Thursday, April 9, 2009

Five Things I’d Like to Experience Again for the First Time

The idea here is to for me to search my mind for experiences that helped sculpt me as a person, be they culturally or personally significant, important on a global scale, or just neat. It’s important to note that I’m not writing these with the idea of going back to change or somehow alter the experience but relive them for exactly what they were, in and of themselves. I’m also going to admit the obvious ones; my daughter’s birth, losing my virginity (which are clearly different experiences for women) and enlisting in the Navy.

Since this is about experiences it’s only fitting that the first entry here regards the Jimi Hendrix Experience: Hearing the opening wah-wah cry of Jimi Hendrix and his Fender Stratocaster in the cloud of electric fury that begins Voodoo Child (Slight Return) would be an experience I’d need to relieve. I heard the track on Experience Hendrix, a 20-song primer for the uninitiated and old heads seeking to relieve the ‘60s. I was in my basement bedroom having just turned 14 and I was the new owner of this “best of” collection ordered from Columbia House (and never paid for…) This song and this moment demand inclusion because that single moment forever changed the landscape of my ears. Nothing in the world of music was the same again after that moment.

Jimi came in leaning on his wah-wah and working his strings as the sound grew and spiraled up as if he was speaking some ancient electric language. He was performing an arcane ritual for old gods. He started wielding his axe like a sonic paintbrush and Mitch Mitchell’s big thumbing kick drum started in. His fingers were all over the place and then came the metaphysical lyrics about standing up next to a mountain and chopping it down with the edge of his hand. In Jimi’s mind he had no physical limitations with his guitar in his hands. I was privy to the pure possibility of utterly unshackled passion and over the course of those five minutes and 11 seconds my previous artistic view was irreconcilably bent and distorted in all the right ways.

Experience Two: I want to see my very first Navy paycheck again. I want to go back to the summer of 1998 and see just how little I was making and just how well I was actually doing. This would provide a lot of experience as well – getting to see how hard I worked for the $355.68 I earned every two weeks and again, getting to remember that I really wasn’t doing all that badly.

I was getting by, man. I was making it in my own way doing a job that would teach me all the intangible things I love the Navy for: the camaraderie, the laughs, the sense that we had all the power and glory of potential in our corner and there was nothing that would ever let the wave break. We would ride it for years, the sun would never go down, it would always be summer and we would always be young. My hands hurt from all the line. I didn’t own a uniform that didn’t have paint on it. I could work for days on end, sleep for like a baby for six hours and do it again. I was so very much alive. Would you pay $350 for that?

Experience Three:
Looking at a Playboy for the very first time as an adolescent boy did unforgettable things to me. This is different from losing my virginity for admittedly obvious reasons but in many ways is no less significant and in some ways is much more so. I’m certain this was the first time I realized I was a sexual being and the first time I looked at a woman from a sexual viewpoint. This is to say that my view of the feminine now included their sexuality and that realization preceded my idea of what making love was. It would be years (and many, many lies and exaggerations to other male classmates, because teenage boys are imbeciles) before I was emotionally capable of making love to a woman and all that was, to be sure, shaped by the image of that woman. Every first kiss, every moment of longing, was, to some degree, a byproduct of opening the door to my own sexuality. Understanding that our sexuality and that its role in our lives is omnipresent was a milestone for me personally and is still an ongoing adventure, albeit the most enjoyable one I’ve ever taken.

Experience Four:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…”

I can’t remember how or why I stumbled upon Allen Ginsberg’s Howl though I suspect it was a Six Degrees sort of thing wherein I found it because it was mentioned in something I thought was the greatest thing in human history at the time. One thing lead to another and before too long I read the above lines. The existential vertigo came soon after when my head swirled as if dipped in a desultory vortex and I ran off screaming, high as a cosmonaut muttering inane gibberish and violently shoving copies of Howl into bystanders’ faces. And finally, FINALLY, at long, long last someone had mashed the exact vault-tumbler combination of words and phrases together and my brain went KA-BLOOIE!!! And the remnants had to be scrapped off the ceiling of my mother’s kitchen. It was then I realized how incendiary, sexy, provocative, profound, rebellious, outrageous, hysterical and astonishingly beautiful words could be. Ex-junkies often discuss the allure of that first high, and how the go down the rabbit hole forever chasing the inimitable feeling of that first hit. I suspect I know how they feel.

Experience Five:
March 18-19, 1999

That was singularly the best night of sleep I ever had. That was the first and last time I woke up and felt completely rested and genuinely filled with excitement for the new day. It was perfect in all ways. I fear I will never again be able to sleep like that. I’m going to keep the details of that night to myself but in an effort to eliminate any sexual undertones I will disclose that I was completely alone. I was not lonely and there is a difference.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ugly Rockstars are the Best Rockstars

A few weeks ago I was watching my very first (and subsequently last) episode of American Idol and I had a thought which I believe is relevant to the nature of that show in relation to the artists the contestants cover. Some young, handsome, theater-raised idol was covering Satisfaction. He’s initial vocal was inspired by Chan Marshall's performance with her band Cat Power. It was slow, sultry and hypersexual. I liked it right away. Then he ramped up and started in with a Jagger-esque performance and my enjoyment began falling down ladder rungs with each passing second. I mean this quite literally. I was more and more appalled with every clock tick. A more calamitous collapse can only be seen in games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the 2004 American League Championship series. (Sorry, but spring is here and I always look for a baseball reference.)

All things considered, he’s performance was fine if overly practiced. What bothered me the most about his stage presence wasn’t his dancing or his vocal. It was his looks. He was simply too pretty to cover a Stones jam. Just too pretty. Rock and Roll is really only about 50% talent. If the ingredients for prime time, heavy-hitter, Hall of Fame-style rock were presented visually in a pie graph, talent, song craft, and musical acumen would only occupy about half of the graph. The other half is based in part on mythology, gimmick, and ugliness. This is why the prettiest bands in the world will never make it to the Hall. This is also a relatively unfair comparison because American Idol is firmly entrenched in pop music, but that doesn't dimish my point.

The Rolling Stones are nasty, filthy, absolutely heinous-looking drug vacuums, able to snort up the better part of Bolivia in over the course of a three-day weekend. This was especially true at the time they introduced Satisfaction to the world at large. (June, 1965) You can’t be downright, Brad Pitt-handsome and write that lyric let alone do it properly on stage. There is a long precedence here. Some years ago a science think tank did a study based on what society generally perceives as attractive and how well they do in their chosen professions. (A group of scientists standing around determining how hot the CEO of Wells Fargo is absolutely baffles me, but it did happen.) Their findings: people commonly considered attractive get paid about 20% more than do normal or unattractive people. Keep this in mind the next time you're dealing with the manager at your local bank.

Rock stars are almost expected to be ugly or they're expected to behave in such absurd and outlandish ways as to overwhelm their attractiveness. They get away with things no one would ever be able to get away with. What would your reaction be in a man rolled into your office wearing assless, yellow leather pants and matching high-heeled shoes ala Prince? Or how about a your assistant coming into work wearing 8-inch high platform boots with a demon on the toe, a leotard, and a bass guitar resembling an axe while he spewed fireballs into the air like Gene Simmons? Clearly I don't need to go into more detail. They do ridiculous things. Absurd things. They nail furniture to the ceilings of hotel rooms. They drink their body weight in vodka just to stop the shakes in the morning. They snort lines of cocaine so long you'd think they were FIFA World Cup officials.

In the rock world you can half of the pie and not go anywhere. But you have to have some schlock and some ugliness to make it work to full effect. Steven Tyler for example. The man is absolutely disgusting to look at but he sets the bar absurdly high for front men. Kurt Cobain is not what one would call attractive. Couple that with his songwriting and the introduction of what would be called grunge and BAM! He’s in there. Radiohead is perhaps the ugliest band this side of early Rolling Stones with a lead singer who looks like he was dragged around the block by a cement truck on top of the fact that he looks as though he may have an extra chromosome. They are the best working band in the world today.

Of course there are some artists who do amazingly well in spite of their great looks. Early Elvis is a prime example. But then he got remarkably disgusting and the world realized that he was human after all. Jim Morrison got fat and gross at the optimal time to assure his sainthood in the rock pantheon. The Beatles were all reasonably good looking but then the drugs took hold and their beards got long and they ceased to be the good looking, clean-cut boys mothers would be proud to sit down at their dinner tables. Besides that, the Beatles wrote more great songs this side of anyone named Bob Dylan…who is quite ugly, by the way.

Bottom line: Being ugly AND writing good songs is the best thing one can do for their music careers. You can’t have half the pie and nothing else and expect to go down in history. Either be really ugly and write amazing songs, be mildly attractive and write superb songs, or be very handsome and write the greatest shit ever. You have to have more than one piece of the pie to make it all work.