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


Blog

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Mulling him over

Saturday, June 29th, 2024

I had dinner last night with my good friend Shanna at a place with amazing Thai cuisine. (And that’s the restaurant’s name:  Amazing Thai Cuisine. So, yes, there sometimes is truth in advertising.) I had last been to Amazing Thai Cuisine just days before, with my fiancée, bringing a bottle of chardonnay for myself and ordering spicy duck salad with brown rice on the side. Tonight, feeling adventurous, I ordered the spicy duck salad with brown rice on the side, but brought a different label of chardonnay.

Discussion with Shanna turned to Martin Mull, who had died earlier that day, breaking my heart.

I loved Martin Mull. As a kid in the 1970s, I watched him on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Fernwood 2Night,” America 2Night,” and in various television or film appearances over the years, and bought all his records. One year, for Chistmas, I bought myself his album “Normal,” which remains my favorite, and then unwrapped my presents and found that my sister had bought me the same album. No doubt we both bought this because my love for Martin Mull was well-known in the family and because the album was available as a discounted cutout at the local Two Guys department store for a buck-ninety-nine. “Normal” was chockful of clever sing-along-able songs told from the point-of-view of a smart, sarcastic, judgmental 30ish man forced to suffer among rubes, but who wonders if it wouldn’t be easier if he were less clever and just went along to get along, swallowing his wit and urbanity. In other words, the Martin Mull character.  As a 15-year-old desperately not wanting to live in southern New Jersey with its greenhead flies and snapper turtles and traffic circles and dirt roads, who ached to get to wherever the cool intellectuals were with their impregnable aesthetics, this was exactly how I felt. Martin Mull summed it up in the title track, which I haven’t listened to in decades but can still summon up at will:

What say you and I get normal
We don’t have to be that formal
We’ll just sit and watch TV like others do
We’ll eat meat and mashed potatoes
Cut our hair so folks don’t hate us
Life is nuts enough just livin’ here with you

Let’s see who can be most borin’
You do the dishes honey, I’ll start snorin’
Get a mower, do some mowin’
Spend all mornin’ gettin’ it goin’
We’ll show everyone in town we’re not deranged
What say you and I get normal for a change

(Here’s the rest of the song.)

I also suspected that Mull, who was good-looking and whose character dressed well in a stylish but somewhat sleazy manner that said he knew what to do with a woman, was having lots of sex. So 15-year-old me was very interested in whatever I might learn from him, or at least from what I could learn from this character he kept portraying on TV and records.

On “Fernwood 2Night,” where he was a dimestore version of a local talk show host, Mull’s character, Barth Gimble, frequently got phone calls from what you’d assume were beautiful women, with us hearing only his side, which dripped innuendo. I always was trying to figure out what the woman was saying, trying to slot into my brain her side of a quick call centered around sex.

I shared all this and more with Shanna, and then she surprised me:  Martin Mull had been her client. “He was a very nice man,” she said. Shanna works at an accounting firm, largely for the well-known and the well-off, and Martin Mull had been a client.

The first time he came in, she said, she saw him coming and went to greet him in reception. He put out his arm and she thought, Wow, really nice, he wants to hug me! So she went in for the hug and he hugged her, and it was very nice, and then when they parted she realized that he’d actually been reaching for the door. Mortified, she ducked away and went and hid in the file room until he’d left.

But for years after, whenever he came in, he’d hug her. Now it had become a thing. And he’d add a kiss on her cheek.

I’m not 15 any more, but I still love Martin Mull’s act from then and in all the years since — but 46 years later, I also love this story about him, which was not an act… except of kindness.

A good year (in many ways)

Saturday, December 30th, 2023

Every year, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof shares the good news in what seems otherwise to have been a bad year. 

“[Even with Gaza, Darfur, Trump, and climate change], something else is also true: In some ways, 2023 may still have been the best year in the history of humanity.”

Two factors he lists: In 2023, global child mortality reached a record low, and extreme poverty also reached a record low (about 8% of people worldwide). 

It’s easy to overlook the positive, as Kristof notes:

“None of this eases the pain of those who have lost their children in 2023, nor is it a balm for those caught in war or climate catastrophes. Yet at year-end, it’s worth acknowledging this backdrop of progress — not to distract anyone from all that is going wrong, but to offer a reminder that when we try hard enough, we can accomplish amazing things. Right now, looking at the anguish worldwide, I’d say we’re not trying hard enough.”

In that spirit, and in recognition of the good luck I’ve been blessed with, and also with recognition that many people haven’t, both among my circle and elsewhere in the world, I have to acknowledge that I’ve had a good year. Maybe it also helps to be older, and wiser, and to recognize good happenings when they happen to you. 

Here are just some of the highlights.

Romance

Atlantic City, September 2023.

In May, I met and fell in love with my girlfriend. Instantly. I don’t understand how this happened, but when she showed up at the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet, I was struck by a thunderbolt that told me, “This is it. This is the woman.” I’d had many dates, and two previous actual girlfriends, over the course of two-and-a-half years, but this was instantly different, because she was and is instantly different. I’ve been in love before, and vividly recall how I felt when at age 20 I met my now ex-wife, but I don’t know if I ever before knew what romantic “butterflies in my stomach” meant. And every day since then, I ask myself what I can do to do even better, to keep this going, and if possible to keep it going for, oh, the next three decades. She tells me that she loves me too. I can’t believe my good fortune.

So, right there, that has made for a damn good seven months. Long may it last.

Music

2023 was a terrific year for music, with spectacular new albums from old-timers like Yo La Tengo, Peter Gabriel, Blur, John Cale, and Pere Ubu. Even the Rolling Stones put out a new album that I think is pretty good — and I don’t generally care for the Rolling Stones.

Lots of great concerts in 2023, too, most memorably Yo La Tengo (!!!) at the Teragram Ballroom, and Devo (even more exclamation marks) at the YouTube Theatre, at which I got so excited that my girlfriend caught me on video pogoing along to the music.

It was an honor to host two members of Pere Ubu at my house this summer (!), and for my sons and I to help the band load in and load out for their fine show here in Los Angeles. And I enjoyed meeting up with other longtime Pere Ubu fans for drinks after the show in New York, which I flew in to see.

Theatre

Let’s be honest:  It’s always a dice roll going to see a new play. Jukebox musicals may be idiot-proof (enlist some great singers to do classic songs you love against the backdrop of a thinly concocted narrative), but the successful production of a compelling new play is a true highwire act. Forty years of attendance has taught me that if you expect a 90% failure rate, you’ll never be disappointed. There were other plays I enjoyed, but these were the two standout productions this year:

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at Rogue Machine, an intellectually honest look at extreme-right-wing evangelicals and their worldview, brilliantly written, acted and directed, was a production I doubt I’ll ever forget. I don’t go to the theatre to be entertained, I go to delve; one way I can be sure I’m in the right place is if a few disgruntled fellow attendees leave mid-scene. In this particular case, success! Those of us who stayed were riveted.

“Kill Shelter” at Theatre of NOTE, about a struggling single mom who also has to daily euthanize dogs who have no future, was both heartbreaking and uplifting — and, somehow, occasionally comic. When each puppet-dog was put down, I cried, even though it was a thing of wire and felt; to someone who has spent 45 years in the theatre, that was epic suspension of disbelief. The play also offered an even-handed defense of kill shelters, a subject I’m sure most people would rather not hear about. Ashley Rose Wellman is a young playwright of talent. I wish I’d seen this earlier in the run, because I would have gone to see it again.

Life and Death

My mother died. That might not seem like a good thing, but it was. She was 98, she figured her time had come, so she lay down, slept for a few days, and passed away. Making her, right to the end, an inspiration. If you pray to a god, you should pray to that god that some day you’re so strong and wise as to be able to do the same. Almost none of us will get this kind of death. Will I miss her? Absolutely. My father died 31 years ago, and I still miss him. But they both left me a lifetime of instruction, so I’m grateful.

Family and friends

Playing Cosmic Encounter, of course: me, son Dietrich, John D., son Lex, and great-nephew Brody, November 2023.

I took my son to London for 10 days, my other son came to join us for Thanksgiving, those two plus my daughter and I were all together for my mother’s services, my great-nephew has come to stay with me twice, and I got to spend five days with my whole extended family back East both in September and earlier this month. It’s been a good year for family.

It’s also been a great year for friends, both new friends, and friends of 40 years. 

If you’re lucky, your romantic partner will have quality family and friends of her own, and mine sure does. We’ve been having dinner and playing cards with her sisters and her brother-in-law (and at some point, I will win). We’ve gone to lots of events with her circle of friends — what I’ve started calling her Legion of BFFs — and always had a great time, whether it was the Pops in the LA County Arboretum, the holiday light show, a country-club fundraiser, dinner and drinks, or seeing the Barbie movie. Good people attract other good people. 

As for my own friends, the level of caring some of them dropped on me when my mother died, as well as the heartfelt way they embraced my new love, said everything about their friendship. Friends I hadn’t seen in decades showed up at my mother’s viewing to pay their respects. Others called me more than once just to make sure I was doing okay. My friend Ski single-handedly cooked and catered an entire evening for all attendees at my sister’s house the night before my mother’s funeral service. True friends show up for you even when it isn’t fun.

2023 and 2024

At The Americana at Brand, November 2023.

If you haven’t had a good 2023, I’m sorry.

I’m sharing all these successes because I know I’ve been lucky. And because I know luck runs out. Not every year will have as many bright spots. More people will die, you will meet with misfortune, your health will fail, some despicable figure might make a comeback.

But when you have this much love dropped on you in a year, you must acknowledge it. Both to get through the bad times, and because you want to do right. Only a churl would let good times go unrecognized.

My best to you in the new year. Even when trouble befalls – and it will — pick up on the positive.

Attestations

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023
  1. I can attest to this: The movie “Cocaine Bear” is loads of fun if you’re seeing it for cheap on a Tuesday night with a friend who is sitting next to you in the movie theatre howling with laughter. But I can’t imagine watching it at home alone, or as anything other than a goof — which it is 100% intended to be.
  2. It has been raining in Los Angeles pretty much every day since December. This being the eve of March, enough is enough. Whoever schedules these things needs to do a better job. On Sunday night, I went to see a concert and thought, “Wow! It isn’t raining!” But when I left the concert, it was pouring while I scurried off to my car, having left the umbrella in the car because, well, it hadn’t been raining. This morning when I woke up the day was bright and blue and the air crisp. Over the course of the day, the sky darkened and I thought, “Oh, fuck, it’s coming again.” And it did.
  3. Over the course of all this, I’ve had a team of roofers out to my house eight times. Eight times. At some point, either they’ll get it right, or maybe they’ll just outlast the rain.
  4. I had assumed that the excellent noisy indie band Yo La Tengo would tour with additional musicians, being a three-piece band with a dense and complicated sound, especially on their excellent new album, “This Stupid World.” Nope. Sunday’s show revealed that the three of them are multi-instrumentalists who sample some of their sounds live and then set them to repeat while they go off to play other things, and that they generally move into different stations of the stage throughout. Don’t be surprised if the drummer takes center stage to sing, and the bassist is now also playing keyboards, and the “drums” are being handled by the guitarist on what sounds like a Casio. My first thought, watching this: Hats off to them for saving all that money on adding a touring musician or two!
  5. By the way, structurally the hero of that cocaine-sniffing bear movie is the bear. I’m not kidding. In the late parts of the movie, it’s the bear that’s the protagonist.
  6. Eight months ago for my birthday, a friend gave me a $60 gift certificate to a used bookstore in Pasadena. My current lady agreed to accompany me even though I warned her what I could be like in bookstores: relentless. I was rewarded by learning how remarkably patient she can be. Something else I learned: Sixty bucks can get you a big whopping bag of books, including three novels by Thomas McGuane, a favorite of mine, that I’d never read, plus two business books, novels by Joyce Carol Oates and Kim Stanley Robinson I’d been meaning to get to for some time, and assorted other things, including a Marvel comics giant I had as a kid, and was now able to get in near mint condition 45 years later for the bold price of $4.50. I wasn’t in any danger of running out of books to read around the house, but now I’m even better armed.
  7. I’ve been thinking lately of two writers in particular, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Because each of them wrote a science-fictional short story about rain that wouldn’t end. Right now, outside my window, I can hear Noah pounding nails into his big new boat. I like London enormously. I just never expected to be living there in Los Angeles.

Truth about Jeff Beck

Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

I saw guitar hero Jeff Beck, who died today, play live in 2013 here in LA. He opened for Brian Wilson — and, um… I thought he was kinda dull. I didn’t wish him dead, though!

He might have wished some harm to Brian Wilson & Co., though, given what he later said about that tour, in an interview that may provide a clue about Mr. Beck’s underwhelming performance.

Brian Wilson, by the way, sang off-key. I am second to none in my love and admiration for Brian Wilson and his music, but when Mr. Brian Wilson (!) sings flat, that’s the night I call it quits in seeing him “perform.” And that’s exactly what I did: told my friend who’d accompanied me that I loved Brian Wilson so much that, no, I could never again go see him perform because I’d never forget the sound of Brian Wilson ruining his catalog for me.

On a happier note, Roger Daltrey of the Who remains in fine fettle, and is somehow still a dynamic singer at age 78. You may feel reassured and ready to enjoy his live shows with abandon. Ditto Micky Dolenz, a mere 77, who still has the pipes, and is on a never-ending tour where he now sings “Hey, hey I’m the Monkee…”

If there’s a rock n’ roller you want to see play live, especially an elderly one, I wouldn’t wait. And given the rock n’ roll lifestyle, it’s amazing that some of them are still around.

Sign of the end times?

Monday, January 9th, 2023

The former front man of the Sex Pistols, best known for “Anarchy in the UK,” has released a single that’s a ballad about his love for Hawaii. 

My life as a publisher

Sunday, April 10th, 2022

The pages of the next issue of Woof just weren’t flowing well. On some pages, the graphics were bumping up harshly against other graphics. On other pages, whole vistas of white space held just a tiny carryover paragraph of text — what would fill the rest? The freshly transferred press-apply lettering (ah, Letraset) was peeling in more than one place, and I suddenly had a flash of insight that I’d completely forgotten to mention more than one important thing — like my playwriting workshop! — that was relevant to one story and that presented a real signup opportunity! I also wondered: Was it permissible on one page to run a list of names of subscribers whose addresses I’d lost? “Have you seen these people?” might be the headline, in the hopes that others would know them and would contact them.

As I paged through the mockups, all of them lovingly crafted by hand, with rubber-cemented columns of type and illustrations, and lots of Liquid Paper applied, I wondered if I could fit in any more comics from Rich Roesberg. I’d already used the good ones, but I still had that white space, and I could dig further into my archives of “just in case” illos from him.

I wasn’t even sure the pages were flowing correctly. Where was page 20? I turned to the small staff helping me — two other people I now can’t identify — and shrieked, “Who laid this out?!?!?”

The answer, of course, was ME.

Then I woke up, my heart thrumming, my mind churning, scrambling desperately to figure out what I was going to write to fill that white space.

Gradually, as light started filtering into my bedroom from the sun rising outside, it dawned on me that there was no new issue of Woof, and that there would be no new issue of Woof, and that there had been no new issue of Woof in more than 40 years.

My publishing empire was no more.

It had started in my adolescence, with Amazing Comix, a fanzine about comics that I published out of my parents’ basement using a hectographic printing system. “Printing system” while, technically true, is putting it kindly. With a hectograph “machine” (ha!), one would create an original on a master, carefully imprint that negatively on a tray of jelly, then lay each individual copy of a blank piece of paper onto that tray of jelly, pulling up a positive imprint. This is a process still used for making temporary tattoos, it’s long obsolete for printing on paper, but, in its heyday was, as Wikipedia notes, useful for printing “small runs of school classroom test papers, church newsletters and science fiction fanzines.” I don’t remember from which of those sources I learned this process, but somehow I got a hold of a hectograph kit and started printing fanzines. The hectograph was cheap and easy, yes, and thrilling as a way to launch the publishing empire of a kid in the 1970s. It was also messy, printed everything in lavender ink, and would sometimes leave globs of jelly on the pages, which I’d carefully try to pluck or scrape off.

You may wonder, “Why use hectograph and not, say, Xeroxing?” Well, in the mid-1970s, black-and-white Xerox copying cost 25 cents a copy. That was in 1970s money, when a full 32-page comic book in glorious color on newsprint with a glossy cover cost between 25¢ and 35¢. Xerox copying cost the equivalent of $1.25 a page. (I share this as a reminder for those who think that prices go only up. I also share that the first computer printer I bought, which printed on 4″-wide strips of what was like aluminum foil, circa 1980 cost an astonishing $800. Nowadays you can get a printer for about free because they just want to sell you the ink.

I don’t remember how many issues of Amazing Comix I put out, and no, I’m not going to look right now, and I don’t know how many copies, either. Given the tedium of the process, I’m thinking I might have done 100, which makes my constant monitoring of the fanzine history sites on Facebook, in the hopes that one of my old publications will turn up, ludicrous. Still, I did have readers, and contributors, and I may have done six or seven issues. I can’t remember. Somewhat fewer than 10. My contributors and included writers and artists around the U.S., and England (!), and so did my readers. One of the readers who became a contributor was a gentleman named Richard F., who was active military, and who came to visit me when he was on leave. There we were, in my parents’ basement, me at age 14 and he at around 27, were he gifted me with $40 to help with publishing some upcoming issues; when I demurred, he said that if I didn’t take it, he’d just “spend it on whores.”

So you see, publishing was an educational endeavor for me, too.

Prior to the publishing wing of my enterprises, I had started a comic-book retailing company, Dungeon Ventures (again, because it was run out of my parents’ basement — and thank God for basements!). I had talked a local bank into giving me a checking account by lying to them, saying it was a “Christmas club account.” A Christmas club account was where someone would save money to buy Christmas presents at the end of the year (and, I add, with the insight of an adult, the bank would gather interest without paying any out). Once I had the “Christmas club account,” I ordered checks in the name of Dungeon Ventures. Now that I was a publisher, I had business cards made with my name on them, the company name, and “Publishers/Retails in Comics.” The card is a blur of mixed messages — bad company name, having nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, with which it was constantly confused; publishers and retailers; poor branding — but, still, it screamed “legitimacy” when your main facial feature was acne.

At that point, while in high school and running my comic-book business (now with a slightly older business partner I’d met through the pages of a comic-book letters column) and working 20 hours a week at The Atlantic City Press taking classified ads over the phone and gloriously exploring the world of teenage girls, I started adding titles to the publishing house. I don’t remember the second one (wow) or if it even got off the ground, but I do remember the next three. One was Axes, a rock-and-roll newspaper with professional newspaper printing and actual distribution and ad sales that was distributed around southern New Jersey, mostly to record shops and clubs. One was the aforementioned Woof, which was a Xeroxed (!) humor publication, and one was the ill-fated Screw Iran Coloring Book, for which Rolling Stone rejected my ad buy because they thought I was trying to capitalize on the hostage situation in Iran — an understandable but questionable ethical leap from them, considering the flagrantly illegal sex-and-drugs ware they were admitting into their ad pages. For the full story of the Screw Iran Coloring Book, look here, then here. (And if you want to order one because they’re highly collectible, let me know, because I’ve got a few left — and Dan Stumpf, I still need to send you yours!)

Axes lasted three issues, not being the first new publication to collapse due to advertising and distribution problems. I also did several comics catalogs, cheerily illustrated by Roesberg (who remains my favorite cartoonist) and in my files somewhere. And then I stop publishing at some point during college, when to work writing and editing for the Gannett newspaper chain, then became a copy editor and production editor at the not-cleverly renamed Press of Atlantic City, then moved out here to Los Angeles to go to grad school.

Where I re-emerged as a publisher, putting out 75 issues of The L.A.. Gang Bang, a ‘zine about the personal lives of four transplants (myself and my roommates) to Los Angeles. In all the hubbub of the 1990s zine craze, we got somewhat known for it, were frequently reviewed in other publications, had hundreds (hundreds!) of subscribers and readers in the U.S. and Europe, got written up in the Los Angeles Times, and didn’t get a book deal out of it (as others did) because I was either distracted or stupid. Or both.

The L.A. Gang Bang wrapped up 28 years ago and, with it, my publishing career. I did put together seven or 10 bound copies of samples from my work, which I called Wrench and distributed to close friends and family members, but that also was in the neighborhood of 30 years ago. And we self-published our programs at Moving Arts during the 10 years I was artistic director (with intros written by me), but I stepped down 21 years ago.

After all this time, there’s something I miss about being a publisher. I loved putting together the issues. I loved going to the mailbox and seeing what subscriptions had arrived, and what letters of comments, and how much money. I loved the smell of it all, even of the funky hectograph ink and jelly. Even after awakening, fully awakening, I thought: Maybe I could do another issue of Woof. The 40th anniversary next issue. In time for my 60th. Because I miss publishing.

And then I realized that my publishing career has actually continued. Because I’ve been publishing this blog since 2004.

The last Monkee

Friday, December 10th, 2021

Three weeks ago, a friend and I saw the surviving members of the Monkees in their final performance. However much my friend and I tried to wish it otherwise, it was a melancholy affair, given the sad state of Mike Nesmith, who died today.

Micky Dolenz, it must be said, remains a vital performer at age 76. Dolenz is one of the great unheralded pop singers of the past half century, someone with a terrific voice who is also a natural showman — he’s able to hit all the notes, still and as always, and his stage energy is miraculously undiminished. At this point I’ve seen many rock and pop performers in their 70s, and to my ear and eye, Dolenz is the best preserved. A few years ago I told a friend during a concert that this had to be the last time I’d see Brian Wilson, because I never expected Brian Wilson, of all people, to be off-key, and I didn’t want my fond memories of the Beach Boys tarnished. If you have a chance to see Micky Dolenz, who undoubtedly will continue touring, take it — he’s a wonderful performer, he’s glad to entertain you, and you’ll be glad you’re there for it.

Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of Mike Nesmith. Just three years earlier, he’d been in fine form in another performance, again with Dolenz, at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles — playing guitar, singing well, buoyant and happy to be there, shimmering with all the love the audience threw at him. Their duet on “Me and Magdalena,” absolutely the highlight of the Monkees’ penultimate (and transcendent) album “Good Times!” was delivered with all the keening heartfelt emotion required. But tonight, at the Greek Theatre, we were stunned to see that not only couldn’t Nesmith play guitar, or even hold one, he could barely stand. At strange moments, he would absentmindedly shuffle off-stage or simply wander around the stage in ways that had many of us in the audience worrying that he’d fall over; at other times, his expression made clear that he wasn’t sure where he was or what he was doing or even perhaps who he was. At one point, he cried awkwardly; at another, Mr. Dolenz had to call for him to return to the stage: “Nez! Nez! I need you for this song…”.

It has been a hard couple of years for many people. For Mr. Nesmith, perhaps harder. So when I learned today that he had died, I was saddened, but, given the evidence, not surprised.

It isn’t easy to say this, but here goes: He shouldn’t have been on-stage. When your audience spends a concert deeply concerned about your health, there’s something wrong with the event.

I don’t know how one could ever know when a performer should retire. One of my favorite performers, Dame Edna, retired a few years ago, still at her (his) height. While I wish I could see that act again, I recognize that that was a very high-wire act, filled with smart rapid-fire improv and audience-involved repartee that was doubtless growing more difficult for an octogenarian. When David Lee Roth hung up his tights a few weeks ago, I congratulated him on Twitter because it was quite evident that he could no longer sing, and if I had seen all the mocking videos of his recent performances, I’m sure he had as well. I wish him a happy retirement. Performers like to perform, and we like to see them do so… but we don’t want to see them when they shouldn’t be doing it any more, and I’m sure they don’t truly want to be seen in that light either.

While part of me is glad that I got to see Mike Nesmith one last time, and during his very final concert, a greater part of me wishes the last time I’d seen him was in 2018, when he was still radiant. I’ve always liked the Monkees (I’ve been seeing them in concert for 30 years), and I’ve always liked Mr. Nesmith’s singing and his songs. I’m grateful for all the music and all the good times. But the previous final tour should have been the final final tour.

When or if you have the chance and the interest, go see the last Monkee, Micky Dolenz. He’s still got it. For now.

Sparks flew

Sunday, June 27th, 2021

I enjoyed the new documentary “The Sparks Brothers” tremendously in a showing today with my elder son. The film, made by the obvious fanboy Edgar Wright, oozes with enjoyment of the band Sparks, an enjoyment I share. The style of the film is what I’ll call pop-collage — fitting for a band consumed with style and that has adopted different ones throughout their 50 years. It’s bright, entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and at the end joyous and moving. Deservedly, the reviews have been almost universally positive.

Almost.

Owen Gleiberman, in Variety, praises the film and also aspects of the band. But there’s one important thing he doesn’t like. Here’s his entire review, should you want to read it, but this seems like the summation:

“In fact, by the time ‘The Sparks Brothers’ is over, there’s only one thing you may not actually like about Sparks, and that (forgive me) is their music.There’s a reason why Sparks, after half a century, remained the pop music world’s best-kept secret. Their catalogue might be called ’25 albums in search of a hook.‘ “

Ouch.

This doesn’t leave me regretting the several Sparks albums I own, or my fond memories of seeing them on TV, or the numerous times I’ve seen them in concert, including in a tiny venue when it was just the two of them without a full band. His review doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm, and neither does my wife, who is of the strong opinion that Sparks “don’t know how to write a song,” and who whenever we’re riding together and one of the band’s songs comes on in my car will screech, “Ugh! Sparks! TURN THIS OFF!”

And sometimes, I do. Just for her.

Because we’re free to disagree.

And while as someone who not only admires the brothers Ronald and Russell Mael for their indefatigable devotion to their sometimes hopeless-seeming career but also enjoys their music and has at times proselytized on their behalf, I disagree with Owen Gleiberman about that music… I think he may have a point. Perhaps the brothers Mael don’t know how to write and deliver a hook… because hooks are associated with popular music, and their music is somewhat-known, but not “popular.”

I say this as a devotee of Pere Ubu, and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and Copernicus and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and Van Dyke Parks’ solo material, and Steve Reich, and innumerable other recording acts that have rarely if ever been “popular.”

These not-popular acts are popular with me. And with other devotees. Pere Ubu, especially, sounds aimed right at me. Whatever that is, it’s right for me. I felt that the first time I heard it. A friend said he turned on their album “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo,” an album I consider one of their most accessible, and at the very beginning of the first song, his wife implored him to turn it off. Okay, it isn’t for her. That’s fine. I still get to have it. And I can’t ever get enough of it. And neither can some other people around the globe. There just aren’t enough of those people for the band to be considered mainstream.

So it doesn’t bother me a bit that Owen Gleiberman doesn’t like Sparks. Or, for that matter, that Robert Christgau, a critic who has hailed much of Pere Ubu’s catalog, positively pissed on their album “Why I Hate Women,” which I love. Having read all his Ubu reviews, I’ve decided that he likes his Ubu in a particular way, while I’m happy to journey with them wherever they go. It’s always an exploration, and this was one he didn’t come along for.

But.

Over on the Sparks fanboy page on Facebook, of course, there are people whose hair is on fire because Owen Gleiberman doesn’t like the band. At last count there were 55 angry comments about Mr. Gleiberman and his seeming ignorance; some of them are a losing soccer team storming the field. Some of them admonished him for not carefully listening to all 25 Sparks albums so as to expand his tastes before daring to write that review of the film. Reading through the thread of comments, I finally posted this:

“Y’Know what? It’s fine. He doesn’t like them. The idea that if only he’d hear more of it then he’d like it more is naive. I love Pere Ubu, the film ‘My Dinner With Andre’, and capers on my seafood — not everyone does. His opinion doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Sparks one bit, and it won’t keep me up at night futilely trying to overturn it either.”

A few people thanked me for that, which was nice, but a fan named David remains Very Upset that the men in Sparks still can’t get complete and ultimate respect: “no man it’s not fine after 50 years to receive that kind of disrespect?!”

To which I replied, “Sure it is. Look at the slings and arrows suffered by Robert Crumb. Or Philip Roth. It comes with putting your work out in public.”

This shouldn’t have to be said, but I did say it there, so I’ll say it here as well: If every review had to be positive, what would be the point of publishing it — or of reading it?

In one segment of the film, it comes to light that Sparks did an album with Franz Ferdinand, another band I like, and called it FFS. I have that album, and I think it’s terrific — a collaboration between two bands with overlapping outlooks. That collaboration seems to have brought Sparks countless new fans in South America and Mexico, where Franz Ferdinand are popular. My son hadn’t heard that album, and on the way home said he’d have to get that, because the song played in the movie sounded great.

And that is one way to measure this film’s success: the number of adherents it’s going to add. Owen Gleiberman’s opinion won’t matter.

Now where’s the great Pere Ubu documentary?

The end-of-the-month post

Friday, April 30th, 2021

So, no, I can’t end April with only one post. So here we are, with the end-of-the-month post.

I remember the years when I used to post here every day. Maybe I’ll get back to that. If it gives you any comfort* — because I’m sure you no doubt want comforting about what I’m up to — I will tell you that I’ve been very productive during our little global pandemic.

I wrote three full-length plays**, and one of them is headed into production now with an opening targeted for June. (More about that soon.)

I also devoted a lot of time to listening to, and interacting with, and researching even more about, the world’s greatest rock band.*** Time well-spent indeed!

I bought about eleventy-billion more glorious old moldering comic books from the 1940s through 1980s and carefully curated them right into my collection.

And I’ve been doing a lot-lot-lot of reading, and I’ve been working on some exciting projects and initiatives at my company, and I’ve even occasionally had friends over to sit in the back yard and smoke cigars and drink bourbon and talk about writing and the theatre.

And somewhere in all that, I went and got vaccinated. I hope you do that too, if you haven’t already.

And we’ve had lots of repair work done around the house and yard, even up until today, and even more scheduled, and… ugh.

I thought I’d just catch you up somewhat obliquely on some of these things before May hits us smack in the face in the morning. And at some point — perhaps this weekend? — I’ll write one of the two longish posts that have been floating around in my head for literally months now, one of which I’ve actually written notes for, and one of which I’ve taken a photo for. The former one involves the Bee Gees, while the latter one involves Philip K. Dick and Adam Strange.

Stay tuned!

* It actually gives me comfort, as someone raised very German Lutheran, and therefore tied to work. Work is my joy. My people, when we die, say, “I wish I’d worked more.”

** When asked how many of his plays were full-length, Edward Albee famously replied, “All of them.” (Even his 10-page ones.) But in this particular case, I mean a running time of 75-120 minutes.

*** Pere Ubu, of course! There’s always something great going on over here!

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.