beatlesarehere

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“The Beatles liberated young people from Victor Borge, Robert Goulet, Steve and Eydie, and the demented sing-along-with-the-bouncing-dots schlock immortalized by Mitch Miller. The Beatles liberated young people from bland show tunes, ethnic hooey like ‘Volare’ and ‘Danke Schoen,’ and stultifying novelty tunes like ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ and ‘Mr. Custer.’

The Beatles held out hope that life might actually be worth living, that popular culture need not be gray, predictable, sappy, lethal. To this day, what I feel toward the Beatles is not so much affection or reverence. It is gratitude.”

Joe Queenan, humor writer

From:      Karen Lester

To:        [email protected]

Subject:   Re: blast from the past

 

Bill! Wow!

It’s sort of a shock to hear from you after all these years. How many times have you been in California since ’73? Hundreds? Thousands? And not so much as a postcard. Say goodbye to Hollywood, indeed!

I know you hated living in L.A., and it sure seemed like you’d forgotten all about your pals at the Executive Room — even though, irony of ironies, you sing about us almost every night of your life.

Still, I was really happy to get your e-mail, if only to assuage my guilt over how things ended between us.  I’ve always felt bad about that. I didn’t mean to call you a creepy little garden gnome, but I was stoned (like the businessmen?), and let’s face it, you weren’t exactly a perfect gentleman, jamming my hand down your pants like that. After all we’d been through, we should have ended things on a higher note — like the one you hit at the chorus of the studio version of “Innocent Man.”

Anyway, you asked what the old Wilshire crew is up to these days, so I’ll fill you in.

John, as you imply in your song — cruelly, he’s always felt — never did become a movie star. Casting agents thought he was too short, and that he had an “old face.” He had some small parts in some indie films, and one time he was in a commercial for Taco Bell. But he had a problem with heroin — Captain Jack took him to his special island — and then he had a problem with VD, and then he became a Scientologist.

He left the Church after ten years, after they’d robbed him of his youth, his money, and his street cred. He’s married now — again — and living in I think San Pedro. He had two kids from his previous marriage — twins — who are doing well, even though they sometimes get mistaken for the Menendez brothers when they hang out in Beverly Hills.

I haven’t seen him for years, but he friended me on Facebook a few months ago, so I told him I’d heard from you and that you sent your regards. I won’t relay his exact response, as he had some not very kind things to say about you, your ex-wife, and your daughter. He did mention that he hoped the tabloid reports of you quitting the sauce were true, as you “could be a pretty decent guy when the microphone smelled like something other than beer, wine, or hard liquor.”

Also, although I know he digs your stuff, especially Songs From the Attic, he does not list you among his favorite artists on his “info” page (but you’re first on mine, even though, let’s face it, everything kind of went downhill after Glass Houses).

Paul, as you probably know, is a pretty successful screenwriter — his forays into real estate and novelwriting ended about the same time your six-month stint at the Executive did, and he’s always been amused that you chose to affix those labels to him — who has been nominated for as Oscar several times, and won a Golden Globe. He’s not on Facebook, but I run into him at fundraisers every once in awhile.

I called him up and told him about your out-of-the-blue note. He said he barely remembered you, but he knows the song, of course, and he thought it was so weird that you characterized him as being too busy for marriage; the reason he didn’t have a wife was not because he didn’t have time, as you suggest, but because he’s gay. “It’s West Hollywood,” he said. “Why else would I spend all night talking to a sailor?”

Not that David was a sailor, as I’m sure you know. Not in the conventional, McHale’s Navy sense. He was in the JAG corps, and after completing his civil service, started his own firm, specializing in wills and estates. There’s a lot of money in that sort of work, especially in Los Angeles, let me tell you. He probably has more net worth than most of the fly-by-night movie stars in this town.  He drives a Bentley! If you had only used David as your attorney instead of Elizabeth’s sleazy brother! But at least you won *some* money from the lawsuit.

Ramon was relieved of his manager duties in 1973, not long after you left and took our best customers with you. He kept opening up new restaurants and clubs, but never had the success he enjoyed with you tickling the ivories. Which is probably why he drove up the PHC and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1977. Not that you should feel bad about that. Even if he did quote “Tomorrow is Today,” off Cold Spring Harbor, in his suicide note. I mean, the guy was majorly screwed up. Paul thinks he has multiple personality disorder.

As for me, your politics-practicing waitress? Well, I work for the state government in the Department of Education. That was after serving on the city council for many years. I’m married — my husband is a vice president at Universal — and we have two lovely children, Michael and Jennifer. We live up in Coldwater Canyon, next door to Carrie Fisher. But you probably know all that, if you’ve Googled me.

What you’re after — I’m assuming, now that you’re once again divorced and needy — is what I’m doing emotionally, if I ever got over our time together that summer. I did fall for you pretty hard, I admit, even though I knew you liked Elizabeth more than you liked me. I always thought she was a bitch. All the girls did. She was the kind of woman that other women dislike — trouble, in other words. Oh, she’s got a way, alright!

Ah, what might have been, had you picked me instead!  But you never had much use for my “Peter Pan advice.”

But I’m very happy with Tom, who, in addition to his tremendous business success, is also a former semi-professional hockey player and underwear model, and a well-known poet (although his poetry tends to be ponderous T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound-type stuff, and not nearly as fun as your lyrics for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”; sometimes I do have to work hard to keep up with his clever conversation!). We live a happy, private life, although the sex tape we made with that Brazilian model did leak on the Internet a few years ago, starting a “scandal” that forced me to leave electoral politics…but you probably read about that, too.

Likewise, I’m sure you’re better off with the path you chose: your three failed marriages (Katie Lee? She’s Alexa’s age!), your lifelong battles with alcoholism and depression, your legal troubles with your string of rapacious managers and record company executives, and your authorship of “Tell Her About It.”

But it’s really, really great to hear from you! I hope your boating endeavor goes well (I found out about it from your Wikipedia page). We have boats here, too, you know — Catalina is a nicer port than anything on Long Island — so if you’re ever in town, give me a shout. Maybe we can go have a drink. No, wait, scratch that, you don’t drink anymore. A coffee, then. There are some hip places in Echo Park you might like.

Best to you, Bill.

xoxoxo,

Karen

P.S. I totally remember that gin-and-tonic-happy old man. He was gross. If I had a nickel for every time he pinched my ass…

P.P.S. I’ve attached a photo of you from that summer that David took (there I am in the back, all the way to the right).

 

 

 

 

I could start off by saying I was a shy kid and I liked books more than people and my dad was a rough oilfield man and blah blah blah, woe is me, and now I’m a writer and everything is all better.

The reality is I was shy and I’m not sure why, because inside I felt I could soar as high as the sky if only someone would pay attention to me.

Like in the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.

On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.

If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.

The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.

I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”

As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my ABCs when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.

So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.

Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.

On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.

My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.

Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.

As I said I was a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.

Ding!

That tinny ring was the sound of death.

Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?

I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:

D-A-I-Z-E

I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.

Ding!

I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.

Daze.

Daze.

Daze.

It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.

My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.

I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.

* * *

P.S. Here’s a school photo of us. This is from second grade, not sixth, so we’re all a bit younger and shorter and perhaps more awkward. But at least you get the idea.

here are three chapters in American Psycho—“Huey Lewis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Genesis”—in which Patrick Bateman, the narrator, ruminates on three of his favorite musical acts. In the third such chapter, he writes:

I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I really didn’t understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference to band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career), I did enjoy the lovely “Follow You, Follow Me.”

By this point in the book, Bateman has already mutilated a homeless saxophone player, chopped a co-worker to death with a chainsaw, and served his girlfriend a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. But it was only upon reading the preceding paragraph that it really kicked in: “He thinks Phil Collins is better than Peter Gabriel?!?! Holy shit! That guy’s fucking nuts!”

On June 25, I did a reading in New York City for an event titled “Generation XYZ.” What appears below is the essay that I delivered. You can watch the video of the reading here.

When April asked me to comment on how Generation X culture changed my life, I was sort of stumped. Because it’s not so much how it changed my life, but how it was my life. These TV shows and music and movies that almost seem quaint now – I grew up with them. Generation X is me, and I’m Generation X. How could I possibly delve into something that is so tightly integrated into who I am?

When Marisa Tomei won her Oscar in 1993, a sizable contingent of industry types agreed that the award was largely undeserved.My Cousin Vinny” had none of the prestige of that year’s best picture nominees, “Unforgiven” and “The Crying Game”. The cast boasted no Serious Actors. Tellingly, Tomei’s was the film’s only nomination. And the marquee name? Joe-fucking-Pesci.

But, against all odds, Marisa beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. That’s—count ’em—three Brits.

Tomei’s win was such an upset that, for years, rumors persisted that she hadn’t really won. That presenter Jack Palance had called her name by accident. That the true winner was Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not true though.

And I for one never believed it was.

* * *

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Marisa.

Back in 1994, I performed in a talent show at Jewish sleepaway camp. Because I was 9 and it was the early ’90s, I sang “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

In fact, I knew all the songs on Dreambox by heart. “Hero” and “Dreamlover” and “Music Box” and all the rest. I used to listen to the tape on my Sony walkman. I alternated between Dreambox and Forever Your Girl. Later, I’d move on to Jewel and then the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind. At the time though, it was all about Mariah. (And, when no one was watching, Celine Dion.)

I sang “Hero” because I knew all the words and it’s with no small amount of pride that I tell you I received a standing ovation for my performance.

My stage fright was so bad that, when I sat down, I was still shaking.

“You know who you look like?” a male counselor asked.

“Who?” I responded, catching my breath.

“That actress, Marisa Tomei.”

I had no idea who Marisa Tomei was in 1994.My Cousin Vinny” was rated R and the only R-rated movie I’d seen was a snippet of “Pretty Woman” in a limo after my third cousin’s bat mitzvah. But even though I didn’t know who she was, I knew enough to be flattered. I watched Tomei’s career with interest and was pleased to see that, in time, she proved her critics wrong, garnering another two Oscar nominations.

* * *

The thing is, I don’t look much like her. I’m not nearly so pretty. I feel certain that no one would cast me as a stripper or ask me to dance coquettishly in a Hanes commercial.

Like most girls, I wanted the gamine looks of Audrey Hepburn or the smoldering sensuality of Liz Taylor. To be a cat on a hot tin roof. Holly Golightly. To be dark and delicate. To be desired.

But I don’t really look like celebrities at all. More than anything else, I look like those sepia-toned snapshots of refugees in line at Ellis Island. Or like those photos you see in “The Shoah”: somber-faced and sad-eyed, clutching a suitcase, a tattered yellow star affixed to my best wool coat.

I don’t look like celebrities. I look an understudy in a dinner theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

When I was nine, I dressed up as Louisa May Alcott for Famous Person’s Day.My mother was heartbroken. She’d begged me to go as Anne Frank. “Think of how easy it would be!” she said. “We cut out a yellow magen david, tape it to your jacket and, voila!”

I held firm, though. Little Women was my favorite book and, more than anything, I was bound and determined to pay homage to its author.

I’ve come to regret that decision. After all, I look a hell of a lot more like Anne Frank than Louisa May Alcott.

* * *

When I was 15 or 16, my grandmother told me I looked just like Liza Minelli.

From her perspective, this was high praise.

She pictured “Cabaret”-era Liza—all big eyes and jazz hands.

I, however, pictured David Gest-era Liza—all drug addiction and wrinkles and encephalitis.

This well-meaning comment did little for my already-plummeting self-esteem. It’s no coincidence that in the year that followed, I stopped eating and assiduously avoided all things Fosse.

* * *

My sister once told me that an ex-boyfriend of hers said she was prettier than Natalie Portman. They’d had a class together in college, she said, and he assured her that she was, like, way hotter.

* * *

“You look just like Alexa Ray Joel!’ the waitress told me emphatically. “Just like her.”

“You know who she is, right? Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley’s daughter!”

She paused and then, after a beat: “She didn’t get her mother’s looks at all.”

Great. Just what every girl dreams of: being compared to the paunchy, sad-eyed Piano Man.

Anybody looking for a downtown man?

* * *

A friend of mine used to go around informing anyone who would listen how often she was mistaken for Keira Knightley. For a time, she had a glamour shot of Keira as her Facebook picture.

* * *

My second cousin, Ellen, weighed 67 pounds and was 42-years-old when she died in 2006. We scattered her ashes in a man-made lake at the park where she used to go jogging. For the last two decades of her life, that was all she had. Jogging and books and years of empty dinner plates.

It was hard to look at her.

But Ellen was sweet. She was sweet and she was sad.

She gave tight, hard hugs. Hugs so forceful you could feel her ribcage, her pelvic bone. Hugs so fierce you worried that her brittle little body might break.

Ellen preferred to skip family events as they often centered around meals. But when she did come, she would talk enthusiastically about the latest book she’d read or a foreign film she’d seen. She was nice to me.

She once told me that I looked like Isabella Rossellini.

“Just like her.”