Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gals Who've Made Me Giggle

When I was a kid, my mother and I used to get each other laughing so hard we thought we might split open.  Four of the five gals who’ve been my full-fledged life partners through the years have made me laugh. When we pulled up at stop lights, The Nib would sometimes give a guy in the adjacent lane a come-hither look, only to then unleash the face depicted here. My first wife’s idea of defense when we played one-on-one basketball in our driveway in Santa Rosa was to yank my shorts down while I dribbled. The relentlessness with which she did so — I firmly believe that unfunny things can become hilarious if repeated sufficiently relentlessly — nearly made me forgive our having to watch Fridays together all those times back when I was trying to seem eager to please. (Compared to Fridays, SNL, which hasn’t amused me even a little bit since around 1961, is a work of sublime genius.) 

When Little Rumso, with whom I lived in the fog in San Francisco pretty much through the ‘90s, and who could hardly have been less ethnic, learned to tell rabbi-Pope-and-African-witch-doctor jokes, I would, in the right mood, begin shrieking with laughter before she’d gotten farther than, “So a rabbi, the Pope and an African witch doctor are in a canoe together.”   

I knew my second wife, to whom I remain wed, was just the gal for me when, in response to my straight-faced suggestion that she get a girlfriend a birthday gift from Sydney Hurry, the funeral director on the high street of the London suburb in which she lived at the time, she, without missing a beat, mused, “Yes, maybe a decorative urn.”

Mere days later, I speculated that maybe I needed to be more proactive in making local friends. I thought of asking a cordial teller at the bank across the road from Sydney Hurry if he’d like to have a drink with me one afternoon after work, and then made myself laugh by wondering if I should present him with a bouquet and some chocolate when we met. Once more she didn’t miss a beat. “And say, ‘You look so handsome in that shirt. Is it new?’”

We visited Bath, a bastion of gentility and hygiene (I can’t stop myself) in the West Country, and it was there that she formulated her Four Fundamental Questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are you? Why won’t you leave me alone?

Back when she used to speak to me, my daughter Brigitte also made me laugh so hard that I feared for my life. One time I phoned my mother, her grandmother, to say we’d be visiting after I picked Brigitte up from school. Mom was terribly upset because a carton of orange juice had exploded a short while before, and made a mess in her apartment. I related the story to Brigitte. When we arrived at my mother’s apartment, Brigitte walked in and, seeing a carton of orange juice on the kitchen counter, drily mused, “So this would be the offending orange juice?” I hadn’t laughed so hard since my childhood — or maybe since the time she and I and Little Rumso drove down to Berkeley to walk around the Cal campus, where Brigitte decided she wanted a sweatshirt depicting the Cal mascot bear. In the student store, Brigitte found a rackful of the desired garment in kiddies’ sizes, and very seriously began flipping through them. “It’s just a matter of finding my size,” she said very seriously. It might not seem that funny now, but at the time the store’s employees came pretty close to dialing 911 to report an old Jew laughing so hard as to appear to be about to hyperventilate.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Typing at Starbucks, and Other Tales, or At Least One Other

I get these ideas — these wonderful, wacky ideas — and they take over my life. I guffaw without apparent provocation while at the supermarket or pharmacy. I am pulled over by a policeman intent on making me feel shamed for an illegal U-turn, and begin snickering in spite of myself. I wake up giggling in the middle of the night. I am no less prone to self-amusement than to self-loathing.

In the 1970s, there flourished in southern California an annual event called the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, at which people would, uh, don the attire of Elizabethan England and tromp around in the dust addressing each other as wench and good sir and gnawing on overpriced, undercooked turkey legs. I found the whole thing painfully cutesy, but got through it by coming up with the wonderful idea of presenting myself at the following year’s version of the event dressed either as an astronaut or a cowboy. The latter turned out to be the more affordable alternative, even with the chaps The event’s gatekeeper, if you will, the Falstaffian bozo charged with preventing anyone from ruining the lives of the great many who took the whole thing very seriously, at first tried to stay in character, asking, “Good sir, thy bizarre attire doth vex me quite grievously,” to which I drawled, “Ain’t got the foggiest what you’re trying to tell me, Tubby, but I do know this town ain’t big enough for both of us.” Whereupon he ensured that no one was within earshot, cut the crap, and snarled, “Can’t let you in like that, guy. People are going to think you’re mocking them.”

“Bingo,” I affirmed delightedly. “Milord hath struck the nail right squarely upon the head.” 

Whereupon Milord offered me the choice of leaving quietly, or with the help of Security.

It took me decades to come up with another idea of comparable zaniness, but last week I finally managed it. Passing a — get this! — typewriter repair shop on Fairfax Avenue on my daily Long March, it occurred to me that it might be great fun to buy a little portable Smith-Corona to take into a succession of Starbucks or Coffee Beans, and bang away on intently. If anyone asks what I was doing, I will of course explain that I am working on my screenplay. It occurs to me that it might be a nice touch to position my little typewriter in such a way that I will knock over somebody’s skinny latte the first time I hit the carriage return, but doing so would probably be expensive at best, and might at worst get me punched in the nose, should someone be scalded. I have thus decided instead to keep ripping sheets of paper out of the machine after having typed only a few words on them, ball them up, and toss them at the nearest trash receptacle.

I have in the past few days come up with a couple of refinements. A very large percentage of those who purport to be writing screenplays on their MacBooks at Starbucks wear those little stingy-brim fedoras that are meant to proclaim, “Hipster!” but which in my view actually declare, “2006!” Instead of one of those, I will get myself a gigantic sombrero of the sort worn by mariachi musicians. Where those all around me are invariably connected by stereo headphones to their MacBooks, I will be tethered to a big bulbous transistor radio by a mono earphone, what I pretend to hear through which will inspire me to sing along, tunelessly: “You’re having my baby. What a lovely way of saying how much you love me.”

Performance art, you see! Must I do a whole Kickstarter campaign, or will you just send me money in care of this blog?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why We Celebrities Dread the Press

Maya Angelou might have known why the caged bird sang, but I know, first hand, why people decline to allow The Press to interview them.

‘Twas 1996, and I was sick to death of dealing with other actors, who, as you’ve read here before, are generally around 75,000 times more difficult, more obstreperous and truculent, than musicians. I disbanded the San Francisco Hysterical Company and, inspired by the success of Josh Kornbluth’s Haiku Tunnel, decided to go it alone — to perform a one-man show, Wm. Floggin’ Buckley, about my experience as a senior editor at Larry Flynt Publications. I would play everyone from the great man’s drug-addled wife, who collapsed face-forward into her salad at our lone…conference, to the shameless brownnose editor of the least of Larry’s ghastly magazines, Bathroom Companion. I would take the stage to the accompaniment of “Without Science,” the song the former Creem magazine stalwart John Kordosh had written about me and recorded with his band, The Tigers of Instantaneous Death, and leave to the sound of a theatrerful of fans bellowing, “Bravo!" and, "Oh, John, you’ve still so got it!"

I invited local newspapers to write about the show. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, a free, leftist, alternative weekly newspaper, dispatched a purported writer who called himself Johnny Angel to interview me. He showed up at my modest home in the dreary, perpetually foggy Sunset district sneering, all T-shirt-stretching pecs and biceps, all greasy dyed-black hair, unencumbered by a recording device or even notepad, but with enough hostility to fill the living room. 

He became even more palpably hostile when I failed to endorse with sufficient eagerness his view of San Francisco as Not a Rock and Roll Town, which view he’d himself embraced after his band, which his editor at the Bay Guardian later characterized as a poor man’s Ramones, broke up after failing to attract an audience.

As we chatted, he never stopped sneering. By and by, it occurred to me that we must be having a pre-interview get-acquainted chat. But I was mistaken. He went away and wrote his article without having written down a syllable of what I’d said, without having recorded a millisecond of audio, making up all my quotes, and in at least one case asserting that my then-just-published autobiography I, Caramba contained a passage that it did not! The man’s temerity was jaw-dropping. He made me out to be (even more) self-pitying (than I actually am), and cited my great enthusiasm for The Cocteau Twins and Innocence Mission as evidence. Real Men, I surmised, liked The Ramones, or at least kick-ass, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. Never mind that there is no more exultant, rapturous a track in the history of Western music than the former’s “Heaven or Las Vegas”!

Once having effectively told his readers to stay home, he’d intended to come to the opening of Buckley, about which he'd asked, and then written, pretty much nothing. The gall of the man! I phoned him and said his attendance was a pleasure I was very much prepared to forego. I observed that he was a liar and a punk, but not the good kind, and contacted the Bay Guardian, the conscience of the Bay Area, the voice of local progressivism to ask how I, a longtime reader, could be expected to believe anything they wrote about local politicians when they so recklessly demeaned an ordinary joe such I, and was informed, sniffily, that they Stood By the Story. On what basis, I wondered, since your writer couldn’t be troubled to record my remarks or write them down? And how about the fact that my autobiography demonstrably lacked the assertion he’d claimed it contained?

No response. They were too busy holding local politicians’ feet to the fire. Or something.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1979: Apocalypse Not Exactly Now, But As Soon as the Print Can Be Located at the Airport

The dawning of 1979 felt somehow like a relief. I don’t know what it is about years with an 8 at the end, but I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed one, whereas a 9 at the end always brings new hope.

What some smart young thing in a record company publicity department had dubbed New Wave (presumably because punk scared away the pusillanimous) was all the rage. You could always tell a New Wave video because the musicians, aping Elvis Costello, would glare at the camera as though it had just stolen their girlfriends. Even cuddly Rick Springfield seemed to seethe!

I conquered my shyness in the late spring, marching bold as you please up to a beautiful young blonde in Century City and assertubg that we needed to become acquainted. A guy way down in Orange County who wrongly imagined that I still had the ability to make or break stars said he’d get me recording time at one of his own acolytes' little 8-track studio if I’d make him a star. I kept from guffawing and said I’d do my best. I'd been reduced to feeling lucky to get an occasional record review in the LA Times Sunday arts magazine, and sometimes when I did get one in, it was emasculated, as when Robert Hilburn, the world’s nicest guy, and a perfectly awful music critic, forbade me to describe Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner as the worst songwriter in rock, though I couldn’t see how any reasonable person could have believed otherwise. I got to review a documentary movie about my formerly beloved Who, and in so doing attracted a London-based PR company intent on getting The Press over — at their expense! — to San Sebasti├ín, Spain, for that city’s apparently annual international film festival.

Pound for pound, I think it might have been the most consistently enjoyable 10 days of my life. The PR company put me up in the city’s best hotel and gave me a book of coupons redeemable for meals at its best restaurants, and oh, can the Spanish cook! There were loads (as they themselves would have said) of Brits around, and they all seemed to like me, especially after I got in a wee exchange of wry deprecations one night with the odious Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fame. Robin was in way over his head. I sat at dinner one night beside a famous English actress who asked, “Anyone mind if I smoke?” I said I did. She did anyway. I even got laid, by one of the charmed Brits. A small mob of them staggered drunkenly out of the hotel restaurant one night to giggle drunkenly at the sight of me running along the gorgeous crescent-shaped bay in my ludicrous huge Radio Shack radio headphones. The local DJ played “My Sharona,” from which I’d hoped to escape.

Life on one of the less glamorous streets of West Hollywood didn’t seem so exciting when I got home. I wrote a wry article, “Apocalypse Not Exactly Now, But As Soon as the Print Can Be Located at the Airport,” about my adventures pretending at an international film festival to be a film critic. Playboy pronounced it a shaggy dog story and declined to publish it, as did every other English-language magazine on earth, and there went my hopes of attending the 1980 festival. Robin Leach and the inconsiderate nicotine-addict sexpot would have to carry on without me.

I went to a little get-together at which the actor and former glam heartthrob Michael des Barres looked askance at my long hair. Shamed, I soon got it snipped, but not before having worn flared trousers in London in 1979, and imagined that I looked like a semitic Travlota, but without his lovely blue eyes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Panic Attacks and Spurned Screenplays — I Remember 1978

Nothing much seemed to go right in the first half of 1978. The Pits had broken up in the wake of our teen prodigy drummer having run off with another orchestra. Rolling Stone had published my article about Andy Kaufman, and it had been well received, but my next big assignment was to profile Foreigner, whose music made me long for temporary deafness, and whose founder I found rather a dullard. I wrote my first screenplays, and those were the days when you could actually get agents to consider unsolicited work, but I got no offers. It seemed I’d hardly had adequate time to congratulate myself on having been so brave about leaving my 20s before it was time to admit to being 31, which had an unpleasant metallic ring to it.

Finally in midsummer something promising happened. A minion of an Australian television producer saw a Pits poster somewhere, noticed how very photogenic I was, and asked if I’d like to be the host of a program about punk and New Wave music he proposed to shoot in London. Did I!  I and other members of the crew were ensconced in a hotel near Primrose Hill in London, where we did a great deal of waiting around for our proposed guest stars to agree to our terms. I met The Jam and Ian Dury, and got sneered at a lot because my long hair was very 1975. We drove up to Manchester to see The Clash, who were boorish to me in a way they’d obviously rehearsed, but I was charmed by the sight of the fearsome-looking punks who composed their audience cuing patiently for sweeties during the interval. I wasn’t at all good at the job — I addressed the camera as though it were a camera, rather than my dear friend, the viewer. I secretly fell in love with the local girlfriend of the chief cameraman, but she didn’t know I was alive.

The Nib and I had moved to Ocean Park, south of Santa Monica, which turned out to feel a million miles away from The Thick of It. Bored and depressed, I spent lots of time bicycling over to Marina del Rey or running on the beach in my ridiculous oversized Radio Shack headphones. I wrote a short story and sent it to my former close personal friend Jann Wenner, who suggested — maybe with tongue in cheek — that I try the New Yorker instead. The New Yorker didn’t trouble itself to acknowledge that I’d sent them anything. Frankly, it wasn’t a very good story anyway. I got in a fender-bender leaving Dodger Stadium after the last game of the World Series. Not even the Dodgers could do anything right.

I had a panic attack. After leaving a grim little party at the home of the Australian videographer, who I worried I might have a crush on, I felt my heart trying to explode my chest, and couldn’t catch my breath. My sister, who lived nearby, drove me home. I managed not to seize the steering wheel and aim us at oncoming traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway. I longed for the year to end, and of course, by and by, it did exactly that.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Best Years of Our Lives

Thanks to the largesse of my Facebook friend Mickey Wetzel Bernhardt, I have been enjoying a wonderful, unusual experience the past 24 hours. She scanned the high school yearbook from what would have been my senior year at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, which I actually attended for only a semester before my parents decided to move to a neck of the woods serviced educationally by the Santa Monica public school system.

Brian Ashley, regarded by his peers as Best Looking, apparently played varsity football with no little distinction. Well, of course he did! I remember wondering, when we were both 9th graders, why God had made him so gorgeous and virile and athletic, and me a little embarrassment, to myself and others. Kinks fans reading this are of course thinking, “David Watts!” And they’re right.

Several of the girls I lusted after implacably as a hopelessly shy 14-year-old at Orville Wright Junior High School don’t look like much in their senior portraits.  On the other hand, I am delighted to see that Mel (!) Farber had become handsome by 17. When he first arrived at OWJHS, he called himself Melvin — inspiring gales of derisive laughter from his classmates — and was taunted only slightly less viciously than poor Billy Snyder, the school spastic, in whose milk many of the alpha boys thought it hilarious to spit at lunchtime when Billy’s head was turned.  I hope that Mel went onto become a successful porn producer, and that handsome, virile, full-of-himself Brian Ashley auditioned for him unsuccessfully several times, eventually gave up acting because he got so tired of fellating casting directors, took a soul-destroying office job (maybe processing words for a big fascist law firm?), lost his looks, and has never known a day’s happiness.

Oops. Did I say that?

Look at this! Sandra Lucas, who was probably black, but who asked (successfully, because she was so pretty) to be perceived as… Spanish, was a cheerleader, as too were Nancy Renkow, with whom I went on my disastrous first date (she invited me to the Leadership pool party, at which everyone except us…made out) and wee Joe(y) Sugerman, whose baby brother Danny would, in theory, co-write a famous biography of The Doors and tell people that I’d come onto him sexually, though I’d done no such thing.

Ron Wiggins, unnervingly pretty at 17, was very much more my type, though we were never more than good friends. Actually , we weren’t friends at all. He was sort of in-crowdish, and I was…John Mendelsohn, with only one s, but one day when we were in 8th grade he brought his father’s (unloaded!) pistol to school for show-‘n’-tell (you think I'm making this up, but I am not), and needed someone to guess its weight, and I was seated right in front of him, so he bit the bullet and conferred the honor on me. I guessed around eight pounds, he said, “That’s right, John,” (someone in the in-crowd knew my name!), and for an hour or two there I felt like a real boy!

I note with astonishment and a little delight that both Mel and Ron Wiggins were in the Chess Club. At Santa Monica High School, to join the Chess Club was to commit suicide socially. Only those in the Audio/Visual Club were more untouchable. But what's this? Mel also played varsity baseball?  I could spend the rest of January poring over these scans! I look at these portraits and think to myself, “So that’s what So-‘n’-So looks like now,” only to realize that, in every case, it’s what he or she looked like 50 years ago, before the Class of '65 began slowly to die off. 

We were gorgeous. We were clever. It was obvious that ever we’d be thus. We had genius beyond rating. History clearly had been waiting just for us. Like a diver from the cliff at Acapulco at the moment that he dives, we were so exhilarated as we waited for the best years of our lives. Brian fucking Ashley couldn’t have written that song (and neither could R. Davies), but I did.

[Update: Mr. Farber apparently didn't become a producer of pornography. He is seen at right in a recent photograh. No recent photographs exist of Mr. Ashley.]