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James O'Brien

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Every slip slender slope of grass, stain glassed with red and white and pink, lifted to the darkening landscape, toasting the encroaching and living planet. We are the children of some phenomenon, tilting away from the sun; soon to cinders, and then on to the harder stuff . . .

updated: 2 years ago


(The NY Shorts Fest screened Ricky Gervais' Derek at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, down in the Lower East, on May 29. Derek has been cablecast in the UK, and was available for a while online to subscribers over there, but the U.S. has not had a full shot at the film apart from these kind of screenings. Here's my review of the work.)

Anybody who's suggested that Ricky Gervais' Derek is about a person with mental challenges is a fucking headcase. Some viewers have slammed the writer-director's new short film, saying that it exploits people with learning disabilities. Pure and utter bullshit. Case closed.

No, we're not arguing about this. We're not here to discuss the crackpot decision that a fictional character, about whom we've been given no information other than what is on the screen, has or does not have learning disabilities. More importantly, Gervais's new work is not about that.

Here are the basics, for those who care about plot: the title character, played by Gervais — more on this in a moment — cares for old people in an assisted living home. Derek loves his job. He loves the residents with whom he works. He loves Hannah, his facility's director. And they all love him. But sometimes bad things happen and Derek is deeply moved when they take away the people he loves. And sometimes good things happen and Derek seems to worry that these things will also take away the people that he loves.

Exploitation? Learning disabilities? Two million viewers in the U.K: I suppose some morons had to turn on the telly. What Derek is about is kindness. It's about a compassionate, ethical, morally intact man whose empathy is not only his great gift but also his Achilles' heel. If you're looking to psychoanalyze, psychologize, or in any way come up with some analysis or interpretation of these characters' supposed pathologies, then you've missed everything important about the piece. Every single thing. Even the truly dim, however, will not miss the fact that Gervais' performance is remarkable. The actor has completely transformed himself; nowhere evident is the unflappable David-Brent type persona on which he's been riffing (at least partially) since his UK version of The Office in the early 2000s.

In Derek, Gervais has somehow swallowed himself, shrinking his frame into this small and unassuming fellow. Shuffling, lower jaw forever locked out past his upper row, the character is at once diminutive but huge — you can't look away from the mystery that he embodies. Importantly, from his combover to the nervous generosity that his twitchy little self seems to radiate, Derek is no more Gervais than Vito Corleone was Marlon Brando. (Not to go too far into this here, but there's an interesting comparison to explore between Brando and Robert DeNiro in the Corleone role, and Gervais' work with the Brent-type role and that of Derek, because both Gervais and DeNiro can fall prey to the same self-aware tendency when it comes to their onscreen appearances.) Point is: Derek is a real thing — alive and completely possessed of the gravity of a great role undertaken by just the right actor.  

The only way that the film flags, if it is too soft in one place at all, is in reliance upon the works of Erik Satie. The composer's piano pieces nudge Derek's already urgent sentimentality right up to the line, and it's perhaps necessary to look another time to determine whether Gervais has made a textural mis-step in including such recognizable thread of sound as the backdrop (or sometimes the aural foreground) for the action. Might have been better to stick Gymnopedie in the credits, where it could serve to give the kind of post-episode coda that "Handbags and Gladrags" provided at the end of The Office (UK).

But as a whole work, Derek represents a milestone along Gervais' creative path. And whether he makes more of these and produces a series or not, the short stands as something significant. In a sense, Gervais has made the future harder for himself. This is his Woody Allen moment, when he shifts from (say) what has been his Bananas and Sleeper era to something deeper, stranger, darker — his Annie Hall or something like it. Whatever now follows in Gervais' career, it will likely be measured against Derek, because at present Derek is his frontier achievement.

updated: 2 years ago


Concrete Blonde is back on the road, and this time the band's not celebrating Bloodletting, it's celebrating itself and its fans.

At an Irving Plaza concert on Dec. 13, 2012, the group dove into deep cuts and covers, and it paid a lot of attention to its sophomore album, Free. Johnette Napolitano made her affection for the full room clear. A generous run through twenty-three songs in about two hours, and the company took barely a break. When they did it was to thank some do-gooder, some traveler, or a birthday-boy/girl in the crowd. A bottle of Spanish wine was procured. The man in front of me was blown a kiss (he might have been the wine-bearer). Bottom line: for a band whose core duo has been working together for almost thirty years, Concrete Blonde is still vital, spry, and in it for what appears to be the long haul.

And now, the show.

The Band in Manhattan

Here's the good news: Napolitano's voice is still an instrument in fine shape. Astounding shape. At times, on Dec. 13, she set the Manhattan room back on its heels, holding a wide-open note into the darkness — she was framed by projected photos of what looked to be the evening skies of the Mojave (she lives in Joshua Tree, California) — and then turning it, on a dime, into something breathtaking anew. Or she simply clipped some virtuosic moment closed and leapt from the platform to the train of the next lyric. I'm not certain which trick was more astonishing. She is a powerhouse.

Drummer Gabriel Ramirez studies his band with the eyes of an arranger, of a thinker and those of a careful tracker of all the trio's moving parts. The impression grows that his kit is one nexus at which all elements meet, swirl from and gather back to, throughout the set. And Mankey still plays with those huge night-sky strings, the space and the echoes and the grit and the crunch of his axe reminding us that, for more reasons than the powerful throat that delivers the band's words, nothing sounds quite like Concrete Blonde. It's safe to say that he is one of the criminally under-recognized players of the past three decades. That being said, if you were close to the stage, there wasn't enough guitar in the mix. The small room, the power of Napolitano's bass rig — the pocket into which Mankey's licks and leads got tucked was just too deep. They never cut through the way they should have. A slight disappointment.

The Setlist and the Songs

Did you see Concrete Blonde in 2010, touring on the twentieth anniversary of its vampire-themed breakthrough album? That show was tight in all the right ways, and while its central risk was that the songs of Bloodletting comprised the core of the set, that was also one of its strengths. Last night Concrete Blonde walked a different kind of wire. It was an expansive set, spanning the entire catalog (and more), and at times it seemed to spin from the wheel in such a way that you could not be sure what kind of suit this band would wear.

That is, it's not easy to say what kind of songs make up the ideal set. You could claim the Blondes are at their best when they're performing the stuff of their best records. You could say they're most intriguing when they thoroughly absorb and then express others' songs, such as "Everybody Knows" or "As Tears Go By" (two of five covers). Or you could come to their show, in 2012, looking for new material — what it is they have to say as a band in the present. What you can't claim is that you didn't get all three things at Irving Plaza.

Opening with its most recent independently released single, "Rosalie" (2011), Concrete Blonde hushed the room. A wistful and soft hello. They then exploded into "Beds are Burning." This may be the only band working today that is covering Midnight Oil. In fact, I'd suggest that it's nearly impossible to cover Midnight Oil, unless you are Concrete Blonde. It was a total revelation to hear the song from Napolitano's mouth, and her bass is exactly the instrument to resurrect Peter Gifford's dreadnought of a running through-line. The song sounded huge, and it also forecast another thing about the set: Napolitano was going to flex, when it came to words. She slipped a bit about the Mojave desert into "Beds are Burning", moving it to her world from its (ab)original Australian sands. "Happy Birthday" came with an aside about legalizing pot. Point is, the songs can be living organisms in her performance. There were no precious snowflakes in the repertoire.

As for the band's back catalog, if you're a fan of Free (1989) — arguably Concrete Blonde's most accomplished album, if not its most well known — then you were a happy unit at Irving. Aside from covers, Free took the lead in the list with a total of five cuts. Bloodletting (1990) was represented three times. Every other disc, excepting 1997's collaborative Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals, got a single or a double nod. Even Still in Hollywood was represented. The band pulled up "100 Games of Solitaire" from the last half of that 1994 compilation. The encore was the anti-war single "The Real Thing", released in 2004 as a limited edition, right around the time of their '04–'10 hiatus. Such a selection perhaps  confounded the poor soul who'd driven from Ohio to see the show on her birthday (she was planning to make the eight-hour trek back, last night). Or maybe it's that when she said "only one?" at the end of the encore, she meant that she didn't want the night to end.

Concrete Blonde Setlist: Irving Plaza, New York, NY Dec. 13, 2012

Beds are Burning [Midnight Oil]
I Know the Ghost
God is a Bullet
Damage I've Done [The Heads]
Take Me Home
Help Me
Mexican Moon
Ghost Riders in the Sky [Stan Jones]
Everybody Knows [Leonard Cohen]
Happy Birthday
As Tears Go By [The Rolling Stones]
Ghost of a Texas Lady's Man
Heal It Up
Scene of a Perfect Crime
Run Run Run
100 Games of Solitaire
The Real Thing

updated: 2 years ago


Commended poem in the 2010 Award cycle. Read it here, or listen to it introduced and read at the ceremony held on Dec. 9, 2010 at Newcastle University (UK).

updated: 2 years ago


I am trying to figure out how beautiful you are,
crescent0ringed with white concrete . . .

updated: 2 years ago


Only much later remembered,
her fingers, softly, plate's edge, discreet . . .

updated: 2 years ago