Los Lobos: Did the Wolf Survive?

Los Lobos: Backs to the Future

Everything lately has been circles, cycles, orbits. Forget your Saturn return; once the 25th high school reunion rolls past (scroll down or click for reunion Pepper entries on June 5 and June 7) your internal deck is stuck on Repeat as surely as your folks’ VCR is set for 12:00. At least mine is.

Last night Los Lobos serenaded the warm belly of the overcast in Prospect Park, the first kiss in the summer Celebrate Brooklyn seduction. I never make it to as many of these wonderful shows as I should; just being there is usually pleasure enough, but of course summer in the City is full of good intentions, great distractions, and days that tickle past like small-handed breezes on a light evening sweat.

Mojitos and shrimp cocktail in Lou’s Park Slope garden leave us just enough time to join the long amiable line filing in to the bandshell grounds. Who goes to Prospect Park? A little bit of everyone: kids and families, prowling teens in singles and couples and flocks, displaced hipsters and rampant residents, blinking fan-atics, the anointed and the appointed, the invited and the disbarred. It’s three suggested bucks at the gate (incredibly, and just because it’s New York, some people decline to pay), there’s food from Two Boots – that’s the Brooklyn Two Boots, not the other guys – and along with the execrable mass-market beerswill for sale there’s potable Red Hook ESB for a presentable four smacks a cup. It’s a gorgeous night.

Midway through the show, David Hidalgo looks out over the filled seats (2,000 of ‘em) and the scattered blankets on the lawn. Green lights are spilling up onto the vivid canopy of trees, there’s hardly a hint of tobacco smoke in the air (but I can smell a couple of good times from where I’m standing). “Thirty years,” he says, to no one in particular. He shakes his head and smiles. “Thirty years.”

When I first saw Los Lobos I knew only their early radio single, Will the Wolf Survive?, and caught them in the fashionable piscine wastes of Les Bains-Douches in Paris in 1984. We were togged in backpacker-chic, and management immediately tossed us out after the show for violations of style too numerous to mention. Fetching young Sally might have stayed – she was that sort of promising midwestern American Girl, the kind who captivates the European imagination and gets the francs flowing – but the vast transvestite at the door issued her opinions on my shoes, which involved a lot of hand-flapping and two very large bouncers, and that was that. No splashing in the pretty pools for us. More recently I was at the Los Lobos Sessions at West 54th taping a few years ago, in better shoes, marveling both that they were still playing and that I was still listening.

Los Lobos - How Will the Wolf Survive?How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) is the second of thirteen Los Lobos album releases to date, and the first one I bought. In a way it’s also an unintentional indictment of the way we sell and package music. This band is extraordinary, and always has been; they are flexible, talented, passionate, empathic, deep. They are concerned with the world around them and committed to their craft; they can pander, they can prance, they can race, they can strut. They are musicians with a long strong vocabulary and a gift for dialect, and they can touch many worlds.

Unfortunately, they are not squeaky babes or washboard-abbed sloe-eyed fauns, and it’s been a hard sell to get them heard. Since they play more than one simple style, simple tastemakers can’t figure out what they smack of.

The Los Lobos faithful are legion, of course, and The Ride, their new album, pitches the band in collaboration with luminaries like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Richard Thompson. Still, Los Lobos are more known-of than known. Each release excites the critics and froths the fans, but apart from the smash success of La Bamba – and don’t even get me started with that – the big fish at radio nod, tap, and move on without biting. It’s a damn shame.

Still and all, the bandshell show is chum and not cuisine. I don’t know if that can be avoided; on such a night in such a setting, in this city this summer, Los Lobos is the backdrop for the evening and not the glittering heart of it. Cesar is still wearing his shades these 20 years later, and that’s reassuring. But the whole set is reassuring, and I find myself wanting more edge. It’s not that the band doesn’t have edge, but after a lifetime of hacking at the underbrush there’s only so much jungle you can clear away on a sultry June night. Radio, radio, what have you done to us all? When will you give us music again?

In the half-shell scoop of the bandshell audience, dressed in a gray houndstooth suit and sporting a derby, a wasp-knotted necktie, and shindig two-tone dancing shoes, is Chuck “Raven” Hancock. We goggle at each other, amazed. One long summer in a different century we lazed through an alternate universe in Washington Square Park, circa 1977. Tall ships; Star Wars; Annie Hall. My hair was in a ponytail then, and it’s back in one now. I was 16, give or take, aimless between school years, soon to move down to the East Village, and desperate to stay out of the ancestral Upper West Side home. Chuck was a glib streak of restless creation, all energy, music, dance, twist, and backhanded style. We chased girls, or rather Chuck did; I puzzled at the mechanics of the whole thing, half afraid I might accidentally catch one. Circles, cycles, orbits.

  • Best t-shirt of the evening: Picture of a rabbi with the large drawled legend, “C’mon, Punk, Make My Shabos.”
  • Other great stuff seen in Prospect Park: Kathleen Edwards, The Shirts, Metropolis, Lambchop, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Bang on a Can, Dave Amram.
  • If this is your first Los Lobos sighting, visit the Los Lobos fan site for more band and less Flash commerce.
Posted in About Last Night |

May the Show of Force be With You

Outside down on Whitehall Street there’s a phalanx of uniformed cops and a double row of prowl cars, parked nose-out into the street on both sides for at least two full blocks. Side streets are blocked off and formations are directing pedestrians through the ranks, and teams are securing intersections and passing police traffic through them.

We wouldn’t have noticed except the building PA buzzed into life to tell us not to panic; they’re calling this a high-visibility anti-terrorist drill. Our resident wags – OK, yes, that would include me – point out that this is hardly going to stop crackpots from flying planes into skyscrapers, but in watching the maneuvers I realize that the point here is moving a large force into a narrow area quickly and efficiently. In other words, it’s not so much to stop things from happening as to set down practice for cleaning them up.

I work some blocks south of the World Trade Center, along the red-zone chin of downtown that was closed after 9/11 for a week. The security weather down here is sensitive still. In the bio-weapon period our office was inside a medical cordon for an anthrax scare across the street (we’re in the Topps building, an unlikely target except for terrorists who weren’t allowed to collect baseball cards as kids and got pathological about it, but we’re next to NASDAQ). There’s something about portable chemical showers and guys in Hazmat suits evacuating secretaries down the way that just worries a body. It was a false alarm, of course.

The drill is over now; the police pulled out as fast and as quietly as they pulled in. Which is, I gather, the point.

Posted in General Musings |

Sic Transit Gloria Olsen

The giggly breathy squeaky sound you heard Sunday was Ashley Fuller Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen turning legal. I was going to get up early to watch it, but one thing led to another and sunrise isn’t really my specialty. Besides, there’s another transit in 2012 when they’ll traverse the solar disk at sunset, and I … hold on, wait a sec. Where are my notes? That can’t be right.

Posted in General Musings |

Baby Gramps

“My parents were … bizarre,” Baby Gramps mutters at Hank’s Saloon on Sunday night, from somewhere behind his bushy moustache. Genes never bred truer.

The Seattle singer, on a solo trip through New York (he also already played at Terra Blues, Crash Mansion, the Living Room, and will be tonight, Monday, at the Rodeo Bar) is quite a character, and he knows it. His full gray beard sports a braid that starts a good 5 inches from his chin and reaches down to the center of his guitar when he sits down. His moustache makes me doubt whether he could ever enjoy the chunks in a chunky soup…

Baby Gramps (a self-styled oxymoron, like “marijuana initiative”) plays a vintage nickeled-brass National resonator guitar and sings in a raspy, lived-dangerously voice to which he often adds some throat singing –either by itself, in a rich fog-horn hoot, or together with the ordinary voice, as a deep bass counterpoint. The delivery is spirited to frantic, the foot tapping lively to almost goose-stepping in place, and the songs –covers and originals alike– mine the tradition that gave birth to the National, the 1920′s and 1930′s and the beginnings of recorded popular blues, such as Stuff Smith’s If You’re a Viper, replete with the deep sucking sounds from the later Fats Waller version.

For the grand finale, the audience joins in and sings with abandon “Scrotum, scrotum, it’s a hairy scary voodoo bag!” His parents were … bizarre?

Posted in About Last Night |

The Days, The Daze

[Luxuriant stretch, the human equivalent of a purr]

Rustle, rustle, rustle … creak.

[Rumpling noises, gummy first-voice sounds]

Ahem. Anyone in here? It’s, uh, been summer. I was outside, and napping. Starting this week the explosive distractions at work should be settling down some. The new woman just started, and once she’s trained I get to put about half my desk on her desk. So I’ll be posting again, at last.

Posted in General Musings |

A Touch of Classmates

The Scary High School Reunion, to which we add the Curious High School Centennial celebration, has come and gone, and it was odd and wonderful fun. This is the Cliff Notes short version; the saga won’t come out without judicious therapy. I’ll note in passing that in these performances of My Life as a Cog, the roles of therapist and couch will be played by tony Belgian beer.

  • My First Great Love (cue violins) has, since I saw her last, left her husband, married someone new, and had a baby girl. The new husband is apparently rather like me, except for the not-actually-being-me part. For those of you watching at home, FGL(cv) and I were never actually an item. She was formative in many ways.
  • My first girlfriend Janine was not there, which is too bad – I’d love to see her again. I’m told she’s living with a balloonist. I didn’t make that up.
  • Everyone was gracious when it turned out that I’m the class Straight Guy Who Never Got Married. Others were probably unsure, but followed the don’t-ask-don’t-tell protocol.
  • The class Straight Girl Who Never Got Married turns out to be bright and adorable. Hmmm.
  • I’m nowhere near either the front or the back of the “where’s-my-hair” line.
  • My friend Brian had to leave early on Sunday because he had a volunteer job as a seat-filler at the Tony Awards. Now that’s a deal; I had no idea there was such a thing. Empty seats look bad on TV, so people like Brian zip around and sit in them for no-shows and latecomers. That rocks.
  • An old friend announced that I had told her, back in 1977 or 1978, that we’d be bad dating partners but we’d probably get married one day. Who knew that we’d live long enough for that to come back around? Note to Republicans: it’s not going to work for Social Security, either.
  • My First Great Love (cue violins) looks as much like she did back then as one can, given passing time. This didn’t help any.
  • Apparently, some people have sold their souls to the devil.
  • Every five or ten years I run into Michelle, and she reminds me that she actually didn’t hate me during high school. So where did I get that idea? She never throws anything at me, so maybe she’s right.
  • Neither of the girls who remain frozen in the amber of my memory as being luminously and spectacularly beautiful came to the reunion. First Great Love (cue violins) tells me that one of them was from Lithuania. And here I thought she was from Staten Island…
Posted in General Musings |

Past Times at Stuyvesant High

Some astute Class of ’79 grads brought their Indicator yearbooks to our 25-year high school reunion today. I didn’t buy a yearbook or class ring when I trailed away from Stuyvesant back then, and that was the last yearbook to include my picture (I’m not in my college book, by design). School spirit has never been my thing; I’m not quite sure why I’m here sticking on my name tag this morning; but here we are, and there are bagels. When I get around to flipping through the pages, there I am, looking much like myself but 25 years thinner. I didn’t realize my picture was in there at all.

“We tend to overlay grown-up wisdoms across the blanker selves that the young actually proffer,” writes Mary Karr in Cherry. Wise words. Certainly Linus at that age looks piercing, calm in his certainty that his future in this best of all possible worlds will turn out well. Probably I was just thinking about girls.

Linus, headshot, thenI remember how much I hated the photographer’s contorting instructions – right shoulder down, tilt your head, chin to the left, whatever it was – and it was probably then that I decided I would not rent a blue cap and gown for graduation. I was the only soul wearing white in the current of blue at Carnegie Hall (we graduated about 750 to a class at the time). A few years later when it was time for my acting headshots I knew the drill and it seemed natural enough. By then, I had already worn a rental cap and gown to Commencement at college, so I was more accustomed to the static taste of compromise.

A strange afternoon, then, wandering through the building that once held – barely – a few years of concentrated life. The hallways by the Student Union office, where I learned to pick through “I’m Easy” and “By Your Side” and “Million Dollar Day” on guitar, bear no mark of my passing. Once upon a time I knew which circuit-breaker turned out the overhead lights in the side Red Room off the stage; the lurid glow from the Exit sign dubbed the room and made it a titillating spot to be caught smooching. Now the door to the stage wings is locked, which is all the metaphor I’m going to make of it right now.

Back out to our ’79 dinner; the switch from caffeine to alcohol should be good fun.

Posted in General Musings |

Drink and Spell

Freddy’s Back Room is –hardly unexpectedly– the back room at Freddy’s, a bar at the edge of Park Slope, Brooklyn, that is threatened by the despicable sport complex planned for the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

On Wednesday, June 30th at 8 p.m., Freddy’s Back Room reaches out to the logophiles from all five boroughs with their First –and alas probably Last– Annual Spelling Bee. $1 ante, winner takes all.

485 Dean Street, Brooklyn. (718) 622-7035

Posted in General Musings |

Caroline and Sarah

I’ve been following the terrible news about young Sarah Fox at a distance and with tightly-woven sorrow. It sits very close to home, and so I haven’t wanted to look it in the facts.

Tragedy defies ranking; there isn’t any meaningful way to say that this or that calamity is more or less powerful or grievous than any other. Much about Sarah’s death has captured the public’s heart, and rightly so. Much about her death also brings me back a jolting 20 years to the winter of 1984, when my friend Caroline Isenberg was murdered on the Upper West Side.

Like Sarah Fox, Caroline was an actress of gleeful power and effortless depth. We worked together only once, at college in a house production of The Ascent of Mount Fuji by Chingiz Aitmatov and the less-Googleable Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov. Her character had one set of tragedies to deal with and mine had another – among other things, I had a kissing scene with a quiet pretty girl who resolutely would not be kissed, play or no play – and we spent time giggling and dreaming together about a future as fine as that warm season, lushly decorated with late spring days and growing grass, and nights that sang when you strummed them.

Caroline graduated from Harvard with the class of 1984. I was living in Italy at that point. She moved to New York and was cast in a downtown play. She was stabbed to death on December 2, 1984, coming home from rehearsal. It was an attempted robbery that turned into an attempted rape, in the lobby and then the elevator of her building; she fought against him and he dragged her to the roof and killed her there. Caroline was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, small and compactly built, with a gale of red hair and bright eyes that brimmed with clarity and keen, easy charm. She lived for a number of hours on the operating table, but didn’t leave it. She was 23 years old.

I wrote this poem for her in Italy, and it was published in the Fall ’85 volume of Padan Aram at Harvard. If you are curious and have proper time and surroundings, I recommend that you read it aloud, which is how I write; it needn’t be declaimed, but the words have a taste to them. I am a great mutterer when I write poetry, and this piece in particular has a life in the mouth.

                Love Song for Caroline (1961 – 1984)

                These afternoons pass
                through a lattice of ivy and sun
                wild welts striping tame roses
                a listless wind
                stripping shrivelled petals
                stroking among the thorns
                not green now but horned, hard
                dressed and armored for
                the coming, coming winter.
                For years now
                I have not been to New York
                but I follow the old
                East Coast motions
                as a matter of iron habit.

                Imagine a series of clicks
                a flow along a wire
                the tumbling of those
                indispensable numbers
                the mechanical equivalent
                of crushing grapes into wine.
                This is how
                I heard of your death,
                from a sorry voice across
                an ocean and a sea
                and she said, the voice cracking,
                that there was blood on the rooftop
                that the police came quickly
                but still it was too late.
                when we die there is always this voice
                you can never see her eyes
                the police are always too late.

                It is December, a month cold
                with the cruel passing of flaming autumn.
                Now the shadows are pale
                and the roses seem wild,
                the flowers long since fallen
                long since blown away
                the graceful vines crusted
                and tough. This year almost
                the incandescent trees
                burned as red as your hair
                almost the freckling of leaves
                over white marble slabs
                stacked like seasons in their yards,
                was like your arms.

                This season was too wet
                grapes rotted on the vines
                before they dropped clotted and sticky
                under the harvest blades.
                Still the transubstantiation
                is already taking place
                and wine is brewing in buckets
                in tall wooden vats and demijohns.
                Over this paper I am crying
                I have been crying all day
                but there is no wine
                but bitter wine
                to make from these tears.

                                              Linus Gelber – winter 1984/85

Posted in General Musings |

Summer or Later

Summer in New York City is imponderable; you never quite know when it arrives, until suddenly the dog days are sweating the walls of your apartment into jelly. Top ten onset signs, then, for our love-it-til-you-hate-it affair with the hot season.

  1. When you plan to do something fun, it rains. In a minor corollary, when you don’t plan to do something fun, it also rains.
  2. Peeling is still cute.
  3. Soft shell crabs, everywhere you turn. The truth is, no matter what you do with them soft shell crabs are squirty and hard to eat. But our chefs grapple: soft shell crabs with sauce, soft shell crabs without sauce, soft shell crab sandwiches, soft shell crabs on a stick. Soft shell crab smoothies? Why not?
  4. Italian ices, everywhere you turn. New designer flavors are starting to penetrate, but you know something? Lemon is still where it’s at.
  5. Arrival Of The Girls. Where do they go for the winter? Certainly not my neighborhood. And when the sun machine gets coming down they emerge en masse, garnished and decked in unlikely scraps that highlight what they barely obscure.
  6. Ambient relief: the ubiquitous grind of the air conditioner replaces the ubiquitous clank of heating pipes.
  7. Some guy says “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” for the first of many, many times.
  8. Some guy wonders if that was all we get of spring this year, for the first of many, many times.
  9. Roland Emmerich puts out a special effects blockbuster. Mirabile dictu! It sucks! But you go to see it anyway. Or at least I do.
  10. Ever been downwind of the Des Moines pig plants on a slaughter day? That’s what the curb at the local McDonalds smells like. All day, all the time. Eight days a week.

Speaking of Sumer, it’s a bit wonderful that the ancient Sumerian word for sexual relations is formed from the word for “loins” plus the verb “to do.” Now that’s practical.

Posted in General Musings |