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

Random stuff, summer edition

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 much stuff 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.

Adventure_time.rpg_-696x522.jpg

Doldrums on the drums

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.

rol-td1dmkde_1.jpg

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.

Hats off to a birthday boy

The raging pimple on my nose couldn’t take away from the raucous ecstasy of my nephew’s modest — but laughy, giggly, shrieky, slangy, sing-songy (“Dancing Queen”!) — fifteenth birthday party among a half-dozen friends in my brother’s cozy backyard this very hot day. That damn zit — I’ll squeeze it till fluids flow. Be gone. Because there is bawdy jokes to be told, games to be played, junk food to be gorged, gossip to be spread. (What’s that? You have a boyfriend!)

And so it went. Two giant picnic umbrellas popped open like vast bat wings. Three fat coolers lined the deck. Tostitos — all over the place. Ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, Sprite, cheap plastic toys, bubbles. And, god, the laughter and the squawks of rare tropical birds. A blast was being had. 

I observed from afar, never getting close to these dangerous exotic animals. Instead: me, a mirror, a zit. Let’s go. (Gruesome details have been redacted by WordPress censors.)

In the mirror, I am reminded of the blooming, uncut hairdo I’m currently sporting. My last haircut was scheduled for April 3. It never happened thanks to quarantine. Do the math, they say, with a frat-boy sneer. I’ll do the math. The math says: shit. 

I noted here that I bought a New York Times baseball cap to tame my anarchic locks. It’s working out nicely, I think. But summer will be a Rapunzel-ready efflorescence, fluffy, uncontainable tresses, suitors scaling them to reach me in my dank, lonesome tower.

So I’ve ordered two more caps, one that will reveal a sliver of my cultural tastes, though I’ve mentioned Metallica before here.20170628_175149_7549_996230

The second hat is more personal, a custom-made lark, which I will wear with unwavering nerdiness:

Screen Shot 2020-06-06 at 7.47.37 PM

But this is really about my nephew’s big number 15. Not the pimple, not the hats. His birthday is actually tomorrow, June 7. To accommodate his besties, the party was thrown today. Plus, Saturday is always better than Sunday for a shindig.

In a rare aside, I asked my nephew how the get-together was going.

“Good,” he said, which is about the only answer he knows to feed lame adults who ask lame questions.

Good.

That will do. That will do good.

Now, Clearasil. Anyone?

High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

Sin City vs. Sin City

Let me say, between America’s two premier party towns, New Orleans kicks Las Vegas’ gilded, ersatz ass, that Emerald City conjured from desert pixie dust into a flashing mirage of gambling, chintz and sloshing oceans of open containers. 

Scripturally do I believe this: New Orleans, jewel of the Deep South, stomps Vegas, that spendthrift voluptuary of the West. I’ve been to both cities and can vouch for the Big Easy’s superior party bona fides, its inebriating beauty, gnarled history and lavish multiculturalism. On all counts, Vegas is bereft, a kind of gimcrack DisneyWorld to NOLA’s organic abundance, its French-kissed joie de vivre and bon viveurs, its patina of worldly class.

It’s mossy swamps vs. desert scrub. Beads, boobs and Bourbon Street vs. chips, glitz and the Strip. Indelible musical heritage (blues, jazz, zydeco) and culinary complexity vs. karaoke and Guy Fieri. It’s the rich mythology of Mardi Gras and voodoo vs. the dancing Fountains of Bellagio and hokum-pocus of Criss Angel.

big-drinks.jpg

Neither’s perfect. Both burghs are powerful magnets for slavering douche-baggery, cruising sidewalks nursing two-foot-tall girly drinks. (The rank cluelessness of these swaggering alpha males is adorable.) Both often display the collective mentality of a pimply 17-year-old boy (repeat: boobs) or a tequila-tottering bachelorette queen. Liquor rules. And there are no rules.

Having just returned from Vegas — where I won a whopping 50 cents at an airport slot machine and walked away with a spring in my step (I beat ‘em, by gosh!) — I can attest to the town’s vacant neon soul. It’s plastic, garish and grubby. It’s all facade, robbed of emotion — unless Christopher Cross, recently serenading the Strip with cloying power ballads, warms the cockles of your heart.   

And yet, like millions before and after me, I liked it. Truly, if not excessively. The booze, the vulgar resorts, the cacophonous casinos, a solid comedy show, my slick yet cheap hotel, some world-class meals that rival New Orleans’, fine weather and endless people-watching by turns transfixing and obnoxious. 

It was my second time in Vegas, and on this trip I learned how to enjoy myself by doing a little research and a lot of relaxing. Not poolside relaxing, but a mental, non-judgmental kicking-off of the shoes. I let Vegas do its Vegas thing.

Which is quite different than the similarly storied New Orleans thing. I’ve been there twice, on my 21st birthday and a hasty two-night stay during a Southern road trip about 15 years ago. I typically prefer a different kind of city — Chicago, Kyoto, Istanbul, Florence — but NOLA exudes a neat Big Little City vibe, like Charleston, South Carolina, or Austin, Texas. 

It’s southern to the core, twangy, tangy, congenitally ecstatic, weird and wonderful and proud of it. It’s one of those towns that always wants to get it on. (Though I’m not fond of strolling, badgering brass bands that strain to suck you into their high-stepping, hand-clapping, nightmarish street parties.) 

photo-1568693059993-a239b9cd4957.jpeg

Here’s where I say I’m heading to New Orleans for a few days next month, a week after the big, beady, booby bash that is Mardi Gras. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but it looks like a psychedelic bad trip from here, never mind all the deep-dish tradition. Explains journalist Chris Rose: “Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”)

I have plans, none of them fantastically original. While I’m strenuously avoiding Pat O’Brien’s and its barfy Hurricane cocktail (been there, done that) and skipping the gorgeous green gatory goo of the swamps (done that, too), I will get lost in the pastel, fern-festooned, bar-clogged French Quarter, cruise the murky Mississippi on a Twain-ish paddlewheel steamboat and stroll famed cemeteries, those crumbly cities of the dead. 

shutterstock_426101227_copy.1528821762.jpg

My bad, but I’m eschewing the heralded art and World War II museums for the morbidly unhinged Museum of Death, and I will duck the city’s voodoo jive, most of which is about authentic as the eye-rolling “ghost tours” haunting the area with the spookiness of a ghoul out of  “Scooby-Doo.” 

the-scrumptious-louisiana.jpg

One of the nation’s finest food capitals, crackling with heritage, race, culture and love, New Orleans is synonymous with smorgasbord, from beignets to Po’ Boys, crawfish to jambalaya. Here’s where I’m going, to name a few: Peche (seafood inspired by the Gulf, Spain and South America), Cochon (Cajun and Southern cooking), Gris-Gris (Southern eats) and NOLA (a fusion of Creole, Acadian and Southern cuisine with global influences by local legend Emeril Lagasse).

For music and drink there’s the obvious, like world-famous Tipitina’s. I’ll skip it for the hip Bacchanal Wine, a laidback music-food-vino joint in the Ninth Ward that some regard the best bar in the city, if not the world. I also plan to hit popular jazz club The Spotted Cat, a cramped, sweaty spot where those damn brass bands, blaring with cheeks ballooned, may get to me yet. 

13220634_10154148345724820_3503016145107323727_o.jpg

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

 Tennessee Williams