Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Week in Coincidences

Warning: The following is way more like a regular blog than usual. Full of bla-bla-bla about my life, without the rich detail you've come to expect. But the coincidences and some of the dumb comedy impelled me to put it all down.

Last Friday night at dinner at my cousins' house, I narrowly avoided being the only adult at the children's table -- how this still happens to me I'll never know. I ended up at the grownups' table after all, between a small, spritely man with white hair and a quiverful of forced puns and, on my left, a striking brunette with an easy smile and a small Band-aid on her eyebrow. The gent and I had already spoken before dinner, so as he carried on with the woman on his right, I engaged in chitchat with the Band-aid woman. She has five kids -- four with husband the first and one with Mr. Right Now -- but that wasn't what made her so very interesting. No, what made for a highly engaged conversation was the fact that we'd gone to high school together. It sort of came up naturally, and once it did -- and the fact that we'd been there at the same time -- we had plenty to discuss. Neither of us remembered the other, though her maiden name sounded familiar, but we'd both been fans of Jos. Hoppenbrouwers, a stern yet intensely caring and funny Belgian man who used to teach French at our school. He was a sort of secret treasure, and L and I both delighted in finding someone else who had recognized that. We promised to be in touch and of course nothing's come of it, but it was fun while it lasted. Viva Manhattan.

The next night, I had dinner at another cousin's house, way downtown on Grand St., where I met an Israeli filmmaker who's met my Israeli filmmaker pal Anat Zuria. Her husband thinks he knows my pediatrician friend MC (whose book I should be working on right now), because they're both North African-French Jews, and apparently that's a pretty tight-knit little world here in NYC. These two live in Williamsburg, and MC is opening up the first Manhattan-émigré-friendly pediatric clinic in Williamsburg ... do I sense a match here? I made the introduction.

You've already read about Saturday night in these pixels earlier. Circle Line, etc. Glimmer glimmer whoosh. Blogging under the influence. There was this one disturbing image in Times Square, which is rife with disturbances on a Saturday night.

(Apologies for the phonecam image quality.) Times Square makes my old Hollywood Blvd. stomping grounds look like kid stuff. The chief distinction is that Hollywood Blvd. is rarely home to hundreds of armed cops and marshals, all of whom seem to be standard-issue after dark in Times Square. I walked past this scene at about midnight, and the same guy was still on the sidewalk a half-hour later. By then he was horizontal, and the crowd was a little bigger. No coincidences.

Sunday the bike broke in Central Park. Later, I met my most fun friends, the Minneapolitans, at the karaoke bar. As usual, all their friends were fun, lively artists too. After I shredded my throat channeling a Neanderthal in rut on "Baby Hold On," one of them, a bona fide perfessional musician, asked, "Dude, what do you do? Are you a singer? You have a great voice." That made it all worth it. Even if I could barely hold a note for two days. Creativity through adversity. Arbeit macht frei.

Speaking of Arbeit, on Monday I put in a full day at the office, then met an editor for dinner. No coincidences. No rich comedy. See previous post for details.

Tuesday I worked again and then met a friend for happy hour at Sapa, followed by a return visit to the karaoke bar at 2nd and 2nd. That was no coincidence either. That was when I hit myself in the nose with a microphone. That was the sake talking. It didn't hurt, so I barely noticed it. Except for all the blood. Blood, blood everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Blood on my hands, blood on my shirt, blood on her shirt -- Jesus, I was geysering blood and all I wanted to do was get back to the music. So I excused myself for a moment.

In the bathroom, trying to wash off the affected area, I couldn't stop laughing at the size of the contusion. How could such an innocuous little tap cause such dermal mayhem? Blood clotting, we went back to the music. Later, when I got home, I found that the mike's screen had left a swastika-like grid imprinted deep on the bridge of my nose. I thought to make it less conspicuous by applying a Band-aid, but the only Band-aids in my cabinet were "Grinch"-branded tie-ins -- bright green with Sneetches on them. Each one says “Official movie merchandise.”

The Band-aid is both comical and intensely stupid-looking, an effect which only grows richer when I try to explain what happened. In fact, I like my green Band-aid so much I may keep wearing it after the wound is gone. Chicks dig it. The hard part is making the incident sound anything but pathetic. Which it is. Why fight it? One woman -- the tall, glammy neighbor with whom I shared a cab to JFK three weeks ago (when it turned out we were both taking the same flight to Minneapolis!) -- laughed in my face in the lobby two days ago and said, "You have to come up with something better than that!"

Well, I'll see what I can do. Nobody believes me when I say I had a nose job. Or got into a fight. Maybe I'll say I left it on the grindstone too long.

OK, back to the coincidences. Thursday evening, I was riding my newly repaired bike past my friend P's mom's building on 96th Street. I was thinking, "Hey, that's P's mom's place," and then there she was, walking toward the subway. I stopped and we talked for a little while. She was going to see Lawrence Lessig talk about Creative Commons at the Public Library. Ten minutes and a thousand tiny southbound revolutions later, I was waiting for the light to change at 57th and Broadway when along came Jon of Jon Valdi, a small boutique I used to visit in L.A. I hadn't seen him since he and his design partner moved here a few years ago. We talked for a few minutes, and then I resumed my southerly progress toward the studio of a painter I'd met the previous week. Those coincidences? He was born the same year I was, and whereas I was born in NYC and moved to LA at age four, he was born in Santa Monica and moved to New York at age four. Later that evening, visiting a neighbor and new friend, , I discovered that she'd gone to high school with my close college pal A, right here in NYC. (I met P (of P's mom fame) through A, for what that's worth.)

Friday, I met MC for lunch in Williamsburg, where he's building his new clinic. Afterward, I roosted in the backyard of a coffeeshop on Bedford for a few hours, tap-tap-tapping away, and then caught a train back to Manhattan to meet J, an old pal, at her new office for a drink. We were half a block from Sapa, so back I went. Though we sat on the other side of the place, the same guy took our order. I don't call that a real coincidence, but still. Jigmed. That's his name. Jigmed. It's Tibetan.

After that, I was supposed to meet P for another one uptown, but he called from downtown to say he'd just had dinner with Lawrence Lessig ... and did I want to come meet him and Vernon Reid for a drink?

I'm still wearing the green band-aid. And New York feels smaller and more like my long-lost home every day.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Two Nights

Becalmed. Oops, ouch, stilled. Bike broke. Walkin' blues. But there is a virtue in living the city at everybody else's speed.

Two nights ago, I met S at her hotel as she arrived from LA and we went off for a drink and then a walk on the West Side. I like water. I mean, I love alcohol, but I like looking at water. We went to the river. I took us to the river. There we found the Circle Line dock, and we started walking along it toward New Jersey. That is to say, we walked west on the Circle Line dock, encountering no wizened security guards, no infrared sensors, no nothing --- just a long walk on a long pier past half a dozen of those freshly painted Circle Line ships, until we reached the end, where we turned right at the rope-swoggled cluster of piers and found an unassuming shelf at the outermost reach of the Circle Line's extremity. There, facing the river, some meditative soul had set up a single folding chair on the pier's end, but I took a seat on the seawallish edge and slung my legs over, again toward New Jersey. Over the rushing water. It was a move far more frightening than it deserved to be. S, possessed by a confounded sense of self-preservation, sat demurely on the other side of the same low wall, feet pointed landward. She lacks a certain desire for eternity. She has a job. A house. A dog. I wondered how shocking it would be to jump into the water. Cold, clearly, but no colder than the Minnesota lakes where I swam night and day just a week ago. And a rushing current, sure, but would it overmatch my strong strokes? And darkness and directionlessness too -- the worst of it all ... but would it really be so bad after a few drinks? Out in Minnesota I found I swim better when I've had a few drinks (he said with the certainty of the doomed.) I hold my breath longer, quickening fear forgotten in a swanning wash of alcoholic calm, and my swimming is commensurately stronger. Weightlessness. Freedom. How you gonna keep 'em down on the dirt once they seen Atlantis?

Look at that river, I said. Sparkly. Eternal. New Jersey lights shone us a bright soft horizon and long-distance reflections, local illumination flashing back off a million little wavelets, and uncommon quiet floating over the post-midnight vista. There we were, blithely perched on the edge of Manhattan, feet a dangling. Glimmer glimmer. Whoosh.

Tonight, I met an editor at a new (two weeks old!) eatery on W. 21st that announces its intentions with a steerhide carpet on the sidewalk outside. First NYC beachhead of a celebrated Ft. Worth spot, this place trumpets its carnivore cred not just via floor coverings but with such delights as kangaroo carpaccio and a split marrow bone for smearing oily protein sludge on bread. If I want to look at dog treats all night, I'll bring snacks and a bedroll and hunker down at Petco.

But what we had was very good. If scallops were always cooked to such perfection, they'd be as popular as shrimp. (What happens to all those scallop shells as it is? Do scallop middens clutter shores near and far? Do most folks even know what a midden is?) All my stuff was good, and the editor didn't comment on his giant stuffed tenderloin. No half-dead kangaroos bounded past the table -- just a half-dozen worried-looking staffers.

Eventually we left and walked a few blocks. I accepted a cigarette -- sure sign I'd had enough to drink -- and then he got into a cab and I was left to call my good-time Charlene pals the Twin City dancer lesbians, but they didn't answer. Neither did my uptown Solomon, so I ducked into an inviting spot called Gstaad, where surfing films played on a screen opposite the bar and modish blond wood furniture from Switzerland helped establish le vibe. Der vibe.

That was drink 6. Or maybe 5. Being so very good at holding my alcohol on dry land and in lakes by moonlight, I mattered it not at all. Eventually I left again and occupied myself walking westward in cell phone conversation with a pal in NoCal.

I found my way home, wrote the preceding in a pickled state, and went to sleep. Then I woke up, reread it, deleted a few sentences, and posted it here for your diversion. Don't worry -- I won't be jumping into the river. I'll swim at the gym like a good model citizen.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I Guess You Had to Be Me.

I am sitting in the solarium working. I am listening to Blondie via headphones. I am moving a group of work-related emails into a folder. As I open the "Jobs" folder, I see the name of a friend and client on a sub-folder. At that moment, the song "Hanging on the Telephone" starts. As you may know, it begins with the sound of a European phone: "ring ring!" Just then, as if on cue, my cell phone rings too: "ring ring!" Same rhythm, similar tone. That throws me a little, but then I look at the screen and see the same friend/client's name I just saw on my laptop screen. I am ... well, amazed. We haven't spoken in a few days. Of course, when I try to explain this to him, he's significantly less awestruck.

Well, I guess you had to be me.

And were you me, you wouldn't bother to ascribe any significance to this either.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Cramps (Hollywood Palladium, 3500 seats, $15)

I generally assume that no one I know reads this thing. But every once in a while, a post excites reaction, and friends surface to offer compliments, comments, even corrections. The last item, my hastily assembled reflections on a recent Cramps show, was just such a post. B up in the verdant fields of Vermont said it was the best thing I'd done in a while, while A in Brooklyn both praised my prose and contended that Lux Interior is in fact about 70. Holy cow. That would make the man on stage still pulling down his pants almost my dad's contemporary.

From A's email:
    As far as Lux's age goes, I have repeatedly heard that he was 39 in 1975 when the band first started; thus the assertion that he is now (you do the math) either 69 or 70. Knowing his propensities, I'm sure he's been waiting to be 69 for some time. BTW (as the kids say), the Cramps are the only band I ever got autographs from. I've met a lot of rock-star types, but I never wanted souvenirs from most of them. Lux was probably the nicest rock star I ever met .... The fact that he is closer in age to Duke Ellington than to Glen Danzig must mean something, but I'll leave it to wiser minds than mine to figure out what.
Thanks to that email, I went to see A play his own guitar this evening at Manitoba's, a downtown club. As my bike and I rolled along the lettered avenues of the East Village profonde, it occurred to me that had I not wanted to write about the Cramps that night 20-some years ago, I might not have gone into music reviewing and thence into music trade journalism and artist management and, and, and ... well, who knows? I did, and I did, and I did, and here we are.

But where were we? Here. Here, in all its jejeune, prolix prose, both constrained and inspired by the clipped weirdness of vintage Daily Variety style, is the first review I ever wrote, retrieved from a dusty drawer by She Who Shall Remain Nameless (my mom).

And now to, as the DJs say, set it up (and split an infinitive), with a little history:

In 1986, Daily Variety was still an intensely scruffy, family-owned operation slapped together five days a week in a one-story cinderblock structure surrounded on Cahuenga Blvd. by auto repair shops. A few years would elapse before global publishing powerhouse Cahner's bought the paper from the founder's descendants, moved it out of Hollywood proper, and glitzed it up to leverage the equity inherent in so powerful a brand. As the kids say.

Yep, it was quaint. Sales and editorial were divided by an actual wall, and we the ink-stained were discouraged from socializing with the well-groomed toothy types on the other side of that wall. Copy editors used to edit hard copy with Ebony pencils and then use antique manual typewriters to hammer out headlines on half-sheets of yellow paper. These we'd attach to the first sheet of each article with a few deft brushstrokes from our individual mucilage pots before handing off the marked-up, restacked sheaves of copy to our editorial betters for fine-tuning. Lest readers think such systems were common then, they were not; our methods were already absurdly outdated. The paper was simply run on a shoestring by two parallel dynasties: the Pryors, who controlled editorial, and the Silvermans, who had inherited the publisher mantle.

The paper was then full of "characters," but perhaps the most memorable was our drama critic, a gray-haired fellow well-known for the following habits at the theatre:

1. Sitting in the front row
2. Knitting (loudly)
3. Falling asleep.

Though I went on to see many concerts, I never knitted at any of them. Not once.

This piece was my first in a national publication, and it ran on page 18 on July 15, 1986, right next to a short, unbylined squib entitled "CBS Records, Liberace Pact." Speaking of bylines, reviewers didn't merit them at Variety way back in the Pre-Cambrian Era; we went instead by weird little four-letter abbreviations called "slugs." Three- and five-letter slugs were not allowed.

For my efforts, an extra $7.50 per review graced my meager biweekly paychecks. As it happened, by volunteering to lend the music editor this reviewing assist, I invented the rock "stringer" position at Variety; the paper soon added other byline/slug sluts to round out a small corps of underpaid music critics. I ran into Publisher Michael Silverman one afternoon outside the building and mentioned how low the reviewer fee was compared even to the tight-fisted L.A.Weekly's per-word rate. Cornered, he pled impotence (not his term), but within a month, all freelance fees rose to something approaching the low end of market rate. And yet, no plaque commemorates my achievements. *Sigh*

Though I labored over this review, it was edited, of course, which annoyed me to no end but today lets me blame any rough patches on that other guy. Now that I'm a much better editor than he was, I can laugh at how at sea he must have been in the face of this weirdness, not only to let me switch tenses and refer to the singer by his first name, but worse, to let me wax so damned long-winded. I'm tempted to cut this relic by half, but that wasn't the point of reproducing it here. Let's do the time-warp again.

    The Cramps
    (Hollywood Palladium, 3500 seats, $15)

    In their first L.A. show in two years, The Cramps turned in a crowd-pleasing madhouse of a show, spotlighting new material and their trademark versions of trash-rock classics.

    Four-piece combo plays driving unclean garage rock. Its style derives from sources like country and rockabilly music, horror and porn pix. Having dwelt in voodoo, psychedelia, madness, monsters and junk culture in recent years, emphasis now is on sex, with much fine earlier material unaired this outing.

    Singer Lux Interior, his powerful deep voice echoplexed, handles audience rapport alone, in total command of an ecstatic crowd. Two girl guitarists, longtime mainstay Ivy Rorschach and new addition Candy Del Mar, sport guignol sneers of disgust throughout. Drummer Nick Knox is consistently poker-faced behind his skins and sunglasses as he rivets the guitars onto a strong percussive frame.

    Not a band given to stagy warmth or endless jam sessions, members barely acknowledged each other from far-flung corners of the stage. Occasional sloppiness dovetailed nicely with trashy musical intentions.

    The show started on the good foot, Lux taking the stage in a gold lame suit for high-energy original "She Said."* Shedding the jacket within minutes, he spent the rest of the show bare-torsoed, posing his long skinny body dramatically. With his Gene Vincent-meets-Godzilla vocal style and striking physiognomy, Lux is a captivating performer.

    After several fast numbers, band slowed for a tremolo-heavy version of the late Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town," played dirge-like and alienated.

    Cover of a Presley beach pic tune, "Do the Clam," was a nod to band's surf music influences, and the dedication of "Hot Pool of Womanneed" to Johnny Cash further staked out sources.

    The drily satiric "Good Taste," followed, laughably, by band's latest single, in an opposite vein,** raised the mostly teenage crowd to a fever pitch as the band sank into gut-crunching guitar hell.

    Version of the Human Beings' old hit "Nobody But Me" traded the original's brash '60s confidence for a hollow exultation more in tune with the era and the audience. Echo ranting and massive fuzztone bass, sounding like a bulldozer in fourth gear, carried the version effectively without the original's backup shouters.

    Encore consisted of showcaser standard "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen. Band hurtled through the one-chord tune with stops all out, pausing only at the midsong vocal excursion for much highly unnatural microphone abuse. Tune ended in chaos, band members leaving in disgust as Lux, trouserless, writhed and moaned in a pool of blood-red wine. He finally had to be wrapped in a bathrobe and carried away -- twice! -- tights around his ankles in a cloud of Knox's cigarette smoke.

    Band's cartoon aspect, an in-joke in the Gotham punk scene nine years ago, is now an institution, and the dementia and menace so refreshing in the late '70s have long been a series of contrived, if uncompromised, poses.

    Though the Cramps have grown older, their audience has become younger, with the result that everyone's basest impulses are indulged in a show that actively pursues the lowest common denominator and makes it irresistible.


* An error. As longtime L.A. music journo Chris Morris informed me that week in a gracious hand-written note, "She Said" is not a Cramps original; it was written by rock 'n' roll wildman Hasil Adkins. I was mortified, but went on to become friendly with Chris, who might otherwise never have contacted me. You can hear the original here.

** That unnamed song was "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" but Variety's unofficial Standards & Practices Dept. deemed such raciness too blue for the godless showbiz audience.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Cramps ... Again

The Cramps were the first band I ever reviewed. I was working at Variety in Hollywood as a copy editor, spending more than a little time repairing poorly written reviews of operas and ballets. It dawned on me that I could do at least as well as the waxworks whose choppy prose cluttered our pages, so I convinced Managing Editor Pete Pryor that even if he hadn't heard of them or seen them on the charts, the Cramps were the Next Big Thing. He believed me.

I was happy to get free tickets and a modicum of special treatment at the venerable Hollywood Palladium, a former ballroom then as now given over to a rotating cast of alt-rock would-bes and has-beens and estrellas Latinas. That was before we called it alt-rock.

It was July 1986. I went on to review about a hundred shows over the next few years -- Frank Sinatra! R.E.M.! Guns N' Roses! Luther Vandross! -- until I so thoroughly detested reviews and reviewing that I stopped. By then, I was getting free tickets and music anyway, and was happy to attend shows where I didn't have to take notes and plan paragraphs.

Tonight, a balmy late summer evening two decades later, I saw the Cramps again for the first time in at least 15 years. I think -- and this may be the degenerative effects of age on the brain -- they were just as good. Maybe better. They've certainly had a lot of practice playing their horror-movie-influenced "psychobilly." Way back when, Lux Interior, the tall skinny ghoul who fronts the band, was a nice-looking young man who made a lot of faces and howled and pulled his pants down more than almost anybody could have wanted him to. That was then. I wish I'd seen them a few times in recent years, so I could have seen him growing into the look he seems always to have wanted. When he was 30, those scary faces he made went away when he stopped making them. Now, like a terrifying illustration of mommy's warning that if you don't stop, that face will stick, it has. They don't. Go away. Once he played at Grand Guignol -- now he's the Grandest Grandee of the Guignol in Gotham, as I might have written 20 years ago. He's still tall and rail-thin, but he looks like Dorian Gray's portrait. Or, as my friend Don wrote just yesterday, the blonde rinse (on a head that's been covered in jet-black hair as long as anyone can remember), makes him look "like Christopher Walken reincarnated as a particularly dissolute vampire." That's no stretch. But the steel caps on his teeth? He's grown into himself in his mid-50s. And yet his longtime partner, Ivy Rorschach, seems hardly to have changed at all. Her face isn't as taut as it used to be, but whose is? In the plus column, she laughs a little more now than she used to -- but not so much that she comes completely out of character. And that enormous auburn mop must be a wig ... was it always? Does it matter? The ersatz and the genuine are as entwined in their act as their act is in their life.

So why did I hie myself down to the former Limelight, now the Avalon, still a deconsecrated church on the edge of Chelsea, to see a band I liked when I was a teenager? For reasons unclear to me, I started hearing their songs in my head a few months ago. Just like that, they started playing. I think I read about this phenomenon in the Times a few years ago. It's a function of faulty wiring. It might have been the bike riding that brought it all back. Or hearing their song "Garbageman" in the moderately funny movie "The Matador" this past spring. Whatever caused it, the music wouldn't go away. One night I was in Kim's Mediapolis near Columbia and there they both were -- the band's first and second LPs, even including their first singles -- all shrink-wrapped and waiting for me. I took them home and haven't been able to stop playing them since. That was more than two weeks ago. Imagine my delight at discovering the band itself was coming to town.

Did you imagine it? Good. Now imagine the ambivalence that followed, when I considered the grim reality of standing in a crowded club for two or more hours, jostled, breathed on, view blocked, toes stomped ....

Okay, you can stop. That all happened, but it was a great show and I didn't much care about the inconvenience of it all. I used to be used to it. It's like riding a bike. And whooo, what a show. They even started with the very song that was crowding my head on the way downtown, "Mystery Plane." How'd they know?

The next song was an Arthur Lee cover, which Lux outroed thusly, declaiming: "That song was dedicated to Arthur Lee! One of the greatest rock singers ever! He's dead! But I'm not! And I'm not chopped liver either!"

Because I don't write reviews anymore -- now that everyone does, who needs it? -- I'll just say the show was well-paced and energetic, drawing from several eras and albums, punctuated with comical asides, and enlivened by exciting tricks with a bottle of red wine. (Lux would clench his metal teeth around the bottle's neck, tilt his head back, and blow a bloody geyser of wine and wine vapor out the sides of his mouth. The red would run down his chin and soak his shirt, as if he'd just torn someone's neck open with his fangs. Caution: Dissolute Vampires at Work. May Cause Pandemonium.)

Near the end, up in the balcony, one of the hundreds of tattooed girls pulled her spandex top down to show off her perfect breasts. She and her even more tattooed boyfriend simulated sex and more for a good ten minutes on the rail, her pocket camera at arm's length recording their digital antics, until the band left the stage, whereupon she demurely hiked her top back up.

Then the bottle blonde and the fright-wigged drag queen who'd introduced the band returned to the stage to say more incredibly useless junk ("Was that amazing?" "Amazing." "I mean, the Cramps!"), and I slipped out the side door to cross a long line of future revelers waiting on the sidewalk for my place on the dance floor.

I'm going kayaking in the morning. Endless summer.