Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Howard Stern - September 28, 1995: A Tribute to Alison Steele plus Siskel & Ebert

One of my most popular blog posts is my 2007 tribute to the late NYC DJ Alison Steele. Nicknamed "The Nightbird", she ruled the overnight rock radio airwaves in this town throughout the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s until she died of cancer in September, 1995. Her distinctive voice gave thousands of listeners of joy, including yours truly. Her death at age 58, almost 20 years ago, was and is a great loss.

I listened to Alison Steele back in high school, sometimes when I was up late at night, but usually in the very early morning, towards the end of her shift. I would usually listen to the music on her show in the shower and then, when I got out, I'd be toweling off as Alison Steele would end her show, usually with a quote from a great poet (Blake, Wordsworth, or Shakespeare) or she would share an insight or some words of wisdom before she would "fly away." Then, usually about five to ten minutes later, Howard Stern would take the air and new day would have officially begun. 

It was a great way to wake up. It's a great memory to have. 

In the 6 1/2 years since I first posted my tribute to her, several Mr NYC have posted their memories of listening to Alison Steele back in the day. Their tributes, more than mine, I think show what a touching legacy she left.

So it was great to find Howard Stern's September 28, 1995 show that was broadcast the day after she died. The tribute that he gives her is pure Howard: wild, funny, offensive, and curiously touching. Apparently, she was very popular with her fellow DJs. And she loved cats. And she was hot. And she was also a radio pioneer.

This is also a great show because the movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert made an appearance on this show and are hilarious. In this episode, they even review the movie "Showgirls" and it's a hoot.

These were great talents and are sorely missed. But thanks to technology, the live on. So not only can we remember them, but still enjoy.    

Remembering the 1964 World's Fair

Some years are transformative -- and 1964 was one of them.

Like 1994, it was a "hinge-of-history" year, a year when everything changed, a year when events that happened in it had long-term repercussions. The previous year, 1963, ended on the tragic note of President Kennedy's assassination. For many American it felt like the end of innocence. In many ways, it was: in the near future were Vietnam, Watergate, race riots, stagflation, and rising crime rates. But despite the horror of November 22, 1963, 1964 was an exciting year. We got, amongst other things:

1. The British Invasion of Beatlemania that would transform rock music and American culture.

2. The 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended legal discrimination across the country and would one day lead to the first black president.

3. The historic landslide election of President Lyndon Johnson that (Vietnam not withstanding) lead to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and even the creation of public television (amongst other things).

4. The 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens.

This last event, obviously, was a big deal in NYC. The world came to New York to see the future. Designed and overseen by legendary master building Robert Moses (it was his last big career triumph), the Fair stretched from April, 1964 until 1965 and featured thousands of exhibits by companies like Ford and GM, Pepsi, IBM, and Westinghouse all displaying their wares. Governments from the around the world came and had big displays and shows to "advertise" themselves to an international audience. And, of course, artists came to sell their work. Plus, this was the beginning of the Space Age, and there were lots of exhibits featuring rockets, some of which are visible in Flushing Meadows Park today. 

In 1964, America realized that the 20th century wouldn't last forever and the World Fair gave us a glimpse of things to come.

The actual Fair has taken on legendary status. It was the last of its kind in New York City and is considered the gold standard for all World's Fair since then. But it was not without its controversies.

First, there was financial mismanagement. Even though the Fair brought in tons of money, it cost more to run. Blame for this can be laid at the feet of Mr. Moses, as Robert Caro writes about extensively in The Power Broker. Its money-losing legacy is one of the reasons there hasn't been another World's Fair in NYC since then.

Second, a lot of stuff was built for it that has since fallen into disuse. There's a sphere in Flushing Meadows Park that, despite looking cool, had cost a fortune to maintain. And then there's the Pavilion, which has been called New York's most beautiful ruin

Third, there's the politics. In the 1960s, New York State was ruled by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. His money and political power made him invincible. The World's Fair was his baby, the crown jewel of his legacy that he hoped would propel him into the Presidency. Obviously, it didn't, but his political goals led to decisions in planning and management that led to the cost overruns. Most appallingly, however, is that it led to an unconscionable act of censorship by the then governor. The great artist Andy Warhol created his only work of public art for the Fair called "13 Most Wanted Men" (it was, bizarrely, a mural of the 13 most wanted criminals in America). Some people found it offensive, and Rockefeller pressured Warhol to paint it over. He did, and the public was denied seeing this amazing piece of art.  

Since 1964, Warhol has, like the World's Fair and unlike Nelson Rockefeller, become iconic. And, in fact, 1964, was truly an iconic year. It felt like, and was, a time when possibilities were limitless. We were going into space. We were ending discrimination. The culture was changing, become more radical, more weird. The middle class was exploding. It was a good time in America and NYC -- and the World's Fair encapsulated it.

Of course, it would all come crashing down very soon thereafter. The Kennedy assassination late the previous year seemed to be a dark foreshadowing of the many crises that would shake America and the world after that. NYC would go through turbulent times too (think the fiscal crises of the 1970s, booming crime, the destruction of the middle class). But the World's Fair showed then that the future should be something to be embraced and not feared -- and maybe one day, hopefully, it will be so again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Soul of a City Defined

It can become tiresome to hear New Yorkers, like yours truly, always moan and complain about how NYC is changing for the worse, how the "soul of New York" is being destroyed by money, how "this city ain't what it used to be" -- etc. etc., on and on, ad infinitum. But, as even paranoids sometimes have enemies, sometimes us complainers actually have a point.

Namely, the closure of neighborhood businesses.

Last week, Pearl Paint, the legendary Canal Street art supply store, closed. It had been in business for eighty years -- yes, 80 years! Eight-Oh! Actually, I'm wrong -- it had been in business 81 years, since it first opened in 1933.

To put that into historical perspective, when Pearl Paint opened, FDR was in his first year as president, Hitler was coming into power in Germany, Winston Churchill was still "in the wilderness", Fiorello LaGuardia had not yet been elected mayor, segregation was still legal in much of the country, and television was still two decades in the future. Countless numbers of NYC artists shopped there, including some legends like Julian Schnabel. Now its gone -- a piece of NYC history eradicated. We are a poorer city today because Pearl Paint is gone -- and the legendary downtown art scene has taken a big blow.

And this has happened as neighborhood restaurants have begun to disappear. In Manhattan, it's getting harder and harder to find a nice, funky, relative cheap restaurants with good foods that have a friendly neighborhood vibe. Places like Rocco's and El Faro's in Greenwich Village. Even diners are disappearing in Queens! Without neighborhood restaurants that regular people can afford, where are people in the neighborhood going to congregate? Not everyone wants to go to a bar. Our communities suffer as a result.

Cities aren't real places. 

Cities are neighborhoods -- a collection of neighborhoods, some different, some the same, but all unique. NYC is blessed to have 300 great neighborhoods. But, as local businesses close and are replaced by chain stores, expensive gourmet restaurants, and boutiques, they lose their identities. They stop being unique. There souls are gone. And our city suffers.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Interview: Jesse Thorn of Maximum Fun and "Bullseye"

If you're a pop culture and public radio fan like me, then you must check out "Bullseye", the "show about things that are awesome." Each week, host Jesse Thorn interviews artists and entertainers, and gets their perspectives their lives and careers, as well as about creating the music, art, movies, TV shows, and comedy that we all love. Jesse is also the creator of the great website Maximum Fun, a blog full of podcasts, events info, and forums that create a great community for all pop culture fans. You might call Jesse the great synthesizer of American pop culture.

Here in New York City, you can catch "Bullseye" on Saturdays at 1 PM on 820 AM and Sundays at 6 PM on 93.9 FM.

Jesse was kind enough to answer a few questions for Mr NYC readers about his show, his website, and what he loves about pop culture. 

What made you such a devoted pop culture junkie and how did it lead to the creation Maximum Fun? 

I've always loved culture - reading, movies, sports, television. Just as I was becoming a teenager, the Internet opened up a whole new world. Not just of culture to consumers, but of opportunities to discern or dive deep. Once upon a time you had a couple magazines and maybe your local alt-weekly, and all of a sudden you had access to everything. Think of how significant just IMDB's emergence is, or AllMusic.com.

So "Bullseye" (which used to be called "The Sound of Young America") grew up as a sort of celebration of stuff that I and we thought were great but weren't getting the attention they should. MaximumFun.org grew out of that. 

What inspired you to create your show Bullseye and how did you get it on the radio?

I heard someone on the college radio station, and thought they weren't doing that great of a job. I sort of figured, "I could do that." I went and did the station tour, and I was surprised that the equipment was so relatively uncomplicated. So I just signed up. You had to volunteer a certain number of hours and you had to take a class. Once I'd done that, I recruited my two funniest friends and started a show. It's gone through a few iterations, but it's been one, continuous almost-15-year evolution. 

Your show takes a very comprehensive look at "what's good in popular culture" -- what do you define as good? 

It's very subjective, and I don't pretend otherwise. All matters of taste are culturally relative, and our show is no different. But I do put a lot of effort into making the content on the show stuff that I think is recommendable, stuff that I believe in.

I try to focus on things that are intended as art, without necessarily being exclusive of commerce. And I try to give a little extra attention to things that are fun, because I think stuff that's enjoyable tends to be overlooked a bit by the people who give out seals of approval for "quality" culture. 

You seem especially interested in music and comedy.  Who and what are some of your favorite bands, artists, and comedians? 

Geez. Favorite music artists ever... let's say Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Outkast, The Staple Singers. That's off the top of my head. Lately I've been listening to Steve Reich a lot, so maybe my tastes are about to take a turn for the white :).

In terms of stand-ups... I love Maria Bamford, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Andy Kindler. A million others, but let's leave it there. I think Chris Rock's "Bring the Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker" and John Leguizamo's "Mambo Mouth" really affected me a lot as a kid. And Whoopi Goldberg's Broadway show, which I had recorded on cassette from a library LP.

And movies, TV shows, etc? 

Favorite movies ever are probably Rushmore, A Thousand Clowns and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. That's sort of about where they caught me in life, I think. Pee-Wee was (and is) very important to me and my taste. The Simpsons, obviously. And Python - the movies especially because I'm too young to have watched the show on PBS like some folks did. In high school, Newsradio and Seinfeld. Later on, in college, Tenacious D and Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show. The Wire. 30 Rock. 

When you interview artists, you seem very interested in how their lives influenced and affected their careers but not in a gossipy way. What's the key to giving a respectful but revealing interview? 

I'm honestly not that interested in artist's personal lives, except as they intersect their work. They're on the show because their work is special. I invite people on the show because I care about and respect their work, and talk to them in a way that reflects that. But I do ask them about their work and life, and ask them real questions. So that hopefully leads to some insight.

You did a very profound interview with actor Rick Moranis last year about his career and his decision to leave show business to raise his family after his wife's death. How were you able to get him to talk to you? 

We asked. I mean, he had an album out, he did other interviews, as well.

Almost nobody goes into show business to be interviewed. Relatively few are genuine recluses, but most people would choose not to spend time doing press if they had the choice - why talk about your work when you can make it? But in this business, it's a trade - you do press, people hear about your thing, they check it out, you get paid to make more work. People offer me their time, I offer them a platform. Hopefully it's pleasant for all involved.

With Moranis, he choose to do much less work, for very admirable reasons - his wife died and he needed to raise his kids. So he wasn't avoiding being interviewed, he just didn't have stuff to promote, and thus had to reason to engage in that transaction. But he cut this record, and was proud of it, and wanted people to know about it.

The two people I've had on the show who genuinely were "gets," folks who don't do interviews, were the musicians Betty Davis and Bill Withers. Both had been burned pretty badly by the music industry, and had chosen to step away from it. Ms. Davis hadn't even gotten her ASCAP checks for many years until a fan tracked her down. Both were challenging interviews, but with great artists like that, it was an honor to get to talk to them.

Rick is a dad, you're a dad, I'm a dad: what insights did you get from that interview about work and family?  

It's OK to be a decent human being in the entertainment industry. You don't have to put yourself at the center of everything just because that's what the industry seems to ask you to do.

Are there any other interviews you've done that you're especially fond of or were surprising? 

One of the early visits with one of my all-time favorite guests, Andrew WK comes to mind. My youngest brother was about 8 or 9, and had started a band. Andrew listened to his song, and I remember he asked if it was OK with my brother if he (Andrew) learned something from him. It was really touching. Andrew's been on the show many times since, and came to MaxFunCon one year. He's just a really good-hearted guy who has worked his butt off to make his own crazy way of being in the world work for him as a life, and it's an inspiration to me.

Tell us, where do Bullseye and Maximum Fun go from here? 


Thanks Jesse!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Midtown Blues

Change is constant. In life -- and in New York City.

This wouldn't be the greatest city in the world if it wasn't always transforming. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes it's for the worse but change is a perpetual fact of life. Like the passage of time, weather, death and taxes, change simply exists, it just is.

Well, Midtown is changing -- and not for the better.

Currently there are several super-thin, super-tall highrise apartment buildings being constructed in Midtown. Specifically, they are being built in the 50s, right below the southern perimeter of Central Park. A few are also being built downtown, in and around Tribeca. Many of them are close to 100 stories tall. And they are a threat.

They threaten to turn the Manhattan skyline into one overwhelmed by buildings that look like needles. No more iconic structures like the Chrysler, the Empire State, even the Citicorp building -- instead, needles. Manhattan will be turned into the world's most glamorous pin cushion.

They threaten to exacerbate the income inequality in this town. The apartments in these buildings are going to be purchased mostly by wealthy foreigners either as investments or pied-a-terres.

Most of all, these buildings threaten to caste huge shadows over Manhattan, blocking out the sun. And since most of them will be in Midtown, this means that large portions of Central Park could be caste into permanent darkness.

This. Is. Scary.

And it's not even like Midtown is that glamorous or exiciting anymore. Midtown is ... eh. As this article shows, we're a long way from the glamorous Mad Men days of Midtown. The economic and cultural vitality has left Midtown and gone to Chelsea (like Google), or the East Village (like Twitter), or Tribeca (like all the celebrities), or Brooklyn (like Girls). Heck, even Queens is getting more cool. Midtown has become like a boring middle-level Midwestern city's downtown. It's where people work and occasionally get dinner. But it's not where NYC's future lies.

So these new buildings contribute nothing to NYC or its future. This is one kind of change we can do without.    

Classic Mr NYC

In 2008, I did a couple blog posts about the year 1994. One concerned a movie called "The Wackness" that was a piece of nostalgia about 1994 New York. The other was a "cultural nostalgia" trip to that year -- a year when everything changed.

You think I kid. But I kid you not.
A lot happened in 1994. A lot that we're still living with today.
Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan. The OJ Simpson case. Kurt Cobain's suicide. The Rwandan genocide. The Major League Baseball Strike. Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. My So-Called Life, Friends, ER, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and all the big careers that were launched (and re-launched).
And the world we live in today was largely created that year.
The Republicans took over Congress and George W. Bush became governor of Texas -- which lead to President Bush, the Iraq War, and eventually President Obama.
And 1994 was also the first year when this thing called the Internet began to penetrate the popular consciousness. As this clip from the Today show proves, before then, no one really knew what "Internet" was. People still had yet to grasp the concept of this rootless world of information. It would take years before things like Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter would consolidate control over the Internet -- back then, it was an electronic Wild West. But 1994 was the year it broke through -- and changed our world forever.

NYC Etiquette

Interesting segment today on WNYC about how we New Yorkers should comport ourselves in the streets and public institutions of our fair city. Apparently someone wrote a book about it. 

I thought one of the joys of being a New Yorker was that you could be as rude and crude as you wanted to be. If this book is to be believed, however, this is no longer the case. 

The author does make some interesting points, however. Most of all: when walking down the sidewalk, keep to your right!

And my own personal tidbit: when riding the subway, don't eat and don't stand in front of the doors when there are open seats and space available!