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.”
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).
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
“The Queen’s Gambit”
all things Harry Potter
almost every Netflix comedy special
late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
giant Ferris wheels in major cities
“Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
year-round warm weather
Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
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.
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.)
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.
I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that.
Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is.
I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.
It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)
I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.
I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so muchstuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.
Playing hard rock drums in my longhaired youth was such an impassioned pursuit that I envisaged fans, flash bombs, spotlights, triumphant noise and righteous fury as a way of life. The kinetic absurdity of that dream isn’t lost on me, no. Today I think of it all as the Misbegotten Musings of a Muddled Metalhead. Rock.
Playing music has a way of getting into your marrow, and drumming up a drippy sweat is still a fervid pastime. But, first, rewind. I put down my sticks almost exactly 10 years ago, for good. Until, seemingly out of nowhere, the beat bit me again early this month. Faster than a John Bonham bass patter, I was online shopping for a new drum set to call my own and to pound holy hell out of.
It couldn’t be a drooled-over acoustic — neighbors, sigh — so I pinned down a hot electronic deal made by superior e-brand Roland. The five-piece kit has a mesh snare and three mesh tom-toms, a bass pad, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals. Bonuses: a Pearl bass pedal, a Pearl drum stool (that’s, alas, cement-hard), fine headphones and three pairs of sticks. I’ve already bought an extra crash cymbal: One crash makes an impoverished sound, and the physicality of playing with two is exponential. At least the way I play.
The set is explosively on the money, better than expected, sturdy, loud, textured, complex — a fine wine. I’ve compiled a list of 62 songs to play with — tunes with thump and phwump — which is where the headphones come in. It’s like a greatest hits from my teens and twenties. Meaning: mortifying.
Now for the downbeat. While the drums are exemplary, my actual performance is something else. Mildly, I am very rusty. My playing isn’t tearjerking, but distinctly arrested. It’s been a while. I’ve always been acutely, painfully, soaringly aware that I am not a great musician. I can keep a propulsive 4/4 beat and embroider it with a well-placed fill or frill, but I should be astounding by now, even considering how little I’ve played since high school.
I’m crisp, but sloppy. Swinging, but stilted. On-beat, but off-key. Sometimes I impress myself and nail a song; other times I’m pure Spinal Tap. (Who I’d like to be is the tentacular wunderkind in the exhilarating drum drama “Whiplash.”)
When I’m really stinking up the joint, the drumming is depressing instead of fun and therapeutic. The purchase then seems catastrophic, a harebrained waste. My long-ago drum teacher, the unfailingly affable Jeff Campitelli (who was teaching Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich at the same time as me), told me that, yeah, we all have bad days, and that my bad days are probably worse than his bad days. That’s self-evident — Jeff is a monster musician — but it sounded sage and philosophic at the time, and I still think about it.
Bad days bite, but the beat goes on. I no longer dream of screaming fans and flammable stagecraft. I just want to play well. That’s good enough. It’s also harder than hell. There will be blood. But also, I’m pretty sure, joy. A couple years ago I wrote, “Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.” I’m sticking by that.