Thursday, June 21, 2018

Post-Gentrification Stress Disorder

Memory is a terrible thing.
I’ve lived in New York for so long, I can’t walk down a single street without some memory sending me into a nostalgia K-hole.
The most recent incident was yesterday.
A friend of mine was going to a meeting at 110 Greene Street. I explained to him that there used to be a great restaurant across the street called Greene Street Café (where I worked very briefly as a busboy in the early ’80s) that was also a comedy/jazz club where people like Mario Cantone got their start.
I went back in the afternoon to look at the space (which is now a Sonos high-end audio store) and the skylight from Greene Street Café was still there. I also gave the poor salesman who was there a half-hour history lecture.
I talked about how SoHo used to be a fun neighborhood, filled with restaurants and nightclubs, unlike the sterile high-end shopping mall it is now. There’s not a single restaurant in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District now, except for the below-ground Lure Fishbar. You see, the real estate powers-that-be discovered that they could get more money for their apartments if there weren’t any restaurants on the ground floor. (The preferred tenants are luxury boutiques.) This is why, when the boutiques close at 8 o’clock, SoHo is a virtual (and dangerous) ghost town. But as soon as you cross to the west side of West Broadway, you’re basically in a different neighborhood, with restaurants, delis and, God help me, actual people on the street!
It’s increasingly hard to even find any information on the Internet about this former SoHo, but I did come across this article in The New York Times from 1981 about all the restaurants in SoHo.1
I also came across a video of an HBO comedy special that was filmed at Green Street Café in 1983 with John Candy, Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone and Carol Leifer.2 You can see the high-tech industrial lighting that was popular in the ’80s3 but, more importantly, you can see people having a good time!
Any stray piece of information can send me on a similar Internet search. Seeing a TV interview with Sandra Bullock, who used to be a waitress at Canastel’s, can send me on an Internet search for when Park Avenue South was the new Restaurant Row (late ’80s. See also: Café Society, America). Even though I could never afford to go to those restaurants, it was nice to know they existed.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the early 2000s, when West Chelsea was the last gasp of New York nightlife, but there you go. I remember my weekly jaunts to The Eagle, having to brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Marquee or the various discos on West 28th Street (or going to the previous Eagle in the ’90s and having the brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Lot 61), but there you have it. Now The Eagle is the sole survivor on West 28th Street (for God knows how much longer), surrounded by super-luxury apartments. (An apartment by the High Line recently sold for $60 million5, breaking a downtown record.)
It turns out that the High Line was the biggest real estate giveaway in New York City’s history.
Except now, even that is being surpassed by Hudson Yards, whose looming behemoths I can see rising from as far south as the West Village.
Jeremiah Moss has already written the definitive book about New York’s gentrification, Vanishing New York6, which should be required reading for anyone who moves here now, and I’ve written about it many times on this blog myself, but that doesn’t stop the feelings from recurring, like a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I now watch Seinfeld as an exercise in nostalgia, because authentic New York characters like Kramer (who, of course, was based on the real Kenny Kramer) could never afford to live here now. (Even back then, it wasn’t clear what he did for a living!)
The sad thing is that people who move here now think New York was always this boring, expensive suburban shopping mall. They’ve never known anything different. Indeed, that’s why most of them moved here in the first place!
And that’s a shame.










Sunday, April 1, 2018

Who Is Luke Evans?

Since my Joe Tippett/Billy Magnuson post was so popular1, I’m going to take a page out of my friend Kenneth Walsh’s2 book. I was watching an Emily Blunt movie called The Girl on the Train last night, and there was this scorchingly hot actor I’d never seen before named Luke Evans. In one scene, you even got to see his naked body through a steamy shower door! Who is this man and why have I never seen him before (and where can I see more of him)?
Oh, yeah, Emily Blunt was good, too. 











Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Boys Keep Swinging

Jake Shears overcame tremendous obstacles to become a rock star. That is both inspiring and depressing. It makes me think that the only people who succeed in show business are those who literally can’t do anything else.
I’m still trying to unpack my emotional and very personal reaction to Jake Shears’ memoir, Boys Keep Swinging.
For those of you who don’t know, Shears is the lead singer of the band Scissor Sisters (and he happens to be starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway right now). Scissor Sisters didn’t make much of a mark in the U.S., but their self-titled debut album was the U.K.’s bestselling album of 2004. I was only familiar with their music because I used to listen to an internet radio station based in London.
It’s a very bizarre feeling to be reading a book about someone famous and come across the names of people and places you know. It makes you feel like something important and exciting was happening right under your nose and you somehow missed it.
As it happens, Shears and I both went to Crunch gym on Lafayette Street at the same time. (I remember seeing flyers for the Scissor Sisters there.) But whereas I had basically stopped going to clubs by the early 2000s, Shears was immersed in the burgeoning “electroclash” scene emerging at clubs like Berliniamsburg in Brooklyn.
Shears says he doesn’t believe in luck, but there are numerous of instances of serendipity in this book. The story of him meeting the head of a record company while working as a waiter at East Village diner Leshko’s and then running back to his apartment to retrieve his record so he could give it to him is right up there with Madonna giving Mark Kamins her demo at Danceteria. (How many people would even know what a record company executive looks like?)
Shears starts out as a bookish creative writing major at The New School and his bouts with insecurity are refreshing—it makes him seem more human. Yet he has no trouble picking up some of the most handsome men in the city (Anderson Cooper and a bartender at The Hangar, among others), or meeting guys at the gym. (I’ve never met someone at the gym in my life!) I’m not being judgmental—I was a slut too in my twenties—I’m just jealous!
There’s another story of him spending a debauched night at the gay bar The Slide the night of New York City’s 2003 blackout and picking up yet another handsome guy. I remember walking out to Christopher Street Pier (and seeing Calvin Klein there) and then going home because I had to work the next day (sigh). Meanwhile, candlelit orgies were going on all over the city!
Reading this book is like reading about people’s carefully curated lives on Facebook, only worse. Because, when he’s not backpacking through Europe (or, later, performing in clubs there), Shears is hanging out in hot tubs on penthouse terraces in New York. (OK, so I went to Europe in my twenties, too—but still. I wasn’t hobnobbing with Elton John, George Michael and Kylie Minogue!)
I’m always fascinated by what makes creative people tick and Shears is no exception. Is it because his siblings were so much older than him or because he got bullied in high school for being gay? Whatever it is, how does someone co-write an album that goes nine times platinum in the U.K.?
After reading this book, I went back and listened to the Scissor Sisters’ first album, and it’s undeniably brilliant. Not only are the songs catchy, but the production, arrangements and vocals are outstanding. And the first track on their second album, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” (co-written with Elton John), is ridiculously good. (I lost track of them after their second album.)
All of which is to say that I found this book incredibly fascinating and entertaining.
But I’m still jealous.






Saturday, January 13, 2018

Goodbye, Bette!

I did it. I waited until the last weekend, but I did it. I saw Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!
Since she’s leaving the show tomorrow, this is more of a post-mortem than a review.
Of course, there’s been a ton of hype about this show, so the question is, “Was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes.”
I’ve never been a fan of the show Hello, Dolly! (I only saw the movie a few weeks go). I plunked down my $243 for orchestra seats to see Bette. I thought, “She’s 72. This might be my last chance!” (even though I’ve now seen her on Broadway three times and at Madison Square Garden once).
You see, Bette and I have a history.
The first time I saw Bette Midler on Broadway was 1979. She was doing a concert that was filmed and later released as the movie Divine Madness. But there was more drama involved in my seeing the show than what transpired onstage.
I had bought a standing room ticket (the first and only time I’ve ever stood to see a Broadway show) since that was the only ticket I could afford. But, being the culture vulture that I am, I had also gone to see the movie All That Jazz beforehand. In between the movie and the show, I stopped off at a Beefsteak Charlie’s on East 59th Street and had a steak sandwich. I got so deathly ill from the sandwich (don’t ask), I had to be hospitalized.
But I was determined to see Bette!
So the following weekend I took my standing room ticket and went back to the theater. Fortunately, no one checked my ticket (there are assigned places even for standing room) and I was able to see Bette’s show.
I’ve been in love with her ever since.
My biggest fear upon seeing Hello, Dolly! this late in the run (apart from living up to the hype) was that the actors would be tired of doing the show and/or they wouldn’t have any voices left.
I have to tell you, every time I’ve gone to see a Broadway show, I’ve been amazed at the ability of these people to do eight shows a week. These are professionals and they did not disappoint.
One of the things I liked about Bette’s performance was her ability to poke fun at herself. She’s well aware of the hype surrounding this show and is secure enough in her talent to have a laugh at her (and the show’s) expense. She’s no diva!
There’s one scene where she spends about ten minutes just wordlessly eating a turkey dinner and gets more laughs than she would from ten minutes of dialogue.
She and David Hyde Pierce have, at this point, turned their mugging into an art. Together, they turn scenery chewing into an Olympic sport!
Of course, Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin are also great and in fine voice as the young lovers at the center of the story.
And that’s another thing that’s always impressed me about Bette (and David Hyde Pierce, for that matter). While she may not have the strongest voice, she knows how to make the best of what she has and she’s also a great actor of lyrics. She has an uncanny ability to take even the best-known song and make it her own.
So goodbye, Bette. You’ve got nothing left to prove.
And good luck, Bernadette Peters.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

I’m Sorry I’m Angry, Too

As Donald Trump (I will never call him “President”) prepares to sign the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the top 1% in the history of the United States, I must apologize.
I’m sorry if I seem a little angry. I’m sorry if all my Facebook posts seem to be political. I’m sorry if I seem to have lost my sense of humor about politics (or anything else).
I was just trying to keep people informed. I was still laboring under the delusion that I lived in a democracy, a place where politicians actually gave a shit about what their constituents thought.
But a system where Congress consistently votes against the will of its citizens is not a democracy. And it’s not a democracy because it’s been gerrymandered to the point where there are no consequences for their actions.
I don’t find anything about Trump “cute” or “funny” or “amusing.” I’m grateful for SNL and Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher. I think Trump has led to some of SNL’s best writing ever (at least for their cold open; I wish I could say that for the rest of their show). I guess when you don’t have to worry about your basic needs being met, you have room to find the humor in these things.
But I don’t.
So know this (and this is addressed to Trump and the Republican Party): I will not buy your bullshit for one second and I will do everything in my power to bring you down.
The irony of Trump signing a bill right before Christmas that will raise taxes for most Americans —all so the richest 1% can get a tax break—is breathtaking. You make a mockery of public service. You degrade the offices of the presidency and Congress, as well as the standing of the United States around the world.
I will never give you (Trump) the only thing that you have ever wanted. Attention. Recognition. Validation.
You have always been and will always be nothing more than a vulgar and ignorant con man.
If I see you on a TV set, I will not look. I refuse to listen to your voice, because I know before the words even leave your lips that everything you say is a lie.
The photo today on the front page of the New York Times, with you and your Republican cronies posed on the steps of the White House like you’re the Radio City Rockettes, to brag about what you’ve just done, disgusts me.
And that goes for you so-called “moderate” Republicans, too, the so-called “voices of reason” who betrayed us.
I’m talking to you, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—looting the U.S. Treasury on your way out the door. I will not listen to your grandstanding speeches on the floor of Congress, which cover how you personally profit from this bill. I will not buy your inevitable memoirs explaining how great you are, as you embark on your PR tour.
I will hound you at every public appearance, plane trip and supermarket line. You will not know a moment’s peace.
Lisa Murkowski: You will have to explain to the citizens of Alaska why you allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Susan Collins: You will have to explain to the citizens of Maine why you voted for this bill, even though you didn’t get the things you asked for.
Both your careers are over.
As for John McCain, you will have to make your own peace with destroying your legacy. I wish you luck.
As far as I’m concerned, this abuse of power ends now.
The only thing this bill will accomplish is the consignment of the Republican Party—finally!—to the dustbin or history, where it rightfully belongs.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars


 Lately, I’ve been wondering why I have no interest in the music that’s being made today. Is it because most of today’s music is being made by and for 19-year-old girls (I hesitate to call them women) or is there some other reason?
Fortunately, David Hepworth has explained it all for me (and you) in his cleverly written and endlessly fascinating new book, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars.
To put it simply: there are no more rock stars.
I had already gathered as much when I recently went to see a show of rock star photographs by Michael Zagaris at the Milk Gallery in New York City. It suddenly dawned on me as I looked at pictures of Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, David Bowie and others: I had lived through the last era of rock stars!
Why aren’t there any more rock stars, you may ask? Well, basically, it comes down to two words: the Internet—that great destroyer of all things mysterious. And what is a rock star without mystery?
Dead, that’s what.
There have also been many changes in the music industry and in technology that have aided and abetted this process. With our new abundance of entertainment choices, suddenly mere pop stars aren’t so special anymore. In other words, if everyone is special, no one is special.
Hepworth traces the history of rock stars from 1955 to 1995, from the first rock star (Little Richard) to the last (Kurt Cobain). Along the way, he describes what was happening, musically and culturally, every year. (There’s also a great playlist at the end of every chapter, listing what songs/albums were popular that year.)
But what really makes this book better than most rock star biographies, is the cleverness of the writing. My favorite line may be his description of Madonna: “Madonna is a drama queen who achieves her full height only when bristling with indignation.”
Catty, but true!
Nevertheless, you may leave this book with a sense of sadness, much as I experienced when I watched The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special last night. You see, when I was growing up, I took Carol Burnett (and rock stars) for granted, never imagining that there would come a day when they would no longer exist. But the fact is, there will never be another Carol Burnett Show because a) there will never be another Carol Burnett and b) a variety show like hers would be too expensive to produce. (Bob Mackie used to design 65 costumes for her show every week!)
Similarly, there will never be another rock star because…well, read this book.
It may be the definitive last word on rock stars.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Richard Hambleton: Shadowman

On the subject of “great artists are not always great human beings,” I went to see the documentary Shadowman about the artist Richard Hambleton last night at the beautifully renovated Quad Cinema.
If you were in New York City in the early ’80s, you could not have missed Hambleton’s “shadow” paintings, quickly dashed off silhouettes that seemed to creep up on you out of nowhere. (His first project was actually his “Mass Murder” series that resembled the police department chalk outlines of murder victims.) These paintings are remarkable for their power to suggest something with just a few strokes, as were his subsequent paintings based on the Marlboro Man and rodeo riders.
At the height of his “shadow” paintings, he dropped out of the New York art scene and started painting landscapes and seascapes that were out of step with the graffiti and street art that were popular in New York City and for which he was known. It’s hard to describe how beautiful these paintings are. Someone in the film compared them to the landscapes of Turner, but even that doesn’t do them justice.
Eventually, Hambleton is rediscovered by two art dealers (including the socialite Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld) and is feted with two large shows, studded with models and movie stars. His paintings eventually sell for several hundred thousand dollars.
The flip side of this success story is Hambleton’s copious drug use and schizophrenic personality. (I know someone who lived in his Lower East Side building and she described it as a living nightmare.)
It’s hard not to read this movie as a commentary on mortality, as we see the beautiful, vibrant young Hambleton ravaged by skin cancer and scoliosis. The movie is both tragic and heroic, in that Hambleton keeps painting, right up until his death.
During a Q&A after the movie, the film’s director posited that Hambleton had “mental health issues” and, according to some psychiatrist friends, fit the profile of someone who had been abused as a child, because of the way he drew people to him and then pushed them away.
But I think Penny Arcade puts it best in the movie when she says that some artists (she mentions Van Gogh as another example) we “just can’t understand.”
Hambleton passed away on October 29, just three days before the “Club 57” show at MoMA, which features one of his paintings.