Saturday, February 28, 2015

The World's Foremost Expert on Boredom

Since last Sunday (mine lasted 32 hours), I have been the world’s pre-eminent expert on boredom.

Norwegian Airlines wouldn’t allow me to make a seat reservation on line, so I figured I’d better get down to Gatwick Airport the prescribed three hours early. The missus drove me to Richmond Station, on whose Platform 2 I stood around and stood around and stood around before the train that would take me to Clapham Junction finally arrived, and then, at Clapham Junction, stood around and stood around waiting for the train to Gatwick. At which the nice lady didn’t ask if I wanted the good or bad news first. She told me she could give me an aisle seat in an emergency exit row (whoopee!), but that the flight would be delayed three hours because horrendous weather on the East Coast of America meant our plane would be late coming over from JFK. I now had six hours to enjoy in Gatwick Airport. 

I found a place where I could plug in my laptop and write, and wrote. I deliberated at great length about how to spend at Pret a Manger the £9.50 voucher Norwegian had given me for my inconvenience. Having had no breakfast, I chose a crawfish and rocket sandwich, a smoked salmon sandwich, a fruit salad, and a bottle of sparkling water. There was some debate among Pret staff about whether I was eligible, given that I’d used a voucher, for the free-with-purchases-over-£6 brownie for which I had a coupon. The dispute was ultimately resolved in my favor. 

I ate my crawfish sandwich very slowly, and then my fruit salad, and then my brownie, and then, having foolishly neglected to download new books for my Nexus 7, spent a long while in a bookstore. I considered various music magazines, but wound up buying a half-priced book about crime-scene forensics because it was half-priced and most of the fiction on offer looked like crapola. 

By and by, I ate my other sandwich, chewing each mouthful 750 times to make it last longer, and drank some of my water, and the boarding gate was finally announced.

We boarded. I took my seat and promptly fell half-asleep, which is as close as I ever get on a plane. Takeoff was bumpy, though, and that woke me up. I’d hoped to watch a couple of movies, but the selection was the same as on the flight from Los Angeles, and I’d already viewed the cream of the crop — Chef, which was at least diverting, and Draft Day, in which Kevin Costner was terrific. I tried to watch The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and was awed by the art direction and set decoration, but left cold by the story. I tried to watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and found it sensationally awful. I got through 10 minutes of a cutesy romcom with Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. I tried to write an epic poem, but managed only:
There’s grits in the grotto and pork in the freezer / I’ve just won the Lotto, but still onto Caesar / will render the fat that our slenderness dreads / and leave most decisions to far calmer heads / than are rolling just now or have rolled since September / When Caesar displayed his astonishing member
I didn’t like the book I’d bought, bargain-priced though it had been, and never managed to read more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. I conversed for around 14 seconds with the guy in the middle seat, a Brit who had relatives in Riverside. Having caught something in Tenerife, I sniffled and sneezed a thousand times, and made 500 visits to the lavatory, whose nice soft paper towels were fairly gentle on my increasingly raw nose.

After what seemed a million years, I allowed myself a look at the visual that shows how near you are to your destination. Only seven hours and 20 minutes remained.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Nephew of American Rock Criticism

In the wake of the publication of his memoir, I Am the Antichrist(gau), many readers have been asking me if I knew Robert Christgau, the so-called dean of American rock critics. Well, of course I did. As one of the biggest of the biggies — I was never comfortable with being called The Father of American Rock Criticism, but was fine with being its Nephew) — I was acquainted with most of the other giants in the field, and in their, and my own, homes and offices. Greil Marcus kindly allowed me to “crash” in the guest bedroom of his luxurious home in the hills above Berkeley when I was two and twenty, at a time when most people our age were grateful to have a sleeping bag, let alone a guest bedroom. At a gala event at A&M Records, St. Lester Bangs, responding to my trying to grow a moustache, once informed me, “You look like a fuckin' Mexican.” I had an ongoing romantic relationship with Dave Marsh before we realized that we were two very different people, I 6-1 and he abnormally diminutive, the shrill we’re-all-one,-man rhetoric of the time notwithstanding.

 I first met Bob (as his closest friends call him) in around 1973 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I’d become something of a fixture. I would sleep until around four in the afternoon, gobble some Benzedrine, and allow four of my acolytes — mostly aspiring rock journalists from the university I’d attended who longed to follow in my footsteps — to carry me down to the pool, where, in the autumn and winter months, I would grouse about the fact of its “already” being a little nippy, or dark. According to my whim, they would scamper to bring me Quaaludes, Dom Perignon, and provocatively dressed young women who’d turned 18 no more than 72 hours before. At one point, I was attended by no fewer then seven such minions, including a taster and a stammering freshman whose sole function was to dab lubricant on my penis in the event that I wanted to copulate anally with one of the young women. (Another minion, in his second year of law school, had advised that, to preclude impregnation, I abstain from traditional coitus).

Hearing that Christgau had arrived at the hotel, I dispatched two of the larger-breasted girls to accompany him out to me.He seemed strangely discomfited. “Jesus, Christgau,” I whooped collegially, taking pains to include the comma as I allowed two of my minions to help me to my feet, “chill out a little, dude. Live a little, why don’t you?” When I tried to embrace him, he recoiled. New Yorkers! He didn’t even want one of the barely-18 to fellate him as we chatted!

We talked at length — or at least until the Quaaludes kicked in — mostly about ethics, a subject that seemed close to his heart.  “If I don’t have integrity,” he said, very seriously at one point, “I have nothing at all.” I had to guffaw at that. Only months before, solely to try to make Ray Davies like me, I had written a glowing review of The Kinks at the Whisky a-Go-Go even though (a) I was employed by their record company, and (b) they were pure shite, thanks to not having troubled themselves to rehearse before undertaking their first American tour in four years. Since then, it had become my practice before reviewing a concert or record to ascertain how much a glowing review was worth to the artist’s management. At my peak, I received a Porsche 911,$25,000 in a Swiss bank account, and three months in an ocean-front condominium in Malibu with Joey Heatherton to tell the readers of Rolling Stone how very much I liked Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Hearing this, Bob went pale, got to his feet, and asked where the gentlemen’s lavatory was. I had one of my minions guide him to it, and never saw him again — Bob, that is, and not the minion, who of course hurried back to the swimming poole, lest one of the others try to vault over him on my list of favorites. I wish him the very best with his memoir, and Bob too.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Rock Stars Drink

I wrote yesterday about my friend in Status Quo, who never made much of a dent in the USA, but who were gigantic in Europe — and remain sufficiently popular to tour a lot. I know a great many musicians — and am indeed one myself — who would feel blessed to be able to make a living playing to rapturous audiences, but MFSQ was one of the most miserable people I know. He’d had a problem with his heart, but smoked up a storm, apparently feeling that life was barely worth living anyway. I rarely knew him not to be very drunk. 

I think I could understand his disgruntlement. He was a very good singer, but circumstances had conspired early in Status Quo’s history to make one his bandmates the group’s lead singer. Hoping to strike out on his own many years later, my friend had made a very good solo album that had been almost universally ignored. Hundreds of thousands adored him, but only as the rhythm guitarist in Status Quo, who every year undertake pretty much the same tours of the same venues, playing the same familiar hits over and over to the same audiences, a little saggier, bigger-bellied, and grayer each time. No one yelled for a song from his solo album. The calls were for Status Quo hits from 1974.

That nincompoop Terry Gross interviewed Ray Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air a few months ago. Ray’s been writing songs for 50 years. The only ones Gross wanted to talk about \from before 1970. In the wonderful West End musical based on Ray’s music, Sunny Afternoon, the newest song is 39 years old. I can well understand why, during the Fresh Air interview, Ray sounded as though about to cry. 

On a smaller scale, I know this phenomenon from the inside. I’ve composed and reoorded over 100 songs, directed a succession of scripted sketch comedy revues, and written many hundreds of thousands of words in the interim, but all many people want to talk to me about are the Kinks Kronikles liner notes I wrote in 1972, and the snide denunciation I wrote of Led Zeppelin in the autumn of 1969. It feels sometimes as though I might as well have died at 25.

I had a much better friend than MFSQ who ascended to the toppermost of the poppermost, the drummer in ELO. When I asked him if his wealth and fame had made him happier, he assured me he probably would have been happy anyway. Lucky him. Very lucky him. I think the main reason so many rock and film stars turn to substance abuse is that they imagine that fame and acclaim will fill the emptiness inside. When it fails to, they’re actually worse off than the rest of us. You and I can daydream about how much more content we’d have been if only fortune had smiled on us. Those on whom fortune has actually smiled have, in most cases, discovered that if you don’t have my drummer friend’s enviable mental health genes, you haven’t much hope. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Leaving Morning

I am chilled out, literally. Claire' dining room, downstairs and next to a big window, feels like an enormous refrigerator. I have a blanket over the bottom half of me, and am wearing one of my new tartan button-up hoodies from Primark, and am drinking a great deal of hot tea, but am shivering anyway. I write a Mendel Illness. I respond to friends’ responses to my comments on Facebook. I shiver and shiver.

Richmond Bridge. ©2015 by John Mendelssohn.
We walk Jessie, her rescue greyhound. It might be even chillier outside than in the dining room. We traipse down to the bridge on whose opposite side lies Teddington, where we first lived together in the UK, in a building whose most famous resident was the rhythm guitarist of Status Quo. We would drink with him and his wife at the posh restaurant between our common block of flats and the Thames, or would go up to their flat overlooking the river. Rick would usually be full of vodka, and smoking in spite of his heart problems. He would embrace me and tell me, sometimes tearfully, how much he loved me. I always thought it was the vodka talking. 

I wonder if I should go back down to Kingston and buy a pair of shoes from Primark, as I have been sorely dissatisfied with the very stylish-looking, very poorly made ones I recently ordered from Korea. I stay home in the end, and persuade Claire to let me make dinner again, cooking having sort of replaced sports for me. When I was a kid, I was an implacably avid, irredeemably mediocre player of sports, the first kid to arrive on the ball field pounding his mitt excitedly, the last to be chosen for a team. Now I love cooking and am awful at it, but the Canarian-style red pepper sauce I made the other day was edible, and it’s hard to make halloumi anything but delectable. 

For the second time in 72 hours, I make for dinner chips (French fries) with the red pepper dipping sauce and grilled halloumi pita sandwiches, with garlic mayonnaise and rocket (arugula) inside. We watch the (taped) season finale of Too Ugly for Love?, in which, for instance, a poor devil with a ghastly condition, pyoderma gangrenosum, that reduces the bottom halves of his legs to hideous running sores tries to find a soulmate, a life partner, a copilot. Then, unable to stand sitting too long in front of a TV, I spend half an hour afterward to hectoring people to read my blog while the missus watches The Dog Whisperer

I return to the sofa to watch the Derek Xmas special. I continue to regard it as a work of sublime genius. It quite nearly makes me burst into tears, or are the tears exclusively about my imminent separation from my own beloved copilot?

Another Facebook break, and then we savor small portions of Tesco’s Finest chocolate ice cream, which I have come to believe may be the most delicious I have ever tasted (and I’ve tasted Black & Green), while watching a program about a Mormon woman who sounds as though she’s just ingested helium, and, by virtue of having been born with caudal regression syndrome, essentially lacks a bottom half. She too is looking for love. She is no more successful than Mr. Pyoderma Gangrenosum, but her voice and Mormonism have conspired to make her far less sympathetic to me. 

Whatever I felt myself catching back in Tenerife several days ago is no longer content to lurk in the shadows. I have been sneezing and sniffling all day, and am afraid I will keep the missus awake, but I fall asleep instantly, and don’t sneeze once, even when I wake up worrying about leaving in the morning. I’ve been terrifyingly absentminded lately. 

Claire returns home from walking Jessie and drives me to Richmond station, opposite which we cry in each other’s hair as we prepare to part again for two months. I stand there on Platform 2 freezing at considerable length before the train that will transport me to Clapham Junction arrives. As I wait, I realize I’ve forgotten the smoked salmon sandwiches it has become traditional for Claire to make me on Leaving Morning. It breaks my heart, and reminds me of that time when I was a hyperneurotic 8-year-old scaredy-cat and my mother left me a nice lunch in our first apartment in Westchester. Afraid that the Great Unseen Evil I’d grown up dreading would kidnap me if I stayed too long in the apartment, I dashed in and grabbed my lunch, in the process failing to see the loving note Mom had left me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I Once Had a Daughter

For all I know, I’m a grandfather by now, but I’m unaware of changes in my daughter Brigitte’s life since my wife Claire (not her mother) noticed several years ago on line that she’d become a born-again Christian, and gotten married. Brigitte hasn’t spoken to me for 13 years this month. Friends and others have been assuring me since the first year of our estrangement that she’s sure to relent at any moment, and she did send me a long, icy email at the end of 2004, but at this point I’d only torture myself imagining that I’ll ever see her again. 

I honestly feel I loved my daughter as much as any parent has ever loved his child. I was absolutely mad about her pretty much from the moment her mother, L—, told me I’d finally gotten her pregnant. “More than anything I’ve ever done in life, I can do this,” I thought. “I can be a devoted, loving father.” After our marriage broke up, a couple of months short of Brigitte’s third birthday, I lived for the weekend, when I would get to see her again. I was absolutely mad about her. And I was indeed good — very far from perfect, but very, very good — at being her daddy. I have witnesses.

I was forever second best, though. When she reached adolescence, she would get into my car after school on Friday afternoon wearing an expression of the most profound revulsion, shattering my heart week after week, even while she seemed unable to get enough of L—, who, approaching 50, seemed to have devoted herself to displaying her facelift and boob job at groovy niteclubs down in San Francisco. The lust of younger men seemed to have become her oxygen. Brigitte would spend much of her weekends with me and Nancy, my longtime San Francisco zookeeper girlfriend Nancy. pining for L— ever more implacably. My inability to put a smile on her face felt like the cruelest repudiation of my lifetime. Not even the person you love most in the world wants you, pal.

When Nancy and I bought a house, it was in the wine country, near where L— had continued to live, to minimize disruption of Brigitte’s (extremely tenuous) social life, and Nancy now had to spend 200 minutes a day driving back and forth to the zoo. Far from appreciative, Brigitte was actually resentful, but had come to be even more resentful of L—’s new boyfriend. Their relationship became so fraught after Brigitte failed to persuade her mother to leave him that she agreed, with the utmost reluctance — indeed, with smoldering resentment — to move in with me and Nancy. 

Every day after school she would present herself at the little boutique where L— worked afternoons and renew her campaign to talk her into leaving Boyfriend. Every day L— would decline, and Brigitte would come home in emotional disarray, commonly in tears. Every day Claire and I would do our damnedest to console her. When I found out that she was trying to budge her mom by telling her how very miserable she was living with us, though we were both doing everything in our power to make her happy, I was furious. I told Brigitte quite emphatically that I felt she’d betrayed my trust. I called her a spoiled little brat. I told her she’d very nearly accomplished what I would never have dreamed possible — hurt all the unconditional love from my heart. 

That was my crime. I am ashamed of my weakness. But in the past 13 years I’ve known women who’ve dads have abandoned them, or drunk, or gambled, or (much) worse. They’ve all found a way to forgive their fathers. My daughter, the born-again Christian, seems not to have received the memo about clemency. Sometimes I feel even worse about her having turned her back both on Nancy, who’d been a generous, devoted de facto stepmom to her for 11 years, on Claire, and even on my sister, her loving aunt.

She didn’t attend my and Claire’s marriage. She didn’t allow me to attend her graduation from high school, though I’d flown home to California from London for it. As noted, I found out about her having wed from Claire, who told me that the rich Swiss L— had married after me had walked her down the aisle. No words can convey how much that hurt. Years before, I hadn’t been very good about concealing how much I hated another man taking my place four of every seven days. 

I continue to pay the highest imaginable price for my weakness.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Pinnacle of My Career as a Singer

The missus adores karaoke. She loves the instant feedback, and the pleasure of performing before people who aren’t likely to judge her, except very positively because she’s a very good singer, evocative of both Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, not one of those six-octave-range types who never allows you to forget what remarkable chops she has. She’s got a distinctive voice, and a way with a phrase, and the joy she exudes while performing, even in a crowded pub, 10 percent of whose patrons are paying attention, is pretty irresistible. 

 I, on the other hand, have usually regarded karaoke as cruel and unusual punishment. I derive pleasure from listening neither to someone with no sense of pitch brutalize a song I couldn’t stand in the first place, nor from the local showoff demonstrating how one of Aretha Franklin’s iconic hits might have sounded if only Aretha had been a better or more passionate singer.

When I was a fourth grader at Loyola Village School, the first institution of lower learning north of what wasn’t yet known as LAX, I auditioned for the school orchestra, which hadn’t actually formed at that point. To demonstrate myself worthy of one of the limited number of instruments for which the music teacher had been granted a budget, I had to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”  I sang. She listened, wincing, and informed me there weren’t enough instruments to go around. I kept my mouth firmly shut the next several years, until, at 24, one of my group Christopher Milk’s succession of managers decided, on the basis of his being a little in love with me, that I should be the front man, rather than drummer. I didn’t think I sang less wel than Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, Neil Young, or many, many others who’d come to be widely loved, and agreed. Audiences were undelighted. 

I lived a couple of decades later with the San Francisco Zoo’s koala keeper, who seemed to derive enormous pleasure from telling me how awfully I sing. I now share housing with another former member of CMilk, who has enthusiastically taken over for her. Of my iffy pitch and narrow range there is no doubt. Euphonious my tone is not. 

And yet, and yet: I have never as a performer experienced a thrill like that at Tuesday evening’s karaoke session in the upstairs bar of the Las Arenas del Mar hotel in El M├ędano, Tenerife. There we were in the center of the bar area, having claimed our place 90 minutes before. The place filled quickly with neckless, bald, prolifically tattooed Brits with alarmingly sunburned wives as the missus and I handed in to the MC the slips on which we’d written the names of the songs we wished to perform. I had decided to forego "MacArthur Park" in favor of such cornball favorites as "Ebb Tide," "Unchained Melody," and Engelbert Humperdinck’s "Release Me." But the first song the MC cued up for the evening was a rather more obscure nomination of mine, Conway Twitty’s gloriously melodramatic Elvis imitation from 1958, "It’s Only Make Believe," the melody of which ascends inexorably in the verses until turning into a high-pitched howl of anguish in the chorus. 

The music started. Unfamiliar words appeared on the TV screen on which lyrics are projected, and I remembered too late that the record had an intro. I didn’t remember how it went, and faked it, falteringly. I thought someone might have snickered. I thought someone else might have groaned. Not another night of this! But then the song proper began, and I began to sing, throwing Twitty’s little Elvisesque grunts in between lines. The chorus came, taking me to the top of my limited range, but I got there. Good God almighty, I got there! And at song’s end, after I held the last note for two bars (pretty steadily, as far as I could tell, though I’m usually the wrong person to ask), the place absolutely erupted in applause. They loved me, and not just for my having had the gall to go first, I dare to imagine, but for having gone first with considerable panache.

An unexpected moment of intense pleasure.