Saturday, April 30, 2011

New Jersey Rocks! (a.k.a. “You Will Always Be a Loser!!” or Titus Andronicus Forever!!!)

It seems the old adage holds true: You can take the band out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the band. And thank god for that. Patrick, Amy and the rest of Titus Andronicus may now reside in Brooklyn (the epicenter of the New York music scene, I begrudgingly admit), but they assert their NJ roots (it is the Garden State, after all.) And they do it not only by playing kick-ass rock shows anytime they return to the area, but they even pay homage to New Jersey in their latest video (more on this later.)

For Tim and I, the evening began typically: a pile of Chinese food, PATH trip to Hoboken, and then a lovely evening stroll along tree- and brownstone-lined streets to the Mecca of local music venues—Maxwell’s.  And then, although we eschewed imbibing, we did stand around like a bunch of losers judging the swelling crowd. When I go to shows, I pray that there aren’t too many hipsters—but with the bands I see that’s usually unavoidable. But actually, I’ll take hipsters over douches any day (and always over stoned soccer moms.) There were more of them in the crowd than I’d expected, but I chalk it up to just being a well-apportioned representation of north Jersey. Well, except for all the black, Hispanic, and south Asian people. But moving on …

Dinowalrus opened, and they turned out to be a pretty good band blending drums with a drum machine, psychedelic guitar riffs, and delayed/distorted vocals. I didn’t take to the vocals at first, but nothing else would have worked with the rest of their sound--which actually rocked. Forgive my sense of surprise; I generally don’t anticipate great opening bands—but Dinowalrus just happens to be the best Tim and I have seen (personally, I saw Screaming Females open for Arctic Monkeys, but since I’ve seen them multiple times as a headliner they're disqualified.)   

Speaking of Screaming Females, we saw them at Maxwell’s at the end of March (partly because Tim had never seen them live, and partly because I couldn’t stand waiting another month for a concert). Although they are tight performers with sick style of rock, I was somewhat disappointed with that evening’s show: only an hour-long set—with an animated video accompaniment for each song. An artsy concept that seems good in concept, but perhaps not in execution—just a little too short and structured for my liking.

This is precisely what I had in mind when I saw a projection screen erected on stage after Dinowalrus. But what came next assuaged all dread of a multimedia show, and indeed, it verily warmed my heart. On that screen, Titus Andronicus premiered their new video—simultaneously broadcast in various venues (physical and online) throughout the state (then, I guess, the rest of the world … as if that mattered.) As far as concept and execution, I think the video speaks for itself:

 I love that the tour starts in the Pine Barrens and finishes in Jersey City. (I only regret that I was not among the audience on that JC rooftop … sigh.)

But I was in the audience at Maxwell’s last night; whereupon, I saw a wholly different band than Tim and I had nearly two years ago—quite literally (the number of former members of the band dwarfs the current line-up.) We’d never even heard a note of their music before going—I just wanted to see a show at Maxwell’s, and I’d read that they were hard-rocking punks of a sort. And basically all I remember of the concert is that it was incredibly loud, and the vocals unintelligible. Oh, and that one of the guitar players wore his guitar awkwardly high.

This time around though, I’ve been jonesing to see Titus Andronicus since last July when I first listened to their second album, The Monitor (okay, maybe since the fourth or fifth listen.) A concept album of interconnected melodic rock songs based in part on the Civil War—how could I not like it? Maybe not every song, but I do love the seven-minute opener and the fourteen-minute closer. And when they’re played back-to-back (or rather, closer into opener) at the climax of the show for a perfect 20-minute block of song? That was pretty freaking cool. As was the taste of electric violin provided by the joyously-bouncing Amy Klein, the harmonica solo by the drummer’s dad, a bit of moshing, and much singing-along to Patrick Stickles rock-ballad choruses. And though I didn’t pick up a copy of their album on vinyl or a tote bag (really?), I did leave deaf, hoarse, and humming every chorus and riff. Good times.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Driving Mr. McDermott (IV. Parallel Parking, part 2)

I joined Walter early one Saturday morning to get in a few hours of parking practice before the storm ravaging the Eastern seaboard reached north Jersey. To avoid the high winds certain to blow along the harbor at Liberty State Park, we drove to the west side of Jersey City to a fine urban park named after a fine president: Lincoln. Passing fields of softball, baseball, and even cricket players, we found a corner suitable for parking. However, the site along the Hackensack River (soon to be a redeveloped wetland), was a windy as any in the city. Our barrels were immediately blown over, but Walter scoured the park and managed find two rocks to hold them firm and fast. But possibility remained: would I knock them over with an errant bumper?   

As it turns out, I may actually be getting the hang of this parking thing. Using two hands on the wheel certainly helped, but I still put myself into to situations where I needed to make small adjustments--and to actually think through them. Very little about driving comes to me as if second nature; yes, I am more familiar with operating an automobile than I ever have been, but I only do so a couple hours every week. And I wouldn't say I'm comfortable, either. Actually, I worry about being too comfortable and thus becoming less observant and cautious behind the wheel. I feel that I need to be nervous to drive well, but this notion will surely diminish with time and further experience.  

And speaking of harrowing/formative experiences whilst driving, the rains eventually arrived at Lincoln Park, so Walter and I set on a brief adventure to Union City in search of a gas station. Along the way, I navigated an incredibly awkward 10-way interchange, then drove over a faux-median after I nearly missed our exit. Of course this exit brought me to a street that wouldn't be out of place in San Fransisco (and by that I mean a steep hill, not Haight-Ashbury or a hip gay neighborhood). Finally we entered the gas station, whereupon I learned that not only does New Jersey have some of the lowest gas prices in the country, but according to state law, I cannot pump my own gas. What I relief, considering I don't know how to do that and am more than willing to entrust that hazardous deed to a trained professional (much as I would trust a professional to park my stroller, or direct me to the nearest lavatory.) I then guided us down a narrow and crowded street back to the JC, driving uncomfortably close to parked cars for poor Walter. And when I pulled into Concord Street what did I find? The same parking spot as last week. And as the drizzle intensified, I backed the ass of this little car neatly into a spot that surely could have fit two. See, I'm learning something.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Driving Mr. McDermott (III. Parallel Parking)

On Monday morning a call roused me from my snoozing. I answered, stood, and hung up as I reached the door of my apartment. Squinting in the bright morning sun, I saw parked below me the green Toyota Tercel—the only car I’ve ever driven. And in the passenger side already, sat my instructor. Approaching the driver’s side, I noticed, in addition to the homemade usually “Student Driver” sign duct-taped to the roof, two large plastic trashcans strapped into the trunk. Opening the door to greet Walter, I immediately inquired about their purpose. As I adjusted my seat—as well as to the sight of the trunk door in my rearview mirror—Walter said, dramatically, “Today … we’ll be doing parking.” A small sense of foreboding came with that significant word: parallel parking, the bane of novice and veteran (though not necessarily good) drivers everywhere. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Driving Mr. McDermott (II. Road Trips)

One of the things I’ve regretted about not being able to drive—besides not having an ID, or being a capable designated driver (back in my straight-edge days)—was my inability to participate in road trips. For instance, in college I went on a road trip to visit a friend in Ohio; but if I ever talk about it, I’d have to say I “drove” to Ohio with some college friends—they took turns driving, but I merely rode along. My family has gone on cross-country trips, but I have no sense what it actually means to drive those miles or how it feels to cross the landscape behind the wheel. But in my lessons with Walter, as I’ve outgrown Jersey City, we have had to drive farther and farther for new experiences and sights.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe: my new favorite place in the city

Much like discovering a new band, I am amazed when I happen upon a new locale in the city that fits me so well, and wonder how I had gone so long in ignorance of it. In a place like this, and with my penchant for exploring it so readily and often, this of course happens all the time. Still, it is no less surprising to enter a place like Housing Works and wonder how I'd managed never to go there before.

For those of you who don’t know, Housing Works is a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals stricken with HIV/AIDS and homelessness—and too often both. It serves this community through advocacy, services, and entrepreneurial business. This third pillar—which in New York City you’ll encounter as the Housing Works Thrift Shops and the Housing Works Bookstore Café—brings in 25% of the organization’s operating budget. At the Bookstore, every used book or café snack purchased is a donation, and all the employees are volunteers. And not only is the Bookstore a hip space that supports a great cause with a well-organized selection of donated books and music, but they are also a hub for artistic and cultural events.

And that, after all, is why I finally dropped by. With a Tuesday evening free, I opted for a poetry reading celebrating National Poetry Month. The National Book Foundation had hosted a discussion on contemporary poetry’s (and poets’) enduring place in American culture, and on following evening they actually presented three poets to share their work and thoughts: Mark Doty, Kathleen Graber, and Patricia Smith.

As I sat with a coffee and cookie, I considered how often I had gone to these type of events in college, and how I hadn’t attended a literary event in some time. Then I realized that I had gone to a book talk just the week before. I’d met Tim at the Union Square Barnes & Noble to hear one of our modern heroes speak about his latest book: Jeremy Wade, the English journalist/biologist/angler who hosts the television show “River Monsters,” and recently released a book of fish tales under the same title. If you haven’t seen a second of “River Monsters” then you are either watching the crap some consider “television,” or actually living a productive, fruitful life. Either way, you’re wasting your time and missing out on one of the greatest programs ever recorded. In each episode, Mr. Wade investigates the story of an especially dangerous or large freshwater fish. He then travels to exotic locations, interrogates local fisherman, and doggedly attempts to catch the suspected fish. Apparently, my ten-year-old cousin is hooked on the show as much as us, so Tim picked up copy of the book and got it signed for the boy. Of course, we’ll first read the book before he receives it as a gift.    

And on a sad note, it pains me to say that my own river monster, my beta fish G.O.B. has passed on. For two years, the feisty fish was my erstwhile roommate, enduring all my moods and proclivities through thick and thin, i.e. his water and my room’s available light. However, beginning tomorrow, I will take on a new companion with a temperament to match his name, George Michael (the “Arrested Development” character, not the singer-songwriter.)

But, back to the poetry. Kathleen Graber read lyrical poems concerning writing itself and other literary allusions, while Mark Doty read poetry with a more quotidian and modern bent. And, ailing from Bell’s palsy, Patricia Smith—a champion slam poet—stridently read poems steeped in the history of Chicago and her family’s origins. Mr. Doty had an interesting reading style, but it was unfortunate that Ms. Smith could not read as well as she normally could, for although her poems had a energy and potency in their words alone, I really would have liked to have heard her perform to her fullest extent (as I’m sure she would have, too.)

In the question-and-answer session after the reading, the poets discussed what writers and critics had the evening before: the place of poetry in modern culture and vis-à-vis the public at large. Political intentions and accessibility were mentioned, and the poets defended their art as confronting issues that required thought, that could not be reduced to a sound bite. Essentially, if you want someone to think about the complexities of an issue that is not as simple as it seems, then you should explore and present it in a manner that requires the active exertion of thought to unpack and digest it. The poet should not make their art too difficult or inaccessible to most readers (just because they can) lest the poem fail to be effective.

Before the evening concluded, Mr. Doty suggested (partly in jest, but with a good dose of earnestness) that modern health care should include a literary therapist—and not just to provide an occupation to unemployed English majors. It could greatly benefit individuals if there was some guidance in what they read, if only there was a source that could suggest to them works and authors that could relate to their personal issues and experiences. As I finish this post, I realize I might just have a few more things to say about poetry—especially considering that I’ll being going back to the Housing Works Bookstore for another poetry reading tomorrow, er, tonight. See? A cool place that’s worth returning to weekly, and patronizing just as often.

And speaking of which, what did I pull from the stacks of used books to add to my personal collection? Vinyl records, of course. I know, I know, but c’mon … George Gershwin playing "Rhapsody in Blue," a recording of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” and a song called “Danse Macabre” recorded fifty years ago by none other than the New York Philharmonic—how could I pass this stuff up?

Yeah, I know ... a photo of an album is like writing about jazz--it just doesn't convey the listening experience.

Driving Mr. McDermott (I. Beginnings)*

It only just dawned on me a couple weeks ago—whilst driving in the vicinity of Fort Lee, New Jersey—that I should write about this very experience on my failing blog. Each time I'm behind the wheel—regularly enough for a post every (other) week—I endure a post's worth of new places and lessons learned. And, just maybe, there's still something to be said on the coming-of-age saga know as "learning how to drive." Despite the fact it is a near-universal experience among adults in this country, my unique circumstances and writerly perspective could provide some entertaining and (dare I say?) enlightening material that may resuscitate this blog from its death bed. (Before I had this epiphany on the road, I considered writing a post about writing; this surely would have been the nail in the coffin of a certain Typing Monkey.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writing about writing? Oh, I'm just pushing that nadir further and further down.

 If you don’t know already, I began this blog a year ago intending to foster my writing career (the only thing close to a career I have at the moment). Intending to be committed to the only thing I really know how to do, I proposed that I would write more and make it available in this public forum—specifically, by writing and posting a new play every week for a year. I had hoped the plays would be topical in nature and written in response to the current state of the world or, failing that, my life. At the crux of the plan: a method by which I would write more—opting for quantity over quality. If you care to delve into the archives of this blog, you will discover the ancient ruins of this project—with its artifacts preserved forever in the depths of the Internet.

Failing that, I revamped the blog this past fall with a different mission statement (that is, no mission statement), but the same purpose: to write more. With no limits, except my own interests and time to write, I should have had no trouble meeting this goal. What resulted was me bragging about hanging out in New York City every day, showing off the awesome food I make, or going on about bands you’ve never heard of—you know, the kinds of pretentious crap that make people hate personal blogs. Now, I do not mourn the death of blogging, just this one. Just as I feel a writer is an active noun, I feel a blog must also be active—dormancy suits neither. So, I’m writing this to satisfy both.

Now, my uncle has a blog (and freakin’ new website!) about his artistic and professional efforts as a children’s book author/illustrator. Since he spends most of his day drawing at a desk, he has lots of time to think. Too much. And every week or so, he spews out hundreds of words concerning his process, or the direction of his latest project, or new ways of distracting himself from that project. He has work to do, time to think, and thus something to say about that work on his blog. Reminding me that I had not posted anything on my blog over a month, he suggested that I discuss my writing process, since I am currently writing a play—and since playwriting was the original intent of the blog. As I recall, I dismissed him and his idea with a hearty, condescending guffaw and then stumbled to my room drunk on homemade limoncello only to fall asleep across my bed with a guitar on my chest, and a blank Word document on my laptop. Does that provide any insight into my process? Or, at the very least, the glamorous life of the writer? No? I’m not surprised. Let’s see if I can’t actually put a word or two on that screen.

The dilemma with this project, besides my perpetual battle with sitting down and actually writing it, is that I’m trying to graft on the conclusion to a play I began a year ago. Thus I’m trying to inject it with a different sense of theme and meaning, from the perspective of a me with a year’s worth of experience since I began. Actually, now that I see it written out here, that’s a pretty lame excuse, and not even a very truthful one. Because, really, what have I experienced over the last year that would actually impact me to the extent that it would leave an impression on my writing? Everything, one might say—a lit professor who didn’t know me that well, for instance. Or nothing, as a cynical observer of my life would say. The truth, obviously, lies between those extremes. And it’s my job to explore that region through writing, since that is the only productive way I know how. And if I actually keep positive and focused long enough, that exploration might just result in a finished work.

The oh-so-many things I have failed to blog about!

Dammit, I just used “blog” as a verb … things have started off poorly.

There were the oh-so-many concerts (Screaming Females, the New York Philharmonic, The Low Anthem, much jazz, etc.) And my oh-so-many food experiments (homemade limoncello, lemon-poppy cookies, homemade Pop Tarts.) And then of course my, um, not-so-many writings (more on this later). And did I mention my oh-so-many trysts, encounters, and near-death experiences while romping through the New York underground/nightlife? (Okay, perhaps not so much.) But I will try to catch ya’ll up and carry forward as best I can.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

One of my favorite singers

Josh Ritter at NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy!

(I know, I haven't posted in over a month ... this blog sucks. But maybe, just maybe, I can get some stuff written this weekend to put up here ... "cruelest month" be damned!)