Saturday, January 13, 2018

Goodbye, Bette!

I did it. I waited until the last weekend, but I did it. I saw Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!
Since she’s leaving the show tomorrow, this is more of a post-mortem than a review.
Of course, there’s been a ton of hype about this show, so the question is, “Was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes.”
I’ve never been a fan of the show Hello, Dolly! (I only saw the movie a few weeks go). I plunked down my $243 for orchestra seats to see Bette. I thought, “She’s 72. This might be my last chance!” (even though I’ve now seen her on Broadway three times and at Madison Square Garden once).
You see, Bette and I have a history.
The first time I saw Bette Midler on Broadway was 1979. She was doing a concert that was filmed and later released as the movie Divine Madness. But there was more drama involved in my seeing the show than what transpired onstage.
I had bought a standing room ticket (the first and only time I’ve ever stood to see a Broadway show) since that was the only ticket I could afford. But, being the culture vulture that I am, I had also gone to see the movie All That Jazz beforehand. In between the movie and the show, I stopped off at a Beefsteak Charlie’s on East 59th Street and had a steak sandwich. I got so deathly ill from the sandwich (don’t ask), I had to be hospitalized.
But I was determined to see Bette!
So the following weekend I took my standing room ticket and went back to the theater. Fortunately, no one checked my ticket (there are assigned places even for standing room) and I was able to see Bette’s show.
I’ve been in love with her ever since.
My biggest fear upon seeing Hello, Dolly! this late in the run (apart from living up to the hype) was that the actors would be tired of doing the show and/or they wouldn’t have any voices left.
I have to tell you, every time I’ve gone to see a Broadway show, I’ve been amazed at the ability of these people to do eight shows a week. These are professionals and they did not disappoint.
One of the things I liked about Bette’s performance was her ability to poke fun at herself. She’s well aware of the hype surrounding this show and is secure enough in her talent to have a laugh at her (and the show’s) expense. She’s no diva!
There’s one scene where she spends about ten minutes just wordlessly eating a turkey dinner and gets more laughs than she would from ten minutes of dialogue.
She and David Hyde Pierce have, at this point, turned their mugging into an art. Together, they turn scenery chewing into an Olympic sport!
Of course, Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin are also great and in fine voice as the young lovers at the center of the story.
And that’s another thing that’s always impressed me about Bette (and David Hyde Pierce, for that matter). While she may not have the strongest voice, she knows how to make the best of what she has and she’s also a great actor of lyrics. She has an uncanny ability to take even the best-known song and make it her own.
So goodbye, Bette. You’ve got nothing left to prove.
And good luck, Bernadette Peters.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I’m Sorry I’m Angry, Too

As Donald Trump (I will never call him “President”) prepares to sign the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the top 1% in the history of the United States, I must apologize.
I’m sorry if I seem a little angry. I’m sorry if all my Facebook posts seem to be political. I’m sorry if I seem to have lost my sense of humor about politics (or anything else).
I was just trying to keep people informed. I was still laboring under the delusion that I lived in a democracy, a place where politicians actually gave a shit about what their constituents thought.
But a system where Congress consistently votes against the will of its citizens is not a democracy. And it’s not a democracy because it’s been gerrymandered to the point where there are no consequences for their actions.
I don’t find anything about Trump “cute” or “funny” or “amusing.” I’m grateful for SNL and Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher. I think Trump has led to some of SNL’s best writing ever (at least for their cold open; I wish I could say that for the rest of their show). I guess when you don’t have to worry about your basic needs being met, you have room to find the humor in these things.
But I don’t.
So know this (and this is addressed to Trump and the Republican Party): I will not buy your bullshit for one second and I will do everything in my power to bring you down.
The irony of Trump signing a bill right before Christmas that will raise taxes for most Americans —all so the richest 1% can get a tax break—is breathtaking. You make a mockery of public service. You degrade the offices of the presidency and Congress, as well as the standing of the United States around the world.
I will never give you (Trump) the only thing that you have ever wanted. Attention. Recognition. Validation.
You have always been and will always be nothing more than a vulgar and ignorant con man.
If I see you on a TV set, I will not look. I refuse to listen to your voice, because I know before the words even leave your lips that everything you say is a lie.
The photo today on the front page of the New York Times, with you and your Republican cronies posed on the steps of the White House like you’re the Radio City Rockettes, to brag about what you’ve just done, disgusts me.
And that goes for you so-called “moderate” Republicans, too, the so-called “voices of reason” who betrayed us.
I’m talking to you, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—looting the U.S. Treasury on your way out the door. I will not listen to your grandstanding speeches on the floor of Congress, which cover how you personally profit from this bill. I will not buy your inevitable memoirs explaining how great you are, as you embark on your PR tour.
I will hound you at every public appearance, plane trip and supermarket line. You will not know a moment’s peace.
Lisa Murkowski: You will have to explain to the citizens of Alaska why you allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Susan Collins: You will have to explain to the citizens of Maine why you voted for this bill, even though you didn’t get the things you asked for.
Both your careers are over.
As for John McCain, you will have to make your own peace with destroying your legacy. I wish you luck.
As far as I’m concerned, this abuse of power ends now.
The only thing this bill will accomplish is the consignment of the Republican Party—finally!—to the dustbin or history, where it rightfully belongs.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars

 Lately, I’ve been wondering why I have no interest in the music that’s being made today. Is it because most of today’s music is being made by and for 19-year-old girls (I hesitate to call them women) or is there some other reason?
Fortunately, David Hepworth has explained it all for me (and you) in his cleverly written and endlessly fascinating new book, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars.
To put it simply: there are no more rock stars.
I had already gathered as much when I recently went to see a show of rock star photographs by Michael Zagaris at the Milk Gallery in New York City. It suddenly dawned on me as I looked at pictures of Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, David Bowie and others: I had lived through the last era of rock stars!
Why aren’t there any more rock stars, you may ask? Well, basically, it comes down to two words: the Internet—that great destroyer of all things mysterious. And what is a rock star without mystery?
Dead, that’s what.
There have also been many changes in the music industry and in technology that have aided and abetted this process. With our new abundance of entertainment choices, suddenly mere pop stars aren’t so special anymore. In other words, if everyone is special, no one is special.
Hepworth traces the history of rock stars from 1955 to 1995, from the first rock star (Little Richard) to the last (Kurt Cobain). Along the way, he describes what was happening, musically and culturally, every year. (There’s also a great playlist at the end of every chapter, listing what songs/albums were popular that year.)
But what really makes this book better than most rock star biographies, is the cleverness of the writing. My favorite line may be his description of Madonna: “Madonna is a drama queen who achieves her full height only when bristling with indignation.”
Catty, but true!
Nevertheless, you may leave this book with a sense of sadness, much as I experienced when I watched The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special last night. You see, when I was growing up, I took Carol Burnett (and rock stars) for granted, never imagining that there would come a day when they would no longer exist. But the fact is, there will never be another Carol Burnett Show because a) there will never be another Carol Burnett and b) a variety show like hers would be too expensive to produce. (Bob Mackie used to design 65 costumes for her show every week!)
Similarly, there will never be another rock star because…well, read this book.
It may be the definitive last word on rock stars.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Richard Hambleton: Shadowman

On the subject of “great artists are not always great human beings,” I went to see the documentary Shadowman about the artist Richard Hambleton last night at the beautifully renovated Quad Cinema.
If you were in New York City in the early ’80s, you could not have missed Hambleton’s “shadow” paintings, quickly dashed off silhouettes that seemed to creep up on you out of nowhere. (His first project was actually his “Mass Murder” series that resembled the police department chalk outlines of murder victims.) These paintings are remarkable for their power to suggest something with just a few strokes, as were his subsequent paintings based on the Marlboro Man and rodeo riders.
At the height of his “shadow” paintings, he dropped out of the New York art scene and started painting landscapes and seascapes that were out of step with the graffiti and street art that were popular in New York City and for which he was known. It’s hard to describe how beautiful these paintings are. Someone in the film compared them to the landscapes of Turner, but even that doesn’t do them justice.
Eventually, Hambleton is rediscovered by two art dealers (including the socialite Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld) and is feted with two large shows, studded with models and movie stars. His paintings eventually sell for several hundred thousand dollars.
The flip side of this success story is Hambleton’s copious drug use and schizophrenic personality. (I know someone who lived in his Lower East Side building and she described it as a living nightmare.)
It’s hard not to read this movie as a commentary on mortality, as we see the beautiful, vibrant young Hambleton ravaged by skin cancer and scoliosis. The movie is both tragic and heroic, in that Hambleton keeps painting, right up until his death.
During a Q&A after the movie, the film’s director posited that Hambleton had “mental health issues” and, according to some psychiatrist friends, fit the profile of someone who had been abused as a child, because of the way he drew people to him and then pushed them away.
But I think Penny Arcade puts it best in the movie when she says that some artists (she mentions Van Gogh as another example) we “just can’t understand.”
Hambleton passed away on October 29, just three days before the “Club 57” show at MoMA, which features one of his paintings.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Call Me by Your Name: Better Than Porn?

Call Me By Your Name, the new cinematic gay love story by director Luca Guadagnino, belongs to a genre that might be called “European vacation porn.” This is a genre where some character is lucky enough to have a summer home or hideaway in some exotic European location (in this case northern Italy) and it includes Guadagnino’s previous film, A Bigger Splash, as well as the underrated Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie travelogue By the Sea (which now reads like a documentary about their divorce), both of which were filmed in locations so exotic, I don’t even know where they are. (See also: Nancy Meyers/real estate porn.)
It may also be the beginning of another genre: a gay love story where neither character is murdered at the end (Brokeback Mountain) or commits suicide (virtually every gay film before Brokeback Mountain). There is a plot twist at the end, which I won’t reveal here, but it’s not fatal.
There was some controversy before this movie came out about the difference in age between the two characters (17 and 24 in the book upon which the movie is based and played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer—who is closer to 30—in the movie), but to me the bigger source of controversy is the idea that a Greek god like Hammer would be attracted to what could most charitably described as the “gay nerd” played by Chalamet. Maybe it’s because, to crib a line from Little Britain, they’re the only gays in the village. (I could write a separate essay on Hammer’s beauty—the square chin, the Robert Redford-thick blond hair, but I digress).
It’s a testament to Chalamet’s and Hammer’s acting ability that they make this work. It also helps that Chalamet’s character is so young and horny, he’s apparently attracted to women, as well (and women are also drawn to both characters—no need to explain in Hammer’s case).
The high point of this movie for me was when Hammer and Chalamet wander into an outdoor party and the DJ plays The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.” I’ve always loved this song, far and away the Furs’ best (any one of whose parts—xylophone, keyboard, drums, vocal—are among the best examples of those parts ever recorded), but when this song came over the movie theater’s speakers, my head damn near exploded! When I came home, I not only played this song about a hundred times in a row, it sent me into an ’80s music K-hole!
Guadagnino pulled off a similar feat in Splash, when Ray Fiennes played the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” It wasn’t just the music, it was the characters’ sheer joy (Fiennes in Splash, Hammer and Chalamet in Name) in dancing to it. Clearly, Guadagnino is a director who understands the power of a song to lift a movie into the stratosphere.
With Name and Splash, Guadagnino catapults into the front ranks of movie directors (and, parenthetically, the Psychedelic Furs leap into the pantheon of great rock bands).
Nevertheless, the movie winds up being somehow less than the sum of its parts. My expectations were impossibly high after Splash and, given the level of talent involved—in addition to Guadagnino, there's screenwriter James Ivory (Maurice)—I don’t know what I was expecting.
But the great thing about this movie—what makes it better than porn—is that by not being graphic, it forces your imagination to do the extra work and, therefore, remains in your mind much longer.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times I played “Love My Way,” I still couldn’t get Armie Hammer to magically appear in my apartment.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Born to Write

I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, Born to Run. I thought it was fascinating and really well-written--and I'm not even a fan (although I've always respected him and his work).
I'm always fascinated by the stories of creative people, especially those who are self-taught. (Bob Dylan and Keith Richards also fall into this category, and I've read their autobiographies, as well.)
Springsteen's description of his father was particularly haunting because he reminded me so much of my own: distant, drinking, sitting silently at the kitchen table.
Springsteen also talks about his battle with depression, and this is both frightening and humbling.
There are many great road stories along the way. One that particularly stands out is his first trip to California. Because there wasn't enough room in his truck, he was forced to travel with another member of his band locked in a storage box on the truck’s flatbed, with only a bottle to urinate in between them. The claustrophobia alone would have killed me, but they were going over the Rocky Mountains! (It's amazing how much you can endure in your late teens/early twenties!)
If you can't afford to see Bruce on Broadway, this might be the next best thing.
That and listening to his music, of course.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Nostalgia of Mudd

My memories of the Mudd Club (which I apparently didn’t start frequenting until after it was no longer cool) are as follows: 1. The bartender refusing to wait on me because I was so young and naïve, I didn’t know you were supposed to tip him. 2. Peering over the DJ booth to find out who was singing what I thought was one of the greatest pop songs I’d ever heard. (It was the Go-Go’s singing “Our Lips Are Sealed.”) 3. Entering a DJ contest whose winner was—to my knowledge--never announced. (I figured they were just trying to fill the dj slot for the night.) 4. Seeing Men Without Hats before “Safety Dance” became a huge international hit. (I also saw the Bush Tetras there, when their “Too Many Creeps” was big in the clubs.)
Richard Boch remembers considerably more, which is quite remarkable considering the amount of drugs he consumed.
His great new book, The Mudd Club, is both a celebration and an elegy. It takes us back to a time before cell phones and the Internet, when you could still rent a Tribeca loft for a few hundred dollars, and when lower Broadway was a deserted no man’s land rather the pedestrian-clogged shopping mall it is today.
As Boch himself is the first to admit, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. A friend of his who worked at the Soho Weekly News referred him to Mudd Club owner Steve Mass because she said he “knew everyone.”
And while being a doorman might seem like a stultifyingly boring job (or premise for a book), Boch points out that being the doorman at the Mudd Club gave him the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people in New York.
One of the amazing things about this book is the sheer level of detail in Boch’s recollections. You have to wonder, “Did he keep a diary?” If you’ve never been to the Mudd Club—or even if you have—this book will give you the sensation that, as the old TV show used to say, “you are there.”
What made the Mudd Club special was the sense that anything could happen there. You could see the Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, or B-52s there one night and some obscure local performance artist the next, to say nothing of the various theme parties that took place. (“Soul Night” and “Rock ’n’ Roll Funeral” are just two stand-outs described in this book.)
To read this book is to realize just how far New York (and by New York, I mean  Manhattan) has fallen from its creative peak.
The Mudd Club adds to an important body of work (including such books as Tim Lawrence’s Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, Martin Belk’s Dirty, Broken Punks and, dare I say, my own New York Trilogy) documenting New York’s club scene in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s—a unique period that will never happen again.
Welcome to the club, Richard.