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BOOKS: ‘I Believe Anita Hill’

Monday, November 27th, 2017

[Illustrations by ALEX FINE]

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on December 7th, 2011. We are re-posting it now, for obvious reasons. JONATHAN VALANIA In advance of her reading at the Free Library tonight to promote her new book Reimagining Equality: Stories Of Race, Gender And Finding A Home, we present a conversation with Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Discussed: The fantasia of a Post-Racial America; the mendacity, narcissism and hypocrisy of Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain; the right wing’s racializing the blame for the 2008 financial crisis; how she passed the lie detector test Clarence Thomas refused to take; the emancipation of her grandfather from slavery; the shady backroom deal that silenced the Congressional testimony of three more women who came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of grossly inappropriate behavior; the cruel partisan blowback and dirty tricks she weathered in the wake of her Congressional testimony that immortalized her as the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment.

PHAWKER: Given the election of Barack Obama, are we in a post-racial era? And if not, is that even a realistic expectation that we would reach it at some point in this country?

ANITA HILL: I don’t know at what point we might reach it, I certainly don’t believe we are here today, there’s too much evidence of racial disparities that have been well documented by social finances, there are too many incidents of it that have been documented anecdotally, so absolutely we’re not there yet. Is it a possibility for the future? I’m not certain, I don’t have that kind of a crystal ball. But what I do have is some things that we need to look at if we are truly serious about ever getting there.

PHAWKER: Speaking to your book here a moment, conservatives like to blame poor people – which I think is often code for minorities – for defaulting on mortgages they should have never been given and that was the sum and total cause of the financial collapse of 2008. Can you speak to that?

ANITA HILL: The foreclosure crisis could not have happen just because of individual mortgages taken out, it’s just impossible, that’s not even logical. In fact, there were loans taken out that should never have been issued, there were creditory loans that were given to people, people were given loans that were well the cost that any loan should ever have, they were well above market cost and often they were given to people who qualified for potential loans at conditional rates, people were targeted, communities essentially were targeted for the pedaling of prime loans. So all of those taken together have to be understood and recognized and I do document how that happened in Reimagining Equality, but as well the foreclosure crisis and the collapse of the housing market were because those loans and faulty financial devices were bundled and sold up the stream whether they were loans taken out in minority communities or loans taken out by white people, these were bad loans that were then marketed and pedaled up the financial food chain. That is ultimately what caused the collapse.

PHAWKER: I’m curious what your take was on the so called ‘beer summit’ which I would say is probably the last moment or opportunity for a national discussion on race.

ANITA HILL: I felt it really rather limited not only in scope but it was also very limited in the way it was structured and set up. It gave the impression that the kind of issues we’re facing that are issues that have to do with race can be negotiated and settled on a one-on-one basis, when in fact that simply is not the case. They are far too systemic, they have a far broader impact than any two individuals. It was an interesting exercise but it just did not go far enough or go deeply enough with the concerns that were brought to the public’s attention by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.

PHAWKER: Your grandfather was a slave, which kind of blows my mind, is this something you discovered when you were working on the book?

ANITA HILL: It blew my mind, too, to think that I’m only one generation away from slavery. If you think about that, if any of us think about it we tend to think about history as something well in the past and so remote and I guess the saying is correct, ‘History isn’t the past, it is present.’ I had heard that my grandfather had been born a slave and that his mother had been separated from his father, my great grandparents, at some point towards the end of slavery. But I had no way of documenting it until I went back and looked at the census record. We, as scientists and scholars, think we have to document everything. I had all the anecdotal information, but in fact I did wanna go back and document and find out exactly if it was true and it was true, my grandfather was born in 1864 before the slaves were officially freed. He fathered my mother when he was in his 50s and my mother was born in 1911. So he was a bit older than he was supposed to be, I guess, if I’m doing my math correctly. My mother was 45 when I was born, and that’s how what would have been a span of maybe two or three generations of slavery occurred within one generation.

PHAWKER: What do you make of black conservatives that spend most of their careers minimizing the impact of race on society in the modern age, and then when they get into trouble they immediately cry racism? I’m thinking of Clarence Thomas calling his nomination hearing a ‘high tech lynching’, I’m thinking of Herman Cain saying there’s this huge conspiracy against him to smear him – I’m curious what your take is on that. HILL: I think unfortunately it does indicate a certain kind of narcissism if you will, but at the very least a double standard, that if things that happened to other people are denounced or denied as racism, any kind of thing that they perceive as being a miscarriage then is turned around and called racism. I’m not quite sure what the psychology of that is, I’m not in psychology by training, but I’m sure there are plenty who are who could tell us exactly what kind of personality creates that. But on a more serious note, I think the injury then that it does is that these people, individuals like Clarence Thomas are seen as spokespeople for African-Americans and the denial of our lived experience as African-Americans, when we do see and experience racism is really an insult to us as well as having the potential for setting all of us back, the entire society whether you’re an African-American of European-American or Latino or any other races that live in this country.

PHAWKER: Just quickly here, if you could confirm a few things I’ve read about the hearings, you took a polygraph test and passed it. Justice Thomas refused to take one, is that correct?

ANITA HILL: That is correct, I took a polygraph test administered by Paul Minor who was an FBI agent, a director of the FBI, not the head director but he was high up in the FBI, and who was an expert in the administration of polygraph tests.

PHAWKER: And there were three more women that were going to testify to similar behavior by Justice Thomas but as part of a back room deal between Republicans and Democrats basically the testimony was shut down at the end of your testimony, is that correct?

ANITA HILL: I still do not know why or how the testimony was shut down, I do know that there were three individuals who were ready to testify that I and my team were waiting for to testify, they had experienced similar behavior or had observed it, they were completely independent of me, so they weren’t just corroborating my story, except that their stories were very similar to mine and the experiences they had were very similar to mine.

PHAWKER: Just a couple things about the fallout afterwards, you went on to teach at the University of Oklahoma, it’s my understanding that there was a women’s group that raised money nationally to start a scholarship fund in your name. This angered conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma who first of all demanded that you resign, failing that they tried to pass a law that would make it illegal for the university to accept money from out of state, failing that they tried to dismantle the university? Is all that true?

ANITA HILL: Yes. They tried to dismantle the law school, it was a lot of political shenanigans if you put it in a nice way. It was amazing because I don’t know many institutions or legislators who have refused to accept donations that came from all over the country from individuals who would send in five, ten dollars, some would try to send in money monthly, some were from the state of Oklahoma who were really behind the effort. Ultimately what happened was the higher regions of the state of Oklahoma did approve the fund, but the president of Oklahoma University at the time issued a ruling that there could be no over-fundraising for the fulfillment of the private donations. So again, the politics continued, the pressure was there, and ultimately there was some negotiated deal and much of the funds were removed from the state and given to Brandeis, where I am now.

PHAWKER: But you were pressured to resign and you did eventually five years later. Why were they asking you to resign? On what grounds? What did you do wrong besides testify truthfully under oath?

ANITA HILL: You know, again it was all political pressure. It’s something I talk about quite a bit in Speaking Truth to Power, I can’t even get into all of the details at this point. But I will say this, I have very supportive colleagues, and I did ultimately leave the university but I left the university because I had an opportunity to come to Brandeis to work on issues related to gender equality and racial equality and I have a very happy existence. Had I not made that move, I’m not sure that I would have been able to write Reimagining Equality certainly in the way that I have written it not only with an understanding of the law, but an understanding of sociology and pop culture and the number of policies that have contributed to housing inequality in this country.

PHAWKER: How do you react to being called ‘The Rosa Parks Of Sexual Harassment’?

ANITA HILL: That’s a name that has been thrown around, of course any mention of my name in the same sentence as Rosa Parks is high praise and flattering. She was such a beacon for me when I was growing up and the idea that you’re with this woman who was just absolutely committed to equality and willing to put her own well being at risk to stand up for what was right. What I hope is whatever people call me is that my desire really is that my effort to help other people find their voice and be able to stand up and to resist discrimination, whether it’s in the form of sexual harassment or any of the number of other forms people experience.

PHAWKER: If you had to do over any of this, would you do anything differently?

ANITA HILL: Oh gosh, who knows if you would do anything differently but I can say this – I would certainly do it all over again. And I would do it because of why I did it to start with. The integrity of the court is what was at stake in 1991 when I testified. The integrity of the court believes that it’s the integrity of the individual to serve on the court. I had information about Clarence Thomas that went to his integrity, his belief in the law, a law that he was bound to enforce as the head of the EOC and that hasn’t changed. I do believe that in the long run, even though people say, “Well, he ended up on the court anyway,” in the long run we started a conversation, many people demanded change, and we have moved forward.



SONIC YOUTH: Youth Against Fascism

“Black robe and swill/I believe Anita Hill/Judge will rot in hell.” — “Youth Against Fascism”

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BOOKS: Q&A With John Waters, Lord Of The Trash

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

[Illustration by ALEX FINE]

BY JONATHAN VALANIA This conversation with celluloid-transgressor-turned-authority-on-all-things-wicked John Waters originally ran back in 2010 upon the publication of his book Role Models. We are re-running it today to mark the auspicious return of his beloved one-man Christmas show at Union Transfer on December 9th. DISCUSSED: LSD, outsider porn, fuzzy sweaters, uptight gay bars, Charlie Manson, Johnny Mathis, censorship, why the Chipmunks are far superior to the Beatles, and why he hasn’t made a film in years.


PHAWKER: Before we get started, I want to enter this little fanboy anecdote into the record: My first real girlfriend and I went on our first date to see Pink Flamingos at the midnight movies. We were all of 16. We were appalled and possibly somewhat aroused.

JOHN WATERS: Oh, that’s good! Well, the scary part is that you were aroused.

PHAWKER: Not sure it was the movie per se. I mean, we were 16, you’re kind of permanently aroused at that age, as I recall.pink_flamingos_poster_011.jpg


PHAWKER: But wait, it gets better. Three years later, you came to Allentown, my hometown, to shoot scenes for Hairspray at Dorney Park, and she wound up as one of the featured dancers in the movie! That was big doings in Allentown. We didn’t get a lot of John Waters movies coming through town.

JOHN WATERS: Oh, I love that story.

PHAWKER: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is, in the book, you say you started taking LSD in 1964, which is pretty early on the acid-eater timeline, not quite Cary Grant early, but still. Please explain.

JOHN WATERS: People I knew stole it from Shepherd Hospital, where they were using it to treat alcoholism. It was Sandoz acid. I didn’t really know anything about acid and we took it and it was incredibly pure and strong and I guess it changed me. If I had children and they told me they were on acid I would be very nervous about it. I never had a bad experience, but many of the people I tripped with every week have died. I think it all depends on the person. I realized on LSD that I could do what I dreamed of doing. As I say in the book, my mother always tells me not to tell people that. If somebody gave me acid today I would be horrified. But now they have salvia and meow meow and all these new ones which they say are even more intense. I try to keep up with all the new drugs without actually doing them. The last drug I took in my history of drug-taking was cocaine, but I didn’t like that. And I never took Ecstasy because the idea of loving everybody was repugnant.

PHAWKER: How very John Waters-ian. You also mention in the book, and I thought this was hilarious and deeply cynical, you and your posse sent away for a UNICEF kit and went door to door taking collections that you used to buy acid.

JOHN WATERS: I am embarrassed to admit we did do that. But we were underprivileged ourselves, we didn’t even have enough money for LSD. In hindsight, I give to a lot of charities these days, so I think I made up for my bad karma. Actually, I don’t believe in karma because a lot of good people that I know are dying of cancer and most of the assholes I know don’t.

PHAWKER: You say in the book that you ‘came out’ when you were 17.

john-waters-role-models.jpgJOHN WATERS: I never ‘came out,’ I never said that. That phrase is so corny. I never ‘came out,’ I just was. People were way more afraid that I was something worse than gay. No one ever brought it up because they were too afraid to find out. I never fit in with any minority world, and I never fit in with the gay world. Even when I lived in Provincetown, half my friends were straight and the other half was gay. I always ran with mixed crowds. We all fled what we came from to find some new sexual confusion. I still like sexual confusion. If I would go to a gay bar, the person I would like wouldn’t hang out in gay bars either. They would be one of the four lunatics in a hipster bar.

PHAWKER: If this isn’t too personal a question, what was your a-ha moment when you realized you were gay.

JOHN WATERS: When I saw Elvis twitching, I don’t even think I knew what sex was then but I knew that something was wrong, because nobody else in my class was responding with the same enthusiasm. I fell for Elvis’ pelvis.

REST IN PIECES: Charles Manson Dead @ 83

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Photo of Charles Manson


ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: Manson, Charles: aka Charlie, aka The Wizard. Known aliases: Jesus H. Christ and The Devil Himself. Manson was sort of the Hannibal Lecter of the flower-power era: witty and charismatic; disarmingly charming when he wanted to be; and supremely, psychopathically evil. He remains a cultural bogeyman, and in the minds of most, the most despicable super-criminal since Hitler. And even though the body count ascribed to him has been overshadowed by a long list of serial killers, terrorists and dictators, it is Manson’s gory hippie-Armageddon myth that still resonates the loudest. He is an enduring totem of transgression and an object of fascination for a certain extremist branch of alterna-types, the kind of people who used to read Answer Me! or order books from Feral House.

Trent Reznor took up residence at the Sharon Tate death house to channel the macabre vibe. Marilyn Manson took his name and a large measure of his righteous blasphemer pose from Manson. His songs have been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to Guns N’ Roses to the Lemonheads. There are upwards of a dozen recordings of Manson and/or his Family available in some form on the black market, or circulating among tape traders and bootleggers.

Born poor white trash to a 16-year old mother on November 11, 1934, Manson began acting on his criminal impulses from an early age. He was essentially raised in reform schools and juvenile detention halls, charles-manson-rolling-stone-cover-vtrserving time for auto theft and check forging. By the time he was released from prison in March 1967, he had spent 17 of his 33 years in some form of institutionalized incarceration.

He emerged hardened by years of prison life, schooled in the ways of pimping, intimidation and brutality. And as the Summer of Love was blossoming in Haight-Ashbury, the Devil was slouching toward San Francisco with a heart full of napalm. He dropped acid, grew his hair long and–armed with a guitar, Messianic charisma, Christ-like good looks and an innate ability to identify and exploit the psychologically vulnerable–soon gathered himself a nubile harem of spaced-out hippie chicks (including the son of Murder, She Wrote‘s Angela Lansbury), which he kept under the near-constant influence of psychedelic drugs and marathon orgy sessions.

Manson pointed the Family school bus toward Los Angeles with the hope of breaking into the music business. He managed to insinuate himself into the fringes West Coast ’60s pop elite, sparking up interest, briefly at least, among the likes of Neil Young, Papa John Philips, Byrds producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day) and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

He even took up residence at Wilson’s house. The Beach Boys drummer introduced Manson to Terry Melcher–who at the time lived with his girlfriend Candice Bergen at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski would take up residence a year later–but the Byrds producer had serious misgivings about Manson’s music and his thuggish methods. Wilson arranged a recording session with Manson at his brother Brian’s home studio, and over the course of three nights some eight songs were recorded. The sessions came to an abrupt end, however, when Manson pulled a knife on the engineer, and the tapes were sealed in a vault, where they remain today.

Despite all this, the Beach Boys recorded Manson’s Donovanesque “Cease to Exist” for their 20/20 album, changing some of the lyrics and retitling it “Never Learn Not to Love,” which infuriated The Wizard. In the spring of 1969, Melcher took a movie camera out to Spahn Ranch in the California desert to film Manson singing his songs while sitting on a rock surrounded by his girls, who were naked and humming along. Melcher came back to Spahn Ranch in June with recording equipment, but soured on the whole project when Manson beat a man senseless before his eyes.

On Aug. 9, 1969, the glamorous occupants of 10050 Cielo Drive–Melcher’s former residence–were slaughtered by Charlie’s angels in an orgy of unspeakable violence and sadism. After Manson’s trial, and his ensuing rise as a media figure, Kaufman released his tapes of Charlie’s songs under the title LIE: The Love and Terror Cult. And although judging the quality of this music is a bit like looking at Hitler’s paintings and trying not to see the blood of six million Jews, the fact is the songs are intriguing specimens of outsider art. – JONATHAN VALANIA

RELATED: Charles Manson Crawled From The Summer of Love To Descend Into Helter Skelter


Manson Horsefly

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CINEMA: Little Women

Friday, November 17th, 2017



LADYBIRD (Directed by Greta Gerwig, 94 minutes, 2017, USA)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC Coming of age stories, or bildungsroman for those who know your literary terms, represent a foundational storytelling archetype of the western world. We love bildungsroman, from Greek myths and fairy tales through Harry Potter and the whole Young Adult canon, for a number of reasons. These stories allow older readers to re-live their formative years and experiences and younger readers to find characters and experiences that instruct them in their own life-choices. Most importantly, though, bildungsroman explore the central question of any society by asking what the requirements are to be an adult, what rituals must be performed to cross from childhood into adulthood.

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s tour de force directorial debut, is on the surface just a 21st century bildungsroman. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a unique, headstrong girl of seventeen years old — when, in the opening scene, her mother belittles her aspirations for an east-coast college, Lady Bird simply opens the car door, unbuckles her seatbelt, and rolls out, consequences be damned. While Lady Bird is unsure of what she wants from her life, she knows that she wants to get out of Sacramento, preferably to New York, Connecticut, or New Hampshire, where “writers go to to be alone in the woods.”

The plot, such as it is, comes through a series of vignettes and snapshots that make up a whole experience, just like real life. Lady Bird joins the theater club, but doesn’t get the lead, and there is no year-ending performance that brings her to adulthood. She loses her virginity to a wannabe anarchist, but when he turns out to be just an asshole she goes to prom with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Family problems come and go throughout the movie, as do questions of wealth, mental health, and satisfaction. Love and friendship, like first drinks or first cigarettes, mingle together in memory, leaving meaning only with the hazy impression that linger on afterwards of good and bad times.

The only definite plot arc to the film is Lady Bird’s attempt to escape to an Eastern college, which is not much of a plot, per se, as few of her choices and actions directly affect the outcome. That this is not problematic speaks to Gerwig’s strength as a storyteller for having chosen a narrative style that emulates what is actually found in reality, where significance is not contained in a moment’s dialogue, or the setting of a scene, but in the whole panoply of decisions and revisions that make up a life. The ending that we are left with is not necessarily a conclusion, though it is satisfying, because Lady Bird’s story is not finished. Only this act of the narrative is closed.

As I left the theater and strolled back into the night, I was left with a satisfying sort of sadness, and a host of questions. Where was Lady Bird now? Did she do well in school, or did she have to transfer out? Did she like where she found herself? Were the massive loans she took on crippling to herself and her family? Is she still paying them off fourteen years later? Or, like Gerwig, did she get plucked from the millions to find success? We cannot know, we can only watch and re-watch this hilarious, heartwarming, occasionally excruciatingly awkward, tale that examines in detail what it means to come of age in 21st Century America.

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GEEK SQUAD: Dept. Of Justice

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

the-geek-300x300BY RICHARD SUPLEE GEEK SPACE CORRESPONDENT For years fans  have been calling for a live action Justice League movie and director Zack Snyder finally delivered. And the good news is Justice League is a superhero film that doesn’t require a “ultimate super duper secret Blu Ray exclusive if you turn your TV upside down directors cut” to be watchable.

But the real reason to watch Justice League is these pop culture gods finally share the screen together. And it pays off. Ben Affleck’s Batman feels more complete than the last time we saw the character. Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot effortlessly continues her performance from her solo film just a few months ago and becomes the leader of the team. And Henry Cavill’s Superman finally feels like Superman after two gloomy performances. You can see the joy on Clark Kent’s face as he keeps up with the Flash in a chase scene.

The origin stories of Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are left vague but they both feel like fully complete characters. Cyborg’s characterization of a man not in control of his body’s alien technology feels a little more told than shown in the film but not enough to ruin this film. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman manages to steal back respect the character lost on the Superfriends cartoon where he only talked to fish. This Aquaman is an utter badass who does not feel at home on land or under sea due to mixed heritage.

Unlike Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) the information is presented clear and character’s motivations make sense. Part of this is the straight forward, simplistic nature of the plot. The alien New God conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) returns to Earth after 5,000 years to collect three Mother Boxes that will convert the planet into a molten hellscape and the Justice League rallies to defeat this threat once again. One can argue the plot is too simplistic and predictable with a lackluster “I shall conquer for no apparent reason” villain but no one is buying tickets for Steppenwolf anyways. If you want to see a Kyptonian fight side by side with a merman, an Amazon and a crazy man dressed up like a bat see this film.

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

Thursday, November 16th, 2017


FRESH AIR: Actress Greta Gerwig has made a career starring in movies about quirky women. She played a driftless dancer in Frances Ha and a punk photographer in 20th Century Women. Now she’s written and directed her first film, an exploration of mother-daughter relationships called Lady Bird. “I don’t know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter,” Gerwig says. “It has a tremendous amount of love — and a tremendous amount of angst.” Gerwig felt Hollywood wasn’t giving mothers and daughters the screen time they deserved, so she set out to change that. Her new film stars Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior who renames herself “Lady Bird,” in part as a rejection of the name her mother gave her. Though the main characters argue about everything from choosing a college to prom dresses, neither is presented as the villain. Instead, Gerwig says, she wanted the audience leaving thinking, “Oh man, it’s so hard to love people and to be in a family.” MORE

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Q&A: Journey To The Center Of Mike Birbiglia

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017


EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published back in 2014. On the occasion of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s two night stand at Merriam Theater on Friday and Saturday, we present this encore edition. Enjoy.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Welcome to another round of  Stupid Answers To Stupid Questions. Actually, that’s only half true. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, of Sleepwalk With Me fame, provided pretty smart answers to our stupid questions. DISCUSSED: Getting bladder cancer at 19; what he and Terry Gross talk about when they are not robbing banks; the strangest place he ever rubbed one out; whether the rumors are true that while Ira Glass seems like a nice guy on the radio, off the air he is real bastard — eating puppies, skinning cats more than one way, poking babies with a sharp stick in Reno just to watch them cry, that kind of thing; the last book he read/movie he saw/album he heard that completely changed his perspective and why. And much, much more.

PHAWKER: First off, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, your latest stand-up comedy special, is a tour de force. As always with your work there is a good deal of pathos woven into the laugh lines. Was that a conscious decision you made you were finding your voice as a comedian? That you wanted to go for something more than just the laugh? That you wanted to say something about the human condition?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, in the sense that I had a goal of being both a comedian and a screenwriter and a playwright. That’s what I studied in school, that’s what I’m most moved by. This week my wife and I were re-watching all of Cameron Crowe’s movies. We were watching Say Anything, Almost Famous, Jerry Macguire. It’s movies like that and James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, that really got me interested in comedy. Those kinds of movies where there are a ton of jokes and the story sneaks up on you. The characters sneak up on you. And at a certain point you really care about the characters. So when I moved to New York, I’d studied playwriting and screenwriting and I wanted to merge those things long term. And it took about 10 years to do it. I started doing standup when I was about 19 and it wasn’t until I was about 28 years old where I was able to kind of merge those things in the one man show Sleepwalk With Me and then subsequently My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and then the movie of Sleepwalk With Me.

PHAWKER: In My GF’s BF you talk about men being able to masturbate successfully in just about any situation, including driving a car. Have you ever? If not, what is the strangest/funniest place you’ve, um, self-gratified?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I simply don’t recall.

PHAWKER: How convenient. What do you and Terry Gross talk about when you’re not robbing banks?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I’ve always been a huge fan of Terry’s show and continue to be—I’m an avid Fresh Air listener and I felt really lucky to work with her. Ira is friends with her and when started working on that short film for This American Life he asked her if she’d consider doing that part I’d written for her as a fictionalized version of herself. And she was—and I know this might sound silly because she’s not a professional actress—she was one of the most enjoyable actresses I’ve ever worked with.

PHAWKER: I heard that while Ira Glass seems like a nice guy on the radio, off the air he is real bastard — eating puppies, skinning cats more than one way, poking babies with a sharp stick in Reno just to watch them cry, that kind of thing — any truth to that?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Ira is exactly the same as he is on the radio except he curses more. He doesn’t curse at people, he just curses at the world. But no, he’s the best guy, he’s a really good friend and a great mentor. He’s taught me so much about narrative and I feel very lucky to work with him.

PHAWKER: Was the title to Sleepwalk With Me a hat tip to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yes and no. I’m familiar with the title but I’ve never seen it. So I think that sentence structure is probably somewhere in my subconscious but I did not make a conscious choice to match that.

PHAWKER: Sleepwalk With Me is the only film in recent memory to star a female lead/romantic interest with a prominent mole/birth mark. Where you intentionally, some might say shamelessly, sucking up to that largely untapped demo of beautiful girls with prominent moles that has, heretofore, been so woefully under-represented in Hollywood films?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I didn’t notice that she had one.

PHAWKER: They say love is blind. You suffer from rapid eye movement disorder, which once caused you to jump out a second story window when you dreamt that missile was about to hit the motel you were in. Is REM disorder something that can be cured or merely controlled with medication and preventive measures — like wearing mittens to bed, etc.? Can you describe your pre-sleep routine to control/harm reduce your condition?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: As I say in the movie, there’s no cure for what I have, you can only deal with it on a day to day basis. In my case I sleep in a sleeping bag and I take medication prescribed by a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders. I’m always reluctant to diagnose people’s sleep issue because people approach me a lot with their sleep issues. They’re like, ‘I do that too! What should I do?’ And I’m like, ‘You should see a doctor because I am a comedian.’

PHAWKER: You have a new movie coming out this summer called The Fault In Our Stars about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. Judging by the trailer it looks like a heartwarming tale. (I welled up watching it, but if you tell anybody I said that I will deny it and probably sue.) You play a guy named Patrick, who runs the support group for teens with cancer where the two leads meet cute and fall in love. What did you do to prepare for the role? Did you attend one of these type of support groups or give yourself cancer just so you’d know what it feels like?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I actually had cancer…ZING!!! I did, I had a bladder tumor when I was 19. They took it out and I was very fortunate—I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation but I did have that experience of feeling like my life could end very soon for a period of time. I talk about it on Sleepwalk With Me Live on a track called ‘There’s Something In My Bladder.’ But yeah, I watched a lot of cancer therapy videos to try to understand how those groups work. They’re actually very inspiring, there’s a lot on YouTube that  you can look up and they’re very empowering and moving. I also learned how to knit, I went to a knitting class, because the character knits. And I wrote a few songs on guitar for the class, I
don’t know if they’re in the movie but I play guitar a little so I practiced a bit.

PHAWKER: What was the last book you read that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: There’s this book I just recently read called Plutocrats that’s about the powerful billionaire class in the world that has a disproportionate amount of power in their country’s governments based on how much money they have. The book is very eye-opening about what’s happened in the last 20 years in terms of the financial world and where things could go in the future. And it really stuck with me—I finished it a few weeks ago and I reference it in my head almost every day.

PHAWKER: What was the last movie you saw that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: This week I saw The National’s documentary Mistaken For Strangers and I thought it was really, really touching and really funny. It’s a band that I’ve been a huge fan of for 10 years and the movie gives a lot of insight into where the songs come from, which is great as a fan. But then as just a human being it has a lot of insight into family relationships and siblings—it’s about the lead singer Matt and his brother Tom primarily. And it was amazing. I went to the premier and I was able to meet Matt and Tom, which was pretty thrilling.

PHAWKER: What was the last album you heard that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I think the albums that changed my perspective on life were the Bob Dylan albums, most notably Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That’s probably the album that changed my life the most, like back in my 20’s when I really dug into it. Recently, the closest thing to that would be Kanye. I think Dark Twisted Fantasy is challenging in this way that makes you think about race and gender and all these things in a very complicated, sometimes disturbing, way.

PHAWKER: Hypothetical: you wake up in the middle of the night, your house is on fire, there is only time to grab one comedy album. Which one do you grab and why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I think Richard Pryor: Live at the Sunset Strip. It was the archetype for Sleepwalk With Me actually, when my director Seth Barrish and I developed that show. Because he talks about how he was lit on fire when he was freebasing cocaine and there’s that moment when they’re taking off the bandages at the hospital and he’s just expressing that pain. And the special is so funny and so loose and it has so much pathos and so much pain and so much life in it, I feel like it has the full range of emotions that you’d want in a comedy special.

PHAWKER: What was the last joke somebody told you that made you laugh out loud?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Well Chris Gethard, who’s actually opening up the show in Philadelphia, has this joke that kills me. It’s about how on Mothers’ Day his mother told him that she was gonna tell him something about his birth that she hadn’t revealed to him or his dad their whole lives. And that was that Chris’ head was so big that when he started to come out, the doctor exclaimed something like, ‘Dear God, it’s huge! His head is huge!’ And then the punchline is, ‘I never thought I’d have to apologize to my mother on mother’s day. And I never thought I’d have to apologize to my father on Mother’s Day.’ And it’s just a great joke. It’s a super tight joke—no pun intended.


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EARWORM: Trout Mask Replica For Dummies

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

Captain Beefheart was an enigma wrapped in a riddle: a blues-braying Tasmanian Devil, industrial-strength surrealist, poet, painter, visionary, and charlatan. Stirring together the primal, blacksnake moan of Delta trance-blues and the free-jazz headfuck of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus in the burbling psychedelic cauldron of ’60s West Coast pop experimentalism, Beefheart’s music was the stuff of spells and incantations, fire-walking and levitation. Safe as Milk, from 1967, remains the ideal starting point for Beefheart beginners, with all the trademarks of his sound pitched in perfect tandem: proto-garage snarl, menacing blues, Martian poetry, exotic rhythms and extraterrestrial sound effects. Purists point to Trout Mask Replica as the pinnacle of the Captain’s canon, though only a small percentage of those who sing its praises actually listen to it for pleasure. Harsh, cryptic and moving sideways, backward and upside down all at once, Trout Mask’s free-jazz-skronk-as-interpreted-by-rock-instruments remains a forbidding totem of post-hippie hieroglyphics. Those who manage to break its code are granted entry to a secret society of blissed-out noiseniks where, as legend has it, they are privy to all manner of esoteric knowledge (the ability to fly or make yourself disappear completely, that kind of thing). – JONATHAN VALANIA

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Q&A With David Thomas, Pere Ubu’s Prime Mover

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Pere UBU--SLASH_magazine-covers--september
David Thomas of Pere Ubu by Melanie Nissen from the cover of Slash volume two #8, September 1979

Stampone_Byline_AvatarBY DAVID R. STAMPONE Among the things that have remained consistent about Pere Ubu over the course of the seminal “avant garage” rock group’s 40+ years: making good music; being unpredictable; not sounding like anybody else. Nor do their records sound alike, starting with a brace of landmark art-punk albums released in 1978, The Modern Dance and Dub Housing. This applies through to the latest Pere Ubu album, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, released in September. David Thomas is the Cleveland band’s vocalist, chief songwriter and lone original member. His is a voice like no other, expressively warbling, sarcastically musing, sometimes howling, always telling tales that may or may not be about what they seem. Phawker recently brokered a phone chat with Thomas before Pere Ubu shoved off on their MonkeyNet Tour, which brings them to Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday night. Informative highlights:

About the new album, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, and it’s rugged, often blues-based rockin’ sound (which Thomas has quipped is like “The James Gang teaming up with Tangerine Dream. Or something like that.”):

DAVID THOMAS: I had the idea that I would like this to be a more blue-collar Pere-Ubu-20-Years-Front-Coverrock record. I don’t know what blue-collar is anymore or if there is such a thing but that’s what I wanted: something that was very American and had that Midwestern thing to it. Not that I’ve ever not done Midwestern but I wanted it to. Every album is a different part of what Pere Ubu is, highlighted. And I wanted to break one of the oldest Pere Ubu rules, which is it’s a one-guitar band, so we have two guitarists; at one point we had three. [The touring lineup includes Thomas, guitarists Gary Siperko and Kristof Hahn, bassist Michele Temple, drummer Steve Mehlman and Robert Wheeler on analog synths and theremin.]

On the importance of not trying to recreate the albums live note-for-note: 

DAVID THOMAS:  An album is not a finished moment – it’s not the destination. It’s just a picture of a moment of a constantly moving stream. The long traditions of Pere Ubu in concert and Pere Ubu in studio are almost unrelated things. Studio production is something that is multi-layered. You should be able to discover new things over time – it’s meant to be contemplated to a degree. Even a Ted Nugent album is meant to be contemplated versus Ted Nugent live, which is just, beat you over the head. Pere Ubu [live] is visceral, it’s of the moment; you take chances and some of the chances work and some you screw up. That to me is the exciting part of live shows: it’s all happening right there as opposed to much of what you get live these days, which is ordinary and locked down and trying to reproduce the record exactly. What an audience wants is to see something that’s unique to their evening and will never be reproduced.

On effectively quoting Frank Zappa’s song title “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (off The Mothers of Invention’s 1967 album Absolutely Free) in the new Ubu album’s lively 1st track, “Monkey Bizness”: 

DAVID THOMAS: It’s part of the formula of the song. If somebody said something in a song in the past that [works], I’ll use it. I will quote Zappa. [He] kind of encapsulated in that phrase a certain understanding of a certain attitude and a certain point of view. That’s how we create pop songs. You don’t reinvent the wheel every time. Zappa said it much better than I can. But I can put that in one of our songs at exactly the right place where I want people to think. So you get more data flowing down the line. Also, it’s really PU USA 2 Kiersty Boonalmost essential to be aware of the fact that Pere Ubu is very likely to be saying the opposite of what you think. That’s the case with Zappa and a lot of the best artists: there’s a certain question over exactly what they were saying. That’s a problem I have in my life: when I’m telling a joke, people think I’m being tragic, and when I’m writing something tragic, they think I’m being funny. I’m kind of used to that.

On writing songs and if he consciously fashions some for Pere Ubu and others for Rocket From The Tombs (Thomas’s other, even older group, which shares Ubu members drummer Steve Mehlman and guitarist Gary Siperko):  

DAVID THOMAS: No, not really – I just write and wherever the bus stops, if the bus is the Pere Ubu bus at the bus stop, I get on that; if it’s the Rocket bus, I get on that. There’s a certain delineation but it’s nothing that I can explain, it’s just a feeling I have about something. Like most musicians will tell you, some songs are like gifts that come along and are done in 10 minutes and then others you spend the week trying to figure it out. It happens in every way.

On having a song called “Funk 49” on the new album that indeed does have somewhat of a heartland boogie vibe recalling the James Gang’s 1970 hit “Funk #49”:  

DAVID THOMAS: Yeah, I never liked that pound sign. I always feel if it’s a good song title, if there’s a reason for it, I’ll use it. But I know Jimmy Fox [James Gang’s co-founder/ drummer], he’s a local guy from Cleveland and doesn’t live far from the studio [where Ubu recorded] and still has ties to the studio. So out of courtesy to him, I said, ‘Look you can’t copyright a song title’ – just establishing that with him right away – ‘but I really don’t want to call this that if you’re going to be upset about it.’ So I sent him the song and he said ‘Yeah I think I got it – I think I understand why you called it that.’ Whether he was being polite or not, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter: he loved the song and he said ‘Call it “Funk 49”’- so, it’s cool. They used the same engineer in the same studio we did and the James Gang drum head is on the wall. They were part of the Cleveland thing: if you grew up in Cleveland, you had to know the James Gang.


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BEING THERE: RL Grime @ The Electric Factory

Friday, November 10th, 2017



Last night, Henry Steinway, AKA RL Grime, dropped in at the Electric Factory to spin a set of dark, high-energy bangers, dreamy interludes and catchy sing-a-longs galore. Joining him were Blood Company’s Graves and Fool’s Gold label mate Kittens, the former who is known across the EDM spectrum for his groundbreaking Diplo & Friends mix from earlier this year. The Nova Tour comes as RL is fresh off of his sixth annual Halloween Mixtape, an annual mix produced by RL consisting of the most sinister and spooky tracks that the community has offered up that year. The hype around the recently dropped mixtape undoubtedly contributed to the healthy crowd size for the Thursday night show, and it was abundantly clear that these kid were here to party.

RL pulled out all the stops with his track selection and had the place shaking. Mosh pits, water flying in every which way, and a slew of “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” once he kicked his production into full gear. Halfway into his set, his DJ booth, armed with lights underneath and on either side, rose high into the sky, allowing Steinway’s head to nearly graze the ceiling of the Electric Factory. He continued his set from on high, dropping track after track down onto the crowd like Zeus throwing lighting bolts, including his smash single “Stay For It” with Miguel, and his ground-shaking classic “Core.” By the end of the night, fans were covered in sweat, struggling to catch their breath, and left anxiously waiting for RL Grime’s next return. – DYLAN LONG

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

Friday, November 10th, 2017

Lou Reed GIF


FRESH AIR: Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis knew Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed and considered him a friend. So when it came time to write a biography of the late singer-songwriter, DeCurtis knew exactly what kind of book he would pen. “I wanted to write a book that took Lou… seriously,” DeCurtis says. “The kind of book that I was going to write about Lou was the kind of book he deserved.” As part of his research, DeCurtis interviewed many people Reed knew, including his first two wives. His biography, Lou Reed: A Life, paints a portrait of a complicated man who loved pop music, experimented with drugs and sex and had a history of domestic abuse. DeCurtis acknowledges that Reed, who LOU_REED_A_LIFEdied in 2013, may not have approved of all of the material in the book. But, he says, “It wasn’t like I had to go looking for the drugs and the sex. Lou wrote about it. It was just out there, so I felt it was fair game.”

PREVIOUSLY: According to Transformer, Victor Bockris’ exceptional Lou Reed bio, the first time Lou and John Cale played together was in 1965 at a gig at a high school in…wait for it, the Lehigh Valley.* After graduating Syracuse, Lou got himself hired as a house composer at Long Island’s Pickwick Records, a low budget record label specializing in cheap knock-offs of pop culture originals. High on methedrine, he wrote “The Ostrich” — think “Hang On Sloopy” covered by The Cramps — to cash in on the Do The…dance craze, as was the style of the day. The single was released in late 1964 under the name The Primitives, a non-existent group invented by Pickwick to cash in on the band-of-dudes-with-pudding-bowl-haircuts-wearing-black-turtlenecks-and-Beatle-boots band craze, as was the style of the day. TransformerPickwick booked tour dates for The Primitives, fronted by Lou and a live band thrown together by Pickwick, that included Cale, noted minimalist Tony Conrad and drummer Angus MacLise, all of whom played together in La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate. They were hired by a Pickwick exec at an Upper West Side party because ‘they looked like a band.’ Without bothering to rehearse, The Primitives performed ”The Ostrich,” cue screaming teenage girls and the ersatz hysteria of phony Beatlemania. When it was over, the DJ hollered into the mic “These guys have got something, sure hope it isn’t catching!” MORE

PREVIOUSLY: Lou Reed On Guns & Ammo


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I MUST NOT THINK BAD THOUGHTS: Talking Comedy, Mental Illness And Outrageously Large Glasses With Lady Dynamite‘s Maria Bamford

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Maria Bamford Lady Dynamite copy

ME avatar 3BY JONATHAN VALANIA Don’t let the corn-silk blonde bouffant, ski-jump nose, and you betcha! patois fool you, Maria Bamford is the Van Gogh’s ear of comedy. The bi-polarity of her stand-up work is Minnesota Nice meets the shower scene in Psycho, sort of like the first season of Fargo, but with pugs. And she knows of where I speak, having struggled with mental health issues most of her life. Some people might consider that an impediment to a successful show biz career. Not Maria Bamford. When life hands her crazy lemons, she makes crazy lemonade. Case in point: Lady Dynamite, her breakout Netflix comedy show which kicks off its second season tomorrow. The show loosely follows the contours of her personal narrative, shuttling back and forth through time from the sunny madness of Hollywood circa now to the blue-tinted eternal January of the near-past, specifically the time she moved back to Duluth to live with her folks after a nervous breakdown some years back. Which may not sound like comedy gold on paper, but to see it on Netflix is to laugh and laugh and laugh in a way you have never laughed before — part nervous giggle, part silent scream. In advance of Bamford’s her stand up show at the Fillmore on Sunday as part of the First Person Arts Festival, we were afforded an email audience with Lady Dynamite. DISCUSSED: The secret of comedy; the link between madness and creativity; the tao of Fred Armisen; how she keeps from cracking up while shooting scenes with Anna Gasteyer’s scene-stealingly funny Hollywood bitch goddess super-agent Karen Grisham, whose profane utterances will make the paint on your walls blush; and what she loves about Philly given that her husband, the artist Scott Marvel Cassidy, is a homeboy.

PHAWKER: What is the secret to comedy? Which is to say, what is the secret to arranging LadyDynamitewords in a very specific and precise pattern that when said out loud have the magic spell-like power to make a roomful of strangers laugh at the same time for the same reason?

MARIA BAMFORD: Oof. I don’t know. Cold air, fear, outrageously large glasses.

PHAWKER: You are a very, very funny woman. In my opinion you are funniest when you impersonate your mother. Wondering how she feels about being grist for the comedy mill, as it were, and if there has ever been a time where she felt you crossed the line?

MARIA BAMFORD: She is delighted to experience any notoriety to come her way. She’s in Italy traveling and could care less- is just glad I have a job.

PHAWKER: Do you think you are funny because of your struggles with mental illness or despite those struggles, or somewhere in between? I guess this is a roundabout way of asking your thoughts on the connection, or lack thereof, between creativity and crazy.

MARIA BAMFORD: I’m not sure- it has been for me I guess and there are tons of books written about that connection. I know that I have to be alive in order to keep writing and that medication makes that possible.

PHAWKER: We love Fred Armisen , ssyched to see that he guest stars in second season of Lady Dynamite (which is hysterically funny, by the way), can you give us a hint about his role in the show.

MARIA BAMFORD: He depicts a version of a teacher I had in junior high, Ms Berry Wolf, for MariaBamford_7690Marriage and Family class.

PHAWKER: There are so many great and funny characters in the show, but Anna Gasteyer’s foul-mouthed super-bitch Hollywood agent is a scene-stealer. Can you tell us a little about the origin and evolution of that character and how do you keep from laughing out loud at her antics when shooting scenes?

MARIA BAMFORD: She’s just wonderful as a performer and person and there were lots of laughs. I’m so grateful and honored to work alongside actors I’ve loved for years.

PHAWKER: Speaking of Lady Dynamite, one of the funniest tropes in the show is you retreating to your safe space, which is standing in the bathtub, fully dressed, sliding down the shower wall as you slowly compress into a ball, silent-screaming with your fist in your mouth. Tell me where that bit comes from — completely made up or somehow connect to your real life experience

MARIA BAMFORD: I did have a period of involuntary howling that happened during a breakdown and it was frightening and not much of a relief but something that happened when I was alone.

PHAWKER: Your husband, the artist Scott Marvel Cassidy, is from Philadelphia, assuming you have spent some time here and hoping you can share some of your impressions of the City of Brotherly Love?

MARIA BAMFORD: I love Philly and especially the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (where Scott went and now our nephew Collin Cousart will be having his senior show in May) and there’s just a huge creative spirit there – I always feel inspired after a trip to the PMA or one of the comedy shows at the new good good comedy theatre, Space 1026 and Helium. We always stay right across the street from the Reading Terminal for immediate access to delicious chow of all types.​


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BEING THERE: Wavves + Joyce Manor @ UT

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017


Emo rockers Joyce Manor and esteemed surf-punk savants Wavves dropped by Union Transfer last night for some co-headlining shenanigans. Fans over the age of 24 were the clear outliers of the crowd; this one was for the kids. Before the main acts, we were graced with the presence of California’s Culture Abuse. For me, these guys stole the show. I’ve never witnessed a more crowd-pleasing frontman than David Kelling. He was goofy, engaging, and rambling – in short, he was himself. Turns out that Kelling has cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, the five-piece ripped through a set of quality rock tunes slathered in reverb and noise; Kelling sang with his hoodie hood draped over his face, allowing him to, as he described it, escape into his own world.

Wavves and Joyce Manor drew their respective tribes of fanboys and girls, which melted together in the sultry air into a big steamy pot of sweaty adolescence jumping around, moshing, and all around having a good-ass time. Wavves pulled out all the stops with their well-written repertoire. Bassist Stephen Pope [pictured, above], who kinda looks like the lion from Wizard of Oz if you squint, frantically cranked out basslines while simultaneously flailing his long, flowy golden Cali hair in every which way. Their diverse setlist was a crowd pleaser, with slow and depressing songs such as “Demon To Lean On” contrasting with upbeat partying tunes like “Way Too Much.”

The headlining slot for the evening went to Joyce Manor, a distinctly different group than Wavves. Much more All American Rejects-y, this four-piece embodies the sentiment of emo rock. The combination of angst-ridden lyrics, whiny vocals, emotional melodies, and catchy riffs brought fans together to vent their teeming anger and dismay in the pit. Their setlist was extensive due to most of their songs being in the 1-2 minute range in duration, and was full of emotional goodies like “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I,” “Constant Headaches” and their hit “Catalina Fight Song.” All told, Joyce Manor and Wavves and Culture Abuse gave all of those in attendance that most precious of all commodities: a genuinely good time. – DYLAN LONG

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Via BuzzFeed

Cost of the War in Iraq
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