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This morning I didn’t feel like rolling the dice with the random shuffle on the iPod so I decided to listen to So Lo, Danny Elfman’s aptly named solo album from 1984. Elfman is now a very busy film composer whose work includes most of Tim Burton’s films as well as the theme from The Simpsons. There was a time, long ago, when he was the frontman and driving force behind the Los Angeles band Oingo Boingo. They were pretty big in LA when I went to school out there in the early ’80s, although I also think it’s safe to say they were also “critically reviled.” I could never understand that disdain because I thought they were swell.

Oingo Boingo was a quirky band with a horn section and a casually cynical attitude. You got the sense that they felt most people were morons. Maybe that’s what ticked off the critics. As lead singer, Elfman came across as something of a bug-eyed whacko and while the he band could be frenetic, it was fun, too. A friend, Brad, had introduced me to their first album, Only a Lad. The cover showed a cheerful Boy Scout, with a claw for one hand, happily striding across the clouds. My favorite track was the demented take on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

I think I can take responsibility for importing Oingo Boingo to my circle back in Maine. The album Nothing to Fear later became a staple at my brother’s house, where we’d all sit around his Franklin stove on cold winter nights, drink Miller beer and listen to a rotation that also included the first Rank and File album, Haircut One Hundred’s Pelican West, Tom Tom Club, ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, Discipline by King Crimson, and other such stuff.

This was back in the old days when the music came on flat black platters of petrochemicals called “records,” “albums” or sometimes “LPs” (for “long-players”). We played them by rotating the platters on a device called a “turntable” (a word borrowed from railroad terminology) and placing a diamond-tipped “stylus” or “needle” onto the playing surface as the turntable rotated at a preset speed. The needle picked up vibrations caused by the grooves carved into the record and converted them into an electrical signals that emerged from the speakers as sound. Try telling that to kids today and they’ll laugh at you.

I got to see Oingo Boingo live on two occasions. The first was a show at the University of Southern California. A few of us (including the aforementioned Brad) bypassed the long line waiting for the doors to open by sneaking through the back and walking across the stage to get seats right up front. We felt absurdly proud of ourselves. The opening act was an avant-garde combo called Fibonaccis. I don’t remember much about Oingo Boingo’s set except that Elfman had a couple of holsters with toy pistols and he would shoot the guns off during the set.

Brad lived across the hall from me in this old apartment building near the LA Coliseum. The building was like an island surrounded by a sea of parking lots that remained empty unless there was an event at the Coliseum. The apartment building was so old you could still see the outlines in the walls from the slots, long filled in, through which the iceman once delivered blocks of ice. The apartments smelled of a combination of roach poison and gas from stove pilot lights, which were always going out. You could say the place had atmosphere. Benjy’s Liquor was just across the street, which was handy. Once I stood on the building’s roof and watched as a SWAT team with shotguns captured a guy who had robbed Benjy’s and tried to hide in the dumpster.

My roommate, Jim, was from Georgia. I had met him over the previous school year and he talked me into splitting the cost of a room with him. Fortunately, he had a girlfriend with her own place near Venice Beach and he was usually over there. If we had to share that cramped apartment every day for an entire school year we probably would have killed each other. We didn’t have much space, just a small main room with a kitchen and a tiny bathroom with a bathtub but no shower. We slept on a couple of mattresses thrown down on the floor. I look back at the arrangements now and I shudder but it didn’t seem that bad back then.

Brad was a smart guy, but he lacked direction. He was adopted–he told me that his biological father, whom he had never met, was a Chinese Olympic athlete. Brad was a lot of fun to be with, but his life always seemed to be unraveling. He spent more time in our apartment than in his, which made sense because his place was always a mess of epic proportions. For one thing, he didn’t believe in putting albums back in their sleeves and as a consequence his apartment floor was covered with naked vinyl. Whenever he wanted to play a particular album he’d have to root around the piles of records, clothes and books until he found it. Brad also had a python, cleverly named Monty. Once he brought Monty over to my apartment and we forgot about him until we realized he had vanished. We tore the place apart until we tracked him down coiled beneath a cabinet.

Unfortunately for Monty, Brad was as bad at reptile management as he was at housekeeping and the poor snake died of neglect. Brad and Jim took the corpse over to the USC campus that night and buried it beneath a bust of composer Gregor Piatigorsky. I hope future archeologists excavating the USC campus centuries from now find Monty’s skeleton and decide it was a ritual serpent sacrifice buried beneath a representation of our snake god.

I remember one evening when I heard thumping out in the corridor and opened to door to see Brad, way down at the end of the hallway, walking towards me. I thought was being goofy, because he would bounce off one wall, whirl across the corridor, and bounce off the other wall. As he got closer I realized he was actually being very, very drunk. He had been drinking tequila with the building manager, a guy named Dave who kept all his back issues of TV Guide stacked in neat rows in his apartment and rarely ventured outside. Anyway, Brad made it to his own apartment and then threw up in his bathtub. He didn’t clean it up for weeks, deciding that it would be easier to come over and use our bathroom instead.

I had left all that behind when I saw Oingo Boingo the second time. By then I had moved back East and finally drifted down to Brighton, just outside Boston, where I moved into a group house with a bunch of people I knew from my two years of college in Maine. Not long after I moved down Oingo Boingo played at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue and a bunch of us went to see them. After the show was over I stumbled out into the dark night, sweaty and exhilarated, my ears still ringing—and I hopped on a bus that would take me to work.

That’s when I was working the graveyard shift as a security guard at Beth Israel Hospital. Three of my housemates worked for the same company, so after spending a few months as a short-order cook at a place in Kenmore Square I figured I’d give security a whirl. I worked midnight to eight, wearing a uniform and armed with a nightstick and a round keypunch unit that dangled from a strap over my shoulder. As I made my rounds I had to take a key from each stop and insert it into the keypunch. I guess this allowed the company to track my movements if they wanted to, but I doubt that anyone really cared.

On my first day on the job my boss took me to the morgue as they were removing a body. The morgue was down in the basement, in the back of the hospital. It was a fairly small room with a bunch of slabs behind stainless steel doors. I got chills when I saw a sign on one of the doors. “Babies only,” it read. The morgue attendants opened up one of the doors and slid the slab out. The body was lying on it, covered in a crinkly white paper that reminded me of something you’d use to wrap deli meat. The attendants put it on a stretcher and wheeled it outside to a waiting ambulance.

I wasn’t particularly bothered by the experience at the time but I would think about it when I was making my rounds at around 2 or 3 in the morning. It was strange enough walking through the deserted hospital basement, the hushed hallways littered with abandoned gurneys and smelling vaguely medicinal. It was worse when I was outside. One of the keys I punched was down a little path that led behind a dumpster and right outside the morgue door. The door had a little window at eye level. I’m not a very superstitious person, but every time I walked past that door I imagined a corpse wrapped in deli paper slamming up against it, face pressed against the window, the faint movement of the mouth wrinkling the white paper in a silent scream. Eventually I just stopped punching that key. No one noticed.

Life as a security guard wasn’t too bad. Nothing much exciting happened. Once I had to help wrestle an old guy who looked like Popeye back into his bed. Another time I had to help restrain a young drunk. He had been arrested because he had broken into a lab to drink the medicinal alcohol stored there. He started freaking out in the emergency room. After we got him under control we strapped him face down on a gurney. I had to spend the rest of the night watching him, giving him water through a straw and occasionally wiping his nose. He kept his sense of humor, though. “Look your best, feel your best I always say!” he would pipe up cheerfully whenever a nurse walked by.

It was usually pretty quiet, though. Sometimes I would sit in the emergency room and work on articles for the little rock magazine that I had hired me as editor. Other times I’d go into an empty computer room and take a nap, my walkie-talkie by my ear in case I got a call. Later I was assigned to patrol in the car, a battered Buick Skylark that made an unnerving bang every time it went over a bump. I’d drive around the hospital complex all night and listen to my new favorite radio show, a thing called Larry King Live.

This was long before Captain Suspenders became a fixture on cable TV. Back then he did an overnight radio show on the Mutual Radio Network. For the first few hours he’d have guests, and pretty decent guests at that, people like Jimmy Carter. But things got really good at 3:00 a.m., when he switched to Open Phone America and all the crazies started calling. I remember one querulous voice trying to explain things to Larry. “The name Hitler has six letters,” he said. “H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. I is the ninth. T is . . .” “Sir, you are way ahead of me,” Larry barked and ended the call. Another time an excited young man called in. “Larry,” he said, speaking very quickly, “If Beethoven were alive today do you think he’d be, (a) writing a new symphony, (b) recording rock and roll songs or (c) clawing desperately at the inside of his coffin?” Larry hung up on him, too, but I laughed my ass off.

Everyone knows who Larry King is now, but back then he felt like my little secret. Until I went to see Ghostbusters and was stunned to see Larry in a cameo as himself. “That’s the guy I listen to every night!” I exclaimed to everyone around me. I couldn’t believe it.

All good things have to come to an end. One day I was down in the emergency room marking up magazine galleys when I got a call to report to the captain on duty. The captain was not happy that I had stated to grow a scruffy beard. “I don’t want to see you here again until you shave,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied and I went home. The next day he called me there.

“Where are you?” he asked. “You’re scheduled to work today.”

“You told me to go home,” I said. “I quit.” And thus ended my career in uniform.

What does all this have to do with Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo? Not much. But as I said, during my tenure as a security job I also became the editor of a rock and roll magazine. That fall I attended the New Music Seminar in New York City, where I received an advance cassette of Elfman’s So Lo. The album still sounded pretty good when I heard it for the first time back then, and it sounded pretty good today as I walked around the neighborhood. I guess I still make my rounds, but at least I don’t have to punch any keys. The hours are better, too.



March 2010
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