Bob the Gambler, Frederick Barthelme’s fine 1997 novel about Ray and Jewel Kaiser and Jewel’s teenaged daughter RV, concerns itself with the introduction of a fourth member into their pieced-together Mississippi family: gambling, and its effect on their love for one another.
Barthelme knows loss. The one-after-another death of his parents in the mid-Nineties, on the heels of the death of his big brother Donald in 1989, made it possible for Barthelme and his brother Steven (both of them college professors and, like Donald, writers) to gamble away more than $250,000 — most of their inheritance.
Anyone familiar with the allure of gambling will easily understand Ray and Jewel’s beautiful and twisted illogic when they risk all they have — and all they don’t. Barthelme’s accomplishment here is that he makes it possible, too, for his non-wagering readership to comprehend how Ray can, on one hand, cherish a quiet night at home in front of the TV with Jewel and RV, and on the other (the hand holding two queens), risk losing it all.
Along the way, the Kaisers acquaint themselves with other artistic treatises on the subject — most notably Jean-Pierre Melville’s amazing film Bob le Flambeur (providing not only the book with its name, but also RV’s nickname for her stepfather) and Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose protagonists’ ill-fated systems and schemes are somehow lost on Ray and Jewel.
Bob the Gambler is infused with Henry James’ “felt life.” Just as there’s no doubt that at some point Bruce Cockburn encountered a bullet hole in “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” equally convincing is Barthelme’s elegy to an addiction that promises something (and it’s not money) for nothing.
Barthelme’s writing has always been about gambling: seeing how long he can draw out his sentences, his passages, the moments between his characters, until they reveal more than is on the page. Like Peckinpah’s best slow-motion shots, meaning is not found in the action, the action resides in the meaning.
Writing in the same seductive tones as the addiction itself, Barthelme is clearly best friends with the fleeting yet inveigling sensation that comes from beating the odds: the feeling that he’s somehow, if only for a moment, managed his own destiny.
The Nerd is back, the Nerd is back! Sorry about my extended absence but writer’s block is one hell of a problem! After a little boat trip down in Virginia, I feel refreshed and ready to write about more cool, obscure sounds so let’s get to it.
When I got back from my little boat ride, I was excited to find in my mailbox a package from the fine folks at Gott Records (look them up at gottrecords.com) featuring a great reissue CD of Faces keyboardist and all around great guy Ian McLagan’s two solo albums from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s.
Originally a member of the Small Faces when they were a psychedelic rock act fronted by Steve Marriot and turning out masterpieces like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, McLagan remained with the band when they metamorphised (did I just make up a word?) into simply Faces after Marriot quit and Rod Stewart and Ron Wood joined.
As the band turned their psychedelic leanings into more of a good-time boogie-rock band, McLagan’s fine organ and piano work came even further into the fore as a perfect complement to Wood’s slide guitar skronk and bassist Ronnie Lane’s genius bass playing.
All good things must come to an end, though, and when Stewart and Wood each found their side careers going in different directions (Stewart’s as a solo star and Wood as a member of The Rolling Stones) the Faces broke up, leaving several great albums in their wake, the best of which is undoubtedly A Nod Is As Good As A Wink, though Ohh La La is great as well.
It didn’t take McLagan long after the Faces split in 1975 to get his own solo career going. With help from Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr and a host of other British rock vets, the ex-Face recorded the aptly named Troublemaker album in 1977. Though no hit singles were forthcoming, the album should not be penalized for that and is actually one of the best pseudo-pub rock/party rock records ever produced. If only more rockers would drop the airs and just let loose in the studio the world would be a better place. It’s like no one would start rocking if there was any gin left in the building. Fabulous.
McLagan followed up Troublemaker with Bump In The Night in 1981. Again, Wood was on board for some hellacious slide guitar playing but this time McLagan ditched some of his guest stars in favor of his touring band. While not as bombastic as his first solo album, Bump In The Night is far more cohesive with more emphasis placed on the songs instead of the atmosphere. Again, no hit singles resulted and McLagan eventually turned his career into that of a well-known and much-respected session player and touring sideman.
He has played with the best because he is one of the best, leaving a ton of fine recordings both solo and with the Faces incarnations in his wake. Fortunately, the new millenium brought a return to solo recording for McLagan, who has put out the fine album Best Of British on the Gadfly label as well as a few other discs including a new live one available at his website ianmclagan.com
Sadly, a few weeks ago his wife (the former Kim Moon) passed away in a car wreck. I only have best wishes for him as he and his music have brought a ton of joy into my life, I hope he is able to overcome this adversity and continue to make great music.
Please pick up any of McLagan’s solo work or his work with Small Faces and regular Faces. Even his session work will make you smile. Anyone who wants to take the piss out of rock and rool and just have one hell of a rocking time is sure to love anything he has done.
Would you like some Mac?
In their first release since the desolate and stunning Living Eyes (1981), Radio Birdman incorporates broad swaths of vocalist Rob Younger’s solo sound, that anxious, angry garage rock that used to come stamped with the New Christs logo. Mix that with the natural ebullience of a consortium of musical brothers delighted to have found their shared rhythm anew, and you’ve got an original, enticing return to form. Songwriting duties are now shared, with strong offerings throughout. High points include Deniz Tek’s "Die Like April," a haunted, psychedelic reel, Tek/Younger’s aggressive "We’ve Come So Far" and Pip Hoyle’s self-mythologizing "The Brotherhood of Al Wazah" and canivalesque title track. It sounds nothing like what they’ve done before, and yet it feels absolutely like Radio Birdman, with all the intelligence, passion and faith in the transcendent power of rock and roll that implies. Their debut American tour launches at the end of August in Los Angeles; watch this space for a full report.
When this film first opened in Manhattan, its run was so short that, by the time I read about it, it was gone. So it was with considerable delight that I discovered the film had returned, this time to Brooklyn, last week.
Edmond seemed to have everything going for it: a script by David Mamet, based on his 1982 play of the same name; starring the incomparable William H. Macy, always marvelous but especially so in Wayne Kramer’s wonderful 2003 film The Cooler; and director Stuart Gordon, who did HP Lovecraft proud with his adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond. On the surface, this film seemed like a winner.
Therein lies the problem: Edmond is all surface.
Edmond is the same character at the end of the film as he is at the beginning — but it’s not Macy’s fault. The way the story is written, we don’t know if the racial epithets Edmond spews are a sudden eruption or part of his daily routine, whether he’s at the tail end of a journey toward violence or whether it’s a destination he’s inhabited for some time. It’s not a one-note performance but a one-note character, devoid of any sense of what, if anything, has been lost. Just as Gordon’s direction plods from one scene to the next, Edmond is a dead man walking from the first shot to the last (where he becomes a dead man lying down). Because we are not permitted to experience his fall, but rather just follow his somnambulistic walk on the wild side, there is no tragedy. We, like Edmond, feel nothing.
Unlike Cape Fear‘s Max Cady, who promised, “You’re gonna learn about loss,” Edmond offers no such lesson. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s famous obvservation, the film runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Similarly, a litany of usually fine actors are put through their paces so quickly and without distinction that often they’re gone from the screen by the time we realize who they were: Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Dule Hill (fine here in a role that’s about as far from The West Wing‘s Charlie as he can get), Joe Mantegna (always amazing, but especially so as Dean Martin in The Rat Pack), Denise Richards (the Charlie Sheen-Denise Richards divorce), Julia Stiles (so memorable in Mamet’s State and Main), Mena Suvari (the American Beautyherself), Rebecca Pidgeon (also fine State and Main — and married to Mr. Mamet), and Debi Mazar (not used nearly enough in Entourage). Despite all this thespian firepower, the only onscreen chemistry occurs in the scene between Macy and Stiles in her character’s apartment, when, for a fleeting moment, it seems as if she and Edmond might have found in each other a twisted kindred spirit. Alas, even that spark is extinguished before it can ignite anything else.
A gentleman, a few rows ahead of us, served as spokesman for the sparse audience when the film faded out and the lights came up. “That’s it?” he said. Indeed.
Yo Guys, You can stop sending me emails. I am now adding new content. Thanks so much for the nice feedback, and please keep checking out Blue Fringe, Chris Mills, and The Fray.
It is the world’s most scoffed-at art form. It has been denounced as vulgar, irreverent, and irrelevant. It has been decried as filthy, simple and, for lack of a better word—stupid. It is stand-up comedy, and despite the way that the rest of the pop-culture universe looks at it, stand-up is performed in basements, attics, and back rooms of countless Chinese restaurants across the country. And, what’s more, it’s blasting its way past every barrier en route to your sophisticated eyeballs and carefully maintained eardrums. Whether you like it or not.
For a long time, music has distanced itself from comedy, especially stand-up, and rarely does a comedy album reach a prominent spot on the record charts. Large record labels usually do not put out comedy albums, and at the end of 2005, only two of the top 200 albums were of the comedy variety. But in 2006, one comedian with a great idea and a few hundred thousand friends flipped the entire world of pop culture on its ass. His name is Dane Cook, and his album, Retaliation, is helping comedy move out of the “Soundtrack” and “Spoken Word” sections, and onto the Billboard charts.
If one had to pinpoint an exact moment where comedy’s Retaliation began, you would have to go back to 1979, at about the time that Barry Crimmins, an aspiring comic, walked into the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge, MA and convinced the owner to let him book a few shows. The products of those sessions, which featured chucklemeisters like Steve Sweeney, Lenny Clarke, Denis Leary, Tony V, and Steven Wright, cemented Boston’s place in comedy history, and kickstarted a New England laugh scene that is still going strong today. The Ding Ho shows stopped in 1984, but the torch has essentially been passed to another Cambridge restaurant, Rick Jenkins’ The Comedy Studio, a joint that also features rising stars at decent cover price.
While not as impressive in size as the New York and Los Angeles—you can count all of the city’s comedy clubs on your fingers—Beantown promises instant success to anyone that can get a few laughs, puts a little work in, and distinguishes himself from the crowd. A scene is defined by its devotees, not its fans. Fans may own a Carlin album, catch one show every six years if Seinfeld comes to town on a weekend, and never even think of going to see an unknown comic. Devotees study comedy, they see it once or twice or three times a week. Devotees are often the first to see a rising star, and, much like local music aficionados, know the local ‘scene’ and everyone in it. Boston is filled with these enthusiasts.
But long after the Ding Ho closed, the restaurant’s old patrons caught a glimpse of genius in the explosive, violent style of Dane Cook, and soon, the word was out. Now, five years later, after two albums, hundreds of shows, millions of laughs, the Daneiac is quite possibly the most popular man in the United States. If Cook went on the Ed Sullivan Show today, he’d be a tough act for The Beatles to follow.
But unlike musicians, comedians aren’t signed by top record companies, and don’t receive instant stardom. Fame is not handed over on a silver platter. So how did Dane Cook go from Nick’s Comedy Stop near Chinatown to hosting SNL? By making his fans bosom buddies. By ‘friending’ every MySpacer who asked him. By signing every autograph. By shaking every hand after every show. By pouring his life savings into building an interactive website. By devoting time, energy, and money into connecting individually with fans, Cook has become the hottest name in showbiz.
Forget Johnny Carson. Forget Letterman. Today, comedians are quickly following Cook with their own MySpace sites. Future superstars and established comedy veterans like Myq Kaplan, Danny Hirshon, Gary Gulman, Bobby Kelly, Joe List (at left), Sarah Silverman, Jim Norton, and Jay Davis all have profiles, and use cyberspace as a vehicles to build support and fill seats. MySpace is the new town crier, and the operators of the service fully embraced the site’s new role as Chief Chuckle Lighthouse by setting up a MySpace comedy section. But the major beneficiary of this MySpace boom has not been the comedians themselves, but the network that validates them. Comedy Central.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last decade, you know what Comedy Central is. It brought you the shows that you quote the most often. Fine programs like “South Park,” “The Dave Chappelle Show,” “Mind of Mencia,” and “Reno 911!,” the left-right punch combo of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” both bastions of earnest, balanced reporting; but at the nucleus of Comedy Central is the Comedy, and it is the “Comedy Central Presents…” series is what has made it the Center of Comedy (thus the name). The success of the aforementioned shows has brought a special, well-deserved reputation to the network—as the channel to turn on when you want a laugh. Comedy stars like Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Bob Saget (yes, THAT Bob Saget), Lewis Black, Brian Regan, Greg Giraldo and Stephen Lynch appear regularly, and, as a result, Comedy Central has threatened Fox News’ once secure position as the biggest joke on television.
But on a completely unserious note, armies of comedy fans have overrun record stores in search of a few chuckles. And of course, many of them are passengers on the “Dane Train.” Cook’s sophomore album Retaliation, which debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts, has now become the best-selling comedy album ever. As if to cement Cook’s celebrity status, his new show “Tourgasm,” a behind the scenes look at Cook and three comedy compadres who hit the cross-county road in an awesome tour bus, ripped it up at the (Home) Box Office, and enforced the belief that Stand-Up comedy is dynamite “Dane-o-mite,” and it’s coming to taking over a record store near you.
When I first began visiting Brooklyn, I’d marvel at the sight of a squirrel in the city. Such a sighting was infrequent at best back in Salt Lake (one of my earliest memories is of the squirrels that scurried up and down the trunk of the huge tree behind my Aunt Polly’s house just south of Ninth and Ninth) and always brought with it a sense of wonderment. I was used to seeing them out in the wild, when we’d go fishing or when we’d picnic in one of the nearby canyons; but seeing these furry little creatures, with their hand-like feet and feet-like hands, in the midst of suburbia… well, let’s just write it off as my being easily entertained.
And though their comic antics still captivate me, as I approach my eighth month in the Big City — where you can’t throw a small stone without hitting a large squirrel — I now recognize these critters for what they are: bushy-tailed rats.
Not counting the two honest-to-goodness rats that ambled across our path one night as nydeborah and I walked across a plaza in fashionable Park Slope, we have other wildlife in Brooklyn, too. I’m also not talking about the partygoers who came to our block party and filled our street last Saturday with a full day of eating and drinking and laughing with friends new and old. No, I’m talking about the shadowy creature that nydeborah spied walking across the fence in the backyard after the party was over. “There’s a possum in the backyard,” she called out.
This didn’t surprise me. Last October, we’d awakened one chilly morning to find a soaking wet possum hanging upside down from the back fence, where it had caught one of its hind legs between the pickets. It had rained all night, and the poor creature (looking like the proverbial wet rat) had exhausted itself from trying to escape. Still, it had enough life left in it to hiss and snap at me whenever I got close.
What needed to be done was clear: someone simply had to lift up the possum to free its leg from between the posts where its body weight had trapped it. Another thing was clear, too: I was not the one to do it.
Instead, we picked up the phone and called the [queue up the Law and Order theme] Emergency Service Unit. Not only does ESU provide expertise and specialized equipment to support the various units within the NYPD — dealing with everything from collapsed buildings to auto accidents and hostage situations — they also are adept at animal-removal. Donning leather gloves and utilizing a noose pole, the two-man team swiftly freed the possum and sent it scampering away unharmed.
Fast forward to last Saturday night, where the quadraped in question turned out not to be a possum but rather a raccoon. For a half hour or so it entertained the few remaining party guests by performing a Buster Keatonesque tightrope act on the power lines.
Alas, the raccoon was about as good at acrobatics as Mel Gibson is at good will. After parading back and forth nervously, right side up and upside down, and several times nearly falling, it finally made its way onto the roof of a neighbor’s garage. There it posed and strutted for several minutes, culminating with a fit of hissing (not to be confused with a hissy fit), looking for all the underworld like Satan’s lapdog.
The following morning, I stepped out onto our front stoop to discover a rather large squirrel burrowing headfirst into one of our many bags of garbage from the night before. All I could see were its haunches up in the air as it pulled trash out onto the sidewalk. I stepped down one step to shoo it away, but it heard me, turned around, and came right at me, leaping up onto the granite cap on the corner of our fence. For more than a minute we stood there sizing each other up. My hand fumbled for the doorknob behind me, for I sensed that any second it was going to charge. Ultimately it sauntered away, but not without one or two glances back, silently assuring me it would return.
Friends back home often ask me if New York is as scary as it appears in the movies, on TV. I always tell them no, that the people here are friendly beyond belief. But I don’t tell them about the animals, no, because I sense they’re always there, just out of sight, listening, waiting…
In an earlier edition of this blog I had told you that one of my favorite bands ever was Rockpile. You know, the pub rock band and original supergroup from the late ’70’s containing Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams. I also told you that eventually I would get around to going more indepth and profiling every band member.
Well, here’s the first installment in this loose series of Rockpile rememberances. In this blog, I am going to talk about guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Billy Bremner. Why Bremner first? Well, he’s got a new CD out right now on the Gadfly label entitled No If’s, Buts, Maybes and it’s a killer!
Now, Rockpile had a gimmick of switching between two leaders, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. Besides backing each of these two artists on their solo records, the band would function as the backup band to whoever had a solo album out at the time. If Lowe had an album fresh out, he would lead the band and give Edmunds and Bremner short showcases and if Edmunds had one out, the situation would reverse and Lowe would get a short set.
That worked out well until the band’s fans started clamoring for a true band album. Thinking it a good time to consolidate their careers around the band and put their solo doings on hold, Lowe and Edmunds acquiesced and a Rockpile album was born. Their lone CD, Seconds of Pleasure is a great disc, and, true to form, features Lowe and Edmunds trading off on songs except for two lead vocal spots given to Bremner. But, despite working together so well before, egos started to emerge once the band was formed and Lowe and Edmunds decided they didn’t want to be in a band together any more. Each has said that in hindsight Bremner should have been leader as he was just as good of a frontman as either of them and it would have kept all the egos in check as Bremner was more stable of a personality.
After Rockpile broke up, Bremner drifted around musically until Chrissie Hynde called him to help with the Pretenders’ album Learning To Crawl in ’83. The Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott had just passed away and the band was in a quandry as to give up and split or soldier on. Once Bremner decided to help out the answer was easy – keep going. Though Bremner was a Pretender for only one CD, he was a part of their biggest hit Back On The Chain Gang and helped get the band back on track again.
Shortly after, Bremner emerged with a solo album under his own name entitled Bash. With songs written by Bremner with Elvis Costello and John Wicks of the Records, the album was destined to be great and it was. Too bad the public didn’t notice and it died a quick death on the charts. Needless to say, search this album out. It should be a lot easier to find as it was reissued on the Gadfly label in the late ’90’s.
Deciding to put his floundering solo career on hold, Bremner moved to first LA and then Nashville to become a studio musician. During the next decade (’85 to ’95) Bremner was one of the most popular studio guitarists and played on tons of albums and more than a few country hits. Occasionally a solo song would appear on a comp or two but generally Bremner was doing his guitar thing for others.
Eventually, Bremner grew tired of the studio scene and decided to move to Sweden with his future wife. There, he fired up his solo career once again by releasing the fine disc A Good Week’s Work (so named because it took him a week to record the album) which was released in the US by Gadfly Records to much acclaim. With the re-release of Bash soon after and Bremner’s work helping Swedish band The Refreshments (five albums with them) he was firing on all cylinders again, guitar work smoking and fine songs just pouring out of him.
All of this has culminated with his best work yet, No Ifs, Buts, Maybes which has some of his best guitar playing ever – he plays like John Fogerty on crack on this one, but still tastefully and tight – and his catchiest songwriting to date. This is a must have for pub rock fans who love their roots rock and still pine away for Rockpile.
Please buy this and encourage Bremner to put out more of this great stuff. Rockpile may be gone but Bremner’s still piling on the RAWK – and it just keeps getting better and better all the time.
On this dizzy 1969 release, West Coast jazzbo and his session cats work a breezy adult contemporary vibe, with giddy female vocal choirs manifesting the audio equivalent of a gaggle of happy stewardesses bearing fluffy pillows. The mellow, playful arrangements are applied to an appealing collection of bubblegum and pop-rock standards, including “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” the Sesame Street-popularized title track and “Sugar Sugar.” While the boy/girl singers are utterly out of their depth on the latter, it’s still a hoot to hear a dark narrative like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” handled so frothily. Silly, sweet mainstream fluff, presumably originally aimed at foxy grandpas, and still likely to please the comfy chair and fruity drink set. (Kim Cooper)