Friday, January 7, 2011


Though I spent many a teenage night in Denny’s drinking decaf until I hallucinated, I’m not a fan of monolithic chains. I had to be dragged to a P.F. Chang's recently, which interestingly enough is not only in the States but also in Mexico City, Kuwait and the UAE. I’m sure there’s some geocultural commentary there, but that’s not the point. Full disclosure: I enjoyed the food far more than I had expected.

I won’t pretend I’m above playing Angry Birds; Salman Rushdie does it with pride. But I'm an adult playing on an Android phone (often with the audio off and listening to Democracy Now!), not as a kid on an iPad at a table full of boring adults. I would have loved to read a book at table when little, but ironically that was not allowed; no one took any issue with this kid pictured, and occasionally adjacent others, being completely absorbed in this game that was illuminating half the party. This just seemed peculiar and alienated to me, like the generation gap just became a concertina-wired moat with vats of boiling oil poised above. Can anyone argue that this social milieu is an improvement?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


All recordings are merely sketches. The quality is not representative.
While in Puerto Rico, I saw the above street music performance in a public square. It was free and attended by all ages. Songs were played that got every age group dancing at the same time, from children to older folks who'd barely budge in the U.S. (proper) without The Clapper and Life Alert – and they moved without the deliberate delicacy and caution so common among the elderly in the mainland. It was beautiful, and I teared up thinking of how unfamiliar such a thing is in the states as I've seen them.

I thought about local culture, and how much you hear about that from someone waving radicchio at a farmer’s market. In this case, it’s not about things grown 200 miles away that you drive 15 miles to buy. It’s routine life, not a commodity, and it’s free so everyone can enjoy it together.

Happily, something like that still happens in the States, though. I quite incidentally heard from an older acquaintance about a Christmastime doo-wop show in a local theater. It sounded like fun, and though the tickets were $35 (steep for me, for a night’s diversion) I went – and was totally floored by the performances I heard. A schmaltzy old Jewish guy, who owned the theater, would get on stage periodically and make awesome nasty jokes and other schtick by way of entr'acte.

The singers had been into doo-wop for the better part of their lives, given their ages and the spirit with which most of them performed. Occasionally they would tell something about the singles they were covering, when they were released, on what label, and folks in the audience would comment or “mmm” in enthusiastic support. I should probably mention that the majority of the audience and performers were white, which belies doo-wop’s origins. That happened to jazz, and blues, but not to hip-hop (probably because commercially and socially, it can be reprogrammed and deployed as a mole).

A large black woman was sitting near me, and conspicuously fell asleep for most of the show, which were classic love songs almost to a one. I couldn’t see why she’d paid $35 to be sandwiched and wedged until we were told The Persuasions were on next. Even in my doo-wop-proof bunker, I had heard who they were.

They were amazing…and flexed political. The large black woman woke up the moment they appeared, to shout that they were the fathers of doo-wop. Old Man River and Buffalo Soldier were braided into medleys, and discussions of slavery, house versus field slave dialectics, and union membership took place in skits that knitted their medleys together. At one point they seemed to acknowledge they might be alienating their white audience by covering Under the Boardwalk, but then even Africanized that by insisting on call-and-response and involving the audience: one member took his mic around to the seats and tried to get folks to sing. One white guy made a game effort, and a white woman was so embarrassed to have the theater watching her that she giggled through most of her 15 seconds. I admired The Persuasions’ boldness, which appeared more as infectious, veteran confidence. It was unchained, off the chain, denied even the possibility of chains.

These two things are examples of what I wish we USers, who pioneered globalization as our last sweeping gesture of significance, cared about. In a Christmas season festooned with economic recovery baubles ("Silver Bulls, Silver Bulls / it's Christmastime on the market") and orgiastic Black Friday coverage, this was the sort of localized cultural event that radiated me the elusive holiday cheer. Can’t we still share regional things that are not dictated by enormous international concerns? It was a fine Christmas present to see that we could, in a quiet corner of a senescing suburb – though a sad footnote that most of the attendees were old enough to be my grandparents.