Center of the Universe (45)
There are a lot of birthdays at Sorellas. They clog the tables by the windows in the back and sometimes, simultaneously, the tables by the windows in the front. They strain the kitchen and servers. And the guests all stay too long, reducing turnover for the Sisters, while increasing waiting time for me — if I’m holding out for just the right table. Sure, I’m happy for those who put a bright face on their countdown to the Big Dark — even when I’m irritated by the raucousness of their desperation — but the part I really care about is the harmony on the birthday song, which I like to sing and do well enough that customers turn around to check. When I sing harmony with Gio on “Brown-Eyed Girl,” they often applaud. Harmony has been my thing since Phil Leone taught me how it works, 40 years ago, when I was honored to be in a band with him. Phil had been the drummer in Randy & the Rainbows, a one-hit-wonder out of Canarsie that went Top 10 with the late-breaking doo-wop number “Denise.”
Ooh, Denise, shooby-do,
I’m in love with you…
The words were Fifties dopeyness (even if it was already 1963), the sentiment Fifties gloopyness, but the harmonies timeless. And at 16, Phil got to drum-sync on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which was the ginchiest. I think often of Phil, who I haven’t seen in 39 years, but Google regularly. He went on to an early version of Hall & Oates and most recently was in a band specializing in children’s music. He had a cute, funny wife named Paula, who went on to work at IRS Records or another of the indie labels that invented indie. And if he ever reads this, I hope he gets in touch.
But all of this is to say my brother and I are getting old.
You might be surprised how old. Although when a guy can not only reminisce about a tune from 1963, but sing it from memory, you might not. My brother’s a few years younger. And Rev. Kang, who is 87, was surprised. “Looks much younger,” he said to me, with a devilish chuckle. “Is keeping more hair.” Then he asked me how old Lance’s wife is. “She must be much, much younger.” I didn’t pass that on to Jean, which I should have, because it’s a compliment. But Kang talking “much younger” — when the objective correlative was me — surfaced troubling issues of my own countdown clock and my vanity. While the kids always tell me I look young, they’re my kids (and, in their thirties, no longer kids, if you want to do some carbon-dating on me). And it’s true I’ve misplaced more hair than Lance, and that, generally, he does look younger. Skinnier, too. But that’s only because he’s an anorexic food baby! And though I had to concur with the Rev that Jean didn’t look too decrepit either, I also had to inform him, out of lowdown pettiness, that actually she’s almost a year older than bro.
Take that, ye golden youth!
Anyway, I’m not going to tell you how old I am — I’m going to force the yentas to click a link to Wikipedia. And not going to tell you that, on Saturday, my baby bro clocked 62. Which is why the four of us were having an intimate family celebration — accompanied by Kang and Gary and, literally, by Wendy and, eventually, Steve. I didn’t think birthdays meant much to Lance — though he was overjoyed we put together a drunken extravaganza for his 60th — but he kept shouting out: Do you think Wendy knows Happy Birthday? And that’s not like him. That’s like me. But I wrote it off to our psychoactive present — a fifth of Larceny, his fave bourbon — and the pot gummy bear — gift of a cannabis patient back in Beantown, where they live — that he’d suddenly plucked from his shirt pocket and tossed down after the hooch.
“It’s my birthday!” he offered, by way of justification.
He was the quiet brother when we were kids, but that barely skims the placid surface. When I’d wander into his bedroom and, from boredom and lowdown pettiness, start kicking over green plastic soldiers and wooden building-block forts, he would unleash his super-siren — a caterwaul more penetrating than my harmonies and totally out of scale to the glancing attack. “You booger!” I’d snarl, knowing full well what was coming next. Because my quiet brother’s loud siren would summon our father, who would bound up the stairs, pulling off his belt to lay a lash or two on each of us. That was my father’s no-fault justice: any trouble = everybody gets it. Mother said it was because the relationship with his big brother had gone so bad, and he wanted to make sure the two of us were friends. I didn’t grok the logic. And lashes or no, hated my little brother.
It probably started when he went in for the surgery to uncross his eyes. He was five, and it was a new procedure and all the more fraught with peril. For better or worse, he survived. But would I? Came home with half his head wrapped in gauze for a week. Never complained. Just went back to quietly rolling his little cars around on the carpet and marching his little soldiers — which a sighted grownup, or even a seething brother, would have to place into his hand — and sleeping at night in our parents’ bed. Across the hall, tossing and turning in the bedroom we normally shared, I found it the most despicable ploy for attention — from parents, babysitters and total strangers — I’d encountered in all my eight years.
I hated him all over again when he fell out of the Eldorado. Mother was trying to make the left-turn light into the shopping center, and no one was wearing the seatbelts that every Fifties car owner immediately stuffed down the cracks, and we were in the back with the sitter, and the unlocked door next to Lance flew open. And the little bugger slipped sideways and out. I’ll never forget the astonishment in his once crooked eyes, as he looked up at us in the back seat of the moving car — Mother behind the wheel, oblivious — dangling like a trapeze artist from the hands of the quick-thinking babysitter. He was fully out, centimeters above asphalt, snatched from the busy intersection and serious injury, or worse, but barely. And when Mother stopped the car and understood what had happened — before she became ashamed and didn’t want to know about it (or Father to know about it) — she unleashed on him a fresh gusher of attention, even as the sitter stroked the little butterball’s curls and said, There, there. Meanwhile, I fumed over the lengths a quiet brother would go to get noticed — even by me.
But I hated him most when he fell through the glass table at grandma’s in Tucson. Which was a bloodbath. And while it turned out the red was from his chin, not his jugular, five stitches worth splashed onto the menacing fragments and over grandma’s wall-to-wall, leaving a stain that didn’t go away until she died and they sold the house to the city to be torn down for the widening of Speedway. It was pretty clear the stain was my shame — some in the family were convinced Lance had been pushed. I hadn’t. Had I? And in the 90-degrees of Yuletide in the desert, I felt a chill all the way to Christmas Eve. Mostly I fretted it would cut into my presents.
In short, it was a nightmare, childhood with that guy.
But did you catch that? The Mr. Bones of today was a butterball as a boy. Chubby enough that sometimes, despite the hate, I’d find myself defending him on the schoolbus. But when puberty hit, the butter magically melted. Suddenly — just in time — the girls thought he was attractive. Sometimes more than me. Me with the A-grade wisecracking, him never saying a thing.
I guess the hate was melting, too. And I remember the night I noticed. He was in seventh grade, and I’d finished my first year in high school. It was August in New York City, and all my friends were gone, and there was a new Beatles movie at the Guild in Rockefeller Center — a feature-length cartoon called Yellow Submarine, after the song, and anything that had anything to do with the Beatles simply could not wait. But going to the movies alone was weird. Out of the question. And then I turned around and there was Lance. I thought of it as charity. Taking pity, because his friends — his few — were gone, too. So I invited him, loftily explaining that on the way I had to make a grownup pit stop in the park.
It was a balmy early evening in late summer in Central Park, and we settled atop the big rock with a view, through branches and leaves, of Wollman Rink, where they had concerts in early summer, where I’d seen the Who and Hendrix and Big Brother. I didn’t usually smoke by myself. And never in the open. Pot was illegal — wildly so, if the cop had a hard-on for you. But even if he didn’t. And I sweated the extra-legal complications, the familial catastrophe of getting busted with my innocent angel of a brother in tow. I was an outlaw in the Sixties, but often a reluctant one. Still, there was no way to watch this trippy movie without being high. I took a deep toke, figuring I’d get this over in two or three hits and get the hell out. And then the innocent angel asked if he could have one.
“Oh, man, I don’t know,” I said, thinking this could turn possession into corrupting a minor, or some such. Besides, I really didn’t want to corrupt my little brother. “Have you ever even smoked pot?”
It turned out, of course, he’d smoked more than I had. Done a lot of other things, too. In seventh grade! So we got stoned together and strolled down Fifth Avenue, where the stores were closed, but windows still blindingly bright, into the looming Art Deco canyons of Rockefeller Center, where the businessmen were gone. And we scrooched down in our seats in the middle of the Guild — strangely empty for the first run of a Beatles movie — and, after an onscreen introduction by the live-action Beatles, Yellow Submarine came on. At first, the images were all bright and Colorform flat, then the “camera” rose and rotated to reveal London in 3D. The pot was the right call.
I soon discovered that, where I talked tough, my quiet brother was the true outlaw — enough so that a few years later he was disinvited from returning to his high school for senior year. Which is the passive-aggressive thing boarding schools did to kids they knew were up to no good, but couldn’t catch redhanded. This happened to coincide with our folks moving to Florida. But I talked them into not making him go along — to me, a fate worse than overdose — instead letting him enroll in school in Manhattan and live with me in my college apartment in the Village.
Talk about fraught with peril.
More and more, we were brothers. But never got the hang of being roommates. One problem was that the freezer wasn’t big enough for all our stuff — his baggies of mushrooms, my cartons of poppers. Another problem was that one post-beer night when I was yelling about something he had or hadn’t done in the apartment, and he kept watching Star Trek instead of listening, I punched out the power button on the TV. Killed the whole thing. Which before the bottomless distractions of Instagram and YouTube, when TV was all a slacker had, surely qualified as a Federal disaster. I lugged the four-ton monster to the repair shop. But later, short of the hundred bucks to retrieve it, had to leave the TV there. Temporarily. And before I could ever get that hundred extra bucks by writing a million reviews for Creem and Circus, TV repair shops passed from this Earth. When he finished high school — somehow — and I dropped out of college, we went our several ways. Which is when a dicey entrepreneurial episode helped convince my little brother to get serious about something else.
It seemed quixotic, not serious at all, to be getting serious about music when you’re nigh 20. But it seemed quixotic even when I did it, half-a-decade earlier, getting serious about being Mick Jagger. But where I reached the pinnacle of my stardom playing the Cafe Bizarre, my little brother wound up at Berklee, the conservatory in Boston. And when he came down to New York to play me his first songwriting efforts, I assumed — reflexively, as a big brother — they’d suck. They didn’t. They were so good I passed them on to our friend Sandy Pearlman — yes, black-hat, black-leather knowledge-of-nurgeon Sandy — who was a manager and producer and popped the cassette in the dash of his black-on-black Saab and said to me — matter-of-factly, in the way Sandy preferred to deliver his pronouncements — Lance and his band were the Next Big Thing. And he shopped the tape to record labels. And the biggest music honcho in Canada said he’d sign my brother on the spot. Exclusive deal. But Sandy thought there was more out there — “bidding war” was just one of the beguiling phrases he tossed around. There never was. And soon even the Canuck had flaked. And after a few months, we figured out that — as music biz promises will — this one had fizzled.
It surprised me that when they re-released Yellow Submarine they first had to restore it, like a moldy Keystone Kops reel found in grandma’s attic. But it’s been that long. Father’s been gone a baker’s dozen of summers, but even Sandy’s more than a year. And I remember at his celebration, where we served Sonia’s lasagna and Patti Smith sang “Eight Miles High,” it was little brother who brought me back to tears when he said, “You know who’d really love this? Sandy.” So the bitter falling-out, lashes or no, never fell. And whatever sibling rivalry goes on is swamped by sibling cooperation — Lance playing on my records, and both of us producing our lounge singer pal Donnie Finnell, ooh-ing and ahh-ing background vocals in fraternal harmony. And on Saturday night, his big brother made sure Lance got all he’d wished for. Sonia fired up a fancy candle and stuck it in a tall slice of tiramisu. Wendy struck up the anthem of temps perdu — aka “Happy Birthday.” And Jean, Roni, Wendy, Steve, Kang, Gary, Soy and Sonia, along with a couple dozen well-watered Sorellas patrons, sang it to him, with me a third above.