My current cultural playlist

1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery. 

Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.

The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat. 

2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.

And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”

3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.” 

The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”). 

I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Is reading for sissies?

As a kid, from ages seven to 17, I had subscriptions to sheaves of magazines I eagerly awaited to hit my mailbox — Dynamite, Ranger Rick, Hit Parade, Modern Drummer, BMX Action, Omni, Heavy Metal, Movie Monsters and more.

Each title represented a discrete passion — showbiz, animals, rock, drums, science, bikes — and the glossy journals were bibles of my interests. I read them rapt, lapping up interviews, gossip, photos, front-of-the-book ephemera, often scissoring them to bits for bedroom wallpaper and school-locker decor. (Try that with an online subscription.)  

At about 17, I started reading the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, with a new seriousness that went beyond comics “Bloom County” and “The Far Side.” I loved the stylish writing, current events, cranky columnists and clever critics. It was a daily feast, and each week I’d spend up to three hours poring over the overstuffed Sunday edition, an inky ritual I savored.   

I also read lots of books — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to freak show biographies; “Slaughterhouse-Five” to Jim Morrison’s (dreadful) poetry — but that’s a given. When I was eight I read the fat paperback of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” and I’m still proud of it.

But is it normal, for a boy at least, to spend so much time with the written word, reading? Shouldn’t he be outside, say, throwing balls, or blowing things up?

While I hated most sports — except soccer, skiing and BMX — I was your average knee-scraping, war-playing, B.B.-gun-shooting, lizard-catching, fire-setting, doorbell-ditching, girl-crazy, grungy little scamp. 

Still, I adored words and what they imparted — ideas, information, whole worlds. I used to wade through our World Book encyclopedias and ginormous Mirriam-Webster dictionary just for fun. My best friend Gene and I wrote little books about devils, murder and other unspeakable mischiefs. We had a thing for horror.   

But did all that bibliophilia and word-love mean I was a giant wuss?

This week teacher and novelist Joanne Harris — bestselling author of “Chocolat” — said that reading is far more rare in boys than girls, for rather macho reasons:

“When I was teaching boys particularly, I found that not only boys did not read as much as girls but they were put under much more pressure by parents, largely fathers, to do something else as if reading was girly,” she said via LitHub. Boys, apparently, “ought to be out playing rugby and doing healthy boy things.”

And I reply: Can’t boys do both — reading and “healthy boy things” — like I did (and what’s a healthy boy thing, anyway)? 

Forbes reports that boys are way behind girls in reading comprehension and writing skills, because “reading and writing are stereotypically feminine endeavors, and boys tend to avoid anything that’s remotely feminine. In other words, it’s just not cool to read, because reading is for girls.”

This is clumsy and reductive (and offensive) reasoning, more fitting for the playground than a hard, rational study. Reading is for girls? You don’t say.

What then to make of all the wildly famous male writers overpopulating the literary canon who have (unjustly) eclipsed their female counterparts? Call Hemingway or Mailer a wuss and see where that lands you. 

I don’t doubt that girls read more than boys; I’ve seen it borne out. If it’s because boys are discouraged and intellectualism is deemed unmanly, then we have a real societal problem. I don’t have the answers — just my umbrage — but if you have any thoughts, please comment.  

I know many bibliophobes, people, almost all male, who would never think of strolling the living, fragrant stacks of a bookstore, or simply pick up a book for that matter. To me, they’re the wussies, un-evolved, willfully ignorant, with the vocabulary of third graders and the critical thinking skills of a hubcap. I don’t trust adults who don’t read. Philistinism is a cultural crime.  

World travel has largely usurped my juvenile need to start fires and catch lizards, but I still read at a mad clip and write as much as I can. Call me a sissy. I’m having a ball.

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

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.