Friday, February 29, 2008

Shrooming the Cure

I have been known on occasion to state my opinion rather forcefully. Ask Larry to reenact our debates about Jessica Lange in 'The Music Box' or Mike to chide me for denouncing U2's 'Achtung, Baby' with supreme vitriol. Now, I don't think I'll ever change my mind about 'The Music Box' but I don't even remember knocking 'Achtung, Baby' and think it is a masterpiece. So I am often WRONG and self-contradictory.

Throughout high school and college, I scorned The Cure. I found his voice to be unbearable, the lyrical content at once pretentious and childish, and the hair an abomination.

Boys don't cry? I'll make you cry Robert Smith. You dare to write a song based on Albert Camus' 'The Stranger'? 'Killing an Arab'? Really? You really think you are qualified to do that?

I was in the minority even in my crowd. Most punks had a soft spot in their hearts for The Cure. Robert Smith had played in Siouxshie and the Banshees and she got all the little Mohawk boys gaga over her. She bared her tits at 15 and that meant that anyone associated with her had to be cool.

It is easy to forget how huge The Cure were. They played ARENAS people. During the summer of 1989 they toured the world on The Prayer tour. The song 'Pictures of You' was ubiquitous that summer, an epic wrung hankie. My theater crowd was enraptured by this blatant self-immolation/pop confecture and eyeliner started to pop up on faces that shaved.

I spent an awful lot of time deriding this band and those who enjoyed it. I took pleasure in deconstructing the music to the point where it seemed absurd that anyone might take an interest in it. I played mopey alternatives to Cure fans, tearjerkers by bands that I liked, just to show them how it could really be done well.

The Great Woods Arena announced that The Cure would be coming for 2 nights in August. It seemed as if everyone I knew was going. I didn't give it a second thought. Then, the day of the concert, I got a phone call from my friend Chris. An extra ticket, did I want to go, he knew how I felt about The Cure but it would still be a good time, etc., etc.

They all lived just down the street from my parents house on the bottom floor apartment. This house would later be famously run into by a drunk driver at the height of a bong fest. I wasn't there for that party and the feverish cleaning that happened to rid the house of contraband before the police came to investigate the car stuck to the front door.

But I was there for The Cure. They were partying all day. I got there in the afternoon and was offered mushrooms of the kooky variety. I'd never done mushrooms and was quite nervous. But my friends were veterans and described to me in great detail what would happen to me. I pondered while sipping coffee. Hmmmm....

To be quite honest I didn't have to think long. I took what was offered, a very modest amount in order to keep me from being overwhelmed. These kinds of stories are why I originally only wrote fiction on this blog, but now that I've gone down the rabbit hole I might as well admit that I ate the seedcake.

The effect didn't really set in until we were in the parking lot of Great Woods. Up until then I'd merely felt stoned. It was a cool August evening with crazy clouds hinting at storms but merely bulging gray from out of white. My ticket, the one that someone had declined, was coupled with another just under the shed roof. I had to sit with a stranger, a girl whose name I have completely forgotten and might never have really known.

Heat lightning and gusts of wind gave the evening an ominous note that perfectly mirrored the aesthetic of The Cure. A curious darkness fell, cut by the deliberately moody light show. Slight moments of hallucination began to happen to me but the power of the music and visuals kept it from being overwhelming. As is often the case, I began to think that I'd been wrong about The Cure.

The sound had shape. The live sound added layers of meaning and depth to songs that I realized I knew by heart. I knew I had some apologizing to do to all The Cure fans I'd belittled over the years. Was it the shrooms? Did it matter? All of a sudden, I couldn't help but think that 20,000 Cure fans couldn't be wrong.

So if you ever find yourself in a debate with me and I'm tearing something apart, just remember that I'm like the weather in New England. If you don't like what you're getting, just wait five minutes and everything will change.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Just Before Sonic Youth

My college years were inextricably linked to my high school years in many ways. I went to college in my hometown. Every school break we had, my old friends would come streaming back into town and we would catch up. This usually meant drinking way too much beer at someone's house and then moping around the next day drinking even more coffee, or in Justin's case, whatever he liked to drink for a hangover.

Late one summer, my friend Mike, the one who got U2 tickets for me, urged everyone to go see Sonic Youth with him. In New Haven? I seem to remember seeing them in New Haven twice over the years, the only two times I ever went to Toad's. This was the first time I'd seen them and I was quite excited.

Sonic Youth are The Rolling Stones of the American Underground. They seem to have always been there and so it is quite easy to take them for granted. But turn your thoughts back to the '80's and see just how truly bizarre and unique they are. They covered Madonna, shepherded Nirvana into their spotlight, kept the same lineup for over 20 years, and managed to incorporate the marriage of their two main singer/songwriters Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon into the dynamic of the band.

But this post is about S.C., the girl I dated when I was a senior at South Kingstown High School. She was a year behind me and from the wrong side of the tracks. I use that outdated phrase deliberately because it perfectly encapsulates the differences between us.

There was a wide gap between us culturally. But young love sometimes feeds on these factors. The romance was intensified by the differences in our lives. She had no intention of going to college. I never entertained the notion of not going. She deeply mistrusted her parents but spent a lot of time with them and considered her mother to be her best friend. I trusted my parents implicitly but would never have called them 'friends'. I still wouldn't. They are my parents! I wondered at the fact that she felt constantly betrayed by her 'friends'.

She also had a bit of a 'reputation'. She'd dated an older football player and rumors had gotten around. She had nothing to worry about from me...I could barely put my arm around her without breaking into a sweat. We kissed and petted from fall to spring.

She broke up with me a month before my senior prom. She wrote me a letter and poem that I still have somewhere. In essence, she was reading the writing on the wall. She knew I was going to college. She would be in high school for the next year and then going out into the real world and getting a job. She was letting me go. I was devastated.

But she'd been right. I quickly moved on and dove headlong into college life the next year. Even though I was still in my hometown, I didn't hear anything about her. Our circles were vastly different and her name simply never came up.

I'm sitting in my room listening to Sonic Youth's 'Daydream Nation' in anticipation of the evening entertainment. The phone rings at my folks house. Either I answer it or my mother calls to tell me it was for me.

It was S.C. She wondered if I could come over right then.

It had been at least 2 years since I'd seen her. I was waiting for Mike and Justin to come get me. Instead I found myself speeding out into the woods to her house which held so many memories...sneaking in her bedroom window, having my first cup of tea, parking and making out at The Great Swamp. I was young too but I distinctly remember being in awe of her youth and beauty. Her skin seemed impossible.

These moments flooded me as I approached her driveway. Was she in trouble? Did she want to get back together? In spite of all that had transpired since we'd dated, I could not say for sure that I would turn her down. My feelings for her had not abated in the least. They'd just been abandoned out of necessity.

I walked up the brick to the small house that sat tucked up against the bottom row of trees in a hilly forest. She opened the door and my heart leapt, as usual. In her arms she held a glowing baby girl.

For a moment I had the absurd thought that it was mine even though we broke up over two years ago. Not to mention that we'd never slept together in the first place.

We sat on her couch and reminisced briefly. She'd just wanted me to meet her, she said. She'd worried that I'd heard, that I knew she wasn't married, that I'd judge her like she was so constantly judged in this town. I told her that I was proud of her, that the baby was beautiful. And beautiful she was. I don't remember her name.

Mike and Justin were pissed off that I was late. I could barely speak and told them to back the fuck off. Then I apologized and told them the score.

I don't remember the concert in detail. Thurston Moore shoved a drum stick under the guitar strings and banged on it with another one; Kim Gordon wore a miniskirt and somehow managed to be a pin-up and a renegade all at once; the crowd surged and roared.

Somewhere back in the woods of Rhode Island, a young mother put her baby girl to bed. What had my blessing meant to her?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Invisible World

1999. NYC. How to set the scene? I know I have to end my marriage but I dread separating from my son who isn't quite 2 years old. So things are fun.

Refuge comes in the form of work. It has been a busy year for me in that regard, first doing 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' in North Carolina, then 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' in Santa Fe, and now, in the fall, serving as Rob Morrow's stand-in on a film he is writing/directing/starring in. I've never been a stand-in but this seems like a good opportunity as he'll need me to be able to ACT some scenes a bit so he can plan as the director from behind the camera before going in front of it.

In addition to the theater work, I am feverishly writing and recording songs whenever my son falls asleep. I tend to stick to an acoustic guitar track, an electric guitar track, a vocal track, and rarely some sort of percussion. Often times I would be deep in some alteration, headphones on, when I would hear my son crying in the background. He probably still gets mad whenever I pick up a guitar.

My social life increasingly meant going to meet my cousin Liam at rock and roll shows. I sought solace there. That year we were flipping out over Guided By Voices.

For anyone who isn't familiar with GBV, they were a rock outfit from Dayton fronted by a former high school teacher named Robert Pollard. The 'band' was a revolving door of players who tried to play what he heard in his head. He claimed to have over 1,000 songs ready to go, meaning unrecorded but written. His process was to write reams of song titles, the stranger the better, and then set about writing them.

Some examples...

Portable Men's Society
Hot Freaks
Kicker of Elves
Not Behind The Fighter Jet
Hardcore UFOs
Teenage FBI

The style of the music could be said to resemble an American garage punk rock band playing the lost concept album of The Who; or some British Invasion middle-agers paying tribute to the American underground.

Pollard was notorious for his live performances in which he attempted to channel the Gods of Frontmen. He whipped his microphone by the wire. He guzzled beer by the gallon. He smoked furiously. All this in a body that looked like a gym teacher gone a bit to seed. Curly long hair, beer gut, decidedly anti-hip clothing. He looked like a college professor going through a midlife crisis. Which, I suppose, in some way, he was.

We saw Guided By Voices at some club in the 20's. I never liked this club, with its low ceiling and just-a-bit-too-big room. The combination made for uncomfortable viewing, peering and stooping while on tiptoe. In fact, I can't even remember the name of the club and I don't want to.

Bottom line, they killed. A classic rock show, all sweat and grand gesture. I left feeling as if I wanted to capture some of that in my own writing instead of the constant doom and gloom folk singer fare I'd been endlessly mining.

I walked to the F train nearest the club watching my breath against the cold. I smoked then so I loitered on the curb finishing my last cigarette. Whenever I got back on the train to go back out to Park Slope, I felt a hugh weight descend upon me. I was hurting my ex by staying in the relationship, prolonging the inevitable, and the longer I stayed the harder it would be on my son. But I simply couldn't bring myself to bring about this cataclysm.

I tended to carry pen and paper with me because I was always needing to write things down. The title 'Invisible World' popped into my head and, a la Robert Pollard, I decided to write the song right then and there. I probably still have the scrap of paper it was written on as I was whisked out of Manhattan back to the troubled sanctuary I knew I had to dismantle.

Invisible World

And you know it
When you feel it
The eyes in the back of your head confirm it

The invisible world
Beneath our eyes
It's all we see all we feel

It's all that we can do to deny it
It's all that we can do to rely on it

And if on your life you had to you'd defend it
The process from which all is done goes on
I'm falling off the wall
The scream is breaking down
The inner monologue just won't go off off off

The invisible world
Beneath our eyes
It's all we see all we feel

It's all that we can do to deny it
It's all that we can do to rely on it

By the time I got back to the 9th Street stop of the F train, I'd found the melody and was signing it over and over to myself so I wouldn't forget it. I quietly let myself into our apartment, picked up the microphone, and recorded an a cappella version so I could pick the guitar up the next day and pluck it out on the strings.

Somehow Robert Pollard had brought this song forth, and while it actually said more about me and my predicament than any of the more confessional songs I'd done, it still felt enigmatic and evasive. Just what I'd wanted.

So on that night, I'd been guided by a voice. Guided By Voices.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Best Ever Never Was

Like any small town, Los Angeles has its best kept secrets. And those who are in the know spend an inordinate amount of time trying to give the secrets away to as many people as possible. When you are new in town, everyone and their mother wants to show you something.

Larry took me to the 101 for chow, to Runyon Canyon for hikes, and the House of Pies. Mike touted Marino's on Melrose as the best Italian food he'd ever had, and Jeff brought me to some cowboy bar on Sunset to ride the mechanical bull.

In yesterdays post I mentioned a band called The Broken Remotes, fronted by a good friend Jon Leahy. He helped produce a play I was in when I first arrived on the left coast and he was going around foaming at the mouth about something called Big Mondays at The Joint.

What do you think of when you hear the name Waddy Wachtel? If you've never heard of him then you probably aren't a guitar nerd. Guitar nerds turn into teenage girls when Waddy's name gets mentioned. Put it this way...when Keith Richards records albums, Waddy Wachtel is the guitar player, ok? He worked with EVERYBODY...Stevie Nicks, Warren Zevon, everybody. Master session player but also a true collaborator and creator.

So when Jon told me that Waddy played EVERY Monday night at The Joint and called it Big Mondays, I was beside myself. Little did I know that Waddy would become an afterthought for me once I went.

The Joint is tucked away on Pico down near Robertson surrounded by pharmacies and Starbucks and almost-ritzy car dealerships. But inside it feels like a road house. At least, it did until they renovated. I am not crazy about the new Joint. The old one was like a dead end street in a noir film. You came in the front door and there was nowhere to go but straight to the stage. A tunnel with a bar lining the right side and tiny booths on the left. The stage was the width of the tunnel and elevated almost eye level.

On either side of the stage, framing the action, were what seemed to be two elephant tusks. The booth side was bordered above by a huge mirror that reflected the tops of heads and almost down behind the bar.

The Big Mondays lineup is a revolving door of singers backed by Waddy, a silent bass player who plays with Neil Young, and Tom Petty's drummer when he isn't with The Heartbreakers. They know how to play every song you've ever heard.

When I started attending, the two singers were Stacy P from Tennessee, a blonde lanky bombshell who could play guitar like a mofo and sing in that country/rock mode that Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow mine so well. She later went pretty far in the Nashville Star series, the country American Idol thing and we all wished her luck from down on the floor of The Joint.

And the other singer? Oh, how do I even start? I didn't recognize him. He was a handsome English gentleman in his 60's with a pencil mustache unruly dark hair and a gray suit with white sneakers. As the band rolled through classic songs, he didn't cover the songs, he interpreted them. Authorship was unimportant as all history seemed useless in the face of his expression. He growled he roared he rasped he falsettoed he cooed he blared.

His voice seemed limitless. When they did AC/DC the rasp was cut with an R&B lilt that brought out the blues under the metal. When they did Zeppelin the whine was deeper and fuller than Plant so that even on impossibly high notes the voice was wide and hard. When they did the Beatles, the melody of McCartney and the power of Lennon were woven together in a single voice.

Then came the apex of the evening, a cover of The Kinks 'Waterloo Sunset.' How to put in words what music does? That is the question I've been trying to answer in this blog and I am always going to have to admit the impossibility of this equation. I am not a religious man in an easily definable sense, but this performance was of the ecstatic variety that can only come through faith. The audience was encouraged to sing along at one point as the band played the most minimal of vamps. We sang along with this golden voiced shaman and felt closer to the divine.

I've deliberately withheld his name up to this point because I wanted to impress upon you how deeply he affected me. I left that first night convinced that I had just seen THE GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL SINGER WHO EVER LIVED. Where the hell had he been hiding? How come I had to go to The Joint to see him? How come I could afford it?

Well, it turns out that these questions are quite common when people talk about Terry Reid.

Even typing the name gives me chills. As the details of his career were made known to me, it made his performance seem all the more otherworldy. He was Jimmy Page's original choice to front Led Zeppelin but he was already an established solo act. He'd been a teen sensation as a blues singer and was touring America opening for Cream. He SUGGESTED Robert Plant and John Bonham. He created Zeppelin by turning them down. A series of missteps left him floundering in Los Angeles in the early seventies. Rumor had it that Bob Dylan let him stay at his house for 5 years because he was broke.

I'm going to make another effort at describing his sound...imagine if Ray Charles grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, or if Robert Plant had the silkiness of Smokey Robinson ingrained into his wail. Take Frank Sinatra and feed him Scotch and cigarettes and a jukebox full of Motown and metal and you'll get a pale imitation of Terry Reid.

Here's the bottom line. Somewhere in heaven, God has Hendrix on guitar, Keith Moon on drums, Jaco Pastorius on bass, and he's waiting to book gigs until Terry Reid shows up to sing.

I felt angry at the world on his behalf. Imagine coming upon Mount Rushmore and finding it defaced with graffiti, left untended, unweeded. This man ought to be a treasured and honored icon. Instead, he carried that talent down to Pico and Robertson every Monday and let loose for pocket change. Unfortunately, Terry doesn't sing at Big Mondays anymore. Why? I am not really sure.

As usual, Terry Reid is the one that got away.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Who Said Life Wasn't Phair?

Living in Los Angeles affords you all sorts of strange golden opportunities. For example, this weekend? My girlfriend and I somehow wound up with free tickets to see Joan Rivers in her autobiographical play at the Geffen. One minute you are wondering what you are going to do with your Saturday, and the next Joan Rivers is blaming the Malibu fires on Suzanne Somers's vagina.

One of these fluke nights out came pretty early on in my new life in LA, so it was probably 2004. My cousin called me up and asked what I was doing that night. Whenever he asks me that, I pretty much give over to the fact that SOMETHING is going to go down and I'm going to be a part of it.

Turns out a last minute benefit concert was happening at The Knitting Factory. I don't remember what they were raising money for (breast cancer, perhaps) but a whole crew of us descended on the club.

I had been to The Knitting Factory in New York many times. My impression of the NY club was mixed...there was a too-cool-for-school vibe to the whole place that I found vaguely oppressive. I found myself wishing I'd worn a leather wristband with big metal snaps; or a Kangol hat cocked at an angle. This caused a kneejerk reaction in me to become MORE mainstream. I found myself bringing up how much I liked Guns 'n Roses Use Your Illusion or singing Cheap Trick just to undercut the overly hip underground voodoo bullshit.

But the Los Angeles version felt very different to me. I'd been lucky enough to actually play a gig at the club directly upon my arrival...covering The Replacements' 'Here Comes A Regular' with a great band called The Broken Remotes. They were called Wiley back then. I took pictures of the band and the crowd while I was on stage. It was a great way to debut on the West Coast.

Part of the appeal of The Knitting Factory for me is its location. It isn't tucked away on some dingy lower Manhattan side street that adds credibility to outsider status. Nope. The LA K.F. is in a mall right near Mann's Chinese Theater. You walk the pavement to get to it and you meet up with Spiderman, Darth Vader, various hobbits and goblins, and Marilyn Monroe. Tourists meander, families is NOT cool.

For me, this has the unexpected effect of upping the cool factor for everything that goes on inside the club. It feels like an oasis, not a snide one-upmanship factory. The benefit benefited from this atmosphere...philanthropy, altruism, rock and roll, in a mall??? That's America, baby.

This would be my first time in the club as a spectator and I was in for a treat. Liz Phair was going to perform. She'd been catching flak for months because her latest album was too mainstream. I find the vitriol aimed at Liz Phair to be something akin to the feminist version of the crowd booing Bob Dylan when he went electric at Newport. Bitter people who don't want to expand their perception to include whatever the artist has in mind.

I had always liked Liz Phair, bought all of her albums, followed her career. But it wasn't until the night of this benefit concert that it truly dawned on me...I HAD A CRUSH ON LIZ PHAIR. I am not one to take appreciation of work as romantic interest. I don't lust after actresses. I cut out a picture of Katarina Witt during her heyday and hung it on my wall, but that is as close as I ever came to that kind of idolatry.

Imagine my surprise when I started getting nervous as her slot on the bill approached. I felt like I was on a date and wanted to impress. I checked my teeth for spinach. I chewed a piece of gum. I patted my hair into place. I tucked and untucked my shirt countless times. What the hell was wrong with me? Turns out it was lucky I primped.

Whoosh, there she was. It is not a large club so I was quite close. She wore a microscopic pink skirt with some sort of vest over a t-shirt, high heels, no tights. She had a guitarist, bassist, and drummer to accompany her. They did a set that drew liberally from her albums, but focused a good deal on her latest, the one maligned in music circles as being somehow a sell out.

One of these songs is about her little boy and how he has dealt with the divorce of his parents and the new man in her life. I'd heard it on the album and liked it, but hearing her play it live truly drove it home in a new way. Perhaps it was because I was separated from my son at the time, he being in Maine starting first grade. Perhaps it was due to some sort of psychic unbalance because of my new surroundings, my new life. But the weight of my own divorce and ongoing separation anxiety combined with Liz Phair's voice and words to pack a devastating punch for me.

So now, in addition to the schoolboy crush thing that had been happening, she had just helped me deal with my own broken heart. I wept discreetly, eyes welled to overflow throughout the entire song.

Then as they readied for the next one, she got a bit turned around with her guitar and chord. She turned her back on the audience to confer with her band mates and the chord rose slightly, carrying her already teeny skirt with it. A flash of white greeted the crowd. If they were anything like me, they were mesmerized by this inadvertent exhibitionism. No catcalls, no 'hey, Liz, your skirt is hiked up'. Nope. She casually shook the chord, freeing her skirt to drop back to its intended place.

Soon she left the stage to thunderous applause.

As I socialized and sipped my beer, I found myself rehashing her performance with everyone I spoke with. It had just the right mix of ease and effort. We were all blown away.

I made my way towards the back of the club to pick up another beer. Suddenly and before I knew it I was walking right towards her. She seemed to be 3 feet tall, impossibly delicate. She glowed with energy from the show. She thought she recognized me and held her arms out to hug me.

I said, "You don't know me..." But she hugged me anyway. Her scent engulfed and disoriented me. She laughed that she didn't know me but had thought she did. Still holding her, I told her how she had affected me with her song 'Little Digger'. She thanked me in a way that said she appreciated my situation as a single parent.

I continued on my way to the back of the club but I never did get that beer. I was already drunk on Phair.