Friday, April 11, 2008

Jerry Lewis is the Man

Some of you may remember that I recently made a post about autograph collecting, and I expressed my intention to write a fan letter to Jerry Lewis (which I did). What's truly amazing is that I posted that entry on March 22nd, and mailed the letter about three days later. Now I've received a response and it hasn't even been three weeks. That must be a new record.

But seriously I don't want to cheapen it by implying that this was merely part of some autograph-collecting crusade. As I've expressed before, Jerry's work has had a profound impact on me, and having a personalized, autographed photo from the man himself is an intensely beautiful thing for me. I once even wrote a song inspired by his memoir, Dean and Me, which has been recorded four times and has gone on to become one of the most popular Embers of Avalon songs. Needless to say, today is a good day.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats

Over the weekend I went with some of my dearest relatives to see a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Cats at the California Performing Arts Center in San Bernardino. I admit that it has never been one of my favorite musicals, and in fact I have traditionally regarded it as my least favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but I typically won't pass up an opportunity to see live musical theater, whatever it may be. To my surprise, I ended up having a pretty amazing time, and seeing the show in person gave me a totally new appreciation for it. The choreography is some of the most difficult and complex I have ever seen, and the ending (I'm embarrassed to say) really made me pretty emotional. It sort of makes me want to seek out some of the other Webber musicals that I've been disappointed with (namely Sunset Boulevard and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and give them a second chance as well.

I have often wondered how a show as bizarre and esoteric as Cats could be one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, but now I think I understand a little better. It also got me thinking about how musical theater buffs like myself will often overlook much of Webber's genius and focus more on composers like Stephen Sondheim (a genius in his own right) who make more of a conscious effort to create intellectual works of musical art. Webber deserves a lot of credit, though. Not only is he responsible for the two longest running shows in Broadway history (Phantom of the Opera and the aforementioned Cats), and birthed such timeless, epic shows as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, but he has also composed music for some of the most beautiful and memorable songs of the twentieth century, songs like Don't Cry For Me Argentina, I Don't Know How To Love Him, Phantom of the Opera, Music of the Night, Unexpected Song and of course Memory, which has been covered by artists ranging from Barbara Streisand to Barry Manilow. His shows have been translated into dozens of languages and performed worldwide. The fact that he could make an obscure show about cats in a junkyard one of the most popular shows in Broadway history is a testament to how much of a genius he truly is (not to mention a fearless risk taker).

And yet many musical elitists (I'm referring to the Frank Rich types, those individuals who snub their noses at any show that isn't related to either Stephen Sondheim or some composer who has been dead for forty years) not only fail to acknowledge Webber's immense contributions to musical theater, but even revile him as being a "pop" composer who appeals to the brainless masses far too intellectually inept to grasp the profundity of a "real" musical. In some circles, if you confess to being a fan of Cats or Phantom, you might as well just write 'moron' across your forehead, because that is how you will be immediately branded anyway. I generally make it a point to ignore the musical elitists, because there really is no point in arguing with them. They have convinced themselves of their superiority to such a degree that any attempts to challenge their infallible opinions will appear as a completely foreign language. And if you accuse them of being elitist, the common answer is something to the extent of, "I'm not an elitist; I just know what I'm talking about."

And while there is certainly no denying that Webber's musicals are typically geared toward a wide audience, does that make him any less of a genius? Let his record speak for itself. The immeasurable success that Webber has experienced, and the amount of people who have been impacted by his work, is not something that one can learn by taking a survey or arranging a focus group. That sort of thing comes from within, and if his growing legacy is any indication, then Andrew Lloyd Webber will undoubtedly go down in history alongside Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Say What You Will About Thrift Stores...

...but I am completely addicted to them. On Holt Avenue in Pomona, there are two really great ones that my friends and I like to peruse on a regular basis. If you have the patience to sift through mountains of crap, you are pretty much guaranteed to find some really excellent buys. It's sort of like a treasure hunt, really, and in many ways the hunt is more exciting than the purchases themselves. That doesn't take away from the fact that I am in fact cheap, but perhaps that makes the hunt all the more exciting. If I can find a pair of pants for 5 dollars that would cost me 20 at Target, I call that a victory.

So yesterday I went with some friends to both of the thrift stores I just described, and was reminded that with thrift store shopping also comes heartbreak. For instance, I found a like-new Bad Religion (one of my favorite bands on Earth) t-shirt for $1.99, and my heart nearly skipped a beat; it was black and everything. Just one problem: it was an XL. Being the Medium that I am, I hung my head in shame and continued walking. There was also a great pair of Puma shoes in my size that looked practically new; Kumphak informed me that these shoes cost a lot of money in retail stores, and I should snatch them up since they were only five dollars. I would have too, except they were gray. So it would seem that thrift store shopping is a lot like dating. Sometimes your dreams come true, and sometimes you walk away brokenhearted.

That's right, boyyyyy

Thrift stores are great places to take glamor shots. You can put the clothes right back on the rack when you're finished.

Don't be deceived. I'm actually not as happy as I appear.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It's So Hard To Say Goodbye

My dad sent me this YouTube link today. It was one of Roby Duke's (see previous blog entry) final performances, three days before his tragic passing. In this short but breathtaking video, Roby is finishing up a set at Calvary Chapel Thousand Oaks, playing one of his best known and most beautiful songs, I Shall See God. At the very end of the song, Roby looks up at the congregation and quietly says, "He's a good God." So incredibly humbling and profoundly moving. It's very difficult for me to watch this video without getting emotional. I encourage you to watch for yourself and see what an amazing talent we have lost.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Shall See God...

Roby Duke was a truly remarkable man. I am nearly twenty-five years old as of today, and I have been listening to Roby's music for the past fifteen of those years. I don't think I can name another artist who has stuck with me for so long in such a meaningful way. When I was a child, my dad used to play his music in the car everywhere we went. It seemed like the albums Down To Business, Not The Same and Bridge Divine were in constant rotation. This was back when cassette tapes were still common, and I remember getting very excited whenever the tape would reach one of my favorite songs, like Walk in the Park, I Shall See God, or I Come To You O Lord. These songs were such an ever-present part of my life that even as I look back now, I realize that they physically define many aspects of my childhood, like music from the soundtrack of my life. As I recall church sleepovers, family outings and long car rides, I can still hear the symphony and vocal harmonies from the bridge of I Come To You O Lord.

As a young adult, I became so nostalgic for these old songs that I began actively seeking the music on CD. Most of the albums were out of print, and I paid as much as forty dollars for some of them on eBay, but it was more than worth it, and it is a music collection that I cherish to this day. Roby had a voice like no other and a songwriting ability that continues to blow my mind. He was a demon on the guitar and an angel on the mic...

And now I have just learned that this sweet man has passed on to be with the Lord whom he praised with such passion and conviction in all of his music. He was 51 years old, far too young to leave us. I am incredibly saddened by this news, but I'll always treasure the musical footprints he has left behind. My uncle (another devoted, long-time fan) called me to tell me the (albeit belated) news, and shortly thereafter my dad called as well. The three of us exchanged somber phone calls recalling our memories of Roby as though he was a member of our own family. In a way he was. We've all been so heavily impacted by his music, his message, his humility, and the profound depth of his expression, I can hardly put it into words.

One of the greatest struggles for any lyrical songwriter is trying to properly articulate the right feelings and emotions in such a way that the melody perfectly complements the lyrical narrative. This is not an easy thing to pull off, but Roby was the master. When he sang, you knew exactly where he was coming from, and it was as though his heart would physically beat through his melodies. You knew he loved the Lord, and that he was passionate about life.

In addition, Roby has come to be somewhat of a kindred spirit to me. He was a man with profound faith, but who often expressed discontent with many aspects of the church. He loved composing, producing, and participating in the entire music-making process. In these ways, I have found incredible common ground with him and have been deeply moved by his words over the years. In other ways, I have envied him. I often fear that I take life for granted, but Roby lived with such inspiring passion. He understood who he was as a child of God, and that was what drove him. I sometimes need reminding of these simple truths, as many of us do, and what a wonderful thing it is to have Roby's music to constantly remind us.

As I write this, I am listening to one of my all-time favorite Roby songs, Take No Sorrow. To me it's one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, and the lyrics never fail to astound me. I used to think that the song was written about his divorce, but I later read in an interview that the song was written in response to being replaced as producer for a pop music group. This might seem like a trivial issue on the surface, but it's quite profound when you actually listen to the song and consider how beautifully he captures the pain of rejection in a very universal way. This is a powerful song whether you're struggling with domestic issues, feelings of inadequacy, a recent loss or even unrequited love.

That was Roby's gift; but I think that the gift is two-fold. It was a gift from the Lord to Roby, and subsequently a gift from Roby to the world. I know that I feel blessed having Roby's music, and it pains me to know that he will never compose again in this life. He was one of the good ones. of the great ones, and while I mourn his profound loss, I rejoice in knowing that he is truly home.

Roby, in your words, save a song for me......


Friday, March 28, 2008

Not Quite Notre Dame, but Nevertheless...

The picture you see to the left is of the historic Mission Inn in Riverside CA, an immaculate old hotel with a unique history and even more unique architecture. I have a lot of great memories at that place: sleeping in reportedly-haunted rooms, attending parties and brunches, getting drunk on Tanqueray, all that kid stuff. I was turned on to the place by my dad and his fiancé, who not only frequent the place but also collect old trinkets from the Inn. It's an incredibly beautiful hotel, but also kind of spooky, which makes it all the more appealing.

I have been so impacted by this amazing place that it has become the prime inspiration for my new novel, The Black Portrait Estate. The "story" is actually about five stories in one, all taking place in a mysterious hotel known as The Black Portrait Estate, over the course of a weekend. The "main character," if you will, is the Estate itself, much like how the "main character" in Victor Hugo's masterpiece Notre Dame de Paris (or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it has been dumbed down for those of us in the English-speaking world) is the cathedral, and not (despite popular understanding) the hunchback, the gypsy, the cleric or anyone else.

There is great power in a place of history. An inanimate landmark can in many cases have more character than the living people who inhabit it. My grandmother was telling me recently about all of the amazing cathedrals she has visited in London, Paris and Florence, among other places. The way she described them really made them seem alive, as though they sheltered physical remnants of all those who had contributed to their existence and their history: the stone masons, the knights, the priests, the followers, and even the literature and art that was borne from their influence. I envision The Black Portrait Estate as such a place, but existing in a completely different universe of imagination, which, when you really get down to it, is what makes even tangible landmarks spectacular.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Just thinking out loud here...

I want to record a cover of Dramarama's Anything, Anything. That song is the reason they invented the term "bad-ass."

Give Up The Grudge

I went with some friends to Ontario Mills this afternoon. We had an early dinner at Hooters (half-priced wings during Happy Hour!) and then headed to AMC to watch the latest Japanese horror import, Shutter. I usually like to check out the new J-horror releases because I love a good ghost story, even though the vast majority of these films are really bad. For every gem like The Ring and The Grudge, there are a dozen duds like Dark Water, One Missed Call and Pulse.

This latest import wasn't as abysmal as some of the others, but nevertheless it was far from being a masterpiece. One of my friends, Toshiko, speaks fluent Japanese and so she was able to interpret much of the Japanese dialogue that revealed facts about the film that were never otherwise brought to light, which is kind of cool, I suppose. It makes me feel as though I'm privy to information that other white boys are not. But at this point I'm rambling.

The point I want to make is that it seems like they're phoning in these horror movies. Later this year, they're supposed to be releasing an American remake of the Asian classic A Tale of Two Sisters, one of my favorite eastern horror films, and I shudder to think how they'll destroy that one. Hollywood has decided that Asian horror films are a major cash cow, no matter how poorly they are remade. A good horror movie, though, is so much more than women in corpse makeup jumping out of closets. It's about atmosphere, and most importantly it's about subtlety, because in order for a movie to scare us, we must be made to believe that it could actually happen to us. The last truly good horror movie I saw was The Orphanage, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it. I think that the reason for it's brilliance is that it is an authentic Spanish import, and the formula morons in Hollywood haven't had a chance to get their hands on it...


Be afraid.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I Never Thought I'd Say This...

...but I sort of relate to Barack Obama (but only slightly). Said Obama during his now famous race speech:

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

Now, it's easy to call Obama a hypocrite, a panderer, a man who will do or say whatever it takes to maintain the support of the American public during this contentious primary season. I have to admit, though, that the more I think about it, the more I know where he's coming from. Being that I am a social libertarian (for the most part) in an evangelical church, I have had my share of disagreements with my pastor. In recent weeks, for examples, the church has been encouraging people to provide their signatures in favor of the California Marriage Amendment, the so-called "Voter's Right To Protect Marriage Initiative." Now, I am just as much a Christian as anyone else in the congregation (though some of my more conservative friends might dispute that notion), and I personally oppose this measure, quite vehemently.

My question to anyone in support of barring same-sex marriage is this: What would such an amendment accomplish for the betterment of society? Folks like Dr. James Dobson will tell you that for a society to accept gay marriage sets a precedent that opens the door for polygamy, group marriage, and somewhere down the line perhaps even bestiality. Then you have to (heaven forfend!) allow gays to adopt kids, which will cause the kids to become all screwed up in the head, and before you know it we're living in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now, I don't pretend to understand the psychology of a homosexual (although those of you familiar with my love of musical theater have probably had your suspicions about me); I do not have feelings of homosexuality, and the legality or lack thereof has no direct impact on my existence, so this is not some personal vendetta of mine. This is simply a matter of recognizing that the government has a place in society, and the marriage business is not it. It might surprise some people to learn that the federal government had no established place in marriage until 1920, and even state governments didn't get involved until after the Civil War, when slaves were freed and some feared the evils of interracial unions. The only way to prevent such unions and effectively institute anti-miscegenation laws was to keep an eye on who was marrying who. Prior to that time, marriage was simply a personal matter; there were no government licenses, and nobody felt as though their union was invalid because of a lack of federal recognition. So if conservatives wish to be angry about the government undermining the sanctity of marriage, then they should be upset about their government ever having gotten involved in the first place. Our leaders have done more to undermine the sanctity of marriage over the past 150 years by using heterosexual unions than most people even begin to realize. Marriage as it is defined today is more of an IRS matter than a spiritual union.

But since the damage is already done, the government has a responsibility to extend equal rights to everyone. I don't believe we can ever return to the days when marriage was truly a personal matter, and allowing gays to marry is not going to usher in the great tribulation. In fact evangelical Christians are shooting themselves in the foot by opposing such unions because we are only further alienating people who already think we're bigots, and since so many Christians are concerned with "making disciples of all nations," this really isn't helping matters.

And just another quick word about Barack Obama. I can happily say that although I believe my pastor to have some misplaced priorities, he in no way embodies the vitriol and hatred of Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. If he did, I would have nothing to do with that church, as my ability to respectfully disagree with someone can only go so far. When a man can passionately refer to American troops with the statement, "America's chickens are coming home to roost," that is beyond reprehensible. If it were discovered that a Republican candidate attended Westboro Baptist Church, that person's political career would be over immediately, and rightfully so. Something to think about.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

To whom it may concern

One of my many, many hobbies is to collect autographs from actors/musician/public figures whom I admire. I've built a fairly modest collection over the years: Elisa Donovan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Taylor, Eric Idle, Ashley Judd, Larry Elder, The Eyeliners, The Halo Friendlies, Save Ferris, Meredith Bishop, Giada de Laurentiis, Penn and Teller, Nigella Lawson, Tammy Bruce, Joy Electric and others. Most are personalized, some are not. They have come as a result of fan letters, concerts and book signings, mostly (I always do well at the LA Times Festival of Books). I haven't actually written a fan letter since high school, not because I feel like I'm too old, but I probably fell out of the habit because it can get expensive buying all of those stamps and manila envelopes, and then having to wait sometimes several months for a reply.

Still, I've been thinking more and more about it lately. I really used to enjoy writing fan letters, and of course getting responses. I've decided to get back into the habit, since everybody needs to collect something (or so I am told), and my collection has slowed down quite a bit. I've made a list of people that I really want to write to:

Jerry Lewis (my idol)
Kristin Chenoweth (the love of my life)
Bernadette Peters (one of the most gifted performers on Earth)
Milla Jovovich (I like her acting, but I love her music)
Kate Beckinsale (beauty personified)

And that's probably all I can afford right now, but more will follow...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Where there never was a hat...

After months of deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that Stephen Sondheim's hit musical Sunday in the Park with George is the single greatest artistic masterpiece of the 20th century. I'm exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. I was watching the DVD again this evening, a performance of the show recorded on Broadway circa 1986 with the original cast, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles. And for the record, I gush over this musical for many reasons, and not only because I'm madly in love with Bernadette Peters (a woman who, despite the forces of nature, simply does not age).

For those of you who don't know, Sunday in the Park is a fictional account of the life of the famous painter Georges Seurat, during that period in his life when he worked to create his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It's a story of isolation, obsession, love, loss, art, conformity, regret and a longing for recognition that transcends generations. Anyone who has ever struggled with their art (whether music, literature, painting, or any creative endeavor) can relate to this profound story, and anyone who has ever loved can relate as well.

The brilliance of this Sondheim musical, though, lies not so much in the theme, but in the subtext. When you can take a line as simple as "where there never was a hat," and analyze the hell out of it until you've practically cracked the very meaning of life, you know you're dealing with a true masterpiece. Songs like "We Do Not Belong Together," "Finishing the Hat" and "Move On" are some of the most powerful and touching numbers that modern musical theater has to offer. As I was watching the DVD tonight, I was once again struck by my favorite lines, sung so mellifluously by Bernadette Peters: "Stop worrying if your vision is new; let others make that decision, they usually do; you keep moving on." I think I'm comfortable enough in my manhood to admit that I cannot get through that song without weeping.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Farewell UCR....I think.

Today I attended my last class at UCR. It's weird, and I feel like a chapter of my life has ended, but I realize that it's only sad in a bittersweet kind of way. Like, it kind of bummed me out to think that I may never step foot in another classroom, but at the same time I was thinking, "Dear God, I hope I never have to step foot in another classroom." That was after taking a three-hour final, though (see yesterday's entry). Now I'm just going to enjoy a brief, self-appointed spring break and start looking for a real job.

In other news, the new Foxglove Hunt CD is amazing. It sounds like Joy Electric and Fine China tossed into a blender with a sprinkle of New Order (and yes, I fully realize that most of you will have no idea what that means, but definitely check them out regardless).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

And so it comes to a close.

Tomorrow is my last day of college....finally.

That is....if I don't screw up my anthropology final. The Spanish final I'm not worried about, but the anthropology final will be a killer. The professor is allowing us one page of notes (one sheet, two sides). Basically, we can include any information we think might help us on the test. So here are my notes:

Side A

Side B

Clearly I am dead set on passing this very difficult test and finally breaking free from the shackles of college once and for all. Time to get a real life!