Monday, April 30, 2007
Friday, April 27, 2007
See How We Are
Tonight at Joe's Pub, The PEN Festival and the ACLU sponsored a series of readings by Gloria Reuben, Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach, Rose Styron and others about dirty wars--detentions without trial, torture, secret prisons and other human rights abuses--and how these tactics are now employed by the United States.
Surprisingly, it was not a heavy-drinking crowd.
In 1996 I sat in an auditorium outside of Durban, South Africa and watched a couple of days of testimony during The Truth And Reconciliation hearings. These hearings were designed to help push the country forward during the transition from apartheid to democracy. At the time, it was felt that, in order to move on, everyone would have to be given a chance to tell their stories, to give witness in a public forum to the complicated ways that the apartheid society fractured the lives of South Africa's peoples; that only by being honest about who they had been could they be who they wished to become.
The day I attended, a young woman told a story about being involved in a protest that turned violent when guns were fired upon her and her fellow marchers. She told of how her friend's sister was gunned down beside her. The questioners asked the name of the woman whose sister was killed and the speaker told them. The questioners asked if it was known where the woman could be found and the speaker pointed to a girl a few rows in front of me and said, "she is there."
The next day that girl told her version of the events surrounding her sister's death. Like all stories in South Africa at the time, it was a complicated tale of oppression and collusion, of white oppressors and black South Africans who sometimes acted as enforcers of and accomplices to the apartheid policies. It was a story of how, when one is denied basic rights, one makes compromises essential to live and morality, justice and fair play can become luxuries.
But it was her story and she got to tell it.
Now, one can argue that The Truth And Reconciliation hearings were mostly show and that they denied vengeance for those who suffered and lost the most during the apartheid era. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I was an idealistic American student writing a dissertation about the dynamics of change, so my cup was half full and my rose-colored glasses looked good, despite the eyes of a skeptic looking through them. I was privileged to be witness as a country--not without bloodshed and not without cruelty--negotiated an end to its identity as a nation predicated on the notion of inherent cultural, racial, sexual and gender-based differences and attempted to be something it had never been in its entire history--one nation, one people, with equality for all.
Again, it seems to me that when you're trying to change, to be something you're not, it's important to talk honestly about what you are, what you hope to be and the space in between and I have been profoundly affected by how I saw South Africans attempt to do just that. You can say they fell short, you can say they still have problems, but you cannot say that, at a time when ethnic cleansing and genocide are often the endgames of post-colonial nation states, South Africa hasn't talked its way into the next.
I found myself thinking about this a lot tonight as I listened to a number of prominent writers and activists reading from articles, poems, e-mails and journals describing how the United States has adopted the tactics and compromises of nations it once criticized; how we have condoned torture and extraordinary rendition, how we have bent our ideals and compromised our identity, how we have become less than what we should be.
In 1992, my father and I met Nadine Gordimer at a cocktail party in Grahamstown, South Africa. Four years later, I found myself at a luncheon with Breyten Breytenbach. I cannot say a personal bond was forged or a strong connection was made in either case, but I can say that of the many remarkable people I met in South Africa, they both had a profound impact on me. So tonight, as I watched them and others on the stage at Joe's Pub, I felt especially ashamed as some of my country's indiscretions were summarized and high-lighted in the readings.
I found myself thinking about how The Truth And Reconciliation Hearings bore witness after the fact because the South African governement prevented the truth from being told in apartheid society. But here, now, these writers, this evening in New York City were reading and bearing witness to contemporary events here, now.
I would feel good about this; I would see it as an example of why we are strong--that we are blessed to be able to criticize and point to our faults and our shortcoming--if I didn't somehow feel that we live in a new age of Cassandra, the oracle cursed to speak the truth and have no one believe her. Of course, Cassandra had the gods against her . . .
Afterwards, Andrew told me he heard two ladies on their way out discussing an impulse buy they resisted at a store in Soho, Sxip took the stage and made his sound collages and I went home and watched the Lakers and the Suns. And the Cassandra crowd went down the street to Serafina for dinner.
Paul Simon writes:
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
And we sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
I'm trying to get some rest . . .
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Here's the problem with Neil Sedaka's body of work as I see it: When Fountains Of Wayne join him on stage to be the background girl-singers for Calendar Girl, they're just not gonna be up there long enough for me to get a decent drawing out of it. He's the king of the three minute pop-song and, although I'm fast, three minutes isn't enough time to get good likenesses on three people and a piano. And this may be my only chance to draw Fountains of Wayne up close. It's almost certainly the only opportunity I'm gonna have to draw them while Joy Behar is sitting behind me, possibly looking over my shoulder.
And then, before the second set, it was hard to get up to the booth because Elvis Costello and Diana Krall were hanging out backstage by the stairs, waiting to talk to Leonard Cohen before he went on stage to introduce Anjani.
By the way, Bill tells me that the proper response when Leonard Cohen is looking at one's drawings and saying "You're very talented" is, "well, you are too."
Next time I'll know. In my defense, it was Leonard Cohen and my brain sort of seized up.
After the show, Phillip Glass was all, "Hey, Elvis. Hey Diana. Anjani just blew me away singing those Leonard Cohen songs." And Elvis and Diana were all, "I know, right?"
They might have been talking about something else; I wasn't really close enough to hear.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Let Me Hear Your Ukeleles Ringing Out . . .
Jake Shimabukuro played Joe's last Friday. I had just come back from Richmond that afternoon to catch him and Junior Brown's one-two punch.
Jake's a ukelele virtuoso which might be two words you never expected to see sitting next to each other, but life is full of surprises. He's a gentle force of nature on the stage and has a following of people who approach him as if he walked here from Hawaii.
Also, he's a Beatles geek--he covered While My Guitar Gently Weeps and In My Life--which endears him to me. George Harrison used to be a big ukelele nerd. I read an interview with Tom Petty once where he talked about having dinner over at the Harrison's and leaving with a prized ukelele and Paul McCartney played Something on the ukelele as a tribute to George on the tour he did after Harrison died. All of which is to say that the space in my heart for best cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps has grown to two, and that now, in addition to Prince's amazing Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute where he upstaged everybody (which is no longer available at YouTube), it includes Jake's Central Park strum-fest. You can download an mp3 of his version here.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Friday, April 13, 2007
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Whatever You Want
The other night Ben and I went to see his old touring buddy, Vienna Teng at Joe's. We missed the highlight of the first set when her piano blew a string and nearly took out the cello player.
I miss all the action.
Then last night I went to see Ben do his thing at the Bowery Poetry Club. He's telling new stories and singing new songs and he's a one man musical with accompaniment.
After the show, we found ourselves standing on the corner of Houston and Bowery on a cold night in April, talking about how to move on to the next level. Sick though she was, Heidi stood beside us talking down a worried grant writer on her cel, pushing her aching throat to the limits of its endurance. The family's growing and our dreams are changing all the time and sometimes it feels like a hard thing to stand down a world that's got such a bitter wind, but as Ruby sometimes says, "manamana."
Monday, April 09, 2007
Last week, Bethany Yarrow played Joe's. Her father is Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame and he's kind of a stage-dad. He works the tables, hugs everybody, and tries to adjust levels on the board so everything is just right. He also provides instant encouragement, not just to his daughter, but to the guy sitting up in the booth drawing his daughter.
I kept thinking about all the time spent in Richard's car back in high school listening to that 8-track of PPM's greatest hits. It was a big car and we had a choice of the Beach Boys or Peter, Paul and Mary--information I reveal with great reluctance. I remember the time I was going to London for a semester and leaving all my friends behind and their version of Leaving on a Jet Plane came on and I cried like the sensitive kid I was, but noted that it got me the attention of Mary O'Meara and Liesen Liskey, who both held me like they'd never let me go, but they did because we were just friends after all.
It also made me wonder why we were listening to an 8-track player in the 80's, but Richard can explain that one in the Comments section.
Oh, there was this woman who came out and danced during Bethany's set. I mention this randomly here because it happened pretty randomly there. Still, it was good and a dancer is always welcome inspiration to me. Although, Jeff cheering me on in the booth was distracting.
Before Bethany and Rufus played, Abigail Washburn and Ben Sollee took the stage and played this completely unique blend of cello/banjo/appalachian folk and Mandarin Chinese music. It's great coming in to a show with no expectations and being blown away anyway.
Friday, April 06, 2007
Monday, April 02, 2007
Been There, Done That
My Father's retirement party was tonight (Sunday).
Tom Arthur's been teaching at James Madison University for 34 years and this drawing includes every play he directed while he's been there. It also happens to be a list of the plays that I grew up with; watching him direct these plays or talking with him about them while he was directing them or talking to him about them after he directed them has been my primary theatre training for the last . . . well . . . 34 years.