Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten (Berkley Books, 2006) 273 pages.

TML Wooten

I spent the last day of 2015 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper mining town, with my wife, her sister, and her husband. We stayed at the El Dorado Suites on OK Street (it was OK…no, I’m kidding: it was a beautiful suite for a very modest amount). I told the clerk I liked to visit book stores. “Oh,” she said, “You have to visit the new place across the street at the Copper Queen Plaza…they have music and art supplies too.” So we found ourselves at Bisbee Books and Music (www.bisbeebam.com), the only bookstore I have ever seen with mandolins and another odd stringed instrument (whose name I have forgotten) on display along with the books.

We were lucky enough to be there with a couple from Lake Havasu City while the man played some tunes on both while I browsed the books and my wife the art teacher looked at the art supplies. It reminded me of watching the Led Zeppelin video where Jimmy Page plays the mandolin opening to “The Battle of Evermore” at the gates of the big estate house where they recorded their fourth album. I mean, that’s what it sounded like he was playing. The music filled the store, and I was a bit surprised that the place didn’t fill up with spectators. But music, once only experienced live and in person, has become so ubiquitous and bland, that the other people in the mall simply ignored it.

Bisbee is a town, like many in the United States today, that were founded and thrived for a reason—a huge copper mine in this case—that no longer exists. You can take a tour of the old mine, and the Copper Queen Hotel holds ghost tours, but the population, once 20,000 strong, has fallen to about 5,000. The stores along the main street, which once supplied groceries and shoes and clothes (one was a J C Penney), now harbor an enthusiastic if struggling arts community. It’s a subject these essays explored in Population Wars. However, crowded upstate NY is a lot more promising, even under duress, than a small town in the isolated southwest. One of my rules of life is “When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.”

But this is not about Bisbee, although if you ever find yourself south of Tombstone and north of Mexico, you should stop by the little bookstore. This is about the book I bought there (one of eight) because it seemed appropriate to buy a book about music in that particular store at that particular time.

I knew the Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, the four-time Grammy winner from Nashville and three-time bass Player of the Year, because of a video about “Making Music” he made in about 2000 with a drummer named Carter Beauford. I liked it because it showed the give-and-take among the musicians (Bela Fleck and others join them later) as they put notes and phrases and grooves together to make a song.

I do not have a musical bone in my body. That’s my wife’s domain (her mother and sisters all played saxophone, and my wife went on a musical tour to Europe in her teens). My mother played clarinet in her high school marching band, but the closest I ever got to a band was as a cymbal player in the same band 25 years later. At least I wasn’t ever off-key.

But, growing up, I always wanted to make noise, preferably drums. I had to live through the Beatles years of garage bands on every block in horrid silence (mainly, I suspect, due in equal parts to my father’s salary and my mother’s nerves). I could never play by ear, and to this day I can only peck out one song, the Marine Corps Hymn, not by reading the music, but by numbers, usually in the key of C:

1-3-5-5-5-5-5-8-5, 3-4-5-5-4-2-1…and so on through 8-7-6-4-6-8-5-3-5, 8-7-6-4-6-8-5….

The first thing I did when I met my wife and we moved in together was to buy a set of drums to pound on. I was terrible, and remain so, but it felt so good. And when I finally abandoned the video lessons and bang-kick-bang-kick-1-2-3 patterns that beginners have to endure and just let myself flail away along with any basic rock track, I found that there was music inside me after all (and it didn’t sound half bad, at least to me).

And that’s what Wooten’s book is really about: how to let the music that dwells in all of us, as human beings, out. And you can’t really do it well unless you make music as a group, as a community. It all began, Wooten suggests (p. 236), with the whole community sitting around at night listening to the sounds of nature: bull frogs, birds, insects, and so on. It makes us human: you can’t get a chimp or ape to clap or tap a foot along to the beat, but you can hardly stop a person from doing it, especially with live music on tap.

This book is more of a novel that a memoir or manual, but it does address the relationship of music makers to what they are doing, which is to give a soundtrack to our existence. I don’t care if you’re into rock or country or jazz or something else. As Wooten points out, if not in so many words, there’s really only good music and bad music. Musicians all know this, if not their listeners. When people say, for example, “I hate bluegrass,” they really mean that they lack the perception to appreciate it (page 56). (One intriguing thing I read somewhere is that our musical tastes “freeze” in place shortly after puberty and that if we are only exposed to, say, hip-hop or 1964-style Beatles “Mersey beat” music at that critical time, we get locked in and cannot change our musical appreciation style. I would hate to think this is true, and Wooten seems to think it cannot be so.)

Wooten divides the musical experience up into ten categories. Then, through a series of mythical/fictional characters like Uncle Clyde and Sam and Michael (who might be Victor himself), Wooten explores how each of them contribute to the overall expression of music. Why these ten? Well, as Wooten points out on page 40, these aren’t the only aspects of music that can be examined or explained. As people grow, they can change. But these seem to be a good place to start.

  1. Notes (page 35): The Western octave consists of 7 tones (the white keys on a piano) and 5 more “in-between” ones (the black keys), so even if you are off when you play a note, you probably aren’t that far off. The fear of playing the “wrong” note, Wooten says, is the main reason many people cannot play the music inside them (page 43).
  2. Articulation (page 51): This is the duration of the note, and how it is attacked and played. He compares this to colors in art (page 69).
  3. Technique (page 75): You practice controlling your instrument. But musicians have to know when to reduce their technique (p. 95).
  4. Emotion or Feel (page 97): This is why blues is different than jazz. It gives soul its power. It’s why the president asked James Brown to calm people down after Martin Luther King Jr,’s death in 1968 (p.106).
  5. Dynamics (page 117): This is how hands interact with the instrument. How you can “pedal” (repeat) a note on bass and still make it speak (p.138).
  6. Rhythm and Tempo (page 145): Describes how drummers can play one beat every four measures and still stay right in time…it’s all inside you (p.156).
  7. Tone (page 161): He describes this as a kind of dialect. Know what I’se sayin’? (p. 162 and 180).
  8. Phrasing (page 179): A group of notes make up a phrase. What you say is your truth (p.192).
  9. Space and Rest (page 195): It’s the notes and the silence between that make music (p.221).
  10. Listening (page 235): In the end, making music requires us to listen to other music makers. Even the deaf can dance as they feel the vibrations of the floor and the air (p. 240).

Got it? Good…I’m going to bang on my drums now…

A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek (Penguin Press, 2015) 430 pages.

ABQ Wilczek

I read this book because I read Wilczek’s previous book from 2008 called The Lightness of Being. Unlike 90% of the books I read, this 2008 book stays on the shelf right beside me, mainly because of Plate 6, which shows a color representation of the collision of quark and anti-quark, two constituents of elementary particles such as protons. These appear not as little balls as we often imagine atoms to be, but two smudges of barely visible gray. As they collide, they flow into green and red clouds and knots of condensed energy (Einstein showed that mass is a form of “frozen energy”), finally ending up as a thing known as a “pi meson.” I keep it handy to remind myself that deep down, this often grungy-appearing universe we inhabit is stunningly beautiful when seen the right way.

Everything is light, says Wilczek’s 2008 book (hence the title), and this 2015 book follows up with the fact that not only is everything energy and light, but that it’s beautiful as well. Not only in terms of color, but in a mathematical sense: particles and forces array themselves in neat arrays governed by a few principles. But this is jumped ahead a bit…let’s start with the 2015 book itself.

It is certainly fitting that a book on the beauty of reality is a beauty of a book. And all for a hardcover list price of about 30 dollars, and a discount price less than 20 (there is also paperback edition at about the same price as the hardcover). The dust jacket has a cutout that reveals the front cover itself: a beautiful antique full-color reproduction of the circumpolar constellations, balanced by a pure white rear cover.

Inside, you’ll find not one but two full-color sections of illustrations, from Plate A to Z and then from Plate AA to AAA (ZZ wraps to AAA). There are also 43 text figures, although these are not in color. That’s 96 of them in all, many more times as many than you would find in a typical science-oriented text.

How come? Two reasons: First of all, Wilczek is a Nobel Prize winner with a couple of best-selling science books to his credit (this book is the #1 Bestseller in Quantum Theory at Amazon). Second, Wilczek is a heck of a good writer. If anything, people who read about physics or have read his previous books might grow impatient at how the author patiently travels through 2500 years of science and mathematics to get to the point where readers can easily follow his main point, if not how modern physics has established it all (that would require some heavy-duty math, I’m afraid).
This is not just a book: it’s almost a textbook. The main text ends on page 328, and is followed by Acknowledgements and more than 100 pages in six other sections. These are a Timeline of main discoveries, Terms of Art (a kind of glossary), Notes, Recommended Reading (both classical and modern), Illustration Credits (all those color plates, mainly), and an Index. The Terms of Art are most valuable, in case you forgot what the electromagnetic fluid is (he prefers the term “fluid” to the more common “field”) or what an Axion is (it’s what Wilczek won the Nobel for, of course, and he knows it was a laundry detergent—but the international physics committees didn’t). I always have to look up hadrons and leptons, so it helps to have all this right at your fingertips.
So the book is a bit of a wild ride. Where does it end up? Basically, at Plates TT through XX, explained on pages 260 to 305 (actually, Plates RR and SS set the whole climax up).
It’s important to note that while Wilczek can tell us what the current “Core Theory” consists of—he does not like the more common description if what we think we know as the “standard Model”—no one, even a Nobel Prize winner can tell us why the universe is the way it is.

For example, if you look at Plate RR, you find that the universe consists of six fundamental “entities” and three fundamental forces. He calls them “entities” because we really have no idea what they “really” are. We know they aren’t little billiard balls that spin around (although, confusingly, they have a property called “spin” that carries their angular momentum). Not only that, but these “entities” repeat our normal “reality” at two higher energy levels. Why? No one knows—yet.

So protons are made up of three quarks. At our everyday energy levels, these are the up and down quarks. Add energy, and you can make a “super proton” out of the strange and charm quarks. Still more energy, and you get a “super duper proton” made out of top and bottom quarks. (They wanted to call them “truth” and “beauty,” but that would just be silly, right?)
Each “family” gets a type of electron and neutrino to go with it, but there are only three major families. Why? It might have something to do with quarks carrying electric charges in thirds (like +1/3), but maybe not. In fact, there might even be a fourth family that has eluded us.

So the whole book is really a package to allow the readers to understand Plates VV and WW. These extend the idea of symmetry (as among the three families above) from what we currently know is real to what Wilczek would like to see as the “ideal” ultimate reality. And scientists might be getting very close.

You might think that quantum physics is one of those things you can just ignore and things will take care of themselves, like when driving your car. If the “check engine” light ever comes on, you can take it to the mechanic and let them worry about it. Quantum effects were once thought to be absolutely limited to things so tiny that what scientists call “quantum weirdness” would never intrude on our world or everyday reality. But now it seems that photosynthesis, cellular protein and DNA processes, and even computers of the future all might be tied up with to quantum theory. (See, for example, Life On the Edge in this series.) Once, calculus was a mathematical magical mystery understood by only a handful of people in the world. Soon, a basic appreciation of quantum physics might be a pre-requisite for something as simple as graduating from high school.

But don’t worry about getting lost: just reach for Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. 🙂

I liked this book because science books often emphasize what we know and pretend what we don’t know isn’t really there. Everything is “just so”: logical and in its place. Like going to see the neighbor’s house for the first time and the living room is neatly done, the kitchen spotless, and all the beds made. Then you hear a bump and a scrape and you go “What’s in the attic?” and the neighbors go, “Oh, no one knows what’s in the attic. We haven’t got a ladder to climb up there yet. But it’s probably not very important or interesting.” But every visit, the noises get louder and louder until they can’t be ignored.

Read this book to see how messy—but still beautiful—the universe we live in really is.

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

WWSWWR MendelsundWhat We See When We Read By Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, 2014)

This quirky book – there are as many pictures as words, it seems – is the product of one of New York’s top book cover designers. You can plow through it in a couple of hours, at least until you came across an idea or section and go “Whoa! I never thought of the reading process that way.” Then you stop and really think about the ideas the author is presenting for consideration. For example, he writes on p.9 that when we read, we can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” It’s like trying to bring up the light fast enough to see the darkness (a phrase he borrows from William James). We really are remembering the act of reading, he says, so this memory is a “false memory.” (I think this is a good thing: otherwise, if the experience of reading a book were burned into our memories for all time, how could we ever enjoy reading a book all over again? And how could it be better or worse the second time around?)

The book startles when it shows us how much we as readers bring to a book. He mentions Flaubert (famously, as he says) changing the eye color of Madame Bovary (page 46): “blue, brown, deep black…” but apparently not subtracting from the character at all. We all clothe characters if not provided with their dress, give them ears big or small, and provide them with a stature fitting their role (the small, furtive, thief; the tall, dashing hero…). We imagine the whole usually, but do not see the parts: how many buttons on the pirate’s shirt? Is his sword curved? We have to “look” inward to find out.

As someone struggling through a novel-writing program right now, Mendelsund has a good point about how “All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately. You can transport the reader to a far-off place, as in a fantasy, or open with a sly wink at the reader’s willingness to render the reading process present, but invisible. For the latter, Mendelsund quotes the opening of Nebula Award winner Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler with great approval: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” The cloud in this case covers much of page 63. (In the epilogue to Moby-Dick, Mendelsund reminds us on p. 290, Ishmael tells us he is “…floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it…”, and this ever-present margin is much like the dividers of panels in a graphic novel or comic strip, he says.)

Speaking of fantasy, which I imagine I write, on page 235 the author mentions books like Lord of the Rings in which reading involves immersion into a world very different that our own. These books, he says, demand scholarship. The well-done worlds seem “endless” and convey the feeling that the reader can wander off and have their own adventures without the author’s help at all (hello, fan fiction!). A map, he says, is a sure-fire tip that we are entering a book that is really a “compendium-of-knowledge” as well as a story. Readers expect a given level of richness, and the author must provide it.

These are kind of gems you will find in the pages of Mendelsund’s book. The collected points form a scaffold for the book, not like a bridge from one shore to another, but to build upwards into our minds as we read. It’s light, breezy, not pedantic, and all the more effective that way.

Some of the ground he covers will be familiar to those who have studied literature before. Character descriptions are not like wanted posters (and gosh, they shouldn’t be), so readers are free to imagine Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina (his two favorites for this activity) almost any way they want, including eye color. He offers a pictorial array of Madam Bovarys on p. 259. Which is the “real” one? When we read, he claims, images are plucked from our experiences. Mendelsund’s Stalingrad of WW II is mapped onto Lower Manhattan (pages 212-213). And how many people have substituted the Classics Illustrated versions of Captain Ahab and Ishmael (conveniently reproduced on pages 288-289) for Melville’s descriptions of the same?  I have to admit, try as I might to alter the image, the Pequod always resembles the famous war frigate USS Constitution, which I toured in Boston harbor. (He raises much the same point again on page 330.)

This book defies attempts to provide a linear summary. As the eye saccades around the page, gulping in groups of words because the eye cannot focus on text while it is in motion, the book jumps from sections like “Openings” to “Time” and “Vividness.” It ends with “It Is Blurred,” an admission that our world through the fragmented experience of reading words is necessarily incomplete and highly individualistic. Does your lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have windows spiraling up the structure? How high is railing at the top?

I was surprised in the section called “Sketching” to find out how many authors were also visual artists, producing drawings of the characters in their books. These include Poe (portraits), Hesse, the Bronte sisters, Kafka (he insisted that the creature in the “Metamorphosis” could not be illustrated as a real cockroach), and more. On page 177, he has a great story in a footnote about James Joyce giving Matisse permission to illustrate Ulysses. But Matisse apparently never bothered to read the text, because he illustrated Homer’s version instead. I hope this visual skill is not a prerequisite for good writing, because I could never match the pictures that Kipling, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner drew…wait a minute! I’m never going to match their writing either, so why am I worried? J

All in all, the main point is how the act or reading is an act of reader participation in the narrative. We add details, supply continuity when there is none (if the character eats dinner in a restaurant and leaves, we assume that they paid for the meal – and left a tip! – although this is not stated), and so on.

I told you one of things I wanted to do here was connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books. It’s a bit hard to do in the first post, but here’s how I connect this book with other stuff I think about:

There is another reason I found this book particularly fascinating. I did an ABD (All But Dissertation) PhD program in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at New York Polytechnic (the merger of NYU School of Engineering, where I started as an undergraduate, and Brooklyn Poly). So I am always interested in how human minds process “information.” I’ll talk more about AI and consciousness in other posts, because I read a lot about science and technology. It’s one thing for a machine to read and assimilate text. But when you ask an AI entity to tell you about a book it has read, I’ll be impressed when the AI doesn’t just split back words and phrases from the review or blurb or text itself, like the Rogerian therapist in the early Eliza program (more on all this later).