I recently read aloud to Marcia part of my essay What’s In A Name? I originally posted the piece on my blog ten years ago. We had several good laughs during the reading, and since everybody can use a good laugh, I re-post here part of the article for your reading pleasure.
By the way, I have now posted an essay or short story or something on my blog at least once a week for thirteen years. All of these several hundred pieces are archived and searchable by title and subject matter here on my blog page. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you will find the archives and a search box.
What’s In A Name?
“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
As I answer
the ringing phone, I am distracted by my cat chasing his tail and do not hear
the brief telltale silence presaging a stranger seeking money. “Hello. This is
Doralinda Kayamunga of the NRA calling for Mr. Tom Walsmar.” I hang up, though
in retrospect I wish I’d thought to ask Doralinda how she got Tom from Todd and
Walsmar from Walton.
childhood friends delighted in calling me Toad Walnut, and did so with such
frequency that their teasing ceased to rankle. Please note: their playful
distortion of my name was intentional, whereas the thousand and one subsequent
manglings of Todd and Walton result, as far as I can tell,
from endemic dyslexia. I have been called Tom, Toby, Tad, Ted, Tony, Don, Rod,
and Scott hundreds of times in my life, usually in combination with Watson,
Walters, Weldon, Waldon, Walsmar, Wilson, Welton, Waters, Waldo, and most
goodness sake, my name is not Jascha Heifetz or Ubaldo Jimenez or Ilgaukus
Christianoosman. In England, Walton
is as common as Smith. My surname
derives from Walled Town, and in medieval England nearly all towns were walled
towns. In those long ago days, a person might be known as Roderick of Walled
Town or Sylvia of Walled Town, and over the ensuing centuries, William of
Walled Town became Bill Walton of UCLA and the Portland Trailblazers.
that you, at one time or another, have had your name and/or names misread and
mis-said, but I have yet to meet anyone with a name as simple and
straightforward as mine who experiences such persistent moniker mishandling. My
wife, Marcia Sloane, her first name frequently spelled Marsha by even her close friends, and her last name often presented
minus the E at the end, posits that the very simplicity of Todd Walton is the
cause of people mistaking my name (s) for others. She has yet to convincingly
explain why simplicity breeds confusion, and in support of my theory of rampant
dyslexia I remind her that when she recently gave a talk at the Unitarian, both
the Beacon and the Advocate referred to her as Marika
most egregious distortion of my first name came in 1967 at the outset of my
first year of college at brand new UC Santa Cruz. Dazed and confused, I
dutifully followed the orders in my freshman orientation packet and went to
consult with the advisor assigned to me, a nationally renowned sociologist I
shall not name. This mean little man would soon be locally renowned as a
middle-aged sex fiend preying on gullible undergrad females. To that end, he
made sure only females landed on his list of advisees. So why was I on his
list? Because some administrative dweeb transcribed my name Todi, and this
horny old fart took the misspelling to be an Italian (or possibly Finnish)
girl’s name. Needless to say, he was extremely displeased when a sweaty boy and
not some svelte female darkened his door. After a brief and icky meeting, he
grimly suggested I find other counsel. Todi, indeed.
“And we were
angry and poor and happy, and proud of seeing our names in print. ” G.K.
published my first novel Inside Moves,
I did what all first-time authors do; I visited myriad bookstores to see if
they were carrying my book. In several of these stores, my book was shelved in
the hobby section, the resident geniuses having read the title as Inside Movies. When the book and subsequent
film provided me with a brief stint of notoriety, I was asked to provide
congratulatory blurbs for other books. And on the back cover of one of these
books I was Tod Wilson, author of Night
Moves. On another, I was John Walters, author of Forbidden Pulses, my second novel being Forgotten Impulses. What a woild!
names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are
untranslatable.” W.H. Auden
In 1973 my
mother offered me her doddering and essentially worthless Ford LTD so I could
move with my girlfriend and our paltry earthly possessions from Palo Alto,
California to Eugene, Oregon. We got as far as Sacramento when the old car
began to shimmy like my sister Kate. By some miracle, we managed to pull into a
wheel alignment garage moments before the car could shake into pieces. As it
happened, we had just enough cash to fix our coach, but the mechanic said he
was booked solid for three days.
resigned to crashing on a friend’s floor for the duration, I despondently
signed the estimate sheet. But when the mechanic saw my signature, his eyes
widened and he blurted, “Walton? You’re a Walton? Walton’s mountain? John Boy.
The Waltons. That’s our favorite show in the whole world. That show… that show
is the story of our life. You’re a Walton?”
I had never
seen The Waltons, but I’d heard of
the popular television show and been called John Boy by countless cretins, so I
vaguely knew what this fellow was talking about. I also knew that the creator
of The Waltons was named something like Hammer, and the stories were based on
his family’s history. However, since Hammer lacked the grace and elegance of
Walton, he decided…
tell my wife,” said the mechanic, nodding hopefully. “Could you…if we did your
car this afternoon could you hang around so my wife can meet you?”
said, struck by the happy realization that for the first time in my life there
might be some advantage to being named Walton.
I felt compelled to explain to these good people that I was no relation to the
fictional characters they worshiped, they would hear none of my disclaimers. I
was a deity to them, and all because I hadn’t followed the lead of many of my
cohorts and changed my name to Rainbow River or Jade Sarong.
mechanic’s wife presented us with a special pumpkin pie “just like the Walton’s
have for Thanksgiving supper.” She spoke of the Waltons in the present tense,
for they were very much alive to her.
blessed nonsense culminated in the mechanic donating all parts and labor to our
exodus from the golden state. Then he fervently shook my hand and declared that
meeting me was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Yet
neither the mechanic nor his wife seemed stupid or deranged. Indeed, they
struck me as intelligent and resourceful people, their only shortcoming an
inability to distinguish a television show from what they imagined to be a
docudrama set in the Deep South about people related to me.
asked if I might know their last
name, the mechanic said, “Oh, it’s a common old name where we come from.”
said, having finally surrendered my fate to the largesse of satirical angels,
“I’d love to know your last name?”
said the mechanic and his wife, speaking as one.
I echoed. “I’ve never heard of anyone named Knuckles.”
“Dime a dozen where we come from,” said the mechanic’s wife. “And every last one a cousin.”
This is the fourth and final article in a series
commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
February 1967. Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Redwood
When Rico had two years and five months of high
school left to endure, and I only had five more months of high school to get
through, Rico bought a used mimeograph machine and he and I and Dave Biasotti launched
Lyceum, a magazine. We brought out a
new issue every few weeks chock full of articles and poems and stories. Dave
made great pen and ink drawings for the first few covers, after which we used
photos taken by Rico’s brother Steve for the covers. These photo covers were
some of the very earliest Xerox copies.
We printed a hundred copies of the first issue and
were thrilled when fifty people ponied up four dollars to have the next six
issues mailed to them. Rico then convinced Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, the
hippest bookstore in our world at the time, to sell Lyceum for 25 cents a copy, and Rico and I hawked the rest of the
copies at school.
A heady experience of my young life was seeing
several of my peers sitting around at lunchtime at Woodside High reading Lyceum. Along with drawing the covers,
Dave drew a one-frame cartoon for each issue and wrote reviews of new folk rock
and rock albums. Rico and I wrote articles and stories and poems, and by the
third issue people were submitting poems and notices of things for sale, some
of which we published.
Were we good writers? Hard to say. Were we
That spring Rico fell in love with a young woman
named Maureen. She was beautiful and smart and sexy and funny, and she enjoyed
Rico’s company but drove him crazy because she denied him the sensual romantic
connection he longed for.
Also around this time, Rico shared with me that
his doctors were not optimistic he would survive much beyond his twenties. He
told me this in the context of a conversation in which I said something about
us getting a place together, going to Europe, and living our lives as literary
“I don’t know, Murray,” he said, sounding
uncharacteristically pessimistic. “Lately I’ve been having this fantasy of blasting
off in a rocket ship and just going.”
(Fortunately, advances in medical technology made
it possible for Rico to live to sixty-eight.)
One afternoon I was at Rico’s and he asked me to
play some jazz piano so he could jam with me on a saxophone he’d just gotten.
He hadn’t taken lessons, but he loved jazz and wanted to make music. So I sat
down at their wonderful Steinway and played a jazzy-sounding chord or two, and
Rico blew slow long notes with great feeling. We were both thrilled by the sounds
we made together, and Rico said he might take lessons, but as far as I know he
never did and we never played music together again.
We brought out the last issue of Lyceum at the end of May, right before
school ended, and Rico announced we’d made a profit of seventy dollars, which
in 1967 was a pile of cash for the likes of us. Rico proposed we use the money
to take some girls to San Francisco for walking around and supper.
I took my girlfriend Connie, Rico brought Maureen,
and I can’t remember who Dave brought, possibly Connie’s friend Harriet. For
some reason, Connie decided the gals would wear saris and she came up with
three beautiful saris for them. We took the train from Atherton to San
Francisco and caught a bus to North Beach where we hung out at City Lights
Books, had coffee and biscotti at Caffe Trieste, went shopping in Chinatown, ate
supper at The Spaghetti Factory, and came home on a late night train—everything
paid for with money made from our magazine.
With the last of the Lyceum money, Rico got two tickets for Ray Charles at Frost
Amphitheatre at Stanford, our last hurrah together before I headed off to
college at brand new UC Santa Cruz and Rico stayed on at Woodside High.
I dropped out of college after two years, which coincided with Rico finishing high school. He decided to take what they now call a gap year before attending Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During that interim year, Rico rented a room in a house in Palo Alto for some months before he moved into a hippy commune in Palo Alto with Jean Trounstine who would become his first wife.
Jean was a bright energetic Jewish gal from
Cincinnati, five years older than Rico. She had a BA in Drama from Beloit and
had come to California to join the cultural ferment going on in the Bay Area. I
first met Jean when Rico took me to House of Pies on University Avenue where
Jean was a waitress. The waitresses there wore uniforms composed of skirt,
blouse, and cap that supposedly made them resemble, symbolically, a piece of
We had a hilarious time as Jean enacted the
required shtick of House of Pie waitresses when Rico, following the printed
prompt on the table, asked in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, “What’s fresh
today? Besides you sweetie pie?”
Jean batted her eyelashes and said, “Hold on a sec,
big fella. I’ll go ask our baker.” And then she sashayed away to the kitchen,
mimed asking the baker, and sashayed back to us. “You’re not gonna believe
this, but all the pies are fresh
today. And you know what just came
out of the oven?”
“The apple pie?” I guessed, the place redolent
with the scent of apple pie.
“What are you psychic?” said Jean, gaping at me. “The apple did just come out of the oven. And the blueberry and the cherry and the lemon meringue.”
I loved Jean. She and Rico were a great match and they
were devoted to each other for several years until their lives diverged when
Rico was in his late twenties.
Around the time he was beginning his relationship
with Jean, Rico heard a talk by Husain Chung, a radical practitioner of Psychodrama
as it pertains to psychotherapy, and shortly thereafter Rico began attending
group Psychodrama sessions at a house in Palo Alto, the groups led by Vik
Lovell and his Psychodrama trainees. Interesting side note: Ken Kesey, who
lived in the area, dedicated his book One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Vik Lovell.
Rico was fascinated by the evolving use of Psychodrama
in psychotherapy, and these Vik Lovell sessions were of particular interest to
him because Lovell was, according to Rico, “constantly experimenting and
unafraid to seriously fuck up.” Rico asked me to attend one of the Lovell
sessions with him and I did.
Before being admitted into the house where the
sessions took place, participants agreed not to leave until the three-hour session
was over. Rico had told me a little bit about what went on at the Lovell
sessions, but I was wholly unprepared for what I was to endure for the next
Vik Lovell was a handsome man in his thirties with
an assured air. I am tempted to use the descriptors arrogant, insensitive, misogynist, and narcissist to describe him, but maybe he was just having a bad day.
His trainees were men and women who dressed alike in loose-fitting pants and
black T-shirts to identify them as Vik’s assistants.
Vik sat on a high stool just outside the large
circle of attendees arrayed in chairs around the empty center of the big living
room that served as the stage for the evening’s psychodramas. Vik communicated
with his trainees by gesturing and pointing, and he directed his DJ with quiet
asides to play certain cuts from a handy library of LPs—what Rico and I would
later refer to as psychodrama soundtracks.
After reiterating we were not to leave before the
session was over, Vik invited a tall bearded American man to stand in the
center of the circle and tell us what was on his mind. With little preface, the
man said he’d had sex with the wife of a friend, after which the wife and
friend broke off relations with him. To my surprise, the two people he was
talking about were there, and Vik directed the man and woman to join the
bearded man in the center of the room.
The couple was British, the woman strikingly
beautiful, the man handsome with a muscular build. The woman acknowledged she
had slept with the bearded guy, said she regretted doing so, and was grateful to
her husband for forgiving her and being so understanding. Both husband and wife
said they had no interest in rehashing the affair or having anything more to do
with the bearded guy.
The British guy struck me as intelligent and
reasonable, the British gal the same, while the bearded American seemed
seriously disturbed and obviously distraught about being booted out of his
relationship with the couple.
Vik gestured to his trainees. One of the female
trainees stood behind the British woman, one of the male trainees stood behind
the bearded American, and another male trainee stood behind the British fellow.
And then all hell broke loose. The woman trainee
accused the British guy of neglecting her sexually and shouted, “Which is the
only reason I slept with that disgusting pig!” The trainee standing behind the
British guy shouted at the British gal, “Bullshit! You slept with him because
you’re a whore!”
The British guy protested, “No, I don’t think
you’re a whore.”
And Vik asked, “Then what do you think she is?”
And before the British guy could reply, the
bearded guy said to the British guy, “She told me you were impotent with women
but got turned on by young men.”
“I never said that,” cried the British gal. “My
husband is a wonderful lover.”
I don’t remember the order of events after that,
but following a few more inflammatory exchanges spoken by the psychodrama
trainees, the British guy and the bearded guy started seriously brawling, the
bearded guy throwing punches, the British guy trying to wrestle the bearded guy
to the ground, and the British gal trying to intervene only to be restrained by
two of the trainees who continued to call her whore and slut.
Then an elderly man in the audience of attendees
shouted, “This is wrong, Vik. You need to stop this!”
And in the next moment the bearded guy broke away
from the British guy, pulled the elderly man out of his seat, threw him to the
ground and started pummeling him, which caused me to jump up and try to stop
the bearded guy from seriously injuring the elderly guy. But before I could pull
the bearded guy off the old man, two of Vik’s male trainees grabbed me and slammed
me against a wall and one of them pressed his fist hard against my nose and
shouted, “What’s your deal, asshole? Working on your hero complex?”
My nose started gushing blood and Vik signaled his
trainees to let up on me, which they did, and then and one of them took me by
the arm and led me to a bathroom where I stemmed the flow of blood with a plug
of toilet paper and stayed in the bathroom until the bleeding stopped.
The trainee walked me back to my chair and said,
“Don’t get up again unless Vik tells you to.” By then the chaos had subsided
and Strawberry Fields was playing on
the stereo. The British guy and gal were sitting apart from each other, both of
them weeping, and the bearded guy was lying face down, sobbing, and I don’t
know where the elderly guy was. I desperately wanted to leave but was afraid if
I tried to go the trainees would hurt me again, so I closed my eyes and waited
for the hours to pass.
Rico was very upset afterwards and apologized for
not warning me that I was never to intervene in an ongoing psychodrama unless Vik
invited me to participate. I suffered for some weeks with bruised ribs and did
not attend any more Vik Lovell psychodrama evenings. Rico, however, went
several more times and reported learning many valuable lessons from observing
what went on in those sessions.
Later in his career as a psychologist, Rico would
employ less violent psycho-dramatic techniques, especially when working with
children and teenagers. When we were in our thirties, Rico and I collaborated
on a screenplay called Any Time You’re
Ready about a woman psychiatrist who runs a home for emotionally disturbed
teens and employs Psychodrama as part of her work with the kids. We were never
able to sell the script, though we were certain it was the best movie ever
In 1970, when I was twenty-one and Rico was nineteen, Rico and Jean moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’d only spent a little time with Jean before they moved to Yellow Springs, but I got to know her very well when Ilived in Yellow Springs for two months in early 1971.
While Rico was attending Antioch, Jean taught
Drama at Central State University, a predominantly African American college,
and she taught theatre games to little kids and adults on weekends. While I was
in Yellow Springs, I assisted Jean with her little kid classes, took her
classes for adults, and Rico got me a job editing a student handbook for
Antioch. I’m not sure how he convinced my boss at Antioch to hire me as an
editor, but he did.
I rented a room above Deaton’s Hardware, ate most
of my suppers with Rico and Jean at their cute little house on the edge of the
campus, and unsuccessfully romanced their good friend Kay who enjoyed me but
didn’t consider me boyfriend material.
Jean was a gourmet cook and a frequent dieter. An
ongoing source of amusement for me was that Jean would serve Rico and me
wonderful multi-course meals while resigning herself to eating a hardboiled egg
and a chicken thigh. Yet nine times out of ten, I wanted that egg and chicken
thigh more than I wanted the fancy meal. Go figure.
What was I doing in Yellow Springs, Ohio, you ask,
besides living near Rico and Jean? Well, I was waiting to hear from a major publisher
in New York to whom I had sent my first novel. In my extreme naiveté, having
recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I was sure I could write a novel as good
or better than Vonnegut’s, and while living in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon, I wrote
my first novel, The Apprenticeship of
Abraham Steinberg, and sent it to Vonnegut’s publisher, having gotten their
address from the copyright page of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
On my way to New York to find out what was holding
up my rise to lasting international fame, I stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio and
sent the publisher my updated contact numbers (Rico’s phone and address) and
waited to hear from them, not knowing they didn’t read unsolicited manuscripts
by neophyte writers unrepresented by literary agents.
In April of that year, I got a ride east with two
of Jean’s Drama students from Central State University who were auditioning to
get into the Drama department at Cornell University. From Cornell, I took a bus
to Boston and crashed in a co-ed dorm with a couple high school friends, Dan
Nadaner and Joe Tiffany, who were finishing up their undergrad careers at
Harvard, and then I went to New York to find out what was keeping my literary
career from taking off.
Interesting side note: while I was crashing at
Harvard, one of the guys I got to be friends with, Jerry Hiatt, was taking a
Creative Writing class from, you guessed it, Kurt Vonnegut.
In New York I stayed with my composer friend Scott
Oakley in his roach-infested apartment in Harlem and called the publisher to
inquire of The Apprenticeship of Abraham
Steinberg. After a long wait, a young woman came on the line and sweetly
explained that they did not read unsolicited manuscripts, but because I’d come
all this way she would read my manuscript and get back to me in a few days,
which she did.
I shaved, put on my cleanest shirt, and went down
to the snazzy publisher’s offices in the heart of Manhattan where a woman no
older than I met me in the lobby, handed me my manuscript, and said she really
enjoyed the story, that my writing reminded her of William Saroyan, keep trying,
and get a literary agent.
A year or so later, I was living in a boarding
house in Santa Cruz and looking for a job when Rico called to say he and Jean
were getting married, would I come to Yellow Springs and sing at their wedding.
I said Yes and was so inspired by the invitation, I wrote a song especially for
the wedding and then wrote a collection of short stories entitled What Shall the Monster Sing? which I dedicated
to Rico and Jean.
That collection of stories ultimately landed me my
first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman, and contained a short story
about disabled folks hanging out in a bar that presaged my novel Inside Moves.
I flew to Ohio courtesy of Rico’s folks, stayed
with Jean and Rico for a week before the wedding, sang at the wedding, stayed
another week, and flew home. Singing for all those people at the wedding in the
glen in Yellow Springs, and singing again at the big reception at Jean’s
parents’ house in Cincinnati, along with writing that collection of stories
gave me a vision of how I wanted to proceed with my life, and I have stuck to
that course ever since.
Five years later Dorothy Pittman sold my novel Inside Moves (original title The Gimp) to Doubleday. After I’d
rewritten the book with the help of my excellent editor Sherry Knox, Doubleday
sent forth the galleys and soon thereafter we had a big paperback sale and then
a movie sale, and a week after the movie sale I was summoned to Los Angeles to
meet with Bob Evans who had just made Love
Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, and now wanted to make Inside Moves.
But rather than fly directly from my garret in
Seattle to LA, I stopped in San Francisco to commune with Rico. We stayed up
late talking and he drove me to the airport the next morning, his parting
words, “Call me if you need to talk.”
I landed in LA, got a cab to the Beverly Wilshire
with a Czechoslovakian driver who kept insisting I was Clint Eastwood, had
lunch with my new Hollywood agent Candace Lake and a vice-president at
Paramount, Nancy Hardin. After lunch Nancy dropped me off at Bob Evans’ mansion
and I met with Bob in the pool house next to his big swimming pool.
After a few niceties Bob Evans said, “You’ve
written a nice little fable here. I couldn’t put it down. But it’s too quirky,
too many cripples. You overdid the cripples. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments,
but the second act is a dud. We can fix this and it’ll be huge. So here’s what we’ll
do. We hold off on publishing while you rewrite the book the way I tell you to
rewrite it. That’s what I did with Love
Story. I told Segal what to write and he made millions and so will you.
We’ll get you a place in Malibu, a secretary, a cook, anything you need, and
we’ll get this done.”
I was in shock. Much to Bob’s chagrin, I did not
jump for joy, but said I would think about it. Somehow I got back to my room at
the Beverly Wilshire from where I called my sister who lived near UCLA and she
came and got me and I collapsed at her place.
I called my agent Dorothy Pittman and told her
what had happened. She said she would support whatever decision I made. The
book was to be published in just a few months. She had already heard from my
Hollywood agent and Nancy Hardin at Paramount both of whom had reiterated Bob’s
proposal to have me rewrite the book per his direction, for which I would be
handsomely recompensed, after which they would put big money into promoting the
Then I called Rico. He listened in his patient way
and when I was done telling him what Evans wanted me to do, he said, “Your book
tells the truth, Murray. They’re afraid of the truth. Don’t let them wreck your
story. You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you do.”
And I did not rewrite the book for Bob Evans. He
hired Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin to write a screenplay that changed the main
character from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, and they changed
the heroine from a woman with a leg shrunken by polio to a woman with two
gorgeous gams, and they changed Max from a man with no legs to a big strong
able-bodied guy, and some months later Bob Evans dropped the movie, Dick Donner
picked it up and shot Barry and Valerie’s script and added a revenge scene at
the end of the movie that was the antithesis of the spirit of the book and the antithesis of the rest of the movie.
But the novel Inside Moves came out as I wrote it, and the inspiring story of a friendship between two physically and emotionally challenged guys, versions of Rico and Murray, lives to this day, however humbly.
When I was in my mid-thirties I made my one and only attempt to write my autobiography. I thought I should first write something about my parents’ lives to set the scene for my birth. Then I realized to do my folks justice I should write about their parents, too. But to understand my grandparents, the reader would need to know about their parents, my great grandparents, and how they got to America and California. When I found myself mired in a seventeen page description of life in a Jewish village in Poland in the 1870s, I gave up the autobiography and returned to fiction.
I feel a little bit this way about ‘Sugar Mornings’ because the life from which the music sprang is most of the story.
My parents were children and teenagers during the Great Depression. Thus though they were fast moving up from barely scraping by to middle class by the time I was born, they continued to live frugally and raised my siblings and me to be frugal, too. When each of us turned twelve, we were expected to earn our own money for things other than food, basic clothing, and the utility bills. My older sisters became zealous babysitters and I pulled weeds for neighbors and babysat, too.
To say that my parents were neurotic about money is a grand understatement. As a teenager, I was well aware that my parents were by then wealthy compared to most Americans, yet they pinched every penny and were painfully ungenerous to their progeny. This had a huge impact on my siblings and me and would shape the courses of our lives.
When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I reckoned the less money I needed in order to survive, the more time I would have to work on my stories and novels and songs. So for the next ten years I lived on next to nothing and could get everything I owned onto a Greyhound bus with me whenever I needed to pick up and move. Save for a couple idyllic years of living in communes in Santa Cruz, I rarely had an easy time making ends meet from week to week.
And so for the first time since dropping out of college I had so much money I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent and having enough money for groceries.
In 1979 I rented a little cottage in Santa Cruz and gave myself fulltime to writing and composing. Heaven. What’s more I fell in love with a woman who I fervently hoped would return the favor. And though she did not, my infatuation with her inspired several songs including ‘Sugar Mornings’.
The title came from a letter I wrote to a friend, the letter lost, the gist remembered. I call these mornings when I wake free of worry, sugar mornings, the sweetest mornings I’ve ever known.
I wrote lyrics for ‘Sugar Mornings’ at the time I composed the music, but after all these decades I only remember the first few lines. “Sugar mornings and midnight dreams, lying here by myself it seems, kinda crazy that you are there, faraway and…”
This past summer, the summer of 2019, forty years after composing ‘Sugar Mornings’, and just a few weeks after I brought out my album Dream of You, I was noodling around on the piano one evening and stumbled on the beginning of ‘Sugar Mornings’. I hadn’t played the piece in many years and might have let the tune sink back into the depths had not Marcia heard me playing and said, “I hope you’re going to put that on your next album.”
To which I replied, “I will if you’ll play a cello part.”
She said she would play a cello part and that inspired me to learn ‘Sugar Mornings’ again. I do not read music, so everything I compose must be practiced many times to take hold and not be forgotten. After much hunting around and many dozens of run-throughs, I was able to play ‘Sugar Mornings’ again with confidence and élan.
Peter Temple came to my house to record the piano parts for Lounge Act In Heaven. We then gave those piano parts, including ‘Sugar Mornings’, to Gwyneth Moreland who came up with delightful accordion parts for all the songs. When her part for ‘Sugar Mornings’ was recorded and roughly mixed with my piano part, I gave the mix to Marcia and she composed her cello part. After we recorded Marcia’s cello part, Peter and I mixed the three parts, played the new mix for Marcia, she made suggestions, we refined the mix again, and so forth. Eventually we came up with the version of ‘Sugar Mornings’ you can hear on Lounge Act In Heaven, what one friend called “a sweet nostalgic soundtrack for the opening and ending credits of a classic French film yet to be made.”
“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.
My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.
So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.
My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.
Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.
Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.
Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)
To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.
In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”
I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”
“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”
As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.
Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Trainthat sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.
In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.
I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.
“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.
“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”
And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.
“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.
I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.
My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.
By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.
And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.
How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.
This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.
Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.
Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…
Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.
I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”
To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”
The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”
“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.
And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”
I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”
Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…
In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.
During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.
A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.
Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.
The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.
Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”
I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.
My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.
Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.
Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.
Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.
Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.
Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.
So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.
In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moveswas being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman,Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.
Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.
We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”
Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.
I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.
I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.
When I finished, Frank applauded.
I blushed. “Another?”
Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”
“Not exactly, but close.”
He winked. “Perfect.”
So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.
He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”
His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.
Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.
We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.
The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”
“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.
And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”
“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”
The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”
Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.
I completed my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended. I had a medical deferment that saved me from going to that war. I lost friends to that needless conflagration and had friends who came back from those horrors emotionally disturbed. And long before the Vietnam War, my uncle Bob was severely disabled in a car accident, and spending time with him as a boy and a teenager was a huge influence on how I looked at the world.
Before I wrote Inside Moves, I lived in Santa Cruz and played music in a tavern in which one of the booths was reserved for a group of disabled men. I like them and they liked me, and I wrote a short story about them and then attempted without success to craft the story into a one-act play.
These were all antecedents to my writing Inside Moves, though the largest influence was being disabled as a teenager and spending half a year unable to walk and several years with terrible hip and back pain and a pronounced limp before regaining normal physical functioning in my late twenties.
I would like to share the opening chapter of Inside Moves with you. If I had not succeeded in publishing Inside Moves—a miraculous saga in itself—and if it had not been a modest success and made into a motion picture, I almost surely would not have had a career as a professional writer. The gods, I believe, wanted me to keep writing books and so engineered the unlikely process that brought Inside Moves to the world in 1978.
Reading these opening lines today, forty years after I wrote them, they feel as relevant to me today as they did in my youth when the voice of a man began to tell me this story and I wrote it down.
My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.
I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.
So I told him, “Really, Doctor, I can walk.” He’s a young guy, luckily, so he still has some energy and curiosity. He goes off to talk to a surgeon to find out if I can be disconnected from the bed and the tubes they had going into me. He wanted to let me try to move so I’d know I couldn’t, which he figured would help me accept my paralysis. So the surgeon comes back with the psychiatrist and a couple orderlies and couple nurses and some patients come in too. It was a big event. I could write a whole book on that hospital, but they’ve already written so many like it, there wouldn’t be much point.
The surgeon says go ahead, unhook him. The nurses pull my tubes and then very dramatically this one nurse throws back the covers and there I am in my crummy, piss-stained bedclothes. Nobody’s changed me in over a week. Like I said, I could write a book about that place, but don’t worry, I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
Anyway, after the surgeon says what a disgraceful situation it is, me not being changed and my tubes not functioning properly, and the nurses and orderlies get done passing the buck to some boy who works the graveyard shift, I swing my legs off the bed, push off with my hands and stand up for a few seconds before my legs, which I haven’t used in a year, give out and I sit back down on the bed.
I’d give a hundred dollars right now to have a picture of all those people staring at me.
But I can’t really blame them for not changing me. What difference does it make when you think somebody’s just a vegetable anyway. I was just a raspy voice coming out of a scarred up face to them. Most of them didn’t even know I had a body.
So that’s why I shuffle when I walk and why my head leans to the side a little. I grew a beard and let my hair get long because that covers the scars front and back, and also my head leaning isn’t so noticeable with all that hair. I guess I’m fat because when I’m lonely I tend to eat to fill in for whatever I’m lonely for. Sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes I just need somebody to talk to So I eat.
But I don’t want you to get the idea this book is about me, because it isn’t. It’s about Jerry, but I thought I’d better say something about myself so you’d know what kind of an angle you were getting. In a way, you’re getting a cripple angle, but then again I wasn’t born a cripple. There’s a big difference between a born cripple and somebody who gets crippled. The main difference seems to be how bitter they are. That isn’t always true, but take Jerry, he was born cripple and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. Me, I was born straight, played fullback in high school. Me, I’m bitter. I’m no sweetheart.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2015)
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx
I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.
Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.
Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.
Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.
Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”
“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”
Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”
“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”
“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”
The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.
“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post
Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.
Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…
Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.
In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.
The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com
My Grandmother Goody with Red Skelton and William Bendix
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)
“The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches.” Judith Butler.
The Mendocino Film Festival took place these past two weekends and the little town was jumping with out-of-towners, some in the movie business, some wanting to be in the movie business, and some who enjoy watching movies on screens larger than postcards and wall calendars. Endemic rural funk collided with visiting urban slick, and being highly susceptible to ambivalent ambience, I avoided the commercial sector of town for most of the days the film festival was underway.
Didn’t I want to see the movies? Not really. The good documentaries are already, or soon will be, available to watch in the peaceful atmosphere of home, the fictional shorts shown at the festival are usually several years old and I’ve already seen the good ones, and listening to filmmakers pontificate about their creative processes makes my stomach gurgle, so no.
Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the film festival coming to town. I was involved in the movie business for several years in my salad days, and the vibe in the town when the film festival is underway brings back loads of good and bad memories from those tragi-comic years. For instance, on Saturday, in search of a good chicken to bake, I entered the Mendocino Market, a most excellent deli and sandwich shop across the street from the post office, and was greeted by an ambience I am deeply familiar with: LA Jewish Money.
I am Jewish, genetically speaking, and throughout my childhood I spent part of each summer with my Jewish grandparents, my mother’s parents, in Los Angeles. My grandparents were in the real estate business and many of their friends were in the real estate business and show business, those two enterprises conjoined since the birth of the film industry in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. LA Jewish Money was the primary fuel of the American movie industry in the twentieth century, both in Los Angeles and New York. Indeed, LA (and New York) Jewish money has been the primary fuel for all of show business, with much of that money coming from the fantastic profits accrued from buying and selling and developing real estate in the greater Los Angeles area (and Manhattan and Miami.)
Thus long before I became professionally entangled with Hollywood, I had listened to and partaken of hundreds of conversations in which Jewish men and women discussed life and business with a vocabulary and style and energy that evolved over decades of first and second and third generation American Jews settling in Los Angeles to partake of the land and movie gold rush that made Los Angeles into the vast city state it is today. Jewish money financed most of the movie studios, record companies, Broadway plays, television networks, television shows, and magazine and book publishers in America from 1900 until today—Facebook and Google the inventions of smart Jewish boys.
“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
Which is to say, when I walked into the Mendocino Market and found myself in the midst of a dozen gregarious young Jewish men and women, the men overweight and excited and funny, the women stylish and clever and droll, the air rich with frying pastrami accompanying those Los Angeles movie peeps buying bushels of cookies and wine and beer and chips and potato salad and pickled herring to go with their sandwiches, everyone talking loud and fast and sarcastically, I not only understood everything they were saying to each other, I recognized these young Jewish movie people as the great grandchildren, figuratively speaking, of the cohorts of my Jewish grandparents.
“Jews have a tendency to become comedians.” Sacha Baron Cohen
So if Jewish movie people are so smart and funny, why are American movies today so uniformly stupid and unfunny and downright bad? I think the answer lies in the word business. Artists tend to have little or no interest in business. And most good artists who become big successes have a businessperson taking care of business for them. If you are of my generation, you will remember when Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were major goddesses in the record business, but you may not know it was David Geffen who managed their careers and gave them the wherewithal to succeed. Business. LA Jewish Money.
Ergo: a good movie is a work of art, but the people in charge of financing and producing movies are concerned with profitability, not art. Thus a good movie is both a work of art and a miracle to emerge intact from the meat grinder of the ultra-commercial uncreative imitative movie business. This, I think, is the greatest irony about the movie industry and American culture in general. Smart people, very smart people, are responsible for the flood of dreck and mediocrity that is our culture today. Or maybe it isn’t so much ironic as tragic and pathetic and annoying.
“Jews don’t care about ancient rivalries. We worry about humidity in Miami.” Evan Sayet
When Dick Donner, born Richard Schwartzberg, was directing the movie of my novel Inside Moves, he kindly allowed me to hang out on the set in Echo Park in Los Angeles for a week during the shooting. While I was there they filmed several scenes lifted unchanged from my novel, and one of those scenes was an emotional tour de force performed by the gifted actors Amy Wright and David Morse.
At scene’s end, the spellbound crew and cast members and show biz visitors to the set burst into applause and the air was filled with shouts of Bravo, to which Donner responded by slowly shaking his head and saying, “Not if we want to get a distributor.”
Because the name of the game is show business, not show art.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)
“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
As recently reported, Marcia and I are getting more airplay for our music on KVRF, a radio station in Palmer Alaska, than we’ve had anywhere else in these United States, and our song getting the most play recently is “Goody’s Song” with lyrics based on a poem by my grandmother.
In 1979 I turned thirty, moved to Sacramento, bought a fixer upper, my novel Inside Moveswas being made into a motion picture, and my second novel Forgotten Impulseswas about to be published. In the midst of this hoopla, my grandmother Gertrude, known to friends and family as Goody, sent me a poem she hoped I would turn into a song. I loved Goody, and she had just lost her husband, my grandfather Casey, so I said Yes.
Her verses rhymed, sort of, but were syllabically inconsistent from one line to the next, and she used several gigantic words that simply would not sing. Nevertheless, I made a few feeble attempts to set her poem to piano music, and then gave up.
“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Lucille Ball
Two months later, I got a call from my brother Steve who lived near Goody in Menlo Park. “So,” he began in his no-nonsense way, “how’s Goody’s song coming?”
“Er, uh, oh, yeah. Goody’s song. I’ve been so busy that…”
“She doesn’t have long to live,” said Steve, not buying my excuses. “It’s all she talks about. Write something. Soon.”
So I dug up Goody’s poem and spent an hour at the piano searching for chords and a melody to carry her heartfelt lines, gave up again, went for a walk, and had a revelation. The song was not a piano song, but a guitar song, a lament worthy of Tammy Wynette. The words would need to be simplified and the rhythm of the lines made consistent, but the gist of the poem would remain.
I returned home, got out my guitar, and taking liberties with the original poem came up with:
I made a terrible mistake when I left you.
But what can I do about it today?
Ran at the first sign of trouble,
Now you’re telling me to stay far away.
I was so lucky when I met you,
Now I just can’t seem to forget you.
Please take me back, help me find that loving track.
What was I thinking of
When I made so little of such a great love?
I was a terrible fool to have left you.
What can I do about it today?
I ran at the first sign of trouble,
Now you’re telling me to stay far away.
But I’ve learned my lessons,
Won’t you help me out of this mess I’m in?
Please take me back, help me find that loving track.
What was I thinking of
When I made so little of such a great love?
I ran and ran and ran and ran,
Now I want to run back to you.
A month later, after five takes in a recording studio with a drummer, guitarist and bass player, Steve and I went to Goody’s apartment to play her the song. But before we rolled the tape, Goody made a speech. Picture a diminutive eighty-year-old woman, four-foot-ten in high heels, with curly silver hair and a twinkle in her eyes. Born to orthodox Jews in Detroit in 1900, her father a cantor, her mother the breadwinner selling groceries from a little shop, Goody had always wanted a career in show business and never stopped believing that one day, somehow, she would be discovered and become a star.
“I have a premonition about this song,” she said solemnly. “Even before I hear it, I know it will be great.”
Because Goody was a fantastic joke teller, my brother and I thought she might be setting us up for a punch line, but not this time.
“This song is the fulfillment of my dream. The spirit of my father lives in this song. It will be a beacon of hope for generations to come.”
We played the recording and Goody wept as she listened, and we hoped she was crying because she liked it.
When the song ended, Goody proclaimed, “Now if we can just get this to Johnny Mathis, all our troubles will be over.”
“You know, Goody,” I said, glancing at my brother, “this is not really the kind of song Johnny Mathis tends to record.”
And without missing a beat, Goody said, “Well, then that other guy who’s always on Merv Griffin. Mac somebody.”
“Mac Davis?” prompted my brother.
“Yes,” said Goody. “Get it to him and all our troubles will be over.”
“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen
Goody died six months later, having outlived Casey by a year. We tried and failed to get the song to Mac Davis and Bonnie Raitt and several other famous recording artists, but “Goody’s Song” became a staple in my repertoire and an audience favorite. And every time I sang the song and told the story of how it came to be written, someone would ask if I knew who it was Goody wanted to run back to, since she wrote the poem when she was in her late seventies.
I didn’t know the answer until thirty years later when Marcia and I recorded “Goody’s Song” for our album So Not Jazz, the version currently getting airplay in Palmer Alaska—Todd playing guitar and singing, Marcia enriching the song with her fabulous cello playing.
Goody wanted to run back to Goody—the Goody she was before she surrendered to the cultural imperatives of her generation, married, had kids, and suppressed her desire to be an actor and a singer.
“Goody’s Song” is downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby. You can purchase So Not Jazz from Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com or from Marcia’s web site NavarroRiverMusic.com