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.

Drumming up memories

I’m on seedy Broadway in San Francisco, on stage in a smoke-choked, beer-splashed nightclub called Mabuhay Gardens, aka The Mab, a DIY punk dive nestled amidst a blinking drag of vintage strip joints, including the storied Condor.

449098000000000-00-750x750I’m playing drums, a 7-piece Tama kit that exudes hard rock, in a band with an Aerosmith-y tang called Cheater. Long hair, striped pants and songs like “Knocking Down Your Door,” “Live for Today” and the inimitable “The Girl’s a Fish,” an infectious groove featuring double-bass kick pedals and cowbell. You heard that right.

This night was my second performance ever before a live audience. Prior to it, by mere weeks, I played a high-school talent show in a metal band named Enforcer. We covered Queensrÿche’s “Queen of the Reich” and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — the first song fast and filigreed and vocally demanding; the second a raw, elemental, melodic stomp that’s become a Metallica classic.

As a nervous introvert, playing before a crowd was no small feat. I could barely give a speech in English class. It was a social and psychological breakthrough, and a dream come true. Rock was my destiny, and I was living it. And having a blast.

That is until my first “professional” show at The Mab. During the second song in Cheater’s set, the nylon strap on my right-foot bass pedal snapped, cutting off all right-pedal action, which meant I had to play with my left-foot pedal. Big problem: the left-foot pedal was strictly for double-bass play; my left foot coordination was weak, only apt for chh-chh high-hat work. (Now, if I had had only one pedal that night, the show would’ve been over.)

I choked. Instead of finishing the song with my left foot, I stopped playing altogether, meaning the band stopped, too — a concert faux pas. It took a few minutes to figure out that I had to keep going with one pedal — the left one, with which, again, I had minimal coordination. I am not ambidextrous.

Mortified and furious, as I was, my bandmates glared at me, then went ahead with the next song, “The Girl’s a Fish,” which demanded heavy double-bass footwork. I faked it with the left pedal, as I did during the rest of the set. The result was passable. Yet, by concert’s end, I was so mad at myself, so totally disappointed, I kicked drums and tossed cymbals to the point that the rear-entry doorman told me to cool it. An auspicious beginning to my awesome rock ’n’ roll career. I went home alone and moped grievously. 

A year later, post-Cheater, my scrappy garage band again played the high-school talent show. For some reason, the vice-principal thought our group could sell tickets, so he asked me to organize a band for the show. This time we were called THC, and we were more ambitious and ready to show-off than the year before. We wanted to shock and awe, to all-caps ROCK. (Though we ditched the smoke bombs from before.)

2db9a1ec682ed21d9492c60b55bec05bThis time we covered Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen,” a seven-minute opus of relentless time changes and merciless riffs that amounts to about six songs in one. The songs proved ferocious, byzantine metal symphonies best left to virtuosos and masochists. I beat off more than I could chew, excuse the potentially repulsive pun.

And yet another mishap bedeviled me. This time my monitors konked out during an especially complex passage in “The Four Horsemen” and abruptly I couldn’t hear the rest of the band. I lost my place and had to stop playing for several seconds. It was humiliating. When the sound finally returned, the guitarists shrewdly cut to the song’s main riff and we finished with a flourish. Still, I was rattled instead of rocked.

Soon after, I sat in with a band called — wait for it — Mistress. The deal was I would record a demo tape with them and call it a day. I wound up doing that and a show at Mabuhay Gardens. With songs unironically titled “One Touch” and “We’ll Fight” — all heavier and more intricate than anything by Cheater — we played the San Francisco club without a hitch. Members of Cheater were in the crowd, cheering us on.

TD25KVSet-large
Electronic Roland kit with double-bass pedals

It’s been some time since I drummed. My last kit was a five-piece Roland electronic rack, with one acoustic touch — an 8-inch Zildjian splash cymbal to furnish shimmery accents. I kept my DW double-bass pedal with the set, and stuck with Vic Firth American Classic drumsticks that were a cross between jazz and rock style. I played hard, reducing them to splinters.

I was never a great drummer, mostly competent, deftly intermediate, even though I took lessons from the eminent Jeff Campitelli, the most affable pro and unfailing mensch, who was teaching Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, at the same time. (A secret: It’s all in the wrists, not the arms.)

I love the instrument, and to this day when I hear a favorite song, I might just erupt into spontaneous air drums. Thing is, I’m kind of a better air drummer than an actual drummer (cue rim-shot).

I miss the crisp metallic thwack of the snare and thuddy boom of the kick drum; the brassy, splashy explosion of a crash cymbal and pingy, bell-like precision of a ride cymbal. I miss being a song’s pulse and heartbeat, of driving it with thrust, swing, exactitude, and occasional fury. Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.

Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

eiffel-tower-priority.jpg

The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

IMG_0625.jpg
Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away …