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Jet Boy Flies

by Tom Watson
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David Johansen swung into Babylon on Friday night at Irving Plaza, the dank old Polish Army Veterans headquarters that has stood at 15th Street and Irving Place since 1914 – or about as long, in living memory anyway, as Johansen’s grinning Our Gang mug has looked out over New York audiences with that front stoop familiarity that makes him the living dean of local front men. Johansen turns 58 next week and over the last couple of years has added yet another persona to his long career of poses – the old glam star who put the remnants of the band back together, one more time.

The band is, of course, the New York Dolls, a veteran team where the dead members outnumber the living originals by a score of 4-2 and where the term “creative hiatus” stretched to three decades. Now they’re back on the circuit – three years after their reunion concert and the almost-immediate death thereafter of bassist Arthur Kane from leukemia, and a year removed from the release of the big comeback record One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. In their hour-plus shows these days, Johansen and his lone surviving bandmate, the former taxi driver Syl Sylvain, belt out a tight and pleasant variety of old “hits” – if the Dolls can be said to have had them – and new numbers, which are far better than old fans expected them to be. The new band includes veteran session guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa (formerly of Hanoi Rocks), and drummer Brian Delaney.

But in truth, it’s a David Johansen gig – and, I suspect, an attempt by an artist of some real repute and accomplishment to capture a measure of the historic role for his band and their work that he undoubtedly believes they deserve.

A Life Well-Remembered

by Tom Watson
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Every year, I find myself engrossed in the New York Times Magazine‘s collection of brief epitaphs of Americans, famous and not-so-much, who died during the previous year. But when I pulled the issue from the blue plastic wrapper this morning and thumbed through it, there was a stronger, more personal reaction to one remembrance. Matt Bai’s piece captures Steve Gilliard’s life beautifully, and leans on his contribution to a national discussion from his perch in East Harlem. As readers know, I was a big Gilliard fan – we were acquaintances and occasional correspondents. Steve was generosity personified, generous with links […]

A Loss in the Family

by Tom Watson
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I’m sure newcritics bloggers and readers will join me in sending condolences to one of our regulars. Dennis Perrin, whose sister-in-law was tragically murdered Friday in what seems to have been a random act of violence. His post on the tragedy is here, but I was particularly moved by this excerpt: Whenever tragedies like this happen, the survivors always paint the deceased in bright colors. To be expected and not to be dismissed. But please trust me friends when I tell you that Holly was one of the sweetest, most positive individuals I’ve ever known. Holly faced some serious adversity […]

I’m Not There? – I’m Not There, Man

by Tom Watson
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I'm Not ThereA lengthy and elegant mess of a film, Todd Haynes’ not-so-experimental I’m Not There is nonetheless a beauty of a wreck, a “non-biopic” about Bob Dylan that mainly ignores that facet of Dylan that always hides in plain site when analysts look for meaning in the minstrel poet’s own life – his music.

Oh, there are plenty of songs in it – originals and those recorded by a variety of artists for the inevitable soundtrack. Some interesting choices too. But the story never connects to the songs, the movie’s plot arc of Dylan’s life – told in six intertwined parables with six different actors portraying Dylan-like characters – doesn’t account for the music, for the brilliant synthesis of American music that makes Dylan the most important singer-songwriter of the last half century.

What we get, in amazing photography and some fine performances, is pretty much a glorified and well-shot episode of Behind the Music, the old hackneyed story of every star: the backstory, the self-invention, the rise, the drugs, the women, the fall, the comeback, the discovery of faith…and so on. At the end of it, we’re all wowed by the detail and the ambition of it, but we don’t know any more about Bob Dylan than we did going in – or about ourselves, for that matter.

Westminster Soap Operas: New Labour, Ancient Power

by Tom Watson
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The DealLast summer, another occasional blogger on this site gave me a sterling backstage view of Parliament, a thoroughly enjoyable excursion through wood-lined passages and old stone arches, into robing rooms and vaults and the like. So I was thinking of that very tour as The Deal unfolded on my screen recently – a tight, well-acted bit of British political drama in Westminster that follows the rise and rivalry of a pair of prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their evolution from old Labour back-benchers to New Labour Titans.

The Deal, written and produced by Peter Morgan, came to America via HBO (I Tivo’d it) and was directed by Stephen Frears, who brought us The Queen in all its Mirrenesque splendour (yes, I’ll spell it that way, thank you) and it stars David Morrissey as Brown and Michael Sheen once more as Blair. Indeed, I wondered momentarily if Frears and Sheen filmed it as part of The Queen set-up, the way Peter Jackson did The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one, long shoot.

In the same week, I also watched the conclusion of a bit of mildly entertaining fluff from BBC One called The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, about the unlikely rise of a middle-aged woman from supermarket manager to Number Ten on the back of a purple women’s revolution. It aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, which has really stretched its modifier in recent years – this was no master work. Just a Parliament-based soap opera with a fairly dour, depressive cast. Nothing like the fabulous House of Cards, for instance, a 1990 series that chronicled the rise of a ruthless British conservative to power in a post-Thatcher Britain. The Andrew Davies script of a Michael Dobbs novel was written for Sir Ian Richardson, who inhabited the Shakespearian villain, Francis Urquhart, to a rapacious turn. They don’t do Whitehall like that any more.

Editor’s Note: Updates and Blogathon Notes

by Tom Watson
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I’m still laughing. Or perhaps cackling, chortling or guffawing. Engaged in mirth. And thanks to co-organizers M.A. Peel and Jason Chervokas, newcritics’ first-ever blogathon went off spectacularly last week. I’ve been under the weather, so this note is a bit late – but how great was that blogathon? Great, great posts from some many bloggers here and lots of wonderful links out in greater blogland. M.A. kept the round-up here. And please take another look at these epic posts – an impressive line-up:

The Comedy of The Office: Humor, Familiarity and Ambition

by Tom Watson
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The Office

When it arrived on NBC three years ago, The Office seemed certan to be a soft and slender knock-off of its British ancestor, the riotous and brilliantly cruel Ricky Gervais combination of mockumentary and sitcom set in the non-careerist backwater of Slough, an exurb of London. The UK Office denizens sliced and diced the various British working castes, and made the social climbing and career grasping of David Brent the comic fulcrum of the series.

It was funny just on the writing and the brilliant performances; but it was deadly if you got the inherent British disapproval of social and economic ambition.

Bringing it to America presented problems with the premise. We’re supposed to adore ambition, and reward it with fame and fortune in our media channels. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, the manager of a dismal regional sales operation for a second-rate paper company, was sketched as ambitous, hard-working, sales-oriented, and wiling to do almost anything to succeed. A hero, in the conventional wisdom of the American national character. We’re supposed to love guys like Michael Scott, whose ambition makes our economy grow.

But Michael Scott is a hilarious, pitiable character – the middle manager we ridicule with joy every week – and the conventional wisdom with regard to our societal love for ambition is wrong.

Dirty Streams and Broken Towns: Richard Russo’s Upstate Social Order

by Tom Watson
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Richard Russo

There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s wonderful novel in miniature, The Uncommon Reader, recommended here by Maud Newton, when the royal literary figure in question realizes the joy of discovering a favorite writer has been hiding in plain sight, awaiting only discovery and a hundred or so quiet evenings. A few years ago, I had that delicious immersion in the work of Richard Russo, a famous modern writer whose work I’d lazily ignored since his first novels of the 1980s.

Discovered, the Russo canon became a sprint through the lives of drifters and losers in a string of upstate New York towns, a pleasure-filled reading dash along the broken-down mainstreets of Mohawk and North Bath and Empire Falls. Russo used the economically-depressed real world of upstate to craft his entirely fictional alternate universe, where seemingly minor happenings become major events in the lives of his compelling characters. Some public building was always burning, some love affair was ending, some failed, hard-drinking son was fighting with his failed, alcoholic father. And the mill was always closing down.

Yet these small lives had meaning in Russo’s literary vocabulary; they amounted to nothing, barely a headline or two in the local weeklies and never registered to the fast set in the world capital down the Hudson. But Russo dressed those lives in detail, in connections, in the creation of small societies of men and women. So too do they still matter in Russo’s epic Bridge of Sighs, in many ways his most ambitious novel, which occasionally wanders to New York and Long Island and even Venice – but whose beating heart remains in Thomaston, New York, another failing town where the tannery has poisoned the water and boosted the rate of deadly cancers.

A Beach Is A Place Where a Man Can Feel

by Tom Watson
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QuadropheniaLike Bob Dylan and a few others, Peter Townshend understood the 20th century version of the successful artist, which combined the cultivation of a pop sensibility and the cash it brought with some vein of purity in exploration. As the Who has recycled a long strong of Townshend’s pearls – on TV, in advertising, in compilations, on their latest geezer tour, and in the new biopic Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who which premieres in the U.S. at the Paley Center for Media next week – so to has its master creator continued to explore.

Townshend’s latest rock opera, The Boy Who Heard Music, took shape as a blog, a dissembled convocation of voices brought together online. Earlier this year, Townshend put the algorithm behind the synth opening for Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again online and let musicians (including me) upload pieces of recorded music and get back synthesized loop patterns. The Who made the cash, and a commercial legacy that keeps in giving, but throughout the band’s 20-year dry spell Townshend worked as an artist, and still works into his 60s.

Was Townshend’s best work was in his 20s? Perhaps, like Dylan’s. But he keeps on, like Picasso an aging combination of pop sensibility and persona, continuing to work. Paul McCartney, a comtemporary, wrote his own epitaph, a grand old painter’s evocation of his death. Townshend still flays the guitar and his Internet explorations – at present, silent – have given his work a new flavor, and a direct channel to his audience.

But Townshend’s finest work was his most complete as an artist – and not particularly successful commercially, but it endures. Quadrophenia is the one Who record I still return to year after year; a complete story with recurrent themes, and a fantastic composition and performance. Quadrophenia grows and I grow with it. Into my 40s and Townshend’s 60s, it still feels relentless and lasting.

Live-Blogging Mad Men: the Final Chapter

by Tom Watson
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In October, 1960 in New York, at the annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf – the traditional gathering of politicos and Catholics – Senators Richard Nixon and John Kennedy wore formal white ties and made jokes, as is the custom. Here’s a taste of JFK’s monologue: Cardinal Spellman is the only man so widely respected in American politics that he could bring together amicably, at the same banquet table, for the first time in this campaign, two political leaders who are increasingly apprehensive about the November election [laughter] who have long eyed each other suspiciously, and who have disagreed […]