Monday, November 17, 2008

Happy Birthday, National Lampoon Radio Hour

According to Dennis Perrin’s excellent Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, today is the 35 year anniversary of the first broadcast of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. For comedy nerds and fans of satire, this is an important date. Radio Hour featured not only razor-sharp writing and performing from O’Donoghue, it also helped to introduce talents like John Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Chevy Chase, as well lesser-known but no less talented writer and performers like Sean Kelly and Anne Beatts, to a national audience.

Here’s a story on the Radio Hour from NPR, which includes some audio samples.

And pick up Perrin’s book if you’re a fan of O’Donoghue, The National Lampoon, or the original Saturday Night Live. Powell’s Books has one left!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blue Mountain reunion coming to Boston

The first time I saw Blue Mountain, they were opening up for Matthew Sweet at the Water Street Music Hall in Rochester, NY on the 100% Fun tour. I hadn't know there was going to be an opening act -- none was listed on the ticket or on the marquee -- so I showed up a little late. I only got to see them perform three or four songs, one of which was "Soul Sister" from the Dog Days album. I wound up playing that song on my radio show at University at Buffalo's WRUB, and then learning it and playing it at my own shows. In fact, I'll be playing the song Saturday, more than ten years later, at the Gulu Gulu Cafe.

But first, I'll be able to see Blue Mountain again, and catch a full set, at T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge. The band is back together and touring with two new albums -- Midnight in Mississippi and Omnibus, a collection of rerecorded favorites.

I recently talked to band co-founder, singer, and guitarist Cary Hudson for Skope Magazine (you can read that article here), and may post the interview on the Curmudgeon at some point. (Also upcoming, more interview from Richard Lloyd and a piece on Alejandro Escovedo).

Blue Mountain tour dates:

Nov 14 CD RELEASE PARTY T.T. The Bears Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nov 15 CD RELEASE PARTY at the Lakeside Lounge New York, New York
Nov 15 Hank’s Saloon Brooklyn, New York
Nov 17 Shayni Rae’s Truckstop at National Underground New York, New York
Dec 3 Sticky Fingerz Little Rock, Arkansas
Dec 4 CD RELEASE PARTY at Knuckleheads Kansas City, Missouri
Dec 5 CD RELEASE PARTY AT Quixote’s Denver, Colorado
Dec 6 The Crystola Roadhouse Woodland Park, Colorado
Dec 13 DBA New Orleans, Louisiana

Friday, November 7, 2008

OC Interview: Richard Lloyd

One of the best things about having a blog is being able to indulge yourself in a bit of back history and catch up with things you should have learned years ago. So when Richard Lloyd’s label publicist at Parasol Records contacted me to let me know he was doing interviews to promote a Boston date, I jumped in with both feet. Which, incidentally, is the only way you can really approach Lloyd’s history and music.

Lloyd, of course, co-founded the legendary punk band Television, a staple of the early CBGB’s rock scene. That’s where most people begin with Lloyd, but I start with his vibrant guitar work on Matthew Sweet’s albums. Because of this story, I found his solo work, as well, in the reissued Field of Fire and his latest, Radiant Monkey, with which he is now touring. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and fortunately, Lloyd covers a lot of ground naturally in conversation.

In our phone conversation, Lloyd shoots first, asking me about the neighborhood where the Boston gig is – Church, which is near Fenway Park. Apparently, he used to live in a nearby boarding house, where he said he used to “sit at the window drinking red wine, daydreaming.” We talked for an hour and a half, so this interview will be posted in two or three parts over the next week, as I have time to transcribe it piece by piece. This installment focuses mostly on Television. Still to come, thoughts on the philosophy of the Radiant Monkey, politics, the Television reunion, and Lloyd’s solo work.

This interview is mostly learning for me, because honestly I know you mostly from Matthew Sweet and I’m trying to learn more. I hope that’s not insulting to say.

Not at all. Well, I founded the band Television, along with, you know… Tom didn’t find me, Tom Verlaine, I found Tom. So anyway we formed Television, we needed a place to play, we turned CBGB’s from what its initials stand for – Country, Blues, and Bluegrass… Country, Bru.. Bluegrass – my mouth isn’t working right today. Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. CBGB’s. And we made it into a rock club.

You were playing split bills with the Ramones at that time?

We never actually played with the Ramones on the same bill. But there’s a poster, it’s quite famous, there’s one at Christie’s supposed to go for a thousand bucks, with us and the Ramones opening. But something happened and Johnny had to go down to Florida for his parents’ something or other, either somebody got sick or there was a holiday or something, so they canceled and we had the Talking Heads play instead. So we never actually played on the same bill with them. I saw them the first time they ever played in Manhattan which was at a place called the Performance Studio. There was about twenty people there. Somebody came to me at CB’s where I was just sitting around drinking and doing what I do, or doing what I did, and said, oh, there’s a great new band you ought to come see at the Performance Space so I want up and saw them and I mean, man, I thought, there’s another great band, you know? I knew they were going to be, like, a hot potato.

It’s got to be a pretty great thing that the Ramones cancel and, oh, we’ll just get the Talking Heads.

Those were the days, yeah. Then people made records and… It’s like a nest, you know? You have chicklings in the nest and then the record company comes along and takes all the nestlings out, they get turned into chickens, they drop eggs, which are called records, and they fly away. Then they can’t play CB’s, it’s too small, you know?

Did you realize when you were making and writing Marquee Moon how different it sounded and how much of an influence it would have?

Of course we did. One of my proudest moments was when we auditioned for Atlantic Records and Ahmet Ertegun, who was the head, turned to Jerry Wexler, who really wanted to sign us and who was second in charge and he said, in his Turkish voice he said, “Jerry, I can’t sign this band! This is not Earth music.” And I was going to the bathroom so I overheard it. I thought it was just perfect. It was more important that he said that than sign us, as far as I was concerned that was like the highest compliment. I mean, after all, wasn’t Jimi Hendrix from outer space? If he claimed we weren’t Earth music, that was the highest compliment you could give somebody.

There’s also that tradition of having to leave you own country to come back, Jimi Hendrix going to England and the Beatles going to Germany.

We did well in England. Much better than America. America is so big. I mean, it really is. Unless you have a gigantic machine underneath you, or you tour endlessly for no money, you’re not going to make it in America. And things on radio, they’re not on there because they’re good. You know the great rule of radio programming?

The first ten seconds of a track, is that what you’re referring to? [Note: The rule that a track has to “grab” a listener in the first ten seconds to be considered for play.]

Oh, no. That’s not the real rule. The real rule is a closely guarded secret and I’m about to let you in on it. You play only things that you are certain will not cause your listeners to turn the dial. That’s the real rule. It’s not you play good music, it’s you don’t play anything that has the slightest chance of having somebody reach over and turn the dial. That’s the real rule. Because if they turn the dial to another station you’ve lost them and your advertisers know about it.

Do you feel that’s gotten any better with the Internet and all the ways you can distribute your music yourself?

No! Internet now you’re talking. Hold on one second please. [Walks away from the phone momentarily].

Hi. Thank you. What was the question?

I was saying do you think gotten any better with the Internet and all the ways you can release and distribute things on your own without having to go through some of the same sort of corporate machinery.

It’s good and bad. It’s good because you can do deals where if you sell ten thousand copies you make a fortune. And on a major if you sell ten thousand copies people are jumping out the fucking windows and suicide. You know. So that part’s good. But the bad part is, three-fourths of the nation’s youth are in a band. And they all think they’re good. And they’ve all got this MySpace, MyFace, My Ass, you know? And they’re out there, and it’s like a giant ponzi game.

Going back to Television, when you guys first got together, was there an argument over who was the lead guitar player [between Lloyd and Tom Verlaine]?

No. Basically, Terry Ork was going to form a band. He wanted to sponsor a band, because he worked for Andy Warhol, making silk screen prints and shit in the Factory, and he sort of felt like he wanted to find a band like the Velvet Underground only younger and start a new, like, Utopian scene. And he was going to put a band together around me. But he learned from Richard Hell, because Richard Hell worked at the place he worked at during the daytime, Cinemabilia, that there was this guy named Tom who always came and met Richard and they went to lunch and he was an electric guitarist, too, who didn’t have a band.

So Terry said, hey, he’s playing at this nightclub on audition night, do you want to go see him. I said, ah, I don’t know. He says, he does what you do. And I said, how dare you tell me what I do? What do I do? How do you know what I do? [Laughs] Terry says, well he plays the electric guitar without a band on your own and so does he. And I said, why would I want to see another fucking guy do what I do? I’m busy practicing. And the night came and honest to god, I wasn’t going to go, and I broke a string, didn’t have another, so I said, ah, what the hell, let’s go.

And it was this Off-Broadway nightclub where Liza Minnelli and Peter Allen and Peter Lemongello used to go. Bette Midler. That kind of thing. Gay Off-Broadway singers. And Tom came in and he played three songs, just him, and electric guitar, and an amplifier. And during the second song which I think, it happened to be “Marquee Moon,” I mean not “Marquee Moon,” we hadn’t written that yet, but “Venus DeMilo,” I leaned over to Terry and I said, “Terry, forget about putting a band together with me. Because I’m missing something. And this guy’s got something. But he’s missing something. And what he’s missing I’ve got and what I’m missing, he’s got.” You see, I was not in a position, due to my substance abuse and my own, let’s say immaturity, I was not capable of being a business leader. I was not capable of managing a band, that is, not managing, but leading a band, properly. And Tom could. So Tom was always the leader. And originally the leader was Tom and Richard.

We talked Richard into playing bass. He said, “No, no, not again. Playing with Tom is like going to the dentist, I’d kill myself first.” But I talked him into it. I said, “Richard, you got to be the bass player. Man, you got a look. You look like a cross between, god, I don’t know what, Elvis and like Robert Mitchum.” And he said, “Well, all right.” And I said, “You don’t have to play well. Let’s just rehearse. And you’ll get better.” And then Tom said, “Well, I know a drummer.” So Billy [Ficca] came down from Boston and we started rehearsing. And it was outrageous. It was so much fun. It was like we had run off and joined the circus. We used to fall on the floor, knock the mics over and then sing while lying on the floor, writhing like little worms. Gales of laughter. It was unbelievable. The public never saw that, because as soon as we did a public performance, people stiffen up a little. They couldn’t help it. We sounded more like the Sex Pistols than the Sex Pistols in the beginning.

And we had these great songs because Tom wrote great lyrics that had triple entendres to them. Like “Hard On Love.” I mean, come on. “You’re so hard on love” is the real words, but, you know, but let’s face it, that’s a double if not a triple entendre. Friction. The word. It was like heaven. The music was great, and the two guitarists, we used to fight it out. We would take turns playing the solos in songs and whoever played better in that key would get the solo. And it slipped back and forth and back and forth. And the goal was to have an equal amount but Tom being the leader, he ended up with, it was like 60/40, the lion’s share. But I was never a rhythm guitar player to Tom’s lead guitar player. Because what happened was, while he’s singing, he can’t play lead! So I played all the melody parts and lead parts while he’s singing and then during the solo I’d switch to rhythm or not. So it was this big jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t tell who was who. And it was very much like the very early Stones, where you can’t tell whether it’s Brian or Keith. Brian, of course, fell apart. But the jigsaw puzzle of the very early Stones I’m talking, you can’t tell who’s playing what. And Television was like that, plus we were like the Beatles – four guys with three front men. I was in the middle, Tom was on the one side, Richard was on the other side. Those two sang about forty percent of the songs each and I sang twenty percent in a set. So it was based on kind of the Beatles.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Richard Lloyd Tour Dates

I had the opportunity to interview legendary Television guitarist and solo artist Richard Lloyd for the Curmudgeon yesterday. While I am transcribing the interview, here are his tour dates, including a stop in my home base of Boston Saturday. Check back for an extended Q&A.

Nov. 6 / Don Hills / NYC
Fri. Nov. 7 / Café Nine / New Haven CT
Sat. Nov. 8 / CHURCH / Boston
Sun. Nov. 10 / Now That's Class / Cleveland OH
Tues. Nov. 11 / The Summit / Columbus OH
Wed. Nov. 12 / Radio Radio / Indianapolis IN
Thurs. Nov. 13 / Canal Street Tavern / Dayton OH
Fri. Nov. 14 / Club Octane / Morgantown WV
Sat. Nov. 15 / Brillobox / Pittsburgh PA

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Only Dopes Need Leaders

At the end of the Clinton administration, Lewis Black said something on one of his specials that stuck with me. He said, “If the last eight years proves anything, it’s that we function pretty well without a leader.”

Several years later, political satirist Barry Crimmins would put a finer point on that sentiment. I interviewed him toward the beginning of the primary season, when the sheer breadth of lunacy was hard to imagine. “This thing is always called a search for leaders – ‘America wants a new leader,’” he said. “I don’t want any leader, I don’t need a leader. Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”

That’s a novel idea, that a leader is in some way beholden to the people he leads. After eight years of signing statements and “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” it’s an extremely useful idea. When a public servant is doing their job, they are engaged with a populace that is actively talking back.

The pretense of election day is that we are choosing a leader. There has been a lot of talk of three a.m. phone calls and foreign policy experience, who has been tested in a crisis, who will be tested in a crisis (thanks, Joe). It makes us feel comfortable, absolves from paying attention. If we elect someone we can trust, we can all go back to sleep.

Leadership is a big industry in America. It’s a value we don’t question. We read books on business leadership, in the Boy Scouts they teach us to be leaders. The people we admire are captains of industry or fashion leaders. It’s a romantic ideal, that among us there are people who can take us bravely into places we have not been before.

But inevitably, our leaders disappoint us. And the only feeling better than picking a leader is condemning an unworthy former leader caught at the height of their inadequacy. The more someone claims they want to lead us, the more they have to compromise to get to their goal.

You can compare John McCain ’08 to John McCain 2000 and find all the little pockets of compromise, the things that he found would have made a difference in that previous run if he had been more willing to budge. What could have been, if he were more willing to cave to the religious right in 2000, instead of calling them “agents of intolerance?” He likes to talk about how “the surge is working” in Iraq, but in 2004, he was wholeheartedly stumping for the Bush crew, the architects of the shortsighted policies he now claims he railed bravely against. Ask him if he’s had a chuckle with the former Bush advisors who rescued his candidacy from the dead over the “McCain has a black baby” strategy from the 2000 Bush campaign they worked on.

Obama has had these problems, as well, albeit to a lesser degree. He has included offshore drilling in his plans, something both he and McCain had said wouldn’t help. He buckled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to appear more moderate. His list is a bit shorter, but still worthy of note.

None of these actions seem terribly leader-like. And maybe that’s because leadership is an arbitrary ideal. It’s a big shiny symbol we can all gather around and warm ourselves from the more terrifying prospects – some manufactured, some real, mixed until we can’t tell the difference – of the world around us.

I spoke with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter on the subject, and told him Crimmins statement, “Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”

“I don’t disagree,” said Ritter. “Again, when we say ‘we need leaders,’ basically we’re saying, ‘we need messiahs, we need Stalins, Lenins, Maos.’ We don’t need that. We need people who are committed to a system of beliefs and values. That’s why I’m a Constitutionalist, I believe in the Constitution. And we need people to believe in that. Now, within that, you need leaders. But we don’t need people to come in and say, ‘Follow me, I am the solution.’ We need people to say, ‘Hey, let me remind you, we’ve got this thing called the Constitution and we need to start adhering to this. We need to make sure that that which it espouses is being followed through. We need people to commit and invest.’”

Ritter has some experience in an environment where leadership is an important issue. He has served in the U.S. Army and as an intelligence officer in the Marines, in which capacity he was an advisor in the first Gulf War. For the past decade, Ritter has been an outspoken activist concerning U.S. and U.N. policy in Iraq, even producing a sort of instructional manual in last year’s Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.” The book advocates informed citizen involvement and an adherence to the Constitution, which makes for a non-standard definition for leadership.

“A leader, I can come in and become a leader and get lemmings to march off a cliff. Is that leadership? The other thing about leadership is, the screamer, the yeller, get in the face, the intimidator – that’s not leadership, that’s an intimidator. A leader is somebody who gets a group of like-minded people together and works with that team, as part of the team. A leader is a member of a team. I mention in the book, you can’t be a good leader unless you’re a good follower, first. You have to understand the importance of give and take. A leader isn’t making decisions, a leader is simply facilitating the will of the collective. And that’s what we need – we need a collective that agrees upon what it stands for, and then we need facilitators. If you want to call them leaders then so be it.”

Fear, of course, negates the equation of which Ritter speaks. And fear can take just about any form these days. Fear of the gas pump. Fear of terrorism. Fear of radical ideas. Fear of losing your house, your stocks, your job, or whatever meager savings people have been able to put away. Leadership implies direction, which requires rational thought on the part of both the leader and the followers.

That’s where dissent comes in. Any healthy system provides for dissent, and no true leader is threatened by it. If you believe in anything only because you’re afraid of the alternative, you are no longer participating in a democratic process. And there is no leadership.

Author Steve Almond has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration and of what he calls the “cult of personality” of right wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. He believes the faux patriotic rhetoric plays to an insecure population for whom confidence is more important than content.

“They need Big Poppa,” he says. “They need a big person who’s going to at least play the part of ‘invulnerable leader.’ That’s not moral leadership, it’s emotional leadership. But it’s a kind of twisted, bad parenting emotional leadership. And it says, ‘The world is simple, you just punch the other guy before he punches you.’ Kind of this brawling mentality.”

The election season is especially maddening for Almond, particularly watching the media coverage. “It’s too bad that the political system caters to the big macho, posturing, who’s going to have the best sound bite, who’s going to really knock who out in the debates, and you’re like, shut the fuck up you crazy, psychotic media idiots,” he says. “It’s not about that. It’s really about trying to solve the common problems of the state and its citizens, especially its disenfranchised citizens. It’s very sad to see that degraded day after day.”

What might also help is if people knew that there aren’t just two candidates running for president. Bob Barr is on the ticket for the Libertarians, Ralph Nader is running as an independent, Chuck Baldwin with the Constitution Party, Cynthia McKinney with the Green Party, Brian Moore from the Socialist Party, and numerous others. The fact that you didn’t see any of them in the nationally televised debates means that some significant voices and ideas were left out of the spotlight, partly because the main two choices didn’t want to share.

Of those two – Obama and McCain – one will get the job they want today. Both of them want to be your leader. Hopefully, neither of them will be, at least the way the term has been defined lately. Hopefully, one of them will be a public servant, and you know what direction you want to go.

“I don’t need a leader to tell me I need health care,” says Barry Crimmins. “I’ve got a pain in my side that tells me that.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

OC-Ed: American Hats?

I have not posted here in a while, as I have been busy writing music, but I couldn't quite let this pass. This is one of the most distrubing, Orwellian images I've seen in quite some time, coming from a story in today's New York Times. The image of the president, looming in a dark cave with hats that appear to be headless looking up at him. Are these the "American Hats" we're all supposed to be wearing now because the Republicans have decided to finally react to a potential crisis?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The past, present, and future of David J

This piece was original written for another source that ceased publication a couple of months ago. But I found David J to be a talented, thoughtful guy, and his new work is definitely worth picking up.

David J undoubtedly has a millions things he’d rather be doing than dealing with deliveries and doing press interviews. But that’s what he was doing one February morning in Los Angeles, trying to get ready for the debut of Silver for Gold, his musical based on the life of Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, and talking Bauhaus, Love & Rockets, and producing.

He’d like to be painting, making out a set list for a DJ gig, or even seeing his son’s band, the Correct Sadists. But he hasn’t had time to see them yet. He’s barely had time to breathe.

“You don’t know the half of it, mate,” he says, speaking by phone.

Despite a new Bauhaus record and new Love & Rockets tour dates, it is Silver for Gold that has been occupying most of J’s time. He has dabbled in drama before, but this is his first full-fledged production, writing and recording music and rehearsing for his March debut in Los Angeles. “I’ve never worked so hard on anything, ever,” J says. “There’s so many strands to pull together, but it’s coming together. It’s just a helluva a lot of work but it’s very rewarding. I feel like everything I’ve done in the past has been leading up to doing this.”

It has been a four-year, slow-burning obsession for J, who has been captivated by Andy Warhol, and by extension, Sedgwick, since he saw them in a magazine photo when he was ten years old. In 2004, J met David Weisman, who wrote the Sedgwick film Ciao Manhattan. Weisman was working on a script about Sedgwick’s life, which inspired J to write a song about her. Weisman encouraged J to write a full musical production.

J put in his time researching the project, interviewing Sedgwick’s friends and listening to hours of tape recorded conversations from the Warhol Museum archives. What he found was something deeper than the story of a rock and roll starlet who overdosed in 1971.

“Just hearing her voice when she was sparkling, effervescent, in 1965, very intelligent, compassionate, interesting, such a different persona than the only one I’d been exposed to before, which was Edie towards the end in Ciao Manhattan,” says J. “I was really struck by the difference. It was only a matter of three years or so, four years. That really informed the writing from then on, hearing that voice.”

There has always been a theatrical streak in the music J wrote for Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, something he acknowledges helped him in writing Silver for Gold. His telling of Sedgwick’s life isn’t quite a rock opera, and it’s not doggedly biographical. J imagines Sedgwick as Persephone entering hell, complete with rock band as Greek chorus.

“It operates on a lot of different levels,” says J. “It’s also just using her as a device to retell a classic myth, hero’s journey, and put in other mythic elements to tie them all together. But it’s not like a straightforward biographic portrait.”

While J attempts to mount the production in different cities, he is likely to face a few ghosts of his own. Released in March, Go Away White marks the end of Bauhaus. J is cagey about the specifics of the band finally parting for good, but he feels White is a fitting final statement. “It’s funny,” he says. “It’s almost like we knew it was going to be the last one, subconsciously.”

And while plans for Love & Rockets include summer tour dates after the band’s April date at Coachella, at the time of this interview, J didn’t see the band heading into the studio. “That’s unlikely,” he says. “We’ll be happy just to play the old material.”

J himself, though, will most certainly be back in the studio, producing for other artists (perhaps even the Correct Sadists). He produced the recent Frank Black project Grand Duchy, as well as Silver pit guitarist Michael de Winter’s solo debut. “It’s quite satisfying when you can make it come off,” he says, “and the result being a really great piece of music, and to bring something out that’s kind of buried there and make it shine.”

Ultimately, it’s theater that has captivated J. He is already thinking about his next project for the stage, which might not even include music. “This is the way I’m going to go in the future,” he says. “This will be my main endeavor.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

OC Interview: Author Tod Wodicka

Tod Wodicka has pulled off a tough mix of humor and drama in his debut novel, All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. His lead character, Burt Hecker, has made a mess of his life by running to the past, specifically, his love for medieval history, choosing to eschew almost everything that wasn’t available before 1200 A.D. This makes for some obviously comic moments, but Hecker is no nerdy caricature. He’s a 63-year-old man who has alienated his family in the wake of his wife’s death, and if you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry as he digs himself a deeper hole, do both. They’re both right.

The other amazing trick Wodicka pulls off is making Hecker’s choices seem almost normal in comparison to the other characters. Everyone in the book, and perhaps everyone reading the book, is stuck in some version of the past of their own making. So why should it seem strange that Hecker is stuck in 1200 AD?

I caught up with the Glenn Falls, NY native by e-mail to talk about the book, his inspiration, and his suspicion that Rikki Rocket of Poison wasn’t a very good drummer.

How long was this story in your head before you got to writing it down? Were you a scholar of medieval history before this, or did you have to study it to construct Burt Hecker?

No, I wasn’t a scholar of medieval history, or involved with re-enactment or anything like that. I do have a genuine love and interest in all things medieval though, and the novel, in some ways, was an excuse to submerge myself in that for a while. (In the same way my new novel is now an excuse to get all dippy-headed and esoteric and drive myself crazy with stuff like DMT, shamanism, experimental rock, dream research and … kinky sex.) Like Burt, I’m more of a romantic than your hardcore academic or scholar … I’d rather wander drunkenly around ruins and read weird history books than commit myself to the drudgery of learning Latin or anything like that.

The story of Burt had a pretty long gestation period, and I approached it in a manner I call Method Writing. To write as Burt I spent at least a year only reading medieval books, listening to medieval music, and visiting places Burt was to visit. I had to know what he knows for this to work. It was an immersive and, looking back on it, certainly kind of a sick (and possibly harmful) experience. (My now ex-wife kicked me out just before I started the book!) I took thousands and thousands of pages of notes and to top it off, shortly before I finished the novel, I even made a son of my own. Debatable whether I did this for art’s sake or not.

A lot of reviews have mentioned how you balance humorous and moving moments --what they don't mention is that they are often the same moment. The story of how Burt and Kitty meet, Burt talking to his daughter from a club in Europe -- they manage to be simultaneously funny and sad. How did you approach writing those moments? Was there any accidental humor there?

Primarily, I see the book as one about Voice. That was the hardest and most important thing to nail. Someone once asked me if I would or could tell the story in third-person, and the answer is no, that was never an option. Wouldn’t be interesting that way. For me, it was all about getting this voice on the page, and that voice, through Burt’s idiosyncratic use of language, self-delusion, screwed and myopic perspective, and general unreliability, is essentially a comic voice. He gives away so much without meaning to.

However, the story is anything but comic. It’s a melancholy book, a sad book, but because of the way this guy tells his tale, it’s my hope that it can be a funny book as well. I mean, some of shit Burt says still makes me laugh, but it’s always in the context of this life spiraling way out of control. I really like the humor inherent in a certain lack of self-awareness, stuff like Waiting for Guffman or the UK Office (though I like the US Office too) – these are tragedies, in my opinion, that are incredibly funny. I think Part One sort of sets things up as a picaresque kind of thing, gets the reader comfortable before pulling out the rug and jumping deep down into the heart of this mess of a man. Good times!

Burt often says, when speaking of the things most important to him, that he won't describe them. And that winds up telling us more about them somehow. Was it hard to discipline yourself in those moments, to keep from defining those things in too much detail?

No, it wasn’t hard. By the time I started writing I knew the character, knew so much about him that I simply couldn’t put it all in the book. This, for me, is a good way of working. Once you know the character and the book that well you can start leaving stuff out in very precise ways, and I think the reader can then sense there’s more going on than Burt’s willing or able to divulge and that makes the character and the reading of the novel that much more of a deeper experience. That said, and with 20/20 hindsight, there are a few occasions that I feel I did put too much in, but I won’t tell you where … For every character, and even characters I just mention in passing, I created incredibly detailed histories, I knew their whole life story and knew their family’s history. One of those characters, Howie Katsav, Lonna’s ex-husband, is now going to be in my new novel, actually.

Your descriptions are exacting and unusual -- "plebian trees," "a brass spider of a chandelier," the occasional beach ball floated like a doomed aria." Is there any particular writer or combination of writers that inspired that in your writing?

Oh, I’m sure. But I couldn’t really point to any off the top of my head. I mean, growing up I was a huge anglophile – Evelyn Waugh was a huge influence early on. But then when I moved to England and went to university there I discovered American writers, and it was like suddenly finding a voice that fit, a real epiphany. Pynchon, I’d say, sent me spinning, and mostly for his prose, his rhythm and imagery. Say what you want about his themes and inscrutability, the man is probably the best English prose writer living. I even got a Crying of Lot 49 tattoo when I was 19! Other writers I love and who have certainly influenced me: Philip Roth, Nabokov, W. G. Sebald, Gaddis, Fitzgerald, Bowles, DeLillo … the list is pretty long. Lots of old white men.

There's a strong feeling of impermanence in the book, that everyone is creating their own illusion. Is that something you see in everyday life, that people are doing that in their daily lives?

Yes, absolutely. I was first attracted to medieval re-enactment for its satirical purposes, however I soon began to see the beauty in it, and then I started seeing everything as a form or re-enactment, from family to culture. Again, probably not the healthiest way to look at the world, but there you go. Costumes, masks, illusions, self-delusion, re-enactment … I was also reading a lot of W. G. Sebald when writing the book, and though you couldn’t think of a more different author to myself than Sebald, he’s really sort of the Sad Prince of Impermanence…

Did living in Berlin inform the writing of the book at all?

I started formulating the novel in the US, at the actual Mansion Inn, where I worked as an innkeeper for about a year. Then I moved back to Prague where I did more research and eventually started the novel. I finished the novel in a nine-month race with the fetus that was to become my son, Louis. Is fetus the right word? Anyway, I finished the book in rural Germany, a deadzone of a town called Kleve, and only moved to Berlin after it was finished. I love Berlin but don’t like anywhere else in Germany all that much. So, short answer: Prague and rural Germany and the Mansion Inn influenced the book, but not Berlin.

You described Burt Hecker as an asshole with a heart of gold. To me, he seemed to fall somewhere between Ignatius J. Reilly and Chauncey Gardner. Were Confederacy of Dunces and Being There an influence on your character construction?

No, not at all. I’ve never read Being There - though I’m a big Hal Ashby fan, and like the film – and I’d totally forgotten Confederacy of Dunces when I started writing the book. (It’s an incredible book, Dunces, but I find myself less interested in satire these days – I remember when I read Dunces thinking that, for all its genius, it kind of went on a bit too long…) It was only later that people started mentioning Dunces and the obvious similarities between Burt and Ignatius. Doh! They’re kindred spirits for sure, but there wasn’t any kind of influence there, not overt anyway, and if I had remembered Dunces I probably would have changed a couple of things in my novel that might be seen as too close to the other book.

As a drummer, since you mentioned this in an interview, I will confirm it for you. Rikki Rocket does, in fact, as he told your sister, suck. Even if he spells Rikki with two k's and stands up when he plays.

Ha – you know, I was a big Poison fan in my youth. On the back of middle-school notebooks I used to design incredible sets for Poison to film their signature videos on. Incredible arabesques with drumsets set behind neon green waterfalls, bridges where C.C. could run across pits of lava while drooling out some solo or whatever, towers from which to sing down the Gods of Rock. Cages with women. Cages with toothy neon green animals. Drumsets with fifteen bass drums. Cymbals hanging from mechanical devices that spun around and lit up like that thing from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. AWESOME!

What made you decide to tell this story through the eyes of a 63-year-old man in Upstate New York? What sort of connection did you feel to him, personally?

Well, I’m from upstate NY. Town called Queensbury, which is next to Glens Falls. And the real Mansion Inn - – is in a town called Rock City Falls. Thus my Queens Falls. I’m setting my new novel there too.

As far as a connection to Burt – well, we have a lot in common. (It’s been said that maybe I’m an asshole without that heart of gold.) Obsessions, childishness, selfishness, a romantic disposition, a taste for alcohol … I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I really only totally clicked with the novel when my girlfriend announced she was pregnant and suddenly the whole book became a kind of cautionary tale directed at myself. Don’t fuck this up, being the main thing.

As far as age, I’ve always been more interested in older people than younger people. I’m pretty disgusted with our culture’s obsession with youth.

Are you working on a follow-up book yet? It seems it would be hard to write something that felt of a piece with "All Shall Be Well."

Yes, it’s called The Household Spirit. It’s incredibly different in every way from my first book – because you’re right, there’s no formula to something like Burt, and I have no interest right now in writing another voice-based, first-person, character-based work. Burt’s a one-off for sure. The new book is third-person, and far more straight-forward as far as narrative is concerned. (But far weirder in every other way.) Maybe it’s something like an existential horror novel … with humor and, as I’ve said, kinky sex and psychedelic drugs and gay fathers and failed rock and rollers.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music, updates

The Curmudgeon has been silent for a few weeks, which will happen from time to time when I am working on a different project, namely, my songwriting. I’ve been gigging a bit more lately, writing new songs, a few of which I’ll be playing tonight at Monet’s Garden Art Café in Beverly, Ma. It’s an early show – I’m going on at 7 p.m. and my friend Liz DeBiase is on at 8 p.m.

If you want to sign up for my mailing list, just stop by my MySpace Music page and type your e-mail in the nifty little mailing list button. You’ll also find a few songs streaming there. I am in the process of recording more, which I’ll be posting soon.

Back at the Curmudgeon, I’ll also be posting a few new interviews and essays soon. Watch this space.


Friday, May 9, 2008

No Depression No More, Editor Peter Blackstock Talks about the End of an Era

When you see the latest No Depression on the stands, the one with Buddy Miller on the cover, pick it up and pause for a moment to reflect. The issue marks the end of a thirteen-year run of covering some of the best music being made in America (and sometimes beyond). Editors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden and co-owner/co-publisher Kyla Fairchild decided in February to cease publication of No Depression, much to the dismay of music fans, especially fans of Americana (or or the new sincerity – they’ve always had a little fun with the breadth of the genre). On a personal note, I lose a consistent source of information on my favorite music, longform journalism about under the radar subjects, and a magazine that gave me some of my first legitimate magazine clips.

Conditions have never been worse for music magazines – shortly after the No Depression announcement, Harp Magazine and Skope Magazine also announced they were shutting down print operations. Declining CD sales have meant fewer music stores, which has meant fewer places to stock the magazine, and fewer advertisers.

The good news is, the Web site will continue, and Blackstock, Alden, and Fairchild will continue putting No Depression in print in a different form, what they call a “bookazine,” which they will release semi-annually with the University of Texas Press starting this fall. And you can still keep in touch with the No Depression mailing list, fitting for a magazine that grew out of a Web discussion group in the first place. No Depression will continue, but there will no longer be the anticipation of that issue hitting the stands ever couple of months, and the satisfaction of bringing it home and tearing into that cover story of your favorite artist no one else is writing about, or finding those new artists in the “Town & Country” section, some of them in your own home town.

I caught up with Peter Blackstock by e-mail recently to talk a bit about No Depression past and present.

What sort of reaction did you get when you announced that No Depression was ending its print run?

There was a pretty strong outpouring of sentiment from our readers. More than two hundred people have left comments on our website about it over the last couple months, and of course there was also a ton of letters, many of which we published in our final issue. A lot of people had some really kind words about how much the magazine had meant to them. Quite understandably a lot of them were rather disappointed we wouldn't be continuing as a bimonthly anymore -- no one was more disappointed than WE were, certainly! -- but I think that folks are only just now beginning to realize how tenuous a position the print journalism industry is in, especially when it comes to niche music magazines.

What was the first indication that you had to seriously consider ceasing publication?

It actually had never even come up for discussion until mid-January, about a month before we made the final decision to do it in mid-February (we sent out the announcement on February 19). Our advertising-base had been shrinking for a couple of years -- whereas we used to routinely publish issues of 144 pages (and occasionally larger), we'd more typically been around 112 for the past year or two. Still, things had more or less balanced out fiscally in 2007. But our first two issues of 2008 were both just 80 pages, which is smaller than we'd been since the very early days of the magazine, about 10 years ago. And the future prospects suggested things probably would only get worse, not better.

We realized that if we tried to continue, we could easily run ourselves into serious debt, and that's never been the way we've done business. We didn't want to be in a position where we could not afford to publish our final issue, as was the case with a couple of other magazines which closed up shop recently. It was important to us that we go out in the style of our finest work, which I think we managed to do with our May-June issue (thanks in no small part to many of our longtime advertisers, and even some new ones, who helped us get to 144 pages for the finale).

It seems like many of the same problems with marketing to a niche demographic have existed since the inception of No Depression, how drastically has the environment changed in the past year or two?

The "niche," musically speaking, is about the same as it ever was, although we obviously broadened it ourselves over the years. Early on we had fairly tight alternative-country boundaries, whereas over the years we expanded to cover a much broader range of Americana/traditional/roots music, as well as some occasional indie things (especially when they related to the roots realm). I honestly don't think our dilemma relates at all to the viability of the music, in large part because it was there long before we started covering it, and thus logically should be there long after as well.

What we managed to catch, when we began in 1995, was a sort of high-point in the visibility cycle for those artists -- part of which we contributed to creating or fostering, certainly, but partly there were just a lot of very good young roots acts who were getting major or semi-major record deals. But all the history still ran underneath everything, and it still does. And the ebb-and-flow of younger bands drawing upon that history continues, as evidenced by the surge in string bands that we recently wrote about in our March-April issue. So ultimately I don't think the "niche" has changed much at all; it's really just the business climate that has changed, in terms of how the internet has greatly affected both the music industry and the print journalism industry.

Was it frustrating to you that this happened at a time when the scene you’re covering is as fertile as ever? I’m in Boston, and just using this scene as an example, you’ve got younger bands like Three Day Threshold and Girls, Guns, and Glory, people who have been around the scene for a while like Mark Erelli and Alastair Moock, the Session Americana folks, along with stalwarts like Bill Morrissey and Dennis Brennan. And I know there are other scenes just as diverse around the country.

The string-band story in our March-April issue is sort of a reflection of that, yeah; we were quite intrigued to suddenly find so many really talented and creative young acts drawing upon old-time traditions seemingly reaching their peak right now, and we'd have been excited about covering them long into the future. (Many of those musicians are based around Boston as well, in fact, most notably Crooked Still, and also a couple members of Uncle Earl.) But I'm not sure there'd ever really be a "good" time to go out, in that it seemed that during our 13 years, there was pretty much constantly a good stream of quality roots-oriented music being made, by artists both younger and older.

Did you have a strategy for the Web and the “bookazine” before you announced the cessation of the print version?

We'd assumed that we'd continue the website in some form or fashion, but the bookazine deal with University of Texas Press came about entirely after we'd made the announcement. We decided to speak with them in part because they'd published our tenth-anniversary anthology in 2005, and in part because there were examples of other roots-related publications that had teamed up with universities (Living Blues at the University of Mississippi, Oxford American at the University of Central Arkansas). They were interested in seeing if we could work something out to at least continue us in print on a limited basis, in a way that did not involve being dependent on advertising. The twice-annual bookazine is what came out of those discussions.

Are there any other publications doing anything similar to that, anywhere you are looking for inspiration?

It's really pretty new territory. Grant (my co-editor) has looked at a few more literary-type things such as McSweeney's to get a vague sense of what form things might take, but to our knowledge nobody's really doing anything like it in terms of music content. Part of our intention here is to create something basically new, something that isn't already out there.

Can you envision a time when you would ever revive No Depression in print?

I think the market circumstances would have to change significantly, in a way that's not very likely to happen. People would have to start gravitating back toward print and away from the internet, and that seems highly doubtful especially as more and more younger music fans who were raised on the internet model keep flowing into the picture. On the other hand, I'm not entirely certain that web advertising will really pan out the way the advertisers are hoping it will; so far it doesn't seem like it has quite worked out to the degree expected. If somehow there becomes a booming demand for print ads again, then maybe. But that's pretty much what it'd take, and we're not exactly holding our breath for that.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Chris Coxen needs votes in a very silly competition...

Those of you who know me know I love only two things in life: comedy, and underwear. So much to my delight, local comedian Chris Coxen has combined the two, and is dancing as Danny Morsel to win cash prizes from the folks over at Jockey. Here is his video appeal for votes:

To vote for him, click on this bit of writing right here.

His opponent apparently has a big e-mail list and the inherent appeal of a concave chest, so every vote helps. You have to register, so make sure to mind all the "opt out" buttons. It's fairly quick and painless, and if Mr. Coxen wins, count on even more elaborate productions like this weekend's show at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

OC Review: Tim and Eric Awesome Tour, First Night

“Was it what you expected?”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t know what I expected.”

That exchange between two fans walking out of T.T. the Bear’s last night pretty much explains the first show on the first night of Tim and Eric’s Awesome Tour, which is, of course, based on the Adult Swim show Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! The TV show is strange enough, an eleven-and-a-half-minute blast of absurdity, flashing lights, disturbing images of hairy babies, and awkward dancing that attacks viewers brains every Sunday night. (You can read more about it in a piece I wrote for the Boston Globe here).

There were a few starts and stops at the beginning. After a quick set from DJ Dougpound, the music came back up for what seemed like a long time. Then the music stopped for what seemed like a ling time, and, being good fans, the crowd remained silent. After all, this was Tim and Eric, and having fans stare at a blank movie screen that barely fit on a stage made for rowdy pub rock may have been part of an opening joke. It wasn’t. But no one seemed to mind. They shouted things like “Brule’s Rules!” referring to John C. Reilly’s recurring character on the show, and “Jeff Goldblum!” who was also on the show. The good thing about presenting a creative, free-thinking show is that you can count on your audience to entertain themselves for a couple of minutes while they wait for you.

When the screen lit up with the image of show regular David Leibe Hart, demanding the crowd pray for Tim and Eric (and, kindly enough, for Robin Williams), everyone recognized him and cheered. Then came a planned false start, with a video of Tim and Eric backstage. They finally made it to the stage for the opening musical dance number about ball swinging, and it was off to the races from there.

The big question for people who hadn’t seen Tim and Eric live would have been, can these guys take material meant for an eleven-and-a-half minute late night sketch show and make a funny, engaging hour-and-a-half live show?

They can, although over that hour and a half, the audience has a bit more time to step back and question what they’re watching. And when your comedy is so particular and strange, not everything is going to hit the audience the same way at the same time. At some point during the show, more individuals probably stopped for a moment to say, what the hell am I watching? But then Tim and Eric would pelt the audience with pizza or hot dogs, or better yet, videos like “Quilting with Will” starring Will Forte and other previews from Season Three, which is still in the middle of production. And they never lost the crowd of clearly devoted fans.

“Casey and his brother” is fascinating live, because the onscreen version uses a lot of awkward close-ups and animation. But Tim’s red-faced, squeaky-voiced, compulsively spitting Casey is just as frightening live, probably because T.T.’s is small enough that most everyone, save those crowding over near the bar, has a clear view of every pained facial expression. Then, of course, there’s Eric playing a toy saxophone or dancing in a hamburger suit. Which is where the comedy nerd in me could reference commedia dell’arte or theatre of the absurd, or I could just admit that seeing a man Eric’s size furiously pumping his knees in time to cheesy music while dressed as ground chuck makes me giggle like a moron.

There was a quick encore, consisting mainly of the “James Quall Dance Contest” and Tim and Eric addressing the crowd as their surprisingly earnest, laid-back selves.

An odd bit of trivia – Tim and Eric were supposed to play Boston last year, but had to cancel the date because of their association with Adult Swim during the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Mooninite bomb scare. Both said they were happy to have finally made it to Boston, apologizing to the crowd for having to have cancelled last year’s show.

After the show, I asked Eric what he thought of the venue and the show. His response?


I should have expected that.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kids in the Hall: Reunion Tour May Lead to More

The new Kids in the Hall reunion tour has been a pleasant surprise for me. I had enjoyed their previous post-television tours in 2000 and 2002, and I didn’t know a new tour had been planned until I saw an ad for their show at the Wang Theatre for April 17. I reviewed that show for the Boston Globe (you can find it in today’s edition here), and spoke with them backstage at the Wang afterwards.

It was a mellow, friendly atmosphere backstage, or, more appropriately, in the mazelike basement-level dressing rooms under the Wang. Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson were winding down after a little over an hour and a half of new sketch comedy, with a few old favorite characters like Thompson’s Buddy Cole and McCulloch’s Gavin thrown in. The not-quite-sold-out but sizeable crowd had reacted warmly and enthusiastically to everything, old and new, and there was a palpable sense of gratification amongst the Kids, possibly even a sense of relief that they had been welcomed back so readily.

The Kids had reunited last year for the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, and had been kicking around the idea of getting together again, but never quite found the time. Earlier this year, they finally found a break. “The writer’s strike did the impossible and freed us all up for a week,” said McKinney.

Rather than just dust off old sketches from the television show or previous tours, the Kids set out to write as much new material as possible. According to Foley, this meant doing a series of surprise club shows in L.A. on short notice. “It was an exercise to see if we could write a 90-miute show in three days,” he said.

Again according to Foley, they were surprised both by how well they wrote together and how much they enjoyed performing together. The new sketches were strong, and there were a couple new short films, most notably an odd, lewd bit about “carfuckers,” that hit the mark (McCulloch, who has been busy directing the sitcom Carpoolers, mentioned he has been working the Russo brothers, of Arrested Development fame, on some film shorts). Everyone seemed to agree that there is some momentum building, which should mean another project of some sort when the tour ends in June, most probably a film.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Right now, somewhere...

It's a strange world out there. And while you sit here reading, right now, somewhere...

* The Pope is looking at his watch and saying, "Sheesh, look at the time."

* One of your relatives is thinking about how much of an asshole you are.

* A fat, naked man is sitting in front of his computer fantasizing about Japanese cartoons.

* Someone is watching a VHS copy of Mariah Carey’s Glitter, and loving it.

* A powerful world leader is tapping his toes to the Toby Keith song playing in his head trying to look like he is paying attention to a meeting of his chief advisors.

* Your parents are listening to Poco and making out on the couch.

* Boston city planners are thinking of what to do when the Big Dig becomes outdated.

* New parents have settled on the name Eugene for their first born, setting forth a chain of events that will either lead to indictment or a career in folk music.

* A Hollywood executive is planning a Saturday morning cartoon based on Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Elsewhere, another executive is making plans to bring “Straw Dogs: The Musical” to Broadway.

* Your doctor is listening to P-Funk, staring at the office aquarium, smoking a big fattie.

* Your cat is humping your favorite bed pillow.

Monday, April 14, 2008

OC-Ed: Late Night Humor vs. Democracy

The topic of Michael Crook’s A Funny Guy blog over at – “Does Political Comedy Undermine Democracy” – was preposterous to me when it came up on my Google alert. It seemed like one of those inherently flawed questions that people like me in the media often ask to try to get provocative answers and stir up some kind of debate, which is usually about as nuanced and useful as a metal geek slap fight over VH1’s “Top 100 Guitar Solos of the 80s.”

But it turns out, the premise was neither Crook’s not Stevenson Swanson, who wrote the article for the Chicago Tribune that Crook reprinted for his blog. The idea actually belongs to University of Iowa professor Russell Peterson, who has written a book called Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. Peterson, the story notes, tried his hand at stand-up comedy in the early 1990s and has also worked as a political cartoonist. And there are a couple of interesting side notes to his premise.

You can read the piece yourself on the Tribune site here, or, if that link stops functioning, at Crook’s blog here.

To be fair, I haven’t read Peterson’s book, so you’ll have to take any criticism of his premise with a grain of salt. But if his thesis has been presented correctly in the Tribune article, Peterson believes that late night comedians are a threat to the American system of democracy because they promote the belief that it makes no difference who you vote for, that every candidate is equally bad, and there’s no point in engaging in the process.

"I really do think that this sort of belief, that it doesn't matter, is one of the most damaging beliefs that a democracy can harbor,” Peterson is quoted in the Tribune as saying, adding later, "I don't think comedy invented that belief, but it's one of the most important avenues through which it is expressed."

I was about ready to tap out at that point. Certainly the rampant corruption at the presidential level on down for the past twenty-five years and the general disrespect that politicians show for each other and sometimes their own office has to be the more pressing problem here.

Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Lewinski affair, and the current administration’s bumbling of everything from the so-called “War On Terror” to the hiring and firing practices at the Attorney General’s office – the list is long, inglorious, and stretches back to around the time I was actually conceived. I love political comedy, especially the hardest hitting stuff by firebrands like Barry Crimmins and Bill Hicks and the above-the-fray perspective Mort Sahl is still offering, if you can catch him. But as much as I admire someone who can connect with a solid swing of satire, these people are generally only pointing out the damage politicians have done to themselves.

In that respect, if you are going to blame comedians for undermining democracy, you have to put them fairly far down on the list of the indicted, with the politicians themselves first on the list, and anyone who actually tells us what they’re doing second. It’s like arresting a guy for arson when he calls 9-1-1 about a burning building.

But that’s when the story got interesting. Apparently, part of Peterson’s thesis is the idea that late night comedians are helping to create an indifferent attitude toward the system because they are not dealing with substantive issues. In other words, their very inertness makes them dangerous.

Stevenson summarizes the idea thusly: “Political comedy, at least as it's practiced on the Leno, Letterman and O'Brien shows, tends to focus relentlessly on personality flaws, such as Bush's verbal gaffes or former President Bill Clinton's skirt-chasing, instead of on questions of political policy.”

This is the difference between topical comedy and satire, which is not often discussed, since it is admittedly a bit of comedy nerd hair-splitting. But there is a difference. Some comedians have gotten credit as satirists simply because they told a blow job joke about Bill Clinton or dared to call George W. Bush dumb. The jokes might be funny, depending on the skill of the particular comic, but they don’t tend to delve too deep into the details.

According to the story, Peterson finds Leno and Letterman are going for cheap laughs, and gives a bit more credit to Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert for bending more toward the satirical. There’s a decent argument there, especially considering that Leno and Letterman, both on network television, have a much larger audience to please than Stewart, Maher, and Colbert, whose shows air on cable. Leno has professed a sort of fast food philosophy to writing for the Tonight Show (you can find the exact quote if you can find his 2004 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio), and when you’re in a ratings war, you’re going to have a hard time doing anything edgy or potentially alienating, a concept to which the Tribune article also alludes.

But even if you accept the premise that the glib nature of Leno and Letterman’s topical humor make for lower standards, it’s a tough leap to say that makes them dangerous. And it’s a bit of a logic puzzle, at least in terms of Peterson’s argument, to think that the more satirical comics are less dangerous than more inert comics because they might actual damage a politician’s reputation in the minds of their audience by dealing with more substantive issues. Start picking at details like that, and suddenly you’re trapped on M.C. Escher’s stairmaster.

Ultimately, it’s a classic straw man argument. If late night television disappeared right now, democracy wouldn’t suddenly regain its buoyancy with a flood of informed participation. I’m fairly sure that’s not Peterson’s argument, but if not, what could possibly be filling all those pages in a book called Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke?

I’ll report back if I get my hands on it. If anyone has read it, please comment on this post and let us know what you think.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

OC Interview/Review: Go See Gary Louris!

On April 1, Gary Louris and Vetiver put on a fantastic show at the Somerville Theatre for about fifty people. I had mixed feelings, enjoying such a great night of music, wondering why one of America’s best songwriters can’t draw more people on the strength of his catalogue with the Jayhawks, not to mention Golden Smog, and with a solid, tuneful solo album – his first – in stores for a couple of months.

Louis and company started out with “Omaha Nights” from the new Vagabonds album, and meandered through Louris’s considerable history all night long. Jayhawks classics “I’d Run Away,” “Blue,” and “Waiting for the Sun” pleased longtime fans, as did the lost nugget “Everybody Gets By.” But no one got antsy during the new stuff, either. The traditional country of “She Only Calls Me On Sundays” and the delicate “D.C. Blues” were much enhanced by Eric Heywood’s ace pedal steel playing. “To Die a Happy Man” and “Vagabonds” fit well with one-offs like the Dixie Chicks co-write “Everybody Knows” and the pure pop joy of “Every Word” from the movie Wordplay. “I Wanna Get High” went from psychedelic folk to blistering acid rock.

Louris was relaxed and in good humor throughout, pointing out his in-laws in the audience (his wife is from Worcester). He came back out for a solo encore, introducing the Golden Smog song “Listen Joe” by saying it was a happy little tune, and now every time he says “surprise, surprise” his young son replies, “everyone dies.”

I had tried to see Louris with a friend of mine a couple of weeks prior when I was visiting L.A., but his gig at the El Rey was canceled due to poor ticket sales. In light of that and what I saw, I would urge any Louris fans to see this tour. Vetiver is a more than capable backing band, and their nimble, earnest folk rock set is a perfect opener to the show.

To familiarize you a bit with the new album, here is an interview I did with Louris last October, while he was still mixing Vagabonds. Part of this wound up in an article for Harp Magazine (which, sadly, just ceased publication). I had only gotten to listen to a few unmixed tracks, e-mailed to me by Rykodisc so I could ask more specific questions. I was more than pleased with the final version, once I got a hold of it a month or so later. New Seasons, the album he produced with the Sadies last year, is also well worth picking up. And I look forward to the new Louris/Mark Olson record, due out within the next few months, which Louris also talks about here.

Has it been strange to be in the studio without the Jayhawks?

It wasn’t. I’ve been in enough other situations in recording studios with different people. Maybe that was part of the reason I was surrounded by some friends on this session. With Chris Robinson, I felt comfortable. Some of the guys in the band I had known before. So there was already a camaraderie built up.

Who are the other players on the album?

A guy named Otto Hauser, he plays in bands like Vetiver, and I believe Espers and bands like that. A guy named Jonathan Wilson who’s kind of an L.A. friend of mine who kind of hosts the infamous Wednesday night jam sessions up in Laurel Canyon every Wednesday which really has become kind of a clearing house for a lot of L.A. musicians and people who are passing through. Any night, there might be like four different drummers, three different keyboard players, different singers, guitar players, and bass players. Everybody from Maroon 5 to Beachwood Sparks to anything. There are a lot of different people who go up there. That’s kind of how I got to know a lot of people who play on the record.

And also Adam MacDougal, keyboards. Jonathan Wilson played bass and guitar. Josh Grange played pedal steel. And then we had this group of people who sang depending on the song. There were a few songs where everybody sang, and it was like Jenny Lewis, Susanna Hoffs, Chris Robinson, Jonathan Rice, and Andy Kick-Havic, he’s the lead singer in Vetiver. The Chapin sisters. I’m trying to remember who else. That’s mainly the main voices on it.

It’s amazing how that Laurel Canyon scene persists, going back to the days of Frank Zappa and all those folks.

Yeah, I was just at a party last night at Frank Zappa’s house, the famous log cabin. I thought it burned down, but I guess it didn’t. Yeah, it persists, you know, because it was such a magical time and a convergence of all different kinds of musicians. It’s hard to let go of. IT appeals to me just because of the music that came out of it. And you know I just found it’s just really a great group of people. They’re into the music, there’s not a lot of posturing that sometimes you get in rock bands. People just want to play and hang out and I’ve made some real good friends.

Do you live around there?

No, I live in Minneapolis. I still live in Minneapolic, but I come out here. I love it out here, actually.

Where was the album recorded, mostly?

It was all recorded at a place called Sage and Sound in LA. It’s a little kind of old school LA studio right near Ocean Way off Sunset.

Is there any particular reason behind choosing that spot?

Chris Robinson had been aware of it and I had actually been there in the 90s when we were recording at Ocean Way. I walked in and remembered it. It was a good deal, and had a vibey-ness to it. Those two things worked for us.

How did you collaborate with Chris? Who did what?

Well, Chris was kind of the executive producer dude. I trust his musical ear, because I don’t know anyone who’s more into music than Chris, and who’s been a supporter of mine since the early nineties. So there’s a trust factor you have to have with a producer and I just had it with Chris. And I didn’t need anybody to tell me necessarily how to record, because I’d been in enough and I’ve produced things on my own. I just needed somebody who would get the vibe going, you know, who I could lean on if I was unsure of a song or whatever.

Chris basically helped me sift through the numerous songs and kind of whittle it down and kind of helped to assemble the band. And Thom Monahan, who was the engineer and really kind of co-producer was brought on board through Chris. He assembled a lot of the players and helped me sift the songs. I can be somewhat unsure and a little bit negative and he was always a positive energy in the studio. He’s a high energy guy, you know? And I think that was good for me.

Did you share a producing credit on the album?

No, I think it was really Chris and I think Thom might have some production credit on it. I’m not sure how that works.

Did producing the Sadies make you approach this album differently?

No, not really. I’d done things in the past, production-wise. I suppose there are things that creep in. I know just from producing bands that I try to walk the walk, you know? If I tell them I believe in something and tell them that’s the way it should be done then when I go in and make my own record I should really do it. In this case, I really wanted to do it in as much of a live situation as possible. I just feel like, if that can be done, that’s the best way to do it. It’s the peak of creativity. If you get people playing together and off of each other, you get that synergy or synchronicity or whatever you want to call it, I think it makes the most important music. Obviously you can spend two years like Brian Wilson with ‘Good Vibrations’ trying to make something magical if you have the players at your disposal. But otherwise, if you can make it live and quick, it’s the most inspired kind of music.

Was most or all of the album recorded live with everybody playing in the same room?

Yeah. I’d say 90%. My lead vocal and guitar, the steel guitar, keyboard, drums, and bass were all live. And then the choir, I call them the choir, but the background vocals, were overdubbed. Percussion or occasional guitar parts or keyboards were overdubbed. But I’d say 90% was recorded live.

Is that the way you’ve generally recorded in the past, with the Jayhawks and other bands you’ve produced?

Not always. I think starting with – Sound of Lies I don’t remember. A lot of that was live. But Rainy Day Music was when I was working with Ethan Johns and he really convinced me that I can do it, that you can sing and play and keep it. You don’t have to lay down a scratch and go back. You can do it. When play at the same time as you sing, you sing around your guitar playing and you play your guitar around your vocal naturally. If you overdub it, you kind of mainline everything. It’s very solid, but the dynamics aren’t as good. So I kind of try to do that with whoever I can whenever I’m producing. But it doesn’t always work. With the Sadies we didn’t do it that way. It just wasn’t the way they wanted to do it. And it worked out great. You know, there’s many ways to skin a cat. When possible I like to do it live. But the early Jayhawks records weren’t that way. They were all overdubbed.

Hollywood Town Hall and --

Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass. Those were all done where you just go out and sing scratches and you keep the bass and drums and not much else and you build back up.

Did you feel any pressure, either internally or externally, to make this record sound any different than the Jayhawks?

I did want it to sound different but I think it wasn’t a pressure situation. It was just that I was just in a different mode of working and songwriting. I think most people who have heard the stuff think it sounds like me but doesn’t necessarily sound like the Jayhawks. I guess that’s a testament to the Jayhawks, to the other members, that they just couldn’t be replaced. It’s me and it still has a Jayhawks element because I was a large part of the Jayhawks, but different at the same time.

And the other reason to use that studio and Chris was because I’d made a record in January of last year with Mark Olson. To do that, we really wanted to get somebody who would make us feel comfortable in the studio because we hadn’t played together in a long time. And Chris was just a friend and he got us in Sage and Sound and everything went so well. And that’s when I thought, well, I think I could do my own record with Chris also, in this studio.

I have about five tracks that were sent to me today, so if my grasp of isn’t so deep, I apologize. But your voice is a lot more up front on this without quite as much harmony. That’s what impressed me about the songs I’ve heard so far. Was that purposeful, or was that just a function of this being your record as opposed to a band record?

It wasn’t really purposeful, it just came naturally out of what I was writing and feeling more like a solo guy. I know that a good friend of mine who’s a musician came in and listened to what we were doing as we were doing it, and he said, it’s you but it’s different. It doesn’t sound like we’re waiting for the guy to come in and sing his harmony on it like a Jayhawks song. It doesn’t sound like that, it doesn’t sound like we’re waiting on that other track that you sang on to make it that dual harmony thing. And I did that, Mark Olson and I did that total duo harmony thing and it was great and I still love it. But for this record, I was embracing the singer/songwriter dude in me, I guess.

I haven’t put my finger on what’s different exactly, yet. I have “To Die a Happy Man,” and that’s more delicate maybe than what I’ve heard in the past. I can’t put a better description on it just yet, I have to listen to it a bit more to get the vibe.

I think part of it was I got into the finger-picking, kind of the English and straight folk finger-picking and some alternate tunings. I don’t think there is on that song, but on a couple of other songs. I think that changes the feel. I’ve never done that before on any Jayhawks record, where we actually got the real folky finger-picking.

“She Only Calls Me on Sundays” was a bit more traditional country. Was that something you were eager to explore?

I guess I’ve always felt like we have touched on it, but I think that’s probably the most traditional country song I’ve ever written. It wasn’t like, I’m finally going to get to do this or that, it wasn’t that kind of approach. Just kind of happened. I wrote these songs, and these were the ones that made the final cut. There were a lot of other ones, maybe some sounded like the old Jayhawks that didn’t make it. I didn’t sit down and plan it. Although I did plan for kind of a more folky approach. It ended up becoming a bit more of a rock record than it had originally planned to be. Just naturally kind of grew out of it once the band started playing together. But I didn’t even really have a band until a week before I showed up to record. I came out a week early and we had a few days with the bass player and the drummer, and the keyboard player joined us a few days after that. And the last day the steel player joined us for rehearsal. So after four or five days we kind of coalesced as a band kind of organically. Put it that way.

Should I say there are plans to tour?

There are plans to tour. In today’s world if you want to sell any records you kind of have to get out there. I don’t think I’ll be one of those guys who tours ten months out of the year. But I miss playing and I’d like to do a fair share. And I’d also like to do a little bit more where I go out on my own, like a one-man person – [laughs] a one-man person – like a solo show kind of thing once in a while, too. That’s something I’d like to develop. A lot of these songs, I was in an isolation booth, and if you just put those two mics on, it’s just me and the guitar, a lot of those songs work that way. Si I’m hoping to do some things like that, I hope.

The things that I’ve heard so far seem like they would adapt well to a one-person sort of environment.

That’s how they were written and they weren’t demoed into big productions. I have some songs that we didn’t record with the band that I demoed. They’re a little stranger, a little more experimental. Those I might use as bonus tracks or b-sides that I just played in my basement.

Were any of these songs you had kicking around for a while that didn’t quite fit other projects?

None of them have are old enough to have been around for a Jayhawks thing. They’re all things that I’ve written in the past year or two. Nothing was like leftover from a Golden Smog thing or a co-write. These are all things I wrote for this record.

Are there any more electric tunes on the album?

Not knowing what you got already… I didn’t play a lot of electric guitar. There’s only a couple of songs I actually played electric guitar on. And maybe on the next record I’ll do something where I become more of a lead player again. But right now I wanted to be the guy singing the song with the acoustic guitar. That was my vision at the time. It still rocks, but it wasn’t intended to be a rock record.

Was that with an eye toward doing solo shows?

I think I really started getting the bug for it when I went out with Olson on some tours and just the simplicity of being a guy with a guitar, just showing up. It’s not out of laziness, but at times, it’s just a great way to tour. It’s really rewarding to play without having a wall of sound. And also, I just found over the years, I don’t have a loud voice. I don’t have a rock voice. I have a softer voice and sometimes it’s been hard over the years for people to hear me. And I think this approach is going to be better for the singing. And that’s my own damn fault, because I used to be the loudest guy onstage with the electric guitar. And I’m not saying I don’t want to do any of that, but I do like the idea of, I think my strength is my singing and songwriting in a quieter form.

Was that maybe how the Jayhawks style formed, with the harmonies being so prominent? You felt your voice wasn’t quite loud enough to handle it by itself?

No. I don’t think that was it. I think it was just a natural progression or the kind of music that we were listening to, the fact that Mark and I found we could sing well together and we complimented each other. It wasn’t anything to do with volume. Mark had a pretty good voice, and as long as I was singing up high, it kind of cut through. But as far as the lead male voice, sometimes it was a struggle to hear me.

That’s something I hadn’t thought of, that I hear more of your lower register on this. Is that where you’re more comfortable singing?

No, I think I have a higher voice, and that’s where I get my power. But when it’s quiet, I can get down there and people can hear it. I think it’s a range that some people aren’t really familiar with me singing. That’s what maybe people are finding makes it sound so much different from the Jayhawks.

Do you enjoy singing down there a bit more?

I like being all over, but there’s nothing like hitting the high notes for me because that’s where I can really push it. The low notes have to be very breathy and kind of almost spoken because I’m not naturally a low singer. But that just seems to be how my songs work. You have the low verse and the high chorus kind of thing.

Did you do anything in the studio this time that was a huge departure from what you’d done before?

Only the fact that I was playing with a bunch of people I hadn’t played with, it wasn’t a Jayhawks situation. On Rainy Day Music on that song “Madman,” we really got kind of a group ensemble playing all at once. On this record, all the songs were like that. And I think the players all kind of rose to the occasion. When I listen to it, I’m just amazed at what good parts everybody came up with and how they played off of each other. “Rainy Day Music” we played it mostly live but it was mostly just the three of us, and then we augmented it with overdubs afterwards. This is more of a pretty much the song was done almost when we took off the headphones and walked into the control room, the song was 90% there or complete. Other than that, we had just a little bit more instruments that you might hear on an English folk record or a psych-folk record. Harmoniums and some weird kind of ear candy kind of celestes and things. But we didn’t do anything really bizarrely experimental as far as the recording goes.

Seems like with your solo album and the new album with Mark Olson, it would be tough to avoid the shadow of the Jayhawks. Especially with the duo album.

That’s okay, I’m not trying to totally escape. I’m really proud of who we were and I’m not going to be one of those guys who never plays a Jayhawks song because that’s kind of silly. I don’t want to hide from it, I don’t want to confuse people, either. If you feel like making a record with a guy who used to be in your band, you just can’t worry about those things. It’s just something we wanted to do. If that confuses people, then so be it.

But it was deliberate that you wanted it to come out after your solo album was out?

Well, it wasn’t my idea so much as the label’s. I think they wanted to, again, not confuse people and say, this is Gary’s thing, and then there’s also Mark and Gary. But I think they wanted to the first thing that comes out post-Jayhaks to be my solo record. And Mark has his record out, which is a great record. So he’s doing his thing and I’m doing my thing, and then we’re going to join up.

For me, part of the reason that I got out of the Jayhawks was to be able to be free to kind of move around and do a number of things and not be beholden to other people. When you’re in a band, you have to do things as a group, you have to consider other members, if they want to play shows or tour, and I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to spend more time at home and those sorts of things. And have more time to work with some different people, even it’s somebody I had worked with in the past, or produce somebody. I just wanted to have that freedom. There was no real problem with the band itself.

So you don’t see either the solo stuff or any other albums as sort of your main gig.

I think I see my record as being a bit more of my focus. But the Olson/Louris record is also very important to me.

I mean past that, I mean down the road, from here on out, seeing yourself more as a solo player.

Yes. I think that’s fair to say. I still like a band situation, and if I can float in and out of some band situations I would still do that, too. I just can’t be in one thing, doing the same thing over and over again.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Barry Crimmins Interview on

MediaBistro contacted political satirist Barry Crimmins for his thoughts on the recent Randi Rhodes story. Short but insightful. Take a look.

Monday, March 10, 2008

OC-ed: The Experience Issue

Hillary Clinton's supposed turnaround last week hung on her asking the rhetorical question, when the phone rings in the White House at 3am, who do you want to answer? Although that seems more like a qualification for Accoutemps than president, Clinton's point was that Barack Obama just doesn't have the experience to be president. Apparently, four more years in Congress really makes all the difference between two laywers who want to rule the free world.

As usual, Barry Crimmins offers a whip-smart perspective on the issue.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Comedy News: Human Giant Dates Postponed

Those looking forward to the upcoming Human Giant tour may have to wait a bit longer to see the troupe. Paul Scheer, part of the trio which also includes Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel, will be busy with a film role, so all of the current tour dates, save for the three sold-out shows in Los Angeles Feb 21-23, the NoisePop show in San Francisco on Feb 28, and the SXSW show on Mar 14, have been cancelled. Plans are to reschedule at least some dates, including the Boston stop, previously scheduled for Mar 12. Watch the Human Giant Web site for details.

Season Two of Human Giant premieres Tuesday, March 11. You can get an advance look at Episode One on iTunes here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OC Archive: Jonathan Katz

When I originally interviewed Jonathan Katz for Boston's Stuff@Night for this interview, which appeared in the June 22, 1999 issue, he was still working on his Comedy Central show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist for what would wind up being the show's final season. Since then, he has gone public with his MS, shied away from the spotlight, and then come back to stand-up. He released his first comedy CD, Caffeinated, last year, and Comedy Central released the complete Dr. Katz on DVD. And you can listen to his podcasts by going to his site,

The career of Newton resident Jonathan Katz has taken some interesting turns since he started out as a musician and songwriter more then twenty years ago, fronting a band called Katz and the Jammers. At some point, Katz noticed that people were talking through the songs and paying more attention when he spoke. So he started to talk more. And it has paid off.

Katz has been all over the map, from his collaborations with David Mamet to appearances on TV Nation and The Larry Sanders Show. He even played Leo, the Angel of Death, in the short-lived sitcom Ink. Now, as Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist begins its sixth season, he is busy developing other ideas for film and television and is hard at work on To-Do Lists of the Dead, his first book under his name (not as Dr. Katz).

So, what's in store for the new season of Dr. Katz?

Can't talk about that. Just teasing. Well, first of all, in terms of story line... my son, Ben -- very troubled kid -- he threatens to join the army.

That has to be traumatic. For Dr. Katz and for Ben.

Traumatic for the army. He also gets his wisdom teeth removed, which is probably the most violent episode we've ever made.

One of my favorite episodes is called "Past Lives"; Ben and Dr. Katz take a past-life regression course together. And Dr. Katz discovers that in a previous life he was a barmaid in the Old West.

Is the show set in Boston?

We're kind of coy about that. We haven't picked a location yet. `Cause it's a cartoon, we haven't had to purchase any real estate. A lot of people speculate about where it is.

Are there any upcoming guests that you're particularly excited about?

Well, Dom Irrera is going to be returning to the show. He's my favorite patient. Jeff Goldblum is wonderful.

How did you decide to focus on comedians as patients, rather than just having celebrity guests?

Because the chances of one of these comedians' saying something extraordinarily funny is greater. You know, you don't go to your psychiatrist to plug something; you go to try out material.

In Newton, I guess, there is a high density of psychiatrists?

It's the highest per capita of anywhere in the country. I'm surrounded by them.

What is their reaction to the show?

Some pride, some resentment. A lot of advice. You know, there's a shrink named Randy Glassman who has helped me more than anyone with the language of therapy. When the show first started I was really intent on being a good therapist. And I do have a lot of empathy for people. And I have a lot of respect for people who are therapists, professionally. Especially if they can stay awake.

What's the difference between you and Dr. Katz?

Dr. Katz does his own stunts.

How do you choose the guests?

It's just like every other show. It's alphabetical.

I never noticed that.

Oh, yeah. Watch all these talk shows. They're almost up to the Zs.

How did you and David Mamet start working together?

The real question is, why did we stop? No, we started working together because we're friends and have been for 35 years.

And you co-wrote House of Games, or the story that became House of Games?

We co-wrote the story over a pool table one day of the movie that became the House of Games.

And you said, "Why did you stop -- "

No, I was just being glib.

You also have To-Do Lists of the Dead coming out.

The new book I'm working on. That's something that I started doing in an airplane at La Guardia. I got stuck on the runway. So I was working on my own to-do list, I got bored, and moved on to Lincoln. I wrote three items on his to-do list: "Free slaves, think of fancy way to say '87 years ago,' and beef up security at Ford's Theatre." And the first two items are checked. Then I moved on to FDR, Eisenhower, George Washington, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. Anybody who's dead is fair game. Gene Siskel.

Do you still perform stand-up?

Well, I did something at Symphony Hall about a week ago with Ray Romano. We did a benefit for Children's Hospital. Every once in a while I'll do something. There's usually a cause involved. I, for the last few years, have been trying, along with my colleagues, to raise money for syphilis.

To help people get their start?

I'm raising money for the actual virus.

Was this always your stage persona, or did you try other personas?

I tried the wacky guy with the banjo, and I had a box full of props. I worked with a puppet for a while. Actually, the puppet's doing very well.

A solo career.

Yeah, he didn't need me. I was bringing him down. No, no, this has always been what I do. Not because of my courage and strength and belief in what I do. It really is more of a limitation. I can't do anything else.