THE PINK HIPPOPOTAMUS, THE FERRY GODMOTHER AND ILILI
DAVID KAPRALIK IN 1996
The day he gets out of the hospital from his third suicide attempt, Dave Kapralik is ready to try to snuff himself again. He's got nothing to live for. He hasn't had a good laugh since he hired a couple of squadrons to skywrite "OM" across the heavens over New York and L.A. That'd been between his second and his third suicide attempts. The way David used to talk about it, you couldn't buy that kind of happiness with money, but still the tab came to $15,000, including a picnic for several thousand which David threw in Central Park so he and his mystical friends could watch OM OM OM OM OM OM billowing like a computerized printout from the five planes in tight formation high overhead. As David explained at the time, Om is the universal word for peace even though it ended up smeared against the sky by the wind. David'd always been a mystic. He'd also been known to take a toot or two.
The chances are you've never heard of David, a small, slight, pixieish man who got his style as a carnival barker and used it to become one of the most powerful figures in the music business, a starmaker, vice president in charge of A&R at Columbia and Epic Records until he sold his CBS stock to finance the career of a young R&B genius then making better money as a pimp in the San Francisco ghetto. The genius' name was Sly Stone, who, with David's love, money and management, went on to psychedelicize soul music and become the legitimate father of disco. David got very rich, but playing Jewish mother to a black pimp left him thinking about what every Jewish mother thinks about when her only son doesn't call her anymore. Suicide.
As an old carny, Dave'd always been hyper anyway, the kind of guy who'd dance into a
The rumor that David had once stuck his head in an oven was just malicious gossip
business meeting, jump on a chair and scream out his pitch with the ecstasy of a prophet. The trouble was he had an ego as big as Sly's. He thought Sly would always stay his baby, but Sly grew to be too big a star to be cuddled anymore. There'd been a rumor that one time David'd stuck his head into an oven, but that was just malicious gossip. David'd never tried to kill himself with anything but an OD of nembutals. On the day he gets released from the hospital after having his stomach pumped for the third time in two years, David is ready to OD on nembutals again.
He can't get over Sly. They'd been so close. He's planted all his fantasies in Sly's basket, focused everything that ever happened in his life on his partnership with Sly. He's set himself up so that Sly has been able to walk away with all his joy. As for his money, David's made sure that no one's going to walk away with that. Still, losing Sly has soured everything in David's life, including his hottest romance. There is no thrill to the wind on David's face when he walks out of the hospital. The sunlight has no kick to it. He can't laugh any more. He can only think about his next OD.
He doesn't even know what year it is. Probably it's 1973. He is spaced, aimless. Nothing turns him on. Everything is hollow. Nothing holds his attention. Everywhere he turns he sees something to identify with his hurt. He looks for ways to pass the time until he's ready to OD again. He gets a letter, a phone call. His business manager has invested some of his money into a safari tourist park named Africa USA, located in Agoura, near Malibu Canyon. The park has gone bankrupt before it opens. There will never be any customers. David has lost his investment. But as an investor, he's entitled to go look at the animals in the park before they're sold at auction. He decides to take a ride to Africa USA.
It's the late afternoon. He walks alone through the failed acres, on a landscape picked because it's supposed to look like Kenya. He sees lions, giraffes, zebras, elephants, and all the animals he ever heard about since he was a baby, but none of them turn him on. He looks at them woodenly. He still wants to die. He is bored, tired. He wants to go home. The park is hilly. He is standing on some grass. Suddenly, he feels a force, an energy pulling his attention over his right shoulder. He turns his head and looks. There, on a knoll, standing enclosed within a low fence, is a baby girl hippopotamus, about 400 pounds.
David starts walking toward the hippo. He notices she is an albino. Her hide is white but the blood vessels show through, making her pink. He finds himself close enough to put his hand on her head. David has never seen a hippopotamus smile. The chances are hippopotamuses can't smile. But this one does. She lifts her head, looks at David and smiles. Then with a mouth giant enough to bite David's head off if she wasn't a vegetarian, she kisses him on the face.
This is ridiculous. How can a hippopotamus kiss a man on the face? Her lips go from here to there. David starts to laugh. From his belly, the spasms grab him. Alone on a knoll with a pink hippopotamus in bankrupt Africa USA, he's suddenly shaking with deep, explosive, uncontrollable laughter. He's forgotten what it's like to laugh, and now he's laughing harder than he's laughed in years, in his whole life. He didn't laugh this hard when the Oms belched across the sky. David has studied the Eastern religions. He knows that laughter is an Om itself, a mantra, the holy sound, massaging your energy with your own vibrations, tuning up your body with your own frequencies, the biogenetics of laughter. David laughs so hard, he falls on the ground. He hits his head on a rock, maybe, but that doesn't matter. Maybe he even takes a toot.
What happens next is magic. David knows he's seen the hippopotamus, that he's come to Africa USA in a reality he can at least share with the guard who let him in. But while David swears that this next part of his story is the literal truth, he knows it's in a reality of his own. Because when he finally recovers from laughing and opens his eyes, he sees, standing in front of him a beautiful vision of light, a lady who looks like Anais Nin but sounds like his Aunt Ester, with a Yiddish accent.
"Dovid" she says, using the Yiddish pronunciation for his name, "vat're ya trrrowing your life avay for, a nice young man like you?"
If you think the hippopotamus has cracked David up, forget about it. Now he really gets destroyed. He's already been rolling on the ground. Now he's reduced to whimpers. The lady gives him a look which tells him she knows which one of them is the fool.
"I'm Princess Lila," she says. "Don't ya know a ferry godmother ven ya see vun? Vat're ya trrrowing your life avay for?"
"Oy, vey!" says David. He can't believe this. Why should he even answer her? For months he's been crying in his bed, planning his death. Now he's got to explain himself to her?
"I don't wanna live!" he tells her. "I don't wanna live!"
He screams it out, trying to get frantic in the middle of his laughter, but for the first time in months, maybe years, he realizes he doesn't sound convincing.
"Vattya mean, ya don't vanna live? Who says ya gotta choice? Look, you're here. Make the best of it." She's very stern.
"What do you mean, make the best of it? I have made the best of it. I've had money, power, travel, the most beautiful women, stars, celebrities, the best restaurants, the best apartments, the best houses. I have made the best of it! I've had a CBS expense account! What do you mean, make the best of it? I don't wanna live!"
"Listen," says Princess Lila, quoting Bob Dylan. "Ven ya aint got nottink, ya aint got nottink to lose. Make a vish," and she starts singing, "Ven ya vish upon a starrrr..."
David looks at her.
"Go ahead!" she commands. "Make a vish!"
David glances at the sky. Sure enough, he sees the first star. "Well, gosh darn," he says. What do you do when a vision of light who says she's your fairy godmother commands you to make a wish? David is beginning to get confused. He wasn't confused when he got here. His mind was made up. He was going to kill himself.
"Go ahead," Princess Lila nags him. "Make a vish. Ya'd radder die? Vattya got to lose? You don't believe me? I'm your ferry godmother. Make a vish, schmuck!"
Okay. Why not? "If I could have my wish," David tells Princess Lila, "then despite the fact I haven't sung a note or danced a step in public since I was eight years old at the Jewish Community Center in Plainfield, New Jersey, I would find a partner who could play music and sing and dance with me and I would sing and dance with the young of heart all over the world!"
David is telling Princess Lila the truth now, his deepest darkest secret. Who else ever gets to be the manager of a successful entertainer but a frustrated ham? Why else does anyone go into the business of music except that he wishes he had the talent to play and sing himself? David looks at Princess Lila and blinks his eyes. In the moment of his blink, Princess Lila disappears.
David goes home remembering the story about the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and then woke up to wonder if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. A butterfly just out of the cocoon. He can't explain it, but he knows he doesn't want to kill himself any more. He also knows his wish will come true. It takes a while. Slowly, he starts writing songs. Understandably, they turn out to be children's songs:
You only have to whisper to an angel
You only have to purr in their ear
Once you've touched heart-to-heart
You are never apart, an angel is always near...
He's pushing 50. He gets deeper into metaphysics, studies of the mind, communication therapy. He goes to psychology conventions. He mingles with shrinks, philosophers, mystics, scholars of humanistic studies. He finds different places to stay. For a while he's in Guatemala, living in a little Indian village. The Mayan children pass by each morning. He smiles. They look at him suspiciously. He starts to talk with them. They don't understand a word. He starts to sing his songs to them. He also plays a few notes he's taught himself on the melodica. They want to know who he is. How's he ever going to get them to pronounce David Kapralik? He remembers a street sign that once blew his mind in a village on Maui. The street was named Ili Ili, the Hawaiian word for stone. David has loved that sound every since. He shortens it to Ilili. This will be his name. Ilili, he tells the children. Call me Ilili. Soon it becomes a ritual, the parade each morning that passes by David's house, the men pulling mules, the women with baskets on their heads and the children screaming, "Ilili! Ilili! Melodica! Melodica!"
A year or so later he's in Boston, studying at the Om Theatre Workshop. Everybody calls him Ilili now. In Boston he bumps into a young counselor for the emotionally disturbed whom he'd met at a psychology convention in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The kid's in his twenties. His name is Jim Dellemonico. He comes to David's house to scrape the floors and shellac them. David lends him money. Jim pays him back. David is surprised. Nobody in the music business ever paid him back. They talk more. David tells Jim about his songs. Jim is secretly practicing guitar. They start rehearsing together. They play a gig for children in the school system at North Adams, Massachusetts, with David wearing Guatemalan glad rags, a full white beard on his face, singing and dancing like an elfin Danny Kaye:
It's all a magic mirror
the nearer, the dearer, the clearer you see
That I am you and you are me ...
Jim changes his name to Hime. They now both know that this is what they're going to do. They call their act Hime Ilili. They begin to play free, at pediatric hospitals, senior citizen centers, schools for the emotionally disturbed, street festivals, humanist conventions, health symposiums, singles nights, EST meetings. They begin to make a name for themselves. They become known among therapists teaching individual and social transformation through the performing arts. There is a science to what they are doing. A course in Ilili studies opens up at Goddard College in Vermont.
Bump into David today and he prefers you call him Ilili. With his beard and his clothes, he looks like a cross between a clown and a guru. He rehearses every day. His bookings are increasing. And he is always laughing. His laughs well up from deep in his gut, maniacal bubbles of mirth, when he tells his story.
"And so," he says, "Ilili is a blooming nut. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. Because a nut is a seed from which a bush grows. And from a bush comes Ilili," and then he starts singing:
It's all a cosmic folly, so why not be jolly
And join in the cosmic flow
Take a jet plane, a back pack, a VW van, a San Francisco trolley
Just follow your folly
It's the only way to go...
"You know," he adds, "I lost all the money I sank into Africa USA. But it was the best investment I ever made. ## (Copyright © 1978 Al Aronowitz)
Looking forward to the next 70 years of his life, David Kapralik, now living in Haiku on Maui in Hawaii, told he me in October of 1996 that had just returned from a trip to the mainland to visit Jim, his erstwhile partner, aka Hime, on what David characterized as "a rescue mission."
"Hime, for many years, was performing our songs in the California school system," David explained, "but with four kids to raise, including my godson, it was kind of tough making it as a performer in the school system. He has a degree in psychology, and so he has become a crisis counselor. He and his wife and the four kids are living in Manitou Springs Colorado, where he's out there still dealing with all manner of sadness and he's kind of had a case of `caseload burnout.'
"But he does give programs for the Colorado State Mental Health Association, giving him some kind of avenue for his creative expression and for our songs. So, we continue to collaborate and he balances his daily rigors with performing.
"He and his then-fiancee were living here in Maui about the mid-eighties and we were performing around here. But the two of them wanted to live on the mainland and raise a family. So, they got married, went back to the mainland, subsequently had four children and that's what their direction is."
Left on Maui without his performing partner, David, "after a lot of introspection," turned toward agriculture and started "putting together" a flower farm and tropical fruit and nut orchard. He also created a mail order business, selling 15 or 16 varieties of fruit and nuts from his orchard plus the harvest from his flower farm, on which he grew a flower he called Protea, which he described as a large tropical beauty that flourishes in Hawaii.
"There are fifteen hundred varieties of Protea," David said. "The reason it's called Protea is from the God, Proteus, who changed his face or his look at will in an infinite variety of ways. This flower has an infinite number of variations, it seems."
David said he now has leased out his farm but still continues his mail order business while aging "as consciously as I can." He still thinks that the money he sank into Africa USA was the best investment he ever made. ##
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