Friday, February 22, 2008

1998: Pratfalls for Crickets

1998 was a pivotal year for me. My son was in his first year and blowing my mind on a daily basis. He still does. I juggled being a stay at home dad, freelance writer doing weekly features on debunking Urban Legends as Legs Urbano, and making the daily trek into Manhattan from Brooklyn to audition for commercial after commercial and the occasional play/tv show/movie.

There was very little live music on my slate. My ex really doesn't enjoy seeing live music as much as I do, so this combined with the young baby led to a pretty silent year. I'm sure I caught a show here and there but it was not a focus. I also was becoming increasingly unhappy in the marriage and this led to a general sense of impending doom.

And then along came what seemed like a golden opportunity. The theater company that I had done many readings with decided to mount a new play. The author was at the tail end of quite a succesful career and somehow had been hooked up with this company. The show was called 'Angel Wings'.

I should have known how things would turn out by the auditions. Most actors will know what I'm talking about...the complicated improv that you are asked to redo 4 times. Each improv lasts 15 minutes. Reverse the roles. Do it in whispers. Use only sign language. Bullshit.

But this was a chance to do an original play at a reputable theater by a writer with a track record both in Hollywood and New York so I ignored all the signs.

On a side note, this also inadvertently caused me to have the worst audition experience of my life. The rehearsal period went on for what seemed like a Russian Siberian eternity. The day of tech came which meant an 18 hour day of tedium mixed with panic at the horrorshow we were ostensibly polishing up for public consumption.

My ding dong agent submitted me for a part described as a 'gentle giant' in the theatrical version of 'Trainspotting'. So when I showed up for my evening audition, the casting woman immediately said, "Oh, no, you shouldn't be auditioning for that part, you are PERFECT for the Ewan McGregor part. Come to the callbacks tomorrow..." I rushed back over to continue the tech for 'Angel Wings' which was plagued with difficulty, the kind of difficulty that always arises when you are trying to tailor lights and sound to crap.

It went until about 2 in the morning. I trekked back out to Brooklyn, fell into a fitful sleep, and told myself I'd work on the audition in the morning.

The next day was a very full one, capped by opening night/dress preview of 'Angel Wings.' I had 3 commercial auditions throughout the day and then a late afternoon call for the 'Trainspotting' audish. I lugged the stroller all over hell and gone through the cold peddling my wares. I could take him to the commercial auditions because he was so little he would be asleep in the carriage while they taped me. But for a theater audition I dropped him off with a friend. I was almost late and due to the hectic schedule totally unprepared.

I sat outside the audition room sweating, feverishly trying to master the monologue from the show. A scene with a reader would have been fine, but a monologue about a dead baby crawling across the ceiling all while on smack and in a Scottish accent? I began to FREAK OUT.

To make things worse, the room was not sound proofed so I had to listen to a REAL SCOTSMAN give a kick ass audition, clearly off book, full on performance. I could feel the bugs on his skin while I was trying to whip myself into shape. I was the last person they were seeing that day.

The woman who'd met with me the night before came out into the hall and took my arm. She was pretty and smelled nice. In retrospect she was flirting with me but I was too petrified to realize it. She walked me across the audition room to meet the director/producers. She whispered in my ear. "I saved the best for last." Meaning me. Meaning she thought I was going to nail this and get the job. Meaning she'd probably talked me up to the creative team. Meaning that I was headed off a cliff.

I started the monologue, having to read off the paper. My Scottish accent was something between an Irish Spring soap commercial and a drunken imitation of Sean Connery. I was still sweating. I had no idea what I was saying. I stopped and said I'd like to start again.

I thought I might relax if I sat on the floor. Once again I dove in trying to recapture the promise she seemed to see in me. Once again I felt as if I were reading a grocery list in Chinese. I stopped and restarted again, standing up as if to marshal my energy.

A paragraph in I kept hearing 'STOP!' over and over in my head. So I did. I said, "You know what? I think I'm just going to stop." I said something else too, making no excuses just refusing to go through the charade of pretending I was doing something that they ought to be paying attention to.

The casting director who'd been rubbing her breasts against me only minutes ago, said, "Well, at least you KNOW." I slunk out of there convinced that I would never work again.

And the worst part? I had to go perform 'Angel Wings' that evening for the first time. I played the part of a young wealthy heir to a real estate mogul fortune. I was only interested in butterflies and spent the show dressed as a combination Cub Scout/beekeeper. I carried a net, fell in love with a French girl and spoke most of my lines in a French accent in order to impress her.

One scene, theoretically the height of hilarity, found me literally falling all over myself and a couch to get to her. I worked on this bit of stagecraft, honing it until it was effortless. I was pulling off my scientific gloves seductively, cooing to her in a French accent, trying to contain my excitement. In my passion, I trip over the back of the couch and somersault down onto the floor at her feet.

Now, I have no problem tooting my own horn. I nailed this fall. I was all arms and legs shooting out in all directions. I let out a strangled cry of embarassment which I twisted into my next line as if I'd meant to do it all along. In any other context, this fall would have brought the house down.

As I came to rest next to the schoolgirl skirt with white tights and black patent leather shoes, I felt a great wave of resentment hit me, sent out in lieu of laughter. I felt like a telemarketer who'd called a couple in the middle of a romantic dinner, like an uninvited guest who pops by for a visit during a marital spat. I might as well have farted.

So, for the second time in a day, I was left with nothing but the thinnest of silver linings. As the casting director had said just hours earlier, "At least you know."

In a year bereft of live music, I spent night after night doing pratfalls for crickets.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Living Room, Pt. 3: One Two Three Four

One of the most interesting things about live music is the cross section of the public that is on full display. You can actually tell a lot about the artist by looking at the crowd. Back in my hardcore days it was all safety pins and mohawks; the high octane rock bands of the 90's shifted things to a flannel stoner vibe; followed by the hipster chic of indie rock.

But by far the most interesting crowd I ever witnessed came back at my favorite club The Living Room in Providence in the late '80's.

I was not yet a huge Ramones fan when I heard that they would be touring behind their latest album. I'd heard their songs, seen parts of 'Rock and Roll High School' at high school parties, but to be honest, I took them for granted somehow. I think everyone does, actually. Their sound and look is so perfectly realized that they don't seem real...they are avatars.

The usual ritual of the live show in Providence ensued. Someone was chosen to drive. A full party could be achieved before having to head up the highway. Headliners at The Living Room didn't usually hit the stage until midnight. 9 times out of 10 we knew who the openers were and disliked them. There were very few local bands that we cared for so we invariably had some sort of party before the show.

Once the beer was gone we would pile into the designated driver's car and head out. Fast food would be purchased and consumed by the time we hit the county line and before you knew it we would be looking for parking outside the old mill that housed The Living Room. I know it can't be true, but in my memory, the streets are always shiny with rain. The bricks of the mill have that wet sheen as well, as if moss is just about to sprout.

The courtyard outside the club was usually packed with smokers, under 18 kids hoping to get into the club somehow, and people who needed a break from the incessant slam dancing. So as you entered you got a good idea of what kind of people were in attendance.

Now, up to this point, I'd been used to extremely homogenous crowds. In fact, my friends and I tended to be the odd square pegs who didn't have purple mohawks and leather jackets with English punk band logos spray painted on the back.

What I saw outside The Living Room the night the Ramones played astounded me. Inside the club it was even more pronounced.

First of all, there were more people there than I'd ever seen. And I'd already seen The Replacements, Husker Du, Violent Femmes, etc., etc. There were more people outside in the courtyard than were usually inside the shows.

If you'd been an anthropologist, you absolutely would not have been able to pin down what this gathering was for. The diversity was staggering and seemed dangerous somehow, as if some strange faction might attack another at any moment.

There was a large contingent of Hell's Angels, average age mid 50's, sporting the hardened look of men who'd spent the better part of their lives astride giant machines. Their beards hung between their leather jackets, their boots clanked and jangled, their tattoos weren't visible under all the coverage but you could feel them just the same.

Then there were the hardcore punks. The Ramones were a bit too mainstream for their tastes but options for entertainment were so few in those days that they would show up on principal. But they scorned the rest of the crowd because they weren't true believers, they were only drawn to the world of punk by the commercial success of The Ramones. Their hair hovered feet above their heads, shaved into a thin fan that ran from the back of their necks to the tip of their foreheads. They wore leather biker jackets much like the Hell's Angels did, but they covered them with stickers, logos, sayings, anything they could get their hands on. Their jeans had holes ripped into them and held back together with safety pins and the black leather began again midway up the calf with combat boots. If these were clean, you weren't a real punk. Many of them had adopted a straight-edge lifestyle, refusing to drink or do drugs. Inevitably they wound up in college two years later wearing Polo shirts and doing beer bongs.

Peppered amongst the throng were the tenured Professors. They were probably in their late 30's but seemed older, guys who still lived like college kids but taught them instead. They were wearing suit jackets and band t-shirts underneath, blue jeans and topsiders. Occasionally their hair was enveloped in gel, adding a touch of the underground to their establishment look.

Hippies were also everywhere, oddly enough. How they hooked into the 3 distorted chords and no guitar solos that the Ramones played over and over, I'll never know. But there were many tie-dyed t-shirts, Jesus beards, patchouli splashed onto hairy female underarms, and bad dancing hippies in attendance.

Goth was a barely known fashion choice at this point. If there were 20 goth kids in Rhode Island at this point in history, I'd bet each and every one of them was at the Ramones show. Black eyeliner, white pancake, extra piercing...

Then there were the frat boys. Izod, khakis, Nikes, wasted on beer. No dope for these guys yet so they were still annoyingly hostile to all the other people who had decided to venture out.

The Ramones hadn't gone on yet so all these various groups (and many which I have omitted) circled each other warily; I kept expecting dancing Jets and Sharks to start snapping their fingers and threatening each other.

Then the lights dimmed, a smoke machine filled the teensy stage, and out the Ramones came. Joey seemed to be twenty feet tall. The smoke machine must have been their own because I'd never seen smoke at The Living Room unless it was coming out of my lungs.

He stepped up to the mike. This legend!!! What would he say to this impossibly varied group of worshippers?

'One Two Three Four!'

All hell broke loose and stayed broken loose for 2 hours. Joey never said a word that wasn't a number to count off for his band. There was never more than 3 seconds of silence between songs. The disparate fashion factions were instantly and totally transformed into one swirling mass of humanity. Distinction was impossible. How can one unit be divided?

At one point I was somehow lifted and deposited onto the bar. I sat there with no way to get down. It was as if I were sitting on a barn roof just above a flood. The bartender didn't tell me to get the hell off the bar, he poured me a water and yelled that I could get down at the end of the song. Indeed, I barely made it off in time because the Ramones were off and running.

What had seemed like a powder keg of differences was now a fireworks display of diversity.

Hell's Angels helped hot punk chicks escape whirlpools of slam dance destruction, frat boys held up stage diving goth geeks, hippies shared joints with mohawked straight edgers, and The Ramones gave everyone a center to slouch towards.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Copland On The Green

Left to my own devices I am a hermit. I could go weeks on end not breathing fresh air and I'd never think twice about it. I wouldn't make any connection between my foul mood, darkened view of humanity, overall malaise, etc., and the fact that I'd hidden away. Thankfully, I have family and friends who draw me out of my shell enough to keep me from making their lives too miserable!

On one of these occasions, my girlfriend forced a vacation on me. We lived in Brooklyn at the time and she came up with the crazy idea of driving up I95 to the Berkshires. In my state of mind, it was as if she suggested a manned space flight. It was like getting hit on the head with a frying pan in a cartoon. Time off? Wha???

I resisted the idea...we were broke, I was tired, we were broke, we were broke, did I mention we were broke? But Melody is relentless when she has a good idea. Before I knew it we were in the rental car headed out of the city.

Melody had planned many excursions for us. We were going to get massages at a spa, see the Norman Rockwell Museum, visit Mass MOCA (Massachusetts Musem of Contemporary Art), see a dance performance at Jacob's Pillow, and hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra outside at Tanglewood.

Now, as I've mentioned before, I am something of an obsessive when it comes to music. I pride myself on having a wide scope of general knowledge about just about any kind of music. So I am always mildly taken aback when someone knows about something I don't. I ought to be used to it by now, but there is always that little part of me that thinks I'm THE expert. Happily, I'm constantly being shown up in this regard.

This weekend in the Berkshires was one of those times. I'd lived in New England my entire life (save the 10 months in France) and I'd never even heard of half the places that my Southern beauty was exposing me to. She was like my own personal Jacques Cousteau of culture, showing me things that I'd never imagined existed.

We saw an exhibit at Mass MOCA that was set up in a huge exhibit room. Giant swaths of fabric sewn into balloon shapes hung connected by gentle tubing. It was a giant bellows. You'd walk under this THING hung from the ceiling and occasionally a fart would issue forth from the folds next to your head. It was hilarious and humbling somehow. This cross between a bagpipe and the intestines of some huge giant made a bizarre sort of music, interspersed by the high notes of human laughter. We left in a trance.

The dance at Jacob's Pillow was that kind of modern dance that leaves you in wonder at what the human body can accomplish. I vaguely remember a theme, some sort of anti-authoritarian vibe, but for the most part the aesthetic seemed geared towards using interesting movement to keep your eye mezmerized. We dressed up, drank wine before the show, soaked up the atmosphere of a top-flight dance troupe in what felt like the middle of the woods of Massachusetts.

To top everything off came the concert at Tanglewood. In another example of Melody introducing me to something I was previously ignorant of, the program was to include Aaron Copland's 'Appalachian Spring'. Melody knew this music because of her childhood spent in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. She was familiar with Copland. I'd never heard of him. This tickled me and made me feel like the luckiest guy in the crowd.

Like everyone, we brought a picnic. We laughed at our little spread compared to some of the monstrosities other classical fans were constructing. Fold out mahogany tables with Persian slip covers, scented candles and silverware, damn if some of 'em didn't have butlers hovering. Melody had one of those Mia Farrow in Great Gatsby hats curving from here to eternity around her beautiful face and we sat and sipped wine and generally fulfilled all those romantic cliches that are the only acceptable cliches going.

And then Copland's 'Appalachian Spring' started. Conducted by Andre Previn (hello! My Dinner with Andre!!!!) with Van Cliburn soloing on piano, the Boston Orchestra brought this piece to life. Now, with a punk band in a club, I can watch the members and see who is pulling their weight, who is dragging the group down, etc. But with an orchestra? The listening experience becomes pure because I have no critical backlog of knowledge. Some classical Aaron Copland fanatic might have thought this was the worst performance of the piece EVER. All I know is it seemed beautiful to me.

Here it was, early 21st century, and thousands of people sat under the stars and let themselves be transported back to a time when amplification could only be achieved by building a curved shell of rock behind the orchestra.

Connecting this beautiful sound to me was the girl who brought me out of my cave to see it, the girl whose home country inspired the very music we were experiencing.