Thursday, July 30, 2015

Theater Dreams

  I was in a shoe box last week. A theater the size of a shoe box. On Melrose Ave -the busier, noisier, trendier section of Melrose. 
   And by trendy I mean utterly behind the times. It's something you notice as you get older - big cities create these eddies that gather old trends and sustain them or ....eddies of nostalgia form in big cities because there's so much capital - human as well as corporate- and the human tide of it never stops. Never stops wanting to buy an old dream they heard started here. 
   The Ramones, or Guns and Roses, or NWA, or Patti Smith... The Cure... There are enough people walking the streets of New York or LA or London to convince you it's the year the week the day you first heard them and fell in love. 
   And every year enough kids come from the hinterlands to maintain the fire. 
    I missed all this because thank God, I was in a black box. 
   One of those lovely, tiny theaters you can't believe grown men and women use to perform in. Four steps to cross from the back wall and trod the feet of your audience. How in God's name could this place be used for Shakepeare or Ibsen or anyone else? 
   I've seen people stand up to give a toast in dining rooms bigger than this. More suited to the epic. 
   My local bar has better acoustics. 
   Last year I watched the High School students of Saltsburg PA, population 896, perform Bye Bye Birdie in a theater that held ....well 896. 
  When I was in college my black box was twice the size of this LA equity space, had better lighting and had wings to hide in and move things through rather than the exit door this place had to get you to the parking lot. 
   What a change is this. 
   You're a teenager, you're 20, and you're performing in a space the likes of which no one but the luckiest, finest Broadway or West End actors will ever see. 
   And then you become a professional. You work in this mad business, for what's called a living, and you ply your trade in a room you could rent from Guardian Storage. 
   Which is not room enough and continent to hide the slain ( ambitions of your adolescence). 
   It's an acting class. We meet once a week. We perform a scene our teacher's assigned us and then listen to his advice. 4 hours. Next pair, next pair after that. Every Monday. 
   12 of us in the space, a third of which is roped off to protect the props of the show running the other 6 nights of the week. 
   A soft glow on the raked floor. Everyone looks better on a stage well lit. Our teacher's an old pro, started with Steppenwolf in Chicago and made his way to LA where he's made a life half what he was raised to be, half what the business makes you. 
   I noticed as he spoke that the walls of the theater were cinder block. About the worst thing you can hope for soundwise. They were painted black and the ceiling was maybe 9 feet. 
  The chairs of the theater were recycled movie seats from the old days, with that red brushy plush penned into a metal frame, so fun to play with when you're five. Or 45. 
 Running above the last row of seats along all 3 walls - it's a 3/4s stage- the black paint seemed to have been worn down, almost to a silver. Above each seat. Little pale halos. 
   And I realized, that's the audience leaning back. Where they'd lain their heads listening to Hamlet, or Trigorin, or Miss Julie or some mad kid's latest rant. The very oil of them resting on the walls. Still there. 
   And every cliche I've ever been told still seemed true - that it doesn't matter how big the theater is or how much you get paid, the only magic to the thing is how you get thru to those people. Thru the cloud of language and feeling and drive you gather amongst yourselves any given night. 
   Like I said - big cities let these eddies gather. Mine's just a little less marketable. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Fryman Canyon LA

    Los Angeles has a series of pocket parks that run along both sides of the Hollywood and Beverly Hills ridgeline. If you look at a map they seem to hang from Mulholland drive - flanking green patches scattered between the massif of Griffith Park and the immensity of the Santa Monica preserve west of the 405.
If all you did was drive by them, you'd never know they were there.
I didn't for years.
They're Godsends. Public space hidden within the tightly guarded real estate of West LA.
They're great because once you're inside them you can smell California and not California traffic.
California flora when it bakes in the sun for weeks and months has a kind of intoxicating tang. It's neither sweet nor acrid, it's a little of both. Some eucalyptus oil poured over cooked desert flowers and the rich bark of live oaks. The air warmed with this atomized duff.
  And because there's so little water, scent is reduced to what it actually is - an inhalant, particles of things, living and dead, coating the lining of your mouth and your nose. Which all seems a little creepy, but California's creepy. It's an absurdly beautiful and absurdly cruel landscape. It's attractive and dangerous. It's rich beyond measure and dumbfoundingly wasteful. And you read all this in a glance. As was said about a famous Hollywood magnate "he won't stab you in the back he'll stab you in the chest." So goes the Golden State.
   The same thing occurs when you first cross the Mojave, or see El Capitan, or crest the Techapi pass and there's the Central Valley, or stand beneath the surf at Half Moon Bay, or enter a room at Universal with 10 executives who control your fate and a network that spans the globe....the reaction is twofold... "my God what power". And ...."I'm gonna die here."
   But in a tiny twisting little park, hanging off the back of the Hollywood Hills, cut between estates and cul de sacs you can enjoy California lite and get a decent work out among shrubbery and trees that once in awhile obscure the fact you are dead center of a 7 million person metropolis.
  Which is something that always astounds me.
   I was on the return leg of my loop and, for 30 minutes, I saw and passed no one.
   Not a single person.
   I can't quite wrap my head around this fact; that you can still find yourself alone in LA, or New York, or San Fran or any of these mega cities, it just doesn't seem likely, but then there you are, following a trail, riding thru Central Park at 10 pm, crossing the Golden Gate in a decent wind, and somehow you are the only one there.
   It's a gift. A little grace parceled out to each city and I suppose if you seek enough your karma it sometimes finds you.
   At the far end of my loop I'd gone searching for a special spot, a sort of box canyon some friends had shown me years before. You had to climb past what supposedly was George Clooney's old house lined with security cameras, and then up a steep staircase, weave along a trail which ran below more mansions, one of which was the beauty built by Jennifer Aniston for Brad Pitt that ended up being the empty shell built to honor Angelina Jolie's beauty. But 3/4's of a mile on you'd find a place where water almost always ran, real water not sewage, coming off the escarpment of LA and creating a tiny tropical corner. Maybe half an acre but in there everything is green. The eucalyptus trees are 100 feet tall, the Oaks three people at the base couldn't get their arms around. The place seems just a little bit like home, back East, where parks should have trees and trees and trees not just scrub.
  It was still there, still green, or "greenish" as California's drought has turned all its dirt to a dust as fine as sand on the moon and its plant life into a kind of kindling, but the stream was running and the leaves on the ground were alive. I felt like I was in a borrowed version of Frick Park, the city park in Pittsburgh I most like to pretend I can still get lost in. So I lingered, I saw the remains of a rope swing my friends and I had used 10 years before, laughing that we still loved this shit at our age. I wanted to grab it now.
  And then George Clooney walked by.
 I looked up when I heard someone coming toward me. Saw an older man, pretty fit, knee braces, silver back hair, led by one of those fabulous dogs only the coolest people keep- half husky, half something with half an ear gone and one eye blue, one yellow. A dog that looks like it's always smiling. And a dog that looks like it could drag you out of a crevasse.
   Of course it wasn't Clooney it was that other guy who looks like Clooney but even more like an ex football player from the 70s, not quite big enough but bigger than you, the duller Clooney clone who didn't quite get the parts - you'd know him if you saw him.
   I said something like "Now that's a dog." and the guy half smiled and I thought, yeah I'm wearing my Steeler's shirt and either you get "GO PITTSBURGH!!!!"  or you get that quiet jealous smirk from all the losers who somehow decided to throw in with Oakland or Dallas or Denver and he was one of the latter. So big deal.
   And then I realized, No, he's not smiling because for a few minutes he'd been alone and blissful and then this dude showed up who looked like that actor from...."Well, you'd know him if you saw him", he probably told his wife when he got back.
 I realized, we'd found each other and cancelled ourselves out.
 I put my head down and made no sign I'd done the same thing everyone usually does to both of us.
  Just another day in Los Angeles.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Art and Money

   Okay.  I don"t do this very often. In fact I've never done it.
But watch this link

This is my buddy Lex.
He's a genius.
Not like when you say "Oh that's genius" when the guy at Best Buy tells you how to turn on your Direct TV or "What a genius!" when you see Rory McIlroy pitch out of the rough.
Nope. I mean GENIUS.
Like scary smart and skilled and driven and rare.
Way rare.
He builds, he paints, he sings, he draws, he writes, he throws, he prints, he plays, he can even dance pretty good.
He's the real deal.
And that's his latest project.
He's 1800 bucks away from his goal.
This is an easy one.
If you like art, if you give a shit about this country just about now trying to take its colonial, slave owner, indian killing past seriously, trying to fess up and own up and say, "Yes we're still a great nation but ....yeah we did this", then send my man some scratch. A little bit. The week's coffee allowance. Or share this with someone you think might dig it.
Or send a lot of money and get a bottle.
Take a gander, take a listen, pass it on.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tweet on twits

  Roger Rees died yesterday. A British actor most people know from his work on Cheers or The West Wing.
  When I was 13, he played the lead in Nicholas Nickleby, the 8 1/2 hour extravaganza that brought intelligent spectacle back to Broadway, saved the RSC, and convinced a generation of playwrights they didn't need to press delete. He made a teenager wonder what all the noise was about, this acting thing. This theater stuff.
  He was remarkable. He shone, and his voice was a thing you sat back and closed your eyes to.
  He won Tonys, he won Oliviers, he was a star of the stage.
  But this morning when I read about his death, a day losing Omar Sharif, the first thing I saw in the paper were all the tweets. You could check up on who sent a note memorializing his life. There, before the obits, before the summation of a 40 year career, were little links to the three sentences some other celebrity thought to tick off as they were walking to set.
   And I thought, What the fuck have we become?
  A guy dies. A giant in his particular art form. A campaigner for human rights and what's first thing on offer from one of the world's foremost publications? What do people go to?
   Three grammer free burps from the producer of Cats. Words to make the words "sound bite" seem like a meal.
   What do we want these days in America?
   What do we get?
   What we deserve.
   140 characters and a mule.
   Please let me show my deep concern, my love and praise, let the first thing that the family members of an old friend hear from me be found in.....a tweet. Let me advertise my appreciation. Let me show my followers (Glory be to God for that Guyanan slip up, for that Mormon, Scientologist phraseology finding its way to Twitterdom) let me show them that I care. Let me advertise empathy.
  Publicizing your business, your latest painting, what play you went to, what joint makes the best pulled pork, where you like to shit when you go to the airport, great, feel free, it's all sort of absurd and in its American accumulative madness sort of something Whitman might have enjoyed playing with but when it comes to people fucking dying, keeling over from disease as we're all going to do one day or drowning in Korean ferry disasters, burning in a hotel in Vietnam, wiped out in a train wreck etc etc etc what pieces of your soul are you crunching up in your hands like a dried leaf every time you tweet things like "Sure sorry to see him go. True gent. Luv to his family."
   The Sioux weren't far wrong every time they refused to be photographed. We should keep their  "primitive prejudice" in mind. Part of you goes with every choice you make giving yourself away. Handing over what matters when there's apparently no pain to the process, when it seems so simple, just the press of a button. Send. Fire. Boom.
   Oh it's not such a big deal. It's so minor. It's just fun. So silly to rail on about such silly stuff.
   Yeah. Fill your days, your waking minutes, hour after hour, date after date, next to your kids playing on their i pads, next to your lover who's reached to check a text, tap on with all the media errands you can find and tell me the next time you can write a decent sentence, carry a tune, find the time to write a letter telling someone who actually mattered to you that they mattered.
   Death by a Thousand Cuts is now Death By a Thousand Apps.
   Cause we can have

 "Alone with his longing
he lays down on his bed and sings a lament;
everything seems to large, the steadings and the fields."

and we can have

"Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man."

and we can have

"He was my North, my South, my East, my West
My working week and my Sunday best
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong"

or we can have

RIP #RogerRees - a lovely, generous &  kind man & an heroic & passionate actor. We all fell in love with him in #NicholasNickleby  so sad

so fucking # sad indeed. 


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Art All Night. Pittsburgh all over.

    Art All Night's the most Pittsburgh thing I know.
    Or knew.
    A giant building. A call to artists. Any and all. Bring your stuff, we'll show it. No curators, no frills. All night. Free. Music. Food. Thugs, suits, posers, welders, drinkers, lovers, actors, activists, grandmas and kids, pastors and proletariats come on down, start your engines. The city poured into a building to see what the city has made. 
     But it's 18 years old now and so popular it's packed with people more excited to BE at Art All Night than they are to look at all the art or ponder "who are all these weirdos", these normal people who still make art, than they are to ponder each other. 
    Ponder? Might sound like an app, but it's not. 
    It's a pity. The event has turned a corner. Going is the event. The art's become secondary. The culture's commented on. "How primitive and local." It's tourism. It's a cause.
      "I went to see the Mona Lisa", not  I saw the Mona Lisa. 
     "Just waitin here in line to drive up Lombard!" 
   "Writing to say I'm at the Grand Canyon! OMG!" not Jesus Mary mother of God look at that....
   It's odd how the primacy of attendance and reportage not experience have taken over behavior. Or maybe that's what popularity has always been. The projected aura, the rumor of a thing becoming stronger than it's actual aura. The perfume more important than the person.
   I walked thru the boredom of thousands of people supporting an idea- like folks walking around a park for heart disease, or liking something enough to think they've changed it- they came to Art all Night like people go to museums: not to look at art but to show that they support the idea of art. Which in a way, fights art itself. Art's not an idea it's an action, a happening between a person and an object. A gesture and a body. A voice and your heart. 
   And where could that bond be more important than at an uncurated show, a display of art that no one's filtered, or judged, or censored, that was hand delivered by children and retirees and odd balls to an old steel mill where anyone can stand and stare? It's one of a kind.
  It was. 
  And is that the fate of Pittsburgh? Or should I say "Pittsburgh"? The way of Pittsburgh, the way culture happens in this city, its active sense of itself? 
   A town that trusted more in the making of a thing than how it could be sold. 
  And what else is social media but the selling of everything? Its dispersal and by that dispersal its dilution? How do you sell a City? 
   Happiness for millions? What does that even mean when what you're really talking about is the happiness of the marketer tapping those millions. 
   What else is branding? 
    What's the old story? Guy finds an abandoned beach on an island off the coast of Wherever and on that beach is a shack where this graying sunburnt dude and his gorgeous wife make a fish stew for the locals and whoever happens by. And the guy tastes it ....and it's the best fish stew he's ever had. I mean ever. He's traveled and worked all over the world he's made millions and spent lots of that money trying to find vacation spots where no one else goes and food no one else has tasted and this, this stew is the best.
   So he tells the old dude- give me jar of your stew and I'm going to go back to the States and get a team together and we're gonna market this shit and make you millions man, we're gonna change the face of cooking, put you on tv, spread your magic around the globe and make you a powerful man. 
  Oh yeah?
   Yeah I mean it's gonna take some hard work up front from you , probably five or ten years working 70 hour weeks, touring, making appearances but we'll get there. 
   Yeah? What do we get in the end?
    Well shit man we'll be able to move to some abandoned beach town with a gorgeous women and do whatever we want. 
   So when I look up at the folks living on Troy Hill or Greenfield in their middle class homes with their astonishing views and ten minute commutes and solid public schools, I wonder what the Hell theyre gonna get after we sell Pittsburgh to the planners of the New East Liberty and North Point Breeze. 
   I wish we had the guts to live in the old one.
   To live up to the old one's ethics. 
   I wish I did. 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crosswalk Jungle

 Tom Scanlon's terrified of Pittsburgh traffic. Of Pittsburgh drivers and their snarly ways.
  Seattle, San Fran, and even New York get his nod for driver decency but not Pittsburgh.
  Now understandably I'm suspicious of anyone with the same name as a machine politician nominated by Tom Corbett to a district court, but I've lived in all 4 cities mentioned above so lemme give my two cents here.
What's going on is that a generation, dare I say "a class",  of people are coming of age who expect cars to stop.
No matter what.
Crazy huh?
It's their right.
And they're not wrong about that. Legally.
 When you walk into a lane, and....maybe you've got your head down updating your twitter feed, maybe you've just turned up the volume on your headphones, and you're juggling a paypal or a bitcoin account as you switch hands, the fair trade Americano (no milk !) going from left to right, and, with nary a glance to see that the 2000 pound object coming your way is obeying the laws of the land or physics, you amble into the street...when you do that...Maybe there's a better way?
I mean, you're not going to re-spawn.
When I see someone put their life like this into the hands of automotive fate the first word that comes to mind is "Stupidity."
The next is "Entitlement."
A new generation feels like they don't need to look. It's beneath them. It's not their job.
Now we're all glad this gang has chosen Pittsburgh as the next center of a new and righteous economy but when I watch someone cross a street without the slightest acknowledgement that someone else - who could have just spaced out, or passed out, or who might have a job to get to, or a semi's worth of payload to deliver, or who might be late to pick up their kids from school, or who -hey- could be on the way to their virtual coffee shop office in their Prius- just stopped their car in the no-man's land between law and common sense and allowed them to live, something seems kind of off.
It's their right, I know, but it still doesn't seem "right".
I grew up in a city where you agreed mostly that everyone was part of a plan. That everyone in one form or another was "going to work". So if you had a chance NOT to slow them down, not to keep them from getting to whatever work it was they had to do, you took it.
 If you waved a car thru when you could have walked it wasn't a sign that the evils of urbanity had triumphed. It was simple decency.
 There were simple gestures. Take some quick steps getting across the street if 30 cars were waiting for you. Jaywalk whenever, but don't do it into oncoming traffic. Nod at the plumber who held his truck, even if he could have slipped past you. 
You were in it together.
I don't see that now.
 Well I see it in Pittsburgh still, but I certainly don't see it in Seattle or San Fran, and it's even starting to slip away from New York.
  What I see instead is a class of people letting everyone else know that they don't need to be rushed, they don't care if you have to wait, and they don't even have to register your existence, because history's on their side. You and they are not part of the same plan. You have a car, they have to mind their carbon footprint. You make a wage, they make content. You're post industrial and they're posting, as you hit the brakes. 
 I know that cars are bad. I know more people should walk or ride bikes and that everyone would feel better about themselves and the world if they moved thru it more slowly. Sure, ban cars from Manhattan. From Inner City San Fran. Tax every company that uses heavy trucking and that consequently bankrupts the ability of small municipalities to do anything BUT fix their roads. Require all parking structures be permeable concrete or better, raise gas taxes thru the roof (and into the basement tax structure of Europe), eliminate any subsidies to oil companies or to the highway commissions. But until the 80% of the nation, working to prop up these as of yet unreachable goals, feels some benefit from the new economy, take a second and lift your eyes as they pass you on the way to one of the 4 part time jobs their family's juggling. It's called class.
 When you don't. When you assume everyone should have had your education and if they didn't then screw em, it's called arrogance and in Pittsburgh it's kind of not how we do things.
 The average grandmother who's crossing Carson to get to her church on the Slopes, the family of four pushing a Giant Eagle cart across the lot in Homestead, the guys jay walking E Ohio.... when a car stops for them, they nod, they throw a smile, they wave. Join the club.
 Someone cuts you off, or gets a little too close to your kids in the crosswalk, go ahead and make an entirely different gesture but either way engage, make contact. Make believe that there's still a social contract. 
 Now I'll admit that the drivers of the new economy -so proud they're not driving at all- might lose a text or two if they look up and make eye contact with a fellow citizen, they might have to delay an email saying the real email's on its way, but would that be such a bad thing?
  Give me a little Pittsburgh aggression once in awhile if mostly what I see is decency.
  Puritan pedestrians can have Seattle, and Portland, or they can leave their bitter hearts in San Francisco.

The Straw and the Camel called America

   Things haven't been the same since......?
   Fill in the blank.
   Wave your generation's tattered old flag. Choose the poison you think everyone's been taking since.....?
   What's made us weak, us Americans?
   "Britain!!' said the founding fathers. "Banks!!" said the Jacksonians, "Disunity"said Lincoln,  to which the Rad Republicans replied "The South!!', the Gilded age barons said "The Weak", The Edwardians said, "Income Tax!!" , the Warriors to End all Wars quoted Washington, "Foreign Quarrels!!", the Greatest generation was about to say something profound and quite possibly change this country forever but then they all got drafted and for decades afterwards said "Reinstate the draft!", the Baby Boomers said "Everything!!" was wrong about America  ....and then they voted in Reagan who proved there's an exception to every rule even a Greatest one.
   I'd pretty much meld the teens and twenty somethings of the next three decades - 70's punks, 80's nihilists, and the 90s underground because all of them were caught by the first tsunami of mega capitalism and simply because they were the last kids to live when there WAS an underground, when the eyes and teeth of the internet couldn't find out your every inkling toward rebellion and make it pay.
   Taking a website page from Moore's law, or copying and pasting it ...or, even worse, should we say 'internalizing it".... there seems now to be a new generation every two years, a movement in every other county.....kind of like how there's a new grey and a new black at the Gap every other season. Yeah, I just dated myself there.....let's say kind of like how there's a new "custom made' sneaker every 4 months at....whatever the local pop up shop around you is called.
  Kind of like how you keep kids from crying. Give them new stuff. All the time. Don't worry, the dam of tears won't break and do anyone any harm until after they've moved out of the house and call themselves adults. "Hey, we're not liable..."
  That could be what makes America weak.
  I scaled this question back to the revolution because I want to posit that the fault - what makes America weak- is not in our stars but in us and has always been so.
  But before I try and prove that that can of worms has always been open I'll say this - What makes us weak is that we think escalators are elevators.
  We get on them and we stand as if we've just rented a cabin by the sea and we're gonna park there till the lease is up.
   Possessed by the idea that possession is 9/10ths of some law, damned if we'd imagine someone behind us might be late for work or late to catch a plane or late to get to their mom dying in a hospital, we occupy the escalator.
  What's happened here? When did egalitarian America decide not to make room? Not to give someone else a chance? Not to take more than your share?
  Stand to the fucking right and let people go by.
  Escalators are not Orange County. They are not your golf tee. They are not the four top in a Starbucks you've just colonized with your homework.
   Escalators are still stairs, the just move a little.
  They're like the highway: there's a fast lane and there's a slow lane. If you want not only to go slow but to stop entirely, stand to the right please......excuse me, could I slide by here?......pardon me, could you take the headphones off for a sec,...... sir could you just shift that bag a couple inches?.....HEY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.
   thank you.
   Now back to the core problem in American history.
   It's easy.
   Money and Jesus had a baby and that little demon's been torturing this country since the Dutch landed.
  oh....wait a minute, gotta get this text.....