Everything’s coming up neuroses: surviving quarantine with Ethel Merman

19 May

My younger daughter is a high school senior. Cue the sympathy.

I listen to David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun show on SiriusXM about every week. During his three-hour slot, the lead singer of the New York Dolls and erstwhile actor puts together an exceedingly eclectic mix of everything from classical to calypso to jazz, blues and rock and roll. These programming often has a theme based on the time of year or current events and string together titles and lyrics accordingly. For instance, Mother’s Day may feature Queen’s “Tie Your Mama Down.” Last year’s Halloween show featured Sheldon Allman’s hysterically weird “Children’s Day at the Morgue. Early in the pandemic, the theme seemed to be, frankly, death. By unfortunate coincidence, he featured a Bill Withers tune and John Prine’s “When I Get to Heaven” – and both musicians passed away a few days later.

Since then, I believe Johansen aims to be less doomsday and more resilient. As proof, this week’s show kicked off with Ethel Merman blaring, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the original cast album of Gypsy. I was housecleaning at the time and promptly started lip synching into my Swiffer.

If I am asked to do the Facebook challenge to post the top 10 most influential albums of my life, Gypsy will be one of the first ones up. Debuting in 1959, its brassy score by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is one of the most thrilling in all of Broadway history, much of it due to Merman’s indelible performance as Mama Rose.

In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross, Sondheim said he and his collaborators didn’t believe she could act because of the roles she’d played throughout her career that were essentially an excuse for her to belt one song after another. They wrote “Roses” in the style of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the showstopper from her 1934 hit, Anything Goes, so she could just park and bark. “And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act,” Sondheim admitted.

No kidding. Just listen closely.

The first half of this Act 1 closer is a rousing ego booster from Rose to her shy daughter Louise: “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great!” But as the song progresses, Rose senses that Louise – who she is pressuring to take over the family vaudeville act, now that her sister June ran off to escape her mother’s relentless control – is not up to the task. To convince Louise – and herself – this will work, she tells her:

You can do it. All you need is a hand.
We can do it. Mama is gonna see to it.

Merman falters on “Mama” but recovers quickly to exclaim, “Curtain up!” singing as if her cheerleading had never stopped. Yet she nearly loses it again as she slows slightly, casting around for happy images – sunshine and Santa Claus, bright lights and lollipops – to distract from the panic of likely failure. The orchestration starts to clash against itself, the fear thrumming against the fearlessness, until she hits the final notes, clear and sure as a church bell:

Everything’s coming up roses
For me and for you

This is a chillingly perfect song for moms in quarantine these days. We are trying to hold it together to keep our kids happy and hopeful, despite all we have to manage and all the news to the contrary. We’re aiming to be optimistic when not one damned thing is sure about the future. And no matter what, we are going to get our kids through this, through love, faith and determination.

And music – always music.

See you on the flip side …

Gonna use my style

8 May

For a grown woman, I have an appalling number of rock and roll t-shirts.

Some were given to me as presents by sympathetic friends and family. Some I earned by going to concerts and having enough cash left after the $13 beers to buy swag. A couple came home with me from Nashville after visiting Sun Studios and the Johnny Cash Museum a few years ago. If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I also have four Tom Petty shirts: one a Mother’s day gift from the elder daughter, another a fan club thank-you, a third a 40th anniversary tour keepsake, and the fourth a one-of-a-kind item silk-screened by a friend of mine with a talent for creating wearable art.

They are all now in heavy rotation. Since I was let go from my day job a couple of weeks ago, I am no longer required to dress in that sartorial purgatory, Business Casual. Our office switched to this ill-defined style a couple of years ago after decades of Business Professional attire that required women to wear panty hose (a term I may have to explain to anyone under the age of 45). I still have enough blazers to outfit a prep school glee club and a number of those swoopy sweaters we ladies started wearing due to the fact there is not a single professional, flattering dress or top sold in America that has sleeves.

Now that we’re all pretty much home bound, there is nothing stopping me from cruising through my day in unfortunate athleisure or footie pajamas or an inflatable T-Rex costume, for that matter. (Mark my words: once businesses reopen their doors and slowly bring their employees back on campus after months of working from home, they will have a hard time making the case for any sort of dress code beyond ensuring people are wearing clothing below the waist.)

But when there is business to be done, I want to sharpen up. It puts my head in the right space, and even if I’m not on Zoom, it’s a sign of respect to those I’m on the phone with to take this seriously enough to be decently put together. Still, I want to maintain some personal flair. So when I had my first phone interview for a position today, and I wanted to feel comfortable, confident and a little bit kick-ass, I chose my Chrissie Hynde shirt from her 2014 solo tour:

Perhaps this is where the post-pandemic dress code will end up: Business Cool. Let’s hope so.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. If you do wear a rock-themed shirt on Zoom, remember the other participants will see it as a reverse image … meaning Lana Del Rey reads “yeR leD anaL. (Thank you to my elder daughter for making that mistake so the rest of us don’t have to.)

Road to nowhere: David Byrne and the five stages of grief

29 Apr

This has been quite the week.

After more than twelve years of service – including the recent, relentless marathon of communications work in response to COVID-19 – I am out of a job. Following losses of tens of millions of dollars in just a few weeks, my health care organization cut a significant number of corporate positions to better ensure they will be able to get back to whatever “normal” will look like at some point in the future.

Now I and more than 26 million other Americans are attempting to forge a path into a future we can’t see and certainly don’t understand. For the type-A personalities and workaholics out there, it’s hell on earth.

In March, Harvard Business Review published an article that put a name to the disruption, uncertainty and fear we are collectively experiencing as we cope with life during the pandemic: it’s grief. And the musician who is helping me process this grief is, strangely, David Byrne.

David Byrne is not a warm guy. Especially in his younger days, he came across as Mr. Rogers on Adderal, with ball bearing eyes and a perpetual motion machine of a body. While his music is outright groovy, that’s in contrast to the intellectual detachment of the lyrics. In much of his work – from the Talking Heads to his collaboration with St. Vincent, his Imelda Marcos opera written with Fatboy Slim and his wide range of solo material – he describes an off-kilter world full of uneasy people. A 2018 interview in The Guardian put it well: “Even when he wasn’t singing in character – a psychopath, a televangelist, a domestic terrorist – he had a knack for making the familiar strange and unnerving. Animals, vehicles, buildings, TV, weather, haircuts… everything was seen with alien eyes.”

Who better to help us navigate strange and unnerving times than the guy who implored us to stop making sense?

So here are my five stages of David Byrne, which I hope will help you find your path forward.

DENIAL: “Once In a Lifetime” from Remain in Light
“And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!”

ANGER: “My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)” from The Catherine Wheel
“Well it ain’t my fault, my fault things gone wrong”

BARGAINING: “(Nothing But) Flowers” from Naked
“I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens”

DEPRESSION: “Heaven” from Fear of Music
“Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens”

ACCEPTANCE: “Found a Job” from More Songs about Buildings and Food
“So think about this little scene, apply it to your life
If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

And, as a bonus – the sixth stage of grief:
MEANING: “Road to Nowhere” from Little Creatures
“I’m feeling okay this morning
And you know
We’re on the road to paradise
Here we go, here we go”

See you on the flip side …

Life during wartime

5 Apr

My day job is being the director of internal communications for Michigan’s largest health care company. This means that over the past month, my life has become intertwined, 24/7, with the COVID-19 virus.

I am not a physician, nurse, respiratory therapist or other clinician, all of whom are risking their lives and leaving their families to help others survive. I am blessed to be able to do almost all my work remotely, well away from the hospitals that have been redeploying beds, supplies and staff at lightning speed to fight this pandemic. I am in awe of their dedication, and my heart breaks every time I hear about what they have to go through to ensure they have what they need to take care of patients and themselves. They are at war against an invisible enemy on our behalf, and we’re all in their debt.

For the first time in my career, I feel that what I do helps save lives. In one day, I went from taping a CEO video update for our employees to writing a blurb about a change in sanitary wipes – both equally important. To work with my exceptional internal communications teammates, all of whom have been going full tilt to support our care teams, is an honor and a privilege.

The stress is incessant, though. While our schedule has at last gotten to a point where we do not all have to be on call every day, it’s a rare afternoon, evening or weekend when I don’t have to monitor my email or jump back on my laptop to do something that can’t wait. It’s near impossible to unplug, and the evidence of the pandemic is everywhere. Taking a walk or going for a run, I look ahead to see if I need to swerve more than six feet away from an oncoming pedestrian. Watching late night talk show hosts wrestle with poor video conferencing connections and lack of flattering lighting and makeup is diverting until they have Dr. Anthony Fauci or another expert as a guest. I love having all three kids home for dinner, until I start thinking about why they’re here and not at work, or in New York, or at high school getting ready to graduate.

Even though I know – we all know – this will not last forever, everything right now feels like whistling while walking past a graveyard. When we’re out of this, we’re not sure what we’ll be in, and it’s almost foolish to imagine it. It’s better to keep the next hour of the day in front of you and move through that to the next one as best you can.

There are a few songs that have helped me get through moments of frustration, fatigue and fear. The Rolling Stones catalog, particularly from the Mick Taylor period, have a lot of screamy, brassy anthems that help me blow off steam. I am a sucker for horns, so “Bitch” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” are often on repeat.

I also got hooked on “Sympathy,” one of the songs from Father of The Bride, Vampire Weekend’s most recent album, due to its relentless momentum and a great bass solo at its center:

When I need to let a song take over my brain for a bit, “Chicago” from Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album is a dreamy trip:

But there is one song – my favorite song – that is almost too apt. (It pains me to hear it in a Walmart commercial right now, even though they’re thanking their employees as essential workers.) To me, it represents hope against all odds, no matter how dire the situation. I’m trying to wait to really listen to it until that moment, weeks or months from now, when we can all literally breathe easier.

Here it is, in German, in one of the best uses of the song I’ve seen:

I hope you’ll share the songs that are helping you get through all this. Until then, much love, stay safe, wash your hands, stick to science, and look out for each other.

See you on the flip side …

At the end of the play, you’re another day older

21 Feb


Unlike me at her age, my younger daughter does not want to be a professional actor when she grows up. She’s too interested in too many things to make that a priority. That said, she adored being in her high school’s musicals and plans to audition for shows in college. She loves the camaraderie, the costumes and the commitment to ensuring the audience has as good a time as the performers. This was never more evident than her junior year, when she played the title role in Hello Dolly: eight costume changes, huge production numbers, four sets of lovers coming together by show’s end, lot of color and smiles and red feather headdresses. What a delight!

Then they announced the show for her senior year: Les Misérables — the polar opposite of delightful. It’s an ambitious choice for most professionals, much less high schoolers in an affluent suburb with only a fleeting acquaintance with poverty. What’s more, they decided to give the major roles to girls who hadn’t had a featured part before … and last year’s Dolly Levi was cast as this year’s Whore #2. (“Do you at least get the lyric, ‘Bit of skirt – she’s the one sold her hair’?” I asked hopefully. “No, Mom, that’s Whore #1.”)

For those who need a brush up, the three-hour musical is based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel about justice versus mercy against the backdrop of the unsuccessful 1832 Paris uprising in support of the poor (not the French Revolution — honestly, people, pay attention in world history!). The show debuted in 1985 and took the world by storm, with any number of theater kids belting out “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in their showers for years to come.

However, this show is kind of a hard sell these days. While many are eager to quote Hugo’s message of hope — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” — as the moral of the show, it can also be boiled down to: Don’t dream of love or you’ll end up a dead prostitute/ street waif. Don’t dream of a better future because you and all your friends will die. Don’t fight for your principles because nothing ever changes. And oh, don’t get too fond of anyone because only two main characters are still going to be breathing at the end of the show.

There have also been more parodies and jokes than true fandom lately. That was kind of true when it first debuted. Back in the late 1980s when the wicked parody show Forbidden Broadway was at its best, it had a whole Les Miz medley featuring the actress playing Fantine complaining about the dreariness of the setting after a career of tap dancing in flashy costumes and styled wigs: “There was a time when shows were fun …” The 2012 movie version was derided for casting non-singer Russell Crowe as Javert, and despite Anne Hathaway earning an armful of awards including an Oscar for playing Fantine, the following year was marked by articles like “The Most Annoying Celebrity of 2013,” “Why do people hate Anne Hathaway?” and “Do we really hate Anne Hathaway?

Then there was Diner Lobster:

With all this snark out there, where did that leave this suburban high school production in 2020? Despite weeks of nerve-wracking rehearsals and a bout of flu nearly sidelining Jean Valjean the first weekend, they came through with a solid show infused with a lot of heart. The vast majority of these kids will never suffer the pain, desperation and injustice their characters faced, but there they were by the dozens, sharing the stories of those who were pummeled by life yet kept fighting for their children, their society and the chance that goodness will prevail. The experience of walking in their characters’ boots will stay with them, I am certain.

And, my daughter was a consummate pro, changing from nun to factory worker to hooker and downtrodden Parisian with great aplomb as a featured chorus member. She did what I could never have done in high school: set aside any prideful grousing about what the musical isn’t to focus on what the musical can be: moving, collaborative, and even a bit humbling.

Thankfully, she left the snarkiness to theater professionals like me:

See you on the flip side …

Come back again, and again, and again: Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen

28 Jan

Shh … his Versace has a lot to say
(L.A. Times)

There is a lot of barroom debate among rock and roll fans about the quality of contemporary country music. It’s not that we don’t like country music, we explain patiently over a $12 draft as Buck Owens plays on the Pandora stream; we just don’t like popular country music. As Tom Petty put it, “What they would call country today is sort of like bad rock with a fiddle.”

I cop to the snobbery. For the bulk of my country music library, the older the better. I have a lot more Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than I will ever have Florida Georgia Line. Likewise, I am the only American citizen who has yet to hear a single one of the kabillion remixes of “Old Town Road.”

It’s not a stretch to say I enjoy a lot of alt country artists, because it’s a very convenient category that fits all the acts I like and excludes any I think are too crass or too well known. The list is long: John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Calexico, Uncle Tupelo and the Civil Wars (RIP) are a representative few. They know the aching perfection of a small detail that reveals the whole of heartbreak or the delight of a smartalecky lyric you wish you’d thought of first. And while the vocal styles and quality are just as all over the map as rock and roll, country music allows for a crystalline purity of tone and harmony that just stops me in my tracks.

So it was about time I listened to Brandi Carlile. Last night, she won two Grammys to add to the three she got last year – and thanks to Carlile’s songwriting and production, Tanya Tucker earned her first gold gramophone for the resolute and tender, “Bring My Flowers Now.”

Last week, I finally checked out the debut album by the Highwomen, the supergroup Carlile formed last year with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, with guest vocalists Yola and Sheryl Crow helping them out here and there and Jason Isbell contributing songs and guitar support. The name of the group – and their lead track – come from Jimmy Webb’s song that was famously adopted in the 1980s by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings in their own star-studded project.

With Webb’s blessing and assistance, the song was reframed to tell the stories of women whose spirit lives on even after they died in service to others. As Carlile said in Rolling Stone, “[The Highwaymen’s characters] all died doing things that men do. Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why … We rewrote it with fates that befell women …”

I listened to the song in the dark of my morning commute and couldn’t stop crying. It’s so moving, resolute and fierce – and the harmonies are utterly gorgeous. It hits me hard every time I listen.

The album has a lot of humor in its heart. “Redesigning Women” salutes those who are “Skipping the bread for the butter/ Changing our minds like we change our hair color.” The lyrics of “Loose Change” have the nested cleverness of imagery that country songwriters are famous for:

You don’t see my value
I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday
Instead of rollin’ ’round in your pocket like loose change

And, the cowboys aren’t always the ones getting the girl, either:

Songwriter Harlon Howard famously said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Brandi Carlile and her collaborators are expanding who gets to tell the truth – and drawing me in as a fan eager to listen.

See you on the flip side …

Shot through the heart: Why I have a thing for Hawkeye

5 Aug

Kate Bishop in Hawkeye #9
(Fraction, Aja)

This is pretty much old news – forgive me. Being on vacation and weeks of confounding problems with my home WiFi have prevented me from debriefing San Diego Comic Con a couple of weeks ago.

But, to quote Ruby Rod in The Fifth Element, OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD!

Master producer Kevin Feige’s announcements regarding the MCU’s future are beyond incredible. First on the docket are a number of series extending the stories of several Avengers secondary characters as Disney launches its streaming service, Disney+, this fall. Loki isn’t dead! Winter Soldier will have some time to pal around with Falcon before the latter takes up Cap’s shield! Scarlet Witch and her AI-driven boyfriend Vision will happily co-exist in the 1950s (I think)!

But the best news was about Jeremy Renner’s next gig – starting with the logo:

I have to confess, I am a comics newbie (bordering on poseur). I didn’t grow up reading comic books. The few times I’d get my hands on an odd title, I read it too quickly to appreciate the art and got frustrated for entering in the middle of a story line with no context. I only got interested in Marvel because Robert Downey Jr. knocked the genre sideways in the first Iron Man film in 2008. As the MCU saga continued, I got more and more intrigued, until finally this year, I dipped my toe in the broad, deep pool of source material with the 2012-2015 Hawkeye series written by Matt Fraction and illustrated (mostly) by David Aja.

The lettering of Marvel’s announcement card matches Aja’s distinctive graphic design – and I knew that! (Call me cool or what?)

Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1964, Hawkeye began his career as a reluctant villain but soon became an Avenger, replete with mask and tights. Fraction and Aja brilliantly bring the character into the 21st century by focusing on the daily life of Clint Barton, who is all too human in an industry dominated by super soldiers, aliens and gods. When he jumps off buildings, he breaks bones and ends up in the hospital; in most panels, he’s sporting bandages and bruises from the action a few pages back. He spends a chunk of his ample Avengers salary to keep creeps away from his neighbors in their Bed-Stuy apartment building. He is literally a guy folks want to have a beer with.

Unlike the movie incarnation, here Clint is divorced and has a history with a number of super-women, including Black Widow. One exception is his mentee Kate Bishop, who has filled in for Clint as Hawkeye upon occasion. Young and ambitious, she is probably the most important woman in his life – all the more reason to keep their relationship professional despite an occasional sidelong glance.

The new series will introduce Kate – no word yet on who will play her. Given this photo of Renner exalting before her image from the Fraction/Aja series, it looks like they’ll build in a lot of the comics’ aesthetic and personality – whoo hoo!

What I love about the modern era’s Clint Barton, in print and on the screen, is this: Hawkeye is in on the joke and fully appreciates the ridiculousness of his being an Avenger. Clint states on the first page of the comic, as he falls a dozen stories and hurtles toward a hard landing on a parked car: “I’m an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick and a string from the Paleolithic era.” Or, as Hawkeye told Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”

It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be awesome. And this is so, so awesome!

See you on the flip side …

P.S. As anyone who’s seen a Jeep commercial lately knows, Jeremy Renner has a side gig as a musician. Not my genre at all, but hey, you gotta admit the guy looks happier than he does in most of the Avengers movies.

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