love and death on Santa Monica Pier

By a complete accident of birth — I was 11 when Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer came out — my idea of the mystery of adult romantic love was formed in large part by this song. The movie was a flop, and I really only remember two things about it: this song, playing (in my memory, at least) during a scene of Neil Diamond walking dejectedly on a beach; and Lawrence Olivier’s beguiling accent (the same one, as far as I can tell, that Olivier had used, a couple years before in Marathon Man, for a very different kind of character).

It just turns out: the late ’70s and early ’80s were brimming with very complex (for pop songs) pop songs about the other side of love, and if you were a kid growing up to that music, it made figuring out the mysteries of adulting all the more vexing. I, personally, had no idea what genitals were for until about the age of 26, so the mystery for me was truly vast. And given my “sentimental education” — a steady diet of ’70s and 80s pop culture — I think I can be forgiven for assuming breaking up was an organic part of love’s life-cycle. (Isn’t it, though? This may or may not have become a self-fulfilling prophecy later in life.)

Why do certain songs just keep playing in our heads, and playing out in our lives? The appeal of this one will likely be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t in that impressionable window when it was in heavy rotation. That’s how pop radio works — or used to, before the age of Spotify. The endless repetition was, of course, for the purpose of selling as many albums as possible before the hook got played out. “Love on the Rocks” was #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in January 1981, behind “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon. It was in heavy rotation before disappearing into oblivion.

The song is tethered in mysterious ways, as they often are, to other memories. I was thinking yesterday about Santa Monica Pier. It’s a place with mythical qualities for me. I was trying to think when was the first time I was there. When I was doing my bicoastal relationship a few years ago, my boyfriend, who lived a few blocks from the beach, would never deign to go there — too déclassé. So I would go alone when he was at work, often after dropping into the Camera Obscura, where they eventually knew me by name, and just revel with the rabble.

Later, during another visit, I would spend an afternoon on the pier with my aunt, and the famous dog trainer and his family she had lovingly stalked for years, in the hopes of just such an afternoon with them. She had her own long ago bittersweet memories of the pier that now, facing her end of life, she wanted to revisit. Not all ghosts are invisible. Some are places that remain without us, within us. I remember her shy smile on one of the janky rides as nostalgia gave way to a moment of joy in the now. The rides were so rickety, and clearly not made for today’s adults, you couldn’t help but feel a giddy sense of staring down death, but in the most joyfully ridiculous way. (Like: “am I really going to die on this cheap-ass ride on Santa Monica Pier on a sunny Sunday afternoon?” It’s always a very real possibility.)

Those rickety rides and the cheap tourist attractions hearkened back to something deep in my mythic memory. Surely I had visited there before dating J. And then it came to me: Santa Monica Beach must have been a quick and easy location to shoot in the ’70s and ’80s. Again: accidents of birth. Scenes from the beach figure in the opening credits of Three’s Company, a sitcom that ran from ’77 to ’84, that was set in Santa Monica. And this morning I realized there was a Santa Monica Pier scene in The Jazz Singer. (It also appears in episode 20 of season 2 of Charlie’s Angels — “The Sandcastle Murders” — in February of ’78, and in Rocky III in ’82, Forrest Gump in ’94, and on and on.)

You know, Rochefoucauld, the famous French aphorist once wrote: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.” But how we hear about it, well, the aphorist, who lived in the 17th century, never imagined ’70s pop radio or sitcom television.

There’s a story about Gustav Mahler, the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, from Jonathan Carr’s 1998 biography:

Around the corner from the theatre was a barracks from which Mahler must first have heard the sound of trumpet calls and marches. Perhaps he even saw troops setting off for the slaughter at Koniggratz or the wounded returning with the Prussians at their heels. At any rate from very early on martial music filled him with mingled fascination and fright. When he was about three he trotted out of the house, dressed only in his shirt, and clutching an accordion, and was drawn away Pied Piper-like by a passing military band. He got lost and bystanders agreed to take him home only when he played them the tune he had heard from the soldiers. Around the same time his fine ear won Mahler a less admiring audience at the newly built synagogue (razed by the Nazis in 1939). Vexed by what struck him as the ugly noise made by the congregation, he bawled for silence and, to his mother’s horror, broke into his favourite street song–a ditty partly in polka rhythm about a wayfarer dancing wildly at an inn. Meanwhile he was beginning to compose. His first known piece was a polka preceded by a funeral march.

There is no way to disentagle this mysterious wafting and wending of memories. Freud famously tried with Mahler. Carr goes on:

Freud … made a stab at analysing Mahler during a few hours’ stroll round the Dutch town of Leiden in 1910. The outcome was predictable. Freud concluded that Mahler had a Holy Mary complex (mother fixation) and unearthed an early incident which seemed to explain much about the character of Mahler’s work. Mahler is said to have remembered that after a `specially painful scene’ between his parents, he ran out of the house and heard a passing barrel organ grinding out a popular tune, `Ach, du lieber Augustin’. Hence, we are told, the stark contrast between the tragic and the banal became fixed in his mind for life. According to Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, Mahler even `suddenly said that now he understood why his music had always been prevented from achieving the highest rank through the noblest passages … being spoilt by the intrusion of some commonplace melody.’

I have long feared that, as punishment for these accidents of birth, the last tune I’ll hear before dying will be the theme from “Three’s Company.” But “Love on the Rocks” would work, too.

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