DVD Review: Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970

When it comes to Beatles fans, there's a whole spectrum. Some just like the music. At the other extreme are those who obsess over every detail of the band's life and work: reading all the biographies and analyses, studying all the lyrics, following all the legacy news.

This new documentary is for those who fall somewhere in the middle. The information and perspectives imparted by these variously scholarly interviews won't give extreme Beatles geeks anything they don't already know, and to the casual fan they may not be of great interest. For someone like me, though – a serious music listener and Beatles fan, but without the desire (or, I suspect, the brain capacity) for encyclopedic knowledge – it hits the spot.

The documentary focuses on "the centerpiece of their success: the extraordinary songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney." During the years 1966-1970 that partnership took the Beatles from pop stardom to the forefront of musical sophistication and even the avant-garde, resulting in a body of work that continues to stimulate imitation, inspiration, and study decades later. (A previous DVD took up the formative period, from 1957-1965.)

Authors, journalists, and creative souls like Barry Miles, Klaus Voormann, Allan Moore, and Robert Christgau talk about the progression of events and influences that fueled the creativity of the Beatles' two primary songwriters through the period of the group's greatest success. The Dylan influence, Lennon's taking surreal inspiration from random phrases and posters, McCartney's immersion in the London art scene, the challenges of Frank Zappa's experiments and The Who's noise-rock – all these and more collect into a pretty well-rounded picture of what made these boys tick.

George Harrison's songwriting contributions, which became very significant in the later period, aren't covered here, and one misses them – not because the filmmakers don't deliver on what they promise, but because one can't feel fully immersed in the world of Beatles music without Harrison. But purely as a study of the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, it succeeds. The documentary footage is interesting, if limited, and despite the dry, semi-scholarly tone, one gets fairly caught up in the excitement and emotions of a time when pop music was becoming much more than trifles for the ear.

Since the focus is on a small selection of representative songs, full versions of them would really improve the film. Beatles fans most likely have all the songs anyway, but being able to listen right then and there would certainly be a plus. Of course, getting the full rights to songs can be difficult or impossible, especially for independent filmmakers.

Extras are scant: a structural analysis of the song "A Day in the Life" by Allan Moore (just the sort of thing I find fascinating), and textual biographies of the contributors. The latter are useful because I didn't know who half of these people were, and it's good to see what makes them "experts." British fans will find more of them familiar names.

For the obsessive Beatles fanatic who knows everything but also needs everything, this will be a welcome addition, but non-completists can probably take a pass. For those who are merely highly interested, it's definitely worth a look.

Theater Review (NYC): Zero by Danny and Robert O’Connor

Things are bigger in Texas, and people live life a little slower. Maybe they just need more time to take it all in, since there's so much of it.

Zero, an import from Dallas (it has also played in Chicago), reflects something of that vast Lone Star spirit. For a one-man play, it's bigger than a lot of what we're used to here in frenetic New York City. Parts of it go a shade or two too slow for my caffeinated heart to beat to. The twenty-somethings whom Danny O'Connor brings to life on stage spend their days sloshed in beer, tequila, and Jagermeister instead of coffee and protein shakes.

There's no denying the craft, stamina, and supersized ambition of the play's primary power source. O'Connor, on stage by his Lone Star lonesome for over two hours, plays six different characters, sometimes three at a time, while working through two separate storylines. All of them are precisely eight years out of high school, but he defines them with easy changes in accent, demeanor, and posture, loading each with personality in the process. Yet O'Connor sketches in their details just enough to make us want to know more about them; we'd like to see deeper into them than their war stories, their obsession with a high school flame, their drinking to excess.

The occasion for the main storyline is the return of Alex, one of the high school buddies, from the Iraq War. Alex reflects the play's origin: O'Connor and his brother Robert collaborated on the script long-distance during the latter's service in Iraq. Then, after his second tour, Robert committed suicide.

That grim backstory doesn't make the play a downer, though. To the contrary, it's pretty jolly, especially considering its protagonists' inability to achieve satisfaction, the low-level sadness underlining their lives. They are all, in various ways, the "zeros" of the title, although only boisterous Sam, the group's "good ole boy," refers to himself that way. "High school's with us forever, dude," he tells his actor pal Len, who has quit trying to make a career of what he loves.

Sam, despite being something of a caricature, is the best fleshed out of the three drinking buddies. Eternally trapped in sarcasm, he waxes philosophical: "Some people just aren't meant to follow their dreams." Yet in context, his bittersweet bluster is more humorous than sad, and that's a good thing, because the play's funny lines and body language and the intermittent outrageousness are what keep things moving as well as they do.

It's in the scenes where Sam, Len, and Alex get together that the action slows. O'Connor plays all three parts nimbly, but a lack of crispness in the dialogue bogs us down. By contrast, he transports us in high style when he's "by himself" – in the wordless opening, when Len wakes up from a humongous hangover and tries sourly to get the day going with a lot of help from a bottle of water and a toilet; in the monologues from James and Gabe, a preening metrosexual and a sad sack, whose planned night out constitutes the secondary storyline; in the hysterically pretentious performance piece by "Malthazar," who cracks us up even as we realize that his kind is a pretty easy target.

Zero is an impressive performance, and an enjoyable evening out, but one that would be more enjoyable if it were trimmed or tightened. Look out for Danny O'Connor; this fine, Texas-sized actor and monologist is a darn sight more than the sum of his "zero" parts.

At the Roy Arias Theatre 2, 616 Ninth Ave. at 44th St., NYC, through Dec. 30. For tickets please visit Theatermania or call 866-811-4111. For more information visit the Zero website.

Music Review: East Village Opera Company – Olde School

The operatic tradition has always had a place in rock and pop. Elvis Presley and the Platters' Tony Williams, Pat Benatar and Heart's Ann Wilson, metal's Ozzy Osbourne and pop-rock's Dennis De Young, and of course Freddie Mercury, are all singers who have adopted, at certain times and to one degree or another, opera's highly controlled vocal techniques rooted deep in the body.

At the same time, bands and arrangers have utilized orchestras, mellotrons, samplers, synthesizers, and dense, powerful vocal layerings to capture in popular music the bombastic drama of composers like Wagner and Verdi. Just think of the Beatles' late, highly orchestrated experiments, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," The Who's "Mini-Opera" and Tommy, Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," and almost anything from Led Zeppelin's peak period.

The East Village Opera Company comes from the other direction, taking famous themes and arias from classic operas and crafting variously flavored pop music around them. Their adaptations, while often clever, are not mere exercises, but really enjoyable music in their own right.

Producer-arranger Peter Kiesewalter and the group have a fine knack for finding modern-day settings for timeless themes without the self-conscious slickness you sometimes find in pop-classical crossover projects. The opening track, a pastiche of Wagner, Led Zeppelin, and Rush, is something of an exception. But overall the music has a fairly consistent sensibility. One gets the sense that the East Village Opera Company is a band, no less than The Beatles or Black Sabbath were.

Granted, this band has a bevy of guest artists in addition to its core of three singers and excellent musicians (they carry three string players when on the road): a pedal steel player on "As You Were Then" adapted from Bellini's Norma, soprano star Nicole Cabell on "Brindisi Libera (Pop the Cork)" from Verdi's La Traviata, a very effective children's chorus on "Soldiers" from Gounod's Faust, and more. There are touches of jazz, funk, and even country, and a bit of schmaltz of the sort you get from operatic pop singers like Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman.

But the singers don't sing like opera singers, most of the time, nor like opera singers trying to sing pop music, but simply like very good pop singers. And some of the opera themes are pretty well disguised. My sense is that a pop music fan completely ignorant of opera would likely enjoy this disc, although less so than someone familiar with opera. As such it's not the kind of thing that would tend to draw a potential fan into the world of opera.

But I don't get the feeling that's what the group is aiming for. I think they're aiming, like any band, to earn fans, to do something different or exceptional, to put on a good show, and maybe sell some recorded music in the process. I for one am looking forward to the next opportunity to see them live.

Theater Review (NYC): Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, Presented by the Queen’s Company

The all-female Queen's Company updates the classics with a modern pop-culture sensibility, while remaining true to the language, the story, and the groove of the original text. With a comedy like Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this gang is also funny as hell. In fact, I laughed so much I got a headache. Damn you, Queen's Company.

One might imagine that Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing plot and high ribaldry, would be perfect – or else problematic – for an all-female troupe. In fact, it is neither. The cast is overall so skilled, and directed so cleverly by Rebecca Patterson, that we hardly sense the non-traditional casting at all. The production succeeds entirely on the same merits as would any good Shakespearean staging, whether cast with men and women, with all men as in Shakespeare's time, or with the women of the QC.

It's been three years since I last saw one of this group's productions. Since that time they've maintained their energy while building their skills even further. Patterson's staging conceptions are brisk as ever, but have deepened, with increased subtlety. The cuts are judicious. The actors' line reading choices serve both clarity and high spirits. And the musical numbers just have to be seen to be believed.


It's a good thing she has excellent castmates to play off of, otherwise Aysan Çelik might steal the whole show. Her dart-sharp, hilarious Malvolio preens and pouts and struts, carrying us along with every move or glance. She even pulls her weight when she's not on the stage, merely being talked about. Carey Urban, who played Kate with panache in the company's Taming of the Shrew, makes a flouncy and tangy Olivia, and Virginia Baeta is a delightful, gamine-like Viola. Only Gisele Richardson's Sir Toby Belch could be improved – though it's a physically spot-on performance (and she's done up like a riotously drunken Al Sharpton), the lines are sometimes lost in swallowed diction.

Feeling drowned in our gloomy economic times? Get shipwrecked with Viola and her brother Sebastian (the elfin Amy Driesler) in the court of Duke Orsino (the regal Frances Uku) and his fool, Feste (the sly Natalie Lebert). A dip into The Queen's Company's singing, dancing, and fully Shakespearean version of fanciful Illyria is just the tonic for troubled days like these.

Twelfth Night plays through Nov. 23 at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30 St., NYC. For tickets visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For more information visit the Queen's Company online.


Photo (L-R): Carey Urban as Olivia (center) and the angels (beginning at lower left & going clockwise) Valerie Redd, Kari Nicole Washington, Gisele Richardson and Karen Berthel. Photo credit: John Santerre

Book Review: Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio

What to do with the weight of expectations? The French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio is not well known in the English-speaking world, and many of us might never have heard of him had he not been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Now we have had the pleasure of that introduction, but because of the prize, we also feel the burden of expecting greatness.

Greatness probably can't be ascribed to any author based on the reading of one fairly short book. Nonetheless, Le Clézio's 2004 novel Wandering Star is unquestionably a work of power and beauty even in this suboptimal translation.

It tells the story of Esther/Hélène, a girl from a secular Jewish family forced by the Nazi invasion to flee their home in Nice. In the countryside, in a small village, under the dubious protection of the less-murderous Italian military, she comes of age.

Eventually Esther reaches Israel, where she encounters Nejma, a Palestinian refugee her own age. We read Nejma's story in a separate section, but the contrast between the trajectories of the two lives is clear, and crushing.

Having borne many trials but escaped the full horror of the Final Solution, Esther has arrived at her promised land. Israel's War for Independence is raging, and it seems life for her is an endless whirl of destruction, yet she is a survivor. But in order for the Jewish refugees to establish their homeland, another people – Nejma's – is uprooted and transformed into refugees themselves, persecuted in their turn not by murderous armies bent on genocide – though plenty die in battle – but by starvation and disease. Though the two girls meet but once, their dual stories comprise a singular tale of the nightmare of war, and the promise – and tragedy – of human migrations.

The translation has problems. Not having the original French in front of me, I don't know to what extent the translator, C. Dickson, has adhered to Le Clézio's French sentence constructions. But whether from too-literal rendering, or carelessness, or some other reason, too many sentences must be read twice. The reason is nonstandard punctuation, primarily the use of commas to create run-on sentences, and other careless constructions: "Elizabeth had followed her into the bushes, she caught up with her on the bank of the river, breathless, her legs scratched from the brambles."

The poetry of the writing blasts through nonetheless, even in passages such as the above. It burns down like the desert heat beating down on Nejma as she passes her days in a refugee camp at what feels like the end of the world. In the following passage, Nejma, who has grown up by the sea but now languishes in the dry, dusty camp, has just witnessed a young pregnant woman being bathed, her "long braids twirled around on her back like wet snakes."

Outside the sun was still dazzling. The camp was heavy with dust, with silence. Before nightfall, I was up on top of the hill, my ears filled with the sounds of water and the droning voice of the old woman. Perhaps I had stopped seeing the camp through the same eyes. It was as if everything had changed, as if I had just arrived, as if I were unfamiliar with the stones, the dark houses, the horizon obstructed by the hills, the dried-up valley scattered with scorched trees where the sea never comes.

Through Esther's life story and Nejma's, Le Clézio bathes even the muddy or humdrum moments in muted light like this. Yet the girls' suffering is almost palpable, both Nejma's physical destitution and Esther's literal and psychological displacement. Esther lives on, a survivor; Nejma's fate remains cloudy. But having read their stories, so different and so similar, we are left with one rock-solid truth: there is no simple right or wrong.

And there is a second truth, this one buried in the author's way of telling itself.  It's Keats's youthful truth, that beauty is truth and truth beauty. This truth, carried to us on the wings of great art and literature, can survive the worst of times – however unexpectedly.

Music Reviews: Matt Morris, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Asylum Street Spankers

Matt Morris, Backstage at Bonnaroo and Other Acoustic Performances

Listening to Matt Morris, intimate is the word that comes most readily to mind. His high, fluty tenor, recorded closely into the mic, wafts his words into your consciousness like a message carried on the wind.

The first three songs on this sparsely produced EP have little more than Morris's voice and acoustic guitar, with a few subtle lead guitar fills. For the final two tracks he switches to piano. On "Let It Go" Morris flutters close to Antony territory. The disc closes with "The Un-American," a deceptively sweet-sounding condemnation of consumer culture that nicely bookends the opener, "Money," with its pithy explanation that "Money ain't the villain / It's greed that's the killer."

Speaking of money, Morris, known for writing for Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson, is being championed by Justin Timberlake.  But in spite of these glittery associations, as a singer-songwriter he has a way of gently delivering serious lyrics that harks back to the early solo work of David Crosby, and to the more modern singer-songwriter feel of Elliott Smith. At the same time, his voice, though soft and plaintive, has an up-close tang and controlled yet emotional falsetto heights that make one think of what Jeff Buckley might have sounded like if he'd been able to write material with real hooks.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, Scratch Came Scratch Saw Scratch Conquered

It's hard to keep up with dub-reggae pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry, even for us relative youngsters. At 72, he's still putting out a full-length CD roughly every year.

Since I last wrote about Scratch he's released two discs. The newest features appearances by Keith Richards and George Clinton, but despite the heavy-hitting guests, this hourlong CD is all about Scratch and his new collaborator-producer Steve Marshall. (The two also worked together on Scratch's Grammy-nominated disc last year.)

Either you dig Scratch or you don't. Trancelike but jovial, self-obsessed but always with a slightly scary wink, the man and the music seem one. The dub and classic reggae elements are all here: the horns, the repetition, the stops, the sound effects, the social consciousness, the religion, the aphorisms, the weed. Then Scratch adds the flights of fancy and the wordplay. "Riches come / And riches goes / Cigarette come / Cigarette goes / But I remain / I am the rain / I remain," he declares in "Jealousy."

"Sinful Fuckers" needs no further explanation.

"Ha ha ha ha," he proclaims sleepily in "Yee Ha Ha Ha." "La la la la / Ha ha ha ha." And so it goes. Light something up and dive in. But look out. As George Clinton intones, "Headz Gonna Roll."

Asylum Street Spankers, What? And Give Up Show Biz?

The busy Asylum Street Spankers are back with a live double CD recorded at a series of concerts in New York City earlier this year. The Spankers are always fun, but they're more fun in person, and this set captures a good bit of the wacky, childish-for-grownups fun that makes their concerts such a hoot.

There's a mix of favorite Spankers numbers ("Beer," "Winning the War on Drugs," "Blade of Grass"), newer tunes, and classic covers like "I Got My Mojo Workin'" and "Since I Met You Baby," all strung together with spit, twine, musical saw, between-songs banter, and silly tales about life on the road. There are even a couple of songs from the band's recent children's album, including "You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox." And don't miss "Hick Hop," Wammo's fusion of country and western murder ballads and gangsta rap.

The Spankers handle blues, old-timey jazz, country, bluegrass, nearly every style you might hear at a postmodern vaudeville show – even a little rock – with equal skill, and a big dollop of silliness that wouldn't work half as well without the high-level musicianship; they make it look (or sound) easy.

Most often I wouldn't suggest a live album as a good introduction to a band, but if you haven't heard the Spankers, and you don't mind a fair amount of banter in between songs, this wouldn't be a bad place to start at all. At the very least it will probably make you want to catch a show when this clever, funny, and well-traveled band of zany gypsies comes to your town.

Creatures of New York, Pt. 4

The theme of this edition of Creatures of New York is:

The Abandoned.

First, here is an abandoned bear, hung from a fence in Madison Square Park.


Similarly, this poor donkey or horse was abandoned in Cooper Square.


Traffic cones are surprisingly loaded with personality. This poor guy – or girl, it’s hard to tell in its crushed condition – has ironically collapsed into the hole it was put in to warn against.

Cone in Hole

This Lion Brand Yarn store is about to re-open on 15th St. Gotta love their lion.

Lion Yarn Lion

Finally, an aftermath shot I like to call, “The Madder Hulk Gets…”

The Madder Hulk Gets...

Theater Review (NYC): Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James

Starting this year, I'm adopting my Left Coast colleague Bob Machray's tradition of attending a Halloween-themed performance every Samhain season. I'm happy to report that my new custom has begun robustly, with a delightfully diverting evening spent in the company of Mr. R M Lloyd Parry. A marvelous reader and actor, this gentleman simply sits in a chair, surrounded by the leathery accoutrements of a bookish professor's study, and tells us two spooky supernatural tales by M R James, the great writer of English ghost stories.

Professor James, who lived from 1862 to 1936, was a master of English prose. His sentences weave patterns both elegant and forceful, often taking unexpected turns into obscure, frightening, or funny corners of the supernatural and the psychological. Listening to Mr. Parry read "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" brought me back to my first, youthful plunge into Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It also brought to mind the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, although Poe's American characters are far more rough-and-ready than James's tweedy dons and landed gentry.

Parry starts with an avuncular mien but can also grow spectral before our very eyes, especially with the stage lit only by a few candles. (A tiny bit of stage lighting would have illuminated his face a little more without spoiling the effect.) He makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and tap into your childish sense of wonder. The technique and staging – a solo performer who both narrates and brings multiple characters to life in order to tell a taut but wild story – also recalls Patrick Stewart's wonderful solo performances of A Christmas Carol.

When Patrick Stewart brings a show to America, of course, it's bound for a Broadway stage. Oh, Whistle is being performed in the 30-seat black-box space at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. And the theater was not full. There are four more performances of this award-winning show (it won The Dracula Society's Hamilton Deane Award for best dramatic presentation in the Gothic genre, no less). Nov. 5th through the 8th are your last chances.

Go, fill up this tiny place, and make some noise while ye may. Soon enough the spookiness of the Halloween season will be gone, and in its place the sugary and far less evocative homeyness of Thanksgiving. Don't let Thanksgiving happen to you! Not, anyway, without first immersing yourself in the spooky mind of M R James, the master of the English ghost story.

Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James is directed and performed by R M Lloyd Parry. The final four performances run from Nov. 5-8 at 7:30 PM. On Nov. 7 there is an additional 10 PM performance of two different stories. Purchase tickets online or call 212-362-0329. Visit the Nunkie Theatre Company's website for more information on Mr. Parry's performances.