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


Art in unusual places

May 8th, 2018

More about David Byrne:  His online journal holds wonderful surprises. Today, he’s shared a story about a law office in Dallas that serves double duty as an art museum. You can check that out here.

Another artistic surprise:  When you visit his journal, note the popup at the lower left of your screen. It’s a music player. Every month, Byrne curates some musical choices that appeal to him, and every month I find something new and delightful to enjoy.

What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.






Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.


And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.


That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

And now, an op ed from the most naive man in America

April 30th, 2018

This Republican pundit is shocked to learn that his side’s media outlets no longer want any content that isn’t 100% supportive of Trump.

“If, among those who supposedly cherish freedom of expression, certain widespread viewpoints become taboo, where does that leave us? In a dishonest media atmosphere.”

Gee, I hope this movement doesn’t leak over to Fox News, which always has news we can trust. Thank God we have a press secretary we can count on to share the truth with us.

p.s. Please note that this guy’s outrage manifested itself on the day he realized he’d lost his paycheck.

I need to adopt this kid

April 28th, 2018

She’s adorable, but more importantly she’s smart and funny.



Sound medical decisions

April 17th, 2018

Here are the top two stories on Newsweak right now. I agree with the treatment plan.


Writing, pre-writing, and impulsiveness

March 31st, 2018

There’s a difference between the writing feeling and the pre-writing feeling. With the writing feeling, you’re actively writing, and by writing I generally mean transmitting feelings onto the page without thinking about them. (Thinking about them is not part of the writing process; it’s part of the editing process.) With the pre-writing feeling, you’re feeling like you should be writing something, and that you’re about to, but you don’t quite know how to do it.

Unfortunately, I’m in the pre-writing feeling right now.

I’m hoping to make it into the writing feeling either later tonight, or early tomorrow.

During today’s playwriting workshop, I realized that I’m interested in what characters will do despite themselves. What must they do despite knowing that doing so is going to have terrible repercussions for them? I must have known this before, after 40 years in the theatre and all those Shakespeare plays to name just one example (surely Macbeth has an inkling that this isn’t going to go well), but I don’t remember ever before landing on it as its own isolated thought. One of the playwrights (a good writer) brought in pages where the older woman, with her husband offstage, didn’t respond to the young man’s advances; I felt that we were being teased, and that we wanted more. Turned out that the writer originally had the woman turn around and seize the young man, acting upon her impulse, but then sanded that moment down. This led me to realize how interested I am in characters doing the wrong thing while knowing so in the moment. As we all probably are.

In general, I think impulsiveness is good in playwriting. In the hands of a good writer, anyway. Talent is always a necessity. David Mamet writes in one of his mistakenly confident how-to books, this one on acting, that all an actor has to do is be brave. Be brave, you actors, be brave! Which makes me remember 25 years ago when someone truly terrible auditioned for me and thrust his foot up on a chair at the end of his audition like he was Roald Amundsen planting a flag into the South Pole. He was brave — terrible, but brave. If you have talent, you should be brave. If you don’t have talent, but at least have the self-knowledge to know that you don’t have talent, maybe you’re better off lying low, working on craft, and learning a few things before you boldly plant a flag.

On my way to the workshop, I was stopped at a light when it came to me in a flash what a play I set aside three years is about at its core. No, it’s not about lingering resentment. It’s about regret. The lead now regrets his lost youth and the chances he didn’t take, when he wasn’t impulsive or brave and when he should have been. With that character, it isn’t about what he should do despite himself, because in the present-day scenes he is fully committed to doing whatever he needs to do to get what he wants; this play is about the exact opposite: That he should have done things, in the past, despite himself — and then he wouldn’t have these regrets.

A collaborative Low

March 6th, 2018

A behind-the-scenes reimagining of how David Bowie and Brian Eno (and even Tony Visconti) put together “Warszawa” on Bowie’s Low album. Surprising!

Today’s political prediction

March 5th, 2018

There will be no steel tariff.

It’s purely a political ploy to swing unemployed Pennsylvania steelworkers back to voting Republican in the March 13th special Congressional election.

Once that’s over, the issue will magically go away.

Supporting evidence:  Zero reaction in the stock market today. Traders know this isn’t for real.

ANOTHER reason people shouldn’t watch the Oscars

March 5th, 2018


Watching the show could kill you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oscars Grouch

March 4th, 2018


I don’t care about the Oscars.

And I can’t understand why anyone would — unless you were working on it, or had worked on a movie that got nominated.

I feel the same about watching pro sports, by the way: Why people would sit around and watch it is a real head-scratcher.

I’m not opposed to these things; I just really can’t understand. I guess I have a better understanding of watching pro sports — hey, somebody might do something spectacular while you’re watching! and I did watch some of the Olympics for that reason, but that was at the gym while I was doing my own spectacular feat, namely not dying on the elliptical machine — but, after the inevitable opening comedy monologue, aren’t celebrity awards shows just two or three tedious hours of watching famous rich people get up to receive even more fame and riches? Why is that entertaining? To me, it seems too close to the English class system, where haughty imperials “do their part for the local economy” by swilling down champagne while commoners get rations. The other day I came across a clip online from Jimmy Fallon’s show where he got some black people to talk to what they thought was a video chat with Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Black Panther; one after another, these people profusely thanked Boseman for making the movie and representing them on film. Y’know, I get it. I do. Really. As much as I can, as a white man. But my immediate thought was: He’s playing a wealthy monarch superhero, which doesn’t represent them, and he didn’t do it for them, he did it for millions of dollars. (Listen, I will gladly represent arty middle-aged German-American suburbanites onscreen for just hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Then — surprise! — it turned out that it wasn’t a video chat, that Chadwick Boseman was actually there behind the curtain! When he came out, the fan-worshipers were thrilled and at least one said “My king!” and crossed his or her arms in what I take to be a subject’s salute and genuflection re-enacted from the movie. This was even worse than mere celebrity worship — this was worshiping celebrity plus monarchy. I thought grumpily, “Our forefathers did fight a war against this sort of thing!”

Last week I noticed that a band I really like was playing locally tonight. I floated the idea of going, even though I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to go, given my dislike of the venue, only to have my friend recoil in horror. “Oh, no!” he said. “That’s the Oscars! There’s a party I always go to!” The last Oscars party I went to was about 20 years ago, and I can’t remember anything about it, except everyone else’s ginned-up excitement when some movie or other won or lost. Generally, when people tell me the Oscars are coming up, I’ll say, honestly, “When?” Not because I’m putting on airs, but because I don’t follow it and don’t know. The fact that I can live and work in the city that houses both Disney and Warner Bros., as well as a quintillion independent production companies, and that I’m in Hollywood two or three days a week, and I never know when the Oscars are, tells you about how difficult it can be for facts to break through. (Which may partly explain many evangelicals’ support of Trump.) If I cared about the Oscars, I’d know when they are. Supporting evidence:  I know when Comic-Con is. If you like the Oscars, that’s fine, I just can’t understand. But if you don’t care about Comic-Con, well, that’s inexplicable.

Luckily for me, my wife feels the same way about the Oscars. I say luckily because that means that I have never had to gamely play along while we host an Oscars party. Tonight, she’ll be at work saving people’s lives at our local hospital. Our 15-year-old will be playing Fortnite or reading Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (which he’d better finish in time for that book report!). I’ll either be at the gym or back here writing, and I admit to being interested in seeing how Rick does on “The Walking Dead” without his son “Coral.” During all of that, some people will win a little gold statuette saying they’re the best at acting like they are someone else, and others won’t win it, and some person will win a little gold statuette saying that he or she is the best at directing those people exactly how to act like someone else in the best possible way, and where to stand, and the day after that everyone will go back to doing everything else.