Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Nancy Garniez’s Hilarious, Insightfully Iconoclastic Piano Book Stands the Test of Time

“I am deeply gratified that this little book is still relevant,” Nancy Garniez said the other night at one of her popular piano salons. That comment had the same understatement and wit that sparkles throughout her 1999 gem of an insider’s guide to the piano, What Might It Mean: An Uncommon Glossary of Musical Terms and Concepts for the Stuck, Bored and Curious.

On one hand, it’s a musical Devil’s Dictionary. Garniez’s relentless humor, which ranges from tart to absolutely withering, is irresistible. As someone with over half a century as a classical pianist and teacher, she has erudition to match those chuckles and can’t resist sharing it. It would be easy to say that there are thousands of dollars worth of lessons in this little 96-page, fifteen dollar paperback, but the reality is that you aren’t going to find this information anywhere else…at least not as concisely.

Garniez describes dolce – the musical dynamic – as “An Italian dessert, whose only relevance to music might take the form of a smudge on the printed score or a sugar-induced slump in a player’s brain.”

Fingering “Is the fine art of connecting ear to instrument. This involves factors no less complex than those connecting eye to tennis ball, baseball, golf ball, bowling ball, etc. No serious athlete would try to simplify that!”

Counting in quarter notes is Garniez’s bête noire – her many riffs on that one are priceless. And, an amateur is “Unprotected by a pretension to flawless technique…likely to be more receptive to auditory impulses than many professionals.” The iconoclasm should be clear by now.

Adults tend to forget that they were ever children to begin with – or if they haven’t, they tend to disown what they learned as kids. Not Garniez. From day one, she was puzzled by how what she played on the piano didn’t completely sync with what she read on the score. As she learned the mechanics of the piano, and then delved into acoustic and auditory science, she realized that she was hearing overtones. That eureka moment will resonate (pun intended) with anyone who either grew up with or gravitates toward the microtones of non-western scales.

Garniez’s realization sparked two others, which inform her pianistic worldview. The first is that a player’s sense of touch is everything. Since the levers for the black keys are shorter, they sound louder than the white keys if played with the same attack. Therefore, they also produce louder overtones, whether or not in combination with the white keys (there are multiple overtone systems in the piano; Garniez offers a capsule view rather than getting into heavy theory).

Secondly, almost from day one, the great composers have been aware of this, and have had a ball utilizing that insight. Garniez offers numerous instances from Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bartok and others. After reading this book, you will hear, or play those pieces, as well as innumerable other repertoire, like you never have before.

The book is meticulously cross-referenced. It’s impossible to read all the way through without leapfrogging between topics…which is exactly what Garniez wants you to do. For example, the concept of linear coloration – the way a composer builds intensity around a specific thematic pitch – relates to fourteen other boldfaced terms. Garniez’s discussion of dynamics links to Phrases, Acoustical Events, Articulation, Consonance, Dissonance, Baroque Music, the Fugue, and the Continuo device.

While Garniez wrote this for working pianists and serious students, it’s a must-read for musicians, especially those of us who either want to get a handle on the challenges facing our ivory-tickling bandmates, as well as those of us who came to the piano as a secondary instrument. Needless to say, it’s also a goldmine for listeners intrigued by how the mechanics of the instrument relate to how composers think – and, for better or worse, how pianists play.

Garniez’s own piano technique, distingiushed by a remarkably legato, cantabile approach, mirrors her insights here. Rhythm is every bit as important to her as touch, although ultimately, listening is the most important thing a musician can do. Any good bandmate would second that.

Garniez’s latest installment in her ongoing salon is at 4 PM on Aug 19 in a comfortable Upper West Side location, a leisurely ten-minute walk from the 1/2/3 station at 96th St. There’s a suggested donation of $30, or pay what you can. Mozart, Schumann and Brahms are on the bill; there will be delicious gluten-free refreshments, possibly wine, and lively conversation afterward. Email for location and directions. 

Fun fact: Garniez is the mom of Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist and singer who is probably this century’s greatest and most consistently surprising English-language songwriter.

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August 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Revealing, Lavishly Illustrated New Book and a Midtown Release Show by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is the world’s best-loved avant garde artist. Yet as much as her forty-plus year career has encompassed music, art, sculpture, film, video, literature and cutting edge technology, ultimately her work boils down to narratives. Ask anyone what they love about Anderson, and inevitably the first thing they’ll mention is her storytelling. And it’s that keen sense of purpose, that inimitable, dry sense of humor, and that unpretentious, matter-of-fact midwestern sensibility that draws an audience in, that succeed in getting us to think outside the box along with her.

You wouldn’t expect a coffee-table book to be much of a revelation, but that’s exactly what Anderson’s new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood is. A lavishly illustrated, self-curated career retrospective, it’s a rare opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts of how Anderson conceives and then brings a work to life. And it’s hardly self-congratulatory, While out of necessity, she devotes a large proportion of the book to her best-known works – Homeland, United States in its many parts, and Habeas Corpus – she spends just as much time on early projects, some of which weren’t fully realized, others which ran into roadblocks. Either way, it’s a feast of ideas for any artist in any discipline.

Anderson’s impetus for the book – and her new album, Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet – was Hurricane Sandy. In salvaging what was left of her basement full of instruments and memorabilia after the storm, she was thrown into revisitation mode. Obviously, if there’s any living artist who deserves a retrospective at, say, the Met or MOMA, it’s Anderson; in the meantime, this will suffice – and you can take it home with you. Anderson is celebrating the release of the book – just out from Skira Rizzoli – on Feb 15 at 8 PM with a performance including many special guests at the Town Hall. Presumably there will an opportunity to get books signed afterward.

Although Anderson’s work is the antithesis of TMI, she’s surprisingly revealing. As a child, she almost drowned her twin younger brothers in a frozen pond whose ice gave way – and then miraculously saved them. Much as she loves “lossy” media – where the limits of technology interfere with the delivery of an image or an idea – she’s always been fascinated by the state of the art. She was using a lo-fi, landline-based prototype for Skype in 1979…and much as she initially resisted virtual reality and computer language, she has recently delved into both, if with a little prodding from fans who were experts in those fields.

What might be most astonishing here is that Anderson had already pretty much concretized her subtly provocative vision by the early 1970s. A violin filled with water; talking statues with loaded messages (who may well be alter egos); convicted murderers beamed into installations, and her interactive piece featuring a survivor of Guantanamo torture hell during the Bush years, are all chronicled here.

The visuals are just as fascinating. The black-and-white photos from 1972 forward say a lot. The young Anderson, it turns out was just as calmly determined as the famous one Americans know much better. There are also all sorts of sketches, diagrams, stage directions and plenty of tour photos. The latter, many of them outlandishly large onstage, don’t translate to the format of the book as well, but the rest are a literal how-to guide for inspired multimedia artists.

And she’s hilarious. Both the anecdotes and the offhand sociological commentary are choice. Having memorized a Japanese translation of one of her spoken-word pieces, she discovers during a Japanese tour that the guy who gave her the cassette to memorize had a bad stutter – which she dutifully copied. Although she’s hardly convinced that her fulfillment of an early 70s grant – playing solo violin, unamplified on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – was any kind of success, there’s a charming photo of some chivalrous gentleman passing the hat for her. Many of the jokes are too good, and still valid after many years, to give away here.

And relevance has always been front and center in her work – from the coy, sardonic questions of her early 70s work, to her hit single O Superman – a cynical look at Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis – to the sinister implications of global warming in Landfall.

Much as this is a very funny book, a sobering undercurrent lingers. It’s one thing to lose the record stores that used to sell Anderson’s albums; it’s another to lose the bookstores she had in every city, that she relished visiting between gigs while on tour. She quotes Karl Rove, referencing how fake news has been part of the totalitarian agenda long before the current Presidential administration. And much as she has come to employ new technology, she’s dismayed by social media’s atomizing and alienating effects. Anderson herself is not on Facebook.

February 13, 2018 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, experimental music, Literature, Music, music, concert, photography, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lilian Caruana’s Fascinating, Bittersweet New Photo Book Offers a Rare Glimpse of the Mid-80s New York Punk Rock Scene

In one of the initial CBGB crowd shots in photographer Lilian Caruana’s new book, Rebels: Punks and Skinheads of New York’s East Village 1984-1987, an audience member appears to be wearing a swastika patch. A closer look reveals a famous Dead Kennedys quote: “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF.” In many ways, that capsulizes the unexpected complexities of Caruana’s collection of black-and-white photos and brief interview quotes. It’s more bittersweet, strikingly insightful historical document than it is nostalgia.

In her introduction, Caruana puts the era in perspective. By the 1990s, punk fashion had been completely co-opted by corporate interests. Violent evictions by the police put an end to the Lower East Side squatter movement, paving the way for the destruction and suburbanization of a long-thriving artistic neighborhood. With a finely honed sense of irony – in the true sense of the word – and a wry sense of humor, Caruana portrays a long-lost subculture in their irrepressible DIY milieu.

In what might be the most surreal shot of all, a blonde girl who looks all of about fourteen sits on a mattress, her legs wrapped in a repurposed American flag. Her blank stare fixes on a black-and-white tv propped up on a milk crate. A Ronald Reagan movie plays on the screen. The pillow to her left is from the Bellevue mental ward. Decorations on the wall are sparse: a grimy handprint and a label peeled off a torpedo of Budweiser. The year is 1986.

As Caruana explains, the individuals in her portraits come from a wide swath of social strata. Collectively, they feel disenfranchised. Bobby sees himself as exploited at his minimum-wage job and isn’t beyond taking a little extra from the till to make ends meet. Dave, an Army deserter, longs for the American dream but not the mortgage and suburban drudgery. Matt comes from a more affluent background but is similarly alienated by outer-borough conformity.

As grim as their worldview may be, these people seem anything but unhappy. They lounge with their pets – a colorful menagerie including rats, kittens and an iguana – practice their instruments and strike sardonically defiant poses. Recycling may be all the rage in yuppie circles now, but punks were doing it forty years ago, if only because it was a practical survival strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the Cro-Mags, the Exploited, Agnostic Front and Battalion of Saints are the bands most often visually referenced here. But what these photos remind over and over is the vast difference between the Lower East Side hardcore contingent and their bridge-and-tunnel counterparts. Hardcore may have been more relentlessly aggressive, monotonous, and implicitly violent, compared to punk. But the LES crowd was far more likely to be politically aware, multi-racial, tolerant and open to women. In other words, they remained closer to punk’s populist roots than the high school boys whose moms would drop them at CB’s for the Sunday afternoon hardcore matinee and then drive them home to Long Island in the family Chevy Suburban. Other photographers have made big bucks shooting the famous and the semi-famous in that same part of town at the height of the CB’s scene a few years previously; Caruana’s work both dignifies and illuminates a time and place too infrequently chronicled.

January 10, 2018 Posted by | Art, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.

November 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, folk music, Literature, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peter Leitch’s Off the Books Is Off the Hook

Guitarist Peter Leitch‘s Off the Books: A Jazz Life is not your usual jazz autobiography. Every time the narrative threatens to get bogged down in a litany of tour dates or recording sessions, Leitch zings you. This is one hilarious memoir. Leitch’s withering cynicism is matched by a caustically insightful intelligence: he’s a big-picture guy, and his coping mechanism is gallows humor. Here’s one typically acerbic passage: “It was so wonderful to play with superb bassists like ‘Bookie’ [Walter Booker] and Ray Drummond, especially in an era where there were so many bassists whose technical proficiency superseded their intelligence, and whose playing ignored the bass function. Yes, there was a lot of cocaine around in those days.”

There’s an argument that outsiders make the best artists because they have an objectivity that comes from not having a horse in the race. They tell the truth because they have nothing to lose. Leitch grew up in the 1950s as an English speaker in Francophone Montreal, so he was an outsider from day one. From time to time, throughout this disarmingly honest narrative, he wistfully ponders how he might get out of the “guitar ghetto,” as he calls it. Of course, his fellow guitarists and fans of guitar jazz don’t see it as a ghetto at all: to them, Leitch is a cult hero with a body of work on the level of Jim Hall and Joe Pass, two fellow icons whom Leitch frequently resembles. At this point in his career, Leitch is now close to seventy but playing at the peak of his subtle, eclectic, purist power. A recent Sunday night gig at Walker’s in Tribeca, where he’s had a weekly residency for years, saw him moving from plaintive to animated to absolutely rapt, in a conversational duo performance with bassist Dwayne Burno, playing a mix of originals, a lively Strayhorn medley and an absolutely chilling, Lynchian take of Kenny Burrell’s Moonflower.

The book’s title is telling: from his early years as a schoolboy outcast, Leitch sees himself on the fringes of society, yet this isn’t a pity trip. Largely self-taught, he downplays the difficulty in honing his craft as a jazz-addicted teenager, playing along with and transcribing from vinyl albums at 16 RPM instead of 33 in order to figure out the most difficult passages. Touring some of Canada’s vacation backwater with both jazz and R&B bands back in the 60s was a colorful way to make a living, and Leitch has some cruelly funny stories from that era as well. After a brief, frustrating stop in Toronto, Leitch arrived in New York in 1982, which has been his home base ever since.

Perhaps owing somewhat to his Canadianness, Leitch is candidly critical of many aspects of American society. His take on the often unspoken racism that still oozes poison throughout both the the jazz world and the country at large is telling, influenced by the insights of the great pianist John Hicks, with whom Leitch shared a long association. Having been in New York and witnessed the events of the morning of 9/11, he has some particularly savage observations on post-9/11 American paranoia and the Bush-era assaults on human rights. Leitch has nothing but contempt for the music business, quick to acknowledge the many supportive venue owners he’s known while saving some of his most side-splitting commentary for record labels: his take on the widely hyped young would-be major label jazz stars of the early 90s is priceless. Likewise, the critics don’t get off easy: “Musicians should take their own poll of critics and journalists. You could give out awards in various categories such as ‘Most consistent misuse of musical terminology’ and ‘Best regurgitation of a major label press release’ and ‘Best autobiographical essay in the guise of a review,’ etc. The awards themselves could consist of dog shit or broken glass.”

Drugs – especially opiates, but also coke and opioids – make frequent appearances here, along with plenty of booze. Leitch cops to a regular if not incapacitating dope habit in the 70s, which he acknowledges he was lucky to be able to quit. Surprisingly, there’s less about his actual music here than there are anedcotes about Leitch’s long career playing and interacting with luminaries including Oscar Peterson, Pepper Adams and Jaki Byard, although there are frequent and often unselfconsciously profound insights into composition, phrasing, touring and simply being a good bandmate. The result is a complete lack of jazz-insider cliches: no laundry lists of influences, no pseudo-spiritual musings, no self-aggrandizing. If anything, Leitch doesn’t give himself enough credit as either a player or photographer (much of the latter portion of the book deals with his mid-career side gig as an art photographer with a noir streak a mile long). Along the way, we get a fascinating look at the vibrant 1950s and 60s Montreal jazz scene; a thoughtful and ceaselessly amusing tour of New York as gentrification takes its toll; a panoramic view of how the jazz scene here changed, with the waves of recent music school grads edging out much of the old guard, and the sad demise of venues like Bradley’s (which for Leitch, like so many in the jazz community in the 80s and 90s was home away from home) and Sweet Basil.

Leitch also has a new album, California Concert, a live bootleg of sorts recorded at a Fresno festival in 1999 with both Leitch and Hicks at the top of their game alongside bassist David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins throughout an expansive mix of Ellington tunes plus Hicks and Leitch originals.

September 22, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Baer Soul

Oliver Baer has been a steady, august presence in the New York underground poetry and music scenes for some time: the Trouble Dolls recently set a series of his poems to music on their most recent album. Baer’s poetry is also juxtaposed with Alexander Berenbeim’s elegantly intriguing black-and-white photography in the book Baer Soul, recently published by Western Indie and available at the usual online sources as well as select independent bookstores and from the author himself.

While the poems don’t follow a chronological path, there are recurrent themes that follow thematic threads, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes suspensefully: the tension between desire and reason; an alienated individualist at odds with the herd mentality; order versus chaos, freedom versus security. There’s a discernible stylistic arc: the earliest poems are the most overtly personal and expressive, and often follow a rhyme scheme, while the later works have a broader worldview, innumerable layers of meaning, and a frequently withering cynicism. Simply put, this is a deep book.

It takes awhile to get going. An obsession with a Juno archetype runs its course, the “boy with the goblin glass shard in his heart” trudging through a not-funhouse of mythological imagery and ending up…well, where you would expect someone in this position to end up, “reaction” and “traction” finding a rhyme that is as unexpected as it is wryly spot-on. And just when it seems that there’s nowhere else to go but Maudlinville, Baer quotes Shakespeare at his most blithe and tosses off the funniest poem in the book.

About two-thirds of the way through, an uneasy urban milieu (which could easily be the Lower East Side of New York circa 2001) becomes the backdrop against which angst rises and occasionally falls. Young people form family bonds, only to watch in horror as “the trouble dolls move in” and by the next page the city is enveloped in the ugly, smoldering shadow of Ground Zero a day after 9/11. At this point, the images become more lurid, the Bloombergian future less and less appealing:

Lightning cracked skies and thunderous mad laughs fill my nights.
The echoing orders of the mad tyrant ringing through my days.
As we tromp through the city enforcing his Singaporean law,
The sitcom mentalities proclaim the wonders of order…

An elegaic weariness pervades many of the book’s final poems. The sarcasm in a contemplation of how even Satan must have been born with a clean slate is crushing. Mirrors disappear so as not to be shattered. A mythical castle in the clouds crumbles. The downward trajectory eventually reaches a vividly photorealistic, metaphorically-loaded lakeside milieu and then moves further into wintry terrain. The final poem faces a headshot of Baer flashing a gleefully toothy grin against the somber, Mahmoud Darwish-esque text:

The chair is empty now
A cavity silence eating my background noise
Drilling quiet framed by the dark teething on a dying sun’s rays
Tendrils outlining the presence of absence

Berenbeim’s shadowy, noirish photo tableaux follow a considerably more direct path to a more violent ending, Anthony Rocco playing a raffish role against Kindall Almond’s haunted, black-eyeliner blonde femme fatale.

Baer Soul: Poetry by Oliver Baer; Photography by Alexander Berenbeim; Presented by Anthony Rocco Featuring Kindall Almond, ISBN 9-781935-995005

September 17, 2012 Posted by | Literature, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weak Records Get Off to a Strong Start

New Swiss-based label Weak Records don’t use their name sarcastically: from an astrophysical point of view, it is actually the “weak forces” in the universe that hold it together. Their brand is defiantly DIY, angry and completely unwilling to give up on having fun. In other words, late 70s/early 80s punk rock style. Their initial release, the Weak Records Sampler #1 has been assembled to coincide with current Weak artists’ tours, live shows and writing and it makes a great introduction to some people who deserve to be better-known than they are. Weak Records was conceived as a platform for poetry as well as music, and there are a couple of spoken-word tracks here as well. Brett Davidson’s To Do List cynically litanizes a series of mundane and no-so-mundane projects that might be possible with a little respite. Bobby Vacant’s Cancerland savages endless bleak cloned suburban rot over a contrastingly pretty acoustic guitar background.

The music here is upbeat and funny. Mixin’ Bowl, by Riders of the Worm blends echoey, off-center riff-oriented Chrome Cranks garage punk with a late period Man or Astroman feel. I´m Not Your Dog, by Police Bulimia matches snapping bass to trebly percussive punk guitar with an early 80s vibe: “If you try to subjugate I’ll kick you in the head.” All of these are streaming at the links above. Weak Records’ latest live show features Bobby Vacant & the Worn with Brigitte Meier on bass on September 3 at 9 PM at Werkschau Nr. 6, Bahnstrasse 22 in Bern, Switzerland, where Weak Records’ newly launched, cynically amusing oldschool punk rock style fanzine Savage Laundry will also be available.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | Literature, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin Hoffman’s Timeless Images Capture New York’s Oldtime Music Scene

It’s funny how even though millions of bloggers and youtubers have documented live music over the past several years, there hasn’t been one particular photographer with a signature vision to emerge like Henry Diltz in the late 60s/early 70s, or Bob Gruen during the punk era. However, this era is fortunate to have Robin Hoffman, whose new coffee table book Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy Theatre vividly captures much of the magical demimonde of New York’s oldtimey and Americana music scenes. Interestingly, Hoffman is not a photographer but a painter, with a singular and instantly identifiable vision. She has an amazing eye for expressions: in a few deft strokes, she portrays banjo player Eli Smith in a characteristically sardonic moment, with a sly jack o’lantern off to the side of the stage. Her perfectly rendered portrait of Mamie Minch brings out every inch of the oldtimey siren’s torchy bluesiness, leaning back with her resonator guitar as she belts out a classic (or one of her originals that sounds like one).

Hoffman is a former ballet dancer and maybe for that reason she also has a finely honed sense of movement. A lot of these performers play sitting down and consequently don’t move around much. One particularly poignant painting shows the late Brooklyn bluesman Bob Guida jovial and comfortably nestled yet full of energy, seated with his hollow-body electric. The single most striking image here marvelously depicts the Jalopy’s Geoff and Lynette Wiley, Lynette behind the bar, warm and beaming triumphantly from the rush of a good crowd and a good show, bushy-bearded Geoff to the side up front, attentive as always, the audience ecstatically lit up in silhouette in the front of the house. Other artists vividly captured in the Jalopy’s magically wood-toned ambience include Ernie Vega, Feral Foster (being particularly Feral), the Maybelles, the Ukuladies and les Chauds Lapins.

These paintings induce synesthesia – you can literally hear the ring and the twang of the voices and the music. Hoffman has also included several equally captivating sketches and sketch collages, in the same vein as the ones she periodically posts on her excellent blog. It’s a wonderful portrayal of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, one frequently overlooked by the corporate media and the blogosphere. It’s also a valuable piece of history – although few of the artists here will ever be famous, the music they make deserves to be. The book is available online, but as Hoffman says, “It’s a lot more fun and a little bit cheaper to get one at Jalopy.”

July 11, 2010 Posted by | blues music, country music, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irish-American Songwriting Legend Larry Kirwan Talks About His New Novel, Rockin’ the Bronx

For over 20 years Larry Kirwan has led ever-popular, literate, socially aware, soaringly anthemic Irish-American rock band Black 47, whose 2008 cd Iraq was ranked best album of the year right here at Lucid Culture. They tour America and Ireland regularly, including a special Ireland trip where fans of the band come along with the band and hang out during the whole tour, or at least part of it. Meanwhile, Kirwan has also managed to write a column for the Irish Echo, along with many plays, a memoir and two novels. His most recent novel Rockin’ the Bronx, just published this year, takes the reader on a wild, vivid ride through the world of hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-playing Irish immigrants and musicians in New York around 1980. As he did in the book, in this interview Kirwan took us back to a vastly more lively era in New York history:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: It’s not just a question of verisimilitude –  the book has more than just a ring of truth, in fact it feels suspiciously like nonfiction. I know this is the obvious question, the one that everybody wants to know, so I’ll get it out of the way. How much of it is true? The scary scene in the drug den on Avenue C? The perfect description of the scrungy North Bronx apartment where the protagonist lives, with the drug dealer neighbors? The way the Pack of Tinkers – the fictional band who bear more than a little resemblance to Black 47 – start to build a following among the immigrants on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx?

Larry Kirwan: Well, let’s say that the situations were all “true” but the story is pretty original. I lived on Ave. B and 3rd Street at the height of the heroin scene in NYC (in fact, I deal with it in a more literal way in Green Suede Shoes, a memoir). So, the scene in Rockin’ the Bronx is small potatoes to what I saw and experienced back in those days on B, C & D. I played in the North Bronx back in the late 70’s and early 80’s so I can smell the actual apartments that I describe in RTB, even as I’m answering this. Black 47’s experiences up there are very different to the scene described for the Tinkers. Perhaps, that’s because even though I was accepted in the Irish areas, I was still a bit of an outsider. However, even back then I knew that I could see Bainbridge/Kingsbridge in a clearer way than those who were actually living there at the time, because I had many other views of NYC to compare it with. So, let’s say I knew the scene, but the characters – for the most part – were not derived from anyone living there at the time.

LCC: Is it an accurate statement to say that this story could only have taken place when it did, since the Bush regime made it vastly more difficult for Irish immigrants to get on the plane?

LK: In a certain way, but it was more the times than the effect that any politician had on them. 9/11 changed that. Up until then, a blind eye was turned towards a lot of immigration. Irish were white, cops were white and often of Irish descent too, so there was little hunting down of Irish immigrants. I was here for 3 years myself illegally. Many Irish, however, left during the Bush era. They didn’t like the direction that the country was going in – on top of that, the Irish economy went into a boom mode so there was much well paid work “back home.” Many also disliked the American school system and felt their children would get a better education back in Ireland. There’s a real lack of the humanities in the basic American educational system and many Irish felt that keenly. The lack of value placed on World Geography was always particularly noted. Every Irish kid can identify most countries in the atlas. Although this does not take brain surgery, the lack of emphasis on it has always disturbed Irish people. Many Americans could make excuses for Bush, but to the Irish he seemed to be a dope – and a dangerous one at that.

LCC: You have a great ear for dialogue, in the black humor of the shellshocked soldiers on the Iraq album and also with the characters in this book, a lot of them real weirdos. Where do you get that dialogue? I know you always have your songbook with you: do you take notes when you hear something that might work in a novelistic context?

LK: I never take notes – a failing, no doubt. James Joyce would notate whole conversations. I have a good memory and sense of rhythm. I exult in the odd meters, rhymes and sayings of people of all races. So, I don’t need to remember conversations verbatim. Neither did Joyce, of course. He had a stunningly real “ear.” It’s just a matter of listening, though, and delighting in conversation. Delighting in characters too. Most people don’t really listen. You can tell by their body language – they’re already thinking of their response the moment they get the gist of what the other person is talking about. It’s such a turn-off. But I’ve also worked hard at playwrighting. To write a play you have to know how to cut the bejaysus out of every line you write. So, you’re constantly editing and by doing so, you’re forever making sure that the new line you come up with is “true.” In essence, you’re auditioning speech for many months or years while you’re polishing a play to the perfection it will never achieve.

LCC: One of the lead characters, the charismatic lead guitarist in the Pack of Tinkers is gay, and by the end of the book, he’s out of the closet for all intents and purposes. Yet the people around him, who are increasingly aware of it, don’t disown him – in fact it doesn’t seem to make any difference, they still love the guy. Remember, this is 1980 – we’re dealing with a Catholic culture here, not exactly the most hospitable place for a gay guy at that time. Or was the immigrant population here a lot cooler and more tolerant than the mainstream?

LK: As the saying would have gone back then, “He may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” These were very tightly knit communities. I was always amazed that the Puero Rican community down on the Lower East Side always accepted their transvestites. When drunk, they might have occasionally called them “maricón.” But, in general, they were considered part of the community and often hung with the women and talked fashion, and women talk. Gays were not accepted in the Irish community but within a group of friends, as in RTB, Danny, though not understood, would have been accepted. What else could they do – throw him out? Alcoholics, junkies, drunks, thieves were also accepted. They were blood. But no one outside the “fag’s” circle would have had any time for him. And that comes out in the violent scene at the Olympia Ballroom between Danny and the owner. The Irish scene in the Bronx was, and is, a very narrowly defined culture. When founded, ILGO (Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization) was a wonderful outfit – because for the first time, many Irish gays in the mid to late 80’s found community. My own feeling, and I was a friend and most definitely a supporter, was that ILGO more than likely saved a number of people heading for suicide. Such were the times.

LCC: How about the hottie roommate who works as a nanny until she meets the rich Jewish lawyer? Looking back, is that combination less unlikely than it seems?

LK: There was always a good connection between the Irish and the Jewish – it’s fallen apart in recent years because of some of the political and military choices of the Israeli state. But basically, many undocumented Irish married Americans – for love, money, or legal status. Many Americans also helped out by marrying an illegal so that legal status might be gained. That was common enough. So, marrying a lawyer rather than a plumber would have been a choice a more ambitious woman might have made. Which reminds me, one of Black 47’s first big problems in the Irish community was over a song called Green Card. It was a reggae song (and not a particularly brilliant one) that dealt with a a number of situations between Irish and prospective marriage partners. The verse that set nerves on end was an Irish girl marrying a Jamaican-American for legal status. I couldn’t believe the hostility this pairing invoked, particularly since the song was tongue-in-cheek and set to a reggae beat. There was very little sense of humor when it came to miscegenation in the Bronx.

LCC: As someone who remembers what New York was like in 1980, I can vouch for the fact that this book captures it exactly as it was – although I can’t vouch for Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. Much of the book takes place during a hellishly ominous early- global-warming-era summer, surrounded by garbage and decay. Yet the characters in the book take it in stride, just as all New Yorkers did. Inasmuch as gentrification has had some horrible repercussions, are you really nostalgic for all that grit and grime?

LK: Not really. I couldn’t have cared less at the time, though. I had other things on my mind. NYC was just a very unlawful place back then – but that suited me, I was illegal myself and “living the life,” as it were. There was a saying then – “When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws can be free.” Seems a bit trite now but it had currency at the time. Cops didn’t bother you unless you were out to kill someone. Certain parts of the city were more than slightly out of control. I loved it at the time, and was involved in various escapades that make my hair stand on end now, but I wouldn’t want to go back. It’s a more boring city now, but I still keep my eyes open. You’d be crazy not to – the city will always bite when you take your eyes off of it. I can’t believe all the idiots walking around in a daze listening to their iPods. Apart from missing the distinctive, adrenalized pulse of NYC, they’re risking their lives – and for what, some dumb song that they can listen to at home.

LCC: Rockin’ the Bronx is a quintessentially New York book, even though it deals mostly with one particular neighborhood and immigrant population. Yet these people witnessed the same decay, and more importantly, the same opportunities that existed for all New Yorkers before the developers started to turn every neighborhood into a cheap copy of a New Jersey suburb. Is there a single characteristic, or set of characteristics, that defined the Irish-American experience at that time – or is it an experience shared with every other immigrant group?

LK: Booze, I suppose. We drank more than most. But really, all the cultures had their own central focus – themselves. No one cared about the others, except to make fun of them. Much is made of the melting pot, but that happened only in certain types of work; mostly people hung out and exulted in their own and the culture back at home. That’s why there was a marked response to Black 47 when we first formed, for we were in essence saying, “Don’t look back. We don’t need The Pogues or the Waterboys. We’re here in the greatest music city in the world. We’re mixing Irish music through that prism. Looking back is nowhere. We’ve got Miles, Bobby, KRS, Chuck D, Avenue B, Salsa, whatever you want.”

LCC: Despite his punk image, Sean, the book’s somewhat wet-around-the-ears protagonist is apolitical – until the real life IRA member Bobby Sands goes on hunger strike and eventually dies in prison. To what extent was that event a galvanizing moment, politically speaking, in the Irish community? Was it in your own life, or were you writing songs like “James Connolly” already by that time?

LK: Bobby Sands changed Irish-America and continues to change it. Many of the young people who marched outside the British Consulate back in 1980-81 are now in leadership positions in Irish-America. That’s why the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) is more centrist and even a little Left now, as compared with 30 years ago. Same with the Irish-American media. Sands changed me, because he pointed me back to my roots – growing up with a Republican Irish grandfather. I had forsaken much of that when I came over and became part of the CBGB’s/Bells of Hell Village scene. Sands made me come face-to-face with a certain part of my heritage. I didn’t want to bomb the British or be part of any violence – but I wanted the return of Habeas Corpus, and proper representation for the Catholic Nationalist people. He influenced me in a very personal way by his saying, “No one can do everything but everyone has their part to play.” That changed my life and I still adhere by it – it gave a meaning to my life that I’ve never let go of since.

LCC: The Puerto Rican hoodlum who runs off with Sean’s girlfriend actually turns out to be a nice guy – at least in the beginning – who constantly tries to extend an olive branch to Sean, although he’ll have none of it. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to illustrate the kind of cross-cultural, neighborly interaction between the Irish and the other minorities in the Bronx during that time?

LK: Not at all. But it was something that I personally came in contact with on Avenue B. I was friendly with many people like Jesus. It was just part of life and existence on the LES. I was always surprised at how polarized the Irish and Puerto Rican communities of the Bronx were. Both, to my mind, were similar shared very common bonds such as Catholicism, love of family and a deep loyalty to their own people. I was very aware of that on Avenue B. But in the Bronx, these cultures didn’t even look at each other except in disgust. And yet, there was the occasional Irish girl who “was turned” as the PR people called it by one of their own. Often, though, that had to do with drugs, and hence Mary/Jesus.

LCC: What’s the likelihood of the Pack of Tinkers – or Black 47 – getting an audition today with a big record label like they did in this book?

LK: Well, the character of Steve, the RCA guy who comes to the Bronx is based on Stephen Holden, now a music critic for the NY Times. Back then he came to the Bronx as an A&R man for RCA to see Turner & Kirwan of Wexford [that’s Pierce Turner, the extraordinary Irish singer and songwriter, who goes back years with Kirwan] – to a place with the nickname The Bucket of Blood, just off Fordham Road. So, it did happen back then. And, of course, Black 47 has been signed to two major record deals with EMI and Mercury. I don’t even know if there are major labels any more – and if there are, who would be interested in signing with them anyway?

LCC: I can’t think of anyone who would. Is there a sequel? To the book, I mean?

LK: I doubt it.

LCC: Is there any factual basis for the incident where the old, drunken fiddle player suddenly plays the gig of his life after one of the band feeds him a huge line of cocaine?

LK: I’m sure there is but it’s not based on any particular event. Remember, the amount of drinking back then in today’s terms was staggering. People would often go out on a Friday night and come home on Sunday evening. We drank and smoked for days on end and usually passed out someplace for sleep. If a player – no matter how old – has been doing that and someone placed a line of white powder in front of him, what do you think he did? Most Irish people back then didn’t have much connection with drugs of any sort. But when they eventually came in contact with it, the Irish loved blow, mostly because they could drink even more. But it wasn’t just coke – one summer while I was doing a residency at the Boardy Barn in Hampton Bays, liquid speed was introduced. All it took was one drop in your beer and you were invincible. We used to play on it and wouldn’t be able to sleep for 24-36 hours at a time. Amazingly hundreds in the bar were speeding their butts off, without even knowing it – as friends would slip a drop in their beer when they weren’t looking. Nothing quite like a couple of hundred cops and firemen tossing back booze while the white lightning was ricocheting around their brains.

Everything seems a lot more sensible and conservative now – and maybe that’s a good thing – but oh what times we had. We’ve been trapped in an age of irony for some time now. Back then, no one cared that much about anything – especially the future. The bosses and the establishment won the war, but it’s good to remember a time when it was still all to play for.

Rockin’ the Bronx is out now from Dufour Editions, at bookstores and online vendors.

June 6, 2010 Posted by | interview, irish music, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

DVD Review: Trio Joubran – A L’ombre des mots

[Editor’s note: to be consistent with the DVD and its booklet, we use the French “Darwich” here rather than the English “Darwish” as a transliteration of Mahmoud Darwich’s Arabic name. Any errors in translation here are ours.]

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” accompanied by a cd of just the audio track) was filmed at that concert. It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice of the Palestinians. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level and through that his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them. Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity and ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert opens with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance from crowd, a characteristically understated requiem beginning stately, a portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signaling the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses (intense as this all is, it’s not without a sense of humor). “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without it, without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside. It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra. It’s out on World Village Music.

Much of the text here is available on the web, including an English translation of The Dice Player and the original Arabic text.

May 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment