“I don’t believe you should take anything too seriously.”
— Jerry Garcia, during our first conversation, July 9, 1970
“You need to get into something serious.”
— Jerry Garcia, during our last conversation, December 11, 1972
In the beautiful redwood country of Sonoma County, California, a group of our friends had bought a mountainside ranch across the road (& up the mountain). A few families, couples & individuals lived on it in some old farmhouses and a geodesic dome they’d made from barn siding, making sure the large grape crop stayed healthy enough to harvest and sell to a well-known winery in town.
Not that any of these folks would touch alcohol. LSD eye drops, sure, psilocybin mushrooms, naturally, marijuana — well, if they could grow grapes there, take a wild guess. For minor personal use only, though.
One thing these folks had in common was that many of their initial mutual contacts resulted from attending the same fairly prestigious college together. Another was that, like quite a few other locals, they’d developed what seemed (to me, anyway) pretty intense interests in astrology.
Astrology was an interesting element in the hippy lifestyle. On one hand, it posits interconnectedness on a pan-galactic scale. On the other hand, it assumes differences that separate people into classifiable groups. I always found it strange to hear someone say something like, “Oh, he’s a Gemini – I couldn’t ever get along with him,” as if espousing a kind of cosmic racism.
I only bring up this planet-based faith regarding how the universe operates because of one particular visit up to the ranch. As night fell, while we were all finishing a delicious very-natural foods dinner, there was excited talk. Full moon tonight!
Now it’s true that the night skies in that area at that time could be awesome to behold; look straight up, and it looked like you were in a gigantic circus tent made of stars. Planetarium-quality stuff. And it’s true watching them for awhile could certainly feel like there was some kind of message of orientation in the local universe being beamed down. A telescope and a little knowledge of the physical cosmos could have been a groove.
But no one around the table was thinking about a sky show. It seems they all took it for granted that if you held your open wallet up to a full moon, money would come your way. It was apparently a well-known fact.
I’d never been aware it was that easy.
It got darker & the moon rose. We all went outside and away from the lights. Everybody took out their wallets and held them out, open, under the big shining moon. Then we went back inside. There was no chanting, no prayer or incantation, but still, standing with all these well-educated hippies, I felt like I was participating in some mysterious, possibly ancient ritual.
Just a really stupid one.
(And no sudden windfalls came my way either.)
Somehow, we’d managed to meet up with Hamid and Abdu — I thought of them as Yogi and Booboo — who we’d met the week before on the ferry that took us from Malaga, Spain across the Strait Of Gibralter and over to Morocco. They happened to be Moroccan, were winningly friendly, and like us seemed to be in their very early twenties. With just enough usable Spanish between us along with the helpful Arabic words Hamid wrote down in a little notebook, we managed to communicate in a surprisingly detailed fashion, hitting it off and vowing to see each other again. And now, about a week later, upon arriving in their home city of Meknes, we’d miraculously met up with them right as scheduled, on the outskirts of the maze-like medina (casbah).
Meknes seemed kind of scary — the kind of place where you might expect to be grabbed and sold into the slave trade or some other swarthy old movie trope. It did not possess the charm or openness of similar areas in Fez or other cities we’d been seeing. And we were heading deeper into it as the day grew later and darker.
First we were taken into a small teahouse where grizzled Moroccan men sat in a big circle around a fire in the middle of the floor, as if in an Arab tepee. Goatskin-covered musical stringed instruments hung on the walls. Fresh mint tea was poured. A pipe that was essentially a small hollowed-out branch was passed around the circle. Each cross-legged man would attach a little clay bowl to the end, fill it with kif (cannabis flowers), smoke it up, and toss the empty bowl into the fire. The only females there were the two in our party of four traveling Americans, My Future Ex-Wife and a young woman accompanying a home-town friend who was along for half of the journey, with the only local representative of sisterhood the silent downward-gazing woman pouring the tea.
We were invited to Hamid’s home for dinner. Apparently they were quite well off (which explains how the two friends had managed to be outside the country at all, a privilege allowed to very few Moroccans in the early 1970s). Hamid’s father owned a bunch of farmland surrounding the city. This didn’t mean they had things like electricity or a telephone, but then, as in other cities, that was mostly restricted to the old colonial French district.
The entrance to their home was a sudden nondescript opening in one of the many featureless mud-clay walls we were led along. But stepping inside, the scene was fairy-tale ethno-history fantasy: a fountain in the midst of a charming tiled courtyard, leading to lamp-lit, cushion-filled rooms. Grandma loaded coal into a clay cooker and prepared a feast that everyone ate in the traditional finger-style manner, balling up some couscous and tossing the balls into our mouths (although the teenaged daughter of the family had a great time popping a ball into my mouth with a red-hot pepper in it — I thought Grandma would bust a gut laughing at that one as smoke and flames were probably shooting out my ears).
Hamid told us that after dinner we’d meet up with Abdu and some of their other friends for something special that we would surely like. He asked if we would like some hashish cookies for later; we said we’d surely like that.
So we set out through the dark, deserted passageways of this ancient neighborhood, guided by the beam of Hamid’s flashlight, stopping alarmingly at some sinister corner among quick whispery shouts In Arabic and on/off flickers of flashlights to, it turned out, meet up with the friends (phew!). This was the first and perhaps only time we saw any Moroccans who were wearing casual Western-style clothes rather than traditional djellabas (long hooded robes). We then proceeded en masse until finally we reached a small building, somewhat apart from the others and dark except for the upper floor, and were quietly led inside. We climbed a flight of stairs and were ushered through a curtained doorway. The whole way there, our hosts and the few friends they’d met up with along the way, lurking around the sinister corners, all seemed paranoid that they might be spotted, and there’d been much checking over shoulders by the young Arabs, although we never saw a sign of another soul. We, on the other hand, were paranoid because it seemed just the sort of scene where one might get killed or kidnapped and we never saw a sign of another soul.
Passing through the curtains brought us into a fun-house-mirror version of what had been going on on the other side of the world, the collision of cultures counter and otherwise we’d just come from in America, thousands of miles – and seemingly years – apart. Young adult Moroccans, both male and female, were gathered in this dim, candle-lit room – another unusual social aspect in this particular corner of the universe. They sat or lounged on cushions on the floor. The atmosphere was warm, calm, and happy, very much like a classic “underground” bohemian hangout. Peace signs and the words “PEACE” and “LOVE” were painted in day-glo on the walls. This in a country where we’d seen no evidence of any coverage of the Vietnam War, no mass media, and where most people spoke zero English. And they were all getting together to peacefully laugh, converse intimately, and get high…on wine. The forbidden fermented fruit. We were handed our “cookies” (they seemed like large chunks of hashish covered with crystallized sugar) but the psychoactive portion of this ritual was being fulfilled for the Moroccans by passing around the illegal-in-Islam alcohol. Sometimes “different” is clearly a matter of perspective.
Some rebellion is socially motivated. Some relates to behavior from being a certain age. Some can be an echo of some wild freedom heard of from far-away rumors. But what is actually rebellious is also highly subjective.
Whatever was going on here (and obviously these young people were no longer remotely young by the time Morocco started producing any young jihadists), we saw compelling, if not clear, evidence that this isolated segment of the “younger generation” had somehow, somewhere – as if through some kind of cultural quantum mechanics – gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
My teenage garage band, via our bass player’s uncle, got invited to play at a mental
For the inmates.
Creedmoor Hospital had been a well-known asylum in the New York area for quite awhile. It had long ago entered the local lexicon as an alternate for the almost-Kleenex-genericized Bellevue, in such provincial New York declarations as “They should send you to Creedmoor” or “I’m gonna wind up in Creedmoor.” But now it was 1967, and there was a cultural/political/psychological stream of thought questioning the exact meaning of insanity in a possibly insane (cf. Viet Nam, racial strife, materialism, inter-generational suspicion) society.
We had already played at the NY World’s Fair, not to mention the opening of the very first eight-track tape store, so who were we to refuse one more oddball gig? Apparently this
was some kind of experiment to see what kind of effect we’d have, if any, in therapeutic — or even entertainment — terms on the locked-up and catatonic.
A few of us had recently gotten into the habit of getting high (on marijuana—cf. 1967, statute of limitations, we had medical need) before playing. In other words, we were feeling a bit crazy ourselves, which we were fine with, not a pejorative thought was thought. A couple of particularly sexy 17-year-old girls we knew came along with us, and as we approached the main building, inmates poking through their barred windows up above called down with suggestions, pleas & gestures that introduced me to a whole new level of drooling lasciviousness. We were weird, the place was weird, and unknown territories lay ahead. As we ducked into a bathroom, freaking out, my bandmate’s image blurted out to my image in the mirror over the sink, in the stoned parlance of the time, “This is insane!” The clinical truth, the obvious “duh!”-ness of his observation, quickly had us laughing like mental patients.
We did two shows. R.D. Laing would’ve been proud. You didn’t need a medical degree to see that the audiences were pretty far-gone. We began playing psychedelic folk-blues-rock. Patients who’d started out looking, at best, blank and dissociated started to respond almost immediately. Lots of smiles, then tapping hands and moving feet. We were later told that some of these patients hadn’t smiled, spoken, or moved on their own for at least six months. Before long, some of those who could get it together were up and dancing, and the really lucky men among them were dancing with the girls who’d come with us. It was a party! Madhouse Rock!
A male orderly started talking to us during our between-set break. Turned out he was an inmate too, though he seemed quite capable. He was a black man, younger than most of the others we saw there, who had managed to get sent to the hospital instead of jail after being busted with heroin. He told us that within the hospital he could still obtain just about any drug he wanted, and also that he could play a few chords on the piano and sing soul music. That was good enough for us — we invited him to sit in for a couple of songs.
Sure enough, when the second audience was wheeled in, our orderly piano player started singing tunes like “Respect” and “Knock On Wood”, and sounding really good. We had fun playing behind him, and the crowd was sure digging seeing the guy who collected their laundry or whatever belt out a few. As we continued on with our usual material, getting louder and louder as we were wont to do over the course of a gig, the energy level ratcheted up. Dancing, clapping, happy miracles were taking place all around us.
Some of the patients had relatives there for the festive occasion, standing off to the side, along with some of the doctors. As the place began to resemble a staging of Marat/Sade at the Fillmore, someone’s quite elderly lady relative, dressed in her best Margaret Hamilton-in-Oz outfit, decided this kind of tomfoolery was far too loud, far too much excitement, far too much in general. She started complaining about the volume, first to no one in particular, then to the doctors. As nobody seemed to be taking interest in her concerns, she started hitting one of the doctors over and over with her handbag, yelling “Make this stop! Make this stop!” She tried grabbing her related inmate, who wanted nothing to do with her and twisted away. So she went back to beating on and screaming at the doctors, and even escalated her righteous indignation during the comparative silence when we finished whatever tune we’d been playing.
The staff didn’t know what to do. They seemed on the verge of shutting the whole thing down just to shut this woman up, when the patients spontaneously turned against her. They began booing her. They yelled things at her. One man even went up and tried to wrest her pocketbook away from her while she was still using it as a weapon against the doctors. Pandemonium was breaking loose, as they’d say on the wrestling show on TV back then (named, oddly enough, “Bedlam From Boston” after another old insane asylum).
As much as I would’ve enjoyed seeing her jabbed with a needle containing something calming — maybe a valium-tipped blow-dart — we decided to play a couple of slower, softer, gentler songs to cool out the vibe while we tried to ignore this unofficial guardian of everyone’s sanity. It worked, too, except the girls we brought had a bit of a problem putting off the patients who wanted to slow-dance with them. Some of these guys looked big, potentially dangerous, and certainly horny. Then, when we knew our allotted time was almost up, we launched into a very loud, fast, long version of The Blues Project’s “Wake Me Shake Me,” all distorted guitar and screaming vocals. Heavy-mental music, no head banging. The place went wild, in just the right way, then when it ended everyone calmly — and happily, it appeared — got led back to their quarters.
And, unlike them, we were permitted to go home.
On Wednesday, February 11, 1970, I entered New York City’s Fillmore East for a late-night rock concert. By the time it was over and I was back on Second Avenue, it was well after 5 the next morning. People were looking pretty spacey as they exited into the cold pre-dawn, taking a few tentative steps one way and then switching directions, or wandering randomly out into the street, or just standing and gazing around. It was kind of like a countertop of wind-up penguins in slow motion, vaguely bumping into each other on the way to no place in particular.
The show just ended had climaxed with a long jam, mostly around the Bobby Bland tune “Turn On Your Lovelight”, densely populated by the Grateful Dead and most of the main players from the original versions of the Allman Brothers Band and Fleetwood Mac — up to a dozen musicians boogying away improvisationally at any one time. (The concert did eventually become the stuff of legend in its limited way.)
[Historical Interest side note: Due to the coincidental semi-renown of this concert, it behooves me to name those exceptional musicians actually onstage during said massive jam, at least six of whom are no longer with us. Here goes: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Pigpen, Bill Kruetzmann, Mickey Hart, Duane Allman, Greg Allman, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Peter Green, Danny Kirwin, Mick Fleetwood, & Arthur Lee.]
During this display, despite the enthusiasm of some audience members, I sat in my seat with an increasing sinking feeling. I assumed it was some combination of psychedelic side-effect and bad mood, but by about 6:30 a.m., when I’d returned uptown to the freezing Columbia University campus, I was also experiencing the most searing sore throat of my life.
After crossing Amsterdam Avenue to get to St. Luke’s Hospital, which was what Columbia students used for an infirmary, my sneaking suspicion was confirmed by a doctor. Actually, all he said was, “You know what you’ve got, don’t you?” Having remembered the near-epidemic of mononucleosis that’d gone around New York State, mainly at colleges, I knew to croak, “Mono?” And so it was that I was moved up to my own hospital room, mono a mono.
The room was on the cruddy side of dilapidated. If the author Ludwig Bemelmans had wound up in a hospital room like this, he probably would have written of little Madeline imagining the cracks in the ceiling looking like the asshole of a dragon rather than a bunny. I was in tremendous pain. I had a fever of 105. I was tired from being up since the previous morning. And I was suddenly faced with the shock of being confined to bed for over a month, not to mention unable to swallow.
Despite the exhaustion and whatever pain meds I’d been given, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there pathetically, semi-delirious, through the rest of the morning, then the afternoon, the evening and on into the night. There was no TV, in case you’re wondering. Those hallucinations were mine. Finally, somewhere past 2 a.m., I drifted off. Almost immediately (as far as I could tell), I was awakened by a rather large (I’m being polite rather than saying big and fat) black nurse.
“C’mon, honey,” she said brusquely. I looked around. It was clearly the middle of the night. My room was dark. The hallway also appeared dim and deserted. It was quiet.
Almost too quiet.
“Huh?” I managed.
“You gettin’ an enema,” I was informed.
“You gotta get cleaned out.”
I’m not sure I even knew just what an enema was, but I soon found out. The massive woman led the weak, skinny white boy into the little private en suite bathroom and proceeded to clean me out. And I don’t mean financially. My wordless yet vocal discontent with the process bothered her not a bit.
I wouldn’t have thought it would still be possible to ruin my night, but this act of cleansing, whether medical, ritual or sexual, had certainly managed. I was stunned. And supremely bummed.
Hours later, when My Future Ex-Wife came back to visit me (as my girlfriend, she’d been with me at the concert and afterward helped me get to the hospital before heading off to classes herself), I used whatever voice I could muster to tell her what happened. She went out to the desk to enquire about my wee-hours procedure and was told they had no record of any such thing. They further revealed that not only was there no reason to enemize a mono patient, but nothing whatever was scheduled for anyone during the night…and they had no nurse working there at night who even remotely fit the description.
Oops. Or shall we say yikes.
If the newspaper still offered $5 for sending them a “My Most Embarrassing Moment” story, this would be my submission.
I went to see The Beatles play every time they came to New York, from Carnegie Hall in February 1964 (three days after their historic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show) through the Shea Stadium concerts of 1965 and 1966. They were all amazing events: a great, electric-sounding, funny, creative band barely heard amid screaming, fainting, infectiously hysterical crowds. But my favorite of all The Beatles’ shows that I attended was on August 29, 1964 at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. Their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” had just opened in theaters a couple of weeks earlier, and this was the group’s first actual American tour.
I was thirteen, my brother almost fifteen. Our father dropped us off and patiently waited for us in the car, parked on some Forest Hills side street. We joined the excited throng heading into the stadium and I pointed out to my brother that the guy going through the turnstile next to us looked just like Paul McCartney. A promising start to the evening’s revels.
After we’d taken our seats, I noticed that the McCartney lookalike was sitting not too far from us, so we were able to scrutinize him. The resemblance was remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, we started to wonder if perhaps Paul had decided to see what it was like being among the crowd at one of his group’s insanity-fests. Soon, other people were clearly noticing this character in their midst, because a few kids started asking “Paul” for autographs. And he was obliging them.
Now at this early stage of the Beatlemania curve, where many people were still learning to differentiate the four fab personalities, among rabid fans the bass player being left-handed was top-of-mind knowledge. That’s what gave the imposter away — we realized he was signing all these autographs with his right hand. Aha!
This pretender’s hubris soon brought about complications, just as hubris is so often reported to do. More and more audience members in the vicinity caught wind of this celebrity sighting, and they wanted in, too. Faux McCartney was soon besieged with pubescent girls desperate for autographs or, failing that, a piece of the person or his clothes or hair, just like with any other Beatle. He was quickly overwhelmed — virtually buried — by his admirers and looked like he was in serious physical danger.
Actually, it looked like he was about to get ripped limb from limb.
Finally, some policemen made it over and saved him by carrying him out of the place, stretched out prone, over their heads, while jazzed-up 14-year-old girls continued to jump up on both sides, desperately trying to reach him.
So he wound up missing the concert, after all. At least he was alive to tell about missing it.
Any doubt as to his lack of authenticity as a Beatle was dissolved when a helicopter landed directly behind the stage, the actual Beatles stepped out of it, plugged in, and began their set.
We’d all just seen The Beatles escaping a show in a chopper at the end of the newly-released “A Hard Day’s Night” (that exit was a basically improvised scene, filmed only because there happened to be a helicopter at that day’s location — it was not their usual mode of departure), which added an extra layer of hallucination-worthy reality to this can-you-believe-your-eyes arrival. Considering that in future times a pretend helicopter pretending to land onstage in a theater would keep “Miss Saigon” running on Broadway for years gives some small idea what a seriously entertaining entrance this was, particularly for kids digging on their very own phenomenon which had very suddenly become a major cultural and economic influence — as well as a supreme source of bafflement — in the adult world at large.
Meanwhile, on the other side of perception, the level of novelty was also getting higher. That is to say, it wasn’t only the audience enjoying an unusual new brand of activity and hilarity.
Mere hours earlier, beginning late the night before, an historic event in late-twentieth-century culture — the reverberations of which helped trigger and define much of what many people think of as “the sixties” — had secretly taken place at the Beatles’ hotel suite in Manhattan: Bob Dylan had turned up and turned on the whole group to marijuana. So the Beatles were arriving for their first post-stoned performance.
Perhaps this helped account for their amused response to the bedlam that ensued, apart from their usual jocularity and the fact that public chaos was a regular element in their day-to-day lives.
The stage had a line of police standing just below it, and several rows of sawhorse barricades in front of them, to make it as difficult as possible to consummate any coming together with their idols that overwrought fans might attempt. Nevertheless, in the middle of the Beatles’ set, a horde of young teenage girls suddenly managed to hurdle the barricades, get by the cops and start climbing onto the stage in full delirium, like the Dionysian women in “The Bacchae”. Burly stagehands ran out, joined by more policemen, and were basically tossing these girls off into the air as they ran toward the band. All hell was breaking loose. Throughout this, The Beatles laughed, joked, cheered as if watching a football match (yes, we know that’s soccer for them) — and they were clearly rooting for their amok “attackers” over their “protectors.” They knew who was buttering their bread. At one point, a girl even managed to jump up onto Geoge Harrison’s shoulders mid-song. He continued playing, without missing a beat, as the girl was peeled off him and thrown back into the sea of madness.
The Beatles played wonderfully. They sang “Twist & Shout,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “You Can’t Do That,” “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Boys,” “All My Loving,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Things We Said Today,” “If I Fell,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and, finally, a wild version of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” that culminated in a frenzied final chorus featuring Ringo spectacularly flailing away at his entire drum kit as Paul screamed out the ending.
The Beatles bowed, unplugged their guitars, turned and ran back into the helicopter still sitting there, then took off into the night sky.
Now that’s entertainment.
We pulled our VW Microbus into the dirt-with-patches-of-grass parking lot, past the decrepit sign welcoming us to the derelict Geyserville hot springs. This Northern California town had at some point been selected as the test site for producing electricity using geothermal energy, dooming what was, apparently, once an actual spa of some sort. Now it cost $2 to park there and stay for, well, forever, if you had nowhere else to go. Someone, I don’t remember who, had told us, “Go check out the hot springs in Geyserville,” so here we were.
All that was left of the facilities was what nature provided. The wrecks of one or two buildings were deteriorating into the landscape. That still left natural hot springs, sulfurous mud hillsides, shaded waterfall-fed pools.
As My Future Ex-Wife and I started to look around, someone said to us, “There’s a wedding at 3:00 — you’re invited.” I’d never actually attended a wedding party, so this sounded like a good opportunity to broaden my horizons. We could see long tables with food being set up under the trees. We could see that a few folks had tents set up for their stay, and there were several other Microbus-style vehicles that were clearly, like ours, suitable for sleeping in.
So we spent some time exploring, eventually finding ourselves some distance away in an isolated, gorgeously idyllic spot. Soft, mossy, leafy ground under a Zen-worthy tree, perched just a few feet above a small rock-lined pool of cold, crystalline water, spoke to us as clearly as the serpent in Eden must have addressed Eve. And, as in the Old Testament, this led to a valuable lesson which, in case it can save anyone else from learning it the hard way, I’d like to pass on: Do not be so blindly transported by the beauty and comfort of a natural setting that, days after having lain there, you discover you’ve made it among the poison oak.
After we’d checked out the environs, we hustled back to find the site of the nuptials.
We were told the happy union would take place where the stream forked. This turned out to be a lovely open area where two little streams flowed around a tiny island and became one.
People there were sitting on the edge dangling their feet or standing around. One wedding touch that even I, with my lack of experience in such matters, could tell was unusual was that everybody was completely naked. Even the middle-aged parents were naked, gamely standing in the stream letting it all hang out. We conformed with the dress code (cheaper than renting a tux, anyway, not to mention allowing the assembled throng to easily catch that I had the hottest date) & sat streamside, dangling our feet in the gentle current.
Music began to play. The tiny island was just big enough to serve as bandstand for an Indian taboura player & a bamboo flute player. The beautiful bride & groom – naked, naturally, except for being garlanded with flowers – came walking downstream, each aptly in one of the about-to-fork streams. When they’d almost reached the little island they each placed the flowers they’d been wearing into the water and we all watched the flowers float a few feet further downstream and past the little island, where they, like the two streams, then joined together.
And they were married.
And then we ate. (We dressed for dinner.)
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players” — attribution disputed, apparently
Third grade was kind of strange; my class, though decently-behaved, went through 7 or 8 teachers over the course of the school year. Batting second in this lineup was Miss Williamson, a wispy, rather artsy type. She’d make us all stand around pretending we were wheat waving in the wind. (She was also out sick a lot, thereby paving the way for teacher #3). So when she decided we should put on a class play for the school, what subject did Miss Williamson choose for us hapless third graders?
The life of Mozart.
We (i.e. our moms) had to come up with period costumes, learn to dance a minuet, and all that 18th-Century-European-court stuff. As the only boy in the class who could play any of the pieces on the piano, I was given the role of Wolfgang Amadeus his brilliant self. A girl I was good friends with, who’d also had piano lessons, played Mozart’s sister.
Meanwhile, another girl happened to be in that class who I became friends with some years later. In fact, she became my first wife.
In the years we lived together, I can only recall one instance of us ever discussing that we had both been in that peculiar play so long before. We were both in our early twenties at the time. I said I obviously could remember that I’d played the title character, but who had she been? Marie Antoinette, she informed me.
I hadn’t even remembered Marie Antoinette being a character in the thing. Then again, who we’d each been in the play seemed to be about the only elements either of us were able to recall. Oh well. End of discussion.
Anyway, we got married, separated, then divorced. I moved into my parents’ house until I could find a new place of my own.
One day, my mother came home from the supermarket with Volume 1 of one of these 20-volume sets of classical music they used to periodically sell in supermarkets. The first volume always sold for just 99 cents, to hook ya, & contained 2 or 3 LPs. My mom thought maybe it would be something soothing for my dad to listen to after a hard day (though I have no knowledge of them ever actually listening to it at all). That night, while depressedly moping around their kitchen, I was checking out the booklet that came with Vol. 1, which of course contained track listings plus little explanations of the pieces & very short biographies of the composers represented.
And there was Mozart. The bio, although only a few paragraphs long, contained a very famous “cute” story that has traditionally been in every Life Of Mozart (and may not even be totally apocryphal).
It seems when Mozart was around 7, being shown around by his father as a boy genius, they went to the Austrian court of Empress Maria Theresa, who was suitably charmed, of course, and who had a child of her own, a daughter, just about Wolfgang’s age. The famous anecdote entails the two kids playing tag in the palace and Mozart slipping & falling on the slick marble floor. Little Marie Antoinette (ah, the daughter!) helps him up, and young Wolfgang says to her, “You’re nice. When I grow up, I’m going to marry you.”
I wouldn’t exactly say my blood ran cold, but you could certainly call me surprised. As I read that old story, it all came back: an eight-year-old boy’s embarrassment at having to say “I’m going to marry you” to a girl from the class, in front of the whole class during rehearsals, and then, even worse, in front of the entire school — even parents. That boy was me, and when I grew up, I did indeed marry her.
At least now I knew why.
Free will, my ass.
Coming home from work one lovely still-bright Manhattan summer’s eve in August of 1983, I exited the 72nd Street subway stop in front of John Lennon’s old mammoth gingerbread digs The Dakota and walked along Central Park West toward my block. As I reached my corner, I saw a little knot – actually, something between a big knot and a little crowd, so a clot I guess – directly across the street, standing in front of another elegant old apartment building and looking at something or other, I couldn’t tell what or where. People seemed fascinated. For some reason, I thought they were looking at some cute little dog, not ordinarily a big interest of mine at the time, but there was something about the excited state of these onlookers that made it seem worth walking the extra 12 feet to cross the street.
Turned out they weren’t looking at anything. They were looking for something, or rather someone. There was no doggie. And everyone was lined up on both sides of the entranceway like at the red carpet leading into the Oscars; quite a few of them had cameras, in fact. One of the gawkers excitedly revealed to me that at any moment…upstairs in that building…Paul Simon was about to get married…in his apartment…to Carrie Fisher. I knew Paul Simon lived there, but I didn’t know he’d been seeing Princess Leia; apparently this relationship had been conducted with a great deal of discretion, if not secrecy, and now these pop icons were attempting to tie the knot below the radar of public scrutiny.
So why were all these other people standing around the sidewalk? My gawker-guide explained that everyone was waiting to see if, after ten years of limited contact with his old friend and former singing partner Garfunkel, Simon had invited him to his wedding and whether, if he had, Garfunkel would in fact attend. Apparently they were in an “on” phase of their famous on-again-off-again estrangement. The supposedly bitter feud between childhood friends who had become huge sixties music stars together, combined with romance and the leading lady of the still-hot original “Star Wars” movies constituted, it seemed, a tantalizingly heady mixture in celebrity gossip terms. Most of the cameras, in fact, were being wielded by gossip-page/tattler-rag photographers.
My helpful guide elaborated. “See that guy standing right across from us? He’s king of the paparazzi. He takes those pictures of celebrities looking totally weird that they put on the cover of the Enquirer, the Star, all those tabloids.” I had, of course, marveled during my own time in supermarket checkout lines at the uncharacteristically distorted expressions and awkward positions the famous and glamorous were often shown sporting, as if reacting to the shocking headlines about themselves. I’d even wondered whether they heavy-handedly retouched the photos to make them so ridiculously unflattering.
I looked across at the “king”. He was a heavy, slovenly guy with a dull expression and some serious camera equipment draped around himself so that he looked kind of like a bandito who’d fallen off his horse, hit his head on a rock and wandered aimlessly out of the desert. I doubted my guide knew what the hell he was talking about. Little did I know I was soon to observe a master at work.
After a few minutes of uneventful loitering, I was about ready to head home when somebody yelped. There, loping up Central Park West, arms swinging, head down, came the object of curiosity himself: Art Garfunkel, his tall, lanky figure and trademark (though perhaps thinning and receding) Einstein-with-his-finger-in-the-socket hairstyle instantly recognizable even from a distance.
He probably would’ve greatly preferred invisibility at that moment. He’d undoubtedly spotted the unwelcome welcoming committee arrayed before the building’s entrance. His pace picked up. His head stayed down. As he ran the little gauntlet toward the safety of the lobby within, many voices – particularly those coming from the het-up photographers (with the noted exception of the silent alleged paparazzi king) – called out, “Art! Artie! Look here! Art! Over here! Art! Smile! Art!!”
No reaction. The prey was escaping by determinedly not acknowledging anything around him. Eyes to the ground, gait elongated, he reached the doorway. His feet touched the one raised step leading up to the door, which the uniformed doorman dutifully began opening. At that nanosecond, with the casual precision attained only by those who have truly become one with their craft, the king of the paparazzi called out, “HEY BALDY!!!”
The gentle folk-rocker never stood a chance. As reflexively as the leg kick that follows the doctor hitting your knee with that little triangular hammer, Arthur Garfunkel’s head spun fleetingly toward the sound, face contorted into a twisted, enraged, horrified glare.
Just one shot, from just one camera, timed just perfectly. Over in an instant. The other photographers looked on in awe.
And that, boys and girls, is how it’s done.