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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Busting Up My Brains for the Words

Fame... What you get is no tomorrow.

Or, as Neil Gaiman put it, through his characterization of Death, You get what anyone gets... you get a lifetime.

David Bowie died, and here I am, attempting to join the throngs of memorials being written about him. It probably goes without saying that I never knew the man. Why does his death affect me? Why does the death of a celebrity affect any of us? I still have everything I have ever had of Bowie, except the knowledge that he was alive. All most of us have of him is the music, art, and creative legacy he left behind. That will remain, and my life goes on with no real, personal loss at all. Yet I’m still compelled to add my tiny voice to the outpouring of tributes that have already appeared.

I came to Bowie around the same time most of America did, with his Rebel Rebel single. I was eleven when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released. Contrary to how the album is perceived now it didn’t leave much of a splash in America at the time. I was just starting to explore real music at this time. Rebel Rebel was one of the earliest Rock 45s I ever purchased (the actual first record single is lost to memory, but this was close). I discovered this around the same time I first heard Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (which was a couple of years old before I first heard it). These were the two songs that launched adolescent Wayne into the world of Rock fandom. The opening riffs of both of these are the two most primal rock hooks in my personal lexicon. Both are songs about rebellion against authority and societal standards. Perfect for a twelve year old.

Other than a few pictures I didn’t see much of Bowie at the time. I now know he was in the process of moving past the Glam persona and experimenting with his white boy American Soul era. I think had I seen more pics of the Ziggy era I might have been more into him from the beginning. As it was I really didn’t listen to a lot of Bowie in the 70s. As much as I loved Rebel Rebel and Fame (which I also bought on 45), I simply never invested in the albums. I remember looking at Diamond Dogs in the stores, but full albums were still a little beyond my budget yet. By the time I started really buying records I was hooked on Alice and KISS and a bunch of other 70s hit bands and Bowie had moved to Berlin and become too experimental for the radio stations I was listening to. As far as I knew he had completely dropped off the musical landscape. I don’t remember ever hearing Heroes on the radio back then.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was released in 1980 and pretty much escaped my notice at the time. I vaguely remember hearing Ashes to Ashes and Fashion as part of the radio background of the time, but I was taking my first tentative steps into New Wave and Punk right then and it just didn’t register for some reason. I saw the Ashes to Ashes video and thought it was pretty cool, but at the time my access to MTV was pretty limited, so it wasn’t as much of a constant as I know it was for a lot of other people.

Somewhere around 1981 I bought a used car, a blue mid-70s model Ford Granada. It had a factory installed 8-track player in it and the previous owner had thoughtfully left a copy of Heroes in it. At that point in my life that album was the most challenging thing I had ever listened to. I immediately fell in love with the title track (and, gun to my head, I may still consider it my favorite Bowie song, if such a thing is possible). But the rest of that album was a revelation and changed the way I thought of what Pop music could be. Not long after I bought Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane and was promptly blown away. I was pretty primed by the time Let’s Dance blew up in America. Though I heard most of his other work in the 80s, I didn’t invest in his entire back catalog until the CD revolution in the 90s.

I only got to see him once, on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990. My first visit to Star Lake was to see the Starman.

Smaller moments... I was in a dance club called Tin Pan Alley in Wheeling in 1980, bored by the disco floor and too scared to talk to the girls there. There was a band in the upstairs room and the only thing I remember about them is they covered Space Oddity. The grad school apartment I shared with five other guys had a poster of the cover of Aladdin Sane in the living room. The first time I saw the Dancing in the Streets video with Mick Jagger was on the big screen when it was played before some movie I saw at the Edinboro discount theater.

I realized recently that I have spent more time as a fan of his first twenty years of work in the last twenty years than I was when it was new. And, like a lot of others, while I haven’t ignored his output since 1990, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way. I’ve read several biographies. I’m fascinated by his interactions with Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. I’ve read analyses of his lyrics and his concepts and recently an entire book of pretty heavily academic essays about him and his career. I’m currently reading a book called Ziggyology that is not a biography of Bowie, but of Ziggy, an attempt to pull together all of the musical and cultural influences that led to his creation.

So, I’m a little obsessed. The question is why. Why does this one person’s creative output lead me, and many others, to not just listen to his music, but to devour his career? Obviously, a huge part is the music. I like it. That’s pretty simple. It entertains me. I’m aware that there is a lot more going on in his oeuvre than there is in many other musicians I like, but I’ll leave it in the hands of those who are much more musically savvy than I am to talk about that.

For me, a lot of it is image. My two biggest life-long hobbies are comics and music. They were doorways for me. They opened on to a bigger world. They were the entrance to Narnia in the back of my closet. They were a TARDIS that took me away. They were the technicolor world of Oz in my sepia-toned Appalachian youth. I came of age in era where, at least for me personally, comics and music overlapped. Bowie, and Alice, and KISS, and Queen were superheroes, at least visually. My heroes, on the page and on the stage, were the weird outsiders that every teenager feels like. They showed me that the things that made them different were actually their strengths. What a great lesson. Loving the alien means loving yourself.

Somewhere in my brain, developing very slowly, is an entire thesis about identity and persona and costumes and personality and myth and pop culture and how these things relate.

Part of the genius of Bowie was that he showed us that we all wear masks and personas, and that it was possible, through these, to remain true to your authentic self. For all of his permutations of image, Bowie always followed his own path, distracting the world with style while creating his truth through art and music.

What we lose in his death is whatever he may have gone on to do beyond this. The potential for more. That is what we always lose when someone dies. The potential for more.

We will only ever know David Bowie through his masks and personas. Only his closest friends and family can say any differently. But through these characters and through his art we glimpsed a burning creative talent. We can simply enjoy what he gave us, or we can use it as an inspiration. We are all stardust. We can be heroes, forever and ever. The Starman that is waiting to blow our minds is our own potential for more.

And, as we’ve been told, if we sparkle he may land tonight.

I’ve been ending my blogs with a video. I’ve spent the day trying to choose the right one. In the end I decided it wasn’t about which one was exactly right, or summed up what I want to say in the lyrics. In the end it’s the one that made me a fan.

We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they're playing hard
You want more and you want it fast.

Listen to that guitar riff.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Musings

I’m not much of a list maker. I have a tough time coming up with an absolute ‟Favorite” anything. I get obsessive about certain topics and delve into them deeply, but I’m a dabbler at heart. There are too many things to learn about to stay the course with any of them. Renaissance Man or Master of None... You decide.

So, in that spirit, here’s a list of random things that I enjoyed/experienced in 2015, in no particular order.

Comics: Given my profession, I spend a lot of my time recommending comics to my customers. There is an art to this that goes beyond just suggesting my favorite books. The ideal is matching a book to a specific person’s tastes, whether I am in agreement with those tastes or not. But obviously, I have my favorites. Few things that were completely new in 2015 really stand out to me. I’ve been reading East of West on a monthly basis since it started, but sitting down with all four TPs made me really appreciate it. The same happened with Low, Manhattan Projects, Black Science, and Manifest Destiny. There is some disagreement on the topic, but I personally really liked The Sculptor by Scott McCloud. Both Marvel and DC had big events this summer that completely lost me (and a lot of other readers as well). We Can Never Go Home from Black Mask was a surprise hit for me, as was Giant Days.

Music: Though I listen to a lot of music I feel more distanced from genuinely new artists and albums than ever. I’ve been working my way through a project where I’m listening to a lot of classic albums from the last 60 years or so (more on that specifically in a future blog), but I’m just not being exposed to a lot of new stuff. The 2015 release I have probably listened to the most is Hollywood Vampires, a project by Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp (with a host of other guest stars). Alice covers classic rock songs by people he was friends with, all of whom are now dead. It’s kind of a no-brainer for me. Alice is probably the vocalist I am most familiar with, heard here singing lots of classic songs I know well. The mix works. Plus there is an added level of poignancy in knowing these people died, mostly of drugs and alcohol, and Alice is very aware that he could easily have been one of them. I like Dodge and Burn, the new album by the Dead Weather, though I haven’t listened to it enough for it to really sink in. I listened to some great bluesy slide guitar by a new-to-me artist by the name of Seasick Steve. Leonard Cohen put out a new album called Popular Problems that I like a lot because... Leonard Cohen.

Concerts: This was the year of cancelled concerts for me. I had tickets for The Replacements, but they cancelled and announced their breakup two weeks later (luckily I saw them twice back in the 80s). I had a ticket for Paul Weller in June, but a conflict came up and I had to miss the show. It was a good choice (more on that in a moment), but I had never seen him before and his stops in Pittsburgh are few. I had tickets for The Who with Joan Jett this fall, but they also cancelled. At least that has a rescheduled date in March. I did see Lloyd Cole at Club Cafe in June. Lloyd is one of my favorite singer/songwriters and I have seen him many times. A lot of his songs are part of a very personal soundtrack for me, and this year I saw him while in the middle of some soul-searching, so the songs had even more impact than usual. I saw both Richard Thompson and Neko Case put on great shows at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival. I saw Stevie Wonder this fall, performing the entirety of his Songs in the Key of Life album. It was something of a transcendent experience.

The highlight of my concert experiences this year was the reason I missed Paul Weller. The band Blue Coupe played a show in the living room of the famous Evaline House for a giant costume party there. Blue Coupe features Dennis Dunaway, the bass player for the original Alice Cooper Group, and Joe and Albert Bouchard, founders of Blue Oyster Cult. Michael Bruce, guitarist for Alice Cooper, was also there. You can read how this all came about in the article I wrote for the Pittsburgh City Paper HERE. As a lifelong fan of Alice Cooper, this was kind of a dream come true. I met the guys in the band, helped carry in their equipment, watched them rehearse the set of Alice songs (this was pretty much a private concert for myself and about five other people), and briefly shared the stage with them. It was a pretty magical night for this old rocker.

Dennis Dunaway and me. It was a costume party.
The bass guitar I'm holding is the exact one he used
when recording School's Out and many other classic
Alice Cooper hits. It's a Rock and Roll Holy Relic.

Me on stage with the band.

Books: This one is proving tough for me this year. I read a lot. Not as much as a few other friends of mine, but a lot. In looking over my Goodreads list this year not a lot stands out as really spectacular. I read a lot of stuff I really enjoyed and discovered a few new-to-me authors. Most of these fell into the category of fun reads but nothing very life-changing. I did really enjoy the aforementioned Dennis Dunaway’s autobiography, Snakes, Guillotines, and Electric Chairs. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes was a good Thriller/Time-Travel/Horror novel. I like it better than Broken Monsters, her latest one. I liked them both enough to check out more. Wow... you would think I would have more here to be passionate about. Maybe I should rethink my reading list for the coming year.

Movies: I don’t get to the theater very much either. I saw most of the big blockbusters: Avengers, Ant-Man, Mad Max, Star Wars. Thanks to Rowhouse Cinema in my neighborhood I’ve seen some great older films on the big screen. I appeared in AspieSeeks Love, a movie locally produced by Julie Sokolow about my old friend David Matthews. I used to see a lot of smaller, independent films, but I have gotten out of the habit. Two of my most enjoyable movie-going experiences this year fall in this category. Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow-paced vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt. I know some people who found it boring but I was mesmerized. We Are the Best is a coming of age movie set in Stockholm in the early 80s. It follows three young girls who decide to form a punk band in spite of a complete lack of musical ability. This was just fun and beautiful.

TV: There’s a lot of really good TV right now, and I watch too much of it. Fargo was a tremendous amount of fun, if you can get through the pretty extreme violence it contains. I watched The Affair on Showtime and really liked the conceit of the storytelling. That faltered some in the second season. I continue to enjoy Game of Thrones, though I’m bummed that it looks like the TV series is going to go past where the books are. I would rather read it first. Even though I don’t watch all of them, there’s an overwhelming number of comics-based shows. Walking Dead is still a fave, and I'm a little in love with Carol. I didn’t like Constantine at all, though I admit my vision of that character is complicated and most renditions of him these days don’t work for me. I haven’t seen enough of Supergirl yet to have a firm opinion, though I like what I’ve seen. Agents of SHIELD is better this season (it almost lost me last spring), but I want it to be better. Arrow is fun but all too often jumps into really teen angsty places that I find tedious. Flash makes me really happy. I’ve been onboard as a Doctor Who fan since the reboot, but for some reason the latest season really, really grabbed me. Some of that is the performances by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman (who I didn’t like when she first appeared at all). Some of it is that I am painfully aware of how much many of this season’s themes really hit home for me right now.

Personal/Professional: Other than a handful of workshops I didn’t get to teach this year, which is a shame because I really love the experience of doing so. I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh ToonSeum and currently serve on the executive committee. I finished the scripts for the second issue of Chutz-POW!, and inked 6 pages for it (coming in early 2016!). I had art exhibited at Most Wanted Fine Art gallery. I have been somewhat at odds with my creative endeavors, not writing as much as I would like with no real reason other than laziness and lack of motivation. I didn’t take a trip of any kind this year due to some work schedule changes and a lack of planning on my part. I plan on rectifying that this year. I had a very brief relationship that while it didn’t work out forced me to confront some issues I probably needed to think about (and for the record, there were no hard feelings on my part and I have nothing but warmth and regard for the woman involved. Thank you for being there and teaching me important life lessons). I continue to be blessed with a feast of friends, which I need to remind myself of when I’m feeling disconnected.

Okay, that’s it for now. 2015, like any year, had its highs and lows, gains and losses. Time passes and only we remark on it.

To be continued in 2016.