For Tomorrow We May Die: Diary of a College Chum #5

Gar was singing a swinging tune from yesteryear.
“Oooh, I’m gonna love you any old way.”
He paused.
“What are,” he proposed, “any old ways of loving?”
We pondered.
“Frottage,” I suggested.
“Outhouse sex,” he countered.
“A III-some, or IV-play” I said, then regretted it because roman numerals aren’t funny out loud. But Gar cracked up anyway, and that was it.

Newsies and the Age of No Good Musicals

I had an internet-based Broadway showtunes radio channel on the other day, and suddenly out blasted “King of New York.” Not a Broadway melody at all, of course, but a Hollywood one, from Newsies, Disney’s disastrous 1992 attempt to reinvigorate the American movie musical.

It took me back to a whole era when not just Hollywood musicals but Broadway ones seemed doomed. When the original Beauty & the Beast cartoon first hit in 1991, Theater Week magazine put it on its cover as exemplifying the best characteristics of a big Broadway musical. A few years later, of course, it was one, and Disney was intently transforming Times Square back into the theatrical, family-friendly 42nd Street of yore. But in the early ‘90s, times were dire: the “best musical of the year” was a Hollywood cartoon, and the biggest hits Broadway could manage were Crazy for You (the crassest sort of simplistic nostalgia) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (the kind of obtuse modern turn which frightened away as many tourists as it lured). This was the era of—I have to invoke it—Nick & Nora, not to mention The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Desperation, sheer desperation.

And it was catching. Newsies wasn’t awful, just not the sort of film you could pin a resurrection on. The same unfair expectations doomed the British film Absolute Beginners, another shoot-for-the-moon musical where the presumed universality of youthful rebellion is tempered by the undeniably un-universal specifics of time and place. (For Newsies, that was the 1899 New York newspaperboy strike; for Absolute Beginners it was the post-war England of nascent neo-Nazis and other extremely short-tempered authority figures.)

Newsies’ commercial failure doomed the youth-oriented movie musical genre for at least another decade and a half, until the very same director, Kenny Ortega was given another try and scored beyond a generation’s wildest dreams with High School Musical. Composer Alan Mencken, meanwhile, reverted to Beauty & the Beast’s Broadway transformation.

Anyhow, “Extry, extry, Joe! Read all about it!”: “King of New York” still kills. “Comin’ at ya, lousy wit’ stature.”

Reminded of Newsies’ best song, I checked the DVD out of the library and watched it with my daughters. Eight-year-old Mabel was captivated. Six-year-old Sally railed loudly against for its first half-hour (“This is horribly boring!”) but finally warmed to it and was dancing on the couch to it by the time the newsboys won their labor struggle. For older viewers, it’s hard to not get caught up in seeing Christian Bale still playing boyish roles (and singing in a New Yawk accent besides), or Max Casella (who in ’92 was still on Doogie Howser, and who wouldn’t really resurface after Newsies until the last few seasons of The Sopranos) tap-dancing in a bowler hat.

Try as I might, I can’t remove Newsies from its flop mystique. I once interviewed Kevin Tighe, who plays the evil warden of the prison-like “House of Refuge” in the film, and he was impressed at how the film had become a cult favorite following such an ignoble initial reception. But Newsies is too spectacular to be a cult hit, even too spectacular to be reenvisioned as a stage musical in the way that Xanadu or Hairspray has been. It depends on throngs of strapping young boys with piles of newspapers poised on their shoulders, platoons of short-pantsed dancers who eclipse the stars—especially since those stars (Bale, Bill Pullman, David Moscow) can’t sing or dance distinctively at all.

Eschewing star turns for chorus-line overkill may be what Newsies actually did right. In an age where Broadway was still overly dependent on name stars (even the aforementioned Kiss of the Spider-Woman, which hung its hat on Chita Rivera), Newsies soft-peddled them. The secret, it turned out when Ortega’s High School Musical came around, was to have a whole ensemble of overbearing personalities scrapping with each other, then forming the faceless kickline for the big all-in-this-together power ballads. You could say Rent took that route too.

Newsies is an unexpectedly strong footnote in the history of the late-20th century American musical. It’s lousy with stature.

Rock Gods #48: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Blackie Blackman, self-styled leader of the Blackie Blackman Boogety Boogety Boogie Band, had a message for his fans between songs on Friday’s set. (The B5 is a regional outfit whose crashpad is about 100 miles from here, though they play in town so often they’re assumed local. Their bassist also went to boarding school in our fair city, if that counts.)
The diatribe for the tribe took almost 20 minutes to deliver, and cut down heavily on the evening’s funk factor. Seems Mr. Blackman had been unjustly detained on the way to the gig, for driving while Blackie. And, incidentally and allegedly, navigating a car through a huge wave of pot smoke behind the dashboard. He should sing the police report next time; it might be more entertaining, though allegedly not as entertaining as the alleged chase the alleged victim led the alleged “racist fuzz” (both of whom, he neglected to mention onstage, were black) on. Sorry to be a news reporter there for a second, but it’s in our blood, which was boiling at nearly as high a temperature as Blackie Blackman’s that evening, though for different reasons.

Elsewheresville: We grant that Blackie Blackman is a frequent target of abuse, and that the local original music community is overwhelmingly white, and largely allergic to funk or hip-hop, which remain largely underground commodities. (Is there a vaccine the club bookers could take?)
When Mr. Blackman assumed his stage moniker legally some years ago, some called it a publicity stunt since the band was just starting to make it in the larger clubs after two years on the college circuit. But, it was counterargued, such an in-your-face identity change, and BB’s natural irascibility, weren’t actually great mainstream selling points. Blackie has been his own biggest obstacle to fame. Being mad at cops isn’t the issue. Choosing the middle of a set to switch to improv political performance art is.

The Jewish fraternity at the college on the hill is holding a dance party Saturday featuring The Figgits, Tranifatts and Wendell Horse—all of which feature members of the frat. (It’s the house with the “All Men Are Dogs” and “Bimbergs Welcome” signs outside. Ask for Ingrid the maid.)… Same night, the Bullfinch handles the dark and dreary winter nights well with Cautioned Phoebe, My Fenimore and Ate the Éclair—that’s two past tenses and a pronoun, so you know it’s Goth to be good… Hamilton’s weekend, meanwhile, tends toward ironic soul, with Don’t Step on That Beetle, The Pippa Pipkins and—really?—The Hurty Gurdies, who can’t help but clear the room of fans of those other two bands…. Dollaire’s? Disaster. Trust us: You don’t want to see bands called Special-When-Lit, Felix Phooey and Mister Gillie. Even if you’re insane and literally want to see singers swinging from the rafters. We’d rather eat the éclair…

The Dirtbombs’ Party Store: If You Can’t Dance…

I’ve been reading a lot about revolution lately—Jed Rubenfeld’s novel The Death Instinct, the new revised edition of Paul Krassner’s autobiography Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, the overthrow of the Nome King in Ozma of Oz…
And The Dirtbombs is the perfect soundtrack.
The Detroit-based band’s brand new album Party Store is the second half of a manifesto begun a decade ago with the unabashedly brilliant and influential instant indie classic Ultraglide in Black. (Wanted to make it sound like a ‘70s K-Tel collection there for a moment.) Both albums cover songs which helped form the eclectic tastes of bandleader Mick Collins (whose ‘80s band The Gories has already assured him a place in the punk history books), but the setlists are studiously constructed from lesser-known soul or R&B records. Ultraglide covers the ‘60s and ‘70s while Party Store partakes of the ‘80s. The differences in the eras are heightened by the selections: Ultraglide is full of fleeting frat-rock rave-ups such as “The Thing” (which belongs alongside Dave Clark 5’s “The Place” in the pantheon of willfully underdescriptive scene-setting singles) and the respectful Dirtbombs original “Your Love Belongs Under a Rock.”

Ultraglide covered one well-known hit, Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City,” but countered that atypical burst of familiarity with a cutting version of Thin Lizzy leader Phil Lynott’s “Ode to a Black Man,” a harmonica-blurting critique of contemporary pop that tells Stevie Wonder “I don’t want no songs for plants, I want songs for me.” Party Store pulls off a similar upset by letting the seminal 1981 Detroit techno track “Sharevari” (by A Number of Names) face off against a leisurely beat of a decade and a half later and a refined jazz background, Innerzone Orchestra’s “Bug in the Bass Bin.”

Which brings us back to revolution—the “Revolution #9” variety. Some fans might blanch at a punk band whose own opuses tend to average out at two and a half minutes lurching relentlessly through over 21 minutes of “Bug in the Bass Bin” (over three times the length of the original, including a two-minute overture that sounds like revving engines). For me, it’s the heart of Party Store—literally so, since it arrives midway through the album, but also because it strips to the marrow The Dirtbomb’s main conceit—that if a punk band strips everything down to drum and bass essentials, it means a whole different thing than when a funk or soul band does the same thing. I’ve pontificated for years on the glories of white-boy Northwestern garage band remakes of Motown or Stax hits—attempts which might seem misguided and awkward, yet end up laser-pointed into transcendent new directions. There’s no academic analysis in what The Dirtbombs do—they are as eager to get the crowd moving as were their funky forebears. They just have a different strategy, a different sense memory of the music, and aren’t afraid to impose it.

Lenny Kaye once described Malcolm McLaren’s culture-bridging album Duck Rock as “almost a theoretical work,” and I put the Dirtbombs diptych of Ultraglide in Black and Party Store on the same plateau.

The ultimate format for Party Store—a vinyl 12’’ three-disk set—is still a week away from release, as is the official CD release. But the songs came out on iTunes on Jan. 12, as if shoved angrily through the ether before they could be contained within a sleeve or jewel case. This is awe-striking ambient urban art of the highest, yet deepest underground order.

Rock Gods #47: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Excerpt from what we would have said had we been invited to speak at the Old Town Hall Meeting Room on Thursday for that “informational meeting” convened to settle the question of whether to permit rock music in the OTH auditorium.
Invited speakers who spoke included a busybody from the Board of Ed, an annoying alderperson or two and somebody who worked for the mayor (who was too bored to attend himself).
Our opening statement:
“Ladies—and oh, we see a couple of gentlemen in the back. Thank goodness for the gentlemen!
“We are here to represent rock & roll as a subject of serious merit, a topic so fraught and serious and sober that it be allowed to be seen on the hallowed stage of Old Town Hall. This is, after all, the same rarified venue where that kid played accordion that time. When such refined entertainments as polka bands, square dance hoedowns and capoeira classes transpired. Careful consideration must indeed be given. We know this because we ourself must practice due diligence in making the same treacherous topic suitable for readers of indiscriminate ages in a public newspaper every week.
Let’s break this brouhaha down.
The noise: Have loud bands ever played the hall? We saw a symphony here once, and it featured tubas and a gong. Most rock bands do not have either a tuba or a gong. If they have instruments as loud as a tuba or a gong, you can usually turn the volume down, unlike you can with a tuba or a gong.
The performers: We happen to know many rock performers. To us, they are not an abstract concept. They are a community. We know many of the specific musicians who are likely to want to play book shows here. Some are young and have unorthodox ideas, granted. But if they want to play in this city they must turn into some semblance of a sensible businessperson. There are currently only two clubs within their reach—The Bullfinch and Hamilton’s—plus a third which, to local bands, is like the castle on the hill: D’Aulaire’s. They need and want a new place to play, and will behave. The non-rock acts playing the Old Town Hall already tend to be much more demanding than young rock acts are likely to be.
Nevertheless, as you’ve gathered, these bands represent an extremely popular, ubiquitous artform. It is ludicrous, bordering on reprehensible, that at this late time, half a century after establishing itself as the major force in popular music, there should still be auditoria off-limits to it.
The audiences: Large, demonstrating their favorite musical form’s immense popularity. Excitable and passionate. Drunken, but only if you choose to let them drink on the premises. If you go that route, and it’s a profitable one, we’d suggest you set rules in the parking lot as well. In terms of boisterousness, overall, it will slight less rowdy than one of the Bingo Nites or Rotary Club Awards held here.
Oh, we’ve exceeded our allotted nanosecond? Well, fuck art, let’s dance.

Here’s where they do have bands, no waiting:
Chris Topsomo, T. S. Ourecki and Pitta combine for an early folk happy hour at the Bullfinch Wednesday. Pitta’s bringing her autoharp… Jule Kage, Kolach, Lusse (the final name change, they swear, for the embattled Lucy) and the Limpas (featuring members of Beer & Port) at Hamilton’s… Knacker and Catch Poorly rawk Dollaire’s…

For Tomorrow We May Die: Diary of a College Chum #3

Two college chums (one male, one female) walk into a beauty shop. An overmade-up saleswoman assists them.
“Are you shopping for someone?”
“I’m shopping for him,” Mar said, just to be silly.
“And I’m shopping for me,” said I, sillier.
“Wellllll…,” the salesgal mused. “All our men’s supplies are over here.” There was a single shelf. All the bottles were blue or brown, whereas the women’s shelves were virtual rainbows.
“Honey, it’s our school colors. Blue and brown,” Mar cooed.
The saleslady plucked a blue bottle. “This is our best seller.” It appeared to be a bottle of water. “Aftershave,” she explained. “A refreshing splash.”
“How is it refreshing?,” Mar queried. “I need to know.”
“It stings a little. It wakes you up in the morning,” the salesperson replied.
“It’s supposed to sting?” Mar behaved bewildered. “Doesn’t that mean it’s affecting his skin badly? That it’s not working?”
“Of course not,” said Ms. Sales, icily.
“May I try some?,” I politely grabbed.
“Of course. Here’s the tester here.”
Mar knew at once what would happen. This is why I love her.
I splashed and gave a pause for effect.
It was actually quite a few seconds before we were asked to leave.
“Did I clear the store?,” I asked Mar.
“Of men, yes,” she answered. “Not hard to do.”
“You never give me the satisfaction, do you?”
“What’re you going to do about it—splash me?”

The Ends of the Earth as They Know It

I ‘ve never gotten the knack of Google Earth and those other geological search services, but based on what I’ve been reading lately you could probably hone in on any grand desolate expanse of land—desert, icecap, mountaintop—and find a wailing godforsaken Marvel superhero there.
I don’t ordinarily keep close tabs on that particular universe anyway, partly because of that same exhaustive existentialism. If I want to read about a superpowered individual undergoing a spiritual test in the wilderness, it’s hard to beat the fourth chapter of Matthew, verses 1-8.
But a recent free sampler assortment of impending storylines, stuffed into my comic-store shopping bag on a recent Wednesday, shows inwardly directed
angst run amok in wide open spaces.

These are not the batcaves or fortresses of solitude found in more psychologically stable universes. These are last-ditch get-away-from-civilization-before-you-hurt-it dilemmas—though it must be said that with Power Girl battling clones in the arctic and Green Lantern’s galactically grandiose “Brightest Day” excursions turning out to be not all that brighter than his “Blackest Night”s, the DC universe needs careful psycho-policing as well. But heck, at least it seems more social.

Alas, comic books don’t get closure, only cliffhangers and spin-offs. And these frantic isolated self-examinations, which usually involve flying about madly crashing into stuff, never have the calm open-ended fade-out of, say, Waiting for Godot. Who waits for Magneto?

Rock Gods #46: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

The New Generation Gap Nostalgia Revue’s tomorrow at Standard Auditorium. We don’t always acknowledge these old radio-hit rave-ups, but the NGGR not only is considered tops in the genre, but among its retirement-age ranks is Casey C(oo)K, father of the adorable Millie of The Model Marvels… The Dream Jobs and Financial Guru expand your mind, and your investment profile, at Hamilton’s… Boomerang Kids at the Bullfinch with Forced Super and Harvest of Gratitude…