Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

As you can see from the 8x10s on the right, Raquel Welch was a regular here.

(photo by Annie Sprinkle)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Lou Reed: Ugly People Got No Reason to Live

As a cub reporter in 1978, no different from Jimmy Olsen, really, I was sent by the Soho Weekly News to do a story on Lou Reed. They felt he was ashamed of his Brooklyn roots—a subject they figured would irk him. I knew little about Reed, mainly “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed played to a roundtable of sycophants, including our Eurotrash photographer, all of whom who found it utterly hilarious as he insulted and belittled his sophomore interviewer. Like a nasty high school bully, he kept trying to get my goat. This included a veiled death threat. I came to regard Reed—now a cadaverous, shriveled old Brooklyn Jew—as somewhat overrated. Mainly attitude and pose, admired by people who mistake this for musical talent.

Reprinted from the Soho Weekly News, March 9-15, 1978:

Lou Reed stepped into the Lion’s Head looking as though he had just awakened from a long nap. Two members of his current band and a publicity lady from his record company followed behind.

“She’s just a chick, trying to dig her fangs into me,” he said, drawing a nervous giggle from the publicity woman. A round table was chosen and the first round of drinks was ordered. Lou ordered a double Johnny Walker straight, and after a few gulps he tried to recall a few memories from his Wonder Bread years, living on Kings Highway in Brooklyn.

“Everybody knows Kings Highway. It’s just one big highway where everything is.”

He never made it to Coney Island, but admits to having seen the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and even liking them. PS 192 was only four blocks away from the Reed household, but the trip was too hazardous to walk. “If you walked the streets you’d get killed.” To ensure young Lou’s safety, his parents had him chauffeured to school.

“They lined you up in a schoolyard with wire fences, no grass to walk on. The playground was concrete and they had lunch monitors. What do you wanna know this stuff for? People were pissing in the streets. A kid had to go to the john, you raised your hand, got out of line, and pissed through the wire. It was like being in a concentration camp, I suppose. Not having been in a real concentration camp, I...” His voice trailed off regretfully and there was a moment of silence.

“When I was about 11, I moved to Freeport, Long Island, where Guy Lombardo lived. What’s so fuckin’ funny about that? Guy Lombardo, man. He had this big boat that was docked on the water.

“I didn’t hear nothin’ in Brooklyn. The radio didn’t exist. Later on, in Freeport, I got the Sound of the Hound. Then Allen Freed hit town. He was sued by the Hound because he was calling himself the Moondog. The Hound won. Later, the Hound had a heart attack and died at one of the rock shows. He was great though.”

Reed cut his first record when he was 14 in a group called the Jades. The song, “So Blue,” brought in $2.64 in royalties.

“They called me up and said Murray the K is gonna play your record tonight. I said, oh my God, and we all tuned in to WINS, 1010 Loves You. We’re listening and listening and listening, and finally on comes Murray the K, except it’s Paul Sherman. He says Murray the K is ill tonight, and I can’t fuckin’ believe it, right, my big moment. So Sherman played it, he was an asshole. Not that Murray the K wasn’t an asshole, but if you’re going to have an asshole play it, you want the biggest.”

Lou Reed played the shopping center circuit on Long Island in various groups. After they sliced the blue ribbon for the opening of Roosevelt Field, Lou stepped out on the bandstand, one of 20 local acts. He doesn’t remember any of them busting through to stardom.

“This drummer I had once was a chick with a mustache. She became one of the Female Beatles. That was the last I heard of her. Not that they were a good group, and someone said they’re like the female version of the Beatles. They called themselves the Female Beatles to exploit it.”

As for Long Island, Lou seems to have each district pretty well pegged. Mention a town and he’ll give you the lowdown.

“Hempstead’s like the crotch of Long Island. It’s one big bus terminal with faggots walking around saying, ‘You in love?’ Great Neck is the Jewish Towers. If you run into a diseased criminal mind, it’s from Great Neck. Nobody goes to more great lengths to escape their upbringing than someone from Great Neck. Usually they become sadistic criminals who do senseless rape-murders on 4-year-olds. You find a little letter that says, “I was raised in Great Neck, what’ya expect. Hi ma.’ My lawyer comes from Great Neck. Everybody I know is from Great Neck.”

Lou built up a prized collection of rock and roll records during his childhood. While he was with the Velvet Underground, junkies broke into his apartment and stole everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor. He has since searched every oldies record shop in New York, coming out empty-handed. Nevertheless, he can still recite obscure lyrics by the Solitaires, the Nutmegs and other forgotten groups. He was never a big Frankie Lymon fan, but got a kick out of spotting him in a Carvel parlor, a week before Lymon’s death.

“There was a guy standing there looking very puffy. Someone whispered, ‘that’s Frankie Lymon.’ He looked like a butterball without the butter. One week later, kayoed. I felt like getting him some Domino sugar. ‘I’ll color it, just pump it up. Give that man all the Carvel he wants, give him a straw so he can inhale it.’ I was all ready to put him down, but he died too fast.”

Andy Warhol is someone Lou Reed doesn’t put down. He feels that running into Warhol in the mid-Sixties was the greatest thing that ever happened and still holds him in reverence. After various name and personnel changes, the band Lou was in caught fire when it was introduced as “Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Velvet Underground.” Warhol’s specific contribution to the Velvets remains unclear, and it seems he was more significant on a cosmic level.

“Andy was the greatest, Andy is the greatest. When we made a record, we put Andy down as producer. What that meant was Andy came to the recording session and stayed awake through it. That’s all he had to do, but there’s no one else. He put everything together, allowed everything to happen. Working with Andy was ecstasy 24 hours a day. A chance to do all your ideas and have someone make it all possible.”

The Velvets never got to play the Fillmore East.

“Anything connected with Bill Graham, I’d piss on. He was a lowlife Jewish asshole promoter that I wouldn’t shit on. His idea of a light show was to have a fucking slide of Buddha on the stage. He was managing Jefferson Airplane till their lead singer got knocked up and they brought in that other dumb bitch, Slick. Ass-wipe Graham has us on the bill, but he slipped in Jefferson Airplane because he’s managing them. After we brought in all the press.”

Times changed and Lou Reed played a sellout concert in San Francisco with Graham as promoter.

“Years later, there he was beating on the door. Winterland sold out like that. He said, ‘Gee, I’d like to have you back.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t you like it, I waited for you.’ He had Frisco locked up for quite a while, and now he doesn’t. I would have waited till I was senile to get him and put toothpicks in his nose. It gave me a lot of pleasure to tell him no thanks, we’ll pass. Having him gelded would have been better. By now, I think he could have possibly become an adult. Bill happens to be a good friend of mine so I can joke around. That lowlife cocksucker.”

Not everyone in the music world meets Lou’s disapproval. He has a high regard for union officials, and remembers those who helped out early in his career.

“I would work for Elmer Valentine anytime, anyplace, under any conditions he wants. He owned the Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy. I think he’s one of the loveliest people. Aaron Russo is a real charmer, a sweetheart. I like Clive Davis. That’s why I came to Arista Records. You want me to get my phonebook?”

Reed proudly admits to holding personal grudges forever. Sometimes with good reason, and sometimes because the person’s face looks ugly to him. As the Johnny Walkers start to enter his bloodstream, his voice takes on a cranky tone. His record lady is telling him to wind down the “Lou Reed charm” while the band members watch in silent amusement. They make up his entourage and he looks to them for laughs. He claims that the only way he likes someone’s music is if the performer is good looking.

“I believe in glamour. You oughta stop the mind trip a little and get into the physical trip a little. If you think somebody who’s smart is good, you should see someone who’s smart and beautiful. Tom Waits? Why would I want to listen to him, he’s ugly and grubby. I don’t give a fuck if he’s good. It’s not Elvis Costello, where if you’re really smart you’ve got to look like a fuckin’ banker with fuckin’ glasses. People call him four eyes for a reason. How can you look at him and get off? When you go to the movies now, all the stars are ugly. Who cares about Dustin Hoffman? I want glamour.”

Lou had a tough time coming up with people whom he considers good-looking in contemporary music.

“Blondie’s not my type, although I’m sure there are people who find her attractive. I don’t like niggers like Donna Summer. Jeff Beck’s all right as long as you don’t look closely at his skin. Why doesn’t he get sanded? I think Bryan Ferry and Tom Petty look all right.”

Does Lou consider himself good-looking?

“I’ve been told I have my moments.”

Lou Reed is reluctant to talk about musicians he’s worked with, and starts to twitch around uncomfortably. Finally, he decides to get something off his chest.

“You guys don’t really know what you’re dealing with when you deal with me,” he fires in my direction. “You oughta fuckin’ kiss the ground that you’re walking on that I’m even talking to you. I’ll chew you up on any level you want to get to. You’re a fucking moron, and you oughta fuckin’ know it man, ’cause you don’t know what you’re talking to, or how you’re talking to it. Now I’ll go right back into playing Lou Reed for you.”

He whips his head around and clicks his teeth.

Are you Lou now?

“Uh huh. But you just realize, that if there’s a God, you’re going to pay the penalty of death in hell.”

“Behave yourself, Lou,” says the record lady, matter of factly.

Lou turns to me, distorting his face with a sinister grin.

“If I wanted to get you, I’d go behind your back, dummy. Now do you know who’re you’re playing with? I’d sneak up behind and stab you in the back. If you put someone in the hospital, they’ll sit there thinking about you, so the trick is to put someone beyond the hospital. That way you’ll never get me back.”

Lou asks that questions be directed to his musicians, but interrupts their attempts to talk. “You have the opportunity of a lifetime to ask them any questions you like. You’ll be disgusted to find out that he and I get along,” he says, winking at his guitar player.

A plate of fettuccine alfredo arrives, and sensing that he may have been a bit vicious, he offers me the entire plate.

Lou Reed recently moved back to the West Village after a stint on the Upper East Side. He’s proud of his new location because of the Stonewall riots that occurred on the block a few years back. He has a spacious high-ceilinged living room with a skylight and some leftover East Side furniture. A dozen guitar cases are piled up in one corner. Not a trace of Nazi paraphernalia or torture equipment in sight, contrary to rumors. Not even a wet towel.

He’s proud of his new album, Street Hassle, and plays it for my benefit, singing along. His two dachshund dogs act satisfied as they roll around, seeming to enjoy their master’s new album. Lou’s “pride and joy” these days is his new Sony video equipment.

He prefers shades of red and blue, or “anything but a natural tint.” After training the camera on people’s faces and playing with the color contrast, Lou decides to watch some TV. The star of the program is none other than Lou Reed, coming live over the closed circuit set. Sitting on the couch, he cuddles the dogs to his face while glancing over to watch the scene. He’s become quiet and withdrawn.

“The interview’s over now,” he says.

© 1978, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, September 25, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

Where jailbait came of age.

(from Tales of Times Square)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


It was 1970, but really the height of the 1960s. Though I loved the play, my father assumed I only came every Friday for the nude shower scene, featuring a gorgeous actress named Annie Rachel. It was in the first act, which I always caught before the early show at the Fillmore East, around the corner.

“What’s wrong with the second act?” my dad would ask.

“I have to make the Fillmore!”

“Yeah, sure.”

Tony Perkins, Annie Rachel

This became a ritual when I was 14. Train in with friends from Long Island to the East Village; dinner at the Paradox, a Zen marcobiotic hippie commune restaurant; catch the first act of Steambath at the Truck & Warehouse Theatre; then off to see Mountain, Johnny Winter, Allman Bros., Humble Pie, Cactus, Chicago. . . The East Village was thick with patchouli, pot smoke, aging beatniks, Krishnas, thousands of hippies and old Ukranians in turn-of-the-century tenements. And kiosks that sold Zap, Screw and Horseshit Magazine—real contraband in those days. The Fillmore, Steambath, and the girlfriend I had that year constitute the happiest memories of my teens (which didn’t contain enough—I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.)

Tony Perkins, Conrad Bain

My dad brought me through the incubation process of Steambath, reading scenes aloud as he wrote them, bringing me to auditions, rehearsals. Hundreds of Latino actors auditioned for God. During rehearsals, I remember the character of a Black soldier who entered the steambath straight from the killing fields in “’Nam”—which was soon written out of the play. When a devastated Charles Grodin asked why he was being replaced in the lead by Anthony Perkins (also the director), the producer’s answer was blunt: “Tony has a bigger cock.” (Perkins momentarily appeared naked in the play—which did indeed take place in a funky steambath stage set in limbo. The characters drifted in and out of the steam). Poor Chuck Grodin, thankfully, broke through immediately after in The Heartbreak Kid, a BJF short story turned into a movie by Neil Simon and Elaine May.

Hector Elizondo

Hector Elizondo, in this breakthrough role, blew off the roof as the Puerto Rican steambath attendant who turns out to be God. The 1973 TV version with Bill Bixby was mighty fine. But the original 1970 show was a mindblower.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Steambath on Wikipedia

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

from Tales of Times Square

(from private collection of Josh Alan Friedman)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Chasin' Jackie Mason (Part 2)

Too Jewish: A 2 a.m. Power Lunch With Jackie Mason at the Carnegie

It’s hard to juxtapose Mason’s brilliant onstage persona, as a moral equalizer and social critic, with his true personality—that of an amoral, bitter old man. His girlfriend and producer, Jyll Rosenfeld, was so toxic, she could have single-handedly triggered a second holocaust. Mason enticed writers to scab during the writers’ strike, and was a monstrous time-waster.

Reprinted from National Lampoon, April, 1991:

For a golden moment in 1987, Jackie Mason became the hottest star in Hollywood—even though he hadn’t made a picture there. His Broadway show, The World According To Me, was an unlikely smash. Dozens of writers and producers—and suckers—scurried about developing Jackie Mason projects. The treatment that follows is but one misguided example.

Here I am, finishing a corned beef on rye at the Carnegie at 2 a.m., not looking for any trouble, when in comes Jackie Mason. He has an entourage now—lawyers, press agents, an alter cocker chorus line akin to those who group around Joe Franklin. A short while back, Mason had one sidekick, now he has six, his entourage having risen with his stardom.

I confront him: “Jackie, you never called.”

The comedian looks up from his plate of rugelach indignantly. “Who’re you?” he asks, gazing down at me, though he is seated and I’m standing.

“Josh Alan Friedman.”

Sudden recognition. “Oh, yeah, the kid who was sending me the script. I promised I’d call you the next day, right?” he says, gesturing to the table at large, as if to congratulate his own memory. “I never got it.”

“Jackie, I mailed it three weeks ago. That’s the fourth time I sent it. Don’t you get mail at your apartment?”

“I swear I never saw it.” And then, Mason looks accusingly at one of his Yes Men, makes a disparaging gesture; this is the clown responsible for handling mail.

Every few weeks I’d bump into Mason. He was hard to avoid, a fixture on the sidewalk in front of Columbus, Sardi’s, the Carnegie Delicatessen every night after his show. Before his meteoric rise, I interviewed him for a tabloid. He dreamed of playing a “Jewish detective” in the movies. “Write me a script, any script, as long as I get to be a Jewish detective, and I’ll get you a hundred-thousand dollars.”

Not knowing Jackie would soon be bankable—or that Mason Productions would appear at the top of the Writer’s Guild shit list, I zoomed into production. I was a fan. I’d seen him at Dangerfield’s a few years before World According To Me, where he performed brilliantly, blew off the roof, before a mere six people—some of whom walked out, with the scolding reproach, “Too Jewish!”

With my pal Richard Jaccoma, I concocted the perfect, the only, Jackie Mason vehicle—a remake of The Golem.

“So, how will I ever see this?” asks Mason.

“Tell you what. I live 20 blocks away. Give me 20 minutes, I’ll be back with the treatment.”

“I’ll wait right here, I won’t move from this chair ’till you get back,” swears the famous comedian.

I cab it home, having the cab wait outside my apartment. Searching through my files for a Xerox of The Golem, I’m certain Mason will take off. But he told me at our last sidewalk encounter that he needed scripts desperately, everything he saw was shit, especially detective scripts. Furthermore, he could snap his fingers now to put something into production, as opposed to several years ago, when he first mentioned his detective film aspirations.

I barrel back into the Carnegie waving pages. The air conditioning is strong for September, blowing the scent of pickles and mustard through the air. True to his word, Jackie Mason is waiting.

“Finally, you can read this when you get a moment.” But the future movie star points me to the empty chair alongside him.

“Let’s read this aloud now,” he says, huddling with the table of Yes Men. “I always test comedy material on people first, like dis,” he announces to the sycophants.

Jackie hands the treatment to a man directly in front of him who looks as if he’d been a redhead decades ago. These old boys are high on pastrami and nitrites, cutting the grease with cigars. The fellow garbles his way through the two pages:



Jackie Mason plays a hard-boiled Jewish detective from the Lower East Side. His private-eye office—with the lettering “Sammy Spaidstein, Kosher Investigator” encased within a Star of David on the glass door—is at 42nd Street and Broadway.

Sammy handles dreary, run-of-the-mill cases, like spying on assembly lines at Matzo bakeries to make sure the rabbi says proper blessings or doesn’t spit in the gefilte fish—just keeping everything kosher. But Sammy longs for more glamorous assignments. Every night, on his way back to the office, he makes his Broadway rounds: waving to doormen, chorus girls and waiters at the Palace, Sardi’s, McGirr’s Poolroom, the Algonquin (period locales unchanged since 1939).

Right across the street from his office, he cruises through Hubert’s Museum & Flea Circus, Broadway’s legendary pits of show biz (a carny arcade in existence 50 years, which presaged Times Square’s decline). Here he schmoozes past Estelline the Sword Swallower, Sealo the Seal Boy, Andy Potato Chips the Midget, Congo the Jungle Creep, Presto the Magician, a schlock Egyptian Mummy exhibit, and his confidant Jack Johnson, the ex-heavyweight champ of the world (who was pathetically on exhibit at Hubert’s before he died).

One evening, a gorgeous woman breathlessly enters Sammy Spaidstein’s office. She wants to hire him to protect her father, a rabbi and Kabbalist. The Nazis (who were staging bund rallies at Madison Square Garden in the late 1930’s) believe her father knows the whereabouts of the mythical GOLEM. According to Jewish legend, The Golem, an eight-foot giant made of clay, slumbers secretly in the ghetto. He is only awakened by the Jewish mystics at a time of great threat to the race.

The Nazis want to acquire The Golem and present it to Hitler. The Fuhrer could then further his conquest of the world without interference.

Sammy takes the assignment from the rabbi’s beautiful daughter. They become romantically entwined throughout Sammy’s cloak-and-dagger pursuits, leading him among the goyim of Germantown, on Second Avenue in the 80’s. Alas, our hero finally stumbles upon the great monster of Hebrew lore: The Golem turns out to be the schlock mummy exhibit at Hubert’s Flea Circus, right under his nose.

Only the rabbi, now held captive by the Nazis, holds the key to reawakening The Golem, savior of the Jewish ghetto. But by accident, Jack Johnson unwittingly triggers The Golem back alive. The Golem herein is a grotesque parody of an eight-foot Yeshiva boy, with shot-glass spectacles and knickers, and the strength of 100 men (vaguely along the lines of Peter Boyle’s portrayal in Young Frankenstein). Sammy and The Golem do battle with the Nazis, wiping them from the face of New York, rescuing the rabbi, and walking off with his beautiful daughter.

Mason is impassive throughout the reading. His entourage chuckles at spots, but eyes him carefully, their laughter becoming throat-clearing when the boss doesn’t respond.

“Okay,” says Jackie, pointing to the first old duke across the table. “What did you t’ink?”

The guy is enthusiastic. “It was funny, like Mel Brooks, unusual idea, could be great.”

Mason points to the second in line, a younger, black-haired guy in some managerial aspect of show biz. “It was like a Spielberg picture with comedy—ya got Nazis, science fiction, adventure. Excellent.”

“Okay, says Mason, casting a nod toward a fat gentleman leaning back with a cigar, whose turn is up: “Too Jewish. They’ll never go for it in the Midwest,” he declares, taking personal objection. “Jackie’s gotta steer clear playing too Jewish, he can’t be ethnic. The movie should have a goy star in it.”

“I’m glad you said that,” shoots Mason, putting his fist down. “That’s what I was thinking to myself, but I wanted one of you to say it.”

“Too Jewish?” I interjected. “Was Annie Hall too Jewish for the Midwest? Is Barbra Streisand too Jewish, was Yentl too Jewish? How ’bout The Jazz Singer with Jolson? Jackie Mason’s whole career is too Jewish, and look where that’s gotten him today.”

Mason turns to me, apologetically: “Listen. I can’t play a Star Wars-type movie, with all that crazy stuff goin’ on, over here, over there. People expect to see me in every day situations, mainstream comedy. Dis is something for Steve Martin, one of those comics, dis isn’t right for me.”

A sincere appraisal and a mercifully fast verdict. I’d had my day in court, and appreciate the swift rejection, so it won’t drag on.

“I disagree,” I say.

You disagree?” says Jackie, dumbfounded before his witnesses. “You disagree? What if I were to tell some ballet dancer, who loved the classics, that she should be a dancer on Solid Gold, that I disagree with her choice. How can any schmuck tell me what he wants to see me do. There was this guy who wrote out a whole Broadway show for me a year ago. They thought the only way I’d have a chance on Broadway was if there were heavy chorus numbers, change of sets, costumes, chorus girls and routines. I started a reading of the thing, but halfway through I knew it wasn’t right for me. He told me ‘I disagree.’ He t’inks I should do a whole big show, why should I listen to this schmuck? Now I’m the first comedian to ever pull off a one-man show on Broadway.”

It was true that Jackie’s hit featured a bare stage and himself. “Listen, if you don’t think it’s right, case closed, you can’t play something you feel is wrong. We’ll find someone else.”

“Then why can’t I find one good script about a Jewish detective? I see 50 terrible scripts a week, I need one great one.”

“There are some good detective scripts,” I volunteer, “and there could be more if talented writers were actually hired to write them.”

“Name one good detective comedy from the past 10 years,” challenges Jackie.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” yells some screenwriter at the end of the table.

“That stunk,” says Jackie. “I’ll tell you what, there hasn’t been one since The Pink Panther!” Mason puts his fist down again. The guy who worries about being Too Jewish begins an analysis of Get Smart. Both agree these are the only two good detective comedies.

“Furthermore, I can play a romantic lead,” declares Mason. “Why shouldn’t I? That ugly dumb bastard, Dangerfield, was the romantic lead in that last picture, what was it?”

Back To School,” comes the table.

“Yeah, he gets the goil, that Sally what’s her name, he was a romantic lead. And you mean to tell me this skinny putz wid the big nose and glasses, this bent-over sickeningly ugly weasel, Woody Allen, can play romantic leads, and I can’t? He can sleep with Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, that’s all he does is romantic leads. Who’s that Hemingway broad?”

“Okay,” I pitch, “you would be perfect for a romantic lead. . . But I have some other ideas. The first Jewish vice president.

“Why should I play the vice president? Last week some guy came up with a script for me as the first Jewish president.”

“Yeah, but as vice president, it would be more realistic, loaded with anticipation of you being a heartbeat away. You could derive more situations from that.”

“What?! Dis script had me declaring Miami as the new capital. My wife nags, kvetches, why can’t she come out to meet Gorbachev in her fur coat, I make Rosh Hashonah a national holiday.”

“It was too Jewish,” whines the same old advisor.

End note: Mason’s Hollywood career ultimately spawned the TV series,
Chicken Soup, and the movie, Caddyshack II.

© 1991, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

(from private collection of Josh Alan Friedman)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Chasin' Jackie Mason (Part 1)

Around 1982, I went to see Jackie Mason at Dangerfield’s in New York. Mason had slipped into obscurity since the 60s when, legend goes, he made what seemed like an obscene gesture toward Ed Sullivan on the air. His TV appearances had long since dried up. That night, Mason laid me out on the floor. There were exactly six people in the audience, and two walked out. “Too Jewish,” muttered an aging housewife, as she and her husband left their table. His performance, with barely an audience, was stunning. This throwback Yiddish stand-up would eventually become the only comedian in modern times whose solo act alone became a hit Broadway show. Several years later, Mason was headlining Carolines, and I filed this report in my Naked City column.

Reprinted from Screw, May 5, 1986:

Jackie Mason is the sharpest stand-up comedian in the business. His craftsmanship onstage can’t be paralleled by younger comics; he plays to the audience like a jazz musician, reinventing a wealth of material, shifting meter with masterful ease. After devastating the audience during his Friday-night late set at Carolines, 8th Ave. & 26th St., Jackie took a table to talk with Naked City.

“I love to see young comedians, there are a lot of kids with bright things to say. Most of them have brighter material than the old comedians. But young comedians are not necessarily good performers. Old comedians might be funnier as personalities, but their material is shallow, meaningless crap about mudder-in-laws; witless one-liners that make no statement, derived from nowhere, went to nothin’. Young kids today often make hilarious comments about social situations, drugs, the mayor, ethnic groups, philosophy. But most of the kids today stink as performers; they have no comedic personality, like Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett.”

Mason, at age 48, ascribes to the old comedy school philosophy of working up through training grounds, which barely exist now. “I had to play bar mitzvahs to make it. New comics aren’t challenged to develop. At a modern comedy club, you don’t have to be a performer, everybody is a college youngster, they sit silent and respectful, you don’t have to be a great performer to reach them. I would have died like a dog if I wasn’t a performer—in bars, in lounges, for lowlifes, wiseguys, pimps, hoodlums. And this was just at a Jewish wedding.”

That’s why young comics often die in the big rooms in Vegas. Mason never got smacked around, even at the toughest wiseguy clubs in the Bronx, where the worst thing that happened was being told to “take a fuckin’ walk.” Jackie Mason, from the last generation to emerge out of the old Lower East Side, became a rabbi, so’s not to disappoint his parents. (He only returns to Ratner’s these days.) His father was a rabbi, and his three older brothers are rabbis to this day. The Yiddish-tinged Lower East Side accent, Mason’s trademark, has never received any flack, except from one source: “Only a Jew will complain. From gentiles I never hear adverse comments. Only Jews say the ugly things to me—‘how long you gonna kid yourself, when you gonna give this up, already, why don’t you retire, what the fuck is the matter with you?’ In my 23 years doing this, I never heard a complaint from a schvartze.”

Half of Mason’s act contains Jew material; here are the most brilliant insights in the biz.

“Because if you’re Jewish,” he says in the act, “the first people who’ll reject you, get disturbed by you, get nauseous from you, are Jews who say that you’re too Jewish. I have more trouble from Jews in this business today than I ever had with a gentile. Till I met this Nazi bastard (pointing to guy in first row). . . . All minorities have that sickness. Danny Kaye is a Jew from Brooklyn. You wake him up in the middle of the night, he talks worse than me. But he’s embarrassed by his Jewishness. So as soon as ya give him a job on television or in movies. . .” (Mason prances about the stage singing in European operatic trill)—“The man is fulla shit.”

When asked, Jackie admits a certain number of girls do come on to him, but there certainly isn’t any groupie atmosphere at his shows. Most women are with boyfriends, and there’s no great demand for short Jewish comedians as matinee idols. “Let’s be honest, for every girl who would chase me, there’s a thousand who’ll chase after Woody Allen. They don’t care what you look like when you’re the hottest picture-maker in the world.” Mason is worshipped, however, by the hierarchy of comedians in Los Angeles, where Mel Brooks, Steve Allen, Carl Reiner, and whatnot, all go nuts at his shows. Mason is unimpressed by this, gets embarrassed when they testify to his greatness.

On the immediate horizon for Jackie is his third independent film, produced and co-written by the comedian, who stars. Stiffs is about two brothers, a Jew and an Italian, who own a funeral parlor. Their mother was married twice, and this was the result of those marriages. “Then a third brother, a schvartze, comes in—turns out the mother was fooling around with a schvartze musician. The picture ends with a Chinaman also coming in; she was also fooling around with a Chinaman.”

Raising money for films outside the system is a bitch. “You bother rich Jews till you raise enough. If you can raise it, you make a better picture. There are people who invest in restaurants, in movies. The Stoolie cost a million-and-a-half, Stiffs was $2 million. If you’re aggressive and plead with them, it’s not impossible.”

© 1986, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Wayne Newton's Altamont

Nostalgia for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock hung over this summer. Woodstock itself has been insidiously branded and commercialized like shaving cream, beer and everything else. And so we were also reminded of the fatal Altamont concert, headlined by the Stones, which followed later that same year. Four people died (a homicide, a drowning, two hit-and-run car accidents). But few remember the Summer of Newton. This disaster at the World Trade Center preceded Al-Qaeda by 18 years. I was the only one to cover the event, in my weekly
Naked City column for Screw, reprinted here.

Screw, July 25, 1983:

There were some old maxims that the great novelist Nelson Algren used to impart, like “Never play poker with guys named Doc,” or “Never eat in a restaurant called ‘Mom’s.’” I’d like to add to this simple but surefire list of warnings: Never trust a company that uses the word “Integrity” in its title.

For my own morbid journalistic reasons, I purchased two tickets, for 50 bucks, to see Wayne Newton under the stars at the World Trade Center on July 9th. The show was billed as “The premiere of the ‘I Love New York Concert Series,’” presented by Integrity Productions. Thousands of actual Wayne Newton fans showed, in Vegas formal, and thousands waited to be seated with tickets that, incredibly, designated non-existent seats.

Brawls, screaming matches, even catfights between jewelry-bedecked old ladies broke out everywhere you turned, like a tower of Babel, while a few were rushed out on stretchers, alleged victims of heart attacks. Young Italian men, whose business maybe you shouldn’t ask too many questions about, grabbed front-row seats over the protests of those who’d paid $125. (Though anyone who pays $125 to see a Wayne Newton deserves to get ripped off.) Women with plunging cleavages and pockmarked faces brought necklaces to shower upon the king of Vegas Soul, as well as hankies they hoped he’d wipe his brow with, then toss back; but most unsettling were Wayne Newton manqués with open-shirted tuxedos and pompadours, unable to pull off an Elvis, roaming for seats. These were Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s type of folk, as opposed to the “bad element” he feared The Beach Boys would draw, when recommending Newton to play Washington on July 4th.

The show began 90 minutes late, while scores of angry ticket holders left in futility. The boss of the usher service paced by the exit, wondering whether his 20 men would be paid. The promoters, Integrity Productions, were nowhere to be found. “They told me there would be four to five thousand people,” he said, “so I brought 20 ushers. But I estimate the crowd at 10-to-12,000, in which case you’d need 60 ushers. Furthermore, they changed the whole seating arrangement without telling me, and provided no floor plan. Security’s so bad, I had to call back my men before they were attacked.”

Integrity Productions milked this show till the last second, with heavy promotion on TV and in the papers, using airplane overbooking techniques to gluttonous proportions without regard for the consequences. I personally lost $50 for two seats, in a row that didn’t exist, and left 20 minutes into Mr. Excitement’s show. Newton had emerged on stage out of touch, his every word a lie or cliché (“Wow, what a really great audience, we got a hot crowd tonight!”). And it is precisely this calculated Big Lie that all his fans buy to the hilt, and which came back to choke them; Mr. & Mrs. Wayne Newton Fan U.S.A. had a disastrous evening.

The Vegas idol tried to apologize briefly, then dismissed the affair, which wasn’t really his fault. Wayne may not own the Big Apple, and have to settle for less in a promoter, but what kind of integrity does it take to pick Integrity Productions? The city should impound the company, bring in a Ron Delsner, or cancel the series before the next schlock star, Paul Anka, appears.

© 1983, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman