Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Improbable Cabinet

It started a few months ago when I stumbled across an Art Deco bedroom suite being given away on Craigslist. Three matching pieces -- tall bureau, wide bureau, and vanity table with mirror and upholstered bench in genuine Waterfall style from the '30s with nice inlay work and mmm, those voluptuous rounded corners -- everything in reasonable shape, especially for the price. And right around the corner from me. Went and got them.

The tall bureau fit nicely in the bedroom and immediately found full employment there. There was temporarily no room for the wide bureau, so it went into the living room until we could move some things around in the bedroom. The vanity got sent to our friend Mike's for a few minor repairs. 

Right away, I became very fond of the wide bureau (below). Both bureaus have immensely capacious drawers, and lots of them. I have a fetish for candlelight, and that means I tend to collect every size and shape of candle imaginable. Needing easy access on a daily basis, I used one of the drawers in the wide bureau to store them all. Then my collection of tablecloths, runners, placemats, and napkins needed a home, and lo! it found one, and a nice one, in another of the bureau's bottomless drawers.

But time marches on. It became necessary to think of moving the wide bureau into the bedroom, which meant I would soon have to give up the candle and table linen storage it had been so graciously providing in the living room. I began to wonder what would replace it when it had gone. The space it occupies is relatively large and could accommodate another piece of furniture that was both tall and wide. We have a tremendous number of books in storage, and I wouldn't mind a few display shelves for all the various bird figurines, models, carvings, etc., that have managed to fly into my life during the past few years...
Thus it began -- the search for the Improbable Cabinet.

I started by looking at furniture that already existed, that was (theoretically) readily available in one form or another.

There were a number of non-negotiable features necessary for my imaginary piece of furniture -- it required at least two drawers, for starters; then it had to have several shelves for books (which meant that the piece would have to be deep enough to hold something larger than a paperback, at least on one side), and a glass front of some sort for showing off the tchotchkes. Then, it needed to match the primary wood tone of the rest of the furniture in the living room, which is essentially dark brown, with undertones of red and a little black. No blonde jokes around here.

The style was also important. While somewhat eclectic, our taste, at least in the living room, hovers somewhere among the Aesthetic Movement, Stickley/Mission, and the faintly exotic -- carving, quarter-sawing, stained glass, thick area rugs, brocades, and portieres. Anything that looked as if it had been made later than about 1915 would stick out like a sore thumb.

Infinitely complicating matters was my budget. Despite our pseudo-Gold Coast style of decor, I spend surprisingly little on interior decorating, instead relying heavily on curbside scavenging, Craigslist's "free" ads, building or reconstructing pieces from salvaged materials, and (gulp) even resorting to Ikea on occasion. Occasionally I have sprung for something I really wanted that I couldn't get any other way, but trust me, those instances were very rare. Most of the time we've just been too broke. No point investing in nice furniture when you can't afford to pay the rent.

So, my fond hope was to find the perfect piece, or at least the materials for it, cheap or for free. Those who have dismissed me as an incurable pessimist -- admit it, you were wrong all along.

First I went to Craigslist, my go-to and fallback for quixotic decorating projects. Over a period of days I haunted the "free" ads both on Long Island and in the general NYC area. As is generally the case when I'm desperately seeking a specific item for free, there wasn't one damn thing worth looking at twice. Nuts.

Moving on to the ads for "antiques" (and I do use the term loosely), I found all sorts of interesting things. Usually they were too expensive, too far away, the wrong color, or all three. But what a great time I had looking!

This (right), for instance, was for sale somewhere in New Jersey.

It wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it was certainly the right color and style. Unfortunately, while cheap (under $500), it still wasn't in my price range. Had it been free, and had it not required the payment of several bridge tolls to acquire, I'm sure I'd have grabbed it. As it was, the asking price was too high, and the prospect of borrowing a vehicle to collect it made me all too aware of the fact that it really wasn't large enough to hold books. Fugeddaboudit.

As I continued my perusal of the multitude of case pieces available under the Craigslist "antiques" rubric, I began to realize that the item I sought could be known by many names -- a secretary (which is how the double, glass-doored, shelved New Jersey wonder had been advertised, although it had no desk area to speak of), a bookcase (with or without wooden or glass doors), an armoire, a vitrine...

I was mulling over these semantic and nomenclatural subtleties when this beauty (below) hove into sight.

Eric came running into the living room from outside when he heard me screaming in my seat at the computer. "What's the matter? Are you OK?" he asked worriedly. I was moaning -- in ecstasy, as it turned out, although you really couldn't blame him for thinking I was in the throes of a coronary.

"OGodOGodOGod!" I kept mumbling -- very appropriately, as it turned out: the piece in question had apparently been rescued from the vestibule of a church. However, like many another romantic fantasy, this one simply wasn't meant to be. The asking price was eight hundred smackers, and it was located way out in the wilds of Connecticut. Besides, it was far too light in hue to mingle discreetly with the high-toned pieces in our living room, and in addition, it didn't have a clear glass door for display.  On closer inspection, I began to wonder whether it wasn't a cheap pine piece cobbled together from scrap wood and mass-produced stained glass made in a Chinese prison camp -- a sham, a counterfeit, a humbug. When I looked at it with the cool, objective eye of a millionaire who could afford to buy anything she chose, it was actually pretty darn ugly. The sellers were lunatics to think anyone would pay eight hundred bucks for something that was such an obvious piece of junk, and fraudulent to boot.

Sour grapes.

Several days later, I had found nothing at all that I could afford and/or was suitable. In desperation I had gone to more websites than I liked to remember, sliding lower and lower, passing from antiques (real or imagined, but at least advertised as such) to reproductions, at last descending into the netherworld of knockdown: "Assembly Required" nightmares of MDF and melamine. On the website of a national web retailer I found this (left). 

Not bad looking, even though on closer inspection it wasn't really made of wood (just what, may I ask, is meant by "composite wood and fine veneers"?). Shipped knockdown, it was almost affordable. OK, so it didn't have two drawers, but the other dimensions, and the color, seemed to be sort of in the ballpark.

Then something possessed me to read the buyers' comments about the item. "The assembly locking cams broke everytime my husband tightened them-finally went to hardware store and bought new ones to replace all the ones sent.Assembled,the drawer stuck out 3/4 of an inch.My husband figured the guide holes were wrong and moved the drawer slides back the 3/4 of inch..." Another hapless purchaser complained that even a few lightweight books caused the shelves to buckle and collapse. The back was thin cardboard. The doors didn't line up. And so on.

Oh well.

So now what? Well, my surfing and fantasizing, while time consuming, weren't entirely unprofitable. I picked up a yellow legal pad and turned my subconscious loose, coming up with a facsimile of "The Improbable Cabinet"(above). No matter that it doesn't exist anywhere but in my fevered imagination, and that it never will. I may live in my living room, but it's really only a fantasy in three dimensions, after all. I will persevere, even though I can't draw and my friends all think I'm a lunatic. They laughed at Einstein too, you know.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Bizarre Relationship: Frank Zappa and My Ex

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re familiar with Lionel Rolfe, co-publisher of Boryanabooks (with his lovely wife, the eponymous Boryana Rolfe). You’ve probably read his various musings on literature, politics, and classical music -- with a decided emphasis on “classical”. Coming as he does from a family of world-class classical musicians, Lionel has never been one to suffer rock ‘n roll fools gladly, nor find it in his heart to excuse the wretched excesses of popular culture. On the contrary: over the years, he has practically made a career out of thumbing his nose at pop icons of various stripes, from the Grateful Dead at their inception in ‘60s San Francisco to the advent of punk music in the ‘70s to whatever passing trend happened to be floating down the gutter in his artsy Silver Lake neighborhood a few minutes ago. He’s truly an egalitarian hater of anything with distorted guitars. Thus, being  married to me, a purveyor of music that involves abusing guitars on occasion, must have been a sore trial to him, especially when I insisted on introducing him to Frank Zappa.

Lionel and I first crossed paths in 1972 and married in 1975. (We separated in 1998.) By the time we met, I had briefly performed with Frank’s band, as well as contributing a couple of uncredited bits to his recordings. At that point my direct involvement in his music was over, but Frank and I remained friends, if a bit edgily. I still had a forlorn hope that Frank might see his way to produce my debut album, something we had previously discussed, although the odds of it actually happening were growing slimmer by the minute. At any rate, I was spending an inordinate amount of time at his band rehearsals, and one day Lionel decided to tag along and see what all the fuss was about.

Picture the scene: a cavernous, airplane hangarlike building (a former movie sound stage) on Sunset Boulevard near Bronson Avenue, where Frank and his musical minions toiled in a workmanlike fashion five days a week for several hours a day.  The band rehearsed on a raised stage in the middle of the enormous space. There were blazing spotlights and a mighty sound reinforcement system which replicated the ambience of a nightclub or small auditorium. Positioned dead center on the stage, haloed by the the main spot, was Frank’s chair, where he chain smoked Winstons, guzzled endless cups of 40-weight coffee from a Shop Vac-sized thermos pot, and generally tyrannized the musicians when he wasn’t standing up to play guitar.

Nearly anyone wandering into this rock ‘n roll purgatory would have found it intimidating, with its blinding lights, ear-splitting noise, and locker-room ambience, but not Lionel. As soon as we entered the building, he strode up to the stage without any invitation from me or anyone else. Looking boldly up toward Frank, he said “Hello, Mr. Zappa” in a challenging tone.

Frank glanced over at me with a sour expression, as if to ask “Who the f--- is this clown?”. I hastily introduced Lionel, at which Frank scowled. He apparently wasn’t in a good mood that day, and when he was in a bad mood he had the endearing habit of being extremely ungracious (to put it politely). “Yeah, well, pleased to meet you. Now have a seat if you wanna hang around. We have a lot to get through today,” he snapped. We skulked over to a couple of folding chairs in front of the stage and sat down without further badinage, but during the rehearsal, I caught Frank stealing glances at us out of the corner of his eye. He still wanted to know who the f--- the clown was.

During the break, Frank seemed a bit more relaxed, almost conciliatory about his earlier abrupt behavior towards us. We even chatted a bit. I mentioned that Lionel’s uncle was Yehudi Menuhin, the classical violinist, and Frank shot him an almost approving look. Then of course Lionel had to blurt out, “Nigey tells me you’ve written some orchestra stuff. So why do you play that thing?” -- indicating Frank’s electric guitar and amplifier stack.

Oh shit, I thought, and waited for the inevitable -- for Frank to make mincemeat out of Lionel. To my surprise, he merely shrugged. “Because when you want to drown out the orchestra, you need amplification,” he replied with a wry expression. I realized he was actually kind of enjoying being razzed, and was starting to relax when Lionel countered with, “Yeah, but what do you do when you have a power failure?”

“We get a generator,” Frank said curtly, as if Lionel were a total idiot. He then made a point of looking away from us, and began packing up his music charts. Clearly, we were dismissed.

Despite this decidedly inauspicious introduction, Lionel accompanied me to other rehearsals. Luckily, after Frank realized Lionel wasn’t likely to go away, he gradually began to accept him. They still engaged in rather spiky exchanges from time to time, but their repartee seemed good natured, at least on the surface.

At that point Frank had three African-American musicians in his employ, and a mutual rapport was soon very much in evidence among the three of them and Lionel. As anyone who knows Lionel will readily attest, he makes friends easily, probably because he’s always on the lookout for a good audience. During his coffeehouse days in the ‘60s, he had learned to shuck and jive with the best, and jazz musicians were among his favorite people. One afternoon I had to run an errand at Guitar Center a few blocks away on Sunset Boulevard, and I decided it was safe to leave Lionel at the rehearsal space for half an hour or so. The rehearsal was over for the day, but Lionel was hanging out with a couple of the guys, shooting the breeze and apparently having a good old time.

My errand achieved, I hastened back to the rehearsal space. I parked my car on the street and came around to the load-in area behind the building, where the entrance was. As I approached, a rather droll scene was unfolding.

The large van belonging to one of the black musicians was parked in the middle parking space with its rear doors flung open. A blue cloud and a characteristic botanical odor were wafting forth from the van’s interior, and lo and behold, there stood Frank glowering as only he could glower, and haranguing the van’s occupants -- the three musicians and Lionel, who’d been in there getting high. Frank, as is well known, never approved of drugs and had been known to fire musicians simply for smoking a little pot on the road. Fortunately no one got kicked off the gig, and if Frank did hold Lionel responsible for corrupting his employees, he never mentioned it.

Frank and I eventually had a major disagreement, and reached an impasse where neither of us wanted to speak to each other. This marked the end of  my relationship with him, as well as my visits to his rehearsals. After that, neither Lionel nor I had any contact with Frank until one day in 1985 when we were both working at the B’nai B’rith Messenger, the oldest Jewish weekly newspaper in Los Angeles (now defunct). Frank had gone on a highly public crusade against Tipper Gore and the PMRC over the censorship of lyrics on rock albums. At the Messenger we had a rather ditzy young intern who claimed to be a friend of Frank’s wife Gail, and one day she handed Lionel a letter addressed to him from Gail. The gist of this letter was, as far as Lionel could ascertain, that the PMRC was engaging in anti-Semitic tactics in the course of its campaign to persuade the public that rock lyrics needed to be censored -- an issue that would presumably interest Lionel as editor of the official newspaper of L.A.’s large and powerful Jewish community.

Of course Mrs. Zappa didn’t know just how disinterested Lionel was when it came to the subject of rock music. The Messenger was also a very conservative publication, and its publisher, an Orthodox rabbi, was even more disinterested in rock music than Lionel was. Every attempt was made by editor and publisher to evade the issue, in the hope it would just go away. But the intern kept reminding Lionel about the story until he finally got so tired of the subject that he told her she could write something about it. To nobody’s surprise, her resulting article required so much work that he finally had to rewrite it from beginning to end.

In the course of his editorial surgery, he realized he needed to call Frank and ask him some questions in an attempt to make sense of the whole business. When he did get Frank on the phone, the first thing Frank said was “Put Nigey on. I want to talk to her.” I wasn’t around when Lionel made the call, but after Frank answered Lionel’s questions, he invited us up to the house for dinner. He also chatted genially with Lionel, and repeated that he was looking forward to seeing us.

For various reasons, I didn’t want to see him at that point, so we never got back to him. Neither Lionel nor I ever saw him again. But when Frank died of prostate cancer eight years later, and I found myself feeling very upset about it, Lionel encouraged me to sit down and write about my relationship with him. That was how I wrote Being Frank: My Time with Frank Zappa, which Boryanabooks has now issued as an e-book. For a guy who has no use for rock ‘n roll, Lionel Rolfe has certainly had a lot to do with one of its most notorious perpetrators.

Please don’t hold it against him.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Idle Poor

We live in a decent sized duplex; the couple who live in the other half of the duplex are separated from us by an entrance vestibule. Both apartments share a common front door, with individual entrances on either side of the vestibule. The other day around two in the afternoon I was standing in the vestibule in my bathrobe, tying knots in a nylon string that held three stained glass suncatchers. The front door is flanked by two sidelights, each with three square panes of glass, and as soon as we moved in, we put one suncatcher in each pane, suspended by hooks from plastic suction cups. The problem was, our neighbors both tend to slam the door when they come in or go out, and as a result the suction cups were forever popping off the windows and the suncatchers kept falling on the floor. Finally Eric came up with the nylon-string concept, and I was just finishing tying the last knot when Greg, our neighbor, pulled up in the driveway. He holds down two full-time stock clerk jobs. Sometimes when I'm up late doing something on the computer, I hear him leave for work, around 3 A.M. Between his two jobs he comes home and sleeps, then heads off to work again. His girlfriend teaches elementary school.

Anyway, before I could duck through my own front door, Greg came bustling into the vestibule. My bathrobe is below-knee length, loose-fitting, and made of thick terry cloth -- the style you see in the bathroom at hotels or in spas. No one would ever call it suggestive. But it's also not the sort of outfit somebody usually wears in semi-public at two in the afternoon. On days when I have no errands to run or other worldly pursuits to prosecute, I often get up, put on my bathrobe, and forget to change into street clothes. Greg and his girlfriend Jessica look to be in their early 30's, which would make them considerably younger than Eric and me. I have no idea why Greg has to work two jobs, when his girlfriend is well paid and their rent (if what we pay is any indication) can hardly be viewed as extravagant. Eric and I have speculated about it: student loans, a divorce, child support, drugs, alcohol, gambling debts? Greg is short and very intense. While certainly not unfriendly, he is definitely a man of few words. All the conversations I've had with him since we've lived here have been short and to the point. I can't say I blame him for not wanting to stand around chit-chatting; with his schedule, he's lucky to catch an hour or two of sleep before he has to get back to the salt mines.

Walking in with his customary purposeful stride, Greg spotted me standing there in the vestibule in my bathrobe at 2 P.M. on this rather chilly afternoon. I could tell by his expression that he was embarrassed, so I giggled and said "Aha, you caught me" -- and promptly ducked back into my apartment. Later, Eric and I were heading out to have dinner when we happened to run into Greg and Jessica coming back from someplace. They were rosy cheeked and seemed in good spirits. Sometimes when they have a few, they fight like cats and dogs, but this time all was serene. Jessica smiled beatifically, at the same time giving me the sort of look usually reserved for bag ladies or the guy on the street corner with the ARMAGEDDON IS COMING sign. I grinned sheepishly and gestured toward the suncatchers glinting in the vestibule windows. "Finally got them put up permanently," I mumbled, ducking into our apartment before she could reply.

Eric thinks Greg and Jessica view us as rich eccentrics. Neither of us goes to work on a regular basis; from their perspective, we laze around all day undressed until late in the afternoon, when it's time for cocktails and a gourmet dinner. (We share a recycling container with them, so they're familiar with our taste in liquors as well as some of our recyclable food packaging.) I'm sure as Greg forces himself out of bed every morning at 2:30 and heads for the shower, he curses us for our indolence. Neither of us has the heart to tell him we subsist on unemployment insurance and the very small, very occasional royalty check. We can't help it if we radiate idle luxury; nothing could be further from the truth. From now on if I want to fit in, I guess I'll have to start wearing overalls and a beat-up henley, quit drinking so much champagne and cognac, and emulate our neighbors' fondness for frozen dinners and Bud Lite. Oh, and try not to work on public decoration projects in my bathrobe anytime after noon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Corned Beef Hash with Issa

I made a jaunt into the city last weekend to pick up a copy of a new CD by Issa, the independent artist formerly known as Jane Siberry. Issa has an e-mail list, the "Museletter," which she uses to alert people to her tours and music releases, and on Friday I had received notice that she'd be at a midtown diner signing CD's from 11 A.M. to noon the next day. The somewhat furtive, transitory nature of this appearance appealed to me; it reminded me of somebody whispering "Hey, meet me in the alley at midnight and I'll slip you the stolen goods." I also liked the fact that the event, or whatever you want to call it, was being held in a diner, rather than at a retail outlet or, worse, in some club where you had to pay a cover charge to get in and buy a CD. What finally convinced me was Issa's parenthetical observation that the diner had good omelettes. I promptly marked my (empty) calendar.

Eric and I arrived shortly after 11 A.M. The diner was bustling and warm, in a no-nonsense way. I liked the atmosphere; it seemed friendly without being patronizing or faux. Sometimes a diner is just a diner. Immediately the hostess asked how many were in our party, before I had a chance to look around to see if Issa was anywhere around. Reluctantly, we sat down at a table, figuring we'd have coffee and wait for developments. As I craned my neck to take in the room, I suddenly realized that Issa was at the table directly behind us -- in fact, the back of my chair kept bumping her backside. She didn't turn around, being intent on talking with a rather nondescript man sitting across from her. She was wearing a sort of batik blouse and print pants (a different print from the jacket), with a print scarf wound around her head. A cardboard box full of CD's was on the chair next to her. I assumed the man was some sort of assistant, so I turned around again and we ordered breakfast, giving her a chance to set up shop.

A few bites into my corned beef hash/eggs over easy and homefries (all excellent), the man with Issa got up and walked away (apparently he was only a customer), and a thin, nervous young woman heavily laden with photo gear breezed in, announcing herself as having been sent by Somebody-or-Other to take photos for an interview Issa had done. Whereupon she proceeded to flit around the table, taking a small eternity to unpack her camera, fit lenses, take meter readings, frame shots, sit down and do nothing for a few minutes, then resume all the previous activities again. During a rather lengthy hiatus in these activities, I determined to slide on over and pick up a CD, but just at that moment the photographer began snapping away, in the process catching (I'm sure) some highly unflattering poses of yours truly washing down a mouthful of hash with a huge gulp of coffee. I turned around again and finished my breakfast.

In an ensuing photographic lull, before I could approach Issa, another somewhat nondescript man wandered in, sat down in the chair opposite, and began chatting with her. A second cup of coffee later, he was still there. I worked on my whole-wheat toast (better than I would have expected) and listened to a German couple to our left talking about Eric in German. Eric, naturally, was interested in what they were saying about him, but he could only catch isolated phrases. He gathered they thought he might be German himself, which is only partly true.

Finally the chair across from Issa was vacant, and I quickly rose and walked around a pillar, sat down and said hello. I had brought along a copy of my CD Reinventing the Wheel, mostly because Issa practices what she calls "self-determined pricing" on her CD's and mp3 downloads -- that is, customers may pay what they wish for them, or nothing at all if they don't want to pay. I thought $10 plus my CD would be a fair exchange. I smiled, handed Issa my CD. She looked at it curiously. "Nigey Lennon," she said thoughtfully. She was one of maybe five or six people I've met in my lifetime who managed to pronounce my first name correctly without hearing it first. I said I thought she might enjoy the CD, because...and here I found myself suddenly at a loss for words. She looked at me, waiting for the rest of my thought. "Well, it covers a lot of musical ground," I finally said lamely. "That's something I've always liked about your music -- your music spans a lot of styles and you do them all well." Issa said, "That's something that's always worried me -- I wonder if sometimes it's too much of a patchwork." I assured her I didn't think that was the case, but she still looked a bit concerned. I would have liked to talk with her about the decision she'd made a couple years earlier to sell her house and all her possessions and travel from place to place, focusing on her music, her painting, and whatever other creative pursuits she found worthwhile. But while her manner was pleasant on the surface, it was also distant enough for me to realize she wasn't here to chitchat with the public. I looked at the homemade cardboard cash box on the table. "Suggested Price $20," a handlettered sign read. I said, "Oh," nervously, and held up my $10 bill. "That's only a suggestion, to keep people from being uncomfortable about what to pay," Issa quickly explained. "You could pay $20 for one CD, but less if, say, you wanted a few for holiday presents -- but it's really up to you." She was very gracious about it, but I sensed an underlying businesslikeness that made me mumble, "I'll kick in another ten." She signed a CD for me (the photographer meanwhile shooting away), then handed me the disc. I quickly stood up. "Good luck with your music," she said, tucking my CD away someplace behind her. When I was back at our table, I looked around and saw a small pile of CD's that other people had given her just that morning. As I watched, she picked them all up and put them in another box. I wondered whether she planned on listening to them, and if so, how she would choose which ones to play.

Eric had an empty plate and empty coffee cup in front of him. "Ready to go?" I asked. He nodded. On the way out I tucked another $10 bill into the cash box, noticing that it had plenty of company. Issa looked up as I passed. "Thank you," she said, and turned back to yet another nondescript man sitting across from her.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bad Singers and the People Who Love Them

Q: What is the difference between a vocalist and a terrorist?
A: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

Bring the band on down behind me, boys.

I have friends who shall remain nameless, friends who are exemplary in every way except that they're addicted to bad singers. Life online is a paradise for such masochists: around every cyber-corner lurks another MySpace/YouTube hopeful with a microphone, a dream, and six dozen mp3's/videos available for free download. Finding new "talent" every five minutes, these well meaning noodles then proceed to load their own sites with the never-ending torrent of aural backwash from the universe of singer-songwriter hopefuls, presumably in the interest of fostering the arts. I know I have to keep the speakers muted on my computer whenever I visit certain websites, because the minute I click on the opening page, bang! without warning my eardrums are suddenly punctured by Cunegonde Petrunti caterwauling her heart out about the moon and her faithless lover, or a plastic bag she saw blowing down an alley, or the turmoil in Ouagadougou.

Q: What's the difference between a puppy and a singer-songwriter?
A: Eventually the puppy stops whining.

Of course bad singers have been with us forever: neurasthenic nieces warbling in Victorian parlors, bobbed blondes belting out the blues in blind tigers after a few too many, mobsters' marcelled mistresses crooning in front of big bands, stringy-haired sirens with Silvertone six-strungs emoting in the Purple Paisley Period, and latest but not last, alas, shoegazing, fulminating and generally annoying singer-songwriter types, you know who you are. A few decades ago, when my great-uncle Jim used to hear an especially egregious chanteuse on TV or on the radio, he'd shake his head in disgust. "Somebody oughta slaughter that heifer and put her out of her mis'ry." He was born in 1874 -- that's how old the problem is. No, actually the problem is, nobody ever does put them out of their misery.

Since bad singing is a rather crowded field, ingenuity and adaptability are required to make it in today's cutthroat climate. Awhile back, three considerably over-the-hill purveyors of mal canto decided to join forces, thinking that in a clump people might just possibly mistake them for an angelic choir, or else maybe they thought there was safety in numbers. Social networking sites enabled them to bludgeon the universe with hype: announcing their world tour (for the most part comprised of no-pay gigs in out-of-town coffeehouses, upstate boilermakers' bars, and once, a command performance in a leaky tent), promoting their new CD (recorded in one of the members' broom closets on an iPod), and sharing hours of candid video with their fan base via YouTube (psst -- wanna see what we look like in our bathrobes with no makeup and our hair extensions off?). The bad news is, you can't get rid of them no matter how utterly abject their "career" is. Because MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter allow the fantasy of their "success" to continue ad infinitem, no actual success is required to keep the ball rolling. And if some reason they do finally decide to go away, don't go breathing a sigh of relief -- there are millions and millions more even worse than they are out there.

Not to mention even more well-meaning doofuses who actually listen to them.

There is no hope. I hereby resign from the human race.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Friends Don't Let Friends Move to L.A.

I rarely try to influence my friends in most things. Over the years I've learned it's ultimately futile, not to mention dull, to attempt to convince people of something, no matter how true I might think it is. Besides, differing opinions make the world go around, and all that stuff.

Lately I've been reminding myself of this philosophy a dozen times a day, as a friend in Maine recently informed us she is determined to move to Los Angeles as soon as she can. Now, anyone who knows me even slightly, or who may have read my writing or listened to my music, knows that whenever I hear the words "Los Angeles" I reach for my gun. It's my trademark running gag: hardly a day goes by that I don't tell myself (and anyone who will listen) how glad I am to be out of that hellhole. And honestly, I rarely encounter significant opposition to such fulminating. As anyone knows who has done more than take the Universal Studios tour, or spend a few days sunbathing down San Diego way, the urban core of Los Angeles is a festering sore, a war zone of racial tension, over-population, air pollution, and transit nightmares. It is a giant wannabe-metropolis which due to its wealth, media influence, and population could ostensibly be included among the great cities of the world, but nonetheless rarely if ever is. Ask it if it cares.

My attitude toward L.A. is no capricious prejudice: In the more than thirty years I lived there, I researched and wrote extensively about its politics, culture, and sociology. As a native Angeleno, my feeling about the place was always somewhat ambivalent -- I'd spent time in Europe, in Mexico, and in various other parts of the U.S., and it was obvious all along that Southern California could not compete in any way with any of those places. There was just too much wrong with it -- too many problems, new and old, historical and developmental, to solve. In retrospect, I suppose I was trying to convince myself that there really was something to love about L.A., but in the end I had to admit I couldn't, though it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.

So I have never minced words when an unsuspecting stranger brings up the subject. I feel justified in stating the case as forcibly as possible; I've paid my dues, just like anyone else who managed to survive several decades in a war zone.

Our friend presently lives in an 18th-century farmhouse on Maine's central coast, where she's been for the past decade. We've spent many a grand weekend there: cooking and eating too much, exploring the picturesque geography, gardening, antiquing, enjoying the fall foliage. Perhaps not surprisingly, the backwoodsy aspect of life in a small hamlet, which so enchanted Eric and me, eventually got to our friend, as did the long, relentless northern winters. She had also lost her lover, who died, totally unexpectedly, of a heart attack in the bedroom upstairs -- an event which for three years she struggled heroically to understand and to move on from. Maybe it was inevitable that she'd want a change of scene. But still, when one day she suddenly announced in an e-mail that she was looking at condos in Pasadena and Highland Park, north of downtown Los Angeles, and was putting the farmhouse up for sale, it was a considerable shock. Our friend, while she spent her youth in the San Francisco Bay area, knew nothing about Los Angeles. She had made a snap decision to move there during a brief visit, after having a genial chat with people waiting in line at the Eagle Rock Trader Joe's store. Her naivete about conditions in urban L.A. was just as chilling. "I will look in the Pasadena area," she had written us initially, enthusing over Pasadena's "low crime, no gangs, good schools and good neighborhoods." I wondered if she'd ever heard of South Pasadena, one of the most gang-infested areas in the metro region. Not to mention the fact that Pasadena is located in the smoggiest part of the smoggiest metro area in the country. I wondered, frankly, which planet she was on.

The other day I drove through a typically scenic part of the North Shore. It was a classic Eastern coastal late- summer day -- rather humid, but sunny and clear, with a cornflower blue sky and puffy white clouds. A thick green tunnel of oak, maple, hickory, walnut, and tulip trees arched overhead, creating delicious shade that made using the air conditioner optional and flung rippling light and dark patterns on the windshield. Life here is not perfect -- is it perfect anywhere? -- but I couldn't help contrasting my surroundings, driving on a summer day down State Route 25A, the North Shore's Main Street, with an equivalent drive down Sunset Boulevard in L.A. Admittedly, Long Island at its worst is rather bland, with its mid-Island cookie-cutter residential developments and nondescript shopping centers; but at its best (which I personally think can be pinpointed in an area of the North Shore from around Miller Place in the east, west to the Nassau County border in Cold Spring Harbor) it combines picturesque scenery, historical resonance, and homelike comfort in a way that is completely seductive, at least to a refugee from an urban war zone like L.A.'s Rampart Division. Living in L.A., I never had a chance to take a deep breath -- literally or figuratively. The relative equilibrium of life in the Silver Lake hills was punctuated at regularly irregular intervals by riots, earthquakes, gang mayhem, and fires brought on by the Santa Ana winds. Danger was ever-present, even if it sometimes went in disguise. For me, Los Angeles existed in an ongoing state of blanket denial; the television weather forecasters always smiling big, vacant smiles and announcing that "today looks like another perfect day" -- 98 degrees and 85% humidity, visibility six miles (in reality, more like one or two miles on account of the chronic air pollution). An earthquake may have decimated one's stock of heirloom glassware, or damaged one's house to the point of uninhabitability, but the mantra was usually "look on the bright side: this gives you a chance to start over fresh, in a new place with new stuff!"

I have resolved not to say anything to our friend about her decision. It's her life, not mine. But I can't help wondering how she'll view that life, that decision, in a few months, a year or two -- however long it takes for the initial euphoria to wear off and the reality set in. For a relatively affluent middle-aged person who has no need to depend on the local economy for survival -- especially if it's possible to dash off on a vacation whenever conditions become even slightly uncomfortable -- it might not be so bad. But anyone who lives there long enough becomes adept at recognizing the twilight state of love-hate, rejection-acceptance in which many Angelenos exist. Nobody in their right mind truly loves the place; at best, they enjoy certain aspects of living there. Only the rawest of new arrivals babble like newly initated cult members about how wonderful it is. The lifers know much better.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Personal Holiday

I woke up this morning with a little rush of excitement -- today is my birthday. No matter how many times that event rolls around (and that's a lot), I always feel like a kid on the morning of my birthday. As a friend once described it, birthdays are your personal holiday, a day to hold your head up and remind the world -- subtly or otherwise -- that it should be celebrating today because that was the day you came into it. It also gives you the moral right -- legitimately -- to hold people up and demand loot, and make them feel guilty if they don't stand and deliver.

I went into the living room to check my e-mail, the way I always do, and found a cute homemade birthday card on the desk. My significant other spent hours working on it last night as I pretended not to notice. Sure, he saved two or three bucks by drawing it on the computer instead of braving the dreaded local Hallmark store, but it admittedly was highly personalized, with squiggly computer drawings of a Blue Jay, an Oriole, and a Blue Fronted Amazon parrot (three favorite birds of mine). It was thoughtful, too: as I read it, I heard a soft chip and little feet skittering on the windowsill above my head, and looking up I spied the vivid red beak and equally red topknot of a Cardinal peeking over the sill at me. Mr. Sweetie had designed his card with the realization that his birthday sentiments would be accompanied by live greetings from breakfasting avians at the window feeder. Corny, maybe, but charming.

There was an e-mail from my oldest friend in California, saying she had sent me something for my birthday and apologizing because I probably wouldn't receive it by today. I could hardly blame her; she's legally blind and flat broke, and is presently living a distinctly un-holidaylike lifestyle in an RV with her husband, moving from campsite to parking lot and back again. Oh, and as if that isn't enough to excuse her, she also has a rare blood cancer. Under the circumstances, her gift, whatever it might be, will be very special indeed.

Next I checked Facebook, that abysmal and dubious timesink. As usual, everyone was taking online quizzes to determine what color crayon they were, or how many composers of one-hit wonder Top 40 singles from the '70s they could correctly ID. Apparently no one had time to wish me happy birthday, not even the gregarious souls who had requested permission to include my birthdate in their address books. Phooey on them; I know what color crayon they are in my book: poot brown. Actually, one friend on FB (whom I know from real, as opposed to virtual, life) did claim last week that he wanted to send me "something" -- a statement I won't be able to verify until the next time I check my PO box. In "real" life this friend is a probation/parole officer, so maybe the item in question isn't a birthday present, but a summons.

I always liked the custom in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy whereby the hobbits gave presents to other people on their own birthdays. This year my "present" to someone else is the return of two CD's to a friend from whom I borrowed them last year. Since he asked me rather firmly to give them back, and offered to come and pick them up, maybe it isn't really a present, per se, but I'm sure he'll appreciate it, since he probably figured he'd never see them again.

In the long run, I suppose what happens to us on our birthdays reflects everything else in our lives -- the type of people that surround us, our own attitudes, our actions toward others. Admittedly I have some flaky friends who can never remember when I was born -- they know who they are -- but so what? That doesn't detract one Angstrom from the quality of my life. Of course it would have been exhilarating to have been greeted this morning by a full-orchestral birthday fanfare under my bedroom window, but there's always next year. OK, deadbeats, mark that date in your Facebook friends-info list. You have 364 days to get on it, and you will be held accountable!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cold, Cold, Cold

I never get sick, so the nasty cold I've had lately is something of a novelty. I woke up a couple of mornings ago with a head that felt like a waterlogged pumpkin. My eyes resembled two tiny, bleary red brake lights on some superranuated Humpmobile, and when I caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror (matted hair, mysterious secretions exuding from my nose, filthy teeth) I winced and screamed, only to realize my voice sounded like Tennessee Ernie Ford's. I spent a woozy but entertaining half hour among the echoing tiles, experimenting with "Many Brave Hearts Are Asleep in the Deep". It was a dream come true -- I've always wanted to sing bass.

All day I lay in bed, wiping my nose on one of Eric's old T-shirts and trying to persuade myself I was going to be OK by evening. All night I tossed and turned, and in the morning I was nauseous and exhausted. Some people watch TV when they're sick in bed; not me. TV makes me sick. Instead, I tried to read a library book which I'd been holding in reserve, unwilling to expose my delicate sensibilities to its horrific subject matter. Now, though, it fit my mood perfectly: "Secrets of the Spanish Inquisition." There's something about Spain -- when I was in Europe I cut short my time in Spain after a quick pass through Catalonia. The landscape reminded me too much of Southern California, and virtually everything served in cafes and restaurants tasted like rancid anchovies and fifth-pressing olive oil. And there was nothing to drink but vile sherry. Time to move on to France where I couldn't afford anything in cafes and restaurants, but at least it smelled better. And there hadn't been a French Inquisition, at least that I knew of.

But back to my cold. By 10 A.M. on the second day, I no longer sounded like Tennessee Ernie, but more like Connie Francis on a helium rush. I hadn't eaten anything in 36 hours because everything tasted like library paste. Reluctantly I decided I probably ought to find some nostrum to clear my throat. A woozy jaunt to the local Walgreen's revealed a dazzling array of "Mucus Relief" products. They were from numerous manufacturers, but all seemed to contain the same active ingredient, guaifenesin (whatever the heck that is -- probably best not to know). Prices tended to vary widely, from around $7 all the way up to $25. I grabbed the cheapest box I could find and took it up to the checkout counter. The clerk, who looked suspiciously like an excommunicated member of the Pagans motorcycle gang, took an awfully long time to ring up the sale. He kept peering at me out of the corner of his eye, and sort of smirking. I had no idea what a lowlife like him could possibly find so humorous -- until I caught a glimpse of myself in the plate glass window on my way out: hair on its way to dreadlocks, snot-stained jacket sleeve, red eyes, feverish shuffle. Maybe he thought I was Amy Winehouse in a red fright wig. Anyway, high time to get off the streets.

Safe back home, I washed down my horse pill with a slug of no-brand vodka, then settled down to read the local weekly throwaway. When I got to the gossip column and was confronted with a semi-full-page closeup of Madonna and A-Rod hunting for an East End love nest, I launched into a coughing fit that landed me on the floor. The mucus remedy advertised itself as making "coughs more productive", which struck me as the ultimate capitalist notion -- in an economy like this, who can afford deadbeat coughs lollygagging around the office all day on company time? After a few more bouts of violent hacking accompanied by even more violent abdominal muscle cramps, I finally realized I should quit looking at the newspaper.

So here I am, with my cough working overtime. Not sure exactly what it's producing, but now my voice is almost entirely gone. If I go a few more days without eating, I suppose the Amy Winehouse analogy will be complete. Oh well, look on the bright side -- at least I'll never be mistaken for Madonna.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dark Horse Dub

I remember seeing my first "1/20/09" bumpersticker shortly after George W. Bush re-elected himself to the White House in 2004. That date, of course, referred to the inaugural day of Bush's successor -- holding out the faint hope that if America could somehow manage to survive for another four years, there might yet be light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, four years ago nobody had the faintest idea who Bush's successor was going to be. Some of us, admittedly, had recurrent nightmares about dour old men with military haircuts sitting on shady tropical verandas, drinking rum and Coke out of tumblers while liveried natives created a pleasant breeze with coco-palm fans. Let's face it, you didn't have to be a bomb-throwing anarchist to fear a total military coup in this country; between Bush's solipsistic electoral machinations, the arrogant hijinks of "Mr. Torture" Alberto Gonzales and the new sport that was sweeping the nation, waterboarding -- not to mention the Katrina debacle, the Wall Street bailout, and the general collapse of the economy -- America already looked suspiciously like a banana republic. In those dark days I was often reminded of Anatole France's comment that fascism is merely capitalism with the fig leaf of democracy removed. Trying desperately to look forward into some sort of redemptive future, we reminded ourselves that no one could be worse than Dubya -- only to witness the McCain-Palin tag team in action.

But now the fateful day of January 20 is finally upon us, and once again there is laughter and music in the streets. For the first time in American history, a man of color (the first, ahem, legitimate electee in eight years) will be ensconced on Pennsylvania Avenue. That the world changes, albeit slowly, is evident when you consider that our fortieth President, Ronald Reagan, once insisted on including restrictive covenants in the deeds to his residential properties which prohibited them from being sold to non-Caucasians. What would the Gipper have thought about Barack Obama, a Negro, sitting at his former desk in the Oval Office?

In the coming days and months, after the hats and hooters have been discarded and the champagne corks and confetti swept away, we will see what Barack Obama's policies will be. Many of us, while cautiously optimistic, can't help wondering how clean a sweep our new President will be willing to make. As badly as we need a new New Deal, some observers are already convinced Obama isn't likely to be a 21st-century FDR. For myself, I'm willing to set aside whatever reservations I might have and give him the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, next Tuesday will certainly be a much brighter day than its counterparts in 2001 or 2005 ever were.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hello, Imaginary Friends

Since this is (theoretically) my first post, welcome to my blog. Although I've been online since 1996, I've never undertaken a "real" blog before -- not because of any reticence on my part to spill my guts all over my computer screen, but because I don't want to be a hypocrite. I don't make a habit of reading other people's blogs, so why should I expect anyone to read mine? The cyber-universe is critically overloaded with people who are passionately deluded that they have something to say; the last thing it needs is yet another rationalizer. Well, here I am, you lucky folks.

"When your best friends are fictional, honesty isn't what you really need." On the internet, everyone's friends are imaginary by definition. I don't know who you might be, dear reader, but hello anyway. Caveat lector; but I do promise to try to make things interesting. Quality is cheerfully guaranteed, or your money back.
(Panel from Zippy daily strip by Bill Griffith --