Happy Birthday, Ry, You Owe Me a Book/”Gettleman”
Do not want the 2nd Eastern Daylight Savings Time day of the year to end without wishing Ry Cooder a happy 63rd birthday. Unless I have my first stroke in the next few minutes, I’m gonna make it. He was born March 15, 1947. You do the math. Oh, wait a minute, I already did.
Anywho, I’ll do a better job than this for him in the coming days, but for now a tip will have to do. And maybe a gentle reminder that he owes me a “little book” he claims he wrote and published as part of some larger project having to do with one of his releases. He promised to send it to me, inscribed and signed, in exchange for not writing an article about him for Fretboard Journal when his head and heart weren’t in it. For the record, my head and heart were, but he and I go back a long way, to the Ash Grove in LA, ca. 1963, and the friendship means a lot more to me than having my name and likeness splashed all over, inside and out, FJ, probably the most elegant and well-crafted magazine in the field (if, somehow, you’re not already hardwired into them go here, http://www.fretboardjournal.com/back_issues/index.html or just Google Fretboard Journal.com. Tell publisher Jason Verlinde hello for me.
I’d love to hear from Ry how his last tour went. They seem to get rougher and rougher as one grows older, and the audience becomes less easy to reach. Not sure why, and neither is Ry.
Anyway, that’s all I got time for right now, but as I said, I’ll fill in the lines over the next few days, maybe tell you what happened with that article for Fretboard that never got, well, articulated.
More from the book, “Growing up Jewish in L A”
The letter came about two weeks ago. It was from an old college friend I haven’t seen in 25 years and it was accompanied by pictures of my fraternity pledge class and an invitation to its thirty year reunion. There was also a list of pre-committed attendees up to that point; Gettleman was on it. I never finished my pledge year in that fraternity. In fact, I dropped out around Hallowe’en, so that means I only lasted about six or seven weeks. But what a six or seven weeks. Fraternities suck. Or maybe it’s the rite of passage —pledging—you have to go through before you can be in one, that sucks. The paddlings, the mind games, the meaningless ceremonies and corny brotherhood rituals never made sense to me; we didn’t yet have the concept of male bonding to give solace and comfort in times of rough handling in the name of masculine bonhomie. And grafting this Teutonic behavior onto an organization of Jews, of whom my fraternity consisted exclusively, made the whole thing seem especially silly. Berkeley: fall, 1959. The University is struggling to muscle its way into the academic company of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Hell on lowerclassmen, murder on Freshmen. I am in trouble in all my classes except Italian. Another student (an unknown Stacey Keach, still recovering from cleft palette surgery) and I are in the supposedly sacrosanct pledge dorm of Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity trying to analyze and compare Freud’s Future of an Illusion to something by Gerard Manley Hopkins – I can’t remember what – for a mid-term in Speech lA the next morning. Enter Gettleman. Although only a year older, he has physically reached manhood, and I have not. He is big – over six feet, 190 pounds – and drunk, as he usually is. And having just become a full Brother himself, he is pledgemaster, an office he’d recently been awarded, and brutal in that way that a recent convert can be a vicious enforcer of the rules of his new faith. He spots me, as he has on so many of these pre-midterm eves, comes over to our two-man study group and starts his ritual. “Your name is Allan Ross and you are the lowest turd in the river of shit. Repeat it.” I do. “ROSS, light a match. Hold it upside down. Repeat the Greek alphabet three times.” I get to about Mu or Nu on the third go ‘round when the flame is just too much, and I drop the match. “Ross, do it again.” He is just beginning. Next he will send me out for pizza. When I return he will send me out to the other side of campus for a Kip’s Char Broil Burger. Then he will have me do his laundry. My study partner knows the drill and leaves. I have tears of humiliation in my eyes. A week later I get the results of the midterm: D-minus. That very night is our weekly formal pledge dinner. Jackets and ties, table cloths. Some of the senior Brothers have brought women. The pledges sit at their own table, theoretically protected from hazing on these Monday night occasions. No matter, because Gettleman is all over me like a cheap suit.
“Heard you “D’d” your Speech Mid-term, Roth. Y’know, Rothman (the mispronunciation is on purpose even tho’ he is drunk), if you can’t keep up the House’s grade point average you can’t be a Brother. Why don’t you quit now, Ross?” Then, motioning me to get up and come over to where he is sitting he bellows, “Ross, come here and get under the table.” Everybody knows it’s against the rules for him to be doing this to a pledge on a Monday night. But no one stops him. Maybe it’s his size, maybe his drunkenness, maybe his own impressive 3.8 grade point average, always a crowd-pleaser in any assembly of Jews. But I hear no dissenting votes, so I get up and go over to his table, climb under it, and sit down cross-legged, waiting for him to give me my next task. The long tablecloth allows me only to see feet. His are randomly thrashing around, trying to connect with any part of me, and occasionally succeeding. This goes on for about five minutes, then stops. Now there’s nothing. I’m thinking, Is this it? Was this just a three-rounder, and now it’s over? My answer is a dish of fruit salad with heavy syrup on my head, down my neck and back, all over my brand new brown hop-sack suit which cost me $49, and which, I thought, looked pretty good on me. And that did it. At that moment all the lonely, dateless nights the Fraternity brothers had promised me if I didn’t survive pledging, all the lost elections, all the foregone career promotions faded into that netherworld of “you can’t win ’em all” and “who wants to be the first Jewish President, anyway?” I come up and out from under the table so fast it turns over. Gettleman, totally surprised, falls back in his collapsible chair, folding up with it. I get in one, two, three, four shots to his chest and stomach, ice hockey style, before the brothers and the other pledges pull me off. And as they do, I get off one really perfectly timed and executed kick into his balls, the kind where everyone doesn’t say “Oooh”; they say nothing. Gettleman is on the floor throwing up. The brothers are slow to give him a cloth napkin to wipe his mouth off, and a glass of water. The next morning I turn in my pin and take a hotel room on Telegraph Avenue. Last week I sent a letter to the friend who is inviting me to the reunion asking if he knew what the menu for the dinner was. I’m sure he wondered why, but he sent me a reprint of it, anyway. I just got it. They’re serving fruit salad. I’m really looking forward to this reunion.