Love and Mercy, the new movie about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a deeply moving, often brilliant film. It makes up for all the crummy rock music biopics that have come before. Those films follow the predictable three act “Behind the Music” story arc: band gets big, gets drugged, then gets redeemed, through Jesus, Rehab, or a reunion tour.
Love and Mercy is also a tale of decline and salvation, but it’s far stranger and nuanced than its predecessors. The stakes are higher. Brian Wilson is arguably the greatest single musical genius from the fertile 60s. And music, for once, plays a central role in the story.
The filmmakers depict Brian’s life by cutting between two crucial periods: the late 60s, when he created his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and the early 80s when he was in the clutches of the evil, controlling psychotherapist Eugene Landy. The original title of the movie was Heroes and Villains, a reference to a Beach Boys song. It would have worked.
Brian plays hero in the first part. In the second he shares that role with his future wife Melinda. A great story must have a great villain, and this one’s got at least two. Brian’s nemesis in the early part is his physically and emotionally abusive father Murry. We see Murry hit him, followed by a close-up of Brian’s ear. It’s a hint at the rumor that the father deafened his son in one ear by beating him with a 2 x 4. But its Brian’s description in a restaurant of his father’s violence should make every parent think twice about raising a hand to their kids.
We see Murry belittling his son. Brian premiers “God Only Knows,” a song Paul McCartney called the greatest ever written, and his father dismisses it. But the worst scene begins with a pan past the master tapes from Smile, the legendary long lost follow-up to Pet Sounds. Brian is hunkered down before the tapes when his father walks in to announce that he’s sold the Beach Boy’s publishing rights for $750,000.” Brain says, “You can’t do that.” “Oh, yes I can. What else do you expect me to do? You fired me. I was lucky to get that. They aren’t worth much. You’re washed up.” Meanwhile Brian slumps, sinks down towards the floor, defeated.
It’s no wonder Brian goes crazy, and self-medicates. No child, no matter how talented, can withstand the constant scorn of a parent. But Brian doesn’t give up his music. He can’t, because it’s his salvation, at least in the first part of this film.
When we get to the extended scenes of the making of Pet Sounds, the movie soars. I’ve spent months of my life in recording studios with studio musicians. Movies always get this peculiar mixture of work and play wrong. Until this one. As Brian led crack LA players down a miraculous, untrod road, I felt like I was there. It helps that they used the actual master tapes from Pet Sounds – mostly instrumentals, and many different from what’s on the record. Bass player Carol Kaye politely asks him why she’s got a D in her chart when the song is in A. Brian says, “No, that’s right.” He coaches two cellists in the famous triplets from “Good Vibrations.” “More staccato! Make it like a propeller,” and he illustrates with hands and tongue. A snippet of the final mix plays was he sits behind the console, eyes closed, his face aglow. He’s in heaven all the time he’s recording.
Beach Boys’ songs are placed in the movie for maximum impact. Brian admits to Melinda that he “spent three years in bed.” He’s later shown there, on his back, face obscured by a bulging belly, to the strains of “In My Room.” Yikes.
The second part of the movie is less spectacular than the first, not the least because Brian is a shell of his former self, so shut down that he’s barely alive. But this part of the movie nails a truth about survivors of childhood trauma. Murry is ten years dead, but is horribly resurrected in Eugene Landy. Landy is every bit as controlling as Brian’s father. When he rages at Brian for the sin of taking a bite of a hamburger we see the grown man become a bewildered and terrified kid.
The acting throughout is top notch. Paul Dano is spectacular as Brian. It helps that he looks like him. John Cusack nails the older, diminished Brian, though he doesn’t have quite Dano’s impact, because he just doesn’t look like Brian. Elizabeth Banks plays a fine Melinda. Her warmth and recognition of the gentle soul inside Brian makes you believe she could save him. And Paul Giametti as Eugene Landy couldn’t get any more awful and creepy.
Edgy Art Film techniques often flop, but Love and Mercy is filled with odd camera angles and surprising edits that enhance the story, starting with the beginning. We see the young Brian Wilson mumbling, and then the picture cuts to black, as if the projector is broken. But it’s Brian’s life that is broken.
Movies tend to get one thing even more wrong than recording sessions: LSD trips. Love and Mercy acquits itself in this department, avoiding the usual hokey visual and audio distortions. There’s just Brian’s blasted face, and his tone of voice as he tells his first wife, “I saw God.” We’re inclined to believe him.
The filmmakers save the distortions for their depictions of Brian’s deteriorating mental state. Audio hallucinations are much more common among those suffering mental illness than visuals. When Brian cracks up at a dinner celebrating the success of “Good Vibrations,” we see his terrified face, and hear the clattering of silverware in a crescendo that drowns out the conversation.
I undoubtedly found the re-enactment of the recording of Pet Sounds so thrilling because I know the music like the back of my hand. So if you’re a Beach Boys fan, or thinking you might become one, I recommend listening to the following before you see the movie:
The album Pet Sounds. The songs “Surf’s Up,” “Until I Die” and “In My Room.”
B.B. King died last week. This is a strange tribute, I know, but nonetheless a tribute. At a turning point in my life, the great bluesman pulled me from the abyss.
PSYCHEDELIC HORROR ALERT
February, 1969, Freshman Year, Wesleyan University
It was Saturday night around ten thirty. I bought a hit of acid from a guy down the hall. Later –too late – I would hear that there was something wrong with that batch. Too strong, or maybe poisoned.
It came on fast and strong, bearing down like a train. I wandered the dorm halls looking for someone who was still awake. I heard music followed it into a room of strangers. The Beatles’ “Glass Onion, ” John Lennon’s creepy report from the other side of 1000 LSD trips. When the downward guitar slide came I felt my spirit sliding right with it, towards the edge of some precipice. I’ve never been able to listen to that song since.
I got in bed and tried to go to sleep. The moment I closed my eyes my vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of dark, roiling diamonds that rearranged themselves in sync with my pulse, sucking me towards the void. I opened my eyes before I was lost. It didn’t seem possible, but the acid kept getting stronger.
The words looped in my mind –I’m freaking out, freaking out. The decades have softened the punch of those words, eroding their meaning, until today you hear – “I got to my car and freaked out when I saw a parking ticket! “ “I freaked out when she showed up in that pink dress!” – from people who, bless them, know nothing of its origins.
Let me tell you about freaking out.
I leapt from bed and ran out into the night down a path at the bottom of a canyon sliced through the snow of a week ago. A zero degree wind breathed death in my face.
I stood in the door of Dope Central. For a moment my sprits rose at the sight of Clem and Ira. Friends! But as I looked at them I went down the chute again. With identical brown Afros and full beards, they looked like twins even when I was straight. Now I saw twin insectoid devils, the ends of their mustaches nozzles that squirted a steady stream of curlicues and periwinkles scything off into the incensed gloom of their den, humming in time with my pulse as they flew.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem opened his proboscis. His voice buzzed like an electric razor. “No you’re not.”
He handed me a pipe. “Here, this will mellow you out.”
The grass didn’t mellow me out. It just turned up the red and green patterns teeming over every surface of the room to vermillion and chartreuse.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem looked annoyed. He couldn’t exactly send me out in that bitter cold.
But I wasn’t going to be much fun. His face lit up. Crazy. Perhaps there was fun here after all. “How about a little music?”
He put on the second side of the Procol Harem album “Shine on Brightly.” It’s filled with a suite entitled “In held (sic) twas I.” A first person account of a descent into madness, some of it sung and some spoken, against a musical background that runs the gamut from rock to circus music.
I heard a Hammond organ and was instantly transported back to when I was ten and by mistake tuned the TV into a soap opera, “The Edge of Night.” Some dismal apartment where it was always dusk, where the gloom pressed down on the inhabitants, hunching their shoulders down, collapsing their faces into perpetual frowns. They barked at each other in endless argument, though they agreed on one point – life was hopeless. As the scene climaxed that organ swelled –Stay tuned! Back in just a minute, with another round of misery.
I lurched back to the present. The organ was gone. A voice narrated, telling of a pilgrim’s audience with the Dalai Lama. The pilgrim asks, “What’s the meaning of life?” The Dalai Lama says, “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?” I was instantly young, on my father’s lap, hearing him tell of Jack and the magic beans. Life was indeed like a beanstalk, with the Giant sitting up there…
Jaunty circus music, and I entered a funhouse. Steeled myself for my image in a distorted mirror, for what was surely lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce.
The song got down business. Gothic rock, a blazing guitar punctuating the lyric:
“In the autumn of my madness when my hair is turning grey…” Madness. I nodded my head. And then:
I know if I’d been wiser this would never have occurred
but I wallowed in my blindness so it’s plain that I deserve
for the sin of self-indulgence when the truth was writ quite clear
I must spend my life amongst the dead who spend their lives in fear.
How could this singer know my story so well? Gobbling a magic bean when I knew better. And punishment, so richly deserved.
A lull, and then the worst moment. That thing lurking in the funhouse. It pounced. A razor guitar vomited an atonal barrage, which leapt from the speakers and lunged at me in the form of a giant spider. As it attacked I held my breath and clenched my fists.
Finally the suite ended, with a reprieve: an uplifting, baroque-rock chorale, evoking the Christmas carols of my youth, if not Bach himself. Like sprays of rain after a thunderstorm that wicked guitar interrupted in places, reminding me that the spider was still out there. But I saw a glimmer of hope that the sun was about to come out.
It was dashed a moment later when the needle rose from the last grooves of the record and moved to the beginning, a sight with the same effect as the blade of a guillotine rising.
As Clem’s grin widened I understood his plan. Ever the scientist he had come up with an experiment to pass those hours. He was going to let this suite keep repeating all night. Turn the thing I loved, music, on me. Keep playing it over and over to see if he could topple me into full psychosis.
It was working. The Dalai Lama, Beanstalk and evil circus evoked the identical associations in me. Except now I knew that the spider was around the corner. Riveting as the music was, a part of my mind was busy making thoughts. Thoughts that I was sure proved that I was insane.
I was a nobody, a nothing. I had nothing. No girlfriend. No success at anything. All I’d ever done was run away.
What I’d been running from my whole life was my father, the giant, who’d recently become a giant before the world. I had become nothing because he had become everything.
The record ended for about the tenth time. In the moment’s silence as the arm rose to start it again, I pointed out the east window, in the direction of the state mental hospital I knew was there. I rose from the floor and stood over Clem. “Take me to the nut house.”
He shook his head violently, and I knew that even insectasoids know fear. His plan was working too well. He scrambled to his feet and shoved me back to the floor. It was freezing cold out there. The hospitals would mean police, which wouldn’t do at Dope Central. The song started again.
What strikes me now is that while my visual hallucinations were quite in line with psychosis, the thoughts that I believed meant I was crazy were anything but. I’d actually never been so clear about the truth of my predicament.
What was deluded, if not crazy, was the denial I’d lived with my whole life. The belief that my parents were perfect parents, our relationship fine. And that I was fine.
That, as my mother often said, there was “nothing wrong with Johnny.” Nothing that wasn’t my fault for being an under-achiever, for not finally giving it that push that would make me that famous scientist they always wanted, that would let me catch up with my father…
LSD brutally shoved my face into the plain truth: Going my parent’s way I was bound to lose. The new way, the Way of the Hippie Prankster, seemed impassable to me. It had landed me here, at the edge of the abyss.
Dawn finally came. I woke up my friend Michael. We went to the dining hall and watched the sun illuminate Indian Hill cemetery. Michael reassured me,
“You’re not crazy. Just had some bad acid. You’ll come down.”
A trickle of gratitude. I was not alone.
By evening I was almost down. Michael and his girlfriend Linda invited me to a concert. I followed them reluctantly into a cavernous building, where my father had once taken me to see basketball games. The floor was covered in black plastic to protect it from concertgoer’s shoes. I stepped towards the edge and it rippled like water, then started churning like it was going to suck me down.
Michael’s girlfriend smiled and said, “You’re fine.” She and Michael took my hands and ferried me to our seats on the floor.
B. B. King walked on stage with a big smile and his precious guitar “Lucille.” That smile never left as he gently sang and pulled silky licks from Lucille. I had a glimmer, then burst of good feeling – something 12 hours ago I was sure I’d never know again.
There at the bottom, where I was nobody, where I had nothing, I’d forgotten something. I had my own Lucille. I’d been right to switch my major to Music. But I’d been neglecting my guitar. I got serious about practicing.
My friend Michael died a year ago. The dining hall and place where we heard the concert. are demolished. And now B.B. is gone.
“Don’t it always seem to go. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” –Joni Mitchell.
I started blogging at Open Salon almost five years ago, with a post (a love letter, really) to Joni Mitchell. As of the 9th of March, OS is officially dead.
Open Salon was a bloggers dream: a platform with a built in audience. I made friends there. A few I met in person, others on the phone, and many through exchanges in the comments. And I learned a great deal about writing. I had started writing five years before. Writing a book, a memoir no less, not knowing how challenging that form is. I ignored a friend’s advice that I might want to practice with a few songs before attempting the B Minor Mass. Ignored all the novelists who started with short stories.
Blogging gave me practice in a short form. Someone suggested posts should be under 1000 words, so I tried to stay under 2000. That alone taught me a lot about self-editing. Finding the wheat and tossing the chaff. As I received comments, and ratings, I began to think about readers. I was mystified by how my assessment of my work wasn’t always in line with that of my audience. I became a little less mystified when I realized that readers have topics that interest them more than detailed explorations of the inner landscape of my cranium. Write about The Beatles, and many readers will come along just for the ride. People love lists. They like hearing about my (once) famous father. They like it when words strike some emotional chord. Love. Loss. Passion. Poetic ramblings about frog life along a country road? Not so much.
Salon published three of my OS pieces on what we OSers called “Big Salon.” Even then Salon had started its long slide into (mostly) the click-bait swamp. But it was a shot in the arm to finally “be published.” And to be told that my piece had garnished 90,000 page views. The Salon pieces led to publication at Talking Writing (edited by an OS blogger), and The Good Men Project, even a paid gig! ($300.)
Commenting at Open Salon was of course a game – you comment on your favorites, and they’ll comment on you. But it was more than that. I could tell what comments were heartfelt. A lot of them. And I tried to return in kind. An Open Salon blogger turned me onto Gillian Flynn, before Gone Girl. More than a few writers made me envious. The good kind of envious, which makes you write better.
I’ve been a lousy blogger in recent years because I’m busy working on three books. I started writing eleven years ago, in which time I’ve become codgerier, tireder, with a memory that’s increasingly sieve-like. But I still have ambition. I WILL publish my books, preferably by traditional means, but one way or the other. And I WILL have readers! Five, fifty, fifty-thousand? Does it really matter?
Death is terrible and sad no matter what form it takes. But I find particular eeriness in the demise of online institutions. Maybe because they don’t feel alive in the same way as a newspaper or a magazine. There’s something insubstantial about a blog where the writer hides behind an avatar. Is it a he, a she, or a bot writing it? And the anonymous trolls that savage comment threads. Could there really be that many hate filled people, or is it just one with different handles? Or more Bots? At the same time, everything online feels eternal. Isn’t that what people are afraid of, the fact that everything posted online is forever?
Content may be forever, but people are not. When the hilarious political satire blog Jon Swift went dark it was because some person named Al Weisel had died. It left a small hole in my life, and I tried to fill it by reading everything I could about the man behind the blog. But there wasn’t much. Doghouse Riley brought curmudgonery to the level of high art. When its proprietor Douglas Case died he left us with nothing but a name. Andrew Sullivan revealed much more about himself at the Daily Dish, but when it ended last month I really felt the loss. It had become my morning source for news and all kinds of weird stuff, after the NYT site.
Fortunately, the death of Open Salon doesn’t correspond with anyone’s demise. And many of the people there are still around, at Our Salon, or on their own blogs. But whatever happened to Scarlett Sumac, Hoop Jr., Bellwether Vance? (To mention just a few.)
I would love to hear from any OSers who want to keep in touch. Please feel free to email me: johnkmanchester (at) gmail.
I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.
Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.
Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right
I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.
It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.
When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.
Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.
But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.
They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.
Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s. Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.
Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.
Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….
He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.
And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.
I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies
I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.
“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.
I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.
“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:
Summer of Love, which I was a part of….
And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!
He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!
He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.
As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:
Love is a stripper.
Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.
He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.
I’ll let Marty close this show:
Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too
Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow
Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow
My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.
She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)
It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.
After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.
Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.
How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.
I just moved to California from Massachusetts. I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.
Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.
Judging. And stereotyping.
What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?
A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.
They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….
Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.
Bellagio, Las Vegas
They both have water, but….
Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)
I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.
I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.
Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.
They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.
“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”
“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”
“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.
The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.” He reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.
Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.
“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” Horace Greeley said this, or perhaps not.
The view from my door.
How is it that I’m suddenly living in California, after 63 years on the East Coast? I’ve been asking myself this question for the last two weeks.
The easy explanation is that our son and grandson moved here and need our help. True, but it all started a long time ago, forty-four summers to be precise, back at the end of the fairy tale 60s…..
Once upon a time there was a young hippie who lived in Connecticut. Though enrolled in college he was not much of student, for he whiled away the hours playing guitar and reading books like The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. So he was forever dreaming of the Great Wizard Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who traveled the country in a Magic Bus experiencing unimaginable adventures, gobbling lysergic potions and dancing to the sounds of the Wizard’s minstrels, the Grateful Dead. The Wizard Kesey spoke in riddles. He said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” The young hippie didn’t know what this might mean, because when he looked around there was not a psychedelic bus in sight.
Then one day he was strolling down the big hill at the college when he saw a bus, and no ordinary school bus, but painted the blue of a robin’s egg. At that very moment the bus door creaked open and out popped the driver, a fellow in overalls with the longest beard the young hippie had ever seen, who smiled and waved, Come on board!
In no time the young hippie was “on the bus,” rolling away to parts unknown. Many hours passed in which he became ravenous. But all there was to eat was a sack of dried hippie cereal. He gobbled it by the handful until he felt a massive bellyache coming on. But neither the bellyache nor the dreary lowlands through which they passed could stop the quivering in his chest that told him some great miracle awaited him at the end of this journey.
Then they drove onto the grounds of some kind of outdoor stadium with an enormous stage high in the air upon which began to appear the minstrel heroes of his youth. It was hard to know which was more wondrous – Buddy Guy, The Band or Janis Joplin. And then as from the pages the book which had inspired his dreams, those minstrels from the legendary bus itself, the Grateful Dead, appeared and played well and sang not so well.
He was invited onto the train the minstrels traveled on, and who should he find eating scrambled eggs and toast like any ordinary hippie but Jerry Garcia, Guitar Wizard and chief minstrel of the Dead. He greeted the young hippie with a twinkle in his eye and agreed to be interviewed for the college newspaper. Soon the young hippie’s eyes where wide as saucers, for the Wizard spoke of wondrous things, not the least the fact that he was at that very moment still flying, having eaten a slice of birthday cake that had been dosed with the Pranksters favorite potion, LSD, as was the custom with the Dead.
The young hippie’s audience with the Great Guitar Wizard lasted long into the afternoon. By the time he got off the train he was sure he’d found that wonderful thing he’d ridden all this way to find. And indeed the Wizard had gifted him with the resolve to make his career in music. And so he did.
Yet something told him that it was not time to return home yet, that more wonders awaited him out in the great land. He abandoned the big blue bus for a small blue bus, a VW camper, and continued west with two friends from the college. Their friendship was fair, and the food was better on the small bus: now they shared once a day a whole pot of brown rice with a can of Campbell’s Soup. Even so the young hippie became hungrier and hungrier as they crossed misty mountains and traced deep dark canyons on their way West.
The young hippie became convinced that the mysterious thing he sought must lay at the very edge of the continent, that the sight of the Great Pacific Sea would be a wonder all in itself.
And so it was. They stood high on a cliff gazing on a vastness that made the Pacific’s sister the Atlantic look pale and piddly as a mud puddle. The sun was about to set and the three hippies simultaneously had the same thought – How much more wondrous would this sunset appear if they could taste of the magic potion?
At that very moment some local riffraff appeared from the beach below sold the weary travelers a potion, which they ate. The great glowing orb went down. As it approached the horizon, already resplendent with colorful jiggles and squiggles, its bottom flattened and oozed to the sides so that it resembled nothing so much as a hat. The travelers looked at each other. Was that it, what they’d come all across the continent for? Did that hat somehow contain that illusive answer, the answer to the question of existence?
They would never know, because like that the sun was gone and they stood down on the beach in the pitch black with an icy wind howling at them from Japan right through their bones. The riffraff who’d sold them the potion did have the sense to make a fire, but soon as they approached it to get warm it blew smoke in their eyes. And the riffraff spent the rest of the night telling over and over of things too boring to repeat, for it turned out they were not only riff raff, but morons.
By the time the sun finally reappeared the young hippie vowed that we would never dark the door of that potion again. And to date he has not.
It was high time to return East to the college, but one last wonder beckoned: the fabled city of San Francisco, promised land of the hippies. Yet when they reached the streets of Haight and Ashbury they found them to be not paved with gold, and as by some curse emptied of every last hippie, with not even an emaciated speedfreek in sight.
Where could the hippies have gone? Another friend from the college had told them of a girl who lived up in Marin north of the City. They drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and were immediately swallowed by the mouth a dark tunnel, and despaired, except that one of them pointed to the rainbow painted around the mouth of the tunnel and said, “I think this is a friendly tunnel.”
And so it was, for they emerged into the little village of Mill Valley, a place so rustic and cute and crawling with granola that they thought they must have dreamed it. They wound up an enchanted canyon through swirling fog to the girl’s house where she invited them in and showed them the stream that ran right through the living room, and as was the custom they cried, “Oh, wow!” And then she further blew their minds by opening her vast refrigerator, saying, “my food is yours,” and handing them her stash, “And these magic herbs, too,” and pointing to beds with thick mattresses and clean sheets, “And here you may sleep.”
To say that they were hungry at this point is to say that the Great Sea is full of water. They smoked some of the magic herb and ate a bologna sandwich, and then another one. They went outside and craned their necks up at red-barked trees that stretched to the sky. And the young hippie pronounced, “I shall make my home here, in Hippie Heaven.”
But the young hippie returned to the college. Many years passed in which he grew old. His music flourished, yet not so much that he was rich. He was not the last to discover that Hippie Heaven, and soon the houses became more expensive. So though he sometimes visited San Francisco, he could never afford to make it his home.
Until now. I’ve been living for the last two weeks up a canyon in Mill Valley. It’s only til the end of the month, as we look for a place that we can afford in the East Bay.
I have long believed that if you want something badly enough, for long enough, you’ll get it. Oakland may no be Mill Valley, but we’re here, in the Bay Area, and it’s a kind of promised land.
This post is an experiment. I normally never listen to music when I write. Like many musicians music can never really serve as background for me. I can’t help listening to it, and it’s distracting to my words. Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s new album Lights Out.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my nineteen-month-old grandson. He has a limited vocabulary – “wa-wa” when he wants a drink, “whee-whee” when he hears a siren, “dig-dig” when he sees a bulldozer, apparently the most fascinating thing in the world. When he sees anything or anyone else he likes he yells, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and I can’t help but think he’s inadvertently quoting The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” number one exactly fifty years ago.
The world blasts into my grandson’s unjaded consciousness unfiltered, and his reactions blast out, unsullied by second-guessing or consideration of what anybody might think of him. It was the same when I first heard The Beatles. My musical ears were fresh as J.J.’s and I responded with my own unembarrassed “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I joined a Beatles imitation band and in a few years gave up the dreams of parents and grandparents for me and dedicated my life to music.
Fifty years later I’m done with making music and happy to finally be able to listen for sheer pleasure, without studying what I’m hearing. The problem recently is that I’ve got nothing to listen to. My ears have gotten jaded. Nothing’s been doing it for me – not Jimi Hendrix, Nerina Pallot, not even J. S. Bach, my ultimate fallback. Even the most sublime music gets tired when you hear it too often.
The obvious thing is to find new great music. I’ve been looking. And looking.
Today it found me. I was messing around on itunes when in its wisdom it flashed a banner for the new Ingrid Michaelson album, Lights Out, a wisdom informed by my previous purchases of Ingrid’s previous efforts, Everybody and Human Again.
The song that first sold me on Ingrid Michaelson was “Ghost.” It’s one of the all time great pop torch songs. I’m always a sucker for strings, and it’s got plenty, woven into a masterful and dramatic arrangement. I’m an even bigger sucker for a big hook melody, and it’s got that too. Ingrid’s voice whispers, weeps and wails its way through a downright harrowing tale of someone reduced by bad love to a wraith, desperately clinging to the melody like the lover she’s lost.
Like all great pop records I’m swept up in the sound, and only listen to the lyrics later. To find that they’re as impeccably crafted as every other aspect of her productions.
As I moved on from “Ghost” I was surprised to find that Ingrid’s “Ghost” voice was only one of several. Like the great Dusty Springfield she can reinvent her pipes when the song requires it.
And many of them do, especially on Lights Out. Here her songwriting ranges from exuberant pop (“Girls Chase Boys”) to “Ghost”-like haunted (Open Hands) to spooky and experimental (Handsome Hands), blue eyed soul (“Warpath”) to the exquisite and transcendent (“Wonderful Unknown.” ) This last song is about marriage, a sweet memento mori in which love and impermanence are perfectly balanced. The ostensible hook, (“Here we go…”) is a feint that disguises the real hook, which snuck up and eventually knocked me right on my ass. She sings it with husband Greg Laswell, in what I can only hope is a testament to an extraordinary marriage: “In the best way, you’ll be the death of me.” Lurking around the back of the arrangement are the Mellotron flutes from The Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” Almost enough to make me think she knows I’m listening…
I had a bad moment with that hook, afraid I’d just been infected with an earworm. Then came the next song, and the next with hook after hook and they somehow miraculously canceled each other out, conferring a kind of immunity. For now.
For all of the stylistic variations, Ingrid Michaelson never forgets her main mission –distilling emotion to a luscious 190-proof, as seductive and potent as the finest Absinthe, then serving it up with spoonfuls of caramelized sound that remove any hints of wormwood. Because make no mistake, this woman’s feelings run deep and sometimes dark.
There’s an ingenuousness in her voice that confers trust – the trust that she won’t lie about those feelings. It’s a quality that’s sorely lacking in so many female pop singers of recent decades, who emote and caterwaul and perform melismatic acrobatics, but whose real message is “buy my record.” (I’m not naming names – last time I did I got the Pomplamouse minions after me. It was bad.)
Many of Ingrid’s early songs, like “The Way I Am,” display a naiveté and tendency to repetition such that they could almost be mistaken for children’s songs. But the simplicity of her recent work is that of mature art, which comes from paring away all unnecessary ideas and attitude.
It’s a testament to the fallen state of the music business that this artist, who fifty years ago would have been on a major label and world famous, languishes on her own label, and is far from a household word.
Except that as of yesterday Lights Out was No. 3 in all music on Amazon. And right next to Linda Ronstadt, another woman who knows a thing or two about expressing emotion with her voice. (Sadly silenced.)
And so just in time for Easter and Passover and pagan Rites of Spring, music is reborn, at least for me.
So what’s the result of my experiment? It’s got me feeling a bit like my grandson. When it comes to Ingrid Michaelson right now, I’m all “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Nothing wakes the inner child like music and art. Except maybe the outer child.