Saturday, February 7, 2015

"I'll Never Be This Uncool Again!"

Lots of young men have mentors, but mine was special. I was 19 when, after deciding we’d be in a band together, he on lead guitar and I on drums, mine took me under his wing and began teaching me about life. He was 15 at the time, and hipper than God. He listened to The Fugs, and to John Coltrane. He’d started out as a jazz player, but thought Wes Montgomery, whose name came first to mind when anyone said “jazz guitarist” in those days, hopelessly corny. At the audition where we met, he taught me the bass drum pattern for “Daytripper.” There was seemingly nothing he didn’t know. I called him Tot because of his youth. He called me Johnson, apparently because it was what grizzled old jazz dudes would have called me.

We and the (Farfisa) organ player who’d also auditioned that fateful day soon ditched the singer who’d auditioned us and named ourselves The 1930 Four, with the expectation that we’d have a singer one day, and that our gimmick would be to wear Depression-era clothing. (We found fantastically cool military tunics like those The Beatles’ in the least likely men’s boutique in Santa Monica, though, and wore them instead.) The organ player, who could read music fluently, and had possibly been a star of the Santa Monica High School jazz band, hated me for barely knowing which side of the drum kit to sit on, and not being able to read, and never practicing, but he was no match for Tot. Against my better judgment (I thought we should be doing something like “Ferry Cross the Mersey”) we were one day working up an arrangement of Ray Charles’s “Unchain My Heart” when the organ player, lacking sheet music, asked what the second chord in the verse was. I’d never seen anyone sneer as Tot did at that moment, and you could have stripped paint with his tone. “If we started in A, Victor, what do you suppose the next chord is?” I nearly hyperventilated with laughter.

He knew what he was listening to, did the former Mark Elder. When he pointed out that the rhythm guitar part on The Beatles’ “Here There and Everywhere” was scandalously sloppy, while Zal Yanovsky’s playing in comparable settings for the Lovin’ Spoonful was masterly, I was flabbergasted. It was humanly possible to say such things about The Beatles? And he was of course right, and entitled, being able, as he was, to play the guitar solo from "A Hard Day's Night" in real time. My understanding is that Mr. Harrison had had to record it at half speed.

I believe Tot to have been the first boy at University High School in West LA (alma mater of Marilyn Monroe and Jan & Dean) to get suspended for long hair.  He stole most of his wardrobe from Sy Amber on Hollywood Blvd., the first boutique in LA to stock plaid men’s trousers of the sort Brian Jones, Dave Davies, and Arthur Lee were wearing at the time. The fact of his being shaped rather like a bowling ball put not the slightest crimp in his self-confidence, of which I was absolutely in awe. One night he deigned to allow me to accompany him and his 16-year-old running mate Joel up to the Strip to chase skirts. They, in their long hair, plaid trousers, and cannabis-reddened eyes, spent the bulk of the evening with their tongues down the throats of miniskirted girlies who’d ironed their hair for extra straightness. I, the trio embarrassment, spurned out of hand by my third of the girls, went all Scarlett O’Hara, declaring, “I’ll never be this uncool again!” The next week, I persuaded Tot to turn me on, in the middle of the UCLA athletic field, those being staunchly paranoid times. Victor and I giggled like idiots, Tot smirked at us with indulgent embarrassment, and all three of us ran out on the bill at Mario’s in Westwood. No one has ever eaten a more delicious pizza, or a cheaper one.

We won the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s Battle of the Bands on what has since become the ultra-fashionable 3rd Street Promenade, and lost the finals of local TV show 9th Street West’s similar competition to a jazz trio whose guitarist, around 12, briefly wiped the smirk off Tot’s face. We came to be managed, more or less, by a guy around my own age who was said to have Connections in the Music Business. 

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band emerged, and Tot lost all remaining interest in Mersey Beat. Victor lobbied hard to expel me from The 1930 Four, which had come to comprise five members, and to replace me with this guy who was marginally less awful than I, but who owned a practice pad, which hugely impressed Victor. 

I’ve seen Tot once, very briefly, since 1967, and wonder at least annually what became of him. I never forget the debt I owe him, my early mentor. If you know anything, please holler.

Friday, February 6, 2015

My Big Boss Beat, and What It Won Me

I wasn’t even out of the cinema in which I saw A Hard Day’s Night before resolving to parlay my experience as a percussionist in my junior high school orchestra into a career as the American Ringo. I recruited a bunch (a very large bunch!) of Santa Monica High School classmates (lots of people I hoped to make like me) to be my fellow members of The Fogmen, so named because The Beatles were English, and London, which was said to be very foggy, was the English capital). The two or three who could play a little were dismayed to discover that I’d never actually sat down behind a drum kit before, but bit their tongues on learning I’d secured a gig entertaining our fellow students at lunchtime in the school’s Greek Theatre. We were awful, and it was more fun than I’d dared to dream possible, and when the two or three who could play ran off to form The Inrhodes with other former members of the Samohi jazz band, I didn’t read the writing on the wall, but looked for another group on whom to bestow my big boss beat.

I responded to ads scrawled on index cards and the backs of receipts on the bulletin board at Ace Music on Santa Monica Blvd. To get me out of their hair, the brother proprietors arranged for me to audition at a local bar for two hard-core actual musicians with actual long hair. One of them, the alcoholic one, seemed to think I was just fine, but the other was much offended by my incompetence, and I was underaged anyway, so I shuffled back up Santa Monica Blvd. with my tail between my legs and the $99 Japanese red sparkle drum kit the brother proprietors had sold me looking sheepish in the back of my dad’s VW Variant.

I auditioned successfully for The Consouls, three old men (they were all at least 21, and I think one might have been 23), with pre-Beatles pompadours that I wasn’t able to persuade them to jettison, and a repertoire of R’n’B classics like "Walkin’ the Dog." The fact that they thought I was pretty terrific owed to their being pretty awful themselves. When they refused to get striped T-shirts of the sort Brian Jones had worn wonderfully in a much-circulated photograph a few months before, I lit out for greener pastures, but at first found only a red one — a group of young Communist folkies who called themselves — what else? — The Workers. I disliked their trying to indoctrinate me, and they didn’t think my touch, to whatever small extent I might have been said to have a touch in those early days, was light enough for their staunchly proletarian repertoire. I auditioned way out in Malibu with a group that included Robbie Krieger, a few months later of The Doors, and not yet very good. The singer and I were allergic to each other.

I played with The 1930 Four, about whom I wrote only recently, until they invited me to stop doing so, and auditioned for a band being assembled by the son of LA’s weirdly banjo-voiced mayor Sam Yorty. Sonny wished to perform many of the songs on an import album by an English group of which I knew almost nothing, The Who. He, no great shakes himself, discovered over the course of my audition that he wished to perform them with someone other than me playing drums.

I got back from the Monterey Pop Festival wanting to be Keith Moon, and auditioned for a group in the Valley that made me promise before letting me hear their songs that I wouldn’t try to recreate them with anyone else. The songs were, they assured me, Art. I imitated Moonie through one and a half of them, hitting everything in sight as hard and often as possible. One of the co-songwriters asked, pretty contemptuously, if, given that his songs were Art, I might consider making less racket. “You guys do what you do,” I said defiantly, “and I'll do what I do.” I hadn’t thought their songs artful, but precious crapola.

I found refuge in a group of avid substance abusers who played Cream and Hendrix numbers, and who were very pleased with my playing, though I’m pretty sure they’d have been pleased with a ticking clock. I performed in public with them twice, realized I couldn’t stand them, and was provisionally hired to join a group of premed students who aspired to perform note-perfect versions of Moody Blues and Procol Harum favorites. I am not a note –perfect sort of person, and was soon invited yet again to go delight someone else, but before I could, I’d somehow become a famous music critic.

Some months into my career as which I rejoined forces with the former saxophone player of Dave & The Vantays, University High School’s best-loved mostly-Japanese surf band. We called ourselves Christopher Milk, and our influence on the popular music of the early 1970s cannot be underestimated, even though I foolishly allowed one of our succession of managers to talk me into relinquishing my place behind the drums, on which I had begun clawing my way to mediocrity with semi-weekly practice sessions, for stage-center.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Wasting Some Towelheads

I watched the Super Bowl pretty casually, but wasn’t emotionally invested in either team’s success. My impression is that Richard Sherman’s thoughtful and intelligent, and that Tom Brady’s unusually dim — if not dim enough to be a lapdog of Republican ex-presidents — so I’d have been more inclined to root for the Seahawks if running back Marshawn Lynch didn’t seem to have so much in common — intense surliness — with Don Baylor. [Twenty-four hours after I wrote this, I learned that Brady had given the Chevy truck he was given for being the game's Most Valuable Player to his young teammate Malcolm Butler, who made the interception that ensured the Patriots' victory. I like that about him.] 

Many, many years ago, the publisher of New York magazine decided to publish a West Coast counterpart, to be called New West, from which I got an assignment to write about the California Angels baseball team. My idea was to write an article of a sort baseball fans had rarely glimpsed — one based on the players’ answers to deliberately provocative personal questions, rather than questions about their sport. I asked them what they read, and what they listened to, for instance, and what they thought of the idea — then hotly contested by that era’s Michele Bachman, Anita Bryant — of openly gay persons being allowed to teach in the public schools.  Twenty-four of the 25 players on the roster, including the superstar pitcher Nolan Ryan, responded to my questions. Many were sanctimonious idiots who professed to read the Bible for pleasure and to regard Burger King as top-notch dining.

Some made no secret of their distaste for my long hair (it was a long time ago!) and Edwardian velvet blazer, but even the most benighted of those 24 played ball, if you will. Not the slugger Don Baylor, who had biceps as big around as my waist, and who made clear that I would be putting myself in physical jeopardy if I asked a second time, however politely, for a few minutes with him.

Not, of course, that I condemn any athlete for shying away from any journalist other than myself. My observation during my time with the Angels was that sportswriters are generally a lower form of life. They ask you stupid, often fawning questions — “Is it thrilling to have been named the World Series’ Most Valuable Player?” but don’t really want an answer. What they really want — what any journalist wants — is to get his subject to relax enough to reveal something horrible about himself.  Every sportswriter, that is, wants to be Jeff Pearlman, getting the Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker to admit in 1999 to being xenophobic, homophobic, and one of the great American assholes, the sort of guy who, in 2015, would see American Sniper and want to go out and, uh, waste some towelheads.

But back to Baylor. Until I saw this, I had never heard of anyone being injured either catching or throwing a baseball game’s ceremonial first pitch. At moments like this, I’m tempted to believe that what goes around really does come around. In the end, though, I don’t think it’s possible to embrace the idea of karma while dismissing as nonsense astrology and divine intervention into human affairs. But my not believing in karma doesn’t mean I don't know there’s such a thing as shadenfreude, and am enjoying some right now!

Though not enough not to mention that whenever I watch an NFL game, I’m struck by how much Anheuser-Busch seems to spend on advertising. Persons from other countries taste their beer-flavored soda pop and snicker contemptuously. And yet they’ve somehow managed to convince a huge percentage of American men that it’s somehow quintessentially manly and even patriotic to drink Bud Lite, for instance.  (What a concept! As though the non-Lite version is really robust and flavorful.) 

Whassup, bro? Oh, I’m just chillin’ with a Bud Lite, bro.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I Manage the Beatles!

There is a seat near the front of every LA Metro bus reserved for the elderly and infirm. I can no longer credibly pretend not to be elderly, but I’m still pretty firm, so when, at the end of my daily Long March late yesterday afternoon, I relinquished the reserved seat, the only one available on the 316 when I’d boarded at 3rd and Western, to an ancient Korean-looking woman with obvious osteoperosis who boarded at 3rd and Wilton.  I did it because it was the decent, courtly thing to do, and would have been content with a small nod of acknowledgment, but the beneficiary of my kindness professed to have extraordinary powers. She said that before the bus got to Rossmore, I could choose a time and place to which to travel, and that she would propel me there. 

I’d been thinking only that morning about how (forgive me:) cool it would be to meet The Beatles before they became famous, and to become their manager. I’m no businessman, but neither was Brian Epstein, from all accounts, and I’d thought that signing The Beatles to a management contract and then riding their rocket to superstardom a few years later would be an exciting way not only to make a great deal of money, but also to secure a prominent place for myself in popular cultural history. 

I’d no sooner confided this to the ancient Korean lady than I found myself in what I guessed from the squalor and neon and noise must be Hamburg, Germany, at the dawn of the 1960s. It was nighttime. I tried to ascertain the date on my iPhone, only to discover that it wasn’t working. A passer-by who spoke something roughly resembling English told me it August 1960. The month my future meal tickets arrived!

I had to ask directions of around a dozen locals, as English wasn’t yet the universal second language in 1960, before I was finally able to make my way over to 64 Grosse Freiheit, which all true Beatles fans know to have been the address of Bruno Koschmider’s Indra club. I fairly shook with excitement as I offered the cashier at its entrance my Visa card, only to realize that she’d probably never seen such a thing. I told her I was on the guest list. She shrugged so as to make clear that she wouldn’t summon the prolifically scarred doorman I’d seen outside if I went in.

I went and there they were, John, Paul, George, Pete, and Stuart, playing to an audience of perhaps a dozen, Astrid Kirchherr and her so-called exi (exhibitionist) friends apparently hadn’t yet discovered them. No one was paying much attention, and understandably. The group wasn’t charismatic. All three guitars were out of tune, and Stu and Pete made up a truly woeful rhythm section. It seemed to me that replacing Pete might serve to launch the group’s rocket to superstardom well ahead of schedule, and I resolved to do so as I’d gotten the three main ones’ signatures on a management contract.

Getting them to sign was hardly more difficult than opening my mouth. I sound American, in spite of my seven years in the UK, and they in 1960 were besotted with all things American. When I told them, somehow keeping myself from giggling, that I foresaw great things for them, they pretty nearly snatched the pen out of my hands.

I flew over to New York, auditioned drummers, hired the one who’d played on the Dion & The Belmonts hit “A Teenager in Love,” and flew him back to Germany with me. I made clear that he would ultimately be replaced by Ringo Starr. I was of course loath to tamper with The Fab Four’s special chemistry. “As long as you pay me every week in the meantime, chief,” he said, “you can replace me with whoever the hell you like.” Paul wasn’t pleased about having to switch to bass, though hugely pleased by Stuart’s departure, as he’d been jealous of Stuart’s having become the apple of John’s eye.

Sure enough, the group sounded 100 percent better with the reconfigured rhythm section, but their audience remained tiny and indifferent. I felt sure their hometown fans, at least, would be delighted with the new lineup, but no such thing turned out to be the case. The general consensus, new drummer or no new drummer, was that the group was no Gerry & The Pacemakers.  Within three weeks, to my astonishment and despair (the drummer’s plane ticket from New York hadn’t exactly been cheap!) they’d broken up out of frustration. John allowed his girlfriend Cynthia to support him with what she earned as a teacher of art to special needs students. George became a roadie for Derry & The Seniors. Paul’s father got him a job as a cotton salesman.

I returned myself to the here-'n'-now by rubbing the talisman the Korean lady had given me. She was surprised to see me back so soon. When I confessed my great disappointment, she shook her head and asked, “Did you not realize that if you changed any part of their history, the whole story might turn out different?”

Now she tells me!

Monday, February 2, 2015

I Saw Boyhood So That You Won't Have To

I don’t think I’ve ever been more at odds with my favorite movie critics — Andrew O’Hehir, Stephanie Zacharek, Ty Burr, Mick LaSalle, and David Edelstein — than I am about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, whose average score on Metacritic is 100. As in, out of 100. 

“I'm as reluctant to stop writing about this movie,” wrote LaSalle, who’s been an idol of mine since the laties, “as I was to stop watching it: At 166 minutes, it flies by, and you don't want to leave that world.

“Linklater makes this tale of ordinary American family dysfunction … into something transcendent and universal,” marvels O’Hehir.

I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, “ admits Edelstein, “but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now, and it’s different; I know movies can do something that just last week I didn’t. They can make time visible."

“Boyhood,” gushes Zacharek, “had the curious effect of making me feel lost, uneasy, a little alone in the inexorable march forward — and also totally, emphatically alive.”

Boy, do I not get it. Boyhood made me feel very much less alive —drowsy with boredom. I liked it a little bit more than Terence Malick's roughly comparable Tree of Life, but I didn't like Terence Malick's roughly comparable Tree of Life one darned bit.

I’m not disputing that the movie’s unusual. Rather than a succession of ever-older actors portraying the child stars, it presents the same young actors aging before our eyes over the course of the 12 years the movie covers. (The great irony being that the 18-year-old Mason bears so little resemblance to the six-year-old we meet at the beginning that they might just as well be different actors.) The movie’s also unusually boring, and defiantly unengaging. I didn’t feel much of anything for any of the characters except in the scene in which our hero’s mother’s self-delighted second husband reveals himself to be a scary drunk, and that in which he discovers that his father doesn’t remember having promised him his muscle car. 

Linklater cast his daughter as Mason’s elder sister, Samantha. She’s reasonably talented, but I was reminded of Francis Coppola having cast his daughter Sofia as Kathleen Turner’s little sister in Peggy Sue Got Married even though the swarthy Sofia could hardly have been more southern Italian-looking, or Turner any WASPier. I found it impossible to take on faith that Mason and Samantha emerged from the same womb, and grew from seeds from the same papa. Strain my credulity in small ways like that, Ms. or Mr. Filmmaker, and I’m disinclined to suspend disbelief in bigger ways. You've been warned!

There’s a high school scene, in which two bullies bully Mason in the boys’ room, that might have told us volumes about the sort of man Mason will eventually become, but Ellar Coltrane (Mason) underplays it to the point at which the scene tells us nothing at all; his reaction is essentially not to react. Was Linklater still at lunch when it was shot? Very near the end of the movie’s 165 minutes, which seem like many, many more, Mason, driving himself away to college, stops for gas, and how’s that for high drama? He doesn’t interact with anyone, but does find interesting as photographic subjects a couple of objects near the gas station. I couldn’t for the life of me see why. The whole movie writ large —scenes that seem to be about nothing at all, and increase our understanding of nothing, and would have seemed to cry out to the filmmaker Richard Linklater, “Cut me, quick!”

The last half-hour of Boyhood becomes really boring, as Mason turns into an intelligent, introspective teenager. There is nothing on earth more tiresome than an intelligent, introspective teenager whose parent you are not.