Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Songs: French Fries for Breakfast

Sometimes a song grows out of a random phrase. Such was the case with French Fries for Breakfast, which came into my head for reasons not clear to me very late in the 20th century, and struck me as nice way of conveying nutritional depravity. My daughter and girlfriend and I sang the phrase at random moments for a couple of years, to the tune of the title line of the Bonzo Dog Band’s Death Cab for Cutie. I thought no more about it until Mistress Chloe, as the lapsed British new wave chanteuse Zelda Hyde, was calling herself back then, agreed to record an album of my songs. 

As I began work on French Fries, it’s pretty clear I hadn’t much of an idea of where I was going, or what I was saying. In the first verse, I used the British verb whinge (meaning complain, or, more earthily, bitch [v]), for which I needed a rhyme. Binge came to mind, and the song’s mission suddenly revealed itself. It would be about a young woman who, like my daughter at the time, tried to make herself feel good by overeating, but succeeded only in making herself more miserable. 

I pause to note that I am painfully aware of my complicity in my daughter’s eating problem. Throughout her childhood, I’d unthinkingly offered food as consolation. If she’d been upset, I would commonly suggest we head over to Baskin-Robbins on Irving Street, near where we lived in San Francisco’s dismal Sunset district. My bad. My very, very bad.

I spoke yesterday of how, when one writes the melody before the lyrics, he commonly forces himself into awkward rhyming and metrical corners. No such thing was the case here, where the music imposed few constraints. I imposed the unusual rhyme scheme on myself, as in the verse about a pretty classmate who mocks our poor heroine:

The pretty swindler with translucent eyes
compliments her on her slender thighs
She’s more accustomed to the local guys and dolls
ridiculing every breath she draws,
slashing at her with their razor claws
’til she’s bloody. Then they hid the gauze.
It galls!

The tradition in rock and roll has always been to try to appear as uneducated as the poor black blues musicians who inspired it. If you know proper grammar, you’re supposed, in the name of Authenticity, to pretend you don’t.. Don’t come around here no more. I don’t need no friends (as long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset). I’ve always thought, though, that the more authentic thing was to actually be authenticI I have not hesitated in my own lyrics to evoke celebrated literary works, as I do in my 2002 song French Fries for Breakfast. Always drowning, never waving, no is of course an allusion to the famous 1957 poem by the British poet Stevie Smith. 

As ever, I played everything myself, including the bluesy little piano descension in the middle of the verses. I will not deny, though, that I recorded it at half-speed to preclude my thick little fingers becoming hopelessly entangled. Before calling me a cheater, you may wish to note that The Beatles did this sort of thing all the time, the guitar solo in A Hard Day’s Night being the most notable example of something they recorded at half the speed at which it was intended to be heard. 

For purposes of live performance, The Freudian Sluts have jettisoned the first verse and added a deliberately corny augmented chord where the piano break occurs in the recorded version. The idea is that Ms. Hyde’s three gentlemen accompanists will all grin at the audience at this moment, to signal that we’ve just done something quite wonderful. A small homage to the Bonzos, you see. I
am not so sure we will be able to recreate my Jordanaires imitation in response to Ms. Hyde’s calls. 

I have always been a fan of musical irony. Here, the, uh, girl singers  (Ms. Hyde, multi tracked  coo most prettily right after the most heartbreaking lines in the song, about our girl wishing she’d never been born. I think French Fries might be one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My Songs: The Prostitutes of London

I wasn’t a gigantic Lovin’ Spoonful fan, though I did love Darlin’ Be Home Soon, and the background vocals on You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice make me swoon. What I admired most about them was that each new single sounded very different from its predecessor. No relentless milking of a particular sound (a la The Kinks’ first three hits) for these boys! Around the same time, I very much admired how Revolver covered a wide range of styles, and created a wide range of sonic atmospheres. I have always tried in my own work to do the same thing.

When I presented The Prostitutes of London to Ms. Zelda Hyde, then recording as Mistress Chloe, in 2002, during the recording of her much-praised Like a Moth to Its Flame album, her green eyes filled with skepticism. “What does this have to do with rock?” she fretted. “Nothing at all,” I admitted happily, “and therein its great appeal.” It’s more like something you’d hear in a Lionel Bart musical, or in a pub, being bellowed by the same sort of people who pipe up with such ardour at the sound of Daydream Believer or Sweet Caroline.

(I don’t understand why rock is perceived as sacrosanct. Put on a leather jacket, sneer, step on your distortion pedal, turn your amp up too high and suddenly you’re no longer a spotty little twerp with no appreciable talent, but the living embodiment of cool? (Joan Jett, come on down!) I so don’t think so.)

It wasn’t until 2014 that I started a song with the lyrics, rather than the melody. Prostitutes was a jaunty little tune before it was anything else. I have long believed that a lovelier melody is apt to result when one composes it before writing lyrics, but there’s at least one major pitfall in this approach — one commonly discovers that the tune he’s devised forces a difficult rhyme or metrical scheme.

I thought it imperative that my new band, The Freudian Sluts, based in SW London, include this song in its repertoire, as it’s a nice change of pace from the mid-tempo, minor-key mediations on eating disorders, domestic violence, and romantic betrayal that make up much of the set list, and likely to appeal to those who enjoy being shouted at to sing along. We play two verses in a row before the chorus, and then two more verses before the next chorus. In both cases, we play the first half sort of sweet and loungey, and the second with every bit of funk we can muster. Andrew, the bass player, uses the percussive slapping style that Larry Graham of Sly & The Family Stone introduced in time for it to define Seinfeld musically.

The song will be performed live for the first time ever at Andrew’s big birthday party, on December 19. Ms. Hyde will hold up cue cards to help the audience sing along on the choruses. What fun everyone will have!

Speaking of Revolver, around the time it came out, I was in a band with a brilliant (very!) young guitar player who pointed out that the rhythm playing on the exquisite Here, There, and Everywhere was actually very sloppy. He pointed to the Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky’s playing as far tidier. I remember being flabbergasted at the thought of anyone daring to compare The Beatles unfavourably to…anyone. And all these decades later, I remain puzzled by John Sebastian's asserting, in Darlin', that, at around 25, a quarter of his life was almost past. I'm no mathematician, but he seemed to expect to live to 100!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

My Songs: My Sexual Ineptitude (2001)

There is in the blues and rock and roll a long tradition of men celebrating their own brilliance as lovers, as witness Sixty Minute Man, The Train Kept a-Rollin, I’m a Man, and many others. I was never able to discern how Bo Diddley’s boast in the last that he could make to multiple women in an hour’s time would in any way enhance his erotic stature, unless the idea that he was so fantastically virile that his various partners would be able to withstand only a few minutes of his implacable pumping. I addressed this idea in my 1997 song God’s Gift to Women, the singer of which takes a very different tack: Hey, pretty women, form a nice tidy queue. It may take weeks for me to make love to you/ Because I take my time / You know what I’m through, you’ll say I’m God’s Gift to Women.

Remaining amused by the idea of a singer flaunting tradition by admitting to not being much good in the sack, I composed My Sexual Ineptitude in 2001. Thinking of himself as a kitten up a tree when it comes to lovemaking, the singer describes as defiant, ugly, and coarse his own inadequacy, which rears its head in four different scenarios. In the first, he’s a swashbuckler who must scale the walls of a castle to get to the imprisoned princess he hopes to hump. But he’s apparently so discombobulated about having to wear tights that he mistakenly moons her, and then gets pelted with large tomatoes by the outraged peasantry. In the second, he meets “a chick in London Town,” and manages to get invited back to her apartment, only for her cat to cause an argument that precludes  their, uh, shagging. (Could it be that he contrived the argument out of performance anxiety?). Later he discovers himself uninterested in a same-sex tryst, and finally, apparently in desperation, travels to the Russian steppes in hope of finding erotic satisfaction. Even this ends in tears.

One of my idols: Cole Porter
I have long been a very avid admirer of the work of Cole Porter, and in the second verse pay homage to him. In I Get a Kick Out of You, he wrote, dazzlingly, Flying so high in the sky with some guy is my idea of nothing to do.” Five rhymes, back to back! I am proud to have matched that with We sat and chewed the fat. The cat begat a spat. Let’s see Leonard Cohen do that!

The song is packed with melody, but contains only two chords, with a bass line inspired by that in Talk Talk’s sublime It’s My Life,”which turns me to mush every time I hear it. As I did throughout the album of which this song was a part, Sex With Twins (originally Sex With Twinge in deference to my then-teenaged daughter’s horror), I played all the instruments myself, including the rhythm guitar. I loved my then-future bride’s wispy background vocals so much that I must have spent an hour listening to them over and over after she recorded them. 

The synthesizer solo heard under the song’s extended fadeout is a whole take, rather than a comp(ilation) of the best moments of multiple takes. It was only the second stab at it. I played it with my left hand, as my left hand is very much dominant when it comes to keyboards. I have never had a piano lesson, and when I first began trying to teach myself to play, i was trying to play boogie-woogie bass lines with my left hand, which consequently became very much more dexterous. 

Maybe the peasantry's always outraged. Witness today's America, which I find so terrifying as to have taken to doing my witnessing from the width of the Atlantic Ocean away.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Boots on the Ground

I have the whole thing figured out. 

The Wrong (heretofore The Right, as in politically) are calling with ever greater stridency for Boots on the Ground in the Middle East. Such is the fondness with which they look back at George W Bush’s liberation of the poor oppressed people of Iraq that they long to repeat the process, perhaps imagining President Rubio standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a sexy flight suit that makes his genitals look large and declaring, “Mission accomplished!” in the wake of “our” have toppled another despot we like less than the despots we (from this point forward, just imagine that every instance of we is encased in quotation marks) think are just fine. 

Or maybe we could try not repeating the process. My proposal is that we end all military operations in the Middle East. On the planes we send over to bring our military personnel home, we could be sending over construction workers and architects, whose mission it would be to construct hospitals and universities that we would, on completion, turn over unconditionally — as in not demanding mass conversion to evangelical Christianity, for instance — to the local people.  

In many cases, I would expect Taliban warlords and what have you to blow up the schools and hospitals at their first opportunity, especially if it came to light that girls might be educated in the schools. That would of course be heartbreaking. But more heartbreaking than jihadist massacres? More heartbreaking than hundreds of young persons whose boots had been on the ground coming home in body bags after having killed someone else’s son or daughter?

Herewith, an idea that I think may very well win me this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s put hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground — but without anyone’s tootsies inside. I anticiapate a fair number of residents of the countries on which we drop platefuls of boots suffering head injuries, but can you imagine the delight of those persons' neighbors on discovering that attractive, stylish new footwear that’s is theirs, thanks to Uncle Sam, for the grabbing?

I don’t anticipate Timberland, Frye, Nocona, or Laredo being sufficiently patriotic to lower the prices of their fine footwear to a point at which my proposal becomes fiscally viable to The Wrong (who, don't forget, think that handing out fewer food stamps will get the national debt paid off before next Easter). I can't imagine any of us wanting to see a project of this scope handed over to China or Bangladesh. So how about we instead invite a couple of million Syrians to enter the country, build inexpensive, but humane shelter for them in South Dakota, and put them to work making boots for no pay, but with the understanding that 12 months of boot-making for lfood and shelter and child care and education for the kiddies) entitles them to a green card? 

Everyone wins! The Wrong will have gotten their boots on the ground. When the jihadists go into poor neighborhoods in the Middle East to recruit prospective suicide bombers, though, the locals will point to their snazzy new footwear and say, “The Americans gave me these. What have you ever given me?” The Syrian refugees get refuge, and food, and housing, and the promise of a green card. South Dakota, in which the most exotic food one can presently find is pizza, gets hummus and kebabs and what have you. Yum! Best of all, to look at in the egocentric way we Americans have, you and I will no longer need worry quite so much about being blown to bits. 

As you may know, I have for the past several months been the sole socialist candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but it may be time to admit that my campaign, like Govs. Jindal’s, Perry’s, and Walker’s before me, just hasn’t seemed to strike the right chord with the, uh, base. The dignified thing might be for me to withdraw from the race, and make it known that I shall be pleased to be President Rubio’s Secretary of State.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Notations of My Beauty

I am very well aware that my great success with women — and men, and children! — is largely a matter of luck. My ease with people — my natural charm, if you will — is just something I’ve always had. Similarly, the fact of my looking approximately 25 years younger than my actual age has to do as much with genetic happenstance as with the fact that I go regularly to the gym, drink only rarely, moisturize twice daily, gave up smoking in 1976, and eat lots of fresh vegetables. 

Charm, I think, is the ability to make the other person feel interesting, valued, and attractive. I do this most commonly by feigning great interest in what he or she might be telling me, and by regularly exclaiming, “Oh, my!” or, more cogently, “Wow!” This isn’t to suggest that, like everyone else, I haven’t developed certain strategies for coping with the bumptious, boorish, and self-delighted. I have an acquaintance, for instance, who regards himself as Oscar Wilde Jr. In the course of a conversation, he will frequently get all puffed up like a particular sort of fish and then look skyward, making clear that he is about to intone something that he regards as enormously witty. In the last days of our sort-of-friendship, I got in the habit of unzipping myself and peeing on his ankles as he delivered his putative bon mots. In several cases, onlookers found my doing so very much wittier than what my acquaintance was saying.

I will here confess that my remarkable good looks aren’t solely to do with my wonderful genes, diet and exercise. Some years ago I traveled to Thailand to undergo extensive cosmetic surgery, and in hopes of my regaining my self-confidence, which had been decimated by my third wife’s having run off with a humorless Swiss electronics magnate with no sense of humor and a very unpleasant accent. I was so successful in the second regard that I cancelled my surgical appointments. Every time I would leave my hotel, local women would call out, “Hello, handsome,” as I ambled past. But the thrill of this soon dissipated, as I came to understand that any farang (roughly translatable as “rich-looking Westerner”) was likely to be greeted with comparable enthusiasm. And it wasn’t long before I began feeling objectified. I hoped the local beauties might call, “Hello, talented,” or, “Hello, witty,” occasionally, but had to content myself with notations of my beauty. 

Nor do I kid myself that my great success with women is entirely to do with a combination of charm and remarkable good looks. I know that my palpable prosperity has at least as much to do with the fact that gals on the bus and elsewhere are forever offering me their phone number, and, in some cases, items of intimate apparel. I take pride in having built my talent management empire from the ground up, and never having been given anything but advice. The first act I signed, Roger Risotto & The Rapscallions, were doomed by the British refusal to pronounce risotto properly. In their version, the word rhymes with Lotto or grotto, and has a short first vowel, whereas it’s properly pronounced reez-OH-toh, with the second syllable pronounced as in, “Oh, my!” They similarly can’t be persuaded to voice the final syllable of Tenerife (which they pronounce Tenor Reef). They may have lost their empire, but no one can force them to pronounce words properly!

My most recent signing has been Gerry Giovanni & The Jihadists. They’re enormously talented, but I’m afraid that, in light of recent events, their name might prove an impediment. I have urged Gerry to rebrand the act Gerry, Larry, Barry, and Mary, but he points out that doing so would compel him to hire a woman, and a woman in a musical combo, especially one with long legs and pouty lips, invariably alters its “dynamic.” I myself have been in combos in which various instrumentalists got sulky and unpleasant to be around in the face of a female member seeming to prefer the lead singer. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Beat on the Brat

On the bus home from Kingston a couple of weeks ago, I suffered what I think might have been described as a mild case of PTSD. My fellow passengers included an infant and his young mum (the Kingston of which I speak’s the on the Thames, in England, and in England, one has a mum, rather than a mom, though, given the popularity of American colloquial speech, give it a few weeks). Every 30 seconds or so — but at intervals whose irregularity precluded one’s girding himself — Infant Son would shriek piercingly, and continue shrieking as though Mum weren’t doing her best to appease him, but torturing him. I thought I might have to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way home. When they instead alighted, I felt enormous relief, but in a moment or two found myself tensing, as though for another shriekfest. 

A few days later, we went on holiday in Turkey. In the passport control queue, a young mother was trying to placate an infant of indeterminate sex whose shrieking made that of Bus Baby sound in comparison like one of those tranquility-inducing babbling brook simulators you can buy in New Age shops. 

The worst thing one can do with a truculent child, of course, is reward its truculence. To pay attention to the shrieking is to guarantee that there will be more of it. One of my proudest moments as a daddy came when my little girl was herself an infant, and got into the habit of waking up around halfway through my beloved Hill Street Blues, standing up in her bed, and hollering. When the hollering began, I’d go into her, get her to lie back down, tuck her in, and tell her how much I loved her. For a couple of nights, she considered the situation for maybe five minutes, and resumed hollering. This time, I’d take my own sweet time going into her, and when I did go, I’d put her back to bed without comment. If she got up a third time, I’d wait even longer to go in. 

I remember one episode with especial delight. I went into her bedroom for the second time that night, with furrowed brow, and quietly advised Brigitte, “There seems to be some confusion here, pretty girl. According to my watch, it’s time for you to be enjoying happy dreams. But according to your own, it’s time to stand standing up in your crib and holler.” She wasn’t speaking yet, but I swear the look she gave me suggested that she got my little joke. (She didn’t actually own a wristwatch at that point.) She sighed and lay back down of her own volition. I think that was the last of her hollering. As she got older, though, she continued to give me looks that made clear that she…got it when I was being wry. 

Not once did she make fellow passengers on a bus wish for deafness.

Well, how wonderful, you say. Of course, if you were such a terrific parent, how is it that your daughter, now reportedly on the verge of becoming a mom (I’m not sure that she’s ever been to the UK) herself hasn’t spoken to you in 13-1/2 years? To which I’ve no rebuttal. 

But back to Dalaman Airport, her fellow passengers, Christ-like and altruistic as we are, hold their tongues, knowing that if implore the young mum to placate her brat, the next group exposed to him will suffer even more. And I don’t think that even one of us doesn’t wish retroactively for Mummy’s infertility.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Paragon of Cool

Forty-nine years ago tonight, I met my second girlfriend. Actually, she met me, as I was too shy to approach girls. Her coming up to me at a dance when my band took a little break confirmed what I’d dared imagine about playing in a band — that girls would come even to the shy. My little band was The 1930 Four. The organ player had speculated the name would enfranchise us to dress up as Al Capone types. 

We actually dressed as The Beatles. To our amazement, we’d found military jackets of the sort The Beatles had worn on their recent American tour in a little men’s boutique on 3rd Street in Santa Monica, whose Battle of the Bands we’d won a few months earlier, military jackets of the sort The Beatles had worn on their recent American tour. The boutique had three jackets of approximately the same beige as The Beatles’, and one dark blue. I, as the drummer, was made to wear the dark blue. There were three of us in The Four — I, the prodigious teen guitarist Tot, and the keyboard player, who fervently disdained my inability to read music, and that I didn’t even own a practice pad. I never practiced in those days. I thought that the ferocity of my yearning for stardom would carry me through. 

We’d been on a local Channel 9’s own Battle of the Bands a couple of weeks earlier, on a show called 9th Street West, performing a sort of jazz-rock version of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, if memory serves. The guy for whom we’d auditioned had been a jazz fan, and was impressed by the organ player’s Jimmy Smith imitation, and by Tot’s 9th and 11th chords. At the audition, I’d had nothing with which to anchor my bass drum, which had crept out of range of my right foot halfway through the song. (The following year at Winterland in San Francisco I would retrieve one of the nails (these were crude, innocent times), with which one of Keith Moon’s bass drums had been discouraged from falling off the front edge of the stage.) I got the band the booking by invoking our victory in the Santa Monica Women's Club Battle of the Bands and our being one of the dozen finalists in the 9th Street West competition on TV. Our repertoire comprised several Merseybeat favorites, a couple of selections from the then-new Revolver album (which the organist didn’t bother to actually learn, as he could read music), and Ray Charles’s “Unchain My Heart,” which Tot, who was very much hipper than I, though four years younger, insisted on doing. 

Atter our first appearance on television, a young woman had interviewed us on camera. She’d asked me what kind of girl I preferred. It was the sort of question interviewers asked rock musicians in those days. I’d said, “Girls with short curly hair.” I don’t think she got the joke.

The girl came up to me between sets and asked if I’d teach her to play drums. Behind me, I could hear the organist muse, “Who’s going to teach him?” I’d have tried to teach her Urdu if she’d asked, or scuba diving. She had very long straight hair with bangs that touched her eyelids (I didn’t actually like short curly hair in the slightest), very long legs, and a very short skirt. She looked a little bit like Jean Shrimpton, at least form the neck down. I already had a girlfriend, and had even been thinking of marrying her, mostly because I couldn’t imagine ever inducing another girl to go out with me. But when Jean Shrimpton asked one to teach her to play drums, one didn't say, "Can I think about it?"

We became an item, the long-legged girl and I, though she soon realized I wasn’t the paragon of cool I might have appeared at the dance. I was still wearing Thom McAn Beatle boots, whereas she believed I should be wearing lace-up shoes of the sort The Rolling Stones wore on the cover of their Hide Tide, Green Grass album. I realized years later that she was right, but by then it was far too late.

Five years later, my group Christopher Milk lip-syched two numbers from its United Artists EP on the Saturday afternoon show that had succeeded 9th Street West on Channel 9. Flame, from which the Beach Boys later recruited two members one of whom went on to greater glory in The Rutles) were on too. They were very friendly, and it embarrassed me, as I didn’t feel worthy. I disguised my embarrassment as aloofness, as I did so often in those days. All these years later, I still feel awful about it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Welcome to Old Age

In the musical Avenue Q, there’s a moment when one of the characters bewails his having gotten old — 23. It’s meant to be heard as absurd. It is absurd. But I think I started pretending to regard myself as ancient at around 20 so others would say something like, “Don’t be silly. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!”

It’s been around seven or eight decades since I heard that.

Paris, the last night of 2012. Spousie and I, along with other British merrymakers with whom we traveled down to ring in the new year, have been disgorged beneath the Arc d’ Triomphe. It’s around eight-thirty, and our tummies are rumbling. We decide that restaurants on the Champs d’Elysses are likely to be charging an arm and a leg, and another arm, and several toes, for dinner on this gala occasion, so we hop aboard the Metro, which is free tonight. The train is crowded. An attractive young woman of the sort I’d have eagerly tried to hit on mere months ago, in my 30s or even early 40s, offers me her seat. I am flabbergasted, and deeply embarrassed. “Do you not know, my dear, who I am?” I want to scold my lovely benefactress. “I am the John Mendelssohn, the noted rock dreamboat, the king, according to no less than Bud Scoppa, of Hollywood.” I keep my mouth shut. My embarrassment and flabbergastedness are of no interest to anyone.

Welcome to Old Age, Johnny.

On expired drivers licenses and other forms of photo ID, I see little portraits of myself that at the time made me wail with anguish. I looked so ancient, so very non-dreamboat! Now I’d cut off several toes to look as good. 

In the mirror in my bathroom in Los Angeles, I didn’t fail to see the accelerating decrepitude of my once-gorgeous punim, noting with horror that, for instance, my lovely cheeks, once covered by the lip-prints of the nubile, have begun to cave in. In the bathroom mirror in Richmond, Surrey, UK, I am horrified to realize that its Los Angeles counterpart revealed only a fraction of the actual carnage. 

I'm on the left, Andrew.
I show a new UK collaborator a photograph of the second of the bands with which I performed in my rock dreamboat days. He is unable to discern which of the four depicted dreamboats I was. 

In March, I had my right shoulder re-replaced. (It had originally been replaced in 1995, when the arthritis got so bad that I could barely walk (one moves his arm while walking) without pain.) In May, intent on maintaining my boyish figure — and, indeed, on regaining the upper-body muscularity that made me so irresistible in my latter rock dreamboat days, after I realized that working out was probably a better idea than drinking, smoking, and fornicating with gullible girlies who imagined that I…was somebody. Everything went just fine until I got myself a case of bicep tendonitis so severe that I could barely walk without wincing every couple of steps. And did I mention that I’m now deformed and asymmetrical, my re-replaced shoulder being about half the circumference of the other one?

Last night on the bus, a trio of brats on the bus were becoming shriller and shriller. At one point the old man next to whom I was seated seemed able to endure no more, and turned reproachfully toward me, demanding to know if one of the brats were my grandson. Not my son. My grandson. And he himself was probably my kid sister’s age. 

I console myself with the knowledge of my increased knowledge, the wisdom that the decades have conferred at so high a cost.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Karmic Nest-Feathering

The seafront in Marmaris, Turkey, is lined with bars and restaurants designed to please British tourists. It is very common for them to offer two cocktails for the price of one. It is very common for them to show (English) Premier League football games. For the not-sporty crowd, several offer drag shows. But it was karaoke, which the missus loves so passionately, that we were after. Our second night in town, with her hair newly professionally blowdried, we went in search of some of the karoake bars about which previous visitors had raved on TripAdvisor. Because it was late in the season, though, both of those we located had ceased to offer karaoke. At another, there were so few singers that the bar staff performed dance routines. 

To Spousie’s limitless relief, there seemed to be karaoke at a place called The Captain’s Pub. She sang The Tremeloes’ hit version of Cat Stevens’ Here Comes My Baby, and Blondie’s The Tide Is High. I, of course, sang Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe. And then the very gay compere welcomed to the stage an old chap — Bert, I think — whom he had to help into the stool he fetched for him from the bar. I cringed, imagining that Bert would croak that which the elderly (that is, even elderlier than I) invariably sing in these circumstances — My Way. 

Bert did not. He sang Christian Aguilera’s heretofore-unheard-by-me Say Something. I didn’t think it much of a song; It didn’t deserve his remarkably passionate, soulful performance. His voice was slightly tremulous at times, but he didn’t miss a single Big Note. Later, he returned with another number — Robbie Williams’ Go Gentle, in which the singer, gigantic in the UK and virtually unknown in the USA — warns his infant daughter about the predators she’ll have to deal with later in life. He sang the hell out of it. When he was finished, the compere said that Bert was 92, and several of us remarked either, "Ooh! or, "Ah!" There are few things I have more when the elderly are patronized in this way.

It came time to head back to the hotel. I saw that Bert was sitting alone around a corner from where Spousie and I had been seated. I suggested we tell him how much we’d enjoyed his singing. He seemed delighted. Up close, he didn’t look a day over 82.

And now the bad part, the part about which I continue to kick myself over a week later. After we’d shaken his hand and told him how much we enjoyed his singing, we left them there. I didn’t do onto others, in other words, as I’d have hoped to be done. I’d have hated to have been there on my own. And yes, hated it if a couple of strangers had invited themselves to sit down with me, even if they’d kept rhapsodizing about my singing. But a better person than I would have erred on the side of providing more company than desired, rather than less.

Investigating volunteering opportunities in SW London, I find myself shying away from those that involve the elderly, who of course are probably those who most need companionship. I will not deny that many of them — the worst off, those…soiling themselves without even realizing it — inspire considerable revulsion in me. I’m ashamed of myself, but that makes me no more inclined to want to hang out with them, in much the same way that the realization that he might die if I didn’t wasn’t enough to get me to perform artificial respiration on the malodorous homeless guy who collapsed frothing at the mouth in front of me one afternoon in 1988 in San Francisco.

I have figured out that I feel as I do because I realize that in not very many years, I’ll be the one lying there helpless in that convalescent hospital bed, wishing someone whose language I don’t speak will notice my discomfort and come change my diaper. IA believer in karma might think that he’s feathering his own nest by being kind to the discarded elderly. I believe in karma no more than in astrology. Sometimes that which goes around really does come around. At least as often, it does not. 

In 1991, my dad had a stroke that left him unable to walk. My mother, the queen of catasstrophic expectations, felt sure that if she "allowed" him to come home, the house would catch fire, and that they’d both perish when she was unable to drag him to safety. Before he died in a Santa Monica convalescent hospital that reeked equally of urine and the disinfectant with which the staff tried in vain to banish the urine stench, a stranger, whom I never met (I was living in San Francisco) came in every week to take my dad on a little outing. It’s to my repay debt to that kind stranger, and not to feather my nest karmically, I will find a way to get over my revulsion.

The guy in San Francisco lived, by the way. My revulsion didn’t preclude my calling 911, and the paramedics revived him.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Typical Typicalities of the Regional Area

I have never been to the much-vilified Benidorm, in Spain, but I imagine it isn’t terribly different from Marmaris, in Turkey, a foreign place that exists pretty much solely for British (and in Marmaris’s case, some German) tourism. All the signage seems to be in English. There are restaurants called Ali Baba Kebab. There are a million shops in which to buy fluorescent trainers (to Americans: sneakers) and Hollister, California, T-shirts. There seems nowhere to buy anything authentically Turkish, not unless you go a couple of miles inland, into one of the dreary, colourless neighborhoods in which those who work in the million hotels reside. 

I can imagine them being adept at lip-biting and teeth-gritting, as they must feel approximately as the people of Iraq did after “we” liberated them from Saddam Hussein — occupied. I got a small taste of that living in Los Angeles when I would venture up to Hollywood Blvd. to buy tip-jar stripper heels, for instance. I’d be surrounded by gawking fatsos from the American heartland posing  in front of the Chinese Theatre with locals dressed up as Marvel Comics superheroes, or trying to decide on a tour of the stars’ homes. The difference is that the gawking fatsos were my countrymen. The bloated, misshapen Northerners covered in hideous tattoos on whom the Turks of Marmaris depend for their livelihood must seem to them to be from a different planet, a planet they haven’t the slightest yearning to visit.

About two-thirds of the staff of the five-star hotel in which we stayed, mostly with bloated, misshapen Northerners, made no secret of their distaste for their guests. The look on the face of one of the bartenders at the minibar just around the corner from Reception as he handed over drinks said, “I hope you choke on this.” You’ve never seen such glowering.

As is our custom, we signed up for what we call the Typical Typicalities of the Regional Area tour, on which you are loaded on buses and driven, in this case, into The Real Turkey. Our guide was a ponytailed local who’d lived some years in Australia, and whose accent — part Turkish, and part antipodean — was therefore uniquely grating. He took us first to the place of business of a local beekeeper. We removed our shoes and traipsed dutifully through his wildly overdecorated little house, and then, of course, got The Sales Pitch, during which our host implored us to buy various kinds of honey, most of which he asserted would cure what ailed us, including what is known on American television as ED. We were given the opportunity to buy glasses of pomegranate juice. A fascinating glimpse into life as actual Turks live it!

A typical Marmaris pub.
Then we were bussed to a not-notable waterfall, after which we were served a not-very-notable lunch. I fretted that the morbidly obese Glaswegian woman beside me might overwhelm the bench on which we and several others were seated, but it didn’t happen. I had an omelette and what the Brits (and, apparently, Turks) call chips, but which I grew up thinking of as French fries. Flavourless, but filling. Then it was down into an Actual Turkish Village, in which we were invited to peer through the windows of the local (empty) schoolhouse, and then invited to ogle the local mosque. Not even a little bit fascinating!

Once back at our hotel, we might have relaxed by the swimming pool but for the fact that there seems not to be a single big hotel swimming pool anywhere that Brits go anymore where awful disco music isn’t being played loudly enough to be heard on Rhodes when the self-styled DJ who curated it isn’t bellowing ecstatically, as though at a fieldful of kids on ecstasy rather than a hundred bloated tattoo monkeys from the north of England seemingly intent on sustaining third-degree sunburn.
I am no better able to imagine how endless disco music became inescapable on the edges of swimming pools than I am to figure out how people all over the world come to wish to wear clothing bearing the name of a sleepy little cow town in central California. I can no longer pretend that I’m not getting old. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Manuel Noriega Felt

Last week the missus and I traipsed through the most charming part of Marmaris, Turkey, the so-called Old Town adjacent to The Harbor, it occurred to me that there might be nowhere on earth I would hate more than Bar Street at midnight at the height of the season. I could easily envision it being full of drunken young yobs (obnoxious persons) throwing up on each other to the accompaniment of deafening house music, the worst music in world history, music dumbed down so far as barely to be recognizable as music.

Before we’d set out for the Old Town, we’d asked the leisure company representative by whom we were supposed to be welcomed our first afternoon about the free moonlight dinner cruise offered as an inducement to submit to the welcome, which traditionally involves the rep trying to persuade you to sign up for a slate of overpriced, invariably disappointing tours. We figured that on the moonlight dinner cruise, someone would try to talk us into subscribing to a timeshare arrangement. 

If only it had been only that bad. 

I got an odd, unpleasant feeling on noting that the ship on which we were to cruise was the pirate galleon Barbarossa. The ship, uh, weighed anchor and sailed for around 90 seconds toward the middle of the bay, where, to our astonishment, it stopped. And then the horror began — the dreadful, moronic “music,” with its relentless four bass drum beats per bar and its gall bladder-liquifyingly loud synth bass. THUD! THUD! THUD! Every 16 bars or so, the bass takes a powder while the synthesized snare drum plays eighth-notes, and then sixteenth-notes, and than sixteenth-note triplets, and finally thirty-second notes (a “roll,” we used to call it at Orville Wright Junior High School). Then the bass, re-entering, does a wonderful impression of the Big Bang. THUD! THUD! THUD! It’s undeniably exciting — the first couple of times you hear it. After 750 times over the course of an hour, you cease to be excited, and begin to know how Panamanian dictator (as “we” began calling him after the memo telling us to stop calling him “ally”) Manual Noriega felt when the U.S. Army used horrible music to induce his surrender. 

Is the idea that Kids Today can’t dance to Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Born to Love Her,” say, because without THUD! THUD! THUD!  they can’t figure out where the beat is? Is this some sort of drug thing? If I’d ingested a large dose of MDMA or acid, would I have been enjoying myself? Would I have felt that I and everyone else on the ship were, well, throbbing as one? 

I’m reminded of what’s happened to major league baseball. When I was young and foolish and a fan (it makes no more sense to root for a professional sports franchise than for a new Walmart or Home Depot), one had to make his own fun between innings. At best, Helen O’Dell might play a few bars of some tune beloved by The Whole Family — “Roll Out the Barrel,” let’s say. Nowadays, little entertainments are hurled at the fan not just between innings, but between pitches! We are a nation of spoiled four-year-olds. 


At a few minutes after eight, I asked a member of the Barbarossa crew when we would be returning to shore. At 11:30, he said. We had in front of us 210 minutes of THUD! THUD! THUD!, over which conversation was impossible. But we could always avail ourselves of the bar, with its outrageous boomtown prices, perhaps the highest in all of Turkey. I thought briefly of trying to organize a mutiny, but the first two people I approached with the idea — a couple of…lads from the North — turned out to be big fans of house music. I suggested to Spousie that we swim back to shore. Doing so was likely to take less than 210 minutes. Spousie reluctantly nixed the idea on the basis of not knowing how to swim. We looked hopefully at our wristwatches. Forty-five seconds had passed since our last look. We had 209 minutes and 15 seconds to go. “I wanna hear the fuckin’ bass,” someone growled malevolently through the ship’s immoderate sound system. 

I have always regarded Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” as purest crapola, and not because it’s impossible to hear without envisioning Tom Cruise in his underwear. But when mealtime arrived, and the DJ awarded us a wee respite from the house music, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” sounded like Mozart’s Requiem. Real music! The meal, of course, was just awful. 

The original DJ, whom I’d somehow resisted the urge to strangle, had been joined in the booth while we dined by two accomplices. I think one of them must have been tasked with inserting American-accented interjections into the infernal thudding. “I wanna hear the fuckin’ bass,” the malevolent voice kept growling in an American accent, leading me to think, “If you can’t hear the fuckin’ bass, buster, you are what medical professionals call ‘deaf.’ The internal sloshing of what used to be your gall bladder should be more than sufficient proof that it’s there. THUD! THUD! THUD!  

By and by, we lost the will to live, and that might have been our salvation. We continued breathing and swallowing, and my best guess is that our hearts kept beating, but otherwise every other system shut down. THUD! THUD! THUD! went the music, but we had ceased to care. About anything.

After around 72 hours of this, the DJ’s caused blue foam to rain down on the handful of dancers. “Orgasmic!” I thought. “It must nearly be over now!” It’ll go to the bathroom, come back, lie down, and smoke a cigarette. No such luck. Before we finally weighed anchor anew, the torture persisted for another couple of months, or maybe it just seemed that way. When we finally reached the shore, I didn’t kiss the ground, but don’t imagine that the thought didn’t occur to me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

No Heart Unshattered

[From my 2002 song "I Apologize”: No one departs with heart unshattered when something once so precious dies.]

Name Withheld and I met 45 years ago. Tripping on mescaline, if memory serves, I was awed by his physical beauty. When it emerged that he played a musical instrument, it occurred to me that if we were in a band together, maybe I would be able to seduce a few of the girlies for whom he couldn’t find the time. (Thirteen years later, I married one of his many former short-term girlfriends.) Later that evening, we and our respective gals drove together to a screening of Fantasia, a movie traditionally much enjoyed by persons tripping on mescaline. I remarked to my girlfriend, beside me in the front seat, on The Who’s use of a particular brand of amplifier. NW, in the back seat, set the record straight with scorching, censorious umbrage, as though I hadn’t misidentified The Who’s amplification, but called his sister a slut. I was duly embarrassed, thought to myself, “Gosh, what a jerk,” and decided maybe the band idea wasn’t so hot after all. But when I encountered him by chance several days later, he was cordiality itself, and we went on to perform together for three years, and to be good friends for nearly 20.

No friendship’s without glitches, and glitches were us. On one memorable occasion, when I suggested we go out for a bit of skirt-chasing, he affirmed the idea — with the understanding that he reserved the right to cancel if he received a better offer. On another occasion, I’d talked a record company into financing the recording of some of my new songs. When he heard that I was going to be working with a producer of our mutual acquaintance, NW volunteered to play. I’d already recruited a full complement of musicians, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He played poorly and, at one point in the session, loudly groused, in our mutual acquaintance’s hearing, “When are we going to do the good song?” The implication being that his talents were being squandered on three of the four original songs I’d brought in. His penchant for trying to humiliate me in the eyes of others, in other words, was undiminished. 

He speculated at one point that he might subconsciously see me as the brilliant older brother to whom he’d spent his formative years being unfavorably compared. His childhood had been no more my fault than mine had been his.

In nearly 20 additional years of estrangement, there arose this thing called the Internet, by use of which one could try to track down persons from his past. I tracked down and contacted NW, whom I’d unsuccessfully begged not to abandon our friendship in the first place, and suggested we attempt restoration. He wouldn’t consider it until I’d jumped through a few hoops, though. “What,” he wondered icily, “do you think a friendship is?” I knew that there was no correct answer, that he was just setting me up to chastise for having failed to live up to his expectations. I emphatically declined the hoop-jumping, but his heart eventually softened, which softening he signaled by begrudgingly granting me the privilege of designing advertising materials for him at no charge. We took to talking on Skype a lot.

A couple of years later, as an American expatriate in England, I became fatally tired of feeling a stranger in a strange land and resolved to return to where I feel most at home in the world — southern California, which NW had never left. When I had broken up with my second major adult girlfriend in 1980, he’d generously invited me to stay with him at the house he was housesitting, and we’d gotten along fine, so I suggested we share an apartment. Doing so turned out to be a disaster. In the intervening 32 years, NW turned out to have developed a raft of compulsions. Germs, he seemed to believe, were not only everywhere, but intent on infecting him! Need proof? Well, here was an article from the Internet! He was pretty sure that if we didn’t keep the door locked, evildoers might, even if we were both home, burst into the apartment and steal either his large collection of seldom-touched guitars, or the even larger collection of severely mismatched wooden furniture he’d acquired over the years.

The happy couple in 1971.
We hadn’t been roommates two weeks when, without provocation, he invoked an incident from around 1971 in which he believed me to have improperly handled some financial transaction involving both of us. “Do you not realize,” I said, shocked and dismayed, “that when you do this, you’re effectively kicking the chair out from under our friendship?” Well, of course he didn’t. While thinking of himself as the soul of forgiveness and charity, he lovingly nurtures his every ancient grievance. Why was I unable to understand that his invocation of a long-forgotten-by-me incident from 42 years before was unimpeachably reasonable!

It hasn’t failed to occur to me that those things we find most insufferable about each other may be those we like least about ourselves. The difference being, I think, that I’m painfully aware of my own myriad imperfections. While NW may be aware of his own, deep down, he literally can’t bear for another to  point them out. The slightest criticism invariably elicits a spirited counterattack. If, for instance, one plays a recording of him singing terribly out of tune, his reflexive reaction will be a four-year-old’s —something along the lines of, “Well, you sing worse!” 

His appetite for embarrassing me in front of third parties remained unsated.. He invited a musician friend over. In the course of chatting with said friend about my own music, I acknowledged that I’m a terrible guitarist. “And a terrible singer too,” NW eagerly noted, unprovoked. Later, when I told him how embarrassed I’d been by the remark, he professed incredulity at my inability to take a joke. Getting him to “I apologize” had always been a remarkably exhausting undertaking. Contrition doesn’t come easily to one who can’t bear the thought of having behaved imperfectly.

I am a chronic depressive. We had many conversations over the years about what he, not understanding depression, sees as my disinclination (as opposed to inability) to opt for joy over despair. He proudly points out that he consciously makes that decision on a regular basis. Thus, I am to understand that he is able to consciously choose joyfulness, but unable to choose not to be plunged into emotional disrepair by my leaving a kitchen drawe or cabinet — or maybe even two! — open. I began to understand that he derives considerable joy from scolding. I, unfortunately, derive none whatever from being scolded. 

Using the same wholesome, self-admiring tone in which he spoke of his choice of joy over despair, he spoke also of how, unlike me, he always assumed that his friends wished the best for him. Which sounded just lovely, and wasn’t remotely the case. If, on the way into the kitchen, I gave his big toe an affectionate squeeze during one of his Tuesday evening CSI-fests, I had to be mocking him, just as when I would ask on Tuesday afternoons if he were excited about his favorite crime dramas coming on later. 

The friendship was nonetheless precious to me. There is no question that he can be wonderfully kind and generous. But I began to feel as though living with an alcoholic parent — inexpressibly sweet one moment, and a nightmare the next. I come to live in dread of his sarcasm and censure. It reached the point at which I explicitly encouraged his cutting back on the kindness and generosity if it meant he’d stop nagging and do something about his compulsion to try to humiliate me in front of third parties. No sale.

Because one doesn’t prevail in an argument with him, not ever, and because I’d repeatedly expressed as clearly as it’s in me to express anything how intolerable I found his nagging, sarcasm, and compulsion to embarrass me, I regretfully reached the point at which, to protect myself, I avoided any interaction with him.

He lost a parent (I’m presuming) a few weeks ago. I offered my condolences, and expressed my regret about the death of our friendship. He mocked me on both counts, and ferociously decried my insensitivity in mentioning the two things together. If the friendship was dead, he asserted, with no little viciousness, it was because I'd lied four years before when I'd told him I'd do my utmost to make it work. He had played no part whatever! 

It was unmistakable that the point of no return was now several miles behind us. The person I'd loved so long, if interruptedly, as a friend, looked to me now like nothing but a grade-A prick. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Whatever Happened to The Stroganovs?

[Any resemblance of characters or circumstances in the following reverie to actual persons or events is entirely coincidental.]

Togo and his neighbor and a singer/guitarist Togo had met at a birthday party put a band together. A succession of lead guitarists came and went before it occurred to Togo to invite the guy who, as a young hotshot in 1977, had played lead in his band The Nadir. Togo never dreamed he’d like the idea, but damned if he did not! But then it emerged that the birthday party guy, the singer — a husband, father, and grandfather — was available to rehearse only three times a month on a good month. Togo found a lovely Ukraine-born young woman singer who seemed to love the camera, even if there was none present. Thinking that her nationality might be saleable, he proposed that the band rename itself The Stroganovs. Neighbor was adamant that the proposed group name would offend prospective gay patrons (because Vladimir Putin’s homophobic, Vladimir Putin’s Russian, and beef Stroganoff is a Russian dish), a notion several gay friends and acquaintances found incomprehensible, and none endorsed. 

The band concept, if you will, was to perform pre-1970 songs all four musicians liked in boldly imaginative ways. Back when the birthday party singer had suggested Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, Togo had rewritten the five-note guitar riff on which the song is based, sort of turning it upside down. Neighbor contemptuously pronounced the proposed revision musically unconscionable — meandering (though only five notes!) and better suited to a calliope than a guitar. On most occasions thereafter when Togo had a musical idea, he kept it to himself rather than have to endure Neighbor’s glib, gratuitous ridicule.

The group worked on vocals. Neighbor seemed to regard himself as one of the great harmonizers, a younger Paul McCartney or Graham Nash, a living Phil Everly. Togo had long believed his self-delusion in this regard to be stratospheric, but no amount of recorded evidence had  been able to change Neighbor’s mind. Although seemingly incapable of hearing his own off-keyness, Neighbor always delighted in pointing out others’, and announced in front of the other Stroganovs that he was far from convinced Togo would be able to sing particular parts to Neighbor’s satisfaction.

Togo, chastened, nonetheless did pretty much all the band’s behind-the-scenes stuff, except the recording of Young Female Singer on the band’s demo recordings, as he had no wish to hear Neighbor’s bewailing the pitch problems he’d let slide, but which were sorely offensive to one with as acute a sense of pitch as Neighbor’s. Togo made elaborate videos for two kinds of prospective patrons — bookers at night clubs and event organizers — and two Websites. He spent days on end procuring names and email addresses, and designed a succession of what he hoped were attention-grabbing little graphics, and then spent endless hours sending them out. The band had essentially become a full-time job.

Finally, a metal venue in the San Fernando Valley offered to allow the band to open for a succession of tribute acts whose audiences the Strogs’ guitar player, a veteran of many performances there, felt sure would loathe The Stroganovs. One whose idea of a good time was AC/DC, he asserted, was unlikely to be very pleased with the Strogs’ Dick Dale-esque version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” Weeks in advance, a little club in one of the south-of-LAX beach cities offered the band a 7:00 p.m. slot on a Saturday night. Togo immediately started putting a series of advertisements for the gig on Facebook, imploring people to attend.

Six people attended, five invited by Togo, and one Russian woman hoping to persuade the singer to marry her son. It was just as well. The group’s sound check had been scheduled for 5:30. Neighbor showed up, with neither explanation nor apology, at 6:15, after the sound guy had given up on the group and gone out to run an errand. Togo’s drums may have been inaudible to the audience for the first three numbers. They were inaudible to him the whole show.

Forty-eight hours later, Togo received a scathing email from the club’s booker. How had he dared to keep sending her attention-getting graphics when the group was capable of drawing only six paying customers on a Saturday evening?

He gets it coming, you see, and he gets it going. He works feverishly to get a booking. The rest of the band takes his having done so for granted, and, between the three of them, fill  not a single seat. The booker tells him angrily to take her off the Strogs’ mailing list he  worked so hard on compiling. Whereupon the balance sheet looks like this: He gets great pleasure out of rehearsing with the guitarist and singer, and none whatever from rehearsing with Neighbor, who never practices, but on whose playing he is tacitly forbidden to comment, though something has given Neighbor the impression that Togo is vitally interested in his impressions of the parts Togo works up for himself. And he get nothing but displeasure from being either ignored or scolded for his persistence by the many prospective patrons he keeps emailing and phoning, out of sight of the band, out of mind of the band, on the mutual behalf.

If he wants rejection, he thinks to myself, he can revert to trying to get his fiction published.