Black Sabbath



Black Sabbath will be playing that song, presumably for the last time at Madison Square Garden, tonight. I had the thrill of seeing them earlier in the week. As I’ve written in the past, I’m only a recent convert, but I can’t stop listening to them.

The Thursday show started with their song “Black Sabbath,” the plodding art rock number that begins, “What is this that stands before me?” Ozzy Osbourne spreading his arms to indicate what or who he means: You the audience. It was clear right away what we were in for: a faux Satanic sacrament with the band as priests and us the audience as congregants.

I couldn’t stomach this theatricality about them when I first heard their music. Was it my Catholicism? I don’t think so. I could handle apostasy, but Satanism? Why?! It felt like WWF wrestling. I was also just young enough to catch them at the very end of their 1970s arc, when their sound had become full-on heavy metal. The kids with tranquilizers in the pockets of their army jackets listened to that kind of music. It sounded too damn noisy to someone who could spend hours throwing a frisbee around with the Allman Brothers on the tape deck.

When my wife, who did love their music as a teenager, came home one day with their greatest hits during the waning days of CDs, we’d listen to it while playing backgammon, and she’d point out every time the music changed keys in inventive ways. (My knowledge of actual music is limited by my tone deafness – and my sense of rhythm ain’t so good either.) I found their first few albums on vinyl and was mesmerized. After the lifetime of punk, metal, and speed metal that followed them –  all of which Sabbath arguably invented and handed off to others – their early stuff sounds downright tuneful. Operatic, and much more prog rock than I imagined.

I was a bit surprised this week to see Ozzy take it upon himself to lead us in clapping and shouting, and to chide us, “I can’t fucking hear you!” Partly he was being a good Satanic priest, but partly he’s just a singer in a rock band; if he’d fallen in with different blokes in ’68, he’d be singing about sex, like Foghat. If you watch the full show the clip above is taken from, days before Christmas in 1970, you’ll see that young Ozzy did a whole lot of this too, and it sinks in: These really are just some working class dudes from Birmingham who invented their own form of theater that’s part blues, part football stadium, and part apocalyptic morality.

It feels all the more real and urgent today when you notice the hunch in Ozzy’s shoulders: Clapping his hands over his head could be a physical therapy assignment. Guitarist Tony Iommi got treated for cancer recently (successfully, he says), but you can see from their age that these guys aren’t rebels. They’re not young Martin Luthers pounding grievances on a door, they’re the high priests in their own church, or at least the stars of their own pageant, whose conceit is that they’re high priests, and we’re members of the flock.

“War Pigs” wasn’t an abstraction to people who were living with the draft in 1970. It starts, “Generals gathered in their masses,/just like witches at black masses.” I know, he rhymes “masses” with “masses.” Lazy, but stick around! Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were singing “Find the Cost of Freedom”; these guys were comparing Robert McNamara to a Satanic priest. The record version of the song ends with the verse:

“Now in darkness, world stops turning,
ashes where the bodies burning.
No more war pigs have the power,
hand of god has struck the hour.
Day of judgement, god is calling,
on their knees the war pigs crawling.”

Something I noticed in my years working with schizophrenics: Most paranoid schizophrenics a. love Black Sabbath, and b. also have a dose of grandiosity. If you believe there’s a conspiracy afoot to ruin your life, and the CIA and Martians and the staff at Kmart are all in on it, then you also will likely believe that you are a superhero, so at least it’s a fair fight.

It’s no wonder kids in Christian small towns keep dabbling in Satanism. He’s a presence in their cosmos already. Iommi and lyricist Geezer Butler put a Revelations kind of redemption into this particular song: You’re invited to partake of a titillating amount of the Satanic eucharist, but in the end we’re going to fall in line. In the video you’ll notice Ozzy merely hints at this redemption, finishing with an alternate set of lyrics, including this irresistible couplet: “It’s a place for all bad sinners/ Watch them eating dead rats’  innards.”

The spectacle itself is all the Satanism you need. I got the feeling on Thursday that I’d gone to an old chthonic rite of a dying cult: Before it was Black Sabbath, the band called itself “Earth.” Madison Square Garden, even though you go up to go inside, feels underground. The American and Canadian flags flew overhead – for hockey, I assume, though I’d love to see a Mexican flag there too – and it felt like a portal into the hell inside the North American soul.

In Houston that night the Republicans were imploding, but no one mentioned politics in the Garden. At the end of the show I got separated from my friends and texted, “I’m the white guy in a black coat.” 80% of us were white guys in black coats! I’m squarely middle-aged, but I’m sure I was below the median age there, and yet it felt like the conscience of North America: people who could stare into our own collective, murderous soul and still see some good. Humbled, and hobbled, like the guy carrying sticks on his back on the Led Zeppelin IV cover, we went down the escalators – or was it up?- to the train.

A Jazzercise Play

I saw a night of theater I’ll never forget last night. The Last Class: A Jazzercise Play, written by Megan Hill, by a new theater collective called Dodo is up through next weekend, March 5th.

It’s a comedy that unfolds over the course of a jazzercise class, the last, sparsely-attended one at a small town community rec center, and the instructor, played by Hill herself, is not happy about it. I went because the actor Amy Staats, who’s always funny, plays her co-instructor, and the two of them did indeed make a great comic duo.

Very American, this content, this belief in the power of positive thinking, even in the face of pathetic disinterest – or worse, when you feel debilitating anger welling up inside of you, as Hill’s instructor does when she thinks of the new rec director Chelsea poaching her jazzercise students and then 86’ing the class to make room for her own Zumba class.


This kind of humor, New York theater people poking fun at Middle America, can come off as mean-spirited, but I never got that sense from the group, I suppose because they were so on topic about the struggle: What is the limit? What wound is so personal that positivity can not fix it? And it helped that as a conceit it has the built-in forward motion of the class, a beginning, middle and end.

It also helped enormously that Hill inserted a touching monologue near the end, in which her instructor detailed why she became a jazzercise instructor, everything it means to her to be good at something, which elevates the whole play to a more universal, honest and sadder level.

Film geek confession: The minute it began, I was reminded of Winter Light – another tight timeline of a story, about a crisis of faith a small-town priest goes through while facing the fact that no one wants to come to his masses.

winter light.jpg

Father, Son, and Jazzercise.

The Theaterlab on 36th Street is a great, intimate space for the play – though part of me would love to see it again in a grander place, with more of a class following along. There are special deals to see it if you’re willing to participate as a jazzercise student, but word is there’s a waiting list for that.

At one point last night another patron in the back row (there are only three rows) pushed his chair too far back and tumbled backward off the stadium seating. Until it became clear he was unharmed (and it seemed like it could have been ugly for a few seconds there), Hill stopped the play. Staats shook her head and blamed it on Chelsea, who’s letting the rec center go to hell. Magic.

Finding the Least Imperfect Title

I made the choice a few weeks ago to rename the short film I wrote and produced in the fall. I say, “I made the choice” like my decision was final and unilateral, but really I finally came up with a title my partners could live with.

The story, if you weren’t tuned in in the fall, was about a journalist who goes upstate for an exclusive interview with a Broadway diva who just walked off a hit production of Hamlet. Before he gets one single comment on the record, she sees through him – that he doesn’t know anything about theater – and sends him packing, only for him to discover that her assistant has taken his car to go find some jumper cables. Now he’s stranded .

My original title was “Jumper Cables,” calling attention to the key prop in the story, but my partners strongly preferred “Cell Phone Range.” That, I found, was not well-received, particularly by people over 40, who thought it sounded like a cheap comedy, but we needed to call it something while fund-raising, so we went with it as a working title. Throughout shooting and editing, I came up with some bad alternatives.

One producer and publisher I know who’d read the script, suggested “Caesar’s Wife,” but that would muddy the water. Is it about Hamlet or Julius Caesar or what? I know from my 2003 feature New World Symphony how an off-topic title can handicap a film. That was a pretty straightforward melodrama set in a theater; NWS was misleading. That experience also taught me to listen to feedback.

Watching the the various cuts, it’s more apparent in the film than it was on the page that the essence of the story boils down to one scene. Andy insists he knows something about theater. Holly flips this by challenging him: “Name six women in all of Shakespeare’s plays.” She delivers a test for him to prove himself and links it to his bigger problem, implying that he doesn’t know anything about women.

Hence our new title, “Six Women.”


The Jansson-Visscher map.

Most of my writing time this winter, truth be told, I’m spending writing a business plan for a bar and restaurant in upstate New York. My fascination with the place is more than passing, more than just this short script.

For relaxation, I’m re-reading The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto. No explanation needed, I’m supposing, but one amazing detail from the book is the genesis of  Johannes Jansson’s map of New Netherland, which Adrian van der Donck had him publish when he was back in Holland trying to get a charter for a pubic government in New Amsterdam to replace the West India Company’s autocracy. Van der Donck is the hero of the book; he was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages and, among other things, the first civil rights lawyer in North America.

So many Dutch place names in this region I grew up in, from Schuylkill to Bushwick to Spuyten Duyvil (the Devil’s Spout!), all because a Dutchman was the first to have the motive and the means to record what his friends were calling them, and commit it to paper. Now every spot had a Dutch working title, daring someone else to come up with something better.


Old Route 22 in Amenia, NY.

Further upstate and east a bit, beyond the reach of the Dutch, I was checking out the Millerton, NY area one day. It’s near the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders, real Yankee country, and I don’t mean the baseball team. One reason I like traveling alone is so I can stop at every historical marker I please.

How sweet that the State Department of Education put up a plaque in 1935, explaining the name of the town, and hastened to add that we have it on good authority, since the Englishman who came up with it also came up with “Vermont.” If I see Dr. Thomas Young in the afterlife I’m going to tell him, “I love your work.”


Rosemary’s Baby

There’s a rare opportunity to buy a co-op apartment in The Dakota right now. I know this because an ad keeps finding me online this week telling me so; I don’t know who thinks I might want to buy a $1.8 Million one-bedroom on the eighth floor of a historic building – that’s not including the “maintenance fees,” which are higher than my rent in Brooklyn – but they should check their algorithm.

I do like history, I’ll give them that. The Dakota to me isn’t about the tragedy of John Lennon, it’s about the tragedy of Rosemary Woodhouse. I can relate to how congenitally nice and accommodating she is to neighbors. I’m the sort of person who’d rather put a pillow over his head than tell the neighbors to quiet down.

The day my wife and I first saw the place we’ve called home for five years out here in South Brooklyn – not quite Sunset Park, but not exactly South Slope either: I just call it “by the cemetery” – was on a hot 4th of July. We woke up and watched Rosemary’s Baby on a whim. Afterwards, while no one else was searching the ads for apartments on a holiday, my wife logged on and noticed the name of a broker she’d met once before, and called him, and he said “I’m actually at the place right now, come on over.”

Rosemary wasn’t as lucky. I don’t know who’s going to drop One Point Eight on a gorgeous little “starter” apartment in the Dakota this year, but if a kind old, uh, Jewish-seeming neighbor knocks on their door asking questions about their family plans, they might want to grow some boundaries.