StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Their Strange Fantasy

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 6, 2010

There’s a reason Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One won the 2004 National Critics Circle Book Award. It’s flat-out excellent and remarkably timely. Greil Marcus said, “Bob Dylan is unfairly talented. I’ve written a lot of books and after reading Dylan’s book, I realized I would never write a book that good.”

People say Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest artist. It won’t be long before we’ll wake up and crown Dylan with that title.

This morning, I flipped through Chronicles for inspiration, as I periodically do. I read the second chapter and contemplated the following passages.

Dylan talks about how he was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941:

If you were born around this time or were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and the new one beginning. It was like putting the clock back to when B.C. became A.D. Everybody born around my time was a part of both.

He touches on what it was like being in grade school in the early 1950s:

We were told that the Russians could be parachuting from planes over our town at any time. These were the same Russians that my uncles had fought alongside only a few years earlier. Now they had become monsters who were coming to slit our throats and incinerate us.

He speaks of the effects of these modern folktales:

Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit. It’s one thing to be afraid when someone’s holding a shotgun on you, but it’s another thing to be afraid of something that’s not quite real…It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy.

Sound familiar?

Liz Cheney, who claims “water-boarding isn’t torture,” is teaming up with reactionaries cross-country to inaugurate a new Red Scare, a new era of McCarthyism:

I appreciate that conservatives like Ted Olson and Neal Katayal have stood up and denounced her “Who Are the Al Qaeda Seven?” ad, but the rest of the right hasn’t. They don’t need facts. They need fuel. Any fuel will do. And Liz is kicking in with some high-octane!

There’s no sense that we should be having an ethical debate on the issues of today. There’s plenty of smear, even plenty of religion, fired in this debate. But ethics is a thing of the past. Without a doubt, the Tea Party is Liz’s target audience.

For a minute, I was optimistic that this new red-scare would inaugurate a new Beat Generation, which might re-evolve into a creatively fecund period like the 1960s. The shadow side of the Sixties was its violence and (let’s admit it) unbridled hedonism, but its best revolutionaries inaugurated hitherto unprecedented freedom in personal expression and civil liberties in government. (Dylan was a major catalyst for this revolutionary spirit, though he denies that his songs had a political message.) It was one of the most creative periods in history in terms of art (mostly in music). Yet we have to remember that, in America, the baby-boomer generation were reacting to the complacency of a society that was experiencing grand-scale prosperity for the first time. We may be complacent today but we’re also experiencing economic collapse.

The Tea Party claims that it’s anti-government when in truth it’s anti-Obama. A news pundit (whose name I don’t remember) memorably said, “They’re confusing tyranny with losing an election.” They say they’re for freedom, but most of them want to ban abortion and gay marriage and many even wish to see gays thrown in prison.* They did not organize to oppose the bourgeoning deficit until Bush left office and they tar Obama as a “tax-and-spend socialist” when his stimulus plan saved us from the worst crash in American history. (His second stimulus proposal is unlikely to pass and, if it doesn’t, the economy will crash again and they’ll blame him.) They also want to see religion as the front-and-center agent of lawmaking. Where is the freedom in this proposed state of siege? They’re afraid of a changing world and are raging to bind us back to old, unworkable ways.

We heard a lot of Andrew Jackson’s “manifest destiny” in Bush’s threat to use his executive power to invade Iraq (democrats in congress, once again, graciously capitulated and used the excused that they were “misinformed”) and it seems that, in 2010, we’ve yet to lay Joseph McCarthy’s ghost. You can feel free to arrogate power over the country and the world, so long as you maintain your status as a Christian. For proof that this mentality is alive and unwell, we need look no further than Ann Coulter, who said: “I’m a Christian first and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don’t you ever forget it.” She dismissed “being nice to people” as the well-wishing of the Church of Liberalism when “it is, in fact, one of the incidental tenets of Christianity.”

God apparently hates the same people Ann Coulter does, just like the God of the Bible – what a coinkidink! – hates all the same people the Israelites do!

You’re redeemed! Now go forth and scaremonger!


* For the record, Liz Cheney is not a Tea Party member (the Tea Party is not yet an official party). She’s simply appealing to their furor. In 2009, she and her father shockingly came out in support of gay marriage and the repeal of DADT. Liz’s sister Mary is openly gay and worked as Director of Vice-Presidential Operations for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. I’ll let you connect the dots.

Dylan at Prospect Park (August 12, 2008)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 13, 2008

Last night, Julius and I went to see my hero Bob Dylan at the Prospect Park Bandshell, just up the street from our house in Brooklyn. We had ninth row seats.

I’m not a big show-goer. If it’s a newer band, especially one I don’t know well, I end up feeling like a big ole Rip Van Winkle next to all the hipsters jamming on every riff and word. If I go to see my old favorites in concert – Bowie, Stones, Dylan – I get easily disappointed when their studio and live sounds don’t match up. (I know. That’s my problem, not the performers’. I mean, what do I want? A bunch of damned lip-synchers?) So, I wasn’t sure how I would take to this Celebrate Brooklyn event.

At the same time, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Not even for George W. Bush’s impeachment ceremony (which should’ve happened, but didn’t).

For many years, I’ve been a Dylan devotee, wearing out CD after CD. He’s my favorite solo artist and, next to The Stones’ Exile on Main Street, his Highway 61 Revisted remains my favorite album of all time. Never have I been prouder of a musician than in 1997 when he released Time Out of Mind at age 56 and walked away with Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. I liked his follow-up album, Love & Theft (2001) even better. His most recent album, Modern Times (2003) is also a staggering achievement. All three albums rely heavily on crunching, powerhouse guitars, replete with old country and blue-grass twists. On all three, he also seems to replace his easily parodied nasal drone with a voice of deep, gravelly foreboding.

His look has changed over the past decade too. Unlike the Stones, Dylan holds no illusions about his age, as both his music and his attire demonstrate. In recent years, he’s been sporting a sort of august Dixie gentleman look, complete with a wide-brimmed hat. That was more or less his style last night, except that his button-laden coat and side-striped pants were made of navy-blue velvet. His band was swathed in the same sort of elegant, Deep South mafia roué chic. Rather than trying to pull off the kind of youngish Monkey Man act that Jagger has played to death for way too many years now, Dylan has been more than content to step back into the shade and let his masterful blends of rock, country, folk, and blue grass lead the way.

Last night proved that Dylan remains unmatched in his capacity to be at once ultra-charismatic and low-profile, self-possessed. Never one to accede to anyone’s comfort zones, however, he did not do a number of things. He didn’t play guitar. He was keyboards-only. He switched the tempo – hell, he switched the whole score on all of his old standards. He seemed staunchly averse to making his set a big kumbaya sing-along with the audience, as he muffled many lyrics into the mike and kept his head down, often turned away from the crowd. Even if you knew all the words to most of the songs and wanted to keep up, you couldn’t. As usual, he didn’t cater to our complacency.

I heard some people complaining that Dylan hid behind his ingenious backup band. It may be true that, with age and attrition, he can’t crank it like the younger guys – which may be the reason he only did keyboards last night – but he writes all the songs they play and choreographed the stage.

He did not rest on age-old laurels either. Most of his set comprised highlights from his two most recent albums (Love and Theft; Modern Times) like “Summer Days,” “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Honest with Me,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Oldies included, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Considering his corpus and the thousands and thousands of gigs he’s played over the course of his career, Dylan could do a three-hour concert in his sleep and on his head. Sadly, he ended the set after only about 90 minutes. No, he wasn’t Roger Waters giving us the whole of Dark Side of the Moon or The Who playing Tommy live, front to back, as those artists have been known to do in recent years. I guess Celebrate Brooklyn didn’t pay Dylan enough for that. The crowd roared for a second encore, but the stage lights all went up in an end-of-show sheen and stage crew started collecting instruments from the departed players.

Last night’s Prospect Park show wasn’t Budakon by any stretch, but I’m still glad I showed up to witness the greatest artist that America has ever produced.

Sinbad, The Glittery Silver Jumpsuit and The Glittery Silver Service Car (Last Night’s Dream)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 31, 2008

Last night’s dream was even stranger than the one about the serial killer in the hanging-file folder.

In it, the comedian Sinbad’s wife had kicked him out of their house, so he took a room at the Y. At a press conference on this scandal, the melanin in Sinbad’s face faded out, making him look as white as Michael Jackson but with more meat on the bones. (Actually, at the press conference, Sinbad looked more like Bernie Mac, but I still knew him to be Sinbad.) I went to go visit him at the YMCA.

When I went to the check-in desk at his floor, I saw that the people working behind it were part of that breed of post-grads, who defer the “real” world by working in video stores and other low-impact jobs. They were playing Gameboys and had their feet up on the desk as they listened to Modest Mouse or whatever. They asked me to have a seat in the waiting room while they called Sinbad’s room.

The waiting-room area was a self-service Barnes & Noble. On the teak-wood coffee table, there was a stack of comic books. As I picked each one up, I scanned them in on a hand-held bar-code scanner. I had no intention of buying them, though. When the Asian-American chick behind the counter told me that Sinbad had asked her to send me in, she also presented me with a bill for the comic books. I told her that I’d left them on the table and didn’t want to buy them. With a let-down look, she said, “Oh, and I’ve been wanting to see those comic books too.” (Why she couldn’t just walk over to the table herself and see them, I don’t know. Then again, my dreams tend to not make any sense.) With that, I walked through the YMCA doors to go see Sinbad.

In the next segment of the dream, Julius and I were arguing over whether or not Bob Dylan is a genius. In waking life, I would find that contention indisputable, but, in the dream, I was on the other side of the debate. Julius said, “How could you not call it genius when someone writes…?” And he went on to recite two lines from a song that I’ve never heard and whose words I don’t remember.

As he recited those words, though, he held up a leaf from a morning-glory vine that was split down the middle and he let the leaf fly in the breeze to a field that looked like the ones near the Brideshead estate in Brideshead Revisited.

I then switched sides and started giving this oration on how Dylan’s John Wesley Harding was a masterpiece, how it changed the face of music. Then, I picked that CD out of my collection and walked out the door to bring it to my friend Mike’s house, so that he could tape it.

In the next segment, I was walking through the wintertime set in the penultimate scene of La Boheme, where Rodolfo finds Mimi just before she dies of consumption. As I trudged through the snow, I was wearing an overcoat and a saturnine face like a character in a Chekhov story or a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel.

All of a sudden, who is the only person coming my way on the road but Justin Timberlake. (I seem to be alone in loathing Justin Timberlake. I think he’s a spoiled, overpraised brat whose music sucks. But if I state my opinion of him to anyone, even people twice his age who otherwise have good music taste, they act like they want to send me to my room without supper.) He had a Richard Simmons’ afro and was wearing a pink tie-died sweatsuit. He was singing some pop song, but then busted into a rap that was an all-out jam. As Justin Timberlake passed me, for the first time ever, I looked at him with admiration. (Again, let me qualify, this was a dream, not real life.)

Then I found myself in a silver glittery jumpsuit, complete with a glittery silver headband. I looked like a Solid Gold Dancer (embarrassing factoid: when I was seven-years-old, I wanted to be a Solid Gold Dancer with all my heart; that phase only lasted a year, the statute of limitations has run out, so don’t mock me!). I saw myself in the mirror. I said, “I gotta get a new look,” so I changed back into my usual clothes.

Then I saw sunlight pouring in through some prison bars. The lyrics to that song by The Flaming Lips started up: “Do you realize – that everyone you know someday will die?”

7th Avenue and 9th Street, Brooklyn

7th Avenue and 9th Street, Brooklyn (site of Uncle Moe's)

Then I wound up at my parents’ house. Their garage was the same, but the kitchen table was on an upper landing like the tables at Uncle Moe’s (the gay symbolism is killing me) at 7th Avenue and 9th Street. Father Mahon was over for dinner. Now, Father Mahon is not long for this world, but, in the dream, he was looking a lot better than when I saw him at my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.

(In real life, the moment I introduced Father Mahon to Julius at the Anniversary party, he asked us point-blank, “Are you living together?” I smiled and said, “Why, yes, we are, Father.” He nodded and said, “Well, I wish you both all the best.” I was going to ask if I could take that as an endorsement but stopped short.)

In the dream, Father Mahon asked me if I enjoy being a sodomite. I lit up, “Yeah, it’s great!”

As if to draw me back into the Catholic fold, he proclaimed that the Buddhist Sutras were inspired by the Bible. I responded, “That’s bullshit! Buddha delivered the Sutras about 500 years before Jesus was born. As for the Old Testament, well, that was still in the hands of a small tribe of Israelites and there’s no way it could have made its way over to India. Besides, the Buddhist and Christian holy books are completely different in philosophy and precepts. Sorry, Father, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on Buddhism.” Oddly, Mom nodded her approval at my denunciation (again, this was a dream) and Father Mahon went back to eating his sweet potato.

In the final segment of last night’s dream, I was waiting on the Northbound platform of the Red Line L at Fullerton in Chicago. I was thinking about how Chicago isn’t as cosmopolitan as New York. Right behind me, though, these Arab guys were speaking French. They were all discussing which parts of the city they live in. I thought, “Well, they’re Arab and they’re speaking French. Isn’t that pretty cosmopolitan too?”

Then, an Arab girl wedged her way into the conversation. She was wearing white face-paint and black makeup like I had to wear when I played Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland in my sophomore year of high school. She had pockmarks all up and down her face like this one goth guy whom I used to see at this one cafe on Belmont in Chicago. (Come to think of it, he also wore white face-paint and black makeup.) The Arab girl was talking about how her rabbi (?) told her that she should move to another part of the city.

Then, a glittery silver service car, which looked like the old edition Rolls Royce that was in Brideshead Revisited (except glittery and silver like the jumpsuit I broke out of in an earlier segment), pulled up on the tracks to take me for a ride. I didn’t know where we were headed but I got in.

Weird, huh? What do you think that dream means? (Besides that I’m a big Uncle Moe who sins bad?)

The Bacchae at Lincoln Center

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 13, 2008
Alan Cumming as Dionysus

Alan Cumming as Dionysus

So, last night, Julius and I went to see The Bacchae at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Gotta admit that, after seeing The Public Theater’s Hamlet in Central Park a few weeks ago, I thought I was in for another dumbed-down take on a major play. I also didn’t know what I was in for with Alan Cumming. People have always raved about him, but I’ve never seen him live and I guess I’ve always caught him in the wrong stuff on TV. Now I more than see what all the fuss is about.

People, this was as fierce and grand a spectacle as I have ever witnessed. The National Theatre of Scotland marshaled the most stellar cast on to Lincoln Center’s stage with Cumming as Dionysus, Cal MacAninch as Pentheus, Ewan Hooper as Cadmus, and a savage portrayal of Agave by Italian actress Paola Dionisotti. The Bacchae were an all-black female cast of deadly divas. (Some of the women playing bacchae might have hailed from England, some might have been from Africa; I’m not sure how many of them actually lived in Scotland before joining the troupe. Playbill didn’t say.)

Under the spell of Dionysus, the women make a bloodbath out of any animal or man in their path after Pentheus refuses to honor this god of wine and debauchery. Pentheus is deathly opposed to the women of Thebes following the current trend of getting drunk and running to the hills to splay their legs open to any Tom, Dick and Hairy. Without revealing his true identity, Dionysus convinces the priggish Pentheus to dress in drag and go spy on the bacchae – in flagrante in the hills. Pentheus stomps off to the hills in high heels and high dudgeon, only to come face to face with his own mother Agave, who gleefully tears him limb from limb with her own bare hands. (As I watched, I kept wondering if Dylan was referring to The Bacchae in “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues”: “Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue/They got some hungry women there/And they really make a mess outta you.”)

In the first scene of the play, Cumming descends to stage, suspended by a cord at his ankle, his bare ass to the audience. He’s wearing Dr. Frankenfurter makeup, a Medusa-hair wig, and a short sleeveless gold lame (lam-ay) dress. I tell you, I have never seen an actor so relaxed and casual on stage, doesn’t miss a single trick when delivering lines from a gorgeous adaptation by playwright David Grieg. Always a fan of the androgynous, I could not help but marvel at Cumming’s feminine panache and masculine authority. By the way, if you’re in a committed relationship and you get a look at Cal MacAninch’s abs and arms, trust me, you’ll have to restrain yourself from greasing the stage manager’s palm to get backstage. The bacchae (aka, Maenads) can shake it with the best of them, their pipes are powerful enough to fill all of Columbus Circle with choral song, and their orgiastic contortions on stage more than drive home news of all that’s happening offstage in Euripides’ script. Paola Dionisotti is bloodlust itself as Agave.