Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Runaround Sue": Performed by the Greatest of the Great!

I have often asserted that the greatest rock and roll show I ever saw was The Who at a half-filled Fillmore Auditorium in San  Francisco 48 hours before their celebrated appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. But now, in the autumn of my years, I am able to admit to myself that I hadn’t loved them more than I’d loved The Emperors at Santa Monica High School’s Sadie Hawkins Dance two years before.

(Sadie Hawkins was an invention of the brilliant, if reactionary, comic strip artist Al “Li’l Abner” Capp. In contravention of traditional morality, it empowered girls, on one very special night of the year, to ask boys out. Oh, the cuter boys’ terror!)

Maybe it was that I, the eternal wallflower — the boy the girls didn’t even know was there beside them in Civics, thinking lewd thoughts when, crossing their lovely legs under their desks, they made that nylon-on-nylon sound — had actually been invited to the dance by my actual [very pretty!] girlfriend.

After steadfastly listening to nothing but the West Side Story soundtrack album through most of 1964, I’d seen A Hard Day’s Night four months before, and it had changed my life, but I’d never experienced rock and roll first hand as I did at the Sadie Hawkins Dance. The Emperors were absolutely deafening, or at least the loudest thing I’d ever heard at the time (and probably around a fifth the volume of The Yardbirds the following summer at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium). They had actual long hair, which inspired the girls, beneath their masks of indifference, to yearn for them, and the boys, of course, to speculate that they must be…fags. I think the swarthy — Latino? — one was wearing a wig. They wore matching silver lame jackets, as though it were still the ‘50s. The drummer seemed to be having the time of his life. I was certainly having mine!

You could tell from the way they kept slipping surf instrumentals in between their British Invasion covers that they’d been around before The Beatles emerged. A lot of us forgot all about dancing, and just stood there gaping at their hair and jackets and drummer Steve Watts’ exuberant mugging. They had a guy whose sole function was to play rhythm guitar, an instrument that the power trios would banish to to the history books two years later. I thought I was looking at my future.

Now, through the miracle of modern digital communications, I am able to ascertain that they were from Long Beach (about a third of the way ‘twixt LA and San Diego), and led by Watts, the drummer, who’d put the band together in 1961, almost before there were Beatles. At some point after their Samohi performance, they wore matching platinum wigs. In the 1970s, realizing that pluralization was of an earlier epoch, they renamed themselves Emperor, and recorded unsuccessfully with the guy who produced Styx.

Miraculously, they still exist, if by they you mean Mr. Watts and a new bunch of sidekicks, with names like Randy and Chip, and horrible flame-sleeved sports shirts you’d expect to find for sale at the Harley Davidson outlet store. They will be performing many times during 2015 at a restaurant called Phil Trani’s down where it all began, in Long Beach. I am unable to decide whether I should speculate aloud about the restaurant being a favorite of South Bay crossdressers. I think maybe I won’t.

I see on their Facebook page (!) that they do a copy version of “My Sharona.” But they also do Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” as The Who, reaching back into their past to be able to play two sets of the length Bill Graham demanded, did that night at the Fillmore. Coincidence? One wonders!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Further Adventures in Job-Hunting

I’ve probably applied for 150 graphic design jobs since approximately last October. I’ve received maybe half a dozen emails thanking me for my interest, but lamenting that I didn’t seem A Good Fit for the Position (Human Resources-speak: I could listen to it all day!) for reasons not specified.  In spite of the fact that I love the work, am terrific at it, and have 23 years’ professional experience, I've been invited in for no interviews. Maybe my resume mentions Adobe inCopy insufficiently frequently or something. 

In any event, I got my second actual reach-out from a prospective employer this morning. Mr. Joseph O— of Ematic, which he described, squandering few opportunities to capitalize, as “a leading designer and manufacturer of Consumer Electronics and Automobile Accessories that’s been partnering with Wal-Mart, Fry’s Electronics and Radio Shacks to sell tablets, Mp3 players and DVD Players,” sent me an email saying that he was impressed with my resume, and eager to chat. We agreed that he would phone me at 2:30, a time I ordinarily reserve for wondering how I’m going to find the strength to go on.

He finally called at 2:48. He sounded around 12, and made no mention of having admired my online portfolio. Instead, he wanted to know what programs I use. Photoshop, I said, and Illustrator, though I use Illustrator so seldom that I’m not sure I remember even how to launch it. He sounded a little bit disappointed. “How about Excel and Powerpoint?” he wondered warily.

A new one on me! Could he have been speaking of Microsoft’s spreadsheet program, which, as you know too well, features calculation, graphing tools, and pivot tables, not to mention the macroprogramming language Visual Basic for Applications? Had I missed yet another boat? Are designers now required to generate spreadsheets? Panicking, I changed the subject, and assured him that I’m a wiz at Powerpoint, that program so beloved of persons who believe that bullet points are the wellspring of all human understanding — a program much, much beloved, I am sure, by the sort of person who would characterize another as Not a Good Fit for the Position, or speak of synergy. 

I designed this in Excel. That's a joke.
Actually, a few years ago, I was doing some freelance stuff for an organization called Latinos in College. Its boss lady sent me a Powerpoint presentation. It was hideous, but I discovered that one could quite easily import into the program gorgeous illustrations created in Photoshop. I know only that about Powerpoint, and wish to know no more.

Young (presumably) Mr. O— seemed suitably impressed, my having dodged the Excel question notwithstanding. “We’re looking,” he said, “to pay somewhere between $10 to $11 per hour.”

I pointed out that one could earn more than that stocking supermarket shelves, or making burritos. I didn’t point out that for $11/hour, Emetic, as I’d decided to call his company, might be able to hire a monkey, but that the monkey very likely would know neither Excel nor Powerpoint. I didn’t point out that many designers would probably be inclined to urge him to have sex with himself after hearing his very insulting offer. He'll find out soon enough!

Of course, his very insulting offer is very much better than that contained in an advertisement I just saw for a composer. Someone wants to hire a collaborator to write the music for a Book of Mormon-like musical. “Payment,” the ad notes, “is on an unpaid basis.”  

Ponder that en route to your next pizza delivery, former philosophy majors.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Absolutely the Last Thing I'll Ever Write About the Led Zeppelin, Unless Somebody Offers Me a Few Bucks

In the spring of 1969, something called Scenic Sounds began promoting rock shows at one of the unlikeliest venues in Greater Los Angeles, a drafty barn-like affair in Pasadena heretofore known solely as where huge floral floats are prepared for the annual New Year’s Day morning Rose Parade. For their first shows in May, Scenic Sounds booked as headliners a bluesy new English four-piece that had apparently caused many a jaw to drop at their local debut at the Whisky a Go Go the second evening of the year, and whose first album was getting played a lot on local radio in spite of having been dismissed as self-indulgent crapola in Rolling Stone. To review the show, the Los Angeles Times dispatched the selfsame spotty young university student who’d written the Rolling Stone review.

He liked the performance even less than the record, the Led Zeppelin were ruined, and popular music was saved.

I once owned a shirt just like that Plant wears in this photo!
Yes, I was that spotty young student. I didn’t know much, but I knew what I liked, and there wasn’t much about the Led Zeppelin I didn’t hate. I liked songs, especially tuneful ones, with witty or poignant lyrics; I liked The Who (no, I didn’t: in those days, before the bloat and bombast, I worshipped The Who) and The Kinks and The Move. Zeppelin weren’t remotely about songs, but rather about showing off, much more about athleticism than self-expression. At the time, it was believed that no guitarist could play more than 200 notes per bar at 120 beats per minute without self-immolating. Well, Jimmy Page could play 217. A cat in heat could hit H above middle C? Robert Plant could hit J-flat. In the lower register in which he started nearly every song, he was completely undistinguished, tentative-sounding. Where the playing of Jeff Back, whose great success the year before had obviously emboldened Page to throw this mob together, was alternately droll, anarchic, and emotive, Page’s was unashamedly exhibitionistic. When I was able to make out any words, they seemed, in that bluesy way I loathed, to be about what an implacable bull stud the singer was, or how he blamed women for everything wrong with the world. Give me Townshend, via Daltrey, I thought, fretting about his sisters’ forcibly crossdressing him. Give me Ray Davies, raking leaves.

They didn’t even look right. The drummer’s moustache and stiff leather hat were so 1968. In the classic formulation, the instrumentalists to a singer’s sides dwarfed him, as Entwistle and Townshend dwarfed Daltrey, but here was Plant looking as though he could rest his chin atop the alarmingly emaciated Page’s head.

The result being that when we convened, I had five de facto bodyguards. Grunt had brought a couple of prolifically scarred roadies as well as Page and Plant, and we had to request a table for eleven. As everyone seated himself, the air was so thick with testosterone it was a wonder one of the place’s famously obstreperous, famously ancient waitresses didn’t take a career-ending fall, though no one could remember a Canter’s server’s career ending. There were waitresses in there as old as Judaism itself.

Grunt and my kung fu instructor, who I will have to admit sooner or later called himself Chuck, did lots of glaring at each other, as did Chuck’s former students and the two Zeppelin roadies. Page, Plant, and I just sort of smirked at each other warily, and then pretended to be preoccupied with our menus. I noticed a couple of waitresses looking our way with great concern, and inferred that they might be scandalized by Page’s emaciation. “Like a bird he must eat!” I could imagine them clucking at each other.

When the last of our menus had been relinquished, Plant started the ball rolling, observing, “You don’t seem to fancy our group, mate,” but in a tone that suggested amusement rather than umbrage. He actually winked at me. Who’d have imagined that he’d be a good egg? But with Chuck and his four protégés, and the Jewish Defense League, the numbers were on my side, and the vodka I’d guzzled out in the parking lot to steady my nerves was working its magic, so I, winking right back at him, said, “I think I’d sooner listen to cats being tortured, though, given my strong feelings about the rights of animals, that’s hardly to suggest that I ever hope to hear them being tortured.”

I think at that moment that Peter Grunt wished himself American, as he’d have had a pistol to reach for. But he had to content himself with scowling at me homicidally, clearing his throat, and wondering what it might take to get me to stop mauling his boys in print. The Internet wasn’t yet a tingling in Tim Berners-Lee’s loins.

“Well,” I said, allowing one of our three octogenarian waitresses to place before me a bowl of matzo ball soup that no self-respecting Jewish mother on earth would serve a Nazi, “I’d like to know that at some point soon the group will stop screeching and showing off every once in a while, and actually write something wry or touching.

“We don’t do wry, mate,” Plant said. “But I do fancy something touching.” My impression was that he was going to tell me about ideas he and the too-shy-to-speak Page had been kicking around, but there was a commotion at the restaurant’s entrance. Apparently word had already spread that the Led Zeppelin’s two more desirable stars were at Canter’s, and here came the groupies, as fast as they could stampede on their platform shoes with six-inch heels. I don’t think any of them was over 15. “Beat me, Jimmy!” squealed the most brazen, who’d seemingly saved her middle school lunch money to buy the handsome bullwhip she was trying to force on the embarrassed-looking Page. “I’ve read you like it, and I just love it!”

“Will you excuse me?” he murmured shyly as he got to his feet. The question was rhetorical. He put his arm, around the diameter of plastic drinking straw, around the waist of his new friend and headed eagerly for the exit. Half a dozen nymphets converged on Plant. One of them plopped uninvited on his lap, and unbuttoned her blouse, proudly showing herself not to have begun…developing yet. A couple of the shier girls settled for the roadies, uncouth, lavishly scarred, and reeking of sweat and alcohol though they were. “Shoo!” one of the ancient waitresses implored Plant’s new harem, as though they were flies, but none listened.

Peter Grunt sipped his water miserably and shook his head. “It ain’t that they ain’t fucking tried to write a couple of pretty songs per album,” he told me accusatorily. “It’s that they’re rubbish at it.  If it’s pretty you want, why don’t you listen to fucking Crosby, Stills & Nash or something?”
Rather than responding, I sipped my own water. It felt that I had him just where I wanted him. “An occasional pretty, more expressive song,” I reiterated, “and they’ve got to stop pretending they wrote songs actually written by others.”

“What are you fucking on about?” he demanded, but in a tone that suggested his heart wasn’t in it.
“I’m on about ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,’ which they claim to have written, but which was actually composed by Anne Bredon, ‘Dazed and Confused,’ which was actually composed by Jakes Holmes, and ‘Black Mountain Side,’ which Bert Jansch composed, though he called his version ‘Blackwaterside.’ And there are those who believe that ‘How Many More Times’ bears a too-strong resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘No Place to Go.’”

There are few things sadder than a big, powerful man who’s used to intimidating people looking beaten. Nor, of course, are there many things even half as wonderful. I turned away from Peter Grunt to smirk for a second, and then, sensing his weakness, did my best to exploit it.

“That’s part of what I want,” I said, “but not all of it.”

Oh, the look of hatred he gave me. Wouldn’t he go on, though, to make his name as one of the most demanding managers in show business? Wouldn’t a taste of his own medicine benefit him hugely?
“I want a gal too,” I said. I was still dweebish in those days before my first contact lenses. I had a wispy moustache — and here I’d complained about John Bonham’s! — and what had come to be called John Lennon glasses, even though Lennon had been emboldened by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian. It would be a dozen more years before I learned to suppress my innate shyness. “Not a teenager of the sort in which Mr. Plant is covered,” I said, “nor the sort who tempted Mr. Page with her bullwhip. An adult, preferably with Raquel Welch hair, legs up to here, a sweet disposition, a wonderful sense of humor, and lovely firm breasts. They needn't be huge.”

“Now where am I fucking supposed to find someone like that?” he demanded petulantly.

“Not my problem, Pierre,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe the mom of one of the group’s 13-year-old fans. Oh, and a car. A 1962 Porsche 911 convertible. Red, preferably.”

He so wanted to get his huge, fleshy hands around my neck and to squeeze until I ceased to struggle — or, alternatively, to take a bite out of my trachea. “I suppose,” he mused miserably, “that I should fucking write everything down.”

“I suppose you should,” I agreed. “And a house in Laurel Canyon, preferably not next door to a folk singer. You should probably be able to get a two-bedroom house for $350/month, a figure that, when I recount it many years from now, will sound almost comical.”

Within two weeks, I was moving into new digs on Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon. There was a folk singer on neither side of me, but someone who listened to Carol King’s Tapestry album four times a day, loudly, right up the hill. I thought the red Porsche made me look less dweebish. Jean, the toothy, but attractively toothy, 24-year-old blonde Grunt had found for me in the Los Angeles office of Led Zeppelin’s American record company, didn’t get all my jokes, but got most of them, and we began what would be three very happy years together, followed by one godawful one.

I wrote nothing more about the Led Zeppelin, who consequently became gigantically popular through the 1970s. My ears continued to look like any other non-boxer’s. Every few years I’d receive a letter from someone asking if I didn’t feel foolish about having disliked their debut album. I didn’t feel foolish at all, and would commonly send back a postcard reading, “No more foolish than you do being an impudent little dickehead.” How to win friends ‘n’ influence people!

A speakers’ agency contacted me in 1981 to ask if I liked the idea of speaking about my and the Led Zeppelin’s contretemps, mostly at colleges, for as much as $3500 per talk. I hated the idea of continuing to be identified primarily in terms of my disdain for the Led Zeppelin, but the money was good, and I had my pick of starstruck coeds, one of whom became my first wife. I was frustrated about not being able to tell my audiences how I’d humbled Peter Grunt, but part of our deal was that I wouldn’t reveal the terms of our deal for 45 years.

And now I have.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Missing Antoinette

In 1998, I started a little on-line magazine to showcase the world’s most beautiful dominatrices and my abilities as a graphic designer, Heartless Bitch. I have always had a soft spot for women in form-fitting latex and high heels. The site was an almost instant (small) success. It not only rescued me from boredom, pennilessness, and despair, but also got me my first important design clients, one the (avidly submissive) founder of a DC-based think tank, the other the American southeast’s most notable dominant, Mistress Antoinette.

She turned out to have nothing to do with the Orange County-based Mistress Antoinette I’d interviewed a year or two before for Spin, and to be one of the most charming people I’d met in years — funny, self-effacing, generous, and even more deeply appreciative of the work I did for her than Mr. Thinktank had been. I dared imagine that I had a new career.

We became actual friends, Toni and I. We confided in and encouraged each other. She’d married very young, because pregnant, and then discovered that her charismatic bad boy young husband was a far badder boy than she’d bargained for — an abusive monster. Now she was married to her second substance-abuser. She found solace in the work of Tool, whose music didn't speak to me personally, but which I recognized as brilliant on its own terms. 

I succumbed to her siren song after about a year and a half, and flew to Tampa to meet her. In person, we got on as poorly as we’d gotten on terrifically on the phone. I don’t commonly give people second chances to hurt me, so the fact of our friendship eventually being revived was a testament to her determination. She was the best woman (I had no best man) at my marriage in London to the former Mistress Chloe, and the only other American in attendance.

I stopped charging her to design new stuff or her Website. She was gigantically appreciative. You may imagine that, as a dominatrix, she enjoyed being horrid, or even cruel, to men. In fact, she enjoyed being horrid, or even cruel, only to men who adored beautiful women being horrid or even cruel to them. She was devoted to her son, who was beset by mental health problems. She wasn’t a loyal and generous friend only to me, but to many others. When a rich solicitor flew her to London, she brought me a new iMac.

I flew down to Tampa again, with the same result. Within around 12 hours, we weren’t speaking, but once more we somehow managed to resuscitate our friendship, more quickly this time. I was going to ghostwriter her autobiography, the cover I designed for which is at right.

But then some boastfully self-nicknamed air conditioning (or something) magnate from the Midwest hired her to oversee a sex shop in Miami for him. I found him sort of Trumpish in his defiant tastelessness. (I have lived in London, and know there’s such a thing as a sublimely tasteful sex shop.) Thinking that it would somehow put more money in her pocket, she hired some hack who's better than I at coding to design a new Website for her. I found it grim and soulless. 

We kept in touch for a while on the strength of my calling her, almost always to find her too busy to talk for long. We now haven’t spoken in something like four years. 

It’s bad enough when a friendship dies on the battlefield, if you will, with much shouting and rancor. It’s even worse when it just seems to evaporate into thin air, with no goodbyes said and no explanations offered.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Second to Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Led Zeppelin: Not Confronting Robert Plant

My wife surprised me last year by taking me to Marrakech for my birthday. It wasn’t her fault that Marrakech was infernally hot, or that the air was full of dust and pollution, or that the toilet in our riyad (inn, sort of) wouldn’t flush if you put used toilet paper in it.  We’ve been to a lot of places together, but I’ve never longed for going-home day as I did there. I dreamed of the air-conditioned airport.

Once having been taken back there, though, we discovered that our flight back to London had been delayed by a couple of hours, apparently because some sort of strike in France. We went upstairs to the departure area to wait. I’ve always found remarkable how quickly one comes to take for granted the air conditioning for which he’s so fervently longed. Within just a few minutes, I’d ceased reveling in the fact that I no longer felt as though in an oven, and become bored, restless, and francophobic.

Then Robert Plant and a small, long-haired woman I didn’t recognize seated themselves at another of the little round tables in our area, and the whole experience became a lot more interesting.

I took some small comfort in the years having been even crueler to Robert’s pretty face than to my own, and in his having a fairly substantial gut, and wearing some majorly ugly cowboy boots. With what he was saving not traveling by private jet, couldn’t he afford a stylist?

In the summer of 1969, Percy, as the English enjoy calling Plant because he’s said to have a very large penis, had announced between songs at a Led Zeppelin performance at the Anaheim Convention Center that he and his colleagues were going to find me and make my ears resemble cauliflower. They were apparently much displeased by my famous slightly-less-warm-than-tepid review of their debut album in Rolling Stone, and by my having later ridiculed them in the Los Angeles Times for being screechy, ham-fisted, and exhibitionistic.

Part of me — the puckish, devil-may-care part — thought of going over to him, reminding him of the malediction of all those years before, and saying, “Well, here I am, big boy. Let’s see what you’ve got.” But I’ve always been much more a lover than a fighter (“And not much of a lover,” think multiple former girlfriends). Besides, when my friend Bev Bevan had introduced us after a Wolverhampton Wanderers (English football, you see) game in 1969, my name apparently hadn’t rung a bell for Robert. What good could come of my waking the sleeping dogs that the proverb urges to let lie?

I had another idea. I would go over and tell Robert how much I’d enjoyed his work with Alison Krause, or whatever that woman’s name is, and reveal my identity — and remind him of the cauliflower thing — only when boarding for either his flight or my own was announced. The problem was that I hadn’t actually heard his work with Alison Krause, though I knew it had won some sort of award, nor anything else since his pleasant remake of the Phil Phillips-popularized “Sea of Love” 30 years before. It was nice that he’d put a lid on the bloodcurdling screeching he’d done on the first Zeppelin albums, but his stuff never really, you know, spoke to me. Moreover, a couple of Europeans had come over to schmooze him, and to pose for photos with him. He seemed gracious.

In the end, it was announced before I could decide on a course of action that his and his petite companion’s flight to Birmingham (you can take the Midlands out of the boy, but not the boy out of the Midlands) was boarding at such and such a gate. He’d left behind the cup out of which he’d drunk coffee, but I thought it prove a tough sell on eBay. For all the prospective buyer would have known, it was just another paper cup.