Monday, November 26, 2018

Collector of Illusions

Once again the news has me finding relevance in the Don Waller archive. This time it's the sad report of the death of Ricky Jay, famous sleight-of-hand artist, and one of Don's faves. He wrote the October 25, 2007, cover story for L.A. CityBeat about Jay and an exhibition of his collection of vintage performance broadsides at the Hammer Museum. Don put himself in the story more than he often did in features; all for the better, methinks.

Anyway, on with the show ...

Collector of Illusions

Ricky Jay is a master of cards and a historian of chicanery. His exhibition of ancient ‘broadsides’ is a window into the deceptions of another time

By Don Waller

Paul Cinquevalli was unquestionably the most famous juggler of his day. And on the first Royal Command Variety Show in 1912, he appeared before King George and Queen Mary on a bill with the most famous vaudeville artists in the world.
            “This is an unusual broadside because of the distinctive type being placed on the diagonal instead of a more traditional format. It calls Paul Cinquevalli ‘The King of the Cannonball,’ and he did a number of stunts in which he caught cannonballs with his neck and balanced them in various poses.
            “But perhaps he was more famous still for being called ‘The Human Billiard Table.’ In a tight-fitting costume, he had a number of pockets placed in specific pouches and he was able to roll balls across his neck and shoulders making them land in the pockets of his choice.
            “He was so famous at this time that it was said that his name and fame as a juggler is a household word throughout the universe …
             Permitting himself a crooked smile, the barrel-chested, bearded gentleman standing on my right snaps his cell phone shut and, speaking in the same parched, professorial tone heard on the taped audio tour, says, “That’s pretty cool. That wasn’t working when I was here before.”
            The two of us are standing in the Hammer Museum in Westwood, looking at the initial trio of more than 100 items that make up Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay, which runs through November 25.
Jarred from his momentary reverie, the gentleman extends a friendly paw. “Hi, I’m Ricky Jay.”
            “Pleasure to meet you, sir,” I respond with a reciprocal hand. “I know you don’t do a lot of interviews, so thanks for taking the time to conduct a personal tour. It’s a great honor.”
            His nose wrinkles slightly, eyes narrowing. “Aw, c’mon, man. It’s just a gig.”
            “No! Well, yeah … But it’s always nice to combine business with pleasure.”
            “Oh, well, I always try to do that myself.” He brightens. “So where do you want to start?”

How ’bout with some background? Born in Brooklyn in 1948, Ricky Jay is one of the world’s foremost sleight-of-hand artists, a child prodigy of sorts, who made his television debut at age five. He came to prominence in the ’70s, when he almost single-handedly revived the practice of card “scaling” (throwing ordinary playing cards at speeds of up to 90 mph over great distances – such as over the roof of Hollywood magicians’ club the Magic Castle, or repeatedly firing them into the rind of a watermelon from 20 paces), which is when I first encountered him, performing the latter routine on some forgotten late-night talk show.
            He divulged the “secret” methods behind this and other stunts in a “how-to” manual, entitled Cards As Weapons, first published by Darien Books in 1977. Long out-of-print, the book continues to be in such demand among aspiring prestidigitators that copies routinely sell on eBay for upwards of $225, which begs the question, how does he feel about this particular turn of events?
            “I’m asked to reprint it fairly often, and I’ve turned it down.” Jay shrugs. “To me, it’s the work from another period. It’s the first book I wrote. It’s literally 30 years ago. I’m pleased that there’s so much interest in it. I’m actually going to see someone about it next week.”
            Aside from his live performances – notably the 1996 OBIE Award-winning one-man show, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, directed by his longtime friend and collaborator David Mamet – Jay has been a prolific writer, including defining the terms of the conjurer’s art for The Cambridge Guide to the American Theatre and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Hammer show reflects three of Jay’s more recent authorial efforts: Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (Villard Books, 1986), a compendium of eccentric entertainers that stretches from stone eaters and armless dulcimer players to sapient animal acts and master wind-breaker Le Pétomane; Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2001), a similar collection of essays on equally bizarre acts that was first published in 16 volumes of a fine-press journal between 1994 and 2000; and Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusicon & Death to the Savage Unitarians (Quantuck Lane Press, 2005). The last of which was published in conjunction with the initial exhibition of Jay’s broadsides at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that same year.
            “I started gathering vintage materials relating to not just magicians, but unusual entertainers of all types, when I was touring around America and Europe more than 30 years ago,” Jay explains. “Because when you’re on the road, working at night, there’s not a lot to do during the day. So I spent my time going to bookstores, antiquarian shops, printsellers, and libraries, researching these people and collecting these artifacts.”
For several years, Jay served as curator for the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, until the owner’s reversal of business fortunes resulted in the library being sold at auction for $2.2 million in 1990 to … David Copperfield, who deposited the contents behind his collection of lingerie in a Las Vegas warehouse.
            Partially as a reaction to this loss – and presumably to feed his own collector’s habit – Jay now devotes a fair amount of his time to acting in, or serving as a technical consultant for, a variety of films and TV shows: Mamet’s House of Games, State and Main, Heist, Things Change, Homicide, and The Spanish Prisoner, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, and the first season of Deadwood, for openers. And it’s these character roles that’ve made his rather saturnine visage most recognizable to the general public.
Now, on with the show …
 “One of the best things about doing a museum show such as this is that we’re able to expand on the book itself,” says Jay. “For example, let’s go over to the section on Mathew Buchinger. Here we have the broadside from 1726 that’s reproduced in the book, which calls him ‘the greatest living German’ and in the form of a poem details his act, which included magic, swordplay, doing trick shots in bowling, playing several musical instruments, and calligraphy. All the more remarkable when you consider, as you can see by the woodcut illustration, that he was born without legs or hands and was only 29 inches tall.
            “And here we have a pair of his actual drawings. In the self-portrait on the right you’ll find seven psalms and the Lord’s Prayer inscribed within the curls of his hair, but you need a magnifying glass to read them.
            “I’m a great admirer of ‘the Little Man of Nuremburg,’” Jay continues. “I know from another illustration that I have in my collection that he did the cups-and-balls routine. Now, when you do that, you generally use one hand for misdirection and the other to move the cups. But because Buchinger needed both of his appendages to move the cups, you have to wonder how he did it. So I studied it for three or four months, and I think I know. But we really can’t be sure ’cause there’s no photographic evidence …”
            Measuring 10x13 inches, the lavishly illustrated Extraordinary Exhibitions book is devoted exclusively to broadsides printed between 1618 and 1898, which were created to promote specific performances – as opposed to posters, which touted the entertainers themselves – and were intended to be as disposable as the punk-rock flyers or Thai take-out menus of today. But there’s nothing like seeing the actual artifacts. Not just in terms of scale, but in the quality of the printing and their various states of preservation.
            Plus, as Jay alluded earlier, the Hammer exhibition spotlights literally twice as much material as the book, adding everything from a children’s board game based upon a famous educated horse, to magician Alex Herrmann’s personal stationery (complete with a logo composed of cavorting red devils), to a doorway-sized lithograph heralding a celebrated female ceiling-walker that sports colors so rich you could eat them with a parfait spoon.
            “It’s not just the art, it’s the language,” Jay enthuses. “Because most of these broadsides are almost exclusively text. I love the vocabulary they use. Like this warning not to approach the elephant with ‘papers of consequence’ as he has been known to destroy them. What are ‘papers of consequence’?
            “And the hyperbole,” Jay continues. “As has been said, when it comes to show business publicity, there’s neither virtue nor advantage to be gained from being truthful.
            “Here we have the name Miss Jenny Lund – one of the most famous singers of her time – in huge type, but underneath that in fine print we see ‘she will not appear but will be represented by Miss Woolford.’” Jay smirks.
            “And then there are all these neologisms, such as ‘the Whimsiphusicon.’ What was that? Who knows? Probably just something the performer made up to convince people they’d be seeing something original.
“I suppose one of the benefits of being a professional versus an academic is that I’m more likely to be able to decipher from these fanciful descriptions just what that trick is and how original it was. Who stole and who didn’t and why they were able to get away with it. Of course, the skill is the selling. Like how people are invited to bring their own stones to the stone-eater. Not much different than me allowing people to bring their own deck of cards to my shows.”
So, metaphorically speaking, what’s more important in magic, the singer or the song?
“It’s both,” Jay retorts. “Absolutely. The material and the performance. I don’t think you get anybody who’s great, who divorces one from the other.”
One of Jay’s greatest strengths as an entertainer is how he brings the depth of his historical knowledge to the stage. Witnessing his performance of Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants at the Geffen Playhouse last winter, I had no idea that the patter he used during his rendition of the classic four-aces trick – he did it as four queens – was quoted verbatim from The Expert at the Card Table, written by a professional card cheat under the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase in 1902 (and which has never gone out-of-print). To wit:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I shall endeavor to illustrate, with the aid of this ordinary deck of cards, how futile are the efforts of plebeians to break into that select circle of society known as the Beau-monde, and especially how such entrée is prevented by the polite but frigid exclusiveness of its gentler members …”
Now that I know this, I think it’s even cooler that he did.
Along with all the magic and mystery and the improbable entertainers, the Hammer exhibition showcases a dazzling array of potential amusements under the rubrics of physical anomalies (conjoined twins, for example), the animal kingdom (trained, caged or dead), and museums and marvels (everything from a collection of criminals’ tools to fine-clockwork automatons and chicken incubators).
A careful examination of these broadsides provides a wealth of sociological insights. Some things never change: seats closer to the stage command higher prices (those who wish to “sit in the belly of a whale where 24 musicians performed a concert” pay double), many acts flaunt their aristocratic admirers, and many more offer private performances for a negotiated fee.
Several of these entertainers became so well-known that they could be used as reference points for then-contemporary satire. A 1787 exhibition of “The Monstrous Craws” (three individuals afflicted with large goiters) inspired a political cartoon by James Gillray that depicts the trio as King George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales, filling their enlarged throats with the gold of the royal treasury from a bowl marked “John Bull’s blood.”
These entertainments also were fairly affordable. Many of the 18th-century broadsides include the price of admission, often only one or two shillings. According to the contemporary writings of Samuel Johnson, that same single shilling could be used to purchase either a dinner of beefsteak, bread, and beer (plus tip) or a pound of soap. In 1760, a journeyman tailor would’ve earned two shillings, two pence per day and two shillings would’ve been the weekly rent for a furnished room.
Considering the Hammer exhibition contains broadsides from such far-flung locations as Persia (now Iran) and Mexico City, it speaks volumes as to humans’ infinite capacity for wonder – and our desire to be deceived.
Seeing how such deception lies at the very heart of magic – and Jay’s personal interests extend into such related areas as confidence games, frauds, swindles, and all manner of cheating associated with games of chance – it’s worth noting that seven examples from his voluminous collection of vintage dice are on permanent display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City.
On the audiotape that accompanies this exhibit, Jay explains that dice, which have their origins in animal bones, began to be manufactured from cellulose nitrate (the first commercially successful synthetic plastic) in the late 1800s. While the substance remains stable for decades, it will suddenly and dramatically begin to decompose, as evidenced by the dice on display here and – thanks to Rosamond Purcell’s sumptuous color photographs – in Jay’s book Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck (Norton, 2003).
 Perhaps far more noteworthy – especially for those who don’t mind an occasional wager – is that for all Ricky Jay’s formidable talents, he refuses to indulge in gambling.
“A lot of people assume that if you’re talented at sleight-of-hand, you’d be a good gambler or a good cheat,” Jay explains. “And that’s certainly not necessarily the case.”
‘Cause you might end up like Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman’s character) in The Hustler?
Jay laughs dryly. “That is the best movie. I just love that. But the skill of playing well and the skill of hustling are very, very different. I am really intrigued by methods used to cheat. On Ricky Jay Plays Poker, I demonstrate various methods of cheating at poker.”
This combination CD/DVD package, issued by Octone/Legacy just last year, features 30 poker-related songs – all selections from Jay’s collection – from artists that span the sonic spectrum: Broadway, blues, country, jazz, soul, and techno.
He also wrote the liner notes and provided the accompanying 68-page booklet’s eye-popping artwork, such as the trio of images depicting groups of Chinese, then African-Americans, then dogs passing cards under the table to confederates with their feet (or paws). The custom deck of playing cards included shows a top-hatted Ricky Jay sitting at a tableful of swells, duplicating this feat.
The 30-minute DVD showcases some of Jay’s most devilish handiwork – including how to cheat an honest man – as well as his genuine love of chicanery. It’s not enough to be able to deal yourself a winning hand; you have to convince the other player(s) there’s almost no chance of losing, too. And the sequence on proposition betting, involving an egg, three cards, a rubber band, and a beer glass, is simply eye-popping, even in slow-motion.
The promotional video for Bob Dylan’s 2001 Love And Theft album, with Jay playin’ the rockin’ role of a crooked card dealer, rounds out the package.
In keeping with his cryptic nature – Jay never entirely explains how any of his tricks, or those of any other performer, are done – when asked if he’s currently carrying a deck of cards, he replies, “There’s a chance.”
As for future plans, he mentions “doing some research on knife throwing,” and acting in a pair of forthcoming films (David Mamet’s Redbelt and The Great Buck Howard with John Malkovich and Tom Hanks). In fact, he’s got to get to a post-production meeting now.
            OK, so what’s his favorite magicians’ joke?
            “I must say nobody’s ever asked me that before. And I don’t … I don’t really have an answer. It’s weird. I can’t … off the top of my head, think of one. I’m just glad you didn’t ask me, ‘Can you make my wife disappear?’”

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Zoot Suit

The local news outlets have lately been recalling the Zoot Suit Riots of the early 1940s. This reminded me that my late, great beloved Don Waller wrote a fine piece about that for England-based music mag Mojo in 2003. It is newsier than many of his features but still has his signature flair, especially in the opening bit, but even in such matter-of-fact observations as:

When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s weekly syndicated column of June 16 saw the roots of the riots in racism rather than suits, an LA Times editorial accused her of having Communist leanings.

Quelle surprise.

Anyway, I made jpegs of the story from the magazine pages; click on them to blow up for better reading.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Portobello Golden

I recently received the unhappy news that Boss Goodman has died. That's us above, on a sunny afternoon in Brighton, England, in 2011. Boss was a friend of Mick Farren, and so he became a friend of mine. He was a legend in his own right. Among other things, he was the road manager for the Deviants and the Pink Fairies. He was a DJ and a booking manager at clubs such as Dingwalls. And many other things I don't know about, I'm sure. When I met him, in late September 2005, he was a chef at the Portobello Gold pub in the Notting Hill area of London. Back then, I took this snapshot (!) of him:

My first-ever visit to London came at the end of a nearly two-week journey through Scotland -- my first overseas trip ever. The trip was amazing, but hectic, and I was worn out by the time I got to London. And then, to perfection, at the end of that very intense trek through a beautiful alien world was a surprising sense of home in a stranger. Boss could not have been a nicer person. We spent several hours together over the course of two days, and he was very kind and funny and generous, treating me like one of the family. I saw him again a couple other times over the years, and I am glad I did. But I wrote about our first meeting, at the Gold, in my blog from that 2005 trip. Here's an edited version of "All Roads Lead to Boss Goodman."

Boss Goodman suggested we meet at the Portobello Gold at 3. It was a short walk from the hotel, about 15 minutes, and, as it was Saturday, the famed Portobello market was going off. A riot of booths and wares for sale. Clothes, shoes, antiques, trendy stuff, jewelry, handbags, tools, fixtures -- just anything and everything, as the song goes.

I found the pub and went inside under the tall blue sign with big gold letters vertically spelling THE GOLD. Stood there blinking for a moment, then walked around to the right side of the bar.

I spotted him at the far end, and recognized him from the picture I'd seen. Not too tall, but a big guy with short salt and pepper hair and casual dress. I peered at him and approached, pointed at him, and he at me. "Are you Boss?" I asked, although I knew. He was, of course. On the counter next to him was a white plastic bag, like a grocery bag, containing a bitchen pair of shoes he'd just bought in the market, oxblood wingtips. totally cool.

So we chatted, and he bought me a drink, John Powers neat. We talked about Mick, my trip, his heart attack, the city, and getting some Indian food later on. I then drank a shot of absinthe, and soon we went on up the Portobello Road, eventually to his place to hang out some more. I was feeling pretty good by that time. It wasn't hot out but not cold, a little cloudy but pleasant. The market dazzled with its produce, leather goods, tapestries. Souvenirs and faux-couture.

We caught a cab to Boss's apartment, where I met his roommate. We smoked, listened to music, talked. I toured the little garden his roommate planted behind the flat. So pretty and inventive, with every niche and nook used wisely.

Presently we went off to the Indian restaurant. We took the bus, which was not scary at all [note: back then I had an irrational fear of taking public transport in foreign nations] due to Boss's presence. We were standing on the corner waiting for the bus, talking about whatever, and I felt strangely happy to be there. I think Boss did too. It was like we could be sudden friends due to our mutual friendship. It was cool.

At the restaurant, we ate and drank soooo much. (Moan.) It was all so good. Just playing with the papadams and sauces/condiments: a coconut/curry hash, the raita, mango chutney, weirdly addicting pickled lime, and some chopped onions with maybe mint? (Didn't have that one.) Boss was really into combining the flavors -- mango w/lime, coconut w/raita and onion ... that was fun. We had chicken tikka masala, chicken makti masala, lamb w/tomatoes and peppers, motor panir, eggplant something, pulao rice, garlic naan ... some kinda salad ... plus beer for them and wine for me. And Drambuie at the end. 75 pounds for the whole feast ... crazy! Delicious.

Went back to Boss's in a mini-cab and smoked some more. Hung out and got tired. He called me my own cab, and I was back at Le Dump in no time flat. A rather eventful and enjoyable first day in London, but I am sooo tired (and not a little drunk). Which is probably why I feel too awake. 

So RIP, Boss Goodman. I believe there is a memorial happening today in England somewhere. I wish I could be there to celebrate him. Instead, I'll raise a glass in his memory on this side of the world.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bring the Noise

Last night I saw Star Trek: Beyond with my BFF, and it was exactly what I expected it to be: The Fast and the Furious in space! This is the third NuTrek flick, and I'm pretty sure we're never going to get one of these that is actually what Star Trek should be, but I'm OK with that. (Read: I've given up. Please pass the Kool-Aid.) This one's messages were the usual self-congratulatory tropes that now pass for deep insight (we're stronger together, peace is better than war, blah blah blah)—all delivered at 22 million miles per hour, as director Justin Lin slammed every kind of vehicle you can think of into high gear for pretty much the entire two hours. It also had a few touching moments that this lifelong Trekkie really appreciated. Plus the always awesome Idris Elba and a brief appearance by Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays one of my fave characters on The Expanse. So, winning.

That is to say: Even though it's really just a very expensive piece of fanfic, this is way more fun than the previous one.

I made the mistake, however, of reading the L.A. Times's roundtable interview with Lin and (pictured above) co-stars Zoe Saldana (Uhura) and John Cho (Sulu). I say mistake because the interviewer said something so bloody stupid it made my blood boil. In this case, it was one of those moments in line with a general unfortunate tendency by writers of today to want to put down what came before in order to elevate what is now. To wit:

For all of “Star Trek’s” groundbreaking inclusion in 1966, Uhura was kind of a switchboard operator. Sulu was kind of a driver. How have you guys worked since 2009 to make more space in the story for them, to give them more agency in the story?

OK, let's address the Sulu thing first. Yeah, he was the senior helmsman, so I guess one could say he was the "driver." But he was also a command officer, third in the chain on the starship Enterprise, aka the goddamn flagship of the United Federation of Planets! He was not a chauffeur FFS. And we got some pretty good glimpses at things he was interested in outside of his job, so he was hardly just the dude wearing the cap in the front seat.

Now, Uhura. A...switchboard operator?????? What the actual fuck. Lt. Uhura of the 1960s was the chief communications officer of the aforementioned flagship. She also did science. And she took the helm and navigated when needed. So, really, Marc Bernardin? It's like you've never even actually watched TOS.

Also, agency doesn't just mean giving underrepresented characters more time on screen. The quality of that time counts too. And the thing that is not addressed here is that 1960s Uhura had more agency as a character than her NuTrek counterpart. That is improving now that J.J. Abrams has moved on, but...where original Uhura was just another bridge officer expertly doing her job (which was all on its own a huge deal), in the first film of the reboot, we find Uhura in love with Spock (Zachary Quinto). Sure, she's also a kickass chick who's fluent in all three Klingon dialects, etc. etc., but—and this is not a reflection on Saldana, who I really like in the role—most of what we see her doing on screen is fawning over Spock and worrying about him and trying to make sure he's OK. Or yelling at him for being overprotective of her. No other main character has this sort of thing going on. Spock is into her, sure, but he doesn't reciprocate in kind because he's half-Vulcan and can't be expected to have things like emotions (although frankly new Spock is much more in touch with his human side than original Spock). Original Uhura never spent any time mooning over her loverman and his pain. (That was Nurse Chapel's job, hyuck.) That Abrams chose to saddle Uhura with this romantic b.s. was typical for his storytelling style but unfortunate for the character, to say the least. And yes, I'm still mad about it two movies later.

Anyway, under Lin, Star Trek feels more, uh, energized for sure. Lots of fun banter, many incredible explosions, a fair amount of oh-mah-gawd-nooooo! moments. Really liked Sofia Boutella as Scotty's new pal, Jaylah. It was bittersweet and at times painful to see the late Anton Yelchin's swan song as Chekov, though. It felt as though he, like Saldana, got more to do this time, too, and that left me feeling a bit more sad.

In conclusion, Beyond had a couple of little surprises but was mostly totally predictable, and yet that didn't stop it from being an exciting ride. I spent a fair amount of time laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of it all...but mostly laughing with it. So go—boldly.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Dr. Crow

My wonderful friend Mick Farren died on Saturday, July 27, on stage during a performance with the Deviants at London's Borderline club. (If you don't know who he is, read the obituaries in The New York Times, the U.K.'s Guardian, or the Telegraph. Or Charles Shaar Murray's remembrance in the Guardian. EDIT: Or Chris Salewicz's excellent piece in The Independent.) He was 69, just a little over a month shy of 70. I remember when he turned 60. (He was rather amazed that he'd made it that far ... .) I'm very sad, but glad he went out doing what he loved. I know he was thinking that there was still so much to do.

I have been thinking about him so much and remembering so many moments from the 20 years we knew each other. (The above photo of us was taken in the Coronet Pub in Los Angeles by our colleague Steve Appleford, I don't remember the exact date.) Weird that I don't recall the first time we met, but I know it was around 1993, when Erik Himmelsbach hired Mick as a columnist at the late, lamented Los Angeles Reader. Yet so many other times are so fixed and clear in my mind.

There is a lot to say, starting with the first thought I wrote down after I awoke with a horrible hangover acquired in the process of trying to forget he was gone, my head full of all these memories of our drunken misadventures and adventures (as well as less debauched moments): Which is that Mick encouraged me to embrace recklessness, and the sense of freedom that came from doing so. I mean, he didn't just do that for me; it was kind of a code of his. He helped me understand that the physical toll taken by excess is exacerbated by the moral strictures of society or the rules of one's particular upbringing, or both. And that rejecting, or actually maybe embracing and dismissing, the guilt was a key to moving past those roadblocks and seeing things more clearly.

I questioned, always, long before I met him, and maybe that's what he liked about me. I don't know what he liked about me. He had a lot of fabulous friends who were amazing artists and musicians, famous icons and true individuals, great beauties and mesmerizing scoundrels, but he always seemed to have room in his world for more. Knowing Mick gave me insights and inspirations I otherwise wouldn't have had. Not to mention a great friend who could sense when I was feeling vulnerable and draw out my fears into the light, and who wasn't afraid to expose his own fears and foibles. He trusted me in a way that he trusted other, to me much closer friends of his, and that always amazed and delighted me.

Because Mick Farren was my good good friend, but also he was a legend. That's so weird, even though I know it's so. He's Mick. He was Mick. He is Mick. He's one of the few people I knew (know? tense is hard right now) who was always exactly what he seemed to be, and he never let me down in any big way, although I recall some small disappointments over last-minute broken lunch or drinking engagements and other little things, the inevitable letdowns that happen in any friendship.

I had only a vague sense of who Mick was when Erik hired him. As a young person I never read the NME or heard the Deviants (cover of their 1967 debut album, Ptooff!, pictured above); a British music mag would've been hard to come by in Erie in the '70s, and anyway I was just a kid, hooked on Star Trek and Harlan Ellison and Tolkien and comic books, but isolated in a small town when there was no such thing as the Internet. In the early days of our acquaintance, I was a little bit unnerved by him. He would come into the Reader editorial office -- a long hallway with several different offices opening off it, plus a closet that David Ulin eventually used to store books, and of course the coveted roof-access door -- to visit with Erik, the ornaments on his leather jacket jingling faintly and his bootheels thudding on the industrial carpet as he ambled down the hall. From my office at the opposite end of that hall, I could hear the singsong cadences of his speech as he and Erik plotted and schemed.

Eventually Mick would rumble back down the hall, and one day he walked into my tiny space, sat down in my guest chair, and said, "Hello," peering at me expectantly through a tangle of black curly bangs. I don't remember what we talked about, but I'm sure I was terrified to have been noticed. But soon it became a regular event, him stopping by to talk to me when he came into the Reader, and I looked forward to seeing him.

In 1994, we co-wrote a Reader cover story about the Star Trek franchise, on the eve of the debut of Star Trek: Voyager on TV. I found an electronic copy of what is probably the final version of the text (before whatever edits/fixes were made on the boards ... haha, boards FFS!) in my computer files and read it the other day. To me it seemed like everything must have been his idea, except the feminist stuff, but when I read my own portion, written separately and then combined with his, I was surprised to see that we were pretty evenly matched in our contributions. At the time he said he'd never shared a byline with anyone, something that absurdly pleased me.

I edited his columns and articles at the Reader and later at L.A. CityBeat, where Steve Appleford hired him to write a TV column and much else. Mick's writing could be infuriatingly sloppy but was easily cleaned up. He wasn't always easy to deal with; we argued and even fought, but that was the way of it for two people who were intensely passionate about the written word. I had a lot of strong ideas about the "right" way to be a journalist, and so did he, but they weren't always the same ideas haha. But he encouraged my writing and liked what I did. We talked and debated a lot. We would be on the phone for hours sometimes.

He could be a mess, probably due to the aforementioned embracing of excess, and there was a point where his personal life seemed to be perpetually in turmoil. Although it seemed like he was always working -- on a novel, on a nonfiction book, an article, a record, a poem, etc. -- he often expressed the fear that he would never work again. A common emotion felt by every writer once a deadline has been met, I think, but one he managed to deliver with a mixture of dramatic flourish and matter-of-fact resignation that sold it every time. Writing took a lot out of him, maybe because he did it so much and poured so much into it. I still can't believe how much he did.

There was a stretch of time when it seemed as though he felt forgotten by his own past, as though he was living in exile in L.A., which I guess he kind of was. He worked as hard as he ever did, yet often felt ignored by history, despite the admiration of those immediately surrounding him. I do think the friends he had here made his life better, and I also think he had a lot of fun here and did great work here, but his life in L.A. was at times difficult and desperate. The suicide of his longtime love Susan literally haunted him for a time. And his never-great health inevitably deteriorated.

Several years ago, conspiracies were concocted to get him to a doctor, and to encourage him to return to England permanently and not just talk about how he "should" go back and avail himself of the National Health. No one was more surprised than he was to learn that he wasn't terminal (which is not to say he was the picture of health, because he wasn't by a long shot), and pretty soon he was safely ensconsed in a Brighton flat with his well-traveled devil cat Finn, putting his band back together, getting tons of writing projects, and suddenly finding himself being treated like the cultural treasure he was. Although I missed him terribly, I was glad he went home and found happiness there.

Mick was a part of so many different scenes at different points in time and in different places, while he also continued all the threads of his own work that stretched back to his earliest days in the '60s. He was always a hyphenate: writer-musician-poet-artist-activist. He was constant yet adaptable, penning vampire novels and teenage steampunk adventures, plunging into blogging, warning us that we were being watched as he watched the watchers with an unblinking, untrusting cool stare. Though new technology could befuddle him at first, he managed to not only figure out stuff like Blogger and Facebook but also to make it do his bidding.

Details blur like the tears in my eyes. We did a lot of drinking, and we watched a lot of TV, and we talked ourselves blue. We got so drunk, I don't know how we managed. We met young German tourists on the back patio at Boardner's. We flirted with the bartender at the Silver Spoon. We downed horrifying shots custom-made by Eric the back-street mixologist at the Kibitz Room. At the Cat and Fiddle one time, Mick stood on the edge of that sort of concrete trough of a driveway, swaying so badly that he nearly pitched head-first into it. I caught him by the back of his leather collar and somehow hauled him back upright. He pretended to be fine, like always.

He gave me the best gifts: my cherished White Panther button, my beloved 12-inch Tenth Doctor doll, a plush Dalek blanket and a tiny plastic Cthulhu figure he presented to me when I visited him in Brighton two years ago. And books, so many books. Mostly his own, of course. We once attended a Satanic High Mass in Hollywood, which he wrote about for CityBeat, and came away mutually impressed by how the naked woman posed atop the altar could stay so still for so long.

As has been noted by many, the man could barely breathe due to his chronic asthma and emphysema, yet he overcame that disability through sheer force of will and powered through performances (such as the above-pictured 2010 set performed at La Luz de Jesus with his longtime partner-in-crime Andy Colquhoun to celebrate the release of his book Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine). I witnessed that many times and never failed to be both terrified that he'd fall over and awed at his ability to stay upright and deliver.

So I can't say it was a surprise when he finally did fall over, never to get up again -- but it was still a horrible shock to lose him. Since his death I've been helping to plan his L.A. wake, which is tomorrow at the Cat and Fiddle, and reading so many comments and tributes. I'm amazed by how much love he inspired and how many lives he touched deeply, although the life people remember fondly isn't necessarily the same for everyone. That's only to be expected, because he lived so long and so well and in so many moments with so many friends and admirers. The constants were his generosity, his need for attention, his desire to participate, his ability to cut through the bullshit and see what was really going on. And he wanted us to see it too, and we did. He was somehow very easy to love, and he made it easy for the people he loved to connect with each other. Being a friend of Mick Farren meant you were OK. And I'm so glad we were friends.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

pretty in pink

"nothing happens to me."

that's what army doctor john watson (martin freeman, the newly minted bilbo baggins) tells his therapist in episode 1 of the BBC miniseries sherlock, when she urges him to blog about his experiences as a way of working out the trauma of being in afghanistan. as this phrase is one of genre fiction's top 10 NEVER SAY THATs (along with "no one can stop me now" and "i think we're safe here"), it is absolutely no surprise that, a very short time later, watson comes face-to-face with his future partner in crime-fighting, sherlock holmes (the wonderfully named benedict cumberbatch).

holmes asks for a cell phone, watson offers his, and -- just like that -- the good doctor is pulled into a world where so much happens to him, he can scarcely believe his own words when he later tells someone he only met holmes yesterday.

wait a second, cell phone?! yep. steven moffat and mark gatiss's three-episode series, which debuted in july across the pond, is a thoroughly modern take on sir arthur conan doyle's vintage tales. it got picked up in the states by masterpiece mystery! and kicks off in southern california on PBS affiliates KOCE tonight at 9 and KCET thursday night at 9.

moffat is the current doctor who showrunner, and gatiss has both written and appeared in episodes of that venerable british sci-fi program, so it's no surprise that the UK press beat the comparison to death this summer, and i shan't belabor the point. suffice to say that both shows feature a lot of running, and cumberbatch's singular "consulting detective" bears more than a passing manic resemblance to 11th doctor matt smith's singular time lord. and, as smith's doctor sparked a renewed interest in harris tweed jackets, so did cumberbatch's detective spark excitement over sherlock's coat.

as we know from who reviver russell t. davies's spin-off series torchwood, the 21st century is when everything changes, and that includes sherlock holmes ... at least in terms of the trappings. he still grabs a london cab when dashing off to investigate, but the cabs have horsepower, not horses. he still alternately annoys and abets scotland yard's lestrade (rupert graves), but now he bugs the hapless detective inspector by texting rebuttals to the media in the middle of police press conferences. he still has an addiction, but it's to nicotine, not cocaine, although it's sort-of alluded that he had a more illegal addiction at some point. his science of deduction is now a website, but holmes still has a brother, mycroft (gatiss), who occupies a minor position in the british government or is the british government, depending on which version of his job description you believe, and who drives sherlock crazy with his concern.

but the main thing that hasn't changed is that sherlock holmes is still desperate to not be bored, a fact the villain in this first story is counting on.

the tale is titled "a study in pink," and it neatly mashes up details from other conan doyle stories with the plot of the novel a study in scarlet, the first appearance of holmes in print. as in the original, a mutual friend introduces watson to holmes. they meet at a hospital lab, holmes runs down all the reasons he might be a crap roommate, and watson is impressed by his future flatmate's whole deal. watson remains a wounded veteran of the afghanistan war, and moffat amusingly finesses the contradiction between the first novel (where watson's wound was in his shoulder) and later stories (where it's a leg wound) by labeling the latter a "psychosomatic injury." thus, watson walks with a limp and uses a cane, but no worries. the healing power of sherlock holmes is nearly as awesome as his giant deductive-reasoning brain.

pretty soon sherlock holmes and dr. watson are greeting mrs. hudson (una stubbs) at 221b baker street. and pretty soon after that, watson is pulled willingly, if confusedly, into his first case, involving a string of suicides that turn out to be murders most foul.

as with last year's sherlock holmes movie, the bromantic elements are emphasized, although moffat plays them less as oscar/felix odd couple shtick and more on the are-you-boys-TOGETHER? tip. the jangly-jaunty music, by david arnold and michael price, kind of reminded me of hans zimmer's score for the film, too. likewise, the dry, witty banter between our heroes flies fast and thick, which befits the feverish pace, slam cuts, swooping camera, and clever framing. sadly, there is not as much fire in the miniseries as in the film, but one cannot have everything.

at 90 minutes, each episode is nearly movie-length, and they all feel stuffed full (something that cannot always be said for the much shorter episodes of doctor who this past season). i almost felt like the series was written for me, a viewer who loves clever yarns, adept acting, and awesome overcoats. but then moffat went and slapped me in the face with a gratuitously sexist moment. holmes's demeaning remark concerning sgt. sally donovan's (vinette robinson) extracurricular activities yanked me right out of my isn't-this-fun? mood for a good two or three minutes. (yes, she actively hates him and calls him "freak," so obviously there's no love lost between these characters. but here's an idea: how about having an insulting exchange with a woman that doesn't involve basically calling her a whore? crazy, i know.)

anyway, the mystery is unraveled and holmes gets his man ... with more than a little help from watson, natch. before said man goes down for the count, he lets slip that he's working for someone else -- someone who has a great interest in holmes. "there's a name no one says," the killer taunts, "and i'm not gonna say it, either." (and it's not "voldemort," as any sherlock holmes fan has already deduced.) but eventually, he spills.

all three episodes are well worth watching, but the last one, "the great game" (penned by gatiss and debuting on KCET nov. 11 at 9 p.m.), is easily the best, despite the maddening cliffhanger. you don't really need a giant brain to figure out the mystery, but i promise you one thing: you will not be bored.

Friday, October 01, 2010

boogie woogie

he was a child prodigy destined for greatness. he only needed one name. he was a pioneer of the personality-as-commodity school of celebrity. and, as he was so fond of saying, he didn't give concerts -- he put on a show.

last weekend i took a road trip to blazing hot las vegas to see the liberace museum. my pals catherine and julie cooked up this idea at cat's birthday party a few weeks ago, so we did not take the beast but instead rode in the air-conditioned comfort of cat's honda. not sure why i decided to go along, as i'm not particularly a fan of "mr. showmanship" -- the flashy pianist who was the greatest entertainer of someone's generation, but not mine. in fact, i didn't really know much about him. but suddenly we all really wanted to see the museum before it closes on october 17, due to declining attendance and the liberace foundation's desire to focus on its work providing scholarships to students in the arts. which, especially in this day and age, is more important. (the collection will live on as a touring exhibition, according to the foundation's official press release.)

in life, walter "lee" liberace (who died in 1987 and was for two decades the highest paid entertainer in the world) assumed such sobriquets as "the glitter man" and "mr. showmanship," but his retconned catchphrase is "the king of bling." it's all over what's left of the merch in the gift shop -- postcards, stand-ups, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, etc. and once you get a load of his mirrored automobiles, mirrored pianos, and elaborately sequinned costumes, it's hard to argue with that.

the museum is in two buildings in a corner strip mall on east tropicana avenue. liberace's music -- a blend of classical and pop revered by his fans and often reviled by critics -- wafts through both spaces, delicate and light-as-air, playful and unfailingly joyful. one building displays his cars and his pianos, the other one presents his costumes and jewelry, a little bit of furniture, and walls full of awards.

cat insisted there was no way he could possibly drive the mirror-encrusted roadster shown above, because it would blind people! also among the auto collection is his 1972 gold metal flake bradley gt (with a silver candelabrum etched on each side), his custom-made mirrored rolls royce (with convenient one-man bar in the back seat), an old british taxi with a working meter (which the info card said he occasionally used to pick up friends at the palm springs airport), and a pink vw pimped out like a rolls royce.

the pianos include a mirrored grand and a vintage player piano customized with mirrored tiles and other flourishes. another one is painted a deep blue to match one of his outfits. my favorite was this elaborately painted number that was featured in the 1945 film a song to remember -- about the life of frederic chopin, who was of polish origin like liberace. it inspired the budding mr. showmanship to create his famous candelabra-on-piano stage settings, and he bought the movie piano later on as a memento.

for me what made the trip worthwhile were the costumes. almost all of them are totally over-the-top, but what do you expect from the glitter man? sequins, beads, feathers, fur -- all the trappings of luxury and excess, reflecting his oft-repeated quotation of his friend mae west, that "too much of a good thing is wonderful!" every outfit has a cape to go with, and special shoes too, because one cannot go running around in custom-made finery with off-the-rack footwear, darling.

i took a lot of pictures, all with my iphone, which did surprisingly well considering that the showroom is covered in mirrors and draped with chandeliers, so light rays are constantly bouncing around. some of the cooler costumes are in a glass case, which made it really hard to get a good shot, but most are just behind ropes/rails. the purple ostrich feather ensemble above is among my favorites; it reminded me of lilacs (and i learned later from the website's trivia page that lilacs were liberace's fave flower, omg). but it's hard to choose just one. check out my gallery if you want to see more, including his famous red-white-and-blue bicentennial hotpants outfit and a fairly spectacular matador-themed costume, along with this red and black number that is vaguely art deco:

i couldn't get a good picture of the most amazing one -- the crazy-elaborate "king neptune" suit. (luckily, someone else on the internet has a great shot of it.) it features a ridiculously high, clamshell-shaped back collar, loads of pearls, and a cape lining embroidered with shimmering green kelp strands and coral branches. it was his heaviest costume and weighed 200 pounds!!

i told my dad about the trip, and he had a story about seeing liberace live, some time in the '70s, at a nightclub in jersey. his party was seated right next to the stage, and the woman in the couple he was with had on a LOT of gorgeous diamonds. liberace made his way up to her and kissed her hand, saying, "i don't know what you do, madam, but you're obviously doing it right!" ahaha.

reading about liberace in the fairly extensive wikipedia entry left me pretty impressed by how driven he was and how much he did. (he played in cuba. he met the pope. he performed for the queen.) and also wondering what he was really like. in the clips i watched on youtube, including the one linked from the title of this post, his public persona is likable, almost sweet, and he seems to genuinely be enjoying himself even while busting out the schmaltziest shtick. he was savvy enough to lampoon himself (as did many comedians and critics), as when he appeared in a double role on the '60s batman show, playing a concert pianist and his criminal mastermind twin brother.

which is an odd irony, and not because liberace had a twin brother who died at birth (shades of elvis, ahaha). liberace lived a double life -- he was gay but spent his entire life denying it. it's sort of sad that a man who exhibited his talents and tastes so boldly ended up having to hide who he really was. but otoh it's hard to feel sorry for him, and he probably wouldn't have wanted that. after all, back in the '50s, he won damages from tabloids that made insinuations about his sexuality. and, as he said then, "i cried all the way to the bank!"