Cabinet of Wonders
Fri June 22, 2012
Cabinet Of Wonders: Episode Five
Originally published on Fri June 22, 2012 3:07 pm
A feast of words, written for song, for print and for laughs on this episode of the Cabinet. A.C. Newman, front man for the powerpop powerhouse band The New Pornographers, sings a song still in the works. Will Sheff of Okkervil River, delivers penetrating lyrics with a gentle melody. Singer Megan Reilly takes on the role of a bird, in a duet with host John Wesley Harding. Writer and musican Rick Moody takes a stand against the drum machine. Duo Dean and Britta show off their love of psychedelic rock. Comedian Eugene Mirman takes joy in insults to his manhood. And novelist Colson Whitehead, reads a passage about the adolescent trauma he survived when Coca Cola traded in Coke for New Coke.
Russian-born comedian Eugene Mirman regularly appears on Comedy Central and the shows Flight of the Conchords and Delocated. He has published a book, hosted a radio show, and released two comedy albums. Mirman puts on a weekly comedy show "Pretty Good Friends" in Brooklyn.
Writer Rick Moody's novel, The Ice Storm, became a bestseller and was made into a film that same year. Moody also works in novellas, non-fiction, satire, editing, and music. The modern folk group, the Wingdale Community Singers, took him on as band member and composer. Moody published his collection of essays On Celestial Music this year.
A.C. Newman is the front man for Canadian indie-rock group, The New Pornographers. The New Pornographers have released five albums from 2000 to 2010. Newman has also been juggling a solo career since 2004.
Will Sheff is front man for the Texas-based groups Okkervil River and Shearwater, and is a part-time solo artist. He plays the banjo, piano, guitar, and harmonica.
Novelist Colson Whitehead was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award for The Intuitionist and the PEN/Faulkner award for Sag Harbor. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 after publishing his most well known novel John Henry Days.
Husband and wife duo Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, are known as Dean and Britta. They were members of indie dream-pop band Luna. Dean and Britta have worked on film scores, including The Squid and the Whale. For their third, most recent album as a duo, 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, they were commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum to score 13 silent portrait films made by Warhol.
JOHN WESLEY HARDING, HOST:
Welcome to the CABINET OF WONDERS on NPR. We're recording at Manhattan's City Winery. May I present an inventory of what's in the CABINET tonight, a magnificent multitude of musicians. The instigator of powerpop powerhouse, the New Pornographers, A. C. Newman. The dark spectral majesty of Dean and Britta, and if you've never heard songbird Megan Reilly, her voice rises as if it had wings.
Last, but only alphabetically, from everyone's favorite band named about a Russian River that isn't the Vulgar Boatman, from Okkervil River, it's Will Shelf. And the CABINET shelves are stocked with fiction of the highest caliber. Colson Whitehead is with us, and double threat writer and singer, Rick Moody. And our commodity quota this evening will be met by the CABINET'S resident mirth man, Eugene Mirman.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm John Wesley Harding and I've got the key. The CABINET OF WONDERS is open.
HARDING: I'm John Wesley Harding and this is THE CABINET OF WONDERS on NPR, because the time is right for a little variety.
When the children have been good, that is, be it understood good at meal time, good at play, good all night and good all day, they shall have the pretty things this CABINET OF WONDERS brings. But naughty romping girls and boys who tear their clothes and make a noise, spoil their pinafores and sheets and deserve no special treats: such as these shall never yet enjoy this pretty CABINET. The door is locked, your money is spent.
May I present The CABINET, its contents and its dis-contents.
HARDING: Eugene Mirman.
EUGENE MIRMAN: Yeah.
HARDING: Colson Whitehead.
From Okkervil River, Will Sheff.
It's Megan Reilly. Carl Newman, A. C. Newman from the New Pornographers.
And Britta and Dean, also know as Dean and Britta. They'll be back very shortly.
Will you please welcome to the stage Mr. Rick Moody.
HARDING: Writer, musician, and Rick and I like to find songs to sing you. Rick will be reading tonight with music, but he's also going to be singing. And we like to find songs to sing you only with the greatest lyrics of all time.
RICK MOODY: Lyrical complexity.
HARDING: That's what we're all about, isn't it?
MOODY: Yeah, lyrical complexity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MOODY: (Singing with John Wesley Harding) This is the first verse. This is the first verse. This is the first verse. This is the first verse. This is the first verse. First verse. This is the first verse
(Singing with John Wesley Harding) This is the chorus. Or perhaps it's a bridge. Or just another part of the song that we're singing.
(Singing with John Wesley Harding) This is the second verse. Could be the last verse. This is the second verse. Probably the last one/verse. This is the second verse, second verse, second verse. Probably the last one
(Singing with John Wesley Harding) This is the chorus. Or perhaps it's a bridge. Or just another key change. Never mind. It doesn't hurt. It only means that we lost faith in the song. 'Cause it won't help us re-tune.
HARDING: Rick Moody, the music of Match and Mole (ph). And now we bring on our first act of the evening. Next in the dock, a Tennessee songbird with one of the sweetest voices you've every heard. So sweet in fact that I wrote her some words. I rate her highly. Oh really. Oh Reilly. Megan Reilly is here tonight.
MEGAN REILLY: Here's a song that Wes wrote for me.
HARDING: Yeah, it's called "Old Man and the Bird" and in it one of us will assume one of the roles and the other person the other.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OLD MAN AND THE BIRD")
HARDING: (Singing) Sit at my window pretty bird. Singing let your song be heard. Maybe I'll write some words. Oh sit at my window pretty bird
REILLY: (Singing) Give me food and drink old man. I can sing the way I am. I am tired, I don't understand. Give me food and drink old man
HARDING: (Singing) Sit on my desk pretty bird. Sing and let your song be heard. I won't say another word. Oh sit on my desk pretty bird.
REILLY: (Singing) I'm hungry and I cannot sing. I'm looking for a sign of spring. Just let me rest my head upon my wing. I'm thirsty and I cannot sing.
HARDING: (Singing) Sit in this cage pretty bird. There's water there and lemon curd. Sing and let your song be heard. Oh sit in this cage pretty bird
REILLY: (Singing) I thank you, but I cannot stay. The sky's dark, clouds are grey. Oh no, I have to fly away. Thank you but I cannot stay..But I'll sing you a little song. You'll hear it as I fly along. And you'll hear it long after I'm gone. I'll sing you a little song
HARDING: Megan Reilly.
Her new album's very beautiful and it's called "The Well."
It's time to let you stretch your legs and grab a cup of tea. When we return from the break, Will Sheff of Okkervil River and writer Colson Whitehead will have finally finished hair and makeup. You've got to look your best after all, when you're on NPR.
HARDING: Welcome back. I'm John Wesley Harding and this is THE CABINET OF WONDERS ON NPR where words, music and comedy find peace, love and understanding, though they do occasionally find them a little funny.
As someone extremely forthright said when dissing the scribes of today, I assure you I'd rather be quite dead than read what those hacks have to say. When I said what about Colson Whitehead, he conceded and shouted, hooray. Ladies and gentlemen, Colson Whitehead.
COLSON WHITEHEAD: How de do. Saul Bellow once said that fiction is the higher biography. In other words, fiction is payback on those who have wronged you. It took me a while for me to understand this lesson, so instead of coming out with an autobiographical first novel, I came out with an autobiographical fourth novel, "Sag Harbor."
In this section the protagonist is wrestling with the fact that New Coke has replaced Old Coke.
WHITEHEAD: (Reading) I've been addicted to Coke to years, with a two or three can-a-day habit since the fifth grade. When my sister told me not to be so hyper or my parents told me to knock it off, I vibrated with the strain of keeping still and wondered why nature had cursed me so. It wasn't until I was in high school that I discovered what caffeine was.
(Reading) My love for Coke went beyond mere buzz, however. How could one not be charmed by the effervescent joviality of a tall glass of the stuff? The manic activity of the bubbles popping, reforming, popping anew, sliding up the inside of the glass to freedom, as if the beverage were actually miraculously caffeinated on itself.
(Reading) That tart first sip, preferably with ice knocking against the lips for an added sensory flourish, that stunned the brain into total recall of pleasure of all the Cokes consumed before and all those impending Cokes, the long line of satisfaction underpinning a life.
(Reading) What forgiveness for the supreme disappointment of a fountain Coke that had turned out to be fizz-less and dead? Or a lukewarm Coke that had been sitting for a while, falling away from its ideal temperature of 46.5 degrees Fahrenheit slash eight degrees Celsius? All the bubbles fled so that it had become a useless mud of sugar, which is what New Coke tasted like actually.
(Reading) I remember when I first heard they were changing the formula, April 23, 1985. Within days I had coined the local market on Old Coke in the grid defined by 106 Street to the north, 96 to the south and from Amsterdam to the river, buying up what I could from corner bodegas, the increasingly slick delis popping up on Broadway, and the assorted stationery stores of the Hood.
(Reading) By the time New coke started to appear, I was well prepared with a huge stash in my closet, a prayer against doomsday. I had no dreams of profiteering, of selling my stock at a dear price to aficionados, when the day came that the people of earth discovered the treasure they had destroyed, as if the Cola were an exquisite lizard or spiny bi-valve driven to extinction in our race's savage drive to ruin.
(Reading) No. I wanted it all to myself like an art thief who steals nude descending a staircase or some key Picasso, and hangs it on the wall of his own private gallery for his wicked and ingrown pleasure. At peace with the fact that the world is unaware of his activities and perhaps that's actually the point of the entire exercise.
(Reading) When I'd finished scurrying up and down the avenues and hauling my six packs back to my lair, it seemed as though I had enough Coke for a lifetime. But of course it went fast. I couldn't keep my hands off the stuff. My parents had a party and my mother asked if she could borrow a few cans for mixers.
(Reading) Borrow? How did she even know about my stash? If she knew that, what else did she know?
WHITEHEAD: (Reading) How can I answer but with a yes? What a horror it was to see all those half finished cans strewn around the house. It was a battlefield. Mine own Gettysburg. And I learned that day what it is to mourn, as I heard the sad exhausted hissing as I poured the remains down the sink. Thank you.
HARDING: Ladies and Gentlemen, Colson Whitehead.
What a glamorous night of golden glitter. You're glad you got a baby sitter. Better than cleaning out Kitty Litter and staying at home and growing embittered. Time to Twitter, here's a bitter, Dean and Britta.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I'LL KEEP IT WITH MINE")
BRITTA PHILLIPS: (Singer) You can search, babe, at any cost. But how long, babe, can you search for what's not lost? Everybody will help you. Some people are very kind. But if I can save you any time. Come on, give it to me. I'll keep it with mine.
(Singer) I can't help it if you might think I am odd. If I say I don't love you. But for what you're not. Everybody will help you. Discover what you set out to find. But if I can save you any time. Come on, give it to me. I'll keep it with mine.
(Singer) The train leaves at half past ten. But it'll be back tomorrow same time again. The conductor is still stuck on the line. But if I can save you any time. Come on, give it to me. I'll keep it with mine.
HARDING: Dean and Britta.
Townsmen, cast your eyes on Mirman.
HARDING: No Australian Bruce or warlike German. Of Russian stock this comic, sir. Like Yakov Smirnoff, only funny-yer. Eugene Mirman.
MIRMAN: Wes... It is great to be here. I get things delivered to a mailbox place on Fifth Avenue because I'm often not home and they sign. Anyway, not important. What's important is whenever a package arrives the man from the store calls me and I pick up the phone and he just goes, "You have a small package."
MIRMAN: And that's it. I can't tell if he knows he's pranking me. Look, if he enjoys it, and then weirdly, depending on what I've ordered from Amazon, he'll be like "You have a medium package." And I'm like "That's fine." I can never tell if he gets how awesome it is that his job is to call strangers and politely mock their ding-dong.
One thing that I very much do not like, is when people on the street try to get money from me for a cause. Like I'm not going to be like oh my God, I'll give you $50, it sounds like the whales are very important. And I get really mad because also there's like this assumption that I've done nothing helpful all week till they stopped me.
I was at a costume shop. I was at Hollywood Adventure on 14th Street and I was walking downtown to a meeting and I had headphones on. I was listening to headphones. And this lady starts flagging me down like, like clearly I can't hear, so she's like waving like a ghost is tickling me and I don't like it.
And I take off my headphones and I look at her because that's what polite people do, and she goes, "Are you a fan of the earth?" I did not like that question. It made me so mad. It made me just want to like set a whale on fire, and not use it for heat.
What I bought at the costume shop was a tear stick. It is like lipstick but it is menthol and you put it on your eyes and it burns your face and it makes you cry, like a lot. You think people are good actors. No, someone's blown menthol in their face. No one's a very good actor.
So, as she was like looking at me, it was like "Are you a fan of the earth?" I had taken the cap off and put menthol on my hand and went like this, and I looked at her and as earnestly as I could, I was just like "No, not any more, not since global warming." And then I just started crying.
She was so confused because I clearly believed in global warming but I thought it was something the earth did to people and it made me cry. I joined the CSA, I'm already helping the earth.
MIRMAN: All right. Goodnight.
HARDING: Eugene Mirman.
As for our next guest, there's a limerick, there's one limerick every show. This is today's one.
There was once a man who was stone deaf. Music was just notes on a clef. But his cochlea's quivered, to Okkervil river, and now here he hears, thanks to Will Sheff.
Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome to the stage, Will Sheff.
WILL SHEFF: Here we go. All right. Excellent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "A STONE")
SHEFF: (Singing) Hot breath, rough skin, warm laughs and smiling. The loveliest words, whispered and meant, you like all these things. But though you like all these things. You love a stone. You love a stone. Because it's smooth and it's cold.
(Singing) You love white veins. You love hard grey. The heaviest weight. The clumsiest shape. The earthiest smell. And the hollowest tone. You love a stone.
(Singing) And I'm found too fast, called too fond of flames. Then I'm phoning my friends. Then I'm sharing the blame. Cause you're pulling pebbles out of the drain miles ago. And you're out singing songs, while I'm down shouting names at the flickerless screen. And I'm going insane. Am I losing my cool. Overstating my case? Well sugar what can I say?
(Singing) You know I never claimed that I was a stone. And you love a stone. You love white veins. you love hard grey, the heaviest weight. The clumsiest shape and the earthiest smell. And the hollowest tone. You love a stone.
(Singing) And it's, you love a stone. Because it's dark and it's old. Well if it could start feeling alive you'd stop living alone. You know I think I believe that if stones could dream, they'd dream of being laid side-by-side, piece-by-piece, And turned into a castle for some towering queen. They're unable to know.
(Singing) And when that queen's daughter came of age, I believe she'd be lovely and stubborn and brave. And suitors would journey from kingdoms away. To make themselves known. And I think that I know, the bitter dismay of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day. And she turned him away. To remember some knave who once gave just one rose. And it was one day and that was years ago.
SHEFF: Thank you, guys. Thank you so much. Bringing David Naglar up. I've known David for a while but this is the first time we've actually played together. I'm really excited about it. This is a song by a guy named David Ackles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BE MY FRIEND")
SHEFF: (Singing) This world's a lonely place to walk around in. This world's a place where life is hard to spend. But we can help each other live. Everyone can give the simple gift, the words that lift, "Be My Friend".
(Singing) Some days you wake up feeling nothing but fear. Some days you wonder why God put you here. And all at once some little words, what was that you heard? Why, someone said from Gilead, "Be My Friend".
(Singing) This world may not bring much comfort to you. This world may lose its touch of kindness too. And who's to blame? Hell, can't you see? Only you and me. So if I may, I'd like to say, "Be My Friend".
SHEFF: Thanks guys.
HARDING: Ladies and gentlemen, that was Will Sheff. It's getting hot in here but wait till Rick Moody and Carl Newman of the New Pornographers have graced this stage. Breathe deep, maybe take a knee bend. It's all just ahead on THE CABINET OF WONDERS.
HARDING: Hello again. I'm John Wesley Harding. This is THE CABINET OF WONDERS and the game's still on.
HARDING: I've just been on tour in the south of your beautiful country with Joe Pernice and Rick Moody. And Joe Pernice and I were listening in the front to a lot of the soft rock that we like a lot, and we were listening particularly to Ned Dohini, to Dean Friedman, I think there was a little Steely Dan, perhaps some Chicago.
I don't remember. But after about two hours of this incredible listening experience, I looked behind me to find that Rick Moody had actually slashed his wrists and was dead in the back of the car. I tweeted this fact to the world at large and within half an hour I got a reply from Dean Friedman himself.
Writer of the hit song "Arial". And he said, "I'm glad you're enjoying my music. So sorry to hear about Rick Moody." Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, judge ye not in haste or fury, his written words are so appealing, but what of his most private feelings. Does he love you? Does he hate you? Moody by name or Moody by nature. Ladies and gentlemen, friend of the CABINET, it's Mr. Rick Moody.
MOODY: Well I've got a new book out. It's a collection of essays on music. And there's a 75 page assault on the drum machine. It's called "Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines." And this is how it starts.
(Reading) Drummers of Europe, throw off your chains. For too long now you've let the soot collect on your kits in the garage where you once kept a car. Many have been the days when you have happened through there and seen the kit under its plastic sheet or moldy discolored blankets.
(Reading) Have you not wondered what it would sound like to be busy yourself on the skins? Drummers of Europe, is it ever the philosophy of your continent to say a thing is lost, and then to yield to that loss as though it were a virtue, as though nothing can be done to redress the situation.
(Reading) Drummers of Europe, don't go on this way. You might a-new at first timidly apply your sticks and your brushes to the cymbals and toms. You might again attempt the impossible, threes against fours.
(Reading) You might completely blow some maniacal fill as perfected on the recordings of jazz drummers of old. You might again annoy neighbors and passers by until late into the night. Drummers of Europe, once there were jokes in profusion at your expense, that you were always the least sophisticated member of the band.
(Reading) Your wife or your husband or your partner's told you that you are not a very good drummer. That you have trouble keeping time. That you are unable to avoid speeding up. Drummers of Europe, these things are no obstacle to what lies before you today. The restoration of Europe to its greatness in the matter of indigenous musics.
(Reading) If by indigenous music we are understood to mean simply music that is primarily made by human beings, in a particular place and time, all attempting to play together.
(Reading) Drummers of Europe, they will, it is true, eject you from the clubs, where they have grown decadent and somehow satisfied by the sight of a pair of guys, twitching over laptops. They tolerate the predictable video projections on the jumbotron.
(Reading) But it is no matter if you are ejected from the raves. It is no matter if that one irritating acquaintance, the one with the really foul breath and meth teeth, attempts to make you believe that your time, drummers of Europe, is gone.
(Reading) Drummers of Europe, if it's necessary to be alone at first, practicing on the mattresses with well worn sticks, or un-rubberized practice pads, then so be it. Drummers of Europe, even if you have sold the kit, borrow a plastic paint container or a garbage can to serve as both kick drum and snare, so be it drummers of Europe.
(Reading) Your inability is your mastery. Your enthusiasm is all that's required. Remember, drummers of Europe, the wind that blows north from the Sahara. Remember the gypsies that moved across your plains. Drummers of Europe, look at your waves of immigration and consider how you are the greatest polyglot experiment.
(Reading) You are at the center of the world, what with all the music that is part of your ensemble now, the polyrhythm's of Africa, the drones of Asian music, the klesmer music of your missing Hebraic minority. The reggae that's been exported back to you from former colonies.
(Reading) Drummers of Europe, this is all your legacy. All you have to do is take up your sticks. That day job you have in your contracting economy should be no impediment. Embrace your unprofessionalism. You can't deny it. You've never done anything in your life that's made you as happy as when you play. Those days need not be in the past, drummers of Europe.
(Reading) Those days may be at hand. Drummers of Europe, your time is now!
MOODY: Adam Gold on the drums.
HARDING: Rick Moody, welcome to his new direction.
And this next guest. A joke that when I was 10 made me laugh. I was going to buy you some pornography then I remembered you didn't have a pornograph. Here's a pornographer who has both. His songs are as sexy as Schuman's. A truly remarkable human, please welcome to the stage A. C. Newman.
A. C. NEWMAN: We're going to do something brave. We're going to do a song I've been working on currently.
I think it's going to be real psychedelic when it's done. Let's try this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
NEWMAN: (Singing) Who's gonna save yourself from yesterday. I fan the flames. Why save yourself while you expect the word, self button push tidal blank. You're gonna knock yourself out. Knock yourself out.
(Singing) Roots in the ground provisional. Visible you'll find to the naked eye. Know what you love precise millions of bucks will check you out. You can talk yourself down. Talk yourself down.
(Singing) Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Na-ah-ah-aaaaaaaa. Na-ah-ah-aaaaaaaa
(Singing) You can get lost out here. Lost out here. You could get lost out here. Lost out here.
(Singing) Went to the woods, I know we should have planned. We understand. Because beseech ourselves, said you'd be back no beaten track. Could do what you choose. But don't knock yourself out. Don't knock yourself out.
(Singing) Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Da-da-da-da-da da-da. Na-ah-ah-aaaaaaaa. Na-ah-ah-aaaaaaaa.
(Singing) You could get lost out here. Lost out here. You could get lost out here. Lost out here. You could get lost out here. Lost out here.
NEWMAN: Thank you. This one's... this is a song I really love.
HARDING: What is this song?
NEWMAN: I learned it from Bryan Ferry but it's written by these guys named Gallagher and Lyle.
HARDING: How nice to have you back again, Carl.
HARDING: And congratulations on your baby.
NEWMAN: Thank you.
HARDING: Who is how old?
NEWMAN: He's nine weeks old.
HARDING: Nine weeks old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HEART ON MY SLEEVE")
NEWMAN: (Singing) One, two, three, four ... I wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm not afraid. To say what I mean. Mean what I say. Step myself up. Let myself down. I may be a fool. Spread it around. But I, I just want to let you know, sometimes I find it so hard not to show. So I sigh and try not to let my feelings show.
(Singing) I wear my heart on my sleeve. Don't count the cost. I can't read enough. And surely I'm lost. Find you get burned, times you get bruised, but it's my life, I do as I choose. And I just want to let you know, sometimes I find it so hard not to show. So I sigh, baby you're not alone
(Singing) I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wear my heart on my sleeve.
(Singing) And I - I just want to let you know, sometimes I find it so hard not to show. So I sigh. Baby you're not alone.
(Singing) I wear my heart n my sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Wear your heart on your sleeve.
HARDING: Carl Newman. Let's get everybody back on the stage now. Our CABINET is now ended. These are actors as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, thin air. And like the baseless fabric of this Vivienne Westwood suit, the brilliant songs, the thought provoking readings, the surly comics, the great City Winery itself yay, all which is inherits shall dissolve and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a guitar pick behind.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep. Ladies and gentlemen, the CABINET is closed.
HARDING: This is the song we like to finish with. Thank you so much for coming this evening.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SINGING A SONG IN THE MORNING")
HARDING: (Singing) Singing a song in the morning, singing it again at night. I don't even know what I'm singing about, but it makes feel I feel all right, yeah, yeah. It makes me feel I feel all right.
(Singing) Singing a song in the morning. Singing it again at night. I don't even know what I'm singing about, but it makes me feel I feel all right. Come on Rick. It makes me feel I feel all right... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.