Friday, August 25, 2006

Golem, Fresh Off Boat

Washington Post, Friday, August 25, 2006; Page WE08

GOLEM "Fresh Off Boat" J-Dub

THE FIRST TASTE of klezmer music can be a revelation: It has such soul, such jazz -- it's foreign yet, via pop culture and the collective subconscious, it's deeply familiar. When a blue-haired New York indie kid named Annette Ezekiel rediscovered the music of her own heritage, it's no wonder she took to it. And it's no wonder that Golem, the group she founded, makes music that's so immediately accessible.

"Ushti Baba," "Fresh Off Boat's" opening track, kicks off with an accordion and trombone intro, followed by Yiddish singing. But the drums offer a hyper-quick, club-style pulse. That bass is pretty funky, and the violin's wail is so high and reedy that it sounds like that horror-flick staple, the theremin. And the manic gargle/warble of Aaron Diskin will stir deep feelings of nostalgia in anyone who has attended a Pere Ubu concert.

Where's the line between tradition and pop? Golem plays like it doesn't matter, with vigor and sometimes cheeky melodrama. "Golem Hora," with Lenny Kaye on guitar and Mike Gordon on bass, is the least traditional track, even as it boasts a familiar tune, to which Diskin sings, "Have-a-tequila . . ." and then begs agitatedly, "Where is the lime and salt?"

"Warsaw Is Khelm," sung in English by Diskin and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, tells of a man who leaves home for Warsaw but accidentally ends up back in his home town, which he then sees through fresh eyes. It's a sort of metaphor for the music: Is Golem, now playing clubs and sold for its "punk-rock sensibility," Warsaw or Khelm, hipster discovery or ageless party fare? Either way, it's as captivating as that first margarita.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Jenn Lindsay (Rambles)

From the online magazine Rambles (

Jenn Lindsay:
woman at work
An interview by
Pamela Murray Winters,
August 2003

All over America, outcasts and disaffected adolescents, gays and pagans and other square pegs get the same message, perhaps from the collective unconscious: Go to New York. Which is why New York has so many cool baristas, legal proofreaders and bookstore clerks.

Still, you can live in New York and be an artist -- however difficult the financial struggles -- and find people who will accept you.

Jenn Lindsay is part of an East Village movement known as "antifolk." The musicians in this collective share an enthusiasm for vital, not-necessarily-marketing-friendly music. This would include Lindsay's body of work: three CDs, including the recently released Fired!, and an EP, not to mention lots of New York gigs.

"When I moved to NYC after graduating from college, about a year and a half ago," says Lindsay, "I spent the first few months comparing myself to every other musician I heard, particularly the women. I was always hearing someone and immediately trying to tell if I were 'better' or not, and if they were 'better,' just felt suspicious and judgmental. It fucks you up to think like that though, and after a while you have to ask why you're writing music at all. And what I arrived at one day is that as great as other people's songwriting can be, as much as I could never write what they were writing, they couldn't write what I am writing.

"When I first started writing I tried to be Ani DiFranco and felt very bitter that I was still Jenn Lindsay. Until one day I wrote an honest song and it felt so good, and so different, that I decided to try to do that from then on."

Lindsay became hooked on music in high school, in San Diego. "I had the coolest math teacher in high school, Rob Ridgway. He taught math with a guitar." She demonstrates: "There once was an integer ... laa laa laa ... .We started a folk band, doing covers mostly, and played all over San Diego. In early college I found solace from my complete inability to relax or have anything other than intense, desperate friendships, by playing the same songs on my guitar. I started writing music one summer when I was living in Peru and supposed to be doing anthropology research. Instead I stayed in my hut and strummed chords on this backpacker guitar, singing lovelorn tortured songs for this straight girl I was in love with. I was positive that the perfect song would convert her. Thank god it didn't work, because she remained my tortured muse for the next year and half, until I started writing about other people I wanted, my frustrations at school, and the sense of responsibility I was developing as a folksinger to speak my mind about larger, more communal issues."

Among the issues that concern Lindsay is appearance. "I used to write a pathetic cavalcade of songs about body image because I felt so wronged by the fact that I am not a super-thin woman. And maybe it was those very songs that helped me out of the problem in my head, or maybe it was just a continual effort to remind myself that I don't really find women in the popular industry to be very attractive. I am continually rewriting the paradigm of beauty and body size, at least in my head. I think a lot -- more than I want to admit -- about the possibility that my appearance will hold me back. ... I find solace in the reigning truth that talent and drive persevere beyond appearance."

Lindsay's album Gotta Lotta reflects her growing optimism. "I used to write very long, very sad songs about the world, the Man, my belly, girls and boys who didn't love me back, sexual violence ... etc. But now I try to write songs that are more encouraging to myself and to the people listening. I say lots of things like 'Don't think there is something wrong with you,' because any thing that tries to tell me I am not doing okay just frustrates me. I say it to myself enough! One day I read this quote by Woody Guthrie: 'I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that just makes you think that you are born to lose. I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.' This helps me keep my priorities straight."

It also helps her get through the day jobs. "I have had a veritable cornucopia of stupid jobs: receptionist, admin assistant, program director, flower shop telephone girl, publicist, chiropractor's assistant. They never last long, but it's fodder for new music!" Of course, "this occurs to me only after I cry for three days straight after being fired." Hence her latest album, which she deems "one big middle-finger-thrust at the imbeciles of the job world."

Of course, there's every indie artist's dream/nightmare: What would happen if Elektra or Capitol came to call?

"I think it would take a lot of courage to reject any major label wooing," she muses. "The notion of playing huge shows and gaining enough recognition to carve out a long-lived career as a songwriter is super-dreamy for any performer. But once they start talking about the exploitative aspects of a major label deal -- the image construction, the surrender of copyrights and album rights, the notion of owing money to a conglomerate getting rich on my work, the writer's block that would ensue after being on the cover of Rolling Stone or winning a Grammy ... then I think I could walk away from it.

"Accepting a major label deal is no guarantee of success ... turning one down might even be a bigger sign that that person will get somewhere, because they've got guts and enough talent to get the attention of some businessmen who think they can make a wad of dough off their art.

"Overall I think remaining indie is the only way to maintain pride in your own career path. I would rather fail at my own projects, my own dreams, than succeed at someone else's plan for me," Lindsay declares. Especially if their plan involved them getting rich off of my work."

Eliza Carthy (Dirty Linen, late 2001)

From Dirty Linen magazine #97 (Dec '01/Jan '02).

Eliza Carthy

Shock of the New

by Pamela Murray Winters

Oh, I’m not a fiddler anymore.”

It’s hard to tell whether the woman on the other end of the phone, Eliza Carthy, is being serious or playful. She is adept at both states of being, and both are essential to who she is as an artist. In person, you might be clued in by a wry smile, a self-deprecating moue, or a flash in those dark elfin eyes. With just her voice as a guide, you can spot her joke by the smoky, infectious chuckle, sometimes erupting into a guffaw.

No, Carthy hasn’t given up the fiddle, or much else, lately. If anything, she’s taking on more and more, particularly by carving out a new identity as a pop artist with her Warner Bros. album Angels and Cigarettes. Touring this past summer with a seven-piece band (including herself) at festivals and small clubs, she offered a set list drawing heavily on Angels and with hints of similar new material for future recordings; the only hint of tradition in evidence was the Moog-driven arrangement of “Adieu, Adieu” that appeared on her 1998 album Red Rice.

When asked whether people were averse to her new direction — for there have been rumblings that she should stay in her little folky pigeonhole and not dabble in pop — she said, “I suppose it depends on how into human endeavor you are.

I haven’t stopped doing the traditional music at all. I produced my mum’s traditional solo album [Bright Shiny Morning] last year, me and my accordion player have just made an album’s worth of traditional music as well, and Waterson:Carthy is scheduled to make another album in October. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to do a new thing. I’ve been doing the same job for 12 years! I’ve fancied learning a new skill. For instance, I fancied seeing whether I could write an album’s worth of my own songs, which is something I’ve never tried to do before.”

Carthy thrives on new things. It would be too easy to cite her ever-changing hair color as evidence of her chimerical nature; better to look at her discography, which boasts a surprising number of different lineups for one so young. “I’ve been making records since I was 17; I’ve been making, like, two records a year since I was 17. It’s very hard to sound the same from one week to the next when you’re that age, let alone one album to the next!”

Still, it’s a great leap from Waterson:Carthy’s a cappella rendition of “The Grey Cock” (learned from her mother, who learned it from a 1960s recording of Mrs. Cecilia Costello) to the full-bore trip-hop of Angels’ “Whole” (written with Barnaby Stradling, Sam Thomas, and Carthy beau/bandmate/Peatbog Faerie Ben Ivitsky):

Do you smell my breathing around you,
My body breathing you in
My self and my soul and grace, you are so still
So transient and so mine
If only I could breathe you all the time

It would be much easier for everybody concerned if I just decided on one style and stuck to it,” Carthy acknowledged. “But it doesn’t interest me.”

The challenge to write an album’s worth of songs, for Angels, “ended up being quite hard. There’s all kinds of things involved in signing to a major label — all kinds of constraints involved. I was really quite attracted by some of those constraints — by some of the disciplines that you have to go through to record an album of that kind. You have to put yourself under a producer — which, of course, I chose, along with the record label. But you do have to be beholden to him, to a certain extent.

I can write really very oblique songs, very mysterious songs. And sometimes I need somebody to tell me that they actually don’t know what I’m talking about! I need to make a bit more sense, you know, and perhaps have a chorus — that kind of thing. I can write existential poetry until I puke, but it’s a good idea to learn how to make things into songs with choruses that people can get a handle on and understand.

You can be as oblique as you like in traditional music. That’s part of the attraction for me. It’s like, ‘When it says he bit into the apple, did he really bite into the apple, or did he go to bed with that woman?’ That sort of thing. You can keep elements of that in songwriting, but if you have too much of that, it becomes like listening to Alanis Morrisette’s second album!” She chuckled mischievously. “It’s like, ‘What’s going on? I don’t understand….’ So I had to tame my more wild and weird edges.

To actually start from scratch, musically and lyrically and everything, and create a song, and certainly a cohesive album’s worth of songs, is very, very different from working with traditional music.”

Carthy is used to working with different materials — not her own thoughts and sketched-out melodies, but the snippets found in old manuscripts or on acetates of long-dead sources for Alan Lomax and Cecil Sharp. Concerning traditional music, she is serious to the point of near-zealotry. “Music is fun, but when you start to engage with something like traditional music, you do have to have an opinion, you do have to feel strongly about it. If you’re playing a marginalized music, which I am, then you have to be able to tell people why you do it. Ever since I first started doing this, I’ve been answering that question: Why do you play traditional music? And so, having worked out my response to that, to then swap and do a pop band and go sign to a major label and everything, people are gonna want to know why! And I’ve spent a long time really thinking about it and coming up with answers that I feel are honest and worthwhile.

There’s certainly people who do come and see my traditional shows who wouldn’t come and see the pop band. But then I would very much expect that, and I don’t have a problem with that at all.” She does, however, admit to an ulterior motive for her singer/songwriter career, hoping that it will “feed back into my traditional work, in that I’ll be able to have a higher profile on which to base my proclamations that I’m taking traditional music to a wider audience. It is part of a plan for me. I’ve been playing to the converted for such a long time now that I really want to try to get some general public into traditional music. The only way I can see to do that is by actually sticking my neck out and sticking myself out there where it’s dangerous, where there is the chance that people will say I’ve sold out, and that sort of thing. I haven’t, as far as I’m concerned. But I’ve never been one to play it safe. My personal crusade is to do with getting people’s awareness increased of English traditional music, and I feel that I can do this through this project.”

It’s clear that Carthy has no plans to forget her roots. Noting that the British don’t yet have a counterpart to O Brother, Where Art Thou? she vowed “to teach people about the many varieties of English traditional music.

There’s so much Celtic music around that’s so much fun, why would anybody want to plow through books of 9/4 hornpipes with 27 different variations and pick out the best ones and then figure out how to play it? Why would anybody want to do that? I dunno! Why would anybody want to do that when they could just go down the pub and play ‘Drowsy Maggie’ as many times as they like?

There’s so much available music on the folk scene, I could understand why people aren’t necessarily interested in doing the research. But that was the way I was brought up. That’s how my parents work, and that’s how they taught me to work as well. Dig — find the versions that nobody knows. If you don’t like that verse, write another verse.”

Then again, this heir to a folk fortune has it easier than most of us when it comes to research: “I just phone up my mum and dad and say, ‘Come on then, show us your best songbooks,’ and they have got some good ones.”

Carthy grew up with the songbooks of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, as well as Waterson’s singing siblings in the Watersons. She first took to the stage some 12 years ago, with her aunt Lal’s daughter Maria, as the Waterdaughters, and turned professional at 17, doing solo work and fronting her own groups as well as joining her parents for Waterson:Carthy. “The thing about Waterson:Carthy is that I do ‘play the daughter’… I mean, some people prefer me in that sense, because I’m restricted in a way. Which is good — I don’t have a problem with that. There’s constraints involved in being in your parents’ band. Although I am an active member of the band, it’s my mum’s only performance outlet, for instance, so it’s kind of like standing back a little bit. Some people prefer me as a backing person, rather than fronting my own thing.”

While Maria offers backing vocals on Norma Waterson’s Bright Shiny Morning, of the next Waterson-Carthy generation only Eliza and Lal’s son Oliver Knight have made music a career. “My youngest cousin Eleanor is interested in perhaps singing with Waterson:Carthy, and I’m trying to orchestrate that — phoning my mum and saying ‘Have you spoken to Eleanor yet? Have you asked her?’ She’s 21. She’s got a lovely voice. So I’m trying to get another member of the family involved. What else would you do with all those genes, eh? Sloshing around there, being no use to anybody.”

If it seems odd that the headstrong Carthy capitulated so readily to her destiny at the forefront of English traditional music, she’ll tell you of her candle-brief musical rebellion.

I went away for a year to a school — it was only about 25 miles away, but with the area that we lived being so weatherbeaten, it became quite hard to travel to school every day during the winter, for instance. So I moved into this boarding school about 25 miles from where we lived. For about six months I went through this period of readjustment. I’d never really been in the outside world before. I grew up on a farm, I grew up in this very insular environment, and I wasn’t very popular at my primary school. All the kids lived in the village, and all their families lived in the village. The local farmers’ kids, they had their things to do, they had their friends, and I was very different.

I really retreated into myself for a very long time. And then when I went away to this school, when I was 11, I really had to adjust…My parents used to go away for the summer. Every two years they would go on tour in America, for instance. And I would stay with my aunt or with my best friend in the village. And all the kids were like, ‘Hang on a minute, your parents are going away for the entire summer, and they’re not taking you with them! What does that mean?’ And I would say, ‘They’re working. That’s what they do.’ And that wasn’t really understood at all. I do remember having a bit of a mental switch, when I was 11, thinking people do not understand and, not only that, but were really quite hostile toward the idea. People are very hostile toward itinerant musicians that live on farms.”

So, for about six months, “I kind of rejected the whole family thing for a while, in order to listen to Pepsi and Shirley, which was well worth it! I mean, it would have been cool if I’d have been listening to the Police or something.” Instead, it was Wham!’s backing singers — and more: “I know all of the words to [Europe’s] ‘The Final Countdown.’ Oh, and I bought Bat Out of Hell as well. I had a ‘leather and lace’ compilation, with Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler. I loved that record. And I still have it!”

Fortunately, she recovered, and although myriad influences are found on Angels, from Van Dyke Parks’s massed strings on “Fuse” to Dolphin Boy’s programming on “Beautiful Girl,” and from an almost-folky melody on the edgy, melancholy “Train Song” to a nod to punk-popster (and Pepsi’s predecessor Dee C. Lee’s ex-husband) Paul Weller on the album’s only cover song, “Wildwood,” there’s nary a hint of Meat Loaf to be found.

It’s hard work, going from being at the top of your field to being at the bottom of somebody else’s field,” said Carthy about joining the ranks of singer/songwriters. “But I enjoy challenges. I’ve never played it safe. I’m sure there are many people in the world who would prefer it if I did.”

Apparently. Mike Ross of the Edmonton Sun gave Eliza’s new lineup a C+ with the comment “rough road from traditional folk to contemporary pop.” But Ellen Rawson at represented the viewpoint Carthy hoped to hear when, reviewing an early show by the Angels band, she noted that Carthy “hasn’t lost anything; she’s merely made a change.”

Carthy admitted to a certain uneasiness about how her new direction would be accepted. “When I was touring with my folk lineups,” she explained, “we were selling out venues everywhere we went. What I envisaged happening when I finally toured [with the new band] was people showing up for the first tour, and going away, and the audiences really dropping off, and people going away to make their minds up.” But that wasn’t what happened when she hit the U.K. tour circuit. “Nobody turned up! It was very quiet. Some very committed fans turned up, and some people who were merely curious, but we were playing for third- or half-full venues. And we got a couple of good reviews, and the second tour was a lot better and culminated in this really fantastic gig in London.”

The playing field was different in the U.S., where she was known to folkies from her work with her family or from her guest slot on Joan Baez’s spring 2000 tour. “Over in America, I don’t have to convince anybody. I’m merely another person at the bottom of a very long, very high ladder. And people will come out of curiosity — and our friends, and some of our established audiences, will come — some American folkies will come. They’re generally really lovely, really enthusiastic, really open-minded. I love American audiences; I always have. They really just want to let you do whatever it is that you want to do. They want to be pleased. You get a lot of chin-scratching in England. You get a lot of people who stand at the back and check you out and think about it.”

She calls the reception for her music in the U.K. and the United States “very different. People are really warming to the idea in the U.K. I said this thing about human endeavor…I’m really not going anywhere, and I think people are starting to figure that out. Certainly because I have more fans in the U.K. than I have in the U.S., there is a certain amount of convincing of people that needs to be done. Or maybe not — maybe they just need to make their minds up.”

Whatever they decide, it’s fine with her. She’ll continue making all sorts of music: “Drop me on a desert island, and I’ll make something out of a tree and some coconuts, and then I’ll play it.” She’s already got some 17 songs for a followup to Angels, including the sublimely lovely and erotic “Lazy Angel,” a favorite on her 2001 tours. And she’s recently fallen in love with Leicestershire smallpipes. While producing Bright Shiny Morning, Ivitsky brought in his family friend Julian Goodacre, a Scottish bagpipe maker, for some sessions. “We were all sitting in the kitchen, having a tune, and a few glasses of whisky, like one is apt to do, and I said, ‘Can I have a go on them?’ ” Emboldened by her success, she asked Goodacre for pipes of her very own. “He sorted me out a set. They’re cherry wood. They’re very beautiful. I love them, and I make a really horrible noise on them!” (They sounded charming when Carthy premiered them on a recent Waterson:Carthy tour.)

Carthy just keeps giving the audiences more to love — or at least keeping them on their toes. She acknowledges that her longtime fans have rolled with the changes, and will probably keep on rolling. “I require a lot from my audience. I feel very sorry for them sometimes!”

Diana Krall, The Girl in the Other Room

From Paste #11 (Aug. 2004)

Diana Krall - The Girl in the Other Room

Diana Krall has been wowing mainstream audiences for the past decade with her smooth, spare sound. If you like your jazz tidy, shiny and highly competent, you probably already have her CDs cozied up to that well-worn copy of Come Away With Me. But if you’re among the music snobs who, when she married Elvis Costello, wondered, “What does he see in her?” The Girl in the Other Room will attempt to answer your question.

Half the disc’s songs were co-written with her new hubby, and they’re among the best and worst of Girl. On the title tune, Anthony Wilson’s simple Spanish-style acoustic guitar backs a vocal as soft and yummy as butter. “Narrow Daylight,” an anthemic, uplifting Krall tune dyed blue by pensive guitar, piano and voice, is the album’s highlight. She seems to enjoy channeling Joni Mitchell on “I’m Coming Through” (and it’s far superior to her leaden cover of Joni’s “Black Crow” three tracks earlier). But before most of these collaborative successes, you have to get through the dismal “I’ve Changed My Address,” on which Krall, you guessed it, changes her form of address. Suddenly the warm alto, whose understated quality proves both its charm and its pitfall, dips into growls and oddly enunciated phrases—the line “blonde hair cascades on black leather” is especially grating.

Though most of the album’s covers—Mose Allison’s “Stop This World” and Tom Waits’ “Temptation” among them—sound fairly dull, Krall does a pretty good Costello; “Almost Blue,” if not exactly trumping her husband’s original, is nonetheless distinctive, with a delicately measured pace and an almost impossibly low, brooding vocal. Her beautifully hushed reading of Arthur Herzog and Irene Kitchings’ “I’m Pulling Through” spotlights her piano prowess, which is too often overshadowed by the singer’s vocal style and lyrical interpretations. In “Almost Blue,” Costello seems to have penned an accurate assessment of this disc: “It’s almost touching / It will almost do.”

Ari Hest, Someone To Tell

From Paste #12 (Oct. 2004)

Ari Hest - Someone To Tell

It’s hard to lift yourself off the mountainous heap of singer/songwriters, even if you’re Ari Hest—blessed with an appealingly husky baritone, a major-label slot and, not incidentally, a beetle-browed, cherub-lipped face. This former touring partner of Guster and Jason Mraz sounds a whole lot like those guys, with straightforward folk rock interspersed with mildly swaggering rhythmic material. The latter comes via a song called “Consistency”—which is not Hest’s problem; if anything, he should aim for less of it. Amidst the pretty love ballads (“Anne Marie”), songs about ditching this town (“Aberdeen”) and other teenage fare is an alluringly melancholy co-write with Marvin Etzioni, “Strangers Again.” “I want yesterday to come back again,” Hest begs. “Nothing is as simple as I once knew …before the day that I lost you.” It sounds like a big loss, too, as the unexpected, pensive chord progression steps out of pop-song accessibility into something mystical. If Hest wants to rise above the crowd next time, he needs more of this stuff and less of the coffeehouse-lothario cuteness of “Fascinate You.” We’ve got enough Dave Matthews clones out there; a few more Van Morrisons wouldn’t be so bad.

Sinead O'Connor, She Who Dwells in the Shadow of the Longest Damn Album Title in Christendom...

That full title: She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty. Paste abbreviates it on the Web site as shown, but I don't recall whether the print version has the full title.

From Paste #8 (2004)

Sinead O'Connor - She Who Dwells in the Secret...

Sinead O’Connor played the Virgin Mary in 1997’s The Butcher Boy, and, by God, she hasn’t forgotten it. But the artist who’s so often said, by deed, “Look at me,” now wants us to look away. She Who Dwells… is, she says, her final full-length album. “Since I no longer seek to be a ‘famous’ person,” she writes in a statement on the Internet, “… could people please afford me my privacy? … I am a very shy person, believe it or not.” Shy or not, she’s helmed a career that’s steered uneasily between submission to the Almighty and lust for a bully pulpit. She Who Dwells… reveals O’Connor’s balance of heaven and earth, and what a heady balance it is. Disc one offers rare studio cuts, including a number of effective covers: “Do Right Man” becomes a sacrament and “Love Hurts” an almost-jaded slow-dancer. Bells and echoes, deep bass and O’Connor’s soaring soprano … the results are often glorious. Disc Two, a concert recording including “Nothing Compares 2 U,” offers much of the same. An armchair theologist might wonder whether the Holy Virgin ever gets sick of being garlanded; a concertgoing cynic might ponder that O’Connor, unlike Mary, chose her place in the spotlight. In choosing to bow out, she’s left us a fine body of work, including this album. Just don’t tell her that if you see her on the street.

George Pelecanos, Paste magazine

From Paste magazine (which seems to be averse to the "Murray" in my name), issue 12, 2004.

George Pelecanos' Capitol City Soul

Washington, D.C., was a tense place to be in 1968. White suburbanites generally viewed “the District line” as a sort of Berlin Wall. Black city dwellers erupted in fury after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Schoolyard fights were often racially motivated; though official segregation was gone, self-imposed school-cafeteria segregation continued. Only music seemed to bridge the gap.

“In ’68, at the time of the riots, I was 11 years old,” George Pelecanos recalls. “My dad had a lunch counter at 19th and M, and I worked [there]. His employees were all black. He let them play what they wanted—which was WOOK and WOL”—the twin flagship stations of black-oriented music at the time. “That was the summer I got interested in music.”

Pelecanos (who himself lives inside the Beltway, in Silver Spring, Md.) isn’t a musician. Rather, he’s an acclaimed author of crime fiction set in the nation’s capital. His 13th novel, Hard Revolution, features protagonist Derek Strange, who’s familiar to Pelecanos fans. But this book, set in 1968, looks back at the genesis of his anti-hero. “It explores who he is as a middle-aged man. In the previous three Strange novels, I was dropping hints about his past. … There was something that happened in his past that made him become a police officer, and then made him leave the force,” Pelecanos says.

For the author, the time travel involved immersing himself in the music of his childhood (and Strange’s young manhood): “Before I start writing, I go out and buy a bunch of music from the period.”

With this novel, though, Pelecanos went a bit further. He’d been wanting to produce an accompanying CD since 1997’s King Suckerman, a bicentennial-era story he calls “the American Graffiti of funk.”

He wasn’t able to persuade his publisher, Warner, that this would work, he says, until a fellow Warner writer recently had the same idea: “Michael Connelly convinced them to let him produce a jazz CD to go with one of his books, City of Bones … He’s got a little bit more clout than I do. So he sort of kicked the door open for me.”

Pelecanos’ “soundtrack” to Hard Revolution was given away at readings and with online purchases. (With the book’s success, he’s nearly out of copies of the CD.) Featuring liner notes on his website by one of his heroes, Peter Guralnick, it offers eight cuts of “the underexposed side of ’60s soul—I’m not talking about Motown, but Deep South soul—Stax-Volt and like that.

“When I went for Percy Sledge, I definitely didn’t want ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ I wanted ‘It Tears Me Up.’ For Sam and Dave, ‘I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.’ And then there’s The Impressions’ ‘A Fool for You.’ Curtis Mayfield is a hero of mine. … I didn’t want to put protest music in there. I wanted love songs. These are the songs these people listened to. So I didn’t want ‘People Get Ready.’ But one of the reasons I admire Curtis Mayfield is how brave he is. ‘This is my country, with people darker than blue …’ You can’t ignore Mayfield, especially in the context of the book.”

Pelecanos further explores his musical interests on his website, where he gives readers his listening choices (this summer’s include the Drive-By Truckers, Johnny Cash and the vintage Jamaican soul covers on Darker than Blue: Soul from Jamdown 1973–1980). And his favorite sounds slip into his writing in other ways. As story editor for the popular HBO crime drama The Wire, set up the road in Baltimore, he’s wielded a minor musical influence: in a scene last season Detective Jimmy McNulty, on a bender, seeks his own soundtrack. “When he’s drunk, he throws the Pogues in the tape deck?” Pelecanos recalls. “That was me.”

Stephen Kilduff

Visit Stephen Kilduff's Web page at

There's a funny comment on this story on the Baltimore City Paper site, along the lines of "Congrats on the play! Have you thought of turning it into a screenplay?"

From the Baltimore City Paper, Aug, 16, 2006.

The Writer Side
Former Fiction Devotee and Would-Be Filmmaker Stephen Kilduff Discovers That the Play’s The Thing

By Pamela Murray Winters

"My wife said, `You're more suited to a blank stage with two people talking.'" Stephen Kilduff allows a pause, then deadpans, "I'm not sure that was a compliment."

A simplicity of approach, a directness of purpose--these seem to be Kilduff's virtues. They're paying off for the 48-year-old Catonsville resident as he sees the first production of one of his plays: Snow on the Stand runs at New York's American Theatre of Actors from Aug. 16 to 20.

Kilduff is definitely dazzled by making it if not on Broadway, at least near Broadway. Like many writers, from time to time he's considered relocating to New York. "There are times when I thought, Maybe I'll leave," he says. "But one thing or another kept me from leaving."

The lifelong resident of the Baltimore area is also a lifelong writer. "By high school, I was getting the urge to imagine stories and lives--maybe because it was occurring to me that mine was not that interesting."

As a graduate of the University of Baltimore with a degree in English, Kilduff has always made a livelihood through words. He worked as a proofreader and copy editor at City Paper for four and a half years in the late 1980s and early '90s. He's now a freelance scientific copy editor, an arrangement that leaves him time for his storytelling. He started with fiction. In fact, when he worked at CP, it published fiction more often, and he contributed.

But around 1999 something drew his eye elsewhere. "I got an idea that I thought would work as a movie," Kilduff says. "I could see it cinematically." There ensued a period in which he taught himself about the movie business--not taking screenwriting courses, as so many do. His education was "just observing and reading and figuring it out."

And the more he observed, the more he figured out that the movie business was a bad match for him. There was the matter of Hollywood. "I didn't want to move out there," he says, a little harshly. But there was also the matter of muse vs. mammon.

"For a very lucky few [screenwriters]," Kilduff says, the movie business "means million-dollar contracts and Academy Awards. For most people, it's revisions of other people's scripts and adaptations of books you wouldn't want to read. That's what would happen--if I was lucky."

It wasn't the sort of luck he wanted for himself. And he was appalled by a couple of visits to screenwriters' conferences "out there": "Everybody was selling wares," he says.

What he calls the "slow realization--three years in the making--that screenwriting wasn't going to work" led him, about two years ago, to turn his attention to plays. "The emphasis in plays is so much more about human relationships," Kilduff says. "In a movie you start out and you see a person's apartment, and you know something about them." In a play, characters and themes develop differently. "This spareness of telling the story through conversation and dialogue appeals to me."

By last spring, after readings in Baltimore, he had three plays ready to be produced, and he packaged them up and sent them out to theaters whose names he got from the Dramatists Sourcebook. What happened with Snow on the Stand, the newest of the three, he calls dumb luck: "It landed on the desk of the right guy at the right time."

The right guy was James Jennings, president and artistic director of the American Theatre of Actors, which is dedicated to developing and showcasing the work of newer playwrights. "It's a developmental theater," Kilduff says. "They're not committing two months to this unknown play by this unknown playwright. They can just put it on and see what happens."

Jennings--who founded ATA in 1976 and also fields all the theater's phone calls--is a fellow so busy that when an interviewer asks for a few seconds to grab a paper and pen, he barks, "I don't have much time," and keeps going. "We produce 20 to 22 shows a season," Jennings says over the phone. "We have 20 playwrights in our company. We have eight directors in our company. We have four theaters. We've been in business for 30 years.

"We get 800 submissions a year, from out of nowhere. I read all 800, and I pick 20 to 30, based on credibility. Then I let my directors pick. Out of that 30 that I tend to like, I'll produce six or seven."

Snow on the Stand appealed to both Jennings and director Annie Coburn. It tells the story of 50-year-old Harry and his siblings, confronting their different beliefs about the disposition of their father's estate. "I liked how quiet and controlled the play is and the emotional explosion at the end," Coburn says. "I'm from Cleveland, which has a huge set of Rust Belt problems like closing factories and companies bought out by large conglomerations, so one of the themes in the play that deals with a concept of new business and old business really attracted me.

"I feel that the challenge in the show is to make all of the characters both likable as well as guilty or complicit," she continues. "I want the audience to come away from the play recognizing these family dynamics like their own--where long-buried problems become a minefield. I want them to be able to talk about who is really at fault and have that not be so cut and dried."

Kilduff himself sees a slightly different thread running through his plays. "The one theme that is present in the plays--it's not something I set out to do--is of middle-aged men who are sort of lost in their lives: looking forward, looking back," he says. "[Snow] is the harshest of the plays. It doesn't leave a whole lot of hope for Harry.

"It's no mystery why a 48-year-old man would be interested in this [theme]," he continues. But he stresses that his plays are not autobiographical. "As a writer, from the beginning, I've been interested in `stories' rather than `my story.'"

Kilduff hasn't seen Snow yet--he's excited about attending the production, which he hasn't been involved with at all--but he's more focused on what's next down the ongoing stream of creation. "Writing's not a young person's pursuit, exclusively," he says. "It is not like gymnastics or theoretical physics. Since I've gotten more serious about pursuing the playwriting, I'm working less and less [on copy editing]--and my wife allows me to do that."

It's a life that works for him. "What I often do is stop in the middle of the day and take a really long lunch--just sit and write and eat," he says. Scheduling time to write doesn't work for him; instead, he goes where inspiration takes him. And right now, he's pondering a theme that should come as no surprise, given the recent turn his life has taken--"the nature of luck."

Klezmatics, Wonder Wheel

From last week's Washington City Paper (Aug, 18, 2006).

Wonder Wheel
The Klezmatics
Jewish Music Group

As posthumous careers go, Woody Guthrie’s had a solid one—much like Ronald Reagan’s, only without as many airports. The passionate yet pragmatic songwriter’s continued success is due greatly to his daughter Nora, who has been doling out the rights to his unreleased verses to musicians she deems worthy of propagating her father’s legacy. Though 1998’s Mermaid Avenue allowed Billy Bragg and Wilco to treat Guthrie’s work as that of an American-lefty troubadour, Wonder Wheel goes back to Guthrie’s Jewish roots, setting his words to tunes by members of the New York–based Klezmatics in their first English-language disc. Which doesn’t explain why Irish New Yorker Susan McKeown does so many of the vocals—but with a plangent alto like hers, who needs an explanation? “Mermaid’s Avenue,” a sort of Caribbean/campfire-folk fusion composed by Frank London, has its quirky touches, and the somewhat unctuous-voiced Lorin Sklamberg wisely resists overselling lyrics that describe the ’hood as a place where “the smokefish meets the pretzel” and “the borscht sounds like the sea.” But much of the album is as dark as Guthrie’s own lengthy death from Huntington’s disease. “Come When I Call You,” a variant on the counting song “Go Where I Send Thee,” offers “Ten for the atom bomb loose again” and “Nine for the crippled and blind,” on down to “One’s for the pretty little baby that’s born...and gone away”—possibly a reference to the death of Guthrie’s young daughter Cathy in 1946, three years prior to its composition. Matt Darriau’s minor-key, brooding setting of “Pass Away” reinforces the fatalism of its lyrics. There are brighter spots, including “Headdy Down,” a lovely Yiddish-tinged lullaby with kickass electric guitar from Boo Reiners. Folks who know Guthrie only from “This Land Is Your Land” or because of Wilco might well start with the uncompromisingly folky “Gonna Get Through This World.” Not only because of its irresistible dai-dai-dai singalong chorus, but because of its interweaving of McKeown’s Dublin-accented voice, Reiners’ banjo, Adam Widoff’s tabla, a raft of klezmer horns, and composer Lisa Gutkin’s melancholy violin, it’s the very definition of world music. It’s stirringly idealistic—but also clear-eyed: “I’m gonna get through this world the best I can,” Guthrie wrote in 1945—but then added, perhaps to ward off the dybbuk at the door: “If I can.”—Pamela Murray Winters

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Michael McKean and Annette O'Toole, A Mighty Wind (Dirty Linen, April 2004)

From Dirty Linen #111, Apr/May 2004.

That's a sidebar at the end. I didn't get Guest to talk to me. And maybe I didn't try Shearer, which is strange, since I've interviewed him a couple other times (he's as fascinating as you'd expect him to be).

Oh, yeah, and about that whole "performing at a party" conceit? Rob and I chickened out. At least I got some advice out of it.

Michael McKean & Annette O’Toole

Kiss and Tell

by Pamela Murray Winters

You’re going to a party where everyone has to perform a piece of music. And you haven’t touched a guitar since you struggled through “500 Miles” in fifth-grade music class. What better source than A Mighty Wind, the 2003 comedy about a reunion of 60s folksingers of, uh, diverse levels of talent, with music performed by actors (Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara) not generally thought of as musicians? What better selection than Mitch & Mickey’s signature ballad, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”? And who better to give advice than actress-turned-songwriter Annette O’Toole?

Just remember that Eugene is singing the melody, and it’s really beautiful,” said O’Toole, in a phone call from the Vancouver set of “Smallville,” the hit series on which she plays Clark Kent’s mom. “ ’Cause when we sing the song” — “we” being O’Toole and her husband and “Kiss” co-composer, Michael McKean – “I sing the melody. It makes the song sound very different. But as Michael says, that’s what folk music is all about, is taking a song that you hear and doing it in your own way. So they do a beautiful version of it in the movie, but a lot of people think Catherine’s singing the melody. So when you do it, you sing the melody!”

2003 was a banner year for folk music in film. The Academy Award nominations for best original song in a motion picture gave the nod to mountain music, cabaret, Celtic, and 60s-troubadour sounds. When O’Toole and McKean talked about their nascent songwriting career, it was well before the announcement that one of their maiden efforts — “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” — would be nominated for an Oscar. “Kiss” was one of over a dozen faux-folk gems created for A Mighty Wind by its cast and associates, making the film a landmark of folk — albeit in the same shambling, smile-tweaking way that Big Boy is a landmark in vernacular architecture.

What most moviegoers don’t realize is that McKean — the man behind Wind’s Jerry Palter (think Fairport Convention’s Simon Nicol with less talent, less genuine hair, and more vanity), This Is Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins (think Palter with more fake hair, more amperage, and tighter pants), and a host of other iconic characters — goes as far back with the folk scene as the characters in his film.

I think I wrote my first songs when I was 14 or 15, around there,” McKean explained. “And y’know, I was a big folkie, a big Bob Dylan fan, loved Phil Ochs and people who wrote songs about stuff that was actually happening in the news. I used to read Broadside and Sing Out! and, even more obscure, the Little Sandy Review, which was — I think it was based in Milwaukee, or Madison, maybe. And it was a very academic, very angry paper. Anyone who looked like they might even try on a Kingston Trio shirt in a store got a scathing review! It was about keeping this folk thing on track. So I read a lot of that stuff and, like I said, really admired Phil Ochs and, of course, the older stuff like Woody Guthrie and all that Almanac Singers stuff.”

McKean took the messages to heart: “I wrote a lot of what I thought was terribly groundbreaking, terribly brave — for a 14-year-old — very left-wing stuff. So I did a lot of that, and then when I was in my teens, I wrote some rock ’n’ roll. I was with a couple of bands.”

But his music career wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without comedy. At 22, McKean arrived in Los Angeles and soon became the resident songwriter for a comedy group, the Credibility Gap, which numbered among its members Harry Shearer and David L. Lander. “I kind of was the new guy with the guitar… I became more and more comedic.” When the group needed a musical laugh, McKean was always at the ready: “I always had a guitar, and I was always doing new stuff like that. Mostly parodies.”

McKean and Lander eventually jumped ship to play Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, but they didn’t stop performing: “[Lenny and the Squigtones] actually put out a record on Casablanca…We and Mac Davis were the only non-disco acts on that label.” And the somewhat-heavy-metal Spinal Tap, immortalized on film in 1984, was born in 1978 for a sketch on a Rob Reiner TV special. Later, “when Rob was looking for a feature film to do, to get his feature career under way, we did This Is Spinal Tap. We made a scenario and then improvised the film, but all of the songs were written in that style, that heavy-metal style. We all wrote all of them, in various combinations.”

So it was with A Mighty Wind, a film that featured the Folksmen, whose Palter, Alan Barrows, and Mark Shubb bore a slight resemblance to Tap’s David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls. (McKean and cohorts Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer once opened a Spinal Tap show as the Folksmen and were booed off the stage — perhaps a high accolade.) The experience of making This Is Spinal Tap influenced Guest in his later work as a director, on Wind and other films. On Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), Guest and co-writer Levy developed their improvisation-within-a-framework style.

McKean says that the key to success in such films is “parodying the form” but also “staying true enough to the form that you believe, with some quarter of your brain, that this could actually be happening...[that] ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon’ could have sold more than one copy.”

Ah, yes — O’Toole’s maiden songwriting effort. On a drive from Los Angeles to Vancouver in September 2001, where truth, justice, and the American way demanded that “Smallville” go on filming even when the planes were grounded, O’Toole got a tune stuck in her head.

Somewhere, we think between Portland and Seattle, somewhere in there, I had this melody in my head I couldn’t shake,” she explained. “It was ‘da-da-da da-da-da-da-da da-da-da-da’ over and over and over again until I wanted to scream. So I said, ‘Michael, what is this I’m singing in my head — did I just hear this somewhere?’ He said, ‘I think you may have made that up. I think it’s new.’ So we liked the little silly melody, and we put words to it just to kind of hold the melody till we got to a musical instrument, and it was ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon.’ And then we decided we liked that phrase so much that we had to write a song about it.”

Just to justify that phrase’s existence,” McKean added.

So ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon,’ which of course was originally a fine russet, became a girl. I said, well, there’s got to be a girl named Potato, and it’s Potato-apostrophe-s, Potato is in the paddy wagon.” They tried out the song on Chris Guest, “who loved it and wanted to put it in A Mighty Wind for the New Main Street Singers, because it seemed just insane enough for that group.”

Besides “Potato” and “Kiss,” McKean and O’Toole — who doesn’t appear in the movie — wrote the New Main Street Singers’ “Fare Away,” a fast-flowing flotsam-load of nautical terms set against a chantey tune, with Wind’s music producer, CJ Vanston. Other songs in the film include the oppressively catchy Folksmen near-hit “Old Joe’s Place,” by Guest, Shearer, and McKean; the inspirational title track, by Levy, Guest, and McKean; and Mitch & Mickey’s poignant “When You’re Next to Me,” written by Levy.

Levy’s Internet Movie Database bio reveals his little-known musical past: The SCTV alum was in the original Toronto cast of “Godspell” and sang as part of the group Northern Lights on the We Are the World album. But many of the Wind-ers were musical neophytes, including Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey, who learned autoharp and mandolin, respectively, for the film. Seeing Posey’sinstrument prompted O’Toole to take it up, as part of her growing interest in songwriting.

She was already a singer. A veteran of musical theater as well as film, who began acting at 13, she was in a stage production of Vanities in 1981 when she was offered a role in a TV biography of Tammy Wynette. Then in her 20s, “I was kind of the right age to go down to her teens and then up to her advanced age, at the time, of 38,” she said with heavy irony.

They flew me to Las Vegas, where Tammy was appearing…And she was just wonderful and delightful and just such a great person. And I said, ‘You know, I’ll do this’ — but Sissy Spacek had just played Loretta Lynn, and I said, ‘I sing. I’d really like to do the singing. I know this is presumptuous and sounds egotistical, but I can sound like Tammy enough to do it. And if you have a problem with it, of course you can dub it.’ This was why I really had to meet Tammy — for her to give me the okay and hear me sing.

So I stood on the stage of this hotel, during her soundcheck, and she sat in the audience, and I sang ‘Stand By Your Man’ for her. I’ve never been that scared! I’ve never — yeah, I guess, since then I may have been almost that scared. But my arms — I didn’t have any arms or legs. I felt like I was just this head. This singing head. That’s how scared I was!

And I sang, and it went okay, and she was just gracious and wonderful. She said, oh, yes, she can do it. And then I kinda spent the rest of the day with her, and just kinda sat in her dressing room and watched what she did, and watched her, and talked to her, and sat out in the audience and watched her show. She started with ‘Rocky Top’ — which I can now actually play and sing on the mandolin, which is very exciting — and got her okay and went back, and like a week later, we started working.”

A love for music is part of the couple’s common ground; O’Toole recalled realizing that the two were in love while Van Morrison was singing “Have I Told You Lately?” at a May 1998 concert. They married in 1999.

I’ve been writing songs all my life,” McKean mused. “The last two years, Annette has become this amazing songwriter. I knew I married well, but…” O’Toole laughed. “I didn’t know that—”

Well, I didn’t either,” she replied. “That’s the amazing thing.”

McKean drew on his wife’s newfound gifts for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” “[Guest] asked Michael to write a song for Mitch & Mickey to sing that would be their signature song throughout their career, and the only stipulation was it had to have a kiss in it — that was the moment there was going to be a kiss. So Michael came home and said, ‘Do you want to write this song with me?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ And I think we may have written it that day.”

McKean remembered differently. “I think we wrote most of it that day and then later on—”

“—We did some finishing touches,” O’Toole concluded.

I remember — it was almost completed, and we had some errand to run out in Santa Monica. I just remember us in Santa Monica in the car, waiting for the kids or something, and coming up with the ‘tales of ancient glory’ verse.”

Oh, that’s interesting,” O’Toole said slowly, “ ’cause I remember that differently. I remember doing the ‘tales of ancient glory’ standing at the piano. Well, maybe that was another part of it.”

They shrugged — or so it seemed, over the phone — and described the commonplace aspects of their collaboration. “We write a lot while we’re walking the dog,” McKean allowed.

I write a lot walking in Stanley Park [in Vancouver],” said O’Toole. “It goes through my head — things will happen to me, and I’ll come home and call him. And he’ll of course be able to put it down. I can now play the mandolin well enough to work out a melody on it. So I can use that now.”

What they don’t have plans to do is record together. Although many actors have developed credible sidelines as musicians — the couple’s friend (and Bonnie Raitt’s ex) Michael O’Keefe being one — McKean is cognizant of the pitfalls.

We’re kind of quote-unquote celebrities. And when an album comes out with two people who are known primarily not for singing, but for something else, William Shatner comes into our mind. And the rest of the cast of ‘Star Trek.’ It’s that ‘Is this a gimmick? Is this a novelty record? Is this Lorne Greene does Walt Whitman? What is this?’ ”

They are contemplating writing for other performers. “We have sent our songs out to different people,” said O’Toole.

McKean said: “We have a song that we wrote, and we were just kind of singing it for the third or fourth time, and we both had the same brainstorm: ‘Can you imagine Norah Jones doing this song? Oh, my God, she’d be great.’ Now about a million people are having that idea every day, because who wouldn’t want Norah Jones’ next album to have one of your songs on it? You’d be a millionaire. She’s this wonderful interpreter, and her last album sold a zillion copies, and the next one will, too. And it’s a great thing. But it’s a highly competitive thing, and all we can do is try. We’re still breaking this act in. It’s just two years down the line now.”

So they’ve gotten a publisher for their songs, they do the occasional small gig (no word yet on who’ll be performing “Rainbow” on the Oscar telecast), and when they’re not working on acting projects, they’re collaborating on a movie musical, with all original songs, about which their desire for secrecy only barely trumps their enthusiasm.

Songwriting, said O’Toole, is “almost like an acting exercise for me. Maybe that’s why I’m able to do it, because I’ve been acting so long. You just kind of put yourself in the emotional place of this person singing the song and it just seems to come out, melodically and lyrically. That’s just the way I think about it.”

McKean’s songwriting model is Hoagy Carmichael, whose composing method is similar to much of McKean’s comedy experience: “I think that he just had the best, the loosest idea of what a song is supposed to be. There’s this kind of a classical uniform for a lot of the other great songwriters, and they’re no less great for all that. Rodgers and Hart, and Hammerstein, and the Gershwins. There was a kind of formality to them. Whereas Carmichael had sort of this real loose kind of ‘I’m makin’ this up as I go along, but I couldn’t possibly be because it’s too perfect.’ So that’s what I always admired about him.”

Closer to the folk realm, O’Toole enthused about the Richard Thompson songs on the latest Del McCoury album, and McKean added: “I’m a firm believer in Richard Thompson as a source for almost anyone. I think he writes the best songs now. I think Richard and Elvis Costello and Loudon Wainwright have everybody else in the foyer, waiting to get in.”

We’re in there!” said O’Toole excitedly. “We’re in the foyer!”

We’re in the foyer!” her husband agreed, boldly.

O’Toole grew suddenly modest. “Well, you are, definitely. I’m still out in the street.”

Wasn’t That a Time?

After tackling community theater and dog shows in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, what led Christopher Guest to take on folk music? McKean said he’d heard Guest’s answer “about a thousand times”: “There is something about the earnestness with which people attack things that makes them sometimes amusing. And there’s no superiority in it — I think that A Mighty Wind is a very affectionate movie. Hopefully it comes across that way, because that’s exactly how it was meant. And even though Chris was a big folk-music fan, he was kind of more in the bluegrass pocket. And I was really into kind of the protest and the ‘we’re gonna change the world with this stuff’ attitude. But we both loved it and played it and really did it and lived it, to some extent.”

What distinguished the groups in the film wasn’t talent, or lack thereof: “The characters in this film are all kind of the commercial folkies. They’re all the ones who really had an eye on the chart rather than the prize, if you know what I mean.

The most direct parallels with the Folksmen would be Kingston Trio or the Limeliters. Very talented people, good singers, and also good song hunters — they came up with great songs. The Limeliters probably had more of a sense of — they were more cabaret, and they would do a Flanders and Swann song like ‘Madeira, M’Dear,’ or other contemporary, deliberately funny songs. Kingston Trio, same thing — they did ‘Charlie on the MTA’ — which, by the way, is still the biggest-selling folk record.

With Mitch & Mickey — Ian and Sylvia, I guess, Richard and Mimi FariƱa, Jim and Jean. And again, Ian and Sylvia was a real folk act, quote-unquote. But they had commercial hits. And their relationship was kind of important. The New Main Street Singers, probably the most crassly commercial angle — the Serendipity Singers, Back Porch Majority. New Christy Minstrels, of course. The Randy Sparks army. It’s like, way too many people with way too many guitars and way too many smiles. It evolved into that kind of Up With People, the musical arm of the Republican Party kind of thing.

So they all had this kind of more commercial slant. And that’s really what the parody is. It’s about regaining something that you lost. And, in the case of two of these acts, it’s really about ‘let’s get on the charts again.’ With Mitch & Mickey, or with Mitch specifically, it’s about ‘help me find my heart. Help me find my brain.’ There’s something about that act that’s got a little something more than just ‘let’s see if we can get on top again.’ ”

Loudon Wainwright III (Dirty Linen, 2002)

From Dirty Linen #98, Feb/Mar 2002.

You know, sometimes I do more research than is economically feasible for a story. I probably could have done this one without going to New York City on October 13, 2001. But I'm glad I didn't.

Loudon Wainwright III

Real Live Man

by Pamela Murray Winters

In the middle of a sunny mid-Atlantic September, when the unthinkable happens, an interview with Loudon Wainwright III is one of many small things that goes awry. It’s scheduled, then rescheduled, then abbreviated, to be continued a month later, when things are somewhat saner.

Like everybody else, I’m just trying to process what’s happened,” said Wainwright on September 18, shortly before leaving for some U.K. tour dates. He was at his home in Brooklyn Heights, New York, across the East River from Manhattan, talking by phone to an interviewer a few miles from the Pentagon, and he noted that we both had “plumes” to look at. “I’m not even thinking about how it relates to my job. I’m just trying to process it as a person who happens, in fact, to live incredibly close to where the World Trade towers were, and have people in New York who essentially are all okay. But I haven’t even thought about what it means to me as a songwriter. And it’s going to take awhile to process it, like everybody else.”

A week later, the man who has been called a New Dylan (by any number of critics), “one of the great lyricists of the age” (by Q magazine), and a “crapulous, self-pitying, philandering prick” (or at least wont to play that role, said music critic Robert Christgau) stood onstage at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre and sang about taking the subway into New York City a few days before:

When you are underwater
Sometimes the mind plays tricks
And there beneath the East River
It felt like the River Styx…
They say heaven’s high above us
And hell is far below
But in that subway tunnel
There was no sure way to know

— “No Sure Way”

After telling people that he wasn’t going to write a song about the terrorist attack, “because it was so immense,” he was surprised “to get an idea and actually write the song,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in October. The song, “No Sure Way,” was met with warm acclaim at a show at New York’s Bottom Line on October 13, paired with his 1985 song “Hard Day on the Planet,” in which he complains: “I want to go on vacation till the pressure lets up/ But they keep hijacking planes and blowing them up.” A roomful of New Yorkers, many on their first outing since the catastrophe one month earlier and two miles south, joined in the “Planet” chorus. It wasn’t quite escapist entertainment; like the best of Wainwright’s work, it blended humor, pathos, and the uncomfortable recognition of our own spiritual blemishes.

The best of Wainwright’s work” came to the forefront last September. First there was his recurring role in the new Fox sitcom “Undeclared,” in which he plays a lonely, somewhat pathetic father who follows his son to college. Within days of the TV premiere, Red House released his new album, Last Man on Earth. On this cohesive, often mournful work, Wainwright admits to middle-aged crankiness, gets all Freudian on Mom and Dad, reveals his plans for donating his organs, and laments enormous losses in the starkest of terms. Not for him the grand gesture, the massed choruses and operatic tableaux; he sits on a back porch, walks on a beach, gets up at 3 a.m. when nature calls.

My mother died in 1997,” wrote Wainwright in the album’s liner notes, “and naturally my world fell apart. I was living in London... trying (sort of) to keep a sinking romantic relationship afloat.” Returning to Westchester County, New York, he moved into his mother’s cottage in Katonah and, for the next 18 months, “slept in her bed... used her lamps, linens, plates, mugs, pots and pans.” The album consists of snapshots of a man in mourning. The lost love is chronicled in “Bridge” (“in England a valentine is signed with a question mark”) and “Out of Reach” (“Today I’m gonna call you/ Just to prove that I still care/ But I’m so afraid you’ll answer/ That I hope you won’t be there.”) His late parents and living family are given a clear-eyed assessment in “Surviving Twin,” “White Winos,” and “Graveyard.”

Still, Last Man on Earth is far from gloomy. (Who but Wainwright, in the title song, would use estrangement from humanity as a pickup line?) Perhaps an artist with Wainwright’s curiosity and self-satisfied wit could have turned out some sort of noose-worthy killer of a disc, but he took care — and time — to create a fully realized vision, not merely a pity party.

We had a whole year to work on this record, and that is unusual,” he explained. “Normally, my records, I cut ’em in two weeks and you take a week break and you mix ’em in five days and throw ’em out there. And then six months later you think, ‘God, why did I do that?’ And I think a lot of people make records that way, especially in, for want of a better use, the ‘folk music world.’ Because of the money element.”

Money wasn’t a problem with Last Man on Earth because one of its key players, producer Stewart Lerman (who also plays guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion), owns New York’s Shinebox Studios, where the album was made. “The usual time and money constraints were somewhat suspended,” Wainwright noted. “We could work at a leisurely pace. And [Lerman’s] level of commitment was extremely high, as was [keyboardist] Dick Connette’s, who arranged a lot of the record.” Although other musicians, including David Mansfield, Steuart Smith, and Suzzy Roche, also contributed, the core team on Last Man on Earth comprised Wainwright, Lerman, and Connette.

I’m very happy that we had the time and were able to do the record properly,” said Wainwright. “I’ve had a kind of checkered career in the recording studio. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of records, and some certainly more successful than others. And I don’t mean just in terms of units sold.”

With a career as long as Wainwright’s, one can forgive a few missteps. He released his eponymous first album in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Album III that he achieved AM radio immortality with “Dead Skunk.” (Penned in 15 minutes, “it certainly paid the bills for a long time,” Wainwright observed.) Over the ensuing three decades, he built a loyal fan base — in proportion to the population, he thinks, stronger in the U.K., his home for 12 years, than in the U.S. — released a string of albums, and became professionally and personally involved with such folk-rock families as the Roches, the McGarrigles, and the Thompsons.

Loudon Wainwright III was born in 1946. (His references to being “53 now” in “Living Alone” were already anachronistic by the time Last Man on Earth was released.) His own family was close to American gentry; Loudon Wainwright II was a writer for Life magazine, and his clan kept a house in Bedford, New York, in tony Westchester County. His parents divorced in the mid-70s. The familial stereotype has been chronicled in any number of American novels: witty, moneyed, repressed, lubricated.

Mother liked her white wine
she’d have a glass or three
And we’d sit out on the screen porch
white winos mom and me
We’d talk about her childhood
and recap my career
When we got to my father that was
when I’d switch to beer.

As a kid, I listened to the music my parents were listening to,” said Wainwright. “So we listened to Guys and Dolls, South Pacific — show tunes. Broadway writers, which I loved. I loved that kind of writing — crisp, and in some cases, clever and funny writing. Then as a kid I got into Fats Domino and Elvis Presley records — I’m of that age that rock ’n’ roll was just coming along.

When the folk music thing hit,” he said, as if it were influenza or Pearl Harbor, “in the early 60s, then I really identified with it. That would be the Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger, and all those people. And that crop of songwriters which is a little bit older than I am — and, of course, the crown prince of all that was Bob Dylan. But songwriters like Tom Paxton and Patrick Sky. And performers like Dave Van Ronk, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Geoffrey Muldaur. I loved all that stuff. I hitchhiked to the Newport Folk Festival. I bought my first Martin dreadnought guitar. I identified more with that than the rock ’n’ roll stuff that was also going on.

I recognized that a lot of the stars of that era, like Dylan, were like myself. They were middle class, or even upper-middle class, white kids, who wore work boots and denim shirts. I mean, even Pete Seeger comes from a kind of patrician background. And having grown up in northern Westchester, I recognized right away that this was something that I could emulate. Although at the time I didn’t think I would be a musician; I thought I was going to be an actor. I went to acting school [at Carnegie Mellon]; I didn’t really start writing songs until later. But when I was 13 and 14 and playing the guitar and hitchhiking to the Newport Folk Festival, I was just a fan of those people. And then when I built my identity up as a songwriter, I was confident in the knowledge that these guys had gone before me, and it was a possibility.”

The post-“Skunk” years saw Wainwright combining a peck of acting with a bushel of music. He slipped into other roles in Broadway’s Pump Boys and Dinettes and as Captain Spaulding in several episodes of “M*A*S*H.” He showed up on film in 28 Days, Jacknife, and The Slugger’s Wife. But onstage with his guitar and in the studio, he portrayed a flawed, confused, and even mean-spirited man: a neglectful father, a faithless lover, a defensive aging male WASP. “April Fool’s Day Morn” on 1987’s Fame and Wealth took him through a night of debauchery culminating in the comfort of his mother, who fixed him breakfast.

Still, Loudon the softy doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Loudon the lout. Fame and Wealth, one of a string of mid-80s albums, offers a sweet birthday song to daughter Martha on “Five Years Old.” Among Loudon’s topical songs, many of them commissioned by National Public Radio, “Tonya’s Twirls” is a surprisingly sympathetic look at the working-class skater Tonya Harding.Taken out of context, much of Last Man on Earth could be dangerously Hallmarkian. “Future Fossils” takes on the well-worn imagery of footprints in the sand; “I’m Not Gonna Cry” is a lightweight banjo romp through tear-stained metaphors (“Well it looks like rain and I hear a train”). And “Homeless” is a simply worded depiction of the loss of his “best friend,” his mother.

Disassembling Wainwright, in fact, reveals that the artist is more than the sum of his parts. He seldom traffics in complex phrases. His work reveals a dependence on the classic ballad form and its A/B/A/B rhyme scheme. Descriptions of his work fall short of its emotional and aesthetic impact. How does he manage, then, to create such powerful and touching songs?

Navel gazing is a just criticism among songwriters,” said Bob Feldman, whose Red House Records had a one-album deal with Wainwright for Last Man on Earth. “Loudon has perfected it to a craft. He’s deeper and more committed. He has us in mind when he does this, and I think that’s why he resonates... For a man to bare his soul like that, it’s a very generous type of writing.

I don’t think there’s anyone writing about us the way he is,” Feldman went on. “He’s so brave and honest, it’s shocking at times, and yet it’s like looking in a mirror — at the parts you don’t want to see.”

Wainwright thinks before he creates, but the result doesn’t come off as calculated, just emotionally acute. About his song on the events of September 11, Feldman noted that “Loudon would have been the last person in the world to write a song that would have been exploitive.”

Age has been a gift to Wainwright. His keen eye has served him well as a topical writer; people who don’t know him from “Dead Skunk” might recall his excoriation of North Carolina Senator/Puritan Jesse Helms in “Jesse Don’t Like It.” And in middle age he's gaining new fans in a way that was impossible when he was a young troubadour: as a father, both in real life and on television. Daughter Martha and son Rufus, whose mother is Kate McGarrigle, are both forging musical careers; Rufus, who has recorded two acclaimed albums and has shared bills with Tori Amos and Elton John, has a particularly high profile. Wainwright maintains he’s proud of his children and even says, of the elegant meditation “Bed” on Last Man on Earth, “When I hear it, I think it’s influenced by Rufus Wainwright! Just melodically. Obviously I listen to his stuff. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music; I’ve always made a point of not doing that. But I think I’ve listened to too much Rufus Wainwright, because the song ‘Bed’ seems to be very influenced by him.”

My father, though he was never around, would always come by at extremely opportune moments and lend me some perspective,” said Rufus in a 1998 interview. His father also helped Rufus get a contract with Dreamworks by passing along a tape of his music to Van Dyke Parks.

But then again, he immortalized his infant son in 1974’s “Rufus is a Tit Man,” and songs like “I Wish I Was a Lesbian” and “The Untitled” (about a homoerotic romp by the Hardy Boys) probably don’t sit well with the adult Rufus, who is gay.

I certainly have embarrassed my kids, infuriated them,” the elder Wainwright acknowledged. (Or, in “Me and All the Other Mothers”: “But most fathers are really like winos and weirdos/ In the long run, they always screw up.”) “But that’s certainly an aspect of being a dad.” Asked, “Children need parents; do parents need children?” he was momentarily baffled, then said, “I dunno. I suppose some do. I did.”

It’s certainly true of Hal Karp, the character he portrays in “Undeclared,” who shows up at his freshman son’s college after breaking up with his wife and is soon attending dorm parties and draining kegs. “Judd Apatow, the creator of the show, was a fan of my music and had seen my shows,” Wainwright explained. “I of course didn’t know this. And he just decided that the show needed a father figure, and I guess it occurred to him that I might be able to fit that bill. So he tracked me down. I hadn’t seen any of his work, but then they sent me some tapes of ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ his previous show, which I was very impressed with. So I said yes, certainly, I’d be happy to audition. And, happily, I got the job.

It’s a very good show,” said Wainwright of “Undeclared,” which will be back for its second season this fall. In describing the series, he could be describing much of his own repertoire: “It’s silly, but in the best sense of the word. It’s not stupid. The writing’s very good. There’s no laugh track. There’s a lot of surprises in it; things twist and turn. The actors are all terrific. I’m very happy to be part of it.

I suppose they could fire me at any point,” he offered. “But they seem to be happy with what I’ve done.” To a colleague’s assertion that he’s “playing himself” in the show, he said, “I’m playing myself — but worse. Or better. I don’t know which.”

There are some new converts” to his music, Wainwright observed of recent shows. “Younger people are coming. That could be anything from the ‘Undeclared’ thing to parental indoctrination to I’m the dad of Rufus Wainwright. There could be all kinds of reasons for that. All of a sudden, if I’m signing CDs, I’ll look up and there’s a 22-year-old there. Which is, of course, delightful.

It’s a critical time, touring at the age of 55 and getting the best reviews he’s ever gotten,” Feldman said of Wainwright’s recent successes. “I just hope he keeps on doing what he’s doing. It’s totally up to him what he’s doing. With an artist like Loudon, you don’t have to bring a lot to the table.” As he went on, he sounded like a school guidance counselor, or as if he were talking about a developing artist — which, in a way, he was. “I would like to work with him to help him realize his goals. I love what he’s doing with his acting career. He’s also talked about doing a one-man show that would run in different cities.” Feldman, who first saw Wainwright in the mid-80s, is optimistic about the future of Wainwright the performer: “He’s developed into an incredible showman.”

To critic David Handelsman’s assertion that “Mr. Wainwright is one of the few artists who has actually gotten better as he’s gotten older,” Wainwright commented, “That’s ideally what should happen: your experience and your…” Trailing off, he switched to a jokey voice: “Like the finest wines and cheeses! Certainly there are cases where people don’t get better, but I think there are plenty of examples of people continuing to do good work as they get older. And there’s no reason why that can’t be true with musicians and songwriters.”

Talking with Wainwright reveals a shrewd, mature character who, while unafraid to sing about his vulnerability and even his least appealing qualities, is far too solid to drown in his own miseries. Again and again, he speaks of his “job” and the structural underpinnings of his art. Is it difficult to sing about bitterness toward his father (“I learned I had to fight him/ My own flesh blood bone and kin”), reliving old family miseries with his mother over a few glasses of Chardonnay, or the naked mourning of “Homeless”?

Now I’m smoking again
I thought all that was through
And I don’t want to live
But what else can I do?
And I feel like I’ve faked
All that I ever did
And I’ve grown a gray beard
But I cry like a kid

I write the songs to be sung,” said Wainwright simply. “It’s not as if I’m writing for some other singers to sing them. And the songs are meant to be performed, and they’re gauged and crafted to elicit some kind of a response. Which is not to say that I’m cynical about it. I understand the job at hand for me, which is to engage and affect an audience for 75 minutes or 90 minutes — or, if it’s a CD, 38 minutes or 40 minutes or however long. So the set’s arranged, and the songs are built to make people laugh, to make them think, or to bring them back somewhere and affect them in an emotional way. So I’m gratified when something like that happens. And it’s not difficult — it’s not torturous for me. Although, in the case of the World Trade Center [song] or “Homeless” or some of the kind of serious material, it might seem that it would be hard to sing the songs. But it’s not, really.

It’s a show. There’s lights, and I’ve got a microphone, and there’s 300 of you out there, or however many it is — 3,000, or 50. And there’s me on the stage, with a guitar. So it’s an unreal situation to begin with. But that’s the business of being a performer. That’s the business of show business, in a sense. And that’s what I wanted to do. I always loved — as an audience member, I thought that was a magical thing, when a performer or group of performers could lift the room up, even for three minutes in a song. And that’s why I wanted to do this job to begin with. Again, it’s a show and it’s an act and there’s performing involved, but it’s bigger and better than that. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.”

And about the inner work of song craft: “I don’t know that it cures anything or is therapeutic. You never get over the death of your parents. My dad died 13 years ago, and I’m still trying to work that out in song, and ‘Surviving Twin’ is an example of that. And I suspect I’ll be writing about my mother in 10 years’ time if I’m still writing. So you don’t get over these people or their loss. I do think, though, that in a way, writing a song or an article or painting a picture or making a film... it doesn’t offer a kind of closure, but it does, in a sense, empower you, just to try to articulate, on film or in a song or on paper or on a canvas, your feelings and thoughts about these people or these big events. That’s one of the reasons that I do this. That’s one of the reasons that I’m a songwriter. By making this stuff, in my case songs, and then performing them, it gives me at least the illusion of feeling powerful. But again, in the best sense of the word, of sharing something with other people.”

We may not always like what we share with the very human being portrayed in Wainwright’s songs, but in his hands our common experience can be frightening, funny, and mentally stimulating — nourishment to keep us growing.

No Sure Way,” p.37, words and music by Loudon Wainwright III; © 2001 Snowden Music, Inc. (ASCAP)