters and busboys, as sweet a bunch as you’ll find anywhere. Little wonder the Egyptians are said to detest them.

On our penultimate day in south Sinai, the weather goes south. Insistent cool breezes blow, and the sky turns a despairing white. Unable to enjoy the sunshine, we experience intense boredom. Between meals, we lounge in our gigantic room and watch BBC World Service, and see the same news items — about the bombardment of Homs, about the Santorum primary victories, about the cold in central and eastern Europe — over and over and over again. We read, though we don’t very much like the books we’ve brought along. We watch a couple of old movies, with Arabic subtitles that we are quite unable to read, but don’t need to, as we are native English speakers, albeit with a zany accent, in one case.

Collecting us at the hotel, Aqmad reminds us of his views on polygamy. Married himself, he in short believes that one wife is trouble enough for any man. Ta-da-DUM! We fly home. The cold in London isn’t exactly homicidal, but vengefully bitter, and here I am with only my hooded sweatshirt over the long-sleeved souvenir T-shirt I bought from not-Bob Marley.