9/12/2014

Tammy FayeLast night, Tammy Faye Starlite channeled Nico, the legendary Velvet Underground singer. At the opening of Nico: Underground, her must-see show running through September 28 at Theater for the New City, Tammy Faye not only continued her startlingly accurate portrayal of the Warhol chanteuse (so skillfully rendered in her Chelsea Mädchen performances over the past few years), she became Nico in a way that transcends channeling. In a masterful production directed by Michael Schiralli, Tammy Faye inhabited her character in a manner open to few skilled actresses. Simply put, she brought Nico into the room: today's Nico, mournful and mindful, vicious and demure.

Nico, born Christina Päffgen in pre-war Cologne, was an anachronism from the start. As singer/writer for one of the most progressive underground bands in history, she created a dark style that still engages second- and third-generation fans of the genre. As an actress who worked with Warhol and Fellini, she curated a fragile nihilism that filled the frame and left it empty at the same time. Tammy Faye captures this nihilism perfectly. Like her subject, she is a beautiful enigma who belongs in a museum, but she plays just outside this space, which allows her to simultaneously teach and love the audience.

Backed by an all-star band that played each song with the precise, carefully rehearsed mood of a crack Broadway unit, Tammy Faye sang and spoke her way through a staged interview, conducted by Jeff Ward, who played an Australian radio host. From the beginning, when the band came out on a dark stage, waiting for Tammy Faye's bare-bones entrance, the air crackled with anticipation. Ward's straight-man antics played squarely into Tammy Faye's dark yet comedic portrayal, the staged pauses to absorb yet another well-intentioned critique, the rolling of the eyes, the despair at being misunderstood.

And then there was the music, borne to a higher level by the quality of this production. Tammy Faye charts Nico's development with an expert cover of songs that tell the story in order. Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" announces her arrival: "Here she comes/You better watch your step." In describing her early life in Brixton, when she recorded with Jimmy Page, she intones that she "grew up on opera," met Dylan and started singing his songs on the iconic teen show Ready Steady Go!.

Turning to Reed's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," the latter played with particular skill by the band, Tammy Faye continues the elegiac sequence. A hilariously acerbic send-up of "Chelsea Girls," interrupted by a statement of hatred for producer Tom Wilson's flute arrangement that threatens physical violence, is followed by Jackson Browne's "These Days," in which she declares, "I've been out walking/I don't do too much talking, these days."

The sorrow in these lyrics hardens into the declaration contained in "Frozen Warnings," Nico's own composition that presents an autobiographical record of the emotional paralysis that accompanies stardom. Tammy Faye played a portable harmonium on this number, working the bellows while rendering a Sprechstimme vocal, as if to resuscitate the corpus of Nico's life.

This is a perfect set-up for Jim Morrison's "The End," which Tammy Faye sings in bloodcurdling fashion, a unique and original cover of a tune that instantly evoked Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - "The killer awoke before dawn." Drained by this apocalyptic piece, we hear "Heroes," by David Bowie, in which we recognize a combination of Blondie and Marlene Dietrich, two other characters known well to Tammy Faye. A surprise rendition of "My Funny Valentine" shows Tammy Faye's breadth as a performer, her ability to sustain the dark persona even through a show tune.

Finally, the ultimate personal statement, in Nico's "Afraid" - "You are beautiful/And you are alone."

You will not be alone in your appreciation of this show. It's an important piece of cultural history. Don't miss it.

Nico:Underground - Theater for the New City

9/7/2014

NY TimesIn a recent interview, Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, made an important statement about the future of newspapers: "You have to be careful not to conflate the decline of printed journalism with the decline of reported journalism." 

With that in mind, we turn to the tag line for my bio at Mashable: "His blog, woodylewis.com, covers social media strategy for newspapers." In 2009, the year I published five pieces for Mashable, that statement was cogent, albeit quixotic. The handwriting was already on the wall, but I remained optimistic about the future of newspapers.

Since then, things have changed.

Several weeks before Abramson's statement, Clay Shirky published a piece in Medium entitled "Last Call," whose subtitle, "The end of the printed newspaper," removes all ambiguity about message. In eulogizing his hometown paper, the still-breathing Roanoke Times, Shirky continues his self-proclaimed study of "the effects of the internet on society." A card-carrying journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and Wired, he now holds dual professorships at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and Journalism Department. He is also a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Shirky's unimpeachable credentials leave little room for rebuttal when he makes this pronouncement: "It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place."

So much for sugarcoating.

It's important, and difficult, for some to realize that however sacrosanct the institution was in the past, print journalism has changed for good. Keeping in mind Abramson's distinction, the practice of journalism has never been more vigorous; it's just the newspapers who are screwed (personification intended). Shirky repeats what has become an old saw: ("...black newsroom humor long ago re-labelled the Obituary column ‘Subscriber Countdown’") to make a point: those journalists who don't change with the times will succumb to them. But this is hardly news.

Which leads to my point: I no longer write about "social media strategy for newspapers." Now, I write about social publishing, a term that will itself be outdated at some point in the future. Words escape to the Web, never to be captured and hidden away. What was accurate five years ago persists as an archival label, much like those found in museums under historical exhibits. Newer words flow from different places, along with images, video and other objects still to be defined.

As for the tractable Roanoke Times (I learned that word from reading Red Smith), a visit to their Web site unearths three possibilities for digital subscription (the unwitting Manhattan resident being told that there is no home delivery of the print edition): 1) "Unlimited digital access" (tagged as BEST OFFER), $9.99 every five weeks 2) "iPad Replica app only" (don't ask), $7.99 every five weeks 3) "The Roanoke eTimes" (this differs from #1?), $7.99 every five weeks.

I'd include a link to the site, but I think you've seen enough.

8/10/2014

A Hard Day's NightThe power of the Beatles was not immediately obvious. To those of us who first heard them in 1964, the nasal accents and plagal harmonies seemed a logical extension of our rock sensibility. Sure, they owed a great debt to the Everly Brothers, and the Beach Boys. We knew they were different, but we didn't realize how different, or how they would change everything.

Charles Taylor's essay on A Hard Day's Night tracks the film's evolution from its intended quick-and-dirty commercial success to generational icon. He tells us what we thought we knew, but never admitted to ourselves, much less our friends:

"Teenagers screaming for pop idols, whether from the past or the present, can seem quaint to us. But the screaming for the Beatles has much less to do with teenage girls (or maybe the boys screaming on the inside) wanting John, Paul, George, or Ringo for a mate than wanting the exhilaration and fullness of life they collectively represent. It’s an instinctive response to a profoundly felt moment, a moment that can never come again, not just because the Beatles can never be replicated but because the conditions don’t exist for any performer to dominate the popular consciousness in the way the Beatles did."

For me, an African-American teenager growing up as a wannabe Jewish hipster in Brooklyn, the Beatles were a godsend. Yes, the boy screaming inside me copied the long hair and the tight pants and the pointed boots, wondering what it all meant, pondering these issues over the next decade as I pursued and then walked away from my own career in rock, ending with a stint as sideman to the recently rediscovered Jobriath. (No credit on the released albums, but I'm in the film, playing bass at Electric Ladlyland, working with Eddie Kramer on a track called "As the River Flows.")

The Beatles, particularly John Lennon, gave my generation the gift of plausible rebellion, a trait that both guided and doomed my subsequent banking career, along with my former and current stints as corporate software maven. That "Mister, can we have our ball back?" line, so aptly quoted by Taylor as one of the surreal, non-corporeal scenes in AHDN, encapsulates the liberation from knee-jerk sequence - the college/army/corporate/suburb shuffle so wryly eulogized in Mad Men. We occupied university buildings, burned draft cards and dropped acid, all the while reassured that it was OK to get high with a little help from our friends. In the ugliness that followed - Altamont, Kent State, the fall of Saigon - we kept that sweet message close to heart, even when eulogizing the messenger himself, when he died in 1980.

Today, that rebellion continues to question the establishment, only this time it's the digital honchos who need roiling. None of today's hip offerings approaches the honesty of Richard Lester's collaboration with the Beatles. Taylor embeds this judgment in recursive damnation:  

"Every rock critic or former rock critic, every fan or blogger who proclaims the empowering democracy that the digital age has made possible is in fact denying the possibility for the kind of pop moment that, as with Elvis or the Beatles or punk, called everything into question, made us ask what it was we wanted of our life, and fed that energy into political and social ways those changes could be realized. They are celebrating their own irrelevancy."

Whether Taylor becomes the larger critic for saying this, or the more clever critic for escaping his own indictment as cottage-industry pundit, his words weigh as heavily as Lennon's comparison of the Beatles' popularity to that of Jesus. I prefer the lyrics to "Imagine," particularly in the face of today's mélange:

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too" 

The Social Publisher