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May 06 2013


Manque Generation


Without even venturing to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, I unreservedly despise the Metropolitan Museum's new Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, which purports to "examine punk's impact on high fashion from the movement's birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today."

To put it simply, there is nothing in this particular quadrant of the celestial universe more un-punk than a Met show on punk's impact on couture.

This is all you need to know about punk fashion: sometime in the late 70s, I saw Stiv Bators walk past me on the stairs at Max's in some kind of multi-layered leather jacket sarong with a red scarf and thought, "I gotta find something that like."

There is no punk fashion after that. By 1983, punk fashion was for marketers and those who'd missed it. Vivienne Westwood, the MRI for your soul beckons - perhaps some wisp may be seen on the resonance machine. But I doubt it.

For those who were there - and yeah, this is a fogey rant so bear with me kiddies - "punk fashion" was the most ephemeral thing in the world. Sure, the more manufactured of the British punks were studied collectors and McLaren tried his marketing bones (and went belly up) but all else was momentary experimentation. Otherwise it was thrift shop nonsense and passing fancy; fashion of the moment, by the moment, and for the moment.

The recreation of CBGB at the Met is like the faux Oval Office in George W. Bush's new Presidential library - there's an unsanitary stain on your soul if you're taken in by the exhibitor's artifice.

To quote my friend Al Giordano via his angry Facebook feed:

Why do some of my chums seem to crave "institutional endorsement" for something whose first beauty was its utter contempt for institutions and absolute disregard for their approval? Day in, day out, we are treated to bombastic NY Times "stories" on this stupid exhibit, people who should know better link to them and cheer them. Well, sit down all of ye and stare at this Bloomingdales ad (hat tip Jim Sullivan) and contemplate what *always* happens when institutions try to make something theirs. I hope someone tosses dollar bills off the balcony during tonight's exhibit opening to reveal the true colors of this porkfest and lay waste to its elite pretensions.

Please remember dear friends that the Met is one of my favorite New York institutions. I liked it back in those days too. But for different reasons. I guess you can't put your arms around a memory (and Johnny Thunders knew his way around fashion, bub), but today's fashion manques can try and sell some baubles from the days of yore.

October 30 2010


Soul Survivor


Keith Richards ambled to the stage last night at the New York Public Library, hand in one jacket pocket, his now-gray locks free of 80s voodoo tchotchkes and lost holiday ornaments, a kind of hipster Beaux-Arts Bing Crosby in the appropriately similar Celeste Bartos room. There were no Telecasters to be found, just two large arm chairs and a few hundred guests and ticket-buyers, assembled to listen to a capella riffs on Life, the instant karmic classic from the Glimmer Twin sergeant major of open G rock classicism.

The genial almost grandfatherly presence that Richards inhabited during the 90-minute interview with a gentle, nearly apologetic Anthony DeCurtis was tinged with a surprising element that you don't normally associate with the pulsing, surging, synthetic Stones: wisdom. Life (which I received in signed glory last night and will read eagerly) is promoted as the back-stage memories of one of rock's true wild men, the against-the-odds survivor of the syringe and myriad hotel hi-jinks. Yet what Richards talked about last night comprised more lessons and guidance; the creator of Satisfaction morphed into beloved secular shaman, the die-job on his ragged hair forsaken for a suburban vicar's authenticity. And there in the front pews like minor royalty at the feet of the liege were some of the bold-faced faithful: Steve van Zandt, Lou Reed, Jimmy Fallon, Lorne Michaels rubbing elbows with Library patrons who support its mission of knowledge and community wisdom.

Drugs, relations with women, conflict with life partner Mick Jagger, mortality itself (an end-state associated with the wild Keef since his mid-20s), the role of a band-as-family over a long period of time - these were the threads that might have led to tension and topical insight. (The only real news on the night was the Richards tip that the Stones may be back at it next year). Yet in this relaxed, seminar-like setting they did not. A part-time New Yorker and Connecticut gentry since the 70s, Richards bantered easily and with a shiny grin, pausing like the old hoofer he is for the laugh lines to take hold. And like his own guitar playing, he allowed white space to filter into the song, and he kept an ear out for the rhythm section along the way. As in many a Stones show, the best stuff from Keith came from a fill, a short riff, an unexpected upstroke.

When DeCurtis gently prodded him to talk about the women in his life, Richards parried easily - yet his answer was almost Confucian: "I found it very futile to write anything bad about women ... [pause - thumpa-thumpa] ... It just doesn't swing." Words to live by. A sea of nodding bald spots. The phrase "right on, man" was heard to be uttered by attending Boomers wearing faded Stones t-shirts over $200 jeans.

 The biggest light of the evening came from a surprisingly sweet topic toward the end, when DeCurtis asked Richards about his own children. Clearly a direct hit, and one that brought an older man's spoken version of the opening riff from Happy (at least to this fan's ear): “Wife, family kids. Nothing can come between them.” Then his own question. “What is a family? It sticks together." Salt of the earth talk from the leather-clad former junkie new age Dumbledore of modern living. Yet it swung.

Yet it's the music we want to hear about, that sonic wellspring we want to read about. In his rave review of Life in The Times - "by turns earnest and wicked, sweet and sarcastic and unsparing" - Michiko Kakytani says that...

...the most insistent melodic line in this volume has nothing to do with drugs or celebrity or scandal. It has to do with the spongelike love of music Mr. Richards inherited from his grandfather and his own sense of musical history, his reverence for the blues and R&B masters he has studied his entire life (“the tablets of stone”), and his determination to pass his own knowledge on down the line.

Or rather, all down the line. Whether talking about the Beatles - "primarily a vocal group where either Paul or John or even George took the lead" - or about the insistence of Motown in all of 60s rock, Richards evinced an obsessive's knowledge of both form and history. Expected of course, but still thrilling in its way because you realize that on Friday night in the old building on 42nd Street, you're in the presence not just of rock star fame (it's New York, after all, happens every day) but of perhaps the greatest living "wizard of synthesis" of that moment in time when British rockers took American blues and R&B and churned it into a different, brilliant and lasting form.

 And in that context, Richards was at his most generous to Jagger. "Ain't nobody else could sing Midnight Rambler," he said, remembering conscious efforts to write for "the best front man in the business."

Richards was charmingly comfortable with his fame, while acknowledging that it sometimes destroys other people. "I've sort of grown into it," he said seriously, pausing to chuckle a smoker's thick chuckle.  "I'll be as famous as you like."

Vitally aware of his place in history, Richards was entirely approachable on the subject of that place - but  insistent that he didn't know it back then, "not consciously," at least. He maintains that he and others served almost as channels for that musical synthesis.

"When working, making those albums [mid-60s to early 70s]  it seemed very easy at the time," he said. "I'd guess you'd say we were on a roll. We were working a lot and, uh, songs were just popping out al over the place ... You do get swept along in the general tide of feelings. Obviously, something was happening and we were trying to put our finger on it ... In a way what can you do except to mirror or express what you're hearing around you?"

Then he added: "That's what a writer does."

Tags: Music New York

September 22 2010


Giving It Away on Seventh Avenue

From my column in Tina Brown's Daily Beast today on the annual Clinton Global Initiative philanthrofest at the Sheraton - turns out Mick Jagger was wrong: you can give it away on Seventh Avenue:

Six years after unveiling his Clinton Global Initiative in midtown Manhattan, Bill Clinton is happy to reel off the numbers: 1,946 commitments to social change in the world valued at $63 billion “which have already improved nearly 300 million lives.” That's almost 5  percent of the Earth's population. And those numbers will go up this year, as the usual pilgrims for social change make their way to the cool and cavernous Sheraton on Seventh Avenue to announce philanthropic deals, forge alliances, and tweet the latest star sighting.

At the center is an ex-president almost entirely unbound. In setting up CGI, gathering the world's leaders from the corporate, NGO and government spheres, and pressing for a diverse series of philanthropic commitments around the world, Bill Clinton has created a potent alternative to the cloistered, poll-driven, media-obsessed, 24-hour cycle of the 10th circle of hell known as the American Presidency.

To read the rest, dip your piggies in Da Beast.

March 04 2010


A Death in the Blogging Family

Al weisel The great Jon Swift has died. That's the "blogging" angle to a personal tragedy. In reality, the voice of Jon Swift - the hilarious faux conservative blogger whose talent and passion were evident in every post - belonged to Al Weisel, a sweet and good-natured journalist who happened to be the college roommate of my once-and-future collaborator Jason Chervokas.

I didn't know him well, but Al graciously agreed to be part of my little newcritics experiment of a couple of years back and his presence at some of our New York gatherings was generous, friendly, and low key - though the humor could sometimes be appropriately biting.

Al was on the way to his father's funeral in Virginia when he suffered a sudden aortic aneurysm and underwent several surgeries in an attempt to save his life. Sadly, they did not succeed.

Heartbreakingly, Al's mother has posted this comment to the Jon Swift blog, unmasking the true identify of her brilliant son - and yes, he was a blogging super-hero to many of us.

I don't know how else to tell you all who love this blog. I am Jon Swift's Mom and I guess I'm going to OUT him. He was Al Weisel, my beloved son. Al was on his way to his father's funeral in VA when he suffered 2 aortic aneurysms, a leaky aortic valve and an aortic artery dissection from his heart to his pelvis. He had 3 major surgeries within 24 hours and sometime during those surgeries also suffered a severe stroke. We, his 2 sisters, his brother, his partner and his best friend since he was 9 years old were with him as he took his last breath. We have all lost a shining start who warmed our hearts, tormented us and made us laugh as he giggled at our pulling something over on us. He passed away on February 27, 2010. My beloved child will live on in so many hearts. I miss him more than I can say. If you are on Facebook, go to organizations and join "Friends of Al Weisel, Unite!" It will give you just a taste of how special he was. Farewell, Jon (Al)

Al Weisel was the political poser's worst enemy as Jon Swift, but he was also a good guy to hang around the pub with and commiserate over New York's shrinking freelance rates. Gone all too soon, he'll be truly missed by many.

UPDATE: There's a Facebook group.

UPDATE II: Fine remembrances online - Jason, who knew him best among our group, because he knew him youngest. Please stop by his place and leave a comment; here's a bit:

In the nearly 30 years that I knew Al I didn't see him much--once or twice a year maybe, during some decades less, during some decades more. My sense of Al was that for him intimacy and emotion were never easy but there was something about our rare occasional conversations that I cherished deeply, and it was precisely the easy intimacy that results from sharing life events during those tender years when the vulnerable parts are all exposed no matter how well we think we're hiding them. I know that is the kind of friendship I'll never have the chance to develop again, so on a purely selfish level I'll miss Al more than probably he would have known.

Speaking of hiding things-- keeping secrets, was definitely one of Al's most treasured inner pastimes. For years, literally years, he would remind me with agitation about something I had written in the early Internet days to the effect that we've basically given up our privacy in the modern age anyway so why concern ourselves with protecting it online. Privacy, even secrecy, remained for Al a deeply cherished notion. I've been reading many of the blog posts eulogizing Al's Jon Swift persona. I know Al was proud of Jon Swift, perhaps a little frustrated by his inability to make it pay off in a kind of Matt Drudgey way. He certainly was gleeful about poking fun at conservative group think (sometimes the line between his parodies and the non-parodic statements of actual conservatives was indecipherable), and his malicious, gleeful, nervous laugh will be sorely missed. But I keep wondering, reading the Swift mourning, how many personae Al really had and who among his family, friends and lovers actually knew all of Al?

And James Wolcott really captured the Al Weisel that some of us came to know from New York gatherings of writers:

I met Al/Jon at the New Critics parties that Tom refers to, and he was a quietly intense guy, not in a bad way, but with a driven quality enabled him to devour all sorts of conservative craziness and alchemize it into comedy set-pieces dense with specifics but never losing their coherent purpose. There was always a "through-line" to his longer posts that had the electric hum of a third rail.

He was also the co-author of a lively book about James Dean and the making of Rebel Without a Cause, Live Fast, Die Young. I didn't have the sense Al/Jon lived too fast, but he definitely died too young.

Watching the spreadin profusion of links and tweets and comments this afternoon, it's amazing how many lives Al Weisel touched in his quietly intense way - mainly through the gift of his writing.

UPDATE III: Other heart-felt posts that should be read and commented on by friends in the blogging community:

Kathleen Maher

Blue Girl

Melissa McEwan

skippy the bush kangaroo

Tags: Blogs New York

November 23 2009


Open Court: New York and the Terror Trials

The right-wing blogosphere is damp this morning from the threat of accused 9/11 masterminds - gasp - holding forth on "why they did it" (Fox's headline) in open court here in New York.

Quakes a snide Jules Crittendon in not his most Churchillian moment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the right of jihadis to grandstand in front of juries.” Pam Geller, as unhinged as usual, smells some kind of White House plot to help the terrorists win: "And the clown in the White House will enjoy every disgusting minute of this obamanation. Jihad attacked America, jihad is winning."

At Gateway Pundit, the scorn for New York is obvious - and disgusting - in this little throwaway line: "The 9-11 terrorists are ready to rock New York City- again." Clever. Always nice to mix the living memories of fellow citizens jumping from 1,300 feet with a cheap political slogan.

My question for our right-wing brothers and sisters is this: Why so cowardly? Why is the usually "strict constructionist" crowd so afraid of public speech in an American courtroom? Do they think that New Yorkers will somehow come under the sway of those who plotted the murder of 2,700 of our neighbors? That we'll turn jihadi? That the words of those who would plan to fly planes full of human beings into buildings filled with other human beings will somehow become a public relations coup for Al Qaeda? And why do they lust so for a Chinese-style form of justice that favors a bullet in the head and a press release?

Why the fear?

New Yorkers strongly favor public trials for these defendants and I agree. I saw haul 'em into court, and let's hear what they have to say. Yeah, I'd like to know "why they did it," deranged as it may be. And frankly, some creepy Saddam-style hanging in Gitmo will hardly avenge the deaths of our fellow New Yorkers, or bring the illusory "closure" to this act of mass violence that so many demand.

You see, I know what the right fears and it's not jihadi propaganda or an unlikely terrorist strike at the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square. No, they fear the loss of faceless and fearful monsters locked away from public view; they fear that these "masterminds" may be revealed - like the Nazis at Nuremburg - as small men of limited intelligence whose humanity was stripped away by a code of blind hatred and bloodlust. Yes, they'll look small in court - and they'll sound hateful and stupid. And perhaps, a chapter in history will close - and with it, a useful political tool. The right wing has tried to make "the 9/12" world last as long as possible for a reason.

A judge and a New York jury in open court is the way to move us all forward, out of the shadows.

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