The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.

Seven years ago…..

As of today, I live in New York City.  On the Lower East Side.  You just take the Houston St. exit on the FDR and go down a few blocks.  My apartment is a fifteen minute walk to the Angelika Theatre.  For the first time in my life, I’m living my dream.

March 19 

Wednesday was a real New York day.  For the 2nd time in a row I had breakfast at the Remedy Diner. Eggs sunny side up, 1 sausage link, 4-5 bacon strips and a ham/pork steak under the eggs.  Oh, and four pancakes.  Slammin’!  Topped off with apple juice and tea.  All for $10.40.  They call it The Lumberjack.

Walking along Stanton just passing Suffolk around 8:30am I noticed familiar spotlights, vans, camera crews.  Some film or TV show or commercial was happening.  Kept on to Norfolk and as I walked down, approaching Houston I saw a TV news van parked just outside the diner.  More excitement.  Village Voice clutched in my hand I entered the Remedy.

The left side was cordoned off and an interview was taking place.  A quick glance.  Attractive, young blonde and across from her… Alan Cumming.  He’s doing The Seagull with Dianne Wiest and I’ve got my ticket for April 1st already.  This is exciting.

If you know what he looks like, his new beard for the role, adds extra enhancement to his face.  He’s wearing a sweatshirt, light-colored, and holding court with his corner booth answering questions.  This goes on for almost an hour.

Sure.  I’d love the opportunity to say hello and tell him I enjoyed his film performances in Circle of Friends, Emma, Eyes Wide Shut, and of course, The Anniversary Party.  But that won’t happen.

Maybe I can catch his eye.  Alan?  Alan?


I’m reading the Voice looking for the next curiosity to explore this following week.  Plays.  Edward Albee’s The Sandbox/ The American Dream at the Cherry Lane Theater?  Our Country’s GoodThe Night of the Iguana?  Films.  The Grand, Heartbeat Detector, Contempt or Last Year at Marienbad.  The new print is supposed to pop off the screen down at the Film Forum.  Worthy options.

The interview is breaking up.  In what may just be play-acting the TV interviewer is surprised when the diner says there is no charge.  And then, the owner asks for a couple of photos.  Then the manager.  Then the waitresses.  Everyone but busboys get their pictures taken with Alan and the comely female interviewer.  Then they want Alan only.  This goes on for fifteen minutes.  Finally Alan zips his jacket, it’s cold on the LES in the morning, and his PR gal shuttles him away onto the street.  And he is gone.

But the buzz remains.  I have a theory.  I don’t think anyone knows who he is but because he’s being interviewed by TV he must be a star.  It’s a guess.  I base it upon the fact he has done more stage than film.  And stage actors are often considered less famous, less recognizable.  And to be honest, he hasn’t done a lot of blockbuster films, mainly playing smaller parts in smaller films.  His most famous role will probably always be the emcee from the revival of Cabaret for which he won a Tony award.  I wish I could have seen that.  He is a balls-out, unabashed, full of passion actor and I admire that so much.

I decide to save the concert section of the Voice until I get home.  That one takes more time anyway.  I pay for the meal.  Huh.  I had this exact same meal yesterday and the bill has increased by a dollar.  Maybe yesterday’s bill was wrong.

I approach the counter.  The tall, pretty shift manager with glasses and an Eastern European accent accepts the cash.

“I’m going to see him on April 1st.”

“Excuse me?”

I gesture to the now empty corner booth.

“Alan Cumming.  He’s doing The Seagull with Dianne Wiest.”

“Yes.  He is a big movie star, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say a big movie star… he’s done films but he primarily works on the stage.  In the theater.”

“Oh.  And who is he?”

“Alan Cumming.”

“Please,” she says, producing a piece of scrap paper, “how do you spell?”

So I spell both names and she’s nodding and writing.

Then, with a great big smile, “Thank you.  Very much.  Thank you.”

“Of course,” I say, taking a wrapped mint from the counter.  “Have a nice day.”

Off I go, out onto the same sidewalk Alan stood before plucking a cigarette between his lips.  Now I am even more excited to see him on stage.  I wonder how long he’s been acting.

I take Suffolk Street to see where the filming I saw earlier is going on.  And my oh my, but they are filming in my rental space on the corner of Stanton and Suffolk.  It hadn’t occurred to me than an unused space on the Lower East Side, in a convenient film-friendly area, would of course be used for day rentals by film crews.  The whole inside was filled with furniture, people, even the walls were decorated.  Maybe it was for a commercial.  Outside the whole area around was bustling, mostly with lighting and food tents.  Even as the rain continued to fall.  Lightly but still, continuous.

Back in my apartment I check on Alan’s early career.  He acted in his teens.  And he was married.  I still remember when he was on Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five on IFC, and he talked about his new fragrance called Cumming.  He sure is a cheeky sort.

So I check the paper for concerts.  Wednesday events.  At Angel Orensanz Synagogue, where I was at in December, and right next to the Remedy, there is a concert.  Rufus Wainwright and Friends.  What?  Wait a minute.  Rufus is going to be in my neighborhood tonight?

While my breathing becomes heavy I do some quick research.  Sold out.  Shit.  Of course it’s sold out.  It’s Rufus and it’s a small venue.  But right in my backyard.  How did I miss this?  It must have been announced when I was in Ethiopia.  As it was I missed his Valentine’s Day concert for which I had great seats because I was overseas.  And now this.  Another missed opportunity.  I’m not giving up.

eBay and other discount sites have tickets available from $100-200 a ticket.  That isn’t even out of possibility, however since the concert is tonight, in nine hours, how would I get the ticket?  This sucks.  I’m not giving up.

StubHub.  I previously used them for, I believe, my Rilo Kiley tickets.  Incidentally, they are coming again, but I am going to see Goldfrapp this time.  Alison and her entrancing voice have been in my thoughts for near a decade.  You can’t beat the opening to Felt Mountain.  One of the great musical entrances of the last ten years.  Maybe more.

There is one ticket at StubHub for the Rufus concert tonight.  $47.  And the ticket is already at the 40th and Broadway StubHub office.  I buy it.  And around 4:30pm head uptown to pick it up.  Still raining.  Take the F to 40th, walk one block to Broadway to the store.  Pick up ticket.  And back on the train.  The whole trip taking 40 minutes.  That’s why people take the subway.

I walk by Angel Orensanz.  The tickets are general admission and there will be a line.  But at 5:15 the place is deserted.  The concert’s at 8pm.  I go home and have peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla.  Put on a dress shirt, cream sweatshirt and head out a little after 6pm.

Now there is a line.  Only ten people though.  Standing across the street where there is scaffolding shelter.  So I get in line, turn on my Zen and stand in anticipation.  I got Massive Attack keeping me company.  An hour later, we’re let in.  By that time the line stretches around the corner, about fifty people now in line.

We’re led inside.  It’s dark.  Save for candles placed around the interior.  I walk up the center aisle.  The first two rows are taken.  Take the third row.  Only about five-ten feet from the steps.

The chairs are rickety, painted gold in a faux-fancy style, flimsily attached is velvet padding.  Sitting, I feel the chairs could snap apart at any minute.

The front steps area is especially lit with candles.  Low and high lamps of candle fire.  It’s all very peaceful and soothing.

I look around.  People are leaning over the balcony.  Filling this magnificent place.  But it’s still tiny.  Maybe 150 people.

I have much better seats than when I was here in December for Lucy Woodward.

Waiting for the concert to begin I write in near-darkness my thoughts, and also my plans and anticipation for tomorrow night’s play.  And where I may eat.  Maybe Serafina’s, right next to The Public Theater on Lafayette and Astor Place.

At 8pm, the opening act is an instrumental of youngish guys playing the trumpet with a muzzle and a slide trombone.

At 8:10 Rufus approaches the front, without introduction.  Thunderous applause.  He wears a comic-book styled jacket and a red cravat.  Low-key.  Rufus.  He is standing there on the same level as us and I’m less than ten feet from him.  He brings out the Friends.

Martha; his sister, Joan Wasser, a guy that looks like Paul Simon’s son ( though he’s not), Jenni Muldaur and Beth Orton.  Wow.  Beth.  I’m seeing her at the Hiro Ballroom on the 31st… but this is too much.  Long-haired brunette, slender, in a faded red dress.  It’s like a sneak preview.  I can’t believe I’m here.

There is of course instrumental accompaniment since this is a Rufus affair… but no microphones.  I can hear him, but not well.  This means people a few rows back and further and in the balcony cannot hear him at all.

He says, illuminated only in candlelight, “I don’t know how this will sound… and even if you see us up here and no sound is coming out, there is sound.  This is an experience not just to watch and listen… but to really listen and take in the whole experience, the whole sounds.  You have to do some work tonight,” he says, half-joking.

He informs us that this evening is being videotaped, directed by Albert Maysles, of Grey Gardens fame, one of Rufus’ favorite films.

Then the singers crowd in a crescent, around three metal stands.  They sing.  A cappell

“Stayin’ Alive”.

It’s funny at first and also a little shaky as these singing styles try to blend with each other.  No one really seems to know the verses and these stark, naked voices appear timid but over the course of the song, gather strength and they all loosen up and have some fun by the end.

Without a microphone is risky.  It’s your own voice of passion, standing without armor.

The audience is not sure what to make of this.  Without any posturing or fanfare, this semi-famous man is standing with his friends, like a local choir that has never rehearsed together.  It’s a fascinating experiment.

Then, everyone departs up a few steps to the altar area, another five feet back only.  Except Beth.

She sings “Conceived” from her recent Comfort of Strangers.  Like Rufus, hers is a voice you either like or don’t.  There is no middle ground.  Rufus has however become more accessible and show stopping than before.  Beth is the same voice she had from her debut, Trailer Park.  This naked scratchy yearning crying beautiful voice of equally beautiful lyrics.  And her guitar.  She either breaks your heart or annoys you.  My mother would be of the latter group.  She doesn’t like the “singers that whine all the time”.  She likes a good clear voice.  Emmylou Harris.  Patsy Cline.

But Beth is an angel and I have all of her albums.  Including Best Bit, with those great Terry Callier duets.

Then Paul Simon’s son sings a song.  Good guitar work but his voice is out of tune.

Rufus steps to the plate.  Sings “In My Arms” from his debut album twelve years ago.  Just Rufus and whatever sound this renovated synagogue offers.  His lungs are strong enough to carry that dream I believe him to be.

Jenni Muldaur sings a song.  Pretty, raven-haired dress wearing gal with a voice like Sam Phillips and some Cheryl Wheeler down-home attitude.  “In My Hometown.”

Rufus approaches once more and introduces the concert.  Blackout Sabbath.  An idea hatched to have people shut off their electricity for 24 hours on June 21st.  Being mindful of our consumption and how it affects the earth.

“So in preparation I want you to make a list.  A list of things you can do to reduce consumption… I don’t know, recycle, that’s the easiest, buy a hybrid car, stop buying plastic, maybe assassinate someone or (lots of laughter)… hey, I don’t know, it’s your list, right?  Maybe you could write it down in invisible ink or something,” he says, trailing off.  “The point is to start thinking about this day when you take everything out of the refrigerator; I mean… you can eat.  You’re allowed to eat.  Maybe you can make some tabbouleh the day before.  I think it’s just important that we all think about it and do something.  Whatever you feel comfortable doing.”

Joan Wasser steps out to sing.  She is a pretty brunette in dark makeup, also wearing a dress.  She sits with a squeezebox and sings a song.  “Real Love”?, I think it’s called.  But right before singing, quips, in piggyback to Rufus’ thought, “that during the NYC blackout a lot of love was made that night.  Right?”

After her comes Martha.  I have Martha’s debut CD and she has her own thing going, dark moody songs and she’s been photographed often looking like a young Marianne Faithfull.  Tonight, she’s in a red and white dress, white-blonde hair, and her face and mannerisms remind me of Teri Garr in the early 80’s.  Martha sings what she calls an “anti-political” song.  And her voice, like her brother’s, full and proud in its acoustic glory.

Then the whole crowd comes back while Jenni sings her song “Hopali”.  “Hopali Miss Bell”, she sings while the others sing “Hopali” doing hand claps.  A quick burst of choir from the Heartland.

Afterwards, Chandler Moss, one of the organizers, talks and then Rufus sings his already acoustic song “Ma Koushla” (that he previously told his Summerstage audience meant “my heartthrob”, but others may know it to mean “my darling” from Clint Eastwood’s film Million Dollar Baby).

Then Rufus says the real instigator for Blackout Sabbath is Beth and he was just happy to join in.  As he sang the song, I was so close I could see his mouth and jaw dropping, going limp, relaxed.  The dropped lower mouth must be one of the keys to his distinct voice.  I don’t know how he does it, but there is a practice and great effort to it.  And it pays off.

Beth sings another song.  This time from her debut album.  A song called “Somebody’s Daughter”.  And I can’t believe I’m hearing her.  Sitting here, so close to her, hearing her sing this song.  I’m happy she’s getting some love from the audience, though it’s nothing compared to the overwhelm that follows Rufus wherever he goes.

Then he says he wanted to do an instrumental piece in this concert, something to do with weather and climate so he selected John Coltrane’s “After the Rain”.  And the small orchestra takes this composition in its purity and slowly rocks the audience to sleep.  This piece of art is like a prayer.  And a heartbreaker at that.  Best thing I heard so far and once again renewed my interest in giving Coltrane another listen.  This will be the second time since I moved here.  The first being right after I saw the Albert Ayler documentary.  How gentle and classic Coltrane appeared on film.

Then Rufus wakes us up with a rouser of his, “California” from his 2nd album, Poses.  Before singing he talks a little about the state, the Monterey Coast, St. Luis Obispo, Route One… as one of the most beautiful landscapes on this planet, mixed with the plastic and unreal.  How California is the best and the worst place.

He has a lot of fun with this song, keeping upbeat and then towards the end, practically breathless (A cappella ain’t easy) he says, “I wish I was an opera singerrrr” and then finishes the last lines of the song.

The group sings two more songs together.  “Hard Times”, that I first heard sung by Mare Winningham in the film Georgia, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh, who should have won an Academy Award for her performance but no matter, and who incidentally conceived the idea with Alan Cumming to make The Anniversary Party.  So it’s all connected.

That song “to flush out all anti-ness in the world” said Rufus.

And then The Everly Brothers “Bye Bye Love”.  The ladies at this point a little punchy and providing some visual whooping and dancing.  Beth, Jenni and Martha were getting really jazzed over this song.  Really into it.

And then they all exit the area, amid an avalanche of applause and stomping.  Is this a concert that accepts an encore?  Suddenly Rufus and his sister come back out and sing.

“April Fools”.  Rufus’ first hit song from his first album.  It just puts a smile on my face!  And what a harmony she provides.  I doubt this was their first time performing this, but if it was… Jesus.  I mean, she had her part down to a science, so much so she came off as relaxed and not rehearsed.  Magnificent.

Then he brought everyone out and they all bowed.  What an evening!

Incidentally, the hooting you hear at the end of the video is mine.  That’s my mark.

I stood in line to buy a Blackout Sabbath tee shirt and then everyone who attended got a free tote with a pad, pencil and refrigerator magnet (kind of ironic).  Exiting, I swore I saw Martha Plimpton in the crowd.  Wouldn’t have surprised me.  And I walked home.  After a concert I have usually a long walk or a subway ride home.  Here, I was in my building within five minutes.  Cold night.  No rain anymore but still nice to be close by.

I walked along Stanton, past Suffolk, where the lights and vans were still outside, packing up.  Looking inside the space, it was empty once again, like what I saw earlier in the day was an illusion.

This was a real New York City surprise of a day.  And who knows what tomorrow will bring.


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