Wine 102

January 31, 2022

Just over a year ago I told you about WINE SIMPLE by Aldo Sohm, the clearest and most enjoyable introduction to wine appreciation that I’ve ever encountered. Now I’ve found a book that takes the subject one step farther and gets you ready for a second semester. Like the Sohm before it, this will make Wine 102 an easy A.

THE RIVER CAFÉ WINE PRIMER was published 22 years ago during Joseph DeLissio’s 43-year career as wine director of the River Café, that elegant spot next to the Brooklyn Bridge that looks back across the river to lower Manhattan. At night the view is especially breathtaking; it’s the shot you would open with in a movie about New York. (If you’re lucky enough to land a table at the window, get used to the peculiar feeling that most of the other diners are looking at you. Their focus is actually elsewhere.) We’ve always used the place for special occasions; our visits are rare and precious.

Mr. DeLissio managed the River Café’s wine program from 1977 until his retirement in the summer of 2020. In that hefty span, he saw the wine world grow and change (when he started, many customers still thought California wine was a joke), and this book is a relic from about halfway through his tenure. But it is not about trends or fickle fashion. The wisdom in the book’s slim but packed 250 pages is as true today as when it was first written down. It is ideal for a reader whose interest in wine has already been piqued and wants to learn more but avoid falling down a rabbit hole of arcane minutiae. The writing is clear and crisp and requires no prior knowledge of its subject.

What makes it sing is the casual way the author imparts knowledge in passing: there’s no “This is a grape. This is a vine.” The information you need comes at the moment you need it, even when Mr. DeLissio guides you to some unfamiliar places, such as a wine auction. (No, you don’t have to be super-rich to find an auction worthwhile, so long as you prepare properly.) The section on dealing with a restaurant wine list — the author’s specialty, after all — is the most comprehensive and helpful guide I’ve read yet. Discussions of a typical year in the vineyard and the ten stages of winemaking after harvest help us understand the science, art, and human effort behind the production of fine wine. 

Finally, the second half of the book is devoted to a common-sense overview of selected wine regions worldwide. Here is the spot where some might say the book shows its age. Though an earlier tour through the various grape varietals (with pronunciation guides!) could appear word for word in a current wine book, what has happened since 2000 is an acceleration of the democratization of wine. There is superb wine also being produced in areas where the industry was less developed at the millennium, so there are key spots omitted. But as the author points out, “Each country is steeped in its own winemaking traditions, wines, and history, and each deserves its own chapter. But in writing any entry-level book, one has to observe some limits, and a book on wine is no different. I have simply tried to provide the information I felt was essential for the wine novice.”

This is the rare volume that not only serves as a pleasant informal read but also has great utility as a reference book. I’m putting it right beside WINE SIMPLE on my shelf and plan to take sips from them both for a long time to come.

G, Whiz

December 29, 2021

In 1966, when a ten-year-old Seattle lad named Kenneth Gorelick first picked up an alto saxophone, he was one of many promising kids with an ear. Talented, sure, but no genius. It took him two tries to make his high school jazz band. But he maintained a steely resolve, he studied and played, studied and played, and kept on playing, and now he’s the best-selling instrumental recording artist of all time. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve heard him.

Penny Lane, who directed one of my all-time-favorite documentaries, HAIL SATAN? (2019), specializes in an ironic detachment that refuses to lead you by the hand to a judgment or conclusion. That potential for deliberate dichotomy surely helped inspire the choice of subject for her new HBO doc, because anybody who pays attention to pop music knows that for more than a quarter century, it’s been hip to hate Kenny G.

That’s how long this squiggly-haired aural crooner (mostly on soprano sax) has been the apotheosis of a genre — and popular Nineties-Oughts radio format — called “smooth jazz.” To many jazz aficionados, the very term is an affront. “Real” jazz is challenging and impatient and built on trailblazing improvisation. Smooth jazz is soothing, trusting, reassuring. Jazz is foreground. Smooth is background. Raw versus buffed. Savage versus safe. Music versus Muzak. 

Quite a few jazz critics tear into that smooth sound on camera in Lane’s LISTENING TO KENNY G. (“A corporate attempt to soothe my nerves,” says Ben Ratliff.) Their distaste is so palpable that we want to hear from the other side, and after 75 million records there’s got to be one. Thus the yin and yang of our film.

Kenny G emerges, deliberately or not (though he had no editorial control over this project), as a cheerful but driven guy who’s secure enough to let this stuff roll off his back. In WAYNE’S WORLD 2 (1993), just the mention of the name forces Dana Carvey’s heavy-metal headbanger Garth Algar into imagining the torture of having his teeth cleaned in the middle of a Kenny G concert. So how did Kenny G respond? “I thought it was somewhat funny,” he told a reporter at the time. “I think it would have been better if they had me in the movie. But they never called me.” After watching Lane’s film, one would expect such a reaction.

He is completely immersed in his roll-up-the-sleeves ethic. He knows that he got where he is through hard work. He says he loves the process of creating music. In the film he goes back to his high school as a local boy made good and a beloved band instructor asks him to sign a hall display. Kenny G ponders for a moment and writes, “Practice, practice, practice!”

Many people who devote themselves to becoming this accomplished at something tend toward a kind of tunnel vision: it can be all they ever think about. Kenny G’s interests are wider-ranging than you might guess. The same year he first honked on a sax, he also picked up a golf club and fell in love with the sport. He became a near-scratch golfer, #1 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 In Music handicap list in 2006 and #2 in 2008. He is an aircraft pilot who flies his own seaplane regularly. While already playing professionally, this whiz kid graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in Accounting. Oh, yeah: he was also an early investor in Starbucks. 

Okay, grrr, but seriously: why the heck does Kenny G just annoy some people? Fame and money, maybe, but we don’t begrudge everyone who becomes wildly popular. I think it starts with snobbery, with which jazz purists in particular are blessed in abundance. There’s a canon, there are deities, and arcane knowledge is prized over all. How can this guy appeal to so many while standing in the shadows of far worthier giants? (Sometimes literally, as when he recorded “What A Wonderful World” and overdubbed Louis Armstrong’s classic recording of the same song.) Kenny G must be the lowest common denominator — and the ardor of his fans, clueless about jazz, is nothing more than the kind one might have for a juggler. He’s appropriating and cheapening the jazz idiom. Holding long notes and playing fast runs as needed to tickle an audience is just glitter and shallow showmanship.

Sometimes Kenny G sets himself up for abuse. Take those long notes. Many great wind musicians have mastered the “circular breathing” technique to produce a continuous tone by taking in air through the nose while blowing out. You must have this down to play, for example, the didgeridoo. Circular breathing is vital to the sound of jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Maynard Ferguson, even the legendary mouth-harp player Paul Butterfield. Kenny G got really good at it. But good was not enough, so he decided to establish the world record, and one day in 1997 in a New York music store he held an E-flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds. This feat made the Guinness book; it took three years for somebody to break Kenny’s inaugural record. The stunt also showed that the artist is serious about his work, less so about himself. (“I know for a fact that if I cut my hair my career will go right down the toilet.”) Jazzbos were scandalized, the few G-fans who even cared were only amused.

Instrumentalists don’t depend upon language, so Kenny G’s music sounds the same worldwide. But it also lives in an unique place deep inside the Chinese psyche. In 1989, some businesses started playing his wistful, elegiac “Going Home” over the P.A. just before closing at night, and the practice spread throughout the country. At malls, train stations, markets, food courts, even on tv stations at signoff, “Going Home” has become China’s unofficial national closing song — time to finish your business and end the day — and so ubiquitous that millions recognize the melody even if they have no idea who it is that’s playing. You can look at this phenomenon two ways. On the one hand, a nice soprano sax solo is a softer and kinder way to say scram than blinking the lights or slamming the locks shut. On the other, such a subliminal cue might also be used by Morlocks calling the Eloi down to dinner. Either way, “Going Home” has to be one of the most-listened-to songs on earth.

So, is Kenny G’s stuff any good? I believe your answer will depend not only on who you are but also how you feel at the moment. Branford Marsalis pooh-poohs the smooth-jazz controversy: “He’s not stealing jazz. It’s not like some guy says, ‘You know, I used to listen to Miles, Trane, and Ornette. And then I heard Kenny G, and I never put on another Miles record.’ It’s a completely different audience.”

Let’s face it, some days nothing but Trane will do. Other times I want to go even deeper into ambience, maybe led by Paul Winter, another great soprano saxman, whose “natural” music is utterly different from Kenny G’s. But my choices are as valid as a jazz expert’s. Just because I don’t have a taste for classic opera or its traditions doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the less formal vocal instrument of a Frank Sinatra. Just because I need garage rock one day doesn’t mean I won’t want some atmospheric New Age noodling the next. And yes, even smooth jazz can be just right for a particular time or feeling or gathering or meditation or memory. No listener has a responsibility to anyone but himself. If Kenny G can please an audience that would never be caught dead inside a jazz club, so what?

An interesting guy, Kenny G. I was glad Penny Lane introduced us. I hope he never stops practicing. But right now what I really need most is for Kenny to count off “Going Home,” so we can finally put paid to this maddening hellscape of a year.

Penny and Kenny.

Let’s Get Real

November 28, 2021

What is reality?

That used to be a perennial topic for the late-night college dorm, the philosophy class, and the readers of Philip K. Dick. But now it’s a serious existential question that we need to be able to answer, to coin a phrase, for real.

Our country is polarized partly because its sources of information are polarized. The level of mistrust that has been driven into the electorate, almost exclusively by the right wing, has even reached the spheres of science and academia. Whenever one chooses to deny the very nature of objectivity, “common sense” is useless. 

I’ve never thought much of most vast-conspiracy theories. Not because so many are ludicrous, like the space lasers that intentionally started California’s recent forest fires (for what reason?), or the scientific cabal that has perpetrated a phony pandemic (for those sweet fat research grants, I guess). I’m a conspiracy skeptic because of simple human incompetence. Think about how many thousands of people it would take to fake a moon landing and keep the secret for decades; it just isn’t possible. Even when the paranoids turn out to be correct — Watergate, for instance — the conspiracy begins to break down the moment the first guy faces jail time. 

But true-blue tinfoil-hatters are limitless in their unhinged creativity. Remember when the QAnon cultists gathered in Dallas early this month to await the reappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.? After the deceased honoree failed to show, a group of them went to a Rolling Stones concert and decided that Keith Richards was actually JFK Jr., that Michael Jackson had taken over Mick Jagger’s body, and that Elvis was playing keyboards in a mask. Some of them stuck around Dallas for the Kennedy assassination anniversary and were disappointed yet again. 

It’s possible, even likely, that somebody is amusing himself by deliberately making fools of these people. But even the craziest notion finds takers these days. People like this cannot be reasoned with because they live outside the bounds of empirical reality. And after four chaotic years of Pavlovian training under the previous president, it’s hard to blame them.

The loser of the 2020 presidential election has a simple playbook: repeat a falsehood often enough and some people will believe it. In fact, it turns out to be many people. His current chart-topper, very popular with his base, is that the election was somehow stolen from him. Two-thirds of Republicans believe him, according to a recent poll. We shouldn’t be surprised. Hillary Clinton warned us this would happen during a debate on October 19, 2016:

You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him. The FBI conducted a year-long investigation into my e-mails. They concluded there was no case; he said the FBI was rigged. He lost the Iowa caucus. He lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. Then Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering; he claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.

TRUMP: Should have gotten it.


CLINTON: This is — this is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling. 

Just to make sure you heard that right, the golf cheater said this to a rally crowd the next day: “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.” (P.S.: Of course, he broke that promise and pledge. Disturbed by the manhood-threatening fact that he lost the popular vote, the orange sociopath continued to allege voter fraud for his entire term in office — in an election, mind you, that he won.)

It’s one thing to tell a lie, to repeat it. But now even an easily debunkable falsehood finds purchase among the increasingly batty right-wing base. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to bother the liberals. This sector of the electorate is nourished by a media ecosystem so strident that Fox News feels soft by comparison. You may not know what One America Network is, but fans of the chicken-bucket lover sure do. 

We seem to have separated into not disagreeing but warring camps. The opposition is no longer loyal. The divide isn’t just Democrat (we want to govern and we want everyone to vote) vs. Republican (we want to provoke our followers and we want fewer people to vote). Not just urban (we pack many cultures together) vs. rural (we live among people like ourselves) or rich (cut my taxes) vs. working class (help me take care of my family with dignity). I think the main cultural delimiter these days, America’s Sorting Hat for the twenty-twenties, might be the quality of education. 

I’m not necessarily talking about whether or not you have a college degree: there are sound arguments to be made that its benefits may not outweigh the sickening tuition debt many graduates will have to carry (though college towns do tend to be “blue” in every single state). More important is something that is taught even earlier in competent schools, and that is the ability to sort through competing ideas to arrive at the logical truth. A good school doesn’t teach you what to think, but how to think. 

I made four or five attempts to read L. Ron Hubbard’s DIANETICS, just out of curiosity, before finally giving up. I can’t get fifty pages in before being bothered by a rhetorical device that’s hard to ignore. Hubbard tells the reader that one should always have a dictionary nearby when reading a book; that’s good advice. When he uses unfamiliar words, the author helpfully defines them in footnotes. It’s easier to depend on those footnotes than take the trouble to look up a word, so the dictionary gradually becomes unnecessary. Before long, Hubbard is defining words that he himself has coined, such as “engram,” making the dictionary irrelevant. By now all your information comes through the good offices of the gatekeeper, the author. You depend on him for everything.

It’s very similar with right-wing media, both social and electronic. I was at a friend’s house the day James Comey testified before Congress, and for fun we spent a couple hours that afternoon switching between Fox News and MSNBC. The progressive channel was far-ranging, but what really impressed us was the discipline of Fox. Comey was a liar and a traitor: the talking heads changed but the message did not. If you watched Fox News exclusively, that was what you took away. And the level of distrust in the media sown in the years of the serial philanderer has chased many right-wingers away from traditional information sources which, if ever they dare to criticize, are anointed “fake news.”

If all you hear from the media and your online friends is unanimity, if everyone you encounter feels as you do, it’s not much of a stretch to be convinced that the election actually was stolen. Everybody agrees! What’s missing is the desire, sometimes even the ability, to independently corroborate, to employ four simple words that you’ll never hear from the casino-running failure: I could be wrong. If you believe every reference except, say, Fox News is fake, then there’s nowhere else to go. You’re every bit as trapped as when you try to read DIANETICS. 

I intended to use Pauline Kael as an example of living in such a bubble: she reportedly said she was mystified at Richard Nixon’s election, because she didn’t know anybody who voted for him. So I checked with some sources that I trust — as I had with the Hillary Clinton and champion liar quotes from 2016 — and was surprised to find that Kael has been misquoted all these years. What she actually said was this: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” If I were a Fox News habitué and Tucker Carlson repeated this urban legend (because it makes liberals look dumb), I’d have to take it as fact. But facts are verifiable. And the verification process is how I discovered my mistake. 

That’s how science works too. “Evolution’s nothing but a theory,” we used to hear from televangelists and the like. Well, all science begins as theory, which is constantly tested until it becomes accepted truth, and even then something like quantum physics can come around to bust everything up again. “Trust, but verify,” said Ronald Reagan. (He was actually quoting a rhyming Russian proverb; I checked that one too.) 

Without independent verification, nothing is true. Or anything is, as those QAnoners in Dallas kept proving. This is the chasm that separates rational people from the current conservative zeitgeist, which on the one hand opposes any mask or vaccine mandates tooth and nail, yet simultaneously finds the chutzpah to knock President Biden for failing to end the pandemic. This isn’t just the “wacko birds,” as John McCain memorably described them, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Can one faction’s repudiation of provable fact be sustained? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure what it’ll take to break the fever. A healthy democracy requires (at least) two competing political parties to make sure new ideas get fair examinations. But debate is impossible when one side is constantly shouting and champions nothing but blind opposition. (The Republicans had no platform in 2020.) 

Last May, Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois congressman who was basically drummed out of his party, was asked how many House Republicans actually believed there was election malfeasance in 2020. “Five, probably, if that, maybe,” he replied. But the vast majority cannot tell the truth in public. They’re afraid of their most extreme voters, which, astonishingly, have become most of their voters. There’s always somebody more outrageous waiting to fight in a primary. So there we are. Fear is a lousy motivator for governance, and we’ll all keep paying the price until the blessed day when chaos, terror and ignorance finally stop winning elections.

The Magician In Your Mind

October 27, 2021

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe the world can be divided into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

Sorry, my id just jumped out. Down, boy. It’s the pandemic. I’ma start again.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who, upon seeing an astonishing magical illusion, feel a sense of wonder; and those who, upon seeing the same thing, feel a sense of irritation. 

My wife, for example, is a member of the latter group. She just does not enjoy being fooled by a magician. Knowing that what she just saw was impossible, that there’s no such thing as magic, it’s now bugging her. In the back of her mind, she can’t help but try to retain what she and me and thee all know is reality, and the relentless brainworm won’t vamoose. It’s no fun to her, it’s a puzzle she can’t solve. So it’s better all around if she just skips the magic show.

On the other hand, I love magic and am probably the most gullible dude in the room. But in this day and age, nearly every bit of information is addressable, and if you really want to know how that conjuror bested Penn & Teller on their wonderful tv show FOOL US, a little Googling will suffice. I’ll save you some time by giving you the guiding principle behind most every magical illusion capable of baffling you: you have no conception, none, of the lengths to which a magician is willing to go to prepare for a 30-second trick. That might mean hours at the lathe, or hours repeating one-handed shuffles or second-dealing. A sleight-of-hand expert is every bit as much an artist as is a fine violin player, and they get there the same mundane way: practice, practice, practice.

Now, the more you read (or Google) about magic, the nuts and bolts behind venerable illusions, the more disappointed it can make you. If you enjoy the “effect” (that’s the amazing thing the magician seems to be doing), then learning the “method” (that’s the way he achieves this effect in our normal, non-magical world) often reduces the trick. It certainly saps the grandeur and wonder. I constantly duel between my curiosity — I just have to know in certain cases — and the desire to protect my innocence so that the next performer can sock me silly. 

Movie crews perform magic all the time. Too much filmed spectacle these days is computer-generated, a little bit cheaty to my mind, but to me almost all the cinema’s great visual effects moments are “floor effects,” or stuff that’s happening in real time, on the stage, on camera. A great example is the “chest-bursting” scene in ALIEN, probably the single most iconic image from that flick. The actual method is a cousin to the “sawing a lady into halves” classic, same principle, any magician would recognize it, but the effect looked so good that it actually shocked some unprepared cast members. You’ve seen a controlled outward explosion to suggest an inward bullet hit thousands of times. But once you understand such methods, now it takes an over-the-top sequence to impress you, like the dozens of “squibs” they taped onto poor James Caan’s body for the toll booth scene in THE GODFATHER. 

There are shelves full of books detailing how to perform standard magic tricks, the ABCs of the field. I have two or three of them. Interestingly, I found them all rather boring. Producing a magic effect is exacting and precise, and learning the method has only one salutary effect: you can recognize a professional absolutely nailing it, as when Teller performs Houdini’s “Needles” illusion. But over time I’ve learned that I’d rather let a magician fool me than oppose him. 

So it was with wide eyes that I read a new book by Joshua Jay called HOW MAGICIANS THINK, confident that it wasn’t going to be a bunch of dry methods (you do learn how exactly one trick was done, thus realizing how your own two eyes can turn you into a chump). This isn’t a book for magicians, but about magicians, and it’s written directly for the layman. If you’re at all curious, I can’t imagine your not liking this one. “Magicians do things beyond our comprehension,” Mr. Jay writes. “When done well, these things should instill in us a unique cocktail of feelings that no other performing art can deliver: escape, awe, and — in the best cases — pure wonder.”

Mr. Jay (no relation to Ricky — whom he cites here as an influence) asks and answers 52 questions, the type you yourself might ask a professional magician over drinks. Do Magicians Get Fooled? What’s Worse — Screwing Up A Trick or Dealing With Hecklers? What Do Magicians Do In Secret? How Do You Build A Magic Show? What’s Your Most Difficult Trick? Why Do Magicians Pull Rabbits Out Of Hats? Who Is The Hardest Audience To Fool? (Spoiler Alert: it’s children.) Is David Blaine For Real? And, of course, Why Do Some People Hate Magic?

The author is a pro but he can’t help writing from the point of view of a fan. He recounts changing his plane schedule to see an amazing Penn & Teller trick a second time; then, without having to face the element of surprise, he was able to glean the method. (He successfully fooled them in season two of their tv show.) We also tag along on his awestruck visit to the world’s greatest museum of magic. It’s located near Las Vegas, it belongs to the avid — and wealthy — magician/collector David Copperfield, and it’s accessible only by personal invitation, five people at a time, each tour personally hosted by the owner. “It’s like seeing Graceland if Elvis were giving the tour,” Mr. Jay sighs.

There is nothing in HOW MAGICIANS THINK that wouldn’t be a legitimate point of conversation at that informal drinks date. There’s no secret code, no instruction-list methods, no arcane esoterica. The book is simply an explication of its title, but it carries a deep resonance in our personal lives. Because knowing how magicians think can help us guard against misdirection and deception, the two main tools of the magician. And of the politician.

I Saw This In New York (It’s Reviving)

September 27, 2021

A Breath Of Fresh Air

August 18, 2021

We saw a play about a month ago, and it was tons better than streaming. It was just like we were there in person — because we were!

It’s remarkable how quickly you can break a habit. It had been a full seventeen months since I’d seen a live show, and now it felt a little like we were treading on forbidden territory, getting away with something naughty. We were outside in the bucolic setting of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park waiting for the curtain of MERRY WIVES, and I couldn’t help looking all around just to drink it in like a first-time visitor to the city. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone, because I detected a palpable collective sigh of pleasure at the return of Free Shakespeare In The Park.

MERRY WIVES is a very loose adaptation of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by Jocelyn Bioh, who with director Saheem Ali resets the plot beats of Shakespeare’s (relatively minor) farce in a Ghanian and Nigerian neighborhood of Harlem and holds the resulting single act to just under two hours. Dramatically I felt some aspects of this transition were more effective than others, but let’s let the professional theatre critics hash all that out. What’s more important is that it’s been decades since I felt any more jazzed just to be sitting in an audience.

The real star at any Delacorte show is the ineffable grace of nature. The long summer day is still sunlit by the 8pm curtain, so we begin in natural light. But darkness falls as gradually as the movement of the minute hand. The stage lighting emerges, asserts itself, finally takes over. The temperature eases a few degrees and invites a wafting breeze that audibly rustles leaves in the trees surrounding the theater. Somebody could be reading an excruciating piece of legislation aloud and you would still be happy to be there.

But this one is special. Everyone in the theater, onstage and off, realizes it. As a Zimbabwean drummer opens things up by leading the audience in a chant of various African greetings, the joy of coming together for renewal of this great New York institution ricochets around the venue. A little later, other cast members also triumphantly welcome back “live theatre in New York City!” to a shouted ovation. Hold on, they seem to say, we’ll get going in a moment. But first, let’s all enjoy this moment — and remember what it’s like to be with each other.

Last year the Public Theater had to cancel its Free Shakespeare In The Park season for the first time ever, and when 2021 dawned there was frankly no better clarity. But as a miraculous scientific effort produced and distributed a vaccine in record time, it began to appear possible that one summer show — not two as usual — could be mounted. At first the Public expected to fill only a fraction of the Delacorte. As time passed that fraction grew larger. When MERRY WIVES finally began performances in July, the producers, coordinating with city government and the medical community, had established some ground rules which seemed respectful of everyone.

There are two classes of seating at MERRY WIVES: Full Capacity and Physically Distanced. To sit in the former section (the better seats in the house), you must have proof of full vaccination. In the latter (generally to the sides), that’s not necessary. Everybody must wear a mask to enter, exit, or move around. But Full Capacity audience members may take off their masks once they’re sitting in their seats: Physically Distanced people must wear masks throughout. In this way the Public has managed to make available roughly 1468 of the Delacorte’s 1800 seats.

Of course this theater is outdoors, which helps. In a couple of months, as the season ramps up at the Public’s Astor Place complex and its cabaret space, Joe’s Pub, distancing won’t be possible, so indoors, no vax, no tix. But tonight, thought of the fall is far away, and it disappears entirely at MERRY WIVES’ climax.

So far we’ve been treated to a clever forced-perspective Harlem street corner, with manual turntables (that is, stage crew come out and manually revolve the units) to reveal the interiors of three buildings off the street. But then the set opens up, literally. For the tumultuous scene of the “fairies’” mischievous torment of Falstaff, the set pieces are pushed aside and the background becomes the now-dramatically-lit majestic upstage trees and vast, open night sky. The set change is breathtaking, heart-pounding, not just because of its physical beauty but also because it reminds us how privileged all New Yorkers are to share such a place. And now comes the urgent, colorful, kinetic, culture-bending pageantry of the scene itself. Chills.

Maybe I’m just rhapsodizing. Maybe all that deprivation starved me into indulging myself. At minimum I was so very happy to be in a theater, this theater, on this night, in this city, and I’ll never take such an experience for granted again.

The Poets Of Bottled Poetry

July 25, 2021

Most wine writing is not very tasty. 

Here’s an example of the most common type — the “tasting note” — from a popular wine magazine:

Sleek, pure and refined, with cassis, damson plum and cherry reduction flavors laced with subtle tar, graphite and mesquite notes. Flashes of anise and red tea on the fine-grained finish.

Or, a few pages later:

This shows bay and tobacco leaf notes along the edges of a core of steeped plum and blackberry fruit, all melding together through the finish, where this ends with an echo of warm earth.

If I ever got the chance to try these wines, one thing I can guarantee you is that I’d never find damson plum or an echo of warm earth. In fact, two pro writers, sampling the same bottle at the same tasting, would almost certainly produce different descriptors. So what good is a tasting note, really, if it wasn’t written by you? Frankly, not much. It’s just a simple way to differentiate bottle #48 from bottle #72. Actually, powerful critic Robert Parker went even simpler, inventing a 100-point scale like the one your teachers used in grade school. After that, no words at all were necessary to compare one wine with another, only a number.

To me, breaking down a taste of wine into tiny wisps of flavor risks missing the larger point. When I was writing about pop music I read everything I could get my hands on, and I noticed right away that my favorite writers were not taking apart their subjects in a musicological sense, no triplets or descants or suspended chords as you’d find in a magazine specifically aimed at musicians. Instead, they were writing about how the music made the listener feel. Sure, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” as (we think) Martin Mull once put it, but the vital info is: will this record put me in a pleasurable mood, or call forth visual images, or teach me something I didn’t know — how will it affect me?

I think writing about wine faces similar challenges, and I think the lay reader is interested in that same question: how might I react? At least I am, so it’s refreshing and even startling to come upon a writer who strives to place wine in the context of something greater — that is, life in general. You find passages like this:

Wine is like a shy dog. Lunge for it and it backs away. Just sit still and it draws nearer. Wine is less about what you can grasp than about how you can receive. You grasp it more firmly if you grab it less tightly. It will resist you if you insist on subduing it. You can accumulate only so much knowledge in quantifiable bits, but you accumulate understanding if you learn to relax. Wine doesn’t like being dominated. It prefers being loved and wondered about. It will do anything for you if you’re curious and grateful.

That’s from READING BETWEEN THE WINES by Terry Theise, a well-known importer of wines from Germany, Austria and Champagne. He also happens to be a talented writer, and he also happens to take that long view. This and his second, WHAT MAKES A WINE WORTH DRINKING, are two of the most profound wine books I’ve ever read. In the latter book he’s able to condense just about everything I’ve said so far into this:

With a great wine, our words are like tiny fists raining blows against a huge edifice of indifference. All we can hope to say is what it’s like to be there. Then if you can, you say what the wine is like in some new way, and your reader is sure you’re unwell.

But Theise is not all pomp and circumstance:

There is a moment when one bites into a spurtingly sweet peach while looking square onto a scene of ice and snow, when two ends of the world strain to unite, one of them warm and sweet and the other remote and lifeless, and if you’ve ever supposed you were “good with words,” try describing this, writer stud.

Another importer who is also a fine writer is Kermit Lynch, whose ADVENTURES ON THE WINE ROUTE has become a classic since it was published in 1988. Lynch, who specializes in French wines, put together “a wine buyer’s tour of France,” but the emphasis is on out-of-the-way, family-run wineries of whom you may never have heard: his job is to acquaint you. For example, he spends twice as much space on the Loire as on the more widely visited Bordeaux. He shows great respect and admiration for the hardy grower whose vineyard is his life…

[Gerard Chave] is a good-looking man in his early fifties, a cross between Gene Kelly and Buster Keaton, with candid, friendly eyes and a nose designed for wine sniffing. Suddenly I stand with a glass of the current white Hermitage vintage in hand and I am gazing into one of wine’s most magical colors. It is golden, with much nuance, from glints of green and straw yellow to just a suspicion of something like peach skin. Even if we start tasting at nine in the morning, it always looks good enough to drink, but that first taste is only the downbeat of a lengthy set of variations to follow, so spitting is mandatory if I want to make it back up the steep dirt path out of the cellar.

…and on whose country table are the literal fruits of his labor:

When those who remember real Beaujolais describe it, they make my mouth water: a light, grapy, fizzy, tart, quaffable red wine. Bring on the gras-double (tripe with onions and parsley), the boudin aux pommes (blood sausage with baked apple), the cervelas aux pistaches et truffes (sausage stuffed with pistachio nuts and black truffles). With real Beaujolais, we can handle it. 

You can use ADVENTURES ON THE WINE ROUTE as a travel guide if one of your primary interests is wine, but it’s a pleasure to read even if you never get to France.

One more writer deserves mention, the idiosyncratic megapunster Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and one of the wine world’s leading eccentrics. His “vinthology” BEEN DOON SO LONG brings together his various writings since he planted his first vines in 1980, and not only is it super-clever and quite hilarious, you even learn a little something about wine. 

Just laying it out will give you the idea. There are wine-oriented parodies of “viterature,” from FINNEGANS WAKE to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (featuring “the old zin-out, zin-out”) and poetry (“The Love Song Of J. Alfred Rootstock,” “The Vinferno”). You get the complete lyrics to the “Rock (and Gravel) Opera” BORN TO RHONE, with riffs on, among others, the Stones (“It’s Only Zinfandel”), Bob Seger (“That Old-Time Pomerol”), and Bobby “Boris” Pickett (“Monster Grenache”).

About a third of the book is serious, or as serious as Grahm ever gets, filled with speeches and essays on everything from “wine geekdom” to “How I Overcame My UC Davis Education.” Some of the wine jokes undoubtedly went over my head but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every entry, almost as much as I enjoy Grahm’s delicious Rhone-style blends and a yummy sparkler called “Riesling To Live” that is sealed with a frickin bottle cap. BEEN DOON SO LONG is a joyful reminder that wine appreciation does not require snobbery and, along with the beauties from Theise and Lynch, that being in love is its own reward.

Hitting The Heights

June 28, 2021

The movie version of the Broadway musical IN THE HEIGHTS is getting a sizzling welcome. Film critics are falling all over themselves to find superlatives. Audience members are lathering on social media. And I have to say, I agree: this is one of my favorite movies since the pandemic began. Definitely see it — and as the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern urged, see it on the biggest screen you can find. (His hint: bigger than the one you have at home.)

I’m a fan, but with one major caveat, coming in just a moment. This thing is kinetic, joyful, uplifting, bursting with energy — it’s really what we need just now, so in one sense it’s fortunate that Covid delayed its release. 

My reservation is something I’ve heard only in passing. More than one person has told me that, as much fun and as well received as it is, IN THE HEIGHTS the movie is nothing compared to IN THE HEIGHTS on stage. But I wouldn’t know, because I missed it.

Through the good offices of my brother, an executive with sponsor Sprint, I got to attend the Tony Awards in 2008, the night IN THE HEIGHTS won Best Musical, probably the ceremony’s most important award (at least at the box office). At the Rockefeller Center afterparty, I even bumped into Lin-Manuel Miranda in the tunnel of tarp that led to the men’s room. So I guess I was one of the first civilians to congratulate him. “I still can’t believe it,” he said, and I believed him.

But I had passed on the show twice, in its off-Broadway run and then after its move uptown. You can’t see everything. I had never heard of Miranda — this was way before HAMILTON — and the shorthand was basically “RENT with rap,” set in a Dominican barrio. True enough, but it turns out that’s like praising Meryl Streep for her fine memorization skills: you’re perfectly accurate, but you’re missing the point. 

What I missed wasn’t the songs and dancing: they’re right there in the film. What I missed was the immediacy of a live performance, which is almost always way more powerful. There’s a long history of filmed versions of musicals coming up short: I’ve heard that from people who were there for the original SOUND OF MUSIC or CAMELOT or MY FAIR LADY. I myself can attest the same regarding HAIR: the “opened-up” movie is not even remotely related to the incandescence of the original stage production. Only the songs remain. RENT too: trust me. THE FANTASTICKS. And don’t forget about CATS the movie: I didn’t care for the stage show, but those who did — and there are legions of ‘em — had to be disappointed.

That’s a shame, because it’s always the movie that survives into the future, not your own thrilling memory. I’m not saying films are a lower form of art than theatre. I’m saying they’re a different form of art. And where big stage musicals are concerned, it’s an uphill battle to preserve the lightning on celluloid. A original musical created for film, like THE WIZARD OF OZ, WILLY WONKA or THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, doesn’t carry the same comparative burden and tends to hold up much better over time because a movie is what it was in the first place.

So I’m definitely among the appreciative crowd celebrating the rollicking good time of IN THE HEIGHTS. But I still only know the piece second hand. It’s unthinkable that it won’t be revived on Broadway one day, and when it is I’ll happily be in another crowd, expecting to have my mind blown at a whole new level. 


May 27, 2021

We went out the other night.

We went to one of our favorite places in the city and had dinner together. We hadn’t been there in sixteen months. If 2020 was the most horrific year of my lifetime, 2021 may be shaping up as a series of exhalations, tiny at first but growing greater every day. We rejoice in aspects of life that we used to take for granted. Not any more, we don’t.

A little over a year ago New York City was the epicenter of COVID-19, with five percent of the entire planet’s cases. Unlike the spreading expanses of Phoenix, Houston or L.A., our city has grown vertically. When lots of people live in close proximity to each other, that’s the perfect killing ground for a virus. Most New Yorkers were rightly terrified and intent on masking, distancing and washing, but the disease was insatiable.

During the worst of it, in late March and April, sirens screamed day and night as EMTs raced from building to building. There were triage tents set up in places like Central Park when hospitals suddenly overflowed. Some people didn’t leave their apartments for weeks. Beyond the tragic loss of life and health, not to mention the gut-wrenching damage to hundreds of beloved small businesses as their hard-earned customers instantly vanished as if raptured, our city’s personality changed. As the plague spread to the rest of the country and we began to stabilize (albeit at a still anguished rate of carnage), the new normal was astonishing.

You might say New York “mellowed,” but it’s more dramatic than that: this usually frenetic city dialed it back to near-zero. One of the loneliest things I saw was this Jerome Strauss photo in The New Yorker in early May:

That’s Park Avenue, normally one of the busiest streets in the city. It looked like a ghost town, an unused movie set. I don’t know what time of day the shot was taken: you’d see the same desolation in the morning rush hour or at high noon. Park Avenue was all but deserted, all day long. Toward the end of the month I remember noticing something that wasn’t there: the honking of horns. Not even a midnight car alarm (mankind’s single lousiest invention). That weird off-center feeling many New Yorkers have when they’re way out in the country? All the time.

We were cooped up but we were safe. Our grocery-store trips were like commando raids, we let stuff “rest” for a day and bleached every surface we touched. Our personal low point was probably the two weeks Linda self-quarantined after tending to her dying father in Arizona. But beyond profound grief was only mild inconvenience, so we’re aware of how lucky we are. Rarely in the last 34 years have I regretted not owning an automobile — public transportation or two walking feet is how you get around here, and it’s tons cheaper — but I did fantasize about hopping in my car and safely distancing us to somewhere peaceful and unpopulated.

Then things started crawling back. Reopening of barber shops was a big day. Distanced outdoor dining, making the city look more European. (Restaurant tables in New York are crammed too close together anyway.) A yellow cab on Park Avenue — then a sweet, sweet car horn! Perverse, right? The other night we rode down Park and traffic was a little backed up. We were so excited to see that. The first post-pandemic location crew I saw was like the first robin of spring: they were shooting HALSTON in my hood and were pumped to be working at all.

I think the single most harmful thing the loser of the 2020 presidential election did while in office (okay, besides inciting a deadly riot) was to turn mask-wearing into a political statement. Disappointingly, it turns out that many in the “basket of deplorables” — Hillary didn’t contend that all the loser’s supporters were in that basket, only half. I’d say she was being kind — are so self-centered that the notion of masking to protect one’s neighbors just rankles them. I was walking down Lexington Avenue one morning and a guy was headed toward me unmasked. I stepped aside as usual to let him pass, but instead he turned and walked straight toward me, for no other reason than to intimidate. It was mask rage. Bro, that’s deplorable. 

But disregarding the medical advice of experts in the name of “freedom” — for the loser it was nothing more than personal vanity — really makes no sense when the doctors are only trying to keep you alive. If you think Tony Fauci and company are exaggerating the pandemic for some nefarious reason, well, there’s not much I can say to you — which happens to be the crux of our country’s deep partisan divide. 

Especially since those experts are responsible for one of the two greatest scientific achievements of my lifetime: sending men to the moon and back, and super-speeding development of a vaccine against a novel virus. Operation Warp Speed is one of the few things for which the loser actually deserves some credit, and it’s the key to near-normalcy as more of us become “fully vaccinated.” Anti-vaxxers also cause me some head-scratching, because without them we might never achieve “herd immunity.” I don’t think masks will ever disappear entirely (the upside: we had an historically low flu season this year), and even after vaccination I’m still leery of multi-passenger transport and crowded theaters. I have to go to Lisbon this summer for the wedding of a family friend, and I’ll enjoy being there but not getting there. COVID booster shots will probably become an annual event, but consider the alternative. It could easily have taken years. It only took months. 

What is dissipating at last is the low-level anxiety, the constant funk, that has gripped us for nearly five years now. The loser’s electoral defeat helped a little, but by then we were already deep into the grinding punishment of this pestilence. The arrival of a vaccine means it will all be over one day, if we can only convince enough of the doubters. Now it’s little things like a traffic jam or a bunch of location trucks that we suddenly savor. Last year was a time of fearful extremes. This year may be what we’ve so sorely needed: our first taste of normal.

The Producers (The Musical)

April 29, 2021

I’ve been reading (or re-reading) a clump of books about a fascinating sort of artist: the record producer. Three memoirs, from Jerry Wexler, Daniel Lanois and Phil Ramone; and two bios, of John Hammond and Phil Spector. These guys (the overwhelming majority of producers over the years have been guys) are a rainbow of different styles and methods, but they share one key attribute: they all grew up living and breathing music. Nothing else in life was anywhere close.

It’s tough to put your finger on what makes a good producer — or even what it is exactly that a producer does. (As a former book editor, I’m familiar with having an amorphous profession.) At least in the acoustic age, when musicians used to push air around in an expensive soundproof studio, being at a recording session was very much like being on a film set. Most people are surprised to learn that at either place, the thing you do most is wait

A record producer is analogous to a film director, too, but they’re creatively inverted. The director is acting as a general, leading an army of specialists and doling out her full attention among every single inch of the photographic frame: she’s thinking outward. The producer is in a claustrophilic environment, intent on the slightest intonations and their relationship to the other sounds at his disposal: his inclination is inward. They will become one and the same when the director gets to the mixing process long after photography has been completed, but in the primal sense a director is still counting on her eyes, a producer on his ears.

Some producers start out as musicians themselves: Phil Ramone was a violin prodigy, and everybody says Phil Spector was good enough to make a living as a session guitarist had he chosen to. But Jerry Wexler and John Hammond were both swing-era superfans, soaking in everything they could learn about jazz and blues and spending every possible minute listening to music. No matter his background, though, any producer must obviously be able to communicate with musicians, either in a musicological sense (e.g., Ramone) or an emotional one (Hammond). As Hammond biographer Dunstan Prial points out, several members of Count Basie’s band couldn’t read music, but Hammond could talk to them just fine. Paul McCartney doesn’t read music either, but does he ever hear it. Imagine the excitement he felt when producer George Martin introduced him to the piccolo trumpet, which wound up leading the charming break on “Penny Lane.” Producer Ron Richards knew you can’t fit a razor blade between the perfectly pitched high harmonies of the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, but on the bubbly hit “Carrie-Anne,” the instrumental solo is taken by — a steel drum. That’s what a producer does.

Recording techniques weren’t as sophisticated when the older guys got their start, and Hammond in particular was famous for plopping down a single microphone in the center of the studio and letting the cats just wail. But since then, arranging mikes and musicians just so has become part of the gig. Phil Ramone is so meticulous that he keeps special microphones for the likes of Judy Collins, Paul Simon and Billy Joel under lock and key, each to be used by no other artist. Daniel Lanois cut his teeth working on ambient music with Brian Eno and filling every atom of the stereo spectrum.

But even a perfectionist like Ramone is helpless before the recording gods when the assignment is a “live” record. (He recorded Simon & Garfunkel’s 1981 Central Park concert.) Gone is the control over performance quality and audio separation which a studio provides. Most “live” albums from the pop era have been “sweetened,” or partially re-recorded in a studio setting after the fact. Even the keepin-it-real Grateful Dead’s EUROPE ’72 sounds better on record than it did in person. The all-time most notorious “sweetening” job was done by Eddie Kramer for ALIVE! (1975) by Kiss; on some tracks the drums were the only unretouched instrument, and even audience noise was altered. Ironically, that was the album that broke the band as a huge concert act.

Some producers, like Ramone and Lanois, started out on the electronic side, as engineers. To again use a movie analogy, that’s the audio equivalent of a cinematographer, translating the producer’s desires (who in turn is trying to capture the artist’s vision) and adjusting the recording process to get it all on tape. Top-flight record engineers like Alan Parsons and Tom Dowd became star producers in their own right. One day in 1975 I interviewed Rod Stewart for his first U.S. recording, ATLANTIC CROSSING, and Dowd was considered crucial enough to be there too. He’s featured heavily in Wexler’s good-natured memoir, which is essentially the history of Atlantic Records. (I already knew “Tommy” from a late-night Wet Willie session in Macon, Georgia, where a chunk of the time was spent calibrating a tom-tom after summoning a drum tuner in the middle of the night. Remember, you sit and wait. That too is what a producer does.) 

Most producers operate in personal obscurity, and you probably wouldn’t have recognized any of the ones I’ve mentioned if you’d passed them on the street, with one possible exception: Phil Spector. The wunderkind of the Brill-Building “girl-group” era, he produced a fountain of Sixties hits (he had his first #1 record at age eighteen) in both New York and Los Angeles, and became more famous than his acts. He is best remembered for what he called the “Wall Of Sound” — redundant instrumentation layered into controlled thunder of Wagnerian intensity. Spector’s signature style influenced countless others: for example, the track “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen deliberately sounds like it was cut at a Phil Spector session. On the other hand, Spector is responsible for the unctuous and bullying orchestral and choral “sweetening” that, in my opinion, overpowers “The Long And Winding Road” on the Beatles’ LET IT BE (1970). But Spector is also remembered for his creepy eccentricities, so Mick Brown’s bio is far and away the most dramatic of the quintet I just enjoyed. It ends as Spector is about to go on trial for the 2003 second-degree murder of a B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson — everybody knew he was careless with guns. He was found guilty in 2009, and died in custody at 81 just three months ago.

Besides obsessing over music all their lives, the guys I just read about have one more thing in common: they all worked with Bob Dylan or, in Spector’s case, hoped to. (He said if he ever got the chance he would record Dylan “like an opera.” Hell, Phil recorded everybody like an opera.) But look at the variety. John Hammond signed Dylan and produced his first folk record in 1962, as part of John’s resurgence after jazz had morphed out from under him, from blues and swing to be-bop, during his hitch in the Army. (Hammond also discovered and signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin — her career didn’t take off until Wexler and the Ertegun brothers got ahold of her at Atlantic — Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others. Talk about ears!) Phil Ramone engineered the New York sessions for BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975), which make up about half the finished album. SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979), from Dylan’s Christian period, was produced by that ol’ nonbeliever Jerry Wexler. And Daniel Lanois, who must be the Phil Spector of the digital era — not as loud but just as tasty — produced OH MERCY (1989) and the sultry TIME OUT OF MIND (1997), one of my favorite Dylan albums of ‘em all. 

Digital technology changes everything. Most crucially, it’s now possible to make workable recordings without using a studio: modern demos can sound better than some finished records used to. In fact, it’s possible to forgo the clock ticking your money away and make them in your bedroom (your mileage may vary as to relative quality). If you want, you can realize pretty close to full orchestrations that play only into your headphones, even correct the pitch of your singer if you have to. Digital is great in many ways. Peter Asher, who made some beautiful records with the likes of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, said, “People go, ‘Don’t you really miss tape?’ I say, ‘No, I’m so happy to see the back of it.’ We can do edits now that we could only dream of back then.” No question, technology has made some things easier.

But you cannot make the best record of which you’re capable without a good producer. You just can’t. After enough years spent slogging in the studio, that good producer might be you, but my guess is it isn’t. Here are five people who have really put their marks on music but never really got credit from the general public, only from devotees who paid attention. It was so much fun hanging out with them behind the console — and best of all, I didn’t have to wait one second.

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