For Our Connecticut Readers: A WTF detour

Fantastic 250th episode of the Marc Maron What the Fuck podcast, recorded live in Boston. I grew up near that city and witnessed a few fireworks worth of the Bostoncomedy boom of the ‘70s and ’80s. So hearing Maron (who began his career in Boston, during his college days) reminiscing with such local legends as Tony V,  Jimmy Tingle, Frank Santorelli, Mike Donovan and Kenny Rogerson is… well, it’s like sitting down the bar from guys like that, eavesdropping on them, at places like the Ding Ho or Nick’s Comedy Stop, back in the day.

Oh, the stories! Boston has some of the best tales of killing, dying, corpsing and coming-of-age from any comedy scene anywhere.

Funnily enough, many of those storied adventures happened in Connecticut. Our fair state was literally a rite of passage for Boston comics whose careers had developed to the point where they drive to nearby states and play at remote clubs for total strangers. Connecticut is continually derided and misunderstood in the memories of these comics—how happy are your memories of your first job?—but we can take solace in that Maine fares far worse in the recollections of commuting comics.

Tuning in the 250th WTF show, we can listen knowingly to Maron’s own memory of a tedious car trip with a fellow comic who complained non-stop for the whole hours-long ride about how a performer of his stature deserved better gigs than this. (Later in the Maron show, it’s revealed that this comedian’s surname became shorthand among other comics when describing that manner of kvetching.) The club in question? One which Maron describes as having “the front end of an old car as a DJ booth.” That image transports Connecticut clubgoers instantly back to the Bopper’s clubs which rode a ‘50s/’60s nostalgia wave back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And to a kindler, simpler era of messed-up stand-up comics blathering on about the hazards of car trips.

And the award for best music awards goes to…

When the Grammy Awards are nigh, the preview articles invariably deal with the conflict of “Who Will Win” versus “Who Should Win.” “New” acts can be years old. Categories like “Metal” and “Rap,” though they’ve existed for long enough to evince some level of credibility, are still being too loosely defined, or the province of long-established commercial acts who couldn’t get a shake in the main categories.

The whole affair reeks of injustice.

Which is why the Brit Awards

which come just weeks after the Grammys are so appealing. They demonstrate how it’s possible to actually balance the new and the old, the popular and the cultish, the anthemic and the clever. Whereas the Grammy’s “new artists” are folks you’ve heard to death on mainstream radio, the Brits’ “British Breakthrough Act” nominees this year are Anna Calvi, Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sande, Jessie J and The Vaccines.

Yes, there are duplications in the Grammy list of Best New Artists and the Brits’ International Breakthrough Act—namely Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver—but while the Grammys were stuck on J. Cole, The Band Perry and Skrillex, The Brits have already moved on to Lana Del Rey, Foster the People and Aloe Blacc. Now, you could argue that both lists contain acts which have been around a little while, but I would argue right back that “Breakthrough” is a much better word for the award than “New.”

The candidates for “British Album of the Year” include the obvious Adele, Coldplay and Florence & The Machine, but P.J. Harvey and the aforementioned Sheeran. Kate Bush, having come out of long hibernation with two albums this past year, is on the British Female Solo Artist roster. Blur is getting an “Outstanding Contribution to Music” prize while “Critics Choice” honors got to Emili Sande, Maverick Sabre and Michael Kiwanuka.

These are lists that make me want to find out more, rather than lists that make me think I’m browsing a year-old issue of Entertainment Weekly in a dentist’s office.

The Brit Awards are given out tonight. As far as I know, the ceremony won’t be televised in the U.S. But we’ll be listening.

Rock Gods #262: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Sponsored by a local bike shop that can’t give the things away, Mark Curie and the Pedal Extremities passed out dozens of bright green elbow pads at their Hamilton’s show last Thursday. Then the band debuted its rousing new rave-up “Elbow Room.”

The crowd embraced this arms-akimbo skanking novelty with gusto. Two guys in particular—hey, you could put an eye out with that funnybone!

MC & The PE are set to reprise the angular tune, with new dancing groundrules, at their next big gig, opening for The Sumerians at D’ollaire’s in March.

The Infinity Clue and Spark of Suspician, keyboard spacerock, at The Bullfinch… Apeman’s Secret and Billion Dollar Ransom at Hamilton’s… Latest “mystery” band of slumming big-timers looking for a comeback at D’ollaire’s: Mystery of the Samurai Sword, with well-liked and stable locals Breakdown in Axeblade guaranteeing some liveliness even if the elders can’t cut it…

Listening to… P.J. Harvey

P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake.

Compared another artist to P.J. Harvey the other day, so I figured I better tackle this one next, year-old as it is. I often wait a few months to finally purchase a P.J. Harvey album. I want the intellectual hype to wear off, and be able to appreciate it fresh. But fair is fair—it was the Year’s Best lists that reminded me that I shouldn’t forget to check this out. (Plus its selection as a $5 Amazon special last month.)

This is the most well-rounded and diverse PJ Harvey album in years, yet it still has an overarching single sensibility, as we’ve come to expect from her in recent years. It’s just that this time, the atmosphere isn’t sonic. Not a whisper, a la White Chalk. Not a scream, a la Dry or Rid of Me. Not a contrasting travelogue, a la Stories from the City/Sea. The sensibility is social here. It’s political. It’s philosophical rather than punky or poetic.

After ten or so albums, there’s no longer the old shock inherent in PJ Harvey’s vocal style, despite her changing it up unexpectedly and abruptly. Here, it’s the ideas that assault. And the production: A couple of songs, such as “England,” sound like a bruised Kate Bush. The opening of “The Glorious Land” has an army bugle mixed into it, in a manner that deliberately blindsides and upsets.

My favorite bit, “The Words That Maketh Murder”: PJ Harvey wailing, over a barely musicalized backbeat, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?,” turning the comical Eddie Cochran line from “Summertime Blues” into a plaintive wail of vulnerability, victimization and just plain perplexity.

Literary Up: Jay Bernstein’s Burn-Out

Starmaker—Life as a Hollywood Publicist with Farrah, The Rat Pack and 600 More Stars Who Fired Me by Jay Bernstein as told to Larry Cortez Hamm with David Rubini (ECW Press)

For a superstar press agent, Jay Bernstein’s timing is way off in releasing this book just now. For one thing, he’s dead—the memoir was finished by friends and family, who apologize at the end of it for all the cool stories from Bernstein’s half-century Hollywood career which aren’t in the book because he never committed them to paper.

Bernstein represented some of the biggest celebrities of the ‘70s, but those clients—predominantly Farrah Fawcett, her husband Lee Majors, and Three’s Company’s Suzanne Somers—don’t have a different cachet now.

If Bernstein could’ve revealed then what he reveals now, it would have changed a lot of impressions about these stars, whom he guided through.


Bernstein wasn’t a mere observer. He shaped the public images of his clients and advised them on major deals and lawsuits to such a degree that he was portrayed in separate “Behind the Camera” TV movies about Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. (In both cases, the “Jay” character was played by Wallace Langham of The Larry Sanders Show.)


He also created a persona for himself that was as vivid as any he concocted for the stars he handled. He owned thousands of walking sticks. He grew a beard, he writes, so as to appear more threatening and mysterious in the cleanshaven Californian movie culture.


The ‘70s loom large in Starmaker, and how quaint that age seems, a time when managers made stars, rather than the masses having their say via reality shows or YouTube. It was a time when audiences were followers rather than leaders, and Bernstein’s job was to corral them and keep them happy. He created excuses for his stars’ transgressions, ones that would never hold up in court but which suited the tabloids. And he learned how to overlook bad behavior from the most notorious bad boys of their time, The Rat Pack, as an assistant publicist on the film Sergeants 3. (Sinatra was a jerk to him, ordering to play racist practical jokes on Sammy Davis Jr., but also told him “You’re the only guy around here who seems to have any fucking class.”)


Starmaker thus begins with the old Hollywood of Frank & Dean and the preeminence of motion pictures, then shifts to TV as the top medium for the bulk of the book. What it misses is a third act. Bernstein faded into the background credits as a TV producer, and the stories of his overseeing the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer series are considerably more distant than his ratty ‘60s or jiggly ‘70s. He remains a legendary figure in Hollywood history, but for all his longevity and influence, he was of his time and that time passed him by.

For Our Connecticut Readers: Roxanne Coady’s Coda, and RJ Julia’s Renewal

As an arts editor, “calendar highlights” columnist, features writer and informed reader, I’ve covered the doings of RJ Julia Booksellers for over 15 years. (The store itself is 22.) I’ve interviewed such shop-sponsored authors as Christopher Hitchens and Brad Meltzer. I’ve previewed hundreds of booksigning events and charity fundraisers at the shop. My family has browsed there many times, and even attended a theatrical performance of chapter-book superstarlet Junie B. Jones.

In all those years, all those opportunities, I don’t believe I have ever once met or talked to RJ Julia’s founder and owner Roxanne Coady.

I say this not because I want to suggest that Ms. Coady  does not work 24/7, and wear oodles of hats, in her quest to run the ideal independent bookstore. She is indeed the cover by which RJ Julia is judged. What I do want to make clear is that RJ Julia is a large, vital community operation, succeeding on many levels, impressively staving off the continual threats to the demise of the bookselling industry, involving many committed staff members and customers in the pursuit of a literary community gathering place.

This is not one of those little bookshops (love them as I do) where a single person behind a small desk in the corner determines the personality, scope, attitude and atmosphere of the place. RJ Julia is much grander than that.

Which is why, when I received Coady’s latest monthly “Dear Reader” email this morning, in which she effectively announces her retirement from day-to-day operations at the store, I took heart.

The email reads, in part:

We think it’s … time for R.J. Julia to grow in new ways, in the care of new hands that will guide the store to take its proper place in a new world; a changing of the guard in a time of change.


Rest assured: This is not an end for R.J. Julia, but simply a new beginning. The store will not close. We are determined to see R.J. Julia survive and thrive into the future. And there is good reason to think it can. The last few months have shown a resurgence of support and sales for independents across the country. There is even talk of this being the beginning of a renaissance for independent bookselling.

I concur with that thinking and believe that R.J. Julia and our community deserve to take advantage of this renaissance. To do this successfully, the store needs a new steward. Two venerable bookstores have seamlessly been transferred to new owners over the last couple of years–Politics & Prose in Washington, DC and Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA. The new owners are innovating, investing and reinventing–it is extraordinarily exciting to witness. I have spent many hours talking with the new and old owners and feel confident that we can accomplish as seamless a transfer at R.J. Julia.

So we will begin the process. I am committed to being patient in order to find the right person and to do this the right way. The first and foremost priority is putting this big, cherished baby we call R.J. Julia into the right hands. All that has been accomplished in these years is now part of R.J. Julia’s DNA–all the staff have left their mark, all the authors have left their inspiration. And all conversations, joy, sadness and ideas that you have left– it’s all still here.

You’ve got to love that fluid epistolary style Coady has, knowing that she’s writing to an audience of readers and doesn’t have to distill her complex thoughts about leaving the business she birthed into a series of soundbites or tweets.

Coady’s built an institution that deserves to endure, and she knows it. It’s unusual, I think, for supporters to be let in on the transition so early in the process, actually being asked if they know of any worthy candidates for the gig.

I’ve been in the book business myself—managed a couple of shops, owned one of them for a short while, dwelled in the antiquarian and used-book and library realm as well. I think Roxanne Coady’s optimism is justified. There are no end of capable bookstore managers out there. Yes, a lot of shops have gone under, and the demise or depression of the major national book chains (which once helped hasten the closing of some of those small shops), but there’s plenty of evidence that well-run small bookstores with realistic expectations and a genuine desire for community outreach can endure and thrive. By positioning itself as the booksigning and author-appearance capital of Connecticut, RJ Julia has not just a neighborhood feel but a cutting-edge reputation of the place where you can hear about bestsellers before they happen, latch onto trends early or simply find out that your favorite writers have new books out.

A moment of silent reading, please, in honor of Roxanne Coady’s pioneering spirit. Followed a loud, live-recitation hurrah for the RJ Julia reading revolutions yet to come.

Cooking with nog

Made whole wheat biscuits for dinner one night last month. But we were out of buttermilk. Not even the powdered kind.

When fetching the accustomed substitution of regular milk with lemon juice. I noticed we still had some flavored Sugar Cookie Egg Nog (Hood brand) in the refrigerator. So I used that. Fortunately I hadn’t already put sugar in the batter.

The biscuits came out great.

Later that night, like much later, like 2 a.m. I decided to start some slow cooker oatmeal for breakfast– four cups water, two cups rolled oats, a few diced apples.

Kathleen gets up hours before i do. The note she left next to her bowl. “try the oatmeal with sugar cookie egg nog!”

That got me wondering if I could work the stuff into the potato kale soup, or quiche, or pie. Luckily, the holiday season ended and the egg nog left the Stop & Shop shelves before things got out of hand.

Rock Gods: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Joop & Junie may seldom play out anymore, but their youngest kid Marty, aka Smarm of Godawfworrr, soldiers on with spit and no polish.

Godawfworrr’s name is a slam on Smarm’s hippie half-brother Free Bus (born during the Freredom Rides), whose psychedelic act in the ‘70s was Son, God.

Fifteen years apart in age and worlds apart in temperament and taste, one of the brothers would’ve killed the other ages ago if not for their sweet, peacekeeping sibling Veeni (real name unknown, and we’re not sure we want to.)

On the heels of their parents’ benefit concert and CD announcement for their old nursery school, Smarm (now in his 40s) has decided to use his own musical might to destroy a building. Free Bush and Veenie are against the demolition. Details forthcoming. One thing for sure: the whole fam’s coming out of hiding, and there’ll be no end of benefit shows for history-loving locals.

Bullfinch closed, because the toilet pipes froze… Masked Monkey and Shattered Helmet at Hamilton’s, the club that won’t allow drug references in the band name but doesn’t mind dick jokes…  Danger on Vampire Trail at D’ollaire’s, with some slavish local imitations of that national wonder: Clue of the Screeching Owl and Mystery at Devil’s Paw…