Center of the Universe (64)
Someone Left the Cake Out
Robert is nuts. Sure, he pretends to be nuts — wild, unpredictable, a cat to keep an eye on (standard show biz ruse — I mean, Carrot Top pretends he’s nuts), but that doesn’t mean he’s not. If you doubt it, take a stroll down to Sorellas every other Thursday, some Fridays or whenever Wendy is out of town, because that’s when and where Robert plays piano. Really, there’s nothing “play” about it — wrestles is more like it, fights the piano for his immortal soul, pounds the crap out of it, as if to simultaneously summon spirits and drive them away (those poundings, says John, were the main reason they had to replace the old spinet), caresses and cajoles it when the wraiths get shy, flings his white freak-flag this way and his fingers that, sweat-soaks his white suit, leans down close as if to taste the ivory or maybe — arms spread the full 88, a long-limbed alligator-beast with the lolling head of a middle-aged white man — whisper shameful entreaties to the keys, and then leans back, eyes-wide-shut, as if to kick it over, renounce the entire endeavor. He twists, hops, stamps, stands, taps and bel-cantos, stares crimson- and dripping-faced into the back room rafters as in a trance, or grand mal, and slides into a mountain-road-switchback medley of rock, pop, classical, jazz, showtunes, opera, opera buffa, TV themes, Loony Toons tunes and musical and lyrical improv that sometimes doesn’t end for an hour — at which point Robert abruptly stands, as if starting awake from a disturbing wet-dream, hurries out the back door, eyes averted, and paces the parking lot for a long time in what seem to be the last pulses of a titanic orgasm, until finally he sags into stillness. But before the postcoital tristesse can fully set in, he draws himself upright, pokes in a fresh piece of gum, pastes a grin over his newly evacuated psyche and heads inside for the second set. His performances aren’t so much performances or concerts or, god knows, background music in a cozy mom-and-pop Italian as they are self-administered exorcism.
Robert is a teetotaler. (That bottle on the piano is Perrier.) I should’ve probably said that up front, but it annoys me deeply to even have to address the issue. You know, some creative types are perfectly capable of being unconventional, unhinged, even nuts, without being high. As a high school kid, Robert — other Robert, me — had a teacher I quite liked (who seemed to like me), a young, pigeon-toed behemoth they called The Gipper, who totally looked like the JV football coach he was and not at all like the AP English teacher, which is where I encountered him, and who, due to my outlandish outfits, cobbled together from thrift shops, children’s clothing departments and my girlfriend’s closet, my absurdist cavorting, as well as my tongue-in-cheek front-manning of the school’s sole rock ’n’ roll band, fully made that assumption about me. “You are the saddest victim of drugs I have ever known,” began the mercilessly downbeat missive The Gip stuffed in my mailbox just after graduation. But “What’s he on?” doesn’t apply to this Robert and didn’t to that one either. That came later.
Robert is religious. Or at least deeply religio-adjacent. But more than a keyboard god in the fleshpots of Fairfax, he also toiled some 20-odd years as assistant choir director and organist at a United Methodist joint up north where he lives. Lived. Meanwhile, his first house there was a decommissioned Russian Orthodox church on the Bohemian Highway (name of an actual road, not a metaphor) near Monte Rio, a funky little burg next to the Russian River, anchored by a quonset-hut movie theater, that happens to figure in a Tom Waits song and is crazy far from Mill Valley, where, in another of his several jobs, Robert instructed high schoolers in music.
Robert is serious. He’s funny, knows he’s funny — but is serious about it at the same time. And once upon a time — a time of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Coasters, Eddie Cochran, “Splish Splash”-era Bobby Darin, even Elvis and a little later the Beatles (The White Album — from the opening cut, “Back in the USSR,” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”) and Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer”) and the Ramones, that was the salient quality of rock ’n’ roll. Funny, in a really-mean-it way. Terry Adams and NRBQ carry the torch today.
Robert is political. Wrote a letter to a newly-inaugurated President Trump offering — amid expressions of admiration and a request for a job — to sell him his Bösendorfer. It’s the most expensive piano brand in the world, and Robert figured here was a guy who brags about having all the dough in the world. “Haven’t heard back yet,” he added, with a smile. So, again, you don’t know if he’s joking or not. Probably because he’s both.
Robert is the composer of nine symphonies — one “600 pages long,” according to the man himself — with Opus 10 more or less finished, just not — he frowns at the ceiling — to Robert’s satisfaction. But if the London Symphony Orchestra won’t play them, he doesn’t want them played. What about one of those less pricey orchestras in Bulgaria or Romania, where the movie companies often go? No. He won’t even entertain such a suggestion. “Leave them unheard,” he says. “I don’t care.”
Robert is mournful. At the fringe of his frolic, a soupcon of melancholy, some disappointment in the world or people, maybe in the LSO. Not sure. I’d always viewed him as a jolly sort — nuts, but satisfied. Then, earlier today, Mother’s Day, with the restaurant opening at four and Wendy out of town, I caught a glimpse. Driving through town, we saw Robert galumphing down the sidewalk to his sub gig, sheet music satchel over his shoulder, pink head tipped back, tilted right, in do-not-disturb mode, beneath white cotton-candy hair, behind I-SAID-DO-NOT-DISTURB black Wayfarers. And amid the complicated rivers, streams and lakes of his inner life, something somewhat less than satisfied.
Robert is moving to Massachusetts. I say he used to live up near Monte Rio and teach in Mill Valley, but about a year ago he quit his regular jobs, all of them, after many years, announced to Soy and Sonia that September, last September, would be the end of his Thursdays, Fridays, and substitutions, tentatively agreed to play a going-away party at my house in August, and planned a move to the ‘burbs of Boston, where his wife was raised. I was bummed. So were the Sisters. So was Flo, his biggest fan, and John, who bangs along with him some of his days, and Steve, who thrums standup. His wife had been badly injured in a car crash a year or two before, t-boned by a red-running roofer’s truck. Thankfully, she recovered and, looking none the worse, still attends the occasional Robert show. In the meantime, a lawyer assured them that, considering the dire consequences and open-and-shut culpability, they would certainly be due a settlement. A big one. Which is when Robert quit his jobs. After all, the check — metaphorically speaking — was in the mail. And with his wife ready to nestle with fam back in Beantown, not to mention their golden years just over the horizon, time to move on anyway. But now there’s a concern, sources suggest, the payday may not be as large as reckoned. And an added concern that, after a year or so of attorney-stoked anticipation: where the hell is it?!? Of course, none of this is any business of mine. To me — though I feel guilty saying it — it’s nothing but good news. Not that I want Robert and his wife denied their dream or inadequately compensated for suffering or deterred from their journey home. It’s good because Robert has bumped up his frequency at the sisters.
Robert is staying in California. For now. And on more Thursdays and Fridays than ever before, he concludes his second set with a feat of alchemy. And every time it’s like… well, it’s like — how would the poet say it? — someone left the cake out in the rain.
Robert is playing that song.
Robert is a teenager in New York City. Other Robert. A skinny, buck-toothed, aspiring mop-top (hair barely over his ears when he pulls on it), already at 14 singing in front of a band — that is, doing my best Mick Jagger — in a year, 1968, that would see the cosmic piñata spew a deluge of amazing tunes — “Hey Jude,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (speaking of Mick), Jimi’s masterly manhandling of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” “Dance to the Music” (origin story of funk), “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (the real-life dock is just over the hill in Sausalito), Aretha’s “Think,” Janis’s “Piece of My Heart,” even Tommy James’s “Mony Mony.” I was in love with the radio. Of course, there were songs I didn’t love — there was “Strangers in the Night” by my parents’ guy, Frank Sinatra, who only became my guy later, and “Hello Dolly,” by the otherwise estimable Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, neither of which belonged on Top 40 radio. And, among other old-school, music-biz dreck, there was some stentorian cornpone from Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (“Young Girl”), and a few less-than-novel novelty songs — notably, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” — that I found grating. But there was only one song could make me scramble to shut that transistor down.
More than dumb and stupid, it was inexplicable. Election-of-an-orange-president inexplicable. How could there be such a monstrosity? And why was it not immediately strangled, perhaps by that cabal of docs and Dems who murder newborns? Or by sensibly cynical New Yorkers? Those magnificent sourpusses I dodged on my way to the bus, the park and the drugstore for a chocolate shake, the millions upon millions who daydreamed in offices and apartments above ant-streets, radios humming over their shoulders, the high school boys with attempted mustaches and the high school girls who hemmed their mandatory plaid, the ink-stained workers in print shops and shower-capped drones in matzo factories, the Good Humor pedophiles, the Brooks Brothers floorwalkers, the shaggyheaded, post-Vatican-II priests and nuns in mufti (now with hair and legs!), the pot dealers, lawyers, tugboat crews, protesters, counter-protesters, secretaries, deli-men and housewives, the vast listening public, heretofore (1964–68) so discerning, and the pro broadcasters, heretofore so fab, none of whom seemed to realize that in our midst, no, inside us, our auditory canals, one thin membrane from our damp and furrowed CPUs, was an indelible stain on culture and setback to human progress, a ghastly veinous Bösendorfer-sized tumor on the race.
More than catastrophically dumb and stupid, it aspired to genius, Serious Art, some kind of pop-classical or classical-pop — making it a hundred-times worse (and maybe, in the most serious indictment, also making it progenitor of prog rock). It wasn’t just a dead patch in the century’s liveliest Hit Parade, it was a brown-dot-acid bummer, starting with the lugubrious, jitter-voiced countertenor of Richard Harris (and isn’t he an actor?!? And, before rock stars got old, old?) and not finishing — through multiple movements of strings, horns and overwrought Bösendorfers, through tempo and dynamic shifts and an elderly thespian’s bravura leap into the falsetto exosphere — for an unconscionably long time. That’s because it was the longest song ever transmitted on AM radio. And since, somehow (how can you not suspect payola?), it also made the Top 10, it was transmitted a lot.
And so it was, half-a-century later, in a restaurant at the corner of Bolinas and Sherman, at the climax of another of Robert’s epic mashups — one among many in a typically tantric evening that careened from the Beatles’ “The End” suite to a Chopin étude to “Don’t Stop Believin’”; “Great Balls of Fire” to the Final Jeopardy theme — the maestro commenced the minor-key fanfare to what a Miami Herald poll has confirmed is “the worst song of all time,” majestically banging away on the new spinet until spirits shimmied forth and, in a ball of fire that only Jerry Lee could adequately envisage, the back room at Sorellas exploded into the cosmos.
Do the words “Someone left the cake out in the rain” mean anything to you?
I don’t think that I can take it
’Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have the recipe again,
Suddenly — oh, no — Robert is playing “MacArthur Park” (or “MacArthur’s Park,” as Richard Harris would have it, puzzlingly). And I — the guy who was violently opposed, if not deathly allergic — am suddenly hooting him on.
Robert is never going to read this. Like a true nut (as opposed to a nerd), he’s not a computer nut. Where Wendy brings her music these days on iPad, Robert totes an oversized palette to which he attaches sheet music with clothespins, many clothespins, excessive amounts of clothespins. He’s not into computers, and certainly not into social media, and I’m sure he’s never heard of a site called Medium, nor, for that matter, duncanwrites.com (where this thing also lives). So, when I say he wrote Trump a letter, I mean a good ol’ paper-based epistle in an envelope with licky stamps (guaranteeing he’s on the no-fly list). Which means I’m safe here from his opprobrium (or however a guy like Robert might react to whatever a guy named Robert might make up about him). Come to think of it, what does a luddite do with the free time we all fritter away on social and shit like this? I suppose Robert watches a little Fox News, dashes off a note to an elected official, does not go to the barbershop and sits on, stands in front of, or hops around his Bösendorfer (which, it occurs to me now, he may not actually own anywhere other than his perfervid brainpan). Meanwhile, what Robert — other Robert — does, for a tiny audience, for free, for three years and 101,000 obsessive-compulsive words, is contemplate the putative truths of life, art and lasagna.
Oh, no, Robert is not nuts. He’s the sweet, green icing.