Monday, January 25, 2016

Shameless Billions

I have a feeling Billions is going to be my new “love to hate.”
Between the unintelligible financial jargon, the shameless displays of wealth, the profanity-laced dick-measuring contests, and the heavy-handed symbolism, there’s a lot to hate.
The first two episodes introduced the primary characters and conflict. Damian Lewis (late of Homeland) stars as Bobby Axelrod, one of those people with an embarrassment of riches—looks, money, an all-neutral wardrobe—that you just love to hate. Malin Akerman, who was so good in HBO’s sorely-missed The Comeback, plays Axelrod’s wife, the requisite piece of arm-candy who unconvincingly keeps alluding to her hard-scrabble upbringing on the mean streets of Inwood.
Paul Giamatti is U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes, a man given to overblown prophecies of doom for Axelrod, unwieldy metaphors alluding to same, and whose biggest accomplishment so far seems to be the amount of scenery he’s able to chew. Maggie Siff plays his wife, Wendy, who works as some kind of psychotherapist at Axelrod’s firm and who, for some unknown reason, has a sadomasochistic relationship with her husband. (The opening scene of the first episode features Wendy extinguishing a cigarette on her husband’s chest and then peeing on the wound. The show goes downhill from there.)
OK, so maybe that’s how high-powered douchebags really talk and behave in real life. It still pains me to hear the stilted dialogue coming out of these actors’ mouths, especially since I know they’ve all had better material.
It’s embarrassing.
Which brings me to Shameless, Showtime’s other Sunday night offering.
Shameless is what you might call the flip side to Billions’ excess. Shameless deals with the Gallagher family, an unwieldy brood living on the south side of Chicago in white-trash squalor.
To say that the Gallaghers are dysfunctional would be like saying Hitler wasn’t very nice to Jews. The amount of dysfunction on this show can make it painful to watch at times. I mean, I’ve heard of schadenfreude, but this is ridiculous!
Let’s see, where do I begin?
The patriarch, Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), is an alcoholic on his second liver, who just ended an affair with a woman who had cancer and committed suicide at the end of last season. His ex-wife, Monica (Chloe Webb), was a manic-depressive. His oldest daughter, Fiona (Emmy Rossum), is sleeping with two men at the same time—Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and Gus (Steve Kazee, from Broadway’s Once), whom she’s married to—and is now pregnant but doesn’t know who the father is. His 15-year-old daughter, Debbie (Emma Kenney), is also pregnant, but is determined to keep the child despite the overwhelming evidence around her that she should not. His youngest son, Carl (Ethan Kutkosky), just got out of jail and is now selling guns in school and sporting cornrows and an 18-year-old black friend he met in juvie. His next youngest son, Ian (Cameron Monaghan), is also manic-depressive (like his mother), as well as gay, and has been reduced to working as a janitor at his brother’s college after getting fired as a waiter at his sister’s restaurant.
All of which makes Lip (Jeremy Allen White), the oldest son who’s attending college and is sleeping with one of his married professors, seem like a model of success.
(Another daughter, Sammi, is no longer on the show. I guess the house—and script—got too crowded!)
There’s also an interracial couple—Veronica and Kevin Ball (Shanola Hampton and the hunky Steve Howey) —who are the Gallaghers’ neighbors and are raising two small children of their own; and a lesbian couple who are supposed to symbolize the gentrification of the Gallaghers’ neighborhood and have lately gotten into an ongoing battle with another neighbor.
The only thing that’s a slight consolation is that there’s a lot of male (and female) nudity. A lot!
In just the last two seasons, we’ve gotten to see the asses of Mulroney (who will forever be fixed in my mind as the best-looking AIDS victim ever in Longtime Companion), Kazee (thank you!), Howey (thanks again!), and Macy (no thank you).
Another one of the highlights of last season—for me, at least—was the relationship between Ian and Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher). It gloriously destroyed any stereotypes one might have of all gay men being effeminate.
I’m not sure where all this is going but, if nothing else, after watching this show, you’re bound to feel that your own life—no matter how shitty it is—is somewhat less shitty.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In Defense of the Eagles

 Just barely over a week after the death of David Bowie, we lost another rock god of the ’70s, Glenn Frey of the Eagles.
Last night I re-watched the excellent documentary, History of the Eagles, and was struck by a number of things: that geography is destiny, that the ’70s music scene in southern California was a unique convergence of people that will probably never be duplicated, and that the Eagles were fucking talented.
I don’t care about fame. I don’t care about money. I don’t care about physical beauty. But I worship talent. I bow at the feet of musicianship. And that’s something the Eagles had in spades and something that’s sorely missing from today’s studio-created pop princesses and knob-twiddling producers.
Just watch the first few seconds of History, where the five original members of the band engage a capella in five-part harmony. That’s the same sound that blew away British producer Glyn Johns, who produced their first two albums and had already worked with The Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Try asking one of today’s auto-tuned divas (or divos) to do that.
While it may not seem necessary to defend a band that has the best-selling album of the 20th century (Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975), there’s a comment by music critic Robert Christgau that I read on CNN’s website that sticks in my craw: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them.”1
There’s also the good-natured ribbing of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, where Jeff Bridges’s character, The Dude, asks his cabdriver not to play the Eagles on his car radio. (The cab driver then asks him to get out of the cab.)
But that’s the thing about popular bands (or anything that’s popular). At some point they become a cliché. At some point there’s a backlash and, suddenly, they’re not “cool” anymore.
The thing about the Eagles is that they were so popular, you just took it for granted that they would always be around. And, now that they’re not, I’m kicking myself that I never saw them live.
Granted, the Eagles were not known for the highly choreographed, special effects-laden spectacles that are demanded of today’s touring bands. (In History, one critic accuses them of “loitering onstage.”) Eagles concerts were all about the music.
And that’s the thing.
The Eagles came out of the southern California music scene of the ’70s and combined the influences of rock and country into something that hadn’t been heard before. No matter where you were, when you were heard one of their songs, you were magically transported to that southern California paradise of palm trees, cars, and sunshine (and, by the time of Hotel California, its hedonistic underbelly of sex and drugs).
You can imagine how this would appeal to someone living in the cold suburban hell of Long Island.
The band split in 1980 and reunited for a tour and album in 1994 (Hell Freezes Over) and later released another album, Long Road Out of Eden. While these last two albums may not dig as deep as a Hotel California, their pre-breakup output alone (to say nothing of the solo careers of Don Henley and Glenn Frey) would make them untouchable.
And that reminds me.
There’s one thing I’ve been waiting over 30 years to say.
Fuck you, Robert Christgau.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

David Bowie and Me

In the week since David Bowie’s death, there has been an outpouring of grief from people all over the world, as well as an avalanche of essays (including this one) from people vainly attempting to attach themselves to his greatness. All of this is understandable. Bowie was a musician, actor, artist and fashion icon. Whenever anyone dies, there is a sense of lost opportunities. The greater the person, the greater the sense of loss.I never considered myself a Bowie fan, in particular, but I did have a great deal of admiration for both the man and his work.
I’ve also had this bizarre (and perhaps undeserved) feeling of closeness and propriety toward him because I live two blocks from his New York apartment.
On the day after his death, I passed his apartment and there were news vans and a crowd of people outside. I was filled with a sense of both loss and disgust. I was tempted to take a picture, but I decided that that would make me as intrusive as the news vans and crowds, so I didn’t.
As the days passed, I found myself mentally going over his music and my experience of it.
Since I was only an adolescent in the ’70s, I feel like I missed out on a good deal of Bowie’s output. Bowie may have had his avant-garde side, but he was also a hit-maker, capable of creating hits on AM radio. I distinctly recall the first time I heard “Space Oddity,” which was released around the time of the Apollo moon landing. I immediately liked it.
 “Changes,” “Fame” and “Young Americans” also made it onto AM radio. In fact, he had enough hit records to release a greatest hits album, ChangesOneBowie, in 1976.
But I missed his whole Ziggy Stardust period and, listening to songs from that period now, I can’t understand why those songs weren’t also hit records. To my ears, “Life on Mars” and “Starman” are every bit as commercial-sounding as “Space Oddity,” “Changes” or “Fame.”
But you have to remember the era in which those songs were created.
It’s hard to imagine now how revolutionary Bowie was when he first came onto the music scene. (There’s an excellent documentary called David Bowie: Five Years which makes it abundantly clear.)
America was emerging from the singer-songwriter period of James Taylor, Carol King and Elton John (whose later songs/image were undoubtedly influenced by Bowie) and entering the era of California rock.
That’s what was so great about the ’70s: disco and punk were happening at the same time. (Take note, Vinyl writers!) CBGB and Studio 54 existed at the same time (and Bowie probably went to both). The American airwaves were filled with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, while in England the glam-rock of Bowie and T-Rex were segueing into the punk of the Sex Pistols.
This is the era in which Bowie created Ziggy Stardust and the later albums of his Berlin period.
It wasn’t until I got into college that my tastes and Bowie’s musical output merged with the release of Scary Monsters. This was also, to my ears, a very commercial-sounding album. “Ashes to Ashes” picked up the story and otherworldly sound of “Space Oddity.” “Fashion” had a funky bass line like “Fame.” What was not to like?
But the album that sent Bowie into the stratosphere was Let’s Dance. This album also coincided with the birth of MTV and Bowie’s videos from this album were in constant rotation. One of the biggest regrets of my life was not seeing the “Serious Moonlight” tour (which was featured in the video for “Modern Love”).
Bowie then entered a period where, as he himself has said, he was writing more for the audience than himself. Tonight and Never Let Me Down continued his commercial trajectory (and I did catch his “Glass Spider” tour, but it was anti-climactic).
But then, the following year, after playing large arenas, he played a small club in the East Village called The World with a band named Tin Machine!
Several more albums followed, but Bowie stopped touring in 2004 and maintained a low profile thereafter.
So, it was a kind of a shock to have, in the space of a few days, Bowie release a well-reviewed new album on his birthday and then die seemingly all of a sudden.
In truth, Bowie had already narrowly escaped death at least once or twice before.
In the ’70s, during his heavy drug period, Bowie actually looked worse than he did shortly before his actual death. There’s a widely circulating photograph of Bowie with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Grammy Awards where he looks like a skeleton.
But his death still feels sudden, partly because he didn’t seem to be fully present even when he was alive.
There’s an excellent article in The New York Times1 which talks about the way Bowie was able to walk the streets of New York City unnoticed. I think this is because everyone in New York thinks they’re a celebrity—and they’re all too busy looking at their cell phones.
I only saw Bowie once, although I’ve seen his wife, Iman, several times.
It’s kind of a funny story, actually.
I was walking down Lafayette Street when I saw two white men (who I assumed to be gay), one of them wearing sunglasses, walking with a young black girl and I thought, “How nice! Those two gay white men adopted a little black girl!” It wasn’t until after I had passed them that I realized that the white man wearing sunglasses was David Bowie and the little black girl was probably his daughter.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Mayor of Hudson River Park

 I’ve often considered myself the mayor of Hudson River Park, just because I go there so frequently and, consequently, feel very proprietary about it.
On this 15-degree day in the depths of winter, I’m thinking fondly of the summers I spent reading in my usual spot near West 11th Street. Since I usually can’t afford to take a summer vacation, reading in Hudson River Park is my summer vacation.
I’ve also met my fair share of celebrities while reading in the park.
Now, when it comes to approaching celebrities, I’m always torn between my fanatical worship of talent and my genuine desire not to intrude on anyone’s privacy. I don’t want to appear like a stalker but, on the other hand, I’m also loath to appear like some blasé New Yorker. As Rupert Everett once said, “Jesus could walk down Eighth Avenue and no one would notice.” (He was referring to Chelsea muscle queens and said this when Chelsea was still the preeminent gay neighborhood in Manhattan.)
Speaking of Rupert Everett, I can still remember the many times I’d see him and his dog on the Christopher Street pier. (This was in the pre-renovation days, when the piers were the exclusive province of gay men.) In fact, I’d see him so often that I grew to recognize his black Labrador and knew that, if I saw the Lab, Everett must be nearby. (The dog even made a cameo appearance in Everett’s film The Next Best Thing.)
Just this past summer, I met the actor and drag performer John (“Lypsinka”) Epperson. I mentioned that I had just posted a photo of a film clip of him that was used in a Morrissey concert on Twitter and that we also had a friend in common. He regaled me with his own tales of celebrities that he had met (Madonna, Bette Midler) and told me about his upcoming appearances at Feinstein’s/54 Below and off-Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. (I saw Mattress recently and he was wonderful!)
Another time I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell sitting quietly by himself, typing on his laptop. Actually, I had seen him several times and didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to bother him. Finally, I decided to tell him how much I had enjoyed his show when I saw it at the Jane Street Theater back in the ’90s. (This was before the Broadway revival was announced.) He was very gracious and I let him get back to work.
A few months later, I saw Mitchell in the park again on the day of the Tony Awards (for which Hedwig was nominated for the Best Revival and Best Actor Tonys, among others) and wished him good luck. He modestly deflected his nominations and, again, I left him to his own devices. A few hours later, I saw him on TV accepting the Tony for Best Revival.
Not every celebrity is so gracious.
A few years ago I saw the actor and playwright Sam Shepard eating an ice cream bar in the park. Theater snob that I am, I told him how much I enjoyed his play True West. (I deliberately didn’t mention any of his movie acting.) He ran away like I was a psycho.
It’s also true that not everyone I meet in the park is famous.
One person I see quite often is a vaguely homeless-looking man who’s always carrying a backpack and going through a pile of handwritten papers. He must be working on his memoirs! (I eventually saw him coming out of a building on West 11th Street, so I don’t think he’s homeless, either.)
Nowadays, my biggest concern regarding Hudson River Park (and the West Village in general) is overdevelopment. I was disturbed to read about the recent sale of air rights to pay for the renovation of Pier 401, as that will undoubtedly create yet more high-rises along the West Side Highway. (One of the biggest mistakes in zoning history has to be the fact that the West Village Historic District didn’t extend all the way to the Hudson River.) As it is, the behemoth-like 150 Charles Street looms over the charming townhouse on West Street that was featured in the Bravo TV series 9 By Design.
When I die, I’d like my ashes to be scattered over my favorite reading spot in Hudson River Park, so I can continue to enjoy its peaceful surroundings and future generations will be able to feel my presence.
It’s also likely to be the only way I’m ever going to have a Hudson River view.