I Am What I Am, Goddamnit!

For my birthday my roommate gave me a ticket to see Hamilton. He did so reluctantly knowing my aversion to musical theater. To me they’re always the same: downtrodden minorities overcoming impossible obstacles to rise and get revenge.

That plot can be a relief to life’s woes when administered in the tiniest of doses. On Broadway the syringe is filled with one the size of the Pacific.

All I knew about the Hamilton musical was that it was done in rap or hip-hop or house–I’m not conversant in all of the nuance. I agree with Keith Richard’s take on the genre(s). He was inclined to like them but found the 4/4 beat monotonous. “Vary the meter for Christ’s sake.”

In my lifetime earth-shattering musical productions have come along about once every decade. When I was a teen it was the flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, Hair. The 1970’s saw A Chorus Line with What I Did for Love. Wah-wah-wah.

In the 80’s there was the queer triumph La Cage aux Folles (see title above.) It was followed by Rent ten years later. Sadly I know no tunes or lines from that one. Suffice it to say it’s only a rehash of La Boheme.

So the recent buzz of Hamilton being another phenomenon did little for me.  Until I read it was based on the Chernow biography I read lo those many years ago. My interest was peaked. How in the hell did they get something juicy out of that piece of dry toast?

Somehow they did. From the opening admonishment by a queeny King George’s voice warning about cell phone usage, it sucked me in. The beat, the body movements, the constant barrage of couplets, a lazy susan stage transporting actors from one scene to the next and the diversity of the cast combined to make something I never thought I’d see in the legitimate theater. (In the illegitimate theater, yes.)

The color coding of the actors was a little baffling. Why were some white historical figures played by non-whites while others were not? Could it be, gasp, because that person was best qualified for the role? Realism in an art form founded on disbelief is vastly overrated.

As a kid I joined record clubs to take advantage of the 10 LPs for a dollar. I always included at least one musical soundtrack. I thought if it was important in Manhattan it had to be important to the world.

The summer I bought the soundtrack to My Fair Lady it took Uncle Fritz’s annual visit to put things in perspective. His version of On the Street Where You Live included a verse that began, “People stop and stare, in their underwear.” Oh! The towering feeling.

I didn’t think Hamilton had any memorable tunes. Until I went to bed that night. That’s when I realized “The Room Where It Happens” had been on a constant loop in my head since I left the theater.

And I’m not good at remembering lines after performances. Although Alexander’s son Phillip made an impression. As a teen young Philip shows he’s a playa with the pick-up line, “I’m a trust fund baby, trust me”

After graduating from college Lil’ Phil has even more game. He tells a couple girls he likes their frocks. “When I get back we’ll strip to our socks.” He then does the honorable thing by getting himself killed in a duel. You gotta love that wacky 18th Century lifestyle.

The most astonishing moment occurred when there was a passing reference to General Lee “shitting the bed at the Battle of Monmouth.” Immediately I could think of only two other people in the world who would even know what that meant, Ron Chernow and my friend Peter in Paunat, France. Anyone who can link a reference as obscure as that to a street culture where the words “Battle of Monmouth” will probably never be heard, let alone understood, deserves all the Tony’s they can get.

The one minor disappointment was the death scene where the angels seemed to alight with Alex and rest him in the bosom of the holy father. I understand that when you’re selling $150 Broadway tickets to tourists from Iowa there needs to be at least one gratuitous, schmaltzy scene to validate the experience for them. The rest of the play is so innovative and modern, however, it would have been interesting to see how they could have handled this in a different way.

Joking about death is never easy to do, though Jim Jordan did a pretty good job of it in our play 1968. Which brings me to a concluding thought: if I’ve seen the future of theater, it has striking resemblances to what Jim and I tried to do 30 years ago.

Striking a Hamiltonian pose when I was 9. Mother opted for the traditional cream background over the blingier gold.

Pride Before the Human Hair-like Fall

Boston’s Grand Marsha, 2019

I was in New England last week to see my college chum Dale assume his position as Grand Marshal of the Boston Gay Pride Parade.

I’ve visited Boston frequently through the decades and have found it to be just the right combination of erudite and profane. The vast student population with attendant cultural activities provide adequate stimulation for intellectual masturbation. Other forms of self abuse are easily available in the anonymous back alleys and areas of urban decay that made the 20th Century so lovely.

At one point I even considered doing post graduate work at Boston’s great upholstery school, Tufts University. But there was confusion over which degree program I was pursuing and my application was rejected.

The first part of the week was spent with Marilyn in Providence. She and her husband Ron have just completed work on their new home with spectacular views of Narragansett Bay.

During the days, she and I hit the trail of summer ice cream stands that dot the area. I had many delicious flavors while she kept ordering the same one, Not Good Either.

Upon visiting one of Rhode Island’s ye olde gift shops I was overcome with the vapors from their cloying scented candles. Reeling, I thought I saw a picture of Oprah with skin that was completely non-descript. It reminded me of how Elizabeth Taylor made more money with her perfumes than she did in her entire movie career.  I decided I should come out with a line of beauty products to supplement my welfare checks.

Inspired by the Big O, my cosmetics will be called Air Brush with the tagline: They’ll never know it’s you. The first two shades that have made it out of focus groups are Beyond Recognition and, for the Autumns out there, Embalmer’s Best Friend.

As the week progressed Marilyn and I were also inspired to update Joan Crawford’s signature Come Fuck Me Pumps. Air Brush will soon be offering an exclusive line of human-like hair Fuck Me Falls and Pound Me Postiches.

There’s a goofball quality I share with my Bloomington friends over this B thing. When we need a diversion we riff on things B might do. The scary thing for them is if one of these fantasies is even remotely possible I may attempt it.

In the early 90’s I was on a work assignment in DC. Dale came down from Boston for a weekend to hang out with me.

After a taxing day of museum-hopping we sat down for a cocktail. Gaultier had just come out with his Classique perfume in the torso shaped flacon. Staring at his magazine ad we decided B should have a signature fragrance too.

Our ad campaign was to be a velvety matte black background surrounding the glistening amber-colored potion. The glass bottle would be in the shape of male genitalia.

I can’t remember the name we came up with. Possibly Golden or Alchemy or B’s Gold.

But I do remember our tagline: Let it flow.

How Many Bunnies Had to Die to Make That Headboard?

In the end: zero.

My first choice of a striped faux rabbit fur arrived not as pictured. Online it was a cool blue/black and blue/gray combo with a slight touch of brown. In hand, it was mostly brown with undertones of gray and black. I wanted chinchilla. I got sable.

Those faux bunnies did not die in vain, however. The unused piece will be reserved for a future project. It’s beautiful fabric.

What I thought I’d ordered.

Knitting or crocheting fur is a process that baffles me. But if they say they did it I believe them. My backup fabric for the headboard was a charcoal ombre, crocheted fake fur. In daylight it resembles wide wale corduroy. In artificial light the channels disappear and it becomes a dull, shimmering titanium monolith.

This new look marks the end of the two year, proof-of-concept phase for having a bed with an amorphous head. It was a failure.

The original idea was to pile all of the pillows in the center of the bed. On any given night, whichever end (or over whichever side) my face fell was the designated head. I liked the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse feel of everyday being Anything Can Happen Day.

But there was little support to sit up and read. And I got tired of kicking books off the wall in the middle of the night. My recurring dream of a passionate night with Liberace was abruptly interrupted one too many times.

The quality that remains consistent in all of my projects is the inability to manage or estimate time. This one was intended to be a two day job. It took me three weeks. The price paid for learning as you go.

The headboard says shalom. It was necessary to carve out two mezuzas: one to electric light, the other to forced air heat.

One valuable takeaway in this go-round was how to work with old goose down comforters. Lock up those pesky feathers by basting off the section you plan to use before making the cuts. Otherwise you’ll be living a Lucy Ricardo nightmare, your apartment saturated in down for a week. I’m happy to report it’s all been cleaned up (I think) and the symptoms of white lung disease have subsided.

I also learned that feathers are mostly protein. They can be used in compost. I may have destroyed home life for seven days but I did my part to save the universe in the process.

Although I’m back to a traditional predetermined headboard, I reserve the right to sleep wherever I want.

The rejected bunny fur awaiting reassignment.

Yes

John met Yoko in 1966 at her Indica Gallery Show in London. The conceptual piece he was intrigued by required him to climb a step ladder then use a magnifying glass to read a tiny word on the ceiling painting.

Those were different times. The corporate blandness of today’s culture with its numerous liability laws prevents one from participating in the type of dangerous behavior Ms. Ono encouraged.

With that lofty introduction one can almost feel the great art coming on. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just coming to the end of a two-and-a-half year decorating phase and tying up loose ends.

When The Joy of Man’s Desiring was hung last year (emphasis on the hung), I knew I had to finish it off with a proper setting. I finally got around to it last month. Joy now floats on his blanket above a sea of Vault from the Evans & Brown Treasure Collection. Accent lighting is provided from behind a shield of polyurathene.

This love affair with ceiling medallions has yet to gain acceptance with the Academy of Home Decoration Arts and Sciences. The deco appeal of the geometric shapes just hasn’t translated well when they’re on the wall.  When David from Boston was here he looked at the hexagon-split-in-half fixtures and said, “they look like rat traps.”

It’s the type of wicked aside that is so prized in my alternative lifestyle. This was no gratuitous queeniness, however, his message came through loud and clear. I was trying too hard and it wasn’t working.

I decided to make the hexagon whole by gluing it together and then tarted it up a bit. What I really wanted to cover it with was a black chainmail from New York that is $60 a yard. A little pricey for a novice who can’t sew. I settled instead for an electric lime sequinned piece from the discount bin at the fabric outlet. It was $4.83.

Rats are color blind I believe so this would be lost on them.

Sequins sewn on top of material are too two-dimensional and not really what I wanted. These baby ones are imbedded in netting that form one layer which lies flat. The color and texture are reminiscent of Monet’s moss floating at Giverny. The fabric feels right at home. My apartment often carries the stench of a polluted pond.

There’s a homemade quality to these things I do that makes me squirm. Mom’s got herself a zig-zag and she’s sewed some new rick-rack on her apron, ain’t it purdy? But, as with all my projects, there’s nothing to be gained by a close examination of the workmanship. I’m better at ideas than I am at execution.

To quell this self-doubt I settle myself by asking if the piece has the right impact. If it does, we move on. In this case, at least I’ve solved the problem of confused rodents scurrying around wondering, “hey, what’s this?”

To finish my light fixture I wanted a simple word like Yoko’s that packed some punch. I chose a four letter one that Bill Bryson, in his book The Mother Tongue, has called one of the most elastic in the english language. It can be used as an adverb, adjective, noun, verb or simply as an expletive. When used accurately, it can also describe a situation that is a lot of fun.

I shan’t say more as I’d hate to diminish the sense of discovery you’ll feel when you visit.

Jesus is not straight. Hung by fishing line he’s out of kilter and I’ve been unable to correct it. Facing a publishing deadline, I had to post as is. Will report back after he goes through his conversion therapy.

 

I Wa-Wa-Wa-Wa Wonder

I belonged to the Y Indian Guides when I was seven. It was the YMCA’s lighter, less fascist alternative to the Boy Scouts.

The fathers in our group were World War II veterans and they celebrated their bond with humor. I was a few years away from completely understanding it. Like the chuckles our adopted names received. Dad was Big Red Beaver, my brother was Little Red Beaver and I was the twice-removed Little Grey Beaver.

Stung by second rate billing only made me more determined. I got the best role in our skit when we joined other area tribes for a variety show.

Our Dads decided to dramatize one of their jokes. They built a cut out airplane we four little warriors stood behind. A narrator set it up: we were on a dangerous international mission when our plane suddenly developed problems. Over the loudspeaker the pilot explains there’s a weight issue and asks for a volunteer to evacuate. A Frenchman boldly steps to the door, exclaims “Vive la France!” then jumps.

The pilot comes back on to say we’re still too heavy. A British soldier cries, “God save the Queen!” Then he jumps leaving just two of us.

In desperation, the pilot pleads for one more volunteer. With bravura I shouted “Remember the Alamo!” as I turned to push the Mexican out. Maybe the Guides were more fascist than originally thought.

I was intrigued by the laughter and applause I heard from the unseen audience. The stage bug had bit.

Sergei my man

Jonesing for stardom, I pursued music when I was growing up. I played french horn for eight years in the school band. It was a collective effort, only an occasional solo made me feel the pressure.

Individual attention came with the piano. I studied it for seven years. Every Spring students performed auditions for a team of judges. Results were announced at our public recital a month later.

One year I sat waiting my turn at the recital half-heartedly listening to my teacher’s general remarks. Amongst the blah-blah-blah I heard phrases like “one student stood above the rest” and “the judges noted a dramatic improvement in technique.” She was talking about me.

I was so shocked that when I took the stage and began to rip through Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, I suddenly froze. We had to perform from memory and I could visualize where I was in the score. But that’s all I saw. I was blank. After a pause of several seconds I took it from the top again and nailed it.

I hoped I’d saved face by getting it right the second time. Afterwards, however, Mother wasn’t buying it. All she could do was softly shake her head while repeating “you started over…you started over…”

The discipline I had as a child puzzles me now. Today, hands that once glided over Mozart can barely pick out chopsticks. And the embouchure that framed my triple-tonguing has been destroyed by years of, well, tonguing of another sort.

Skills may have atrophied but my appreciation for music has never waned. Like the Youtube video of Chris Montez’s joyous Let’s Dance. I’ve been obsessed with it lately.

It’s from a 60’s dance show, the kind I watched to keep up with the latest crazes. I’d try to follow the moves and, when I needed a partner, would grab a doorknob on a swinging closet door. It’s unpredictable movement kept me on my toes.

While serious me pursued musical instruments, fantasy me wanted to be a regular on Bandstand. I longed to be like the tall guy in black pants in this clip at about :40. He doesn’t do much but those rubbery legs skimming across the floor are amazing.

I was probably closer in style to the black pencil skirt at 1:25 and 1:45. She’s all snake hips with plenty of bounce and controlled arm motion. Plus she’s having the time of her life.

The real stars are the couple who jitterbug at 1:00. They can barely contain themselves as they count off then blast into orbit when they lock hands. Their steps are at one with the rhythm, the music seems to emanate from their feet.

Another clip I’ve been watching is a 1969 American Bandstand. It’s a Top 10 Countdown, Sugar, Sugar is number 1.

At the time the song was dismissed as unhip and bubble gum. Five decades later I can confess I’ve always loved it. The infectious hand clapping beat, the way the volume increases with each chorus–it’s so exciting.

And I marvel at the guys in these videos. They dance like that and they’re straight? This is America, goddamnit, they can’t do that.

Why. Y? Y? Y? Y? Y?

I learned of Top 40 in 1961 because of Del Shannon’s Runaway. I became a devotee of the Saturday morning program for the next decade.

Feeling personally invested in that song, I was elated when it hit Number 1. Then Roy Orbison’s Running Scared knocked it out a couple of weeks later and I was furious. I vowed never, ever to support that blind guy’s music again. A 10 year old’s lifetime grudge can’t last more than a month. I soon became an Orbison fan too.

There’s a 1986 clip of Del Shannon performing Runaway on David Letterman. After he uses his falsetto the first time he shoots Paul Shaffer a knowing grin. As if they’d discussed how something so silly ended up sounding so cool.

Shaffer is a wonderful musician who has kept basically the same band for 30 years. No small feat. Here he generates enthusiasm by osmosis as he physically submits to the music playing the bridge. His above the melody line in the following verse gives me goose bumps.

When it ends the band seems delighted with their rendition of this great pop song. There aren’t too many other choices this Old Grey Beaver made 60 years ago that still stand up today.

Keep on dancin’ and a prancin’.