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Archive for October, 2009

Malvina Reynolds at the Rotary Club

The International Upper Middle Class Shall Be the Human Race?

The International Upper Middle Class Shall Be the Human Race?

Just had one of the strangest experiences of my life: hearing the Rotary Club of Portland sing “Little Boxes.”  As a red diaper baby from New York, now calling Berkeley my home, I was expecting at least a soupçon of disorientation at my first-ever Rotary Club meeting — but it never would have occurred to me that the proceedings would kick off with a lusty rendition of Malvina Reynolds‘s famous song lampooning comfortable bourgeois culture.

Adding to the weirdness, I was dressed as Ben Franklin.  This was the idea of the fantastically named Devereaux Dion, the club’s current president.  He and his wife had attended an early performance in my current (and very fun) run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage.  I remember spotting them from the stage: a handsome, middle-aged couple sitting in the front row.  I had snuck covert glances in their direction, to see if they were enjoying the show; at some point in the first act I finally saw Dev smile, and relaxed a bit.  Afterwards, Dev came up and introduced himself to me — following up with an email asking whether I might be interested in attending an upcoming Rotary Club meeting as “Ben.”

I should have warned him that I’m actually not a very good Franklin impersonator — in a way, Unplugged is about how I learned to love Ben without being able to embody him — but I was too delighted by his invitation to bring that up.  So today at noon (sharp — these Rotarians are nothing if not punctual) I found myself in a fancy ballroom in downtown Portland, in full Franklin regalia, preparing to recite a short excerpt from my show.  That’s when Dev brought this guy up to the lectern — apparently they start each of their meetings with a sing-along — who led the assembled Rotarians in an enthusiastic version of “Little Boxes” (they had the lyrics up on a screen).  The irony was not lost on anyone — in fact, it was celebrated: the fellow leading the recital introduced the song as being a parody of the kinds of folks who were in that very room.

I was stunned — a countercultural anthem was being, as it were, co-opted by “The Man.”  Turning to Trisha Mead, PCS’s delightful P.R. and publications manager (who had, thankfully, accompanied me to this gig), I said something about this moment being confirmation that not only had “my” people lost, but the winners were now actually able to gloat and joke about it!  She replied, with an understanding smile, that she could certainly imagine I’d be feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.

But here’s the thing: these Rotarians were winning me over.  As I understand it (dimly, to be sure), the Rotary Club is about business leaders “doing well by doing good,” as Franklin liked to put it.  (Or maybe it was “doing good by doing well.”  Oh, well.  That’s why I don’t have an almanac.)  They contribute to many worthy causes — including, I’m pretty sure, the kinds of theaters I perform in.  They educate themselves on important causes of the day: the fascinating main presentation of this luncheon was by two creators of a potential totally “green” high rise in Portland.  (One of the presenters commented drily that not all architects design “boxes.”)  And, yes, they help one another in their business endeavors.  Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin launched a club, called the “Junto,” for doing these very things.  So these people are living the lives that Ben advocated for a self-fulfilled America.

And who am I — the Paine in the ass who smiles smugly while observing these high-toned ceremonies?  Well, not exactly: I’m a businessman myself now — my company, Quixotic Projects, owns my intellectual property (insert your joke here) and occupies a great deal of my time, energy, and hopes.  I could learn a lot from these businesspeople.  Plus, I’m a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission — and this green-building presentation was of tremendous interest to me in that regard.  So you could say that I’m a potential Rotarian myself.

And yet, and yet … I’m also still … me.  My aesthetics and politics — derived from the Old Left of New York, honed in the ’80s punk scene of Boston, and buffed to a Free Speech gleam in my beloved Bay Area — would probably tend to diverge a great deal from many (though perhaps not all) of those in that ballroom.  Of that I have little doubt.

After the Rotary luncheon, we walked back to the theater in a thoughtful silence.  Eventually, I said to Trisha, “Well, it looks like the Revolution is definitely over.”

Her eyes twinkled.  “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.

Maybe she’s right — and perhaps, when the time comes, Rotarians and red diaper babies will march shoulder-to-shoulder into a democratic, sustainable future that would make Malvina smile.

Video: “You Want It To All Sink to the Bottom”

Shortly after I arrived here in Portland, Ore., for the current run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage (through Nov. 22), I wandered off during a break in search of coffee-making equipment.  (I hadn’t brought my Melitta stuff from Berkeley.)  At the popular Stumptown Coffee Roasters I became entranced with the idea of trying to make coffee with a “French press” — which had always seemed like a cool way to make a very strong brew.  (I imagined burly, caffeine-addicted French people — or maybe even French Canadians — applying enormous amounts of pressure to create super-intense cups, then writing muscular poetry about societal injustices.)

Wanting to get the French-pressing process just right, I asked the young woman who was helping me — Carrie — if she would mind my video-ing her while she made an exemplary brew.  Kindly, she said yes.  The result is one of those gritty, hard-hitting documentaries that blow the lid off of outmoded stereotypes of coffee preparation; needless to say, it is not for the faint of heart — watch at your own risk!

So far, a couple of weeks into this eight-week gig, both the coffee and the audiences have been hearty and complex, with a gratifying finish.  Once my family gets here, next week, I will be completely grooving on the whole Portland experience.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious pressing to do. …

Opening-Night CD Playlist

Had a fun opening at Portland Center Stage last night.  I love this theater, the people who work there, and this wonderful city.  And it’s really fun to be performing Ben Franklin: Unplugged again, after several years away from it.  Ben Franklin is great company — and his brilliant historian Claude-Anne Lopez, the heroine of my piece, is a delight to (try to) re-create.

I traditionally make a CD with a mix of songs for the crew that runs each of my shows.  Wasn’t able to figure out how to print out the list of artists, songs, and albums for them at the hotel, so I’m just putting it here.  I was feeling wistful as I put together this mix (missing my family in the Bay Area and around the world, thinking about my late father and my still-very-much-alive mom), but as I went on I found myself adding more songs that were not so incredibly gloomy.

Song, artist, album:

  1. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” The Mountain Goats, All Hail West Texas.
  2. “The Stoop,” Little Jackie, The Stoop.
  3. “Wild Mountain Thyme,” Penelope Houston, Birdboys.
  4. “Beautiful,” Anna Waronker, Anna.
  5. “Knapsack,” Amy Rigby, Diary of a Mod Housewife.
  6. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” (cover of a Warren Zevon song), Jill Sobule, The Folk Years, 2003-2003.
  7. “Frank Mills,” Shelly Plimpton (I think — does anyone know?), Hair — Special Anniversary Edition.
  8. “Steve Willoughby,” Vic Chesnutt, West of Rome.
  9. “Carol Brown,” Flight of the Conchords, Single.
  10. “Phantom Pains,” Christine Fellows, Paper Anniversary.
  11. “New Girl,” The Long Winters, When I Pretend To Fall.
  12. “Lord, I Have Made You a Place in my Heart” (cover of a Greg Brown song), Cry Cry Cry, Cry Cry Cry.
  13. “The French Inhaler,” Warren Zevon, Learning To Flinch.
  14. “Victoria,” The Kinks, Arthur.
  15. “Mercury,” Kathleen Edwards, Failer.
  16. “Papa Was a Rodeo,” The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, Vol. 2.
  17. “Driving Wheel,” T-Bone Burnett, Truth Decay.
  18. “Lazy Eye,” Hem, Rabbit Songs.
  19. “The End of the Tour,” They Might Be Giants, John Henry.
  20. “My Body Is a Cage” (cover of a song by The Arcade Fire), Sara Lov, The Young Eyes (EP).
  21. “Love Is All Around” (cover of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme), Hüsker Dü, Eight Miles High/Makes No Sense at All (EP).
  22. “Swimming Song” (cover of a song by Loudon Wainwright III), Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Kate & Anna McGarrigle.
  23. “Count on Me” (Demo), Kirsty MacColl, From Croydon to Cuba … An Anthology.
  24. “Time,” Tom Waits, Rain Dogs.
  25. “The Anchor Song,” Björk, Debut.

After the show there was a sweet party in the lobby of the theater.  At one point some performers from Ragtime, the musical that’s playing upstairs, came over to say hi.  There’s no way to get around it: the cast of Ragtime is way better-looking than the cast of Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  On the bright side, I’ll match up my crew, looks-wise, against any other crew in town!

Now I’m off to the gym to burn off 1,000 calories on the aerobic machines, as I promised Von Ray I’d do.  Then another performance tonight.  Wife and son coming to Portland a week from Tuesday!  Trying to line up bicycle tours of the Portland area for while they’re here. …