Sunday, April 5, 2009

Conspiracy Of Beards: New York Diary, Pt. 3

Today's earworm: the la-da-da-da chorus from "A Singer Must Die". Bursts from the throat and rolls off the tongue like honey.

The street crazies in New York are louder, scarier, and way more entertaining than the ones you find in San Francisco. This morning, a youngish black man with blazing, enraged eyes and a receding hairline was running around, pounding on restaurant windows, bellowing something about Obama, and marching into the street on red lights. (Striding purposefully into oncoming traffic is something all New Yorkers do well, but this guy was a master.) I expect to spot him again soon as a token black pundit on Fox News making a special guest appearance on the Glenn Beck show.

Yesterday, on the Bowery, a disshevelled, wide-eyed fifty-something white man was communing intensely with his headphones, stomping briskly through the crowd, and providing edgy, enthusiastic running commentary: "These guys! Were GENIUSES! Back then they made MUSIC! Not like this TECHNO PUSSY SHIT you hear now!" He would take breaks from his tirade to leer at all the hot, sharp-dressed New York women who wisely gave him a wide berth, then he'd resume his riveting rock criticism. Maybe Christopher Stigliano was visiting New York this weekend too.

A conversation I had more than once this weekend: "So, you're an all male choir, you don't have any instruments, and you only do Leonard Cohen songs?" "Yeah, that's right." "And that's it? You guys don't do anything else?" "Well, it's good to have a focus, don't you think?"

Actually, there was a moment yesterday that broke the instrument barrier. Deron, our most extroverted member, the one who throws his head back, contorts his face and visibly feels every second of every song with the utmost intensity (if you've seen the Beards, you know who I'm talking about) is also an ace harmonica player, and there is a trio arrangement of "Stories From The Street" which employs two voices backed by Deron blowing a humungous chromatic bass harmonica. One day I hope to see this performed for myself; unfortunately, this was the opening number while we were all sequestered in a tiny (literally) green room behind the stage at the Bowery Poetry Club last evening, so I have only experienced the audio so far.

The Bowery Poetry Club felt tiny after the Highline Ballroom, a long narrow corridor of a venue with a busy little deli up front and a bar and seats in the back room and paintings of great New York poets on the wall above the bar. The set was exciting, possibly the best performance of the weekend; the audience up close, noisy, and engaged. We pulled off the best version of "The Window" yet. David Bentley's solo vocal is tear-jerkingly beautiful on this song, one of Cohen's most cosmic, universe-embracing spiritual pieces ever; I am in awe when we do this one.

For the second time that day, we did "Bird On The Wire", two rows of dudes swaying like happy drunks with our arms around each other's shoulders. It seemed like every baritone singer was singing a slightly different part, but this time, rather than straining to figure out what was correct I just threw my voice in the mix and relied on my sense of harmony. Turns out, according to Tom, one of the wise elder Beards, this is the appropriate approach to this song: the more somebody tries to tighten up the arrangement, the more divergent versions are created, which then end up all being sung at once. But why argue with success, when all this disagreement results in such a mighty sound? Other songs benefit well from precision; "Bird" is magnificent "midnight choir" chaos.

Larry and his cousin converged at the bar the same time I did, and Larry bought us all a round of Guinnesses. Generous. And delicious. As we all gathered to plan how we would all get to the loft party that night, Sloan, one of our bass singers who was leaving and wouldn't be joining us there, passed me by and cryptically shouted, "Arrange memories!"

"What's that now?"

"Arrange 'Memories'! That song we were talking about!"

"Oh yeah! Thanks!" I kind of like the way I misheard it, though. "Arrange memories." That is what I'm doing right now in this Chelsea internet ice cream parlor, actually.

Larry's cousin led the way to the L train, walking faster than anyone I have ever tried to keep up with, and I always thought I walked pretty fast. If I lived here, I would no doubt be getting an aerobic workout every day of my life. When we got to the Bedford Ave. station in Brooklyn, he steered us to Driggs Pizza, where we had some real New York style slices. Now I like some of our local pies, and am especially loyal to our good friends at Eagle Pizza on Taraval (a really friendly, funny, and down-to-earth couple who make some of the best food in San Francisco), but Brooklyn pizza is a category all its own that must be experienced.

On to the party. Williamsburg is going through the sort of transition that SF went through during the original dot-com boom, where live-work spaces moved from being a raw pioneer experience for arty types seeking cheap living and freedom to being a status symbol for the upwardly mobile, ("the hedge fund managers are pushing the artists out now", we were told) but the transition is not fully complete, and you can still find cool, progressive, artistic young people living in well-furnished storage-locker-like digs in highrises that look foreboding on the outside and teem with life on the inside.

The party was a maelstrom of noisy, shouting conversation with faint sounds of Beirut coming off of a laptop. (I always liked Beirut OK, but I was curious as to who actually listens to them. Now I know.) The acoustics were so live, and sound carried so well, that everybody kept talking louder to hear their own conversation. Some of the younger, more hippie-ish Beards were arguing strongly that we should all perform with our shoes off, but the sound of breaking glass quickly put a damper on any such notion. I milled around, drinking Cabernet and locating pockets of interesting conversation while we waited for Daryl and his wife and adorably trouble-seeking two year old son to show up.

The woman hosting the party came up to some of us. "I think it's about time you guys got started."

"OK, but we're still waiting for our director."

"He's not here yet? OK..."

"You'll recognize him when you see him. He's a bit shorter, wears glasses and a mustache, and radiates an aura of calm authority."

"Well, I hope he gets here soon." In another corner, Ruben had already seized the reins and was putting a set list together in case we had to go it alone. Happily, in came Daryl and family in the nick of time and we assembled. I recruited Tim's (a Beard bass and excellent vocal arranger) sister Allison to videotape us as we performed. Thanks, Allison!

It was a loose, fun singing session; now all the pressure was off and it was time to just indulge in the fun that we all got into this thing for. Several party guests called out requests for great songs we have never done like "Tonight Will Be Fine" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". There's plenty more material for us to do in the future! As usual, everybody loves "Hallelujah". That song touches something deep in people; even atheists and agnostics relate to the theme of just opening your heart to the universe and singing "Hallelujah"; no explanation or justification necessary. It's nothing more or less than all our humanity coming out, rejoicing that, in spite of everything and no matter what your circumstance, it's such a goddamn gift to be alive.

That may be the central message, if there is any, of Leonard Cohen's mission: a deep, ecstatic, yet clear-eyed inquiry on what it means to be alive. Even when he has written and recorded songs like "Dress Rehearsal Rag" or "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" that confront with terrifying empathy how it feels to be driven to suicide, every word and note from a Leonard Cohen song is full of the sheer wonder of life. And if that sounds corny to you, you have some growing up to do.

Anyhow, after our set, the party changed its tone, and suddenly the music got louder and more rhythmic as Beards and other guests went wild, break-dancing and ecstatically throwing one another around the room. As I was just saying, here it is: the wonder of life.

I have been on enough tours in my time to know full well how reality has a tendency to bash you on the head with a hammer once you get back home and return to your regular routine, but I feel regenerated by the last few days, and have a strong intention to stay that way. Next week, we will be seeing Field Commander Cohen himself in person in Oakland, so I know this feeling will not be passing quite so quickly.

Now, a long shuttle ride, a longer flight, and a reunion with my girl await. Your correspondent is signing off for now. Cheers.


Gary Glazner said...

Bowery Poetry Club loves the Beards- Please come back anytime! xox Gary

J Neo Marvin said...

The Bowery Poetry Club rules.