Theater Review: Anaïs Nin: One of her Lives

Australian playwright Wendy Beckett directs her play Anas Nin: One of her Lives at New York City’s Samuel Beckett Theater in a limited engagement this month. Like her distant relative for whom the theater was named, and like most artists, the prolific Beckett aims to be known through her work. There are others who, though perhaps intending to become artists, actually achieve fame because of how they live their lives.

It is the rare artist, however, whose life truly becomes her art. Such was Anas Nin, a gifted writer of avant-garde and erotic fiction whose most substantial contribution to literature turned out to be her diaries, which run to eleven volumes and cover her life from 1914, when she was eleven, until just a few years before her death in 1977.

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Photo by Richard Termine

If the examined life is worth living, Nin’s must be valued as considerably more than her weight in gold. The erotic content of her writing (and of the life upon which so much of it was based which if they were to make a movie of it would have to be shown on as it’s that sexually explicit) can tend to obscure her artistic accomplishment, but in the end it was her life itself that became her greatest work, making her story ripe for telling and retelling. From Deidre Bair’s scholarly and popular biography to Philip Kaufman’s exploitative film Henry and June, Nin’s life story, particularly her time in Paris in the 1930s with Henry and June Miller, has become part of popular culture.

Beckett evokes Nin’s own language – perfumed as it was with both flowers and pheromones – in the literate, emotional dialogue she gives to the triumvirate in this stylized but passionate and sexy staging. Some scenes can remind people of a Babestation Cams show, if asked to be honest. A little over an hour and a half suffices to relate, primarily from Nin’s (Angela Christian) and secondarily from Henry Miller’s (David Bishins) point of view, the story of their encounter, the famous menage-a-trois, and its breakdown. Interspersed are scenes of Nin’s visits to the psychoanalyst Otto Rank (Rocco Sisto), which at first seem a little gimmicky, but which culminate in a powerful scene in which patient and therapist switch positions. Rank’s personal confessions throw added light on our heroine’s struggle to create work that matters while constructing a life worth living.

Christian centers the talented cast of four. Whether getting drunk and succumbing to June’s seduction, trading passionate readings with Henry, or casting out her prodigal father in a scene that plays like a dream sequence, she’s so focussed we believe every second of her portrayal. The actress’s diminutive size seems to concentrate the extraordinary life force that made Nin the object of Henry’s and June’s affections and the literary world’s fascination, not to mention energized her into keeping two husbands simultaneously for many years. (Her West Coast mate, Rupert Pole, died just days ago at the age of 87, putting Nin back in the news just in time for this production.)

As glamorously portrayed by the tall, slinky Alysia Reiner, June Miller at first overwhelms Nin with her coarse American lust for life, but Nin’s own quieter animating force proves a match for both Millers. Bishins’s Henry explodes onto the stage with a fiery magnetism, reminding one of John Malkovich’s entrance in Burn This but also of the cocksure New York attitude of the young Bruce Willis in the TV series Moonlighting. At times he overdoes the dissonance of poetic language and street-tough machismo, but one appreciates the dangerousness of his performance as a needed foil for Nin’s softer power.

Perhaps particularly in a play about writers, there is a risk of telling instead of showing, and the play’s one real flaw is that Beckett partially gives in to this temptation. The middle of the story seems to drag as Nin’s psychology gets explained instead of dramatized. But for the most part the elements of the play – the gritty performances, the captivating language, the outsize personalities, the beautiful rose-colored set strewn with books and bottles just screaming “I’m Paris, live in me!”, the evocative lighting – make this an effective and worthwhile evening of theater.

Interview/Concert Review: Controlling the Famous

Some bands are made; others were perhaps meant to be, and if so, you can count Controlling the Famous among the latter. Even their name seemed fated: just when the band was deciding what to call itself, the cryptic phrase “Controlling the Famous” appeared high on a downtown L.A. building. They adopted the graffiti tag as their own. It hasn’t been seen since.

In matters more substantial, too, CTF is an organic creation. Although lead singer Max Hellman often takes the lead during an interview, there’s no single mastermind or distinct leader of the group. The four musicians write and arrange together (generally music first, then lyrics), and for the past couple of months have lived together on the road, touring across the Midwest and now hitting the East Coast.

A beautiful New York City sunset was painting the sky orange and aqua over the shimmering East River as I caught up with the band outside Northsix on the waterfront of Brooklyn’s arty Williamsburg neighborhood. Locals and trendoids lined N. 6th St. enjoying the cooler air that the previous night’s storms had brought, but although the stifling heat wave was over, the smell of garbage reminded one that it was still summer in the city. Nonetheless the band expressed great happiness to be in New York, quite sincerely declaring that it was one of their favorite places to play.

The previous night, over 50 fans had greeted CTF in the grungy basement space of CBGB, a pretty impressive turnout considering it was only the band’s second gig ever in New York. Tonight’s crowd, too, is big enough to sweat up Northsix’s small downstairs performance space. Last year, prior to signing with The Militia Group, the band played at the less prestigious Continental, but now, with the support of an energetic indie label, things are different.

For one thing, their new CD, Automatic City, is in the stores, which is very important for bringing out crowds and sustaining interest even in the age of downloads. For another, ads for the disc (and other Militia releases) are all over popular websites like Blogcritics (where this article is cross-posted).

The one thing that hasn’t changed, half-jokes soft-spoken bassist Brendan Hughes, is the lack of money in their pockets, and it’s certainly true that the age of big advances for bands is over. But the men of CTF are pleased as punch to be signed with a good indie label, whose logistical and promotional support makes a big difference. Good turnouts, availability of CDs in local stores, and name recognition outside its home base are tough things for even a talented and hardworking band to achieve. And, for touring bands as well as local acts, New York is one of the toughest towns (even if it does have, according to CTF – three of whose members are SoCal natives – the most beautiful women in the country, hands down).

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is no idle cliché. NYC audiences appreciate good music but tend to act blasé, having seen and heard (or wishing you to think they’ve seen and heard) everything. With so many touring bands coming through and local ones itching to play, many clubs can and do get away with providing the bare minimum of amenities for both performers and audiences.

CTF has jumped up a level, from clubs where nearly anyone can get a gig to those that feature a more elite slice of the rock universe, but they still have to prove themselves to the trendy crowd, some of whom are still wandering down from the upstairs bar as the band churns through its second song (the punchy, ska-tinged “Detox”), filling the tiny basement space with a huge and rock-hard but unfailingly musical sound. The set is quick and to the point, featuring most of the songs from the tautly constructed CD. The stage has, evidently, a little less integrity than the music: when Hellman and the other guitarist-frontman, Johnny Collins, jump up and down, the amps and drums rock crazily like a skyline swaying in an earthquake so that everything seems to be threatening to collapse in a heap. Music equipment needs to be of the best quality for concerts and shows, the sound needs to travel clearly from the front to the back, sites like Https:// provide this for bands, singers, etc.

A few superfans pump fists and shout along with the lyrics, but there are some new fans in the making and some not-yet-convinced. One could reasonably describe the music as combining the energy and vocal fire of emo-punk with the more moderate tempos of indie rock, but that would capture only part of the creativity in evidence. The band explicitly makes music in reaction to, not imitation of, the dominant styles around them, drawing creative energy from their desire to be different. Their songs are accessible and crowd-friendly but their style is their own, with simple melodies and complex guitar interplay.

Native talent and months on the road have made the band as tight as any out there. Hughes holds down the bottom end with solidly locked-in bass parts. With varied and busy beats the extremely impressive drummer Mike Schneider speaks with his instrument as musically as a guitarist does. Hellmann and Collins combine to brighten up the songs with unisons, harmonies, and trade-off vocal duets. These, layered over intertwined guitar hooks and the abovementioned rhythm section, make for a solid, satisfying set of loud and powerful rock that’s catchy enough for pop cred and interesting enough to capture the attention of a jaded New York City crowd.

At least, it did tonight. Tonight Controlling the Famous turned a bunch of Brooklynite twenty-somethings sick of emo pretention into cheering kids; tonight rock lived. Next year, who knows? A bigger venue, some real cash coming in, a career steadily flowering? The label is betting on it.

Chertoff to City: Drop Dead

Chertoff to City: Drop Dead

Thunder and lightning are barrelling over New York City as I write – a fitting backdrop to the storm of criticism which has greeted the Department of Homeland Security‘s 40% cut in anti-terror funds to New York City and Washington DC, the victim cities of 9/11.

The Daily News on its front page has called for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff’s resignation. According to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, the Bush administration has “declared war on New York.” Michael Bloomberg, the city’s outspoken Republican mayor and a major Bush fundraiser, pointed out that “when you stop a terrorist, they have a map of New York City in their pocket. They don’t have a map of any of the other 45 places [on the DHS list].”

Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post called it “shocking” that “New York City will get its vital anti-terror funding chain-sawed from $208 million this year to $124 million next year – even though security experts agree it is vastly more threatened than any other city in the country.”

DHS claims that cities with “shoddy or poorly articulated plans” had their grants cut. In fact, according to 60 Minutes:

No American city has done more to defend itself against a terrorist attack than New York. Its police department, 37,000 strong and larger than the standing armies of 84 countries, has transformed itself from a traditional crime-fighting organization into one that places a strong emphasis on fighting terrorism. A thousand cops have been assigned to work exclusively on a new “terrorism beat.” And, in an unprecedented move, New York has even stationed its own cops overseas.

Police overtime and security equipment are equally important expenses for which federal help is needed, yet Homeland Security’s grants are intended to be used only for infrastructure. Yet even infrastructure takes years to develop. It can’t be planned and built when there’s extreme budget uncertainty.

To claim that New York’s anti-terrorism plan is “shoddy” is an insult to eight million Americans, and especially the NYPD that protects them.

Most absurd of all is DHS’s determination that New York has – get this – no national monuments or icons. (Word on the street is that Hillary Clinton is sending Chertoff postcards of NYC landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building.) It’s this claim that directly gives away the politics behind DHS’s new “formula.” New York City and Washington DC don’t vote for Bush, so he and his administration have no use for them, their monuments, or their people.

The Executive branch of the federal government is the entity that’s supposed to represent and protect all the people, not just certain constituents. Unfortunately it’s currently headed by a man who knows only politics, and isn’t even good at that. How can we be surprised when Bush’s cronies play politics with anti-terrorism money when their role model is a man who took over 50 years to learn that “in certain parts of the world” “tough talk” like “bring ’em on” could be “misinterpreted”?

Chertoff needs to go, but so do Bush and Cheney – now, not in two and a half years.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 1 2006 – Cass, McKean, Stigers

Jen Cass, Accidental Pilgrimage

The gentle folk-rock sound of Jen Cass‘s new CD makes an effective contrast with her sometimes pointed lyrics. It’s Cass’s most political album, containing several protest songs (one is about Phil Ochs) along with some new historical and slice-of-life sketches of the type she’s always been good at, and a few straight-ahead love songs. Not surprisingly, the latter are a little less interesting. But the CD as a whole casts a soft, steady spell under which the plainspoken lyrics can work subtle magic. “In every church another Pharisee / Tells us ‘We are right, they’re wrong / I give you sin and guilt / And Judgment Day, now let us pray, / And let us join the choir in song.'” Religous imagery is everywhere in these songs. In “Forever Damned” a young protagonist makes a bad choice in love and now must live with some unnamed but terrible consequence; yet she’s defiant: “Still…I’d choose the apple / Over every other taste / And I would savor that sweet freedom / Letting Eden go to waste.” It’s the neverending struggle between what feels right and what is right that gives Cass’s songs, even the gentlest of them, their power.

Finian McKean, Shades Are Drawn

Lo-fi urban folkie Finian McKean‘s new CD is a collection of fashionably gloomy but original-sounding songs. Like J. J. Cale he records his resigned vocals deep in the mix so you have to lean forward to listen. Beatle-esque melodies tickle the ear; sixties-style guitar rock energy (“black hole,” “small request”) leavens the sadness; and quirky writing (“little beggar,” “where no one wants me,” and an unnamed extra song at the end) helps make the whole claustrophobic enterprise fun. You can just imagine him holed up in Red Hook grousing about how no one comes to visit him because there’s no subway in the area, while mixing his rock, country and folk sounds into a gritty, citified stew. This forty-minute Brooklyn howl should put McKean and his musical neighborhood on the hipster map, if not the MTA’s.

Jake Stigers, Comin’ Back Again

This has been out for a couple of years now, but that’s a short time in indie terms, and a CD this good deserves time to build. In fact it’s a good example of why new, original artists need to go the indie route. With his pedigree (he’s popster-turned-jazzman Curtis‘s brother) and talent, Jake Stigers might be expected to have had a shot at a major label record deal. But, whether by necessity or choice, he’s gone the indie route and is probably better off for it. The CD has sold over 5,000 copies and carried Stigers through hundreds of tour dates. Based on mere four-digit sales it would have long since vanished from sight on a major label, and writers like me probably wouldn’t have heard of it, received review copies, and been able to recommend it.

I can’t give you much on Stigers’s bio or tour dates because his web site has an annoying Flash introduction that resizes my browser window. This is a big turn-off. Fortunately you don’t need the official website – you can listen to extended samples at CD Baby here.

The opening track, “Do You Feel High,” with its fuzzed out guitars, sounds a bit like a sped up Steve Miller song with an unexpected change in elevation during the chorus. “Another Negotiation” is a short and sweet high-energy rocker, with a strange, quiet little coda that leads into the Beatle-esque ballad “Only Wanna Be With You,” which is where the heart and soul of the album begins. “We Don’t Need Anybody” returns to the hard rock tip but in a soul-infused Southern rock vein, like Lynyrd Skynyrd filtered through Elton John. “Comin’ Back Again” features crying guitars, as in an Eric Clapton or Strawbs soft-rock ballad, cushioning another timeless-sounding melody.

“Marlena” is a highlight, a startlingly groovy neo-soul tune sung in a fluid falsetto, and the CD closes with “That Ain’t Livin’,” another hard driving southern-soul rocker. Stigers’s solid songwriting and his fine voice and band keep the whole thing on course. Musical comparisons aside, this CD is a whole lot of fun, and isn’t that the main point of rock anyway?

This seems to be my month to discover famous musicians’ brothers going successfully in different directions – in my last column I reviewed Zack Hexum’s new CD – but more importantly, it seems to be a year for good, well-written new pop and rock CDs. I don’t envy reviewers who have to cover major label releases in those genres. Right here is where it’s at.

OUT AND ABOUT: Mala Waldron appears live as part of my Soul of the Blues series in Brooklyn NY next Thursday, June 8, and Scott Weis performs at the next show, this one at Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC, on the 28th… Katell Keineg makes a couple of NYC and LA appearances this month. I plan to be at the NYC shows at Joe’s Pub on the 20th and the Living Room on the 30th. Come on out and introduce yourself. (Not while Katell’s playing, though, or I’ll punch you.) I’ll be the one with the beatific, rapt look. But come to think of it, that won’t work – everyone else in the audience will have the same glazed, worshipful expression. Anyway, look for a profile of Katell in the New York Times Magazine at the end of June.

Celebs Oppose Brooklyn Development Containing Nets Stadium

A group of prominent actors and writers, including Heath Ledger, Steve Buscemi, and Jonathan Lethem, is lending star power to a neighborhood movement opposing the Frank Gehry-designed Brooklyn development that would include a stadium for the National Basketball Association‘s Nets.

Although the stadium gets the most attention, it is only a small corner of developer Bruce Ratner’s plan, which would essentially drop a whole new city of high-rises into the midst of established, low-rise Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has announced the appointment of a 30-member advisory board comprised of prominent citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods who agree with the community group’s contention that the plan, which includes office space as well as (mostly rental) residential units, is really a “destructive, secret, taxpayer-subsidized sweetheart deal” that would benefit the developer and not the community.

The advisory board also includes prominent local ministers, entrepreneurs, musicians such as Dan Zanes, actors Michelle Williams and Rosie Perez, and novelists Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer. For extra political punch, it also counts US Congressman Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) as a member, along with Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in Kelo v. City of New London, the case that led to last year’s extremely unpopular Supreme Court decision favorable to eminent domain.

The proposed development has its own star power, and some community support: rap superstar Jay-Z is a Nets investor and a supporter of the project, and the local chapter of ACORN favors it because of the jobs and housing it would create. There is also favorable sentiment in the poorer nearby communities because of the construction jobs the development would create and the economic benefits that could be brought to the neighborhood by the presence of a major league sports team. (Brooklyn hasn’t had one since the baseball Dodgers left for the West Coast in 1958).

Opponents, however, contend that the number of permanent jobs and truly affordable housing units would be small, that the creation of new office space doesn’t make economic sense in a city that already has more than it needs, and that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the train yards over which much of the development would be built, failed to get the best price for its land. Some of DDDB’s objections could be construed as NIMBYism, but many are substantive.

Aside from community opposition, the proposal, which is favored by Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and Borough President Marty Markowitz, still faces procedural and legal hurdles before it can become reality.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for May 4 2006 – The Holy Fire, Jeremiah Lockwood, Scott Weis

The Holy Fire, In The Name Of The World

The new EP from The Holy Fire is pure, lively rock with driving rhythms, take-no-prisoners vocals and progressive touches. Each song is a little seismic world of its own, full of sound and fury and signifying something, with lyrics like these: “And kiss me right here with your mouth all sick from/Smoke and beer/As the bombs are going off in the distance/Outside the windows.” Good songwriting, soul-stirring sound, and serious (if sometimes obscure) lyrics wrapped in music that never lacks a sense of fun make this a worthy aspirant to a place on your modern rock shelf.

Jeremiah Lockwood, American Primitive

Jeremiah Lockwood is an avatar of urban Americana. The native New Yorker, who developed both his musicianship and his street cred playing in the subways with a well-known local bluesman called Carolina Slim, takes gritty blues, banjo music, low-fi folk and a honky-tonk drawl and twists these thick roots into the musical equivalent of a Clive Barker horror story – strange, disturbing, and hard to put down. Even the sweet songs, like “Love in the Dungeon,” with Elizabeth Harper on harmony vocals, sound skewed. Lockwood’s nasal, Axl Rose voice, Stuart Bogie’s clangy production, and the unexpected arrangements, which include horns as well as stringed instruments, all contribute to the distorted effect. The rhythms sway and totter as if drunk – “Going to Brooklyn” sounds like it might grind to a halt at any moment. “You Are My Shadow” is Lockwood’s update of “You Are My Sunshine” – it starts like the old chestnut, then wings off into a vortex of odd chord changes. His cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” features a guitar solo and an antic sax that keep threatening to wander into another key. The banjo-blues “The Moon Is Rising” sounds like something Led Zeppelin might have done if they’d taken different drugs, and “Stolen Moments” is Residents-weird.

The CD, on local label Vee-Ron Records, may not be to everyone’s taste, but if anything in the above description appeals to you, it’s surely worth checking out.

Scott Weis Band, Have a Li’l Faith

On the flip side of the blues, The Scott Weis Band crunches in with a new CD of horn-driven Memphis soul and muscular, gravelly blues-rock. Has there been a lack of Joe Cocker in your life lately? How about that guy from The Commitments – whatever happened to him? Pop in this CD and get your fix. Deeply soulful, full of authentic religious feeling and chunky grooves, this is satisfying stuff.

Available at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jefferson Thomas churned out a tight, melodic and altogether impressive set of original, seventies-style soulful rock at Arlene Grocery last night… The St. Cecilia Chorus, which includes singer-songwriter Ari Scott, celebrated a hundred years of musicmaking with sparkling performances of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last week. Their legendary conductor since 1965, David Randolph, is still going strong into his nineties… New York City’s equally legendary CBGB is really – really, this time – going to be closing down in a few months. You still have time to catch my band, Whisperado, playing at CB’s Lounge on Saturday, May 13. For you out-of-towners, it’s a perfect opportunity to come and say goodbye to the old dump.

CD Review: Dion, Bronx In Blue

When I played the New York Irish bar circuit in the 80s and 90s doing oldies and classic rock, the songs that went over the best always included some of Dion’s hits, especially “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” With and without The Belmonts, the Bronx’s Dion DiMucci had a raft of hits from the late 50s to the late 60s. Going beyond doo-wop cliches, the songs were such raw and spirited fun that they’ve remained popular to this day, and in 1989 Dion was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So we always knew Dion could write great songs. And we always knew he could sing. But did we know he could sing traditional blues? And did we know he played a mean guitar? No sir, we did not. Introducing Dion, the bluesman. Far from the vanity project one might have feared – especially given the song choices, many of which have iconic versions – the man’s new acoustic blues CD is a joy. Without trying to sound self-conscously authentic, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitars and a percussionist, he tackles hoary standards like “Crossroads,” Who Do You Love,” “Built For Comfort” and “Walkin’ Blues” with skill, gusto and humility. His voice and attitude are clear and strong but also seem wise and experienced. His sense of fun is undiminished, as shown by the double-entendre original “I Let My Baby Do That.”

What this CD shows is that a street poet is a street poet, whether from the Deep South or the Bronx. “Black music, filtered through an Italian neighborhood, comes out with an attitude,” says Dion. “Rock & Roll. The music on this CD was the undercurrent of every song I did… even the foot stomping on ‘Ruby Baby’ I got from John Lee Hooker’s Walkin’ Boogie.'”

The liner notes provide background on each of the selections, so a blues neophyte could get a bit of an education from the package as well. But whether you’re an oldies fan, a blues fan, or both, get this CD because it’s just plain good. (Then play it for your musically knowledgeable friends and make them try to guess who it is.)

Theater Review: A Jew Grows In Brooklyn

Part cabaret, part stand-up, and part autobiographical monologue, Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man musical comedy A Jew Grows In Brooklyn pays tribute to the Borscht Belt bands and tummlers from whom the actor-comedian-musican – now fiftyish but buoyantly youthful – learned the trade he plies so well.

With comic timing like Jackie Mason, a flat-out beautiful singing voice, and a c.v. ranging from Broadway to rock bands to touring as Ringo in Beatlemania, Ehrenreich is the ideal crossover character – both an examplar of the now-vanished Catskills scene and an assimilated Jew as creator (and performer) of pop culture.

Ehrenreich grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, the child of immigrant Holocaust survivors, and the story of his boyhood and youth – especially the all-important summertime Catskills escape – along with a coda about marriage and fatherhood make up the show’s storyline and its heart. It’s a little like watching someone’s home movies, but with the characters brought vividly to life – and with musical numbers.

The best of those include Aaron Lebedeff’s signature Borscht Belt number “Romania,” a bash-em-up drum solo by Ehrenreich himself on “Sing Sing Sing,” and the cleverest sixties-rock medley you’re ever likely to hear. The band, led by bassist Elysa Sunshine, plays well both musically and as an anchor for Ehrenreich’s rich but skittering performance.

The show is sentimental, in the way of old-fashioned family entertainment. But every time it gets close to being too syrupy, Ehrenreich and his director, Jon Huberth, pull back from the brink. In the end, theater is all about balance, and this show has it just right: lots of humor, sweetness, and contagious song-and-dance energy; a little personal sadness; and a sense of family and cultural history, with its comforts and of course – we’re talking about Jews, after all – its tragedies.

And I didn’t even mention the audience participation. (Hint: Simon Says go see this show.)

Through May 28 at the American Theater of Actors, New York City.

The Literary Shadow of 9/11

In the four and a half years since the September 11 attacks, New Yorkers’ lives have changed in a number of ways, some obvious and predictable, others not so much.

Even as we go about our daily business we’re conscious, of course, of the potential for an attack at any time. Naturally we’re inclined to think “terrorism” whenever there’s a sudden infrastructure problem such as a power outage. And we’ll never look at our firefighters in quite the same way again.

But another change has crept up on me in the past couple of years: a change in my life as an audience – as a watcher of movies, a collector of TV shows on DVD, and above all, as a reader of books.

As it turns out, 9/11 has drawn an indelible line across the modern storytelling oeuvre. Works composed before the event differ from those composed after – not necessarily in their content, or even in any inherent quality, but in the light in which – or shadow under which – I will read them.

I don’t read a great many new novels, but I did read Nicholas Rinaldi’s New York tale Between Two Rivers, published in 2004. Only a small part of the book dealt directly with the attacks, but the whole story seemed suffused in a consciousness of destruction, of endings. Just as a New York apartment is classified as pre- or postwar, so must a New York novel now be called pre- or post-9/11. Rinaldi’s was the first post-9/11 novel I read.

Just today I picked up a copy of Paul Auster‘s The New York Trilogy. Auster is one of those writers I have always intended to read but never gotten around to, mostly because I’m very contrary in my reading habits and hate to be reading what everybody else is. (I resisted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy precisely because all my college buddies were going apeshit over it; and to this day I haven’t read the damn thing. My loss, I suppose.)

Still, Auster has always seemed an obvious choice on whom to spend some of my limited novel-reading time. Local not only to New York but to my own Brooklyn neighborhood, usually featured prominently on the “Local Authors” shelf of the Barnes and Noble stores around here, he is also considered a Major Literary Author on a national scale.

So, picking up the book, which was written in the mid-to-late 1980s, I read the intriguing first sentence:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

So far so good: like any good story, it evokes a place, a situation. Specifically, I’m in somebody’s head as he remembers how something started: how the thing, whatever it was, started with the phone ringing while he, whoever he is, was in bed, and how it was a wrong number.

About the period, the sentence tells me only that the action takes place sometime since the advent of the telephone. The thirties. The fifties. The eighties. The present. Prior to 9/11, I would simply have absorbed what I could from it, and continued reading,

But I know something else, something that five years ago wouldn’t have seemed so important: when the story was written.

I know it is pre-9/11 – from modern times, but before the attack. I also know from the title that the story’s going to take place in New York. Hence its fictional New Yorkers will not have experienced the defining New York moment that was 9/11. They’ll inhabit a version of the city that no longer exists. Still “modern times,” but no longer the same times today’s reader is living. 9/11 hadn’t informed the author’s imagination. In this book, it will not have happened.

Today, and maybe until I die, I will be approaching any book – and even a pre-9/11 movie or TV series, if I’m not familiar with it – not simply as a modern story about a familiar world or city. Rather, I will be approaching it in the shadow, or in the light, of a great divide. I will have to know: was the story imagined and birthed prior to the attack? Or does it have that smoke in the lungs, that soot on the face, that shock hardened into the bones of the 9/11 survivor?

Of course this won’t apply to older stories, those set in a time that from the vantage point of September 10 2001 already felt like another era. If I revisit a classic – Herman Melville, Humphrey Bogart – or check out some Nabokov or Billy Wilder I’ve missed, then no sweat.

But if it’s from the world that I myself knew prior to 9/11, my interest may be just a little bit less.

In fact, I might feel like turning to my friend and bandmate Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edits science fiction and fantasy, and ask “What have you got that’s good lately?”

Ahhh. Faeries.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 23 2006 – Retrospectro, Waldron, Chevrette


Retrospectro, Anodyne

This Brooklyn band is a real hoot. A curious and original mix of power pop and garage rock, with nasal vocals halfway between Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and a Velvet Underground vibe in songs like “Anna Anna Anna,” Retrospectro represents creative New York City at its snottiest. Backing up their simple yet satisfyingly twisted songs are humming layers of acoustic and electric guitars with an element of trance, along with subtle surf licks and organ chords – familiar parts, with recognizable bits of sixties, seventies and nineties styles, making up an altogether fresh sound.

“Sleepwalking” and “Rapid,” which open the CD, are especially catchy. “Peace and Love” and “Anna Anna Anna” are also very good songs, and I liked the closer, “Take It Or Leave It.” The remaining three are weaker. But there’s a lot to like in any handful of this music.

Listen and buy at CD Baby.

Mala Waldron, Always There

Mala Waldron‘s cool, sophisticated work is just the sort of thing that could nudge jazz closer to the mainstream. With hummable melodies, grown-up but accessible chord changes, and a weave of smooth R&B flavor (especially in songs like the ballad “Because Of You” and the up-tempo “Maybe It’s Not So”), some of these tracks should by all rights find a home anywhere that plays the lightweight likes of Alicia Keys. Yet even the smoothest of these tracks, though eminently CD-101-worthy, are real jazz.

That, and Waldron’s superior keyboard skills, should be no surprise considering she’s the daughter of jazz legend Mal Waldron. One of the elder Waldron’s claims to fame was his association with Billie Holliday, and Waldron fille is a supple, fanciful singer who makes everything sound easy. Jazz vocals generally aren’t my favorite corner of the music universe, but Waldron’s are dead-on in tune, pleasingly shaded, easygoing, neither cloying nor precious.

Waldron wrote all the tracks except one, and it’s clear she has a finely calibrated sense of what kind of material is ideal for her voice, although one gets the feeling she could credibly sing, and certainly play, almost anything. Even the fluffy lyrics aren’t bad – and “not bad” is pretty damn good for jazz lyrics. Finally, her imaginative, funky version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” demonstrates her ability to make unexpected material her own. If I had to pick a favorite track, it would be the impassioned ballad “Proud Lion,” which Waldron dedicates to her father. “Proud Lion/think he knew deep inside/that I never did like/long goodbyes.” Nothing lightweight about that.

Being such a knockout on both piano and vocals, it’s only fitting Waldron should have ace musicians backing her up, and bassist Miriam Sullivan, guitarist Steve Salerno and drummer Michael “T.A” Thompson are every bit her match. In fact one of the CD’s best points is the organic sound of the band, as if they’d played together for a million years.

Mala Waldron appears at the Jazz Standard in New York City on March 27 for her official CD release, and at Night and Day in Brooklyn NY on June 8 as part of the Soul of the Blues series.

Roberta Chevrette, Miss America

Roberta Chevrette makes a powerful statement with the first two songs on her new CD, Miss America. The instrumental introduction to “Country Girl” establishes her and her band’s bluesgrass credentials. The song itself is a two-chord chant about a girl the singer admires – an older sister or someone in that capacity, who “has this easy/way with words…she’ll tell me little sister/would you quit your worrying/you know you can do/anything that you want” – but then comes the kicker: “and i remember back/to all those years ago/to when she tried to kill me/on the living room floor/with a pair of scissors/in her hand.” Then the song closes with a verse about “going out to the country/where i belong” and a dog in the backseat, “to the country/where we feel/complete.” No more mention of the older girl. It’s like a miniature experimental novel in a few verses.

“Every Wind” is even more powerful, a drony Led Zeppelin-style folk song about a relationship going cold, which is the stuff of millions of songs but expressed with exceptional intensity here. Chevrette’s voice, not little-girlie yet usually small and childlike, soars to anguished heights on the choruses.

In “Miss America” the singer rejects artifical glamour in favor of inner beauty; she doesn’t “want to be demure or lovely/sweet or nice/or sit back quietly/while others think for me.” But then Chevrette goes one step beyond the expected, adding a final line: “i don’t want to be pretty.”

If you’re detecting an Ani DiFranco influence, you’re not imagining it. “Your Words,” in fact, is a poem directed straight at DiFranco, acknowledging a debt. Sounds a little tiresome, I know, but something about Chevrette’s laser-focussed delivery makes it not so. Though the poem swerves into an indictment of Bush’s Iraq war, the political theme is picked up at greater length in the slightly too obvious “Long Long Day.” The minimalist, spoken-word “How Long” is a more effective protest song. And in the midst of it all, the bluegrass romp “Bear Tracks” reminds us that this singer-songwriter isn’t all lasers and ice.

The grim banjo returns in “Anymore,” which features Jefferson Airplane-style harmonies that deepen a plainspoken refrain. “Inside,” like a number of these tracks, is more poem than song, in this case a self-referentially free-associative lyric: “i think i am addicted/to the resonance of chaos…the hectic beauty/of my surroundings/makes me feel/that the world/is the prize.”

This CD takes a couple of listens to appreciate, but it’s well worth it.

Available at CD Baby here.

OUT AND ABOUT: Paul DeCoster (of Bobby Stewart and the Contraires) is turning into a ferocious front man, as evidenced by his show at the Underground Lounge last Saturday night. His mix of 80s pop-rock covers (Eddie Money, Corey Hart) and originals in a similar vein kept the crowd grooving until – well, until they had to quit to make way for a comedy show… Dave Isaacs, up from Nashville, knocked ’em dead at Cornelia Street Cafe last night with his blazing guitar chops and bluesy roots-rock… Last but not least, my own band, Whisperado, plays this Saturday night at Hank’s Saloon (Brooklyn’s infamous “Bucket o’ Blood”) with Coppersonic and The New Heathens. Get there early – the more you’ve drunk, the better we sound!

New York Notes: Irish and Gay, City’s #2 Official Sits Out St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The annual controversy over the barring of gay groups from the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade has taken an added dimension this year with the ascension of Christine Quinn, who is both Irish and openly gay, to the Speakership of the City Council. Now the city’s second most powerful elected official, Quinn has decided to sit out today’s event, having tried and failed to reach a compromise with its organizing body, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade – the oldest and largest in the world, dating back to 1762, according to – does not bar openly gay individuals, but prohibits gays from marching as organized groups under gay-themed banners. Yet, having been for many years one of the city’s biggest annual parties, the Parade can arguably be said to have outgrown its ethnic-religious origin and become a civic and partly secular event. It is certainly a march that local politicians rarely dare to snub, whatever their ethnicity or political views.

Still, even if we grant leeway to the religious sensitivities of the Ancient Order – the Parade is, after all, named for a Catholic saint, the patron of an overwhelmingly Catholic nation – Parade chairman John Dunleavy went beyond defending his creed and uttered what borders on hate speech when he told the Irish Times, “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?”

Dunleavy’s very pointed analogy implies that gays are to the Irish what the Nazis were to the Jews or the KKK to blacks: murderous, genocidal enemies. Council Speaker Quinn has been politic, admirably taking the high road with her efforts at compromise and principled but measured response to its failure. I’d be seething with anger if I were gay and Irish – or gay and anything, for that matter – and a civic leader compared me to a Nazi just because of my sexual orientation.

If Dunleavy didn’t mean such a thing – if he was merely making a poor analogy – I’d be interested to hear it from him.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 9 2006 – Golay, Rivkin, Rentler

This week’s round-up demonstrates the enormous variety of what we call, for want of a better term, folk music.

Mike Golay, Across the Bridge and Half Pint (solo acoustic guitar)

Fans of the acoustic guitar, get thee to thy record store and pick up one or both of these CDs from six-string master Mike Golay. Virtuosic but not flashy, soothing but not new-age precious or background-music boring (although they’ve been serving as excellent relaxing background music for me in my office), Golay’s pieces express the soul of the often taken-for-granted instrument.

One can hear Hawaiian strains and Celtic touches here and there, and many of the titles are evocative or quirky (“111 Archer Avenue,” “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled,” “Baby With a Hammer”), but overall the music is a-cultural, its language the universal tongue of plucked strings. Some songs are more melodic, others more atmospheric, and Golay will throw in an unexpected bend or chromatic line in places. But there’s not a sour note to be heard.

Though both CDs are thoughtful and the songs varied, the more recent “Across the Bridge” is perhaps the more contemplative of the two. It’s also longer, so if quantity is your goal and your budget allows for only one solo acoustic guitar album, go for that one. If you can’t get enough acoustic guitar, get both. You can sample the tracks at CD Baby (or iTunes, though as yet it has only Half Pint) before you buy.

This style of music doesn’t get a whole lot better. Highly recommended.

Irina Rivkin, upwelling

Although we are in a richly creative time marked by cross-pollination of musical styles and traditions, this CD stands out as something really different. In a mere 36 minutes Irina Rivkin pulls together aesthetic, emotional, political, sexual, and social justice themes into a contiguous and unique artistic statement. Despite the coffee cups in the cover photo, Rivkin’s work is very far from the “lesbian coffeehouse music” that I anticipated. Instead it’s a kind of world-folk spawned from the artist’s Russian folk-music background and acute sensitivity to personal and political injustice, and informed by a crossover-jazz sensibility a la Leonard Bernstein and a mildly experimental bent akin to that of Kate Bush or Meredith Monk.

It’s all that, and it’s pretty to listen to too.

The instrumental accompaniments are light to nonexistent, as Rivkin’s voice is the prime instrument here, bolstered by those of the excellent Maria Quiles and Rebecca Crump (who together with Rivkin comprise the group Making Waves). Rivkin sings her angular melodies in a voice that switches easily from soft to sharp. Where the other voices jump in, the sound becomes more universal and more exotic at the same time: discrete moments could have come as easily from a North American roots-revivalist group like the Be Good Tanyas as from an exotic, arty hitmaker like the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.

Her lyrics, for the most part, manage to be both pointed and poetic. Political music is hard to pull off, especially if it’s not satirical, and, except in “Welfare-to-Work Blues,” which is musically creative and elegant but lyrically forced, Rivkin accomplishes the difficult task very well. “See Through Bush” is clever and light-handed and the more cutting thereby; the Spanish-language “Sobrevivientes” raises a fist of musical beauty against oppression; and the chantlike “Taking Our Freedom” deepens its message with hypnotically intense music while personalizing it with a dollop of family history.

The non-political songs are rewarding too. Rivkin’s reflections on love and its accompanying troubles range from the imagistic (“Little Silver Packets,” “River & Volcano”) to the painfully explicit (the Outmusic Award-winning “Ya Eyo Lublu”), and, unlike most lyricists, who are at home only in one mode or the other, Rivkin can convince with words both clouded and clear.

Russ Rentler, Scarecrow’s Lament

The new disc by Russ Rentler, who was an early bandmate of the folk stars John Gorka and Richard Shindell, is really three CDs in one. First, it boasts three beautiful instumentals: two traditional tunes and an original, in which Rentler’s consummate skill on a wide array of stringed instuments (too many to name, but dulcimers are prominent) takes center stage. Then there are the humorous songs, including “New Car Smell,” which has been heard on the syndicated NPR show Car Talk, and the autobiographical (and hysterical) “One-Eyed Grandma.” Finally there are thoughtful and earnest songs of love, family and the ways of the world.

Rentler’s singing, and to some degree his writing, are throwbacks to the Folk Revival period of the 1950s and ’60s, specifically the plainspoken voices of artists like Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio, who gave audiences a sincere but somewhat whitewashed refraction of the traditional music of Appalachia and its antecedents in the British Isles. That mode is entirely out of fashion in today’s folk revival, which goes by names like Americana, Alt-Country, and Rick Rubin, and which prizes authenticity, whether native (Ralph Stanley, the Blind Boys of Alabama), studied (Old Crow Medicine Show, Alison Krauss) or transformed (Devendra Banhart). Rentler sings with much heart and little art, but after a couple of songs one gets used to it and goes with his honest and ultimately refreshing sound.

There’s one big problem: clunky lyrics. Rhymes that don’t rhyme, words that stick out awkwardly from their melodies, and references that are just a wee bit off (“those times they’re a-changin'” isn’t exactly what Bob Dylan said) come too frequently to fall under the protection of artistic license.

Fortunately, formal flaws are often forgiveable – and can even have a naïve charm – in funny songs, of which Rentler has several. It’s the more serious lyrics, like the love songs “Waltzing Amelia” and “Moravian Street,” that don’t trip lightly into the ears.

Rentler’s previous CDs are available at the iTunes music store and presumably this one will be too once it’s processed by the great big Apple music chomper, so I’d recommend – unless you’re already a fan – that you listen over there, check out the instrumentals first, and then the rest, before laying out for the CD. I’m lucky enough to have a review copy, but iTunes gives you the choice to download the songs you like. For sure, the instrumentals are going into my iTunes library. Folk revival or not, it’s a brave new world out there for music fans; happy downloading.

Available at CD Baby here.

Various Artists, The Independents

Norine Braun was kind enough to send me a copy of her company’s first compilation, straightforwardly titled The Independents. As with any collection of this type, the quality of the music is uneven, but it’s a well-chosen assortment that flows better than most, opening with three strong tracks: Braun’s own epic-pop number “Alberta,” Dudley Saunders’s literary, electronic-traditional hybrid “Truck of the Rising Sun,” and Maya Solovey’s international pop gem “Dissolving.”

Skinflick does a good job aping the Foo Fighters, while Krescent 4 similarly worships Soundgarden. The UK’s The Papers aim for Neil Finn territory with their catchy pop-rock nugget “Lonely Being Beautiful,” and Anton Glamb’s “Subway” is lighthearted and amusing. Tracy Stark – an in-demand session keyboardist in New York indie circles and beyond – nails a nifty, jazzed-up adult contemporary vibe in “So Cool.” Patti Witten evokes Roseanne Cash’s smooth country-pop-rock style with the lovely, atmospheric “Black Butterfly,” and Salme Dahlstrom’s “Hello California” is crystalline, guilty-pleasure pop.

OUT AND ABOUT: When is a concert a community? When it’s Meg Braun (no relation to Norine Braun) and Sharon Goldman’s fundraiser for the Summersongs non-profit adult songwriters’ camps, with which more and more top-shelf folk musicians are associating. Last night’s concert at Makor in New York City included mini-sets from about a dozen artists, among them the monstrously talented Sloan Wainwright, who writes sophisticated and captivating songs and gives a singers’ clinic every time she opens her mouth; bluesman Scott Ainslie, who held the audience spellbound with his Allman-esque voice and what may be the only song about the Vietnam War ever written for a children’s record; and – she’ll forgive me for this characterization – modern folk’s eminence grise Christine Lavin who had the crowd in stitches as she often does. Spotted in the crowd were other tour-circuit stalwarts like serious funnyman Eric Schwartz and jazz-pop original Allison Tartalia… Speaking of Allison, she’ll be performing tonight when my Soul of the Blues series continues at Night and Day in Brooklyn, along with Ian Thomas ( “Best Nostalgia-Free Revival Act of 2005,” NY Press) and Adam Payne whose soulful “sound is as big as his afro.” If you’re in the NYC area tonight, it’s a show – and a mural – not to be missed.

New York Notes: High School Follies

Oh-so-amusing things have been happening in the New York City schools.

Brooklyn Technical High School (“Brooklyn Tech”) can be proud of its many eminent graduates, including Nobel laureate George Wald, computer baron Charles Wang, world’s saddest songwriter Harry Chapin, bodybuilder-actor Lou Ferrigno, and Congressman (and recent mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner. But Principal Lee McCaskill did not do these notable alumni proud when he resigned under pressure after it was discovered that his wife had falsified residency documents in order to get their daughter into a prestigious Brooklyn public elementary school. The actual smoking gun: a lease with a date earlier than the lease form’s copyright date! The should-have-been smoking gun: the rent. Anyone knows you can’t even live in a box on the sidewalk for $200 a month in Brooklyn, much less rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Now, not content with purging the disgraced Principal, the City’s Department of Education is moving to fire his wife, a social studies teacher at another Brooklyn high school. I say these menaces to society, who actually live in New Jersey, are getting what they deserve. Life’s Lesson Number One is to read the fine print, and people who call themselves educators shouldn’t have missed a detail like that. After they’re done paying the four years of out-of-state tuition they owe, they’d better set up a trust fund for their poor daughter’s future years of therapy. (Unless, of course, the daughter – now aged nine – has all along been the evil genius behind the plot. Probably not, though.)

In another boon to New York City’s therapeutic counseling corps – already a fourteen billion-quadrillion-godzillion-dollar industry, according to The Bagel and the Rat’s latest information – the ever-vigilant Department of Education has fired a janitor who’s been indicted on 360 counts relating to his hobby of secretly videotaping girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms in two high schools, one of which – and this can’t possibly be a coincidence, can it? – was Brooklyn Tech. 46-year-old Michael Conte also set up a secret camera in the bathroom of a female friend who lives in Long Island’s Suffolk County – where he’s being held on $50,000 bail – and in his own bathroom, which he shared with his mother and sister (now that’s just sick). There’s one piece of good news for Conte’s family, though, which has already bailed him out of Rikers Island. If they go broke defending him, there’s a $200 one-bedroom available somewhere in Brooklyn.

And finally in school news: if the state doesn’t cough up $6.5 billion soon, twenty-one school construction projects will have to be scrapped. Fortunately for Brooklyn Tech, it already exists, but other much-needed facilities will not come to be, and, as the teacher’s union president sagely notes, “you can’t lower class size without more capacity or fight obesity without gyms and playgrounds.”

In a pinch, the DOE could try fighting obesity by hiring well-known auteur Michael Conte to install locker room cameras, and telling the kids their fat bellies will be posted on the Internet for all to see if they don’t shape up.

Indie Round-Up for Feb 9 2006: Indiegrrl-apalooza

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Indie Corral. Thanks in part to a fresh announcement on the Indiegrrl list, my CD pile is thick with submissions from female artists, hence the female face of this week’s Round-Up.

Susan Kane, So Long

This lovely set of hummable country-folk, beautifully produced by Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega’s guitarist), has been getting some airplay on prestigious folk programs, and deservedly so. Kane has a sweetly unassuming but clear and sure voice, a good command of American idioms from country-western to blues to coffeehouse folk, a knack for homespun melodies, and an ace collaborator in Masters, whose guitar work and production nests the songs perfectly.

Kane sings folk with a country-singer’s voice, merging the pure beauty of an Erica Smith with the worldliness of a Joni Mitchell. As with Linda Nuñez (see below), if you like this style of music, you will probably enjoy this strong album through and through.

I have one quibble. Although lyrics, as a consequence of their dependence on a musical setting, generally sound better sung than they read upon the page, Kane’s, curiously, go the opposite way. The simple, rather formal beauty of the song structures and melodies seem to contrast with the natural, tumbling quality of the storytelling, resulting – to this ear, anyway – in moments of diminished artfulness.

That aside, this is a fine disc worthy of a place on your folk shelf. Kane and Masters are also a pleasure to hear live, as I learned at a recent show at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall.

Nuñez, Cry Mercy

Linda Nuñez and her band make unabashed power-rock. Inspired as much by 70’s icons Pat Benatar and Heart as by 90’s alternative bands like Live and Soundgarden, Nuñez sings in an unstoppable belt that’s very refreshing in this age of little-girl voices. And it’s not just her singing style and ballsy harmonies that evoke 70’s arena rock, it’s also her dramatic, sometimes deliciously over-the-top songwriting. A touch of Latin flavor (as in “Havana”), a soft underbelly (“Either Way”) and a proud but not heavy-handed gay identification give this artist plenty of crossover juice, too.

The best songs are up front: “Cry Mercy” is a monster jam, and it’s hard to get the chorus of “Love In Pieces” out of your head once you’ve heard it. “Yea” is a headbanger’s delight that Beavis and Butthead would surely have labeled cool, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a solid power-pop anthem. The songs on the second half of the CD have less hit potential, but the power never lets up, and if you like one Nuñez song, you’ll probably like the whole album. It has depth, and it rocks: two for two in my book.

Patricia Ossowski, What Would You Believe?

This is keyboard-based precision-pop with sophisticated production, lush soundscapes, and powerful lyrics: “while you here always looking for a miracle while i just slowly drown/and you here always saying i’m beautiful but i just can’t be found.” Some of the songs, like “Luminous” and “Please Don’t Go,” have memorable hooks; some rock (“Lucky Me,” “Broken Me”); and many have haunting harmonies and evoke truly chilling moods. The songs are about relationships mostly, but Ossowski has her own poetic and pithy way of looking at things, as in “Broken Me”: “i try to find a reason try to live through all argument/weigh the damage in both hands and i start to miss you/i turn around through your eyes see the view from here/what a wreck i appear to be and i start to miss you.”

But Ossowski has a hard time matching her vocals to her passionate lyrics and dramatic arrangements. Soft, precise singing has its place; it can have the effect of turning a single word or phrase, or a very compressed little melody, into a valid hook, as it does here in “Lucky Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” But Ossowski lacks the vocal range and power that allows a Grace Slick or a Tori Amos to make the most of their quietly intense moments. Perhaps that’s part of why “Lucky Me” stands out on this CD – its tight vocal harmonies and machine-like beat reinforce each other like strands of a rope.

Cantrell Maryott, Moving, Not Leaving

Cantrell Maryott also sings in a controlled style, but with more variation. The opening track, “Do You Remember,” shows that she can sing and write a bluesy torch song with the best of them, whild its solo section proves Mitzi Cowell a masterful guitarist and Philippe Pfeiffer (Maryott’s primary co-writer) a pianist of exquisite skill and taste. (It’s nice to get a CD that sounds this good from a part of the Universe I’m totally unfamiliar with – Ashland, OR – filled with wonderful performances by musicians whose names are totally new to me.)

Maryott is originally from Arizona, and there’s something of the desert in her spacious songwriting. “Do You Remember” is the only torchy track; it leads into “Carry On,” a lovely folk-gospel tune with angelic harmonies, and “Amelie,” a wee folk ballad which, except for Maryott’s use of vibrato on the vocals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. However, the song bears some of the New Age coloring that characterizes most of the rest of the CD, which is thereby less varied and somewhat less interesting.

“Three Miles Into New Mexico” is an exception: a minor-key, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid chorus, it really gets the toes tapping. But “Long Way Home,” despite fine country-style acoustic guitar playing, has a vocal that’s too gently sing-songy for my taste. I do grow to like the song more as it extends and becomes hypnotic a la Brian Eno ambient rock, but can’t say the same for “Forever” and “Home” which are just plain too New-Agey for my taste.

The CD closes with the chant-like “On This Morning,” a solstice ritual with Pink Floyd electric guitar and what Maryott calls “chanteling”: “harmonizing vocally within acoustically charged spaces to ‘channel the chant.'” I call it pretty, like a ghost in the finery of another age.

In all, despite losing me in places, this CD is the work of accomplished musicians and has much to recommend it.

Available at CD Baby here.

NEWS AND FOLLOW-UPS: Lee Rocker’s new CD has started out as the #1 Most Added on the Americana Music Chart, beating out Shawn Mullins and Roseanne Cash… For you New Yorkers and Brooklynites, my Soul of the Blues series continues tonight at Night and Day with a stellar lineup of local and regional favorites… And finally, speaking of Brooklyn: thanks to the ravages of time and an errant broom, Planty is dead. Poor Planty – he was indeed a strange plant in a strange land.

Defeat the Homeless

Now, here’s a war I can get behind.

Emerging from the ATM yesterday – none the richer, since some vengeful deity has decreed against my having any money this week – I encountered one of the ubiquitous United Homeless Organization tables. Usually the pitch is some variation of “Give just a penny to help feed the homeless.”

Yesterday the table was womanned by a lady calling out very clearly, “Give a penny, help defeat the homeless.”

If I’d had a penny to spare, I might have done it. I would very much like to defeat the homeless. Actually, I would like to defeat anyone. I would love to experience the thrill of victory. To gloat, to crow, to lord it over my vanquished enemy. The homeless? Bring ’em on.

Like some intellectual Al Bundy, my victories came early in life. Leading my eighth-grade class to victory over Russell’s class in the big current-events trivia match. Receiving some academic awards. Getting into Harvard (much harder than getting through it, by the way). Getting the girl I was madly in love with to marry me.

But where are the victories now? Whenever do mature adults get to win things? These days I can’t even win an argument.

Sure, you can call a radio station and win passes to a concert, or buy a lottery ticket that returns a few bucks. But that’s winning against chance. Where’s the joy of defeating a real foe? Where?

I guess it’s like the great composer Charles Ives said: “Prizes are for children.” Except if you get famous. Then you can accept your Oscar or Emmy or Grammy, graciously thank all the people who got you where you are, and go home and gloat.

But not us regular people. So I give up. You win. Satisfied?

A Weed Grows In Brooklyn

We have a plant growing in our kitchen.

Not a houseplant in a pot (we’ve never had much luck with those). It’s a weed, growing up through a gap between the linoleum tile and the painted wooden molding.

We’re pretty messy people, and our somewhat decrepit kitchen never really gets clean. But it has been ever thus. Why a kitchen weed now?

The nearby dishwasher has been broken for months. There’s no faucet within leaking or spraying distance. And if the cats were “watering” it, we’d smell something.

Between the kitchen and the backyard is the bedroom, which has no basement or foundation under it because it used to be a porch. So I guess you could say that, groundwise at least, Planty is really only two feet or so from the Brooklyn jungle out back. Maybe there’s groundwater seeping into the wooden floor of the kitchen, gradually turning the 125-year-old wood into yummy mulch. Can’t really tell.

Don’t really want to know anyway. (We rent.)

As for light: maybe this is a good advertisement for the full-spectrum bulbs in the ceiling fixture. It really is Like Sunshine In Your Home!

Here’s a picture of Planty, and a picture of the backyard.

planty_closeup yard_sm

Planty looks fragile, and he’s not growing fast. But he’s persisted, green as any yard weed, for weeks now. Does he yearn for the yard? Does he pine for his weedy mates growing apace in the brownstone backwoods, so close yet so impossibly far?

Or is Planty a sinister offshoot of one of those unkillable yard vines, or of the pretty but deadly pokeweed that the cats somehow know not to nibble?

Planty will not easily give up his secrets. But I know one thing:

You just don’t get this sort of entertainment in the suburbs.

New York Notes: One Week Until New York’s Mayoral Election

Many New Yorkers will be facing a dilemma in next week’s mayoral election. We think our mayor is doing a good job governing the city. But we loathe the national party to which he belongs.

Four years ago Michael Bloomberg used his personal fortune to fund his longshot campaign. During and since that successful run he never tired of pointing out how his billions make him impervious to the influence of special interests. A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg had switched parties in order to run, and most New Yorkers believed that he wasn’t a “real” Republican, that he actually had his heart in the right place, and that as far as governing went he could in fact be truly independent, driven only by the best interests of the city and his own ego (hopefully in that order). And I still believe that’s true to some extent.

But personal fortunes aside, politics makes strange and sometimes noxious bedfellows. It’s common knowledge that Bloomberg spent some $7 million of his own money funding the last Republican National Convention, among whose many offenses was its disgusting political exploitation of 9-11. But as Wayne Barrett recently reported in The Village Voice, Bloomberg has also cozied up to the Bush White House in numerous ways. By merely praising Bush, for example – whether in public or at a party event – Bloomberg helps the cause.

Even though Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent, seems capable, we hesitate to vote out a mayor who’s running the city well. This is the second hardest job in the nation, and if we’ve got somebody good, we’re loath to boot him out before we have to. We weigh Bloomberg’s ties to the Bush administration against our own ties to our life in the city we love. In our minds, New York is not like other American cities: we tend to think of it as a quasi-independent city-state, though it is no such thing. New York City’s economy and the nation’s are interdependent, as are their cultures, but we see ourselves, sometimes obnoxiously so, as above and apart. We often feel a stronger local allegiance than a national one. Hence our dilemma.

I’m not voting for Bloomberg next week, and if he loses, I’ll be pleased. Regaining the New York City mayoralty would be a shot in the arm for national and state Democrats. But I have to admit that I will also be pleased if he wins re-election (which is almost a certainty). And I’ll be less nervous about the immediate future of this great and unique city. Does that make me a strange bedfellow with myself? In the words of that famous New Yorker, Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Some eight million, in fact.

New York Notes

From the Dept. of Euphemisms: Newsday reports that the former schools superintendent of suburban Roslyn, NY pled guilty to stealing over a million dollars from his district. Apologizing in court, Frank Tassone said, “I will make restitution to the Roslyn schools and I am sorry for my poor judgment.”

Speaking of judgment, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the late World Trade Center, is finally on trial for the 1993 WTC bombing, which killed six people and injured thousands. The PA is accused of neglecting security in the underground parking lot where the truck bomb exploded. But public anger is concentrated on another seemingly all-powerful Robert Moses-era public authority, the one that runs the public-funded mass transit system without seeming to answer to anybody. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will end this year with a $933 million surplus. Common sense – and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi – says the money should go toward putting off planned fare hikes, or at least making debt payments. But the agency wants to use it to improve valuable property it owns on the west side of Manhattan (where the Olympic stadium would have gone if NYC had won its bid for the 2012 Games).

Something is wrong with this picture. The MTA is supposed to serve commuters, and manage its funds to that end. But because it is not a government agency directly answerable to elected officials, but a quasi-independent Authority, there’s not much anyone can do to control it – not even Mayor Bloomberg, who’s had some success getting things done in this impossible city.

The MTA claims developing the West Side Yards would net big profits down the line, improving the agency’s long-term fiscal health. While in the wider world it makes sense to think long-term on such matters, the MTA is not a corporation answering to shareholders, but an agency responsible (morally, if not in actual fact) to the public. Public needs are both long- and short-term, and a sensible balance must be struck. In this case, since the segments of the public most dependent on the MTA’s services and most in need of low fares are the poor and middle class, who tend to live paycheck to paycheck in this ridiculously expensive burg, holding down fares is the right thing to do.

The MTA’s history of cooking its books is another argument for keeping it on a short leash and in the here and now.

Howard Dean, by the way, is trying to convince me that Mayor Bloomberg is not a fake Republican and I should vote against him in the upcoming election. If the Democrats had a great candidate, the decision would be easy, but I’m not too impressed with Fernando Ferrer, who vacillates between foot-in-mouth disease and cautious-wuss syndrome. Yes, Bloomberg contributed $7 million to the RNC, but that wasn’t what gave Bush his victory. New York’s such a tough town to govern that when we’ve got a mayor who’s doing a pretty good job, we hesitate to kick him out.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Buddhism Underground

This is the first in an occasional series about my exploration of Buddhism while riding the New York subway.

Every morning on the subway I see people poring over religious texts. Seemingly oblivious to the groaning, shuffling tube-world of the subway car, these serious souls – Christian women; Orthodox Jews of both sexes; Muslims (usually women); and Holy Sisters of the Word Search – pass their daily commute in silent prayer or study. I am the only one marking up a book about Buddhism.

Buddhism’s teachings have much appeal in a complicated life, but they can be a little perplexing at first, and I had initially hoped the book would provide some explicit guidance for putting its principles into practice in some way. Reading it for the first time, I kept waiting for the author to get to the – well, not to the point, because he did make the central point again and again – but to the secret, the method, the trick even – or at least, a conclusion. We expect a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, practical or fantastic, to have a logical narrative flow. If it doesn’t, we think it’s a bad book.

But Buddhism teaches that there is no secret trick, and, in a sense, no narrative, since there is no reality to the perceived distinction between this and that, then and now. Indeed there is no “I,” no cork floating in the stream, but only stream, only thus. Shouldn’t a truly Buddhist book, then, also be only stream? Buddhism counsels us to be aware when our mind is “leaning,” whether it’s towards something we want to have or away from something we want to avoid. If we “want” Enlightenment, if we “want” to gain something from reading a book, we’ve already defeated our purpose. The book, then, should not be an instrument of our “leaning” this way or that.

From the standpoint of a student of literature and child of Western culture, one of the fascinating things about Buddhism as presented in this book is its use of small words to mean big things.

Whole. Mind. See. Awake. Thus. These words refer to aspects of the same phenomenon: simply being present.

The more we search for Truth among our thoughts and beliefs, the more subject to doubt we become… Anything that can be grasped must of necessity depend on other things for their validity. Hence, they are doubtful and perplexing… Ultimate Truth…can’t be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immediate, direct experience itself.

Words can never fully embody concepts. And Buddhism says concepts are artificial anyway. So words, any words, are twice removed from the Whole.


One apparent problem – for me, anyway – with Buddhism is that it seems unscientific. Of course, deity-based religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also unscientific, but they can co-exist peacefully with science because they rely on faith, which by definition does not require rational or scientific proof. (In fact, it’s when religion tries to pass itself off as scientific – as with “creation science” and its more insidious modern iteration, “intelligent design” – that bitter conflicts arise, with science put on the defensive by an enemy it cannot, by definition, engage, and religion – Christianity, in this case – devalued and shamed by its own professed champions.)

Buddhism, however, does not require “belief” or “faith” as such. In saying that all sensations, concepts and thoughts are artificial and unreal divisions of the Whole, it is profoundly unscientific, since science is the attempt to ascertain objective truth by studying observed phenomena.

Yet at the limits of science comes a recognition that we cannot ever completely arrive at objective truth; the best we can do is approach it asymptotically. The limits of our perception, the imperfections of our brains, will always be with us, preventing our understanding from becoming absolutely complete. So maybe Buddhism and science don’t conflict so badly after all.

We have to see where we can effectively apply our effort and where we can’t. When we’re not seeing we’ll put most, if not all, of our energy into the areas where we have no control. We’ll try to control situations, people, and things over which, in fact, we have little or no influence.

So says Buddhism Plain and Simple. And science, reason, and my therapist tell me exactly the same thing.

Pot City

The cover story of this week’s Time Out New York is about good places to go when you’re stoned. That’s right: high on marijuana, an illegal drug. Though it’s not exactly telling you to get high or where to get concentrates from, this is a big step for a news article to write about drug-related issues, namely marijuana. And despite a loose tie-in to the new TV show Weeds, the article really is what it purports to be. Hooray for freedom of the press, I say. They can’t take that away from us – not yet, anyway.

A sidebar notes that misdemeanor possession arrests are way down since 9-11, when the police discovered some (no pun intended) higher priorities. It also suggests that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t have a bug up his ass about pot the way his predecessor, the sainted Rudy Guiliani, did, and I’m inclined to agree. For a billionaire, Bloomberg’s pretty laid back. For that, and other more serious reasons, his re-election bid may be the first time in my life I vote for a Republican (or, in Bloomberg’s case, a “Republican”).

In a related development, this morning the Libertarian candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, Gary Popkin, approached me on the subway platform to get my signature on his candidacy petition. I signed, of course, though I disagree with parts of the Libertarian platform. Popkin’s website doesn’t mention anything about his views on the drug laws, but I’m guessing he’d be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana for medical use. That way, we’d definitely see more strains of marijuana with high CBD and low THC levels on the market; you can Visit this website to view these types. Decriminalizing marijuana is a big step, but definitely advantageous for many people who struggle with any medical issues. With the decriminalization of medical marijuana, perhaps even recreational use will be allowed and the stoners can enjoy an octopus bong to smoke out of legally. And if he wants to decriminalize it people will be able to get it without fear of police knocking on their door or a letter in the post, they’ll be able to get it from places such as and freely enjoy it in any form that it comes in.

Yesterday, Time Out New York’s special pothead issue; today, Libertarian ballot petitions. Coincidence? You decide.