Monday, October 1, 2018

To Have and To Hold

When I was a very little girl, my family went to London and my dad and his brother Hugh took all of us kids to see Yellow Submarine at a large fancy cinema in Picadilly Circus.

It’s hard for me to picture now. My former RAF Dad and my debonair British uncle, wandering around swingin’ London surrounded by a gaggle of tiny children watching a ridiculous animated psychedelic romp. But I can’t put this too strongly: it was the most memorable moment of my entire childhood. A year later, the film came to the US and my family went again, and as we walked out of the theater I can still remember how aggrieved I felt. “They shouldn’t have taken out the ‘Hey Bulldog’ sequence,” I griped. 

I was 5 years old and I had found my calling.

It should be noted that at this time, my family was already full on obsessed with the Beatles. Indeed, I simply cannot stress how important they were to all of us. We didn’t own a television set, but on the days they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, my parents would rent one. Roxanne, the older girl around the corner, had informed us we all had to have “a Beatle.” Hers was Paul, my sister had John, Corry had George and I had Ringo. They actually had me dress up as Ringo on Halloween – being a baby, I had the right sugar bowl haircut, even – and when our guinea pigs had children they were inevitably named for the Fab Four.

Years passed and history happened and the Beatles faded from the zeitgeist, like four Cheshire cats, leaving only their smiles. When John died, we mourned. When George died, my brother, then working in Options on the stock exchange in New York City, texted me: “My Beatle is dead,” and I wept again. George was the only Beatle I had ever seen perform live, at the Albert Hall in London at a surprise benefit for the TM candidate for Parliament when I was over there covering a different band. My cousin Jeff got me on the press list and it was indeed transcendental. That year I saw Nirvana perform 7 times at the height of their power but George Harrison’s Albert Hall concert was for me the highlight. 

In other words the Beatles were the most important element in my musical upbringing, and I think it was remembering that show that made me want to see Ringo Starr this week. I knew he was going to be accompanied by some musicians from bands that I don’t appreciate – to say the least – but there are times in our life when it’s just worth it to throw caution to the wind. Plus, it was my cousin Jennifer’s birthday. After the Congressional Hearings on Thursday, we both felt that seeing a Beatle sing silly love songs from our youth might be the only possible antidote to our existential sadness and – preview of coming attractions – we were right.
Venue. Sept 28, 2018.

Ringo Starr has been touring for years, always accompanied by an “All Starr Band” who play their own hits while he drums along. (Full disclosure: there’s a second drummer on stage as well, filling in the gaps. Just like with the Grateful Dead. Or the Butthole Surfers.) In the past, this tour has included such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Todd Rundgren, Levon Helm, Ginger Baker, Dave Edmunds and Jeff Lynne, but on this tour, we were serenaded by members of Santana, Toto, Men at Work and 10CC. I know, right? Well, you can’t have everything and our hope was that 10CC would cancel Toto out. Also, it may just be a thing for my family and me, but Jennifer and I enjoyed hearing the songs we hated almost as much as the ones we loved.

And the funny thing was, the show was split evenly between the two. Our agonized cries of “Oh god…not Rosanna!” and out howls at the opening notes of the hell spawned hit “Africa” were offset by sudden moments of the sublime, as when Graham Gouldman sang “I’m Not In Love” or when Ringo stepped forward to sing “Photograph.” Those songs rose well above the scrum and really made the night. “I’m Not In Love” is definitely one of the top songs of all time ever – a fact agreed to by everyone on my Facebook page – and “The Things We Do For Love” is not far behind. As for “A Little Help From My Friends,” while I am sure we can all think of Beatles songs we like a lot more, there is something about the sound of Sergeant Pepper that really soothes a careworn soul.

Careworn we were. Who wasn't, last Friday? But even so, despite the dreaded presence of Toto and Greg Rollie, whose fretwork I don't appreciate, Jennifer and I had a great time. It was just like being at a sing-song at a pub in Liverpool, complete with the drunken revelry. But another thing we liked about this show was that it made us feel really young. The only people younger than us were the children, or more likely the grandchildren, of audience members, who were running around in the aisles and who sang lustily along with “Yellow Submarine.” Another thing we liked was that we knew all the words to every song. We played name that tune with each other – and as you can probably imagine, in my family that game is perpetually a lightening round. 

The whole thing was like stepping into a jukebox stocked with bad hits from the 1970s, or maybe seeing a cover band at a bar in Missoula, or a jam session by your kid’s high school math teachers, like the one I saw in my hometown last week, only on that occasion they played songs by the Pixies and Metallica, which was frankly preferable song selection. '70s rock is just so degraded – the sonic equivalent of a cheap orange plastic Halloween cup with a pumpkin face that lights up carved on the bottom – but man, songs were hooky in those days! You would be surprised. Like, there’s this song by Toto called “Hold the Line,” I haven’t thought about it in a million years, but I knew its name and every word before three notes were up. Will the same be true in 2040 when members of 21 Pilots and Muse are doing some similar type tour? I think not.

And even if that were to happen, I’m not sure who would play host. Who, in 2040, will have the emcee status of an actual Beatle? Who on the planet even has that status now? Watching Ringo Starr, one is struck by two things. First, he looks and acts incredible for age 78: we could hardly believe Wikipedia when we looked it up. Second, and more importantly, is the incredible history that the Bin our minds as well. Watching Ringo Starr perform on the occasion of Jennifer’s birthday made us thankful that we were born into an era during which we were able to participate so fully in their existence. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Just Grown Ups

Last Friday night I was spitballing with a friend via text about getting some local musician to play old hippie songs on acoustic guitar at my upcoming book launch, and he laughingly suggested Bob Weir. 

Funny funny, right? Everyone knows I loathe the Dead with all my heart, but it was exactly as if by writing the words ‘Bob Weir’ in my feed, my friend had conjured the actual man up, much like that lake of ooze in “The Gone Away World” which, when people get dipped in it, their worst nightmares manifest in front of them. Because in true Gone Away fashion, less than 24 hours later I was sitting in an auditorium, awaiting that same artist’s appearance. 

Of course I was not really there to see Bob Weir. What had happened in the interim was that the morning after my text conversation, an ad popped up in my newsfeed saying there were still tickets to a Patti Smith appearance that night, and I went crazy and bought one. What the heck. It was Friday, I had nothing else to do, it was for a good cause, and I like Patti Smith. Of course, I’ve seen her perform many times, but not for ages: I think last time was at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, in 2010.

This particular show was a benefit for Pathways to Paris, a climate change initiative organized by the group, and it served also as a culminating event in the Global Climate Action Summit, a three day meeting of minds in San Francisco that is working towards the realization of the Paris Agreement and the ultimate decarbonization of the global economy. It’s an issue I care about, and I wasn’t able to go to the protests, so I felt the least I could do was throw money at it. It’s so obviously urgent, after all. On the night of the gig, two super storms, Florence and Makhut, were bearing down on the world. How long will it be til a climate disaster hits my own neck of the woods?

It was in that spirit that I decided to attend the concert, not because I thought it would be musically fantastic, but because sometimes you need to participate in social events like these to assuage your conscience. In my mind, Bob Weir was opening for Patti Smith, but when I arrived at the arena, the Masonic on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, it seemed it was the other way around. As I entered the building, I immediately saw a man in a floor length, tye dyed, crushed velvet hippie cloak, wearing a hat with a feather in it, selling Grateful Dead pins and yacking on his cell phone.  Plus, to add insult to injury, I  overheard him saying the dreaded word ‘chick,’ as in: “It’s by that chick over there.’ (The woman in question was well over 50, btw.) My ears felt soiled.

 In the lobby I stopped to take a picture of the 45 foot high “endomosaic’  mural, designed by Emile Norman. The 45 panels in it depict the history of California, or at least, Norman’s idea of it, circa 1958: as I was positioning my camera, a woman said to me, “I’m trying to decide if I should take a picture, but I’m really only interested in women’s issues.” She and I contemplated the panorama for a while, silently considering its version of the world.

Me (hopefully): “Maybe there’s a woman in the covered wagon?”

Inside the auditorium, things were less patriarchical but a lot more pious. The evening opened with a young girl, Rhiannon Hewitt, reading a poem she’d written about species extinction, and honestly, it was amazing poem, possibly the highlight of the entire proceedings. The next performer, Imany, was really good, as was the band from Greenland, Suluit. There was also a singer from Tibet, Tenzin Choegyal, backed by Tibetan children’s choir singing “Om Mani Padme Om,” as they do – they looked so sweet in their Tibetan robes, but later on I ran into the whole passel of them in the washroom and they were just as obnoxious as any passel of kids you’d meet in such a spot, covered in cheesecake crumbs.

Other moments, such as short speeches by Patti’s daughter Jesse Paris Smith (the organizer), by some teenagers who run a  youth activist group called Zero Hour, by climate scientist and activist Bill McKibben, who asked us to write postcards supporting the state’s divestment from fossil fuel industry to the next governor of California, and by actor Nikolai Coster-Waldau, who plays Jamie Lannister on “Game of Thrones” (“Winter is coming” yelled the audience, gleefully), were fine but less stellar, and I was particularly off put by the lady from the UNDP  that thanked the event’s sponsor, I’d spent a full ten minutes earlier in the evening driving up California street to the venue considering just how much I loathed the Salesforce building which now looms over the horizon wherever you are in San Francisco, like some kind of dark tower of Sauron. At night it flashes a giant green light show and it dominates every single angle of the city to an extent that makes it impossible to ignore. It’s existence couldn’t possibly be climate friendly, in any way, shape or form.

Another lowlight for me was Eric Burden, though I may be being unfair here. He performed two songs, beginning with Ledbelly’s “In the Pines,” and although I like that song, choosing to sing a song about domestic violence in that setting was not the best idea, I thought. His next song, “Mother Earth” by Memphis Slim, was less tin-eared, but it did nothing for me. I know, I know, all those 60s English guys appropriated black music like crazy, Nirvana did it too, it is what it is, but I just didn’t like it. So sue me.

After Eric Burden, the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson did an arty thing with these cute solar lamps that we all had under our seats (you can click on the link to see a picture and get a description of the project). And then, to my great joy and amazement, the next performer was Patti Smith. 

The joy wasn’t at her appearance, it was because it meant that I wasn’t going to have to suffer through Bob Weir, since he was going to close the show. Perhaps the organizers knew that Grateful Dead people are open minded enough to enjoy Patti Smith, but Patti Smith people don’t have the same forbearance for the Grateful Dead’s music. Or perhaps, like me, she just wanted to go to bed early. Anyway, Patti performed four songs, one dedicated to the activist Rachel Corrie entitled “the Peaceable Kingdom,” as well as “Pissing in the River,” from Radio Ethiopia, an abbreviated version of “People Have the Power” and finally, “Because the Night,” which I now know what it sounds like without drums and guitar. She was accompanied by Tony Shanahan on keyboards and Flea on bass. Yes, that Flea. I forgot to say he performed solo as well.

He didn't look like this in real life
In short, Patti Smith’s performance was a token gesture, at best, and while I appreciated her presence, it reminded me of the problem with these kinds of benefits, many of which I remember from my distant youth:  Bangladesh, No Nukes, the Secret Policeman’s Ball, Live Aid, Live Earth. They all cast this same super earnest veil over their issue that doesn’t feel all that helpful. Granted, I didn’t expect Patti Smith to recite “Piss Factory” or sing “Horses,” a song about male rape that stands alone in the rock canon for its blistering violence and its insistently honest gaze, but I suppose I must have been unwittingly hoping for something transcendent, because that’s the kind of thing I’ve always experienced in Patti Smith’s  presence. The first time I saw her, in 1978, it was on the hottest day of the year and I took the Caltrain from my suburb and my cousin Jeff picked me up at 4th and Townsend on his motorcycle. It was so hot in Winterland that I took my top off and a bouncer threw me over the barrier and walked me out the side of the stage and I remember my terror in thinking I’d never see Jeff again. At that show she sang “Horses” and “Gloria” and “Rock n Roll N word,” and  “You Light Up My Life,” and I don’t think I understood a single thing she said or sang about, but I loved the show and the cadence and the beat. I believe that seeing that show changed who I am very profoundly.
This is from the Winterland show

But another thing that has changed since then, and that is Patti Smith’s role in culture.  She’s no longer just a punk poet from the lower East Side or even in the lowly world of Grammies and charts and world tours and such like; rather, she wins the National Book Award and accepts Nobel Prizes and is made a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters and has an honorary doctorate from Pratt. I am surprised and grateful that she has been recognized for what she is, but even though Patti Smith has all the cultural and symbolic power a single human can amass in one life time, it’s nothing compared to the power of a Jeff Bezos or a Mark Benioff or the GOP to ruin people’s lives and wreck the planet.

Does that sound sour? I’m sorry. That’s how the Pathway to Paris show made me feel. I fled it at 10:30, dropping off my protest postcard and my solar lamp in the big box at the door, and got in the elevator alongside 5 other Grateful Dead haters. It carried us to the bottom floor of the Masonic, so low that when you drive out there you’re at the very bottom of Nob Hill, in an area I’ll call Humble Valley, where the shadow of death is sadly in evidence in the wrecked faces of the bums and hobos and drug addicts who lie on the pavement all over it. They are a blatant reminder that the world’s gone horribly wrong.  Surely protesting, however one does it and for whatever cause, isn’t entirely futile. Yet I am afraid it is ridiculously naive of artists – and those who love them, like myself, for instance — to think that art can somehow save the day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Naked Truth about Juliet, Naked

Olympia Washington is the kind of town that has three independent bookstores all within spitting distance of each other, but my favorite is the one that sports a chalk board in front that says, “Never Judge a Book By Its Movie.” There’s a lot of truth in that slogan, of course, but it’s still almost impossible to resist going to see the film versions of the books you love. Love is love, after all. One is let down by it over and over again, but still I ran, I didn’t walk, to the filmed version of Juliet, Naked, my favorite book by Nick Hornby.

The film is nice. I liked it. But the best thing about it was that it forced me to reread the book, which is so much better. There’s a part in it, near the start, when the protagonist, Annie, disparages the album called Juliet, Naked (a collection of demos of a previous Crowe album called Juliet) by thinking, if she were still a teacher, she’d have played the two albums back to back to her class, “so that they could understand that art was pretending.” And that’s a little how I felt about the movie: that is, if I could, I’d make everyone read and watch both. The film does a great job of indicating the differences between a visual story and a written-down one. It provides certain notes on the finished product; adds some details, and updates the plot to include social media. But it can’t nearly capture all the nuances of what I truly love about the book. Or about the act of reading, for that matter.

Juliet Naked isn’t really an obvious prospect for a movie, anyway, since it’s about music, and films (like books)  about music are almost always less than music itself. (“Doing drugs is much more exciting than reading about doing drugs,” as my old editor used to say. “And the same is true of music.”) The plot revolves around a (fictional) artist called Tucker Crowe, who is a gloss on some kind of under appreciated reclusive genius like Alex Chilton or Ryan Adams, or Paul Westerberg, only he’s way less prolific than those men.

The back story tells us that in the halcyon days of the 80s, Crowe released a record called Juliet which a handful of fans revere in part because it was a good album, but possibly also because of its obscurity, and because Crowe, mysteriously, retired from performing and recording directly after it. The protagonist of the whole novel is Annie, who is the girlfriend of a man who is the de facto head of the Tucker Crowe online fan club. The book relates what happens when she starts an online relationship with Crowe, a circumstance that eventually allows her to pay the hapless Duncan back for the micro slights she’s endured at his hands.

In a sense, the whole plot is like an extended take on the scene in Annie Hall when an outraged Woody Allen brings Marshall McLuhan out from behind a billboard to explain “Understanding Media” to some loudmouth who has been butchering its intent in front of him in line: “What he really meant was…and here he is to prove it!!!”

That’s the broad outline, but as with all great books, there’s a lot more to it than just a fun and romantic revenge fantasy. I think the story could appeal to a wide group of readers, not just music fans, but to me that’s its key theme. Early in the book, Annie writes a disparaging review of  Juliet, Naked for Duncan’s fan site, in order to rebut Duncan’s assertion that it is better than the original album, and what pleases me so much is the way Hornby describes exactly what and why I personally began reviewing records. The record, he writes, “had somehow given her ideas about art and work, her relationship, Tucker’s relationship, the mysterious appeal of the obscure, men and music, the value of the chorus in song, the point of harmony and the necessity of ambition, and every time she finished a paragraph, the next one appeared in front of her unbidden, and annoyingly unconnected to the last.”

See, that’s how I write. That’s what I write. You can recognize that, can’t you? Then, even more astonishingly, Hornby goes on to describe not just how I write, but why I write as well. It happens when Annie reads Duncan’s review of the same album, and she gets so angry that her anger mystifies her. She was angered, writes Hornby, “by his smugness, his obvious determination to crow to the fellow fans he was supposed to feel some kind of kinship with…his pettiness, too, his inability to share something that was clearly of value in that shrinking and increasingly beleaguered community….

“Listening to music was something she did too, frequently, and with great enjoyment, and Duncan had somehow managed to spoil it, partly by making her feel she was no good at it.”

I, too, went through life feeling like people thought I was no good at listening to music. Certainly they never ceased telling me that. And after a while, my response was Annie’s: sheer, unadulterated, rage. It bled out of me, onto the page – and that, in turn, infuriated other people. But that’s a different story altogether.

A few other comments on the film, for those who are considering going: obviously, it deviates from the book all over the place, adds some characters, condenses some scenes, even changes a few major details for more clarity, and the changes are stand-ins for things the book can elucidate much more clearly and at length. Some of these changes are totally understandable, if a bit Hollywood – the town she lives in is a cute as the set for Doc Martin, rather than the dreary (and hilariously named) town the book is set in — others, not so much: for example, a passage in the book that sees Annie listening to the new record Juliet, Naked in the kitchen while cooking, is elaborately staged in the film so that she is accidentally caught listening to it…in her bra and panties. You could argue this was to mimic the title, but obviously it is so we can see Rose Byrne in her bra and panties. Thanks, Hollywood.

For the most part, however, the changes are fine. London looks great, as does the seaside town she lives in. I thought Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke were totally ace choices for the leads, they were both extremely lovable, and that’s important to loving this book. Also, there’s a scene that uses the song “Waterloo Sunset” that’s worth the price of admission. I am never not happy to hear that song, it is fucking un-ruinable anyway, and this particular use of it is wondrous. 

Juliet Naked isn’t exclusively for music geeks, though it may well help if you know (or are) someone like that. Rather, it's about the limits of nostalgia, and of art itself, to make life bearable. But it’s also about childless women who are unhappy with that state, and/or who have settled for men who can’t seem to grow up and join the real world, as well as people like Crowe, who are in mourning for their glorious youth. Maybe who it's really for is people who envy people like Crowe, because this book rips the wool off that myth and shows you the sad and complex parts of glamour - albeit in a kind and gentle way. Hornby's greatest skill as a writer is showing the humanity in deeply flawed people. Duncan, Tucker, and even Annie are pretty dysfunctional. But you never have to hate them for it, and because of that, you don't have to hate yourself for having so many of the same failings.

Perhaps the coolest thing about “Juliet Naked” – about Nick Hornby’s work in general — is that, despite the fact that the author clearly loves music as much if not more than any of us – he also has stepped back from it. He knows that all judgments about music are stupid because it’s all in the ear of the beholder. The film does this even better than the book, actually, possibly because, rather than alluding to Tucker’s music, we get to hear it, and it is pleasant and well made, but not specially special; in order to hear it as such you’d have to be primed, as Duncan and his pals are primed, to cherish the obscure for the sake of it. (Some of the songs on the soundtrack are written by Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock, and Conor Oberst, and is said by the music director Nathan Larson to be modeled on the sound of the record Big Star Third/Sister Lovers.) I especially enjoyed a scene where Duncan inveigles a house guest into his basement lair to listen to the hallowed “Juliet” record, and we watch as the guest spaces out and stops listening, even as he gets more and more wrapped up in it. How many times did I do this to my own friends before I learned to never, ever, ever play music for people?

Spotify has probably changed this situation, in that people are less likely to do what Duncan does and force someone to sit down and listen in real time to music played on a real system in a real room that looks like a dungeon. Still, sharing your heart’s dearest music is never a good idea. Music is a private pleasure; it is treasured best in private. 

Telling people to read books or go to movies is much less fraught, however,and here I am telling you: Run, don't walk.