Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Three Pools

In the midst of a snow shower, word arrives that alternate side parking will be suspended tomorrow for Ash Wednesday. Never mind that so few places have street cleaning scheduled for Wednesdays. The important thing is that this small consolation has been offered us by the Department of Sanitation: O.K., you and everyone you know are going to be reduced to ashes, but think of it this way: at least you didn’t have to move the car.

In the spirit of self-improvement, I vowed to follow through on one of my New Year’s resolutions and join a gym. The New York Health & Racquet Club opened a branch near me, and I have had my eye on it for the past few months, thinking it might inspire me to swim. I went in last Friday, while the cleaning lady was rearranging my personal effects (with the result that I will never be able to find anything again), and asked about membership. The pool was not yet open, but from the reception area I could see down two flights of stairs to a tantalizing glimpse of swimming-pool blue at the bottom.

A guide appeared and led me down to the pool. It turns out that this glimpse, this swath of blue, is in fact all the pool there is: two narrow lanes in a tastefully decorated cave. One lane will always be open, the guide explained, and the other will be available for lap swimming by reservation; you’re supposed to call twenty-four hours in advance. I expressed the worry that someone with better telephone skills would always get in ahead of me. The guide reassured me that there was another branch with a bigger pool not too far away, but I was not convinced: if that other branch was so convenient, why hadn’t I already joined?

The guide took me to the locker room, which was luxuriously tiled in shades of blue and green. Men were working in a lounge that will feature a fireplace and a waterfall. We went upstairs to the office area, and at first I thought, How nice, I can come up here and check my e-mail—but swiftly realized that the desks and computers are for the health-club staff, of course. The guide told me that I was probably eligible for a corporate membership: my employer would pay something like $500 toward an annual membership, and I’d have to pay only $380 for a year. It was hot in there; I hadn’t even joined and already I was sweating. I left with the e-mail address of the guy who could arrange the corporate discount.

The cleaning lady wouldn't be finished yet, so I headed over to the nearest facility of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. I joined it years ago, but my membership had lapsed. The guy at the desk sized me up immediately: ten dollars a year for age 55 and older. Behind him, in the pool, middle-aged women (of whom I speak as if we had nothing in common) cavorted in the water with pink neoprene noodles. In a corner of the lobby, some skinny people shot pool. Geezers lounged on benches along the walls. Someone delivered a plastic bag the size of a pouffed-up bed pillow full of snack-size packages of junk food.

What the hell, for ten dollars, I signed up. The junk food made me feel at home. They still had my picture on file, and I was wearing the exact same black parka and striped scarf that I’d had on the last time I joined. The only difference was my hair: in the picture it was light-ash-brown (that’s what it said on the bottle), and in person it was more ash than light brown. I asked if anything there had changed (meaning, Is the locker room any less depressing? meaning, Are the showers still those kind that you give you just three minutes before the hot water gets cold and dribbles out?). The answer was: "There are lots of free classes."

The cleaning lady still wouldn’t be done, so I walked over to the river, where there is a residential complex with an esplanade. A man at the entrance said it was closed because of ice. So I climbed the stairs of the building that houses the health club. I passed the entrance to the health club and looked out over the river and then back up at the building. On the second floor, where the pool is, tropical plants sat in the sun. My father always said that before plonking down your money for a major purchase, you should get three prices, so, in the interests of comparative shopping, I pressed the buzzer for the health club and went up. There was no one in the pool, and it looked very inviting: decent size, sunny, surrounded by glass, and with a view of the Chrysler Building. There were forest-green chaise longues arranged around the pool: I could picture myself having a cup of coffee on a chaise, reading in the sun ... after a vigorous swim, of course.

While I was talking to the girl at the desk, a guy came back from the grocery store and handed her a can of Red Bull before going out to the pool with a couple of bags of chips (he was a lifeguard). “This is a health club and you are eating that shit?” I said. The girl giggled. A year’s membership is $495, she told me ($400 of which can be reimbursed through a fitness allowance at work). For a twenty-dollar fee, I can suspend my membership over the summer, when I am in Rockaway and swim in the ocean. With that, the girl with the can of Red Bull overcame my last objection, and I joined. It’s not as convenient as the gym closer to home, but I often end up taking a walk over there by the river after I park the car on Sunday.

“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick.” I have been reading “The Whale,” a new book by Philip Hoare, and of course he quotes Melville a lot. Although initially I had been quite taken with the idea of a brand-new swimming pool in the depths of a high-rise building, I thought now, on my way home to the cleaning lady and my bathroom freshly washed with Clorox, of the descriptions Philip wrote (I hope he won’t mind my calling him Philip instead of Mr. Hoare) of whales that he had seen in captivity when he was a boy, and I realized that that is exactly how I would have felt, plowing the stationary waters of a narrow tank beneath the earth: like a whale in captivity. I am so glad I stopped short of paying for that.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Three Gigs: I-Joe's Pub

Baby Dee has a new song called “Pie,” which is hilarious and versatile, as is the nature of pie. She sang it last Thursday night at Joe’s Pub, its New York premiere, and it was sweet.

The Joe’s Pub show was the third installment of “We Sing Baby Dee,” organized by Sxip Shirey, in which myriad performers—well, nine, anyway—gave their takes on Dee’s songs. A folksinger named Aimee Curl did “My Love Has Made a Fool of Me,” in a plaintive voice. Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch collaborated on “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” (Annie loves singing about Bobby Slot and Freddie Weiss.) Lila, a women’s a-cappella quartet minus one (its leader, Rima, explained that one of its members, Vlada, couldn’t be there because she’d just had a baby), harmonized on “Small Wonder.” Curtis Eller, on banjo, augmented by a singer named Robin, did a fabulous version of “Calvary,” a song that has taken on a life of its own. Curtis has apparently been singing it to his daughter as a lullabye. Philip Raia got everyone to sing along on “The Song of Self-Acceptance” (known in some quarters as “Pisspot”). Andrew W.K. showed up late and played, appropriately, “(He’s Gonna Kill Me) When I Get Home,” about Dad being mad when Dee was late for dinner. But the star of the show was nine-year-old Frankky Lou Hightower, of Kansas City, Missouri.

When I first heard that a nine-year-old named Frankky would be performing some of Dee’s songs, I assumed that the child was a boy soprano. Many of Dee’s early songs seem to have been written for that kind of high, pure voice, and Dee even told me once that she heard a boy soprano sing in Cleveland, but knew his mother would not see the virtue in having her son work with Dee. Frankky Lou Hightower is a girl, and she has done pageants—but, she made a point of telling me, “only the ones that have talent competitions,” and on that basis alone she always wins. She was discovered in Kansas City by Sxip, when he was touring with the Dresden Dolls, and she discovered Dee’s music when Sxip played some of it for her. Her mother sews the costumes for all the drag queens in Kansas City.

Frankky chose to sing some surprisingly dark songs for a nine-year-old; for instance, “So Bad,” which has the line “Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad.” She also sang “Little Window,” and told me afterward that she knew the song was about Anne Frank. I had known that—Dee wrote the song in Amsterdam—but when I heard Frankky sing it, for the first time I made the connection with Anne Frank’s glimpse of the sky from her little window and how much hung on the final words: “Hope. Hope. Hope.” And, as for “So Bad,” the song is about childhood fears, and hearing it sung by this slim little girl with the sweet face and long blond hair, wearing a sequined red sheath and displaying utter poise onstage, was hair-raising. She was like a flame. It was as if she were expressing the soul of Dee at nine years old, as the girl no one knew she was.

At the end, Baby Dee herself took the stage, joined by Matthew Robinson on cello and Emmett Kelly on guitar. She played “Pie” and “Lilacs” and “As Morning Holds a Star,” which sounded both familiar and yet like something I’d never heard before.
Sxip, the impresario, brought Frankky Lou back on for an encore: “The Price of a Sparrow,” which has the lines “What does a hooker know about loving? And what does my Daddy know about me?” It is one of Dee’s saddest songs, and who knows what Frankky is thinking when she sings it? But it is good that she sang it in New York, at Joe’s Pub. I don’t know what the judges would make of it in the talent competition of one of those Little Miss Sunshine pageants.

II-The Stone

Friday night’s gig at The Stone was pivotal. The Stone can be found online and on the corner of Avenue C and Second Street, in a brick building that looks abandoned but has its name in discreet letters on the glass door. It is a project of John Zorn’s, featuring artists chosen by other artists. There are no drinks or souvenir T-shirts for sale at the Stone: only a piano and a few rows of folding chairs and a few more folding chairs onstage behind the piano. Also onstage is a big white box that I took for some kind of backstage storage area. When Dee appeared, to warm applause, she looked baffled. “Oh, you thought I was making my entrance,” she said, laughing. “I’m only going to the bathroom.” And she proceeded to open the door of the big white box and go inside. The audience applauded again when she emerged from the bathroom, and a third time when she made her real entrance.

For this performance, Dee was joined by Matthew Robinson on cello, Emmett Kelly on guitar, and Maxim Moston on violin and mandolin. Maxim did the arrangements for the new CD, “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” and Dee began with a few of those songs: “Lilacs” and “Set Me as a Seal On Your Heart.” She also did one she had done the night before, “As Morning Holds a Star,” which I felt I’d never heard properly before. It is available only on “Baby Dee Live in Turin,” so I guess I’ve never seen the lyrics printed out. And, as promised, she did two slug songs: “Regifting of the Light” and “Brother Slug and Sister Snail.” I wonder if Dee is preparing for reincarnation as a slug.

Then Dee introduced a special guest, Aimee Curl, the folksinger who had sung “Small Wonder” at Joe’s Pub the night before. At the Stone she played guitar and sang what she said was one of her favorites, “The Robin’s Tiny Throat.” A friend who went with me said later that she had been watching Dee watch Aimee, and that Dee was beaming. Aimee is right: this is a beautiful song, and one that explains a lot about why Dee is out there singing.

Next Dee and Matthew played some of the music that they recorded this winter for a new new album. Dee calls it classical music for cowboys with cowboy-hat hair. (She was disappointed, incidentally, that more of her fans did not turn up with hat hair.) Dee has been inspired by having at her disposal a magnificent Steinway concert grand Model D, which belongs to Andrew W.K. (The piano could not be moved into Andrew’s high-rise apartment without one of those cranes which were needed to build the high-rise in the first place, so he lent it to Dee, who has it in the dining room of her house in Cleveland.) I don’t have any way of talking about this music, except to say that I liked it. It has a distinct structure, and it is humorous. It put me in mind of Beethoven in his lighter moments.

The room was packed: all the chairs were filled and people were sitting in the aisle. Frankky Lou Hightower and her mother were seated in the front row. Dee did her encore before leaving the stage. There is nothing in show business quite so excruciating as that moment when, who knows, maybe the audience has had enough, but the performer has to gauge the length and sincerity of the applause before either returning to the stage or holding out to leave them wanting more. The encore was a rousing version of The Pie Song, of course.

Outside, I spotted Maxim Moston, carrying his mandolin and with his violin case strapped on his back. He is Russian, and has a noble profile. I’m sure I was not the only one in the audience who was eyeballing him, but I know I was the only one who went up to him afterward and tried to thank him for his contributions to Dee’s recordings, but instead blurted out something about the mandolin, of all things. I felt like I was channelling my mother. I understand that Maxim has done arrangements of Dee's work for whole orchestras. All Dee needs is the orchestra.

This show at the Stone is probably representative of what Dee will be playing on the tour: some old songs and some new ones, lots of piano, and various combinations of strings. And plenty of renditions of Pie.

III-The Delancey

Baby Dee played a third gig while she was in town, but first the answer to the all-important question: Where did she park the car?

Rather, where did I park the car, because it was I, of course, who was in charge of parking. [Insert pirouette here.] The importance of this task cannot be underestimated, in part because Dee has an unpaid parking ticket, and if that car so much as attracts a policeman’s attention and the officer runs a check on it, a tow truck would come and impound the car, and Dee would be screwed, because her budget does not include paying off tickets or redeeming a car from the pound, and her whole North American tour depends on getting from Baltimore to Albuquerque via Calgary and Santa Monica in that car, and her income for next winter depends on touring … So you can see how important I am, I mean, parking is.

Anyway, I didn’t have anything better to do last Sunday afternoon, so I decided to move the car to a Tuesday-Friday spot; that way, no one would have to worry about it on Monday morning. The block where we had left it was lined with orange cones, and orange plasticated flyers were taped onto the sign poles: “’Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ is scheduled to film in your neighborhood.” The crew would start removing cars at dawn on Monday morning. When I told Dee this, she said, “I hate ‘Law & Order.’” Anyway, I drove around for a while and found a spot some distance away, down by the river, good till Tuesday at 11:30 A.M. It was actually kind of fun: not only did I have the gratifying sensation of having escaped a trap laid by NBC TV, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting and the New York City Police Department, but I rarely get to park a car as tiny as a Volkswagen Beetle. The spot I found was the last one before a fire hydrant at the end of a block, and though I almost rode up over the curb (VW bugs are wide in the hips) and the front fender overbit the yellow-painted curb by just the teeniest bit, it was legal, and it was still there on Monday afternoon when Dee went to get it to take the harp to her third gig, at the Delancey.

The Delancey is a bar with a performance space for a music salon called Small Beast, with acts chosen by Paul Wallfisch, who, among his other accomplishments, accompanies Little Annie Anxiety on piano. There is a long bar, and upholstered benches line the walls of three small rooms. The piano is draped in green silk and has candles on top of it. Annie appears there most Monday nights.

Dee was playing harp with the Cairo Gang, a band led by Emmett Kelly, the guitarist who played with Dee and the cellist Matthew Robinson in the other New York gigs (and will be going on tour with them). The first act was a guy with a guitar who did a song about a “teenage alcoholic” (I misheard it as “teenage operaholic,” which would have been more interesting) not once but twice, first on guitar and then on piano. Paul Wallfisch did a set, in which he sang in French (with a little German thrown in). Then Annie made her entrance, slinky in black with a red sequinned beanie. I have never seen her in this venue before, and she seemed exceptionally loose and wonderful. Dee and Annie did a duet, with Paul at the piano, on “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” Dee is wearing her hair short these days, and has beautiful new teeth. She had on her Dalmatian-print hoodie and a red wool hat that has shrunk to fit a pinhead. Little Annie and Baby Dee traded lines and the microphone back and forth like a hilariously demented version of Steve and Eydie.

There was some canned music while the Cairo Gang tuned up. I can’t imagine how musicians can tune while there is other music playing, but I know Dee has an electronic tuning device for the harp. Emmett’s music was good—I remember a rapt love song, with lyrics a lot more interesting than, say, a song heard twice about a teenage alcoholic. Despite his name, Emmett Kelly does not look anything like a Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus clown circa the nineteen-fifties. In fact, he’s a bit of a heartthrob. He looks like a younger, scrawnier version of the famously photogenic David Remnick. During his set, young women sat on the floor in front of the stage gazing up at him.

Then the trio turned around a notch, with Dee moving to the piano. She did a bunch of the songs that had been covered by others at the Joe’s Pub show: “So Bad,” made famous by Frankky Lou Hightower; “When I Get Home,” sung and played by Andrew W.K.; “Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show,” which had been played by Matthew on cello and a young woman named Sarah on vocals and electric guitar, and which, as material, seemed as unlikely for these fresh young musicians as Dee’s “Price of a Sparrow,” with its line about hookers, seemed for nine-year-old Frankky Lou. “Teeth” is a savage song, and Dee tears into it. She also did “A Compass of the Light,” one of the bee songs; a new song with what we all, especially Emmett, hope is just a temporary name (Dee loves incontinence jokes); and finished with the Pie song. When the crowd called for more, she did “Lilacs,” and I realized that no Baby Dee set is complete without “Lilacs.”

Dee was off to Cleveland first thing this morning, and leaves for England tomorrow. Before leaving, she reminded me of the song about the teenage alcoholic.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Three-Step/D Dates

Baby Dee is in town, and she knows just how to flatter me to extract parking expertise. She had parked on my block last night, and this morning, at 7:10, I woke her up and instructed her to move her car to the other side of the street at 7:30. There it would be good till 8, at which point I made her go outside again and move it back to my side of the street, and deposit eight quarters in the Muni Meter. (It was Dee’s first experience with a Muni Meter, as opposed to an old-fashioned parking meter. She was a little intimidated, and parked directly in front of the Muni Meter, just in case—kind of like a person seeking out a pay phone to stand next to when using her mobile phone, as I used to do.) Then, after an hour of leisure, we went out together and drove six blocks, to a Monday-Thursday 8:30-10 street. The broom had already passed, and we snagged a spot right at the top of the block, before the entrance to a parking lot. Left to herself, Dee said that she would have mistaken this spot for a metered space and kept going. She made me feel that, though my car is wintering in Queens, I haven’t lost my touch.

It was cold out, and Dee left the engine on for part of the time, which I never do, because I am such a friggin’ stoic. Her car, a VW bug, in which three musicians and two cellos travelled yesterday from Cleveland, has seat-warmers, so we enjoyed having our seats toasted as we drank coffee and ate pastries from the Greek diner on the corner. The only thing that interfered with my enjoyment of this al-fresco breakfast nook was the gigantic Ford van that pulled into the spot in front of us and blocked our view. Now, instead of watching the latecomers trawling for a space up ahead while we basked in the satisfaction of a job well done, there was nothing to look at but the Republic of Croatia decals on the back of the van.

Croatia is not on Dee’s spring tour, but here is a list of dates so far:

Feb. 4 Joe's Pub, New York

Feb. 5 The Stone, New York

Feb. 22 The Sage 2, Newcastle

Feb. 23 7 Arts Centre, Leeds

Feb. 24 South Street Arts Centre, Reading

Feb. 25 The Crane Lane Theatre, Cork, Ireland

Feb. 26 Crawdaddy, Dublin, Ireland

Feb. 27 St John's Church, Coventry

Mar. 1 Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich

Mar. 2 Band on the Wal,l Manchester

Mar. 4 Ikra, Moscow

Mar. 6 Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Mar. 7 Hanbury Ballroom, Brighton

Mar. 9 WUK, Wien

Mar. 10 Locomotive, Bologna
Mar. 11 INIT, Rome
Mar. 12 La Casa 139, Milano

Mar. 13 Ex Cimitero San Pietro In Vincoli, Torino

Mar. 14 Ex Cimitero San Pietro In Vincoli, Torino

Mar. 16 La 2 De Apolo, Barcelona

Mar. 17 Sala Clamores, Madrid
Mar. 18 Sala Ambig├╣, Valladolid

Mar. 25 Berghain, Berlin

Mar. 27 Warehouse 9, Copenhagen

Mar. 28 Literaturhaus, Copenhagen

Apr. 12 La sala Rossa, Montreal

Apr. 13 The Music Gallery, Toronto

Apr. 14 Opening Nights Festival, Cleveland, Ohio
Apr. 15 Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio

Apr. 16 Hideout, Chicago

Apr. 17 CSPS Legion Arts, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Apr. 19 Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Apr. 20 West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg

Apr. 23 The Big Secret Theatre, Calgary

Apr. 24 The Big Secret Theatre, Calgary

Apr. 28 The Triple Door, Seattle, Washington

Apr. 29 The Woods, Portland, Oregon

Apr. 30 Amnesia, San Francisco, California

May 1 McCabes, Santa Monica, California

May 2 Trunk Space, Phoenix, Arizona

May 3 Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque, New Mexico

May 6 Niles Gallery, Lexington, Kentucky

May 7 Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, Michigan

Somewhere in there, she is also playing Stockholm. The release of the new album, “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” has been pushed back to March 1.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Memory Lane

My friend Mary Beth (a.k.a. Turtle) had a car called Kermit, a frog-green Renault Le Car (a.k.a. Le Frog). Somewhere I have a picture of it lashed to the bed of a tow truck on I-84 in Connecticut. Mary Beth, who lived in Ohio—mostly in Cleveland, for a long time in Youngstown, and for a while in Cincinnati and across the river in Covington (Sin City), Kentucky—had come East, and we had driven together to Massachusetts by some screwy route that was my idea. We passed Hotchkiss, the boarding school—it was the first time I ever saw a school that had its own golf course—and ogled the horse country around Litchfield, and then found our way by some tortuous route to Worcester.

Le Frog’s gas gauge was broken, but Mary Beth delighted in believing that she was getting miraculous mileage. I don’t remember when it was that we actually ran out of gas—I expected it, so it was not traumatic. But on the way home the car kept stalling. Once we got it started, it was O.K., but if we stopped or if it stalled, it was hard to start up again. Le Frog finally croaked just outside Hartford and refused to be resuscitated.

This must have been in the early eighties. What did we do back then, in the days of no cell phones? Somebody, or even maybe the cops, stopped and offered us a ride to the nearest mechanic. By that time we were so furious at each other—I at her for her pigheadedness, she at me for my insufferable “I told you so”s—that we split up: Mary Beth went off with the Good Samaritan, and I stayed with Kermit. I realized as soon as she rode off that it was a mistake not to stay together. I tried to pass the time by reading—I can almost remember what book it was—but I couldn’t concentrate. I fumed by the side of the road, full to the brim with bad faith, not knowing what was going to happen next. I had not even been able to enjoy pointing out to Mary Beth my favorite landmark on 84, the tangle of overpasses near the exit for Farmington.

At last, Mary Beth reappeared in the passenger seat of a tow truck. It was a Sunday, so there was no way we were going to find anyone to look at the car before the next morning. I vaguely recall that we rented a car, and had it out on the drive home. She drove back up there the next day, and I went back to work. In the fullness of time, we forgave each other, and even lived to travel together again.

The verdict on Kermit was that once its gas tank was completely dry, debris entered the gas line and the gas filter, and the whole fuel-delivery system got mucked up. When the time came, Mary Beth was not sorry to bid Le Frog adieu. She liked a flashier car, anyway—I seem to recall a little red sports car—and, over the years, she got her share of speeding tickets. Once, en route to New York, she had an encounter with a deer. A fender bender had a way of turning into a bitter law suit, and an accident in Ireland, where they drive on the left, turned into a prolonged transatlantic battle with a car-rental agency. When Mary Beth felt she had the right of way, woe betide the person, car, or rowboat that failed to yield.

Mary Beth Richlovsky died last Wednesday, January 27, 2010, at the age of fifty-seven. The cause of death was cancer. From what I understand, she did not know she had cancer until three days before she died; she was at the end of such a long run of miserable luck that maybe it came as a revelation. Among the many memories that surface from a friendship that lasted more than forty years is this: She taught me how to drive a stick shift. It was 1975, and I had applied for a job driving a milk truck, and needed a crash course. We went out to Parmatown in her car, and she introduced me to the stick, with its "H" pattern: first, second, third, reverse. She explained about the clutch pedal, and about stepping down on the gas and letting up on the clutch. And then she turned the wheel over to me and gritted her teeth as we lurched around the parking lot. There is no better friend than that, no more generous gesture.

The news of Mary Beth's death arrived on the same day as that of J. D. Salinger and of Howard Zinn. I think she'd have liked that, being both a rebel and a history buff. I didn't know either of those other guys (though I liked Salinger), so of course her death overshadowed theirs. I like to picture her speeding past them on the highway to heaven.