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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rock, Loss, and What I Saw

Stuff gets left behind as you move through life. You can’t prevent it; the stuff you collect sometimes gets put aside, stored, relegated to places of minor importance but not quite disposed of, largely forgotten until one day you remember them and you realize you haven’t seen these once-valuable items in, well… a pretty long time. And you go look for them, and yeah, sometimes they end up gone. For good. Misplacement? Probably. Theft? Maybe you should have been nicer to that short-term lover. Accidental disposal; caught in a psychotic weekend-long cleaning rush… whaddya mean I threw out the dog…?
I spent a lot of money on concert tickets in my youth. No kidding… A LOT. Music was important to me; I had hundreds of albums (still have most of them) and like many a sad, pathetic teenage geek, without a girlfriend or anything better to do, read all of the album liner notes religiously.
(Ahhhh, now there’s something to regret the loss of: the beautiful art that album covers featured. The Yes albums by Roger Dean, Pink Floyd and others by Hipgnosis, and many, many more. Packages a foot square that were more than mere protection and packaging. “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, with its schooldesk flap and mesh panties caressing the vinyl, The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” with its zipper… Ehh.  Another blog, another time.)
The lost item I lead up to? My collection of concert ticket stubs. I kept nearly all of them, starting with the Jethro Tull concert January 17, 1977 at Radio City Music Hall. (I refuse to count the Edward Bear show I saw at Disneyland when I was eight.) In the throes of some youthful ideal (and partially because I’m an anal-retentive squirrel), I decided to keep my stubs as a record, a life-marker, a souvenir of every concert I attended, having some vague idea that there was an important purpose to retaining them, or because no such purpose materialized, a purpose that would eventually become evident and prove to be.
Folks my age (officially categorized as “pre-geezerhood”) were poised, geologically,  to see the original greats of late-60s, and 1970’s rock. (Cuz as we all know, kids today listen to crap.) Having been introduced to the Woodstock album at the tender age of eight, I found that rock music was indeed something to be taken notice of, and possibly feared. One half of my parentals was a bit of a conservative and not likely to be sympathetic to any COMMIE with a BEARD and a GODDAMNGUITAR. So, upon hearing the word “FUCK” spelled out by Country Joe in front of and then chanted by thousands . . . I guess you could say a whole realm of possibilities . . . a whole new reality opened up. Listening to . . . OMG . . . renegade Americans decry the Vietnam war and vilify our revered government? (And what exactly, pray tell, was wrong with the brown acid?) I took an illicit, delicious pleasure in knowing that my father and his political compatriots did not have the pulse of the world, and that, holy shit, there was a world outside my lower-middle class blue collar zoo. I mean we saw it on the news, but that was . . . cripes . . . somewhere else. Up until then it had about as much reality as Magilla Gorilla cartoons.
Hey. I was eight, okay? It was a jolt-start along a path that promised excitement, dangerous thrills, and the proliferation of anarchistic speech. It was a revelation to me that the status quo could be challenged. And could be challenged significantly. It was my first realization that my parents' opinions could be WRONG. And just how bad was my indoctrination into conservatism and right-wing opinions? I freely admit to feeling shocked a year or two later when I heard Robert Plant sing about his lemon being squeezed until the juice ran down his leg, and, on the same album, giving someone every inch of his love. (I may have been repressed, but I wasn’t dumb; I knew he was singing about his pee-pee.)
Don’t think I wasn’t raised with music. I was. It wavered between my grandmother’s influence: show tunes (how many other first-graders did you know who knew all the words to “Fiddler on the Roof” and “South Pacific”?), to my Mom’s infusion of classical, and thrust upon me by my father: patriotic anthems of all sorts. I could go from “Anchors Aweigh” to “Anatevka” to “The Anvil Chorus.” And that’s just the “A”s.
So rock ‘n’ roll and I finally crossed paths and I became hooked. My record player became my bestest-ever friend and I started collecting 45s of all kinds; whatever sounded good on the radio: “Maggie May,” “Ma Belle Amie”, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” “Garden Party”, “I Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates” and “I’m Eighteen” to name but a few. Pop radio saved my fucking life.
I soon began, by listening to friends and burying myself deep into every issue of Creem magazine, learning who was good and who wasn’t. David Bowie… holy shit… a skinny guy with orange hair and wearing a dress! The Beatles, if you can believe it today, were as popular as Jesus, and yet, conversely, John Lennon was regarded as a serious threat to a democratic society, and on his own he was feared as much as the entire Rolling Stones, whose overtly stated satanic sympathies and groin-thrusting pigeon-on-crack lead singer made Elvis look positively tame.
The fabric of traditional American society was unraveling in a rush of perversity and I loved every damn inch of its tangled thread. But it wouldn’t have happened without the music, and the music wouldn’t have happened without the rock and folk stars who changed it all around.
I took note of the passing of the highly talented such as Janis, Jimi, Jim Croce, and when I started getting chances to catch the legends still around, I jumped at them. I caught Warren Zevon one year; never saw Keith Moon. Was lucky enough to catch Madness open for Joan Jett and The Police. Saw Rockpile open for The Cars. Ani DiFranco. Saw Squeeze on their final tour. Stray Cats. Talking Heads. Joan Baez. Judy Collins. U2. Heart. Had tickets for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but their ill-fated plane flight happened two weeks before the concert date (co-billed with Ted Nugent; they were replaced by Rex Smith).
Many groups I saw more than once. I saw Yes at least six times. Emerson, Lake and Palmer three times. Zebra easily more than a dozen. Jethro Tull close to ten times. The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Van Halen, Hot Tuna, Billy Joel, Rush, Elton John, The Pretenders, Genesis… all at least three times each. At last reliable calculation I had seen probably 150 major concerts and over 250 bands. Hell, I saw the Plasmatics three times, too.
There have been some notable missed opportunities. David Bowie. Paul McCartney. Pearl Jam. The Grateful Dead. Allman Brothers. REM I missed TWICE.
A majority of the concerts I saw took place at Madison Square Garden. Tickets were hard to get, good ones anyway. Your friends would want to know where you were sitting and you always responded with the color of the seat. At best rememberance, the order from floor level to Nose Bleed City was greyish red, red, orange, yellow, green, and the dreaded blue. Blue seats were pretty easy to get; unless the band was a huge draw there were always tickets left. My friend Chuck learned how to enter and negotiate the myriad passageways of the Garden. He regularly bought blues and wended his way down stairwells and pipe shafts to backstage. Blues were pretty bad, but the worst thing you could see on a ticket were the words “Behind Stage.”
Floor/orchestra tickets, for me anyway, were extremely rare to come by, but they did happen at least four times. Black Sabbath, 18th row. Bob Dylan, 6th row (a concert so bad we walked out after 45 minutes). Pink Floyd (“Animals” tour), 11th row. Queen (“Jazz” tour), front row center. $90. A helluva deal by today’s standards. So close Brian May stepped on my hand.
Some opening bands became superstar headliners later, such as Aerosmith and Van Halen, both of whom opened for Black Sabbath. Robert Cray opened for Clapton and pretty much gave him a run for his money (even with Phil Collins drumming for EC). Bob Seger’s opener was a kickass rockin’ band fronted by none other than, yeah, don’t laugh cuz he smoked the joint…  Michael Bolton. I had a list of every show and every band, opening and headliner, way back, but that, like the envelope full to bursting of ticket stubs, is long gone. It’s not important anymore, at least not in the grand scheme of things, but I did for a long time endeavor to create not just a resource for memory but a testament to a dedication. Honestly, I saw a whopping shitload of concerts and there were only two that sucked: Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. The rest were all good to ragingly excellent. I saw The Who four times; Pete Townshend may be a douchebag personally, but he wrote amazing stuff and was a hell of a performer. Rod Stewart was lively and happy and great with the audience. And the ARMS Concert… the encore featured all four acts: 20-some-odd musicians onstage all at once and a guitar front of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, all of them jamming on “Layla.”
The stubs are gone. Now I just have the memories. Out of everything that passed through my possession, that envelope of stubs is the one thing I wish I could get back.
Back when I still had them, I came up with a magnificent idea to enshrine these evidences of attendance. I knew I had over a hundred stubs. It would have made a great wall mural, framed, with tickets emanating from a central stub. That center stub would have been the most treasured: a house left, just in front of the stage, so-close-your-ears-bled red seat at MSG for one of the June 1977 Led Zeppelin shows. They came on 90 minutes late, played three and a half hours, and by the time the show was done the Garden was so thick with pot and cigarette smoke you literally almost couldn’t see across it. It was my second rock concert ever and I was stunned by the length of the show, the volume, the sheer unstoppable high-level energy. My hearing was stunted for at least a day after that. No concert after that ever beat it for sheer brutal force. It was probably unhealthy in more ways than one, but we were young and indestructible and wouldn’t grow old for, oh, jeepers, at least a few thousand years. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No, Seriously. A Pound of WHAT??

I’m quite uncomfortable discussing matters of race, ethnicity, and religion. Being a middle-class generic white dude of the Heinz 57 variety, with some small Mediterranean influence stemming from my paternal genes of Italian descent, I find it odd to engage in a discussion in which I have, as one person once put it, “no right to open my mouth.” (This is the subject of another blog to come. But don’t hold yer beath.)
Those of you who know me know full well that weighing the consequences of opening my mouth has never been a barrier to folly, and even though I do find this subject both odd and uncomfortable, I’m not going to let that stop me. Disagreements can be logged in the COMMENTS box below. Don’t be shy.
So I’m somewhat peripherally engaged in the matter of a local Shakespeare troupe producing “The Merchant of Venice.” “Peripherally” meaning I auditioned then recanted said audition, and subsequently interviewed the producer-director and the actor playing Shylock. I, for those of you who do not know yet, have a radio show, “Onstage/Offstage,” which airs every second and fourth Thursdays of the month on WRFI, 88.1 Ithaca Community Radio.  It’s a half-hour straight interview format (so far). Past shows can be found and either streamed or downloaded at
Anyways. The issue of anti-Semitism comes up, as it always does with this play. One friend, a Jew, asked my why the hell I’d ever audition for “that play.” I have my own answers to this, and as it turned out, they pretty much coincide with the views expressed by the actor and the producer.
I live in Ithaca, NY, a progressive liberal, multicultural, egalitarian bastion of world music, hemp underwear, head shops (6 at last count in a two-block radius), drum circles, jug bands, designer coffee, and what’s very likely the greatest concentration of lesbians per capita in the known universe. We’re inclusive as all hell. This also pretty much guarantees that a play that appears to specifically espouse anti-Semitism is not going to pass unnoticed. There was bound to be some, probably intense, level of questioning. People tend to get touchy about this subject. So why would I, or my friend the actor, even think about auditioning for the part of Shylock?
In the inimitable words of my dear departed grandmother, “Read the fucking play.”
I’ve heard the arguments: Shakespeare was anti-feminist. Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Etc.
Shakespeare was a product of his time, and considering his time, he wasn’t that bad a guy.  Considering. His plays raised more metaphysical and societal questions than were comfortable, and I am convinced that he had a healthy dislike and distrust of his fellow men. He could be a snarky bastard.
What Shakespeare did with MOV was to take a persecuted member of society, a Jew -- and what’s more, a moneylender -- and in scene after scene, document the man’s descent from despised second-class citizen into virtual nonexistence. When we first meet Shylock he is taking a meeting with Antonio, who is offering to provide collateral for a loan of 3000 ducats for his friend Bassanio, so Bassanio can woo . . .  well, whoever. (People will do anything in Shakespeare’s plays to get laid.) Shylock derides Antonio for a series of past abuses inflicted upon him by Antonio, including beatings, spitting on his clothes, and public humiliation. Antonio merely laughs, likens Shylock to the devil (because he charges interest for his loans), and basically tells him, “So what? I might do it again, too. Because I can.”
(Let’s not forget that Shylock is the representation of a typical businessman; he could be Jewish or not. The legend has it that only Jews were allowed to charge interest for moneylending services. This is a load of horseshit, actually. Moneylending was what kept the papacy/Catholic church and many of the European warlords afloat. It was legend that Christians could not practice usury, but in fact usury was practiced by Christians on a grand scale. Sort of a “Pay no attention to the hypocrite behind the curtain” thing.)
Here’s where we who paid some small bit of attention in history class use that knowledge, and recall that the history of the Jews in Europe is not one that speaks well of humans in general. Discrimination was typical, widespread, and perennial. If you were born Jewish, you had a hard time coming.
So Shylock has had a hard life of trying to survive amidst rampant bigotry, public abuse, and a life where fear always lurked; as a Jew, you never knew when you’d get blamed for anything or be used as a scapegoat for any discerned accident or mishap.
And here stands his abuser demanding money. Shylock, seeing the man’s callous and unfeeling attitude, loses it. He demands a repayment that would be, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps no more horrible than the anti-Semitic abuses inflicted upon him and his fellow Jews. (And today, with the outrageous interest rates charged to ordinary people by banks, credit card companies, and tuition and auto lenders, wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. Maybe Citibank or Visa should introduce the “pound of flesh” credit card.)
Shylock, in his anger, demands, as every, well, some, students of literature know, “a pound of flesh” -- a punishment that almost guarantees death for the unfortunate lendee.
And Antonio accepts. Why? Because (a) of his certainty that the debt would be repaid, and (b) because Shylock wasn’t charging his usual interest. So Antonio decides that saving the cost of the interest was worth the risk of having a body part cut off.
A pound of flesh. Given who he is and what he’s been through in his life – much of it at the hands of Antonio – who can blame Shylock for throwing such a vicious, impossible choice at Antonio?
And here we witness beginning of the merciless annihilation of Shylock. In a subsequent scene, Shylock loses the only thing he loves unconditionally and eternally: his daughter, Jessica. She not only deserts him, but takes much of his money with her and elopes with a Christian. And if that horrifically cruel betrayal weren’t enough , at the end of the play, the trial to collect on Antonio’s loan default goes against Shylock. Probably mad with grief at this point, Shylock refuses an offer of twice the original loan repaid and cries for his pound of flesh.
The court actually does grant this pound of flesh, but—get this—with the stipulation that there be no blood shed. Should he spill even one drop of Antonio’s blood, all of his property will be confiscated. On top of that, should he take any more than a precisely weighed pound of flesh, he will be executed for thievery.
But that is not enough punishment for the Venetians; because Shylock is a Jew, an “alien,” and has tried to take Antonio’s life via the pound of flesh, he has forfeited his entire fortune and condemned himself to death. The duke pardons Shylock’s life, but only at the cost of the last thing that marks him as what he is: his religion. Shylock, in order to save his life, is forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio “generously” has the duke remand part of Shylock’s fortune on the condition that, on his death, he bequeath it to his faithless daughter and the man who stole her away.
Shakespeare has effectively drawn for us the slow, inexorable elimination of a man, piece by piece.  
I think the pound of flesh was too little a price to demand.
As my actor friend, a man of no small wisdom, told me, “This is not a bigoted play. This is a play about bigotry.”