Sunday, September 28, 2008

Annals of Rawk: Liquor Bike's Reunion

A rainy night in Charm City. A colossal rock show at the Ottobar. For those who were wondering whether Dave, Mike, Colin and Eric -- the men of Liquor Bike -- could pull it off a full ten years after their farewell record release, the answer was a resounding YES! What I saw was on Friday night was astonishing, because Liquor Bike's music is full of hairpin turns, surging and shifting tempos and it requires a ferocious intensity. With only a couple days of full rehearsal as a quartet, the Bike weren't just tight -- they were snare drum tight. Song after song came blasting out: "Could It Be I Am A Liar?" "Hi-Fi Sigh," "24 Karat." The night was full of old friends and new acquaintances -- and the exhibit of 90s era Baltimore rock scene photos and flyers that will remain upstairs at the Ottobar for the near future. They say you can't turn back time, but the guys in Liquor Bike stopped it dead in its tracks and nudged it back for a few hours. That's better than good; it's damn near heroic. I raise my Natty Boh to all four of you, gentlemen....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

BvB Reading List 9/25

Long day (7am to 10 pm) so here's a quick list of things that caught my eye over the past day or so...

* Terrific review of Taffety Punk's Romeo and Juliet (and the STC's all-male version) by Trey Graham at Washington City Paper. Yes, tickets are still available but going fastfastfast....

* Did I mention the Liquor Bike reunion at Ottobar in Baltimore on Friday night? Yes, I did. And over at Baltimore City Paper, Lee Gardner leaves some indelible skid marks of his own on the band's legacy.

* Very nice Washingtonian interview with Dan "Ironman" Steinberg -- the Washington Post's sports blogger. In addition to his storied stint at Whole Foods before Sports Bog (sic) stardom, Dan wrote a great freelance story for me on bingo during my tenure as Washington City Paper editor. The money quote in this interview is his answer to the question: "Chris Cooley or Ryan Zimmerman?"

I mean, no offense to the dude, but read Zim’s blog sometime. Here’s a recent sample: ‘Football is upon us. This is my favorite time of the year. Football is easily my favorite sport.’ That’s an A-plus, Ryan. Your next assignment is to tell us what you want to be when you grow up. Then we’ll work on genealogy, and then it’s playground time. Cooley, on the other hand, posts pictures of his cheerleading wife in lingerie on his blog, provides the most detailed description of an NFL drug test you could ever want, and wrote a guest post for the legendary sports blog Kissing Suzy Kolber in which he described the NFL training camp as ‘F—k Town.’ I’m insulted that this would even be posed as a legitimate question.

* This story is why there's an Onion. The ultimate "don't rest in peace" piece.

* Week Three of the Washington Post's "Cupcake Wars." Baked and Wired's Teresa and Tony stomp the competition. Timmy sez: "We want Georgetown Cupcake!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

The New Job

Life brings a lot of changes sometimes and this is a pretty good one for Richard Byrne Inc.: Starting September 29, I will be the editor of a new magazine that's being started at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

I am an alumnus of the university -- English Honors, 1986 -- so it's a year-round homecoming for me. I'm immensely honored by the invitation to come back.

Going to UMBC was the best decision of my early career as a writer and journalist. It's where I met John Strausbaugh -- also an alum -- who helped me break into journalism at Baltimore City Paper in 1986. And James Taylor -- another alum whose Shocked & Amazed magazine explores the wonderful world of the carnival sideshow -- gave me my first internship at his literary publishing house Dolphin-Moon Press. (I think I still have paper cuts from all the envelopes I stuffed, but you couldn't get a better education in the journalism and literary business than from John and James.)

With the help of writers including the poet Anthony McGurrin -- who still teaches at the university -- my own creative work developed enough to win a fellowships to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and to the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis after graduating.

The primary focus of UMBC Magazine is going to be on telling the university's story to its alumni, but it's also going to spread the news about the great things going on at UMBC to other constituencies as well. (And it's going to have a terrific website.)

UMBC's story is pretty amazing. Under the leadership of President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university has rocketed into prominence -- including being named a top five up-and-coming national university in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings. Just as important, UMBC also placed second in the Princeton Review's recent rankings for "Most Diverse Student Body" in the United States.

It's a terrific opportunity and I can't wait to get started. The first issue will be published in February.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Taffety Punk XX Romeo and Juliet Opens Tonight!

So it's finally here! The Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female retort to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all male Romeo and Juliet!

Went to the last preview last night and all I can say is wow. Director Lise Bruneau seems to have tapped into a bit of Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys in the play's bumptious opening sequences. But I don't want to spoil any more of it... let's just say your going to see scads of great performances, a really inventive set that the actors really use, and all the feminine energy put to good use in a very male play. Sure, the Romeo and Juliet scenes have a different charge when Romeo and Juliet are both women -- but the Romeo/Mercutio/Benvolio scenes are really transformed -- as is the brutal scene where Capulet essentially disowns Juliet.

Want to read more? Yesterday's Express had a great interview with fight choreographer Lorraine Ressegger. And Peter Marks' review of the STC's all-male version had a nifty shout-out to the T-Punkers:

Although you'd love to see every aspect of "Romeo and Juliet" so vividly illuminated, Muse's gender-restricted gambit is an estimable reminder of how many routes can be traveled with Shakespeare -- and how many more this company needs to explore. In a wicked-cool bit of counterprogramming, the tiny Washington troupe Taffety Punk is offering this month an answer to Muse's production: an all-female "Romeo and Juliet." It's just this kind of clever blowback that rounds out a real theater town.

Ticket information here!

Friday, September 12, 2008

BvB Reading List 9/13/08

First on the agenda: A very important post by Steve Clemons on George W. Bush and Sarah Palin and reading. Clemons argues convincingly that Bush is much better read than the misunderestimating stereotype -- and wonders just what Alaska's governor has read.

Steve writes: "I honestly don't know what she has read. She could issue a list of books she says she has worked through -- but I think that if ABC has another shot at her or if any other journalists get to spend any time on this uncertain gamble for the second highest office in the land that they give her a book test.

"Ask her what she has read and quiz her a bit. What leaders in American history does she admire? What can she tell us about the Federalist papers, or about many or any of America's best and not so great presidents? What does she know about womens' suffrage and Susan B. Anthony? or Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

"I doubt at the moment her experience as a leader appropriate for the nation -- but my assessment of Sarah Palin could be nudged into better territory if I had evidence that she had done some self-teaching about the nation and had devoured books about our leaders, our wars, and our periods of innovation, peace and prosperity."

Palin makes me want to grab the book that I've used to accompany this post. But Steve is right. Let's see what she reads.

Second on the agenda: An addition to the blogroll at right is Carole Sargent's terrific blog on publishing, which she runs out of Georgetown University. Link and visit often. There are few who are smarter about the book biz -- and you aspiring authors who visit Balkans via Bohemia should definitely pay attention.

Third on the agenda: Mike Tomasky at the Guardian gets deep into the battle of news cycles in this campaign. Great stuff.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rated XX: Taffety Punk's All-Female Romeo and Juliet

Yep... It's less than a week away now until previews... The first chance to catch Taffety Punk's all-grrl (sic) discourteous retort to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male Romeo and Juliet. Right here in DC at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.

Today's Washington Post climbed on board the bandwagon with a terrific Jane Horwitz article about the production. And there's more press coverage to come in the next week.

It's been a real pleasure to get to know the Taffety Punkers as I've helped them hype this really inventive and transgressive production. A few teasers from the press release:

When Lise Bruneau, company member and Associate Director of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found out that Shakespeare Theatre Company was going to produce an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet in Fall 2008, it plucked a chord of feminist outrage within her.

“In Shakespeare's time,” says Bruneau, “he did it with all men. For some reason, all of the theaters in America think this is so fascinating that they never tire of doing a Shakespeare production with all men! It happens over and over and over again!”

One of the things I'm most looking forward to seeing is how Lise Bruneau and her fight choreographer, Lorraine Ressegger, present the preening physicality of the play's fight scenes:

“Most women, and especially women that are trained fighters, are jumping out of their skins to be able to use some of the skills that they have,” says Bruneau. “And we never ever get to use them. So the fighting has been going really well.”

The fight choreography in the show reflects the nature of the play’s characters, says Ressegger. “Mercutio is quick, wild, sometimes rash,” she says. “Tybalt is always poised, extremely well trained, precise, most don't want to engage him.”

Ressegger also says that the dueling violence of the play spirals as the feuds unravel. “At the top of the show fighting is a natural occurrence. It's about dominance, humiliation, besting the other person. People get hurt, injured, tagged – but no one has been killed. In the beginning, the fighting is tense and people are on guard, but everyone knows you don't step over the line. The death of Mercutio causes a dramatic shift in attitudes.”

The physicality of Taffety Punk’s production is also underscored by the set, which is a playground of jungle gyms and swings that Bruneau says will call forth “climbing, holding, swinging and jumping” from the all-female cast.

“It’s unharnessed energy and power that women have just been sitting on,” she says. “They've just been sort of holding inside this passion for movement – and doing much more aggressive movement than usually we’re allowed to do.”

The XX Romeo and Juliet is at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop -- 545 7th Street SE (near Eastern Market Metro.) Pay-what-you-can previews at 7:30 pm on September 15 (Monday) and 18 (Thursday). Performances at 7:30 pm on September 19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27, October 2, 3, 4 and Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm on September 20, 27, and October 4. All tickets $10

For tickets call 202-261-6612, or email

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Black in Berlin: Paul Beatty's Slumberland

In the tumult of the last couple weeks at Richard Byrne Inc., it's been terrific to have a book on hand that completely rivets your attention away from the life at hand and pours it into something that's not merely diverting, but revelatory and even transformative.

For me, that book has been Paul Beatty's novel Slumberland -- which is a breathtaking mash-up of post-socialism and jazz, soul, funk. Stripping it down to plot, Slumberland is the tale of an L.A. DJ's immersion in pre-Wende Berlin and his effort to track down a legendary musician in that city with nothing but a postal address and an amazing song used as a soundtrack for a decidedly-bizarre porn film. (I'm not going to spoil the joke.)

But Slumberland is so much more than that It's a jukebox-driven juxtaposition of A sides and B sides: Berlin and L.A., white and black, East and West. It's smart, funny, sad and damning. And, yes, it's brilliant.

Beatty's kicked around for awhile in literary circles, breaking out of the Nuyorican poetry slam scene in the late 1980s. He's written two other novels -- The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2001). And as fiction goes, Slumberland does have a poetry about it -- especially in the way that the novel's near-encyclopedic clutter of American black music's cultural signifiers surf Beatty's relentless prose rhythms and riffs. As his narrator, DJ Darky, observes early in the book:

Though I'm purportedly black-- and in these days of racial egalitarianism, a somebody--I'd never felt more white, more like a nobody. DJ Appropriate but Never Compensate. I was amanuensis Joel Chandler Harris ambling through the streets of Nigger Town looking for folklore to steal. I was righteous Mezz Mezzrow mining the motherlod of soul, selling gage in 125th Street, tapping my feet to Satchmo's blackest beats. I was Alan Lomax slogging tape recorder and plantatiuon dreams through the swamp grass misama looking to colorize the blues on the cheap. I was 3rd Bass's MC Serch making my own version of the gas face. A rhyme-tight, tornado-white, Hebrew Israelite, stepping down from the soapbox and into the boom box to spit his shibboleth.

is studded with such wonders of music criticism, turbocharged by plot and by a fierce moral indignation. The latter is cleverly masked by a surfeit of hipster swagger, but punches through particularly hard when it comes to politics:

Listening to America these days is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies. America is always composing empty phrases like "keeping it real," "intelligent design," "hip-hop generation," and "first responders" as a way to disguise the emptiness and mundanity.

Slumberland is stuffed with anger, slang and hard-earned wisdom. It darkens perceptibly by the end but remains bouyant. And as snappy and sharp as Beatty's style is, the book is suffused with a certain tenderness, particularly in moments where Beatty does one of the hardest things that a writer can do: translate what music actually sounds like -- down to its very nooks and crannies -- into prose.

At one moment about a third of the way through Slumberland, Beatty's character DJ Darky talks about one of my favorite songs, Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments." It's a beautiful passage:

"Stolen Moments" is Oliver Nelson's signature tune, a song I find to be the ultimate mood setter; it's a classic jazz aperitif. Oftentimes, when I play hardcore underground hip-hop or punk gigs, after three or four especially rambunctious tunes the mosh pits begin to resemble the the skirmish lines of a Bronze Age battlefields, the warehouse windows start to shake, the record needle starts to skip, the women have that "I'm down with the pogrom" whatever-motherfucker look in their eyes, and I know the party is one more Wu-Tang killer bee sting or Bad Brains power chord from turning into Attica, I ply fifteen to twenty seconds of "Stolen Moments" to ease the tension, to keep the peace. Its incongruous beauty brings about the wry existential lugubriousness of the Christmas Eve carol coming from the enemy encampment on the other side of the river ina hackneyed war movie. "Stolen Moments" is that type of intrusion, a lull in the fighting, a time to finish that drink and forgive and forget.

Buy Slumberland at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Powell's