Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A word edgewise: “All Night With Joey Reynolds” (part two)

A few weeks back I wrote about one of the most unusual talk shows to ever appear on commercial TV, All Night with Joey Reynolds. A few weeks after I wrote that piece, the show suddenly disappeared, gone on a Wednesday evening in late April, never to return.

Since my blog post was literally the only lengthy piece written about the show, I thought I’d do a follow-up discussing the show’s biggest obstacle, namely its host. It’s been publicly stated by the show’s announcer and by Joey himself that All Night is on “hiatus” (initially a “vacation”) and will return. Since that is highly doubtful for several reasons, I herewith offer a “post-mortem” on the program. Most reading this will wonder why I watched a show that was so bizarre on a nightly basis. Well, there was the odd “hallucinatory” quality of the show that I mentioned in my last post, but there was also a “runaway train” aspect that made it compulsively watchable (as in “can this get any weirder?”). And yes, a viewer’s tolerance for the show would vary greatly depending on their preferred consumption of kitsch — as noted in my past entries, I have a nearly addictive taste for the stuff.

Before I discuss the eccentricities of one Joey Reynolds, let me link to the only Internet acknowledgement of how bizarre the show really was, on a local radio message board. Several Reynolds supporters said that All Night was a “breath of fresh air,” which reminded them of The Uncle Floyd Show or Soupy Sales’ 1960s Metromedia show.

However, one particularly disillusioned gent who apparently knew Reynolds from his radio days wrote a detailed and annoyed post talking about what he saw as the worst aspects of the show. His post reads like a screed, but I kinda know what he felt like — during the show’s three-month run, the chief topic of discussion between myself and the two gents I knew who watched the show regularly (my dad and an artist friend) was how self-indulgent and wildly unprofessional Joey’s behavior was getting. And yet… we kept watching! You can’t look away from a runaway train, and why should you?

So what made Joey such an off-kilter TV host? Firstly it was the fact that he began each show with a “monologue” that was basically him just standing on the set talking about random topics in a random fashion. Joey’s voice is *incredibly* friendly (thus his long career in radio). He chuckles as he speaks, and sometimes that chuckle is at odds with his angry, sarcastic, or un-p.c. comments. During these opening segments he would often get angrier and angrier about some person or situation, but he would laugh between nearly every other word. The only way out would be to cut to his man-on-the-street segment (detailed in my last blog post).

It’s hard to pick a best-ever episode of All Night, but my nomination would definitely be the show that spun wildly out of control because Joey’s monologue, which concerned his annoyance at Charlie Sheen, ate up a full-half hour of the two-hour program. He went on at such length that a crew member obviously told him that they should bring out a guest. Joey defiantly responded, “Thirty minutes in and we didn't bring out a guest? SO WHAT! What does it matter if I stand here for two hours and don't bring out a guest... is there a rule here?" He then started to invite out his guests for the evening. His green room had apparently been filled to capacity, and so in short order he brought out:

—comedian Dave Konig, who was seemingly the only guest allowed to rib Joey about his inability to stop talking
—a troup of self-described “disco yogis” (right), whose singer sang in Bengali as the dancers struck yoga poses to a "house" beat (one of the best things ever to appear on All Night — for all the wrong reasons)
—a psychologist brought on to discuss… Charlie Sheen (thus, all Joey had to say earlier could have been placed very neatly in this segment)
—an attractive cabaret singer whom Joey decided he simply had to sit next to and grin at as she sang. He smiled at her on-camera throughout her song, making the girl slightly unsettled. (Yes, it was creepy.)
—a Sinatra impersonator who attempted a very difficult song and was slightly off-key
—three magicians who did the kind of tricks you’d see at a children’s party
—and finally, a Barbados theater troupe did a musical number and presented Joey with a gift basket. Joey then turned around and gave the basket to one of his crew, who was celebrating a birthday. End of show.

If the above has confused or amused you, imagine the response of those few of us who were watching — especially when Joey revealed he couldn't get out of the chair he sat in backwards to watch the attractive cabaret singer (hey, the dude is 71...). It was supremely weird to watch a television show that was running completely off the rails because its host kept a total of seven acts waiting while he delivered an unscripted, directionless diatribe that basically no one wanted to hear. (And, given that the show is now gone, apparently no one did hear.)

Joey’s introductions to his musician guests were also astonishing. A group would be ready to play on the raised platform that served as a “stage” in the NASDAQ-window-studio in which the show was shot. Joey would go over to the platform to make the introduction — and then proceed to tell the group stories about his accomplishments in show business, his acquaintances, his beliefs, and just what he thought of the clothing they wore or the instruments they played. (Again, the lack of a studio audience and Joey’s not being a professional comedian made the silence in these segments mind-boggling.)

The musician would stand there with his guitar in his hand or a keyboard in front of him, and Joey would start to reminisce… and keep on talking until the musician’s forced smirk and “oh, really?” response turned into a “what is this guy talking about?” look. The only musical act that figured out a solution to this dilemma was a band that performs in the NYC subway system. As Joey did his intro and wandered conversationally further and further off, one of the guitarists just began to play, to sort of provide a musical “bed” for Joey’s remarks. As he did so, Joey angrily told him with a chuckle that he should stop “noodling”… and then went right back to complaining about how his daughter’s conversations with him on Skype always end up costing him money!

NYC talk show legend Joe Franklin was often mocked for asking his guests about long-dead show-biz figures out of the blue (“…and do you have any thoughts on the late Eddie Cantor?” went both Billy Crystal and Uncle Floyd’s Franklin impressions). Joey did the same thing, and it was equally surreal. Frankie Valli, an old Reynolds chum (Joey’s place in Four Seasons mythology is much spoken about — by Joey!)) and perhaps the biggest name to appear on All Night, was on the show answering a question about the changes that have taken place in show biz over the past half-century. He responded with a thoughtful answer about the closing of numerous nightclubs and how entertainment is not the central industry in Las Vegas anymore… when Joey swerved and hit him with a question about what he thought of the uprising in Egypt. Valli answered that question somberly and reasonably but, let’s be honest, who really cares what Frankie Valli thinks about populist uprisings overseas?

There were several examples on the show of how Joey liked to “wing” his interviews, something he had done on his radio show, as mentioned in this New York Times article; what worked on radio, though, fell very flat on TV. For example, when actor Maxwell Caulfield guested to promote the Broadway revival of Cactus Flower, he came on with his wife, Juliet Mills.

Mills hadn’t been announced in the show’s opening guest roster, which was almost invariably wrong, but she was willing to answer any question, especially when Joey brought up his having attended a memorial service for Sir John Mills. He went on and on about how great John Mills was, then paused for a second, and asked her point-blank, “and he was… what, to you?” The fact that Joey had no idea she was John’s daughter made him look like the laziest TV host there had ever been (why research when you can ask the guest to tell you who they are?), and also rendered his preceding discussion of the man nothing short of insane.

Perhaps the best example of a “winged” interview occurred when actor Michael Imperioli appeared as a guest. Joey made sure we knew that Imperioli was a “good friend” of the Reynolds radio show and thanked him for having been kind enough to appear as a guest on the pilot for All Night that “sold” the show to the channel that aired it, the digital NY-area NBC Nonstop.

On this last point, it should be noted that the more one watched All Night, the more it became apparent that the show seemed to be on NBC Nonstop as a paid program, an informercial-type item that was “brokered,” a la the various Byron Allen comedy and press-junket-interview shows that appear all over America in late-night hours on local affiliates and are paid for by Allen’s production company. Joey often griped about meetings with an NBC executive at 30 Rock that hadn’t gone well (as if he was a functioning part of the NBC TV family), yet Nonstop never aired commercials for his show at any time during the week when its other shows were on.

But back to the Imperioli appearance: Joey rhapsodized about how great an actor Imperioli is, but then it became apparent he hadn’t taken the time to watch Imperioli’s ABC primetime show Detroit 1-8-7. He also misnamed the program, didn’t know what network it was on, and wasn't sure if he was supposed to show a clip from it. The crew then came up with a clip in short order — and, in perfect can-this-show-be-for-real? fashion, the clip that was shown didn’t feature Imperioli. Joey topped this bit of absolutely sublime interview incompetence with an exhortation to Imperioli to star in more movies.

At 71 Joey has obviously absorbed a lot of interesting show business lore and has interacted with many interesting celebrities. After a certain point (one week in?), viewers of All Night became familiar with the oft-repeated stories that he wanted to impart to his guests, as he lectured them on topics that had nothing to do with their area of expertise.

My favorite examples of this kind of conversational “swerve” (wherein Joey sounded like an old relative holding forth at Thanksgiving dinner): he rambled on about Phil Spector to a woman who does a Dusty Springfield tribute act (even after she mentioned that Phil never produced Dusty); he told an author of a book about the Black Panthers in NYC about Patty Hearst (even after being reminded that Patty Hearst was in California and was never involved with the Panthers); and he provided a fairly disinterested Greenwich Village hatmaker (sometimes a Reynolds guest would lose their “oh, really?” expression) with a detailed pocket-history of Murray the K for no particular reason, other than the fact that he thought he looked like Murray in one of her hats (see below). In each instance the brief glimpses of the guest’s face would become more and more amusing as Joey went right on moving the conversation into outer space….

I should make it clear that All Night did feature some very talented guests in performance — perhaps if the guests had indeed been the focus of the show, it might still be on. The most mind-boggling “runaway train” moments occurred, though, when Joey was onscreen alone and decided to gift us with his idea of “honest TV” — not the kind of “scripted” stuff (Leno, Letterman, Conan) that he railed against on a nightly basis. These honest moments included Joey making and receiving cellphone calls while hosting the show, texting his daughter on-air before conducting an interview (the daughter whose substance-abuse problem he felt compelled to discuss in a public forum — there is no "anonymous" for Joey), and, my personal fave, his self-destructive jokes about how pointless and meandering All Night was. (Yes, he did go for the Seinfeld reference — “we’re really doing a show about nothing!”)

Part of Joey’s personal mythology is how he was a rebel “shock jock” on AM radio and used to clash frequently with his bosses. On All Night he was pretty much left to his own devices (for some reason, the show had very flexible boundaries as to where the commercial breaks would go), and his old self-destructive impulse would assert itself at least once an evening, which is why I feel it’s so important to chronicle the show. How many times can you watch a host self-destruct in front of your eyes?

Thus, it was “I don’t know if anyone likes what we’re doing” one night, “Can you imagine if someone sponsored this crap?” another. I was recording the show on a regular basis (again, to verify that it wasn’t a hallucination), but on the sole night that my DVD-r recorder conked out, I missed a moment my dad and friend spoke about with a mixture of amusement and amazement — in an odd, most likely unintentional, echo of the film Network, Joey jokingly said he’d off himself on-air if the show didn’t start to get good ratings.

On the nights when Joey seemed particularly peeved at someone or something, he let loose with casual ethnic jokes that sank like a stone; on others, he flirted awkwardly with female guests. In closing, I can only repeat Joey’s public statement that the show is on hiatus and will be retooled. I can only hope that it does come back — either as the streamlined, incredibly valuable survey of unknown NYC talent that it could have been all along, or else so we can see more supremely absurd moments like this one:

When the above occurred, I immediately thought of one of my favorite moments from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, wherein crooked politican Merle Jeeter (Dabney Coleman) decided during a television appearance to convince the citizens of Fernwood he was honest by letting them look in his eyes. Thus, throughout the rest of that particular episode of MH, MH, no matter where a character went, there was a TV on with Jeeter staring at them. It was a brilliant, underplayed joke that I was stunned to see played out by Joey as a moment of profundity. (What I assume he was trying for was the calming tone of a relaxation therapist or a yoga teacher — instead he conducted this “experiment” while pissed off, and it was, well, you decide….)

All Night was the strangest, most unpredictable thing I’ve ever seen on television outside of public access. The superior quality of some of its musical moments and a few of its comedic ones indicated that it could have been a fascinating slice of local NYC color. One element of the program hastened and secured its downfall: its host.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some thoughts on Jerry Lewis 'retiring' from the telethon

I knew the day would come, but I figured it would occur after Le Jer had shuffled off this mortal coil, or else I had. Although I’m around half his age, I fully expect Jerry to outlive me and many of my middle-aged friends (“Le Increvable Jerry” — the indefatigable/unkillable Jerry — was the French title of The Disorderly Orderly).

It was announced a few months ago that the Labor Day telethon would be reduced from 21 hours to a mere six. This came after the 2010 show was a mind-blower, reverting back to the crazy show-biz glitziness and eclecticism that had made the telethon a must-see event from the mid-Sixties through the late Eighties.

Most interestingly, Jerry did not publicly comment on the show being abbreviated to the length of the Chabad telethon, or an all-night marathon of CSI or Law and Order episodes. It was obvious, though, that he was not in favor of this decision — check out the official MDA USA press release and notice that Jerry’s name is mentioned nowhere in it, except in a reference to the famous moment in 1976 when he was reunited with Dean!

So when Jerry remained silent, it was obvious something was up. But the announcement that he is “retiring as host” of the telethon this year was still something of a surprise because, as has been noted before, he’s one of the only individuals in recent memory whose name has been inextricably linked with a disease that he’s never suffered from. (Lou Gehrig, Damon Runyon, etc, died of the diseases that were named after them, or had charities created to battle the condition that killed them.)

One can speculate what brought about Jerry’s “retirement.” Is he not feeling well enough to run a six-hour program? (Highly doubtful) Were the politically incorrect comments he has made over the past few years — from referring to those afflicted with MD as “cripples” and “half a person” to his casual dropping of the word “fag” on-air a couple of years back — responsible for what looks to be an ousting from the program? (Possible) Or did the MDA want to move away from Jerry’s old-fashioned “pity-based” fundraising method and go for the new, star-studded model embodied by the various quickly-put-together natural-tragedy fundraisers, or the snarky-but-sincere, multiplex-hip “Night of Too Many Stars” on Comedy Central? (Very likely)

Whatever the case may be, I’m sure this year’s ’Thon will be packed with emotion as Jerry signs off — presumably lots of celebrity talking heads, as was the case with Larry King’s last weeks on the air. But what will we, the viewing public that remembers classic variety shows and deeply craves pure, undiluted kitsch, do once Jerry folds up his tent and the “new telethon” appears in place of his annual extravaganza?

The Jerry Lewis telethon (muscular dystrophy is still part of the program’s official name but it was subsumed by Jerry’s moniker at some point in the Eighties) has been a TV tradition for the past 45 years, a frenzied end-of-summer broadcast that always signaled the return to school and fall weather. It has also been Lewis’s premier platform since his films lost traction at the box office in the early Seventies. Most importantly for those who care about such things, it has been the last bastion for “old show-biz” — Jerry has been the last host who would bring on Sixties nightclub acts like Jack Jones and Norm Crosby, and he definitely offered the last national platform for beloved shtick-meisters like Charlie Callas and Henny Youngman.

If the “unseating” of Jerry as host (I’m going to assume that is what happened) was what the MDA needed to be able to raise more funds for those who suffer from neuro-muscular diseases, then it was the right thing to do. It does qualify as a loss, though, for those of who did watch the program each year, wondering as it wound on exactly what the hell would happen next. (If any of you haven’t yet detected “the common thread” in everything discussed in a positive fashion on this blog and on the Funhouse TV show, it’s that the unpredictable is what unites the “high” and “low” in art and entertainment. It’s what makes things interesting….)

The telethon has been, by turns, tacky, touching, boring, exciting, ridiculous, entertaining and — often in the early morning hours when the weirder acts from Vegas came on — downright surreal. One year a gentleman came on whose act consisted of nothing more than squishing his face against a sheet of plexiglass, inflating his mouth while crossing his eyes and such — the kinds of things a kid does against a car window. Somehow this was the man’s talent, and he was on the ’Thon. I’m gonna miss those moments!

For those looking to celebrate the Jer’s reign as “king of comedy” and King of Telethons, here is a fan site I had found under its original domain name (which was impossible to remember), and which has now reappeared under the very memorable name “Italian Jerry Lewis” (meaning it’s been put up by an Italian fan of Jerry’s). Check out this gent’s trove of Jerry memorabilia here.

And because I have lionized him on the Funhouse TV show for the last few years, I have to bring up Tony Orlando, who has served as the host and driving force behind the NY/NJ arm of the telethon for most of the 2000s.

Tony is an old-fashioned performer who will kill himself onstage (metaphorically) to entertain you. He mixes his own Seventies pop hits with Sixties AM-radio classics, doo-wop, salsa, mock-rap, and outlandish cover tunes that he makes his own — I’ve gone on the record several times saying that I prefer his cover of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” to the real thing. (Heresy, I know, for Zep fans — and that's probably why I say it.)

Tony has stayed up for the duration of the telethon in the years he’s hosted the NYC arm and has supplied local viewers with a boatload of peformers from his favorite period in pop history (one that he took part in as a songwriter and demo singer), the Brill Building era. Tony spotlights the stars of that period and is generous to them as a host, whether they are in top condition (Ben E. King, Mary Weiss, Gary “U.S.” Bonds) or sadly have seen better years (a pop princess of the early Sixties looked to be in very bad shape last year, but Tony was still quite wonderful to her).

Sure, Tony goes for the schmaltz very often, but you can sense a sincerity behind what he’s doing, a sense that he’s not putting on an ironic “act” for us. The guy is genuinely excited about helping those afflicted with muscular dystrophy (I guess the phrase “Jerry’s Kids,” always a problem for adult sufferers, will leave the MDA lexicon with Jerry’s exit from the program…. ), and he makes a helluva dynamic and unpredictable host. There is probably no chance he’ll get to fill Jerry’s shoes on the national end of the show, but I do hope we at least can continue to see him host the NY/NJ arm (if there will indeed even be local hosts). With Jerry gone, we will need all the old-school show-biz we can get….

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Passing Tide 2: Deceased Artiste Poly Styrene

The passing of Poly Styrene, best known from the band X-Ray Spex, causes a special pang in the hearts of people of a “certain age,” since she, like Joey and Johnny Ramone, died of cancer and will seem forever linked to the world of youthful rebellion, even though she was seemingly a very well-settled middle-aged woman at the time of her death. She was the first “punk crush” for many a guy in the U.K. and U.S., since she was perhaps the first “real” punk female presence — we’re not counting that cat-girl model here — and was young enough that she seemed more relatable than Debbie Harry (way too glamorous, and not punk herself at all) and Patti Smith (overwhelming in behavior and talent). She stood with Siouxsie Sioux (also overwhelming) as the premier punk woman.

She was of Scots/Irish-Somali descent and had a life-changing experience on her 18th birthday when she saw the Sex Pistols (she described herself as being a “barefoot hippie” before that). She took out an ad in Melody Maker looking for “young punx who want to stick it together,” and shortly thereafter founded X-Ray Spex with friend Lora Logic, who played saxophone. Logic was reportedly thrown out of the band before their first album Germ Free Adolescents, but her sax arrangements were used (and she was part of a Nineties reunion of the band).

The importance of the very small body of work produced by X-Ray Spex (one LP, some singles) can’t be overstated, since Styrene’s lyrics and melodically shrieking voice was totally “new” for the time, and the honking saxphone sound perfectly underscored the urgent-sounding tunes. Although there were four other members of the band (all guys after Logic’s departure) the band seemed to be all about Poly, thanks to her great, commanding stage presence, and her unerring sense of odd fashion (the braces on her teeth were not a statement, she noted at the time — she just wore braces).

Again, the joy of punk music always came when the bands were not *just* punk — the best acts in that loosely defined “movement” went well beyond the jagged fashion bullshit and the DIY who-needs-guitar-lessons ethic, and wound saying something as well as defying the clichés that sprouted up very quickly, thanks to McLaren and company. X-Ray Spex didn’t make quite the eternal impression that the Clash or X did, but their music has remained fresh because of how raw and how “right” they sounded. Here’s a perfect example, with the fashion and the music right upfront:

Poly’s best-remembered anthem, and it truly is an anthem, is the terrific “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” which never dates (although its sound and notion have been copied endlessly) since it’s both a raw cry and an oddly cool feminist statement, right from its perfect spoken-word intro (there were a WHOLE buncha bands ripping that off at the time). More on that tune below (Poly herself knew she’d be forever identified with it, but did wish later on that she could’ve been known for something “more spiritual”).

After the extremely solid LP Germ Free Adolescents was released, Poly began to have problems, which were diagnosed as schizophrenia at the time but were later seen to be bipolar disorder. There’s an oddly touching documentary about the young Poly on YouTube that documents the era when she was just beginning to experience fame with the Spex but was feeling extremely uncomfortable with it.

The picture that comes from the documentary is of a highly creative young woman who’s being looked at as a new sort of role model. She is clearly not happy with any of that, and is facing a crossroads. She virtually “retired” from performing after the initial diagnosis, and thus this documentary offers a fascinating look at the point at which she’s starting to explore what she’s capable of as an artist and performer, but her life is starting to come apart:

She did come back to performing and recording in the Eighties (her first solo LP was released in 1980) and in 1981, she became a follower of the Hare Krishna faith. Her later solo music is much mellower and at points (as with a 1986 EP and her last single, “Virtual Boyfriend”) was dance music with smarter lyrics. She accepted the mantle of “punk pioneer” in later years and seems incredibly mellow in all her latter-day interviews.

In February of this year she revealed in the press that she had breast cancer. She died two months later, on April 25, with her website declaring that she had “won her battle on Monday to go to higher places.” She had a new album coming out and was perfectly at ease with her life — as with the story of Phoebe Snow (below), one begins to feel that she was “robbed” of time on the planet and suffered a lot while she was on it, but then again that’s just our view, from outside. As Marianne Elliott-Said and definitely as “Maharani Dasi” (her name after the conversion to Krishna), Poly seemed quite peaceful. The “punk” label came out of her being uncomfortable as a teen with the stuff around her, but in her later years, she seemed quite okay with the stuff inside.

Here is a terrific interview with the 21-year-old Poly, who seems pretty level-headed and sweet as hell. She speaks about not wearing the standard punk fashion of the time:

There is nothing like the Internet in terms of fandom for musical figures. Here is an early single by Mari Elliott, pre-X-Ray Spex:

And here is a bizarre trio: Poly, Carol Channing, and Jackie Collins. Talk about the trappings of fame: posing with these two highly cartoonish ladies can't have seemed normal for young Poly....

The theme tune to the Spex's only album, from Top of the Pops:

The live clips truly convey what the band was like. Here they do “Warrior in Woolworth’s” on The Old Gray Whistle Test:

And a last great live clip that Poly’s official account on YT made available. The band does “I Live Off You”:

Poly recorded two Xmas songs. The most recent was for her new album Generation Indigo, written with her daughter Celeste Bell-Dos Santos. It’s got a pretty wonderfully grim lyric, inspired by a guy in L.A. who killed people dressed as Santa. Ah, the joy of the holiday conveyed in a tuneful reggae nightmare, fun stuff:

And because we’re far enough away from the holiday at the moment to really enjoy it, let me link to a more traditional Xmas tune, “City of Christmas Ghosts” that Poly recorded with a band called Goldblade in 2008. It definitely takes a leaf from the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” but has a nice Ramones-ian guitar riff and the singer sounds like he’s channeling Strummer. One of the stirring lines in the chorus reminds us to “raise a toast to the friends we lost last year”….:

Poly’s latest single, released this year, the techno-savvy (and dance-tune-ish) “Virtual Boyfriend”:

A bit of Poly in her Maharani guise, during which time she released a dance tune called "Sacred Temple." Here she is interviewed about her new faith, talking about creating “something that I can bring to my next birth”:

Before I close out, a listen to Poly’s mellow side, a very pretty tune called “Shades” from her 1980 solo album Translucence. The album shows the range of her talent, and is a world away from the work she had done with the Spex just three years earlier:

And because there is no fucking way I’d miss the opportunity to spotlight it, HERE is her anthem. She might not have wanted it to be her sole credit of note, but goddamn, it is a a great tune. Angry teenage girls don’t compose anything this awesome any more….

Here she is performing it two years ago as a middle-aged lady. And the original:

The Passing Tide 1: Deceased Artiste Phoebe Snow

I have nothing to add on the subject of the most grisly celebrity death in the past few weeks — that of poor Yvette Vickers, who was found mummified in her house. I do want to offer tributes here, though, to two generation-defining female singers who left us too soon. The first is Phoebe Snow, the soulful singer-songwriter turned incredible nightclub belter whose death was sad, but whose life for three decades was devoted to what they used to call a “higher purpose.” The fact that she selflessly devoted her life to her disabled daughter and then died after a year-long coma that followed a stroke at the age of 59 definitely for me files her life neatly into the “…and you’re telling me there’s a god?” category.

Her first LP spawned her one and only hit single, the super-mellow and wonderful “Poetry Man” (yes, there were nice things on AM radio back then — see below). Only a year after that album came out, her life changed for good when she gave birth to a daughter with brain damage. The story of that relationship is recounted touchingly in this CBS Sunday Morning news story. Suffice it to say that she definitely qualifies for the Singer Mom Hall of Fame, along with Kirsty MacColl:

What is conveyed in that interview is that her daughter’s disability wasn’t a “tragedy” for her, although most of those watching from outside the relationship probably viewed it as such. Although she withdrew from the music business to tend to her daughter, she did keep working as a singer and definitely became a “musician’s musician.” This is very apparent in the duets she did with other women singers, as with Linda Ronstadt on that scary-awful show on Saturday night, back when it wasn’t so painful to behold. Here they belt the hell out of “The Shoop Shoop Song”:

And here is a priceless trio: Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow, and Odetta, singing together on a song called “Hymn” for a 1976 Ian album called Aftertones. The YouTube poster who put this one up shared something very special:

The best way to close out is to hear her biggest hit again — god knows, the oldies stations with the telescoped playlists don’t really go this “wide” anymore. Here’s “Poetry Man,” as done for the late-night rock concert show produced and hosted by that guy who died recently (initials DK), whose clips were all pulled from YT right after he went — thanks, you friendly folks at Solt Productions!

More interesting to me is the fact that the other Phoebe Snow song I knew well, but couldn’t’ve told you the title of for a million dollars, was a tune called “Harpo’s Blues,” which I found out this evening was actually the flipside of “Poetry Man.” This is some jazzy warbling for a mainstream pop record, and a fine way to remember Snow’s very special talent:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

My most memorable crap job: ripping off aspiring authors for a noted literary agency (and how it relates to Decased Artiste Arthur Marx)

The job I’m about to talk about was far from the worst I ever had (shades of Derek and Clive!), but it was definitely one of the most memorable, since I was fired from it in the late 1980s for not being able to read two full novels a day and reject 10 aspiring authors a week. What kind of job was it? Well, I was hired nearly two years out of college (with some meager writing and editing credits under my belt) to work at a noted literary agency — still in business, so it will remain nameless here — to basically rip off aspiring writers.

I wasn’t ripping off the authors myself, but I still felt incredibly guilty doing the work, since I know a few aspiring novelists and have at least one or two writers in my family who might’ve fallen for this company’s horrible scam (which has its own webpage, saying the program has now been closed out, as if it were a writing “class” or institution).

Put plainly, you as a member of the public sent in an exorbitant fee to this name literary agency — I believe it was $250.00 — to have your novel, biography, or book of short stories looked at by an “industry professional,” with the expectation that, if they liked it, you would become a client of the agency. The firm was careful not to use the author’s names in their publicity for this scam, but if you looked them up at the local library, you could easily find out who they handled.

In the office there were two rooms in which gentlemen were hunched over in cubbyholes reading the applicants’ manuscripts or typing out evaluations of them. We were instructed that every evaluation had to be four single-spaced pages (back and front, two sheets of paper — you got very little for your $250.00!). You were expected to read two full manuscripts every day and write two evaluations — failure to do so would lead to a warning and then termination.

That office provided me with my last glimpse of the white-collar world that my parents worked in from the 1960s through to the ’80s: people chain-smoked in the office; shirt and tie was expected; and the IBM Selectrics were motherfucking finger-jammers that frequently raised their carriages at odd moments, making your typed page look like the work of a drunken wild man.

There were indeed two “industry professionals” looking at some of the ’scripts — if you were an applicant who got their evaluation, you were getting expert advice, albeit programmatic, routine (they wrote two of these a day, minimum), and bitchy. The lesser known of the two gents gave me a Henry Morgan-ish piece of paper I still have somewhere that said that he wished he could start every piece of correspondence to the writers with “Listen, stupid…”

The other professional was a noted genre-fiction author who has a bibliography a mile long and is still alive today (and whom I knew not so much as a writer but as an editor of mystery anthologies). He was quite nice to me, and we spoke about his late-1960s meetings with a then-decrepit author who is one of my all-time faves, the true father of the “noir novel.” He gave me advice on how to write the evaluations, and he was indeed the office pro in terms of writing rejection letters — listening to him talk about what was wrong in a manuscript he was looking at was indeed a lesson in how to structure a work of fiction. But then again, the rest of the staff working for the aspiring-writers program in the agency, aside from Grouchy Old Guy and Genre Novelist/Anthologist Supreme, were younger, untested souls like myself, who hopefully had good instincts and were voracious readers, but really wouldn’t be the people you’d turn to for advice on how to sell your novel to a literary agency.

But did ANY of the people submitting manuscripts ever get to have their manuscripts published and repped by the agency? Nah. During my tenure there, which lasted about a month, I found a manuscript I thought was very well-written. The subject was scrimshaw, which is admittedly not commercial in the slightest, but the gentleman’s style was clear, concise, and colorful, and he knew how to tell a tale (and it took him 500 MS pages to tell this one). I went to my supervisor, who went on to co-own his own literary agency after the parent agency was sold to the gent who owns it now. I informed him that the scrimshaw author was talented and asked what one did when one thought the person WAS a good writer who might be a “hot prospect” for the agency. Answer: get him to submit another manuscript and pay another $250.00.

When I was told this, I realized that the company NEVER found a decent prospect from these applicants and had no intention to; my supervisor said something to the effect that it was highly unlikely, but could happen. It was a quick way to fleece aspiring writers, who at best got a well-written evaluation by a professional author. At worst, they got a write-up from someone like me, who tried his best, but was still just a fucking 23-year-old kid who couldn’t possibly dispense reliable advice on how to write a publishable manuscript.

So where does Arthur Marx come into this scam? Well, apparently Marx had been handled by this agency at one point, but they were rethinking whether or not they needed him on the roster. My supervisor asked if I’d be willing to take a look at a manuscript pitch from an actual author over the weekend, and I of course said I would — why turn down the chance to evaluate and comment upon a four- or five-page pitch from one of the agency's actual clients?

When I found out the author in question was Arthur Marx, I was doubly enthused, since I had read both of his books on his father (whom I worship) and had also read his dual biography of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime. That book is a fascinating read in that it lionizes Dean and trashes Jerry at every opportunity. The book is filled with anecdotes showing how Dean was beloved by his show-biz colleagues and unforgettably nasty tales of Jerry’s pettiness.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most amazing passage, but from memory [thus, a paraphrase] I’d have to cite Marx’s recounting of the way that Jerry commemorated Martin and Lewis losing a lawsuit against the agent they claimed had appropriated their money: Jerry had an entire box of toilet paper made up with the agent’s face on every sheet. According to Marx, when guests were coming over, Jerry’s wife Patti would hide the agent-faced-toilet-paper, and Jerry would break it out again so his guests could wipe their ass with the face of his dreaded enemy. This story has appeared nowhere else in print except Marx’s book. I’m not sure where he got the story, but one thing’s for sure: Jerry has absolutely no reason to badmouth Groucho as he has done (saying that Groucho in essence needed writers for his material and had the kind of humor “overheard at cocktail parties”), except for the fact that Groucho’s son wrote a very nasty book about him.

What I was given to look at was an Arthur Marx animal memoir, recounting tales of his cute and adorable dog. It wasn’t much, but I wrote an evaluation saying I’m sure he could flesh a book out of the bare bones he offered in his pitch — why, he was a produced comedy writer, who had had a Broadway play of his turned into a film (The Impossible Years) and by that point had also served as a regular scripter for the sitcom Alice. The supervisor at the agency was happy to find that I couldn’t enthusiastically recommend the book from the pitch I'd read (and who the hell was I? Just some college kid…). Thus, he happily squashed the idea of an Arthur Marx cute-animal memoir — and I see from his bibliography that Marx’s next three books were a bio of Mickey Rooney, a tennis-themed mystery, and the inevitable coffee-table book about his dad.

Despite the fact that I had access while I worked there to xeroxes of some rare early works by some of the noir authors I loved best, I was relieved when I was fired from that literary agency. I’m sure the gents running the firm slept soundly while pulling their shoddy con, but it was horrible to be a part of it, if only for a few weeks. I had been able to bluff my way through those evaluations for a short time, but what it came down to was what I critiqued most what had bored me, and that I knew shortly into the process that ALL the writers giving $250.00 to the agency were to be turned down… albeit creatively. It’s sad to think that these agents (the ones who are still alive) have prospered in the years since I encountered them (in fact one of my current fave novelist/journalists is represented by one of them). Perhaps there’s a special circle in hell for con men who target aspiring artists….

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Op-ED: Osama/Usama/Obama, let’s call the whole thing off…

So now that “we got him!” and President Obama has assured us all that he’s basically ready to pull out all the stops to get reelected, maybe it would be good to take a little pause and think about exactly where the country’s (and certainly the media’s) mind is at.

Before I continue, let me establish that I consider bid Laden to have been a murderous extremist who deserved to be caught, put on trial, and executed — the last-mentioned term is important, since as noted by Michael Moore, the Pres decided to forego the whole trial idea and have the guy bumped off. Of course Osama very much needed to be caught, put on trial, and executed in 2001-2 (or 2003, 2004), but…

The now-forgotten fact that, on the morning of 9/11, the then-President’s father, himself an ex-President, was having a corporate meeting with Osama’s brother Shafig at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, was set aside long ago, although it’s an astounding coincidence, and indicated that the bin Laden family held a singular importance for our government. Also, the fact that two dozen members of the bin Laden clan had government clearance to leave the country without being interrogated in the week following 9/11 was also dismissed as being unimportant, the province of the tin-foil-hat crowd. Stop doting on things like that. U.S.A., Num-ber ONE, U.S.A. Num-ber ONE!

bin Laden served as “Public Enemy No. 1,” a heinous individual whose crimes were closer in time and memory for most Americans than those of Hitler. However, as the years went by, he became less “necessary” a villain for the scenario that is public policy and was far more valuable publicity-wise to the U.S. dead than alive. Thus he was caught and shot to death, “executed” as Moore puts it. When that happened, who knows, but there’s this wacky Navy SEALs story that’s been put out, followed up by the burial-at-sea that no one could be privy to. Hmmmm…

Was his wife a human shield or just a bystander? Did Osama have weapons on him or didn’t he? Was he taken unawares, or was he locked and loaded and ready for battle? Well, those details are already in the Kennedy assassination abyss of unanswered questions. “Take our word for it,” the government says — if you question the official story (details of which have changed steadily in the past few days), you are an extremist nut, “conspiracy theorist” who should just place their trust in the administration. Come to think of it, “Take our word for it” does sound an awful lot like Bill Hicks’ “Go back to bed, America!”

Instead, a whole mess’a Americans gathered in front of the White House and in Times Square to cheer Osama’s killing and scream, you guessed it, “U.S.A., Num-ber ONE!” That is the phrase that is always on the lips of those-who’d-prefer-not-to-think in this country, and it seemed just a tad bloodthirsty and ugly last Sunday night when the festive gatherings occurred. Crowds chanting “U.S.A., Num-ber ONE!” have made me cringe since the Reagan era, and not just because they have the moral certainty of a lynch mob. (Can ya imagine if anyone disagreed with them during their revels, or even asked them to just go the fuck home and sober up?) Here is a very good article on this phenomenon. In this case, according to the news media, a tone of “relief” was alongside the jubilation. The same thing had been said about the royal family wedding in England a few days before — “the American public needs a diversion to take its mind off of all the bad stuff that’s been happening lately.”

Good thing that we have the two events in a row to take America’s mind off the fact that more than a tenth of the eligible population has no job at the moment (whatever the official statistic is, it does not include the immense number who have fallen off the Unemployment Insurance rolls). In the meantime, our President has already been flexing his muscles (in my eyes, there’s nothing sadder than a Democrat trying to play macho — the Repubs have that area of sad small-penis-ish-ness all tied up, with a bow on top) by continuing our bloody adventures in the Mid-East.

I don’t care what a leader says about “supporting” our troops — if you don’t bring them home when there is no active war going on, you’re okay with their demise for absolutely no valid reason at all. In my lifetime, President Carter seemed like the only American leader who was actually troubled by people dying under his watch — and they did, certainly (we never stop occupying other countries), but Carter’s behavior then and now (especially now) indicates he has actually held true to his stated Christian principles. President Obama feels otherwise.

And then there was that whole healthcare debacle — in the mind of every intelligent American, one of the key tragedies of this country is that we don’t have nationalized medical care, that we are alone among First World countries in that regard, simply because the corporations that control our politicians would prefer it not to happen. As I’ve noted before on this blog, I admire President Obama’s intelligence, and I would like to believe that he is a moral, ethical being, but besides the whole soldiers-dying-for-oil aspect, there is also the interview he gave to Diane Sawyer where he stated outright that he would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president:

That notion was already flying out the window when he gave that interview. In the quixotic quest for what Keith Olbermann had termed the “unicorn known as bipartisanship,” President Obama kept pursuing Republicans to approve his plan, rather than slamming the fucker through (sometimes you just gotta be honest), as Bush did with all of his legislation, most importantly the First Amendment-dissolving Patriot Act. Of course, Bush had the added bonus that the Repubs vote in lockstep, whereas the Dems are always playing games with their allegiance.

Obama has shown that he can play tough — in fact, that’s all he’s seemingly been concerned with in the last few weeks, “trump”-ing (ouch) the birthers and al-Qaeda in a single week. So it’s a shame he played Washington politics-as-usual when it came to one of the two most important issues to every non-rich American (the other being JOBS). If he had gotten Americans socialized medicine (that word, that word!) and they had gotten used to it, even for a month or two, they would never give it up — think about how Americans refuse to give up luxuries they can’t afford, like broadband, cable TV, traveling everywhere in a gas-guzzlin’ SUV, etc. Once we as a country are addicted to something, there is never any going back. Instead Obama courted the Repubs, settled for a compromised bill, all in hopes of… a second term?

… Which brings us to our President as the Slayer (by proxy) of the Great Beast. It will no doubt serve as a calling card issue for the reelection campaign and will underscore his efforts to show he’s a “tough” military president who would withdraw troops from Iraq — only to send them flying to the “unwinnable” Afghanistan in another fool’s errand that continues to cost lives for no fucking reason. Except oil and imperialism in the mid-East, which has been our mission since the last Great Beast, the Soviet Union, collapsed. In fact, the importance of oil to the U.S. has been seminal to our foreign policy in the Mid-East since the beginning. There are several souls who have weighed in on this issue, but I’ll refer you to one who did it with charm, intelligence, and much-welcome humor, comedian and writer Robert Newman:

Last thought about the Osama-kill mission, whenever it really took place and whatever it consisted of (no, I can’t believe the government, even if it’s run by an extremely smart and charismatic “no-drama” type). I’ve talked about social commentator (or “decoder,” as he’d prefer) Lionel before on this blog and his current audio podcasts (which can be fond at lionelmedia.com and do have a charge, but it’s low) and his WPIX commentaries (amazingly challenging topics for a local news show, available for free right here). Lionel had a very smart and amusing take on the official photograph that the White House released of the Obama cabinet watching the killing of Osama — or were they watching something else, as Secretary of State Clinton now claims? In any case, listen to his “decoding” of the image:

Perhaps the only thing Lionel missed out on — and he has lately been spot-on about Obama’s image manufacturing and the strengths and weaknesses that could be found therein — is that the photo is intended to evoke (poorly) the much-vaunted “Thirteen Days” photos from the Cuban missile crisis. Obama in fact does appear to have taken Kennedy to be a role model, mimicking both “missile-crisis decisive Jack” as well as “Castro-killer/Bay of Pigs Jack” (yes, they do sound like political action figures). His Kennedy complex worked this time, and the al-Qeada leader is indeed dead (I’m not doubting he’s dead and, no, I don’t need to see the pictures). But the solemnity of the Ground Zero visit that followed was seemingly welcome, yet wholly transparent as a reelection maneuver. The flow of activity last week, from the quelling of the birthers, to the cute joke-telling at the Correspondents dinner, to the public release of info about Osama’s death (forget for a second, of course, the story was changed in several dozen aspects a bunch of times), to the Ground Zero visit were all showy moves for reelection.

I’m not surprised by the above — I didn’t harbor any delusions that Obama would decisively solve all our current problems (trying is another matter indeed…). But it would be a real relief if he ceased the grandstanding and, having botched the healthcare issue (in his first two years, the only time it was certain he could’ve EVER gotten it passed — thanks for the politics-as-usual!) and devote himself to working on the economy and providing jobs. Perhaps if we ever left the “permanent war economy” and developed public works, we could not only employ the 10% of the population who is desperate to make ends meet, but we could also make sure that no more American soldiers die for absolutely nothing in the Middle East. Again, the president does proclaim himself to be a Christian — I’m not, but all that needless blood on one’s hands must have a psychic weight. Perhaps he will make a very moral and noble ex-president, in the manner of Jimmy Carter. Something to wash away the feeling of having played politics-as-usual….

FOOTNOTE: As always, Noam Chomsky offers a concise and pointed view of events. His take on the bin Laden killing? It was an assassination that came from America’s belief (re: the fact that Bush and cohorts killed hundreds of thousands for nothing but were never prosecuted) that “that was them, this is us”! Read his piece here.


And because I know that if you can’t end with a song, you better end with a laugh (or at least something jaw-droppingly weird), I want to once again link to a comedy routine that aired on All Night With Joey Reynolds a few months ago. It is now going into the “dated political humor” file (as well as the how-the-hell-did-that-get-on-the-air? file), so I give you, right after its shelf life has expired, the singularly strange “Mrs. Osama bin Laden” comedy interview by Joey Reynolds of comedian Shecky Beagleman (it’s a she) as the aforementioned wife of the terrorist leader:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The craziest trio of dead celebs you could ever find... in the same car... on 9/11.

Some stories are just too good to question whether or not they’re true — and I’m pretty sure this one isn’t, no matter how much an “insider” swears it is. It’s a tale of the mighty Brando, the late (and wonderfully shrill) Elizabeth Taylor, and the king of crazy... err, Pop, Michael Jackson, fleeing 9/11 in the same car to get to the safety of New Jersey. Supposedly it comes from the latest issue of Vanity Fair but friend John Walsh found it on a British newspaper’s website. It’s truly a shame that Larry King retired, because I can see him spinning this tale into an entire WEEK of programs. (I haven’t heard Mika Brando say nothing at great length for so long now.)

Read the story here.

(And yeah, they were very talented in their prime. But they were also crazy. Oh boy, were they crazy....)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The "responsible sister": Deceased Artiste Marie-France Pisier

If you look Marie-France Pisier up on the IMBD, you find out only two things about her 66 years of existence. The first is that she was born and lived in Vietnam (where her dad was the colonial governor of French Indochina). And you can learn the size of her chest, courtesy of Celebrity Sleuth. It’s pretty sad that those two facts represent the sum total of her life, but then again, the IMDB is composed of fan-generated material, so what would you expect?

Pisier, who was found dead earlier this week in her pool at the age of 66, was a gorgeous actress who worked on a continual basis in France, but the films she appeared in stopped being exported over here in the mid-’80s (with the sole exception of Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained). Thus, what I can speak about knowledgably is the period where Pisier worked for noted French directors and made some really bad American crap.

Her obits labeled her a “darling” of the New Wave, which isn’t exactly true — she worked for only two of the movement’s filmmakers. But I guess if Francois Truffaut leaves his wife and kids to have an affair with you, you become a "New Wave darling" in some respect. Truffaut did indeed do that after he cast her in his first 400 Blows sequel, the short film “Antoine et Colette,” which appeared in the feature Love At Twenty (1962). You can see the whole short, featuring the lovely young Mademoiselle Pisier, here:

Pisier had the lead female role in Robbe-Grillet’s stylish and typically dreamy Trans-Europ-Express (1966) and also was one of many haute bourgeoisie acting as if caught in a dream in Don Luis Bunuel’s very non-linear Phantom of Liberty. However, Pisier did more than act in certain films — she also collaborated on scripts and directed the feature The Governor’s Ball (1990).

The first film she collaborated on both behind and in front of the camera was Jacques Rivette’s ultra-dreamlike (are you sensing a pattern here?) masterwork Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). She appears in the "house of stories" sequences where three figures enact a cryptic drama that our heroines are trying to figure out. I excerpted scenes from the film in the Funhouse episode I called “Farewell, New Yorker.” Here is the C&J segment:

Follwing her tremendous success in the popular comedy Cousin Cousine (1975), Pisier appeared in some really campy American soaps. The French Atlantic Affair (1979) and Scruples (1980) have been forgotten by most folks, but The Other Side of Midnight (1977) is a very well-remembered piece of absolute camp silliness. Here is the trailer:

Pisier continued to appear in films with “international appeal,” like French Postcards (1979) and Chanel Solitaire (1981), but perhaps her most interesting performance — especially given her past history with the filmmaker — was her return as “Colette” in the final “Antoine Doinel” film by Truffaut, Love on the Run (1979). Not only did she costar as Leaud’s old love, but she also coscripted with ex-lover Truffaut. The whole film is available on YouTube, but the poster has made certain that the clips can’t be embedded — I guess this helps keep the copyrighted footage up on the site, because he/she has done the same with their other foreign movie uploads, and the suckers have been up there in some cases for years now! Love on the Run begins here.

She made many high-profile pics after the Seventies but, as noted above, we didn’t see many of them over here. One that did appear briefly, but has disappeared over the last few decades (I finally caught up with it on TV5, with English subs) is the star-studded Les Soeurs Bronte (1979, again!), which is Andre Téchiné's surprisingly old-fashioned take on the lives of the Bronte sibs (brother Branwell included). The whole film can be found on YT here, but the version uploaded is in French with Spanish subs.

Pisier plays the sister who lived the longest, Charlotte (thus allowing her to take part in the “is that all?” finale to the film). Téchiné definitely frames the film as a 1940s-style melodrama, thus making it a very fitting companion to the 1946 Bronte pic Devotion with Olivia de Havilland and Ida Lupino. The thing that makes the pic interesting today, of course, is watching the interaction of the three lead actresses. The immaculately talented Isabelle Huppert (then 26) had already appeared in several major films by ’79, but her turn as Anne finds her going through the least-glamorous process of suffering (and as we all know, biopics like these thrive on the lead characters’ suffering). The radiant Isabelle Adjani (then 24) plays Emily, dressing as a male and acting as idiosyncratic as her “brutish” writing. As Charlotte, Pisier is seen as equally troubled, but still functions as the family’s backbone.

The scene that probably best displays the trio’s interaction is this one (oddly squeezed on YT, but English-subbed) in which Charlotte discovers a poem by Emily and tells her she must publish it:

Adieu, Marie-France.