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.

Regina, Start the Show

Cover art of the era that I preferred to Sgt Peppers.

Since its release, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request has been criticized as nothing but a Beatles’ rip off.  While Sgt. Peppers’ is hailed as the one of the most influential albums ever it seems if you’re one of those who was influenced by it you’ve committed a crime. What the sine qua non?

I loved the Beatles but was obsessed with the Stones. The Beatles wanted to hold your hand but the Stones aimed for a more intimate portion of the anatomy. The manroot of it all may be in Keith’s observation to Paul: “yours was a songwriters’ group, ours was a musicians’.”

When you strip away the lonely hearts veneer from Satanic Majesty’s, there are some excellent songs. Citadel alone is worth the price of admission. Its great riff highlighted by Charley’s shimmering cymbals is one of the Stones’ best ever. The curious break after the second chorus is nothing but reverb. A reviewer at the time said those five seconds summed up “the entire history of The Who.”

When it was released I wondered who they were singing about in the chorus, “Candy and Taffy, hope you both are well.” Twenty five years later I discovered that, while I was a gawky teenager in Grandmother’s kitchen, humming The Old Rugged Cross and baking Sugar Cream pies, Mick was in Manhattan hanging out with Candy Darling.

She’s A Rainbow and 2000 Light Years from Home were the most popular songs and have stood the test of time. And even The Lantern remains interesting with Nicky Hopkins’ piano playing.

Satanic Majesty’s is not the catastrophe it’s been made out to be. It was the product of an experimental time when being innovative meant more than to just produce good music. You couldn’t get too weird for the 60’s.

Candy was a trailblazer in the use of silicone for breasts. Unfortunately the substance was injected into the body and not implanted in bags. She was dead from cancer within 10 years.

There is footage from that period of Yoko Ono in the Beatles recording studio asking for her own microphone. (I’m not sure if this was before or after she demanded a bed be placed in there too.) The band members are non-confrontational and let her have the mic. Then they just ignore her.

As they work out a credible version of Get Back, she intermittently screams onto the recording “John!…..John!……John!” It’s annoying and makes no sense. The scene exemplifies the Petri Dish that was Swinging London and may explain where Gomper came from.

After decades of listening, 2000 Man has become my favorite track on the album. It starts off as a jaunty, acoustic folk song. Then the chorus adds a jaw dropping (but only on a good sound system) rhythm section with some astrological lyrics: “Oh Daddy, be proud of your planet, Oh Mummy, be proud of your sun.” A sarcastic clue that maybe they weren’t into the psychedelia thing as much as they were putting on.

Sheer terror at the Rococo. Waiting to go on.

In the Joan Rivers documentary, A Piece of Work, she’s booked into a seedy dive in the Bronx. To maintain her edge and polish her craft, she felt the need to work a live audience often. And she didn’t care where it was. In this case she finds herself in a backstage area that gave every indication of being just inches away from the city’s sewers. She was as comfortable there as she was in her own Upper East Side Penthouse with its ormolu and furs.

Backstages in night clubs are the great equalizers. It doesn’t matter how exalted you feel on stage, you enter from and exit through a dressing room that’s a gas station toilet. Maybe it’s an economy move by management to maximize profits. Or it could be a way to remind the talent they are the continuation of a centuries-old lineage of carnival folk engaged in an ignoble profession.

Grandmother enjoyed theater but would never have considered associating with those kind of people. You’re going to befriend someone whose professional skill set is based on deceit? That would have been only one of her many objections to my act.

Whenever I found myself in one of those shitholes, surroundings were the last thing on my mind. I was so consumed with fear, so terrorized about being in front of an audience, I would sit in stony silence and plot ways to bolt from the club without being seen. It always seemed like a viable option. I’d end up going on anyway but performing happened on such a primal level. I was riding a wave of blind faith.

The last cut on Satanic Majesty’s is On With the Show. It’s a mash-up of ambient lounge chatter, Brecht like melodies, dissonant piano and Jagger’s vaudeville banter. His phony concern is mixed with uninspired strip show spiel. Then, in a moment that is anything but majestic, Mick herds the girls onto the stage with a tawdry aside, “Regina, start the show.” One can only imagine the magic they created.

Not only does Their Satanic Majesty’s Request give us The Who in a nutshell but it also captures, in one phrase, the essence of Show Business.

With Pearl Harbor thinking of the nearest emergency exit. The Rococo Lounge, 1995.