Saturday, June 26, 2021

Process XXXIII

And so this brief summer semester draws to a close. I did my best with what I have. I read the responses from other students and found them both poetic and prosaic, in some cases intentionally academic. I thought, is that how I am to be writing? But I am a creative writer, and that is not why I am here. I research but also ruminate. I am content. I exist, as the man says, as I am. 

The season has been seasonal. It becomes torrid and we shut the doors and crank the a/c and I am unhappy to live like that. I would prefer the doors open, the heat and humidity to bathe me in sticky sweat. The rains, too, bring the clouds of steam into the place and that pleases me well. It is cool and damp. It is hot and humid. Either way, I love summer. I love summer a lot.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Duran Duran's Rio (book)

"Duran Duran's Rio"
by Annie Zaleski
Pengo’s 2021 Summer Book Club

Almost ten years ago, I met the biggest Duran Duran fan in the world. She was sixteen and went to Berea (now Berea-Midpark) High School. She had seen them in concert three times, was furious they were not already in the Rock Hall, and educated me on how Red Carpet Massacre (2007) and All You Need Is Now (2010) were the best albums they have ever recorded, at least until that point in time.

I have seen them in concert only once (though I have bought tickets to see them twice, which is story for another time) and must admit I haven’t kept up. She may have been right about that. But we definitely agree they should be in the Rock Hall. They still aren’t. They may never be. Rock critics have always dismissed the “Fab Five” and they are the ones who decide.

One rock critic does take them seriously, and that’s Cleveland scribe Annie Zaleski. You can find her work everywhere, Rolling Stone, A.V. Club, Vulture, Stereogum, she wrote the liner notes for the 25th anniversary re-release of REM's Out of Time album.

Bloomsbury tapped Zaleski for their "33⅓" series, which are little books about big records. In her edition, Zaleski examines the creation and cultural impact of the Duran Duran album Rio. I didn’t need her to tell me why this is a very important album to me. What I did need her to tell me is how.  

(Before I really dig in here I want to report how relieved I was to read, in the very first paragraph of Zaleski's introduction that she, who is a little more than ten years younger than I, was first introduced to this record in the 1990s. So, though much of what is to follow is steeped in nostalgia, it is the music itself that is doing the heavy lifting.)

Carnival EP (1982)
Sophomore efforts generally suck. There is an urban legend that Kurt Cobain wanted to call Nirvana’s second big label album Mediocre Follow-Up but the money people wouldn’t let him. That’s actually a good record, but that title (and others, including Verse Chorus Verse and I Hate Myself and Want To Die) was more inspired than it’s ultimate title, In Utero. And that’s the thing, artists - all artists - can get told what to, or second guess themselves.

You wrote a dozen songs, made them tight and perfect by playing them in clubs across wherever, for years, put it on wax, and it’s a hit! Then you have to go back into a studio and create something new and untested, from scratch, and right away, too.

But it was all happening so fast for Duran Duran, they were touring their eponymous debut album, and still writing, and playing in the studio, and seeing the world, and it was all fuel for a record that would be, had to be, even more interesting than their first.

Rio was released in 1982. The year I turned 14. The year I broke up with my first girlfriend. The year I stepped from young, innocent romance into something a bit more tremulous.

Of course, we didn’t get Duran Duran in the bedroom communities of Ohio that early. We didn’t have MTV that early. But some suburbs did, and they were requesting singles on WMMS. And my college-aged brother (where they did have MTV; Athens, Ohio was one of the first places that received it right away, in August 1981) had the vinyl and dropped it onto a cassette for me to listen to on his Walkman.

And then one day we did get MTV, in spring 1983. And that was a heady summer. Even at that age, in that place, at that time, there were nights. Crowded, unchaperoned parties. Small get togethers in basements or backyards. Late nights with old girlfriends, early mornings with new girlfriends.

Alternate "Rio" cover
(Patrick Nagel)
To me, Rio, the album, describes an entire summer’s night, from dusk to dawn, in that place, at that time.
  1. Rio is walking into the party, seeing who is there, and who isn’t.
  2. My Own Way is dancing, with absolutely everyone.
  3. Lonely In Your Nightmare is the first possibility, a private conversation.
  4. Hungry Like the Wolf is utterly failing to get off with that person you have had your eye on.
  5. Hold Back the Rain is the second wind, an impossible rush of ebullience.
  6. New Religion is making out with someone unexpected in the toilet.
  7. Last Chance on the Stairway is, well … exactly what the title means.
  8. Save a Prayer is that moment you discover something stranger than love.
  9. The Chauffeur cuts either way. You are going home alone or you aren't.
When such things were not so easily acquired via the internet, one of my prized possessions was Duran Duran's Carnival EP, featuring four club mixes of tracks from both Duran Duran (1981) and Rio. I came across it, in all places, in a record store in Rockland, Maine.

Zaleski mentions this album, pointing out how the tracks are not just extended, but in fact remixed, pushing drum and bass forward in Hungry Like the Wolf, or that My Own Way is an entirely different recording.

How to describe possessing your own, unique version of something? That you can’t just dial up, the moment you want it via the internet? I guess you really can’t.

Flood's Cove, ME. July 1983
(Me, far right. See the bird?)
My senses were overwhelmed that summer. I was an early-bloomer, when it came to dating. I had my first serious girlfriend when I was thirteen. Now, two years later I was seeing someone new and we were navigating the boundaries of our bodies. And I was introduced to pot, which she did not know about and would not have approved of. So, already. Secrets.

When I had been in Maine, in late July (for my birthday, as it was, as it always shall be) I was gripped by what the kids call FOMO, I was skittish and squirrely and unpleasant, I wanted to be home. I needed video games and videos, and I needed her. I also needed a turntable for the Carnival EP I just bought.

The family returned to the cove for Labor Day weekend, for a wedding. That was odd, the air was crisp, no longer summer. The leaves were beginning to turn and I had never seen the cove like that.

Just before we drove to the service, I put on my Walkman and took a walk through the woods to Beatrice Bay. I was wearing a jacket and tie, not my usual attire for this trek. I stood on the rock overlooking Bremen Long Island, across the narrowing Muscongus Bay. It is a sacred space, that rock. The ancestors come and go, the rock remains.

I listened to Save a Prayer (that first trippy eight count, which then explodes across your mind) as I looked past the green waters to the evergreens and wide and brilliant sky beyond. I felt that I was a different person than I had been even six weeks earlier. I didn’t imagine I was an adult, but I knew I was completely a teenager.
"There's been nothing like Rio since." - A. Zaleski

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Process XXXII

Burned all my notebooks
What good are notebooks?

- Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime"
Maisie Williams & Zach Wyatt
"I and You"
(Hampstead Theatre, 2018)
And now, Whitman. I had not yet read Song of Myself. My familiarity with the piece has been circuitous, most recently through Lauren Gunderson’s play I & You.

I read Gunderson's play a few years ago, when it was published in American Theatre magazine. As everything was shutting down fifteen months ago, Hampstead Theatre posted their production on Instagram for free, and we watched that. The plot revolves around two teenagers who don’t really know each other, writing a paper on Whitman ... but that’s not really what it’s about, and it would be telling to say any more.

But to date my most intimate connection with Whitman’s poem is jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s interpretation of the work, Leaves of Grass, featuring vocals by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. I do not know where I first heard of it, or why I acquired a copy, but it was regular bedtime music as I sat in the dark, tapping on my laptop as our single digit-aged children drifted off to sleep in their new bunk bed. It was a magical time.

My Early American Poetry class has been provided with recordings of Whitman's poem, read aloud, with annotations which are helpful. I sat on our new patio, listening to scholars discuss and interpreters read this most American of poems (is it?) as I pass my free-writing notebooks into the fire bowl, to burn.

The symbolism may be a little heavy-handed, but do I care? These were for writing, not reading. The only text I hope to leave behind is what I intended to. And oh! There are journals in the attic, over ten years of personal thoughts from my mid-twenties to my late thirties. When I thought I should leave behind a record. Those also have to go. 

I had an illusion that future biographers might want to know what was going on in my head. I no longer entertain such thoughts. The only people who will have to deal with these things are my offsrping.

Divesting my parents’ home, I came into possession of their letters. And their parents’ letters. I cannot destroy those. I just can’t. And so they remain, for my children to deal with. The least I can do is to take myself out of the equation. They won’t need to make a decision about my personal writing, because it won’t be there.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Howard Katz (play)

Ron Cook is Howard Katz
Twenty years ago, during the summer of 2001, my wife and I were left with nothing to do. We were prepared to have a child some time in May, and we were unprepared suddenly not to. My brother suggested a visit to London, which seemed like as good an idea as any.

That the two of us, my wife and I, had difficulty negotiating large cities and interpersonal relationships on this trip is documented in my play I Hate This. Put simply, we only wanted to look at beautiful things and talk about the baby and be sad. This made things challenging.

I wanted to attend theater, which I found a distraction. This is all well and good when you are attending a fancy dress party version of Macbeth at the Globe, or a revival of Noises Off. It is quite another thing to attend a new play, one which decides to slap you about the face and head during the final two minutes.

Howard Katz was Patrick Marber’s eagerly awaited follow-up to Closer. I very much enjoyed reading Closer, which premiered in 1997 and was first produced in Cleveland at Dobama Theatre in April, 2001. I would have auditioned for that, I thought I would be perfect for the role of Dan. I was at that time deeply interested in contemporary drama about transgressive relationships. But I did not audition, because you know why because.

Anyway, we went to see Howard Katz.

A cross between King Lear and the story of Job as told by David Mamet, Howard Katz, the man, is an asshole, a show biz agent who has a midlife crisis and loses everything in order to save his soul. The company featured Ron Cook in the starring role, a young Russell Tovey, and Paul Ritter, who I recently noticed in Chernobyl. The show opened in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre that weekend, where it received rather tepid reviews.
“Marber is trying to write a modern Death of a Salesman; but, unlike Miller, he never establishes a molten link between his hero's private flaws and the false dreams imposed by society. So one is left to take what pleasure one can in some sharp showbiz satire and odd zingers.” 
- Michael Billington, The Guardian 6/14/2001
London, Summer 2001
Most galling to me, to us, was Katz’s closing monologue. Having self-sabotaged his relationships, his career, and his fortune, left homeless and alone on a park bench, his epiphany, his redemption arrives as he remembers the complete and utter joy he felt at the birth of his son. I was disturbed, and Toni was inconsolable.

The train ride back to Battersea that evening was difficult. My brother wanted to chat about the show, because that’s what we do after a play. We were not in the mood to do that, and it took a moment for him to understand that. We went back to his home, where my sister-in-law was sitting up, and we all drank hot chocolate with Baileys, and yes. We talked about the baby.

It occured to me that summer just how many stories end with the birth of a child. As the ideas for a solo performance about my experiences started to come together, I asked myself how I could end my tale at the beginning.

Playhouse Square will premiere "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" in Summer 2021. Details to come.

Monday, June 14, 2021

2021 Shubert Fendrich Memorial Playwriting Award

The big news I was planing to announce today was that Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street is being published by Pioneer Drama Service (PDS). And that is still big news! PDS is a purveyor of plays for child, youth and family audiences, and a publisher which is widely familiar to schools, churches and recreation centers across the nation.

Having one of my plays tapped for publication by PDS is really wonderful. For over ten years I have been writing educational outreach plays and plays for child and family audiences. The opportunity to share my writing with local audiences has been a delight, and to provide positive messages of collaboration and empathy. Now that this script is part of the PDS catalogue, it will reach a much wider audience. 

What I entirely did not expect was learning that Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street has received the 2021 Shubert Fendrich Memorial Playwriting Award! For decades PDS has awarded one play submission this honor per year. It is only awarded to a playwright they do not yet represent.

Full disclosure: When I had submitted the work for publication, I was ignorant of this contest! I knew they were about to announce new releases, including Bully of Baker Street, but this was a complete surprise. On Friday, FedEx delivered the announcement, a check, and a handsome, shiny plaque.

This recognition and support from Pioneer Drama Service is a tremendous validation of my work as a playwright, particularly a writer of plays for young audiences, and it is deeply appreciated.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Process XXXI

"Music for Airports"
Brian Eno
Achievement always makes me feel like I am getting away with something. I was stressed out about my poetry assignment all week, turning it in after midnight Saturday (Sunday morning). And what do you know? Actually working hard on something can be rewarding, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

Started re-reading Still Life With Woodpecker a week ago, but I am finding it demoralizing. When I mentioned it online, a number of people over a certain age, many of them women, expressed their long-felt affection for the book, and for others by Robbins. But particularly this one.

And yet, while my twenty year-old self was tickled by his near abusive use of metaphor and his liberated approach to sexual desire, I feel that centering the narrative on a progessive young woman is a trick, and very dated. His fetishization of Leigh-Cheri (is it lee-sheree or lay-cherry, her name is a sexual pun) seems creepy and I know how the story goes, as she will be seduced and radicalized by a man.

"One From the Heart"
Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
What is interesting is that, like many books, this one was recommended to me by a woman I was infatuated with, the same woman who never wore a watch because she didn’t want to be bound by the arbitrary strictures of time and besides, asking people the time, when necessary, means not being afraid of others. Because of her, for a year I did not wear a watch and as a result I was late for everything. Robbins should write a book about that relationship.

Huh. Maybe I will write a play about it. Hmn. Notes.

Okay. So. This is my bye week in poetry, I need to keep up with my reading but no assignment due today. Well-timed, as we are throwing a party for the graduate tomorrow. Summer in full effect. I feel like it's all gonna happen now.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Process XXX

How can I be so active and yet feel like it’s all rushing past me. Last week we went out of town for a brief vacation at the out-laws. And yet, I felt like I had barely a moment to rest. There was rest, but my mind? My mind was active. And yet, I was not doing anything with it. No projects, no writing, no drawing, just trying to read, or rather re-read, a book.

What I wanted to do was sit on the porch (the newly painted porch, it’s beautiful) at my mother-in-law’s house, and just read. It’s not a thing that really happened. I mean, it was a bit too cool. But so what? I could have bundled up, it could have happened.

I had rushed out of town on Saturday, just as I had completed and turned in my poetry assignment for the week. I had spent all week planning and plotting a “declaim and exclaim” video, analyzing works by Philip Freneau and Phillis Wheatley. And then I spent the weekend fretting about my grade. Fretting about my grade? There’s a first.

The thing about a summer course (which I realized too late) is that it is sixteen weeks packed into six. So my work, on a weekly basis, must be more detailed, and there is less room for error. This is the end of week three.

Today, this day, a Saturday, I will spend luxuriating in romantic and sentimental poetry, which is just what I think I need right now. Don't we all?