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Christmas Under Waters

 

John Waters hates Easter.

Well, the popular version of it, anyway.

He hates the hunt. He hates hard-boiled eggs. He hates the pastel-colored baskets and the shredded plasti-grass that goes in them. But, most of all, he hates the bunny. Man, does he hate that bunny.

Christmas, on the other hand, is a different story.

Since releasing A John Waters Christmas in 2004—a compilation album of hand-picked holiday oddities from artists like Tiny Tim and Jimmy Donley—the cult filmmaker and best-selling author has used every December to star in a Christmas-themed, one-man show of the same name.

What started as a handful of stand-up dates in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., has now become a well-polished show that makes an annual trek through 15 cities, as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

“I hope it sounds like I’m just talking without any planning,” Waters says, speaking by phone from his hometown of Baltimore. “But it’s completely written out and rehearsed. I need to remind people of important things—like to never ask the fat person in your office to play Santa Claus. That’s the worst, rudest thing you could ever do.”

And while it’s impossible for the transgressive auteur not to infuse his perverse holiday monologues with the same kind of bawdy humor he used in films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and A Dirty Shame, the man once dubbed “The Prince of Puke” swears the show—which comes to Belly Up Tavern on Dec. 4—is more therapy than anything else.

“I don’t have much tongue-in-cheek in this,” he says. “I’m serious when I say I’m going to tell you how to get through Christmas no matter your religion, creed, sexual preference or relationship with your family. If you’re a criminal, a capitalist, Republican or Democrat, I can tell you how to get through it. It’s like a self-help meeting.”

Despite the current version of his traveling support group unabashedly celebrating things like Christmas-tree violence and chocolate, Santa-shaped butt plugs, Waters’ own Yuletide celebrations are relatively tame.

He designs and sends out a Christmas card. He gives gifts. He throws a party. And Waters always takes his turn when it’s time to cook for the family.

“It’s traditional,” he says, “but everything has a twist to it. My mantle has the Unabomber birdhouse on it. My sister does a wreath on the front door, but it has prickly bushes that scratch you on the way in. I decorate an electric chair instead of a Christmas tree. But I’ve always said that to celebrate bad taste, you have to know good taste.”

And gift giving and receiving? For the 66-year-old iconoclast, it’s all about books. A bibliophile with a massive collection, Waters finds as much joy in fringe pulp fiction as he does Tennessee Williams. Whether it’s a cheesy, soft-core sex book with a hilarious cover or an obscure piece of literature he hasn’t yet acquired, Waters wouldn’t want to unwrap anything else on the big day. For years now, on the top of his wish list are movies made into novels.

“I collect those because no one collects them anymore,” he says. “It’s a dead genre. And if anyone can ever find me the novelization of Pootie Tang, I’ll give them a lap dance.”

Waters is an accomplished author himself, with five books to his credit. The latest, 2010’s bestselling Role Models, is a collection of essays, including reflections on Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, singer Johnny Mathis and Baltimore stripper Lady Zorro.

He’ll follow that next year with Carsick, a chronicle of his recent hitchhiking adventure across the country. In it, he both imagines what might happen and documents the actual pickups by, among others, a city council member, a married couple and the indie-rock band Here We Go Magic (they tweeted in disbelief at the time).

“The first third of it is a little novella,” Waters says, “and I’m imagining the very best that could happen on the trip—vicious characters, sex, adventure. Next, I wrote the 15 worst rides possible. The day before I left, I wrote my own death, and then I went and really did it. Twenty-one rides in nine days. Most people thought I was homeless at first. The rest you’ll have to read in the book.”

If it seems strange that an iconic writer / director of 16 films has spent the last eight years doing one-man holiday shows and authoring books, it is, especially considering that Waters’ 1988 film, Hairspray, was turned into a Broadway hit—before Hollywood remade it in 2007—and went on to become the forth-highest grossing musical in U.S. history.

But he hasn’t stopped trying to make movies. He’s been attempting to get his children’s Christmas film, Fruitcake, which he describes as “The Little Rascals on acid,” made since 2008. The studios haven’t been cooperating.

So, instead, at least for now, all of that unrequited holiday commentary is channeled into his live act.

“I hate Easter,” he says. “But I do like Christmas. I just think everyone’s neurotic at Christmas, even if you don’t acknowledge it. And that’s just another form of neuroses. And that’s why I’m here to tell you how you can both love and hate Christmas at the same time.”

Waters is going to keep writing books, and he’s going keep doling out Christmas advice and observations, until someone decides to finance Fruitcake. And if that day never comes, well, he’s fine with that, too.

“It may never go into production,” he says. “That’s why I’m writing a book. But it’s OK. I have many ways to sell stories. It’s not that big of a shame. I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on November 28, 2012

Meyers Expands Far Beyond His Weekend Gig

Actor and comedian Seth Meyers has had one heck of a year.

2011 has seen the 37-year-old satirist hit the decade mark on NBC’s long-running “Saturday Night Live” (his fifth as the show’s head writer and Weekend Update anchor), he hosted ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards for the second year in a row, and was the keynote speaker at this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

Not bad for a one-time Northwestern University improv troupe member.

But despite the comedian’s busy schedule, he can’t help but make time for stand-up as well. An appearance at Pechanga Resort & Casino this weekend will be his last on a recent short run of dates before things at “Saturday Night Live” kick back into full gear.

And surprisingly, squeezing 10 dates of across-the-country comedy into his schedule this summer has little to do with keeping his wit sharp and at the ready.

“I just truly love it,” said Meyers recently from New York. “It’s a nice side effect that it keeps you on your toes, but that’s certainly not the only reason I do it. I mean, it’s a whole lot more fun than, say, getting up and going to the gym in the morning. But I do truly love doing stand-up and traveling around the country performing in front of different and unique crowds. It’s a blast.”

After this weekend’s show at Pechanga, Meyers will return to the East Coast and focus exclusively on the new season of “Saturday Night Live.” And it is not lost on him that this season is indeed significant.

“It’s a very cool milestone,” he said. “My very first show at ‘SNL’ was the first one they did after 9/11. So I’m constantly reminded that I’m hitting my decade point. But 10 years is crazy. And I’ve been in the same office the whole time. The only difference is that when I started, there were two other writers in it with me. The way they promote you at ‘SNL’ is that they take people out of your office. They don’t move you to a nicer one.”

Despite not getting new digs during his tenure with the show, the comedian notes the timing of his selection to the cast as a benefit itself.

“I’ve been really lucky in my time with the show,” Meyers said. “I feel like when I came in, I got to work under people who were excellent at the job like Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon. And the people I came in with were people like Amy Poehler. I’ve also been able to be around for great new people like Bill Hader. I’ve been able to work with great people over the last 10 years.”

Meyers’ good fortune hasn’t ended there. His high-profile gig on late-night television has translated into a few prodigious hosting opportunities in the last few years.

A huge sports fan, he has helmed ESPN’s ESPY Awards for the past two years; and blurring the line between his political satire and its subjects, he had the honor of giving the keynote speech at the White House Correspondents dinner in April.

“It was crazy,” he said. “Of all the gigs I’ve had in my life, it was certainly the one I was most nervous about. But there’s almost no better comedy format than the roast. And there’s something so wonderful about getting to roast the most powerful people on Earth on a night where it’s understood you’re supposed to do that. Ninety-nine percent of that audience understands it’s a night where they could get teased, and that makes it really fun.”

Meyers took the business of being funny that night very seriously.

“I worked with about five other writers,” he said. “We got together, read everything we’d written, and then whittled down. Other comedians may take those jokes out to a club to see how they played, but because it’s such an inside room, I didn’t want to do a joke I didn’t have faith in and have it stiff. So the craziest part of it all was that it was the first time I told any of those jokes. ‘SNL’ has a dress rehearsal and the ESPYs bring in an audience so I can test my monologue. But that was the first time I ever did those jokes in public.”

It also marked the first time something Meyers had done went totally global.

“It was exciting for me,” he said. “Because ‘SNL’ doesn’t play abroad, it’s something that really resonated overseas. And it was great for the foreigners I know who live in New York, because to them, it’s an amazing thing that I was allowed to stand next to the president and tell jokes about him. There just aren’t a lot of countries where you get to do that.”

But Meyers says all of it really comes back to growing up in a funny household. He and his brother, Josh of “MADtv,” both took their cues from their joke-cracking father and the family’s penchant for comedy in general.

“My parents were big fans of ‘SNL,’ Monty Python, Woody Allen and Steve Martin,” he said. “And they exposed us to that stuff at a far earlier age than a lot of other kids are. The timing of all of those things was really helpful. Also, my mother has laughed at everything my father has said for the last 40 years. And my mother is a beautiful woman. So my brother and I have always thought that was how you got a beautiful woman. It’s the move we can all fall back on.”

 

Fishbone Doc About More Than The Music

“Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” opens with a 1992 performance from the eclectic band at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.

The venue is packed and the crowd chants, “Fishbone is red hot!” Clap, clap. “Fishbone is red hot!” Clap, clap. And while this is something that Fishbone crowds have chanted, and been prompted to chant, at their shows over their 30-plus years, it’s doubtful the audiences knew just how appropriate it was.

Fishbone is a band that has burned brighter than many, but also one that hasn’t been able to touch people in the way that they should have.

This point is driven home by filmmakers Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler in the very next scene, when it flashes forward to 2007, and the Los Angeles funk outfit is playing for a sparse crowd of curious onlookers in Hungary. That continual juxtaposition permeates the film and gives it a compelling, tangible humanity.

“We wanted to capture their life, the beauty, the pain, the dysfunction, everything,” said Anderson recently from his Orange County home. “The life of aging rockers scraping to get by is not glamorous. And we, as an audience, can probably relate more to that than to other aspects of the rock ‘n’ roll world. We wanted to move beyond the stage and treat them as unique individuals working to overcome the various obstacles in their lives. And to see them struggle, but staying on their own creative course, is heartening and even heroic.”

The film showcases the uncompromising band’s ascent to stardom alongside fellow L.A. rockers Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the ’80s, and documents the myriad factors —- race, label problems, marketing, in-fighting and desertion —- that prevented them from following their peers to widespread popularity. The film deftly mixes historical context with the band’s personal story in a way that operates successfully on multiple levels.

“Race was a part of Fishbone’s story,” Anderson said. “There just weren’t many black rock bands at the time, and that may explain how such a talented band may have struggled to find a wider audience. But there were other parts of the story to be told, because these are compelling figures in their own right, irrespective of race.

“Also, this is a band that has never broken up. They’ve lost members, but have never taken even 6 months off for almost 30 years. They are working artists, still making music, and we did not want to treat them as if their story was over. A lot of credit goes to our editor, Jeff Springer, who managed to create a coherent flow that has its own kind of rhythm.”

Using narration from Laurence Fishburne, and interviews with admirers Gwen Stefani, Ice-T, Branford Marsalis, Tim Robbins, Les Claypool, and a slew of others, it becomes undeniably apparent, aside from the band’s success or lack thereof, that Fishbone has had a major impact on popular music.

“It was pretty easy to get everyone to agree to do interviews,” Anderson said. “Most of them were either friends of the band or were fans of their music. The challenge was more in the scheduling. Mr. Fishburne was great as a narrator and was happy to do it, because he has been a friend with the band since the early ’80s.”

Another thing that helps to separate the film from stereotypical docs is its creative use of art to tell the story. The fascinating way the band originated, and much of its auspicious beginnings, are told through cartoon montages., and oil paintings are used later to help tell a more serious period in the band’s history.

“We wanted to add a little extra texture,” Anderson said, “an extra layer of visuals that would help enhance the story beyond the use of photographs or other typical devices used in documentaries. The cartoons depicting the band forming in junior high seemed like a fun way to illustrate their storytelling and to introduce the characters. And making them in that ‘Fat Albert style’ helps place the audience in the time period of the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

The film has been playing on the festival circuit since last year and will make an appearance in Temecula this weekend. In the first week of October, it will premiere in New York and Los Angeles.

The film’s crowning achievement is that it is compelling and eminently watchable, regardless of one’s familiarity with the subject. And for Fishbone, a band that deserves to have its story told, every day may not have been sunshine, but they’re refusing to give up.

“We did not know where the story was going,” Anderson said. “Would there be a happy ending or some big moment where they are thrust back onto the big stage? Or would they crash and burn, like so many rock bands? After a while, we realized that their story would go on, and that seemed to be an appropriately optimistic feeling to end the film with.

“The band will be releasing a new album in October and they continue to tour all over the world. They will keep rocking regardless, if the film helps folks discover or rediscover the band. Part of the fun is we’ll get to watch what happens along with everyone else.”

 

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Everyone’s High on Cee-Lo These Days

Thomas Callaway (aka Cee-Lo Green) will perform at Fluxx on Thursday night. But it’s three days later, at the 53rd Grammy awards, when he has the chance to add to a string of recent career highlights that seem like they’re never going to end.

Callaway is no stranger to the Grammys, winning two in 2007 with collaborator Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) as half of the duo Gnarls Barkley. The nominations for this year’s awards show are not only bigger (Best Record of the Year, Best Song of the Year), if he happens to take home any statues, he’ll win them alone.

The child of two ordained ministers, Callaway first started singing in church. In his late teens, he found success with the rap outfit the Goodie Mob, who, with along with Outkast, helped to both put Atlanta on the hip-hop map and make the phrase Dirty South known west of the Mississippi and north of the Bible Belt.

After three albums with the Goodie Mob, Callaway left to pursue a solo career. Despite collaborations with the likes of Ludacris, Timbaland and Pharrell, his two solo efforts received lukewarm commercial receptions, and he was dropped from Arista Records.

Then came his partnership with Burton in Gnarls Barkley, and everything changed. The single “Crazy” bucked major trends by hitting No. 1 while still only a digital release and went on to reach that peak all over the globe.

These days, Callaway is still making a habit of bucking trends. He’s again hit the top spot and garnered Grammy nods, but this time it’s with the ironically titled single, “Fuck You.”

I recently spoke with the singer/rapper/producer about having a No. 1 single that can’t be played on the radio without editing, the future of Gnarls Barkley and Goodie Mob, and keeping up with multiple projects.

Scott McDonald: How are you? Wait, what am I saying? You’re good, right?
Cee-Lo Green: Well, you know what they say: Somebody’s doing better, and somebody’s doing worse. So you can’t complain about being in the middle somewhere.

SM: I know you just played with Prince. How did that go?
CL: The show was a success. And it was successful in just the way that the word success sounds. And by that, I mean it’s really an understatement. It was incredible.

SM: Your schedule is crazy these days. How do you find time to write? Do you do it on the road or wait until you have some time off?
CL: All of the above. Sometimes I’m plotting bits and pieces to complete a thought of something bigger that’s already in place, and sometimes it’s all at once. But it’s a bit of a jigsaw. There’s no formula to it, but there’s a method to the madness. It just depends on how it comes. But someone like Lil’ Wayne has mastered that multitasking far better than I have. I really respect his hustle and how hard he goes about it. But there is always a difference between quantity and quality product, so sometimes, it’s better to take a little longer — usually it’s worth it.

SM: You just appeared on Saturday Night Live, and I know you’ve done voices for things like Robot Chicken. Any plans to take on acting more seriously?
CL: To me, they’re kind of one in the same. They’re like, what is it, maternal twins? One comes a little later than the other, but they’re still identical. It’s kinda like that. When you experience something and you write it down, and then go to the booth to re-enact or reanimate that experience, you are acting a bit. It’s a reenactment. So they’re very closely related. I have no plans, but I’m always open to good projects.

SM: Do you find it strange that the Grammys nominated a song titled “Fuck You?”
CL: I think so. It’s pretty unique and peculiar. But then again, I’ve seen a lot of stranger things happen. I mean, I’ve seen a monkey riding a bicycle.

SM: How do you feel about having to change the lyrics all the time?
CL: It is what it is. But you know what’s cool? “Fuck You” and “Forget You” were in the Top 10 at the same time. As a matter of fact, you know what’s cooler than that? Let’s get ice cold: “Fuck You,” “Forget You” and the Gleeversion of “Forget You” were all in the Top 10 at the same time. So what can I say?

SM: I heard the Goodies were getting back together. True?
CL: The Goodie Mob is reunited. But we were really never severed. We were just stretched out. Over time, it’s just been a testament to our elasticity. We’re working on a new record right now. It’s the next thing you’ll hear from me.

SM: Gnarls Barkley?
CL: I just talked to Brian recently. We’re definitely going to get together to do another Gnarls Barkley album. We’d really like to get back together to do it and, I think, so would the people, and that’s what’s most important. Just gotta find something to write about. Maybe my heart needs to get broken again. I don’t know.

SM: With all of these projects, when will you take some time off?
CL: Why should I? There’s nothing else to do. What I love is music, of course, and doing what you love is a special thing. There’s just nothing more enjoyable to me. It’s not work. I preach the lesson of music so that the appreciation factor is being heightened and the conditioning from monotony and mediocrity — and those molds — are being broken one great song at a time. And it’s a process. I’m an agent of it, and on a serious note, that’s what it’s really all about – pushing forward and revitalizing an industry that’s on its ear.

SM: What’s next? I assume it’s not going to be just more of the same.
CL: More stuff keeps coming to mind every day. Each day is a song. And I prefer it this way, man. Predictability is a precursor to death.

Originally published on NBC SoundDiego February 09, 2011:

 

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The Creation of the Casbah


“Nirvana, the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, the Black Keys.”

Casbah owner Tim Mays could go on. As a matter of fact, he wants to but stops himself, knowing that even the fascinating list of bands that once played to half-capacity or less in his small clubs by the airport is far from telling the full story.

Born in Los Angeles, Mays moved to Barstow when he was young, shortly after his parents divorced. He came to San Diego to attend SDSU in 1973 and fell in love with the city. A self-proclaimed “huge music fan,” he continuously attended concerts and soon started making the trek back to L.A. to see the onslaught of punk rock shows there in the ’80s.

After a while, he decided to ditch the commute and began to try to bring those same punk rock shows down to San Diego.

And it worked.

Sort of.

“I started as a punk rock promoter,” Mays said recently. “I put on punk rock shows in the ’80s at venues all over town. But you didn’t own back then; you rented. And I did that for five years or so. And, really, there weren’t a lot of places to book shows at that time. You’d be at a place for awhile and then the neighbors — or the police, or somebody — would get upset, so you’d have to move on and find a new location. I worked my way through venues all over town. Then I got tired of it for awhile, because of all the violence and the skinhead problem: It wasn’t good, and it really took away a lot of great opportunities, so I quit.”

Mays didn’t leave his place in the music business for long, though.

“I ended up opening a bar with a few friends called the Pink Panther,” Mays said. “It was really successful, and it gave us the opportunity to buy another place that had the license for live music, and that was the first Casbah [which was just up the street from where it is now]. And before we knew it, the opportunity came along to triple our size and buy the location we’re in now from a woman who was running it as a lesbian bar. So we bought it and moved here. It gave us a full liquor license and gave us the patio, which wasn’t a big deal back then. But then they passed the no smoking rule, and it became a huge asset. It was during that time we started doing shows at other locations as well. So now, we develop bands at the Casbah, and when they get bigger, we work with them at every level that we can beyond the Casbah.”

As evidenced by the appearance of the club’s ubiquitous crescent moon and star logo on show ads all over town, Mays regularly secures gigs at venues throughout the city for bands that have outgrown the Casbah. And while he enjoys seeing those same bands extend both their fan base and need for performance space, Mays has no interest in anything but keeping the Casbah exactly the size that it is now.

“People ask me that all the time, but I like this size,” Mays said. “There are a lot of nights where there are only 40 or 50 people in the club. On any given month, maybe we’ll sell out 10 or 15 shows. The rest of the time, it’s less than capacity here. And if the place was bigger, it just wouldn’t work. Plus, we have the opportunity to book the bands into bigger clubs when they outgrow the room. And they’re willing to work with us because we develop the bands from the ground floor. I’m perfectly happy with this size. I’m content.”

Part of that satisfaction comes from the “huge music fan” in Mays, who can routinely be found in attendance of many of the shows he’s booked. And while it would be impossible for Mays to name all of his favorites over the years, he doesn’t let that stop him from trying.

“There’s just so many of them: the Jesus Lizard, Jon Spencer, the Breeders — I could go on and on,” Mays said. “I mean, Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps came through when they were in their 70s and put on a fantastic show. RL Burnside was here and it was insane, amazing stuff. And right when they were getting back together, the Cult played here, and it was incredible. We’ve just been lucky to get a lot of good bands or bigger bands that come down to do a warmup gig for a tour or something. The proximity to LA helps in that respect.”

Whatever it is, the Casbah is now into its third decade of existence and shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s amazing,” Mays said. “We’re on 22 years right now, and during that time, we’ve developed a lot of acts. And people can expect a lot more of the same. We’re always working on a number of things. I’ve got shows on hold through the summer, and there’s always some great stuff coming through the pipeline.”

Source: Creation of the Casbah | NBC San Diego
First published on NBC SoundDiego March 28, 2011