Monday, June 11, 2012 / 8:37 pm

Something Bitchen This Way Comes

How I spent my summer before it happened.

by Jim Washburn

Tags: rare guitars | safety not guaranteed | aubrey plaza | vagina | disco


Gosh, Jim, where have you been lately? Where is that bon vivant boulevardier who for so long seemed to grace every event with his bright wit and dingy smile? What’s with the Fortress of Solitude bit?

Well, I’ve been busy, on one front doing a spot of film feature writing for the Boston Globe newspaper, on another I’ve been selling guitars and sundry stuff on eBay, on yet another I’ve been trying to organize a museum exhibit I’m curating for the Fullerton Museum Center about Orange County in the 1970s, opening July 21 and titled, “Lay Down the Boogie: OC in the Disco Era,” and all the while I’ve been thinking about what I should be writing for FourStory, as, for example, the Lloyd Sippie saga nears its thrilling conclusion. A new chapter’s coming soon, really, and it’s chock full of death and Beatle boots.

The eBay stuff is doing OK. The high-level “investor grade” guitar market has taken a justified dump, but I was never part of that. Attorneys, day-traders and other musical marvels had been shelling out $60,000 for custom-color Strats on the presumption that someone would be clamoring to pay $75,000 for them down the line, and that is certainly how things trended for the longest time, until the economic downturn, when it became evident the whole market was driven by speculation, where in more cases than not, the buyer only desired the guitar because he thought someone else desired it more, while the actual end users of musical instruments—musicians—tend to be far more broke and forlorn than most other segments of the population.

But boys still want their fun, and the market for oddball, imperfect, weirdo Sears guitars is still cruising along, since lots of folks can still afford to play in that market. It’s more unpredictable, where some things are selling for near record prices—a seller’s plank-like ‘50s Harmony Stratotone recently went for $1,775, about 40 times its original list price—while equally cool stuff can sell for a fraction of its worth just because there aren’t two monied bidders to rub together on a given week.

As a guitar nut who needs to pay rent, I recently had a moral quandary. I’d bought a 1966 Fender Mustang at a yard sale, and decided it wasn’t for me, so it was going on the eBay block.  It had a bitchen Olympic White finish and tortoise pickguard, but there was enough wear in the finish to diminish the aggregate price of the instrument. Unless it’s entirely tip-top, you can make more off an old guitar by parting it out. I’m usually loathe to do that, figuring who am I to sunder that which the guitar gods have kept intact for lo these many years?

But there were two other really clean Olympic White Mustangs already on eBay, beside which mine would have looked like old rope, so out came the Phillips screwdriver. It was like selling off a slave family to far-flung parts of the world, except I think it’s probably wrong to have slaves.

 

The film stuff was interesting, but I can’t see doing much of it. My first night of it, I ran into an old newspaper colleague and friend who had been on the Hollywood beat for decades. He’d clued me in on a few things, such as how he wouldn’t interview a particular actor again because he was such a tough, mean-spirited goat; of course, that was the first guy I was set to interview.

I’d done some film features and reviews back in my Register days, around the time talkies came out. A few things had changed, including, my friend told me, how today even the great print papers are obsessed with Internet hits. Your job, more likely or not, hinged on a frequent evaluation of how many hits you got, however fleeting or disengaged.

So the best writers can hope for today is the cyber pay dirt of any female star saying certain magic words, because at any given moment, evidently, thousands of guys at work and home are slipping into boredom default mode and typing “Helen Mirren vagina” or somesuch into their browsers. And any article lucky enough to have that combination of words in it is guaranteed a huge uptick in hits.

I interviewed the charming Aubrey Plaza recently for her just-released starrer “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Apprised of this interesting trend in journalism, Plaza obligingly said, “Vagina. Vagina. Sex. Ankle.” She’s going to go far, this girl. 

I didn’t put that in my piece for the Boston Globe, because it didn’t quite fit anywhere and would have taken too much room to explain. You don’t just drop the ankle-bomb in a daily newspaper without putting it in context.

It would have seemed gratuitous and self-serving to have used the quote. I have no qualms about doing so here, however, because FourStory has a built-in charcoal filter that makes us invisible to web searches. The only reader we want is you. If you are reading this now, you know that you are one of the chosen, and when we from the Pleiades system reveal ourselves in our true form, you will be the ones to join us in leading your people into the light. We have traveled dozens of light years to tell you this, so how about a little something for it, Honey?

But perhaps I’ve said too much too soon.

The museum gig may just turn out OK. I’d been having a hell of a time turning up anything on the disco side of OC history, just dead ends or unreturned emails. But a lot of the musicians and others who went through that time here have dug through their garages to provide me with stuff enough to tickle folk’s memories.

I was running Buena Park’s Beggar’s Banquet Records at the time, and was chiefly interested in listening to my own set of mewling obscurities, so I paid scant attention to the local scene; that and I was engaged in a weekly test to see if any amount of hash oil could make the original Battlestar Galactica not suck. 

I set foot in a disco exactly once, and that was just to extract an acquaintance so the rest of us could drive home. This was in Newport Beach and they had a velvet rope and everything. The doorman wasn’t going to allow me in, until I asked, “Do I look like I want to be in there?”  

 

            Well, Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury was about as good as it got, if you were getting your literature from a bookmobile. That’s not meant as a put-down. Some writers have the gift for speaking directly to a certain age group, and their magic does not necessarily work on those who have grown out of that bracket. 

For example, from about 13 to 17, Kurt Vonnegut seemed like the most profound shit on earth; from 18 to 21 it might have been Hesse; then 21 to 23, Rilke; and after that maybe the training wheels were ready to come off.

When you were aged 8 to 13, Ray Bradbury was just the guy to fill your head with wonder and dread. As Gary Phillips noted in his remembrance of Bradbury,  he wrote some great creepy stories, which were perfect for the EC Comics treatment. He could also make you dream of far-off worlds, or make this one seem alien and sad. His Something Wicked This Way Comes helped kids grapple with one of their greatest, darkest fears: adulthood.

Some of the Bradbury stories that stayed with me the most are ones in which not much happens, such as “All Summer in a Day” where a schoolgirl on a perpetually rainy, colonized Venus is envied by her classmates because she remembers what sunshine is like, so they lock her in the coat closet during the one hour in practically forever when Venus’ clouds are expected to break. That was crueler than anything with tentacles.

I saw Bradbury speak at our school. Probably everyone who lived within 100 miles of LA did. He was very giving that way. He was also a crank.

Draft card burning was still a big thing at the time, and Bradbury made a dramatic show of pulling out his wallet and asking, “You know what you should be burning?” His answer was your driver’s license. That was his obsession at the time. He thought driving was bad for civilization, bad for your health. He cited how many more Americans died on our highways than in the jungles of Vietnam. Driving was bad.

Later, I asked him, “How did you get here today?”

“A friend drove me.”

He was off to his next question then, and I don’t know if I would have had the courage to ask my boyhood hero if he wasn’t a hypocrite for expecting a friend to commit a sin on his behalf that he wouldn’t commit himself. Decades later, that’s still how Bradbury was getting around. I suppose we can forgive him that.  

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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