Jimi Hendrix bedroom, Handel Hendrix House, London, England; February 21, 2018
Jimi Hendrix bedroom, Handel Hendrix House, London, England; February 21, 2018
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” is obviously one of the best Christmas songs of all time. It’s a lively tune with a melancholy final verse (oh god that verse), the story of a couple that wonders if they have any good times left, a bittersweet look at the present compared to Christmases past. I sing along every time it comes on, even if that means I’m belting it out in a busy store, and it makes an excellent karaoke duet. But although it’s a perfectly crafted song, not all the words are winners. My mom came up with some alternate lyrics to one line so that you can sing without cringing, and I will now share them with you, my gift to you for this festive season.
Instead of “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy f*ggot,” sing “you scumbag, you fungus, you cheapskate among us.” It scans, it keeps the idea of cheapness and vermin, and you cut out the slur. So go ahead, belt it out and Happy Christmas (your arse).
My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!
The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.
We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.
The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.
The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.
The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen Renton, Shannon MacGregor, Ross McFarlane and Bibi June.
Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.
The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.
I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.
One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.
Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.
Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!
“It’s really hard to watch other musicians, because you tend to — you know, it’s like a painting you want to make straight or whatever. You just hear music like you hear it. It doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t of merit. I just hear music different, that’s all.”
— Prince, on The Arsenio Hall Show, March 5, 2014
And lucky us, we got to eavesdrop on a little bit of how Prince heard music, in the form of all the amazing songs and performances he gave us.
After Prince’s death last year, a whole host of homages sprung up all over the place. In addition to the inevitable concerts and articles and murals, people showed their love in more unusual ways as well. A couple that I came across were based in the Midwest from which Prince came.
Prince is dead. Long live Prince.
The famous cemetery in Paris is Père Lachaise, the largest in the city limits and the final resting place for Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, among others. I didn’t make it out there on my recent trip to Paris, but I did visit Montparnasse Cemetery, which is about a 20-minute walk from Luxembourg Gardens, in the 14th arrondisement. It’s split into neat sections by broad avenues, and the whole thing is surrounded by a tall wall, so it’s a nice little respite from the bustle of the city outside.
My friends and I tried to reconcile the two maps provided, which used different labeling systems, and in the end we managed to visit each of the graves we’d hoped to see. We went through and paid homage to some great artists.
And then I witnessed possibly the most French thing ever: two men drank beers and played Serge Gainsbourg songs next to his grave, the quiet guitar and plaintive accordion echoing through the quiet cemetery on a Friday afternoon.
Ten years to the day before I was born, the album Aladdin Sane was released; David Bowie’s lightning bolt was burned into my soul from the very beginning. When I heard on Monday that Bowie had died, I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant. I’d never even considered the possibility that he might be anything other than immortal.
I went to an impromptu dance party/singalong/wake on Monday night. Bowie was born in Brixton, the London neighborhood I live in, and a few years ago someone painted a mural of Bowie’s face on an alley wall near the Tube. After the news of his death, people turned it into a shrine, leaving flowers, notes, mementos. By the time I arrived at 10pm, the offerings were piled high, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I came across one woman in tears, who asked if she could hug a kindred spirit. I hugged her and told it her it was all right, the Starman had just ascended, which made her smile.
Because of course Bowie was an alien, he told us so himself. He was a starman, an oddity from outer space. He dressed in outlandish costumes and sang of strange worlds. He relished his position as outsider and invited everyone to join him in these new worlds of glam rock, Berlin electro-pop, and all the others.
Granted, after Ziggy Stardust he was wildly popular, hardly an outsider in terms of who was listening to him and how much money he was making. Bowie knew that, and never for a moment was he unaware of his PR or his image. You have to be calculating to be a real star. But as much as he wanted to make money and become known through his image (and what artist wants to remain unknown?), Bowie was also just interested in image creation in its own right. He was hugely into fashion, and how his look and his sound went together. He studied mime, read up on kabuki, hired cutting-edge fashion designers, watched avant garde theater, envisaged elaborate stage shows for his tours. He enjoyed so many aesthetics, and played endlessly with new looks, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, seeing what fit him in certain moods, how he felt like presenting himself at any given time.
For me, when I was growing up as a fat girl in the American Midwest, I tried to say that appearances didn’t matter, that the only thing worth seeing about a person is what’s on the inside. I wanted to forget all about how I looked, what I wore, how I presented myself, because I felt ungainly and undesirable. The more I saw of Bowie’s photos and videos, the more I came to understand that you shouldn’t care what others think of your appearance, but that your appearance should matter to you, for your own enjoyment.
Dress how you feel, wear whatever makes you feel alive. If you feel like a starman, put on that glitter jumpsuit. If you feel like a lounge lizard, bust out the fedora. The idea that you could have fun with what you wore and how you presented to the world excited me, even if it took me a long time after my teenage years to try it out myself.
I often bore people at parties by listing the different Bowie personas I’ve taken on for Halloween: Ziggy Stardust, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (complete with an entourage of Sarah and Hoggle), elder statesman of rock with my boyfriend in drag as Iman. Taking on those personas, which are after all personas that Bowie himself put on, is layering my admiration of him with my desire to mess with gender. It’s also another way for me to perform, and be loud, which I enjoy. When I’m dressed as Bowie, I have a lot of wonderful conversations with people who are also fans. Any time I’m in a Bowie getup, everyone is very friendly; people respond to that joyful expression.
Even better is that I look pretty much nothing like him (I’m always joking that some year I’ll dress all in white and go as the Thin White Duke, just to watch people squirm when they ask who I am). I’m not sure what Bowie would think about my very homemade, very large costumes when he was always so immaculately turned out. I’d like to think he’d say something like, ‘Go on with yer fat self, babe.’
In 2013, the Bowie-authorized David Bowie Is… exhibit opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. My parents immediately bought me a ticket as a birthday present. It was a fascinating exhibit, an integration of sound and vision, as you wore headphones that picked up on Bluetooth signals around the room, so when you were in this area reading about the surprise hit that was “Space Oddity,” you were hearing that, and when you walked over here to read about his influences, John Coltrane’s sax wailed in your ears.
It’s no secret that Bowie’s influences are varied and wide, including German philosophers, Japanese designers, American musicians, British authors, French artists, and many more. He was a voracious learner, and he enjoyed sharing what he’d learned with others. This wide-ranging interest applied to fellow artists as well. He was always seeking out new sounds, and he generously boosted the profile of musicians he enjoyed. He did this throughout his career, at least as recently as singing with Arcade Fire when they were just breaking big.
That’s another aspect to him that some see, that he would just pick at the parts of other artists’ work that he enjoyed and suit it to his own needs. But unlike some artists who cannibalize what they claim to love, I can’t think of any instance of Bowie diminishing what he borrowed from. He approached art and expression with real enthusiasm but also an almost detached air, like an engineer who wants to put things together in various combinations until he finds the one that best does what he wants to do. Bowie took elements of soul, jazz, rock, and pop, and played with those combinations over the course of his 50-year career.
I love that he was so interested in other artists. I know too many musicians and writers who don’t do much listening or reading to others, which means they’re drawing from a very small pool of their own experiences and ideas when they create. Bowie drew from an entire ocean of artists, which is surely one of the reasons we love him so much: his sound is fuller, more complex and interesting, than artists who don’t paddle out of their comfort zone.
Bowie’s songs are all about isolation, loneliness, fear, trying to understand what we’re doing here and trying to connect with others (as he himself has said). Because after all, Bowie wasn’t an alien, he was very human, singing in his sweet, thin tenor about our human hopes and woes. He created art as a way to be in this world, and as a response to it. He wrote, sang, played instruments, danced, acted, choreographed, drew, painted, directed–there was always something to create, a new way to re-order the information in the world, a different key to express himself in.
I have always loved Bowie for the major creative force he was. He approached the world with curiosity, a healthy amount of cynicism, and most beautifully, with joy and love. His songs are all about reaching out to others, and the nearly unbridgeable gap between yourself and any other person in the world, but I never quite got the sense that he considered the task impossible. Even in an absurd and often terrible world, there’s music to be made. So I think that’s what we must do. We must name our fears, we must put them into songs and poems and films, we must share them with one another. If we’re lucky, we’ll find some of that same wonder and tenderness that David Bowie showed us.
Oh no love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone…
Gimme your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful
The actual line in the song is “Hope I die before I get old,” for fuck’s sake. My feelings on this are complicated because of course Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have continued touring well beyond middle age, never mind while in the blush and fury of youth, and some of their later stuff is great, and I loved seeing them in concert in 2002, when they undoubtedly rocked.
But still. This shirt. It’s all the smugness and sellout commercialism of the Boomers in one t-shirt. Burn it to the ground.
Hey, remember when I did this?
I’m a big David Bowie fan, so when my mom saw that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was having a special exhibit approved by the man himself, she knew she’d found my birthday present. It was such an anticipated exhibit that when I looked for tickets in March, all of April, May, and June had sold out. I actually changed some of my plans just so I could be in London for today, July 11, to see this exhibit.
I don’t know all his music well (the Berlin period is one I really want to dive into more), and I don’t like everything he’s done (let’s not ever speak of the “Dancing in the Streets” video), but I find Bowie fascinating. He’s always trying something new, in a combination of original and appropriated ideas that no other musical artist has perfected quite as well, and he makes some damn fine tunes.
I wish you all a Bowie-filled day, whether that means “Suffragette City” or “Heroes” or “Queen Bitch” or “Golden Years” or “Ashes to Ashes” or “The Next Day.” Now I’m off to see how a Gucci-sponsored exhibit called “David Bowie is…” presents the man and the music.
It took a little wheedling, but I convinced my friends that we could postpone our river walk until after we’d visited the Motown Museum. We were in Detroit for a short 48 hours, so every moment counted, and the warm, sunny day beckoned. But after we’d been on the tour and stepped out into the sunlight, we all agreed that we’d made the right decision. Because let me tell you, dearest fellow travelers, the Motown Museum is fantastic.
You can only visit the museum on a tour, which lasts 45 minutes and costs $10. Worth it! About 20 of us gathered in front of a dynamic young woman who explained to us that Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, bought a total of 8 buildings on this residential street (and later a building downtown) in order to house his growing empire. We were standing in one of those, an administrative building, and later on the tour we’d go next door to the white-and-blue two-story that started it all.
We watched a short video full of hit songs and former Motown employees talking about the beginnings of the business. I liked that they confined the interviews to people who talked about their own legacy, rather than outside music critics or even non-Motown artists waxing poetic about the people and sounds that influenced them. There’s enough of that out there, and fair enough, I’m just another white girl who claims Motown music for a big part of her own history. It’s only right that the museum give the airtime to the people who made it all happen.
The legacy that the people in the video were careful to emphasize was that of a “positive sound.” One person said they changed the world with love and respect, “without making a big deal of it.” They “changed hearts with music and hope.” (Of course there was a lot of change going on in the ’60s, and more radical forms of protest were necessary to bring about important reforms, sure. But great music that everyone could come together for was a crucial part of those changes. Don’t knock the power of music.)
After the video, we went upstairs and our guide told us the secret to the Motown sound. She stood under a part of the ceiling that had been cut away, which created an echo effect. She sang some familiar songs–Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes–and had us sing along. Luckily, we were in a boisterous group and everyone sang along loudly. It’s no fun to be on an interactive tour if no one’s going to interact.
We wandered around the gallery upstairs, checking out the photos and gold records on the walls, and the special exhibit on Marvin Gaye, which included some of the outfits he wore on stage. Also, a fedora and white glove donated by Michael Jackson, yes! One wall was plastered with album covers. Our guide told us that when they were first starting out, they were careful not to put the artists’ pictures on the covers (can’t cross over if the white audiences won’t even pick up the record), and then when they were hugely popular their faces were all over those album covers, and then when they were promoting some white artists like Teena Marie, those artists’ faces weren’t on the covers because the label was too well-known for having black artists! What a bizarre world we live in.
After all this, we went downstairs and next door to the original house. Everything was left pretty much just as it was up until Gordy moved the whole operation to LA in 1972 (the tour did gloss over what a loss this was for the beleaguered city of Detroit), so when Gordy’s sister opened up the museum in 1985, a lot of it was already there. The front desk that Martha Reeves answered phones at before graduating from secretary to performer; the candy machine that always had Baby Ruths three in from the right so Stevie Wonder could find his favorite candy; the scrap paper with running card game scores. And in the back: Studio A.
I just about grabbed onto something to keep from fainting when we entered Studio A. I’ve been to a lot of historical sites in my various travels, and some of them hit me hard while others have little impact. This was one of those places that took hold of me right away. Studio A is where all the Motown hits up til 1972 were recorded. For the entire 1960s, it was open pretty much 24 hours a day. The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, not to mention the Funk Brothers and other musicians who made those voices sound as good as they did. They all stood in this small room–a converted garage, which had a dirt floor for the first couple years of recording–and made the music that we all know by heart. It was a little overwhelming.
All the original instruments are in there. The control room still has grooves in the floor from when producers would pound their feet to the beat. A few pictures taken in the room show you how crowded it got with artists, producers, and writers. Our guide led us all in a verse of “My Girl” and had us do the Temptations dance (you know, the snapping your fingers in a swinging motion from side to side, then a little fancy spin if you have it in you). And then boom, it was over, through the gift shop and back out into the sunlight. Into the world that owes a lot to that small house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.