An Associate Professor’s 111th Dream

I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can’t afford to waste good liquor.
Not on your salary. Not on an associate professor’s salary.
Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

At midnight on Mick Jagger’s birthday in 1972 I waited for Deene in front of the St. Regis Hotel. We’d been to the Garden to see the Stone’s perform the last concert of their tour. We attended separately so planned to rendezvous afterwards at her hotel.

Deene’s father booked the room for her when she heard the group would stay there. She picked up this tidbit giving Keith a massage in his hotel room after the Indianapolis concert.

Although I’d been to see her a couple of times, that night I could not get past the front door. Not only was the St. Regis hosting the Stones, they were throwing Mick’s birthday bash on their rooftop as well. Security was tight.

Deene ordered room service.

From the sidewalk I watched the swells arrive while waiting for Deene. There was no one interesting until this tiny figure alighted from her limo. She was swathed in a charmeuse cocktail dress void of any adornment. Whatever breeze there was in the July heat caught the fabric and made it billow on her 100 pound frame. A deeply saturated apricot, the dress was exquisite.

Ascending the stairs the woman acknowledged us with a wary half-smile and the attitude of someone who’d seen it all. Being Jackie’s sister, she probably had.

A simple evening at home with the things she loved: her fabrics, antiques, and daughter. In that order.

Lee Radziwill’s death this week marked the end of an era for certain social graces. She exemplified the upper classes love for glamorous cocktails. When the Princess offered, “you’ll have a vodka won’t you,’ it came with layers of codependent enabling. It was tempered by her Forrest Gump-like presence in high society’s perpetual 20th century cocktail party.

When the cocktail fad started in the 20’s and 30’s she would have seen her parents cavorting with the Fred Astaire crowd. With a Moderne backdrop, they pursued the most esoteric liquors and the most elaborate concoctions with the most exotic names. To stay on top of that ever changing scene was to gain true status.

In the 40’s and 50’s when cocktails became more middle class, the elite hung out at their clubs. With their casual attitude towards working they acted as if they could drink anytime, anywhere, without any consequences. Hit and run accident? Burned down the guest house? The attorneys will handle that.

The first few decades of the craze the downside was never mentioned. Like the billion Muslim women who all voluntarily “choose” to wear the hijab, no one ever seemed to have a drinking problem. Then in the 1960’s the perils were discussed openly. And treatment programs were developed.

In the era of recognition, Princess Radziwill could be found floating on her perfumed barge down de Nile. Usually with her bestie, the shit-faced booze hound Truman Capote.

Rumored to have done a couple of stints in rehab, it doesn’t seem she ever stopped. In the clip of her offering the vodka her subtext is clear: “go ahead, one won’t hurt,” and “you’re hip, you know these things.” Her tone is as smooth as that silk dress she wore.

My life with liquor has been checkered. In Dad’s family there was beer when the men went bowling but none was kept in the house. My Grandma, though, always smelled like the essence of Strohs. With a top note of stale Parliaments and Jungle Gardenia. We didn’t talk about any of that.

My other Grandmother led the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union with an unrelenting advocacy. But she neither challenged nor coerced those who disagreed with her. Her example and infinite patience she felt would eventually win out.

My parents were light social drinkers when I was growing up. More urgency was added in my teenage years.

Then there’s my boozing. Sadly, word count prevents me from elaborating on the topic in this piece. I can, however, mention hooch’s role in decorating my kitchen.

The loneliest part of kitchen cabinetry is the cupboard that juts out above the refrigerator. Sometimes it holds liquor but usually it’s just junk. It’s always under appreciated, never decorated. Until now.

Leafing through a box I found one of Jackie’s White House liquor bills. The perfect piece to hang in the lonely corner.

It’s the kind of historical document/perverse curio I cherish. Visitors can now study the fuel that ran Camelot (in addition to the “B12” injections administered by Dr. Feelgood). And schoolchildren passing through are given an important lesson too.

How can they ever hope to understand our nation’s past if they don’t know what our First Ladies drank?

 

 

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.

Gimme

Anita Pallenberg’s camel toe. Today the look is usually unintentional and considered a faux pas. Back then, Ms. Pallenberg knew exactly what she was doing.

I learned to play piano on an upright my Mother’s Aunt gave her. It had the same honky-tonk tone as the one in my Grandmother’s country church.

At their Sunday services, the song leader would stand to announce the number of the hymn while the pianist played a couple of bars in the background. Then, in a futile attempt to motivate a congregation of languid farmers, she’d cheerfully call out, “Y’all sing!”

I studied classical music but it didn’t stop me from trying to play along with Stones records. Their chord sequences were too complicated, I couldn’t keep up.  So I just picked at the bass line which was pretty easy to follow.

The bass on Gimme Shelter was odd because during the verses it seemed to hammer away on only one note, C#. Then in the chorus the line moved.

But C#? Nobody wrote in that key except Rachmaninoff. I thought it was probably a C or a D and that my old piano was way out of tune.

Forty years later in Keith’s autobiography he talks about writing Gimme Shelter. He says “the funny thing is it’s in C# which is really a piano key, not guitar.” The upright didn’t need tuning after all.

I'm a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies, that's not really true!
I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies, that’s not really true!

When the song was released I was in college and listened to it daily. Several times.

In one course I watched a video of Leonard Bernstein on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He highlighted the confusing opening of the first movement. The music is all over the place as the orchestra searches for a motif. Bernstein said Ludwig was just toying with the audience, creating a little tension.  The theme soon becomes readily apparent.

I thought the same about the intro to Gimme Shelter. Keith seems to be plucking randomly, meandering to find the right notes for his song. Then Wham! The downbeat hits and the riff comes full force.

Again, his autobiography clarifies. It was raining as he wrote, the intro is nothing more than the patter of the drops. Talk about over analyzing.

Performance problems: it's just a kiss away.
Performance problems: it’s just a kiss away

Despite the inclimate weather, the real storm was in his personal life. His girlfriend Anita was filming Performance with Mick Jagger and it had sex scenes that were not simulated. Nor were the ones that happened after the filming stopped.

Keith knew from the outset his relationship with Anita would not be monogamous. She could not be contained sexually. But it stung that she was carrying on with his best friend and business partner. He felt betrayed and uncertain. It took him 20 minutes to write Gimme Shelter.

Anita was always an enigma. There was a frightening quality to her, she seemed capable of doing anything for fun or mischief. And this was before she became a junkie. The callous life of fixating on the next rig made her one tough cookie.

But you don’t attain the inner sanctum of the Rolling Stones by being a milquetoast. Her profound effect on the group and the way people spoke of her in such awe was intriguing.

With Brian: giving as good as she got.

Her first Stones boyfriend, Brian Jones, was physically abusive though Anita was no victim. She fought back and Brian was often the worse of the two after one of their rows.

On a motor trip to Morocco, Brian was dropped off at a hospital in Spain. Keith and Anita boinked in the backseat of the Bentley the rest of the way

In an interview with Keith at their villa in the south of France, a journalist described the exotic surroundings and mentioned how Anita let their toddler son, Marlon, frolic naked on the grass while they talked. As necessary, urine flowed and poop plopped on the garden lawn. No one paid any heed.

Mom.

In the late sixties I was obsessed with Keith’s gender bending look. The shark’s tooth earring, the pastel pants, the kohl on his eyes, and, in particular, the jeweled red bolero sweater.

It’s hard to imagine a band hitting the market today without being focus grouped and stylized to death. Under Anita’s influence, he just took whatever looked good from the communal pile of clothing at the foot of the bed.

Ten years ago there was a profile piece about her life in Manhattan. The writer accompanied Anita on her daily rounds which included hopping on and off city buses. She knew the drivers by name and chatted them up during the ride. She never paid the fare.

My friend Dale loathed the Stones in college as much as he loathes them today. Their crass commercialism, the ridiculous pop idolatry, and the sexist hedonism offended him. He’s right, but to me their music is too good to let major concerns like that get in the way.

Once in Bloomington at an overcrowded, sweltering summer party we were dancing to Gimme Shelter. The music was blaring and Dale yelled in my ear, “this song is perfect.”

All from an afternoon of anguishing over Anita.

Be it a Bentley or a bus, she got around.
Be it a Bentley or a bus, she got around.