Several years ago, while my family was living in a condo without much storage space, I was searching for some item in the hallway closet. I don’t remember what I was looking for, but my kids were very small – younger than 5, I’m sure – so it very well may have been a gift I had put away for them; or a potentially dangerous object I had hidden to keep them safe; or maybe a very large bottle whose contents I felt helped improve my parenting skills.
In my search, I came across a box with a stickynote label – “LETTERS” – printed in a fashion I recognized as my handwriting from the college-age me.
I had been an avid letter-writer in my college days, and all the way through the beginnings of the email era.
I mostly wrote to friends Dan, Dave and Josh. All three of these guys are some of the funniest people I’ve known, and they each had a distinct, clever way of communicating on paper and I always looked forward to their next letter. For some reason, I hadn’t thrown away most of their letters. (I say “for some reason,” as if I don’t know for sure, but I’m quite certain the reason I kept them is because I expected, as a twenty-year old, to lead the kind of life that would culminate with millions (billions?) of people seeking out tidbits from my existence to get an idea of what I was “really” like. I thought people wouldn’t have gotten enough of me in all the novels, music, comedy, and movies I would make – or in all the articles written about me, and TV segments about my life – and that this box of letters would be something for my estate to review, edit and release posthumously; both to help sate my hungry fans’ undiminished appetite for new ERMabilia, but also to maybe provide my heirs with a little more money to purchase that second boat for their extra (but still nice in its own way) vacation home. [Many people share this self-image.] I can only hope Dan and Dave and Josh each have a similar shoebox in their closets.)
Anyway, I dug in for a letter from Josh, because – not meaning to diminish other letter-writers over the years – his letters always had a little something special about them, a turn of a phrase or an interesting way of telling a story – that I thought would have held up well over the years. I opened the letter, imagining myself as a future curator of a museum of the arts that had won the rights to display my memorabilia, excited to find out “what made ERM tick?” and maybe anticipating the book I would write about him, and the interviews I would grant on the topic.
I pulled out a letter from either 1985 or 1986. I know this because I distinctly remember opening the letter and thinking, “I wonder if this will provide insight into why I wore a mullet?”
I tingled with excitement.
Then I read with horror the first sentence from my friend:
I have to say I was very disturbed to read that you called that guy a kike.”
I folded the letter up, put it back in the envelope, and have never opened that box again. (I didn’t throw the box away, though – I still have my Estate to consider, and that second boat …) It was just too disturbing, for several reasons.
The biggest, most obvious reason is that this was evidence that I was, apparently, a bigoted asshole. I mean, that’s what I’d think if I was the curator/biographer in my dreams – “Geez, despite the Oscars, Pulitzers and scores of humanitarian awards, ERM was actually a bigoted asshole.” And that’s disturbing to think about one’s self.
But nearly as disturbing is the fact that I don’t ever remember using the word “kike.” It’s not a word I even think about using. I was a standup comic for years, and I could imagine, in the service of a joke, a situation in which I might want to use a derogatory term for effect (ironically, to make a point … I’ve done it before), and if I was going to use a derogatory term for Jews in such a case, I think “kike” would probably be the fourth or fifth word I’d consider. (I won’t bore you with a list.)
In addition to being confronted with these upsetting thoughts, I also felt confused because not only was I, apparently, a bigoted asshole, but I was the type of bigoted asshole who not only 1) used the word “kike,” and 2) directed it at another person, but also 3) felt the urge to put the incident in a letter to a friend! Like I was really super-proud!! I was the kind of person you know tangentially in real life, and so accept as a Friend on Facebook, then read a couple of his posts about “nailing chicks” and “the goddam illegals” and so you quietly Unfriend him.
I was a person I didn’t like, and I didn’t remember being him.
Reading that sentence was weird. I don’t remember being anti-Semitic. I don’t remember the feeling of wanting to call someone such a name, or believing there was a reason to distinguish someone with such a term. I know I grew up in a place and time where I was definitely instilled with bigotry and intolerance. And I’m not proud to say it, but I do remember having feelings of superiority over and prejudices toward women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos … pretty much the whole spectrum of non-straight-white-males out there. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember harboring these same feelings toward Jewish people. There were so few Jews where I grew up that I just didn’t “get” the stereotypes.
I knew the Jewish stereotypes because I was a fan of comedy, and many of my favorite comedians – Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, and especially Don Rickles, – were Jewish, and would mention them. I also devoured Mad Magazine, and many of their writers were Jewish and used Yiddish words for a funny effect, and the magazine often tackled the subject of racism in a humorous way, and so touched on all stereotypes. But none of these Jewish stereotypes meant much to me, other than as a punch line for Rickles. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the first time I even remember hearing the word “kike” out loud was as a high-schooler, in a theater, watching the “classic” film Porky’s II.
(The fact that I saw that film in the theater when it was released is only SLIGHTLY less embarrassing than the fact that I used to be such a bigot.)
So reading that first sentence of that old letter was strange, embarrassing, disorienting and quite shameful: kind of like the first after-gym-class shower in 6th grade.
So, WHAT (you may ask) would make me reveal such a distasteful, humiliating part of my past, and place it out here in the internets, where it will be preserved forever, causing folks who don’t know me to think I am a racist, self-delusional asshole, and those who do know me to question themselves about just how well they really do? Where it could cause harm to myself and my loved ones, professionally, personally and just about any other way possible? And HOW ON EARTH could it EVER relate to music??!!??
I have three words for you: Asia, by Asia.
I bought this CD specifically for this list-making project. I remember loving this album back in high school. My sister had it on vinyl, and I listened to it a lot. At some point, I transferred it to cassette (the old-school form of piracy, which was musically promoted by Bow Wow Wow back in the day …) and it remained in heavy rotation in my walkman,
car stereo and bedroom stereo. At some point, I stopped listening to it, and I hadn’t thought much about it in the intervening years, except to remember, “Man, I used to LOVE that tape!” Even when I heard some (both?) of the hits on 80s radio, I never felt compelled to go out and get a new copy of the record. The bootleg tape version is gone, as my collection of cassettes – which numbered hundreds back in the day – has dwindled over the years to a couple collections of TV theme songs, some mix-tapes from my wedding party, and one or two recordings of various high school concert bands in which I played trombone.
So, I thought – for completeness’ sake – I should re-experience Asia all over again. I found it cheap on the internet (cost twice as much to ship as the CD itself, 3 dollars total) and when it arrived, I put it in the rotation of CDs.
I soon found myself asking the same question I pondered upon reading about my younger, bigoted, angry self:
“Who the fuck WAS I???”
I felt no connection to, had no interest in, and could barely listen to this CD. Steve Howe was in the band, and I always did – and still do – like him. And listening to the CD again, I could pick out bits of his playing that were really cool. But they were buried beneath an avalanche of Geoff Downes’ synthesizer woodles (yes woodles) and John Wetton’s voice, which I believe is the least-soulful voice that’s ever been recorded and put to music, apart from that of Radiohead’s “fitter, happier.”
Carl Palmer played drums on the album, and I always did – and still do – like him, but even a great drummer can’t save this crap. As each song began, I found myself thinking, “Wait, this must be the song I loved … right? It must be coming up … I know there must be a song I loved on this thing …” And as I pressed the “NEXT” button on my car’s CD player in the middle of each song, I thought “Nope. I don’t remember this song at all, and there’s NO WAY I ever loved this thing …”
I could find nothing redeeming about this CD, and I can’t recall how I ever loved it so much. Whatever did I hear in this music, and why – today – does it not even conjure a tiny speck of affinity within me? What the hell happened? Who was I?
And for that matter, how did I ever go from being an Asia fan to being a New York Dolls fan? At what point did a musical ablution rid me of the grime of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and leave behind a gleaming finish of The Beatles, Prince and Maria McKee? And maybe more weirdly, how did I retain my love for Yes and Rush, but still become a fanatic for The Replacements and The Hold Steady? How is all of this possible?
I’ve often felt like I haven’t changed much at all since I was fourteen or so. I still find Caddyshack hilarious, Columbo awesome, and pretty women intimidating (including my wife!) I still like the Phillies, can’t wait to play my next game of pickup hoops, and still await the Hollywood Stardom that is just around the corner for me. But in some ways, I’ve changed immeasurably.
I’m proud to say that I was appalled to read about who I was on that day in 1986 that I wrote to Josh about. And I’m happy to divulge that I took a peek at the second sentence in that letter, in which Josh wrote, “That really doesn’t sound like something you would do,” meaning that whatever it was that happened, my best friend at the time found it out-of-character as well.
Really, all I can imagine is that the incident involved someone I knew fairly well, who was Jewish, and who I was trying to piss off because I was pissed off at him – probably during a pickup basketball game. Of course, this doesn’t make the actions more defensible, but it at least provides a context that I can understand. But who knows? If I was such a fan of something that now, 30 years later, sounds to me like music from a different species’ CD collection, maybe I was parading around at the time wearing a white hood and robe …
It’s shocking to say, but Asia sounded so bad to me that it has the power to make me wonder if I was ever part of a white supremacist group.
Maybe I’m overthinking this whole CD thing.