Sometimes life stories pop into my brain. Then, because I feel the need to share, I spew …
Back in the late-1990s, when I moved to New York City, I shared an apartment with Russ Bengtson, the former Slam Magazine editor, and his girlfriend at the time, Adrienne. It was a weird pad—two flights above the Empire Wok Chinese restaurant; twp studios merged into one. We had two bathrooms, one kitchen, a room the size of a closet and a common area that wasn’t really a common area. The place, as I recall, could get excruciatingly hot, and mice seemed to love the nightly scent of Mr. Chen’s fried rice (Mr. Chen owned the restaurant and the building. Nice man. Understood three of every 10 words spoken).
Russ was a great roommate; battled me quirk for quirk. He probably owned, oh, 200 NBA jerseys and shorts; kept his bikes in the apartment; would come home at 3 am with gashes on his shins (from riding). He had a thick red goatee/beard and a shit jump shot. We bonded over our two favorite TV shows—CHiPs ’99 and The Magic Hour—as well as hip-hop. Great guy, great roommate, great friend (Adrienne moved in with us after, oh, six months, and it was wonderful. I’d known both from my Delaware days. We were all very tight).
Anyhow, Russ owned a snake. A big, fat nameless snake. I don’t recall much about the animal, save for he said little and enjoyed feeding time. I didn’t mind the snake, didn’t embrace the snake. He simply existed.
One summer day, when the temperature was in the 100s and New York City smelled off piss, I arrived home at the apartment. As soon as I entered, the smell of rotting egg filled my nose. Crap. I looked by the fridge. Nothing. Checked the pantry. Nothing. High, low, left, right—no eggs. Then I entered Russ’ side of the pad. Sniff, sniff. I approached the snake. He looked OK.
I inched closer.
The snake was not only dead, but a small cloud of smoke was rising from his body. He was, literally, being cooked in the sun coming through the window, combined with the heat. Nasty isn’t a nasty enough word to describe the scene.
Unfortunately, Russ was out of town—and he loved that snake. When Adrienne returned home, I asked her whether we should throw the snake in a dumpster; put it in a box; etc.
“I dunno,” she said.
We wound up putting the snake in a plastic bag and sticking it in our mailbox (it was a Sunday, I believe). “We’ll leave it up to Russ,” I said. Adrienne agreed.
Russ came home the following day. We carefully, tastefully told him about the snake.
“So what’d you do with it?” he asked.
I explained the bag and the mailbox. He laughed.
“Thing’s dead,” he said, “I woulda just chucked it.”
So my daughter Casey leaves for three weeks of sleep-away camp this weekend.
I’m sad, but not quite as sad as last year. She was just a girl of 8 at the time, departing for SEVEN full weeks. It was long, hard, awful, and when she returned home I was as happy as I’d ever been.
Earlier today the wife and I were talking summer camp, and how one of the beauties is that—by leaving home—a kid can be whoever he/she wants. In other words, upon arriving at Camp Whateveryoucallit, you’re no longer the geeky non-athlete who struggles with the girls. You’re your own definition. You can present yourself as smooth, as smart, as wild, as fast, as loose. You are your own dictionary—write at will.
At least that’s what people tend to think.
Truth is, we are who we are. I remember going to camp, determined to be the cool-as-a-cumcumber jock who strutted with a swagger. I didn’t much like myself, and saw summer camp as an escape. It never really came to pass, however. As much as I tried to fit into a new persona, my old persona was the real one. I never kissed a girl back home and I never did so at camp. I was never a basketball star at home, and I wasn’t one at camp, either (though, I must say, it didn’t hurt my hoops production to be a tall kid at a Jewish camp). I wasn’t particularly intelligent, or funny. I just sorta existed.
In journalism, there’s a space holder known as TK.
If you’re missing some information—someone’s name, a location, etc—you use TK as a temporary fill-in. For example: “Smith won the pole vault, just edging out Miller, who attended high school in TK, Georgia.” TK stands for “to come”—the K being used instead of C because the T and K side by side will is unusual and will always get caught by a spell check.
Back when I was a younger writer, I never used TK. Literally, never. I surely knew of its existence, but I was lazy, and disliked the idea of returning later to fill in a fact. I’d just write around the info; call a place “a hotel” instead of “the Holiday Inn”; say a guy is, simply, from Georgia, Town be damned.
At age 41, however, I’ve come to understand—and obsess over—the power of little details. It’s never merely a bottle of soda. It’s a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke, with a red label and little beads of water. It’s not just a house–it’s a English-styled cottage with white wood paneling and brownish-gray drapes. Little details show that a writer cares; that he took the time to not merely write, but report and dig and search. TKs now make up an enormous part of my professional life. Last night, for example, I sat at my laptop from 9:30 pm until 2:30 am filling in dozens of TKs into my next book. It’s no fun and sucky and mind-draining.
Earlier this afternoon, while visiting my parents’ house for Father’s Day brunch, I stumbled upon Mom’s college yearbook. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in the 1960s, and the 300-and-something pages are an ode to the fashions of the time.
Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy hair. Really, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Big, monster movie cuts delivered to Thelma and Jessica and Susan from the Blind and Crazy Salon of Greater New York. I laughed and laughed and laughed, pointing out one bad trim after another. Here, take a look …
Upon arriving home this evening, however, I thought of something: Were the haircuts from my era any better? I broke out the ol’ 1990 Mahopac High School yearbook. The girls were lovely and friendly and enjoyable. Their hair, on the other hand, well … uh … eh … mmm …
I know tomorrow is Father’s Day, and blah, blah, blah. But a couple of days ago I was thinking about something my mom once did that was extraordinarily cool—and sort of unusual.
Back on May 6 in the lord’s year of 1988, my brother David turned 18. He was a junior in high school, and he wasn’t an especially easy kid to shop for. He wasn’t into sports, or music, or knitting, polka, water bottles. Just … not an automatic gift sorta guy. Anyhow, one morning I said to Mom, “David’s 18—I wanna buy him a Playboy.” My mother laughed, and before long we were inside the Jefferson Valley Mall, at the Waldenbooks’ register. “Can we have one Playboy,” Mom told the guy behind the counter. It must have been the oddest of sights—this 40-something woman and her snot-nosed son, purchasing a tit mag.
I remember, at the time, thinking how unique Mom was; how v-e-r-y few (if any) other mothers on the block would have done such a thing. It happened to be the perfect gift for David—funny, age-appropriate, sorta quirky.
I hope I’m the same type of cool as Mom was back in the day.
Moments ago I received this Tweet, from a nice follower known as GB …
Truth is, I don’t sleep much. Five hours a night usually. Six, sometimes. Every so often, seven or eight. It’s not that I don’t have the opportunity—my kids are out by (latest) 9:30, and no one is keeping me up. It’s just, well, sometimes I look a photographs like the one atop this post and think, “What’s the rush to close my eyes?”
The two people are my grandparents, Mollie and Nat. Both warm, loving, great folks. Both now 100-percent dead.
When I see Grandpa and Grandma, in these faded images, they look all young and vigorous and filled with life and dreams and hopes. I can still hear their voices; can still see their apartment and still picture my annual visits to their Ft. Lauderdale condo. In other words, they were once me. You. Us.
Now they’re not.
So, no, I don’t love sleeping. Because, ultimately, we all close our eyes—for eternity. We are gone, nothing, dirt, worm cuisine. I’m in no rush to not exist.
Namely, I notice moles and beauty marks. All moles and beauty marks.
It’s an awful thing, and I blame my older brother. When I was a kid, growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I had a protruding brown beauty mark located beneath my nose. It was big and ugly, and I friggin’ hated it. My brother—sensing an opening as only a brother does—nicknamed me “Mark,” and called me it time after time after time. It was dreadfully painful, and scarred me for a long time. Eventually, I grew a goatee to cover the thing. Then, about 12 years ago, I had it sliced off. Sweet relief.
The mark is gone. But the scars remain. Now, I notice every fucking beauty mark. Really, I do. In front of me, behind me, to the left, to the right. They’re everywhere. We all have them. Hell, I remember in high school, this one guy who sat in front of me in class had three diamond-shaped beauty marks on the back of his neck. At our reunion a few years ago, I looked and they were still there. Wacky.
A couple of weeks ago I ran a Quaz Q&A with Sarah Spain, the excellent and accomplished Chicago-based ESPN personality. Sarah was, as one would expect, fantastic. Her answers were detailed and intelligent and thought-provoking. She was as good a Quaz as I’ve had.
In doing these interviews, I run accompanying photos. Generally, I find them with a quick Google Image search (Admittedly, this isn’t always kosher. If there’s an available photo credit, I give it. And if someone asks for the picture to be taken down, I do so immediately). For Sarah, there were tons upon tons of pictures to choose from. One that I selected was this …
Why did I pick such a photo? Honestly, because it showed Sarah on the job, positioned before an ESPN microphone. What I didn’t realize at the time—and only learned today, via a Tweet, was that the picture was tagged (by someone else, obviously) “whorebag.gif.”
First, I’d like to apologize to Sarah for not noticing such a thing.
Second, I’d like to make a point. Namely, I’m sick of this shit. Really, really sick of this shit. Are male fans all 12? Do we really have to gauge every single woman involved in American sports on her legs, thighs and breast size? Do we really need to refer to women as whores and sluts? Hell, just go to Google, or YouTube, or Twitter, and type in the name of a female sports TV personality alongside terms like “sexy” or “ass” or … whatever. It’s almost all right there in front of you—ratings, rankings, fantasies. Now type in the same terms alongside Chris Berman or Stephen A. Smith. Crickets.
Recently, I served on a panel with a local TV anchor named Dari Alexander. She was absolutely lovely, and I decided she’d be a future Quaz. That night, I looked her up on the web. Some of the YouTube offerings were “Dari Alexander hard left nipple” and ” Dari Alexander cleavage, legs & high heels.” The guy who posted the videos—some clown named JayNorris117—has brought to the world thousands of similar clips on hundreds of other women. The results: 5,642 subscribers, 31,905,512 views.
Again—what the hell is wrong with people? Sarah Spain has parents … a family. Dari Alexander is a mother, a daughter. I just … don’t get it.
* Welcome to the 106th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m listening.
Back in the lord’s year of 1989, I had an enormous crush on Theresa McClure, keyboardist/singer in Illusion, Mahopac High School’s rock band.
Why? I’m not entirely certain. Theresa was cute, but not drop-dead gorgeous. Theresa was friendly, but not perky. Theresa was polite, but, ahem, ignored my advances. I suppose—when I really think about it—what did it for me was Theresa’s voice. It reminded me of wind chimes and bells; peaceful, soft, soothing, happy.
For those who don’t know, Jonatha is one of the most unique and accomplished female singer/songwriters of our era. She gained initial notoriety performing in the duo, The Story, and has since released nine solo discs. Her cover of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye In the Sky” happens to be one of my favorite songs—ever.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Jonatha, I’m gonna start with a weird one. I’ve listened to a bunch of your interviews from the past years, and you often talk about crafting a song, the feel of an album, how what you’re going through in life impacts the music, etc … etc. I’m wondering, though, do music buyers care? I DON’T mean this rudely AT ALL. I can appreciate what one goes through putting herself out there via song. But, come day’s end, do most people just wanna be entertained while listening to the radio on the drive to work? Do you ever wonder whether all the heart and pain and oomph you surely put into your music is rightly received by the masses?
JONATHA BROOKE: I love this question. It’s everything. All of the above. People don’t give a shit, but then they care beyond belief. They want to be entertained, and then … luckily for me, they crave something that moves them deeply. To dance, to weep, to thrash around. So far I’ve done OK without the masses! The heart, pain and oomph are received in precisely the right way by the ones who receive it!
When I heard Charlie Winston’s “Boxes” I almost drove off the road in Manchester, England. When I heard Lianne La Havas at a fundraiser for WXPN in Philly, I just cried, she was so good. Dark, moody, broken.
But I’ll also be the first one dancing whenever “Teenage Dream” comes on … I know it might not be considered deep, but it is … just different deep. And I just love her, that Katy Perry.
This is why I will never stop doing what I do. People take whatever it is they need at the time from music. OK, albums may not be selling like they used to and that sucks. But people are consuming music as voraciously as ever on more platforms than ever. There’s something for everyone. And luckily, I’m just as happy crafting a ridiculous trashy pop treacle as a suicidal dirge. I just love writing songs.
J.P.:So I first came to know of your music via your cover of “Eye In the Sky.” I consider it to be one of the best covers of all time—A. Because it’s gorgeous; B. Because it’s so … improbable. I mean, the Alan Parsons Project? Where the heck did that come from? How did you choose that song to cover? And how, when one covers a song, does an artist walk the fine line of singing a familiar song without simply karaoke-ing it?
J.B.: I think it was my husband’s idea. I’d always avoided covers mostly because any song I truly adored … is too sacred to me and I would never want to mess it up. This one snuck up on me. The original production is so cold and square, that I wasn’t precious about it. And once I actually listened to the lyrics it was a no-brainer to take it in a completely acoustic, dark direction. I kind of read into it like that song, “I’m Not in Love.” Creepy and sad.
I think that’s the only way to cover a song. You must make it completely your own. Change the production, the harmonic approach, even the time signature! Otherwise why bother?
J.P.:Here’s what I know of your roots: You graduated from the Commonwealth School in Boston, you moved on to Amherst College. But how did you REALLY get into music? What pushed you? Drove you? When did you first realize you were good? And when did you decide, “This is the career I want?”
J.B.: I really got into music when I started writing. That’s when I had an inkling that I was good. Not necessarily as a singer yet, but that I had something really unique in how I heard things and wanted to express them. It was sophomore year of college at Amherst. David Reck, a professor in the music department, had us write songs in his composition class. The assignment was to choose any e.e. cummings poem and set it to music. I got an A. “love is more thicker than forget”—it’s on the first Story album.
The next semester he gave me an independent study for a full course credit to write songs for a concert. A full evening. Jennifer Kimball and I (we later became “The Story”) put on the show and got another A.
The rest is a little circuitous. I had always been a dancer although I was in bands, and sang and played. Dancing was my first love, so after college I moved back to Boston, then New York to dance professionally … Jennifer and I were gigging on the weekends, and getting a little bit of a following around Boston. But I was juggling weird jobs just to stay afloat and and dancing with three different modern companies when … we got a record deal.
It was a tough transition, going from dancing six hours a day to, cold turkey, getting on a tour bus. But I’ve never regretted it. I am so lucky to do what I do. I truly love my job. And I think I’m still getting better at it.
I miss dancing once in a while. But I just had to get a new hip because of all that ballet—imagine how much gimpier I’d be if I hadn’t stopped!
J.P.:As you just mentioned, you and Jennifer Kimball joined together to perform as The Story. You guys put out some fantastic music. I’m wondering whether, ultimately, being part of a duo is more joy or pain? I mean, Hall and Oates have spoken pretty openly over their semi-dislike for one another; most duos don’t last long; etc. What are the complications that come with being part of a musical team? What are the rewards? And why did you break up?
J.B.: We only made two records together. And our friendship definitely suffered for the musical partnership. But we were also totally different people. I was driven and writing constantly. Jennifer was not as fond of the road as I, and not really writing, and feeling less and less a creative part of the process. It was inevitable. I think we were smart to call it when we did. Actually Jennifer was the braver of the two of us, and realized she couldn’t do it and said so first.
I was feeling trapped by the preciousness of the duo sound. And the pressure of having to write for two voices. The songs I started writing after the second “Story” record were so singular. It would have been miserable for both of us to try to force the old sound on the songs on “Plumb.”
Jennifer’s made two beautiful records since the Story days. She’s stayed closer to home, had a kid, and another career in landscaping. I didn’t want kids, and still have that road wanderlust. I think it all worked out for the best.
J.P.:You’ve discussed the crap moment when—mid-tour for 10 Cent Wings—you were dumped by MCA, but continued to play. What was that like, finding out your record company was letting you go? How did you take the news? And I’m sorta curious, now that the record industry is getting thumped across the skull by the confusing digital age, whether you feel any sweet taste of revenge?
J.B.: I suppose there have been flashes of the sweet-tasting of revenge, but the confusing digital age has given us all a skull-thumping run for our money.
Burning any bridges at all is a really dumb idea. Every person you ever work with in my world will keep turning up in new and interesting places. So you button your lip and take the high road!!
That said, it totally sucked getting dropped when “Secrets and Lies” was just beginning to chart at Triple A radio … MCA actually called the stations that were playing me and told them to stop.
I decided (OK, after moping for a week and a half) to throw a party. Meshell N’Degeocello came over … Wendy and Lisa … and we had a grand old time, and lots of good wine commiserating, yes, and then making plans. We’d all been dropped at least twice from major labels. It became our badge of honor. We were that special!!
That’s when I decided to start my own label, BAD DOG RECORDS. I finished my tour, released a live record of it, and tested the indie waters. Haven’t looked back since.
J.P.:What, in your mind, separates a great song from just a meh song? I mean, is there a factual thing as a “great” song? Are the Beatles factually great, for example, or can someone legitimately make the case they suck? Do you feel like you’re a, factually, great singer?
J.B.: I have many theories! Some of them have to do with actual keys and chord progressions … so “Great” may not apply. I whisper about the particular training of the American ear … but mostly, a great song is a subjective and personal thing. Again, it’s all about emotion for me. I got that from my mother. A “great” song is one that moves me. The Beatles move me. Rachmaninoff moves me. Eminem and Katy Perry, too! The Brazilians—though I don’t understand a word—write great songs!
Factually, I don’t consider myself a “great singer.” I am, indeed, the product of my own limitations. But I will venture that it’s a good thing. No one else has my particular limitations! So I’m great at my songs. And I sing in a very particular way that is unique, to me. Sometimes I think that’s why very few people have covered my songs, even though so many profess to love them. They’re actually really hard to sing unless you’re … me!
J.P.:This might sound like I’m kissing up—I assure you, I’m not. I think your stuff is brilliant. I really do. Great voice, great songwriting. Just fantastic. You’ve had a terrific career, but not a superstar, everyone-in-the-world-knows-your-songs career, a la a Justin Bieber or One Direction or stuff like that. Do you care? Did you ever seek that? Want that? Was it ever a goal, simply, to be famous via music? And is fame overrated?
J.B.: I’d by a total liar if I said I didn’t have that little flicker in my belly every time I put out an album—the hope, certainty I dare say that it might connect in some more major way. That the “masses” would finally “get” a song like “Because I Told you So”—even “Careful What You Wish For!” (which I thought was a SMASH!). Then year after year I see the roadkill. And I am so very grateful for my slow steady career. I love my anonymity. I love my husband—the life we’ve built. I love the respect I’ve garnered from my peers, and strangely and most awesomely, from some major playahs ….
Luckily, I’ve done this long enough to see that fame is way overrated—too many people learn the hard priorities after such excruciating lessons. I’m grateful to have figured out a few things early.
I still have great expectations and hope for every single thing I do. I’m still a dreamer. And I’ll always be ambitious, competitive. But if anything major really happens? I’ll be so ready, and a grain of salt will be first and foremost in my mind.
J.P.:How do you go about writing a song? Soup to nuts? Does the music come first? The lyrics? Where do the ideas begin? Etc … etc.
J.B.: On a good day? It’s magic. It descends. All I can do is get out of the way. Write it down quick. Find the chords. Don’t blow it. Thank God, those gifts keep coming.
On other days it is needle in a haystack work. I chip away at a melody, the chords. I’ve got the first line, the rest is shit. So I go make toast, I do the laundry. Re-organize the closets. Knit. Any idle busy work to suspend the “I suck” factor.
In the musical play I wrote and am performing now (“My Mother Has Four Noses”) I reference a poem of my mother’s called “Words to a Writer.” She talks about poetry in the same way. It’s like a wild animal, you must coax it, leave crumbs, never get too close. Wait. And “Start again, more than you ever dreamed you could.”
I stole that line for the chorus of a song in the play and on the new record. It’s called, “Scars.”
J.P.:You’re approaching your 50th birthday. I’ve heard musicians take two stances on aging. Jay-Z has noted that it becomes increasingly harder to write lyrics, because you’re not as hungry and driven as you once were. John Oates, however, told me he thinks he’s much more worldly than he once was, and therefore a superior songwriter. How about you? How has aging impacted your music? Your lyrics?
J.B.: LOVE the Hall and the Oates!!!!
Fifty years? I’m still 12! I get hungrier. To get it right. I’m hungrier and hungrier, because it gets harder. Nothing is certain. No groceries for granted.
I am driven because I have to be. I am more worldly. But I’m also more cautious of bullshit. That’s why in some ways, it’s better I didn’t have kids. I hate to say it, but I feel like some people lose their edge when they start having kids. Everyone has to write a friggin’ “mommy” song—and it just kills me. I just want to make it better deeper richer, more literate, more elliptical. Harder is better. It just forces the issue. ( I hope I don’t get in trouble for that!)
J.P.:I have to ask—and I’ll be the 8,000,000th to do so? Where’s the N? And what’s the story behind it?
J.B.: It’s such a bummer that my parents didn’t come up with a better story. They borrowed the name from friends that feminized the “Jonathan” from the Bible. Apparently he was a peacemaker. Blah, blah, blah.
I met the original Jonatha at a gig in Santa Barbara. Luckily she was very cool. But since then I’ve learned that there are two or three more. I am a peacemaker. And I did like being the only one of us I knew … until just four years ago.
But no, my parents didn’t want a boy—I have two older brothers. And no, my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan. It was Robert. So that’s all I’ve got. Peacemaker.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JONATHA BROOKE:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I felt strangely good, that I’d done plenty, was happy with my life, and was ready. (Weird, because I’d never felt that way before that very moment. I’d always thought I would be super fearful).
• Does KISS belong in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame? Why or why not?: Yes. Because they’re KISS for chrissakes. No one else thought that shit up.
• Five greatest songwriters of your lifetime?: Not fair. It changes week to week. This week? Billy Joel. Joe Sample. Billy Strayhorn. Antonio Carlos Jobim, hmmmmmm. Rickie Lee Jones. Joni Mitchell … Stevie Wonder etc …
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mark Sanchez, Back in the Circus, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Richard Gere, Dixie Chicks, fried chicken, Twitter, the Wall Street Journal, Liz Cheney, the number 18, bottled water, Hawaii, Public Enemy, Oreo Cookies, wedding toasts:Back in the Circus, Lethal Weapon III, Hawaii, (alas, never been there) bottled water (I know, not cool), Richard Gere, Public Enemy, the number 18, Liz Cheney, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dixie Chicks, wedding toasts, Oreo Cookies, The Wall Street Journal, fried chicken, Mark Sanchez, Twitter
• On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you worry about death?: 8. Since I was six. I think about it all the time. It’s always there. That’s why it was so weird when I actually truly thought I was dying, that I was so OK with it! What the hell? I was at peace!
• Best piece of advice you’d give a young aspiring singer?: Go back to school! Are you crazy?
• What does it feel like, standing before an audience and forgetting the lyrics?: Terrible and then awesome, because they love it. They love that you are human and hopefully cracking up with them at your own shortcomings!!
Quaz 1: Wendy Hagen (Former child actress, The Wonder Years)