Saturday, January 17, 2015

Summer (and Spring, Fall, and Winter) of 1969: The Most Eventful Year of My Life

I’d hated 1968. I’d hated the blues, and power trios, and my own sense of intense alienation, familiar as a twin though it might have been. I’d hated my two roommates, but continued to share an apartment (a different one, on picturesque (about as picturesque as its name!) Federal Avenue) with one of them. But things had begun looking up at year’s end. I was writing about music for my university newspaper, and, to my astonishment, people seemed to like it.

I reviewed a Kinks album that I really loved, and their record company was so impressed that it asked if I might wish to work for them. I wrote a letter the LA Times’ excellent music critic, Pete Johnson, and he not only didn’t ignore it, but was actually very encouraging. Atlantic Records sent me reviewers’ copies of new releases by two British acts, Cartoone and Led Zeppelin. I liked Cartoone better, but didn’t like either very much at all. I found myself writing for both the LA Times and Rolling Stone. Figuring that after four years’ diligent labor (I might have attended class barefoot and in love beads, but I always attended, and did the recommended reading) I deserved to relax a little bit in my final quarter, I’d signed up for a physical education class, whose instructor turned out to fancy himself a sociologist, and to require a paper about some aspect of local amateur athletics. I made mine — about beach volleyball — up out of whole cloth. The guy bought it. Instead of attending my graduation ceremony (with literally thousands of others), I interviewed Pete Townshend at the Continental Hyatt House, which I can see out of my bedroom window as I write this a million years later.

I couldn’t decide whether to work for the Kinks’ record company or remain unsullied in the eyes of the Times. I decided to try to do both. TKRC was embarrassed and deeply undelighted when I wrote an unflattering review of the UK folk group Pentangle. Folk music was hardly my area of expertise. After three months, TKRC said they’d keep paying my salary, but that they wanted to install in my office someone who wouldn’t get bored senseless by 3:30 every afternoon and sneak out the back door, mumbling something about hoping to beat the traffic. I did have an awfully long drive in the VW microbus my parents had given me as a graduation gift — from Burbank all the way to Venice, where — can you guess? — I felt terribly isolated and lonely, surrounded as I was by ancient Jewish widows and junkies in equal proportions.

A pair of brothers to whom I’d been known to grunt, “How you doing?” at the university invited me to be the drummer in their band, then called Halfnelson. I rehearsed with them maybe three times, and annoyed them by suggesting they not try so hard to be cute ‘n’ whimsical. They invited me to find another band to join, but my brief association with them would follow me around no less tenaciously for the rest of my life than the fact of Led Zeppelin having cursed me from the stage of the Anaheim Convention Center.

The Kinks’ record company sent me to New York to offer their sympathy when they returned to perform in America for the first time in four years. I hero-worshipped Ray Davies shamelessly, and even badgered him into inviting me up on stage with his group at Fillmore East, a plan a brusque stagehand unceremoniously thwarted, and thank God for small mercies. He (Ray, not the stagehand) was a sensationally good sport, except when depression swamped him. Who would know better about that than I?

I returned to Los Angeles feeling both quite a hotshot — I, the personal friend of rock superstars! — and worse than ever, as I was returning to nothing at all. But then I moved to West Hollywood, into a huge flat spanning the whole third floor of a house widely thought to have been haunted since the original owner’s daughter hanged herself out of my front window, and felt a little better, as I always do anyway when the days start getting short.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Washing the Feet of Lepers

Friends, foes, and psychotherapists kept telling me over the years that volunteer work is a reliable antidote to the numbing boredom to which I am prone, but would I believe them? Well, yes, eventually, as in late 2013, the year I returned to the city of my celebrated youth after 28 years’ self-exile. Feeling ever so noble, I volunteered to help serve lunch to recovering substance abusers and wash the feet of lepers — or maybe I’m just making up the lepers part — at a place called the Dream Center, which had taken over a gigantic old hospital near downtown LA. It was a little Jesusy for my taste. Actually, it was a lot Jesusy for my taste. I lasted one shift.

I volunteered to do graphic design and videography for a succession of organizations like Special Olympics and the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s maddening when paying clients, having no discernible design sense or taste, capriciously ask a designer to ruin his or her work. It might be slightly more maddening when your only payoff is the satisfaction of having done something beautiful for somebody, only to find out that, for instance, they fail to recognize the unfilled/negative/white portion of a composition as integral to the whole’s things balance. In a couple of cases, I would spend days designing a quite snazzy brochure for an organization that then wouldn’t trouble itself even to acknowledge the work I’d done.

I signed up with Taproot, the big national organization that matches Advertising Professionals and Worthy Charities. Self-infatuated imbeciles! It took me months to get through their heads than I'm a creative director/graphic designer/copywriter, rather than a photographer. Finally, I got interviewed on the phone by a Project Manager who deemed me unsuitable for his…ahem…creative team when I wondered aloud how he projected it taking six months to produce a little brochure that I, working alone, could have done, and done well, in four hours. Meetings, you see. Lots of 'em.

But then I volunteered to tutor in the LA Public Library’s adult literacy program, and loved it — loved it! — from my first five minutes with my first student, a 22-year-old busboy from Oaxaca. Spending that first hour with him, it occurred to me that if I’d seen him on the bus (LA buses have a very significant Oaxacan ridership), I’d never have guessed how very smart he was, and how very sweet. As we became friends, he came to confide in me, telling me how his childhood had been one long uninterrupted nightmare owing to his apparently mentally ill father’s religious obsessions. I began seeing my fellow bus passengers in an entirely new, much richer, way.

I took another of my students, one of the most buoyant people it’s ever been my privilege to know, to lunch the other day. The day we met, he was so shy as to be barely able to speak to me. Yet here he was several months later telling me how, when he came to California from Central America at 17, he was in a gang, in which he secured membership by stealing a shotgun out of a LAPD patrol car in a donut shop parking lot. He’s now a very committed Christian, and an altogether wonderful man. “Whatever gets you through the night, mister,” I tease him about the Jesusy stuff. He’s an exemplarily good sport about it, as he is about everything else in life.

I have three Korean women students too. One is a proctologist’s wife, and one a diplomat’s. At the beginning, I found the former hopelessly inscrutable, and not much fun to work with. I can’t begin to express how gratifying it’s been for us to develop an actual friendship, one in which we confide in each other. When she returns to teaching middle school in Korea next month, I will miss her terribly, though she’s happily accepted my invitation to invite me into her classroom via Skype. I’m thrilled by the thought of being able to converse with her students in real time.

Yesterday I told the diplomat’s wife how beautiful she is, and what a wonderful moment that was, as she never hears it from her husband. Apparently that sort of thing just isn’t done in Korea.

Late this afternoon, I will conduct my first Conversational English class at a venerable, slightly grubby library in Koreatown, in which a great many Latinos live too. I haven't the faintest doubt that my life is going to be immeasurably enriched by the new friends I’ll make.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Most Beautiful Music in the World

The first time I heard the Cocteau Twins’ rapturous, exultant "Heaven or Las Vegas," cruel circumstances had compelled me (yet again!) to take a word processing job. Thank God for my Walkman, I would think as the hours crawled past, never to be retrieved. On the afternoon in question, I was tuned to a local radio station. I was hooked from the first four bars. When it got to the chorus, that glorious, exultant chorus, I very nearly swooned. At song’s end, I just sat there, happily dazed, until a fellow temp asked if I were all right. I couldn’t have been more all right. I think "Heaven or Las Vegas" might be the most beautiful music in the world.

With some time on my hands the other day, I headed over to my beloved West Hollywood Public Library to see what I could find out about how this glorious work came to be. I was surprised to see in the David Geffen Reading Room none other than its namesake, looking unusually good for his age because gay men exercise more diligently than their breeder brothers, and scrupulously moisturize. David — it’s hard, after what we’ve been through together, for me to think of him as Mr. Geffen — wasn’t looking only muscular and moist, though, but also a little predatory. One of the librarians confirmed that David has come to regard the room that bears his name as a prime pickup spot. It is not my place to demur. You will notice that no reading rooms are named after me.

I have been to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and have with my own eyes witnessed the endless pairs of almost indistinguishably butch lesbians swaggering down its main street in such a way as to demand either, “Wanna make something of it?” or “What are you looking at?| I can’t understand why one would seek a lover who is a mirror image of himself, but there is much in life I don’t understand, and it isn’t as though Mick Jagger and Eddie Van Halen didn’t marry themselves, is it? But our greater concern in this paragraph is the woefully undersupervised children of the beggars who stand outside the WeHo library begging patrons for spare change.

The other afternoon, a stylishly dressed, meticulously coiffed woman who’d no doubt driven over in
a Lexus casually handed her half-finished cigarette to a little ragamuffin with dreadlocks and a distended belly before entering the library, in which smoking is of course forbidden. One thing led to another, and in a moment or two, one of the ragamuffin’s little comrades had managed somehow to set himself afire. One of the beggar mothers instinctively flung herself on him. While it’s true that she managed to put out the fire, she also suffocated him, a result about which I can’t imagine anyone being entirely pleased. If there’s any consolation, it might be that the child won’t grow up a member of America’s inescapable (except by boxing, basketball, or drug-dealing, and the latter can get you locked up) underclass.

I think this whole thing speaks to the unreliability of dreams. I woke up this morning fairly busting to get over here to my typewriter after dreaming with rare vividness of David Geffen, children on fire, and income inequality. The result, plainly, has been an essay that only my most ardent fan could enjoy. At this rate, I will have no readers left, and will die alone, and will have none but myself to blame.

I was serious, though, about “Heaven or Las Vegas.” And you know something else that's quire wonderful about it? It serves as an eloquent refutation of the importance of technique. I suspect that a person of normal manual dexterity and average musicality could be taught to play the guitar part in a couple of hours. You might say the same of Mazzy Star's inexpressibly gorgeous "Fade Into You." You don't need to be Yngwie Malmsteen or Al di Meola to make magical music. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Absurdity of the Sports Fan

Those who would feel idiotic standing cheering outside a new Walmart or Home Depot aren't just happy but indeed eager to pay through the nose to be allowed inside a stadium or sports arena named for a corporate sponsor to cheer for a business whose sole reason for being is to enrich its investors. Getting the populace to invest emotionally in professional sports teams is one of the great con job success stories, right behind patriotism.

Sports might be the closest thing to a meritocracy in our culture. If you can consistently hit a 95-mph fastball, or drain a jump shot from beyond the three-point arc, everything else about you becomes immaterial. There’s something pure about that. Moreover, there’s the not knowing for sure what might happen, and the near certainty of witnessing remarkable spontaneous feats of courage and athleticism. So I do watch sports, but not in the way that most middleaged (to put it mildly) American men do. I don’t think of myself and the team for which I have chosen to root (for reasons we'll see in a moment as completely arbitrary) as “we.” When young black athletes a third my age, from neighborhoods I wouldn’t dare drive through, do something heroic, I think of the glory as theirs alone.

A very small percentage of players of professional team sports play in the neck of the woods in which they were raised. A San Francisco Giants fan who revels in the World Series brilliance of Madison Bumgarner is identifying with a kid from rural North Carolina who almost certainly finds the city whose name he wears on his chest confusing and alien, and, given his avowed admiration for The Lord Thy God, probably a little distasteful. It would make more sense for the fan to be rooting for the general manager who signed the player, rather than the player himself.

Once I was a very different sort of fan. When I prepared to enter my teens, I actually thought that my listening to their game improved the Los Angeles Dodgers’ chances of winning. My attentiveness felt like a moral imperative. As others wouldn’t have dreamed of missing church, I wouldn’t have dreamed of not sneaking my little red transistor radio into bed with me so I could make sure the Dodgers (or, slightly later, Lakers!) had prevailed before I allowed myself the luxury of sleep.

Nowadays I watch sports in much the same way I vote in presidential elections. Confident that both teams will be composed mostly of rapaciously entitled young dimwits — many of them Republicans and born-agains — of the sort who lorded it so boorishly over the less athletically gifted in childhood and adolescence, I root for the team I dislike more to lose, rather than for their opponents to win, a very recent exception being the Oregon/Ohio State national collegiate championship game, because my understanding was that the Oregon quarterback is an altogether terrific guy — kind, humble, even altruistic. Only 24 hours before, I had delighted in the Indianapolis Colts’ victory over the Denver Broncos because the Broncos quarterback is an eager lapdog of the war criminal George W. Bush. Truth be told, I rooted in last year’s Super Bowl for him to suffer a career-ending injury.

Free agency — whereby a player is free to switch teams after fulfilling a contract — really ruined things for me, though I don’t for a moment dispute the unfairness of the previous system, in which a team could effectively tie up an athlete for his or her whole career. How is one supposed to develop an abiding emotional attachment to a team when its personnel changes drastically from one season to the next? How can a fan in Boston clasp new Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval to his breast in view of Sandoval’s having just ditched the Giants, with whom he’d only weeks before won the World Series, and whose fans in the Bay Area openly adored him. It wasn't as though the Giants’ offer was hugely less generous than Boston’s.

A cleverer person than I observed that in today’s world, in which one has little idea from one season to the next who’s going to be wearing it, one roots for a uniform. About that, there’s something a little bit heartbreaking.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Another American Family Destroyed by Drugs

The one thing Na’tali wanted more than anything else in the world… No, that’s wasn’t actually true. What she wanted most was to like…develop. But once she developed — which her mom said she was like sure to do because the women in the family were mostly top-heavy — she wanted to be in the Math N’ Science club because all her school’s hottest girls belonged to it. But you had to be like nominated for membership by somebody who was already in it, and none of them — all-that B-atches, every one — would like give her the time of day.

At least until Shanique W—, who wasn’t just dating both the quarterback of the football team and, secretly, Mr. Truitt, who taught senior honors physics, started getting like all friendly and whatever. She like sought Na’tali out at lunch, which Na’tali usually ate alone because she was more likely to be seen as cool if she seemed to be preoccupied in the latest Jodi Picoult novel than broke bread with B-listers. 

Shanique asked if Na’tali wanted to hang at the mall on Saturday afternoon with her and the quarterback, or Mr. Truitt if Na’tali wanted to talk about something other than how awesome the quarterback was, and how there were so many colleges trying to like recruit him that he wasn’t even opening their letters anymore, but using them as toilet paper. Before Na’tali made up her mind, Shanique said, she might want to like consider that Mr. Truitt talked mostly about how he knew dating her was wrong, but he and his wife, who taught in the elementary school and had like MS or one of those other acronym diseases, had a loveless marriage that they like maintained for the children, of whom Shanique had met only the younger.

Na’tali might, as all teenagers must, have come to recognize hers as like the annoyingest, cluelessest, embarrassingest dad in the history of human reproduction, but all those years of his saying, “Ain’t no free lunch,” had made an impression, so she didn’t like fool herself that Shanique had suddenly decided she was fridge. It turned out, sho nuff, that what Shanique wanted was to meet Na’tali’s brother LeShawn, who Shanique knew to be the annoyingest little brother in the history of human reproduction, but to each her own, right?

The problem was that LeShawn, who you’d have expected would drop dead from gratitude on finding that the hottest senior girl in school wanted to party with him, said he’d get with Shanique only if Na’tali first drove him into Squinkytown (where the persons of color lived) to score an ounce of smudge. Na’tali figured smudge must be a drug that freshmen liked or whatever, and wanted no part of it, but she agreed to the deal, even though it meant having to be nice to her and LeShawn’s dad, because the only thing in the world she wanted more than to be in the Math N’ Science club was to develop.  

They drove into Squinkytown Friday morning when they should have been in Philology and Driver’s Ed, respectively, and got LeShawn’s smudge in plenty of time to be back on campus in time for 3rd period. But then LeShawn, having snorted half his smudge on the drive to school, turned blue and died in Numerology, and Shanique told Na’tali that all bets were off, and Na’tali got so upset that she totaled Papa’s Leaf on the way home.

Another American family destroyed by drugs.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Another Long Gone, But Forever in My Heart

I think my uncle Marty, my mother’s kid brother, might have been the handsomest young man in the world at one point, but the deck was stacked against him. I think their dad, the maternal grandfather I never met, either tyrannized or ignored his three kids, and that my grandmother didn’t do the world’s greatest job of protecting them from the tyranny. If self-esteem were water, the three kids couldn't between them have dampened a postage stamp. I don’t think Marty ever lived away from his mother. I’m not sure he ever held a job or had a girlfriend.

He was a pal to me at a time (otherwise known as My Childhood) when I didn't have many pals. When, from the age of around seven, I was consumed by self-loathing, he never seemed to disdain me, and in fact always seemed to enjoy my company. I don’t know if he’d ever actually had a woman, but my sex talks with him a few years later were very much more elucidating than those with my dad, who was content to make grand pronouncements about taking me to a prostitute, and my learning while doing. (No words can convey how much this prospect terrified me.  Given my dad’s penchant for playing the ladies’ man, I expected it to be mortally embarrassing.)

Marty’s psychiatrist — I suspect they called themselves analysts in those days — prescribed a primitive antidepressant, under the influence of which Marty had an awful automobile accident. He survived, but lost enough of his chin to feel ugly, to not want anyone to lay eyes on him. My grandmother accommodated him by moving out to the Antelope Valley, where, unseen by anyone except those who might glance out the window and notice him walking his dog very late at night, he wrote short stories and teleplays, none of which ever got bought. He attempted to escape his pain with an overdose of barbituates, and survived. Serving, as I would so often, as my mother’s mouthpiece, I — 14 years old and swollen with rectitude — gave him a good talking-to in a letter, demanding to know how he could care so little about those who loved him.

His lawsuit against his shrink came to nothing. His despair deepened. He tried again to kill himself with pills, and was more successful this time. (I like to think that sentence might have made him chuckle.) He asked to be buried beside his sister Doris, who’d died young of whatever had earlier crippled her, in a grave beneath a stone bearing a quotation from his idol Thomas Wolfe.

Five years ago, while living alone in New York’s Hudson Valley, I rediscovered his papers and was appalled to find the self-righteous letter I’d written to him. I could imagine how it must have hurt, how he must have felt that the one person in his life who might have loved him unconditionally had turned against him. I read his suicide letter, much of which he’d devoted to vilifying my dad, whom he apparently blamed — God knows why — for the failure of his lawsuit. The whole thing was neatly typed, but after he’d taken his overdose, he’d discovered that his spleen wasn’t completely vented, and had taken pen in hand to vilify my dad a little bit more until his handwriting deteriorated into illegibility. I don’t think even a stranger could have read it dry-eyed.