The Collins Menace
The details are a little spotty, but, back in the 70’s, I recall seeing an old Night Gallery episode where this evil guy puts a rare lethal earwig into the auditory canal of his sleeping enemy. The poor victim learns that this bug will now burrow its way through his brain, causing excruciating pain, until it reaches his other ear. What follows are many scenes of the man writhing in agony in a dark bedroom. Though apparently no one has ever lived through such torture, somehow the man survives. His moment of triumph is short-lived, however, when he learns that the thing that just tunneled through his head was pregnant.
I remembered this dark little episode one day while watching the coming-attractions trailer for Disney’s Tarzan on my son’s well-viewed videocassette copy of A Bug’s Life . Not long after the boilerplate F.B.I. warning dissolved from the screen did my breathing become labored with raw fear. There on screen, straddling an upside-down trash can, was my own personal lethal earwig … former Genesis front man and solo artist, Phil Collins.
I sat paralyzed, awaiting the overcompensating sonic whomp of Mr. Collins’ drumming and his tinny voice mewling earnest lyrics. As they played over a montage of animated shots from the movie, my palms began to sweat.
I thought I had heard the last of Phil Collins. I thought that the 1980’s and even part of the 90’s had been my dark bedroom period spent writhing to countless radio stations’ “rock blocks” and “Two-fer Tuesdays” featuring songs from post-Peter Gabriel Genesis and Mr. Collins’ solo albums. It was a time when every perusal of the Elvis Costello section in a record store meant a queasy encounter with Mr. Collins’ squinty eyes peering out at me from his latest album cover. (Didn’t they all feature closeups of his face?) Occasionally, I found myself blurting out the nonsensical titles of Mr. Collins’ work, like some sort of Tourette’s syndrome sufferer. “Su-su-sudio!” I yelled out in a deli once after gazing at the counterman’s Collinsesque curl of hair. And once at a very swank restaurant I unleashed a string of Abacab’s for no reason at all.
Even when I sought to escape the sounds in my head by turning on the TV, there would be Mr. Collins on MTV or Friday Night Videos mugging for the cameras–intent on showing the world just how hard he would work to sell millions of records to millions of stupid people.
Remember when he performed at the 1985 Live Aid concert in London, then boarded the Concorde so that he could arrive in Philadelphia in time to play drums in the U.S. version of the same concert? That was not a good day for me.
Indeed, the next 10 years would be touch and go, as Mr. Collins racked up single after single and even starred in a stinky 1988 movie called Buster (to which he also wrote the soundtrack). One wrong twist of the radio dial back then and I was like a cab driver with a traffic ticket: The day was wasted.
I hung my survival on one hope. The cycles of Fame had become increasingly short. My lethal earwig, Mr. Collins, had to be reaching the end of his journey. When he included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on 1996’s Dance Into the Light , I took it as a sign, albeit a very painful one.
Then I had a breakthrough. In 1997, I was in the local Blockbuster when I came across a copy of Against All Odds . I stood there imagining Rachel Ward naked in some hot, sandy place and then I waited for that treacly piano line from Mr. Collins’ theme song to ruin the image. Nothing happened, not even a few bars of “A Groovy Kind of Love.” “Su-su-sudio!” I crowed at the sullen video store staff, but this time I was laughing as I said it.
Two years later, I can hardly believe my eyes. Just those few video images of Mr. Collins drumming a garbage can and mugging for the Tarzan promo-cam brought back the head pains. I reached protectively for my child, but he ignored me.
“Oooh, Daddy. Look, Tarzan!” he said.
The lethal earwig would not make me its host a second time. No, it had something much more diabolical in mind. Good Lord, the children!
The Queen and I
To perform, Steven Polito does himself up in drag and becomes … Hedda Lettuce. Hedda Lettuce is a nice girl. Not too bad-looking, either. Watching Miss Lettuce perform at the Solo Arts Group the other night, I thought I saw a little Tina Louise in his face, with maybe some Joan Collins thrown in.
Soon enough, I was in Mr. Polito’s apartment on West 24th Street. He was still in the fancy getup: red wig, pink wrap dress, high heels.
“My father used to tell me this story, I don’t know why. My father was looking into the baby viewing area–he’s behind that glass looking to see which son is his, where is his child, right? Looking. And finally the nurse points out his baby. It’s me, and I happened to be terribly discolored, this purplish blue color. And my father goes, ‘What an ugly baby! I don’t want it!’ All of a sudden, there’s a tap on his shoulder. He turns around to see this woman in a full-length fur coat, with a very sad look on her face, and she goes, ‘If you don’t want your baby, I’ll take it. I just lost mine.’ Now, when I was younger, it hurt me. When I got older, I thought, ‘You should have given me to the fucking lady! At least she had style!'”
I examined his bookshelf. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis . Singapore Stud . A book of poetry by the singer Jewel. “It’s great comedy,” Mr. Polito said. “I hate Jewel. I despise Jewel. I hate Jewel. Got all the money in the world, she can’t fix her fucking tooth ? I’d hate to be the man she’s going down on. It’s like a cheese grater!”
Oh, look: The Denial of Death , by Ernest Becker.
“Oh my God. I read it when I was depressed. The idea that we’re just wasting time, just trying to fill the time until we die, and we’re trying to avoid the fact that we’re going to die by filling it with all this … shit.”
He decided to walk his bichon frisé , Eddie, while still in drag. “This is going to be a hoot,” he said.
“Anything piss you off?” I asked, once we were outside.
“Clinton bothers me excessively. I can’t look at that man without thinking, What a piece of shit. Monica Lewinsky bothers me, because she could suck cock and get invited to the Oscars. I suck cock and go on antibiotics.”
We strolled past the Gay Men’s Health Crisis offices.
“Another thing I hate, by the way, is Lifetime Television. I hate it! They always have these titles– She Was Abused and Battered and She Has Breast Cancer , starring Valerie Bertinelli. All those profiles on what’s-her-fucking name, Victoria Principal! I know too much about this woman! Kill me now!”
We talked about things we loved. “Ever have a hot fudge brownie delight from Dairy Queen?” I asked.
“No, but it sounds fucking delicious. And I love pizza! I can eat seven slices in one sitting and then go into a dairy coma instantly. I love sex.”
We walked back toward his place. Someone yelled, “Wow!” from a passing car. The bichon pooped and Miss Lettuce cleaned up. Up ahead, there was a man seated in a parked BMW.
“He’s always there. He was there last night.”
“Is he going to kill us?”
“No, but I wonder if he’s a masturbator.”
Sure enough, the guy in the BMW was wearing only a T-shirt … and he was getting busy.
“Why’s he doing that?”
“Because he can. He’s living life to the fullest. You’re judging, you’re judging. You’re jealous because you wish you could be sitting in that BMW jerking off and having the freedom–yes, you do!”
Back in the apartment, we sat at the kitchen table, eating cookies.
“Ever had a homosexual experience?”
“You’ve never had a guy blow you? Never in a drunken stupor, ever ? I don’t believe you! I don’t believe you! It’s happened to almost everybody. Everybody has!”
The doorbell rang and three of Mr. Polito’s roommates and a couple other guys came in.
“We’ve been having sex since you left! Oh, God–sex and eating cookies! I’ve got six cookies in me and I’m feeling sexy !”