Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dentist Office in Buenos Aires

I can tell you how it feels to discover new music because I never really stopped. Granted, I don’t go far out of my way to find this stuff; it’s more like stumbling across it. I hear a song in a movie or somehow by chance, know it’s a certain style that I don’t know much about. But I like what I hear. So I pursue it. Thanks to relatively cheap services like Emusic and Amie Street, and great places like the New York Public Library, I can educate myself in a hurry on any style of music.

It’s like being near the ocean on a summer day. You can smell the ocean on the breeze. Feel the sun. It’s there, you know it, but you haven’t seen it just yet. Then you start walking, and you can see sand creep into the cracks on the sidewalk. And you can now hear the ocean, a soft roar just out of earshot. You go down a few more streets, and you can see a beach head on a dead-end street with a wooden boardwalk, You walk up the boardwalk, and there it is, the ocean, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s an exhilarating feeling, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

At least that’s how I feel these days when I get into a new kind of music I never would have considered as a pop-rock teenager at the turn of the 1980s. And some of it is just as good or better than what I already love. Such has been my “discovery” of Bossa Nova music. Or Samba. Or “Brazilian.” I’m not quite sure what to call it. But it’s a very light, breezy sounding music, generally from South America, that has a certain descending, shifting chord pattern played on an acoustic guitar, that sounds both relaxing and vaguely sad at times. It’s the lightest music I’ve ever heard – like a breeze. It sounds like summer in a way The Beach Boys don’t quite get. (But I love The Beach Boys for the way they do get summer.) I’ll include a few samples of what I’ve turned up at the end of the post.

Sometimes the net effect of listening is like being in a dentist’s office in Buenos Aires, at least for the older, more orchestrated music from the 50s and 60s. A fellow fan told me he dreads the inevitable flute solo many of these tracks have. And he’s right, that ubiquitous, mellow flute, not quite Zamfir’s pan pipe but too close for comfort, comes wafting in. If you can't handle Easy Listening music, then you won't be able to handle a lot of Bossa Nova. The best stuff for me is stripped down to acoustic guitar with light percussion. The words are usually in Portuguese or Spanish, but I’ve found a fair amount of songs in English, too, and plenty of instrumentals.A lot of stuff that sounds like good pop rock, save it’s in another language. And that doesn’t bother me near as much as I thought it would.

I’m trying to remember how all this started. Not listening to music. The act of going outside your prescribed American teen listening sledgehammer of pop and realizing there’s plenty of other stuff going on, and always has been. As noted in my last post, we had music class in grade school which introduced us to music nearly all of us agreed was fruity. About the only cool thing I recall from that time period was dancing around to songs like “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love in My Tummy” and “1-2-3 Redlight” in kindergarten during those jump-around sessions the teacher employed to wear us out for nap time on the wrestling mats.

And there was Lawrence Welk every Saturday night on PBS, which our parents made us sit through to get to the World at War documentary series. This was bad Big Band music – schmaltzy, sterilized and hammy. I’ve come to appreciate Big Band music with passing time, but this show put a decades-long dent in the learning curve. About the only cool thing Lawrence Welk did was his version of “Baby Elephant Walk” (which my friend George would play on a lark every time we drove into a new town at night in his ’76 Nova with flaming tailpipes).

I think the simple answer is Oldies stations, which in the 70s meant 50s and early 60s pop rock. Which was the first forbidden ocean I laid eyes on. By forbidden ocean, I mean how rigid and claustrophobic so many teenagers are in terms of their listening habits, and how much of that was determined solely by radio play, Top 40 popularity and sheer lack of listening experience. And in the 70s and 80s that also meant “rock” popularity. Rock music wasn’t necessarily the most popular music of the time, especially for various heavy metal bands, but they’d be hugely popular with subsets of outsider kids, and thus the barometer of real cool. Led Zep and Pink Floyd were by no means Top 40 pop bands … but were massively popular with teenagers in the 70s. This was thanks to AOR (Album Oriented Radio) stations playing their non-single album tracks to death. A lot of us were raised entirely in that rock/album culture, the same way we were raised with religion.

And you’ll find those same kids now, adults in their 40s and 50s, listening to the same shit and nothing more as if it was still 1975! On one hand, I can respect that sort of stubbornness. Hell, I still listen to all those all bands, too … and a ton of other shit that came before and after. That was the spirit of the day, wasn’t it? Everything is NEW, and we’re IN ON IT, and this is OUR MUSIC, and we’re ALWAYS GOING TO FEEL THIS WAY.

As you can tell by the all caps, I’ve come to realize these concepts are questionable, at least in regards to how people age with music. If you do, you abandon that fortress of false cool you construct as a teenager and take off for the hinterlands to see what else you can find. (And you find that your fortress was very small, and there’s just no way you can take in all the music out there. You won’t even have time to find or listen to all the stuff you like.) When I hear a teenager talking like that last sentence of the previous paragraph, I know he’s full of shit and won’t be listening to music in any real sense 10 years down the road. An adult? That’s someone trying to sell something … to someone he assumes is a complete moron, i.e., your average teenage kid. It’s an exclusionary, small-minded sales pitch as cynical as any you’ll find in other markets. And what’s turned the recording industry into a child’s playground since Elvis Presley, maybe even Frank Sinatra if you think about it.

So why do so many people not just buy into this, but then pick it up and hold it to their chest like a worn teddy bear they carry the rest of their days? Well, because it’s music, good or bad, and tied into emotions, particularly emotions regarding youth and some sense of freedom. Freedom compared the responsibilities of adulthood … although I feel more free as an adult than I ever did as a kid. At least in important ways: how I want to live, where I want to live, whom I want as friends, etc. We didn’t have to worry about making money and supporting ourselves as kids, but otherwise, the major downsides I recall about childhood was the curtailment of these personal freedoms. And I know kids think about this all the time, as they imagine how their world is going to change for the better when they grow up. In some ways, it does. Youth was about moments of freedom – sometimes hours, days or even weeks of freedom – but adulthood is more about less obvious personal freedoms. I’d love to have both! But life hasn’t worked out that way, as it doesn’t for most people.

So, in that context, you can see why music is such a big deal. Not so much the music itself. The act of using it as a form of identity. An idealized identity, too, in terms of that freedom and a sense of wildness. And not just personal identity: group identity. That’s the one thing that seems to be decreasing over time with no central music cultures “taking over” as they did in the past. Save the ubiquitous Top 40 crap, that I can usually avoid, even in the gym on Saturdays, so long as I bring my iPod and drown out all the gimmicky, crappy, soulless songs with auto-tuned vocals and dentist drill beats.

I don’t want this to feel like a sermon on the mount from a music lover. Most people I know, as adults, back off from music as time goes on, even though they listen to it all the time. If they have cars, they listen on car radios and CD players, sometimes even going so far as to get satellite radio because it’s so much better than commercial. They’ll buy CDs every now and then. Someone may have bought them an iPod along the way, and they’re familiar with the whole process of purchasing and listening to digital music. (But not in the same way a maniac like me is – because if you’ve grasped what’s gone on with digital music in the past decade, you know this change in music is cataclysmic and paradise for a music lover.)

When they ask me what I’m listening to, I don’t know how to answer. I have an iPod with 20,000 songs on it. I download 100 songs a month from Emusic that span many genres; keep a running account with Amie Street and occasionally buy albums from online stores like Amazon and 7 Digital when they have good sales. I poke around websites and pull down hard-to-find and out-of-print albums routinely. A downside is I listen to so much music now I just can’t absorb and internalize it the way I once did as a kid and young adult. But I was leaning in this direction with CDs through the 90s, buying anywhere from four to 12 a month. That process is a lot quicker now, going into albums online, sampling the tracks and choosing what I want. It’s a whole different way of understanding music that has its ups and downs. I don’t live with it the way I used to … but I surely do live with it. And in volumes and styles I never could have imagined even a decade ago. I sometimes feel like I’m skiing down an avalanche that never stops, and rather than feeling like I’m about to die, feeling like I’m just starting to live.

I guess I tie-in music appreciation with a general curiosity towards life, which should never end. If I can look into other people’s lives and see something, anything, about the person that suggests a similar passion and curiosity, I feel like I can understand and relate to that person better. I don’t care what it is. Football. Macramé. Stamps. Nascar. Fishing. Yoga. Whatever. Something that shows me they’re “really into this shit” and care about something more than obvious things like money or status. The problem I see with a lot of adults is they’re just not into anything but getting through life. Which I am, too, but you need to set-up small areas for yourself to roam around in and have that same sense of wonder you did as a child.

Conversely, I would be bored as hell listening solely to the exact same music I did as a teenager. Thus, the branching out. Started with Oldies, but the next big one was Country. You listen to stuff like “Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones, and as a rock fan, you think, that sounds cool, where did they get that sound from. And stumble across Hank. And Johnny. And Merle. And Willie. And before you know it, you have a few hundred songs on the iPod that really give you a good understanding of Country Music in general. And you pick up more stuff as you move along and learn, connecting the dots, stumbling onto similar artists, discovering new ones, reaching back for older ones. Same thing has happened to me with Celtic, Soul/R&B, Blues, Reggae, Big Band, Classical, some Jazz, and now this Latin-based stuff. Will happen with African music, which I have a little of, but have a disc of MP3s from a friend that I’ll use as a starting point when I get more into this later in the year. And I’ll find what I’ve always found: great music that appeals to me. Not age-based. As the phony battles lines have been drawn in our fractured musical culture.

It takes work to do this. A lot of research and listening. Time. But really, nothing like the amount of time it would have taken a decade ago when I’d have to go buy dozens of CDs, or get educated enough to pull the CDs from the library, and slowly feel my way through them to pull what appeals to me. I guess the key change is the sense of ownership of music. I surely own digital music, but that ownership is now invisible and comes in bits and pieces that I pull from whole albums. In the past, I would have to purchase whole albums and keep them. I have a six-dresser drawer filled with CDs, probably about 3,000 of them in slimline sleeves. (The cases were too bulky to keep.) You could visibly see my passion for music.

Now? I got a laptop with iTunes on it, a 500 Gigabyte external drive to back it up, and an iPod. A vast sea of music on this little thing I can hold in the palm of my hand. These are incredible times, folks. Jaw-dropping stuff to a kid raised with eight-track tape decks and tinny, handheld AM radios. A time of wonder. I guess it always has been. All I recommend is having that feeling towards something in your life, because it seem to me losing that sucks. I can understand life beating that out of you, but I don't understand willfully abandoning it, as so many people do with their love of music.

So, here are some of the tracks I’ve been listening to:

“Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto (with João Gilberto and Stan Getz). If you only download one track, make it this one, the holy grail of Bossa Nova. A perfect pop song, too, which is hard to pull off for a five-minute plus song. If I had to give an audio example of summer to space aliens, I’d play this song.

“Patience” by Sixth Finger featuring Dew. This is a sample of the many cover versions I found in my travels. Most of the Guns & Roses Bossa album was terrible, but I thought this sounded great. Nouvelle Vague is surely the best of the Bossa cover bands, with their tilt towards 80s pop, but there are whole series of CDs for “Bossa does rock” music. And, on each of those, you’ll find that same breathy, vaguely Scandinavian-sounding female lead singer phonetically botching lyrics and singing with about as much soul as a vacuum cleaner. I say that like it’s a bad thing … but sometimes it works! Mileage varies wildly, even within one CD, but I’ve come across some great covers in this genre.

“He Vinido” by Los Zafiros. Picked up on this from a recent episode of the AMC series Breaking Bad. Cuban doo-wop from the early 60s. Not all the stuff I found was Brazilian, although I purposely avoided a lot of Mexican music as it’s too loud in comparison. Ditto salsa and merengue, two forms of music I am never going to like (and have had endless exposure to via a decade in the Bronx). But, man, “He Vinido” is just a great song. I find that a lot of southern hemisphere stabs at rock and roll, past or present, tend to be pretty legitimate, if you can handle the non-English lyrics.

"Concórdia" by Elza Soares. Not Bossa Nova, but Brazilian. I can't describe this track. Sort of like "Guitar Man" by Bread with a more funky beat and raw female singer. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in this song. The best Brazilian stuff is either bare-boned Bossa Nova or weird mixtures of influences like this.

"Aguas De Marco" by Bossacucanova
. The waters of March. A perfect Bossa Nova song, and in English, too! That signature acoustic guitar riff, the way the song keeps flowing. If songs like this don't float your boat, then you're just not into Bossa, man.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Around the Neighborhood

It happened again this year. Was out sweeping Saturday morning and feeling a bit pissed. Couldn’t do my laundry because the laundromat was over-run with strangers, by which I mean people who were randomly doing their laundry. I do mine roughly the same time every week and know the other regulars. The place has been near empty the past two weeks. This week, it’s like they’re giving out $100 bills.

But I’m out there, windy/sunny day, and I notice an unusual amount of cars driving like maniacs through the neighborhood, meaning there’s some kind of traffic blockage nearby. I often look at the faces of the people driving this dangerously, and it’s always the same dumb, blank face gazing out the window. These people aren’t in a hurry because they have brain surgery to perform later in the day. They’re just typical Queens drivers who feel some burning need to get where they’re going in eight minutes instead of 10. I can’t stand the false urgency, the self importance, the gigantic vehicles, the lack of concern for anyone around them. These people get tiresome after awhile, but let’s face it, they’re everywhere. (And I spoke too soon, as later in the day, I saw a woman do a full 360 turn in the middle of an intersection, three times, in an SUV, I guess because she saw an open parking space she would have to back into and couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted to take the time to maneuver into it. It was like watching a dog chase its tail … a three-ton dog with the brains of an ant and the ability to crush me.)

But then I hear it on the breeze. A lone bagpiper playing “America the Beautiful.” The sound keeps falling in and out of earshot with the wind. That can only mean one thing: the annual Little League parade on opening day. The playing fields are about five blocks down on the back avenue. Sure enough, the bagpipes grow stronger, and then the kids appear in the distance, marching determinedly down the back avenue, in rows with their uniforms, parents shuffling along with camcorders and digital cameras.

I love seeing this and feel bad when I miss it. Any sign of normalcy in the city, I’ve learned to appreciate and nurture because I fell off the “let’s be ‘out there’ for the sake of being out there” bandwagon a long time ago. It’s nice to recognize that underneath some layers, this is just like any other town in America.


Speaking of out there, saw something weird on the street the other day. Another sunny day, coming home from work. It was one of those days that the gutters were filled with cherry blossoms, mid-April, all this stuff coming off the trees when the wind blows hard, such a nice thing to see blossoms in the gutter as opposed to dogshit or Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cups. But as I was cutting up one of the side streets from the main drag, I heard someone playing a piano. It was some barrelhouse-sounding stuff, rolling chords, Mead Luxe Lewis.

A few yards down the block, I could see who it was. A white guy in his 20s, not particularly hipsterish, just a guy, who had dropped his backpack and was playing a beat-to-shit upright piano that someone had put on the sidewalk for trash pick-up the next day. He was having a blast, and the piano was way out of tune. This is the kind of quirkiness I can live with, as opposed to the canned junk of flash-mob pillow fights and such. The guy was walking down the street, knew how to play the piano, was obviously feeling good on a sunny day, saw a golden opportunity, and started hammering out some old boogie woogie number he knew.

Sure enough, a minute later, an old Greek woman comes barreling out of the house with a broom, shuffles down her stairs and starts swatting at this guy, cursing him in Greek. But he was laughing too hard to take it seriously, picked up his bag and started jogged down the block. Again, we could use more guys like this in the neighborhood, as opposed to the ceaseless wave of muttering zombies with iPhones and left hands glued to their ears.


It’s been weird in the neighborhood. One depressing thing that keeps happening: film crews showing up all over the place for TV shows and movies. This is a terrible sign; they’re not choosing this place because it’s a slice of life. They’re choosing it for hipster quotient which is just another sign of the gentrification apocalypse that has been going on here since the turn of the century. There have been movies filmed here in the past that were neighborhood specific, or geared to recall a different time in New York (a lot of the neighborhood recalls 1950s/60s New York in terms of the housing), but what’s going on now is just bullshit. People who scouts locations for movies move to this neighborhood because it’s been deemed a hip/pricey place to live. So, obviously, they start looking around where they live and decide certain places in the neighborhood would look great in the show/movie.

I just wish they’d get the fuck out, the whole crew of them. Last night coming off the train was like being in A Hard Day’s Night. I’ve noticed there’s been a film crew by the subway train the past week, and don’t get me started on these douchebags. Don’t know what it is about film crews – the self importance, the arrogance, the total lack of respect for the people who live in a given neighborhood – but without fail, these people always conduct themselves like assholes, as if we should be thanking them for throwing off our routines, taking up space for days on end and bringing absolutely nothing to the neighborhood but more empty hype.

I’ve heard they’re shooting scenes for a new Pacino movie, but no one cares about Pacino anymore, it’s all about young co-star C_____ T_____, who must really play big with teenage girls. (I’m not printing his name lest a search engine picks it up. The only people who would be googling this guy are teenage girls and gay guys in search of this clown displaying his washboard abs on the red carpet. A blog like this would be like reading Chinese for them.) The subway station was mobbed with them, all giggling and carrying on, grabbing each other, squealing, pushing each other, making asses of themselves … the same way they once did for The Beatles and Elvis and whoever. It took five minutes to get out of a station that normally takes 30 seconds. No police presence, near fights, which would have turned into riots in no time with all these kids milling around … just a major annoyance.

But maybe this is just another thing like the Little League scenario mentioned above and I should take heart? These kids were acting like rubes who had never seen an actor or famous person before. I have. Anyone who gets on the train and goes across the river does, routinely. And when you do … you realize that they’re just people. Some of them are incredibly beautiful. (I recall seeing Marisa Tomei at an outdoor café near the Museum of Natural History one afternoon, and it was like she had a spotlight on her, the woman was just stunningly attractive.) Some really strike you with their presence when you randomly encounter them on the street, building lobby or elevator. But, honestly, after the bolt of recognition that lasts about 10 seconds, they’re just people, and you get over it. I surely wouldn’t hang around squealing in a subway station to see one. I wouldn’t hang out anywhere to do so. I’m not sure what looking at a celebrity is supposed to do for you? Touching one? Getting one to sign a piece of paper? Honestly, no one gives a shit, least of all them, for which this stuff becomes a routine annoyance. And I see beautiful women every day, probably with a lot less baggage than any celebrity.

But look at our culture. This shit is as bad or worse than it’s ever been and grows more vapid by the minute.


The public school next door has been weird lately, too. Weird in the sense that a few months ago, someone thought it was a great idea to install a loudspeaker somewhere on the outside of the building, so that the entire neighborhood is now privy to all the sounds that come from a loudspeaker in a school. Mainly beeps signaling the beginning and ending of class periods. But, without fail, the morning announcements, too, which go on for about five minutes.

They happen just as I’m getting ready to leave my apartment at quarter after eight. And, man, I would hate to be a kid in that school. I’ve gathered the principal over there is a woman, and from these announcements, she sounds batshit crazy, or treating 12-14 year-old kids like infants as opposed to humans. Her tone of voice is always a little too “and that’s why the sky is blue, little Johnny, now isn’t it beddy-bye nappy time, boo-boo.” The worst came a few weeks ago when she made up new lyrics to Queens “We Will Rock You” to match some recycling campaign the school was apparently running. Imagine a middle-aged woman in a dress suit braying “We Will Rock You” into a microphone in a school office. I was 13 or so when “We Will Rock You” came out … and never would have predicted that something so stupid would one day happen, or be considered in any way normal. She’s trying to reach kids … by warbling out a horribly uncool version of a 30-year-old rock song that was popular when she was kid. (But I’m guessing I missed some newer TV show aimed at kids using “We Will Rock You” in one of their episodes.)

Imagine answering to this woman, and I guess you can gauge why NYC school are such a mess. Other days, what sounds like a drunk janitor is braying out “Happy Birthday” in Bill Murray's insincere lounge singer voice. I’m assuming picking out a hapless kid, or favorite teacher, to serenade. The effect to people outside the school listening to the loudspeaker is to think the place is being run by heavily-medicated inmates in a lunatic asylum. Which is probably your average New York City public school in a nutshell.


Last bit of weirdness. I usually don’t bother people on the subway train … how hard is it to sit still and mind your own business … but I’ve noticed an odd thing with some women lately on the train, something I’ve seen at least a dozen times over the past few months. I hate to single out women because guys tend to be complete assholes on the subway train: the grapefruit testes leg spread, the “little big man” act of taking up too much space, the pole leaners, the fingernail clippers … basically describing grown men showing they were raised fatherless (even if they had one). They are legion compared to the women with issues on a subway train.

But I’m starting to notice the neuroses with women a lot more lately. There’s the usual: women who appear to be bag ladies with the number of bags they’re carrying, save they’re dressed for office work. I don’t get it. What are they carrying that’s so important? And when you think it’s maybe a one-off thing, that there’s some special event at work they’re carrying all these bags for, you see them the next day and realize, no, this woman carries four bags on the subway train to work every day. Which normally doesn’t bother me, save they’ll hover over any seated person with an air of expectation that this person must give up his seat because she’s so over-burdened. Yeah, well, as noted, I know the “bag lady” routine, have seen it possibly thousands of times now in my NYC life. If I got up every time someone tried to manipulate me out of a seat, I’d never sit down on a subway train.

But this is a new one on me. I like sitting on the end seats of the newer subway cars because they’re wide enough to comfortably fit two people. The only times I get crowded are when a guy roughly my size will try to sit in one of those seats, in which case both of us are uncomfortably crowded. I’m assuming these guys are new to city life and don’t recognize you should just go on standing in a situation like this, or they’re just douchebags. Probably both. I size up every seat before I sit down, and if it looks too cramped, I stay standing.

But these end seats for two are great. Even large women aren’t a problem in them as they seem to position their bodies differently (smaller shoulders). Some people don’t like those seats because homeless people tend to favor them when they camp out on a train. But from what I’ve seen, routine trainriders can be just as scuzzy as any homeless person. So unless there’s some residual stink on the seat (which does happen sometimes) from a homeless guy camping out there, I grab that seat.

And a woman will sit next to me. A small woman, which suits me fine as it gives both of us more room. I’ll notice in the corner of my eye that she looks slightly nervous. Nothing horrible, just a person who has a lot on her mind. She’ll break out her make-up case and start doing her make-up on the train … which seems like a real bad idea, but hey, people run late and this takes a good 5-10 minutes. (I’ve also noticed, unfortunately, that beautiful women never apply make-up on a subway train; it’s always average to homely-looking women. I sometimes feel like grabbing their whirling hands and saying, “Stop, it’s not working” or “Stop, you’re already beautiful” depending on how the situation breaks.)

A woman putting on make-up on the train is in constant motion. Her arms are jerking back and forth, her hands are constantly moving over her face. It’s annoying to sit next to someone in any situation who moves that much. On a crowded subway train? It’s even worse. Again, it gets tiresome after you’ve seen this repeatedly for years on end. But after a few minutes, the woman gets her make-up on, and I think, good, now this woman can relax and take it easy the rest of her train ride.

But no. She opens her purse, gets out her iPhone or Blackberry and starts tapping out a message. As we all know, it takes a good five minutes to send out a text message of any length. Again, constant thumbing, this woman has been a non-stop flurry of motion since she sat down.

She gets done tapping out the message, puts her iPhone away, and I’m thinking, finally, she’s done monkeying around.

But no. She opens up one of her three bags and pulls out one of those god-awful free newspapers you can get at the entrance of any subway station. (If you’re reading these things, you should stop and buy a real newspaper.) It’s always the free newspaper. Always. And she starts “reading” it, but she’s not really reading it. She’s flipping through it, absorbing god knows what. She gets done the paper, and I’m thinking, finally …

But no. Her leg starts twitching. She’s sitting with her legs crossed, which takes up more space on the train than I do at twice her size, and does that until it’s time for her to get off.

In short, the woman is a nonstop blur of neurotic activity that is one small step from sitting next to someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. The fidgeting is endless, and I wouldn’t be noticing this, save I’ve seen this a lot lately, much more than usual. But I’m thinking, the same way I’m psychologically drawn to these end-cap seats on a subway train, because they’re roomier than the bench seats in the middle of a train, these women are probably drawn to them, too, so they can indulge in their routines on the train, knowing they’ll have more room to move, even with a big guy sitting next to them.

So, I just sit there, motionless save for clicking to the next track on random play on the iPod, or checking my watch, or looking out the window if it’s not too crowded. Knowing, like all things in life, that this, too, shall pass. It gets worse than this. And then the wandering mariachi band comes through the door and starts hammering away on “La Bamba” …

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Hot Rod

Back in grade school, I had a very strange friend: Hot Rod. We were in the same grade, all the same classes. He wasn’t a tough guy by any means, but he took great joy in trying to beat me with branches during recess when we went outside. Our house back then was literally right next door to the grade school (now a daycare center). I’d go home for lunch some days. I recall eating french fries drenched in ketchup on a paper plate, watching cartoons, while Hot Rod would stand at the chain-link fence outside the living-room window, pleading with me to come out to play. Which invariably meant running away from him as his mind switched into some bizarre overdrive, a branch in one hand, a murderous look in his eye.

The odd part being, we were good friends. The branch-beating thing didn’t last long, probably a few weeks in the second grade, but it’s stuck with me all these years later. I wasn’t a mean kid by any stretch of the imagination – anyone raised with me can tell you that. I’m not a mean man – got my moods like everybody else, but I’m basically a kind-hearted person. Strangers see this in my face all the time. Not necessarily a plus in New York City. But I’m large enough that if you mess with me, I could harm you, so it tends not to be a burning issue.

But I’m still wondering why I didn’t try to kick Hot Rod’s ass back then: it would have been justified and made sense. Kids were always getting into scuffles, usually over nothing, like dogs marking their territories. I can safely say Hot Rod was a nerd. He had a tendency towards large-collared shirts and weird wire-frame glasses.

I can also recall us laughing our asses off on many occasions. His family was from Belgium, but he was American born. His parents had thick European accents, were very sweet people, but this set him apart from the rest of us. He’d often bring postcards and such to class to explain where his parents were from, most of which were urinating statues and naked guys in helmets – this stuff was comedy gold for grade-school kids, we would piss ourselves laughing over these postcards.

But above all else, Hot Rod was known for one thing: singing. The guy was just a natural performer, had a great voice, was taught how to use it from an early age. Music class would find most of us terror-stricken at the prospect of singing solo in front of everyone. It didn’t help that we had to sing retarded shit like “My Hat It Has Three Corners” and “Senior Delgado.” These songs were goofy and unfamiliar to us, but we learned them by heart as we sang them over and over, usually at our desks in a group, so you could mouth the words most of the time. When it came my turn to sing solo, I’d be up there with my head down, blushing redder than a rose, plaid bellbottoms, murmuring in a toneless soprano, the idiotic lyrics of “Billy Boy” or “Old MacDonald” … while the music teacher hammered away on an out-of-tune upright piano and wondered what in the hell went wrong in his life to end up there.

Hot Rod would get up there, and he may as well have had a beer stein and lederhosen. He always knew the lyrics, and he’d be emoting, waving his arms, walking up and down the aisles, and the kids would respond to him as a performer, smiling and laughing, in disbelief that this weird kid with glasses would turn into something else when he opened his mouth to sing. A more serious song, like “Stille Genacht” (“Silent Night” in German … we learned a lot of songs in German, don’t ask me why), he’d be leaning over the music teacher’s out-of-tune piano, Dixie cup of ginger ale in hand, gazing off into the middle distance as he effortlessly reproduced the hushed tone of the night Christ was born in a manger.

As you could imagine, after the class, at recess, the tougher kids in the school would sometimes have him in the corner of the schoolyard, in a headlock, muttering shit like, “Sing for me now, songbird.” At which point they’d make him sing something like “I like big dicks” in a clenched voice of a kid trying to breath with an arm around his neck. Tough guys were always jealous of guys who could sing, or dance. It wasn’t considered manly to kids. And maybe this is why Rod went through his tree-branch phase with me. He knew I was good enough a friend that I wouldn’t reject him for letting off that sort of steam, with the knowledge that most of us felt behind the eight ball as kids.

Flash-forward a few years, and Hot Rod is the star of the glee club, with his clip-on tie, ill-fitting blazer and peach-fuzz mustache. We went on being great friends straight through high school, into our early adulthood. I can still recall him doing those dicky glee club presentations. It wasn’t like glee clubs now, doing hip pop-rock songs from the 70s and 80s. (Check this out to see the way music class never was for so many of us … fucking Listzomania!) They were doing show tunes mostly, which was ghastly uncool to 99.9% of teenage kids at the time. That 0.1% percent are now out of the closet and living happily in major urban areas.

There was one weird thing he did that solidified his geek status. The concept of human beatboxes rolled around with rap in the 80s: guys imitating the sounds of funky drumming and percussion with their mouths. Acapella groups have always done that, but it became a fad in the 80s with early rap music. But Hot Rod was doing this long before the trend started, in the late 70s and early 80s. We’d be sitting there, goofing around in home room, when suddenly, Hot Rod would start beatboxing “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright. To get that wah-wah guitar sound, he’d go “Diddle, diddle.” Along with all the hiccups and hard blowing to illustrate the shifting between beats and chords in the music. It was seriously weird, especially when he’d air drum along with his beatboxing. You may as well have put a sign next to our group of giggling guys, wearing polyester leisure shirts with unicorns on the front, that stated: “Ladies, don’t fuck us.” If one of us had shit out pants, it would have been no more or less enticing than this.

We were part of the faceless rabble in high school. Kids not weird enough to pick on. Too decent to pick on anyone. Not smart enough to be the elite brains (but close). Not into organized sports. Not into drugs. Not into popularity contests. We just had our little group of slightly misfit kids, who tried to have one foot in every camp, but never the whole body. Much like our adult worlds now, we realized the world was a ragged and insane place, and it made sense to band together in a small informal group that most people couldn’t identify if they tried. Even now when I meet people I knew in high school and we talk about who we hung out with back then, no one seems to recall my gang of friends. I don’t recall what we were doing as any form of defense mechanism – it was just gravitating towards people who “got” each other and quietly navigating that deeply fucked-up world of teenage American life.

No chicks in that group, of course! It was rare that guys and girls would be friends, or in any group of friends in high school. The stoners and jocks could pull that stuff off, but kids in the middle didn’t. You’d walk around the cafeteria before the first bell (when all the buses pulled in and deposited the kids to wait in there), and nearly every group would be all girls or all guys. If kids were dating, then you’d have boy-girl groups. Again, the jocks and stoners would fall into that category, which made them seem cool because they had bridged that gap of casually appearing to have good friends of the opposite sex.

Hot Rod and I didn’t get laid in high school – most of us didn’t. The few who did, the situations were awkward and forced, like throwing dicks at a dartboard to see where they’d land. Very few bull’s eyes. Usually just radically immature kids with raging hormones making all the wrong moves that would set the pattern for greater adulthood miscues and transgressions. Most of us fell into that category in some sense. I can see the hesitance and overly cautious consideration I had as a teenage male has been my basic M.O. in my adult life, too. And going for the “wrong girl” in some sense with my innate ability to pick out that one girl who’s unavailable in some discrete sense but presents herself as clear and open as the ocean on a sunny day.

I say all this, because Hot Rod was a desperately horny guy. He really wanted to get laid, as we all did, but it was a burning passion for him. I can’t recall if he met Cindy in high school or college. It had to be high school, because she was in ours, a few grades lower. I recall thinking she was a pretty average-looking girl. Hot Rod knew her through various church-related singing functions. I don’t think Rod was a burning Born Again Christian, but he was part of some church groups that surely leaned in that direction. And the kind of groups who always had hip young kids singing Christian-themed pop music as part of their introductory offer.

So I’m sure it came to pass that Hot Rod was doing his songbird thing when Cindy laid eyes on him and saw her own little Elvis. He was a funny, charming, guy, too, so that didn’t hurt, nerd or not. He was older, too, which a lot of nerdy/unattractive guys played to the hilt in high school with younger girls. But it wasn’t until our first year at a branch campus of Penn State that they started becoming an item, and then he’d fill me in on the wacky stuff.

As detailed earlier, I went nuts for a soon-to-be Born Again and had that experience shade nearly my whole college experience, when I should have been banging everything in sight instead of walking around tangled up and heartbroken half the time. Cindy was a Born Again … but one of those fairly typical Born Agains who swung that way because she was a naughty, naughty girl. I recall Hot Rod telling me of a routine date: “Her parents were at a Christian retreat last weekend, so I went over to her house. Knocked on the door and it didn’t seem like anyone was home. So I let myself in, walked over to the stair, and looked up. Cindy was standing at the top, naked from the waist down. The way she was looking at me, I knew to go up there. I ate her out on the staircase, and she returned the favor on the living-room sofa.”

Why couldn’t I have run into a Born Again like that? Hot Rod hit jackpot every time he pulled the lever. I wouldn’t call either a nymphomaniac, just two horny kids made even crazier by that thin patina of teenage pseudo-Christianity. He’d give me the weekly lowdown on their escapades, and I couldn’t help but be jealous. Cindy didn’t seem particularly bright or college-bound. I’m not sure where she went after high school, but it probably wasn’t the same direction as Hot Rod. He didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, that much was certain. That first year out of high school, he was the one guy I knew who was blissfully happy in a no-bullshit relationship. Most guys with girlfriends already had that sense of a very heavy anchor around their necks, with what I’d wager were very choppy sex lives based on that “wait until we’re married to really get into it” promise … that really meant “this is as good as it’s ever going to get as I find penises and sex as desirable as football and the band Rush.” Cindy loved sex, Born Again or not.

I recall her being argumentative, too, so I guess that would explain the short-term super nova effect she had on Hot Rod’s life. I don’t doubt that wherever he is now, sitting in an armchair, big-bellied, pondering his choices in life, he thinks back on that one with a genuine smile. That had to be the one relationship where everything spiraled out of control, but he hung on for as long as possible, knowing in the back of his mind that this was like a star flaming through the night sky that wouldn’t do so again for another 50 years, by which time he’d be dead or too old to care.

Hot Rod held on, but the flame went out. I recall some pretty raw years right after that. He didn’t go up to the main campus with me, where I had a blast and blossomed in some sense with a whole new pack of friends and ideas. He got a job as janitor at our old high school: sanitation engineer to be exact, when he had been studying engineering at a college a year earlier. He’d tell me of scraping dried, bloody tamp-ons from the ladies’ room walls with a paint chipper. His stories about female hygiene, and the much worse practices of women in their respective restrooms, were legendary. Strange part was, he really like working there!

Things got better after that, but that’s also when we started losing touch. When I moved to New York in the late 80s, the only times I’d see him would be when I came home and went to the firehouse, where he was a volunteer fireman in his early 20s, along with a group of a dozen or so other guys who forged a tight little drinking group down there for a good few years. It was a great place to hang out and get bombed on a Friday night. The place would be empty, so we’d sit in the main hall, where meetings and Bingo normally took place, and drink at the bar, cheaply, putting a dollar or two in the till for every bottle of Yuengling or Miller we’d pull from the fridge. There was a pool table in the next room, and I can recall more than a few fun nights hanging out with the guys, in a place that felt like a clubhouse we never had as teenagers.

And, of course, it was a guy thing, so there was that ongoing sense of all-male camaraderie we had worked to perfection in high school. Not a bad deal in high school, but being at the firehouse routinely also meant no one was getting laid or moving on to relationships, so I can see that time as a sort of holding pattern/refusal to grow up in some well-meaning sense. That should serve as a mild warning to guys in their early-mid 20s who are living the high life with their buddies and think those days will last forever. They just don’t … as well they shouldn’t. A few years later, guys get married, have kids, get real jobs, move away, etc. The loose ends get all tied up, one way or another.

I think that’s what happened with Hot Rod. I know he did go back to the branch campus, got his Associates in some type of Engineering, and then got a job as an engineer at the plastics plant my father had worked at for decades before retiring in the early 90s. Being an engineer in that place was a pretty good deal – slightly better working conditions and pretty good pay if a guy stuck with it, which I’m assuming Hot Rod did. I’d also heard he started singing in a country band with his older brothers, which sounds like the exact thing I’d hope he do in his life. Obviously, not appearing on CMT any time soon, but professional enough to play covers at bars, county fairs and weddings for good money in his spare time.

So I can see Hot Rod up on stage, probably a burly guy now, some permutation of facial hair, be it a handle-bar mustache or goatee, plaid shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and hat, with two guys who look just like him, blasting through “Friends in Low Places” while the crowd two-steps away and cheers loudly afterwards. Who knows with Hot Rod. I guess it would be easy enough to find out as there are a few people around who are still in some kind of remote touch with him. I get the vibe the life I imagine for him in a good way wouldn’t be too far from the truth.