Friday, March 7, 2008

Warsaw, Pt. 1: Court and Sparklehorse

When Melody first moved to New York, she settled into an apartment with two gay roommates. This seems to be some sort of unwritten law for young actresses, the 'queen of your very own gay kingdom' syndrome, the 'they live vicariously through my makeup and shoes' rite of passage. This is a very curious thing for a boyfriend to go through. Where does the jealousy go when the guy doesn't want to sleep with your girlfriend but wants to BE her?

Melody was like the Pied Piper-ette of Gays. She walked the streets of Williamsburg and light-stepping men fell out of tea shops flipping their scarves and apologizing for gushing over her pumps and the dress cut on the bias. They would rave about her hair, ask to caress her hips, pledge undying love. Occasionally they mistook me for a fellow worshipper instead of the king of the castle.

During her time in that hip-tropolis, a club opened that has since become a fixture. It is called Warsaw and it is the former Polish meeting house or some such. You go see a rock show and the fluorescent lit white tile kitchen pumps out kielbasa and sauerkraut. The main room is a big square wood floor space with giant paintings of Polish men riding horses in breeches and boots. One can't help but picture a sparsely attended meeting of the Polish Businessmen's Association as they wrestle with the question of how to compete with spaghetti joints and Korean grocery stores.

Whoever opened Warsaw was shooting for the moon. The room seems to drink in sound and give it back to you. It is almost a perfect square and there are no obstructions to viewing the stage. Melody had introduced me to a band called Sparklehorse who were coming to town...

My memories of New York are strange to is as if it was one long fever dream, 8 years of swimming upstream, worn raw but defiant. The specifics of the Sparklehorse concert have disappeared behind me in the current. I know I went. I know I must have stood in the throng with Melody on my arm. I know her wardrobe by heart so I can even picture the different things she might have worn.

But that is the problem. I would be inventing my own memory. As it is, the only picture I posess upstairs is the lead singer, tall and bearded, swaying slightly off balance behind his microphone stand. I remember thinking about how heroin had nearly killed him. I don't remember walking to the show, eating pierogis, kissing Melody, although I know I did all of those things.

It is much like the old tree-in-the-woods question. If a man goes to a concert and doesn't remember it, was he ever actually there in the first place? I must have been because I even have the ticket stubs somewhere.

So today when I thought of beginning a Warsaw trilogy with the Sparklehorse concert, all I could think of was Melody trailing gay-postles down the streets of Williamsburg. Which, when you think about it, might be a better memory anyway.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hollywood Bowl, Pt. 3: Indiana Star Jones Close Encounter Wars!

My son is still at the age when most music bores him. Sitting still long enough to take in a piece of music is just not important. There are some exceptions.

He knows Green Day's 'American Idiot' album by heart. I highly approve of this mania and we have spent many a moment in the traffic of LA singing along to 'Holiday', 'Jesus of Suburbia', and 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams'. The next time they tour, Cashel and I will be in attendance.

He's always loved The Beatles, who I believe to be the first/best children's music artists.

He shook his little diapered rump to the Billy Bragg/Wilco/Woody Guthrie 'Mermaid Avenue' album just as he was starting to walk.

He called music 'doo-doo wa-doo' after a bit of nonsense singing on Dr. Mars first album. The song 'Then She Says' has those sylabbles and Cash would say 'doo-doo wa-doo' when he wanted to listen to music.

But Cashel's musical hero is of course a product of the movies. John Williams. He has all the soundtracks to the Star Wars films, he prefers Williams' work on the Harry Potter films to his successors, and he can identify a Williams' piece immediately.

For his first piano recital he played the 'Death Star' theme. He also entered the stage with his arms thrust in the air in triumph as if he were a lead singer addressing an arena of adoring fans, but that is another story.

Every year in the fall, John Williams comes to The Hollywood Bowl and performs music from the films that he has worked on and also music from the film composers who most influenced him. I bought tickets and decided to surprise Cash.

I'd forgotten however that Cashel takes after his mother when it comes to surprises. They do not fill him with excitement. They make him grumpy. Poor kid gets control freak genes from both sides.

You would have thought I was taking him to the dentist. I had gone too far along on the surprise bit to break and it became a test of will. He sat in the back seat mumbling and asking pointed questions about how long it was going to be and why couldn't we just go to the movies instead. And it better not be too loud whatever it was and what if he couldn't see over the people in front of him. By the time we pulled into the parking lot he was about to have a Close Encounter with my temper.

For those of you who haven't been to The Hollywood Bowl, you sometimes wind up parking a good ways away. Down a hill.

Mr. Grumbly-pants kept up an incessant monologue about how tired his legs were and how far we had to go. He was like Sam and Frodo climbing Mt. Doom fer chrissakes. By this point I was blatantly saying things like, "You are going to feel like an idiot for acting this way when you find out what this god damn surprise is. And if you weren't being such a twit I'd have told you what it was by now."

There on the marquee in front of us were the words 'John Williams At The Movies' or something to that effect.

To Cashel's credit, he immediately apologized and began to positively gush with excitement. I shifted gears along with him even though he'd been a royal pain in the butt.

We got to our little section of bench and snuggled up against the chill.

What followed was pure entertainment. I had been concentrating on what this would be like for Cash, seeing music from 'Star Wars', 'Indiana Jones', etc. But as the orchestra wove its way through all of this music, I realized it was like a soundtrack of my past.

All of a sudden I was back seeing 'Empire Strikes Back' at a drive-in with all of my cousins on my mother's side. I was seeing that text scroll across the stars. I was gasping at the size of the space ship. I was pretending to be Han Solo in the backyard. Hell, I was 10 again.

And so the surprise that I'd sprung on Cash was actually on me. And, just like Cash, it wiped my grumpiness away. There was John Williams, in his 80's, waving that baton and bringing all those stories to life through his music.

On the walk back to the car, Cash didn't even notice how far he'd gone.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hollywood Bowl, Pt. 2: Radiohead Is Not There

Somehow I am at The Hollywood Bowl and Radiohead is about to take the stage. It is a crisp fall night in Los Angeles. How the one-hit wonders of 'Creep' turned themselves into the greatest and most subversive popular rock act in history is something I will never be able to truly comprehend.

When I first heard 'Creep' I was singing along by the second chorus. In an era of spearhead, zebrahead, myriad-other-heads, another band ending in -head seemed destined for the scrap heap of marginalia. Even the heavy chunk of the guitar kicking in right before he says 'I'm a creep' seemed TOO of the moment. This riff was so spot on it threatened itself with cliche. I wouldn't have been surprised if we'd never heard from these fellas again.

And then came 'OK Computer'. Oh, I know they released 'The Bends' before it and 'Fake Plastic Trees' was on the 'Romeo and Juliet' soundtrack, but for me, Radiohead truly came into being the first time I heard 'Paranoid Android'.

Unsettling. Gorgeous. Terrifying.

Listening to Radiohead for me is like being trapped inside a camera on the nose cone of a missile that will one day descend to earth and wreak utter destruction. Before it makes that awful fall it endlessly circles the planet revealing the true nature of existence through sheer observation.

To truly demonstrate the disparate natures juxtaposed within their music, I used to sing 'No Surprises' to my son as a lullaby. He would have been less than one year old so the lyrical content couldn't keep him awake and petrified.

They are (as close as I can tell...)

A heart that's full up like a landfill,
a job that slowly kills you,
bruises that won't heal.
You look so tired-unhappy,
bring down the government,
they don't, they don't speak for us.
I'll take a quiet life,
a handshake of carbon monoxide,

with no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises,
Silent silent.

This is my final fit,
my final bellyache,

with no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises please.

Such a pretty house
and such a pretty garden.

No alarms and no surprises (get me outta here),
no alarms and no surprises (get me outta here),
no alarms and no surprises, please.

When I started singing it to Cashel, I made up the words as I went because I didn't know them. Mine were as follows...

This is the final act
I'm going nowhere fast
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises

This is the pit of love
Fantastic from up above
But when you're down in it
You're flying
When you're down in it
You're flying low

Now, it doesn't rival 'Rock A Bye Baby' for sheer creepiness, but that is how Radiohead helped my little boy get to sleep.

Radiohead transformed themselves into a juggernaut of iconoclastic melody and bombast. The fact that such a complicated message struck such a widespread core has been a comfort to me. Their artistry articulated something very profound about the new ways in which we related to each other as human beings. Or didn't relate to each other as the case may be.

Again, somehow I am at The Hollywood Bowl and Radiohead is about to take the stage. And no pristine setting can counterbalance the primal force of decay and despair that roars forth from this collective. They obliterated us. Their sound expanded to fill the canyon. It was as if some Terminator had been created far in the future, all technology and records of human brutality and beauty had been fed into a genesis machine, and then the machine had been given old tapes of The Clash and The Beatles. The result? The collected output of Radiohead.

During their encore, they began looping their instruments and combining them with a found radio broadcast. As the layers grew, the sound now included aspects that were NOT actually present. The song morphed into some twisted actualization of humanity...there were sticks being smashed against animal skins and fingers plucking cat guts stretched into strings there were ones and zeros in the air funneled through silicon steel plastic and ozone.

One by one Radiohead left the stage. The music continued without them. It was out of their hands. Radiohead was no longer there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hollywood Bowl, Pt. 1: Gayboy at the Hollywood Bowl

Rufus Wainwright will always hold a very special place in my heart. Melody introduced me to him right after we met in 1999. I am used to being the one with the hot album in my pocket so I was pleasantly shocked to hear undeniable genius issue forth. In her Ford Taurus on the way to the Raleigh/Durham International airport, we listened to impossibly romantic and simultaneously vastly sad song after song after song.

In another post I'll articulate why this perfectly matched what was going on between Melody and I, but suffice it to say Rufus became the soundtrack to my life. He influenced my songs, the way I sang, the way I wrote lyrics, the way I listened.

I've been lucky enough to see him perform three times in wildly different settings.

Rufus # 1: CBGB's

Which is now closed. I don't remember how I heard about it but an AIDS benefit was happening at CBGB's. All sorts of queer bands were going to try to put up with the filth that was CBGB's. I know everyone is all nostalgic about CBGB's but to my mind it had long outlived its storied past. Clean the fucking bathroom already. David Byrne is not coming back to pick up his shit.

A boatload of horrible music happens and then a grand piano is wheeled out onto the stage. It looks like a tophat on a hobo.

Rufus shrugs his way onto the stage wearing what looks like a chain mail shirt and girl jeans. He sits at the piano and is visibly aghast. This piano pains him, like fringe on a suit jacket. But it is for a good cause so he summons his will and begins to play.

No frills, no accompaniment. He is staggering. He plays a new song 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk' which I take as some kind of omen because I'd very recently had a meltdown after spilling some while smoking the other. He does a few of the songs from his first album, which is by now a classic in my mind, as familiar as anything in my collection.

He grimaces at the noises the piano makes while he plays, small irregularities of sound that we can't hear but are unbearable to him. He is clearly thrown by the force of adulation rushing at him from the crowd. He seems to almost resent their love, like the aging high school jock who blows up at his friends when they start reliving the big play.

Overall it is a night of contrasts; the cesspool of CBGB's put against the refinement of Rufus' music; the pull of the masses vs. the lone singular voice of their hero.

Rufus # 2: With Tori

By now Melody has moved to NYC and we can finally openly enjoy Rufus, not weep in private to him separately.

He is opening for Tori Amos at The Beacon Theater. For Melody, seeing Tori Amos for the first time is akin to me seeing The Replacements for the first time. Add Rufus and 9/11 to the mix and it became a Holy Grail kind of deal.

Rufus seems to have relaxed into the spotlight a bit. He is much more at ease which could also have something to do with the gorgeous piano he gets to play. He also has a guitar on stage. At one point in his set he is wearing a Future Farmers of America hat and joking about how odd that is. The whole show has an intense feel because it is October 2001 and every event in NYC has an extra edge.

Maybe the size of the room relaxes him, makes him feel less under a microscope. Maybe he hated the dirt at CBGB's. Maybe he just got happier. Maybe 9/11 had opened him up in a new way. He later wrote about it in an amazing song called 11:11 where he notes that 'everything really does happen in Manhattan.'

I don't know what had changed, but the chip on Rufus' shoulder was gone. Let's just say that Tori had a tough act to follow.

Rufus # 3: Gayboys at the Hollywood Bowl

When I heard that Rufus was bringing his Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Tribute show to the Hollywood Bowl, I knew I had to take Melody. Her love of Tori and Rufus pales in comparison to her Wizard of Oz fascination. I know, I know, all girls love the Wizard of Oz, but Melody in her usual fashion always took it a step further.

She insisted on dressing up as Dorothy to go to the supermarket as a child. She actually has red slippers. Now I don't want to paint her as one of those annoying kooks who latch onto something and use it to define themselves. The very fact that she introduced me to Rufus Wainwright should be a testament to her taste and wisdom.

But this is a girl who didn't dream of being a princess, she dreamt of being Dorothy. So there was no way we were going to miss Rufus singing Judy Garland at The Hollywood Bowl. In addition, Melody was still relatively new to LA and hadn't been to the Bowl yet. I love killing many birds with one stone so I snapped up tickets.

Let me set the scene for you. A gorgeous Los Angeles night. An outdoor arena. A modern gay icon recreating THE performance of THE gay icon of all time.

There were picnic baskets, monogrammed. Watercress and cucumber sandwiches. Chardonnay. Bowties. Cologne. Not a single unironed shirt. Silk socks. Lisps. Purely cosmetic eyeglasses. Cufflinks. Tasteful pleats. Decorative sliced fruit laid out on checkered tablecloths. Squeal after squeal in response to Melody's ruby red slippers.

I was an interloper. An outsider. Oh, the looks I got! If it hadn't been for Melody's shoes I would have been ostracized completely. As it was my presence was merely puzzling, as if I were a machine shop gearhead at a Latin club meeting.

Rufus didn't disappoint them. The tribute element of the show allowed them to fantasize right along with him. They were Judy. They were playing The Hollywood Bowl. They were the apex of culture and refinement.

I fought the urge to smell my armpit and grunt.

Instead I sang along to 'Chatanooga Choo Choo' and took a picture on my cell phone of The Bowl lit up like a rainbow. I was the luckiest one of all. I got to take Dorothy no place like home.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Silent Moment

My routine has been thrown off a bit today and I didn't get my post out by morning. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a creature of habit. This change has left me unable to narrow down my list of topics to choose.

I toyed with the idea of performance in huge arena spaces versus more intimate gatherings. I remembered Prince bouncing from instrument to instrument at Jones Beach on Long Island and briefly started a post called 'The Special Effect' because he seemed computer generated. I remembered a band I loved in college called That'll Learn Ya and how I actually witnessed their break up on stage at Club Baby Head.

Nothing seemed to warrant the full treatment.

I'll be back tomorrow with something that I feel strongly about.