Tuesday, August 29, 2017

On hats

I notice that Il Dictatore sported a white “USA” hat in Corpus Christi today, rather than his usual red one.

But it’s a code, isn’t it?

The red one is the choice of the chair of the Committee to RE-Elect the President (that would be Il Dictatore). It’s the signal to the rabid, racist masses that the Fascist-in-Chief is gunning for the full two terms. Swoon! Oh, and it's for sale, because this regime is all about the grift:

The white one is somewhat more neutral, easily misinterpreted as inoffensive. Because it’s white. And this man likes the white. Uh. Well, that argument didn’t really hold up, did it? So; same message, more benign background, but just as racist:

But notice that on his way to Marine One earlier today he had BOTH in his little mitt. Yes, that is the red hat peeking out from under the white one.

Perhaps this was in case he discovered a rabid crowd of racists waiting for him in Texas, which, when you consider our legislative body and governing elected officials, isn’t hard to imagine. Yet somehow he managed to choose the less offensive hat (we are not going to begin to account for his wife’s choice of footwear…).

Ah, but another hat on display is Melania’s as she disembarks from Air Force One. Notice that her hat says “FLOTUS.” This is because she must be reminded that this is her lot in life, lest she forget that she is First Lady to the worst human being in the world.

I wonder if they force her to wear that hat. It doesn’t go with the snakeskin stilettos, but I’m no fashion expert, so what do I know?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

August 2017 Newsletter (RP Update August 2017 vol 2)

Here is the long version of August's RP Update (vol 2).

Death Is a Laff Riot

One of the reasons I set up this semi-regularly updated mailing list is because I want to share the stuff I make with you. I suppose that’s obvious, but I have to say, it’s practically a compulsion for me. Why make something if not to share?

And it’s driving me nuts that one of the things I made is just sitting here on my desktop, unshared.

It’s a novel, a “soccer noir” (“football noir” for you what lives beyond the confines of the U.S.A.). That is, it’s a soccer murder-mystery. Set in remote Yorkshire. In 1978.

For years, I’ve sought an agent-editor-publisher for Death Is a Laff Riot to no avail. So, instead of waiting any longer, I’m going to publish the story in chunks on a specially dedicated blog.

Start by reading the book blurb on the Laff Riots Official Supporters Club blog.

Then, if your fancy is tickled, you can click through the story, chapter by chapter.

Each week, I’ll upload new chunks of eight to ten chapters until the thing is fully published (I reckon the whole process will take 10 - 12 weeks).

Plus, I’ll be adding bonus material: a playlist of songs mentioned during the telling of the tale and (in the works) an regularly updated narrative of all the coincidences surrounding the writing and (attempted selling) of the manuscript.

Feel free to share the link to the story with anyone you think might like it. Give the literary-minded soccer player in your life the gift of a footballing yarn, right as the new season kicks off in jolly old Eng-er-land.

And, if you discover you just can’t wait for the next installment but want to read the whole story in a single go, let me know and I’ll send you a PDF of the latest draft of the manuscript.

Click here to read the book blurb and begin Death Is a Laff Riot.

1999 Questionnaire

Death Is a Laff Riot may be constrained to the pages of my blog and not, alas, set free to collect dust on bookstore bookshelves the world over, but I have higher hopes for a different story, a second novel, this one set in Austin in 1999.

If you lived in Austin around that time, you can help kick-start my memory by answering a few survey questions about what you did for fun back then (it’s anonymous — I forgot to mention that in my previous email).

Take the survey here.

It’ll take all of five minutes; and if you answer the “personal question” at the end, I’ll put you in the book (if you don’t object, that is). Thanks!

[ samizdat ] Project Update

CDs of [ samizdat-001 ] Thug Nation are available for purchase via the Bandcamp music site or in person wherever you find me and my stealth supply (see Upcoming Gigs below). Wrapped in anonymous brown paper and unadorned save for the serial number, these little beauties have been specifically designed to keep you safe from the prying eyes (and ears) of the regime’s goon squads and censors.

Of the limited pressing of 200 CDs only 195 are left, so get yours while they last!

Order CDs here (CD includes the bonus track: Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me” the Zombie Love Song Version).

What’s the [ samizdat ] project again? For those of you still reeling from November’s shock and all the recent racist aftershocks, steady your resolve by visiting the samizdat ] project page.


Still reading? You are made of mighty stuff, or have too much time on your hands. Regardless, thank you! See you out there.


Listen to [ samizdat-001 ] Thug Nation

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Velvet Wonderland: A tour of New York City, circa 1967 (and today)

Recently, I got the opportunity to pen a piece for the Village Voice on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the most influential albums of all time, The Velvet Underground and Nico. My assignment was to write short blurbs on 10 locations in New York that made the album what it is. My piece ran in the March 17 edition of the Village Voice, edited (so I was later told) by the legendary music writer Joe Levy

Reading the final, edited version I was aware it was, indeed, edited. That's cool -- there's a lot of stuff in the published version that will make Velvets fans and historians say, "ah, yes," with a sense of the familiar confirmed. Here is the version that appeared in the Voice.

Below is what I submitted, pre-edit. I went with the location-oriented "tour" idea pretty literally, which definitely is a diversion from the published VV version. 

Among the divergences: I included that uptown location at Lexington and "1-2-5," which was dropped from the final version in favor of the Hotel Chelsea. 

Oh, yeah. If you count, there are only nine entries below (nine-and-a-half, if the discover of the book in the Ludlow Street entry is worth something...). Sue me. 


*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Reviewers and biographers of the Velvet Underground put it bluntly, “The Velvets are unthinkable without New York City…if Manhattan didn’t exist, neither would they.” So how did the city do its part to shape the iconic band? Where were those places the Velvets evolved?

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, we offer a brief tour of “Velvet Wonderland,” some of the most influential places in the story of one of the most influential bands in the history of rock-and-roll.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Our first stop is Ludlow Street. The Lower East Side is popular with immigrants and artists hunting for cheap digs. One such building is No. 56, where Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrisson and drummer Angus MacLise live and rehearse. The loft fits the bill for affordability, the drawback being that there’s no bathroom. Or heat. Or electricity.

Power is “borrowed” via the adjoining building to fuel the activities of the loft’s burgeoning musical commune, among which are MacLise’s experimental band “Theatre of Eternal Music” and whatever Reed and company call themselves any given day, like The Warlocks or The Falling Spikes.

MacLise is also involved with the underground film scene and, in 1965, the nascent Velvets perform as part of a multimedia show at the Filmmaker’s Cinémathèque (on Lafayette Street) — a night of music, film, poetry, and dancers, which sounds like a prototype for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which we’ll get to a little later in our tour.

The loft on 56 Ludlow Street is where the quartet record their first demo in July ’65, some of which finds its way onto The Velvet Underground & Nico the following spring.

A side note: Look to the west and Bowery Street. That’s where Tony Conrad finds the cheap paperback from which the band takes its name. “The Velvet Underground” is supposedly a shocker about sado-masochism and sexual corruption. In reality, per Morrison, despite the whips and chains on the cover, “it was basically about wife swapping in Suburbia.”

The Ludlow Street lofts are now home to a software company, a recording studio, a magazine publisher, and others who must have figured out how to wire the building for electricity.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The next stop on the tour is 106 West 3rd Street and Café Bizarre, which in its heyday hosted folk icons and Beat poets. By late 1965, its better days behind it, the venue sells a faux Greenwich Village experience to tourists who didn’t know any better. (“It was a dump,” according to Reed.)

But the Village is a draw for new acts, so the Velvets accept a December residency at the café for $5 each, plus dinner. The club’s “anti-rock group” policy means Maureen Tucker is not allowed to play her drums; she bangs on a tambourine instead.

The group performs on the small stage at the back of the café’s long room to practically non-existent audiences who pay little attention to the experimental sounds.

Fed up with the gig and the venue, the Velvets perform “Black Angel’s Death Song” — banned by the club’s owner — and are promptly fired. Which is fine by them.

Even better, during their residency, filmmakers working with Andy Warhol bring him to see the Velvets perform. He loves how the audiences leave the too-loud, too-insane performances “dazed and damaged” and offers to manage the band. This changes everything for The Velvet Underground.

Café Bizarre is long gone. Now, the east corner is a JW Market; NYU Law School’s Faculty Club takes up the rest of the block between Sullivan and MacDougal.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Next, we head up Park Avenue to the Delmonico Hotel, where, in January 1966, the Velvets play another gig for an audience ill prepared for what is to hit them. Warhol, invited to speak at the annual dinner of the New York Society For Clinical Psychiatry, asks for and is granted permission to show some of his films rather than speak.

Imagine a room in post-dinner chic: white tablecloths, demi-tasses, and assorted drinks well drunk, salvers of cookies, ashtrays of cigarettes, and a posh crowd of doctors and their wives. Front-lit from below and casting sinewy shadows, the Velvets crank up the volume on “Heroin” as Barbara Rubin bursts in, filming the well-heeled audience while asking them embarrassing questions about their sex lives.

As the Velvets play and astonished guests bolt for the exits, whip-wielding dancers perform while a film of a man being tortured is projected on the wall behind the band. Warhol delights in the scene and the attention. Even the New York Times covers the “short-lived torture of cacophony” and “spontaneous eruption of the id.”

The building is now the Trump Park West.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

A little way from the Delmonico Hotel is Andy Warhol’s art studio and hangout, the Factory, located in an old industrial building near the United Nations. Here, on the fourth floor of 231 E. 47th Street, Warhol oversees the making of his silk screens and collages and revels in the perpetual party of people coming and going — drag queens, junkies, filmmakers, journalists, paparazzi, and hangers-on of all sorts. The Velvet Underground practices there daily from 1966 – 1968.

According to Ken Pitt, to access the floor you ride a rickety old elevator more like a cage than a proper elevator. Open on three sides, the thing offers a harrowing view of the sheer drop as you ascend.

Demolished in 1968, the building is a car park now.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Next the tour heads back to the East Village, where, in the spring of 1966, Warhol and filmmaking accomplice Paul Morrissey seek a venue for the Velvets as part of a new Warhol-esque multimedia show that includes film, dance, lights, and music — his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Shut out at the last minute by a spot in Queens, the pair are alerted to a ballroom in an East Village hall at 23 St. Mark’s Place. It’s called the Dom, an abbreviation of Polsky Dom Narodwy, or Polish National Home, the organization that owns the complex.

They rent the ballroom for the month of April and, after a flurry of lease-signing and venue decorating, the Dom opens its doors to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — the Velvets’ most legendary residency, on par with the Beatles at the Cavern or the Doors at the Whiskey A Go Go.

When the band returns from a California tour, however, they find their lease ripped up and the room under new management with a new name: the Balloon Farm. Still later it becomes the Electric Circus. The band plays both in time, helping to transform the neighborhood of Polish dance-halls and burlesque bars into a hip, if sleazier, destination.
Today instead of a Polish dance hall, there’s a Chinese restaurant, a tattoo parlor and, under the remaining arched façade at No. 25, the entrance to the punk rock apparel shop, Search and Destroy.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Back uptown at 254 West 54th Street, we come to Scepter Studios, where the Velvets make their recording debut in April 1966, laying down tracks over several days that will become The Velvet Underground & Nico (though the release of the finished album won’t happen for almost a whole year).

The run-down recording studio takes up space in a building that CBS calls Studio 52, the hub for the network’s radio and television broadcasting. Scepter is “discovered” by Columbia Records executive Norman Dolph, an early supporter of the Velvets.

The building will later house the iconic ’70s nightclub and discotheque, Studio 54. Nowadays, the Roundabout Theatre Company runs the place, though you can still enjoy a nightclub scene in the basement dinner club.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The tour now takes a serious detour up to Lexington and 125th Street, the corner where the narrator in “I’m Waiting For The Man” goes to score drugs.

Unlike standard pop music lyrics of the era, with their sugary love stories, Reed’s songs take the listener to seedy, even dangerous New York City streets. In this case, the destination is a decidedly un-touristy part of Harlem, frequented by folks down on their luck, transients and addicts.

Once he’s there, Reed heads “Up to a brownstone, up three flights of stairs” to buy drugs. The song is an unemotional and honest description of Reed scoring (and, in a later track on the album, “Heroin,” using) drugs. He’s interrogated about his motives by local black residents, he describes his dealer’s dress sense, and he explains how, once inside that brownstone, everyone knows why you’re there, but no one gives a damn, because they all want their stuff, fast, so they can high-tail it back to get high in the relative safety of their far-away lives.

Maybe today those three flights of stairs take you to rooms above the McDonald’s that anchors one corner of that busy intersection.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In April 1967, the Velvets play a series of gigs at our next stop, the Gymnasium, 420 E. 71st Street on the Upper East Side. These gigs follow the long-delayed release of The Velvet Underground & Nico.

The delay between the album’s recording and release means the Velvets can’t take advantage of their 1966 notoriety. Worse, at the time of its debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico was ignored by the critics and was seen as a bit of an anti-climax to many of the band’s fans. It didn’t help that it was a commercial squib, too.

The effect on the band is to dampen their enthusiasm for performing, so Warhol, in an attempt to rekindle the energy of the band and the equally flagging EPI, arranges for a series of gigs in the spring of 1967 at the Gymnasium in Sokol Hall.

It’s a real gym, complete with barbells, weights, parallel bars, even a trampoline that kids leap onto from the balcony where Warhol’s projectors live. Despite the enormity of the space and the distance from the Velvets’ Village haunts, they maintain their residency for the rest of the month, playing to small crowds and sniping critics.

Hopes for the Gymnasium to become another Dom don’t work out, but you can still get your sweat on in Sokol Hall.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Our next stop takes us to West 46th Street and Steve Paul’s Scene, where Andy Warhol and club owner Steve Paul host an “underground amateur hour.” A block west of Broadway and down some dicey stairs, the Scene advertises appearances by “stars of The Chelsea Girls” as well as “gurus, creative people, pop celebrities, society submergers” and the Velvet Underground.

The Scene is the last place the Velvet Underground play as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; soon after, they cut their ties to both Warhol and Nico. They won’t play another gig in New York until 1970.

You’ll note this space is under construction. Watch your step.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Snapshot of the State of the Union(s)

It was ever thus.

“...the common denominator has been that each time, management won and the workers lost.”

Blue collar workers across the U.S. (and around the developed world) are placing ill-conceived bets on politicians of dubious intent — men and women who promise, often in natavist language, to “bring jobs back” and to protect workers from a (fictional) tidal wave of immigrants who are invading our shores with their nefarious plans to steal our jobs.

It sounds like support. It sounds like those politicians have workers’ backs.

In keeping with this naive belief, an estimated 80% of union workers at the Momentive plant in upstate NY voted in the current U.S. regime because Trump “doesn’t owe anybody.” That sounds like something union workers use to say about themselves.

Whether or not Trump “owes” anybody is for others (and perhaps the Russian secret service) to say. Yet the working class in the U.S. and elsewhere continues to believe that rich politicians have their interests at heart, despite a long history of just the opposite.

Slowly this lot begin to realize their situation: Their corporate masters don’t give a fig about workers. Nor does the Trump regime, stacked as it is with rich men and women.

The union president implores, “I would pray to God that Donald Trump would reconsider what he is doing and have a talk with some of these people...about what is going on here.”

But “these people” are billionaire shareholders of private equity firms that prize profits over people. They rule our land (as they have for decades) by squeezing what they can from workers and tossing away the remains. Enriching themselves while they force wages down, erode pensions and shift the burden of healthcare onto those who can least afford it.

One worker broods that ownership could have made “the correct moral decision.” But there’s no morality when it comes to corporations making money on the backs of their workers.

Friday, February 3, 2017

How to Be an Artist

A friend of mine is the eighth-grade counselor at one of our local middle schools. She invited me to the school's Career Day, ostensibly to speak to interested students about what it means to work in the theatre, because this is how she knows me — through our time spent creating The Tree Play a couple of summers ago. Given that my creative work these days tends mostly toward writing and performing music, conversations with the kids criss-crossed all my artistic endeavors.

I thought it was important to share my philosophy of what it means to be an artist with the eighth graders. A statement of what it takes if you really want to pursue an artist's life. I'd been thinking about this anyway — that I need a mission statement. I think I know why I make art. Could I put it into words that anyone would understand, myself included?

This isn't that mission statement, rather, it's a list of artist "Must Haves," which I posted at my desk for the eighth graders to consider.

How to Be an Artist

Ultimately, I think the reason I was invited to Career Day was because I have a day job and am therefore a Responsible Member of Society (so far as they know, anyway) and can attest to how hard it is to make a career in the arts, versus being a working artist.

But that didn't matter to the students. The brave few who approached my table with questions wanted to hear things like: what's  a "typical" day in the life of a theatre director? (Answer: there is no such thing as a typical day, though there are definite patterns to the playmaking process) Where do I work? What degree did I get? Is writing hard? How do you get over writer's block? Do you play your own songs? I found I tossed those questions back at the kids before offering any advice. Some of them want to make movies or write poetry or record songs in their bedrooms. I highly encourage all of the above.

A thank you note from the school counselors included quotes from the students about what they learned from conversations with the various adults-with-jobs in the room. A few sound familiar:

  • "I learned that I can be both an actor and a director." (Or maybe this was Webster, who was there, too.)
  • "I learned that a writer can often work from home." ("Often," being the key word (cough, cough) he wrote, sipping a latte at the coffee shop...)
  • "I learned that selling a book is harder than writing it." (No f*cking kidding! This quote I know came from my "writer's block" dialogue with one of the other aspiring novelists in the room.)

Coolest job? The helicopter pilot (a woman from the Armed Services). Or maybe one of the gaming creatives. Or the sheriff's officers from the forensics team. Or the silicon chip guy with the wafers and circuits (something I grew up with, cos dear old Dad was a wafer-fab man).

Most popular? Definitely the guy handing out laser pens (don't point those things at people's eyes, boys!). No idea what he did, but those pens were pretty nifty.