“ECHOTONE”— Austin’s Music Scene

 

“Echotone”

Austin’s Music Scene

Amos Lassen

“Echotone” is an impressionistic, regional-cultural look at the music scene in Austin, Texas. The documentary is sewn together from many clips of live performances, interviews, and plaintive cityscape. We meet a small collection of shoulda-been’s and hopefuls who are waiting for their big break and we see what has happened to the Austin art community as a result of gentrification and a sheer glut of talent. Among those we here from are Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ funky frontman, who as a “working musician” also delivers fish to finance his bass-heavy playtime; the stoically mystic Bill Baird of Sound Team, who provides the film’s obligatory cautionary tale about being seduced by a big label seduction and Cari Palazzolo of Belaire, who’s not sure if she ever wants to move away from the plucky and bee-bopping demo-like tracks that she and her band record.

It seems that director Nathan Christ decided to make his film “a glossing study of metropolitan personality and a virtual advertisement for the groups included.” He captures many examples of the bands’ lively stage presences, but he had a tendency to stop filming before they can entirely convince us of their listenability. Later, a talking head mentions the thousands of Austin-based bands attempting to achieve celebrity and we cannot help but wonder who was left out. We also become aware that there is barely a mention of the Internet’s positive effects on the music industry. One local record producer, who essentially sells his favorite bands’ CDs out of his garage mentions the “teeming mass of creative culture” in Austin and the city’s lack of infrastructure—but when the conversation shifts to the potential of ecommerce and viral marketing for the many “great” groups, we hear about piracy.

Christ has attempted to document, over a period of two years, how Austin’s independent music culture has changed as a result of the recent growth of downtown development. He does so by focusing on a handful of musicians. In capturing the individual stories of these artists — and stressing how none of these musicians are able to make enough money at their craft to survive — Christ is on to something big or at least it seems so. However Christ does not appear to adequately illustrate the purported relationship between the downtown development and the financial hardships of the musicians. He uses clips from Austin City Council meetings concerning hearings on sound ordinances to make his point. He turns to Troy Dillinger (a local musician and founder of Save Austin Music), booking agents and promoters to help explain the relationship — but they cannot bring it all the way back to the musicians themselves.

We never hear the musicians of this documentary discuss the sound ordinances and this film is supposed to be about them. Nonetheless, “Echotone” does in both sound and vision. The soundtrack contains some of Austin’s best and we get a really interesting perspective of the and their financial struggles. I just wish the documentary stuck with that story and I had trouble trying to understand the connection that Christ was attempting to make between the musicians’ financial burdens and the downtown development.

“Babylon Berlin” by Kutscher Volker— Berlin 1929

Kutscher, Volker. “Babylon Berlin”, Picador, 2017.

Berlin. 1929

Amos Lassen

In Berlin in 1929, Detective Inspector Rath, was a successful career officer in the Cologne Homicide Division before a shooting incident in which he inadvertently killed a man. He has been transferred to the Vice Squad in Berlin, a job he hates, even though he finds a new friend in his boss, Chief Inspector Wolter. There is a great deal of unrest in the city and the Commissioner of Police has ordered the Vice Squad to enforce the ban on May Day demonstrations at all costs. The result is a disaster with many dead and injured, and a state of emergency is declared in the Communist strongholds of the city.

This is a moody, atmospheric crime noir and is the first of a series of crime noirs, featuring cop Gereon Rath. There was something strange about his job in Cologne and he’s now lucky to be in the Vice department at Alexanderplatz police department. He wants to transfer to the Homicide department in Berlin, but first he has to prove himself in Vice. With the decadence that was Berlin before the rise of the Nazi Party, there’s plenty of vice to investigate in Berlin in 1929— drugs, the skin trade, and others things in the underworld. Rath steps into a hotbed of activity including murders, possible smuggled Russian gold, drug running, and police corruption.

Few people are who they say they are and Gereon Rath is himself a bit suspect. The story is long and fairly complicated but well-done and does a wonderful job of evoking the tone of the late Weimar period, this book never really caught fire with me, either in neither tone nor action. There are plenty twists and turns as battles his own demons while confronting the reality of both internal department politics and the looming blackness of the Nazi era. It s a long mystery with excellent character development and while I am sure there will be those who will find it to be slowing moving. I find this interesting in that I seldom read novels of this kind and found this to be tight and fast moving read. I said almost nothing about the plot because to do so would spoil the read for many.

“WALLFLOWERS”: Season 1 & 2— Looking for Love

“WALLFLOWERS”: Season 1 & 2

Looking for Love

Amos Lassen

The first season of “Wallflowers” introduced us to a group of New York singles that meet weekly for a support group catering to the romantically challenged. The show focuses on both gay and straight relationships and the discord and dysfunction of both.

“In ‘Wallflowers’, there are straight, gay and bisexual characters. But they’re characters first”. The series explores what all these different types of people go through in their search to find love, and do it in the most honest way possible. Stereotypes of any kind, especially gay ones are insulting and reductive and it seems that sometimes our creative community relies on them way too heavily in order to get a laugh.

“Wallflowers” is a charming comedy from Kieran Turner who introduces us to a diverse group of people who, for whatever reason, can’t get dates. They are all members of the support group, “Navigating the Relationship Waters in the New Millennium,” a kind of AA for the hopelessly single.

Turner uses the group meetings sparingly and effectively to advance the narrative. Janice (Christianne Tisdale), the group leader, sets the tone. She is earnest, even when her group members think she may have gone crazy.

Patch Darragh as Bryce nails the character as a world-weary, overly cynical, screw-you-guy. He is a pessimist by nature and jaded by the world around him. In the second season, Bryce has a new love interest after a really bad blind date from hell in Season 1 — a piano player named Alex (John Halbach). In the first episode, we learn just about everything you need to know about them. Bryce fights against his grim side while Alex is genuine.

“Wallflowers” gives us the details of the ensemble, a tight knit group of jaded but hopeful Gen-X stragglers, coping with the ecstasy and the agony of dating life. 

“DROPPING THE SOAP”— Camping the Soap Opera

 

“Dropping The Soap”

Camping the Soap Opera

Amos Lassen

“Dropping the Soap” is a web series that takes us behind the scenes of long running and terrible soap-opera “Collided Lives” and the craziness of its cast and crew. When the network brings in a ruthless new Executive Producer (Jane Lynch) to “re-brand” the show, the cast realizes that they must fight for their survival. I understand that the idea for this series has been in the works for several years, but it’s only now that it has finally arrived on VoD platforms, including the LGBT-centric streaming service, Dekkoo.com. It’s a 10-episode series.

Julian Draker (Paul Witten), the star of Collided Lives, is an egotistical man who is obsessed with getting enough close-ups, maintaining his soap star status and making sure that nobody else upstages him. He has stiff competition from co-star Kit Knockers (Kate Mines), who would like nothing more than to knock Julian off his perch and become the main star of “Collided Lives.”

Their rivalry intensifies after the arrival of a new producer, Olivia Vanderstein (Jane Lynch) who’s been brought in to improve the show’s ratings. This means firing various people, hiring others, and generally shaking things up. Nobody is safe, including Julian and Kit. This, of course, means plenty of backstabbing, and the secretly gay Julian tries to go deeper in the closet by marrying one of his co-stars in the hopes that this will guarantee his position and destroy Kit in the process. However, Kit has a sex tape featuring Julian have fun with a guy in a Santa suit and she isn’t afraid to blackmail him with it.

Each of the show’s 10 episodes starts off with some scenes from “Collided Lives” that has become more fantastic and fanciful under Olivia’s influence. We have aliens and vampires showing up throughout and we have melodrama, comas, secret children and other soap contrivances. It is as you would imagine it to be— a lot of fun. American soap operas are an easy target for satire and the series has fun with it. As it moves along, it invests more in its characters to ensure it doesn’t feel like it’s only using soap stereotypes. Paul Witten and Kate Mines as Julian and Kit also co-created the show and bring heart to two characters that on the surface are obnoxious. They’re both funny and treat their characters as real people, rather than just grotesque imitations.

Former “Glee” star Jane Lynch (who is also an executive producer) as Olivia Vanderpump channels her Sue Sylvester as a take no prisoners producer who expects everyone to jump when she says so and doesn’t mind who she steps on to get what she wants.

It’s all a lot of fun, although it doesn’t quite fit into the short-form, 10-minute episode format of web series. The way it’s written feels like it needs more time, so there’s a sense of it trying to squeeze what would normally be a 22-minute sitcom into around half that time. Because we can binge-watch all 10 episodes one after another, we tend to like it even more. It has a few rough edges, but it also has heart and humor and some good guest stars.

Paul Witten is charming and very funny. The show is well-paced, and while all the back-stabbing and crazy plots get a little crazy at times, it is all in good fun.

The episodes are short and really packed with humor. I found myself genuinely laughing more than I have in a long time while watching a TV show. My only complaint is not really a complaint but a request for more episodes.

“The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)” by Arlo Haskell— A Social History

Haskell, Arlo. “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)”, Sand Paper Press, 2017.

A Social History

Amos Lassen

Arlo Haskell gives us a social history of the pioneering Jews who settled in Key West, Florida. Their fascinating story is skillfully told by Arlo Haskell. Their stories are colorful and filled with detail and Haskell has done his research well by going through bringing their accomplishments to life through personal letters, contemporaneous newspaper articles, and archival photos and drawings.

The first documented arrival of Jews in Key West was in 1823 with the entrance of Levi Charles Harby, a Jewish “sailing master,” as part of the West Indies Squadron under command of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy. The squadron was there to look for and capture the pirates who were using Key West as one of their launching points to attack the very successful Caribbean trade routes. Key West was next to a shipping lane and was only 106 miles north of Havana, Cuba, a major port city. This trade was essential to the American economy and international trade, and so Key West soon became an important American naval base.

Key West became known as a place that was filled with mosquitoes; rowdy, hard drinking sailors; illegal slave traders and saloons. It had a political and economic life that was very different than the rest of Florida and the South. It had a “relatively progressive and tolerant climate…where nearly half of the white citizens were foreign born” and blacks were “twice as likely to be free” than in any other place in the United States. Key West was a “northern ally” of Lincoln during the Civil War.

Jewish merchants and peddlers from the North and the Southeast saw the economic opportunities the port offered despite the fact that Key West could only be reached by boat. Jewish business people reached out to the nearby Cuban Jewish community and the two Jewish communities drew upon their expertise and common interests and set up profitable cigar making businesses, dry goods shops, smuggling routes, and rum running operations. Key West became a center for making cigars.

Haskell follows the development of the Jewish community up until 1969 with the completion of the building of B’nai Zion Synagogue, marking 200 years of Jewish history in Key West. Throughout this period there were accomplishments that helped not only the Key West Jews but also the larger Jewish world. In the 1920s, European Jews fleeing persecution and prevented from legally entering the United States were secreted into Key West with the help of the Cuban Jewish community.

“The Unsinkable Bambi Lake: A Fairy Tale Containing the Dish on Cockettes, Punks, and Angles” by Bambi Lake— Evolving or Lying?

Lake, Bambi. “The Unsinkable Bambi Lake: A Fairy Tale Containing the Dish on Cockettes, Punks, and Angles”, Manic D Press, 2017.

Evolving or Lying?

Amos Lassen

Bambi Lake shares her intimate account of one individual’s evolution from innocent, suburban Johnny Purcell in the ’60s into fabulous, infamous Bambi Lake. Nothing is off-topic in this dramatic, revealing memoir that is an updated version of the original that was published in 1996. It contains new photos and an Epilogue: “20 Years Later”.

Bambi’s story is unique and universal, fascinating and frightening and compelling. We also read about the Cockettes in this book and the punk scene in San Francisco. Bambi documents a lost era of San Francisco.

We read the truth of what San Francisco once was and Bambi includes the prurient stories of her sexual exploits. Bambi bridges the gap between Haight Street “Summer Of Love” and the early days of the Fab Mab. This is a book that shows how to be true to oneself with dignity and a sense of humor.

The book itself is a series of vignettes told in the first person and here is where I tell you that there are many detractors who claim that this is a book that is filled with lies meant to impress and amaze the reader. I am neither impressed nor amazed. I don’t know what to do with that.

“The Mudd Club” by Richard Boch— The Famous and the Soon-To-Be Famous

Boch, Richard. “The Mudd Club “, Feral House, 2017.

The Famous and the Soon-To-Be Famous

Amos Lassen

In 1976, Richard Boch graduated college and moved to Greenwich Village. Two years later, he was working The Mudd Club door. As he tells it, The Mudd Club was filled with the famous and soon-to- be famous, along with an eclectic core of Mudd regulars who gave the place its identity. These included Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, and Robert Rauschenberg to Johnny Rotten, The Hell’s Angels, and John Belushi: “passing through, passing out, and some, passing on.” Marianne Faithful and Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, William Burroughs, and even Kenneth Anger are just a few of the names that were there with No Wave and Post- Punk artists, musicians, filmmakers, and “writers living in a nighttime world on the cusp of two decades.
Boch gives us memories and images, and shares how this downtown club attained the status of midtown and uptown. There was nothing else like it; he everyone, and his job quickly defined him.

Boch was not only the well known doorman of the Mudd Club; he also played a pivotal role in why it was the coolest club in the world back then. He was the crowd curator, carefully only letting in the right mix of the wildly creative downtown movers and shakers who made it to the club and he kept the squares and the unhip outside. In this book he tells us about the who’s who and all the fun that was had at the club. Reading about the cast of characters is like reading a fantasy tale filled with decadence and dance.

Boch’s prose is simple yet filled with detail and he leaves nothing unsaid. While some may see his prose as rambling, I see it as a man telling stories that we can’t wait to share. The Mudd Club was downtown Manhattan’s last important site of cultural experimentation before it became too expensive to live there. This is a fun read that is also beautifully written.

“Minnesota Boy: A Memoir” by Mark Abramson— Not a Book for Mother

Abramson, Mark. “Minnesota Boy: a Memoir”, CreateSpace, 2017.

Not a Book for Mother

Amos Lassen

When Mark Abramson was going to Europe after high school, his mother told him that he should write a book about it but it took him years to do so and this is that book, although it is not the one that his mother would read. “Minnesota Boy” takes us with Abramson to college and being unlike others and trying to find a way to fit in. He shares his coming-out, his early love story and then leaving Minnesota and moving to San Francisco.

I have been a fan of Mark Abramson’s novels and I have often wondered about the man himself. We have never met but I do feel like I know something about him by just reading his writings. This is, in my opinion, his best book and a very honest look at life in the Midwest in the 1960’s.

Now this is not Abramson’s only memoir. It is a complimentary book to his “Sex, Drugs and Disco” which covers his later years. This is about his early life— his childhood, teenage years in the Heartland, a trip to Europe touring with a youth orchestra, and his college days. We see that Abramson was once a naive and well-bred young man. (He is still well-bread but I do not think that the word naïve describes him anymore. He shares his phone calls with his ailing mother who encouraged and loved him.

Her is the story of a young gay man coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s and who documented his life and experiences. Abramson went to college in Minneapolis and it was there that he began his coming out.

Abramson cleverly ends his chapters with telephone conversations with his elderly mother and we see the wonderful relationship that they shared.This memoir covers 1970-75, and not only gives us a taste of Minnesota history and also some very personal stories that Abramson has chosen to share.

NEW GAY SHORT FILMS…. to watch for

New Gay Short Films

A Few New Ones

Amos Lassen

Here are several new short gay films that you should want to be on the lookout for.

 

“Alex And The Handyman”
, Dir. Nicholas Colia (USA)

Alex And The Handyman takes a look at pre-adolescent sexuality in a sweet way. The film precocious nine-year-old Alex, who develops an instant crush on much older handyman, Jared. The child wants the moody 20-something man’s attention, but Jared isn’t that interested in humoring the fantasies of a kid. The short starts off as a sweet and sometimes funny look at pre-sexual awakening. However, some will feel it goes too far towards the end in a slightly creepy way.

“Mr. Sugar Daddy”
Dir. Dawid Ullgren (Sweden)


Hans is in his 50s and looking for something new in life. After seeing another middle-aged man with a much younger lover, Hans sees an opportunity for himself when he meets the handsome, young Andrej. But while Hans is smitten with his new potential lover, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell whether Andrej really likes Hans, or just likes the money the older man can spend on him. Mr. Sugar Daddy is more interested in power dynamics and the potential for both sides to play with the others’ emotions, while not knowing quite that’s what they’re doing.

“Spoilers”
Dir. Brendon McDonall (UK, Australia)

Spoilers is a sweet, quirky, nostalgic and film-literate short; the kind we don’t get enough of in the gay movie world. The film follows Leon, a self-professed ‘short, fat bloke from Derby’, who unexpectedly bumps into the handsome Felix. Leon finds it almost impossible to believe Felix would actually be interested in him, while Felix has his own reservations about whether he can truly love someone. This is essentially a film about the things that will stop us finding happiness, and where we can inadvertently become our own worst enemy. It’s sweet, often smart and rather charming.


“Tellin’ Dad”
Dir. André D Chambers (UK)


After a rather sexy opening of two naked men writhing in bed— Dan and his boyfriend, who’ve been together for over a year. However, Dan is still in the closet, but promises to write a letter to his family, telling them he’s gay. The film then follows the reactions of the different family members, leading up to the person he’s most worried about, his dad. This is a look at working class people and the pressures that come from that, some of which are universal and some of which are specific to that place and culture.

“Boys”
Dir. Eyal Resh (14 mins)


It’s the beginning of summer and adolescents Brian and Jake are having a sleepover. It’s certainly not the first time they’ve shared a room for the night, but on the cusp of adolescent they’re dealing with new and unfamiliar feelings. Seeing how many armpit hairs they’ve grown develops into something potentially more sexual. “Boys” attempts to capture the confusion of burgeoning sexuality – whether gay or straight – with the young men unsure of what they’re doing and what it might mean or how to communicate about it. There’s no resolution but it’s an fun look into a time when many young men have experimented or questioned their sexuality and then been surprised by what has happened.


“Hole”
Dir. Martin Edralin (Canada) 15 mins


The sexuality of disabled people is still one of the more taboo subjects since many do not want to touch it. “Hole” follows Billy, who has cerebral palsy, which limits his mobility and means he needs an assistant for things such as washing. He also yearns for sex and true intimacy, but comes up against a world that only seems to offer him that if they can’t see him. The film is bold with a strong central performance from Ken Harrower as Billy and it shines a light ion some of the issues around disability and sex – from physical accessibility to sex to the faux intimacy of assistant and assistee. The end is challenging and initially seems somewhat extreme, but it’s thematically interesting and probably very close to what some disabled people have had to ask for help with.

“Paper is White” by Hilary Zaid— The Pull of the Past

Zaid, Hilary. “Paper is White”, Bywater Books, 2018.

The Pull of the Past

Amos Lassen

Whether we realize it or not, the past is always with us and memory is one of the defining human characteristics. In “Paper is White”, writer Hilary Zaid takes us on an exploration of survival, secrets, memory and love through her very fresh and original characters. I was totally involved already by the second page and had to force myself to leave the book to get something to eat. It has been a long time since a book affected me so deeply.

Ellen Margolis is assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory in San Francisco and her job entails recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors before they are all gone forever. That time is coming on us very quickly and what happened during the Holocaust has become part of the psyche of many. Ellen understand about the Holocaust since her parents and grandmother survived that horrible period in human history and she considers herself able to hold her emotions in. However, when she and her girlfriend decide to marry, the ghost of the past decide to pay her a visit. As they move closer to enjoying the benefits of marriage equality, Ellen feels a need to look at the legacy of intergenerational silence and she is drawn into a clandestine entanglement with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor and who seems to have more to hide than to share. Ellen is soon involved in a search for buried history. She decides that if there is to be a wedding, she must realize how much she can share with the woman she loves.

Zaid’s novel is set in the 1990s in the San Francisco of the dot.com era and it looks at the pull of the past and how it affects the present and what we must do in order to feel whole and complete. Like many others, I have been inundated with writing about the Holocaust and had more or less pushed it to the side for the next few years. After all, how many times can we read the same thing over and over. In order to make a book about the Holocaust interesting reading, new approaches must be found in how to deal with it and that is what Hilary Zaid has done here. Her story is inventive and tender and that is just the first of many innovations here. She faces the silences of those who came before her and works her way through them and we are along for the ride. The stories we have heard in the past, haunt us in the present but we ca never allow us to forget about an entire group of people being forced off the face of the earth because of their beliefs. We see how silence can either be just that or a weapon. We also see the importance of love and that it is redemptive. Granted I have been tight-lipped about what happens here but that is deliberate for I do not want anyone to approach this book with ideas in their heads. In approaching the past, we are also approaching life and while the stories may haunt us forever, that is not a bad thing. I was in love with the beauty of the prose here and the freshness of the topic. This is a read that you do not want to miss … and there is wonderful humor here.