California Uber Alles

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around being back in my native state, more specifically: living in Palo Alto, on the Peninsula south of the city I called home for many years. It’s been fun being the social anthropologist at times, comparing habits and customs of west and east (New Yorker drivers honk and rush and won’t let you in; San Francisco drivers brake for hallucinations and potential pedestrians, as if forever making way for ducklings; Silicon Valley drivers, most in BMWs etc. don’t honk but will not let you in, either, tight grimaces on their faces say I’m an engineer at Google and we’re curing cancer!)

Last week’s Silicon Valley piece by George Packer in the New Yorker was most instructive, at times literally: I had noticed, at a railway crossing near my house, a guard was posted after the local high school got out every day; he was conspicuous in part because he was one of about four black people I have seen since I moved here. Packer reports that after a wave of suicides by stressed-out seniors, whose daddies would not forgive them getting anything less than a 4.0, the school hired someone to keep kids from throwing themselves in front of the commuter train. Seriously.

This is not an indicator of an enlightened society and Packer’s portrait of the newly minted millionaire (and billionaire) class that drive the economic engine of this area as well as SF makes for rather depressing reading. (As he drily noted when an entrepreneur touted how he could now make reservations for a restaurant as he was driving there, most of the problems being solved are those of wealthy twentysomethings.) The reaction here has been somewhat predictable, with a number of wags pointing out that they can’t link to the article because it’s behind a pay wall. And paying for content is just wrong.

True, the libertarian strain of Silicon Valley may not see the point in empathy for the under (or for that matter, middle-) classes, and in that I include most writers; and the beauty and resources of this great state have always been in danger of being bagged by the highest bidders. A lot of the people he talked to couldn’t even see why they should care about the poor, let alone Pakistan.

I had to make a trip to the bank this morning to set up an automatic transfer from our account to our landlady’s. The Chicano guy helping me marveled at how much we were paying to live in a so-so part of town and then told me his story; born and raised in Menlo Park, his parents lost their home about five years ago. The family went its separate ways, he himself lived in his car for a while. Now he lives in Fremont, on the other side of the bay, where he can afford a one-bedroom place, and with the salary he earns he is helping his parents get out of debt. Tell me, is there an app for that?

Hardin Redux

The release of the Tim Hardin tribute album, Reason to Believe, marks a sort of apogee in the renewed interest in the late, and largely unlamented, singer-songwriter. The first sign that Hardin was due for a rewrite may have come on the soundtrack to the Joe Strummer film The Future is Unwritten, which captured Joe on the radio enthusiastically introducing Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” (“I’m the family’s unowned boy/Golden curls of envied hair/Pretty girls with faces fair/See the shine in black sheep boy”). This was followed by Dave Alvin’s cover of “Don’t Make Promises” (on his excellent Guilty Women album) and new street cred for Hardin.

Hardin is probably best remembered, unfortunately, for Bobby Darin’s cover of “If I Were a Carpenter,” a huge hit in 1967. Legend has it that upon first hearing Darin’s cover in his car, Hardin pulled over on the side of the road and stomped around, Rumplestiltskin like. A temperamental fellow, Hardin was also a massive junkie, having discovered heroin while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. Perhaps a less addicted, more self-confident person would have have built on the success of a hit cover of one of his songs by touring and building a fan base, as they say today. But along with his dependency, Hardin had a massive case of stage fright. He was originally supposed to open the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the combination of “stage fright” and “half a million people” would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Richie Havens took Hardin’s place, and Hardin did ultimately grace the stage, performing a stoned but heartfelt version of “Carpenter.” While it gets muddied in Darin’s cover, which some thought was Bobby’s attempt to do Timmy, the refrain “I’m giving you my onlyness/Give me your tomorrow” is quite touching when coming from the songwriter.

The love of Hardin’s life, and inspirator of many of his tunes, was Susan Yardley who left him (more than once) when his addiction was out of control, their infant son Damion in tow. He changed her name for the 1969 concept album Suite for Susan Moore and Damion, she was clearly the man’s true north and they reunited several times when he was clean, only to fall spectacularly off the wagon each time. By now Hardin had added booze and methadone to the mix but despite the success of subsequent covers (“Lady Came from Baltimore” by Johnny Cash, “Reason to Believe” by everybody), Hardin couldn’t stay straight. He OD’d in Hollywood in 1980 at the age of 39.

With the new tribute album Hardin gets a doff of the hat from younger artists, like Okkervil River and the Phoenix Foundation, and the slightly more seasoned Mark Lanegan (former Screaming Trees). It’s his cover of “Red Balloon” that sent me back to the Hardin story. Turns out the red balloon he was singing about had been filled with skag. “Took the love light from my eyes,” the man said. Blue, blue surprise.

Just Shoot Me

I was back in NY last week to watch Mark Russell direct a short film that I wrote called Stain Removal, and to say it was a thrill doesn’t do the experience justice. “Is this weird for you?” one or two people asked — meaning I just wrote this stuff and now people are standing over there, saying my lines… Maybe the vets take it in stride; while I’ve written my share of screenplays (and other stuff), this is the first time something has actually gone before the camera and I have Mark to thank for that.

Without giving the slender plot away, Stain Removal is a sort of neo noir with a few laughs (we hope) thrown in, the product of having read too much James Cain, and taken too much acid, in my youth. It’s got a femme fatale (played by the wonderful Leslie Hendrix), a hapless hero (played by Jim McCaffrey, who in real life has plenty of hap and hip) and a mysterious stranger (Daniel Raymont, who when I saw him tried the character every which way, including with a sort of Peter Sellers Indian accent).

Most of the film was shot in a beautiful house in New Rochelle but there were a few crowd scenes, one at the Salamagundi Club in Greenwich Village, and the other on a rooftop at a post-production facility in Chelsea. At each I wanted to yell at the assembled extras, “Go home! It’s all been a terrible mistake!”

But I didn’t. After years of rejection and sometimes wondering if I actually existed when I sent stories out, having Stain Removal both selected and embraced by all the actors and crew made me feel sort of…validated. I knew it was a good story, damn it. I recalled asking a guy I once worked with what it was like to host Saturday Night Live. “It was like the birthday party I never had,” he said, and that was kind of how this felt about the movie. Time to blow out the candles.

Shock and Oz

April is one of the cruelest months for movie lovers — studios are off-loading turkeys and the early summer films are still in the pipeline. The pickings are slim and when my son and I decided to hit the local mini-plex last night, the only real options were Admission and Disney’s Oz: the Great and Powerful. I let him pick and he went with Oz — because he liked Sam Raimi, he said. I should have made him flip the coin again.

For there is no awe in this Oz, though I had been forewarned. When I see a movie this misconceived, that clearly costs so much money and involves so much acting talent, I wonder if anyone is called to account for it? It costs $215M to make, and has barely recouped that since it was released last month and small wonder: you could feel the air going out of the small audience as James Franco (playing the young Wizard of Oz) mugged his way through the movie. “It could have been so much better,” a kid behind me muttered as he headed for the exits.

Oz: the G&P probably owes more to the books written by L. Frank Baum than the 1939 musical, though it is sprinkled with gags and ideas that seem to have sprung from the mind of whichever studio hack wandered onto the set that day. When we first meet Good Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), for instance, she is as sweet and trusting as Snow White — except she is wearing leather pants and dominatrix boots. (Presaging her later turn to the dark side, I guess.) And when Evanora (Rachel Weisz) engages in a climactic battle with the Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) it looks like one of those wand wars at the end of every Harry Potter movie. Why not?

I guess you could say that Disney was brave to try anything that reminded us of the original, which was a great example of Hollywood capturing lightning-in-a-bottle, combining vaudeville talents like Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger with great show tunes (by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg) and a truly witty screenplay (by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf). But the little touches meant to evoke that film — a rainbow here, a frightened lion there — just remind us of how far we’ve fallen.

Personally, I prefer Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz. While maligned in its time, and a bomb at the box office, it was far more faithful to the tone of the Baum books and may have even trended darker (with the spooky witch Mombi and her collection of heads).  At least Murch chose a lane and stayed in it. His movie gave my son nightmares then, and me too. This one only gave me indigestion.


Don, Ho

I haven’t read much about last night’s season opener of Mad Men but I was struck by the mix of melancholy and comedy we have come to expect, in equal measure from this show. Don reading Dante on the beach in Honolulu seemed a bit heavy handed for an opening shot (what cheaper way to telegraph midlife crisis than have someone read the first lines of the Inferno?) — until we met the woman who lent him the book. And who amongst us hasn’t tried something difficult in the hopes of getting laid?

Don has literary aspirations, of course; remember him sending a volume of Frank O’Hara’s poems off to a mystery recipient in season two? (Turned out it was the widow of the real Mrs. Draper, the fellow whose identity he stole…) And his own conflicted soul finds some solace in Meditations in an Emergency. But he also wonders about the value of the pleasure he seeks, which is what makes him the hero of the show. Was there ever a more conflicted babe magnet?

Don has played the role of whore and mistress before himself, most notably when one of his conquests confessed that she had heard gossip about him and now wanted “the full Don Draper treatment.” For an adman he doesn’t appreciate being reduced to a brand and left her tied to a hotel room bed and then broke down while his daughter watched him shaving at the end of that episode — that damn mirror again!

Roger, as usual, got most of the best lines last night, calling him “Don Ho” when he returned from Hawaii, and then breaking up his mother’s memorial service by shouting, “This is my funeral!” He is more fun in the same sense Falstaff was, and seems just as doomed. Though Don might want to try that therapy stuff.

Post-LSD Mad Men runs the risk of parody at times — the hippies that Betty met on St. Marks weren’t that far removed from Blue Boy and the freaks from central casting that peopled shows like Dragnet when I was a kid. But as 1968 dawns at the end of the episode, Don seems to be changing only on the inside. He was the only one of the men whose sideburns had not crept past his earlobes, and I don’t think we have to worry about him appearing in paisley soon. Remember at the end of the last season, which took place in 1966 (the creators seem to have consciously passed over most of 1967, which is probably just as well), Don was listening to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its lyrics inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, at Megan’s request. Except he lifted the needle off the record before it was done as if to say: Turn off your own damn mind. I will never relax.

Float downstream, maybe.