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If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would be a mature man in his mid-fifties. The height might have diminished by a couple of millimeters, or perhaps that inexorability would not have yet begun; either way, he would still routinely be the tallest one in the elevator. His blonde hair would have lost the almost metallic golden sheen the sun glinted off of in Nantucket in 1973; time would have softened it to the tan beach sand of his father, George. He would dress with a casual unfussy formality, blue blazers and chinos, because it would be an easy uniform to slip into and respectful of the people he encountered, whoever they might have been.
If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he might have the tiniest bit of a belly, from beer and wine and casually enjoying life, but he would be disciplined enough to keep it from defining him, and if he ever felt it was he would get to the gym or cut out the carbs and make it go away. The boy may have, at times, run a bit wild, but the man would have held his appetites in check.
If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would no doubt be a father, and a damn good one. His professional desires would have settled, perhaps into something surprising, most likely to do with sports or athleticism. Teaching might have been some part of it. As a boy, and as a man, he expressed leadership effortlessly, in every arena he encountered. He had a gift of taking whatever crazy idea interested him and making it possible.
That’s important to understand. Ed Ruscha has a deceptively simple 1977 painting entitled No End of the Things Made of Human Talk. I have no idea if Matt ever saw it, but I’m absolutely sure it would have at once been instantly recognizable to him, and its simple directness would have caused him to burst out with a crisp, short bark of a laugh. Because talk was never the end for him. Talk achieved nothing if it didn’t turn into action. The boy, and then the man, turned suggestions into achievements seemingly effortlessly, even when they were ridiculously hard.
Especially when they were ridiculously hard.
He was in school on Catalina Island, sent there as a teenager by his parents George and Allyn Ann because (as has been chronicled elsewhere in this blog) the drug culture had made its inroads into him and he into it. The school turned out to be perfect for him, a place that allowed him to shed old identities and necessities and mature into new and more meaningful ones. (I wasn’t there; I was in New York fighting my own battles, though I did visit the island with him years later.) One night, one of Matt’s Catalina Island School classmates suggested they get beer. This was for whatever reason, an impossibility on the island. But at the school they had access to kayaks—there were classes in building them—and it was only 22 miles across open ocean to Long Beach. So Matt led a couple of kayaks across one of the world’s most heavily trafficked ocean corridors at night. For beer. And got it, stowed cases in the kayak holds, and then turned around and paddled 22 miles back.
Easy. Not for me, nor for anyone else. But for him, yeah.
Water always played a part. He and I learned to swim at the YMCA on 8th avenue; it’s an apartment building now. The pool was municipal-sized, laned and busy, and we went once a week, and dove in full-throated little-kid competition for a heavy rubberized brick thrown from the side over and over again. This was when I first came to know the absolute joy of being entirely surrounded by water; to this day I have no interest in swimming laps unless I’m holding my breath and trying to get all the way across the pool without ever touching air.
And then I love it.
Matt’s relationship with water was richer than mine. Once he discovered kayaking he never stopped, and lived in Santa Barbara in easy proximity to the beach, if by easy proximity you mean going a hundred stairs down a steep cliff with a kayak over your shoulder. He introduced the term “hairball” into my vocabulary (it describes particularly dangerous whirlpools), and was good enough, and a known quantity enough, to just barely miss qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, the year Carter cancelled American participation after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. And then he broke his wrist—I have the x-rays in a box in my closet—and lost whatever fraction of a millisecond of control is needed to join the Olympians. But he wasn’t stuck on that; he was too broadminded a participant in life to get trapped by that self-definition.
He and I were born the same year, August for me and November for him, spent our first nine years in the same New York apartment building, four floors from each other—6A and 10C. His number was CI6-5855, when CI stood for Circle. Mine was JU2-8940, for Judson. I am an only child of only children; Matt had an older sister, Iya, who was from birth and very much remains a force of nature in her own right, (She was for many years involved in high-level city politics in Santa Barbara, and recently embarked on a new marriage; her daughter, Matt’s niece, has built a beautiful family on the West Coast.) We had a male pug, Thing; they had a female keeshond, Saskia. Matt’s mother and father were actors; my mother was an actress and my father a writer. He was blonde and thin and outgoing. I was brown-haired and perpetually chubby and introverted—at least I was then; at some point I inarguably became an extrovert, to the extent those overused labels still apply, though unfortunately the chubby thing never left.
Matt’s father, George Gaynes, had done movies, Broadway and off-Broadway; he was The Tongue in Tootsie who serenaded Dustin Hoffman’s character from the street. He did turns on Punkie Brewster and the Police Academy comedies, and was absolutely brilliant as Serybryakov in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. His mother, Allyn Ann Mclerie, was a triple threat—actress-singer-dancer—who was in the original production of On the Town on Broadway, among other era-defining musicals, and had steady work in theater, TV and movies for years; people know her from Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, though she’s in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and All the President’s Men and Jeremiah Johnson along with many others. She worked a lot with Robert Redford. George and Allyn Ann were both in The Actor’s Studio, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when all the cool people were there. Which basically means they knew everybody.
Matt didn’t care about any of that. Or rather: he admired it, and respected it, and was active in his appreciation of the fine things all that work had allowed for him, but he didn’t feel the call to do those things. It was what his parents had done; it was not an inevitability for him, not an entitlement he felt he owned. From George he’d gotten his height, his Dutch golden hair and straight back and courtly European manners; from Allyn Ann he’d gotten her Scottish passion and focus and capacity for quick anger at perceived injustice. The only movie I know him to be in is the opening-credits song in the Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret, a very funny Beach Boys surfing-USA spoof in which happy American teenagers surf and skeet-shoot at the same time. He’s one of the gun-toting surfers; it could well be him who appears to get off a shot before being crushed by a wave more than twice his size behind the Director of Photography credit. Maybe he had talent as an actor; certainly it was in his genes. All that can be said from this, which I believe is his only appearance in film, is that as an actor his surfing skills are impeccable.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Matt died in a car crash in India in 1989. Recently married (I was the best man at his wedding, earlier that year) he was traveling through Northern India to Nepal to film a kayaking special for ESPN. The moment that he died was weirdly pivotal: worlds were changing. Almost immediately after his death the Berlin Wall came down. He would have relished it, not being a man with much use for walls or the dictatorships behind them, whether left or right.
But as I learned when my mother died, the body at its final age is not the sum total of the person’s existence. The body is a husk, too wounded by age or illness or trauma to continue its usefulness. Being overly concerned about Matt’s death is uninteresting. He was here; he walked the rocks of Catalina and the hills of Central Park, air bent around him and water curled around the edges of his paddle. He made a mark.
And yes, he’s somewhere else. And so is my mother, and so are they all.
On the other side of time, I expect, but I don’t know. I don’t know.
Who was he? That’s for people who knew him to explain. In the coming months and years those explanations will be part of the thread of this blog.
And now you know the reason I named it Nantucket ’73.
For drug-addled stories of Matt and me acting fairly disgracefully as teenagers, go here:
The city has been awash this week in exuberant nostalgia for the Ed Sullivan Show-era Beatles, and I have found myself oddly delighted to be carried along in its tide. This weekend, while walking through midtown I came across this:
While I was taking the latter picture, a TV reporter and cameraman doing man-on-the-street interviews about The Beatles’ anniversary approached me, and I chatted with them. It turned out they were from Al Jazeera America, though I have no idea if they used the footage. They asked me what I felt about the Beatlemania moment, and I actually came up with something halfway intelligent, so I thought I’d expand it here.
One of the great joys of The Beatles is the complete lack of irony or cynicism in both their lyrics and their music. Consider the early songs: as Paul McCartney reminded us from the stage of the big televised 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday night, the first song he and John Lennon ever wrote together was I Saw Her Standing There (“How could I dance with another…”). I Want to Hold Your Hand seems quaint now, but its emotion is utterly honest—it does not sound like two songwriting professionals, one of them married, writing down for a teenage audience, it sounds like a personal moment being written, and perhaps relived, with absolute conviction.
And so it would stay with every album: the omniscient narrator in She’s Leaving Home (off Sergeant Pepper) sees the girl’s need to leave home as honestly as he sees the mother’s heartfelt response to her absence; there’s no cynicism about the mother, just a revealing comment that helps explain the daughter’s decision. She may be self-centered, but she cares enough to feel the moment sharply. This opposed to the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper, in which the mother’s response to the rather pedestrian realities of her life is to run to the doctor for more pills to numb her emotions, culminating in a prediction of her eventual overdose. A protest song, mildly, but irony and cynicism are undeniably part of the tools of its construction.
So: a universe of clear and unironic emotion came over on that Pan Am plane from England, 50 years ago. But part of the great fun of The Beatles of that era, before they retreated from public presentation and just concentrated on studio music, was how damn funny they were—and that humor is laced with irony and cynicism. (Moptop-era press conference. Reporter: “Do you think Ringo is the best drummer in the world?” John: “He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles!”) There is a lot of cultural frisson to be gained from this simultaneous juxtaposition of opposites, as Bob Dylan would be the first to tell you, were he in the mood. But transparently honest songcraft coupled with good looks and brutal insouciant wit doesn’t explain the screaming girls that gave a full-throated sob of joy and longing and recognition as the lads got off the plane at Kennedy, arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater, played their songs and left. The band were no strangers to Beatlemania, but their earlier singles had not charted as highly in the States as elsewhere. Given that, the cultural moment they walked into when they arrived in America was so big it took them by surprise. It turned out they were precisely the right people for the job—they needed America, and America, or at least an enormous slice of the American demographic—obviously needed them.
And, looking up at the facsimile scrim on the Ed Sullivan Theater last Sunday, on camera with Al Jazeera, I suddenly had a strong emotional recognition of something I’d previously only considered intellectually.
They played the Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. That’s less than three months after November 22, 1963. Kennedy gets assassinated in Dallas, and 80 days later America goes Beatle-mad.
Now, it’s not like pop stars hadn’t had screaming fans before—the bobby soxers at the Paramount didn’t exactly preserve decorum when Sinatra hit the stage. However, The Beatles’ Sullivan moment was big enough, and public enough, to be mystifying to the culture as a whole. (As related elsewhere in this blog, the night they were on Sullivan my maternal grandfather was utterly baffled by the phenomenon even as I wanted to be in the room with the television to see it.)
But there’s no mystery if you consider the screaming, crying, sobbing emotion unleashed by The Beatles in the light of an overdetermined reaction to the Kennedy assassination. America had just lost a young, charismatic President. The Beatles presented an opportunity for a convulsive national orgasm of sobbed joy, the life-affirming sex after the funeral. But beyond sex appeal they offered interpersonal humor in the service of songs of transcendent irony-free innocence. It’s hard not to be cynical about the world after a popular president is taken from us. But in The Beatles’ world, innocence was a given and cynicism an impossibility, and that was something to hold onto and scream.