Thursday, December 23, 2010

A CHRISTMAS RERUN

A few years ago—born out of my inordinate love for this heart-filling, soul-transforming, sacred and transcendent season—I wrote a short Christmas tale called The Truth About Santa Claus.  Last year, I offered it here at Creation Point as a cyber Christmas present:  my way of wishing all of you who visit this site the happiest of holidays and the most magical of Christmases.  I offer it again this year:  call it a Christmas rerun.  So grab a plate of Christmas cookies, pull a chair up close to the fireplace and enjoy. 

Here's to a healthy, happy, joyful, abundant, prosperous, peaceful and -- most important of all -- love-filled 2011.  See you all in January.

THE TRUTH ABOUT
SANTA CLAUS

“THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!”

He’d been thinking about it for days—ever since he heard Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo announce it on the school bus—and he didn’t believe a word of it, not one word.  (Well, maybe ONE.)  But Cody had to be sure, absolutely, positively sure—

—and that’s why he was hiding behind the couch at midnight on Christmas Eve.

His mother was there, asleep in his dad’s old easy chair, the reds and blues of the Christmas tree lights making her look peaceful and happy and impossibly young.

The tree, by the way, had not ONE SINGLE PRESENT underneath it.

That didn’t make sense.  If there WAS no Santa Claus, if his mother was the one who bought the presents, wrapped the presents, stacked them under the tree, then how come she hadn’t done it?  How come she wasn’t awake RIGHT NOW arranging them all?

He got scared.  Maybe there wasn’t going to BE a Christmas this year.  Maybe Mom had lost her job and they didn’t have any money and so she COULDN’T buy him any presents and—

And then Cody glanced over at the windows and noticed that it was snowing.

Or was it?

If that was snow, it was the WHITEST snow he’d ever seen.  It was snow as bright as moonbeams, as bright as sunlight, as bright as...

Stardust.

Quickly, but quietly (he didn’t want to wake his mother), he scurried to the window and looked out.

It was coming down and coming down and COMING DOWN all across town, whirling and whipping, spinning and gyrating, out of the night sky.  Glowing so brightly that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it.  And Cody saw that it certainly wasn’t snow, and it absolutely wasn’t rain, it wasn’t ANYTHING he’d ever seen before.  But each drop, no...each flake, no... each BALL of glowing WHATEVER IT WAS, seemed to pulse and spin, soar and vibrate, as if it were alive.

And the stuff, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS (and he knew now that it was magic.  He just KNEW), wasn’t collecting on the streets, wasn’t piling up on the rooftops.  It was MELTING INTO (that’s the only way he could put it:  MELTING INTO) every house (no matter how small) and apartment building (no matter how big).

EVERY house and apartment building.

EVERY.

He looked up.

And there it was:  coming RIGHT THROUGH THE CEILING of Apartment 3F, HIS apartment, swirling, like a tornado of light, around the chandelier and then down, down, down—

—STRAIGHT FOR HIS MOTHER.

At first he almost yelled out a warning, “Mom!  Wake up!  MOM!”  But something made him stop.

Instead of yelling he ducked back behind the couch and watched, eyes peering over the top.

Watched as the light-tornado wheeled around his mother, so fast, so bright, that he could hardly even SEE her.  But he COULD see her.  Most of her, anyway.

And what he SAW...

The light poured in through the top of her head, through her eyes, through her chest, through her toes.  It lifted her up—still sleeping!—and carried her out of her chair and across the room.  And as she floated—

—she started to change:

Her hair became white, her nose became red, her belly ballooned like the most pregnant woman in the history of the world.  Her feet grew boots, her head grew a hat, her nightgown grew fur.  An overstuffed sack sprouted, like a lumpy angel’s wing, from her shoulder.  And then—

AndthenandthenandTHEN, it wasn’t his mother there at all, it was him, it was SANTA CLAUS!  STANDING RIGHT THERE IN CODY’S LIVING ROOM!  Santa Claus who, with a laugh (exactly like the laugh Cody always knew he had, only better) and a twinkle in his eyes (exactly like the twinkle he’d always imagined, ONLY BETTER) reached into his sack and pulled out package after package, present after present, and placed them, carefully, like some  Great Artist contemplating his masterpiece, under the tree.

When he was done, Santa Claus stood there, grinning and shaking his head, as if he couldn’t BELIEVE what a beautiful tree this was, how wonderful the presents looked beneath it.  As if this moment was the greatest moment in the history of Christmas, as if this apartment was the only place in all the universes that such a Christmas could ever POSSIBLY happen.

And then the MOST amazing thing happened:

Santa Claus turned.

He turned slowly.  So slowly Cody couldn’t even tell at first that he was moving at all.  And—slowly, SLOWLY—those twinkling eyes, that Smile of smiles, fixed itself on the two boy-eyes peering, in wonder, over the top of the couch.

And what Cody felt then he could never really say:  only that it was better than any present anyone could ever get.  Only that it made his heart so warm it melted like magical WHATEVER IT WAS, trickling down through his whole body.  Only that it made him want to reach out his arms and hug Santa Claus, hug his mother, hug his father (and FORGIVE him too, for running out on them) and his aunts and uncles and cousins (even his Cousin Erskine who was SUCH a pain) and Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo (who really wasn’t so bad most of the time) and all his  friends and teachers and the kid in his karate class who always smelled SO BAD and, embarrassing as it sounds, it made him want to hug everyone and everything in the whole world including rabbits and snakes and trees and lizards and grass and lions and mountains and, yes, the EARTH HERSELF.

Cody wanted to hold that gaze, to keep his eyes locked on Santa’s, forever. (Or longer, if he could.)  Wanted to swim in that incredible feeling, drown in it, till GOD HIMSELF came down to say:  “Enough!” 

Except that he blinked.  Just once.  But in that wink of an eye, Santa was gone.  Cody’s mother was asleep in the chair again and, for one terrible moment, the boy thought that the whole thing must have been a dream.

Except, under the tree:  THERE WERE THE PRESENTS.

Except, out the window:  THERE WAS THE SNOW, the rain, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS, shooting up, like a blizzard in reverse, from every house, every apartment building.  Shooting up into the heavens, gathering together like a fireball, like a white-hot comet—

—and fading away into the night:  going, going...   

Gone.

Without so much as a tinkling sleigh-bell or a “Ho-ho-ho.”

Not that it mattered.

Cody looked at his mom.

Cody kissed her.

“I love you,” he said.  And he was crying.  Happy tears.  Christmas tears.  Like moonbeams, like sunlight.  Like stardust.

Mom stirred in the chair, smiled the softest sweetest smile Cody had ever seen. “I love you, too,” she said. 

And then she drifted back to sleep.

Cody sat at her feet, warming himself, warming his SOUL, by the lights of the tree. 

And soon, he, too, was drifting off to sleep.  And as he drifted, a wonderful thought rose up, like a balloon, inside him.  Rose, then POPPED—spreading the thought to every corner of his mind.  Giving him great comfort.  Great delight:

“One day,” the thought whispered, “when you’re all grown-up, when you have children of your own.  ONE DAY,” the thought went on...

“It will be YOUR TURN.”

Merry Christmas.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

SPEAKING OF CHRISTMAS

Yes, this is the season of Christmas feasts and gifts piled high under the tree, but it’s also the season of giving to those in need.  Of course, in this difficult economy, when people everywhere are struggling just to meet their bills—let alone provide a memorable Christmas for their families—it can be hard to find the extra cash to contribute to a worthy charity; which is why I want to draw your attention to The Hunger Site, a truly wonderful website that allows you to help bring food to those who desperately need it—just by clicking a mouse.  Want more information?  Here it is, directly from the site itself:

The Hunger Site was founded to focus the power of the Internet on a specific humanitarian need; the eradication of world hunger. Since its launch in June 1999, the site has established itself as a leader in online activism, helping to feed the world's hungry and food insecure. On average, over 220,000 individuals from around the world visit the site each day to click the yellow "Click Here to Give - it's FREE" button. Its grassroots popularity has been recognized with Web awards in the activism category — a Cool Site of the Year Award and a People's Voice winner at the Webby Awards. Since its inception, visitors at The Hunger Site and shoppers at The Hunger Site store have given more than 671 million cups of food.
 
The staple food funded by clicks at The Hunger Site is paid for by site sponsors and distributed to those in need by Mercy Corps, Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest), and Millennium Promise. 100% of sponsor advertising fees goes to our charitable partners. Funds are split between these organizations and go to the aid of hungry people in over 74 countries, including those in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America.
 
Got that?  You click, they feed.  Simple, elegant—and something that could only happen in this miraculous Internet Age.  If you’re so inclined, click over to The Hunger Site not just at Christmastime—but every day. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

SPEAKING OF LENNON

Back in 1971, John and Yoko took the bare bones of a traditional  folk song called "Stewball" and transformed it into a Christmas classic.  "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" is a heartfelt mix of clear-eyed Lennon honesty and starry-eyed Lennon idealism.  It's also—in my hyperbolic opinion—one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written.  So let's officially kick off the Creation Point Christmas Celebration with the video below.  And feel free to sing along.

Monday, December 13, 2010

MEETING LENNON, PART TWO

Between the celebration of John Lennon’s 70th birthday in October—which included the release of the wonderful Double Fantasy Stripped Down and Ken Sharp’s equally-wonderful book on the making of that classic album—and the thirtieth anniversary of JL’s assassination last week (capped by Paul McCartney singing a memorable medley of "A Day in the Life" and “Give Peace A Chance” on Saturday Night Live), the pop culture world has been in a state of renewed Lennonmania for months now.  Seems like the perfect time to chronicle my second encounter with my one true rock and roll hero. 

Back in April, I wrote about that magical night in January of 1975, when I found myself sitting on the floor of a small rehearsal room in New York’s famous Record Plant East recording studio, watching Lennon, who was standing perhaps ten feet away, teaching my old friend—and master piano player—Jon Cobert’s band, BOMF, the basics of a then-new musical style called disco.  (We’d never heard of disco before that night—but Lennon was predicting, correctly, that it would be “the next big thing.”)  Unforgettable?  Absolutely.  But a few months later—March 18th according to Wikipedia (although they got the name of the recording studio wrong, so who can say for sure?)—thanks to Jonny C’s gracious invitation, I got to spend the good part of a day in JL’s presence, watching him film—again accompanied by BOMF—videos for the recently released Rock 'n' Roll tracks “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me.”  (The videos were intended for a British television show called The Old Grey Whistle Test.  You can see one of the clips—along with a short interview Lennon did for the show—at the end of this post.)

Looking back, it’s amazing that I was allowed in at all.  Jonny C and I were good friends, of course, but I suspect it helped that we were also songwriting partners (Jon provided the music, I provided the lyrics):  a number of songs we created together were part of BOMF’s repertoire and, as a result, we were both under contract to Roy Cicala:  BOMF’s manager, Lennon’s principal engineer and the man who ran the ship at the Record Plant.  (The contract sounds impressive, but it didn’t lead me to rock and roll fame and fortune.  Jonny, on the other hand, has had a long, successful—and well-deserved—musical career.)  In any case, on that sunny March day, I skipped my classes at Brooklyn College (something I was in the habit of doing, anyway), hopped the subway into Manhattan and hustled over to West 44th Street, where the Record Plant was located. 

As I recall—and, in retrospect, it’s fairly astonishing—there was no security detail to pass through:  I just walked in, headed straight for the studio and opened the door.   There, leaning over the sound board was John Lennon, who looked up, peered over his glasses and said, in that sharp, utterly distinctive Liverpudlian voice, “Is this the place?”  I scanned the room, looking for Jonny C—who was my ticket in—but he wasn’t there; so, utterly intimidated (just because I’d encountered Lennon before didn’t mean I was any less overwhelmed by his flesh-and-blood presence), I muttered, “Uh...yeah, it is, but I’ll wait outside...”, closed the door and retreated to a nearby couch.  I probably would have sat out there all day if a couple of the BOMF boys hadn’t come by, noticed me and alerted Jon to my presence. 

Jonny C promptly appeared and ushered me into the studio—where I was soon sitting comfortably in a chair in the engineer’s booth while, on the other side of the glass, John Lennon and the band ran through take after take of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and  “Stand By Me” for the film crew.  (BOMF was actually miming to prerecorded tracks from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album.  Lennon, though, was doing a live vocal.)  Anyone who’s followed this blog for more than five minutes understands how profoundly JL—as a Beatle, as a solo artist, as a human on the planet—has inspired me; so I think you can imagine what it was like for me to sit there, for hours, watching him perform, running the band through their paces (miming, as I learned that day, isn’t as easy as you’d think); one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll singing take after take:  laughing, joking and, well, being John Lennon.  (In 1972 I’d seen John and Yoko at the One-to-One concert at Madison Square Garden.  I was way up, in the cheap seats, and he was a small figure, haloed in light, on a stage that seemed miles away.  Now I had the best seats in the house.  Maybe in the universe.)

And yet as I watched Lennon work, it seemed as if—despite more than a decade as one of the most famous, admired men on Earth—being on camera, the center of all that attention, made him uncomfortable.  His attitude, his bearing, wasn’t that of the Clever Beatle, the peacenik sage, the political firebrand:  it felt as if he’d retreated into Hamburg John, the young, rock and roll tough guy.  It was a subtle thing and there was certainly none of the aggression or anger that often got him in trouble:  he was, as expected, charismatic and charming.  Still it seemed to me that he was wearing a mask to protect himself and keep the world at bay.  In a few short months he’d retire completely from music to concentrate on being a husband and father (by March of ’75 “Lost Weekend” girlfriend May Pang was gone and Lennon had reunited with Yoko, who was pregnant with Sean) and it’s clear—in retrospect, at least—that he was, in fact, sick of "riding on the merry-go-round" (as he sang in "Watching the Wheels") and was preparing for his retreat.  Soon he’d be shedding all his personas and reconnecting with the person he’d been before the Beatles.  Until then, he’d keep pretending to be some version of Famous John Lennon. 

There was a telling moment when, during one break between songs, he muttered—it was more like a discussion with himself than a request to the group—”Anybody got any coke?”  (And, no, he wasn’t talking about Coca Cola.)  A second later he shook his head.  “Nah,” he said, retracting the request, “if I do that, I’ll probably bite Tom Snyder’s head off.”  (He was scheduled to tape an interview for Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show that night.  You can watch it here.)  The coke request seemed like an old reflex, the immediate denial of the request reflecting a high level of post-”Lost Weekend” self-awareness—and a signpost to the new, family-centered life that was waiting for him at the Dakota.  (It’s very possible I’m reading into this—after all, I didn’t know the man, who am I to analyze him?—and yet, given my own intuition and the insights Lennon himself provided in interviews he gave after his emergence from his five years of House Husbanding, it feels true.)    

After they ran through both songs a number of times, Lennon and the band took a break and the musicians filed back into the engineer’s booth.  Everyone was standing around chatting, the vibe amiable and low-key (well, I was low-key on the outside, but in my head I was doing backflips and screaming “John Lennon!  I’m standing here with John Lennon!  Dear God—how is this even possible?!”).  Jonny C took this opportunity to formally introduce me to Lennon.  “John,” he said, trying hard to sound casual (yet knowing full well what a Momentous Occasion this was for me), “have you met Marc, my lyricist?”

Lennon quickly looked me over and then offered a perfect, deadpan Lennon greeting.  “Hello, Marc my lyricist,” he said, as if "my lyricist" wasn't a description, but my last name.

So there I was, standing  face to face with John Winston Ono Lennon.  He’d just greeted me with a clever quip and I desperately needed something to say in reply.  It was like flash cards were flipping over in my mind, each one stamped with a possible answer:  I could tell him, I thought, studying the cards, how much he means to me; how his Beatles music—from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “I Am The Walrus”—completely rocked my world and my consciousness; how John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—aside from being one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music—helped get me through an incredibly difficult period in my life; how brilliant I think Walls and Bridges is.  There were so many things I could have said, but I rejected them all.  I kept returning to the fact that Lennon had greeted me with “Hello, Marc my lyricist”—and I knew I needed to come up with a matching quip, something sharp and witty.  In the name of symmetry, it had to begin with “Hello, John my...”  But “John my” what?  My internal computer frantically scanned the Lennon archives, recalling a story about JL meeting Chuck Berry, during the taping of a Mike Douglas Show; how Lennon—always a teenaged rock and roll fan at heart—greeted Berry by calling him his hero.  (Keep in mind that all of these mental acrobatics actually happened in a matter of, at best, two or three seconds.  Subjectively, it felt like an eternity.)
 
And then it clicked—and I had my reply.  

“Hello, John, my hero,” I said.  As soon as it came out of my mouth I felt like a total fool.  This wasn’t cleverness, this was revealing myself as a transparent Beatles fanboy.  I was certain my idiocy would get me ejected from the building, unceremoniously tossed out onto 44th Street and banned from the Record Plant for life.  To my immense relief, the group laughed—not at me, they actually seemed to find my answer amusing (or perhaps they were just acknowledging the unspoken fact that they all felt the same way)—but Lennon had an odd reaction.  For a  moment—just for a moment—he pulled back, as if he couldn’t believe One Of Them had gotten in:  another wide-eyed, open-mouthed Beatlemaniac trying to make him into the god he didn’t want to be.  He recovered quickly, but I’d noticed—and it underlined the sense I had about how uncomfortable he was wearing the fame he’d been cloaked in since 1964.

Soon after that, Lennon and the band went back to work, finishing up the videos.  The last bit of filming was of the musicians in the booth, gathered around the sound board, listening back to the tracks.  I was hoping no one would realize I was still there and I’d get myself immortalized on film with John Lennon—but Jonny C quickly gave me A Look and I knew I had to retreat.  In the end it didn’t matter:  the film of that day had been forever imprinted on my mind.

A little later, Jonny and I were heading upstairs to the band’s rehearsal room and we found ourselves standing in the elevator with Lennon, who was also heading up.  This would have been the perfect chance to say something, anything, else and perhaps atone for my humiliating “my hero!” outburst—but I couldn’t get a word out.  The elevator stopped, Lennon went his way and we went ours.    

My time with John Lennon was over that day, but Jonny’s wasn’t.  Not long after the Rock ‘n’ Roll videos were filmed, Lennon recruited BOMF to appear with him on a television special called A Salute to Sir Lew Grade.  This time the band didn’t just mime, they actually got to record—and perform—a new version of “Imagine.”  This turned out to be the last public performance of John Lennon’s lifetime.   Have a look.  (If you’re wondering about the two-headed masks BOMF had on, this was apparently Lennon’s way of commenting on Sir Lew’s two-faced business dealings.)

As for me, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, and the knowledge of the tragic fate that awaited Lennon outside the Dakota in 1980, I’m far less embarrassed by what I said to him at the Record Plant that day—and far more grateful.  He was my hero and I got to tell him that.  

That’s not humiliation, that’s grace.



© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

PORTALS TO OTHER DIMENSIONS—TEN CENTS EACH!

Illustrator and Comic Book Blogmeister Rob Kelly—Lord of The Aquaman Shrine and other wonderful, geek-friendly sites—is putting together a book called Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From The Spinner Rack.  In Rob’s words, it’s “a book collecting stories from people of all walks of life, all of whom have fond memories of reading, collecting, and/or obsessing over comic books.”  I recently finished an essay for Hey, Kids and thought it would be fun to post an excerpt here at Creation Point.  Enjoy!
***

I've said this before and it's true:  I don't remember ever not reading comic books.  I can’t say for sure who first exposed me to them, but I do recall a married couple that lived in my apartment building (the kind of adults you’d expect to be reading comics in the late 50's and early 60's:  smiley, rotund, slightly odd people) and they had a treasure trove of comics—stacks and stacks of them—they’d often share with me.  I also remember a cousin giving me what must have been twenty or so comics (to my young eyes, they seemed more like twenty thousand).  There was something deeply satisfying in spreading them all out on the floor—like a four-color carpet—not to be read, but to be stared at, studied, absorbed to the deeps of my soul.  I enjoyed comic book covers as much as I enjoyed reading the stories.  I could sit there, in a quasi-hypnotic state, and study the illustrations for hours:  they were like cosmic portals, opening up doorways to other dimensions; colorful parallel universes far preferable to the one I inhabited. 

The best covers communicated an entire story in one image and my mind would wander off and run the story in my head like a movie (which was often far different from the one that unfolded inside the books:  sometimes it was better).  Drawing was one of my great obsessions as a kid and I could spend an entire afternoon on the living room floor, with pencil and paper, studying a Batman cover—I’m talking about the Dick Sprang-era, square-jawed, fun-loving Bats, not the ultra-serious Dark Knight of today—and trying to replicate it, line-for-line, freehand.  (Tracing, of course, was verboten.) 



My family didn’t have much money—we were lower middle class, my father worked for the New York City Parks Department (he was the guy who raked the leaves and shoveled the snow) and my mother was a switchboard operator for the New York State Parole Board—but I never felt materially deprived.  My parents were always incredibly generous.  And they generously indulged my passion for comics.   

I have very vivid memories of being six, seven years old and taking walks with my father on summer evenings after dinner:  We'd head for the local candy store, which—in Brooklyn, at least—was its own magic world, with a long soda fountain inevitably presided over by an elderly Jewish wizard who could magically conjure egg creams (if you’ve never had one, you have my sincere condolences); more comics, newspapers and magazines than you could count; every gloriously trashy candy bar in existence; and an odd assortment of toys, from Duncan Yo-Yos to that lost ancient artifact, the Pensy Pinky.  My father would buy a newspaper for himself and a comic book for me.   A comic was ten cents in those days—which was probably more than my dad’s New York Daily News cost—but it was still a bargain.  (When my best friend, Bob Izzo, was going to the hospital for minor surgery—I think he was having a mole removed—his mother gave him an entire dollar and he bought ten comic books.  I was paralyzed with envy.)

I was seven when, after three decades, the price jumped from ten to twelve cents:  I walked into the candy store with my mother one afternoon and Eva—the not-to-be-trifled-with wife of the egg cream making wizard—was in shock, ranting about this outrageous price hike.  My mother was equally irate.  “Twelve cents,” she gasped, “for a comic book?”  

To my immense relief, the extra two cents didn’t dissuade my parents from buying me comics—and I continued to consume them.  It didn’t matter what the comic book was, I read everything—from Hot Stuff and Casper to Sad Sack and Bob Hope (given the current comic book market, it’s astonishing to realize that the Hope series ran for eighteen years.  The Adventures of Jerry Lewis lasted even longer).  Today the super hero dominates the mainstream market, but, back then, the variety of comic books—all of them kid-friendly—was astounding.  Still, to a boy raised on George Reeves flying across his black and white television screen, the DC super hero comics were the Holy Grail.


We took it for granted that every male under the age of twelve worshipped Superman and Batman—and most of them did—but each of us had our special favorites.  Mine were Justice League and Green Lantern.  GL was the perfect vehicle to capture the mind of a child.  The concept was as elegant as it was simple:  the hero just thought of something—brought his will and imagination to bear—and he manifested it.  (Even as an adult the concept still works:  I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the way we should all live our lives.)   John Broome’s wonderful stories spanned the galaxies—his place in Comic Book Heaven is secure—but, for me, the the primal enchantment came from Gil Kane's extraordinary artwork.  Before I discovered the force of nature that was Jack Kirby, Kane was the artist whose work meant the most to me:  a mixture of elegance, power and crystal clear storytelling.  As noted, drawing was my childhood obsession and one of my absolute favorite things to draw was Kane’s flying figure of Green Lantern, ring-hand confidently outthrust, one leg cocked back (almost as if it was amputated).


When I was in Junior High School, I underwent a religious conversion.  No, I didn’t suddenly become a Hindu or a Born-Again Christian:  I converted from DC to Marvel. 

***

I'll end the excerpt there.  If you want to read the rest, along with reminiscences by Steve Englehart,  Alan Brennert, Mike Carlin, Jonathan Lethem and many more, you'll have to buy Rob's book.  I'll be sure to let you know when Hey Kids, Comics! is ready to enter the world.


© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis