StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Break from Van Gogh

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 9, 2010

I’m back at Cocoa Bar. This time, I’m not supposed to be blogging.

I’m supposed to be working on the Van Gogh article. And I have been. For a while now. It’s just my attention is starting to drift.

As usual, I raised the jumps too high. I was just supposed to write about the exhibition but assigned myself a pile of books to read too. It’s time to just write the damned thing. How much can you read about Van Gogh without going crazy yourself?

Plus, the baristas Ipod has been set on the Stones for the past three hours. It makes me far too excited. I haven’t heard so many of these songs in years, especially late Sixties stuff like “She’s a Rainbow,” “2000 Light Years from Home,” “Paint It Black.” She’s flipping back and forth between the Sixties and Seventies and sometimes throwing in some Tattoo You (1981).

As an album, Goat’s Head Soup (1973) is pretty disappointing, especially when compared to its predecessor, Exile on Main Street (1972). Anemic as it is, though, I have fond memories of it. I first heard it when I was 16 and hanging out in a coffeehouse in the Rogers Park area of Chicago that was a lot like this one here in Brooklyn.  In those days, I was hanging out with all these asshole alterna-teens who thought they were better than everybody and used all sorts of big words, mostly out of context, whenever they could get them in edgewise. Naturally, they ignited in me a desire to find an alternative to alternative music and the Stones were always playing in that cafe and not only did they stand time’s test but they were sexier than anything that’d ever come after them.  So, Goat’s Head Soup was playing one afternoon and “Angie” came on.  I thought it was beautiful (I’m sure I’d heard it before but didn’t remember it) and then I overheard someone saying the song was about Mick’s love affair with David Bowie, which they kept in the closet and soon felt they had to abandon (“you can’t say we never tried”). This made me love the song even more and now the barista’s stirring up so many pictures of the past, playing it here.  (“Hide Your Love” and “Winter” are also kick-ass Goat’s Head Soup songs.)

But I got too attached to the Stones.  I thought too much of Mick.  (I even did lip push-ups to make my lips bigger.)  I thought I had to make my mark early (in what, I didn’t know) like he did.

And here I am, in my last two months of being 35, still writing in coffeehouses.  The Stones still playing. But what’s wrong with that?

I have to stop remembering a scene in the movie Lovely and Amazing (2001) where Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener), a struggling freelance arts-and-crafts artist in L.A., is trying to hawk her wares at a boutique that’s not interested in buying. As her pitch becomes more desperate, she turns around and runs smack into an old friend from middle school who gets the royal treatment as one of the store’s valued customers.  As Michelle chats with her, the former classmate’s beeper goes off. The classmate tells Michelle she’s a pediatrician and that now she has to rush to see a patient. Michelle is astounded that she’s a pediatrician, but the woman reminds her that they’re 36 now. To which Michelle responds, “Well, yeah, but we’re not…thirty-six, thirty-six.”

Did Van Gogh ever have an encounter like that?

Man, I gotta get out of Cocoa Bar quick!

Greenhorn of Africa (Part Four)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on October 20, 2009

A New York Navel-Gazer Looks at Botswana, South Africa

and Mozambique by Way of London

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Part Four

August 26, 2009 – Tubu Tree, Botswana; Savuti, Botswana

Pt 4 Lioness on Prowl


Julius goes on morning safari.  I stay in, read, write.  All come back w/ news that, ~ 1 mile from camp, carcass of impala hung from tree.  Lioness hunted it, tore out jugular, dragged it to tree & hung it up for stripping.  Also, saw rhino, which we saw yesterday.

Amsterdam Prostitute

Graham discusses how mating season w/ lions goes.  Lion mounts lioness, she allows sperm deposit but then whips him to ground.  2 mins later, he’s on another lioness and, 2 mins after that, another.  Sounds like trip to Amsterdam to me.

Garry Fisher Blood Moon

Graham gives me copy of mystery he’s finished reading, Blood Moon by Garry Disher.  Says it’s set near Melbourne.  No contender for Booker Prize.  Just good holiday read.  Also mentions liking work of Australian crime fiction writer Peter Temple.  Never heard of either.  Want to read more crime fiction, again, to learn plots.  Want to learn how to write better fiction.  Julia mentions book group favorite, The Slap by Greek writer named Christos Tsiolkas.  Coming away from Tubu Tree w/ extensive reading list that includes Booker Prize winner whom Graham regrets telling she couldn’t write.

Christmas in Australia

Lunch is on.  Buffet-style again: beef stew, rice, beans=basic.  Spend last few minutes @ camp observing Giles.  He talks about how Australia commemorates wintry aspect of Xmas with July 25 celebration, which coincides w/ subequitorial winter.  Hope he had happy Xmas last month and will have another in December.  Newlyweds from England (guy) & Australia (woman), both living in Singapore, sit on own side of table.  We don’t interfere w/ honeymoon – those always end too soon.

tubu tree outside jpg

Julius & I say goodbye to Jacky, Justin, Giles, Graham & Julia.  Julius has Graham & Julia’s email.  Both want us to keep them apprized of when my book will be in print.  Well, gotta get a publisher first, but Tubu Tree was enough to take my mind off anxiety around that.  W/ 6” of sunscreen on skin, clap safari hat on head, climb in jeep, where bags already waiting, & drive off to Okavango Delta airstrip w/ Johnny.

Okavanga Delta Airstrip

Once there, we wait for plane to Savuti Camp.  Plane is late.

Waiting around in shade but hot out.  Julius takes out iPhone, clicks on iPod, turns on Exile on Main Street, my favorite album, which he downloaded.  Asks Johnny if he likes this kind of music.  W/ most pleasant smile he can muster, Johnny says, “I like softer music.”

La Boheme

Julius puts on La Boheme. Johnny likes it.  I say La Boheme = one of stupidest plots in opera – Rodolfo confesses everlasting love for Mimi (chick he met 10 mins ago), she leaves him next day & comes back to his garret dying of tuberculosis many mos later & Rodolfo says he’ll never love again.  Julius insinuates that I’m a churl/cad for thinking this.

Charter flight arrival

Charter Flight arrives.  Say goodbye to Johnny; show our appreciation for his stellar hospitality & savoir-faire around game parks.  Don’t know how any camp will measure up to Tubu Tree.  Board plane, bracing myself slightly but not so scared of flight after chat w/ Alan.  12 passengers going to/from various camps on board.  Pilot gives pre-flight instrucs.  Mentions “comfort bag” in front of each seat.  Euphemisms never cease, do they?

Plane over Okavanga

Doing pretty well on way to Linyanti Marsh.  Only close eyes through ~ ½ trip as plane sways aboveground.  But woman next to me reaches for “comfort bag,” sticks head in.  Fear chain reaction, praying plane lands soon.  Prayer answered & turns out woman never needed to puke in comfort bag.

Savuti Jeep

S. African guide named Ant picks us up on way to Savuti Camp, located @ confluence of Savuti Channel & Linyanti River.  B/f leaving Linyanti Marsh airstrip, Ant mentions has surprise for us.  Says we’ll be meeting special guest.  Gets on CB, asks colleague, “Is she still there?”  Colleague says, yes.  Ant says, “Can you tell us who we’re going to see?”

Madonna in Africa

Julius and others answer, “Madonna?”  Even Ant says = reasonable guess in this phase of pop singer’s life but, “No,” he says, “Better than Madonna.”

lioness with cubs

Jeep pulls out, travels ~ 1 mi. over to brush, where lioness sleeps w/ her cub.  Snapping pix all around her, she doesn’t flinch.  Amazing how animals not in least intimidated by jeeps.

No natives greet us w/ song upon arrival @ camp, except for non-singing woman named Carrie, native Botswanan who’s whiter than I am.  Don’t know her story, except she says Afrikaans parents settled in Botswana ~ time of her birth & she’s never lived anywhere else.  Camp appears to be 3 Xs size Tubu Tree w/ log ramps gliding for city block in network of deluxe cabins.

Savuti Common Area

Staff takes us to common area, overlooking Savuti channel, where few dozen guests from America & Europe congregate, drinking Iced Tea, munching on lemon cookies & baklava.  We sign indemnity form like we did @ Tubu Tree, tho don’t fear mortal injury since having experienced no incidents when driving right up to wild animals.  Woman who was about to use comfort bag has just arrived, finds me, introduces herself as Jane from Seattle; says I looked ready to grab my comfort bag too.  I deny it.

Linyanti River

Savuti Cabin

Our cabin looks out on to Linyanti River, which reflects moss-green marshes & weeping willows.  2 Xs big as Tubu Tree cabin.  Canopied bed w/ mosquito netting, looks like accessory in sultry moment in old French-Indochina, tho danger of mosquitoes this time of year = minimal.  (Mosquitoes = annoying in America but often disease-ridden in Africa.)  Open shower on concrete floor.  Must keep valuables in safe, tho.  No danger of thieves, but squirrels get in through slats & gnaw thru bags.

Afternoon Safari

Before embarking on afternoon safari, I have a chat w/ guide-trainee from neighboring village named Tony.  Says being accepted to guide program = competitive.  Out of the 4 applicants, only 2 made it.  Tony obviously hasn’t experienced NYC-style competitive.  He must be ~ 19 yrs old.  Farthest outside Botswana he’s been = Zimbabwe.  Wants so much to go to America.

botswana money

Says will lose most of $ to $-changers when comes to exchanging Botswanan pula for US dollars.

In jeep w/ 3 people from D.C. – Frank, Ann, Mike.  Frank = lawyer, Mike’s friend.  Mike = lawyer, Ann’s husband.  Ann = lawyer-cum-executive coach.  Ask re: her practice.  Says focuses heavily on Myers-Brigg.  I’m an INFJ.  She’s the opposite – an ESTP.  We spend rest of ride discussing theories of personality.

Savuti Leopard

savuti singular elephant

Savuti jackal

Savuti Wildebeest

See leopard, rhinos, jackals, elephants, wildebeest (stay hunched all day long).  Most engaging of all, tho, our jeep & 2 other jeeps pull up to lions feasting on buffalo:

Savuti Lion Feasting

Savuti Lion Feasting 1

Pix snapping all around them & couldn’t care less.

Savuti Lion Feasting 3

Savuti Lion Feasting 4

Then there were the hippos.  They can dunk their heads under water for 8 to 10 minutes at a time:

Savuti Hippo

Savuti Hippo 2

And the Savuti sunset:

Savuti Sunset


Buffet-style dinner @ Savuti.  Hummus w/ pita, beef stew, chicken, pork dishes (latter I ignore).  Drinking hulking glass of Merlot.  Sit w/ Ann & husband Mike.

Bernie Madoff

Discuss Bernie Madoff.  How could he get away w/ it for so long?  His sons turned him in.  Why?  Was it family arrangement?  Madoff taking whole sentence to clear rest of family?  Another Botswanan guide named Chet hasn’t heard news.  Wants to know who Madoff is & what he did.

Seems shocked that one can make so much $ in America like America.  Talks about how he wants to come to America, just like Tony.  Some former guests from LA invited Chet.  He’s saving up.

Fleet Street London

Meet Loku, a camp employee from just outside Sheffield, England (birth name: Nick).  Comes up in conversation he doesn’t understand American obsession w/ always having to get more degrees/letters after one’s name.  Turns out, tho, he graduated from Oxford.  After college, went to work in mktng dept of London Times.  Couldn’t’ve been more miserable, so logged on to Internet to look up jobs in Africa.  Found NGO that worked to preserve rhino population of Africa.  After lil back-&-forth, found himself on plane bound for Botswana & got job.  In course of working there, he met people @ various camps, who asked him to help out w/ some work here & there.  Work accumulated to the point where Savuti asked him to come on staff.  Been in Botswana 13 yrs, doesn’t know what’s next & doesn’t care too much.

Savuti Fire

So nice to meet successful rat-race refugee.  Julius & I drink champagne w/ him till about midnight, talking about favorite areas of London & naughty things that naughty Brits get up to.  Too stunned by Botswana’s beauty to discuss it right now.

August 27, 2009 – Savuti Camp, Botswana

Savuti elphants watering hole


Let Julius go ahead w/o me on morning safari.  Wrote journals, read Elegance of Hedgehog instead.  Saw squirrel in cabin.  Don’t mind.  Just want make sure it has way out, don’t want going crazy & tearing things up w/ sharp lil claws.  @ lunch, jump in jeep w/ Loku.  Driving out to lunch site miles away.  Had to change lunch site @ last minute.; herd of elephants showed up & might upset balance b/t man & nature if we sat @ tables & ate w/ them.

China Flag

Loku says China ~ dominant in world economy.  Chinese taking over Africa.  Telling local governments they’ll build hospitals, schools & highways in exchange for land.  Many questions if they’re making good on their part of the bargain.  America’s economy still in recession, tho.  Is America a crumbling empire?  We discuss, don’t know, maybe.  Whatever happens, our old way of doing business = untenable.  Both applaud ourselves for eschewing corporate culture.

elephant with kid

As we speak, herd of elephants marches into a gigantic mud puddle to our left.  2 are young & injured.  Both have severed trunks & bandied legs.  Hyenas probably got them.  Loku has seen them out here before, didn’t think they’d last this long.  Older elephants form circle around them, feed them branches & leaves from trees, ensure safety in herd.

Elephant Mudhole

Several elephants roll around in mud, let it bake on to their hides in sun.

savuti picnic

Loku & I drive to new picnic site.  Others pull up in jeeps, including Julius.  Lunch buffet much same as yesterday, except for addition of beef kebabs, chickpeas, & omelet option.  Again, I opt for St. Louis Lager.  Julius & I sit @ end of table.  As we eat & talk to many of the other 20 or so guests, the elephant herd from mud puddle crosses over hills & marches w/i only a dozen or so yards of us.

elephant and baby

The matriarch sounds her trunk-horn.  Trees shake.  Sensing we’re just picnickers, not hunters, she gives signal to our guide Ant that we’ll get along fine as long as we stay on our side of the mud lake next to us.  10 or so elephants tumble into mud, roll around, frolic, stand in sun.  Avoiding incident, we clear away from table, give them space.  No incident.  Herd goes about its business, takes last stand in sun, & walk over to other hill, injured young in tow.

Series continues with Part Five: Johannesburg

Irina Palm

Posted in Film by streetlegalplay on October 22, 2008

This was a WONDERFUL movie. A sleeper of the first rank. I picked it up several weeks ago from Reel Life Video and have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

Irina Palm is a Brecht drama for a new century.

Marianne Faithfull plays Maggie, a frumpy widow who lives in a village in the exurbs of London. Her grandson Olly is dying of a rare disease for which he can only receive treatment in Melbourne, Australia. Yet Olly’s parents are working class and cannot afford the cost of travel and other expenses. Maggie takes it upon herself as grandmother to raise the money even though she has no work history and almost no collateral by which to secure a loan. She goes to bank after bank and placement agency after placement agency in London, but nobody will give her a job or a loan.

That is, until she wanders into Sexy World, a sex club in the Soho District that is advertising for a “hostess.” Maggie meets Miki (actor, Miki Manojlovic), the club-owner who explains that, at Sexy World, “hostess” is a euphemism for “whore.” He asks Maggie if he can see her hands. Reluctantly, she complies and Miki finds himself favorably impressed by their texture before Maggie pulls her hands away. She walks out of the interview mortified but, recognizing the gravity of her grandson’s condition, returns the next day.

With evident misgivings, Miki offers her the job and takes her into the room where she will be working. It will be Maggie’s job to give handjobs to paying customers from the other side of a glory hole. With some training, Maggie finds that she is a natural at her new line of work and, by her second week on the job, men queue up all the way down the hall for her favors. They don’t see Maggie and thus do not realize that they’re getting their rocks off in a matronly grandmother’s hand. (The film does not show any penises and, as far as I can tell, the handjobs were simulated.) Within a short time, johns of all stripes agree that the faceless woman behind the wall has “the best hand in London.” Miki cashes in on Maggie’s fame by setting up a flashing marquee featuring Maggie’s newly assigned stage-name, “Irina Palm.” Upon inheriting this sobriquet, the hitherto unemployable widow finds herself pulling down 600 to 800 pounds a week.

At first, Maggie keeps her sex-worker status a secret from family and friends. Actually, it would be a stretch to call the women in Maggie’s social circle friends. They’re little more than a band of gossipy, bourgeois village housewives with whom she plays bridge once a week. They freeze Maggie out of their small talk, show little concern for updates on her grandson’s failing health and make it clear that, as a widow with dwindling resources, she is no longer of their station. Still, having no other friends, Maggie has somberly endured their company throughout the years. Now that she harbors a secret life as Irina Palm, however, she is too discomfited to return any of her frivolous friends’ phone calls or even speak to them on the street.

Her grandson’s health soon takes a turn for the worse and the family can no longer postpone his surgery. Maggie goes to Miki and divulges the crisis at hand. He informs her that, unbeknownst to her, he has “tried her out” and knows her talents. Naturally, this news dismays Maggie but she puts her mounting chagrin aside to press Miki for a 6000 pound loan for 10 more weeks of work. After much prodding, he agrees to her terms. Maggie gives the money to her son Tom (Kevin Bishop, L’Auberge Espagnole) and his wife in a lump sum, all the while refusing to reveal where and how she got the money.

After performing many unsuccessful interrogations, Tom resorts to tailing his mother on the commuter train to London and the Tube to Oxford Circus, only to find her walking into her job at Sexy World.

I won’t reveal what erupts as a result of this climax in Irina Palm (!). I will, however, disclose that ironically, as a result of her smutty practices, Maggie steps into her power and discovers that she contains the strength, valor and love to defy society in order to save her grandson’s life.

In two particular scenes toward the end, Maggie’s newfound strength emboldens her to renounce her outworn associations with the village women more powerfully than Hester Pryne and Proust’s Odette de Crecy, combined. If I ever manage to tell someone off like that, I don’t know how I’d keep the buttons on my shirt.

Irina Palm is a true, if unlikely, triumph of the human spirit.

And who better to play Maggie than Marianne Faithfull? After Mick Jagger made a mockery of their love in the late Sixties and The Rolling Stones cheated her out of royalties as co-writer of “As Tears Go By” and “Sister Morphine,” she grappled with the travails of addiction, depression and even homelessness. Faithfull is an artist who plummeted to and pulled herself out of the depths more impressively than any other major voice in music. She is a chanteuse sans pareil who sings from a soul marked by abysmal defeat and soaring redemption. What she’s lost in beauty since the days when London was her kingdom and Mick her king, she has recouped a thousandfold in soul and substance. Marianne Faithfull is a Brechtian goddess and she delivers a devastating performance as Maggie.

Even her speaking voice is exquisite, a rare trait among singers these days. If I could swing it, I’d walk around speaking in her smoky, raspy trill all day long. In fact, I tried a few weeks ago but Julius threatened to have me committed to Bellevue. Alas, that ended that phase.

But not even Julius could deny the greatness of Sam Garbarski’s Irina Palm. We both heartily recommend adding it to your next round of rentals.

Assignment: Smith, Mapplethorpe

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 16, 2008

White Horse Magazine, which covers the international art scene, liked the writings on my site!

(By the way, I’m at Somebody has to teach me how to embed hyperlinks.)

They asked me to make a few pitches. They jumped right on the one I made about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

This past May, Julius and I were in Paris. We went to see Land 250, an exhibition of Patti Smith’s visual work at the Fondation Cartier.

Smith had gone on a sojourn in Paris at some point in the Seventies, partly to track the pathways of Arthur Rimbaud whom she deified. The exhibition featured, under glass cases, a dossier of correspondence (letters, postcards) from Smith to Mapplethorpe, who stayed behind in New York. Most of them contained elegies to Rimbaud.

There was an installment that was a recreation of her erstwhile bedroom, laden with graffiti and stacked with books of Symbolist poetry and notebooks filled with half-finished apocaclyptic odes.

There were whole walls full of Symbolist-inspired video, where Smith looked as though she was going to go cold turkey at any moment while raucous jam sessions pounded all around her on the East Village streets.

Mapplethorpe filmed other black and white videos of Patti in a virginal white nightgown, a direct contrast to her ratty black hair. The camera would zoom in and out as she writhed on the floor or spun in a trance with a Crucifix in her hand or held private ceremonies over large, burning red candles. Mapplethorpe’s home videos of Smith played up the macabre ad absurdum.

Not much would happen in those videos either and they seemed to go on forever, just like an Andy Warhol movie.

Which brings me a little closer to my pitch to White Hot Magazine. Both Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe (I don’t know if the two ever met) were gay iconoclasts from devout Catholic homes who seized on iconic rock stars. For Warhol, it was the Velvets and the Stones. For Mapplethorpe, it was Patti Smith, though he knew her well before she became famous.

It seemed to me that the themes of saints and martyrdom suffuse even Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s most outrageous work. In fact, Warhol admitted that, in his images of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination, he’d deliberately depicted her as the mater dolorosa of America.

Shortly after Julius and I came back from our trip to France, we went to the Whitney Biennial. (That event is not worth my blog time here.) While at the Whitney, we went up to see the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Goddamn, that was hard core! Just like in his Guggenheim room, Mapplethorpe made Tom of Finland look like a Peanuts cartoon. But, especially in his S&M shots, there is tons of imagery of martyrdom, much of which seems to be in direct reference to St. Sebastian – the tied-up, loin-clothed, arrow-pierced saint whose picture inspired Yukio Mishima’s first orgasm at the age of 12.

Once again, Patti was plastered all over the walls of his exhibit. And it occurred to me that she might have been a sort of a perverted, Symbolist saint for Mapplethorpe, though more of a Magdalene than a Madonna figure.

So, I told White Hot Magazine that I wanted to explore that Symbolist saint dynamic in Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Patti Smith. They ate it up.

So, tomorrow, Julius and I are taking a field trip to the Mapplethorpe Room at the Guggenheim. Then, on Monday, I’d better get my ass to the library and make sure I can stand this thesis on its legs.

It’s due September 10.

HAIR at The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park and “Pseudo-Lysergic”

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 26, 2008

So, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times had his misgivings about The Public Theatre’s 40th-Anniversary Production of Hair at Shakespeare in the Park, but, methinks he was just being his usual contrarian self. Especially in the wake of The Public’s watered-down Hamlet this summer, Hair was a tour-de-force of high dimension.

A high dimension albeit not the highest, let’s just get the downside out of the way first. I’ve always found the first few scenes of Act I to be Godspell-silly with their Romper Room antics and Muppet Babies, hippy-skippy sing-a-longs. The social taboos of long hair, drugs, and free love pale beside the follow-ups of punk, Studio 54, crack babies and the AIDS crisis. The Nude scene could probably even make prime-time TV in the 2000s. But, then as now, we are a nation stumbling under the weight of a criminal war and the environmental ruin presaged in the song “Air,” so there is a certain currency to Hair’s staging today.

The pluses far outweigh the minuses. The performances resurrected an era, which, while it preceded my birth, also – through its music and images – helped form so much of my consciousness and so many of my political, social and spiritual ideals. To depict Washington Square and Central Park, the Public set out astroturf before the bandstand, where the prodigious musicians were swaddled in Age of Aquarius, Stevie Nicks drag. The gorgeous Will Swenson embodied Berger, the New Jersey drop-out, in all his grungy idealism, just as Bryce Ryness did with the swishier character of Woof whose questionable sexual orientation The Public did not disguise. As a matter of fact, The Public did a delectable job of simulating center-stage daisy chains and sideshow gay make-outs for an age that’s jaded enough to take it. The dry cunilingus was a salient ornament to the polemic “Sodomy,” which Swenson deftly reinterpreted before the crowd. These upgrades kept the show from disintegrating into pure nostalgia.

Mick and Keith 1975

Mick and Keith 1975

(By the way, the poster that Claude hands Woof (not the one above but something like it) of Mick Jagger was from 1975, eight years after Hair was first produced. Mick had already gone from a hippy to a glam god. That was one little directorial anachronism, but I guess you had to be Stones-aholic like me to catch it, so no harm done.)

Jonathan Groff played Claude Bukowski, the protagonist who experiences the greatest identity crisis and risk of any member of his Tribe. He’s the Polish Catholic boy from Flushing, who walks around with an English accent in front of his assimilationist parents, who are all too proud to hand him his draft card when it comes in the mail. Tony Award-winning Groff (Spring Awakening) may not be able to boast Swenson or Ryness’ magnificent bodies (he performed with his shirt on the whole time), but his voice filled Central Park with every bit as much bravura soulfulness as it did the amphitheater where, as far as I could tell, everyone sat enraptured.

Speaking of voices, good God! Dig that Patina Renea Miller on “Aquarius” and Saycon Sengbloh on “Four Score and Seven Years Ago”/”Abie Baby”! These were divas to the nth-degree. I’m hoping to God that I see them in more productions around town.

Naturally, Act I sparked all sorts of audible compare-and-contrast-then-and-now conversations by the concession stand at intermission. Some greenies asked why we don’t have the same wave of protest against Iraq today. Well, the most obvious answer is that we don’t have the Draft today, so young Americans’ lives aren’t as directly endangered. Secondly, we’ve seen how the hippies were too stoned to stop the war and how, on balance, those trippy zombies didn’t end up wearing so well ten years down the line. One only has to watch a few Bally’s commercials to understand that, for better or for worse, self-preservation appeals to today’s culture in ways that it didn’t to the Flower Children.

Last year, though, I did a review for Edge Magazine of Peter O. Whitmer’s Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counter-Culture That Changed America, where William S. Burroughs rails against people who claim that the Sixties didn’t accomplish anything: “They don’t seem to realize that [in the 1940s], four-letter words did not appear on printed pages…the idea that a Mexican or a black or a queer was anything but a second-class citizen was simply absurd.” But Burroughs also said, “The 1960s stuff about solving the world’s problems through peace and love and nonviolence – I said then that the only way to give flowers to the police was in a pot from a high window.”

One of the things that amuses me most about the hippies are their concepts of meditation and all their woo-woo talk around it. I have been a meditator for over ten years and I’ve never found it to be about “mystic crystal revelations,” levitation, and astral projection. In fact, most of the time, it’s searing, boring, frustrating. A regular practice of meditation requires tremendous exertion (and it’s worth every pang). Clearly, most of these people didn’t have a daily practice.

I even wrote a short-memoir piece about my old, Sixties-inspired take on meditation called “Pseudo-Lysergic.” I’ll even post it below.

But, before I do, let me exhort you to see Hair! It is intoxicating and sensual. You’ll be so electrified, you’ll stand up screaming out of your seat, if not jumping on stage to sing and dance (a permissable act) by play’s end.

And now, “Pseudo-Lysergic” by Kyle Thomas Smith:


(read at The Interdependence Project, September 2006)

By Kyle Thomas Smith

This morning, after I meditated, I took the subway and reflected on how the experience of meditation is often similar to the one you hear on the “Revolution #9” track of The White Album. Riots, parades, protests, peccadilloes, fires, bombings, orchestras, orgasms, sci-fi scenes – all rising and falling, ebbing and flowing with each inhalation and exhalation, each coming and going of breath – rising and falling – like the emcee’s mantra: “Number 9…Number 9…Number 9.” Incidentally, Charles Manson envisioned the apocalypse happening to the same tune. I shudder to think that my mind is joined with his, but, if we’re all interconnected, interpenetrated, and interdependent, then I guess mine would have to be. But, by the same logic, my mind would also have to be linked with those of the Beatles, both dead (like John and George) and alive (like Paul and Ringo).

The Beatles were the ones who first turned me on to the idea of meditation. I was 12 years old and watching A Current Affair. They had a special on the spiritual practices of celebrities. They flashed to a picture of the Fab Four, where they were all propped up, cross-legged, on cushions and surrounded by a harem of British blondes in a genie-bottle room. The narrator said: “At their creative peak, The Beatles explored eastern religions, studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi.” This scandalized my parochial schoolboy mind.

My family was Catholic of Irish descent. You didn’t leave your religion. That would land you in hell as sure as pre-marital sex or masturbation would, neither one of which I’d attempted yet, apart from a few feels. The Beatles started out as Liverpool Protestants. That afforded them so much more freedom than I knew, growing up in the archdiocese of Chicago. Protestants had flouted Rome’s authority long ago. They were not bound by the same rules as I. They were free to explore. Oh, how I coveted their freedom! On the sly, I asked around the neighborhood and heard that meditation could be used as a substitute for LSD. I didn’t want to do drugs and end up like the burn-outs in the park, but I did want to trip, so this was good news.

That was 1987, the summer Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released on CD with the sales slogan, “It Was 20 Years Ago Today,” commemorating the album’s 20th Anniversary. My brother Kent bought it the same afternoon it hit the racks. At the time, I didn’t know what meditation was, but I sensed it had something to do with what I was about to start a habit of doing: cueing up my brother’s Sergeant Pepper’s CD and closing my eyes as I leaned up against my bedroom wall, never stopping my mind from wandering into a pseudo-lysergic trance.

Well, that was just shy of twenty years ago to the day. On the F train out of Brooklyn this morning, I put my hands in a Cosmic Mudra, breathed deeply and contemplated how much has changed for me since then. Today, I’m a member of a Buddhist sangha. Formal meditation has become the mainstay of my everyday life. I’m a writer. I live in New York. I’m openly gay. I never even had to drop acid or become a burn-out or a Mansonite to acquire this freedom, just as I’d suspected.

But, then, meditation is not what I’d suspected. It’s not a means of escape. It’s a means of presence. You train in keeping your mind from wandering by bringing it back to the vacuous narration of the breath – over and over and over again. Once, I would have considered anything that curbs imaginative transports to be nothing less than fascist. But now I see that, in the present moment, to which our breath binds us back again and again, there exists a kaleidoscopic experience – more luscious than Strawberry Fields – that you never would have had if you’d allowed your mind to go too far afield. So, my thanks to the Beatles for loosening my shackles, giving me vision and starting me on this path. And my love to the Interdependence Project for helping to fine-tune my vehicle and for accompanying me on this most meaningful of journeys.

Shine A Light (A Review for Edge Magazine)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 22, 2008

I just submitted the following review of Scorcese’s Shine A Light to Edge Magazine. I gave it a grade of D+.

No Security

The Rolling Stones - No Security (1998)

In 1998, The Rolling Stones released No Security, a live album that was one-hundred percent better than the studio album its tour was based on (Bridges to Babylon, 1997). The album cover features a concert photo of a long-haired, tattooed road hog, smoking a cigarette and wearing a sleeveless Stones-Lips t-shirt. Next to him is his girlfriend, a tattooed, body-pierced, anorexic road warrior with jet-black hair. This was the Stones! This was the band that released Exile on Main Street, that presided over murder and mayhem at Altamont. No Security was their best album in 17 years and the band hadn’t sounded better in 25 years.

I was at one of those shows. On stage, Mick Jagger was Dionysus himself, stirring all us male, female and gender-bending bacchae into a warped frenzy. Keith Richards pounded out licks on his rhythm guitar that were more thrilling than any battery-operated stimulant known to man or woman. Like Dylan with his last three albums, the Stones proved in one fell swoop that age means nothing; that, at any age, true rock geniuses can kick out the jams if they want to.

The key phrase there is “if they want to.” For that same 1998 tour, PBS filmed a Stones concert at the St. Louis TWA Dome that had all the sinister menace of an ice-cream social. There were no Hell’s Angels working security. There were no savage groupies rushing the stage. Mick and Keith worked the crowd of grownups with about as much daring as a clown at a First Communion party. And it’s not that they’re too old for their old antics now. Like I said, I was at one of the 1998 shows where they at least came close to replicating their Seventies salaciousness. What happened was that the Stones had sold out, become house-broken and user-friendly.

And I’m afraid they gave Martin Scorcese’s Shine A Light the same PBS-treatment. You know you’ve blunted your own edge to a dull death when your emcee is Bill Clinton in his tailored suit; when Hillary is just dying to introduce her elderly mother to your band. This film was shot live at an August 2006 charity concert for the William J. Clinton Foundation (on Clinton’s birthday) at the 2,800-seat Beacon Theater in New York City. The cost per ticket for this intimate affair ran into the thousands. Thus, I doubt the good folks on the No Security cover and their ilk were in attendance. Watching this exquisitely filmed benefit, however, you do see a lot of Susie Sunshine blondes and Midtown investment-banker types. You also see from the close-ups of their faces that they know almost none of the words to the songs.

Now, Mick can still move and Keith can still play. Mick still shakes that 23-inch waist for all its worth and Keith hooks into his chords something fierce. But while Mick’s voice has kept up, he bungles lyrics left and right and censors out many of the politically incorrect verses that helped make The Stones the bad boys of rock n’ roll. And please, Keith, don’t sing! You can’t remember the words and you look like you’re going to nod out over the mic. Stick to guitar! The playlist is perfect – “Loving Cup” (duet with Jack White, The White Stripes), “All Down the Line,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Brown Sugar,” “Some Girls” – but it’s all delivered with the verve of Peter, Paul and Mary. And why did Mick pick a pop tart like Christina Aguilera to duet with on, “Live With Me”? She’s got a voice, I’ll give her that, but no grit. The Stones should stick to blues and soul powerhouses like Buddy Guy, who gave us the one true-grit moment of the film, where he and Mick croon out Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer.”

Scorcese meant well. He did a great job of directing and editing too. But he picked the wrong show to film. Scorcese intersperses into the film ample Sixties and Seventies interviews with Mick, Keith, and drummer Charlie Watts. In some, Mick is making nice with British authority figures who find the Stones’ music and influence too ribald. (If you ask me, Mick has carried this diplomacy way too far, especially over the past couple decades. Artists shouldn’t have to apologize for their work.) In several other clips, you see the Stones as twenty and thirty-something rockers, fielding questions from interviewers who want to know how long the band thinks it can keep its act up. Okay, Marty, we get the point! They’re old and they’ve lasted! Can we move on now? Scorcese also films the opening sequences of Shine A Light in black-and-white, as if to harken back to the Stones’ salad days in Swinging London, an era which birthed timeless black-and-white rock films like Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back. But The Stones aren’t living their 1960s glory now that they’re in their sixties.

Nor should they. Lest I leave the wrong impression, let me make clear that I’m not asking the Stones to do more X-Rated shows or start barroom brawls. For the past 15 years, what I’ve been asking them to do is precisely what they did in the Buddy Guy sequence of Shine A Light: Go back to your blues roots, Stones. Do what Dylan’s doing. Slow it down. Don’t try keeping up with know-nothing young bucks (though I do like The White Stripes – good choice there). Dig deep for soulful songs again. Stop pandering to stadium effects; you got enough money already.