Got asked for the zillionth time last night how we’ve been married forever. Well, I said, it’s been thirty eight years of me mansplaining to an Indian who’s not gonna listen to a white man no matter what. Fyl laughed. The earnest questioner was as bewildered as before. Maybe you think about it too much Fyl marriedsplained, and the tenor player began a gorgeous, perfect Skylark, Fyl closing her eyes as jazz love filled the room.
Power’s been off and on, mostly off, all day here in our stretch of Silver Lake. Gotta love the DWP, delivering juice with all the intermittent excitement of a fourth world capital besieged or maybe Caracas on a bad day for socialism. I made dinner in the dark. Spilled milk. Didn’t cry. Ate in a candle lit room accompanied by our battery operated phonograph. I had listened to Chicago jazz all afternoon–found an extraordinary LP side of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickinson, Wild Bill Davison and Bud Freeman from the 1950’s I don’t think I’d ever listened to, with a riotous Muskrat Ramble at be bop tempo, just nuts. At one point I realized I’d listened to three LP’s worth of tracks none of which had been cut less than ninety years ago. An afternoon like that. Then the power came back on halfway through some late forties Ellington. Cat Anderson hit a high note and switched on all the lights. So I put the turntable away and reset all the clocks and started laundry and got online when Elmer Fudd at the DWP tripped over the extension cord again and the whole neighborhood was draped in dusk. As it lingered, ever darker, I lit candles and pulled out the record player again and switched to the two Bowie LPs I have left (I used to have a dozen, but they’re gone) and cringed at Kooks, as always. Then power came back on finally and I put the record player away and blew out the candles and was about to turn on the computer when Jerry Lewis at the DWP beat me to it by falling onto the main off switch with his foot stuck in a waste basket. Darkness again. The whole neighborhood enveloped in darkness. I sat in the living room in the dark and listened to distant light. A siren cut the stillness and coyotes howled and it was like the end of civilization, like Paris in the depth of the 14th century, beset by plague and war and brigands and famine, when wolves haunted the night time streets and snatched the unwary. Like that. Well, not quite like that. It was dark, though. So I lit more candles, pulled out the record player, and listened to the first Buzzcocks LP which I bought forty years ago next year, and it sounded gloriously low fi like it did on cheap punk rock record players in 1978, and I sat in the dark and remembered what a great album it had been to fuck to, but never mind. The second album sounded even better, incredibly creative, and just as Late For the Train reached its swirling, soaring, pounding finish the power came back on, lights on everywhere. Damn, someone at the DWP has groovy timing.
And here comes the epilepsy, a buzzing numbing fog. I forgot.
Driving down Melrose on the fringes of Hollywood a couple nights ago I stopped at a light and saw, painted on a wall in big brushed strokes, “Read Kerouac”. I can’t remember if there was an exclamation point or not. It was kind of cool, the idea that 21st century beatniks still hunker down with dog-eared paperbacks of On the Road. They probably don’t, though.They read it on an iPad at a coffee house. This was Larchmont, one of those very nice L.A. neighborhoods with a whiff of the westside. This is an ebook kind of place. Ebooks and iPhones and electronic cigarettes. I suppose you can still be a beatnik that way. I suppose you can still read On the Road on an iPad and fantasize that you, too, could have been a road buddy with Jack Kerouac, drinking in the same bars and banging the same women and doing the same speed. There’d be poets and painters and method actors. Crackers and spades and PR’s. Parties and readings and brawls. Jazz, lots of jazz. And free verse. Not a rhyme in sight.
Maybe some little Walter Mitty of a hipster stares into the screen as he clacks away. Maybe he’s transported by his own vivid imagination to a land where everything is wood or metal or paper and black and white and good or bad or nothing at all. Yeah, baby. The high tech coffee house disappears and he’s playing the bongos and a chick who looks just like Ava Gardner can’t keep her eyes off of him. His fingers ripple across the bongos like he was born in Havana, effortless, African, Left Bank, Harlem, real, baby, real. She purrs that she loves him. She wants to love him right now, anywhere, right there. He doesn’t even look up. The coolest never do. Got no time, baby, no time, he tells her, I’m playing the bongos. She sighs but doesn’t leave. He knew she wouldn’t. They never do. Dames like her are always there. But great moments on the bongos are special.
Me, well, I don’t really read Kerouac. On the Road didn’t send me. Not my thing. I never played the bongos, either. And sadly, I know it ain’t the 1950’s. Seeing Read Kerouac on that wall was like seeing a Bird Lives! or Clapton is God on a wall in New York or London. You’d wonder where the scrawler had been. I mean Bird is decidedly not alive. Clapton is not divine. And Kerouac ain’t my idea of somebody you have to read. But some little nostalgic visionary down there in a nice apartment off Larchmont thinks we do need to read Kerouac. He knows what the is is. What the be of the is is. The to be, baby, or the not at all. Dig? The reefer smoke unfurls around our heads. Time to split. Sirens dog us as we head down the street. But they’ll never find us. We’re invisible. Invisible men. Ultraviolet. You need the right shades to see us and baby, you ain’t got ’em. He and Ava and Cassidy and Marlon Brando’s gardener disappear into the night. It’s a big city. They’re out there somewhere. Read Kerouac is written on the wall, in letters big and red and glistening.
Of course, Melrose being Melrose my first reaction was that Read Kerouac was a band name. Or maybe some viral marketing for an upcoming film of the same name. Or maybe it was left there by an independent film production crew. Or maybe someone was making a video.
Maybe it’s an art project.
I like the Walter Mitty of a beatnik idea best, though. Some little internet nebbish at a Starbucks stares into his screen which dissolves to black and white and the clatter of a manual typewriter. Words flow, in streams, in torrents, like a Charlie Parker solo. He’s playing the bongos, and making literature with every word he speaks. Oh do the women love him. They cling to him, glom onto him, breathe when he breathes. They can’t help themselves. He’s read Kerouac.
Written in 2007 and appearing on the LA Weekly.com site, this seems ancient now, from another life time, another person really, utterly unjaded and trying hard as he possibly can to be a jazz critic. Fun story, though, and a very fond memory.
I love my buddy Dean. Ya can’t not love him…he’s a nut. And inspired, brilliant, funny, knows everything and everybody Sicilian motormouth of a musician from New York City with a heart the size of Indiana. A place he probably hates. So Dean begins emailing and calling me at work on Monday morning (no kidding…it was a Monday morning) and starts in at turbospeed about some guy whose name I never did get except I think it sounded Slavic or Balkan, something central European and points east who’s a saxophone player from Cleveland and he’s the best and yadda yadda freaking yadda. And something about a neighbor who gets his Sicilian heart and points south a-stirring, and they are new best buddies, and she’s a sweetheart, and I’ll love her, and she’s an ex-dancer or something, and she comes from Cleveland, and she’s a publicist now and has this new client who’s this saxophonist from Cleveland, and she’s got him a gig or showcase at Catalina’s and you have to be there because I told her (in a drunken moment I am sure) that you are a “jazz journalist” for that weekly whatever it is you write for and I promised you’d be there. Continue reading
We went out to Elliott Caine’s pad in South Pasadena last night, like we do every year. We cover the door while he and Lei take the kids trick or treating. South Pasadena–as old as it gets in Southern California, full of Victorian homes–is Halloween heaven (now there’s a concept). All the houses are tricked out in ghoulish finery and kids are drawn from all over like moths to flame. They come in a trickle at first, then grow from bunches to throngs to armies to a vast herd of tiny little princesses two feet tall and rangy punk rockers in old Thrasher t-shirts and all the leggy moms herding them along. Trick or treat they all yelled, over the crazy screeching free jazz Elliott had put on–I remember a little bumble bee dancing to Ornette–and Fyl and I took turns dropping in a Snickers or Reeses or Butterfinger or whatever. We had more than enough candy, we thought, twenty bags full–about twenty pounds of it–but we didn’t, and after dropping them singly into an endless array of paper bags and pillow cases and plastic pumpkins, we were wiped out before 9 pm. Elliott Caine had already returned before then, exhausted. It’s crazy out there he said, giddy with it all. I dropped in the last few candies and apologized to the line of little ones that we were out. You try saying that to a pair of four years olds in matching Superman outfits without feeling guilty. Their mom smiled and walked them off to the next place. I would have given her two candies. Though I gave the dads candies too.
Empty of treats, we turned out the lights and blew out the jack o’ lantern and turned off the flapping bat with the glowing red eyes and shut the door. In the dark, ghostly, the armies of the night shuffled along, little ghouls and cowboys and monsters and superheroes. Elliott’s kids, home and exhausted, were packed upstairs to bed, and the neighbors departed with their own sleepy broods. The music had gone from screaming to swinging–Miles, Dizzy, Lee Morgan–and the air turned sweet and fragrant, the brandy was good, the beer cold, the pizza cold too. We talked of jazz and everything else late into the night and on into All Saints Day. Yawning. Time to break it up. As we drove home, grown up ghosts and monsters and super models and a Donald Trump or two walked unsteadily down the sidewalk.
I’ve never been much for grown up Halloween myself, I like to see all the kids in costumes. They’re mostly handmade now, little hand sewn princess outfits or zombie get ups made from shredded hand me downs and liberally applied make up. I like it better that way. As I drop candies into the bags it took me back to frosty harvest nights in Maine, the moon full, a chill wind blowing through the leafless trees. The ancient empty house up the street was haunted, the older kids told us, and we believed them. A whole family of headless ghosts lived there. They’d all seen them. None of us had, and we didn’t want to. We kept walking. There were unhaunted houses a half block up, with real people living in them, and big jack o’ lanterns out front. I tried not to look at the old cemetery as we passed it, wishing I wasn’t wearing a ghost costume. A cold wind blew across the headstones. Dead branches creaked and moaned. It was an endless walk, past the unruly dead in the cemetery, past the ancient wall, to the first house with all the squealing kids scurrying to the door. We were almost to the wall and I reached out to touch the lichen covered brick. A mistake. Out stepped a zombie. We shrieked and nearly bolted. Trick or treat he yelled, and laughed a dead man’s laugh.
It was the best Halloween ever, and as I drifted of to sleep that night I thought about the Great Pumpkin (that was its first year, 1966) wishing it was real. That was our last Halloween in Maine, and not a year goes by that I don’t remember just how perfect it was.
(Good lord….this is an abandoned draft for a piece I later posted called Mix Tapes. It began as an essay about cassettes. Then apparently I was possessed by Jack Kerouac. Strange, in that I was never a fan. But here I am in the imaginary travelogue of a Good Sam Club beatnik. Apparently at some point I reread this, blanched, and then fearing for my sanity I lopped off these paragraphs. Fun idea, though, you have to admit.)
Part of the problem is that it’s virtually impossible to actually play my old mix tapes anywhere. I still have my ridiculously fancy double cassette deck I bought cheap in the technology’s final throes. It has all these sad features that attempted to match CDs. You can program a cassette and it will play the tunes in any order you want. One tune will end with a loud click, then the machine will whir, click, whir again, click again, and another tune will come out. All these tunes off a cassette played in random sequence. Both sides. Side A track three followed by side B track seven followed by side A track one. Whatever. It seemed so sad and pointless. Like making a really nifty adding machine to compete with calculators or a glow in the dark slide ruler to compete with personal computers. Yet I consider it a tragedy that cars no longer have built in cassette players. Best was a cassette/CD player. Ideal would be cassette/CD/mp3 player. Of course now cars come with a built in computer. So you have CD/mp3 player/infinite variety of web-based music. Which is when you crash the car. So you hire a chauffeur.
Maybe a motor home would be better. You could have live music in a motor home. Can you imagine anything cooler? Hauling ass across the Mojave at three in the morning, the craziest shit happening right behind you. That long sleepy night time stretch between Baker and State Line, all the scenery, the long dead volcanoes to the south, the vast beds of ancient lakes, the desiccated mountains all utterly gone in the darkness, and you’d be ensconced in that driver’s seat, drinking coffee but thinking of whiskey and behind you some handpicked players playing a long, long set, hundreds of miles worth of jazz. Inner Urge? They’d tear into it. The Bridge? Like you’d never heard it. Giant Steps? Need you ask? Then next stop 88 miles and they break into East Broadway Run Down and you’re barreling past all those goddamn trucks. You’re flying. Like this is the most righteous motor home ever. It’s maxed out, tricked out, pumped up, and fully stocked. There’s a bar, a bartender even, and it’s like a 747 lounge but way cooler. I read about a party Jackie Gleason threw on a train from New York City to Los Angeles. A solid week of a rolling righteous jazz party. The partiers got off that train and they died right there in Union Station of shock at the sight of so many sober people. They hadn’t seen somebody uncrocked who wasn’t in a Pullman uniform since Albany. (The city, obviously, not Joe.) Well I’d throw a motor home party and zig zag across the states with live jazz and beautiful scenery and local eateries and picnics full of leftovers and produce from farmer’s roadside produce stands. Stop late at night, sit round a fire and talk and talk. Drinks, marshmallows, the sweet smell of reefer coming from somewhere. Low volume chatter, people are sleeping. Early next morning we’d relaunch with a scatter of gravel and an open road. Put something into the cassette/cd/mp3 player. Something easy to start with. And more coffee. There’d still be a little pink in the eastern sky. No fixed direction, no plan, no nothing. Just moving and looking and breathing all that air. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere the band would start, just jamming on a blues. A long lazy trumpet solo. A river off in the distance. Mountains ahead. A fork in the road. Someone flip a coin. Left or right. East, west, north, south. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just keep moving and jamming and living a crazy, beautiful life. Of course there’s the money thing, the reality thing. But if I were a Herb Alpert, say, this is what I would do.
Man, this story got a little off track back there. We were talking about cassettes. Blogging is like a too long saxophone solo, or an acid trip. Or a crazy guy on a bus, talking and talking. But I really have thought these thoughts out there on the road. Alas I have to work like everyone else. All the stories I could be living, but can’t afford to, so I make them up. Reality has never been my strong suit.
Another great Halloween in South Pasadena, hundreds of kids, ran out of candy early. And either I’m getting taller or the trick or treaters are getting shorter. Don’t think under two feet, but close. Moms are getting slinkier, too, not that I noticed. Boas are still in. I worry about the kids running down the front steps, but it was a stunning mom in six inch heels that nearly toppled over. She caught herself, regained her composure, and it was like nothing ever happened. Slinking and styling on Halloween.
Elliott Caine had picked out some crazy 20th century classical music and New Thangy free jazz vinyl to freak the trick or treaters. It blasts from the living room. Ornette getting weird. Stravinsky way out there. Some of the kids notice. That’s some weird music, Mister. They take their treat and run. Archie Shepp is really getting down now, we’re partying, handing out candy, eating pizza, freaking on some of the crazier costumes–you can always tell when mom or dad is an artist. Their kids look like an installation. Archie is screaming on a big fat tenor, a battery of African drummers generates waves of syncopation, the arrangement lays in horns like Duke Ellington. Swinging, pounding, screaming. Crazy. Trick or Treat. We toss candy in the bags. Thank you! Goblins are very polite these days.
Later, candy gone, we turned out the lights, shut the door and retreated to the inner sanctum. Time to stretch. Fyl flips through a beautiful volume of Herman Leonard, the pictures of long gone jazz players are black & white and ill lit, full of shadows, smoke haunting the frame like ghosts. Miles Davis blowing behind us, cooking, Trane comes in blowing sudden rushes up and down the scale, but Miles owns the session. Elliott stops to listen to a particularly good passage. His fingers work the solo. It’s all about Miles tonight. Fifties Miles, Prestige Miles. No Lee Morgan this year. It’s the Prince of Darkness. Fyl shows us a Herman Leonard photo. Miles with trumpet, glaring. Jazz noir. Day of the Dead. Elliott starts telling us about another old jazz cat who had died, a player, can’t recall the name now, and how his son had just given him the old man’s record collection. Two big boxes full of amazing albums. We’re flipping through them and sampling some on the turntable. All kinds of great 1950’s stuff, a lot of west coast cool, and we’re digging the sounds and the wind is blowing and shivering branches tap the window. Fyl says they’re calling us. Who? The dead. The dead? The dead jazz musicians, she says. All the ones in this book. They want to come in. We laugh when an incredible trombone solo comes out of nowhere. Frank Rosolino, on cue, on Halloween. Properly sensitized, we sit in the dark, listening to the wind and the bones and telling scary Frank Rosolino stories. A jazzman Halloween.
My brother used to annoy the hell out of me with this joke: A duck walks into a bar. Bartender says what do you want, duck? Duck says you got any grapes? Bartender says no, I don’t have any grapes. I got whiskey, gin, vodka, run, beer, you name it, but no grapes. And besides, I hate ducks. You show up here again I’ll nail your web feet to the floor. The duck leaves. Next day the duck walks into the same bar. Bartender stares at him. Duck says you got any nails? Bartender says no, I don’t have any nails! Duck says you got any grapes?
My brother told that joke a hundred times. I began to hate that joke.
A couple nights ago there was a delay in the set as Charlie Haden’s orchestra was getting together the right charts. Someone said tell a joke. Haden looks up. A joke? OK. I know this great joke. He hobbles up to the microphone. Let me get it straight in my head first so I don’t screw it up, and thinks a minute. OK. Here it is: A duck walks into a bar…..
OK…when your brother deliberately torments you a zillion times with a stupid duck walks into a bar joke it’s one thing. I mean you wind up hating the joke. But when Charlie Haden tells the same joke, do you seethe or do you laugh? I laughed. I had to. Everybody else was.
Besides, it was funny.