Friday, April 18, 2008

The Saints, or Une Voyage Bizarre

This is as hazy a memory as I could possibly dredge up.

I was living in France and several months into my new approach to life hors des etats-unis. I'd completely ceased attending class...I'd made a tight circle of French friends and felt as if I was learning infinitely more about the language by actually speaking it with natives instead of sitting in classrooms with other English/non-French speaking exchange students. Of course, I probably could have been doing BOTH and learning a great deal more, but the call of the wild was too strong.

Life seemed to have devolved into an endless series of dares to be met. We borrowed a car and drove the equivalent of Rhode Island to North Carolina. We stole pallets to start bonfires. We jumped onstage with local rock bands. We shamelessly used our accents to flirt.

When I say that this memory is hazy, I am not kidding. I don't remember who I went with, where we went, how we got there, how long it took, how long it took to get back, what the name of the joint was, what month the show was in, what day it was on, what songs were sung, how many cigarettes I smoked, how many bieres I buveed.

In fact, at the moment I am writing this, I don't know the name of the artist we went to see. I only know that he was the lead singer of The Saints and someone had managed to convince him to come to France to play this show. Pardon while I go Google...

His name is Chris Bailey. The Saints were (are) an Australian band that plays straight forward rock and roll. I had never heard nor heard of The Saints before this night.

I have an image of a ramshackle restaurant in a forest just adjacent to an arced moss covered stone bridge over a small stream. A windmill perhaps? A pointy shingled building with old-fashioned windows held together by the trees that surrounded it. I have no image in my head of another building anywhere near it. It is as if we'd been brought to some Hobbit hideout.

I know it was a bit of a drive from Orleans where I attended school. Who got me to go to this concert? I don't remember. It wasn't anyone in the circle I knew so well so it must have been one of those 'take the American!' kind of hospitality experiences that exchange students always find themselves in.

I seem to remember being in a round little orange car for a good long while. In French I got the lowdown on The Saints. Perhaps this is why I can't remember it.

Once at the Hobbit inn we ate some French food, mostly ham dunked into melted cheese. Chris Bailey would be coming out to sing later on. There was no stage, no microphone. I imagine this was some French version of a bed and breakfast. Again, my memory fails me. I see nooks at the top of short stairwells, arched crannies shoved up against ceilings...

Everyone hushed once Bailey began to sing. The show seemed to go on forever, in a good way. His voice has that gruff storyteller quality and he seems to know how to play every song ever written. There was one zealot there who'd obviously arranged this unlikely concert. He kept shouting out Frenchly pronounced titles of Saints songs. Other people shouted out Motown classics, Beatles tunes, whatever the hell came into their heads.

Thus the concert had a schizophrenic quality, like a lurching drunk virtuoso expatriate trying to appease a group of local politicians. He stood on tables and exhorted sing-alongs, he serenaded blushing girlfriends, he probably sang the Marseillaise for chrissakes.

We stayed until the bitter end, which seemed to be 5 days later. I know the restaurant emptied and whoever the hell dragged me all the way out there and I sat and drank and raved with Chris Bailey, whose name I just had to Google. I have no memory of what we discussed but I'm pretty sure it involved outrage, hilarity, anti-Frenchiness, anti-Americanism, anti-Australianism, and long burps.

He put on a hell of a show, did that Saint, in the Hobbit hideout in the uncharted wilderness of the France of my memory.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"As Datchery I Did My Bit!"

I'm going to take a slight detour today and talk about a musical performance that I actually participated in. While at URI one of the great pleasures I got from the theater program there was appearing in the yearly musical. These were not your average teensy productions...we are talking big budget, meticulously prepared, designed, rehearsed, and costumed, extravaganzas.

In my URI years, I appeared as Jerry Tackaberry in 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying', James Throttle the Stage Manager in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', and finally, King Pellinore in 'Camelot'. My first year I didn't audition for the musical for some unknown reason and missed out on being onstage with my sister Sheila as Anne in 'Anne of Green Gables'.

Today's post will focus on one song performed in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'.

Now, the gimmick of 'Drood' is that it tells the story of an 1890's London music hall troupe putting on a musical version of Dickens' unfinished last novel. So each actor plays a music hall part and then a part from the novel, or several parts as the case may be. The novel gets told but filtered through the bawdy lens of a rowdy late-night vaudeville atmosphere.

To take things one step further, the audience chooses who the murderer is. Dickens died before completing the novel and left no definitive notes on the outcome.

I earlier said that each actor played two parts. Except for me. I played James Throttle the ass-kissing wimpy stage manager of the troupe. Our director chose to have me posted stage right (the audience's left!) throughout the entire show. The idea was that I troubleshot the various stage pieces that the fictional troupe had to pull off. I also was the assistant/valet for the narrator/emcee of the music hall.

I also functioned as a sort of 'applause' sign. If the scene was frightening, I was petrified. If it was melancholy, I was devastated. If it was angry, I was apoplectic. This turned out to be one of the more exhausting shows I've ever done because of this. I NEVER LEFT THE STAGE.

I also counted the votes. This is really where today's story begins...

When the troupe reached the hanging inconclusive end of Dickens' novel, a sort of chaos ensued. The troupe ran out into the crowd with chalkboards and virtually assaulted the audience. Girls in corsets sat in laps, men in tails kissed hands...all while culling opinions. If I remember correctly, actors had sections to chart. Row by row they would ask, "Who did it?"

All these chalkboards were then brought down from the seats to me. The orchestra, a strange 20 piece affair, vamped while I feverishly counted. And when I say I counted, I assure you, I really counted. We were not interested in rigging this election.

7 or 8 different characters were to be ready to sing the confessional song if voted the murderer. It was usually one of two people, the madman at the center of the narrative, or the woman he was in love with.

On the night in question, however, our audience had something else in mind.

As I counted the votes it became apparent that they, of all the audiences we'd had, thought that Bazzard had been the guilty party. Bazzard was a waiter. I can't even remember how he played into the narrative, but let's just say that he was pretty far out on the fringe of the story!

I notified the REAL stage manager who handled backstage traffic. Word was then spread somehow to whichever actor had to suddenly sing the 'I DID IT!' song.

Out came my friend David to confess to a crime he'd never dreamed he'd commit. Oh, sure, he was rehearsed, each actor who factored into the voting had to rehearse the singing of the song, but was he PREPARED??? He'd never come CLOSE to being voted the killer.

It's important at this time to remember that I am the only other actor on stage and I am NOT IN THE FICTIONAL WORLD OF THE PLAY.

He swooped out from backstage wearing the cape that figured into the tale. Things started out well enough. He had a murderous glint in his eye that made the audience's choice seem appropriate.

Then, and in my mind I even hear the needle stuck in the groove, he couldn't get off of the line 'As Datchery I did my bit!" This line explains how he could be Bazzard but disguised himself as Datchery to further his fiendish plot. He repeated the line 3 or 4 times while whooshing his cape around.

I realized that an actor's nightmare was in full swing right in front of me. And there was nothing I could do about it. As I said, I AM NOT IN THE FICTIONAL WORLD OF THE PLAY.

The orchestra immediately began to sound like a bunch of drunk Tom Waits fans trying to play 24 different versions of 'Jockey Full of Bourbon' on 20 different instruments. Violin bows zigged into cellists, hands fiddled with sheet music hoping to find where the hell this actor was in the song. I can't really articulate how funny all of this was.

Especially the orchestra. Frantic, playing who-knows-what, waiting for some sign of recognition, some hint that he might be able to move FORWARD instead of repeating the absurd line over and over.

As Datchery I did my bit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fugazi Won't Stand For It

Ever since I first heard of Minor Threat in high school Ian MacKaye has been a hero of mine. Let's count the accomplishments...

1. He seems to have invented two genres that have completely altered the musical landscape. With Minor Threat he transformed punk rock into something almost unfathomably fast and loud called 'Hardcore' and then when that grew old real quick he pioneered something called 'emo-core' with his new band Fugazi. Soon the '-core' was dropped and 'emo' was upon us.

2. Started a record label so he wouldn't be beholden to anyone in the pursuit of music. Dischord has chronicled Washington, DC hardcore music since its inception.

Since the 1980's, his bands have sold enough albums to be considered successful by any standard. The possibility of this becoming extremely lucrative has been there for well over 20 years. But his unrelenting focus on music itself has led to some principled decisions. They don't sell t-shirts, no stickers, no mugs, no key chains, nothing but the music itself. This is why you might see a 'THIS IS NOT A FUGAZI T-SHIRT' on the street.

Also, Fugazi refuses to play any show that isn't open to all ages. If you can't legally admit an 11 year old, they will not book themselves into your venue.

In addition, they keep the costs of their music way, way down. If you go to the Dischord website, you can buy a full-length CD for $12.

I never saw Minor Threat while they were together, but if you want to hear where most of the loud music on the radio today comes from, check out their back catalog. Fugazi has also gone by the wayside but I caught them in NYC when they played Roseland.

I remember being struck by how many true teenagers were in the audience. As usual, Fugazi had insisted on an all-ages show. $10 to get in. Which means that Roseland kept almost all of that and Fugazi didn't make much profit because they refused to charge $20 a ticket.

I don't remember who I went with. Fugazi took the stage quite early knowing that the majority of the audience had to get up and go to junior high in the morning. As they tore into their amazing set-list, the inevitable mosh-pit nonsense occurred. From way back up in my seat I could see the swirling mass that I used to participate in when I was younger. I no longer saw the novelty of letting strangers abuse me to a backbeat.

Suddenly, whatever song Fugazi was playing stopped. Ian stepped to the mike and said, "People up front are getting crushed. Everyone has to move back 30 feet." Then Fugazi proceeded to wait silently while the crowd eased up and allowed the people pressed against the stage to get some room. Throughout the show this happened repeatedly.

Now, some people find this kind of attention to justice annoying in a rock band. They claim that a certain level of danger is appropriate in a politically charged high octane performance atmosphere.

I bet the girls up front getting smashed into a concrete divider beg to differ.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Wassup, Wasserman!

Rob Wasserman is one of those musicians you've probably heard on someone else's record. He is a bass wizard. He has transcended the anonymity of the side man to the point where he has established himself as a true collaborator and creator in his own right.

He put out an album called 'Duets' back in the 1990's that featured him paired with a variety of different artists. They performed old standards, original pieces, anything they had a mind to. This is one of those perfect albums that seems like a soundtrack to a forgotten classic film. It seems to have a visual quality to it, so perfectly etched are the sounds.

One song in particular became important to me. Jennifer Warnes, yes, the 'Up Where We Belong' with Joe Cocker-nonsense Jennifer Warnes, sings an old Leonard Cohen song called 'The Ballad of the Runaway Horse'.

Before I even talk about the performances, I have to address the song itself. When Cohen recorded it, he titled it 'Ballad of the Absent Mare'. I've never heard his version of the song.

Jennifer Warnes and Rob Wasserman's version is stark and sparse. Only the bass and the voice. The bombast of 'Up Where We Belong' is nowhere to be found. Subtle and epic, she virtually coos the entire song.

A cowgirl waits for a wild horse. They've ridden before. Every time they do she feels whole. Then his wildness reasserts itself and their union is torn apart.

Somehow this song wound up being the song that my ex and I danced to as our first dance. Think of this if you are attempting to get married without a wedding planner. They just might step in and say, 'Yes, beautiful song, make another choice.'

But in listening to the song, I'm once again struck by how unbelievably romantic and beautiful it is. In spite of the central metaphor of loss. And whether we'd stayed together or not, it was an apt choice.

Really long, though. The crowd got a bit antsy while we danced and we joked as we danced that we could have faded it out at a certain point. I am still transported to that day whenever I hear the song. When it comes up on random play I often skip it because I simply can't go there.

Long story short the marriage ended. The metaphor carried over and our love couldn't survive our most basic nature. I swam upstream in Brooklyn trying to get to a still pond. I wore my nerves to the thinnest edge.

Then one night I found myself out with Quasi Uncle Andy and Buzz. Andy is one of my oldest friends, dating back to college. We shared an apartment on the Upper West Side when I first moved to the city. He met Buzz working at a Mexican restaurant in the Village. Buzz is Iranian and moved here when he was 10. His father was a general and fled the country when the Shah was overthrown. Imagine coming to America in 1979 from Iran.

Buzz said he fought every kid in his school. Buzz wound up rapping with my cousin and I in a group called New Mischief, but that's a story for another day.

I don't remember how but I convinced Andy and Buzz to go with me to The Wetlands to see Rob Wasserman in concert. They knew nothing about him. There were maybe 30 people there, a shameful display of public taste.

By the end of the concert, Andy Buzz and I stood at the lip of the stage and screamed at the top of our lungs that we wanted more, play more, play something else, play anything. During the show we kept marveling at the fact that we were witnessing obviously historic music and NO ONE was there. We vowed that our response would not be muted in spite of the space around us.

I let the cares of my increasingly stressful life fall away and Rob Wasserman made me forget that he'd been at my wedding.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Club Baby Head, Pt. 3: Shit, Oops, Sugar

In my punk rock jihad years there were two ideologies that drove my fervor. Both hailed from Minneapolis. The Replacements and Husker Du. My belief in both wound up challenged over time, but in the case of The Replacements and Paul Westerberg, the doubt only strengthened my mania.

Upon the deepest of introspection, Husker Du is a grand disappointment. At the time their music would have been characterized as the more complex, adult, multi-layered art. They took on big themes: military industrial complexes, capitalist ennui, philosophical angst, sexual politics funneled into violent crime, etc. But while the topics might have seemed more intellectual, in retrospect, their viewpoints seem almost quaint, politically correct, juvenile.

My son is easily outraged by injustice. He finds it hard to fathom that laws are broken, ignored. This is the tone that mostly prevails in Husker Du's oeuvre.

The Replacements sang about things that seemed far more base, basic. Boners, beers, boredom. But over time their squall has accrued significance instead of diminishing. Their obsessions seem appropriate.

Husker Du broke up before The Replacements did, so both Bob Mould and Grant Hart had a head start on Paul Westerberg in their solo careers. Mould put out a masterpiece called 'Workbook: Compositions for the Young and Old to Sing'. It was a delicate swirl of acoustic and electric virtuosity. His lyrical concerns seemed more universal, more emotional, less culled from the op-ed pages.

A truly brilliant album start to finish. Strangely, this album caused me to feel distanced from Husker Du's output which seemed dated in comparison. I saw him perform acoustically in Boston and it was a true eye opener. He is one of those rare combinations of guitar hero histrionics and songwriting punch. To see this welded together made me have high hopes for the rest of his career.

Soon word got out that he'd started a new band called Sugar. They played Club Baby Head and I was first in line. They were everything I'd hoped for...loud, tuneful, passionate, wild. I could hardly believe it but I liked Bob Mould's new band more than I liked his old one!

Then the record came out. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. What I'd not been able to glean in that glorious live shot were the actual words he was singing. I'd been happy to have him segue from the political statement to the existential musing but now it seemed he'd gone right over to the inane. These words were like jello. Not only were they too sweet and hard to keep on a spoon, I also had the distinct feeling that they were bad for me. That if I examined the ingredients too closely I'd find distasteful things.

And thus my connection to one of the pillars of my religion crumbled away and left me feeling like a guest at a wedding of a friend I no longer felt close to.

What sticks in my craw though is that live show at Club Baby Head. Where had that band been while they were recording that album? How did the simple act of transfer to tape kill such a vital sound?