Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Rock-and-Roll Couple

I’m not sure if it’s a saving grace or a fault, but I often leave people off the hook who’ve done something grievously wrong to me. I clearly recall one woman at a spot I was working, a friend/consultant to my boss, routinely trying to mess with me in ways that should have had her lanced (save the “friend” relationship to the boss – it created problems, and not just with me). The last time came just as I was leaving (a few weeks after my boss had been let go), when this woman took a private email I had sent to her expressing doubt over the direction of the department, and forwarded it to one of the guys in the department, with the question, “Is this the kind of attitude we want moving forward?” Of course, I wasn’t copied on this.

Never mind that I had tendered notice and had no intentions of moving forward, which she damn well knew. This piece of shit saw her chance to create trouble for me one last time and took it. The guy she sent it to was duped, too, not recognizing that she was playing him and not intending to do anything constructive. I should have taken the whole thing to the CEO and had her removed, which would have been very easy to do and a nice parting shot, costing her tens of thousands of dollars. But I let it go, figuring I’d never have to deal with this heavily-medicated douche bag again, and I was right. (Her usual excuse for being routinely abusive to everyone on staff was she had foolishly cut back on her medications. Right.) Running into people like this is routine in New York; I’d wager it’s routine everywhere.

I can recall a similar situation, this one involving what I call The Rock-and-Roll Couple. Again, it was a woman. Women will often use subterfuge to fight because they recognize a full-on assault against a man will not work. But you better believe I’ve dealt with men being just as dishonest, especially in offices, particularly when large sums of money are involved. Usually the most shocking aspect of these instances is that you’ve done nothing wrong to this person, nothing that you can point at and say, “My doing this caused this person to blind-side me.” There are just people in the world who are devious, who surely understand the difference between right and wrong, but choose to be wrong. As for their motives, I have no idea. My motive is generally to get the fuck away from these people once they clarify that this is how they roll.

Back in college, I became great friends with C., one of my English professors. After I had made the nut at our branch campus and prepared to move on to the main campus, C. made it clear that he thought I was cool, especially for a student, and the feeling was mutual, as I recognized a kindred English-major spirit. So it came that I fell into C.’s circle of friends, various other “hip” professors at the campus, local hipsters, some musicians, other poets, etc. More often than not, either that first summer before I left for the main campus or when I was back home on a weekend, I’d drive down to C.’s place and hang out, usually having dinner and killing a bottle of wine. (Please note: I was 21 at the time and this fell into the fresh category of "hanging out with an old friend." I’d hate to get C. in trouble after all this time when the set-up was completely legit.) C. was a child of the 60s, so we had plenty to talk about in terms of music, and I was constantly learning about poets and such from him. He was like an older brother to me, and a damn good person to boot.

Through C. I came to know Rich and Anne, the Rock-and-Roll Couple, so-called because Rich was an aspiring musician, while Anne put out the vibe and look of a hip rock-star girlfriend. They were quite a pair. Both came from small towns near the branch campus. Rich was an all-star quarterback in high school, but a rocker all the while, one of those football players who had long hair coming out the back of his helmet. When the 80s came around, he veered new-wavish in his look, sporting a faux-hawk that was often multi-colored and seeming to take every fashion cue from Charlie Sexton who, at the time, had a minor 80s hit (“Beat So Lonely” … a real Bowie tribute) and was briefly real hot stuff on the music scene. (Charlie went on to carve out a nice career for himself with more acoustic-leaning/countryish solo work and a long backing stint as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist.) Two things to note about Rich: he was charismatic, an extremely likable guy who had an athlete’s easy physicality about himself on top of that hang-loose musician vibe, and being a musician, he fucked around. A lot. I believe he and Anne had an unspoken open-door policy on this, a “don’t ask/don’t tell” understanding when he was out playing.

Anne had some crazy background, raised by a stern father in some shady governmental position, trained as a classical pianist, she became the female version of the preacher’s son, cutting way too loose from daddy’s grip as a form of self identity. She was a looker, too. Long brown hair, a thin body, and unusually large breasts for a girl that skinny – she knew what boys liked. She chain-smoked, too. I can only imagine how hot she must have been in a Catholic school girl uniform.

I can’t recall how Rich and Anne came into being as a couple. I know Rich was going to NYU. I think he met Anne there as, at the time, she was dating a NY-area based biker. Not sure if he was a Hell’s Angel or what. But it was just her kind of thing to date a biker, despite the classical piano training and higher cultural leanings. Apparently, one night she saw Rich playing in a bar, love at first sight, went back with him to his dorm room, and according to her, was woken up the next morning by her biker boyfriend tapping a knife on the base of their bed. It sounded like bullshit, but who knows. She attached this magical bad-boy aura to bikers that I know is bullshit, having known one or two in my time. (Do biker gangs even exist anymore? It seems like one of those 60s/70s things that are slowly dying out over time, unless I’m just not seeing it.)

The story goes that rather than chain-whipping Rich, the biker recognized his old lady loved another and let her go. No doubt going back to the clubhouse to play “Freebird” on repeat for days on end on the jukebox. I don’t know what Anne was doing in New York. I seem to recall a hazy story line of her working for a guy who moved pianos and thus was around the city to help him set-up and tune newly-moved pianos, which is quite an ordeal.

They became a quick, perfect couple, and I guess from the biker connection, also got into transporting pot along the NY/NJ/PA route they’d take to go home occasionally. Also being an outdoorsman, Rich was prone to having hunting knives and rifles in his car, so this was a bit dangerous whenever they’d get pulled over, as it would be a guy with eye-liner, purple hair and leather pants, his equally made-up girlfriend, and a backseat filled with weapons … with a few kilos of pot in some hidden space in the trunk. They never got caught, but had a few close calls. Rich would celebrate by going fishing. It must have been something for an old-timer in his boat, to look at the guy in the next boat and see a Billy Idol clone with no shirts and a dirty pair of leather pants and boots waving hello. But knowing Rich, after about five minutes, the two would be talking like old friends, probably about Rich’s exploits on the high-school football playing field.

By the time I knew them as part of C.’s nutty circle of friends, Rich was working in radio, mainly doing sports-casting at various high-school events for a local station. Anne was giving piano lessons. They lived in a small house in Anne’s hometown. All the while, Rich was trying to get his band together with a friend from New York, a Jewish guy I’ll call Artie who worked at CBS Records, apparently in a fairly high position, which seemed to allow him a lot of time to head out to Pennsylvania and jam with Rich and cohorts. Since he was so musically connected, it was expected that Artie would find some way for the band to cut a quick path to a record deal and some type of stardom.

I was at their first gig, at an American Legion hall in Kulpmont, Pennsylvania. Man, what a strange night that was. I think the Legion was simply throwing some type of “teen night” dance. As I was about 22 at the time, I wasn’t that far removed from the audience (which was sparse) by age and felt at home. I recall meeting Artie’s wife, who was also hot stuff, but more in a sedate, NYC Jewish way, simply an attractive woman as opposed to Anne’s tartiness. She looked good in a black party dress with black stockings, as opposed to Anne in her fishnets and cleavage baring, leopard-print tank tops. I remember liking her and Artie immediately.

The band … while it wasn’t fair to say the sucked, had a long way to go. The music was mid-80s hard rock, again, a guy like Charlie Sexton comes most to mind. Think INXS’s more rock-leaning material. Again, Billy Idol is a good comparison. Unfortunately, their lyrics really sucked. I recall one couplet: “Ooh, baby, I’m a spy/No, don’t ask why.” Shit like that. It was bad. Musically, those guys had it down, they knew what they were doing. Look-wise, they had it, too, fitting in perfectly with that cheesy mid-80s "Road Warrior" look. I’d see them a few times over the next year or two, mostly back in Pennsylvania, but twice in New York later on.

All the while I was getting to know these people, and liking them immensely, C. was getting involved with a woman I’ll call Maryann, a newscaster on a local radio station. To listen to her on the radio, you’d hear a smooth-voiced, erudite young woman intelligently reading the story lines of the day. In real life, you’d hear a tough-talking Italian broad who didn’t take shit from nobody. She came from a town near mine in the northern part of the county, i.e., our home county is separated north/south by a small mountain, and the gist is the northern is more tough/working class while the southern is more polished/upper class (although there are plenty of towns south of the mountain just as funky as in the north). C. and her got along well because they were both Italian, and I think Maryann recognized C. was a class guy with higher aspirations – the type of guy she probably wasn’t running into a lot back there.

I had no problem with the two being together: today, as then, as far as I’m concerned, people’s romantic/private lives are none of my god-damned business, and vice-versa. I was simply glad that C. had met someone he was getting along with. While I wasn’t sharp enough to see or sense it at the time, apparently Anne didn’t think much of Maryann. Or more precisely, thought she was a bad match for C. Whether this was true or not was irrelevant to me. It was true that Maryann had an edge on her and was scrappy, but I wrote that down to the Italian vibe, and my own knowledge of her hometown, which had a tough reputation. Maryann and I got along well based on geography alone, and our understanding as a pair of “north of the mountain” kids making their way in a “south of the mountain” world.

The fall after I had graduated, I landed a short stint teaching remedial English at C.’s branch campus. It wasn’t a bad gig: close to home, I knew the campus, the job itself was fun. I should have stuck with it longer than I did (six months), but at that age, I was real hot to see the world and get away from home, which I did with a short stint in Venice, California and eventually New York a year later. But during that time I was teaching at the campus, one of the legion of resume/writing samples I had sent out landed at one of my favorite music magazines, and they scored me a gig to interview a band before they played at the Ritz in New York City. Understand that I had never seen a major city at this point in my life, save Pittsburgh, which is more like a big small town. I was excited as hell to get paid doing something I wanted to do and see New York for the first time.

Since I knew nothing about New York, Rich and Anne decided it was their job to be my guide. As the day of the interview/show grew closer, Rich had to drop out due to a work assignment, but it was set that I’d drive to New York in my yellow Hornet station wagon with Anne as my guide to interview the band at The Ritz.

And I will never forget seeing the New York City skyline for the first time – I think it literally gave me an erection. Not from love or lust, just pure excitement. It looked like Mars on the horizon as I approached on the New Jersey Turnpike. Anne could sense my excitement and was getting excited herself. We drove into town through the Holland Tunnel, and I made my way over to 11th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue, where The Ritz is, and found a parking lot on the same street (which is now an NYU dorm, like so many of the hallmarks of my early days in New York City).

This was the fall of 1986, and I can recall falling in love with the place the moment I landed one Converse black high-top on the street. It just felt right. I knew I’d live here one day. (Of course, I’ve never lived in Manhattan, and now that I’ve lived here long enough, I can see that’s not such a bad thing.) The East Village still had that punk-rock vibe to it, although it was surely waning at the time. Anne took me down and walked me around St. Marks Place, which is what every teenage/early twentysomething would do at that time as the street was a microcosm of all that was cool about that part of town. All the while, Anne was feeding off my excitement, I could tell she was having a blast.

We came back to The Ritz at the appointed interview time and were let in. The Ritz still exists, only now it’s called Webster Hall, and I’ve never been in Webster Hall. When I moved to New York a year later, I saw many shows at The Ritz, always getting there early to see their enormous sound/video system playing rock videos of the day. (It seemed like “Birth School Work Death” by The Godfathers was always playing … still a very cool song.) As it was, one of the guys who worked The Ritz’s door showed me to a back room on the second floor, and I can’t tell you how cool it felt, to be guided to this private place in a New York City rock club, with a woman at my side decked out in her rock slut finest.

The interview went incredibly well, partially because Anne was there, and the band was smitten with her. She really hit it off with the lead singer, even after he drawled, “Hey, little girl, want to get what I got,” as he smeared some lip balm on the Herpes sore on his lower lip. Apparently, the set-up with Rich didn’t extend to her side, although she later told me she’d have fucked that guy sideways if she hadn’t been so in love with Rich. And she found herself deeply impressed by how I handled myself, getting the band’s references to The Faces and The Velvet Underground. I recall the lead guitarist thinking I was a bit of an asshole, as he saw himself as a seasoned vet being interviewed by a wet-behind-the-ears college kid. But what the fuck, the lead singer was treating me like a little brother, the bassist was one of those eternally cool/goofy musicians, and the drummer just a very graceful, courteous guy. It went well.

After the show, Anne took me to a bar in the East Village, one she described as “being filled with old Pollocks until four or five, then college kids, then punkers” and delighting in the nightly shifting of crowds based on drinking times. As we were talking, she kept nailing away at C.’s relationship with Maryann, how she thought they were wrong for each other, how she wished they’d break-up, etc. I can’t recall exactly how I handled this. I probably nodded along and said, “Yeah, you have a point.” Very much a "yes, dear" vibe while I read over my notes from the interview. I probably agreed with her on some very minor level, but probably also pointed out to her that I really didn’t care what C. did and who he did it with so long as he was happy.

Afterwards, we hit the show, these guys were great live, although they played to a nearly empty house. (They’d come back a year later to a sold-out show at The Ritz.) Anne and I drove home that night, gushing. I was overwhelmed simply by seeing and feeling New York for the first time, really “getting it” in some deep sense, understanding that I’d be there again one day. The vibe lasted the whole trip home. I felt like I was talking to a very hip, slightly older sister, we really clicked that night, and all I could think was, “Man, this is really something, things just keep getting better in my life.”

That Monday at work, C. avoided me. I mean to the point of me saying, “Hey, C., how’s it going” in the hallway, and him walking right by me with downcast eyes. What the fuck, I thought, somebody die and I didn’t hear about it?

Later that day, I was passing C.’s office. He called me in and closed the door. I can’t recall the exact conversation, but it went something like this.

“Bill, I know you don’t like Maryann, but I never thought for a minute you’d stab me in the back like this.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Please, don’t act like you don’t know.”

“I really don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“Anne told me all about the horrible things you had to say about her while you two were in New York. That you think she’s not good enough of me. That you think I’m using her just for the sex. That you think I should dump her and find a new girlfriend. Don’t pretend that you didn’t say these things.”

I didn’t have to pretend.

“C., I never said those things.”

“What are you trying to say here?”

“I’m saying that whatever Anne has told you, and I have no idea exactly what she’s told you, but I never said those things. As far as I’m concerned, I have no problem with you and Maryann being together, and I really don’t think it’s any of my business. Or that my opinion on any of this shit matters at all.”


At this point, I was getting pissed off, on top of being red-faced that I’d be accused of something like this.

“Something obviously went on while you and Anne were in New York. Something was obviously spoken about regarding Maryann and me.”

“C., people say shit about each other all the time. But I can assure you, I said no such things about you and Maryann.”

I should have demanded an apology right there, but I was so young, and had my mind so blown, that I didn’t. I should have blown the roof off the joint, demanding an immediate three-way, face-to-face conversation with C., Anne and me directly after work, but I didn’t.

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

“You don’t really have to take anything. You know me. You know my word is good. I don’t know what happened here, but I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I.”

And I can see that as the point where C. and I backed off from each other as friends, although we still are friends in a sense, albeit distanced. You can see what happened here. Anne despised Maryann and wanted her out of the picture. She used that conversation in the New York bar to take all the nasty, totally lame, catty, bullshitty things she felt about Maryann and her relationship with C., attribute them to me, get C. on the phone the next day and bury me, in hopes that in doing so, his relationship with Maryann would sour along with it.

You see, I was so innocent at that point in my life that even talking about another person in confidence to someone seemed like a “bad thing” to me that you should never do. I’ve since realized that all human relationships are thorny, that we all have complaints and occasional negative gripes about each other … and that it rarely makes sense to share these complaints and gripes with the friend/lover/family member in your life at which they’re directed. Why? Because the real reason you’re griping to a third party is simply to share in some hope that you’re not the only person who sees these (usually minor) things wrong with the person. You want that affirmation. On some other level, you also want that trust with the third party, the understanding that you’re sharing a sort of secret about the person, not to be shared with anyone else, just an acknowledgment that you both know this person and you both understand these quibbly points about the person. You hope the third party understands this and isn't some piece of shit who will use this information in a pure power play to damage whatever relationship you have with that person (and hopefully bolster theirs with that person).

The thing is, I never really did say that shit about C.! Even if I had, so what. The real issue here, and what I would have been asking had I been C., was: “Anne, this sounds like a candid conversation Bill had with you and you alone, not wanting you to share this information with me. Why are you sharing this information with me?” That was the question. And C. never asked it, probably because he felt hurt as hell when he thought I was shooting my mouth off about all his personal stuff. The age I’m at now, if someone directed a broadside like that at me, my first reaction would always be, “What do you stand to gain by telling me this?” Not, “Boy, I’m really hurt that so-and-so feels that way about me.” Because unless so-and-so is telling me this directly, I have to wonder what the fuck is going on here! (And already know, in my heart, that the person sharing this confidential information is a scumbag I need to remove from my life.)

The ultimate truth was Anne had abused both my and C.’s trust, to the point where both of us should have lanced her from our lives. I know I did, and the few remaining weeks I had at that college job were a bit ragged, with C. never really getting over that episode. He and Maryann did break up months later, probably because she really was a bit of a bitch and a pain in the ass, so Anne ultimately got her wish, although I suspect it had nothing to do with her seedy machinations. I understand Maryann blew a gasket, too, over that episode, and I never got along with her again, which I frankly didn’t give a fuck about as I could see she also seemed to be on the same cunty wavelength as Anne. If she had her wits about her, too, she would have been following the wavelength noted at the end of the previous paragraph. But we were all comparatively young and not well-versed enough in these sort of sick reindeer games.

What happened after that? I moved away, eventually to New York. C. and I got along and stayed in touch, but I can say this now, to this day, I think that situation still haunts us in a sense, that our relationship was knocked down a level of trust and has never recovered to that level. C. went on to get married and have a few kids with his new wife, so he’s doing fine, still teaching. Don’t know what happened to Maryann – I assume she moved forward with her radio career, and good for her, I never had anything against her when you get right down to it. Anne and Rich got married – in Morocco or some such place, a big deal noted in the home county paper as they took pictures, Anne getting hennaed up for the traditionally African ceremony, both of them reveling in that cool sense of a foreign culture wedding. And Anne and Rich, from what I understand, eventually got divorced. I can only imagine the shit that must have went down leading to that dark day, if what I had experienced was just a snowflake on the ice berg of her shenanigans.

I did meet Anne one more time after that. About two years later. Rich’s band had a gig at The Cat Club in New York, a heavy-metal club in the East Village long since shuttered. (I never went there as I was never a metal head.) It was a bit of a reunion of sorts, as none of us from C.’s old crew had seen each other in awhile, and C. was coming along for the ride. It was great to see Rich again – I couldn’t help but like the guy, no matter what, and he’d certainly done me no wrong.

Anne saw me, and she looked great, as usual. She walked over to me, with the flashpot and strobe lights going off, some indeterminate 80s metal wailing in the background, and yelled in my ear as she took my hand, “You must really hate me.” She stepped back to get a read on me.

And what she saw was lucid young guy, who looked her in the eye, and yelled back, “No. We’re cool. What’s done is done. Let’s just be friends tonight.”

I could tell she was dumb-founded. Why did I do that? To be honest, I felt like punching her square in the face. But what was I going to do? C. was there. Rich was there. Artie and his wife were there. A few of the kids I had tutored at the campus were there. Cause a scene? It would have been bad. I had no urge to have a private conversation with the woman, based on our last one. I guess I said that because I figured that would be the last time I'd be seeing her, the damage was already done between C. and me, we were still getting along in some sense, and that’s all that really mattered to me. What could I realistically do to her that would serve as payback? What would it matter? If she was routinely pulling shit of the kind she had with me, she surely had much worse stuff to deal with her in life than me getting weird on her in a night club in New York. I let it go. Not so much forgiveness as recognition of the clearest way out.

We both watched Rich grinding his crotch into the heart-shaped ass of some mousse-haired heavy metal tart in black tights on the dance floor. Anne shrugged. I shrugged. She had bigger to fish to fry. I was relieved that I saw the way to a clean break from someone I recognized as real bad news. Sometimes you have to recognize that’s the best you can do, and leave thoughts of revenge for a few dark moments on a bad day. They, too, shall pass.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


The other night, I was having drinks with J.P. when the subject of kids came up. He has one from a marriage, which imploded a few years back, no need for details or assignment of blame, shit happened. The good thing about J.P. is he doesn’t sugar-coat or sentimentalize being a father, which I guess is a prerequisite of divorced parenthood: I gather you spend a lot of time hoping you haven’t screwed up your kid by being divorced, which doesn’t leave much wiggle room for self aggrandizement.

My take on kids is much like my take on the world. I look at the people in my life. Some have kids, some don’t. Some are married, some aren’t. Some are divorced. Some are married for years now. I look at all their lives and recognize there is no greater wisdom to be learned from marriage and kids – just a different set of experiences that will contain their own particular kind of wisdom.

What bothers me is when I meet people who have that attitude about (their) marriage and children, and they’re often the most tiresome assholes on earth. It’s often mildly insulting, too, although I’m willing to bet that’s not the intention of these people gushing about the wisdom and beauty of parenthood. I know when I’m being sold a false bill of goods, and that has to be one of the bigger ones of adulthood. Because if you’re being honest and not trying to bolster your self esteem, you’re looking at marriage and parenthood and seeing a mixed bag of choices that have positive and negative implications … like any other choices in life.

J.P. made a point that I often think about myself. We come from a generation, post WW II and being kids in the 70s, where our parents reproduced like rabbits. In my extended family alone: my parents had four kids, one uncle had five, another had five, another had three, and an aunt had two. Our childhoods were extended maps of cousins and visiting relatives, an endless sea of potato salad, cramped sleeping arrangements and weird conversations (“Dude, I can’t believe you guys like Pink Floyd and play Monopoly in New Jersey, too, this is so cool.”).

Our house in Pennsylvania, since it contained my grandmother, the surviving matriarch of the family, was ground zero for constant visits from her children and their families in the summer. As Charlton Heston said in Planet of the Apes, it was a madhouse. I look at that house now and can’t believe that seven people normally lived in it. (It would be comfortable for two parents and two kids.) When relatives visited, you’d sometimes be talking 12-15 people in the house, half of them hyper-active, bored kids.

That zoo-like sense of families and childhood, the countless running-around kids … not sure where it all went. My whole neighborhood was like that – scores of kids in the 70s. But in the 80s, that number started to dwindle, to the point now where I go back there, I hardly see any kids, which can partially be attributed to lower birth rates, but also kids having different social habits (i.e., the advent of video games and computers).

J.P.’s point being, what’s going to happen when we get old? He has one kid, with no apparent plans to have more. His sister has none. I know very few people who have more than two, and a lot of who have one or none. I wouldn’t put it as bluntly as “who’s going to take care of us when we get old” as “who’s going to be in our lives when we get old.” I can see my mother has a support network of us kids – we keep her focused in some sense and feeling alive. But last trip I was home, Mom said something to me that I can sense is the downside of getting old: “I can tell you now, son, getting old can be lonely sometimes. All the people you knew for years disappear.”

And that’s a sentiment the young are incapable of grasping – I’m only starting to grasp it myself now. In that beautiful Flaming Lips song Wayne Coyne wrote about his father passing, “Do You Realize?” he has that jarring line: “Everyone you know/One day/Will die.” Just like Wayne after the passing of my father, I understand this as oncoming reality as opposed to a vaguely frightening concept you’ve yet to experience. Thinking about it is one thing. Experiencing it for the first time with an immediate family member, another. And living long enough to see everyone you once knew pass away is it.

You don’t have kids, you get to be in your 40s, you see this could be a detriment down the road, simply in terms of having quality people who care about you in your life. Then again, this is running on the assumption that all goes well between parent and child, and they’d want to be in each other’s lives decades down the road. I’ve seen many instances where this is not the case, and given the shoddy nature of parenting I often see, it’s a given that you’re going to have a lot of splintered family trees.

Often on Saturdays, I’ll see a woman in my local laundromat who looks a lot like Will and Grace star Debra Messing: a real looker. Maybe 20 lbs. heavier: the version of Messing if she wasn’t on a thousand-calorie-per-day diet. The first few times I saw her a few years ago, my eyes were falling out of my head, and she was flirty in return. Sometimes people just look at each other and think, “O.K.” After a few visits, the hammer came down: I started seeing her in there with two kids, a boy around eight and a girl around 10. And it seemed clear from her previous flirtiness that no man was around. I saw that she lived in the next apartment building up from the laundromat, alone with her kids, not sure what she was doing for money, if she had an ex, or was a widower, was on public assistance, etc.

But every time I see her now, it’s a mixed bag for me (especially after she befriended one of the bigger douche bags who frequent the laundromat). She’s still very attractive and making eye contact, but on the other hand, I wonder what happened there. And I also suspect the concept of her dating a new guy would go over like dogshit with the kids, who put out a territorial vibe in her presence. I keep a vague distance beyond the friendly hellos and head nods: write it down to male intuition. Not sure if I want to take that thing further – this has been going on for about two years now! The thing is, I can see that she’s raising her kids on her own, and her kids seem unusually well-adjusted and sharp, especially for our neighborhood. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working, which must be a tribute to her parenting skills, as I’ve seen two-parent families raise monsters. If there is a father in the picture, I’m not sure where he is, as the kids appear to be around most of the time with her, including weekends, normal visitation times for fathers without main custody.

Still, it’s oddly comforting for me to know this woman, who I’m guessing is not having the best time financially but somehow getting by, is managing to raise two seemingly well-adjusted, sane kids. On the other hand with parenting, I’m thinking of that recent news story in NYC concerning what looks like the camera-phone film footage of a bunch of loud black girls harassing and eventually beating what appears to be a docile, lone white guy on a late-night subway train ride. (Turns out the guy was a hispanic school teacher, but who’s keeping score.) I gather a lot of people watched that footage in absolute shock. For me, that was like being back in the Bronx, save I never got rode that hard over my skin color, but the dumb, casual bigotry was roughly the same.

The guy was a saint for not fighting back? In my book, he was a wimp. That was a bunch of teenage girls looking to get over on somebody, who were in desperate need of a public smackdown and were comfortable enough doing this (they filmed it, for christ’s sake) that it was clearly a habit. The first thing that occurred to me while watching that clip was the hoop earrings on the main instigator. Because if I’m that guy sitting there minding my own business on the subway (something I consider an inalienable right on the train) and some ass clown like that goes off on me, the first thing I’m doing, before she gets on her rhetorical hobby horse to harass me, is grabbing one or both of the earrings like grenade pins and ripping either part or all of her earlobes off her head, while the resulting chaos making for an easy getaway.

What did I find really shocking? When this camera footage was put out on the web (again, these girls were dumb and brazen enough to think this was “OK” behavior, welcome to New York!) and everyone was eventually identified with resulting criminal charges, the father of that main instigator came forward first. And the statement that guy made was humbling – I’d say it was beautiful. He apologized to the guy on the train, profusely, didn’t make any excuses about his daughter being a raging, uncontrollable asshole, offered to take her down to the station and give her into police custody, and basically apologized to the world in general that he had lost control of raising her and had failed as a parent. It was a humbling statement for any father to make that left me feeling a mix of emotions: astonishment that such a clear-headed honest man could raise such an idiot child, and a mild anger towards him that he could let this happen.

Until that point, I had a typically angry response to the whole scenario, but at that point, the father made it all real, put it in the context of his personal failure to control his kid, and that’s something just about anyone in America can relate to, having seen childhood friends go off the rails, and when you look at their families, recognizing they weren’t being raised much differently from how you were. I guess it’s to my discredit that I wasn’t expecting such an open, clear-headed statement from a parent of a kid like that. I’d have assumed this guy would have been a non-existent and/or abusive father, but it seemed clear from his statement that he was hands on and had simply lost control. And I know from personal experience, some kids just go off the rails like that. You can see working-class families where two kids will put themselves through college and make lives for themselves, one will be a welfare bum the rest of his days, and one will end up in jail for decades. How that works out is often a tangled mix of childhood successes and failures, hurt or valued emotional experiences, the choice of friends and influences, or simply how people choose to live once they reach the age of reason.

I gather from J.P. that his kid is one of the few things that make sense in his life, and luckily neither he nor his ex are playing those silly reindeer games divorced parents often play, using the child as a pawn for their ongoing war of bitterness. From what I’ve seen of kids, the ulterior motive in having them is to increase the size of your world, although I’ve also seen people so zoned in on work and family that everything else falls away, simply due to time constraints. Also, people need things to love. When you’re younger this tends to be romantic relationships (how many people have you known who seem lost without one), but I gather kids fill that role eventually. If I ever do get around to having kids, I’ll be sure to refer back to this passage to see if it holds true. Because I don’t see myself having some magical transformation that makes me any better or worse as a human than I am now, despite the sage Lifetime Network wisdom of some parents. I feel like I’m always trying to make sense of how tribes of cavemen once lived and how a lot of that stuff inexplicably applies to how we live now. Kids surely fall into that elemental category.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Lately, I’ve been thinking about a friend who passed away a few years ago: Bob. No particular reason. Don’t think he died this time of year. He passed on in his early 50s from some type of severe gastric problem, don't know exactly what it was. But the end came fast, leaving everyone in his life in shock, particularly his wife and two kids.

Bob was one of those people you didn’t forget, even if you couldn’t stand him. And apparently, some people couldn’t, at least at face value. Back in the early 90s, with the internet in its infancy, I became part of an internet “digest” consisting of fans of a legendary NYC DJ, Vin. He was legendary for good reason – his show was a rolling pastiche of great new music, well-chosen classics, cool interviews and a lot of interesting stories and talk thrown in the mix. He’s still doing it at one of the college stations around here, and possibly on satellite radio, but I lost touch when the major rock station in NYC dumped him. (Which he shouldn’t have taken personally – every rock station in the NYC area dumped everything and everybody of value by 2000.)

As a result of Vin’s “everyone’s invited” vibe, he started an internet digest where listeners signed up and became part of a large group (at its largest, close to a thousand members) consisting mostly of NYC area rock-music fanatics and the occasional garden-variety sociopaths who haunt any internet endeavor. In its prime, it was an interesting place with all sort of dialogues, occasional knock-down/drag-out brawls, some great writing, and a lot of fun to be had. As noted above, when Vin left his last gig at the major station, the digest itself, at least for me, fizzled out, too, many of the voices that were once part of it having moved on or phased themselves out through boredom, fights, life getting too busy, etc.

But there was one legendary event, can’t recall the exact year, probably about 1995, where one of the digest, Bob, offered to throw a gigantic party for Vin who, at the time, was making a jump from one of the other rock stations to that last station he’d work at for the next few years. (It was a fretful few weeks leading up to that, as Vin’s future was vague until this announcement, but his radio legacy won the day.) To this point and preceding the digest, Vin would occasionally have movie screenings and such, which served as the only social meeting point for a lot of these people.

No one knew who Bob was. The one thing he was known for on the digest: leaning far right in his political views which, if you haven’t lived in the NYC vicinity, is like painting a target on your back. Bob went over-the-top on a lot of issues, as many of us did with this new internet thing, and had established a reputation for getting into issues in a way that was sometimes abrasive. But abrasive in a way that, if you’re an adult, you can roll with and recognize it’s just an opinion that holds no sway or power over you, unless you let it. The digest was populated with people who put out a gentle, aging hippie vibe (while often being monstrous in their personal lives), so Bob’s shtick went down like a shit sandwich for a lot of people.

(The ultimate truth of the digest, or any internet group, is that it becomes just like high school in terms of cliques forming, with the same exclusivity and mild-to-hostile negative feelings towards competing cliques. Most squabbles come down to dealing with people you just don't like, and never will, with the feeling being mutual. If you're looking to bust any aspirations you may hold towards sainthood, force yourself to hang around people you can't stand. In no time, you'll look like the biggest asshole on earth, when the truth is anyone would. Knowing when to leave is an art form we should all perfect.)

What to make of Bob throwing a party? Could they attend a filthy Republican’s social event and still maintain their liberal cred? Should they throw the I Ching to find the answer? Bob claimed to own a gigantic warehouse space in Hoboken, and he expected dozens of people to show up, including Vin, and a few local bands that Vin had championed. I signed up. The dozen or so people I knew from the digest did, too, as did most of the usual suspects from the digest. It became an event in no time. Bob even scored a beer sponsorship with a local micro-brewer so we’d drink for free.

And what a night it was: freezing cold, icy streets (can’t recall if it was February or March), a bad night to be out, but it was one of those nights where the stars aligned, and the few hundred people who showed up had a blast, like a lost tribe gathering. We all got to meet each other for the first time and recognize the wizards behind the curtains. I’d say there are 10 or so people I met that night who are still regular players in my life, and another 10 that I keep in touch with throughout the year. There’d be other digest events after this, but nothing came close to that night at Bob’s place: it was magical. Vin showed up, but looked overwhelmed and uncomfortable. The usual introduction came from a jabbering fortysomething in coke-bottle glasses and graying shoulder-length hair: “Vin, man, that interview you did with Genya Ravan in 1977, it changed my life, man, this is so heavy meeting you now, man.” I think I realized that night that I really didn’t like Vin. I loved what he did on the radio, but he seemed like a really strange guy, so I guess the internet was a companion media format to radio. I suspect the only place he feels all right is alone in front of a studio microphone doing his thing, and that's cool.

That night was all thanks to Bob. The warmth of that night lasted a few weeks, but sooner or later, I’m sure Bob ripped someone a new one over Bill Clinton’s penis, which was all over the place at the time, and it was back to hating him again for a lot of folks. Bob and I always got along, and the few times he’d gouge me, I’d gouge back, with a wink. He took that as high-sign that I “got” it, and vice-versa. The internet is awash with people who want to fight – I think I was like that myself for a year or two back then. But after awhile, you learn how to fight and what minor level that nonsense exists on or, more importantly, learn that there are probably other reasons why you are fighting and just get over that shit. I’ve come across a few people on the internet who are either certifiable or bad people, but most are just killing time, putting stuff out there for friction because so much of our lives is spent in front of computers, and this is how people sometimes connect now.

I learned that there was a lot more going on with Bob than the occasional right-wing rant on the internet. Bob made shit happen. (Always thought that would be a cool job description. So, what do you do? I make shit happen. I’m a shit-happener.) He started his own stage lighting and design company back in the 70s and was immediately successful, doing a few very famous music and concert sets that you see referenced to this day. I think he said at the height of his business he was employing 80 people (and probably making a fortune, although not once did he reference this). But at some point, he got tired of the managerial hustle, pulled back, found that huge space in Hoboken (apparently just before property values sky-rocketed in the late 80s), got married and got into computer database consulting. The warehouse was something else, two huge halls, one side his living area with a large kitchen at one end, a living room set in the middle and space all around, with the other hall looking like a garage/storage space filled with files, tools, equipment, computers, etc. Off the two large halls was a smaller bedroom area on a second floor, with small side and backyard areas for his gigantic dog to roam and shit.

I don’t know how we got more in-touch aside from many private email exchanges, but I somehow came to help him out at the warehouse in between freelance gigs and work assignments. Just doing minor stuff – helping him get organized mostly. It was a long haul for me to get out there, via the PATH train, and he lived a good 20-minute walk from the station. Typical work day was showing up around 10:00, hanging out with Bob and his wife K in their kitchen for half an hour, talking and listening to great music on their warehouse-wide sound system, then getting busy with whatever project at hand. At the end of the week, he’d cut me a check, and this would happen maybe a handful of times over a 2-3 year period in the mid-90s.

What I found in Bob was a complex man who helped me understand the mindset of your average CEO. Because that’s what Bob was with his lighting company, and he chose to walk away from that level of pressure, despite enjoying the work. He was always “on” – always thinking on his feet, extremely bright, always working on some sort of plan. He set goals, constantly, either small daily ones or larger ones he always had his eye on. I could tell K really admired and emulated this aspect of him, maybe even why she loved him, as when I think of physical comparisons, Bob looked like a slightly thinner Zero Mostel. When you had a conversation with him, he’d always try to feel his way into what you wanted from life, what you hoped to do with yourself in the grand scheme of things. Which mattered to him in some sense, as he always thought in those terms about everything.

On one hand I thought that was a load of bullshit, but since I knew Bob well enough to see through this, I knew he had a lot more going on than Type A intensity. He wanted to do things in his life with a sense of rising from one level to another, to what point, I don’t know, but maybe his point was the journey of self improvement in recognizable steps. That sounds a bit cheesy, but that’s how Bob was when you got to know him. He named one of his kids after R. Buckminster Fuller, and I had to admit, when he did, while I knew the name well, I had no fucking idea what R. Buckminster Fuller was known for. Bob sure as hell did and worshipped the man. And just looking at the Wikipedia entry on Fuller, I can deduce how Bob came to be who he was:

Throughout his life, Fuller was concerned with the question "Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?" Considering himself an average individual without special monetary means or academic degree, he chose to devote his life to this question, trying to find out what an individual like him could do to improve humanity's condition that large organizations, governments, or private enterprises inherently could not do.

That was Bob. I recall how he used to take me down to the local Italian deli to get lunch, usually tomato/mozzarella sandwiches. This was a real Italian deli, generally stocked with construction workers on lunch break or the few remaining neighborhood Italians who hadn’t been spooked off by the yuppies. Every time I went in there, I felt like those guys were going to form a circle and start pushing me around like a beach ball. Bob would walk in like he owned the place, chat with the owner, who greeted him warmly, and we’d get our sandwiches and soda in a matter of minutes.

I remember one day, we were working a haphazard back porch deck he had set up in the back lot behind the warehouse – tearing down boards, cutting new ones, hammers, nails, etc. And we had just come back from the deli, eating our sandwiches in the early April sun, looking at the ugly luxury condo being built on the edge of his lot. It was just one of those nice moments, think it was “Racing in the Streets” by Springsteen floating out from the warehouse door, along with the sound of his daughter chasing their gigantic dog, neither of us knowing our ass from a hole in the ground with carpentry but doing it anyway, looking at that horrible building, a guy who could have moved into that business and built similarly ugly buildings for a fortune.

One day, Bob asked me to help organize his files. The guy saved every piece of paper in his life. I mean everything. Old articles ripped from magazines in the 1970s. Invoices from his long-defunct lighting company. Catalogs of all sorts. He refused to throw anything out. I came across a letter he wrote to his father a few years earlier. I knew it would be this because the manila folder it was in had “Letter to My Father” scrawled on the tab. And what a letter. I knew it was a private matter, should have just closed it and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself.

I gathered from the letter that he had a rocky relationship with his Dad, which seems to be a hallmark I’ve noticed with a lot of successful businessmen. It seemed like his father was successful in some sense and didn’t think Bob was living up to his standards. At least that’s how I remember it – it could have been a different situation, but I do remember there was an obvious, serious disconnect between father and son noted. The “Bob” part of the letter came with Bob looking to put aside any past misunderstandings and let them both get more involved in each other’s lives, because he wanted his kids to know who their grandfather was and have that larger sense of family. (Bob often hassled me about not having kids, as he saw them being the keys to long-term happiness. He lit up when they were around, and I'd like to think all parents are that visibly enamored of their children. I suspect the hardest part of his dying was knowing he'd never get to see them grow.)

I read it once, put it back where I found it, and thought, fuck it, Bob, you file that one because I don’t know where it belongs. I could have walked over, said, Bob, what should I do with this, and he would have spent half an hour discussing it with me to get my take on it. But one thing I knew, no way on earth would we get through Bob’s insane amount of files. He had two or three long, bolted, metal file shelves running about 30 feet, three shelves on each, every square inch filled with some sort of file, no rhyme or reason to a lot of it. Something tells me he knew exactly where that letter was, and I should just leave it there.

After a few of those work visits (which always came at times when I genuinely needed the money), I fell into steady work at an investment bank and didn’t see Bob for a long time, actually ever again. A mutual friend told me that he was seriously ill with some stomach problem, and a few weeks later, he was gone. I suspect he knew it was coming. A few years earlier, he had taken out a life insurance policy on himself that would leave his family doing well in the event of his passing. I don’t know how much K or anyone else knew, but I suspect he knew something like this was in the cards and wanted to get as much done as humanly possible before checking out.

And I can only imagine how torn up K was over this, knowing that Bob was one of those long-term thinkers, that whatever he couldn’t do in his life, he’d want to see his kids picking up his knowledge and intensity and carrying them forward. He wouldn't want either to feel the need to write the sort of letter he had to his father. I suspect the difference between Bob and his father was what happened after he ditched the lighting company, that Bob was viewing success for himself in a different light from money and wanted to move in that direction … which makes no sense to people who traditionally define success only through money. I gather when he passed, K picked right up with everything he wanted to put forth, saw that she had two small kids depending on her now, took Bob’s spirit and used it to make herself get through such an awful time.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of his passing. At that point in my life, I’d had the death of my grandmother and a few wayward passings of teenage friends under my belt. I was also dumb-struck at the concept of someone not another generation older from mine passing away from health problems. It’s to my discredit that I didn’t help out K more … just didn’t know what to do and still don’t. I know in my case, when Dad went, there wasn’t much you could do for me, save go on treating me the same. Whatever shit I had to deal with, no one was going to clarify that situation for me. Dealing with death is like putting on another layer of clothes in winter when the temperature drops more than expected. You can heap all sort of psychological bullshit on top of that, but the world just got a little bit colder and smaller for you. Nothing’s going to change that, and you have to re-adjust. It's that simple, and you better believe life gets that black-and-white for a long time afterwards.

How do I remember Bob? As one of the most generous, open, intelligent people I’ve ever met. And a Republican to boot … how about that. It’s been one of the stranger mind games in my life that the people who’ve extended themselves the most for me, who were the most selfless (aside from my parents), have occasionally been right-leaning conservatives. Plenty of liberals, too, I usually don’t bust balls on political persuasion. I need to underline that about Bob, because people who didn’t know him well had little idea about who he really was, and the public persona was a mild ruse as opposed to who he really was. In our daily dealings, he rarely got into politics, which seemed like a surface annoyance to him. I felt the spark of life around him – the guy attached value and meaning to everything. He probably would have driven me nuts if I’d been around him more, but it was great to take him in for those small doses.

My best memory of Bob: one blustery, sunny Saturday in January, I was walking around the area of 34th Street on the west side of Manhattan. I can’t recall what I was doing there, as that part of town is desolate on the weekends. Just walking. As I turned the corner of 34th and 8th by the huge post office, I saw an idling van on the side of the street. The side door swung open, and there was Bob, giving me the finger and laughing. You have to understand the random nature of living around Manhattan, that running into someone you know well like this is rare. K and their daughter were in the front seat of the van, laughing. It turns out they were going to some type of kiddie concert at Madison Square Garden and had just got there. As usual, they had sandwiches and invited me in to eat. But for whatever reason, I thought it best to keep walking and get home (the Bronx at that time), as it was cold as hell with a biting wind. But we talked anyway for a good 15 minutes about nothing in particular. For some reason, if there is some type of after life, wherever I go, I suspect a door will swing open in that place, and Bob will be there, giving me the finger. Heaven or hell, you decide.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

C30! C60! C90! Stop!

All week long, I’ve been in heavy CD-duplication mode, coming home every night and knocking out 5-10 CD-R's of my annual Christmas CD. (I send these instead of cards … I don’t like cards.) As much as I bitch about the process, I hearken back to the days of cassette tapes and realize it’s a cakewalk to spend six minutes per disc and have dozens of discs completed by week’s end.

This may be boring, but who knows, maybe people who weren’t familiar with the lugubrious process of making mix tapes will get a kick out of this. Making those things really was a labor of love. Compiling them took much longer than with a CD and relied on a well-structured stereo system as opposed to a computer.

As with CD’s, it would all start with a concept. I can’t even remember the first cassette compilation I did – had to be in college, mid-80s, when thanks to Walkmans, cassettes become the dominant media format. The Sony Walkman was a revolutionary piece of equipment. Before then, there was no portable device, save for transistor radios, that one could carry around and listen to music with. (Sure, there was the Panasonic Hand Pump Eight-Track, but those things were just as bad as transistor radios in terms of sound quality, and very few people had eight-track tape recorders. Even less mourn the “warmth” of eight-track tapes: the single worst product invented in the entertainment industry, and unfortunately one I bore full witness to along with millions of other music fans in the 70's.) There were car cassette players … but you had to have a car.

With the dawn of the Walkman, and having a car at the time with a Sparkomatic tape deck (for the uninitiated, that means I was sucking fumes financially), I dived headlong into creating cassette compilations. And at first, they must have really sucked. My breadth and knowledge of music was extremely limited, mostly to the more tasteful rock of the 70s and 80s, and only the obviously-great 60s acts (Stone, Beatles, Kinks, Hendrix, etc.). College kicked that door open, not just with the indie-rock scene entering its prime, but with my first indulgence in 50s Rock and 60s R&B, i.e., discovering music before I was of-age or even born. (Buying The Atlantic Rhythm & Blues series as each two-disc set came out was a monumental growing experience for me.) Getting into the requisite Dylan and Velvet Underground undergrad listening experiences was also key.

For awhile there, especially the late 80s when vinyl was being phased out, cassettes were it. I didn’t buy many store-bought cassettes, but there were a few dozen from that time period, and, man, did the quality of manufactured cassettes suck. I could make better-sounding cassettes with blank, low-noise TDK’s and a deeply average stereo. I’d buy vinyl whenever possible, eventually caving in and buying a CD player in 1990. (I think we’re in a similar phase now with CD’s giving way to MP3 files, or at least it feels that way to me.) By the early 90s, my music collection was an unruly mix of vinyl albums, CD’s and shitty cassettes.

These were my sources for the mix tapes I made. I’d need a lot of room, physically, any time I did this, because the start of the process was pulling all the albums, CD’s and cassettes from my collection and laying them all over the floor and furniture around me. The concept was to create the mix in my head, and when mentally choosing each song, pick up each piece of physical product with that song on it, thus creating an oblong stack of all three media formats. After awhile, I had the art down so well mentally that I knew when to stop a “Side 1” pile and when to start a “Side 2” pile.

Of course, there’d be a lot of juggling and switching as I realized one segue would work better than another. I was never too uptight about song choice. If an artist had two songs I wanted on the compilation, it happened. If some psychedelic song had a 15-minute drum solo at the end that I hated, I’d fade the entire solo out. The art of the segue is crucial in any mix – if you don’t develop some sort of feel for this, you’re wasting time, although this is not as big an issue with CD’s and “next track” buttons. Sometimes the segue is a nod and a wink to the informed listener or a thematic connection with lyrics, other times it’s similar-sounding songs leading into each other, or the hot/cold shock of loud and quiet songs together. There’s a beginning, middle and end to the mix, as with any story. It rarely pays to be too hip, unless all you know are hipsters, in which case, you need new friends and a swift kick in the ass.

And here’s where it grew into an abacus-style luddite process. I would take each album, or CD, or cassette, write the song title from the disc down on a notebook page and write the track time next to it, a circled number representing its place in the mix. I’d do this for each song, each side, and then sit there with a calculator, adding up the times, making sure to take the “seconds” total, always in the hundreds, and divide by sixty, then adding that number the “minutes” total, which would often be an extra 5-10 minutes. This was where I’d fine out I had 10 or 15 extra minutes to kill, a few songs to get rid of. I preferred using TDK SA 110s – 55 minutes per side. The reason I loved the TDK tapes was they always ran longer than 55 minutes – usually around 57 minutes, so I knew I had that two-minute cushion to play around with.

Song cutting time was always a pain in the ass – still is with mix CD’s. But I also found it beefed up the mix, got rid of also-ran’s and songs that, while I liked them, shouldn’t have been there. My notebook pages for these mixes must have looked like a track list from a recording studio – arrows everywhere, songs crossed out, or arrowed in. Anyone reading the page could have seen my thought process, from where my mind was going with the song selection, to the mild angst of whittling the mix down to fit the time frame.

The time frame involved up to this point in the process is at least three hours. Because in the process of trying to find which songs I wanted, I often had to throw them on the stereo to see if it felt right, which often lead me to listening to other songs from the album. And with cassettes, I’d have to get the tape set to the start of the song I wanted – a pissy process with a lot of Fast Forwarding and Rewinding. This is all leading up to the actual act of making the cassette.

Making the cassette tended to take another three hours: recording in real time, sometimes fading longer songs out 30 seconds early to make room, sometimes having a hell of a time getting a song (usually part of a medley or disc where one song flowed into another) at the right starting point. Three hours, at least. I’d be exhausted after doing this, feeling like I literally spent all day in a recording studio, because in a half-assed sense, I had. The whole process was six hours at a minimum: one of those Saturday afternoon/evening/night endeavors.

But I loved doing it and still enjoy doing mix CD’s. Luckily with tapes, I had a dual cassette deck and could dub another copy of the cassette in about 20 minutes. (I can dub about four CD’s in the same amount of time, and this with a slow laptop.) Looking back, I think 110 minutes was way too long and probably wore out the listener. I suspect a near-80 minute CD may be too long, too, but I rarely do a mix CD without running near that limit. The last step: writing in the song titles, which was a pain in the ass with mixes made up of shorter songs (like 50s rock, 60s Pop or 70s punk) – there were never enough lines on the cassette case insert to fit all the titles, so I had to write small and put numerous songs on each line. Again, programs like MS Word and PowerPoint made this much easier, but this was how it was done before we all had home computers.

Never got too fancy with artwork, although my options, again, are much more broad with even a basic design program like PowerPoint. I’m pretty good with design – don’t think I missed my calling, but I always did well in art class and have a knack for creating things from scratch with a real homespun vibe. I have friends who do graphic arts for a living, and one of them has told me I'm primitive, but effective. My favorite cassette design was one of my last, a Glitter Rock tribute from the mid-90s. I’d found a neat fan drawing online of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” face (with a star over the left eye), copied the image of a Gibson Guitar from that company’s website, put a plus sign between each, followed with an equal sign, and the image of a big blue star throwing off rays. For the cassette’s side panel, I went to Staples and found those little gold-star decals that elementary school teacher’s probably still use to put a “gold star” by a student's name on list to demonstrate a job well done. I put those around the cassette’s title. It looked like something a junior-high kid in love with glitter rock and on acid would have created circa 1974. In other words, it fit the project perfectly.

Why all the work? I guess for a number of reasons. On rare occasions, it was to impress pussy. (Hint: mix tapes do not impress pussy. Pussy doesn’t care that you have the Paper Lace version of “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.” Pussy will appreciate the gesture, but will also think you’re weird, hopefully in an endearing way.) The older you get the less you’re “showing off” when you bestow music mixes on people. It’s a cool thing when you’re 21 and at school, and I guess as we all get older, I tend to forward mixes to people who will “get it” in some sense.

The ulterior motive is to show I’m alive. I’m thinking about other things outside the context of my every-day life. I haven’t forgotten what it means to be 14 years old, hear a song for the first time, and be floored. A mix is a connection – to an earlier, more idealistic version of myself, to other people, to the ongoing river of music that keeps flowing through time. I make these things because they’re fun for me to do, and the people receiving them often let me know how much they appreciate getting them.

At this point in my life, I have it down, have a massive musical collection, enough knowledge to put together a deep, learned collection of material and am still curious enough about music that the spark of learning about it is just as strong as when I was a kid. Maybe stronger, now that I know so much more and am willing to branch out. (Music was like a chosen uniform as a kid, with all the social implications tied into taste. That constricted sense of regimen no longer applies.) I think the most attractive, interesting aspects of adulthood involve what people do with their spare time. I don't care what it is, so long as they have something they care about passionately. Sure, I feel like a dick doing these things sometimes. But I feel like a dick every day at work. I feel like a dick writing here sometimes. Feeling like a dick is an essential part of adulthood, so why not revel in it on occasion?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Who Killed Jaxx?

Been a strange few weeks here, portents of life’s inevitable ebb swirling through the days like the countless dead leaves I’ve been raking in two states. As you may recall, this time of year is now tinged with Dad’s fairly rapid passing a few years back. (Google my surname and “Blue Christmas” for that read. That’s a piece of writing I go back to every now and then to remind myself how strange those last days were. And I got the anger, sadness, confusion and thorny resolve down better than I thought I had at the time.)

There’s this woman I keep seeing when I’m out sweeping leaves in Astoria, and I’ve been doing that a lot lately. It seems like every week there’s a crushing load of newly-fallen leaves to be swept up and deposited in those sturdy brown paper eco-friendly bags. As I’ve stated before, I enjoy doing this, partially for the joy of seeing a finite job through to completion, partially because it makes me feel I’m part of nature in a small way, sweeping up after her, respecting the dead in an odd way, can’t just leave them lying all over the street.

She’s an old Indian woman – Hindu Indian, not American Indian. Wrapped from head to toe in swaddling white robes, her face covered with a white sheath. She moves slowly, shuffling, up and down the blocks around me, but never on my sidewalk as I’m sweeping. First saw her on that overcast Veterans Day, but I’ve seen her the last two times I’ve swept, including today. I take it this is just an old woman in the neighborhood stretching her legs. But with gray and windy late fall skies, her robes flapping in the wind, only seeing her eyes and hands … it fucking freaks me out! I expect her to pull a scythe from under her robes and beckon me with a bony brown finger, my time to leave. For all the pleasant, older dog walkers I’ve been meeting out there lately, people who stop and say hello, offering words of encouragement while they let me pet their feisty little terriers, she’s the one who sticks with me most.

When I was back home in PA for Thanksgiving, Brother J and I performed the inevitable big leaf rake in the yard, getting eight pick-up truck loads this time (and he’ll have that many more on his own in a few weeks). Andy S. mentioned awhile back that our adventures with the ill-defined dumping space between the local cemetery and township storage shed came off like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” with us fretting every passing car and stray glance. Well, Mom called up the township and found it was kosher for us to dump mounds of leaves in that craggy space, so this year was worry free.

Save that there was another strange vision this Thanksgiving afternoon. The weather was all over the place, like in Scotland, sunny and windy for an hour, then drizzly, back and forth all afternoon. We had to beat the possibility of rain and the certainty of sundown. We did, but as we did, we noticed while transporting each pick-up truck load that there was an old man sitting in a yoga pose by a grave about 30 yards from us at the cemetery’s edge. He looked like Howard Hughes: sixtyish, scraggly long gray hair and beard, sunglasses, and I’m not making this up, he appeared to be wearing a bath robe and slippers … in 40-degree weather. (We didn’t get close enough to see if his fingernails were a foot long.)

Having been raised by that cemetery, we knew to expect odd scenes from time to time. People blown out by emotion, weeping over graves, or hugging tombstones, or singing, or what have you when people visit graves and feel the full brunt of pain they can’t or won’t in their every-day lives. Nothing wrong with that – however you have to get that shit out, better to do so than not allow yourself to feel that way ever. This old man appeared to be meditating in that cold, intermittent drizzle. We thought it best to just leave him alone, go about our business, hope he wouldn’t get too strange, but we had business to do and went about it.

By the next-to-last load, we noticed he was lying down on his side and appeared to be slowly waving his left arm in a circle. At this point, we’re both thinking, what the fuck. Is this guy on acid? Is he preparing for the spirit world on his self-designated last day on earth? Again, I think our attitude was leave the guy alone. Wherever he was mentally, neither of us wanted to go there. If we came back for the last load and he was motionless, then we’d intervene to make sure he was alive.

The last load, he was still waving his arm. Luckily, we noticed an SUV pulling towards him as we pulled away, another (more sane looking) older man driving, wearing one of those natty old-man fur hats with a feather in the side flap. I’m hoping those two knew each other, otherwise, the guy driving was in for a memorable experience as he visited a near-by grave.

If you want an informal dividing line for growing older, you can safely say you’re older when you want to avoid graveyards like the plague, because you understand that one day, probably sooner than you think, you’re going to be in there. Whereas I can still recall kids, especially teenagers, craving the forbidden nature of hanging out in graveyards at night, think all those legendary rock-star graves where fans hang out getting high and pouring out the star’s share of Boone’s Farm on some moonlit night. Well, later for that shit! When you start putting family members and friends into the ground, you’re not going to find anything cool or romantic about these places any time of the day or night.

On my morning runs back there, I go up and down Spring Crest hill. Spring Crest is a small pond in a hollow off the top of the hill – you have to take a quarter-mile unpaved road to get there. I haven’t seen that pond in decades. The last time, it was being stocked with trout back when I was a kid in the 70s, my amazement at seeing all those big trout flopping around in the shallow water. On the side of Spring Crest hill I come down, there’s another small pond and a creek running from it that winds all along what used to be a deep woods area called the Milee, which has seen a fair share of single-family houses spring up over the past few decades.

As I was coming down the Spring Crest hill, I noticed color-copied pictures of a cat’s face, an average black-and-white dappled cat’s face, with the message of “Who Killed Jaxx????” written underneath it in big black letters.

In my mind, I immediately pictured a heart-broken little girl, and her angry mother, finding their dead cat by the side of the road at the bottom of the hill, so put out emotionally that someone would run over their family pet and leave it there to die that they went home, fired up the home computer, found the best picture of Jaxx, ran off a dozen color copies on the Ink Jet, and nailed them to trees and telephone poles in a 30-yard line leading up the hill from the small bridge at the bottom.

It seemed like overkill to me at first. I cynically thought, “Christ, cats get run over all the time, I know it sucks, but what’s someone driving a car going to do, stop there, phone the cops, tell them he just ran over a cat and wait for a shitload of recriminations once word reaches the cat’s owners? It’s a bad deal. Most cats in the country run free at night. They rarely die of old age. My family’s had a handful of dogs that have all died of old age, and about half a dozen cats over the years, nearly all of them checking out early.

The last morning though, I saw the main sign, which I hadn’t before, on a large tree by the bridge. It was on legal-size paper and had a more full explanation of Jaxx’s fate: “To whoever shot Jaxx on this spot and left him here to die, how do you live with yourself?”

I know the world is filled with people who are just no good, but reading that sign gave me a real twinge. I’d ask what kind of asshole shoots cats, but I know there are all kinds of assholes who shoot cats, and worse. Still, I put myself in the mind of a little girl who finds her pet cat with a bullet-hole in it by the side of the road, and now all the pictures on the trees make sense. The heartbreak over-shadowed by the rage. About 20 years ago, on a near-by hill, some kid (whose name I know but won’t use) killed the dog, a german shepherd, of a neighboring farming family with a few shots from a .22 rifle, simply because the dog, a farm dog that was known to wander, was on his family’s property. Causing some very bad blood between those families, which tends to happen when a simple angry phone call to the local cops would suffice instead of a bullet in a senseless animal’s brain.

But you live around farms, you sometimes see a very hard, senseless attitude in which “animal cruelty” doesn’t exist. I still recall one of the fathers of a friend out the road choosing to drown three kittens their cat had just given birth to instead of taking the minimal effort to give them to the local SPCA or find out if anyone would take them. Drowned them in a burlap bag in a wash tub, a day after my friend and I had been playing with them. Without a second thought. Looked at his eight-year-old son weird when he started crying over this news like the kid didn’t understand how the world worked.

To shoot a cat by the side of the road? That’s just Jeffrey Dahmer behavior. So to answer the wounded family’s question on the home-made sign, the only answer they’ll ever get: some cowardly asshole, one of millions in the world. I suspect they’ll never get a straighter answer than that, and that whoever shot Jaxx, and probably has seen the signs as this is a back road on which someone felt relaxed enough to shoot a gun, is too stupid to feel shame. The guy (kid?) is probably laughing when he sees the signs. But it always sucks to see a kid (I’m assuming there’s a kid involved here) be forced to recognize the inexplicable ugliness of the world a little too early.

Guy Clark’s “Queenie’s Song,” concerning his dog being gunned down by an anonymous jerk on a cold New Year’s Day in New Mexico, covers the same ground. So long, Jaxx, I suspect you will never be forgotten.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Indie-Rock Gordon Gekko?

A few days ago, the indie-rock leaning website Stereogum published an essay by Kevin Barnes, lead singer of the band Of Montreal entitled “Selling Out Isn’t Possible” which appears to be his answer to some fans leveling that charge against him for doing the music for an Outback Steakhouse commercial. (“Let’s go Outback tonight/Don’t think about tomorrow” – I thought it was The Boy Least Likely To as they have a similar sound, but it was Of Montreal.)

It makes for an interesting read, especially from the view point of an artist who has made that step and has no apologies. I like Of Montreal, became aware of them back in the 90s as part of the “Elephant Six” scene in Athens, GA which sprouted a slew of great Beatlesque indie bands. The band has always been a bit twee, but their past few albums have incorporated more dance-oriented/techno influences to a very positive effect – they’ve clearly grown artistically in the past few years.

The problem with his issues regarding “selling out” is that he positions them in extremes (which I gather are defined by his critics) rather than defining them for himself. Selling out is very possible, in many ways, not just in one emphatic “in” or “out” proposition. Here’s his best take on the issue regarding his band:

“I realized then that, for me, selling out is not possible. Selling out, in an artistic sense, is to change one's creative output to fit in with the commercial world. To create phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful. I've never done this and I can't imagine I ever will. I spent seven years not even existing at all in the mainstream world. Now I am being supported and endorsed by it. I know this won't last forever. No one's going to want to use one of my songs in a commercial five years from now, so I've got to take the money while I can.”

I’d feel a lot better if he could acknowledge that drafting a ditty for a commercial when that is not explicitly your job (they’re a rock band, not commercial jingle writers) is changing one’s creative output to fit in with the mainstream world. It’s the only exposure to his music that millions of people seeing the commercial on TV will ever have. That is phony and insincere, and he should openly admit it … unless he really did go to an Outback Steakhouse, come home and write a song from the bottom of his heart regarding this inspirational experience. (But I’d argue that writing about boy-girl relationships can be just as exploitative as writing about steakhouses.) He should also openly admit that by doing so, he gives the band exposure they could never get through an indie label marketing budget, or any number of critics singing his praises. It’s the “if only one person heard that commercial and wanted to know more about Of Montreal …” route, but I’m willing to bet thousands of people heard the song on the commercial, liked it, and followed up with a quick web search.

I can easily envision the type of bullshit artists who are denigrating him for his choice, as I know the scene well, where people who have no “cred” of any sort deign to judge who does or doesn’t exude this elusive quality. It’s the downside of any indie scene, be it movies, music, literature, etc. Reminds me of the Dylan line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Bullshit. That’s the kind of thing that appeals to people who live inside the law and romanticize those who don’t (ergo, Dylan’s fans as opposed to Dylan himself). I strongly suspect lying your ass off on a regular basis is a necessary prerequisite to living outside the law. But that doesn’t make for a cool-sounding line in a song!

Selling out is very easy to do in music. The clearest example of this to me came in the 70s, when all those aging 60s rock acts, in the wake of the disco era, chose or were forced to put a disco song on at least one of their albums. To this day, it still rubs many fans the wrong way, probably because they recognized the act for what it was: artists known for creating rock music shamelessly trying to cash in and “stay young” in some sense with an audience they feared they were losing in passing time. “Miss You” by The Stones is a great pop song, no matter how you cut it. I’m not so nuts about “Superman” by The Kinks or “Goodnight Tonight” by McCartney or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart – although the Stewart song now sounds like fucking Mozart compared to the “American standards” dreck he’s been selling millions of albums with lately. There would be a very cool compilation to be made of all those rock acts called The Disco Single featuring that particular song for each band circa 1976-78. Most bands were forced to do their disco single and found nowhere near the popularity level of the above-mentioned acts. The actual songs themselves weren’t horrible; it was the concept of joining obvious opportunists such as baseball player Pete Rose, Ethel Merman and Rick “Disco Duck” Dees in the same act of cutting horrendous disco songs to cash in on a trend that laid bare their intentions.

But as Kevin Barnes would probably note, they’re just people, not gods, or archetypes of virtue and all that is right in the world (which is exactly how a lot of teenage fans viewed their favorite rock bands and singers). Live and learn. As Barnes also notes in his essay, if you can go on creating art the same way you have, with the same level of commitment, reality is you can sell out on one hand and still do your thing on the other. If fans are offended, they can stop listening (although very few do check out that way). That was certainly true of all those disco single/rock artists in the 70s. The Kinks early 80s albums, in my mind, are on the same higher level of what they were doing in the 60s. Some Girls was the last great Stones album. Rod Stewart is another story, but what screwed him up was moving to L.A. from England a few years earlier.

I agree with a vast majority of what Barnes had to write, but he goes way off the rails occasionally:

“It isn't possible to be in chorus with capitalism and anarchy. You must pick one or the other. Very few people are willing to do it, though. The worst kind of person is the one who sucks the dick of the man during the daytime and then draws pictures of themselves slitting his throat at night. Jesus Christ, make up your mind! The thing is, there is a lack of balance. When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve.”

This is Barnes’ “Greed Is Good” speech a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, although a bit more muddled. “Capitalism” and “anarchy” are not polar opposites: one’s a financial term, the other a political term. I don’t think either word has a polar opposite, which I wouldn’t make such a big deal over save that Barnes seems to see the world as being a choice between one or the other.

I’m not sure where he’s going with all the dick-sucking and throat-slitting … which seems like the exact sort of overly dramatic, childish “opposites” his critics view the world in. I’ve never done either and don’t have any immediate plans to do so. Don’t know about you, but I’m not looking to “crack any code” or find myself “struggling” to do so. (It’s clear to me what I'd need to do to make a lot of money … and I’m not willing to do it, for the most part. Has as much to do with personal morality and lifestyle comfort as it does with however you want to define ambition.)

I’ve spent two decades in corporate environments that, on occasion, would make musicians like Barnes blanch over the questionable morality of every-day work scenarios. Like some of the golden parachutes I’ve seen designed for executives in failing companies, that gave them full mortgage payoffs, retirement plans guaranteeing millionaire status for life, full reimbursement for college tuition for their children, etc. … while the rank-and-file got laid off with two-weeks pay and a $15.00 gift certificate for a frozen turkey at the local supermarket. Or two companies merging (to the enormous financial benefit of a few key players), and management consultants with zero knowledge of either workplace coming in to decide which 60% of the staff gets laid off and which remains. (Rent Office Space again if you need a clear reminder of how that clusterfuck works.)

I don’t think Barnes has any idea on what he’s talking about when he gets into the merits of capitalism. He strikes me as naïve in a fairly typical musicianly way, but I’m also factoring in the enormous amount of horseshit being heaped on him, most likely by people who don’t support themselves in any real way. These days, I’m never going to give working musicians any hassle in terms of how they choose to make a living, up to and including selling to and/or creating songs for the advertising world. Why? Because they’re lucky to be making a living at all with the way things are going in the music industry. (What you’re not seeing with a lot of musicians is their spouses working hard at day jobs so they can be musicians.)

About the only other road bump in the Barnes essay:

“The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults. Our generation is insanely lazy. We're just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis.”

Barnes is just naïve if that’s how he sees the world. Most likely, he’s never seen the type of corporate carnage some of us have or just doesn’t know many people who have been laid off at various points in their work life for no good reason. I’d wager his generation is no more or less lazy than the ones before it. I shudder to think what would happen if a 150-lb. soaking-wet Indie rock star confronted a few dozen textile plant workers whose jobs had been sold out from under them to Mexico by the plant owners, got a bullhorn, sadly shook his head and addressed them with: “Capitalism is a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults.”

I think if he was smart, when Stereogum approached him to expound on this topic, he should have just said no. Not that he comes off looking all that bad in his essay – for the most part, I’m in total agreement with him. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, to be gained by trying to explain yourself to people who disagree with you regarding clear choices you’ve made. Sure, there is plenty to be gained by a healthy debate over issues you have an opinion on. But you’ve made an important choice in your life, you like the choice, you see and understand the downside, but see how it ultimately benefits you … and there will be people who hate you for making that choice. You’re not going to change their minds. And that’s all right. I get the impression Barnes feels under attack and sees this gray hipster cloud as his nemesis, when I have to believe most of those people don’t really care what he does, and, much like I'm doing now, are just blowing wind. If they’re ex-fans, he can probably count them on two hands. I can’t imagine not buying the next Of Montreal album because they did a jingle. (I can imagine not buying it because it sucks … but I suspect it won’t, judging by their last few albums.)

Shit, man. Let’s go Outback tonight. And not think about tomorrow, shall we? Wondering how many of those hipsters shit-canning him now are vegans and that’s the real problem here …