The Revision Dilemma

It’s not too often we get to hear a singer/songwriter’s process of development.

A few days ago, I posted video of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, All I Want. Today I stumbled on this fascinating live video of Joni Mitchell singing a very early version of the same song—or is it? Although you can still hear phrases that ended up in the final version, and that mountain dulcimer is playing the same riff throughout, the specific words, and the entire theme of the song, are very different. If you get a few minutes, maybe you could compare the two versions for yourself before you read on.

While this early version is certainly less polished, there’s something very raw and moving to me about it. It seems a shame to me that some of the strongest aspects of this song have been revised out of it.

Is that inevitable? With the need to straighten and tidy up, will an artist inevitably lose some of the initial raw power? I hope not. Lately I have been creeping like a baby to the bath with each revision of my novel. I’m not sure I want to clean off. I am reluctant with every new change. What if, what if, I cut out the guts of it? It will be prettier and tidier and more presentable, but will I have made a terrible mistake?

All I Want: Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell was the odd one out when it came to the folk madonna trio of Judy, Joan, and Joni. Her persona was always quirkier, edgier, more self-conscious, and less self-righteous than the other two women. Her music delights in jazz riffs and unusual shifts in key. The kid from art class, she was always swimming away from the mainstream rather than towards it. Try to keep up with her Monday morning as she is traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling. Click on the triangle above to travel with Joni.

The Unexpected Guest: C.P. Shakes

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A special guest showed up for the 5th Annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, in which I participated, in Central Park this week.

C.P. Shakes, arrived with Perdita the Pigeon on his shoulder, and performed Sonnet #149 with the bird taking every other line.

Later, Mr. Shakes confided to me that the C.P. stood for Central Park.

My own assigned Sonnet #133 was a little more subdued:

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The weather was an unlikely 49 degrees with winds making it seem even colder. But we made it through with no major mishaps. It took us almost exactly three hours to perform all 154 sonnets. The highlight for me was the performance of Sonnet #18 (“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?) by the wonderful actor Richard Thomas.  I’m hoping to be able to post audio/video of it later next month.

Marcie At Work

Work_in_progressHere’s another outtake from my forthcoming novel, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, that was broadcast on radio station WBAI 99.5FM yesterday on Arts Express. They had to cut out a little bit that was too sexy for afternoon radio, but you can hear the unexpurgated version by clicking on the grey triangle below.

You can hear an earlier excerpt here.

Shame, Where is Thy Blush?: Analyzing a Sonnet from an Actor’s Point of View

Gack!!!

The Shakespeare Sonnet Slam is only a few days away and I haven’t finished memorizing or analyzing my assigned sonnet yet.

Sonnet 133 to be exact. One of the strangest, most interesting, and perhaps most pornographic of the sonnets, best I can tell.

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.
    And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Now, one is not required to memorize for the slam, and I plan to have the typed sonnet with me, but given my eyesight, nervousness, and laziness, if I’m going to make any sense of this, it’s best to memorize. I know that the only way I can memorize something like this is if I manage to uncover its sense. And that’s what its all about. You don’t have to do great acting up there, but you do have to talk sense.

All right, how to find that sense from what first looks nonsense?

First: the structure of the sonnet gives you lots of clues. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always structured as three quatrains and a final couplet. So lets look at the poem again, divided that way:

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

***
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

***
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

***
  And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

That is how I approach memorizing a sonnet. Each quatrain is another thought, argument, or approach. The final couplet is generally a wry commentary on the preceding approaches; either it is a clever summary of them, or a recognition of the futility of the speaker’s thoughts.

So let’s start off with the first quatrain.

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

Beshrew … Err … let’s start off with that first word—Beshrew. What does it mean? The dictionaries tell us “curse.” Okay, so we’re starting off pretty strong, the speaker (let’s say “I,” from now on) is cursing someone (let’s say “you,” from now on). Why am I cursing you? Because you are making my heart groan. And not only me, but the same for my best friend. Wait a second, my best friend and I are both in love with you! And you know it, and yet you cruelly delight in it. The three of us are caught in an awful compelling love triangle.

Now the loyalty to a same-sex best friend is a theme that runs throughout Shakespeare’s plays. It’s extraordinarily important to Shakespeare’s characters. Betrayal of a supposed friend is the motor of Julius Caesar, Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and many more of his plays. So we need to take this very seriously.

So let’s go back to that first quatrain again, words like “deep wound” begin to take on a sexual meaning. My friend is hopelessly enthralled with you; you who have gleefully sliced our friendship apart with a deep wound. You have enslaved not only me, but my best friend. That is the crime of crimes.

Onto the second quatrain.

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

A change in the main thought now. The first quatrain was about cruel you; this second quatrain is about how I and you and my best friend have now irrevocably changed our relationships. The first line says that at first it was me whose soul (and body!) you had corrupted. The next line talks about “my next self” i.e. the one closest to me, my best friend, as being corrupted as well. You engrossed him harder. And if you want to go for the sexual meaning there, why not?

The next two lines say that my relationship is torn with you, my friend, and myself. But worse, each of us has three torn relationships now because of this madness, and to repair it would require each of us to repair the three relationships.

The third quatrain seeks a way to resolve the dilemma.

Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

I beg you to let me be your only lover; be cruel to me, so that my friend can be spared your cruelty. And perhaps, when you understand how important it is for me to shield my friend, to not betray him, then you will be a little kinder to me, in admiration of my loyalty.

But in the final couplet I have to admit that my dream of being free of you and your cruelty—and my own need for you—is a fantasy. And these last two lines are incredibly evocative and can be read so many ways.

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Right now, I think the most daring is to hit the final rhyme. Usually, I’m not a fan of stressing the rhyme in verse, but I think ending couplets in Shakespeare are an exception. So being pent in thee, “and all that is in me.”  But stressing me in the last line  almost forces the rhythm to add an additional stress on that. So,

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Was that Shakespeare’s intention? I can’t say. But I think it is a viable subtext for an actor. An actor always looks for a strong compelling subtext, even if it looks like other interpretations might be more likely. More, after the slam takes place later this week.

Can’t You See That She’s Mine?

The Dave Clark Five, who amassed 17 Top 40 hits, were touted in the teenzines of 1964 as the premiere rival to the Fab Four. Life in those days required you to make important decisions–no sitting on the fence. In those perilous times, at a moment’s notice, you were required to choose your allegiances: Jets or Sharks, Yankees or Mets, Oldsmobile or Buick, and Beatles or Dave Clark Five.

How could I choose otherwise, given the tenor and baritone sax of Denny Payton?

The Dave Clark Five kick you out of your stupor this Monday morning. Click on the video to listen.

Ambitious Card Finale: The Great Escape

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Magic that happens in the spectator’s hand is always powerful. But the climax should be theatrically coherent and satisfying as well. Here’s an idea that I kicked around with Chicago necromancer Neil Tobin about a decade ago.

Effect: Finally, after phase seventy-three of your Ambitious Card routine, you are ready to wrap up. You know you will need something hard-hitting to appease the peanut-throwing cynics at the cocktail party. Let’s assume your premise up to now has been that the card the spectator has freely chosen just happens to be the one untamed card in the deck. No matter how many times you put it in one place,  the card escapes and keeps ending up in another place.

Onto the finale. You show the spec’s card again and say, “This time, to make sure the card cannot get away, we’ll put it in prison!” You whip out your handy Sharpie, and draw a set of jail bars over the center of the card. If the card has been signed, so much the better. You turn the card face down and place it between the spectator’s outstretched palms. You snap your fingers, and turn over the top card of the deck, and lo and behold…nothing. It’s not the spec’s card. You act surprised–you didn’t think that drawing the prison bars would actually tame the card, but evidently it did. You take a quick look at the card between the spectator’s hand, and murmur “Hmm…no Great Escape. Maybe those prison bars actually worked.” You return the card between the spec’s hands as you say, “Let’s give the card one last chance to escape.”  You give the deck a quick shuffle. You snap your fingers again, and turn over the top card once again. This time, however, it is the spectator’s card, and moreover, though the signature is still on the card, there are no more prison bars on the card.

But wait. If the card has escaped from the prison cell, then what’s left between the spectator’s palms? You ask the spectator to turn over the card, and what is left is a card that is totally blank except for the Sharpie drawn prison bars. The untamed card has escaped once again!

As gasps and exclamations of astonishment take place, you surreptitiously dump the rest of the peanuts into your suit jacket pocket.

History: As always, the method is probably obvious to those familiar with such things, but it’s the plot that I think is fun and novel. I thought this up when I first played around with Neil Tobin’s little utility gimmick, the Xpert. The principle of the Xpert is probably well known at this point, and I don’t believe Neil manufactures them anymore. While I’d rather not reveal the nature of the gimmick here, nevertheless, it’s not hard to DIY.  At one time, Neil was going to put my effect out in a supplementary booklet or DVD, but to the best of my knowledge that never happened.

Method: Prepare a blank-faced card with a set of prison bars drawn with a Sharpie. For the first seventy-two iterations of the Ambitious Card, you’re on your own, just make sure not to flash the prepared card. For phase seventy-three, make sure you end up with the prepared card on top of the deck, and the chosen ambitious card second from the top. One easy way to get into that position easily is to have the blank card on top of the deck, and pretend to put the chosen card into the middle of the deck. Actually, you’ll use the Tilt move to place it second from the top. Magical gesture, and then DL to show the card on top.

Say that you are going to imprison the card, and draw the prison bars on it. Of course, here you are utilizing the Xpert principle. Reverse the DL and take the top face-down card and place it between the spec’s palms. Shuffle the signed card to the bottom. Magical gesture, turn over the top card of the deck and…nothing happens. It’s an indifferent card. You throw the indifferent card on the table; that gives you the misdirection to wipe the bottom card.

Say that you will give it one more try. Give the deck a quick overhand shuffle, running the bottom card back to the top. Magical gesture again. Turn over the top card–it’s his card escaped. “But if your card is here, then who’s in jail?” The spec opens his or her hand to find the blank card with the empty cell. The card has escaped once more!

Hard Lessons

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Judith Malina, an extraordinary theatre artist, died this past week. I met her a few times, briefly, when I was a member of a theater company that rehearsed and performed in the theater space she owned on East Third Street in Lower Manhattan. She had generously allowed us to use her theater, and occasionally she would peek into a rehearsal and nod encouragingly.

Her accomplishments were many, and as co-founder, with her husband Julian Beck, of The Living Theatre, she influenced generations of actors, directors, and playwrights. Playwright Karen Malpede has written a moving tribute to her here:

Judith Malina: A Vibrant Tremor

Malpede ends her piece with a recent poem from Judith Malina’s published diary:

Hard Lessons:

Learn patience first,
And after patience, love,
And after love
The eternal joy
Of having loved.

Assumptions

For those who think they can’t be deceived:

Even when we know what is happening, it is still very difficult to accept that our senses are wrong.

Click on the video above to have your assumptions upended.

Run the video again with your forefinger held horizontally across the border of the two segments to verify it’s not a camera trick.

Why I Love the Theater

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Laurence Olivier had just given an amazing theatrical performance. His friend Roddy McDowall, rushed backstage after the performance to congratulate the esteemed actor. But when he opened the door of the dressing room, he saw the great man seated at his make-up table, head on the table, sobbing.

“Laurence, What in heaven’s name are you crying for? It was a brilliant performance. I’ve never seen you so good.”

“I know,” wailed the actor, “And the bloody thing is I don’t know how I did it, and I know I won’t be able to do it again!

Phil Ochs, Patriot

Among the political left, there has long been a tradition of the radical folk song masked as a patriotic ditty. Paul Robeson sung “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”; Woody Guthrie sung “This Land Is Your Land”; Pete Seeger sung “If I Had a Hammer,” and so on.

Phil Ochs, who died 39 years ago last week, continued that tradition. “The Power and the Glory” was Phil’s stirring contribution to the genre. He was clever enough in constructing the song that it was covered by arch-conservative songbird Anita Bryant.

Phil’s anthem gets you out of bed Monday morning, saluting the flag, and stuffing The Communist Manifesto in your back pocket en route to the demo.

Click on the video for the song, and the words in English and Spanish, and an additional unrecorded final verse reportedly written by Theo Bikel.

RIP Phil.

Poem: Villa

Villa

Don’t let it end like this
Tell them I said something:
The sky is blue
My mother’s arms were brown
All I felt were forty shots
A roadster windshield provides no protection

* * *
Picking up the gold
For the golden revolution
I was ready to retire
I earned my rest, compañeros
I had two goats for dinner
Light a candle
Open the gate that goes around the garden seven times
There are horses in the south, can you hear them?

Favorite Books (1): Letting Go by Philip Roth

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LETTING GO is Philip Roth’s brilliant first novel, published when he was only 29 years old. Even at that young age, Roth did nothing by half measures. How ambitious and how clear his calling, even then! He unabashedly swings for the home run.

It’s a book that’s sometimes overlooked when discussing Roth, yet it already contains all that elements that he would be lauded for in his later books, without the patina of unconscious self-parody that marred some of that later work.

The book is a portrait of a young novelist, an English professor, and the two women with whom he falls in love. I’m going to skip talking about the theme, or even the story itself, in order to focus primarily on what can be learned about writing from this book.

Roth is rudely audacious in his scene construction: where anyone else would have turned off the narrative camera long before, he keeps the film rolling and rolling and rolling, mercilessly, capturing the whole arc of an event or conversation. He lets it run even as it’s bitterly petering out, describing the inevitable inconclusive conclusion. Because for Roth, that is where the truth is, as much as in any climax—the inevitable compromises and disappointments that are constructed in the negotiation of any relationship.

And Roth does the same at the other end of a scene—he begins much earlier than the climax. The characters talk, talk, talk, and only at length does a scene finally take shape;  another writer, perhaps, would have cut out all the seemingly extraneous lead-in, and gotten to the core long before. But for Roth, this is the core. Life is precisely the extra stuff beyond the bottom line: life is the decoration, the justification, the innovation, the defenses, and the blockades, that are put up against the core. That is what character is.

Roth has a wonderful eye for detail. And his ear is good enough to rival the best of the comic playwrights. He is, it seems to me, a very theatrical writer; it is surprising to me that he has never written for the stage. Roth once said in an interview that in New York as a young man, he hung around actors, and he often did imitations to make the actors laugh. This makes sense, because in his writing, the man can mimic voices as easily and accurately as if he were Rich Little.

And has anyone written children better than Roth has done here? It’s probably the only time in the whole Roth canon that young children play a major role in one of his books. I tend to think of Roth as the dissector of adult neurosis, but his look into the mind of the two young children here is tremendous. Not only the exterior actions of the children, but the interior monologues as well are deeply satisfying.

Roth, however, in his epic ambition, does stumble once in this book. For some critics, it’s a fatal mistake; I don’t feel it’s fatal—the book is just too stuffed with goodies to have it discounted because of one mistake. However, his stumble, born out of ambition, is a great lesson for writers. He makes almost exactly the same mistake that Alfred Hitchcock famously made in his film, Sabotage. In one scene of Sabotage, a young boy is unwittingly carrying a package that contains a bomb. The audience is in suspense, but inwardly it feels safe; after all, the audience knows the convention is that in this kind of a movie little boys don’t get blown up by bombs. But the bomb goes off anyway. And at that point, not only has the bomb exploded, but the audience’s trust has exploded as well. The audience will no longer follow the narrative line. Because if that action is permitted, then anything is permitted, and the audience is no longer willing to go on the journey with the director. Hitchcock had betrayed his audience.  He later said to Francis Truffaut, “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb…[He] was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”

In Letting Go, Roth has that same moment of overreaching for effect that Hitchcock had. Maybe it is an ambitious beginners’ mistake: trying too hard to be different, breaking convention too soon, and in the wrong way. But once Roth missteps towards the end of the novel, the last sixty pages of the journey loses its fizz. It’s a relationship where finally the reader is merely tolerating the author because prior betrayal has frozen all emotion. The reader feels: You can’t play with my emotions like that. You betrayed me. I can’t allow you to manipulate me like that again.

But ending aside, reading Letting Go is a master class in the art of writing. Every detail is fresh; every character, from the principles to the smallest walk-on, speaks in a distinct, honest, and often very humorous voice. If Roth had written this after Portnoy, perhaps it would have been hailed as his best book. Unfortunately, you have to hunt a bit to find a copy of it nowadays, but it’s certainly a book worth hunting for.

“The Foodist Way of Life is Berserkery…”

Theodore Gottlieb, better known as Brother Theodore, was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family was wiped out at Dachau. He subsequently created a stand-up act that was one of the strangest and funniest comedy monologues I’ve ever experienced. He performed regularly in New York City in the 1980s at the 13th Street Theater, where I saw his show several times.

He billed himself as “Brother Theodore…Philosopher…Metaphysician…Podiatrist. ” (He once demanded of my date as to why she was going out with that comic book character next to her.) He lived on the Upper West Side of NYC, and if you were feeling a wave of insomnia, you could often catch him playing chess in the middle of the night at the local chess parlor.

He performed essentially the same show unchanged up until the age of 94. Yesterday’s post reminded me of this comedic genius. Click on the picture above to see the video.

Happy All the Time

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Montreal, Canada.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way images of live smiling animals are used to advertise the tastiness of the cooked product as if the animal itself were pleased as punch to be eaten. Here’s one example that caught my eye while traveling. Or is the sign referring to its customers…?