Once I reached a certain age, I don’t think I was ever home for my mother’s birthday.
Of course, my mom happened to be born on December 31. Which is great, providing you’re the kind who likes to go out and have a good time; you never have to worry about finding people to party with on your birthday. But my mom, although she wasn’t a buzzkill, was not the gregarious type. Or maybe her style of a good time was more geared toward slot machines in casinos than, oh, smoking dope and listening to the Mothers of Invention, so we never quite hit the same parties.
This time of the year, I always get reflective about my parents. My dad’s birthday was January 5, which means that both my parents were Capricorns, and if you’re into that astrology thing, I’m an Aries, which is 90 degrees, or “square,” to Capricorn, the squares being the ’rents, especially when I was getting my swerve on. Which started in earnest around the time the first Led Zeppelin album came out, and kinda mushroomed from there.
My mother’s name was Margot, but she went by the diminutive “Peg.” She was the last of 10 kids born to Scottish immigrants in Youngstown, Ohio, and I think her brothers gave her a really hard time growing up. Well, that and the Great Depression, which she endured as a teenager, having been born at the tail end of 1919, which was 90 years ago. Like so many other people of her generation, the Great Depression helped shape her character.
I’m guessing that mom was kind of a spinster, and she followed her married sister Mary Alice to a place called Stockton, which is to California what Youngstown is to Ohio and the armpits are to the rest of the body: a deeply funky place, and not in the Parliament-Funkadelic sense. Somehow she ended up pregnant by my dad, an alcoholic war veteran. I was born on the first day of spring in 1955 in Berkeley, where my dad grew up and where I lived as a baby. Then the folks and I moved to Stockton, which wasn’t quite as radical place as Berkeley, much to my later chagrin.
My parents, being Capricorns, were quite conservative, politically. This, of course, became a point of contention once I got old enough to pay attention to politics, which started around the time I began calculating how many years it would be before I turned 18, thus making me eligible for the draft and Vietnam. And I really don’t know why I didn’t turn out to be a rabid right winger, except that things like stacked decks and tilted playing fields really bothered me, and still do. An astrologer once told me that it was my Jupiter in Cancer in the tenth house conjunct Uranus and trine Scorpio Saturn in the second, in a loose grand trine with my 00 Aries Sun, that made me such a flaming liberal. But I always chalked up my liberal bent to the fact that Nixon gave me the creeps.
Still, I can remember a moment sitting in an old Buick in a (pre-Chevron) Standard gas station on the way to my uncle’s ranch outside Modesto, and the attendant offered me my choice of balloons, either a blue donkey or a pink elephant, which I’m guessing would make this the election season of 1960, when I was five. I chose the donkey, and my mom stepped in and said, “No, you’re taking the elephant. We’re a Republican family.” This upset me greatly, and to this day I don’t know why.
My dad wandered off a few years later. Actually, my mother had him committed to the local laughing academy, which is how you handled a chronically drunken husband who couldn’t hang on to a job on the used-car lot long enough to pay the bills in those days. So from the time I was seven until I was ten or eleven, when my dad showed back up sober, I lived in a single-parent household, in a leaky-roof flattop rental in Stockton’s Lincoln Village subdivision. My mom didn’t drive for a long time, and I remember taking the bus everywhere, but then she bought a used Volkswagen beetle, which became our family driver.
Because I hadn’t reached adolescence, we hung out a lot, and much of that was spent watching sitcoms on black-and-white TV. I think she was kind of flustered with how much of a gawky geek I was, all taped-corner glasses and spastic twitches. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I had Asperger’s syndrome, because I could recite every address in a ten-block radius, tell you who lived there and maybe what their phone number was — information I’d gleaned from combing through the phone book — and what kind of car they drove; I could also recite and identify upon sight every make and model of American car, and most European makes, too, from the end of World War II going forward. This, I’m guessing, embarrassed my mom greatly down at the neighborhood swimming pool, where I’d hold court. Perhaps if I’d put my geeky gift to work on memorizing baseball statistics instead of other stuff, today I’d be a wealthy sportscaster or something.
Once conversation I remember us having was on the walk home from the pool, which was just up the street, one summer evening. I must have been nine, and I’d been really freaked out by the idea of death, following the assassination of President Kennedy the preceding fall, hunching down in the back seat of the black VW — where I always insisted on riding — when we’d pass the old Catholic cemetery on Harding Way, graphically imagining the bodies decaying in their graves. “I’m not afraid of dying,” I remember her saying, in response to my frequently voiced fear of ego oblivion. “Death comes to us all. It’s the natural progression of life.”
She worked at an insurance agency off Stockton’s Miracle Mile, a postwar take on the fashionable al fresco style of commercial strip, and I would visit her whenever I could because nearby was, a) a Baskin-Robbins, and b) Miracle Music, which sold 45-r.p.m. records. Fortunately my Asperger nerdiness had shifted from the Stockton phone book to the Billboard, Cash Box and Record World charts, and I soon turned into a rabid music freak, something that in a lot of ways continues to this day. Being such a geek, I developed a habit of wanting records on labels of which I’d never seen the center-label design, and I got to where I would look at the charts and call my mom to ask her to bring me home a single if I did some chores, which at least half the time I never did. And because the store carried not only the Top 40 singles on the KJOY, KSTN and KFRC charts, but also the R&B 45s on the KSOL and KDIA playlists, I got exposed to a lot of great R&B records. This continued until I was at least 11 or 12; I still can think of two of those singles — “She’s Looking Good” b/w “I’m Serving Time” by Oakland’s great Rodger Collins (on Fantasy Records’ green-label R&B subsidiary Galaxy) and “Tell It Like It Is” b/w “Why Worry” by Aaron Neville (on, if I remember correctly, white and purple Parlo) — as being life-changing.
My musical tastes over the years continued to get more byzantine, and I can remember my parents being genuinely freaked out by James Brown & His Famous Flames, specifically the Mother Popcorn album, which I played incessantly. The Irish instrumental group the Chieftains also rattled her greatly; she confessed that if she never heard bagpipes again, it wouldn’t bother her in the least, and she wasn’t happy when I started locking myself in my room and listening to John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, either. But she did like it when I went through my Scott Joplin and Charles Ives phases.
Her tastes ran toward Italian singers, from Mario Lanza and Perry Como, her favorites, to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Tony Martin, and Al Martino; I suspect she was secretly attracted to Italian guys back in Youngstown, but her older brothers would have given her such a hard time if she went that way. Plus, she wasn’t all that enamored with the Catholic Church, and would get alarmed when I made noises about going to Church of the Presentation, which was where all my friends went. “You’re not converting to Roman Catholic,” she’d yell at me, wagging her diehard Presbyterian finger. So, as a result, I got lots of exposure to Frank and Dino growing up. This was not a bad thing.
One night, she decided to order a bunch of albums from Columbia Record Club; she’d found an ad in TV Guide. I pestered her to give me some choices, and she let me have three: Greatest Hits by the Kinks, Fifth Dimension by the Byrds and Over Under Sideways Down by the Yardbirds. I think those records may have changed my life, too.
Once I hit adolescence, my parents and I became more distant, and my dalliances with alcohol and various recreational drugs further exacerbated our split, or at least we were never as close, because I built an emotional wall between us, especially once I’d figured out that her principal motivational tool with me was guilt. She died on Valentine’s Day in 2003 in my house, where my ex-wife and I had taken care of her after she slipped into the twilight of senile dementia.
One of my funniest memories of her final years was coming home from work and seeing her sitting in a lawn chair, smoking a joint with my ex-wife, with Bob Marley & the Wailers blasting on the stereo. Mom had a really goofy smile plastered on her face, and after all my adolescent years of her yelling at me for “smoking that stuff” in my room while zoning out to Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead, it presented kind of a sweet ironic change-up.
In a lot of ways, I was such a major disappointment to my parents. I never finished college, worked in record stores, didn’t follow the family plan and bring forth the grandchildren (until much later, when my daughter was born), and I’m sure I was a real mystery to them, and I figured that they, like the rest of my family, secretly hated me. Although I do remember once voicing this particular insecurity about my mom to my cousin Peg, my mom’s namesake, and her response startled me: “Oh, no,” she told me. “You couldn’t be more wrong. She talked about you all the time. She adored you.”
God, I feel like a complete tool, sitting in this coffeehouse in downtown Sacramento on the eve of my mother’s birthday, typing away with tears welling in my ducts and streaming down my face. I guess what I most regret is that I didn’t share my gifts with my parents, not that my mom would have wanted to see me fronting a band called Death’s Ugly Head in front of a roiling crowd of drunken skinheads or anything. But we did listen to a lot of music together, and I credit her for instilling in me a love of Tin Pan Alley songwriting craft. And I really wish that she could see me now. No, not the broke, unemployed and unattached me, because that might upset her, but the flowering artist side of me, who is just starting to feel comfortable singing original songs in front of an audience. I wish both my parents could sit in a club and watch me play.
What follows are the lyrics to a song I’ve been messing with for a while; I wrote it about a year ago, and I’ve been trying to perfect the lyrics. I haven’t performed it much, because it’s long and I’ve fitted a Johnny Cash-style boom-chicka-boom flat-picking approach on the guitar to its Beatle-ish chord progression, and it’s still too rocky to take public. The song is titled “Your Wonderful Life.” Mom, wherever you are, this one’s for you:
One day you burst into the room
From the comfort of your mother’s womb
To find a bright and unfamiliar place
Well, hello, baby girl or boy
You’re everyone’s bundle of joy
A gift from your parents’ embrace
And then your daddy cuts the cord
And the midwife slaps you hard before
You gasp, she swaddles you and then you cry
Then she lays you on your mama’s breast
You find the nipple and some rest
How strange it is to be alive
Welcome to your wonderful life
And soon your life is on the clock
First you crawl then walk, babble then talk
And then the folks send you to child care
Where social nuances and rules
Separate chosen ones from fools
And kid, better learn how to share
Next up it’s your first day of school
Where the teacher and more crazy rules
Strike fear into the heart of every child
Will this new world enthrall your mind
Or knock you back to fall behind
And if so, how will you survive
And make it through your wonderful life
And then your first tragedy strikes
A close relative, your pet or a friend
Painful feelings, tears fall freely
Seems like the end
Soon adolescence lights your fire
And sweet love, confusion and desire
Conspire to turn your whole world upside down
While inside you feel born again
Your folks swear you’re an alien
Who looks and behaves like a clown
And if you make it through high school
And then you stumble through college, too
And stand up through commencement exercise
And you don’t die or fry your brains
On drink and drugs or go insane
You’re finally awarded a prize
Sweet flair for your wonderful life
Then comes that grim reality
Life is not free
Kid, surrender to workaday routine
Hang tight, get tough, suit up, show up
Reach for the dream
Hopefully you’ll find balance soon
Not to mention love that makes you swoon
Enough to get you to the church on time
Or maybe you’ll tear up that script
And partner with whom you see fit
Or two, three, four or fifty-nine
And then the years go flying by
And those dreams you’ve carried ’round inside
Are soon forgotten or else put on ice
While you turn your attention to
The details that will see you through
Another day in paradise
It’s not bad, your wonderful life
But sometimes marriage comes up short
Hello, divorce court
Goodbye, treasured connubial bliss
Feel so lonely, think if only
You’d planned for this
Still, if you’ve parented a child
Or a family, if that’s your style
If you’re lucky, you won’t be alone
It’s one strange trip to watch them grow
With joys and heartbreaks ’til they go
Off to make new lives of their own
Soon you are left to face yourself
And did you create heaven or hell
In your life as you glimpse the finish line
All the laughter, all the tears
The ironically named golden years
Are punctuated by a stop sign
And so concludes your wonderful life
And now here comes life’s cruelest trick
Old age and sickness
And death, what a sorry way to end
Close your eyes and face the white light
Goodbye old friend
And when they lay your body down
Whether it’s by pyre or in the ground
And everyone who knew you bids adieu
Will you be warmly remembered
For kindness in your deeds and words
A good person whose aim was true
If nothing matters in the end
We can choose to be scoundrels or friends
But who we were lives on after we die
And it’s been said the love we take
Will be equal to the love we make
So give something back, don’t ask why
And let’s hear it for your wonderful life
Let’s hear it for your wonderful life
Thanks for giving birth to me and taking care of me, mom. I love you. Happy birthday. —Jackson Griffith
Guess it’s been a little while since I played an open-mic night.
As far as local open mics go, the ol’ grandaddy of them has to be the Fox & Goose on Mondays. So last night, I figured I’d hop on the bicycle with the guitar and pedal over there for a little ritual self-abuse. I used to go semi-often when back when Billy Harper hosted the open mic there, but that was a long time ago, maybe a decade even, when Jackie Greene started coming in from Placerville and then Billy and Sal Valentino, who shows up there sometimes and occasionally sings, went all nuts about the kid.
If you’re reading this from out of town, the Fox & Goose is our local version of an English public house, set in an old high-ceilinged red-brick industrial space at 10th and R Streets in downtown Sacramento. I’m guessing R Street had a rail going down its midline at one time; it’s unimproved, or as one of my buddies once put it, a flatmaker for bicycle tires, a chunky thoroughfare with little traffic and lots of potholes and old rails, with some cool warehouse spaces that have been developed with rustic urban flair, along with some high-density housing that real-estate developers euphemistically refer to as “lofts.”
The Fox & Goose has been there for a while, since the mid-1970s when the preservation and redevelopment of so-called heritage buildings came into vogue, long before the condo hipsters arrived. We used to drive up from Stockton before I moved here in 1984, because it was the closest place that offered Guinness on tap, when that particular elixir of the gods was a luxury and not the commonplace quaffage it is today.
While the pub’s atmosphere is comfortably funky, it isn’t the greatest place in the world to watch music as an audience member; its many booths, and the tall dividers in the barroom where the open mic is held (often, on other nights the music is staged in the much larger restaurant room), mark the place as having the worst feng shui of any venue in town. And as it has fashioned itself after an English pub, the Fox & Goose’s musical offerings tended and still tend toward pub music — Celtic acts, folksingers, oaty pub-rock combos and post-hippie jam bands comprise most of the acts the venue books.
Since Dave Baldwin’s been hosting the open mic at the Fox & Goose, I haven’t been as going as much. Part of that is just that I haven’t been hitting open mics with nearly the frequency or fidelity I once did. Kevin Seconds, who was my favorite open-mic host, back when the Capitol Garage was located where The Park or whatever that Hummer-limo-crowd joint is called is located now, and also at Java City and Café Paris and then, later, at the late, great True Love Coffeehouse he and his wife Allyson owned, has been busy fashioning a career on as a road-warrior troubadour, and occasionally he appears at the Fox & Goose on a weekend night. I’ve liked the open mics Kevin has hosted, because the focus was more on writers from the pop-punk and punk-rock traditions, my milieu of choice, than from the whole folk-music thing.
There are — and have been — other open mics around town, like the old Drago’s and Café Montreal (both, like Café Paris, in the building on K Street where The Golden Bear is now located; not long after I moved to Sacramento, I lived, in ’85 or ’86, above the Serbian delicatessen that Drago’s parents owned in that same space, where I didn’t need an alarm clock because his mother Pava would be screaming at his father Peter every morning like clockwork at 6 a.m. sharp).
Old Ironsides, normally one of my favorite venues in town, offers another open-mic option, still going, on Wednesday nights. I have to confess that the last time I played it, a few weeks ago, it may have been the single worst open mic I’ve ever experienced. With an open mic, it’s really important that you at least preserve the integrity of the method used to slot musicians in the order that they play, and on this night, the host seemed to let participants pick the person who would follow them. And what I observed were people opening the slips of paper that musicians had written their names on, reading them and picking their friends. I really didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up sitting through a daisy chain of blues and folk acts playing covers; I finally went on close to midnight, with only a drunken ukulele player waiting to follow me; his shtick featured screaming like a Thunderbird-fortified wino as an essential component. Not going back there for a while.
On this night at the Fox & Goose, however, the lineup seemed like it had a lot less potential to swerve into freak-show territory. Not that I mind freak shows; I love weirdness and unpredictability, but when I’m forced to sit several hours through music by people who came in after I did, some of them showing up during the drawing process, my state of mind tends to err on the side of contempt prior to investigation. And opening on this night was Jack Donaldson, a folksinger who’s probably got a few years on me; he tends to be one of those guys who helps to keep the open mic from veering outside of acceptable aesthetic parameters. Not that he’s any kind of folk-music sergeant at arms, mind you, like Pete Seeger was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, throwing a massive ing-bing when Bob Dylan went electric. Jack picked ninth, but no one had grabbed slot number one, so he took it. You’re always playing to a full house that way.
I’d picked slot 14, or Dave picked it; the method at the Fox & Goose is to get a ticket from Dave and then, when he calls your number, you go forward and sign up for a three-song — or 15-minute, if your thing is writing songs that are double-album-length paeans to Yggdrasil — slot. I was one of the last ones picked, which can be a problem if your mental tendency is to venture into Pluto’s underworld when you feel like you’re gettng robbed; there’s nothing worse than shlepping your guitar and stuff down to an open mic, getting there well before the drawing starts, and then losing out to people who slipped in right under the wire, some of them appearing to be much less serious about playing than you think you are, and then leaving with your tail between your legs without getting to play. That is, as they say in France, fucked up.
So I was relieved to get my slot, and I was able to lose the creeping sourpuss attitude and enjoy what the evening had to offer. Most of the players were pretty competent, ranging from one American Idol-style bard of melisma to the more commonplace folkster or Bob Mould-influenced acoustipunk. Occasionally there were performers like Ashleigh, a blonde woman who was backed by open-mic mainstay Ken Burnett — a man always ready to offer the chivalry of his musical expertise to come to the aid an aspiring female performer — on guitar, and a mandolinist I didn’t know. If I hadn’t been able to trade my crinkly attitude in for one of open- and dewy-eyed wonder, her versions of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime” and the Patsy Cline-identified but Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy,” might have sent me reeling to belly up to the bar for several straight shots. In old-school parlance, it was clam chowder.
Now, theoretically, comedians and musicians should be able to coexist, as should poets and musicians, or comedians and poets, or clowns and mimes. In practice, there’s some kind of qualitative difference that makes that somewhat difficult if not impossible. I’m sure that the comedy act that “Homeless Mike,” as he called himself, offered in an open-mic slot made perfect sense at the fraternity house where, one would make an educated guess, he calls home. And if right-wing radio wasn’t on the decline, he might be able to catch the tailwind of fellow unfunny white guys Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Yeah, making fun of people less fortunate than yourself is really cutting-edge comedy, pal. Indeed, if I’d been drinking, I’da heckled him to get his trust-fund ass the fuck off the stage and back to the frat house. And considering the trajectory of his comedy death onstage at the Fox & Goose, a death that culminated in him describing the act of jacking off in the kitchen to an illustration of Aunt Jemima and blowing his load onto a buttermilk pancake, perhaps I should have heckled anyway.
Here’s the deal, comedians. You can come to musical open mics, but don’t get all butthurt when we begin returning the favor and start showing up at your comedy club open mics, where we bore you to apoplexy with our tuneless and depressing versions of, oh, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” or Townes Van Zandt’s “Marie,” or the old English ballad “John Barleycorn.” The songbook of suicide-inducing folk music is deep and wide. And so, you could consider this a warning and you would not be mistaken.
After several more players, some of which were quite good (sorry if I can’t remember names, like Kristi and Carl and the Celtic a cappella ladies), I got my shot. For the record, I did “Letters and Numbers,” and then a love song I’d written to last year’s beloved, titled “Every Time I Think of You” (which I’m still waiting for a promised chance to sing with Ricky Berger), and then a new finger-style country blues titled “Johnny Cash in Heaven.” It felt really nice to sing among friends, although Sal Valentino, who was hanging out for a while, took off before I hit the stage.
Maybe next time, eh Sal? I’ve got some new songs I’d like you to hear. Waltzes, even. —Jackson Griffith
Somewhere along the way this past year, I decided to quit fucking around. Time to become a serious songwriter.
Okay, I’ve written songs for years. And most of the time I was pretty ardent and consequential about my songwriting efforts. But there always was that caveat, voiced by an editor or two, that my job was to write about music, not make music. And even though my mindset has always been, “well, why I can’t do both?,” there usually was that mumbly little gremlin in the back of my mind that told me I shouldn’t put the whole effort of my creative drive into my music.
Well, fuck that. I’m in my mid-fifties now, and I’ve heard know-it-alls opining about how if you don’t nail down a music career by the time you’re 19 or 20, you’re tilting at windmills — as in, give it up, alterkocker. So I’ve been halfheartedly acting like Sancho Panza’s pal for years, albeit without making a complete fool out of myself.
But fortunately, this isn’t a career; making music is what lights me up and gets me moving in the morning. Some people have to paint; others are driven to write novels or poetry. Me? I’m most sanguine with a guitar in my lap and my fingers gingerly curled around the neck, caressing the fretboard. That’s my palette of choice.
And so, I’ve been writing some tunes. It’s not like I sit down with the stated objective of writing that classic song, the way an old friend of mine, now a newspaper columnist, used to theatrically insert a sheet of paper into the carriage of his Royal and pronounce, whether earnestly or sarcastically, I could never tell, that he was working on The Great American Novel. But I do find a quiet — or not so quiet, sometimes — deliberation in the way I go about writing songs.
And what happens is that these songs come into being the way a figure emerges from a stone for a sculptor or something. I’m still mystified by the creative process, really; the analogy that I’m twiddling my fingers on a cosmic radio dial, making micro-adjustments until the signal comes in most strongly, probably comes closest to accurate. Art comes from g*d, or The Divine Whatever, or a creative and loving universe; it’s all out there floating around. And so the artist’s work, really, is applying the force of will to bringing a new work into finished manifestation.
Believe it or not, writing lyrics is the hardest part. Often I play with a few chords strung together into a makeshift progression, and a melody emerges with a little effort. And that can be shaped into a song structure with a little more effort. But lyrics, oy vey: Maybe it’s because I’m such a goddamn perfectionist after years of writing articles and stories, or maybe it’s because I can’t seem to untether myself from an old-school, Tin Pan Alley sense of rhyming the lyrics. The upshot is that I’ve got a backlog of unfinished songs that I haven’t fitted lyrics to quite yet.
But I have been finishing some. What follows are the lyrics from one recent effort, a sprightly little pop number with the title “Letters and Numbers,” which refers to its setting, the Downtown-Midtown grid of Sacramento, California, where I currently reside. It’s kind of a made-up little narrative about a state worker and a waitress; I’m a fan of the Kinks’ principal songwriter Ray Davies, who is a master at taking an utterly mundane subject and rendering it profound. I can’t say that I’ve done the same here, but if I can at all be proud about anything, I’d have to say that I rather like this one, even if it does reference the subject matter of the previous blog post (laundromats, for those of you who are like me and probably too lazy to look it up). And, oh yeah, I do enjoy playing this one live.
So, well, um, uh, here goes:
He took a job at a large faceless state agency
Found an apartment on G Street near 17th
He lived downstairs while two waitresses lived above
One had a boyfriend but the other
It was love at first sight
At the laundromat one night
He could taste that wedding cake
She saw someone new to take her
Out to where the lights are low
Where colorful people glow
Every night to make the show
… which leads, naturally, to the song’s chorus:
Up every night with the party girls
Dancing while the city slumbers
Our little corner of this world
Is marked off by letters and numbers
Letters and numbers
And then what follows is a second verse:
She never had big plans for him he was a guy
Who’d keep her warm and satisfied while she got high
Once at a bar on 21st Street around P
Cocktails mixed with jealousy
When she cooed to a bartender
He caught subtext in their words
The vibe suddenly turned strange
Heated words exchanged
His pain mixed with his gin and tonic pride
Some girl asked him for a ride
And so he woke up next to someone new
… which is followed by a chorus, and then an instrumental break, and then, again, the chorus, because this is a hummy little pop ditty and not gosh-darn Mahler lieder. And, after the chorus comes verse number three, which finishes the song’s narrative arc:
He often worked late at the big state agency
Because he’d overslept from last night’s revelries
He liked to shake some action after quitting time
From C through W and 3rd through 29th
The good times rolled
So many sweet things to hold
He forgot his waitress friend
She forgot him too and then
One night they fell together and
They shared one more one-night stand
Funny where two strangers can land
It closes with the chorus a couple of times. I haven’t recorded it yet, basically because this Christmas week I’ve caught the kind of cold that makes it great if you’re trying to sound like Tom Waits or late-period Bob Dylan, but is murder on everything else. So, Kevin, as soon as my vocal cords stop swerving all over the road like an adolescent Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer blamheaded on cooking sherry on Sunset Boulevard in Hal Roach’s Deusenberg, I’ll nail it down and e-mail you the MP3.
And I’ll probably get ’round to posting other songs or works in progress. This blog ain’t titled The Random Griffith for random reasons; I set it up because I’d hit a brick wall, creatively, and I needed to back up, stop, pull the fenders out and get this futhermucker back on the road.
And who knows? Maybe my secret ambition — well, now, that kitty’s outta the bag, isn’t it? — to write a Broadway musical, can begin to take shape here. Or at least a bunch of great songs, or not-so-great songs, or, um, golly, well, uh, shoot, well, perhaps I can use this particular medium as a sounding board for new creative projects.
Weirder things have happened, right? —Jackson Griffith
I like clean clothes. Who doesn’t?
And so that’s probably why I spend an inordinate amount of time in laundromats. I’m in one at least twice a week, because I don’t like the laundry basket to get overflowing with funky threads — literally funky — and I kinda dig the experience of hanging out in the laundromat. Usually, there are sketchy people to be observed in laundromats, and something inside me enjoys observing sketchy people: not because I think I’m any better than them, but because I find them interesting.
It’s dead here on this Sunday evening, though. Two young men — whose complexions Anglo observers in earlier times, as in when Jack Webb was making television shows, might describe as “swarthy” — shlepped in a load of laundry and brought the guido in the process. One was normal, but the other one was not only wearing an Affliction T-shirt, an overpriced and uglified signifier that its wearer is a member of Douchebag Nation, but he was sporting a faux mohawk whose point was shiny and glistening, held in place by what I’m presuming was a cornucopia of hair-care products, gels and chemical jisms, most of which my horribly snarky imagination would like to guess are expensive concoctions whose price is doubled, tripled or quintupled by the presence of some celebrity entrepreneur’s name on the label: Sean Combs, perhaps, or maybe Christian Audigier, if that odious Frenchman has leapfrogged his Ed Hardy brand into the personal-care products trade.
Merde. I should knock it off on my making fun of the whole DB Nation aesthetic. It’s just that I’m in a laundromat in Midtown Sacramento on a Sunday night, using the free wi-fi there for the first time, and those clowns are the only entertainment who’ve bothered to show up. The tattoo parlor on the corner is quiet; usually there are a few Ed Hardy acolytes representing, and some of those can be rather marginal in the solid-citizen sense. One of my friends, an addict who shall remain nameless, claims there’s a lot of shall we say clandestine activity in very close proximity to the aforementioned business establishment, but I’ve never had anyone offer to sell me a dime bag around there. Anecdotal evidence only goes so far. But I did watch paramedics recently check out a man seated on a chair outside the tattoo parlor late one night; he appeared to be merely nodding out. Those 911 calls can be prohibitively expensive; a Baby Ruth bar and a chocolate YooHoo might have been a much better outlay of the taxpayer’s dollar. Aw, what do I know; maybe calling 911 was the right thing to do.
This particular laundromat has been around for a while. In 1987 I lived a block north, and I made the mistake of putting my clothes in the dryer here and hitting Casey’s — now The Press Cub — for a quick Saturday morning bracer of scotch, and came back to find all my clothes had been stolen. Boo 2 tha hoo: I vowed never again would I darken the door and wash clothes in that establishment, but two decades and presumed numerous ownership changes and now free wi-fi and an attendant on duty make this place pretty darn attractive, despite my earlier bad experience. Even if the cafe next door to the right smells like funkily unappetizing gyro sandwiches, and thus is of little worth to me, and there’s a Subway sandwich joint across the street, Subway being the chain whose $5 footlong hoagie damn near killed me with the food poisoning last summer. The south Asian bodega next door always has a sporting event on the television, though, along with a decent supply of peanut M&Ms and Gatorade.
I’m trying to remember laundromats around town that have made an impression. Of course, there’s the Fluff’n’Fold on the corner of 21st and H, now a yoga studio called Deep; the laundromat obviously isn’t there anymore, but the building is significant because Poison Ivy Rorschach and the late Lux Interior lived upstairs in like the 1970s when they first met. There’s the iconic Fluff’n’Fold on 25th and K by the City Bicycle Works, where I used to hang and wash clothes when Johnny Guitar Knox worked there in the mid 1980s, and I was a frequently drunk off my ass writer who was just the sort of fuckup to receive kind paternal advice from a blues guitar-playing laundry attendant. Other than that, the only place that registers is on Freeport Boulevard at Vallejo Way across from Marie’s Donuts (as a sidenote, I bow humbly in gratitude to whatever godhead governs delicious junk pastries), simply because it’s the last place I saw my lovely former girlfriend one Saturday morning a few months ago, and she kinda gave me a bit of a cold shoulder, not that I should expect a big hug and a kiss or anything, and anyway I had my mouth full of one of Marie’s apple bear-claw thingees so maybe she woulda passed on kissing me even if she’d wanted to.
But I digress, and that’s all memory now. And right now, having free wi-fi and no distractions is pretty sweet, you gotta admit. There’s no Muzak, only the hum of coin-operated dryers. I keep wanting to wash my clothes early, like when this place opens up at 7 a.m., because there’s an “early bird special” where drying is free before 9 a.m. on weekdays except for “stimulus Wednesdays,” whatever that means. But if they wanted to encourage business on, oh, slow Sunday nights like this one, they could have thrown in free drying and I wouldn’t have minded.
Still, just being able to groove on that unique laundromat vibe is all I need. There’s the enameled white walls, and the checkerboard off-white and sea-green linoleum pattern on the floor, and all those cool machines. There’s the smell of detergent and the clatter of laundry carts. And if you get bored, you can go read the bulletin board, which has pitches from handymen and beauty parlors and self-betterment classes at the local trade schools and even some dubious investment schemes, along with flyers for various DJ nights at the neighborhood clubs — the Press, the Town House. And if that isn’t enough, there’s the library of great reading material, from People and the Pennysaver to those laundromat mainstays, The Watchtower and Awake! I mean, how can you go wrong?
I still have just under 10 minutes to go on the dryer, so here’s a cool link to the Kinks playing Iceland in 1965. I got home last night from Jerry Perry’s birthday party at Old Ironsides and went on a real Kinks bender, posting vintage vids of the band to my Facebook page, because you can never have enough Kinks videos, right? But the Iceland newsreel one had its embedding disabled, so I’ll link to it here. It’s pretty darn great. Björk was born that year, so she’s probably not in the audience. But maybe her mum was?
Who knows? All I know is that I’ve got clothes to fold, and that writing a blog entry in a laundromat is a pretty nice little way to spend a Sunday evening. But Jerry Perry just called, and it’s still his birthday, and they’re having sushi up the street; the solitary bliss of the laundromat is no match for the conviviality of good friends. —Jackson Griffith
Time to change the tone, I think.
Lest you think I’m some wounded animal who started this blog to kvetch about how life has dealt him a hand of jokers, perhaps it might be incumbent upon me to clarify a thing or two, or at the very least state an intention. I launched The Random Griffith as a vehicle to get me back into the regular discipline of writing, after I’d crashed and burned and blew a couple of major assignments, thus ruining a few relationships in the process. Knowing at my core I’m not a flake, but merely a guy who’s made some mistakes, and often has to work extra hard to power out of that dark and forbidding swamp of the mind that some people call depression, I resolved to do whatever work it will take, on a daily basis, to get moving again, because writing is one of the things I know how to do reasonably well.
Action gets it going, goes the saying, and it’s the focused application of will, or energy directed toward a point, that can make things happen. And yes, I’m one of them “speer’chual” folks who will use prayer, specifically turning it over to TDW (i.e., The Divine Whatever), and meditation to get things rolling. But unless you or I can get off our asses, nothing really happens, does it? So we must do something. In this case, I must write if I ever expect to get my writing mojo back. Every day. Write something.
As for the divine part of the equation, I’ve experimented with a few spiritual practices over the years, most ardently in the past few when life went all sideways on me. That’s the beauty of the particular spiritual journey those of us in recovery stumble into: we get to try a bunch of different things out and see if any of it works. Hell, it may all be bullshit. But the only way to find out is by trying new things and endeavoring to keep somewhat of an open mind.
Sometimes I’ll read about a practice, or someone will suggest one, and I’ll consider it. For example, I have a friend, let’s call him Matt, who chatted me up on the Second Saturday art walk in September. Now, I have a tendency to go all Eeyore sometimes, and be that guy that people elbow out of the way so they can hug each other, and Matt advised me that one way to change the tone there would be by expressing gratitude as part of a formal exercise. “Make a daily gratitude list,” he said.
So, I did. For a couple of months, I would write my list in a notebook, usually beginning with “1.) I am grateful I woke up sober this morning.” I’d shoot for 25 things, everything from gratitude for what I ate for breakfast to gratitude for someone in my life who affected me positively. Sometimes the same thing, or same person, would show up on repeated days; it didn’t matter. The point was to get out of feeling hard-bitten and cynical and experiencing contraction and poverty, and get moving to a different place, where I could be open and accepting of whatever bounty life may have to offer in that moment.
Even that night, when Matt and I walked around talking about moving into gratitude, I experienced a change, an opening up, where random people were more inclined to hug me or engage with me than I normally sense. Perhaps I project some kind of closed-off energy that makes people avoid me; I don’t know. At any rate, something was different.
Different enough, at least, for me to keep doing it for a while to see what might happen. I finally let it go around Thanksgiving, and in the time that followed, I slipped back into my old cynical persona a bit. I’m about to buy another notebook, a big fat one, and get back in the habit of noting what I’m grateful for every day.
And for the record, just so nobody thinks I’m any kind of ungrateful bastard: This past year, especially, I’ve had numerous people help me out. I won’t list them by name here, but there are five or six folks who really stepped way beyond whatever bounds I think might have existed to help me out. Basically, what happened (or what I think happened) is that the wreckage from my failed marriage and the collapse of my career finally caught up with me around the end of last year or the beginning of this one, and not having any health insurance, I wasn’t able to get the kind of professional help where I might have averted exploring, well, let’s just call it a metaphorical Mariana Trench.
So, I did things the hard way — or “the Portagee way,” as we used to call it back in Stockton, where I grew up — and either a loose confederation of unconnected people, or else some folks under the prompting of A Power Greater Than Myself, stepped up to keep me from really hitting the skids. Ergo, I am eternally grateful, and once I am working again, I intend to pay back what I owe, and then pay it forward to other people who will need the same kind of help I received, through no real merit of my own.
Anyway, that’s a bit of a ramble, but the idea is just to write something each day, and this is what I came up with. And I wanted it to be something more positive that what I’ve been laying down since I started writing this. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be more focused. And, hey — maybe not.
Oh, and one more thing: I’m really grateful I heard from my lovely daughter Ellie today. —Jackson Griffith
I was all set to wax rather non-rhapsodic about my poor, pathetic, butthurt Christmas, but then things just continued to whirl so laughably sideways that, well, what is your point, kind sir?
Yes, it’s been like that since the mists of childhood, perhaps: Me and Christmas just don’t get along all that well. I think I may have called a department-store Santa on his vodka breath or something as a kid and he put the jinx on me, or else something happened that still lies submerged in that cranial tank of hidden trauma that I haven’t a clue about. Or, well, your guess is as good as mine.
The past couple of years, being out of work, have really sucked come Christmastime. When you aren’t earning money so you can buy gifts for people, it makes it kinda hard to participate in a holiday that centers around so much gift-giving. Just today, I read that the big “hot” gift is big-screen flat TVs, which is so far removed from my current life experience that it makes me feel like a member of a lost tribe in the Amazon rainforest glimpsing a jet airliner for the first time. I mean, well, fuck me already.
And then there’s the social aspect of the holiday season, the warmth — forced or not — and all that. Now, I may have certain slight curmudgeonly tendencies, but I’m not some cold Teutonic automaton with a titanium core; really, I’m one of the biggest softies I know, and I get dewy-eyed from the stupidest things. Schmaltzy old movies make me well up like a rheumy, bourbon-fueled bombardier upon hearing a John Philip Sousa brass-band arrangement. Happy young couples make me poignantly threaten to leak with tears of saudade. Cats at play make me weep. But, shit, the holiday season has a really nasty way of letting me know how fucking socially inept I am, or how disconnected I am from the rest of you.
So today I got up, or woke up on the massage table where I sleep, after nodding off to another steady diet of wall-shaking rhythmic electronic flatulence from downstairs — which I’m not complaining about, mind you; I most likely could sleep through nuclear war, or a Hun invasion even. I’m like that. Anyway, after cleaning up, I walked up 21st Street over to K, and the thoroughfares were deserted. Occasional cars, yes, and a few street people. I got over to the ice-skating rink on 20th at J, and it was like I’d dropped in to visit from some distant city. I thought I recognized one person from Facebook, but she didn’t acknowledge me, even though I was munching from a big yellow bag of peanut M&Ms, so it was most likely a doppelganger. Otherwise, nothing but strangers.
I didn’t feel weird or anything; more like slightly amused. I walked down 20th, and a thin, pretty but slightly boyish woman passed me on the sidewalk at N: “Nice day, eh? Merry Christmas!” she said. “Yeah, it’s a beautiful day, ain’t it?” I responded, hoping for some kind of human connection, maybe a bit of conversation or something. But she was in a hurry, and power-walked the next block before disappearing into the Old Tavern. I guess my current lack of guido appeal may have contributed, as the shabby clothes and that slightly hungover mien bestowed on me by this cold — although I haven’t touched a drink since George Herbert Walker Bush was president — could make me unattractive to some women.
While I did get invited to one friend’s place for some Christmas camaraderie via Facebook (thanks, Glenn), I’d already settled on, or locked into, the idea of eating a traditional Jewish Christmas dinner, so I headed over to the Tea Cup Cafe instead. Which wasn’t a mistake, as much as it was the realization that I can’t taste anything. Colds are like that. I did kinda feel like a schnook because I had to ask three times for a Coca-Cola, and then I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant reading a Thomas Pynchon novel and watching couple after couple walk in and be seated, which kinda made me feel slightly alone and pathetic, but really, it was all right.
You fuckers had better give me a killer fortune cookie, I thought. “Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you.” Now, that’s the kind of specifics that make for a good fortune, as opposed to the usual vagaries I get (“You find beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability” was a recent one), which keep me coming back with the hope that I’ll get an augury a bit more concrete. Like today. There must be some secret ratio of x willfully obtuse to y more precise fortunes, to ensure repeated Chinese restaurant visits by the fortune-cookie addicted.
Then, upon returning to the third-floor walkup where I’m currently staying, I found the electrics had gone all wicky-wacky, causing the lights to strobe. That’s not going to make for a delightful Christmas evening alone, indoors on a cold night, is it? Well, I could play guitar in the dark, or I could type this. So ….
So here’s the deal: I still can’t get Christmas right. Every year, save a few really nice ones I can remember (thanks, beautiful and sweet former girlfriend who shall remain nameless), I end up feeling horribly cut off and alone. I know it’s all in my head, that other people don’t have that problem and in fact have very warm and rewarding Christmases. But pretty much every year, I end up reliving the same script with minor variations. Christmas just seems to amplify my lack of social skills, and so it just isn’t the goddamn season to be jolly for me. And so I blow it. Again and again.
I wish Christmas was Groundhog Day, or like the movie at least. I wish tomorrow I’d wake up and it was Christmas morning, and then the next day it was Christmas, and so on, and every Christmas morn I’d be slightly warmer or more loving or open-hearted and slightly less closed off and inept, and maybe by, oh, February, I’d have this thing down, and I could tell the family and friends I feel alienated from today that Jacky Boy’s butthurt Christmas tradition is a thing of the past.
I know that isn’t too much to ask. Even for a Buddhist who shouldn’t care about Christmas. —Jackson Griffith
I am staring at a truly great business opportunity.
Of course, I’m probably the wrong person to be opening a big gay bar. I don’t drink, and I’m not gay, and as a businessman, my skills leave a hell of a lot to be desired; balancing a checkbook has never been my forte.
Still, crazier things have happened. And so here I sit in a Peet’s Coffee & Tea location at the corner of 20th and J Streets in Midtown Sacramento, looking across the ice-skating rink at a two-story red-brick building. I know that building; I used to work inside it when the Sacramento News & Review was housed there. I used to think about what a great drinking establishment it could make, given its history. And I knew for a long time that the News & Review was planning a move out to its sharp new green-tech headquarters in a converted supermarket on Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento — a move the weekly paper finally made a couple of weeks ago.
Ah, why am I wasting my time daydreaming about this? It’s probably been leased or bought already by one of the two mixed-drink moguls who vie for dominion over the 20th and K intersection nearby. It’ll have some cheesy branding, probably centered around one of the Village People characters who haven’t yet been honored by a theme bar in that part of town, yet: bikers, or construction workers, or cops, or maybe an Indian chief. It will be all the rage for a while.
Still, I’d like to make a case for a nightclub that would occupy the former Miller & Skelton Funeral Home location.
First, the name: Let’s call it “Stiffs.”
Yes, Stiffs is a double entendre, one that refers either to an erect penis, or to a dead body. I suppose you could have both. Anyway, a double entendre that references sex and death would be especially potent as a marketing peg, wouldn’t you think? I mean, as a club that caters to a fashionable crowd, gay and straight, might find more of a plus than a minus in playing up the death angle. We’re all going to die eventually. So why not have a good time getting embalmed with your friends in a convivial atmosphere, one that transforms a repugnant theme into something much more celebratory?
Second, let’s talk about the exterior: The outside elevations of 1015 20th Street are bright red today; when Miller & Skelton abandoned it in the early 1980s to merge with Culjis & Herberger on Alhambra Boulevard, the building was Pepto-Bismol pink. I propose it be painted black. Which might be slightly problematic in the summertime, but NASA scientists probably know of at least one kind of black paint that doesn’t automatically turn an object into a solar oven. A big black brick building housing a bar called Stiffs is the way to go.
Third, the graphic identity: Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was a writer and illustrator whose books depicted a cartoonish Victorian and Edwardian sense of the macabre, which would provide the perfect look for a nightclub trying to establish a keen visual presence as a mortuary converted into a drinking establishment. A color theme limited to black, white and warm gray would be recommended, at least in all the advertising and promotional materials. This would convey the proper gothic image.
I’d leave it to whatever talented interior designer jumped at the chance to doll the place up inside, but I’d humbly suggest that the accoutrements of the afterlife be featured prominently, with caskets — and coffins, with six sides rather than four — either displayed for decorative purposes only, or provided for clandestine sexual activities; various tools of embalming, such as trocars, surgical instruments and the like, could be mounted on walls for atmosphere, too. The iconography of Victorian and Edwardian mortuaries can supply a rich field of visual ideas for the designer. In addition, a stylish uniform-design language for employees can be found in Gorey’s work.
A few other possibilities: A coachbuilder could be contracted to fabricate a special stretch hearse model, to ferry V.I.P. clients home if they’ve gotten themselves a bit too embalmed to drive. A Victorian horse-drawn hearse might be employed for promotional purposes. And special rooms could be set up, wherein clients could pay extra to experience embalming in a hyperbaric chamber, or get “cremated” on tanning beds. Most likely, many other creative ideas will arise.
I think a drinking establishment branded as Stiffs, and fitted as I’ve described above, could be a huge hit, and would be the best possible use of the building at 1015 20th Street in Midtown Sacramento. —Jackson Griffith
Happy winter solstice-related holiday.
So it’s late morning, Christmas Eve. Because of the wonderful Bush-Obama economy, I’m not working, and even if I were working, I probably would have called in sick today: sore throat, blowing the nose every few minutes. You know the feeling.
I type this while lying on a massage table in the spare room of a friend’s flat. That’s where I sleep. Actually, I feel pretty good right now, better than I felt last night when I pedaled back here from Temple Coffee on S Street, and the wind had that particular icy metallic glint that feels somewhat annoying when it slices into your flesh if you’re totally healthy, but really makes you uncomfortable when you’re on the cusp of coming down with a cold. It was making bitter little ribbons out of me.
I used to fight colds hard when they came on: Loads of Vitamin C, cayenne, garlic, echinacea. Last night for some reason I just didn’t give a shit. Popped into Chita’s for takeaway salsa and chips, and a couple of guys who oozed time in the joint sized me up: “Yeah, I know you from Quentin.” No. You don’t. Sorry.
I soon holed up where I’m currently staying with the chips and salsa; I posted a bunch of vintage beer and wine TV ads onto my Facebook page, rinsed my nose out with the neti pot — okay, so maybe I haven’t given up completely on killing this cold — and got tired enough to attempt sleep. It was a rocky evening. Woke up multiple times and blew my nose and bitched to myself on how bad my throat was hurting. Got on Facebook before five this morning and posted a couple of vintage NyQuil ads. Finally, dozed off for a few hours.
So now I feel relatively good. Not depressed in the least, but spectacularly unenthusiastic about Christmas. I mean, for starters, I’m a Buddhist, so that holiday belongs to another religion. And because of my current downmarket socio-economic status, I’m kind of out of the loop as far as doing my part to help jump-start the economy.
I really don’t have much of a family left: mother and father have been dead for years now; daughter is 21 and away at college and, well, I may see her and that would be really cool, but realistically, I’ll be happy with a phone call; ex-wife and her two kids, or my two ex-stepchildren, are moving back to Maryland, and they’ve been out of my life for a few years, anyway; two half-brothers and one half-sister live in the Pacific Northwest but I never knew them growing up so there’s no tradition there; extended family of cousins I am in touch with, and they’re probably the closest I have to a family aside from my daughter.
Then, there’s that adopted family of friends and community, which I’d be out and about in right now, except for this cold. Oh, and the being broke thing, which kind of puts a damper on participating in gift-giving and parties. I kinda got momentarily butthurt that I didn’t get to sing my two original Christmas songs (which you can listen to here and here) at parties this year, but that’s how that ginger snap crumbled, so maybe next year I’ll have those and a few more.
Actually, I guess I’m kind of amazed I haven’t gotten all depressed this year. Last year at this time, I was was reeling from a bunch of things: the profound realization that the woman I loved, who I thought loved me in return, no longer did; the ongoing crunch of not working and not being able to find a job; the sudden death of the column I’d been writing for the Sacramento News & Review; the prospect of moving out of where I’d been living. More deeply, I guess I was mourning the old me, which was withering and dying, seemingly amid the blossoming of love and possibilities among people I was observing around me.
So this morning, well, the lack of sentimentality I’m feeling is pretty remarkable. I just don’t give a shit, to be honest. Christmas is for other people; it’s just the 25th of December to me this year. Yeah, I’ve got some nice memories, like the time I came back home with my dog Sam from a walk, and as soon as I let him off his leash, he confidently trotted over to the newly installed and decorated tree, lifted his leg and took a piss — and then my ex-wife got all indignant. Look, I explained. Use dog logic: Sam just figures we’ve installed a bathroom for him in the front room, so he doesn’t have to go outside. He really doesn’t understand why you’d be mad at him.
Anyway, that’s the best I can do for sentimentality right now. Thinking about my daughter and how Christmas seems emblematic of my failure as a father might put a damper on my mood. I did have one nice Christmas two years ago, a low-key affair with my then-girlfriend, but thinking about that is an exercise of living in the past, too, no matter how sweet the recall may be. As for gratitude, I am really grateful for the friends who have helped me out with gifts and loans and kindnesses in the past year, when I lost whatever was still anchoring me to the past life I’d enjoyed, and reaped the consequences of my many fuckups. I’m grateful to be breathing, even if that involves blowing the nose and sucking air through a sore throat right now; the alternative isn’t quite as appealing. And I’m grateful to be writing this, and figure that I’ll get back to my old entertaining self one of these days. Or maybe not.
Somewhere above, between writing about my sore throat and describing my current family situation, I sat on my zafu, or meditation cushion, for a half-hour, and then followed with several minutes of metta affirmations. The point being that in the type of meditation I practice, it’s about following the breath and observing the mind, and then naming whatever quality of thought is arising — remembering, planning, judging, imaging — before returning to follow the breath. “Putting the puppy back on the paper” is how I’ve heard it described, the way you potty-train a pup, patiently, again and again, until a shift occurs. And the shift that occurs in meditation is that you become more aware of this present moment, right now, and that everything else is either behind you, in front of you, or else a figment of your imagination.
So the winter holidays are all right for me right now, I guess. No expectations for me. As for you, may you be free from danger, may you have mental happiness, may you have physical happiness, may you have ease of well being. You know: Blessings to you and yours, and here’s to a more upbeat 2010. Feels that way to me, at least. —Jackson Griffith
Confession: Um, I can be a real dick sometimes.
Just last week, a friend sent me a tip to follow the tweets of FakeBobLefsetz, which satirize the pontifications of the real Bob Lefsetz, a Santa Monica attorney and music-business opinionist. The real Lefsetz has published a newsletter since the late 1980s, much of it first-person observations centering around his obsession with singer-songwriters and the intimate personal connection they forge with their fans, along with a healthy collection of rants about how the music business is a crippled airliner in its death spiral, but if those assholes would smarten up and put Bob in the cockpit, that baby would be flying high again.
Sometimes Bob was right. Other times, he was wildly off the mark. Of course, aren’t we all.
Anyway, I have a long history with Bob, going back to my days as senior editor and columnist at the old Tower Records free music monthly, Pulse! Bob had sent several examples of his newsletter that found their way to the desk of our publisher and editor in chief, who decided that 1) Bob would make a great columnist and 2) I would be the perfect sap to edit his stuff.
Aside from thinking at the time that Bob’s opinion was more or less full of shit, my principal problem with him was technical; his copy, typographically speaking, employed the Herbert W. Armstrong school of editorial emphasis, with a liberal smattering of italics, boldface, boldfaced italics, capitals, italicized capitals, boldfaced capitals and boldfaced italic capitals. If there was a way to make the letters all sparkly with purple glitter flying off them, he probably would have done that, too.
My other technical bitch with Bob was his excessive use of the hard return, where entire paragraphs consisted of two or three words. In the age of Internet blogs, this does not present a problem, but when you’ve got a limited editorial well with fixed column inches, you don’t have the luxury of hitting the hard return every time you finish typing a word.
Which should have been negotiable, but apparently it wasn’t. And when the editor presents a solution (use normal typography and conventional paragraph form) and the writer not only balks, but said balking escalates into a screaming match over the phone, with rapid-fire fuck yous from both sides punctuating sundry death threats and descriptions of impromptu surgeries performed with broken wine bottles, said conversations do not make for a promising editor-writer relationship.
So Bob and I kinda got off on the wrong foot, and later, after the relationship became utterly unworkable — which we tried to do at the boss’ insistence, until Bob mixed it up with one of my coworkers and she claimed he threatened her and the boss was forced to step in and make a judgment call — we snarled at each other on at least one Internet message board. And I would go out of my way to insult him there.
But history is typically told in the narrative frame of the victor, and if there was a war between Bob and me, he won it a long time ago. He got himself pegged as an industry gadfly, and was able to develop his newsletter into something large enough to support life in Santa Monica, with a sphere of influence that included the very executives he dumped on in his rants. He occasionally hitched rides on Gulfstream jets with music-group CEOs to rather posh ski resorts, where he would enthrall said executives with his ideas on how to solve the music business’ problems. He even wrote a column for Rhino Records’ website on music. Oh, yeah, he had his detractors, but there were plenty of people who mentioned his opining in glowing terms.
As for me, I left Pulse! around the time Tower began to lurch into its death spiral, when the “turnaround specialists” from the banks, guys with such illustrious companies as Montgomery Ward, Packard Bell and Breuners in their résumés, started sniffing around the building. I took a job at the weekly Sacramento News & Review, and spent four and a half years there championing local music, until life under the thumb of an editor — who treated his job like a goddamn dog-obedience school where we were the dogs — became unbearable, or at least it brought out any latent homicidal tendencies I might have been harboring.
So then I jumped to a partially baked digital-music startup that might have worked as the screenplay for a dark comedy, but as a moneymaking concern went the way of the Pet Rock and hula hoop rather quickly. I’d returned to the SN&R as a columnist during that time, but that ended after nearly three years. Then I wrote freelance for a while, until my downward professional — and personal — trajectory caught up with me and I, seemingly, lost the ability to even grind out minor articles, the kind of stuff I could do in my sleep when I’d been firing on all cylinders.
Now I don’t even go out to music shows half the time, like last night’s Cake gig at the Blue Lamp, because I’m kind of embarrassed at how far down the slope I’ve fallen: “Hey Jackson, whaddaya been up to?” “Hi, John. Oh, not much. Not really writing for anybody, just playing a little guitar and working on some tunes, couch surfing, trying to keep the weight on so my pants don’t fall off.”
So Bob won, and this guy, an autodidact who used to think he was, if not hot shit, then at the very least semi-justified because he’d interviewed Johnny Cash and a bunch of other artists and got drunk with the Replacements and a bunch of other bands and played in a couple of pathetic combos with the comically inebriated drummer from Pavement, who once enjoyed talking music on the phone with record company presidents, vanished into that obscure world where self-canonized legends go when their stream of bullshit runs out.
Boo fuckin’ hoo.
Okay, so here it is the end of 2009, and I’ve committed to writing something every day, like my goddamn life depends upon it because the only thing I know how to do, other than bang on the guitar and wheeze like a fucked-up Leonard Cohen wannabe, is write. And maybe if I can get in the habit of writing every day, I’ll pull my metaphorical DeSoto Fireflite out of this metaphorical ditch where I drove it and get rumbling back down that road.
But even while spinning wheels in a metaphorical ditch, a man’s gotta enjoy a few laughs sometimes, and the schadenfreude of the doomed is still schadenfreude. Which is to say that FakeBobLefsetz, whoever that is, really made me laugh. Naturally, parody is worthless unless it’s dead on the mark, and whoever it was who was doing it had ol’ Bob’s shtick down cold. So I started recommending it to a few people.
At one place where I’d pasted the link, the next post was somebody with the news: Oh, you do know that Bob just got diagnosed with leukemia, don’t you?
Ever get that feeling where you suddenly know you’re lower than whale excrement?
I clicked on the link that contained Bob’s whole post and read it. Damn.
Okay, I must admit here that I have a begrudging respect for Bob and what he’s accomplished. And part of that accomplishment has to do with getting people to read the stuff he writes, intensely personal stuff, that laces the mundane joys and vicissitudes of life with an intense love for music. Yes, there was a hint of envy, or jealousy, that fueled my dislike for Bob. Why him, and not me? Well, basically, because he got off his ass and made his thing happen, and I didn’t. Or else I didn’t get back up after I got knocked down. He has.
As they say in those inscrutable I Ching readings: Perseverance furthers.
Of course, even if somebody contracts a potentially fatal disease, it doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. No. But what it does, at least for me, is take a look at how much of the asshole was him, and how much of it was me. Probably a bit of both, methinx.
The other part of the equation is that, in the past few years, I’ve gotten more “spiritual” than I used to be. By that, I mean I’ve practiced vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation), and metta (Buddhist lovingkindness affirmations) daily for a couple of years now, and intermittently I read dharma material, along with the texts from a certain recovery group, and I try to put that stuff to work — with variable success — in my life. Given my personal losses after my marriage went to shit and I lost my most recent full-time job, having a spiritual practice has helped take the edge off things, at least getting me outside of that funhouse hall of mirrors in my head long enough to connect with other people. Not sure how much it has helped, but it has.
Still, having a spiritual practice is worthless if you make the choice to entertain and indulge in resentments. As a good teacher will remind us, even Dick Cheney has a Buddha nature, and even the person we find most loathsome is capable of awakening, and is a beloved child of whatever unifying spiritual force exists in the universe, at least as much as you or I are.
So, well, not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I wish Bob Lefsetz radiant health and happiness, and I hope that his recovery is speedy and painless.
Because this world needs more music lovers, not less. —Jackson Griffith
Wonderful business opportunities await.
I’d been over to my friends Mindy and Greg’s place a few weeks back, graciously accepting yet another plate of really swell and interesting food, which I’d be a fool to turn down, right? Anyway, Greg and I got to talking about various extreme hot sauces we’d sampled over the years; he was mentioning one with just a graphic on the label of a cartoon somebody with a foul expression and a wounded tongue. We laughed. Yes, I’ve enjoyed Dave’s Insanity Sauce and other caustic condiments when they’re presented to me and I’m loony enough to ruin a good sandwich with them.
I mention this fond reminiscence, because I’ve made a few addictive behavior-driven runs around the corner from here to a joint called Chita’s, which sells chips and salsa on the cheap, and the salsa roja there is really goddamn good and tempting in the way that single-malt Scotch whispers to businessmen in dreams, or greenbud calls out to those of us who favor meandering guitar solos over concise pop-music statements. If I were more of a blues-headed entrepreneur, I might be busy dreaming up something with a graphic label consisting of a similarly sourfaced cartoon hot-sauce aficionado seated uncomfortably in a sitz bath, with little pain-dart icons radiating from his lower parts. My product would be called something like “Salsa del Butthurt,” or “Salsa Lastimada del Extremo.”
But I digress.
For a Scot raised in the redneck suburbs of interior California on Presbyterian potlucks and casseroles and generic fast food, I got a hankering for spicy comestibles and sundry exotica pretty early on. My L-7 folks were always nervous to hear that teenaged me had pedaled his ten-speed into the netherworld of downtown Stockton to destinations like Azteca Cafe and Arroyo’s and Las Manitas for a plate of bisteak chicana picosa or carnitas, or a bowl of albondigas soup. Made ’em nervous as hell. And I also would hit the Italian delis for good nosh, too, and Lebanese when I could find it. The point, if there is one, is that I’ve always had an affinity for cultures with better spices in their cooking, mostly ones with a Roman Catholic subtext. Which means, in Stockton terms, Mexican and Italian.
OK, so since MTV hasn’t put eight Latinos into a house at Venice Beach for a so-called reality series yet, I can’t tell you that I’m addicted to that show. I probably would be, because I grew up around that and can groove to that vibe. But I will tell you that Jersey Shore, which at this writing is four episodes into its existence, is the all-time best fucking television show in the history of television. I kid you not.
Now, if MTV happened to put a bunch of Chicanos in a house doing stereotypical stuff like lowering Chevy Impalas and smoking weed and drinking, the Hispanic anti-defamation league would be reasonably pissed off about it. Same as if you put a bunch of Jewish kids in a house together and they started doing or kvetching about something stereotypically Jewish, although an argument could be advanced that there are a ton of sitcoms already in syndication that might qualify there. How many seasons did Seinfeld run?
So it’s no surprise that what Jersey Shore castmate and bar punching victim Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi called “The Italian Whatever National Whatever the Whatever Their Organization Is” got its collective boxers in a bunch over MTV’s latest search for Darwin’s missing link.
They may have a point. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you what it is in particular that I dig about Italian-American culture. But first, as a Celtic-American (one half Scottish, the rest Welsh, Irish and maybe some English, German and/or Austro-Hungarian and Choctaw Indian), whose ancestors come from the bloodline that forms the basis of American hillbilly redneck fuckstick culture, I can tell you I’m not offended when people make fun of stupid white people. Part of that is that we ofay mofos don’t start out being discriminated against because of skin color; I know I can clean up my appearance and drop my twang in favor of a well-bred uppercrust accent and fit in pretty much anywhere that people gather who visibly don’t like the cut of a man’s jib if he appears to be downmarket Caucasian enough to leave an old pickup truck on blocks in the driveway with a snarling and tooth-marked Rottweiler tied to the door handle. Not that that shit matters anymore. But basically, I know I’m not stupid, and I tend to be reasonably creative on good days, and besides, part of me likes that I come from that same gene pool that gave the world George Jones and Willie Nelson and a bunch of other hard-twangin’ country motherfuckers.
So what is it about Italians with me? First, the food is great. Not too crazy about the Vatican, but the stuff around that celebrated edifice and city-state is pretty cool, including Florence and Venice for art and Turin and Milan for automobile design. Italians excel at cool industrial design. And great film, and fine opera and sweetly wonderful Neapolitan songs and exquisitely bad disco, and in my humble opinion beautiful women. There, I’ve said it: Mediterraneans of the attractive female persuasion (especially, from my experience, Italians and Yugoslavs) tend to be tumescence inducing in the extreme, at least for this mammal.
Now, some Italian-Americans tend to get a little nervous about the behavior patterns of certain Sicilians, and along the Eastern Seaboard, the guido stereotype has been framed in undeservedly pejorative terms. But what this particular Anglo loves about Italian-Americans is their expression of soul. Yeah, I’m talking Frank Sinatra and my personal hero Dean Martin, but also Louis Prima and his sax-swingin’ sidekick Sam Butera, along with a whole bunch of others.
And this may get me in trouble, but fuck it: Here’s what I think lies at the appeal of Jersey Shore, at least for some of us. It’s that same quality of not giving a fuck that Nick Tosches nailed down in his excellent bio of Dean Martin, Dino, and hooked in with that is a sublime quality of detachment, like where you see mobsters in a film killing someone and cutting them up while they politely banter about, oh, how to cook a really good marinara sauce, or what goes into the perfect sandwich. It’s a lack of self-awareness, which leads to some really great lines being uttered every episode.
Contrast that with the way Ashkenazim Jews are portrayed in various comedies, getting completely angst-ridden over a trip to the post office, the collective weight of the responsibility of being g-d’s chosen people exerting pressure on their shoulders every minute of the day. The Italians don’t give a shit; when you’ve got the Vatican in the center of your country, you figure you’ve got your connection with the Divine pretty much squared away, so who fuckin’ cares?
Yep, it all boils down to Dean Martin vs. Woody Allen, which, as false dichotomies go, is no worse or more full of shit than anything put forth by one of the tools in Rupert Murdoch’s employ.
Anyway, that’s why the so-called guidos and guidettes on Jersey Shore are so entertaining to me: If I want to watch nitwits with entitlement complexes, I’d prefer they come from working-class backgrounds. That’s where MTV, and “reality programming” in general, really fucked up: too many trust-fund bints like Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters, along with the douchey wastes of daddy’s ejaculate they happen to skank around with. Rich Hollywood trash kids just aren’t interesting. Italian kids from Staten Island and Poughkeepsie and Providence are. No one gives a shit about Paris Hilton and her fuckin’ chihuahuas, or the Kardashians and their stupid boutique and who they’re fucking, or those vapid idiots on The Hills. But give us some characters straight out of something John Waters might dream up going into the second decade of the 21st century, and maybe we’ll perk up. At least I will.
More on this later, because I haven’t stopped laughing since Jersey Shore started airing this month. And Italian Whatever National Whatever the Whatever Their Organization Is, please take note: I’m laughing out of love, not derision or contempt. This show really is that fuckin’ hilarious. —Jackson “DJ Jacky G” aka “The Position” Griffith