The End of the West End

west end cinema

In recapping my movie-going for 2010, I wrote this:

This year saw the appearance of a new movie outlet, the West End Cinema. Well, sorta new. It’s a fresh venue in a tired old location. When it was the Circle West End 5-7 in the ’70s and ’80s, I purposefully avoided the place. I loved the original West End, which offered a real moviegoing experience. (Saw Repo Man there. Also, John Cusack riding up to the box office on a bicycle.) But the 5-7 was in the basement of an office building and had all the charms that implies. And, though the new West End still has the same tiny theaters and tinier screens (see image above), the new owners are making interesting programming choices that mitigate the less-than-Cinerama experience. And they’re cleverly taking advantage of modern technology. Before a screening of the hysterical and disturbing Four Lions, they played a video that the director made specifically for this screening — and e-mailed to the theater. I think more films should start this way.

And now the West End is closing.

Indeed, the big difference between the West End Cinema and when it was under Circle management was the programming. (And please note, I loved most of the Circle Theaters; the Pedas brothers also ran a great operation. In this instance, they went a theater too far.) There was little point in watching a first-run Hollywood feature on a tiny screen when you could catch it at the Uptown, Avalon, or even a multiplex. And while West End also programmed first-run A pictures, more often it showcased indies, obscure indies, and even local films.

So I came off my high horse and added the West End to my regular filmgoing spots. The new relationship was not not without issues.

When the West End screened a documentary about L.A.’s famed Troubadour nightclub, I was first into the theater — only to be greeted by the menu screen for a Sony Blu-ray player. The screen itself was not all that much larger than the TVs of many of my friends. But I wanted to see the movie in a theater and the West End was the only place to see it.

And the film wasn’t great — I was expecting more on the Troubadour’s legendary owner Doug Weston rather than a tarted up James Taylor/Carole King concert film. But you can’t complain too much about spending time with James Taylor and Carole King.

When the film showed up on PBS two weeks later, I still wasn’t upset. Yes, I could have saved my money, especially as the Troub doc is exactly the type of PBS show you watch on your couch before bedtime. But so what? I got out of the house, had some tasty snacks, and shared an experience with strangers in a darkened room. That last bit sounds kinda dicey. But the West End was always a class joint. And I’ll miss the place.

I knew the end was near when the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square premiered at the West End — and at the same time on Netflix. Hard competing with that.

Fare thee well, Josh Levin and the West End staff.

Peak Bullshit: Getting Herky With Jerky

People, we have reached Peak Bullshit. I present to you this package of Jack Link’s Small Batch Handcrafted* Beef Jerky.

Several things about that: One, “small batch.” Along with “artisinal,” a term of increasing ubiquity and decreasing meaning, if any there ever was. For instance, an entire shopping rack of something professing to be of limited quantity found prominently displayed in one of the largest grocery chains in the country seems a bit of a stretch vis-a-vis small batchness. Further calling this notion of limited availability into question, the company, Jack Links, claims to be the “leading U.S. meat snack brand.” And you know how Americans love their meat snacks. Small batches will just not do.

But “handcrafted”? Before one pictures a lone yet rugged country farm hand tenderly stroking and pulling his sweet tendrils of beef flesh (or whatever; I’ve just made myself ill), please note the asterisk. Which is to say, the product immediately runs away from its own ad claim. However, trying to find the companion asterisk for the expected disclaimer proved suspiciously difficult. But when it was finally found — in nearly invisible ink almost off the package — there was only more confusion: “*Authentically prepared and hand selected.”

What the what? How does one claim relate to the other? An asterisk traditionally means to look for more information or a caveat. Aren’t all foods, nay, all products, authentically prepared? What does authenticity mean when we’re talking about beef jerky? Or is hand selection what qualifies the handcraft boast? Is to merely select something to also craft it? Meaning, somewhere in the factory a hand was involved? Pulled a lever, pointed a finger, flipped a bird? Who knows? Again, picture that lone, loving farm boy craftsman surrounded by his cherished shards of meat. Ah, can you smell the America?

And teriyaki flavor? Jack Links corporate PR says this small handcrafted batch “celebrates the brand’s rich heritage.” The company was founded in the north woods of Wisconsin in the 1880s, while Japan was barely coming out of its seclusion. Where, please, is this longstanding Wisconsin/Japanese flavored-jerky tradition? I’m generally a fan of the teriyaki, but this jerky flavor, however achieved, was not entirely apparent.

But is there really a market for upscale beef jerky? Or, to put it in the current lingo: Are there opportunities in the jerky space?

Perhaps so. My cat likes it.

That Was the Year That Was: 1995

Was going through my storage locker and found my datebook from 1995. I’m pretty sure I have datebooks from even farther back in history, all in boxes that I’ve been paying a monthly fee to keep safe and secure. Almost since 1995. Sigh.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and just tossing this relic out, I opened the pages to see what I was doing 20 years ago.

Rehearsals and gigs, mostly with my oldies band. Some visits to friends in New York City. I reviewed a lot of comedy shows for the Washington Post. And days and days — and a couple solid weeks worth — of video shoots for The Learning Channel show, Neat Stuff. Almost none of which was used. That’s another story.

Here are some highlights, as best I can tell from my horrible handwriting.

Jan. 7
“7:30 Ken Cen.”
I think this was some kind of Latino multi-culti performance art thing I was reviewing for the Post. There were songs about how the word “Hispanic” was insulting. Other than being mostly confused, I enjoyed the show.

Friday, Jan 13.
Jake Johannsen Comedy Cafe.”
For some reason, the Post really liked Jake Johannsen. I was sent to review him three times. I like Jake, too. But it’s no reflection on him to say that finding something fresh to write for that third review was pretty tough.

Jan 22
“Film Pat Rehearse”
My friends Pat, Jeff, and Dick sold a TV show to The Learning Channel, back when that network was actually about learning. I was offered an equity share, which I declined because I thought nobody is gonna buy a show about crazy toy collectors. I was wrong, but they were kind enough to bring me in as one of the players in various skits about collecting, which is how I came to ride in the Weinermobile. So my bucket list is pretty much complete.

Wednesday, Feb 1
“Improv 8:30″
No idea who. Back then, there were several comedy clubs, the Improv being one of the newer spots. And now basically the only comedy club in town.

Feb 10
Jeff Foxworthy Warner Theater”
I do not remember this.

Feb 17
Kevin Meaney Comedy Cafe.”
I do remember this show. Very funny fellow, Mr. Meaney. Whatever happened to him? I do remember the Comedy Cafe, which I kinda liked, even though the layout was ridiculous. Tiny, long, thin room on the third floor of a rowhouse on K Street. The stage was in the middle of the room, facing a mirror on the opposite wall, so performers would be staring at themselves all night. And the ceiling was low enough that acts could reach up and touch the acoustic tiles. The place was much like the Grog & Tankard. But a lot of good comics played there. And after the show, you go down one flight to the strip club. Or so I heard.

Sat March 4
Rich Hall Comedy Cafe.”
Another very funny fellow who dropped out of sight.

Friday March 24
Steven Wright Lisner.”
And yet another singular voice we don’t hear from enough anymore.

March 25
“Howard U”
Not sure what this was.

April 24
“MPAA film 10:30″
No idea what movie I was reviewing, but I will say that the Motion Picture Association of America screening room is a lousy place to watch motion pictures. Irony, eh? No popcorn, no ambiance. Plus, screenings are early in the morning. One reason critics hate so many movies is that they have to endure such crummy presentation.

May 13
“Headliners 8:30.”
Headliners was one of the other comedy clubs in the area. Was it at the Bethesda Holiday Inn? Greenbelt?

May 29 to April 7
“Pat shoot”
Pat is Pat Carroll, the noted cineaste, Travesty Films founder, and co-creator of Neat Stuff. We shot hours of comedy material for Neat Stuff and almost none of it was used. As I said, that’s another story.

August 3
Hoyt Curtin
Interviewed the man who wrote the Flintstones theme song, the Jetsons theme song, the Johnny Quest theme song — all of the great Hanna-Barbera music. Lovely man. Shame on me because I never got around to publishing it. Still have the cassette tape. Must transcribe.

Sept 1-3
“Neat Stuff.
Wasted time.

Sept 29
“Rosie 7pm KenCen.”
Rosie O’Donnell. I was reviewing for the Post and the pressure was on, as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were seated a few rows ahead of me.

October 8
“Write Chappelle”
The Post assigned me to interview Dave Chappelle as the once-local comic was starting to catch fire. Caught his show at the Comedy Cafe, the place where he first got onstage. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, which did not seem to impact his material. After the show, we had a rather rambling conversation in the stairwell. I’m not going to suggest that Mr. Chappelle was totally stoned, but, uh, yeah, Half-Baked.

The day after I turned my piece in, the Style section ran a full feature on the other black comic from D.C., Martin Lawrence, So my piece ran later in the week, trimmed extensively. A not uncommon occurrence when the paper was so large that one desk didn’t seem to know what the others were doing. Once I was assigned to review Lewis Black, another once-local funnyman. I spoke with him on the phone during the day, then found myself seated at the Improv next to a Post reporter who was doing a full profile of the man. As she was a staffer, I knew I was out-ranked. So I enjoyed the show — great seeing Black spew spittle at such close range — and gave her a ride home. My review never ran.

Oct. 27
Bill Maher Improv.”
I had recently read Maher’s funny book, True Story, which is a roman á clef about the comedy boom of the ’80s. After the show, I asked him if he was going to write another. He snorted, saying, “Too much work.”

Saturday, Nov. 4
“Cosby”
This may have been my second Bill Cosby review, at the Kennedy Center. The first was his appearance at GW, just as the first Iraq war began. The second was shortly after his son was killed. Both times, Cosby allowed those elephants in the room to slumber until the very last moment, when he finally offered some of his typical professorial, paternal, Cosby-esque comforting words.

And now…

And now saying his name brings no comfort. On Twitter, Judd Apatow has been leading the charge to bring Cos to justice. (Marc Maron talks with Apatow on his latest WTF podcast and it is absolutely worth a listen.) My former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a brutal essay about Cosby. Coates and my former editor David Carr also chimed in. Along with every damn person on social media.

And I keep getting madder and sadder, at the same time.

I get mad at the people who seem so eager to attack Cosby because unlike them I grew up with the comedian. I don’t feel that they know him like I do. They don’t have the right to judge. It’s easy outrage.

But, uh, thirty-three women….

But I knew Cosby long before he both saved NBC and restored the sitcom format with The Cosby Show. Back when Cosby was merely a comedian, though he was never “merely” a comedian. I go back to elementary school with Bill Cosby. I spent many an afternoon as a kid, sitting on the floor at Scott Miller‘s house, or Mickey Hager‘s house or my own living room, listening and laughing to “Noah,” or “Why Is There Air?” or “Wonderfulness.” Then came I, Spy, which was almost as cool as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was not only one of the funniest people alive, but also the coolest. He hung around the Playboy Mansion, he dug jazz, he had style. He was a champion for the African-American cause, donating millions to Temple University and Spellman College. What’s not to love?

Cosby was a hero, a comedy hero, a role model. Watch him in Jerry Seinfeld‘s film Comedian. Toward the end of the film, Seinfeld makes a pilgrimage to the master and we see Cosby sitting, in very unflattering light, looking like both Buddha and Yoda. Which, in comedy circles, he was.

But apparently he was also a serial rapist of the worst sort. Not that there’s a best sort of rapist, but Cosby seems to have been particularly heinous.

And there is no excuse. Thirty-three women can’t all be wrong. And to admit that is to toss not only Cosby, but so many of my happy childhood memories under the bus. Deep under the bus. Is this how children of criminals feel? “I love you, dad, but you’re a horrible person so stay in jail?” Like I said, mad and sad, but mostly sad.

Anyway, let’s wrap up 1995.

Friday, Dec. 1
Richard Lewis 10:30.”
The late show Friday is notorious among standups as being just the worst. I won’t say Lewis was phoning it in at this Improv show, but he did have lots of legal note pads and kept checking and reading from them. I’ve always enjoyed Lewis and his hyper-neurotic performing style. In 1978, I was in the audience at the Improv in Los Angeles for the taping of Lewis’ cruelly forgotten late-night TV movie, Diary of a Young Comic. (Featuring a terrific theme song by Loudon Wainwright III.) It’s only available as part of a Richard Lewis box set, but I wish it were available on its own.

Writing the standup reviews was a trying task. The shows were usually enjoyable, but the deadlines came quickly after the lights came up. In addition to the pressure of trying to find a couple hundred intelligent words to type, I had to send copy to the desk using ancient dial-up technology. Maybe not even a 14.4 baud modem. The DOS text had to be formatted in a particular way, with indents and double carets at the end: >>. Or maybe: < <. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop and I'd unplug the telephone and plug the line into the computer and call up a strange telecom program, type some codes, and whisk my words away into the aether. The next morning, there was my byline in a great metropolitan daily.

Good times.

Bang the Comedian Gently

I originally wrote this as a short book review for Washington City Paper, but the paper was in the process of being sold, then bankrupted, with various editors—and finally myself—leaving. So the piece got lost in the shuffle and I post it here because I still think it’s an interesting look at the supposed true history of punk rock and standup comedy in Washington, D.C.

The book that started the argument is I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics (Crown, 264 pps. $23.95), co-authored by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. It’s a heartily amusing Whitman’s Sampler of odd, outrageous, and inexplicable human behavior as experienced by traveling comedians. (Jay Leno gettin’ freaky—who knew?) The generally brief anecdotes may be savored piecemeal. Taken as a whole, the book is a horrifyingly hysterical tour of America after hours.

Shydner’s entry stands out, and is what started this investigation into D.C.’s comedy and punk-rock past. Titled “They Weren’t Sedated,” the piece concerns the comedian’s 1978 gig opening for the Ramones at “a big pub off Dupont Circle.” In an phone interview from California, Shydner confirms that the club was the Childe Harold. “I lived right around the corner at 17th & N,” he said. “I really hung out at the Childe Harold a lot.” Shydner was a George Mason student at the time, studying to be a lawyer. That career path veered wildly when Shydner got caught up in D.C.’s comedy boom.

As with the punk explosion in music, standup comedy also freed itself from the hegemony of “professional” show biz in the ’70s. Kids realized you didn’t need a tux and a spot on Ed Sullivan to tell jokes. Shydner credits Saturday Night Live, which began in 1975, with igniting the boom. Because before SNL, “you just didn’t see people your age or close to it doing comedy on TV,” he notes. “You just didn’t see it in a sensibility that you related to. SNL kinda popped it. And everybody starts doing comedy.”

The CBGB’s of D.C. comedy was a tiny dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Anacostia called El Brookman’s. Future comedy stars such as Lewis Black and Rich Hall started there. And before venues dedicated to comedy appeared—places like Garvin’s on Connecticut Ave. and the Comedy Cafe on K Street NW—the eager young jokesters caught the attention of local booking agents seeking low-cost fodder for music shows—someone to fill time while the roadies set up the gear. Thus, the young Shydner’s early work was mostly in rock clubs, opening for bands. Here’s how he describes his Ramones show in I Killed:

“When the room was filled with two hundred people, all smoking and spilling beer, it was possible to experience the sense of death by suffocation with a stale gym towel.”

Shydner paints a very funny picture of an unnamed, coked-up bar manager betting the fledgling comic $100 he wouldn’t last five minutes in front of the overly-excited crowd. “I was not far removed from my high school and college jock mind-set,” Shydner writes, “so I tended to view each performance as an athletic event, a game to be won or lost.” He happily took the bet, and then the stage.

“The audience booed so loud I didn’t even hear my first joke,” Shydner writes. “Seconds later, someone threw a beer in my direction. It didn’t hit me, but there was no time to determine whether it was thrown as a warning or simply to gauge distance, because the next one DID hit me. Once they saw I wouldn’t move and they wouldn’t get tossed, the crowd had themselves a new sport.”

The beer barrage continued, with the plucky Shydner valiantly holding fast for the full five minutes. The manager paid up and one of the Ramones even offered congratulations as the band made its way to the stage: “You’re good man. Fucking good.”

A funny story, and one that contains a certain truth about the life of a performer. Shydner’s portrait of standup-as-gladiator is compelling. “I won the game,” he writes. Much of I Killed chronicles similar experiences, not always victories.

However, I mentioned the anecdote to Washington City Paper‘s former music critic emeritus Mark Jenkins, who instantly snorted that the story couldn’t possibly be true. “It wasn’t a rowdy scene at all,” he insists, further explaining that he was at all three shows that the Ramones played here. “I never saw a comedian open for the Ramones in D.C.,” he says flatly.

Turns out, Jenkins was not only at the Ramones’ first D.C. show, he was instrumental in getting the band booked here.

“This is how it happened,” he says, explaining that he and Howard Wuelfing—a member of such seminal D.C. punk bands as the Nurses and Slickee Boys—were seeking a place to get New York bands to play in D.C. “We went looking for the names of the managers of all these bands, Television, Talking Heads. We said, those bands are fine for the Childe Harold, but you don’t want the Ramones.” But the clubowners wanted a band with an album out and at that point only the Ramones qualified.

Jenkins also puts the Childe Harold show in ’76 or ’77. “It wasn’t that mad any times that I was there,” Jenkins contends, who characterized the group’s act as “performance art.” He recounts how at the same spot in every show, the band would stop. “Then Johnny and Dee Dee would take off their jackets—and then they would start again.”

Jenkins recalls the audience as mostly “curiosity seekers. Not many Ramones fans in the audience, it seemed to me.”

Jenkins’ timeline also has the Ramones graduating from D.C.’s small rooms early, making a Childe Harold gig in ’78 unlikely. “They were in the Warner [Theater] pretty quickly, with the Runaways, ’cause I ran into them at the Burger King at the Greyhound station on New York Avenue before the show,” he remembers.

Over the phone, Wuelfing wracks his brain a moment, then declares, “I don’t remember a comedian at all.” Wuelfing now runs Howlin Wuelf Media, a music PR firm out of Morrisville, Pa.

“I do remember going to maybe all the shows, if not all the shows. And it was pretty well-behaved. My main memory of the show was how big a PA they brought in.” The “huge” sound equipment dwarfed the “teeny” stage. “And there they were, crammed in between these huge, huge PA speakers, with [manager] Danny Fields sitting at a table—when I say right in front of it, I mean with his head was up against the speaker.”

Wuelfing recalls a scene much like the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, England, that inspired the creation of the Smiths, the Fall, Joy Division, etc. “I do remember the folks that wound up being the early D.C. punk scene were all there,” he says.

“To say it was a regular Ramones concert—well, none of us knew what a regular Ramones concert was,” he continues. “Well, I guess I did. Because I’d seen them play at CBGBs in a 15-minute set on a 10-band bill maybe a year before. But, yeah, I don’t remember there being any mayhem of beer-bottle-throwing. And I’m not sure how that could have happened. Because the original punk crowd was kind of an older crowd, for the day. It wasn’t a bunch of 16-year-olds. It was people more in their 20s and kind of on the intellectual side. And seeing the Ramones was a big deal. People were not there to start shit.

“The comedian thing is really throwing me,” Wuelfing says.

After more brain-wracking, Wuelfing becomes more convinced that Shydner’s story is wrong. “It sounds great, getting bottled off the stage at a Ramones show,” he says. “It’s what you’d expect. Because it’s in keeping with the punk mythology that arose down the line, but was kind of not like what it was. The whole idea of there being punk violence came around when you had kids, teenagers, getting into it. The guys like Minor Threat—not that Minor Threat were like that, but a lot of the dumber kids in that scene. Like the guys in Iron Cross and stuff. As more dopey people showed up at punk shows, the jocks and stuff like that.

“But the first batch of punk-rock people were music freaks and they tended to be smart from what I saw,” he continues. “And they just didn’t misbehave. The people who started misbehaving were people like fucking Henry Rollins. I don’t mean that facetiously; that’s what he did. He was a pain in the ass. ‘Cause he would get these places closed down. When [punk music venues] would open in Georgetown, he’d be in there and some off-duty Marine would make some crack or punch some kid, and notoriously Henry was the first to go in wailing. Which is really funny because now you hear [Rollins say], ‘Oh, yeah, it was tough being a punk kid and the Marines would come after us.’ Dude—yeah, good story. That’s not what was going on. He was the one who was doing it.”

Wuelfing also recalls the difficulty the early D.C. punks had in creating and maintaining any kind of scene, calling it “a pretty tentative thing.” Once a venue agreed to host a show, “the last thing people would want to do is start shit,” he says. “Because there you go—there’s a venue down. People wanted to see music. Nobody’s gonna go and throw a bottle at a stuffy place like the fucking Childe Harold and put that in jeopardy.”

Wuelfing suggests that Shydner is “misremembering.” The bottle-throwing scenario sounds to him more like a Bayou gig, the Bayou being the storied Georgetown waterfront club that closed in 1998 after nearly 60 years of hosting everyone from U2‘s first U.S. gig to frat-rock jam bands. “That strikes me as that would be more logical,” says Wuelfing, who characterizes the Bayou crowd as “It’s Friday night, let’s go out. Hey, we’re at a punk rock show, we’re punk rockers, let’s throw beer bottles at the comedian.” And I’m saying that kinda facetiously, but at the same time trying to recall the zeitgeist then and who acted like what. That’s a much more logical scenario. And it’s a long time ago, it could be that the guy is conflating a couple memories. Which is what you do when you make movies or write [books].

For his part, Shydner laughs off the complaints. “I was there that night,” he insists from outside an LA hospital where he’s taken his daughter for a checkup. (“Nothing serious.”) “I have a buddy who was there that night who had to walk me home.”

Shydner also discounts the idea that the show was actually at the Bayou. “I opened up for a lot of people at the Bayou,” he says. “I have a story about opening up for Rick Danko there.” (Shydner later sends the story, which is also quite funny and may wind up in a second edition of I Killed.)

Shydner will admit that the Ramones gig may not be “the absolute first time they came to town,” but insists that the crowd was not sitting quietly. “I never saw any show [at the Childe Harold] where they sat quietly. It’s not a symposium hall, it’s a little bar.”

And it was definitely the Childe Harold, of this Shydner is certain.

“I don’t know what [Jenkins and Wuelfing] saw, man, but I got crushed before I got up there,” he laughs. “Believe me, they would have remembered my show. They might have sat back down after they doused me. Trust me, they would have remembered my show. Sitting there quietly at a punk show—that’s hilarious.”

So, a stalemate of memories. Maybe it was the Bayou. Maybe it wasn’t the Ramones. Truth becomes slippery over time. And a comedian’s job is to tell stories that aren’t technically true. But there is truth within the jokes. And sometimes the truth hurts. Like a bottle to the head.

Free for All Watch, Week 2: Feeling Groovy

I get results!

Just one week after launching my Free for All Watch, dissecting the many gripes of the Washington Post‘s Grumpy Old Man page, the public has spoken. Or typed.

This week, Oct. 18, there were three — count them, three! — positive letters for the paper, an unheard of level of generosity in the two weeks I’ve been officially taking note. One letter saluting Michel Du Cille for his photograph, another lauding a front page map, and a third thanking writer Martin Weill for his light-hearted zoo story.

Now that’s three out of 13 letters, but this could be a trend. Or, to phrase it in current headline-writing fashion: Could this be a trend? (See also Twitter’s SavedYouAClick for a welcome antidote for such link-bait question-mark headlines.)

scott butterworth retweet

And speaking of Twitter, Post editorial page editor Scott Butterworth re-tweeted my inaugural Free for All Watch column, which I am taking as proof positive that my brave work is finally being heeded. While the editors did not choose to run any letter similar to the one I predicted would appear (and really, how could they?), I remain convinced that I am the power behind this week’s outpouring of love and good will for D.C.’s paper of record.

You’re welcome.

Washington Post Free For All Watch

My Saturday morning breakfast ritual is to turn to the Free for All page in the back of the A section of the Washington Post and fill up on righteous indignation along with my English muffins. Free for All is an entire newspaper page devoted to letters to the editor, almost all of them ranting about the many failures of the daily paper. I call it the Grumpy Old Man page, though women are equally represented among the aggrieved.

As a grumpy old man, my name has appeared on the Free For All page with sad regularity. I rose to defend the honor of Alfred E Neuman, nit-picked sloppy illustration for a design story in the Local Living section, and complained about bicycle regulations, among other vitally important issues. That level of pedantry is not out of place on Free for All. Basically, the editors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on any and every topic.

Thus, I am something of an expert at spotting what will get a rise out of Post readers. One of the most common types of Free for All letter is the complaint about what does or doesn’t appear on A1. In this inaugural post for the series, I will predict next week’s Free for All. You will surely be reading something along the lines of this:

Dear Editor,

What possessed you to waste precious space on the front page of the newspaper with what is for all intents and purposes an advertisement for a Hollywood movie? [“For real-life Alexander, the days are pretty good,” A1, Oct. 11.] Even to the point of using not one but two stills from the film as illustration!

How very nice for Alexander Viorst that his mother wrote a book about him (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), and that it has now been turned into a big-budget Steve Carell movie. But such stories, if they must appear at all, should be relegated to the Style section and not the front page of what used to be a great national newspaper.

Grumpy Old Man, Silver Spring

P.S.: You also misspelled the name of the movie’s co-star. It is Jennifer Garner, not Gardner. She is the wife of Ben Affleck, Mrs. Batman, for heaven’s sake!

Give the Drummer Some

Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer
By Mike Lankford
Chronicle, 264 pp., $22.95

This is an unexpected pleasure—a book about musicians that concentrates on what it means to play music and not on the tragic consequences of twisted genius or the cruel wages of fame. There is nothing about the recording industry, no tales of hotel rooms petulantly trashed in Mike Lankford‘s Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer. Lankford was carefully watching the crowds who were watching him and has written as authentic a report from the bandstand as I’ve come across. Who would suspect such insights from a guy who smacked things with sticks for a living?

Though the book does indeed go into depth on the subject of drums and drumming (and is therefore a must for any percussionist), Lankford makes his personal obsession charmingly accessible. If you’ve never considered playing an instrument, his wry and perceptive storytelling will at least let you understand “the tribal joy of breathing with others and seeing the results magnified.”

life in double time mike lankford

Born in 1951, Lankford belongs to a generation of musicians for whom craft was as important a guiding principle as art—often more so. As improbable as it sounds, the highest compliment you could pay to a high-school band in the ’60s was that it sounded “just like the record.” A pimply 16-year-old kid could count on plenty of girl reaction if his onstage Mick Jagger impression was deemed “authentic.” Many a white suburban Otis Redding found out what r-e-s-p-e-c-t meant, too. Believe it or not.

In this post-punk world, one can become a musician by the sheer act of proclaiming it so. The punk revolution so thoroughly tore down the wall between stage and audience that now it’s not how well you play, it’s that you play that counts. If you are in the know, you are in the band. Fiddle with an instrument until it produces enough sound for your purposes, and count on getting booked into a club to perform. Craft is not the issue it once was.

Which makes Lankford’s book almost an archaeological report—from the distance of 30 years. None of the many bands that Lankford played with wrote an original song. That wasn’t their purpose. The point was to play a variety of music together and to play with precision. By that standard was satisfaction judged. When a musician isn’t offering much that is obviously new, but is lost, as Lankford puts it, “so deep inside a tune, it became like four walls around me,” critics not unreasonably dismiss the result as “mere” musicianship, selfish expression.

But when the band is on, locked in the pocket, a willing audience will respond and join in the fervor. This was Lankford’s goal each night when he picked up his sticks: to connect with the beat and his bandmates until they found that “special something that puts a twirl in a girl’s skirt.”

Double Time is filled with charming observations, as Lankford describes his development from geeky gawker at the teen club—paying closer attention to the stage setup of bands like “Dewayne and the Belldettas” than to the girls—to accomplished journeyman. When the drum bug fully hit, “melody ceased to exist for me,” he writes. On his first exhibiting drummer tendencies—while listening to a song on the car radio—his mother was so startled she drove home and took his temperature. “That was the start of my becoming a suspicious person,” he notes.

Lankford nicely charts the dynamics within the high-school music community—a fragile hierarchy where a fortuitous solo at a jam session can solidify a reputation. For a week. Lankford and his fellow fledgling musicians also confront “the girlfriend factor”—the irony that guys start bands to meet girls, but that, once met, girls have a tendency to “complicate things” to the point where bands fall apart. Some may wish to dismiss the Yoko Paradigm as sexist twaddle, but all my experience confirms Lankford’s. Then again, as he admits, “nothing is as unstable as a band.”

The meat of the book begins in the early ’70s, when fresh-faced 20-year-old Lankford answers a blind phone call and finds himself sitting in with the group Salt & Pepper. He becomes the “salt” in a trio that includes two middle-aged black veterans from Chicago, Vince and Dennis. (Why they didn’t just change the band name instead of always insisting on hiring white drummers is not explained.) Dennis operates a Hammond B-3—that singular-sounding furniture-size keyboard that underscores so much of rock, R&B, and jazz—playing bass parts with attached pedals. Vince is an apparently inspired guitarist.

After the first week, the trio packs the van and drives immediately to the next gig, 1,200 miles away, nonstop. Lankford spends the next three years on the road with Salt & Pepper, playing six nights a week, every week of the year. There are no vacations.

Vince and Dennis had played together 30 years by the time Lankford joined and seemingly knew every tune ever written. To their young protégé, life on the road was an exciting adventure. The elder duo had a handyman’s approach to music: It’s a skill with which to earn money. So they spread their talent as broadly as possible. In some clubs, Salt & Pepper was a soul band, in others a rock band, in others a country band, and in certain swanky hotels, a mellow jazz group.

Lankford, on the other hand, was carried away by the “idea” of the road: “Without an idea you just got a van and equipment and a couple of weird guys in front and a job you’re driving to. This was different. After a gig we wouldn’t go home but drive to some place else, and then some place else. An endless string of some place elses.” The most important thing about going on the road, he writes, “is that you go and stay on the road. It has to be open ended or you’re missing the flavor.”

One of those flavors was heroin. Lankford tried it, once.

The not-unexpected reason why Vince never completely traded on his talent was his fondness for drugs. That was also why Dennis kept the band booked 365 days: idle veins, etc.

Lankford is curiously blasé about his decision to sample. He professes to hate needles, but he didn’t just say no when offered the chance. Equating the drug’s effect with “slipping into angel skin,” Lankford makes a strong case for the complexity of the drug issue. That night the band’s performance was particularly inspired—Lankford claims to have experienced an epiphany about keeping time. Addiction is not just a moral weakness, he contends, noting that “the danger with heroin lies in waking up that one taste bud you didn’t know you had.” Lankford was aware enough to recognize a lesson and move on.

Claiming immunity to stage fright, Lankford relates clear-eyed accounts of performing in places that should have scared him. He witnessed murders, nearly got stabbed, and was branded with a white-hot coat hanger. Lankford’s account of van-club-hotel, van-club-hotel—with gas-station rest stops and diners in between—is exhaustingly exhilarating.

Ultimately, the grind took its toll, and Lankford said goodbye to Vince, Dennis, and the road. When he left Salt & Pepper, Lankford abandoned music completely, to the point where he claims to have virtually stopped listening to it or seeking it out in clubs.

While Lankford’s notes from the stage are engagingly specific, the “confessions” part of the book’s title is a bit misleading. We have no idea what he did in the 15 years he wasn’t playing music, nor what he does now. Press materials mention that he’s a graduate of the Iowa State writer’s program, which shows.

As Mick and Keith have demonstrated, giving up rock and roll is difficult. Eventually, Lankford’s now-middle-aged friends talked him into joining a weekend group. Slowly, reluctantly, he found his way back into music.

At first he scorned his contemporaries for “pretending” to make music. But finally, timekeeper Lankford came to a deeper understanding of the nature of time—that life is to be savored moment to moment, not with an eye to the set list. Playing music is a great way to spend time. And there’s only one reason to play: for the hell of it.

So the next time you’re at some wedding, don’t laugh too hard at the band. They may be having more fun than you.

Rock & Roll Will Never Die — If The Fabulous Hubcaps Have Anything To Say About It.

hubcaps washington post

My piece on the Fabulous Hubcaps takes over most of the front page of the Washington Post Style section today. The assignment called for 1,200 words. I wound up with nearly 13,000 transcribed words. So I think I undersold the piece. Coulda been a magazine feature, ’cause there was sooo much fascinating, fun, and relevant info that did not make the cut. I will say that I’m glad to be able to use the serial comma again. Also, when will publications stop putting a K in the abbreviation of microphone? It’s mic, not mike. Mike is a person.

But these are personal peeves and not aimed at any of the fine staffers and friends at the Post. Go, newspapers!