How to Date the Travis Bickle Way

In Taxi Driver there’s a scene where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a movie, which turns out to be X rated. (It’s reportedly Ur kärlekens språk, a graphic sex-ed film from Sweden.) Maybe not the most conventional choice for a first date, it goes over poorly.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I went to a concert on this past Sunday night. You may remember that my social anxiety makes this a daunting prospect; but Jonathan Richman was performing at a local bar, and I was determined not to miss the chance to go. So determined, in fact, that I spent the week leading up to it  quashing the recurring urge to back out. By the time I met up with Tim and his friend, I was pretty much a  nervous cat and expected the worst at every turn.

Fortunately we all got along together, and the only hiccup was that some tickets were left in a coat that hadn’t attended with us. Not a huge deal on my end, as I hadn’t paid my way yet anyhow. Besides, admission was ridiculously cheap. All that mattered to me was securing one of the few wall-hugging stools. The three of us managed to snag exactly one stool, which was graciously granted to me. Then the woman who’d saved the seat next to me offered to free that one up by sliding over. We thanked her and annexed the stool to our growing kingdom of seatedness.

Eventually her husband arrived and sat down, but we didn’t really notice. As usual, Tim and I had started talking about movies. The first I was aware of the guy, he’d leaned over and injected himself into the conversation. After some awkward back-and-forth, he decided that it was sharing time.

Fella: Hey, you guys know a lot about movies, right?

Me: Some, yeah.

Fella: So you might know this one. For our first date, I took my girlfriend — she’s my wife now; this lady here — I took her to see Salo!

Me (weakly): Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Fella: Yeah! It was a test, and she passed!

Salo is a masterpiece, but it’s not the sort of film that you show to an uninformed viewer. It’s an unflinching adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, set in the last days of Mussolini’s Italy. Given writer/director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s previous works, it’s fair to say that the film is intended to show how human love and tenderness can exist in even the most detrimental conditions. However, those conditions include rape, ephebophilia, torture, coprophagia, and assorted other activities that are not for eyes of the cinematically timid or, y’know, people who don’t want to see that sort of thing.

I didn’t ask for the goal of this “test”, but obviously she passed it. Perhaps by ever speaking to him again. She certainly didn’t look thrilled that he was telling the story. The look on her face spoke volumes about how often she’d had to hear him tell it. I wondered briefly what sort of test he’d had to pass; being carbon-based, perhaps. I just hoped he didn’t drive a cab.


Wholly Musical Night

I love Christmas music. Nearly a third of my iTunes library is Christmas related. I’ve got all kinds: classic, traditional, folk, pop, rock, jazz, rap, blues, country, reggae, disco, outsider… and others I’m sure I’m forgetting right now.

So when Erin Zindle, lead of The Ragbirds, announced that they would be putting on their 7th annual Christmas concert with friends — well, I made sure to get tickets.

The concert was last Saturday, and even though I’d worn myself out with being social and learning a new JavaScript package I felt restored just waiting in my seat.

The music was an eclectic mix, which suited me perfectly. There were new arrangements of traditional songs, faithful covers of rock classics like “Run, Run Rudolph” (with George Bedard delivering a blistering rendition of its signature riff) and “Father Christmas, a string quartet, original songs, soul classics, Irish reels, and a spectacular version of the Charlie Brown Christmas theme, featuring banjo. Not quite everything and the kitchen sink, but an enjoyable stew of great music.

Of course, they had me at “Christmas music”, but fiddles, a brass section, and a banjo sealed the deal. Plus, the bongo-fueled “Little Drummer Boy” is one of two arrangements of the song I’ve ever truly liked.

If only they’d had a surf version of “We Three Kings”, it would have been a perfect night. Maybe if I start getting famous for electric uke I’ll get an invite some year. 😉

Let’s Have a Concert

I don’t go out much. I go to work, and there are a few gatherings I attend as a matter of habit, but just going out to a show or something isn’t a thing I do lightly. It used to be my anxiety that held me back, but since getting that more under control I found that I really just prefer to sit and let the cats crawl over me to doing much of anything else.

When I heard that Cake was going to play in Ann Arbor, I had a momentary notion of going to see them. Then I remembered that would involve getting tickets, asking for a day off work to recover from a late night, and cramming myself for hours into a seat designed for use by a species that apparently lacks knees. But before I could entirely dismiss the thought I noticed that Wanda Jackson was going to open the show.

Wanda Jackson!

Jackson was a young country singer when she toured with Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to switch over to his kind of music. She became known as the Queen of Rockabilly with such hits as “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party”. She’s one of the only original generation rockabillies still recording and touring.

I wrestled with the ticket purchasing site, put in for a day off to recover, and bid adieu to my knees. It was a terrific pair of shows that I’m damn glad to have caught!

A Night At The Theatre

In her opening number last night Amanda Palmer sang “I would kill to make you feel”, and that’s what she and The Grand Theft Orchestra did. They killed, and we felt it.

The song list covered Palmer material from many phases of her career in music but understandably emphasized songs from her album with the GTO, “Theatre is Evil”. When the full band (and occasional extra help from locals) played, my insides felt like they were on a vibration belt set to maximum carnage, which was exhilarating and worrisome simultaneously.

Palmer performed “The Bed Song” on her own, providing a quieter moment only slightly marred by (presumably drunken) Philistines carrying on at the main bar. It’s a melancholic tune from the “Theatre is Evil” album that chronicles a lifetime of mutual longing, and while it’s rather obvious it is touching and effective.

A surprise came when she asked for requests. While most called out new songs or classic Dresden Dolls hits, one person requested “Map of Tasmania”, Palmer’s pro-pube anthem. Declaring it to be timely due to PETA’s new body-shaming ad equating fur to having a hairy crotch, she grabbed a uke and tore through a stirring rendition of the song before returning to the matter of requests again.

It’s worth noting that Palmer was very ill and fighting a fever. She came out before the show to inform us and beg forgiveness in advance for her lack of energy but also to assure us that the show would not be cancelled. She looked and sounded like death left forgotten in the microwave. But once she came out to perform, there was very little sign of her condition. She sang, danced, crowd-surfed, and generally gave a hell of a performance. She’s a pro, and I really hope she feels better soon. That could not have been as easy as she made it look.

She closed with the Dresden Dolls hit “Girl Anachronism”, which seemed appropriate. Nothing from Evelyn Evelyn or the Radiohead album, but you can’t have everything. We did get a stunning rendition of “Leeds United”, which may be my favorite song from “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. It’s hard to tell; there are a lot of great songs to choose from there.

I had a lot of fun, and I’m glad I went. I just stood stiffly the entire time, so I probably creeped out a few people. Sorry about that. It was all I could do not to hide in a corner. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that I could stand in that crowd for the whole evening.

Passion for Music

Shortly after posting this, I should be attending a concert in Detroit. Phil and I are going to see Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra. I’m both excited and terrified by this. Terrified because of my usual anxiety about crowds and unfamiliar surroundings, and excited because Amanda Palmer makes me care about music.

I have a lot of musical influences. Talk music with me, and within five minutes I’ll find a way to work in a mention of The Kinks or just Ray Davies. Ten minutes brings out world-class talent like Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. A few more minutes and I’ll tell you all about Wade Curtiss and Hasil Adkins. My point is that I love music and all of the corners and edges in which it resides.

My first exposure to Amanda Palmer — and exposure is often an accurate word with her — was the video for “Coin Operated Boy” by The Dresden Dolls, which a coworker showed me. The song was whimsical, sad, and drenched with emotion, and the video was a masterpiece of artifice. I immediately bought the album and listened to it raptly. The blend of craft and rawness awed me. Screams of agony mixed with carefully constructed musical chaos. At times I feared for Palmer’s fingers and the piano keys she punished with them.

This was passion. This was music that made me feel something beyond simple joy, sorrow, or anger. It made me understand it, and I cared about it.

Not everything that Palmer has done in her career since then has made me react this way, but neither should I expect it to. Because she is passionate about her music she is always exploring, always experimenting. To ask her to remain always the same for my sake is to seek to kill what makes her worth listening to in the first place.

I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for her album with The Grand Theft Orchestra, “Theatre Is Evil”. It turned put to be a really good album with a few outstanding songs. Songs I care about, that I invested in with money and heart.

So yeah. Tonight I’m going to a crowded concert in an unfamiliar venue, despite my anxieties. They can flood my system with bad chemicals, but they can’t overcome my passion for music.

Our Oratorio

I met Wendi during my freshman year in college. She transferred to University of Michigan in the winter term and, seeking out like-minded people, joined the Champions game I was in.

For those unfamiliar, Champions is a Hero System RPG for playing comic book super heroes. If that doesn’t make sense to you, just understand that we were a merry band of geeks armed with bags of dice and 2-liters of caffeinated beverages.

I instantly took a shine to her, and not just because she happened to have estrogen. She was attractive, funny, and confident. Also, she was a junior. I figured she was out of my league. She didn’t agree, but I had no idea of that. I was busily having an odd sort of breakdown in which I started creating my own reality.

Fortunately a summer spent back home rooted me firmly in consensus reality again, and I’ve never lost my mind quite that severely since. Nope.

Um. This was meant to be a fun post. Forget all that stuff about my stupid brain, okay?

Fast forward to my sophomore year. As the fall term progressed Wendi and I started hanging out more, in part because I had switched to the dorm next to hers to be with the majority of our friends. I’d skip Russian class so we could share long lunches at my dorm’s cafeteria. I was failing anyway, so I figured that I might as well enjoy myself.

By the time November came around, I’d started working up the nerve to ask her out. On a date, not just another of our semi-regular trips to the hobby store.

Then Wendi got tired of waiting for me and started going out with Bruce. I call him that because he was fixated on an ex that who reportedly looked like Demi Moore, specifically as she appeared in “Ghost”. I wouldn’t know; I never met either of them — Bruce and Demi, I mean, although I’ve also never met Bruce or Demi.

Wendi and I were still having lunch together, as I nobly stayed beside her just in case Bruce died. The wisdom of this plan was confirmed for me when she bluntly said she’d have gone out with me if I had asked. It hurt to know for certain that I’d blown it, but now I could hope for another chance. All I had to do was never to give up on her. I’d stay at her side, believing that I’d just be happy enough if she were happy.

As it turned out my resolve was never tested, which is probably for the best. My intentions are good, but my attention span isn’t brief so much as it is deeply lazy. It can’t put forth the effort needed to focus on such a long-term commitment.

Less than a week after dropping truth on my lunch, Wendi called me. She had gotten tickets for a performance of Messiah but couldn’t reach Bruce. Would I like to go?

My instinctive reaction was to decline, as I knew that I was not fit for an evening of culture. Fortunately I quickly recast the event as an opportunity to spend time with her — under date-like conditions, no less! Sometimes my brain works perfectly well, thank you.

The night of the performance found us sitting somberly in the theater, trying to absorb culture while deciding whether or not this constituted a first date. By intermission we were worn out. We talked nervously, and out of desperation we scrutinized the program.

That’s when we finally realized that the lyrics were in English.

For the rest of the evening we giggled uncontrollably, under the resentful glower of those around us. I remain unashamed; you can’t expect the repetition of a sentence for five or six minutes to be met with gravitas — not from Gilbert and Sullivan fans. The line we were hearing rattled through my brain, transformed into the meter of “Modern Major General”.

     “He was rejected and despised
     And despised and rejected
     And despised and despised
     And rejected and rejected…”

After that we felt very much relaxed and ourselves. Over dessert at Stucchi’s we talked comfortably and decided that we were indeed dating. We’ve been best friends ever since. I have no idea what happened to Bruce, but his loss was my gain.

We’ve had ups and downs, like any couple, but every time we hear the “Hallelujah” chorus we look at each other and smile. We may not be cultured, but we’ll always have Handel’s Messiah.

The Mathematics of Planning an Evening with Amanda Palmer

I’ve agreed to go to an Amanda Palmer concert this fall. The feeling I get from YouTube clips and online comments is that her shows are not exactly orderly affairs. I’m down for some occasional disorder, but I get very anxious when leaving the familiar too far behind.

I’m a fan of Palmer’s work, and of her impressive dedication to working hard, so I’m comfortable with the evening artistically. It’s bound to be an enjoyable concert. The problems start with the venue, St. Andrew’s Hall. I’ve heard of the place but never been there. Unfamiliar location: +2 anxiety

It’s in Detroit, which doesn’t bother me in itself. I know a lot of people who seem to believe that Detroit is a city that exists in a post-apocalyptic alternate reality, where gangs roam the streets on customized jeeps with buzzsaw attachments. On my visits I’ve only seen urban decay, old men, and old prostitutes. Maybe the gangs are seasonal. Wasteland: +0 anxiety, +1 depression

The trouble I have is that I’m not familiar enough with Detroit to be confident of finding the venue. Or parking, for that matter. Yes, I have GPS with my tri-corder. I don’t like leaving that in my car while going into the grocery store for five minutes; I’m certainly not leaving it there for an hour and a half. If I took it into St. Andrew’s, I’d be focussed on it instead of the music. So, no GPS. Navigational challenges: +1 anxiety

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the crowd. Once the music starts I should be fine, but until then my brain will be screaming at me about all the danger represented by people who don’t even know I exist. Stupid brain: +2 anxiety

Why am I going if I’m looking at 5 points of anxiety and 1 of depression? Well, I can’t let this crap rule my life. A concert may not seem like a big deal, but the more I show my brain that I’ll do as I please the easy it gets. I want to play ukulele on open mic nights. I want to attend comic conventions and introduce my work to new people.

I want to go see Amanda Palmer in concert.

Fortunately I’ll be going there with Phil — co-worker and fellow villain on City of Villains. He’s familiar with St. Andrew’s Hall and area, so that’s -3 anxiety right there. Having a friend to distract me from the crowd is at least another -1 anxiety, so I’ll just be dealing with 1 point each of anxiety and depression. That’s perfectly manageable, and the concert should leave me happy and excited overall.

It should also leave me very tired for work the next day, but that’s okay. I’ll just grin maniacally. Let someone else worry for a change.

Mitch Ryder & The Ann Arbor Heat

By noon today, it was so hot and humid outside that I was sweating in the shade. But outside I went, because an opportunity had been dropped right in my lap. The street outside my workplace was closed down for a free lunch concert by the legendary Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder, and my coworkers were just going to have to deal with the downside of a shared workspace.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of 60s rock. That’s what my brother listened to, and I always followed his lead. To this day I have no idea where he picked up the taste. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who — we devoured any British Invasion music we could find. Inevitably this lead us to “discover” their influences like B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. We became hooked on music, and although our tastes have diverged we’re both continuing to venture into new musical territory.

Somewhere in our teenaged mutual explorations we stumbled on Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It was my white-bread entry into the wonders of soul music. Ryder’s throaty wail soared over driving rhythms and opened up new pathways in my brain. By the time I could see “The Blues Brothers” I’d been fully prepared to appreciate Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, because recordings from this white kid from Detroit had made it to my white suburb of Bay City.

So yeah, today I got a chance to hear a singer who’d opened my ears to a purely American sound. And although his body can no longer display his energy, his voice can still blow out speakers. For an hour I was a teen again, letting the sound move me. Or at least move my toes; it was way too hot to move anything more.