Abel Raises Cain: Today's Type of News Yesterday

Abel Raises Cain  (2005)
Directed by Jenny Abel
Crashcourse Documentaries, 82 minutes, Not-rated (but totally PG-13)
★★ ½

When Alan Abel died on September 14, 2018, the New York Times obituary was headed: "Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94." The Times was alluding to an embarrassing moment from its past. In 1980, Abel fed the paper a fake obituary, complete with the hysterical tidbit that he had died while filming a vampire film titled Who Will Bite Your Neck, Dear, When All My Teeth are Gone? To its credit, the Times did use a fact-checker, who was hoodwinked by the actors Abel hired to portray everyone from the undertaker to his grieving widow.

When Abel passed for real, some newspapers credited him with having invented "fake news." That's not true, and it's also self-serving. Abel was a hoaxster, but a good-natured one whose aim was, in his words, to give the public "a kick in the intellect." Jenny Abel documented her father's eccentricities more than a decade ago. As she makes clear, her childhood was filled with hilarity, but not a lot of money; her dad refused to cash in on his elaborate pranks and her mother, Jeanne, was his number one enabler. And what wonderful bamboozles they were.

In 1959, for example, he formed the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), and launched crude staged protests with signs depicting cows in muumuus and dogs wearing shorts. He kept SINA going for more than a decade. In 1963, self-proclaimed supporters even picketed the White House. Those supporters were apparently grammatically challenged, as the conjunction "for" and the preposition "to" are jokes within a joke that suggested that SINA was in favor of indecency! As SINA attracted media attention, Abel called upon a friend to help him script the organization's material: a then unknown Buck Henry using the pseudonym G. Clifford Prout.

A sampling of other Abel hoaxes included a fake celebrity lottery winner, the Topless String Quintet, the International Sex Bowl, and the write-in presidential campaigns of Yetta Bronstein in 1964 and 1968. In taped interviews Yetta—Jeanne in an outrageous Yiddish grandmother guise—proclaimed: "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta." Aside from SINA, Abel's most flamboyant pranks were Omar's School for Beggars, a training course for panhandlers, and the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which briefly tricked David Duke into accepting an offer to guest conduct! During the Watergate hearings, Abel struck again and posed as a Beltway insider who claimed to possess the missing 18 ½ minutes of tape that would incriminate President Nixon.

Sound outrageous and unbelievable? Maybe not these days. If there is any solace, it wasn't any better back then. The media ate it up. Abel appeared on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Phil Donohue, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and Morton Downey, Jr. Even news anchors such as Tom Snyder and Walter Cronkite fell prey. Some were infuriated when they discovered they'd been had. Isn't it often the case that people get angry with others when their own laziness is to blame? Abel was often filmed wearing cheesy and obvious disguises. Worse still, he was on air dozens of times without disguise and under his own name, though he had written several books about his practical jokes and was known to the media. He got away with it because journalists often failed to do their homework. Scholars have written about Watergate's deleterious effects on news-gathering. Abel was indeed a kick in the intellect but, alas, the joke was on him; sensationalism triumphed.

You will have noticed I've said little about the documentary. You can and should watch it on Vimeo to appreciate how Abel was the P. T. Barnum of the television age. It is, though, a rather crude effort—as family documentaries often are. It is the only film Jenny Abel ever directed, and she is among a long line of directors who stumbled because she couldn't get sufficient distance from her subject. There is a lot of repetition and her film frequently fragments both chronology and the narrative, and I don't mean in any arty or hipster fashion. It often feels like the work of a film school novice. What is good about it, though, is that Jenny Abel had access to rich archival material and her father's own notes, videotapes, and presence.

Abel Raises Cain is ultimately about an eccentric jokester. It is both funny and a sobering prelude to the age of Trump. If it disturbs you, don't blame Alan Abel. It's our own damn fault for not paying closer attention.

Rob Weir


Matt Litzinger: Gentle Music for the Season

Matt Litzinger, All These Years; Sampler

This is the time of the year for things sweet and gentle, and New Hampshire's Matt Litzinger is just the guy to deliver. He even has a deal for you: download his new EP All These Years and you can also get a free sampler.

Litzinger fits snugly in the singer songwriter folk tradition. He's not going to dazzle you with all manner of studio bling. Check out "Time Turner" from the sampler. He recorded it live because it conveys the personal and warm immediacy of his lyrics and performance style. Many of his songs are unabashedly wholesome. "Chelue," for instance, is told from the POV of his grandfather and the life he built. It is a three-generation tale of a boy and a girl (Chelue) who fell in love early, married, and watched their kids and grandkids grow. Litzinger sings this one with a bit of a rasp reminiscent of how John Prine might attack such material. He celebrates the same kind of devotion in "Piper's Song," which is dedicated to his daughter. This little piano/guitar based melody with its theme of a sunbeam bringing light into an often dark world could come off as mawkish, were it not for the fragile sincerity which Litzinger conveys his feelings.

If ambiguity is your taste, try "Airport Song." It's about a man driving his love to the airport and neither of them has anything to say. This part of the song is melancholy and slower than when he tells us he's counting the days until "she'll be back in my arms." There's just enough doubt in all of this for us to imagine a happy ending, or to think that the song is about a flame that has died out and the reunion is just wishful thinking. Another in the vein of how do you want to spin it is "City Folks." It tells of a person who rides commuter rail to work and dreams of being able to fit seamlessly into city life, though he doesn't. It's mostly a grass-is-greener tale, but it could also be read as a paean to country living.

However you want to think of these songs, you'll find Litzinger's pacing unhurried, his songs calming, his approach unpretentious, and his melodies the type that stick in your head. This is curl up-to-cocoa folk music that lifts the spirit.

Rob Weir  


Glastonbury Fayre an Early Nic Roeg Film/Time Warp

Glastonbury Fayre  (1972/Re-released)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
MVDvisual, 87 minutes, Not-rated (extensive nudity)

Film director Nicholas Roeg died on November 23. In addition to work in television and cinematography, Roeg directed such classics as the chilling Don't Look Now (1973); The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a David Bowie sci-fi tale; the controversial Bad Timing (1980), which was originally rated X; and The Witches (1990), which helped send Anjelica Huston's career into overdrive.

Back in 1971, though, Nic Roeg was the young whelp whose second film, Walkabout, gained a lot of what we'd today call buzz. It is a tale of two young white children cast adrift in the Australian Outback, where they meet an Aboriginal boy and (sort of ) entrust their survival to him. The point of all this is that Roeg was not yet a household name when he directed Glastonbury Fayre, if indeed "directed" is the right word. Glastonbury Fayre is a cinéma vérité documentary, meaning that Roeg played the role of a dispassionate observer. His point of view is visually direct, but images are presented without commentary or any identifiable judgment or assessment. Much like rockumentaries such as The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, Roeg simply pointed the camera and allowed the images to speak for themselves.

The 1971 Glastonbury Fayre was the first in a series of rock festivals that continue to take place in Glastonbury, England. (They are the remnants of classical and avant-garde music festivals that began in 1914.) Fairport Convention helped organize the 1971 event and several others in their post-Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson guise. Glastonbury was chosen because of its proximity to Glastonbury Tor, a hill that some regard as one of the eight most powerful energy vortices on the planet. The initial feel of Roeg's film is that it is what the documentary Woodstock would have been like if Michael Wadleigh had been forced to work on a shoestring budget. In fact, some critics have dubbed it "Woodstock Lite." The vortex makes it more than that.

The (non) structure of Glastonbury Fayre has the same feel as the filler material between concert performances in Wadleigh's film. That is, we watch the stage—a giant makeshift pyramid in this case—being built, and then we witness various people from all walks of life drifting into the site. There is no external commentary other than the snippets of conversation and background noises incidentally captured by the film crew. There is, however, a considerable amount of full frontal nudity on display from a cast of characters whose lack of inhibition makes Woodstock seem like a nunnery. As in the case of the latter, though, quite a few are eccentric, mystical, weird, or a combination of all three. Roeg's film also invokes another Sixties' phenomenon, the happening. Much of Roeg's non-direction is in the improvisational spirit of spontaneous happenings.

 Performers such as Terry Reid, Linda Lewis, and Arthur Brown will be less familiar to North American viewers. Brown—nicknamed The God of Hellfire—was a particularly flamboyant and odd performer. He is seen on the film in a demonic guise and with a band that presaged prog rock, Alice Cooper, KISS, and heavy metal. (Brown did have a brief hit on the North American charts with the song "Fire.") If you followed folk rock, you will recognize Fairport's Dave Swarbrick, whose fiddling raised the bar for future string players. Unlike Woodstock, though, none of the filmed performances last very long. Blink and you'll miss young Steve Winwood in Traffic, or David Bowie. It may sound blasphemous to assert, but the film's best musical performance comes from Melanie, who was a major star in the 1970s (and still performs). I'd have to check, but I believe she's the only performer to play at both Woodstock and Glastonbury.

The film shuffles on and about the time one begins to buy into the whole Woodstock Lite crticism, it dawns on the viewer that Glastonbury isn't Woodstock. It's actually the progenitor of Burning Man. And so it was for 15 years before anyone thought of Burning Man. And so it remains, with music plus Burning Man's embrace of all forms of artistic expression, but without its unstated (and near cult-like) adherence to specific spiritual paths.

Glastonbury Fayre won't stun you the way future Roeg films did. You may, in fact, find it rather crudely made. View it instead through the eyes of a time-traveling anthropologist. Leave your hang-ups on the shelf, as those who attended the 1971 Fayre literally let it all hang out.

Rob Weir


Turn Off the Cafe Wi-fi

Hipsters and Sponges Ruining a Cafe

Northampton, Massachusetts is one of New England's great coffee towns. Within the three-square-block section of the downtown there are at least 28 places to sit down or carry away a really good cup of Joe. Four miles away, the center of Florence has just a handful of stores, but coffee is on offer at 9 of them.

I'm fortunate that Northampton has a café culture, as there are several places I choose not to sip. I won't name them, but one is in the middle of Main Street and the other is on Pleasant Street. Their brews are terrific, but their business plans irk me. They offer free Wi-Fi.

Yeah, I know. We live in a connected world. Me too.  I have no gripe about that. I do, however, have issues with turning cafés into repositories for the tragically hip and the cheap-as-hell crowd. The dominant décor of the two places I avoid is one table, one laptop, one screen-stupefied typist, one cup of coffee last lifted to lips an hour ago, and a muffin that a sparrow could decimate more rapidly. Add a dash of incivility and it's-all-about-me narcissism, and you've got the picture.

Café laptops have replaced bowling alone as a symbol of our atomized society. A good café is the modern agora—a public meeting place where friends and strangers interact. See the same strangers enough times, conversation happens, and strangers become new friends. My favorite café, Woodstar, is precisely such a place. It's a mini Grand Central of people filing in and out. Those who score a table are seldom alone for long and, if you think the yakers are clogging the capitalist machine, check out how often the baristas are re-firing the brewing urns and count the food platters coming out from the back.

This, of course, is how a café must run in order to survive. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $11 an hour, but that's low for Northampton. Translation: Coffee places survive on volume. Why is Woodstar so busy? Because it has no Wi-Fi. You'll spot laptops here and there from those who can pick up a hotspot, but they tend not to linger. Woodstar hums with the energy and low murmur of dozens of people interacting with each other, not the listerized quiet of private surfers.

I've no idea how the two places I avoid stay in business, especially the one of Pleasant Street where even the big tables are dominated by a single laptopper guarding turf by splaying papers hither and yon. Every time I see this phenomenon I want to recruit a posse of former café owners and throttle the fool. This person is a self-interested sponge who threatens the survival of local business.

Perhaps you might think my reaction extreme. If so, try this experiment. Sit down near to a solitary laptopper and begin to converse with a friend. First the person will look up. Then comes a glare and a sigh. Headphones will be pulled from the pack and clamped over the ears. The moment an empty table opens, the power cord will be yanked from the wall, the laptop will loudly snap shut, and its owner will clomp off in a huff.

If ever the phrase "get a room" is apt, it's for those who think a beverage entitles them to a cone of silence and a place to be alone. There are such places; "coworking" space is all the rage these days. This will, of course, cost more than the five bucks for a coffee and a muffin. And that, really, is the point. A café isn't an office, nor is it a place to publicly exude attitude. Heaven forbid that our cafés become nothing more than places to preen and work. (Not that they could afford to be such a thing!)  

We all must work, of course, and I'm one who occasionally needs a change of scenery to regain my creative mojo. I've even been known to plug in at a non-busy café. But the moment business picks up I pack up and leave because I want that café to be there the next time I crave a well-made cuppa. If I need quiet, I go to the ultimate shhhh kind of place: the library. Those one-table one-laptop coffee houses of the living dead should turn off the Wi-fi—for their own good, and in the name of community.   

Rob Weir


Greg Hawks Hits it Right on Time

Greg Hawks, I Think It's Time

If you're fed up with redneck country music that wraps itself in flag-covered bigotry, Greg Hawks is your antidote. As befits an artist who grew up country music, embraced punk as a teen, and then turned back to country, Hawks knows the difference between phonies and the real deal and isn't afraid to call bullshit when he sees it. I Think It's Time is his response to our world of opinion as news, infotainment, and acting on belief rather than fact.

Hawks hits us right up front with "So Lonely," when he sings: Take a look at you, take a look at me/Nothing really is what it appears to be/Living in the land of make-believe/In the golden age of vanity. And he's surely no fan of Donald Trump. His "King of Hate" might be the best oppositional song yet written. In five pointed verses and two choruses Hawks systematizes all the angst you've been feeling. A sample lyric: Set the house on fire and then walked away/And then he found somebody else to blame/Sent out his sycophants to fan the flames/Is there anybody there with a sense of shame. Nor does he let anyone hide behind being duped masks. In "From One Extreme to the Other," Hawks calls out the unobservant: Another fool is stirring up a crowd that's hanging on his every word/And the one who screams the loudest seems to be the only voice that's heard/Another dog and pony show served to copycats and mockingbirds/No time for conversations, only shocking revelations are preferred.

Don't be put off if you're taking a sojourn from political confrontation. Hawks also sings about the sort of things all songwriters dive into: relationships coming apart ("Pretending Not to Know") and regret ("Things I Did Not Say"), for example. He also leaves us with plenty of hope. "It's Going to Be Okay" is self-explanatory; "One Light" is akin to an ecumenical prayer.

You can tell in an instance that Hawks is a gifted lyricist, but the other great joy of this record is that it's a showcase of musical styles past and present. "So Lonely" is country-style vocals as filtered through jangly bell-like guitar and Southern-friend rock. "I Hope I Never Know" is amped up folk with a hooky melody, and "On Light" is amped down and the sort of song Tom Rush might sing. 'I Think It's Time" is country twang, "Pretending Not to Know" is a big prairie Western song evocative of early '60s cowboy music, "It's Going to Be Okay" is crooner-like, "Another Possibility" catches Johnny Cash's cadences and groove, and "Things I Did Not Say" is classic tonk.

Hawks has the whole package: a sharp pen, a booming voice, the ability to mix things up, good values, thoughtful production, and strong musicianship. This is truly one of the better recordings of 2018. ★★★★★

Rob Weir


Provocative Monsters and Myths at Wadsworth

Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s
Bouke de Vries/Matrix 180: War and Pieces
Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut
Through January 13, 2019 (de Vries through January 6)

{Note: The only photos taken by me are from the Matrix 180 installation, as the Wadsworth does not allow photography in Monsters and Myths.}

Oelze, "Expectations"

In November, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World war I. What does this have to do with an art exhibit? In the case of the Wadsworth's current show Monsters and Myths, just about everything.
Max Ernst

We often assume that artistic creativity flows forth from an inner wellspring. Some of it does, but we should also consider how art and society mirror one another. This is especially the case for surrealism, which frequently induces mixed reactions from viewers. Some find mirth in the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and others. Still others avert their eyes, as they find surrealist images disturbing, even grotesque. Why, for example, does Picasso give us a frightful depiction of a monstrous but vaguely human figure tearing itself apart? Why would still other artists dehumanize the human body and reduce it to geometric shapes with hints of breasts or eyes peeking through? Why did Max Ernst produce nightmare scenarios that one up medieval depictions of hell? The tones of Richard Oelze painting that opens the exhibit are rightly described as "sulfuric." Why such unappealing colors? It might have something to do with the rise of fascism!

There are three reasons why surrealism looks as it does. First, modernism freed artists from the shackles of representationalism and unleashed perspectives that were impressionistic, expressionistic, metaphorical, and abstract. Second, artists were deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud. For the first time, Western thinkers considered the possibility that the human psyche had hidden recesses that could be glimpsed. Probing the unconscious was all the rage, as were explorations of darker human impulses. Psychoanalysts and artists also pondered dreams and their meanings.

Consequently, we often consider surrealistic artists in Freudian terms. The adjective "nightmarish" is often described to their work. What on earth, we wonder, led Dali to create "Apparition of Face and Fruit?" What's up with Ernst's bird-like figures? Surely, we imagine, such images must have come from disturbed psychosexual impulses.
Dali (Actually a visual mind-bender and reflection of his friend Lorca's murder by Franco)

Yes. And no. Society often gets the art it deserves. Artists are often less inventive than we think; theirs is often an expressive form of sociology. The third factor in producing surrealism is war. If you have traveled in Europe, you know that there is scarcely a village or town of consequence that lacks a monument to the Great War (WW I), a conflict that shattered the continent and destroyed all vestiges of old regimes based upon hierarchies of birth and illusions of noblesse oblige. The Great War should have been called the Great Obscenity. The conflict cost 40 million casualties, unleashed diseases that killed even more, and robbed the world of an entire generation of young men. Thousands who managed to make it home were walking monsters troubled by shell shock and marred by unspeakable disfigurement. Surrealists did not need to imagine fragmented bodies, skeletons robed in decaying flesh, horses blown to smithereens, putrefaction, ruin, or horror. It was literally all around them.

World War I ended on November 11, 1918. Except it didn't. The bones were scarcely stacked into charnel houses before fascism arose, the Spanish Civil War erupted, and then World War II. In the shadow of such obscenity, what were artists to do? Dadaists embraced the fundamental absurdity of life in a world in which, as Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, "All gods are dead… all faiths in mankind shaken."  Surrealists created monstrous imagery that makes us wish to avert our eyes, lest we are ultimately forced to conclude that we are the monsters upon which we gaze. Isamu Noguchi used real bones in one of his sculptures. As well he should have. 

Bouke de Vries

World War II ended in 1945 and many of the Surrealists visited or immigrated to the United States. There they continued to create provocative images because, of course, World War II never really ended either. The Wadsworth puts a sly exclamation point to this in a seemingly unrelated exhibit titled War and Pieces. Bouke de Vries invites/forces us to imagine nuclear war. His installation is constructed of white porcelain, but de Vries smashes its purity into shards. We also see body parts and mutations. Sound familiar?

The two exhibits are akin to passing a gruesome accident. We are disturbed; we are fascinated. We look away from artists such as Andre Masson, and then we look again. We hate this sort of painting, yet we secretly love it. Sometimes we laugh about it and call it whimsical. Then we shudder. There is a reason why so many surrealistic monsters look vaguely human even when the parts are severed, distorted, and randomly strewn.

Have you ever noticed that surrealistic monsters and grotesques generally roam over open spaces, or occupy private worlds within public places? Freud has gone out of fashion, but few have better explained how difficult it is to keep our monsters contained in the unconscious. Nothing bespeaks the truth of this louder than the detritus and utter devastation of war. We may externalize monsters all we wish, but there is but one species on the planet that engages in blood lust for its own sake. We create war memorials, but there is no glory. There is no honor. Just horror. In its own coded and oblique way, surrealism is the world's greatest antiwar art.

Rob Weir


Get to Know Lowest of the Low

Lowest of the Low
This Morning

Lowest of the Low is a beloved Toronto band that's been around since the early 1990s, though they are woefully underappreciated south of the border. When I say beloved, consider that their 1991 album Shakespeare My Butt often shows up on lists of the top 20 Canadian rock albums of all time. To celebrate a recent appearance on the Canadian Broadcasting System show "This Morning," the band has released an eponymous and free five-track sampling of back catalogue material on the Website NoiseTrade.

Lowest of the Low is frequently billed as an indie rock post-punk band, whatever that might mean. I think that's possibly because lead singer Ron Hawkins has a voice that has a touch of Billy Bragg roughness to it, though that's intentional and mainly his is just a very strong one. The fact that the band's most famous record is puckishly but politely titled Shakespeare My Butt is a pretty good indication that Lowest of the Low isn't really a punk band of any sort: pre, present, or post. Theirs is actually a very melodic sound and Hawkins' vocals are clear and tuneful, not snarly or off-key.

Two of the selections come from Shakespeare, including "Bleed a Little While Tonight," which did well on the Canadian pop charts. The only blood split in the song is that of yearning. It is catchy and has an easy dance feel that's more sashay than body slam. "Rosy and Grey" has crystalline clear electric guitar lines the likes of which someone like Jerry Garcia used to lay down (when he wasn't being sloppy). This too is a love song of sorts, though there is a (possibly) naughty double entendre embedded within. 

The other three tracks are from the band's 2017 release Do the Right Now. My favorite is "Something to Believe In," which opens with Hawkins issuing an earnest plea in a voice controlled and slightly louder than his guitar. This is the kind of song I really like: small opening, slow build, and go big, yet remain controlled and tuneful. The video for "Powerlines" is a pretty neat aerial tour of The Six (a Toronto nickname referencing the six "cities" that make up Toronto). The vid is actually a bit out of character, as the eagle's eye view is usually high above the streets and features that make our unnamed observer dream of a woman named Caroline. It's a great tune, so I'll overlook that and a few forced rhymes. "California Gothic" rounds off the EP.

I hope I don't offend anyone in saying this, but to me Lowest of the Low ought to be labeled an indie/folk rock ensemble. But it doesn't matter what tag you spray, Lowest of the Low is a fine band that deserves attention on both sides of Lake Ontario.

Rob Weir