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.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Why I Hate Summer Streets

I’m reading a book right now called Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss. It talks about how Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” was applied to New York City. The shock doctrine is when a disaster (either natural or man-made) is used to effect large-scale economic transformation. In New York, this was done through eminent domain. Large swaths of the city (Times Square, the area around the High Line, Hudson Yards) were declared “blight” and people were forced to move out of their homes and businesses.
A similar phenomenon is happening with Summer Streets. That’s the phenomenon of large swaths of the city being, essentially, sold to large corporations for the purposes of corporate branding. We already have Citibikes, perhaps the largest corporate branding effort this city has ever seen. Summer Streets takes this to another level by closing down a large section of the city, ostensibly so people can ride bicycles and engage in other activities without the presence of vehicular traffic but, all along the way, there are booths sponsored by various companies (Crunch gym, REI sporting goods, etc.) that are there to sell you something.
The other thing about Summer Streets that gets on my nerves is part of a larger phenomenon that’s happening in society in general. In today’s world of social media and reality TV, no one just does anything anymore. It’s not sufficient to just do anything anymore. One must be seen doing it.
Thus, it’s not enough for Summer Streets to just have thousands of New Yorkers riding their bikes down Park Avenue. (I would have no problem with that.) They must be seen riding their bikes down Park Avenue. Therefore, there are “volunteers” positioned at various points to cheer them on and the bikers themselves need to “woohoo,” high-five each other and take selfies along the way. (If a tree falls in a forest and it didn’t take a selfie, did it really fall?)
Summer Streets was here.

My street, in particular (I won’t divulge its name), has become Ground Zero for every psycho with a crackpot idea. So, for Summer Streets, I’ve had a rock climbing wall outside my bedroom window that was so close I could touch it. I also had a slide that was about two stories tall, and exercises classes conducted in front of my building complete with those annoying “instructors” (whose screeching I can’t tolerate even when it takes place inside a gym) and loudspeakers blaring some godawful “music” so that people in New Jersey can hear that there are people on my street exercising.
As with eminent domain, no one in my neighborhood was consulted about whether or not they actually wanted this on their street. It was just presented as a fait accompli. One day, several years ago, I woke up and there was a rock climbing wall outside my bedroom window. (They actually start setting up around 1am, so I get no sleep the night before, as well.)
I don’t care what anyone does as long as I don’t hear it. But in today’s selfie-obsessed world, where people miss entire rock concerts because they’re too busy filming them, that is no longer possible.
Summer Streets is the shock doctrine of public recreation. You may not want to participate in it yourself but, goddamnit, you’re going to watch other people participate and you’re going to like it!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Lining Up to Be Stupid

Yesterday I was awakened by the sound of screaming coming from outside my building. It sounded like either a rock concert or a mass shooting, so I looked out my window, but I couldn’t see anything. When I left my building to buy a newspaper, my path was blocked by a line of people, mostly teenagers and children, some with their parents. I asked them what was going on and some teenage girl helpfully told me, “Logan Paul.” “I have no idea who that is,” I said, rolling my eyes, even though it sounded like the name of a gay porn star. When I got back to my apartment, I Googled him and found out that he was some kind of “Internet celebrity” who was opening up a “pop-up shop” and on his Twitter feed was given to making such pronouncements as “New York is going to be next level!” “Next level what?” I thought. “Absurd?”
Apparently, opening up a pop-up shop is now on the same level as curing cancer.
All of this says some very disturbing things about our society.
One is the whole notion of “Internet celebrity.” Andy Warhol’s famous dictum, “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” has long since lost its power to shock. Now it’s more like, “everyone will be famous for one nanosecond” because that’s the length of the average attention span these days. Internet has killed not only the radio star, but also the TV star, the movie star and, as I once sang, the gay cruising bar1.
All of this may seem like a tempest in a teapot. I mean, after all, what harm has this guy done? How is this any different from, say, teenage girls from another era screaming about The Beatles? Well, let’s see… The Beatles recorded the greatest body of work in pop music history and this guy did what exactly?
But it doesn’t even make a difference because fame is its own raison d’etre and, once you’re famous, it doesn’t even matter why. How many people remember (or care) that Kim Kardashian was initially famous for appearing in a sex tape? (Kim has her own retail store in my neighborhood, by the way, one that’s been open for several years now. Take that, Logan Paul!)
And a reality TV star is now our president!
Nowadays, anyone who makes a funny video or has their picture randomly wind up on the Internet is offered movie deals and commercial endorsements and is then forgotten about 15 minutes later. (I’m looking at you, Chewbacca Mom.)
The other disturbing thing is what this says about retail, the economy and New York City in general.
The whole notion of a “pop-up shop” is disturbing to me because it indicates that retailers can’t even commit to a long-term lease anymore, just the way that employers (including my former employer) can’t commit to hiring someone long-term.
Then there’s what it says about New York City itself. New York has become one big three-dimensional advertisement where it’s no longer even about selling merchandise but establishing a presence for your “brand.” This has led to the phenomenon of “high-rent blight,” where storefronts in some of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods have remained empty while landlords wait for a chain store to sign the lease.
The third thing that’s disturbing is the mere fact of people waiting on line for something as silly as an Internet celebrity. But on any given day, you can see several of these lines in my neighborhood: people waiting to buy cronuts, people waiting to buy sneakers, people waiting to buy poké bowls. Is this really how you want to be spending your time?
I guess people are desperate for something, anything, to fill their spiritual emptiness and the easiest way to do that seems to be by buying something. (I keep thinking of the Clash song, “I’m All Lost in Your Supermarket.”)
One of my Facebook friends commented about the people on this line, “Hey, at least they didn’t vote for Trump” and he was right. They were too young to vote for Trump.
But Trump has lowered the bar for the presidency so much that the fact that The Rock is now rumored to be running for president seems like an improvement. (Kid Rock’s run for the Senate, on the other hand, not so much.)
But, hey, what do I know? I’m just an old man.
Now where can I get one of those Logan Paul T-shirts?