Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 12/06/1999.
From the original introduction: "Well, I'm back. For those of you who didn't realise I'd been away, I should point out that the trip to New York to review The Phantom Menace was merely the start of a two-week American city trek, which also took in a few days in Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The holiday video (entitled Four Cities) gets its world premiere on Independence Day weekend, to a small invited audience of Spank's Pals. Aside from the obvious sightseeing, there was a fair bit to interest an artistically inclined australopithecine over the space of a fortnight..."
As Rob D said, "You're the only person I know who'd fly all the way from London to New York, and then spend his first night seeing a band from bloody Croydon." It seemed like a good idea when I booked to see Saint Etienne at the Irving Plaza, but by the time the actual gig came around I'd been awake for 22 hours straight and was starting to lose it badly. I got over the jetlag by downing a Starbucks Quintuple Espresso Grande Synapse Shagger, and then shotgunning three cans of Guinness in rapid succession at the venue itself. (Once I'd persuaded the bar staff that I was over 21, of course. And anyone who knows me personally can stop sniggering at that last sentence right now. Everyone needs to show ID to buy beer at a gig, even ageing hipsters like myself. Presumably if I'd been trying to buy a gun instead, it would have been less trouble.)
The Irving Plaza is a splendidly decaying old ballroom in downtown Manhattan, and the audience was a fairly eclectic mix of young hipsters out for the night, old lags comme moi, a surprisingly high number of gay couples, and (in a suitably surreal introduction to the New York social scene) a gorgeous girl with the Mattel logo tattooed on her back. They gave Saint Etienne an incredibly warm reception, and Sarah and the boys were obviously quite touched. Possibly as a result of this, for once the songs felt less like scientific experiments in the creation of classic pop, and more like the real thing. A splendidly bouncy rendition of He's On The Phone was the best number: Hobart Paving would have been nice, but you can't have everything.
Truth be told, I didn't like New York all that much. David Letterman summed it up interviewing a tourist on his show: "So you've been here a couple of hours and yeah, I know what you're thinking. It's a sewer." Sure, it's huge, but everything seems permanently on the verge of collapse. However, get some distance above street level, either by ascending the Empire State Building or forking out for a helicopter tour, and you can see why people fall in love with the city once you get sufficiently far away from it. This is probably a less than flattering way to lead into a Blondie review. Nevertheless, from row FF of the Upper Loge at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, Debbie Harry still looked good enough to dispel the "Blondie now fronted by Madge from Neighbours" rumours that Need To Know were trying to spread a few months ago. Debbie's now matured into that dangerous auntie that people keep their kids away from at weddings: for evidence, look at how fans in the front row left flowers on stage, and she bit their heads off and spat them back at the audience. (That's the heads of the flowers, by the way.)
Blondie are well aware of their luck in getting a second chance at pop stardom, and the stage backdrop proved it - a huge video grab of Debbie's eye, with the timecode Warholishly set to fifteen minutes and counting. There were two ways this gig could have gone: either they could take the Van Morrison approach of denying their back catalogue ever existed and just play the songs from new album No Exit, or they could give the crowd what they want. The show started with the one-two punch of Dreaming and Hanging On The Telephone, and the crowd was theirs from that point on. Surprisingly, the new songs hold up just as well as the old stuff: most bands would kill for a line as good as "walking on imported air" from Maria. My favourite was a loopily extended version of Rapture, but your favourite was probably in there too.
They warned me that Broadway was an old people's theme park these days, but even then I was surprised by the geezer who asked at the box office of the Music Box "This is a play, right? Not a movie?" The play I was seeing there - Patrick Marber's British hit Closer - is famed throughout Broadway for getting a much younger and hipper audience than usual, but the night I saw it there were still enough old biddies who spontaneously combusted the first time Natasha Richardson used The C Word. The play doesn't seem to have changed very much in the two years since I saw it in London (was the "Sultan of Twat" line always in there?), and has been beefed up by a hot British cast. Anna Friel & Rupert Graves are the young couple who meet cute in a road accident, Natasha Richardson is the photographer that Graves starts an affair with, and Ciaran Hinds is the doctor who Graves tricks into meeting Richardson by pretending to be her in an Internet chat room. Over a period of a couple of years, the four orbit around each other in a complex love quadrangle until the inevitable collisions take place.
On second viewing, Marber's play is starting to look actor-proof: like my all-time favourite (Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw), it's so well-constructed that as long as the cast say the lines clearly and don't bump into the furniture, it'll work. (Actually, that's about the best that can be said for Rupert Graves' performance, though the other three are very good, and Anna Friel is stunning in her stage debut.) It's interesting to compare this with Playing By Heart, a movie about relationship traumas in LA that I caught on the plane over, which has an even more stellar cast (Sean Connery, Gillian Anderson, Gina Rowlands, Dennis Quaid and more) but a centre of pure mush as everyone whinges on about nobody understanding their needs. Closer takes a more cynically adult approach, looking at our aching desire for honesty in relationships and our complete inability to cope with it once we get what we want. And the scorching honesty of the play itself points up the numerous terrific jokes, like Richardson's "You don't make me come. I just come. You're... in the area. Providing valuable support."
What with Closer and a string of David Hare plays pulling the crowds, the feeling on Broadway is that there's a real British invasion going on right now. So what's popular in American theatre? The simple answer would have to be Shear Madness, as it's the longest running straight play in the country: it opened in Boston over 20 years ago and is still playing there, with satellite productions in three other cities. It even had a short life in London's West End as Scissor Happy, with a cast of improv veterans like Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen. The ability to think up lines on your feet is a key requirement for cast members in Shear Madness, thanks to its unique structure. We start by watching the events leading up to a murder above a hairdressing salon. When the police arrive, the four main suspects are made to reconstruct the minutes leading up to the murder, with the audience asked to shout when they see any deviations from the original story. The audience then gets to cross-examine the suspects themselves before the final revelation of the murderer.
Within this framework, there's plenty of room for local and topical jokes to be inserted. I saw the play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, so it was only a matter of time before one of the suspects pompously proclaimed "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!" But though the bad gags are hurled at you in such quantities as to eventually break down any resistance you may have to them, it's the interactive element that's kept Shear Madness rolling for so long. It requires a cast that knows their characters and plot inside out to be able to cope with any questions the audience can throw at them. The central role of policeman Nick is key: basically he's the ringmaster of the piece, keeping an audience of 400 under control as they all shout things at the stage, pushing them along the right path and ensuring the less obvious clues don't get missed. Joe Popp handled this brilliantly the night I saw it (the cast changes frequently), even giving up his interval to stand in the foyer while the kids from the audience bombarded him with their theories and questions. Here in England, our longest running play is The Mousetrap, but Shear Madness is very different: it's funnier, it's got a more talented cast, and the policeman didn't do it.
Though you wouldn't have thought it reading the American press at the tail end of May 1999, films other than The Phantom Menace were being shown in cinemas. I caught up with quite a few movies over there: given my lack of a car in Los Angeles, there wasn't much else I could do in the evenings. To get a couple of the lesser ones out of the way quickly: Mike Newell's Pushing Tin is a black comedy about two guys (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) competing in the workplace, given an edge by their workplace being Air Traffic Control for the skies over New York. The ensuing pissing contest builds to a fine nasty peak, but then wimps out horribly in the last half hour to go for a wholly inappropriate upbeat ending, as the Yanks so often do. Meanwhile, in The Loss Of Sexual Innocence, Mike Figgis uses the cash from Leaving Las Vegas and One Night Stand to indulge himself in a non-linear art movie. The confusing story of four different periods in the love life of a filmmaker (director's code for I Am Having A Mid Life Crisis Right Now And Need Your Sympathy) is intercut with crassly symbolic scenes of a young couple in the wilderness (surely he isn't going to... oh, he is). As always with Figgis, it looks and sounds terrific, but there's nothing really going on. (The same thing could be said about the somewhat dissimilar The Matrix, but as that's now opened in the UK I'll leave you to find out about that for yourselves.)
There were two Star Trek related films doing the rounds, to mop up the sci-fi fans unable to make it into Phantom Menace (even at the multiplex in San Francisco that was showing the damn thing thirty times a day over five screens). Trekkies is a documentary about various aspects of Star Trek fandom, and yes, Roger Nygard's film does address the whole Trekkie/Trekker dichotomy at one stage. A reasonable proportion of the movie is devoted to the positive aspects of Gene Roddenberry's moral universe - you wouldn't have caught him giving the bad aliens in a trade war Japanese accents, unlike some creators you could mention. There's the lovely story of a young Whoopi Goldberg seeing Uhura for the first time and yelling "Mom! There's a black lady on TV! And she ain't a maid!" But in the end what we really want are geeks in costumes attending conventions, and Trekkies delivers them in spades: from the Whitewater juror who wore her Starfleet uniform throughout the trial, to the couples who dress themselves (and their pets) as characters. Denise "Tasha Yar" Crosby hosts the film with just the right degree of irony, even when showing off fan paintings of her shagging Data.
Free Enterprise, on the other hand, is a romantic comedy best described as a kinder, gentler Clerks. Except here, the two guys are in LA media jobs rather than a convenience store, and their obsession is with Trek rather than Star Wars. Both barely able to hold down a relationship due to their anal natures, they're approaching thirty and starting to get panicky (of course, one of them ends up having nightmares based around Logan's Run). Don't worry about not being able to spot all the sci-fi references that director Robert Meyer Burnett and his co-writer Mark A. Altman throw at you: basically, this is a neat semi-autobiographical study of male obsession and the women who put up with it, nicely acted by Erik McCormack and Rafer Weigel playing thinly-disguised versions of the writers. But it's given a great surreal edge by William Shatner playing himself, trying to use the guys' contacts to film a six-hour musical version of Julius Caesar with all the male roles played by himself. Nothing - not even that record Shatner made in the Sixties - can prepare you for No Tears For Caesar, the song that closes the film.
Finally, we have Election - the best film I saw on holiday, and nearly the best film I've seen so far this year (Orphans still has the edge). For once, a nasty American comedy that doesn't try to get all its characters to redeem themselves in the final reel. Teacher Jim McCallister (Matthew Broderick) is running the election for student president at an Omaha high school. Initially there's only one candidate, the hyper-ambitious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). McCallister is so repulsed by her desire to succeed that he talks class jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) into running against her. Matters are complicated by Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also entering the race (as revenge for Paul stealing her girlfriend), and getting the initial backing of the students on a platform of total apathy. All this just increases Tracy's will to power ever more, and as McCallister's personal life starts to fall apart, the election spirals completely out of his control. Director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have written a very sharp script: all four main characters narrate the story, and it's great to see how they contradict each other and the evidence of the camera. Matthew Broderick is finally convincing as a grownup, but it's Reese Witherspoon's teen harpie who really deserves to be swimming in Oscars, if the Academy has any balls whatsoever.
Writing all this all back home in England, I realise there are some things I'll miss about America after two weeks over there, of course. The way cars turn corners on red lights with the sole intention of killing pedestrians. The way everything costs 8.5% more than it says on the price tag. And it's a bit weird finding myself back in a country where service personnel are paid some sort of living wage and don't expect tips for absolutely everything. But I'm sure I'll re-adjust. Being a monkey, and all.
Saint Etienne Heaven may or may not be the official site for Saint Etienne, but it's as good as you're going to get for the moment. News, discography, the usual stuff.
Blondie have a splendidly chunky official site, whose gig lists include details of online booking where available. Thanks to them, I got my ticket for the San Francisco show through BASS Tickets [dead link], top suppliers for concert tickets in the Bay Area.
Closer [hijacked link] has a clever site structured around the twelve locations in the play. Details of past and present personnel involved, and even a bulletin board to talk to other people about Closer-related matters.
Shear Madness has details of all the productions of the play, not just the one I saw in Washington.
The Kennedy Center in Washington DC has a whole range of things going on apart from Shear Madness, including free concerts every night at 6pm EST on their Millennium Stage, which are not only broadcast live in Real Video but also archived in their entirety. Check out The Grandsons, who were playing the night I was there (May 26th 1999) - they've got the whole 62 minute gig there for you in streaming format.