Tripping out over the next trip

As I’ve mentioned about 32 times, I’m going to Portugal in January, another far-flung journey, a big bite of exoticism and edification, of soul nourishment and reckless indulgence in the name of peripatetic pleasure. I’m absolutely thrilled about it. It’s going to be terrible.

I’m riding the old seesaw of doubt and delight I always teeter on once I’ve bought my ticket and committed to swanning to someplace faraway, a jaunt that could be brilliant or a bust. I’m giddy. I’m aghast. 

After a two-week flurry of excited planning for Portugal — I booked neat boutique hotels, cheap tours, acclaimed restaurants and compiled a list of things to do and see — here’s what I wrote in my journal the other day: 

“I don’t think Portugal is going to be that great. The giant swell of energy I had for the trip has fizzled. And yet I’m still all about it and I kind of can’t wait.”

Three sentences oscillating with exquisite ambivalence.

The initial bloom of enthusiasm wilts into a kind of premature burnout. I’m two months away from the actual trip and already I’ve invested too much time, energy and money on a mirage. Waiting, I stew.

It’s not about this particular destination. It’s about all destinations, be it Japan, New Orleans or my recent trip to Paris. I get loopy, worried that all my anticipatory energies are for naught. What if it’s disappointing? What if I get in an accident? What if, god forbid, it rains? What am I doing? Refund!

This worry-wart-ism, this privileged angst mixed with delirium, has me up at all hours researching and reserving and sometimes, in fits of bleary-eyed buyer’s remorse, canceling flights only to rebook them the next morning when I’m a mite more sane.

Portugal ain’t Paris, and its comparatively modest offerings — a smattering of churches, a few museums, breath-stealing views, spicy sausage and smoky sardines — distress me. I’m going to the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, and both seem a little sleepy, more scenic than interactive, more walk-y than do-y.

Still, I look forward to a long tour of labyrinthine Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest, most atmospheric neighborhood, and hopping classic Tram 28, rattling up city slopes the color of Easter candies (see below).

In Porto I’m doing a fancy port tasting and taking a celebrated food tour. I’ll hear fado in a cavern-esque club. (How much fado singing I can take is a whole other matter.) And Portugal’s famed chocolate chain Chocolataria Equador — I’m there. (I’ll have the Dark Chocolate with Gin, por favor.)

Then there’s the people, always the people. I’m sure I’ll be saying obrigado (thank you) profusely.

The juices flow again just typing those words. I’ll always feel a churn of emotions about each journey — I’m a stubborn realist — so it’s about harnessing the positive and running with it. I have a good feeling about this. I think.  

No matter. It’s happening. I’ve done my homework and charted the trip in almost granular detail. Everything’s in place. (I think.)

Now I stand back, sit down, and wait patiently, with or without a hearty supply of Xanax.

One memory launches a hundred more

There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.

Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks). 

Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …

Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.

Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.

Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”

What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich. 

Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.

Hard rock, hard booze: Metallica sells the sauce

Celebrity booze brands, from Jay-Z’s cognac to George Clooney’s tequila, are an unseemly fad — how much money and branding do these flush hobbyists need

Yet the new Metallica Blackened Whiskey has me rapt, not only because I’ve been a band fan for years, but because the snarling spirit trumpets its own acrobatic gimmickry, something that recalls how members of KISS mixed their own blood into the ink of the 1970s KISS comic books for an extra drizzle of puerile publicity.

This is far less theatrically cynical. But still comical. Metallica’s zesty drink — notes of honey, oak, caramel, the usual — has been given the band’s trademarked “Black Noise Sonic Enhancement” while in the finishing whiskey barrels.

It’s as dorky as it sounds: songs from Metallica’s landmark 1991 Black Album — “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” etc. — are “played to the barrel causing the whiskey inside to move and interact with the wood. The whiskey is pummeled by sound, causing it to seep deeper into the barrel, where it picks up additional wood flavor characteristics.” 

I believe that (ooh, shake it, Sandman). I just don’t believe it makes a whit of difference. As it is, the sip is solid — toasty, tangy — especially when tippled to “Whiplash,” circa 1982. 

The market is lousy with famous booze dilettantes. Cameron Diaz moves her own wine. Bob Dylan hawks Heaven’s Door Whiskey. Wild Turkey Longbranch Bourbon reeks of Matthew McConaughey’s honeyed East Texas drawl. And coolest of all, Irish Celt-punk rockers The Pogues push Pogues Irish Whiskey.

Thrash royalty that they are, Metallica aren’t too dignified to gussy up their whiskey with frippery — don’t forget the dubious Black Noise Sonic Enhancement process. Lending it a luster of collectibility, the painted corked bottle comes in a Black Album-emblazoned box and includes a cocktail recipe booklet and a (totally useless) Metallica whiskey coin that’s worth minus 50 cents on the black market. (For the record, “Blackened” is the title of the first track on the group’s elephantine 1988 LP “… And Justice for All.”)

So how, really, is the stuff? At $45, it’s no hooch. I admit my face puckered into an asterisk on the first dram of Blackened, but that’s normal for me — I feel the burn. Notes of butterscotch and mint soon blossomed from the mix of bourbons and ryes selected by Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. 

I poured more, though not too much, lest Blackened become blackout. I bet the guys in Metallica, who were once dubbed Alcoholica for their prodigious swigging skills, would love that. They might even dedicate a song to me, perhaps one of my favorites off the Black Album: the aptly titled “Sad But True.”

The naked truth about a job I had

Slash was bored. The iconic shredder from Guns N’ Roses, famed as much for his seething guitar licks as his Niagara of dark curls, surly sneer and non-ironic top hat, paced the film projection booth at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre as he waited for the strip club’s notoriously hard-partying co-owner Artie Mitchell. 

A magnet for lustful and plain curious celebrities, including on this night the freshly famous bandmates of Guns N’ Roses, the upscale flesh emporium in San Francisco, home to some 100 dancers, was anointed the “Carnegie Hall of sex in America” by none other than gonzo journalist and Mitchell Brothers confidant Hunter S. Thompson. 

Famous and infamous, classy but trashy, a spotless venue filled with dirty deeds, the O’Farrell was where I worked for three months when I was 19. It was novel. It was exciting. It was a droning bore.

So there was Slash in my workplace, a quintessential rocker I didn’t recognize. Guns N’ Roses was relatively new, despite having just sold two million albums, and was in town shooting a scene for Clint Eastwood’s latest Dirty Harry movie, “The Dead Pool.” The group’s hit “Welcome to the Jungle” revs the film’s soundtrack.

A fellow longhair, I shot the breeze with Slash, who explained that, no, he was not a member of Bay Area metal band Exodus (my bad), and that his actual group, GNR, wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Stones to Aerosmith. I still didn’t know who the hell they were. 

Enter Artie. “You look tired. Let’s chop one,” he tells Slash.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal later that night:

“Slash’s eyes glow and a malicious grin cuts across his sagging mug. We’re in the projection room and they go to the counter and Artie begins to nonchalantly cut a fine white powder and shape lines. And he slurs, ‘Let’s make the first rock ’n’ roll porn film!’ They howl with laughter.”

The job was surreal that way. 

A callow journalism student at San Francisco State, I was lured to this unusual gig at “one of the most infamous and oldest erotic dance clubs in the country” by rumors that Hunter S. Thompson, an ink-stained hero, was working at the club as night manager to write a book. (He did work there for a bit in 1985. The book never materialized.)

When the place closed last fall due to Covid-19, right after its 51st anniversary — it opened on July 4, 1969 — many appraisals appeared about the O’Farrell Theatre’s checkered history. 

For instance: the Mitchell Brothers, Artie and Jim, were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. (They were never convicted.) In 1991, Jim fatally shot Artie and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. (Jim died in 2007 of a heart attack.) In 2000, their story was dramatized in the movie “Rated X” starring real-life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as Artie and Jim.

The postmortems are expectedly zesty. Yet I haven’t read a better physical snapshot of the den of debauchery than this one from SFGate.com:

“Like most strip clubs, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre is a plush, disorienting palace. Upon entry, the walls are smattered with headshots of dancers and pornographic memorabilia. The walls are mirrored; the curtains are velvet. For decades, beneath the scintillating glow of disco balls and red rotating lights, the carpeted kingdom has provided anything from nude lap dances to ‘flashlight shows’ for San Francisco’s ‘weirdo’ strip club clientele.”

The writer does neglect to mention the hallways lined with gurgling aquariums, the Green Door Room (three women and a working shower), the glass case stocked with pink sex toys, and that those flashlight shows were far more gynecological than titillating. (The writer also wouldn’t know what my manager told me on my first day: “Don’t touch the girls. It’s like fucking the boss’ wife.”)

To some, my job sounds breathlessly, unimaginably sexy, each shift an hours-long orgasm of totally unclothed ladies with frisky stage names — Bambi, Trixie, Roxie — doing things with and to each other many people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) conceive.

But a job it was — fun, alive, yet often grinding. I not only ran the old-school film projectors, I also DJ’d live shows, did floor “security” and made beer runs for the brothers and their guests. (Because the women were all-nude, no alcohol was sold in the club, and the brothers confined their partying to the upstairs offices and, in Artie’s case, the projection booth. I eventually split a DosXX with Slash there.) 

Besides the random celebrity client — GNR, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, in my day; Trevor Noah and Justin Bieber more recently — the famous folks who dropped in were usually working girls. These would be “golden age” strippers and porn stars, from Marilyn Chambers and Nina Hartley, to Hyapatia Lee (who generously lactated on the audience) and a geriatric Tempest Storm (who, dubbed “The Queen of Exotic Dancers,” died in April at age 93).

Backstage with two of my coworkers (photo not by me)

Call it an education. Chatting with male patrons, I learned what made them tick and why they kept coming back week after week or more. Chatting with female coworkers, I learned what leads one to strip and, in many cases, perform XXX acts in public. 

Rarely I got hit on by a dancer (“Anytime you want some excitement, let me know,” offered Sasha), or even a male customer (“Are you sure you wouldn’t take a tip to be touched somewhere?”). I learned how mundane the human body really is (and isn’t) and the contortionist lengths we’ll go to be turned on by it.

My stint at the O’Farrell was meant to be a life experience and, truly, fodder for my own writing. That implies I was enchanted and starry-eyed the whole time. I wasn’t. After my very first shift, I was effectively inured to the supposedly sexy spectacles. A fantasy for some, there’s little fantastic about it. It’s nude ladies. It’s horny men with rolls of cash. It’s a dubious lap-dancy, pelvic-thrusty, semen-stained subculture. It’s a job. 

Says one of the theater’s longtime (jaded?) DJs: “Being a male-bodied man in your 20s and being around naked women, it’s the shit, but after a while you’re desensitized, and they’re your sisters.”

Exactly. And that’s not so bad, is it?

The O’Farrell’s famous backside mural

Smells like tween spirit

It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll” — AC/DC

Those immortal words are screeched by the late Bon Scott in AC/DC’s 1975 crunch classic “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll),” as if you couldn’t guess. Trite as the song’s sentiment is, I doubt your everyday rock fan actually considers how categorically true it is.

A “long way”? Try an impossible way, an absolutely, maniacally preposterous way to the top. Let me, a reformed headbanger who briefly did the band thing, put it this way: If you wanna rock ’n’ roll, do it for fun and creative release and, just maybe, a spritz of ego juice. (Plus: free beer.)

Just know, you will never, ever get to the top. If that’s your goal, put the guitar down, invest in tattoo removal and return your hair to its natural hue. It’s time to stop snarling and re-enter society, as buzzkilly as that sounds, says grandpappy, wagging a wizened finger.

Because my bands went nowhere (except to storied San Francisco nightclub Mabuhay Gardens) doesn’t mean many or most bands will go poof in rock’s heartless ether. Wait. Yes, it does. But world domination isn’t the objective. Or it shouldn’t be. 

Rock is hard. Still, you should rock hard.

Like some sweet tween girls I know, who are embarking on the rock walk with confidence, enterprise and a smidge of kick-ass. I don’t have a parentally-approved photo to share, but the California quartet goes by Cat-Astrophe and emphasizes cover tunes over originals, which assumedly they haven’t composed yet.

To watch a new rock group blossom is heartening, no matter the age, sex or talent. Music is a calling, and if it’s the right kind of music, that calling is loud. 

A dynamic example of tot rock (this isn’t Cat-Astrophe)

Enter Cat-Astrophe. The band’s drummer and guitarist are the twin grade-school daughters of my eternal friend Tiva, who herself, in her searching twenties, co-fronted a loose garage band. It’s in the blood, this insidious rock ’n’ roll racket. 

Living faraway, Tiva and I mostly text, and she’s been sharing details about her daughters’ living room rocking. When she notes they like the hard stuff, I toss out suggestions, especially drum-inspired ones. “Back in Black” by AC/DC and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush are icons of rock drumming, for instance. (Though I fear the notorious surgical precision of “Tom Sawyer” will make her hurl her drumsticks through a window.) 

Recently, I sent Tiva a file of the both catchy and plodding (and, at almost nine minutes, long) “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin. Any rock drummer should know her thwumping John Bonham beats — her Bonham fides — if she’s going to thrive. If she’s going to Rock.

But growing girls have their own ideas, and Cat-Astrophe is finicky. Here’s a text exchange with Tiva:

Tiva: OMG, I am so sad. The other girls in the band want to cover some J-Pop song. Sigh. But thank you for sending “Kashmir.” I’m not sure Led Zep is their scene. They’re ALL about Billie Eilish. I guess I’ve reached the point where they will shun any and all of my musical suggestions.😭

Me: We are ancient. Make them cover a Duke Ellington tune, or something by the Andrews Sisters.

Tiva: Seriously. The weird thing is: they like Willie Nelson. They also like Wilco, Cake, Queen, Black Sabbath, R.E.M., Joan Jett, Green Day, Nirvana and The Cure, so…

Me: Green Day and Nirvana = yay. The Cure = I never got them. Mopey, draggy, dreary.

Tiva: They only do the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Me: I loathe that song. And Wilco always blesses me with fits of diarrhea. (Sorry.)

Tiva: The other problem is, Cat-Astrophe’s lead singer wears crop-tops, black lipstick (ugh) and eyeliner — at age 10! We’re hoping the girls stay wholesome.

Me: Ha! Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t wholesome. If the girls don’t have groupies in, say, eight years, they have failed. Pass the Jack Daniel’s.

Failed, like my groups. Frankly, we weren’t trying that hard, distracted teens and all, and I knew pretty early that metal drumming was, for me, a dead-end — repetitive and luckless (remember “Spinal Tap”?). I was always the first guy to quit the band, and I was always relieved to be out.

So Tiva’s complaints aren’t moot. Assembling a successful group takes an exacting calculus of talent, personalities, taste, style, team work and the right shade of lipstick. The rest is all creative tension, which can either spark a flame like stone to flint (the Beatles), or ignite a brushfire, destroying all in its path (Oasis). 

While the girls in Cat-Astrophe work things out, it’s fair to note that this tot rock thing is far from original. Kid bands abound, many inspired by musical incubators like School of Rock, playing what seems to be mostly hard rock: Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana and, of course, AC/DC. (Why is that? I think because, in general, the beats are simple, the three-chord riffs are doable, and the vocals are, like, whatever.)

Tiva spots a star. In a text, she singles out her drummer daughter as “the badass of the bunch, a stoned-faced metronome. That girl does NOT miss a beat.”

Me: She’s like AC/DC’s amazingly precise 4/4 machine, Phil Rudd. I think he’s in jail.

Tiva: She already has arm muscles, and never talks about drumming. She just silently walks to the drums and wails. The looks on those girls’ faces … priceless.

And that’s the crux of great music, Hendrix to Haydn — the intoxicating magic when everything falls into place … priceless. It’s a long way to the top. But sometimes, with the talent and tenacity, the climb might just be worth it.

College, the great mind-blower

In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.  

I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled. 

Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?

I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace. 

He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.

This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.

A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.   

Brando, smoldering

He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)

I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course. 

Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.

Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.

And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.

College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.

I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down. 

It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.

Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.

Starry-eyed snapshots

In my time as a film critic, I often brought along my own pocket camera to interviews with celebrities, either because I wanted to or the newsroom was simply understaffed that day. I was recently sifting through some of the resulting photos — glorified snapshots, really — and plucked a few that don’t totally suck. You might recognize some of these distinguished folks.

Tom Skerritt (“Alien,” “Top Gun”)
Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass,” “Hugo”) at age 12
Lemmy of Motörhead
Sam Rockwell (“Moon,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)
Janeane Garofalo, comedian, actress (“Reality Bites,” “Ratatouille”)
Zombie czar George A. Romero (“Night of the Living Dead,” etc.)
Chloë Sevigny (“Kids,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Big Love”)
James Cromwell (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Six Feet Under”)
Danny Trejo (“Machete,” “Heat,” “Breaking Bad”)
Bonus shot: James Hetfield and Cliff Burton of Metallica in a tiny nightclub in Berkeley, California, promoting their debut album “Kill ‘Em All” when I was 14

The piano man: a musical meditation

It is dusk and the piano man slides onto his bench and begins playing in the vast hotel lobby, which is arranged with socially distanced dining tables and bar seats for a pop-up piano lounge vibe. 

A sad smattering of customers eat and drink and, shhh, the piano man is tinkling his heart out, swaying ever so gently to his own one-man band. He presides over the shiny black baby grand with quiet authority, as much groovy gravitas as one can muster in a chain hotel that’s trying really hard. 

What am I doing here, listening to the piano man on a frigid Tuesday evening? That’s a short, spectacularly uninteresting story, reader, so we move onto the lonely man tickling plaintive keys, which are surely moist with his falling tears.

The piano man performs sans face mask but with a natty blue scarf round his neck,  evoking a Lake Tahoe lodge feel (the fireplace crackles). He should be wearing a face mask because he is not a singing piano man. He performs instrumentals of dubiously hip pop standards — “As Time Goes By,” “Moondance” — frilling the tunes with jazzy tinsel and rococo flourishes, the filigreed doodles of the creatively restive.

Without singing, this piano man (lower case) is unlike Billy Joel’s iconic Piano Man (upper case), who is implored to: Sing us a song you’re the piano man/Sing us a song tonight/Well we’re all in the mood for a melody/And you’ve got us feelin’ alright.

That’s not quite the scene in the hotel lobby bar this night. No one is making requests. No one is tossing five-spots at the resident artiste. (Where, oh piano man, is your tip jar tonight?) No one is “in the mood for a melody.” Alas, no one is listening.

He’s playing “Tiny Dancer.” He ponders his life as he does.

I am transfixed. The piano man is good. The euphony, the dexterity! Those gliding hands are mad-nuts, and he doesn’t even glance at them. He scans the near-empty room, eyes half-mast, perhaps in a self-induced fugue state. What is the piano man thinking?

I took piano lessons as a wee one. I learned exactly one song. It was 12 seconds long and had these lyrics: “Here we go, up a road, to a birthday party.” Fact: It’s the easiest piano tune ever, making “Chopsticks” seem like Chopin. I mangled it every time.

I figure if I have one more cocktail I’ll sidle up to the piano and join our hero in a duet of “MacArthur Park,” he on the keys, me out of key.

The piano man is an island, no tipsy admirers warbling along with the tunes, patrons shuffling past without so much as a knowing smile or polite nod. He is a rock of existential solitude, abandoned by rotten weather, Covid, the Tuesday night blues. He’s a street busker in a ghost town. The misunderstood genius, honored only after his tragic, Mozartian death. 

The piano man as metaphor. I think we’ve heard that song before, played to the tune of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

The piano man’s shiny black berth, the day after his show.

Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Melting ice cream dreams

I feel bad for the old ice cream truck fella, an icon of hearty Americana who once, back in “Leave it to Beaver” times, was known as the Good Humor Man, and who now is definitely not in a good humor.

Yet here he is, making the rounds at 3:30 each afternoon without fail, rumbling through the neighborhood, tinny tunes jangling from a rusted rooftop megaphone, the Pied Piper of Popsicles. Are those tear stains on his cheeks?  

These are mournful times and, unsurprisingly, the traveling ice cream business is way down, what with parks closed, or only slowly reopening, and the pandemic pandemonium roiling unabated. I hear the music and look out to see two or three tykes clamoring at the truck window instead of the bevy that used to get all Wonka-Bar crazy for the latest frozen thingamajig. 

It’s almost painful watching the face-masked driver handing out melty treats to the wan crowd. What once took a frantic 15 minutes or more is now a few-moments pause, a hiccup with the motor running. (Melting? Maybe my heart.)

Better days for the ice cream man.

What I also notice is how the truck’s musical tootling has changed over the summer. Going from upbeat circusy music, this might be the only ice cream truck whose jingle is by Beethoven, namely “Für Elise,” a strangely moody tune to play from a Day-Glo magnet for giddy children.

I suspect our fraught racial climes have affected the ice cream man’s tune. He used to play the hokey folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which goes like this. Some argue that the song, which confectionary vehicles nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s grossly racist. Revisionists refute that. 

Not Wu-Tang’s badass RZA, who’s updating “Turkey in the Straw” with a hip-hop twist. CNN reports: “RZA came up with a new ice cream truck jingle because the old one was used in minstrel shows.” Last month, Good Humor even ordered all ice cream truck drivers to stop playing the outmoded number because of its sullied history. 

As if the nameless driver doesn’t have enough woes without the cursed and forever corny “Turkey in the Straw.” The children disperse wearing ice cream lipstick, scampering back to homebound quarantines or kicking balls in the street. I picture our quiet hero despondent, driving off with his forehead resting on the steering wheel, enduring the same few bars of Beethoven’s old melody played over and over on something between a strangled street organ and a broken music box, with that creepy carnivalesque tang.

The music echoes down the block and through the trees, an earworm for the dwindling masses, calling out: eat me