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This Weekend’s Five Best Food and Drink Events in NYC – 4/17/2015

Whether you’re craving Nebraskan food or interested in a literary pub crawl, this weekend is stacked with food and drink events that should tickle your fancy. Here are the five best.

Endless Punch Brunch, The Peacock, 24 East 29th Street, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.

With the purchase of a prix-fixe entree, guests can now enjoy 90 minutes of endless punch on the Peacock’s garden terrace. Meaghan Dorman of the Raines Law Room is providing the recipe, and three of her punches are available for the $45 offer. Reservations can be made by contacting the restaurant.

Taste of Nebraska, Hudson Station, 440 Ninth Avenue, Saturday, 1 p.m.

Whether you’re a displaced Nebraskan or simply curious about what people eat in the Midwest, you should consider this event, where you’ll find unlimited bites from Cornhusker favorites like Runza’s, Valentino’s Pizza, and Fairbury hot dogs. Two drink tickets are also included in the $30 ticket price, and you can partake in a silent auction featuring state favorites like Dorothy Lynch salad dressing and Dairy Store cheese.

Whiskey Class, Northern Bell, 612 Metropolitan Avenue, Saturday, 4 p.m.

Dan Loeser of Char No. 4 defines what makes bourbon, well, bourbon in this casual class. Guests will learn about the history surrounding American whiskey and taste a few of Loeser’s favorites in the process. Reservations are $40.

Literary Pub Crawl, Multiple Locations, Brooklyn, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Enjoy a lesson in English literature and Brooklyn history over a few pints during this Brooklyn Heights walking tour. The tour includes stops at Montero’s Bar & Grill, where writer Frank McCourt resided, and will visit three bars total. Tickets are $20 — drinks not included — and can be purchased on the organizer’s website.

Cafe Edna Grand Opening Party, Cafe Edna, 195 Nassau Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Free beer tastings, a new bar food menu, and musical performances are all part of Cafe Edna’s grand opening party, which is taking place this weekend. The event will also feature vegan-friendly fare courtesy of Barry’s Tempeh; guests can pre-purchase a food plate — which includes one drink — in advance.

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Citizen Ruth

(Alexander Payne, 1996).
Alexander Payne’s something-to-offend-everyone debut feature is coarser in its character-driven comedy than Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways but taking the abortion issue as the subject for social satire was a bold move and setting it in deepest Nebraska even bolder still. Laura Dern gives her career performance in the title role.

Wednesdays-Fridays, 1:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 29. Continues through Oct. 31, 2008

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The National’s Anthems

No one knew quite how to react Tuesday night when Matt Berninger, frontman for Brooklyn quintet the National, started hopping around maniacally on one foot and screaming My mind is not right! My mind is not right! My mind is not right!, addressing this violent proclamation largely to the ceiling. This is unsettling opening-act behavior. The sold-out crowd, ultimately gathered here at Harlem’s luscious United Palace Theatre to see the almighty Arcade Fire, regarded Matt with amusement and concern. The screaming, we’d mostly expected, My mind is not right! being the relentless chorus to “Abel,” one of the catchiest (and loudest) songs on the National’s excellent ’05 record Alligator. The hopping though—strange. Especially since “Abel” came early in the set, and Matt precariously wobbled and bounced through every song thereafter, mostly quieter, calmer, subtler, more piano-driven affairs. The effect was disorienting.

“Is he hurt or something?” demanded the woman next to me. Huh. Either that or it was an artistic flourish, some sort of metaphor—a political statement about American isolation—perhaps.

Perhaps not. “I actually tripped over myself—my microphone stand,” Matt admits the following afternoon, having hobbled from Radio City Music Hall (where both the National and the Arcade Fire would perform again that evening) to a nearby café. Matt considered lying about this, passing it off as an homage to Michael Stipe, or maybe Jethro Tull. Why bother, though? “I probably looked like an idiot,” he says, resigned. “That’s showbiz.”

“I thought you were really drunk, and you fell down and you couldn’t stand up,” admits bassist-guitarist Aaron Dessner—one of the National’s two sets of siblings (his brother Bryce and Bryan and Scott Devendorf round out the band)—as they reflect on the show. “I was about to get angry, like, ‘C’mon!’ ”

“I think Bryan at one point was like, What are you doing?” Matt recalls. “I had tears in my eyes—’I’m hurt!’ ”

Bryan, meanwhile, evidently had snare-drum issues. Matt and Aaron don’t seem too happy about Tuesday night’s set. Opening-act ennui, maybe. Or perhaps they were dwarfed and intimidated by the United Palace Theatre—a frilly monster of a venue, considering the National, Cincinnati expats and longtime Brooklynites all, once regarded selling out the Mercury Lounge as the pinnacle of success. Consider also that they’re opening for the Arcade Fire, a cultural phenomenon in full orgiastic arena-rock bloom, with enough joyous spectacle and grandma-throttling enthusiasm to make Justin Timberlake look like Leonard Cohen.

Any band in such a delirious environment would look tremendously subdued. And the National are already profoundly laid-back guys: Although near set’s end, Matt hopped menacingly through “Mr. November,” the band’s loudest (and finest) song to date—this time directing screams of I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November! I won’t fuck us over! at the ceiling—the band mostly favors intricate, slow-to-mid-tempo, almost funereal barroom laments. Bukowskian, but benevolent, and in slow motion. Like the Arcade Fire, there’s more than a touch of the Boss at work here, but whereas the headliners channeled fist-pumping, crowd-elating Springsteen, the National preferred the bummed, beery, forlorn flipside. “By comparison, we’re pretty dismal,” Aaron says. Like Nebraska opening for Born to Run.

Springsteen evidently loves the National, by the way. “We hung out with him one night after this Nebraska tribute,” Aaron recalls. “One thing he talked a lot about was, as your audience grows, you’ve gotta figure out how to play to the people in the very back, standing up. I remember thinking, ‘That’s pretty irrelevant advice for us right now.’ I think he had a skewed idea of how big we are. Now it’s all coming true.”

“He gave U2 the exact same advice he gave us,” Matt adds.

“You gotta create the wave, and then you gotta ride the wave,” Aaron explains, stifling a giggle.

“Bruce was under the impression we were pretty huge,” Matt concludes, not stifling a giggle. “Still good advice. Someday we will have an opportunity to use it.”

That joke just isn’t funny anymore. All told, the National spent about a week as the Arcade Fire’s kindling in giant sheds—from where he’s sitting, Matt can see the Radio City marquee, a sight he once only enjoyed while watching TV or Woody Allen movies. Both bandmates demur and say they prefer smaller crowds, more intimate venues. Fair enough. But Alligator was a huge slow-burn hit with critics and fans, thus stoking a huge anticipatory demand for the follow-up, Boxer, out next week. Some folks—and by some folks, I mean, at the very least, me—suspect the National could be the next huge indie-arena success story, following the same exhilarating trail blazed by the Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Modest Mouse. But even superfans are somewhat shocked at how intense that anticipation has gotten: At the end of the month, the National will headline five consecutive sold-out Bowery Ballroom shows. Monday through Friday. A full work week. That’s Sufjan Stevens/Bright Eyes kinda shit. Suddenly, Springsteen doesn’t look so deluded.

This is unexpected and wonderful and slightly odd, considering Boxer itself doesn’t attempt anything terribly anthemic or orgiastic. It doesn’t act like a triumphant, overreaching breakout record—no one track leaps out at you with the vicious force of even “Mr. November.” Instead, rising above the intricate multi-guitar tapestries that made Alligator so memorable, lilting piano takes the lead here and runs throughout an album best taken all at once, in one sitting—a dangerous proposition in the single-download age. Its climactic centerpiece is the deceptively titled “Anthem,” a shy, hands-in-pockets lullaby with a lovely coda that finds Matt, in the resonant baritone that defines him the 98 percent of the time he’s not screaming at the ceiling, purring, “You know I dreamed about you/For 29 years/Before I saw you.” To put it in Springsteenian terms, this all isn’t dismal enough to be Nebraska, exactly, but it rocks no harder than, say, Tunnel of Love.

Which is fine, which is fine. It’s a grower, from a band that seems to specialize in growers. Alligator didn’t catch fire immediately; Matt notes that a few publications gave it mediocre reviews initially, only to circle around months later with much louder, much more favorable opinions. Boxer, too, may take a while to settle in. This is by design. “The songs we end up getting the most attached to when we’re making a record are the ones that grew on us,” Matt says. Aaron is even blunter: “We usually throw out the catchiest ones, because they sound like we were forcing it.”

“Often the songs that are immediate for us, that are immediate and catchy, they’re appealing because they’re familiar in some way,” Matt explains. “Those songs, after three or four listens, they lose their shine. They don’t hold our interest as much. It’s the odd ducks that stick with us.”

That oddness is doubly true of the National’s lyrics—Matt is prized for a bizarre, non sequitur sensibility that results in opening lines like “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks.” And though Boxer song titles like “Fake Empire” and “Start a War” suggest a blatant, Bright Eyes sort of political screed, in reality Matt tries to set societal calamity in the background this time: something on the TV, something his characters wish to disconnect from and avoid. The term he’s settled on is “fuzzy-headed.”

The Radio City marquee looms just outside as he explains this, of course. Playing there—the elaborate pageantry of it all—gives him a queasy Miss Saigon sort of feeling, he jokes. Like or not, though, as subtle as the National tries to play it, a spring awakening seems to have already begun.


The National play Bowery Ballroom May 28 through June 1, sold out as hell, boweryballroom.com.

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A League of His Own

Movie actors of Nick Nolte’s clout (and gender) get to decide right down to the last wrinkle and half-ounce of muscle or flab how they want to age on-screen. Nolte, weary and grizzled even in his youth, seems to have been prepping for his twilight days since he was 35 in 1976.

That was the year the gruff-voiced, prematurely weathered Nebraska native and college football stud slouched toward stardom in the soap miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man—playing the poor man, naturally. From there, the physical and psychic poundings of Vietnam (Who’ll Stop the Rain) and the pro ball gridiron (North Dallas Forty) swiftly supplied the young actor with the limp, the growl, and the short fuse he needed to portray what would become his characteristic theme: the merciless ravages of experience upon the male body and spirit. Now, at 65, he needs only his age—and his integrity—to achieve hunched realism rather than aerobicized, plasticized uplift.

Near the end of Off the Black, a disarmingly droll and insightful indie in which Nolte plays a high school baseball umpire and failed dad, there’s a short scene of his character Ray Cook straining once more to wriggle his abundant girth into the ump’s uniform. Nolte, never to be mistaken for Heath Ledger, dares to appear naked in this scene, and it doesn’t look as though there’s a single stretch of toned tissue on his entire body—which is no small measure of the shape he’s in as an actor. Where most sexagenarian stars—Harrison Ford (64), Michael Douglas (62), and Sylvester Stallone (60) among them—will do anything to show they can still crack the whip or get it up or at least get in the ring for one more round, Nolte is a lot more interested in showing that he can’t, that the battered body (or mind) simply won’t allow it. If Rocky Balboa, opening later this month, is an absurdist fantasy of senior-age machismo, Off the Black—named for the pitch that narrowly misses the mark—comes infinitely closer to the reality of exhausted masculinity. It’s a ninth-inning movie wherein the ump’s only triumph is another brutally honest call.

The first of these unpopular decisions—”ball four”—is issued, in Nolte’s patented rasp, at the start of the film. The crestfallen pitcher is Dave (Trevor Morgan), a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired 17-year-old in a small industrial town who comes to the crotchety ump’s house at night with two friends, some toilet paper, and a brick. Old Ray, whose fridge tellingly sports a yellow Post-it note that reads “3 beer limit,” pulls a gun on the fleeing trio’s straggling member, peels off the kid’s ski mask to discover a flipped-out Dave, and seizes an opportunity to put the young pitcher to work as an indentured servant. Ray toys with young Dave like a cat swatting a mouse, forcing him to do mundane physical labor as penance for trespassing and vandalism. But the relationship expands to include the occasional fishing excursion and adventure in over-limit brewsky swilling. Dave even agrees to attend Ray’s 40-year high school reunion, posing as his son in order for the ump to look, or perhaps feel, accomplished.

This old-lion-bonds-with-young-buck material sounds a mite facile and formulaic in description, but Off the Black, written and directed by James Ponsoldt, reveals its relevant details slowly and cautiously—as men of any age generally do. As in Affliction, another Nolte-driven study of masculinity, the awkwardness of the men’s attempts at emotional expression appears inherited. “What did he do?” Ray asks Dave, referring to his old man. “Nothing” is the aptly clipped reply. For his part, Ray is doubly afflicted: Neither his long-estranged son nor his Alzheimer’s-suffering dad (Michael Higgins) is able to swing at the ump’s humorously desperate conversational pitches.

Off the Black belongs on the shelf beside recent peers Spring Forward and Old Joy; it’s not as deep or resonant as those two, but despite extraneous supporting characters (i.e., women), it’s likewise concerned with lamenting, and dare we say expanding the limitations of men’s communication skills. Here both umpire and actor call ’em as they see ’em.

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Black and Blue and Red

In the Birthday Massacre’s “Happy Birthday”—it’s the Song That Mentions the Band’s Name in the Lyrics—lead singer Chibi goes with her friend to a birthday party. In the CD booklet Chibi’s wearing a black schoolgirly uniform, but to the party she wears her “black-and-white dress.” Chibi and her friend brutally kill everyone at the party, call each other “Murder Tramp” and “Murder Boy,” and run back to her room, Chibi in her “black-and-red dress.” This little offhand detail that’d feel equally appropriate on either Nebraska or a piece of self-aware pop art (same thing?) neatly sums up the Massacre’s cute-goth shtick and breathes life into Violet, their Metropolis debut. Any true goth schoolgirl would delight in her dress enough to mention it in two different verses and consider the murders secondary to their sartorial and social consequences.

Chibi’s lucky, because her four murder-boy bandmates play right along. The equally sparky “Blue” alternates between plinky synthpop verses featuring a sweet, pining Chibi and thundering metal refrains whispered by a different Chibi, murderous and rasping. The separation of the two makes the song fun. During most of the other tunes dramatic synth shrieks, helicopter sequencing, and power chords coexist, and it all sounds great—second for second, maybe the best-sounding CD all year—but the melodies aren’t always there, and the words often fade into generality. In “Blue,” singer and instrumentalists realize what fun it is to veer from wistful sadness to heavy rage, and that over-the-top distinction translates into joy for us, even though we don’t really feel their pain. The Massacre use pain more as a genre template, anyway; though the lyrics are full of suffocating lovers and blood, the band gets off more on brattiness (like in “Nevermind,” when Chibi kisses off the square she met at her parents’ Christmas party) and color—in addition to “Blue” and the title track, there are “Red” and “Black” instrumentals and attractive sleeve art.

How fitting, then, that Idiot Pilot’s tech-metal fusion Strange We Should Meet Here opens with a song called “Losing Color,” and the CD’s cover features a brown-and-black dead tree. Days of the New IV? Afraid not. The only tune with any presence is protest song “To Buy a Gun,” which harks back to the brief heyday of mid-’90s tech-metal gun rock, epitomized by “Hey Man, Nice Shot” and Moby’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” (the heyday was brief). Otherwise, the two Idiot Pilots do everything they can to make their music interesting, but to little avail. They program tricky drum’n’bass rattles, many of which have been done better by my mid-’90s minivan’s engine. They ram metal screams into lugubrious Britpop moans, which might’ve been recorded inside said minivan’s gas tank. But in the end, the minivan’s owner’s manual has more personality.


Idiot Pilot play Crash Mansion September 15.

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The Inception Deception

“I have no idea what I’d do now,” says Audrey Eisen, a 35-year-old microbiologist who lives in Virginia. Eisen is trying to picture herself needing an abortion after the first trimester, or 12 weeks, of pregnancy. The scenario is more than hypothetical for her, since she had an abortion on the first day of her 16th week of pregnancy, after learning the fetus had a severe genetic problem that would cause it a painful death after only a few days of life. That was last year, though, before Congress passed a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.

The new prohibition, which Congress approved on October 21 and which pro-choice groups challenged last Friday, even before President Bush signed it into law, wouldn’t allow Eisen that choice. Its supporters insist the “partial birth” ban targets a single procedure known as dilation and extraction, or D&X. But the legislation makes it illegal to deliver a “living fetus

until either its entire head is outside the body of the mother,” or, in the case of breech presentation, until the fetus is delivered past its navel. That description could apply to other methods, such as dilation and evacuation, which is what Eisen underwent. “What doctor would perform one for me?” asks Eisen. “I’d be stuck.”

Indeed, what began as a clever political ploy could profoundly change the ways some doctors provide abortions, if the legal challenges fail. Even LeRoy Carhart, a plaintiff in both the current challenge to the ban and in the Supreme Court case that declared Nebraska’s ban unconstitutional three years ago, wouldn’t risk his career by breaking the law. “The bill would make most every procedure that I do from the 12th week on illegal,” says Carhart, a specialist in second-trimester abortions. The state could take away the doctor’s license based only on one person’s claim that Carhart performed a “partial-birth” abortion. “And I can’t jeopardize my ability to care for other women” who need abortions in the first trimester, says Carhart, one of only five abortion providers in Nebraska.

There is no such technique as “partial-birth” abortion taught in medical schools or outlined in medical textbooks. Nevertheless, legislators have given that label to a set of steps. And government officials may soon be charged with the most difficult operation of all: enforcing a ban on a procedure that doesn’t exist. To David Grimes, former head of abortion surveillance at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an obstetrician-gynecologist who has treated—and terminated—women’s pregnancies for 30 years, the prospect is as bizarre as it is calamitous.

“What, are enforcement agents going to be stationed in the O.R. with us? And what, are they going to be watching us to make sure we don’t deliver ‘any part of the fetal trunk past the navel’?” he says, reading from the bill. “What does that mean, anyway? Does ‘past’ mean above or below? It’s all just obstetrical nonsense.” Nonsense though it may be, the “partial-birth” ban and the debate over it have been extremely effective in pushing moderates over the fence into the anti-abortion camp since the term itself emerged eight years ago. In 1996 and 1997, two similar bills were passed by Congress before being vetoed by President Clinton.

Now, for the first time, Congress has criminalized a safe medical procedure. In the meantime, mainstream media have gradually erased the quotation marks around the term, accepting the strategic characterization as fact—and tilting the political terrain.

That the term “partial-birth” was intended as a political crowbar is an open secret. “The ‘partial-birth’ abortion ban is a political scam but a public relations gold mine,” Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry has admitted. “The benefit of the bill is the debate that surrounds it.” Supporters are already capitalizing on the victory. ” ‘Partial-birth’ abortion is but the tip of an ugly and an unseemly iceberg,” Representative Chris Smith, a pro-life New Jersey Republican, announced after the abortion ban cleared the Senate last month. “Let us be clear: Abortion is child abuse.”

The new law is anything but clear, though. While supporters say the ban focuses on D&X, which they say is a type of late-term abortion, the legal description of the procedure is broad enough to apply to techniques performed as early as 12 weeks. It was partly for this reason that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Nebraska’s ban three years ago in a 5-4 decision. This time, anti-abortion lawmakers could have narrowed the definition (and allowed the procedure when a woman’s health was at stake). Instead, they took a gamble, leaving in those parts of the law—the reasons the justices found it unconstitutional the first time around.

“It would have been very simple for them to ban D&X. The Supreme Court told them how to do it,” says Priscilla Smith, director of the domestic legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. So why would ban supporters choose to target a wide range of abortions when they knew that similar laws didn’t hold up in court? “They want to ban all abortions, so they’re starting with earlier ones,” says Smith. Even if pro-choice groups succeed in making the law permanently unenforceable, this long shot has made a strong statement. But if the legal challenge somehow fails now, or if the case makes it back to the Supreme Court and the court’s makeup shifts by even a single vote, the law will achieve much, much more.

“It could definitely affect what I do,” says Paul Blumenthal, a provider of abortions and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins University. Even if he doesn’t begin with the intention of performing any of the steps outlined in the law, Blumenthal says, things can change quickly during the course of an abortion: “Something can happen and then I have to proceed in a way that can cross the line. I wouldn’t have time to call the legislature and get an injunction.”

Of course, for abortion providers to actually get arrested, there would have to be witnesses. “All you need is a couple of zealots,” explains Wendy Chavkin, chairperson of the New York-based Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. “If some anti-abortion nurse teams up with a prosecutor, a physician could face these trumped-up allegations and prison.” Indeed, there is precedent for anti-abortion medical practitioners spurring prosecutions of their colleagues. In 1975, Massachusetts physician Ken Edelin was indicted for manslaughter after performing a legal abortion at Boston City Hospital—based on a tip from operating room staff. While any arrest can’t happen until the court challenge is decided, the possibility is enough to deter some doctors. “Physicians have known for a while that abortion providers have to face picketers, harassment, the harassment of their families, and bullets,” says Chavkin. “Now they have to worry that somebody is going to make this claim against them.”

Some doctors may think they’re impervious to the threat, though—or maybe it’s that the ban’s coy legal language is truly lost on them. Albert Thomas, director of obstetrics and family planning at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, has done “hundreds and hundreds” of second-trimester abortions. Many of these women, he says, knew they wanted abortions early in pregnancy but ended up in the second trimester because of problems finding payment. Others came from states where they couldn’t find abortion providers. Others, like Audrey Eisen, didn’t discover problems with the fetus until well into pregnancy. Though confusion over the ban may tie up the courts for years to come, to Thomas the matter is simple: “I don’t do anything called a ‘partial-birth’ abortion,” he says, “because that just isn’t a medical procedure.”

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Music

THE VULGAR BOATMEN

Wide Awake

(No Nostalgia)

Five girls’ names show up on 20 titles by a Florida-cum-Midwest art-school collective. Many more appear in the lyrics, where nothing much happens. Lots of car songs, droning with late-night country-drive rhythms—think “State Trooper,” off Nebraska. The lack of action occurs on porches and driveways, on business trips, at the railway station or airport, next to the phone. Everybody’s leavin’ town. On this comp spanning three ’90s albums plus, the title track, about hearing “Mary Jane” on Chicago’s WXRT, is even better than “Mary Jane” itself. Rock-critic-fans-to-regular-fans ratio: Extremely high.


JEFF DAHL

Street Fighting Reptile

(Steel Cage)

Responsible for 1977’s definitive “Rock and Roll Critic” 45, then for helping introduce ’60s garage and ’70s metal to L.A. hardcore in Vox Pop, the Angry Samoans, and Powertrip, the lizardlike Dahl has spent the past 13 years putting out unheard albums in Arizona. His latest is way-glam: back-alley transsexual vampires all dragged up with nowhere to go, Dolls-style girl-group backup, updated “Ballad of Mott the Hoople.” “Road to Madrid” hints at the beatnik-tapestry beauty of Peter Laughner toasting Baudelaire; the title bruiser has a hot fake Nugent riff. And there’s a blackout song.


THE QUICK

Untold Rock Stories

(Rev-Ola import)

Bored decadence in suburbia—latchkey nubiles home alone, headmasters, neo-Nazis, and (in “Blackout”!) pedophilia at a Boy Scout jamboree. Spoiled Anglophiles, assisted by Kim Fowley, cutting demos for Mercury and Elektra in ’70s L.A. Between the icky cover versions (Frankie Valli, Judy Garland, “Born Free”), baroque post-10cc/pre-XTC keyboard and guitar frills match the gloriously prissy Aryan-eunuch-on-helium Russell Mael mimicry of sailor-suit-wearing Danny Wilde, who later wrote the theme for Friends. The 1976 stuff’s hard-rock concision is more akin to passing glitter than impending powerpop; by 1978, there’s more meat but less personality. So maybe punk scared them.

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Accidentally on Purpose

Born in 1980 in Omaha, Nebraska, Conor Oberst has been recording since age 13, and has already released seven CDs documenting his prodigious lyricism, egregious pessimism, indiscriminate romanticism, and passionate belief that his self-inflicted darkness can be chased away, or at least held at bay, by guitars and four-track tape machines, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll go back to “drinking like the way I drank before.” He’s like that, Conor is. Long-winded, in a rush, exhaling lyric after lyric with little regard for meter, rhyme, or artistic decorum. Self-expression above all. And Lord, can this boy express himself.

Four of his records are with a mix-and-match band called Bright Eyes, one with the fine and yowling Desaparecidos, and two with his first band, Commander Venus. There are also several Bright Eyes EPs and a split album of orchestral pop with a sideman’s band, Son, Ambulance, who sound slightly less lacerated by life’s ordinary ups and downs than Oberst, and who prove that the tradition of Gilbert O’Sullivan remains alive and well in the Midwest. In short, enough music to provide a soundtrack to an entire life, which is just the impression that Oberst wants to give: his every experience and feeling documented, and you are there. This would be tedious stuff without talent, but Oberst has rare gifts. For one thing, an absolutely unerring sense of the dramatic.

His vocals are always raw, on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough; as a songwriter, he leans on pregnant pauses that explode his tunes forward and saturate his simplest acoustic strummings with a dark pageantry worthy of Joy Division, or at least Echo and the Bunnymen. His narrative voice constantly edges toward the prophetic, which is perhaps the legacy of a childhood spent in Catholic school, and certainly the cause of the usual misguided Dylan comparisons. Oberst, though, cares nothing for the blues and lacks Dylan’s studied timelessness. He is all about capturing the moment. His songs unfold as carefully planned accidents.

Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground collects his finest accidents yet. The music is scored for guitar, banjo, dulcimer, oboe, flute, violin, cello, French horn, trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and what sounds like a gurgling bong; “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?” Oberst asks at the start of the final song, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved).” Some tracks are nothing more than scratches of guitar; others are inebriated country waltzes; one attempts a funk beat and, in the course of pondering the efficacy of desperate after-show sex, offers up the immortal line, “Your tongue in my mouth/ Trying to keep the words from coming out.”

Onstage at Irving Plaza September 20, it took a 14-piece band of multi-instrumentalists to reanimate Lifted‘s expansive arrangements. The music was ragged when it wanted to be, precise when it needed to be, with three drummers and a woodwind section that filled the air with delicate ’60s pop colors. At times, you felt you were in the room with the most ambitious and spirited band indie-rock has ever seen; at other times, it had the disarming intimacy of a high school band recital.

Bright Eyes albums are nothing if not obsessive—on two different records Oberst recalls that first kiss in attic, and the same summer rooftop party pops up more than once as well. But Lifted is different. Not a single song sounds like it was written and recorded in a closet, and while every lyric retains the air of impossibly direct confession, Oberst’s world now seems larger, populated. This may be the lesson of the other excellent album he released this year, Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish, where he steps to the mic fronting a guitar band and spews rage about the endless demands and compromises that the working life heaps on real people. Its lyrics jammed with shopping bags and malls and 14-hour days and SUVs, it’s a remarkable achievement for a boho who spends most of his time on a narcissistic quest for love. In the opening track Oberst imagines himself as a wage slave whose wife urges him to cut down on the coffee: “Baby, all that caffeine causes bad dreams. Where all your anxieties are released.” Seven songs later, he’s a money pig bent on building a factory the size of a country. Either way he’s stepping out of himself, giving voice to those desperate to “enroll in that middle class.” When he made Lifted, some of those voices stayed with him.

Lifted returns again and again to the idea of rapture, of being lifted above the pain and darkness of earthly life. By God, by song, by friendship, by love, by drink, by desperate after-show sex. It is a strangely religious album; every once in a while Oberst’s characters seem to have wandered in from a Flannery O’Connor story or a Walker Percy novel—whether they know it or not, they’re searching for good in a world that gives them nothing but bad. There are moments—more than a few—when the language drifts into that of a striving short story or descends into adolescent prattle about beauty and art, but I catch myself wondering at those moments why I find talk about beauty and art so very adolescent. Such is the challenge Lifted presents: the challenge of faith. It is frankly sentimental music, lost in memory, full of mistakes. Give it a chance and it will take you backward to a time when you believed in something that you don’t believe in anymore. And then, if you’re like me, when it’s over, you’ll remember you live in New York, not Nebraska, and turn on the TV.

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A Real Man

When you consider what happened to the now famous transsexual Brandon Teena in Nebraska in 1993, you begin to appreciate how much courage it takes to be a man. To be a man, that is, when you started life as a woman. The current film ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ tells the story of Brandon Teena (née Teena Brandon) in graphic detail. (The film’s director, Kimberly Peirce, first encountered the story, as broken by Donna Minkowitz, in The ‘Village Voice’ of April 19, 1994, and was inspired to turn it into a movie.) Though born and raised a girl, in her late teens and early twenties Brandon lived as a young man in Lincoln and then rural Nebraska, managing at first to fool her group of intimate friends and even the teenage girls she dated
into believing she was male. When two of Brandon’s male friends discovered her secret, they beat and raped her brutally. A week later, they hunted her down; along with two other occupants of her house she was shot at point-blank range, but she alone was stabbed in the belly with a hunting knife.


Though Drew Seidman lives in New York City, where gender is a bit more fluid than in the white-bread hinterlands of the Midwest, every day the 23-year-old has to live with the knowledge that the same thing could one day happen to him. November marks the sixth month of a female-to-male sex change process that he’s chosen to undergo.


“I know I’m a target,” he says calmly, “but I think I’m less of a target than ‘m-to-f’s” (that is, male-to-female transsexuals). “Most people just think I’m a kid in a baseball hat,” he adds, shrugging. And he’s right. If you’re a six-foot blonde ex-male with hands and feet the size of Brooklyn, you’re probably never quite going to pass muster as a female. But the five-foot-five-inch, 145-pound Drew, whose mannerisms are astoundingly boyish and whose voice is starting to sound almost like a grown man’s, passes most of the time, even though his name is a little androgynous. He took it from his favorite great-grandfather, who taught him fishing and carpentry.


EDrew, formerly Susan, began the process of changing his sex by seeing a psychotherapist who, after several months of analysis, provided him with a letter to a physician from whom he could then obtain a prescription for hormones. He started self-injecting 200 mg of a testosterone compound, or “T” as he calls it, back in June. He has been administering a one cc intramuscular injection every two weeks ever since. (Insurance covers none of these injections until an official name and sex change is made on legal documents, allowing the newly “male” person to claim them as coverable male-hormone therapy. A three-month supply of “T” usually costs between $40 and $100. A supply of syringes is an extra $60.)


By August, Susan’s vocal cords had begun to thicken and, after one brief episode of bleeding, her period was gone. She-now he-hasn’t seen it since. Soon other male secondary sex characteristics started to manifest themselves.


“My sex drive went through the roof,” Drew says. “I felt like I had to have sex once a day or I would die.” He also says that he became increasingly aroused by even simple visual stimuli, such as a beautiful girl walking down the street. “I was into porn as a girl,” he says, “but now I’m really into porn.” He laughs and adds, “It really gives me insight on males.”


He has begun to grow a peach-fuzz beard, which he shaves ritually. The stubble is very fine and soft, and may never produce anything that really resembles a full beard, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility; some female-to-males enjoy copious growths of facial hair. Patches of hair are beginning to come in on his chest, on his knuckles, and on the backs of his hands, but nothing you’d spot if he didn’t point it out. He’s also begun to notice that he has more energy and stamina than he had before, and he seems to be experiencing a second adolescence-though, of course, a peculiarly boyish one.


“It’s weird,” he says. “I do things that teenage boys like to do. I go out and eat large amounts of really gross food, and I laugh at dumb jokes.”


But other effects of testosterone don’t seem to have played a role in Drew’s transformation. He says he thinks that it’s mostly a myth, for example, that testosterone causes undue aggression to manifest itself. On the contrary, he says that testosterone has had a calming effect on him, which may be in part because the rage and confusion Susan felt as a woman has been mitigated by becoming a man. The conflict has been largely resolved, and Drew says he feels much better in his skin than he did before making the switch.

[


But the switch is by no means complete. Slowly Drew’s body is growing bigger. His neck is an inch thicker than it was, his calves an inch and a half, his biceps almost two inches. His thighs are nearly two inches leaner, and the weight that used to reside there has redeposited itself around his waist. “I have a little belly now,” he jokes, lifting up his shirt to show me. He then proceeds to open more of his shirt to show off his newly enlarged and defined shoulder muscles and a heftier set of pecs underneath his deflating but still bound breasts. He plans to have both breasts removed in February when he goes in for some basic f-to-m surgery: a double mastectomy.


Drew plans to undergo a minimally invasive type of mastectomy in which the surgeon will make a small incision below the nipple. Through that aperture the breast tissue will
be removed. Sometimes this entails liposuction, after which the incision will be stitched, leaving a barely noticeable scar behind. (The nipples will later be appropriately resized and repositioned to appear male.) For up to three months after the surgery, Drew will have to wear a compression vest that will enable his skin to attach itself to the newly exposed pectoral muscles. Then, if all goes well-and, presumably, if Drew builds a musculature he’s proud of-he’ll be able to walk around in public without a shirt.


“I’ve spent my whole life hunching my shoulders in order to hide my breasts. When I was a teenager, my parents even sent me to a doctor hoping to cure my bad posture. Last year, when I told them I was transitioning, I was finally able to tell them why I had been slouching all my life. I had always hated my breasts.”


Most women must understand the enormous sense of liberation entailed in doffing one’s shirt in public with impunity. When many of these women were girls, being able to go shirtless on a hot day had to have ranked as one of the most enviable advantages of being a boy, along with being able to urinate standing up.


Drew remembers this as his first childhood obsession with being like the boys. “I always wanted to pee standing up. I finally devised a way to do it in the woods, but it wasn’t the same.” At five, Susan was placing rolled socks in her underwear and looking at herself in the mirror. “It just seemed righter,” Drew says.


Of course, believers in reincarnation have little trouble explaining this phenomenon of feeling more at home in the body of the opposite sex, but the rest of us generally have a difficult time getting our minds around it. The stereotypical explanation we most often hear for transsexualism is one in which the person describes feeling like a woman “trapped” in a man’s body or vice versa. Although Drew makes a point of saying that he by no means speaks for all or even most transsexuals, he mostly subscribes to this typical view.


But there’s more to it, he explains. “It’s much more than skin I’m wearing,” he observes, describing his situation in what seems a much more organic way. He says he opted to change his sex because he couldn’t envision a future as a woman. He couldn’t imagine growing old as a woman. The bottom line is that Drew wants to be seen, on the outside, the way Susan has always felt on the inside-as male.


He doesn’t discount the past life explanation entirely, but he doesn’t lend it undue credence, either. “I went to see a fortune-teller on the beach in Venice once,” he recounts, “and I asked her about my past lives. She said that she had never seen this before, but that in every one of my previous lives I had been a man. For whatever that’s worth.”


Drew doesn’t seem sure about whether or not he’ll opt for surgery below the waist, partly because it’s expensive, and partly because it’s a much more involved procedure than a mastectomy. He has basically two options.


One surgery, called metaidoioplasty, would take his already enlarged clitoris (the testosterone alone has made it grow to about three times its normal size) and disconnect the lower part of it from the vulva, making it into a kind of miniature or micropenis. The surgeons would also reroute the urethra through the new phallus, thereby enabling Drew to urinate standing up. Thereafter, he could use a pump that would stretch the blood vessels and might enlarge the penis slightly. This surgery would allow him to retain sexual feeling.

[


The other surgery, phalloplasty, which Drew says he’s not considering, entails taking a large skin graft from the inside of the forearm, wrapping it around grafted fatty tissue, and fashioning something that resembles a normal size penis. This penis would, of course, not be sexually functional or sentient, so what Drew might gain in size he would lose in performance and, to a certain degree, in satisfaction.


In general, these surgeries range in cost from $18,000 to $65,000. Some surgery may be covered by insurance; how much depends on how insistent a person is and on whether or not a mastectomy (or a hysterectomy) can be justified medically. This, of course, means that such justifications must be made before the person changes her name, and therefore her sex; many non-transsexual women undergo these surgeries for other reasons. Persuading insurance companies to cover these procedures is apparently not onerous, or there are a lot
of pre-op transsexuals willing to scrape the bucks together: Of the estimated 30,000 self-
labeled transsexuals worldwide (10,000 in the U.S. alone), between 3000 and 10,000 have
undergone surgery.


But whatever the relative losses and/or gains involved, Drew is sure that the choice he’s made is the right one. Unlike a great many transsexuals, he’s been blessed with a girlfriend who was his lesbian lover when he was a woman and has been willing to brook his change into a male. That, in itself, is rather miraculous. Likewise he has a family that accepts him completely. His four sisters refer to him as their brother, and introduce him as such to their friends. His parents call him their son, and treat him like one-which means that he and his father now enjoy man-to-man chats.


“My uncle doesn’t hug me when he sees me anymore, the way he did when I was a woman,” Drew says. “He shakes my hand now. It feels great.”


When someone calls him “sir”-whether it’s on the street, in a restaurant, or in a bar-Drew still gets a charge out of it. But, of course, this raises the sticky question of what makes a man a man. What, after all, does calling someone “sir” or being fooled into doing so really mean in a society as androgynous as ours? Non-transsexual people are mistaken for the opposite sex every day. So what is it that will finally draw the line? Will it be when the breasts are gone and the approximated penis is in place, or will it be when Drew has lived as a man for a good 10 years? After all, most of being and feeling like one sex or the other has to do with being treated like a member of that sex. Drew won’t really know what it’s like to be a man until he has lived it for a long enough period of time to make it count. Having missed boyhood, the most formative years of gender identification, he may never feel quite like a “real” man.


Drew has had arguments about this very question with guys in bars. He relates it this way: “They tell me that wanting to be a man and having surgery can’t make me a man.” And it’s true that Drew will never have a genuine
penis, and perhaps most importantly wasn’t born with one, but he insists that this doesn’t matter. “I’m not sure I can tell you what makes a man a man,” he says, “but I know it’s not a penis.”


He has a point. Most people would agree that if you lop off a traditional biological male’s penis, or even if you merely castrate him, he doesn’t cease to be male. He wouldn’t then pass for a woman on the street, for example. So is it primarily our hormones that make us what we are? This seems truer, since they are responsible for so much of what we associate with each sex. Hormones are, after all, the prime ingredient in Drew’s transformation. Removing the organs is entirely cosmetic-a far less subtle and complex process, if for no other reason than reconfiguring one’s various knobs and crevices has no chemical effect on the brain.


But these kinds of questions don’t seem to bother Drew much. He’s more concerned with enjoying his new life, and appears content to let the rest of us bicker over the details. Smiling his slightly too pretty smile, he sums it up quite simply: “I just can’t wait to be a dad.”

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Just Between Friends

At their second New York appearance together since the Go-Betweens’ breakup, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster played to a packed Merc June 8 with no backup, little patter, and the bemused geniality of former allies in a lost cause.

In the postpunk ’80s, the Go-Betweens were like farmers battling cowboys over homesteads in Nebraska. They wanted to stay in one place and make things grow. They were wrestling with feminism and funny about it, always losing arguments with women who wanted to take other lovers (though satisfied with them). Spiking grubby credibility with irrational elation and plainstyle poetics with a radiant sound McLennan once dubbed the “striped sunlight effect” (as through Venetian blinds), their struggles were so sharply delineated fans could believe the songs were about themselves.

The Merc fans gave back keen attention, effortless sing-along, knowing nods at fine phrases, a communally drawn breath as McLennan uttered his plaintive rallying cry, “Faithful‘s not a bad word.” But the mood was hardly slavish; nor was that what either performer seemed to want. When McLennan asked the crowd, “How did that sound?” after the song was over, it was a pleasantly businesslike question.

“Bachelor Kisses” was certainly a high point, though the hour-and-a-half, three-encore set was consistently strong. It made room for solo material, songs they’d just written, and lots of titles from the new (but never cited) best-of Bellavista Terrace. My own favorite was Forster’s “Danger in the Past,” where, moved by the crowd response to his rhyme of “curse” with “Perth,” he fell into a spasm of comic miming. While McLennan, now a cute, graying middle-aged man, was dressed more stolidly than anyone else in the room, Forster was foppish in cream suit and lipstick. In the old days, while his bandmates wore street clothes or Sunday best, his hair color changed and leotards made you wonder what tensions that caused, or expressed— though it was tensions with the pair’s musical and romantic partners, Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, that proved terminal. Yet a peculiarly kindred spirit remains at the band’s old core. As to full-scale reunion, was there anything they could do? Probably not, but on this scale there might be something. — Carola Dibbell


Magmanimous

Explaining Magma to nonbelievers is likely to prompt much eye-rolling. OK, there’s this prog band, they’re French, and they invented their own language. (Kobaian, the better to express an endearingly anachronistic futurism centering around the outer-space Eden of Kobaia.) But any doubters at Wetlands last Tuesday got their asses whupped. At their first NYC appearance in 26 years, Magma put on a dazzling display— ridiculously ambitious, utterly in control, rocking as hell. Lengthy pieces— they played four songs in about 90 minutes— ended in enormous, ecstatic crescendos. Drummer, founder, and guiding
spirit Christian Vander— whose portly frame,
ruddy face, odd hair, and facial contortions made him resemble a monk gone to seed— seemed tentative as they opened with “Köhntarközs.” But the piece combusted after about 20 minutes, or roughly the halfway point. Later the seven piece— drums, keys, guitar, bass, and three vocalists— had fans singing along. In Kobaian. Less obsessive onlookers marveled at an emotional and spiritual expressionism rarely associated with prog.

Perhaps even more than other ’70s Euro art rockers, Magma make for difficult description. Not jazz, though Vander’s a Coltrane freak; not rock, though the guitar and bass are miles more wrenching than fusion; certainly not classical, despite the pomp and the “operatic” vocals. The singers wrung arresting choral effects from hisses, whispers, frantic chanting, and baroque wails. When their melodic lines doubled the keys or guitars, it maximized the high-end impact— a good thing, given Vander’s attack and the brawny bass lines slammed out by Philippe Bussonnet. One beauty of Kobaian is that since the language is inaccessible, all attention is focused on the
overall sonic richness. “It is not music for short attention spans,” went Giorgio Gomelsky’s introduction. “Anyone with a short attention span should go to the Knitting Factory.” At the merch booth, $30 brass belt buckles depicting Magma’s bat-wing­esque logo sold out. Sun Ra, wherever you are, eat your heart out. — Jon Fine


Off the Scale

“The harder you hit, the more shit I’m gonna give you. It’s that fuckin’ easy,” drawls the carny hawking his Test Your Strength meter at Ozzfest’s Never Never Land. His pitch goes unnoticed: today, hell’s just too fuckin’ hot. But wait, who’s that picking up the mallet, aiming for the metal mark?

It’s the Swedish chicks from Drain S.T.H.! With a hard thwack of the hammer the meter
rises while the boys in the crowd cheer. Up, up, up, the meter registers Brute! (“Not only do they rock, but they harmonize!”) System of a Down step up to the plate and surprise the masses with their Muscle Man reading. (“They yell ‘Kosovo! NATO! Do you know why?’ They question authority!”) Godsmack don’t fare as well, recording a Nice Try. (“But keep up the droning morning affirmation of ‘I’m doing the best I can!’ over and over and over.”) Next, Primus two-step their way to the mark. With a twang and a thudump, the gauge soars. It’s a Manwich! (“Primus suck! The mystery man disguised in a KFC bucket, swinging a neon nunchaku, is a hollerin’ hoot!”) Slayer don’t disappoint either, scoring Brute on the thrash-o-meter. (“The crowd pumps devil-horned fists! Slayer throw out signature drumsticks!”) Godsmack smile when the Deftones fall short of the Nice Try mark. Their incessant stating of the obvious— “This is the hottest show yet”— earn them Weakling. (“No shit it’s hot! We’re all gonna burn in hell!”) Then Rob Zombie stomps through in a blaze of pyrotechnics and proceeds to use his head as the hammer. It’s a He-Man Richter rating! (“Not only does he know how to make an impression but he’s a feminist too: ‘You are the Sabbath girls!’ ‘You are not the nice girls!’ “) With the sun safely set, Ozzy Osbourne cometh forth. His audience bows in deference. The Test Your Strength meter reads an unprecedented Iron Man before crumbling into a pile of dust. — Carla Spartos