Excerpt. Where Damone liberates a Prospect Park carousel horse for amorous purposes and receives a rock and roll tutorial.
In the days following Lady’s liberation, one David Ellsberg—Peter’s Uncle Dave—was very helpful. His suggestion that we coat Lady in papier-mâché to disguise her as a large piñata earned him my lifelong gratitude, but he was helpful in other ways. Regarding the former, it was no mean feat getting Lady to Uncle Dave’s Coney Island apartment. We carried her down Ocean Parkway rather than risk calamity in the subway. Any number of bandits might’ve kidnapped Lady to auction her off or reduce her once again to a concubine in some spinning harem. Indeed, we received a great deal of attention on the Parkway; it was mainly children admiring Lady’s beauty, but one old man followed us for a block, all the while insisting that Lady was of Russian lineage; another young man, looking quite pleased with himself, asked if we were a ménage à trois.
Uncle Dave pointed out that the population of free carousel horses was relatively low, and that the rogue city-state New York had laws on the books that legalized ownership of Lady and her ilk. Per his recommendation, Peter and I were now sitting on the kitchen floor of his apartment cutting newspaper into strips while Lady looked on. Uncle Dave entertained us with lively banter while we worked.
“So what’s your next move, Damone? Your brothers play all the time now at CBs. You manage to get in touch with any of them?”
“I haven’t, which I believe you know, hence your rhetorical question is not appreciated.”
“Sorry, Damone. No offense meant. But what’re you going to do now?”
“I’ll spend a few days with Lady in the Fort Tilden dunes, a honeymoon of sorts if this rain lets up. What month is it, by the way?”
“September. September, 1974.”
“Are you insinuating I might not know what year it is? I doubt you know Sir Edward Elgar was born in 1857, but did I walk in and start quizzing you?”
“Of course you know the year, I was saying it more for myself. So you’ll track down your brothers after the honeymoon?”
“Yes. I’ll clarify my thoughts among the sands of my youth, and then I will again attempt to get into the so-called club. As your nephew pointed out, a change in my appearance was long overdue. Now I look like my brothers again. This time I shall succeed. Good God, imagine having to work this hard to get inside that ludicrous roach bordello.”
“You better take a shower and shave. You know, to maintain the look. It might be a good idea.”
“Indeed. Yes, perhaps you’re right. Thank you for your offer.”
“You know, you sound pretty contemptuous of modern music, of rock and roll. Have you taken the time to give it a fair shot?”
“I’ve invested the requisite three to four minutes, yes. And I have a sister who’s rather a fan. Her bedroom was adjacent to the sewing room where I worked, much to my grave misfortune, so I had the “pleasure” of hearing a number of popular tunes, granting my sister tended to fixate on a few favorites.”
“But you were what, literally on a desert island for a few years? Let me play you some records.”
What followed was a tutorial on the latest aural atrocities, celebrated mainly by young people, but increasingly by a broader audience. Uncle Dave played several works by artists that were under the impression they offered some sort of self-styled complexity, a certain artistic expansiveness and bleak vision. It was these musicians, Dave stated, that my brothers claimed to be rebelling against by offering brevity, clarity, and accessibility.
I was baffled. I wondered if Dave had perhaps misunderstood their explanation, for although my brothers had desecrated my work, both the antecedents to which it paid homage and the contemporary antagonists that it challenged were highly self-evident. I couldn’t remotely understand how something like my quartet, Really? Smell It Again could be positioned as an antithesis to Pinchas Floyd’s The Dark Moon Cometh, one of the recordings Uncle Dave seemed especially enamored of. My work as an antithesis to the 2nd Viennese School, obviously, but to Brain Damage? Granting the latter was, at the very least, appropriately named, the precept simply did not hold.
To be fair, Uncle Dave did play some works of note; a few were positively transcendent. I liked, for example, Mighty Fine Time by Bill Wyman, which Uncle Dave found highly amusing for some reason, especially after he was unable to convince me that the Rolling Stones project to which Wyman was also attached produced far better work, playing me several examples: Tribute to the Devil, Great Expectations, Build a Shelter. Granting the wisdom of the latter based on firsthand experience, I still held that Wyman’s Monkey Grip cycle far exceeded the creative scope of the Rolling Stones despite their prominent position. Granted, there was a degree of bias at work, because I simply could not get my head around this concept of “joint songwriting credit.” To me this was a complete absurdity, yet Uncle Dave insisted it was standard practice among rock and roll “composers.” I mean, it’s clear that Nikolay Myaskovsky could write a symphony honoring the collectivization of agriculture, but it’s not so clear how collectivized agriculture would go about writing a symphony honoring Myaskovsky. But despite the obvious logical fallacy, Uncle Dave held it to be true, so we let the matter rest.
I also liked some of Queen Freddie Mercury’s work—he seemed to be trying at least, although Uncle Dave’s assertion that his work might serve as a “bridge” between my tastes and rock and roll, thus easing me into an appreciation of the latter, was more than a little annoying. About twelve years later, in fact, I became retroactively enraged about the idea and wished I could go back in time and punch Uncle Dave in the face when some fool critic of mine was claiming the titles of my quartets were derivative, comparing them to two works entitled Becoming a Man/Freud Was Wrong and Orgy of One respectively, two horrific numbers by some fools calling themselves The Meatmen; I went into a complete rage, during which Uncle Dave and his complacence came to mind, and I thought, ‘Sure, let’s see you make one of your little “bridges” to one of those little ditties, say, from Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy to Orgy of One.’ So intense was my rage that I foamed at the mouth, bit my antagonist’s dog, and had to spend a short time in a place, if you’ll allow me the dignity of referring to those weeks with a certain discretion.
Which leads to the one artist that, I must say, impressed me greatly. I hated all of his work, but such was the impact of the one piece of his I did enjoy that he earned my unwavering respect: Alice Cooper. The piece I’m referring to, for those of you who haven’t read my Letters from Hamburg, is the positively wonderful work called Years Ago/Steven. From the opening notes of this veritable operetta, I was transfixed. It was as if I listening to a transcription of the very darkest corners of my soul. I vaguely remember Uncle Dave becoming alarmed as I slipped into a transcendent state, granting a certain crudity to using a term that implies rising above one’s self, as if music or any other intoxicant can convert one’s divine soul into a shoddy hot-air balloon ride. The type of transcendence I experienced was inward looking, and did not include trumpets or light; my descendence, as it were, was dark, a psychic implosion into a slightly moist place. I had a vision of being in Ramona’s bedroom, alone, my family gone forever. I was staring out the window, sweat pouring down my pallid brow. A single candle burned at her bedside. A bedside to which she would never return. I stared out the window, not at the seascapes and dunes of Fort Tilden, but at an empty playground, as implied in Cooper’s work. So deft were Cooper’s allusions, that I thought I saw translucent glimpses of faces once known, of the howling children that I could only ever watch and to whom I could never connect, and I felt such intense self-pity that it was beauty, and I recused myself from many ancient stains. I also absolved myself of a mild interest in putting on a woman’s baby blue see-through nightgown and then staring at myself in the full-length mirrors of strangers.
The overwhelming impact of Years Ago was of course colored by recent events—the astute among you may have noticed the parallels between Years Ago and carnival music, carnival music of the type one might hear, for example, being played on a carousel organ. Its insistent knocking forced open my door, and I relived the sense of staring at the world through impenetrable glass, pressing my palms, my face, and my organ directly against it, knowing since birth that I would never penetrate it. Watching that dreadful wheel spinning, hearing the music, longing for Lady, a love I would ultimately never possess. I sweated even more. I was back in the dark bushes.
This incident did far more than Freddie Mercury to create a begrudging respect for certain rock ‘n’ roll efforts; if not for the works themselves, than at least for the composer’s intent, so often complex and unique, but so ham-handedly executed in the pop milieu, and accompanied by such ridiculous outfits and outlandish grimaces.
I was also impressed with Bowie’s Sweet Thing/Candidate. I simply couldn’t understand how the same man who’d composed Sweet Thing could also be the host of that horrible yet hypnotic television show of which Johnny was so enamored where Bowie would “debate” a variety of liberal guests. One time Johnny forced the entire family to watch Bowie debate Noam Chomsky, and I remember thinking that although Chomsky sounded right, Bowie looked right, and that counted for so much more. Pitted against the charming, cruel glitter in Bowie’s eye and his repose, confident to the point of languorous, Chomsky never had a chance. That confidence is obvious in the mastery illustrated by Sweet Thing/Candidate. It therefore made no sense to me when Bowie performed debates with a disturbing lack of dissonance; for example, when he performed with Thomas Sowell, the piece was a monochromatic offering at best, even during its finest moments, of which there were few.
Regarding Bowie’s harpsichord recordings, there were also few—few to none. This was disappointing. A record of his harpsichord work certainly would have established him as a renaissance man, granting that the howling cross-dressers that attended his concerts wouldn’t necessarily share the tastes of the right-wing Scotch connoisseurs that followed his television work. Whether either group contained harpsichord devotees is an unknown. What is clear is the vision of futurist dictatorship to which Bowie clearly leaned; in Diamond Dogs, it is painted both literally and musically. This is further supported by his television efforts, although it is arguable. It can be said that those efforts at least served to hasten Republicanism’s rightward drift, even if this was not what Bowie had intended.
I was sitting on Dave’s kitchen floor hearing Years Ago for the first time. I was vaguely aware of Dave’s distress, particularly during the latter portions of the piece. Thankfully Peter prevented him from intervening in my reverie. But when the piece ended and I emerged from my trance I immediately noticed the little incident.
“Don’t worry Damone,” Dave said, “It happens to the best of us. I’ll get some paper towels.”
Dave was highly amused by the unfortunate little incident; others might not have greeted it so affably, for example others that hadn’t smoked an enormous amount of marijuana. Don’t forget, that was our family business—I know when someone’s high. But his mirth was infectious nonetheless—Peter pointed to the floor and laughed. I also laughed, proud of the relinquishment since it was the byproduct of an overwhelmingly fruitful delirium.
Photo courtesy of Nina Novokuznetskaya: Frank Lord, Gillian McCain, Danny Fields. Cracow, Poland, 2018.