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BEING THERE: Andrew Bird @ The Fillmore

September 17th, 2019

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

There is perhaps no better complement to the purple skies and browning leaves of an early autumn night than the violin-centric folk pop music of Andrew Bird. His pensive, literary lyrics, spinning horns, pedal loops, and virtuoso whistling drew a crowd of shaggy-haired Bird look-alikes to the Fillmore last night, many fans already equipped with previous tour merchandise, and even more dorkily smiling through the face hole of a life-size cutout of the mock Death of Marat on his most recent album cover at the venue entrance.

That album, My Finest Work Yet, which came out last January, is the music that originally turned me onto Bird. On the recommendation of a coworker-turned-friend this summer, I fell in love with the chorus hook of “Olympians,” the poetry of “Manifest,” and the wit of lines like “history forgets the moderates” from “Sisyphus,” which kicked off last night’s performance. My relatively shallow knowledge of Bird’s long discography quickly betrayed itself in the midst of his superfans, as those around me sang along to every word of every song, ranging from 2005’s Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs to 2013’s I Want to See Pulaski at Night to 2016’s Are You Serious? Bird himself even described his set in two parts, as side A and side B, with the former tailored towards new fans like myself and the latter supplying the deep cuts and covers that the older fans craved.

Nonetheless, as Bird fluidly transitioned through each song, swapping violin for guitar when needed, he perfectly translated, if not amplified, the power and warmth of the recorded versions of tunes like “Roma Fade” or “Capsized.” Given the orchestral-like builds of many of his songs, particularly of the newer ones, Bird’s ability to almost exactly replicate this wall of sound on stage with only four other band members behind him was almost hard to believe. This intricate layering of so many harmonies and melodies is largely due to his years of looping violin, vocal, and whistling tracks in live settings, and the implementation of a spinning speaker at the back of the stage that resembled two large phonographs, creating a Doppler-like effect that layered volume as well.

But to chalk the strength of Bird’s performance last night up to this technology, or the stage prop cutouts of some windows and a door, or even his snazzy white suit jacket, would be to miss the magic of his music completely. No matter where his sound goes, Bird’s songs never lose their roots in the early bare-bones styles of jazz, swing, classical, and folk that he started his career with in the 90’s. His ties to this musical pedigree shone through most as he and the band gathered around a large diaphragm microphone under a bright spotlight to play more stripped-down songs like “Give It Away” and covers of Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” By never losing his grip on these origins of his music, he remains tethered in many ways to the origins of humanity itself.

This stripped-down acoustic interlude, and another during his encore in which the band played the audience-requested “Table and Chairs” around the old microphone, were the kinds that made me think of Bird’s words during a Pitchfork interview in 2007, when he talked about trying to have a backup plan for a show should the power go out. In these moments, there was a sense of a deep and cultivated ancestry to his music, the roots of which exist in some beyond that so few living humans have the capacity to understand anymore. So when we find one, like Bird, who does, we worship him.

Since becoming a Bird true believer, I’ve occasionally wondered how Bird’s music evaded my periphery for so long, and then I realized that music like his is of that increasingly rare kind that still gets passed on through word-of-mouth, in a similar fashion to the stories he spins in the songs themselves. His music provokes a desire to be involved in this sort of sobering and romantic storytelling, even tangentially, which explains why so many people sang along so loudly last night. Though his music these days tends to “let the rock roll,” Bird also has an obvious passion for even the simplest chord, an undying curiosity for music that is contagiously charming, making me want to put on a prairie dress, dust off my old Suzuki books, and join in. – SOPHIE BURKHOLDER

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INCOMING: Boy Harsher

September 17th, 2019

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Photo by SVEN HARAMBASIC

Boy Harsher is a nouveau neo-Cold Wave duo comprised of spooky siren Jae Matthews [pictured, above] and beat architect Augustus Muller fusing goth sonic tropes with industrial electronic rhythms. Originally dubbed Teen Dreamz, the group began as a series of short stories narrated by Matthews’s reverb-drenched voice swathed in dark, moody synths and electro drum beats sculpted by Muller. In due time, Teen Dreamz morphed into Boy Harsher, coming of age with their debut LP, Yr Body is Nothing, a disorienting high-velocity night drive on a lost highway for the ears. Matthews and Muller’s mutual background in film is evident in their cinematic live performances marked by a dissolution of time and a binding dancefloor hex in a shrouding red mist. The dynamic duo are coming to Union Transfer this Thursday to show Philly their spellbinding new album, Country Girl Uncut. As a merciless skeptic of live electronic performances, I feel obligated to invite others to give Boy Harsher a shot; I was floored by their show at Johnny Brenda’s last year – it’s only appropriate for them to take over Union Transfer next. – KYLE WEINSTEIN

BOY HARSHER + OLIVIA NEUTRON BOMB @ UNION TRANSFER SEPT. 19TH

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IN MEMORIAM: The Devil And Daniel Johnston

September 15th, 2019

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Artwork by Daniel Johnston

Houlon2BY JON HOULON When I lived in Austin in the early 90s, Daniel Johnston hovered over the place like a ghost. He made his name there in the 80s but had since been institutionalized after clubbing a friend with a lead pipe or baptizing himself in a fountain on campus. Equally felonious, perhaps. But I didn’t know any of that back then as I puzzled over his hand-labelled cassettes in the local music section of Tower Records on Guadalupe. I couldn’t be bothered at the time. I wish I had.

Like many, I found my way into Danny’s stuff via The Devil And Daniel Johnston which is, arguably, the best music documentary ever made (tho, the one about Anvil is pretty great too!). The Devil is the only movie I ever saw where I Daniel_Johnstonwalked right back in after seeing it to watch it again. The last scene of the Devil is one for the ages: Daniel tricked out in a ghost costume while “Some Things Last A Long Time” plays. Some things really do. If you’re truly fucked up, you’ll remain so until you die on the natural bridge. It’s sad but it’s true. Treatment-resistant depression or whatever name you want to give it. In short, Jesus wept and so did I. I became, as Danny sings, “a man obsessed.”

The best show I saw was in Houston at Rudyard’s in the Montrose district. Before the show, I found myself sitting next to the man himself at the bar. He, a diabetic, slurping down Cokes; me, a diabetic too, slurping down margaritas. That night he played with a very young band that had literally stumbled across him in Waller where Danny lived with his parents. Danny and the Nightmares they called themselves. Gig might have even been on Halloween. The gig was off the rails … but in a good way, like the stuff that made Daniel Johnston a legend: the tapes, the tapes, the tapes.

You gotta hear the tapes Daniel recorded on a piano in his parents’ basement in wild West Virginia and later at his brother’s place in Houston on a chord organ in the garage. This is the stuff that marks Daniel’s genius. Everything after that, everything after he was discovered, is unremarkable. There are some good songs here and there but they don’t touch the tapes from 1980 to 1985.

Compared to MP3s or whatever sound-forsaken media you listen to, the tapes that DJ recorded on a $59 boombox sound superior. As Hi_How_Are_You_Tapean engineer, I’d mention Danny alongside Geoff Emerick, Shelly Yakus, and Jimmy Iovine. It’s not the crackle, the out-of-tune piano, the unholy rattling that accompanies the chord-organ songs on Yip/Jump Music. It’s the fact that Daniel got it down. It’s about microphone placement. Engineering 101. You try to record something on a boom-box and see how far you get. His voice is in perfect relation to the volume of the instrument. The rattle and the hum. Townes Van Zandt talked about Bukka White’s “sky-songs.” Directly from the sky to the pen. Daniel Johnston’s best work achieves this effect: down from the sky, into Dan’s pen, onto the paper in the notebook, banged out on the piano, warbly vocals and all. No mediation. The thing itself.

And don’t worry about Daniel’s artwork. I mean, if you’re into comics, maybe. But it’s not Rothko or even Roy de Forest. DJ’s visual vocabulary is based on Marvel, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and whoever else occupies the arrested mind. The best songs forgo this lazy lexicon in favor of raw truth: dark wolves and scrambled eggs.

I recognize that in the digital dungeon of the modern age, it is very unlikely that you will check out Welcome To My World which is culled almost exclusively from the tapes. Nor will you – as I faithfully did as a stan, man — track down the actual tapes in all of their analogue lo-fi glory. So lemme make it easy for you. Here’s Danny on the cusp of fame. Living his broken dreams before everyone tried to fix ‘em with medication and hi-fidelity. How cool was this guy then? Dylan ’64? Listen to the way he says they tried to put him in a home. Watch the knowing glance to the camera. There could be a Daniel Johnston living down the hall from you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Houlon fronts John Train which performss @ Fergie’s Pub (1214 Sansom Street) every Friday from 6-8PM Sept-Nov. Free!

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

September 15th, 2019

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FRESH AIR: Several Democratic presidential candidates are calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after The New York Times published an essay Sept. 14 describing alleged sexual misconduct that occurred during his college years at Yale.

New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, who penned the essay, covered Kavanaugh’s contentious 2018 confirmation hearings, in which Christine Blasey Ford alleged that he’d sexually assaulted her at a house party when they were both teenagers. The FBI conducted an investigation into Kavanaugh’s behavior, but it was restricted in terms of time and scope. The Senate ultimately voted 50-48 in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

In their new book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, Pogrebin and Kelly detail what’s already known about Kavanaugh — and extend the investigation into parts of his history and events alleged to have taken place. (Editor’s Note: Pogrebin and Kelly’s reporting noted below includes a graphic description of alleged sexual misconduct.)

Pogrebin and Kelly research allegations by Deborah Ramirez, a Yale alumna who claims that Kavanaugh put his penis in her face during a college party when they were both freshman. They also raise allegations of a similar incident detailed by a male Yale classmate, though neither he nor the woman allegedly involved speak publicly about it.

In response to the latest news, President Trump tweeted: “Brett Kavanaugh should start suing people for libel, or the Justice Department should come to his rescue. The lies being told about him are unbelievable. False Accusations without recrimination. When does it stop? They are trying to influence his opinions. Can’t let that happen!”

Pogrebin, who was in Kavanaugh’s class at Yale, says that Ramirez’s account “never got its due” during the confirmation hearings because “the Republicans in charge of the process … clearly had no interest in adding yet another story and another potential victim to the public dialogue and giving [Ramirez] the legitimacy of a public forum.”

“Although [Ramirez] was made available to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then her lawyers ultimately gave the FBI a list of more than two dozen potential witnesses who could add credence to her story, ultimately the Judiciary Committee determined that her allegations were not relevant to the process,” Pogrebin says.

Kelly grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended a girls’ high school in the same social network as Kavanaugh’s high school. She notes that alcohol abuse was a common theme throughout their investigation of Kavanaugh.

“The drinking was something of a through-line,” Kelly says. “Generally speaking, [Kavanaugh] was regarded as a pretty polite, responsible well-mannered young person. But when he was heavily drinking — and also at times when he was simply trying to impress his friends, like in the schoolyard — a different side of him came out.” MORE

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TYLER THE CREATOR: A Boy Is A Gun

September 15th, 2019

TYLER THE CREATOR @ THE MANN CENTER’S SKYLINE STAGE SEPT. 25TH

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RIP: Ric Ocasek, New Wave Architect, Dead @ 75

September 15th, 2019

NEW YORK TIMES: From 1978 to 1988, Mr. Ocasek (pronounced oh-CASS-eck) and the Cars merged a vision of romance, danger and nocturnal intrigue and the concision of new wave music with the sonic depth and ingenuity of radio-friendly rock. The Cars managed to please both punk-rock fans and a far broader pop audience, reaching into rock history while devising fresh, lush extensions of it.

The Cars grew out of a friendship forged in the late 1960s in Ohio between Mr. Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, who died in 2000. They worked together in multiple bands before moving to Boston and forming the Cars in the late 1970s with Elliot Easton on lead guitar, Greg Hawkes on keyboards and David Robinson on drums. It was the beginning of the punk era, but the Cars made their first albums with Queen’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, creating songs that were terse and moody but impeccably polished.

Mr. Ocasek’s lead vocals mixed a gawky, yelping deadpan with hints of suppressed emotion, while his songs drew hooks from basic three-chord rockabilly and punk, from surf-rock, from emerging synth-pop, from echoes of the Beatles and glam-rock, and from hints of the 1970s art-rock avant-garde. MORE

RELATED: 10 Essential Albums Ric Ocasek Produced

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EXCERPT: The Complete Oral History Of Weezer

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JASON CROPPER: [Weezer A&R man] Todd [Sullivan]’s like ‘We need to get a producer, we need to get a big name producer, we need to get a cool producer.’

RIC OCASEK (producer, leader of The Cars): I got their [demo] tapes from Geffen Records when I was out in LA working on another project. I listened to it in the car and just thought it was phenomenal. Having no idea what they looked like, I thought they were a heavy metal band that had really good melodies.

JASON CROPPER: The next thing we know Ric Ocasek walks into our practice space, he sits down he makes himself really small and he’s just so kind and he’s got his little pad and he’s just drawing things.

MATT SHARP: Ric is the icon from all of our youth, he was the voice of 50% of all radio and MTV when we were growing up.

JASON CROPPER: We had prepared a cover of “Just What I Needed,” you know sort of goofing around and honoring him at the same time.

RIC OCASEK: I was only sitting 10 feet away and they had everything turned up to ’12,’ just a wall of frequencies. [chuckles]. It was really great and I immediately wanted to produce the album.

PAT WILSON: I wasn’t even sure what that meant— a producer. From my perspective, it was jazz. Capture our playing and it’s a beautiful record. But it wasn’t like that, he had to tighten that shit out. Tie a lot of bits together. It would have sounded like Pinkerton if we hadn’t practiced it. Everything would always sound like Pinkerton unless we had Ric Ocasek.

RIC OCASEK: I talked them into coming to New York and recording at Electric Lady. I thought it would be inspiring. I liked the demo so much, I was basically trying to get the same sound as the demo. Warm, without a lot of clarity but a lot of power.

PAT WILSON: Ric insisted that “Buddy Holly” was on the record, and Rivers didn’t want that. MORE

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ALBUM REVIEW: Devendra Banhart’s Ma

September 13th, 2019

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Ma, recovering freak folkie Devendra Banhart’s eleventh album, is a post-mortem of sorts that finds Banhart in unflinching confessional singer-songwriter mode, earnestly exploring themes of death and loss, political oppression, and the mourning of what once was. During the three-year period that passed since he released Ape In Pink Marble, Banhart travelled to Caracas, Venezuela, to find the city in ruins, his family starving, and many old friends missing and presumably abducted or murdered. Compounding the trauma of it all, his mother passed away during this time, and her ghost haunts the album.

The first intimation of his mother’s death arises at the end of the surrealist video for the funky “Kantori Ongaku,” Ma’s first single, where Banhart tenderly embraces a saintlike, maternal figure. “Still there is no more beautiful place/ than the moonlight on your face,” he sings. He later confronts her death directly in the somber and haunting “October 12,” where he describes a heartrending scene in a hospital room where he is sitting vigil over his mother. As the walls reverberate with the electric hum of ventilators and his tears flow endlessly, he gravely questions whether she will reawaken and, in a quavering voice, pleads for his own escape from this awful moment. In “Abre Las Manos,” he remembers happiers times, evoking a childhood memory of dancing in his mother’s shoes, so young and carefree. Recounting his mother’s nurturing words of wisdom all those years ago, he sings them in her native tongue: “Spread your wings, the world is waiting for you/ your gift is that God’s protecting you.”

The heaviness of the album, however, is leavened with lighter fare such as the dreamy “Love Song” which evokes a childlike, ‘drunk-in-the-sun’ feeling as Banhart describes dancing “a hidden dance” in the clouds with his lover. The sensual “Carolina,” which is sung in Portuguese, likewise evokes a velvety, romantic haze. In the sweet and intimate “Ami,” he takes on the role of a nurturing protector (“I saw you gently weep and now I want to be a lion/ curled up at your feet, something to rely on”). The arrangements and instrumentation on Ma are rich and varied. “Memorial” which is faintly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” employ only his voice, light acoustic strumming and soft piano notes in the background to create a mood that’s delicate and ethereal. Other songs, such as “Ami” and “My Boyfriend_s In The Band,” erupt in full-on jazzy ensembles, complete with honking saxophones and blaring trumpets. “Abre Las Manos” uses the organic sounds of beating drums and xylophones to create a breezy Carribean ambience.

Ma is strong magic, complex and powerful. Although at times harrowing and heartbreaking, the album is ultimately an endearing ode to love in all its many forms — be it maternal, romantic or filial. Banhart ties it all together with a line from the beautiful “Will I See You Tonight_,” which sums up the spirit of the entire album: “I want everyone to know/ how very much I love them/ and never told them so.” – JASMIN ALVAREZ

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BEING THERE: The Growlers @ Union Transfer

September 13th, 2019

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Photo by MATT SHAVER

Thursday night at Union Transfer, Brooks Nielsen, lead singer of Cali-based beach goths The Growlers, hit the stage rocking his trademark Robert Smith-inspired locks and a thrifty striped sweater. Lead guitarist Matt Taylor went for the no fuss, white tee and was joined by guitarist, Kyle Stratka who opted for a long-sleeve, colored tee. This was suspiciously dressed down for a band that usually sports incredibly dapper, coordinated suit ensembles. However, these perplexing sartorial choices had no apparent impact on their ability to deliver the good. They opened with “Problems III” which felt like a great anthem for Philly. I’m sure the line “But rents on time, we’ve got cigs and cheap red wine” really hit home for all the college kids in attendance. “One Million Lovers”, a fan favorite, had the crowd visibly and audibly thrilled from the first note of the intro as balloons were tossed into the audience. When balloons made their way back to the stage Nielsen, Taylor and Stratka were more than obliged, as per age old rock ritual, to kick the balloons back to their fans. Even with their fun, flashy, neon lights and killer chords the band still managed to look incredibly lax. They embody a coolness that is really just par for the course. In the end, the guys brought us full circle. They capped off the night with “Going Gets Tough” another song that is synonymous with Philly’s resilience. “Worry’s a bully,” Nielsen warned, but at least we have some beach goth to keep us going. — LARA MICKLE

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IN MEMORIAM: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

September 12th, 2019

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Kurt Cobain rocking a Daniel Johnston T-shirt @ the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards

BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Daniel Johnston died of a suspected heart attack on Tuesday, at his Texas home. He was 58. For most of his life, the unlikely rockstar struggled with mental illness, battling schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, and admirably surmounted these formidable hurdles to be able to write and perform his own work for the large fandom that he garnered, and leave a legacy on the craft with an influential voice uniquely his own.

When I met him in 2012, he was lounging in his Union Transfer green room in gray striped sweat suit — the same outfit in which he’d endearingly take the stage a couple hours later. He shyly but politely tolerated a few questions, unpretentiously nursing a can of diet coke, and avoiding eye contact for the duration of our short conversation.

Having started off recording his own compositions on a little boom box at home, Johnston’s music began to gain notoriety when he moved to Austin, Texas, in the mid-eighties. He told me, “I was poor, and I was just making tapes for my friends for years, and they would just treat me like a celebrity, they’d turn the tape recorder on and they would interview me and stuff – it was hilarious…” Johnston was somewhat warmer, at this point, having taken some delight in these memories. A degree of joy was evident. “I mean, back in those days, a long long time ago, they made me feel like more of a star than these days, even with the big crowds. They made me feel famous. I sort of miss that.”DanielJohnston-1497

Johnston’s popularity surged when Kurt Cobain wore a shirt that featured one of Johnston’s drawings to the MTV Music Awards in 1992, hurtling Johnston into the spotlight, at least momentarily, and resulting in thousands of new fans discovering his music. And it wasn’t just Cobain who championed the underground singer and songwriter: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sings Johnston’s hit “Walking The Cow” routinely at both solo and Pearl Jam shows, and Yo La Tengo have made a favorite of his song “Speeding Motorcycle.” Johnston’s tribute record, a double disc called “Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” released in 2004, featured twelve songs that were both performed by the artist himself and also juxtaposed with covers of those same songs by the likes of Beck, the Eels, Bright Eyes, The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, T.V. On The Radio, and Death Cab For Cutie, among others. All told, it’s a nice panel of names to have as fans in your corner.

When I asked Johnston what it meant to him when he found out that Cobain publicly declared his love for him, he responded with a sudden effusive exuberance, and recounted the moment. “My ex-manager came to visit, and showed me [Cobain] wearing a ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on MTV – you know, it was hanging on my wall!” I noted the obvious: “Sure, that was your drawing.” He said, “yeah! And so, you know. That was pretty cool,” adding, “He was really famous.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Johnston @ Union Transfer circa 2012 by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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CINEMA: The Retro Future Is Closer Than We Think

September 12th, 2019

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The Ornithopter by Arthur Radebaugh

Todd_Kimmell_QVC1BY TODD KIMMEL The 90s in Old City were some wild years, but wild like riding a bucking bronco drunk while laughing maniacally and somehow magically staying in the saddle, not wild like driving someone into the Badlands to get straight.  It was funny, and central to that neighborhood specific comedy was my company, Mambo Movers. Very Peter Pan and The Lost Boys with skateboards and guitars, directed by Mel Brooks and Wim Wenders.

Loft spaces were shockingly cheap, and we had the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors of 312 Market for less than $500 per month. Since we weren’t actually allowed to occupy the top two floors, we built a swinging wall on wheels between the second and third floor that spanned the grand stairwell and painted it to look like the rest of the room.  Funny thing was it was arts and music action like crazy, but not booze and drugged party scene since I’d given up the bottle at the end of the 80s. No one else had, but I set the tone of the place, and suddenly, sans major inebriates, the 20 somethings roaring through the place were making things happen.  It was beehive grand. Eventually, we moved across the street to another huge loft, also less than $500 per, and I R10_PSFSopened an archive and research library dedicated to the history of living on wheels and a large exhibition space. My office in the front, with Mambo way in the back, and storage for the tonnage of hunter gatherer material I endlessly and obsessively brought home before such a thing was called ‘salvage’.

Part of that mountain of museum miscellaneous was a stash of medium to large format negs, maybe 12,000 of them, that I’d bought from an old man with a huge photo studio near 22nd and Race.  He was the go to when you needed a wall sized photo of Wendell Wilkie to hang at the Civic Center, and had a room that was the inside of a camera, and an enormous camera on small railroad tracks that I desperately tried to give away just as an object d’groove to the various art schools, to no avail.  The building came down on top of it soon after.

This collection of commercial work sat for awhile in our Old City digs.  C’mon, who has time to go through all that? Then a local kid who needed work and was determined to make some happen pointed to all the boxes and said “Hey, how ‘bout I organize all THOSE?”  A few days later he emerged and threw a broad selection of large format negs onto our biggest light table, and there were works by the then forgotten mid century futurist illustrator, Arthur Radebaugh.Arthur_Radebaugh_Airship_Mooring_Mast_

The exhibition that came from that, our first and only international smash hit, and where the story goes from there is brought to life by filmmaker Brett Ryan Bonowicz in his current documentary Closer Than We Think.  The film is making the film circuit as well as the science and sci fi circuit around the world, garnering awards along the way including Best Documentary at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Yes, THAT Comic Con.

Via the DesignPhiladelphia folks, I’ve been invited to introduce the screenings, but since I’m interviewed and tell at length on how we brought this undeservedly obscure visual visionary back to life in the film, the intro will be short and very much about how funny that scene was and how crazily serendipitous that moment turned out to be, and what we had the surprisingly clear-headedness to do with it all. We just put the ’60s to bed with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.  C’mon kids. Time to spin YOUR yarns.



TODD KIMMELL WILL INTRODUCE CLOSER THAN WE THINK @ THE AMBLER THEATER SEPT. 25TH & THE COUNTY THEATER IN DOYLESTOWN OCT. 2ND

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WORTH REPEATING: The Ghost Writer

September 11th, 2019

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NEW YORK MAGAZINE: When I was a sophomore in college, I took a creative-nonfiction workshop and met a girl who was everything I wasn’t. The point of the class was to learn to write your own story, but from the moment we met, I focused instead on helping her tell her own, first in notes after workshop, then later editing her Instagram captions and co-writing a book proposal she sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems obvious now, the way the story would end, but when I first met Caroline Calloway, all I saw was the beginning of something extraordinary.

Today Caroline is a 27-year-old Instagram influencer with almost 800,000 followers. A self-described “writer, art historian, and teacher,” she first became internet famous for diaristic captions chronicling her misadventures as an American undergrad at Cambridge University and was later known for the mysterious dissolution of her big book deal. After that, Caroline fell out of the public eye for a year but returned this past January on a tour to promote her “Creativity Workshop,” which was billed as a tutorial to “architect a life that feels really full and genuine and rich and beautiful” but ended up being compared to a one-woman Fyre Fest. She charged participants $165 a head and sold the tickets before booking venues, made promises she couldn’t deliver on (orchid crowns, “cooked” salad), and, true to form, posted the whole fiasco in real time. It seemed like the entire internet saw a pallet of 1,200 Mason jars delivered to her studio apartment and her pleas for ticket buyers in Philadelphia to just take the train to New York. She became a symbol of, as journalist Kayleigh Donaldson put it, “The Empty Mason Jar of the Influencer Economy,” which prompted Caroline to begin selling T-shirts that read “Stop Hate Following Me, Kayleigh.”

More recently, her Instagram has been filled with emotional posts about this very article, which she knew was coming. For almost a week she’s been posting constantly — how much she misses our friendship, how hurt and ashamed she is about whatever she thinks I’ll say here, how relieved she is that I broke the trust in our relationship so she can now write about me, too. It’s been surreal watching this unfold from my desk job in Los Angeles, but I’m not surprised she’s taken an essay of mine that didn’t exist yet and turned it into a narrative for herself. Caroline was the most confident girl I’d ever known. We were both 20-year-old NYU students when we met, Caroline arriving late to the first day of class, wearing a designer dress, not knowing who Lorrie Moore was but claiming she could recite the poems of Catullus in Latin. She turned in personal essays about heartbreak and boarding school, had silk eyelashes, and wore cashmere sweaters without a bra. She seemed like an adult, someone who had just gone ahead and constructed a life of independence. I, meanwhile, was a virgin with a meek ponytail, living in a railroad apartment that was sinking into the Gowanus Canal.

Caroline first took an interest in me after I wrote an essay about growing up in New Haven. Yale was an obsession of hers; she’d been rejected and never got over it. The fact that I was a Yale townie won me an invitation to her West Village apartment, a studio painted Tiffany’s turquoise and filled with fresh orchids and hardcovers. “This is my Yale box,” she told me, sitting me on her white loveseat and showing me a shoe box of Handsome Dan and Beinecke-library memorabilia. It was that same day, as we split a joint, that Caroline informed me I was beautiful, which no one outside my family had ever said. Soon I began going to Caroline’s after every class, then just any chance I could. To my other friends, I described her as someone you couldn’t count on to remember a birthday but the one I’d call if I needed a black-market kidney. What I meant was that she was someone to write about, and that was what I wanted most of all. “You’re a sharp writer,” our professor told me — he would soon be played by Jesse Eisenberg in a movie, and Caroline and I were both a little obsessed — “but what you’re limited by right now is where you’ve walked through yourself — you’re limited by your itinerary.” Caroline had no such limits. Her life was a cycle of adventures and minor crises. We dashed in and out of as many clubs as we could in a night, attended a Wet Hot American Summer–themed party at a secret society, and went to Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, which Caroline wept through as if it were a religious experience. We’d go out to eat all the time, and soon I was broke but didn’t care. I was now part of her life, a conspirator and confidante. At the Minetta Tavern, I told her that her fantasy of going out with our professor was dangerous and predictable. “It’s like a movie,” I said between bites of lettuce wraps. “This is Act I. Soon he’ll invite you over to his bachelor pad, fuck you, and in five months you’ll read all about it in The New Yorker.” MORE

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INCOMING: Return Of The Red-Headed Stranger

September 9th, 2019

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A man who needs no last name, Willie is to Country what Neil is to rock: the Buddha, bestowing laid-back grace on all those who bask in his benevolent THC-tinged glow. Born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Nelson begins writing songs at age seven. After serving briefly in the Air Force during the Korean War and studying agriculture at Baylor University, Nelson moves through a series of luckless, low-paying career changes–disc jockey; door-to-door vacuum and encyclopedia salesman. By 1958, in dire financial straits and married with children, Nelson is forced to sell his songs for cheap (“Night Life,” later a hit for Ray Price, went for the princely sum of $150). By 1961, he’s inked a proper publishing deal, which results in Patsy Cline turning Nelson’s “Crazy” into a Country gold mine. In 1975, he releases Red Headed Stranger, pioneering the “Outlaw Country” movement–along with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash–with stripped-down honky-tonkisms and the most soulful nasal twang since Hank the First. Red Headed Stranger remains a marvel of American beauty. After all the highs (lending a helping hand to the American farmer and smoking a joint on the roof of the White House) and the lows (that duet with Julio Iglesias; the 16 million-dollar raft of shit from the IRS, and, as a result, his shilling for Taco Bell), he has become the embodiment of everything that is good and right about the American experience. Trust us: There are few moments more soulful in this life than hearing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” take wing on a summer breeze. — JONATHAN VALANIA

OUTLAW MUSIC FESTIVAL FEAT. WILLIE NELSON, BONNIE RAITT, ALISON KRAUSS, GOVT. MULE & MORE @ MANN CENTER FRI. SEPTEMBER 13TH @ 4 PM

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

September 9th, 2019

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FRESH AIR: During the early period of the Cold War, the CIA became convinced that communists had discovered a drug or technique that would allow them to control human minds. In response, the CIA began its own secret program, called MK-ULTRA, to search for a mind-control drug that could be weaponized against enemies.

MK-ULTRA, which operated from the 1950s until the early ’60s, was created and run by a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating the program, calls the operation the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.”

Some of Gottlieb’s experiments were covertly funded at universities and research centers, Kinzer says, while others were were conducted in American prisons and in detention centers in Japan, Germany and the Philippines. Many of his unwitting subjects endured psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of LSD, according to Kinzer’s research.

“Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-part process,” Kinzer says. “First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void. We didn’t get too far on number two, but he did a lot of work on number one.”

Kinzer notes that the top-secret nature of Gottlieb’s work makes it impossible to measure the human cost of his experiments. “We don’t know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed,” he says.

Ultimately, Gottlieb concluded that mind control was not possible. After MK-ULTRA shut down, he went on to lead a CIA program that created poisons and hi-tech gadgets for spies to use. Kinzer writes about Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA in the new book, Poisoner in Chief. MORE

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