Saturday, January 10, 2015

1956 Concludes, and So Does Joe

You’ve seen those inane little quizzy things on Facebook inviting you to, for instance, think of a band whose name starts with each letter of your own name. Wow, what a stumper! Sarcastic bastard that I am, I rarely fail to say something like, “I LOVE these brainbusters! They really get my cerebral cortex stimulated!” A few weeks ago, Mr. Joe Ramsey saw my comment on a thread that challenged the reader to think of a song title that contained a woman’s or girl’s name, and made his own comment: “Nope, I’ve got nothing.” Every time I think of that, I laugh aloud again. But more about Joe later.

Back in 1956, at almost nine, I finally learned to ride a bicycle, and felt briefly like A Real Boy, at least until I remembered that I couldn’t swim, nor traverse the monkey bars at school. I was really good at art and spelling, and no one cared in the slightest. Miss Gabby, who looked exactly like the flame-haired comic strip sexpot Brenda Starr, and was the sexiest woman ever hired to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District, was unlikely ever to reciprocate my adoration, so I fell in love, compensatorily, with my classmate Jan Richter, who wore the hell out of a poodle skirt. The romance, of which I was too shy to advise her, ended when she threw up in class one day. I can’t abide a woman who can’t hold her liquor.

My family moved to a less genteel province, down by the beach in Playa del Rey, in a little ghetto of slipshod two-story duplexes that later came to be called The Jungle, probably in homage to the Upton Sinclair novel, and I am of course only kidding, but not about its having come to be called The Jungle. I fell in (eagerly!) with a little gang that vandalized any house plants other residents had been so foolish as to leave on their doorsteps, and redeemed empty soft drink bottles for cash. Tootsie Rolls tasted like actual food in those days. I began a stamp collection. I was mostly miserable and lonely in spite of my membership in the gang. The leopard doesn’t change its spots.

Sometime before my 10th birthday, I realized that, by virtue of not being Jesus (behold my acculturation!), I was mortal, and it scared me senseless. But the realization occasioned one of the tenderest moments of my childhood when I confessed my terror to my parents. They couldn’t have been sweeter or more loving as they pointed out that I had a long, long way to go before I needed to worry about such matters.

I’ve now come that long, long way, and am regularly consumed, if only briefly, by terror —briefly because one chooses between learning to suppress it, on the one hand, and, on the other, going insane. Only last week, I learned that Joe Ramsey, mentioned in the first paragraph, had died, leaving behind a wife and two beautiful little girls, and that the Elizabeth Taylor of my junior high school, after whom I and every other heterosexual boy on the premises secretly lusted (although not everyone as secretly as I, the shyest boy in sight), has a horrible degenerative disease that’s killing her. The stepdaughter of another Facebook friend I correspond with died in agony of cancer in 2014. 

It occurs to me that the compensatory wisdom that one achieves after his beauty deserts him isn’t really wisdom so much as the skill of being able to pretend you don’t know what’s happening to you, or what awaits.  And this one, ERA and Joe, is for you.

Friday, January 9, 2015

1956: Going Rogue, and Knocking Out My Own Front Teeth

In 1956, Elvis took the country by storm. My parents weren’t sold on this being a wonderful thing. I was slightly too young to take their ambivalence as a cue to start modeling myself after the great man. Others, either older or more sophisticated than I, had no such misgivings, and there arose in my part of the word — Westchester, near the new high school — a new archetype, the rogue. His (there were no roguettes, so far as I knew, not that I knew much at all) hair was slick with grease, and his sideburns obscenely long — sometimes nearly to the bottom of his ear. He wore his blue jeans too low (and around a foot higher than modern homies), and was prone to random acts of violence. In other necks of the woods, he might have been called a greaser, I suppose, or a hoodlum. I dreaded him, as I’d been led to believe he would beat dutiful little Jewish boys senseless on sight.

At Loyola Village School, several boys with rogue or rogue wannabe older brothers or dads started wearing their trousers very low, and to discard their belts. Those in Charge ordained that any boy caught without a belt would be required, humiliatingly, to wear a length of twine instead. Naturally, a length of twine immediately became a coveted badge of honor. I’d never realized before how spectacularly clueless grownups could be, though of course no one used the word clueless in those days.

The problem I had with bicycle-riding was that I’d failed to notice that one’s forward momentum precluded his falling over to either side. It seemed to me that my getting up a good head of steam put me in greater jeopardy of a painful fall, rather than less. My dad got fed up quite quickly with my timidity, adding my fear of his growing anger to my existing terror. And then we stirred in a little guilt. I (that is, a Hughes Aircraft Co. staff artist my dad had enlisted for the job) won a shiny new Schwinn bicycle in the local Thrifimart’s coloring contest. I was sleepless the night before I was to be presented with my prize wondering what I'd do if they asked, "Well, don't you want to take 'er for a little spin?" Not yet nine years old, and already so full of terror and self-loathing it was a wonder I could get into my scrupulously beige jeans.

Of course, it wasn’t just the self-loathing that made me, to my infinite horror, require jeans in a size their manufacturers called…Husky. It was also that my mother derived no pleasure whatever from cooking, and that we filled up each night on sweets. I got a little bit portly, which of course looked more to many of my classmates like obscenely obese. Another brick in the wall!

I did what any self-respecting self-loather would do: injured myself, taking a face-first dive off the infernal shiny new Schwinn one morning after my dad, hopelessly frustrated and seething, threw up his hands and left me alone to learn (or, more likely) fail to learn at my own pace. I knocked out my two front teeth, and came home bloody. How do you like your handsome, hopelessly fucked-up little boy now, Mommy and Daddy?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Part 31 of Our Pete Townshend Interview

Over the course of my career as a music journalist, I interviewed lots of hotsy-totsy rock stars, most of them quite badly. Around those I admired, I’d be hopelessly tongue-tied, and usually got hopelessly bored within a couple of minutes of sitting down with those in whom I’d no interest.

Early in my career, I spent an awkward half-hour making small talk with Jethro Tull’s not-very-distinguished guitarist Martin Barre in his underwear (that is, he was wearing his BVDs, and I my own frilly nylon panties, the idea for which I’d gotten from The Kinks) waiting for Ian Anderson, the true object of my affection, to materialize. When he did, he turned out to be pretty irascible. I complimented him on his multicolored leather patchwork jacket, and lamented that garments of such stylishness were unavailable in the USA. He’d bought it in Minneapolis.

I interviewed Mick Jagger at his rented home in Bel-Air about an album I hadn’t heard, and would later wish I'd continued not to have heard. He was charming and patient. Realizing, after a while, that I was too in aw of him to pose an interesting question, he switched on the TV and we passed an enjoyable hour watching a terrible Western interrupted every 45 seconds by the colorful local automobile huckster Cal Worthington, whose dog Spot was a tiger.

In the 80s, while writing for the fervently irreverent Creem, I took to provoking my conversational partners. My first question to Pat Benatar was what she liked most about being abnormally short. Her publicist crawled back out of her rectum long enough to give me a very dirty look. I asked Queen’s drummer if he wasn’t embarrassed by Freddie Mercury’s harlequin leotards, or by Queen’s sounding vocally like a men's glee club. After a while, he realized I wasn’t going to ask him anything not intended to antagonize him, but remained a good sport until I told him I needed to take some photographs. As I was about to click the shutter, he stuck his tongue out, and then suggested I vacate the premises. I was pleased to oblige, as there are few groups I’ve ever detested as fervently as Queen.

The Beach Boys launched one of their regular, ultra-cynical Brian-is-back-and-better-than-ever! campaigns. I found it sickening, which I made clear when I interviewed them. Talking to Carl Wilson was as interesting as talking to a soggy phonebook, but I unleashed my main obnoxiousness on Mike Love. He may be one of the great villains in American popular music history (and may not), but I had to admit that decades of meditation (or something) had made him imperturbable. It was Jerry Schilling (if I’m remembering his name correctly), a one-time Elvis acolyte, who snarled malevolently.

Nicest person I ever interviewed: Steve Howe of Yes. He was so charming that I forgave his membership in Yes. Most miserable: Ray Davies, who spent the whole of our last conversation looking about to burst into tears. Shyest? Bryan Ferry, who stared at a spot on the carpet midway between us for the entirety of our interview, and had a handshake like a plateful of overcooked linguine. Most generous? Ike Turner, who gave me an enormous bag of very potent cannabis at the end of our conversation, during most of which he had two Ikettes on his lap, one on each leg. Most paranoid: Ray Davies, who tape-recorded our conversation, presumably so I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. (And here I’d hoped that he regarded me as a friend!) Most verbose: Well, you’d think Pete Townshend (most common headline on rock magazine covers in the 1970s: Part 2 (or 3, or 4, or 5!) of Our Pete Townshend Interview), but actually Peter Noone, once the Herman of Herman’s Hermits. I came into his house, marveled at his tininess, and turned on my tape recorder. Around 55 minutes later, I switched it off without having had to ask a single question. 

Most boring: the LA billboard sexpot Angelyne, who had a grab-bag of purportedly cute standard responses, but desperately needed new writers, or the lead singer in A Flock of Seagulls, or Adam Ant. The Flock guy was so self-inflated and tiresome that in my article I berated the reader for having nothing better to do than read it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

1976: Lord, I Had Dem Bicentennial Blues

It dawned on me at the beginning of 1976 that composing an anthem for America’s 200th birthday might prove just the get-rich-quick scheme I’d been looking for since being invited no longer to be an employee of ABC Records. The result was a sarcastic toe-tapper in which the singer confessed, “Lord, I got dem Bicentennial blues, clear down to my Bicentennial shoes.” It wasn’t sensational, but if I’d been Randy Newman, all the world would have regarded it as a work of staggering satirical genius.

I got myself a job editing radio interviews for the Los Angeles media personality Lew Irwin. I’d record an interview with someone and then Lew would re-read the questions I’d asked. I interviewed some authors whose books I hadn’t actually read, and Danny Fields, who’d discovered and was managing The Ramones, and the group comprising the late Three Dog Night’s backing musicians and the guy who would go on to sing lead for Toto. What a very scintillating bunch they were, and how very unhappy I made them! I spent most of the interview verbally suckerpunching the bass player, who I knew three years before to have stiffed a member of Christopher Milk for some carpentry work.

Much amused by the original Pits drummer’s disco-style drumming, Greg Shaw released my 1975 demos as an EP on Bomp Records. The world was not set afire. I came into Rhino Records on Westwood Blvd. to cash in an armful of reviewers’ copies of others’ stuff, and was greeted by a sign suggesting that the record could be enjoyed only by a masochist. I borrowed a pen and appended “or philatelist or botanist.” My victory was Pyrrhic.

I lived on Sunset Blvd., first on the fourth floor, and later on the 12th, and dashed off a quickie biography of Paul McCartney. My band Christopher Milk’s former producer, who’d gone on to produce Paul, was not pleased about my having related unflattering things he’d told me about Paulie. Epic Records agreed to fund a demonstration tape, this in the days when you couldn’t yet record something entirely credible on a laptop in your bathtub. Peter Frampton was in the process of selling 17 billion copies of his live album, the appeal of which I was unable to discern. Jethro Tull released an album called Too Old to Rock and Roll, But Too Young to Die. Noting that I was months older than the song’s composer and singer, I became fretful.

On Memorial Day, I went with my girlfriend and her little girl to Will Rogers’ home in the Pacific Palisades, and, because it was a gorgeous day, and I the living embodiment of rude animal health, decided to sprint across Will’s polo field. I made it around 20 yards before collapsing to the ground in pain and embarrassment. ‘Twas at that moment I resolved to quit smoking and to exercise regularly, resolutions I have kept to this day.

I visited the UK for the second time in the autumn, hoping to get myself the record deal that had eluded me in my own country. No fewer than four A&R men pronounced me the Next Big Thing. None would respond to my letters or return my phone calls when I got back to California. I bought my girlfriend, who was fairly iffy about the whole idea, some PVC fetishwear at a boutique in South Kensington called She-an-Me for reasons known only to the proprietor. The pound had just been devalued, and the big department stores on Oxford Street stores were effectively giving clothing away. I bought a great deal. I almost saw The Sex Pistols, but one of the Bromley Contingent, loitering in front of the venue, excitedly told me they sounded just like The Stooges. “Been there, done that,” I thought. I visited Christopher Milk’s former producer and learned he was about to produce the Pistols. “They tell their manager to fuck off from the stage,” he marveled admiringly. I was of course beguiled.

I attended an Xmas party at the home of a woman who’d worked with my girlfriend at ABC Records, and there met a guy who worked for Warner Bros.’ music publishing company. When I assured him I was America’s greatest living songwriter, he invited me to come in and play him tapes. Thus did the year end with me feeling optimistic.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Record Industry Grovels as the Rock Press Pukes

The music industry kept waiting for rock to die, and it just wouldn’t. The payola scandals of the late 50s, Little Richard’s (re-)finding religion, Chuck Berry’s being incarcerated, and Elvis’s being drafted had had those who hated or didn’t understand the music on the edge of their seats, waiting to breathe a huge sigh of relief, but then The Beatles came along and made the return to dominance of smooth-voiced crooners with matching white plastic belts and loafers, long eyelashes, and Italianate surnames look less likely than ever.

By the end of the 1960s, the record companies had realized that it was uncouth drug fiends in undignified clothing who were paying their salaries, and began reluctantly to hire uncouth other drug fiends in undignified clothing in hope they might explain what it was about the original drug fiends' weird, unpleasant music that made kids want to spend their lawnmowing and babysitting money on it.

I think it may have been such a person who, feeling puckish or vengeful, sold the record companies on the idea that ostentation and profligacy were the way forward. The companies began erecting bigger and bigger billboards along Sunset Blvd. in the same way that tbeir top executives bought flashier and flashier sports cars. Essentially, of course, they were all trying to show that they had larger penises than the next guy. It was fairly unlikely, after all, that a consumer in Council Bluffs, say, or Poughkeepsie would be more inclined to take a chance on a new recording artist because of his or her big, oversized billboard on the Strip.

But the money squandered on the billboards was insignificant compared to that the record companies began spending on trying to butter up the rock press, which, in the days since people had stopped reading solely about Davy Jones’s favorite color, had come to consist of maybe half a dozen talented, or at least thoughtful, writers who modeled themselves after film critics, and countless thousands of nerdish little showoffs who’d heard they could get boxfuls of free albums every month if they dashed off a review of some bozo a record company mistakenly regarded as hot stuff.

Very early in my career, I attended a party at which The Rock Press was supposed to get chummy with an undistinguished duo from Nebraska called Zager & Evans, who’d had a fluke hit with a wad of apocalyptic drivel called “In the Year 2525,” all about how mankind was its own worst enemy. The Rock Press made no bones at all about their disdain. There, alone at the table where their record company’s publicist had installed them, were the two embarrassed-looking minstrels, and all around, scrupulously ignoring them while they chowed down and guzzled free cocktails, those who were supposed to help ensure their ongoing popularity. It was hilarious, and of course a little heartbreaking.

It got much worse. The more the industry groveled before it, the more overtly contemptuous The Rock Press became. By around 1972, it was very much par for the course for some unshaven, malodorous young cough syrup addict who made his living trading in reviewers’ copies of records to pee drunkenly in the punch bowl just as those in whose honor the party was being thrown were being awarded their platinum albums. One was to understand, though, that these weren’t acts of wanton brattishness, but blows against the empire.

Eventually, it seemed to dawn on the record companies that the rock critics who mattered weren’t the little nerds guzzling their alcohol and devouring their crab legs, but the nation’s radio program directors. One mid-level station adding a record to its playlist would do it more good than every little rock critic in the land rhapsodizing about it in print, and there would be no danger of some self-proclaimed gonzo journalist throwing up on the mistress of the label’s vice president of sales.  

It was fun while it lasted.
Speaking of smooth-voiced crooners with matching white plastic belts and loafers, long eyelashes, and Italianate surnames, I used to think that Bobby Rydell [nee Ridarelli], say, or Frankie Avalon, represented the nadir of 20th century Western popular music. But were the Frankiebobbies that Dick Clark gleefully unleashed after the payola scandal really any more flagrantly bogus than Motley Crue or Bon Jovi?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Trick-or-Treating Alone, Too Late: My Boyhood Continues

Halfway through the 1950s, I realized with unprecedented clarity that there was something very wrong with me, and something right. I wasn’t nearly as good at sports as I hoped to be, and my fearfulness (I was my mother’s son) precluded my being able to do things that other boys could do easily, like swim or ride a two-wheeler. Indeed, my fearfulness (in this case of the Unseen Evil in dread of which I’d been living since I first attained self-consciousness) even kept me from enjoying my mother’s love to the full. When I was in the third grade, my mother one day had a medical appointment that made impossible her being at our little apartment on Manchester Blvd. in Westchester to serve me lunch. I couldn’t actually eat at our little dining table what she’d lovingly laid out for me, as I was too afraid the Unseen Evil would sneak up behind me, put his scaly hand over my mouth, and abduct me. I dashed in a couple of times and grabbed things, which I then wolfed down outside the apartment. That night, Mom seemed hurt that I hadn’t remarked on the loving note she’d left beside my sandwich. I hadn’t remarked because, in my desperation not to be abducted, I hadn’t seen it. A million years later, I still feel awful about that.

Uncharacteristically, my very frugal parents, who'd been teenagers during the Depression, took me to Disneyland when it was still three rides and a collection of large puddles surrounded by orange groves. Walt Disney himself, who was walking around in the mud frowning at blueprints, glowered at my dad for disturbing him, but smiled at me. Maybe he didn't realize our ethnicity. I don't think we conversed, but I tell people we did so that I can claim to be the only person you've ever met who has chatted with both Walt Disney and Jimi Hendrix. Back home, I would often make my dad sit through an entire travelogue or nature edition of Disneyland, the TV show, in anticipation of being given a reason to live by the preview of the following week's show. 

The something right I realized about myself was that I was smarter than most of my classmates. Reading at around a 7th grade level though I was in 4th grade, I absolutely devoured Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, pausing often to marvel at Lawrence Beall Smith’s beautiful illustrations. I was myself good at art. I made a nice drawing of a jet one day, and the alpha boy in my class refused to believe that it could be the work of one so inept on the playground. I worried that if I tried to explain that there probably was no correlation between artistic ability and athleticism, he might punch me in the kisser. I began my first novel, a pirate story, and my dad importuned some poor typist at Hughes Aircraft to type it up, though it ended in mid-sentence. My scandalously sexy teacher, Miss Gabby, who I think made a great many of us boys aware of our heterosexuality early on, invited me to read it in class. It shut my tormentors up for maybe an hour, but then it was back onto the playground.

Psychologists speak of transference, whereby emotions and desires originally associated with one person or thing are unconsciously shifted to another. I transferred up a storm, treating the black ants that abounded in the driveway of my parents’ new house on Earldom Avenue as I wished I had the courage to treat my tormentors at school. I spent happy — wait, that might be an exaggeration — hours crushing them with my fingertips, which by afternoon’s end would be raw.

(And damned if I don’t still do it. The sight of a cockroach in the kitchen in 2015 turns me into an action hero. “How do you like this, motherfucker” I snarl Stallonishly as I send one back to its final rest. And how gleeful I am when I am able to run down one of the scurrying little bastards. And all the while I am questioning my own rage, for are these creatures not doing exactly what God or nature intended them to, seeking out microscopic bits of food, and scurrying? But they will nonetheless know my awful wrath!)

Sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes. My parents forgot Halloween. I was beside myself, on getting home from accompanying them to the supermarket, to realize their oversight. I wound up trick-or-treating, solo, hours after others had gone home. Neighbors would open their doors to me looking either annoyed or incredulous. My mid-childhood writ large! Alone, somehow…wrong and quietly miserable.