Thursday, March 21, 2024

Where Have All the Old Punks Gone?

Last night, my friend Lisa had an extra ticket to see Chris Spedding at Bowery Electric. I’m not particularly a fan, but I feel like when something like this falls into your lap, you have to say yes unless you have a good reason not to. (And the fact that I’d normally be watching TV on a Wednesday night was not a good reason not to.)

Chris Spedding isn’t exactly famous, but he’s a well-respected “side man,” a musician’s musician who played with Roxy Music at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Previously, I’d only seen Spedding play with Robert Gordon (another show that Lisa invited me to). And before that, my only memory of him was of seeing his face on an album cover 40 years ago, when he looked quite stunning.

But for me the real show was the audience.

Before I even walked in the door, I spotted an old woman entering the club wearing a CBGB T-shirt. If ever someone could say, “I have T-shirts older than you,” it was her.

Then I entered and the real show began. (I wish I’d taken pictures, but I don’t think that would’ve been cool, even though I saw other people taking pictures.)

Where do I begin?

I’ve never seen so much black, leather and leopard print in one place. But something was amiss. At first, it was like entering a time warp. It was like being 19 again and entering the Mudd Club or Berlin.

Except everyone was 40 years older!

My friend Lisa and I seemed to be the youngest people there. (OK, not everyone was old. The bartender, who was absolutely adorable, seemed to be about 19 and much too healthy to be working there.)

Someone actually showed up with a cane! I was half-expecting someone to show up with a walker!

I saw one guy who looked like Alan Vega, the lead singer of Suicide. (Yes, that was the name of an actual punk band. It was the ’80s, what can I say?) Except that Alan Vega is dead.

Another guy in a leather top hat could have been the winner of the Alice Cooper Look-alike Contest.

There were two aging punk women in frizzy hair and black eyeliner screeching at each other. One of them had brought an album with her. (You know, those round vinyl things we used to play music on?)

I just had three questions: 1. Where did all these people come from? 2. What did they all do for a living? and 3. How can they afford to live here?

You used to see people like this in the East Village all the time. But that was 40 years ago. Were these the same people 40 years later? Even if they were rent-stabilized (like me), how had they survived? Did they now live in the far reaches of the Bronx or Staten Island and take the subway in to see Chris Spedding?

I thought of East Village fixtures like John Spacely (a.k.a. “Gringo”), whose eyepatched likeness used to hover above St. Mark’s Place. Or Jimmy Webb, the eternally youthful sales clerk at Trash & Vaudeville.

I had to remind myself that the Sex Pistols first appeared on the scene in 1977. That was 47 years ago! So even if these people were 16 back then, they’d be 63 now.

That’s almost (gasp) my age!

I wasn’t sure whether I should be inspired or depressed. Was it hopeful that Chris Spedding was 79 and still rocking out or pathetic?

Was this my future? (Or, even worse, my present?)

After the show, I conducted a little mini-tour of my old haunts for Lisa. “This is where CBGB used to be. I’ve actually played there.” (It’s now a John Varvatos boutique.) “This is where The Great Gildersleeves used to be.” (It was torn down and replaced by an NYU dorm.) “This is where I ‘met’ (in the biblical sense) the Ramones’ art director, Arturo Vega, and where the Ramones used to crash.” (There’s probably some rich stockbroker living there now.)

I eventually made it home on time to catch the second rerun of Seinfeld. After all, some of us old punks actually have to work for a living.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Why I Can No Longer Watch Jon Stewart

I had high hopes for Jon Stewart, really I did. I even added Comedy Central to my Spectrum channel lineup specifically so I could watch The Daily Show.

I didn’t appreciate the way Stewart was unceremoniously dropped from Comedy Central along with his compatriot, Stephen Colbert. Colbert was kicked upstairs to Comedy Central’s older sibling, CBS, where he continued to thrive, while Stewart was left to wander the streaming wilderness.

But Stewart and Colbert were built for a time when politics were, for lack of a better word, normal. The stakes in this election are about nothing less than democracy vs. autocracy. Given that choice, everything else pales in comparison.

This is not the time for cutesy old man jokes and bothsidesism. What we need is the full-throated condemnation of someone like Lawrence O’Donnell (The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell) and the analysis of his legal experts (and frequent guests) Laurence Tribe, Andrew Weissmann and Neal Katyal.

As it happens, Stewart debuted a few days after Donald Trump made a speech in which he said he would encourage Putin to attack our NATO allies if they didn’t “pay up.” (Never mind the fact that NATO countries don’t actually pay America anything.)

In normal times (i.e., pre-Trump), Republicans would have gone ballistic over a comment like this. Instead, there was crickets, if not outright support.

And what was the news media covering when this happened?

There were tons of stories about President Biden’s age, brought on by special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s retaining of classified documents (which Biden, unlike Trump, promptly returned), in which Hur inserted his personal opinion about Biden’s mental acuity. There hasn’t been such an egregious case of editorializing since Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, preemptively cleared him before Robert Mueller’s report on the investigation into “Russiagate” was released!

On the same night that Stewart’s show aired, O’Donnell, on his show, used the example of Franklin Roosevelt, who was one of the most accomplished presidents in history despite being confined to a wheelchair,1 to make the point that it’s not one’s appearance that matters, but how qualified they are at making decisions.

The New York Times, which published more stories over the weekend about Biden’s age than about Trump’s NATO comments, tried to atone for their lopsided coverage by publishing an essay by a neuroscientist, explaining why we shouldn’t be concerned about Biden’s memory lapses.2

Paul Krugman expressed a similar opinion in his column.3

Meanwhile, Trump makes gaffes on a daily basis and the media doesn’t even bother to cover it.

So, forgive me, if I won’t be watching The Daily Show’s election coverage for the next nine months. I’m afraid it would only make me more infuriated than I already am. I think the nostalgic comfort of Seinfeld might be more what I need in order to be able to go to sleep.




Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Beatles: Get Back

Just when I thought I couldn’t be in any more awe of the Beatles, along comes The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part, uncut version of their 1969 documentary, Let It Be, to blow the top of my head off.

I’m old enough to have seen Let It Be when it was originally released (and buy the album). I don’t remember too much about the movie but I think it’s mostly remembered as an account of the Beatles’ breakup, most of which was blamed on John Lennon’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Yoko Ono.

What I see when I watch the uncut version, however, is four men who clearly love each other, particularly John and Paul. Their relationship is so close, it’s like they’re two halves of the same person. Most of the film is taken up with the four of them laughing and joking.

Yes, it’s true that George Harrison walks out of the recording session and threatens to leave the band at the end of the first part. That seems to be the real reason for the Beatles’ breakup (among other things): the fact that George felt that his opinion wasn’t valued and not enough of his songs were being included on Beatles albums.

But the real revelation of this film is the sheer depth and breadth of the Beatles’ talent. During the course of Get Back, you hear songs that not only are not included on Let It Be. (Some of them wound up on Abbey Road, some of them wound up on Hey Jude, some of them wound up on Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram and some of them wound of on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.) Some of them are not on any of the Beatles’ studio albums (and I had all their albums from Rubber Soul onward)! Some of them are not even on their Anthology collections! I’m hearing Beatles songs I’ve never heard before!

Beyond that, their knowledge of the pop music that preceded them—people like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as well as lesser-known artists—is truly encyclopedic, as is evidenced by the number of these songs that are in their repertoire.

But the thing that will truly blow your mind is watching songs you know like the back of your hand come to life.

They’ll start out with maybe just a bit of the melody and no lyrics and they might just hum along or sing nonsense words. Then they’ll gradually start adding lyrics until the whole thing takes shape. And finally, at the end of the film, you see them performing some of the finished songs. It’s nothing short of miraculous!

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Paul was absolutely beautiful.

Monday, January 1, 2024

All of Us Strangers

All of Us Strangers is the most disturbing movie I’ve seen since The Deer Hunter in 1979. (That movie left me crying in my childhood bedroom afterwards. I remember my brother coming into my bedroom to ask me what was wrong.) When I got home, I posted on Facebook that, “while I thought it was extremely well done (particularly the performances), it's not a movie I'd recommend if you're feeling sad or depressed or don't have access to a therapist immediately afterwards. I also had to check Wikipedia when I got home to find out wtf happened in it and I'm still a little confused.”

I’m slightly less confused now but after a somewhat sleepless New Year’s Eve, I’m still disturbed by it, but I can’t discuss it without revealing some plot points, so here goes.


All of Us Strangers is about two gay men, Adam and Harry, who live in a mostly empty apartment tower on the outskirts of London (they seem to be the only two tenants in the building) who meet and start a relationship. During the course of the movie, it’s revealed that Adam’s two parents died in a car crash when he was 12. It’s a little confusing, though, because throughout the film, Adam visits his childhood home, where his parents are still alive and basically the same age he is. At the end of the movie, according to Wikipedia, Adam returns to his apartment building and “goes to see Harry but finds him long dead in his flat's bedroom, with the same bottle he was drinking from on the night they met empty in his hand." So does that mean their entire relationship was a fantasy?

One of the most depressing things about the movie is that it uses the song “The Power of Love” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (quite powerfully, I might add) and I had to remind myself that that song is 40 years old.

So where do I begin?

On the one hand, this is a powerful, thought-provoking film with great performances by the entire cast (especially Andrew Scott as Adam, but also Paul Mescal as Harry and Jamie Bell and Claire Foy as Adam’s parents), but you might feel suicidal afterwards. I think it speaks to the alienation of living in a large city like London and also deals quite effectively with the issue of coming out to one’s parents and wanting to be accepted by them.

I think the movie’s message is that love transcends death (or “the power of love,” like the song used in the movie), but, damn, at what cost?

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Eat Drink Laugh

I’ve been producing a monthly stand-up comedy show at Pangea in New York City’s East Village for almost two years. My next show is this Saturday, December 23 at 9pm. $10 cover in advance, $15 at the door plus $20 minimum. Advance tickets available here: 

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Madonna at Barclays Center

Madonna and her daughter, Mercy

I had high expectations for Madonna’s concert last night at Barclays Center after reading Mary Gabriel’s exhaustive new biography, Madonna: A Rebel Life, which confirms Madonna’s place as a cultural icon. I had lost touch with her music after Confessions on a Dance Floor and thought this might be my last chance to see her. (Is she going to keep touring when she’s 80, like Mick Jagger?)

I had heard from a fellow audience member that the 8:30pm show wouldn’t start until 10pm. It actually started at 9pm (only a half hour late), but first we were subjected to a one-hour “set” by DJ Honey Dijon. (I’m sorry, but a DJ isn’t my idea of an opening act.)

Finally, at 10:45pm, Madonna took the stage and, thank God, she delivered.

First of all, she looked amazing. It was classic Madonna: blonde hair and bustier. (Does anyone remember her Pippi Longstocking period? How about the shaved eyebrows and gold tooth? Hello?)

Secondly, I think this was her most elaborate production yet. (I’ve seen her live twice and I’ve seen several of her concerts on cable TV.) She not only hovered above the stage in a steel cage suspended from the ceiling, but at one point she literally set the stage on fire.

And yet it was also strangely intimate. She talked to the audience and even managed to crack a few jokes. (After all, this was her first show in her hometown of New York City.)

Some high points for me: “Live to Tell,” which was accompanied by photographs of people who died of AIDS, like artist Keith Haring and Christopher Flynn, her dance teacher; “Bad Girl,” on which she was accompanied on piano by her daughter, Mercy; and “Don’t Tell Me,” during which she recreated what I think is her sexiest video. (Dancing cowboys! Woof!)

In the end, I forgave her diva behavior because she put on a great show and, well, bitch, she’s Madonna.

Barclays Center. My seat was so high up, I needed oxygen!

Keith Haring and Christopher Flynn

Monday, November 20, 2023

In Search of New York’s Lost Record Stores

There are no second acts in New York real estate. Except when there are.

One such exception is Café Figaro on Bleecker Street. When I was a still going to college on Long Island, I thought it was the height of sophistication to go to the Café Figaro. I associated it with the Beat writers of the ’50s, as well as the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was down the block. I thought I was so cool ordering my spinach salad with chick peas. (Or was that at Bagel And, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, occupied the site of the original Stonewall Inn?)

Anyway, imagine my surprise to see that it was reopening.

Cafe Figaro: It's back!

I walked into the restaurant and told the new owner my whole history with his establishment. This was at least the second time I had done this. The previous time was when I walked into the former site of the Greene Street Café (which is now a high-end stereo store) and explained to their owners that I had once worked there as a busboy and that HBO had filmed a Young Comedians special there with people like Bill Maher. (That how long ago it was. Bill Maher was still a “young comedian”!)

Anyway, the reason for all this nostalgia was that I was trying to find a copy of the CD Fearless, by Nina Hagen, for a reading of my screenplay. It’s not available on iTunes and is out of print (although you can find it on eBay for as much as $90). I have the German version on vinyl and, in a pinch, I could just play the song on YouTube, but I thought it would be nice to have a digital copy and, anyway, I needed the English version. Fortunately, a DJ friend of mine offered to burn me a copy of her Greatest Hits, which contains the song I need (“New York New York”).

Nina Hagen's Greatest Hits: I found it!

Out of curiosity, I decided to visit a few of my old record store haunts (and a few new ones) to see if I could find it. I started at Academy Records on West 18th Street, which I’d never been to. These places are like walking into a time warp, but once upon a time, before streaming and mp3s, I used to spend a lot of time browsing record stores in search of a particular record or CD.

Needless to say, they didn’t have it, but they did have some surprising selections I didn’t expect to see (Heaven 17! Human League!) along with some that are even before my time (Jimi Hendrix?!). OK, I may have been alive in the ’60s, but I was more into the Beatles at that age. Hendrix was a little too heavy for me.

My next stop was Generation Records on Thompson Street, in the heart of the Village. Same story.

And finally, Village Music World (a.k.a. Village Revival Records) on Bleecker Street, where I was shocked to actually find a copy of Nina Hagen’s Greatest Hits on CD, which I was tempted to buy but didn’t because my friend would never let me hear the end of it. (“You spent $22 on a CD after I offered to burn it for you?!”)

Just for the hell of it, I decided to walk further west on Bleecker Street to see if one of my other hangouts, Golden Discs, was still there. It wasn’t. It had been replaced by a store that sold Lotto tickets and some other nondescript business.

Around the corner, on Jones Street, I thought I’d look for another beloved record store, Record Runner, and, much to my surprise, I found it! They didn’t have Nina Hagen, either, but I was encouraged to see two young men entering the store after I left.

Record Runner: Still there!

There used to be tons of record stores in the Village: Sounds, Free Being, Rebel Rebel, Vinylmania and, of course, Bleecker Bob’s1. Flipping through bins of vinyl (or plastic) was a sign that you were a real music fan. Entire books and movies have been written about this! (OK, one: High Fidelity.)

Nowadays, I feel like a historian, regaling unsuspecting store owners with tales of my illustrious past.

But somebody has to.