Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Dating Techniques of the Rock Stars, #1

Here's a salient passage from Ron Wood's autobiography. Although I gave him short shrift in my puritanical op-ed a week or so ago, he does sound like good company. Here he and his wife Krissie pay a call on the Harrisons:
One night at George's house, Friar Park, in Henley I took George aside and told him quite seriously that when it was time for bed I would be going to Pattie's room. Seemingly unflustered he pointed to the room Krissie and I were staying in and added, "I shall be sleeping there." When the time came, the two of us were left on the landing, hands on knobs (doorknobs) of the respective rooms." "Are we going to do this?" I asked. "I'll see you in court," George replied and in we went. Pattie was a little surprised to see me. I told her I thought she was seriously neglected, was going to waste and unleashed that I felt so strongly for her. The following morning we were woken by George, who informed me that he had called his lawyers. He never actually did. Pattie and I headed off to the Bahamas and Krissie and George left for Portugal.
Ah, the swinging Sixties! Speaking of that op-ed, I got a delightful email the other day from one Max Jurek, who encountered the piece when the wind fetched up a stray copy on the sidewalk. Can there be a more organic form of viral marketing? Did the reddish leaf on the sidewalk show up at the same time? In any case, he took the quick snapshot above with his phone before picking up the paper.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Alex Ross, Caetano Veloso

On Sunday, Newsday ran my review of Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. I've mentioned this book before, and was practically palpitating with eagerness to read the whole thing. I loved it. Ross has gotten a little bit of flak for not paying sufficient mind to jazz and popular music. He does in fact include a long segment on George Gershwin and a more telegraphic treatment of Duke Ellington, and certainly acknowledges the impact of these giants on their starchier peers. But Ross doesn't pretend to deal with every facet of twentieth-century music: his avowed subject is classical music, and it seems churlish to complain because he didn't pay homage to "Ball of Confusion" or (God forbid) "A Fifth of Beethoven." I began this way:
Robert Frost once referred to his life--and by extension, his art--as a sustained "lover's quarrel with the world." On the basis of Alex Ross' superb study of contemporary classical music, The Rest Is Noise, we might ascribe a related clash to the composers of the last century: a lover's quarrel with the audience. There is, to be sure, more than a sprinkling of populists in the author's pantheon. Such card-carrying modernists as Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky managed to wheedle their way into the public's heart--and none other than Arnold Schoenberg earned a hysterical ovation at the 1913 premiere of "Gurre-Lieder," as if he had just won the final round of Dodecaphonic Idol. Still, it's been a century of tough sledding for audience and artists alike, even as the skirmishes between atonal Crips and diatonic Bloods finally dissolved into a postmodern free-for-all.

Not that Ross is hanging his head over these developments. They make for a bracing narrative, which he traces back to the primordial friction between Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, the twin titans of the late Romantic era. His book opens, in fact, at the Austrian premiere of Strauss' "Salome" in 1906. In this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play, the crowd-pleasing composer knew exactly how far he could stray from the safe harbor of traditional harmony. He kicked off the opera by stacking two distant keys atop one another, plunging the listener into what Ross calls "an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet." Yet the audience ate it up, seduced by the onstage kinkiness and by Strauss' insinuating score.
You can read the rest here, and visit the author's excellent website here. Meanwhile, I attended a Caetano Veloso show last night. There was a line stretching around the block--not bad for a 65-year-old Brazilian man who didn't even start recording for an American label until the mid-1980s. Inside, we were surrounded by the liquid sounds of Portuguese, a language that seems always to be spoken in an undertone, even when the speakers are shouting at each other in the subterranean bowels of the Nokia Theater.

Veloso emerged in a denim leisure suit, the jacket of which he breezily discarded halfway through the evening. He was accompanied by the tight, noisy trio that backed him up on , and much of the set was drawn from this atypically punkish recording. There was a stentorian version of "Odeio," with the entire audience joining Veloso for the chorus. (Afterwards, he did a quick gloss for the non-Portuguese speakers in the crowd: "I hate you, I hate you, I hate.") Even more wrenching was "Minhas Lagrimas," a dirge-like piece whose texture was thickened by Veloso's electrified nylon-string guitar. This YouTube video is not from last night's concert, but it should give you the idea:

Veloso is a splendidly theatrical performer. His hand gestures alone are probably worth a scholarly monograph. (My favorite: the sideways fluttering that seems to indicate that his fingertips are on fire.) His energy belies his age, as do the abs he briefly, comically flashed to the adoring crowd, not making any attempt to hide the love handles, either. But despite the agile accompaniment and his pogo-stick levitations from one side of the stage to the other, I was probably most captivated by Veloso's brief solo turn. There's no doubt he could spend the rest of his life touring with just a stool and an acoustic guitar. The fact that he doesn't is one more proof of his restless artistry. Yet that feathery tenor, with its subdued laughter and subdued tears and its winking, mercurial falsetto, remains a marvel--and you can hear it best when it's just Veloso and his guitar, plus the thousands of audience members haloing his every phrase. Last night he did "Cucurrucucu Paloma," and had the entire theater eating out of his hand. Clearly this video, with its Hockney-comes-to-life preamble, is also not from last night's concert. But you won't find any sexier birdcalls in this life:

By the way, I attended the concert with Richard Gehr, proprietor of the diabolically smart and amusing Music For Grownups blog. Go, read, listen, and be enlightened. (Just for the record, Richard doesn't really look like a Baldwin pear with glasses on--that's artistic license for you.)


Department of Corrections

Before turning my back forever on the Atlantic's anniversary party, I am duty bound to point out a few small errors in my earlier post. First, the sadist with the video camera was not an employee of the magazine. He worked for Gawker, which subsequently posted the video, which included me griping about the party. (You can also see the woman in the black dress do her whirling dervish bit.) Second, Justin Smith is not the publisher of the magazine--he is the president of Atlantic Consumer Media. Finally, I seem to have misquoted Arianna Huffington's haiku. The correct version, in a kind of me-Tarzan-you-Jane idiom, goes like this:
Our Founding Fathers
Said to pursue Happiness
We seek latest buzz
You will observe that the syllable count is now correct. Still rubbish, though. (You can read the complete set of haikus--and even vote on your favorite!--right here, if that's your sort of thing.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007


A night at the NBA

By now, the results of last night's National Book Award ceremony are widely known--the only remaining surprise is that I can still fit into my tuxedo. I attended as a civilian, with no obligation to write down a word. I felt no anxiety wandering the vast, depopulated public spaces of the Marriott Marquis, whose lobby resembles a Saturn V launching pad. My plan was to sit at the big round table right under the left projection screen, eat the food, laugh at Fran Lebowitz's punchlines, and generally have a good time. But there was a notebook in the pocket of my tuxedo, and as I studied the arrangement of slender trees that served as the backdrop, some of them shedding red leaves onto the stage even as we watched, I couldn't resist. I shoved the appetizer plate, with its shiny pool of Sherry Mustard Vinaigrette Crème Fraîche and Paddlefish Caviar, off to the side. Ladies and germs, I took notes.

Lebowitz, in a tuxedo and heels, was just fine. She joked about the striking writers, the striking stagehands. She joked about the unhappy divide between winners and losers, and gently tweaked Toni Morrison, who was sitting at the next table with large gold hoops in her ears and a smile on her face. "You're not going to get anything tonight," Lebowitz told her. This quasi-taunt was permissible because Morrison had already bagged the bigger game--the one you get in Stockholm, along with all the lutefisk you can eat--and she took it in stride, laughing at Lebowitz's image on the big screen.

She introduced Michael Cunningham, who would be presenting Joan Didion with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. All men look better in a tuxedo: Cunningham looks like he was born in one. He praised the honoree for her "fearless and almost frightfully astute vision of the world." His delivery was effective but occasionally a little hammy, with sudden accelerations and downshifting pauses that reminded me of William Shatner. (Not an insult in my book, by the way.) "You can set a drink down on a Joan Didion sentence," he asserted--surely the first time anybody has compared her prose to a cocktail coaster. And now Didion ascended the stage to a great round of applause. A tech guy scuttled out with a box for her to stand on, but she waved him away. Good for her, I thought.

Didion is a small, commanding woman. She ran down some career highlights, including her dutiful trips to the freight terminal at LAX to send her copy winging its way to Manhattan. "This wasn't just before email," she pointed out. "This was before Fed Ex. That's how I happened to get the lifetime achievement award." I had never heard her speak in person before. Her voice, at least in this formal setting, was notably deadpan. It was like hearing somebody play a piano with only two keys--C and C-sharp. "The last time I was in this room," Didion concluded, "Norman Mailer was getting this award. There was somebody who truly knew what writing was for. Thank you."

Next, Ira Glass came out to present Terry Gross with the Literarian Award. What you thought of Glass's speech pretty much depended on your appetite for the mild, twinkling cadences of public radio. My attention began to wander halfway through and I nibbled on my second dinner roll. There was nothing offensive about it--indeed, something offensive would have been fun--but I did feel that Glass was overegging the custard. Gross herself was modest and amusing. And unlike Didion, she did assent to standing on the box: a pragmatist.

We ate our dinner. Lebowitz returned, and I noticed Jonathan Franzen, delicately tucking away his dessert at an adjacent table, cracking up at one of her sallies--so much for his dour rep. I'm not going to run through all the presenters and winners: you already know the outcome. I will note that Sherman Alexie gave a witty, heartfelt speech. "I obviously should have been writing YA all along," he began, and went on to praise such early inspirations as Ezra Jack Keats (for his "gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation") and the Paiute poet Adrian C. Lewis--it was the latter's line about occupying "a reservation of my mind" that seemed to have steered Alexie to his vocation.

I had hoped David Kirby would win the poetry prize--his comical, freewheeling, deliciously learned narratives are a real addiction of mine. I saw him in the crush before the ceremony, and when I noted the NBA medallion he was wearing, he said, "I'm doing my Mark Spitz thing." Rim shot! But Robert Hass won, and delivered a wonderfully gracious speech, praising all of the other nominees at length and declaring that American poetry was in the midst of a bumper crop, that his peers were inventing "new shapes of feeling." He too brought up Mailer--it turned out that the 28-year-old Hass gave his first NYC poetry reading in the novelist's living room--and thanked Dan Halpern for many decades of support. His longtime editor stood to hug him as Hass returned to the table, and as the purple spotlights swept through the darkened ballroom, Halpern's distinctive head of hair lit up like a cumulus.

Tim Weiner, who won the nonfiction prize for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, made those declassified files sound like the mother of all paper trails. "You can see raw power at work," he said. "Those files show what America's leaders really wanted." Apparently the quotient of presidential fibbing is way higher than even the most cynical among us imagined. And Denis Johnson was, as his wife Cindy declared, "legitimately absent," hence her graceful turn as his proxy. Unless I'm very wrong, Johnson was the sole winner of the night to thank not only his editor, agent, publicist, and immediate family, but also the Almighty. But of course we never heard Christopher Hitchens's acceptance speech.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Atlantic's bad, bad bash

I just returned from The Atlantic Monthly's 150th anniversary bash--surely one of the most dispiriting parties I've ever attended (and that includes the ones I've thrown). Picture this: as you enter the auditorium at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the first thing you see is 150 or so people on the stage. They're having a cocktail party. You, the audience, are not. Catering guys and gals in black circulate onstage with trays of food and drink. There's loud, funky music on the sound system--Prince, Annie Lennox, David Bowie--and a Calder-like mobile hanging overhead, emblazoned with the magazine's logo. But again, all the action is on the stage. Everybody else is there to watch.

For about two minutes, this scenario had a certain Pirandellian charm. That quickly evaporated. One celebrity guest, a woman in a black dress with phenomenal back muscles, was dancing at the lip of the stage, doing all sorts of Isadora Duncan moves. Even her fellow celebs seemed a little bemused at this exhibition, snapping pictures of her with their cell phones.

At this point it was clearly time to ratchet up the theater of cruelty. An Atlantic employee came up the aisle with a video camera, interviewing the pathetic audience members. "What do you think is going on here?" he asked me. "I"m assuming that's a cocktail party for the celebrity guests, and the groundlings are sitting down here watching the cocktail party," I told him. No argument from Errol Morris. "And how does that make you feel?" he said. I thought about it. "It makes me feel pretty good," I replied. "Well, you can still say you were at a party with the mayor and Robert De Niro," he told me, moving on up the aisle. I jotted down a few notes with my complimentary Atlantic pen, which kept skipping, and wondered if maybe the magazine needed to hire a new party planner.

I scanned the stage for recognizable faces. The only one I could pick out was Ben Schwarz, the magazine's book editor, plus several bald men with glasses, all of whom I assumed were Moby. The privileged guests kept their backs turned to the audience most of the time, which made it harder to identify them. Finally Justin Smith, the president of Atlantic Consumer Media, welcomed the common folk to "this incredible party." Gee, thanks! Editor-in-chief James Bennet said a few words ("In this business, you're only as good as your next story") and turned the microphone over to Master of Ceremonies P.J. O'Rourke.

To his credit, O'Rourke couldn't help but allude to the petting zoo arrangement. "Us having a party up here, while you watch it from down there, is stupid." He then lost all credit for his defense of what he called "an appropriate kind of stupidity"--something to do with the magazine being very staid, very Old Media, which I assumed O'Rourke had just dreamed up while the waiter refilled his Chardonnay. The theme of the evening, he went on to explain, was the American Idea. He would pursue it with his fellow panelists, all of them standing awkwardly around a pair of little round tables.

First up: Arianna Huffington. She recited four haikus of 17 syllables each (I’m not making this up). Here's the second one, in its entirety:
Our Founding Fathers
Said to pursue happiness.
We pursue the latest vice.
Call me nuts, but that sounds like 20 syllables to me. But who's counting? Having done her bit, Huffington passed the microphone to Mark Bowden, who immediately answered the question on everybody's mind: yes, there is a Black Hawk Down video game. Bowden is a tremendous journalist, but he wasn't going to rise above this mess without some major effort. "The idea of an idea about America is antithetical," he ventured. And "being properly ignorant" ensures that you ask the right questions. Next.

That would be Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. "America is a constant poetic vision in the making," she announced, slipping into the very same mud puddle of abstraction that had already claimed Bowden. Jeff Goldberg said a few words about Iraq. O'Rourke introduced William Weld, in a greenish suit and bright red tie, as "the Joni Mitchell of American politics. You've observed our political scene from both sides now." As the former governor spoke, the celebrity guests swiveled to stage left, resembling an army of extras from Alexander Nevsky. Weld suggested a "fusion ticket," with a presidential candidate from one party and a vice-presidential candidate from the other.

And finally it was time for Moby, slumping onto the podium in a blue hoodie. Pronouncing himself "feeling very hung over and slow," he lobbied for an easy question. Instead O'Rourke asked him about the future of intellectual property rights. The crowd, already restive, grew more restive still as the sample-happy cue ball groped for an answer. "I apologize for not being able to give a better answer," he concluded. "But don't invest in a company that makes things that can be downloaded."

Christopher Buckley spoke last. He's a very funny man, but I was too irate to listen. Regaining the microphone, Smith now introduced the musical entertainment, starting with "the next Bob Dylan"--meaning Josh Ritter. The onstage audience now swiveled to the right. Ritter was quite charming, playing a jolly version of "The Temptation of Adam," with its persistent missile-silo humor, and offering to take drink orders between songs. He seemed like the only participant so far to be embarrassed by the caste system in the auditorium. Following up with a briskly strummed "Kathleen," he gracefully got off the riser and ushered on Patti Smith. (By the way, her name was misspelled in the program--nice touch.)

In a dark jacket and tie, and with a long mane of graying hair, Smith looked even more out of place than Ritter, "not bein' much of a party girl." Apparently her last mind meld with the magazine took place in 1963, when her father read her Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was a lesson that stuck with her to this very day. "Sometimes," she said, "we are forced to resort to civil disobedience.... It is not unpatriotic, and it is not a form of terrorism." These sentiments got a big round of applause from the audience, even though they weren't in the form of a haiku. Smith went on to perform "My Blakean Year," with the sort of nasal, incantatory sound that did in fact suggest a new Bob Dylan--or the old one.

She followed with a recitation of "People Have the Power," and although I'm not a huge fan, I was touched by her passionate delivery, and by the neo-Blakean pastoral of song itself. For one brief shining moment, the evening was almost redeemed. But Smith climbed down, and the publisher wrapped up with one last, marvelously tone-deaf touch. "Let's all drink a toast to The Atlantic!" he exclaimed. The people onstage could raise their glasses, he added in a jovial footnote, while the hoi could wave their complimentary magazines in the air. I did not. There was supposed to be some golden opportunity for the audience to mingle with the Brahmins at the edge of the stage. I did not. As far as I could see, most of the audience bolted straight out of the auditorium, putting this festival of rudeness and snotty exclusivity behind them. Am I just projecting? You tell me. But as a longtime admirer of the magazine (and occasional contributor), I wish I had a current subscription, so I could cancel it tomorrow.

NB: For an equally dismal report from onstage, check out this New York Observer dispatch. Strange, I didn't recognize Robin Byrd up there. Oh, wait--maybe she was the one humming "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box."

Monday, November 05, 2007


My degeneration

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times ran my op-ed about the recent rash of rock star autobiographies. I had been eager to read them--especially Eric Clapton's and Pattie Boyd's--and the four books did fill in some useful details in the great Sixties mosaic. But I was surprised by my curmudgeonly response to the frantic drugging, drinking, and nutty dissipation. No doubt the sexagenerians will heed my advice and clean up their lifestyles. Meanwhile, I began this way:
When did the '60s end? Joan Didion, one of the great anatomists of that Aquarian decade, felt it grind to a halt on Aug. 9, 1969--when the news of Sharon Tate's murder first spread through the lotus-eating entertainment community. Others point to the violent fiasco at the Altamont music festival later that year, when one audience member was stabbed to death during a Rolling Stones concert, or to the Kent State shootings just a few months later.

For a certain segment of the population, however, the '60s may never have ended at all. I'm talking about classic rock stars: those woolly mammoths who continue to roam the Earth, practically flaunting their pickled livers and capped teeth. For them, the gaudy decade has gone on and on, like a kind of prolonged childhood.

By now, of course, most of these golden codgers are rounding the bend into old age. If they have any intention of delivering a damage report, this is the time. Paul McCartney surpassed the proverbial age of 64 earlier this year. Pete Townshend is 62, while Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane is a village elder at 68. Now as it happens, four rock 'n' roll icons have recently obliged the public with the latest batch of autobiographical musings: Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, Ron Wood and Marianne Faithfull. And their books, admittedly the product of many a fried synapse, make for a sobering read.
You can read the rest here. So far I've gotten two email responses: one reader gently scolded me for using the word "peripatetic," while the other insisted that most rock music was crap to begin with. No angry telegram from NORML--not yet, anyway.

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