The Fourth of July should have the right amount of temperature for hangin’ out!”
Thus the man in the official Knicks jersey, Size XXXL, outside of Union Market in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
He was clearly distressed that things weren’t working out the way he had planned. Like that ever happens during a New York City summer.
I spend eleven months out of every year missing June. So when we have a bad one it can affect my outlook for a very long time.
While we had our share of June Gloom, with considerable downpours, we had more than enough stellar days of mild temperatures and lowish humidity to charge my batteries for the coming winter. And for that matter, the coming swelter.
But I like my Fourth of July to be nice and hot, and that it was, even if it did not work out they way I planned.
I went to the Prospect Park and stationed myself on the bolders that magically appeared under a row of shade trees on the western rim of the Long Meadow. I assume they were removed from the fenced off construction project going on just over the ridge behind them.
One of the rocks has a flat shelf at its edge, perfect for the cushion I typically use for the benches, when my laptop and I turn the park into my summer office.
But being a holiday I had but food and a guitar and was going to run through the songs for tomorrow’s rehearsal, which the Paul Ukena Trio will be performing at the annual Martinfest August 4, in Nazareth, PA.
But before I could even start my metronome, a young Rastafarian stopped to listen to pieces I was using to warm up and compliment me on my playing. When it was clear he wasn’t going away, I stopped to exchange pleasantries. And lent him my guitar so he could show me a song he wrote for his Williamsburg Reggae band.
Then he decided to get off his bike and get his out his own guitar, so he could show me various songs to help play while he sang.
Between the grilling holiday revelers nearby and the various aircraft overheard, I could not hear much of what he was actually saying.
And once he rolled a big spliff and kept it in his mouth like a Film Noir tough guy, it was even harder to catch the words. Too many chunk-chucka-chunk barre chords later, I begged off due to hand fatigue and came home.
And as I listen to the far off sounds of fireworks, I am finishing up some notes for an upcoming whisky review for 1mansmalt.com, which was so disappointing a dram I had to revert to mixers to find it some redemption. It turns out it is not sweet enough to work with soda, but ginger ale isn’t bad. And with coconut water it is terrific, especially for a hot July night. But being single malt and priced as a special edition, it remains a disappointment. Scotch malt whisky needs to have the right amount of price for hangin’ out.
Bushwick Book Club features Tennessee Williams
Monday, March 21, 8 PM, at Superfine, 126 Front Street, Brooklyn
This coming Monday, musical compositions will be performed, based on Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A traveling musical performance event, Bushwick Bookclub invites songwriters to create new pieces of music inspired by various literary works. Be it in Seattle or New York City, or wherever, each event features a different novel or play.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starred Ben Gazara and Barbra Bel Geddes, winning the Pulitzer in 1955. It was later adapted for the screen and starred Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.
I am pleased to announce I am among the songwriters invited to take part for this particular installment and shall be accompanied by various members of the Highland Shatners and Spoonville.
Superfine is a mighty fine restaurant in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, just under the Manhattan bridge. The York Street stop on the F line is the nearest subway.
David Bowie has died and yet shall live on beyond anyone I know personally on a first name basis.
I had been absorbed in the football game and churning to the many Bowie tunes screaming loudly from the juke box in a Brooklyn bar for some time. So it wasn’t until I was singing harmony along to “Space Oddity” that I suddenly seized up and had a brief series of convulsive sobs.
I bought that album when I was 13 and never need to hear it again, since I have it imprinted on my soul and may call up every song at will.
I fought it off and wiped my eyes and drank my beer. And I knew it would not be the last such episode.
No one noticed my tears. My back was to the crowd, as I was watching a TV away from the main ones, with only the young couple at the end of the bar just ahead to my left. And they were not paying attention. But they did help distract me from the crumbled milestone of my own shortening lifetime.
Ireland is a very small place, with less than half the population of Brooklyn. And even with its inroads of Norse genes and some from the Spanish Armada, so they say, there are a very few, certain and distinct physical “types” that are recognizably Irish.
The girl at the end of the bar was one of these.
Quite tiny in stature, she had thick, towhead blonde hair clamped up like roadside weeds to reveal her wee ears. She was served a Bud without asking, before she had gotten her coat off. And she sat alone, trying to not worry about the strange man old enough to be her father who had caught her in his eye.
But the reason I found her so noticeable was that she resembled Van Morrison circa 1970, to a startling degree. She had the same round cheeks, button eyes, and that uniquely pointed nose that seemed to go up or down, depending upon the perspective, or the particular emotional expression.
Van the Man had always made me think of Mole from Wind in the Willows, and of course in his later years, Badger. But this lass made it all quite adorable and crush-provoking, if colorless in that alabaster sort of way. I can only imagine how rosy her cheeks must have been at 16.
Her date appeared and had his own coat off before the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon arrived, also un-ordered.
He was one of the other Irish types. He had full, dark brown hair, nicely groomed, with a thick, thoughtful brow and a straight, well-shaped nose of some prominence, if rather large ears for his own diminutive stature. He also had a thick, but short beard, which helped make him look a little older, even if he had the body of a marionette, yet still a bit broader and taller than hers.
Clean jeans and sneakers, a white collar showing from his lightweight “jumper” suggested that he was making an effort. His manner of speech suggested he was more Americanized than she, whereas she was most definitely Irish, even if she had been born here.
There was an immense gulf between their bar stools, considering how various regulars came over to stretch arms around them and say various drunkenly exuberant things that made her laugh and made him feel intellectually superior but affectionately at home.
So they were known there as a couple. And yet she sat with legs tightly crossed and her hands clasped tight upon them, occasionally toying with a thin chain around her neck.
He would have to lean toward her to say things, if the music was blaring, and she would reply at times, but mainly sat relatively content. And yet, when he looked away she looked at him with a manner that said she wished she could say more but couldn’t think of anything. His opinion mattered greatly but was as of yet uncertain, at least in her mind.
Eventually she had to succumb and went to use the Ladies Room. He became quite animated, having paid for most of the music playing, and took in the crowd, nodding here and there, but having no interest or even a clue as to how American football accounted for itself.
When she returned he was already back to his reserved manner. But well into their second Bud and Pabst, he found some reason to josh her. This gave her a good reason to poke him in a retaliatory way, so they could come together in some ritualized and mock animosity that allowed physical contact, with his hand upon her back for a few moments before he withdrew from her side of the gulf, where she continued to look at the back of his head with another silent “What are you waiting for?”
I left there feeling like the old geezer in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, who declares from his porch that youth is wasted on the young.
But I also left there aware of how life goes on even as millions of people die every single day, and even if so few of them are the kind of person who tells the world they are a star to be reckoned with, rather than the other way around, and then goes on to prove it over and over.
I should like to think this young fella will realize what a treasure is right there before his grasp and not squander such a once in a lifetime opportunity, as I once did long ago. And I think there is reason to hope he shall. After all, he was the one who kept playing the Bowie songs. And that says a lot right there.
While practicing in Prospect Park, a young mother left her spot on the Long Meadow and wheeled the pram containing her sleeping baby toward home.
I almost moved to another location when they arrived, and I had tried to play quietly, assuming they seemed a good ways off.
When she reached the paved walkway, she stopped at my bench and set what looked like a playing card next to me, saying it was just a note she wanted to leave with me. On the reverse were spaced lines, filled with handwriting that said:
“Thank you for playing the guitar so beautifully. It was an honor to listen to & I’m so happy I ended up in this very spot in the park so that your music could fill my ears.”
And she signed it with a first name and a little heart. Ah Spring….!
Same spot, a few days earlier. This is my office, whenever weather permits.
As I walked home in the darkening afternoon, along the stone-face grumps and grinches clutching their collars against the mean and petty snow sent sideways by a bickering wind, I saw a girl of 8 and her baby sister gleefully skipping along trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues, and laughing like little glowing lamps.
I think the reason Christmas has always mattered to so many who have no particular connection to the mishmash of ancient mythologies that led to it is specifically because December is so deep and dark, as Paul Simon put it. It can be an infusion of cheer and bright lights when they are needed most.
And that bit about good will to all peoples is pretty great too. And that will have extra poignancy as we mark the 100th anniversary of the impromptu “Christmas truce” along the trenches in 1914.
It says a lot about Chris Thile as an artist and a man that he is awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” in 2012 with the handsome cash prize, and a year later he chooses to get back together with his old band, Nickel Creek, who he first hooked up when he was 8 years old, back in the early 90s, and who provide him more of a team-player ensemble role than any other collaboration he has been involved since.
But there was plenty of brilliance flashing from Thile’s mandolins, even if he was content to lace things together more than cover the various tunes in ribbons and bows.
Nickel Creek last toured some 7 years ago, but I guess Thile got the 7 Year Itch in reverse, and from the talk on stage tonight at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Band Shell, this is less of a reunion tour than a new beginning.
Sara Watkins’ angelic voice filled the darkened band shell with pure radiance, and her brother Sean’s fluid guitar runs with their in the moment crescendos, and the lilt of his high lonesome singing melded with Thile’s righteous tenor rafters, so that the trio brought tears to eyes and goosebumps to napes over and over.
But good golly those kids can PICK!
Kids? The Sean Watkins is old enough to run for president and Thile and Sara Watkins will be in a couple of years. And yet, they were fresh as daisies in their sheer joy of lighting up an audience and each other, even if their chops were far beyond their years.
And with Mark Scatz providing a full bodied bottom end on the basement fiddle, they tore it up. But just as often they would hang out in the air, or cast a line out into the audience and slowly pull it in, only to yank it home with a sudden surge or breathtaking downhill slues of three-part, hearts-in-synch daring do.
They have a new album, but they also played plenty of songs from their five Grammy-nominated albums from back in the day.
This lady had a much better seat in Boston than I did in Brooklyn tonight. So check this OUT.
D.B.S reunites for the first time in 24 years
Friday night, May 23, a group of veteran professional writers will gather in Brooklyn, where they will be rocking out at Freddy’s bar, on 5th Avenue in the South Slope. The occasion is the reunion gig of a most unusual band from 1980s New York, Dondi’s Bloody Sputum, a send up of all things Punk, in parody, in satire, but also in homage, and always with suitable irreverence.
Ten years after the Sex Pistols sucker punched the queen, and the Dead Boys had spit on, well just about everyone, the music world was still reeling from the smack down that Punk had provided. When who should appear but Dondi’s Bloody Sputum, the band that chose a nice little orphan for their namesake, and then beat the snot out of him. Their name refers to the newspaper comic strip about the kind of goody-two-shoes that would have suffered habitual schoolyard beatings in real life, even after surrendering his lunch money.
The same year that Spinal Tap took the mickey out of hard rock, D.B.S. put a skewer through the heart of Punk. Here were not pimply toughs from a city ghetto, vomiting songs about throwing bricks in Brixton. The members of D.B.S met at university in sleepy Athens, Ohio, and after graduation, they reconvened in Queens. There, they wrote songs, mostly thrashing head-bangers about the tribulations facing middle-class white kids from comfortable homes, with titles like “I’m Thinking of Trying a Croissan’wich,” “Martin Sheen Sweats Well,” and “Dogs Like Cheese.”
They were not your everyday safety pin pierced Punk songs. Others include the eerie ode to food poisoning, Sushi is My Krytonite.
Be suspicious of rolled up fishes
Avoid places that don’t use dishes
Sushi is my Kryptonite
Sushi is my crypt tonight
And then there’s the rocker Rodeo Clown.
I’ve got a friend
His name is Bim
He works down at the Square Gar-den
He only works about three weeks a year
Heardin’ them steers when the rodeo’s here
He’s got the dumbest fuckin’ job in town
He’s a rodeo clown
Many of the songs are indeed quite funny, but they are also clever in the way they captured the blistering essence of Punk music, often mixing the raw edge of the Stooges with the finesse of the Minute Men. This is not surprising, considering the artistic background of every member of D.B.S., all of whom went on to critical acclaim as a writer of weightier material.
Then and Now
Back in the day, Mark Drop and Steve Spiegel (aka guitarist Silent “Phil” Noir and drummer Steve Shape) were sharing a house in Astoria, earnestly trying to sell scripts to popular sitcoms like Moonlightening. Their big break came with the Arsenio Hall Show, which took them to L.A. in 1989. Both men live there today with their respective families, after long careers spent writing popular shows for television, as well as for Disney theme parks and cruise ships.
Under that same roof was found acting student Henry Tenney (singer Hugh Bryss), who went on to appear in plays and on TV. He also spent some years as head writer for VH-1’s Pop-up Video, and today he writes mainly for foodie television, featuring celebs like Bobby Flay and Mo Rocca.
The acting work of Jane Young (bassist Kitty Head) was seen on stage, TV and film, and she had several of her own plays produced in New York City. Young later received her post grad degree in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, and has since shifted her focus to screenplays and short stories.
And Trey Kay (guitarist Big Mike) performed with NYC improv troupes before becoming a long-time contributor to Public Radio. A Spencer fellow, and Peabody award-winning journalist, Kay recently produced the documentary The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom, and is now developing a new show, This is the Thing, with host Alec Baldwin.
Kay was unable to attend rehearsals for the reunion, due to his busy schedule. But it is rumored he will return to New York to witness the gig.
With only two rehearsals after 24 years apart, the edges may be even rougher for their first reunion gig than they were at their actual first gig in a Brooklyn loft 30 years ago. None the less, those fortunate to have seen D.B.S. performing at rock spots like the Gas Station in the East Village, will be happily meeting up at Freddy’s backroom, this Friday, to relive those haymaking nights under halogen lights.
Those who have never heard D.B.S. will be in for a rare treat.
No stranger to satire and parody, Wickline won his first Emmys writing for David Letterman, before heading west to develop popular shows like In Living Color and Martin, as well as his own critically acclaimed cult hit The Clinic, co-written by Wickline, D.B.S. guitarist Mark Drop, and the late Sandy Frank. It also featured D.B.S. front man Henry Tenney as the troubled son of the stodgy doctor played by Adam West.
Inquiries as to whether Wickline might attend the D.B.S reunion received the following reply: “Piss off, you stupid git, before I clobber til you slobber.”
And you too can curl your lip into a sneer, don a torn t-shirt, and get your Punk on, with D.B.S. this Friday night at 9 PM.
Freddy’s is found at 627 5th Ave, Brooklyn, between 17th and 18th street, R train to Prospect Ave, walk one block up the slope.
— Len Berger, Berlin
Guest writer Len Berger (foreground) was lead guitarist for the Cheese Beads, a 1990s speed lounge act that included three former members of Dondi’s Bloody Sputum.
A Good Friday in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
From the spring of 1984 to the summer of 1985, I lived on Monitor Street in Greenpoint, the northern-most section of Brooklyn, along the East River.
I happened to travel there to acquire a piece of audio recording equipment, on Good Friday, March 29. I only now had time to get the photos off of my camera.
I found the insular Polish neighborhood much as I remembered, and even found an abandoned luncheonette, soapy windows revealing twentieth-century prices and a bit of a time capsule inside.
You can see full size photos here.