Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tori Amos Puts Her Own Spin on the Season

As part of the music magazine’s SpinHouse Live series, Tori Amos gives an intimate concert at the Spin offices in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Ben Rowland.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Under black chandeliers, Tori Amos, her long hair nearly as red as her multi-gathered minidress—which, along with her gold stretch leggings, made her look like an exotic Christmas present—started her set at the Spin magazine loft Tuesday night with her song “Ophelia,” whispering at one point “I feel you.”

We felt her too. While not exactly going all Jerry Lee Lewis on us, the dramatic Amos would not be contained by anything so prim as a piano bench. She stretched out a glimmering leg, stomped a metallic stiletto, and at the end of “Wednesday,” her arms flying out behind her, appeared to be the eagle of her lyrics, about to land.

In a set of only six songs, the other four were from her new, seasonal CD, Midwinter Graces. Unlike Bob Dylan, who sings—rasps?—such holiday standards as “Here Comes Santa Claus” seemingly straight for his recently released Christmas in the Heart, Amos, a minister’s daughter, has delved into carols such as “Silent Night” and “Star of Wonder” to create her own rich works. Thus, “Silent Night” becomes “A Silent Night with You” (in which the singer at times sounds surprisingly like Madonna on a very good day).

My favorite from the album, however, is wholly original, the feel-good—you can almost see the confetti falling—“Pink and Glitter,” written, Amos explained while introducing the song, because in this time of celebrating the birth of a baby boy, she wanted to honor little girls (but nevertheless gave a smiling thumbs-up to the guys while singing the line “Little boys are getting an honorable mention from me”).

Her last song was the atmospheric “Snow Angel,” whose most memorable moment came when Amos briefly stopped, after making an undetectable mistake on the piano, and exclaimed “Fuck!” This only made her audience more delighted than they had been a second before—and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Connubial War, Not Much Peace

Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) enjoys a rare light moment with his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren).

The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Paul Giamatti

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Some movies appear to have all the elements for success and yet don’t work. Is it the script? The editing? With Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, the problem would not appear to be the acting: Christopher Plummer plays the great Russian writer Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy; Helen Mirren is his wife—and literary assistant—of 48 years, Countess Sofya; Paul Giamatti plays his disciple Chertkov; and James McAvoy, acting as a stand-in for the audience, is Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin.

Valentin has arrived at a crucial point: Chertkov has nearly convinced the writer, whose Tolstoyan movement advocates the end of private property, to leave his wealth, and his copyrights, to the Russian people rather than his family. This causes Sofya—who has not only copied out War and Peace six times for her husband but has borne 12 children, 5 of whom have died—to nearly lose her wits. In one Lucy Ricardo‒esque scene, she, believing Tolstoy, in the company of Chertkov and Valentin, is about to sign a new will, climbs to a window in her nightdress and falls into the room, nearly taking the drapes with her. “Will somebody help me up?” she asks, and, remarkably—for god’s sake, she’s Tolstoy’s wife, a countess, and in her 60s!—no one does. Although we (capitalists that we are) and Valentin (sympathetic creature that he is) believe that Sofya has a good case—not to mention that Chertkov fairly oozes unctuousness and villainy—she comes across less passionate than hysterical. And despite her love for Tolstoy, she doesn’t seem to realize that in constantly bringing up the will she is reminding him of his perhaps imminent death.

Valentin, in the meantime, has fallen for a pretty young woman who works in the Tolstoyan commune, yet with a pronounced take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Although celibacy is apparently part of Tolstoy’s “ideal love” philosophy (one prim devotee blurts out to Valentin that he doesn’t court women because he’s “vegetarian”), Masha (Kerry Condon) thinks nothing of walking uninvited into Valentin’s tiny commune room and climbing onto him as he’s lying in bed. A harbinger of the modern, independent woman, she eventually takes off for Moscow (in contrast to Chekhov’s nearly contemporaneous, so to speak, three sisters, who only talk of going there).

The title of the movie, which is based on the novel by Jay Parini, who studied the diaries of Tolstoy’s associates, refers to the train station where the writer, gravely ill, alights and spends his final days. (Calling to mind events involving more recent international icons, such as Michael Jackson, camped-out reporters await every detail.) Here everyone’s true character comes into focus. Unfortunately—except perhaps in regard to Valentin (and Germany playing Russia in cinematic splendor)—for the audience the train has already left the station.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Coming of Beaver Street

Robert Rosen (left) with Headpress publisher David Kerekes in London, June 2009.

By Robert Rosen

Leo: The new moon on the 16th is the time to launch the new plans that you’ve been thinking about obsessively for far too long.

I don’t often read horoscopes, but the one above, by Katharine Merlin, astrologer for Town & Country magazine, spoke to me, and I listened. That’s why I’ve chosen today, November 16, 2009, to announce that my investigative memoir, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography, will be published next year in the UK by Headpress.

Beaver Street is my first book since Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, which was published more than nine years ago. For those of you who’ve read it, you may recall the crucial role that the T&C horoscopes played in Lennon’s life.

Without going into too much detail about Beaver Street, let me just say that it’s based on diaries I kept while working in porn for 16 years as an editor for magazines like Swank, Stag, High Society, and D-Cup, as well as on extensive research, and that I define “modern pornography” as the fusion of erotica and computers. This first occurred at High Society in 1982 with the advent of “free” phone sex.

In Beaver Street, I explore the hidden nexus where cutting-edge technology meets raw sex, generating vast fortunes for the largely anonymous men who run America’s “adult entertainment” empires. It’s kind of a Tropic of Capricorn for the digital age, as well as a serious history that reads like a comic novel. If you’ve read Nowhere Man, then you’ll have some idea of what I mean.

I’ll be posting more information here as it becomes available. But if you’d like to get more of a sense of the book’s flavor, you can read an interview I did in 2003, when I was in the middle of writing it.

I do want to extend a heartfelt thanks to everybody who’s read Nowhere Man and has expressed an interest in this long-awaited “next book.” Though the subject may be very different, I feel confident that if you enjoyed Nowhere Man you’ll enjoy Beaver Street.

For now I’m going to celebrate with a cup of British tea.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ship of Fools

“The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bakes over the UK with rock ’n’ roll on his illegal late-night radio show.

Pirate Radio

Forget about the multiple intertwining plots: lovable longhaired outlaws vs. repressed government officials; DJ vs. DJ; boy’s search for father; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Though occasionally affecting, they’re frequently clichéd, and they’re so all over the place, it’s as if writer/director Richard Curtis couldn’t decide what this movie was really about and didn’t have enough confidence in any one story line to stick with it. And though the acting ensemble—especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count, Tom Sturridge as Young Carl, and Bill Nighy as Quentin—is wonderful, the best reason to see Pirate Radio is for the soundtrack, which is skillfully interwoven to reflect the various plot points. And, indeed, the energy and exuberance of the knockout opening sequence with Brits of all stripes dancing to the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” as it blasts from the radio is hard to top. It’s rock ’n’ roll! It’s outta control!

What we have here is, perhaps, one of the best music videos ever made. Set on a pirate radio ship anchored off the coast of England in 1966, at the height of the British Pop phenomenon, when the BBC broadcast only two hours of rock per week, a wild and crazy crew of outlaw DJs and their helpers beam round the clock to a rock-starved nation such soon-to-be classics as “I Can See for Miles” and “My Generation” by The Who, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks, “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Stones, “For Your Love” by The Yardbirds, “Eleanor” by The Turtles, “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, and a few dozen other songs of equally outstanding pedigree.

The soundtrack is so good you might not even notice the assorted anachronisms and the absurd absence of The Beatles. And—SPOILER ALERT!!!—you may even be willing to forgive an ending so Titanic-like, you’ll probably find yourself looking for Leo, Kate, and the iceberg. —RR

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jewiest Movie I’ve Ever Seen

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), left, tries to act “adult” with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his wife-stealing colleague.

By Robert Rosen

A Serious Man
A film by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, and Amy Landecker
105 Minutes

Yes, I include Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Ten Commandments in the above statement. Which is not to say these films aren’t ultra-Jewy (perhaps I should mention here that I’m Jewish)—they are, but in a fairy-tale-like way. They take place long ago and far away, either in shtetls in the “old country” that no longer exists, or in the ancient Holy Land.

While A Serious Man does indeed begin in a shtetl as the Coens channel Isaac Bashevis Singer with a story about a dybbuk—the wandering soul of a dead person who enters a living person—it quickly switches to the New World: a nameless Midwestern suburb circa 1967, which could be anywhere in America where Jews and Gentiles (called goys in the film) live side by side, if not exactly in harmony, then with a surface tolerance that, to interpret the dreams of the central character, Larry Gopnick, a physics professor, only covers up the murderous hatred the goyim feel for their Jewish neighbors.

In fact, all the adult characters are covering up turbulent (if not murderous) emotion by speaking in a flat and disaffected way that ultimately becomes irritating, making A Serious Man a movie about annoying, repressed people who tend to wear thin long before the film ends.

When Larry Gopnick’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), tells him she’s leaving him for his pretentious colleague, Sy Ableman, she expects Larry to take it in stride, act like an “adult,” move into a motel, and take his freeloading brother, Arthur (Richard Kind)—who may be a bum or a genius—with him. Gopnick does, and then sets out to seek in Jewish tradition the answers to unanswerable questions. As his world collapses around him, Gopnick consults three rabbis, and deals with a divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), a hot neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes in the nude, a pot-smoking son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose only concern seems to be the quality of his TV reception, a dissatisfied daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who wants a nose job, a student who’s trying to bribe him for a better grade, and an impending decision on his tenure.

Yet, amid all this turmoil, A Serious Man’s depiction of modern American Judaism makes it almost documentary-like in a way that for me—in 1967 I was approximately the same age as the Gopnick children—is hyper-real. I’ve never seen a fictional film detail, often with lingering and loving close-ups, such things as numbingly repetitive Hebrew school lessons, the words on a Torah scroll, and the playing of a Haftorah record during a Bar Mitzvah lesson.

Like all the Coen brothers’ films, there are indeed hilarious moments, though the funniest bit is a disclaimer in the final credits: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this movie.” And like all their movies, A Serious Man is dark, with the smell of death always in the air.

While An Irritating Man would perhaps be a more accurate title, the film is, in the end, rescued by its offbeat quirkiness. There are no other movies I can think of where a great rabbi quotes Grace Slick, of the Jefferson Airplane, as if he’s quoting Holy Scripture. Still, a Hebrew/Yiddish glossary, like the one provided in the press material, may be required for full understanding.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Boys Are Slack

Still comin’ at ya: Drama (Kevin Dillon), Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), Vince (Adrian Grenier), Eric (Kevin Connolly), and Ari (Jeremy Piven).

Entourage: Season 6

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

As I cannot justify to myself paying for both HBO and Showtime and I love Weeds, I’ve only recently switched back to HBO and begun watching Entourage again (since Weeds is over for now, though Entourage may have to go when Showtime’s Californication comes back on Sunday—yes, I realize you can rent these shows but then you have to WAIT). Here are a few observations on and puzzlements re The Boys after my hiatus:

1) Has Eric picked up Vince’s “whatever” attitude toward life and especially women (unless, with Vince, inexplicably, the woman is the bland Mandy Moore)? He seems to hook up, cancel dates, get mad without really getting mad, walk away, come back, and walk away again without ever getting flustered. (And why, by the way, are these gorgeous, complicated women so into E?) Suddenly, Turtle—who has a serious thing going on with Jamie-Lynn Sigler, playing herself (perhaps helped along by, in a case of life imitating art, the two actors becoming a couple)—is the one who seems mature. Turtle?

2) A mean-spiritedness still occasionally rears its ugly head on this show. Last season Drama made a reference, supposedly humorous, to what amounts to sexual abuse of a girlfriend during adolescence that I wasn’t sure I fully caught but didn’t want to think about too much. This season’s examples are less troubling but more obvious: the gang laughing about how Seth Rogen is “too ugly” to get the pretty girl (this went on for a while); one of Eric’s young lovelies asking, “Who’s the fossil?” of his 70ish female receptionist. (Eric did tell her not to be mean, but didn’t take the hint that perhaps this was a girl to be avoided.)

3) Most important, über-agent Ari may be the first shark to have jumped the shark. He used to be the best thing about the show, his rarely tamped-down rage and ambition providing the kinetic energy Vince’s crowd lacks. Now Jeremy Piven (is it the mercury poisoning?) has lost whatever elusive quality it was that made Ari’s Type Ultra-A personality funny, and without that his spewing, demanding, abrasive ways are only dark and grating—just ask Lloyd.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Barack in a Bottle

Click pic for closeup.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Hey, it’s summer. So let’s take a little wine break—and how about some politics with that Cab?

Remember Obama’s reaction to a hieroglyph in an Egyptian pyramid a few weeks ago—“That looks like me! Look at those ears!” (See video below.) We could almost hear him saying the same thing at NYC’s Warehouse Wines & Spirits recently when we spied the mask-like symbol of “silent wisdom” on the label of an Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon. (Click photo to see it close up.) The wine, called Misterio, sounds a bit like Obama himself in the description on the back: “friendly … easy but sophisticated, full of mystery”—or maybe mystique? A strange slogan, however, also on the back, could be a bit discouraging for someone with such an ambitious agenda: “Working in silence … for years.” (Note to Barack: Ever consider ear piercings? Note to readers: It’s not bad, with a punt taller than you’d expect for $5.99 [at WW&S]! Note to selves: Send case to White House!)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Melissa McClelland Gets Her Kicks on Route 66

Near the entrance of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, part of Historic Route 66.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Last fall my brother, my sister, and I hiked across the Chain of Rocks Bridge in Missouri, where we grew up. Now for pedestrians and bikers only, the bridge, completed in 1929, was once part of the legendary Route 66. A beautiful steel truss bridge (amazingly photogenic, from many angles) with an unusual bend in the middle, it allows for expansive views of the Mississippi as it winds up to the St. Louis Arch. Everything about it speaks of “once upon a time,” including the fairy-tale-like water towers emerging from the river below—like tiny castles constructed by naiads—and the Route 66 memorabilia, such as a “66 Auto Court” neon sign and a Texaco gas pump, displayed along the way.

Having seen this and having seen the Canadian-by-way-of-Chicago singer Melissa McClelland in action, I’m not surprised that Melissa has heard the siren call of what is now Historic Route 66. Her bluesy songs, delivered in a clear, confident voice, have a tone, both musically and lyrically, that harks back to another time. Even her demeanor (calm, poised, thoughtful) and her clothes (almost prim yet sexy dresses) seem retro. No wonder that the sole cover she performed during a recent set at the Living Room in NYC was Randy Newman’s “1903,” about a gentler era, when being connected meant calling across a backyard rather than twittering on a BlackBerry. Introducing her song “God Loves Me,” Melissa explained that it was inspired by the Luna Cafe, on the Illinois side of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, where she and her crew were served peach liqueur in jars and told about the prostitutes that once lived in the rooms upstairs. “Of course,” she said, “then I had to stay there.”

A couple of years ago, Melissa drove Route 66 from beginning to end, Chicago (her birthplace) to the Santa Monica Pier, stopping at such places as the Pig-Hip Restaurant, the Blue Whale Swimming Hole, and the Wagon Wheel Motel to talk to people who still remember the route as a main thoroughfare and the sudden changes its closing brought about. Along the way, Melissa paused to strum her story songs (“I try to bring it down to the details of a moment,” she says of her writing) while sitting with her guitar on railroad tracks, picnic tables, and the Chain of Rocks Bridge itself. Director Luke Hutton recorded the trip for a colorful, absorbing DVD called Pedal to Steel: Melissa McClelland’s Route 66.

If you can, check out the DVD. But if not, get a taste with Melissa’s video (below) for the gritty, slow-grooving, gets-in-your-blood “Passenger 24.” Her new CD, Victoria Day, produced by Luke Doucet, both her soulmate and bandmate, is being released by Six Shooter Records. (By the way, Melissa can’t seem to get enough: the night I saw her play in New York, she told me she was meeting her mother in Chicago to drive part of Route 66 together.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: More Than Skin Deep

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I wrote this piece in March 2001 for the website New Media Music (now defunct). In light of Jackson’s death yesterday, we’ve decided to reprint it here.

Last week, when I was rooting around the music news looking for something funny to write about, I came across several items about Michael Jackson. Jackson had made a speech at Oxford University in connection with his new charity, Heal the Kids.

The comic and bizarre elements were nearly irresistible: Jackson’s partner in the charity is the media-savvy Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who wrote Kosher Sex and Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments. The pop star had come to London to be best man at the wedding of super-psychic Uri Gellar, known mainly for telekinetically bending spoons. On the night of his speech, Jackson hosted a dinner at the imposing, this-must-be-England Blenheim Palace, but the red carpet supplied by the Duke of Marlborough had a gloss of disinfectant to prevent foot-and-mouth disease. Jackson himself must have hobbled down that carpet on crutches, because his broken foot was in a cast (further protecting it from the highly contagious disease, I guess). His address was made to the esteemed Oxford Union debating society, whose past guests include—I will leave it to you to figure out the criteria—Jerry Hall, Richard Nixon, Mother Teresa, O.J. Simpson, and Albert Einstein. (Jackson allowed, rather cutely, that he had never reached the scientific heights of Einstein, but that Einstein was “really terrible” at doing the moonwalk.) And, of course, reporters were latching on to the irony of someone once accused of child molestation heading an organization to “heal the kids.”

And that gave me pause. Child molestation, obviously, is not funny. Being accused of such abuse—Jackson settled out of court but maintained his innocence—is not funny. The need for organizations to urge parents to treat their children well—also not funny. And that’s not even getting into the entertainer’s speech, a tearful account of a hard-driving father who “never” showed him love.

The Man in the Mirror

So I had already abandoned the idea of a humorous little piece when I clicked on—merely out of curiosity—a recent close-up photo of Jackson that couldn’t help hilariously commenting on. It was indeed weirdly fascinating. The huge doe eyes, the Pinocchio (before the lies) nose, the red asymmetrical mouth—all against preternaturally alabaster skin. As I was staring at it, a colleague stopped at my cubicle to stare too. After a moment, he said that he thought Jackson’s children (Prince, 4, and Paris, 2) might bring him the unconditional love that he apparently craves, and that perhaps one day he will find a romantic partner who will do the same.

I felt very touched by his words, and later I realized why. How often do you hear anyone—aside from hysterical fans and celebrity friends like Elizabeth Taylor—say anything kind about Michael Jackson? Ever since his first nose job, he’s been fodder for the late-night comedians. How could they resist? The chimp Bubbles and the rest of the menagerie, the Neverland ranch, the hair ablaze, the jeweled glove, the Band-Aids (did I make that one up?), the high-pitched voice, the brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the ever-whitening skin, the ever-mutating features—these are parts of a mysterious life that seems almost designed to bring on ridicule.

But how often do we wonder what drove Michael Jackson, now 42, to cling to a Peter Pan existence and to so radically change his appearance? It brings up all kinds of identity and self-esteem questions. Couldn’t it be a cry for help, this frequent surgery (and what physical pain it must entail)—something like those people years ago who underwent procedures to make themselves look like Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley (as though they were happy).

In his song “Man in the Mirror,” Jackson, perhaps tellingly, does not see a body when he looks at his reflection, but rather the spiritual side of himself: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror/ I’m asking him to change his ways.” The song is that of a person asking himself to be better, more caring. With his events on behalf of his charity (he also recently spoke at Carnegie Hall), he may be emphasizing to his public that he is doing something to “make a change,” and that that’s more important than the way he looks or the latest tabloid report.

The Meaning of Rock

Jackson made it clear in his Oxford speech that he suffered as a child, belying the image of “the cheery five-year-old who belted out ‘Rockin’ Robin.’” Even then, long before the cosmetic changes, what we were seeing was only the surface. Obviously, he has not forgotten this emotional hurt; it still lurks inside of him. Creative people often express their pain in their art, but it’s hard to tell how much of a release his music is for Jackson, since he feels his father robbed him of his childhood by pushing him and his brothers to perform.

Nevertheless, he’s bound to feel honored on March 19, when he’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—putting him in the company (this year) of Aerosmith, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan, among others. The hall of fame’s website says of Jackson: “There is no question that for the generation who came of age in the ’80s, Michael epitomizes what rock is about.”

Rock has always been about—whatever else—rebellion. In a society that tends to go for the shallow judgment, the shallow answer, the shallow value, rock ’n’ roll has often delved deeper. If this is what we get from our best artists, can’t we sometimes give it back to them?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Giants of Summer

They Might Be Giants, the band, sponsored this Seattle Little League team, They Might Be Giants.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

They were always unpredictable, and now proto-alt-rockers They Might Be Giants have made history (we’re pretty sure) by stepping up to the plate to sponsor a Little League team in Seattle called, um, They Might Be Giants—the inspiration of the team’s coaches, two guys named John (sound familiar?). One of the other “two Johns,” TMBG’s John Flansburgh, as opposed to Linnell, said the photo of the five- and six-year-olds wearing yellow “No!” (the title of the duo’s first children’s album) T-shirts “just knocked us out,” adding, “If a pizza parlor or a supermarket can sponsor a team, why can’t a rock band?”

Yeah, why not? Especially one that took home the 2009 Grammy for best children’s album, for Here Come the 123s (these geek-rockers are verging on adorable). And the Brooklyn-based band—shouldn’t they be called They Might Be Dodgers?—doesn’t intend to stop with one team (they might all be giants!).

This got us to thinking: if other artists, past and present, were to follow their lead, what T-shirt slogans might whiz past sweaty, screaming parents as their little tykes throw smoke, drill one into the gap, or trip headfirst over home plate? Maybe…

Right Said Fred: I’m too sexy for my mitt
Kanye West: Harder, better, faster, stronger
Sex Pistols: No future
T.I. and Jay-Z: Swagga like us
The Who: The kids are alright
The Who: Mama’s got a squeeze play
Lady GaGa: Use your muscle, carve it out, work it, hustle
Rhianna: Oh, how about a round of applause
Bruce Springsteen: Glory days
Pink Floyd: We don’t need no education
Ringo Starr: I’m the greatest
The Beatles: There are bases I remember
Adam Lambert: I risk being safe
Miley Cyrus: Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Katy Perry: You’re my experimental game
Coldplay: Feel the fear in my enemies’ eyes
Meatloaf: Batter outta hell
The Troggs: Wild pitch
The Rolling Stones: Sticky fingers
Lil Wayne: Sacrifice
Fishbone: She threw me a curve
Bryan Adams: We got the bases loaded
Gary Lewis and the Playboys: This diamond can mean something beautiful
Taylor Swift: Fearless

And of course:
John Fogarty: Put me in, coach

Thursday, May 7, 2009

From One York to Another: Singer Findlay Brown

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Recently, at the Mercury Lounge in NYC, I talked guitars with heartthrob Brit singer Findlay Brown—think Elvis by way of Chris Isaak by way of k.d. lang, and I mean that in a good way (the term “swoon-worthy” was drifting around the bar); he’d even closed his set that night with Elvis’s “Mystery Train,” jumping into the audience along with his bandmates, one of whom played the floor with his drumsticks. As we spoke, Findlay kindly stood next to the women’s room while he sipped a lager, allowing every exiter an easy view of his impossibly long thin legs, in formfitting black jeans that ended in what used to be called Beatle boots, and his impossibly thick and spiky hair (“It’s the rain,” he complained while touching his stovepipe-like ends, “the rain did this,” though honestly I couldn’t see what the problem was).

So, guitars (they were on my mind, as I’d recently been to nearly every store in town looking for the perfect one): he likes Collings and Guild (should I have bought the Guild? I wondered in a panic) and much prefers the feel (literally) of an acoustic to that of an electric. He demonstrated holding an electric guitar—indicating it’s just kind of there, flat—and then an acoustic, which he said was more like another being that you caress (did he use that word, or am I getting all dreamy?).

Findlay had been touring the UK as Duffy’s opening act. He said she offered him a piece of advice: Keep a little mystery, don’t give everything away. Still, he told me a bit about himself—how he grew up “in the wilderness” in Yorkshire and still loves to be in the midst of nature. “Whether it’s a flower or a tree or a butterfly,” he said, pointing outward and then to himself, “I see the life in it, and that’s the life in me” (maybe Elvis by way of Chris Isaak by way of Percy Bysshe Shelley?). As he talked, I remembered a couple of things from his press bio: something about gypsies teaching him bare-knuckle boxing, and also an injury—he was hit by the taxi he’d just left!—that allowed him the time to hone his retro sound. But now he was thinking more about the future, telling me he and his girlfriend may move to New York (they currently live in London). Ah, the Danish girlfriend, I thought, well known to Fin fans as the inspiration for his soulful, yearning songs (his first album was called Separated by the Sea). He said she writes wonderful poetry and asked about local “poetry events.” And speaking of poetry, my ears (and more) had perked up earlier when he sang these lyrics: “Do I want it?/ Please come home/ Do I need it?/ Please come home/ Do I want it?/ Please come home.” Because here’s the thing: A lesser songwriter would have said, “Hey I want it… Hey I need it...,” hitting us over the head with blunt longing.

Listen to Findlay’s aching questions in the video above (feel free to answer him out loud), and catch him live, on tour with Au Revoir Simone, in June (including Bowery Ballroom in NYC, June 27). Also check out his new album, Love Will Find You. Percy, are you listening?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Please Pass the Fruit

The women of Helios Dance Theater in a scene from The Lotus Eaters. Photo by Melissa Painter.

By Victoria Looseleaf

When I travel to dance and music festivals around the world (Holland, Cuba, France, Italy, Argentina and Abu Dhabi, to name a few), I beseech the artistic directors to look to Southern California for choreographic and performing talent. In effect, I consider myself an arts activist and de facto ambassador for dance. Case in point: Helios Dance Theater, under the artistic directorship of Laura Gorenstein Miller.

Victoria Looseleaf and singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips at the afterparty for The Lotus Eaters. Photo by Josie Walsh.

Gorenstein Miller, who recently came out of a self-imposed hiatus (she took time to help raise her two sons), triumphed with her full-length opus, The Lotus Eaters, in an evening at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The engagement was to be a two-night run, but the Broad’s a.d., Dale Franzen, got cold feet and cancelled one of the concerts. A pity, as Helios’ newest work is a beautiful amalgam of choreography, performance, costumes (Project Runway finalist, Rami Kashou), set design and music. Indeed, one of the composers was named a 90’s Rolling Stone singer-songwriter of the year, Grant Lee-Phillips, whose music absolutely seduced and whom your faithful scribe met after the performance (in spite of her then-ailing ears). This work needs to be seen, but barring that, please check out my Dance Magazine review of the company.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Queers, Harps, and Hanging On

Dances with Harps, featuring Ellen Barnaby (background), Johnni Durango, and composer/harpist Zeena Parkins (in profile). Photo by Frank Mullaney.

By Victoria Looseleaf

For those of you following me on Facebook and Twitter, you know that I’ve had blood clots in my left ear since flying to Florida with a cold using those ghastly things called “Ear Planes.” (And to think it was my fault for screwing them in too tightly–there should be a damn warning, really.) I’ve been to two otolaryngologists, was grounded in Florida for an extra week and my hearing has been akin to Beethoven’s as he was writing his 9th Symphony (not only was he going totally deaf, but he was having to deal with constant hissing sounds in his ear). Hooray for steroids (and anti-b’s), as I can now see the light at the end of the ear canal.

Too bad, though, that while I was away, my editor was laid off from the Los Angeles Times (what’s left of it), leaving my continuing presence at the paper (this is my 14th year), in question. Happily, I’m hanging on by my erstwhile harp fingernails (we can’t have nails, actually, except for the pinkies), so it was only fitting then, that I, the go-to gal for all things harp–and dance–cover Dance by Neil Greenberg. Please check out my review in the Los Angeles Times, which went in the paper nearly verbatim (there was some discourse over the use of the words “politically correct,” which were dropped, but I’m cool with that). And so, I understand, was Mr. Greenberg: REDCAT sold out!

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) and his Dominican teammates at a baseball academy in San Pedro de Macorís.

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, and Jose Luis Romero
114 Minutes

By Robert Rosen

Sugar is more than a poignant, compelling film with an appealing cast of virtual unknowns and an interesting soundtrack featuring Chilean singer Gepe’s very cool Spanish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Arguably, it’s also an important movie—about language, the immigrant experience, and baseball.

But I’ll leave that argument to other, more knowledgeable writers, like my TLR colleague J.C. Malone, who was born in San Pedro de Macorís, in the Dominican Republic, and has written, in both English and Spanish, a biography of that modest-size city’s best-known native son, Sammy Sosa.

For those who don’t follow the game, it should be said that San Pedro is to baseball what Liverpool once was to rock ’n’ roll: a breeding ground and launching pad for raw talent. At least 30 big-league ballplayers were born there. And they all got their start in one of San Pedro’s baseball academies, where coaches and scouts molded them into potential professionals, creating for these local athletes an opportunity to be plucked from poverty and obscurity, deposited in a major-league spring-training camp, and given the chance to conquer America.

But as every aspiring professional ballplayer knows, the odds of making it to the big leagues are slim, because pure athletic ability is only one factor in a wide array of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual skills that an athlete must master if he’s to have a real shot at success.

Sugar makes this clear in the opening scene, which takes place in an academy classroom, where a group of Dominican ballplayers are learning to speak baseball English—“pop fly … ground ball … home run.” Later, in the locker room, they practice their English singing “Take Me out to the Ball Game.” Though they know almost all the words, they don’t seem to understand what a lot of them mean, and it’s touching to watch them struggle through the most difficult phrases, singing the song with feeling, as if it were a hymn.

It’s this struggle to communicate in a foreign language that provides the film with some of its most entertaining moments. Most of them come courtesy of Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a determined and intelligent, though immature, 19-year-old pitcher whose family is depending on his rubber arm and explosive curveball to lift them out of the slums of San Pedro—depicted here with unsentimental realism—with a big-league contract.

When Sugar—so called because he likes desserts and has a “sweet” pitching motion—finds himself playing for the Swing, a class-A team in the Iowa hinterlands, he quickly learns enough English to order three different kinds of eggs for breakfast and to call an opposing player a “cocksucker,” a term he picks up from Brad (Andre Holland), a Berkeley-educated African-American shortstop with laid-back California charm, a firm grip on reality, and enough Spanish to exchange pleasantries with Sugar, calling him his hermano.

Brad’s rudimentary Spanish is far more advanced than that of the Higginses, a family of devout Christian baseball fans who provide Sugar with room and board while he’s in Iowa. The mother, Helen (Ann Whitney), befuddles Sugar when she points to her washing machine and says, “You put the sopa in here.” She thinks she’s saying soap, though she’s actually saying soup. And her teenage daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), confuses Sugar even more, taking him to a Christian youth meeting and later flirting with him, allowing him one innocent kiss, and then running away.

Yet it’s the contrast between Brad and Sugar that brings into focus the dilemma at the heart of this film: What do you do if you don’t beat the overwhelming odds and make it to the big leagues? Brad plans to teach history. But Sugar, like the other Dominican players, has no real fallback plan and no education—he doesn’t even know who Roberto Clemente is. If he doesn’t make it to the big leagues, his choices are limited. He can either return to his disappointed family and the poverty of the D.R. or go to the Bronx and live in one of the largest Dominican communities in America, working at a survival job in the taunting shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Communicating a visceral sense of what it’s like when your future dangles on the most delicate thread, the filmmakers do an excellent job of showing how Sugar and his Dominican teammates walk, with no net underneath, a physical and psychological tightrope between the D.R. and the American Dream. They show how easy it is to lose your stuff and let momentary failure shatter your confidence; how difficult it is to break out of a slump; and how painful it is when your life and your family’s well-being hinge on a dream that can vanish in the time it takes to drive a hanging curve over the left-field wall.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Good Things in a Gigantic Package

New lovers Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) and Harriet Lolly (Zooey Deschanel) enjoy a little lab refreshment.

Directed by Matt Aselton
Screenplay by Adam Nagata and Matt Aselton
Starring Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Jane Alexander, and John Goodman
98 minutes

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

There is a big mystery at the heart of Gigantic. (A smaller mystery is what the title means.) I’m going to skirt around it because to truly get into it would be quite the spoiler. (I still haven’t totally forgiven my husband for inadvertently giving away the secret of The Crying Game minutes before it started.) Suffice it to say that this facet of the film, which involves a homicidal homeless man, throws one’s perceptions into tumult: Specifically, is Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano), the young protagonist, really the calm, centered eye in the storm of surrounding über-eccentrics—mainly his research-scientist friend, who swills vodka from beakers; his family, including Ed Asner as his ebullient, mushroom-ingesting dad; and his new girlfriend’s family, including John Goodman as her overbearing, tumor-expelling dad?

Not to mention the new girlfriend herself, Harriet Lolly, who appears in Brian’s Brooklyn mattress salesroom in the beguiling form of Zooey Deschanel, who, with her big—or should I say gigantic?—blue eyes, comic timing, and heartstring-tugging abilities, is our new Goldie Hawn (sorry, Kate). Despite Harriet’s sometimes hurtful flakiness, we cannot resist her and neither can Brian. When she falls asleep on a $14,000 Swedish mattress soon after they meet, he not only doesn’t wake her but gently places a blanket over her. Harriet, we soon discover, could use this kind of care, giving the lie to her nickname of “Happy.” Indeed, Brian is so nurturing that he is in the process of adopting a baby from China. Which will place two abandoned females—in Harriet’s case, by her mother—in good hands. (Won’t it?)

To my mind, first-time feature filmmaker Matt Aselton leaves too much unexplained—and lets the hilarious Goodman leave the movie a bit too soon—but this is still a delicate, intelligent, funny romance, and when you really think about it, like a single 20-something New York guy who wants above all to adopt a baby, there aren’t too many of those around.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Homage to a Genre

Tammy (Jenni Baird), an artistically inclined local waitress, helps space alien Urp (Eric McCormack) track a bloodthirsty monster.

Alien Trespass
Directed by R.W. Godwin
Screenplay by Steven Fisher
Starring Eric McCormack, Jenni Baird, Dan Lauria, Robert Patrick, Jody Thompson, Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, and Andrew Dunbar
88 minutes

By Robert Rosen

How much did I love 1950s sci-fi movies? I won’t count the ways. But I will say that I loved them enough to race home from school every afternoon that The Thing was on Million Dollar Movie, watch it five days in a row, and still get a thrill every time the hulking monster, played by James Arness, emerged from the alien spacecraft and threatened to wreak havoc in the Arctic. That experience alone, I think, provides me with the minimal qualifications necessary to review Alien Trespass.

I’ll begin by saying what Alien Trespass is not: A parody of 1950s sci-fi movies. It is, rather, a loving homage to the entire genre, a 21st century film made to look, feel, and sound as much as possible like a genuinely stupid, cheesy, 1957 monster-from-outer-space flick, like The Blob.

In short, producer-director R.W. Godwin, known for his work with The X-Files TV show, seems to have accomplished exactly what he set out to do. And though at times Alien Trespass is intentionally funny—how could it not be with Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack playing Ted Lewis, a scientist whose body is taken over by Urp, an alien lawman crash-landed on earth?—it also manages to be genuinely scary; the silly-looking one-eyed monster must be praised for sending chills up and down my spine more than once.

The filmmakers must also be given credit for indeed making me care about their ridiculously stereotypical array of characters, from Tammy (Jenni Baird), the courageous local waitress who saves the world, to put-upon Police Chief Dawson (Dan Lauria), to Ted’s sexpot wife, Lana (Jody Thompson), to the hep-talking teens, Cody, Penny, and Dick (Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, and Andrew Dunbar). And though Alien Trespass did not exactly make me long for the good old days when such entertainment was routinely available for fifty cents at my neighborhood movie palace, it did make me want to run out and order a burger and fries at the local coffee shop, cholesterol be damned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Most Morbid Myth, Maybe

A sample of the artwork from The 27s. Rolling Stone Keith Richards is not a member of “the 27 Club,” but his former bandmate Brian Jones is a charter member.

By Robert Rosen

The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll is an ambitious book with an identity crisis.

What manner of tome is this? That’s the question.

Could it be a coffee-table book? The slick artwork, glossy paper, and quality printing all indicate that this might have been the intention of its “creators,” Eric Segalstad and John Hunter. But it’s really a trade paperback that lacks the size and heft of a genuine coffee-table book. And though Segalstad and Hunter discuss in detail the numerous musicians—like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones—who died at age 27, it’s not exactly about them, either. The book is filled with so much general rock history that “the 27 Club,” as it’s known, often gets lost in the background.

More important, to call this 27 Club “the greatest myth” of rock ’n’ roll is simply not true. It may be the most morbid myth, but it’s barely in the same arena as the holy trinity of Elvis/Beatles/Dylan, none of whom died at 27.

The 27s is a well-researched rock ’n’ roll overview that would work best as a reference book if it only had a table of contents and an index, and was divided into chapters. But with these essential elements missing, it can’t be called a reference book. It’s just a book that goes on for 310 pages. You can’t find anything in it. And even if you happen to stumble upon what you’re looking for, key bits of information may be missing. Take my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, for example. I heard it was mentioned in The 27s. And it’s true, in a way; there’s a reference on page 283: “Author Robert Rosen writes that after Lennon discovered Cheiro’s Book of Numbers…” But it doesn’t say where I wrote it. It doesn’t give the title of my book. Nor does the title appear in the bibliography, and that sort of thing is as unprofessional as the numerous proofreading mistakes throughout—the kind of mistakes a good copy editor/proofreader (one is credited) should have pointed out.

I think that writers and artists who have the wherewithal and courage to form a company to publish, distribute, and promote their own book, as Segalstad and Hunter have done, are to be commended. But The 27s serves as a good example of the many things that can go wrong with such a venture. It is, ultimately, a book that cries out for the guidance of a professional editor who could have helped shape and focus their very intriguing concept.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Way They Are

Palmer Van Dyke (James LeGros, at right) takes Sherman Black (Michael Shulman) for a wild ride.

Sherman’s Way
Directed by Craig Saavedra
Screenplay by Tom Nance
Starring James LeGros, Michael Shulman, Enrico Colantoni, Brooke Nevin, and Donna Murphy
97 minutes

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Within the first 20 minutes or so of Sherman’s Way, I got tired of counting the stock characters: primarily, a young, uptight aspiring lawyer, named Sherman (who you instantly know will become downloose by the closing credits); his controlling, successful parent (in this case the mother, played icily by theater stalwart Donna Murphy); and the wacky catalyst for his undoing, a hirsute 40ish guy named Palmer (who may or may not be a former Olympian skier who lost the gold for the USA). As the film was also turning into a rather silly road-trip-cum-buddy movie—cool red roadster notwithstanding—I was almost outta there, but my fellow blogger Bob Rosen suggested we stay with it, apparently intuiting a gleam ahead. And he was right. The gleam came into view around the time that Sherman, having impulsively run off to sunny California (from grey New York, indicating New York is staid like Sherman?) to surprise his disenchanted girlfriend with his new impulsiveness, lands in the eccentric yet idyllic—in that movie way—indoor-outdoor lakeside pad, somewhere near Napa Valley, of Palmer’s friend D.J. (“I want to live there!” I said to Bob, who replied, “It’s a trailer!”)

Though falling into many clichés, this movie has enough quirks and surprises (particularly when it comes to the inevitable reunion of Palmer and his estranged son) to make it an enjoyable light, and occasionally touching, comedy. Sherman, played by the boyish Michael Shulman, learns a few practical and emotional truths from crazy Palmer (James LeGros, of Ally McBeal, nearly unrecognizable under all that hair) and resourceful D.J. (Enrico Colantoni, of Just Shoot Me [something tells me these sitcom backgrounds came in handy]), though their arrogant, placid knowingness when dealing with the rich, inept—but sweet—Sherman is at times infuriating. And of course by the end of the film Sherman has helped the self-destructive Palmer inch toward maturity.

He has also, as if one odd couple were not enough, hooked up with yet another flaky partner, the babelicious, skinny-dipping Addy (Brooke Nevin). Apparently, that is Sherman’s way.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

John Updike’s Version

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

It’s been more than a week since John Updike died, and in this crazily blogging world that might as well be a year. However, I don’t think Updike would mind my dwelling on him and his unique oeuvre, since dwelling on things was what he did best (he would have made a great copy editor, as he was apparently afflicted, as I am, with ASD, attention surplus disorder). Updike would describe something you had seen countless times in such a way that you felt you’d never really looked at it—or that someone had finally fully caught what you did see. At its best, his pulling away of the tiniest layers could be mind-blowing, like a drug (UDD—the Updike Drug?); at its worst it could be tedious (probably only a golf aficionado or computer nerd wants to read pages upon pages of the details of a game or program). But readers must have had more “Yes! That’s it!” moments with Updike than with any other writer.

My own favorite such moment came from a simple depiction: his fictional couple the Maples’ running to their Greenwich Village window when they hear the “clatter” of horses’ hooves, knowing mounted policemen are coming down their cobbled street—because that’s what I’ve always done in the same situation. I also have an enduring image in my mind of “Rabbit” Angstrom in a field, looking toward the house of his possible daughter, the field conjured up in all its ugly/beautiful naturalness but also evoking the wistful state of mind of Updike’s most famous character.

The other day, looking for a light—I mean physically light—book to take on vacation, I discovered I had an unread Updike on my shelf, Roger’s Version. The copyright is 1986 but I don’t know when or where I bought it; I like to think it was on Cape Cod, since Massachusetts was Updike’s adopted home state. The book was a used paperback; on the fly sheet is a faint, penciled “50¢.” If Updike were writing this, he would now describe in painstaking detail the shiny hot-pink cover and what that might signify, as well as the little illustration of Adam’s and God’s fingers nearly touching, à la Michelangelo, on a computer screen. (He might also speculate as to the paperback’s previous owner—what that person’s face looked like, what his house looked like, how he came upon the book, why he sold it—not to mention the bookseller…)

Though my vacation didn’t pan out, I nonetheless—a sore throat as my excuse—spent most of the next two days reading Roger’s Version. And here, for me, was the fresh afterlife of Updike: his thoughts, his visions, doubtless his memories and fears and appetites, his imagination, coming at me full-strength through these yellowed pieces of paper. Roger is a theologian, quite a flawed one, grappling with middle age (I calculated that Updike, who shared the fluffy grey hair and eyebrows of his protagonist, must have also been about his age when he created him, 52), a straying wife, and a fear of death.

I could certainly relate to the last. I’d spent the midnight hour of my recent birthday looking for poems to lift me away from a looming depression, but everything I picked up seemed to be about mortality—and almost hard-heartedly so (I decided that poets as a group are hardly the namby-pambies of some hoary stereotypes). In teaching his niece about a William Cullen Bryant poem on the subject, Roger begins to rail against it: “‘Breathless darkness, and the narrow house.’ Bryant was so young, you see, he could say it; an older poet’s hand would have frozen with terror trying to write those lines.”

But his own hand seemed never to freeze. He took on not only death but also such “sins” as adultery and incest, in such a human way that you had to, like the author, go deeper—and therefore get more confused, seeing all the greys, all the layers—than you normally would. In another part of the book, Roger contemplates both a pencil and his own future death, calling the latter “the impossibly fine point to which my life will have been sharpened.”

John Updike, in some mysterious way, made millions of fine points possible.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Forté Fugit: A Rapper's Homecoming

"Homecoming" John Forte + Talib Kweli from The ICU on Vimeo.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Musician John Forté, a Grammy nominee for his production work with the Fugees, has fugit from prison courtesy of—it’s a shocker—George W. Bush (and here I was expecting him to pardon himself). Forté, who turns 34 today, allegedly got caught transporting a damn lot of liquid cocaine, but Carly Simon (some kind of kid’s-prep-school connection here with Forté, who went to Phillips Exeter Academy), Senator Orrin Hatch (a, ahem, songwriter on the side), and others thought a 14-year-sentence for a first, nonviolent offense was over the top. They lobbied successfully on behalf of the violinist/guitarist/rapper, who had already served seven years. On his Daily Beast blog about leaving prison on December 22, Forté recounts that on his first day out, after seeing his mother and his probation officer, he hit the studio—why waste precious time? Above is a video of his new track “Homecoming,” featuring Talib Kwell, with Kanye West on background vocals. Partly a paean to his home borough (“Brooklyn, keep my heart open”), the song invokes Sarah Palin (negatively) and Walt Whitman (positively) as Forté vows to keep singing “till every string on my guitar’s broken.”