Slouching Toward Red Lobster
'Cats' was very, very, very bad. 'Cats' was a lot worse than I'd
expected. I'd seen 'Phantom' years ago, and knew all I
needed to know about 'Starlight Express' and 'Joseph and
the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat', so I was not a
complete stranger to the fiendishly vapid world of Andrew
Lloyd Webber. But nothing I'd ever read or heard about
the show could have prepared me for the epic suckiness of
'Cats.' Put it this way: Phantom sucked. But 'Cats' really
One of the things that fascinated me about 'Cats' was the way
I'd managed to keep it from penetrating my consciousness
for the previous fourteen years. Yes, I'd been walking past the
Winter Garden Theatre at 50th and Broadway since 1982
without once even dreaming of venturing inside; and yes, I'd
heard the song "Memory"; and yes, I'd heard about all the Tonys
'Cats' had won; and yes, I'd seen all those garish subway posters;
and yes, I'd been jostled by those armies of tourists streaming out
of the theater at rush hour as I myself tried to hustle through
midtown. But all those years that 'Cats' had been playing, I'd
somehow avoided even finding out what
the show was about. Wandering past the Winter Garden all
those years was like wandering past those dimly lit S&M bars in
Greenwich Village: I really didn't need to know the details.
Now my blissful ignorance had been shattered. So without
any further ado, let me share the wealth. For the benefit of the
two or three other people in this society who don't know what
'Cats' is about, here's the answer: It's about a bunch of cats. The
cats jump around in a postnuclear junkyard for some two and a
half hours, bumping and grinding to that curiously Mesozoic pop
music for which Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous--the kind of full-tilt
truckin' that sounds like the theme from "The Mod Squad."
There's an Elvis impersonator cat, and a cat that looks like Cyndi
Lauper, and a cat that looks like Phyllis Diller. All the other cast
members look like Jon Bon Jovi with two weeks of facial growth.
Sure, 'Cats' is allegedly based upon the works of T. S. Eliot,
but from what I could tell, the show had about as much to do
with the author of "The Waste Land" as those old Steve Reeves
movies had to do with Euripides. 'Cats' is what 'Grease' would look
like if all the cast members dressed up like KISS. To give you an
idea of how bad 'Cats' is, think of a musical where you're actually
glad to hear "Memory" reprised a third time because all the
other songs are so awful. Think of a musical where the
songs are so bad that "Memory" starts to sound like "Ol'
Man River" by comparison. That's how bad 'Cats' is.
The most disappointing thing about my maiden voyage on this
sea of sappiness was the behavior of the crowd. In all honesty, I
had long assumed that everyone who enjoyed 'Cats' was, in some
sense of the word, a bozo. But I'd always assumed that they
were happy, festive bozos. Nothing could have prepared me for
the utterly blase reception 'Cats' received when I attended a
matinee in late March. The crowd was your typical Saturday
afternoon assemblage: implacable Japanese tourists, platoons
of gawking midwestern huckleberries, legions of Farrah Fawcett
lookalikes. Based on their fulsome demeanors, I would have expected
them to give the performers a boisterous reception when urged to get
down and boogie.
But the day I saw 'Cats', the crowd just kind of sat there and
zoned out. Not unlike Broadway dancers and singers who
sometimes, if not always, phoned it in, the audience was
phoning it in. The only way I could rationalize such lack of passion
was this: 'Cats' had been playing for fourteen years,
and this was a room filled with people who had found something
better to do with their time for the previous 5,600 performances.
So it wasn't like 'Cats' was something they'd been dying to see,
like the Taj Mahal or the Blarney Stone or that crevice between
Sharon Stone's legs. Mostly, they acted like
RVers who were simply checking names off a list: "Ohio, New
Jersey, Wisconsin--okay, Reba, we've done the Dairy States."
I came home from 'Cats' feeling totally dejected. In the back
of my mind, I'd expected the show to fall into that vast category
occupied by everything from bingo to Benny Hill.
You know: so bad, it's good. But 'Cats' was just plain bad. Really
bad. About as bad as bad could get. Revisiting the horror in my
mind later that evening, I consoled myself with
the assurance that surely this would be the lowest point of my
adventure, that nothing I subsequently experienced could
possibly be in even the same league as 'Cats.'
Then I cued up the Michael Bolton record.
So much for that theory.
For years, I'd been vaguely aware of Michael Bolton's
existence, just as I'd been vaguely aware that there was an
ebola virus plague in Africa. Horrible tragedies, yes, but they had
nothing to do with me. All that changed when I purchased a copy
of 'The Classics' When you work up the gumption to put a record
like 'The Classics' on your CD player, it's not much different from
deliberately inoculating yourself with rabies. With his
heart-on-my-sleeve appeals to every emotion no decent human being
should even dream of possessing, Michael Bolton is the only
person in history who has figured out a way to make "Yesterday"
sound worse than the original. He's Mandy Patinkin squared. His
sacrilegious version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" is
a premeditated act of cultural ghoulism, a crime of musical
genocide tantamount to a Jerry Vale rerecording of the Sex
Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" And having to sit there, and listen
while this Kmart Joe Cocker mutilates "You Send Me" is like
sitting through a performance of 'King Lear' with Don Knotts in
the title role. Which leads to the inevitable question: If it's a crime
to deface the Statue of Liberty or to spraypaint swastikas on
Mount Rushmore or to burn the American flag, why isn't it a
crime for Michael Bolton to butcher Irving Berlin's "White
To round out Day One in my personal cultural bathosphere, I
picked up. Nicholas Evans's international best-seller "The
Horse Whisperer." As was the case with 'Cats' and Michael
Bolton, the result was horrifying. In Evans's megahyped
novel, a tyke loses her leg in a riding accident, then goes out
west with her yuppie-scum mother seeking to persuade a
sagebrush psychotherapist to cure, her totally psychotic horse.
With lines like "What wanton liars love makes of us" and "It was
the last night of their blinkered idyll," 'The Horse Whisperer' is
one of those cloying upscale/downscale books where the mom
has an attitude, the kid has an attitude, and even the goddamn
horse has an attitude.
In fact, the only mildly attractive character in the entire book
is Tom Booker, the old horseshit whisperer himself. Booker is a
kind of cowpoke philosopher who always knows the right things
to whisper into a horse's ears, but seems to have trouble when it
comes to whispering into a woman's ears. Maybe that's because
horses don't understand the phrase "cornhole." And, oh yes, Tom
the Horse Whisperer is a quiet loner from the great state of
Montana. Of course, I was reading about this ten-gallon,
equestophilic Billy Bob Freud right about the time the
Unabomber was being brought to justice and the FBI was
besieging those madcap Freemen out in the Great State of
Nice timing, Nicky.
In the days and weeks that followed, I gradually realized that
mainstream American culture was infinitely more idiotic than I
had ever suspected. Take movies. Over the years, I'd come to
believe that a special ring of hell had been reserved for Lome
Michaels for promoting the careers of Joe Piscopo, James
Belushi, and others of their ilk. But nothing those dimwits had
done on film had even vaguely prepared me for the prepaleolithic
world of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. The whole time I was
watching Billy Madison and Tommy Boy I kept saying to
myself, "I know that these people are alumni of `Saturday Night
Live,' so I know that if I sit here long enough, they will eventually
do or say something that will make me laugh. Heck, they're
Oh, foolish, foolish man! Hours and hours later, I was still in
my chair, comatose, watching these Gen-X Ostrogoths ruin my
day, my week, my civilization. Here's Sandler setting a bag of
poop on fire. Here's Farley getting covered in cow shit. And
here's Bo Derek, co-starring. What a sad commentary
on our society that we have produced movies so bad that
you feel sorry Bo Derek has to be in them. Which just goes to
show: No matter how famous you are when you're young, if you
don't play your cards right, you're eventually going to end up in a
movie with Adam Sandler.
Was all this a surprise to me? Yes, I can truly say that the
scale of horrendousness proudly displayed in these motion
pictures was awe-inspiring. Sure, I'd known that these movies
were out there, but not until I'd actually sat all the way through a
couple of them did I have any idea how satanically cretinous they
were. Until I saw Billy Madison and Tommy Boy, I'd always
thought that the three scariest words in the English language
were "Starring Dan Aykroyd." Now I knew better. Being
introduced to Joe Piscopo and Dan Aykroyd and only later
learning of the existence of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley is
like going to school and learning about the Black Plague, only to
find out many years later that there's something called the
And I don't even want to talk about Pauly Shore.
On some of the outings I lined up for my trek through the
cultural undergrowth, I honestly suspected that someone had
phoned ahead to ensure that the staff would maximize my
discomfort. Typical was the night I dragged my family over
to the local Red Lobster for our first-ever visit to the garish
establishment. Red Lobster, I quickly learned, was a chain
geared toward people who think of themselves as just a little bit
too upscale for Roy Rogers. Even while waiting in the anteroom
of the bogus sea shanty I could detect a certain aura of
proletarian snootiness because of the way people were looking at
me and my son. While Gordon, age ten, and I had turned up in
nondescript T-shirts and shorts, the Red Lobster
patrons were bedecked in their best windbreakers and
their very finest polyester trousers.
"Next time, show some respect," their expressions suggested.
"After all, you're eating at Red Lobster. This ain't some goddamn
The Red Lobster menu consisted almost entirely of batter
cunningly fused with marginally aquatic foodstuffs and
configured into clever geometric structures. I immediately began
to suspect that the kitchen at Red Lobster consisted of one
gigantic vat of grease in which plastic cookie molds resembling
various types of food were inserted to create a structural
resemblance to the specific item ordered. This was the only way
to determine whether you were eating Buffalo wings or
crabcakes. Technically, my dinner--The Admiral's Feast--was a
dazzling assortment of butterfly shrimp, fish filet, scallops, and
some mysterious crablike entity. But in reality, everything tasted
exactly like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even the French fries.
Red Lobster was a consummate bad experience. It wasn't
just the Huey Lewis & the News ambience, it wasn't just the
absence of mozzarella sticks from the menu that day, it wasn't
just the party of twenty-nine seated next to us complaining about
the service, it wasn't just the Turtles singing "Happy
Together" overhead, it wasn't just the absence of root beer
from the menu that day, it wasn't just the titular head of the party
of twenty-nine incessantly referring to different members of his
entourage as "landlubbers," and it wasn't even the way those
social-climbing townies gave my son and me the once-over as
we came through the door. No, it was definitely the food. The
food tasted like baked, microwaved, reheated, overcooked,
deep-fried loin of grease.
Admiral's Feast, my ass.
* * *
After my stomach lining had recovered from this dismal
gastronomic sortie, I decided to immerse myself further in some
of the most beloved books of the past decade. A good place to
start was "The Celestine Prophecy." This enormously popular
book deals with the discovery of an ancient manuscript that
predicted a revolution in human behavior at the dawn of the next
millennium. The manuscript, purportedly written in sixth-century
B.C. Aramaic, had been discovered in the rain forests of Peru
and contained nine insights. One of the insights involved using a
person's psychic energy field to connect with the flora and fauna
all around us. The book had sold several million copies,
presumably to that unnerving subset of Americans who exercise
to Shirley MacLaine videos, are unaware of Dionne Warwick's
pre-psychic career, voted for Jerry Brown in the 1992
Democratic primaries, and worship Baal.
I'm as open to suggestions about how to utilize my psychic
energy as the next guy, but I do have a few caveats here. For
one, I'm getting a bit fed up with the whole Vanquished Chic
thing. Basically, anything that has to do with the Hopis, the
Etruscans, the Mayans, the Aztecs, or the Incas gets right up my
nose for the pure and simple reason that they lost. Throughout
my life, I've adopted a basic rule of thumb that any wisdom
imputed to the denizens of Atlantis, Kathmandu, or Machu
Picchu must be viewed with extreme skepticism, because if
these folks were so goddamn smart, how come they didn't hang
around longer? Look at it this way: Pizarro invades Peru on
Sunday, and by Tuesday night he's conquered a nation of 12
million people. How do you lose your entire continent to a couple
hundred grungy conquistadors when the odds are that heavily in
your favor? The obvious explanation: The Incas were a race of 12 million
pre-Columbian Greg Normans.
Gradually, my passion for peerlessly disorienting experiences
caused me to experience a strange new emotion. Technically
speaking, there is no English phrase or idiom to describe the
feeling to which I refer, so here I will take the liberty of coining
the term scheissenbedauern. This word, which literally means
"shit regret," describes the disappointment one feels when
exposed to something that is not nearly as bad as one had hoped
it would be. A perfect example is Neil Diamond's recent album,
"Hollywood don't do what it once could do," Neil sings on the
title track, so he packs up his "dusty bags," grabs "an old guitar,"
and hits "that Blue Highway," rambling back to that "old
Tennessee Moon" where he once "fell in love to an old Hank
Williams song." Yes, when Neil hears that "lonesome whistle
moan," he says, "So long, Big City," because he's "longing for
those country roads," and knows it's time to "take a swing down
south" to "see if that "girl Annie still remembers me."
Let us ignore for a moment the implausible elements in this
song, most importantly the fact that Neil Diamond hails from
Flatbush. Let us also ignore the fact that The Country Record
has been a cliche since Dylan recorded 'Nashville Skyline', that
the record contains the obligatory phoned-in Waylon Jennings
duet, and that Neil Diamond, a man who makes Burl Ives sound
like Joey Ramone, does not come across in an entirely
convincing fashion on the John Lee Hooker-type track where he
sings "I'm gonna be rockin' tonight." This is a line that reminds
me of the time Senator Al D'Amato got dressed up as "a narc" and
went up to Harlem to register a "bust." Man, did some shit go down
Despite this abundant evidence of dire lameness, Tennessee
Moon did not even approach Michael Bolton's 'The Classics' for
sheer acreage of horseshit per square foot if only because Neil
Diamond at his worst still sounds better than Michael Bolton at
his best. The reason? At least Neil wrote the atrocious songs
that he was slaughtering.
Yet, much to my consternation, I found this terribly
disappointing. At a certain level, I had now begun to hope that
everything I encountered would suck in a megasucky way, and
was honestly disappointed when some proved merely cruddy.
Like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness", I wanted to gaze directly into
the abyss, to stare at the horror. But as the days passed, as I
ventured deeper and deeper into the heartland of hootiness, I
grew crestfallen at the failure of certain monstrously popular
cultural figures to achieve the bathetic levels I craved. Dean
Koontz's Intensity was sadistic, depraved, and revolting, but the
book could not hold a candle to "The Horse Whisperer's"
Mephistophelian inaneness. 'Slam Dunk Ernest', a direct-to-video
film about a lovable moron, was predictably idiotic, but because it
had one good joke (Ernest, the unlikely basketball hero, changes
his name to Ernest Abdul Mustafa), it could not rival the horrors
of Billy Madison and Tommy Boy.
Garth Brooks--Glen Campbell under an assumed name--was
a perfect example of the scheissenbedauern
phenomenon. Every Garth Brooks song I encountered was a
redneck anthem about truckers, drivin' rain, country fairs, burning
bridges, that damn old rodeo, ashes on the water. In the typical
Brooks song, "Mama's in the graveyard, Papa's in the pen,"
there's a fire burning bright, "this old highway is like a woman
sometimes," and some old cowboy's "heading back from
somewhere he never should have been."
Garth is always sayin' a little prayer tonight, payin' his dues,
shipping his saddle to Dad. But Jehoshaphat, he wouldn't trade a
single day, because love is like a highway, it's one big party, and
let's face it: He drew a bull no man could ride. So all that's left to
do is whisper a prayer in the fury of the storm and hope you
don't miss The Dance.
It goes without saying that folks call Garth a maverickheck,
there "must be rebel blood running through (his) veins." But
sometimes you've just got to go against the grain, "buck the
system," even though "the deck is stacked against you." In short,
Brooks's music was the musical equivalent of a Pat Buchanan
stump speech, market-researched baloney where the lyrics were
so generic you started to suspect he was using Microsoft's
Drugstore Cowboy for Windows 95 (not available in a Macintosh
format) to write them.
But even though songs like "We Shall Be Free" blatantly
ripped off Sly & the Family Stone--fulfilling the dictum that black
music is always ten years ahead of the curve, and country and
western twenty years behind it--and even though Brooks
recycled more riffs than Ray Davies, and even though Brooks
was so bland he made Gordon Lightfoot sound like the Red Hot
Chili Peppers, these records didn't actually make you puke. This
was about the highest tribute I could pay to most contemporary
On the other hand, it didn't make me do anything. Somebody
once said that when you turn on the radio, Genesis is what
comes out. That's exactly the way I felt about Garth Brooks.
So, all right, he chomped, but he didn't chomp royal. He
chomped in the same off-the-shelf way most millionaires in
hyperthyroid cowboy hats chomped. But he didn't bite the big
one. And for some reason, this bothered me. When I went
slumming like this, I wanted to cruise the bad slums. I wanted
to hit Watts, the South Bronx, North Philly. From the cultural
slumming point of view, Garth Brooks was little more than a
slightly rundown neighborhood in Yonkers.
As the weeks passed, I grew fatigued with the numbing
mediocrity of so many new experiences I had honestly hoped
would be utterly appalling. The Radio City Easter Show was no
lamer than any dozen of other spectacles I have seen on
television over the years. I rented my first Steven Seagal movie
(Under Siege II) and was dismayed to find that it was perfectly
watchable. Neither "Jenny Jones" nor "Baywatch" was as rotten
as I expected them to be, and 'Reader's Digest' was merely
boring, not unreadable. I'd been on the lookout for things that
really stunk out the joint, yet somehow, I still felt that the Holy
Grail of Horridness lay just outside my reach. What I really
needed to find in order to purge myself forever of this
unwholesome fascination with the cultural tar pits of
America was to set out on a sacred quest, to travel to a shrine of
suckiness, to bathe myself in the very Ganges of ghastliness.
It was time to make that pilgrimage to Atlantic City.
Entering Atlantic City by car is like entering Venice by dog
cart--you simply must take the bus to get there. But when
you get off the bus, after three hours of deadening chitchat with
a battalion of cadaverous low rollers, you will immediately notice
that Atlantic City does not resemble Venice. Atlantic City is a
vast series of interlocking slums abutted by a narrow strip of
clownish, high-rise buildings erected by people like Donald
Trump. Venice is not. Even I, who have never been to Venice,
Figuring that I should go first class all the way, I checked
into the Taj Mahal, where my luggage was scooped up by a man
dressed like Ali Baba. We deposited my bags, then I returned to
the main floor, where I spent the next twenty-four hours
gambling. I had never gambled before in my life, and did not
know any of the rules. This was unfortunate because shortly
after I arrived at the blackjack table, the young woman sitting
directly to my left diplomatically informed me that I was "fucking
Fucking the deck, she explained, is the process whereby a
neophyte or incompetent gambler disrupts the ordinary
distribution of cards by making anomalous or stupid decisions. In
my case, I stood on sixteen with the dealer showing a seven.
According to orthodox blackjack procedure, you must always
ask for another card when the dealer is showing a seven and
you are holding sixteen, because you must always assume that
the dealer has a concealed ten, ace, or face card.
But I had a funny feeling that my sixteen was good enough
to win. Which it was. One by one, all the other players at the
table went bust, as did the dealer. But now I was persona non
grata, because I should have said "hit," and gone bust with the
ten, whereupon the person sitting next to me would have gone
bust with a nine, but the three other players farther down the
table would have beaten the dealer. In short, it's not enough to
win, you have to win according to the system. Thus, there was
no joy in Mudville when the dealer paid me, because I had
altered the platonic sequence of cards that the Lord intended,
effectively fucking the deck.
I spent a good portion of the day fucking the deck at various
tables, then around Happy Hour I ran into the young woman
who had first pointed out my failings as a blackjack player. Over
coffee, she explained the rules of blackjack. But she also
explained the appeal of the game, pointing out that she didn't
gamble because of the money, but because it was "Freudian."
I like the table camaraderie," she noted. "You have to be
careful not to disrupt the table camaraderie."
"How can you make sure that you don't disrupt the table
camaraderie?" I inquired.
"Don't fuck the deck," she replied. "And if you do fuck the
deck, try as hard as possible to unfuck it."
"How do you unfuck the deck?" I asked, not mentioning that
I'd been accused of doing precisely that at least three other times
during the day.
"It's a long story."
Up until this point, I was $120 ahead of the game by using
my unconventional betting technique of standing when I felt like
standing and hitting when I felt like hitting. But as soon as I
started gambling the right way, I lost all my money. Before I
knew it, I was $139 in the hole. For the life of me, I could not
figure out what the attraction of this place was. The entire city
was filled with doddering seniors, like the world's largest skittles
league. Everyone had that bad South Philadelphia hair and that
bad North Philadelphia attitude. The women in neo-Sumerian
miniskirts who served you drinks all looked like Hittite
linebackers. Everywhere you turned, a lounge lizardess who
thought she was both Martha and the Vandellas was singing
"Proud Mary," complete with Tina's extended verbal intro.
Everybody at the blackjack table hated you because you'd
fucked the deck. And you were down $139. At long last, I
realized that I had come to the end of my journey. I had finally
taken the ferry across the River Styx.
And wouldn't you know that when I disembarked from
Charon's bleak craft, a Borscht Belt comedian would be waiting
for me on the fatal shore? Yes, that very night, I was comped a
ticket to a presentation of Freddy Roman's All-Star Revue,
Catskills on the Boardwalk. As the show opened,
I was seated at a folding table parallel to the stage, right across
from a man wearing a Medieval Tournament T-shirt and a
Phillies cap, who seemed to be having some sort of an emotional
meltdown. Glancing around, I noticed that I was `forty-five years
younger than anyone else in the room. And I was forty-five.
Finally, Freddy Roman, who is either a failed Henny
Youngman or a successful Buddy Hackett, came out and told a
joke about Bob Dole's hometown.
"In Russell, Kansas, it's so quiet, the town hooker is a
virgin," he quipped.
The words weren't even out of his mouth before the crowd
was in stitches.
Next, a Puerto Rican Wayne Newton sound-and-lookalike
sallied forth to sing "Hello, Young Lovers" and "Unforgettable,"
backed by a band with more ponytails than the Cali cartel. Now,
the crowd was wafted aloft on a rippling sea of ecstasy. If Perry
Como himself had been there, they, couldn't have been happier.
Next, a female comic dressed like George Bums wandered
out and did a routine that included the line "When I was a young
man, the Dead Sea was only sick."
The crowd got a lump in its throat just thinking about
Then a portly comic in a beret made a bunch of fart sounds.
The crowd completely lost it.
I hauled myself back to the $5 blackjack table, made a few
bets, stood on the wrong card, fucked the deck. Most of the
people at the table were quite civil, but a middle-aged man sitting
in the last chair was livid.
"Must be using some new kind of counting system," he
sneered, digging into his Croesian $45 stake and placing another
bet. "Who needs this?"
That's when I realized it was time to go back to my old way
of life. I'd been harangued for three hours on a bus by the
Daughters of Rayon--a regiment of chronic losers who insisted
that they always came out ahead when they visited Atlantic City.
I'd been forced repeatedly to tip men dressed like Sinbad. I'd had
to sit in stunned disbelief across from a yabbering buffoon while
a female George Bums impersonator told jokes like "Men I asked
God what He thought of me in Oh, God, He said I was too
young for the part." And now, for the fifth time in a single day I'd
been accused of disrupting table camaraderie by fucking the
deck. So there I sat at a $5 blackjack table in a glorified South
Jersey slum, being dissed by a guy with a bad suit and a bad
mustache and bad hair and a bad job and a bad family and a bad
attitude, and it was all my fault that life hadn't turned out the way
he planned. In short, I was getting the high hat from a low roller.
* * *
When I was coming of age in the late 1960s, most of my
generation was involved in a heroic effort to depose Dean
Martin, Desi Arnaz, Joey Bishop, and all the other cultural icons
who ruled American society with an iron fist. This was an
intellectual insurrection from which I defected by my twenty-first
birthday. One reason I threw in the towel so quickly was
because I knew that we couldn't win, that for every Rock
Hudson we polished off, ten Rocky Balboas would spring up in
his place. A month of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals,
Michael Bolton records, and Adam Sandler movies certainly
helped jog my memory, but it was the two days in Atlantic City
that confirmed what I'd suspected about America ever since I
was a callow youth.
Somebody fucked the deck.