Culture’s Tool Box

Or, I can’t out-write Jim Harrison, but maybe I can out-cook him.

This priceless culture cost $1.25 at a used-book store.

This priceless culture cost $1.25 at a used-book store.

As the radio signals carrying western culture reach deep into the universe, its genius too vast to catalog, the subversive nature of vintage trashy paperbacks lies in wait like forgotten land mines. One sweltering afternoon in an antiquarian book shop, you’ll pull one from the dust and – BOOM! You lose a hand, but gain the kind of intriguing personal history that will serve you well at cocktail parties. This paperback, Peter De Vries’ The Tents of Wickedness, opens with a line second only to “Call me Ishmael,” words of jaw-dropping, smart-aleck pretense: “Charles Swallow was taking a bath, and as was his custom on such occasions, he had undressed before climbing into the tub.”

That’s what I call a Cool Factor of 10. It comes with experience, which I first began to understand as a college freshman, in Figure Drawing 101. I was assured the class was an easy A. All you had to do was show up and draw naked women. The whole football team was supposedly in on the scam.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Our nude model for the class turned out to be a guy. I spent the whole semester jockeying with a couple of other losers for a rear-view angle, then threw away my sketch pad in fear of someone finding my gallery of men’s butts stashed in the closet.

What I remember most about that class, aside from my own shame, was the pack of art-school women who each session would show no inhibitions as they sketched our male model’s – oh, what’s the proper phrase in mixed company? Tackle box? They focused on details as though they were illustrating a chapter for Gray’s Anatomy.

These art-school women seemed so much more experienced than I was. While I was drawing pictures of cars crashing into trees in the third grade, they were drawing famous actors riding horses, naked. The art-school women were aloof. They were unattainable. They knew things I didn’t know. I had a Cool Factor of 0. They had a Cool Factor of 10.

Since then, I’ve made a habit of scribbling lists of Cool Factor 10 on cocktail napkins, road maps, whatever’s at hand. With a crowbar, they can all fit into four categories, Literature, Music, Artists and Cuisine.

Click on these for some rambling observations:

Questions and Answers with Jeff

Q: All-time greatest albums?

A: Nothing from this century, yet. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the Allmans’ At Fillmore East, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Patti Smith’s Horses, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, a few Dylan choices. Pretty predictable, I’m afraid. But there’s a reason that stuff is still around.

NyiregyhaziOh, wait, here’s something curious: This cold, brutal world has a history of pulling the gold fillings from the mouths of artists and melting them down to something that it can sell. The world steps to the other side of the street when it sees eccentricity coming the other way. But artists with difficult personal stories always have my ear. Nick Drake. Roky Erickson. Chet Baker, whose relentless pursuit of drugs turned beauty into a twisted and grotesque figure sprawled on an Amsterdam sidewalk.

And Ervin Nyiregyhazi: Born in Budapest in 1903, died in Los Angeles in 1987. Eighty-four tumultuous years, first emerging as a 6-year-old perfect-pitch piano prodigy and chess player, dominated by a mother who forced him to play concerts while wearing short pants into age 15 to preserve that image. This produced a vainglorious and overly sensitive sex addict and alcoholic who was married 10 times, a Jewish anti-semite who once called Hitler a great man because Nyiregyhazi’s  mother died in the Holocaust.  By his early 20s he had moved to America and became a concert-hall sensation as an extraordinary and inventive interpreter of Liszt, befriended by Bela Lugosi and Gloria Swanson. Then, leaving a trail of smoldering bridges behind him, he self destructed and disappeared for 40 years.

Penniless, Nyiregyhazi lived in flophouses, his disagreements with managers and the world exiling him in elegant seediness to a life of sleeping in subways and getting mugged. He had once played Carnegie Hall, then went decades without owning a piano. Yet he remained a prolific composer,  sometimes assigning eccentric titles to his pieces: “It’s Nice To Be Soused” or “The Beheading of Pat Nixon,” works he never expected to hear in public.

Urged by friends who remembered what he had once been, Nyiregyhazi agreed to play Liszt in a church one San Francisco afternoon in 1973. Someone taped the performance and Nyiregyhazi Plays Liszt, released in 1978, became a cult recording of the classical world. It’s magical, simple, beautiful, dramatic. One moment during the recording, traffic can be heard through what is apparently an open window in the church.

Nyiregyhazi was a great admirer of Oscar Wilde, and his “opposition to the rules of the world.” He said, “I live freely. I live as Liszt composes and as Oscar Wilde writes.”

So, unexpectedly, Nyiregyhazi Plays Liszt is one of my favorite records. Not because I play it often; I don’t.  But because I understand what it is.