2004 Sep-Dec

*** September 7 ***

We’re having some kind of monster heat wave in Los Angeles lately and it’s literally making me sick. The past five or six days high temperatures have been around 90 and the last two days over 100. My little apartment is above a garage and not very well insulated - it’s basically a wooden box - so whatever’s happening outside inevitably gets inside. I blast my a.c. and crank up several fans but no matter. It gets very hot.

Since I sleep all day and work at night you might think I miss the worst of the heat but it’s been waking me up. Then like some awful dream I find myself tossing and turning, half-awake at 1 in the afternoon, perspiring, kicking off blankets, unable to escape. It goes on for hours. And because of this, my whole body now feels creaky and tired and achy. Argh!

I hope it’s over soon. If I had to make a choice I’d take being too cold over being too hot anytime. At least the cold is bracing. The heat is just enervating. I feel like a zombie. A sweaty one too.

Had a kind of Marlon Brando film festival at my house this past weekend. After he died I ordered a bunch of his later films (which I’ve never seen) from Netflix. Watched “Don Juan de Marco” (with Johnny Depp), “The Score” (with Robert de Niro and Edward Norton) and “The Freshman” (with Matthew Broderick). Brando’s terrific in all of them. And it’s always nice to be reminded what a funny actor he could be.

Brando’s also just a very, very interesting guy to watch, and (as a fellow actor) I kept asking myself why? What’s he doing that’s so different? Why is it that, even in scenes with de Niro, who is certainly no slouch, the eye goes back to Brando? I think it’s many things, and one key part of the puzzle is this: He doesn’t stop acting just because he stops talking - and if you watch closely, most other actors do. I tested this theory by watching closely a later scene with Norton and de Niro in a coffee shop. Sure enough, each actor, though very realistic, was also conscious of the other actor: when de Niro was talking, Norton would make (almost) no sound and would hold himself (relatively) still; and vice-versa. But in scenes that include Brando, Brando can be seen to continue gesturing, nodding, making noises, even starting to talk, while the other actors have their lines. It makes a tremendous difference.

This is not insignificant, but it’s also tricky knowledge. Because if a young actor were to walk onto most Hollywood sets and do what Brando was doing he’d be told very quickly that he was being rude and unprofessional and to shut the hell up and hold still while others are talking. And yet as we all well know, life isn’t like that. We’re used to the world we live in, where conversation, sound, movement, etc., all overlaps. So when we watch movies, then, we know - without consciously thinking it - that things are fake. Because the action is cleaner than life. Unrealistically so.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but theatrical tradition strongly favors the conventional way of delivering lines. This reminds me of a story I read once about James Dean. It takes place in the mid 1950s, when Dean was still a relatively unknown actor, doing his first few TV jobs. As the story goes, Dean, who was a big fan of Brando in those days, was determined to bring as much naturalism into his roles as possible. On one particular day he had been hired to play the son in a domestic TV drama, and the cast was working on the blocking. The cast had run through the scene several times when it became apparent that the lead actor (whose name escapes me) was upset. “What’s wrong?” asked the director. “Well!” the actor complained, “I don’t mind rehearsing but what’s the good of it when I never know what he’s going to do or where he’s going to be or how he’s going to say his lines! He changes it ever time!” Most actors, you see, spend rehearsal time making a performance solid. That’s the tradition. But Dean was bucking that. He was changing his performance every time, searching for truth. The other actors were all disconcerted, and the lead actor was plain angry. To him Dean was being unprofessional. And it was time to put this young man firmly back in his place.

But here’s the moral of the story. Dean didn’t change what he was doing. And as one of the actresses in the show later commented: “We were the professionals. But who do you think got the reviews?”

The closest actor I can find to Brando on the scene right now is Al Pacino. Pacino has the same kind of restless camera presence. If you watch him in a film, his eyes wander, he speaks without facing who he’s speaking to, he keeps moving and gesturing (although in a more subdued way than Brando) when others have lines. He’s breaking, in other words, some of the most cardinal rules of so-called acting ‘professionalism.’ But so what? He’s also fascinating to watch. And what he’s doing creates a real feeling of verite - as though he really is just a guy, in a place somewhere, making up all of the words and actions, with no idea what’s coming next. Of course, his art is also much more than this. But this is his bedrock. And it’s a very good one, in my opinion.

I can remember way back doing my very first plays in high school, and making (in my own little way) this same discovery. At first I used to pick up a script and treat it like a piece of music: you do your part, then I do my part, and then you do your next part, and so on. Like tennis. But after only a year or two (and, probably not coincidentally, after I started going more realistic plays) I began to find this stilted. My common sense told me that a real person in the real world wouldn’t ‘hold’ for another person to finish speaking. He would, rather, start brimming with feeling and words as soon as he understood where the other person was going ... which could be long before they actually finished speaking the current sentence. So I started trying to incorporate this in my work. And within a very short time - like a day - it was obvious that the real point was: not merely to have fluent speech: the real point was don’t ever stop acting. Whether you have words coming out of your mouth or not, never, never stop living in the scene and the world of the character. In the wonderful image of the actress Lynne Fontanne, “Pull down the curtain in your mind” and go through the play as if no one were watching at all - living it fully, never playing it to the audience, always living in the world. I eventually distilled this into my own little technique. At various times during the rehearsal and performance of a play I will often pause to ask myself, “If I weren’t an actor in a scene but a real person in real life, would I be doing anything differently?” And if the answer is yes, I then ask myself why I’m not doing the real thing but the stage thing instead.

The answer as often as not is ‘professionalism’ or ‘technique’ or just plain old habit. Or even more human reasons. It’s no fun being a crusader of realism; when you talk and gesture and grunt and move on other people’s lines in theatre you will draw a lot of dirty looks and angry comments. They won’t understand what you’re doing, and will even be annoyed by it. After all - they gave you your ‘bit,’ so it’s time now for you to be quiet while they take their turn. But of course, plays aren’t written so actors can take turns; they are written to tell stories and anything serving the story is to be desired and should be rewarded. And there are times, with certain companies or certain directors, where this approval is forthcoming. But usually it isn’t. And when it isn’t, I for one don’t always have the moral courage to plow ahead anyway doing what I think is right and other people’s feelings be damned. Instead I back down. I want my fellow actors to like me. So I keep quiet and still when I’m not talking, and become a good little boy.

But at least I know I’m making a compromise. And I hope I won’t always.

The best example I can think of of the politeness-be-damned method of acting can be found in the movie “The Misfits,” directed by John Huston, starring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable (his last film), Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter. During this movie, in my humble opinion, there’s no question that Monroe and Clift draw the eye again and again, whereas Gable, Clift and Ritter, all marvelous actors, are far less interesting. Again, being a fellow actor and eager to learn, over the years I’ve kept asking myself why? The answer (I think) is this: Clift and Monroe give performances that do not appear to be geared for the camera. That is, neither actor appears to be waiting for you (the audience) to make sure you see and understand each word and gesture (presumably so that you’ll come to know and appreciate the character the same way they do). Instead, they throw dialogue out quickly, turn away, move restlessly, and in all ways appear to be not waiting for the camera and microphones at all. And what this creates in us watching is a sense that we’d better sit up and pay attention, or we’re going to miss something important.

With Wallach, Ritter and even Gable, however, this isn’t the case. In countless little ways right from their first appearance onscreen we know that these are trained, ‘safe’ actors. What I mean is, their performances are realistic, but they also have the mark of professionalism about them. We know they won’t step on each others’ lines. We know they won’t intrude rudely into a scene - unless, of course, they’ve planned it that way. And most importantly, we know that if one of these actors has something important to say we won’t miss it, because, using the subtle language of acting, they will tell us that it’s important. The actor will pause, sigh, perhaps cock their hat, get a faraway look in the eye ... and we will know, here it comes. Listen up. But Clift and Monroe both appear to be ignoring these rules. They might deliver a key line while they're halfway out the door, head turned away, and you can barely hear it. Of course, in reality this is just another kind of film artistry - the director ultimately is in control and if a key line is truly garbled they’ll simply do a retake. But the difference is: Monroe and Clift appear to be leaving this safety margin entirely up to the director. They seem to be all about living the character, and leaving it to the director to explain. Whereas Gable and Wallach and Ritter, almost like stage actor, try to wear both hats. They try to be real, but also try to make sure we understand. And so they micro-pause for the camera. They set, just a little, for a big line. They put, however subtly, a little more mustard on key gestures. They drive their performances home. And deep inside us watching, we know it. And so they’re not as interesting to watch.

You might think this is all crazy but watch a few films with this in mind and see if you don’t agree. Of course, you can’t watch any old film because most actors don’t do what I’m talking about. Watch Al Pacino, just about any film in his career. Watch Marlon Brando. Watch “The Misfits,” or any of Marilyn or Monty’s other good films. I’m amazed that more actors haven’t noticed this aspect of acting and used it in their work. To me it seems like the key to everything.

 

*** September 12 ***

A friend of mine turned to me the other day and said with a sigh, “I think I’ll probably end up voting for Bush.” I bit my tongue. “Really?” After another pause my friend said, “Yeah. It’s the thing of - you don’t want to change leaders in the middle of a war.”

And I said, “Well - maybe. But you know, the founding fathers could have very easily included in the Constitution a clause saying that elections would be suspended during wartime. They didn’t. I can only guess that they thought that elections - and therefore possibly replacing a president - with a war on was okay.”

“Hm,” my friend said. And that is where we stopped.

I consider voting to be a personal decision, and as well I’m not the evangelist type. So far this year I’ve kept my mouth pretty much closed on the election. But my friend’s comment really surprised me. I think she’s a very bright person. I’ve always assumed that bright people would not have much trouble seeing through Bush and his administration’s considerable shortcomings. After all, this is the country that not so long ago elected Bill Clinton to the presidency in a landslide - and Clinton was a very thoughtful, intelligent, fair-minded, articulate leader. How could the current bungling White House, in light of the Clinton years, be acceptable? How could it be worthy of a vote for re-election?

But now I see I may have been assuming too much. Who knows how many other friends I have who are feeling, too, that Bush may not be so bad for a second term? I have no idea. So for once I’m going to spend five minutes on politics here in my weblog. I’m not going to tell you why you should vote for Kerry. I’m just going to say why I think nobody should vote for George W. Bush.

The main reason my friend liked Bush is because of his oft-spoken determination to keep America safe. Bush says he’s “determined” to be “steadfast” and “not waver” while “staying the course” against terrorism. This is a wonderful sentiment, and to tell you the truth, it even works on me from time to time. I breathe easier just thinking about Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and all the rest sharpening the national bayonets while I’m asleep. For a few minutes, anyway. But then I’m reminded of the deeds that the words have become and I wake up again fairly quickly. “Making this nation safer?” The war on Iraq is one of the most stupid, wasteful, pointless and counterproductive foreign policy fiascos in the history of this nation. Iraq has made us new enemies where we had none, and lost us old friends where we had many. And unless we plan on going past Iraq to invade France and England and Italy and Africa and Russia and Asia, we need allies in the war on terror, which is global, not national. When that sinks in you begain to realize that George W. Bush isn’t making the country safer. He’s not ‘strong’ and ‘resolved.’ He’s an immature, mendacious blunderer who is causing more problems than he fixes. Who is stirring up whole generations of bloodthirsty enemies who we cannot defeat by military means. Who is kicking holes in the American boat and then having the gall to wrap himself in the flag and call this the price of defending freedom.

Re-elect the president? What president? This isn’t a president, it’s Barney Fife dressed up as Captain America. It would be funny if it weren’t so damn awful.

And you know, I didn’t start out particularly trying to hate Bush. I’m one of those people who got behind him after 9/11 and tried to forget the cloud cast over American politics by the election of 2000. I was even in favor of the Iraq war at first - when I didn’t know I was being lied to about WMDs. I don’t consider my current dislike of Bush to be based on a change of my own heart. Rather, I see it as the steady erosion of my trust brought on by the man himself.

Milestones in that erosion would be:

  • Refusing to hold a fair and honorable Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Why wasn’t this done? It would have taken just a week or two, and it would have satisfied the American public that a proper election had, in fact, been held. Surely that would have been best for the country. Besides being the moral and ethical thing to do.
  • Rolling back one piece of Clinton/Gore environmental legislation after another, while at the same time taking virtually no new environmental policy initiatives that aren’t badly tainted by business interests. Bush-Cheney received $44 million in campaign donations in 2000 from fossil fuel, timber, chemical and mining interests. The result? EPA infraction enforcements are down 50 percent. Meanwhile, the EPA’s 600-page “Draft Report on the Environment,” printed in 2003 - which is meant to be a summary of the world’s current environmental situation - was censored by the White House. It contains one paragraph devoted to global warming.
  • Refusing to endorse the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court, or any other of countless wise foreign treaties that would make the world safer and stronger - and show us to be good world citizens. Bush just hates this sort of thing. This is particularly bad at the present time. Many of the problems facing America right now are world problems, not just American ones..
  • Launching unilateral foreign policy moves which offend and aggrieve many nations which would otherwise be friendly to us. Including many nations which could be potential allies in the fight on terrorism.
  • Insulting all Americans by calling this sort of thing “the price of leadership.” It’s not. It’s the wages of ignorance.
  • Lying about Iraq. The CIA didn’t fudge Iraq intelligence to appease the White House. The CIA fudged Iraq intelligence at the behest of the White House.
  • Getting away with it so far. So let me get this straight - Bill Clinton lies about a blow job and gets impeached but George W. Bush lies about Iraq to launch a pointless war there and that’s leadership? Give me a break. Christ, Bush is lucky he’s a Republican. If he were a Democrat he’d have been hauled up before the Senate months ago.
  • Halliburton. That’s the company Dick Cheney used to be CEO of. The same one that now has over four billion dollars in no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq. Disgusting.
  • Enron. Kenneth Lay & company deserve to be doing long jail sentences right now - not living off what they skimmed from their investors and employees, who were left with nothing. Lay (Bush calls him “Kenny Boy”) still hasn’t been brought to trial. In fact, he may never be. Can you say Scot free?
  • Heinous tax breaks that benefit wealthy Americans who don’t need it and ignore middle class and poor Americans who do.
  • Turning a several-trillion-dollar budget surplus into a yawning deficit. Why does this alone not sink the guy’s re-election chances? Once again, unlike the years of the Clinton/Gore surplus, we have a huge national deficit. That means that, once again, every year a big portion of your and my federal tax dollars will be going not for schools and police and highways but to pay the interest on bank loans. How is this helping America be safe and strong? Especially when before Bush took office we already had the world’s largest military?
  • A virtual ignoring of domestic policy and the economy, except to mishandle it. Bankruptcies are up, unemployment is up, poverty is up, jobs are down, housing is down, health care is more expensive, real wages are falling, etc., etc. A president can do a lot to alleviate these things. This one does nothing. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq consumes $4 billion a month.
  • Screwing around at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, his folks’ place in Kennebunkport, Maine, or otherwise off on vacation. Bush’s 28-day vacation in August, 2003, nearly broke the all-time record (the only longer presidential vacation was taken by Richard Nixon). As of April 1, 2004 Bush has spent 500 days away from Washington at the above two locations or Camp David.
  • Covering up instead of confronting and learning from his mistakes. Bush can be underhanded. The 9/11 Commission got $3 million to do its job, which potentially included pointing out Bush administration errors in detecting and preventing the 9/11 attacks; meanwhile, the Columbia Space Shuttle Commission - a more politically neutral enterprise - got $50 million. But sometimes he can also just be blockheaded. After the 9/11 Commission (bipartisan, by the way) found no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Bush’s response? “The reason I keep saying there’s a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda is because there is a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda.” No new evidence, mind you. It’s supposed to be true just because he says so.
  • Ignoring, yet again, that America faces a health insurance crisis (1 in 8 Americans have none whatsoever).
  • Wearing fath on his sleeve. Which is just plain insulting. Countless Democrats are just as religious as Bush, but think it’s inappropriate and undignified to overtly mix the Bible with politics. (Christianity is in their souls, not on their billboards.)
  • Wearing the military on his sleeve by claiming, dishonestly, that as a silver-spoon draft-dodging Republican he still has more claim on the loyalty of the military than any Democrat.
  • Hewing to the religious right. Never forget that the Republican Party has a 900-pound gorilla in its midst - the Christian right wing, who are well-organized, vote according to moral issues, and are generally intolerant of other points of view. And Bush, no matter how affable and easygoing and humane he may sometimes appear, has shown that he will go to great lengths not to alienate this party faction. The result? Instead of administration by common sense, we get groteque, intolerant public policy. A Republican Party plank calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (did gay Americans stop being citizens since last time I looked?). Attempts, once again, to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. A country where five states use textbooks that don’t mention the word “evolution.” Meanwhile, $15 billion in AIDS money to Africa cannot be spent on giving out condoms but must go, instead, to abstinence-only programs. Which is about as effective as buying these people ice skates.
  • Simplistically (and foolishly) insisting that terrorism exists because certain people “hate our freedom.” That’s a fairy tale. The facts are plain. If you ask terrorists, they will say they hate us because for years we have pursued foreign policies that were insensitive, arrogant, wasteful, unnecessarily cruel, and military in nature. Not to mention hypocritical - using the rhetoric of “friendship” and “security” as a cover for advancing our business interests. Even if in many instances our intentions were good, the appearance of impropriety existed. The result? We now have a military presence in over 130 of the world’s nations, where as often as not our bases are detested as symbols of greed and imperialism. If we took half of what we spent in these countries on bullets and tanks and instead built a few schools and hospitals, paved a few roads, got a little clean water flowing, and provided some decent homes, our threat from world terrorism would diminish overnight to nearly zero. Terrorists - even religiously-motivated terrorists - need recruits, and in the face of wise American foreign policy their traditional support base - an angry, disaffected underclass - would disappear because we had gotten there first with real, meaningful assistance.
  • Bush and Congressional Republicans, however, want to confront terrorism with about the same sense of nuance as they confront drugs and crime. The “get tough” “just say no” “three strikes” mentality, which has had so much popularity in the past - and which I maintain is bankrupt when used as the sole solution to any social problem - is nonetheless the same old sword they pull out again and again. I suppose it appeals to them because it’s full of militant language and bustle and so it makes them feel as if they’re really doing something. But they’re not, besides wasting tax dollars. The fact is, when root causes are not addressed, then the problems flowing from those causes won’t disappear. As long as we have crushing poverty and social disaffection in this country, we will continue to have drugs and crime. And as long as America is seen as the selfish bully-bad guy by much the world, we will always be an obvious target for foreign agitators, including terrorists. But as Bill Clinton has said, “We can’t kill, conquer or occupy ever nation in the world that’s a potential threat to us.” Diplomacy - a more benificent, or at least less selfish, foreign policy - has to be the way. And the sooner we have a president who understands this, the safer and more secure America will really be.

    Let’s remember the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil War many Northern reactionaries wanted to see the South “punished” as a way of bringing rebel states back into the fold. Lincoln, however, favored a more benign policy, extending the hand of friendship. This was anathema to the hard-liners. “Mr. President,” he was warned, “if you don’t punish the South it will remain a nest of rebellious enemies.” Lincoln replied, “But have I not also destroyed my enemy when I have made him into my friend?”

  • Failure of quality. My last point. This is a broad category that simply means time after time Bush shows me that he is not thinking particularly deeply (or well) about the issues facing this country. His claims to be “steadfast” are more than a little unnerving because he’s being “steadfast” to old-world politics in the face of new-world challenges. The world is changing, and America needs to anticipate these changes and be ready to adapt if need be. If we don’t then we’ll simply go the way of the Roman Empire. American prosperity, security, and stability can’t be guaranteed by looking backward. New wine, as Jesus said, requires new wineskins.

If you’re planning on voting for Bush this fall, please reflect. The man is profoundly unsuited to the presidency. John Kerry isn’t perfect either, but on his very worst possible day he’s still going to make policy decisions that are fairer, more tolerant, more inclusive of all Americans, and more well-thought-out than Bush. Kerry’s policy on abortion, for example, is (I think) rather marvelous. He says that he’s personally against it, but he also feels that the government has no business regulating it, and therefore his policy will be not to limit abortion rights in any way. Now there’s a principle that’s worthy of a president. Fair. Tolerant. Inclusive. That’s a real statesman at work.

So please - I’m not saying you have to become a lifelong Democrat. I’m not saying you have to love John Kerry. Just vote for the guy this time around. He’s far away the best man. He’d be great at the job.

Starting with the fact that he’s nothing like George W. Bush.

 

*** November 3 ***

The election is over and thank GOD for it. Now we can get back to the real world. I look forward to not talking about politics for a good, long time.

I’ve had a tremendous cold for the past few weeks and then something funny happened. I went to my doctor and he gave me a full checkup and said, “You know, Paul, you don’t just have a cold. You also have high blood pressure. We should start treating that.” So I started taking a pill. Well, Jayzuz, you think somebody’d warn you that when you take high blood pressure pills they make you feel run-down and you start to cough a lot! But nobody did. So I was hacking away and feeling sleepy all the time, and I just thought I had this endless cold that wouldn’t let up! Took me days to figure out what was going on ... meanwhile I lost a lot of time at work. Sheesh. But now I’m finally back and a bit more bouncy.

Got an interesting email the other day. My cousin Russell has kids and one of them, named James, is in a rock band in Canada that’s doing pretty well.

boy the band teenbeet_largeHis name is James Robertson, he’s 23 years old, the band is called Boy, and here is their website. Go check ‘em out. And when you do be sure to click on the album sampler. Is it just me, or do these guys sound pretty terrific? To my ear they’re like a modern cross between the Byrds and Creedence Clearwater Revival, which isn’t too shabby at all. Also, while you’re there, buy their album “Every Page You Turn.” It’s just been released and if it’s anything like the sample tracks I’ve heard it’s definitely going to be very cool.

Speaking of cool ... I just have to say that I feel ten times cooler having a rock guitarist in the family. Yeah!

In other news on the family front, we’re all convening in Quebec City this year for Christmas. I can’t wait, Quebec is such a pretty place. It’s been years since I went there. When I was about 11 or 12 our family drove there and spent a few days. We stayed in the Chateau Frontenac, which is perched high above the St. Lawrence river, a magnificent view. Quebec is hundreds of years old and very, very French. It’s like leaving North America. I’m pleased to be finally going back. I’ll be sure to take my camera. It should be beautiful.

It’ll also be nice to see the family again. There are days when I miss ‘em quite a bit. Got a nice, funny email from my sister Mary the other day. Made me wish I could, you know, just pop over to her house for dinner or something. But she’s in Toronto and I’m here. Oh, well.

Not much else. I’m going to sign off and go back to what I really should be doing tonight, which is working on my friend Steve Gunderson’s website. He came to me a couple of months ago and asked me to make one for him and after that I got off to a fairly good start, but then I got sick, and then work got busy ... and now I haven’t worked on it for weeks. I feel just terrible about it. Hope he’s not too mad at me! Anyway, check it out if you have a minute - it’s www.stevegunderson.com and it’s actually pretty good overall. Steve’s an enormously talented person. It’s a project long overdue.

 

*** November 20 ***

Steve-2004-Headshot-thmI’ve been spending the past few weeks building a web site for my dear friend Steve Gunderson. It’s a project that’s long overdue: Steve is a tremendously talented guy - playwright, actor, singer, and one-man musical factory. I could go on and on about his talents but I already rave about him here, and you can see more for yourself by visiting his site here. Please check him out, and be sure to look at his funny photos and listen to his wonderful music while you’re there. He’s a very, very gifted guy.

* * *

Lately I’ve also been rebuilding the Rock, Pop, Experiments section of my Music pages. It’s a pretty gigantic project.

It’s also been on my mind for a long time.

One of the first things I did when I set up this web site was add a Music section, where I could post some of the recordings I’ve been doing lately on my home computer. Theatre music and pop tracks with no vocals mostly. That’s all very well. But in the back of my mind I’ve always known I planned someday to expand these Music pages.

That’s because I’ve been writing and recording songs, in fact, for nearly thirty years now, and I have a huge backlog of tapes here in my apartment. I’ve often thought I should get this stuff up on the web because, while a lot of this music is (not surprisingly) amateurish dreck, a lot of it on second listen is actually pretty darn good. If not *very* darn good. No studio-quality recordings here, of course; just home equipment that is (sometimes) conspicuously humble. But a lot of the time that simply doesn’t matter because the joie de vivre of these tapes is so high.

The only thing holding me back from posting these songs was the sheer size of the job. There are probably eighty or so numbers that I could make available, but that means, in each case, transcribing the recording onto my PC, then cleaning it up, then compressing it, then uploading it ... and then when all this is done, redesigning the Music page into some sort of new format that can present all of these new songs to the public in a logical way. This is a big project any way you look at it, and so I’ve been dragging my feet a little.

But I finally got a bit of a nudge. From several directions at once, in fact.

First, while I’ve been building Steve’s website I’ve been thinking about our friendship, which goes back to the eighties.

Steve and I met in late 1985 when my then-wife Linda Pakri and I went out one night to a club called Don’t Tell Mama in midtown Manhattan to hear a singer named Rosemarie Lindau. Steve was in the show, and when I looked over the program I saw that he had also written a number of the most memorable songs and had done all the arrangements. This on top of the fact that his stage persona - like Rosie’s - was delightful and charismatic; and they both could really sing well. By the end of the night I was very excited; I felt like I had to get to know these two people. So barged up and introduced myself. Fortunately things blossomed, and by the following year Rosie, Steve and I had become fast friends and were regularly recording original rock/pop songs in Linda and my living room. In one short spring & summer, in fact, we recorded thirteen or fourteen brand new tunes that, to my ears, still sound absolutely terrific today.

So working on Steve’s web site, and putting up all of his recent music there, has naturally gotten me thinking again about our old tapes. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could hear them...

lk-LisaAnd then I got a pair of emails out of the blue. One came from my buddy Lisa Hansen, who says (I’m paraphrasing) “Hey, I like your site. Put up more music!” Now that’s a friend!

And then I also got an email from my old friend lk ronRonnie Wiseman. Ron is somebody I’ve known for a good couple of decades now. He currently lives in Tel Aviv, but back in the early ‘80s he was a regular at Linda and my various apartments in Toronto. Ron is a very talented guy - part filmmaker, songwriter, musican - and he has very good taste, so when he talks art, I listen. And what did Ron say to me? (I’m paraphrasing) “Hey, love your website. Like your new music. But where’s all that great old stuff with you singing? Shame on you. Get that stuff out there too!”

So ... for whatever reason, it seems like I’m getting a giant cosmic nudge here. And when I get a cosmic nudge, who am I to argue?

So the music page is being upgraded as we speak.

I’m recording the tapes onto my PC. I’m cleaning them up as best I can. I’m hanging my head in sorrow because sometimes the years have not been kind to the masters. (Sigh.) Other times I’m dancing for joy because this or that piece of inspired wonderfulness still rocks across the decades. And I’m pressing on. Making new banners. Linking the links. Making it all hang together.

In doing this, I’m heartily tired but I also feel, in an odd way, relieved. Over the years when I’ve been writing and recording songs I’ve often felt as if the Muse was a living presence in my life, and songs were the gifts she brought and, miraculously, laid at my feet. Now, at last, I feel like I’m not letting these gifts die on the shelf anymore, but I’m giving them to the world, as was always intended. It feels good. It’s a great relief.

Okay, enough rambling.

Go and listen! And tell me what you think!

 

*** December 22 ***

scrooge50anny42841Do yourself a real kindness this holiday season. If you haven’t done so yet, go out as soon as you can and beg, borrow, rent or buy the film A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. Then go home and make some quiet time for yourself (and any lucky loved ones that happen to be around). Unplug the phone. Lock the door. And settle down to enjoy one of the finest holiday films ever made.

A Christmas Carol (originally titled Scrooge and marketed these days under both names) isn’t the most technically splendid motion picture in the world. It’s black & white - which may leave you wondering how Christmasy that can be. And the soundtrack is also a bit primitive from time to time. The special effects are on the simple side. This is all typical of low-budget British films that were made in the years immediately following World War II. It’s a shame a few of these glitches can’t be fixed. Maybe someday they’ll do something about it.

But you know what? When you start watching the film these problems cease to matter very quickly. The black-and-whiteness and the old-fashioned sound are easy to get used to ... in fact, in time they become rather charming. And then the film’s many virtues start to emerge - like the script (a beautiful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s writing by Noel Langley), and the tremendous cast (there’s more than one brilliant performance here), and the wonderful sets and costumes. All directed with a marvelous sense of rollicking humanity by Brian Desmond Hurst. Give this film two distracted minutes and you might not think much of it; but give it ten attentive ones and I predict you’ll be firmly under its spell.

Alastair-Sim-scrooge-1And much of this will be because of an absolutely astounding, epochal performance given by Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Like Peter Sellers (who had a similarly unexpected triumph in Being There several decades later), Sim was mainly known in England as an eccentric comic actor when, in 1951, against all expectation, he suddenly gave the world a screen characterization that is astonishing in its conception and brilliant in its execution. There isn’t a false note here anywhere - just the opposite: many of Sim’s moments are so original and so inspired that they are utterly fascinating - you realize you’ve never seen anything like this before. And the performance, while consummate and unsentimental, is for that reason all the more moving. In just a few minutes of screen time Sim growls, purrs, snarls, minces, quavers, and jumps for joy - all with total conviction. This isn’t just good acting - it’s brilliant, inspired acting of the kind they’ve been talking about in theatre schools for years. In fact, in my humble opinion, it’s among the finest performances ever caught on film.

After you go get the film (which you will, right? promise me you will) watch Sim’s amazing - not just face, but whole demeanor. Look at him when he angrily shouts “Good morning!” at his nephew Freddie and dispatches him from the office - it’s almost as if he’s having a spasm. Look at his whole posture when he’s eating soup later in the tavern, and orders more bread, then changes his mind. Watch how he handles the appearance of Jacob Marley when the ghost clanks into his room, and then watch again, a few minutes later, when he is overwhelmed by the lamenting spirits outside his window. This is an actor conveying horror and terror on a scale to match any Shakespearean. This is magic.

Watch how Sim handles the Ghost of Christmas Past. “I am a mortal and liable to fall...” - how gorgeously he delivers that line! See him bouncing happily at the Fezziwigs’ party. See him shattered at Fan’s death. Later, with the Ghost of the Present, watch him when the Cratchit family toasts his health. His shame, his embarrassment, so beautifully expressed.

Look at his reaction when he runs down the street and almost bangs straight into the Ghost of Christmas Future. Listen to that scream in the graveyard, when he recognizes his own headstone.

There are a million exceptional, wonderful things about Alastair Sim in this movie - and to me, a fellow actor, I have to declare that I find the whole thing awesome. If I ever give a performance in anything that is half as good as this I hope someone will shoot me dead immediately ... because it’ll be the peak of my career and it’ll all be downhill from there.

Okay, I’ll shut up now. Go watch this movie.

You can thank me later...!

* * *

xmas santa32It seems like ages since I’ve written anything here. It’s been a busy time the past few weeks. Lots of clients at work, piling on the projects before the holidays, so a lot of overtime. That’s a good thing since I’m taking time off and could use the money!

In fact, I’m flying off to Canada on Thursday at noon. It’ll be fun to see the family. I haven’t seen a single one of them face to face since last Christmas in New York, when we were at Mohonk Mountain House. This year we’re going to Quebec City and staying at the Chateau Frontenac hotel. It should be rather beautiful - Quebec is one of the oldest cities in North America and it retains a lot of buildings and streets that are hundreds of years old. I’m taking my camera, so expect plenty of snapshots!

Hadley, my niece, is ten years old this year. Amazing. I’ve been going over and over in my mind what to get her. Never having been a ten-year-old girl, I’m finding it a bit rough on the imagination. But I’ve decided that she’s getting old enough, now, that I don’t need to feel constrained to either toys or dolls. So far I’ve gotten her two different books - one called “Earth from Above” (the young readers’ version) and a boxed set of the CS Lewis “Narnia” books. She loves to read. But I’m also going to go out later today and get her a DVD of “Mary Poppins,” plus one more thing - I haven’t a clue - whatever pops into my head.

In the last picture Jeff emailed me of her she’s got an iPod and is happily working the controls. What do I get for a girl like this? A Blackberry?

Jeff says she’s very musical, always going around humming, with music (iPod or not) in her head. I’ll have to see if there’s anything fun I can get in a musical line. A harmonica? It’ll have to be something small and not too expensive - because of course I’ve blown the budget this Xmas. Like I always do!

One of the things I always do at Christmas is write little riddles on the gift tags for each present. For instance, I got my sister Mary a book about William Shakespeare. So on the tag I wrote: “To Mary - This will help you make out your Will.” Snicker, snicker. I don’t know why but I love that part almost as much as getting the gift itself. For Jeff I got a copy of Tolstoy’s “Great Short Works.” I wrote: “To Jeff. It’s a crime to be rushin’ literature.” Ouch, I know. For Hadley, on the CS Lewis books I wrote: “To Hadley. Quit lyin’ about that wardrobe. Which?” She’ll just have to wait to open the box - the first book is called “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Then she can come after me and boot me in the tush.

1972-12-Paul-Mary-Anne-thmWhat I really wish for Hadley, of course, is that her childhood Christmases are as much fun as mine were when I was her age. Ann, Mary and I had such fun parents - they really loved being a Mom and Dad. It made growing up such fun, with one good memory after another.

I don’t think I have to worry too much on that score, though. My sister Ann (who’s sitting on the right in this photo) and my brother-in-law Jeff are wonderful parents themselves: patient, loving, intelligent, supportive. They have tremendous patience with Hadley - who can be pretty demanding. Ann or Jeff will read her a bedtime story every night. They play endless games with her and never seem to tire of showing her the world. It’s really a wonderful thing, watching them care for her. Hadley’s a lucky little girl. She’s having an upbringing just as jolly as her mom’s.

And really, if you’re going to give a child a gift, a sense of fun is about the best thing you can give. Because it’s so versatile and so resilient. I think if you know how to smile then you can handle just about anything life throws at you. You’ll always know how to get up, dust off, and carry on. I’ve known so many people in life who have a tendency to be fatalistic sourpusses. And you know something? When bad things happen to them, it’s not the least bit surprising.

Okay, enough of the ten-cent homilies. I’m off to buy presents and then pack.

* * *

Merry Christmas - or Happy Hanukkah, or Krazy Kwanzaa - to everyone reading this! Love and good wishes from the bottom of my heart.

May the New Year astonish and delight you - with unexpected gifts in abundance, and beautiful horizons that you never imagined were there.