Friday, March 1, 2013

Theater Reviews: The Revisionist, The Madrid, Passion

The Revisionist (at the Cherry Lane Theatre through March 31)

In The Revisionist, the second play by the talented actor Jesse Eisenberg, I’m starting to see a pattern emerge: He doesn’t like the Jesse Eisenberg character very much. That stammery, snide, self-fabulizing eighty-fiver, showily aglow with skin-deep social virtue that poorly conceals a towering disdain for humanity—he hates that dude. He wants us to hate him, too. But we’re way ahead of him. Watching The Revisionist—the tale of David, an entitled young writer (Eisenberg) who crashes with a distant, much-older Polish cousin, Maria (Vanessa Redgrave), to finish his awful-sounding science-fiction novel—boils down to a lot of waiting around for a Situation to kindle itself into a Story and for the snit to receive his comeuppance. The title will, no doubt, tempt many a critic to an easy jab, and I’ll be one of them: This is what I’d call a promising draft. It cries out for revision.

Here’s the thing: The Revisionist deserves revising. (Unlike his earlier effort Asuncion, also directed by Kip Fagan and produced by the Rattlestick, which felt like a prickly, self-conscious college play that Justin Bhartha happened to wander into.) It begins marvelously, ferociously, with elements you’ve seen before (a language barrier, a generation gap) reinvigorated with new energy, transformed into crisscrossing streamers of near-miss dialogue and asymmetric intent. Maria keeps pictures of adored American relatives she’s barely acquainted with on her walls; she’s even framed a New York Times pan of David’s first novel.  (When he asks why she didn’t frame one of his better reviews, Maria snaps, “I don’t want better review! I want New York Time review!”—which, really, says it all.) She wants to run her fingers through his curls, tell him he looks exactly like his grandfather, roast him a chicken. David, on the other hand, rebuffs every overture with gelid sarcasm (he’s a vegetarian. Doesn’t she know what that is?). Imposition clearly comes easy to this pipsqueak solipsist: He wants to be left alone with his stash and his computer—even though he’s obviously too blocked to write a word, with or without the pot he keeps blowing out through Maria’s transom. The windows in her world don’t open easily: Her only portals to the outside are her television (always tuned to WorldCNN), her phone (nothing but telemarketers, whom she indulges at length), and a truculent cab driver named Zenon (Daniel Oreskes), who drops by occasionally to shave her legs. The sight disgusts David, and he’s kind enough to say so.

Redgrave and Eisenberg make a surprisingly savory stage pair. Her deep, dogged characterization sinks into the molten Play-Doh of his natural squirminess; his evasions parry her attacks. The chemistry is very much alive … but it has nowhere to go. David is so comically vile, so repugnant, so fully damned the moment we meet him, his character can’t put down any roots. Within minutes, we’ve dismissed him. Maria’s the richer mystery, but her character loses cohesion and stability in Eisenberg’s floundering dénouement, and Redgrave, for all the many sorceries at her disposal, can only try to emote her way out of the oubliette she’s in. When Oreskes took the stage, I felt relief: Here comes a breath of fresh air, I thought, a way to shake things out. No dice: Zenon’s basically there to move scenery and anchor a gag. We’re left with a duel to the death between two constructs who don’t budge—and won’t be budged, because there’s simply not enough story to budge them.

As you may have gathered, we’ve been heading towards a Holocaust revelation all this time. (The log line pitch for The Revisionist might read “The Man Who Came to Dinner meets Misery meets Everything Is Illuminated.”) Eisenberg quickly reaches a plateau, however; he’s played his character cards aggressively and up front, and the play’s got nothing in the tank after its strong opening blitz. There’s a long torpid stretch where David and Maria squabble, share, dance around the main event. David melts a bit but remains David, because Eisenberg’s too angry with him to see him redeemed or even revealed. Maria’s secrets begin to unravel, but her reactions don’t track. Everything starts to feel rushed and draggy at the same time. (The vodka bottle emerges: Time for truth roulette!) The Revisionist wants to be about what happens when one invented life collides with another, when true self-deception meets its flimsier cousin, narcissism. But once he’s pulled back the curtain, Eisenberg has little to reveal beyond a healthy self-flagellation. What I see here is a work in progress, despite the “world premiere” label. When a young Best Actor nominee and geek sex symbol aspires to be Wallace Shawn, hey, it’s worth waiting for the next revision.

The Madrid (at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center through April 21)
One of the most stunningly awkward moments in Liz Flahive’s The Madrid—a moody, zingy dramedy comprised solely of stunning awkward moments, each of them carefully choreographed—comes when Martha (Edie Falco), a wife, mother and kindergarten teacher who’s run away from home, spends a tense minute peering at her daughter’s back-tattoo in horror and rapt fascination. The daughter, Sarah (Phoebe Strole), is uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons: Her mother has, in recent weeks, abandoned her father (John Ellison Conlee) without so much as a phone call, and now demands total confidentiality from Sarah, the only person from her old life who knows about her new life.  Meanwhile, Sarah, a recent college grad with no obvious career vector, has taken over her mother’s kindergarten classes and inherited her at-home responsibilities, too. An older, endearingly goofy, very married neighbor Danny (Christopher Evan Welch, hapless-like-a- fox) is making ambiguous overtures that Sarah’s just at-sea enough to consider accepting; his high-strung wife Becca (a superb Heidi Schreck) is taking note. (I hereby call for a Danny/Becca spinoff: Schreck and Welch are a terrifying twosome whose slow spiral-dive you can’t stop watching: They’re so funnily sorry-ungrateful-regretful-unhappy, you bleed a little when the jokes land.)

But the show belongs to Strole (Spring Awakening, The Big Meal) and Falco, who—with firm guidance and expert pacing supplied by director Leigh Silverman—endow Flahive’s polished wit with a supple humanity. Falco can say more with her eyes, in a painfully quiet moment, than most of us will blather in a lifetime. And Strole, without resorting to any of the usual mopey trickery, captures the aimlessness of post-college and grounds the wackier, more sitcom-premise-y aspects of the story in real emotional consequences.  “I loved you very much,” Martha tells Sarah, explaining her escape, “so I worked hard every day to make sure you didn’t know what I was feeling.” Falco, Strole and Flahive work very hard—with very satisfying results—to make that sound a little more heroic, a little less pathetic and cold than it seems on the page. In The Madrid, responsibility isn’t simply a matter of accepting or rejecting. It’s an ongoing process, as messy as Flahive’s writing is tight and concise.

Passion (at Classic Stage Company through April 7)

John Doyle's intimate, de-opera-fied chamber-musical version of Sondheim's '94 Tony winner—starring Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and a dowdied-down Judy Kuhn as repellent, magnetic Fosca—makes the "controversy" surrounding the Tony-winning original seem even dumber than it was back then. Is it really so shocking to show ugly, pushy people in love? Isn't that, like, most of us?

It’s 1863, and handsome Giorgio (Silverman), a soldier in Garibaldi’s Italy, is in love with beautiful Clara (Errico). But Giorgio’s soon transferred to an unlovely mountain outpost, where he becomes unofficial caretaker to Fosca (Kuhn), the chronically ill cousin of the Colonel (Stephen Bogardus, always a treat). He writes to Clara daily, telling her about Fosca, who, apart from being a withered, frightening spectre of death, is also a skilled emotional blackmailer with absolutely nothing to lose. What she wants is Giorgio, body and soul, before she died. “The weak protect themselves,” warns Dr. Tambouri (Tom Nelis). “The defensive soldier often lives longer than the brave one.” The drama kicks into gear when Giorgio realizes that what he wants is, perhaps, not what he thought he wanted; and when Fosca reveals his romantic and carnal bond with Clara to be something different than what he thought. At the bottom of James Lapine’s bewitching book (based on the Scapigliatura-era novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti), at the fundament of Sondheim’s mesmeric, interpolated score, is the question of love and self-love, and whether they are, in fact, separable. Kuhn’s Fosca is less of a shrill provocation lobbed at our beauty myths and more of an existential riddle in stooped human form. She’s also in fine, plangent voice, and so is Silverman, who proves exceptionally good at walking the line between opera archetype and interior characterization. It’s a challenge to make Fosca “likeable,” to use the studio-executive-ese, but it’s just as hard to sell us Giorgio, a man who think he’s merely caught between passion and altruism, when there’s a far scarier force at work—how does a man who’s first and foremost in love with himself turn down unconditional love? However pathetic? Briefly, brutally, brilliantly, and a little punishingly—you feel every minute of Passion’s abbreviated running time—this show squeezes romanticism until it hurts. Doyle isn’t a “passionate” director, more of a chessmaster, and while that dampens the Giorgio-Clara-Fosca chemistry a tad, it leaves room for more philosophical clarity. He also hasn’t assigned any of his performers instruments this time, and for good reason: They are instruments.

The Dance and the Railroad (at the Signature Center through March 24)

David Henry Hwang's 1981 two-hander has been revived with sparkling charm and flawless comedy arcing between smooth Yuekun Wu and goofy Ruy Iskandar: The former plays Lone, a student of the Chinese opera sent by his impoverished family to labor on the American transcontinental railroad in 1867; the latter Ma, his younger, greener co-toiler, a kid with big dreams and zero experience. Dance is perhaps the purest, most poetic distillation of Hwang's wry lostness and dislocation, with its clever inversions of language and dialect (one man speaks formal but accented English, the other slangy English, and both revert to Chinese only occasionally) and its use of opera conventions to tell a bitter, funny coming-of-age-in-America tale. The setup is elegantly simple: Lone’s a cynic, Ma’s a dreamer. Lone knows the opera—he carries the choreography in his muscles, like a language. (Wu is mesmerizing in motion.) Gawky Ma wants to learn the steps—wants to play the hero, of course. Lone thinks little of heroes, beyond the parts he’s trained for. He thinks the railroad strike will achieve nothing, believes the “Chinamen” are crooks and savages; Ma thinks they’re important and sees the strike as their chance to prove it.  The big questions (identity, alienation, the worth of art and artist in a brutal, unjust world) unspool easily and colloquially, with little huffing and puffing, as two young men teach each other what fear is, what strength is, who’s truly alive and who’s functionally dead. The conclusions are distressing—after all, the “gold mountain” they’re dancing on consumes the lives of “Chinamen” daily—and the inquiry itself highly stylized, filtered through Chinese-opera conventions. But the jagged, unsettled friendship between these wayfarers, caught between worlds, feels disarmingly casual.

Katie Roche (at The Mint through March 24)

Boardwalk Empire's Wrenn Schmidt emits a poignant, plangent cri de coeur as the title character of Teresa Deevy's lost Irish drama, unearthed by the Mint. Her Katie—a flummoxed, impetuous servant girl whose clueless master half-dragoons her into marriage—pulls us into a world of perilously limited choices and dangerously fervid souls that won't stay penned up. A little Hedda here, a little Downton there, a sprinkle of Hawthornean moral torture throughout: Katie Roche is an arch twist on the Lives of the Saints. (Katie aspires to be one, and, in a way, gets her wish.) The production is vintage Mint: solid, staid, a little fusty. But like their previous Deevy productions (Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers), the dramatic momentum grows as the play barrels on. Schmidt, carried away in currents bigger than she is, fights every step of the way. Katie’s a remarkable character, a bundle of contradictions and half-smothered passions. Deceptively tiny and diaphanous, Schmidt performs like lace curtains set ablaze.

Much Ado About Nothing (through April 6 at the Duke on 42nd)

Mad Men's (and Game of Thrones's) Maggie Siff and Brideshead Revisited's Jonathan Cake joust delightfully in a mostly solid, sweetly simple, gently cheering Much Ado About Nothing from director Arin Arbus and Theater for a New Audience. Siff follows up (but doesn't repeat) her take-no-shit Kate from last year's Taming of the Shrew—and meets her goofball prince-charming in Benedick, whom Cake interprets as a kind of gracefully aging proto-hipster, the kind of guy who's taking improv classes at 40 to keep up with his quick-witted lady-love. There’s a little transatlantic tension in their interplay, a bit of Grant-Hepburn, but some Tracy-Hepburn, too. A juicy, earthy pair, this Beatrice-and-Benedick: a couple of grownups who are so far ahead of the reckless young lovers around them, they’ve forgotten how far behind they’ve fallen in their own self-sabotaged love-lives. Shakespeare furnishes us with plenty of young lovers and a few old ones; but Beatrice and Benedick have history. They’ve screwed each other over once; this is their second bite at the apple. Siff and Cake make that bite count.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

‘Life After Death‘ a haunting Death Row memoir

Life After Death
By Damien Echols
Blue Rider Press
399 pages, $26.95
By Lee Coppola


He was raised dirt-poor in an Arkansas trailer park. As a teenager he was a Goth before that label had been created for young men and women who wore black and sported trench coats. His appearance led juvenile authorities in his small town to believe he took part in satanic worship.

Then three 8-year-old boys were found dead in an Arkansas wooded area, their bodies mutilated. Fingers of suspicion pointed to him, and eventually he and two friends were convicted of the murders.
Damian Echols was 18 when he was sentenced to death. 

His haunting memoir details the troubled life he led before prison, then follows him behind bars and the troubles he faced while waiting to die. He spends little time on the murders, not even bringing them in to the picture until page 219. He was railroaded, he writes, by unscrupulous police and incompetent defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. “We were nothing but poor trailer trash to them, and they thought no one would ever miss us,” he writes. For further insight, he urges readers to view websites devoted to his case.
What makes “Life” special is Echols’ honesty and superb writing. Although he left school after ninth grade, he was a voracious reader and spent his years behind bars and in solitary confinement writing daily in a journal and continuing his reading.

He was distraught, innocent yet facing death in a hellish confinement, so he directed his sorrow and feeling of injustice into written words.

He had professed his innocence to no avail, and it wasn’t until the airing of “Paradise Lost,” an HBO documentary about the case, that the world outside his prison walls paid any attention and the West Memphis Three became a cause celebre. 

He dedicates the book to the woman he married while behind bars, the catalyst for the support, both legal and financial, that eventually forced an embarrassed state to save jurisprudence’s face and free him and his co-defendants. 

Echols pulls no punches in describing the life he spent always walking on concrete floors. “Prison is a freak show,” he tells readers. “I will be your master of ceremonies on a guided tour of this small corner of hell.”
The hell he details has guards prone to assaulting prisoners and destroying their possessions, inmates more suited for an insane asylum than prison and conditions that made even the squalor of his life growing up seem comfortable. Perhaps it inspired eloquence such as this:

“Time spoils quickly in here, and it smells like rotten meat. Every day adds a little more meat, barely noticeable at first, but eventually it can crush you to death. In this place your life can be measured by how long you keep fighting. The ghouls can sense if you have any life behind your eyes, and they move in to extinguish it.”

Or this:

“My exhaustion is beyond bone-deep. It has seeped into my soul, and every day it robs me of a little more of what I once was. Of what I was meant to be. There is no rest here, and there is no life.”

In some respects, “Life” educates readers about how prisoners manage with few amenities inside their locked doors. Many adopt pets – rats, mice, birds, snakes, crickets. Echols explains how, with a little creativity, the cell’s light bulb becomes a stove to heat liquids and even a microwave, if adapted carefully.
The notoriety of his case led to a myriad of legal activity supported by celebrities such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, singer Henry Rollins and actor Johnny Depp. Another documentary, “West of Memphis,” also featured the case.

Echols and his friends were freed after they accepted Arkansas’ offer of an Alford plea, a kind of “I didn’t do it, but I’ll take the plea because you might have enough evidence to convict me.” To Echols, it was his get-out-of-jail card, and he didn’t want to spend four or five more years behind bars as his various appeals continued to wend their way through the court system.

After all, he was a married man, a father to an 18-year-old son born shortly after he was sentenced and had a longing to experience what he could not in prison.

“I miss the rain. I miss standing beneath the sky and looking up at the moon and stars. I miss the wind. I miss cats and dogs. I miss wearing real clothes, having a real toothbrush, using a real pen, drinking iced tea, eating ice cream, and going for walks.”

Although he didn’t mention it in the book, Echols said in an NPR interview that Stephen King’s books were his inspiration as a writer, that he read King’s work over and over and developed an ear for the written word. For that, King deserves gratitude from readers of “Life After Death.”

Former prosecutor Lee Coppola is the retired Dean of St. Bonaventure Unversity’s Jandoli Journalism School and a recent inductee into Buffalo’s Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Anna Piaggi Dead: Karl Lagerfeld's Muse and Bill Cunnigham's Fashion Poet Dies at 81

Vogue Italia's famed fashion writer, Anna Piaggi has passed away Tuesday morning. She died in her Milan home; she was 81. The fashion world mourns the loss of the incredible style icon.

Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, tweeted "23 anni di lavoro insieme, migliaia di D.P. realizzate insieme. Ti ricorderò sempre Anna," which translates to, "23 years of working together, thousands of D.P. carried out together. I will always remember you, Anna." Mr. Mickey of Paper magazine notes that visionaries like Piaggi come around but once a lifetime, "Devastated to hear about the death of fashion legend Anna Piaggi. A genius like that comes along once in a lifetime." He continued, "Thinking about Anna Piaggi's world class fashion looks! Who will pick up the fallen standard??? We all need to kick things up a notch!"

Piaggi was known for her eccentric and colorful double page spreads in Italian Vogue and her bright and outrageous fashion. A front-row staple, Piaggi's inspirations, opinions, and wisdom were crucially influential to fashion insiders and novices alike.

Before becoming a famed journalist, Piaggi worked as a translator for Mondadori, an Italian publishing company. After that brief stint, she went on to become a fashion writer; eventually becoming a top choice writer in the 60s. She wrote for fashion magazines like Vogue Italia, Arianna (one of Italy's first women's magazines), La Settimana Incom, Epoca, Linea Italiana, Annabella, Panorama, and in the 1980s the avante-garde magazine Vanity. The trendsetting Piaggi used a bright red manual Olivetti valentine typewriter to create her work.

Her fashion files are endless. Piaggi reportedly owned 2865 dresses and 265 pairs of shoes. Her taste was excessive, elaborate, and eclectic. If her expression was not illustrated through words they were definitely portrayed through her style. Having such a reputation for also never wearing anything twice, the fashion world regarded her as one of the primary style influencers and icons.

Piaggi served as both friend and muse to many of fashion's greatest leaders including Karl Lagerfeld, whom she has known since the 1970s, Manolo Blahnik, who has dubbed her "The world's last great authority on frocks", and British milliner Stephen Jones.

The late legend will be forever remembered for her massive contributions to fashion journalism and style. New York Times famed sartorial photographer, Bill Cunningham, remembers Piaggi as "a fine poet in clothes." She was definitely something the world lacks of today - an original.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Norman Corwin dead at 101

One of the greatest writers of radio’s golden age, Norman Corwin, has died at age 101. During his long career at CBS Radio Corwin wrote and directed many dramas and earned the title “radio’s poet laureate.”

Corwin went on to write for movies and TV. He also wrote books. But his true love was radio – and in the past couple of decades he returned to writing new radio dramas for NPR.

Having never graduated high school (although he became a university lecturer), Corwin began his work life as a newspaper reporter. He joined CBS 1n 1938 and found his niche, producing radio dramas until 1950.

His TV writing credits ranged from the mini-series “F.D.R.” to “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Falcon Crest.” A 13-episode series titled “Norman Corwin Presents” aired in 1972 on CBC in Canada.

Corwin (pictured in 1973) won two Peabodys, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a DuPont-Columbia award. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1993.

A TV documentary produced in 1996 focused on Corwin’s career and his influence on CBS. Click here to view it.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Music's Top Notch Poet: Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ, is the intellectual conscience of reggae music. Since the early 1970s he has forged a melding of true poetry with roots reggae rhythms, holding to a political perspective honed by long involvement with movements for better living conditions and rights for Black people in England, where he has lived since he was eleven years old. As a university student, writer, editor and musician, his voice and words have been unmistakable - unique within reggae, really. Arguably,LKJ invented dub - or reggae - poetry, and still does it best; he is thus both the premiere and premier exemplar of this singular genre of music.

Starting in 1978, he has released a series of albums which still sound timeless even as they address then-current events in the UK and beyond. Key to LKJ's music is the contribution of the unsurpassed bands he has worked with, most notably and lastingly the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. The arrangements LKJ and Bovell provide to surround his poetry are complex yet driving, with rich horn charts and, more recently, violin and flute flavorings.

So although it might seem ironic for a poet, it's really no wonder that the slogan on LKJ's new website ( is "Putting the Music Back into Reggae." Albums like "Bass Culture,' "Making History," and "More Time" are treasures of stimulating thought, delivered in LKJ's resonant baritone over and within some of the hardest yet most melodic tracks in reggae. The live CD "LKJ in Concert with the Dub Band" captures his career-spanning shows as of the late 1980s, and the two-CD set "Independant Intavenshan" selects from all his work on Island Records from the years 1979-84.

On top of all his recorded work, LKJ has just this year been recognized with a printed collection of his writings published in a most prestigious series by Penguin in the UK. "Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems" is an unprecedented accomplishment for a reggae artist, as LKJ is joined in the series by some of the most revered literary names of modern times.

A serious man, LKJ does not suffer fools gladly, if at all. On stage, his band is disciplined and follows a tightly-paced songlist in a manner reminiscent of tough taskmasters like James Brown. Nor does he seem particularly fond of doing interviews. But once he tests one's mettle and seriousness, as musician or interviewer it seems, he is quite willing to tell about his life and work.

SH: I've read somewhere that you first acquired your love of words from your grandmother, who read the Bible to you when you were very young.

LKJ: Actually it was the other way around - my grandmother was illiterate and as soon as I could read she had me reading the Bible to her. Whenever her spirit was troubled, she liked to hear the sounds of those words, and I too got to like the language.

But you did not really stay involved in that religious tradition...

No, but the Biblical stories were actually part of most children's education in Jamaica. And some particular parts of the Bible, the psalms and proverbs and such, are very poetic.

And you came to London as a child...

Yes, my mother came to England in 1961, and I went to join her in '63. It was a bit of an experience, actually.
In terms of what, racial issues in particular? I heard you were surprised to see a white man sweeping the street.

Yes, that was a bit surprising you know, as in Jamaica one associated all whites with wealth and power, and you'd never have imagined to see that in Kingston.

You seem to have been focused on education from an early age.

My generation was ambitious; we were the children of first-generation immigrants and we wanted to do something with our lives and make something of ourselves. And our parents had expectations of ourselves as well. So while I might not have attended classes as regularly as I should have, I was serious about my education. And after I left school and got married and worked for about 3 years, I went to the university and got a degree in sociology.

What kind of work did you do at that point?

I did several jobs - first some accounting for a tailor, and on the switchboard there during lunch breaks as well. I also worked as a clerical officer in the civil service for a time.

When did you first become politically involved?

By 1970 I was involved in the Black Panther Youth League. This was a different organization than the USA group, but we were inspired by people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and all those guys, and the fact that they were standing up and protecting their community, in a very militant kind of way. We weren't half as militant as they were, but this was my first real introduction to Black literature and history. It was a whole birth of consciousness for me. I was reading Soul on Ice, Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright's work...It was a very exciting time for me.

Those are all African-American writers - was there any equivalent among British writers then?

No, there was absolutely nothing like that. Well, there were some Caribbean writers doing novels set in London, but nothing with the kind of consciousness of those I mentioned.

And you learned yet more from direct experience, such as in prison?

Yes, for example if you saw a Black man being arrested, you at least tried to get their name and address, for example. I tried that in Brixton and was grabbed by some police officers and was racially abused and kicked and thrown to the ground, and then charged with two counts of assault. There was a demonstration outside the police station and I was released within hours. But once the demonstration started they increased the charges to three!

Were you starting to write poetry at this point?

Yes, I published a couple of short books; my first was in 1974. But I might have been doing my first dub poetry performances as early as 1972. People were just getting involved in rasta and I started doing with poetry with them in kind of workshop situations, yunno, and I would improvise words to go over the riddims. And I liked that. At that time I had listened to The Last Poets and heard what they were doing with percussion and street language, and that inspired me too.

How did you first hook up with the Matumbi people and Dennis Bovell?

I first heard of Dennis through Vivian Weathers, my school friend who played some bass on my first couple of albums. He said to me "If you're ever gonna make records, Dennis Bovell is the man." I met Dennis through my work as a freelance journalist for the BBC world service, told him I was interested, and he said "Whenever you're ready."

And so your first recordings were as "Poet and the Roots"?

Yes, I called myself "Poet". Dennis was the engineer, and also played guitar and piano. And John Kpiaye played guitar, and Nick Straker keys, and they've been with me ever since. The original horn section went to UB40, and then we got Steve Gregory, whose been around long before us and played with Van Morrison and many others.

How do you work up your wonderful arrangements - there's really nothing else like them in reggae. Do you start with the words?
I have a bass, and I have words and know what kinda beat I want to have, and I work out the basslines and the chords are based on that. Simple as that. Then I discuss the arrangement with Dennis and we exchange ideas - Dennis usually comes up with the horn lines. And on the last couple albums I decided to bring in violin and flute as well. But it starts with the skeleton of my voice and basslines on a cassette...

So you are a musician as well?

People often don't believe that, but yes. (said with a look of mild exasperation)

Well, they'll have to believe it now as you play bass on on the new dub CD. Anyway, you started on Island Records, and then started your own label. Is that kind of control necessary?

It's hard work, it's just two of us running it, but yes we have control and that's the most important thing. We're doing our entire catalog now, after the Island stuff, which is collected on that 2-CD set titled Independant Intavenshan.

I heard you were unhappy when Island remixed your "Making History" LP for USA release, toning the bass down and so on...

Yeah I still don't know why they did that, it was like they were trying to sabotage the album or something. It was Chris Blackwell's idea, but everyone prefers the original mix.

Well, that happened to Bunny Wailer's classic "Blackheart Man" too so at least you were in good company. Speaking of remixes, back in 1975, you wrote in Race Today when Bob Marley's "Catch a Fire" came out that Marley had become a sellout, by adding rock guitar and so on; you wrote "There is no more dread in Marley's music; the dread has been replaced by howling rock guitar and funky rhythm." 1975 was early to be saying that, altho others, like Lee Perry even, made similar complaints much later in Bob's career. Any reflection on that?

There's nothing to reflect on. That was written from a very "reggae purist" perspective, and I take everything back. I was wrong in the way I was looking at it. Yes, he commercialized reggae in a sense, and it was part of the marketing strategy. But you know, how do you sell good music? Marley was a genius, and he reached a lot of people, right? In hindsight I would say that I was being very cheeky there.

You're not a rasta, at least not obviously. How do you relate to the mainstream of reggae?

Well, Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey are icons to Black people all over, regardless. My position is, I love the music of Burning Spear as much as anyone on earth, yunno? I love Culture, the Gladiators, Toots. They are the backbone of this thing, who keep it going. Others are trying to take advantage and are taking reggae down.

Like who?

Some of those hustler producers, who put out what I call disposable music. I mean, we are living in the era of the ascendancy of the word in music, whether it's hip-hop or whatever, and the words have come to the fore. But it does not have to mean a complete negation of the music. If all you get is a pulse and beat and nothing else, something important is missing.

Alton Ellis (legendary reggae singer - ed) once told me, "There are over 800 instruments in the world and these guys are using just two - drum and bass - and even those are fake."

There you have it. I think reggae in general has suffered from the proliferation of dancehall music, from some guy lining up about 20 deejays to come and talk over one riddim; it's like fast food. They don't stand the test of time.

Like even overnight. Who do you enjoy from today's crop?

I like Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Tony Rebel... but there's room for everybody, and a lot of talented people in that scene, and good luck to them.

Your newest CD, LKJ in Dub Volume 3, includes dubs from your last album plus some new tracks, but no real vocals of course. Are you working on any new reggae poetry?

Not at the moment. I started to work on reggae renditions of some of my favorite poetry from others like T.S. Eliot but could not get copyright clearance on things, so I put it aside. So my next project will be a live album, since it's at least 15 years since the last one.

Will that include new songs?

No, just like my live shows, poems from throughout my career.

Well, I must say, you couldn't be called prolific. New records from you are few and far between. Why is that?

I haven't written anything. I'm not one of these people who get up everyday and say it's time to write a poem. I write when I'm inspired and feel like it. I admire people who work at it on a daily basis but I could never do that. Writing a poem for me is a special experience that does not come on a regular basis; it's almost like magic. And as I get older I find writing even harder, because of the standards I set myself. But I am very active in Europe, still, touring and doing many poetry readings.

Do you still make a distinction between "dub poetry" versus "reggae poetry"?

Not really. I like to see myself as a person who writes verse, full stop. I write verse that aspires towards poetry. I've just been published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, a collection of all my poetry. I'm only the second living poet in that series. So I've joined the Dead Poets' Society.

Who is the other living one?

The Polish poet, Czeslaw Milocz, 91 years old...

A Nobel Prize-winner. That's pretty lofty company. Congratulations.

Thank you. There's also a new German bilingual collection titled "New World Order".

Have you been writing anything about the last year, since September 11th?

Not directly. But it does effect us too in Britain. The threat of war has caused demands that our Parliament debate it so we do not blindly support war. It seems to me that since the Cold War ended, Islam has become the new "communists." We saw an extreme reaction to extreme policies; in no way does that justify it, but it just didn't come out of nowhere. And seeing every Muslim as a potential terrorist is no answer.

You wrote some of your most scathing words about the lives of Blacks in England during the Thatcher regime in the 1980s. Is it any better, or is England still "A Bitch"?

There's been some progress, but yeah, England is still a bitch, with people dying in police custody and cover-ups of that. I'm involved in trying to get justice for that.

How? As some kind of spokesman?

No, they've been trying to make me into some kind of "black spokesperson" but I'm not having it. If they call me I speak. Nobody appointed me leader or anything.

But you might be an appropriate candidate for that, being an educated, intellectual presence, published poet, and so on...

I'm just a thinking person.

OK. And do you think that, as you get older, you get mellower in your views?

Well...I think it would be unnatural not to get a bit mellower with age. But that does not mean that you have abandoned your convictions.


Monday, April 11, 2011

National Poetry Month: Hebrew, Arabic, and Dead Poets

Among the most original contemporary Israeli poets is Almog Behar, a Jerusalemite in his early 30s. His story “Ana Min Al-Yahoud” (“I am one of the Jews”), which won the Haaretz Short Story competition in 2005, in many ways defined his artistic and poetic practice: incorporating the Arabic heritage of his ancestors (who made their way to Israel from Iraq) into his Israeli, Hebrew-speaking purview. The musicality of his work grows not only from the tension in such a union, but also from cultural cross-pollination, and the possibilities this process has to offer.

And so, while the first poem featured today addresses the two languages and the two voices that are in conflict in the poet’s very throat, in the second piece, the undercurrent of Arabic heritage envelops a Jerusalem setting in an organic, wholesome and sweetly nostalgic manner. The third poem, despite its seemingly ominous title, is a more light-hearted, humorous diversion from heavy matters of identity conflict.

Those interested in learning more about Almog’s work, both in poetry and social justice, should read his interview on Words Without Borders.

As part of the Forward’s National Poetry Month celebration, we will be featuring an interview with Almog, along with interviews of six other poets. Stay tuned!