“When Nelson got arrested it was sad because he got the look. Nobody thought he’d get it either.”
My claim to fame is this: I wrote the music for the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. If you haven’t heard it, this is what it sounds like: a perpetually churning cement mixer overflowing with gumdrops, whipped cream and fulfilled wishes. It’s been heard by probably millions and millions of people. The commission was simple and brief: Write me a piece of tonal electronic music that never ends. Period. Of course it wasn’t Walt Disney who told me that. He was already dead. It was somebody by the name of Peter Cohen, who was a student, like me. Peter’s father was the epitome of urbane sophistication. He was also a Communist. Peter would have written the music himself, but he was in the throes of a passionate love affair with some girl or other…they’d take acid or mushrooms or something and stay in Peter’s bedroom and fuck for what seemed like weeks on end. That was Peter’s pattern. I doubt he even remembers their names. One time he was really sick with hepatitis and he still took acid. I forgot how he justified it.
There were millions of people, and it was so cold, which is always a nice change in L.A. So there’s Nelson and me and Tommy just waiting there in the dark with all these people waiting for that lame parade to start. And we’re feeling pretty good because we all took a little bit of acid before heading out that afternoon. And this guy’s voice comes on the loud speakers, and it’s full of gravitas but mostly good cheer, and he welcomes us and kind of prepares everybody to witness this electronic spectacle. Finally, the lights come on and this goofy music starts and everybody perks up even though by now it’s raining and no one moves. We all just stand there and get soaked and Nelson just blends in to the crowd and takes a few pictures, and the music sounds a little wet, but it’s cheerful and keeps going on and on, and it makes you feel good.
I met Peter on our first day in college. We were both music majors. And I assumed that since Peter was friendly with me, he must be a fag, like me. This was during a time that I took any attention from another man as an attempt at seduction, but Peter just wanted to be friends. When I realized he was straight, I remember thinking how quaint it was that I was probably going to have a heterosexual friend in school. At the time I thought the whole notion of “friend” or “heterosexual” was kind of quaint. Labeling something “quaint” – or anything inhabiting a lower status than myself, at that time in my life, was novel. It was the first time that I – and I’m assuming so many others in music school or art school, or almost any other kind of school, had tasted the agency that harvesting the fruits of artistic endeavor provided. It felt like the first time you really fall in love, like you and another human being are sharing a secret that’s yours alone. We had earned membership, albeit an apprentice status, into a private club that allowed us to sit in judgment of all those others, the unfortunate ones who hadn’t been granted the gift of vision. And what was it that we, the chosen ones, were lucky enough to see? The tapestry of awareness – the beauty of the big picture – the Mozart slow movement, the appreciation of which embodied, above all else, the understanding, if only for an instant, that there exists somewhere a cosmic benevolence that embraces you and me; the fact that it’s all necessary: the pretty, the ugly, the boorish, the nimble, the dull, the mean, the powerful, the sick, the magnificent, the lame, the stingy, the generous – everything and everybody; that this benevolence only exists – can only exist — as a product of the embrace itself. We were, I’ve come to realize after so much time, exclusively everyman. It was sad. And it was scary. And it was joyful. And it was incomprehensible. One other thing: It didn’t pay the bills.
And Peter wasn’t terribly good looking — he looked like a Communist with thick glasses. He dressed to make this statement to people who saw him: I’m an intellectual. And I suppose he was an intellectual. He ended up writing music for some children’s show on public television.
It was hilarious. Nelson was so fucked up he tried to smoke his Paxil. No shit. He sat there by the Christmas tree, and it was completely obvious that he was on a different planet, but he was trying to come off like he was in control all casual and cool. And just as casual as anything, he takes out his container of pills, takes one out and puts it between his lips and tries to light it. It was hilarious. And the weird thing about Nelson is when he realized what he was doing and that everybody was watching him do it, he got really silent and just sat there like he was going down through layers and layers of thought, like he was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Some of us who knew Nelson pretty well felt sorry for him because one thing about Nelson: he’s proud.
Peter and I grew very close, like friends do sometimes. We were roommates in a three-bedroom house whose wooden floor was broken, leaving huge holes here and there. Peter would tell his girlfriends to be careful and not fall through one of the holes. When Peter was a child, his Communist father, who lived in a luxurious apartment somewhere in the Wilshire Corridor, taught Peter to speak English all wrong. I can’t remember what rules of grammar or syntax his father used to craft this language – or if he even used them, but Peter started kindergarten believing that people asked for cookies like this: oo woont oo choo-choo. Most people who heard this story thought it was cruel and sad. I thought it was funny and a little scary, and Peter just took it in stride, as if it were no more important than maybe getting a hangnail. The worst thing about the holes in the floor was that cold wind blew through them in the winter, which made living with Peter pretty awful.
After Nelson got arrested it was sad because he got the look. Nobody thought he’d get it either. We thought he’d skate, like he was special or something, because he played the piano better than anybody we knew. But that’s a load of shit. Everybody gets the look no matter who you are. You spend any time with the sheriffs and you’re gonna get the look when you get out.
One day I arrived home from school to find one of Peter’s friends – a large indelicate girl – Linda or Marsha or something — sitting at my piano thudding her way through an early Beethoven sonata – Opus 10, No. 1, I think, the slow movement. And the longer I listened to her, the stronger this thought grew inside my head: that’s no human being playing my piano – that’s an Orc. And with every note she played, I imagined the damage being done to my instrument’s evolved sensibilities. I strode in – strode is the right word – stood right next to her and told her to get out of the house. She looked to Peter and Peter looked at me. But I held my ground. Get the fuck out, I said.
Everybody thought when Nelson got busted it would be for dope—selling or possessing or whatever—like the rest of us. And really, he was such a sweet boy—not really a boy, but not what you’d think of as a man either. So when the story hit the news about agents from the Department of Homeland Security invading the Vermont/Wilshire Red Line Station, everybody was interested because who’s got a car anyway? So we’re all intimately familiar with mostly all the Metro stations—at least the ones where you can buy dope, which Vermont/Wilshire was certainly one of them. So when the people on the news said there was terrorist activity at the station, we all sort of perked up and paid attention. But then nobody from the media said much of anything for a few days—it seemed like they were being intentionally vague for fear of compromising the big terrorism investigation. So a little time goes by and things are back to normal, but a few of us still watch the news now and then, and all of a sudden during the 11 o’clock news they drudge up this terrorist story from a few days ago, and apparently they finally got permission to show their terrorism suspect. So we turn up the volume pretty loud and everybody says “Shhhhhh” and who do you think they’re showing being arrested inside the metro station with all his tweaker shit, his random waffle irons and cuckoo clocks and feathered boas and wooden hangers and what the fuck ever happened to catch his eye that day? Nelson! No shit. Nelson! And he’s sitting there handcuffed and he’s got this terrified look on his face because what the fuck, who wouldn’t be scared? There’s dozens of these guys with black helmets and black gear with machine guns and shit and all their CSI shit with them and we all just said “What the fuck” in unison, because this is motherfucking Nelson who’s been charged with releasing an unknown liquid inside the metro station. And it was obvious what everybody was thinking: we’d like to help Nelson out – we could explain that he wasn’t capable of anything like they’re talking about, that it had to be a mistake; that whatever liquid you’re talking about wasn’t “released,” but spilled out of one of his bullshit little dumpster projects. But thinking this stuff is about as far as it goes, because it’s kind of obvious nobody in the room is going to willingly head over to have a chat with the cops. A couple of the guys watching the TV say to turn it off quick, like they’re afraid the TV’s got some high-tech two-way monitoring capabilities or something. That’s what dope does to some guys.
Peter and I went to a piano recital one time in Pomona. Louise Detulio was playing Debussy, The Sunken Cathedral. Debussy imagined what the bells of a cathedral would sound like if they were under water. Peter and I didn’t comment on the music or the playing at all. Right after she started playing, Peter clutched my left hand and held on tight. He held on to me in the dark for the whole concert. I thought we’d be friends forever.
2. Allegro con fuoco
3. Under water
Composer: Peter Cohen
Art by Yvonne Martinez.