Listening to…

The Dodos, “Companions” (video here)

“Companions” is to the San Francisco-based duo The Dodos’ album No Closer what “Day in the Life” was to Sergeant Pepper—a wandering experimental piece where other bands might insist on slotting something more conventionally climactic. The song is gentle, moody and fraught with the danger of open spaces or open minds.

This new video accompaniment to the expansive five-minute “Companions” sells the song without detracting from it, telling its own harsh cinematic film noir story without literalizing the lyrics. Most of it is about driving on a long winding road, that ever-popular method of visualizing ambient or repetitive soundscapes. Ulimately it turns the very song title “Companions” on its head, eroding a sense of friendship and trust just as the song challenges its own gentleness.


Art and Madness—A Memoir of Lust Without Reason

By Anne Roiphe. Foreword by Katie Roiphe. (Nan A. Talese, Doubleday)


Art and Madness is maddening, all right. It’s the kind of memoir which is so self-absorbed that it ignores some very basic needs of the form, like times and places and surnames and, you know, a point.


Granted, Anne Roiphe doesn’t particularly care to recall this part of her life. She ends the book thus:


I meet Carol Southern, long divorced from Terry, at a party on Fifth Avenue, the home of a musician and his painter wife. Carol and I looked at each other. We shared memories that need not be spoken. “Do you regret it?” I say. “No,” she says, “I loved every moment of it. I would do it again.” She smiles her radiant and gentle smile. She is telling me the truth. I, on the other hand, would never do it again. Never.”


Not a rousing recommendation for a good read about the New York art and lit scene in the ‘60s. No wonder the dust-jacket blurb, which describes Roiphe as “one of the girls draped across sofas at parties with George Plimpton, Terry Southern, Doc Humes, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen and William Styron,” is drawn not from Anne Roiphe’s prose but paraphrased from her daughter Katie’s considerably jauntier introduction to this morose book. Roiphe fille notes that Roiphe mere has previously written at great length about virtually every aspect of her life except this era, and the reluctance is palapable on every page. Instead of, say, trying to figure out how some of these admittedly uncomfortable experiences as the devoted wife of Obie-winning playwright Jack Richardson might have shaped her later feminist philosophies, Roiphe just relates indignity upon indignity without useful elaboration.

Frankly, I’m not her target audience. I was looking for insights into Terry Southern (whom part of me idolizes despite his some monumental flaws in his own character) and Richardson, and Jack Gelber and E.L. Doctorow. (Other names judiciously dropped in the book include Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and William Buckley—or at least Buckley’s sisters, who led a campaign to fire two art teachers at Smith College for being Communists). The memoir is so unencumbered by dates, locations or other crucial context that they add nothing to the scholarship of this time. Terry Southern, for instance is mentioned late in the book as “in California with some lady, I am sure, or perhaps his only lady is the dope he has begun to sell along the coast or so I am told.”

Honestly—“Or so I am told”?!  If that satisfies any potential libel lawyers, it certainly doesn’t satisfy readers uninterested in bitter recriminations and scurrilous hearsay. And this from a person who carries herself as being above this rabble.

Art and Madness fails as a footnote to history, but it also fails a personal reflection, too disjointed and defensive to add up to a fluid account of Anne Roiphe’s youth, the turbulent ‘60s, the New York literary crowd, art, madness or anything else.

Rock Gods #126: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

We were reminiscing with friends at the Finch the other day about scene legend Ban Ray of the Memo-Rays. He could fix his forehead so that not only could he drop eyeglasses poised up on his hairline neatly onto his nose, he could casually perform the disturbing trick of flipping the glasses up off his nose to his forehead. (Wiggling ears were involved.)

The Memo-Rays started as a high school doo-wop act but ended a decade later as a practically punk affair, with Ban Ray creating a goofy yet dangerous stage persona that few frontmen anywhere have equaled. In the middle of a song, he’d take a comb out of his pocket and amuse fans in the front row by making phony-mustache faces. His harmony partners Billy Bausch and “Lombo” Lewis would tolerate the hi-jinks even while playing ultra-cool themselves.

The fantastic Ban, who for a time also went by the moniker B-15, eventually spent some time in a sanitarium, claiming to see perpetual sunspots. A lot of people assume his stage madness was borne in his other problems, but his bandmates and friends seem to have all dismissed this.

Ban Ray hasn’t set foot on a stage in eons, but Billy and Lombo and some of the back-up band from the old days are headlining a local “Yesteryear” pageant this weekend at Hamilton’s. We’ve seen the set list, and it’s mostly standards, but there are two or three Memo-Rays classics tucked in there as well.

Is it worth passing up The Oakley Women at the Bullfinch that night? (Not to mention the Bolly Kids at D’ollaire’s?) We suspect so. The past is so bright we’ve got to wear shades.

Listening to…

Idiot Glee, “Trouble at the Dancehall” (mp3 single)

This appeals to me the same way that Danger Mouse’s extraordinary new Rome disk appeals. There’s a sense of genre recreation—in this sense, ‘80s New Romantic pop—in the service of a whole new expression that has nothing to do with what this sort of music might have originally meant. In short, this is dance music that doesn’t oblige you to dance, that instead seems to be relating a short that happens to be taking place on a dancefloor. People who can dance to anything will of course dance to it, but that’s not the point. For the rest of us, this engaging atmospheric indie introspection.

“Trouble at the Dancehall” is from the forthcoming full-length Idiot Glee album Paddywhack. This song premiered on the You Ain’t No Picasso site.

Curren Events

My “Appreciation of the late New Haven Register society columnist Betty Curren ran in this week’s New Haven Advocate, here.

One memory I left out due to space limitations: I am a member of the special club of local folks who were photographed for Curren’s “Here ‘n’ There” column. I am probably the least well-dressed person ever to be pictured in that prissy space.

My “Here ‘n’ There” immortality was clinched due to the happenstance of standing next to the comic actor Howard Hesseman in the buffet line of the opening night party for the first national tour of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor when it played New Haven’s Shubert theater in 1994. I’d gained Hesseman’s attention by remarking “You were in my favorite episode of Dragnet.”

Ms. Curren dutifully  identified me in the photo’s caption, spelling my name right and even acknowledging the New Haven Advocate as my employer. Some Register staff were, and still are, weirdly reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any other media organizations in New Haven, but not Elizabeth Curren.

She carried herself like no reporter I ever knew. She observed manners and decorum I’d never ever heard of. When she happened to show up at a theater by herself, a theater staffer would know to sit next to her, because that’s how it was in her world—women did not sit alone in the theater.

I once asked her what it was like for her growing up in New Haven, and she went into raptures describing carriage races in Edgewood Park. Her stories seemed fantastical to me, and so did the rumors about her. I’m happy to pass on one of these unattributed stories, in hopes that it will further expand her legend: That Betty Curren was at Chappaquiddick when Teddy Kennedy drove off that bridge, but was denied the opportunity to cover the story due to the sexist and hierarchical journalistic practices of the time.

The University of New Haven was so proud to have Elizabeth Curren as an alumna that they had a plaque with her name on it in the lobby of their Dodds Hall auditorium. I once directed a show there, and would pay homage to Ms. Curren’s name on the wall.

It’s customary when someone dies to note that “they will be missed.” But Betty Curren’s entire world was one many of us miss—in the “overlook” or “are never granted entry into” sense—for our whole lives. Her old-fashioned sense of style, society and propriety was utterly at odds with the New Haven arts scene the way I was covering it at the time. When Ms. Curren retired from her post at the Register (where she’d been for 40 years) she was literally irreplaceable.

Rock Gods #125: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Big local band softball last week at the Colour Field. The meet was the brainchild of white rapper C-Meant and his Creosote Crew.

Members of something like 17 bands were hitting and running and scratching their crotches as if they knew baselines better than bass lines.

Which they don’t. None of the players admitted to have been a part of any school sports team, let alone a sandlot league. Every one of them was in their basement learning C chords (and smoking pot) when they could have been out in the daylight fielding fungoes.

Such appealing, alternativist amateurism made for a fun, self-mocking match, if frustrating for the few team members who knew a little more than the others and were vainly trying to play by the rules.

MVP, by a long shot, was Sooner Be A Flea, the solo singer-songwriter who’s also a member of the Cholly Chapmans. Why so valuable? He brought an oaken hitchhiker-size guitar along—and used it as a bat!

It was one for the rulebooks when SBAF refused to drop the bat when he gingerly bunted a ball and ran to first base. It was agreed that if he serenaded the outfield, he’d be deemed safe. In the dugout at that time, the Model Marvels kept taking time outs so they could remove jewelry, so It was four full songs before Sooner Be had to move on.

That impromptu set comprised a much more important “score” than the points tallied by either team. Arguments about who, if anybody, could be considered the winner lasted for several rounds at the Bullfinch, after which the post-game show (Horn of the Hunter, I Didn’t Know It was Loaded and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older) came on and sports suddenly no longer mattered…

Due in two days at the Finch: Wheelhouse and Yakker, with a short opening set by Whiff, who says he’s trying out new material…Baltimore Chop and Backdoor Sliders dutifully do the covers at Hamilton’s… or you can see actual hitmakers from the old AM days like Heater and PutOut at D’ollaire’s, for “Nostalgia dollar beer nite.” Gosh, how can we tell the students have left town?

Listening to…

Seasick Steve, You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks (Third Man


Seasick Steve plays the blues on an electric guitar with three strings removed. His proficiency on such a scaled- back instrument might seem miraculous to guitar fans, but probably not so astonishing to those who play the bass or ukulele. His playing isn’t particularly complex; mainly, he’s got a great sense of rhythm and he indulges in a host of textures and effects that underscore the central “Look Ma! Almost no strings!” gimmick. Whatever voluntary limitations he places on his playing, as with the bass or uke, they’re in service of a grander instrument, which in Seasick Steve’s case happens to be his voice and attitude.

His major accomplishment is to create a gruff stage character that’s a mix of busker and bar hustler, a guy who knows some really cool tricks and knows how to present them for maximum effect.

Which begs the question of how he’ll succeed with a well-produced high-profile studio album, without the flash of his popular series of live-in-concert YouTube videos.  You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks acknowledges this by opening with announcing that he’s not just a one-trick one-string pony, opening with the subdued acoustic singer-songwriter fodder “Treasures” before moving into the accustomed economy-size pyrotechnics of the title tune.

It’s a sharp enough record, and will appeal to the same post-blues generation that eats up everything Jack White does. (The White Stripes showman didn’t work on this album but has anointed Seasick Steve by working on a couple of Mississippi Fred McDowell covers for him.) It also has a presold audience in England, where Seasick Steve got wide exposure on Jools Holland’s live music show and where this album was produced at London’s Air Studios. Ultimately, you can’t help but feel you’re missing something—the patter, the attitude, the actual thrill of seeing Seasick Steve mangle those strings and whack that wooden box in person. I have the same sense of disconnect from these songs as I had from the Beatlemania Broadway soundtracks or the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow album.

Old Kids and Backstreet Men

New Kids on the Block and The Backstreet Boys are on tour together, playing the Mohegan Sun Arena June 2. When the bands were first big, they were too young to gamble, though their Svengali promoter Lou Pearlman certainly wasn’t.

It’s hard to argue them as has-beens. They’re playing one of the largest indoor concert arenas in the state, tickets cost $75-$90, and a second show had to be added when the first (May 30) sold out. Granted, it took the lure of both acts to do it, and there’s the added benefit of two or three of the groups’ members having had relatively successful solo (singing or acting) in the past 15 or 20 years. But even Entertainment Weekly had this pegged as a major mainstream tour, not a nostalgia exercise.

I saw The Backstreet Boys at their height, in 1998 at New Haven Coliseum. I still have the useless “Backstage Pass” sticker from that show stuck to a hat somewhere.

The Coliseum was in its waning years, and so, unbeknownst to them, were The Backstreet Boys, who could have gotten a clue from the fact that they were beginning to stretch the definition of “boys.” Kevin was married and in his late 20s while the most boyish of the quintet, Nick Carter, was being upstaged in the cuteness category on this tour by his opening-act little brother Aaron.

I remember the opening acts at that show at least as well as I remember BB (as they were known, usually with the second B turned backwards). Besides Aaron, who entered by jumping through a hoop, then tripping and falling flat on his cherubic little face, there was the female duo S.O.A.P. (this was the era of Spice Girls) and the impressive retro pop of Jimmy Ray, who had his own rockabilly/ techno theme song and a cool stage manner that I thought would carry him far, instead of straight to the undeserved obscurity addressed in hits title song:

“Are you Jimmy ray? Who wants to know?”

I remember watching scores of parents grabbing their kids and fleeing the auditorium after the main Backstreet Boys set so as to beat the traffic out of New Haven back to the suburbs. (It wasn’t even a school night—it was a Saturday in July.) Those folks missed the encore, when the group did the intricate folding chair routine for which they were justly renowned, accompanied by a screening of the Thriller-esque video in which the boys all turn into movie monsters. (I know thus song has a name and a tube and lyrics, but rise were all unavoidable and meaningless, while the video images and chair trick endure.) Those unfortunate tots who were dragged away from the coliseum prematurely probably never forgave their longsuffering parents for this cardinal concertgoing sin. Those scarred youths can now be healed by seeing the Backstreet Men creak through the same routines, and pony up the hundred bucks for tickets themselves.

As for the New Kids, I grew up in the Boston area, so to me they were the white version of New Edition—both groups were brought into being by the canny producer Maurice Starr. I had friends who bragged that they’d actually grown up “on the block” with the New Kids (a well-known neighborhood, since it’s where the Boston Children’s Museum used to be). In the last throes of their remarkably long initial time as a group (a full decade between their formation and the 1994 break-up), they severed ties with Starr, changed their name to NKOTB (which has exactly the same number of syllables as New Kids on the Block), tried new musical directions (particularly rap) for the album Face the Music and played a tour which eschewed stadiums and theaters for large clubs. In New Haven, they played Toad’s Place. The New Haven Advocate sponsored the show (when presented with a list of shows the paper could sponsor, the published picked New Kids because it was the only act on the list she had heard of) and I was assigned to write the cover story. I was able to arrange a phone interview Joey McIntyre—who’d been 12 when he joined the group, and was considerably less cute and cuddly at the age of 22. Mostly we chatted about Boston. Then I asked him what was the most embarrassing piece of merchandise his face had ever been emblazoned on. “Marbles,” he said. I glanced down at my desk, where a colleague had left a container of New Kids on the Block marbles to psych me for the interview, and felt a moment of spiritual transference.