Storm Large’s talent as big and gale-force as her name

First thing Storm Large did when she took the stage at the Cutting Room Wednesday night (Oct. 26) was point to the people at one of the nearest tables, who had come to the show having seen her sing with Portland’s sophisticated pop-jazz band Pink Martini.

“It’s different,” Large said of her own shows, to knowing peals of laughter from the room’s large contingent of Large cognoscenti. Sensing, no doubt correctly, the need to drive the point home, she repeated: “It’s different.”

And so Storm Large solo is—raw, ribald and risque. Yes, she threw in Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as a nod to the classy Pink Martini crowd, though it had howls and Tarzan shrieks within her classic pop songstress context, thereby evoking the earlier part of her unique career. As she explained, she had been a punk-rocker in Portland (fittingly, she fronted a band called The Balls), but her “theater” voice was deemed annoying by rockers as “it wasn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll” (she emphasized this with a perfectly placed belch).

When it was recommended that she sing Broadway songs, she objected. “This music is horrible!” she had replied, for at that time—the 1980s—her Broadway preferences were Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. As for Porter, she said, “Cole Porter to Suicidal Tendencies—it’s all the same: Ninety percent of songs are about love. They just look and feel different.”

She further related how hard it had been for her to find her “female voice.” Now 47, she recalled the era of eight-track audio (“I’m old enough!”) and male vocal faves John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Weavers and Harry Belafonte to The Kinks, Clash, Stones and Beatles. And while she offered no female singers (she did cover Dusty Springfield’s take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), she evoked other fierce female artists like Sandra Bernhard, Judith Owen, Tammy Faye Starlite and Nellie McKay.

Large actually began her set by belting out a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Besides Porter and Brel, she covered, beautifully, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed many of her own best-loved songs. These included “Angels in Gas Stations,” which followed a raunchy story about how Large was “fugly” until she “bought some titties” and immediately developed superpowers, among them the ability to wow an apparently newly-matured male (she didn’t put it that way) gas station attendant into giving her a free can of motor oil while her male bandmates cheered her on.

A predictable crowd-pleaser was her feminist anthem “8 Miles Wide,” introduced as “a suck my dick song” but literally about the figurative dimensions of her female genitalia. Here she was joined in the “Sing it boys!” final chorus by those male bandmates (including pianist James Beaton, who’s worked with her 30 years) and joined by award-winning New York playwright Mark Acito, who appears in the song’s video.

“I love New York City, because it shows you who you are–and who you are not,” Large said. But it being a few days before Halloween, the set’s showpiece was a Portland-centered song that she wrote a while back for a benefit CD, Dearly Departed: True Lies in Song, Unearthed at Lone Fir, to help maintain Lone Fir Cemetery–final resting place of Portland pioneers, city founders and developers, military veterans, firefighters, women’s suffragists, politicians, early Chinese workers, asylum patients, and Eastern Europeans who migrated to Oregon—who had met with untimely departures.

Dearly Departed is comprised of songs about some of the residents of Lone Fir, including Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first convicted axe murderess (a victim of domestic violence, she took an axe to her husband’s head in 1854), and subject of Large’s “Asylum Road.”

“She did the laundry in the penitentiary, then an insane asylum,” said Large, who said a lot of other things about the historical needs of the men of the “Wild West” that was Portland at that time. “After reading all about her, I wondered, ‘Why weren’t you a hooker?’ But she was a frontier wife in the 1800s, and I felt so super-sad about her, and the responsibility to tell her story with respect for her situation and struggle, yet make it musical and entertaining.”

Returning to the 2000s, Large darted into the audience, confiscating cellphones and shooting photos of their owners before switching them up, to be sorted out later. “This is what live music is for!” she railed. “Just be here.”

She ranted, too, about driverless cars and iPad-ordering at airports–modern developments that take away jobs from people and make them obsolete. And wishing Hillary Clinton a happy 69th birthday, she suggested that “we all need to brush up on foreign languages, in case we all need to flee.”

Here she listed all the horrors associated with the Trump campaign, surmising that he never achieved “enough pussy to grab, or buildings with his name on it.” Yet here is also where the divide in the Storm Large stage act—ofttimes X-rated, but in a most uplifting way–was most pronounced: “Who hurt you?” she asked of Trump, then humanized him—at least to a degree.

“Like it or not, he’s a human being,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of terrible shit. I’ve said some terrible shit.”

It was an appropriate preface to her song “Somebody to Love,” prior to closing, appropriately, with a reprise of the National Anthem.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 16

It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.

No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.

Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.

We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.

No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.

[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]

Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.

This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.

Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”

It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).

Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.

I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.

But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:

One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry
.

Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.

I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.

This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.

First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”

Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.

And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.

Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?

Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.

And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.

I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.

Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.

[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]

Concert Highlights–Nellie McKay’s ‘A Girl Named Bill–The Life and Times of Billy Tipton,’ 8/6/14

Nellie McKay as Billy Tipton (Photo: Bob Boilen)
Nellie McKay as Billy Tipton (Photo: Bob Boilen)

Beg, borrow, steal, jump the line, beat up who’s in front of you, storm down the doors if you have to–whatever it takes to get in to see Nellie McKay’s latest cabaret piece A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, playing tonight through Saturday at 54 Below.

Following her acclaimed Silent Spring–It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature tribute to Rachel Carson and I Want To Live! (inspired by Susan Hayward’s Oscar-winning portrayal of convicted and executed prostitute-junkie murderess Barbara Graham in the 1958 film noir of the same name), A Girl Named Bill concerns the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine. When he died in 1989, Tipton was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives.

So Nellie begins A Girl Named Bill as a young woman (adorable in plain but comely pink dress and hat) and with a ragtime piano piece followed by a ukulele turn on “But Definitely,” from the Hollywood songwriting team of Mack Gordon and Harry Revel (and sung by Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl). But after finding it hard to get work—and performing “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1931 Oscar-nominated film The Smiling Lieutenant—she runs off the stage, returning in boyish drag with short hair, man’s suit and tie, and though I wasn’t looking in that direction and never saw it, male prosthetic.

“From now on my motto is, ‘Wine, women and so long’!” Billy boasts, and as Billy, Nellie proceeds into screwball comedy-like song-and-dance, endearingly corny jokes and even miming, not to mention great singing impressions of Jimmy Durante on his signature “Inka Dinka Doo” and her old faithful Bob Dylan (an uproarious “Sweetheart Like You,” during which she mimes a guitar solo on uke).

“There are two kinds of men in this world–ineffectual nice guys and happy assholes,” she declares. “I want to be a happy asshole!” Inevitably, though, her band members get suspicious, songs like Lerner & Loewe’s “A Hymn to Him (Why Cant a Woman Be More Like a Man” from My Fair Lady and her perfectly mimed shaving routing notwithstanding.

“Why does he never have five o’clock shadow?” one asks. “He sure has a big ass for a guy!” observes another. And when she goes under the hood when their car breaks down in Idaho and they want to know why she has a box of Kotex, she claims “they’re good for filtering oil.”

Musically, Billy also resorts to performing Jelly Roll Morton’s admittedly and understatedly “smutty” classic “Winin’ Boy Blues,” and manages to keep the ruse going, through such other wonderful song choices as Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington’s “The Nearness of You,” Mose Allison’s “Stop This World,” her own original “Please Park Here I’m Lonely” and of all things, Cream’s “Blue Condition.” As usual, she lets her topnotch band (guitarist Cary Park, drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Alexi David, who also plays the tiny Greek baglamas treble bouzouki) have plenty of fun singing and acting along.

The show ends with Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something,” ironically following Billy’s fatal collapse from a bleeding ulcer.

With A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, Nellie McKay has outdone herself in terms of creativity and commitment. As an entertainer, she’s the total package. As an artist, nothing is beyond her.