About Larry

Journalist, editor, author. Regular contributor to the New York Post, and Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops Magazine.

Trey Anastasio interview from 2002

Considering the intricate, absorbing, intertwining nature of their music, one can only imagine what everyday thought patterns are like for the members of Phish. The nature of their sound – ever-changing and evolving, gentle yet swirling, the product of minds in constant spin – gives the impression that these minds are of equal character to the music. And if one agrees with this impression, then speaking with Trey Anastasio, the band’s singer/guitarist, would not disappoint.

Phish is currently in the midst of a two-year hiatus scheduled to end on New Year’s Eve, when the band plays New York’s Madison Square Garden. In the meantime, the four Phish members – Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman – have all been extremely busy. Gordon directed an indie film called Outside Out which starred jam band fixture Colonel Bruce Hampton, and is currently touring with Leo Kottke. McConnell released an album with his band Vida Blue, and Fishman is currently touring with his band, Pork Tornado.

Anastasio, meanwhile, formed a supergroup of sorts with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Primus bassist Les Claypool called Oysterhead, which Anastasio characterizes as “a democracy in the truest sense of the word,” as “every aspect of Oysterhead was bashed about by three alpha dogs.” The band’s self-titled album was an inventive combination of distinctive talents, although at times it seemed that the strong-willed styles of the members were too distinctive to blend into a new and unique creation – more garden salad than melting pot.

Following Oysterhead, Anastasio assembled a band for his self-titled solo record and accompanying tour, his first such endeavor since Phish. In creating and leading a band, Anastasio has obviously acquired a fascinating musical education from his years in Phish. His process is both experimental and meticulous. Whereas Phish is a skewed democracy, with all members separate but equal in their functions, his current band is his dominion. As the monarch, Anastasio has devised the perfect combination of musical leadership and creative delegation, implementing complex systems to get the absolute best effort from every member, systems that combine management and experimentation in ways that would make both Jack Welch and Frank Zappa proud.

As Anastasio tells, it, the creation of his current band – a ten-piece – began with several desires.

“It’s a rough idea I’ve been carrying around for years,” says Anastasio. “I wanted a bigger band that was stylistically what you’d expect from me – guitar-driven groove rock – but content-wise with some aspects that were different, like combining African band and swing band concepts with a rock style. So you have a lot more layers, but a harmonic content that’s not there if you listen to African music.”

While his band’s style would differ from Phish in certain ways, he wanted to take a similar approach in utilizing each band member’s strengths, and integrating them into the songwriting.

Anastasio started his new endeavor as a trio, playing selected shows with bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton. Even after the band evolved into a ten-piece, complete with horn section, Anastasio used his rhythm section as the seed from which his songs took root.

“I wanted everybody in a comfortable zone,” tells Anastasio, “and I knew I wanted to create some highly-layered music. So I got into the room for one day with Russ and Tony, and I had them lay down a variety of grooves in a variety of keys. Then, I basically wrote the songs with that feel in mind.

“The idea,” explains Anastasio, “was that I wanted to get to know every musician. So I’d ask them what their most comfortable grooves and keys and riffs were, so I could really get to know them. I’d say things like what I said to Russ, the drummer, I said, ‘play me the oldest beat you know, the first beat you learned when you were twelve years old.’ So he played it, and I taped it. Then I said, ‘now play me what you were working on last week.’ And he played me that. Then when they left, I had twenty grooves, and I wrote the music. I hand picked the ones that appealed to me, that were in the direction I wanted to go in, and that way, starting from the ground up, everyone would be playing in their most comfortable zone.”

Anastasio continued this with the other band members, and managed to settle on the perfect intersection of his musical sensibilities and those of his collaborators. “Let’s say I had a run that I wanted to do, one I had that in my head,” says Anastasio. “I sat down with Andy (Moroz), the trombone player, and I’d say, I want to do this, and I’d hum a riff. And I’d say, what have you been practicing that’s a riff you can really cook on? So he’d play me a few, and one of them might sound similar. Maybe he would turn it into a triplet or something, but it’s something that he knows and is familiar with, and when he gets on stage, he’s playing his stuff, even though it’s a song that I wrote.”

It was important to Anastasio that the music he wrote contain a little piece of each of the participants, and integrate their natural processes with his. “I wanted to use everything that everybody had to offer in the creation of the music,” says Anastasio, “even though in my mind, I had a very clear idea of what the music would sound like at the end. It was just a means of getting to an end.”

In a way, his direct leadership role aside, his band’s creative process sounds similar to that of Phish, possibly one the best bands in the world at intertwining four distinct styles into a cohesive whole.

“The Phish philosophy,” he explains, “was that everyone has strengths, and lots of lots of weaknesses, clearly, on all fronts, as musicians and singers and everything, so we would talk about it and say, how can we utilize the strengths as a group, and make something bigger than the individual? And I learned a lot from that. So the idea was to put together another band where I went at it from day one with that philosophy. The first day I got into a room with Tony I knew that’s what I was gonna do, find everything great about his playing and make sure that stuff was in the music. If they’ve got something, it’s gonna get used. That’s what all the great swing band leaders did, the greatest ever, like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. They’d find a musician, and the whole sound of the band would change based on his inclusion in the group.”

The process of improvisationally integrating band members has been even more intricately executed on tour. Anastasio developed a complex series of hand signals that dictates the direction of the music, turning him into less a band leader than a conductor.

“There’s a lot of open-ended music happening on stage,” says Anastasio. “I have a series of hand signals where I can change the tempo, the key, and the soloist who’s playing at any given time. I direct it with an eye on the strengths and the flow of everyone who’s up there on stage. And there are long, 25-minute periods where they’re just following my hand signals, but based on what’s happening on stage.”

This method of putting his musicians on the spot has created opportunities to really learn their strengths and weaknesses.

“You start to find things out,” says Anastasio. “For instance, halfway through the first leg of this tour, I realized that our tenor player, Russ Remington, who doubles on flute, was really a great flute soloist if you put him into a really hard key. The harder he has to work, the better he plays. So, you put him in B natural, and that’s a bad key, a crappy key to play any kind of wind instrument in, and something about that challenge made him rise up. So what would happen is, I’d point to him as a solo, change the key to B, pick up the tempo and make him rip it up. At the same time, you find out halfway through the tour that Jennifer (Hartswick), our trumpet player, can play a wicked, sexy, slow trumpet solo. Every time I figure these little things out about them, the music would take on that element. All of a sudden we can take it way down, and Jennifer steps up and she can run with that, or (sax player/flautist) Peter Apfelbaum, who’s incredibly talented, I found out that he can really walk all over the gospel grooves and progressions, especially in those F and G keys, so via the hand signals I can change the key to his key, point to him, bring it down to the gospel sound, and off he goes.”

Of course, this type of directing is new for Anastasio, as the members of Phish never required such direction.

“With Phish, it’s more intuitive,” says Anastasio, “because, for one, there’s only four of us, but we also spent so much time, so many years, getting to know each other. With Phish, we never know what’s gonna happen. We let things unfold in a completely organic and natural way.”

Which is something Anastasio will have to get used to again, now that Phish is coming back to life. Anastasio says that after the New Year’s date, Phish will be very productive in 2003. Anastasio, who says the band reunited because they couldn’t stand to be apart any longer, talks about the great changes he and his bandmates have gone through since they began their hiatus.

“The most overriding impression I had was how much living everyone had done in that two-year period,” says Anastasio. “Babies, separations, and moving, plus what happened musically to the four of us.”

Anastasio finds it difficult to articulate the tremendous growth he noticed in the members of Phish, saying it took place on a largely emotional level. “More than a specific aspect of anyone’s playing,” explains Anastasio, “there was an emotion that I noticed, because it went by so fast. So much happens in your life, and suddenly you’re standing there and you’re playing together, and you realize that it’s all temporary, that nothing lasts forever, that this won’t last forever. And you stand here, and you’re back together, and we’re 38, 39, 40, and we started when we were 18.”

Anastasio finds it increasingly challenging how to put into words, what, in the end, seems to be simply an expression of how special Phish is to each of its members.

“I think about playing with other people, with other bands,” says Anastasio, “and you realize what’s unique about Phish to the four of us. We all went out and played with other bands, we all had great experiences and still are, but it makes you look at Phish and realize that it’s unique, and nothing could ever really replace it.”

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Anthony Weiner Tells All

(This is a repost of an interview I conducted in 2009 for a now-defunct New York magazine called City Scoops.)

THE MAN WHO WOULD (MIGHT?) BE MAYOR
Larry Getlen talks to Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner about Michael Bloomberg, vice, the stimulus, New York City nightlife, being a Jew in Congress, and his big-time beef with his old roommate, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

Anthony Weiner — 44 years old; born in Brooklyn; the son of a schoolteacher and a lawyer and a product of our state university system — positions himself as a champion of the middle class, which he feels is exactly what a city of eight million financially and culturally diverse residents needs in its mayor. But while his background might provide some instant bourgeoisie cred, city voters weren’t convinced the first time he ran for the office, in 2005, when he finished second to Fernando Ferrer in the Democratic primary and bowed out — to unify the party, he said — before a mandated runoff. Now, with Americans itching to string the rich up by their bespoke britches, and with Mayor Bloomberg having shivved his credibility by power-grabbing a potential third term against the express wishes of the voters, Weiner would seem well-positioned to send the city’s wealthiest man crawling back to his modest little media empire. At least, that’s what he’s clearly been thinking.

While polls have had Weiner anywhere from 7-15 points behind Bloomberg (though slightly ahead of his likely Democratic competitor, city comptroller Bill Thompson), he had been all but officially campaigning for months, including raising over $6 million, before City Scoops sat with him for this interview in mid-March. But then, just days before our appointment, the six-term congressman sent a note to his constituents that spoke of the need to focus on governing instead of campaigning, leading some in the media to conclude that his mayoral aspirations were all but dead. As we soon found out in an illuminating conversation in Weiner’s midtown Manhattan office, while the situation is a bit murkier than before, those aspirations are — as of this article’s late-March press date, anyway — far from put to rest.

LG: As one who was there, tell us about the day-to-day process of getting the stimulus package written and passed.

AW: It was imperfect lawmaking. You’re trying to do things very fast. Normally, a billion dollars for the COPS program would go through hearings, and get marked up, and you’d amend it on the floor. That didn’t happen in this case because we had to get this done quickly, because we were concerned that if we didn’t, the economy would take a tougher hit. There were a lot of House and Senate members working the phones with the administration, [trying to figure out], how do you do it in a smart way. Do you just give everyone a $300 check? Do you give everyone a debit card? Do you space it out so they don’t spend it all at once, and it doesn’t just become a stimulus for China, for example, with everyone buying flat-screen TVs? It was not the normal legislative process. It was the making of sausage.

LG: You’ve criticized former President Bush for shortchanging New York on anti-terror funding. What are you personally doing to make sure President Obama comes through on that for New York City?

AW: I’m the sponsor of legislation that would make the Urban Area Initiative, which is the part of the money that’s supposed to go to big cities [but] which is going just about everywhere, to try to make that more efficient. It’s still gonna be a legislative fight, because a lot of what the homeland security fight has been about is not partisan as much as it’s regional. You’ve got rural areas who say, “we consider ourselves a target of homeland security threats.” If they attack Wyoming, we know we’re all in trouble. But that’s Democrats and Republicans alike.

LG: What’s your personal response when you hear a congressman from Wyoming, for example, say, “well, we could get attacked too?”

AW: What I say to them is that maybe I should get wheat subsidies in my district, or, maybe I should get agriculture subsidies representing Brooklyn. I could grow tomatoes. I could grow wheat here. But it’s a serious thing. We’ve had a coalition that’s held together — although it’s frayed — but guys like me would support agriculture programs, and they would support mass transit and housing. But I’m pretty direct with my colleagues to say, “this is not an entitlement program.”

LG: There’s been a lot of speculation about this. Will you be running for mayor?

AW: It’s always been my intention to. I’m in a good position. I’ve raised all the money I’m allowed to spend on the campaign [due to] finance laws. I’m stepping back and assessing, based on what I think my obligation is to my constituents and to the country. But in March and April, I think most New Yorkers don’t want us doing politics. There’s gotta be some window of time that we’re not out doing partisanship; that we’re trying to figure out how to solve problems. In a couple of months — end of May sometime — I’ll check back. But it’s always been my intention.

LG: A few months ago you were saying that you were definitely running. It seems like the tone’s a little different now.

AW: I think that’s fair. I must confess that it’s different for you, too, than we thought it would be a year ago. It seems like the world is on fire. There are challenges everywhere, and the job of Congressman has changed. We spent two trillion dollars the last couple of months. We’re not in normal times. So to some degree, it’s fair to say that the tone is different, but the tone is different everywhere.

LG: If you ran and won, how would a Weiner administration differ from the Bloomberg administration?

AW: I think it would be more democratic, with a small “d.” Part of what I worry about in New York is that we’ve lost the sense of New York being a place where we have arguments and debates, and then we settle them the old fashioned way: we have elections. We have an open government process. That didn’t happen, obviously, with term limits. I think you’ll also see much more of a focus on those struggling to make it in the middle class. My family experience — middle class kid, son of a schoolteacher, not from a wealthy family but my parents were able to find a home they could afford — that middle class experience is much tougher. There will be much more of that focus when I’m mayor.

LG: What did you learn from your 2005 campaign for mayor that would make you a better candidate this time around?

AW: I learned that you can do the same message in every community and do well with it. The conventional wisdom is, you need a Hispanic thing, and a Haitian message. You need an uptown, a Brooklyn, a Queens. But the idea that you need to create this different vision is false. I think what unifies New Yorkers is a pretty powerful political arrow. It’s remarkable the level to which people agree on basic things.

LG: There’s a drugstore, a Starbucks, and a bank on practically every block, and a lot of people feel this has really hurt the city’s character. What are your feelings on that?

AW: I have a strong bias against chain stores. The neighborhood shopping strip is so much a part of what I think is unique about New York; the idea that your mother sends you down the block for a loaf of bread, and that kind of stuff. It’s not simply an economic question. It’s the culture of New York that has changed, and I don’t like it. It worries me. I led the charge against Walmart coming to Queens Boulevard because I feared for the omnivorous economic vision of Walmart just wiping out neighborhood shops. It was not a good deal for New York. I’m a leading organizer in Washington for neighborhood pharmacies. I’ve helped them with legislation that lets them band together to negotiate for lower prices with the benefit managers and drug manufacturers.

LG: Manhattan has largely become too expensive for struggling artists, performers, and other creative types. In your opinion, did Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg fail to account for that important aspect of New York’s character?

AW: Yeah. There’s a great book by Richard Florida called “The Rise of the Creative Class,” where he looks at some of the traditional indicators of cities: economic activity, close to the water, major airports, what languages are spoken there. He draws the conclusion that we’ve all been wrong about what makes a successful international city. He says what it’s really about is culture — progressive ideals, a welcoming environment for the GLBT community, etc. — that make people feel that in the cultural sense, it’s a fun place to be. That’s why he thinks that New York, through the ebb and flow and boom and bust, has always returned: because people like you still wanna be in a city like New York to bounce off each other. I don’t think Giuliani understood that, and I don’t think Bloomberg understands that. When you rezone big swaths of the meatpacking district so that now there are fewer nightclubs there and fewer bars, it misunderstands one of the reasons you need communities like that. There’s a reason there are nightclubs in the meatpacking district. It’s because you’re not gonna wake the fuckin’ meat. There are reasons why CBGB’s closing is a blow to the soul of New York, even if you never would have gone there in a thousand years. It’s important that it exists to keep us in a place. When you have an economic downturn and people are trying to figure out where they go, you want them to say, “whatever I do, I want to stay here in New York, because this is the thing I like.” I think we’ve lost sight of that, and I think it’s important for any mayor to not lose sight of it.

LG: So if you become mayor, what would you do to re-encourage that aspect of city life?

AW: A couple of things. I would recognize that the nightlife community is not only important as an economic engine, it’s an important social engine for our city. It’s one of the reasons that people like New York. I would realize that — and I would articulate this — there is a certain grittiness to New York that’s not to be cleaned. You kind of want that. I always tell my friends this: we have a relationship with vice in New York. It’s still vice, but the idea that there is a place where you can put a quarter into a slot and watch someone gyrate; sure, it’s not something you take your aunt to go visit when you’re here, but the idea that it’s there makes the energy of New York that much more. I would stop this crackdown on nightclubs that has become part of the city. There are gonna be appropriate and inappropriate places for everything, but we have to make sure that we reserve places you can go at two o’clock in the morning after you go to the place that was open at midnight. We have to find that balance better than we’ve found it so far.

LG: You used to be roommates with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. How did that come about?

AW: We knew each other after college. I worked on Capitol Hill for [then-Congressman Chuck] Schumer with a guy who played soccer with Jon at William & Mary. So we were all in the same circle. I was dating a woman at the time, she lived where he did and we all kind of…it was a classic New York [situation]. We were all making twenty grand.

LG: Where did you all live?

AW: Soho. I was living there more or less because I was bumming off of my girlfriend who was living there. Technically speaking, I was living in my mom’s house. We were all living together, and we shared a beach house, too.

LG: Are you and Jon still friends?

AW: Yeah, we stay in touch. We talked a lot during the campaign.

LG: Have you been on “The Daily Show?”

AW: No. I don’t have a book. You gotta be selling something to go on his show.

LG: Well, if you run for Mayor…

AW: If I become Mayor, then they’ll probably waive that requirement. I wouldn’t want to go…I don’t know.

LG: Because it would be too weird?

AW: No, I love Jon’s show, and I TiVo it and watch it every day. But I think it has a bit of a corrosive effect on my business.

LG: In what sense?

AW: Its entire ethos is to make fun of politicians. Colbert’s worse…or better at it, I don’t know. I guess it’s really not fair to say it’s corrosive. It’s just that for a remarkable number of Jon’s viewers, that’s the sole source of news, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good that they’re gonna get it somewhere, and if it’s gonna be at a comedy show I’d rather it be there than Bill Maher or something like that. But on the other side, I don’t like the idea that there’s such a cynical view of politics and government.

LG: But you understand why that cynicism exists, right?

AW: Do I understand why that cynicism exists? Yes. I think it exists because of Jon’s show.

LG: Do you really?

AW: We could have the circular argument if you want. I think it accelerates itself. I think there becomes a feedback loop that’s corrosive. Congressmen do dumb things, yes, then are highlighted for doing dumb things, and highlighted some more, and people watch it and say that congressmen do dumb things, and so then when another congressman does a dumb thing, it’s like, “well, my audience wants to watch a congressman do a dumb thing,” and then the audience laughs at the congressman doing a dumb thing, and then Jon says, “hey, I got a great scam here, lemme go find another congressman doing a dumb thing,” and where do I get in? Where do I get in not doing a dumb thing? Not being a bozo?

LG: Have you ever expressed that to Jon?

AW: Oh yeah, we had….yes. The answer is yes.

LG: What did he have to say?

AW: The argument was somewhat predictable.

LG: Well, after last night, we know very well how Jon argues. (This interview took place the day after Stewart’s takedown of CNBC commentator Jim Cramer – Ed.)

AW: What I thought was interesting about last night was the irony of watching the comedian be critical of the news guy for being funny.

LG: I don’t think that was the reason…

AW:…at the crux of it, it was the news guy defending himself by saying, I’m being an entertainer. I’m being funny. And the comedian saying, dude, don’t do that. You be the serious one and I’ll be…which is kind of a theme of Jon’s joust with the “Crossfire” guys. The irony with Jon…we have to remember that Jon was critical of “Crossfire” because it dumbed down the debate. Some of my concern about Jon is that, it’s smart, but it can be just as corrosive, because we’re being treated like we’re dumb. And maybe some of us are.

LG: We now have an African-American president. Do you think America could ever elect a Jewish president?

AW: If he’s black, they could. (Laughs) I guess so. Look, the election of Barack Obama has made us re-calibrate a lot of our assumptions about our country. Time is on the side of all of us who think prejudices are gonna get left behind. Look at the polling that came out of Prop 8 in California. It’s basically more senior people who are more likely to be fretful about gay rights. That’s good. That means people are coming up; that they don’t think it’s that big a deal. I have a tough time getting my mind around issues like this, because I’m so New York that I can’t quite get to the core of even being Jewish, and knowing when I went to Washington that…you’re not in Kansas anymore, that kind of thing. But I do see it every once in a while, in a way that is hard to believe, the anti-Semitism and all. But the fact that Barack Obama competed basically everywhere…it makes me proud to have a half-white president.

LG: Did you just say you see anti-Semitism in Congress?

AW: No. I see..not anti-Semitism, but I see culturally that it’s mysterious to some of my colleagues. They come from places where they couldn’t raise a minyan. And then me being this New York Jew guy who wears it on his sleeve…I’ll give you an example. In Congress, there’s a Black Caucus, and an Asian-American Caucus. We don’t have a Jewish Caucus, because while we get together every so often, we just fear that if you call it that, people’ll say, “Aha! You guys are trying to run the international banking system!” You’ll have an exposé: “The caucus does exist!” That kind of thing.

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Richie Havens, RIP

I interviewed Richie Havens in 2002 for a now-defunct Florida alt. weekly called City Link. Here’s the article.

Richie Havens by Larry Getlen

It’s difficult to decide what makes singer/songwriter/guitarist Richie Havens more intriguing – where he’s played, how often he plays, or how he plays.

We’ll start with the how.

Unlike almost any other guitarist in the world of any consequence, the most important finger to Havens’ playing is the thumb of his left hand. This is especially unusual since for most guitarists, that is the one finger that has absolutely nothing to do with making music. For most guitarists, the left thumb is solely used for the grasping of the guitar’s neck.

Havens, on the other hand, uses his thumb reaching over the guitar neck, instead of his index finger coming under it, for barre chords, the chords played when a guitarist holds most of the strings down on one fret.

Havens tunes his guitar in such a way that the open chord format – that is, when you strum all the strings without holding them down – constitutes a basic chord form. This is not usually the case. As such, the majority of his playing is done either in open format, or with his thumb holding down most or all of the strings on one fret. From there, he’ll create occasional variations by holding down one or two strings with other fingers, but compared to the thumb, their role is minor.

The way in which Havens developed this style is perhaps the most intriguing factor of all. Havens developed his style when he knew nothing about guitar, for the purpose of playing his favorite songs as quickly as possible. As a result, without any training, Havens played seven songs on stage a mere two days after picking up the instrument for the first time.

“I had to sing the songs I had been hearing, and I’d been badgering myself in my mind to do it,” recalls Havens about his early years in New York’s Greenwich Village. “After seeing two years worth of incredible people play songs straight from their pens and hearts and minds, I was moved by songs that changed my life. Traditional songs, folk music. I heard a guy get on stage and say, ‘this song was written in 1860 and tells the story of…,’ and he sings the song, and I go, ‘holy smokes, that happened in Brooklyn last week.’ The world ain’t as complicated as they make us think. So those songs changed me.”

Inspired by the Village’s emerging folk scene, Havens, who made his living from 1961-1963 painting portraits on the street, and whose previous musical experience including singing in street corner doo-wop groups, picked up a guitar. “Knowing harmony,” explains Havens, “I borrowed a guitar and tuned it to a chord. I sat it flat on my lap like a dulcimer, and with my thumb I got the three chords I needed to sing the songs that had changed my life. That’s how I started. I went on stage two days later with the guitar, did seven songs, and never got off the stage.”

Havens simple method of guitar playing is now up on his web site (richiehavens.com), so he gets lots of letters from fans inspired by the freedom they get from finally being able to express themselves musically. “I have kids sending me CD’s of them playing their favorite songs,” says Havens. “That’s why I put how I play on the web site, because there are voices out there that cannot be heard because they cannot play for themselves. Now these kids are calling me from all over the world, saying, ‘wow, I just learned these songs today, awesome, man.’ And that’s the key – to get the voices ringing.”

Of course, now that he’s been playing for almost 40 years, the style has evolved, if not in the difficulty of playing, then in terms of rhythmic complexity. “Once I’ve learned a song, that’s how I think I’m playing it, but you never do a song the same way twice,” says Havens. “Tonight it’s a little slower, last night it’s faster. The meaning of that is, that is the day. If it’s faster, this is the energy the audience is giving me to do this. If it’s down, it’s a down day for everybody. So emotionally it changes from night to night. What I’ve come to realize is, I’m basically a frustrated drummer. And by using rhythm, I’m able to orchestrate the chords I’m playing, and at the same time, give me enough rhythm to be able to sing the song.”

While some might wonder if Havens overly-simple method takes the craft and artistry out of the instrument, Havens says that other musicians have, over the years, been quite responsive. “Most musicians just freak out,” says Havens. “I had Eric Clapton chasing me around the streets when he was with Cream. He used to come to the city and scream, ‘how do you do that?’ We played that game for like half a year.”

Havens, a native of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, was raised by a father who played piano by ear, and began singing with gospel and doo-wop groups at 14. He was part of the same early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene that produced Bob Dylan, and released his first album in 1967. A powerhouse three-hour set opening the Woodstock festival in 1969 brought him tremendous acclaim, and he had his first Top 30 album the following year.

One trademark of Haven’s career is that he is one of the foremost interpreters of Beatles and Dylan songs, scoring rave reviews (and hit singles) with covers of such songs as “Here Comes The Sun,” “Just Like A Woman,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Lady Madonna,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

Havens credits the uniqueness of the artists, and the emotional resonance they had for him, for his ability to interpret them so tenderly. “For Dylan, it was sheer poetry. I call him the inclusionary writer. He can write one song, and in it set up the whole surroundings we are living in. He’s got so many songs where he says, this is where we are. He put us all in a lot of songs together. So that was Dylan’s magic to me.

“The Beatles magic was that they hooked on to something absolutely American, and they improved upon it. If you listen to 1950’s music, doo-wop, there’s nothing on the record. They put a sophistication to it. It was absolutely new and different, and here’s the reason. If you listen to the Beatles records, you’ll find that, Rubber Soul being the first, these guys took the hook, and made it the first thing you hear. They started songs with the end of the song. They sang all choruses before any verses. They did it backwards.”

Havens speaks of music with a resplendent joy that’s clear in every syllable, even sometimes breaking into laughter in mid-sentence. He has a light personality, even when discussing serious subjects. The joy expressed in his conversation makes sense for a man who rejects the traditional notion of being “on tour” – Havens is on tour every weekend of every year, and has been since he started in the late sixties.

Ask if it ever gets tiring, Havens responds immediately. “Not once. I’ve been very fortunate to understand the territory in which I’m really happy,” Havens says with a laugh. “I started at a time when you could say what you felt completely, and I’ve never had to say anything different since. And I think that’s the connection I have with every audience I’ve ever had, every weekend for 30 years.”

Havens, who formed an organization called The Natural Guard in 1990 to teach children about the environment, is asked if this sense of being able to say what he feels has changed at all since 9/11, and he responds that his audiences are as open to messages of freedom and peace as ever.

“I had three gigs the weekend after 9/11,” recalls Havens, “which I knew weren’t gonna happen because of [it]. About three days later, the lady calls me from the first gig, and I said, ‘so I guess nothing’s happening.’ She goes, ‘are you kidding? We’re oversold for the next three gigs.’ And from then on, it’s been oversold. It’s because people are not stupid or crazy, and they don’t just buy everything they’re told. All the people who came to the concerts from then until now have the same feelings about our rights as I do, which is, they don’t have the right to even talk about circumventing the constitution at any level, because we haven’t declared war. One of the things I said the first night was, ‘if you guys want to have the best week of your life, turn your TVs off,’ and the entire audience cheered. Every audience since has done the same thing. These are human beings who think. That’s where we are. We’re much more American now than we’ve ever been, and not for patriotic reasons, but because we gather together to make it so.”

Havens’ next album, “Wishing Well,” comes out in March, but Havens is always focused exclusively on the here and now. “I’m living now,” says Havens. “My future is the next minute, and it may not be the minute after, who knows. That’s the way I live, that’s the way I am. I’m a right now person, because I’m living right now, and I dare say we’re all finding that out now.”

###

Are women funny? Yes. Now can we please move on?

(Reprinted from mirthmag.com, January 2012)

I can only imagine the journalistic tingle that shot through New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman when his profile subject Eddie Brill, a veteran stand-up comic and the longtime comedy booker for The Late Show with David Letterman, gave him this quote:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

Wow. There’s enough to parse in those two sentences for several lengthy dissertations – and I’d be shocked if there weren’t several feminist grad students planning just such dissertations right now, along the lines of “Men, Women and Comedy – The Delusional Patriarchy and Their Fantastical Monopoly on the Human Funny Bone” – so I’ll just touch on a few points.

First, the speed of modern day discourse combined with my natural ADD leads to my getting burnt out on topical subjects with increasing velocity, generally before they’ve hit the mainstream. And few topics seemed more overblown to me than the recent “Are Women Funny” debates, and the never-ending need of female comics and comedy fans to defend their gender, mostly in reaction to two events – the infamous Christopher Hitchens article on the topic, and the film “Bridesmaids.”

Look: in the era of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Schaal, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Lisa Lampanelli, Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Whitney Cummings, Melissa McCarthy, Anna Faris, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler – are we really still having this stupid discussion? As this list shows – and this is, of course, just a random and minor sampling – not only are there lots of funny women around, but they’re being funny in many different ways. There are funny, traditional stand-ups that some might think hacky; funny out-there comics, no doubt referred to in some circles as “alternative,” whom others find just weird; funny actresses, improv performers and showrunners; funny-smart and funny-too-reliant-on-stereotypes; funny clean and funny filthy. Pick a genre, and you’re sure to find funny women there. Treat yourself to a show at any number of venues from coast to coast such as UCB, Largo, The Pit, etc., and you’re sure to see funny women you’re never heard of before, possibly being funny in ways you’re never seen before.

The late Hitchens – a brilliant man who had zero direct connection to the comedy world – made his case for why women have less natural need to be funny than men, and right or wrong, it seems clear that the article would have been forgotten far more quickly if people had just let the damn thing go.

Brill, the man who selects comedians for Letterman’s show, is obviously a different case in that he does have influence on the comedy world. While a Letterman appearance is not an automatic career maker, it’s great exposure and a nice line on a resume. But that said, there was one line about this in Zinoman’s article that I believe Zinoman got wrong.

“…to understand comedy today, this question matters: What makes Eddie Brill laugh?”

Understanding what makes Eddie Brill laugh tells you absolutely nothing about comedy today, other than how to get on one show. That’s it.

We all well know that the days of comedy kingmaker Johnny Carson granting a comedian a career with one simple motion toward his couch are a thing of the past. The creators of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” became modern comedy innovators by virtue of a $200 pilot they shot themselves. Louis CK became the greatest stand-up in the world by plugging away over a 20+ year career, a slow and natural evolution in which no one appearance or venue can claim the credit. And it can easily be argued that the Comedy Central roasts are now a far more important comedy kingmaker – or, rather, queenmaker – than Letterman, given what they’ve done for the careers of Lampanelli, Cummings, and Schumer.

And here’s something else to know about David Letterman. I’ve seen the case made in the social media world since this article broke that Letterman and Brill are old and out of touch. Well, guess what – Letterman wants it that way.

Around 1999 or 2000, when I’d just started out as a joke writer, I was able to get my jokes to Letterman’s head writer at the time. Even though he had no idea who I was prior to my sending him my jokes, he was gracious enough to spend about 20 minutes on the phone with me, going over each joke, and explaining to me exactly what worked for Dave and what didn’t. And what he told me – this is about 12 years ago, so I’m paraphrasing here – is that Letterman intends to sound a bit out of touch. Seriously. Listen to his monologue jokes. They often go for a certain clueless uncle quality, and that’s both completely intentional and, I believe, part of his appeal over the latter part of his career. Dave never wants to be cutting edge. He finds certain themes and repeats them – how many squirrel jokes has he told over the years? – and he reached a point where he seemed like your smart but slightly daffy relative, and it worked, and continues to work, and that’s gonna be it until he shuffles off to retirement.

So what does this mean for the Brill quote? Let’s take a look.

“I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

Ouch. OK – there’s a whirlwind of wrong here, since the quote seems to lay down a clear separation of what’s OK or expected for men to do compared with what’s OK or expected for women. When Lisa Lampanelli spews out a dirty sex joke, is she “acting like a man?” Or is it when Tina Fey has the audacity to run a show? I’m pretty sure the latter is not what Brill meant, but the truth is, I have no idea what he meant. I do know that, short of a woman coming on stage with a full handlebar mustache and scratching her imaginary balls, statements like that are probably best avoided, especially by 53-year-old men.

But this quote has me even more intrigued:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said.

I find this remarkable because while some have posited that it’s just Brill’s code for “women aren’t funny,” to me it brings up the question of what it means to be authentic in comedy.

Did he mean authentic to, and therefore revealing of, one’s inner self – as I tend to use the term in this context – or simply authentic to one’s own comedy persona? Given the full context, followed as it is by saying that female comics tend to act like men, I have to believe it’s the former.

That being the case, it should be noted that true, revealing authenticity in the comedy world is a relatively new – and rapidly evolving – phenomenon. For decades, comedy was vaudeville and schtick, like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. No disrespect to these comedy gods – if you’re a comedy fan unfamiliar with the work of Groucho and Harpo, then your education on the subject is lacking – but authenticity to one’s true self was never the point. While the Marx Brothers material contained brilliant physical comedy, satire, and wit, it told us little about who these men really were – especially since, as any biography of the brothers reveals, Groucho was actually the shy, awkward one of the group.

While some made minor strides in self-expression – Phyllis Diller broke ground on this in her own way – the real breakthrough didn’t come until the massive changes and turmoil of the hippie-dippie sixties, which led George Carlin and Richard Pryor to shed their suits, grow their hair, and truly talk about their lives in ways beyond what any who came before them – even their predecessor and influence, Lenny Bruce – had done.

But while this set the tone for a generation of comics, the past decade, spurred on by blogging culture and the explosion of the popularity of memoir, has been the real breakthrough in this area. It’s no surprise that many stand-ups have embraced the exploding storytelling scene over the past five or so years, because that’s where true authenticity is evolving these days, and where many more comics than ever before are gaining both the skills and the courage to be truly revealing in ways that many then bring back to their stand-up.

And if you look at that scene, along with the proliferation of web video and the improv teams at UCB, The Pit and more, you see a far greater percentage of women than you had at the stand-up open mics of old.

That’s where you find real authenticity – and, that’s where you go to understand not just comedy today, but the comedy of tomorrow as well. Not in the offices of the Late Show with David Letterman.

Levon Helm, RIP

I interviewed Levon back around 2000. Here’s the story.

 

Levon Helm   by Larry Getlen

The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s filmed documentation of the final performance by The Band, is often referred to as one of the greatest concert films ever made. Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and the voice on several of their biggest hits, thinks of it in a slightly different manner – as “the biggest rip-off of all time.”

The 60-year-old Helm, who sang on Band hits such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Ole’ Dixie Down,” sounds exactly like a good ole’ grizzled southern boy should. His voice is worn beyond a rasp – it’s more of a grind. His demeanor is genteel, even when he expresses bitterness, and his biggest laughs emerge when he discusses situations where he’s been wronged the hardest. The Last Waltz, according to Helm, unfairly became the Robbie Robertson show, and coming from Helm there could be no bigger insult, because when Helm discusses his former Bandmate, you can almost see the bile ooze from his mouth.

“I hate the motherfucker,” Helm candidly declares. “I’d kick his ass if I can get to him. He’s a thieving, lying son of a bitch.”

According to Helm, sometime before The Last Waltz, Robertson teamed up with The Band’s manager Albert Grossman , and together with their lawyers and accountants, they “ended up with all the loot.” Helm says that he and fellow Bandmates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson came out of The Band with almost nothing.

Much of this hinges from the fact that Robertson received songwriting credit on most of The Band’s output, which Helm calls “an outright goddamn lie.” When asked about Robertson’s songwriting ability, Helm fires off. “If he’s such a great songwriter, why ain’t he wrote something since we left?” Laughing, he continues. “He ain’t wrote nothing since Garth (Hudson) left him. That’s just bullshit. Garth wrote half the music The Band ever done. Anybody who knows music knows that.”

The reporter asks Helm about “The Weight,” one of The Band’s best known songs, and Helm describes how each member of The Band contributed to the whole. “’The Weight’ is just like ‘Life is a Carnival,’ or ‘The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ and ‘Ophelia’ and all the rest of ‘em. It is a collaborative effort. Now you could say that Robertson was 60 percent responsible for the lyric, that Richard was 20 percent and maybe Rick got another 20, and I got 5 or 10, then you talk about the music. You could give Garth chord credits and all that stuff, but the people who handle that stuff don’t work for Garth. Or Richard or me. They work for Robbie and Albert.”

Helm claims that Robertson’s deceit carried over to The Last Waltz, which Helms says clearly portrays Robertson as The Band’s leader. “Robbie’s up there doing all the singing and all the playing, and the camera’s on him all the time,” describes Helm. “He’s leading the band, he’s up their conducting. I mean, did you ever see a Band show?”

Helm’s memories of that time often come back to his feelings toward Robertson, although they are tinged with humor. In discussing The Last Waltz period, Helm talks of Robertson’s close relationship with Scorsese (described in more detail in the excellent book about that period in film history, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”). Helm expresses resentment for the two or three years they spent overdubbing and putting the final touches on The Last Waltz, and talks about how they became “blow buddies,” saying “their wives kicked them out and they moved in with each other, and they just…poor guys. You know, that looks OK in Hollywood, but it just looks weird everywhere else.”

The Band continued in many variations, sans Robertson, after The Last Waltz, even after the 1986 suicide of keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel, whom Helm says did “the real singing” in The Band. Their most recent album was Jubilation, released in 1998. But when Danko passed away last year, that was it. According to Helm, Danko was the glue that held The Band together, and his death meant that the group would meet the same fate.

“I miss him every day,” says Helm of Danko. “Rick’s death left a big hole in our lives. He was our neighbor and brother and partner and we miss him every day.” For all his animosity toward Robertson, Helm considers the other Band member as brothers, declaring “I’d stay in the foxhole with them.” Helm describes his other remaining Bandmate, Hudson, as a “true musical genius,” saying “he’s the only guy I know who can play percussion instruments, woodwind instruments and brass. Plus he can play accordions and other stuff.” An interesting statement, considering that Hudson was The Band’s keyboardist.

Unfortunately, it seems that many of Helm’s endearing memories of The Band have been tainted by the animosity toward Robertson. “The best memories was the musical memories,” says Helm. “All of a sudden we just, by trial and error, hit a groove, where just about everything we tried would work. We got a head of steam going around the end of Big Pink recording that carried us into the next record, The Band record, and half of Stage Fright. Of course about that time the truth became known, that Robbie and Albert were sure enough in bed with each other, and that’s when the collaboration stopped.”

For all their talent as musicians and songwriters, The Band probably gained their greatest renown for their role in one of rock and roll’s truly historic moments, serving as Bob Dylan’s back-up band on his 1965 tour, his first playing electric guitar. The tour was controversial, to say the least, as Dylan’s fan base was shocked by his switch to electric guitar. For Dylan purists, it was a betrayal of their folk ideals, and Helm and his bandmates felt the brunt of it so heavily that Helm, despite the enormity and historical significance of the opportunity, left the tour.

“They used to boo the hell out of us,” recalls Helm. “It’s funny, it doesn’t sound like much when you’re talking about it, but when you’re playing a song and you get through and everybody claps and says ‘yay,’ it’s fun. But when you play it and get through and everybody goes ‘booooo,’ you just can’t imagine. It sounds awful. It made me crazy after a little bit. I was laughing on the outside but crying on the inside.”

Helm returned home while the rest of The Band finished the Dylan tour. Dylan then went back to Woodstock to compile a film of the tour, putting the other Band members on retainer to help him out. Soon, they began writing many of the classic songs that would eventually form the “Music From Big Pink” album, and enticed Helm back into the fold.

Despite his reluctance, Helm still sees that experience as one of the biggest of their lives. “That time really opened the door for us into the recording and songwriting world,” says Helm. “That’s what the Basement Tapes was about – Bob’s songwriting lessons for us. We would get together, and Bob and Richard would swap lyrics on typewriter, and the rest of us would be huntin’ chords on little patterns and stuff. We got a lot of music out of that room.”

While music has been the anchor of Helm’s life, he also had quite a bit of success as an actor. Helm had a neighbor in Woodstock, New York named Brad Dourif. Dourif, a veteran actor who provides the voice for the murderous doll in the Chucky movies, worked on a movie in the late Seventies called The Eyes of Laura Mars, and introduced Helm to co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Later, when Jones was cast for Coal Miner’s Daughter, he suggested Helm for a role, and Helm got to make his acting debut in one of that year’s most widely acclaimed films. Helm has made ten more films since, including The Right Stuff, Smooth Talk, and Feeling Minnesota, and closely compares acting to his experience as a musician.

“The ensemble aspects make it a lot like playing music, and I try to look at it in a musical kind of way,” says Helm. “When I worked with Sissy Spacek or Tommy Lee Jones in a scene, I would go about it like they were singing lead and I’m singing the harmony part, and I’m trying to back them up and guard their gun sack, musically. I just try to look at it that way, and associate the director for the producer, and the prop manager for the road manager, and so forth.”

Helm says that acting in another film is always a possibility if something good comes his way. But right now his current band, the Barn Burners, is his main focus. The act, which features Helm’s daughter Amy on vocals and piano, currently plays Delta blues and standards, and is working on original material, hoping to record a CD after the current tour. But for Helm, it is clear that the good and bad times of the past, soured by disputes with Robertson and the deaths of Manuel and Danko, are now to be left in the past. For he makes it clear that while he loves playing live and will continue to do so, the Barn Burners will not play any songs by The Band.

 

###

Perspective on 9/11

In 2001, I was living on Pacific Street in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, and often wrote for a Tribune company newspaper in Fort Lauderdale called City Link. After 9/11, they asked me to write an essay about the event, which I wrote in the days following the tragedy. Then, they asked for a follow-up essay for the one-year anniversary. On this, the 10th anniversary, I just looked back at both, and found that reading one after the other chronologically offered an interesting perspective on that day. Here they are, in chronological order.

 

An Unbelievable View (published September 19, 2001)

On the morning of the attack, our writer in New York looked out on a city that would never be the same

by Larry Getlen

 

From the roof of my five-story walkup in Brooklyn, less than a mile from the East River, I saw the dense black smoke creeping like a sheet of moss up the walls of the twin towers. Ignited jet fuel billowed from the majestic glass and steel structures, creating a harrowing inkblot on the New York City skyline – a skyline that, moments later, would be horrendously altered.

People the world over share our grief right now, as so many have lost friends and loved ones in this unbearable atrocity. But for those of us in or near Manhattan, an area so compact that almost everyone here viewed some portion of the tragedy live, the memory burns a little deeper.

After the first tower fell, the crystal clear vision of towers teeming with smoke had been replaced by a dense sheet of ashen gray. I was running from roof to apartment and back, absorbing news and sights, trying to make sense of it all. Returning to the roof at one point, a neighbor got breaking news on the phone.

“The second tower just went down!” he yelled.

In my haze, I either didn’t hear, or couldn’t comprehend, the word “second.”

“Yeah,” I said. “The tower went down about 20 minutes ago.”

“No. The second tower.”

Now I got it. Standing what seemed like mere feet from two of the tallest buildings in the world, separated by an impenetrable wall of smoke, I needed my neighbor to tell me that one of them was not, as I thought, directly in front of me.

Anxious to be around people, I walked along Court Street, just blocks from Brooklyn Borough Hall. People wore paper masks or covered their faces with small towels. Debris resembling large snowflakes fell all around us. A man carried a piece of paper, possibly a magazine page, its border charred throughout. An oddly generic burning smell engulfed us as if coming from down the block. For its texture, it could have been a tire fire.

A suited man in his 20s, carrying a briefcase, strode down the street blanketed in soot and ash, his eyes intense and unblinking. His hair was dark gray around the edges from debris – a gray distinctively darker than the gray of age, a gray built of particles, soot, dirt and remains.

At my friend Kenny’s apartment, I called my mother, who lives in Weston (FL). She told me that our cousin Lenore worked at one of the Towers, and they hadn’t heard from her.

Kenny and I walked along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which borders the East River and has a glorious view of New York’s skyline. Hordes of people stared, almost half of them with cameras, all taking the same exact photo of a dense cloud of smoke.

We stopped at a grocery store, and a twenty-something with an expensive camera consoled a friend who was bitching about the price of film. “Dude! You’re gonna make $10,000 with these pictures.”

He was, of course, an idiot. The real moneymaking shots – two planes merging into buildings like keys into locks; people who minutes earlier were making coffee and checking e-mail despondently leaping to their deaths; fireballs and rubble that would decimate a symbol and destroy the security of a nation – had already been taken and filed.

Moments later, this vile, loud-mouthed douche latched his hooks into a cute blond woman. “You can’t let this get you down,” he said loudly. “It’s OK to mourn, but you have to move on. Enjoy your life. Do something beautiful today.”

Kenny and I cringed. Move on? Do something beautiful today? It just happened! Survivors and fatalities alike, my cousin possibly among them, were trapped in rubble, praying for life. And he’s ready to move on?

Minutes later, he directed his wisdom toward me. “We can’t be upset…Do something beautiful today.” Can’t be upset? Right. I’m not usually a confrontational guy, but this was not your average day.

“Hey shithead, I have a cousin who works in that building who may be dead, so shut the fuck up. Go make money with your camera. Asshole.” I then told him in no uncertain terms to go inside, and he took my advice. Kenny and I shared our only laugh of the day.

Back at Kenny’s apartment, I spoke to my aunt, who told me that Lenore hadn’t gone to work, a coincidence I would hear repeated throughout the day. We discussed the odor and debris that permeated the city, and my aunt, a typical Brooklynite, blurted out, “People here are skeeved out, thinking the ashes are people’s bodies.”

Later on, near my apartment, I noticed a woman with a piece of paper similar to the one I’d seen earlier – charred around the edges, solid in the middle. She said it was debris from the explosion that had floated into our neighborhood.

I returned to my apartment around 5:00, drained and weary. A charred odor filled my living room. I breathed it in, wondering if the remains of victims now permeated my lungs.

Back on the roof, I looked at the spot where the towers had been. The dark gray smoke had proven fertile and blossomed, enveloping half the sky, but remarkable in its stillness. I saw a piece of paper, about 4” x 6”, charred around the edges and slightly browned in the center, in the corner of the roof. It looked 20 years old.

It seemed to be some sort of guideline for fabrics.

“Of wool or fine animal hair (459)”

“Of synthetic fibers (659)”

“Of artificial fibers (659)”

Questions raced through my mind. Who’s was this? What did he or she do for a living? Might I one day find myself in conversation with them about the nature of natural vs. synthetic fibers? Or was that knowledge buried under a pile of rubble, crushed under tons of steel and glass, or incinerated by the flame ignited by a jet deliberately full with fuel?

I have inserted the piece of paper into protective plastic. I will either put it on my wall, or in a book. I’m not sure why – I don’t think I’ll need a reminder of this day. Of all my memories, this one surely will not fade.

Maybe it’s my way of paying homage to the victims. Maybe it’s my way of saying that no matter what abominations are committed upon this country, no matter how heinous our experiences at the hands of people dedicated to our destruction, I will not let them stop me from living my life.

And maybe, just maybe, memorializing one of the victims of this tragedy is my way of doing something beautiful today.

 

###

 

My City of Ruins (Published September 11, 2002)

New York’s resistance to change may be the key to its survival. It certainly is to mine.

By Larry Getlen

 

When City Link asked me, the magazine’s resident New Yorker, to write about the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks from a New Yorker’s perspective, I knew it would be my most emotionally challenging assignment since the piece I wrote last year about the attacks themselves.

There are countless reasons for this – most of them obvious – but perhaps the most prominent reason is that ultimately, I don’t feel qualified. And I mean that not as a writer, but as a person.

How can I possibly hope to encapsulate and represent the thoughts, feelings, fears, resentments, and even hopes of eight million New Yorkers in response to the most horrific event of our time?

Because as any New Yorker knows, asking one person to represent New York is as ridiculous as assuming that the concept of “a New Yorker” represents a solitary breed. What makes this city magical is that it is not one city, but many. Williamsburg hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead on the Upper East Side. The Puerto Rican stores of my neighborhood have no symmetry with the French bistros popping up right across the street from them. And Coney Island remains a rare vision of New York’s past, an area less connected to modern-day New York than to black and white movies, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Bowery Boys.

Plus, while everyone in New York suffered on September 11, no matter how unifying the experience was, anyone who lost someone in the towers suffered on a level that those of us who didn’t – including those of us who were here, seemingly inches away, watching the buildings burn and crumble – cannot possibly comprehend. For us, the events of September 11 represent losses on a far more abstract plane – a loss of innocence and invulnerability, a loss of what little faith in the goodness of mankind and freedom from existential fear we might have had left, a loss of the world’s greatest skyline. But those losses are as grand as notions of heaven, and ultimately, as difficult to grasp and define.

What one sees on the outside, at brunch with friends and at holidays with loved ones, on the faces of passing strangers and in snippets of cell phone conversations gleaned while buying the morning coffee, is a city that has gotten on with its life. On any given day this summer, Times Square was a creeping cattle car of tourists. Subway platforms radiated unbearable heat, and sweat was the great equalizer, drenching rich and poor, lawyer and poet alike. Thousands of people packed every inch of the Bryant Park lawn every Monday night, leaving nary a visible blade of grass as movies like “Young Frankenstein” and “The Grapes of Wrath” unspooled free of charge to the delight of all, planes soaring virtually unnoticed overhead.

And just as enjoyment and leisure maintain, so too do discourtesy and greed. At Ground Zero, tourists and residents congregate at the viewing stands daily, straining to see the infamous footprint, the ghost and shadow of architectural awe and dashed dreams. Meanwhile, directly across the street, exploitive merchants sell what seems to be the same book published under two different titles – “Day of Tragedy” and “Day of Terror.” The books feature the same pictures of the towers burning, which, by now, are as familiar as the image of Armstrong’s moon landing or the photo of the Hindenburg crashing. I recently saw a young woman even smile for a photo with the wreckage in the background, as if she were on Waikiki Beach, or standing before the Eiffel Tower.

But these observations belie insight, for they are not truth, but projection and façade, images of functionality that may be fiction or docudrama but, either way, broadcast the illusion of perseverance. Actual strength or failure of will and character in the face of challenge and adversity is internal. Therefore, the only experience I can truly relate, on behalf of my fellow New Yorkers, is my own. And when I think of September 11 and what I wish – no, need – to reveal, one emotion stands out: guilt.

Like the rest of the world, I first watched the towers burn on CNN. I soon realized, however, how that was the equivalent of watching a boxing match on TV while sitting ringside, and ran to my roof to watch the horror in visceral 3-D, without the aid of satellites and electricity.

Later on, I deduced that since the towers could be prominently viewed from my rooftop, they must have been visible from my street, had I ever glanced skyward.

“Must have been,” I write, because I never noticed.

That’s because the Twin Towers, in the eight months between my return to New York after an eight-year absence and their tragic collapse, were a peripheral ornament to me, meshing with the trees and utility poles and clouds that followed me in my travels. I had made my way through New York life every day for almost a year on that street with the towers prominent for all who chose to enjoy the view, and yet as hard as I try or wish, I will never remember looking up on my way to the subway, or to buy groceries, or to workout, and using the towers as my marker, their sheer voluminousness practically daring you to notice anything else. The towers were one of New York’s greatest pleasures, and while we’re all deprived of them now, I’ve been stripped of their memory thanks to my own obliviousness and complacency, my own absorption in life’s minutia, my own failure to stop, just once, and smell the proverbial roses.

Which is exactly the sort of myopic malaise that supposedly evaporated in the wake of September 11, right? Our uncanny ability to take life for granted and our failure to appreciate the wonders of life and how lucky we are to be alive in the United States of America crumbled with the towers, with the event representing a new awakening, an era of outward concerns. Isn’t that’s what everyone said – that none of us would ever be the same?

Well, here’s how September 11 ultimately changed me.

In the article I wrote for this magazine the day after the attack, I told of a piece of debris, most likely a page from an instructional manual of some sort, that floated for two miles or so along the airborne wreckage from the World Trade Center to the roof of my apartment building. I wrote of how I preserved the charred page in plastic and intended to frame it, place it in an album, or in some other way use it to pay tribute to those who were taken from us.

Well, want to know what I eventually did with that piece of debris, preserved in plastic with such care and reverence?

Nothing.

It sat atop my desk for months, often in the midst of other papers, tapes, CDs and Post-it notes. Initially, I always made sure that it remained on top, never covered or buried. Eventually, though, it got mixed in with the rest of my papers, with articles I pulled off the Internet or correspondence from clients. When I would notice this, guilt would set in, so I would place the page back on the top of the pile.

The charred page floated from disheveled spot to disheveled spot around my office and finally settled in a closet, reclining comfortably on a rarely-used camera bag. It never saw a frame or an album – and it couldn’t possibly have happened any other way.

You see, I’m a pack rat. The kindest description ever applied to my apartment – in fact, to any apartment I’ve ever lived in – is that it looks like a writer’s apartment. Throughout my life, I’ve always had way more papers, books, CDs, and general crap than any apartment should ever contain, and my organizational systems are always wholly inadequate for the task. So invariably, piles of notes, receipts, and magazines create worlds of their own, rendering every place I’ve ever lived seemingly one file cabinet short or one storage room too small. That’s how it has been since I was a teen, and now that I’m far beyond those years, I have long since accepted that like it or not, that’s how I’ll always be.

My pledge to put the World Trade Center debris in a frame or album was made with good intentions – you know, that thing the road to hell is paved with – but truth be told, I’ve never framed or albumed anything in my life. My high school diploma? Not sure where it is. Probably in a file somewhere. Pictures of my young nieces, whom I love dearly? Loose in a drawer. The original copy of my first article for Esquire Magazine? Sitting in a gym bag, at the moment, except for the rare days when I actually make it to the gym, at which time the article (and many other important documents) get placed on my bed, and then returned to the bag upon my return.

So what ultimately happened with that charred page from the World Trade Center is that, much like the tragedy itself, it was slowly integrated into the fabric of my life.

George Carlin does a great routine where he says that non-biodegradable plastic won’t destroy the environment as some fear, but that the Earth will eventually adapt into a new organism called “Earth plus plastic.” And so it is with my World Trade Center debris, and so it is, I believe – if we’re being truly honest with ourselves when not providing the media with solemn sound bites – with New Yorkers and September 11. We have adapted, and we have integrated.

A New York-based comic named Jonathan Corbett makes the case for why September 11 should not become a national holiday. His reasoning is that it will eventually become just like other American holidays – treated with solemnity for a few years before becoming an excuse for lazy days off work and barbecues, with MTV promoting their “What’s the 9-1-1 weekend,” and T.G.I. Friday’s imploring customers to “come on down to Ground Beero!”

The routine is funny because of the truth it speaks in asserting how solemnity often fails to endure, even in a case this extreme, and in the process states a truth that few of us want to admit. But what’s unsaid here is that that failure of reverence may not be a bad thing.

For what it really says about our city, and our country, is that we adapt, and in integrating the horrendous, can remove some of its power to dictate terms. And yes, oftentimes we trivialize in the process – we’re certainly not perfect, and who’s to say where balance lies – but still, that may be a better alternative than being ruled and driven by constant enmity and fear.

September 11 has not, as the media would have us believe, changed us all. In fact – excluding those who suffered direct and personal losses in the tragedy – I’d say that as individuals, September 11 didn’t really change any of us. Those who were thoughtless cretins before the tragedy remain so, and those who were kind of heart retained that wonderful quality. We are still, and will always remain, the same people we have always been. Only now, September 11 is, and will forever be, a part of us.

 

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The Rewards of NaNoWriMo – A Writer’s Post-Mortem

Writing fifty thousand words of a brand new novel in thirty days is a lot. Writing that many as a side project – on top of family, friends, chores, jobs, shopping for groceries, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book or two, keeping up with the Wikileaks scandal, voting for or against Bristol Palin on “Dancing with the Stars,” reconvening with family for the Thanksgiving holiday, and crafting the fifty thousand or so words you’re already writing (give or take 10 or 20K) if you happen to be a professional writer – is a creative Mt. Everest.

So why, then, does anyone in their right mind agree to participate in National Novel Writing Month?

I am grateful that this is a question I never bothered to ask – or that, perhaps, I am in something less than my right mind.

The idea of National Novel Writing Month, (or NaNoWriMo, as its known colloquially), is, as stated above, to start a novel from scratch (or virtually so – you can have a vague idea, notes, or even an outline. I barely had the first of these) on November 1. Then, by November 30, you are to have written at least 50,000 words of this novel. The implication is that this should be a “completed” (although in no way submittable) work, although that’s not a requirement.

Whenever I mentioned to people unfamiliar with it that I was participating this year, the response was invariably, “what’s the prize?” They seemed to expect that participants – and there were over 167,000 in 2009, over 32,000 of whom reached the 50,000 word goal – were angling for representation, publication, a cash reward of some sort, or the internet’s more common currencies, virality, buzz, and fame.

But the prize is none of these things, because a 50,000-word novel (or novel excerpt) banged out in a month will probably be close to unreadable, nevermind deserving of publication. No, the prize is something else, and potentially something even greater (and I’m not referring to the downloadable “winner’s” certificate you can type your name into and print at will if you complete the verified 50,000 words).

The prize – much, I suspect, like the morning pages attached to The Artist’s Way – is that you write. You write every day (or almost so), you write furiously (because you have so much to do in so little time), and you write – theoretically – without self-consciousness or self-censorship. The prize of NaNoWriMo is that you get your creative juices flowing. That’s really it – and that, my friends, is a lot.

I decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo last November, shortly after that year’s session began. I had never thought about it before, but as I saw friends update their Facebook status with word counts and enthusiasm, it occurred to me how strongly I needed that sort of creative spark. Three years ago, I wrote two drafts of a screenplay. I received some very good feedback on what I had, got it to the “it just needs a final polish” stage in the eyes of some (although I suspect a bit more work than that was required), and then….life happened. No one thing, just everyday life, that thing that is the death of so many creative works.

We’ve all heard some version of the phrase, “if you want God to laugh, make plans.” That’s because for most people, I suspect, life operates on two distinct tracks – the life we want, and the life we have. Then, the perpetual challenge of life is the attempt to merge these two tracks. Writers – or any others in creative pursuit – have a similar, and additional, challenge. There is our creative life – that project that drifts through our mind, that other project we started and put in a drawer, the third one we outlined then planned to work on the following weekend, only that weekend mysteriously never came – and then there is real life, the life of work, friends, family, obligation, conflicts, watching “Mad Men,” reading “Mad Men” recaps, Facebooking, tweeting, and the numerous other distracting facets of everyday existence.

Over the years, I have, like most, converged all these roads with varying degrees of success. But the past three years – for no one single or simple reason – my professional and personal roads paved right over my creative one.

So when NaNoWriMo approached, I saw it as a way to re-ignite my dormant creativity.

Halloween night, I set my iPhone alarm for 5:30 for every morning of that first week. That day, I had given the project some passing thought. I knew I wanted to write a satirical comedy dealing with politics and media – maybe something about a scandal. (Not coincidentally, this also describes that long-neglected screenplay.) And that was it – that was all the planning I did for the month of hard work to come.

I woke up at 5:30 on November 1, showered, put up a pot of coffee, and was at my desk just after six. I opened a new filed, titled it, “National Novel Writing Month,” and without any forethought, found myself typing, “The man in the black derby was late.”

Hmmmm. OK. Intriguing, I guess. Not too crappy for a first sentence. Let’s see where this goes.

By two hours later, I had created a senator, his top aide, the mystery spy with the antiquated hatwear, and the beginnings of the scandal.

Over the next few weeks, characters and plotlines flowed, as did scenes and lines well-written and otherwise. The effort to bang out words often came easier than expected; the effort to do so without judgment, as the official NaNoWriMo web site advises, proved impossible. Sex scenes emerged that hopefully avoided the cheese of books with Fabio on the cover; political speeches flowed that hopefully aren’t ham-handed and cliched. The emotional battles between a congressman and his wife mostly hit the right notes, I think – I could see them remaining almost intact in the movie version. Then again, is it possible to forge full steam ahead on a project such as this – on any attempt at a novel, really – without some sense of ego and self-delusion?

As for work flow, the thirty days of NaNoWriMo had some stops and starts. To make the 50,000 word total, you need to average 1,667 words per day. After keeping pace the first week, I fell off horribly in the second, missing four or five days. By week three, I was far behind goal, and now needed 2,500 words a day – even through Thanksgiving week with my family – to make my goal. But I was determined and got back on track, and 2,500 words per day often became 3,000-4,000. I wrote on planes, I wrote in coffee shops, I wrote in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, I even once wrote in the passenger seat of a generous and patient co-worker’s car.

By the final days, plot and characters had coalesced in revealing ways. The senator and his aide from the first scene faded in importance, emerging more as devices for political and media response to the book’s other events than as a fully-formed characters. The senator’s opponent, however, became the book’s complex lynchpin, and the people around him acquired a richness that sometimes caught me off guard.

The man with the penchant for derbies never returned.

Over the course of the month, I became well-acquainted with my congressional loose-cannon moralist; his put-upon blue blood wife; the aide with the unenviable task of juggling a campaign and a scandal; an opportunistic dunce with aptitude for naught and hunger for all who might just, in the long run, become some people’s favorite character; and his wife, a woman with nothing who suddenly finds herself with everything – perhaps too much. For only thirty days of effort, I was rewarded with all these characters and more, every one of whom rumbled up from my subconscious as if by their own free will, and all because I was willing to put in the time and effort it took to give them the chance to appear.

On November 30, I typed the final words of my NaNoWriMo experience, bringing me to 50,075 words written in the month of November – officially making me a NaNoWriMo success story, and giving me a project I now have every intention of continuing.

That project, of course, is merely at a very early stage of its first draft, with all the slop and incompleteness that implies. These 50,000 words are only about one third or one quarter of the story. The writing itself is of a pronounced first-draft quality at times, an inevitability when banging out 2,500 words per session. The characters and settings need greater physical definition; far too many react to something at this point by “smiling” or “staring.” I still haven’t decided which state the book is set in, although I do have it narrowed down to three finalists. There are too-long paragraphs of expository inner monologue, and, since this draft was intended to help me invent characters and plot, details are often presented with an unnecessary Rashomon-like thoroughness, just so I could figure out exactly what the hell was going.

But all of this is to be expected in a first draft, especially one created under these conditions. The greater bottom line for me is the joy at having set such a challenging goal and then meeting it, and the thrill I have felt in the seeds of accomplishment – in creating characters I enjoyed creating, developed a vision for, and now feel compelled to accompany on a longer journey. By the end of the month, I was feeling not just a warmth toward my characters, but an obligation, as if they were creative beings that had been sequestered from the world for far too long, just waiting – much like striving writers – for a chance to show the world what they can do.

With any luck and a few years of hard work, I will give them just that.

Ronnie James Dio – R.I.P.

Ronnie James Dio, who died this morning after a bout with stomach cancer, was revered in the metal world while also representing, to many outside of it, the typical heavy metal cliche. The man who claimed to bring the devil horn symbol to metal (the raising of the forefinger and pinky in salute was something, he said, he picked up from his Italian grandmother) dressed in theatrical black velvet and leather, and tackled lyrics strewn with tales of devils, dragons, and rainbows with the same sincerity Barack Obama has when addressing the oil spill in the Gulf.

But to those of us who reveled in the excitement of a Ronnie James Dio song or performance, it was exactly this earnestness, careening madly and purposefully through an ironic world, that made the man so special. Dio’s music was often melodrama, but it was always in the service of optimism and joy.

While much of Dio’s music was special to me, a standout will always be the first song on his first album with Black Sabbath, “Neon Knights.” Alongside a defiantly simple but propellant statement via riff from Tony Iommi, a bold first step in the Sabs’ post-Ozzy existence, Ronnie easily matched his new band members’ kinetic metal energy and bombast while blending it seamlessly with the bright power of his own musical legacy to date.

Hardly in search of conventional narratives, Dio’s otherworldly poetry nonetheless did what any great creative fantasy should do, in that like these lines from “Neon Knights,” it enveloped the listener in another world.

Circles and rings, dragons and kings/Weaving a charm and a spell/Blessed by the night, holy and bright/Called by the toll of the bell/Bloodied angels fast descending/Moving on a never-bending light/Phantom figures free forever/Out of shadows, shining ever-bright.

Dio’s music was not always about the creation of stories (although it was sometimes that as well), but about the weaving of just these sorts of dreamscapes – sparkling and mystical raw settings onto which readers could implant their own detailed visions of his world.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ronnie James Dio twice – in 2000, and again in 2007. During our 2000 conversation, for his Magica album, we discussed how in his later days with Sabbath his lyrics had briefly shied away from fantasy, but that his fans clearly preferred his more natural lyrical inclinations. Then, Ronnie gave me some of this thoughts on the nature of death and the afterlife (or lack thereof).

…for Dio, who’s latest album, Magica, tells of a fantasy world where, as in much of his writing over the years, good battles evil, writing about reality left both him and his fans unsatisfied. “I’ve done things that haven’t struck fantasy at all,” recalls Dio, “that were much more socially realistic. I got very angry at the world around me, and felt I couldn’t speak in terms of dreams. I spoke about how if one doesn’t have a goal, then life’s pretty well non-existent. Looking around me, I got so angry at the injustices, especially for young people – no employment, drugs running rampant, disease everywhere, over-population, especially the AIDS situation, and it got me angry that nothing was being done about it and people were dropping like flies.”

But Dio found that addressing life’s everyday problems was the last thing his fans wanted from him. “I kept hearing from Dio fans that they loved the way I write, and wished I would go back to writing the way I did before. They said it gave them hope, it gave them a chance to think, so I changed, and wrote Magica. It was a reason to revert to writing the way I had.”

Dio describes Magica as “a morality play – good vs. evil,” saying that its “what life is all about.” Dio thinks of life in these absolute terms.

“There is good and there is evil,” he explains, “and in my belief it resides in each human being. I’m not a believer in an underworld, or an overworld, although I use those analogies as many writers do, because we don’t really know if there is or there isn’t. Death is the only time we’re going to find that out. So in my belief there is no heaven, there is no hell, it’s here on earth. That’s what this is all about.”

(Photo by fürschtua)


Rep. Anthony Weiner calls out the Republicans

We already know that Rep. Anthony Weiner brings serious Brooklyn attitude to his job. Well, here he is from the floor of Congress yesterday, calling out the Republicans for being “a wholly-owned subsidiary of an insurance industry.” My favorite part – he starts off like he’s about to do five minutes at the Chuckle Hut. “You gotta love these Republicans…” His old roommate, Jon Stewart, would be proud. (Thanks to Sean Crespo for turning me on to this.)