Patti Smith – Just Kids

On a day that I just had a common, but very uncomfortable medical procedure, yet one that diagnoses that disease which probably killed my uncle, my beloved grandmother and definitely struck (but did not decimate) my mother and grandfather, I am reading “Just Kids” by Patti Smith.

I’m starting again from the beginning, because so much life had intervened with my initial attempt at reading it, I knew I had to start fresh to find the flow of the narrative. My first impression then, that it is a book of poetry in the guise of prose, still holds.

And just as I’m aware when I listen to Patti’s music, I recognize that there is a self-consciousness, an awkwardness of an over-imagined phrase next to an original, achingly crystalline phrase in this book. (Though fortunately, the powerful lines far outweigh the none ones.)

But I’ve always ignored the self-consciousness in her songs, or more perhaps, forgave what potentially could put me back into my critical mind instead of experiential one BECAUSE of her envelopment into the totality of the song. An envelopment that enveloped me.

She tranced for me. She excessed for me. She fought god for me. (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”) She was strong – strong in voice and strong in not being afraid to make a mess of a song, but still so full of her sex to me (“See a young girl humping on a parking meter… oh she look so good, oh she look so fine… G-L-O-R-I-A”). These songs went to my heart and loins, together always together. In the 5 times, I’ve seen her perform (4 with the band, and once solo with only her poetry as accompaniment), that prophetic vinyl message (yes, first on vinyl, only latter delivered in bits and bites of digital code) was vastly reinforced.

In “Just Kids”, there is definitely a gauze of nostalgia, but much more it is a meditation on death and re-birth, both a celebration and an elegy of life in New York City and vice versa. And a life in art, and vice versa.

After all, the titular co-character kid is Robert Mapplethorpe – he who created exquisite images of often not overtly exquisite content and who then died young of AIDS. And Patti would lose her husband, her brother and one of her bandmates. All died young too.

I’m reading this book right now again because of Mz. Amuse – who bought this book for me as a Valentine’s gift. She said, “You’re recovering tonight – don’t run around. Drink liquids, rest. Read a book. Read the Patti Smith book.” She should know the right idea of recovery. She had breast cancer recently, at a younger than expected age.

Overtly, that explosion of wayward cells are all gone now, but the shadow remains. Statistics doing their statistically obfuscating thing go into overdrive in such circumstances where death is the prize. (Yes, I was the researcher – try to figure out the best course of action where numbers lie and tell the truth simultaneously. In the end, it was her choice anyway.)

Obviously, I’ve stopped reading to write this post. I needed the break to express. Too much loss and recognition. My losses, my recognitions of places the same or similar… but all different too, of course.

I’m sure my father’s death last month is only focusing my long standing profound sense of my mortality. I am only in, not of, the Zeitgeist as of this moment.

I don’t have the perspective, the distance from myself, to say whether or not Patti Smith is a great artist for the ages – I only know she speaks to me. She speaks to me.

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Elderly Background Actors

I work on the Fox Lot and the way to my office in the Old Executive Building takes me past the sound stage where the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” is shot.

I’ve only seen one of the leads once, but I often see the extras. Typically these people are young men in suits and/or hot women in short dresses or evening attire. Particularly lots of these attractive women.

But this morning was different. A coffee station had been set up, which I’ve never seen, and all of the extras were clearly over 65, all in evening attire, i.e. except for 3 young men who clearly were cast as waiters. It’s the first time on the Lot I’ve ever seen so many older actors in one place being called in for a shoot… at least a dozen of them.

It’s hard to say if these older people did background work as a hobby in their retirement, or were actually working actors who had had a long career. I imagine the latter only because of the grimness or sadness on the faces of so many of them… as if their expressions said, “I was once a leading lady and now I’m being relegated to a background visual punchline.”

I had such an overwhelming sense of sadness… seeing them sitting out in their chairs throughout the day, as I passed the Commissary Lawn… just waiting to be called in. Perhaps of course, this is purely my own anxiety about my own tumbling years. Thus I could be imagining their angst and frustration, and they were just having a grand old time on those folding chairs. After all, at least the grips had put up fabric to give them shade.

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Rhino Resurrected

I saw the premiere of “Rhino Resurrected” on Saturday Aug.20… as the movie’s producers don’t have a distribution deal, I can only urge you, if you see another screening listed, to GO if you’re a music geek especially, and secondarily if you’re interested in LA cultural history.

The story of a record store and it’s off shoot record label (before Warner Brothers ate it) would seem to be a super obscure subject but think a real life version of “High Fidelity” and obnoxious record store employee Jack Black. The two hours fly by and it’s mostly like being in the company of a funny, smart, sometimes annoying bunch of music fanatics.

From a purely filmmaking standpoint, the movie is well-edited with very few dead spots. It is a mix of archival footage (stills, band performances, a few interviews) with more extensive present day interviews. The organizing device was the “resurrection” of Rhino with a temporary pop-up store last year. Overall this device works well structurally, but there a few too many shots of getting the temporary store ready for the public which slows down the movie. In general all tech. elements are solid. But this is a movie where content is everything, not how good or not good the cinematography is. And the content, as I said, was surprisingly interesting and often amusing.

As I’m originally an East Coaster, my first exposure to Rhino was through its superlative compilations of garage rock and soul.

But backing up, I was, and am, a huge Patti Smith fan. Indirectly because of her I discovered 1960’s garage rock. (It should be noted that because of my brothers’ record collections, I was already a fan of Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, Hendrix, Cream and all of the other well known 60’s greats etc.) Patti’s long time collaborator and guitarist, Lenny Kaye, had selected and produced the ground breaking Nuggets compilation of forgotten garage rock and psychedelic rock hits, semi-hits and rarities back in 1972 and then re-issued in 1976 on Sire. I would discover it in 1980 or so. Wanting to go deeper, and using those songs on Kaye’s compilation as the jumping off point, I was led, more often than not, to Rhino Records.

Rhino’s compilations would usually have the best sound quality, the best selection for the money and the most interesting liner notes. My visceral history of rock music was profoundly, though not in any sense exclusively, influenced by the tastes and quirks behind Rhino. My favorite Christmas CD to this day is Cool Yule with an incredible bunch of up tempo soul, r&b, rockabilly and rock X-mas originals or vastly altered traditional songs (e.g. a bouncy, danceable, truly joyous “Silent Night”).

So, when I came out to LA in 2000, I was a little surprised to realize that there were two brick and mortar Rhino Records stores: one in the Westwood section near UCLA and another on the LA county border in the college town of Claremont. The former, original store, had already lost the ethos that is so wonderfully chronicled in the documentary but I can still say I bought a few CD’s there.

I actually bought far more in the Claremont store because my first LA girlfriend (and more than that, eventually) lived in that town. I didn’t know then that the original owner Richard Foos had sold that store a long time ago – a fact I learned only at the Q&A after the documentary. Nonetheless that Claremont store still carried some of that vibe of community and quirkiness.

(Another tangential fact about me – over my life, the majority of my disposable income has gone into books and record/cd’s with movies a close third after that. Fancy cars, clothes, etc. have never held much appeal to me for while in a sense I could easily be accused of being a collector, it is only of things that produce an experience that truly matter to me; I am decidedly NOT a materialist.)

But what the documentary really captures that is so universal is the experience of going into your neighborhood record store, pawing through the record jackets… that sense of tactility of holding a record album in one’s hand… seeing the art work… reading the liner notes…chatting a little or maybe even a lot with the record store clerk… it was place where geeks could feel cool and sometimes even a community could exist.

The original Rhino Records seems to have been a particular special, maddening, annoying, enlightening. entertaining version of the above. But having been to many a record store first in my home town and then in the East and West Villages in NYC, I still recognized my own variants. I’m sure music geeks in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, etc. etc. will too.

So, there was sadness and poignancy of something lost (both an era and a community). After all, we now more than likely sit at our computers listening to sound samples on Amazon, etc. or i-tunes and either download the music immediately or have a CD delivered to our door. In Los Angeles, there remains only one last Nessie – Amoeba Records… a hybrid of the old neighborhood indie record store and the Tower Records / Virgin Records corporate type store. You can still get recommendations there from fairly knowledgeable clerks and discover tons of obscure music. Not quite an intimate experience but still one I have to limit or otherwise I spend far too much money there. But once again, it’s the last of its kind. Fortunately, we still have live music so community is in no danger of completely disappearing.

Furthermore, all of the participants in the Rhino comedy drama have survived and found someway to keep doing something of value, so it’s not a depressing documentary but a poignant celebration.

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Much Ado, seen

… well in continuation with yesterday’s post, now that I’ve actually
seen “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Santa Monica tennis courts last night – I can say it was the usual mix of good, bad and okay performances but as many of the good included the leads: Bennedick and Beatrice (Bridget Flanery, perf. again on Sunday), the Prince, Antonio and especially the father Leonato (particularly after his daughter is accused of sexual perfidy…quite moving). I don’t have the program with me so unfortunately, I can’t credit all of these actors properly. So, it’s worth seeing just because of them, and of course, it’s pay what you can so the price is right for everybody.

The director’s concept was a grab bag of contemporary anachronisms – the women wear tennis outfits, the men fatigues… at one point Benedick comes out in roller skates… the show stops often for choreographed movements to a soundtrack ranging from techno to classical to big band jazz. There are clever, even inspired aspects to all of this, but it’s also very unevenly executed (both technically and performatively), so there are painful, bizarre pr boring moments alternating with very entertaining ones.

In other words, I liked the energy and the idea of the production more than the totality of the production. Too many of the ideas felt so arbitrary. In fairness, this morning I had a more positive feeling about the production as a whole.

After all, the play itself is far more problematic and not the summer lark that it is often ascribed to be. There are wild variations of tone that don’t jibe with well with our modern sensibility. In a way, the “problem plays” (Measure for Measure, Pericles, etc.) are most easily solved by treating them essentially as dramas not comedies. But what of “Much Ado”? This production just added even more wild tonal swings and arbitrary actions in a shotgun attempt at creating comedy when the play itself isn’t being very funny at all, or perhaps is just being more quietly witty than knockabout farcical.

So, the flaws of that approach actually inspired me to want to try to tackle this play and direct a production… I’ve already come up with staging and scenic ideas… and alternate ways the scenes should have been interpreted. I don’t recoil from the arrogance of the word “should” since some scenes really have one way that they can be played if they are to work within the play as a whole.

That’s not to say there can’t be multiple wiggles within that “one way” but sometimes certain things just have to be accomplished so the final arc for the particular character or even the entire play makes sense.

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Much Ado

This is a second test blog… to add some content, I’m seeing “Much Ado About Nothing” in a park in Santa Monica tonight. This is notable, at the moment, solely because Bridget Flanery is playing Beatrice tonight. Bridget is one of my very favorite stage actresses in Los Angeles… a real gift… worth seeing in a very good productions like “The Rainmaker” a couple of years ago at A Noise Within and even in a painful to watch exercise of ego (not her’s, but rather that of the lead actor who was also the director who was also the artistic director) in the worst production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that I have ever seen. Back to the play tonight, I can only hope she is surrounded by actors commensurate with her talent and that all are directed competently. There may be more theatre in LA than most other cities in this country, but the quality is wildly hit or miss.

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