It is 1967 (fall), New York. I have been writing for Crawdaddy! — The Magazine of Rock for the past 10-11 months. Although I’ve had several landmark pieces published by ’em, contributing greatly to what will soon be known far and wide as “rock criticism,’ ’ I have not been paid a cent — this despite the fact that the Times has labeled Crawdad the “fastest-growing publication in America.’’ While this may be a slight exaggeration and anyway growth from nothing to something always involves suspiciously hokey rates of blah blah blah — editor/publisher Paul Williams is not exactly hurting for what might currently pass for material comfort. Living in a cute little apt. in the same building on Jane Street where Alexander Hamilton died after being plugged by Aaron Burr, he’s been jetting regularly between N. Y. and new-age culture center San Francisco for the last half-year — which has gotta mean the mag’s already netted him a cool four figures and that’s four more than it’s netted me.
It’s the fall of ’67 and I’m beginning to complain. To placate me, newly hired asst, editor Candy or Mary or Shelly or something (who will later break William’s heart by marrying art director David Flooke) tells me I can probably make a few bucks writing for her old pal Ralph Ginzburg’s latest scam, Fact. She talks it over with Ralph and they come up with why don’t I write about TV. Sounds good to me — I’m sick of writing about music anyway — so I get to work . I smoke a lot of dope and decide the shift from rock-roll to TV has gotta be, y’know, monumental; ’s gotta be as all-or-nothing as my still-not-published bore-’em-to-death structuralist manifesto The Aesthetics of Rock.
I smoke more dope and watch a 3 a.m. Jungle Jim movie, focusing mainly on its cheesy disjointed space-time, for some reason (prob’ly dope) thinking small-screen makes a major diff, adding (or subtracting) a perceptual dimension that a big-screen encounter with same would somehow lack (or not lack). The mind’s customary circuitry for spatio-temporal proceedings, I decide, is rechanneled or unchanneled or who knows what by the smaller-than-life frame so that you’re forced to judge for yourself, microsecond to microsecond, whether the standard-issue sensory world does (or does not) have any play. In a play of my own on Kant’s synthetic a priori I come up with the synoptic a priori, something to do with vision (in the “big’’ sense) as given. I scribble out a page or two (this is before the discovery of the typewriter) and give up; this is by far the stupidest stuff I’ve ever writ.
It is 1949, Rockaway Beach, N. Y. One day after kindergarten a new appliance (my mother loves ’em) arrives, a Capehard 10-incher in a box. First image that appears on the “television set’’ is that of a cowboy hitting another cowboy with a chair; I promptly burst into tears and run to my room. As if the brutality of the image is not heinous enough, it is also in black and white, a chromatic format that in the daily comic section I cannot stand or even compute (I wait till Sunday for color). I have not yet seen a movie, a cartoon, anything, in a theater (and the only clock in my household is, yes, digital — ain’t life funny!).
1968 (summer). Under the influence of wonder-drug LSD (25) I watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea at the temporary communal digs of the Soft White Underbelly, earliest incarnation of the Blue Oyster Cult. It’s Huntington (L.I.) or somewhere. Though the set is B&W, I see everything in glowing color, and it’s hard to tell the characters apart ’cause they all have pointy ears. Elements of plot keep repeating themselves in so heavy-handed a manner, so exactly the same every time, that at one point I’m actually convinced an entire week has gone by and it’s a whole new episode I’m watching — they couldn’t possibly be using the same riff that many times in a single show, could they??? Ed Sullivan follows, it’s his 20th anniversary and the best he can come up with is Lana Cantrell (singing the answer version of “Honey,’’ y’know Honey herself singing from heaven), Jerry Vale with gray streaks in his hair (doing Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’’), and Alan King; it is so bottomlessly pathetic all I can do is laugh or cry (hint: I do not cry). Next comes The Smothers Bros. with tit jokes so nonironically nonfunny (or maybe merely ironically nonfunny) that I throw my T-shirt at the screen, thinking they oughta make screens stronger for times like this, so you could even throw a shoe and get away with it.
1968 (fall). Rockaway again. With an ounce of second-rate weed that is my “interest’’ on a hundred-dollar investment in my friend Howie’s burgeoning dope-deal career, I sit and watch whatever’s on. Which this one night turns out to be some Jimmy Stewart abomination about oil drillers off the Louisiana shore, their lives and loves and the shrimp fishermen who hate their guts. I get so “involved’’ in the unfolding story there is no way I can drag myself away, if I tune out unresolved tangles of plot will cause me to die (or at least suffer for the remainder of my days), it’s 4 a.m. and I’m dog-tired but that’s the breaks. Finally, when Dan Duryea marries a townie and Jimmy shows Gilbert Roland where the Big Shrimp are, the tension leaves my soul and I sleep like a fish.
1966, home from college. Nothing better to do than sit around with mom and dad and watch some wretched WW2 thingie with Jack Warden held captive in the South Pacific. Could very well have been some top-rated series ’cause that’s all they watched. In four years of higher ed I haven’t watched a heck of a lot besides the occasional sporting event, I’ve easily overcome any addiction I might’ve had, and this one’s so lame I’m ready for bear, laughing at all the wrong parts — i.e., all the parts (I’ve studied Dada so I know the triggers) — and pissing off the old lady without letup. With a good ten minutes to go I can smell a captor-is-Korean-so-American-prisoner-will-appeal-to-his-incipient-anti-Japanese-tendencies ending, I broadcast it without hesitation and sure enough I’m right. Says mom when it’s over: “I hope you realize you ruined the show for me.’’
- I’ve gotten used to cowboys and chairs and followed their exploits as far as both of ’em can take me. A Hopalong Cassidy gun & holster were my gift for getting my tonsils out but it’s over a year since I’ve worn ’em. In my young culinary mind, Gene Autry is salmon to Roy Rogers’s tuna but all I’m eating lately is potato sticks. In need of new excitement, I go whole hog for outer space and learn everything I will ever need to know about space & time. From Captain Video I pick up the concept “infinity.’’ From Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, I learn “dimension.’’ From the Flash Gordon serials, which I see so many times I eventually get to memorize them, I learn, well, everything: the myth of eternal return, the absurdity of this place rather than that, the laws of physics as mere adjuncts to the imagination, horror of vacuum, the reversibility of sequence, the temporality of drama, etc., etc., etc. The greatest scene I will ever see (cinematic, theatrical, televisionoid, real-life, etc.) is the one in the first Flash serial where he’s got this shovel chained to his arm and he’s got to keep shoveling coal to keep the flying castle inhabited by Voltan and his Birdmen afloat; if he takes it off he dies but somehow Zarkov gets it off for him and he heaves it into the furnace and jumps behind this incredibly archetypal wall (end of chapter).
- TV is such a big deal by now some kid in my class offers me four Scoop cards for the one I got announcing the news item “Joan of Arc Burned’’ (as it originally appeared in the International Times, 1431) simply because he thinks it’s “Joan of RCA.” I’m a better reader than him but I keep my mouth shut.
1956 (September). A pitifully lame (even you would agree) 4'7", eleven-year-old four-eyes with nowhere to go but continued scholarship, stamp collecting, and the sewer, I finally get to stay up “late,’’ meaning beyond 8 p.m. for a change (my folks are real cards), and catch Ed Sullivan for the very first time. Whuddaya know if his guest is none other than Elvis “The Pelvis’’ Presley, whose manic eyes and twitching remind me instantly of Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, my favorite picture to date. Sucked in by that alone (as far as I’m capable of knowing at the time — I haven’t even seen a dirty magazine, let alone beat off), I take maybe a second or two to get caught up in the hoodoo joy & anarchy of the event and know (in whatever bones are mine) that I have never seen anything quite like this before, that because of it I will never be quite the same again. And I’m not — from that moment on I refuse to go to bed before 10.1 select my own clothes, comb my “regular” with vaseline, and affect a walk that prompts my father to tell me, “Stop that! — you look like a Negro.” To catch more of at least the sonic side of Elvis arid his ilk, I take over the family radio and 78 machine (no more Burl Ives! no more Bing!), thus discovering the usefulness of two modem-age appliances I couldn’t have given two shits about before.
1956 (November or so: a reverie). $64,000 Question is not just a swell route to instant riches, it’s a real muscle of a show. No reason I couldn’t be on it. I can grow sideburns, change my name to Elvis Meltzer, wear a leather jacket and pointy-toed shoes, and my category ought to be dirty, rotten filth & sex (I have by now heard some “hooer” jokes and seen Jayne Mansfield in a mag). On my first appearance I will be cool as all get-out; the seventh-grade girls will see me and next school day they’ll all let me “feel them up.’’ Second appearance Hal March will already know just how cool I am, he’ll say, “Mister Meltzer, why don’t you show us your scumbag?’’ at which point I whip out my ‘ ‘bag,’ ’ just loaded with scum, and toss it into the audience where some well-stacked cutey lifts her skirt (no panties ’cause she’s been expecting this), it lands right in her “pussy,’’ she gets pregnant and jesus she loves it. (By show’s end I am the biggest thing in America, and $16,000 richer to boot.)
July ’57 (it is). Aside from still being a 4-foot-7 four-eyes, with twelve birthdays now by the wayside, there is really no reason I shouldn’t be enjoying my first summer away from the “folks.’’ But at Camp Kahagon, out in the wilds of Bucks County (Pa.), I’m not thinking softball, I’m not thinking archery, all I’m thinking (two seconds out of three) is I’m more ’n likely to fry in hell. Yes, for the mortal sins of bearing false witness (I have lied on at least three occasions) and failing to honor my father and mother (I’ve “talked back’’ to the creeps more times than that) — as well as for several possible others I’m not yet familiar with as violations of the Law of God — I am all but certain to fry for eternal 4-ever.
What has brought on this latest outbreak of damnation heebie-jeebies (more common around my house than the goddam cold) is the fact that last and final night before camp Billy Graham was on. When it comes to scaring the living piss out of you’re your eternal place of rest, Billy can be pretty gruesomely persuasive, but he ain’t nothing compared to Daddy Meltz using same to exact his toll of parental flesh. D.M., a “student of comparative religion’’ who has so far been extremely effective with the household program of no pleasure in this here life, this time used Billy so keenly, so willfully, so this-and-not-that-fully that my beloved sister Nancy, only nine years alive herself, composed a highly sincere postcard to Billy, the reverse reading, “I hereby give my soul to Jesus Christ our Lord.’’ The morning of our departure to wonderful Kahagon, the old man grabbed said card from the family mailhole, telling Nancy, “I’ll hold this for you. Some day you’ll laugh about it.’’
In the wilds of Pennsylvania, both of us realize — in no uncertain terms — that our male parent is full of shit. What my sister does with this realization I do not know. What I do (with it) is maybe 2.3 percent of my heebie-jeebs’re canceled out, leaving a mere 97.7 to spin on the spit for July and August, hoping against hope that Billy will not return come fall (so that the motherfucking bastard will not have a TV star to use against us come, ugh, schooltime). Meantime I am feeling flames up my thigh every time I spot a frog, every time I look under a rotten log for salamanders or — dare I say it — snakes.
1960 (November). The creeps have already gone to sleep. I believe they’ve both voted Kennedy (although with the old man you never can be sure). It’s 5-6 a.m. and Chet Huntley, David Brinkley look awfully disappointed as they finally project, with the aid of computer science, John F. as the winner over Nixon. I then call it a day myself — perchance to not be dead on my feet come high school tomorrow — sure for the first time in my life that I know what “biased news’’ is all about.
June of ’69. Bobby Abrams, editor of a new music sheet called Fusion, stops over at the Soft White Underbelly house, this time in Great Neck, for a rendezvous with band manager Sandy Pearlman, whom he seeks as a writer for his mag and who, as is usually the case, is not around. He remembers my name from ‘ ‘What a Goddam Great Second Cream Album’’ piece for Crawdaddy and, overstuffed with music writers per se, asks if I’d mind writing about TV, which sounds just jake to me. As my final break from Crawdad has been traumatic and I haven’t really appeared in too many elsewheres since, I decide to adopt a real neat pseudonym, Borneo Jimmy, and that night park myself in front of the color rental set with my typewriter, pecking out joyous nonsense as the swill runs by. My latest attachment to the medium thereby clinched, I spend the better part of the summer watching the Mets, at first just to catch two-plus hours of green, later to ride the diamond-thrills bandwagon as they go on to win it all. In the process I learn the joys of beering while watching, and for election night ’69 I move up to tequila.
1971 (whole damn year, Manhattan). I watch; I write; I am. Entrenched before my black-and-white all the livelong day, I watch everything but soap operas as my typing hands dissect the universe bit by bit. Never have I known such a trigger to the writerly unconscious; never have I cared less what is on.
1972 (spring). In town on a rock-roll freebie to interview the up-and-coming Jackson Browne, I sleep over at Liza Williams’s pleasure dome in semihilly L. A. and have the good fortune to attend her then-beau Charles Bukowski’s first “intentional’’ encounter with the cathode monster (color). During Cannon he yells, “What a man!” every time Wm. Conrad manages to do something right. At a crucial moment of some poignant love pic he tells the protagonist, who has just lost his gal, “You’re better off without her.’’ (He reminds me of my Russian immigrant grandmother, to whom even radio was quite a jolt, talking to the screen during a segment of People Are Funny where a bachelor had to answer questions from the studio audience about cooking; she got zero right to the bachelor’s one.) Later, when the projectionist falls asleep during I Shot Jesse James starring John Ireland, he glares at the bouncing image and propounds: “See — they haven’t got the technology down yet!’’
- I wage a bitter struggle with my progenitors for control of the Thursday-night tube. Wrestling versus Playhouse 90, who will win??? Finally a deal is struck: alternate weeks. In the first two weeks of the deal they miss part one of For Whom the Bell Tolls and (following Thursday) I miss Mark Lewin and Don Curtis losing the U.S. tagteam championship to Dr. Jerry Graham and his brother Eddie.
1954 (continued). The problem as defined by mom and dad: How to get my sis and me to agree on a show (like wouldn’t it be great?). She, relative baby that she is, can still stand Howdy Doody, which by now makes my skin crawl. Not long ago we both dug a local game show called Sense and Nonsense, which palled for contestants to identify sensory objects by each of their major five while all (or most) of the remaining four were kept in darkness, but this year it is no longer on. The parents, no better at TV projection than they are at parenting, herald the arrival of Lassie as a sibling-compromise godsend. They are wrong, they are very wrong (I will not even accept a collie as a dog, I would just as soon accept Elsie the Cow as the star of a show).
1975 (late). Now living in L.A. and wondering why (I haven’t “had sex’’ in a month so what’s all this Babylon crap about?), I manage to leave a music-biz press party with a bouncy babe who claims to have taught Squeaky Fromme how to handle a handgun. We roll around carnally for what seems like several hours, during which I don’t look up once to check the TV until, with my dango in her oral craw, I somehow notice that Larceny, Inc. is on. Even in boring black and white (my current set is a Sony Trinitron that I went halvesies on with my New York sweetie just in time to catch the ’74 Super Bowl; in parting for sunny So-Cal I insisted on taking the set, leaving her with the stereo), Larceny, Inc. still stars Jack Carson, Edw. G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford as a comic thug, Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and Edward Brophy. Although the sensations on my unit are not-half-bad, I take leave of the suction to turn up the sound, as I have seen the fantastic pitcher only twice to date.
1977 (December). I am very much in love. Every night with my newly unearthed eternal mate is one long blissful stretch of bliss-till-dawn. Sleep is out of the question, as it would separate our waking souls for too long to even compute. The machine is always on, and we catch nightly doses of Hugo Haas, I, the Jury starring Biff Elliot, Cover Girl (not the title but it’s close) with Shelley Winters, and something with Howard Duff as the news photog who stages crimes in order to snap ’em. Abuzz with love-of-life, I register extreme displeasure at (between the flics) Ben Hunter or maybe the other Hunter trying to peddle orphans to viewers, prodding them into revealing their hobbies and/or knowledge of a foreign language. (Pretzels and ginger ale are beside the bed.)
1978 (Sept.). With songwrite royalties from the Blue Oyster Cult’s Spectres LP, for which I contributed the lyric to something called “Death Valley Nights,’’ I make the most outlandish consumer acquisition of my life (other than automotive), shelling out $900 (plus tax) for a Sony Betamax. What makes the purchase particularly silly is the fact that aside from late movies, which are rarely on more than one at a time anymore, and which I will be watching firsthand anyway, there is nothing on TV that a month in Saskatoon would force me to worry about “missing.” Oh well, I can always start a boxing “library” (my first taping of any sort the second Ali-Spinks fight) and, until the royalties run out, a stack of monster cassettes as well (for starters: The Slime People, B&W, 1962).
1981 (July, November). Two burglaries (my place), two TVs gone in a flash, a nifty irony considering the fact that my primary source of local income is (for the first time in ten years) a column covering the TV beat. First time around (in the midnight hour) thief or thieves (as the case may be) also take the Betamax, which I haven’t used in over a year, an Atari video-game thing (with Space Invaders cartridge) that my sister gave me for Xmas, the instruction manuals to both, the warranty to the latter, and the current TV Guide. I am miraculously left with 40-50 Beta cassettes, which I can’t subsequently unload at any price, as in the interim the world has pretty thoroughly converted to VHS — which I would probably convert to myself (given another royalty wad to again spend like a dumb fucking asshole).
Borrowing only a relatively smallish wad, however, I foolishly invest in a new (but considerably smaller) Trinitron, like a dodo bringing it home to the same first-floor alley apartment that has already revealed its vulnerability to illicit entry. This time they score it in broad daylight and are about to remove the stereo as well, dropping it with a thud and leaping out the window as I return from cashing my latest TV column check. Evidently, the world wants TVs. As far as I am concerned, the world can have ’em. (I will not buy another, I promise myself, not as long as there is air in these lungs—cough, cough, cough. Gifts, well that’s a different story; loaner sets — hey! — they’re OK too. As to possible effects of being setless, y’know on my column itself, I cannot think of one.)
Meantime I am so unnerved by the callousness of the LAPD to my plight that after twice of it I swear (on a stack) I will never call these swinefucks again—not if Hitler shoots my puppy. On each occasion they refuse to take fingerprints or look for clues, not even fake ones just to humor me (I’m not rich enough to merit such, uh, preferential treatment; my loss as a mere crime stat will help their salary demands and that’s the only reason they’ve made the trip). They talk Adam 12 gobbledygook like they were born to the genre, giving up only upon realizing that (even if I did once have a set) I am one of those sickos whose minds have not been teeveed to blithering submission; sensing I cannot be conned, they abandon their Milner/McCord deadpans and eyeball heavy loads of real genuine hate my way. I curse the lying, piss-sucking servants of the ruling class till they’re out on the street, swearing (on the very same stack) I will never again watch that most insidious of pro-palace-guard propaganda vehicles, Hill Street Blues—when or if, that is, I get to borrow another electronic marvel from someone smart enough to no longer want his or her own anymore.
1970 (Shirley, N.Y.). While wintering it at my parents’ summer retreat (I am trying my damdest to “hide”), I have grown quite attached to a neighborhood cat named Spooky, whom the wonderful residents of Baybright Drive have chosen not to feed, forcing him (they hope) to live off the moles of the land (through two feet of snow, yet). Since I provide him with goodies well beyond the normal range of catfood mush (canned hams and corned beefs, for inst, from the parents’ storm-cellar stash), he generally visits my doorway, perchance to feast and warmly slumber, nightly at around 10.
After making it a regular routine for about a month, Spooky all of a sudden does not show up for four entire days; I leave a food tray outside, but there is no sign he has eaten from it. I am frankly worried he’s been splattered by a snowplow and have all but given up any hope of ever seeing him again when on the fifth night I turn on the original Thief of Bagdad, which as a kid I must’ve seen 10-15 times (TV was once good for something). While I’m watching I keep an ear peeled for cat sounds, once in a while even sticking my nose into the freezing goddam night.
Finally it gets to the part where Sabu’s stuck on some faraway island and it’s not looking too good for him to ever get back and save his master from being stuck in the body of a dog; he’s run through his three wishes and the genie is no help. Some good spirit or something then shows up from out of the blue or maybe it’s just a voice, anyway he gets told to never give up believing—for believing beyond all hope he will be rewarded by the good fairy of all good believers (or some such hokum). At that very moment — voila! — Spooky appears at the door, very cold, very hungry ... a TV/realworld simultaneity (call it TV magic, I won’t mind) that will certainly do.