April 2008

blackpostcardsBlack Postcards is written in an admirably clear-eyed, straightforward style. Wareham talks about many difficult situations without bitterness–the jealousy and hurt feelings among the members of his first band, Galaxie 500; his affair and divorce; the complex relationship between musicians and their fans–and that’s what makes this book remarkable.

Not only is it an honest account of just how difficult it is to be a mid-list musician in a business (and world) that lionizes a select superstar few, but it’s also a fascinating coming-of-age story of a  handsome, New Zealand-born, Harvard-educated singer/songwriter of self-admitted limited talents who nonetheless carves out a most impressive career, following and life.

Throughout, he sprinkles observations and opinions about various other acts: everyone from the Spin Doctors (horrible, horrible) to Nirvana (their success helped ruin the music business); Courtney Love (spellbinding as a live performer) to Natalie Merchant (he hates her music but would willingly boink her).

I wish that he’d indulge his writerly side a little more–there are ample opportunities for him to take a beautiful scene and run with it, but he maintains a reserve and restraint that you have to admire, one that he was famed for in his poetic but obtuse “Dr. Seuss on heroin” song lyrics.

It’s pretty amazing that despite being showered with critical acclaim, Wareham’s bands (first Galaxie 500, then Luna, then Dean & Britta) have never really broken through the mainstream, yet he’s recorded 16 albums. Sixteen!! (Plus, I really love the names of his songs, which I think is the best part of songwriting.)

Reading this book made me curious to find out more about Wareham and his projects, and sorry that I missed out on them the first time around. It’s a true pleasure to read about such an interesting life, so intelligently (and humorously) told. I couldn’t stop reading this book and I’m thrilled I got the chance.

gyspy rose leeDisclaimer: I’ve never seen the movie or play version of Gypsy.

I couldn’t put the book down, however, and spent a day trying to tear through it before I had to go out. Like the best showbiz stories, it was funny, dishy and glossed over the more complicated, unpleasant aspects of real life in favor of telling a better story.

The streamlined tale of how Gypsy Rose Lee went from backup vaudevillian to her more talented to sister to became a world-famous “ecdysiast” thanks to the iron will of her stage mother, the book is full of laugh out loud moments and scenes I had to read twice just to appreciate the droll throwaway lines Lee tosses in.

My two favorite scenes are:

1. When “Rose Louise And Her Hollywood Blondes” (the cut-rate act booked in a burlesque house after the death of vaudeville) work their first night at a burlesque house. The description of the bizarre musical numbers (an undersea song with mermaids and a sexy octopus; topless angels in a heavenly choir; sexy she-devils) and the sweet but trashy Tessie, The Tassel Twirler.

2. The bizarre schemes of F.E. Gorham, an unflappable con artist who briefly hooks up with the family and shows off her tricks (bringing your own cockroach to get a free dinner; walking face-first into a splintery board at a construction site, etc.) before trying to rob them.

It’s the indomitable spirit of the ultimate stage mother, “Madam Rose,” that carries through, and the last part of the book, about Gypsy after she’s achieved stardom and is living/working mostly on her own, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle and punch as the previous. But such is the case with autobiography (no matter how true or otherwise).

There’s a charm to Gypsy Rose Lee, however, that enabled her to become more than just a stripper: with a sense of humor and great intelligence, she took something sleazy and made it fun and palatable to everyone. What a life she lived, and it’s hard not to tear up a little at the end as she ends an era in her career, always mindful of her past.

I closed my eyes and along with the familiar noise of the train, Mother seemed to be telling me again how lucky I was. “What a wonderful life you’ve had—the music, lights, applause—everything in the world a girl could ask for…”

Living alone doesn’t always seem like “living,” does it? So often when we’re in that situation, we feel as if we’re waiting for life to begin once we meet somebody.

Obviously, that’s not the case, and one of the reasons I found Live Alone And Like It by Marjorie Hillis (besides the fact that her name is Marjorie. I love that name!) so charming was that it presents a different way of looking at something many people find negative.

Written in 1936 (!!) but completely applicable to today (well, not so much the one or two “colored maid” mentions), this wise, wry and warm book offers suggestions for “bachelor ladies” to make the most of their single status. Some of these are incredibly simple and some are creative, but best of all, it’s all very no-nonsense and cheerful, as evidenced by this line: “There may still be those in Alabama who look upon an unmarried state as an affliction, but in New York it is at most a very minor ailment.”

Some of Hillis’s suggestions are to pamper yourself, to plan ahead so you don’t wind up with long hours of lonely free time (unless that’s what you want) and to pull yourself (and your living space) together as nicely as possible.

Here she is on clothes: “But do have some really smart street costumes—surprisingly, they can cost as little as dowdy ones, and practically no one’s morale can overcome an outfit that’s all wrong. Do have some evening clothes with swish, and—very specially—do have at least one nice seductive tea-gown to wear when you’re alone (or when you’re not, if you feel like it).”

It’s enough to make me wish that I owned a tea-gown (seductive or otherwise). She also gives some awesome recipes for cocktails that I’d love to break out at my next party and offers some great advice for fun activities you probably haven’t thought of on your own.

Her sense of humor totally makes this book, too. Check out what she says about having a circle of acquaintances: “As we have already suggested, one of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly. A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies whom you can see when you want to, and will often see when you don’t want to, is an important asset.”

Having a circle that includes enemies is underrated, and I can think of a couple people who fit this description in my life.

Seriously, though, I found great comfort from reading this breezy and charmingly illustrated book—the quality of your life really is up to you, regardless of your situation or circumstance. That’s something I don’t always remember.

One of the great advantages of your way of living is that you can be alone when you want to. Lots of people never discover what a pleasure this can be. Perhaps it was because of its possibilities that the misused expression “enjoy yourself,” came into being.

The more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you are.