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- Not Kids, but Still All Right: The Who @50
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I post a lot about death. And deaths. Especially the deaths of (largely unsung) celebrities, thinkers and comic heroes.
Maybe that’s because I lost my Dad so young. He was the funniest unfamous person I ever met in my life. I like to take note of those who left some joy behind while they were here.
This summer, we lost a pretty big one. Robin Williams. On Facebook, I called him San Francisco’s “collective wacky uncle, as iconic as the fog and as ubiquitous.” For the last several decades, no small part of the fun of going out in our city was the delicious possibility that wherever you were going, Robin Williams might be there, too.
When I first read the news about the SCOTUS ruling in Hobby Lobby case this morning, I barfed a little bit in my mouth. Not because this decision has anything to do with me directly — I get my health insurance through a sensible, compassionate employer and am well past the time in my life in which contraception is necessary, let alone a cost concern.
I got pukey because of what the five men in the majority were saying about ladies. And corporations. Basically, through previous decisions and today’s finding, the highest court in the United States has held that the First Amendment, campaign-spending and healthcare rights of bosses are more important than their lady workers. This is classist AND sexist. It’s an anti-scientific, nonsensical double-whammy dressed up in religious robes (“The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the [Obama administration’s contraception] mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions…”). I can’t decide whether the majority justices fell for the craft store owners’ “sincerely held” bait, or if they took the case just so they could double-down on the Citizens United “corporations are people” crapitude. And I’m not sure I care.
Ruth Bader Badass did her best to beat back her colleagues’ overt religious bullying, misogyny and corporate tushy kissing with a lengthy, blistering dissent (easier to take but no less withering in song). But being right is not enough. And if rightness mattered, Clarence Thomas would have recused himself from the case long ago, on account of his wife’s lucrative — and clumsy — shilling on behalf of right-wing corporate causes and against the Affordable Care Act.
The arc of justice is long, but we don’t have that kind of time. Abortion rights are under attack, and at a closer distance, thanks to last week’s SCOTUS ruling against clinic buffer zones set up to keep patients from being harassed and healthcare providers from getting gunned down. Now, as of today’s ruling, if business owners have a compelling religious reason not to offer coverage for the free contraception mandated in the ACA, vulnerable women will lose right-price access to the best known method of preventing unwanted pregnancy — not to mention the psychotic PMS, blue moods and irregular cycles the Pill also helps to prevent. Strangely, the majority made no mention of vasectomies, Viagra or other presumably anti-religious man-sex things. All over cabletown, activists and pundits were bemoaning the fact that corporations now have more rights than women.
That may be well and true, but turnabout is fair play. This morning, I posted this modest proposal on my Facebook page: “Re: the Hobby Lobby shit show. “If corporations are people, then people, let’s incorporate! We’re already supposed to have our own personal brand, right? So, why not go all the way?”
I was half-joking at first. But as the day went on, and my genius social-media circle chimed in, I became more and more convinced that women’s self-incorporation is the way to go, at least in the short term. You know, until full equality. And if it works for your dentist — “Dr. Hankus Steinstein, DDS, a Professional Corporation” — why not the rest of us?
Incorporated people can give as much money as they want — to the point of corporate bankruptcy — to candidates, anywhere. (Your “Get Out of Jail Free” card, creepy felon Dinesh D’Souza!) Corporations can get away with murder — though the Yes Men may will get you in the end. Businesses have a whole host of benefits most working people will never know in their lifetimes. And you can write everything off! (OK, maybe not hookers and blow.)
The list of reasons to become a personal corporation feels endless, and I’m just getting started. What do you think? Please share here or on FB, and feel free to pass this post around. I’ve been using the tags #WomenIncorporate and #BeYourOwnLadyCompany.
There’s an implicit danger in meeting one’s heroes, namely what will you do — how will you feel — if they don’t live up to your image of them? For childhood or longtime heroes, the stakes are even higher, as without even consciously trying you’ve frozen everything about them at a fixed point in your mind palace.
I don’t really remember the first time I was aware of The Kids in the Hall. I think I’d heard something about a wild, new, Python-esque sketch troupe toward the tail end of my time in New York. Their easy way with drag was a major talking point — lady Dave Foley could pass for Isabella Rossellini’s evil, hotter twin — but their subversive wit and outlandish premises had me hooked.
Though I was never as funny or as brave as the Kids, I always wrote comedy, in that I always seemed to suffuse whatever I was working on — a pro-choice editorial for my high-school paper, a long profile of sexy-strange Spalding Gray, a final exam for a Middle East politics class (in which I assumed the personae of both Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger, who I’m pretty sure had a scorching affair), even this blog — with a comic bent.
There was a time I thought I might actually become a professional comedy writer, paid to think up and write funny things. Like Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show, only a little less self-deprecating. By my late-20s, I’d amassed a thick “packet” of humor clips and enough courage to send it to Gerard Mulligan, David Letterman’s longtime head writer.
In 1993, I was accepted…as a joke stringer! This distinction meant that I was entitled to fax (yes, fax!) jokes to Letterman’s writers’ room. For each joke that made it into the monologue, I would get $75. Not enough to quit my day job (profiling wannabe moguls for Entrepreneur magazine), but more than I make for this — or any — blog. More than that, I had proof that I could play what was then, as now, mostly a funny man’s game.
Two things, however, kept me from ever taking a cent of Letterman’s money. 1. Brief, punchlined jokes are not my forte. 2. About a month after I got the gig, I left the country for a couple of years. (Email was in its academic infancy and not an option for pitching.)
While I was glad to have my overseas adventures and have enjoyed a varied and fun writing career since then, I’ve always wondered “What if?” In the past, this thought brought up painful pangs of regret. But these days, I’m more inclined to accept the choices I made — supporting myself by honorable, often clever work vs. throwing myself (and my neuroses) on the mercy of the notoriously harsh humor industrial complex.
Besides, as Wavy Gravy says, “It’s never to late to have a happy childhood.”
So, when the 2014 SF Sketchfest schedule came out and I saw that Kids in the Hall’s Kevin “Big in France” McDonald was teaching a sketch-writing (through improv!) workshop, my heart jumped into my throat. I was a bit nervous about making a two-day, 16-hour time commitment, as I had recently completely 200-hour yoga teacher training course that tested the limits of my antsiness. But I knew I had to be there. Here was a chance to spend two full days doing two of my favorite things: making stuff up and being funny.
What a year! What a life! What a KarenWorld!
We’re a week-and-a-half into 2014, and I’m STILL trying to process 2013, a year of transitions, adventures, new beginnings, old favorites, hopes and dreams (Syndicate). But now that we’re finally (finally?) over my hideous New Year’s Day head cold, it’s time to try.
While it’s true that 2013 was pretty sparse, post-wise, it was extremely eventful in the real world. We did a bit of traveling and a lot of work on ourselves. We also went out.
From Garfunkel and Oates at Sketchfest in February to Sparks at the Chapel in April, and from the magically delicious Jazz Combustion Uprising CD release party in July to the wacky, francophilic Oulipo (Workshop for Potential Literature) event at the Mechanics’ Institute in November, KarenWorld got around. We were just so focused on being in the moment, we didn’t always get around to sharing it with the Interweb.
The year wrapped up with a rollicking, time-traveling LA Paisley Underground reunion show at the Fillmore. Coming so closely on the heels of the passing of one of our major rock and roll role models, it was a nice reminder that if you live long enough you can meet — or at least stand a few feet away from — pretty much all of your music heroes.
The highlight of my young life — and a highlight of my entire life, actually — was the hour I spent one spring Sunday night as KUCI radio’s “High School Deejay of the Week.”
Exactly seven days earlier, I was with friends at Wayzgoose, the University of California at Irvine’s mildly medieval, freaky-for-the-OC spring festival, where I entered what I assumed to be a hotly contested competition for an on-air slot. The entry card asked for basic info, a promise that I was still in high school and a few lines about why I should be chosen. I wrote a testimonial to my musical specialness. But the real reason I wanted to be on the radio, of course, was to inflict my musical tastes on an unsuspecting but ultimately grateful public. I fancied myself a younger, more punk rock, feminist Dr. Demento.
When I got a call the next day saying I’d been chosen to be on the air the following Sunday, I was shocked. In my mind, I deserved to win, by dint of my eclectic tastes and sparkling personality. But I didn’t expect to win, and certainly not so quickly. By 18, I was already used to the fact that life was unfair.
I spent the next six days pondering which records to bring — because a 1980s college radio music library might not have any X or Elvis Costello. I was excited about the chance to express myself musically publicly for the first time, but I didn’t have a playlist in mind.
My buddy Jennifer and I arrived at the station, and I got a quick lesson in how to queue up LPs and speak into microphones. As my stint was about to start, I panicked about which song would set the right tone — for the show and for my self. What song would express my emerging inner badass? In retrospect, the choice was obvious and inevitable: the opening track of Transformer.
“That was ‘Vicious,’ by Lou Reed!” were the first words I ever spoke to an audience I couldn’t see, announcing both the provenance of my clanging, guitar-driven opener and the fact that I was developing an interest in walking on the wild side. Reed’s persona helped me to become my own person.
(For the record, that night I also played “Love Power,” the tour-de-force, every ’60s song rolled into one, performed by my then-favorite living comedian Dick Shawn as Lorenzo St. Dubois — “but my friends call me LSD” — from the original Producers movie soundtrack; X’s “Los Angeles,” Elvis Costello’s “Let Them All Talk,” which I dedicated to my high school boyfriend, even as I was jealous of all the potential dates Jennifer was getting as she answered the phone while I was on the air; and the Dickies’ catchy cover of the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin,” the original of which is unlisten-to-able unless you’re tripping and staring into your boyfriend’s eyes — and even then, it’s a stretch.)
My introduction to Lou-ism started innocently enough two years earlier, when my cool uncle and I were talking about music. I was mostly into 1960s psychedelia and LA punk, which didn’t seem at all contradictory to me but piqued his pedagogical interest. From the time I was 9 until he died 15 years later, my uncle was my main male role model. He had a beautiful daughter of his own in another state and a few ex-wives. But no matter how messy his personal life, he always seemed to have the important things — like humor and culture — down. Better still, of all my relatives, he seemed the least invested in perpetuating my obedient, responsible, good-girlishness. He wanted me to be me.
“You know who you might like?” my uncle asked. “The Velvet Underground. You should check them out. I think you’ll enjoy them.”
“OK,” I said. And that was that. (As I said in his eulogy, when Uncle Michael gave you music advice, you took it.)
Once you know what to look for, you find it everywhere. On my very next trip to the record store, I picked up The Velvet Underground & Nico (aka, the Banana album). And, oh my G-d, I loved it. The music was both tuneful and discordant and the singing — even Nico’s — sounded as bad and real as mine. “I’m Waiting for the Man” only made me love New York more. “Heroin” was my gateway drug to Lou Reed and all his detached, writerly glory.
From there, I moved on to White Light/White Heat, every single song of which is genius. The almost unbearable sweetness of “Here She Comes Now” plays unbelievably well with the droning and driving “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” the dark humor of “The Gift,” and the wild, neverending (17-plus-minute) party that is “Sister Ray.” This record is a journey, and I wanted to go to there.
It’s not hard to exhaust the Velvet Underground’s oeuvre, and once you do, you have nowhere to go but to follow Lou Reed. Which brings us back to Transformer, which is also chock-full of classic songs that are the soundtrack of our lives — or my life, anyway. It starts out blazing, with the raw guitar and mean-but-clever lyrics of “Vicious,” strolls through the quiet power pop of “Perfect Day,” and plunges face first into “Walk on the Wild Side,” a tune that gets taken for granted but is so inventive and pretty much perfect when you take a moment to really, really hear it. “Satellite of Love” kicks up the glam, but it’s the lesser known — and rarely played — “New York Telephone Conversation” that’s been “dancing in my head” in the days since Reed’s death. It’s sweet, silly, snarky and about as on-the-nose a representation of how people actually talk on the phone — when they used to *talk* on their phones — as I’ve come across.
We were never lunch buddies, like he was with Penn Jillette, whose Penn’s Sunday School podcast tribute was fun and funny and emotional. And chance encounters with Lou Reed are not among the stories I tell about my charmed, if impoverished, post-collegiate New York youth. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing him for the first time ever at the Warfield last spring when he abruptly canceled on account of his liver transplant.
On my best, most “perfect day,” I’ll never be as cool as Lou Reed on his worst. But I don’t have to be. We were really just two people who survived the suburbs to grow up and be ourselves. I think that’s why his work resonates so much with me — and the millions of others who suffered and felt themselves surprisingly overcome by the news of his death last Sunday. Having recently learned of the death of a major figure in my Burning Man family, and still smarting from the untimely demise of wisecracking, gawky-girl goddess Marcia Wallace the day before, my Lou grief came on like a slow burn.
He mattered to me for so many reasons. Somehow, my uncle knew he would.