Contact High

As I approach senility, I’ve managed to outgrow most of my childhood heroes.

Lucille Ball was the first and easiest one to get over. By the age of 10 I’d memorized every line of dialogue of I Love Lucy. Even though I knew what was going to happen when I watched an episode for the 100th time, how Lucy did it kept it in the now.

I was one of the last rats to leave the sinking ship in the post-Desi 1960’s. I willed myself to love her subsequent sitcoms but intense loyalty could not make them funny. When I learned about her John Wayne politics I soured.

As an adult, I watched her on talk shows and was surprised by the effort she had put into her craft. The diligence and intense concentration that created joy for millions of people did not provoke the same feelings in her. It was just a job to Miss Ball which, in the end, made her seem like a very sad person.

My Jackie worship started as transference through my Mother. As documented in this blog, it began as pure idolatry that moved on to a fascination for her perverse imagery. Then the tackiness of her as a collectible commodity gave me a hobby. I ended up liking her but with some reservations.

As for Mick, I think I’m over him but I’m never quite sure. It helped last summer when I was in Bloomington and was reunited with Susan after 40 years. She seemed annoyed when she remembered, “you were always trying to be like Jagger.” Then she added, “I thought you were limiting yourself.”

I first saw Ike & Tina Turner on American Bandstand in the mid-60’s. The Ikettes were doing their mini-hit, Peaches ‘n Cream. Dick Clark lavished praise on Tina during the interview and called her shows legendary. I’d never heard of her.

Tina didn’t perform that day and barely spoke. But she was so self-possessed and confident, I was beguiled and instantly obsessed.

My favorite Ike & Tina album back then was called In Person and was a live recording of their performance at Basin Street West in San Francisco. It was on MINIT Records and available for 99 cents in the Rexall discount bin. I wore out about 10 copies.

It’s mostly covers of popular hits but there are two medleys where she talks extensively. During one 17 minute recitative she stops and starts the band repeatedly to wax on about love and hurt. Like a Baptist Preacher, she varies her volume and cadence for dramatic effect. The album was released at the height of the soul music trend and there’s nothing more soulful than a Sunday sermon from a southern pulpit. Which is basically what Tina delivered. Very effectively.

There was always a manufactured and meaningless rivalry back then between Tina and Aretha. They were really quite different and I loved them both.

Aretha had the better voice and was more musically talented. But she was what opera queens call park and bark, a diva who plants herself on stage and lets the voice be the show.

Tina had a great voice too with a more limited range. But she danced exceptionally well and, incredibly, sang and danced simultaneously. She constantly worked on creating new dance moves and on staging to highlight the movement. She wore long falls because she said they had “action.” As did the fringe on her costumes. Hers was one of the first acts to use strobes and fog machines.

Show business cognoscenti took note. I remember hearing Diana Ross say with astonishment “oh my god, she’s so bad.” (Back when that phrase was first used as praise.) In 1969 Dick Cavett asked Janis Joplin who she admired as a performer. She immediately responded, “Tina Turner.” And Lena Horne was quoted as saying she wanted to be reincarnated as Tina.

Listening to one of the Turner’s albums was always hit and miss, gems surrounded by mediocrity. Ike was a musical control freak and notorious for stealing from other acts. Even the “rough” part of Proud Mary was nicked from Fort Wayne’s own Checkmates. It was Phil Spector’s majestic uptempo production of the Checkmates version that made Ike’s recording.

He also controlled most of the stage act. Tina later admitted being embarrassed by things Ike made her do like the lewd, kabuki-esque fellatio she performed on the microphone. Or singing lyrics with heavy drug references (“she reached in her bag and she pulled out some coke!”) She may have been reluctant to do them but, again, it was so good because she was so convincing.

Make-up’s a little scary but the fringe flew.

I completely internalized her music and always played it when I needed a lift. In college I drank prodigious amounts of coffee and mimiced the way she splayed her thighs, sat her butt down in it and gyrated across the stage to get that fringe moving.

Later when I did her on stage I was never an impersonator. She was sui generis and impossible to recreate. But she inspired me as I tried to perform with her spirit and attitude. And I loved doing her songs because they were full of energy and so sexually provocative.

David Bowie said that being on stage next to Tina was the hottest place in the universe.  Rock ‘n Roll gods melted in her presence. A YouTube clip that has since been taken down showed Mick and Tina in Tokyo doing Brown Sugar. When he drops to his knees in a corny gesture she dismisses him with a look: “not on my stage.”

(Note bene 11/28/18: a friend and devoted reader found the clip. What I wrote was on memory. Who knows what they were actually thinking. But at approximately 2:00 the look is there. Thank you Mimi.)

There is a video of Keith Richards in a group jam of Keep A Knockin’. He takes his vocal turn and nervously sings two lines. He’s palpably relieved and shows such affection when Tina steps up to rescue the verse.

And when Paul McCartney does Get Back with Charles and Diana in the audience, his look of anticipation as Tina makes her entrance and the thrill in his eyes as they harmonize are unmistakable ardor.

My generation grew up with a Bill Murray sneer for show business. We mocked every gimmick and show biz cliche there was. I kid you not. But the happiness Tina exhibited on stage was impossible to deride. There was joy in every performance she gave.

On New Years Eve 1982 she was gearing up for her return to the lime light. No one knew it was in the works but I thought at the time her stunning visual presence needed to be captured in the new medium of music video. Although she was technically still down-and-out in this appearance on Johnny Carson, watching it again she obviously was not going to be denied a comeback. And with a piano player like she had I’d be attempting one too.

Happy Birthday Tina.

When You’re a Boy

The low spark of high heeled boys. My red platforms, 1972.
The low spark of high heeled boys. My red platforms.

I miss Joan. I was in Chicago today and saw the Bowie Is  show. My life flashed before me in the form of red grease paint over shaved eyebrows. If Miss Rivers was still doing Fashion Police I’m sure she’d feature me on “Who Wore it Best?” Or at the very least “Bitch Stole My Look.”

I loved seeing the costumes up close, especially the shoes. One pair of platforms were very similar to ones I’d had,  4″ high navy and white with pierced pinpoints. They resembled spectator pumps.

I liked his plain black flamenco boots. They had not been restored and you could see flaked leather around the bottoms. It reminded my of how hard platforms were to maintain. They were always scuffed up from being kicked in bars. Or in my case, being drug through gutters.

Life is a pop of the cherry. At the St. Regis trying to crash Mick's Birthday, July 1972.
Life is a pop of the cherry. At the St. Regis trying to crash Mick’s Birthday, July 1972.

There were a few too many handwritten notes and lyric sketches for my taste in the exhibit, things you can see in a book and don’t need to visit a museum for. But the audio grounded the whole thing.

I’m used to typical museum technology of typing “21” into the headset when you were at exhibit 21. “Bowie Is” had wifi earphones. You’d be listening to Changes then take a few steps and you’d hear Heroes.  Back and forth, the music kept up with you.

The song that surprised me most was Boys Keep Swinging. I had forgotten about it but have always loved it. And Bowie nailed the drag in the video, so disaffected with a hint of manliness.

Of the many things I walked away with from the museum, including Terryworld from the gift shop, I kept thinking of the short BBC clip when he was 17. He was group spokesman leading a rebellion of the long hairs. Apparently things had gotten so bad for these boys they’d even been referred to as “darling.”  Davey Jones’ hubris was impressive. Such conviction for something so silly.

Keith Richards always said that Bowie was just posing. Which I thought too except that his music has always affected me. Therein lies the rub.

 

Bowie Is

B ‘R

Next: Life, Afterlife and Lowlife
Previous: Life of Outrage, Life of Beauty
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Life Without Eyebrows, 1974

One thing we hadn’t considered when we shaved our eyebrows was how long it would take for them to grow back, over a month. Plus the red make-up we used on my face left big blotches that took a week to wash off. A clerk at Woolworth’s asked me if I’d been in an accident. So I went with it, added oversize bandages to heighten the effect.

I was standing on the island at Mission and Duboce one day after the red washed off. Spaced out and distracted, I waited for the light to change. A car pulled up and this matronly woman rolled down her window to ask, “dear,  do you need help?”

Next: Mein Kampf
Previous: Christmas, Baby Please Come Home
For the complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Life at the Original Midnight Sun, mid-70’s

Next: Christmas, Baby Please Come Home
Previous: Rear Window
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

As the Pot Melts

We could be heroes. Opening night of the original Midnight Sun on Castro Street, January 1974.
We could be heroes. Opening night of the original Midnight Sun on Castro Street, January 1974.

I have lived in my apartment in downtown San Francisco since 1976.  It was perfectly situated for the years I worked in the Financial District and, more importantly, it was centrally located for all the trouble one can get into in this town. I could walk almost anywhere in the City and, if I was too wobbly to make it home, a cab ride was only 5 or 6 dollars.

When I first lived in San Francisco I hopped around between various accommodations in the Castro, Haight and Mission. But I was always intrigued by the area downtown between Nob Hill and the Loin. It seemed so un-California. Old out here usually means mid-century Eichler but downtown there was the 1920’s type construction found in New York and Chicago. It felt big city. Joan Crawford would have lived in this neighborhood and caught the bus to work in a Union Square shop. Snapping her gum and wisecracking behind the counter, she’d bide her time until some oil tycoon swept her away, refined her and turned her into a murderess.

My desire to live downtown bucked the predominant trend of the day which was the rapid gentrifigaytion of the Castro. Gays were moving in by the hundreds, renting, apartment sharing, squatting, buying. It all happened so quickly. The fleeing Irish working class didn’t know what hit them other than the handsome profits for their, until then, undesirable properties. After taking over the housing, neighborhood jobs followed and then the ownership of the businesses themselves. Gay life was so concentrated in the Castro it was almost oppressive.

With so much young gay testosterone occupying every inch of the ghetto, sex was everywhere. You could be waiting for Muni in the morning commute, make eye contact and decide this was the day to call in sick. Run to the corner store for a quart of milk and return home carrying a load of cream. Or be dutifully doing your laundry at the local Mat, get cruised and picked up. One time I actually got placed inside the dryer and blown on the spot. Between cycles.

Despite the lure of the candy store, I wanted to live downtown. Acceptance was the issue of the day and to me you had to be seen to be believed.  I wanted to live amongst the general populace not cordoned off in the ghetto with my kind. It was a time when many still didn’t know what “gay” meant, The New York Times had only recently begun printing the word after years of insisting on the more clinical “homosexual.”

On my personal quest to liberate the masses I felt that living in a diverse area would force people to wonder who I was. They would have to think about and interact with me. Once they realized I wasn’t a threat, I would be accepted. And there were enough gay people in the neighborhood to keep it interesting. If I wasn’t in the candy store per se I could still benefit from the vending machine level of activity nearby.

Steadying Wena on her barstool at The Midnight Sun, c. 1974.
Steadying Wena on her barstool at The Midnight Sun, c. 1974.

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The Eviction Story

 

 

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com