StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Plastic Ono Band

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 18, 2010

This afternoon, I walked over to BAM Rose Cinemas to see “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” What’s the big deal with that movie, other than that it was Heath Ledger’s last? It’s all special effects – flash sans substance.

The highlight was actually the previews – more specifically, the pre-previews, where Brooklyn Academy of Music flashes those self-congratulatory ads about its mission and programs. I sat there, alternately yawning and stuffing popcorn into my pie-hole when a blurb for tonight’s event hit the screen:

Plastic Ono Band

Tonight at BAM

I’ll say it again:


Tonight at BAM

John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is one of the greatest albums of all time.

"Plastic Ono Band," John Lennon, 1970

It was Lennon’s first solo album after the Beatles’ break-up.* To cope with the transition, Yoko and John underwent primal scream therapy as evidenced by the cagey, wall-shattering howling and wailing suffusing the album from start to finish. The arrangement and production are drastically scaled-down, sheerly minimalist. The whole experience is light years ahead of punk at its very best (Clash included). In the crushing dirge “God,” after diminishing the Almighty to a mere “concept by which we measure our pain,” Lennon cries: “I don’t be-lieve in Hitler/I don’t be-lieve in Jesus/I don’t be-lieve in Kennedy…/I don’t be-lieve in Elvis/I don’t be-lieve in Zimmerman (Bob Dylan)” and with a final line to this litany, “I don’t believe in Beatles.”

The Beatles would never regroup.

But somehow the Plastic Ono Band has. Without John.

Yoko** is the frontman now. She’s about to turn 77.

I didn’t get tickets. I didn’t want to. (I don’t think I could have gotten them on three-hours notice even if I did want them.) Not that I have anything against Yoko. In fact, I’m hugely grateful that she helped raise so much money for the Harvey Milk School for gay teens, many of whom are runaways. (She even held a charity event for it where guests could pay to snip the black dress off her otherwise nude body.)

But she’s not John and I don’t trust her (or anyone else) to carry the show.

Plus, I’m getting sick of going to all these shows of all these past-their-prime all-stars. Patti Smith is gigging everywhere now. So is Iggy Pop, so is Sonic Youth. No matter how they might rev up their act in their old age, you know they’re just reprising their salad days, and their new stuff seems tragically incidental, no matter how perfunctorily we may smile and clap.

While we’re on the subject, let me have my Kathy Griffin moment and cite a celebrity sighting…I’ve been running into Lou Reed lately.

“Lately” is a relative term, actually. The first time was a little over a year ago when I attended a dreadful performance-art spectacle at Manhattan’s Chelsea Art Gallery that was written and performed by an unfriendly British friend of my friend Rachael in London. As I died by degrees, taking in the endless inanities of the actors’ monologues as we milled around the gallery, Lou Reed and Laurie Andersen stepped in to join the ten or so audience members, shifting their weight from side to side with increasing frequency. No one among our throng seemed to notice them, or maybe they did and they were just being polite, but I was electrified. You should have seen the shit Reed and Andersen were wearing, though! We’re talking neon satin sweatsuits here! So much for the Warhol Factory days! The two of them looked like they just got back from the Early Bird Special at the Fort Lauderdale Sizzler’s.

I call this encounter, “My Brush with Badly Dressed Fame.”

At the sit-down portion of the show, where we all sat in a small auditorium, Julius positioned us so that we’d get to sit right next to Lou and Laurie. (He had no idea who they were at first, but I told him in a panting stage whisper as people shushed me.) I got to share the same armrest with Laurie Andersen! Lou was sharing her other armrest. I don’t know if you’ve seen Lou lately, but he’s skeletal, wrinkled, emaciated with a full mane of steel-wool bristle hair. Warhol’s Factory, Metal Machine Music, and all those walks on the wild side have caught up with the rock n’ roll animal (come to think of it, this aesthetic decline kicked in long ago, but let’s keep going…). Lou fell forward in his chair and his head hung abysmally; the lower vertebrae leading up to his cervical vertebra spiked up like the ridges on an alligator’s back. And then, as the dreadful oratory sounded from the front of the room, Lou took a deep breath and snored!

I was so proud. He was thunderously expressing my-thoughts-exactly as I endured and endured in receding consciousness. Laurie maintained her poise, however. She was regal as a queen (a far better queen than the one who was up there prating in polyurethane pants next to Rachael’s friend) even though her attention seemed to be whisking away like sands across the vast desert of time. So, I made bold. I leaned over to her. I said, “Excuse me.” She snapped her neck my way. I said, “Are you Laurie Andersen?” She nodded. I gulped. I didn’t know how to follow up. I just garbled, “I’m a fan.” She shook my hand, said thank you and looked away.

I didn’t try Lou. There was no waking him.

And I didn’t bother them on their way out. I looked away too. I understand. They must go through this a lot. Everyone loves to be appreciated. But where do you take these fawning conversations once they start coming on?

So, last month, I went to see Marianne Faithfull – yet another wizened bad-ass – at Jazz at Lincoln Center. As I stood waiting in the lobby for my friend Steve, Lou Reed strolled off the elevator with a young but wised-up-looking bohemian vixen. (I’m not implying anything. I’m just saying what I saw.) He was wearing a full-length, black gortex coat with egg-shell white Nikes. This is what it’s come to. I looked at him. He looked at me looking at him. He had the aura of a bulwark standing against any and all intruders.

I said nothing. I sensed that, at the slightest hint of admiration, Lou would’ve told me to fuck off, and my thin skin is having a hard enough time holding up under the weight of all my anti-aging lotion, which I have been applying all the more liberally since that night.


* Although Plastic Ono Band is a masterwork, it only sold 600,000 copies, compared to Imagine (1971), which sold over 3,000,000 copies. Lennon credited Imagine‘s success to the title track. In his own words, “Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted. . . . Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” Come to think of it, that’s something I have to learn how to do.

** Julius is my Yoko Ono.

Laurie Anderson at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 27, 2008

The Bacchae with Alan Cumming and The National Theatre of Scotland proved a tough act for Laurie Anderson to follow in Lincoln Center Festival ’08, but Anderson proved much more a match than a follow-up to that excellent production. In her first Lincoln Center appearance since 2002, Laurie Anderson played the entire set of her 2008 album Homeland.

Anderson deliberately avoided fanfare by stepping on to the candlelit stage unannounced and immediately picking up her violin. The title Homeland derives from the government’s exploitation of the term “Homeland Security,” which juxtaposes coziness with bureaucracy and doom.

Anderson began her set by formulating a myth for the audience about a flock of birds who flew above the earth before there was such thing as land. With nowhere to land, all these birds ever did was fly around, fly around, fly around. There was nothing else to do, nothing to remember in the repetitive activity of simply flying. Then, one day, the father of one of the birds died. The flock had to bury him, but there was no land in which to inter the body. After careful consideration, the dead bird’s daughter decided to bury her father in the back of her head. And that, according to Anderson’s newly spun lore, is where Memory was born. Anderson, 61, has remarked that she weaves myths in this day and age to counter the trend of new mythology that the American government infuses into the post-9/11 media.

Shortly after introducing the Memory myth, Anderson began citing a roll call of American war crimes in the song, “Bad Guy.” The song ends with the words, “I would fly away/But the war is here to stay.” She continues stating, “the war is here to stay.”

There are whimsical bits to the show, however, such as one where she asks us to contemplate the role of underwear studs on Calvin Klein billboards. What would happen if those giant pictures on those billboards were to come to life? Would they march up LaFayette Street in their underwear and start crashing bars and stepping on cars? Even us angry liberals have to have a laugh sometimes. The media isn’t all American Pravda. Anderson doesn’t lose sight of how funny it is. If the earth is still around centuries from now, anthropologists will be busting a gut over what our beloved fashionistas’ sense of sexy was.

Anderson also made an unexpectedly positive statement about John McCain – although, knowing her music as well as I do, I would not be so quick to regard it as an endorsement. She mentions that John McCain once called Rush Limbaugh a clown. When a reporter asked McCain if he felt he should apologize for that remark, McCain said: “Yes. I’d like to apologize to all the clowns – Crusty, Bozo, and all other clowns – for lumping you all in with Rush Limbaugh.” Anderson neither elaborated on this anecdote nor did she make additional commentary on Obama. It remains somewhat of an enigma why she brought this McCain tidbit up in the first place.

Later, Anderson discussed former Texas Governor Ann Richards. She related how the NRA had advised all the women of Texas to carry handguns in their purses. Richards responded, “I’m not sexist, but I will declare that no woman in Texas will ever be able to find a handgun in her handbag.” Once again, the story went nowhere; it’s hard to piece together why Anderson inserted it at all.

Still and all, the music was brilliant with violin virtuoso Anderson playing alongside gifted musicians such as Joey Baron (percussion), Rob Burder (keyboard), Greg Cohen (bass), Eyvind Knag (viola).

Toward the end of the set, Anderson’s husband Lou Reed made a surprise appearance to accompany her on the 2008 songs “Lost Art of Conversation” and “No Man’s Land.” Time may have taken its toll on Reed’s looks but his guitar sounds just as good as it did in his Transformer days.

The entire Homeland experience reached the apex of sublimity for a rapt audience. Some of the drum-machine tempos brought back some of the best that the Eighties had to offer in its Talking Heads heyday, where Anderson played a vital, if underground, role. Anderson is a true artist who showcases her music for the purposes of communication and social and political inquiry, rather than as a fishing for applause (The Rolling Stones would do well to learn from her example – see my earlier blog on Shine A Light). The simplicity of the set, where there was candlelight but no video installations, threw the profundity of Anderson’s music and political message into full relief.

An arts reporter, who was interviewing Laurie Anderson about her new album and concert series, asked her, “Do you think people are afraid to speak out because they’ll be called un-American?” Anderson answered:

Yes, absolutely! And I find that extremely distressing especially now that the elections are going on and every candidate has his story about how the world works and what’s going on. And people are scrutinizing their stories. A war that will last a hundred years? Why is he telling that particular story? What’s behind it? But we live in a country that is very story savvy and it is the person who tells the best story who gets heard. And that’s what I’m interested in…I want to tell a better story, a truer story.