Longform

Double Trouble

Page 4 of 7

Such a comparison comes naturally to Marvin, who has serious writerly aspirations. Pieces penned by him have appeared in numerous small political magazines and on computer discs put out by a now-defunct company, Chicago's Spectrum Press, and he's in the midst of seeking a publisher for what he refers to as "an experimental crime novel" --experimental because it has no punctuation. He seems to seek out the edge, then boldly leap over it. "I've always had a fascination with petty criminals, thieves, death and violence," he acknowledges, and Second Skin, a collection of poetry issued by Spectrum in 1996, backs him up. Dedicated to "Charles Starkweather, Joseph McCarthy, Joseph Stalin, and all other small-time punks waiting in the dark," the volume presents stanzas dripping with resentment, gore and guilt. Typical is "Until Sunup":

Thoughts of punching you in the face my fist balled up
my tongue dancing touching and tasting your blood
nibbling at your lower lip ruby red and swollen
salt from your tears of misunderstanding
brought on by something coiled tight and hot
inside me yelling to me to act it out right now
instead I listen to the calm in your voice
grab you and hold you safe again
until sunup

For Marvin, emotions like these can be traced to his youth, which he discusses in terms that reflect years of psychotherapy. He was born in Los Angeles, he says, but for the most part grew up in conservative Orange County, California, where he relocated when he was four or five; he's bad with dates. The move was precipitated by the divorce of his mother, who later was employed by an upscale chain of fashion stores, and his father, Stuart Cohen, a talent agent whose clients included actors Valerie Harper, John Savage, Martin Sheen and Sally Kellerman. Marvin claims to have only one memory left of Cohen: "I remember that he came to the house once over the holidays and looked uncomfortable. After that, I never saw him again." He learned of his father's death in 1975 via a phone call from Harper, who offered to fly him to California from Texas, where he was living at the time, to attend the funeral--"but I couldn't go. I was too mad."

His mother remarried, but her new husband, a building contractor that Marvin has dubbed "Pol Pot," did not become his dream dad. "My stepfather spent every waking hour telling me how stupid I was," he says. "Anything creative I'd do was wrong." His relationship with his siblings--two step-sisters and a half-sister, all of whom he speaks about unflatteringly--was nearly as tortured, he says, and his undiagnosed mental condition ensured that reconciliation was not an option. "I never became especially violent," he recalls. "I'd become moody, or I'd become manic."

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Marvin was heavily into self-medication. "You name the drug and I did it," he says. "I even snorted heroin. And I drank. I'd do things like going to the dinner table on acid, because I couldn't handle my family. In short, I was just very hostile and didn't fit in--and I hated my household. My mission in life was to get out of there."

Radio salved these wounds. He fell in love with the medium as a kid; he waxes rhapsodic about listening to the late Bob Crane, who was a disc jockey for KNX-AM in L.A. before he starred in Hogan's Heroes. His perspective broadened during his early teens, when he was given a shortwave radio strong enough to pick up Radio Havana. "I fell in love with Cuba and Marxism," he says. "I was probably the only thirteen-year-old in Orange County who could raise his hand in class and tell you who the finance minister of Cuba was."

In 1973 Marvin made a demo tape that landed him a gig playing country music at a station in Del Rio, Texas. But the job was only a pit stop; he skipped from one lousy job to another throughout the decade. During the same period, he married a woman as dedicated to substance abuse as he was, and although the relationship produced a daughter, Rachel, who's now twenty years old and living in Texas, Marvin remained desperately unhappy. Divorce helped, but not enough.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts