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WORTH REPEATING: The Banality Of Evil

June 2nd, 2020



WILL BUNCH: The moment we’ve been dreading since that escalator ride down Trump Tower five years ago this month — that’s been slowly building brick by brick as Donald Trump tore down the rule of law, abused the presidency to enrich himself, and grabbed the bully pulpit of the White House to divide America with racism, sexism and xenophobia — finally came at 6:45 p.m. as the sun sank over Washington on the night of June 1, 2020.

Backed into a corner after his incompetence and distrust in science was trampled by a virus that’s killed 105,000 Americans, compounded by 40 million unemployed, and now massive, chaotic protests over the police brutality and racism that he has nurtured instead of combating, the president of the United States declared war on the American people.

Speaking from the Rose Garden as a flash-bang grenade deployed against peaceful protesters echoed from across the street, Trump sounded almost like a satire of a tinhorn dictator as he vowed to “dominate the streets” while invoking an ancient law, the Insurrection Act of 1807, and threatening to use the U.S. military to end the nationwide protests and growing unrest over the killing of an unarmed 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, at the hands of four Minneapolis cops. Except this was no satire, no joke. Less than two minutes before the president began his speech, military police and other law-enforcement officers mounted a violent assault on hundreds of seemingly law-abiding protesters across the street from the White House, firing tear gas and painful rubber bullets as the panicked crowd scattered in a shocking split-screen moment. MORE


GEORGE F. WILL: This unraveling presidency began with the Crybaby-in-Chief banging his spoon on his highchair tray to protest a photograph — a photograph — showing that his inauguration crowd the day before had been smaller than the one four years previous. Since then, this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron. […]

The nation’s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes much larger than the small man who is the great exacerbator of them. Most of the causes predate his presidency, and most will survive its January terminus. The measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many and will be protracted far beyond his removal. One such measure must be the removal of those in Congress who, unlike the sycophantic mediocrities who cosset him in the White House, will not disappear “magically,” as Eric Trump said the coronavirus would. Voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.

In life’s unforgiving arithmetic, we are the sum of our choices. Congressional Republicans have made theirs for more than 1,200 days. We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what? Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.

A political party’s primary function is to bestow its imprimatur on candidates, thereby proclaiming: This is who we are. In 2016, the Republican Party gave its principal nomination to a vulgarian and then toiled to elect him. And to stock Congress with invertebrates whose unswerving abjectness has enabled his institutional vandalism, who have voiced no serious objections to his Niagara of lies, and whom T.S. Eliot anticipated:

We are the hollow men . . .

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

or rats’ feet over broken glass . . .MORE

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BEING THERE: This Is America

June 1st, 2020



NEW YORKER: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This is how Martin Luther King, Jr., explained matters to Mike Wallace, of CBS News, in 1966. […] In September, 1967, with little more than seven months left to live, King delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., in which he addressed a society “poisoned to its soul by racism” and the question of how to confront and overcome that malignancy. This was in the wake of uprisings in Detroit and many other American cities.

King considered the question not in the spirit of endorsement but of comprehension. Urban riots, he said, using the language of the day, “may be deplored, but . . . they are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest.” Even looting, he insisted, is an act of catharsis, a form of “shocking” the white community “by abusing property rights.” Then King quoted Victor Hugo to deepen his point: “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” MORE



PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Across much of Center City on Sunday, merchants visited their businesses to assess the damage from the previous night’s violence, which overtook earlier peaceful demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Property destruction also occurred near the King of Prussia Mall on Saturday night, said Upper Merion officials. Police noticed social media messages posted around 8 p.m. that encouraged people to loot the mall. Groups started arriving by 9 p.m., and some gained entrance to the shopping mecca but were forced out by some of the 200 officers who responded. Police said they arrested 12 people in connection with damaging eight stores near the mall.

Hours after merchants, helped by volunteers, began cleaning up the damage in Center City on Sunday, looting broke out anew Sunday night – at a Lowe’s store in West Philadelphia, a Target off City Avenue, and elsewhere. The vandalism came as many shop and restaurant owners hoped that a new phase in the health crisis would let them slowly return to business. Now they are faced with daunting repairs and the fear that some customers may avoid the area after watching the violent flare-up on social media and in the news.

There had been a growing sense among some businesses that their unmanned shops and restaurants could become targets at a time of increasing job loss and economic insecurity from the pandemic. But “no one anticipated this kind of action,” said Larry Steinberg, a retail broker at Colliers International and president of the Rittenhouse Row merchants’ association.

After Floyd’s death, Steinberg said, “clearly it was the perfect storm. … And it was ugly.”

The air smelled of smoke from a fire that still smoldered after consuming the Dr. Martens shoe store on the 1700 block of Walnut Street as shopkeepers took in the damage, which continued to accumulate as the day progressed with scattered bouts of looting. Groups were spotted breaking into stores Sunday in neighborhood shopping enclaves away from Center City, including in Kensington, Port Richmond, and West Philadelphia. MORE

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CINEMA: Twilight Zoning

May 28th, 2020

The Vast Of Night POSTER
THE VAST OF NIGHT (directed by Andrew Patterson, 89 minutes, USA, 2020)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Vast Of Night, the ambitious Amazon Prime sci-fi thriller by first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson, is setup like an episode of a fictional ’50s TV show called Paradox Theater, channeling Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The narrative is set in rural 1950s New Mexico, as it follows a night in the lives of Fay (Sierra McCormick), a comely 16-year-old switchboard operator, and her crush, teenage radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz). It’s the night of the big basketball game and Fay and Everett pick up some strange interference while listening to the radio, plunging the duo down a rabbit hole of phantom frequencies, otherworldly phone calls and, eventually, sightings of mysterious aircraft passing over their small town.

Vast is very reminiscent of Super 8, J. J. Abrams’ super wholesome love-letter to growing up in the ‘80s, but not quite as masturbatory. Nostalgia is a tricky muse, while some filmmakers are able to wield it and keep their relationship with the past in check, we’ve also seen how quickly it can overwhelm a narrative. The script here, while careful not to fall into camp or parody, perfectly mimics the tropes of that era of sci-fi TV, with its slow burn and climactic payoff. Still, Vast impressively crafts its own niche within that by-gone sub-genre, but with a more contemporary voice. It feels authentic, while still managing to comment on the Rockwell-ian charms and teenage doldrums of small town rural ‘50s life, thinly-veiled racism and creeping communism without falling into some half-baked attempt at an overly clever or preachy deconstruction of a much different time.

I have to say the most shocking/endearing thing about Vast is how the film keeps the relationship of the two protagonists grounded, it doesn’t try to rush it into some romantic cliché, and what we get feels legitimately organic. Sierra McCormick as Fay, somehow breaks out a character that I’ve seen in countless episodes of various ‘50s TV effluvia, with small character moments and flourishes that are by turns convincing and endearing. The film also does some interesting things with its UFO mythology as it cannibalizes the tropes we know and have come to expect while managing to give us its own take on the earthly visitations of extraterrestrials. The Vast of Night is a breath of fresh indie air in this quarantine era dumping ground. It’s a masterful first effort, telling a story that we can all kind of relate to right now, of two people trapped in a hopeless place looking for a distraction or simply a way out.

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CINEMA: Being Steve Buscemi

May 28th, 2020

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GQ: At 62, Buscemi has spent a lifetime playing lunatics and weirdos, outcasts and oddballs, his wiry frame a guitar string thrumming with rage or taut with the deep discomfort of simply existing in the world. The crown jewels of his visage are his heavy-lidded blue eyes, one of the most recognizable sets in the business, which can jut out maniacally or drown in subdued sorrow. When he pulls off his black baseball cap, I’m struck by how muted and relaxed his features are, as if they’ve all agreed to a nonaggression pact.

Buscemi also carries himself with an unobtrusiveness at odds with his various personas, down to his urban camouflage: a straightforward dark gray button-down, black jeans and glasses, a navy jacket and scarf. He has said before that he did not realize his teeth were so crooked until he saw himself on film. They’re much more harmonious in person, save for one prominent exception: a slightly feral snaggletooth, top left, that peeks out when he laughs—which he does reflexively, nervously. Often. It feels like an old friend.

At this point, Buscemi has surrounded us so consistently in such varied work that he might as well be air. He has been a Buscemi_memestingy, sarcastic criminal (Reservoir Dogs), a loudmouthed, louche criminal (Fargo), a heavy-metal rocker turned hapless criminal (Airheads), and a guy whose only crime is having too many opinions about jazz (Ghost World). A neurotic screenwriter (In the Soup) and a neurotic director (Living in Oblivion). A gloriously inept private detective (30 Rock). A downtrodden bowler (The Big Lebowski). A guy literally named Crazy Eyes (Mr. Deeds). “We used to joke that he was our generation’s Don Knotts, but he’s more Jimmy Stewart in a way,” says the independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who has been friends with Buscemi for more than 35 years and cast him in several projects. “He portrays humanity.”

Though it’s difficult to imagine a world without Buscemi onscreen, about a decade ago he thought he was done acting. Thought he’d peaked, that he might as well devote himself to directing full-time. “I just couldn’t really see where it was going,” he says. “I felt like I was at an odd age where I was too old to play some characters, not old enough to play other characters.” Then, in a brilliant casting turn, the character actor’s character actor landed the lead as political boss and gangster Nucky Thompson on the HBO Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire. Show creator Terence Winter says that even Buscemi did not see it coming. “When I called him to tell him he got the role, he was so ready to be rejected,” Winter recalls. “I said, ‘Steve, we’d like to offer you this role.’ And he said, ‘Well, it was really an honor to be considered.’ ”

Since Boardwalk Empire ended, in 2014, Buscemi has had the luxury of working only when he wants to. Older Buscemi has primarily been drawn to levity and, most recently, an element of camaraderie. In the ’80s he worked as a firefighter, a real-world experience he draws from for The King of Staten Island, in which Buscemi plays the wizened Papa, who could very well be the alternate-universe version of himself had he become a lifer. Director Judd Apatow gave him the option for the character to be either the fire chief or simply a senior member of the company. “At first I was sort of excited about playing a fire chief,” Buscemi tells me. “But then I thought, No, I want to be one of the guys. Just one of the guys.” In the first season of Miracle Workers he played God, but he much preferred his season-two character, a medieval peasant named Edward Shitshoveler. “God was fun, but he was sort of isolated from everybody,” he says. “And he was kind of a downer.” MORE

Scenes from In The Soup

RELATED: Aldolpho (Steve Buscemi) is an aspiring writer-director who can’t even claim to be scraping by. No one will touch his flagrantly anti-commercial epic-length script, his acting gigs offer little compensation and his crumbling New York City apartment is haunted by debt collectors. Worse, the literal girl-next-door, Angelica (Jennifer Beals), is oblivious to his affections. In a desperate attempt to get his screenplay funded, he meets Joe (Seymour Cassel), a crook willing to play dirty for cash. MORE

RELATED: According to his own account, Adolpho is anything but casual about wanting to make his film. Trapped in a Manhattan tenement where the rent is overdue and the landlord’s hoodlum friends bring a doo-wop sound to their demands for money, Adolpho dreams of becoming successful — so successful that this building will be a stop for tour buses some day. As a first step, he takes a newspaper ad offering to sell “one epic 500-page film script.”

And he finds a taker: a lovable gangster named Joe (Mr. Cassel), who declares, “I’ve decided I want art to be an important part of my life.” Regardless of whether that is true, Joe wants to take Adolpho under his wing. Their scenes together have an In_The_Soupirresistibly funny tenderness, since Joe has other conspicuous love interests and, when with Adolpho, is such an unlikely romantic. The little things — like waking up Adolpho by nibbling his ear, or coyly saying things like, “Don’t say you don’t remember” — wind up meaning a lot.

Still smart enough to remain suspicious of Joe’s sweet talk, Adolpho is hopelessly in love with Angelica (Jennifer Beals), the Hispanic waitress who lives next door. Angelica is unfriendly and also unfortunate, since she managed to marry a Frenchman for his green card. (“I’m stupid. Is that a crime?”) Also figuring in the film’s large, eccentric cast are Pat Moya as Joe’s hyperactive girlfriend, named Dang, and Will Patton as Skippy, Joe’s hemophiliac brother. Always seen bleeding slightly from one scratch or another, occasionally bursting into inappropriate song (“The Little Drummer Boy” during a non-Christmas drive to New Jersey), Skippy brings an undeniable air of menace to the proceedings.

Jim Jarmusch, whose dry wit is one of many obvious influences on Mr. Rockwell (John Cassavetes is another, making Mr. Cassel’s appearance a kind of homage), turns up as a seedy television producer. He sees Adolpho as “a young Don Knotts” and somehow persuades him to appear on “The Naked Truth,” an interview show conducted au naturel. (Carol Kane, as the co-producer, claims to see Adolpho more as the Gary Cooper type.) Sully Boyer has a memorably poignant scene as an old man who, once Joe and Adolpho have begun experimenting with criminal forms of fund-raising, finds the two of them in his house in the middle of the night and treats them like old friends. MORE

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WORTH REPEATING: Can’t Happen Here?

May 27th, 2020



THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: A nagging question that first popped into my head while I was a twenty-three-year-old reporter at the Buenos Aires Herald has returned to haunt me lately. What would happen if the US, the country where I was born and spent my childhood, spiraled down the kind of totalitarian vortex I was witnessing in Argentina back then? What if the most regressive elements in society gained the upper hand? Would they also lead a war against an abhorred pluralist democracy? The backlash in the US today against immigrants and refugees, legal abortion, even marriage equality, rekindles uncomfortable memories of the decay of democracy that preceded Argentina’s descent into repression and mass murder. […]

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Lest there be any doubt of its intention, the dictatorship titled itself the “Process of National Reorganization.” Books were burned. Intellectuals went into exile. Like medieval Inquisitors, the dictatorship proclaimed itself—in fiery speeches that I hear echoed in the conspiracist rants of American populists and nationalists today—to be waging a war to save “Western and Christian civilization” from oblivion. Such a war by definition included the physical annihilation of infected minds, even if they had committed no crime.

Another horrifying characteristic of totalitarianism is how it picks on the weakest elements in society, immigrants and children. The Darré-inspired Lebensborn program seized Aryan-looking children from Nazi-occupied territories, separating them from their parents and raising them as “pure” Germans in Lebensborn homes. In 1970s Argentina, the military devised a similar program. There were a large number of pregnant women among the thousands of young captives in the dictatorship’s death camps. Killing them while carrying their babies was a crime that not even Argentina’s military could bring themselves to commit. Instead, they kept the women alive as human incubators, murdering them after they gave birth and handing their babies to God-fearing military couples to raise as their own. A society that separates children from their parents, for whatever reason, is a society that is already on the path to totalitarianism. MORE

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HOT DOCUMENT: Nothing Is Real

May 26th, 2020



CBS NEWS: As President Trump continues to insist voting should be in-person and alleges voting by mail leads to fraud, some Republican officials are moving forward with preparations for an increase in mail-in voting, especially in the upcoming primaries across the country, as well as in the general election.

It’s the latest sign that while Mr. Trump might be trying to discredit the mail-in process from the bully pulpit, a growing number of voters are indicating support for such options amid health concerns related to the coronavirus and the uncertainty about how safe it will be to vote in the weeks and months ahead.

“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” President Trump tweeted Tuesday, while taking aim at the plan by California’s governor to send absentee ballots to all registered voters for the November general election. “This will be a Rigged Election” he went on, despite having voted by mail himself in the Florida primary, and despite the victory of Republican Mike Garcia recently in the special election in California, where voters were sent mail-in ballots.

And while the president pushes this narrative, without offering any proof to substantiate his accusations, in many cases, officials from his own party are promoting vote-by-mail options ahead of upcoming primaries across the country. Pennsylvania’s voters must sign up to vote by mail by Tuesday for the state’s June 2 primary. It’s the first item displayed on the state Republican Party’s webpage, where an image of President Trump looms behind the link to the ballot request form. The headline reads, “Vote by Mail. Safe from Home.” MORE

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

May 25th, 2020


Self portrait of photographer Astrid Kirchherr.

FRESH AIR: Astrid Kirchherr, who took the first publicity photos of a then-struggling rock group called The Beatles, died last week. She was 81 years old. In 1960, young Astrid had just completed a photography course at the College of Fashion and Design in Hamburg when her boyfriend, Klaus Voormann, took her to the seedy Kaiserkeller in Hamburg’s red-light district. He wanted to show her a new rock group from Liverpool he had discovered the night before.

When Astrid met the group in 1960, The Beatles consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and two others. Pete Best, not Ringo Starr, was the drummer then. And Stu Sutcliffe, an art student friend of Lennon’s, played bass, but not well. Before long, he quit the group to pursue his art career and live with Astrid, who quickly became his girlfriend. She gave him, then the other Beatles, what’s now known as the moptop Beatles haircut and also photographed the group in many now-iconic formative photographs. Stu Sutcliffe died in 1962 at age 21 of a brain hemorrhage. Astrid became a professional photographer.

The 2008 book of photographs by Kirchherr and fellow photographer Max Scheler called Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time captured The Beatles in 1964, during the first flush of Beatlemania. When the book came out, Astrid Kirchherr visited FRESH AIR and told Terry Gross about the first time she saw The Beatles perform in that small cellar club in Hamburg. MORE

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INCOMING: The Manson Family Revisited

May 25th, 2020

ROLLING STONE: A new six-part docuseries revisits the Manson Family murders for a definitive portrait of the infamous cult. Its trailer promises plenty of archival footage, plus haunting re-creations and interviews with the Family that have never been revealed until now. “He was a puppet master pulling everyone’s strings,” says a Family member in a voiceover. Another adds, “I was definitely under Charlie’s spell.” (June 14) MORE

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CINEMA: What A Long, Funny Trip It’s Been

May 23rd, 2020


THE TRIP TO GREECE (Dir. by Michael Winterbottom, 103 minutes, USA, 2020]

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Trip to Greece hit streaming this week, and with it brings an end to the decade-long run of the British sitcom/film franchise,The Trip.The show is a bit like if Curb Your Enthusiasm was made for the Food Network. The Trip to Greecestars comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play fictionalized versions of themselves bickering and riffing their way across various countries while sampling local delicacies. The first trip had Coogan taking a restaurant tour assignment from The Observer to impress a foodie girlfriend – only she left him and he invited Rob in her stead. Now on their fourth trip/season, like the three before it, after its televised run of six episodes, they are then edited together in a digest version of the season, that is released in theaters.

As the title indicates, this trip has Steve and Rob making their way across Greece as they retrace Odysseus’ journey on their final outing. As per usual, historical landmarks are visited, delicious food is eaten, and the two men comedically spar their way through a country one last time while stuffing their faces. The melodramatic bits for this installment are courtesy of Steve’s father who has fallen ill, while Rob appears to be having a bit of marital trouble, inviting his wife out to the final stop. The two men, now well past their primes, break with the comedy here and there to get a bit more introspective and contemplative on their lives and careers, adding some closure to the series.

I mean at this point you already know what you’re in for here, and Steve says it best when he says at the beginning of the film that “originality is overrated, everything is derivative.” That really sets the tone going forward, and to be honest that’s not such a bad thing for fans of the franchise. It’s the friendship and the chemistry here between the two men that keeps us coming back and the film is a proper sendoff with them going out on a high note for one last adventure. Personally, I am more of a fan when a show like this ends on its own terms rather than running out of steam. The Trip to Greece is a solid entry that knows just what it needs to do, while still leaving the door unlocked, you know just in case Steve and Rob ever want to come back and take a trip across the hinterlands of the US in five years. We can only hope.

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EXCERPT: The Wichita Lineman Meets Joni Mitchell

May 22nd, 2020

Jimmy Webb



On the surface, Joni Mitchell was a friendly, almost deliberately ordinary Canadian girl with a bright smile and a quick wit. But when it came to music and lyrics she had been blessed with a divine gift. I knew with no envy or jealousy that she was a better writer than I was. I envied her easy conversational phrasing that turned everyday banter into a new kind of song lyric. Her sensual guitar tunings delivered deep, dissonant yet compelling chords that, to use an expression by Linda Ronstadt, “rubbed.” Play that warm chord. I would sit with her and watch her hands and listen to her songs in the making, determined to follow, at least for a while, as closely in her shadow as I could. I was especially entranced by her surprising and unheard of habit of opening the titanium housing around her most inner being and letting the whole world gawk at the intricate workings of her complicated, gifted, tormented, soul.

I saw her frequently at my manager Sandy Gallin’s soirées in Trousdale, where the objective seemed to be to invite as many famous people as practicable and then, if possible, persuade them to perform for one another. One night Joni excised me from the center of the party. She wanted to talk to me privately. She told me quite a tale.

Back in 1968 when she had first opened at Doug Weston’s Troubadour she had not been aware I was in attendance, nor even aware of my existence. Years passed. She came to know me and actually liked some of my songs. She found me to be an affable guy and had been fascinated by my nude concert on the grounds of Campo de Encino. It was wonderful that we had become friends, she said.

Recently she had moved house. Her new place in the world called for a proper residence and the old house in the Hollywood Hills where she had lived was a time capsule. The original pre-stardom furniture was there with the cats and the photos and mystery boxes. She set out to clean the place up, discard what she could bear to part with, and carry the remaining treasures to her new digs in Bel Air. Halfway through she and her helpers had decided to move a large, heavy couch in the living room as it was destined for the Salvation Army. As they moved the stubborn couch from its groove, an old piece of paper was liberated and fluttered to the floor. Puzzled, she picked it up and perused: It was a letter from me, from 1968.

June 12, 1968, I was in the Troubadour for no particular reason. I had wanted to meet Doug Weston for a long time and talk about doing some kind of appearance there. When Joni started playing I happened to be leaning on the balcony upstairs and watched her come on stage.

There was a center spot on her, displaying her long blonde tresses to great advantage, but she was highlighted with that damn train light in her eyes for the whole evening. Nobody moved or even breathed loudly while she was singing. The atmosphere was electromagnetic. Yes, her playing and singing charmed me, especially the repertoire of grainy, almost jazz-based chords on her Martin.

My affections turned on a dime at that stage of my life, but this was different. I was fascinated, entranced by her ability to communicate on the deepest level from the outset. After the show and the encores and the immense roar of approval that shook the old house to its foundations and dislodged decades of dust languishing in the beam work high above, I could think of nothing but her.

Years later I would watch Jackson Browne fall in love with her. I remember him coming to me, very nervous, and saying, “So, how should I talk to her?” And I smiled, moved yet deeply amused at the same time.

“You just talk to her like you would talk to . . . a really nice person,” I said.He tried to absorb her through the music and the words and when that failed he inevitably moved toward something more immediate. In more or less the same delicate state I went home that night in 1968 and poured out my bleeding soul on a piece of stationery. It was one of those moments that – twice considered – would never evolve beyond the first crumpled missile aimed in the general direction of the wastebasket. I sent her the letter backstage, hand delivered to her Troubadour dressing room, with twenty-four long- stemmed roses of the most rare and fragrant variety. Years passed without a reply.

Joni smiled at me. “I just wanted you to know I got your letter.”

I blushed deeply trying to remember exactly what I had written in the way one always dreads what one has written.

She laughed.

“It was a very nice letter, and yes, of course I would like to see you for tea or dinner!”

Her blue eyes danced with barely restrained mirth.

“If I’m not too late,” she remonstrated.

Joni and I became friends. We liked flea markets and stuffy old antique shops. Before Morton’s on Robinson became the power res- taurant of the Hollywood cognoscenti it had been a fashionable old barn full of antiques run by Jules Bucheri. We went in one day together and bought the most gorgeous art deco chandelier. She insisted I take custody of it. One time in a not-so-subtle hint about my wardrobe she fitted me for a herringbone jacket in a flea market off Melrose. It must have looked a little strange; a man with more hair and beard than John Lennon and Jesus put together posing in an English gentleman’s country costume. She insisted it was perfect.

Joni consented to come in and sing “just a little” with my sister Susan on my latest LP Letters. A woman of her word she ended up singing just two notes. Two glorious notes. My world was on the surface chaotic and yet beneath the storm, a very well-kept secret: I had things exactly the way I wanted them. [From A Cake In The Rain: A Memoir by Jimmy Webb]


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TINA FEY: My Walnut Story

May 21st, 2020

RELATED: The Walnut Street Theatre, America’s Oldest Theatre, announces My Walnut Story, a new platform where both artists and audiences can share their favorite Walnut stories online for everyone to enjoy. For its launch on May 7, Walnut artists were invited to submit videos sharing their Walnut Street Theatre related stories. The Walnut has collected scores of unique anecdotes and memories from both artists and theatregoers, ranging from onstage bloopers to their first memories attending the theatre. “You never know who has a story,” remarked Bernard Havard, Producing Artistic Director of the Walnut.  A recent submission came from actor/writer/producer Tina Fey who added her own memories of family outings to the Walnut from her childhood home in Upper Darby, Pa. She remembers seeing one classic comedy that she would like to think “influenced my brain.” SEE ABOVE

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REST IN POWER: Little Richard (1932-2020)

May 21st, 2020

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NEW YORK TIMES: Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, who combined the sacred shouts of the black church and the profane sounds of the blues to create some of the world’s first and most influential rock ’n’ roll records, died on Saturday in Tullahoma, Tenn. He was 87. His lawyer, Bill Sobel, said the cause was bone cancer.

Little Richard did not invent rock ’n’ roll. Other musicians had already been mining a similar vein by the time he recorded his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” — a raucous song about sex, its lyrics cleaned up but its meaning hard to miss — in a New Orleans recording studio in September 1955. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had reached the pop Top 10, Bo Diddley had topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, and Elvis Presley had been making records for a year.

But Little Richard, delving deeply into the wellsprings of gospel music and the blues, pounding the piano furiously and screaming as if for his very life, raised the energy level several notches and created something not quite like any music that had been heard before — something new, thrilling and more than a little dangerous. As the rock historian Richie Unterberger put it, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.” Little_RichardMORE

ROLLING STONE: He was, above all, a king in an America that wanted to define him as anything else, that wanted to deny him not just his crown, but his humanity. And so, again and again, he spelled it out: He was beautiful, the Georgia Peach, the Emancipator of Soul, the architect of it all, the originator, the King of the Blues, and later, the King of Rock & Roll. And, he sometimes added, the Queen as well.

This was not, strictly speaking, the truth. (Nor was he the only African American hero to elevate braggadocious rhyming into an art form — or as a sideman put it on a 1967 live album, “C’mon, Cassius Clay.”) But almost every time he ran his mouth — which was almost all the time — it was a mix of entertainment, revelation, and political speech. He proclaimed himself the king in the same way as he proclaimed his beauty: to rebalance a system that stole from him, time and again. A system that had proclaimed white men the kings of black art forms: Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz, Benny Goodman the King of Swing, Elvis Presley the King of Rock & Roll.

Perhaps no one can claim to truly be the originator of a sound that came from so many places — from so many hands and hearts — at once. But the startling power of Little Richard’s art resulted from a combination of risks, innovations, and signifiers that was as unprecedented as it was dazzling. The makeup, the eyeliner, the hair. The winking references (if celebrating a woman named Miss Molly who sure liked to ball can be said to be a wink). The pounding beat. Did he really look that way, say those things, sound like that?

In 1955, at a time when Elvis had only recently started recording with drums, Little Richard’s music pushed rhythm over melody. It was louder and faster than anything around it, and everything but his voice functioned as a drum — though as he established from the opening “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” of “Tutti Frutti,” his voice could deliver the gospel of the beat as well. “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” was a freedom cry, a doctrine of liberation that made Little Richard the first rock star, as R. Meltzer would later say of Bob Dylan, “to free man by rescuing him from meaning, rather than free man through meaning.” MORE

Live in France, 1966.

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JOHN TRAIN: “Where Were We (For John Prine)”

May 21st, 2020


Here’s a link to a brand new John Train song called “Where Were We? (for John Prine).” The lyrics and credits are in the description as well as a link to my Phawker piece on Prine.

I first encountered Prine via my father’s record collection (which is how I discovered the majority of music that still means the most to me!). He had a copy of Common Sense which remains my second favorite Prine LP (Aimless Love from 1984 has always been my number one). I first saw Prine live in 1988, opening up for Johnny Cash at the Ritz in NYC. This is before Cash was “rediscovered” by Rick Rubin and he was still doing his corny family show. Lowlight: Cash’s duet with his son on “Cats In The Cradle.” Ugh! Highlight: Prine! He played solo but held everyone’s attention with his amazing catalogue of songs and wry delivery.

I wrote “Where Were We” shortly after Prine’s passing in April. I recorded a little guitar/vocal demo and sent it around to my band mates in John Train. I figured we might take a crack at it when we eventually return to duty. But, much to my surprise and delight, they somehow added themselves to the demo in the privacy of their own homes, got legendary Philly engineer (and longtime Train supporter) John Anthony to mix it … and presto! This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in this sort of thing. All of John Train’s records have been cut pretty much live in the studio, sitting around, facing one another. But I’m absolutely tickled that the boys achieved a seemingly live sound by passing files from computer to computer. Far out!

We liked the results so much we decided to put together a video. Our drummer Mark Schreiber directed, filmed, and edited the video which includes drone shots of Philly and NJ during COVID, drawings of Prine by Mike Brenner, and me singing along the banks of the Schuylkill on Kelly Drive. We did our best to maintain social distancing but at least one curious onlooker approached and asked me who I was. I replied, “Willie Nelson.” They moved along!

Jon Houlon

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