On turning 58

Alan Watts, possibly considering publishing a new book, “The Drunken Cosmology.”

This might sound stupid (I thought I’d give that stupidity thing a whirl and see if it works for me).  But one of my last remaining goals in life was to make it to 58.   Two of the acid heroes of my youth — Alan Watts and George Harrison —  both kicked the bucket at 58.  Both of whom I would later come to have decidedly mixed feelings about.  So it was important to me (for some stupid reason) to out-live both of them.

Alan Watts was pretty much a wasted-away, old man alcoholic by age 58.  In between writing all those books about how we could attain the higher states of consciousness, ole’ Al failed to mention that one of his favorite techniques, personally, was to pound endless fifths of straight vodka.

The famous Indian philosopher Krishnamurti used to go on tirades about Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley back in the ’60s.  He blamed them, rightly or wrongly, for helping to lead an entire generation astray with their books that linked psychedelic drugs to spiritual wisdom.  And he held them partially accountable for the Drug Epidemic that swept across America in the wake of the ’60s.

The Beatles, grooving at one of those famous ’60s LSD parties.

George Harrison, along with them other Beatles, was another one who greatly popularized the notion of LSD to a generation of youth.  People forget, in 1965 and 1966, the Beatles had an audience primarily of millions of prepubescent little kids.  Then, just a year later, they’re singing songs exstoling  the magical (as well as mystical and mysterious) virtues of LSD.  I remember as a 10 year old boy watching the Beatles Saturday Morning Cartoon Show,  and there were the cartoon Lads, singing “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  The lyrics taken practically word-for-word from Dr. Timothy Leary’s “The Psychedelic Experience”  — which he wrote as a How-To-Take-An-LSD-Trip guide.  Which is exactly how John Lennon intended the song . . . .   Nowadays, we’ve banned the Joe Camel cartoon character out of concern that it might influence children to smoke Camel cigarettes.  And yet, very little consideration was given to the potentially tragic aspects of the Beatles singing their LSD hymns to an audience of millions of kiddies.

After John Lennon’s murder in 1980 (by a guy my age who went nuts partially from gobbling down LSD by the handful back when he was a budding 14-year–old Beatlemaniac grooving to the Magical Mystery trip) George Harrison famously opined:  “This would have never happened if John had stayed in England.”  Shortly after, another Beatles-obsessed nut came within inches of murdering George in his English mansion.  Which no doubt contributed to George’s premature demise at age 58.

And me?  Somehow I’ve bucked the odds just to still be walking on two legs on God’s green earth at age 58.  Considering some of the demographics I’ve been in over the years — smoker, drinker, druggie, starving artist, long-time homeless — my life expectancy probably should have been around 40.

And if anybody just wants to write this rant off as, Sour Turd Blames Famous Celebrities For His Own Degenerate Drug Use, there’s probably more than an element of truth in that, too.


The John Lennon – George Harrison Photo Caption Contest

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“George!  Help me!  Help me!  There’s this little Japanese woman who’s been following me everywhere!!”
“Turn off your mind relax and, uh . . .  What the hell was the rest of that thing?”
“I shtill say that Tommy Shmothers was a dick!”
“Im sorry John.  You know that I have a lot of respect for your musicianship.  But Tom and Bob and Roy just don’t think you’re right for the Traveling Wilburys.”
“Phil Spector saved my life!  The last thing I remember, Phil was telling his bodyguards: ‘That’s enough, boys.'”
“Number 10.  Number 10.   Number 10 . . . “

Ace Backwords: Egomaniac

(Originally published October 23, 2006)

“The stage performer wears his vanity like the flimsiest set of armor.” So said Jackie Gleason. Or words to that effect, or maybe I just made it up.

But it’s true what they say: To be a performer, an artist, a writer, to be in Show Biz, you have to have a “strong ego.” There may be those rare moments when 20,000 people are wildly applauding the Greatness that is You. But the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day, you’re on your own. Generally if you don’t believe in yourself and your talents — often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or, even worse, complete indifference — then almost nobody else is gonna believe in it, either.

George Harrison once said, words to the effect: “The media builds you up and makes you famous so they can make money off you. Then they start tearing you down to make money off of that.”

Course it’s probably a little disingenuous for ol’ George to put himself in the victim category, as if the media tricked him and forced that darn fame on him. Almost everybody I know that did become famous, only achieved that dubious honor by obsessively chasing after it for years and years (though it’s also true that there are rare cases of accidental fame, people who just happen to be in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time; family members of spectacular crime victims, for example. Or people who are just so brilliant that they can’t avoid fame. But these people are the exceptions to the rule.)

The other day I was sitting on a street corner with this other 50-something street person friend of mine, and we were commiserating on the state of our failed lives.

“Well, you WANTED fame,” he said to me. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? And you are famous, aren’t you?”

And it made me wonder. In truth I’ve always been extremely leery of fame. It’s a very toxic and unhealthy thing for one’s ego to be singled out like that. And the sheer fact of thousands of people knowing who you are, and sticking their noses into your business, can complicate your life in a thousand hideous ways. And this too (which is probably a BIG surprise to all the people who imagine “fame” as this wonderful thing, of people applauding them and giving them awards): Half the people that know you probably hate your guts. They’re either envious of your “success,” or pissed off about something you said. (There was one guy here in Berkeley who walked around in a rage against me for 15 years over a comic strip I had drawn. When he finally confronted me, with teeth-gritting anger, it turned out he had projected the exact opposite meaning onto the strip than I had intended.)

On the other hand: The office building where I rent an office recently got sold to a new owner who is in the process of gentrifying the building and throwing out all the old tenants. And so my immediate reaction was: “Maybe if I got another hit of fame, maybe if I got my picture on the front page of the paper again, that would impress the new owner and he wouldn’t think I’m a useless bum and throw me out on the streets.” So “fame” has always been a two-edged sword in my mind.

My problem, re “fame”, was: What got me into this so-called business in the first place was the purity of “self-expression.” In other words, I wanted to make a career out of shooting my mouth off. The problem was: It’s like any other business: In order to make money you have to advertise your product and invite the public to sample your wares. In the case of self-absorbed artistes, this boils down to advertising yourself.

In 1990 the CBS News did a national feature on me and one of my artistic efforts. It was an interesting experience to get to observe the media machine from the inside-looking-out. And, because of the television exposure, we managed to sell 2,000 copies of the product we were hawking at 10 bucks a pop in 2 weeks (they don’t pay millions for those TV ads for nothing!). A couple years later, the TV producer approached me about doing another feature on me. Which I turned down. Much to the TV people’s shock. Kinda’ like: “Do you know how many people would give their right testicle for this kind of publicity? You can’t reject us; we’re the ones who reject you!” They seemed deeply offended by my attitude. In truth, I didn’t even own a TV, haven’t watched that shit in 15 years. And was even less interested in being on TV.

So I guess I really didn’t want fame all that bad. For television is the prime engine of the fame machine. I’m not sure what I really want. Though whatever it is, I often suspect it is not available to me in this Universe.

More Beatles Angles

Filling today’s guest chairs are two appreciators of the Beatles, Mike Webber and David Sims, with observations that fit right in with our themes.

What Beatle George lacked in quantity, he more than made up for in quality. The 4 principal sides of All Things Must Pass comprise the best solo work of any ex-Beatle. This song was a masterpiece – nicely delivered here by Slowhand.  (Eric Clapton – “Isn’t It A Pity?”)

Exactly — and I’d rate All Things Must Pass over not a few Beatles albums, truth be known.  I did read a rather perceptive review, however, stating that George might have been better-served tucking a few of those songs away for later albums.

You can’t blame the guy, though, seeing Lennon and McCartney get away with recording such sub-par material as “Glass Onion” and “Honey Pie” while his own material was left off.  In his shoes I’d probably have gone for the A-bomb statement too.

When you think of John and Paul’s somewhat dismissive treatment of “Isn’t It A Pity” and “All Things Must Pass” when offered during the Get Back sessions, one could easily understand his feeling quite all right about the demise of his former band.  Listening to the 100+ hours of Get Back sessions, the much-maligned McCartney at least continued to engage Harrison’s songs while Lennon just couldn’t have been bothered.  It’s not surprising that George and Paul had their falling out, given the contrast in personalities, but I’ve always thought Lennon’s contribution to the toxicity of those sessions has been swept under the carpet to the detriment of McCartney.  Paul would work tirelessly on his own songs – more than anyone else wanted – but then was equally ready to work on George’s and Ringo’s (Octopus’s Garden) songs.

It jibes with what I’ve heard about Lennon and McCartney’s personalities. John was described to me by the most devoted Beatle fan I’ve ever met as “a thoroughly nasty person.”   I don’t know nearly as much about them as he or you do, but that thumbnail impression seems about right to me. You don’t have to be a good person to produce great art.

I think of him as anything but a nasty person, but he was very human and the truth is probably ill-served by the lionization that has been done to him.  In those last 18 or so months of the Beatles, he was a bit of an anvil – drug-addled and self-absorbed. To his credit, marginally engaged he was still contributing songs like “Come Together” to the band he’d started.  But once Plastic Ono Band was heard, it was easy to understand why the Beatles were no longer the right vehicle for his vision.

Why the Beatles Broke Up: the Backwords Theory




John Lennon summed it up as neatly as ever: “I started the band, and I disbanded the band.” The Beatles were basically John Lennon’s band. He was the driving force. “You could see he was the spark behind the whole thing,” said boozing buddy Harry Nilsson. Even though McCartney may have come up with the concept and the packaging for albums like Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, it was Lennon that gave the concept its psychedelic power. “We were all in love with John,” said Paul. And THAT was the driving force behind The Beatles.

Everyone in Lennon’s orbit competed for his friendship, his approval, and his love (so-called). “John rarely tolerated a dissenting opinion and always had to get in the last word,” said Lennon gofer Fred Seaman. What broke up The Beatles was that McCartney finally got tired of playing second fiddle to Lennon. By the time of the White Album, McCartney realized he was a musical genius and began to notice that he was the one coming up with most of the hit records. So he began veering off on an independent path. Something that Lennon would never tolerate. Lennon demanded complete subservience. He demanded total loyalty. Even as he rarely gave it back. He often pointed out that when he was young he always surrounded himself with a gang of friends — “toadies” — who would do his bidding. That’s just the kind of guy he was. McCartney would talk about the incredible “peer pressure” that Lennon and the other Beatles inflicted on him when he initially refused to take LSD like the rest of them.

In retrospect, the weirdest thing about The Beatles to me was how they always looked, dressed, acted, talked, and drugged alike during the different phases of The Beatles career. Lennon would have tolerated nothing less from his “mates.” But it’s kind of weird when you think about it. Could you imagine walking around everywhere with 3 other guys who dressed and talked just like you?

“John was always the loudest person in every room,” said Paul. But as McCartney pushed into his late 20s, I guess he got tired of being a toadie. The final rupture occurred when McCartney — an astute businessman — decided he wanted nothing to do with a rat like Allen Klein, the guy Lennon wanted to hire as The Beatles manager. Subsequent events would prove McCartney right, as even Lennon would later concede. But to Lennon, McCartney’s actions were an example of the highest form of treason. Why, he refused to go along with what Lennon wanted. So Lennon, as was his character, spent the rest of his life viciously attacking McCartney.

In truth, the amazing thing is that The Beatles (or any band) stayed together as long as they did. Not that they eventually broke up.