Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Arooj Aftab at Pioneer Works in Red Hook

September 6, 2021

The musical discovery of my year so far has been Arooj Aftab, the sublime Pakistani singer whose new album Vulture Prince has been commanding a lot of attention everywhere. As soon as I heard it in early June, I got busy online trying to learn more about her and spied a concert by her scheduled for September 3 at Pioneer Works, a community arts center in Red Hook. Checking out the concert seemed like an excellent way to view her up close and personal, learn something about Pioneer Works, and get some exposure to Red Hook, a neighborhood I’ve heard about but like most Manhattanites primarily associate with the IKEA store.

It was a beautiful, post-Hurricane Ida Friday night, perfect for toodling around a new location on Citibikes. Even more than Maspeth, where a bunch of music venues and dance clubs have opened in recent years, far from complaining residential neighbors, Red Hook is partly urban industrial landscape and part very local neighborhood. Even the subway stations don’t look like the ones you see elsewhere.

The golden hour before sunset always lends a special glow to otherwise unromantic vistas.

And then there is the occasional shrine to Betty Boop in someone’s window.

Pioneer Works turns how to be a groovy multipurpose arts center that hosts artists’ residencies, galleries, a bookstore, a performance space, and a lovely garden with a full bar and a viewing deck. (I’m keen to see a Moses Sumney installation that just opened and will be viewable through the month of September.) The announced showtime for Arooj Aftab was 7pm, which seemed early, but who knows? There were only three people in front of us when we arrived, which signaled that the show wouldn’t be starting until after 8. There was an opening act, a 24-year-old guitar whiz named Yasmin Williams who finger-picks in an American folk style that makes you think of Doc Watson or John Fahey, but then she’s likely to lie the guitar flat and work on it as a percussion instrument. There are occasionally pedals, and she wears tap shoes to provide her own rhythm section on a wooden footrest. A bit chatty between songs — she will learn soon enough that the audience doesn’t need to know the mundane details of how she wrote each and every song — but I’m glad I got to glimpse her budding virtuosity.

Arooj Aftab and her Vulture Prince Ensemble are the real deal — they create a dreamy cloud of sound on harp (Maeve Gilchrist), guitar (mainly Gyan Riley, son of composer Terry Riley, with a guest appearance by the excellent Kenji Herbert), bass (Shahaad Ismaily), spare synths (also Ismaily), violin (Darian Donovan Thomas), and drums (Greg Fox). Aftab works in the tradition of ghazal, a spare pensive style of poetry that takes a small amount of material and works many changes on it. Abida Parveen is one of the great performers in this style and one of Aftab’s musical influences. But she has her own exquisite style, beautiful mid-range vocal tone, very understated, very interior, never showing off high notes or held notes. She mostly performed songs from the album, including an adaptation of a Rumi poem that she sings in English, “Last Night.” I usually skip over that track on the record, but it turned into a totally different experience live — NOT about the words, slowed down and stretched out and indeed beautiful.

Late night in that corner of Red Hook, not a lot of dining options. But the San Pedro Inn, the tacqueria down the street from Pioneer Works was hopping. Clearly it serves as its own form of community center.

Quote of the day: MAYONNAISE

September 1, 2021


Mayonnaise, real mayonnaise, good mayonnaise, is something I can dream of any time, almost, and not because I ate it when I was little but because I did not. My maternal grandmother, whose Victorian neuroses dictated our family table-tastes until I was about twelve, found salads generally suspect, but would tolerate the occasional serving of some watery lettuce in a dish beside each plate (those crescents one still sees now and then in English and Swiss boarding houses and the mansions of American Anglophiles). On it would be a dab or lump or blob, depending on the current cook, of what was quietly referred to as Boiled Dressing. It seemed dreadful stuff—enough to harm one’s soul.

I do not have my grandmother’s own recipe, although I am sure she seared it into many an illiterate mind in her kitchens, but I have found an approximation, which I feel strangely forced to give. It is from Miss Parloa’s “New Cook Book,” copyrighted in Boston in 1880 by Estes and Lauriat:

Three eggs, one tablespoonful each of sugar, oil and salt, a scant tablespoonful of mustard, a cupful of milk and one of vinegar. Stir oil, mustard, salt and sugar in a bowl until perfectly smooth. Add the eggs, and beat well; then add the vinegar, and finally the milk. Place the bowl in a basin of boiling water, and stir the dressing until it thickens like soft custard. . . . The dressing will keep two weeks if bottled tightly and put in a cool place.

On second thought, I think Grandmother’s receipt, as I am sure it was called, may have used one egg instead of three, skimped on the sugar and oil, left out the mustard, and perhaps eliminated the milk as well. It was a kind of sour whitish gravy and . . . Yes! Patience is its own reward; I have looked in dozens of cookbooks without finding her abysmal secret, and now I have it: she did not use eggs at all, but flour. That is it. Flour thickened the vinegar—no need to waste eggs and sugar . . . Battle Creek frowned on oil, and she spent yearly periods at that health resort . . . mustard was a heathen spice . . . salt was cheap, and good cider vinegar came by the gallon. . . . And (here I can hear words as clearly as I can see the limp wet lettuce under its load of Boiled Dressing) “Salad is roughage and a French idea.”

As proof of the strange hold childhood remembrance has on us, I think I am justified to print once, and only once, my considered analysis of the reason I must live for the rest of my life with an almost painful craving for mayonnaise made with fresh eggs and lemon juice and good olive oil:


1 cup cider vinegar.
Enough flour to make thin paste.
Salt to taste.

Mix well, boil slowly fifteen minutes or until done, and serve with wet shredded lettuce.

Unlike any recipe I have ever given, this one has not been tested and never shall be, nor is it recommended for anything but passing thought.

–M.F.K. Fisher

Quote of the day: LIBERATION

August 15, 2021


The Gay Liberation Front that was founded after Stonewall named itself after liberation movements that were its contemporaries around the world, anti-colonial movements that were resisting European control. And what the word liberation meant was re-imagining the world so that the ways that we relate to each other were liberatory instead of oppressive. And that meant that sexual relationships, economic relationships, racial relationships, interpersonal dealings, identifications of gender, ways that we expressed ourselves politically and emotionally — that we had a dream, a utopian dream that they could be more open and so that human beings could be more individuated and yet more within a collective, and that the purpose of the collective is to create more space for the individual voice.

–Sarah Schulman, interviewed by Ezra Klein


August 13, 2021

I worked as an arts journalist for 25 years, and my job required me to spend a lot of time interviewing famous and emerging artists. A curious aspect of the profession is that while I remember vividly almost every encounter with a celebrity even decades later, I’m pretty sure that most of them never thought twice about me after our meeting. Case in point: in 1991 I had the opportunity to spend a fun couple of hours interviewing Madonna for The Advocate at the time when her documentary film Truth or Dare was just coming out. It was a ballsy interview – The Advocate called it “The X-Rated Interview” – and it earned her some juicy attention in the press. But that was one moment in a long career of receiving juicy attention in the press, whereas doing that interview changed my life. In the pre-internet days, my agent was able to sell the piece to the L.A. Times Syndicate, which resulted in its being reprinted in 11 languages in 19 countries around the world. I made a small fortune for one afternoon’s work, and it enabled me to spend a couple of years diving deep into personal-growth workshops and retreats.

I’m thinking about this after watching Susan Lacy’s Netflix documentary Inventing David Geffen. In 1985 I spent a week in Los Angeles as a 30-year-old reporter observing Geffen for a New York Times Magazine profile. I arrived thinking I would be lucky to get an hour here and an hour there to interview him. But he swept me up and took me along on a series of adventures, giving me tremendous access to his life and his business – from watching the rough cut of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (which his movie company produced) in his home screening room to attending the Los Angeles opening of Cats (which he co-produced on Broadway) to flying Elaine May to Seattle on the president of Warner Bros’ private jet so she could help Herb Gardner with the out-of-town tryout of his Broadway-bound play I’m Not Rappaport. I spent hours sitting with Geffen in his deskless office, watching him as he opened his mail directly over the wastebasket and yakked with artists and dealmakers on the phone. We talked about everything, and he shared many entertaining and provocative anecdotes he labeled “not for this story,” including details about his sexuality, years before he came out publicly as a gay man in 1992. He intended to dazzle me, and he succeeded. I wrote what I still consider one of my best celebrity profiles about him. But on the plane home from that week in Los Angeles, I had an emotional meltdown. I perceived in Geffen an incredibly clear, sharply defined personality – he’d been through lots of therapy (in the documentary he says he saw his psychiatrist every day for three years) and had done a lot of work on himself – while by contrast I felt fuzzy around the edges, like a blurry figure in a photograph. When the piece came out, he called to thank me – “You’re a peach,” he said – while appreciating the sly way I referred to his sexuality without outing him. And then…I’m sure he never thought about me again, while the experience sent me into therapy to see if I could gain a fraction of the clarity I witnessed in David Geffen.

In this week’s New Yorker

August 8, 2021

The most important story in the issue comes from Jane Mayer, The New Yorker‘s intrepid Washington reporter. As with her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer collects all the receipts to tell a crucial story for right this minute: “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.”

“Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote,” Mayer writes.

One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (alec)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Among those deep in the fight is Leonard Leo, a chairman of the Federalist Society, the legal organization known for its decades-long campaign to fill the courts with conservative judges. In February, 2020, the Judicial Education Project, a group tied to Leo, quietly rebranded itself as the Honest Elections Project, which subsequently filed briefs at the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for people to vote.

Another newcomer to the cause is the Election Integrity Project California. And a group called FreedomWorks, which once concentrated on opposing government regulation, is now demanding expanded government regulation of voters, with a project called the National Election Protection Initiative.

These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.

It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. In 1903, Lynde Bradley, a high-school dropout in Milwaukee, founded what would become the Allen-Bradley company. He was soon joined by his brother Harry, and they got rich by selling electronic instruments such as rheostats. Harry, a John Birch Society founding member, started a small family foundation that initially devoted much of its giving to needy employees and to civic causes in Milwaukee. In 1985, after the brothers’ death, their heirs sold the company to the defense contractor Rockwell International, for $1.65 billion, generating an enormous windfall for the foundation. The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence.

Mayer’s article builds a case for these people as the real “enemies of the people.” She focuses at length on Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer; J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky, “who are members of what [has been] termed the Voter Fraud Brain Trust; John Eastman, co-director of The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group funded by the Bradley Foundation; and Tyler Bowyer, CEO of Turning Point, “which has received small grants from the Bradley Foundation, is headquartered in Arizona, and it has played a significant role in the radicalization of the state, in part by amplifying fear and anger about voter fraud.”

Every accusation of substantial voter fraud has been solidly debunked.

“What explains, then, the hardening conviction among Republicans that the 2020 race was stolen?” Mayer asks.

“Michael Podhorzer, a senior adviser to the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which invested deeply in expanding Democratic turnout in 2020, suggests that the two parties now have irreconcilable beliefs about whose votes are legitimate. “What blue-state people don’t understand about why the Big Lie works,” he said, is that it doesn’t actually require proof of fraud. “What animates it is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not ‘real’ Americans.” This anti-democratic belief has been bolstered by a constellation of established institutions on the right: “white evangelical churches, legislators, media companies, nonprofits, and even now paramilitary groups.” Podhorzer noted, “Trump won white America by eight points. He won non-urban areas by over twenty points. He is the democratically elected President of white America. It’s almost like he represents a nation within a nation.”

Mayer explains a somewhat arcane point of constitutional law that clearly drives this movement for voter suppression: “for conservative state legislators to reëngineer the way the Electoral College has worked for more than a hundred years, in essence by invoking the Independent Legislature Doctrine. The Constitution gives states the authority to choose their Presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Since the late nineteenth century, states have delegated that authority to the popular vote. But, arguably, the Constitution permits state legislatures to take this authority back. Legislators could argue that an election had been compromised by irregularities or fraud, forcing them to intervene.”

I hope my summary encourages you to read the whole story or at the very least listen to Jane Mayer interviewed about the story by Terry Gross for “Fresh Air.”

Some other excellent stuff in the magazine this week:

  • it feels a little weird to refer to David Sedaris’s writing as “sweet,” but “Happy-Go-Lucky,” his remembrance of the last chapter in the life of his father, who died recently, is remarkably affectionate and, we could say, forgiving;
  • “Manufacturing Nature,” Eric Klinenberg’s article about Kate Orff, a landscape architect who has made a tremendous impact on New York’s aquatic ecosystem, including using oyster reefs to mitigate storm surges; and
  • “On an Epic Scale,” a profile of epochal painter Kerry James Marshall (see his “Past Times,” below) by the great chronicler of artists, Calvin Tomkins.

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