Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I go to Fashion Week

Actually, I didn't go to Fashion Week—but my name did. In the last episode of Gossip Girl Blair comes up with a seating chart for a fashion show, and eagle eyes spotted me in the third row. This, my friends, is madness! Anybody who knows me (or has just seen me) knows that Fashion Week is pretty much the last place I'd check out in New York. It does make the sighting even more delicious, I have to admit. In fact it's even better than when some anonymous tipster suggested to a gossip site that I was leading a double life as an escort (and a 28-year-old escort at that). Have I become a meme?

As far as the seating chart goes, I was intrigued by the fact that I was right behind Vogue editrix Anna Wintour but in front of New York magazine's Adam Moss. It feels as if the show's writers had pulled names out of a hat—well, my name.

It's actually ironic that I'd make a guest appearance on Gossip Girl as I've only watched a couple of half episodes; the machinations of spoiled Upper East Side children aren't that interesting. Not to mention that like Dirty Sexy Money and 90210, the series' slavish fascination with the lifestyles of the rich feels a little…out of touch these days. I love escapist television as much as anybody (more later about my infatuation with Grey's Anatomy) but there's something too calculating, too cynical about Gossip Girl and its ilk. I'd rather watch the show's clear inspiration, Cruel Intentions, again. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair, plus lesbionic action? Clearly there's no contest.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How to not go crazy

Not to take away from the abyss that real madness is, but living in a city like New York one encounters plenty of spoiled neurotics making light of actual dysfunction. Here's a quote from Clara Malraux (wife of André Malraux) I'll have to remember next time I'm confronted to one of them.

She recalls reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald that said, "Because of those who surrounded her, because of a feeling of being crushed and of non-existence, Zelda simply went mad." Malraux's daughter, Florence, who had given her mother the book, told her, "Read it, there will certainly be things of particular interest to you." After finishing it, Clara replied: "Today I understand that if I didn't go mad, it's really because I didn't have the time. With all the catastrophes, all the difficulties I had to face: Indochina, poverty, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, being Jewish, Resistance, the hardship of making a living and raising a child—I really didn't have time to go mad."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Kate Atkinson in the house

My review of Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? is in the new Time Out New York, as well as a preview of a metal extravangaza featuring Keep of Kalessin and Eluveitie, among others.

Eluveitie was the highlight of PaganFest a few months ago and a must-see live. It's pretty exciting that after over two decades and hundreds of gigs, a band can still come out of nowhere and make my jaw drop. I distinctly remember watching Eluveitie at BB King's and thinking "And I thought I'd seen it all…" Clearly not.

Atkinson's latest is one of my favorite books of the past few years. Too often I finish genre novels because something about the plot compels me to see how they end. It's a purely mechanical reflex and not much pleasure is derided from it. But Atkinson writes well, which has become so rare that it's almost miraculous.

Thank god for metal and books, which are distracting me from the American presidential campaign. Every time I think it can't get any crazier, it just does. Crazier, and more offensive, too: Just how fricking stupid does McCain think Americans are? The answer, my friends, is that he's absolutely right to bank on this country's stupidity. That there's still a large number of undecided people at this stage is just one more sad joke among others.

Which reminds me… A few days ago I got embroiled in a particularly insane conversation with a rep from my health insurance. We got stuck in a circular argument and there was no getting out of it because her logic made no sense. At a loss, I said, "But this is completely Kafkaesque!" She didn't know what it meant. Yet if there's one word American health-insurance reps need to know, it's Kafkaesque.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Butcher's Crossing

Reading John Williams's 1960 Western Butcher's Crossing while Rome—well, Wall Street—burnt was perfect timing.

The book tells the story of young Will Andrews who drops out of Harvard College in the 1870s and goes west to find himself. Under the guidance of man named Miller, he ends up funding a hunting trip to a quasi-mythical Colorado valley, high in the Rockies, where, Miller says, thousands of buffalo roam. The plan is to spend a couple of weeks, kill as many beasts as possible during that time, bring the hides back on a wagon and sells them in the small town of Butcher's Crossing, from where they departed.

They find the valley all right, but Miller gets obsessed with the slaughter and refuses to leave until he's killed every animal—and there's thousands of them. Alas, when he awakes from his bloody reverie, the weather has turned and the four men in the party are snowed in; they spend several months under a makeshift shelter made of hides. After they emerge in the spring, filthy, weak from hunger and the cold, and with one of them pretty much insane, things actually get worse! The trip back turns into a nightmare and Butcher's Crossing itself has changed in ways our Rip van Winkles were not expecting. The ironic twist Williams springs at the end is to deliciously grim to reveal.

Williams doesn't pull punches (I learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to kill, skin and dress a buffalo) but his grim poetry is absolutely mesmerizing. And it's hard to find a better description of a man driven by greed—not so much financial, though Miller certainly wants dollars for his hides, but the elemental need to satisfy a constant craving for more, more and more, even after you have more than enough. Add to this man's destruction of of nature in his quest to control it, and you get a dizzying allegory of a society gone mad.

Indeed, how not to be chilled by the parallel with our barons of finance, who kept wanting more and more and more, and would do anything to get it? As with Miller, who kills buffalo for the same reason too many idiots climb the Everest—because it's there—we now have to deal with the insanity created by morons who got drunk on their own financial wizardry and couldn't stop themselves.

The only good news in this: Williams has only written three novels, making it easy to read his entire oeuvre.

Feeling authentically bluesy

Mixed returns on my last two outings.

Catherine Baÿ's The Snow White Project, part of the Crossing the Line fest on Tuesday, was a total wash as far as I'm concerned. Essentially we milled in front of the Diane von Furstenberg store in the meatpacking district, watching women dressed as Snow White hold placards bearing inscriptions such as "On strike" and "I am an everyday consumer product" inside the store. Suddenly it really felt like the 80s again: a financial meltdown against a background of overpriced doodads, while an artist trots out tired slogans and blindingly obvious concepts. It was a rather smug example of vacant cooptation—and I loathed half the people I was standing next to. I admit that I left after half an hour so I missed the one seemingly dynamic element that came at the end, according to the Times' review. Life is too short.

Then last night I was in the mood for some rawk so off to Bowery Ballroom I went, where Swedish retro masters Graveyard and Witchcraft were sandwiching local act TK Webb and the Visions. The Swedes don't have an ounce of originality between them, faithfully playing a late 60s/early 70s psych- and blues-flavored rock, with a hefty dose of Black Sabbathism in the case of Witchcraft. But they do have that Scandi sense of craft and they threw themselves wholeheartedly into their music. Plus the Graveyard drummer was amazing in an octopus/Keith Moon/Animal kinda way, and Witchcraft has enough great riffs to easily fill a set.

But TK Webb and the Visions…It's almost a bummer to see these guys come across like such a bunch of wankers because Webb at least has been a downtown fixture for a while now, so his commitment seems beyond question. But what's with the second guitarist, the guy in white showing off his tats and striking poses? He looked as if he'd rehearsed every single move in front of the mirror for hours; there was not an ounce of honesty in what he did.

Speaking of which, let's go back to the Celine Dion show for a minute. The Times reviewer wrote of a particular song's interpretation that "instead of connoting feeling — there is not a whit of blues in Ms. Dion’s voice — it felt like a technical exercise."


Is the blues the only way to show feeling? Isn't it just one of many performative devices one can use to evoke feeling? TK Webb's gravelly pipes sure made him sound like he felt things, man, for real, but does that make him a better singer? Or even just an interesting one? Furthermore, can't one have technique and emotion? I'm sure those highly trained classical singers would say yes.

In addition, you can think and say many things of Celine Dion, but one thing she does have is feeling—it's just that her version does not fit some people's definition of how it's meant to be expressed, and of realness, authenticity or taste (all dubious words anyway). The last element is the most important here, I think, getting into what the Times' readership think it's okay to mock.

Jeezus, I can't believe I've become a Celine Dion defender…

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Celine will go on

Time for some live music! After Carcass and Goldfrapp, I went to see Celine Dion at Madison Square Garden yesterday evening. Ka-razy! It's hard to describe the over-the-topness of that show, which of course was all about Celine emoting and monologuing and doing dance moves (or is that "dance"?) and belting to the rafters. Expected, sure, but if you want to see a born entertainer at work, no matter what you think of her art, the Garden was the place to be last night. Even the Sheila entered reluctantly and left a convert. She even scared me a little when she exclaimed "She's the biggest star I've ever seen!" I pointed out that she had seen Madonna at the same venue a few years ago. "Celine is bigger," she replied. Well then.

This actually was the second time I'd seen the Quebecois songbird live: Back in March 1994, I reviewed her first local show, held at Town Hall. I was then a cub freelancer for the late, much-missed New York Newsday, and I was so eager to get a byline that I'd say yes to anything the daily paper's music editor, the irreplaceable Ira Robbins, would throw my way. Let's just say it wasn't the hippest acts. In addition to Celine, I wrote about concerts by John Denver, Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross; I even trekked to Queens College for Jerry Lewis.

Celine was already doing well in the francophone market but her first U.S. hit, her duet with Peabo Bryson on "Beauty and the Beast," had come out only a couple of years earlier, and "My Heart Will Go On" had yet to land. Clearly she was still holding back somewhat, as this excerpt from my 14-year-old review shows:

"Celine Dion provides a classy, upscale alternative for people who think of Mariah Carey as a shopping mall superstar. Like Carey, Dion has a big voice, and, also like Carey, she loves ballads. But while the Long Islander squarely opts for big hair, big shows and big vocals, Dion takes a more low-key approach, which proved far less grating over the course of an evening. Her simple outfit (long white shirt, black leggings, black jacket) and stage behavior (no costume changes, no dancers, no props and only a few PG-rated pelvic gyrations) provided a visual complement to her relatively pared-down vocals. Dion made good use of her clean, clear, resonant voice without indulging in gratuitous vocal acrobatics—except on a cover of 'Can't Help Falling in Love,' during which she stretched some notes well past their expiration date."

These days Celine does have costume changes and dancers and pelvic gyrations and props (projections and two treadmills). And her vocals are anything but pared down. But what hasn't changed is her core personality (you can take the girl out of Quebec…) and the way she connects with both the stage and the audience. My favorite part was her banter, which clearly is somewhat scripted but still holds pockets of what feels like gushing sincerity (her strong point, as evidenced by some of her most memorable TV appearances). The least you can say about her is that she's completely unique.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One heartbeat away

Finally watched Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's film Persepolis tonight. I think it was up against Ratatouille for the Best Animated Film Oscar and of course Disney prevailed. A shame, because Persepolis is much more complex than the vastly overrated rodent movie.

Watching it tonight, a scene struck a particular chord because of the current context. The movie is set mostly in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and it shows, among other things, what happens when ideologues and opportunists band together to rule a country, especially when they use religion as an excuse/tool to enforce their rule. At one point, a woman panicks because her husband had a heart attack and she needs the authorization to get him out of the country so he can get an operation. To her horror, she realizes the hospital administrator in charge of delivering the authorization used to wash her windows. He has zero qualifications and yet there he is, lording it over others.

Sounds familiar? The US has turned into a country where zealots and opportunists band together to pillage natural resources and rob people blind (there's no other word to describe what health-insurance and oil companies do). Incompetent people rise to positions of power, carried on by the passivity and ignorance of the population. Sarah Palin is only the latest in a long line of such people: She doesn't have the qualifications to be vice-president and yet she acts with a sense of utmost certainty. She's very very close to being in charge. We should be terrified.

Through the looking glass

Over at SundayArts, I wrote about what happened when I went to see Reid Farrington's The Passion Project at PS 122. Basically, a college student was taking notes on a PDA, inches away from the performer. Seriously: What the hell?!?

Then on Friday night, the woman sitting right in front of me at Goldfrapp watched the entire show not directly but through her phone's viewfinder, while recording. We were not far from the action and yet never did she look straight at the stage—it was always through the phone. I don't know why she didn't just stay at home and watch Goldfrapp footage on YouTube. But okay, fine, she can have the once-removed experience if she chooses to; what bugged me is that she'd hold the phone in front of me so the gadget was smack in the middle of my line of vision. I don't mind the taking of some photos, I guess, just so I can link to this visual evidence, but recording the entire show on your fricking phone is ridiculous. What the hell is wrong with people that they seem unable to enjoy a live performance for what it is? To me the ephemeral aspect of it is the best part but clearly others don't feel that.

Okay, deep breath.

The show itself was pretty grand, even if live I prefer the more rocking material to Seventh Tree's hippy-pagan fantasias. (The last time I saw Goldfrapp was at Nokia, when they were touring the super-glammy Supernature.) At Radio City the best connection between sound, visuals and venue was during "Strict Machine": the heavy stage curtain was lit in such a way that it made for a fantastically theatrical framing device. Radio City has a huuuuge orchestra so the balconies are set way in the back, making it difficult for a band to take control of the room instead of being overwhelmed by it. Goldfrapp was on top the whole way through.

RIP David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace killed himself on Friday. The Times' obit focuses on his importance as a fiction writer and glosses over his nonfiction, which I much preferred—and where he used many of the same postmodern tricks. I can't emphasize enough that how great his two collections, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, are; all would-be journalists should read them. (Kakutani does mention his nonfiction in her tribute.)

I first discovered Foster Wallace in 1994, when I read his article about the Illinois State Fair in Harper's; in 1996, he wrote about going on a cruise for the same magazine. Both articles were illuminating and incredibly funny—I clearly remember laughing out loud over and over at his descriptions of the fair's food and rides (his approach to this kind of deep Americana has become the norm, though DFW's imitators are just that).

But what made DFW stand out wasn't so much his love for footnotes but the way he wrestled with his role as a writer and with thorny moral issues, something current popular essayists like David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman never do. The title essay of Consider the Lobster may well be his finest in that regard.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Girls on stage

A couple of show previews in the new Time Out New York: Goldfrapp at Radio City Music Hall and Céline Dion at Madison Square Garden.

The fun part is that I actually reviewed Dion's local live debut, back in 1994, for the now-defunct New York Newsday. I'm looking forward to posting excerpts from that article next to my impressions of Monday's show next week.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The theater's gilded ceiling

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has been contributing to the Guardian's theater blog, and her latest post is a doozie. Basically she addresses a New York Times article that trumpets a renewed focus on men on Broadway—as opposed to the estrogen-flooded past 100 years, no doubt. Rebeck takes that idea to task and I cannot emphasize how great it is to see her anger boil over, especially since she remains funny to the end.

You have to laugh—and Rebeck does, darkly—when reading such lines from Charles Isherwood's piece as "Broadway is also shining a bright spotlight on the male psyche this autumn." The thing is, looking at the male psyche is interesting, but there's a myriad issues swirling around the manner in which it's done on Broadway. For instance, why does the looking have to be done by men? They are controlling the discourse from beginning to end, putting on a great party honoring themselves, and women—who, Rebeck reminds us, make up 60 percent of Broadway audiences—should feel honored to foot the bill.

"Is it a reaction against last season, when the New York stage seemed to be overtaken by domineering women?" Isherwood wonders. He's referring to the main characters in August: Osage County and Gypsy, by the way, not to headstrong playwrights or directors. And since when did two women amount to an overtaking anyway?

Let's bring a teeny tiny bit of perspective and look at that exact same 2007-08 season. What do we find? Men with image issue (Cyrano de Bergerac), men dealing with revolution (Rock ’n’ Roll), drunk men talking to other drunk men (The Seafarer), men inventing cool stuff then fighting over it (The Farnsworth Invention), men finding art (Sunday in the Park with George), men finding themselves (Passing Strange), men running the country (November), men counselled by bad, bad women (Macbeth). Good thing there will be more about them this year, right? Cause it was getting a little tight for them on Broadway for a while.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Let the games begin

Over at the SundayArts blog, I talk about the upcoming fall season, noting a certain timidity on the New York arts scene. How it will all pan out in our age of high ticket prices and shrinking economy remains to be seen…

Live death

On Saturday night I saw enough death metal (at the Carcass-headlined show) to keep me sated for quite a while. Death is one of my least favorite metal subgenres because the songs get too samey for my taste (that's where you can tell I'm an amateur), and the so-called "technical" subsubgenre is beyond boring. That said, I actually spent a pretty good evening at Nokia, especially since I was able to snag a chair at the balcony and calmly read between sets (Richard Hughes' In Hazard, a wonderful 1939 novel about a steamship stuck in a mammoth hurricane).

First of all, I was wrong when I wrote that it would be a five-band bill: There were actually six—Rotten Sound, Aborted, 1349, Necrophagist, Suffocation and Carcass. But true to metal form everything was running super-smoothly and the show was on schedule from beginning to end: I left after an hour of Carcass and it was only 12:30am.

Of Rotten Sound and Aborted there is little to say: by-the-numbers death, and the most interesting thing was that Rotten Sound's singer had a weird quasi-Scottish burr even though he's Finnish.

I had loved 1349 when I saw them at BB's two years ago but last night's set was completely lackluster—it was like a different band altogether. The lone black-metal band on the bill, 1349 stuck out when they showed up in spikes and corpsepaint, which made for a refreshing change from the others' nondescript outfits. Alas, the guitar was weirdly low in the mix and the energy level was decidedly flagging. Not a kvlt night for the Norwegians.

Necrophagist is a very techy death band that looks and sounds like a side project from members of a science club. They all wore cargo pants (the 2008 geek's version of the pocket protector) and played guitars that had, like, 25 strings. Lots of crazy fretboard action—even the bassist did a little tapping interlude. Ugh. The highlight of Necrophagist's set: a ten-second quote from Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" at the end of a song. It was completely random and pretty great.

Suffocation, on the other hand, showed you can be death and alive: These guys put on a hell of an old-school spectacle. It helps considerably that they have a real showman in singer Frank Mullen, who's often credited as one of the pioneers of the death growl but does a lot more onstage, whipping up the crowd between songs with earthy Long Island humor. (Suffocation also has two African-American members, drummer Mike Smith and guitarist Terrance Hobbs, which means the band has something like half of all the black musicians in death metal.)

My favorite thing about Carcass (other than they looked like they had stepped out of a vintage Sabbath video, with their flared jeans) was Bill Steer's guitar. He was playing a white Les Paul, an instrument you almost never see in extreme metal, which is all about axes that could poke your eye out if you just look at them the wrong way. In addition to a tone warmer than the brittle one more common in death, Steer and Mike Amott offered a unique combo of technical speed and catchy riffing. The latter is crucial because a lot of the death bands that followed in Carcass' wake just focused on the extreme technicity and forgot about the riff side, producing uncommonly sterile music. (An exception to my mind would be Nile, a super-techy band that's still entertaining because of its nutty obsession with Egyptian lore.)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hanna hits Camp Rock

It looks like Brooklyn is going to get drenched tomorrow as tropical storm Hanna hits the Eastern seaboard. Much to my relief, however, it looks like it'll have moved out of town by the following day and so it won't get in the way of you, you and you attending my reading at Barbès in Park Slope on Sunday night at 7pm. I'll read from Abba Gold and show some vintage Abba footage.

I'm actually looking forward to the rain on Saturday so I'll have an excuse not to go out and the Sheila and I can hold our own seance on a wet afternoon, ie watch more of the fantastic Australian DVDs she brought back from her recent trip to Oz. More details later, as I'm keen to cover one of them in print, though I can reveal they are vastly superior to Camp Rock, which we watched yesterday.

Let's just say that I've seen High School Musical and Camp Rock, you're no High School Musical. Omigod it's so bad! First, it's quite difficult to get past Demi Lovato, who plays the lead and is absolutely unbearable; 90 percent of her acting consists of her opening her mouth extra wide and baring her huge, blindingly white teeth. And once you've learned to live with Demi, you realize the direction is dead flat (you can tell when Kenny Ortega is not involved) and the music completely pedestrian.

The two bright spots are the unspeakably hunky Joe Jonas, who makes Zac Efron look like Marty Feldman, and Meaghan Jette Martin as nasty popular girl Tess. Or rather the songs she gets to sing, which are the best by far: "Too Cool" and "2 Stars," both very ’80s-revival Kylie.

None blacker

My profile of Ian Christe's new imprint, Bazillion Points, is in this week's TONY. You may know Christe as the author of the excellent history of metal Sound of the Beast, and it's great that he's now started publishing quality books about that still-derided genre.

Speaking of metal, the show not to miss this week (month? year?) is that of Carcass, whose reunion tour stops at Nokia tomorrow evening. My colleague Steve Smith previewed the gig in TONY, and I have little to add other than the headbanging catharsis will be greatly welcome. Also on the lengthy bill is black-metal outfit 1349, which I had quite enjoyed two years ago when it opened for Celtic Frost.

If it was any other kind of music I'd dread a five-band bill, but in my experience metal shows tend to be very well run: Bands stick to their alloted time and the changeovers don't take forever, as they do at indie gigs. There's a lesson there about something or other.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

English as a second language

A review of Joseph Horowitz's new book, Artists in Exile, quotes this great line: "Otto Preminger, hearing a group of his fellow émigrés speaking Hungarian, said, 'Don’t you people know you’re in Hollywood? Speak German.'"

This reminded me of the recent decision by the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) to require its members to speak English. Considering that a third of the membership is Korean, it would make more sense to give Korean and English equal status, no?

Being an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country myself, I'm torn when it comes to the issue of language. On the one hand, I love hearing diverse languages when I walk the streets of New York, and speaking in the tongue you grew up in is an irreplaceable treasure, both affective and cultural. On the other hand, it's undeniable that not being able to speak English well hampers immigrants. When I was doing my immigration papers, I was repeatedly shocked by the insulting way employees would treat applicants who didn't speak English well. The system is hard enough to figure out if you speak the language; if you don't, it's practically impossible—or it costs a lot of money.

What I truly cannot stand is American boors who espouse the "speak English or leave" motto, especially when very often their own grasp on English is tenuous. In my job, I correct native speakers' English every day, and it brings me a lot of satisfaction. I'm especially harsh on those with a lazy approach, those who don't bother with correct grammar, spelling and capitalization. I've worked hard to master a second language, and I have little patience for those who take their first one for granted.

Single moms in the news

While America is debating the fate of Bristol Palin, five-months preggers at 17 and promising, we hear, to marry the similarly teenaged father, France has just learned that its divorced, 42-year-old Minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, is pregnant and unattached. And not only is Dati single, but she's refused to reveal who the father is: "I have a complicated private life and that's the boundaries I've set for myself when it comes to the media. I won't say anything on this subject."

I cannot even imagine a female American politician in a similar position 1) describing her private life as "complicated" (it would be translated for her as "slutty"); 2) choosing single motherhood; and 3) being allowed to choose single motherhood without being tarred and feathered.

Meanwhile, the ravages of religious stupidity, poor education and the politics of sexual abstinence continue in the U.S., now vividly illustrated by the Palin family. The sophistry and rhetorical contortions the conservative right has to display in order to not criticize the Palin situation are a marvel to behold.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A resource for Scandi noir

Thanks to reader Avi, who told me about a good new blog about Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English. Recent posts include coverage of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, as the first volume is about to hit America, and the site includes a very helpful list of blogs dedicated to international noir. There's even a companion site with additional resources (including a breakdown of authors by country) hosted by Gustavus Adolphus College's Folke Bernadotte Library. It is located, of course, in Minnesota, the epicenter of all things Scandinavian in the U.S.