Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

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

Robin Hoffman: Artist to the Stars of the Brooklyn Underground

Robin Hoffman describes herself as “Brooklyn artist, mom, former ballet soloist and hanger-out at Jalopy.” With her second coffee-table book, Ukulele Chicken Sketchbook: Jalopy Bands, she continues the series of portraits begun in last year’s Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy. Perhaps inadvertently, she’s created a niche for herself as the documentarian of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, capturing the essentials of innumerable Americana roots artists in the span of a few lines and angles. Picture after picture, Hoffman gets it: the growling gravitas of the Little Brothers; the sprawl of the M Shanghai String Band; the Ukuladies with their Mona Lisa smiles; the Sweetback Sisters’ effortless competence and charm; the scruffy Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues; the unselfconscious joy of the Calamity Janes, and Balkan brass band Veveritse’s spring-loaded swirl. With her band the Hot Mess, Jessy Carolina is portrayed as a flapper. Kelli Rae Powell looks like Liza Minelli (she’d love that, no doubt), and especially tiny next to her rugged bassist husband. And Hoffman absolutely nails Maybelles frontwoman Jan Bell’s plaintive soul with just a few decisive strokes. Hoffman celebrates the release of the book with a party on February 11 at 6 PM at – where else – the Jalopy, 315 Columbia St. in Red Hook, very easy to get to via the F to Carroll St. She recently took some time out of an obviously busy schedule to answer some questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover the Jalopy?

Robin Hoffman: I live in the neighborhood, and I found Jalopy in the summer of 2008. My husband and I began going out late in the evening to stroll our baby to sleep, and we discovered that Columbia Street had a whole night life going on that hadn’t been there before we had the baby. Then I found out that Doug Skinner was teaching ukulele there, and that was that.

LCC: How do you find the time to spend so much time there? Frankly, I’m jealous…

RH: It’s my dumb good luck to live relatively close by. The show usually begins at 9, and my son usually goes to sleep around 8:30. My husband, Ben, likes that time to write, so I grab my sketchbook and head over.

LCC: When did you start drawing there?

RH: The first show I attended and drew was September 25, 2008. The audience was very sparse, and the late Bob Guida was on stage. Here was this huge man, playing a huge electric guitar and singing like a great big fat angel. He was just wonderful. The second show I went to, Ernie Vega was playing. And he was great, and again the house was inexplicably sparse. Ben and I looked at each other and said, is it always like this? Jalopy is quite a welcoming, friendly place, so I soon felt fine about going there alone.

LCC: Does this relate to a career in commercial art for you?

RH: I studied Illustration and Cartooning at School of Visual Arts here in New York. I like illustrating performing arts particularly, because of my long background in dance. I’ve done a small amount of editorial illustrating, and I do a little other commercial illustration. Mostly, I seem to sell my pictures and reproductions to individual customers.

LCC: Why do you do this? It’s not like this is ever going to get any space at brooklynvegan or stereogum…

RH: For me it’s an active interaction with the music, like I am still dancing. I think that’s probably the hit! I love the way bodies arrange themselves in order to make music. I love to enjoy good music. The Jalopy Theatre itself is a muse for me – I’m fascinated with the way it works as an experience for performer and audience. There’s a proscenium, and enough separation, but also a close proximity. It’s kind of a perfect blend of formality and intimacy.

LCC: At what point did you realize that you had something here, that this was a scene that really deserved to be documented?

RH: By the time I’d filled the first sketchbook, I knew I was witnessing a special moment in a special place. Seats were filling up; talented, dedicated people were in the audience and on the stage, also hanging out and having dialogue, musical and otherwise. The Jalopy is really a pillar of my neighborhood and has a fantastic energy. It’s fun to be there. I’ve filled up some sixteen sketchbooks now almost entirely at Jalopy.

LCC: Action shots are tough. What Bob Gruen and Mick Rock and all those photographers from the 70s did is great, capturing the stars of the era and of the underground, but when you look at them, half of the people in the photos are passed out in the CBGB bathroom. That’s not a hard shot to take. You, on the other hand, draw what appear to be exclusively live action portraits – even your sketch of the Jalopy’s owners, Geoff and Lynette Wiley, shows her behind the bar, and him checking the sound on a crowded weekend night, from the looks of it. There’s so much activity in these portraits – and what appears to be very quick pencil strokes on your part. Are you one of those super fast artists? Is it a matter of catching what’s in the frame before it fades?

RH: At first I considered taking photos for reference, but I abandoned that idea pretty quickly. I’m not capturing a literal instant in time. I’ve learned to have the patience to wait for a gesture to happen again, and to invest in what might seem to be mundane details. Those details can ironically be what draws your eye through the picture. As I practiced patience I developed speed.

LCC: These portraits are incredibly kinetic – to what degree, if at all, does your dance background inform your art?

RH: My dance background definitely informs the way I observe. In that first sketch of Bob Guida, for instance: he was sitting quite still but he had this inner spark going on that was very, very active. Then, look at a band such as the M. Shanghai String Band, which sometimes has twelve or thirteen players moving in a complex dance around one another and the mics. That dance has a rhythm that I depend upon to decide where to place everyone in the picture. As a former performer of a very physical art I understand these things and they interest me, and then I have to credit my illustration training with helping me understand how to put it on paper.

LCC: You play ukulele also – are you in a band? Performing these days?

RH: I love playing ukulele and I play every day, but I’m only just getting confident enough to join in jams. Learning to play music has been another rich part of this adventure.

LCC: Who’s the guy in the lower left corner in a lot of these?

RH: That is a wonderfully campy bust of Thomas Jefferson that is always stationed downstage right – on the the audience’s left – on the Jalopy stage, appearing to be looking at the performers. He is part of the decor – I love putting him in the picture. I believe Geoff said he got it at a garage sale.

February 2, 2011 Posted by | Art, blues music, country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: Big Papi – My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits, by David Ortiz and Tony Massarotti

Big Papi – My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits, by David Ortiz and Tony Massarotti

St. Martin’s, 288 pp., hardcover, $24.95, ISBN-13: 978-0312366339

Also available in Spanish as Big Papi – La Historia de Mis Anhelos y Mis Grandes Batazos

The truth in any contemporary book by a sports hero is always in the ellipses, what isn’t said, what’s between the lines. No doubt this was vetted before publication by an army of lawyers, so as not to offend anyone associated with Major League Baseball or, perish the thought, sully the game’s reputation. You assuredly won’t find anything revealing here unless you look for it. Suffice it to say that the days of hilarious tell-alls like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four or Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock’s The Bronx Zoo – or Jim Brosnan’s thoughtful, introspective The Long Season – are long over, gone with the days of affordable box seats, a single best-of-five pennant playoff series, and ninth-inning beer in the bleachers.

This book seems to be based on a hastily conducted series of spring training interviews, most likely translated from Ortiz’ native Spanish (he’s Dominican). For those who’ve somehow managed to avoid the hype, David Ortiz is the most feared slugger in the American League, a large man with a devastating lefthanded swing who last season led the league in home runs, setting the Boston Red Sox single-season record in the process. Three years ago, his extra-inning heroics led the Red Sox to a historic comeback against the Yankees in the playoffs, followed by the Red Sox’ first World Championship in 86 years. Perhaps most notably, the Red Sox got him for free when the power-starved Minnesota Twins, fearing that Ortiz’ considerable girth would increase his already significant penchant for injuries, gave him the pink slip after the 2002 season. All this is contained in the book, along with the following:

– Ortiz calls everybody “bro” or “papi” (hence his nickname, “Big Papi”),

– He grew up poor but not destitute, more fortunate than his friend Pedro Martinez, the great pitcher and Dominican folk hero who he credits with saving his career

– He was very close to his mother, and losing her in an auto accident was understandably traumatic (though he glosses over it)

– Like many other Latin players, he used another name (David Arias) during much of his time in the minor leagues

– Dominicans in the Major Leagues share a loyalty to each other beyond any team affiliation, bonding together because they can’t stand the blandness of American food

– Ortiz likes to cook, and one suspects his popularity with his colleagues stems from his fondness for working the grill (though, sadly, we don’t find out anything else about his gustatory talents or predilections: no recipes, no favorite foods, no guide to the best Dominican takeout joints around the majors).

Other things you learn from this book, although its authors might not want you to:

– Although Ortiz seems to be universally well-liked among his peers, he comes across as a fiercely proud, impetuous character who does things his way and his way only

– In the minors, he won accolades not only for his hitting but also his fielding (which makes sense: contrary to conventional wisdom, he remains a perfectly adequate first baseman).

– He’d much prefer to play in the field than serve as the designated hitter

– He explains away his mysterious hospitalization for a rapid heartbeat during a crucial series against the Yankees as being due to “stress” (come on, this is the guy who almost singlehandedly vaulted the Sox into the World Series with one crucial clutch performance after another, and he’s talking about STRESS???). While Ortiz seems to be the least likely guy in the majors to be doing steroids (he’s too fat – although he insists he isn’t), there may be other plausible reasons, including but not limited to the little things that ballplayers have been using to get a little extra pep since the 1950s.

There’s next to nothing in here about the legendary camaraderie of the Sox’ 2004 World Championship team (and its subsequent demise), nothing about Ortiz’ friendship with teammate and fellow Dominican Manny Ramirez, nothing about his vaunted swing, opposing pitchers or for that matter any juicy tales from the clubhouse, the backyard barbeque, the strip club or wherever Ortiz and his pals hang out.

To offer enough heft to justify its pricetag, the book is puffed out with “appreciations” of Ortiz’ talent as well as a tortuously long mea culpa by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, explaining how he let the most feared slugger in the American League walk away, getting nothing in return: you end up feeling really sorry for the guy, listening to him go on and on, reliving one of the worst errors in judgment that any big league exec ever made.

Strictly for diehards: one suspects that the Spanish-language version is the more popular of the two editions available.

July 25, 2007 Posted by | Culture, Literature, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments