Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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That’s entertainment

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

One night last week, after another full day of Trump, I decided to take my wife to see the touring production of “Motown the Musical” at the Pantages in Hollywood. I’m not generally much for musicals, but I love Motown (who doesn’t?), and I thought it’d be a fun evening out, and a welcome distraction from everything going on in the news:  protests, police actions, presidents breaking the law, and more.

The show was everything I was hoping for:  great songs well-sung, interspersed with some storytelling as we moved chronologically through the history of Motown. If a glance at the program left me wondering just how on Earth the show was going to get through more than sixty hits from the Motown catalog, the show soon clarified it:  while occasionally you’d get the full song, or most of it, for the most part you’d get about three bars, which is the musical equivalent of a nod in the direction of a song you know. Which was frustrating. You’d get keyed up to hear a song you love, and just when you recognized it, it was over. Imagine hearing, say, a “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — but then having it cut off at “Ain’t No–.” It was kinda like that; like ain’t no song finishin’ no how.

That said, the performers were terrific, especially a little boy who completely channeled the pre-adolescent Michael Jackson, and a beautiful honey-voiced young woman who, in an extended sequence that replicated Diana Ross’s solo debut in Las Vegas, reminded everyone present just why Ross was a huge star.

The show also reminded everyone about something else.

As the history moved further and further into the 1960s and later, the backdrop turned to Vietnam and Watergate… and protests, police actions, and presidents breaking the law.

My wife turned to me and said, “Wow. Nothing ever changes, does it?”

Not Monkeein’ around

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

monkees

Much to my own surprise, last Friday night I went to see The Monkees again, this time on their 50th anniversary tour. Four years ago, I had publicly pledged not to see them again — you can read about that odd evening here — but the moment it was announced that Mike Nesmith would be playing with them, for the only time on this tour and for the last time ever, my friend Richard and I, the same Richard who went with me four years ago, decided to buy tickets.

And y’know what? They were terrific.

This was very much in the spirit of The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour, in which the remaining living Beach Boys (Brian, Mike, Al, and I guess we’re still counting Bruce) put on an incredible four-hour show for which my friend Trey and I had 4th row center seats, in an experience not only worth the trip to Dallas, but also one that remains seared in my memory bank of positive experiences. That night, the Beach Boys were generous of spirit, played and sang together, and Brian Wilson even seemed to know where he was at times.

Whereas, in 2012, the Monkees seemed like strangers who’d arrived on the same stage by accident, this time the three principals seemed like they could be (or could have been) in the same band. They harmonized; they played together; they deferred to each other. At some point, it dawned on Mike Nesmith that he was actually having a good time. A smile spread across his face and he relaxed into the music. He played probably half of the evening’s songs with them, including a stint of six songs in a row during the second set that culminated in a solo performance of a song they’d once recorded that he’d envisioned in a different way. In his capable hands, “Circle Sky” was a blazing centerpiece, as it should have been. Most importantly to me, he played and sang “Me and Magdalena,” from their new album, which is one of the most achingly beautiful and haunting songs I’ve ever heard. The combination of the song, the timber of his voice, and the pangs of his 12-string Gretsch, transports me. All together, they played 32 songs, and then they were done.

Except they aren’t. Kind of. The tour now goes on, without Nesmith, which left Richard and me puzzling over what that non-Nesmith experience must be like. Diminished, for sure. (Evidently, on the rest of the tour Micky Dolenz sings “Circle Sky” and he is joined by Peter Tork for “Me and Magdalena.” I will go to my grave happy not to hear that.) I ventured to Richard that the contribution of Nesmith’s sound grounds what would otherwise be a flyweight pop contraption; Richard went perhaps further and said that he lends them credibility. I think that’s true. Dolenz can sing, but somehow there’s an authority to Mike Nesmith’s vocals, his songwriting, and his guitar playing, that lends credence to the whole enterprise. Without any intended slight to the band’s powerhouse songwriters such as Carole King or Neil Diamond, without Nesmith, the Monkees are like Herman’s Hermits, with more hits. I wonder if people catching the rest of the tour will even suspect what they missed.

Let’s dance

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

BowieIggy

Here’s a treat:  two hours of Iggy Pop spinning his favorite David Bowie songs and talking about their shared history.

But act now — you’ve got only 26 days left (and counting down).

(Thanks to Joe Stafford for letting me know about this!)

Sunday evening

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

Whaa? Hmph? Oh, sorry. Just recovering from that bachelor party. All I can say — and all I should say — is that a party must be going well if it runs ten-and-a-half hours, until 4:30 a.m., and some remaining participants are sorry to see it end “early.” And I’ll add this:  surprisingly, as everyone agreed, going from beer to whiskey to vodka to tequila does not necessarily lead to a hangover. Who knew? The big takeaway:  my endless gratitude, again, for good friends.

Yesterday (what commenced of it after 11:30 a.m.) the bachelor and I went out to “breakfast,” then I uncharacteristically but understandably lazed around for a while. (Hours.) Then my wife and I and another couple went to see the Pasadena Pops perform a night of Sinatra music at the LA County Arboretum. Every time I hear Sinatra (or a Sinatra tribute), I’m reminded of the time my father went out and bought a cassette tape of Sinatra’s greatest hits and gave it to me to see if he could win me over. In retrospect, I regret how churlish and dismissive I was — the old guy was making a real effort, an effort I now understand all too well as I try to educate two of my own offspring on the endless joy supplied by America’s premier musical act, Pere Ubu.

Today at the gym, whatever channel is playing on the elliptical took a break from “My 600 Pound Life,” which I and everyone else at the gym find extremely motivational. Instead, it was a special episode of “Intervention,” featuring 48-year-old Tammi, who drinks three pints of vodka a day and whose five sisters won’t talk to her, and who, with the complicity of a boyfriend who is equally disgusted with her, sponges off the pension of the boyfriend’s elderly mother, who owns the house and lives with them. I didn’t care much about Tammi, or the fact that her daughter wouldn’t stop by on her way to the prom so that Tammi could see her in her prom dress (no, her kids, who live with their father, don’t really talk to her either), and I have zero sympathy for the grown man subjecting his elderly mother to life with Tammi and the distress and disorder she creates around her, but I sure feel sorry for the old lady. Which made me grateful again for my sister and brother-in-law, and the rest of our family who take such excellent care of my 90-year-old mother in southern New Jersey.

After the gym, I went grocery shopping, trying to make sense of the various implorations being texted to me by my wife and two teens, for special kinds of cereal, or certain laundry scents, or fried chicken, or whatever. My daughter wanted “dumplings,” but then said they aren’t “dumplings,” they’re more like gyoza, but then added that they aren’t, and they might be called “pot stickers,” by which time I was sure I had no idea what she was talking about, and then she said they were in “the freezer section” (never mind that there are three “freezer sections” at our local Ralphs), and then clarified that these dumpling/gyoza/pot stickers are in the freezer section near “the snacks,” which clarified nothing because I couldn’t find frozen snacks and don’t believe they exist, unless pizza is a snack. Finally I found competing bags of heavily processed-seeming Asian-copying (i.e., in no way actually Asian) edible things that, incredibly, had a litany of descriptors on each bag that completely matched with dumpling/gyoza/pot stickers. It seems that even the manufacturers of this “food” can’t decide what it is! I bought both bags of stuff, because even though they were similarly described, they looked completely different, and I didn’t want to get this wrong for my daughter. Want to know why? Because she’s made sure I could see her in every one of her prom dresses, that’s why.

When I got home, I found she’d made a stir fry for dinner (thanks!). Then we settled down for a nice hour of father-daughter time, watching people get terribly mistreated in prison in “The Night Of” on HBO.

If only next weekend holds such charms.

 

Music masters

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

George Martin certainly had good taste. In honor of the late George Martin, here he is exchanging insights with Brian Wilson (and, Wilson says, improving the mix for “God Only Knows”).

Sound & Vision

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The Grammy tribute to David Bowie was bad. I don’t blame Lady Gaga, who is talented and who seemed 100% committed to what she had been asked to do (learning a lot of choreography and complicated song switches very quickly); I blame whoever strung together all those little bits of music and brought a Las Vegas approach to it.

But here’s a far better tribute, because it marries a strong singer (Lorde) handling a song she’s suited for, with Bowie’s actual backing band, and starts off with well-chosen video clips from Mr. Bowie himself — for whom the visuals, as someone who was always more a complete artist than just a singer, were always an essential element.

Familiar sounds

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I know what you’re thinking:  These baby rhinos sound just like the latest album from Radiohead. (Unfortunately.)

Baby Rhinos Sound Like Whales Crossed with Elephants

For an animal built like a tank you'd expect them not to sound like this…

Posted by Break on Tuesday, February 16, 2016

“Heroes,” track by track

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

If you’re at all interested in how a song recording gets built, or in the music of David Bowie, you’ll want to check this out:  Bowie producer Tony Visconti breaks down the elements  of  “Heroes” into separate tracks, and discusses the recording process. It’s 20 minutes very well spent. (And provides a welcome companion primer to the release of The Beach Boys’ “The Smile Sessions” from a few years ago, which included several discs of bonus tracks where you could hear the “Smile” pieces separately, before they came together.) I especially enjoyed hearing the result of Brian Eno’s “synthesizer in a suitcase,” as well as Bowie’s isolated vocal.

If you’d like to watch this — and, again, I promise you it’s 20 minutes well-spent — do it now. This is from the BBC, and generally they don’t leave special content like this up for long.

 

Three days post-Bowie

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

I’ve really had it with this. Instead of all this misery and loss, we need to focus on bringing Bowie back. Who’s in?

Ashes to ashes

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Last night at a quarter to midnight, I saw a link on a friend’s Facebook page to a statement saying that David Bowie had died. “Is this true?” she was asking. I did some quick checking around the Internet, didn’t see anything, and responded, “This is bullshit. It pisses me off when people pull hoaxes like this for their own enjoyment.”

Twenty minutes later, I felt I had to delete that response. Unfortunately.

I texted my friend Trey with the news. He was similarly in shock. We exchanged several more texts, and then he sent one that said, “I could be at your place in about 30 minutes.” And so, until 2 a.m., we sat outside and drank drinks and smoked cigars and listened to the music of David Bowie and wondered aloud about each other’s health and mortality.

David Bowie was more than just an innovator. He was an explorer. An adventurer. Because he seemed to live every moment to the utmost, infusing our world with art of all sorts (making music, but also film and stage and paintings and more), constantly surrounded by art and artists and never looking backward, in an effort to prove that Bowie must after all be human, one publication saw fit to collect a series of photos of Bowie doing ordinary things. It is by far the most unusual photo series about the man, because Bowie appearing down-to-earth looks so out of context.

In addition to his superhuman accomplishments,Bowie  also was an avatar for people who wanted to be themselves, no matter what society thought they should be, or do, or look like, as so many friends have reminded me today. One, a gay man, said that Bowie was seen carrying a purse in the 1970s, and that made things seem easier. Holly Hughes posted this on her Facebook page:  “Like many queer people of my generation I can’t overstate how much I loved David Bowie. He was the first pop star I loved.”  Bowie made it okay to be different.

Even more than the essential reality check he brought to every moment, in which he reminded you that what others thought shouldn’t matter because, as Jim Morrison wrote, “no one here gets out alive,” Bowie provided music that always sounded somehow very right by sounding somehow a little wrong. In the way that my favorite Fitzgerald novel is “Tender is the Night” because the structure doesn’t quite work and its imperfections make it seem more true, the dissonance and off-kilter rhythms Bowie brought to his best work could snap you out of the conformity of sound. Whether it’s the achingly slow vocal in “Cat People,” the surprising double-tracked piano solo in “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” or the alien aural landscape of Low, Bowie’s work demanded attention. Muzak it wasn’t.

Today, I’m grateful for several things.

That I got to see him perform live — including on his very last tour, in April of 2004 in Anaheim. I’d seen him in the 1980’s on the “Serious Moonlight” tour, when he traversed the globe with a massive set and special effects, and that was wonderful. But seeing Bowie 12 years ago with a stripped-down band on a nearly bare stage, performing in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers and seeming every bit of 20 or 30 years younger, was powerful. Here was someone stuffed to the gills with life.

That he was such a powerful gateway drug. Is it because of David Bowie that I was introduced to Devo, and Brian Eno, and TV on the Radio, and Robert Fripp, and so many other things that made me sit up and ask “What is that???” Perhaps not all of it — but a lot if it. Bowie had taste. I was willing to eat anything he was serving.

And I’m grateful for so much more, including all the wonderful music, but I’m especially grateful that I got a full day of listening to “Blackstar,” which I bought immediately upon release, before I learned that he was dead. The album had one meaning for me — “Here’s Bowie’s latest! What crazy shit is this?” — before it had another:  “Here’s Bowie’s last. It fills me with joy, and with ashes.”

I bought “Blackstar” on Saturday and listened to it that night while my wife and I drove to hear the Pasadena Symphony. It sounded exotic, and difficult, and haunting. It played through once, and then I changed it — but she stopped me and asked, “What are you doing? I want to hear that again.” Something hypnotic and unknowable that I hear in most of Bowie’s music had grabbed her. The next day, I lay on the living room couch, drinking coffee and reading the LA Times while playing the CD loud in the background. “Why is this so loud?” one of my children asked. “Because it’s fantastic,” I said. I will always cherish that moment — listening to the new David Bowie album, really letting it sink in, admiring the adventure of a 69-year-old international celebrity daring to do something brand-fucking-new-sounding at that advanced age.

Twelve hours later, the album held a very different meaning.

Three final thoughts.

Of all the messages and thoughts I’ve read — too many to read them all, given that literally hundreds of millions of people are mourning —  this is my favorite. It actually makes me feel better:

 

David Bowie has returned to his home after an all too brief sojourn amongst humanity.

The departure means that sadly it is the world that looks very different today.

He leaves behind a substantial body of work, including several autobiographical albums about the experience of being something more than human amongst mere mortals.

The singer’s home is believed to be somewhere in the constellation of Sirius but, like so much about him, this was left extremely ambiguous.

Bowie took up residence on this planet after falling to Earth, but it was generally accepted that no one planet could sufficiently contain him for long.

Fans are comforted with the knowledge that life continues somewhere, if not necessarily on Mars.

In response to the news, people worldwide are politely requesting that Tom Waits and David Attenborough go to bed early and take care of themselves, as there’s only so much of this we can stand.

Jodrell Bank have confirmed ground control will continue to call for him into the silent, eternal void, hoping for a signal.

 

Hats off to whoever wrote that.

Secondly, my daughter, who had gone with me on Saturday to buy the new CD, told me today when I picked her up from school that she was glad she knew David Bowie’s music while he was alive. In her view, everyone at school had climbed on board because he was dead, but she had been there first. I know that view well, having been there with Bowie a long, long time ago. She also bemoaned the music of her generation:  “What do we have? ‘Whip Nae Nae’?”

Finally, by the end of today, a different feeling came over me. A deterministic sense that because our own path lies within each of us, we can make of everything what we will. Therefore, now that it’s The Next Day, I’ve decided not to buy into the whole David Bowie is Dead hoax and to just go on in happy anticipation of his imminent tour.

It’s better this way.

David Bowie lives on.