Wednesday, April 20, 2011


This article originally appeared in the 4.21.11 issue of Metroland. Pic stolen from Bryan Thomas' FB page and it must have been taken by Matt Mac Haffie. And do click on the Metroland hyperlink up there.


Helsinki on the Hudson

April 15, 2011

“You know how when you’re black and you’re in Aspen?” Thus started a typical rambling and hysterical soliloquy by Stew. His long-running “band”, The Negro Problem, consisted this night of just his long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald, although he hinted at bringing an 11-piece band back to Helsinki next time up. But the two-person line-up was better than fine. It was casual, nimble, and it was all Stew all the time.

The Aspen set-up led to the song Black Men Ski, with Stew singing the last verse with a ski mask pulled over his face. The effect was typical for the evening: revealing, absurd, bittersweet, biting, and in the context of Stew’s world, oh so funny.

Like their rangy Tony-award winning play Passing Strange, racial issues never far from the surface but were only one of numerous targets of Stew and the NP’s skewed tunes: he took on liquor (while simultaneously enjoying several Guinness Stouts), drugs, Brooklyn hipster moms in bars with strollers ( the side-splitting “Sexy Brooklyn Mommy”), and sexual stereotyping (in what he called “the 47th or 48th song about gay Ken dolls”, starting with the lyric “My name is Ken. I like men” and blossoming into an opus-like extravaganza about a gay Ken rebellion).

At some point, I stopped laughing long enough to remember I was reviewing the show. I wrote down “omnipotent black Buddha with perfect comedic timing.”

Rodewalds’s presence grew through the evening, revealing more bit by bit, to the point where she took a monologue or two and sang a couple; but throughout she called the songs, drove the bus, was the glue on bass and keys. Fascinating dynamic up there.
Of one mind and relentlessly musical.

They did a couple songs from “the play” and made a big deal of an obligatory run-through of “Gary, Please Come Home” a song they wrote for Spongebob. “When I die and when Heidi dies people won’t mention Passing Strange or any of the great albums we made. You know you’re fucked up when the first mention is of a song you wrote about a fucking snail that isn’t even real.”

They call it “Afro-baroque cabaret”. That’s pretty good. Randy Newman occurred to me once or twice. The refreshingly multi-racial crowd was heavy on laughter but light in number, and we’ll chalk this up the fact that this was a late booking, announced little more than two weeks out. How many Tony awards and Spike Lee movies do you need to pack a club? The Helsinki folks didn’t seem phased. Stew shall return, maybe with the big band. Watch out.

4.21.11 ART ATTACK

This article originally appeared in the 4.21.11 issue of Metroland

This past October I got a call from a woman named Melanie Gold, who lived in Warwick, in Orange County. Melanie was a teacher who’d applied for and had been awarded a small county grant to commission a couple of murals to be installed on an old factory building on the main road leading into the nearby Village of Greenwood Lake. As she explained to me, all she wanted to do was spruce up the place, which was getting a little long of tooth. She had a couple artists ready to go, the building owner was all for it, and she’d checked with Town Hall that it was perfectly legal. But then the Mayor and the Village Board caught wind of it, and told Melanie that she couldn’t put up her art without their approval, despite the fact that there were no village laws about public art. There was something control-freaky going on.

That’s when Melanie called me; I think she’d heard me on VoxPop or something. She was very distraught and it was clear she wasn’t some narcissistic hipster or agitprop troublemaker—rather she was a nice lady trying to do something nice for her town, and trying to make sense of what appeared to be small-town small-minded power-mad politics. She didn’t want to be talking to me about this.

Could they do this to her? Ix-nay! Remember 15 years ago or so when the Town of Colonie tried to ban a couple big honkin’ Daniel Ben-Schmuel metal sculptures from a guy’s front yard, except the Town didn’t have a law to base the ban on? No? Well it happened, and the Town got spanked in court, bad. Melanie’s was an almost identical situation.

I really wanted to jump on this one, but couldn’t--I was staring down the barrels of three upcoming trials and couldn’t take on another pro-bono-maybe-a-contingency-someday kind of case, no matter how noble the cause, and this was about as noble as they come. But I was able to get Melanie a meeting with the fantastic folks at the New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and they found some lawyers at a big Manhattan firm to take the case.

Meantime, the Village, apparently fearing an art epidemic of some sort was about to break out, passed a total ban on public art in Greenwood Lake. Melanie, at this point suitably p.o.’d, went ahead and installed her paintings (nice, sedate landscapes) on the factory building anyway, and the building owner was issued a couple citations with reported fines of $25 each.

I mean really, have you ever heard of anything so pathetically petty and stupid in your whole life?

Village, meet the Manhattan lawyers. Village, meet the nation of laws, not men. Village, meet the First Amendment. A federal lawsuit was filed in February, and it didn’t take long for the Village to back down and settle. Their new little law trying to outlaw art is toast; so are the $25 citations. Melanie’s art stays up. I hope the lawyers got paid. We all win.

Moving on. YouTube this week unveiled its “Copyright School” video, which is just breathtakingly bad, dangerous in fact. Apparently, if you are accused of posting infringing material on YouTube, you now have to watch this 4 minute copyright tutorial and take a quiz before you can continue as a YouTube user.

First, this applies when a complaint (called a “take-down notice”) is filed. Even for sham notices. Maybe somebody is getting harassed with fake take-downs, or over-reaching take-downs (like Prince’s infamous take-down of a 20 second video of a baby dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy”), maybe the person gets hit with a bogus take down notice every week. Now this person, who’s entirely innocent, has to watch this insidious video (see below) and take the same test every week?

Not only is the concept nonsense, the Copyright School video itself is utter crap. It’s a silly, breezy cartoon, featuring what appears to be a lime-green feral cat in a pirate outfit, and the swarmy narrator pooh-poohs mash-ups, suggesting that “creating original works” is instead the thing to do, and actually mocks the fair use doctrine as too complex to deal with.

As Mike Masnick said over at Techdirt “[f]or a company that employs both William Patry and Fred von Lohmann, you would think that the video would be a lot better,” referring to parent company Google’s legal staff that includes the dean of fair use lawyers (Patry) and the irrepressible former lead counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (von Lohmann). You got that right.

Maybe Google thinks it has to dog-and-pony the issue because of its ongoing legal battles with Big Media companies like Viacom. But it doesn’t have to spew mis-information and the worst kind of copyright absolutist dogma. Shame on Google.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


This article originally appeared in the 4.7.11 issue of Metroland

Last year I reported on a lawsuit in which Eminem’s production company had successfully argued that it was entitled to 50% of record label revenues from the sale of digital downloads, instead of the usual 12% (or so) royalty it had been receiving. The theory of the case was that download sales were “licensed sales” by the label; the label did little but hand off a single digital file to each of the various digital stores (like iTunes and Amazon) and then wait for the checks to roll in. Contrast that to CD or album sales, where there is a physical thing that is manufactured, packaged, stored, shipped, etc.. In most record contracts, the revenue from a licensed sale is split 50-50 between the label and the artist, while with CD sales artist typically gets somewhere around 10-15% of the retail price of the CD. And all the major labels have been treating downloads like CD sales. And lots of artists felt they were getting reamed.

In September a federal appeals court, reversing the trial court, agreed with Eminem, and ruled that download sales were licensed sales, and Eminem was entitled to a 50% cut. The record company, Universal, jumped up and down and said it was going to take the case to the Supreme Court. I observed at the time that the high court wouldn’t be interested in the case, which was in essence a simple garden-variety case of contractual interpretation that the trial court had gotten horribly wrong and the appellate court right.

May I gloat? Thank you, I will. Last week the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Eminem is in for a big payday, as he’s been stiffed big time on a couple of his biggest albums. A few commentators have mentioned that the labels may now be facing billions of dollars of payments to its legacy artists who have all been hideously underpaid for digital download sales.

Meantime, Universal is still jumping up and down. This time it’s saying that the effects of the ruling are limited to Eminem, and that everyone else’s recording contracts are somehow different and immune. Bullshit.

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations feel that their free speech rights allow them to brazenly lie whenever it suits them, whenever it might protect “shareholder value”, if only for a few days. Here Universal is lying to protect shareholder value by lying to its shareholders so they won’t do the only rational thing there is to do here, and that’s to dump Universal (and any other major-label) stock plenty chop chop.

The language of Eminem’s contract was typical across the industry, and so it didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop. This week the estate of Rick James brought a class-action lawsuit against Universal on behalf of it and all “similarly situated” recording artists. They all want of that sweet, sweet Eminem money. Expect similar suits against the other major labels soon.

Karma’s a bitch, bitch.

In other news you may have heard that the New York Times is now trying to charge money for online access to the ol’ grey lady. Well, sort of. The paywall only clicks in when you want to see your 21st article in a month. The first 20 are free. And then, it’s kind of a half-assed paywall. I’ve read if you click on an outside link to an article, like a Twitter link, it will bypass the paywall. Somebody’s posted a widget, based on four lines of code, that you can use that disables the paywall entirely. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick proclaimed it “the Emperor’s New Paywall.”

Even more confounding is the fact that the Times paid a reported 40 million dollars for this thing that is business-stupid (paywalls don’t pay, just ask Newsday or The London Times) and doesn’t even function well. Imagine what kind of journalism 40 mill could buy. You know, maybe Frank Rich and Bob Herbert could have been persuaded to stick around.

I can’t help but wonder if the Times is taking some wild, post-post-modern, Derrida-meets-Harvard-MBA leap into the digi-stential void here. Maybe it’s been watching the Radiohead and Trent Reznor tip-jar experiments. Maybe it’s banking that a number of its well-heeled, highly-educated loyal readers (and if one publication in the world has them it’s the Times) might feel a twinge of guilt when the pathetic little paywall goes up. Maybe it’s banking that at least some of these people will decide “well, I know I could hack around this damn thing, but by golly somebody’s got to pay these writers,” and will pony up their Amex Gold Card numbers in a gently-coerced gesture of goodwill. I know people who would do this. So do you.

In other words, maybe the Times knows that rigid paywalls are a commercial disaster, but that a well-played guilt trip might just work.

If they’re right and it works, and who the hell knows these days until you try, I’m in awe of them. But it’s a helluva 40 million dollar gamble.

4.7.11 PEPPINO!!!

this article originally ran in the 4.7.11 issue of Metroland

Peppino D’Agostino
March 29, 2011
The Woman’s Club of Albany

To I’m sure anyone who’s seen him perform, just why guitarist Peppino D’Agostino isn’t some kind of superstar is one of those mysteries that makes one damn the fates, popular taste, the music industry, or all three.

Peppino played Tuesday in the ballroom of The Woman’s Club of Albany, one of those grand buildings near the park on Madison we’ve all driven by a zillion times and wondered “I wonder what goes on in there?”

Guitar slinging, that’s what. Peppino played two generous sets of solo acoustic guitar that was in turns soothing, dazzling and challenging. He was gracious, modest and fun. It doesn’t hurt that he looks like Bryan Ferry’s little brother and speaks with a soft Italian accent. We’re talking the whole package, and the near-capacity audience of about 100 folks was absolutely rapturous from the git.

His selections were literally all over the map---after a few hyper-melodic originals, he turned to an Antonio Carlos Jobim tune, and laced the bossa number with insanely cacophonous grace notes throughout. He played ‘50’s Italian jazz, Sardinian folk music, an Irish dirge, and an Argentinian tango. He used harmonics, a variety of open tunings, he played with just his left hand, just his right hand, and he utilized a whole bunch of strange techniques that may or may not have names for them. He talked about getting fixated on Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass picking as a teenager in Italy, and hilariously played and sang a little bit of an Italian bluegrass song he wrote, and then launched into an orgy of three-finger picking that simply defies description. OK, I’ll try. Fast. Then faster. There was a Beatles medley. He did “Walk Away Renee.” And a pile of originals that were flat-out stunning.

Hats off to impresario Corliss Caroll for bringing Peppino to town and to The Woman’s Club for hosting. The ballroom, with its curved ceiling, parquet floors, and wooden wainscoting just screams “old Albany” and is a fantastic place to experience music. What’s next?