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I’m a bit slow getting pictures developed, which will be no surprise if you’ve ever seen me pay bills. The latest rolls back are from my night ride on the Temptress float in this year’s Village Halloween Parade. We’ve posted a couple of Halloween parade photo galleries for your browsing – visit and click the smaller images for enlargements, you know the drill.

Posted in General Musings |

The Baltic Firecracker

It was a Sunday night birthday party on the Lower East Side. Dainty morsels were spread on the table, less dainty mademoiselles rolled about in wild abandon under the table, in the glare of the video camera’s light. No Paris Hilton, though.

Taking a breather from making out with Satan in his fetching ruffled shirt and cummerbund, or pursuing the birthday girl under the chairs of the living room, or again ensuring that her assets were duly recorded for posterity, Natasha let it be known that Baltika Porter from St Petersburg was a very good beer indeed–the others were best forgotten, but the porter should definitely not be dismissed. Who am I to dismiss such advice from such a pert nipple I mean, young lady?

Baltika labelLo and behold, the local Key Food has Baltika Porter, a.k.a. #6, for a mere 99 cents a half liter. I felt duty-bound to investigate.

The beer pours almost black with a ruddy tinge, and settles to a thick tan head that mostly falls back fairly quickly, leaving almost no lace on the glass. The nose is malty, with a bock-like sweetness and not much else, the mouthfeel is substantial, and the palate has a good, robust hint of roasted coffee and chocolate that evolves into a slightly burnt dryness that balances the malt. There is hop bitterness as well, but nothing like what American examples of the style tend to indulge in. This is a biggish beer at 7%ABV, but the alcohol is under control and there is no fusel harshness (this is a lager porter, in keeping with most of the Baltic tradition, so fermentation by-products should be kept well in check) and it warms up nicely, without developping any objectionable aftertastes; the roasted character just increases somewhat, but so does the malt so that overall the beer does not veer off course. Which is more than could be said about Natasha…

Posted in General Musings |

The Chicken and the Snowman

Clambering out of the cellars on Clinton Street this morning, I am met by the first snow of this year’s winter. It’s a tiny corner-of-the-eye snow, meagre, if not mean, and tentative. By the time I’m out of the subway at South Ferry there’s more of it, though the character hasn’t changed. Tiny flakes that vanish without touching the skin.

In high school we inevitably made fallout jokes when the first snow inevitably came around (“Hey, it’s snowing! I think … check back in a few days and we’ll see”). The notion of MAD – that’s Mutual Assured Destruction, for those born after 1975 – was visceral back in those days, though some flavor of nuclear catastrophe seems likelier now than it ever was then. This makes it somehow much more remote, and also markedly less amusing.

Chicago Pile 1 - Ye Olde Nuclear FissionePerhaps it’s something in the air. From Jennifer’s History and Stuff, I find that today is the 61st anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. An auspicious day, if you like that sort of thing.

The real secret war, though, won’t be fought with nukes. It’s Us v. The Chickens. When cholesterol first became relevant in my life a few years ago (Me: “How much???”), my health plan McDoctor warned me off the Four Evils: milk, eggs, red meat and chicken skin. Later I developed my theory that

(a) chickens are actually fruit, since you have to peel them to get at the good part; and

(b) cholesterol is a fiendishly clever weapon developed by The Chickens to destroy us all with breakfast.

Obviously they’ve got The Cows helping out too, but if you’ve spent any time around chickens and cows you know who’s behind all this. Cows just don’t have that vicious ornery streak. Semper Buck Buck Buck.

Posted in General Musings |

Gabba Gabba Doh!

X Marks the SpotTomorrow at 1:00 p.m. the City makes the corner of East 2nd Street and Bowery into something special by renaming it Joey Ramone Place. It’s nice when they do something right. Of course, they nearly didn’t.

We have from The Velvet Rope that the City waffled on the name of the street, announcing first that it was going to be Joey Ramone Way instead of Joey Ramone Place, and then going ahead and making (better) Joey Ramone Place signs after all (“Oooh, Baby I Love Your Way Place…”). But why stop with confusion when you can have debacle?

The construction crews crept out late at night and hung the street signs on the wrong intersection – on the handy dandy visual aid here you’ll see the correct intersection marked with a red star, where East 2nd Street meets Bowery. Then, with a dogleg south and west, Bleecker Street begins on the far side of Bowery. One of the main characteristics of the intersection of Bowery and Bleecker is that it does not include East 2nd Street, which is where Joey lived. And that, dearly beloved, is where the City hung the sign.

Quick eyes that cared for Joey spotted the problem and solved it; details on The Rope. Note to Mayor: stick to messing with smokers. And in case someone asks, Joey was the tall one with the glasses, you know?

Posted in General Musings |

Glenn Patscha Little Big Band

Those familiar with the downtown New York music scene will be familiar with Glenn through his work with –among others– Ollabelle, from whom he borrows several of his players. At the Living Room last night, he played a pump organ from the 1940′s (in its original wood cabinet), sang with a voice reminiscent of both Jack Bruce and –rather oddly– Julie (Driscoll) Tippetts, and led his brand new six-piece band. Strands of Carla Bley’s seminal Escalator Over The Hill*, in a more compact and “user-friendly” form, emerged from this unusual combination of blues electric guitar (Sean Costello), acoustic guitar (Fiona McBain), bass clarinet (John Ellis; my favorite instrument!), cello (didn’t catch her name, but it’s my favorite instrument too!), drums (Tony Leone), and the voices of Fiona McBain and Amy Helm. This was the best-sounding band I’ve heard in a long time, probably since Hem a year or so ago, before they embarked on their world-wide touring.

A rendition of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” provided an almost-jam-band interlude in the middle of the set, while the closing number was a beautiful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska that started with just the voice and the organ, and almost subliminal touches of guitars and brushed drums, then swelled slowly to full force, joined by the bass clarinet, while the cellist, who was not included in this number, leaned against her instrument and plucked an accompaniment for herself.

Glenn Patscha’s rather large band is a keeper. I want more!

* I tried to find a nice, informative review on a stable web site likely to stick around for a good while, but I couldn’t find anything. EOTH was an amazing record when it came out in 1971, featuring such jazz and rock luminaries as Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Don Preston, Linda Ronstadt (and 4-year old Karen Mantler!) and while it is far from perfect, it is still such an important work that I can’t believe there’s nothing meaningful on the web about it (in English at least; there are a couple of reviews in French and German, but even those aren’t too great. The only thing I can leave you with is this old Rolling Stone entry.

Back to where we were…

Posted in About Last Night |

The Stammer of the Greasepaint

The Good Faith - Our Thrilling PosterThe play I’m in, “The Good Faith,” opened November 20th at La MaMa ETC in the East Village. This is about that.

11/20 – The other six guy actors, plus the two musicians, D.D. the choreographer, and Harold the director, are all trying to use the bathroom in our basement dressing room, and they’re all trying to use it now. (The women have their own facilities, and much more mirror time, upstairs on the first floor.) Peeing before the show is a sensible thing, more often a matter of comfort than necessity. In a dozen years of acting I think I only ever had the urge on stage once, and that in a distant and detached way. But it’s good, when nervous energy is in the air, to have a brief quiet moment with Little Marat and his hydrotherapy. Just in case.

George Orwell wrote that the secret ingredient of a successful steak restaurant is sharp knives. Thalians take note: for a better opening night, try more bathrooms. Just a thought.

The audience is filling up with defrocked Jehovah’s Witnesses and unconditional friends and family who totally love us but think it would be pretty funny, in a laughing-with-you way, if we messed up some. (“And then all of a sudden, his pants fell off! Oh, that sure was a funny one … wait, where are you going?”) Everyone loves life without a safety net, except maybe the Wallendas. I’m staring at myself in the mirror, and my wig will not stay set. There are twenty bobby pins stuck up in there already and I think I’m making it worse. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that no one ever told me how to keep a wig on with bobby pins? I can see arguments on both sides.

We know we know this show; we’ve been rehearsing for five weeks. But we’ve got the jitters. We had our dress rehearsal, sort of, and for some unaccountable reason it came before the tech-through. For you Peppers who stay sensibly in the front of the house, the tech-through is when we run the play for the lighting and sound folks, so they can see what they are supposed to be doing while we actors, whom techies mostly regard as a cross between underdone calamari and mental patients, are busy messing up their nice light cues. The tech-through comes before the dress rehearsal, and it is a Very Bad Idea to reverse this order. Oh well. It would have been nice to do dress rehearsal with the piano player, but no such luck. The music cues will be an adventure. Elsewhere I have mentioned the untried props and the unfamiliar costumes and, well, we’re nervous, all right?

Some techies - but not oursSome underdone calamari - also not ours
For comparison purposes: techies (left) and underdone calamari
don’t actually have much in common.

Nervous things I say and do before shows:

  • Sing “Doves Cry” while facing wall and making odd concentrating hand gestures to draw my breathing to chest.
  • Say: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
  • Say, in Russian accent: “I am never forget the day when I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: ‘plagiarize.’”
  • Sing “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?” repeatedly, with feeling.
  • Spout random lines of Shakespeare, like: “Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, the season’s difference as an icy fang, the churlish chiding of the winter wind which, as it bites and blows upon my body even til I shrink with cold, I smile and say, this is no flattery – these are counselors, who feelingly persuade me what I am,” and so forth, while striding authoritatively around in circles.
  • Yawn repeatedly to make my soft palate roll and trill, making a “Ngaaaaaah” sound as I do so.
  • Stick another dozen bobby pins in my head until I look like a special effect from Hellraiser.

Nobody actually calls places and whoops, suddenly we’ve started. “We’ve started, we’ve started, aren’t you supposed to be on stage?” You’d be surprised how informal, not to say slapdash, a show is backstage. You’re sitting around minding your own business and then you’re supposed to be out front doing your thing, which seemed very easy when you were sitting around minding your own business backstage but leaps directly out of your brain when you cross out from behind the curtains. If you’re doing well, the stuff trickles back in about when you’re supposed to be saying it, which makes it look like you’re just thinking of it right at that moment. Sometimes, and this can be scary, you are.

I had an acting teacher once who told us to imagine a golden wire that ran down from our brains into our chests, then up our throats and out of our mouths. That, she said, is dialogue, and that’s the path you have to draw it through. Brain to heart to mouth. You don’t recite, she said, you don’t extemporize; you realize and then vocalize.

My first speech is a call to war in a New England accent. I knew it would be rough to drop directly into accent the first time through, and it is. I’m sweaty and dry and, rats, my carefully tended soft palate is sticky and clinging. A rush of blood to the head, tension pools in my legs where it likes to go at times like this. The lights go down to black. I head for my spike (where I’m supposed to go) marked in glow tape and – whack! – I collide with someone coming off stage in the same direction I’m going on. And then the light thickens to white, and I’m in it, and off we go. It’s showtime.

Frances and Richard Rawe, the originalsYou can read about “The Good Faith” by following the hyperlinks in this entry; in brief, it’s the story of Richard and Frances Rawe of Soap Lake, Washington, a pair of devoutly faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses who were repeatedly tossed out of their chapter by scheming, corrupt Elders (Brothers Reap and Sow in our production, and I play the latter). The show is based on their true story, one that resonates deeply in the JW community. We have odd audiences. Harold Dean James, the author and director, was a Witness and ultimately left the organization (I was tickled to meet his brother Jesse later on in the evening, think about it). In essence, the Rawes said what needed to be said at a time when it needed saying, which made them folk heroes for a certain set. As is true for most folk heroes, life has not been easy for them since. The Rawes were hoping to come see the show, but health did not allow.

At the party that night on Ludlow Street we’re surrounded by lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nearly all of them were disfellowshipped in dubious circumstances for reasons that never became clear; one woman tells me that when she was banned from her group the Elders wouldn’t tell her why, and when she was disfellowshipped for her second time it was for “the same reason as before.” Everyone is dressed very nicely and it seems like they talk normally but no one curses, and there’s a friendly reserve, a slight distance … or am I imagining that? The bar is doing a swimming business in water. Katarina our beauteous stage manager is briefly resplendent in a startling gold ruckus of a belt and a slinky black thing before she sneaks off to other pastures.

“You were the Elder,” one woman says to me. I nod, unaware as yet that the triangular puff-pastry spinach treats – I’m starving – are leaving huge puff-pastry speckles all down my shirt. “You’re a very good Elder,” she says. “The first time I was disfellowshipped, it was just like that.” She leans forward, conspiratorial. “You were never a Witness, were you, dear.”

I shake my head. No, I was never a Witness.

The Good Faith,” by Harold Dean James, runs Thu – Sun through December 7th. Despite our nerves and the usual grustlings and intimations of doom, the show is going very well. It runs just over an hour, has some good tunes, and costs $15. Reservations are the way to go. La MaMa: 74A East 4th St. (between Second and Third Aves.), (212) 475-7710.

Posted in About Last Night |

Happy Thanksgiving

Peace on Earth, good will to . . . wait, that’s the other one. Never mind that, then.

Thanks be for good company, good food, and all the gifts that surround us. And pass the gravy.

Posted in General Musings |

The Sounds of Silence

Samichlaus - Beware of BeerSamichlaus Bier is no longer the strongest beer in the world – that honor belongs to Dogfish Head‘s World Wide Stout – but it’s still the world’s strongest lager, tipping the glass at an astonishing 14% alcohol. Samichlaus is a fascinating and delicious beer, and it deserves its own thorough Pepper entry.

This is not that entry.

But Samichlaus is what happened after Sunday night’s performance of “The Good Faith,” a slightly-damp recounting after our crisp and trim matinee show that afternoon. Of course my brother Ethan and his Very Significant Other Jane (VSOJ) were at the floppy show, not the zippy one. After the festivities, we adjourned to the Peculier Pub on nearby Bleecker Street. Ethan deftly picked a Fraoch Heather Ale, and VSOJ honored her DownUndertude with a Cooper’s Ale. Sometimes life in the big city is full of links.

About 14% alcohol later one thing was leading to another, and I wound up at the Bluestone Bar & Grill, a new place which has no links at Columbia and Kane Streets in Brooklyn. It’s still spiffy and spotless in there, and it’s a friendly joint with an exceptional 1960 Lambretta scooter, gorgeously restored, in residence inside for the winter. (Ask Vanessa about this wonderful machine and she’ll give you a guided tour of the gleaming engine.) Sunday night is bluegrass night at Bluestone, although the music was winding down by the time we rolled in, and the lights of downtown Manhattan twinkled in the balmy dark over the still waterfront.

Bluestone - no relation to the ZombiesSomewhere in the subsequent merriment my friend Tony stepped up to do a song. The bulk of the crowd got quiet for this. One woman, though, the One, apparently, who Is In Every Crowd, set to talking loud. Really loud. She was – how to put it? – a bit tipsy. Not to stand on ceremony, she was blotto. She was cut off, she was staggering, she was loud, she was right down front, she was not cute enough to get away with this kind of thing, and as Tony started in on a sweet quiet tune about his sister and unconditional love, unamplified and unmiked, it became uncomfortably clear that she was also deaf. Her friends tried to shush her, but with that unerring instinct of the truly drunk she decided that they were playing a joke on her because she couldn’t hear. “No one is talking but you,” they confided to her. “Everyone is listening to the music. Shhhh.”

“NO,” she whispered back, “EVERYONE’SSSS TALKING, I KNOW IT!!! YOU CAN’T FOOL ME!!! YERRRRR JUST TRYIN’ A SHUT ME UP!!!”

There’s not much you can do at a time like this other than look studiously at some interesting spot on the floor, shake your head, and try to listen as best you can between the bellows and giggles. Everyone was pretty mortified. Tony made it through with good style considering, and that looked to be that.

But all along it had been That Kind of Night, and some of the bluegrass guys started talking with Loud Giggly Woman. I didn’t get all of the details of this part, and when I next tuned in the bass player had his standup unpacked and was thumping along with gusto, and the banjo player was picking fast and furious. Between them, eyes wide and misty, stood the deaf woman, her left hand on the echoing body of the bass, her right hand on the membrane of the banjo, still and silent as they played for her hands, music lapping up her limbs and leaving her thrilled and transported, late at night.

Posted in About Last Night |

Music For The Masses

Out of the Gene Pool philosophizes on the subject of “music quality, lack thereof”.

Posted in Music Theory |

‘A Was a Man, All in All

News coverage on NPR (no TV here in Pepperland) has been grave and respectful on this anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Something about the combination of emerging detail – new eyewitness accounts 40 years in? C’mon, it’s just silly, where have they been since 1963? – and the warm gust of assurance from on high that Oswald acted alone makes me want to look over my shoulder. I like a conspiracy theory as much as the next guy. More, actually. But at least do a good job of it, fercyrinoutloud.

For the record, I was too young to remember the assassination, although I have a primordial memory of watching the funeral on a rented TV as a tyke. It might have been a different funeral, or the memory might be a “found” one. My family only rented TV for funerals and moonshots. My first numbing public loss was John Lennon.

The Good Faith,” the play I’ve been rehearsing for the past month and change, opened on Thursday night. It went well. All the words got said in about the right order and only one chair fell over, and the chair wasn’t supposed to be on stage in the first place. (Damn chairs, can’t take ‘em anywhere.) Since then I’ve been more or less asleep, washing stress out of the system. You know that cartoon squiggle that hovers over Linus when he faints in the Peanuts strips? I’ve got my very own squiggle and it lives over my bed. Comes with the name.

I’m looking forward to tightening the piece up, my part of it at least. I’m not quite in my skin yet on stage, but it’s getting close. Hey, we’ve already lasted longer than some recent Broadway masterpieces, and we didn’t have the benefit of previews to close in. But we’ve lost Katarina the beauteous stage manager again (phoooey), which makes my nightly call so much less exciting.

Posted in General Musings |