Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Classics

I just finished reading Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter," a brilliant and thought-provoking novel. I mainly chose to read it because it was on Time's Top 100, and because Paul Theroux always raves about Greene. But as it is a classic, it made me think: just what makes a book classifiable as "classic?"

Does the story have to effectively touch on social and moral issues that not only reflect the time period it's written in, but also of future generations? Classics seem to be a dying breed; I'm not sure what would be considered a classic in today's genre. But as for those considered to be classics, many wouldn't even be published today. I can't see "The Heart of the Matter" finding a large enough audience in today's market to warrant publishing. About 15 years ago the New York Post submitted the novel "The Yearling" to several New York publishers--and they all turned it down(none recognized the story). They claimed it was rejected on the basis that there was just no market for it. It wouldn't sell today. Young people don't want a novel about a boy and a deer. They want Harry Potter.

Who decides whether or not a book is a classic? Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was ridiculed during his time as a writer, but suddenly became popular 30 years after his death and is now regarded as a classic. Why the sudden change and what groups of literary elite made this discovery?

I'm also curious about today's classics--mainly, what are they? I used to consider a book a classic based on whether or not there were Cliff's Notes available for them. If there was enough interest in a book to create a marketable analysis then it must be a classic (I say this tongue in cheek). There were many classics in the '50's and 60's--"To Kill a Mockingbird," "Catcher in the Rye," "Catch-22," just to name a few. I wasn't around during that time period, but it seems as though those novels were regarded as instant classics. But what about from the 1970's forward? Are there any out there? Stephen King has definitely been the most prolific writer since the '70's, but as one of my college profs firmly stated, "he's entertaining, but he's not a great writer." But yet another prof said it may be too early to judge King; he may be deemed a classic author in 100 years. Look at Edgar Allen Poe. Poe's stories dig deep into the human psyche, so they're not simply classified as "horror." But couldn't the same be said about King's "The Stand?"

A friend once predicted that Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" was destined to become a classic. But I've barely heard mention of the novel in the last 15 years. It seems to have faded after the poor Brian De Palma film. A few modern authors that I personally view as being possible "classic" worthy are Jeffrey Eugenides, Jay McInerney(if only for "Bright Lights Big City"), and possibly Bret Easton Ellis. But that's just my humble opinion. I'm sure there are many others (Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates) that people would put on their list.

I went to the Cliff's Notes website today to see if I could find any synopses of modern novels. I was surprised to find Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" on their list. I've never read it, but is it regarded as a classic? Is there another way to judge what books today can be thought of as belonging in this elite category? Or maybe classic novels are like Broadway--whose heyday died 40 years ago.

Survivor

Today was the BIG day at work. Layoffs. Luckily I managed to escape the chopping block. Everyone in my little group was spared. A woman in another group that's linked to us was let go. After 19 years. The upside is that the company gives 2 weeks of severance for every year of service. That's 38 weeks. She's the type to go out and immediately look for another job. I'm not. I would take off for 2 months, travel, then look for work.

But this time of uncertainty has provided another wake-up call. I've got to get moving on my book...on my life. I've gotta be in control of my destiny. I can't live in fear of having the "higher ups" determine my fate.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Happy Holidays from Big Corporate!

My company decided to give us an extra special bonus for the holidays this year--they announced that layoffs will be imminent! Woo-hoo! That's such great timing, isn't it? What with Thanksgiving and Xmas just around the corner. If that doesn't spread the ol' holiday cheer then I don't know what.

Yes, the first word of this came last week. Our sister companies in L.A., Chicago, New York and Baltimore have already begun laying people off. Our company, however, has not. We've only been told to expect it to come soon. If you're a "chosen one" you will be called in to a manager's office first thing in the morning on that very special day and then led down to HR. Then I assume it's a security escort out of the building!

So now we all just sit around acting all gloomy at work. My boss has told our group that we should be okay, but really, what does he know? My belief is that they'll start on the Monday after Thanksgiving. That way we can enjoy our turkey dinner with a stomach full of anxiety and depression--great way to spend the day with your family. Okay, so I don't see my family on Thanksgiving. Or Xmas. Or any other time of year for that matter. But that's another story and besides the point. Others at work do enjoy seeing their families. But just in case some of us have tried to put it out of our minds, big corporate decides to send out another cheerful holiday e-mail today reminding us not to worry--there's still plenty more layoffs to come!! If you haven't gotten yours yet, just sit tight.

Sera, the eternal optimist, said, "if you do get laid off you'll have a lot more time to work on your book." Of course there will probably be an initial period of depression, after which I will be able to continue writing.

But in the meantime fear has filled me with an extra dose of adrenaline to get cracking on my book. This whole message from big corporate just reaffirms the notion that I need to be in control of my own life. I don't want the holidays to be ruined because some multi-millionaire CEOs have decided to do away with the lower peasants while they continue to relish their 7 figure salaries.

So I have been working on the final version of my book. It's very difficult work laboring over each paragraph to make sure it comes out well. I'm struggling with the patience for that(at least the first draft is complete). But it's even more difficult for me to judge what's good and what's not. I'll write a few paragraphs, then get too carried away with description. Sera will read it and put me back into place.

"You're story is meant to be fast-paced, like someone's talking to you. All that description takes the reader off-track," she says. At first I'll sulk and say "admit it, my writing is terrible." But after a good pep talk I'll realize that Sera is right and I go back and edit. Then she'll read it and say, "that's much better. Now it's great stuff." But I can't tell what the hell is great stuff. I mean I can read Fitzgerald and Henry Miller and think, "wow, that REALLY is great stuff." And then I look at my writing and it reads like, "the cat jumped over the dog."

Sera tells me I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to writing. When something of mine is published I'm all exuberant and proud. But then when I read the printed version I'm embarrassed by its inferiority and don't show it to anyone. Other times I'll write stuff that I really do think is good and it gets rejected. What am I supposed to think about all that? I really don't have a clue. But I do know that even if my novel turns out to be trash, at least I'll have a finished book. And that's another question I've got. Sera just showed me where a "novel" specifically refers to fiction. All these years and I never knew this. My book is non-fiction and therefore I can't refer to it as a novel. I'm not going to refer to it as a "memoir" or biography. What can I call this thing? I think I'll just stick with "novel" and to hell with anyone who contradicts me.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Top Lists

I notice that top 10 and 100 lists always seem to pop up, and it makes me wonder who really has the authority to create such lists. The lists are really just a matter of opinion of a few people that I may or may not disagree with. But as long as everyone agrees that those lists are just a matter of opinion, then they can be kind of fun.

I've always had a dislike for Rolling Stone magazine (they're obviously biased towards most major artists--how can they justify giving five stars to the vastly subpar Pink Floyd "The Final Cut" and to every Rolling Stones album in the '90s, while consistenly panning every Led Zeppelin album ever?) But I've noticed that in efforts to boost sales they will periodically come up with a Top 100 of this or that. I recall the frenzy when they came out with the Top 100 albums of all time back in the late 1980's. Though I agree with their No. 1 choice of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper," I lost all respect for the list with their inclusion of The Sex Pistols' "Never Mind The Bollocks" and Paul Simon's "Graceland" in the top 10. I've always been a fan of the Pistols, and especially their lone classic album, but seriously--the No. 2 album of all time? And while Simon's "Graceland" was great for what it did in spreading awareness about Apartheid, I find it difficult to swallow as one of the 10 greatest EVER.

Time recently published their Top 100 books (narrowing the field to English language since the magazine's inception in 1923). I felt quite the erudite in seeing I had read 19 of their top 100, but also a bit dismayed in their exclusion of some others I love.

I've always been serious about my Top 10 lists of favorites, even going so far as ending relationships if the girl didn't fully feel the emotion of my favorite all-time films. One thick-headed girl actually walked out on "The Graduate," claiming it was by far Dustin Hoffman's worst film (her fav was the "timeless" classic "The Legend of Billie Jean"). There are times when I fantasize about finding her just to proudly show how "The Graduate" came in at No. 7 in AFI's Top 100 greatest films of all time. But common sense and reason always prevail with the reality that she's probably no smarter today than she was all those years ago, and probably wouldn't give a damn.

But I figure for what it's worth (probably very little in my opinion) I'd list my top 5 favorites in select categories. I feel a bit like Rob in "High Fidelity."

Top 5 favorite books:

1.Lolita
2.The Catcher in the Rye
3.Catch-22
4.One Hundred Years of Solitude
5.The Beach


Top 5 favorite films:

1.The Graduate--fell in love with it when I saw it at age 13 and have never looked back.

2.Midnight Cowboy--one of the most vivid depictions of New York, and now serves as a trip back in time into the sleaze of Times Square back in the '60s/'70s.

3.Taxi Driver--also incredibly vivid depiction of NY in the '70s, but also incredible to watch Travis Bickle slowly go from confused to outright insane.

4.Risky Business--many are stunned when I mention this as a top five. But I've also seen it written up as a modern day version of "The Graduate." It really is a film as opposed to a "movie." Watch it some time late at night with all the lights out and no distractions. It's incredible.

5.Cinema Paradiso--the most beautiful film I've ever seen.

Top 5 Albums:

1. The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper": there had never been anything like this at the time it came out, and it changed the music scene. From the opening theatrics of the title song to the haunting close of "A Day in the Life."

2. The Doors first album: Has there ever been another debut album that created such a rippling effect on the world? The band ventured to go beyond the three minute ditties that bombarded airwaves at the time and literally broke on through and dared the listener to do the same with songs like "Light My Fire," and the disturbing finale "The End."

3. Pink Floyd "The Wall": a remarkable biographical double album morphing the lives of Roger Waters and ill-fated Syd Barrett. Not only is the story itself fascinating, but Waters managed to put it all to brilliant lyrics and music.

4. The Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers": this is like no other Stones album. Many fans and critics always point to "Exile On Main Street," but I've always preferred this one. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" is simply brilliant with the raunchy guitar and chorus in the first half, followed by the jazzy horns in the second half, all building in crescendo to its explosive finale. "Dead Flowers" is a nice twangy sing-along, plus the timeless "Brown Sugar," and "Bitch."

5. Led Zeppelin 4: I thought about not including this one because it's so overplayed on the radio, but is that really the band's fault? It's really just a testament to its brilliance. Everyone's favorite song in high school in the '70s and '80s was "Stairway to Heaven." You just weren't cool if you didn't say it. It must be the most overplayed song never released as a single--overplayed to the point where I find myself turning stations when I hear it (was very thankful they didn't play it on the Page/Plant tour 10 years ago). But I can never get sick of "Rock and Roll" and "The Battle of Evermore."

Top 5 songs:

1. The Doors: Riders on the Storm
2. Bob Dylan: Knockin' on Heaven's Door
3. Don Henley: Boys of Summer: This song has haunted me since I first heard it back in 1984.
4. The Rolling Stones: Midnight Rambler(live version): some songs are better live, and this is possibly the best of them. Especially love the fan yelling out "God damn!" in the middle.
5. The Eagles: Hotel California: just a work of genius from start to finish.


Top 5 concerts I've been to:

1. John Mellencamp: Back in the '80s he outperformed them all. I used to have an old news clipping that the New York Post wrote about one of his shows. It proclaimed he was better live than the Stones, Pink Floyd or any other biggies. And it was true. He's slowed down since then, and still puts on a good show. But back then there was no one like him live. Two sets, great covers like "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Under the Boardwalk." Pulling someone out of the crowd to sing "Pink Houses" with him. He and his band had a great time on stage and the energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on the crowd. Mellencamp actually put on the two best concerts I've ever been to: Thanksgiving Night 1987 at Madison Square Garden(10th row) and then in June of 1988 at the Meadowlands (now Continental Airlines Arena)--had front row.

2.The Black Crowes at the Beacon Theater, March 1995: Waited five years to see this band after I got frustrated and walked off a line to see them at London's historic Marquee in 1990. I've seen them 5 times since, and though it's always a great time none have compared to this performance.

3. AC/DC, Nassau Coliseum, Sept. 1986: Had never seen such a show before, with cannons firing, a giant bell and just the fun of watching Angus Young. A band that really knows how to put on a show.

4. Bob Dylan/Sheryl Crow at Roseland, September, 1994: Had seen Dylan in the past and was somewhat disappointed (as many are by his terrible voice and lack of enthusiasm on stage these days). But I loved Sheryl Crow's debut album and mainly went for her. She put on a great show herself, but Dylan was on top of his act this night. The VIP section was full of stars: Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Allen Ginsberg, Steven Wright, GE Smith, Ric Ocasek and his wife, Paulina, Neil Young. Perhaps this is what led Dylan to go the extra mile at this show. Roseland is a tiny place, and the stars were literally 20 feet from me. It was as much fun to stargaze as it was to watch the iconesque Dylan perform. The crowd was into the entire show. Dylan was joined by Springsteen and Neil Young for the encore of "Rainy Day Women," and "Highway 61." I've seen Dylan several times since (always playing with the Dead), and this was the only time I ever saw him enjoying himself and smiling. You couldn't help but smile watching Springsteen fumble with the guitar during "Rainy Day Women" while Neil Young tried to show him the chords. And then having a thousand fans singing "Everybody Must Get Stoned" along with these stars was especially memorable.

5. The Rolling Stones, July 1990 in Turin, Italy: I had fulfilled a fantasy of finally seeing the Stones, twice, on their Steel Wheels tour at Shea Stadium in Oct. 1989. Though my seats were very far away, it didn't matter. It was the Rolling Stones and it was my dream to see them. But in the summer of 1990 I was backpacking through Europe when I happened to see a poster for the Stones in Italy. I took a French girl I was seeing to the show, and it turned out to be a lesson in cultural differences between the US and Italy. The concert was at a large soccer stadium with general admission seating. In the US a Stones show with general admission would surely result in a stampede with several deaths. We got to the arena early and I was surprised when we were able to casually walk up to the front and sit. There was no one else around us.
"Are we allowed to sit here?" I asked my g/f.
"Of course," she replied.
Others were at the concession stands buying food and drinks, or just milling about and chatting with one another.
"Back home people would kill for these seats."
"Well that's stupid," she said. "It's just a concert."
And she was obviously right.

The stage was half the size it had been in the US, allowing a more personalized show. And since I had seen them twice, I knew what songs were usually coming up. At one such point I yelled out, "let Keith sing!" The Italians in our area began yelling it out with me, and got excited when Mick Jagger then announced, "I'm going to let Keith sing now." I kept yelling for them to play "The Midnight Rambler," and when the finally did my fellow Italian friends erupted in a frenzy(I doubt they had ever heard of the song.) During the encore break the stadium chanted an Italian song, and Mick Jagger joined in when the band returned. It was one of the most memorable nights I've ever had.

6. Aerosmith/Deep Purple/Guns 'N Roses, Aug. 1988 at Giants Stadium: Sorry, I just had to make room for this show. Aerosmith was on their comeback tour for "Permanent Vacation." Guns 'N Roses had just exploded with "Appetite For Destruction," and Deep Purple was there just to make an already great concert even better. GNR filmed the "Paradise City" video at this show; this was pre-Axl whining like a baby days, and they put on a fantastic performance. Deep Purple shot colored lasers into the night sky while jamming for two hours. Aerosmith didn't even get on stage until 11:30, and played until the wee hours of the morning. It was over 7 hours of great music.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

South Beach and U2

Sera and I spent last weekend in Miami, our first time there. We were excited to see South Beach, and had images of glistening hard-toned bodies, women with supermodel figures--the types of people that would make you feel intimidated and insecure at the beach. Instead we saw the real reason South Beach needs a Diet--an over-abundance of obese men and women flaunting their rolls in all their glory. Most of the men that were not overweight were wearing speedos, always an unseemly sight.

It was too windy to lay out on the beach, but we enjoyed strolling along the surf while people watching. I was surprised that women would lie out topless with the wind blowing. Sera said, "the sand would really hurt your breasts!"

It was also nice to people watch along Lincoln Avenue, a pedestrian mall featuring lots of outdoor restaurants, trendy shops and boutiques, and tons of gay men walking their little poodles. I always figured there'd be a lot of gays there (the breadth of my knowledge of South Beach comes from "The Birdcage"), but I was surprised we didn't see any gay women.

All in all South Beach was definitely interesting, but not as great as we expected.

But the main reason for our trip was the U2 concert Sunday night. As I wrote in my last entry I felt U2 had become the biggest sellouts. Gone were the days of angst filled songs of protest, the flag waving of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," replaced by the commercialism of cell phone and iPod ads, Bono's "cool" shades, ordering pizzas on stage and techno-pop. "I just hope they play a few of their old songs," Sera kept saying all weekend.

Despite my reservations about the show, I found myself excited with anticipation while waiting for it to begin. I had wanted to see U2 for 20 years, and I was thrilled knowing they would be coming on stage shortly. The stage itself wasn't tacky--just a small spiraling circle(the Vertigo for which the tour is named). There was a small general admission pit in front of the stage. A long, thin ramp wound its way around the main stage, separating the front pit from another general admission pit.

When they finally did come on stage the audience was as loud as any as I've ever heard in my life. It's amazing what kind of presence one band can have on stage. Fans get loud at Rolling Stones concerts, but then there are moments when they settle in and take a seat (usually during songs like, "Miss You," or "The Harlem Shuffle.") But not at the U2 show. No one sat for the entire show and the audience was completely into it from start to finish. And both Sera and I were pleasantly surprised. The band seemed to revert to their old days of playing for a cause. Bono often spoke about peace and what we can do to help stop poverty. They made a statement by playing all their political songs together: "Love and Peace or Else," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Bullet the Blue Sky," a short version of "Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Miss Sarajevo," "Where the Streets Have No Name," and "Pride." Bono took off his trademark shades during this segment and wore a headband displaying symbols of all the major religions: the Cross, Star of David, etc. At one point he played the part of a prisoner of war, wearing the headband as a blindfold and needing guidance to find the microphone. At the end of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" he pulled a child out of the audience and had him repeatedly scream "No More!" into the mike. There were no giant lemons, no plethora of giant TV's. U2 allowed their lyrics and music to create the greatest and most everlasting effect.

Another highlight was during the encore when they played, "Stuck in the Moment." It's probably my favorite of theirs from the late '90's era, but I was surprised when Bono announced it was written about Michael Hutchence. I was a big fan of Hutchence in the 1980's, and was fortunate to see INXS when they played at my college on their "Kick" tour.

So I must say that U2 has definitely gained my respect back. And it's funny: I just saw them last night on a commercial for a mobile phone. But instead of thinking of them as sellouts, I now know they still do care and are playing their part in trying to spread an important message to the world.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Sell Outs

In the 1980's U2 dominated the world. And I was a big fan. Songs like "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" perfectly epitomized my tragic relationships of that time period. I'd listen to the "Joshua Tree" until my record(remember those?) began to crackle. To this day I'm still haunted by the "Rattle and Hum" epic ballad "All I Want Is You." I never saw them in the '80s as I was always away at college when they toured, far from a major city and usually broke.

"Achtung Baby" came out in 1992. It was a bit different from the rest, but they didn't disappoint with the beautiful ballad "One." They came to Madison Square Garden that spring, and for once I would not only be around but had the money. But tickets proved impossible to get. They sold out all their shows in seconds, with most tickets going to corporations and brokers. I called a few brokers and asked, "what kind of seat can I get for $150?" I was told, "you'll be lucky to get in the door and stand by the rafters for that." Decent seats were going for $500. There was no way I was going to pay that. I was willing to do the $150 for nosebleeds until a friend told me the band was no longer playing "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day." I wasn't going to pay that much unless I could hear all their hits.

The years went by and U2's albums, in my opinion, became meaningless pop junk. They went from a band with meaning with songs like "Pride" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," to techno crap like "Zooropa." Gone were the political flag-waving rants, replaced by leather, giant TV screens and plastic lemons on stage. It was sickening to watch. U2 became perhaps the biggest sellouts in music history.

But despite the fact that I can't stand what has become of this icon of the music industry, I always regretted that I never got to see them in their prime. So when I saw last spring that they were touring the US, I decided to give it a shot. I figured I didn't have a chance at getting tickets, and wasn't going to waste too much time trying. But to my surprise I was able to quickly get tickets for one of their Miami shows, for this Sunday night.

So Sera and I will be making our first trip ever to Miami and making a weekend out of it. We leave tomorrow, and will get our first ever South Beach experience. I have no expectations for the concert, other than the hope that perhaps they'll play a few of my favorites. Thankfully the show is not at an impersonal stadium--there should be no giant TV's, no giant fruits on stage. And after 20 years of waiting I will at last get to see the band I once most yearned to see...or at least what's left of them.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Office Affairs Part One

"I want to leave my wife," Rob says to me in between swigs of beer.

A group of us from the office are at a club in downtown Orlando. It was supposed to be a couple of beers after work, but it's five hours later. And we've all had a lot to drink.

Rob is a quiet, friendly guy I work with. Comes in early, leaves early. Has those perfect family photos of himself, his wife and two year old son framed around his desk. Of course everyone is smiling in the pics like they're thinking, "life is so perfect for us." That's what I see every day.

This is the first time Rob has gone out with us. I thought he'd come by for a quick beer and then go home. He usually leaves work by 4, leaving the rest of us behind. It's 9 o'clock now and he's been drinking heavily for five hours. And then he stuns me with this revelation.

The confessions flow as freely as the alcohol tonight. "I'm enjoying this," he says. "My wife never lets me out of her sight. We started dating in high school and got married shortly after. I've never gone out drinking with a group of people. And there's so many beautiful girls here. And I'm falling for Kara."

Kara is a young blonde in the office. She and Rob spend a lot of time together--going out to lunch, visiting each other's cubicles. A few people have started gossiping. "Is something going on with Rob and Kara?" they whisper.

But I know the truth. There's nothing going on between Rob and Kara. That's because Kara's been banging my boss, Tom, for the past year. They've kept it secret. Except that Tom likes to boast to me about all his exploits. Kara thinks, or hopes, that she's the only one sleeping with Tom. Tom has made it clear to her that they're not officially "dating," but still doesn't want her to know about the others. And there's plenty of others. In addition to our weekly visits to the strip club Rachel's, he sleeps with about two different girls a week. And it's rarely the same two.

All the guys in my work area tell me, "I wonder if Kara's seeing anyone?" And I have to keep quiet. But lately Rob has been following Kara around like a lost puppy. To the point that rumors have started. And Rob is so quiet that you'd never really expect anything. And he's got all those photos of his wife and child watching him all day. The perfect nuclear family. The type of photos which make me question my own life. Where are my children? Where's my house with the yard? Am I doing something wrong? Everyone around me is so perfect and happy. It makes my stomach twist in knots.

And now Rob tells me he wants to leave his life...his wife. "I envy you," he says.
"Why me?" I ask incredulously.
"Your wife lets you go out whenever you want. You can go to Rachel's and drink with strippers all day. You can go out partying with Tom whenever you want and she doesn't mind. I'm only out because my wife is visiting her parents this weekend. She'd kill me if she found out."

So Rob envies me.

The situation reminds me of when I get my college alumni magazine. All the notices of people I know getting married, having kids, getting promoted. But they never write in about their divorces, their affairs, their alcoholisms.

"And I think I'm falling for Kara," he tells me. "She's so sweet. And she told me she wasn't seeing anybody. The timing would be perfect for me to leave my wife."

I promised Tom I would never tell anyone, but this is too much. I can't let Rob leave his wife...at least not for Kara.

"Rob, I need to tell you something. But you have to swear you won't tell anyone."

A panic-stricken look contorts his face. "Is this going to be bad?"

"Yes, but you need to hear this."

Rob slumps onto one of the bar stools and poises himself for what he probably knew deep down inside.

"Tom and Kara have been doing it for the past year. And I'm sure they'll do it again tonight."

"But that doesn't make sense! I specifically asked her last week about Tom and she told me they were just friends. It doesn't make any sense!"

Rob is visibly shaken. And so he gets another drink. And another. And another. And it's going to be a long night.

After all, we've got a half dozen more clubs to hit tonight. And Kara's going with us to all of them. And so is Tom. And everyone is very drunk. And I sense things may get very ugly later on.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Death of The Village

Growing up in NYC had its advantages. Instead of being stuck in BF Iowa dreaming about living in the big city, I was there living it up and partying in my 20's.

When I first turned 21 I stumbled upon a basement bar in the West Village called The Scrap Bar. It was covered with pieces of fluorescent colored junk, making it look like a Day-Glo junkyard on acid. And it was set up like an actual basement inside--torn couches, stone walls jutting out, low ceiling.





My friends and I would hang there until 4 a.m. (another great advantage of NYC), then take a train and a bus to Rockaway Beach and pass out by the ocean. Inside the bar was an eclectic and motley crew of patrons--punks, pseudo-hippies, headbangers--all having a good time. Sometimes rockers showed up--Axl Rose, Ian Astbury, Joe Strummer. It was a great place to chill out.



And then one day in the spring of 1995 it was gone...just like that. A rusty, metal gate was pulled over the door. There was no sign or message about what happened. The Village remained my stomping grounds, and I'd always pass The Scrap Bar and wonder. For years it remained shut, just a dark, empty hole on MacDougal Street.

And then last night I was watching a rerun from last season of NYPD Blue on my DVR (what a great invention!). MacKenzie Phillips (another blast from the past) was on, and she mentioned she was out at The Scrap Bar the other night. I thought, "whoa! What the hell? Has it reopened?" I went on-line and Googled it (gotta love the Internet). Well, it hasn't reopened, but I finally found out what happened to my old haunt. The former owner has recently put up a Scrap Bar website, and so I e-mailed him about the bar. He sent me this link with a sad little story(the first half is about the loss of his bar, the Scrapbar):

Scrapbar

His story also depicts the end of an era: the end of the East Village and the closing of CBGB's. It's sad that such an icon can close. It's the club that spawned bands such as Blondie, The Ramones, The Police, The B-52's. In other countries locals frequently asked me about CBGB's after learning I was from NYC(can you tell I never stayed at The Hilton?). I never particularly cared for CBGB's--it was a real dive and in a terrible neighborhood--but it was still a legend.

And I did love the East Village. Many years ago my friend Brian and I would hang out at a dive called Downtown Beirut II(there were actually two of these dumps). They literally served beer in a dirty glass. It was full of such lively characters. Brian and I would often get really stoned, or do 'shrooms or coke and then head over. There were people on the street trying to sell all sorts of junk from torn couches to a broken metronome stick. "I don't know what the hell it is," said the stoner trying to sell the stick to us, "but it's cool as shit!"

One time there was a black guy with no legs crawling along the beer splattered floor trying to sell bootlegged Beatles videos. I mean what the hell was that? It was great! We'd drink inside and soak up some atmosphere, then step out and light up a joint and hang with the "merchants" at 1 a.m.

One night we met this Brazilian woman and were chatting away for a while. She excused herself and went to the bathroom. Brian and I were chilling and drinking, both VERY stoned.

"I'll be right back," he said. "I gotta go to the bathroom."
He was too high to realize that the Brazilian woman was still in there. Suddenly I heard a scream.

"Close the fucking door!" she yelled.

I looked over and saw Brian standing in the bathroom doorway, his jaw dropped like he'd seen a dead body.

"Would you close the fucking door!" she yelled again.

Brian finally stammered, "What are you doing in there?"

The rest of us were laughing. Poor Brian being scolded like an insolent child, glowing from the bathroom's yellow light. He was too stoned to say anything comprehensible. We couldn't tell what was going on, but all heads were turned. The screaming continued until Brian slowly turned his heels and meekly walked back to us. But the woman stormed out of the bathroom after him, completely naked.

"You're like little baby!" she shouted. "You stand there like stupid baby! What the fuck's the matter with you!"

Everyone was stunned at the spectacle of a crazy naked woman screaming at stoned Brian in the middle of the bar. Brian had enough brain cells left to say,"You're completely naked. I don't understand."

She screamed a bit longer before finally going back to the bathroom. The bartender leaned over and whispered, "she usually shoots up in there. I keep telling her to stop, but what can I do?"

And then there was the night when Brian and I were talking to a South African guy at the bar. Next to us were these two German girls. The South African was telling us all about his country while the Germans were engaged in their own conversation. The one girl was upset, and tears began gently flowing down her cheeks. Her friend tried to console her by reaching over and wiping away the tears. They stared into each other's eyes, tears still streaming down the one girl's face. The rest of us were frozen--too caught up in what we all hoped would happen next.

And then it happened. They kissed--on the mouth. The South African said, "holy shit! Do you see that?"
Of course we did. It was beautiful, like right out of a movie. The girls began passionately kissing right there at the bar, before heading over towards the center of the room. They were slow dancing to a soft song on the jukebox, hugging and kissing.

And these are just a few of my memories of the East Village. When I left NYC the Village was changing. It was now "cool" for the pampered yuppies to go down there, sort of like "look at me slumming it!" Gone were the colorful people selling junk; gone were the stoners; gone were all the great stories. And then I read that article about the death of CBGB's and the Village. One reader commented that The Gap now had a store in the East Village. Any neighborhood with a Gap has lost all sense of culture and personality. I don't miss living in NYC, but I always miss the Village. Of all the places in the world I've travelled nothing ever compared to Greenwich Village. But if it's truly changing that much then Dylan Thomas has never been more appropriate when he said, "you can't go home again."