Sunday, September 7, 2014

Prince Hal saves the NYC summer

photo by Sherril Schlesinger
This summer the free concerts in the parks were, to be kind about it, pretty meager. The “River2River” fest abandoned popular music concerts (in any guise – rock, folk, jazz), and the Coney Island venue was shut down. The usual suspects booked their most notable acts for pay concerts, or had veritable swarms of human persons lined up to jam into their small spaces for the few really exceptional concerts that were booked. (Lincoln Center Out of Doors had the most interesting programming, and thus had the craziest lines, in some cases stretching around the circumference of LC.)

But last week, at the very tail end of the summer, Hal Willner – whom I've written about before – curated a week of shows at John Zorn's performance space called the Stone, located at 2nd St. and Avenue C (you know – where the East Village gentrification seems to have thrown its hands up in surrender). There were 12 shows in all, ranging from spoken-word performances to full-on concerts. I want to review the four of these shows that I attended, since they were incredibly enjoyable and I haven't seen any other reviews of them online.

When the schedule was originally released, there were a few other items listed (a program of silent films to be accompanied by live music, a reading of poems by Gregory Corso, an evening of Poe) that were jettisoned when Willner announced on the Stone's website various second shows on themes that were already booked.

This was no doubt attributable to the fact that Willner's events seem to grow exponentially – I respond to this as an audience member, since it means that the shows are extra-entertaining and that Willner deeply loves the individual(s) he's paying tribute to. I also can relate as a fellow fan who loves nothing better than to “curate” – each week I wish the Funhouse TV show was 45 minutes or an hour instead of a measly 28 minutes, so I can readily identify with the way that Willner's shows seem to grow as you're watching them (as happened at his fund-raising show for Tuli Kupferberg).

In this case, the most interesting thing about these shows is that, with the exception of a few of the all-music shows, Willner was listed as a lead performer. Having only seen him perform at the Andy Kaufman event he produced and hosted, I did realize he has something of a hammy side, but was not prepared for his earnest performance as the sole reader at a tribute to his friend Allen Ginsberg. But more on that below....
The first of the shows I attended was a salute to the work of King Satirist Terry Southern (I wrote a “101” on Southern for Willner’s tribute started off, appropriately enough, with the first track on the Southern spoken-word album that he produced (lovingly titled Give Me Your Hump!), which is an answering machine message in which Terry tells us what Jackie Kennedy saw on Air Force One when she traveled with the newly sworn-in LBJ (the original notion came from Paul Krassner, but Southern made it into a classically “sick” bit of humor):

Hal then read this wonderful passage from Southern’s last humorous novel Blue Movie. Nile Southern (Terry’s son) read a rare item called “The Last Pusher” (1954) and gave us the happy news that a brand NEW collection of unpublished material from Terry will be out in 2015 (for me, this news alone made me very happy I had attended). Like many of Southern’s pieces, the story starts out quite normally and builds in insanity (and verbosity) as it proceeds.
Terry Southern
Josh Alan Friedman (author of the absolutely classic Tales of Times Square and the “autobiographical novel” Black Cracker) then read an abbreviated version of Terry’s short story “Red Dirt Marijuana.” Actor-filmmaker Tony Torn, author Darius James, and Nile S. then acted out a way-out-there hunting scene in which Hermann Goering and his pals take on wildlife (and find new ways to shoot up drugs).

Darius James then read a short story in which a black court clerk struggles with having been covered in white paste. Josh Alan read to us some letters from Terry, having to do with the Grand Guy’s fascination with a porn star named Nancy Suiter who disappeared from the porn scene (rumors have run wild about her for years, but Josh noted in a response to Terry — who was extremely concerned that she started aging prematurely — that she had merely quit the biz).
Torn, James, Southern (photo by C. Groome)
Capping off the show is this wonderful bit of prose from Candy. Willner took on the role of the horny hunchback (“rub-a-dub, rub-a-dub”) and poet Lee Ann Brown did an excellent job playing Candy, doing a last-minute fill-in for no-show Phoebe Legere.

I’ve been a devotee of Southern’s work since I was but a tiny film geek, and there are few things as wonderful as seeing performers bringing his brilliant, acidic, and completely deranged visions to life in front of you.
Arch Oboler
The next night, Willner staged a tribute to old-time radio legend Arch Oboler and his Lights Out series. This was a rather odd show, in that some of the actors listed in the schedule didn't appear, so the casts of the three radio plays were primarily female. Thus, women played the female as well as the male roles, and the two actors – Willner and Torn – were pressed into repeat duty (in the first play Torn was killed something like three times as three different characters).

Oboler's plays are still incredibly creepy, but watching actors perform them (sincere though they were in their performances) evoked laughter, as Oboler's concept of the supernatural was downright bizarre at times. Witness the first item performed: “Cat Wife” (originally aired on “Lights Out” on 6/17/1936) concerns a husband (played here by Willner) who gets so annoyed at his partying wife (incarnated by Jennifer Charles of the band Elysian Fields) that he calls her a cat – and she turns into one!

The rest of the play then consists of the woman making cat noises while her husband tries to hide the strange truth from the outside world, killing those who discover his little secret. In this play Willner took center stage, although Torn was impressive in differentiating the different murder victims he played. For her part, Charles was quite sexy making, well... cat noises.

The second play in the program, “Come to the Bank” (originally aired on 11/17/1942), became a tour de force for downtown icon Penny Arcade, who played a teacher driven mad by the fact that one of her colleagues (played by Torn) has gotten trapped in the wall of a bank. It seems the gent believed that with the power of his mind he could pass through solid matter, but he wasn't as agile as he had hoped. Penny played the role with such conviction that the audience ceased laughing for a bit and was truly caught up in Oboler's weird universe.

The third and final piece of the evening was the classic Oboler play “Chicken Heart” (from 3/10/37, immortalized by Bill Cosby in a classic monologue). The play is another one of those pieces that, even when performed very straight – as Kembra Pfahler (as the scientist “who knows the truth”) and Karen Mantler did – becomes a sort of campy piece of insane horror (there's no doubt that the play inspired The Blob, as its titular chicken organ begins to absorb a city).
Kembra Pfahler and Karen Mantler (photo by C. Groome)
NYC talk-show legend Joe Franklin provided the voice of the Oboler narrator (on tape), thus adding a level of both “memory lane” and irresistible kitschiness.

Since I'm posting this for posterity, I will note that the shows I wasn't able to attend (money, time – all that good stuff) included two tributes to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a reading of Allen Ginsberg's poetry by Willner backed by a jazz combo, an Allan Sherman tribute that came out of nowhere (thankfully the second one didn't – see below) featuring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a recreation of Willner's album Woops, I'm an Indian, a jam performance led by Terry Adams (NRBQ), and two performances of Lou Reed's The Raven, an album I am not fond of, with an all-star cast including Laurie Anderson, Kim Cattrall, and Jenni Muldaur.

The final two performances were indeed the icing on the cake. The first was a heartfelt affair, with the non-singer/non-actor/non-performer Willner reading the poems of his friend Allen Ginsberg with a style and elan that was surprising (especially since I had only seen him give humorous readings and performances before this).

Accompanying him was Philip Glass – whose presence meant this was one of the few Stone shows that was standing room only. And for a storefront club (the place appears to be a former deli turned into a performance space) that seats about 50 people, it's pretty unique to have people standing in the aisles.

On a related note, the *only* negative item about any of the shows was the point during the Oboler performance when the AC was turned off to let us better hear the performers – who were projecting quite well as it was. Caution to the "Stone runners": that AC must be on at all times during the summer months, as both the performers and the audience were visibly wilting until the air was turned back on.

Back to the Sunday night "double feature": the two-man Ginsberg tribute was indeed a joy, with Willner's readings beautifully emphasizing Allan's turns of phrase and flights of Blake-like fancy. For his part, Glass was not intrusive, simply lending the poems a subtle background that rose and fell occasionally. Among the poems read were “The Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa,” “Footnote to Howl,” “Kral Majales (King of May),” and part of “Witchita Vortex Sutra” (which Glass had performed with Ginsberg himself):

The poem that had a classic Philip Glass musical accompaniment (read: repetitive, hypnotic, compelling) was “Kaddish,” part one. Here is the whole poem as read by Allen:

The final show qualified as a must-see event, not only because I am a devout fan of novelty records, but because it was a classically overstuffed Willner presentation – like the wonderful tribute to Tuli Kupferberg he staged at St. Ann's and a Neil Young “songbook” show at Prospect Park (which ended some three-hours-plus in, after some authority figure drew a finger across her neck to the people on stage as if to say “cut this off!”). This show was not only the promised Allan Sherman tribute (which suddenly was a “part two,” as the earlier show had happened five days before), but we were treated to a leftover item from the Friday Arch Oboler show.
Brown, Torn, Friedman (photo by C. Groome)
That leftover was quite something – one of Oboler's “greatest hits,” the radio play called “The Dark.” (originally aired 12/29/37) The storyline here is another extreme exercise in creepy horror (the kind that no doubt inspired the E.C. horror comics of the Fifties) concerning policemen discovering a fog that turns people's inside out. Josh Alan and Tony Torn were the police, and Lee Ann Brown played the wailing woman, who has gone insane witnessing the effects of the fog.
This time Joe Franklin was on the premises, serving as narrator and reading us trivia about Arch Oboler. All the while giving us a full dose of the Franklin-esque charm (I think, but can't swear, that he did refer to the crowd as “my friends...”).

Onto the Sherman love-fest: this was a full-fledged Willner “songbook” show that found some singers delivering the tunes like Allan did and others giving their own special twist to the material (especially the female singers). Watching the show I was struck by how evident it was that everyone in the room loved Allan's music – I haven't yet read the recent AS biography, but know that in his last years he was an unhappy person (about his career, his weight, his image).

Allan Sherman
I don't know if the idea that, 41 years after his death (at the very tender age of 49), a room full of people would be utterly delighted to hear his music with new arrangements would've made him any happier, but it's true that, while wildly different from the preceding Ginsberg show (“from Allen to Allan”), this was also a very heartfelt affair. (To quote a Sherman song that was not performed that evening, “Hail to Thee, Fat Person – you kept us out of war!”)

So, what we heard that evening were versions of Sherman classics and some “deep tracks” from his comedy-song LPs (including two items from his My Fair Lady rewrite, which was taken out of circulation after Alan Jay Lerner forbade it). His songs were done as discordant jazz, torch songs, spoken-word pieces, and “fast folk” rave-ups.

As is always the case with Willner's shows, the talent on display was superb – most particularly (as, again, is always the case) the people that are not household names but are local artists brimming with talent and ready to take on a new challenge. Like, say, adapting the songs of “My Son, the Folk Singer.”

I won't run through the entire 20-song presentation, but the most entertaining aspect of the show was the top-notch talent and the fact that it did bounce from one musical genre to another, all the while emphasizing Sherman's deft way with words. (Funhouse favorite Steve Allen, one of the folks who was instrumental in getting him to record his songs, was daunted by his masterfully goofy line in the “The Ballad of Harry Lewis” about our hero, “he was trampling through the warehouse/where the drapes of Roth are stored...”)

The males performed the tunes as blatant comedy. Willner, Josh Alan, Tony Torn, and two of the musicians playing that night (Steve Weisberg and Lew Soloff) did great readings of the lyrics, incarnating the “exhausted” side of Allan's singing persona. (“Your Mother's Here to Stay,” “Pop Hates the Beatles,” “Westchester Hadassah”).

The ladies, on the other hand, sang their hearts out, giving Sherman's sometimes perceptive (especially when tackling the topic of suburbia) but always lyrically dense songs some vastly different twists. Janine Nichols definitely scored as “MVP” for this show, as she did duets with Willner (Sherman's “laundry list” tune “Al and Yetta”) as well as solo numbers that contained some heavy-duty tongue-twisters (no matter how many times I've heard “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max” off the first Sherman LP, I've been unable to remember the dozens of names that get spat out – Janine carried this off with impressive aplomb).

Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
Angela McClusky (right) did a lounge-friendly version of Allan's “Green Stamps” ("Green Eyes"). Her terrific vocal turn followed a wonderful Broadway-belter rendition by
Mary Lee Corvette (that's the name that was given, I'm assuming the lady was Mary Lee Kortes from the band Mary Lee's Corvette) of another Sherman "green" song, "Sir Greenbaum's Madrigal." Jennifer Charles did the impossible by performing a sexy, torchy version of one Sherman's clever wordplay tunes, “One Hippopotami.”

Sherman's singing voice was a kind of tuneful bellow -- of the sort that Josh Alan and Tony T. affected in their numbers. Thus, hearing his songs sung by women with terrific vocal ranges was at first quite odd for this Sherman fanboy, but it showed how flexible his "novelty tunes" really were.

Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
This was evident when the hyper-energetic Jill Sobule tackled two Sherman favorites, “My Zelda” and “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” requesting – nay, demanding! – audience participation. She accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and did get the audience singing along to two of the great Sherman tunes from his hit first LP, My Son, the Folk Singer. Her renditions furthered the notion that this audience member had early on that the male performers were tackling the songs as comedy first and foremost, while the female singers – with the possible exception of Lee Ann Brown, who sang "Grow, Mrs. Goldfarb" (Allan's take on "Glow Worm") with comic charm – performed the Sherman ditties as songs first, then comedy.

So again another event produced by Willner blew away your humble narrator. It should be noted that Steve Weisberg and his band held the show together by playing superbly in different genres for the many performers.

As a lovely goodbye, Hal thanked the audience for attending the twelve shows he had produced at the Stone and noted that the reason he was happy to be doing the Sherman tribute as the late show on Sunday night, because in years past he would've been planted in front of the TV set with friends consuming “chemicals” and watching the Jerry Lewis telethon (he mentioned that at the time the show concluded – around 11:40 – “we'd be peaking by now”).
Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
To keep that Jerry vibe alive, singer Joseph Keckler, who has an amazing operatic range, tackled Sherman's “When You Walk Through the Bronx.” Another Willner show – more surprises and a lot of great music.

1 comment:

Janine Nichols said...

Willner Week was full of wonders. Thanks so much for writing this.