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Barbra Streisand vs. Captain Beefheart

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Forty years ago, with decidedly unhip short hair (the result of being caught between an overly enthusiastic barber and an edict from my summer employer, McDonalds; a friend wrote in my yearbook that he thought I was joining the Marines), decidedly unhip eyeglasses (all the cool kids wore wire rims; mine looked like tire rims) and clothes that were occasionally hip (I had a navy blue and purple long-sleeved T-shirt with a multicolored cloth butterfly in the middle of the chest, which I wore for a photo in the local newspaper of a handful of students who had high scores on a standardized test; not to mention a Stetson fedora, tie-dyed purple T-shirts on which I had stenciled things like “Eskimo Blue Day” on the front, and a white winter cloth coat with faux shearling collars the size of aircraft rudders), I began my college years.

My roommate had not arrived when I checked in, but when I opened the room for the first time, there was a piece of paper—a telephone service document, I think it was—on the first desk, and his name was on the paper:

Kwok Yin Chan.

The name may have had a hyphen; I can’t remember. But I recall thinking this could be cool; there were no kids named “Kwok” in my hometown. So I waited for him to show up. Later that first day? No. Second day? No. Third day? No. Never.

While I was waiting, I decided the room needed decoration, so I went to the college bookstore and bought a poster of Ian Anderson, front man of the band Jethro Tull. It was, in fact, the very shot at the top of his post. I was a big Tull fan at the time; at the time, or very nearly at that time, they were the biggest band in rock (you can look it up).

Anyway, a roommate eventually landed in my room, a guy from New York City (I can’t remember which borough) whom I nicknamed “The Kid.” He looked exactly the way I wanted to look: long, expansive hair; dense, dark beard. He looked like Leon Russell, which is a pickup line a girl used on him. (A girl using a pickup line on a guy? Unheard of!) The Kid had some lines that I continue to use to this day: “Get a cramp in your heart,” “Stick your face in the fan,” and “good pain,” a phrase used to describe intense pain being suffered by someone you didn’t like. Anyway, he told me that when he first came into the room and saw the Ian Anderson poster, he knew we’d hit it off. And we did—not in the go-everywhere-together style, but in the “hey, man, whadja do today?” style after our decidedly different and separate days were over. We masterminded a couple of pranks on the guys next door; the one I liked best, which, come to think about it, probably didn’t include The Kid, involved stealing all of their underwear, soaking it in water (this was in December), and then stuffing it all in one of their suitcases, which we then hoisted to the third floor and hung from their room’s window’s handle, and they couldn’t just drag the suitcase back into the room through the window because it was one of those windows that was a big screen panel with a little trapdoor-like panel at the bottom that you’d reach through to get to the handle to open the glass window, which was hinged at the top, and they couldn’t just lower it to the ground because we tied it to the window handle and then cut off all of the excess rope. My confederates and I were able to get into their room because our resident assistant accidentally dropped his master key for his section of rooms, and I just happened to find it and realize what it was, and as it turned out, a couple of other guys from our suite also just happened to want to pull a prank on these guys, who were both from Staten Island and said things like standing “on line” instead of “in line” and referred to the heater in the room as the “radd-e-ate-or,” not “raid-e-ate-or” and called me a hick and mispronounced the name of my hometown. The best part of our prank was that these guys came in late and never saw the suitcase hanging outside their window, so when they went to get dressed the next day, their underwear, when they finally found it, was frozen, but by then I and the other guys who just happened to come along the night before were at breakfast and had no idea how someone could hang a suitcase from a window handle three floors up, especially because the room door was locked, and we heard them coming in that night and they had to unlock their doors.

The Kid and his motorcycle moved off-campus second semester; I moved into another room in the same dorm with a guy who became one of my two best college friends. But he joined a fraternity that semester and moved in with a bunch of his frat buddies. I didn’t join it, so I faced the start of my sophomore year at the mercy of the college housing gods in terms of who my roommate would be.

He got to the room first. He was gone when I checked in but, like me, he had hung a large poster. But instead of hanging it on the room’s widest wall, he had it hanging over his head. It was a poster of—

Barbra Streisand.

And my stereo was broken that year.

So you can imagine how that semester went.

It turned out we both were taking a logic course—same course, same class—at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. At the start of the semester, we diligently attended class, although we didn’t sit anywhere near each other, never compared notes, never discussed the readings, etc., because we pretty much despised each other about a week into the semester. In fact, I avoided being in our room as much as possible, having never developed much enthusiasm for Broadway show tunes or Ms. Streisand, and when he was in the room, I reduced my vocabulary to one- or two-syllable grunts—when he even bothered to speak. When I was alone in the room and could see him through the window, coming across the quad, I used to play Captain Beefheart records on his stereo, just to flip him out when he came into the room and heard the Captain growling in a voice that was the exact sonic opposite of Streisand’s, a voice that was a mad blend of Howlin’ Wolf, shale gravel, cigarette butts and next-morning whiskey.

Eventually, I started sleeping in and not going to that logic class, but my roommate kept going and, to make it even worse, I’d still be in bed after he came back from class and breakfast. I didn’t do the readings, didn’t understand the course material, didn’t understand the quizzes or tests, and could barely keep my eyes open on those uncommon occasions that found me in class, but I somehow managed to get there for all the quizzes and tests and, at the end of the semester, managed to pull a C.

The next semester, I moved off campus to live in a big house with my second-semester roommate and four of his fraternity brothers; they needed someone foolish enough to rent a room that was only slightly larger than a box of Swedish Fish. Early in that fourth semester, I ran across the Barbra Streisand roommate-from-musical-hell roommate, pretended to be glad to see him, and asked him how he did in that logic class. He pretended to be glad to see me and even smiled, a pasty, sickly smile you might see on the face of a guy trying to remain cordial after being told he had just eaten a garden slug, and told me he got a C. “I did too!” I replied, although now that I think about it, the exclamation point probably isn’t warranted.

Reliable sources told me later that he stormed down the hallway leading to his room, punching the walls and swearing, outraged that he had gone to class every day and I had slept in “every fkng day!”, yet we both received the same grade. The picture of him throwing a tantrum still makes me smile. I don’t know what part about his story I like better: his temper tantrum, or the I’m-about-to-be-sick-to-my-stomach look he’d have when he’d come into his room and Captain Beefheart would be yowling something like “Gonna take you for a ride in my Tarotplane. Not aeroplane,” and I’d be sitting there on my bed smiling like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Although, if I had to pick just one, I’d go with the tantrum over the grade, because I’m sure he’s forgotten about Captain Beefheart by now.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2012 02:43 am (UTC)
Funny story!

On my first day in the dorms, I had a picture so some M.C. Escher drawing and I stuck that on the front door, which immediately certified my coolness. Unfortunately it was the only thing that certified my coolness, but I rode with it as long as I could.

My roommate was a stoner Army brat who, behind my back, called me Suzy Creamcheese along with her other stoner friends. And now she's living in Indianapolis and I'm in Northern California, so time has a way of leveling every playing field.

A few years ago my SIL and niece called me from a record store in SF (I want to say it was Tower, but I don't remember for sure) and asked if there was any one record that Gary (now my husband) was looking for. I said yes, "Trout Mask Replica," and my niece squealed that they were standing directly in front of a huge stack of that one. That's what he got for Christmas. He put it up on his album mural (takes up two walls) and it has remained there ever since. We tried to play it once and decided to love it for the cover, though we did like "Safe as Milk."
Aug. 16th, 2012 03:05 am (UTC)
Just for kicks, I sampled some of the TMR tracks here


and then checked out the price of the disc at Amazon. Oh my. You didn't buy an album; you made an investment.

I have the live Beefheart-Zappa disc Bongo Fury, but when I really need a good dose of Beefheart, I play "The Mirror Man Sessions" CD. "Kandy Korn" is an all-time classic. I was listening to that stuff back in '73! Freaked most of my friends out.

Aug. 16th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, we live in a virtual music appreciation desert, so it's not really practical to play Beefheart for our guests (unless we never want to see them again, which sometimes is not a bad idea). We stick with less-difficult but not-pandering music, which has sometimes surprising results.

Thanksgiving is always at my house, so I get to select the soundtrack. Two years ago one of the selections was On a Winter's Night folk compilation; last year it was Genius Loves Company.

My SIL's mother and father are usually present at T-Day; they are fundies, but in recent years they have somewhat mellowed. They used to be completely humorless and certain of their righteousness, and in fairness I reacted badly to that. But we've both gotten less strict in our older days.

Anyway, as part of the Thanksgiving music I played the folk compilation two years ago. Ruth was just overcome with how much she loved it - so much so that I ordered a CD for her and refused payment. (The much younger me of 20 years ago would have played the Dead Kennedys and ignored her suffering.) Last year I played Ray Charles and she was actually hugging my stereo at "You Don't Know Me" and getting weepy.

I would never have thought that Ruth and Earl and I - never mind Gary - would find common ground. But you just never know.
Aug. 16th, 2012 01:58 pm (UTC)
Back in the middle of my Lost Decade, I knew this guy who ran a record/head store. We got to be friends, turning each other on to music we hadn't heard (yeah, even a record store guy can't listen to everything. Anyway, when closing time came and people still were lingering in the store, he'd put on Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and crank it way up. It would empty the store out in less than 30 seconds.

I like your accounts about how music can serve as a bond between and among people. I went through a "the music is your only friend" period in my life; in fact, discovering Bob Marley dragged me back from the brink of considering suicide, but that's a tale for another time. So we both are aware of music's power. It can be a transcendent, almost sacred thing. Turning your relatives on to music they came to love is an example of that saying about how in giving, we receive.

Aug. 17th, 2012 01:38 am (UTC)
Metal Machine Music
I don't know of anytone who has listened to this entire album. I believe the CIA plays it as a form of torture. It is harsh. It is abrasive. As my Mother used to say about much of my music, "What is this noise?!" That's what it is -- distorted feedback. I think Reed was just playing a joke on us all, and no one had the courage to step forward and say that the king had no clothes.

Edited at 2012-08-17 01:40 am (UTC)
Aug. 17th, 2012 01:51 am (UTC)
Re: Metal Machine Music
Lester Bangs sure called him out in Creem magazine. You can find the piece in the Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which is worth having just for the Lester vs. Lou pieces.

True story: I bought Metal Machine Music, started the turntable, put on my headphones, lay back—and fell asleep before the end of Side A.

Aug. 17th, 2012 12:33 am (UTC)
Safe As Milk
"Safe As Milk" is an unknown masterpiece to most. "Zig Zag Wanderer" and "Electricity" are my favorites from the album. It's less of a challenge than "Trout Mask Replica" which I often thought was out there for the sake of being out there. Try his "The Spotlight Kid" album for a less adventuresome and more ear friendly listen; his 5 octave voice is less pronounced here.

Aug. 17th, 2012 01:15 am (UTC)
Re: Safe As Milk
I'm not sure if the phrases "ear friendly" and "Captain Beefheart" belong in the same solar system.

Now, what's your take on Wild Man Fischer's Songs for Sale?
Aug. 16th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
...all the cool kids wore wire rims; mine looked like tire rims classic line. Lots of great stories in one post!

Aug. 16th, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jamie. I'm glad you liked the stories. Forty years ago. Man ...
Aug. 16th, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
I remember that shirt. It was ultra cool.
Aug. 17th, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)
It was so cool that, unlike paisley, it has never made a comeback.
Aug. 16th, 2012 11:46 pm (UTC)
Logic was listed under philosophy as I remember registering for it. They lied…it was math. Fr. Francis Storms, OFM taught it at SBU in the early 70’s. I spent most of my time trying to figures out if Fr. Francis was wearing pants under his robe because he wore sandals, no socks, and nary a trace of a pant leg. The one thing I do remember is that Logic did not make sense, i.e. “All friars wear brown robes, John wears a brown robe; therefore John is a friar.” wrong answer. I was happy to come out of it with a hook
( C ).
Aug. 17th, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
Let's remember: There's a difference between something being true and something being valid—although I don't think I could explain the difference, even if somebody were pointing a revolver at my wisdom teeth.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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