Mad Girl Meets “Madman”

From Salon.com in response to the prompt, “What was an album or song that was important to you at a time in your life when you needed it most?”

Mad Girl Meets “Madman”

Of course there’s a Facebook fan page for Auditory Odyssey!  

It was so much more than just a Laurel Canyon record store, paraphernalia paradise and happy haven for hippies, stoners, and miscellaneous Valley teens near the end of the 20th century. It has since become a symbol of a zeitgeist long-gone and much missed, offering Boomers an ocean of nostalgia to wade in. It was where she spent almost every teenage dime she earned, borrowed or stole; where she would suffer deliciously sweet torture trying to decide between unicorn posters, apple-shaped candles, fruit-scented incense, guitar songbooks, and most precious of all: record albums.

After the odyssey at the Odyssey, she preferred to be dropped off at her house alone, and burrow in her room with her new purchases: sticks of strawberry incense, food-shaped candles and most importantly, Elton John.  Of all her albums piled high, the one that was almost always on top and played more than any other was “Madman Across the Water.”   

It was the go-to when she sought relief and succor, which was constantly in the mid-Seventies, as she witnessed the frightening and confusing behavior of her parents shredding their relationship and ripping their family apart.  They tried to destroy each other quietly, so as not to traumatize her or her brother, who was roiling with teenage rage and would explode violently several times in the subsequent years.  She, on the other hand, didn’t roil; she simmered. Since prescriptions for teenage mental ailments were not yet de rigeur, and she was perched on the edge of her drug-taking years, the way she escaped the constant internal pain was through music.  She stayed out of the house or in her room as long as possible to avoid the accelerating nastiness of the impending cataclysm.

Her parents could easily be reduced to an instantly recognizable cultural cliche: college-educated East Coast Jewish liberals, transplanted to an upper-middle-class San Fernando Valley car-pooling, barbecuing, Cub Scout neighborhood. Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” with perpetual sunshine and a swimming pool in the backyard.

The “problem that had no name” that her mother, a festering feminist bound by apron strings, read about in Betty Friedan’s book, was seething just under the surface of their immaculate two-story Tudor, and Dad was spending most nights “working:” establishing a string of businesses and dalliances. There was no booze in the house, per Jackie Mason’s dictum that Jews don’t drink, they eat, but her first joint was purloined from the glove compartment of her father’s new red T-bird, along with a pornographic 8-Track tape.  When he stood in the doorway of her strawberry-scented bedroom to accuse her of stealing his drugs and porn, their eyes locked and it was clear to each of them that since he could not name the stolen items, she had won that round.

Her father bought a divorce lawyer with the sharpest teeth his money could buy. Consequently, there were many incidents of intense emotional violence, but only once did she witness the physical outpouring of her mother’s impotent rage. In their tastefully decorated bedroom, under the red and white cabbage rose-wallpapered ceiling, she watched her mother pound her fists on her father’s broad back as he packed, closed his suitcase and walked out the door.  

“Levon.”

Second song on the first side of “Madman.”

Levon’s lyrics were not just dense, they were unfathomable, and sitting on the deep blue carpeting with the album cover leaning on her knees twenty years before Google, it would have taken a great deal of effort to find out who Alvin Tostig was.   

What she did know was that this song, above all other beloved tunes on the album, moved her to finally release the tears held inside every day that needed to fall. She didn’t know who “Levon” was, except that he needed to be “a good man,” unlike her father, who told his lawyer, or perhaps allowed his lawyer to twist his words into a fantastic tale of her mother as a knife-wielding maniac in order to boost his case with a restraining order. She watched her mother sink into a weepy, prolonged depression from which she eventually only somewhat recovered.

He took an apartment within bike-riding distance of the house, but an unbearable distance from what Elton called the “tradition of the family plan.” Once, while he was on a business trip, she convinced the apartment manager to let her and her friends in; their sweet teenage smiles were the only bribe necessary to persuade him that they wanted to surprise her father with a clean apartment upon his return. Surprise him they did: breaking into his filing cabinet, smoking as much of his weed as they could and taking the rest, and leaving in their wake anything and everything that would indicate that his betrayal was a searing pain that demanded retribution.

The lyrics to “Levon” had zero meaning to a furious, heart-broken fourteen year old girl whose world was being torn apart by bitter, immature intellectuals who would rather kill their hostages than lose the battle.  But the way Elton pounded his keyboard, and especially the way he insisted in his clear, pure voice that he shall be Levon, and that he shall be a good man, meant something deep and essential to her, just as the cover of the album did; the title embroidered on denim, exactly as her grandmother had embroidered flowers on her own precious jean jacket.           madman 2

Maybe she heard Elton sing:                                                              

and he shall be leavin’                                                                  

and he shall be a good man

He did leave. His “family business thrived,” but, sadly, almost forty years later, he is still not a good man. After the pain of the divorce faded, he and her mother continued their relationship — at one point he was cheating on his beautiful young girlfriend with his ex-wife — and he supported her financially for the rest of her life, even after marrying a much younger woman who looks eerily like a younger version of the original. But he never stopped behaving like a warrior with his two children, and constantly provoked and threatened them, denying them not just his time and trust, but any kind of paternal connection. Perhaps he’s still angry at the fourteen year old girl and her angry brother who tried, in their pain, so hard to hurt him. He hasn’t spoken to either his children or grandchildren in ten years. He still lives in the Valley with his new wife. And against all odds, Auditory Odyssey is still there, too.

 

Levon wears his war wound like a crown

He calls his child Jesus ’cause he likes the name

And he sends him to the finest school in town

Levon, Levon likes his money

He makes a lot they say

Spends his days counting

In a garage by the motorway

He was born a pauper

To a pawn on a Christmas day

When the New York Times

Said God is dead and the war’s begun

Alvin Tostig has a son today

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

Levon’s sells cartoon balloons in town

His family business thrives

Jesus blows up balloons all day

Sits on the porch swing watching them fly

And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus

Leave Levon far behind

Take a balloon and go sailing,

While Levon, Levon slowly dies

He was born a pauper

To a pawn on a Christmas day

When the New York Times

Said God is dead and the war’s begun

Alvin Tostig has a son today

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan, woo

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan, woo

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

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