Saturday, September 12, 2015

Everybody's Gone Surfin'...Except Me

When I was a teenager in southern California a million years and four months ago, there was one guaranteed route to the interest of girls, and to my infinite chagrin, it was neither facility with language nor quick wit, of which I’d lots. It was surfing. I’d grown up terrified of the water, and learned to swim only on the verge of adolescence, but was far from confident about my abilities. Watching others surf at D&W (that is, Dockweiler) State Beach in Playa del Rey, I was pretty sure that if I tried it, the surfboard would fly high into the air, and then come back down on my head, greatly diminishing my facility with language, at best, or killing me, at worst.

I nonetheless importuned my parents to let me buy a surfboard with some of the money I’d earned delivering fruit a few years before, and later delivering the Westchester News-Advertiser a couple of times a week. They reluctantly agreed. I had somehow managed to attach myself, barnacle-like, to Mr. Gary Green, who was a good drummer (he’d later star in Warner Bros. recording group The Glass Family), and, much more importantly, cachet-wise, the boyfriend of our junior high school’s beyond-ravishing Marilyn Monroe clone, Pat Wymer. He had a surfboard for sale. I calculated that its becoming known that I had bought Gary Green’s surfboard might cause those few who realized I was there at all to think of me as less an irredeemable dweeb.

Gary's in the middle.
We negotiated, Gary and I, and I got him down to $51, which will sound odd to those unaware of the fact that a buck in those days was a significant amount of money — worth around $267 in today’s. I took my new…board home, and, as I waxed it down in the garage, felt almost like a real boy, in the Pinocchian sense. Sooner, or later, though, I knew that if I didn’t actually take it to the beach, my parents, avid believers in not squandering money, would give me an earful of grief. So down I went, and, with the utmost trepidation, into the water, where I almost immediately got in the way of a fellow surfer (a fellow surfer!), whose fin pretty nearly cleaved me in two as he whooshed exultantly overhead. “Maybe I’d better give this some more thought,” I thought, and headed back to the shore, where I waited for a girl resembling a younger Ursula Andress to come over and suggest we have sex. That, mysteriously, failed to transpire, and I decided I’d had enough surfing for one day, whereupon I carried the damned thing (surfboards in those days weighed approximately as much as Volkswagens) the two miles home.

Thus both began and ended my surfing career, at least the sort done with a surfboard. I later became a reasonably accomplished and very avid bodysurfer, but bodysurfing didn’t get one laid.  

We now fast-forward a million years and four months to yesterday, September 11. It was infernally hot yet again, so I drove myself down in mid-afternoon to Santa Monica, to the beach on which I’d frolicked with my parents as a four-year-old. I went in. It was strangely unrefreshing. I lay for a while on the beach, and then resolved to walk south toward Venice. I hadn’t gone 10 steps before I noticed what looked like American paper currency in the water. I was right. It was a $1 bill. Which was considerably less exciting than the $50 one I noticed near to it, and managed to snag. For a moment, I was afraid someone — Neptune, himself? — might shout, “Hey, put that back, you,” but no one did. I headed south with great rapidity, past the part of the beach popular with blacks and Latinos, and under the pier, probably the coolest (in terms of temperature) place in Los Angeles County, $51 richer, thinking that maybe the Pacific Ocean was paying me back for Gary Green’s surfboard.

Hats off, incidentally, to Gary. As a hopeless dweeb turned fawning acolyte, I had nothing atll for him at the time, but he suffered my devotion with unflagging grace. If only there’d been many more like him in my childhood. Better yet, if only I hadn’t bought in to the idea of the things I was good at being valueless.

Friday, September 11, 2015

When Is a Song Not a Song?

The other day, a Facebook friend (is there any other kind for those of us who enjoy typing, but can’t bear the thought of meeting anyone in person?) mused whether God Only Knows or Waterloo Sunset is the more beautiful song. I thought about how, if you removed Rasa (Ray’s first wife) Davies’s gorgeous background singing from the record of the latter, it would likely induce considerably less swooning. Which in turn got me thinking about how many people don't bother to distinguish a song from an arrangement from a performance from a production, as witness the amount of blowback my famous belief that “Sweet Home Alabama” is the worst song of the rock era invariably elicits.

Very simply, a song is its lyrics and melody. In the case of “Sweet Home Alabama” it isn’t the song people like, but the arrangement, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s deft performance thereof, and Al Kooper’s effective production. Musically, the song is a non-event, with a melody that makes that of “Hot Cross Buns” sound in comparison like that of “Ode to Joy.” And the words are no improvement. In Birmingham they love the Gov'nor, boo-hoo-hoo, indeed!

You could have either a really horrible singer, or one of those American Idol/Voice singers who’s really good in a way that’s really horrible — showoffy and dripping patently fake emotion — sing the Gershwin brothers’ sublimely beautiful “Someone To Watch Over Me,” let’s say, in a way that you wouldn’t enjoy in the slightest. That wouldn’t mean it’s not a glorious song. Or you could hire a really inept producer to record a very good singer singing well, and dislike the record. That wouldn’t make “Someone To Watch Over Me” a lesser song either.

The subject of what constitutes a song comes up a lot in terms of songwriting credits. Over and over you see how someone in a famous band is irate because he or she isn’t in line to get publishing royalties for having contributed significantly to the arrangement of a song on a hit record. I’m not saying it’s entirely fair, but the fact is that you can’t copyright an arrangement, as you can a melody and lyrics. In recent years, both Procol Harum’s original organist, from whose Bach-derived playing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” benefitted enormously, and singer Clare Torry, whose improvised singing on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” essentially made the record, have nonetheless sued successfully. Earlier this year, a court decided that the…vibe of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” so vividly evoked that of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” that the former owed the latter $7.3 million. Given that precedent, it surprised me that the estate of the late Percy Sledge didn’t sue Procol Harum for the great resemblance of “Pale” to “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

If you really want to compare songs as songs, you need to get a pianist and a vocalist who’s good at sightsinging (that is, singing the notes off sheet music), neither of whom has ever heard the songs, to perform them “cold” live — that is, unproduced. The piano part should be very basic, lest a clever arrangement start to influence the listener.

Paul McCartney’s “Here There and Everywhere” is obviously more beautiful than either “God Only Knows” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and Rogers & Hammerstein's "Old Man River" is more beautiful than "Here There and Everywhere." So there.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Golden Grrls

Mrs. Everhart lost her husband in August 2013. She was sure she’d taken him down to the laundry room to help with folding, but when she came back down with the Bounce® Fresh Linen Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets she’d earlier forgotten, there was no sign of him. In any event, she moved in with me just before Thanksgiving of that year, and we discovered that we have lots of common interests. Neither of us ever tires of reruns of The Golden Girls, to the point at which we can often say the various characters’ lines before they themselves do. We both enjoy flower arranging, and cats. We were both the second female leads in our senior plays in high school, and did lots of little theatre when our kids grew up. 

Such was the pleasure we derived from acting, in fact, that we decided one  night, while watching a 1976 edition of the Carol Burnett Show after Golden Girls, that we would put together a little troupe to perform our favorite skits and songs. We recruited five more actors by pinning up notices on the laundry room bulletin board, and then ran an ad on craigslist for a director. We hoped for a stereotypically gay one given to hyperbolic pronouncements, eye-rolling, and snideness. We dared hope for one who wore a cravat and a pinkie ring, but in the end settled for just the latter. His  name is Billie Gene, with Billie spelled that way, but we are to call him Clement, with the second syllable accented. We were impressed by his having done lots of Shakespeare in the Park in Tucson, which we believe to be rivaled only by Hamtramck, Michigan, in terms of confusing spelling.

One of the cast, Kaceigh, the youngest of us, doesn’t actually live in the building. Her aunt, who lives on the 9th floor, saw our little notice in the laundry room and emailed her our number. She’s perky and fun, but very unpunctual, forever arriving for a 6:00 p.m. rehearsal at 6:18 and explaining that her bus (she’s the only white person in Los Angeles without a car) was delayed by heavy traffic.  I have on several occasions pointed out to her that she might think in terms of catching an earlier bus, but it doesn’t seem to register, possibly because she’s perpetually preoccupied with either reading or sending text messages. 

This has caused a rift between Mrs. Everhart and I. When Kacee arrives late for rehearsal, I always want to yank her pigtails (figuratively, as she doesn’t actually have pigtails) and bellow, “Show up on time, for Pete’s sake!” On the other hand, Mrs. Everhart, forever the perfect hostess, always conducts a little symposium about what Kaceigh wants to drink. Juice? Sparkling water? Coffee? While they negotiate, I commonly want to pull my —or their! —hair out with my bare hands! Why, when Mrs. Everhart’s time is wasted no less than my own, does she leave all the admonishing to me? Why does Clement? Why do the others in the cast?

Well, I know why “Hank,” as I’ll call him, does. Because he wants to “get into her pants,” in the sense of having intercourse with her. Does he really imagine that the rest of us fail to see that? Does he think we don’t notice that, at a rehearsal Clement’s given Kaceigh permission not to attend, he doesn’t wear a third as much cologne? Does he suppose we’ve failed to not that he’s very careful about popping a breath mint into his mouth before a skit in which he’s addressing Kaceigh, but that he takes no such precaution when it’s me, Mrs. Everhart, or “Hank,” on whom I strongly suspect Clement might have a little crush?

Sometimes, I will confess, I want to creep quietly into Mrs. Everhart’s bedroom late at night and hold a pillow over her face until she ceases to struggle, though, knowing her as I’ve come to know her, she would probably figure out that the best way to survive would be to play dead. The moment I reduced the pressure on her, she would spring up and strangle me. Oh, I know her very well!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

He Who Should Be Doing the Thanking

As I have probably observed here before, if I had seen Arturo on a bus, I wouldn’t in a million years have imagined that we had anything in common, and after our first meeting, at a Starbucks on Wilshire Blvd., I wasn’t so sure I craved a second one, as I mistook his extreme shyness for impenetrability. He very haltingly confided at that first meeting, brokered by the LA Public Library’s adult literacy program, that he didn’t know what to say to his own three adult children on the rare occasions that one of them phoned. His life consisted of sleeping (or, more accurately, chronically failing to sleep) on the floor of a tiny rented bedroom in not-very-salubrious Inglewood, and then commuting three hours a day to his horrible job as a switchboard operator at a hospital where he was constantly being harassed by black fellow employees for his Salvadoran accent.

(This bears consideration. A great many people think of blacks as nothing but oppressed, but several Latino acquaintances tell me that black people can be quite avid oppressors too. Art, whom a couple of black kids beat a few years ago into a coma from which it took him months to awake for the offense of being Latino, is no less reflexively frightened to be alone on a bus with black kids than those kids would be to find themselves alone on a bus with white dudes in Aryan Nation T-shirts.)

I advised Art at that first meeting that all he really needed to say to his kids was, “I’m really happy to hear from you, and I love you.” He liked that, and it set an important precedent. We would continue at every meeting to work on his reading and writing, and especially on his accent. (We take for granted that the short i sound in bit or hit is very easy, but try telling that to a native Spanish — or Korean — speaker.) In lots of ways our meetings came to resemble psychotherapeutic sessions. He confided his loneliness, and the lingering pain of his longtime girlfriend and later wife, with whom he’d spoken pot and listened to Pink Floyd atop Mayan temples in their native “Salvy,” having betrayed him. It emerged that he saw himself as friendless. I told him that I hoped he would consider me a friend, and was enormously gratified when he did.

As I was enormously gratified too — given that his favorite television was Scooby-Doo cartoons — when I got him reading John Steinbeck and, more recently, Mark Twain. But as much as reveled in that, I got even greater pleasure this past week from talking him out of Jesus, to whom he gave full credit for transforming him from a crack-smoking gangbanger into one of very pure heart. How did it make sense, I asked that he gave himself all the blame for his past involvement in drive-by shootings, but none of the credit for having become the wonderful man I am proud to call friend? I think I have talked him to doing volunteer work — specifically, visiting the inmates of nursing homes — on Sunday mornings rather than displaying his piety for others cruelly duped. I'm proud of that.

I’ve never met a more buoyant, cheerful person. Ask him pretty much any time of day or night how’s he’s doing, regardless of how little sleep he managed or how mercilessly someone at the hospital ridiculed him, and he’ll grin a grin by whose light you could read, raise a fist in the air, and exult, “Awesome!” 

At the end of every session he shakes my hand and says, “Thanks for all you do for me, mister.” It’s kind of like the Jesus business all over again. I’m the one who should be doing the thanking.

See and hear Art tell his own story. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Some Random Reflections on Race

We hear the appalling news of yet another young black person having been brutalized or even gunned down by a white cop for the crime of being both black and defiant, and despair at how racism continues to flourish in our country. In response to blacks rightly decrying white racism, a certain sort of white person responds by saying that there’s such a thing as black racism too, whereupon the most hemophiliac in the bleeding-heart left (of which I’m a card-carrying member, mind you), rend their garments and cry, “We all share in the blame!”

Try talking about the lack of black racism to my Latino friend whom a pair of black kids beat into a very nearly fatal coma a couple of years ago for the crime of being brown in a black neighborhood.
Naturally, a fair number of black people don’t want to hear it, of course. In the mid-90s, I trained in San Francisco to be a volunteer CASA, a court-appointed special advocate in cases involving foster and other children. Part of the training, to do with racial sensitivity, was administered by a black guy, in a huge wind-tunnel Afro and a blindingly colorful dashiki, who bewailed the fact that sometimes when he came down the street toward them, white folk would cross to the other side. Racism, said he! 

Nonsense, said I, or at least not necessarily racism. If you were wearing Dockers, a LaCoste sport shirt, short hair, and Liz Claiborne glasses, said I, my guess is that the vast majority of your street-crossers would be perfectly happy to share the sidewalk with you. Bullshit, said he, steam coming out of his ears. What could I, nominally white (that is, Jewish), know about racism? Later, when another trainee raised the question of reciprocal black racism, Mr. Dashiki scoffed at the idea. In his view, for reasons he was unable to articulate to my own satisfaction, only the dominant group in any society can rightly be accused of racism.


When I worked as a word processor jockey in the mid-80s at the biggest law firm in San Francisco, there was one set of rules for me, and another for my black colleagues. For me, taking an 20-minute 15-minute morning or afternoon break was an infraction for which I could count on being written up. For my black colleagues, 45-minute 15-minute breaks were the norm. God forbid the firm's might be accused of discrimination. 

I am mindful that for centuries black people were — let me use the same model here — accused of taking hour breaks when they hadn’t so much as gotten up from their desks. I wouldn’t dispute for a millisecond that that was ghastly. Meanwhile, though, my forebears, far from cheating or otherwise mistreating the descendants of persons kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as slaves, were running around eastern Europe and Russia trying not to be raped or slaughtered in orgies of anti-Semitism. It could very well be that, on coming to this country, my German, Latvian, and Russian forebears bought into their gentile neighbors’ disdain for black folk, but I have to admit that, however appalled I may be by it, I feel pretty close to no responsibility whatever for America’s cruel racism.

By the mid-90s, I’d long since escaped the biggest law firm in San Francisco, and had my first job as a graphic designer, at a pyramid scheme on the other side of the bay, in Oakland. Apparently because someone upstairs felt the department needed greater ethnic diversity, the head of the department hired an utterly clueless woman who'd been born in Vietnam, and this black guy, Dre, who purported to be a photographer, was a spectacularly awful graphic designer —  and had the sanctimonious white Christians who ran the show eating out of his hand in around 36 hours. Did you meet that new, uh, African-American guy in the art department? He grew up in the actual…what was the word he used?…hood. When I came down to tell him the changes I wanted made on that ad, do you know what he said? “Right on”! And he seems to like me! He showed me how to shake hands like a black person today! And do you know what he called me? “Homes”!

Stalking Ray Davies

In the new Johnny Rogan biography  A Complicated Life, Ray Davies is apparently depicted pretty much unanimously as the asshole of the century — whichever one you pick.  I demur.

Ray Davies, the author, and Mo Ostin
In early 1969, while serving my final year as an undergraduate at one of the University of California’s biggest campuses, I was given a copy of a Kinks album called The Village Green Preservation Society to review for the campus newspaper. I was rapturous about the album. The Kinks’ record company was rapturous about my rapture, and, because they felt the group was underachieving sales-wise, hired me to oversee a publicity campaign that might get radio program directors and the nascent rock press to pay attention to the group. The record company was pleased, and offered me a full-time job. When The Kinks launched their first American tour in four years, it flew me as their emissary to New York.

I hadn’t been in my room at the midtown Manhattan Holiday Inn before the phone rang. Ray Davies calling. It was like getting a phone call from God. From the moment I realized that he seemed to enjoy my company, I was all over him like a cheap suit, the most shameless groupie anyone had ever seen, an implacable stalker. It’s terribly embarrassing to remember having been so rapacious a little creep, but the truth shall set me free. Their second night at the Fillmore East, I importuned him to let me join the group on stage for their last number. I would play…well, how about tambourine? I had no shame, and thought my guest spot was sure to get me laid.

A stage hand wouldn’t let me onto the stage, though Ray apparently introduced me. I got laid anyway, by a slightly overweight Italian girl from Queens in a see-through black lace top who’d had her sights on Ray, but settled for me. It wasn’t very good.

I flew back to LA. A few weeks later, The Kinks followed. I was all over them like a cheap suit. The record company had actually assigned this extremely obnoxious old-school promotion man, Russ Somebody, to shepherd them around, but: over my dead body. Russ drove Dave and the rhythm section around while Ray rode with me in my VW minibus. At a press party for the group at a swanky nitespot in West Hollywood, around 45 people asked Ray if this was his first visit to America, and I came up with the idea of writing, “No, I’ve been here several times before,” on a card that he could remove from the breast pocket of his blazer if anyone else asked. The idea amused him. It was as though I’d delighted God. Lots more asked, and the card got quite a workout.

By and by, the old-school promotion man complained to my boss at the record company that I was getting in his way, and I was ordered to stand down, but not before Ray had given me the orange velour tie he’d worn at the press party. It was [all together now:] like getting God’s tie.

In fairness, when I saw The Kinks again a year later, I saw the Ray Davies Rogan’s informants knew. He was almost impenetrably sullen, and made a big display of tape-recording our interview, apparently to ensure that I wouldn’t misquote him. Nobody had ever done that before, as no one has since, and my feelings were considerably bruised. But in that record company parking lot the year before, he could very easily have told me to get lost, and ridden with the rest of the band in Russ the promotion man’s car. His acceding to my probably desperate-sounding invitation (it’s excruciating to remember what a creep I was) to ride with me was an act of sublime kindness.