Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Back Pages

A sign of age is that we start talking about it.   But what the heck, I’m allowed.  

I was watching PBS last night.  One of those shows they put on and then keep interrupting to exhort you to contribute money.  In return, they give you something.  Last night it was DVD/CD’s of folk and folk-rock artists from the 60’s.  The show itself was emceed/conducted by John Sebastian – The Lovin' Spoonful?  Singular solo performance at Woodstock (please, if you’ve never seen it, rent the movie!)   It featured old clips of Judy Collins (beyond gorgeous, at 20) and Pete Seeger, of Tim Hardin and Bobby Darin (If I was a Carpenter, Reason to Believe), of the New Christie Minstrels (Green, Green and If I Had a Hammer) and just to let you know it wasn’t all good, Rod McKuen, a best selling “poet” who published popular pabulum and treacle under titles like “Listen to the Warm”, doing a truly god awful sung/spoken version of the abysmal Seasons in the Sun. 

The Kingston Trio.  Peter, Paul and Mary.   Harry Bellefonte.  I knew these performers and their songs by heart because my mother had all the albums and my brother and I would listen to them for hours.  We even did a very nice duet of Bellefonte's "He Come From De' Glory" for dinner guests.

And then there were tapes of recent live performances.  All these icons now approaching 70 and still going.

The Limelighters bringing tears to the audience’s eyes on Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind (only genius).  And then bringing down the house with “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight.”.  (They didn’t do my all time favorite – “Have Some Madeira, M’dear” – which is a ditty about a guy trying to seduce a girl by getting her drunk and succeeding only in getting blasted himself – sounds far too familiar). 

Barry McGuire, now looking and sounding like an aging Hell’s Angel, doing Eve of Destruction, which might as well have been written yesterday, and killing it.    

And then, the evening’s only stinker, The Youngbloods doing Smile on Your Brother ( come on people now, smile on your brother, let’s all get together and try to love one another, right now.)   Talk about treacle.  Didn’t like it then, like it even less now 

But then, to redeem it!  Yes!   Roger McGuin of The Byrds, Rickenbacker in hand (John Lennon played one), his high reedy troubador's voice sounding exactly the same as it did 40 years ago, performing Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn and then following it with My Back Pages.   I was so much older than, I’m younger than that now.   Knocking the guitar solos totally out of the park.  Memories of Eight Miles High and Mr. Tambourine Man.

It was awesome. Radical!   The sixties!   Amen, Brother!  And it got me thinking, what are my musical back pages?

The Beatles, of course.  Than the Stones.  The Animals.  Sound of Silence.  Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit - on the car radio.  Lp’s.   Stereo turntable.   Jimi Hendrix heard for the first time in a friend’s basement.   My father taking my brother and me to see the Woodstock (see John Sebastian) at a movie theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village – we were embarrassed because he was wearing a jacket and tie – he was embarrassed because the movie showed naked young people dancing in the mud.    Richie Havens.  The Who.  Country Joe and the Fish.   (And it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?  Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam...)  It's a Beautiful Day (White a golden cage... on a winter's day... in the rain!).  Santana.  Crosby, Stills and Nash.  Janis f’ing Joplin!   (Ladies and Gentlemen - pease welcome -- Big Brother and the Holding Company!!!)

Wavy Gravy (look him up).

Seeing the second ever US performance of Led Zeppelin at the Oakdale Dinner Theatre.   Seeing Jim Morrison arrested at the New Haven Coliseum for lewd behavior.  Missing Cream because it sold out completely.  The unlikely concert team of The Moody Blues (Knights in White Satin - sucked)  and Black Sabbath (say no more, iron man) at the Hartford Civic center.  A cloud of dope hung over the arena.

Rod Stuart on the Hartford Green.  The Association on The Smother’s Brother’s show (yuch).  Meat Loaf at Toad’s Place.  The great local band in Connecticut was Tri-Power and had the first drummer I ever saw use – ludicrously cool - double bass drums and a lead guitar that could play anything.

I was number 32 in 1971’s military draft.  The closing days of Viet Nam.  Cat Stevens, Yes and The Pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers.   Doors and Jimi, always.  Bob Seeger.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  Early Elton John   Stills, Crosby, Nash and Neil Young singing about four student protesters dead in Oh-hi-o.  My roommate liked to drink Iron City beer and sing along to Earth, Wind and Fire.   I liked to pretend I was playing drums to The Who’s Tommy.   Our favorite song at college dances – do they still have those? – was Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water.   It was a great, mindless song to dance to drunk.  You’d form what today they call a mosh pit, scream the bridge at the top of your lungs and then run outside and puke.  I’m sure the girls were impressed.

Punk hit New York just around the time I did.  I missed Max's Kansas City.  CBGB’s.  OMFUG.  Didn’t get it.  Disco was truly and completely horrible.  Bad clothes, worse music.    So was Neal Diamond.  So was the remake of A Star is Born.   Eric Clapton’s Cocaine fueled the night.  I went to Studio 54 once.  I felt like a burro at a sperm bank.   I sought refuge in Van Morrison.  My own personal marching music was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, used by Peter Weir for his film, Gallipoli (starring a very young Mel Gibson) and then used by Oliver Stone in his film, Platoon.    Very tragic and most dramatic.  Like me.

I hated and hate musicals.  All musicals.  On general principle.  I also have always hated the studio band, Boston.

For awhile in the 80's I was into Windham Hill.  It seemed a good way to make women think you were sensitive.   This WH period ended for me when some maudlin director used George Winston as the coda to a play of mine.

Somehow everything changed irrevocably and forever with MTV.   Music videos?   Sounded like an oxymoron (something both sharp and dull) sort of like Jumbo-shrimp. 

Suddenly it seemed to be all about glitz.

Duran-Duran and Boy George had to be invented by British publicists.  Dancing, harmonizing little boy bands like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNCH (Huh?) were the music equivalent of tapioca pudding, made for People Magazine

Classical music was becoming more and more appealing.

Hated hair bands.   Warrant, for God’s sakes?  Poison?  Ratt?  Night Ranger?    K-k-k-kill me.  Guys with attitude who seemed to be looking for a fight but would be destroyed by a high school lineman.   The only thing good about a Van Halen or Motley Cru video was when it was over.  Didn’t like Michael Jackson.   Sneered at Janice and George Michael.  Steve Perry of Journey sounded like a castrati.   Axel Rose sounded like he had a hernia.  The B-52’s and REM just annoying.   I liked U-2 (or was it three?)  but Bono's sunglasses were also annoying.  

Music should be heard and not seen!

But then, I'm like that guy who complains about polifics and doesn't vote.  I don’t listen to popular music much anymore.  I don't really deserve an opinion.     Still love the Boss – Springsteen.  The  Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl, a throwback)  grabs my attention.    I do have an unlikely and odd affection for  Everlast and could watch Will Ferrell play the cowbell on Don’t Fear the Reaper at least once a month.

But really, after PBS last night, give me Judy and Joni and Joan and Roger and Bobby Zimmerman and Art and Paul anytime.  Give me – blast from the past – Aztec Two Step.  Give me Jim and Jimi, Janice and Grace, Jorma and Eric, give me John, Paul, George and Ringo (no wait, you can keep Paul after 1980)

Now those are lyrics, I’ll say!  Now that's a melody!  That is how you play electric guitar - anna one, ana two....that, my friends, is a-rockin’!

Because here's the thing.  In my mind, I'm 30, full of piss and vinegar and lust, still moving forward like Jimi’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return), still, like Jagger, not getting any satisfaction – at least not enough.   Like George Thoroughgood, Bad to the Bone.  Like Eric Burden, misunderstood.  Like Phil Ochs, who’s not marching anymore, I’m an activist.   Like the Clash, I’m an anarchist.   Like Dylan, I’m a poet.  Like Tim Hardin, I can steal a girl’s heart – hopefully Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell’s – and like Roberet Plant, get her to squeeze my lemon just by singing her a song. 

Back pages.  Turned seasons.  Just a rolling stone blowing in the wind.

Thanks PBS.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tale of Two Actors

Let’s not talk about writing.   Let’s talk about the fact that making a living as an actor can really take it out of you.  I’m thinking of two friends. 

The first graduated from Julliard, one of the most prestigious programs in the country, when he was in his early twenties.  His very first job out of Julliard was on Broadway.  He played Tony in West Side Story.  Tony?  The lead?   Maria, Maria, Maria?    I saw him, he was ridiculously good.  Handsome, a fine actor, a voice like a bell. 

While still doing West Side Story, he was cast by Italian producers as the lead in a monumental mini-series about Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer.  It took over a year and a half to film and he traveled to exotic locations all over the world.  It was a leading man’s dream –  a costume epic - incredible sets, battles with cast of thousands, runaway stallions, sword fights, love affairs with gorgeous maidens.   He worked with any number of international stars.  He had regular dinners with Burt Lancaster, Marcelo Mastrioni and Sophia Loren.  He met Frederico Fellini.  From there he went to features.  He played princes and lovers.  He was called back to Italy, where he was a sort of movie guest star, on a regular basis.

At the age of thirty he began to lose his hair.  The films released domestically didn’t do all that well. 

He went back to the stage.  He did two of my plays.  He sang at my wedding.  He began to do a lot of television roles but for some reason, never seemed to latch onto a regular on-going role. 

Shortly after birth, his son was diagnosed with a catastrophic disability.  The boy would need constant and expensive care for the rest of his life.  The jobs were drying up.  He was still lean and striking looking but somehow no longer a leading man and not quite a character actor.  A man of  honor and great responsibility – and yes, deep faith – and in need of money to support his family, he joined the real world.  He got a real job.  It left him little time to audition as an actor.  He finally stopped doing it altogether.

Today he manages a business, is a devoted husband and father and on Sundays sings in the church choir.  He’s often asked to do solos. 

He still has a voice like a bell.

I met the second friend about a month after I arrived in New York.  Fall, 1976.  We worked at a squash club.  I strung rackets, he washed towels.   We were the same age.  He was an actor, I was a writer.   He had a voice like a box of rocks.  He was already starting to lose his hair.

He did my plays for no money.   He was terrific.   But he was replaced in a play of mine when it transferred to an Off-Broadway theatre, because he wasn’t a “name”.

He did stage work all around in New York, usually in small venues.  He was on Broadway in a play where he sat on stage for two hours and got to say one line.

He made most of his living out of town playing leads in regional theatres.  He came to Michigan and replaced an actor in a play I’d written.  He played a singing cowboy.  He had a voice like a box of rocks but could carry a mean tune.  I directed him in Cincinnati.  We laughed ourselves sick for two months.  No one laughs like theatre people.  It helps you deal with the uncertainty about the future.

In his late thirties he moved to Los Angeles.  He auditioned for a TV pilot I’d written.  He was - yes; as usual - terrific.  He didn’t get the job.  A couple of weeks later, he called to tell me he’d gotten a role in a pilot.  My show never made it out of the gate, his went on the air and ran for three years.  It would have gone much longer but the lead had a drug habit and was prone to nervous breakdowns.  But the money allowed him to buy a house.

He watched a lot of people we both knew do very well.

He became what’s known in LA as a “working actor”.   He’d get a TV part here, he’d get a film part there, a commercial here, a voice over there.   It paid enough for him to live a middle class existence, an accomplishment unto itself in show biz.   He always continued to do theatre, usually in small places around LA, usually for free.  He was in constant demand for readings.  He began to direct.  He is a terrific stage director.  He directed a play of mine just this last year.  For no money.

He is bald now and bearded and has a voice like a box of crushed rocks. 

This last year, he did a commercial that aired during the Superbowl.  It’s generated over one hundred thousand hits on You Tube.  He was subsequently offered three weeks on a film.  He played a cowboy.  The heck with the money, he said the highlight of the job was wearing a duster and cowboy hat and having a building blown sky-high behind him as he walked away from it.  He’s that kind of guy.

You know what?  I have this feeling that after forty years, he has suddenly crossed some sort of invisible bridge.  That the phone is going to start ringing now, that as he approaches age sixty, the  jobs are going to start coming fast and furious.

I’m not sure what’s more difficult.  To have had great success early in a career, only to see it go away.   Or to have worked and struggled and held on your whole life only to suddenly become a success overnight.  I think the former.


My friend, the Julliard grad, has begun auditioning again.