Saturday, January 31, 2015

Coaxing the Kochs

Few realize that the Koch brothers, Charles and David, used to have a sister, Vera, who was killed in a tragic hostile takeover mishap in 1968, and with whom they actually funded The Beatles’ first visit to America, in February 1964. (For what Ed Sullivan was paying them, they’d have hardly been able to afford trainfare from Liverpool to London, let alone airfare to New York.) Paul McCartney, the group’s bass player and most gifted harmony singer, slyly saluted the siblings three years later, assigning the names by which The Fab Four knew them to the grandchildren on your knee in “When I’m 64.” Don’t believe me? Well, consider that when I was writing my own song “Ban theTourists[lyrics below] for Mistress Chloe in 2001, and asked her to suggest a quintessentially American name, one by which no self-respecting British male would ever allow himself to be called, she immediately exclaimed, “Chuck!”

Even fewer, probably, realize that the oft-denigrated brothers are actually very down-to-earth, and generous to a fault. Last week, as you probably know, they were trying to decide whether to allow the very photogenic Mitt Romney to aspire to the Republicans’ nomination for president in 2016. After failing to get from their in-house advisors an adequate sense of what the American electorate is thinking and feeling, they invited me and other lapsed music critics this past Tuesday evening to their unpretentious, down-earth offices in Wichita. As usual, they spared no expense, sending one of their private jets, piloted by no less than Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the late Chuck Yeager. “Nothing’s too good for you, John,” Dave told me when I phoned him shortly after takeoff to tell him how touched I was.

But it got even better. None other than Pamela Anderson was my personal flight attendant, and Food Network star Guy Fieri was in the galley — though, having dined at his unspeakable Johnny Garlic in Santa Rosa, California, I was disinclined to allow him to cook for me. He was quite content to spend the flight trying to “hit” on Pam, who, as you might have imagined, is no longer a “10” at her age, and consequently no longer married to anyone as dashing and glamorous as Tommy Lee or Kid Rock.  Her most recent spouse, in fact, was the poker player and slimeball Rick Salomon (of 7 Nights in Paris sex-tape fame), of whom she would have spent half the flight showing me photos on her iPhone if, somewhere over Utah, I hadn’t said, “Pam, enough already! He’s cute. He’s adorable, even. But the Kochs are going to expect me to know my stuff, and I have a ton of Wikipedia entries to read!”

To make a long story short, I urged the brothers to put their incomparable wealth and influence behind Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, explaining that the latter’s being second-billed would please evangelicals who, in accordance with Ephesians 5:22, believe that gals naturally subservient to menfolk. I pointed out that, by virtue of his Cuban ancestry and bold new ideas for America, Sen. Cruz would appeal to the Hispanics, who now constitute 81 percent of American voters. 

The late Lester Bangs surprised me by urging the brothers to back Gov. Rick Perry. “He’s much funnier,” he apparently pointed out through a Koch Industries staff medium. It was always Lester’s way to “push the envelope” in that way, even before his beatification.

He and I were bivouacked for the night in the Presidential Suite and Papal Suite, respectfully, at the Days Inn on East Kellogg Drive. (I told you that the Kochs go first class all the way!) We sipped cough syrup and chatted almost until dawn, and bewailed the current state of popular music.  

Ban the Tourists

Chuck and Mindy from Ohio seek Leicester Square. Dare I hope that once arrived they’re drenched my pigeons there? Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slam our doors. Yes, let’s evict the Yank buggers from our shores. Let’s ban the tourists and then be free. Let’s put magnesium chloride in their tea.

“Now let me ask you something, pal. How much is that in real money?” they think it’s cute to ask. Haven’t they got Florida in which they’d sooner bask? Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slam our doors and evict the Yank buggers from our shores. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s seal their rooms and secretly pipe in noxious fumes.

They think our cuisine is woeful, not like that of France. “If you don’t like it, mate, then starve,” I think should be our stance. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slam our doors. Yes, let’s evict the Yank buggers from our shores. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s starve ‘em out. Let’s flog ‘em sarnies at seven quid a shout.

Yanks on all the trains and buses! Yanks in every queue being so bloody warm and friendly. What can locals do? Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slam our doors. Yes, let’s evict the Yank buggers from our shores. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slit their throats and ship their corpses en masse to John o’ Groats.

Sod them and their greasy dollars. Sod their naff delight at the changing of the bloody Guard. They’re such a blight. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s slam our doors. Yes, let’s evict the Yank buggers from our shores. Let’s ban the tourists. Let’s mow them down outside St. Paul’s, in the Mall, and Camden Town.

(“Mindy, run! They’re armed!”)

Friday, January 30, 2015

On the Run in the Nastiest Corner of the Galaxy: A Freelance Writer's Life

Getting back to Los Angeles two years ago this month after 28 years away, I resolved to do whatever it took to make my living as a freelance writer. I was already writing 12 little air travel essays per month for Flyertalk, and that put a reasonable wad of rumpled bills in my pocket each month, but then they noticed how indignant some of their readers were about my constantly ridiculing Republicans and other undesirables. They informed me they would henceforth publish only pieces without bias, and reluctantly assigned me a piece about how fashionable it is among holidaying young Brits to defecate in foreign swimming pools. They found what I wrote insufficiently objective. I gathered, too late, that they’d wanted me to approach the subject of shitting in hotel swimming pools with an open mind, and here my distaste for the practice couldn’t have been more evident!

I was thus relieved to discover that there are now nearly limitless opportunities for a freelance writer to supply…content to Websites for real money, and that one could earn as much as a dollar per paragraph, provided his article got clicked through to a lot. Given that in my heyday I was getting $1/word, though, I thought maybe I’d work on my fiction instead.

Months went by. I didn’t get the videography job I’d been hoping for. I applied for a lot of graphic design jobs, but most of those who screen prospective new recruits don’t know good design from Shinola, and are about as qualified to make such decisions as a deaf person would be to screen prospective members of a new opera company. 

I began applying for writing jobs too, and hit what I’m pretty sure is rock-bottom in my (and maybe anyone else’s!) writing-job-seeking experience when I responded to the posting of Whorde Worldbuilders, which offered “an exciting opportunity to help…develop a unique high-volume division from the literal ground up. We are looking for 15 or so very special, highly intelligent, articulate, enthusiastic, skilled, and determined workaholic individuals to…[produce] novels at an average rate of one per day, using a 20-day production model.” Each hired writer would “produce prose copy of an average of 10,000 words of content daily from well defined synopsis treatments.”

My reading of “develop[ing] a unique high-volume division from the literal ground up” was that they didn’t plan to provide desks in the early going, nor even a floor. But maybe I was being too literal.

And the compensation? Well, they weren’t actually going to pay, per se, but Whorde Worldbuilders were offering a generous 3% Gross Profit Share. And if the workaholic didn’t kill himself trying to churn out 50,000 words per work week, he or she might eventually be put on an annual salary of up to $72,000, whereby, writing 10,000 words per day, he would be earning almost 2.8 cents/word, downright magnanimous compared to $1/paragraph!

I nonetheless had the temerity, when I got his email suggesting we set up a phone interview, to point out to the mastermind of the whole operation, Mr. Travis Grundy, that he was running a sweatshop, and should have sex with himself.  

Travis’s company Zharmae turns out already to have published a great, great many books, mind you, and their descriptions are uniformly intriguing. Take Frances Pauli’s Shrouded, for instance: Vashia’s father is the planetary governor. Unfortunately, he’s also a complete bastard. When he promises her to his lackey, Jam, she panics. On the run in the nastiest corner of the galaxy, Vasia seizes her one chance at escape and signs on as a bride candidate for the elusive race of aliens known as The Shrouded, unaware that she very well may be chosen as the next Queen of Shroud.

Thoroughly intrigued, feeling as though I might be looking into the very face of Pure Evil, I read up on Travis, and learned that “he enjoys reading, writing, jogging, Neiman Marcus, and caramel macchiotos.” Thus, I am now able to offer this benediction: Choke on your macchioto, Trav, whatever it is.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

But Who Will Play Lead Guitar?

The high school class of my co-inhabitant, hereinafter Co-In, of the Geriatric Bachelor Pad was going to reunite. Co-In volunteered to provide music. He lined up various instrumentalists, but couldn’t find a drummer. I’d briefly been the drummer in the protopunk turned glam/progressive group in which he’s played bass, and which had changed the course of popular music in the early 1970s. Having no other option, he offered me the position. I hadn’t played with other musicians since 1978, but rather played or programmed everything myself on my many recording projects because I hate having to depend on others. Co-In’s been in a few bands. Performing at the reunion was such fun, though, we thought we’d look around for a guitarist or two to fool around with on an ongoing basis.

A guy who, a million years ago, used to write to me to ask for copies of rare Kinks recordings came over. We jammed — that is, fooled around, making up little bits of songs on the fly. I didn’t much enjoy being him.

A friend of mine told me that someone I’d briefly chatted with about football at a back yard wingding in a heavily Latino area of Los Angeles was a good singer and guitarist, albeit an Apache. (I’m being wry. There was no albeit about it.) I liked his videos on YouTube. I invited him to bring his voice and guitar over to the GBP. He did so, did Richard, and turned out not to be only a terrific singer, but also a terrific guy.

We needed only a lead guitarist. But here the torment began. In every music store in America there's a kid playing 128th-note triplets at the top of the neck, seemingly hoping that someone will say, "Hey, you're hot stuff. Want to join my group?" But no one seemed to want to play with us, our glorious, glorious history notwithstanding. Maybe they thought the cruel tricks the decades have played on our pretty faces would preclude our attracting girlies. Maybe they were right.

Richard brought a long-time friend with whom he’d played in many back yards over the years.  He too was really nice, and a wonderful guitarist, but then he missed a rehearsal without troubling himself to advise any of us that he was going to, and Richard revealed that he might be fatally uncomfortable with the idea of the wealth and fame to which we’d agreed to aspire.

We invited the former lead guitarist of East LA’s pre-eminent chicano post-punk group to audition. His playing was fiery, and he too was nice, but he seemed to have fingers in around 22 musical pies, in spite of having no more hands than you or I, and we soon discovered, unpleasantly, that we couldn’t count on him either. We gnashed our teeth and invited over a guy Co-In had known since the late 1970s. At his audition, I pretty nearly leapt up from behind my drums and gobbled him up like some luscious dessert. His playing was absolutely glorious — melodic, sympathetic, tasteful, inventive, glorious! And he sang! I love vocal harmony!

The rose lost its bloom almost immediately. At our second rehearsal together, at which he arrived 25 minutes late, he took a call on his cell phone, and proceeded to speak for around 15 minutes with someone about the Famous Person with whom he’d been collaborating. By the end of those 15 minutes, I was in a rage such as I hadn’t experienced in a decade or so, and shouted my lungs out at him about his outrageous temerity, about his palpable disrespect for our project. He was contrite, but then showed up late at a short succession of rehearsals he didn’t cancel at the last minute to rehearse with others, and I said fuck this shit.

We drafted a guy we’d met as a result of his unlikely affection for our protopunk turned glam/progressive group all those years before. He could hardly have been more reluctant, in part because he’d been concentrating on the bass for the past several decades. It didn’t appear as though his heart was in it. I thought at any moment he might announce that his other musical commitments and his nursing career precluded his continuing. The whole thing felt too precarious.

Never dreaming he’d go for the idea, I invited the guy who, as a 23-year-old beanpole, had played guitar in my band The Pits in 1977. At the time he played lots of clusters of 128th-note triplets at the top of the neck, and confided that he couldn’t understand why Judas Priest weren’t as big as The Beatles. But the years had greatly broadened his expressive range, and his abilities. He can play country now, and Muscle Shoalsy funk. He’s easy to work with, turns up on time, and doesn't spend big hunks of our rehearsals talking on the phone.

As I write this, I’m daring to imagine this might work. 

Of Mr. Heydenreich and Delusional Little Assbags

I loathe athletes who, on doing something notable — running back an interception for a touchdown, say, or hitting a home run — point skyward to acknowledge that they couldn’t have done it without The Lord Thy God.  Much as I may loathe athletes who make grandiose displays of their humility, though, there is a group I loathe even more — youth sport coaches. There are of course kind, nurturing, decent ones, but my observation is that the very large majority are woeful dickheads trying to erase the memory of their own juvenile athletic inadequacy by badgering their kids into being what they themselves were not.  I’m not so sure I don’t believe such persons should be castrated.

The late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is widely understood to have said, “Winning isn’t the best thing, but the only thing.” I would not want to sit on public transportation beside anyone who believes that. When I hear a grown man screaming at a nine-year-old boy for being less invested in Winning than he himself is, I wonder why, as a society, we take a very dim view of the psychological devastation that results from molestation, but are perfectly OK with the psychological devastation resulting from bullying on the field of play.

Over the course of my public school education, I was the charge of a great many teachers who, in a better world, would have been forbidden to open their stupid mouths within hearing of impressionable young people. The PE teachers were invariably the worst. Let’s drink a toast to the memory of Mr. John Heydenreich of Orville Wright Junior High School, who, addressing the early-‘60s fashionability among surfers and surfer wannabes of hydrogen peroxide as a hair lightener, summed it up in three syllables: Goddamned queers. His extremely enlightened colleague, the perpetually suntanned Mr. Ed Rall, who I wouldn’t be inconsolable to hear had died of skin cancer, frowned weightlifting, as it too was indicative of latent homosexuality. And these two molders of young men received steady paychecks from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

One wasn't said to change (into gym clothes) for PE at Orville Wright Junior High School, or to dress for it. Rather, what one did was strip. Imagine the terror that struck in the hearts of little 7th-graders already shaking at the prospect of having to shower communally. What pleasure their terror must have given the sadist who popularized that locution!

Years ago, before my right shoulder had to be replaced, and I ceased to be able to throw (except ineffectually, lefthanded), I conspired to manage a Little League team in San Francisco’s foggy Sunset district. I intended to “draft” (that is, recruit) players who’d never been picked anything but last for any team ever, and to instill in them two key ideas — that one competes athletically for the fun of doing so, and that those of their classmates who believed that Winning Is the Only Thing, and further believed themselves destined for major league stardom, were delusional little assbags whose teeth life was almost guaranteed to kick down their throats. If I had to have athletically gifted kids on my team, I would bench them for derogating less gifted teammates. You want life lessons? Behold: Tolerance! Compassion! Loyalty! 

The league’s overseers advised me that they had more than enough volunteer managers, and that they would contact me if an opening materialized. Twenty years later, I’m still waiting.

Those who believe that kids learn Valuable Life Lessons from being chewed out mercilessly by their youth sport coaches, in Little League and youth soccer and, more formally, high school, may not be entirely mistaken. The ability to bite one’s tongue and endure bullying is indeed necessary in many corners of the adult world, as when…reporting to a tyrannical boss. And what a lot of heart disease it engenders.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The True Face of Kink

As the voice of American kink, I have been asked many times over the past couple of weeks what my feelings are about the imminent unveiling of the film version of 50 Shades of Grey.

I will confess to having read perhaps three paragraphs of the book, and then stopped because I found the writing unworthy of further attention. From the trailers, I’ve gathered that the movie might be Son of 9-1/2 Weeks, except with a prettier leading man.

I’m expecting, when the film actually opens, to be asked, “Is this what kink’s really like?” I don’t need to see it to know that it’s highly unrepresentative in at least one way. The two leads are very young, and kink is generally the erotic province of persons in their 40s and 50s. Take a look at, one of the leading online dating sites for pervs, and you’ll see that the average age is around 48. (Those who want to have a look, but are afraid their having done so will mark them irrevocably as perverts, may be assured that I will, for a nominal charge, provide an attractive Mendel Illness certificate affirming that their look was purely for research purposes, and that they haven’t a kinky bone in their whole body.)

In the large majority of cases, kink’s an erotic style to which one comes as a result of one of two midlife changes, if not both. One might come to be bored with what Little Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, called The Old In/Out. For these people, lovemaking achieves a whole new dimension, if you will, as kink engages not only all the usual body parts, the genitalia and lips and fingertips and so on, but also the intellect — specifically, the imagination — more than other sex. Much as in mid-childhood, lovers imagine themselves in all sort of scenarios, except now with better costuming, in many cases, and an often rapturous payoff.

The other change that might lead one to kink is increased self-acceptance. In middle age, one might finally give himself permission to act on impulses of which he was ashamed earlier in life.

When I say that kink is primarily the domain of persons over 45, I’m by no means suggesting that there aren’t avid 24-year-old practitioners of the dark erotic arts (kidding!). I’m not much of a mixer, and have attended maybe half a dozen “munches” (non-erotic get-togethers of the kinky) in my lifetime, but that was enough to know that a fair number of the, uh, community think that they, and they alone, have glimpsed Kink's True Face. Which is of course preposterous, as there are countless variations on the theme. Who embodies kink? The woman who likes to wear latex catsuits (be still, my beating heart) and demand that her naked male lover bleat like a lamb while she hits him with a spatula, or her neighbor, who wants her lover to secure her wrists to the bedpost and call her a shameless little slut while he fucks her, or the college professor who wants to wear a French maid’s uniform, and to be addressed as Babette, and doesn’t care one way or another if he’s touched? Each is indeed the living embodiment of his own erotic compulsions and fetishes.

And probably resembles 50 Shades’ two leads about as much as the average straight, vanilla couple resembles Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The latter of whom, I hear, isn’t so vanilla all, bless her heart.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Beatles or Stones? The Question Finally Addressed: Neither!

I've been meaning for 50 years to address this. As players, the Stones might have had the edge, as they arranged for two guitars much more imaginatively than The Beatles did (or could, given Lennon’s being very limited), and Brian Jones, on both harp and slide guitar, was probably the most accomplished instrumentalist of all nine, but the Beatles were obviously light-years ahead vocally, and which Stones track can you say with a straight face rocks as authoritatively as “Money” or “Long Tall Sally”?

Frank Zappa, whose opinion some people valued, for reasons I was never able to divine, used to enjoy shocking interviewers by saying that he didn’t much care for The Beatles, and much preferred the Stones, by virtue of their being…blacker. So we were to understand that the Stones ever came close to as powerful a version of a black artist’s song as “Twist and Shout”? We’re to think that the Stones’ later reworking of The Temptations “Just My Imagination” deserves mention in the same breath as The Beatles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me”?  If Jones’s slide guitar was an indisputably potent musical weapon, Lennon’s voice was potenter by far.

(Musically, the Pretty Things ate the Stones’ lunch, but one of them (the one who’d briefly been in the Stones) had a beard, and, whereas wee Mr. Jagger’s lips were attractively bloated, Phil May’s whole face was bloated, unattractively. None of the Things had hair like Brian Jones — the best in popular music at the time (or, let's face it, ever). Such things can make a bigger difference than anyone might wish to admit.)

Both groups were funny, the Stone unintentionally. Five little 104-pound twerps performing the music of the great-grandsons of slaves? Hilariously audacious! Mick Jagger, gangly in spite of his diminutiveness, aping the dancing of James Brown? Again, hilarious. I preferred the corny three-boys-on-two-mikes stage show of The Beatles, the homoeroticism of Paul and George shaking their pretty hair at each other.

As songwriters, there was of course no comparison, though the gap admittedly didn’t forever remain as wide as that between the puerile “As Tears Go By” and “Yesterday”.  Keith Richards is said to have dreamed the famous riff of "Satisfaction," but what he really dreamed is the riff of Martha & The Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run." I'll take those in "Daytripper" or "I Feel Fine" any old time.

A lot of people were drawn to the Stones because of their greater air of  danger and rebelliousness, as witness their not wearing uniforms. Keith Richards, who can be seen (decades later) on YouTube calmly unstrapping his guitar and trying to brain with it someone who joined his group on stage uninvited, was probably the most dangerous and rebellious of the nine, and of course we found out later that the nicely spoken, staunchly middle class (in the British sense) Mr. Jones thought it jolly good fun to beat up women, but Lennon had done no little wife-beating of his own, and probably wasn’t much less sociopathic than Keef (so referred to, FYI, because residents of the east end of London commonly pronounce th as f). I loved Marianne Faithfull’s guffawing incredulously when asked if Mick Jagger were really Lucifer reincarnate.

I periodically read on Facebook about what a fantastic guy Lennon was — kind of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela rolled into one, but a better singer than any of them. Well, I agree about the singing, and acknowledge that over the course of his tragically truncated life he might have become a very much kinder person, but there’s ample evidence that at least into his late 20s he was a horror story. He stole other musicians’ instruments. He mocked spastics and the physically deformed. (The most appalling cruelty I’ve ever witnessed was that inflicted on a spastic boy at my junior high school. Lennon, apparently, would have been one of his most avid tormentors.) After Beatlemania, his principal diversion was mercilessly belittling anyone who dared approach him at the London clubs where he held court. In retrospect, the messiah complex he developed with Yoko’s encouragement circa 1969 makes Bono’s look like a small, unambitious child’s. And he was an outrageous hypocrite, here railing bitterly about how he’d been mistreated as an escapee from the working class when in fact he wasn’t working class at all, there implicitly condemning material greed while renting a separate apartment in Manhattan’s Dakota apartment building in which to keep his and Yoko’s fur coat collection at just the right temperature.

Better than either? Best rock and roll band ever? The late-‘60s Who, hands down.