All things must change, sooner or later, and this venerable granddaddy of alt-weeklies, founded in the mid-’50s by no less than novelist Norman Mailer, has consistently managed to reinvent itself through the years. As a teen growing up on un-hip Long Island, I read and devoured critics like Andrew Sarris — whom I ended up having as a professor at Columbia Film School — Richard Goldstein and, of course, the so-called Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau himself, whose painfully twisted boho-leftist analyses of pop music practically defined the genre.
My first full-time journalism gig was at the old Soho Weekly News, the feisty Avis to the Voice’s Hertz back then, championing the emerging New York new wave of Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, et al. So, it’s with no small degree of irony that I view the current tumult, as the New Times begins cleaning house after acquiring controlling interest in both the Voice and its L.A. counterpart, the Weekly.
I’ve never been a huge Chuck Eddy fan — whom I’ve often viewed as contrary for contrary’s sake — but there should always be a place for Christgau’s ravings. Maybe the N.Y. Observer, current home of a doddering, but still absorbing Sarris, may have room for him.
New editorial chief Michael Lacey has made it clear he wants “investigative reporting” and local stories, not “think” pieces or national coverage, which still doesn’t explain him getting rid of James Ridgeway. Still, the place for “analysis” and “opinion” may well be the traditional mainstream hard-copy dailies, whose breaking news function has basically been co-opted by the Net-driven 24/7 information cycle. Still, it’s a sad day indeed when both rock critic Bobs — Christgau and Hilburn — are deemed expendable.
XM vs. Sirius
So I made the switch and I’ve been listening to Howard Stern around the clock – that is when I can hear him between the alarmingly frequent drop-offs, a lot more than XM, which is troubling.
As I’ve said, Stern’s new unfettered-by-the-FCC show takes a while to get used to, though Artie Lange, for one, has been let loose without the constraints, and the other Howard-related programming, which includes a surprisingly straight-forward news department, a daily round-up and an intern show, is pretty good, even if a mite heavy on the self-indulgent naval-gazing. Haven’t quite cottoned to either Bubba the Love Sponge or Scott Farrell, both of whom seem to have died and gone to heaven on satellite, but Howard’s also been given new life, and that’s enough for me.
I just don’t understand how CBS could’ve let the King get away, even as a beleaguered Joel Hollander tweaks his ex-meal ticket by picking up a simulcast of Opie & Anthony from XM to replace Stern’s short-lived successor David Lee Roth.
That said, I was a big fan of XM’s music channels, particularly the alternative stations Ethel and Fred, Mike Marrone’s The Loft and even the prog-rocking Music Lab, which was just dropped in a curious move considering programmer Lee Abrams was the original avatar of the genre as producer of Gentle Giant, a man Christgau once said “was to the ‘70s what Mitch Miller was to the ’50s.” My prediction? Ultimately, you will be able to get both satellite services from one receiver, and traditional radio, with its HD options, will also be part of the mix. In other words, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Howard Stern for “free.”
David Gilmour, On an Island (Columbia)
As Donald Fagen’s recent solo effort is to Steely Dan, Gilmour’s new album is a Pink Floyd album in all but name, his characteristic languid blues guitar and mournful vocals attached to songs of domestic bliss instead of anomie and alienation, which could be all the difference.
Still, since last summer’s Live 8 reunion in London, there’s renewed interest in the legendary psychedelic space cowboys, with Gilmour’s recent solo concerts divided into two parts, the first featuring songs from this album, the second a virtual Floyd show that goes back to early, rarely performed material, complete with laser pyrotechnics.
With the likes of guitarist Phil Manzanera, Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright and legendary producer Chris Thomas on board, the result is state-of-the-art-rock, with the title track evoking the atmosphere of Dark Side of the Moon’s “Speak to Me/Breathe In the Air” and “This Heaven” recalling the sardonic “Money,” where Gilmour makes even his marital idyll sound ominous.
The problem is the lyrics, half of them written with wife Polly Samson, which come off more like the sentiments from a Hallmark greeting card, while the music veers perilously close to the empty shell of The Division Bell. That means the album’s most effective tracks are instrumentals like “Then I Close My Eyes,” which segues from a Stephen Foster-style “Dixie” ode to an Erik Satie-like chamber orchestra into an Eno-esque Oriental flavor that crystallizes Floyd’s unique ability to turn avant-garde designs into mass-appeal pop music.
The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (French Kiss/Vagrant)
These indie-rockers from Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston-and-Minneapolis, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Craig Finn, was a left-field surprise, landing at #8 in this year’s prestigious Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, though they have encountered more than their share of detractors for their throwback populist rock, equally parts Born to Run and Street Hassle. Finn’s Catholic background informs his blend of sex, drugs and religion, filled with mythologized Springsteen-esque characters like Charlemagne and the Hoodrat Girl, recurring places like Penetration Park and literary references to Nabokov, Nelson Algren and Yeats.
“Hornets! Hornets!” starts off like Black Crowes fronted by Suicidal Tendencies’ Mike Muir crossed with the late, lamented Screaming Blue Messiahs’ Bill Carter, while “Stevie Nix” intersperses a piano part before ending with a double-guitar solo straight out of the Allmans or Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a postmodern view of classic-rock, juxtaposing the sacred and the profane, summed up in a single line from “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”: “And if you don’t get born again/Then at least you’ll be high as hell.”
As played by Joseph Gannascoli, this Sopranos character has taken on an amazing depth after we catch him in a gay bar, along with a pair of goombahs, dressed like the cowboy from the Village People, and now on the lam from the mob. As last week’s episode closed, he was praised by the sexually ambiguous proprietor of a New Hampshire antique shop for admiring a particular vase after briefly contemplating suicide by a waterfall.
This intriguing subplot has given us a chance to reflect upon our own homophobia, or as a gradually mellowing Tony reflects, “It’s 2006. There’s pillow biters in the Special Forces.” Gannascoli mines the pathos in the role to the hilt, indulging in a secret passion fully aware it will bring his real life crumbling down around him, or as Michael Imperioli’s Chris puts it disgustedly: “Human frailty … makes me sick sometimes.” What more can you say?
Kathryn Crosby, My First Years With Bing (Collage Books, Inc.)
First of a two-book set penned by Bing Crosby’s second wife Kathryn, whom the singer met on the Paramount lot in Hollywood when he was 50 and she was but 19 years old straight out of a small town in Texas as a contract player for the studio.
The pair spent 24 years together before Bing passed away in 1977, but more than half of that saw him on the road, golfing, fishing and hunting, his exploits revealed in long, handwritten letters home to his wife, busy raising three children, including his only daughter, Mary Frances, the woman who shot J.R. in Dallas.
The May-December marriage was a strange one from the start, a three-year courtship filled with plenty of frustration and misunderstandings, exacerbated by the author’s lack of self-confidence and experience. And while she expresses jealousy over Bing’s various co-stars, including Grace Kelly and Inger Stevens, she won’t come right out and say he was unfaithful, though he was often quite distant and could be rather biting in his comments to his young wife.
But, as befits a woman who spent her entire adult life with one husband, she remains devoted to the end, using the nursing skills she went to school for to take care of her man. Ironically, the book reveals very little of Bing as a performer and artist, and not a whole lot as a mate, either. It’s an inside view of an intensely private man, who at the end, remains just as elusive in print as in life.
When Do We Eat?
Advertised with the tagline, “Sex, drugs and matzoh ball soup,” marvelously named director Salvatore Litvak’s ethnic indie comedy might well be dubbed My Big Fat Psychedelic Passover, as it brings together several generations and Jewish stereotypes under one tent roof to celebrate the holiday. There’s the overbearing patriarch (veteran character actor Michael Lerner), his befuddled second wife (Lesley Ann Warren), his survivor father (a painfully hoarse Jack Klugman), a nymphomaniac celebrity publicist cousin, a pair of daughters, one a sexual surrogate, the other lesbian and two sons, a born-again Hasid and a drug-addled teenager who doses dad with a hit of Ecstasy in his Maalox.
The film veers uneasily between broad belly laughs and cosmically trippy philosophical revelations, with plenty of shtick along the way. The soundtrack, which is being released by David McLeese’s Jewish Music Group, features some great updated music, many written by the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach , along with tracks from Emmy-winning composer Mark Adler and novelties like the Latin-Hebro Hip-Hop Hoodios. Just another sign of a proud Judaism rearing its head in a popular culture that has finally found room for the likes of Matisyahu and Larry David, if not M.O.T.
Buckcherry, Fifteen (Eleven Seven/ADA)
There must’ve been a lot of people doing double takes when this band of regenerate Sunset Strip rockers entered the HITS Top 50 at #44, outselling the Beatles. That had to be an eye-opener for the rest of the industry, most of whom turned down the chance to release the L.A. band’s third album after a pair on DreamWorks, including their debut, which went platinum, thanks to the ode to the joys of cocaine, “Lit Up.”
Songs like the salacious first single, the Stone-sy “Crazy Bitch” and their raison d’etre “So Far” (“I didn’t do it for money, I did it all for free/I did it all to fill the fucking hole inside of me”) prove that sleazy, blues-pumping rock & roll will always have an audience, as long as there are testosterone-driven teenage boys and hormonal teen girls, though the acoustic “Brooklyn” and the Marti Frederickson co-written power ballad “Sorry” show a softer side. A true triumph of grassroots and Internet marketing.
Gripe of the Week
With gas up to $3 a goddamn gallon, maybe 24’s evil President Logan has the right idea. Certainly Dubya’s plan to invade Iraq hasn’t yielded any returns at the pump, and isn’t that why we’re there in the first place? Or is it merely to line Haliburton’s pockets? I’m sensing the American public is getting just as sick of George W. as Al Franken and Michael Moore are, and it’s not going to be improved by him firing his press secretary or stripping Karl Rove of his duties. All that’s left is to find a Democratic candidate who can defeat whatever the GOPs put up next time, and that’s a lot easier said than done, if, as most people believe, Hillary Clinton isn’t capable of being elected.