Thursday, November 30, 2006

Return To Shmendrik

A taste of honey is worse than none at all.
- William Robinson, Jr.

Power corrupts and absolute power will corrupt the hell out of you.

Or so they say.

The very nature of power and success makes those who have one or the other of them reluctant to relinquish them. Sometimes, however, holding onto success can mean turning its owner into a caricature of what made them successful. The original innovation evaporates and leaves an empty shell, the impetus to create replaced by the fear of failure, the fear that you’ll end up being nobody again and back at the nine-to-five.

How terribly frightened we are of that.

Frightened of not having a name that everyone remembers, frightened of being the schmuck that had to answer to a boss they were smarter than, frightened of having to leave “the life,” like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas:

"I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."

And who wants to do that? Especially in America, where we’re taught to measure our self-worth in publicity and money.

The danger of success, of course, is that it can easily breed mediocrity.

Afraid to mess with whatever it is that got us where we are, we quash the urge to be original and repeat the formula. And why not? The rewards are too great and it took so long to get there.

And if it’s easier to be successful by doing less than by working harder, who can argue with that?

So we end up living in a predigested, repetitious environment, filled with movie sequels and copycat TV shows and and the dull leading the tired.

After all, we know what the alternative is.

We’d have to live the rest of our lives like a schnook.

I had an experience once that taught me something of the power of fame.

I was set to interview a famous writer/director once and the publicist asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing it someplace other than the usual hotel environment. So I found a small eatery that was near the bookstore where he’d be signing that day and waited for him to arrive.

It was just before lunch so things were pretty quiet. When he showed up, we nearly had the place to ourselves. As we talked, though, the restaurant began to fill up until, by the time we’d finished, there were few tables to be had.

I stayed behind after he’d left, just relaxing and finishing my tea, when I noticed that one of the waitresses was staring at me. Not casually, either. She was looking at me like I was Brad Pitt.

Do I have to tell you that this doesn’t happen often?

Finally, she comes over and, still eyeing me approvingly, asks me if that person who was at the table was who she thought it was. I affirmed that it was. She wanted to know because she wanted to give him a head shot in case he’d want to use her in a film. I let her know that he’d be just down the street for the next few hours if she wanted to meet him and she stood in thought for a moment, seeming to weigh her options.

For a moment, though, I had experienced what it was like to be a celebrity, even though I had just been the guy who’d been sitting with one. And if just having close proximity to one was enough to be aphrodisiacal, what must it be like to be one?

So it’s easy to see why one isn’t easily tempted to rock the boat after having achieved this state of grace. Those who do often find themselves having to downscale their ambitions and, worse yet, their own self-respect.

And yet, there are enough cautionary tales about lives that have been ruined by success, careers that could have been more than they were had their stewards possessed the courage to take more chances than they did, rather than sitting on their…laurels.

Perhaps at those dizzying heights, it would be difficult to hear a warning, if, indeed, anyone bothered to offer one. Or perhaps we’d be loathe to contemplate it in the midst of our celebrating.

On that summer’s day, giddy with our own invulnerability, would we have listened to the spectre in our midst if we’d known what was to come?

Next: Headache Hotel

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Viva Lost Wages, Or: Love Me Legal Tender

When I first made my way into the digestive system of Endless Bore and Tedium, it seemed absolutely as strong and immovable as the resolute rock that was its famous symbol. Intended to inspire confidence in consumers, that hunk of granite meant that we were solidly behind our customers, a bulwark protecting them from the trials and tribulations of Life and its sudden unexpected calamities.

As employees we were extended the same courtesy, swaddled in an excellent Health Care plan and a generous amount of paid vacation days. It seems practically surreal to recall it now twenty years after the fact, but there was a sense of prosperousness that oozed out of the pores of the place, creating this sense of being lovingly cradled in corporate largesse.

They had more money than they knew what to do with.

Eventually, of course, it would all turn sour as The Rock was assailed by legal investigators and a bad economy, draining the cash from its coffers and, by extension, us. In fact, it happened so gradually that it was like a lobster being boiled in a pot. By the time we figured out what was happening, it was too late. Faces slowly grew longer, dress codes disappeared and the halls emptied out of everyone but the most vital personnel, rattling around a big cement box that used to house a never-ending party.

But in the mid-80’s, they were flush with cash and it showed. It was a world in which the work was so easy that the remaining hours had to be filled up with something, and that something was parties. Non-stop, continuous celebrations of births, pregnancies, raises, comings, goings, anything we could think of was an excuse to decorate the halls and the walls and bring in an endless selection of treats, snacks, and foods of many lands.

And there were games and competitions and quizzes and puzzles and gifts. It was a little like working at a catering service, tray after tray of delectable edibles arrayed across a gray horizon of nondescript file cabinets. Crepe paper festooned the cubicles and vacation photos and personal talismans decorated every conceivable square inch of space.

There was never an assignment or project that required so much time that we couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn another party in. Dull, fat files of boring paperwork battled for supremacy on our desks with the endless parade of paper plates and plastic knives and forks. Food stains frequently made appearances on contracts and empty two-liter bottles of soda stood like bowling pins at the end of every aisle, waiting to be collected.

You half expected to see Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald walk in.

But at some point, it changed. Somewhere along the line, the amenities we used to take for granted began to disappear, little by little.

If there was a moment, though, that I could pick and point to, an event that seemed to mark a turning point, I know what I would choose.

When we weren’t busy putting together our own parties and playtime activities, the company was busy planning them for us. In fact, sometimes we had to schedule our parties around the corporate ones. Once a year, EB&T threw a summer blow-out for us that was dubbed an “Appreciation Day.” We’d gather in the outdoor courtyard and enjoy free hot dogs and hamburgers and take turns enjoying picnic games and participating in a talent show.

And it’s the talent show that we’re really here to talk about.

Imagine this outdoor carnival, this boardroom bacchanal, with employees milling about feeling happy and secure, having been given time off from the arduous process of party-planning, the rest of the day devoted to food, drink, and satiety.

It was just another way for the company to burn off the excess money and time that we all seemed to be saddled with. This was just a more acceptable way of doing it than physically burning mountains of cash out in the open.

But such gaiety and security cannot hide from the outside world for long. For, as we sang and danced and celebrated, a mysterious stranger was slowly making his way to our masquerade ball, like a thief in the night.

And he would be an augury of things to come.

Next: Return To Shmendrik

Monday, November 27, 2006

Kill Rock Stores

Since my birthday was always in close proximity to Halloween, it became more or less a tradition that my birthday party was a costume party. My friends would come as pirates or princesses or, still a perennial favorite, a hobo whose beard was created with a burnt cork.

Which is to say I’ve been through many a costume in my day. I was even Washington Crossing The Delaware once, with a white wig created out of yarn and a cardboard “boat” around my middle.

So you’d think that if I were called upon to attend a Halloween party that coming up with an idea for a costume wouldn’t be difficult to do.

This year my friend Bob was going to be stopping by to visit his friends on the East Coast on his way to a European jaunt that would include, among other things, a chance to see the Bonzo Dog Band Reunion Tour. He’d gotten it into his head to use the occasion to celebrate Halloween by hosting a Come As A Dead Rock Star Party.

Obviously, the problem wasn’t the lack of candidates. Many rock stars naturally lend themselves to this idea by living lives that are the human equivalent of flying into a bug zapper.

But who to be? Rock stars also have a tendency to be skinny, which immediately narrowed down my choices considerably.

Not to mention the fact that most of the obvious choices were certain to be taken and I didn’t want to show up as the 2nd or 3rd Jim Morrison or Joey Ramone.

It wasn’t until the day of the party that inspiration struck and, lucky for me, all the necessary costuming could be found in the house.

I went as Tower Records.

A Tower bag on my front and back, and one on my head, plus a couple of receipts taped to my legs, and I was finished.

Among the Janises and Hendrixes and Zappas and Sonny Bonos, my personification of the soon-to-be-late retail giant remained unique.

Unlike them, though, my choice was a victim of obsolescence.

Like a giant ape pinned against a modern skyline it could neither understand or comprehend, t’was online shopping killed this beast.

Online shopping and downloading, I suppose. And while Tower was certainly not a Mom and Pop operation, as an inveterate browser I do find something to mourn.

I already know where to go online to find the weird and unusual stuff, the hard-to-find stuff. But where am I supposed to go when I just want to look at things and hold them in my hand?

More and more, the real world seems to be getting sucked into this virtual one which, while I appreciate it, only serves to remind me of my own obsolescence. The world I knew is passing away, as it must, and more and more all I seem to see are ghosts, spirits of things that once were flesh and blood.

The twentieth century, limned in fairy dust.

All of which is meant to serve as prelude to a story that involves the greatest Dead Rock Star of them all, and one which questions whether or not imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery.

Next: Viva Lost Wages, or: Love Me Legal Tender

Friday, November 24, 2006

Three Minute Hero

Our friend and ex-radio comrade Paul Mick sent us a link to an article concerning local radio DJ Pierre Robert, a veritable institution celebrating his 25th anniversary in broadcasting.

Mr. Robert, every inch the jolly and ebullient hippie, goes into some detail on his 25 years in the biz and its various highlights, meeting Bono, Jagger, etc. He’s the sort of guy whose natural charm seems to make him new friends everywhere he goes.

He’s not, however, the only person whose status as disc jockey has allowed him to build a fan base and meet celebrities. As he and I are the same age, and considering that there may be some value in comparison, I present a handful of the highlights from my mercifully brief radio career. Look on these works, ye mighty, and despair:

1. Interviewing Penn Jillette

When Penn and Teller come to town, we leap at the opportunity to interview the veteran funnyman and music fan. Perhaps presaging his documentary on The Aristocrats, Jillette spends much of the interview extolling his fondness for the “c-word,” the use of which seems to be the quickest way to impress him.

When he begins to criticize poet Charles Bukowski because of the fans he attracts, Sheva points out that a lot of morons probably like Penn and Teller.

2. Annoying Eugene Chadbourne

Sure, you say, you know he’s annoying, but what’s important here is the time we annoyed him.

After giving his music weekly exposure and beating the bushes to convince a local club to book him, we promise to drive the guitar virtuoso from his NY gig to Philadelphia. The NY show runs long and we ask if he wouldn’t mind skipping the second show so we can get moving, as we have to work the next day. Chadbourne repeats this request to an associate, mimicking my voice as he does so. We drive home alone and skip the Philly show, but make the mistake of going to see him the next time around. After mocking us from the stage, he takes time out after the show to yell at us, flecks of his spittle flying through the air. The next week we do an on-air interview with “Hugene Chardbrain,” poking fun at the guitarist’s not-so-girlish figure and fondness for controlled substances.

3. Getting kicked off the air

After trying various ruses to get us to leave the local community station (dropping crates of records on the floor while we’re on the air so our records will skip, etc.), the Program Manager, whose persistent requests to “soften” my playlist only succeed in making it more irritating, sees an opening when I write a letter to the local paper complaining about them. The same guy who the week before was telling me “This is real radio!” fires me over the phone and can be heard the following week doing a bad impression of our show.

4. Rebuked by College Radio

Moving to College Radio, we’re there for some time before they finally ask for a tape of a recent show, just so they have some idea what we’re up to. The tape we turn in unfortunately features the use of the popular phrase “kiss my ass” and we get back an unhappy note from the management. It reads, in part, “You can’t just say whatever you want on college radio!”

5. “Dog” Days

Subbing for a friend, I juggle the original version, an instrumental version, and a rap version of George Clinton’s Atomic Dog, cutting back and forth between them to create a seemingly endless version of the track that lasts for well over half an hour. No one asks me to sub again.

6. Ho Ho Hum

When we arrive to do our marathon Christmas Eve program one year, we arrive to find the DJ on duty busy wrapping presents he’s just purchased from the local convenience store, pausing only to flip the cassette tape of bad Christmas music he’s brought with him as his “show.”

7. Theater of the mental

As many on-air personalities given carte blanche eventually do, I create a roster of memorable “characters” that I use in a series of comedic sketches. The sheer number of fictional names and institutions, given generous amounts of time via fake commercials, etc., and their various interconnections almost threaten to engulf the show. During one particularly long and Byzantine excursion, an appreciate listener tells me the show would be greatly improved if I’d shut up once in a while and play a record. I tell him, on the air, to switch to another station.

8. The love you take is equal to the love you make

Doing a live remote from a local car dealership, we end up talking to the station’s oldies DJ and they seem surprised when we tell them that we’ve played a record that they’d actually heard of.

“So,” she says without a trace of irony or sarcasm, “you like good music, too?”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

French Film Actress Worship In Oz

Dorothy: (sings) If the Wizard is a wizard who will serve…

Scarecrow: Then I’m sure to get Huppert.

Tin Man: Clément.

Dorothy: Moreau.

Cowardly Lion: Deneuve.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

So Long

Evil Wins The Day As America Votes Terrorist! No National Message, Just “Series Of Eerie Coincidences” Says RNC! Santorum Out, Baby Jesus Cries!

Bush wrong again, blames "bad intel."