Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Worst Single of the Rock Era

Let’s warm up by ascertaining the worst single track in The Beatles’ canon, discarding the weird, experimental stuff because that would be too easy. What we want is something more traditional. And that on which we agree, after only a moment’s deliberation, is George’s irredeemably ghastly ‘Blue Jay Way,” from Magical Mystery Tour. It doesn’t rock. It doesn’t swing. It doesn’t lilt. It groans, and who can blame it, given that its composer whines it through his adenoids. What was it Nik Cohn said about George’s songs having come at this point to be cheap sonic souvenirs from the Taj Mahal? Guilty as charged! We endured “Within You, Without You” because it felt as though we might learn something. (As indeed we did: we’re all one!) Here we learn that George is annoyed with unspecified acquaintances being late to a rendezvous, and keeping him up past his bedtime. It just doesn’t get worse than this!

But it wasn’t released as a single, and thus is ineligible for consideration as The Worst Single of the Rock Era. We immediately rule out horrid novelty records like “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha” because we do not shoot fishes in barrels around here. We are better than that. We consider only bona fide attempts to make engaging music by genuine recording artists.

Immediately we think of Paul Anka’s smarmy, excruciatingly smug “You’re Having My Baby,” and, from the same era, the unspeakable — musically puerile, lyrically truculent — “Sweet Home Alabama.” Boo, boo, boo, indeed! Stuck in a mid-70s, uh, mindset, we think of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the most insipid pop single of the last 700 years, one that makes the celebrated violinist Eleanor Roth Atherton cringe in revulsion, as it does me. We don’t include Elton’s “Candle in the Wind,” though it’s built on the most inane lyrical conceit in the history of popular music (look at the title!), because the melody’s attractive.

That on which we of course alight, breathing through our mouths, is Eric Burdon & The Animals’ monumentally awful “San Franciscan Nights,” from 1967. Musically, it doesn’t rock, doesn’t swing, and doesn’t lit, but instead sort of…tinkles anemically. It is (very) vaguely baroque, I suppose. Fresh from doing very effective, sometimes even thrilling (as in “House of the Rising Sun”) Joe Turner impressions with an earlier version of The Animals, Eric had by this time divined that his true calling was as a holy fool, and had ceased to be content to sing about out sex and privation. Now he was The Great Commentator, and, of course, a poet, as witness: “Cop’s face/ full of hate/ heavens above/ he’s on a street called Love.” A witty reference to San Francisco’s Haight Street, you see!

Eric wasn’t just observing, though, but teaching. “Look, young people of America,  [and other countries in which my record is likely to be released], those who you were taught to believe are in the business of serving and protecting you might not be what they appear, whereas those we’ve been taught to abhor might deserve reconsideration.” Witness the verse in which Eric sings admiringly of his fellow rebels, the Hell’s Angels. “Old Angel? Young Angel? Feel all right!” See you at Altamont, you beautiful people.

Insipid music. Inane lyrics. And, most importantly, flagrant grandiosity. I submit that no other record in our lifetimes surpasses “San Franciscan Nights” in terms of all-fronts awfulness.  

[A note about the title. Tell 1000 Brits that “San Franciscan” (like Californian) is a noun, and not an adjective, and do you know how many will act on that knowledge? None! They used to have an empire on which the sun never set, and are not going to let the likes of you push them around! On the other hand, pronounce either Leicester or Gloucester, on your first try, as having three syllables, and they are guaranteed to die laughing. Oh, you stupid, stupid, irony-challenged Yank rube, you! Conversely, assure them that Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, has four syllables, and they will as surely keep leaving off the last one as breathing. Brits!]

Friday, March 13, 2015

Saved by My Own Shoe Fetishism!

I confided here a week or so ago that, however hard I may try to live by the Talmudic teaching that the rich person is the person content with what he has, I occasionally yearn for greater material wealth, never more than when traveling by air. Economy class air travel can border on the excruciating, and I suspect that those who are able to hire limousines have a great deal more fun getting to and home from airports than you and I do.

Twenty-eight years ago, I went through an especially difficult period of wishing for more money than I had. My first marriage had collapsed, and I spent a lot of time at Macy’s in San Francisco’s Union Square in the women’s shoe section, pretending I was waiting for my own gal to choose a pair, but in fact perving on the sight of attractive women trying on high heels.

When I was maybe four, I remember playing under a table around which my mother and other women in high heels and stockings were seated. I think I found this fantastically sexy, even at four, though the whole thing might be a faintly remembered dream. But it’s the best I’m able to do to try to explain my having always found high heels very arousing.

The reason I longed for money back in the Macy’s days was that I eventually summoned the courage to approach especially attractive women in the act of trying on shoes and to say, “I’d like to buy those for you. I can’t bear the thought of anyone but you wearing them.” It got me slapped a couple of times, told to take a hike a couple of other times, escorted out of Macy’s by Security a couple of times, and finally told one time, emphatically, to take my custom elsewhere. But by then I’d met my koala keeper, and ceased to need a gal anyway.

But back to the here and now. Attentive readers are well aware that I’ve been job-hunting with a vengeance lately, since realizing that there’s a very good chance that I will deplete my not-enormous inheritance and savings pre-humously, and since realizing further that even the most boring 9-to-5 job is apt to shield me to some extent from the horrid aching boredom to which I’ve always been prone, and which does its best to push my face underwater at around two o’clock every afternoon. I spend most of my day lately responding to on-line advertisements for graphic design and writing jobs, applying for countless dozens, hearing back from maybe one of 100 prospective employers, gnashing my teeth and snarling. (There are few things I hate more at the moment than an apparently straightforward on-line application that in the end turns out not to be straightforward at all. When I’ve already uploaded my fucking resume, why, four steps later, am I being asked to list my past positions?) Don’t imagine I don’t feel hugely sorry for myself. In a world in which awful graphic design is rampant, why should I, who do such lovely graphic design, hear from one prospective employer of every 100 to whom I write? Gnash, gnash. Philistines! Nincompoops!

Today, though, the sun came out. Nordstrom’s, over at the nearby Grove, responded to the email in which I proposed to use my Macy’s-derived skills for their benefits, called me in for an interview, and hired me on the spot as a shill in their women’s shoe section, where it will be my responsibility, posing as a non-employee, to go over to women who look undecided about shoes they’ve tried on and say something like, “It’s really none of my business, and I do apologize for my forwardness, my dear, but it would be nothing short of tragic if you were to decide not to buy those. It’s as though they were designed with you specifically in mind.” Then I’m to look at my watch, pretend to be late for an appointment, and hurry away, avoiding any semblance of hard sell.

I was worried before my interview that they might want someone younger for the job, someone who, unlike me, hasn’t yet lost his looks in a tragic aging accident. But I turned out to be exactly what they had in mind. Armand, the conscientiously moisturized, generously, uh, fragranced guy who hired me, explained that they didn’t want anyone who might be seen as threatening. “The frightful deep creases in your face,” he pronounced happily, making little quotation marks in the air, “preclude the possibility of any of the ladies imagining your ‘coming on’ to them. You will be seen as avuncular or even paternal, too old to be approving of the referenced footwear in any but a detached, aesthetic way.” He insinuated that it might be even better if I could strive for an even more effete — that is, gay-seeming — affect than my real one, but I pretended not to understand what he was getting at.

In any event, I start on Saturday morning, in a Givenchy gentleman’s cloak [there’s an ad for it in the February GQ] to conceal the ugly black sling in which my arm has spent the last 176 hours. Wish me luck, my dears, and lots of it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dinner With Justin Bieber

I thought I had come to understand Justin Bieber. You and I (and here, of course, I’m addressing the fellows) didn’t come to manhood facing the obstacles he did — for instance, everybody except girls between eight and 14 regarding him as The Great Satan in the body of a doe-eyed angrogynous teen whose music everyone on earth except girls between eight and 14 regard as the ultimate cultural affront. If I’d been in his little shoes, it had occurred to me, I too might have taken to spending 14 hours a day at the gym, gotten a lot of ugly tattoos, begun recording songs with titles like  I Sure Enjoyed Drilling Your Girlfriend All Night Last Tuesday, and assembled a posse of scowling gangsta types likely to enhance my street cred.

Thus, when I encountered him quite by chance at Erewhon — the Los Angeles food store where those who are too A-list for Whole Foods buy their bean sprouts — the other afternoon, I didn’t sneer or harrumph, but smiled and told him how much I enjoyed his music. I don’t listen to his music, but it doesn’t cost anything to make someone feel good. “Really?” he marveled, suddenly looking around 12 in spite of the tattoos and glowering hired homies.

“Really,” I lied again, and he insisted on my letting him buy me a smoothie. We conversed, and I didn’t find him Dorothy Parker or Clement Freud, but was charmed by his eagerness to please, and enjoyed his posse’s naked jealousy, and hardly thought twice about accepting his invitation to dinner at The Ivy last night.

I arrived early, and went to the bar, hoping not to look like someone who’d never been in so storied a venue before. As I enjoyed my glass of orange juice, which the bartender had made a big display of squeezing fresh right in front of me, I realized that Dr. Stephen Hawking and a date were on the stools to my immediate right, and the actor Will Farrell, with someone I guessed might be his agent, to my left. When Dr. Hawking’s date excused herself, presumably to visit “the little girls’ room,” I told him how much I’d enjoyed the recent biopic about him, and was surprised when he seemed no less gratified than Jus had been to hear about my feigned appreciation of his music. I asked if the film had been pretty accurate. He shrugged and said, “You know how these things work. Some things have to be juiced up to make the story quote unquote cinematic.” Before I could gently point out that it’s nonsensical to say “quote unquote” as he had — without the disputed material between the two — Mr. Farrell, a much longer drink of water than he appears on TV, heard Dr. Hawking’s voice(box) and turned to say that he wished his very well-thumbed copy of A Brief History of Time for Steve to sign, which I thought slighty insensitive in view of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis having robbed Steve of the use of his hands decades ago. But Steve seemed not to mind at all, and turned out to be as big a fan of Will as Will was of him. Within a moment, the three of us were chatting like newly reunited fraternity brothers.

But then Jus turned up, only four minutes late, and I got a kick out of being able to say, “Guys, I’d like to introduce my new friend Justin Bieber.” I’m not sure Jus knew who Will Farrell was, but I don’t think he could have been more delighted to be meeting Dr. Stephen Hawking if someone had made him able to to bench-press 200 more pounds. It was my understanding that you might as well ask a amyotrophic lateral sclerosis sufferer to pole-vault as manage a facial expression, but if that wasn’t a sneer on Stephen’s face, I don’t know what it was. And there was no mistaking his saying, “As if!” as he turned back toward his date’s still-empty stool.

Hoping to avoid Justin’s feelings being hurt, I blurted, “Will, you know, is one of the giants of American comedy, Jus,” only to realize that Will too was turning away, toward his rolling-eyed agent. Justin looked as though about to cry, and I wasn’t sure I blamed him.

As, because of his great celebrity, we were led immediately to a table, a number of diners felt called upon to snicker, or hiss, “Asswipe.” I was feeling worse for my new young friend by the second. We hid from each other behind our menus until I realized Jus had put his down and was asking, “You know what? I don’t think I have much of an appetite.”

I couldn’t blame him. And the worst part of it was that it was largely my fault.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Giving Bill Wyman His Due and Other TAMI Tales

the lazy likes of you have your way, I’ll be unable to reach for nauseous when writing a song and need a two–syllable/first-accented word for sickening. Do not remove arrows from my quiver. Do not dare.

I’m wondering now if maybe we had the wrong guy. All eyes were, in descending order, on Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger, but when I watch the Rolling Stones’ famous TAMI show performance, it looks like Bill Wyman’s the coolest of those standing. More than any of the other three, he had a style very much his own. Those buttoned–up round-collared white dress shirts worn tieless under black leather waistcoats, as he’d have described them, or vest, as Americans would!  

In playing bass at about 24 degrees from the vertical, he might be seen in retrospect as Townshendesque. Both musicians played their instruments in intentionally difficult ways, all in the name of style. Playing an electric bass at this angle is approximately like trying to play a keyboard while seated at a 166-degree angle to it. And then he had the wonderful idea of chewing gum and looking as though he couldn’t have been less impressed with the screaming his band was inspiring ­ though we know now that he could hardly have been more interested, in the sense of his having acquired carnal knowledge of more fans than the rest of the band combined. Crafty, priapic Bill!

History records that, if I’d had my wits about me, I’d have witnessed this performance, as it took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, around 500 yards nearer the Pacific than Santa Monica High School, at which I was at the time busy being a lonely, miserable, scholastically diligent 11th grader.

Forrest Piques (or maybe it was P. K. Forrest (I was never positive)), one of the whitest of the school’s not-terribly-many black kids, didn’t make that mistake. He is seen, with his straightened hair and surfer-chic short-sleeved sportshirt, looking extremely enthusiastic in the first frames of the It’s All Over Now video viewable on YouTube. 

A sad tale, Forrest’s. As drummer, he was one of the stars of the Samohi jazz band. After a trumpeter and trombonist from the band ceased being the lead singer and lead guitarist, respectively, in my first group, The Fogmen, they dashed off to form The Inrhodes, who had silver sharkskin suits, actual long hair, a manager with Connections in the Music Business, and a following that dwarfed even Ry Cooder’s Cajuns’. In the summer of 1966, they were the Civic’s de facto house band, opening for, and rubbing shoulders with, Them, The Yardbirds, and comparable gods who walked among men. Their drummer, in a black Beatle wig that I later inherited — and wore, to First Girlfriend’s infinite embarrasment, to an Animals/Herman’s Hermits show at the LA Sports Arena — was none other than Forrest Piques, who was invited to leave the group halfway through the summer because he…didn’t fit in. Wrong color, was the common supposition. The lads' manager apparently hadn't noticed that Joey Dee & The Starliters and the much-nearer-to-home surf group The Pyramids had earlier made the world safe for musical race-mixing. Love, with its 40-percent black membership, hadn't yet emerged.

That September, my second band, The 1930 Four, won the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s Battle of the Bands on what is now famous as the 3rd Street Promenade. Piques, apparently pals with Graveyard Shift, over which we prevailed in the competition’s final heat, heckled us quite acrimoniously. One might almost have gotten the impression that he was bitter, though I didn’t see a great many musicians of color in the Shift.

I like to imagine I’m half the drummer in 2015 he was in 1966.

Monday, March 9, 2015

My Recent Ordeal, and How I Somehow Summoned the Colossal Courage to Endure It!

I had offered to take the bus, but No. 1 Friend and roommate wouldn’t hear of it. We arrived in Santa Monica, where UCLA Health has built an orthopedics hospital a block north of where I had my first surgery, at 18, and two blocks east of the cinema to which I’d taken the unfortunate Gail Hickey on my first date, in darkness, as they’d wanted me to report 150 minutes early. I got signed in at Admissions and went up to the 3rd Floor, where I think I managed to conceal my great nervousness while Waiting to Be Called. My turn came, and No. 1 Friend left me alone with my quiet terror.

A Guatemalan nurse’s aide had me exchange my stylish apparel for one of those dignity-defying hospital gowns. An anesthesiologist came, and I advised him that there was nothing in March I needed to remember, and urged him not to be stingy with the Versed, the memory-obliterating sedative that had worked so well for me in the past. He seemed amused. I wasn’t kidding.

Using ultrasound to ascertain where to stick the needle, he and an assistant gave me an injection in my neck that would put the nerves in my shoulder on a 24-hour vacation. Dr. Petrigliano, the actual surgeon, dropped by, and I secured his permission to call him Frank, which pleased me, as many doctors are self-infatuated dickheads who want to be perceived as Great Healers, and I wouldn’t want one of them slicing me open. I was heartened to learn he’d reviewed my cat-scan or whatever it’s called the night before.

The next thing I knew, I woke up feeling someone squeezing my calves, one after the other, quite emphatically. I learned later they were special cuffs designed to prevent blood clots in the legs. I’d anticipated being euphoric on waking and realizing that the worst was over, but I’m a tough audience. By and by, I was wheeled into my own room, given oxycontin, and supplied with a magic button with which I could award myself small jolts of supplementary dilaudid at 8-second intervals. Macho as I am, I used it sparingly.

The night after the surgery, I requested a sleeping pill, and then a second sleeping pill when the first didn’t work. Combined, they didn’t make me sleep, but I did hallucinate like mad. I felt sure the nurses, at their station just outside my door, were plotting something sinister, and felt I had to get away. I managed to get out of bed, yanked myself free of my intravenous gizmo, making it shriek in alarm, and barricade myself in my bathroom, where I was able to pee because my catheter had been yanked out hours before. I suspect it was the most exciting thing that happened on the third floor that night.

A Dr. Cox came in to tell me something or other. At 11:00 in the morning, he had very dark five o’clock shadow. I was able to resist the impulse to ask why he wasn't taking advantage of lumbersexual chic, whereby trendy urban men in London and Brooklyn and, I suppose, Echo Park, are growing beards of the sort fashionable in our great forests.

Home for nearly 96 hours now, I remain weak and given to hallucinations and strange fever dreams, and am profoundly undelighted by the prospect of this ugly black sling remaining part of my life for the next five weeks. Last night I dreamed I was in England, walking around in a park holding a plastic cricket bat of whose provenance I was unsure, looking after a severely autistic or retarded (behold my inflammatory language!) young man who’d become my charge through a series of strange events I am unable to recount. A small drunk man lying on the grass with a truncheon and awful English teeth observed the plastic cricket bat  and said, “Have a go if you think you’re hard [bad, or tough, in American usage] enough, mate.” When I asked why he was being hostile to one he’d never met, he grabbed his crotch and masturbated to ejaculation to express his disdain for my disinclination to engage him on the field of battle.

And this after I’d summoned the courage to let Frank slice me open!

I Save the English Language! You're Welcome.

During my recent hospitalization, about which you have by now heard quite enough, but it isn’t a fair or merciful world, a series of health care professionals trouped into my room to ask if I were nauseous. This in no way hastened my recovery from my Major Surgery. Indeed, every time they asked, I winced, as I have always hated people not troubling themselves to differentiate between nauseous and nauseated. Finally, when the charmless, bored RN from Maui asked, I could endure no more, and said, “Do you mean, am I sickening? If so, wouldn’t you be a far better judge than I?” As I explained that what she really wanted to know was if I were nauseated, she gave me that look that those of Us Who Care Passionately About Our Language get so often, that look whose cartoon thought balloon contains the caption, “You know perfectly well what I meant, asshole.” It’s the same one those for whom unusual and unique are interchangeable give, that of those who don’t know or care what literally means, who can’t be persuaded to use the vocative comma no matter how many times you wave Let’s Eat Grandma at them.

They diminish the ability to express one’s self unambiguously in the only language that I speak, though, and can glare as vehemently as they please. There are few things more beautiful than an interesting perception expressed with precision, and I will not give up the fight while there is air in my lungs.

In the mid-1970s, I wrote a glorious song about romantic betrayal called “Where’s My Jayne” (The spelling was a small homage to Ms. Mansfield, of whom I was a large fan.) The chorus went: Where’s my Jayne, and with whom? I have to assume a man. I shall never forget a perfumed talent scout for a Major Record Company assuring me that the youth of America could never enjoy a song that included the word whom, as it sounded…inauthentic, though I’m probably picking a better word for him retroactively. I have since surmised that Tom Petty, presumably a high school graduate, is universally heard to be, uh, keepin’ it real when he sings, “Don’t come around here no more,” or when a thousand comparably educated songwriters try to imitate the unfortunate grammar of blues or folk musicians who’d have killed for a chance at education. My guess is that uneducated blues and folk musicians feel every bit as honored by their young imitators’ appalling grammar as they did by white suburban kids expressing their solidarity with the plight of the oppressed black man by dressing as sharecroppers in the 1960s.

I’m very well aware that I probably wouldn’t be so protective of grammar if it weren’t one of the few things in life that I’m sort of good at it, and that I may be the grammatical equivalent of a mechanic who’d be terribly upset seeing his apprentice using the wrong wrench or something. I get on nearly everyone’s nerves, including the missus’s. Seeing me cringe at, for instance, “She’s younger than me,” she might snarl, “Pronouns are for pedantic prats,” exactly in the tone of someone else snarling, “You know perfectly well what I meant, asshole.” But I’m no hypocrite. Point out a boo-boo of my own and I will look appropriately contrite and embarrassed, 

Oops. Just now, I heard David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, tell Terri Gross, “[Our daughter’s autism] has been a problem for my wife and I.” Do you know how much that hurt?

To those who will reflexively point out — with no argument from Johnny! — that languages are forever in flux, and argue that it’s therefore just peachy to say nauseous when you mean nauseated: shove off. If the lazy likes of you have your way, I’ll be unable to reach for nauseous when writing a song and need a two–syllable/first-accented word for sickening. Do not remove arrows from my quiver. Do not dare.