Saturday, February 14, 2015

Canaries in the Kohl Mine

It occurred to me last night, as we prepared to call it a day, that being an entertainment director at a hotel of the sort in which we’re staying must not be many cuts above extracting the lobsters from Jayne Mansfield’s rectum (spot the reference and win valuable prizes!). At 9 a.m., the poor devil, whose 27th birthday it was, was leading an aqua aerobics session out by the pool. Nine hours later, he was welcoming us into the dining room, and checking off our name. And three hours after that he was conducting a bingo session. Sixteen-hour days of trying to keep (mostly) ancient, (mostly) patronizing (aren’t his attempts at English adorable?) foreign tourists amused sounds to me like something other than a world of fun. 

We had traipsed after an early lunch (following a late breakfast!) into the nearby town of El Medano, and there observed little of note. There are a great many surf-related shops there, and a great many little snack bars, but no houses of illl repute, at least none evident to the naked eye, and no notable shops. We resolved to ride a public bus west to Los Cristianos, where Brits intent on pretending that they haven’t left home, but that it’s somehow become much warmer, sit around their hotel swimming pools drinking and getting painfullly sunburned, and then repair to the area’s many, many British-owned bars to drink and to tell each other how painful their sunburns are. 

We didn’t neglect to note that, in the wrong hands, the public transportation system, Titsa, could figure in a great number of naughty puns, and noted with dismay that the posted schedule seemed to be entirely fanciful, an impression corroborated by a very red Mancuinian who believed that the schedules might just as well be filled with times pulled from a hat. Sure enough, the 470 arrived 72 minutes latte. 

The bus took us past where we stayed our previous two visits to Tenerife, in 2004 and 2006. The first time, I was working on my famous Kate Bush book, and we spent a lot of time in our little apartment in Golfo del Sur, the missus watching BBC World News and I making notes on The Katesster’s albums, in between gaping open-mouthed at the tasteful gay porn our television offered without explanation or apology. The second time, we became chummy with a karaoke DJ from the worst part of Liverpool, and the missus, who loves to read the listings in (real) estate office windows, struck up a zesty conversation in the capital city about local property values with an actual local. 

Horrid black clouds glared down at us all day yesterday from on high, and it made the southern half of Tenerife unimaginably ugly. Imagine a part of your town in which wheel-less cars balance on piles of cinderblocks in every front yard, and in which disreputable-looking body shops abound. Surround it with the ugliest vegetation possible. Add lots and lots of hideous graffiti, most of it denouncing the police, and some of the most appalling commercial signage I’ve seen outside of San Francisco’s Inner Richmond and Sunset districts. Voila! South Tenerife! Now imagine glimpsing it from a bus that seems to stop, interminably, every couple of hundred yards, and whose driver is listening to a Spanish talk radio channel at a volume that suggests he used to play, never with earplugs, in a Lee Michaels tribute band.

My favourite fellow guest, around 75, facially resembles the 1950s movie tough guy Broderick Crawford, except without his dazzling baby blues. Her coiffure evokes that of the television personality Arsenio Hall, circa 1995, and is dyed the color of the pineapple, uh, drink to which one can help himself from a machine in the dining room. She is an alarming shade of red from her long hours by the pool. She totters down to dinner in stripper heels that Katy Perry would find immoderate, with gigantic diamond rings on eight fingers. She is, as I have observed to the missus, who hadn’t heard the term before, but was able immediately to, uh, suss, a trip. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Karaoke Dokey

In 2002, I composed and recorded a wonderful album with the missus, who’d been the singer in a South London-based new wave group around the time Blondie, like which they sounded, sort of ruled the world. Our album, Like a Moth to Its Flame, credited to Mistress Chloe, was celebrated in The Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and inspired all who heard it to shout, “Hurrah!”, but the missus has since confined herself musically to karaoke, for which she began developing a serious taste during our 2004 visit to Cyprus, where she performed Baby Spice’s sole UK hit to a small audience at an outdoor restaurant by the sea. She later became a crowd favourite at the karaoke nites overseen by the noted DJ Bob Allen in grungy Ramsgate, Kent, and, more recently, at a gay pub in Richmond, a couple of hundred meters (ain’t I European today!) from where The Rolling Stones began their ascent at the famous Crawdaddy club, now a sushi joint.

Last night in our hotel bar on the outskirts of El Medano, on the south coast of Tenerife, though, she wowed ‘em as she has wowed ‘em but rarely, performing everything from T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam” to the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” with crowd-delighting panache, brio, and what have you. Where once (as while with The Voyeurs, here depicted) she seemed immobilized by self-consciousness, she now beams with pleasure and dances in time to the music, and the audience’s heart invariably melts.

The evening got off to a rocky start with the author performing Marty Robbins’ fervently corny 1958 hit “El Paso” with unbridled theatricality that, from the look of them, inspired many horrified onlookers to muse, “WTF?” The missus then knocked ‘em for a loop with her spirited rendition of The Tremeloes’ Cat Stevens-composed “Here Comes My Baby.” Over the course of the evening, during which the audience came to adore her ever more fervently, she treated us as well to Blondie’s “Presence, Dear,”  the Rolling Stones’ bawdy “Brown Sugar,” and Alvin Stardust’s unheard-in-America, but quite wonderful (and wonderfully lewd) glam-era classic “My Koo Ka Choo.” Remarkably, given that she once conspired to impersonate Chrissie Hynde on the UK pop star-imitating programme Stars In Their Eyes, she performed no Pretenders favourites. By around her fourth number, the cottontops at the adjoining table were imploring her to try a ballad, but to no avail.

It has long been my own ambition, because I am vengeful, and my sense of humor puckish, to perform Richard Harris’s famous version of the Jimmy Webb classic “MacArthur Park,” and last night that dream (or, for the audience, nightmare) came true. Sweet green icing flowed down by the gallon as I gesticulated even more immoderately than in “El Paso.” I thought, during the endless instrumental section, that by rights it should have been Bob Allen’s audience in Ramsgate I was tormenting, as in my 17 months there it invariably included a couple who performed Meat Loaf’s comparably endless “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as dissonantly as any song has ever been performed. But we don’t live in a just world. 

The average age in last night’s audience was probably around 92, but no one seemed inclined to perform “My Way” or “Mack the Knife.” Indeed, we were the only actual singers, to whatever extent you might describe me as a singer, except for a pair of old gals who made the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” couple sound in comparison like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and a Scottish woman who apparently felt duty-bound to remind us of the great Proclaimers Hit “500 Miles.” The DJ made everyone (except their husbands, who took him outside and beat him unconscious (just kidding)) titter by stuffing paper towels in his ears while they performed. 

My own most successful performance, in terms of audience pleasure (or at least diminished impatience), was probably Desmond Dekker’s glorious “Israelites.” Performing at a karaoke nite, you can’t go wrong evoking an audience’s carefree younger days. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

From Ham to the Canaries by Aeorplane

Bloc Hotels save space by making the whole tiny bathroom the shower area, with the result that if you take a shower late at night, after an arduous series of train rides to Gatwick from Ham (namesake of the sandwich, or, less whimsically, the quiet neck of the woods on the Thames between Richmond and Kingston), you’d better not stagger in soon thereafter to pee, as you’ll slip on the wet floor and break your neck. But, who never fail to notice the silver lining, though, which in this case might be that if you’re too groggy or drunk to think straight, and pee all over the floor, those with whom you’re sharing the room will have no way of knowing that you made a mess when they stagger in after you’ve had your turn. I had no quibble with the enormous flatscreen TV!

My titanium right shoulder of course set off the metal detector at the entrance to the departures lounge. The guy whose thankless task it was to have to grope me was surprised and impressed when I explained what the problem was. “That’s unusual, a replaced shoulder, innit” he mused. “Not so unusual that I won’t be going in for a replacement of the replacement in March,” said I, in my best devil-may-care voice. I didn’t advise him that I’m hoping to persuade the surgeon to save the present joint for me, as we’ve been very, very close the past 20 years, and I hope to display it as an object d’art

We bought posh sarnies, as the missus calls them when she’s trying to sound working class, at Pret a Manger, and some posh bottled tea. Sipping mine, I noted with some pleasure that the bottle noted that the drink was “best chilled (as indeed we all are).” The missus bought her traditional copy of The Daily Mail (for no points, because I’ve just given you the answer, name the only British newspaper ever mentioned by name in a Beatles song), and we headed for Gate 36.

I haven’t been as relaxed on a plane as I was on this one since around 1970, just before I became terrified of flying after the pilot of a plane I’d ridden from New York back to LA decided a few feet from the ground that maybe he shouldn’t try to land after all, and abruptly aborted the landing. I read a book about how a group of heroic opponents of the Vietnam War burglarized an FBI office to demonstrate that the then-unassailable Bureau was suppressing dissent, and mused that J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon might have been the two principal American villains of the 20th century, with the latter’s henchman Henry Kissinger a close third, albeit with a German accent. I personally believe Dick Cheney to be miles ahead of anyone else for the present century.

In England, a loud, inconsiderate, boorish person is called a yob, or, even better, a yobbo. I have never heard the term applied to a woman, for whom the term cow seems preferred. There were a couple of right cows four rows in front of us, drunkenly braying, cawing, and generally making themselves insufferable as we flew south and west. I was gobsmacked (incredulous, you see) when one of the flight crew blithely sold each of them another little bottle of wine as the refreshment cart made its last trip down the aisle. I gathered that one of them, who deafeningly identified herself as Michelle From Surrey, was “celebrating” (if that’s the word, and of course it is not) her 50th birthday, and wasn’t tickled about having to do so not with a handsome gentleman who loves her for Who She Is, but with a hideous blonde fellow alcoholic of comparable vintage. I was pretty sure they were going to puke on someone before flight’s end, but they proved to be of sterner stuff. The Brits can be indomitable when they want to be, innit.

Now we will dine and take advantage of our all-inclusive plan (that is, get generously lubricated ourselves) and sing karaoke. If I get enough off-brand spirits in me I may well attempt “MacArthur Park” for the first time, if only to keep someone else from doing it. 

Stay tuned, innit.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Taking the Boy Out of LA

It felt as though my city had betrayed me. In my early twenties, I’d been a star. I’d written for the Los Angeles Times, and had a record deal of my own. I’d driven a Porsche, and had as my life partner a universal object of desire. But by the time of my departure, I’d been reduced to taking demeaning word processing jobs to keep the lights on, and it seemed that every time I stopped at a red light, some ghastly little twerp whose agent — I didn’t have one — had just secured him a development deal would pull up beside me sneering in a car that cost more than I’d earned in the 80s. 

And I kept hearing the voice of my acquaintance Craig Fisher in my mind’s ear. “How,” he’d marveled disdainfully, “can anybody be content to stay as an adult where he grew up?” It was bad enough that I’d lacked both the money and the nerve to go away to college, as others had. Here I was, almost 20 years after the fact, lacking the gumption to admit it wasn’t working for me any more, and to light out for somewhere else where it might.

And there was my daughter, born five months before. Over the years, as my stardom had dissipated, I’d first moved ever farther east (as far as Wilton Avenue, on what was then the western edge of Koreatown), and then ever farther south. In Los Angeles, one on the rise moves north and west. There we (my first wife and my daughter and I) living a couple of hundred yards north of Pico Blvd. while anyone who was anyone lived north of Santa Monica Blvd, at the very least, and preferably in one of the canyons, north of Sunset Blvd. I myself had hung my hat in Laurel Canyon in my salad days, and hadn’t lived on the wrong side of Melrose in the 15 years since I’d left Venice. I’d look out the living room window of our little house on Ogden Avenue at the apartment building across the street, realize that by mid-afternoon I’d barely be able to see it for the air pollution, and ask myself, “Do you really want to raise your daughter in…this?” 

Thirty years ago today, I abandoned Los Angeles. I lived first in Santa Rosa, California, 50 miles north of San Francisco, in the wine country, and then, when my first marriage collapsed, in San Francisco itself. After 11 years there, it was back to Santa Rosa, for three years, and then five years in the UK, 10 months in the American heartland, three years in New York’s Hudson Valley, and another 17 months in the UK before I realized that wherever you go, there you are, and that you can take the boy out of his LA, but you can’t take LA out of the boy. As much as I detested it when I left, I loved it when I returned. As did nowhere else I’d hung my hat, it felt like home.

I’d come to the UK imagining it to be the magical place I’d first visited 30 years before, a place of glorious, spectacular fashion and the best pop music on earth. I’d stroll in some grim little suburb like Rayners Lane and imagine a young Townshend or Syd Barrett up in his closet-sized bedroom writing songs that would shake the world, or at least fill me with delight. One needed only stroll down the Kings Road in central London, once lined with wonderful colorful boutiques that expressed their proprietors’ unique visions, but lined now with big soulless chain stores, to realize that England had vanished. (And it gets ever worse. As I write this, Soho’s Denmark Street, England’s Tin Pan Alley, is being demolished to make way for luxury flats for smug young assholes who work in the London equivalent of Wall Street.) I’d fled to Wisconsin, and then to the Hudson Valley, hoping they might feel a little bit more like home, and they had — very, very marginally. 

Visiting Vancouver on the first day of the new century, I’d been struck by the beauty of the mountains in its background. On the day I got back to LA to say in January 2013, it dawned on me that if one faced in the right direction, there were gorgeous mountains in my home town’s background too. And the light — the soft, buttery, golden late afternoon light of mid-January! How had I failed to see it as a younger man? 

I’ve given up the companionship of the person to whom I’m closest in all the world to be here, and won’t deny that I am subject to awful loneliness in my city, just as in all the others in which I’ve lived. (Wherever you go, there you are.) But there really is no place like home. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When Sweaty Betty Met the Boy With One Shoulder

One of the principal pleasures of life in the UK is UK television, and nothing is giving me greater pleasure this visit than The Undateables and the rather less gently entitled Too Ugly for Love, which, at their best, either break your heart or fill it with joy as people with Crouzon syndrome-distorted faces, autism (The Undateables' favourite!), or what used to be called retardation, for instance, go on first dates arranged by the program. 

Here we meet Vicki, whose hyperhidrosis causes her to sweat 10 times more than normal. Here, a handsome young chauffeur lacking not only his right arm, but the shoulder too, the result of an awful motorcycle accident.  Here, a dwarf, Ali, who invariably inspires widespread patronizing amusement among the girlies when he goes clubbing with his pals, but who’s never actually been on a one-to-one date. Here the stammering black Adonis Matthew, who brings a tape measure on his blind date so he can ensure that his blind date’s shoulders are at least 15 inches wide. (See him light up with pleasure on discovering that she has an inch to spare!) Here the young Liverpudlian Jennifer, whose alopecia compels her to wear wigs and false eyelashes. And here Antony, who must choose his wardrobe to conceal his colostomy bag. 

i find myself leaning forward on the sofa, trying to will the blind dates of the most sympathetic of them to agree to second meetings. I realize that I have clenched my ancient fists when one of them is paired with some cute (or, in UK usage, fit) young thing who exudes smugness and lack of empathy. I die just a little when Mr. Colostomy decides to divulge his embarrassing secret just as his and his date’s dinners are placed before them, or when Ms. Alopecia shoots herself repeatedly in the foot. 

She’s really pretty, Ms. Alopecia — bald or bewigged — but tenaciously refuses to believe it. She meets a palpably nice guy, reveals that she works for an alopecia charity, and is fatally dismayed by his failure to put two and two together — to intuit that she chose the charity for which to work on the basis of suffering from the disorder herself. Honestly, how many of us knows offhand what alopecia even means? Wouldn’t 95 percent of us presume that it was an upscale dog food? 

The shy among us die a dozen deaths as we watch the autistics and learning-disableds struggle to converse with each other in those excruciating moments after first meeting. Was it so very different for us? “Stop!” we hear ourselves shouting in our minds’ ears as, for instance, an Asperger’s Syndrome girl nervously ruins the chic coiffure her sister devised for her in the opening moments of her date with a racecar obsessed autisitc boy . Poor sweaty Vicki befuddles her date by refusing his request for a high five (for fear of revealing her sopping underarms), and excuses herself for a trip to the ladies’, there to replace the drenched paper towels she wears in her armpits, and we die a little as we wonder if her date will decide to run out on her. A young woman who was horribly burned at eight, and who has to undergo annual operations to keep her many scars from contracting, meets a young man who works in a hospital. When he isn’t remotely fazed by her telling him of her disfigurement, we want to leap up and dance jubilantly around the room.

Shaine, the world’s sweetest young man, who doesn’t allow his retardation to keep him from composing little poems for everyone he encounters, is matched with a young lwoman of like impairment too shy even to make eye contact with him. Over the course of a couple of dates, he nonetheless comes to hope that she might agree to think of herself as his girlfriend. She rejects the idea, and he, the gentlest soul on the planet, lets fly the most emphatic malediction of which he seems capable: “Oh, crumbs!” 

Nothing I’ve seen on TV since the episode of NYPD Blue in which Jimmy Smits’ character dies has brought me as close to tears.

Monday, February 9, 2015

God Forbid the Inconsiderate Should Feel Unwelcome

I’m pretty close to admitting that the battle might be lost. I’m in the beautiful Beverly Hills Public Library, and too adrenalized to write well. I came in 15 minutes ago, walking past the lunatic who’s perpetually seated in the library’s middle section giggling at jokes he tells himself, and found in the big study room adjacent to the periodicals area a table occupied only by a serious-looking young woman writing something on her laptop. Bliss!

An old duffer with a cane and a golf cap creaked into the periodicals room and curled up with the latest k. It remained lovely and silent. But then an acquaintance of his, a bronze-colored black man with a golden pompadour, came into the periodicals room, and recognized him, and what a lovely loud, distracting reunion the two of them had, at a volume they might have used at the beach, or at Dodger Stadium. After a while I exclaimed, “Shhh!” They both ignored me. One of them made the other laugh, not quite uproariously, but pretty close. I tried another, slightly more emphatic Shh! They continued to ignore me. I went in there and, in the most cordial tone I could muster, pointed out that we were in a library, and that others in the vicinity were trying to read or study. “We pay taxes too,” Mr. Golden Pompadour said, sneering.

Little Ms. Interim Manager
(artist's conception)
In other words, the whole thing has been a replay of my recent experience at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous West Hollywood Public Library, which I no longer go to in spite of its jaw-dropping gorgeousness because I can’t work effectively with the librarians chatting with each other and assisting patrons at a volume that suggests they wish to be heard over on Santa Monica Blvd., two blocks north. The last time I was there, a woman came up to the librarians’ desk on the second floor and asked, very loudly, if she could reserve such-and-such a book. As the librarian laid out all her options for her, even more loudly, I exchanged incredulous looks with several of those around me, readers and writers, and candlestickmakers, but possibly not candlestickmakers. After their conversation ended, I went over to the librarian to ask, as I have done before at the same library, why he had spoken so loudly, and why he hadn’t encouraged the woman to pipe down. The look on his face suggested he wanted to demand, “Yo, you wanna make something of it, biblioboy?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d had such a conversation at WeHo. My earlier one had actually been with its interim manager, who seemed genuinely embarrassed by my observation that she herself had been conducting a negotiation on the telephone at a volume better suited to getting someone’s attention the width of a crowded bus station away. I went back 48 hours later and observed that she’d apparently forgotten our conversation entirely. If I remember correctly, the record company biography accompanying the first Led Zeppelin album noted that Robert Plant didn’t really require a PA setup to be heard over drums and amplified guitars. I suspect that little Ms. Interim Manager could have given him a run for his money.

I emailed the mayor of Beverly Hills, pointing out what a shame it is that WeHo’s, surely the most beautiful library on the West Coast, is largely unusable because its staff will neither pipe down themselves nor encourage its patrons to do so. He wrote back immediately to say that he was going to look into setting up a quiet area in the library where people count count on not being disturbed. I wrote back just as immediately observing that he had it backward — that it would do better to set up small soundproofed areas in which the inconsiderate could bray at each other at the top of their lungs if they so chose. Airports, I noted, don’t have small areas in which nonsmokers can seek refuge from nicotine addicts. Rather, they have small, fantastically malodorous areas in which said unfortunates can satisfy their ugly carcinogenic craving without befouling the air of those of us who quit, or were wise enough never to have started in the first place.

His Honor has not yet seen fit to reply, and it’s been a couple of months. But maybe I should mention that not longer after my confrontation with LMIM, I contacted the Los Angeles County Library directly and volunteered to design a handsome sign — Please keep your voice down — that it could display around its premises. Somebody wrote back to say thanks, but no thanks. Such signs, he theorized, might make the library seem less…welcoming.

Some will surely tell me I sound like an old man yelling at teenagers to get off his lawn. Fuck 'em (both those who say this, and the teenagers, though it's been years since I had a lawn). There are a great many things against which I've made a career of rebelling — organized religion, traditional conceptions of manliness, traditional conceptions of acceptable eroticism — but considerateness never goes out of style, and neither does tranquility. As I asked Little Ms. Interim Manager during our first confrontation, "If I can't come to the library to work or study, where should I go — the mall?"