Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

Spirit in the Night: A Tribute Band’s Tribute to Clarence

June 26, 2011

Tramps Like Us onstage at The Stone Pony

The first time I saw Tramps Like Us was by accident. I was at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. After the Saturday lineup wrapped up, my friends and I ventured into Newport proper, to wander around and maybe find a good place to eat. We happened across a bar advertising “Springsteen Night” and (for me at least) the lure was irresistible. Inside, Tramps Like Us were playing on a small stage barely a foot elevated off the floor. I noticed their 50-60 song set lists taped to the floor. They were taking requests and that was their repertoire for the night. We arrived at the tail-end of their set, but I saw them do a rousing take on “Badlands” and close, like a good Springsteen set ought to, with “Born to Run.” I conceded that, for a tribute band, they were doing considerable justice to E Street.

Big Man memorials outside The Stone Pony

I live in New Jersey. When the Big Man passed away two weeks ago, it was regarded as a heavy loss to the rock n’ roll world – but to New Jerseyans, it was equivalent to the passing of a major head of state. Flags at half-mast, memorials, moments of silence, statements from politicians, etc. And many a newspaper tribute. (Who says the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all!) I read an article on the New York Times’ City Room blog about the Sunday after Clemons passed, when literally hundreds were drawn to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ for an impromptu vigil. The bar played a live version of “10th Avenue Freezeout” which people sang along to, cheering extra loud when Springsteen sings the Clarence-referencing lyric about a change made uptown and the Big Man joining the band.

Less than a week later, I found myself drawn to The Stone Pony as well. I had received an email earlier in the week about a Tramps Like Us show on Friday night. The band would be playing the E Street Band’s 1978 show at the Cleveland Agora in its entirety. Already considered a legendary set to Springsteen bootleg connoisseurs, the performance took on added significance due to its proximity to Clarence’s passing.

At the bar before the band took the stage, others in the crowd seemed to be there for the same reason I (and my sister, who drove) were. It just seemed like the right thing to do. There was a need to hear the music of the E Street Band in a live setting again, and if the band themselves could not be present, Tramps Like Us proved to be worthy stand-ins.

The Star Ledger (New Jersey’s paper of record) have called them the next best thing to the E Street Band themselves, and though no E Street bandmembers themselves have gone on record, the official E Street Radio has – calling them the best E Street tribute band out there. Mike Appel, former Springsteen manager and producer, has called their performances “second to none.” Hillary Clinton once introduced them, at a 9/11 memorial dedication called, fittingly, “The Rising.”

Unlike the hoary Beatles and Elvis tribute acts of Vegas and Branson, with their mop-top wigs and rhinestone jumpsuits, Tramps Like Us keep their dignity during their act. Their job is to sound like the the E Street Band, not to look like them. And to that point, they do a pretty excellent job. Mark Salore, founder, guitarist and lead vocalist, does a very credible Springsteen-voice (circa the late 70s or early 80s) without any kind of audible affectation taking place. Ken Hope, filling in for Roy Bittan and the late Dan Federici (AKA piano + organ) recreates both instruments with simultaneous gusto. Jonathan Sanborn’s bass, like Gary Tallent’s, is never the flashiest part of any E Street song, but it is consistently reliable and provides the all important backbeat whether you notice or not. Rudy Feinauer, who in the right light bears a striking resemblance to comedian Michael Ian Black, comes the closest out of anyone in the band in recreating the mannerisms of the E Streeter he’s filling in. He has a tendency to stare straight ahead with an almost emotionless look on his face, hitting his mark on song after song with machine-precision. Much like stone-faced Max Weinberg.

Finally, Brian Ognan, who has arguably the largest shoes to fill, in particular after the events of a couple of weeks ago. Looking like the logo for chocolatier Max Brenner, Ognan, called “The BO Man” (his initials) as a play on Big Man, absolutely kills every sax solo. For Tramps Like Us, playing their first show since Clarence’s passing, this was perhaps Ognan’s most critical time to shine. And shine he did, from the first sax solo of the night on “Badlands” through the Big Man’s finest hour in the solo from “Jungleland.” The band passed out little battery-operated candles before they played that one.

(A more cynical writer might make a joke about fake candles for a fake E Street Band. But first of all, the heart was real, and second, fire safety! The last thing the rickety Stone Pony club needs is a few hundred drunks holding real candles.) Anyway…

Before diving into the Cleveland Agora set, Salore came out to do a solo tribute to Clarence, a quiet take on “Incident on 57th Street” with Hope on piano and guest violinist Ellen Lipkind. It was a somber way to start off the evening, but the right thing to do before heading straight into the fun stuff. And if there is one thing the set from that Cleveland ’78 show is, its fun. Many Springsteen aficionados rightfully regard the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour as the E Street Band at the peak of their powers. Held up by legal troubles for three long years, it was a moment in time when the band was hungry to not only return to the stage, but to claim it as their own. Over 100+ shows, many of which have gone on to become cherished bootlegs, the E Street Band solidified their status as arguably THE great live band in rock n’ roll. Performing epic sets between three and a half and four hours in length, with a catalogue that even then must’ve felt like nothing but greatest hits, E Street was a force to be reckoned with.

Tramps Like Us founder/singer/guitarist Mark Salore

After the first few songs – a killer trio of Summertime Blues >> Badlands >> Spirit in the Night – it was clear that Tramps would have no trouble replicating the sound of the E Street Band in ’78. Mark Salore was even making winking references to some of Bruce’s actual stage banter from that show. Even more impressive however, was the band’s effort to interpret the sound of the E Street Band on the Darkness tour. That particular tour is my favorite era of the E Street Band live (second would be the Reunion tour), and one of the reasons is because the band would often stretch out some of their best numbers to truly epic length. If you’ve heard the E Street Band’s live album from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, you know they were more than capable of hitting Grateful-Dead-length on some tunes, IE the exhilarating 17-minute long rendition of Kitty’s Back. (Trust me, those 17 minutes go by quick.)

By the Darkness tour, Springsteen & the E Street Band had grown even more inventive with their live arrangements. In particular, throughout the Darkness tour, Springsteen would begin “Prove it All Night” and “Because the Night” with gorgeous, reverb-soaked soloing – revving the crowd up until the point where the song finally takes off and the crowd is in full-on frenzy mode. Mark Salore did a fantastic job recreating the soloing on those two songs, and indeed that was one of Tramps Like Us’s most effective means of recreating the sound of E Street in 1978.

I did wonder what the band would do during “Growin’ Up” though. In the Cleveland Agora set, Springsteen intercuts the song with a long tall-tale about his days as a wayward youth, and his and Clarence’s drive up to a dark hill next to a cemetery where they hoped to “meet God.”

Bruce: “Dear God, my father wants me to be a doctor. My mother wants me to be a lawyer. But all I got is this guitar”

The immortal’s immortal reply, three words, “LET IT ROCK.”

The band explodes back into action. Mass euphoria ensues.

Thankfully, Salore didn’t even try to recreate Bruce’s epic yarn – filling the lull instead with a story of his own about the time he met a God a little closer to home, the Boss himself. A few months ago, he and Tramps Like Us were playing the Stone Pony, recreating Bruce’s legendary 38-song-long New Years Eve 1980 show at the Nassau Coliseum. At some point during the show, Mark received word that Bruce was down the street at one of the boardwalk bars. They thought Bruce might walk in the backdoor of the Stone Pony and actually join them onstage – it never materialized. So after the show, someone invites Mark to come over and meet with the man he makes a living paying tribute to. They have an awkward exchange, and just as Salore is about to end it, he tells how he asked Bruce what he thought of Tramps Like Us and their recreations of classic E Street sets. Did the Boss approve? Again, three words: Let. It. Rock. Well played, Tramps.

For more photos of mine from Tramps Like Us @ The Stone Pony, click here.

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How My View of Kevin Smith Ran Askew

June 4, 2011

Me circa 2001 meeting my heroes at Jay & Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Redbank, NJ. Yes, that's a Clerks: The Comic Book t-shirt beneath my sweet North Face fleece.

If I had to choose, 1999 was probably the year I started to get seriously into film. I was 14 – a year away from high school. DVDs were becoming cheaper, and my parents were cool with me seeing/renting any movie I wanted really.

My parents were always good film influences on me. My Mom tried to get me into Star Wars when I was 4 (but I didn’t go berserk over it until a year later when other friends had seen it). My Dad sat me down to watch The Producers and other Mel Brooks movies, and both of my parents were huge Woody Allen fans. Even my Grandma bought me an invaluable Time Life VHS set on Legends of Comedy from the silent era to the 50s. I watched it over and over again.

Heading into high school, I felt pretty well versed in film. I had respect for my elders. Still, the filmmaker of the moment that spoke to me the most was, without a doubt, Kevin Smith. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, an hour away from Redbank, AKA the Springfield/Mayberry/Newbridge of Kevin Smith’s world, the View Askewniverse. I owned all of his films on DVD, even Clerks: The Animated Series, which, like the films, I watched over and over again with and without commentary. I hadn’t ever smoked weed, but Jay and Silent Bob were my cult heroes. Cult is the key word here. And the fun of belonging to one. Being a Smith-phile was to be versed in an odd suburban New Jersey-centric universe of interconnected weirdos, losers and slackers.

At that age, I wasn’t very well versed with the technical aspects of making films. From the start of his career, Kevin Smith’s directorial abilities were dubious. His static shot sequencing, unchanging angles from cameras that never move. Basically, his unintentional ability to give anything he films the urgency of a mediocre three-camera sitcom – none of that mattered to me. Smith himself seemed to shrug off that type of criticism as well. He was a writer first and foremost, and his writing was so specific and phrased (however clunkily) with funny Star Wars references, etc. that it seemed brilliant to me at the time. Every other line felt like a memorable catchphrase – and to fellow View Askewniversites at the time, they were.

At the very least, it was distinctive. I wouldn’t find it distinctively cringe-worthy till years later.

I owned at least three different Kevin Smith-related shirts. Being the budding film nerd that I was, I gravitated towards attention-getting shirts with obscure references (to outsiders). I still have a black long-sleeve fake tour tee from the foreign “Berserker” dude who’s in Clerks for five minutes. With fake tour dates on the back and everything. In the wintertime, I rocked a replica Snoogins beanie like the one Jay wore.

I watched An Evening With Kevin Smith at least three or four times. It was like standup comedy to me. Looking at the box now – holy fuck that thing was long – Disc One is 128 minutes and Disc Two another 97 minutes. And he’s released MORE of these “lecture” DVDs since.

Looking back now, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which came out the summer before my sophomore year of high school, was the turning point. At the time, JASBSB was to be the “final chapter in the View Askewniverse,” a grand sendoff to beloved characters with a wacky cast of comedian cameos that was sure to be Smith’s first film to gross more than $30 million dollars at the box office. It didn’t. (“Oh what a lovely tea party” still makes me smile though.)

Then came Jersey Girl.It had the misfortune of starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and being released just a few months after the two of them starred in one of the most widely loathed film flops of all time. Perhaps it never had a chance. But hey, George Carlin was funny as the Dad, right? And Jason Lee? He’s always good! (He is to Kevin Smith fans as Nathan Fillion is to Whedonites.) Man, you all are just being cynical jerks. This was the movie where Kevin Smith bared his heart – we, the loyal, fanbase, could at least forgive, if not outright convince ourselves we liked the movie.

Jersey Girl (2004)

Forebodingly, Jersey Girl was the first Smith film I didn’t pick up on DVD. Even the pull of a hee-larious Kevin Smith commentary track wasn’t enough incentive. I could not have that (at the time hated to say this) piece of shit on my DVD shelf, next to classics like Chasing Amy and Dogma.

A couple of years went by. I graduated high school. Went to college, as a film major. By my sophomore year, when Clerks II came out, I had thoroughly drifted away from the View Askewniverse. I saw Clerks II in theaters, thought it was good enough – I liked the Mooby’s restaraunt for a setting – I remember thinking the excessive Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars talk felt like a sweaty attempt to feel like “classic” Dante and Randall bickering in the original Clerks. I only saw Clerks II once, in theaters. I never bought the DVD.

Two more years go by. Now I’m almost a college graduate. Zach and Miri Make a Porno comes out, starring a budding comedy hero, Seth Rogen, hot off his star-making summer in Knocked Up and Superbad. Zach and Miri became the first film since Dogma I didn’t even bother to see in theaters. I read shitty reviews of it, and when I saw it On-Demand a few months after it left theaters, I realized the reviews were right.

What had happened to my hero? My favorite director. The guy I might have once thought of as some kind of voice of my generation? This wasn’t a life-altering change taking place. But I did decide that the guy gave me a lot of entertainment over the years, and if he’s got nothing left to offer me, at least he’s already offered so much. Thanks for the memories.

Around the same time Zach and Miri came out, the AV Club’s Scott Tobias – via his recurring series “The New Cult Canon” – published a searing indictment of all things Kevin Smith in his entry for Clerks. The AV Club is my favorite publication – digital or print – and Scott Tobias, in addition to being the site’s film editor, is one of its best writers. I don’t treat the opinions of AV Club writers as scripture, but if any one piece of writing was going to really shake my world up about Kevin Smith, there’s a good chance it would come from the AV Club. I even thought the entry was going to be a positive one. Sure, people dump on Jersey Girl and Clerks II, but the status of the original Clerks was untouchable, right?

Scott Tobias starts off his entry questioning why Clerks caused such a sensation in the first place. It was shot on a low budget, but as he says, “Clerks may be the only $25,000 movie ever made that leaves people wondering where all the money went.” It had groundbreakingly funny pop-culture-laced dialogue like its contemporary, Pulp Fiction. But Tobias is unimpressed by it as well. The dialogue, and all the memorable moments from the film it is sprinkled upon – are to Tobias, “Just a crude assemblage of comic vignettes. Cut one away, and nothing’s lost but a few minutes of running time.”

The New Jersey tetralogy of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma were the untouchable films in the Smith canon – the ones any fan could fall back on if the veneer of Kevin Smith’s awesomeness was in danger of cracking. With this in mind, reading Scott’s review, it felt like my infatuation with the View Askewniverse was being killed at the source. I don’t know if I immediately agreed 100% with Scott’s systematic takedown of Smith’s writing and directorial abilities. But for someone who had already moved on from Smith, this article didn’t make me want to return any time soon.

In the same way that Smith’s first four films were untouchable, the other thing most fans always fell back on was that, even if they conceded he was not a very gifted director, you couldn’t fault the writing. Bullshit. Scott was right about Clerks‘ aimless plot – in hindsight, its clever chapters were really just awkward transitions between two scenes that really had nothing to do with each other as far as servicing any kind of plot.

Scott debunked Smith the filmmaker. But the guy who made an even more devastating attack on my childhood hero was Tom Scharpling on The Best Show on WFMU. I first got into the Best Show towards the end of 2008. It took at least a year to properly get caught up in the show’s history – 3 hours every Tuesday night since October, 2000, AKA nearly 1500 hours of radio! – but once I had gone through enough of it, one recurring theme was unavoidable: Tom Scharpling really, really can’t stand Kevin Smith.

In a way it’s ironic that Scharpling would have such hostility towards a fellow New Jerseyan – one who’s View Askewniverse really wasn’t that different from Scharpling’s fictional town of Newbridge. Newbridge, and its many oddball Jon Wurster-voiced inhabitants, also bear a resemblance to another favorite target of Scharpling’s: Garrison Keillor and his charming tales of life in Lake Wobegon.

The difference of course was the quality of the comedy. The world of Newbridge and Scharpling & Wurster vastly exceeded the Askewniverse in terms of intelligence, originality, and also it just wasn’t nearly as embarrassing to like. It felt mature without being pompous, smart without getting too cerebral, and funny. Did I say funny? So fucking funny.

If Scott Tobias was the debunker of Smith as filmmaker, Scharpling’s job seemed to be debunker of Smith as a person. Around the buildup to Cop Out, which Smith had wanted to call A Couple Of Dicks until the man stepped in and ruined it, Smith had become something of a mediawhore. His rise in notoriety dovetailed nicely with the ascendancy of comedy podcasts and movie blogs – of which he seemed to be the prince of both. His podcast did (and still does) huge numbers and his every showbiz-move is chronicled breathlessly by dozens of fawning movie blogs.

As directors-as-celebrities go, Smith’s name recognition easily matches that of a Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher or Chris Nolan. But does anything in his filmography match the output of those three directors? Kevin Smith is like the Paris Hilton of movie directors. As the cliche goes: Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. Kevin Smith is a famous director because he is a famous director.

Smith’s phony campaign over the past year to show he’s a cool stoner now has been a frequent topic of Scharpling’s. He brags about it like a teenager who just discovered the stuff (he’s pushing 40), has the pomposity of an overly-forward member of NORML, and then there’s the hypocrisy – Yeah, go ahead and throw shame on your best friend Jay Mewes when he’s going through a drug problem, then turn around and try to make yourself the new Tommy Chong. Oh, and he says it makes him more creative, meanwhile he’s talking about retiring from filmmaking forever. (To sit around and smoke all day?)

I sense my tone is becoming mean spirited. Pause for a moment – Here’s honestly what set me off to blurt out this rambling blog post in the first place. I was listening to Marc Maron on this week’s episode of The Best Show. Maron is talking about how eventually he’s going to get Kevin Smith on the show – but during a phone call planning for the episode, Kevin Smith asked Marc Maron – sober for 10+ years – if it was cool that he smokes weed during the interview. As if this phony, who, again, just “decided” to become a stoner only about a year ago, literally couldn’t go an hour without lighting up? Isn’t that just plain unprofessional? And kind of arrogant? (Still more obnoxious considering Smith would surely know the interviews are conducted in Maron’s garage.) Even Snoop Dogg, or maybe Wiz Khalifa, wouldn’t pull shit like that. They’d have the decency to smoke right before the interview.

Kevin Smith at Sundance

When you compound behavior like that with Smith’s bafflingly-defended filmic output, I’ve just come to find him a detestable person in the film industry. His tired stunt at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, staging an auction for Red State only to cheekily acquire the distribution rights himself. Where does this at best marginally-talented guy, who’s coasted through a career in Hollywood for nearly 20 years now, get off indicting the system? When in fact he is one of the system’s most egregious benefactors! His movies make no money and get average-to-abysmal reviews. Yet he’s still getting work. He should’ve thanked all those distributors who lined up for hours to his fake-auction. Instead he mocks them, and he doesn’t seem to get the irony whatsoever.

Maybe Smith’s films were always destined to be something I’d grow out of. I don’t know. I feel like my tastes have evolved since I was an 8th grader. (When Dogma came out.) Maybe I evolved, but Smith didn’t. But couldn’t you also make the argument that he’s actually devolved? Am I being too harsh?

For Kevin Smith, and his legion of fanboys who live in his world, ignorance is bliss. They just love the stuff they love! No need to overthink it!

Tom Scharpling often repeats the notion – on things people like that are terrible – that, hey, “Life is short. This world is hard. You found something you like? I’m glad. Enjoy it.” And that’s pretty much how I feel today. It was fun while it lasted. I used to think Clerks was maybe my all time favorite film. I also used to wear JNCO’s.

Until next time, snoochie boochies, little noochies.

The Body of an American

June 1, 2011

The FICTIONAL Jay Landsman, played by Delaney Williams

The wake for detective Ray Cole in season 3 of The Wire is rightly celebrated as one of the high watermarks of the series. It’s one of the most moving moments in the run of the show, and also one of the most meta.

Ray Cole was played by Robert F. Colesberry, a producer who had worked with David Simon on The Corner and was an executive producer on The Wire until he died in February, 2004, after suffering complications following cardiac surgery. His last act for the show was his directorial debut, for “Port in a Storm,” the finale of season two.

Colesberry, in the form of the character he sometimes played, Ray Cole, is eulogized eloquently (and profanely) by Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams). Not to be confused with the real Jay Landsman, a retired homicide detective featured in David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. (I told you this scene was meta.) Landsman gives his speech in the old policemans’ tavern. Cole’s body is laid out on the pool table. This is a policeman’s wake. The hearse waits outside, presumably to rush the body off to Cole’s actual wake. But first, the eulogy.

To an outsider, Landsman’s speech might come off as cloying, or hokum. Landsman speaks mock-profoundly, but the writing is clearly intended to be actual-profound. And it is. In addition, there is the inherent joke that Landsman, the most comically boorish and profane character in the Baltimore Homicide squad, is the one delivering this poetic monologue.

The specifics of the eulogy – detective accolades, pissing off a wife, or three – don’t necessarily apply to where I’m about to take this blog post. But Landsman has a perfect way of summing up the things we accomplish in our lives, good and the bad:

“The motherfucker had his moments. Yes he fucking did.”

Landsman closes by saying, despite his ups and downs, Cole was first and foremost one of us: “Sharing a dark corner of the American experiment,” which might as well be the unofficial log line of the series.

My high-school bowling coach, Fritz Jonach, passed away last week at the age of 43. He died suddenly in his sleep – a congenital disease that apparently claimed his father the same way. I was on the bowling team for four years, captain in my senior year, and Mr. Jonach even taught the first film class I ever took. (I went on to major in Cinema & Photography in college, and I’m a graduate student at NYU right now, going for a Masters in Cinema Studies.) I remember a couple of the films he showed us. Peter Weir’s Witness with Harrison Ford, a section of the class on the origins of summer blockbusters where we watched The Towering Inferno. Probably Citizen Kane at some point. Look, every high school kid wants to take the class where all you do is watch movies. I took it as a sophomore but most save it for their second semester of senior year. But even if it’s a blow-off class, every year a few kids get something out of it, and I’d like to think I was one of them.

I don’t think I ever saw Mr. Jonach actually swing a bowling ball in my four years on the team. I can’t recall any specific advice he gave me that improved my game. We used to talk about The Simpsons more often than how the season was going. (I remember being impressed that he had a couple of “World of Springfield” Simpsons figurines on his office desk.) One of his children was born while I was on the team, and I remember his family showing up to the matches.

In my senior year, after the bowling team’s roster had grown stagnant for a couple of years, all of a sudden we had a big influx of recruits. We went from 7 or 8 guys to getting like 11 freshmen joining the team all at once. And since no one gets cut from the bowling team, they all had a vote in picking the team captain for the year. These new freshman recruits clearly outnumbered us old-timers, which was fine until they all wanted to vote for one of their dumb friends to be the captain. A freshman? As captain?! Heresy. Mr. Jonach counteracted this, and did the right thing by appointing my and my friend David, who had also been on the team for four years, as co-captains. (This despite the fact that neither of us were the best bowler on the team, even after four years of practice.)

Mr. Jonach was the quintessential stand-up guy. He was a Millburn high school alum himself, class of ’86 (the year after I was born). He took his good experiences and put them back into the system, becoming a teacher, coach, head of various clubs and committees, and in my memory he was just one of those teachers that every student liked.

If he wasn’t up for Educator of the Year, he was certainly on track for a pretty substantial lifetime achievement award. He had his moments. Yes he did.

Below, Landsman’s eulogy, followed by a drunken policemens’ choir rendition of The Pogues’ “The Body of an American.” (The greatest funeral dirge ever written.)

Rest in peace, coach.