Saturday, January 17, 2015

Laura Nyro Obsession

In my youth, I was never much of a groupie. Even when I was crushin' on David Bowie or Marvin Gaye, I didn't see the point of making posters or rushing to hotels for a glimpse or scheming to get into a show and sneak backstage. I was too shy, and the thought of collecting albums and studying lyrics and cover art embarrassed me. The closest I ever came to being a groupie was in my obsession over Laura Nyro when I was a junior high school girl in the suburbs of Chicago. And it was more of a private affair. My big sister had three or four of Laura Nyro's albums, and when I was alone in my bedroom, I would listen to Laura, memorize all of her lyrics, and learn to sing her songs note for note when nobody was home so I could really let those highs and lows fly.
 I emoted right in sync with Laura on "Wedding Bell Blues," "Brown Earth," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Captain for Dark Mornings," "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp," "And When I Die," "He's a Runner," and on and on. Never mind that I hadn't even been properly kissed at that point, let alone been in a relationship or gone to Spanish Harlem. No matter. With Laura, I felt and experienced it all: broken-hearted loneliness, tom cat love, day-fancy dreams, the taste of sweet cocaine and Christmas in my soul.

New York Tendaberry

Only twelve years old, I knew Laura was all mine. There was one precious time years ago when I saw her perform at Ravinia Park, outside of Chicago, on a rainy night, when mud-sliding philistines rode the muck on their bellies as if they were at Woodstock instead of a performance by the greatest singer-songwriter the world has ever known. Oh yes, she was mine alone.

Then last Thursday night, I attended "New York Tendaberry: The Iconic Songs and Life of Laura Nyro," in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I learned that I was far from the only girl with a passionate Laura Nyro obsession back in the 1970s.

Here was producer and host Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn fame, who put the evening together, standing before the tightly packed crowd at The Old Stone House and revealing that when she was twelve, she listened all the time to "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession," enthralled with its deep magic. And her big sister and friends were so cool and in on the Laura Nyro experience that saying "Eli's Coming" was code for "I'm about to get my period."

Tripping Down the Side Streets

In my Midwestern suburban youth, Laura Nyro also was the start of my New York obsession. Laura was the prime example of New York womanhood to me, tripping down the side streets all smoky eyes, wild brown hair, hoop earrings, gypsy bangles, lipstick on her reefer waiting for a match.

There stood Louise on Thursday, one of how many thousands of Laura lovers, still crushin' on her almost twenty years after her death, reading the poetry of "New York Tendaberry," and now that I'm a grown woman and living in NYC myself, it felt like home: "Sidewalk and pigeon. You look like a city. But you feel like religion to me."

Thanks, Louise, for bringing back the iconic songs of Laura Nyro with brilliant interpretations by artists Erika Amato, Debbie Deane, Amy and Andy Burton, Jennifer Lewis Bennett, Tim Moore, Ina May Wool and Nancy O. Graham. (And a special shout-out to Don Cummings, whose "Poverty Train" was a knockout.) The evening ended with a stunning video by Mary Bosakowski and Kristin Lovejoy, shown at Laura Nyro's memorial service back in 1997 and including personal footage of Laura speaking to the camera about her life.

Since Thursday's performances, my entire vinyl collection of Laura's albums has been in heavy rotation on my stereo here in my Brooklyn apartment. I'm remembering what it feels like to lift a record needle and put it back on a track over and over again. Remember that? I'm gushing, I know.

I own my Laura Nyro love proudly. I guess I'm a groupie after all. So to end it on a special note for all you other insiders, maybe you've already obsessed over every single YouTube video starring Laura Nyro, including, of course, the Monterey Pop Festival performance where she blew everybody away with the sweetness of "Wedding Bell Blues" and the intensity of "Poverty Train," and mistakenly believed the crowd was booing her when in fact they were loving her and calling out their appreciation but she couldn't feel it because she was just such a special and tender artist with an unparalleled sensitivity, though if she only knew how much she meant for me, personally, during my own very sensitive growing-up years when she showed me what it is to be open to an honest and true creative experience, and how I wasn't alone, and in fact she gave so much to so many of us in pain or passion or trouble or sadness or joy, then she wouldn't have been so timid about giving herself to an audience because she would have felt deeply how her songs and lyrics and musicianship went out into the world and changed it in a very real way and we will always always know and remember and cherish her from a respectful distance so as not to drive her away but in love and awe.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dr. Zhivago: A Movie Plotline Made Unworkable by Digital Communications

Lara (Julie Christie) and Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) foursquare each other in Moscow and realize they've just left restaurants on the same street!

He texts her from the tram.

"Hey! Whassup? Did you just come out of the Social Democratic Pierogi Bar? I think I saw you!"

"No way! lol"

"Where u at now?"

Lara speaks.

"I'm on the tram, standing right behind you."

"Cool. Let's get a beer."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Don't Tell Me About the Queen of the Night

In June, I'm going with some friends to attend a performance of Queen of the Night at the Paramount Hotel in NYC. Shelling out $200, and I have no idea about the show's theme, who's in it, who wrote it, how long it runs or anything else about the production. Apparently there's food and drink involved, so I don't have to eat before the show.

Oh, and there's this photo I saw in The New York Times of a beautiful woman wearing a headdress:

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But other than that, I don't know a thing about Queen of the Night. Nada. And please don't tell me about the Queen of the Night. I don't want to know. "Immersion theater," meaning shows where you, the audience member, are pulled into the production by the performers, and you walk amongst them and the set and the props, is a very personal thing and can't really be explained. You interact with the show and feel yourself becoming part of the performance.

I've done this before at Sleep No More and Then She Fell, voluntarily wandering around in a state of confusion, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It's the best.

At Sleep No More, an entire four-story building on the West Side has been taken over by the show. Somebody told me that the old Twilo nightclub used to be there, but now it's called the McKittrick Hotel, and it's the site of a nightlong mystery theater where performers rush around dancing and stripping off their clothes and washing off blood in the bath. I've heard the show is partially based on that Scottish play by Shakespeare and partially based on romantic mystery films of the 1930s, which sounds fine, but I've been to Sleep No More four times now and I still don't know what the hell is going on.

The point of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is to:
  • explore dark rooms enveloped in a moody soundscape and a peculiar smell of incense
  • happen accidentally upon a large dinner party in a ballroom with a cast of handsome, despairing characters who all seem to hate and mistrust one another
  • open drawers in ancient wooden desks that contain bits of hair and hospital reports written in spidery script
  • try not to bump into any of the strangers that are wandering around with me (did I mention that all audience members must wear Commedia dell'Arte masks?)
  • eat penny candy out of giant apothecary jars, and 
  • follow a woman I believe to be Lady Macbeth up three flights of stairs to her bedroom

John Singer Sargent's 1889 painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

When I went to Then She Fell, my friend led me into the theater building blindfolded, and by the end of the evening I had played games with a white rabbit, drunk tea with a mad hatter and brushed the hair of a pretty girl in a blue dress named Alice. Don't ask me what it all meant....Well, I guess what it meant was that once upon a time, a New York woman ventured out into the night for an immersive theater production and came away having lived a personal experience that engaged all five of her senses.

I love a good story. And after years of seeing plays, watching movies and reading books, if a talented theater company wants to offer me an intriguing assortment of people, places and things to become absorbed in, I'm happy to tell myself a story of my own devising, even if it is non-linear and makes no sense to anybody but me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Merry Christmas & Happy New Novel

Going to England for Christmas on Wednesday. Yay! That's where I was inspired to start writing my first novel. It's an inspiring place.

Here's how my novel begins -- and it draws on a lot of the "bad girl" research I've done over the years about women in history. The first draft is nearly finished. Yay! Perhaps in the new year I'll get back to blogging. Perhaps...
 Inga’s night had been restless, and she was glad when the morning light through their tiny bedroom window grew bright enough to allow her to get up. She rose as Mike slept on, and she crept down to the kitchen and dressed as fast as she could. It was a good thing he was sleeping so deeply after his night out. Finishing up with the packing had been easier.

She found a wet, sour-smelling washrag in a corner of the kitchen sink, and though it didn’t matter anymore, she poured fresh water into an empty dishpan, added some soap and a capful of bleach. She threw in the rag, gave it a swish and a scrub, and hung it to dry on a peg next to the sink.

Turning away from that final chore, Inga pulled on her coat and searched in the left pocket for a small jar of Imogen’s fancy French hand cream. She unscrewed the silver lid and applied a generous dab to her rough hands. As she smoothed the cream into her skin, she gazed into the middle distance, then pulled a handwritten note from the right pocket and placed it on the kitchen table.

December 21, 1918
Dear Michael,
I am too young for this. I’ll always love you, but I am leaving. Please don’t try to find me.
Love, Ingeborg

She bowed her head over the table, pressing her palms against the oilcloth that she had bought all those months ago with her pin money and paused a moment — no, several long moments — eyes closed. A shadow crossed her face.

Inga took a deep breath, straightened her back and opened her eyes. She walked to the hall closet and pulled out a large leather valise, Imogen’s valise, which Inga had been hiding for several days.

Grasping the handle with both hands, she heaved the overpacked bag out the apartment’s front door, shut it quietly, and took care not to make too much noise descending the tenement’s creaky stairs. At the landing, she peeked out the entryway window at the patch of sky above the buildings of the Lower East Side. The weather was clear, and the snow had melted from the sidewalks of Rivington Street.

Inga stepped outside. She struggled down the stoop, crossed Norfolk Street, and began her journey north with small, slow steps, dragging her bag behind.

There. Now she was gone.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Why I Write

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I want to split infinitives only when I intend to break the rules.

I’ve been infected with the writing sickness since childhood, and it has only gotten worse as I’ve grown older. As I write this, it’s Sunday morning at 11:48 a.m., and I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t written yet today. I went to the farmers’ market instead of writing early, breaking my promise to myself that I would put in two hours of work.

Back before the sickness really took hold, it was enough for me to go to the farmers’ market of a Sunday morning and feel virtuous while buying locally grown vegetables and learning how Brooklyn composts. But now my writing sickness is in full flower, so here I sit repenting for my sin, delivering forth words like counted beads on a rosary.

I’ve heard some people refer to the sickness as “feeding the monster,” which reminds me of that 1960 cult movie directed by Roger Corman, "The Little Shop of Horrors," about a sad-sack gardener in a flower shop, Seymour, who has inadvertently created a Venus flytrap hybrid with an insatiable taste for human flesh. Seymour starts out by nourishing the plant with his own blood and eventually ends up murdering people to feed his monster, Audrey Jr. (named after a girl who works with Seymour at the flower shop). With every feeding, Audrey Jr. keeps growing bigger and bigger and more out of control. It turns out that she has the ability to speak, and she makes constant demands: “I need some chow!” and “Feed me. Feed me! FEED ME!” That pretty well describes my relationship to the writing monster I’ve inadvertently created for myself.

Seymour confronts the insatiable Audrey Jr. in Roger Corman's "The Little Shop of Horrors"
When I was younger, I didn’t know what to write about, and I thought the whole trick to writing conformed to that old cliché: the sudden flash of inspiration. When inspiration struck, I told myself, I would finally write story after story, book after book. In the meantime, I read story after story, book after book. The narratives that appealed to me most involved runaway girls, sneaky free spirits setting out on adventures, strangely solitary girls making their way alone in the world. Pippi Longstocking sailed the high seas, Harriet the Spy hid in dark corners and wrote unsparing critiques about the people around her, Wanda Petronski told her rich classmates that she had one hundred dresses at home even though she wore the same faded blue dres to school every day.

I suppose you could say that even then, my subject, which falls into the easy categorization of “bad girls,” had already found me. My recognition of it, though, didn't strike in a sudden flash. Bad girls crept up on me slowly and steadily, especially when events in my life went wrong, and now I find that the subject is an eternal spring, the one true thing that compels me to write and keeps me writing. I’ve got a couple of novels and short stories in progress, and they’ve all ended up sharing the theme of runaway girls who do wrong.
In another “Why I Write” essay, George Orwell says that he, too, fed a wee monster that grew bigger when he began to write in earnest. As he describes it, as a boy he seemed to be making a descriptive effort almost against his will, under a compulsion that came from outside.

“For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc. etc.”
Orwell says there are four great motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Orwell chose politics as his subject, or rather, the subject chose him. Yet even the author of those great political novels Animal Farm and 1984 admits that anyone who examines his work will see that when it is “downright propaganda,” it contains the sort of literary aesthetic that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.

“I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood,” Orwell writes. “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself."

I, too, love scraps of useless information. Indeed, I suspect that it’s those very scraps that motivate me to write more than anything else. I hang on to those odd little pieces of information, those forgotten moments that no one has any reason to remember, fleeting feelings, random thoughts….and I try to call attention to these scraps that speak to me.

Some time ago, when I spent the greater part of a year at the British Library “looking up the dirty parts in old books,” as I liked to tell people, I stumbled across a volume in the rare books reading room, written by an unknown author and published in England in 1804. Titled “Eccentric Biography; or Memoirs of Remarkable Female Characters, Ancient or Modern,” it credits the French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos with owning a favorite small dog named Raton, “taperly and elegantly formed with yellow hair.” This Raton was Ninon’s constant companion and reflected or mirror his mistress’ dainty? appetites wherever she was invited to sup.

“She placed him in an elegant little basket near her plate, and he was literally, her officer of health,” wrote this English author from 1804. “He maintained most strictly that regimen of his mistress, which preserved her beauty, good humour, and her health, to the advanced age of nearly a hundred years. He did not suffer her to make use of coffee, of ragouts, or of liqueurs. Raton suffered quietly to pass him the soup, the boulli, and the roti, but if his mistress seemed inclined to touch the ragouts, he growled, fixed his eyes upon her, and sternly interdicted the use of these enticing dishes….When the dessert came, however, he sprung quickly from his basket, gamboled on the cloth, paid his compliments to the ladies, and received in return for his caresses a few macaroons, of which two or three satisfied his appetite.”

I have never known quite what to do with Raton, but on several occasions, I have tried to introduce both his gamboling ways and the author’s foreign manner of speech into some piece of writing I was working on. Orwell points out that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” and I’ll agree with him on the first two, but not the third. Writing is work. Finding a place for Raton and making his appearance seem natural and inevitable is a struggle.

“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand,” Orwell writes, turning to that useful metaphor of the insatiable monster. “For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

So yes, the need to be heard is a good explanation for why I write. I was the youngest of four kids in my family, after all, and talking on paper lets me express myself without teasing or interruption.

But to my mind, the greatest explanation involves the mysterious relationship between me, the writer, and you, the reader. Who are you? Why do I need you to understand why I write? I believe the answer lies in my simple desire to entertain you with a good story. At its best, storytelling allows both you and me to experience the loss of self. “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality,” as Orwell puts it. “Good prose is like a windowpane.”