Friday, March 20, 2015

My Life in the Theater: I Am Born

Who among us, given the chance to go back knowing all we’ve learned, wouldn’t do something very different in high school? One of the main things I’d do is try out for the annual school play, as I discovered later in life that acting’s big fun, and that I’m good at it. But it wasn’t until I was 35 that I realized how much fun acting is, and that I’m good at it.

Socks Without Mates. 1983
The woman who would become my first wife and I had just spent two months wandering back and forth across Italy. When we returned to Los Angeles, I had to face the music and admit that no one was very interested in my writing for them anymore, and that I needed to get a soul-killing ordinary job. I got one, typing address labels at UCLA Extension. The two perks of the job was that my coworker looked a lot like Beyonce would look decades later, but much prettier, and that I got to take an extension class free. On a whim, I chose Dialects for Actors, and just loved it. Simultaneously, I read the Playboy interview with Robin Williams in which he said that making a roomful of people laugh was better than sex. Sounded good to Johnny! I dashed off a few wordplay-heavy sketches, much influenced by Monty Python, and recruited two of my Dialects for Actors classmates to perform them with me as Socks Without Mates. We performed minutes after the doors were opened at a couple of Famous Comedy Venues, and at my and First Wife’s wedding. The audience seemed to like us very much more at the latter, presumably because they sensed it might seem churlish not to feign enormous amusement.

I began to relax a little bit. You can’t act if you’re afraid of appearing foolish. It dawned on me that if I were doing the job properly, it wasn’t I up on stage, but my character(s), which ranged from a Russian patriarch who’s just discovered that his prospective son-in-law — that is, the fiancĂ© of his daughter Anesthesia — is a coke dealer (he loves the idea), and half of a Cute Young Couple whose cat is pretty goddamned sick of being addressed as Mr. Whiskers. When I came off stage at the Comedy Store one evening, my first wife marveled, “You were really good!” with genuine wonder in her eyes. It was one of the nicest things she (or anyone else) had ever said to me.

The original other guy in the trio had come to loathe me, so we replaced him with a small,  bearded opera lover who worked in a hardware store and loathed me slightly less, at least for a short while. I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience raise my daughter in the air pollution of Los Angeles, and moved with her and First Wife to the northern California wine country, where I didn’t venture onto a stage again until my marriage collapsed, I moved down to San Francisco, and recruited a waiter from the Fog City Diner and a young mother of three from the East Bay suburban wastelands to form an updated version of my LA trio. I called it the Spandex Amazons this time, prompting a phone message from a gay spandex fetishist who wondered if we should meet for coffee. Young Mom was ever so pretty, and I lusted after her in my heart, but the fact of Hubby being an SFPD Swat Team member helped me keep it in my trousers.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I Can See Unclearly Now

I woke up this morning a little bit groggy after yet another night of not being able to get very comfortable in the Donjoy Ultrasling III I have to wear to keep my newly re-replaced right shoulder immobilized, and staggered purposefully toward my desk. (Because of my inability to raise my right arm, I don’t put my contacts in standing at the bathroom mirror as a normal person would, but leaning over my desk, looking down at a mirror placed thereupon.) I popped my contacts in, began savoring the laudatory messages that await me on Facebook every morning, and realized something was terribly wrong. I closed my left eye and looked out the window at the Hollywood Hills with just my right. Seeing them too clearly — my left contact lens is calibrated for distance vision, my right for reading — I realized that I had, for approximately the millionth time, put the two lens in the wrong eyes. Two hours later, I am still trying to pop out the left one (that is, the right lens, mistakenly inserted in my left eye).

Popping out a rigid contact lens (the sort I have to wear) involves pulling the corner of the eye outward. My eyelid is very, very sore from being stretched.

Why, someone wonders, don’t you spare yourself all this fuss and frustration, tell your vanity to take a year or two off, and wear glasses? Because glasses don’t work. It is my pleasure and privilege to have keratoconus, a progressive eye disease in which the normally round cornea thins and begins to bulge into a cone-like shape. It distorts the hell out of my vision and snickers contemptuously at glasses.

I’m no stranger to being unable to get my contacts out of my eyes, and will, while my eyelid licks its wounds and tries to find a way to forgive me, tell you about my worst such experience. In 2011, after a pleasant evening of watching television with the missus, I went up the bathroom and spent maybe 15 minutes trying to pop out my right lens — in this case, an expensive custom-made (for keratoconus) one. By and by, it dawned on me that there was no lens in my eye. I then spent an extremely enjoyable 90 minutes on my hands and knees gingerly retracing my route from the living room upstairs to the bathroom, and eventually accepting that the little fucker wasn’t findable.

More eyelid-stretching in the here-‘n’-now. No luck. My eyelid is considering contacting Amnesty International.

One of the great joys of rigid contact lenses is that tiny microscopic bits of things are forever getting under them. And once under them, they cease very quickly to feel microscopic. Indeed, they feel like fucking boulders.

 OK. I can’t bring myself to torture my eyelid any further, and am now trying just to nudge the contact off the pupil, so that I can then try, with the utmost gentleness, to extricate it from my eye. A million times since I began wearing contact lens, one has decided to dislodge itself — and sometimes, painfully and very, very awkwardly, to climb up onto the very top of the eyeball, pretty nearly compelling me to call the Fire Dept. to retrieve it. Of course now, when I wish desperately to dislodge it, it isn’t budging.

I don’t think of myself as a contact lens wearer so much as a contact lens sufferer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Livin' La Vita Dolce

The rich and famous are unlike you and me. For one thing, they commonly have a great deal more money.

A few days ago, the Italian fashion designer Domenico Dolce, whose opinion on artificial insemination all the world longed to know, asserted, “'You are born and you have a father and mother. At least it should be like that. That's why I'm not convinced by what I call chemical children, synthetic babies.” This did not go over spectacularly with the singer Elton John, whose two sons have a father and a father — Elton and his husband David Furnish — and who are alive and terribly cute, as all persons their age are, owing to the noted fashion designer Victoria Beckham’s having allowed them the use of her womb for two nine-month stretches, and of course I’m only joking. In fact the womb was the singer Melissa Etheridge's, though everyone knows the actual surrogate mother was Debbie Rowe. And I’d better abandon this shameless snarkfest of a paragraph before you become thoroughly disgusted with me.

Elton John, of course, gained international fame as a Jose Feliciano impersonator after attending the grammar school in northwest London that my wife would later attend. For years, he’s been known to younger listeners primarily as the guy who weeps copiously at the funerals of the very rich and famous — your Princess Dianas and Gianni Versaces.

Responding to critcism, Elt can be counted on to let fly the sorts of zingy bon mots Donald J. Trump commonly unleashes in response to someone pointing out that he’s an imbecile and a boor. Trump reflexively declares that his detractors are “losers,” makes fun of their wearing glasses, for instance (though you wouldn't imagine anyone with the Trump coiffure having the nerve to ridicule another's appearance), and vividly evokes a not-very-bright, very bellicose third grader coming down from a sugar rush. Elton’s a little classier than that. 

A very little. When, after Diana’s death, Elton had his lyricist rewrite the ludicrous Candle in the Wind to honor her, Keith Richards made fun of him, whereupon Elton declared, ““I’m glad I’ve given up drugs and alcohol. It would be awful to be like Keith Richards. He’s pathetic. It’s like a monkey with arthritis, trying to go on stage and look young.”

On getting wind of Dolce’s distaste for babies conceived non-traditionally, he quite reasonably asserted, “shame on [Dolce] for wagging [his] judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children.” But that wasn’t enough for him. In the manner of a popular high school girl getting her whole entourage to snub someone with whom she has a beef, Elton also called on the world’s fashionistas to boycott Dolce & Gabbana — whose big breakthrough, mind you, was designing the bejeweled corset Madonna wore on her Talentless / Obnoxious tour in 1996.  

Not 24 hours later, Elt was observed entering an LA recording studio with a D&G shopping bag in hand. 

Sixty-six thousand persons (could Satan’s complicity be any more obvious?) nonetheless signed on to the boycott, whereupon the designers and other Italians, who should know one when they see one, accused Elton of being a fascist.

I pretty well agree with them. I believe that people should be able to say obnoxious, stupid things, as their being able to do so perpetuates my own freedom of self-expression. It’s one thing for Elton to disapprove, and emphatically, of Dolce’s professed distaste for in vitro fertilization. It’s quite another to try to incite a mob of non-consumers. Does he not think that those who carefully contemplate his every utterance have the intellectual wherewithal to stop patronizing persons whose views offend them without his telling them to do so?

Having never met the candle that could withstand even a moderate breeze, let alone a wind, I continue to regard “like a candle in the wind” as the stupidest simile in the history of English-language popular music. I lay awake last night wondering if I could come up with anything even stupider, and am now able to offer: I crossed the desert on a horse with one leg. I am unable to substantiate the rumor that D&G will design the corsets Donald J. Trump wlll wear during his forthcoming campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency. 

The rich and famous are unlike you and me. They are generally more fatuous.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Singing Someone Else's Heart Out

Lots of people find the sound of an autotuned vocal as pleasurable as fingernails across a blackboard. But there’s something I think I dislike even more — hearing someone sing in someone else’s voice. There may be no more expressive an artistic act than singing, but doing it in someone else’s voice ruins the whole thing for me.

I think first in this regard of Janis Joplin, and her brazen aping of Bessie Smith, of whom she is said to have felt herself the reincarnation. I always found Joplin shrill and sort of desperate, and could bear to listen to her only in very small doses, however palpable her anguish, which I have no doubt was the genuine article. My early ardor for Joe Cocker dissipated quickly, as I became ever more acutely aware of how slavishly (!) he impersonated Ray Charles. Anyone who imagines that that vocal sound came naturally to Cocker needs to hear his (terrific!) version of The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” on which he sounds very much more like John Lennon.

Who, remarkably, never sounded like anyone other than John Lennon, even while McCartney was occasionally becoming Little Richard or, on “Lady Madonna,” Fats Domino. Where Eric Burdon aped Big Joe Turner, such of his contemporaries as Roger Daltrey never sounded much like anyone other than themselves.

One could, if he chose, condemn singers using their own voices, but someone else’s accents, but at the cost of losing The Beatles and pretty much all other Brits of that era. The closest our heroes came to singing in their own accents was their occasional elongation of the u in a word like Chuck (“Grandchildren your knee,” warbled Paul on Sgt. Pepper, “Vera, Chuck, and Dave,” with Chuck’s u heading toward that in chute.) Listen carefully and you’ll hear a distinct tonal kinship between Gerry (of the Pacemakers) and the Beatles’ two main singers. Learn to speak in the same linguistic bioregion, apparently, and you and a guy from the next neighborhood over are apt to share some key vocal qualities. If you know what you’re listening for, you can hear the Midlands unmistakably in Roy Wood’s bleat.

It took the likes of Syd Barrett and early middle-period Ray Davies to demonstrate that a Brit could sing in his own accent without international audiences deserting him in droves. Oddly, though, there was nothing authentic about David Bowie’s appropriating Anthony Newley’s hammy East Endisms somewhat later, in his own late early period. Speaking, Bowie sounded no more as he did singing than Mr. Jagger, speaking, sounded as he did drawling “King Bee.”

I have come to recognize the early Rolling Stones as having achieved one of the great feats of chutzpah in popular music history — five little English boys performing minstrel show versions of the music of the American rural (and other) black man of decades past, and somehow not being hooted off stage. If, a few years later, Barrett and Ray Davies would make the world safe for Brits to sing authentically, Jagger made it safe in the mid-60s for 45 million ultra-mannered snotnoses to sing out of tune in American garage bands with perfect Brian Jones (or, for our younger readers, Johnny Ramone) hair, and a knowledge of the blues gleaned largely from Yardbirds records. They were the best of times, and the worst.

A Facebook friend today wrote of having acquired an albumful of Elton John sounding on the soundalike records for which he was hired before he became a star like everyone from the ill-fated boyos in Badfinger to Stevie Wonder to Norman (“Spirit in the Sky”) Greenbaum. Versatile as he apparently was, I wonder why he decided to spend his career impersonating Jose Feliciano.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why I'm Obnoxious on Facebook

It’s always seemed to me both more effective and a lot more fun to point out the idiocy of something you oppose from the inside — that is, as someone who purports to support it — than to hurl calumny at it from without. When I was a college boy, before my Rolling Stone review of the first Led Zeppelin album changed my life, and changed the course of popular music in our time, a vile ultraconservative nincompoop called Max Rafferty ran for the United States Senate on a platform of keeping the darkies in their place and ceasing to offer sex education in the schools. In 2015, he’d be regarded as a moderate Republican, but at the time he was perceived as off the scale. Naturally, my fellow hippies loathed him, but I and various others agreed that the more stylish expression of our loathing would be to pretend to think him the bee’s knees. When liberal candidates would speak on campus, smug in the assurance that their by-the-numbers pushing of all our buttons would be warmly received, we would disrupt their speeches by chanting, “Max! Max! Max!” Which very quickly became indistinguishable from “Smack! Smack! Smack!” though I wasn’t aware of any heroin addicts among us. This would invariably discombobulate the sidetracked liberals, hugely amuse our fellow hippies, and annoy the beleaguered Young Republicans in the audience who hadn’t the slightest desire to be seen to support the same candidate as Freaks for Rafferty. [I know. I know. A dreadful name. But we didn’t give it a lot of thought.] A win-win-win situation!

My new Facebook group Christians and Others for Decency andAmerica, which I encourage you to get off your high horse and join, is clearly an expression of the same impulse. The more we change, the more we remain the same.

Nowadays, when someone posts on his or her Facebook age an item about someone else, somewhere, having abused an animal or a child, or about someone from the Christian right having said something hateful or idiotic, dozens of the poster’s friends immediately assure each other of their contempt for the action depicted. Look! I too am against child or animal abuse, or the idea that the children of rape are beautiful. I won’t pretend to understand why people feel called upon to belabor the obvious in that way. Do they imagine that if they make no comment, others will think, “I’m not so sure about Gavin anymore. I mean, I’d have imagined that he’d have shared my feelings about using kittens for target practice, but what if his failure to say so on Melissa’s thread indicates a tacit endorsement thereof?”

It’s my policy whenever I encounter one of these threads to go emphatically against the grain, to emphatically express a view opposite to my own. “Child abuse?” I might muse. “It’s been shown to build character, much like high school PE, from which it’s largely indistinguishable.”

I have never loathed a Facebook meme more than that one from a couple of years ago that said, approximately, “That fat kid you ridiculed at school today? Do you know that both of his parents have Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that he cries himself to sleep at night?” The idea was that bullies would read the meme, think, “Gosh, I’ve been just awful!” and stop peeing on little Fatso at lunch every day. As someone who knows that the only thing that ever deters bullying is the threat of greater reciprocal humiliation, though, I rewrote the meme. “That fat kid you ridiculed today? One more fucking syllable out of you and he’s going to use your face to smash the windshield of your mother’s car.” I noticed a precipitous drop in bullying immediately thereafter. When you’re right, you’re right!

What I call brainbusters makes me even more obnoxious. Confronted with a thread atop which sits a graphic saying, for instance, “Can you name a city without an A? Bet you can’t!” or, “Can you think of a song with a woman’s name in its title?” I make it a practice of admitting that I’m simply not up to the task, though of course Omaha, in the one case, and “Paint It, Black,” in the other, sprang immediately to mind. Maybe my professed inadequacy will make others feel better about themselves, and isn’t that what I’m here for?