Aug 30, 2012

Power of the Poles



Possibly the best way you'll spend four-and-a-half minutes today.

People like Jim Power -and the art he creates, and the community it, in turn, creates -are the reason I love New York City so much. But the fact he's homeless is infuriating. Makes the stuff in Tampa right now a lot harder to watch, much less stomach.

Aug 22, 2012

Holy Spirit


One of the strangest things I overheard about the Pussy Riot verdict occurred recently when I was out with friends. An older woman at a nearby table was talking into her cellphone, eyes obscured by heavy tortoise shell glasses.

"I'll tell you what," she said not-so-softly, tilting straw hat ever so slightly toward the blazing sun, "you can't just go around saying any goddam thing you like anytime , any place you like. They should've known better, those girls."

They should have known better. The words echoed and bounced around in my head as the gin and tonic glinted in the the afternoon sunshine. Should the members of Pussy Riot -Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alekhina, 24 -stayed quiet? Writer Lynn Crosie recently observed that the girls' actions were "hideous" to have happened in a church. Watching the video for their new single, it's not difficult to see how they offended traditional, church-going sensibilities. The elderly nuns look perplexed and more than a bit pissed off by these pesky masked aerobi-dancing young women. But the protest did not involve any swear words or cussing, nor did it use a holy name in any obscene way; it lasted less than a minute and invoked a religious figure, in a sincere request for delivery from a perceived (if very real, to every day Russians) evil. The hypocrisy of the trial and obscene harshness of the sentence are all out of proportion to the actual crime, but Pussy Riot have become an international cause celebre in the process.

The whole affair points to a fetid underbelly of the ruling Russian politburo worthy of deeper investigation and exploration. The name "Anna Politkovskaya" floats somehow, ghostly, above all of this. But what's been heartening lately has been the outpouring of sincere support from various outspoken celebrities, including the holy (and wholly inspiring, to my mind) triumvirate of artsy female greatness; Madonna, Bjork, and Patti Smith have let it be publicly known they stand with the three members of Pussy Riot. Madonna donned a mask and wrote the band's name in marker on her own body during a concert in Oslo; Bjork did a manic live dance with a bevy of female chorister-musicians, shrieking in her signature banshee-like howl above the din. It was a beautiful, if perfect echo of Pussy Riot's own protest in one of Russia's holiest sites.

"Jesus Christ would fucking forgive them!" roared Smith at recent concert in Stockholm. One senses she's right. Surely Jesus would smile at the ballsy, youthful vigor of it all. It's surreal, the protest -tacky, surreal, unsettling, gormless, and... young. That brave, outrageous, ballsy stuff we do when we're young translates into the stuff we awkwardly admire from the comfortable distance of gap-toothed time and fat adulthood. We may not do it again... but damn, we want to.

The childlike sincerity of Pussy Riot's protest dances with a childish desire to shock, which isn't so childish if you know the admittedly scary politics of Putin's Russia. It's as if the rioters, in using the slang for female genitalia so boldly, and doing their funky young-wooman-goddess-thing in a Christian environ, are asking people to stop and think where true power lies in 2012 Russia, and where it should lie; they're daring people to stop, to think, to choose, and to reconsider. As Crosbie wisely notes, "the word “pussy” has been on everyone’s lips for weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more simple and more complex way of disseminating the blunt, beautiful nature of the girls’ mission." Those colorful masked figures are 2012's gangly, Gaia-like, guitar-slinging Teletubbies, Mother Russia's monstrous, balaclava'd court jesters, pointing up the ridiculous nudity of Sovereign, State, and Society. All we can do, us boring grown-up women, is stand and smile as they call upon the Saint for delivery, mouths open, eyes wide, inspired by the bravery of youth and the beautiful danger of pussy power in holy houses made flesh and blood.

Jesus would forgive them - even if they knew better, but most especially if they didn't.

(Photo credits: Pussy Riot members [top] from Pitchfork.com; Madonna photo from nme.com; Pussy Riot [bottom] by Igor Mukhin.)

Aug 21, 2012

Live! Live!

The idea of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery is one I've been mentally turning back and forth the last while. If someone stands up on a stage and imitates someone else - well - does that make them a great artist too, or merely a gifted technician?

This question came into focus the last few months as I attended two different musical theater events, Million Dollar Quartet and Backbeat: The Birth Of The Beatles. Both works are based on real people and real music history events, and both involve the depiction of cultural touchstones. Constant comparison is an evitable part of such events, especially if one's been exposed to the real thing -or even, bizarrely, a good imitation of the real thing.

In the former, my companion turned up her nose to the performer playing Elvis Presley, dryly noting she'd seen far better impersonators in concert, and noting the actor playing Johnny Cash wasn't menacing enough; she'd seen (and met) the real thing years before, and the performance (/imitation) simply didn't measure up. Similarly, attending Backbeat afforded me the opportunity of unfair comparison, having seen Paul McCartney perform at Yankee Stadium last year. It wasn't so much the performer didn't measure up that bothered me as it was the knowledge he never could.

At the end of Backbeat, people were cheering and applauding, out of their seats and dancing to the loud, raucous sound of "Twist and Shout" - but what were they cheering, really? The performance? Or the music itself -and their memories associated with the music? It struck me as a surreal sort of nostalgia, one magnified by years of people having a casual connection (however tenuous and imagined) with their pop idols via the internet, where a few clicks yields live performances they very well may've been at themselves. Who wouldn't want to re-live happy memories, of happier times, with a younger self, bright and bushy-tailed, full of beer and brawl, piss and vinegar, howl and hope? The internet provides a quick, easy hit of nostalgia, available 24/7 - but I wonder, at what cost?

In June, I saw Patti Smith perform material from her remarkable new album "Banga." Before an excited audience at the Barnes and Noble near Union Square, Smith and her band (including longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye) did three numbers from the album: the swirlingly romantic"April Fool", the 50s ballad-like "This Is The Girl", and the album's title cut, with its fittingly literary inspiration. The audience smiled,  cheered, clapped, initially hesitant but eventually exuberant. There were no calls for "Dancing Barefoot" or "Because The Night" though I'm sure a few people were panting to hear them. This wasn't about nostalgia -it was promotion, after all -but Smith seemed far more interested in forging an authentic connection with her audience; it was refreshingly to see an artist of her calibre so genuinely happy to be there, wandering through the crowd before the show, chatting, and later, proudly presenting new material and carefully explaining various songs' origins. I found it especially encouraging to note so many young women in the audience, hanging on Smith's every word. The smartphones and cameras were firmly away when she spoke. The crowd, quiet but ready to laugh at Smith's knowing, occasionally self-deprecating asides, was genuinely interested in hearing -and experiencing -new material from an old favorite, first-hand.

New memories are forged through this sort of event; the holy spirits of exploration, expansion, and inspiration ask us, as arts lovers, to go see and do something just a bit different, regularly, rather than live in the spin cycle of favorite playlists, repeated ad nauseum. It's nice to revisit old times and places (and people) with a few clicks (or swipes), but I wouldn't want to re-live those times, live, at any concert; a few well-chosen old nuggets are just right when placed beside newer, more unfamiliar material. There's always a wealth of new memories being  created -sometimes it's new sounds that give them the nudge into creation. More than ever, I want to celebrate that creation.

(Photos from my Flickr stream)

Aug 5, 2012

Loss (& Magic)

Roughly an hour after my review of a new musical was posted came word that Chavela Vargas had passed. There was something eerie in the timing; my review had got me thinking more than ever about Astrid Kirchherr and women like her  - the strong, uncompromising female artists who refused to fit into tidy pre-determined roles around their femininity and whose art was never determined solely by their gender or the place that put that at in the world.

Vargas, the throaty Latin singer had long been a favorite of mine. The first time I saw her, in Frida, I was entranced. What a voice... what a soul... what a presence.



It feels as if this year has been a horrible one for losing strong female artists and presences. Zelda Kaplan, who passed in February, was another sparky figure I greatly admired; my clubbing days would've extended longer, I think, had I had gone with her. There was an Auntie Mame-esque joie de vivre about her. Alternately, Nora Ephron and Maeve Binchy felt like confidantes -the sort who'd be hilariously blunt with how ugly those jeans look on you, and why you (I) should stay from men who don't do a lot of reading or like art galleries. Donna Summer was the woman who stopped everyone talking (and got them dancing); self-contained in her sensuousness, confident in her calm sexuality, she never had to try hard, she simply was. Real sex appeal, as I recently told a friend, can't be faked. It only fools some of the people some of the time.

Donna Summer's moans, simpers, sighs and statements were a declaration of her independence, alright -the exact same way Chavela Vargas' anguished, fierce, defiant tones were. They still are, for me and female artists everywhere. Their tunes didn't definer them as a woman; they defined them as fleshy, living human beings: let me be what I am, here and now.

There's so much more I could say, should say, about these women, but it's not the time or place, and I still haven't finished meditating on their role in my life, or mourning their loss. Lou Reed's 1992 album Magic And Loss captures much of this feeling, of losing personal friends who were also artistic heroes. Creative and personal so often bleeds over in life, and in art. That's probably a good thing.

All I can say at this point is: Dear Ms. Kirchherr, please hang on. I haven't met you yet, and I want to.

Aug 4, 2012

Unearthing Ireland

As has been noted, part of my mission this summer is to educate myself about music a little more - new music, old music, everything in-between. Being an arts journalist has afforded me a ton of opportunities to go exploring, even if time constraints mean I frequently feel a bit of a musical dilettante, skipping from one artist/band/era/genre to the next. But one thing caught my attention, and it's stayed glued there for months now. It even resulted in my writing a formal feature.

July 16th saw the release of Strange Passion, a compilation of sounds from the Irish post punk era. The first tune I heard from it (back in June) was SM Corporation's "Fire From Above", which has since become my unofficial summer anthem. With its bouncy beat and bleepy-bloopy electronic sound, along with a vaguely keening-esque vocal line, it's really the best sort of earworm to have through the heat waves and hot storms dominating the last couple weeks. In deciding to do a feature length story on Strange Passion and post punk in Ireland, I knew I'd be falling, delightedly head-first, into a cultural landscape I find deeply fascinating, even now. 

The Dublin of the late 1970s and early '80s was anything but glamorous, but, based on research and interviews (and frankly, the music), it was an inspiring time for artists. As Gavin Friday told me, sometimes the best art can come from the smaller, less glamorous cities; I turned this over in my mind after he said it, considering the home cities of some of my favorite artists (Prince is from Minneapolis; R.E.M., from Athens, Georgia; even The Beatles are from Liverpool, which was hardly a hotbed of hip cultural life in the late 1950s). There's something to be said for geography being destiny for artists: why, how, if (or when) they leave, they always carry a piece of their locale with them in song and sketch and spirit. 

Bands like Major Thinkers, Chant Chant Chant, and The Threat may not have lasted in any literal sense, but I'd like to think that listening to them affords me a peek into a creatively compelling place and time, one that's bled over into our own multi-faceted era of mixed sounds and places and experiences.

Addendum: For a detailed examination of the bands on Strange Passion, do check out Ian Maleney's excellent piece over at The Quietus.