Friday, November 7, 2014

What We Think About When We Think About Sex: the out-of-print writings of Allan Sherman (part 2 of two)

Now I move on to the moment where Allan Sherman truly became “My Son, the Author.” While his 1965 autobiography A Gift of Laughter was reportedly ghostwritten – yet many sections are clearly Sherman's own opinions and wording – his second, and sadly last, book, The Rape of A*P*E* (American Puritan Ethic), The Official History of the Sex Revolution 1945-1973, subtitled “The Obscening of America, An R*S*V*P* Document (Redeeming Social Value Pornography)” (1973), was his own work from start to finish.

The first thing that distinguishes the book is its length. Rarely does a “new” humorist come up with a nearly 500-page book that tries to both chronicle and mock the history of mankind. Toward the end of the book, Allan notes that he's been writing it for two and a half years. This isn't surprising, given that he clearly assembled (perhaps aided by interns or assistants?) mountains of info that he could use as fodder for sharp points and jokes about American hypocrisy.

By the late Sixties, Sherman's musical career was at a dead end. He had relationship and health problems, and was undergoing an identity crisis. He shed his trademark glasses and attempted to lose weight (the former worked out better than the latter). He grew a beard and was attempting to reinvent himself as a social satirist. A*P*E* indicates that he was a very talented humor writer, but his health problems got the better of him – he died two months after its publication at the age of 49.

The book charts the progress of Western civilization from the caveman (a simple, primal being that Allan calls “Sap,” short for “homo sapiens”) to the sexual revolution that Sherman dates as having occurred from 1945-'73. His introduction to the concept is terrific: 

[pp. 8-9, paperback edition] If anything is fun, Thou Shalt Not;

If anything feels good, Thou Shalt Not;

If anything is natural, or promises to give pleasure, or even relief,

Thou Shalt Not. Thou Shalt Not. Thou Shalt Not.

Thus the APE turned us all into liars and hypocrites.

The APE made us ashamed of our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings.

The APE robbed us of certain inalienable rights, and among these rights were sex, nudity and the pursuit of horniness.

The APE was always with us — in the street, in the office, in the living room; it haunted every bedroom and hovered in every toilet. The APE’s most effective work was done inside our very souls, in those dark unexplored places we still call by mystical icon-names like id and libido and superego, and other such mumbo-jumbo. Deep down there, each American came to believe that he or she was dirty and worse — that everyone else was clean and wholesome.....

[p. 12] And so in the quest of human intercourse, it became necessary to overthrow the APE.

What followed was the American Sex Revolution, certainly the most lunatic episode since man crawled out of the primeval ooze. Legions of Lolitas joined the battle with battalions of Babbitts and platoons of Portnoys. Manners and moral and great institutions bit the dust. Waterbeds splashed and vibrators jiggled. And when the air was cleared, people were calling it The Great Fire-Happening, because the world was never going to be the same again. No one knew exactly how, but Western civilization had been caught with its pants down. This book documents the whole ridiculous experience in a hurry — before we all wake up and start denying it really happened.

The youth culture of the late Sixties and early Seventies stirred Allan. He clearly responded to its honesty and also its sexual freedom (he had discussed his obsession with sex in his autobiography). The Vietnam War was so repellent to him that he felt motivated to speak directly to college students around the country (see below).

He also reveled in the fact that he was freed from the constraints that ruled his novelty-music career. A*P*E finds him discussing the sex act quite openly as “fucking.” He remained conservative in one regard, though – he clearly loathed rock music. On the other hand, he embraced the changes in comedy that were brought about by Lenny Bruce.

Two pages from A*P*E* scanned by the Enso On blog.
A*P*E isn't a “dirty book,” it's a well-structured, intelligent, and resolutely moral satire of American hypocrisy. Interestingly Mark Cohen, the author of the new Sherman bio Overweight Sensation, claims that “the middle section of the book is funny," but that the opening and closing portions are full of “hot air.”

I would argue that the sentimental and Utopian passages that Cohen dislikes are of a piece with the rest of the book – if you're imagining the world through the view of a caveman, it's not inconsistent to then be wistful about the possibility of love in sex, however corny it may sound.

The bulk of the book is concerned with sex, but Allan also tackles war, religion, education, the devaluation of women, parents putting down the youth culture, and (my favorite) the American addiction to “things”: 

[pp. 226-227] American technology produces trillions of odds and ends, curios, whatnots, gadgets, bric-a-brac, trinkets, notions, gewgaws. There is no scientific name for this incredible conglomeration of unrelated objects, except — Things. 

The Game consisted of making, buying, selling, and/or consuming Things. Things were never out of the American mind, even in the ceremonial greeting, “Hello, How are Things?”

Children were imbued from infancy with a lifetime goal: Try to get all the Things. Adults realized this was impossible; to them, it was important to be first to acquire a new Thing. If a family was successful in acquiring at least one of each Thing, its members turned to collecting the most of one Thing.

Some Americans collected only brand-new Things, discarding them at the first sign of wear. Others preferred old Things, used for 100 year or more, with enough cracks and bruises to be called “distressed.” To some Americans it was important to possess big Things; others took special pride in owning miniature Things….

A big portion of the book follows the Everyman caveman “Sap” and his mate “Lala.” This part of the book is much, much better than it sounds, since it allows Allan to ridicule our most sacred institutions by viewing them from the perspective of a simple, uncomplicated individual.

In the best section of the story of “Sap,” the caveman encounters a figured named “Dawg-muh” who outlines to him the different kinds of actions that humans undertake (“dassendooz” “shoodnadunnits” “fessups”) that require them to confess and pledge allegiance to the dubious moral code that is religion.

After he becomes acquainted with religion, “Sap” learns about the ways that countries must fight to the death over a plot of land, and how one can “own” property but there are many things one can't get away with on one's property: 

[p. 180-81] Fuck on your private front porch.

Walk around naked on your private lawn.

Plant marijuana in your private garden.

Sell or rent your private property to any of the following:

A hippie commune, an abortion clinic, a Methadone treatment center, a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous or Synanon, the Church of Satan, a black family, a mixed (black and white) family, a Spanish-speaking family.

Make a gift of your property to Fidel Castro, to do with as he wishes.

Try to give it to a friendly government like England.

When the tax assessor comes around, tell him you're starting your own country on your land and that from now he'll have to pay you taxes.

The book is a very funny one, but Sherman clearly also had a serious purpose. At one point, in talking about “the new violence” in the U.S., he discusses battered children. Here he uses his old friend from A Gift of Laughter, italics. He notes that his editor didn't like the “sudden complete change of tone. It isn't funny.” Allan's answer is that “life was still funny, but a different kind of funny. On November 22, 1963, America entered the What-the-Hell era, and real life became indistinguishable from black humor.

A few pages earlier, before discussing the American love of guns, he offers the formula that begat the Warren Commission: “When confused, try to bring everybody else to your level of confusion. Appoint a commission and while they study the problem for a year, make sure everybody will forget the whole thing. Then, to make sure nobody gets too clear a picture of what happened, arrange for the most important evidence to be locked up for 75 years.”

The most interesting thing about the book is the way that Sherman (who was 46-49 at the time he was writing the book) indicts his age group and sides with the youth culture. Early on in A*P*E*, he coincidentally uses the later Tom Brokaw encomium about those who served in WWII by calling that same group “the greatest generation of hypocrites.” He maintains that the hypocrisy existed for the most part because “we were jealous of our own children.”

He refers to attending school as “your daily penance for being a child.” He also wryly notes how kids wise up to the lies told in advertisements: “ABSOLUTELY FREE, the coupon says – but the small print says you have to spend four dollars to get the 'free' prize. The 'giant' malts at the drugstore are served in glasses with fake bottoms. The candy bars made to look an inch longer by the cardboard inside the wrapping.” He begins the section: “By the time you're a teenager you've been had a thousand times.”

He zeroes in on one mythic figure of the post-war period, Sonny Wisecarver, a teenager who had a series of sexual affairs (and marriages) with older wives/moms who left their husbands for him. Allan includes a quote from the judge who was examining the 16-year-old Wisecarver's records before he married him to a 25-year-old who left her husband for him. The judge called him “an incorrigible sexual delinquent,” but added, “You've won your spurs as a man.”

I've been emphasizing the more serious side of Sherman's social criticism in this review, because A*P*E* does indeed stand as a fascinating reflection of the time in which it was written (and the thoughts of a comedian who was striking out in a new direction).

I noted when talking about Sherman's autobiography A Gift of Laughter that he identified with sad and lonely people. Here he discusses the honesty and strangeness of personal ads (“I am a male who is female and I want a female who is male. No men. Tom. PO Box XXX, Pasadena Calif.”). He concludes this section by declaring “Now at last we could gauge the range of the American Dirty Mind – and estimate the unfathomable depth of loneliness in America.”

I will close out with perhaps my favorite concept in the book, one that Allan calls “thinkery-fuckery.” in his first discussion of it he emphasizes “how difficult it is to stop thinking.” He asks the reader to set aside the book and try for ten seconds not to think of a zebra. He then says that that will be all we will think about, in an effort to show how impossible it is to stop thinking while having sex.

Much later in the book he returns to “thinkery-fuckery” to examine the “subtle gradations” of what we think about while we're having sex. Naturally the notion of specific tastes come into play: 

[pp. 314-315] If you are on the receiving end of one of these specialized fucks, you have to suddenly ask yourself: “Why is he/she fucking me? Is it my tits, my money, my membership in the Bel-Air Golf Club?” Whatever it is, it isn't you. Once you begin to realize that people find your tits attractive, you react in one of two ways: Either you go around pushing your tits in everybody's face, or you try to hide them, hoping that someone will see some of your other marvelous qualities. 

Unfortunately specialization has a way of becoming even more specialized. Soon people will fall in love with you because of your left nostril, or the fact that you own a 1913 Liberty-head nickel, or because you can sing “I Wish I Was in Dixie” in perfect Swahili.

He then offers a list of “specialists” who can't stop thinking about the type of people they're fucking. One of the best entries is called “statisticians”: 

[p. 316] Some people enjoy measurements; their pleasure comes from the arithmetic of fucking: the size of partner's sex organs, the precise timing, the angle of entry. I know an attractive young woman who is a member of Mensa, an organization restricted to people in the top two percent of intelligence. One night she ran in all excited and said, 'Last night I laid a man who made 302 strokes!' Another Mensa looked at her and said, 'You weren't fucking, darling. You were counting.'"

A*P*E* is both a fascinating time capsule and a very funny – and, yes, sorta wistful – history of attitudes towards sex in the post-war period. It is indeed sad that Allan kicked off just as a second career seemed to be opening up for him.

Here are a few great related videos. Although Sherman's comedic songs were all “rated G,” some of them jibe perfectly with his views in A*P*E*. For instance, the tale of an ex-urbanite couple, “Harvey and Sheila” (especially the line about the moment the couple “switched to the GOP/that’s the way things go…”). The song starts at 13:49.

This is the most pertinent clip, but sadly it's also the least funny. It's audio of Allan speaking at UCLA in late 1970. He speaks about the Vietnam War and gets into a rather lengthy routine about “Agnew-grams” – short statements that reflect the narrow views of then-Vice-Pres Spiro Agnew (presumably the funny part is that Allan is switching around letters on a screen to make the words... but we can't see that...):

A much sillier and shorter clip, Sherman on a variety show doing “Secret Code” (his variation on “Secret Love”):

Even snappier, here he is on The Hollywood Palace singing “Crazy Downtown” and dueting with host Tony Randall on “One Hippopotami”:

There are a few other pertinent clips, including Sherman doing a campaign song for Lyndon Johnson at a rally – one assumes that, like many others, he felt sold out by LBJ. Also, a tune from a later album by Allan, his spoof of “Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (as I noted above, he couldn't deal with rock, since he disliked it so much).

The piece of music he released that has the most to do with the opinions he expresses in A*P*E* is his variation on “Peter and the Wolf,” Peter and the Commissar. This album is not included in the big Rhino box set of Sherman's music, because it was recorded for a different label (RCA Red Seal). Recorded with the Boston Pops, the piece expresses his loathing for bureaucracy and conformity. It's a charming piece, mostly because it is so unabashedly emotional (according to his autobiography, he took its creation very seriously).

Note: this blog entry is intended as a enthusiastic review of a book that has been out of print for four decades at the time of writing. If the Sherman family or other rights holders have any objections, contact me at the Media Funhouse site.

No comments: