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What a Beautiful Noise: The Loser's Lounge De/Reconstructs Neil Diamond, and Doesn't Make a Single Brooklyn Joke Along the Way
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
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The Loser's Lounge Tribute to Neil Diamond

Home Office Records, home of
Mr. Cyrano. Dateline: The West Village, New York. Nothing stops a guy from getting work done quite as thoroughly as a new computer. Not only do we have the Half-Life computer game problem (killing monstrous aliens to make the Multiverse safe for You), there's also a new kind of solitaire in there and it doesn't seem possible to win it at the "Difficult" setting. And I'm waging a war of attrition against my software, trying to stop it from calling the Mother Ship all the time (killing monstrous conglomerates to make the Future safe for You). At least it could show the simple courtesy of asking before it decides to update itself while I'm trying to kill the monstrous aliens. Hmph.

So this is 2001. I'm sorry, Dave. I can't do that.

On the other hand, all this new technology makes it easier than ever for your Mr. Cyrano to keep collecting every version of "Hey Joe" ever recorded. So far I'm over two dozen keepers to the better, including the hard-to get O Rappa, Richard Thompson, Los Locos del Ritmo and Helge Schneider tracks. Did I mention that nothing stops a guy from getting work done quite as thoroughly as a new computer?

Joe McGinty, Cavorting at the Keyboards
You can tell Joe hasn't got a new
computer, he's getting too much work done.

New York is afflicted with Tribute Fever. At Arlene Grocery the punk karaoke nights smangle harder than morning rush subways (they provide a pickup band and lyric sheets, and you haven't lived til you've seen a guy doing "Anarchy in the U.K." with a cheat-sheet in hand); the Bottom Line reinvents the 60's and 70's every few months with their "The Beat Goes On" series; the remarkable Mike Hunt Band plays frequently in the East Village, performing only Rolling Stones albums, each rendered lovingly from beginning to end. Half-assed occasional series or one-off spectaculars of varying quality crop up at Meow Mix, Don Hill's, The Den and others.

Shine on, You Crazy Diamond: The downtown eminence grise of these is the bi-monthly Loser's Lounge, which pits best and brightest local talents, for better or worse, against the work of pop and rock titans, with grand results. It's December, the streets are not yet crunchy with salt or rucked with snow, and Loser's Lounge is diving in for its 37th splash with a four-day stay of Hot December Night: A Tribute to Neil Diamond at its new home in Westbeth Theatre Centre (where the staff all wear WTC T-shirts that look like World Trade Center adverts).

What, ultimately, in 2001, can you say about Neil Diamond? You love him or hate him, most like. MC Webmaster Pierre, usually a great fan and follower of the Losers and a regular second on Mr. Cyrano's music beat, won't even consider coming ("No way"). Some of the Lounge performers feign ambivalence ("It, um, isn't really my kind of music, but it's OK"), looking like they'd just as well blow chunks in bed as spend any more time learning these songs. Some are less shy about it: "Sean grew up detesting Neil Diamond," says the program note for Sean Altman, whose sweet version of "Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon" turns out to be an early high spot on the program. And some are fans, of course.

Kris Woolsey: An Ur-Loser and Original Kustard King
If you don't see these colors,
the trouble may be in your set.

For Mr. Cyrano's two bits, Neil Diamond was an essential part of a good pre-teen breakfast, and about when Nixon was busy resigning I was busy wearing the grooves of "Hot August Night," Diamond's triumphal live album (or an awful grotesque posing waste of vinyl, depending on your tastes), down into glassy hissing featureless crackle. With skips. All of which, frankly, makes Diamond a perfect subject for the Losers, who set about merrily stretching and squeezing and shredding his huge bolts of music to snugly fit their demanding sensibilities.

On the big bright stage at Westbeth, Lounge founder and head Loser Joe McGinty takes his customary spot behind the white Yamaha piano, a picture of the easygoing affable career musician. (There are plenty more pictures in our Loser's Lounge Photo Gallery for your viewing pleasure.) Around him the Kustard Kings, the Loser's Lounge house band, launch with a cheery crash into "Crunchy Granola Suite," the first step in our three-hour march (with some sidetracking) into the Heart of Neilness. The Kustard Kings are a tight operation, and they've been playing with the Loser's Lounge since the series took its young shape in late 1993. Founded a year earlier by guitarist David Terhune, the Kings perch in an otherwise neglected evolutionary niche, performing, in pajamas, a music that Joe describes as being a mix of The Meters and Booker T.

Kitsch and Tell: The Loser's Lounge is a fizzy cocktail, two parts smarm and glitz, one part career envy, and two parts love, filled to brimming with hardworked showmanship, with olives to taste. The Usual Suspects in these shows are for the most part just a short peg or two shy of stardom, and a quick browse through the program is like overhearing one of those dreadful name-drop pickup conversations at a weekend bar; but here we do indeed have Lorenza Ponce on violin (back from shows with Sheryl Crow, Moby, and Sarah McLachlan). We have the usual extraordinary backing vocals trio of ex-Rockapeller Sean Altman, soft-spot Mr. Cyrano favorite Tricia Scotti, who plays (with Joe and Kings bassist Jeremy Chatzky) in the Ronnie Spector Band, and Connie Petruk, who has sung with David Bowie and others. Joe McGinty lists credits with the Ramones, Jewel, Debby Harry and Pizzicato 5, and there's more. But enough of that... tell me about yourself...

Rogue's December: Joe Hurley Sings "Cracklin' Rosie"
Joe brought his own beverage.
It seemed appropriate.

So what do ABBA, The Kinks, Burt Bacharach, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Carole King and Paul McCartney have in common? They're all in McGinty's record collection, and they've all been given the Loser's treatment over the past eight years. "A lot of it is sort of my personal taste," Joe explains over early coffee and bagels in a cozy ramshackle coffeehouse in Williamsburg. "It's fun to really delve into an artist's catalog."

Your Mr. Cyrano wonders if the kitsch is a necessary ingredient in the selection process, since many of the best recent Loser's Lounges have had a streak of the hifalutin to poke fun at, a dip of dress-up to play with -- last spring's No Time for Losers: A Tribute to Queen springs to mind, with Tricia Scotti decked out in a black plastic vengeance outfit with long train and scary collar for "Tie Your Mother Down," with Ivy Markaity in workout togs, biking cap, and trendy reflective shades, complete with water bottle, for "Bicycle," with slapdash reference made to "Flash Gordon" videos. Joe shrugs. "It's nice when that element is there, but it's really a combination of things."

The earliest incarnations of the Lounge, at Ludlow Street's now-closed Pink Pony, had a different approach. One of the first palm cards for the youngling series boasts, MAD Magazine style, "An evening of songs that make you go yecchh!!" under a sad poker hand (low near-straight, 2 3 4 5 and 7) and dice that have come up one and two. Joe grew up in Atlantic City, a town that woos its winners with promises of exclusive circles and private vices. And what's the opposite of a High Roller's Club? Why, a Loser's Lounge of course. The yecchhy songs turned out to be Burt Bacharach tunes, and the reaction was quite the other extreme. "Who knew," says Joe. "At the time, it was very uncool to listen to Burt Bacharach."

Someday Baby: Tricia Scotti at Work
Tricia won't come out and say
it, but she's not a Neil Diamond fan.  We love her anyway.

Which was part of the whole original vision. Nearly everyone toasted in a Loser's Lounge will make half an average room cringe -- even Carole King, whose vast catalog was celebrated last April, makes some people roll their eyes and moan. "It's funny, because we are the Losers," Joe elaborates. "We're the ne'er-do-wells, a ragtag group of people who are up and coming. We're not superstars, we don't ride in limos; they're the gods." Poking fun at gods is one thing most people are pretty good at, and the Loser's Lounge tradition of reverent irreverence was an easy call.

You Can't Know a Band by its Cover: An irony not lost on McGinty and the rest of the revelers is that you can fill a good-sized venue with a costy ticket if you're sending up a teasing salute to the music of Nancy Sinatra or Henry Mancini, or Neil Diamond for that matter, while most of the Lounge's performers are struggling hard to build an audience for their own music. So when there's a chance for some mischief, most of the crew makes the most of it.

At Westbeth the Losers are asking the musical question, "Who on Earth likes Neil Diamond, fercryinoutloud?" Just about everyone, as it turns out. When Lianne Smith, whose gawky edgy rock-from-the-roots makes her a local legend, sways into "Red Red Wine," the room sways with her, with a peppering of nudging questions ("Neil Diamond wrote this?" "Yes, ssshh"). Mychael LaMorte, the beaming vivacious lead singer of Fictura, charges with boyish smile and electric tension into "Thank the Lord for the Night Time," priming the crowd for Tony Zajkowski to lead in a singalong on "Sweet Caroline." We're only supposed to sing on the "bom bom bom" parts, but that was never likely to work. Happy pandemonium ensues.

Owen McCarthy: Rocking with "Kentucky Woman"
This is definitely the Deep Purple

Loser's Lounge is at its best in two extremes: when everything fits flawlessly in a command performance, and when everything carefully topples apart leaving a song undressed and revealed, in its candor and tattered undershorts. Craig Wedren (ex of Shudder to Think) aces September Morn with a flair that cries out for a casino stage and a full string section, so precisely capturing every nuance of the shred-hearted emoting pop archetype that the audience roars in appreciation at his gestures; a world of association floods out with each upraised fist, each dramatic caesura, each vocal crescendo. It's a brilliant display of control. We are buttons, and we're happy to be pushed so skillfully.

Deconstruct, or Unconstruct?: For his solo number, Joe McGinty chooses "I Am I Said," one of Neil Diamond's odd-song hits. It's a peculiar confessional, a "poor little rock star" story probably penned in a legit mood of nostalgia for hometown Brooklyn. Its unforgettably-catchy clinker lines and stunning pauper-to-prince arrogance make it one of the most annoying pieces in the Diamond Canon, and Joe knocks it ass-over-kettle with a tuneless deadpan recitation, decalibration, and confabulation that harks to Peter Cook's prescient art-rock satire in the original "Bedazzled" (Cook chants "Leave me alone ... I hate you ... please go away ... you fill me with inertia" in a flat monotone before a bank of white lights, to an adoring throng). There's not much of the original song left when Joe is through with it, and I'm not sure whether he's sung it or not when all is said and done, but it's a perfect moment of serious mockery, and an agile response to a problem child in the family.

Subversion is in the air, and everything goes giggling right to hell when Nick Danger and The HoHos collaborate on the vapid smash hit "America." Danger is, shall we say, a stylist more than a singer; he co-founded Loser's Lounge and specializes in knocking songs down and stomping them a bit, to see what they're made of. With The HoHos (Cathy Ho and Jill Ho, ahem, who transmogrify Diamond's nonsense ditty "Porcupine Pie" into a fake ventriloquist routine later in the show) in red white and blue cheerleader outfits waving little American flags, the effect is of a low-budget youth club musical. You know how in the South decorations for a dance or a yard party always involve tissue paper and chicken wire? This is a little like that. Pandemonium ensues. Our object lesson is that this is not a very good song; "American Tune" could have taken the beating and gotten out in one piece.

Shaken, and Stirring: David Driver and Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser, Resplendent
That's not her real hair.  It is his.

And many of them are good; Mr. Diamond is a powerful manipulator of clichés, most fluent when he's churning universal feelings into mainstream butter. There are fine performances all around (pocket comments in the Photo Gallery captions, for your pleasure), and all of them are overtopped by Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser and David Driver in a sublime medley of "Love on the Rocks" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." Both Driver (of the Driver Quartet) and Goldwasser frequent the Losers, and both are dependably excellent. Tonight, and together, they shine.

From the canned suspension-of-disbelief play-along entrance when David announces to the band that he and Goldie aren't speaking and he'll have to do the song solo, to her cold furious arrival, on cue and midway through with microphone in hand (and what a do!), to their final romantic denouement, they never strike a false note, dramatically or vocally. Their byplay is pure instinctive silliness, setting for a meticulous and powerfully attentive gem of a song. Driver in particular is emotive and plastic, with a voice that goes from raspy to clear with easy facility. And he knows just how to crinkle up his eyes at the good parts. It's surprising to find after all these years that Diamond's writing here has such elegance, and force enough to bear up under the gentle clowning. It's an exquisite bit of musical theatre.

Mary Lee Kortes: What's Simple is True
Misty watercolor memories.

Music's special power is that it carves out a space away from time; it binds moments across years, and imprints them with indelible markers. It can weave memory into a visceral pang as distinct as a taste, as subtle as a hint of fragrance. When Mary Lee Kortes sings "Play Me," an unabashed love song as full of emotion as it is empty of calculation, she introduces it as a song important to her young years. The lights fade; she stammers and steps with dainty words on soft private ground, and then delivers a limpid and pure version, faltering ever so gently in the shadow of times long past. Her allusion is that this was the personal soundtrack playing when she lost her virginity.

Which may or may not be true. In this post-pomo age, when pop is surely eating itself and industry has its fangs deep in the soft meat, it's an evocative conceit, and a reminder, for your correspondent at least, of how much Neil Diamond was of a place and of a time. I was young enough to neither know nor care what "Cracklin' Rosie" was about, to take the words to "Shilo" and "The Grass Won't Pay No Mind" as syllables of a feeling rather than units of measure. For that matter I didn't get much of "Stairway to Heaven," either. This Loser's Lounge taps the old flush of currents, in many different ways, all of them satisfying. I know it's only pop, but I like it.

It's worth noting that New York Times rock critic Ann Powers mentioned this moment in her review, drawing the same conclusion -- which makes Mary Lee, who fronts the excellent band Mary Lee's Corvette, about the only person I know who had losing her virginity covered by the Newspaper of Record.

The Loser's Lounge rears its many-splendored head every two months; of the latest crop, Mr. Cyrano's picks are the Queen, Carole King and Neil Diamond tributes. Next up is the Loser's Lounge tribute to Roxy Music, playing February 7-10 at Westbeth. Recommended. The Loser's Lounge is recorded on CD and 8-track tape (no kidding!); "Simply Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad About the Loser's Lounge" contains fifteen tracks from various performances over the years, and the next release, "How Can a Loser Ever Win?" is coming soon.

For the rest of January Mr. Cyrano takes a brief break from the regular column beat, and when we're back in a month or so we'll be even irregularer than before. Don't worry about the evil monstrous aliens, I've got 'em just about beat. See you in February.

Computer Mr. Cyrano has been using since first going online: Horse the Trusty 486DX-33 (clop-clop, clop-clop)
Number of years Horse the Trusty 486DX-33 (clop-clop, clop-clop) lasted before retiring to the Old Computers' Home last Thursday: 8.5
Number of things Mr. Cyrano is set up to do on the new computer to date, apart from killing aliens, losing at the new kind of solitaire, and listening to Hey Joe: about 2
Number of mp3's that will fit on the spiffy new hard drive: about 7000
Where you can get your own copy of Half-Life:


The Loser's Lounge:
Sean Altman:
David Driver:
The HoHos:
Joe Hurley:
Mary Lee Kortes:
Mychael LaMorte:
Owen McCarthy:
Lorenza Ponce:
Tricia Scotti:

"You are the sun / I am the moon / You are the words / I am the tune / Play me." And pandemonium ensues...

There's an animated paper clip watching me type. It is very unnerving. Thank heavens it doesn't talk.

All photos this week by Linus Gelber, since Pierre wasn't going near a room with Neil Diamond in it.

The Loser's Lounge Tribute to Neil Diamond

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