Thursday, January 26, 2012

Childhoods of Color & Contrast

Just finished reading Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood, by A.J. Albany. David suggested it to me months ago, thinking I could relate, given my own Hollywood arts/celeb childhood, and I bought a copy right away but only got to it now.

While I cannot really relate (this woman’s father was musician too, and her mom a notorious beauty, but there the similarities diverge – her parents were junkies, big-time), I do love reading about Hollywood in the 60s and 70s, and I do know the ups and downs and feast-or-famine childhood of a kid brought up alone and whose parents don’t have day jobs and steady paychecks. While A.J. was raised by her dad (jazz great Joe Albany), and I was raised by my mom, I know about the gypsy lifestyle, moving from place to place to stay ahead of kited checks and angry landlords, pushing old, worn out beater cars down hills then jumping in when the engine’d catch, meeting, at very young ages, extraordinary adults, some famous, some not, some up, some down, who’d treat you as a peer, regardless.

Here is a particularly striking passage from the memoir:

“…That’s what happened to Izzy, who’d been living at the Knickerbocker for sixteen years, since ’55. He’d decided to hole himself up, surrounded by his memories and his passions. Hotels in Hollywood and downtown L.A. are full of forgotten people like that. People you wouldn’t look twice at, with their hot plates and old slippers, but you should look, because they’re often far more interesting than all the rich assholes swanning around Beverly Hills, full of themselves and nothing else.”

My mom, a smart, beautiful, intellectual, somewhat tragic at times and certainly flawed, knew a lot of characters like Izzy.

I remember an artist hippy, bearded and rotund, Teddy Burger, who traveled back and forth from San Francisco to L.A. in his VW bus (which doubled as his home) with his two treasured Saluki dogs, named Footloose and Fancy Free. Teddy always had the most egregious B.O., and the biggest, sweetest smile. I remember the Lady Pamela, a renowned reader of tarot cards (she gave me her well-worn Aquarius deck, which I still have), who was elegant and aristocratic, in her long Indian skirts and her willowy scarves. And James Bryon, who repped the likes of Jane Mansfield and Yvette Mimieux (and my mom, when she cheesecake modeled as Buni Bacon), spoke with perfect, measured elocution, and carried himself like the Lord he’d named himself after. Pleasurable pastime as a kid was to get his goat to see if I could get the composure to crumble – played a lot of pranks on Uncle Jim, and his favorite curse was, “You beastly child!” He always had a pristine Cadillac, which was his baby, and one of the best April Fools was telling him someone had hit and run him while parked outside. But Jim could turn the tables just as easily; he helped me TP the neighbor’s house once (or at least, called the shots from the sidelines). Then there was my mom’s literary agent, Earl Mills, who’d once managed Dorothy Dandridge, and carried a torch for Dorothy (and my mom, unrequited) for years and years. A hopeless romantic, who could roll his R’s like a linguistic wonder. Composer Rick Marlowe, comedian Tommy Smothers, one of Rosemary Clooney’s sons (who was dating a flat-chested bottle blonde who’d wear stuff like tee-shirts with a picture of two fried eggs over the chest, or ones with slogans like “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”), novelty songwriter Allan Sherman, an insanely handsome professional gambler who’d done time, an heir to a fortune in France who gave my mom a ruby and 24-karat gold a ring of his family crest (which she gave to 9 year old me when they broke up, and which I still have)… There are more, many more – photographers, poets, agents, actors, alcoholics, singers, gays, straights, heads, squares, growers, groupies, hipsters… I remember dribs and drabs of them all.

While I did have to grow up in a hurry due to parental addiction (alcohol, pot) and her life-threatening illnesses (cancer, radical double mastectomy), my childhood memoir is truly a fairytale compared to A.J.’s – her mom turned tricks, her dad shot up constantly, she was molested, and her little friends suffered even worse fates.

What I really liked about Low Down was its complete lack of self-pity in the recollection, A.J.’s never-ending optimism (of a kind; she was hardly a Pollyanna, but very philosophical and accepting while remaining hopeful), her appreciative love music and cinema and literature, and most of all her devotion to her father and his to her. It’s a truly beautiful and touching (sentimental, but not sappy) tale.

Here’s another passage which struck me:

“Dad rarely looked too hard or too long at the madness of his own addiction, but he often lamented the toll drugs took on the lives of his friends. Dad and Chet Baker had known and liked each other for 40 years, though they hadn’t met up since the early 70s. [in ‘87] An extremely down and out Chet approached Dad and asked if he could spot him a little cash, as he was at a real low end, and God knows it wasn’t easy “to find one kind face in all of cold fucking New York,” as Dad used to say. At this point, however, Dad had hit rock bottom himself, sometimes barely making it through the few gigs that still came his way. “Chet, you know I’d spot you if I had the bread, but I spent my advance and I don’t even have cab fare home. You’re welcome to crash at my pad tonight.” Chet took Dad’s hands and squeezed them. “Thanks, Joe. You’re a sweet guy.” Dad was looking at a reflection of his own devastation, and told me that at that moment, he felt like crying. In the land of the poor blind Chet, my one-eyed Dad was king on that particular night.”

She puts things in perspective so very well. She’s quite the writer. This, too, when her dad was in N.A. with a sponsor 30 years younger than him, and at the end of his long, productive, wasted life:

“Where did an old, lifetime user like my dad find help? The answer was nowhere. Dad and others like him were banished to the netherworld of methadone maintenance at best. “It’s a young man’s world,” he’d say with a tired smile. I would hug his huge head, cursing my powerlessness and the futility of comforting words that fell flat and died and soon as they hit the air.”

It’s one of those books you read, and you want to tell everyone about. So, there you are. If you liked memoirs such as Danny Sugarman’s Wonderland Avenue, or Anthony Kedis’s Scar Tissue, or Augusten Burrogh’s Running With Scissors, you must read this one.

Next up, I’m going to flip flop between Your Creative Brain, Vintage L.A., and a Louis Wain biography… and work on my script! Viva la solitude in Laurel Canyon for the next week. (Thanks, Lee.)

No comments: