Friday, October 29, 2010

Interview: Rick Massimo, Music Critic, Providence Journal

Even Barry Manilow has bad days.

On a rainy Wednesday night last week, Rick Massimo, pop music critic for
The Providence Journal, spoke on his life and work to five Emerson College professional studies journalism students, which has included encounters with performers like Barry Manilow.

At first, the two did not hit it off.

"I called Barry Manilow a few years ago... and he was looking for a reason to hang up on me." Early in the interview, Massimo asked if the pop star had spoken with Bette Midler recently. That Midler and Manilow performed together in the 1970s is pop legend, but Massimo was unaware the two had recently collaborated on a Rosemary Clooney tribute CD.

According to Massimo, this irked Manilow and the star abruptly hung up saying, “Way to do your research.”

Instead of trashing him, Massimo wrote a straight-forward piece previewing Manilow's upcoming show.

Massimo continues, "A couple of years later, his (Manilow's) publicist asks me if I want to talk to him again." Knowing that his readers would want the story, Massimo agreed to the interview even though he dreaded it.

This time, it went better.

"The guy was lovely. He was fantastic. He was great. He even said, 'You know what, I've got a major announcement coming in a couple of weeks and I want to tell you first."

Massimo never got that call but the moral of the story to the student-journalists was do your homework and don't hold grudges. Your readers come first.

And one more thing, Manilow has a lot of fans. "People love the guy," said Massimo.

Born in Italy while his father, a Brown University professor, was there on sabbatical, Rick Massimo was raised in Providence where he still lives with his wife and 11 year-old son (he remarried last December).

After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in English, Massimo played the electric bass guitar in the Providence area. "I played in nightclubs, pit bands, and drag variety shows. Anything that paid." This gave him access to the wide variety of musical acts in the city and the distinct groups of people see them.

Massimo loves music and respects the making of it but not all of his fellow music critics seem to have that same regard. "I think playing music is an ennobling act but by no means do I think musicians are more noble than most people. I think this animates my writing. Some music writers don't feel this way."

Massimo passes on ripping easy targets like Manilow and Britney Spears.

As a former musician himself, Massimo experienced first-hand the late-nights in half-empty bar rooms with beer-sticky floors. He gives credit where it is due. "Everyone who gets out there deserves some credit for the generosity and hard, hard, work of performing."

But Massimo warned his student audience that respecting musicians and loving music is not enough for a pop music critic. Pushing back his youthful mane of black hair, Massimo, who will be 46 on October 17, said, "It's a writing job."

Would-be sports writers and pop music critics need to first enjoy the process of relating the experience of what they saw and heard to an audience of readers.

True, covering a concert is a little different than a fire because it has an aesthetic element that requires some subjectivity. The reviewer's artistic critique is secondary.

"The first thing you have to do is figure out what happened. What is the 'verb' of the event? Did (the musicians) play it safe or did they try new things?"

Massimo has written on other things besides music. He has a master's degree in playwriting from Brandeis University and is a resident artist at the Perishable Theatre in Providence, and is working on his 16th play, “Madame Bovary.” He is also working on a history of the Newport Folk Festival.

Close to the end of his second grueling hour of speaking, only Massimo's hair showed signs of fatigue as it now fell to the sides creating wings that threatened to take flight.

As if to underscore his point that the act of making music is worthy of his (and his student listeners’) respect, Massimo again brought up Barry Manilow. "He's not a pop musician anymore. He's an old pro. And I respect old pros.”

Though he is not immune to the glittery pull of the New York music scene, Massimo has no plans to head south.

Reached after his visit to Emerson, Massimo spoke about New York, “I said 15 years ago, that I would move to New York if anyone ever asked me to, but that I wouldn’t move there and wait tables hoping for a break."

In the meantime, Massimo works the pop music beat in his hometown and seems to be in no hurry to leave. He clearly loves Providence and respects its music scene.

"People really know music here in Rhode Island. I would not want to cover it anywhere else."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Photos:; Tommy Tish Collection.

Published May 28, 2010, in Timelines, newsletter of the History Project, an archive of Boston's GLBT history.

History Defies Easy Conclusions: Gay bar photographs from the early 1970s

by Mark T. Krone

As a volunteer at The History Project, it's a privilege to sift through the treasures of the generous donors who let us into their lives. I can think of no other field where the axiom "the personal is political" is truer than GLBT history. By illuminating the struggles, triumphs, celebrations and ordinariness of everyday life, our donors come out to history.

The tender care of The History Project ensures that these individuals and the artifacts of their lives will never be pushed back into the closet. The very existence of these artifacts--from bar matchbooks to political manifestos--is a loud reminder that we were and are everywhere. That Boston's GLBT history is often neglected does not make it fringe history; it is Boston's history. But it is the neglect of many mainstream historians that adds a feeling of urgency to the work I do. No matter how simple or mundane the work is, I always feel honored to do it.

Recently, I was asked to sort through a collection of photographs from the late-1960s/early-1970s given to The History Project by Tommy Tish. The goal was to determine which photos belonged together. Whether they were taken on the same night? Were the same people in different photos? Did background interiors provide clues to location or time? Fortunately, many displayed the month and year they were developed on the photograph's white borders, a common practice at that time. The largest group of photos was taken at a bar on Halloween. That year, Halloween fell on a Friday, which no doubt added to the celebratory mood.

By current standards, the bar would probably not pass muster. The walls were wood paneled in some areas, making it look like a 1950s rec room. Wallpaper covered other areas. Cool in its day, the wallpaper depicted road signs: STOP!, SLOW DOWN!, DEER CROSSING.

There were no light shows, no monitors, and no DJs.

In a nod to Halloween, a few orange and black balloons hang on the walls. A few men are in drag, which looks sophisticated and adds to the festive atmosphere. The drag seems to me somehow more earnest than comedic. A shirtless, hunky young man with a mustache sits at a table with a trophy in front of him, apparently a contest winner.

The modest decorations and appointments of the bar suggest a simpler, more closeted bar scene. However, the open, exuberant sex depicted in some of the pictures portrayed a more libertine time, reminding me that history defies easy conclusions.

Either way, the photos capture the warm, amber glow of a Boston bar on Halloween in the early 1970s, where a group of men enjoyed a night out.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Riot at Compton's Cafeteria

Tonight in Seaver Hall at Harvard University, historian Susan Stryker spoke on her 2005 film (with Victor Silverman and Jack Walsh), Screaming Queens: Riot at Compton's Cafeteria. Compton's was one of the few hangouts for drag queens in San Francisco in 1966. When the management calls the cops on a noisy table of drag queen regulars, coffee is thrown in a cop's face. Soon a full-on riot breaks out as tables are thrown and windows smashed. It was almost three years before Stonewall.

The film begins with grainy footage of 1960s San Francisco at night. A deep announcer's voice, dripping with Vitalis proclaims "every big city has its areas of fleshly pleasures. For San Francisco, it is the Tenderloin." Before you can say "reefer madness" the voice recedes and a middle-aged woman appears speaking of her time in the Tenderloin. With warmth and simple honesty, she tells a story of violence, drugs, prostitution and the comradorie of "the girls." Before the mid-60s, their lives were actually exciting and at times glamorous. But when drugs and violence took over the Tenderloin, the police cracked down, causing more violence to the transpeople.

On a hot August night (Stryker cannot locate the exact date as "everyone did a lot of drugs back then and can't recall") the usual crowd gathered at Compton's Cafeteria, a chain cafeteria in the 1950-60s mode. Cops came by to get paid off and to shove patrons out the door who were deemed too loud or drunk or just because the cops did not like them. On this night, the cops were called and the patrons, mostly dragqueens and some male hustlers, fought back.

The lives of the transexuals had become grim. Most were prostitutes and many were on drugs. They lived in transient hotels. But then a glimmer of hope: news of a sex-change operation performed for the first time in the U.S. For many of the women, this was the first bit of good news in a long time. Later, many pointed to this moment as a turning point.

After the film Styker took a few questions from a packed classroom.

Although the Compton's riot happened before Stonewall, the point of the movie was not to displace Stonewall's position as a "first." Stryker pointed out that actions like Compton's can be traced as far back as 1960 and even before. She placed Compton's in a genre of incidents rather than a "first incident." If you want your local PBS station to air the movie, ask them.

Please see web address below for more information. Photo from Screaming Queens website

Monday, November 3, 2008

Election Day

It began in the anxious darkness of early morning.

The small weather station atop Mount Washington reported Rustling.

On 10th Street, a night cleaner coming off duty heard something in
the Dress Circle at Ford's Theatre but when he looked up, nothing.

Just off Mulberry Street, yesterday's Memphis Daily News whipped
into a mini tornado in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel.

Pilots working cross-country redeyes
reported Whirlwinds dancing on the tops of the Rockies, the Smokies
and the Sierra Nevada.

And after sunrise, a Rumbling through the Plains.

On their way to vote, early workers leaned into Gusts down the center of
Market Street, Wabash Avenue and along La Cienaga.

Election Day.

Wall Street blushed; Main Street smiled.

Worry and exhaustion was for last night.

Hope is for today.

--Mark Krone

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Voting in America

Photo by Ian Britton

Like all good Americans, my knowledge of this election comes directly from the TV news programs, dwindling newspapers, and radio talk shows featuring hot heads versus blowhards…here’s my thinking so far…first of all, we should not talk about lipstick, not that Obama meant her when he talked…or that she or Wasilla is in the dark at least half the year on many foreign policy issues…meaning that Russia, at the end of her street is in the dark, too…but Hillary is right, we need to give our luke-warm support … she supports the Obama-Biden ticket not just because Biden takes Amtrak…late, he is frequently late…but because he is for the average…no offense to average people…working people. He is a working person’s person…as is Obama but not as long, not to say that Obama lacks experience working, no, there is m ore to governing than sitting in Wash… because we need judgment and good looks…and a prison record from Hanoi…Obama is good looking but so is Michael Palin and the other Palin, too…we cannot fixate on…mortgages or crumbling investment houses…because we are in two wars and everyone who is not 
dead is getting tired…but Bush…his face is on TV with the sound off…we can’t hear him anymore...we can’t place exactly when he got so old…there is a group of men in cowboy hats yelling “Drill baby, drill.” (Dentists?)…we have to move forward to the change we can believe in…but only if we realize that this is a campaign of complex issues that demand clear thinking.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Capote Faces the Dark

Capote with his "swans."  
(Open source photo.)

Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers
(Book review by Mark Krone published in The Gay & Lesbian Review May/June 2008.)

For a time, Truman Capote was fading from collective memory. When discussed at all, he was quickly and safely caricatured into a long scarf and a spoiled child’s voice much in the way that Elvis became little more than his peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. True originals confound easy categorization and cannot be miniaturized to fit the needs of our media culture, itself sustained by that unsettling combination of adoration and jealous contempt of the star class. Occasionally, even genuine fans unwittingly contribute to their hero’s obliteration by flattening them with sentimentalism and stereotype. Unfortunately, just such a disservice has been rendered to Truman Capote and his life-long friend, Harper Lee by Kim Powers in his recent book Capote in Kansas, a fictionalized account of their relationship including the time they spent together in Kansas investigating the Clutter murders, the subject of Capote’s most famous book, In Cold Blood.

Born in New Orleans in 1924, Truman Capote inherited his father’s hard drinking and his mother’s social ambitions, traits that would later prove lethal to Capote’s career and health. His mother’s departure from the small southern town where they lived for Park Avenue and a second husband might have worked out for young Truman whose theatrical demeanor was more suited for New York where even children are socially ambitious, but she left him behind, a rejection that was not lost on the child who responded by escaping deeper into literary fantasy and a fragile grandiosity that never left him.

Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms made him famous at 24. His literary talent was all the more unusual for his relative lack of a formal education. An indifferent student, he completed high school but never attended college and was never known to read much (Gore Vidal remarked in his memoir Palimpsest that Capote was intellectually incurious.) At around this time, Capote formed a close relationship with literary scholar Newton Arvin. Their friendship was an intellectual revelation to Capote. Arvin introduced him to a wide range of ideas and filled in large gaps in knowledge through the best means for the loquacious Capote – conversations -- that often lasted well into the dark Westchester nights at Yaddo, where they were both on writing fellowships.

A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a collection of short stories was published to warm reviews in 1949 securing Capote’s position as a major new stylist who evoked the rich night world of hard rains and Spanish moss where the yawning gulf between children and adults produced a solitary silence that rang throughout all of his later work.

Indeed this gulf of silence and longing, first hollowed out by the wake his mother left that stretched from Monroeville, Alabama, where he sat in trees promising his friend Harper Lee that his mother was coming for him (and never did) to New York society, proved so deafening that all the money, fame and booze he could muster against it later in life, were never enough until it presaged the silence of the afterlife itself.

Despite its tragic overtones, Capote’s life was also triumphant and this should not be forgotten. He was brave and candid if not always truthful. He probed the darkest hearts behind the phony Pepsodent smiles of the 1950s and early 1960s. His era was not a time for candor, to put it mildly, yet Capote’s very existence was a rebuke to the suffocating sexual mores which smothered the nation yet had astonishingly little effect on him.

Tightlipped and archly polite during the work week, how many gay gentlemen and ladies returned home to root for Capote as he slugged it out on Johnny Carson’s sofa with the over-heated, macho stars of the era, defiantly lisping insults in any direction he chose. Gossip columnists thought Capote’s targets were important but they were just straw men standing in for the repressive expectations of society; it was the defiance that mattered. Capote was effeminate all right, but so were all the bravest men who could not take cover behind a Marlboro’s man persona and decided to live with the consequences rather than in the shadows. This must be why Norman Mailer once called Capote “a ballsy little guy,” no small compliment from the late literary prizefighter, who like Hemingway, valued physical courage above good writing but preferred to possess both.

Eras and most of the writers they produce come and go, especially now that most of what is written (and presumably read) never makes it onto paper but stays afloat in the wispy warehouse of words and images called cyberspace. By the 1990s, Capote’s reputation was fading. Then came the movies: Capote in 2005 followed by Infamous in 2006. With them, Capote had finally achieved in death what had eluded him during the last 20 years of his life, a comeback.

Directed by Bennett Miller and based on a portion of Gerald Clarke’s authoritative biography of the same name, Capote, was somewhat overshadowed by the dead-on Oscar-winning portrayal of the author by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Infamous was then released by Warner Independent Films, directed by Douglas McGrath and based on George Plympton’s Conversations with Capote. Although it suffered by opening after Capote, Infamous provided a fascinating psychological examination of what lead to Capote’s inability to produce another novel after In Cold Blood. It also includes much of the background of Capote’s unsuccessful struggle to complete Answered Prayers, his thinly disguised account of New York society that lost him friends and dinner invitations from Fifth Avenue to River House.

It is difficult to imagine that even a successful TV writer like Kim Powers could have sold a fictionalized account of Capote and Harper Lee researching In Cold Blood without the increased interest in Capote the movies generated.

A writer for Good Morning America, Powers first book, The History of Swimming, was a memoir centering on the trials of twin brothers growing up gay in a dysfunctional family. In Capote In Kansas, Powers’ turns his attention to two writers who influenced and fascinated him and one suspects that this is a book he had to write but unfortunately, it not one that must be read.

The danger in fictionalizing people who have led outsized lives more strange than fiction is that they will be diminished in the hands of all but the most skillful writers. Powers is not able to harness Capote’s manic conversational brilliance. There is no evidence of the well-timed remark or the intriguing anecdotal story involving other famous people (Capote knew them all). Why not take advantage of this singularly captivating storyteller to dress up the book and keep the reader’s attention? Powers’ Capote is a frightened, weepy bore.

If Capote lacks sparkle, the rest of the characters are even less engaging. Myrtle, Capote's long-suffering salt-of-the-earth housekeeper has all the complexity of a 1930s MGM maid as she repeats to herself constantly “only God knows what’s in the minds of white people.” She refers to Capote as “Mr. Truman” and when they are both outside crouching next to a car (don’t ask why), Powers describes them thusly, “There they were Ebony and Ivory, propped up against the metal backrest of a rusted-out car, the dark sky and palm trees high around them.” Ebony and Ivory?

At one point, Capote and Lee are leaving a bar in Kansas, Powers writes of Capote’s exuberant bar hopping, “Oh, this night was young, and cold; and there were places to see and miles to go before they slept.” This limp allusion to Frost begs for the saving deletion of an editor’s pen.

Harper Lee referred to as Nelle, the name her friends called her, is portrayed as a southern spinster who lives with her prickly, suspicious sister, also a spinster. She has written To Kill a Mockingbird, which wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. but nothing since. Unfortunately, Powers raises the issue that at the time of the release of the book, rumors circulated that Capote and not Lee, had written it. This runs counter to everything we know (good and bad) about Capote. Sharing credit was not his thing. If something of his had won the Pulitzer, he would have claimed it. It seems odd to raise this long forgotten rumor about an author (Lee) that Powers professes to admire.

Capote in Kansas centers on ghostly visitations to Capote from the Clutter family whose murder by two men who broke into their home ostensibly to steal cash but after finding none, murdered Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their children on a wind swept Kansas prairie formed the basis for In Cold Blood. The ghostly daughter Nancy, who angrily demands an apology from him for exploiting their tragic murders for his book, especially unnerves Capote. Even this seems to hit a wrong note. Capote’s essential conflict had more to do with his relationship to the killers then with the family. He befriended them to win their trust for the sake of the book but was also appalled by their crime and portrayed it in all its gruesomeness in the book. The deeper he probed into the minds of the killers, the more he saw that they were not as unlike him and the rest of humanity as he wanted to believe.

There are few writers who are also public personalities these days mostly because there is no longer a public forum for them. Talk show hosts will not book them for fear that they will use a large word or say something complex. It is difficult to imagine feuds between writers mattering as when Vidal battled with Mailer or Capote or all three battled each other. It was a rather long time ago now. From photos, Capote’s apartment looks like Oscar Wilde could have lived there. The Pottery Barn generation of gay men would have seemed foreign to him and would have amused him (“why do they all want to live like Donna Reed?” he might have asked). And he would not have crossed the threshold of a gym for all the vodka in the Russian Tea Room.

For all the book’s faults, Powers must be thanked. It’s been a long time since we last heard from Truman Capote. Like the recent movies, it brought him back to us. We had not realized how much we missed him.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chuck Close: "People's faces are the road map of their lives."

Chuck Close, self portrait
(open source image)

(Article by Mark Krone published on the Boston University School of Visual Arts website, December, 2008)

Tonight, to a packed hall at Boston University, Chuck Close spoke of artists as performers, calling art the frozen evidence of a show the audience missed. Staged in the privacy of the artist's studio, distilled in a painting, the missed performance is what moves the public ever afterwards.

In an appearance billed as a conversation with close friend Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, Close traced his beginnings as an artist to face blindness, multiple learning disabilities, his grandmother, and the relative affordability of 1960s New York. It is rare for an artist to be so sure about the genesis of each and every part of his career but Close disclosed casually that he has been in therapy for over 35 years.

Early on, Close saw in his grandmother a kindred spirit (and perhaps she in him) whose anxiety forced her to search for activities to keep her hands busy. He recalled sitting on the sofa with her in the early 1950s, watching the McCarthy hearings (Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous Senate committee that accused people of being subversives with little or no evidence). As she knitted, he recognized that she grew calmer. The mental note was made: busy the hands and the chaos within lessons.

To help him to distinguish faces, Close began taking close-up head shots of friend's faces so that he could study them at home. "I needed to flatten the face out. I wanted to look at them to see if I saw what I thought I saw." Like a lot of learning disabled people, I was overwhelmed by the whole; I needed to break everything down into parts so that I could understand."

Like other painters of his generation, it was important to Close that his work not betray the influences of other artists. This attitude is in direct opposition to the appropriationism of today's artists. "You did this by purging your work of anything that might look like something others were doing. (Today) we are too much interested in problem solving. Far more interesting is to create problems that none of the current answers fit."

Aware that Andy Warhol was creating iconic portraits of the super famous, Close wanted to concentrate on unknown people. A friend, composer Phillip Glass, who worked as a plumber for Close, was an early subject as was painter Richard Serra. (They did not remain anonymous for long.) An admirer of Warhol ("I own two Marilyns"), Close pointed out that they differed in a number of ways, including in process. Where Warhol produced works "in one swipe of a squeegee," Close enjoyed the painstaking, cumulative process of creating an image from hundreds of smaller ones, thus his work is often one thing from afar and quite another close up.

"I wanted to make faces into a landscape. People's faces are the road map of their lives." Close shunned laughing or crying faces which reveal only one emotion. Intimate, close-up portraits of faces staring not so much at the viewer as at life, can reveal many journeys and emotions, sometimes contradictory but always springing from the decisions and happenstance that comprise a life. "A face staring out at you has many things to say."

The newness of an art form is difficult to capture in retrospect, especially if it has had the success of Close's work and become part of the lexicon. Close reminded the audience that in the early 1960s, a widely taught rule forbade painters to create a person's head larger than life-size. This occasionally resulted in bizarre renderings of huge bodies on broad canvasses with tiny heads dutifully shrunk to life-size. It was not the only conventional wisdom Close ignored.

"If you were dumb enough to be a painter, it was even worse to be a portrait painter. When critic Clement Greenberg, said that you could not do portraits at all, I knew I was going to have little competition."

Storr saved the audience from the tedium of two friends admiring each other in public by asking provoking questions, such as, "It has been said that quality in modern art is freshness. How do you maintain quality (freshness) by doing portraits of people's faces since 1962?" Close pointed out that photography allowed him to re-visit an image many times, "I recycle it. I see a new scale and vocabulary each time."

In reply to Storr's question about why Close has appeared so often in recent years at functions, fund raisers and talks in support of art and artists, Close pointed to his time in the hospital and subsequent paralysis. The idea of "the community of artists" became real as one artist after another visited him in the hospital, including Jasper Johns, Paul Cadmus, Bob Raushenburg and many others. Some were competitors over the years but all genuinely supported him during that time. "The community of artists is competitive, as it should be, but it is also incredibly supportive."

Dispelling the myth that artists are compelled by mysterious forces to create art whether it ever sees the light day or not, Close told the mostly student audience that at least half their efforts should be aimed at getting their work out to the public.

"I am not one of those artists who if stuck on a deserted island would cut a vein to use the blood for paint. If it is not going to be seen, I am not going to do it."

For the first time that evening, like one of his portraits, Close strained to face the audience head-on.

"I do it for you," he said.