Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wanna live better days

‟When did music become so important?” Don Draper asked in the first episode of Season 5 of Mad Men (“A Little Kiss”). His young wife Megan responds, ‟It’s always been important.”

By this episode the show was set in the mid 1960s, so this spoke to an obvious generation gap. Both characters are right, in their context. Music has always been important. It just wasn’t until the 50s and 60s that it became a dominant cultural force that informed and influenced millions of people. Radio and records and other advancements of technology, as well as the vast expansion of youth culture, made this possible in ways that people of Don Draper’s generation just couldn’t quite comprehend.

This has been true for fiftyish years, with The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan as the hundredth monkey tipping point that changed the world in this regard. I’m sure a quick Google perusal of the internet will turn up thousands of articles about the larger cultural ramifications of this. The point has also been made that this is something that is specific to this moment in time and that in many ways we have already moved past it.

That isn’t meant as a ‟Rock is Dead!” declaration. It’s an acknowledgement that the world has kept on moving and that the cultural forces that led to this are no longer present. The internet has changed the way we consume music and interact with those who make it. For all the success of a Lady Gaga or a Justin Bieber it just doesn’t seem like any of the current batch of stars have the social relevance or staying power of the artists who preceded them. I know how much that sounds like an old guy decrying ‟Back in my day!!!” but that’s truly not my intention. I want new artists to succeed. More importantly I want young people to have the same kinds of joyous experiences with music, live and otherwise, that I have had. I don’t know if that’s possible anymore, for much larger reasons than the cliched and wrong-headed opinion that they ‟just don’t make good music anymore.” I just don’t think there is the same kind of infrastructure that will allow for a David Bowie, or a Madonna, or a U2 or an REM to emerge, let alone enjoy the longevity and social relevence of these and many other artists. I hope I’m wrong.

I’m currently reading a book of essays by Chuck Klosterman called ‟But What if We’re Wrong?” that addresses the idea that in the future everything we think we know about the present will be wrong. The things we think are important now will be seen through the eyes of history and retrospect with a much wider perspective than we are currently capable of. As proof of this he reminds us of the way we interpret history now. Van Gogh and Kafka were failures in their lives but now one is the most famous artist ever and the other has joined the very framework of our language as an adjective. Custer was once seen as an American hero. Now he’s thought of as a genocidal maniac. Try convincing a farmer in the Dark Ages that we live in a heliocentric universe. The world keeps turning and our reality keeps changing around us and for the most part, in our limited time here and limited sense of perspective, we just don’t notice. We assume things will always be the way they are until they aren’t. I can’t imagine a world without pop music and the music industry in it, but then one hundred years ago people couldn’t imagine a world with instantaneous global communication. Or one without polio.

So Rock and Roll, and all of the variations of popular music associated with it, for all of its importance to those of us who care, may be a minor blip in the course of history, generating little more than a footnote in whatever passes for a college textbook in the year 2112.

To quote Jeff Albertson, the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, ‟Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”

The thing is, this is true for pretty much everything we currently engage in. No matter how much we love something, no matter how much we think it is an essential part of our culture, no matter how much it defines our lives (I’m looking at you, sports fans), history says it not only won’t last but will probably be marginalized and misunderstood by future scholars.

So, if we accept this nihilistic point of view, why get really into anything other than the mechanics of survival? I’ll get back to that.

I am certainly part of the generation that was born into a world where music has always been a defining cultural artifact, and I’m very aware of how this has shaped and influenced my way of interacting with the world. For me, like Megan said, music has always been important. And by important I mean in ways that go well beyond simply liking a song. I am admittedly a music hobbyist who engages with it in a less-than-casual fashion. I continually look for new music. I get obsessive over musicians and want to know about them as personalities, looking into their lives and biographies much deeper than most people do. Music has always been a soundtrack to my day-to-day that went beyond just being in the background.

I grew up in an incredibly rural area. My parents were in their early 40s when I was born. My paternal grandmother, who lived with us, was born in 1884. I was surrounded by adults who had grown to adulthood in a very different world than the one I would come to inhabit. Until I was twelve I lived in a small two-story six-room house of bare, unpainted wood with a tin roof. We did not have running water. There was a hand-dug water well with a hand pump in the front yard and an outhouse in the back yard. I’m not complaining here. I actually have very good memories of growing up there and I believe those circumstances taught me valuable life lessons. But something in me yearned for more.

Comic books and music were the twin explosions of color in my sepia-toned Appalachian youth, and they have always had a natural association in my mind. Comics took me to cities and other countries and other planets and other dimensions. The colorfully costumed heroes taught me to dream bigger dreams and to imagine a world beyond the confines of the hollow I grew up in.

Music was always present in my home. Dad had played guitar and mandolin in a Hillbilly band with his uncle and cousins when he was young. His mother played piano and the accordion. That whole side of the family had musical talent, but because of age I never really had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. But there was always a radio in the house, usually tuned to WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia, home of country music. I remember latching onto songs like Tiger by the Tail by Buck Owens, and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and Counting Flowers on the Wall by the Statler Brothers (probably because they name-checked Captain Kangaroo, who I was big fan of when I was four). These are overt memories for me. I was into songs.

The British Invasion and the Beatles and the whole eruption of the music industry in the 60s began to be woven into the fabric of everything aimed at youth. I saw ads for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in comic books. The image of the T.Rex album The Slider stands out as an image that stared at me from the double page ads for record clubs I saw in every comic.

The Beatles had a Saturday morning cartoon. So did the Jackson 5. The Monkees were a weekly live action pastiche of Beatles inspired frenzy. The Banana Splits, Josie and the Pussycats and the Groovie Ghoulies had weekly music videos interspersed with every episode. The cartoon version of the Archies had the #1 hit song in 1969 with Sugar Sugar. This hit launched Bubblegum Pop which led directly to a lot of what became the Glam Rock movement in Great Britain. David Bowie and Elton John were singing about Spacemen. Alice Cooper was a horror comic come to life and KISS were simply superheroes from the first time I saw them.

I engaged in fannish activities well before I could afford to seriously begin collecting albums. On our trips into town I not only bought comics (always), but I also started to pick up copies of teenybopper music mags like Tiger Beat and 16. I read the articles and hung the posters that came with the mags on my bedroom wall. The Osmonds and the Jackson 5 and David Cassidy and probably many others (hands up... who remembers Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family and their ‟big” hit, Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat?). I think I was trying to identify with the larger than life qualities of these performers more than having crushes on them. I never entered a ‟Win a Date With...” contest. I would run around outside pretending I was a superhero from the comics, and lip sync in front of mirror pretending I was a young pop star.

I started buying the singles I heard on the AM radio stations. Over time I moved on to FM radio and much better music. Without the guidance of an older sibling I missed the glory days of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and many others of that period. The truth is I think Sabbath would have simply weirded me out back then. I’m also very aware of how the bands I ended up really getting into had that extra element of the visual. Superheroes and Rock and Roll. Deep Purple was an awesome band, but they were a bunch of dudes with long hair and blue jeans. I could see that anywhere. Did you see what Elton John was wearing?

That’s a trend that has never really gone away for me, not completely. F-f-f-Fashion! My musical tastes now span a pretty wide cross-section of genres and styles, but I always come back to the performance and glamour. The Sweet, Queen, and Cheap Trick all fell into this category for me as the 70s roared on. Adam Ant, wearing Indian warpaint, a colonial greatcloak and a tri-corner hat caught my eye on Solid Gold and I was hooked. I wasn’t aware of Bauhaus until years later but if I had seen the videos of their live performances in 1979 I would have been all over that.

Strangely the Hair Metal of the 80s didn’t grab me at the time, in spite of the over-the-top costuming and makeup. I think once KISS took the makeup off I just felt done with that style. This coincided with a general malaise I was feeling at the time for the styles of music I had been listening to. It’s no surprise to me now that this is when I first discovered Bowie’s Berlin period through Heroes and started down a path of Punk and New Wave and College Rock.

I discovered lots of new bands I loved; The Replacements, The Pixies, Love and Rockets, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Jazz Butcher, PJ Harvey, and many, many more over the next thirty years. I bought a lot of vinyl and then replaced most of it on CD. I went on obscure tangents to the extent that an awful lot of the popular music of the 90s remains pretty peripheral to my life. I go back and reclaim things I lost and go back and discover things I missed.

But it seems I’m always looking for that new, favorite band. Something new I can get into with the same enthusiasm I used to, though that seems increasingly difficult. Age and jaded tastes and feeling like I’ve heard it all before gets in the way. I have moments of this, still. I was crazy into the White Stripes, but then lost interest pretty quickly. I was pretty obsessed with PJ Harvey but I now admit that her last few projects just haven’t resonated with me. Call me fickle, but she’s an old love now, one I can go back to for comfort and familiarity. But I crave the excitement of the new.

I have a new favorite band that, at least right now, are hitting all of the marks.

TheStruts are a modern Glam Power Pop band from Derby. The band features Adam Slack on guitar, Jed Elliot on bass, Gethin Davies on drums and Luke Spiller on vocals. Now I want to say upfront that they’re probably not doing anything very new, but they are doing it very, very well. The songs are fun, hook-laden, and anthemic. Pretty much every song on their recent debut album, Everybody Wants, is a catchy, earworm singalong. That’s not a complaint. The album simply fills me with energy and makes me happy. Their image, specifically as embodied by Spiller, is full-on Glam Rock. I saw them on The Late Show with Steven Colbert and then watched a couple of videos and knew immediately that I was hooked.

As luck would have it I turned on to them about a week after they played a show in Pittsburgh. I figured it would be ages before I had an opportunity to see them. A few weeks after that they announced a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. That’s two-hour drive from here, and believe it or not I had never been to the Hall of Fame. So I decided to make a day of it. On their website, when they announced the show, they also announced a contest for a VIP Meet and Greet as well as tickets to the show. I never enter online contests but I thought, why not?

And I won.

The trip to Cleveland was amazing, a pilgrimage to both of my primary hobbies; The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original homes of the two creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (though that’s mostly a separate story from the one I’m telling). The Hall of Fame was enormous, full of artifacts to a cultural phenomenon that, if Chuck Klosterman is right, won’t matter in a couple of hundred years. But for right now, for those of us who have been formed by this phenomenon, it was a building filled with objects of history and power. John Lennon’s glasses and Ringo’s drum kit. Elvis Presley’s gold lame’ suit. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. Michael Jackson’s glove. The guitar played by Odetta Holmes on the day Mahalia Jackson encouraged Martin Luther King to, ‟Tell ‛em about the Dream, Martin!”

History. Power.

Seeing the Struts in this venue, surrounded by this history, felt right to me. It’s difficult for me to say this without sounding like I am exaggerating, but I kind of feel like I had waited my whole life to see this show. The energy, the songs, the costumes and spectacle. It was simply one of the best concerts I have ever seen, and Luke spiller is genuinely one of the best and most engaging front men I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen a lot of concerts.

I’ll try to put it in perspective. What I want and expect out of a concert depends a lot on my expectations. I’ve seen Lloyd Cole perform, just him and a guitar, several times. I love his songs, I love his voice, and what I want out of his show is very different than what I want from a different kind of band, and I’ve never been disappointed in him. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of bands I really like in very small, intimate venues and have been privileged to meet many of them.

But deep down, where the kid who discovered Rock through School’s Out and Rebel, Rebel, and Rock and Roll All Night still lives, when I see one of these bands, I want to see a show. I’ve seen Alice Cooper... a lot. I’ve seen KISS a number of times. I saw David Bowie. I saw Queen in 1979. They were all amazing shows, including all of the music and spectacle I love. In every one of those cases though, I only saw them after they had become huge, in giant venues. For a few of them I was close to the stage, but for the most part they were always at a remove from the audience. For The Struts I felt like I was getting to see them early in their career. Early enough for it to be a much more intimate experience than I’ve ever had with these other bands I mentioned. It felt like I imagine it would have felt to see Queen in 1974, or Bowie right before Ziggy Stardust blew up, or Alice Cooper at the Whiskey in Los Angeles.

I can’t really say anything about Luke Spiller that hasn’t been said in the rock press. He looks the part of Glam Rock star, a visual cross between Freddie Mercury and a young Tim Curry. His voice has amazing power and range. You can hear elements of Mercury, as well as a touch of Noddy Holder from Slade (to my ears, anyway). He went through several costume changes over the course of the show, clothes, I discovered later, that were designed for him by Zandra Rhodes, who designed costumes for both Freddy Mercury and Brian May. He commanded the crowd, leading sing-alongs and cheers, making it impossible not to have a good time. For one of the encore songs, a nice ballad, he left the stage, waded into the audience, and convinced everyone to sit on the floor around him as he sang. He was the focal point, but the whole audience was the show.

Photo by Amy Lombard. New York Times.

Not that the rest of the band was forgotten. They were tight and on cue and every member got his moment in the spotlight. Not an easy task given their leader’s glowing charisma, but you walked away knowing that you had seen a band and not a solo performer and some backup musicians.

They've opened for The Rolling Stones and as I'm writing they're scheduled to open for Guns 'n' Roses, so they're getting the opportunity to find a huge audience. Will they last? Will they ever be as big as Queen or Madonna? Probably not. That’s a long shot under the best of circumstances, and as I’ve said I don’t think our current paradigm allows for that to happen anymore. Will they be remembered in the year 2112? Does it really matter?

I haven’t been this excited for a new band in many, many years. I want to hang posters of Luke and the rest of The Struts all over my walls. I want to smear gold makeup on my cheeks and lip sync in front of my mirror. It’s not just about recapturing my youth (though some of it undoubtedly is). It’s about living in the moment. Enjoying our time before it is lost to history. Engaging with the things that bring you joy (yes, even sports), because life is hard and the best thing we can leave the future is a life well lived. We have this moment and nothing more. The past is only nostalgia if you aren’t living now. The future will come and wipe it all away, but live and love and laugh because in this moment we are alive. Do you love it, right now? Then it matters, right now.

I wanna taste love and pain/Wanna feel pride and shame
I don’t wanna take my time/Don't wanna waste one line

I wanna live better days/Never look back and say
Could have been me/It could have been me

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Find Your Grail

There are reasons I believe in Magic.

Most of my friends and the more regular readers on my blog know I’m a big fan of the stories of King Arthur and the whole Camelot myth cycle. I consider myself a pretty well-read amateur scholar of the topic. I’ve read some of the medieval manuscripts and looked into the historical evidence (and lack thereof). I’ve read a bunch of analysis of the symbolism and mythic themes running through the literature. I’ve read a ton of contemporary Arthurian fiction. My first novel, King of Summer, is loaded with the symbols and my last novel, Bedivere: The King’s Right Hand is my version of the tale.

This weekend, my friend Marcel and I went to see Hampton High School’s production of Spamalot, the Broadway musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have no real connection to Hampton High School, but my friend Dan Franklin teaches there. He is the director and producer of their spring plays. Dan is passionate about these projects and works his butt off with the kids. His love of what he does is obvious and his students are lucky to have him in their lives.

Two years ago we went to see their production of Young Frankenstein. Dan has always been very supportive of my art and writing, so I went primarily to be supportive of him. I’m now embarrassed to say that my expectations weren’t high. ‟It’s a high school play,” I thought. No disrespect to Dan, but the high school plays I had seen previously were pretty amateur. Young Frankenstein was remarkable! It completely changed my expectations of what a high school play could be. The level of production was one of the most professional things I’ve ever seen on stage. The talent of these kids was outstanding. To say I was blown away is an understatement. Last year they staged The Addams Family, but I had a conflict of schedule, so I had to miss it. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

The day Dan announced that tickets were on sale I went on line and purchased. I didn’t pick specific seats, just signed up for ‟Best Available.”

That’s important.

When we arrived tonight we were in the first two seats in the front row, center section. Marcel asked if I had a preference, so I took the aisle seat. Seat #A101. While we waited for the show to start I randomly quipped, ‟So, I’m used to seeing improv shows. I can just yell ‛Freeze' and then go up on stage and join in, right?” Marcel said, ‟Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how that works.”

So, the play began. It was once again, an amazing production. The sets, the performances, the staging, the music, singing and dancing... the talent of these kids is just off the charts. Everyone on stage was good, but a couple of performances really stood out. Alex Wood played the duel roles of Dennis Galahad and Prince Herbert. Two years ago he played the monster in Young Frankenstein. He has remarkable stage presence, comedic timing, and physicality. A young man named Tyler Anderson played Patsy and I simply could not take my eyes off him. His facial expressions and body language sold his performance. His enthusiasm and joy just radiated in every line. So good!

The climax of the play approached. King Arthur, Patsy, and the rest of the Knights of the very round table found the final clue to the location of the Holy Grail. Someone had carved A101 into a rock. They weren’t able to figure it out until the Hand of God (an actual giant hand protruding from the top of castle battlement), pointed out to the audience.

The Holy Grail was under my seat.

I want to stress that I had no idea that this was going to happen and that I ended up in that seat through the magic of ‟Best Available” on the internet.

Patsy came off the stage, reached under my seat, and pulled out the Grail. He took my hand and led me onto the stage. They asked me my name, congratulated me, and asked me to strike a pose.

If you know me you know that I am not particularly shy or prone to stage fright.

They handed me the Grail and I struck a pose.

Patsy led me back to my seat and the play ended with their final number. The sheer unlikelihood of all of this, the synchronicity of it...

There are reasons I believe in magic.

Marcel and I backstage with the Director, Dan Franklin

And they let me keep it!!!

Friday, April 8, 2016

New Author Profile Article

I was recently interviewed by Frances Joyce for Mt. Lebanon Neighbors magazine, a locally produced neighborhood newspaper. Copies of this article also appear in Upper St. Clair Neighbors and Southpointe Neighbors.

There is not an online version of this available, so I've posted a copy of it below for your reading enjoyment.

Thanks, Fran. Thanks also to Evelyn Pryce (Kristin Ross), another local author who recommended me to Fran.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Wayne Hears a Who

For all the live concerts I’ve gone to in my life, and there are more than a few, I haven’t seen a lot of the big name classic rock bands. I spent a lot of years in smaller venues seeing smaller acts and actively skipped some big names. I have some regrets about this, but it’s where my head was at the time.

Until Wednesday, March 16 I had never seen The Who. If I was going to wait, I caught a good one. This is their 50 Years of the Who Greatest Hits Tour, though I think the anniversary was last year. This show was rescheduled from a cancelled date last fall.

My confession here is that I was really never that big of a fan of The Who. Now, before Who Heads jump all over me, let me explain. I never disliked them. I just never got really into them like I’m known to do with bands and artists. I’m not sure why. But they’ve been omnipresent for as long as I’ve listened to music, so it’s not like I’ve been unaware of their work. In the intervening years I’ve picked up most of their albums and become very familiar with them.

I was too young to have caught the earliest British Invasion era of The Who. I probably saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid. It was on pretty religiously when I was growing up and I have vague memories of seeing bands, but none that I specifically remember.

For some reason when I was a tween I bought a copy of a magazine about the movie version of the Who album Tommy. I had never heard the album at that time, and wouldn’t see the actual movie for another fifteen years or more. But for some reason, probably because of the amazingly weird visuals of that film, I was kind of obsessed with it for awhile.

Not my actual copy, but this is it.

I’m pretty sure it was because of Elton John. I was getting into Elton at the time, mainly because of the rock mag pictures I had seen of his outrageous costumes. I liked the singles I had heard by the that point as well and owned 45s of Rocket Man and Bennie and the Jets.

In the movie Elton played the part of the Pinball Wizard. I was hearing his version of the song on the radio. I was much more aware of Elton than The Who at this point, so much so that I don’t think I even realized it was a cover of someone else’s song. Dumb kid. I went out to buy the single, grabbed a copy of Pinball Wizard, brought it home and put it on my record player...

And it wasn’t Elton singing. It was some other version. When I looked I saw it was by The Who and I had picked up the wrong version by mistake. Okay, I can now say that I realize it was the right version, but at the time my disappointment may have played a part in my never getting more into them.

Not many years later I picked up a copy of Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy, which I now know was a Greatest Hits compilation of The Who’s early singles. I liked it a lot, but had trouble reconciling these songs with the radio hits I was hearing in the mid to late 70s. I think coming at the band from all of these different angles prevented them from gelling in my mind as a cohesive concept.

In 1979 there was a terrible tragedy at a Who concert in Cincinnati where eleven fans were killed and eight others hurt. It would be an overstatement to say I was almost at the show, but there was a short-lived possibility I could have been. My friend Howard and I had gone to number of concerts around that time, at least one of which was a spur of the moment, day of the show decision. I remember we discussed making a road trip to Cincinnati for the show. It was probably a less than fifteen minute fantasy because it was too far away at the time and it was winter and our parents would have lost their minds, and I only remember the conversation because of what happened, and my reaction when I saw it on the news the following day.

So, finally, thirty-seven years later, I finally saw The Who... half of the original band anyway. It was an amazing show. Roger Daltry’s voice is still really strong and very powerful. Pete Townsend was just consummate on guitar. I know, intellectually, how good he is, but to hear it live while watching him was something of a revelation.

The performance was strong and I enjoyed the songs and music a lot. But some of that was my awareness of the history represented on that stage. These two men are two of the architects of modern Rock and Roll. They helped invent the lexicon of the live rock show. When Townsend windmilled his arm I saw the entire history of The Who in that movement. The same thing when Daltry swung the microphone around by its cord. I’ve seen this a million times. It’s in the DNA of Rock and of Rock fans. These guys played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. They stood on the stage at Woodstock. They have known all of the legends of Rock as friends and peers. Fifty years of being The Who, spanning most of the history of the art form and having stood on its spires. Fifty years of embodying a Pop Culture mythology. Enormous legends living in the fragile shells of human beings.

I want to take a moment to talk about the opening act, because I was really impressed. For the original date Joan Jett was listed as the the opener, which made me pretty excited. But, since the show had to be rescheduled, Jett wasn’t able to do the make-up dates. I was disappointed until I saw who was taking her place.

Tal Wilkenfeld is a 20-something bass guitar prodigy. I first saw her as Jeff Beck’s bass player on a televised concert. She kind of blew me away. I have a fondness for the bass anyway, and here was this obviously very young woman with a mass of curly red hair, playing the hell out of a bass guitar that was nearly bigger than she was, holding her own with one of the acknowledged guitar gods. She has racked up a pretty impressive resume. In addition to Beck she has played with Jackson Browne, Hrebie Hancock, and a bunch of other name artists.

Her first CD, Transformation, is an instrumental jazz album where her skills are evident. I don’t listen to a whole lot of jazz or instrumentals, but I kept coming back to this. At the concert I was surprised to hear her sing. She has a very strong voice, and while it seems she is moving away from the jazz stylings into a more singer/songwriter rock direction, her playing wasn’t in the least diminished or hidden in the mix.

I’ve included three videos below. There aren’t a whole lot of good ones of her singing out there yet (apparently this past November was her first show as a vocalist). The first is from an Australian TV show, so it’s a little weirdly formatted, but it’s a good example of her playing. The second is her from a recent Who show. The third is one of her singing Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel, which is a song I love, so I had to include it.

Classic Rock and brand new music. It was a good night to be a fan.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We Have No Troubles Here! Here Life is Beautiful...

‟This ain't Rock’n’Roll,
This is Genocide!”
David Bowie – Future Legend

Last week I saw the touring production of Cabaret at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. In general I’m not an avid fan of musicals or musical theater. I like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and have a tremendous nostalgic fondness for the movie version of Hair. I have never seen live productions of either. I saw Camelot a few years back, but that was more in the interest of my King Arthur fandom. A couple of years ago I saw a high school production of Young Frankenstein that was one of the most professional and entertaining plays I have ever seen, expanding my expectations of what a school production can be. But I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Broadway. I haven’t even jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon yet.

But there is something about Cabaret. The play premiered in 1966, but it is the 1972 Bob Fosse movie version with Liza Minelli and Joel Grey that most people think of. I saw this on TV when I was probably twelve or so. Given the content of the story which openly addressed topics like homosexuality and abortion I can’t imagine how heavily edited this had to be for television. The plot was probably incomprehensible. I didn’t actually remember anything about the plot anyway. But the music and the imagery, primarily the imagery, stayed with me.

Cabaret was part of the formative Pop Cultural stew of the early 1970s when I was coming of age. Connecting lines can easily be drawn to Glam Rock and David Bowie and Rocky Horror and comics and the concepts of the Persona and the Mask that I keep coming back to. There is an atmosphere of decadence that surrounds all of these, if we broadly define Decadence in this context as deviating from the norm. Each of us spends time trying to define who we are by trying on various masks in our lives, some we continue to wear because we are expected to. At times each of us feels like an outsider, a deviant from the norm. We feel Other than those around us.

I’ll come back to that idea.

The plot of Cabaret revolves around an English singer/dancer named Sally Bowles and her relationship with American would-be novelist Cliff Bradshaw. Most of the action takes place in Berlin, in either the boarding house where they live or in The Kit Kat Klub where Sally performs. Part of the ongoing back story, in addition to their relationships, is the need to make ends meet and pay their rent. It is the 1930s. America is in the Depression and Germany is still recovering from the economic disaster of World War I. Cliff teaches English and receives money from his family. Sally is nearly homeless when she loses her position at the club. Their landlady’s only income is from the small rooms she is able to rent, and their neighbor is obviously a prostitute. The financial situation seems like a minor point in the larger picture, but I think it is significant. It is one of the issues that serves to distract our cast from the larger problems happening around them.

What gives the story weight is that all of this plays out against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi party. This is referenced early in the play, but it is only at the end of Act I that the real presence is felt. Act II is much darker in tone and the play ends in a pretty bleak place given what we now know about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Sally’s way of dealing with the dark side of life is to simply pretend it doesn’t exist. She wants to sing and dance and party. Life is too short to waste on bad times. Life’s a Cabaret, old chum. Her philosophy is summed up in the title song.

‟Come taste the wine, Come hear the band.
Come blow your horn, Start celebrating;
Right this way, Your table’s waiting.”

She doesn’t want to acknowledge that anything is wrong. She doesn’t want to see what is happening all around her. She doesn’t want ‟some prophet of doom to wipe every smile away.”

In the movie there is a scene where a beautiful blonde boy, a perfect example of the Aryan ideal, sings a song called ‟Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” His voice is angelic and arresting. Soon all those around him, men and women, old and young, join in. Lyrically it is a wonderful ode to the possibilities the future holds. When you realize that within ten years all of these people, men and women, old and young, including the beautiful boy, would be loading other human beings into cattle cars and ovens, the context changes. It is chilling.

What is most chilling is that this is not simply a history lesson. It’s a completely contemporary story of our times. It’s happening right now. We have people shouting all around us that the Future Belongs to Me! Not to everyone, though. Not to the people who are considered Other.

There is a Jewish character in the play named Herr Schultz. He is a love interest for Fräulein Schneider, the landlady. Their engagement party is ruined when a member of the Nazi party informs her that marrying him may not be the wisest decision. She needs a license to run her boarding house, one that may not be renewed. In the end she chooses safety over love.

What struck me most about this is that throughout the play Herr Shultz is in denial that anything could happen to him. He states, ‟I am a German!” He is proud of who he is and simply cannot believe his government would act against its citizens, even if they are Jewish. The Nazi says overtly that because he is Jewish, Herr Schultz is ‟not a German.”

This exchange had a very specific resonance for me. When I was working on the first issue of the Chutz-POW! comic I had the opportunity to sit down and interview a Jewish man named Fritz Ottenheimer. Fritz’s family escaped Germany in 1939 and moved to America. Later Fritz would join the United States army to go fight against his former homeland. He told me the story of his father who owned a clothing store. The elder Ottenheimer had served as a German soldier in World War I. He saw combat and was a decorated veteran. When a young Nazi soldier appeared and told people not to shop at his store he and his neighbors shamed the young man into leaving by claiming he was a German citizen and a veteran. He simply could not believe that his government would do anything to him because of this.

Fritz Ottenheimer’s father spent six months in the death camp at Auschwitz.

This is a true story. The people who led his country had decided that he was an undesirable Other. It didn’t matter what he had been before. It didn’t matter that he was a citizen. All that mattered was that he was a Jew, and the fear-mongering and hatred aimed at all Jews was enough to erase his humanity in the eyes of the general population of Germany.

Choosing your own identity is one thing. Feeling like an outsider is a normal part of growing up. Often we embrace the outsider status as a part of our identity. We become part of a subculture of people who share our values. Any of us who have become part of a musical scene can identify with this. Punks, Metalheads, Rap, Country... take your pick. Comics fans. Sports fans (yes, sports fans... it’s Our team, not some Other team). Religions, mainstream and not so mainstream. Political views. Our race. Our gender. Our sexuality. All of these are ways we define ourselves and all of them involve defining ourselves as Other than something else.

But there’s a big difference between choosing an identity for yourself and having one thrust on you by society, especially when it is an identity that keeps you from enjoying the equality that everyone else takes for granted. When that happens you become the scapegoat and the target of other people’s anger.

It happens all the time. It’s happening right now.

It’s said that the moment you begin to compare someone to Hitler or the Nazis then you have already lost the argument. While I agree that it is far too easy to simply call somebody a Nazi without understanding the full meaning of that term I also don’t think it’s fair to take the comparison off the table entirely. That’s just saying that we should ignore the greatest history lesson of the last hundred years, possibly ever. We can’t learn from the past if we can’t discuss it, and the Holocaust is something that should never be forgotten. It happened and we must be vigilant to make sure that it never happens again.

Some of the questions that are always asked about the Holocaust are, How could this have happened? How could an entire country have allowed this atrocity to take place? Why didn’t anybody speak out against it? There are many complicated answers to these questions, but I think there are some core factors involved. Fear. Anger. Loss of personal control. The psychological need to absolve oneself of responsibility. Blindly following a leader who justifies and preys on your anxiety. The need to scapegoat those you don’t identify with. The need to blame the Other.

How does it happen? Look around. Listen up. This is how it happens.

We recently had a high ranking politician suggest that all Muslims in America should wear an identifying mark so that we would know who they are, and this received a lot of public support. This terrifies me. I’ve spoken with Jews who had to wear the Star of David so that people would know who they were. Eventually that wasn’t enough, so serial numbers were tattooed on their arms. Millions of them died in ovens and mass graves because of this identification. If you don’t think this is the same thing I encourage you to talk to a Holocaust survivor about the family they lost.

Tattooed Jewish children, survivors of Auschwitz.

It is the same thing. This is how it happens.

Recently a friend posted a meme on Facebook. This is someone I’ve known for years. Someone I love. Someone who says they are a Christian. Someone who teaches Sunday school. The picture was of a large automatic weapon and the words on it said something like, ‟I’ve got your welcome for the refugees right here.” This terrifies me. This person who claims membership in a religion where the central lesson is the concept of compassion makes a post that laughingly recommends genocide as an answer. Am I alone in seeing the hypocrisy in teaching the lesson of the Good Samaritan to your children on Sunday and wanting to kill refugee children on Monday?

‟But, you say, It’s just a funny meme, Ha Ha. Look at what it’s saying very closely. It says you would rather murder men, women, and children than to actually think about the larger picture and choose compassion. Lean into that sentence hard. You are recommending genocide and you think it is funny. How many steps from there to ovens and mass graves? Recent history tells me not many.

This is how it happens.

I see posts all of the time about supporting our veterans, about how they are the true heroes in our country. We should honor those who died in defense of our American ideal. I agree with both of those things, strongly. My Dad is a veteran (World War II). My great nephew is a veteran (Afghanistan). I have uncles and cousins and friends and many, many loved ones who served, and some who died, in the service of our country. I salute them. I salute every veteran who is buried in Arlington. That includes the Muslim ones, and the Jewish ones, and the gay ones, and every American citizen who ever put on a uniform and made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet here we are, calling some of them terrorists because of their religion, even though that freedom is one of the things they died for, quite possibly fighting against genuine terrorists. If you don’t respect their religion or lifestyle then you make a mockery of their death. They died for freedom too.

We should be vigilant against genuine threats. We should be aware of actual terrorism, whether it comes from terrorists abroad or from those who burn down churches here. But if we engage in mindless hatred and uninformed prejudice then we are all guilty of the very same kind of thinking that we are afraid of. It is a cliché to quote Nietzsche in this context, but here it is... “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Lean hard into that sentence. Are you becoming the same kind of monster you fear?

This has been difficult for me to write. I fully admit to being a lot more like Sally Bowles. I would rather sing and dance and get lost in music and books and comics than to look too closely at the difficult issues around me. I don’t like being the ‟prophet of doom” she sings about in the title song. But I have spent too much time reading about the Holocaust in the last two years to not make the connections. I have lived with the stories of survivors. I have spoken with them. The horror lives on and I fear that no one hears their song of survival. Do I think this post will change a lot of minds? Maybe not. It might lose me some friends. One of the problems with seeing the world through the lens of fear is that it builds a wall around rationality. Anyone outside your personal wall is Other and therefore a threat. So I will, as Bowie says, ‟Put on my red shoes and dance,” knowing that the red shoes refer to a fairy tale with an unhappy ending.

So, old chum, come hear the music play. Because it is playing.

Some of it is music to dance to.

Some of it is music to march to.

And a march isn’t far removed from a goosestep.

 Life is a Cabaret.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


‟One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.”
– Carl Jung

Alchemy is the medieval forerunner of modern chemistry. It can also be seen as a symbolic metaphor for the growth of consciousness. The classic understanding is that alchemists were attempting to ‟turn lead into gold.” Too many people read this on a concrete level and think these silly old medieval magicians were actually trying to physically accomplish this. Some probably were. But a deeper reading of this phrase is all about taking the darker elements of your life and finding the positive aspects of it. It is ‟finding a silver lining in the darkest cloud” rendered in more esoteric language. It is creating a work of art out of the raw elements of your life.

I was reminded of this idea this week through a variety of experiences and encounters with art. I want to talk about them.

I’ve already discussed my reactions to the death of David Bowie in my previous blog, so I won’t dwell on it again, except in the context of this post. Suffice to say, that was how the week began and created a framework for where my head was all week. Bowie was diagnosed with cancer eighteen months ago. He knew he was dying. He spent the last year and a half of his life creating the album Blackstar. Knowing that now, listening to it creates waves of resonance it wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise had. He took the time he had and spent it creating art out of his experience. It was an attempt to sum up and make peace with his life, to say goodbye to his family and fans and life. It seems that he found meaning in his sickness and suffering through expressing it in his art. Ziggy Stardust may have been an imagined figure of light, but David Bowie made the darkness conscious by finding gold in the face of his own demise.

Wednesday at the comics shop saw the release of Rosalie Lightning, the new graphic novel by cartoonist Tom Hart.

I have a small connection to this through his wife, cartoonist Leela Corman. I don’t know Leela personally. Though we have never met face-to-face I have had the pleasure of collaborating with her. Last summer she drew the story I wrote about Raoul Wallenberg for the upcoming second issue of Chutz-POW!. Rosalie Lightning tells the story of the sudden loss of their two year old daughter in 2011. I didn’t know this about Leela when we were sending emails and scripts and drawings back and forth. There was no reason I should have. This graphic novel is an amazing work of bravery. Tom Hart lays bare the unbearable sadness and depression he and Leela experienced. It is a difficult book to read and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried tears throughout. But it is a worthwhile read. I hope creating this book and sharing it with the world is a healing experience for Leela and Tom. As difficult as this subject matter is I believe it can also be a healing experience for others who have experienced a similar loss, and for creating empathy and understanding in those of us who have not. Tom Hart took one of the absolute worst things that can happen to someone and created transformative art.

Speaking of Chutz-POW!, on Thursday evening I was invited to speak at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh for their monthly Wechsler Session. Drew Goldstein, the Chutz-POW! project head, and MarcelWalker, lead artist for the comic, were also guests. We have all spoken about this project many times. The whole idea of Chutz-POW! from the beginning was to focus on the acts of heroism during the Holocaust instead of the horror and tragedy. We have been trying to tease out the gold from this dark time from the beginning and as the writer of the project I have been constantly amazed at the examples of shining human spirit in the face of some of the worst circumstances in history.

On Thursday we heard Holocaust survivor Moshe Baran speak. Mr. Baran was one of the five people I wrote about, and while I had met him before this was the first time I’ve heard him speak in public. He is 95 years old and a survivor of the Jewish ghetto of Krasne, Poland, and spent two years as part of a resistance group living in the forest and fighting against the Nazis. He told the same story I had written, the same one that Marcel had drawn. As he spoke we pulled out the comic and followed along. I have known from the beginning of this project that I had been entrusted with people’s lives. I took this very seriously. But, no matter how much research I have done, I have always worked at a remove. They are stories. Hearing him speak brought it to life. This was not just a story. This was his life! This narrative Marcel and I had created is a small window into this enormous true life experience. I hope that our efforts to keep these stories alive have an impact on those who read them, but it is Moshe, and his late wife Malka, a survivor of the death camps, who truly found gold in their experience. They were both active throughout the rest of their lives, through speaking engagements, through her poetry, through their faith and continued engagement with life, in keeping their stories alive and inspiring others. Mr. Baran said that he has been asked many times in his life how he was able to keep his faith, given everything he had experienced. He said that to give up his faith would have been the same as saying the Nazis were right, and he refused to give Hitler a posthumous victory over his soul. This is not just finding a silver lining. This is being a figure of light.

On Friday I went to the Arcade Comedy Theater in downtown Pittsburgh to see an old friend, David White, perform his one man show Panther Hollow. David and I were parts of a larger social group, and though he and I never hung out a lot back then we were at a lot of the same events and parties and I’ve been happy to stay in touch with him over the intervening years. David is an actor and a playwright. Panther Hollow, an autobiographical piece, premiered off Broadway this past November. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow is a ‟hidden” neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh where White lived during his years in grad school. The performance begins with the true story of the time he found a dead body there, hanging in a tree near his house. From there the performance is both poignant and hysterical. It is a collection of anecdotes from his life, centering on the theme of the depression he suffered at the age of twenty-five and how, at the time, he thought the guy hanging from the tree may have had the right idea. The show is brilliant, and I don’t say that just because I know David. It is honest and brave and funny in the face of despair. It’s also an important show, because it confronts the idea of depression and mental illness head on. These are still taboo topics for way too many people. David shares very personal and embarrassing moments of his life in a way that is gentle and caring and empathetic. If even one person who suffers depression comes away from this show better able to talk about it and not be embarrassed then David’s art has served an even greater purpose.

At one point in his script, David says, ‟I put my head on his shoulder no matter how uncomfortable it is because sometimes you have to feel uncomfortable so that someone else doesn’t feel so alone.” I guess maybe that’s what I’m trying to say about art with all of this. The best art is the act of transformation. Of taking some of the darkest moments of your life, the ones we all have simply by virtue of being human, and transforming them into something greater, something that rises above the dross of merely being, something that touches the spirit of other human beings and allows them to recognize a piece of themselves in your suffering.

Something that says, as Ziggy Stardust did in his final song, ‟You’re not alone!”

Give me your hands.

 Because you’re wonderful.