Sunday, March 31, 2013

Avast, ye Christian pirates!

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, stranger than Christian children's enterainment (which fits snugly into the category of Krazy Kristian Kitsch, as I like to call it). I used to present it regularly on the Funhouse TV show on Easter weekend, but the new stuff just ain't as special as the older programs and home videos. One of the items I was happy to show on the program more than 15 years ago was a children's TV show that was first seen by most of us on a VHS compilation called “Perverse Preachers, Fascist Fundamentalists, and Kristian Kiddie Kooks,” created by the editor of the zine called “Zontar the Magazine from Venus” (whose blog is here). Please meet Captain Hook!

There are various sites that offer information about the good Captain, but it all boils down to this: his name was Von R. Saum, a gent from Scott, Ohio, who lost his arm and leg at the age of 17 in a motorcycle accident in 1960. This accident led him to Christ and a “Christian pirate” ministry (!) aimed at kids.

Various newspaper items online note that he officiated at various funerals and was indeed an ordained minister. The other piece of info I discovered is his mother's gravestone (the Internet is insane); the accompanying info lists Von's death as happening in 1993 at the age of 50. Thus his “Captain Hook Crusades” ministry is now shut down.

Happily for us, he left behind a kiddie television show (see below) and not one but TWO LPs. The second record was uploaded by the 365 Days Project at the WFMU blog. The first one (image at top of this blog post) was uploaded by the wonderful Baikinange on her blog; that one has liner notes by Colonel Sanders!

In this "intro" segment from his show, Capt. Hook tells us the story of his motorcycle accident. The show ran in Ohio and, apparently, Indianapolis; according to some online commenters this was in the Seventies, but the rap segment below definitely would signal the Eighties. He is ably assisted by not one but two pirate pals (Fish Hook and Seaweed Sam), and Mrs. Hook, who reminds us that “God is not a child abuser.” [Insert your own priest joke *here*.] The “Christian Pirate Puppets” are also on hand – most of which are Muppet ripoffs, but one is a ventriloquist's dummy (more on him below):

Can this get better? Of course, it can, it's triple-K, kats and kitties. The dummy, named “Sharkey,” performs a white-boy rap, while his two human-being shipmates dance around like idjits. Why is the dummy repeatedly saying “Look at all those cute girls”? I have no idea, but it makes the bit even creepier.

“Sail with Jesus and you'll never lose!”

The next item, uploaded by Zontar, has under 500 hits on YT, while viral-vids get millions and millions and are not one-millionth as weird or funny. The Captain and Fishook conduct an “autopsy” on a sinner (presumably the carcass of Sharky). The Captain instructs his assistant to cut the sinner apart and informs us of the potential sins that can be committed with each part of the human anatomy. Done with utter sincerity, and not a bit of irony – exactly the way it should be.

“Cut that ear off with that saw...”

Happy Easter, all!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Garden of Earthly Delights: Andy Kaufman, the Abrasive Genius (part one of two)

Andy Kaufman was a “child of television,” and — although those who saw him live rave about the experience — it was on television that he made his greatest impact. He enjoyed provoking and irritating his audience, but also betrayed a serious love for the inanities of television, from its variety-show excesses to its emphasis on childlike, simple emotions. Perhaps the most striking thing about his work is how it was insanely childish and incredibly sophisticated at the same time.
I write this a few weeks after a major celebration of Kaufman's comedy took place here in NYC. A gallery show of his costumes, notebooks, correspondence, and many personal possessions was supplemented by more than a week's worth of video presentations, hosted by fans and Andy's co-conspirators, at another gallery. The cumulative effect was fascinating, since the work of a resolutely and often intentionally abrasive comedian was discussed in earnest detail and put in a much larger context.
It would be hard to think of another comedian who could be celebrated in such a way – many movie and TV comics are honored with film festivals at rep houses or month-long showings of their old programs at the Paley Center, but to have a display of costumes and notebooks, as well as moderated discussions among “downtown artist” folk, points up how really unusual and genre-bending Kaufman's work was.
Those of us who were watching it at the time knew something really weird was going on. I remember first seeing Andy on Van Dyke and Company doing his “foreign man” bits (with jokes that just laid there, a character who seemed brain-damaged and juvenile, and this unknown comedian coming in at various points to “interrupt” the proceedings). As even a cursory look at the Kaufman “archives” on YouTube shows, he did a *lot* of talk show appearances, and although he did repeat certain bits, he concocted special bits that were done only once for certain appearances, like this "homeless" bit on the Letterman morning show.
As a young fan of his work, I often wondered what the fuck he was doing, but the laughs far outweighed the head scratching. Sometimes it was definitely something recognizable as “comedy,” but when he embarked on the “Intergender Wrestling Champion” and Tony Clifton bits, they seemed interminable and had no payoff.
One of the joys of watching his work on video and online these days is discovering the “punchlines” for some of his long-stemmed pieces of shtick. The intergender business had its payoffs revealed in the Carnegie Hall tape (in which he finally did something with the bit that was conventionally funny – downing spinach to get Popeye-like strength) and the I'm From Hollywood documentary (in which you see the well-executed finale of his wrestling career). The Tony Clifton provocation had its own payoff, in that Andy wasn't always in the makeup, a fact that was finally sprung on the public in a memorial special hosted by his siblings and Taxi costars.
The Kaufman gallery tributes showed that he really did a create a world of his own, through his standup, his talk-show appearances, and especially his concept specials. The threads that run through all the material are a spoofing of conventional show-business and a confounding of audience expectation. His unexpected death at 35 seemed to make no sense at all, but fit into a larger scheme of insanely talented performers who kick off before their time — most because of self-destructive tendencies and addiction, and others because they’re just too special to stick around for long.
In this part of my tribute to the “abrasive genius,” I want to pay tribute to his “bigger” creations (that are not Tony Clifton or intergender wrestling). I can best do this by describing the joys to be found at the show that recently closed at the Maccarone gallery. The show was held in a large room with the pieces exhibited in vitrines. The first things one saw were his personal papers – letters, passport, diaries, etc – then went on to his costumes, his record collection (more on that in the second part), and other objects (tape boxes, notes with phone nos. for contacts at Saturday Night Live, items reflecting his interest in transcendental meditation).
The highlight of the papers was surely his fan letter to Elvis, handwritten when he was college age. Steve Allen once wrote that when he first met Andy he wasn't sure if he was a big fan of his work or mocking him – the letter to Elvis runs along similar lines, since it is an *overwhelming* fan note in which Andy used quotation marks for emphasis. When he mentions being a “big Elvis fan,” the quotes do lend a weird note of irony. I'm sure he meant it, but setting something in quotes means you're being ironic or sarcastic.
The other weird aspect of the letter (one true to Andy's style as an anti-comedian) is his telling Elvis that he would love to replace him someday. One can only imagine the King's response, had he read this feverish fan letter from a young man who swears he writes papers in school on Elvis's movies. Andy cites two or three of Presley's worst films as some of his faves, so one gets the impression that Andy's taste in pop culture found him deeply loving some really cornball stuff (thus the delicate “balance” in a lot of his standup between mocking something and paying tribute to it).
Andy clearly didn't like to type, as only his stories are typed (there was even a handwritten resume on display). I haven't read his fiction and poetry – which was indeed published long after his death and now is out of print and fetching inflated prices on eBay – but he clearly was inspired by the Beat writers, as the items that were featured in the Maccarone show were redolent of Kerouac at his wordiest.
Andy's note to the Maharishi also is a curious item. He wrote to say that he loved TM, but it wasn't changing his life entirely, he was still descending into sadness. (It must've worked better for him in subsequent years, as he continued to practice it until his death.) The strangest notes in the collection weren't from Andy, however. They were housed alongside a group of jokey/angry/self-promoting notes from women who wanted to wrestle him (which were published in a book edited by his girlfriend, Lynne Marguiles).
The women challenged him to matches, writing in the same style he used when he put down women in his “intergender wrestling” bits. The weirder letters were from men who picked up on Andy tapping into a familiar wrestling trope, a “hair match” in which the loser has to have his/her head shaved bald. This excited some of the viewing audience who wanted Andy to beat a woman in the ring and then have her shaved bald (a pic of the fetchingly chrome-domed Persis Khambatta in the first Star Trek film were included with one note). One can only imagine the laughs that Kaufman got from the fact that he had fired up the libidos of some gents who were even kinkier than he (for an exploration of his sex life, see his friend Bob Zmuda's bio, Andy Kaufman Revealed!).
The gallery show also included a homespun feature in which visitors could sit down at a round table in the center of the room and talk to people who knew Andy at some point in his life. I would've loved to have chatted with Carol Kane or the most surprising name on the list, Prudence Farrow – whom I have to assume had some connection to Kaufman through his TM fascination. The day I went the guests were Andy's brother Michael and the “Bunny Ranch” owner Dennis Hof (a gallery employee informed us Andy was a regular customer at the Bunny Ranch....).
The piece de resistance of the show a notebook of performance ideas that Andy jotted down in '73-'74. Among them were these (all paraphrased here):
Bring out bald men who look like “Great Neck executives” (then a list of names of famous bald men who looked the way he wanted – “Mel Cooley,” Milt Kamen). Have them play congas in a men's room in separate stalls.
Go on Carson and get married, sincerely, but do an “Alice Toklas” (Andy referring here to the Peter Sellers movie, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas) and make sure the commercial breaks interfere with the ceremony. Wind up never getting married.
 Come onstage with Bobby Fischer and play chess with him for the whole show.
(the single best item and one I'm sure he could've carried off with much deadpan certainty) Come out on stage, say "Let Us Pray," and then just lead the audience in prayer the whole time.

The video and panel discussion presentations at Participant Inc will be discussed in my next blog entry, but here is a list of the “essential” Kaufman complete shows, as preserved on tape and now available (for the moment) on YT for free.

First is the show called “Uncle Andy's Funhouse” that aired as “The Andy Kaufman Special” late night on ABC in a 90-minute timeslot (the YT poster has put up the full version with the original commercials and sporadically sizzling audio). The show was shot in '77 but didn't air until '79; it includes some of his most famous bits, including the Foreign Man/Elvis transformation and his wonderful, truly manic conga drum version of “It's a Small World After All.”

The items specific to this show are his oddly touching chat with Howdy Doody, the introduction of the “angry Andy” (which basically became the Clifton character), “Has-been Corner,” and an odd framing device which finds the Foreign Man watching the show as it is being aired (he thinks it's pretty awful).

One of the oddest artifacts to show up in the era of VHS was a documentary called The Real Andy Kaufman, which chronicles Andy doing his full act at Kutchers Hotel in the Catskills and not going down all that well with the audience. This is an interesting opportunity to see his live act and also to see him literally knowing that the audience ONLY wants to see him doing “Latka” and Elvis. And so he brings up his entire family (with both grandmothers!) onstage to provoke them ever further:

The documentarian Seth Schultz conducts an interview with him after the show, in which Andy seems truly offended that the audience didn't enjoy the show (they were “downright rude!”). One assumes that he was used by this time (1979) to appearing before nightclub and college audiences who got what he was doing. How he thought the intergender-wrestling bit would go over with a resort-hotel audience is anyone's guess, but this one of possibly only a handful of times that he was seen with his guard down, for at least a minute or two:

His Carnegie Hall show is uniformly agreed to be possibly THE high water mark of his career. It's a full-fledged stage show that he financed himself and, as noted above, he provided contexts for all of the bits, including the intergender thing and Tony Clifton:
In 1981, he hosted an episode of the Midnight Special that included all of his “greatest hits,” but also included video of his very odd stint working as a busboy at a deli-restaurant while he was starring on Taxi, as well as two special guests he clearly chose for the occasion: Freddie Cannon and Slim Whitman:
Possibly my single favorite thing that Andy participated is the video My Breakfast with Blassie, in which he has breakfast at a Sambo's restaurant with the one and only “fashion plate of wrestling,” the classy one, Fred Blassie. The film contains my fave moment featuring his partner in crime Bob Zmuda (it is gross and stupid, but never fails to make me laugh) and many, many bits of wisdom from Fred to Andy:
While Breakfast is definitely in my Pantheon of favorite Kaufman creations, his last TV special, which aired on Soundstage in 1983, is perhaps his most extreme subversion of the TV medium (making him only one of a handful of comedians who picked up where Ernie Kovacs left off). The show begins suddenly, showing the end of the program and then restarting – instead of Latka watching the program, this time it's an old couple in a tacky living room (“he's playing with the medium... leave it on”).
His nod to Winky Dink and You (playing with a “magic screen” three years before Pee-Wee did it) and onscreen argument with his real-life ex Elayne Boosler are both mind-bogglingly weird sequences, but nothing is as good as the end, where he tells us all off and then “angry Andy” gets counseling from Latka (who is also a sarcastic son of a bitch).
I'll outline a number of extremely wonderful rarities in the second part of his blog entry, but this special is perhaps the best example of Andy toying with his audience's minds while he screwed with the cliches of television talk-shows.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Garden of Earthly Delights: Nina Hagen, covers and duets

As I began to write this, the second of what I intend to be three posts, I realized a better title for the troika under discussion might be “Who You Callin’ a Kook?” Certainly Nina Hagen is strange and unique and, yes, very often downright weird. But she’s a helluva talented singer-rocker-stage performer and, like Sterling Hayden, is mocked at the peril of missing out on what is truly exceptional about her “weird” and fascinating work.

So, as always, context: when I was a record-buyin’ youngster, there were (I believed) three degrees of wonderfully “odd” female singers from overseas. The first level was the uncommonly pretty and sublimely talented Kate Bush; the second was my infatuation of several new-wave-obsessed years, Lene Lovich (whom I must salute soon, because she was/is awesome); and the third and by far the most daunting and “incredibly strange” (esp. for a teen who grew up on AM radio) Ms. Nina Hagen, who turned 57 this past week.

As the years go by I’ve gotten to love Nina for the ways in which her music broke the boundaries of punk, new wave, dance music, rap, etc etc. She also has always been a jarring figure to behold on television (the few times that I saw her sing or be interviewed); very few of her videos ever played on MTV (they were actually seen more on cable-access), but now with the “tool” that is YouTube, we can catch up on all the wonderful stuff that appeared on European and UK television networks.

Kate’s music was gorgeous and Lene’s was more hummable, but no woman singer did as much to disorient her audience as Nina. To update the comparison: sure, Lady Gaga’s young and talented and has a good eye for odd, jarring juxtapositions, but please don’t tell me what she’s doing is truly “weird” and unpredictable. Fraulein Hagen’s been covering that side of the strasse for several decades now.

Her voice ranges from sweet and melodious to impossibly gravelly (this was the case even when she was a very young woman). Thus she is capable of singing operatic arias as well as gritty rockers with the same intensity. Her career began in East Germany with tunes like “You forgot the color film” (a snotty comment about how drab East Germany looked); here she is at age 19 with her group “Automobil.”

Her first notable cover was this kick-ass German rewrite of the Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope” called “TV Glotzer”:

She has continued throughout the years to alternate between her own songs and covers of a wide variety of material (and I do mean a wide variety). When she was a full-blown punk, she attacked “My Way” in German:

In the same year, 1980, she did this terrific cover of “Ziggy Stardust” on Swedish TV. She definitely made even the British punk goddesses Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene look like normal girls next door:

And since I’m an incurable Monkee fan, I must include her punk cover of their biggest hit, redone in German as “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”:

By 1982, her own songs had become pretty hook-y (a good thing by me) and she started singing in English. One of the songs that showed up on “new wave” radio stations around that time was her account of the club scene of the time, the brilliantly frantic “New York, New York,” and the very catchy “Universal Radio.” This is punk meeting funk/disco with a woman occasionally lapsing into operatic singing (take that, Gaga!):

Her 1984 tune “Zarah” is perhaps the fullest flowering of her wonderfully conflicting impulses. A tribute to the Swedish film star Zarah Leander (1907-81), who was very well known in Germany for her decision to keep acting during the Nazi era. Nina’s tune comprises about five or six musical genres (add jazz and hip-hop to the mix cited above). The video is as jarring and confrontational as the song:

While all this music was being made, Nina made a name for herself as a really outlandish talk show host. Her bios make mention of a time on German TV when she discussed female masturbation on-air (with a simulation), but in the U.S. and the U.K. she was very likely to veer a discussion of her new LP into a chat about UFOs, religion (at various times she has adhered to various faiths, including Hare Krishna and Xtianity), and animal rights. I very fondly remember her bringing up a “cure” for AIDS she knew of to a drag-queen host on Manhattan access. She even interviewed herself now and again.

Speaking of her love of animals and finally moving to the subject of Nina’s duets, here is live footage from Italian TV in which Nina joins Lene Lovich to perform their 1986 single “Don’t Kill the Animals.” Sure it’s a pretty goofy white-girl rap, but the intentions are good and it’s a melding of two of the finest “weird” ladies of the Eighties (dig also the extremely serious and smoothly-sung  anthemic tune that Nina performs in English at the end):

As the punk generation has gotten older, it’s been fascinating seeing how they’ve been treated by the media. Some of these gents and ladies (I’m looking at you, John Lydon) have become lovable old cranks, whereas truly versatile talents like Nina have wound up becoming eminences grises. Check out the transgressive Ms. Hagen as cute variety-show guest, showing her mastery of yodeling:

Nina's repertoire has grown even more eclectic over the years, with her covering “Summertime,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “The Alabama Song,” “Rivers of Babylon,” “The Lady is a Tramp,”“Fever,” and “Good Vibrations” (all of which can be found on YT). Here she performs “ Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy. Even with a “lounge”-y rendition of a Broadway standard, Nina is able to inject some of her own idiosyncratic personality:

Sticking with old show-biz (American style), here’s a privately shot video of her singing “Flat Foot Floogie”:

In March 2008 I recommended on this blog a clip that was quickly down after I touted it, the immortal meeting of Nina and Don Rickles (you read that right) on The Merv Griffin Show somewhere in the late Eighties. (Presumably Merv had the same booker who put Iggy on Dinah!)

The juxtaposition (old show biz/new show biz; America/Europe; comic character/true eccentric) is very impressive (and what talk shows used to do on a regular basis), but of course it descends into Don mocking Nina — except he can’t do much with the German-wants-to-kill-the-Jew theme, since Nina notes that her father was Jewish. Regardless, it’s a mindfuck and a joining of two worlds I enjoy very much:

I’m glad the Merv clip has been reposted (this time by someone who saved it last time), but the singlet strangest-seeming  cover I discovered that Nina has done is her acoustic folkie version of Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” (!). Woody was quite an open-minded gent, and I’m sure he would’ve enjoyed this, since she clearly believes in the lyrics (see above):

The last two clips are unions that items we in the U.S. never would’ve seen without the “sharity” the epitomizes YouTube. First, Nina’s early Nineties duet with the one and only artificial-man-made-real, king of “schlager,” Heino!!! The two perform “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” from the Leslie Caron musical Lili. Feast:

And a truly sublime pairing, which finds Nina being entirely (gasp) normal! It is her 1990 duet with a curiously eyeglass-less Nana Mouskouri on an extremely Dietrich-like rendition of “Lili Marleen.” The two women do full justice to Marlene (another Nina trib to her is here), whose take-no-prisoners spirit has lived on in both of them.

Happy Birthday to Nina and thanks to two people: friend Dave for turning me on to Nina many (many!) years ago, and to Krys O. for spurring on this blog entry by her discovery of the Nina/Nana duet.