Amazing All-Girl Band


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A belated shout-out to a brief sequence in the movie Children of Men that always makes me smile. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m referring to the improbable romantic moment in the fleeing car where Julianne Moore and Clive Owen somehow manage to blow a ping pong ball back and forth between their mouths, through the air between the front and back seats.

While the film is rightfully famous for its stunning set pieces, this little bit of business is one of those inspired inventions where you go, Where the hell did they get that from? (The other characters in the car look on somewhere between aghast and amused at this hilarious left-field display.) It’s a brilliant bit of imaginative problem-solving, a vivid and unexpected means of conveying instantly an infinitude of vital emotional information that the movie doesn’t have time to slow down and show us any other way.

Clive Owen and Julianne Moore play Theo and Julian, estranged lovers who in-spite-of-or-is-it-really-because-of (that really ought to be one word) their estrangement still trust each other. Plot-wise, Julianne Moore’s character only exists to hand off the MacGuffin and then (spoiler alert) die tragically in an ambush, so she and Clive Owen have only two or three short scenes together. Given the structural parameters of the movie, there’s no time to develop their relationship properly, and their back story is officially given to us later on in the time-honored way, through expository dialogue. (Michael Caine, playing an old friend, tells Theo and Julian’s story to another character.)

But because of the ping pong ball sequence, we are given a fleeting glimpse of magic between them. What they have lost is shown rather than told. The rest of the movie gains enormous weight from this small marvel of ingenuity. Not only do Theo and Julian still trust each other, but, as it turns out, these two irredeemably dour people can still make each other laugh as well.

Till The Next Goodbye (Jagger/Richards)

All-Girl Band

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What makes unadulterated sentimentality so repugnant is that sentimentality is really just the potentially creepy fetishization of innocence. But what’s astonishing is to realize that we can still have justice in a world like ours that is devoid of innocence. Because human beings will strive for redemption under virtually any circumstances. Despite how awful things are, and the completely miserable and dangerous conditions under which most people are forced to live, we still (for the most part) persist in being polite and even kind to other people we meet. This implies that in reality justice is more a matter of love and forgiveness than of guilt and innocence. Still, we continue not only fetishizing innocence, but, as our culture becomes ever more misshapen, fetishizing guilt too.

The sometime sociologist Philip Slater has recently resurfaced on the Huffington Post as a sort of humanist contrarian, but he struck real Devastationalist gold back in the 1970s with a series of remarkably prescient books diagnosing the increasing pathological tendencies of postwar society. The most famous of these is The Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970. Here he is talking about the prohibitive difficulty of changing paths, and potentially constructive ways of viewing despair, from a later book called Earthwalk (1975):

“I have wasted X years of my life in a painful and useless pursuit; this is sad, but I now have an opportunity to try another approach.”

This is hard for people to [say]. There is a strong temptation either to rationalize our wrong turnings as a necessary part of our development (“it taught me discipline”), or to deny that we participated fully in them (“that was before I became enlightened”). Giving up these two evasions leads initially to despair, but as Alexander Lowen points out, despair is the only cure for illusion. Without despair we cannot transfer our allegiance to reality–it is a kind of mourning period for our fantasies. Some people do not survive this despair, but no major change within a person can occur without it.

People get trapped in despair when their despair is incomplete–when some thread of illusory hope is still retained. When artificial lights are turned off in a windowed room at night, it takes a little time to realize that the darkness is not total, and the longer we are dazzled by the after-image of that artificial light, the longer it takes to perceive the subtle textures of natural light and shadows–to realize that we can, in fact, see.

And this is the All Girl Band, or me and Tex, at least. (Perhaps the rest of the Girls were already at the bar?) This was the song I sang for the Losers Lounge tribute to Randy Newman and somehow it emigrated into the All Girl Band setlist for awhile. Of course, at the time I had no trouble relating to what was — hidden behind a very convincing facade of drunken self-loathing — the song’s disastrously sentimental heart. Famously known to have been John Belushi’s favorite song.

Guilty (Randy Newman)

Yes, baby, I been drinkin’
And I shouldn’t come by I know
But I found myself in trouble, darlin’
And I had nowhere else to go

Got some whisky from the barman
Got some cocaine from a friend
I just had to keep on movin’
Til I was back in your arms again

I’m guilty, baby I’m guilty
And I’ll be guilty all the rest of my life
How come I never do what I’m supposed to do
How come nothin’ that I try to do ever turns out right?

You know, you know how it is with me baby
You know, you know I just can’t stand myself
And it takes a whole lot of medicine
For me to pretend that I’m somebody else

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There were — are — some things I definitely plan(ned) to post up here to mark the one-year anniversary of this blog (born November 19, 2006). But, alas, as they are all still in “progress,” this will have to do for the moment. And actually, I think it does quite nicely. A declaration of love undying from a Devastationalist Ur-text, Max Beerbohm’s side-splitting, heart-broke and weirdly beautiful little book, Zuleika Dobson:

“My heart is no tablet of mere wax, from which an instant’s heat can dissolve whatever imprint it may bear, leaving it blank and soft for another impress, and another and another. My heart is a bright hard gem, proof against any die. Came Cupid, with one of his arrow-points for graver, and what he cut on the gem’s surface can never be effaced. There, deeply and forever, your image is intagliated. No years, nor fire, nor cataclysm of total Nature, can efface from that great gem your image.”

And an anniversary song, too, why not? The All Girl Band live, drunkenly defying traditional gender roles! Take that, America!

I Want That Man (Tom Bailey/Alannah Currie)

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Where have I been? (“Got any what?”) Uh, where have you been? Or: Where haven’t I been, more likely. Actually, it’s a rather suspiciously odd coincidence that my involuntary blogging sabbatical just happened to coincide with my return to New York City and its gnatty clouds of debilitating psychic energy. (Even walking down the street is exponentially more difficult here than elsewhere, with the weight of so many people crammed so close together, emitting so much negative mental energy — it’s like being slapped around sometimes just to buy a quart of milk.)

Of course, if I tell people I’m getting the hell out of Dodge because of the bad vibes, they look at me with pity, like I’m crazy. But it’s true. And that’s not only the main reason, that’s the umbrella which covers virtually all the myriad other reasons. Human beings were not meant to live this way.

Allen St. John’s recent book, Clapton’s Guitar, tells the story of a backwoods Virginia musician called Wayne Henderson, one of the tiny and tight-knit community of master guitar builders in the world today. The best of Henderson’s painstakingly handcrafted instruments compare favorably to pre-war Martins, the most coveted guitars in the world, and the book explores the reasons why this might be so, talking a lot about the qualities of different types of wood and the techniques luthiers use to cut, whittle, sand, glue, brace, treat and finish that wood to bring a guitar into being.

It’s an interesting book if you have even the slightest bit of guitar geek in you, but it’s almost all smoke screen. The real truth of the matter doesn’t come out until near the very end of the book, in a scene that takes place over lunch in a shopping-center Italian restaurant in West Concord, MA. St. John is talking to a guy called T.J. Thompson, a gifted and reknowned guitar restoration expert. They are discussing the “Big Question”: “what is it that separates a magical guitar from a merely great one?” What are the reasons that one guitar can channel magic, while its erstwhile twin only sounds pale in comparison? There’s some hemming and hawing (“I could probably list 600 reasons…” says T.J., alluding to the aforementioned processes of cutting, whittling, bracing, etc.), before T.J. finally wears down and confesses the most important thing; really, the only important thing:

“The state of mind of the person building the guitar.”

More on all of this later, but for now here’s a question: If believing T.J.’s statement makes sense to you (as it surely does to me), why not extrapolate from this and work out all the logical implications? Clearly, if you conscientiously did that, your whole life would have to change. And I wonder why our culture can so easily accept isolated glimpses of this aspect of reality, but would seek to ridicule anyone who went ahead and drew the obvious conclusions.

This is the Girls playing “Millionaire,” recorded live at Dick Zigun’s Coney Island Sideshows By The Seashore. It’s like one of those psychological aptitude tests where they try to determine if you know the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes, for years at a time, you lose your perspective — it’s impossible to tell. But if you just took one step in any direction, suddenly it would seem so obvious.

Millionaire

There’s a millionaire underneath the table
I know it’s not right, you know it’s not right
But there’s a millionaire underneath the table

There’s a millionaire underneath the table
Do you think I don’t know it’s not right?
I don’t know anything at all

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A Devastationalist spends way too much of his or her life being blown about like a leaf, drifting passively in and out of jobs, homes, relationships, rarely if ever daring to actively exercise the power of choice. To choose, of course, implies desire, and desire is the bane of a Devastationalist’s existence — at best, a path to potential disappointment, and at worst, the seed of all ruin lies there. Who needs the responsibility? So much safer to just sit back and rail at the winds of fate!

The night before we hit the road, the topic over dinner (mediocre salads and crummy service, by the way) was how scary and overwhelming it is to actually try and choose what to do, how to live — to impose agency on your own life. But if you don’t get over that, what’s the point of being alive?

And now, halfway through and over a thousand miles in, I really don’t have much to report — not yet anyway. For once, we have thankfully shut down the processing unit here at Devastationalist HQ, running strictly on intake mode at the moment. Though I can safely say there are infinite pleasures to be found in the world out there (pleasure, now that’s an interesting concept, eh?) and also, Liam has a new favorite restaurant.

So, here’s a road song, the All-Girl Band does Dylan. I learned this song off a mix-tape Andrea Kannapell made for me at the outset of another road trip, years ago, at the dawn of the 90s. Tex liked playing it — the half-step intervals and minor-to-major changes, stuff I almost never use in my own songs — so we kept it in our set as a second-stringer until the bitter end.

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Bob Dylan)

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Lord only knows what this song’s about. Being present in your own life? Maybe. But then who’s on the receiving end of all the invective in the verse? I couldn’t tell you if my life depended on it.

Don’t get me wrong — I liked this song when it first showed up, and I always figured eventually I would nail it down. But it ended up getting clean away from me. I never could regain whatever feeling sparked it to life in the first place. (It’s often a dead giveaway when a song has a line that goes, “I ain’t got nothing to say.”) And to compensate for that, we fussed with the “arrangement” endlessly in rehearsal (listen in the quiet part for Lori playing melodic notes way the hell up the neck of her bass — I think we had to bribe her like a hundred bucks a note).

Still, for all that, it was fun to play live, and a consistent crowd-pleaser to boot — probably because The Girls would take it and somehow nearly always manage to kick up a decent racket.

You Should Be Here

Philip Shelley and his Amazing All-Girl Band

What do you know about
Things that were meant to be?
Can you honestly say
You’re good company?

Do you really _____?
Do you really want a chance?

Then you should be here
Any time of day
You should be here
I ain’t got nothing to say

But if you want to make it clear
And if you want to make it here
Then you should be here
Yeah you should be here

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Next time someone asks me, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I’ll just play them this. The All-Girl Band live, though just barely.

Harmony (John/Taupin)

Philip Shelley and his Amazing All-Girl Band

There’s a scene in the movie “Tootsie” where Dorothy Michaels (Dustin Hoffman playing an unemployed actor who resorts to drag in order to get work, as we all know) has just been curtly dismissed from her audition by Dabney Coleman’s chauvinistic soap opera director. He won’t even let her read for the part, saying she’s the wrong type, not feminine enough. Dorothy unleashes a feminist tirade at him, the producer and the startled crew that has everyone on the set transfixed — all eyes are on her as she storms out.

The producer, a woman, follows Dorothy and catches up with her by the elevators.

She asks, “Was that for real in there, or were you just auditioning for the part?”

Without hesitation, Dorothy replies, “Which answer will get me the reading, Miss Marshall?”

This song was first conceived on an acoustic guitar in Diana Reese’s ostensibly sunny Berkeley flat, but it never really came to life until the All-Girl Band opened it up. I half-heartedly tried to name this “Can’t Come My Way” but that’s such a terrible title I couldn’t even bring myself to type it in now, years later, as the headline to this post. The Girls called it “Day-O” due to certain quirks in the vocal arrangement. Basically, this was me trying to act tough to cover up the agony of crippling heartbreak. Straightforward enough, right? But so deluded was I regarding the efficacy of my charade, I didn’t even realize that I had quite liberally festooned the song with actual howls of pain. Oops.

Recorded live on cassette, in a smokey little club somewhere in New York City. Feel free to think of this as fitting in with “Aloha Bobby & Rose” and “Jazz Song” as sort of a trilogy of late-period All-Girl Band, when we achieved our purest aesthetic distillation of Devastionalism.

Day-O

Philip Shelley and his Amazing All-Girl Band

Let’s all plot a course
Forgetting not, of course
That all the roads are paved with sadness

I believed
As surely as I breathed
Only to find this way lies madness

Would you like to see the things I haul around?
Would you like to see me six feet underground?

You had it all worked out
And that’s okay
I’ve seen it all before
It can’t come my way

Standing by the door
And wanting so much more
But all the roads are paved are paved with sadness

I believed
As surely as I breathed
Only to find this way lies madness

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To a Devastationalist, any moment that isn’t abject misery is a potential departure point, a place from which to quit while ahead. Civilians may confuse this with “savoring life’s simple pleasures,” or “stopping to smell the roses,” but the truth is that Devastationalists often allow a successful first step stand in for an entire completed journey and totter off accordingly to collect their unjust rewards.

Not that there’s anything untranscendent about, say, a pretty girl smiling at you on the street. But Devastationalists savor life’s wispier offerings because they lack the emotional stamina necessary to engage anything more substantial. Why bother with courtship, a relationship, marriage when you’ve had the random smile? Surely you can just extrapolate all the rest.

I can certainly say of myself, and here I am not bragging but deeply ashamed, that although I fancied myself to be a die-hard romantic, in reality I couldn’t wait for my “relationships” to end so I could go off and get wasted and write a bunch of sad songs about them. It was always such a relief when things got bad enough that I could give up.

This song was written on St. Marks Place in the summer of White Zinfandel, and recorded in the very early days of the All-Girl Band at Excello in Williamsburg by Gil Shuster, and mixed by me, Gil and Kris Woolsey. Which is to say, drunk, crazy people were at the controls. (“Hmmm…I wonder what this weird little knob does…”) Gil and Patty were old friends — they had been in a band called Junglefish (one word?) together — and so in the true Brooklyn Woodstock spirit, Gil contrived to give us the favor of free studio time right when Excello first opened and they were still shaking things down.

Good Day To Die

Philip Shelley and his Amazing All-Girl Band

I was wondering why something that’s three years old seems like the other night
Why I’d rather make a million mistakes than do one thing right
I was kicking it around on a stoop with some wine and a couple of friends
Trying to draw just one straight line, but it all depends

The breeze was blowing hard
I was watching the girls go by
Any day that’s turning out this good
Would be a real good day to die

Joyce Jillson in The News said today was clear for travel and romance
I thought of you letting your guard down, of taking one more chance
‘Cause giving what is left of me to you is just a phone call away
But that would mean going inside now, and it’s too nice a day

The breeze was blowing hard
Pretty girls walking by
Any day that’s turning out this good
Would be a real good day to die

The wine was flowing hard, yeah
Bright sun in the sky
Any day that’s turning out this good
Would be a real good day to die

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This was the last song I think the All-Girl Band ever did. Not the last song we physically played before crawling off the stage at our final gig (which, incidentally, was opening for Lobster of Hate at the Continental), but the last new song we wrote, rehearsed and performed with any regularity.

Fittingly, this song was, relative to then-current events in my life (or at least in my head), like the Bataan Death March — if the Japanese had served drinks. Disgust, contempt, and a kind of raging, passionate heartlessness. But still, I like how it sounds. The band got right to the heart of the matter without flinching, and managed to provide some genuine perspective through the music and the playing that may have been, er, lacking from the singing department. I still don’t have a lot of pity for the Annies of this world, but I no longer find in this a justification not to feel anything.

Oh, and about the name, “Jazz Song”: This song has a few odd fingerings and atonalities that got it immediately christened “Jazz Song” by the Girls, and it never did recover from that initial rehearsal-room mockery to earn a proper title.

Also, that band logo (above) is from a bunch of peel-off stickers we used to leave all over the place when we played. It was, of course, designed by the fabulous Julie Wilson who we were very lucky to know, and who very kindly did a lot of graphics for us.

And while we’re at it, I’m pretty sure that my ex-wife, Jack, who had a keen, gimlet eye (and who would go on to enjoy great success as a photo curator for Getty Images in London) took the press-kit band photo (below), possibly in the back hall of Brownies (?). But don’t blame her for the results. You should see the outtakes. Lori and I must have been propped up, wasted drunk, Tex apparently didn’t feel up to actually facing the camera, and only Clementine looks presentable. In fact, I remember reminding her to wear something that showed off her decolletage. Ah yes, we were all such troopers back then!

Jazz Song

Amazing All-Girl Band

Annie gave a little sigh
And often she’d break down and cry
She’d shake her head and wonder why
And I’m not saying I know
But I know

That often when you compromise
You’re buried underneath the lies
You hide behind your alibis
And I’m not saying I know
But I know

Well I’m sweeping all the cobwebs
From the corners of my life
From the universe
And all the world besides

Well I knew they’d take the best things first
I knew they’d take my wife
And my heart, and my home
And my babies

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