The Jukebox Has Been Drinking, Not Me

Where haven’t I been… Lou Reed, Sister Ray and a Jump into the Fire

First off, I would like to extend a gracious ‘thank you’ to those who have waited patiently for this blog entry to arrive. Of course what I mean by waiting, is, living the cramped modern life of responsibility, toil, amusement, habit, diversion and thin periods of rest until this here blog entry happens to cross the mutable attention of the purposeful and purposeless, alike. I thank you.

Procrastination is a dodgy thing. Particularly because the world continues to spin and strange shit just keeps building up. After awhile the thought of trying to pick through the colossal mess is too daunting to undertake, until the time in which the junk pile becomes such an obscene eyesore that the basic sense of decency compels some type of action. Thus, I emerged from my cocoon and began to sift through the trash heap.

Some initial notes I had made in the depths of a crushed grape extract and charcuterie binge that I had been on during the months of September and October were of little help. I felt like Hunter Thompson coming out of the ether and going through the cocktail napkins of Circus Circus, baffled by his own scrawl.

My scrawl, to wit:

“Tickled by the 5,000 fingers of Doctor Terwilliger…The San Diego Mayor is a hugger and fondler… the Brigade for the Repression of Banditry, actually a real brigade…sign up for ‘Dementia Village’, a Dutch facility for Alzheimer patients that sounds just ducky for a thirty-something-year-old wino….the more useful it is, the more dangerous the fomite…the man who mistook his wife for a hat must’ve at least been concerned about the feet in his pockets.”

Blah. Now I know why no literary agent would touch me with a ten foot disinfected pole. I decided to indulge in more charcuterie, and more crushed grape extract. But what pulled me from my own lethargy was a story about Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, who had admitted to smoking crack. And then it struck me. Instead of trying to explain what I had been doing, just meandering about creatively for the last two months, I could just explain what I wasn’t doing, all the trouble I wasn’t causing.

For starters, over the last two months, I hadn’t been smoking crack with Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. I hadn’t been with Ted Cruz smoking big cigars as the government shutdown went into effect, kicking up our feet on a job poorly done, which is the point of anti-government government officials. I wasn’t with the Florida man who shot his wife then posted her bullet-riddled, lifeless body on Facebook. I wasn’t one of the two Maine hikers rescued from being lost in a state park only to drive off a boat ramp and into twenty-five feet of water. I wasn’t with the Detroit man who stole his father’s body from a cemetery in order to revive him from the dead, and I wasn’t part of the group of young fellows in France that happened upon a circus llama, untethered him and took him carousing around the city, although I wish I had been there for that last one. I really do. And just like that, I felt much, much better about what I hadn’t been doing.

When any cultural icon passes away, the mood is always sullen. We are reminded of the brilliance, the creativity, the bravery really, of doing something that has never been done before, and the fact that the energy contained in the pioneer is no longer part of earth is sad in and of itself. So it was that I was called to a local bar for a celebration of the life and music of Lou Reed, a few Sunday nights ago. Lord, I thought, expecting to walk into a scene of junkies and transvestites and Warhol Factory-types. So I was relieved when I showed up at the bar and it was just a handful of grungy folks with a few beers, gathered around the jukebox on a sleepy Sunday evening, the place mostly empty. We all ponied up a few bucks until there was about forty or so song-plays available for Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground selection and we began entering in the appropriate numbers for the appropriate songs. It is one of the older type jukeboxes run by the music in the box and not grabbed out of the air by satellite. Plus, all the Lou Reed songs were on one page, so no flipping or browsing was necessary. This becomes important a little later in the story.

While we sat there, drinking our beers, telling Lou Reed stories as if we knew the guy, and as the brooding electric drone that characterized most of The Velvet Underground’s songs sat like a haze all around us, a song came on that was immediately recognized as having no business in the setlist. It seemed that some joker had slipped ‘Jump Into The Fire’ by Harry Nilsson into the sacred mix of Lou Reed songs.

Actually, the trouble had started earlier than that, when one cheap bastard took it upon himself to play the song ‘Sister Ray’ four times in a row to save money while extracting the most amount of song-time from the jukebox. To anyone familiar with the length of that song, it’s almost an hour’s worth of Sister Ray sucking on Lou’s ding-dong, or however the lyrics go to that effect. But most everyone had the decorum to wave that off, even after the song started for the fourth time and most began to fear that the night would just be a teeth-grinding marathon of the song, ‘Sister Ray’, and that would be the song ringing in everyone’s head as they were booted out after last call. But eventually other Lou Reed songs came and went. But then, as the bass line kick-in-the-groin of ‘Jump into the Fire’ started up, the indiscretion couldn’t be ignored.

“Who did that?”

“That’s not cool.”

“We are here for Lou Reed. This is Lou’s night.”

“Wasn’t me.”

“Wasn’t me.” So on.

“It’s impossible.”

“Are the pages flipped?”

“No, it has been on the Lou Reed page the whole time.”

“We are the only ones here.”

“Well then, how the fuck?”

“Maybe the jukebox, I don’t know, is rebelling somehow.”

“That’s crazy talk. What jukebox would rebel against Lou Reed? Maybe if we were paying tribute to Milli Vanilli the jukebox would step in and cause a significant disruption, but no jukebox with the self-respect to call itself such would ever disrupt Lou Reed?”

Now who’s crazy, I thought, since the argument had taken a strange turn. It wasn’t that the jukebox couldn’t have been equipped with human perceptions of taste, it’s just that if it did, it would never try to subvert Lou Reed.

“I’m not saying I did it,” said a calm voice of reason, “but what have you got against Harry Nilsson?”

“It’s a good song, no doubt about that. I’m not saying that. It’s just that I thought there was some understanding that this is a night for Lou Reed, which necessarily would rule any non Lou Reed song ineligible.”

“Well who is the dingbat that played ‘Sister Ray’ four times in a row? The song is twenty minutes long. I thought I was going to go crazy before the hour was through.”

“I was just trying to get as much Lou Reed as possible for my buck. But I was still within the rules of the evening.”

“That’s like plugging the thirty-five minute ‘Mountain Jam’ by the Allman Brothers into a jukebox where the establishment is nice enough to include the second disc of the Fillmore Concerts, and you are the asshole that makes them yank the whole album from the lineup to show a bunch of drunks that if they can’t be more considerate in their jukebox choices they will ruin it for everybody.”

“Nobody is talking about the Allman Brothers here.”

“This is a special occasion.”

“Look, for all we know, Lou Reed and Harry Nilsson could be writing a song together right at this very moment, so let’s not discount this sudden and dare I say miraculous sequence of events. More than likely somebody must’ve just typed in one of the numbers wrong and we get a good song that happens to not be Lou Reed. Live with it.”

Everybody accepted this explanation for the moment, but the big insult was when ‘Jump Into The Fire’ came on again right after its first play. A sudden sense of alarm

descended, everyone eyeing each other suspiciously like in the movie ‘Clue’ where nobody is sure who the murderer is.

“You know,” I said, “if people aren’t going to take this seriously I’m just going to leave.”

I paid my bar bill, jumped into a cab and told the driver to floor it, and to let me know if anyone was following us.

And now for my O’Henry moment. I was the one who had slipped ‘Jump into the Fire’ into the Lou Reed playlist. I had played the song so many times in that jukebox that I just had the numbers memorized and thought Lou would’ve appreciated it, and even if not, meh. I felt I had to leave, though, because I didn’t want to be around for the five more times that ‘Jump into the Fire’ was set to play, and after an eruption of anger and recriminations I didn’t want to be in the middle of the whole group clawing each other to death in a rage over the serious breach of etiquette.

Long live Lou Reed and Harry Nilsson in the music boxes of the world, and if the two artists are listening in some negative space-time of light and abundance, might I suggest a nice little collaboration.

More alembics to come.

The Semi-Legitimate Fear of Parasitic Drool

From April 25th, 2013

Beer, billiards and neighbors…Arboreal mentals…Whole lotta framin’ goin’ on…Frank Sinatra as Tony Rome as Frank Sinatra…Arboreal mentals, revisited” 

It is a fine thing and some might say an art form to obtain things through leisure, luck and laziness. Thus I own a pool table. It was cleverly grifted by a college friend of mine, from a fraternity house, years and years and years ago. The fraternity had decided because the felt was ripped and the bumpers were coming off and the wood was peeling that the whole table was no good so they moved it out to their front lawn to rot, and what with the rain and the exposure it was turned into a muddy, water-logged monstrosity. My buddy, clever fiend that he is, successfully appraised that the slate itself was perfect and so he went to the fraternity president and brokered a deal. He offered to take the pool table off of their hands (it was an eyesore, after all, and the president was forced to admit there were no contingency plans for its ultimate removal off the property). My friend cast himself as the thoughtful altruist who would give it a good home. He only insisted that the house pay for the moving expenses (no small fee), to which the fraternity readily agreed. Two weeks later, in our rented house a few miles off campus, after a pretty standard restoration of sanding, staining and re-felting, the thing looked brand new. More importantly, we had something to congregate and drink around, a cynosure of spirited competition, a centerpiece for socializing, a perfect implement of procrastination.

Word gets around a neighborhood fast when such a diversion arrives, and as such we had many neighbors who frequently dropped by to offer to shoot a few games and chew the fat, gossip and pontificate, whatever. We, as the splendid dawdlers that we were and continued to be, could hardly ever refuse. So long as we were home there was an open door policy and billiard play would continue for as long as needed, often late into the night. It was considered common courtesy for the neighbors to drop by with an intoxicant of some kind and as long as the beer was there, the games were afoot.  As the years went by and my roommates moved on to bigger cities in which living spaces were somewhat restricted, I was left with the table, like the last man standing in a tontine. I maintained a kind of squatter’s rights over it just by living in houses that could fit it. Much time has passed and although I am a little more picky about who comes over and at what hour, I still welcome the occasional neighbor, with the requisite six-pack and we rack em up and shoot em down, all conversation topics welcome.

The night was a murky one. The air was thick with the humidity of some recent rain and the mist crept by the front window like a procession of wispy phantoms. Alone, I decided to brush up on my nine-ball. I put on some Warren Zevon, lined up the cue ball and cracked the diamond-shaped cluster apart. I was in no mood for the television, as usual. It was a particularly grueling couple of weeks as two inbred bums from Chechnya tried to blow up the whole Boston Marathon, succeeding in killing two women and a child and someone in Texas packed 1,000 times the normal amount of ammonium nitrate into a fertilizer plant and blew it to kingdom come.

The week was an explosive one, to say the least. I’ve always loved Boston. It’s a great town. There is a saying in Boston, very succinct, and that is don’t fuck with Boston. Which proved to be right on the money as three days after the sabotage the FBI and Boston authorities had the two dismal derelicts responsible (allegedly, that most warped of words) and on the run. Two brothers from Chechnya, having been identified, almost immediately had some supporters advocating their innocence, insisting they were framed, which is further evidence you can convince anybody anywhere at anytime of anything. I’m not saying that in the history of law enforcement an anonymous revolver hasn’t been dropped near the body of a bullet-riddled fugitive, but this one is a stretch. Not only did the police have to frame them by walking them through the Boston marathon crowd with the identical bomb-laden back packs, but they also had to frame them for a convenience store robbery, gunning down an officer, carjacking a man, and then, and this one’s tricky, frame them for fleeing in a high speed chase in which they were framed for throwing bombs at the police while trying to escape. That’s a lotta framin’.

I had made it through two simulated pool games when there was a knock on my door. It was Valerie, a single mother who lives up the block. She had just put her son to bed and was feeling a bit restless. Realizing she had some beer in the fridge and seeing my car in the driveway, she dropped by to play a few rounds of pool. A pleasant woman, haunted by conspiracy theories, Valerie had been upset about the recent upheaval across the country. But there was something else that was troubling her. It was something she had heard, recently, a story not-unlike the kind of urban legend of murderous gang members who drive around with the headlights off, and who target the cars that flash their beams at them. This was one about a spate of free-roaming mentals, recently escaped from some hospital that climb into trees and, when they sense the opportunity, will  jump out on an unsuspecting pedestrian, wet their index fingers in their lunatic saliva (that is always abundantly present in their mouths) and stick the wet finger into the ear of the person they have just landed on. It happened to a friend’s friend of hers whose eardrum was permanently damaged because, Valerie insisted, the parasites in a mental’s drool are carnivorous and eat away at the brain, which is one of the reasons those two brothers in Boston went crazy. Although, she said, “that’s the type of thing you won’t hear about in the news.”

We shot five games. I took the first two and Valerie cleaned up in the last three, hitting her stride and taking advantage of my fatigue. She left while still ahead. I watched her mosey up the road to her house and I fell back on the couch and went through my library of classic movies, if only to have something to focus on while I finished my beer.

I ended up watching an old Frank Sinatra movie in which he plays “Tony Rome, Private Eye.” He drinks gin, slaps people around, screws Jill St. John (Bond girl from “Diamonds Are Forever”) and then takes off on his boat, which basically means Frank is just playing Frank in a film, using another name. I think once in the movie there is some character that actually messes up, addressing the Tony Rome character as Frank. He says, “Hey Frank,” and Frank just says, “Yeah whattaya want? We ain’t doin a second take. The folks know it’s me. Print it, baby. We gotta be at Cirro’s by midnight.”

I drank another beer and kept watching. The piece seemed slapped together, a bit far-fetched in its silliness, but I’ve always been a sucker for a detective movie and Frank has never let me down in a film, not even Cannonball Run II. Suddenly, my phone rang. It was Valerie, my neighbor.

“I just got back to my house and I swear I saw some guy climb into my tree, the big magnolia at the edge of the front yard, next to the hedgerow.”

“Come on, Valerie, you’ve got yourself worked up. It’s foggy and your mind is playing tricks on you.”

“He had something huge strapped to his back. Like a machine gun. I have a son who is sleeping. I’m terrified.”

“Jesus, I’ll be right there.”

I grabbed my big flashlight and walked up the block, skeptical, curious, brash, a little drunk, all packed in a warped little ball of taut expectation. It occurred to me I hadn’t brought a weapon. But what weapon would be useful in such a unique situation, when someone is coming at you from directly overhead? I realized that I was very much in need of a Kaiser helmet, the kind with that big metal spike coming out of the top, and wondered where I could get one at this time of night. That helmet had always seemed ridiculous to me, but now it made sense. Not only did the German army want to take over the world they also knew the danger of mentals jumping out of trees and had taken steps to protect themselves. That would be a shakeup for an emergency room staff. A guy comes walking in with another man impaled on his head, draped over his shoulders and arms.

“Yes, I’ve got a serious crick in my neck, and this poor retard above me ain’t doing so well either.”

I got to Valerie’s front yard and walked across to the tree in question. I could see Valerie’s big eyes through her front window. I waved. The tree itself was a beautiful, sturdy, striated mass of thick twisted branches, cloaked in crisp, glossy leaves and budding magnolia flowers. I decided it would be difficult to scale the first six feet. The branches were too thick. I shined the flashlight up toward the top, but the thickness of the branches, the haze of the night, and the shroud of the leaves prevented me from seeing anything over the first ten feet. Valerie crept out of her house and sidled up next to me.

“He must be way up top.”

“I don’t care how crazy you are,” I said. “Nobody is going to jump out at somebody from the top of that tree. That’s suicide for them. They’d hit twenty branches on the way down.”

Then another neighbor arrived, Gordon, with his dog, Laddie. Gordon preferred nocturnal strolls with his dog. Everybody in the neighborhood knew this and felt safer because of it, since Gordon was a retired police officer and Laddie a mastiff and as such I don’t think Gordon was ever concerned about brooking any riffraff at any hour. Laddie ran up to the tree, sniffed around it, sat and looked straight up and gave a bit of a growl.

“Someone’s in the tree,” said Gordon.

“They climb to the top to meditate then they slowly descend when they’ve harnessed all their craziness,” said Valerie.

I called up to ask if anybody was in the tree. After a few seconds of hesitation, a voice, anonymous high above said “yes”, and not to mind him, he’d be out of there in no time. I told Valerie as much, feeling the need to mediate even though she was standing right next to me and could hear him just as well as I could.

“What are you doing up there?” Valerie called.

“Do you hear a guitar?” I whispered to Gordon, Valerie, and Laddie, for that matter.

“Is this the owner of yonder house I’m addressing?” said the voice.

“Yes,” said Valerie.

“Your shingles seem to be a little warped on the far end of your roof. I’d be careful about water damage.”

I shrugged. Not only did he not sound deranged, he was actually quite helpful. Again the sound of guitar strings being plucked rang through the air, tentatively, like the instrument was being tuned. Then there was a woman’s voice.

“Sorry to bother you guys,” said a woman’s voice. “He’ll be done in a second.”

“Do you think they are… you know…?” said Gordon, puzzled.

“Hold the phone,” I said.

I crawled through the hedge and popped out to the other side, and from this vantage point the whole situation became very clear. A woman was leaning against the railing of her second story porch, giggling, while about fifteen feet away a man, barely visible in the tree (I could see the neck of the guitar) started to pick through a song. The song was familiar but the playing was a bit shaky. I cut him some slack, though. He was balancing himself in a tree. I pulled myself back through the hedge and clicked my flashlight off. I asked Valerie if the huge weapon she had seen could’ve been a guitar.

“I recognize the song,” said Valerie.

“It’s that song from that guy that used to screw Bowie,” said Gordon.

“Mick Jagger?”

“No, the one from New York.”

“Lou Reed.”

“That’s him.”

The song was “Perfect Day”, and although the intricacies of the song were lost in the altitude, it sounded like he had modified the verses to fit his relationship with the woman being serenaded. When the song was over we applauded. Overhead, we were thanked.  I asked if he took requests.

“What do you got?” the voice said from above.

“What’s that smells like fish? by Blind Boy Fuller.”

“Mark!” Valerie snapped. “Behave.”

“I’m here to help,” I said. “I defy anyone to tell me otherwise.”

Eventually the man came down from the tree, pausing before he jumped down because of Laddie. Gordon pulled the huge dog back.  The man’s acoustic guitar was strapped to his back, and we got the whole story. He had gotten back from a business trip early and had decided to surprise his girlfriend for their one-year anniversary. He said the tree was perfect for a serenade, and he wasn’t even sure it was on Valerie’s property. He apologized for trespassing. Valerie, overwhelmed with the romantic sensibilities, waved him off.

“You didn’t happen to see any mental patients up there, on your way up or down,” I said.

“No,” said the man. “Although there was an owl with a fancy necklace that grumbled at me before taking off into the distance.”

I nodded. Valerie had tears in her eyes with notions of the man’s chivalry, his romantic ambition, his ability to scale trees and play guitar. He thanked us for understanding and disappeared into the night. Gordon and Laddie continued their midnight stroll. Valerie went inside her house to sit by the window, I supposed, to wait for the man, the anonymous dreamer, to come to her window and play her a song. I fancied myself a bit of a Tony Rome, case closed. I swaggered back to my house, thinking that if life imitated art, Jill St. John would be draped across my couch and she would’ve been, had I named my dog Jill St. John.

More alembics to come.