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The Inspiring Steve Forbert Memoir, or Another Great Gift From Romeo: Big City Cat

September 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Big City Cat Cover

Big City Cat Cover

PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?

Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.

Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.

Alive on Arrival

Alive on Arrival


At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.

So his influence on me was something in his performance that I continued to search for a long while and eventually started to grasp one evening while busking in London in the fall of ’77, the following year, and feeling something about how to use the whole body and express through the body and voice the fire of the emotion burning inside the gut. (It would take me many, many more years, even so, to get to any point where I could be in any way satisfied with a feeling of how to reproduce that thing at will.) So it is that I know exactly what Forbert’s eventual manager, Danny Fields, was referring to when he describes in the book what got him interested in the young Forbert:

“I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”

That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.

There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)

Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?

And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”

“I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”

But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:

“Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”

“In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)

But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.

“By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”

Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all

For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.

All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.

And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.

I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.

All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”

And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….

By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.

I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)

What a life!

Seven Weeks Away, but Not Just a Vacation: From Paris to Milan to England to Sicily

July 31, 2018
bradspurgeon

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems hardly possible that it has been exactly seven full weeks since I last posted on this blog. That has to be a record absence for me. It equals one year’s worth of vacation when I was on staff of the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper that worked under the French labor system and so gave us lots of holidays each year. I can say that these last seven weeks have not been a holiday, but the busiest time of the last year – which is the reason I have not been contributing to the blog. So here is a point-by-point recap of the main events of the last seven weeks:

1. Most of early June was spent digging out nearly 20 years’ worth of my piled up papers, paraphernalia and trash from my garage and cave in order to make space for Ornella and her TAC Teatro’s paraphernalia from Italy. Cleaning these places led to many wonderful discoveries, but also some very difficult decisions; among the many relics that I found were three never-before-used Zippo lighters with the aforesaid International Herald Tribune’s marketing department’s effort to publicize the newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. Beautiful objects that I had kept but never once used, I now find use for them, particularly for Ornella and my daughter’s smoking habits….

IHT Zippo lighter

IHT Zippo lighter

I am loving the process of filling these classic lighters with fluid, new flint stones, etc. (I am a little disappointed at how quickly they are losing their paint job, though, as you can see from the photo of this lighter used by Ornella for just one month.) There used to be so much more “process” in the past in our daily lives…. But among the difficult decisions in this vast clean out, was whether I should keep the hundreds of copies of actual newspapers – of the aforementioned IHT – that had the print versions of my articles in them. I had always taken hard copies of the paper home to have a record of the printed work – but I had never had any use for these relics. Now, I found myself with the difficult decision of either throwing them away or else having no further usable space in my storage areas. As I knew that all of the copies existed in microfilm or other electronic form, as well as online in the online archives of The New York Times – many of which copies I also had to decide whether or not to keep – I ultimately decided to throw them all away. It was a heartbreaking moment, but also a feeling of truly moving on into the future. Like the Formula One teams that I had written so much about, I chose to look forward, rather than backwards at personal mementos.

2. Having cleared out these storage spaces, it was time to go on a brief trip to Milan in order to clear out TAC Teatro and prepare the moving van to bring to Paris all of the aforementioned paraphernalia. It was a massively busy and tiring three or four days that also involved very difficult choices. For instance, the most heartbreaking for Ornella was the decision to leave behind the linoleum flooring that she used as the floor of the theater space, and which had come directly from use on the floor of the famous La Scala Opera House, and had, therefore, been danced upon my some very famous performers. But it was just too heavy, massive when rolled up, and required a very good cleaning job, which we had no time for. We nevertheless managed to pack up and transport to Paris two tons of paraphernalia, including seating for at least one hundred spectators, a sound system, a series of spotlights, a piano, keyboard, drum, a workbench table from a famous Italian filmmaker and writer, and countless other items far too long to list here without getting anymore boring than I already risk being. The whole collection of paraphernalia ended up taking two moving vans instead of the original one that had been planned for.

3. We returned to Paris and spent the three or four days waiting for the delivery by finishing the cleanup of the storage space. (Let me note that this was happening in a hot month of June, and with all the dust from the spaces, and the pollen in the air, I wore a face mask nearly full-time to help my breathing.) When the paraphernalia arrived, we then spent two days filling up the storage spaces, but rest easy knowing we can now prepare for the future. It was also very satisfying to have replaced my 20 years’ worth of accumulated crap by this investment in the future of TAC in France.

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

4. No sooner did we catch our breath again, barely able to believe what we had accomplished, than we departed for a quick trip to England, where it was time for some more very satisfying work: The first stop was Nottingham, where I was invited to attend the Second International Colin Wilson Conference in order to do the very first public screening of the interview film that is connected to my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Produced by a British film production company as well as the publisher of my book, Michael Butterworth, and his other company, Savoy Books, and directed by Jay Jones, it consisted of an hour and a half interview of Colin Wilson by me. Although the film was done in 2006, it was never quite finished. I recently decided to ask if I could work on the edit through my company, the perfectly named, “Unfinished Business SAS.” I was given the go-ahead, and prepared first a trailer for the film (below) and then I prepared the film for this private showing for the 55 people attending the three day conference, including the members of Wilson’s family – three of his children, and his wife, Joy. That last name is certainly the right word for me to use as well to describe the entire event, and especially the reception of the film: It was a pure joy!

5. From Nottingham, Ornella and I headed on to the Cotswolds for a brief visit to have a reunion more than 40 years after I met him with the man who created my ventriloquist’s figure, and to whom I brought the suspect in question for a facelift (and a body-lift). But on the way there we had a fabulous, three-hour long meeting and tour of the Renault Formula One factory at Enstone.

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

This fell the day after the team’s home race, the British Grand Prix, and at the end of the series’ horrendously tiring triple-header of races in June/July. Although it was the strangest feeling for me to be in England during the race weekend without attending the race itself, the trip was more than compensated for by both our stay overnight in Oxford – where I played in two different open mics (and can now update my Oxford guide), followed by the trip to see Peter Pullon in the Cotswolds. This aforementioned ventriloquist figure builder has become one of the world’s foremost puppet makers, having created some of Britains most famous figures: Rod Hull’s Emu, Honey Monster, the Hoffmeister Bear, Smash Martians and Keith Harris’s
Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Orville. I am waiting with baited breath the renovation of my figure, whose name is Peter McCabe, and for whom I have some future plans that I will talk about on this blog as they happen. (Peter most recently had a cameo role in my video of my cover song of Mad World, by Tears for Fears.

6. No sooner did we return from England than it was off to Sicily for us and a three-week vacation, during which period I have, nevertheless, been using every available moment to make plans for the future year, and my many projects for my new life in Unfinished Business…. We have been staying in Ornella’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo, and reading on the beach by day, and walking the city streets by night, occasionally finding places to play my guitar and sing. We have done a lot of tourism, as well, which we have posted about copiously on Facebook. The highlights for me have been the visit to Segesta and its ancient Greek temple and above all, its ancient Greek theater.

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina.  ©Brad Spurgeon

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina. ©Brad Spurgeon

The acoustics of this place are astounding – although I’m not sure the plywood floor they chose to use to cover the rock surface of the stage was wise. And the most painful and touching visit was to the site of the 1968 earthquake, which killed more than 900 people and wiped out two towns. The ruins of many of the buildings remain locked in time in the countryside, and one of the towns, Gibellina, is now covered, encased, in a white concrete monument, or work of art, to mark the tragedy. Walking amongst these ruins and the monument, is a deep, difficult, but valuable experience.

7. I almost forgot to mention that in between all of these activities and right at the beginning of the month, we found a space in Paris that we are looking at as a possible future location for TAC and Unfinished Business. But it represents quite an investment, and it required us to make trips to the bank, an accountant, work on a business plan, and generally occupy all of the free time we had between the above activities! (And we have still not finished working on that.)

So as you can see, I have been busy as anything in the last seven weeks. But now I’ve had a moment to record it all in the web log, and I’m glad to have had so many rich experiences to get down here….

David Douglas Duncan, a Great Photographer, and an Equally Great Man, Dies

June 9, 2018
bradspurgeon

Duncan and Picasso

Duncan and Picasso

PARIS – A 102 year old chapter of history ended on Thursday with the death of David Douglas Duncan, one of the world’s greatest photojournalists, a man who had started his career with a photo of the gangster John Dillinger in 1934, before documenting several wars and many iconic historic events, while also making a sideline career of photographing his friend Picasso from 1956 to the artist’s death in the 1970s. It was also the end of a five-year long chapter in my own life, from when I first learned that Duncan was a fan of Formula One racing, read my coverage of the series in the International Herald Tribune and wanted to talk.

Meeting DDD – as he was often called – in 2013 and maintaining a relationship occasionally over the telephone since then was the most satisfying consequence of my 25-year Formula One writing career. It also kept me humble to think that stories I wrote would be read by a man of this stature. But it was learning from the example of the man himself that was the most important aspect of having known DDD.

You might expect a man who had met and photographed Gandhi, dined with Khrushchev, befriended Picasso, and been in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War among countless other jobs and experiences would be somewhat unapproachable, full of himself and perhaps haughty. But I don’t think I ever met a man as humble, genuine, simple in his personal approach to people, and gifted with an ability to make people who met him feel great about themselves. In fact, I was reminded again and again of a quote I had once noted in my youth by G.K. Chesterton: “There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.”

I could not believe my good fortune in having known Duncan. I learned through a common friend in Formula One that he wanted to contact me about a story I had written, which he wanted to use as the preface to a book of photos of Formula One that he had taken off the Monaco Grand Prix on the television. I got in touch at the end of 2012, and found it was a story I had written in 2000, which he still remembered the details of! It turned out also to be the most unexpected revenge – in my mind only – against an editor at the newspaper who had pulled the story from the page before publication, as he thought it was not worthy of the newspaper. (Another editor defended it, and it was published the next day.) I got a copy of the story to DDD, and then with great pride again, I watched as he prepared the book and ran my story as the preface.

David Douglas Duncan Soldier

David Douglas Duncan Soldier

I then went to meet him, and his wife Sheila, at their home near Grasse, in the south of France. While there, I asked him if I could do an interview with him, as just meeting him had given me the idea of running a regular column of interviews with famous Formula One fans. He said I could, and told me just to call when I was ready. He was just days away from turning 97, and quite honestly, I was very worried that at that age, I could lose my opportunity, as he might die any day. In fact, while he walked most of the time with a cane after a broken hip, he was still going around his home up and down a hugely steep and narrow stone staircase with no railing – another reason I feared for the future – and was in fact in such incredible health that, yes, he would go on to live more than five years more.

DDD's first Picasso photo

DDD’s first Picasso photo

I cherished every time we spoke – the last time was in February – even though our typical exchanges would be quite short, as he seemed not to want to intrude! So I was instantly plunged into shock and remorse yesterday when I saw the headline about his death while reading my daily New York Times.

Duncan was truly a great man, and the greatest part was what he gave to others. I recall asking him what his favourite subject to photograph had been in his life, and while I had expected to hear any of the usual things – Picasso, a war, a great leader or the jewels of the Kremlin – he said it had been one of his most beloved dogs. He had even made a book of photos of the dog. It was the genuine response of one of the most genuine people I have ever met.

I am today posting on this blog the interview that I did with Duncan that day in January 2013, and in future I hope to perhaps create a kind of video of his photos and the sound recording of the actual and full interview I did with him, which was at least an hour long. But for the moment, here is the interview with David Douglas Duncan as it appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and New York Times in 2013.

Mike MacDonald, a Natural Born Funny Guy, and a Friend (1955 – 2018)

March 18, 2018
bradspurgeon

Mike MacDonald

Mike MacDonald

PARIS – It was the first time I had invited my high school friend Mike MacDonald to my home in Ottawa, so when the moment we entered the front door we found my mother sitting on the living room floor with a glass of whiskey and tears rolling down her face as she cried while listening to a Cat Stevens album, I was instantly embarrassed.

“What’s going on mom?” I asked, Mike at my side.

“I just discovered your brother’s collection of Cat Stevens records,” she said, clearly slightly drunk. “It’s so beautiful, I didn’t know he listened to this.”

The idea was that she was learning through this musical find that my brother’s tough outer coating – he was a hard fighting football player – had a sensitive, soft inner part to it that while she certainly knew about it, she was now seeing evidence of it that she had not suspected before.

But I was still wondering how this could possibly play out, certain that my mother’s explanation would never be enough to make up for the embarrassment I felt at having Mike’s first meeting my mom being one of alcohol and tears. Yet Mike, still not yet 20 years old, was a natural comic and reader of human situations. And he found the perfect line to diffuse the tension – and potential for worse embarrassment – when he said in a slightly low, disbelieving voice, but one designed to be heard by my mother as well:

“Jeez, if that’s how she reacts when she listens to Cat Stevens, I’d hate to see what she does when she listens to something good!”

My mother broke through her tears with a bit of laughter, and I chuckled as well, and Mike and I went off to my room leaving my mother with her Tea for the Tillerman, a sad situation having been turned into a happy memory for life.

In fact, the last time I was in touch with Mike, by Facebook in January 2016, I reminded him of the moment.

“Thanks for the story–I’m glad it made your mother laugh,” he responded. “Let me know if you’re ever in the Ottawa area–I would love to reminisce and possibly jam maybe–still play the drums…”

Had he heard my music, my voice and songs sometimes drawing comparisons to Cat Stevens (from people who have heard me sing in bars)? Probably. Mike, as far as I can tell during my last 34 years living in the country where he was born as an “army brat” – France – had not changed. Through many of his own hard times, most recently with Hepatitis C leading to a liver transplant in 2013, and treatment for bipolar disorder, Mike had continued to face life with humour as the best antidote to pain.

Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, in Ottawa, Mike MacDonald died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 62, that natural funny man talent he had as a teenager having led him into a career as one of Canada’s top standup comedians. *

We were not best friends, but we were mutual friends of a best friend – John Kricfalusi, who went on to fame as a the creator of the Ren & Stimpy cartoon show – and we spent enough important party nights together, and later some moments during his start in show business at the comedy clubs in Toronto, where I had had my own furtive efforts into “making it,” two or three years prior to him, for me to feel the bonds that true friendship and shared lives and experience never lets slip.

What I remember most about Mike’s show business transition from party comic to national comic was linked precisely to that moment of meeting my mother: Mike was a naturally talented, naturally funny man, but also with a sense of deep empathy. Throughout our years at Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Mike was the funny guy at the parties, entertaining us with air guitar before that term was even known, making jokes, acting strange, and generally be crushingly funny/accurate in his summations of people and situations.

Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi

Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi

As John Kricfalusi put it on his Facebook page today: “It’s a very sad day. One of my best friends from high school, Mike MacDonald has died. We used to sit in our parents’ basements during Ottawa winters and he would entertain us for hours. He could do devastating impressions of every one of us and we would laugh so much that we had tears in our eyes.”
“Mike was Canada’s top standup comedian for years, and he also did intense funny cartoon voices.”
“I will miss Mike. He’s the funniest guy I ever knew.”

When he was voted head boy of Brookfield – or student president, or whatever the role was called – I was astounded. How, I wondered, could a crazy funny party guy like him be voted into a position of responsibility and respect like that, above all the other “serious” candidates? Soon enough, I would understand that it was linked to what came later, both in terms of Mike being a popular guy, as well as in another aspect of his character, something more serious. This was a side of Mike that would also be visible later in life when he would transform himself from heavy drug user to finding religious faith, and using his comedy to help other people in emotional or physical distress.

But it is Mike MacDonald’s transition from head boy to successful standup comic that I want to talk about again: After my early, brief years in show business in Toronto and Ottawa (performing mostly bit-parts, TV commercials, and trying my hand at standup comedy, music open mics and circus) I went on a personal quest of self-discovery in England, Iran and then Africa, returning periodically to Toronto.

At one point during a period in Toronto in the late 70s, I attended one of Mike’s early shows in a bar/restaurant. He was just starting to try out his standup – after careers teaching ballroom dancing, caring for handicapped people, drumming in a government supported band across Canada, and other unrelated things – and I recall attending the show with my uncle, a medical doctor. Mike was not very funny that night, there was very little laughter in the room. My uncle remarked to me afterwards: “That man has a lot of anger inside him. He will never get anywhere as long as he is as angry as that in front of his audience.”

But this Mike was not the Mike I knew – even if the Mike I knew did certainly have anger, and anger was part of what made him funny. The Mike we had seen that night was a Mike who had decided he wanted to be funny, to be a standup comic, to “make it” in show business. Trying to be funny on stage in front of an audience is about a million miles away from being funny either on a stage in front of an audience or amongst friends. I think it took Mike a couple of years of trying to be funny before, eventually, he discovered that if Mike MacDonald simply played Mike MacDonald then it would all come together. Because Mike MacDonald was a very funny man.

When Mike began on stage to become the same Mike who made that comment to my mother, and who regaled us all with his craziness at parties, that is when the comedian was born and began having success.

Why did he never have huge success in the U.S.? He moved to California, he appeared on the David Letterman show, on the Arsenio Hall show, but he never broke out into the bigger, much bigger world of popular culture that his friend Kricfalusi did with Ren & Stimpy, “settling” instead, for a career as a well-known Canadian standup comic. He appeared more than any other comic on the stage of the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, hosted Canada’s Gemini Awards show (Canada’s Emmy Awards), he hosted his own specials on TV, he appeared in some films – one of which was written by Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs of Canada, where Mike (and Jim Carrey) – got his start.

I have no answer as to why he did not enter that higher atmosphere of recognition, or reach more people. Recently, for me, sitting so far away here in Paris, but now with greater access than ever before to what is happening in the North American standup world thanks to Netflix, when I compare some of the performances I have seen of MacDonald to those of many of the comics on Netflix, he is on another level.

I knew of his liver problems, his apparent closeness to death at that time, his battles with bipolar disorder, but when I read the news of his death this morning, I was struck by how we all live with the idea that while the world may be falling apart around us, and people we do not know personally may grow old and die – or die young – somehow we and our friends will carry on into old, old age, never succumbing to the inevitable “before our time.”

Losing Mike is a blow. But reading the comments on his Facebook page and in the media covering his death, I can only feel proud to have known him, and to see how deeply he has touched so many people. If that’s how you reacted to life, Mike, I’d hate to see what goes on now in heaven!

* The news reports and some parts of the internet record give Mike’s birth year as 1954. But his own Facebook page lists it as 1955, and my memory is that he was only about two years older than me, not three or close to 4. So I’m sticking with 1955; he would have turned 63 in June.

The Crazy Mad Video Interview of Yours Truly by Escargot Underground Radio of Paris

March 5, 2018
bradspurgeon

PARIS – Everything you ever wanted to know about my life and music but were afraid to ask – or maybe didn’t really want to know! – is now in a 50-minute video just released on Escargot Underground Radio’s site via YouTube and Escargot’s Facebook page. This was a riot to do, and makes up part of a series of such video interviews that these people are doing – all in French, so watch out! – of musicians that are part of their Escargot Underground open mic world in Paris in the last half decade or so….

If you enjoyed the interview, they will be posting more of them in the coming weeks, so check them out. Or go to the Escargot Web Radio page and give a listen to the people they will be interviewing….

Oh, yes, and they also did this 50-second teaser for the interview which is on the Facebook page, but this is accidentally in English….

Escargot Radio’s Video interview of Brad Spurgeon

Escargot was/is one of the best open mics in Paris, so check out my Thumbnail Guide to Paris open mics also to find out how to attend their open mic nights….

Another Not Review: Three One-Person Shows in Paris, a One Person Quest in Detroit, and a Couple of Readings

February 3, 2018
bradspurgeon

Julien Cottereau

Julien Cottereau

PARIS – At a recent party of a friend in Paris, I met a guy from Detroit who has lived in France for a couple of decades. We started talking about various personal projects, specifically film and theater. He had made a documentary film about a century of his family’s life in Detroit. His wife was playing in a one-woman show in Paris, the director of which also had his own one-person show. The man invited us to see first his wife’s show, then the director’s. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a long string of attending one-person shows, readings, theatrical productions – and film – that would keep me musing for weeks on the meaning of one-person productions on stage, in film, with texts, without texts, the physical versus intellectual and emotional theatrical representation and other profound and less profound thoughts. Let me get to specifics:

The man we met at the party was Steve Faigenbaum, who has had a long and varied career in film and video, but whose recent documentary is his first full-length personal, big production. His wife is Yannick Rocher, a French actress, starring in “La Voix Humaine,” by Jean Cocteau, at the Théâtre de la Contrescarpe. The director of the play is Charles Gonzales, who is starring in his own one-man show in Paris, at the Théâtre de Poche in Montparnasse.

Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel


The idea of comparing these two linked shows was too enticing not to try. So it was that after Rocher’s show we then attended “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel“…and, as you may have realized, this might be called a one-woman show as well… or whatever. (Which set up more strands of musing.)

In between those two shows we saw Steve’s film, “Internal Combustion,” (called “City of Dreams” in France) a story based on his return after 25 years to his home city of Detroit, where he retraces his and his family’s past, but simultaneously tells the history of the city and especially its black and Jewish population. (And, through these, a certain history of the United States itself.) The documentary is in some ways a one-man show, since it focuses on Faigenbaum’s look at his own world where he grew up in Detroit; but it is obviously made thanks to a cast of hundreds, including the crew and the many interview subjects and people of Detroit, dead and alive.

Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion

Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion

As a grand finale to all of this, we went last Saturday night to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see another one-man show, “Imagine-toi,” of Julien Cottereau. One of the reasons we chose to attend this was to have a direct comparison to the other shows: Because it was a performance told entirely through the movements of the body, and not through spoken language. Having said that, it turned out that Cottereau depends hugely for his communicative effects with the audience on sound. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I now want to return to look a little at each of these shows in the order we saw them, and in the spirit of my Not-Reviews.*

Yannick Rocher at the Contrescarpe Takes the Neutral Approach to Cocteau

Yannick Rocher’s “La Voix Humaine,” written by Cocteau, and here directed by Charles Gonzales, was the first of the bunch for us. It was in the small, but very cool Théâtre de la Contrescarpe, off the place de la Contrascarpe (Hemingway called this “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard,” but it has changed since then, going somewhat upscale). The play is about a woman who has ended her relationship with a lover and is reminiscing with him on the telephone, in a call, or a series of calls. It must have been technically an original concept at the time Cocteau wrote it, to use the telephone as a device for a one-person show.

Yannick Rocher

Yannick Rocher


Well, it still stands up today, entirely. The first performance of “La Voix Humaine” was in February 1930, in Paris, at the Comedie Française, starring Berthe Bovy. One of the original aspects of Yannick Rocher’s production are the decision to portray the role in as neutral a manner as possible. Her voice remains mostly neutral throughout. It gives a modern sense of gravitas to the play that the original production does not have in the same way.

Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau

And that leads to the other bit of originality: The use of a recording of the voice of Berthe Bovy in the original production as a kind of backdrop, or dramatic ploy, which makes its “appearance” several times throughout. It’s an interesting concept, that forces the spectator to compare Rocher’s performance with that of Bovy’s. In other words, you have the lines being spoken by the creator of the role, and then you have the same lines being spoken by the actress in front of you, but in a completely different way. That is quite a courageous thing for any actor to dare to do, I would think, being compared simultaneously with the creator of the role. So kudos to Yannick Rocher.

Yannick, I learned later, has done the role elsewhere in recent years, including in the U.S., and she did not do the neutral approach – which fact I found interesting as well, as I thought it must be like trying different ways to sing and play a song I’ve been doing for years in a certain way, and just completely change it. Not easy.

And then we saw Faigenbaum’s Film about Detroit

The story behind Faigenbaum’s film “Internal Combustion,” is fascinating on its own: This is a film all about the city of Detroit and the life of its black and Jewish immigrant population. It is done entirely in English. But it was funded and produced entirely in France. As I indicated, this is a film that might in some ways also be called a one-man show, as Faigenbaum goes on a personal quest back to his hometown and relates his family life through his own words, and above all, those of other family members and local personalities he interviews.

Internal Combustion trailer
But the brilliance of this film is the way the director manages to go from the personal situation into the general one of the history of the city and the life of all of its inhabitants throughout the 20th Century. He charts the movement of the Jewish and black populations, as they move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the social developments. A previously Jewish neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Some neighborhoods then get wiped out for new projects, highways, modern life that leaves no trace of the old, of the past.

Through it all, is a path of integration – or not – and for me it was absorbing to see an historical presentation – along with the family’s point of view – of the race riots of the 1960s, which I was aware of as a child while visiting relatives on the other side of the border, in Windsor, Ontario, putting a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level. But I felt the biggest success of Faigenbaum’s film was that fabulous marriage of the personal with the universal, along with Detroit’s story mirroring that of the U.S. as a whole.

And off we Went to the Théâtre de Poche and the Camille Claudel One-Person Show

After the experience of seeing the one-woman show – although I’m not sure that’s the right term for a play with just one actor or actress – we were curious to see how the director, Charles Gonzales, would act and direct himself in a one-woman show starring himself, a man. For I think in some ways it has to be called a one woman show, his “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel.” Yes, it is a man performing the role of the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and sister to the writer Paul Claudel. But Gonzales is clearly trying to live in the skin of a woman throughout.

Charles Gonzales

Charles Gonzales

Or maybe not so clearly. In any case, the story of Camille Claudel is one that has a particular resonance in France in a way that it does not elsewhere in the world. She feels in some ways like one of the great women heroes of the country, like Joan of Arc. And yet Camille Claudel’s story is not one of any sort of heroism that saves the republic. It is more some kind of tale with which the whole country identifies and feels pity and sorrow for. A sense of collective something!

A highly respected sculptress herself, the lover of Rodin ended up spending the last 30 years of her life in an asylum. And with a 19th Century twist to it, this 20th Century story is one suspected of having a grotesque lack of humanity attached to it on the part of her family – and society. Was she really crazy or just locked up for convenience?

The piece was written by Gonzales and has been performed in various different locations – he has become recognized as something of an expert in Camille Claudel. And as I understand it, he had special access granted to him by the Claudel family to letters and papers, from which he draws for the text.

Rodin

Rodin

Of course, the originality here is that it is a man playing the woman. On the other hand, I don’t know if it was my lack of adeptness in the French language – although I usually consider myself bilingual – but I could not really see anything in the show to indicate WHY a man is playing this role. I saw nothing in the text or stage actions to indicate the purpose. So I assume it is just the passion that Gonzales has for the Camille Claudel story that drove him to this. And it is clear that Gonzales comes to life through this story, and so carries the audience with him.

The Théâtre de Poche was packed, and with about 90 or 100 seats, that’s pretty good for a play that is running for several months a couple of nights a week.

And off we Went to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see Julien Cottereau in his one-man show

There were moments while I watched Julien Cottereau wow the spectators at the Theatre des Mathurins in his show “Imagine-toi,” that I had a feeling of watching one of the comic greats of our time – or any time. I wondered to myself, “What would the other ones, like Charlie Chaplin, or the Buster Keaton, or Mr. Bean or others who use their body to communicate as much – or more – as their words think of Cottereau?”

Julien Cottereau has a long and illustrious career in clowning and circus, including working at the Cirque du Soleil. He has also worked much in film and theater. This show, “Imagine-toi,” was actually first performed in 2006, and for it he was awarded France’s highest award in theater, a Molière. But it is the kind of show that cannot age. Full of visual gags and audience interaction, it remains as fresh today as if it was just created.

But the most important aspect to writing about it here is that where I say this was a show that has no text, no words, a show that depends wholly on visual gags, movement, it is in fact a thoroughly modern show that could not have been performed at the time of Vaudeville when the idea of a modern sound system did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed through most of the 20th century either, as the key to this show’s main effects is the small microphone attached to Julien Cottereau’s head, and into which he makes his noises.

Julien Cottereau in his show
These noises – sounds of bouncing balls, roaring animals, barking dogs, squeaking window cleaning cloths – are also occasionally treated or added to by a sound man at the back of the room, who appears to add reverb or volume and other effects, when needed. So it may be a visual show based on movement and visual gags, but without those popping, bursting, barking, roaring sounds we would just have a mime. Granted, for me this is a mime of a much more dynamic, modern style than the classic Marcel Marceau. Cottereau’s show is just uproariously funny. And I noted that it was enjoyed equally by children, adults and others.

Together, all of these stage productions really got me to thinking about the nature of living theater. What makes a stage production. The importance of movement. The importance of voice. The importance of sound. Emotion. Of text. And, in fact, as it turns out, since seeing these productions we attended in the last couple of days two other shows that were readings of text alone, one of which in a language we could not understand. Seeing a pure “reading” was a perfect counterpoint to provide us with a comparison to the classic stage production and show the utility of memorisation and stage action in holding an audience’s attention.

* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.

A New Edition of Philosopher of Optimism, and a First Look at a Never-Before-Released Video Interview with the Not So “Angry Old Man,” Colin Wilson

November 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

PARIS – It has soon been four years since Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s angry young men of literature in the 1950s, died as a not-so-angry old man – at age 82 on 5 December 2013. The anniversary has provided an impetus for a couple of unfinished projects to finally come to life: A new edition of my interview book with Wilson, called, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, and the release of some excerpts from another interview I did with Wilson in the same year of the book publication, in 2006. For the book, it was time to update the story and write about the rest of Wilson’s life after the interview, as well as to write a new preface in which I talk about the strange way this book about optimism came at the time of my life when I needed that sense more than ever before.

For the film, it made sense for this project that has been hibernating for 11 years, to finally see some daylight. So it is that Excalibur Productions of Yorkshire, in the UK, and Michael Butterworth Books of Manchester, all agreed to release some excerpts from that never-before-seen video interview between Wilson and me. For me personally, it was very strange to see myself 11 years later, in another lifetime, and having survived that dark period. For fans of Wilson’s writing and philosophy of life, it is a great moment to see this extraordinary British writer as if coming back to life.

Wilson, for those of you who do not know him, shot to world fame at the age of 25 in 1956 with the publication of his first book, called “The Outsider.” It was a kind of popular introduction to existentialism in the UK, a study of such outsiders as Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and many others. It came out at the same time and was reviewed at the same time as the playwright John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and the British press decided to label these writers “Angry Young Men.”

Colin Wilson Philosopher of Optimism New Edition and New Interview

The label would be passed on to many other writers of the time, such as Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis and others. Wilson would be no doubt the most prolific of them all, and he was also the one that was ultimately the most difficult to pin down and label as a writer beyond that initial effort. He would write books covering such a diversity of subjects – crime, the occult, philosophy, psychology, biography, fiction and many other things in over a hundred books through his life – that his reception by the critics and the British literary world in general, went through a permanent roller coaster of a ride between respect and reviling him throughout his life.

Few readers of influence ever managed to, if not categorize, then at least understand what he was trying to say through this wide cross-section of works. My interview book with him, based on an interview at his home in 2005 – for a story I wrote about Wilson in the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times – managed somehow to tie together all the disparate parts and make a consistent whole out of Wilson’s oeuvre.

“Wilson’s philosophy of optimism runs like a clear thread through all of his varied works,” is how my book’s publisher, Michael Butterworth Books, puts it. “It is at the very battlefront of the fight against the pessimistic world-view. At its core lie the twin concepts of ‘intentionality’ and the ‘peak experience’, which show us that if we open our eyes and direct perception properly we can use our minds in the most positive sense to bring change to ourselves and to the world about us.”

Not long after the book was published, I was invited by the Excalibur people to interview Wilson on camera. This interview too was a long, wide-ranging one that lasted some two hours in total and touched on just about all aspects of his life and writings. Somehow, for many and varied reasons, the film never got released…until now with these excerpts.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

So I hope you enjoy this “blast from the past” because it is just as pertinent, or even more so, to our chaotic and difficult present….

By the way, although the official publication date of the book is in early December, the book is now available to be ordered either from Amazon (and other such sites) or directly from the web site of Michael Butterworth Books.

And the excerpts from the 2006 interview are in the video linked above. Check it out!

Oh, and before I forget. I think that we are in perhaps the beginning of a new wave of appreciation for Wilson, as I say in my new preface, with most notably the publication last year of the first full-length biography of the writer, called, “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson,” by Gary Lachman.

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