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.

Moonlight on the Wabash

Ominous shadows loom over the old Monroe County Jail, both in this photo and in the annals of American Criminal Justice. It was my home for one night in October 1971.

When I’m in these Clair de Lune moods I long for my Indiana homes. And in Bloomington there were quite a few.

I had a very promising start to my college career. I was a senior after five semesters and could have graduated after one more term and summer school. But something happened: I came out. I had so much fun it took me another five semesters to finish.

During my senior years I flitted from domicile to domicile. A two or three month stay in any one place was considered an eternity.

People seemed to enjoy me as a roommate. Or maybe I kept moving because I was always being kicked out. The mind, she plays tricks.

In one collective with four other gays, our furnishings were spartan: a couple of orange crates, an overstuffed chair from the street, a spinet piano left behind, and questionably stained sheets on the windows.

I practiced piano at the music school. The building was circular with practice rooms cut pie-shaped on both sides of the central hallway. The rooms were lined with cork and had thick, acoustical drapes that were pulled after closing the heavy door. Velvet became the answer to our window treatment dilemma.

Two roommates accompanied me to practice one day with luggage that possibly resembled horn cases. As I pounded out Bach Inventions, they struck the draperies.

We would have gotten away with it except one bonehead roommate allowed his friend Tony to use our address for registration. Tony didn’t live with us and was notorious for stealing antiques from the Union Building. The cops came looking for him, found no Charles V chairs but did spot the drapes and some drugs. We were taken into custody.

A strike for gender confusion: my violent violet checks.

The next morning we met our attorney in one of the jail’s conference rooms. He said he’d spring us for $300 each but nobody had any money. I volunteered to write the $1500 check ($9141.44 in 2017 dollars) against my zero balance.

The guard took forever to retrieve my book bag. When he finally returned he said there was no such bag.  I described it thoroughly: brown suede with a shoulder strap, it contained books, a red notebook, my keys and a checkbook. He asked snidely, “you mean that purse? ”

Mustering as much contempt as I could without inciting a police riot, I replied “Yes…That purse.”

Monroe County Courthouse. During a break in our hearing I bickered with my roommates over accepting the deal for a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge. Our attorney read us the prosecution’s expert forensic report. When I pointed out the weed was really hash he said “take the deal.” Hash was a felony.

The trend back then was to give the collective houses gender neutral first names and use the street as the surname. People would say “there’s a party at Pat Henderson’s,” or “I’m moving into Terry Walnut’s” and it was understood.

Those names were useful for bill-me-later magazine subscriptions too. Once you were an established periodical reader, the unsolicited gas credit cards in the name of the non-existent person would start rolling in.

The cards allowed us to travel across state lines to violate various man acts. In addition to gas they could be used at some motels and, if they had a restaurant, charge a meal.

There was an upscale motel on the north side of Bloomington with a rather pretentious restaurant. We decided one afternoon to treat ourselves to some fine dining.  Over cocktails, coquilles St. Jacques, Caesar salads, prime rib, and cheesecake, we debated whether to order wine. It seemed like the thing to do but the only one we knew was Mateus.  Yuck.

Enjoying brandy and cigars we pulled out the Shell Credit Card to pay for luncheon. The waitress returned to the table to tell us the card was declined. In local, stonecutter parlance she said it was “exparred.”

To avoid arrest, I wrote another violet check. She accepted it reluctantly, “that check’s probably exparred too.”

Mama was a Rollin’ Stone, Part One

On a recent overnight stay in Bloomington, I had an hour to kill. I went looking for places I used to live.

In an Ellis to Ellis exclusive, today is the first in a series highlighting houses I could find and/or remember.

 


Terry Walnut House.  I was met by cops one autumn afternoon in the driveway. They took me inside to question me and my roommates about the drapes. Then they threw us in the slammer.

The officers’ clothes may have been plain that day but mine were not.  I was incarcerated wearing red hot pants,  a pink jersey scoop necked shirt,  and Indian brass chandelier earrings. For emphasis I was going commando and barefoot.

On the square. In a civil war era building across from the Courthouse, I rented an internal room with no ventilation. The patchouli oil from a previous resident, the notorious drag queen Blossom Dearie, still lingered.

At the end of my two month summer lease I was in the hospital with hepatitis. My friends moved my things for me and, in the chaos, lost the horse hair mattress my Grandmother lent me.

My Grandmother did not lose her temper or express herself in anger. Ever. She didn’t need to. A stern look from her was more powerful than any tantrum I’ve ever seen. Whenever the topic of that horse hair came up she would sit quietly and shake her head in disapproval.

Speaking of controlled emotion, when I called my Grandmother’s daughter to tell her I’d been arrested and needed bail money she just started laughing. As I explained how my roomies were coming up with their share, Mother laughed harder and harder.

She was in shock. It was inconceivable that a child of hers could be arrested or bounce a $10,000 check. Her mechanism for dealing with the absurd was laughter which, in this case, was uncontrollable. The only words she spoke were “I can’t talk” as she hung up on me. She wasn’t laughing when I called her back later.

 

 

Me and Susie Had So Much Fun

There’s got to be a morning after. Susan with her friend Richie, mid-70’s.

As I worked with the gilded faux crocodile hide on the bathroom door, the Elton John song kept repeating in my head. His attempt at rocking out really was just a fluff piece of pop, When it was released it made me realize what cheap sentiment nostalgia was. And, how effective it could be. I would listen to the song in bed and cry.

It was December 1972 and my college chums were starting to leave campus. There would never be another time where I would become so close to so many people so quickly. Almost all of them ended up life-long friends. At the time, I wondered if I’d ever see them again.

To compound the anxiety, I was having my first serious relationship. What started out as a notch on the belt escalated into a torrid four-month affair.

Buzz was the hottest number to hit Bloomington’s insular gay community in ages. Everybody wanted him but he wanted me. Being with him was an excuse to delay decisions about where to move or what to do. He would go to work in the mornings leaving me alone listening to Crocodile Rock.

In 2008 I had a new boss. Susan. She was so open with and had such an enveloping smile. From the moment I met her she spoke to me as if she’d known me forever. I didn’t trust her for a second.

I thought this was the latest in management techniques, kill them with kindness before stabbing them in the back. My instincts were partially correct. Surprise lay-offs followed in January 2009. Susan had been privy to the preparations but resigned in October after only eight months on the job. She wanted no part of the blood-letting.

I wanted to remain friends after we left the firm but it’s hard translating workplace friendships into real ones. The office environment forces close connections with coworkers to make the work day palatable.  It feels artificial. Outside work, there’s often little common ground once the topic switches from year-end projections.

This was not the case with Susan. Intimate details of her life flowed freely. She told me things my oldest friends never share. And she did it in such a calm, non-dramatic way.

The memory evoking reptilian hide.
The memory evoking reptilian hide.

She helped me start this blog. When I was mulling over how to begin, Susan quietly got out her iphone and pulled up WordPress. Instantly she created an account and posted an item. Her unspoken words were “now get on with it” as she seemed a little perturbed with the person who was once in charge of her department’s technology.

Unlike many megalomaniac queens I know, her name-dropping CV does not come locked and loaded ready to explode in your face. It seeps out in dribs and drabs.

I told her about standing behind a man at O’Hare who was wearing this gorgeous black suit. The fabric was so exquisite I wanted to touch it. When he turned around it was Anderson Cooper.

She told a story about an awards ceremony honoring her brother where she was seated next to Anderson for the evening. She was matter of fact, it could have been morning traffic on the 101 she was talking about.

When rock was young we’d been on parallel tracks of fanaticism, liking the same music, seeing the same bands. I could mention Richard Hell and the Voidoids and she wouldn’t flinch. Love comes in spurts. Sometimes it hurts.

I told her about the Stones ’72 tour dates at Madison Square Garden. There’d been a New York Times ad announcing a random ticket draw so I submitted 200 postcards. 40 cards each under five different names.

Hi-Tech was just a gleam in Bill Hewlitt’s eye back then. I thought if a computer did the selection it could key on zip codes. Most entries would come from New York, Bloomington’s 47401 might get me a ticket.

All five of my names won. Non-photo IDs were still accepted so I took my friends’ drivers licenses to Manhattan and stood in line to buy the maximum four tickets per name. After completing the sale for one, I went to the back of a different line to use the next ID. I saw every show. Scalping the surplus tickets funded the trip.

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

Susan liked my story but, being a native New Yorker, had one that trumped mine. Although we’ve never been competitive, I listened intently while lingering over my steak tartare. Susan is a vegetarian.

As a dare she told a college friend she’d get him a meeting with his idol, Jerry Garcia. She began calling the Dead’s record label saying she was a CREEM Magazine reporter. Over a period of months they received concert tickets, backstage passes, and finally clearance to interview Jerry.

When they went to meet him, her friend posed as a photographer with his professional looking but non-functioning Nikon. He was supposed to do the talking but froze in the presence of his hero. Susan had to wing it.

Noticing a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book on the table, she began a conversation with Jerry on South American novelists. This led to a discussion of post-war German filmmakers, the bizarre lay-out of Washington DC and various other topics. Music was never mentioned. As they parted Jerry said it was the most intelligent conversation he’d had in some time. Susan answered, “if that’s true, I feel sorry for you!”

Her entrée with Jerry led to subsequent meetings when the group was in town. She hung out with the original Saturday Night Live cast when the Dead were on the show; there were week-long stays at the New York Hilton with the band; and, she watched their Garden concerts from onstage behind Jerry’s amps.

Susan had to psyche herself up for the occasional consorting part. She channeled Margaret Mead exploring some lost tribe. She was a punk rocking kid after all. Jerry at 35 was an ancient hippie.

I was amazed. What would corporate think? I loved the story though I’ve never cared for the Grateful Dead’s music. I couldn’t imagine she would either. When I questioned her about it she was blunt: “it’s some of the most tedious music ever made.”

Susan is leaving tonight on a plane (oh Jesus, enough John already). Actually she’s moving to New York to be with her family. If I’ve learned nothing else since that Bloomington winter it’s you don’t need to live in close proximity to remain good friends.

Landline

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.

I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s.  That’s who it turned it out to be.

We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.

He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.

We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.

In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.

At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.

When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.

Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

 

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The Story of Jim

Hitler Youth

Fashion forward
Fashion forward

Gary gave me the Stones DVD of their 2013 Hyde Park concert.  It commemorated the 44th anniversary of their free concert for Brian Jones in the same venue. To honor him that day they released thousands of butterflies into the air. Only a fraction took flight, the rest suffocated from being boxed up in the hot July sun. Obviously pre-PETA.

I watched it today and they sounded great. No matter how many times they play the same songs they always make them different. Sometimes a number that was so-so in the studio can be stellar played live. Like It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll. Likewise a perfect song in the studio like Gimme Shelter just can’t be captured in person.

My favorite moment was Mick reappearing in the Michael Fish Shirt Dress he wore at the original concert. In 1969 I was just a country teenager with no concept of what my life would be. When I saw pictures of Mick in his Mr. Fish I felt I could do anything I wanted.

Being part of the Pop generation we were skeptical of all imagery. Yes, Hitler was a villain but did you see how he manipulated those crowds? I’m convinced the Stones studied his films because they mastered the art of inciting to a frenzy. Like Adolph it started with their propaganda, intentionally or not. Keith is close to death. They’re back in jail again. This is the last tour. It’s worked for 50 years.

Today there’s much less hype, much mellower audiences. One occasionally gets a waft of Munich, however, when you see the Investment Fund Manager in the front row, arm raised in defiance, mouthing the lyrics to You’ve Got the Silver.

Before there was the Citibank VIP sections in the stadiums there was the pre-punk mosh pits of the arenas. In 1972 Gary and I saw them several times in the mid-west where we honed our stage rushing technique. You had to break just at the right moment in Stevie Wonder’s set. Too soon and security would pull you out. Too late and you couldn’t get close. We always made it.

When the notice appeared for the lottery of New York tickets I submitted a couple hundred postcards under five different names. All five won. I had 20 tickets, enough to go every night with plenty left to scalp.  It paid for the trip.

Grouping at The St. Regis, July 1972
Grouping at The St. Regis, July 1972

We were only able to rush the stage opening night at Madison Square Garden. After that teams of guards propped up huge sheets of plywood at the end of all aisles and in front of the entrances on the main floor. Primitive but effective.

But that first night our timing was perfect, we made it to the third row just as they launched into Brown Sugar. The rough and tumble of the mid-west shows did not prepare us for the violence and brutality of New York. Gary and I were separated, the mob pushed from all directions squeezing those in front against the stage. People were on the floor. There was no security and no way out.

As I was about to be crushed I felt an arm around my waist pulling me backwards and up onto a chair. We were packed so tightly I couldn’t turn to see who grabbed me. I tried to thank him over my shoulder. He kept a firm grip on my bare midriff throughout the whole show.

When it was over and the crowd started to thin, I got off the chair and turned to properly thank my benefactor. I noticed that he was this cute kid. And that his other arm was around his girlfriend on the next chair. Sheepish grins and that was that.

Those first few moments standing on the chair I focused on stabilizing. When I did eventually look to the stage, Charlie Watts was staring directly at me. He had witnessed the whole Guernica scene and had a look of concern on his face (without missing a beat, of course).

I knew why he was watching so I continued to project panic not wanting to break the spell. Finally I decided to be honest and let him know I was okay. I flashed a big smile. As soon as I did, Charlie calmly turned his head and stared into space. It was the coolest “fuck you” ever.

My blurry homage to Keith and Jean Paul Gaultier, 1984
My blurry homage to Keith and Jean Paul Gaultier, 1984

Next: Good Morning Jones Street
Previous: Go Ahead and Call It Frisco What the Hell Do I Care
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

Childhood Living

Still life with guzzlers, 1971
Still life with guzzlers, 1971

Jim and I met in Bloomington, Indiana in the spring of 1971. We were both 20 and in the early stages of coming out. He a year before, me just that April. Jim watched the semester long drama of his friend stalking me until he snared me. And then the theater that followed. He later told me mine wasn’t so much a coming out as an explosion.

Jim had a brief stint at a St. Louis art school but hated it. After a suicide attempt his first month there he returned home to Fort Wayne where his parents sought psychiatric help for him. When they discovered he was homosexual the experts, with his parents consent, subjected him to electric shock treatments.  It didn’t change anything, Jim never back downed from being gay. He decided to move on and check things out in Bloomington.

He was pathologically shy and extremely awkward in social situations. If you were patient enough, however, there was an intelligent and kind person underneath. With a scathing sense of humor. He was a poet and had been published in a couple of magazines. The first booklet of his poetry “Red Sky and Blue Airplane” had just come out. While everyone around us talked of doing things, he had actually accomplished something.

Before I came out I was a known quantity around campus. My fixation with the Rolling Stones had me doing everything Mick did:  shoulder length hair, scooped neck jersey tops, skin-tight bell bottoms, and big black motorcycle belts. I even bought moccasins because Time said he wore them on stage “for easier leaping about.” What the Stones were doing was fresh and challenging and there was nothing like it in Indiana. Except me. In 1969 men just didn’t have pierced ears. When I saw Keith’s I copied it down to the petrified sharks tooth.

I didn’t have many friends so my self-expression was mainly for my own pleasure. I wanted to make an impression but it never occurred to me what others actually might be thinking about me. I didn’t know anyone in the gay community or that it even existed.  After I emerged,  however, I would discover that many had known me.

In Bloomington’s version of People’s Park, a vacant corner lot occupied by hippies, the tribes people thrived on being weirder than the next person. I had them baffled, they had no clue what to make of me. They called me “Crazy Chris.”

The conservative older queens who hung out in the Commons cafeteria were fixated on my suede book bag. I’d ordered it out of the LA Free Press, it was kind of hip, kind of Laurel Canyon. But its utilitarianism was lost on this bitter claque. Their name for me was “Miss Purse.”  (Six months later they would all have one.)

Summer treat, Hoosier style
Summer treat, Hoosier style

As I made gay friends I learned about camp and gender-fuck. It helped explain Jagger’s influences and opened new possibilities for me.  My persona project became a collective one as new friends became fashion advisers as well. Indian Chandelier earrings from the head shop, thrift store dresses worn over jeans and combat boots, 5 inch cork wedgies and red denim hot pants. Eventually my hair would be bleached every known shade of blonde. If someone had a good idea I would probably try it.

I even befriended the “Miss Purse” gang. They were hardcore, closeted queens who loved to do old school drag. They spoke the lost language of Girl-ene where every other word was ‘she,’ ‘her, ‘girl’ or ‘bitch.’ The rest of their vocabulary was made up or inexplicable. And they would not stop to bring you up to speed. You either caught on or were kicked to the curb.  Fortunately, I was a quick study.

 

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The Story of Jim