Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Amy Winehouse Phenomenon Update

So I'm just lolling about at breakfast,idly perusing the Thursday Styles section in the Times and in the lead article about celebrity detox facilities up pops the following reference:

At the Valentino show in Paris last month, 'Rehab', a popular ditty by Amy Winehouse, pulsed on the runway.

Carlos Souza, a public relations executive for the fashion house, crooned some of the lyrics:'They tried to make me go.. I said no,no
no.' The song is 'great,catchy and of the moment',he said....

While I'm still busy congratulating myself on referred hipness, Amy's song has already become a DITTY.
And it was just last night, on my drive home from work, that Terry Gross announced that, after a brief break, rock critic Ken Tucker would be reviewing the new album by.... AMY WINEHOUSE. I veered into the slow lane, adjusted the volume a bit higher, and took a cleansing breath. Ken sounded a tad smug, wondering if Amy's popularity might not be limited to aging baby boomers because of her musical influences. He admitted that the Rehab song is actually addictive in its own right. And then (I was way ahead of him here) he opined that Amy had gained considerable street cred because the rapper Ghostface agreed to record You Know I'm No Good with her. Now, I ask you, who is Ken Tucker to be referring to my guy Ghostface in such a truncated and familiar way? It's Mr. Killah to you, Ken.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gray Eminence

The first time I saw Spalding Gray he was performing live at the Painted Bride; I had never seen a monologist in action before. At the time I didn't know that he and my sister Jo had been friends, way back in the day when they were in an experimental theatre group together in New York City. I also couldn't know that pretty soon he would be outgrowing the Painted Bride and be appearing at larger and larger venues and eventually on the silver screen itself. I just knew that this low-tech performance-- a table, a glass of water, a notebook whose pages he riffled through occasionally --was compelling and personal and deeply moving. I loved his New England accent, his patrician WASP-y air, his stream-of-consciousness writing which looped around and held together in some magical and mysterious way. I even loved his copybook- I believe it may have been the black and white marbled kind but maybe not- and I loved the way he glanced down at his story only rarely and made his performance seem effortless and spontaneous, even though it wasn't even remotely so.
I guess that evening at the Painted Bride turned David and me into Spalding Gray groupies, of a sort. We scrambled for tickets whenever we saw that he was giving a performance. We talked about him with friends and family and so it came as no surprise that during a visit to my sister Gail's in Boston many years ago a whole bunch of us went to see him in Cambridge for a performance called "Interviewing the Audience". Paula and Steve, our dear friends and anti-nuke colleagues, came along. My nephew Tony was there- he must have been in high school?- and my mom and dad, David, me and my sister Gail. [ Had I known what was to transpire , I would have tried to have a therapist there for my sister. Or at least a paramedic... ] I think my niece Jen must have been at Wesleyan then, maybe even working on her senior thesis, which was a paean to Spalding himself. I think it was called "Sleeping With My Mother" and I believe it referenced my sister's nighttime orthodontic appliance, but I may be wrong. I know that Jen actually spoke with him about it, but whether it was in person or on the phone I cannot say. What I do know is that my extended family had, in various ways and for quite a while, been intricately intertwined with the inestimable Mr. Gray, but nothing could prepare me for what was to occur that night at "Interviewing the Audience".
While we were filing into the theatre an usher asked people to write something down on a 3X5 card about themselves if they wanted to be considered as an interviewee for that evening's show. It all occurred rather quickly- a bit of a blur- but before we knew what was happening my mother ["The World's Oldest Living Child Star"] had somehow pushed herself to the front of the line, indicating in the midst of the mayhem, that she was Jo Forman's mother and that Spalding would probably want to be talking to her onstage.
I can't remember much about the other people who were interviewed by Spalding. It would be hard to outshine the likes of Doris Helene Forman, who walked up to the stage and immediately stole the show. Stealing the show from Spalding Gray is no mean feat, but I stand by my critique. My mother, clearly a frustrated performance artist herself, has a habit to this day of channeling Blanche DuBois on special occasions. She began speaking in her faux Southern accent and, truth be told, she always has "depended on the kahndness of straynjuhs. " Spalding asked her some leading questions and I seem to remember her mentioning that she had once "dropped mescaline" and that she had always wanted to try "that X.T.C."
At this point I glanced to my left where my sister Gail was sitting. I was surprised to see her slumped way down in her seat, hands covering her eyes and face, hyperventilating. Up till then, I had always thought the phrase "dying of embarrassment" was hyperbole. I tried to attend to her but I was fixated on the spectacle on stage. I was wondering vaguely what effect my mother's confession might have on my adolescent nephew, at which point I realized with a mixture of pride and awe, that my mother had just brought the house down. Gail suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder from the event, but it didn't stop her from remaining a lifelong Spalding fan, along with the rest of us.
If I thought Spalding's tragic death would end his influence on me, I was dead wrong. I urged my kids to "netflick" the recently-released DVD of Monster in a Box. I used up a good portion of my last therapy session talking about him and how I have a hankering to become a performance artist myself, at least once, before I die. I could schlep my giant binder with "Things Are Looking Up" in magic marker on the vinyl cover and I could read some of my meandering memoirs and I could raise the water glass and take a sip, in a toast to my late mentor.
When I read recently in the Times that a bunch of actors are performing Spalding posthumously, I immediately asked Anna and Zack if they wanted me to get tickets for them as well. They said sure, any time in May would probably be good for them.I went ahead and purchased 4 non-exchangeable tickets for May 6 and when I told Anna to mark down the date cause we would all be going to the Spalding Gray show that day she looked stricken. "What's the matter? I thought you said you'd be free the whole month?".
"We ARE free, every day but May 6. That's when we're going to the TLA to see Amy Winehouse!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Amy Winehouse Phenomenon

Some weeks ago my daughter Anna informed me that I would probably love the song stylings of Amy Winehouse, a young Jewish Brit who sounds like an old-time standards singer but with some distinctly new-time lyrics. Anna previews most of my cultural life for me these days; she warns me about current movies I shouldn't see because of their disturbing themes. Her brother keeps me posted about not-to-be-missed Netflix and books that he thinks I'd like. Abe and I share a fascination for Murikami novels and arcane documentaries; however, we part company of the subject of rap and hip-hop, which is how Anna got elevated to my de facto personal music assistant. Anna knows that I secretly hanker to be seen as belly-up to the cutting edge of the Zeitgeist, not unlike her Bubs (my mother) who still prides herself, at 92, on being absolutely au courant on virtually every aspect of the prevailing culture.
So I quickly accepted Anna's offer to burn me a copy of Amy Winehouse's latest album and thought no more of it. That is, until I could not get through a moment of any given day without non-stop news of this scrawny boozer and her new album...
Entertainment Weekly, a periodical which provides perfect reading during a pedicure, noted her talent, as did the throwaway Life Magazine, which comes tucked into our daily newspaper.
Then the other morning David called to me from his seat at the computer where he was checking out this Amy Winehouse- - do I know her?/sounds like I'd like her-- because he just heard about her on NPR! I informed him that I was way ahead of him, since Anna had already given me the heads-up and that a CD was being burned for me, probably as we were speaking. Then David and I had the little argument about why Anna told ME and not HIM and then we simultaneously waxed rhapsodic about Anna and her talent as a potential torch singer even if she insisted for some inexplicable reason on becoming a social worker instead of the Center City Amy Winehouse and then I said it's just as well since Amy Winehouse has tattoos of naked women up and down her arms and Anna's inherited propensity towards keloids obviates the obligatory body art and then we kvelled ad nauseum about how lucky we are with our kids, their spouses , AND all of their fascinating career choices.
Just when I was getting the feeling that enough was enough with this Amy Winehouse creature, I got to my office only to find an issue of the reconfigured Jewish Forward newspaper on my desk. There, emblazoned on the second page, was a huge photo and article entitled "Not Your Nice Jewish Girl-- Amy Winehouse".This is not my grandmother's Forverts anymore.
My mind began to reel.Have I suddenly entered an alternate universe? How is it that one day I had never even heard of Amy Winehouse and now I hear nothing but Amy Winehouse. I read about her in the Inky, the New York Times, and she's even coming to the TLA in May!
The CD that the kids burned for me is in the car and Amy Winehouse now comes on as soon as I turn the key in the ignition. I admit that I'm kinda relieved that I don't have to listen to the BBC newscast on my way to work anymore. Even with those cool clipped British accents, the news about Darfur and Iraq is too demoralizing to be subjected to before I've seen my first patient of the day. Instead I listen to Amy Winehouse and her defiant response to the urging that she go into rehab ("No, No,No" she sings out in a full-throated absolutely gorgeous voice that brings Bessie and Billie and Diana Ross to mind) and for some strange reason I'm with her all the way. Hey, I'm not her therapist and, for that matter, I'm not her Jewish mother either. I'm just a newly-minted fan, hoping that she doesn't self-destruct or sell out too soon.
I guess it's only a matter of time before we see the Amy Winehouse Diet Book,the Amy
Winehouse Guide to J-Dating, and the Amy Winehouse Haggadah. Until then, I offer thanks to my daughter for cluing me in so early on so that I can aver that I knew Amy Winehouse when... and contrary to her dark and self-destructive lyrics, it's obvious that for Amy and me... THINGS ARE LOOKING UP.

Friday, March 16, 2007

In Kroke shteyt a hayzele

One of my mother's earliest memories is sitting in her grandmother's lap while her bubba removes lice from little Dveyra's hair. (Doris is the anglicized version of my mother's name and the middle name Helene was self-inflicted at a later date) .Not only does my mother remember this event (these events) clearly, but she also remembers the song that goes with the delousing. So while I was sitting with my mom in her living room the other day, taking notes about her earliest memories for her commissioned biography (she couldn't get Kitty Kelly so I'll have to do in a pinch..), she proceeded to sing a few lines of the "lousy" ditty.
This is what she remembered: " In kroke shteyt a, la,la..." I replied, " I've got the 'stands a little house' part, but what's a 'kroke'?" Mom said with great confidence that a "kroke" must also mean a house and that was that. She sang the song fragment a few more times, her voice trailing off nostalgically and confessed that she felt bad that she couldn't remember any more of it. I reassured her that since the event she was recalling occurred say, almost 90 years ago, she could be forgiven for a slight lapse of memory.
Then, with a flash of inspiration, I decided to bring the whole conversation skidding into the 21st Century. I told my mother I would research the song on the Internet and see if I could find it. "Ooh, Wenj," she cooed." Couldja really look it up on THE INTERNET?" My mother tends to regard the Internet as a cross between a latter day Oracle at Delphi and The Wizard of Oz. Truth be told, so do I. She hasn't much of a clue about computers or what really transpires on the WWW, but she is certainly intrigued by the idea of it. For a while, after she first moved into Sterling Glen, they were offering free email service and computer classes for the inmates (which is what she calls the residents). With great excitement we set up an email account for her and I alerted Gail and the grandchildren and encouraged everyone to send her messages. My mother's foray into email lasted not quite as long as her trial of her hearing aids. The exquisitely -fitted hearing aids went back to Hear Me Now the very next day; my mother's adventure in cyberspace was over as soon as it began. Everyone assumed that she abandoned the project because she was too blind to see the screen, but I secretly believe that the whole thing struck her as a tad meshugge. This has not stopped her, however, from attempting to delegate to me all sorts of tasks involving email ."Wenj, couldja just send The Email to Reba to tell her I hope she's feeling better ?" Or "Wenj, when you have a minute couldja just send The Email to Jen and Mark for their anniversary?" My mother has always been a stickler for greeting cards and the concept of acknowledging her loved one's life events without having to find a stamp made her almost giddy.
So, I took gathered up my teeny notebook which I am using to record the notes for my mother's biography and I ran home to look up the song on THE INTERNET. I Googled "Yiddish Folk Songs" and took a stab at one of the addresses and emailed the salient information about the song my mother sang to me. Almost immediately I received the following reply from an ethnomusicologist from the University of London.
Dear Wendy, Thanks for your message. Kroke is Krakow (the town). The line reads "In Kroke shteyt a hayzele"(actually this is the second line of the song). Ruth Rubin discusses this song in her article 'Nineteenth-Century Yiddish Folksongs of Children in Eastern Europe.' ...I have copied the page with the full song text on and attached it to this email. As you said, Rubin notes that it is a delousing song. I don't know about the tune. It's not in any of my books and the source Rubin cites (Dobrushin and Yuditsky, 1940) only has texts, no melodies. I hope this helps. Keep going with your research! I am sure that YIVO in New York would be delighted to have a copy of the materials you collect. All best, Abigail Wood.

I flew to the phone and called my mom to sing-song the whole verse to her. Translated, it starts: "Bubi,bubi,little louse/In Cracow stands a little house". For some reason, I got a tad varklempt as I was reading the lyrics to my mother. I'm even crying a little right now. It's bittersweet these days, thinking of my mother as a little girl. More often than not, she tends to regress a bit and there's a case to be made for the interpretation that in her 90 + years she has never completely lost the little girl within. David has been known to refer to her on occasion as the world's oldest living child star.
And the world's oldest living child star has been in a great mood lately. She bursts into song quite often lately, apropos of nothing. Old-timey stuff, doggerel she makes up,and a few Yiddish ditties... I tend to join right in, blending my alto with her falsetto. I doubt that YIVO will be hearing from me anytime soon but as far as my personal filial research is going, it appears that once again THINGS ARE LOOKING UP!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Things Are Still Looking Up

Just what the world (wide web needs).... another blog! Well, fans, I'm planning to re-start the moribund THINGS ARE LOOKING UP which has been languishing, in hard copy only, in a supersized three-ring binder on our bookshelf next to at least thirty photo albums which have not seen daylight for quite some time. Since binders, photo albums, and hard copy too are so 20th century, I've decided to go cyber with my memoirs and memorabilia in the hopes that even if I have nothing new or creative to say, at least it won't be taking up any space in our pared-down condo.
America, perhaps you are wondering why I didn't choose the title THINGS ARE LOOKING UP for my blog. Amazingly, this title was already taken! So was the name "Schvig" for one of my many yahoo mailboxes and when I emailed the person who had purloined my special appellation by way of my grandmother, this cyberthief didn't even bother to respond. "Schvig" is Yiddish for "mother-in-law" and my grandmother Anna Miller was known by this nickname for most of her adult life. I guess that's what she got for moving in with her son-in-law and daughter from even before they were married and staying until her death one month before the birth of Anna Nettie 27 years ago. All of this reveals, I suppose, that I hold a rather parochial view of the Internet..somewhat narcissistic, no doubt. I figure that if I have a name or a title that holds special meaning for me then it should ipso facto be available and I am constantly surprised when this turns out not to be the case. I am also surprised and not just a little delighted that I was able just now to figure out how to turn ipso facto into italics. I am also surprised and delighted whenever I can retrieve messages off of my cellphone, but I digress..
Speaking of schvigs, I am one myself now- twice over! This would be the perfect place to insert the wedding photos of Abe and Anna and their gorgeous and delightful spouses only of course I have no idea how to do such a cyber thing. During the brief period when Abe and I co-blogged, he was responsible for everything to do with that sort of photo adding , presumably because he knows Html. Since I don't even know what Html means, it seems unlikely that I will be able to pull off such a stunt, but I might just try. Or I could ask my newly-minted son-in-law Zack to teach me how to perform such a feat of cyber legerdemain; however, that might turn him sour on his new Schvig and we wouldn't want that to happen.
So for now there will be no decorative additions...
The current piece I'm working on involves my mother, alternately known as Bubs, Bubby,The Bubster, Dorrie-Doodle (an unsanctioned appellation which she detests) or the Momster, by me. The aged relative is now 92 and one half years old and is just a laugh a minute. I've been interviewing her since she's requested that her biography be done. Thus far I have only one very small page of notes retrieved after a somewhat circuitous discussion starting with the leading question "What is your earliest memory?" I got some interesting data about my great-grandmother, Esther Rasha Cohen, and my mother's relationship with her. (sneak was very close. Not so close with Max, my great-grandfather) Stay tuned.....
Oh, and please let me know if you want to unsubscribe. It seems like every Chaim Yonkel these days is writing a blog and you don't need any more spam in your emailboxes. But if you are interested, then I am hoping that you will post feedback. That will motivate me to actually write these pieces that are floating around half-finished in my file cabinet or in my feverish brain. Thanks in advance for being my muses....and remember: THINGS ARE LOOKING UP!