Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed died today. He was 71.

In the winter of 1973 I had the dubious pleasure of interviewing him. I was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Reed had released Berlin, not one of his best albums (Rolling Stone called it “brutal literary bombast” and I’m not sure what that means), but it was doing well in Montreal. My boss at CBC, who desperately wanted to escape the backwaters of Washington, DC, and go back to Canada, had no idea who Lou was. I did. I had worn out his Velvet Underground album, the one with the peelable banana on the cover and Nico, the gorgeous model whom Warhol forced to sing, even though she had even less voice than Brigitte Bardot. (The Velvet Underground & Nico, when it was originally released, sold about 10,000 copies.  It was to have as much influence on popular music as did Sgt. Pepper, the Stones’ Satisfaction, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.)

It was snowing the night of the interview, and I picked Reed up at the downtown Holiday Inn where he was going to be staying with his band. He arrived late. The van from New York had gotten stuck in traffic. I was waiting in the foyer and saw him enter holding his guitar case, and I’m pretty sure he would have been happy to skip the interview. When I introduced myself--beard, hair to the shoulders and aviator sunglasses--he shrugged, said something to a band mate, and sighed, “Let’s go.” He was paler than white, dressed completely in black, with black eyeliner, black nail polish, hair dyed flat black and, yes, a truly dark and crappy attitude. He mustn’t have weighed 120 pounds. He didn’t have a coat and I lent him my jacket.

I drove him in my Honda Accord to the National Press Club where CBC had its recording studio and he didn’t say a word. The interview didn’t go much better. Reed was monosyllabic. He didn’t want to talk about Berlin, or his band, or his friendship with Warhol and John Cale. He allowed that Nico “was a strange person” but said he actually didn’t know her at all. She wasn’t a musician or a songwriter, and those were about the only people Lou was interested in at the time.

I don’t think Reed was being either recalcitrant or arrogant. I think he was bored. Too many silly interviewers had asked him too many silly questions, and he was never one to focus on the past. By 1974, he’d been free of Velvet Undergound for four years. Nico, Cale, Sunday Morning--one of the most beautiful rock ‘n’ roll ballad ever written--and even Sweet Jane, which he would record several times over and keep playing for almost four decades, all that was history.

The next night I saw him at the Kennedy Center, a long way from the Bowery places he used to frequent and one of the oddest venues he must have ever played. He was small on stage, uninspiring and uninspired. The band was listless; he stood stock still at the microphone like a frozen marionette with too many strings and I don’t think there was even an encore.  

Reed only had one Top Ten single, his anthem, Walk on the Wild Side, which when it was released had to be cleaned up for AM radio. Yet few would doubt that his compositions, both music and lyrics, were as important as that of the Beatles, or the Stones. Without Reed, such acts as David Bowie, U2, Sonic Youth,  R.E.M, Chrissie Hynde and Ric Ocasek might have made it to the stage, but not with the same rawness, or the same impact.

Reed was a drugger and a drinker, an addict of large proportion and an alcoholic who documented his own life through his music. Never once did he apologize for whatever chaos his habits may have sown.

In time, he got his act together, got straight, married, divorced, remarried. He became a Tai Chi expert. He wrote increasingly poetic songs, some stark, others orchestral. He produced albums for mainline artists and became, perhaps, the most famous performer to never play huge venues, even as his following became international. He never strayed from who he was.

He once said, “My bullshit is worth more than other people’s diamonds.”  

He’ll be missed.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lurid Tales, Desperate People

A couple of days ago I finished the first draft of a new novel, Lurid Tales, Desperate People, set in Northern Virginia and documenting the largely empty lives of seven women and five men. It’s been tremendous fun, and for once really easy to write.  In fact, from start to finish, the book took less than eight months to draft and its 43 chapters fell into line painlessly, with an ending that left no loose ends and did not rely on the hated deus ex machina

Lurid Tales is a short book, barely 260 pages long, with a not-too-contrived plot. About three months into it, the characters got legs--they began to move about on their own; they told me what to write, and where to take the book. Some characters defined themselves by their patterns of speech; one, in particular is a master of malapropisms. Another is the beneficiary/victim of massive elective surgery; a third is obsessed by past and present slavery.

The men, though necessary to the plot, are far less important than the women who clearly dominate this book. I’ve had a long-held belief that females in real life are all-around tougher and more interesting than males, and creating and working with female characters has always been easier for me than dreaming up men. The guys in Lurid Tales are dressed up trashcans--generally vile, manipulative yet simple-minded. Mostly, they want to get laid, mostly they get caught and suffer the consequences. The majority of the women characters, though no less shallow, have at least an inkling of morality.

Now that the brunt of the book is done, I’m struggling with post-partum depression. I want to keep writing, create sequels, and get a deeper and more rounded knowledge of Briotta, Josephinetta, Shhoney (not a typo) and Lyubonka, the Ukrainian au pair porn queen. These ladies, after all, became my family for almost a year and I’m pretty sure their plotting to achieve a better social standing is a reflection of my own insecurities.

Part of the joy of writing Lurid Tales is that it is set in my own backyard. McLean, Virginia, is two hundred yards from the less wealthy Falls Church, where I live. According to Wikipedia, McLean had a total population of 48,115 as of 2010 and Business Week ranked it as one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States with a median family income of $188,682. It is home to hordes of diplomats, members of Congress, and high-ranking government officials, partially due to its proximity to Washington DC, and the CIA.  The Kennedys, including Jackie and Ethel used to live here, as did Queen Noor of Jordan and Amha Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.  Says Wikipedia, “McLean is known for its many upscale homes, as well as for its high-end shopping, such as at the nearby Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria. Land values in McLean are among the highest in the Washington area.” Among McLean’s more celebrated current citizens are (unfortunately) Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby (come on, now, you don’t remember Scooter? He was Cheney’s Chief of Staff), and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. There’s also a scattering of Representatives, Cabinet Secretaries, retired generals, mega-billionaire business people, and my personal favorite, the largely toothless Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals hockey team.    

So really, setting a novel in McLean wasn’t difficult. What was challenging was making fiction as believable as the everyday around here, and creating characters somewhat more appealing than the town’s real-life denizens.

My agent likes it, which is encouraging since he rarely likes what I write--it isn’t commercial enough.

I’ll keep you apprised on the fate or Lurid Tales, Desperate People. In the meantime, it’s back to The Cancer Club, a book I started writing about a year. I’m just beginning to get a handle on it.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Battling Cancer: A New Strategy

Here is a statement of fact: When a man reaches a certain age, he will no longer throw underwear away, ever. These garments might be ripped, worn, moth-eaten, stained, shrunken or bagged out, and rendered elastic-free by too many washes.  No matter. We will keep--, no, we will hoard them, greeting them in the morning like old friend, Cloroxing them once or twice a year in a vain attempt to regain whiteness but actually only weakening the fibers.

What occasionally occurs, if a woman lives in the same space, is that she will throw them away when the man is not home. If she has a kind heart, she will replace them with new jockey shorts or briefs, again, when the man is not home. He may, or may not, notice the changing of the guards but in any case, the exchange will be wordless.

Today I have made a small step for mankind and a giant step for men by getting rid of every single pair of jockey shorts and boxers that have been in my possession for years, and perhaps decades, and replacing them with 15 pairs of brand new, assorted color undies from Target and Walmart. And while I’m on the subject, I will say openly that Costco deeply disappointed me with its extremely limited selection of men’s underthings, which occupied less than a third of the floor space devoted to women’s vibrantly colored and designed panties and stuff. There may be room for a discrimination suit here.

Anyway, the deal is that I have come to the conclusion that my bladder cancer was probably caused by my underwear. At least partially.

As readers of this blog know, two years ago this month I was diagnosed with this nasty disease. Since then, I’ve undergone a number of surgeries to remove recurring malignant tissue, generally followed by a form of chemotherapy called BCG. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin treatment relies on the direct injection into my bladder of a solution containing sheep tuberculosis. On average, BCG eradicates cancer in 70 percent of those treated. I haven’t been among that 70 percent yet, but I’m still hopeful.

I might add here that I have not smoked or drank alcohol in a couple of decades. In the past six months, I have just about given up eating meat. I am juicing organically produced veggies and fruits daily and drinking the vile concoction in one, long draught. I no longer use artificial sweeteners, caffeinated coffee or tea, or any number of ‘white’ products: rice, flour, pasta, refined sugar. I have given up my membership of the California Sun Tanning Center.

What does this have to do with the wholesale trashing of an entire drawer of undies? Everything.

Giving up all these things, along with the BCG, should’ve banished my cancer for good. I was thinking that all this nasty stuff happening in my midriff should have ended by now, and as I pondered, I came to the realization that what encircled my loin(s) had remained unchanged for years! The underwear, by crikey!  The underwear!

Throwing out the old stuff was surprisingly painless. I packed everything in a trash bag and dropped it in the big outdoor garbage can without so much as a whimper. As I write, my new undies are bouncing around in the dryer, getting to know each other, and I’m hoping alliances might form in the chest of drawers.

I’m pleased because the entire process was a lot less painful than was surgery and BCG. I’m pretty sure this will work. It sort of has to. I don’t have anything else to throw away.   

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tales of the Juicer

My friends Julia and Maxey, knowing of my cancerous issues, recently lent me a juicer. Julia and Maxey are both smart and beautiful women who have been juicing for years. The machine now in my kitchen was Maxey’s when she went to college. It sort of looks like R2D2 with a spout and is eerily quiet for something that can reduce a giant, hard  carrot to mush. I have already had one nightmare where the juicer is chasing my cat while humming the Star Wars theme song.

Jack LaLanne’s name is on the front. You remember Jack, the original Hollywood he-man. He swam the Atlantic Ocean at age 105 and then retired to Malibu and developed his own line of healthy eating machines.

Jack’s creation weighs 15 pounds, has a 3600 rpm high induction motor and a stainless steel blade that would make Dr. Joseph Guillotin envious. It will take in kale, celery, apples, carrots and a variety of other veggies (I drew the line at beets) and spit out a copious, bile colored liquid, the taste of which reminds me of my initial venture at playing football (not a sport played often in my native France), getting tackled, and ending up with a mouthful of dirt.

The very first time I used the Jack Lalanne Pro Juicer in my kitchen, thick liquids exploded from pretty much everywhere and painted my t-shirt and shorts, as well as my kitchen ceiling, with small globs of orangish vegetation. The second time I was more careful. I made sure every aperture save for the spout was sealed, and the experiment went much better, though the taste was roughly the same. Friends have suggested I add lemon, ginger, vanilla extract and vodka (this from a truly clueless person) but not bananas (they’ll mush up the works) or yogurt. Also, once the juicer has done its work, the result must be drank (drunken) within ten minutes for maximum efficiency. What is left after juicing is a sort of multi-colored Brillo pad that I am sure could be converted into vegan burgers by people other than me.

Ideally, only organically grown vegetables and fruits should be used.  This makes perfect sense, as juicing a chemical-laden apple or pear only means you’ll get a concentrated dose of whatever noxious fertilizer kills fish in agricultural run-offs. This means you have to shop in stores that charge 1000% markup for runty and splotchy (but pure) veggies. Luckily, kale is a mainstay of juicing, and, organically grown or not, it is inexpensive. I used to feed kale to my iguana who was so healthy he attacked me whenever I tried to be friendly.  Kale’s taste, however, is truly toxic. Imagine liquefied and concentrated topsoil, with worms.  Only the toughest can endure kale by itself, and even Julia and Maxey, hardened juicers both, have to mask its venomous flavor.

I’ve learned about the Dirty Dozen, conventionally grown celery, peaches, strawberries apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, kale and collard greens, cherries, potatoes, imported grapes and lettuce.  According to, “these tested positive for at least 47 different chemicals, with some testing positive for as many as 67. For produce on the ‘dirty’ list, you should definitely go organic — unless you relish the idea of consuming a chemical cocktail.”

The produce on the Clean Fifteen list “bore little to no traces of pesticides, and is safe to consume in non-organic form.” This list includes onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, and sweet onions

So all right, now that I’ve made fun of Jack, juicers, juicists, etc. , here’s the thing: I’ve only used the machine four times and I feel better. Last night, for the first time in months, I slept an undisturbed six hours.  I expected some monstrous intestinal distress and haven’t had any.

Thank you, Julia, thank you Maxey!  I’m sold.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Terrorists on Capitol Hill

C’est quoi, Obamacare? My sister Isabelle, who is a composer of operas and lives in a lovely apartment near the Moulin Rouge in Paris, has recently taken an interest in the present American craziness. This is because the European media--radio, TV, newspapers and internet--are having a field day with the US Government shutdown. Over there, something happens to upset the citizenry and people take to the streets, turning over a Citroën or two on the Place de la Concorde and possibly shutting the government down for a forty-eight hours. But the government shutting itself down? Closing museums and national parks and research facilities nationwide? The government not taking care of business? How crazy is that?

I tell Isa that Obamacare is a law passed quite a while ago to ensure that people have health insurance.

Il n’y a pas d’assurance nationale? She asks. I try to explain that no, the United States is perhaps the only developed country not to have a national health insurance system in place. I tell her about Medicare and Medicaid which are designed to help people over 65. Under that age, you’re on your home.  I also tell her that a couple of years ago my monthly medical insurance bill was more than $500, not including prescription drugs. Since I am a family of one and self-employed, there was no one helping me with this large yearly outlay. Isa is amazed. Insurance has never been a concern for her family. When she was pregnant with her children, the state paid the bills, saw to it that she had a decent period of recuperation, and later offered all sorts of assistance as her children were growing up.

Alors? Ils sont fou ou quoi, ces politiciens ?Qu’est ce qu’ils font ? What are they doing? That’s hard to explain too. They’re essentially futzing with the welfare of the nation and trying to ensure that an initiative passed a while back will not get the necessary funding to become effective.

Isa says, Donc, ces politiciens, ils ont pris le pays otage. I answer that yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. The elected officials on Capitol Hill have indeed taken the country hostage.

Comme des terroristes, Isa concludes. Indeed, just like terrorists.  Our Congresspeople--the ones put in office by that very small minority of Americans who do their civic duty and actually vote--have taken the country hostage.

Incroyable, says Isa.

Oui, je sais, I tell her. I know. It is incredible.

Et les gens ne font rien? No, for the most part people aren’t doing much at all to protest the government shutdown.  There’s been little public outrage, no demonstrations in the streets, save for some military veterans in the Nation’s Capital who took the metal barricades baring entry to museums and memorials and dumped them in front of the White House. This lack of involvement by the citizenry astounds the Europeans, who take to the streets almost as a national sport.

Incroyable, says Isa again. Vraiment incroyable. And I have to agree.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Shame and an Outrage

I went to Arlington National Cemetery yesterday because once a decade or so, it’s good to realize that an awful lot of people made the ultimate sacrifice so we could be here now.  What surprised me was that the place was open for business.  It is, after all, government run. It should have been closed, like the rest of the country.

If you’re not from around here, meaning the Washington, DC area, you might not know that Arlington Cemetery covers 624 acres of land in Virginia, just across the river from the Nation’s Capital.  Twenty-seven to 30 funerals are held there daily. It is the last resting place for some 265,000 citizens, mostly men and women of the armed forces, and their spouses.  There are also a lot of Senators, cabinet secretaries and politicians of medium or little importance. JFK and his two brothers are buried there, as is Jacky. So are Audie Murphy and Pierre L’Enfant.  The Army’s Old Guard stands watch, and the cemetery is also the site of the Unknown (actually, now known) Soldier. The eternal flame is there too, currently under repair and fed by a large propane tank.

But back to the government.

Doesn’t the fact that Arlington Cemetery was open imply that the government has a lot more respect for the 265,000 dead than for the 800,000 furloughed government workers and the millions of Americans impacted by the furlough?

The government shutdown is more than simply a shame; it’s an outrage, a sharp slap in the faces of the citizenry. How it was allowed to happen is demonstrative of a system on the brink of failure. And the fact that hardly anyone has taken to the streets in protest is further evidence that the apathy is not just on Capitol Hill, it’s in our homes as well.

The US has an appallingly low voter turnout for local and national elections. In many areas, the ones who go to the polls are the fringe element of the right and the left, and the people they elect represent their interests. Many have an abiding dislike, if not an outright hate, for government as a whole. Congress knows this. It caters to that element. Our elected representatives also know our memory is shot. Come the next election, we will have forgotten that this country was brought to a stop by a group of men and women--our elected officials-- bent on having a tragic pissing match.

We deserve better than a bunch of yoyos in expensive suits, which is pretty much what we have now. Their actions demonstrate an appalling lack of respect for both the nation and its people.

Next time around, go and vote. Throw the bums out. 




Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Les Cons (The Morons)

“Ils font quoi?” This from my sister Isabelle who lives in Paris and is a composer. “They’re doing what?” I have just told her about the US government shutdown, a concept so alien to the rest of the civilized world--and possibly the uncivilized one as well--that it defies description. “It has to do with the budget,” I tell her in French, to which she asks, “Ce sont des idiots?” and I have to answer yes.  They are indeed idiots. Who else but idiots, the ones the French call les cons--the morons--would get into a pissing match so severe that the welfare of millions of citizens goes by the wayside?  This sort of behavior is as completely mysterious to the French as was Bill Clinton’s censure by Congress for the Lewinski affair. Oh, wait. Wasn’t it the same bunch then and now, just a different form of idiocy?   


“Ce sont les fou qui ont pris l’asile,” she says, and once again I agree. The inmates are indeed running the asylum. It seems the notion of being a public servant has been forgotten by our elected cons who appear blind to the fact that never in American history has Congressional approval been so low.  In fact, according to the Gallup poll people who have been tracking approval since 1974, “just 10 percent of Americans said they approved of how Congress was handling its job last August -- the lowest ratings ever recorded.”  That was last August, when the government was at least making a stab at working.  But now?



I’ve been trying for years to get my sister to come and visit, but she’s pretty adamant in her belief that the US is not a safe place to be a tourist.  She reads about the crime here, the mass killings that have become routine, the criminals with automatic weapons, and she reasons, possibly correctly, that her apartment near the Moulin Rouge in Paris is a safer bet than my house in the Washington suburbs.


She may be right. Almost exactly 11 years ago on October 14, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Beltway Snipers, shot and killed a woman shopping at a Home Depot, and wounded another man before continuing their killing spree. That store is less than two miles from my home. The duo went on to murder a total of 10 people and wound another three. After the initial flurry that always follows such dreadful events, it was business as usual as far as gun control goes. My sister thinks that America’s fascination with guns is “comme des enfants qui jouent aux cowboys,” like children playing cowboy, except with real bullets. It’s difficult and fruitless to argue with that reasoning.


Being bi-national, I’ve always been in a position to defend the French while in America, and the Americans while in France.  When visiting France over the last decades, I’ve had to explain Vietnam (why would the Americans want to get their butts kicked there? Couldn’t they learn from the French whose asses were handed to them at Dien Ben Phu?); Nixon and Watergate (so he lied? What’s the big deal?); Ronald Reagan (you guys elected a really bad actor to be your president?); Monica Lewinski (see above); Iraq (what weapons of mass destruction?); the Busch/Gore presidential election (even the French wouldn’t cheat like that!); baseball (this is a sport?); Budweiser (this is a beer?); and a multitude of other foibles.


This latest one, the actual closing down of the American government? I’m not even going to try.