SPOTLIGHT: Friends and Fiends, Pulp Stars and Pop Stars by Robert Fromberg

In the Company of the Company

The first problem with the company holiday party, which I noticed when the invitation arrived in my in-box, was spatial. About 150 people worked for the company, and all were invited. Spouses and significant others also were invited. The party was being held at the home of one of the founders. I tried to imagine the sort of house that could accommodate potentially 300 people, plus enough surfaces for the requisite food and beverages. I sat at my particle-board desk and looked past the upper right corner of my computer monitor. Usually, I am able to place a situation in my mind and see it as an image. This time, I saw nothing.

                The second problem I noted in the email about the company holiday party was also spatial. The co-founder provided the address of and directions to her home, which she said was 15 minutes from the office. I paused and imagined the warmth that would infuse me every day if I were to live 15 minutes from work instead of an hour and 15 minutes; that, however, was not the problem. The second problem came immediately after the address and directions: the description of where to park. One option, we were told, was to park in the co-founder’s driveway, but we were cautioned that this was option only for the earliest of early arrivers. Beyond that, we were told, parking options were limited. The road leading to the house was narrow, said the email message, so narrow that to park alongside it would require that we pull our cars over onto the grass, and that was fine, as long as there was no snow. However, the road was not long enough to allow all of us to park along it.

We could, the email went on, park in the driveways of her neighbors, as long as we didn’t block anyone in. The email message explained that if we were not able to park in her driveway or along the road or in the neighbors’ driveways, no ready parking options were available.

I rewrote the invitation in biblical style: “Many are called, but few can park.”

Two days before the party, we had a significant snowfall, the result of which lay sparkling white under streetlights on top of previous significant snowfalls along a rather busy road I had never previously traveled bisecting a suburb north of the office that looked menacingly clean.

Turning onto the narrow road promised in the invitation, I directed my car through the interstices formed not so much by the snow as by cars hanging onto the snowbanks all along both sides. As I tried not to scrape cars while scanning for a parking space that I knew would require not so much spotting as creating, I noticed, barely illuminated by a few streetlights and yard lights, driveways leading to houses that even at a distance astonished me with their presence, resembling as they did giant square-shouldered robots breaking through the earth. I wondered where these giant robots posted their house numbers.

As I walked toward the front door, I saw hope: Two young men, much younger than I, also new to the company, seeming a tad overwhelmed as they looked for a doorbell or a knocker on all the ornateness that was the door and its frame. I would be their calm and mature guide from outside to in. We would chat. And I would have a smooth onramp to merge into the party.

                “Hey, guys,” I said, or words to that effect. They glanced my way. One of them mumbled something. The other opened the door and entered. I looked down, conscious of being about to set my snow-soaked left shoe—I had stepped out of my car into an ankle-high pile of snow—onto the floor of the co-founder’s house. When I looked up, the young men were gone.

I entered the kitchen and took carrot sticks and a cup of club soda. I coasted solo around the perimeter of one large room. I watched many Black women in uniforms rotating through the crowd, holding trays and offering inscrutable items to the White people, who more often didn’t than did take the offerings, communicating with the Black women in uniforms with head shakes or nods, eyes on the trays but never on the eyes of the Black women in uniforms.

                I finished my carrot sticks, swished club soda around my teeth, and made another lap around the perimeter.

To be clear, I was not exactly a stranger to the company. My position was high-ranking enough that I had been interviewed by both of the still-working founders and one of the longest-tenured partners. In my first few weeks, I had met with most of the managing partners. In previous positions in other companies, I had published articles and books by a handful of the executives over the course of almost twenty years.

                Nor was I inept at socializing. In my previous job, I was the main attraction at meet-the-editor parties for advertisers, at which I chatted with one small group until an advertising rep would guide me toward another group until another advertising reps would guide me to another group and so on like a slow-motion pinball until after two hours my boss would grasp my shoulders from behind. She would whisper, “I’ve come to rescue you,” and propel me toward the exit.

I had reconnoitered the kitchen, the main room with a piano, and another main room without a piano. I had detached most of the carrot shards from my teeth. I decided it was time to take what was left of my club soda and move in, with purpose.

                I saw two managing partners talking in the main room without the piano. One had interviewed me, and I had worked with him on articles two or three times over the years. The other I had met with the previous week. This time I was able to form an image in my mind: the three of us chatting, easy equals. I approached and stood close enough to form a recognizable equilateral triangle.

                I didn’t say hello because the taller of the two—hair combed back and firmly in place, gray at the temples, skin stretched tight over a Madison Avenue jaw—was in the middle of a comment to the shorter of the two—shorter even than me, plump, round faced, hair thick and whitish grey.

I thought the tall partner might pause to greet me, but he did not. So I waited for a natural pause into which to insert a hello and maybe welcome-to-the-company handshakes.

The short partner’s response overlapped the end of the tall one’s sentence, so I didn’t say hello. Perhaps, I thought, a nod would do as well.

The short one spoke in a soft, almost inflectionless Irish brogue. His voice was lovely. Like mist: light, seductive, and impossible to ignore. He could not be expected both to answer the tall partner and send his eyes to me, so I looked up at the face of the tall partner, waiting for a meeting of our eyes that would ensure my nod would be seen. He was absorbed in the words of the short partner, however, and any nod would have died in the air between us.

The time for a nod had passed, I gauged. That was fine. I was there to chat, and so I would chat. My arsenal of quips and anecdotes was broad and deep, as was my ability to improvise.

The short partner was still talking. I forced myself to attend to his words rather than his seductive voice, to listen for the word or phrase that would be my cue.

After a few minutes, I realized that I did not understand what he was saying. Oh, I heard familiar words here and there—an occasional verb, a random preposition—but the rest seemed to slide by me. Perhaps, I thought, it was the short partner’s accent. Or perhaps my attention wasn’t sufficiently riveted to his comments. In either case, if I were here to make conversation, I needed to focus more raptly on what was being said.

By this point, the tall partner was speaking. No unfamiliar accent. Volume more than adequate. Excellent enunciation. Many of the words were familiar. But many were not. The two partners seemed to be talking about a daughter going away to college, or Catholic universities overseas, or vacation homes. Those were just guesses.

Still, they had not looked at me. I checked the dimensions of the triangle my presence created. I saw that it was now more of an isosceles or scalene triangle than an equilateral triangle. I was beginning to float away from them. In a moment, they would think, if they saw me or thought about me, that I was just pausing while passing.

                I stepped in closer.

                I knew, however, that physical proximity would not be sufficient. To establish the three of us as a veracious trio, I would have to speak.

Years ago, I wrote a story called “The Art of Talking.” It was about a character who taught himself how to converse by studying Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” After this study, in preparation for a social outing, he wrote a list of questions to ask his companion, who, after an hour, turned to the character and said, “You sure ask a lot of questions.”

                Since then, I learned the power of the almighty transition. I learned the various forms a transition can take. I learned that the most powerful conversational transition was the repetition of a word or phrase that another person spoke, the repetition an entree to an anecdote or opinion: “I had fun at Disneyworld.” “When I went to Disneyworld, I enjoyed the food.” Simple.

                Except that, even as topics of conversation between the tall partner and the short partner unwound, and as I listened intently, I heard no word that triggered even the most tenuously connected experience or opinion.

                In absence of any word toward which to throw a line with my transitional hook, or any pause within which I could insert a new line of conversation, I allowed their tones of voice to indicate to me where I should “mmm” in agreement, surprise, or thoughtful understanding.

I stepped closer: six inches from the tall partner, six inches from the short partner. My “mmm’s” grew louder. My nods became more exaggerated, almost violent.

Here. Now. I was taking my stand.

Theirs was not a private conversation. I may not have known anything about their topics, but I knew small talk when I heard it. In any case, no one can expect to have a private conversation at a company party. Need I explain the denotations and connotations of “company” to two men of such wide experience and fine grooming?

Lacking any commonality for a conversational transition, lacking any pause for a new topic, I would stand here until one of these two men turned to me, looked me in the eye, and asked me a question.

Had neither of them ever watched Johnny Carson on television?

These days, people talk about “exit strategies.” From jobs, marriages, wars. Ideally, says the conventional wisdom, you know the exit strategy before entering the fray. Next best, you figure your exit strategy before your opponent creates it for you.

When I formed a social triangle with the tall partner and the short partner, I had only the intent of having a conversation, be it pleasant or awkward, short or long. Ignored, I now celebrated my lack of a route for egress. Exit strategies were for those who lacked beliefs, for those who lacked mettle.

Having only eaten three carrot sticks, I was hungry.

My knees hurt from standing in one place.

I didn’t know what to do with my empty plastic cup.

My shoe and sock had dried, but I knew they would get wet again when I returned to my car.

But all of that only fortified me.

Fuck these two.

Let them suffer with my presence. Let them have nightmares about me. Let them see images of me in their peripheral vision at their children’s weddings, at their retirement parties, at their parents’ deathbeds, from their own deathbeds. I would stand here as long as it took.

Failure As a Hobby

For years, my hobby was choosing hobbies. I would decide, for example, to become a baseball fan, or to take up fishing, or to collect photographs of notes to delivery people taped to doors. But before I had selected a team to root for, or found a suitable body of water, or scanned doors in the neighborhood for more than 15 minutes, I would be distracted by some ephemeral imperative, by some other notion of an ideal hobby, or by the very sense of daily failure the supplanting of which was the goal of these hobbies.

Although the hobbies were unconsummated, they were not forgotten. I would occasionally, over the years, envision myself in the thrall of each, dedicating happy hours to my team’s chances for a championship, the correct position of my line in a lake on a cool and sunny morning, and the discovery of new neighborhoods containing new hand-lettered pieces of paper taped to doors telling delivery people to go around the back or to knock loudly because the bell was broken.

                After 30 years, my second wife finally decided to divorce me—something I had been expecting to happen any day over the past 28 years. I moved into an apartment on the top floor of a three-story walk-up. My older son having moved out of the house and my younger son spending every other week with my wife, I found that I had more unstructured time than I had experienced in many years. Lacking any hobbies, I was also without any idea of how to spend that time.

As a much younger person—in my teens and early 20s—I was full of energy. I had cities to explore and books to write and shows to see and staircases to dash up two steps at a time. A great deal of what shaped all this activity was a love of popular music. Or perhaps I should say unpopular music. “I’ll cultivate a taste for music rare and fine/Because it’s almost nobody’s, it’s really almost mine,” as Kristian Hoffman wrote in “Dance Tunes for the Underdogs,” recorded by the appropriately unknown band Mumps.

                Before the internet, especially in the notoriously unhip Midwestern United States city of Peoria, Illinois, it was easier than in a major metropolitan area to cultivate a taste for music that was almost nobody’s and so was almost mine. The year was 1972. Starting in September, notable swaths of the non-Peoria world were putting on makeup and glitter and going to see David Bowie tour the U.S. in support of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, while an even larger swath crowded into the continuum between perplexed and outraged, always a good thing where rock and roll was concerned. Peoria was largely oblivious, but thanks to the supremely hip older brother of my best friend, Dena, I was part of the Bowie cognoscenti, and followed along in Circus, Creem, and Rock Scene magazines, all available, by some miracle, at the local chain drug store.

                Bowie brought with him in late 1972 and early 1973 a collection of other bright, shiny musical acts. Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, and Iggy & The Stooges all released Bowie-produced albums between September 1972 and February 1973. T. Rex, featuring England’s other glam-rock idol, Marc Bolan, released The Slider, in July 1972, which stayed in the British top ten for seven weeks, accompanied by massive press coverage often touting a supposed Bolan-Bowie feud. Even Texas rhythm and blues musician Edgar Winter got into the act with the release in November 1972 of an album called They Only Come Out at Night that featured pale-skinned, bare-chested Winter wearing deep red lipstick, a rhinestone on one cheek, and a multi-tiered diamond necklace in a shot by famous fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo.

                Need I describe how my 12- and 13-year-old self listened to these albums? I was rapt, soaring with every unexpected (even long after they became expected) chord change, plummeting deliriously with every moment of wistful reflection, studying every surface of the album covers and inner sleeves. Is it not ever so?

                I tried to share my musical frenzy with my parents. As my record collection grew, my father didn’t understand why I would want to own more albums than I could play in, say, a single week. He did, however, listen, and at one point even played my copy of Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets for the dean of the music school at the university where Dad taught. When I played songs for my mother, her invariable response was a dismissive, “That’s just a copy of Bob Dylan.” Lou Reed, Edgar Winter, T. Rex, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Iggy & the Stooges—it was all counterfeit Bob Dylan to her. Mom’s tone elaborated on her words: Bob Dylan had the imprimatur of the in-crowd; my stuff was just stupid.

As fine as these albums were, listening to them was not the pinnacle of early teenage ache and joy. What really made my chest thrum was expectation for the next album.

At its outset, this expectation was unexamined. It had no particularity, no underlying reasoning. I didn’t, for example, imagine listening to more wonderful music. My expectation was as inchoate as my pleasure. As this first wave of glittering albums rolled onto my Peoria shore, my desire for each artist’s follow-up intensified.

Over the months, expectation became a more palpable thing, a blooming bolus in my chest, a puff of cotton candy floating a foot in front of me at all times. I scanned magazines for anything to spike these sensations—pictures of the musicians on tour, news of recording. I tried to imagine what I knew I could not imagine: the explosion of euphoria that I would experience when I finally spied on a record-store shelf the covers of the follow-ups to Ziggy Stardust and The Slider and They Only Come Out at Night and Transformer and All the Young Dudes and Raw Power.

As the wait continued, the giddiness of expectation did not flag. However, it grew to have a companion—a companion I was acutely aware of, but fought hard against acknowledging. I speak it now for the first time. The follow-up album could be bad. Or, worse, it could be just OK, leveling off a bit below the high I craved. Which would mean it was useless. Which would make whatever was bouncing in my chest plummet. Which would return me to the place I knew, but would not admit, was my natural place, a place of grief.

As I sat in school, as I talked endlessly about music with my friend Dena, as I sat during silent dinners with my family at home (cross-talk at the table would trigger my father’s finicky epiglottis, which a year or two later would land him, unable to breathe, in the hospital, followed a couple of years after that by surgery from which he never recovered his strength, and then death from a heart attack after shoveling snow in our driveway, although, still a teenager, I had already left home by that time), my sensations ran in two tracks: anticipatory euphoria bouncing all over my conscious and voiced thoughts, and dread, recognized/not recognized, plodding along the periphery.

                The first follow-up came on March 19, 1973. I was walking on Main Street at the base of the hill and went into a tiny shop that carried stereo equipment and a few records, and resting on a display shelf was Tanx by T. Rex.

                It’s true that I could feel my heart beat in my ears and that my whole body vibrated. It’s true that I ran out of the shop and into a phone booth and called my friend Dena and screamed, “Tanx!” It’s true that I scrambled to get the money to buy the record later that day. It’s true that I understood, even as I was putting it on my turntable, that new music required a few listens for me to get familiar enough to love.

                It’s also true that even after only one listen I recognized that this was one slipshod record. To that point in his career, Marc Bolan had not been known for sophisticated composition, or even for bothering to write both a verse and a chorus in his songs (bridges were not to be imagined). Even by that low standard, however, the songs on this record were half-written. At best, these were sketches for songs. Neither Tony Visconti’s valiant arrangements and production nor the always charismatic background singing of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan could prop up these bits and pieces. In fact, the very skill of the trappings made the paucity of song ideas more obvious.

                It’s also true that I was not disappointed.

                Three and a half weeks later, on April 13, came the follow-up to Ziggy Stardust. I don’t recall my first sighting of Aladdin Sane, but I do remember my reaction to the cover, which was that it certainly was white. White was not how I envisioned Bowie. The cover of Ziggy Stardust was a street scene in a murky but glowing orange and reddish brown night, with Bowie both a denizen and an alien, guitar strapped around his shoulder and foot firmly planted high on the railing of an anonymous stoop. Magazine photos of Bowie performing or backstage or with Andy Warhol at Max’s Kansas City (where I would be just three years later), black and white or color, were kinetic, saturated, and tangible, like stills from the John Cassavetes film Husbands that my Dad took me to see. Here, on Aladdin Sane, was an image clean and artificial—a heavily airbrushed studio portrait of Bowie with a cartoonish lightning bolt applied to his face and an overtly airbrushed tear dripping from his clavicle. I had lived my entire 13 years, five months, and 28 days surrounded by art—my parents’ paintings, my parents’ art books, my parents’ art magazines. My dad taught painting and filmmaking and graphic design at the local university. I knew tacky when I saw it, and this was tacky, and not ironically tacky like Andy Warhol, but embarrassingly tacky, showcasing bad taste with dead-eyed seriousness.

                The songs were as stark and unsubtle and sporadically schlocky as the cover art. For the first time, I cringed at some of Bowie’s lyrics. The cover version of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was painful.

                The follow-ups continued. Three months later was Lou Reed’s Berlin, which reviewers agreed was the most depressing pop record every made. Two weeks later came Mott the Hoople’s Mott, a flat-out great record that didn’t at all suffer from the lack of Bowie’s songs or production. This album’s excellence only heated my fervor for its follow up, which came eight months later in The Hoople, whose royal blue background and high-contrast airbrushed photo of the most lovely woman I had ever seen (with tiny images of the band members in her nest of ringlets) I would stare at for months, while accepting the decided spottiness of the music. And just a month later came The Edgar Winter Group’s follow-up to the bright, focused, and artistically and commercially successful They Only Come Out at Night, a record called Shock Treatment, with yet another a silly studio photo against a white backgroundand a collection of songs so forgettable that I may have played the album only three times—I forget. And as for Raw Power, by the end of 1974 there was still no follow-up from Iggy and wouldn’t be for another three years.

                And none of this disappointed me.

At least, I didn’t think I was disappointed.

My true feelings were as mysterious to me as these musicians were mystified about whether they were recording a classic or a flop.

The exact nature of my not-disappointment fascinated me. Moving about in school among kids I was pretty sure loathed me or tip-toeing around the house assuming at any moment my mom would snap at me for something I couldn’t predict or my autistic brother would run across my path shouting, I generally felt seconds away from being crushed. Sometimes I gave in, and hopelessness flooded in (and I put Berlin on the turntable). But more often, I existed in a vibrating duality of incipient hopelessness and furious efforts at distraction.

My first few listens of each follow-up were a bit panicky. What did I really think about the music? It was impossible to sort out which portion of me was heartsick with disappointment, which portion honestly enjoyed what I was hearing, and which portion was working hard to like what I was hearing so that I would not burst into tears.

After a while, I would settle into a relationship with each album that was more intimate than with their more perfect predecessors.

                I loved staring at the many tiny black-and-white photos of Marc Bolan on the gatefold sleeve of Tanx. Fragments of the record were superb, and the fragmented nature itself was revelatory. You mean you can just scoop together bits and make a record? That sounds like something even I could do! At the time, I was making my first attempts at writing fiction and poetry, and I was mystified at how to judge the quality of what I was doing and excited every time I spied an externally validated low bar against which to judge my creative efforts.

Aladdin Sane’s cover was clean and bright and new, and it was even OK that the gatefold revealed more tacky airbrushed narcissism in a full-body photo in the same style as the cover against an equally white background. The songs that I liked were easy to like even thought, try as I might, I could not force any of them to send me over the moon, Ziggy Stardust style. I became adept at either ignoring or picking up the tone arm and skipping any songs or segments that made me cringe.

Berlin was such a last word on depression that I barely needed to construct my own scenarios of adolescent tragedy; thanks, Lou. When I listened to The Hoople, I felt a kind of pride as though I, Atlas-like, was propping up the occasionally heartfelt, more often lackluster work of this perennially hard-luck band. Shock Treatment was so easy to forget that I even forgot my disappointment, and although I rarely listened to the record, I enjoyed looking at the album cover, the picture on which seemed full of futile hope for another success. And as for Iggy, Raw Power was such an artifact of dissolution that a follow-up would have been improprietous.

Ultimately, each of these albums was, to me, correct. Each was a complex and lifelike representation and experience of failure. With each album, failure, disappointment, and the state of being crushed became not something wordless and formless, but a thing that could be looked at, listened to, and lived with.

In the 44 years between these early experiences of musical failure and my second divorce, I never really grew beyond a narrow range of hobbies: records, movies, books. In fact, my hobbies shrunk. For the previous 20 or so years, I had hunkered down, stopping all three activities in an effort to remove from my life anything that could elicit any emotions.

Writing had, for a decade or so, been more than a hobby. I felt as though all I needed to do was dig into my pockets and I could pull out a handful of bright marbles that I could toss onto the ground, and a story or a novel would appear. Nevertheless, I always felt a tug of awareness that my writing was limited, and as I turned my attention to correcting that, I found that when I reached into my pockets the marbles that emerged were the color of mud. I had nothing but lies to tell.

                Now, I thought I might go back to where my hobbies had begun. I drove into Chicago to the grungy outskirts of the grungy-trendy Logan Square neighborhood and parked as close as I could to a record store housed in a brick building with a blue and yellow and pink and purple mural of something I couldn’t quite discern and gig flyers plastered over the windows and door.

                I did not own a device to play records, but shopping for records had always been almost as fun as listening to them, and at least marginally social. Also, it wasn’t like I had anything else pressing to do on a Saturday.

                I hip-shook my way around a couple of couples and found myself at what seemed to be the middle of the racks of records that defined the perimeter of the store. It didn’t really matter what part of the alphabet I was in. I didn’t know most of the artists I was looking at on the album jackets, didn’t even bother to translate the letters into names or the shapes and colors into images. I just flipped through the album covers, enjoying them jumbling past my eyes and the smell of incense and mold and the people shuffling through my peripheral vision.

                I stopped flipping when I saw The Hoople. Its royal blue cover was as glorious as ever, the huge face as beautiful as ever. I may actually have panted. My loyalty for this fine, uneven effort, recorded just before the band dissolved, bloomed from all over my body. I lifted the album from the rack, turned it over and felt the pleasant shock of memory at the forgotten back-cover graphics and song titles.

                I imagined the band listening to playbacks in the recording studio, telling themselves that, yeah, these songs really, really, were just as good as the songs on Mott, gosh, maybe even better! And that the album might be as popular, maybe more popular! And this tour would not be their last, certainly not.

                And I imagined myself hunting down Ian and Overend and Dale and Ariel, and telling them that, you know, this album really was good, a fine effort, that I listened to it as much as, maybe more than!, I had listened to Mott, and not just because I liked the cover so much more than the cover of Mott. I had, I would tell them, played one of the songs for my parents, and my dad had said, “Why, that’s just a nice romantic song,” and I felt embarrassed that my core sentimentality had been exposed, the good embarrassment of honesty.

                I put the record back and continued flipping, but then realized that it was within my power to possess that record. I could lift it out of the rack, pay for it (even if it were expensive, although I suspected it was not a valued collector’s item), and take it home. Someday I could buy something to play the record, but in the meantime I could sit in the second-hand chair I had bought for my new apartment, and I could stare at that cover, and I could let whatever feelings that I had emerge.

                I could even buy more records. What were those titles? I could buy Tanx and Shock Treatment and Aladdin Sane. I could branch out into other failed follow-ups to great successes. And I could sit quietly, maybe for hours. I could stare at them, and I could feel that old sense of constructing victory from the evidence of defeat.

                The shop actually had Shock Treatment, whose cover was even sillier than I had remembered, but not the others. No matter. I would find them elsewhere. Now that I had a new hobby, I didn’t want to exhaust it in a single shopping trip.

                At home, I made myself a fried egg and toast, which I ate at the kitchen table. Beside my plate was the flat, brown paper bag holding my records.

                After my meal, I washed my hands and took the bag with me into the living room. The chair was less comfortable than it had felt in the thrift store. I withdrew the records and dropped the bag on the floor. Outside, it was dark. I looked at each album’s front cover, then each album’s back cover. Then I set them on the coffee table and decided to go out and see what my fellow humans were up to.


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