This gloriously overblown gala, chock-a-block full of legends ... this end of the beginning for the Woodstock generation, a chandelier-strewn headstone on the grave of peace & love & rock & roll ... this ego-powered, brotherhood-destroying send-off, fractious behind the scenes, smug on the surface, yet still the source of some of the most impassioned performances you’ll find in the post-Beatles era ... this magnificently messy memento mori to the mighty Band ... THIS, I’ve determined, is where it all starts for me.MORE...
Not, as I’ve always assumed, with that copy of KISS’s still-killer/still-hilarious Alive album that I begged my mother to buy me at Wherehouse Music Store when I was 6 because the very sight of these creatures I’d never heard (nor heard of) somehow aroused and scared me like Halloween on the Fourth of July. Logic follows that it wouldn’t have been that moment two years later when the kooky-kabuki troupe’s shiny new Double Platinum best-of was waiting in the car for me, along with the Grease soundtrack, when I awoke from an anesthetic fog after having 10 teeth pulled to make way for braces (thanks, Mom). That couldn’t have been the turning point; all I really recall is being hazy and mush-mouthed.
Nor can I pinpoint popping my sonic cherry — that first time I tapped into the indescribable wow that can still light me up like Times Square — to that time I bought Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings with my hard-earned allowance because I mistakenly thought it was the one with “Dream On” on it, but then I went wild for it anyway because it’s a right fuckin’ better album than its predecessor. C’mon, “Seasons of Wither” and “Train Kept a-Rollin’” and “Lord of the Thighs”?!? Speaking of thighs, I’m also certain my cornerstone wasn’t laid by that Led Zeppelin II re-pressing the Weinbergs got me for my 9th birthday, although I’m much obliged to them for inadvertently introducing the lyric “squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg” to my curious if not yet horny imagination at a perfectly inappropriate age.
Much as I giggled like a girl every time Help! was “The 3:30 Movie” on Channel 7 after school — it aired way more often than A Hard Day’s Night, probably because it was in color? — I sure don’t see any sparks shooting off those misty water-coloured memories, either, as I sift through my not-entirely-misspent youth. Since I’m supposed to be discussing movies here, I’ll also mention that I don’t think it was the night Mom and I caught the last possible showing of No Nukes before it was pulled from a long-gone two-screen cinema in Santa Ana so we could both marvel wide-eyed at thrilling glimpses of Bruce Springsteen. (I was about 10. Again, so many thanks, Mom.)
No, the more I ponder what set me off blazing, what focused me so intently in my youth that I’d soon spurn virtually anything (academics especially) that didn’t somehow feed my ever-deepening music jones, the more I keep circling my way around to The Last Waltz. Fortuitously discovering it — once again: because of Candy Wener — just as I was training to become a rabbi-affirmed Man is clearly the watershed of watersheds in my musical past. Pure bedrock. The spine-straightening, soul-solidifying catharsis that set barely-teenage me on the righteous path toward perpetual adolescence and permanent rock ’n’ roll corruption, ceaselessly chasing after concert tickets and literally stealing the records I needed to hear if I had to. (This ain’t just pre-Spotify/pre-Napster, kiddies. Try post-8-track/pre-CD.)
From this vantage point, halfway to 100, it’s clear to me how much The Last Waltz was and still is everything. This bittersweet celebration of the Band, heavy on the bitter, which I eventually devoured in a full four-hour sprawl but initially replayed at least once a week on VHS for I don’t know how long ... this ... this ... this snot-and-all snapshot of rock’s Mt. Olympus before it mostly faded away to granite gray ... (ah shit, here I go again) ... so regally captured by Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman, who had just shot Taxi Driver together and would soon concoct their gritty, head-spinning boxing biopic Raging Bull ... this crucial testament of a burned-out yet tremendous Thanksgiving ’76 concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the first place these road-tuned Hawks and Dylan-backers played as the Band ... (make it stop, make it stop!) ... this staggering array of talents, all but three names destined for the then-nonexistent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who helped a packed house bid farewell to one of the great musical mysteries of the ’60s and, in the process, twist some kinda crooked, cocaine-laced lid onto the decade itself ...
THIS is what palpably lit my pilot light. Wheel’s on fire, indeed.
To understand how I found that flame — or, rather, how the flame scorched me — and set me rolling down that fateful road, it will help to retrace some of my musical steps.
The first live show of any merit I recall witnessing took place in very late August 1974, a little less than a month before I turned 5, when my parents, our babysitter Cheryl and wee me (she and I wore matching red-and-white checkered cowboy shirts, how cute) went to see John Denver at what was then the open-air Universal Amphitheatre a mere two summers after it first opened, mainly as a place for the adjoining studio tour to stage stunt shows. I don’t remember much about it, other than thinking at the time that I must be watching some of those animatronic robots like I’d seen at Disneyland. Only, instead of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” here was “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” served with toothy smiles from the most chipper folk singer this side of Burl Ives.
Little did I know, until I started fact-checking these BenFest selections and the blather they have evoked, just how adjacent my maiden experience was to the sort of once-in-a-lifetime greatness I’d drown puppies to travel back and see now. Confirmed fact: The day after the future star of Oh, God and more than one Muppets special finished his week of sold-out shows at Universal, DAVID BOWIE — my hero of heroes, the Father spirit of a perverse Holy Trinity fleshed out by Prince and Elvis Costello — kicked off his weeklong run of dates at that same venue, where he presented a highly stylized performance-art piece (in a way, a first of its kind) to promote his futuristic/nihilistic Diamond Dogs disc. So close, yet still almost a decade away from standing in his presence. Not that I knew what I was missing. I didn’t even know the name David Bowie until the following summer. By then, however, whenever I wasn’t bashing Lincoln Logs on the backs of pots and pans to the beat of that first KISS treasure, I started demanding daily that Cheryl call the radio station (any radio station) to request “Young Americans.” Not too long after that I pretty much threw a fit in Zodys (now the site of yet another Kohl’s) lest I leave without a powder-blue t-shirt that had Bowie’s sparkling, super-pretty, ginger-haired, Marlene-esque visage ironed onto it.
The second concert I ever saw, and kinda the third if Jerry Lewis counts, occurred four years later in Las Vegas, again in August. Back when there was only Circus Circus for Sin City brats, Phil and Candy wisely drove my sister Jennifer and I out to Caesars Palace; Cheryl, too, so she could watch us at night while my folks hit the casino. We turned onto the Strip in broad daylight, when that desert oasis looks as shabby as a downtown cocktail waitress with spider-veined legs, and for the first time I saw all those old marquees that would later dazzle my corneas at night. Immediately I noticed that ELO — whose Out of the Blue singles “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” were on constant repeat on my Montgomery Ward record player — were slated to play the Aladdin. “Dad! DAD! Look! ELO!” “What’s ELO?” He was already bothered and bewildered. “They’re this great band! I was just thinking maybe we should see that instead.” He glanced at the Aladdin’s marquee in the rear-view mirror: “That’s not until the end of the month,” he snapped back. I slumped in my seat, crestfallen. We were going to see Barry Manilow at the Riviera after all. (He was swell, by the way, an eventual soft-pop-and-more master in his adorable prime, quite a number of years before he began to resemble an emaciated alien.)
The third real concert I saw, and the first to resemble anything akin to rock music, was also held at Universal, shortly after the much-missed place (now the site of Universal Studios’s Hogwarts castle) reopened with a roof over its head. This time it was a pairing of Rick Springfield, then touring behind the follow-up to his Working Class Dog album and its smash favorite “Jessie’s Girl,” plus the Greg Kihn Band, shortly before that quartet would nearly top the charts with “Jeopardy,” as in “our love’s in ...,” which “Weird Al” Yankovic would soon transform it into the much better “I Lost on Jeopardy.” This occurrence was not by choice. My slightly older cousin Heather, who swooned over the General Hospital star like every other girl her age, stayed with us all that summer of ’82 leading up to my bar mitzvah, and she was taken to the show (along with me and the rest of the family) as a birthday present.
Unbeknownst to us as we entered, Springfield’s set was being taped for a Showtime special, so the house lights remained on the entire time for better crowd shots; I didn’t know any better, just figured that’s what all rock concerts must be like. I vaguely recall enjoying Rick’s set a lot, despite my suspicion that he was nothing but an Aussie pretty boy. But what I remember as vividly as the first time I saw real naked boobs that didn’t belong to a relative was the unrelenting, ear-torturing shrieks of his fans. “Sure is different from a Manilow show!” my dad practically shouted at the sympathetic father in the row behind us, plugging his ears like a priest at a Black Sabbath sacrifice while his heathen daughters leapt and screamed out for Rick as if he were singing “Don’t Talk to Strangers” only to them.
This must have been what it was like when Mom saw the Beatles, I thought to myself, for she did, at the Hollywood Bowl in ’64 and ’65, got a jaywalking citation on her permanent record to prove it. I was dead wrong, however: that sort of deafening pain didn’t begin causing incurable ringing for me until summer ’97, when I had to review Hanson at their “MMMBop”-ing zenith, ironically at the Bowl. That’s when I first sensed lasting damage by that rarest variety of convulsive, near-dog-whistle wailing, typically accompanied by tears. Upon up-close impact, it feels like the dentist missed your mouth, gleefully drilled into your eardrum instead, then slapped on a crown to staunch the bleeding. Back at Universal in ’82, though, I was as dumbstruck by its purpose(lessness) as I was intoxicated by the wandering thought that maybe one day, who knows how and God knows why, I might do something to make shy-boy weirdo me the center of such attention.
A boy can dream, after all, and boy did I! Night after night I’d prop a pillow up against the same spot on my bedroom wall, sit cross-legged on the bottom bunk bed with Bo Derek taped above my head, and rock-rock-ROCK back and forth to the beat, my shoulders almost always hitting the wall on the 2 and the 4, unless it was something waltzing, or if Rush or Oingo Boingo were jamming in 5/4 or 7/8. My eyes: tightly shut to blot out the light I was still too terrified to fully put out at bedtime (Charles Manson or, later, Bob from Twin Peaks might get me). My ears: buried and usually starting to sweat beneath superior-audio headphones I had nicked from the ol’ man’s hi-fi cabinet. My mind: adrift in narcissistic visuals of being the biggest, baddest, wildest superstar the world would ever see, respected by critics and peers alike, a pop-sensation/serious-musician hybrid, a gender-bending polyglot, just like all my (surprisingly enduring) teen idols. Powering away behind me like my own private Revolution would be a rotating cast of glammed-up friends and celebrities, whoever was most on my mind’s and libido’s radar, and as I started seeing more shows, the venues I envisioned evolved into spaces both grander, Last Waltz style, and more intimate. I rocked in my own private Idaho like this (still kinda do, only now in a swiveling patio chair) until I wore the wallpaper off. Literally. There are pictures.
Except, after that Rick Springfield concert, something kept clouding up these nocturnal emissions, er, fantasies: that goddamned shrieking! So mindlessly hormonal and indiscriminating. Not that I was in any way above mindlessly hormonal and indiscriminating. A hair-flip from the girl (any girl) sitting in front of me at school was enough to get me fretting I might be called upon to show on the chalkboard how I solved last night’s homework, when I probably hadn’t anyway. As for indiscriminating, well, let it now be known that I willfully rode my bike down to Music Plus at the Orange Mall for the distinct purpose of buying a second copy of the Footloose soundtrack — with my own money — after I scratched the one I got for Hanukkah in several spots. Because apparently Shalamar’s “Dancing in the Sheets” is just that good. (Also, it was a long downhill ride to get there that I maybe only twice ever managed to brave going back. So I had to call Mom to pick up me and my bike in the beige Volvo wagon that eventually I would drive myself and have sex in. Thanks again, Mom, love you.)
All the same ... screaming? About your favorite things? Why screaming? And why at such a concrete-shattering volume that one can no longer hear the very thing you are screaming about? That had always baffled me when I’d seen news footage and TV clips of Beatlemania invading the globe in ’64, but to restless, impatient me in ’82 that all seemed like ancient history. I was stunned stupid to encounter it again. Hadn’t these girls realized that their screaming-mimi mentors — who at least adored something worth screaming over — had all grown up just like the Beatles, until they realized there was no need, no use, in shrieking over everything. Give it up when the giving’s good instead — and then the reaction begins to gather force like rippling thunder, the sound of an infectious ecstasy sweeping across an actually attentive crowd, an ineffable response between artist and audience.
It’s that same startling sonic boom that occurs during The Last Waltz whenever Robbie Robertson (it’s always Robbie Robertson, ’twas his show, don’cha know) introduces Clapton or Dylan or Joni or Neil (Young, not so much Diamond) or Van the Man, and the room collectively loses its shit. Or when Dr. John sings the opening line of “Such a Night,” or when a still-robust Muddy Waters bellows and churns his way deeper and deeper into his myth-making “Mannish Boy,” or when the Belfast Cowboy in his suede and sparkle high-kicks that horns-blaring big-finish of “Caravan,” and the room collectively loses its shit some more.
That’s the sound so powerful that I felt compelled to drive Mom to ye olde Cinerama Dome when the Band & Co.’s Scorsese Soirée was remastered and rereleased in 2002, so we could hear it again as potently as possible. Its the sound that still stops me dead in my tracks at Coachella, whether caused by an expected spectacle or a new sensation that has me tight-lipped and marveling. It’s the sound that can yank the most primordial howls out of me — when, say, Paul McCartney suddenly introduces Ringo Starr to his Dodger Stadium stage, and I involuntarily yell “HOLY SHIT” loud enough for a home-plate ump to hear me, while my happily bouncing son laughs his then-10-year-old ass off at the sight of his old man losing his fucking mind.
Apart from that giggle of his, it’s really the roar of the crowd I love the sound of most of all, more than any music itself. It’s a symphony all its own. I hadn’t heard it until that afternoon when The Last Waltz came on. I’ve craved it ever since.
“Benjie! Benjie! Bennnnnnnnjie! Get down here! Quick!”
Usually this meant I was in trouble, even if I wasn’t getting full-named. But not this sunny summer day.
I raced to the bottom of the stairs and found my mom standing behind the ironing board, the steaming iron held aloft, the look on her face glowing from getting gobsmacked, beaming so much radiant energy it’s a wonder she didn’t electrocute herself.
“I just saw the most incredible thing!” she told me, scarcely taking her eyes off the television. Presently it was filled with the odd but recognizable image of Neil Diamond in a hideous blue suit, his peepers hidden behind Roy Orbison shades as he sang a tedious tune called “Dry Your Eyes,” which I later learned had fuck-all to do with the Band and was only included because Robbie Robertson had just produced an album (Beautiful Noise, not a bad one, just an over-produced one) for the man who I’ll never forgive for writing “Sweet Caroline.” (Oh, to live in a world where “Cherry Cherry” is more beloved by singalong Schlitz-heads.)
Whatever was so incredible couldn’t have been this — that’s the sort of snark I’d have slung back, good-naturedly, but assuredly with a twat atttude.
Then, and only then, Moma and I shared that sweet Abbott & Costello dance almost everyone does whenever they’re introduced to the inspired quintet forged out of one helluva howling, whip-crack Arkansas drummer, the late great Levon Helm, plus four Canadians whose Northern spirit formed a bloodline as rich as any family’s: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson.
“Have you ever heard of the Band?” Mom asked.
“What band?” I wondered.
“No, THE Band.”
“That’s what I meant: What’s the band?”
“Right: It’s THE Band.”
“OK, OK ... THE band. But what band?”
“No, THE Band.”
“THE Band. Like capital-B Band.”
“They’re the Capital B Band?”
“No, no ... just the Band.”
“Just ... the Band.”
“The ... Band.”
Pretty sure I rolled my eyes. “Whatever, Mom. That’s Neil Diamond,” I insisted, pointing at the tube.
“I know, but ...” And then she reported her findings from the past half-hour or so, during which time whichever early-’80s comedy was on The Movie Channel (let’s pick ... Private Benjamin!) had just ended and something called The Last Waltz had just begun, with a jolt that left her thunderstruck. For those who haven’t seen, the film opens with what is, in fact, the Band’s final song of the night, the encore to shut down the celebration, a ripping rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” that rivals (but doesn’t best) the wallop of the version on their other essential live testament, 1972’s triple-LP Rock of Ages. Helm hollers like he’s breathing fire, Danko almost pig-squeals in his highest register, the horns pump you up like a damn fine handjob and then stop cold — “MY BIGGEST MISTAKE WAS LOVING YOU TOO MUCH!” those crazed voices declare in soul-cleansing (dis)harmony as the drums rollick like a runaway train — and then those horns regain a tighter grip to keep up the BOP BOP before the whole enterprise comes crashing in hard like a cannonball.
And through it all, especially when he’s coaxing out those last stinging solos, the camera keeps returning, as it does all movie long, to Robbie, again and again Robbie. Smoldering in his scarf and unbuttoned shirt Robbie, hunky and heavy-lidded Robbie, somehow always the sagest star Robbie, more Robbie, Robbie, Robbie. Mom and I were decades away from understanding just how much Robertson was responsible for his own aggrandizement. Par ejample: He’s shown singing several times, often obscuring whoever actually is handling lead, yet Levon, forever after the most disgruntled of Band mates, always insisted Robbie’s mic was off the entire time, as was often the case on tour. Also, despite noticing his name in the producer credits when we rewatched the movie, for years we couldn’t have known how much that particular role meant the other four Band members would be shut out of the same level of royalties and profits.
None of that mattered to us back in ’82. By the time Robbie doffs his fedora, raises a glass to the crowd and concludes — “Good night ... goodbye” — Candy Wener had fallen madly in love.
Before we go any further, let me assure that your eyes are not playing tricks on you: I AM totally writing about The Last Waltz in the space I've allotted for One-Trick Pony! Probably for paragraphs more before I even mention Paul Simon — other than, you know, right now. By the way, Garfunkel's better half wasn’t at The Last Waltz. Had nothing to do with it.
“But then Dr. John came out,” Mom continued as Neil Diamond finished drying his eyes when he should have been changing out of that ugly-ass suit instead, “and Neil Young, and some guy named Ronnie Hawkins? And I could’ve sworn that was Joni Mitchell singing in silhouette a little while ago when they were doing that slow ‘Helpless’ song.” Just then Joni appeared on screen: “Look! I was right! What is this movie?! How have I never heard of it before?!”
For the next hour we either sat together staring at the television or roamed around the couch and nearby kitchen table letting off excess energy, talking excitedly about what we’d just seen while eagerly awaiting whoever else might appear. We were instantly nuts about Van, who Mom at that point really only remembered from “Brown Eyed Girl” and maybe “Moondance” and “Domino.” We were mystified and magnetized by Dylan, for whom young Candy Carey’s love in ’64 and ’65 was rapidly derailed when she married Philip Wener in December ’66 — but whose abundant catalog we were about to dive into headlong alongside the Band’s.
We both went “There’s Ringo!” in stereo the moment he slipped into the frame for the main-set finale, a full-cast rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” And we both immediately adored the actual “Last Waltz” theme, which the Band is first heard and later seen playing (with Levon showing off his mandolin skills) in studio segments shot well after the concert. The sound of this mortal carnival coming to a valiant close, that winsome waltz holds pole position, by the way, on a Spotify playlist I’ve created titled “And When I Die,” so that it will be the first thing heard when my rundown of inevitable/unintentional tearjerkers becomes soundtrack for anyone sitting shiva for me. Consider yourself warned.
Mom and I had been bonding like this, over moments at the movies, spinning records at home or learning to harmonize in the car, for a few years at this point. It had been a rough time since the summer of ’79. There’s no need to go into details here; frankly, there are questions about that time I’m still unwilling to ask. Suffice to say there was a brief period (the better part of a year, as I recall) when my parents’ marriage — still going strong today after more than a half-century — seemed destined for the same fate as so many other ’60s-spawned couples who fell head over heels when they were kids and perhaps were wedded too soon.
Divorce had become a faddish, almost fashionable thing by the post-disco dawn of the ’80s. Consequently, our screens and airwaves overflowed with heartbroken tales of wily feminine betrayal and bad husbands, recriminations and regrets, and a very long parade of identity crises, some justified, others overindulged, all resolved through self-empowerment. All of that anguish and more was unavoidably rampant on every platform of popular culture. So, though back then my headspace was often suffocated by the grandiose alienation I found all too resonant in Pink Floyd’s profoundly depressing rock opera The Wall — which Dad got for me, along with a new baseball mitt, the first time I went to visit him at his new place just before Little League started up in early 1980 — I also found myself overexposed to myriad movies that, whether slapstick-y satirical or painfully dramatic, peeled back layers of hurt to examine raw nerves buried deep inside.
This is, of course, the time of Kramer vs. Kramer, the gold standard of uncomfortable divorce flicks, the highest-grossing film of 1979 (try to imagine that happening now), justifiably the leader of the pack at the Oscars a few months later (although my best picture vote would have gone to All That Jazz) and, most crucially to me, something of a savior to our unconventional family. Phil and Candy saw it on separate dates, and each came away wounded from watching the toll that Dustin Hoffman & Meryl Streep’s ego-clashing and blame-gamesmanship and role-reversals took not only on their characters but more so that of little Justin Henry. It was a hard watch, as it needed to be, but it convinced them that life as single parents was not what they wanted. When it came time to sign divorce papers, they both broke down in tears, and Dad moved back home.
Yes, not a shred of irony is lost on me that I wound up putting everyone in my orbit through two divorces and an annulment, and have subsequently spent the past dozen years striving daily to be the best possible co-parent. Saying I’m very lucky to be where I am now is understatement. Believing this temporarily sad patch of family history is directly responsible for my later foibles, however, is a bigger overstatement.
Dad’s relative absence, never fully out of the picture but not quite fully in it either, was also relatively brief. But it still meant I spent the overwhelming majority of my time with Mom. And since I was more or less the same age Sam is now as I write this — how’s that for gaining some perspective?! — and Jennifer was only 6, I could tell Candy could only do so much to shield her redheaded sweetheart from the fallout. So I was the one who would distract Jen when I knew Mom needed to cry; I was the one she would let her guard down around.
I was the one who’d fake feeling ill so I could stay home from school and remain snuggled up watching morning-into-afternoon game shows because I knew she didn’t want to get out of bed and face life that day. I was the one who sat at the piano with her when she’d try to write songs with lyrics and chords that might somehow express her pain — and then coax her out of it by insisting we clown around on a 12-bar blues or “Heart & Soul” instead. I was the one who sobbed along with her when we heard Manilow’s all-too-accurate part-time-dad portrait “Sunday Father” on his One Voice album, which came out on my 10th birthday. (Now that I’m an unconventional father myself, I still can’t keep from welling up whenever I foolishly happen upon it.)
I also was the one who dutifully stood up straight, smiled and shook hands like a good gentleman when some new guy whose name I’ve never remembered (but whose wavy helmet hair I’ll never forget) came to pick her up for a date. And I was the one who got to laugh with her when that attempt at jumping back into the pool thankfully blew over.
I clung to her because she was my world. She clung to me as something more than just a son, because she needed to. I became the surrogate while Dad was away, proudly and protectively so. Which meant that even though I already jabbered tirelessly about every thought that popped into my head, as Sam does now, that habit soon developed into a new role that stuck even once Dad returned: I was now the precocious pseudo-adult in the room Mom could always talk to. Not about what nearly split our family fabric forever. Just everything else. Especially movies and music.
One-Trick Pony and its writer/star/composer, Paul Simon, were among those things we most talked about — and listened to — in those early-’80s years before the Band and Dylan (and my adolescence) began to dominate our discussions. It’s not a particularly good film, I grant you, in large part because Simon isn’t a particularly good actor, which anyone who has seen Annie Hall knows. But I still find what now seems like the Great Transition in his remarkably lengthy run to be peculiarly fascinating in terms of how it reflects on both the changes in Simon’s career at that time and the romantic tumult of the era it depicts.
Which means, yes, it’s another divorce picture, accompanied by songs that impressionistically comment on the story: “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns,” “God Bless the Absentee,” how it’s been a “Long, Long Day” and only the soothing voice of a stranger (in this case, Patti Austin’s) can make it better. This timepiece also dates from Simon’s years with the late Carrie Fisher, whom he would marry in 1983 for a period almost as brief as my first marriage. He sings about that rocky romance so poetically on the title track of his next album, Hearts and Bones, but around the time of One-Trick Pony the eldest spawn of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher was instead being wooed by Dan Aykroyd, who proposed to her on the set of The Blues Brothers.
In his (thankfully) only leading film role, Simon plays a somewhat sad-sack caricature of himself named Jonah Levin, a veteran troubadour once popular for a pretty good protest song (“Soft Parachutes”) that has become his albatross, and whose sagging career now lands him in front of small, indifferent audiences while opening for new wave acts like the B-52’s. (They’re seen here in all their campy couture and frenetic early glory performing “Rock Lobster,” although it’s the backstage glimpse of the late Ricky Wilson, among the first of the semi-famous AIDS casualties, that puts a lump in my throat.) Jonah — don’t even think for a moment that there isn’t a song involving a whale — vainly tries to win back his wife Marion (played by Altered States star Blair Brown, who I’d happily watch read the items in a supermarket mailer) while juggling both a side piece he meets after a club gig (Mare Winningham, a half-decade before St. Elmo’s Fire) and, more soul-crushingly, the hassles imposed upon him by his record label.
Rip Torn, one of the all-time great character actors, who we lost in July at age 88, turns up twice among this year’s BenFest selections (see also Defending Your Life, playing over at Philman’s Jewish Theatre — now serving kugel!). Here he sports the most ridiculous hairstyle of his film career while strong-arming Simon’s Levin into both souping up his latest batch of songs by submitting to the slick sound of a trendy producer (played with subtle relish by Lou Reed) as well as giving up his ban on the past. Thus, Jonah eventually succumbs to playing “Soft Parachutes” live again, at a golden-oldies revue, and we get treated to an all-too-brief cameo from those incredible soul men Sam & Dave, plus the last footage of the original Lovin’ Spoonful.
Torn’s label-honcho and the ensuing headaches he causes were drawn from the skirmishes Simon had to squash as he left CBS Records and headed to Warner Bros. at the close of the ’70s, a shift steeped in autonomy as much as aesthetics. You can hear his ebullient freedom in the joyful “Late in the Evening,” a big hit as I entered 6th grade and one of the first Latin-tinged tracks that really got my young ass movin’ & groovin’. You also can hear Simon’s renewed enthusiasm for global grooves in what constitutes his first foray toward a world-beat feel since “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard” in very early ’72, or Simon & Garfunkel’s scenic excursions on Bridge Over Troubled Water two years before that.
“Late in the Evening” was too much fun to accurately hype such a glum movie, especially when nothing else in the mix even so much as flirts with exotica; the rest sounds like reworked leftovers from Simon’s previous LP, 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years. Critics mostly jeered, audiences stayed away in droves. What they missed, other than another portrayal of marital strife, was a real musicians’ movie, one almost entirely devoid of gloss and glitz — and hope. If The Last Waltz didn’t deter me from dreaming of the high life as a rock ’n’ roll road warrior, no matter how haggard the Band looked or how many times I heard Robbie Robertson say “it’s a goddamned impossible way of life,” One-Trick Pony reined in my impulses and let a lot of the air out of my deluded bubble.
The Last Waltz does a good job of telling us how rough life can be on tour; One-Trick Pony actually shows it — and, in some of its best scenes, illustrates how lonely and tedious and unglamorous it really is via band banter inside their van. (Another reason this is a hoot for players: Those are some serious cats Simon travels with, including a wicked rhythm section comprised of bald-but-mustachioed bassist Tony Levin, soon to anchor King Crimson and much of Peter Gabriel’s discography, and one of the most gifted session drummers ever, Steve Gadd.)
“You really think you could live a life like that?” Mom asked me warily on the way home after we saw this one for the first time. “Takes a lot to make it as a musician, you know.” I didn’t know, and I didn’t much care — I’d still spend the next decade kidding myself that I was one of those who has what it takes. My yellow brick road to reality had just begun.
Once The Last Waltz had spun us into a frenzy, there was no stopping Mom and me. Within weeks we had raided seemingly every record store in the county looking for any and all albums we could locate by both the Band and Dylan, with first the movie soundtrack and then the pair’s 1974 tour memento Before the Flood (almost entirely recorded at LA's Fabulous Forum) playing on endless repeat, until I no longer had any idea how either concert actually started or ended. (I still have most of the ones we found. Been playing ’em while this pours out.)MORE...
Soon, however, the search grew specific. It became Candy’s quest to acquire even the smallest morsel of Robbie Robertson screen time or printed verbiage. I recall more than one trip to Beggar’s Banquet in Buena Park (or was it technically Anaheim?), a lovely dump of a joint I recall being up the road from Knott’s Berry Farm, where we would lose hours leafing through stacks of tabloid magazines as tall as Billy Barty. Heaps upon heaps of well-yellowed past editions of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and Billboard, all soaked in an indescribable stank, with Mom and I wishing/hoping/praying to stumble upon some interview we hadn’t read, some photo we hadn’t seen. I don’t have a receipt to prove how much she shelled out for a VHS copy of Carny, a moody, so-so drama from 1980 in which Robbie plays Patch, a subdued wheel-greaser with a mobster’s demeanor — but I know it was a whole lot more than $20. (Robbie first mentally torments and then suddenly beds a barely-legal Jodie Foster in that movie, which makes carnival clown Gary Busey so hopping mad that the rest of his career heads down the crapper just a year after his Oscar nod for The Buddy Holly Story.)
Not content to stay strictly in my mother’s Robbie rabbit hole, however, and by now a 7th/8th grader infatuated with every girl at El Rancho Junior High School and bombarded by Journey, REO Speedwagon, the Go-Go’s and Rush on rock radio, I started waking up to newer sounds that weren’t so drenched in the previous generation’s peccadilloes — only to sometimes find I’d circled my way right back to an even broader past. Let me try to explain by also bringing my dad, a key shaper and crucial supporter of everything that is B.A. Wener, back into the picture, along with a raft full of immigrant relatives.
Music is in my blood and bones on all sides of my 23 & Me kit’s readout. Until it closed in the early ’70s, generations of Candy’s family owned and operated Shafer’s Music House in downtown Santa Ana for decades, ever since it had been founded by my great-great-great grandfather Robert Ranny Shafer back when sheet music was all the rage. (No wonder I’ve never left OC; my roots have been burrowing here a damn long time now.) Every Sunday, and as many other late nights as could be had, the Shafers and the Careys and the rest of their rotating cast of characters would drunkenly carouse for hours by my Grammy Carey’s piano, the same 88 ivories I eventually tickled (more like abused) when it became my Grandma Bobbie’s piano. Grammy Carey, a native Liverpudlian (so my mom instantly becoming a massive Beatles fan was somewhat predestined), would lead the room, with Uncle Dick on drums (oh the jokes just write themselves) and Grandpa Carey, an Irishman from County Cork, on trombone.
The Careys, Francis Jeremiah and Maybelle Evans, had emigrated to the States more than a century ago, initially settling in Brookline, Mass., where Francis would study at Notre Dame and play football for Knute Rockne before joining the Army, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. They had two sons, Richard and Donald, my mom’s dad, who married Roberta Shafer, of those musical Shafers I mentioned. But by the time Grandpa Don died in ’72 of liver cirrhosis caused by alcoholism — I never knew him, and still know very little about him, other than I got his thick head of hair — many of the elder musical faces on my mom’s side either passed or simply faded away.
Now and then I’d see Grandma Bobbie, or merely need to be dropped off at her house if Mom and Jennifer had to get to the ice rink for a few hours of figure-skating practice. But each visit seemed more marked by ... senility? Alzheimer’s before we knew what that was? Just more brain-pickling from booze? My Uncle Brian, Candy’s younger brother — we kept in touch over the years, too, saw each other once in a while. There’s music in his history as well: He played guitar for a time in a ’60s dance band called the Dimensions with my dad’s cousin Howard Glasser. He also let me (sorta) drive for the first time when I was 10, perched on his lap to steer his VW Bug while he worked the pedals. We were headed to the liquor store.
Anyway, other than the occasional visit with Bobbie or Brian — or his wife Michelle, who has survived them both — there wasn’t much actual contact between me and my mom’s past. Lots of bad vibes back there, like the time drunken Bobbie, angry about who knows what, chased Candy down the hall wielding a knife. But she fled all of that when she found Philip Wener. His family became hers.
She gave being Jewish a test-spin at temple classes. Never forced to do so, she nonetheless couldn’t help but notice how some members of my dad’s clan, including my grandfather and great-grandfather, wouldn’t give her the time of day until she was considering converting. Fortunately, for the sake of me or my sister ever entering the picture, Judaism struck a chord in Mom. She soon discovered less a way to live than a place within which she could live as she wished — as the eternal sweetheart she’s always been. (Talk to anyone, literally anyone who has ever met her, and see if you can find a soul who has anything but glowing happy words to say about Candy Wener. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)
In my dad’s circles-upon-circles of immediate and more distant relatives, she found the family she never had at home — while the biological family she still had nearby steadily vanished. By the time I was a teenager, they were nearly nonexistent. Which meant I grew up smothered by Weners. Their Russian and Polish (and Orange County) background was all I knew, starting with Great-Grandpa Sam’s high standing in the local Jewish community and his grass-roots, garage-based pickles business (he was principally a tailor, but I doubt there was a yenta over 60 throughout Orange County who hadn’t tasted his pickle). Then there was my mad-for-music Papa George, a real dreamer who led his own Basie-style jazz ensemble before World War II, with his younger sister — my dear and great Aunt Phyllis, still kicking at 96 — as his featured vocalist. George (first name: Sidney) married Dorothy (but everyone called her Dottie), and then, right around the time all these Wisconsin Weners realized it was a good deal warmer in California, they had two girls, Susan the eldest and Linda the youngest, with a boy, Philip Jack, in the middle.
Philip met Candace Louise in the summer of ’64 while working at the Broadway Theater, then one of the county seat’s premier movie houses. PJ was an usher, and to this day bemoans how many times he had to see the Viking adventure drama The Long Ships with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier that year. Candy was, of course, a candy girl. (“Ta-da!” she added when I fact-checked all these details a moment ago. She also just decided that “Candy Was a Candy Girl” is a good song title.) They graduated from rival Santa Ana schools, Dad at Santa Ana Valley and Mom at Santa Ana High, but it’s Candy who graduated from Bill Medley’s alma mater at about the same time he was beginning to score hits with Bobby Hatfield as the Righteous Brothers.
Phil’s musical aspirations didn’t take him as far as that, but he did blow saxophone for a time in a surf-rock band called the Cuttaways that used to play the same Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa that guitar legend Dick Dale had made his second home. They cut a fun 45 whose B-side, the sax-centric “Rockin’ Cricket,” was swiped by another local group, the Rockin’ Rebels, pluralized and passed off as its own as the follow-up to their minor regional hit “Wild Weekend.” But Dad knew a rock ’n’ roll life wasn’t in the cards, so he soon gave that up in favor of other pursuits — mainly Candy, occasionally on double-dates with one of her girlfriends, a fellow Santa Ana High grad who was decidedly different, Diane Hall.
Diane’s and Candy’s paths could not have been more divergent. My mom and dad got hitched on Dec. 17, 1966, and began putting away some of their youthful aims and ways in favor of starting a family and saving for a suburban home of their own. Diane, on the other hand, soon split for New York to chase an acting dream. By the time my parents were in their honeymoon phase, the newly renamed Diane Keaton had landed a role on Broadway in Hair. She went on to a rather acclaimed career, you may recall. (And if you weren’t aware before, now you know how Annie Hall got her surname.)
Because Woodstock occurred so shortly before my birth, and because I tend to over-idealize that mud-soaked youthquake epicenter, I like to think that Candy Carey might have been there if a boy named Benjamin Aaron had not showed up here. Maybe not — maybe her friend Diane’s escape would not have enticed her to go to NYC as well. Regardless, what resulted back in Candy's California was a disconnect.
For a decade, neither for better nor for worse, my mom glommed onto my dad’s taste. Right when her beloved Beatles were about to radically change virtually everything about pop music, she was sidelining them while her new husband was ... oy vey, this is so fucking painful to recount ... THROWING OUT ALL HER MEMORABILIA! What the hell would she need that for anymore, right? After all, she’s got beat-up copies of the early records, and they must have picked up Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour at some point because I’ve still got those, too. As for everything else: “Candy, why are we keeping all these toys and magazines and photos and ticket stubs? This is just JUNK.” (Goddammit, now I need a drink.)
So out went discovering the ’68 self-titled White Album when it was new or giving psychedelic rock a try, and the only Band track that crossed Candy’s transom during those years, she realized retrospectively, was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” something she knew more from Joan Baez’s minor hit version than the more rustic original. Where there might have been Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker records on our shelf, there were instead impeccably arranged, kitschy-cool platters from Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 or ’67 or ’68. Silken soft-pop — that was the main mode, whether in the form of less-threatening groups like the Turtles or the Association or showmen like Manilow and Diamond. Occasionally an Elton John record broke through; Honky Chateau was always Mom’s favorite, although by the time Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was instantly topping the charts in ’75, I was the one who wanted more of his stuff.
Let me make something clear: This walk on the mild side was in no way a bad thing, and the melodic sense it instilled in me to hear Burt Bacharach as frequently as Bachman-Turner Overdrive in the mid-’70s is an education I now consider invaluable. It’s also what opened my ears wide enough to appreciate, say, the switch in Joe Jackson when his songwriting rapidly advanced from the catchy tunefulness of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” to the full jazz-ensemble sweep of genre-melding albums like Night and Day (1982) and Body and Soul (1984).
The Weners, all four of us including then-almost-11-year-old Jennifer, saw Jackson on the tour for the latter album, at an Irvine Meadows show in May ’84, with a new Brit named Howard Jones opening. Mom had led within-the-previous-year expeditions to this recently demolished amphitheater (gotta make room for more condos!). It had been the site of the first concert of my choosing (ZZ Top with Quiet Riot, Eliminator tour, June ’83) as well as my inaugural pick for a longstanding concert-tickets-are-all-I-want birthday tradition (the original Supertramp’s last show with high-voiced Roger Hodgson, which occurred on my 14th birthday). A month before the Joe Jackson gig, in fact, Mom had taken a bunch of us kids, Jennifer included, to see Adam Ant, also at Irvine Meadows. She didn’t complain once when it wound up being a very rainy night, nor did she freak out when Adam ended his Strip show by, well, stripping down to a g-string and, for reasons I still don’t understand, leaping into a vat of water and frolicking in it. (It’s entirely possible I only dreamt that. But it still seems so strangely real.)
There would soon be a handful more Irvine Meadows nights chaperoned by Mom, although nothing stood out more than seeing Annie Lennox belt “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” when Eurythmics were there at the end of August ’84, with the Plimsouls opening - and don’t even get me started on Prince at the Forum in February ’85, Purple Rain tour, other than to hear me declare at length why it’s the best performance I (and Mom) have ever witnessed. But Dad was ... pickier. Pickier then, funnily enough, than he is now.
Yet, after he heard the horns in that spring’s Joe Jackson single, “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” he was happily on board for a proper nuclear-family concert outing - only to wind up in an argument with the talkative asshole behind us, who really needed everyone nearby to know exactly how he felt about the performance’s quieter dynamic. “Well,” my dad said loudly and without hesitation, “if you’d shut the hell up, maybe we’d all hear it!” When a few numbers later Jackson himself stopped a song to berate the typically obnoxious OC crowd for being noisy — I had yet to learn this was a habit of his on tour — Phil Wener proudly turned back to that chattering jackass once more, encore-style if you will, just to say: “See? Even he thinks you’re too loud!”
Growing up — by which I mean well into my 40s — I’ve often foolishly thought of Dad as strictly the industrious one in their partnership, the bread-winner who for decades criss-crossed the globe as an international businessman (of mystery!), while Mom was the more creative and nurturing one. That’s certainly not untrue. But it also over-simplifies his role in my life and paints him as a fuddy-duddy who just couldn’t cut loose enough for rock, when in fact he can still be visibly wowed today by top-flight musicianship and a killer spectacle. Enabling him to meet and get his picture taken with Tony Bennett is still one of the proudest nights of my life, maybe because I felt like the old man was finally looking at me as some kinda big shot, even more so than the night I scored us (through sheer luck of press placement) front-row seats to see Tina Turner. Surprisingly, these days he has become much more of a current pop fan. Lady Gaga floors him, he’s enjoyed her live at least three times, along with memorable shows recently from Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Jennifer Lopez, although I’m pretty sure his enthusiasm for J.Lo didn’t start with her singing. He’s also the one who emerged from Elton John’s first of two Anaheim shows the other night raving, insisting that I must see His Royal Portliness one more time before he retires. Before he was asleep, tickets had arrived on my phone.
I mention all of this because, well, I’m apparently tracing my entire musical history with this Sonic Celluloid wing of BenFest, up to and including becoming a critic and beginning to dress like a girl. But also because, from this midlife vantage point, my family’s quasi-musical saga has lately reminded me of American Pop, animator/director Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat (ok, super) hokey but kaleidoscopically dazzling journey through 20th century music, as told through the fictional rise and fall — and rise and fall again — of a family of Jewish immigrants who preposterously manage to play a part in one major era after another, from vaudeville and the Jazz Age to Haight-Ashbury rock and New York punk.
Thankfully, for all their immigrant travails, the Weners (and the Shafers and the Careys and any other last names that apply) never faced such an exaggerated and violent existence as the dramatically unlucky lineage that runs through American Pop. Start with young Zalmie, whose rabbi father is killed by the Cossacks as his wife and son are fleeing Russia, and whose mother perishes soon after in the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911, one of the deadliest infernos in US history, killing 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, and almost entirely women and girls aged 14 to 23. Zalmie lives on, however, working at a burlesque and dreaming of becoming a singer. Until one evening, while performing for troops during World War I as the bottom half of a pantomime horse (repeat: the bottom half of a pantomime horse), he’s wounded in an air raid, inconveniently in the throat — and the next Al Jolson he’ll never become.
So Zalmie the Clown instead invests all his efforts (and some mob-boss moolah) into building up the career of a stripper-turned-singer he knocks up named Bella. She gets snuffed out a few scenes later, very Apollonia style, meaning she’s inadvertently whacked in the manner of Michael Corleone’s first wife, not that she’s seduced into exposing her tits before mistakenly leaping into what actually isn’t Lake Minnetonka. Luckily, just before Bella blew up she popped out a baby boy, Benny, who grows up shy and introverted and becomes a wickedly talented and sought-out piano player — and already younger me is way into this. Not only is the painstaking rotoscoping animation (layered over real actors and documentary footage) a genuinely unusual sight to behold at this time — Bakshi had only started venturing in that direction with his previous effort, a failed attempt at adapting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that at least has brevity in its favor — but the music had sucked me in from the first jump of Gene Krupa powering Benny Goodman’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!” And now there’s a character named Benny, too?
Of course, this Benny is a noble fool who doesn’t heed Zalmie’s warnings not to join the military (he’s still pretty steamed over that very particular, career-ending throat injury 10 minutes ago) and winds up overseas fighting Nazis, at least until one of them rudely aerates him with a machine gun right after he had just played that sadistic pig his favorite tune, “Lili Marleen.” (Fucking Nazi bastard.) Naturally, before he went off to war, Benny got busy with a bride who had been basically offered to him by that same mob boss that Zalmie tangled with, so just as we learn that Benny has bitten the dust, we notice that Tony has entered the world all Tommy-like. Only he ain’t deaf, dumb and blind: Before we know it, there’s now a rapidly-developed third-generation musical savant emerging from this mostly dead family, one who not only honks on harmonica like Dylan but apparently writes “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” too.
Tony hitchhikes his way west until we see him strolling through the Haight one night, more hobo than hippie. He's suddenly taken in faster than a coke snort by a group that can’t decide if it’s Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother & the Holding Company. Then comes a lot of heroin, not enough sex, some more accidental death, a few really classic rock songs — until, at last, along comes Pete.
Poor abandoned-by-his-dick-dad Pete. Poor weird-voiced tough guy Pete. Poor fourth-generation Pete (like me! except my forebears were alive). Poor super freakin’ cool Pete, who tumbles his way into dealing drugs to bands like a punk somersaulting into a slam pit, flashing street skills as chill as Jay-Z but wrapped up in a look that’s dyed-blond Matt Dillon trying to be James Dean playing leather-glam Lou Reed. And then, after barely sneer-talking for a few scenes, he sings like Bob Seger, because when he gets his moment in the spotlight to prove what he really can do the soundtrack plays “Night Moves” — and Pete fucking nails it, STANDING at the piano with so much nuclear-strength I-hate-everyone attitude that he can somehow summon the forces of guitar, bass, drums and black-up singers who aren’t there.
I badly wanted to be Pete. So ingrained was this cartoon cliché in my imagination that when American Pop, a movie I’d only seen once or twice in the early ’80s, was finally released on DVD as Y2K drew near, I rushed home with my promo copy, skipped all the other characters and songs and absurdities and that brief bit of LA punk band Fear, and went straight to Pete’s “Night Moves.” These days I’ve been socially conditioned to call him a badass. Back then, he was just rad.
Actually, back then — a timespan I’ll peg from roughly start-of-school ’81 (age 12) to same-time ’85 (sweet 16), which in retrospect feels a whole lot more like my Freaks & Geeks years than the last two rounds of high school — there was very little in my orbit that was not in fact rad.
Possessing any kind of boom box, for example, from the smallest recordable cassette player to a triple-stacked behemoth like only Radio Raheem could tote around by the end of the ’80s, that was 100-percent rad. Pee-Chee folders tucked into tricked-out Trapper Keepers: academic rad. Galaga and Defender: arcade rad. Nintendo: way more rad than Atari. Rubik’s Cubes: impossible but also rad. Betamax: technically more rad than VHS, but we know who won that brief battle — LaserDisc. Z Channel if you could get it: cinematically rad, except we had ONTV, which was nearly as wide-ranging in its film fare but bested the mighty Z by also having Angels games and scores of exclusively aired concerts by Queen and the Dead and Talking Heads and Siouxsie & the Banshees, not to mention the US Festival in ’83.MORE...
Almost any sort of fashion statement could be rad, even if at the time I agonized over every choice (ha, like that’s changed) and attempted to switch up my style every other week, a what’s-my-scene-now approach that only worsened the more I became a clique chameleon in high school. Checkerboard slip-on Vans were a mainstay: that’s still skateboard rad. Members Only jackets over argyle sweaters: nerdy rad. Rolled-up-and-cuffed jeans with Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high-tops: proto-indie-kid playground rad. Sperry Topsiders or Penny Loafers, of course with the shiniest pennies possible fitted into their foot-fronts: preppy rad. Baggy but tapered trousers and pointed-toe oxfords: New-Ro (for New Romantic) rad.
Hairstyle that might get you called Flock of Seagulls by Samuel L. Jackson: never rad, but if you went for a Durannie look or retro Stray Cats pompadour or simply spiked it up, you were getting closer. As I tend to grow an unnatural, unmanageable, oddly wavy Jewfro with 17 cowlicks and a slight widow’s peak, I was largely incapable of any mode beyond a side-parted helmet. I remember in 9th grade taking the album cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” to my barber and declaring: “I want to look like this!” “Your hair don’t do that,” Joe told me. My ’do wound up more like Lorenzo Lamas’s — swept back, piled high and lacquered into place.
Then there were the girls, extremely appealing to pubescent Benjie no matter what they wore: Jordache denim and jean jackets and Jelly shoes, black leggings and white sneakers, shoulder pads and leg warmers, polka-dot thrift-shop skirts like Cyndi Lauper with cheap-lace fingerless gloves like Madonna that always wound up ripped by the end of Geometry class. All of it super-cute rad. And I’ve never been able to shake the irresistible appeal of seeing the female of the species squeeze into those divinely horrible Dolphin shorts, like that one really hot and pint-sized and I think maybe lesbian lady P.E. teacher who always seemed to wear them one size too small. So very intriguingly rad.
Our (or at least my) sense of radness was hardly very discerning — how could it be if passed-around tapes of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park were as rad as illicit copies of Caddyshack? There weren’t levels of rad or disqualifying reasons why something could not be rad. What was rad to you might not have been rad to me, but who was I to harsh your rad vibe? If last Saturday night’s Love Boat/Fantasy Island combo was especially funny to you because the first guest-starred Ruth Buzzi and the second Charo, then hell yes it was rad, and I would cheer on your irrational radness with every ounce of my EVERYTHING-MATTERS conviction, but from the other room, you know, because Night Flight is about to be on USA Network, and I don’t miss Night Flight for any of your rad shit. Honestly, did it matter to us that Frank Zappa cut a novelty hit featuring his daughter Moon Unit mocking our ohmigod-grody-to-the-max adolescent gibberish? Certainly not: it was meta rad before any of us knew what meta meant. We loved laughing at ourselves — it’s like, you know, rad — so we lapped it up like Otter Pops.
Much higher on the Rad List (ok, I lied, there were levels of radness) was my silver Sony WalkMan with not one but TWO headphone jacks so that my French-class bestie Hisham Amin and I could listen to the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Prince and the Police’s brand-spanking-new Synchronicity album (with cassette-only bonus track “Murder by Numbers”!) all the way to Paris, where we both had too much wine for the first time, devoured mussels like they were M&Ms, saw the Mona Lisa but were more impressed by the headless winged victory statue, and where I contracted chicken pox during our last week of a monthlong stay yet he somehow went unscathed. Supremely rad. In a word: awesome — another now-meaningless descriptor my generation was overusing within a month of Sean Penn first appearing as Jeff Spicoli, decades before millennials revived and ruined it. (And still I say it all the time.)
But raddest of all by far was MTV. Pretty sure I forgot my middle name for a season once we had it, and whatever I was supposed to have “learned” that semester was definitely not retained. I fully surrendered to it, completely fixated, superglued to the couch and barely blinking as hour after hour I watched all of my favorites come to videoclip life alongside tons more names I’d only read about in Mom’s copies of Rolling Stone, or the Circus and Hit Parader mags I’d beg her to buy me because Ozzy Osborne or Judas Priest looked so rad on the cover. (I wouldn’t graduate to Melody Maker, Musician and the NME until I was 15-going-on-16 and started working afternoons at a long-gone Anaheim Hills record store called Cinema Sound, across the street from my alma mater, Canyon High. Spending every penny I made the previous summer-plus coring strawberries and doling out cups o’ cream three doors down from there eventually led Cinema Sound’s manager to poach me from the original Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt.)
Nothing mattered more during my own teenage riot than the ever-extending list of new bands and artists I went mad for on a seemingly weekly basis. That stream of discovery, running parallel to my increasing hunger for the thrills of live performance, had been trickling forth ever since I laid eyes on KISS and Bowie in ’75. MTV would turn that stream into a rushing river of dreams powerful enough to carry me through adolescence, college and onto a stupefyingly fun career I don’t think I’d trade away even if some fairy godmother could have turned me into a full-fledged rock star.
But before that dam could be obliterated, it first had to be built — by enduring a glut of increasingly boring mainstream music, until it was overtaken by the underground. It’s that same lurching dullness I’d sense (like millions of others) occurring again a decade or so later, before feeling it snap like a broken bone within 30 seconds of plopping my cassette single of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into my rust-colored Volkswagen Scirocco’s tape deck, and knowing in an instant that everything had just changed. By spring 1980 my impatience with what Top 40 spoon-fed me, worsened by restless fatigue over soft-pop and disco divas and corporate rock groups I had loved just months earlier, plus my lack of knowledge as to how to acquire something different — all of that was causing my river of inspiration to shore up. Sam, who is now as old as I was then, will never know just how wonderful he has it, to have virtually any song or video come up with the swipe of a finger on a tiny handheld computer. Back at the start of the ’80s I was starved for anything that wasn’t another easy-listening divorce ballad or “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc.
Enter Natalie, a new babysitter from up the block, the older and more voluptuous of two rapidly developing sisters (Stephanie was only a year or so younger). Either of them could ride by on her bike, instantly seize my attention and cause me to take a football pass to the head during one of an endless season of street games with the neighbor boys. Both high-school girls knew I had deep crushes on them, and they seemed to delight in teasing and taunting me with whatever wiles they had just realized they could wield, setting in motion a pattern of mine, fueled by prolonged, unrequited lust, that led to years of secret, cowardly yearning for women who I assumed would never look my way. “Girls don’t make passes at white guys in glasses,” is what I think Elvis Costello once said, and even though I’ve learned not to believe that, and was still several years away from making passes or wearing glasses, I still instinctively sensed what I now recognize as his remark’s kernel of truth.
So imagine my surprise when Mom told me an hour or so before she and Dad went out for dinner and a movie that Natalie would be watching us. I recall spending a good deal of time in the bathroom that evening.
I soon overcame my shyness by becoming Natalie’s confidant. Whenever she came around I listened to her talk about boys she liked at school (she must have been 16 or 17, best as I can remember). I blushed when she brought over girlfriends who would call me cute and then join her in singing along to Olivia Newton-John records. I tried my best to cover for her the time or two when some kind of roving party would momentarily arrive at our door and a dozen high-school kids would saunter in for a couple hours.
I distinctly remember one of those occasions being January 1980, because Cheap Trick, finally catching on with their killer live set At Budokan, were slated to perform on Dick Clark’s American Music Awards, despite not being nominated for anything. I didn’t care a whit who was in the house, or where Jennifer was, for that matter. All I cared about was watching Rick Nielsen, this weird Huntz Hall character in a ballcap and black-and-white checkered pants to match his black-and-white checkered guitar. Very rad. I remember yelling at everyone to shut up when they kicked into their cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” “You like this?” some guy sipping a beer asked. “Yes. So please, just for five minutes, be quiet.” Then Robin Zander began to sing, and for whatever reason a laugh track was inserted, I guess to tip off the blue-hairs watching at home that all this rockin’ noise was still a song they might recognize. The guy laughed, too. Must’ve been high.
There was an even more momentous occasion when Natalie babysat us that year, some Friday or Saturday that ran really late for my folks, and because I was a cocky, precocious 11-year-old who was no longer so shy around her, I started boasting about having recently seen an actual pair of boobs. My Bo Derek obsession was at full sweat by this point, and I repeatedly pointed to a copy of the Playboy that was kept out in the open atop the basket of ’zines by the fireplace.
For better or worse — ultimately a bit of both, I reckon — Candy’s attitude toward sex and nudity was always very liberal; it was violence she abhorred. (Phil really didn’t emit an opinion one way or the other, although the laughs he let out during the most ribald parts of Animal House when we saw it on a Palm Springs vacation not long after it came out didn’t exactly leave me thinking her disapproved of such frank exposure.) It didn’t take much pleading, then, to persuade Mom to buy me the March 1980 issue of Hef’s monthly pictorial haven, on the condition that I was only allowed to look at Ms. Derek’s spread, which, frankly, was no more revealing than she had been in Blake Edwards’s sex comedy “10”. (See the Women in Love entry in 1969 @ The Dome for more on that experience.)
Shhyeah, right — as if I was never going to look at the other naked women or read the dirty jokes attached to the centerfold’s bio sheet. I didn’t understand half the punchlines; my comprehension of double entendres at the time required blunt profanity, like Steve Martin’s classic “that cat was the best fuck I ever had” switcheroo, which genuinely shocked me into a giggle fit the first time I heard it along with the rest of his 1977 album A Wild and Crazy Guy.
That month’s Playboy Playmate, once I’d snuck a look at her, reminded me of Stephanie, which, while not untrue, I now mentioned to her sister Natalie mainly as a means of goading her into looking for herself. Once Jennifer had fallen asleep and been carried to bed, the two of us sat closely together and started thumbing through the Bo Derek issue, lingering on photos of Steph’s older doppelgänger, a Floridian with the French name Henriette Allais, often posed bent over in frilly lace and garters. “I guess I see what you’re talking about,” Natalie said, leaning toward me to turn back a few pages, near enough that I could barely breathe from inhaling the scent of her neck and hair. “She kinda looks like Steph. But Steph isn’t that big yet.”
“Big?” I turned to her and asked, genuinely unsure what part of Henriette (or Stephanie) she meant. “Boobs,” Natalie said matter-of-factly, staring me straight in the eyes. “Steph’s aren’t like that yet.” Then she dropped the real mind bomb: “Mine are bigger, anyway.”
I sat dumbfounded for at least 30 seconds, before I blurted out “be right back!” and went tearing up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. Because of course I’d already figured out where Dad stashed the rest of his Playboys, and only a few days earlier, while sneaking glimpses at the latest issue before he’d hidden it upstairs, I’d seen a goddess — one who reminded me a whole lot of Natalie. I darted back, practically leapt onto the couch, and panting with excitement flung open the latest centerfold of the quite bosomy Karen Price, sprawled in a languid Marilyn Monroe pose, her hair blown back and blending into the fur rug or fur coat or fur something she was laying on, I still can’t tell, her skin tan and flawless. Like Natalie’s.
“Are you more like this?!?” I nervously but urgently wondered. Natalie’s eyelids narrowed and her lips formed into a wicked smile as she surveyed Karen’s physique. “That’s closer,” she finally responded.
I didn’t know what to say. Nor could I close my mouth long enough for saliva to form. When I finally did, I timidly tried to ask for more details. “Are they ... um ... you know ...” “Boobs?” she finished. I chuckled. “Well, yeah, I know that ... but are they like ...” Suddenly, despite having been bold enough to come this far, I couldn’t find the courage to look directly at her. “Are they like what? Spit it out, Benjamin.” Getting full-named flipped some kind of switch in me to the on position: “Are they ... pale ... like that? She’s so tan, but her boobs are so ... pale.”
“If you want to see,” she said, closing the magazine, “why don’t you just ask?”
I was dumbfounded. Probably a little scared. Definitely excited. Beyond curious. And still saying nothing.
“Just ask me. Say: ‘Natalie, can I see your boobs?’”
“I can’t ask you that.”
“I don’t know.”
“You want to ask me, don’t you?”
I didn’t respond.
“It’s not a big deal, Benjie. They’re just boobs. Here, I know what ...”
She started to pull up her t-shirt but stopped: “No, wait. Go turn the lights off. Then you can give me a boob massage.”
I don’t think I’ve ever moved faster. But before I’d even left the couch, she’d added one more instruction: “Mute the TV and put on KROQ.”
Natalie looked pissed. “I almost don’t want to show you my tits now for saying that.”
And that’s how in the same moment that I first saw those real live female breasts that weren’t my mother’s — splayed out as she undid her bra and arched her back across a pillow, revealing softball-large, baby-cheek smooth, very squishy and indeed pale orbs (but then the television glow made everything pale) — I also discovered the Pretenders and the Clash and Talking Heads and Devo and the Cars, all of whom Natalie, though annoyed by the interruptions, patiently named for me every time a song came on that I didn’t know.
“Jesus, Benjie, do you want to play with my boobs or talk about KROQ?” she finally asked in frustration, starting to sit up. My response seemed logical to me: “Why can’t we do both?” Then we heard the garage door start to lift. “Oh shit, your mom and dad!” I bolted to my room, hurried into pajamas, fake-slept, and don’t recall ever seeing Natalie again.
But I had found KROQ. And kids, lemme say this: You may have infinitely easier access than we ever did, but we sure as fuck had better radio and music television.
KROQ, a still-mighty force in forging and maintaining alternative rock stars that nonetheless is merely the shell of its former greatness, served for years as an outlet for the Pasadena Presbyterian Church before it spent more or less a decade (roughly ’67-’77) fighting and floundering as a freeform progressive outlet. That’s when it became a hub for subversive comedy acts like the Firesign Theatre, Dr. Demento and the Credibility Gap (featuring Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) as much as it also was a music haven for Jethro Tull or Frank Zappa. When the station was relaunched in ’76 alongside punk’s shots heard ’round the world — as pushed on air by a happy little elf with a soft, slightly fey, permanently mellowed voice, a Hollywood scenester and turning-point DJ named Rodney Bingenheimer — KROQ as we’ve come to know it began its long glorious rise. By the time I’d learned of it in spring 1980, concurrent with my shoulda-been-a-cousin childhood mentor Scott Garland introducing me to Record Trading Center in Orange, where I bought my first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Van Halen records (Damn the Torpedoes and Women and Children First, respectively), KROQ was already the coolest ... excuse me, the raddest ... kid on the block.
Which is why I was ecstatic but not gobsmacked when MTV finally arrived and put motion to so much of what I was listening to on vinyl. Growing up in Southern California, then or now, has its advantages — it only takes a measure of curiosity to find the cutting edge. (It’s much trickier to stay there.) KROQ at that time, its boiling stew of new wave soon overflowing out of its cauldron and onto the (eventually inter)national scene, was crucial as 106.7 FM rose to “ROQ of the ’80s” prominence, but so too were the nooks and crannies of late-night television. Before cable swept every suburban enclave from Brea to San Clemente, there were plenty of telltale signs of what was to come, like catching Blondie doing “Dreaming” on Saturday Night Live, or the B-52’s ponying through “Rock Lobster,” or Gary Numan being very Gary Numan in “Cars.”
Most deeply impressive on my psyche around that time was stumbling upon Bowie’s impressionistic, very NYC, kinda manic-depressive “DJ” clip at 1:30 in the morning on New Year’s Eve ’79 >’80, two weeks after I’d stayed up to see his very wonderfully strange performances on SNL. In one, he performed “Boys Keep Swinging” while wearing a smart, matching skirt-and-jacket ensemble that I thought made him look like a stewardess. (If that wasn’t a sign of things to come for Benjie, I don’t know anything is.) In another, he sang “The Man Who Sold the World” while appearing almost trapped within a futuristic tuxedo, a legless contraption that left him immobile and requiring two supporting players to carry him to the microphone.
One of those supporting players was Klaus Nomi, an operatic German performance-art weirdo whose fame mostly, and sadly, rests on having been among the first few artists claimed by AIDS, in August ’83 — more or less the same month I was thinking “hey, it’s that guy who was with Bowie on SNL” as he popped onto my TV screen while I watched Urgh! A Music War for the first time.
It’s a shame so many adventurous music lovers of today aren’t very aware of Urgh, for there couldn’t be a much better encapsulation of its era. By no means a comprehensive overview of the burgeoning post-punk and new wave scenes — it was designed, more by original producer Miles Copeland than director Derek Burbidge, principally as a showcase for IRS Records’s roster — its hodgepodge nevertheless perfectly sums up what it was like to flip on KROQ any Saturday night. You’d hear similar smatterings of established leading lights (in Urgh’s case: the Police and Devo, and maybe Gary Numan counts), several future ones just beginning to shine (Oingo Boingo, X, Joan Jett, the Go-Go’s, Echo & the Bunnymen, OMD, UB40), cult favorites about to find their crowds (XTC, Gang of Four, Wall of Voodoo, the Cramps, Dead Kennedys, Pere Ubu), also-rans (the not-very-punk band 999 over in the UK, Surf Punks closer to home) and never-weres (does anyone at all remember Invisible Sex?).
Knowing how this sonic collage came to be, via a series of packed bills filmed at the Whisky a Go-Go and Santa Monica Civic Auditorium plus similar multi-act gigs in London and Frejus, France, might have neutered any of Urgh’s significance — no New Wave Woodstock, this. But it only heightened my desire to slip away into the night and find ways to see all of these bands and more on stage. Between Labor Day ’82, when I heard reports on KROQ about the first US Festival in San Bernardino, and Memorial Day ’83, when I sat captivated by cable TV showing me sets from the second US Festival out at the hellhole known as Glen Helen Amphitheatre, something in me snapped.
I don’t accurately recall if the coverage was live as it happened or simply shown in segments on Showtime or ONTV. I’ll have to verify that another time. But I can still taste the drool I secreted over the first US Festival’s lineup when it was announced: Day 1 was capped by the Police and Talking Heads after daytime sets from the B-52’s, Boingo, Ramones, the English Beat and Gang of Four (who provide the single-most Benjie-destroying Urgh clip with their microwave-smashing performance of “He’d Send in the Army”); Day 2 was headlined by Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pat Benatar, plus the Kinks, the Cars, Santana, Eddie Money and Dave Edmunds; then Day 3 began with a breakfast set from the Grateful Dead (didn’t care about that then, would love so much to see it now) followed by a day of Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne and, finally, Fleetwood Mac.
So when US ’83 arrived so soon after its predecessor — and I was still unable to drive, even though Temple Beth Shalom had fully recognized me as a goddamn MAN, people — well, I died a little inside knowing this musical utopia (ha, hardly) was only about 40 minutes away and the best a “grownup” like me could hope for was to watch it on my parents’ bedroom TV, bobbing back and forth in one of their rocker chairs from noon until Dad couldn’t take it anymore and kicked me out. Which meant, as New Wave Day became New Wave Night, I had to stop taping during Men at Work’s set (no big loss) and could only quietly glimpse what little footage was aired of the original Clash’s final performance. But I still felt like I was there when Stray Cats stole the show at sundown, and the Beat and Boingo and Voodoo (their finale of sorts as well) and especially INXS were all terrific.
But I willfully tuned out Sunday’s metal madness, and I only tuned into Monday’s rundown to see U2 (always unmissable) and then watch Chrissie Hynde lead her new Pretenders through a cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)” in response to a lot of bitching between Van Halen and the Clash over who got paid what. Beyond that, well, I wanted to look — but I just couldn’t. I could no longer just watch. I had to become a part of this beast. I didn’t care if it left me looking 20 years older than I really am and feeling even older than that, the way every member of the Band looked in The Last Waltz. I needed to see, and hear, for myself.
SCENE 2: FLASH-FORWARD
Exterior: Quiet, sleepy circular street surrounding Anderson Grove.
Interior: The Lanska-Wener Records Room, sometimes referred to as the music room, occasionally the library. Ben-at-50, in half-light, is curled up on a green couch, imagining he’s just sat down for an interview he set up three weeks ago with Ben-at-30. There is no music playing, only steady ringing in both of their ears. Every now and then two large owls can be heard hooting outside.
Time: Now. Ben-at-30 speaks in italics.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
But you set this interview up.
No, I don’t mean that. I mean this whole damned thing.
What whole damned thing?
This whole fucking BenFest mess I insisted on putting together! This insanely personal Sonic Celluloid novella-memoir I just shat out of my brain through my fingertips — and for what? Why am I doing this to myself?
Because it’s your birthday.
But I’m the guy who hates birthdays.
I know that.
Birthdays are pointless and self-serving.
I know that, too.
They’re perfectly fine for children ...
And maybe until you’re, oh, 21.
Right, maybe ’til then.
You’ll even give a pass to milestones like 40 and such, won’t you?
Exactly. You get it. You understand.
Yes. I do. You might even say I’ve heard this routine before.
[After a withering stare that ages Ben-at-30 by six months.] My point is: Why now?
Well ... for starters ... this really is a milestone. I made it to 50.
WE made it to 50.
Alright, alright ... WE made it to 50. We ought to celebrate, dumbass, not be a raving cunt about it.
But I AM A RAVING CUNT, you numbskull. You don’t realize that yet. You haven’t even begun to live with yourself. Jesus, what year is it there? Didn’t you just fuck over Tenny ...
You fucking cunt, you just did!
Fuck you. You just fucked her over royally, no more than a year ago, and that’s only two years or so away from when you fucked over Cindy, you overambitious prick.
Never satisfied, never knowing what you want because you don’t know yourself. You’ve taken up with Shelly now, haven’t you? Oh lord ...
Yes! Yes, I have, in fact. And it’s going to be different this time!
OK, you’re right ... this interview is a bad idea.
Oh, no, no, no ... no way, pal ... this is exactly the conversation we ought to have.
But why? Why ask people to read this? Why send out invitations to come root through the skeletons in our closet?
Bitch, you don’t even know a fraction of what’s about to happen.
Don’t call me bitch!
Hush. You’ll like it it soon enough.
OK, there ... that right there ... that’s something I don’t understand.
And who says I do?
You just said I’ll like it soon enough, and I kinda feel like you’re right. But I don’t have the first clue why.
If It makes you feel any better, in 20 years I’ve maybe only picked up two or three clues myself.
So tell me!
Nope. Gotta figure those out for yourself.
That’s not very fair. When you set this interview up, you said we would focus on bisexuality. Our bisexuality. Are we really bisexual?
Yes. Yes, we are.
But ... I haven’t done anything yet. That is, you know, with a ...
OK ... yeah ... but that was just that one time. I had to know what ... WE had to know what it was like. What it felt like. What it would feel like afterward.
Right. We can’t be told much of anything. We have to experience it for ourselves. But I guarantee you: that won’t be a onetime experience.
I was starting to think the same thing.
You know it’s been nestled there all along, right? Look for the clues, Benjie.
Nobody calls me Benjie anymore.
I know ... Benjie.
Shut up, old man.
Go back, Benjie. It’s all there to uncover.
Shut up. I don’t want to. Fuck off.
You’re only going to make it harder on yourself. C’mon, let’s interview. Ask me some questions and I’ll try to steer you as truthfully as I can.
This is silly.
Of course it is. This entire dialogue is. But you must have prepared some questions. C’mon, when I was a reporter, we asked them quicker than that, young fella ...
Don’t start quoting Citizen Kane at me.
Oh, alright. But ... try. Go on. Ask. It won’t hurt. Much.
Fine. When did you realize we were bisexual?
Whaddya mean seriously? Of course seriously!
OK, OK ... it’s just that I can’t really say exactly when I realized, or for that matter when it was that I finally accepted it. Those details are permanently blurred.
Blurred by what?
By all the fucked-up nonsense you’re about to indulge. You’re going to live out pretty much every fantasy you can conjure right now — and you’re going to love it. For a while. And that crazy drive you have right now, that drive to take on anything and everything, that’s going to thrive in you for a long time. You’re going to start feeding on it, spiking the highs and refueling off the fumes of your kinks and perversions.
Kinks and perversions?
Don’t act like you don’t have any inkling of what that means.
Well ... sure ... I know you remember the dream in Dallas ...
Of course I do. I dreamt it. But they don’t know about it. What was so unique about that?
It was our first queer dream.
Boy George. C’mon, you know the details.
Some of them. It’s been decades. It’s gotten fuzzier, and the feelings were fuzzy to begin with.
Right. But we were definitely aroused by it. When we imagined him pulling off his dress and pulling down his undies, we weren’t exactly horrified by what we saw. And wasn’t Simon Gallup of the Cure watching us?
He became the ideal, didn’t he?
Well, all those goths were, Siouxsie just as much as Simon. But never Robert Smith.
I know! Just never did anything for me.
Me either! Speaking of Siouxsie ... you must remember our other George, yes? The one you took to that amazing Siouxsie & the Banshees concert in Irvine? The night that dickhead asshole approached us in the parking lot after the show, punched George in the eye and took his tour t-shirt? You had a crush on him.
Yes, maybe. But I was just as infatuated with his younger sister!
That should have told you a whole lot right there. And what about Dave? And Rob?
I only ever looked up to Rob. I figured he was closeted. But I never loved him like that.
Dave loved you like that.
You don’t know that.
He said as much, that last time he slept over. And you went and set him up with Angie instead. He didn’t want to dance with Angie.
Yeah, but how was I supposed to know that? I was 16!
Don’t play dumb.
What are you getting at with all this? OK, so maybe we’re bisexual.
FINE. We’re bisexual. What good does it do to tell anyone?
Probably nothing. But maybe saying it out loud will get you to realize it’s unavoidably true. I know you’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
I had actually been wondering how it might feel to shave my legs.
Stop wondering. Go find out. We still do it now.
Yes. And before you start raiding Nordstrom Rack, know this: You wear a size 10 in women’s heels. Not 11. Don’t get 11’s. They’re too big. Maybe a 9.5 depending on the brand. For fuck’s sake, at least try them on before you buy.
What, in the store?
Oh, get over yourself. No one will care about you doing this in the future. People have their own problems. You’re only beginning to sort out your own. You’re struggling. It’s a hard identity to tote around. Just keep grappling, keep experimenting, keep ... trying. You’ll figure it out. I know you won’t remember any of this, but I’m trying to instill some kinda positive queer energy in you all the same.
How do you know I’m ... struggling?
Because you just saw the stage production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch before its first LA run closed at the Fonda Theatre, right? That place still has floor seats at the moment, doesn’t it?
Man, I miss that. Eh, it’ll be even better once they rip ’em out. Anyway, you’ve been playing the original cast recording pretty much nonstop lately, haven’t you?
Yes. It’s just so great.
I know. Now imagine Doogie Howser singing all of it. Because he’s going to in about 15 years.
I swear! Sissy’s honor. That whole show struck something deep inside you like Neil Peart just gut-punched you with a gong mallet.
Exactly. It hurts.
And it still will for a while. That’s part of it. Don’t turn from that. Seeing Hedwig, and then seeing it even more fleshed out on screen two years from now ...
There's a movie version coming?
It's even better. And it will all leave you wondering about new possibilities. Don’t fight against that curiosity. Stop hiding from yourself. It’s just like Hedwig sings: “And then you’re someone you are not ...”
“And Junction City ain’t the spot.”
“Remember Mrs. Lot, and when she turned around.”
God, I love that song so much. I cried the first time I heard it.
I know. I cried over it again last week remembering that very moment. Those Wicked Little Towns are still everywhere, sweetie, in our hearts as much as in front of our faces.
Look ... I believe you ... but I don’t know that I’m brave enough right now ... I don’t think I can really be ... be ... all of whatever we are.
Sure, you can. Look at me! How do you think I wound up sitting pretty at 50? It gets better, my friend. And wilder, so much wilder. And then calmer, and saner. And then crazy again. And then everything really starts to fall into place when this quirky guy Sam comes along.
Oh yeah? Is he cute? Smart? Clever?
Very, very, and very again. He’s your son.
You fooled me. I didn’t see that coming.
You won’t see him coming at all, and you’re gonna majorly piss off his mother when you both learn he’s going to be a boy. But then he’ll arrive, and you’ll break down within an hour of him being born, when you get to hold him all on your own, alone in the maternity ward, just father and son for the first time. You’ll start to find your heart and soul again. You’ll realize how reckless you’ve been, how much wreckage you’ve left littered around you like a protective, self-pitying wall of shame. And then you’ll start to grow up.
He’s that special, huh?
Best thing that ever happened to us. And what’s most amazing of all is that he loves us just as we are.
Entirely. I’ve asked him repeatedly about it and he always says, smiling, “But that’s just how you are.” And then he hugs us. He even defended our honor a couple months ago when one of his friends at school started joking about how I almost always have my nails painted these days, and what’s that all about? Sam shut him down immediately. He told me all he said was: “My dad does it because he thinks it’s fun. What do you care?” Ah crap, now I’m crying again.
So, wait ... you wear nail polish now?
For sure. It’s rad. Get the gels! They last longer. Makes me feel like I’m Eddie Izzard or something.
Right, right ... you’ll find out soon enough. Very funny fellow. He’ll be your new hero.
More than David Bowie and Prince and Elvis Costello?
No. Nobody beyond your own family will matter to you as much as David Bowie, Prince and Elvis Costello.
So ... you ... I mean, we ... we ... crossdress?
All the time?
Well, not all the time in public. But I’m telling ya, kid, women’s jeans are soooooo much more comfortable. They’re what we wish we could’ve worn back in high school. Also, women’s sneakers fit your feet better. And then your manties ...
Male + panties = manties. Keep up. On second thought, you oughta spend some time trying to stuff your junk into ’em. Most of this is trial and error. You need to work it out on your own.
I’m still tripping on the painted nails thing. You go out in public like that? Not just to a Cure concert?
I try to make sure the color’s removed if I know I’m meeting new parents. Like at Back to School Night or during Little League season. There’s a time and place for everything.
But you leave them painted around Dad and everyone else?
Around Dad and everyone else.
For how long now? How did that ever start?
You’ll start painting them privately soon, you’ll see. Tell Shelly your secrets. She’ll listen. She’ll paint your nails for you. She was good like that. She’ll help.
Why are you leading me to believe it won’t work out between us, then?
Oh, I can’t tell you that.
But you could tell me that.
No, I’ve got to do this my way.
Now you’re quoting All the President’s Men. You still didn’t say when you started openly painting your nails.
Well, I suppose I finally started saying “fuck it, be who you want to be already” after David Bowie died ...
Wait: DAVID BOWIE DIED?!?!?
Yeah. Getting close to four years ago now.
Why would you tell me something like that?
Well ... you asked.
Not about that!
Kinda, yes ... in a roundabout way. Anyway, Bowie dying was the real impetus, and then when Prince died ...
PRINCE DIES TOO?!?!?!
Ah shit, I didn’t mean to mention that one. Yeah, he’s gone. Overmedicating with too many prescription drugs. Ironically not too different from how Michael Jackson went out.
GODDAMMIT! MICHAEL TOO!?!?!
Crap, I forget how much you don’t know yet. Yes, Michael’s gone, too.
And Whitney, she overdid it as well. Night before the Grammys.
I mean it. STOP.
And Tom Petty. Fuck, that one was another heartbreaker. You’ll see his last show ever, at the Hollywood Bowl, exactly on your birthday, like Supertramp at Irvine Meadows in ’83. You’ll be sitting in a garden box with your son’s mom — she’s another ex you haven’t even met yet, but she’s with her new husband now, and you’re all good. Best of friends. Oh, and the woman you’re really supposed to be with, the true soulmate — she’s there as well. She’s amazing, Benjie. Absolutely perfect for you. The lifelong complement you’re still looking for. You get to stop looking come April 2015. That’s when you find her. But anyway ... yeah ... a week after that Bowl show, Petty died.
Fucking hell, stop telling me these things!
Leonard Cohen’s gone, too, by the way. And Lou Reed. Aretha.
Good. Keith Richards?
Nah. Still alive.
No one knows. But we lost another Beatle. George this time. Brace yourself for that one, kid. Gonna hit you harder than you realize.
I hate you for this.
Also, there are two Christmas surprises on the way: James Brown in 2006 and George Michael exactly a decade later.
Wow ... 2016 really sucked.
You have no idea. Then there’s Chris Cornell.
He’s dead?!? Jesus, he couldn’t have been that old.
Sure wasn’t. Two years older than I am now. Hung himself. Also, this screaming kid named Chester Bennington from a band called Linkin Park that’s gonna be all the rage really soon ... they’re gonna sell buhjillions of records ... and two months after Cornell exits, Chester will do himself in as well.
Elliott Smith is somehow going to stab himself through his chest plate — at least that’s still the “official” story. Oh, and just before Christmas three years from where you’re at right now, say goodbye to Joe Strummer.
Seriously, Ben, you’ve gotta stop.
Can’t. It’s too much fun torturing you. There are so many greats that are gone now: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Curtis Mayfield, Natalie Cole, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Pete Seeger, Fats Domino, Joe Cocker, Robert Palmer, Etta James, Glen Campbell ...
Cut it out!
Nope! Donna Summer, Ravi Shankar, Captain Beefheart, Isaac Hayes, Nina Simone, Pavarotti, Lemmy, three of the four original Ramones, Ian Dury ...
You’re killing me.
Ha, no I’m not. Billy Preston, Rick James, Barry White, John Phillips, Ike Turner, the leather guy from the Village People, all of the Bee Gees except Barry, Amy Winehouse ...
Who’s Amy Winehouse?
Dammit ... I keep forgetting you’re still partying like it’s 1999 because it actually is 1999. How’s that Y2K thing looking?
Eh, don’t sweat it. By Thanksgiving everyone realizes it’s nothing worth worrying about. Now, where was I ... oh yes: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Eartha Kitt, Davy Jones, Vic Chesnutt ... Daniel Johnston and Eddie Money just died last week. And no joke, while I've been polishing up this little chat between us, Paulina Porizkova found her only-recently-estranged husband Ric Ocasek dead in his Manhattan townhouse. He was 75. Remember when we saw the Cars with Wang Chung at the Forum in August ’84 the night before we saw Eurythmics at Irvine Meadows?
Of course I do. But you’re cruel to tell me these things.
This isn’t even close to cruel. These are only some of the bigger and better music stars. If I were truly cruel I’d skip to the part where Robin Williams kills himself rather than face what life would have been like with Parkinson’s and depression. Oh, and George Carlin’s dead, too. Richard Pryor as well.
Goddammit, would you just STOP?
And hey, I know in your year Kubrick just passed away. But, um, Altman’s gone, too.
STOP IT! PLEASE STOP!
And Mr. Rogers.
WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? Er ... you? US?!?
Because, Benjie ... it’ll toughen you up. And besides, you won’t remember any of it.
[Snaps fingers. Both versions of himself wake up in their respective timeframes. Ben-at-30 indeed recalls nothing. It’s 7:21 a.m., September 25, 2019. The 50th year of Ben Wener’s life is over. Now begins 51.]
Big Time, because we may never have a better means of witnessing the strange brilliance of Tom Waits, let alone a right-before-our-eyes one; Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s luridly gorgeous groundbreaker, so much more than the sum of its musical sequences, but oh those musical sequences; Coachella, an excellent Woodstockian document of the festival’s earliest years that begs to be both remembered and extended; The Commitments, Alan Parker’s wonderful film version of Roddy Doyle’s romp about ragtag Dubliners who start a soul band, which far more than any other movie convinced me I could start a band too, and it’d be a blast even if we sucked (and we did); Control, an unforgettable black-and-white portrait of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, in that order, from evocative photographer and maker of remarkable music videos Anton Corbijn, whose sole directorial effort achieves a rare level of realism, particularly for a rock biopic; The Cure in Orange, a cinematically no-frills concert video from Tim Pope capturing Robert Smith & Co. live in the French countryside a year after “In Between Days” and The Head on the Door and two months after the Standing on the Beach retrospective, so pretty much the tipping point when more than just goths finally caught up with almost a decade of fundamental Cure music and massive worldwide success ensued; Heavy Metal, because it’s dopey and incoherent and dappled with voluptuous animated babes and incongruous song selections and it still makes the 13-year-old in me go oooooh; Help!, whose songs and silliness I prefer over its predecessor’s; High Fidelity, which figures, because I’ve been Rob (John Cusack) as much as I’ve been William Miller in Almost Famous (see The Pantheon for that one), but Stephen Frears’s heartsick rendition of Nick Hornby’s book is really in this mix because the scenes at Championship Vinyl are eternal; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with that gap-toothed charmer Robert Morse, Mad Men-ready set design that I can stare at contentedly whether the sound is on or off, plus all that clever Fosse choreography; I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ jigsaw-puzzle meditation on what it means to be Bob Dylan, with six different actors portraying him at just as many phases of his career (Heath Ledger, in one of his last performances, got much of the attention, but Cate Blanchett as Don’t Look Back-era Bob steals the show); It Might Get Loud, a superbly simple round-table reminiscence involving Jimmy Page, Jack White and the Edge; Nashville, Robert Altman’s fascinating mid-’70s mosaic, so expertly detailed because it was concocted and captured so naturally, and so thick with nuances and stray story threads that after multiple viewings I still find its overall meaning unknowable; No Nukes, not just for Springsteen’s tremendous performance (and yet you can find better) but because James Taylor & Carly Simon’s “Mockingbird” really takes me back, as does CS&N’s brief backstage rehearsal, plus you get Jackson Browne and Gil Scott-Heron in their prime and Bonnie Raitt pre-prime; Pink Floyd The Wall, which shouldn’t be surprising given my mention of it in the One-Trick Pony passage, but I neglected to mention how tantalizingly terrifying the movie version still is to me, a self-fulfilling downer made car-crash intense courtesy of Bob Geldof’s almost-wordless performance and Gerald Scarfe’s demented animation; Prince: Sign o’ the Times, my pick over Purple Rain every time I want to watch His Majesty play (in the sunshine); 1776, in which America’s Founding Fathers, including John Adams as played by William “Mr. Feeney” Daniels, debate in song as the Revolutionary War rages on and July 4 approaches, but it’s the dramatic bits between the (catchy/silly/moving/memorable) tunes that keep me coming back to it every summer; Stop Making Sense, the single most perfectly executed concert film, a perception-tweaking, spirit-rousing stunner that grows more legendary the further we get from Talking Heads’ heyday; 24 Hour Party People, the cheeky saga of British TV-personality-turned-record-mogul Tony Wilson and the three bands (Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays) he sprung on an unsuspecting world; and Velvet Goldmine, another deftly detailed Todd Haynes fable steeped in actual history and longstanding rumors, this time puréeing the personae of Bowie, Iggy and Uncle Lou (plus Jobriath and Ziggy’s missus) into a pastiche that is manna from glam-rock heaven for fans of a genre sorely underserved by documentary footage.