Archive for the 'R.I.P.' Category

R.I.P./From the deep archives: Don Williams

September 14, 2017

I grew up listening to country music because that’s all my parents played around the house. (My father lovingly called it “hillbilly music.” I won’t mention his all-purpose epithet for pop music.) So when I started writing record reviews as a rock critic, I specialized in writing about country music because most of my peers didn’t know or didn’t care much about the field. It amused me to get a reputation as a young journalist who wrote about gay literature, avant-garde theater, AND country music. One of my first pieces for the Village Voice when I moved to New York was a review of the latest album by Don Williams, a wonderful country singer who died last week at the age of 78.

‘Tis a gift to be simple, and Don Williams is c&w Christmas. Dubbed “the gentle giant” by his Nashville constituency and revered by rock stars like Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, he sings spare, laconic songs of heart and home with the imperturbable modesty of a man who never raises his voice. Straight in every sense of the world – morally upright, poker-faced, drug-free, unimpeachably heterosexual – Williams projects a staunch (though unpushy) Puritanism, both in his musical austerity and in his conventional domestic romanticism. His courtliness places him in the tradition of polite country crooners such as Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves; among today’s candidates, Jesse Winchester falls into that category, unlike Kenny Rogers, whose penchant for lurid, Peckinpah-ish soap operas belies his mannerly pose. And though Williams began his career as part of the pop-folk duo, The Pozo Seco Singers (best known for “Time”), his fiddle-and-pedal-steel-reinforced music places him in the country tradition rather than in pop. Actually, he’s almost as much a folkie as a country singer; he favors a stripped-down, acoustic sound that carefully distinguishes him from both Billy Sherrill’s hypercommercial c&w machine and the rock-oriented “outlaw” pack.

I haven’t listened to his music in many years but I liked what I heard. I just added my Voice piece to my writing archive. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

R.I.P.: Sam Shepard

August 10, 2017

It’s a very strange experience to write a biography of someone who’s still alive, as I did in 1984 when Sam Shepard was 41 and I was 30 (we were kids! I can say in retrospect). And then it’s even weirder when that person dies. I’ve been tracking Shepard’s artistic career and personal life with varying degrees of intensity for more than three decades, so his death July 27 hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much My Subject but a kind of alter-ego.


When I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on his Hollywood celebrity (the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange), I took the assignment for two reasons: 1) because I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays (like The Tooth of Crime) and 2) because I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father. I didn’t meet him in the course of writing the book nor while revising the biography for a second edition, published in 1997 when the Broadway debut of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child dangled the promise of some new attention to the now-certified movie star’s theatrical body of work.

It wasn’t until 2003 until I finally got to sit down with him in St. Paul, MN, for a nuts-and-bolts interview for American Theater magazine; we talked again the following year in New York when I interviewed him for the Village Voice about his 2004 play The God of Hell. I feel like I know more about his personal life than anyone who’s not a friend needs to know (he was pretty private, and I respect that). I feel like I know a lot about him as an artist, which matters a lot more to me, and what I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside.

In films Shepard reliably represented the many faces of craggy masculinity. It’s no disrespect to say he wasn’t a great actor – he was an economical performer and an iconic presence, which suited most of his film roles. His most memorable performance, for me, was playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. I weep just thinking about the way he pulled Ethan Hawke into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!” His best-known stage plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind) revolve round the relatable subject of family life, presented in all its combative, hilarious, ridiculous mythological depth.


I always preferred his quirkier, stranger, more poetic and absurdist work because I felt him exercising his deepest passions there. (His 2012 play Heartless, above, produced by Signature Theater, is right up there with the wildest and craziest of his plays.) What I learned from meeting and writing about him was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. He cared shockingly little about contemporary theater and only late in life delved into Shakespeare and the Greeks. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses (raising them and riding them). Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss. These are the layers and flavors of Shepard’s work that I think will reveal themselves more as time goes by.

R.I.P. Mark Thompson

March 20, 2017

The latest issue of RFD, the radical faerie digest, is rightfully dedicated to commemorating Mark Thompson, the visionary gay writer and editor who died last August at the age of 63.

As I say in my contribution to the issue:

The radical faerie world will always be indebted to Mark Thompson for his skill and generosity in chronicling the emergence of this gay spiritual movement as a professional journalist and as an observer-participant. He attended the legendary first “Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies” Labor Day weekend 1979 in the Arizona desert, convened by Harry Hay, Mitch Walker, and Don Kilhefner, and he wrote about it in Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, his ground-breaking anthology of writings that linked contemporary gay liberation thought to previous generations of gay visionary writing by the likes of Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, and Gerald Heard. Few books ever published have had as big an impact on the gay world as Gay Spirit did. It emerged from and contributed to a hunger for deep exploration of gay people’s evolutionary purpose on the planet, and it spawned a small but important pocket of gay scholarship that manifest in essential titles such as Randy Conner’s Blossom of Bone and Walter L. Williams’ The Spirit and the Flesh.

I am pleased to have my short essay published alongside the work of many dear friends and colleagues, including Andrew Ramer, Winston Wilde, Robert Croonquist (Covelo), Keith Gemerek, Bo Young, Stephen Silha, and Leng Lim. You can find the magazine in the kind of bookstores that still carry small-press gay journals, or you find out how to order it online here.

Here is my piece (click to enlarge):

R.I.P.: Edward Albee

September 18, 2016

Edward Albee, the great American playwright who died last week at the age of 88, had one of the weirdest lives of any famous American writer. Adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple, Albee grew up in WASP splendor. He was driven to Broadway shows as a child in one of the family’s two Rolls-Royces, and every winter the clan decamped from the New York suburb of Larchmont to Palm Beach, traveling to Florida in his grandmother’s two private railroad cars hooked to the back of a passenger train. Lavished with money but emotionally frozen out by his pallid father and “dragon lady” mother, Albee fled the family at 20, spent a decade fumbling around Greenwich Village, and emerged at 30 a full-fledged playwright with 1959’s The Zoo Story, an existential encounter between two strangers on a park bench.

Over the next six years, he had four more enormous successes, none greater than the 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play for which he will always be best known. This remarkable explosion of literary talent — all the more amazing for being dyspeptic, intellectually challenging, anything but warm and fuzzy — was followed by nearly 20 years of serious drinking and a string of increasingly mediocre plays. And then, just when it was time for him to die of an overdose or something, Albee zoomed back to prominence in 1994 with Three Tall Women, for which he was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize for drama. That play was an astonishingly gracious and poignant character study of the imperious, bigoted mother who insulted his friends, snubbed his lovers, and ultimately disinherited him because he is gay. This triumph launched a sweet late stage of Albee’s career, which included a number of minor playful new scripts, several major revivals, and one substantial new play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.

I saw most of Albee’s work – the good, the bad, and the medium – and wrote about some of it. My one and only close encounter with the man himself came when I got the plum assignment to interview him for American Theater in 1992. This was, mind you, just before Three Tall Women zoomed him back to the forefront of the field. At the time I met him, he was teaching at the University of Houston and directing Shirley Knight and Tom Klunis in the American premiere of a tepid two-hander called Marriage Play. I was excited at the prospect – who wouldn’t want to meet the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – yet also wary. I’d spent a couple of days at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts reading every interview he’d ever done and noticed that he was always asked the same boring obvious questions and always gave the same boring pompous answers, practically verbatim. Having recently had a big success publishing an extremely cheeky Q-and-A with Madonna (see “The X-Rated Interview”), I was determined to make this conversation with Edward Albee something other than same-old-same-old.

edward-albee-1961-by-philippe-halsman                                              Edward Albee 1961, photographed by Philippe Halsman

The experience itself was underwhelming. My typewritten transcript begins: “Interview with Edward Albee in Houston, January 4, 1992, at his apartment in Houston House. Met me at the door wearing tinted glasses, familiar wrinkled leathery skin, dark blue knit shirt. A black cat (with white and orange trim) running around the house, a stray named Biscuit. The walls covered with art, most of it ghastly student work. Didn’t offer me anything to drink, just plunked down and started to talk. ‘I’ve been interviewed so much even in the last couple of years that I feel like everything’s been covered…’”

Later that day, I wrote in my diary: “Did the Albee interview at 11, talked for about two hours. Disappointing. What a frightened, tense, guarded man he is. I felt like I should have given him a massage before trying to interview him. Like the typical American man, he has a great deal of difficulty admitting to fear, weakness, self-doubt, vulnerability. Tyrannized by shoulds and imprisoned by his self-image. Deeply disingenuous — wants to have everything both ways. He shouldn’t have to give names to characters because it’s a waste of names — he likes that line and uses it often, ‘it’s a waste of names’ — but then he goes ahead and gives his characters symbolic names like Jack and Jill/Gillian, and then denies that they have symbolic value. He says Virginia Woolf is not about a gay couple but then says that gay and straight relationships are just the same. He’s never denied being gay but until recently he never made a positive statement either, which is like saying I’ve never voted Republican, therefore I’m a Democrat…

“When I came in, we sat right down and started –he didn’t offer me anything to drink, and he didn’t ask me what I thought of Marriage Play. I made cat chat and talked about living in Houston, otherwise there would have been no preamble to the interview. I was very diligent about thwarting him every time he went into one of his tape loops – ‘The purpose of art is…EJECT.’ He sat on the sofa, I sat on a chair, but he was so soft-spoken I moved closer, then partway into the interview I asked him to change places with me because the light from outside was reflecting onto his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. He was surprisingly at ease talking about gay stuff, and I got the impression that he would have been perfectly happy to gossip and chat about that stuff for hours. But he had rehearsal at 1, so I didn’t get to ask him everything I wanted to know. Don’t feel inclined to call him up and ask him the other questions, because he’s so clearly full of denial, self-deception, and forgetfulness that it’s fruitless to press for more self-revelation. He seemed to like me, though, and in a veiled way was somewhat flirtatious — asked me how long I would be in town, gave me his phone number. On the elevator he mentioned that Danny Kaye apparently had a love affair with Laurence Olivier.”

I went home, wrote the story, and handed it in to my editor, Jim O’Quinn. Besides being a legendary great magazine editor, Jim was an old friend and champion of mine who supported me wholeheartedly, gave me great assignments, and loved virtually everything I wrote. With the Albee piece, something unprecedented happened. Jim let me know that the publishers of American Theater magazine (Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch) objected to my challenging, somewhat bratty tone, thought I was badgering the artist in a way that was unseemly, and insisted that certain passages be cut. I’d never encountered this kind of interference from the upper echelons of Theater Communications Group, and being the stubborn Taurus that I am, I fought the cuts fiercely. In particular I had talked to Albee about his long relationships with composer William Flanagan and playwright Terrence McNally and wondered how come he never portrayed gay relationships like that in his plays. Apparently Peter Zeisler told Jim that “under no circumstances will the names of people Albee slept with 20 years ago, famous or no, appear in our pages.” I found this insulting and offensive and said so. Ultimately, though, I agreed to the cuts, and the piece was published to no big fanfare. Looking back at the correspondence now, it strikes me as pretty funny – I’m sort of impressed at how passionate I felt about these things. On my website, I’ve posted the article as it appeared in American Theater with the cuts restored. You can read it online here.

When I go back and re-read the unedited transcript, I experience Albee’s personality with great vividness, both his brittle exterior and the tender person just beneath that. I frequently quote something he said to me that day: “I suffer from CRAFT disease – Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.” And I’m amused at the exchange we had about the light reflecting off his glasses. He was in the middle of an oft-repeated stale commentary about how Broadway should function as the American national theater when I interrupted him.

Me: Could we change places? The light is shining against your glasses, and I can’t see your eyes. Thanks. Continue.

Albee: I’ve finished that one.

Me: This is much better. I can see your eyes and get the whole face.

Albee: I’ll have to be more deceptive.

 

 

R.I.P. Dan Hicks

February 8, 2016

Another one bites the dust! Of all the pop music titans who’ve left us recently, Dan Hicks mattered most of all to me. His quick-witted, sophisticated folk-jazz brought great joy into my music-loving life, from the very first minute that Jay Junker, my high school cultural mentor, sat me down in 1971 and played me Where’s the Money?, the great second album from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. I’ve always loved dreamy-creamy close-harmony singing (the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Manhattan Transfer, the Hi-Los, the Roches, etc.) but Dan Hicks brought out the potential for comedy, wit, and sheer exhilaration in his fast funny songs. As Peter Keepnews noted in his New York Times obituary of Hicks, “He drew from the American folk tradition but also from the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, the Western swing of Bob Wills, the harmony vocals of the Andrews Sisters, the raucous humor of Fats Waller and numerous other sources.” He was great in concert, droll and dry in his humor. Not dry in his substance intake — the man liked his liquor and probably other substances. (When I met Maryann Price, one of the original Hot Licks, in 1980, she mentioned darkly that the band had gone off the deep end with their drug use and she “had go in there and clean up!”) Anyway, you can listen to Where’s the Money? yourself and see how thrilling they were live (click on the YouTube video below). And check out the Oxford American magazine’s dense appreciation of the album here.

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