THE WOOSTER GROUP: A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
January 23 - February 2, $35-$50
There are certain actors who just pull you in instantly; from the moment you first see them onstage, you’re hooked. For many, it might be Al Pacino or Nathan Lane, Audra MacDonald or Mary Louise Parker. Jim Fletcher is like that for a lot of intrepid, adventurous theatergoers. Tall, balding, and ruggedly handsome, the Ann Arbor native didn’t start acting until he was thirty-five, in 1998; previously he had been a teacher, a caseworker, a dogwalker, an art handler, and a pedicab driver, among other day jobs. For the past two decades he has performed extensively with some of the premier experimental theater groups in the city, most prominently Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, in addition to collaborating with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Among the shows Fletcher has appeared in are Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, Maxwell’s Isolde, and Compagnie l’heliotrope’s Pollock.
A poet as well, he’s also ridiculously busy; in the past few weeks, as we conducted this interview over email, he and Sean Lewis reprised Bro-Tox at La MaMa, he stopped by the Kitchen to check out Maxwell’s latest play, Queens Row, and he’s heavy into rehearsals for the Wooster Group’s A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), which runs at the NYU Skirball Center January 23 through February 2. The production, which was previously seen at the company’s much smaller home, the Performing Garage in SoHo, is a tribute to Polish avant-garde theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, serving as dramaturg. Fletcher plays a priest; there are some funny behind-the-scenes videos on the Wooster Group’s website in which he makes a cross and plays silly word games with the cast and crew. (The cast also features Zbigniew Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Andrew Maillet, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, and Kate Valk; to find out more about the Wooster Group, the Carriage Trade Gallery on Grand St. is hosting a multimedia retrospective of the company through January 26.) Below, Fletcher discusses, in his inimitable poetic style, his dream role, working with some of the most original creators in theater, and his carpentry skills.
twi-ny: I was at a lunch party a few months ago and got into a conversation with a woman about experimental theater. She burst out about how much she loves an actor named Jim Fletcher, and we proceeded to rave about various shows we’ve seen you in. It seems you have a cult fan club out there. How does that feel?
jim fletcher: It feels great. Please elaborate! Mind you, I’m going by what you’re saying. It sounds like there’s energy bouncing around. I love that. More. Surplus. Slurplus. You know, house rules. . . . There’s energy out there in the room, I love it too, I’m devoted too. Devotion is juicy.
twi-ny: Devotion is indeed juicy. You are part of several experimental collectives that have devoted fan bases of their own, primarily the New York City Players, the Wooster Group, and Bernadette Corporation. How did you get connected with them?
jf: I’m working with people I love. It seems I never asked myself what kind of work I wanted to do, and also never the follow-up question, who best to do it with. In that sense I’m not a productive person. I think when you get close to people, you spontaneously start working in some way . . . out of sheer energy or whatever it is. Surplus.
twi-ny: What are the main differences between working with Richard Maxwell and with Elizabeth LeCompte?
jf: It’s easier for me to say what they have in common. In both cases it’s deep water, bright, alive. Like swimming in the ocean. Limitless, often extremely simple. Always big. And buoyant. Potentially dangerous because there’s power and a lot of desire. I’ve been lucky to work with them both. Ever-fresh. Always something other than what I would have imagined.
With Rich, among so many other things (ongoing), I learned the practice of active listening in the room, with your body and with your subtle body for that matter . . . whatever body you can muster. Listening to time, listening to others, to minds, listening to story and to space, without withdrawing your energy or agency, your own reasons — what can that yield, where will it go? Honestly that’s something you can pursue for as many years and hours as you have available, with audience.
With Liz I saw the whole situation get put into motion. You get a little as if your feet are off the ground. Could go in any direction at any time. Dreaming of flight. Something’s gained in translation. Movement. And she employs very complex orchestration — of lighting, sound, voice. Language. Set design. Onstage behavior. Machinery. And yes, video. All indisputably unified by the principle of a single viewpoint, that of a person watching — specifically, of her watching. It’s quite thrilling. You know sometimes as a performer in these great stage architectures of hers I simply don’t get it until I see the videotape of us trying to do it. There’s no way to really perceive it or even imagine it from onstage.
twi-ny: For a nonproductive person, you seem to work nonstop in a wide variety of genres. Among the characters you’ve portrayed over the last few years are Jackson Pollock, Jay Gatsby, and Lemmy Caution. Do you have a dream character you’d love to play?
jf: When I was first getting to know the artist Tony Oursler, he asked me that same question over coffee, “What’s your dream role?” I said “Frankenstein,” meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster. Seems like a year later as I was going into his studio for a few hours’ work, his assistant Jack [Colton] said to me, “I think we’ll get you into the Frankenstein makeup first.” Total surprise. Zero preparation. No time to think about it. It was so much like a dream. And my text was a song that Tony had dreamed that night, “Spark of Life.” He’d woken up and recorded it as it had come to him and I listened to it several times while Enver Chakartash and Naomi Raddatz did a genius monster makeover on me, which took all of a half hour. Frankenstein the created being. I sang it into Tony’s camera and it was strange. When I finished he pulled his face from behind the monitor; there was a tear rolling down his cheek. The tear of Frankenstein.
twi-ny: Ah, that was Imponderable, which was the centerpiece of his big MoMA show. I saw him and Constance DeJong bring back Relatives at the Kitchen two years ago. You’ve been in numerous productions at the Kitchen, as well as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center, and the Performing Garage. For the next two weekends, you’ll be at the Skirball Center with A Pink Chair, which was previously staged at La MaMa and REDCAT in LA. Skirball is doing amazing things under Jay Wegman. What has the process been like bringing A Pink Chair there?
jf: [Skirball director] Jay Wegman makes things flow. He makes a deal spontaneously, no head-scratching, and sticks to it. Sometimes you have to sort of check yourself and say, yes, he’s really doing this. You can feel the Wegman effect when you’re working inside the institution — it was like that at Abrons too when he was there. A lot of heart. A lotta lot. He doesn’t flinch. And he seems radically relaxed somehow.
Once I was meeting with him in his office at Abrons and I casually admired this or that thing on his wall or on the desk, to which he repeatedly replied, “Do you want it?” It was very disarming and somehow a challenge. A kind of destabilizing personal bounty. I think he was serious. That’s the wild effect he has. . . . He leaves you pondering that to yourself: “I think he was serious? . . .”
twi-ny: Have there been any major adjustments to A Pink Chair given the larger stage and much bigger house?
jf: The show is feeling great in Skirball. It was conceived on a large scale, so it looks at home here. Skirball is a great space. The crowds here somehow have a kind of living room feeling . . . rather than some kind of modeled civic space. It’s a civic space that’s not trying too hard to look like one. It just is one. Very comfortable. Not obsessed with being the last word in design.
But so many of the shows I’ve seen here look great! I have noticed as an audience member here that I feel I’m able to be in contact with people sitting all the way across the room from me. Not every theater has that. Is it the curved rows? The warm array of nipple-shaped glass lamps as ceiling lighting?
As far as adjustments, we are spending a lot of time getting the sound right. That’s a major adjustment for any new venue we go to. Liz plays the room like a hi-fi set.
twi-ny: Speaking of being in the audience, when I am not in the audience watching you onstage, I often see you in the audience of other shows. What do you like to do on those rare occasions when you’re not in a theater?
jf: Burpees. Other stuff too. 🙂 Let’s spend some time together.
twi-ny: We’ll do so at Skirball, so getting back to A Pink Chair, can you talk a little about your character, the priest?
jf: About my character, I want to say up top, again: costumes by Enver Chakartash, in collaboration with Liz. When you swirl, it twirls. I have enough sense to know when a costume is doing the work for me, so I stay out of its way and let it do it.
The set is kind of like a territory, with different zones and thresholds, and a void, and a highly populated sector. In the most basic way I’d say A Pink Chair is a visit to the Underworld. A daughter (true story) engages a theater company (us) to help her go there to try to make contact with her father who was the great theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. How did we think to look there for him? That’s where he seemed to be headed in the final play he actually saw through to production, I Shall Never Return. The performers in A Pink Chair sometimes feel like pieces, subject to the zone they are in, and able to move in ways specific to each person. Mind you these are not explicit rules . . . it’s just how it has developed. Like laws of nature. What you’re seeing is a history of intelligent development . . . aimed at you, me, the unknown soldier, coming to see the show. My character the priest is one of those that is able to cross the void, for instance.
twi-ny: According to a behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you had a bit of a problem nailing your own cross; what are your carpentry skills like?
jf: I guess a crucifix is probably about the simplest thing you can make from wood. The rugged cross: Nail one piece of wood to another bisecting the smaller one, but not the larger one, at right angles. They say Christ was a carpenter. . . .
Professional bull rider Daylon Swearingen may be only twenty, but he’s already amassed an impressive resume. The 2019 PBR Canada champ, ranked #13 in the world last season, was raised in a rodeo family and has been taking home major trophies since he was sixteen. His parents, Sam and Carrie, run the Rawhide Rodeo Company; Sam was a bareback rider, while Carrie was a barrel racer and trick rider. Daylon’s younger brother, Colton, is a champion steer wrestler and calf roper competing for the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savage Storm, and their uncles Mike Swearingen and Ken Phillips are rodeo vets as well.
The 5'6", 150-pound Daylon, who goes by the nickname Day, will be in New York City January 3–5 for the annual Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, where PBR will Unleash the Beast to a rabid fan base here in the Big Apple. Daylon, who lives in Piffard, New York, spends his busy time shuttling between PBR and college tournaments; he is studying for an associate’s degree in land and ranch management at Panola College in Texas, where he met his girlfriend, fellow rodeo teammate McKynzie Bush, a barrel racer and breakaway roper. Twi-ny continues its tradition of profiling PBR participants — past years have featured interviews with Sean Willingham, Flint Rasmussen, Tanner and Jesse Byrne, and Cooper Davis — with an inside look at Day, who talks about family, studying, setting high goals, and domestic violence awareness; as young children, he and Colton witnessed terrible violence before his mother left their birth father and married Sam Swearingen, who brought the boys up.
twi-ny: You come from a rodeo family. Growing up, was there ever anything else you wanted to do?
daylon swearingen: Not really. I just wanted to ride bulls and be around rodeo, produce rodeos and stuff like that. I think it was just we always had chaps on and had a belt buckle and cowboy boots. I remember always being around it.
twi-ny: You’ve been winning competitions since you were sixteen. When did you realize that you were good enough to make a career out of it?
ds: Probably when I was sixteen and I started entering the bull riding at the rodeos. Just going to my dad’s rodeos I made a pretty good amount of money, and that made me believe I could make a living doing it.
twi-ny: You’re currently ranked #2 in the world and recently won the PBR Canadian Championship and the National Collegiate Rodeo Association Bull Riding Championship. Is it scary having so much success so quickly?
ds: I wouldn’t say it’s scary. I set my standards high, and if you have high goals you should be able to achieve high goals.
twi-ny: You’re only twenty years old, but you’ve already ridden more than two hundred bulls and just this summer logged thirty thousand miles going back and forth between college rodeo and professional tournaments. How’s your body holding up?
ds: My body is holding up good. I took some time after the NFR [National Finals Rodeo, which concluded December 14] just to feel good.
twi-ny: Do you have a different mind-set whether you’re competing in college rodeo or PBR, facing some of your heroes?
ds: I just have to ride the bull for eight seconds. It doesn’t matter the caliber, you just have to make the eight seconds. You have to ride like you want to be where you want to get to. My mind-set is the same every time I get on a bull.
twi-ny: Your girlfriend, McKynzie Bush, is also on the Panola College team. Since you’re on the road so much, how difficult is it to maintain the relationship?
ds: It’s a little difficult, especially over the summer. I went to see her, and she came to see me. I don’t like long-distance relationships, but we made it work.
twi-ny: You’re on course for graduating next May with an associate degree in land and ranch management. When do you find the time to study?
ds: I can study when I am sitting in the car, not doing a whole bunch, sometimes in hotel rooms, when I get real bored and have that idle time and should be doing something.
twi-ny: What are your ultimate plans with the degree?
ds: Just to have it in case something happens, I can fall back on that associate’s degree and what I have learned both in school and out.
Jeff Collins – my coach at school who is the 2000 World Champion bareback rider – has helped me out a lot. Going to school gave me the opportunity to live in Texas a little bit. I enjoy Texas, and also the stuff I have learned about electricity, hydraulics, all these systems, grazing cattle, and all of that. I have seen it on the ranch side, but I have never seen it as someone who studies it and gets all the facts behind everything.
twi-ny: You have said that Cochise is the fiercest bull you’ve ridden, yet you’ve had your best score on him, a 92 in Tulsa in August. What’s the secret to lasting eight seconds on this particular beast?
ds: I just kept moving, get around there. I was just riding loose. I didn’t think about it a whole bunch, and it just kind of happened.
twi-ny: Do you have any other favorite bulls?
ds: I have tons of favorite bulls. I breed some cows myself at home in New York. I have Bruiser calves, a couple Pearl Harbor calves. [Ed Note: Bruiser is a three-time PBR World Champion bull, while the late Pearl Harbor was a beloved world champion contender.] I enjoy a lot of bulls.
twi-ny: On your vest, you wear a symbol that supports domestic violence awareness, inspired by a terrible family situation. What do you think is most misunderstood about domestic violence in America?
ds: I think it is overlooked as a problem because so many people have a family together, or they are in a comfort zone and feel like they can’t get out. With the family part, so many people don’t want their kids growing up without a dad, so they give second and third chances. But in reality it affects those kids. They don’t think the kids see, but the kids see way more than they let on. Just getting out and not feeling stuck, kids can change if they want to. You can’t change another person, but you can change what you’re doing and your actions.
twi-ny: You’ve lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Piffard, New York. Next week, you’ll be competing at Madison Square Garden. Does that hold any special meaning for you since you’re now a New Yorker, or is it just another bull riding event?
ds: I feel like it is kind of special. Madison Square Garden is the first place we took bucking bulls to – this major event. It is kind of cool PBR’s season starts in New York, and it’s definitely one I have always wanted to get on tour by. So now that I am there, it is very exciting.
twi-ny: When you’re in New York City, what else do you plan on doing?
ds: Try not to get hit by a taxi.
Seriously, ride some bulls.
Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill
633 Third Ave. at Fortieth St.
Saturday, November 23, $65-$125, 12:00 - 3:00
“Before the twentieth century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” award-winning author Mark Kurlansky writes in the preface to his 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “This is what New York was to the world — a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. . . . Oysters were true New Yorkers.” So what is Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill, a Murray Hill institution for four decades, doing hosting an All-Canadian Oyster Festival?
For more than fifteen years, Docks has been home to a fall and spring oyster festival, but last November, for the first time, it featured Canadian oysters exclusively, eighteen different varieties, in addition to holding a hotly contested shucking competition (with a $1,000 cash prize). The Canadian fest, which will also serve chowders and shrimp and includes live music by People vs. Larsen, returns November 23, with master Montreal-based oyster-shucking champion Daniel Notkin as MC and celebrity shucking judges Julie Qiu, oyster sommelier and founder of In a Half Shell, and chef Andrew Gruel, founder of Slapfish restaurants. Below is an edited, combined transcript of separate interviews I conducted with Notkin, Qiu, and Gruel as well as Docks executive chef Freda Sugarman and one of the event’s chief organizers, Emmy winner Michael-Ann Rowe, the Fishionista behind such shows as Off the Beaten Palate and Put Your Best Fish Forward.
twi-ny: When did you shuck your first oyster?
julie qiu: January 13, 2010 — my birthday, by chef Lawrence Edelman! I blogged about it before In a Half Shell existed. 😀
andrew gruel: Seventeen years old, working at Cook’s Lobster House on the lobster docks in Bailey’s Island, Maine. I shucked oysters and cherry stones all summer, suffering shellfish infection one after another from stabbing myself so many times.
twi-ny: What is the key to shucking an oyster?
ag: Don’t use muscle, take your time, breathe.
jq: It’s easy to learn, difficult to master. The key to shucking a good oyster is to use as little force as possible and to leave as little of a trace of blade as possible.
dn: We all shuck a bit differently depending on the area of North America and around the world. There are lots of ways to get into an oyster, but the key to opening an oyster is to get into that shell so that you’re not breaking it or causing it to crumble, separate that adductor muscle from the top of the shell, and that same adductor from the bottom and leave nothing behind. The oyster should be presented and opened as if it didn’t even know we were there — just like it was four seconds earlier locked in that shell.
twi-ny: What is the Shuckinhell list?
jq: Shuckinhell is a special category (and Instagram handle . . . not me) dedicated to the worst of the worst shucks that are paraded around as “good oysters.”
twi-ny: What’s the most common problem nonprofessionals have?
dn: There are a few! Getting into the hinge or into the shell I think is the hardest part. It can be very slight or very “tight” depending where you enter: If you go in through the “lip” (the slight opening where the top and bottom shells meet around the oyster) and that’s very tight, that can be tough. If you go in through the hinge (at the back where the shells are connected), that can be very small or very tight . . . and not having the right knife or one that’s too dull — that leads to a lot of problems and danger.
twi-ny: What is the greatest misconception New Yorkers have about oysters?
dn: Well, I actually think New Yorkers are doing great! New York was founded on oysters, and the resurgence and interest that New York and many cities have shown gives great joy and hope to all of us who care about ocean health and the preservation of our environment. Our good friends at the Billion Oyster Project in New York are just doing phenomenal work on educating young people about marine life and are making great strides with their efforts to repopulate the harbor and making it livable again for all species. No small task!
I think moreover that there’s just so much for them to learn about oysters that is fascinating. We addressed a lot of them in our documentary, Shuckers (that we hope to bring out on a platform soon), but they’re just amazing: Each single oyster filters fifty gallons of water a day (1M oysters = 50M gallons filtered!); that they don’t filter garbage or waste but rather algae and phytoplankton, which cloud up the waterways and if allowed to overpopulate cause red tide and death to all species; that they live in estuaries where the rivers meet the sea for just that reason; that they’re 650 million years old; that they’re one of the healthiest things you can eat on the planet; and that the more you eat them (these days) the more you’re saving the world!
Oysters used to be mostly wild but now they’re all farmed but have to be grown in natural waterways, so the more you eat oysters, the more money goes back to the farmers, the more we filter the water and replace the oysters that were once there, the more they have a greater appreciation and presence, and a greater voice to improve our oceans and water systems.
I think the only misconception is for those who choose not to eat oysters because they’re concerned about harming animals (i.e., vegans). Oysters have no central nervous system, no motility, no cognition, and likely the same bioreactionary traits we are now finding in lettuce and all plants and trees and all aspects of nature. All told, if you eat lettuce, you can feel okay, and even better eating an oyster.
twi-ny: Do New Yorkers really get into watching the competition, or are they too busy eating and drinking?
dn: Boy, can they get into it! When you get really good shuckers, it’s a great show. And you don’t have to sacrifice eating and drinking. Each round lasts about a minute and a half, so grab a drink, grab a lobster roll and a plate of oysters, and watch the show!
twi-ny: Why the switch to Canadian oysters from local fare?
freda sugarman: We felt that it was super important to showcase areas in Canada that produce incredible shellfish. I enjoy having a close connection with the farmers and love seeing their passion for their product.
twi-ny: What are some of the primary differences between Canadian oysters and oysters from, for example, the East Coast, the West Coast, and Japan?
jq: Wow, that’s a big question. Primary difference: Species. Environment. Growing methodologies. But that’s generally the differences between all oysters. Canadian oysters take a bit longer to mature than other oysters grown around the world. For that reason, some of them are petite in nature but have very complex and layered flavors.
twi-ny: What’s so special about Canadian oysters?
dn: Well! First off, all oysters are special. To say one was more special than the other would be like choosing a favorite child — ideally not possible. But what distinguishes our maritime Canadian oysters is their perseverance in the face of long winters and harsh conditions. That means each of these beautiful oysters in the small but perfect size of ~2.5-3" is that they take three to five years to get to that point. Which means they’ve weathered a number of storms, and the best and most hearty survive.
Compare this to a New England oyster, which takes one to one and a half years to grow to 2.5/3", and a Gulf oyster, which takes one year to grow to four inches. Well . . . these little guys put in the work. You get a beautifully clean taste and fresh, crisp character — cold butter and the fresh, clean salt of remaining ocean water with hints of a rich vegetal stock indicative of the algae they ingest. Beautiful oysters all.
twi-ny: What are your personal favorite oysters?
jq: I’m an equal opportunity international oyster lover. Can we make this question about favorite Canadian oysters? If that’s the case, I’m a fan of Village Bays from New Brunswick, Kusshi from Deep Bay, BC, and Raspberry Points from PEI.
ag: I will happily indulge in every type of Canadian oyster.
twi-ny: Freda, you prepare oysters several ways at Docks. How do you prefer to eat them?
fs: A simple touch of lemon.
twi-ny: And to drink?
fs: Everything goes well with tequila!
twi-ny: Michael-Ann, you’ve traveled all around North and South America writing about food. Where have you had the best oysters?
michael-ann rowe: Atlantic Canada. Seriously. Second to that is the US: Wellfleet (East Coast), and a surprise in Alabama were Murder Point Oysters.
twi-ny: You were born in Canada and live both there and in New York. Are there differences in how New Yorkers and Canadians eat oysters?
m-ar: Not really. They either douse them with a blast of pickled horseradish or eat them the right way. . . .
twi-ny: Which would be?
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30
“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.
“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.
twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?
John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.
The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.
twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?
jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.
I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.
It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.
twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.
jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.
twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?
jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.
twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.
jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.
twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?
jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.
twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?
jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.
He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.
twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.
jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.
twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?
jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.
Nearly twenty years ago, I worked a day job with singer-songwriter and freelance journalist Jim Allen, a gracious and friendly man who has a never-ending thirst for music old and new, obscure and popular, with a vast knowledge of his chosen discipline. Allen is a solo artist in addition to being leader of the country band the Ramblin’ Kind and the rock outfit Lazy Lions; this month he has released his first solo record in sixteen years, Where the Sunshine Bit You, a tasty confection of eleven tunes that showcase Allen’s sweet-sounding acoustic guitar and trademark turns of phrases.
Recorded live, the album opens with the swampy folk-blues instant classic “All the Way Down the Line,” in which he sings in his deep baritone, “Yeah, the sign said stop, it was only a suggestion / The dead end sign was really meant to be a question / Where’s that map when we need it most? / Are we christening a country or following a ghost? / Well, the train’s on time all the way down the line.” Jerry Garcia would be proud of “The Day After Tomorrow” (“When the worst of all your dreams decides to call your house a home / Then the arctic freeze is just a breeze compared to where you roam”), while Leonard Cohen would get a kick out of “Wedding of the Dead” (“Here comes the groom all dressed in doom / He’s got a bloodstain on his tie”), Richard Thompson would be honored by “Going Under” (“This hole has got a boat in it, it’s all that I can do / To find a way to float in it till something else comes through”), and Hank Williams is smiling somewhere at “What I Deserve” (“Oh, I was high and dry but now I’m low and drowning / I only hope God’s grading on a curve / When the cotton meets the clay underneath the milky way / And the time arrives to get what I deserve”). Among Allen’s other influences are Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash. It all concludes with the foot-stompin’ “High.”
A DIY effort, Where the Sunshine Bit You was recorded live in the studio and mixed by Magic Mike Jung; it features Matt Applebaum on guitars, Joanna Sternberg on bass, Steve Goulding on drums, and Libby Johnson and Jung on vocals. On June 2, Allen will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse at 2A with a litany of special guests. Below he explains some of his process, his collaboration with his son, and his love of LPs.
twi-ny: What made you decide to do a solo album at this time? Your last one was 2003’s Wild Card.
jim allen: After that album I concentrated more on being in bands than doing the solo singer/songwriter thing, but I would never abandon it. Maybe the singer/songwriter-type material eventually reached — or more accurately, surpassed — critical mass and I felt like I had to do something more concrete with it. Also I began to realize how alarmingly long it had been since I’d last put out a solo album! So I started to envision a predominantly acoustic album of these songs. I think hearing Joanna Sternberg playing standup bass helped spark my imagination of how the songs could work in that setting. Fortunately, Joanna was available for the session.
twi-ny: You are also a singer/songwriter for the Ramblin’ Kind and Lazy Lions. What is your songwriting process like? Do you set out to write songs specifically for one of the bands or yourself, or does the song just come to you and then you figure out where it belongs?
ja: I never start out with any particular direction in mind; it just goes where it goes, not to get all hippie mystic on you or anything. There’s some overlap between my solo stuff and the Ramblin’ Kind, but a lot of the songs will obviously not fit in a country-oriented band. And the Lazy Lions stuff is much more separate; it’s an entirely different set of blocks we’re playing with, so there’s rarely any confusion about which belongs where with them. Occasionally I’ve tried out songs with them that we determined were more Jim Allen songs than Lazy Lions songs.
twi-ny: You have two kids who look like they’re a lot of fun. Are they into music? What do they think of Dad’s albums?
ja: Yeah, they’re possessed of an almost unnatural amount of joie de vivre. They like to hear music, and they love to have ad hoc dance parties at home, with me or my wife playing DJ. But they haven’t made a lot of their own specific preferences known yet. They love to hear my music, though. When I first got copies of this album, my son, who’s seven, wanted to hear it right away and just sat in rapt attention staring at the speaker for the entire thing, which was pretty damn adorable. Actually one of the songs, “The Day After Tomorrow,” began from something he said to me one day, that’s why you’ll see his name co-credited on it. Not that I’d necessarily be so magnanimous as to extend that same courtesy to a non-relative in the same situation.
twi-ny: You recently wrote that you have a “strategic approach” to the WFMU Record Fair. What does that entail?
ja: I’ve been a crate-digger since my teens, but I’ve always taken an open-ended approach to it. I figure if you’re only looking for a specific set of things, you’re gonna have a hard time finding what you want and you’re gonna miss out on a lot of other stuff in the meantime. So I just gravitate to whatever looks good, and inexpensive.
twi-ny: Is there a specific LP you’ve been on the hunt for and have been unable to find?
ja: If I ever encountered the first couple of Butch Hancock albums in the wild for a reasonable amount, I might begin to weep.
twi-ny: We often see each other at shows, by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, and others. Who have you seen live lately that you love, and what’s coming up for you as a spectator?
ja: Let’s see. Well, most recently I saw my buddy Wes Houston play; he’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive and he sounds better than ever, so I find that inspiring. The last thing before that was Chick Corea in an all-star trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, which was blindingly good. I’m never sure exactly what I’ll wind up making it to see, but the next few shows on my docket are Barre Phillips, the jazz bassist, and the Masqueraders, an old-school R&B group that’s performing again, and my old friend Simon Joyner, a great singer/songwriter from Omaha who’s playing at Alphaville in Brooklyn. That’ll be five dollars for the plug, Simon.
twi-ny: In addition to being interviewed about your own records, you have been writing about music for several decades. Who are some of your favorite subjects?
ja: I always say the nicest person I ever interviewed was Jimmie Dale Gilmore; the guy just oozes genuine sweetness and conviviality, even over the phone. Recently I got to talk to Jon Anderson, which was huge for me because I’m an enormous Yes fan, and it was all the more enjoyable because he turned out to be a super-nice guy; he really is the sort of twinkle-eyed hippie prince you might imagine him to be.
twi-ny: If you could choose to write the liner notes for any album or artist, new or old, what/who would it be?
ja: Very interesting question. I got to write notes for some great records. I guess the ultimate would be Leonard Cohen, because he’s had the biggest effect on me.
twi-ny: Who would you most want to write the liner notes for your next record? Feel free to choose a writer no longer with us.
ja: As far as someone to write notes for my album, let’s see. This is a dangerous question because I have a lot of great music journalist friends, you know. So I’ll play it safe and go with someone I’ve never met instead, the British writer Allan Jones, just because he’s so howlingly funny.
twi-ny: On June 2, you will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse, with such guests as Mike Fornatale, Emily Duff, Libby Johnson, Wes Houston, and Pete Galub. What can you tell us about the show?
ja: I’m taking over the joint for the night. We’ll be playing two sets, from 8:30 to 11. The first set will be the new album in full. And the second set will be some of my old songs plus a bunch of surprise covers and special guests, including the people you mentioned. Matt Applebaum, Paul Foglino, and Steve Goulding, who also happen to be in the Ramblin’ Kind with me, will be playing with me. The Treehouse is above the bar 2A on the corner of Second St. and Ave. A, where Tom Clark, who’s a great musician himself, has been running a great Sunday series for a good while now.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in the Bronx. What did that instill in you?
ja: I guess on one hand, growing up as a weird, arty kid in the midst of the very blue-collar, kind of conservative neighborhood where I lived, I developed a sense of otherness pretty early on. But at the same time, growing up in one of what Manhattanites charmingly refer to as the “outer boroughs,” I also developed an inclination towards lurking around on the periphery of things and sort of observing the hullabaloo from a safe distance. Unfortunately, it did not instill in me the ability to smoothly segue from that into the shameless hucksterism of reminding people that my album, Where the Sunshine Bit You, can be found in both download and CD format at www.jimallen.bandcamp.com. Alas.
I first saw Ian Hunter perform on July 5, 1980, at the famed Malibu nightclub in Lido Beach, a memorable show and a formative part of my teenage existence. Last month, nearly forty years later, I was in awe as Hunter, who I’ve seen play many times over the decades, led Mott the Hoople ’74 through a blistering set at the Beacon. Sinewy and lithe, he was as active as ever, making his way all over the stage, posing at the mic, playing electric and acoustic six-string razors, and teasing the crowd, ever the glam rock star in his trademark shades and curly golden locks. During the show, original Mott guitarist Ariel Bender made joking comments about age — “I’m happy to be here. . . . I’m happy to be anywhere,” he declared more than once — but with Hunter, it was as if time had stood still. He has never rested on his laurels, relentlessly touring while carving out a prolific career as a solo artist in addition to his time with Mott.
On June 3, he’ll be turning eighty — he’s also been married to his wife, Trudi, for nearly fifty years — and he’s celebrating the occasion with a four-night residency at City Winery, joined by his longtime backing group the Rant Band. On May 31 and June 2, they will be performing Mott the Hoople tunes; on June 1, the focus will be on Hunter’s solo work, which includes such outstanding albums as 1979’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, 1983’s All of the Good Ones Are Taken, 2009’s Man Overboard, and 2016’s Fingers Crossed. And on June 3, there will be a gala party where anything can happen. In honor of the milestone, I asked the members of the Rant Band what impressed them most about Hunter’s remarkable youthfulness.
Paul Page, Bass
“I always love seeing Ian at the baggage carousels after a long flight. While the rest of us are scattered, maybe a couple of us are in the restroom, or someone’s on the phone or out getting some fresh air. There’s Ian, right up front, picking bags and guitar cases off the belt, lining them up and nodding ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Here’s another.’ He puts us all to shame.”
Steve Holley, Drummer
“I have had the distinct pleasure of playing drums with Ian Hunter for over thirty years and can say in all honesty that everything he does at the moment is beyond the reach of most people his age. However, age really has nothing to do with it; he just continues to write and perform at a level that we can only dream of.
“Happy birthday, Ian! And here’s to many more!”
Dennis DiBrizzi, Keyboards
“What continues to amaze me is Ian’s integrity and dedication to rock and roll. He’s still relevant because he’s still passionate about singing, songwriting, and performing. Age is no issue when you still have that.”
James Mastro, Guitar, Saxophone, Mandolin
“Centuries from now scientists will be studying the genetic makeup of an anomaly that straddled the twentieth and twenty-first centuries known as Ian Hunter and try to figure out what made him rock so well for so long. I wish I knew. Put him in the category of the Grand Canyon, the Nile, the Acropolis, the Cyclone at Coney Island: all wonders of the world that never cease to amaze or disappoint. I’m just glad I’ve gotten to witness this force of nature up close.”