This morning, for fun, I shall telephone various celebrated lawyers, identifying myself as the movie star and Scientologist Tom Cruise. Many are sure to be skeptical, but a few will take my calls. When I admit that I’m not Tom Cruise at all, most will hang up angrily, but a couple will ask, “Well, you’ve got me on the phone. What was so important that you called me in the middle of a meeting?” Whereupon I shall admit that the prank is sort of self-referential, in the sense that it recognizes itself as not terribly funny — not, at least, like that which my friend David and I used to play during the great hootenanny scare of the early 1960s. David would phone someone at random, taking care to note the number, and ask to speak to Tom. The person randomly called would sputter, “There’s no Tom here!” and hang up. We would giggle for a minute or two, and then I would call the person back and say, “This is Tom. Have there been any calls for me?” I can assure you that was hilarious nearly beyond quanitification.
Oh, the good times we had together, David and I, before each of us decided there were others in our lives whose company we preferred. He ran off with a slightly older house painter and drug dealer named — and this was his real name — Henry Ford, while I became quite the ladies’ man, posing provocatively, glowering in that scary way so many gals find irresistible — at least those who grew up trying in vain to win the affection of a distant or disapproving father more interested in watching boxing on television, or golf. My jaw wasn’t particularly square, but my eyes a very rich shade of darkest chocolate.
I should explain about the Great Folk Scare. Starting around 1956, there was the glorious first generation of rock and roll enjoyed by a mass audience. Then Elvis’s conscription and the payola scandal left a void into which the terrifying Dick Clark rushed with his small army of young Sinatroids — most named either Frankie or Bobby, all of them inconceivably lame. But then, starting with the success of The Kingston Trio, a mass audience developed for a very sanitized, denatured brand of folk music crooned by earnest college sophomores in crewcuts and matching short-sleeved sportshirts. What better way to say, “Bland, not at all threatening,” than with a short-sleeved sportshirt? (A couple of years later, The Beach Boys too would wear ‘em, and look colossally lame in ‘em.) How one longed for The Beatles, without even knowing their name!
Hootenanny this, motherfucker.
Hootenanny this, motherfucker.
We’d met, David and I, as identically lonely, alienated, shy, cynical, miserable sophomores at Santa Monica High School. We’d wrestled each other — non-homoerotically! — in PE. His knee had hit my head at one point, and I’d seen stars, as I never had before and never would again. I tried really hard in high school, being a dutiful Jewish son, feeling that good grades would unlock lots of doors for me. David, maybe a little hipper, definitely lazier, and Norwegian-American, didn’t try very hard at all. Looking back, I recognize his as the more sensible approach.
He idolized Jonathan Winters and Bob Dylan, this well before the latter attracted mass adoration. He was in a folk duo that performed none of Bob’s songs, and could manage some rudimentary finger-picking. Around the time that “Eve of Destruction” was a big hit, he and I wrote a song together. I was young and very stupid, but a contrarian even then, and my lyrics chastized peace marchers and so on for not recognizing how Communism threatened Our American Way of Life. I can remember only a couple of lines: “War is not the answer to wordly strife,” you said. With gentle understanding we can convert the Red. (Gosh, this is embarrassing.) I was speechless with delight when David set the lyrics to music, but then discovered he, lazy as he was, had only appropriated an existing song’s chords and melody.
Much as Dylan himself did all the time in those days.