Monday, October 18, 2010


This past Saturday, I fulfilled a long-dormant dream by treading the boards with nothing but my words and my dented and ding'd personality to protect me in the form of a one-man show, completely self-penned and self-performed, entitled AN EVENING NEAR WILLIAM HAM, and I am deeply thrilled and surprised to report that it was a resounding success; the performance space whence it was mounted was packed to capacity (okay, it only seats forty, but it was still the biggest house the place has welcomed to date), it garnered rave reviews from the audience (which even included people I don't know), and demand appears to be such that I have been tapped to reprise the performance a couple of months hence. It's going to have to be a little different, I think - I intend to write some new material for my second go-round, in hopes of repeat business, to capitalize on my renewed creative vigor, and because some of it will be a little out of date by the time I go up again. Which is why I'm presenting the following; come January, the whole context of it will have passed (though craven, delusional politicians are eternal and the rather easy and not particularly deep-cutting right-wing swipes of the first third are merely a setup to the real meat of the matter of the remaining 66.6%). As I am not yet confident enough to lay my wares out unapologetically, I must submit that this piece is funnier performed than read, but I'm proud enough of it to share with my microscopic readership, and, as it will probably never be performed again, I want to lay it down for whatever passes for posterity. So here goeth:


(THE CANDIDATE stands on stage, basking in applause [real or imagined], waving at the crowd [real or imagined], and pointing at various people the way all politicians seem to do at rallies and events.)

Thank you! Thank you! I am very pleased at the turnout for tonight’s fundraising dinner for the Drexler 2010 campaign – hey, let’s hear it for Mrs. Dalyrimple for all her hard work, huh? (leads crowd in applause) Isn’t she terrific? That bacon tartare was just fantastic. Ladies and gentlemen, friends, supporters, members of the party – I am here tonight to tell you that on November 2, we are going to TAKE THIS COUNTRY BACK! Yes! Come November 2, there will be no more politics as usual in Washington, we will no longer be throttled by the iron grip of big government, the voiceless will have a voice, the faceless will have a, um, face, and we will show those fat cats just what America is all about, just as soon as we decide what that is! And when that day comes, I’ll have you to thank, the people who started this grassroots campaign – sponsored, of course, by Dr. Krankschafft’s 96-Hour Energy Powder, a division of EnormoCorp LLC – real Americans, with real American values, every one of you here tonight, except maybe for some of the cleanup crew. No, it’s okay, they don’t understand what I’m saying anyway.

Now, President Obama – no, come on, no booing, let’s show him the respect he won’t extend to us, he’s got his flaws but he’s the best non-naturalized citizen for the job – and his Beltway elite may be trying to force his lunatic agenda down our throats, but I’m here to be America’s syrup of ipecac! He wants to take away your guns, I want to make them mandatory! He wants gays to marry, I not only want to uphold the God-given standard of marriage as between a man and a woman, but I also want to make it illegal for a woman to marry a man with a lisp, fluttery mannerisms, or more than 3 Elton John CDs! He wants to roll back the tax cuts for people making more than $750,000 a year when he knows that will affect small businesses, which are the backbone, nay, the very lower lumbar region of this great country of ours! Without them, we’d be walking mighty funny, wouldn’t we? So I propose that we not only make these breaks permanent, but increase them, not just on small businesses, but businesses that have names that sound like they’re small! Microsoft, for instance, Carl’s Jr., not to mention newly-founded companies like Little Lockheed Martin and Baby Halliburton. We’re not about to let Comrade Obama’s socialist agenda squash true American values, I don’t care how few of them he’s actually implemented or how I really don’t know what socialism means! On November 2, we’re gonna show these fat cats just what democracy’s all about if we have to strong-arm everyone to go along with us! Thank you, thank you.

Okay. Now, there’s been a lot of rumors floating around during this campaign, cheap and scurrilous acts of character assassination – ordinarily, I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but this time some of them are about me. So I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight. You’ve probably heard the stories about my involvement with a group that reenacts the Holocaust one weekend a month. As usual, the liberal media elite has wasted no time in sensationalizing and mischaracterizing this wholly innocent endeavor. Just because I’m involved in a group that reenacts one of the most horrific events that ever allegedly happened, that doesn’t make us Nazis. We’re not out to persecute the Jews – in fact, Jews aren’t even allowed in our club. And of course, they’re characteristically missing the whole educational aspect of our program – we’re there to serve as a reminder, so we do not forget what these people have done. And besides, I didn’t remember what those people did when we started out, so I came at it from a position of pure ignorance – innocence, I mean, innocence.

And some of you may recall hearing about the businesses whose boards of directors I sit on that have been accused of selling weapons, tanks… body armor… secrets… and the film rights to the book A Confederacy of Dunces… to Afghan warlords. I guess my opponents are opposed to a little thing called “free enterprise,” aren’t they?

Then there was that story last year where it’s said that I drunkenly drove my Lincoln Town Car – Lincoln, one of our greatest chief executives, right? – off the Arlington Memorial Bridge, resulting in the drowning of two prostitutes who were in the car with me at the time. Again, that’s just bad, biased journalism. Only one of the prostitutes drowned, the other one choked to death. My opponents in the other party have been making hay with this mild lapse of judgment, but don’t they realize it was done in posthumous tribute to the great Senator Edward Kennedy, a man I considered one of my closest friends even though I disagreed with absolutely everything he stood for, never cared much for him personally, and never stood closer than six feet away from him at all times because he always smelled like boiled cabbage and Jameson’s? That’s called reaching across the aisle, people, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit, because they see things through their blinkered little filter so much they’re bound to get everything wrong.

Oh, and speaking of “bound,” I suppose that whole business with the seven Cub Scouts that were discovered bound and gagged in my basement may have caught your eye. It sickens me how such such things get so easily misunderstood. I’ve been a scoutmaster for years ever since I was kicked out of the priesthood and I am a fervent booster of young peoples’ ingenuity – sure, they’re taught to tie knots, but how many people bother to challenge them to untie them? And I’m proud to say that two of them almost did.

And that report about me eating a baby… okay, sue me for being open to new ideas, right? I’m always looking for new ways to combat the twin problems of hunger and overpopulation in this country, and I was inspired by an Irish friend of mine who wrote a proposal, a modest one in his words, as to how we can take care of these problems, and I fully intend to invite my friend Jon Swift over to my estate to discuss these issues at length. (looks offstage) Have you set that up, Marty? Huh? Well, keep trying.

And then that business of my contracting equine herpes when I visited the Preakness last year – well, okay, you got me there. Guess I should have looked that gift horse in the – (laughs nervously, twitches)

I’m glad that we could clear all those misconceptions up. Looks like my time’s running out – they’re gonna be bringing around dessert in a moment; love that government cheesecake – so I’ll finish tonight by simply reminding each and every one of you to get out there and vote. On November 2, we’ll be sending a man to Washington, a man of rare integrity, a man of decency, a man with a willingness to do whatever it takes to fight for the rights of ordinary Americans. And with your help, I’ll be in the car right behind him. My name is Donald Drexler and I’m running for office!


Also, via a request from one of my most-respected virtual friends, the program notes for the, um, program:

Pier Pressure Productions presents


(ill-) conceived, (hastily) written, (under-) performed and (mis-) directed by
William Ham


ACT ONE: Readings From the Forthcoming* Anthology Infomercials for Myself

1. "The Ballad of Writing Gaol"

2. "Welcome to the Messiah Complex (Hourly Rates Available)"

3. "Raise High the Security Gates, Carpenters"


ACT TWO: Original Monologues, Performance Pieces, and Incredible Feats of Endurance***

1. "He Is Risen"

2. "A Word From Our Sponsors"

3. "The Candidate"

4. "Thirteenth Night, or Whatever You Say"

(performed with the assistance of the Northwest Elizabethan Theatre Cooperative:
Stip Kensland, Michelle Boyd, Ted McAque, Elemeno Peterson, Jeanine Velb, Angela Clought, Damien Lundmark, McChesney Duntz III, Clement Maulle and Philip Danco, under the direction of E. Robert D'Oleo)****

AND MORE...(?)*****

* A nice, euphemistic way of saying that it's not finished and no publisher has expressed the slightest interest in it.

** i.e., your last chance to escape.

*** On the part of the audience.

**** Blogger's Note: This was a semi-elaborate gag I set up over the week: I talked up the appearance of this non-existent troupe at length on my radio show the previous Wednesday, made a big deal of it beforehand to friends, and introduced them onstage with great fanfare, only to "discover" that their bus broke down and they couldn't make the show, leaving me to perform a multi-character, pun-laden Shakespeare takeoff all by myself. I think it was funnier than it reads.

***** Blogger's Note II: My wonderful and talented friend Don and I performed my Mamet parody (see previous entry) as an encore, once I determined that the audience was on my side enough to put up with it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


After a year of false starts, disappointments and chair-kicking, I am pleased to report that my creative renaissance is, at long last, proceeding apace. Much of it has to do with my co-founding (in a manner of speaking - more like standing there smiling while others do the heavy lifting) a new performance space in Astoria, OR, Pier Pressure Productions (it's a pun, y'all). It's an intimate (read: really freakin' small) venue set up for the purpose of presenting darker, edgier fare than most of the other theatres in the immediate area, and being plugged in to its current has provided me quite the heady jolt. Simply put, having the means of production so close at hand has rendered me utterly inspired, and I can now put theatre alongside broadcast radio on the list of archaic media I am hoping to master. Over the last month, a group of highly talented individuals and myself endeavored to put on what I believe was a very strong staging of Glengarry Glen Ross, and I came up with something special to present on closing night, the script for which I reproduce here. Kinda Parody 101, really, but it has its moments, and the reaction I received from our audience was gratifying to say the least. (It will also figure into another, even more exciting project I'm working on for October, about which more later.) Without any further fucking ado...

ME: I’m glad you all could be here tonight, because I wanted to take this opportunity to share with our closing night audience what I consider a remarkable historical find. David Mamet is, of course, a renowned playwright, author, screenwriter, director and essayist, winner of many awards including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play you’ve just seen, and I think it’s fair to say that he is one of the preeminent figures in popular entertainment of our time. But everybody has to start somewhere. During my research for this play, I quite accidentally stumbled on what further investigation has revealed to be the very first script that a very young David Mamet wrote for the stage. Though perhaps a little crude compared to his mature work, I feel this scene is significant for two reasons: one can clearly see many of the great themes and motifs that Mamet has explored in all of his subsequent work in embryonic form, and, because of the machinations of an unscrupulous producer, the piece was eventually taken away from him and extensively rewritten, an occurrence that inspired Mamet to insist on full creative control of all further productions of his work in all media. To my knowledge, the following has never been performed in its original form until tonight, so it is with a great deal of pride and the able assistance of my good friend and colleague, Mr. Don Conner, that I present to you, for the first time anywhere, David Mamet’s “The Team.” Thank you.

Two men sit at a table, somewhere in America.

LOU: Bud… Bud… Bud. Okay. Bud. (pause) Bud. I need, I need help. Okay? (pause) I need help. (pause) There are times – now, listen, there are times when a man, wait a second, listen, when a man he finds himself, bottom rung of the ladder, end of his rope… maybe it’s a rope ladder, I don’t fucking know… you see? Do you see? (pause)

BUD: Mmm.

LOU: And that’s where I am now, and that’s what I want… no, fuck that, what I want is not the… what I need is what I want. Now, Bud, listen to me. Bud, listen, I’ve been thinking about this, I know you’re not those sorts of guys and neither am I either, but…

BUD: Lou…

LOU: No. Bud. Listen. You know me, you know me, this is Lou talking to you, right? (pause) Right?

BUD: Right. Lou. Right.

LOU: Goddamned right that’s right. We go, we go back a ways, don’t we? Back a ways. Who came through eight months a row when Mrs. Fields wanted the rent, huh?

BUD: That fucking whore.

LOU: You’re absolutely right, you’re ab… And I’m good for it. I’m coming back, you see? I’m coming back. Look at the books… the Susquehanna Hat Company? Bagel Street? Huh? Didn’t I sell a bunch of that?...

BUD: Look, you blew the…

LOU: Bullshit! Bullshit, Bud! Yeah, that guy broke a lot of my stock every time I mentioned the name of the fucking company, but what didn’t get broke I sold. (pause) I sold. And need you to take me back.

BUD: I can’t do it, Lou. (pause)

LOU: Why?

BUD: Why, I have another job now is why.

LOU: Another job?

BUD: Another job. Yeah. (pause)

LOU: Bullshit, Bud. Fuck you. What job? (pause) What job, Bud?

BUD: I manage a baseball team.

LOU: You manage a baseball team? That’s what you…

BUD: Yes. (pause)

LOU: Well, how is that?

BUD: How is what, the job?

LOU: Yes.

BUD: How is the job?

LOU: Fuck yes, the job, what am I… yes, the job, managing the baseball team, that’s what I’m asking, how is that?

BUD: Do you want me to talk about it?

LOU: I want you to…

BUD: Or do you want me to speak about it?

LOU: Speak, talk, whatever, whatever the fuck it is you do, yes, fuck, do so. (pause) Do so.

BUD: It’s hard. (pause) It’s hard.

LOU: The fuck is hard about it?

BUD: The players, Lou. It’s the fucking players nowadays. Not like when we were coming up. The players, they, I’ll tell you something, I’ll tell you something, I won’t finish this sentence but I’ll tell… You listening? I’ll tell you something: the players nowadays have very peculiar names, very strange… very peculiar names. And it depresses me, I swear that it does, at my age, to see… Like now, this team, you know what we got?

LOU: Do I know?

BUD: What did I just say?

LOU: Yes. (pause) You’ve asked me if I know what you got?

BUD: I did. (pause)

LOU: Well, what have you got?

BUD: I’ve got… Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third. (long pause)

LOU: The fuck is that supposed to mean? Bud? The fuck is that supposed to mean?

BUD: It means what I say. It means Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third.

LOU: That’s what I’m fucking trying to find out here. (pause) Are you the manager?

BUD: Did I tell you that?

LOU: Of the team?

BUD: Did I just say that?

LOU: You know the players?

BUD: Goddamn right I do.

LOU: So who’s the man on first base?

BUD: Yes.

LOU: I mean the fucking guy’s name.

BUD: Who.

LOU: The guy on first. The player.

BUD: Who.

LOU: The fucking first baseman!

BUD: Who! (pause)

LOU: Who?

BUD: That’s what I’m telling you. (pause) As we speak.

LOU: You’re telling me what?

BUD: No, What’s on second.

LOU: I’m not… I’m not fucking asking you who’s on fucking second.

BUD: Are you crazy, Lou? Who is on first.

LOU: I don’t know.

BUD: Third base. (pause)

LOU: Fucking asshole.

BUD: You asked me, I told you. That’s the deal. (long pause)

LOU: All right. All right, Bud, if this is how you… let me say this, if this is what I need to say. (pause) A man. A man stands at a plate. He is alone in this world. Now is the time for what? For individual accomplishment. He knows… he knows there is no “I” in “team” because even a fucking illiterate knows you don’t spell it that way. Is this what makes a man? Standing with a bat looking to hit a ball with a piece of fucking wood in his hand? Is it? I don’t know.

BUD: Third base.

LOU: Shut the fuck up. He’s there, he’s thinking, what does it mean? (pause) Is it the fans, does he do what in that moment makes the most sense, does he adjust his fucking balls and spit out the tobacco in his mouth as he does it? (pause) He sees the pitcher, he’s there on the mound like he’s fucking Christ himself only he’s wearing a cap and Christ never wore cleats according to the Church but fuck that, I’m sticking with the metaphor anyway? (pause) So he winds up, he winds the fuck up and the ball hangs, hangs in the air and the batter, he stands there. (pause) What is he thinking? “My arm’s getting tired?” “I have to, I have to adjust my balls again?” No. He swings. (pause) And he connects. In that one moment he connects. But it’s a pop fly down the middle and though the man runs, he runs toward opportunity, it’s caught by the man, the man standing at first base, he reaches up and he catches it. (pause) He catches it. (pause) And that man is who?

BUD: Now that’s the first thing you’ve said right.

LOU: I DON’T FUCKING KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT! (pause) All right, Bud. All right. You’re right, I don’t know what I… (pause) What? I’m sorry I spoke harshly to you.

BUD: That’s alright.

LOU: All right. (pause) So, what of this…? So the man… the man on second base, let’s talk about him. The man on second… what’s his name?

BUD: Yes.

LOU: What’s his name?

BUD: That’s right.

LOU: Goddammit, what’s his name?

BUD: FUCK YOU, that’s his name! (pause)

LOU: What?

BUD: That’s right. Fuk Hu What. (pause) He’s a Chink, something. (long pause)

LOU: So will you give me a job?

BUD: No.

LOU: You fucking fairy cunt. You’re a shithead, you asshole. (pause)

BUD: What did you say?

LOU: I said, “You fucking fairy cunt. You’re a shithead, you asshole.”

BUD: Oh, that’s our shortstop. (pause)

LOU: What the fuck kind of name is that? (pause)

BUD: It’s hyphenated. (pause)

LOU: Oh God, I hate this scene.

BUD: We’re stuck with it.

LOU: Yeah. (pause) Fuck. (pause) Yeah.


Monday, February 22, 2010


I have several exciting projects I am currently engaged in active procrastination regarding, which I hope to expose to the light of day in the near future. Until then, allow me to hep yez to some of the odd bits of myself that have achieved exposure in recent months.

The latest in Patrick McGilligan's series of interviews with screenwriters, Backstory 5, includes my 1999 interview with a certain recently-deceased teen-angst auteur, which, if you were truly interested, you could find elsewhere on the Internet and save yourself twenty bucks. But you should buy the book anyway, containing as it does some very interesting chats on the craft of celluloid scrivening with the likes of Albert Brooks, Tom Stoppard, and Rudy Wurlitzer. That last interview may be worth the price of admission by itself, if only to discover just what Philip Glass (an old friend of Wurlitzer's) did for a living before becoming the big-shot composer cat he is today.

And speaking of things I wrote circa a decade ago bobbing back to the surface, consider the high flattery of having the two-part exegesis of Lou Reed's perma-infamous Metal Machine Music I wrote in 2001 mined for a quote in the Wall Street Journal - the first time the term "pack-raped" has appeared in that esteemed broadsheet, I'm sure, unless Charles Krauthammer's been lacing his op-eds with threads of autobiography that I'm unaware of.

While I'm at it, I may as well toss in the reviews I've had published so far on the Dagger magazine site, here, for easy access. Some are better than others. In reverse chronological order:

Rarely has a musical project been as aptly named or titled as Aarktica’s sixth full-length release – the sounds that emerge from In Sea (and yes, the Terry Riley pun is entirely intentional) are long, spacious things extending as far as the stereo field of vision will go, windswept ice floe or endless ocean, with a single figure in the middle distance the only man in view. John De Rosa is that man, responsible for every drawn-out note on display, and Aarktica is his vehicle for broadcasting his isolation to the world. Ten years ago, he suffered near-total hearing loss in his right ear, and since then, he’s been translating the attendant effects to tape, moments of clarity interwoven with sounds both muffled and muzzled, aural ghosts drifting through the blurred soundscape, the air full of circumambient tones for the painfully alone. But an album of depressive drones, fortunately, this is not – while the longest tracks, “A Plague of Frost (In the Guise of Diamonds)” and “Corpse Reviver No. 2,” are nearly unbearable in their quiet, sustained intensity, De Rosa has learned to let select slivers of sunlight in when the mood strikes. In fact, large chunks of In Sea, lacking in forward motion as they are, could even be considered pretty as they rise and fall and bob up and down on waves of phase. There’s even a couple of honest-to-godlessness songs here, which brightens things up considerably. That one of them is a cover of Danzig’s “Am I Demon?,” and De Rosa manages to imbue that rather silly piece of mock-metallic morbidity with a certain non-parodic gravitas, means the whole enterprise ends on a curiously hopeful note, a sense of renewed direction that makes it worth catching his drift.

Sonic Youth

Mission Of Burma

also “Innermost” b/w “Here It Comes” (single)
Rock is a medium based on planned obsolescence – if it has a creed, it would be play fast, split young and leave a good-sounding corpus. Make your noise, make a splash, but for god’s sake don’t stick around too long, or worse, slink back and let everybody see how badly those leather pants fit these days. And nowhere would that seem to hold more true than with punk and its various offshoots – the whole point of it was to tear down the old strictures, rebuild ‘em in your own zit-speckled images, and get the hell out of the way once the next generation readied their own wrecking balls, right? You do realize how hard it would be to pull off a Mohawk/combover combo, don’t you?

Ah, but rules, like guitar strings and mic stands, are made to be broken, and here we have two of the most sonically adventurous combos to gush forth from the backwash of punk’s first wave, all roughly twice the age they were when they started, obstinately refusing to go gently into that good night and thanks for coming to this all-ages show and by the way does anybody have a floor we can sleep on? Sonic Youth’s new album, The Eternal, their umpteenth release (if I have my calculations right), even brings them, if not full circle, at least a fair distance back around the perimeter – after a couple of decades as Geffen’s favorite loss leader, they’re back on an indie label (albeit one of the biggest around), calling Gerard Cosloy “boss” for the first time since 1985. And their reverence for things past doesn’t stop there; the album includes songs dedicated to a dead Beat poet and a dead punk bawler, the cover painting is by dead acoustic genius John Fahey, there’s a photo of dead Doll Johnny Thunders in the CD booklet and a dedication to dead Stooge Ron Asheton on the back - even the title is kiped from renowned Mancunian dead guy Ian Curtis. Heck, these cats have more dead friends than Patti Smith! Oddly, whether intended or not, this roll-call of the deceased only brings into sharp relief the fact that Sonic Youth are, after three decades in the trenches, almost shockingly vigorous. If anything, they’re as tight as they’ve ever been – most of The Eternal is a master course in concision, full of songs that chug along with focus and a clear-eyed purpose, still driven to wrench as many sounds out of their guitars (three of ‘em these days, now that Kim Gordon has been upgraded from four strings to six and ex-Pavementalist Mark Ibold is left holding up the low end) as possible but largely content to put the skreek in the service of the songs rather than cyclonically rip them apart somewhere around the middle. Which turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing – there’s little self-indulgence to gum up the works, but constant forward motion robs them of the passages of vertical ascension that provided some of their most exciting moments. Occasionally, you want them to knock a few more holes in the walls or at least deface them a little; every once in a while, you start to wonder if Steve Shelley’s always-solid drumming is grounding or anchoring them. But is that their problem, or ours? After almost thirty years of non-stop work, it’s remarkable how much they still do right. The personalities of the rotating frontpersons have been honed to as fine an edge as their guitars – Gordon sexier than any post-menopausal woman has a right to be (see “Sacred Trickster” and “Malibu Gas Station”), Thurston Moore the trash historian and punk-brat emeritus (“Poison Arrow,” “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn”), and Lee Ranaldo the poet/seeker/philosopher – that is to say, the acidhead (“What We Know,” “Walkin Blue”). And it’s always an encouraging sign when a record’s strongest tracks are its longest, from the vaguely political (which is about as political as we ever need them to be) “Anti-Orgasm” to the nine-minute closer “Massage the History,” a fine showcase of their ability to meld whispery menace and cracked-crystal beauty like it was second nature. So, no, they may never pull off a Daydream Nation again, but a band capable of wrestling its legacy to a draw every time they step on the mat remains a rare and admirable thing.

The tyranny of raised expectations similarly dogs the third post-reunion release from Boston post-punk titans Mission of Burma. In many ways the 80s equivalent of the Velvet Underground (brief, underheralded existence followed by years of hip music-fan namechecks and younger bands copping every move they ever made), MoB already defied one of rock’s ironclad truisms by coming back after a long dormancy and not thoroughly embarrassing themselves. 2004’s ONoffON picked up precisely where 1982’s vs. left off and 2006’s The Obliterati was, if anything, even more muscular, so if The Sound, The Speed, The Light comes off a mite underwhelming, could it be that they just don’t have anything to prove anymore? Does the fact that the tempos on their raveups aren’t quite as breakneck as before denote an irretrievable loss of potency? Or is it simply too much to ask of any band, much less one whose members are all pushing sixty, to serve up a palate-strafing plate o’ blare every single time? At first, it would seem so – beyond the hysterical Clint Conley opener, “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” (words to live by: “Drink only when drunken to”), there’s little immediacy here, no “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or “Ballad of Johnny Burma” to offset their denser passages. And even the denser passages don’t seem nearly as dense as before. But patience, even for this most jangled and jittery of bands, eventually pays off – three or four spins and buried hooks begin coming to the fore, the lack of fist-shaking anthems is made up for with a seemingly paradoxical blend of power and subtlety, and the strength of the unit comes clear even as the movements of its individual parts are thrown into relief. Peter Prescott still smacks his drums like they stole his girlfriend, Roger Miller seems to have every phase of art-rock (psych/prog/proto- and post-punk) coursing through his guitar at all times, Bob Weston saturates every inch of tape (they still use tape, right?) with behind-the-boards manipulations that keep turning up sonic surprises with every listen, and Conley anchors the madness as fluidly as ever – no matter how Burma bends and twists, their spine is his bassline. So the pulse-pounding ambition of its youth may have faded and even their aggression may have assumed a comforting familiarity (if you can’t tell ahead of time exactly when Prescott will emit his first howl from behind the kit, you don’t know Burma), but is that so wrong? The Sound, The Speed, The Light has repeatedly been tarred with the epithet “workmanlike” by numerous reviewers; that may be so, but when these mugs punch the clock, they punch it hard. (And as a sop to the more drooling elements of their fanbase, which should be pretty much all of them at this point, they’ve also whipped out a 7-inch single featuring two outtakes from these sessions. “Innermost,” essentially a showcase for Prescott and Weston, is a tad unfocused; the flipside, “Here It Comes,” Miller’s punful evisceration of inter-religious intolerance, delivers the goods quickly and cleanly.)

The Minus 5

Some mellow with age. Others ripen. Scott McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about the rot. Eleven-plus albums and 16 years into his Minus 5 project, continues to find new sloughs of despond to plumb in the name of pop, trucking in subject matter so bleak in the name of cheerful misanthropy it’d give his pal Robyn Hitchcock pause. And as always, he is able to corral a veritable Murder Victim’s Row of alt-luminaries to help illuminate the blackness, from constant compatriots Peter Buck and Ken Stringfellow to chick harmonists the Shee Bee Gees and pretty much the whole of the Decemberists (McCaughey relinquishes the mic to Colin Meloy on “Scott Walker’s Fault” – and call a paean to the dark enigma responsible for The Drift the most life-affirming moment on the album should tell you something). Uptempo numbers like “It Won’t Do You Any Good” dot the landscape like freshly-dripped hemoglobin, but otherwise, it’s country death songs all the way – lotsa pedal steel, banjo pickings and accordion trills, arranged prettily enough to lull you into head-bobbing to songs with lyrics like “your wedding day was so well-planned, like a German occupation” and titles like “The Disembowelers.” This is high-water music with a sinister undertow, sure to slap a happy rictus on your face.

Kurt Vile

It’s hard to believe, but, apart from some possible regional variants I’ve never heard, no one’s really captured the true sound of young America – the noise of maladjusted, hormone-poisoned males bashing out their lonely, inarticulate frustrations from the solitude of their empty bedrooms – to my liking since the Stooges nailed it on their first album four freaking decades ago. I’m not talking subject matter, understand – that’s been one of the wellsprings from which rock/punk/power-pop/Morrissey has drawn its water from day one – but the actual sonic evocation of same. There are a few artists that come close, of course – I’m thinking of Gary Wilson’s infamous 1978 release You Think You Really Know Me – but even there, it’s sublimated under bizarrely bleached-out jazz-funk and vocally/lyrically tipping over into psychosis a little too ripe for even some weirdness enthusiasts. To make the grade here, you need to be capable of a ruckus without catharsis, make the listener feel your boredom, horniness and rage, and do it – and here’s the tall order few can fill at this late date – without a speck of irony. I don’t know how Kurt Vile pulls it off (and before you disqualify him off the bat, he insists that’s his real name), but damned if Childish Prodigy doesn’t do the job. First thing is the sound itself – if it wasn’t recorded in obsessive solo overdubbing sessions on a rec-room four-track, it sure seems like it; cheap-sounding delay effects on the vocals, heavily-saturated guitars, and either cardboardish drums or chintzy rhythm machines predominate. Then come the songs themselves, all seemingly structured in a circular fashion that winds itself ever tighter with every rotation until the tape mangles itself in its own gears or he just fades the thing out arbitrarily. (The best example of this, “Freak Train,” gets steadily crazier and tenser over the course of seven minutes until it sounds like one of Suicide’s more uptempo roundelays rearranged for “real” instruments with a little pseudo-No Wave sax thrown in, crossed with what the Strokes could manage if they weren’t such overprivileged wussy-boys.) In the midst of all this, Vile comes off like the acne-scarred misfit of your worst repressed recollections play-acting at being a scowling street punk. Oh, there’s sensitivity here, too – finger-picked acousticidal reveries like “Blackberry Song” and “Heart Attack,” and even the occasional ethereal female backing voice reminiscent of Liz Fraser’s guest appearances on old Felt albums, which can’t possibly have been intentional. Though the reality is surely quite different (an indie-rock star is a rock star all the same), Vile’s loverman side falls right in line with his snotty, sneering persona elsewhere. Which is to say, I don’t buy a word of it. And good for him.


The short, sad saga of Jobriath deserves retelling, if only as a cautionary tale to the impressionable youth of our nation about the dangers of unprotected hype. Born Bruce Campbell (and no, not that one), he spent several years as a mere scallop on the fringes of late-60s/early-70s hip culture, a player in the New York and Los Angeles companies of Hair and a member of Pidgeon, one of the many short-lived pop-psych combos seduced and abandoned by the recording industry of the time. And so might he have stayed had Svengali/opportunist Jerry Brandt not been in Columbia Records prez Clive Davis’ office when Brucie’s solo demo tape sailed over the transom. Undeterred by big Clive’s insistence that the artist was “mad, unstructured and destructive to melody,” an enthralled Brandt tucked Jobriath under his wing and began cawing, loudly, to anyone who would listen. Here was the future of rock and roll incarnate, the Fat Man and Little Boy of the transatlantic glam wars, the one who would outlast that poseur David Bowie because, um, he could pirouette and Bowie couldn’t. His biggest hook? At a time when even Elton John was a few years away from coming halfway out of the closet, Jobriath would be the first openly gay rock star; while coy ambisexuality reigned supreme and maybe-gay was the rule of the day, America’s youth were crying out for someone to take them to that next level of depravity, and now, (to quote J.’s own, ceaselessly reiterated words) “a true fairy” shall lead them. Big plans were hatched, Elektra convinced to drop an unheard-of sum (literally so, as no one seems to know just how much) for international recording rights, and a grandiose scheme for world domination mapped out, to culminate in a massive coming-out (oh, brother) event in Paris, climaxing (I know, I know) in a recreation of the final scene of King Kong¸ wherein the Empire State Building would morph into a giant, spurting pee-pee and Jobriath would turn, as would logically follow, into Marlene Dietrich.


As you may have guessed, especially given the fact that very of few of you even heard of the cat before his name showed up at the top of this review, the whole scheme was a massive flop. Astute observers may have noticed something was amiss when the Paris concert was cancelled and his debut scaled down to an appearance on NBC’s The Midnight Special, where an obviously distracted Gladys Knight introduced the future of rock ‘n’ roll as “JO-BRATH” and the biggest expense appeared to be the construction of an stage costume comprised mostly of dryer vent hose. And the eventual album, promoted incessantly via billboards and breathless rock-press profiles? It didn’t even chart. Could it be that the record-buying public wasn’t ready for an unabashedly queer rock star? Perhaps. Could they have been turned off by the thick, rank clouds churned out by Jerry Brandt’s hype machine? Quite possibly. Or did they finally get an earful of his music and decide that it kinda blew? Ah, now there’s the rub.

The ultimate result? Jobriath was dropped from Elektra in the middle of his sole American tour, his two albums went out of print with depressing speed, and all concerned performed a thorough disavowal of responsibility and even knowledge of his existence worthy of the most brutally efficient totalitarian government. Elektra’s Jac Holzman confessed his embarrassment at the whole enterprise and quit the label he co-founded soon afterwards, presumably in shame. The mortified music press wrote him off. And even Brandt himself, the guy who proclaimed “it’s Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles and Jobriath … no doubt about that,” wound up muttering that the kid was nothing but a worthless alcoholic, and apparently looked to atone for his misdoings by holding the lad to a draconian ten-year contract, effectively keeping him from recording anything for the rest of his life. And Jobriath himself? He retreated to his sanctum in the Chelsea Hotel, emerging only to perform in East Village clubs as lounge singer Cole Berlin, and eventually died a sadly appropriate death by AIDS in 1983. As for a legacy, he basically had none. His albums held no sway even among collectors (the only copy of either I was ever able to track down turned up, not in a used record store, but in a frighteningly skeezy consignment shop) and, with the exception of a bemused writeup in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and a first-place ranking on’s list of the Ten Worst Rock Stars in History, he warranted scarcely a footnote in music history’s little red book.

And so might it have stayed were it not the shelf-haired hero to the downtrodden, the counselor of camp, the Mancunian candidate (for anti-depression meds) himself – that’s right, friends, Stephen Patrick Morrissey loped forward to rescue Jobriath from oblivion. It started awkwardly – he sought the singer out to open for him on his Your Arsenal tour, unaware that he hadn’t been up to the rigors of touring for the better part of a decade – but Moz was not to be deterred. He curated a 2006 compilation, Lonely Planet Boy (kind of telling that he needed to christen it with a New York Dolls quote, eh?), talked him up in interviews, and inspired a set of Japanese reissues. With the cult heroes’ cult hero in Jobriath’s corner, it was only a matter of time before the resurrection-happy domestic CD market saw fit to follow suit, and thanks to the efforts of Collector’s Choice Records, Jobriath has risen again to “camp” out under the stars.

So, after all this, what do you get when you crack the shrinkwrap on the collected works of the world’s forgotten spaceboy? It’d be immensely gratifying to report that beneath the hype and the record-buying public’s resistance to same lay a lost treasure trove of irresistible glam anthems, but I’m afraid that the record-buying public had pretty much the right idea. Too much of this material sounds forced, imitative and plodding, which is murderous to glam – if you’re gonna be light in the loafers, you’d best be light on your feet. The hooks evidently stopped at the marketing level, and the only groove to be found is the one the makeup people put on his forehead. He does a little better by the ballads – his overwrought vocalizing turns out to be a much better fit with string sections and pianos (the latter played, not badly at all, by Jobriath himself) than with the mock-Ronsonisms of most of the louder material. (As for the lyrics, the less said the better – just know that one of the songs is entitled “Space Clown” and extrapolate from there.) It’s not unlistenable, especially once you stop thinking of it as “real” rock ‘n’ roll and as the soundtrack to an imaginary off-Broadway glamsploitation musical (which makes Jobriath a Hedwig of his time, perhaps), and, oddly, the second album (cobbled together quickly using leftovers from the first) turns out to be the stronger of the two, with more emphasis on ballads and a truly oddball country-and-western-inflected (!) number with the radio-friendly title “Scumbag.” Still and all, it’s hard to imagine who to recommend these discs to. If I were in charge of such things, I’d’ve put it out as a book with a suitable-for-framing “Certificate of Inauthenticity” and relegated the discs to a free-with-purchase bonus (and given the job of writing it to veteran rock archivist Richie Unterberger, whose liner notes tell the tale of Jobriath’s rise and demise economically, while deftly sidestepping the question of whether the damn things are actually worth hearing). In its present form, though, most of you can quite blissfully walk past and not miss a thing. But if you’re a glam completist, a gay-rock historian or a collector of curiosities (and there are precious few pop artifacts that manage to be both historically significant and utterly inconsequential), by all means make way for the homo inferior.

Yo La Tengo

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of indie-rock (actually, the title should probably go to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, but I already wrote that review). As such, a new YLT album tends to feel as comfortable as a successful long-term relationship, and Popular Songs is no exception. Not boring, mind you – they’re too skilled at pop pastiche for that – but whether they’re doing the string-driven thing (as on opening track “Here to Fall”), dipping into Farfisafied fuzz-pop (“Nothing To Hide”), Booker T.-ing themselves off with a Monks-ish breakdown (“Periodically Double Or Triple”), whitefacing Motown (“If It’s True”) or stretching out in acoustic languor with dreamy washes of guitar atmospherics (“The Fireside”) , there’s a ease and even a calmness at play (particularly in the vocals, almost always sleepily agreeable even when their instruments are kicking up a little dust) that comes across as reassuring, opting for the nice, straight line of contentment over the impassioned needle-jumps of younger, more hormonal combos. That is, until they finally raise the pulse rate over the fifteen minute span of “And The Glitter Is Gone” (the last of the three extended workouts that conclude the album), where Kaplan wrings some rather impressive, sustained feedback ‘n’ yowling from his axe while Hubley eggs him on from behind her kit. I dunno, maybe they had an argument that day.

(More to come, eventually...)