Jottings from a pop culture junkie

OCT. 23, 2018—We should have known to trust Young Concert Artists. Now in its 58th year introducing young classical musicians and vocalists, most of  the artists have both technique and character. Occasionally, we’ve heard someone who was technically excellent without connecting emotionally with the music. But a classical accordion player? What has history led us to expect? Astor Piazzolla was the exception; Lawrence Welk sticks in more memories.

Hanzhi Wang, who made her NYC debut last night at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, was a delightful surprise, no fretting warranted. From the opening Bach Partita in C-minor (see an earlier performance here) through to pieces written for her by Danish composer Martin Lohse, whose work is at the heart of her first LP (listen on Spotify here), and Sophia Gubaidulina, this was a musician of stunning skill and heart.

Hanzhi’s bio says nothing of how she came to be enamored of this instrument or music, studying as she did in her native China, then in Denmark. But her soul is clearly born to it. Mind you, I had to take a nap after every accordion lesson — the instrument was almost as big as I was at 10. My last “performance” was 20 years ago, arriving at friends’ New Year’s Eve party scratching out Auld Lang Syne. Hanzhi Wang, in her 20s, takes the instrument — and her listeners — to fresh depths.

It’s the right confluence of events with:
The Village Trip celebrating the arts in Greenwich Village Sept. 27th-30th;
Girl From the North Country, a wonderful Conor McPherson play with a Depression Era theme that is brilliantly enlarged by some 20 Bob Dylan songs having just begun performances at the Public Theater; and
Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done on-going through Feb. 3rd at the Museum of Modern Art;
• Artist David Wojnarowicz’s retrospective at the Whitney and NYU Bobst Library.
While there are a few tickets available for Girl From the North Country’s limited run at the Public (it is expected to move to Broadway), there are plenty of opportunities to partake in The Village Trip, and time to take in the Judson and Wojnarowicz exhibits, but the focus here is on The Village Trip.
The Village Trip is a labor of love by Liz Thomson, a British journalist and an editor who worked with the late Robert Shelton on his 1986 (and the much later update) Dylan biography, “No Direction Home.”
Shelton’s original NY Times review of Dylan’s first appearances in the Village certainly focused a spotlight on that boy from the North Country of Minnesota, which is where the McPherson play takes place.
Liz may have lived in London, but she was and remains a Village folkie at heart. And she couldn’t have anticipated when she first started telling me and others of her dream of a “Bringing It All Back Home” festival she wanted to stage in Washington Square Park to celebrate that Dylan album’s 50th anniversary that the Village would be celebrated in so many ways this fall.
The anniversary came and went, but Liz enlisted Liz Law as her Stateside executive director and many trans-Atlantic trips later the two have built on the original concept which now incorporates not just folk, but the Village relationship to jazz, drama, poetry, and more.
The result is a series of free and paid concerts, guided walks, lectures, exhibitions, and more coming up Sept. 27-30 at various venues including Washington Square Park (Suzanne Vega headlines), the Bitter End (Happy Traum, Tom Chapin, David Massengill, and others), the New School (David Amram and others), and other locales.
Artist-in-residence Amram was and remains active in many of the arts being extolled, and much as he hates the term, is a key link between the “Beats,” the folkies, and the classical world.
Get tickets for Girl From the North Country if you can. You will be moved, and humbled, and amazed at the underlying meanings no one could have anticipated for the Dylan catalog. The MOMA Judson exhibit reflects another facet of the Village’s thriving arts scene. And the Wojnorowicz exhibits are harrowing but representative of a later downtown (and outsider) era. Most immediately, though, sign on for the various events that are part of next weekend’s celebration of The Village Trip. The Dylan, O’Neill, Millay, and Kerouac spirits will be thriving there, too.

There hasn’t been a Village Voice like the one that I had the privilege of writing for in the 1970s for many years. As for many writers, The Voice gave me my start as critic and journalist — thank you Diane Fisher, my editor, wherever you are. I’m saddened by today’s announcement that the Voice is ceasing operations entirely (it stopped publishing a print edition last year). One fewer option for journalists looking to find their own voices.

January 1973. In Boston to see David Bromberg at Club Passim. The opening act is Bruce Springsteen, of whom I write in the Village Voice, “Springsteen’s band was inordinately loud, which worked to his benefit by covering up his vocals and lyrics.”

Riffs Jan. 18 1973

Summer 1974. At a pool party hosted by the publisher of Record World magazine, for which I am now an editor. At this tony weekend home in Wilton, Connecticut, I introduce myself to the legendary talent scout/producer John Hammond, a neighbor of the publisher. Hammond is acknowledged as “discovering” Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. “I know who you are,” he says to me, cutting me off and looking me in the eye. “And Bruce agrees with you about that night in Boston. But he promises you will eat your words.”

August 1975. I attend at least two, maybe more of the legendary Bottom Line shows that kicked Bruce Springsteen’s career into high gear. Saw him in between, opening Upstairs at Max’s Kansas City for Biff Rose, and by late 1973 as a headliner at Max’s. But the Bottom Line shows, one of which was broadcast live on radio, and which coincided with release of his third album, Born to Run, were the spark of ignition.

Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 3.05.14 PM

I never had the balls to introduce myself when I had the chance. Working at Record World, I was also “team photographer” for the Record World Flashmakers softball team. Summer of 1976 the team went out to Redbank, New Jersey a few Saturday mornings to play the E Street band, including Bruce. Among the photos I took was one of Bruce at bat in cut-offs and sneakers. The art director at Record World superimposed an image of Bruce’s guitar over the bat and presented it to him. (In the photo above, Bruce is playing second base.)

There were also shows at the Redbank Theater that stand out. The band vamping quietly behind him, he stood in the spotlight and told stories about his father that were harrowing, clearly for him as well as the audience. But it was raw and honest and vulnerable. “Folkies” at that time could do that sort of thing, but rock and rollers?

Plenty of concert hall, arena, and stadium shows later, some of which I review, many of which I attend simply as a fan, indoctrinating our children over the years into the cult of Bruce.

Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 4.24.35 PMOctober 2017. Springsteen on Broadway, the brilliant distillation of a career which I see this night with my now 31-year-old son who remembers every Springsteen show he has seen, where he (sometimes we) sat, and most of the playlists. Unlike Bob Dylan, whose shadow hovered over Springsteen for many years, and who revels in often changing his songs to the point that long-time fans have difficulty identifying what he’s playing, Springsteen re-works 15 songs to put them in the context of his life, completely familiar but with fresh force, as though you’re hearing — really hearing — some of them for the first time. They are all solo acoustic this night, except for two performed with wife Patti Scialfa. They are embellished with stories, mostly of his childhood and early performing years, delivered while vamping — now doing it himself on guitar or piano — much as he did at the Redbank Theater in the mid-1970s.

A few months after that initial meeting, I am seated next to John Hammond for a concert at Carnegie Hall, and the honorable Mr. Hammond greets me as an old friend, working to put me at ease. I am 22 years old and incredibly appreciative of his kindness and support, talking with me about what I was listening to and writing about.

This morning, 44 years later, I have no doubt that the show I saw with my son last night on Broadway is what John Hammond, who passed away in 1987, saw in his mind when a scrawny 20-something auditioned for him in an office at Columbia Records.

Mr. Hammond, Bruce…my plate is clean.

© 2017 Ira Mayer.

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.

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.