Tuesday, July 30, 2013

dynamite's in the belfry, playing with the bats

Note from JPiC:
In case you missed the beginning, read fly on, little wing and its follow-up, i'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in. Then you'll be ready to read — what I hope — is the final chapter.

Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me???

On Thursday evening, I was sitting on the den sofa, dozing. I was half-paying attention to the pathetic Phillies as they limped their way through the final game of what would be a series sweep by the St. Louis Cardinals. Mrs. Pincus was in the third floor office, either answering business-related emails or playing Candy Crush... or a little of both. As my eyelids slowly sealed me off from the television, the room lights and the world around me... something flew an inch or so above my head. Something unnervingly familiar.

My wife heard me emit (as my people call it) a geschrei (Yiddish for "shriek"). From one floor above me, she knew that sound could only mean one of three things:
  1. The Phillies had committed an amateurish error or had just lost another consecutive game
  2. I was experiencing the excruciating discomfort of another kidney stone
  3. There was some sort of wildlife critter in our house
Mrs. P briefly analyzed the tone and volume of my cry and settled for choice number three. She was correct. She stood sheepishly at the top of the stairs and peered down, just in time to see me feverishly slam the door to the guest room. I was hunched over, hands on knees, huffing and puffing like a 51-year-old, out-of-shape freight train.

"What was that?," Mrs. P, asked, knowing full well what it was.

"A bat! Another fucking bat!," I replied, slowly regaining regularity to my breathing, "I have it trapped in the guest room. The door is shut, so I'll deal with it tomorrow."

"TOMORROW?!?," my wife protested, "I am not sleeping in this house with a bat flying around."

"Well, what should I do?," I questioned rhetorically aloud, not really wanting a list of suggestions. When the previous "bat episodes" occurred, I handled them myself. Now, echoing the words of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, I'm getting too old for this shit. I was content in having the bat sequestered in an 8' x 8' room until I was fully rested and could think clearly. Mrs. P felt otherwise.

My wife suggested that we call her father. I considered that adding a less-than-agile, 75-year-old to the mix would not be a wise decision. I nixed the proposal. She next suggested that I call the police.

"Yeah!," I thought, as a wave of relief flowed over me, "The police! We pay taxes! I'm calling the police!" I decided that my bat-killing days were behind me and I would leave the next ones to someone better equipped and with better training. Art school didn't teach stuff like this.

As my spouse watched the shadows flicker from beneath the closed guest room door, I dialed up the local law enforcement/animal apprehension bureau. After several recorded prompts, my call was answered by a live dispatcher. I hesitantly asked if this was the right place to call for my particular situation and I was assured that they do, indeed, handle such ... such ... natural inconveniences. The friendly dispatcher took my name and address and told me that an officer would be at my house shortly. Before he ended the call, he told me to "try to stay away from the bat." I told him I had no intention of going anywhere near it. We watched the street for the calvary to arrive from a second-floor window, just two rooms from the imprisoned, airborne mammal.

A township police cruiser pulled up and parked across my driveway. I ran downstairs and greeted the officer as he walked towards my front porch. He smiled and listened as I babbled about my winged intruder. I directed him up the stairs to the guest room. He pulled some official-looking gloves onto his hands as I wished him luck and bolted downstairs. I anticipated gunshots and the sound of exploding mirrors and bullet-impacted furniture. Instead, we heard a little bit of clattering and some tinkling of glass. Then the officer cracked the door slightly and asked for a large towel. When he opened the door to make his request, the bat escaped and flew across the hall into the den. A second request — this time for a step ladder — came from the officer from behind the closed den door. I ran down to the basement and returned with a small ladder and a beach towel that my wife said she wished never to see again. Through a minimal opening of the door, I passed the items to the officer. With the door slightly ajar, I winced as I observed the policeman daintily ascend the ladder, delicately unfurl the towel and trap the offending beast — who, by now, was perched in an uppermost corner of the room — within its folds. The officer cradled the small, towel-enveloped being in his gloved hands and carried it downstairs. Once outside, he snapped the towel open and the bat flew off into the night. I received the towel with a waiting trash can.

My wife and I thanked the officer many times over. He smiled and muttered something about "duty" and "most excitement of the night." Then he jotted down my name and address in a small, spiral-bound notebook and jogged back to his vehicle.

My wife cautiously climbed the stairs leading to the second floor and keenly scanned the den and the guest room. She meticulously closed every window and checked the already-closed ones. On the other hand, I went right to bed and made a mental note: "Next bat, call cops."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

sitting in the stands of a sports arena, waiting for the show to begin

I love music. I have loved music since I was a little kid. My taste in music runs the full spectrum from rock and pop to R & B to rap (not 'gangsta rap', I much prefer the old school sounds of the Sugar Hill Gang and Run-DMC) to swing and country-western and everything in-between. 

And I love live music. I went to my first concert at 14 years old (Alice Cooper) and I never stopped. My wife is a music fan as well, but her tastes are a bit more specialized. She's a little wary of anything that isn't The Grateful Dead. She has maintained her affinity for the AM radio bubble-gum pop of our youth, but give her the meandering Space>Drums>Space of a random '73 Dead show and she's pretty contented.

This week, I attended four concerts in nine days. As a reflection of my eclectic musical interests, those shows couldn't have been more diverse.

My son and I saw nouveau-rockabilly guitarist JD McPherson rip up the stage at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live. JD and his band tore through song after song from his debut album Signs and Signifiers, much to the sweaty delight of the packed house. The crowd was comprised of a dichotomous mix of older couples looking as though they just arrived from cheering for their kids at soccer practice and young biker dudes with hair slicked into pompadours, a tattooed Bette Page look-a-like hanging off their equally tattooed arm. The couples, on a sans kids "Mom's Night Out" date, were making out like hormone-ravaged teenagers. The bikers were jitterbugging uncontrollably within the confines of the crowd. It was surreal, to say the least.

Knowing full well that I was missing the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Mrs. Pincus and I took my two nieces - ages ten and seven - to their first concert. (Why weren't their parents part of this important rite of passage? You tell me. [See the previous two links.]) The girls would be making their concert-going initiation with the double bill of Victoria Justice and Big Time Rush. WHAT? Are you kidding me, Josh? YOU went to see Victoria Justice and Big Time Rush? Oh, you're damn right I did! I'll have you know that I am very familiar with Miss Justice's work. My wife and I have been avid fans of her Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious, since our son introduced us to it a few years ago. (Our son, by the way is nearly 26 and well past the show's target demographic.) But — goddammit! — the show is pretty funny! Created by TV veteran Dan Schneider, co-star of the 80s comedy Head of the Class, it is a throwback to classic sitcoms from TV's Golden Age. It is chock-full of off-the-wall humor and digging inside jokes, as it borrows heavily from sources like Make Room for Daddy and I Love Lucy. The young ensemble cast headed by the adorable Miss Justice, while still honing their acting abilities, can hold their own without being precocious or obnoxious (unless, of course, the script calls for it). Victoria Justice has branched out into the world of teen pop music à la Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera minus the skank. Every show features at least one vocal performance and she has parlayed that into a concert experience.

Big Time Rush are also the stars of a Nickelodeon series, one of which I have never seen. They are just another in a long line of manufactured "boy bands" that includes The Backstreet Boys, 'NSync, New Kids on the Block and a host of also-rans with hopes of making it big. Big Time Rush abbreviates its name with the ultra-hip, ultra-cool acronym "BTR". I questioned my wife as to the appropriateness of naming a youth-oriented singing group after a convicted serial killer. She offered clarification, explaining that I must be thinking of "BTK".

The audience at the sprawling semi-outdoor mess of an amphitheater that is Camden's Susquehanna Bank Center was jammed with a giddy contingency of prepubescent young girls, swathed in glitter and glow-sticks and toting handmade signs proclaiming their love for the various and collective members of Big Time Rush. Most were accompanied by one or two adults, the males of which all displayed the same disgruntled yet resigned look of "Well, at least I got out of work early" across their faces. My nieces sat, then stood, then sat, then stood in anticipation of the show. Suddenly the loud, opening strains of a synthesizer cut the summer air and spotlights bathed the stage in a purple-pink glow. A youngster who introduced himself as Jackson Guthy (son of direct marketing mogul Bill Guthy and cosmetic magnate Victoria Jackson) prowled the stage to warm up the anxious crowd. He rambled through three or four songs (that all sounded identical) and prefaced his final song with " This is a cover — I hope you like it." He then broke into Daft Punk's new, infectious jam "Get Lucky." Mrs. P and I joyfully sang along. My ten-year old niece turned around and, in a thoroughly puzzled tone, asked her old aunt and uncle, "You know this song?"

I smiled and quickly shot back, "You don't know this song?"

When Victoria Justice took the stage with the peppy dance-groove "Freak the Freak Out," I was both pleased and embarrassed that I actually knew the song and three others that she sang — lyrics and all. Her music may be vapid and repetitive, but that girl is sure filled with energy. She pranced, danced, jumped and ran all over that stage. I hope she savors this stage of her career, because, as we all know, fame is fleeting. Especially in the fickle, short attention span of the teenage target market.

Big Time Rush were awful. Admittedly, I am not a fan of trendy boy bands, but one can at least recognize a modicum of talent in Justin Timberlake and his cohorts. These guys were just plain bad — wailing and screaming tunelessly over a programmed series of "boops" and "beeps" and other electronic sounds. Their simple choreography betrayed their lack of dance prowess, as well. And their set went on waaaaay too long. The girls enjoyed it, though.

My concert-going reputation was redeemed with an enjoyable performance from throwback guitarist Pokey LaFarge. Fresh from their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Pokey and his five-piece band treated the small audience to an evening of hot jazz, Western swing and all things old-timey. After the show, my son and I met and spoke with Pokey. He's a really nice guy.

Speaking of manufactured boy bands, The Monkees brought their "Mid-Summer Night" Tour to Philadelphia's Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday. My son, a DJ on a Philadelphia radio station, was spinning a mix of psychedelic songs in the Mann's concession courtyard as pre-concert entertainment for the arriving patrons. His gig came with two complementary tickets which he offered to his biggest fans — his parents.

The Monkees' current line up features long-time recluse Mike Nesmith, the lead guitarist who had previously shunned all Monkees reunions over the years. It is something of a mystery as to why he agreed to participate in the first tour following the untimely death of original member Davy Jones. One can only draw their own — fairly obvious — conclusion.

Mrs. P and I arrived at the entrance gates just prior to the 6 PM opening time. Once inside, we sat ourselves on a bench a few feet from where our son's audio equipment was set up. We took in the various get-ups of the arriving fans (mini skirts; go-go boots; various t-shirts from many past Monkee tours; a stray Ozzy and Hendrix shirt in the mix) as we listened to our boy's carefully hand-picked musical nuggets from our childhood.

Soon, it was showtime. We took our seats (in a mid-audience private box). We were joined by our son, after he settled monetarily for the gig and scored himself a big ol' dish of gourmet ice cream. The flashing lights illuminated three old, wrinkled guys who may or may not, at one time, have been The Monkees. They launched into "Last Train to Clarksville," "Papa Gene's Blues," and "Your Auntie Grizelda," thus showcasing the questionable talent of the three surviving members of the so-called "Pre-Fab Four". There was something missing, though. Something eerily missing. Davy. Davy was missing. The band purposefully left out all of the "Davy" songs from their repertoire, focusing instead on a setlist full of Micky-sung tunes and Mike-heavy country-tinged compositions. Hits like "Star Collector," "Valleri," "I Want to Be Free" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" were noticeably absent. Davy's likeness was also conspicuously missing from the tour merchandise. While the trio plodded through muddy renditions of some lesser-known Monkees tunes, it became apparent that Davy was the spark of this sorry assemblage.

The tone-deaf crowd - ruining "Daydream Believer" for everyone.
As the performance drew to a close, Micky Dolenz stepped to center stage and announced that the band's most well-known song — the Davy Jones-vocal "Daydream Believer" — now belongs to you, the fans. He then called for a representative of the audience to take the stage (in this case, a gray-haired man and his young son) and led the crowd in song, as the band played the music. What could have been a heartfelt, loving tribute to a beloved pop icon and colleague became, as my son put it, "a fucking mess." As the father and son warbled out the off-key chorus, the overcast sky let loose a huge, angry thunderclap that shook the venue — I kid you not. It was as though Davy was expressing his disapproval. In hindsight, while Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz followed their inflated egos and fancied themselves rock stars in both talent and importance as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Davy was the only one who "got it." He knew he was an actor cast in a part in a TV show and he milked that role for forty-six years. The Monkees were a novelty act. And that's all they'll ever be.

Next week will find me at the annual three-day outdoor festival staged by local radio station WXPN.

As Sonny and Cher once observed: The beat goes on.

As The Grateful Dead once observed: The music never stopped.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

east meets west and it goes bang (東 が 西に)

It's no secret that I love old television, specifically programs from my youth. Thanks to networks like MeTV and Antenna TV*, I can relive the glory days of life with the Cleaver family and the daily grind of Officers Reed and Malloy. I love watching the simple premises upon which each episode is based. Situations that the scriptwriters felt they could stretch out to a full half-hour (with commercials), like Mary Stone having two dates to the big dance on The Donna Reed Show or Dennis breaking Mr. Wilson's window (again) with an errant football on Dennis the Menace. These are examples of typical intrigue on late-twentieth century television.

There is one particular plot device that has popped up on nearly every drama and situation comedy in the 50s, 60s and right into the 70s — Asians. There was something about the Far East that fascinated television writers enough that every show had at least one "Asian-centric" episode.

I was born in 1961. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian (99.9%) neighborhood. I went to a predominantly Caucasian (98%), predominantly Jewish (85%) elementary school. There was one family from Korea on my block. You had to remove your shoes before you went into their house (which smelled like ginger). They had two boys — John (the older one) and Dong Wook (the younger one). John and Dong Wook (later known as "Donny", despite some of the narrow-minded, sons-of-bigots neighborhood kids insisting upon calling him "Dung Gu") were friendly and easy-going. They rode bikes. They played baseball. They wore the same clothes everybody else wore. They were just like us.

But on television, Asians were depicted as mystical, magical, eerie, ethereal and mysterious. On shows written by guys named "McGreevy," "Kalish," and "Tibbles," Asians were treated as a novelty. There was always one episode that showed the main characters crossing paths with a family of Asians with "ways different from our own." The characters were pretty cookie-cutter, too. There was the young, Americanized boy or girl who is befriended by the show's main character's child. They would introduce a parent who was trying to assimilate into American society while still maintaining ties to the Old World ways. And then we'd meet the stoic, wizened grandparent - quiet, stubborn and unwilling to adapt to this "frivolous American behavior." I remember My Three SonsDonna Reed, Family Affair and That Girl all having their obligatory "Asian" episode. They would cast American-born Asian actors (regardless of their specific heritage) for any number of Japanese, Chinese or generic Asian roles. Character actors like Benson FongBeulah QuoFrances Fong and Richard Loo, whose careers spanned several decades, were cast over and over, often appearing in guest roles on different shows at the same time. Even more familiar actors like James Hong and George Takei took the demeaning parts of houseboys or waiters early in their careers. But they were all subjected to the same quaint, subordinate depiction of Asians. Most often, they would deliver their lines in a self-mocking, exaggerated accent, substituting "L"s for "R"s in their dialog. Or, if they were playing an Asian-American character, their speech was peppered with "groovy" and "far out" and other cool, contemporary lingo. It was commonplace in the 60s, but now it's painful to watch.

Sometimes, if an actual Asian actor wasn't available, a heavily made-up American was cast instead. I saw Marlo Thomas in a kimono play a mail-order Asian bride in a particularly embarrassing episode of Bonanza. And who could forget David Carradine playing Chinese Kwai Chang Caine for three seasons of Kung Fu

In these ultra-aware, politically-correct times, Hollywood wouldn't dream of doing anything so offensive — so blatantly racist — towards any ethnic group. Except for Native Americans.

Isn't that right, Johnny Depp?

*Although TV Land infrequently broadcasts The Andy Griffith Show, I cannot consider The Golden Girls and King of Queens part of classic television.