Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Couple of Rock 'n Roll Nights

So going over my files, I have found a number of pieces I thought I would be saving for my memoir, a word I hate, though I don't want to reveal what I thought would be the title, in case I never get to it. That thought, sadly, has surfaced as a probable reality, since it was announced today that Bette Midler will be coming back in my buddy Mike Stewart's HELLO, DOLLY! in a year from now.  A Year.  That which once seemed to me a potential likelihood is now in reality more than elusive.  I had stood under the leaves of a New England tree with Bette Midler reassuring her that she would be able to take on Broadway, after a performance of a summer show she'd done with Joe Layton, the wonderful director and good friend who was actively thinking to put together a show for Bette, with himself at the helm, and me as writer. 
     But he is gone now, as is almost everyone empowered at the time, and seeing, as I sadly must,  that the idea of my having a show on Broadway is delusional, I am in a giving up mode, which truly seems more sanity than surrender.  So I am adding to my ramblings here what is probably the best remembrance of things past, in case I never pull it all together.  Here goes:

Harry Nilsson, Tommy Smothers & … wait for it: John Lennon                            

  When I was young, a state that I didn’t realize would not be everlasting—we all know we are going to die, but that aside, which is where we usually put it, we don’t really comprehend the fact that we will grow old-- —I had a crush on Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers.  His wit was as sophisticated as he faux-paraded simplicity, so when he opened as a single at the Cellar Door in D.C., THE place to perform at the time, I was there.
      My friends in Washington, besides Republicans high in government who invited me, a committed and vocal Democrat, to stay in their homes and spy on them for my new novel about Washingon, THE MOTHERLAND, because, in the words of Nixon’s Deputy press secretary, Gerald Warren, “We knew you would be fair,”-- were Bill and Taffy Danoff, who’d written and sung along with John Denver, “Country Roads.”  I was visiting them when Tommy made his debut as a single, and buddies he’d made along the way flew in for the event.  Among them was Harry Nilsson. 
      It was a night that young people who dream about being in Show Business fantasy will be part of the road, but rarely is.  After the show, we all went back to Bill and Taffy’s, and sat around on the floor and sang.  We sang songs we were writing, songs we wanted to sing, songs we liked to imagine would be part of the American heritage, which some were actually to became.  And Harry Nillson was there, gentle, gracious, sad and either stoned or drunk, maybe both. 
     I was just excited to be in his company.  He sang, looking at the rest of us through heavy lids, laying in phrases to other people’s songs, growing increasingly remote even as he participated.
      The singing went on until four or five in the morning, with
music everyone there knew or new songs put together on the spot, with the profusion of talent, or the lateness/earliness of the hour, removing what little remained of inhibition.  Even as I was yearning for Tommy, which was, I was sure, to be the climax of the evening/morning, I was thrilled and inspired by the company.  I wrote a song on the spot with Billy, one of the gently uplifting craftsmen of the art.  It seemed to me the miracle of Washington, almost making up for the constipation of its main events, that there could be this creative energy in the midst of the unproductive (and, it seemed to me, unpatriotic) politicking.  I imagined that Benjamin Franklin, my favorite among the Founding Fathers, had he been able to return, would choose to be in this inspired company, rather than in the chambers that had become so stuffy and unproductive.
     And then it was time to go.  Tommy and I drove Harry to the airport.  “I’m really sorry to see you in this kind of shape, Harry” Tommy said, as Harry stumbled out of the car.  I had never met Harry before that night, and was to see him again only twice.  But I already considered Harry a tragic friend, since we had been together in that creative intimacy.  Besides, I was sure that Tommy, such a patently smart, piquant spirit, whom I prized, wouldn’t have held him so high unless he was wonderful, finding his downward spiral so obviously heartbreaking.
      Then Tommy and I went back to his hotel, one of those places on the main road in Georgetown that seem so inviting as you drive up to them.  What ensued was the stuff of comic 18th century novels with a rakish slant: unsatisfying yet hilarious.  After all the time we had subtly longed for each other, he couldn’t.  He had had an affair—at least it had seemed to me an affair—with my pal the comedienne and singer Jaye P. Morgan.   I had loved for her ease, her humor, and her being unaffected by any of her relationships.  She’d known I had a yen for Tommy, and had more or less warned me about how it would in all likelihood turn out.    After several half-hearted(so to speak) attempts, and one climatic pass that had been very un-climactic, where he’d zoomed down and bit my mons, he sat up on the bed, arched back on his naked haunches, and cried out “Wasn’t tonight funny?”  Then he fell backwards, off the bed, knocking himself unconscious. 
I was afraid he was dead.  I was terrified of the headlines.  He was still a major star at the time, and I was married, with a bestselling novel.   I loved my husband, but the teenager part of my soul and body, had still to be satiated, much less satisfied, so had I entered into the (I was sure-it-would-be-assignation) eagerly.   Passionately, I probably would have said at the time.  I had a tendency to over-write, certainly in my imagination.
 At long, terrifying last, Tommy came to.  What was to have been, I had been sure, my great erotic adventure, ended as a hilarious episode in a life that has never been exactly what I thought it or hoped it would be.  My life has been at once highly comic, and seemingly cosmically protected.  “I owe you one,” Tommy said thickly, as I left.  We were to stay sort-of-friends, but between getting older, his career having its own ups and downs, and the toll the years and inconvenience takes on sex, especially when you don’t have it, what there seemed to be of a romantic nature vanished.   I mean completely.

      But I did have another borderline adventure with Harry.  The next to the last time I saw him was at Jack Haley, Jr.’s house, in Laurel Canyon in Hollywood.  It was late on a Saturday night.  Harry had come to town to soothe John Lennon, separated at the time from Yoko Ono, and visibly suffering.  Harry was playing ping pong, drugging, and drinking.
       Like most of those there, including many Hollywood celebrities, including a starlet on roller skates, I was blinded by the presence of John Lennon.  Harry had brought him along to this Saturday night Hollywood informal celebration, to try and cheer him up.  John was visibly depressed, it being the middle of his separation from Yoko Ono, who, whatever else she may or may not have been or had, had had the strength to dump him, at least for the moment.  Jack Haley, Jr., whose home it was, was a very funny man, in the shadow of a famous comedian father, one of the fabled stars of The Wizard of Oz.  Sadly, Jack Jr., a very bright and funny man, had few original talents of his own, though he was brilliant at editing old film clips.  But he did give great party.  Especially that night, when John Lennon came.
      To be in proximity with this man I regarded, as did most of the people on the planet who loved music and words, as the Greatest, was exhilarating.  But he looked so deeply depressed, I considered it my duty to cheer him up. 
     So I went over and told him how much he meant to me, how much he meant to everybody who cared about music, what a gift he was to all of us, and culture in general.  After fielding the flow of my effusions, he looked up and over the top of his dark glasses and said: “Gwen, if you really loved me, you’d stop talking.”
         That became the favorite story of my son Robert.   He enjoyed nothing more than his mother being artfully put down.
         I saw Lennon next at Tommy Smother’s opening at the Troubadour.  He was in the balcony, once again with Harry Nillson, stupidly drunk.  Wearing a Tampax on his nose, Lennon talked and joked, loud-voiced, doing what I would guess he considered good-natured razzing through Tommy’s act.  But as the audience was made up of Tommy’s friends and ardent fans, they ran out of patience.  Jeering, they took Lennon from his seat in the balcony, and passed him down over the railing like a cork bobbing on an ocean of hands.  Down from the balcony he came, down to the main floor, over the heads of the crowd and out of the club.  It was a sadly bedazzling happening, heavily covered by the press.

       I never saw him again, but grieved, along with everybody else when he was murdered.  I was borderline-friendly for a while with the psychiatrist from the jail where his killer had gone.  And though I had never felt the affection for Yoko Ono that I, like the rest of the world, felt for John, I was glad he had gotten back together with her, since  he’d obviously adored her.  Of course nobody else I knew liked her very much.  But that wasn’t  our job.