Saturday, August 6, 2016

Lou-palooza: Reed-in’ in the Rain at Lincoln Center

Ad for Lou's first post-
Velvets solo gig in NYC
at Lincoln Center (1973).
The weather might’ve been awful, but the music was wonderful. And there was a helluva lot of Lou Reed’s music sung, played, recited, projected, and “droned” at the marathon Lincoln Center Out of Doors event called “The Bells: a Daylong Celebration of Lou Reed” this past Saturday. Those of us who saw all three live shows got a bit more than six and a half hours (!) of live performance — that doesn’t count the Reed-related special events and free video screenings.

I didn’t have the chance to check out the drone event (an installation in which six of Lou’s guitars played feedback), nor did I rewatch any of the Lou-movies (what, no Get Crazy?) Two martial arts performances were also staged — the second was memorable, not only because the participants were quite gifted, but because a “pushing hands” exhibition was staged (and timed perfectly) to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (although this was not to be the most strikingly unusual use of Velvets’ music during the day).

The fact that the stage shows were sublime was welcome, of course, but not a surprise, since the day was produced, programmed, masterminded, coordinated, devised, and executed in benevolent mad scientist style by Laurie Anderson and Hal Willner (whose great live shows I have raved about before on this blog). 

The three shows each had a different tone. The first was a pure rock ‘n’ roll tribute to Lou; the second was a reading of lyrics that went from the genuinely touching to the bizarre; the third was the most affectionate of the shows, in which the purported theme was Lou’s “love songs,” but Laurie assured us at the outset that the setlist would “stretch the definition” of that term.

The rock ‘n’ roll show started off innocently enough, with MC Don Fleming presenting a band of little girls (called “Unidentified”) doing “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” (because, of course, “Venus in Furs” was already taken….) The fact that the show skewed toward “downtown” NYC performers kicked in with Jesse Malin of D Generation doing the VU anthem “Rock‘n’ Roll” (the first Lou Reed song this reviewer ever heard, thanks to WNEW-FM several eons ago).

After Malin, Joan as Police Woman sang “Ecstasy” from the album of the same name (one of only two songs that appeared in both tribute concerts, and the only one to be sung both times by the same person). At this point, yrs truly began taking pictures — I forgot my digital camera at home and instead was consigned to the living death that is photography with a phone. Thankfully, blogger “Mr C” brought a video camera to the show and captured some great performances for his Planet Chocko blog (linked to throughout this piece — like me, he was able to chronicle the early show better than the later two).
Joan as Police Woman in the early show. photo by Ed G.
The bulk of the songs covered in the first show were from the earlier part of Lou's career and — despite the fact that two gents were wearing Lou-ish leather jackets (Malin and Jon Spencer) — women seemed to do the freshest interpretations of the material. Felice Rosser did a killer “White Light, White Heat,” while Tammy Faye Starlight provided one of the standout performances by filtering Lou's song “Chelsea Girls” through her Nico impression. Her mocking-in-character the song's wordiness and the instrumental solos punctuating the piece made her turn only one of two comedy segments of the day (beside a later bit performed by Willem Dafoe — yes, you read that right, see below).

Jon Spencer came closest to offering the male equivalent to Tammy Faye, by taking off his belt and administering a Gerard Malanga-style whip-dance beating to his guitar during (what else?) “Venus in Furs.” The young-Lou songs kept coming, all rendered in delirious fashion (the later show was equally sublime but was more somber in tone). Guitarist Matt Sweeney did “I Wanna Boogie With You,” Lee Renaldo sang “Ocean,” the Bush Tetras rocked “Run Run Run,” Jenni Muldaur and Victoria Williams did an appropriately quirky “I'm Sticking with You,” J.G. Thirwell supplied a menacing “Men of Good Fortune," and Lenny Kaye put his own twist on “I'm Set Free.”

Fleming and Willner tackle a Reed rarity. photo: EG
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Willner himself joined Don Fleming for a VU rarity, “Temptation Inside Your Heart.” Fleming seemed to be adding Lou's own comments from the original bootleg recording of the song — the sign of a fan who's listened to a record several dozen times.

photo: EG
The rocker who does not age, David Johansen — who has looked to be in his mid-40s for the last two decades — sang a later Lou song, “I Believe in Love” from the Rock and Roll Heart LP).

The two standouts of the early show were Kembra Pfahler and her “Voluptuous Horror” friends naked (well, nearly) in body paint essaying one of Lou's sillier but catchy tunes, “Disco Mystic.” (The title is the only lyric — and in case we forgot that, a young lady carrying a giant sign with the two words emblazoned on it took center stage in the middle of the tune.)

Kembra Pfahler and her chromatic friends. photo: EG
The only thing that could possibly top that bizarre spectacle was the show's finale, the Velvets' noise-jam masterpiece “Sister Ray” performed by Yo La Tengo (who earlier performed “I Heard Her Call My Name”), half of Sonic Youth (the half that wasn't married to each other), and the other hand-picked house band members, with Kembra in red paint, her young-boy clone in blue paint, and Felice joining in as background dancers (backing vocals are not required on “Sister Ray” — if they did appear they wouldn't be heard anyway).

photo: EG
 The fact that anyone even attempted to cover that song is laudable, and Lee Renaldo and Ira Kaplan certainly did have a nice little guitar “battle” going on while Kenny Margolis filled in nicely on the organ.
*****

The second live show was a reading of Reed's lyrics. This occurred during the afternoon period when the rain began and didn't stop until 9:45, a few minutes after the festivities were over (ain't it always the way?). This was perhaps the most unusual, as readings of rock lyrics always seem a bit “off,” since those familiar with the words in their natural context want to hear the music (granted, two musicians did play in low tones to accompany the readers).
Willem Dafoe amidst the umbrellas.
photo: drenched EG

This event was held in the Hearst Plaza in front of the Library of the Performing Arts, the worst place to see a performance on the LC campus, as you view the performers through a maze of leaves and branches (trees dot the Plaza, their willowy branches reaching down into the sight-lines of every audience member except those who stake out seats in the very first row).

Add to that a constant downpour, and it goes without saying that diehard Lou fans were the only folks who stuck it out. (Aside from a few celeb-gawpers who would spawn gills to see their indie-move faves.) Thus the distinct lack of photos from this part of the day’s events — it was interesting to see that none of the major outlets that reviewed the shows (Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Brooklyn Vegan) paid a penny for the pics taken by those in the first row (thus my joy in getting at least one photo in focus, not destroyed by the rain).

More's the pity, since this show contained both great and bizarre pairings of performer and lyric. In the latter category let me jump right to my choice for the most unusual person to recite a Lou lyric, Elizabeth Ashley. Laurie Anderson announced that the participants in the three shows were all friends of Lou's, and Ashley did indeed participate in the Raven album. Still, Ashley is an actress whose performing style harkens back to the “grand dames” of earlier eras of theater (think Tallulah, darling!).

Thus, when Ashley announced that she would be reading “The Black Angel's Death Song,” my brain pretty much exploded — here, the star of the incredibly strange Funhouse cult favorite Windows was reciting the most surreal lyric in the VU canon. (“And roverman's refrain of the sacrilege recluse/For the loss of a horse/Went the bowels and a tail of a rat/Come again, choose to go...”)
"Maggie the Cat" (aka Elizabeth Ashley). photo: EG
After Ashley's turn (she also performed “The Day John Kennedy Died” and “Guilty”), the notion of “Samantha” from Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall, reading Lou's lyrics didn't seem unusual at all. She seemed quite delighted to be tackling “The Power of Positive Drinking” and “Tripitena’s Speech/Who Am I?” Another actor whom one wouldn’t immediately identify with Lou Reed, Fisher Stevens (yes, he played Poe on the Raven LP , but his Short Circuit performance has defined him in the minds of those of a certain age) offered creditable performances of “Change” and two truly tortured tunes, “Sad Song,” and Kill Your Sons.”

Julian Schnabel — whose look perplexes me (is he trying to be Peter Ustinov or Theo Bikel?) — discussed his friendship with Lou (as he is wont to do) in between reciting “Rock Minuet,” “The Bed,” and “Sword of Damocles” (from an album I consider the most underrated Reed album, the superb Magic and Loss).*

Poet Anne Carson leavened the proceedings by acknowledging her “dull, monotone” delivery of poetry — of all the speakers, though, she was the one who honored Reed’s words the most, as she read the humorous number “Hookywooky” and perhaps the finest-ever meditation on the allure, comfort, and terror of drugs, “Heroin.”

Laurie Anderson (wearing what can only be described as a super-cute “pixie hat”) did a pitch-perfect reading of “A Dream,” written for Songs for Drella, in which Lou openly acknowledges the breach between himself and Warhol. Her turn was beautifully complemented by Steve Buscemi’s conversational take on “Walk on the Wild Side.” In his very capable hands the song became a kind of prose-poem, the type of thing a “survivor” of the Warhol scene would be saying to someone in the corner of a caf√© or bar. (Buscemi also performed “Billy” and “Caroline Says.”)

Terrific renditions of some of Lou’s best NYC lyrics were delivered by Natasha Lyonne and Willem Dafoe. Dafoe brought life to the “Street Hassle” suite and the journalism-as-poetry classic “Dirty Boulevard.” He also dared to “play” Lou in a recreation of one of the many funny/cranky interviews Lou gave (this one from 1974 in Australia), with Carson as the clueless interviewer. Here’s the real thing:



Lyonne also got the chance to play Lou, as she read his dialogue from Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s underrated (sadly forgotten) film Blue in the Face (1995).


She also read “The Last American Whale” and an aptly Nu Yawk-ish version of “Coney Island Baby.” As the rain continued to douse us all (pissed off, but not deterred, we were…), it was onto the third show….*
****

The final show of the day was definitely conceived of as an affectionate celebration of Lou’s work. As noted, it was supposed to be a collection of his love songs but instead turned out to be a rather solid survey of his most emotional songs (the emotions left out were anger, which fueled a few of his memorable rockers, and dread, which produced the masterful “Waves of Fear”).

This particular show has been written up in various places across the Net, to the extent that the Brooklyn Vegan site had access to an official set list for the show. Thus, I don’t need to discuss the event as a whole for posterity (as I have done with Willner’s shows that haven’t been reviewed elsewhere). Despite the lousy weather, this show filled the Damrosch Park venue, whereas the first show was barely half full (NYCers are pretty lazy these days, and even the prospect of a great rock concert can’t get them to a free concert before noon).

So I want to focus solely on the highlights of the show. Of the women singers, Jenni Muldaur did a great rendition of the VU’s “Jesus,” Victoria Williams offered a quirky and tuneful “Satellite of Love,” Nona Hendrix did a rockin’ “Ride Sally Ride,” and guest star Lucinda Williams offered a gorgeous “country” rendition of “Pale Blue Eyes.”


As for the male rockers, Garland Jeffries did a great job with a song that isn’t exactly a classic (or all that musical), “My House” from The Blue Mask. David Johansen returned to offer up a great “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” accompanied by Bowie stalwart Earl Slick on guitar.


Along with a singing partner, John Cameron Mitchell showed that Lou’s songs can sound blissfully “Broadway” with wonderful harmonizing of “Turning Time Around” (a real, bona fide Reed love song from the Ecstasy album) and “I Found a Reason.” 

As could be expected, Laurie Anderson supplied the night’s quietest, most emotional Reed covers with her versions of “Sunday Morning” and “Doin' the Things That We Want To.” Her final performance was “Junior Daddy” from the Lulu album. Lou was truly “present” during this performance, as she and her fellow musicians accompanied his recorded vocal.

Lenny Kaye returned to close the show in perfect style with “Sweet Jane,” the only other song to be heard in both rock shows (Harper Simon sang it earlier). Kaye was an excellent choice to close out the day, since he was not only a colleague and contemporary of Lou’s, but is also a rocker who doubles as a writer (or is it the other way around?).
 
Anohni at the evening show. photo: EG
And while every participant distinguished themselves in one way or another, there was one indisputable “MVP.” Anohni (formerly Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons) possesses such a strikingly beautiful voice that her rendition of three Reed songs were without question the highlights of the night. Lou might’ve been the one who crafted the songs, but Anohni’s instrument is so overpoweringly emotional that her versions of “Femme Fatale,” “A New Age,” and especially “A Perfect Day,” were absolute knockouts.

 

The fact that hundreds of us didn’t leave in the incessant downpour isn’t just a testament to Lou’s music, it’s also a reflection of how well Anderson and Willner programmed the live shows. A few months back I felt uneasy and, frankly, somewhat bored watching the live stream of the three-hour tribute to Bowie at Radio City. In that instance I was watching songs I deeply love being unimaginatively covered by (mostly) inappropriate musical acts and was in the comfort of my home, but was bored silly.

At the three live shows that made up “The Bells” celebration, as miserable as the weather was, as uncomfortable as it was sitting being pelted by rain for four of the six and a half hours (spread out over a ten-hour span), I was never bored, thanks to creative programming, extremely talented performers, and good pairings of artist and material. Attending the shows led me to break out and re-listen to Lou LPs the next day — the ironclad proof of a good musical tribute…. 

*NOTE: For posterity’s sake, I should note that the other items read at the poetry event were “Halloween Parade” and “Venus in Furs”; also Lou’s meditation on his mentor Delmore Schwartz, “Andy’s Chest,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” (The first two were performed, I believe, by writer A.M. Homes and the last three by poet Anne Waldman
verification needed on this info.)

CREDIT where credit is due: The ad for Lou's Alice Tully Hall gig comes from the "Doom and Gloom From the Tomb" tumblr. That blogger has a link to an *amazing* slice of radio history: Lou playing records and answering phone calls (!) at WPIX-FM in May 1978. It's stunning, as Lou praises "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," says he loves Sandy Denny, plays a rare live version of "Street Hassle," and a novelty record with a Nixon impersonator doing a Watergate-themed rework of "Walk on the Wild Side." (!)

That particular insane link leads to this other time that Lou DJ'ed at WPIX, in 1979. Stunning stuff, including Lou going on Lenny-overdrive as he complains about rock reviewers (sounds like he's about to launch into "Father Flotsky's Triumph" at any moment), plays both Nico and Bobby Short (!) records, and welcomes a very special guest (of Welsh extraction...)
Listen to it!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

‘A Piece of the Action’: a tribute to Herb Gardner (part 2 of two)

I mentioned in the first part of this piece that playwright Herb Gardner had a rather small body of work. What there is, however — to borrow a line from a Tracy & Hepburn comedy — is “cherce.” Those of us who love his plays and the movies made from them are always happy, though, to find “new” Gardner material.

One of the true oddities in Gardner’s early work is the 1951 one-act “The Elevator” (originally called “The Condemned,” credited to “Herbert Gardner”), which has remained in print since ’52 through Samuel French (the SF company sells an “acting edition” of the play). It’s a major anomaly for Gardner, as it’s a thriller — and, by extension, the sort of paranoia piece that flourished in the late Forties and Fifties.

The plot is a noir scenario that would’ve worked perfectly as an episode of the thriller anthologies of old-time radio (Suspense, Inner Sanctum, etc). Its emphasis on creepy laughter also links it to a radio classic (The Shadow). The Samuel French edition (and website) contains this rather clunky plot synopsis: 

A sinister figure cuts a wire in an elevator which is about to descend. On the way down the elevator stops and there is no escape. Then a taunting voice calls out; we learn that the man above nearly went to the chair for a crime he didn't commit because one of the elevator occupants would not speak on his behalf (bad publicity). The selfishness of the occupants is exposed as the laughing man cuts the cables, stroke by stroke. The final stroke — and the doors open! The teaser had lowered them while taunting them! 

All told, the play doesn’t belong in the company of Gardner’s later works, but it is a laudable achievement for a precocious 17-year-old whose studies concentrated on sculpting and the fine arts.
*****

Gardner only wrote a small handful of short stories, but the first one surely sets the stage for A Thousand Clowns. It was written while he was a third-year writing major at Antioch College and was included in the 1955 Bantam anthology New Campus Writing.

The story, “The Man Who Thought He Was Winston Churchill,” concerns an animator who loses his mind — or does he? The first paragraph is a well-constructed intro to the entire situation, plus it supplies a great description of a profession that is now sadly long gone, one that Gardner had as a day job in the mid-Fifties. 

You’ve probably figured from the title that this story is about a man who thought he was Winston Churchill. Well, on the surface you’d be right, but there’s a lot more to it. Charles Catlett worked on the animating board next to mine at Graphic Films for about a year and a half. We were both inbetweeners in the main animating room packed into the row upon row of drawing boards with about seven million other inbetweeners, animators, assistant animators, fillers and apprentices. In an animation set-up like Graphic an inbetweener’s job is to do the about eighty or ninety in-between drawings of a character’s movement for every ten basic drawings of the main animator. Whatever the character was we called him Happy Joe. We had little private jokes to ourselves like that to while away the two hundred years before we became head animators…. 

An inbetweener has got to have speed, a good eye for reproducing the head animator’s Happy Joe in the necessary intermediate positions, enough talent to draw but not too much so that it gets in his way, a tolerance for short money, and a passion for Happy Joe. [p. 14]

Gardner in 1958.
Charles wants to break out of the “inbetweening” racket, and feels he can assemble something coherent out of the Happy Joe drawings he has been making for himself and not for his employer. He doesn’t quite know when to do it and has a ready excuse for not accomplishing anything when he’s not at the animation studio: 


”Weekend is for therapy,” Charley said. “Resting up from Happy Joe and Ferris and all the lovely people down at Graphic. Weekends is for two parts water and two parts bourbon and throwing poison darts at somebody’s grandmother. Weekends is for investigating the possibilities of a dandy hiding place where Monday can’t find me.” [p. 16]

Our narrator visits him at his rundown Avenue B apartment — beautifully sketched by Gardner — where he finds that Charley now indeed believes he is Sir Winston. The conclusion of the tale finds Charley/Winston admitting that he knows who he really is, but he needed a proper motivation to do his own animation. (He figures a world-famous statesman would have time to squander on such a project.)

The piece is well worth seeking out (the Bantam anthology sells for very little online), not only because it’s amusing and well-written, but it also offers a perfect prelude to the events in the cluttered apartment of one Murray Burns (the hero of A Thousand Clowns).
********

To my knowledge, Gardner only published two more pieces of fiction in his lifetime, both short stories that were reworked into his scripts. Both stories show a greater mastery of fiction, leaving us to wish that he’d undertaken a second novel in the gaps between his playwriting.

The most glaring thing about the stories is the publications they appeared in. “Guess Who Died?” is about a young Jewish man confronting his parent with two crises — he wants to quit school and he’s made a girl pregnant. The story appeared in Playboy (in an issue containing stories by his friend Jules Feiffer and ex-friend Jean Shepherd). No surprise in that, as Hefner’s editors made a point of acquiring work by the best American novelists of the time.

The odd placement — as in “how the fuck did this happen?” — was the publication of “Who Is Harry Kellerman…?” (later fleshed out into the movie script, of course) in… The Saturday Evening Post? The illustration by Wilson McLean accompanying the piece is wonderfully “Sixties,” although it is more singles-bar, straights-acting-mod Sixties, rather than the far more appropriately grungy hard-rock tone that predominated in the film (thanks to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show).


But it’s not the pop-rock aspect of the story that makes it a “wtf?” acquisition for the Post — it is the fact that the story unfolds like a dream, with the lead character’s therapist (beautifully played in the film by Jack Warden) turning into different fantasy characters as our antihero begins to lose his mind.
Gardner co-directing Who Is
Harry Kellerman...?

So the “straight” story wound up in Playboy and the trippy, surreal tale somehow landed in The Saturday Evening Post. Thankfully, the stories were both utilized as parts of the Harry Kellerman 1971 feature film that is wildly uneven but also — in the manner of so many post-Easy Rider, “maverick”-era, major studio productions — richly rewarding in both its weirdness and raw emotion.
*****

The holy grail of pre-Broadway Gardner-iana is his novel A Piece of the Action (1958), which rarely sells online for less than 50 dollars (the going rate at bibliophile sites is $200). The book wasn’t a bestseller and apparently only had one printing in both hardback and paperback. The long and short of it is that it is not a masterpiece, and that Gardner became a much better, much more “universal” writer when he turned to playwriting a few short years later. It does contain some beautifully written passages, though, and its themes overlap with the plays.

The book is a thinly veiled, and evidently far grimmer, version of Gardner’s experiences creating and selling the Nebbishes concept (see part one for a complete explanation of what the Nebbishes were). The dilemma that protagonist Lou Gracie faces is a classic one — will he or won’t he sell out to a big corporation?

The British printing of Piece
Lou is clearly an antihero of the post-Salinger, pre-Philip Roth sort. The interesting thing is that Gardner never states his ethnicity. Reading it after the plays, one assumes he is Jewish, but his last name and the depiction of his parental figure, his Uncle Vic (who runs a bar in downtown Manhattan, as Gardner’s father did), could make him Jewish, Irish, Italian, anything.

The plot is straightforward: sculptor Lou hates working for toy companies, crafting novelty items for the Christmas market. He loves Nina (a singer clearly modeled after Herb’s first wife Rita, to whom the book is dedicated) but feels he is not worthy of her while he’s bringing home such a small paycheck. His uncle has been his guardian since he was a kid, but Vic is distracted by trying to make his bar into a popular nightspot (a big part of Gardner’s personal mythology, later used as a major plot point in the musical One Night Stand and Conversations with my Father).

To amuse himself, Lou creates mini-sculptures he calls “Slobs” — little loser figures that are like pint-sized versions of his own insecure vision of himself. Through a coincidence, one of his Slobs is spotted by a boss at his company and is deemed the next big thing.

Lou’s Slobs are revised to look less goofy-looking, and he has to decide if he will sell out to the company that wants to merchandise his Slobs (and saturate the retail world with the concept — as happened with Gardner’s Nebbishes) or regain artistic control of his creation.


The book is very much of its time, in that it explores the business of marketing and advertising. (Mad Men was indeed preceded by countless novels and movies about the soul-stripping aspect of the ad industry — released at the time when the ad agencies really mattered.)

It also reflects the sexism of the time, in that Lou is pretty eager to stray away from his true love and indulge in one night stands with women he never could’ve gotten a few months before his sudden fame. Although the book is a first-person narrative from Lou’s POV, Gardner does allow Nina to blast back at Lou when he slams her for sleeping her way up in show business (an untrue accusation that she counters by noting that he is the sellout for allowing the giftware company to vastly alter his Slobs into tamer, cuter figures).

Lou’s dilemma is indeed incredibly specific, unlike the protagonists in Gardner’s plays, who have more generic problems that most of us have been faced with (or, at the very least, pondered). Lou is nowhere as loveable as the lead characters in Gardner’s plays — in fact at times, befitting his “antihero” status, he is somewhat unlikeable, whereas even the would-be “villains” in Gardner’s plays always seem sympathetic (the best example is William Daniels’ “cold” social worker in Clowns).

Given that he is part of a new, neurotic generation, Lou recognizes his shabby behavior even as he is practicing it, and is critical of himself. (“I am Lou Gracie, a suggestion for a person, a plan for a person that hasn't been worked out yet.”) As someone who not-so-secretly wants to sell out (or does he?), he also makes a good observer figured for a well-sketched party scene and various other set pieces in the book, including a detailed lecture on the marketing viability of the Slobs from a business-like publicist: 

“The gift is an odd thing. The pure gift. A broom, a pencil sharpener, a piece of cheese – these are gifts of utility. But the gift the buyer can be taught to give, whispered, shouted at to give, coaxed and forced to give, is the gift of sentiment. The million and seven deadlocked, bear-trapped, demanding sentimental occasions a year. This is the shape of our dollar.” [pp. 216-17]

A detail from "the Nebbishes scrapbook" (an empty
book with Nebbishes on the cover)

Later in his mini-lecture to Lou, he talks about the Slobs (echoing the box copy I included in part one of this piece): 

“… We must make the Slob an outstanding example of good taste. The item is, essentially, useless. Our problem is not so much a publicity that will make the Slob something that everyone needs but something that everyone needs to give.” [p. 217]

Early on Lou gives us a description of the Slobs that conveys the affection that Gardner had for his Nebbish characters (who, by 1958, had done quite well by him financially).
 
Courtesy of ibdennis.com
About six inches high they usually were — broken-down, happily incompetent, sloppy-looking creatures. A sort of sculptural slapstick, oval-shaped, a nose surrounded by a face that seemed to have a chin, but really the head just ran right down into a round belly climaxed by a navel. Not a navelly navel — just a small point of shadow that made the little man look naked without really being nude. The eyes of the Slob were always closed, as though he might drop off to sleep when your back was turned. He had a very special kind of smile — not wide or very happy, a kind of apologetic grin that pushed his floppy cheeks aside, an almost sad smile, regretful perhaps, a smile of unconditional surrender, the face of one in a situation that is too large.” [Piece, pp. 3-4]

One of the delights of Gardner’s plays was the way that he reworked notions from his earlier work, like a jazz musician assembling a new piece of music from a riff on an old theme. In this novel, descriptions of the characters and lines of dialogue prefigure some much-loved moments in the plays.

One character has a tendency to touch himself all the time “to makes sure he was still there” (Gene Saks’ “Chuckles the Chipmunk” says the same thing in Clowns). Another character has a “talent for surrender” (a trait mentioned in the long speech that won Martin Balsam his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the same film).

A wiseguy cabbie (who hollers at another driver “You are an asshole bastid and there is absolutely no doubt about it”) is a clear prototype for Professor Irwin Corey’s hackie character in Thieves (seen at right). Most interesting for those of us who miss 42nd Street movie theaters is a bit about the Deuce that was reworked into a classic passage in the play version of Clowns. 

I went to one of the many grind houses on Forty-second Street that show two new old movies every day, all day, all night, forever and ever. Nearly twenty theaters for people to hide and pretend that they are really marking time before and after the very important business of their lives every day. [p. 65]

The passage that most obviously foreshadows Gardner’s Broadway debut is this trippy, touching meditation on color by one of Lou’s coworkers (and sexual conquests): “… I like to work with colors… Green, take green. Green is sharp and sarcastic, and green is wise, and not young anymore and not really old…. And brown, brown is warm and understanding, not really smart, but strong, brown is a father. And red is, oh, really something. Red is….” and she went on, this dumb broad. I had thought that hers was a small and empty mind, but now, like the tiny cars in the circus, she emitted thousands of clowns. [p. 57]

One of Gardner’s major themes is aging, and the way it transforms (and often squashes) our dreams. Being a tale of a young man’s “coming of age,” Piece of the Action doesn’t have much to offer on this subject, until later in the book when Lou’s cranky, foul-mouthed woman boss encourages him to go with his instincts by telling him (in classic Gardner style) that life is indeed very short. 

That is bull, Gracie, and the purest kind and the most popular. That's how a coward keeps himself from bitching. Life isn't so long, Boychick, it's short, it's a nibble, it's a couple of crackers and cheese, and everything counts. You shut up and listen to somebody who has a lot more on the ball than you. I can remember when I was ten and eleven and a little bit of twelve. I got a pretty good recall on my fifties too. And that's all. All the other years — zip, like a finger snap. Everything you do you get made. But I'm talking into the air; you don't hear. You listen, but you don't hear.” [pp. 296-97]

Gardner was a lifelong New Yorker.

The perfect way to end this discussion of the book is to focus on my favorite aspect of Gardner’s writing: his way with words, the “NYC poetry” that cropped up in his theatrical dialogue and the interviews he gave. Piece is his first (and only) full-length work of prose, so I read it hoping to pick up more “Gardnerisms.” One of the best passages in the book is one I won’t offer here, where Lou finds that he can no longer sculpt a Slob statue, he’s lost the formula for something he did out of pure love. Later on in the book a friend of his talks about how that happens when you’ve succumbed to the daily grind (the same character declares, “Lou, you grow up, each year you to surrender something”).

There are other tossed-off phrases that stayed with me after finishing Piece — Lou lamenting that he used to talk to his girlfriend “with words that held hands” and a testy boss declaring that he  hates “conversational novocaine — the lulling sound of two human voices scratching each other's backs into a smiling nothing.”

At other points, Gardner finds a verbal equivalent for his cartoons, as when he quickly sketches a character who is merely an onlooker in the party scene: “Leaning into the conversation from where the bar curved out of the wall was a neatly arranged, youngish man who was an exact replica of the drink he held in his hand: long, symmetrical and half empty.”

To my mind, the single best passage in the book comes early on when Lou describes what it’s like to look for a job in Manhattan in the middle of summer. I offer the full passage below, since it, more than anything else in the book, made me lament that Gardner didn’t write more fiction (or non-fiction essays about his city).








As noted, Gardner’s work got better with maturity — although the beauty of a lot of his plays is the “immature” behavior of the leads (that label comes from the wet blankets that surround them). A Piece of the Action was only the first step on the ladder, but it did lead the way to more elevated steps as time — that sweet, mysterious embezzler! — moved on. 

Note: For those like myself who like to find “checklists” of material to keep track of their favorite artists’ work, here is a bibliography I assembled from books and online information. If anyone has any additions to this list (American printings only -- I include the British edition of Piece only because it seemed especially notable), send them to ed at mediafunhouse dot com.

Herb Gardner bibliography:

Plays (the Samuel French editions are all still in print):
“The Elevator” (one-act, credited to “Herbert Gardner”), Samuel French, 1951 
A Thousand Clowns, Random House, 1962 (also in Plays on a Comic Theme…, McGraw-Hill, ’79; Penguin, ’83; and Samuel French; revived on Broadway in 1996 and 2001) 
The Goodbye People, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (also Samuel French), 1974 (first performed on Broadway in 1968 and revived in 1979) 
Thieves, Samuel French, 1977 (first performed on Broadway in 1974)
“I’m With Ya, Duke!” in The Best American Short Plays 1996-1997, Applause, 2000 (one-act performed in 1979 as part of Life and/or Death) 
I’m Not Rappaport, Nelson Doubleday, 1986 (also Grove Press. ’88; also Samuel French; first performed on Broadway in 1985; revived on B’way in 2002) 
Conversations With My Father, Pantheon Books, 1994 (also Samuel French; first performed on B’way in 1992)

Screenplay: 
Who Is Harry Kellerman…?, ppbk, New American Library/Signet, 1971

Collections of Plays (the Applause book is still in print in hard and soft cover): 
A Thousand Clowns; Thieves; Goodbye People, Doubleday, 1979 
The Collected Plays (all five published plays plus Kellerman screenplay), Applause Books, 2000 (paperback, Applause, 2001) 

Short stories:
“The Man Who Thought He Was Winston Churchill” in New Campus Writing, Bantam, 1955
“Who Is Harry Kellerman…?” in The Saturday Evening Post, March 11, 1967 (reprint in the The Best American Short Stories 1968, Houghton Mifflin)
"Guess Who Died?” Playboy, April 1967
“I’m With Ya, Duke!” (monologue cut from Goodbye People) in Joy in Mudville: The Big Book of Baseball Humor, Doubleday, 1992

Novel: 
A Piece of the Action Simon & Schuster, 1958 (also paperback, Ballantine; W.H. Allen, England, 1959)

Unpublished plays:
“The Forever Game” (performed as part of Life and/or Death, 1979)
“How I Crossed the Street for the First Time…” (performed as part of Life and/or Death, 1979) 
One Night Stand (1980)

Note: Extra-special thanks to Paul Gallagher for help with the scans and Bob Claster for sharing his Gardner rarities.