Gut Punches of the First Order Inaugurate Signature, Atlantic Theater Seasons

We are in for a bracing year of serious-minded theater in New York City if the first two offerings of the 2017-2018 season at the Signature and Atlantic theater companies are any indication.

The searing Fucking A, by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Signature, one of two “riffs” by Parks on The Scarlet Letter, dates to 2001. [The second of these “Red Letter Plays,” In the Blood, is also at the Signature; will see that later this month.] The “scarlet letter” of the play is an “A” for abortionist; the setting is anywhere/anytime and universal.

Simon Stephens’s tie-your-stomach-in-knots On the Shore of the Wide World at the Atlantic was first produced in London in 2005.  The play traces three generations of a grief-stricken family in what would seem to be genetically-induced emotional turmoil.

Both plays resonate with the graceful language of classics.

The casts are excellent, as is the direction (Jo Bonney, Fucking A; Neil Pepe, On the Shore). On the Shore could use trimming and refining in the second act, and several of the American actors would do well to tone down the British accents, but that shouldn’t stop you. In both cases, be prepared. In your gut.

© 2017; Ira Mayer.

The Antidote: 12,124 Miles

It is not easy to feel great about America right now. But there is an antidote.

My wife Riva and I spent nine weeks this summer on a cross-country trek in our trusty 2005 Toyota Camry with three hubcaps. “We’re from Brooklyn,” said Riva when I wanted to replace the missing hubcap before we ventured out. “I like the look. It says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’” IM-RB Columbia River Gorge

It’s 47 years since I first drove cross-country, camping with my buddy Howard. I had just graduated high school; Howard had finished his first year at Wharton. This 2017 trip was Riva’s first sea-to-shining-sea by car.

As now, 1970 was a politically fraught time in the U.S. The Vietnam War was raging, and it was on that trip that I learned my draft lottery number (206; no need to go to Canada). In the course of the 2017 trip, my Medicare card got activated, and we mostly steered clear of the news and talk radio.

Howard and I had a canvas tent that he recently threw out. Riva and I stayed mostly in cheap motels and Airbnb’s with good shower heads, comfortable mattresses, mini-fridges and complimentary breakfasts — sometimes quite extensive breakfasts, as at Miriam’s b&b in Whitefish, Montana and at the Piccadilly Motel in Radium Hot Springs, BC (yes, we went to Canada this time).

Howard and I visited mostly national parks along the southern route and ate a great deal of canned Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli, heated in the can on our camp stove. Riva and I primarily visited national and state parks and forests in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, shopping for provisions at farm stands, Safeways and IGAs. Typical dinner from our cooler: triple-washed arugula, pulled chicken, and orzo or Greek salad all mixed together.

How to feel great about America?

  • Pay heed to Mary, the ranger in Olympic National Park who, upon learning we wanted to take a late afternoon drive up to Hurricane Ridge, warned that we’d be “driving into a cloud with zero visibility, 40 mph winds, and heavy rains. I wouldn’t go myself.” Instead, Mary suggested a scenic 30-minute drive to Crescent Lake, where we might have drinks on the veranda or dinner at the lodge. We shared an artichoke and soup, and downed a local IPA and a Washington State chardonnay on an enclosed porch overlooking a lake that mirrored the mountains and the clouded sunset. Said Riva, “I could live out my days right here.” Next day, after thanking her for sending us to Crescent Lake, Mary gave us the thumbs-up for the magnificent hike on Hurricane Ridge.
  • Hear Woody Guthrie’s words come to life as you visit the National and State Redwood Forests in northern California. Drive or hike through the Avenue of the Giants and the Valley of the Giants at dusk, when the 300-foot tall trees jump out at you at every curve. Stay at the Curly Redwood Inn in Crescent City, CA, where the entire meticulously maintained 1950s motel is built from and decorated with the lumber produced by a single redwood tree.
  • Circle the Colorado National Monument, 20 minutes west of Grand Junction, Colorado, in the northwest corner of the state. Following the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive yields a stunning landscape of red rock cliffs and sandstone monoliths that rose out of the earth as much as 1.5 billion years ago. One of my favorites, with little tufts of green sprouting from the rocks, resembles Kermit the Frog (look carefully in the lower left corner of the left photo).
  • Celebrate a 16-year-old Mennonite girl in Fairfield, Montana (pop. 724) whose parents hosted us in their Airbnb and who passionately told her big city guests, “Town may only be two blocks long, but it has everything you could ever need.” Elk RoomHer 24-year-old brother had sacrificed his room for our benefit when our plans changed at the last minute — we got “The Elk Room,” complete with three sets of antlers, elk light switch plate, elk sheets, and elk lamp.
  • Turn into every scenic viewpoint or bypass. They are there for good reason. In 12,124 miles, we took most of them — and regretted only those we didn’t see soon enough to slow down. Sometimes we made U-turns to get back to them, as we did after passing a drive-through Lady Bug Bikini Espresso shed in Tacoma and a lavender farm in Sequim, WA (pronounced Skwim).
  • StrawberriesShop local, especially when in season. “Those strawberries? My parents picked them two hours ago,” said the young man running the Esparto, CA farm stand proudly. “The peaches were yesterday afternoon.” We ate the peaches in the parking lot, our chins still dripping as we went back for more. He works the farm nine months a year, then travels the globe the other three months.
  • Listen to the woman in that same parking lot who, overhearing about our trip, volunteered that “the best butcher you’ll ever find is five miles down this road.” That’s a challenge to this son of a butcher, I explain, especially given that we weren’t cooking on the road. “They make the best roast beef sandwiches,” she promised. They did. And then, taking another scenic detour, we happened upon the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast in Lake County, California, which she’d also recommended. Nine cabooses, each on a small track-bed and each with its own period furnishings.
  • Bring a dedicated camera with good optical zoom as well as your Smartphone to document the bears, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, moose (if you’re lucky), birds, bison, and buffalo.

    And use Google or Siri or Alexa to discover how to distinguish crows from ravens, complete with samples of the different sounds they make. Couldn’t do that in 1970!

Each day brought new delights. Just as we might start thinking, “Gee, that was so incredible, nothing is going top it, let’s just start home,” we’d take another detour, hike, or drive and discover another breath-taking waterfall in Yosemite completely unlike any of the others we’d seen. White Cap GeyserOr be among the first to reach the just-cleared-of-snow Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in July. Or witness from just steps away the little-visited White Cap Geyser in Yellowstone which shoots 30-feet into the air promptly every half hour on the quarter hour and is but a few miles from finicky Old Faithful. Or find ourselves laying on a tarp on an open field in Yosemite at 10 p.m., staring at the night sky as a ranger recounts how his mother climbed El Capitan with him, at 18 months old, on her back, starting the process of instilling in him a passion for nature and country.

You don’t have to spend nine weeks or travel across the country for this antidote to work. The genesis of this trip was a series of family and work events that happened to take us NY>Chicago>Las Vegas>LA, in that order, over the course of three weeks.

There were stops along that route, too, visiting Ohio’s Cuyahoga National Park near Youngstown, OH where Riva grew up; getting a quick tour of St. Louis from plein air artist and muralist Allen Kriegshauser and his wife Patti (top row above right is one of Allen’s murals for a classroom at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, MO), stopping for great BBQ at Q39 in Kansas City after visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and so on. Being in LA positioned us to visit the USS Midway and get a fascinating over-in-an-instant five hour private tour of the aircraft carrier by Riva’s cousin/doctor/Midway docent Bob Berns. And then it was Yosemite and north.

What we ultimately learned, as Riva put it upon our return, “We need more green in our lives.” And that can be whatever local park, forest or trail is available, for however long we/you have.

That’s America the beautiful. And that’s easy to feel great about.

Text and photos © 2017 Ira Mayer.

50 Years On: Ira Mayer’s Folk of All Ages

Click here for the Spotify playlist.

In 1967, I was a student at Far Rockaway High School in Queens, New York. I was participating in anti-Vietnam War marches, with Phil Ochs’s sister, Sonny Ochs, who lived nearby, leading the requisite sing-alongs; spearheading a program to convince the community that permitting a Phoenix House drug rehab center in the area would be beneficial to the neighborhood; and walking past Sam Goody’s house nearby — yes, Sam of the then-small New York area Sam Goody record chain — who appeared to be pressing records in his garage. The sting of Mrs. Fink berating our 5th grade class at Beth El Day School for not having insisted our parents takes us to the March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King was still fresh. I wasn’t going to let these latter-day movements pass me by.

Clearwater 1969

On the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, at Newport, RI, for the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. From left, Gordon Bok, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Len Chandler, Lou Killen, Pete Seeger, Jimmy Collier. Photo © Ira Mayer

I was already a pop culture junkie and opera lover, attending concerts at Izzy Young’s tiny Folklore Center, by then on Sixth Ave. in Manhattan (now in Sweden), Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn College, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere. Apart from maintaining a journal, I started reporting on my escapades in the Rockaway Wave, which had bestowed a weekly column on me to write about high school. That happened to be the year of a city-wide teacher strike (two weeks in the fall of ’67, and then May through November of ’68). I had space to fill, and music and theater fit the bill as far as I was concerned. Conservative as the editors no doubt were personally, they left me to my (de)vices and published my early reviews.

That’s about when I started compiling my own songbook, pulling together the civil rights, anti-war and general social commentary songs that drove a budding liberal’s heart, guitar and banjo. I transcribed the lyrics by hand from LPs I purchased from the 25-cent cut-out bins at discount department store E.J. Korvettes, and, at substantially higher prices, at Sam Goody’s; at G. Schirmer’s, which specialized in sheet music but where you could listen to an album in a private, phone booth-size “room” before purchasing; and at Discophile, a basement record shop on W. Eighth Street in Greenwich Village known for its classical music imports.

Transcribing the lyrics meant picking up the tone arm on my turntable and putting it back down dozens of times for each song, then playing each back and editing. Occasionally I was lucky, and one of the songs was published in Sing Out! or Broadside, two earnest left-wing “folk music” magazines — though what constituted “folk” in a newly energized world of singer-songwriters was an on-going debate. Sing Out!, founded by Pete Seeger, Irwin Silber and others, and Broadside, run by wife and husband anarchists Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gil Friesen out of their apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan, were open to anything left of left and an antidote to fan magazines such as Hit Parader, which published the lyrics to AM radio’s top 40 hits. There were also songbooks featuring early works of Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs.

When I arrived for freshman orientation at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, in the summer of 1970, one of the elevators had just been tear-gassed as part of an anti-war protest. I’d entered from the Lexington Ave. side of the building so didn’t realize the school had been evacuated and my fellow students were all on the median on Park Ave. I wrote about the experience and mailed the article to the Village Voice, a weekly “alternative” newspaper. They weren’t interested. But shortly after, Bernie Klay, who ran the Sunday afternoon bluegrass and old-timey music concert series at the 23rd St. McBurney YMCA took me aside before a Doc Watson concert.

Bernie, like Izzy Young at the Folklore Center, had been letting me in for free as “press” thanks to my high school column in the Wave, taking care of me as they took care of many others, I would eventually learn, from the meager receipts of the concerts they produced that would attract anywhere from 12-150 people.

“Ira, it’s very nice that these reviews you write are in the Rockaway Wave, but how about trying the Village Voice or somewhere people will see them?”

“Who do I send them to?”

“Diane Fisher. 80 University Place. She’s the editor of the Voice music reviews.”

I wrote a review of the Doc Watson concert that Sunday afternoon and took it over to 80 University Place, where I pushed it under the glass door (the paper was closed weekends). That Wednesday I bought the Voice as I usually did — only this time, there was my review.

I went to something the following week (a Joan Baez concert, if memory serves) and pushed the review under the door the next Sunday. Wednesday came, and nothing. So I wrote another review (Michael Cooney, I think). And that Wednesday the Baez and Cooney reviews ran.

Was there an every-other-week pattern here? Who knew? I figured I’d see if one more review runs and then call and ask if I could get some money for transportation and tickets to concerts where I couldn’t get in for free. Living at home and commuting to Hunter, I checked in with my mother from a pay phone one afternoon.

“Ira, there’s an envelope here from the Village Voice. It looks like it might be a check.”

“HOW MUCH IS IT FOR?”

“I didn’t open it.”

“Of course you did. HOW MUCH IS IT FOR?”

“ $60.”

Was that for one review? Two? Did they count that second time I got published as one or two reviews? Was this coming out to $60 per review? $30? $20. I kept writing, putting the envelope under the door, eventually working out that it was $60 per “published occasion,” no matter the number of concerts. Driving from Belle Harbor in the Rockaways to Hunter on the upper East Side I wondered if I could get a press license plate that would let me park anywhere. (No.)

Two years went by of my reviews running initially every other week and ultimately weekly before I decided to press my luck and go meet Diane Fisher, my editor.

“Hi, I’m Ira Mayer,” I told the secretary. She started laughing. “What’s so funny?”

“You’re a real person! All this time we assumed you were a pseudonym for some other writer here, and that the checks we were sending out to Rockaway were to support some woman! I’m not going to announce you — just go in and tell Annie who you are.”

Twenty-one year old heart thumping, I introduced myself. I don’t remember much of the conversation, just that my mentor was very supportive and encouraging, and if I was going to Europe for the summer to music festivals, I should send what I wanted. No promises it would run, but when I got back she made clear I could continue what I’d been doing, writing about traditional American and international folk music, folk-rock, jazz, and, yes, rock and roll, learning about the music as I did so, as we all — the writers mining all this new music for inspiration and a living — did. Which was great, especially since by then I was contributing record reviews to the Sunday New York Times and a few other publications, as well as serving as business manager and sometime reviewer at the Hunter Envoy, the college newspaper where I made some lifelong friends.

It was another two years before Annie Fisher and I spoke again. In 1974, the Village Voice was sold by its founders to Clay Felker, who founded New York Magazine. The Voice’s founding editor and publisher, Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, respectively, were going to be fired, she told me, and “when Dan is out, I’m out, and when I’m out, you’re out. Ross Wetzsteon [then the theater editor] is going to take over music and he hates the way you write.” Annie Fisher, wherever you are, thank you for an incredible start.

Fast forward.

In the late 1970s, I was hired by a collectibles company to come up with a list of the 100 Greatest Folksongs. Beyond the list they paid me for, the project never got off the ground, but it inspired me to look at that collection of protest songs I’d put together in the late ’60s. Maybe that could be issued on LP.

Mike Nadler, my lawyer then and still, never shy to give it to you straight, said, “The only one who will make any money on this is me. The rights clearances for what you want are complex, and Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary don’t license recordings to others. Period.” End of dream for another 40 years. Today, it’s Spotify to the rescue. Of the 72 songs in that original collection, bound in a clip binder with a Work for Peace bumper sticker on the cover, 70 are on Spotify and on this playlist.

Not all the songs on the playlist are the versions I was listening to back then, but the songs themselves are. And, reflecting the period when this originally came together, it’s heavy on Paxton and Ochs. These were songs of solace and hope and determination and humor and beauty and defiance. We would sing and march our way to a better world.

Reading the unthinkable the news of today we need these songs, this spirit, as we did then.

I’ll be adding new playlists over time. Your suggestions, preferred versions, reminiscences, questions and your own shared playlists are invited in comments here and at ira@iramayer.com.

© 2017 Ira Mayer.

Tomer Gewirtzman: Breathtaking Power & Tenderness in YCA Debut Recital

NEW YORK, NY; December 15, 2016—For well over a decade Riva and I have attended half a dozen Young Concert Artists concerts annually. Winners of the YCA competitions, 16-24, are presented in their NYC recital debuts, typically at Merkin or Zankel Halls.

All of these musicians have been supremely talented, but every so often attentiveness morphs to a point where you can feel everyone in the hall holding their breath for the evening, aware that they are witnessing a particularly special emerging talent. Israeli pianist Ran Dank, in 2009, had that effect. Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova a year later did the same, and we’ve since heard each of them in other settings performing with sensitivity and poise and great, great musicality.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-4-32-58-pm

Tomer Gewirtzman

As of Tuesday night, add Israeli-born/New York-based pianist Tomer Gewirtzman to that heady list. In a program of Couperin, Liszt, Corigliano, and Schumann, this strikingly tall young man with incredibly fine, long fingers (even from the balcony it was clear his fingers must be three times the length of mine) seemed to pet, stroke and caress the keys as much as play them.

 

There was great strength expended on the Liszt, for instance, but the tender passages were indeed that. And in the Schumann that tenderness was breathtaking. Gewirtzman, however, invokes the sounds of silence, too, in pauses and breaks, and on this night the audience responded in kind, exhaling and applauding only after the most proper of intervals.

Remembering Oscar Brand

BROOKLYN, NY; OCTOBER 5, 2016—In the late 1960s/early ’70s I took a course on New York City Street Songs with Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel at the New School for Social Research (as the full name was known then). Learning to think of jump rope songs as “folk music” changed the way I thought of “folk music” forever. And you can’t think of Oscar without recalling all the bawdy songs, many of which he recorded and which he periodically performed in concert. When our son was a poli sci major at GWU I gave him a copy of Oscar’s album of election songs that went back to the Revolutionary War era, a distillation of his book on the subject and the years of free Presidents’ Day concerts he gave at the Great Hall of Cooper Union.

Oscar passed away at 96 last Friday.

The range of Oscar’s musical knowledge was astonishing—he also wrote two Broadway musicals—but so was his gentle soul and gentlemanly way. He would roam an audience when it wasn’t his show and come over to say hello to anyone he recognized, never waiting for others to come to him, partly, no doubt, canvassing for guests for his weekly WNYC radio show, which ran continuously for 70 years with the same host. Continuously until the week before he died.

I still have my notes from that six-session class. Not to mention wonderful memories of many short conversations, performances, and radio shows. Oscar, may you and Theo be singing in the sky by and by…

For more complete obits, see: The Observer, The New York Times and WNYC, the latter with links to further resources at the station.

Marie & Rosetta: Up Above Their Heads They Heard Music, Indeed. So Will You

Marie & Rosetta is a stirring and often rousing musical biography of the life of gospel popularizer (and rock and roll predecessor) Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The work focuses on Tharpe’s relationship with her protégé Marie Knight, who Tharpe pulled from Mahalia Jackson’s backup choir and with whom she performed for three years. Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Tharpe and Knight, respectively, belt out the music true to its origins. Playwright George Brant struggled to find an ending, and it’s a little distracting the way the two stars have to mime playing their piano and guitar to (admittedly excellent) off-stage accompaniment, but those few awkward minutes do nothing to diminish the impact of the songs or the story. Directed by Neil Pepe. Runs through October 2 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s W. 20th Street house, NYC.

What’s My Opinion Worth, Anyway?

BROOKLYN, NY; August 18, 2016—I was 18 in 1970 when I started writing about music for the Village Voice, often covering  what is now referred to as “Americana,” but was then just known as “folk music.” Much of what I wrote about was pretty rarefied: Blind Alfred Reed, Aunt Molly Jackson, Michael Cooney but also John Denver, Doc Watson, and then lots of rock and roll. Yes, I pretty much saw and listened to, and often reviewed, every musician and band out there between 1970 and 1990 when I stopped writing for newspapers.

But back in the early 1970s, when I went to interview Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy Records in Sharon, CT, they were taken aback at what I drove (a Camaro—they were expecting a VW bug) and my age (“You write as though you’ve been listening to this music for years!”) Similarly, it was two years after I first started writing for the Voice before I met my editor, Diane (Annie) Fisher (if you’re out there, thank you for getting me started!). I’d been putting my reviews and articles under the door at 80 University Place — the Voice’s home then — on Sunday afternoons, and buying the paper on Wednesdays to see if they’d run what I’d written.

I was in college, at Hunter, and didn’t even realize the Voice was going to pay me, but they did! When I finally mustered the courage to go meet the editor, her  assistant wouldn’t announce me. “We assumed Ira Mayer was a pseudonym for one of the other writers here, and that those checks we were sending to Rockaway Beach were supporting some woman! Just go in and introduce yourself.”

What I was learning was the importance of writing authoritatively; that, and doing my best to write in proper English and to deliver on deadline, got me into The Sunday New York Times for several years back then, too and about a decade later as pop music reviewer and feature writer for the New York Post for about 13 years.

Yes, I listened widely, read a great deal, had been playing piano for at least 10 years by the time I started, and had taught myself guitar and banjo, and took some accordion lessons. But would any of that count for expertise in an era where anyone (even me) can blog? What’s anyone’s opinion worth, anyway? Or mine?

Here’s Tom Nicholls, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, on The Death of Expertise, as published in The Federalist: “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” (Thanks Michelle Dollinger for the link to Nicholls.)