19 Nervous Breakdowns as I Try to Tout My Book
19 Nervous Breakdowns
At a red light the youngish driver, who'd been silent for 20 minutes, suddenly turned to me and asked, "Have you ever gotten the feeling everyone around you is really negative?"
"Sure," I said, wondering where this was leading. "I guess so."
"Really?" he demanded, very seriously.
"...Yeah. Sure. I guess."
He shook his head. "Man, I was just sitting here realizing how I'm surrounded by negative people. My family, all my friends... It sucks."
I couldn't think of anything to say that might buck him up. For all I knew, everyone around him really was a bringdown. I just hoped he wouldn't get any suicidal thoughts until after he dropped me off.
The light changed and he drove me to the Days Inn. There was a wild-sounding party going on in a back room as I stood at the front desk and dealt with a skinny teenager in braces, I guess a hotel-motel school student. After much confusion looking for my reservation, it turned out the cabbie had dropped me at the wrong Days Inn; mine was a long 10 blocks up the road. Now I was feeling a little negative toward him myself. The strangest thing was that a FedEx that had been sent to await my arrival was at this hotel, not the right one. Had I gone to the right one first, I never would have gotten this crucial package.
As all this was being sorted out, the kid noticed the folder where I was carrying my travel paperwork. "Rock Til You Drop?what's that?"
"It's my book," I said.
"Really? You wrote a whole book?"
"I've written several."
"Really?" He slid a pen and one of the hotel's business cards at me. "Could you give me your autograph?"
I was starting to think this author's tour thing was all right. A drunk woman spilled out the doors of the party room and bounced down the hall walls to land next to me, where she clutched the desk for support.
"Rock Til You Drop?" she grinned at me.
"Doing my best," I said.
They thought this was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. I went outside to grab another cab, thinking that Chicago is a very weird town. When I reached my real Days Inn I was so late all I could do was throw my bags into the room and rush back out to catch yet another cab for another long ride out to radio station WXRT on the West Side. Chicago is one big-ass, spread-out city for taking cabs in. Every ride seemed to take an hour and cost $20.
I'm about to start dropping a lot of names, so I think I'll go ahead and boldface them:
It's an accurate cliche to call Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis the Siskel and Ebert of Chicago rock critics. Kot writes for the Tribune, DeRogatis for the Sun-Times, and they cohost a two-hour weekly call-in show, Sound Opinions, 10-midnight Tuesdays. I was the guest for the last hour, doing my schtick about how colostomy rockers like the Stones and Springsteen and Lynyrd Skynyrd should be forced to retire. Got lots of callers, most wanting to argue that their favorite geezer bands are exceptions to my rule that old farts in bad wighats can't rock. At the end of the show I screwed my chance of ever being invited back when I blurted out that Kot and DeRogatis, both in their 40s, are too old to be writing rock criticism anymore. Doh. Yet DeRogatis gamely joined me the following night for an appearance at the Empty Bottle, the cool rock club in Wicker Park.
?At O'Hare the next day United canceled my flight and the one after it, then delayed a third, so that I had to race from the San Francisco airport straight to Books Inc. in the Castro, bypassing my hotel and the shower I'd hoped to take before appearing in public. It was a large crowd, but most of it wasn't mine: I was the opening act for J.T. LeRoy, who's a superstar in San Francisco and who'd kindly invited me to share the evening with him. Following his usual m.o., he didn't appear himself, but sent a bevy of other stars to read from The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things for him, among them Susie Bright, Re/Search legend V. Vale and rocker Lynn Breedlove, who didn't dig my act at all, possibly because she's no spring chicken herself. A bunch of other SF scenesters showed, including Annalee Newitz of the Bay Guardian (or Gay Tardian, as it's known there), John Marr of Murder Can Be Fun, Jack Boulware (San Francisco Bizarro) and rock writer Jennifer Maerz.
This was my first exposure to a sensitive West Coast crowd, and it was soon evident that Breedlove wasn't the only one who thought I was an ASSHOLE. I'd say about half of them laughed along with my anti-geezer rant, while the other half got downright hostile. I was accused of being sexist and ageist, a generally negative and unfunny fellow with some real body image problems. Maybe it was the Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks jokes that set them off. Later, the store's fabulous Patsy ("P-Funk") Lincoln-Hatt told me she hadn't seen an audience get riled up like that in ages, and invited me back to piss them off again any time I wanted. Not everyone in the Bay Area is a p.c. robot.
When I got up early the next morning and rode the BART out to Berkeley for an interview on KPFA, the show's producer told me their listeners "are not known for their sense of humor" and specifically warned me away from my material about fat old rockers squeezing into their stage outfits. But the interview went okay, and the callers mostly just wanted to grumble at me about their favorite old rockers.
Fred Dodsworth, who was interviewing me for the San Francisco Examiner (or Fagsaminer, as some out there call it), met me at the station and took me on a leisurely flaneur's tour of Berkeley and the bucolic UC-Berkeley campus as we did our business. Fred hitchhiked to San Francisco from Arizona 30 years ago and never left. I was told there are lots of Freds in Berkeley. He fed me a bunch of local lore in our morning together, and we talked newspaper shop, and stopped in at a guitar store to plink around on a gorgeous acoustic he's eyeing.
At J.T.'s suggestion I was staying at the Triton, a Gershwin-like hotel full of hipsters lounging on arty furnishings. Nice place, and perfectly sited right at the entrance to Chinatown. Joel Schalit met me there and took me to a great lunch at Caffe Macaroni, on the fringe of Chinatown, after which we paid our respects at the landmark City Lights Bookstore, where I found a xeroxed pamphlet, Land and Liberty, a play by the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon, translated and published in San Francisco by Mitchell Verter. The play is an hilariously awful example of early 20th-century people's agitprop, like the earnestly preachy play Barton Fink has written at the beginning of his movie. It's all about noble peasants and vicious, mustache-twirling land owners, all of whom have a bad habit of soliloquizing like:
ROSA (Rocking the cradle with a cord.) I do not know what we are going to do; each day we are more poor, and each day the master becomes more demanding. Today the majordomo, on behalf of the master, tells me that I am not permitted to bring up my hens on the land of the plantation, and that I have to eat them or sell them to the master's chicken coop; and I know what that means: that I make a gift of my animals.
Magon died in Leavenworth Prison in 1922; it's unclear whether he was assassinated for his anarchism or for his cruelty to the dramatic arts.
Schalit's done his share of agitpropping himself, as an editor at both Punk Planet and Bad Subjects. He also perpetrates guerrilla audio under the guise of the Christal Methodists, who phone-prank Christian radio hosts and put out the results as funny-spooky recordings. His dad was an Israeli intelligence officer when Joel was a kid, and he did a lot of his growing up in Europe and the U.S. He has a book about being a kind of stateless Israeli coming out from Akashic this fall, Jerusalem Calling. As we strolled Chinatown he talked to me about the huge atmospheric shift in San Francisco that came with the bottom falling out of the dotcom market. Everybody out there talks about it. Jennifer Maerz told me that in the last six months six good friends who'd lost their dotcom jobs have moved away from the city to find work elsewhere. Schalit pointed to a pair of big, beautiful BMW motorcycles parked together near City Lights and told me to check the mileage on them. Both had clocked under 1000 miles. "Dotcommer toys," he said.
The ravages of the dotcom economy were also on Vale's mind when I visited with him later that afternoon. I was not surprised to find that his apartment, up a steep alley behind the hungry i (now a strip club), was cluttered with books and Incredibly Strange recordings (cf. Re/Search's two-volume Incredibly Strange Music). Vale complained that rents in his neighborhood tripled or quadrupled during the dotcom boom, and though they're deflating some now, there's no way they'll return to levels Vale's type of artistes and bohemians can afford. We also talked about the vicissitudes of being a small publisher in a world where Barnes & Noble can pre-order a few thousand copies of your book, do a terrible job of selling them for 120 days, then return the bulk of them to you, all dog-eared and battered, at your expense.
He did admit that not all of his recent problems have been external. Re/Search's legendarily infallible intuition for coming trends and hip esthetics (cf. Modern Primitives, the book that launched a million tattoos and piercings) has faltered in recent years, with books on zine culture and swing music that seemed behind the curve or off-center. His latest book, Real Conversations no. 1, gets back to Re/Search's hepcat roots. I'll write about it in detail next week.
I read that night with Alexander Cockburn at the anarchist AK Press' warehouse space in Oakland. AK threw a very nice party for us. It was another big crowd that wasn't mine, and Cockburn gave them a rousing hour of lefty tub-thumping, after which they tolerated me pretty well. I think it helped that by the time I went on all the free beer had been consumed and the anarchists were feeling mellow.
Next afternoon I talked the pathologically shy J.T. into coming out to see me. We met at a spot he designated?on the street, in the Tenderloin, surrounded by junkies?for about two minutes. I gave him my book, he gave me an apple and one of those Chinese fish of red film that curls and flops in your hand. Then he flinched and fled. That night after midnight he called my hotel room and was back to his confidently yakking, charming phone self.
That night Joel and I read for a small but smart crowd at Cody's in Berkeley. Dave Eggers came, and afterward over a beer and burger we talked some more about the problems of distributing small press materials in a chain bookstore world. He also complained about the fires he had to put out afterKeith Kelly spread the false rumor that he was going to write for Talk. ("Page Six" also ran a deeply stupid little squib about J.T. this past weekend.)
?After more hassles with United, I flew into bright and sunny L.A. on a Sunday afternoon and immediately started working on my tan. Sunday night Lucian K. Truscott IV and his extremely pregnant wife Carolyn had me over to their house in Los Feliz for a spectacular meal: tons of veggies from their big backyard and steaks Lucian grilled outside. He regaled me with L.A. writer horror stories about dealing with Hollywood weasels. He's working on two interesting projects that I suppose I can't describe, the weasels being what they are.
Monday night I met up with Susan Kiel, a Fox TV exec who's a buddy of our Lisa Kearns. We had drinks at the Lobster, a newish, Miami Vice-ish hangout at the foot of the Santa Monica Pier, where we watched a fiery sun splash down into the Pacific. Then strolled up Ocean Ave. a couple of blocks to the hopping Sushi Roku.
Next afternoon I jumped into my rented Generica?that car couldn't have been a more obvious renter if it had bar codes and RENTAL VEHICLE stenciled on it?and drove in a mad dash over hill and dale to KPFK in North Hollywood, where I did 20 minutes on Jon Wiener's show. Wiener's a well-known Lennonologist, and he seemed to get my book pretty well. Coincidentally, the 20 minutes before me he spent with Christopher Hitchens, grousing about Kissinger. I was hoping we'd meet in the Green Room so Hitchens could finally tell me to my face how much he deplores the writing of Cockburn and Taki, but he phoned it in.
Drove in another mad dash back down to Santa Monica, where I gave a reading for a sparse crowd at Midnight Special. Turns out none of the local papers had listed me?though I saw that fellow New Yorker James Wolcott, reading on the same night, got some nice write-ups. Grrr. Dinner afterward with Sue, my friend Scott Lindgren the cool-cat photographer (lately he's been shooting all of Shag's tiki art) and Gregory Bishop of the zine The Excluded Middle, specializing in fortean-ufology-conspiracy theory material. I'll soon write at more length about his Excluded Middle compendium, Wake Up Down There!, published by the fringe clearinghouse Adventures Unlimited.
Lunch in Santa Monica the next day with Mickey Kaus of kausfiles.com. He moved out there recently to be near the ocean, which helps with his allergies. Mickey's known for his political and media opinions, but like any white guy his age he turned out to have plenty of thoughts about rock.
Hauled my ass way across town that evening to give another reading, this one at Book Bound, a cool, rock 'n' rolly storefront in Echo Park, between Dodger Stadium and the hipsterized Silver Lake. The space was so tiny that the smallish crowd was SRO and spilling out onto the sidewalk. Got some hostility from a middle-aged woman (i.e., she looked to be roughly my age) who thought I was telling her and all our boomer cohort to just shrivel up and die. No, I replied, but on the other hand, Mick Jagger doesn't need your support anymore. Music writer Jessica Hundley also showed.
Afterward went to dinner at Mexico City, a scene in Los Feliz, with writer Jonathan Vankin (Conspiracies, Cover-Ups and Crimes) and his wife Deborah, who writes for the L.A. Weekly. Feral House's Adam Parfrey and Jodi Wille of the arty Dilettante Press soon crowded into our booth as well. Parfrey's most recent publication is called Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth. His next one, out soon, sounds a little more controversial: it's about a lone Jewish activist who, according to the author, was actually responsible for the burning of the Reichstag, which helped the Nazis slide into power. Dilettante has just put out Extreme Canvas, which sounds fascinating: it's color reproductions of hand-painted movie posters from Ghana. More about that when they get me a review copy.
?Finally, by odd coincidence the guy sitting next to me on the plane flying back to New York?a flight I bitched and orangutan-danced my way onto, United having screwed up my original one?was also in the book business. His name is Larry Coven. He's an actor in Los Angeles, and supplements his income selling collector's editions of horror, mystery and science fiction novels through his online store the Coven . Check him out if you're into those genres.
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