Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Kate St. John: Beyond the Academy of Dreams

It is near midnight and time to turn off all the lights in your home. Ignite a trio of candles in your gadroon-border candelabra, close your eyes and reflect upon the day. Now the night comes stealing in as a whispering breeze ushers the ghostly melodies of a female chanteuse, alternately warbling in French and English. The lilting vocals gently intermingle with a seductive oboe chased by the jaunty rippling arpeggios of a Concerto DA-10 accordion. The incongruity could prove wrenching or at very least, frivolous, but is instead soothing, spirited, lulling, the notes wistfully enticed by the glorious vision of a doe-eyed, flaxen-haired nymph. The alabastrite clock chimes twelve times as the indescribable night transports you to an earlier day of Salvation Army bands and children's lemonade stands. Hey-oh-ma-ma-ma, hey-oh....

Vocalist Kate St. John, a classically-trained oboist, enjoyed a brief foray into latter-day New Wave pop in 1987 when she, as one third of the aggregate known as The Dream Academy, scored a hit song with Life In A Northern Town, an elegant paean to the childlike innocence and violent disillusionment of late 1963 ("...in Winter 1963 it felt like the world would freeze, with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles..."). Equally as adept and comfortable playing saxophone and accordion, St. John's musical arena is nearly universal, ranging from jazz to classical and the Chanson style of a French bygone era.

Creating live experimental music with Steve Nieve's Pink Orchestra and the Waldorf Salad Orchestra, St. John visited the world of film soundtracks, writing little symphonies for silent films conjunct with her duties as a member of the Dream Academy. St. John, never the audacious diva, is humbly at home as premiere spotlight performer, be it vocalist or instrumentalist, yet equally content as an accompanist for such artists as Van Morrison, Nigel Kennedy, or as director at the Barbican for Nick Drake.

In 1992, St. John's album The Familiar, brought her into collaboration with innovative musician Roger Eno, leading to a business partnership and the birth of the avant-garde Channel Light Vessel collective. The group subsequently released two critically acclaimed CDs, Automatic, and Excellent Spirits.

St. John's continuing evolution as a vocalist soared to higher realms with the release of her decidedly romantic solo album Indescribable Night, upon which she sings, swanlike, affectionately, and plays myriad baroque instruments. Following this artistic triumph with the equally enchanting Second Sight, St. John balanced her successful singular efforts producing two albums for Russian musician Boris Grebenshikov and his band Aquarium, winning Best Russian album of 1995.

In April 2004 she was a featured artist in Hal Wilner’s Nino Rota/Fellini tribute concert at the Barbican. Also at the Barbican she performed as a member of The Magic Bullets, the group of musicians directed by Tom Waits for a production of The Black Rider directed by Robert Wilson, in May 2004 and continued this work in San Francisco August-October, 2004, at the ACT theatre and in Sydney, Australia January 2005.

Jackie Joseph: A Delightful Dumpette

A vocalist, a television weather girl, an animal rights activist, the co-founder of a support/recovery group for divorced wives of Hollywood stars, a chorus dancer in The Billy Barnes Revue, a member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, a strong proponent for adoption, and queen of the Horror film dingbats! This rambling resume belongs to eclectic character actress Jackie Joseph, a California native born in Los Angeles on November 7, 1934.

Joseph, who has appeared in 16 feature films, proliferated the small screen with guest-starring stints in 36 television series, had recurrent roles in another 13, and written for the television series Barnaby Jones, is best known for her big screen role as bubble-brained flower shop hostess "Audrey Fulquard", the original Miss Malaprop of the legendary 1960 B-Horror/Comedy flick The Little Shop of Horrors whom the film's "creature", a man-eating hybrid venus flytrap named "Audrey Jr." was named after.

In an interview with writer Tom Weaver for The Astounding B-Monster archives, Joseph explained her job interview and duties as a Los Angeles TV weather girl. "There was a different girl for each day, and I was Miss Monday. On Monday you'd go in, and no one would be there to tell you how to do it. They stuck me in front of a camera and said, "Okay, be a weatherperson," and what I did amazed them. I said, "There are small craft warnings, so if you have a small craft, you better warn it!"

It was this innocent, unflappable spontaneity that endeared Joseph to Little Shop of Horrors director Roger Corman. "I think the quality involved in all of this was an innate ... well, rather than just saying stupidity, let's say innocence. That appealed to Roger Corman. I heard Roger say afterwards that the quality he wanted in Audrey [Joseph's Little Shop character] was sincere innocence. Audrey just believed everything that was put in front of her. (Which isn't a bad thing -- I have to defend that, because I tend to be someone who believes everything that's put in front of me!)"

With roles ranging from a salesgirl who waits on Elvis in the 1958 feature King Creole, an on-going role as "herself" in comedian Bob Newhart's first television series in 1961, to that of an interviewer in the 1977 made-for-TV film Sex and the Married Woman, Joseph has not been limited by her legendary two-day film shoot for Corman. In fact, she is quite grateful for the cult status that has accompanied the "Audrey" persona and for the opportunity to work with actors such as Mel Welles, Jonathan Haze, and Dick Miller. "Dick Miller and I played husband-and-wife [Mr. and Mrs. Futterman] in Gremlins, and I like that they resurrected Dick and me in Gremlins 2. I was sure we were really wiped out pretty good in Gremlins, the first one -- I mean, if you're run over by a snowplow or a building comes down upon you ..."

In 1985, Joseph co-founded The Ladies Club aka The Hollywood Dumpettes (the name parodying that of many of the vocal girl groups of the 1960s), an organization comprised exclusively of the ex-wives of celebrities. The organization provides psychological support services, legal counsel (in the form of handing out phone numbers of reputable divorce lawyers), career advice, and business networking. As club president, Jackie recalled "I went to a Hollywood function where a member's husband was being honored as 'Family Man of the Year.' He gave this incredible tribute about 'I could not have done it without this amazing wife who I love so much,' and that night he moved out."

In December, 2003, Joseph, divorced since 1977 from actor Ken Berry, married David Lawrence. From support group president to dingbat and dumpette, Jackie Joseph (who received only $500 for her work in The Little Shop of Horrors), despite her current marital status, remains the film world's most amiable feminist.

Nighmare Nuances: A Preference For Patchen

"I am the world crier and this is my dangerous career...
I am the one to call your bluff, and this is my climate."

The words above are that of the late Niles, Ohio-born poet and novelist Kenneth Patchen, an angst-ridden humanitarian and literary auteur who lived with the chronic pain of an incurably dislocated spinal disk, the result of an accident at age twenty-six. For Patchen, his literal Achilles Heel symbolized the microcosm of the world's continual psychic imbalance. A surgical mishap in 1959 further crippled Patchen leaving him all but bed-ridden until his death on January 8, 1972 in Palo Alto, California.

A certain fate as a steelworker in Ohio's "Industrial Valley" was circumvented by a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin where Patchen briefly entered the Alexander Meikeljohn Experimental College, followed by a short stint at the Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas.

Patchen, assisted by his wife Miriam Oikemus, an artist, anti-war activist, and Smith College graduate, whom he married on June 28, 1934, published 43 books of prose and illustrated poetry. Disavowing commercial stereotypification as a Beat Generation writer, Patchen personally focused on widening the realm of experimental poetry by creating picture-poetry, and later, poetry-jazz (orating against a background of jazz music provided by Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet). Oft-termed "4th dimensional realsim" or extra-sensory theater", Patchen himself preferred the following explanation: "The poet should resist all efforts to categorize him as a painted monkey on a stick, not for personal reasons alone, but because it does damage to poetry itself."

"In the footsteps of the walking air
Sky's prophetic chickens weave their cloth of awe..."

In Patchen's jazz-poetry recording The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves, the title line is spoken preceding a riotous explosion of instrumentation which is in turn followed by deliberated, staccato instructions to "Wait...wait, wait..." The frenzied music score played by the Chamber Jazz Sextet undulates urgently until Patchen cries "Now!" (the obvious culmination of the act of murder, perfectly rendered in word, music, mental imagery, and emotion). The words in written context, are staggered on the page in consonance with the vocal delivery.

As an extraneous note of interest (and one that Patchen might have found stifling and denunciatory), Kenneth Patchen was born under the free-spirited astrological sign of Sagittarius on December 13, 1911. Natives of this starred-enclave are oft-noted for their refusal to be stereotyped or mainstreamed, thus we have a writer who, in the midst of grand abstraction, is one of the only poets of his generation not to abandon the idiom of twentieth-century verse.

The Artist's Duty

So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all

To verify the irrational
To exaggerate all things
To inhibit everyone
To lubricate each proportion
To experience only experience

To set a flame in the high air
To exclaim at the commonplace alone
To cause the unseen eyes to open

To admire only the absurd
To be concerned with every profession save his own
To raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty
To desire an electrifiable intercourse with a female alligator
To lift the flesh above the suffering
To forgive the beautiful its disconsolate deceit

To flash his vengeful badge at every abyss


It is the artist’s duty to be alive
To drag people into glittering occupations

To blush perpetually in gaping innocence
To drift happily through the ruined race-intelligence
To burrow beneath the subconscious
To defend the unreal at the cost of his reason
To obey each outrageous impulse
To commit his company to all enchantments


You Don't Nomi: Martian Music/Venusian Vocals

The Internet Movie Data Base lists performance artist Klaus Sperber's birthday and birthplace as January 24, 1944, somewhere in the Bavarian Alps of Germany. But the late Sperber, who redubbed himself Klaus Nomi, professed to be from a futurist time and place other than the planet Earth. Indeed, with a visage suggestive of Klaatu in white-faced Kabuki makeup, personal contact with Nomi was an experience beyond that of a close encounter of the third kind. Nomi lived the fictional intimations of other artists, such as the German synth-pop band Kraftwerk, and set the standard for a brief sci-fi androgyne phase in the career of music icon David Bowie.

With the 2004 release of film director Andrew Horn's Nomi Song, a cosmically crafted documentary focusing on Sperber's brief life, viewing audiences can meld with the virtual unreality of Nomi's ethereal presence and transport themselves back to the New York East Village New Wave club era of the late '70s/early '80s. Whether transmuting pop tunes, such as multi-ranged '60s superstar Lou Christie's Lightning Strikes, effecting a shattering counter-tenor flight through traditional opera, or robotically warbling an original number, such as Simple Man, Nomi eschews enigmatic loneliness and an other-worldly persona that proved him anything but a simple man.

Like his misunderstood 1950s counterpart space emissaries, such as Klaatu, who brought an edict of peace through pacifism in the 1951 blockbuster film The Day The Earth Stood Still, or The Stranger From Venus, who romanced Klaatu's human girlfriend (Patricia Neal) during his 1954 peace pilgrimage to earth, Nomi emerged from the earthly veneer of Sperber, to bring a message of salvation through song. Yet as awed as audiences were by Nomi's Orwellian oddness, most treated his concerts as surrealist spectator sport, failing to grasp the quavering pleas for intimacy which fluttered and sparked beneath the Dietrich dominance and Garboesque aloofness.

In the end there was no Gort to this alien's minstrel Klaatu. No giant robot which could return mortal life to the dead or enforce the rules of sane behavior via threatening rays from a faceless countenance. Nomi himself, or perhaps the vestigial traces of the human Sperber, succumbed to yearnings for earthly fame and abandoned his backup band and co-performers for the commercial artifice prescribed by recording companies which sterilized his originality. At the nadir of Nomi's public appearances he even opened for the camp-metal band Twisted Sister during a particularly degrading outing at a New Jersey nightclub. And having split his persona in two, Nomi the nebulous shooting star became the victim of Sperber, the gourmet pastry chef, the spurious sex-a-holic, who contracted AIDS during one of his truckstop outings. With knowledge of the new disease scant, and the panic induced by the term "Gay Cancer", friends avoided contact with Sperber, who spent his last days
in the isolation of a hospital ward.

Black-glossed beestung lips, space vampire facade, geometrical plastic tuxedos, angularly coiffed hair, mechanically darting glances, this coy Mephisto with a bit of The Devil Girl From Mars, inaccesible to human definition, escaped the dreary annals of MTV stereotypification, but only by leaving the earth via a profoundly nihilistic death.