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    Penn Jillette Lives on Hot Baths and Cold Watermelon

    The magician and author of the new novel, “Random,” says whether he’s writing fiction or doing tricks, he’s always telling a story.Penn Jillette keeps files on his computer for magic tricks and others for fiction, but he keeps them together and the distinction between them is not always clear. He once wrote a short story, for example, that his longtime partner, Teller, thought would make a good magic trick, so they turned it into a bit called King of Animal Traps.“The first thing I wanted to be was a writer,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think if you got either Teller or I to be completely honest, we would probably tell you that what we’re doing in the Penn & Teller show is writing.”Jillette’s latest novel, “Random,” is about a young man who inherits his father’s crushing debt to a loan shark and turns to dice — and other dangerous measures — to dig himself out. That the dice bring him luck sends him a new philosophy of leaning decisions both big and small up to chance.Whether he’s writing a novel or writing a bit, Jillette said, he’s always trying to tell a story.“My happiest moments are Teller and I getting together and figuring out what we want to say, what we’re feeling with a trick, with a bit, and to figure out how to do that,” he said. “Now, I don’t want to lie and say I don’t love being onstage — I love it, and I love the applause, and I love the laughs — that is the thing I like most in the world, other than putting the stuff together that I’m going to put onstage. Writing fiction feels like very much the same thing.”Here, the author, magician and co-star of the CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” talks about how he takes his watermelon, why he prefers skepticism to cynicism and how he convinced Teller to pay for half his new bass. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.1. Too Hot Baths Every night I take a bath that’s so hot that I come very close to passing out — and I use scented oil, the whole thing is done as girly as possible. And I read on my Kindle. I’m trying to learn Spanish, so I read Spanish for at least a half an hour, and then I read in English for another half an hour.2. Too Cold Watermelon I lost a lot of weight a few years ago. One of the ways I keep the weight off is by eating watermelon. It seems you can eat more watermelon than any other food and it still feels good and it still tastes good. The secret is cutting it up and getting it super cold so that it almost hurts your teeth.3. Lava Lamps I always go back and forth: Am I a beatnik? Am I a hippie? I know I’m one of the two, and I know that no alcohol gets in the way of me being a beatnik, and no drugs get in the way of me being a hippie. I think I own 20 lava lamps. They’re in every room of my house. And I like to look at them and pretend, even though I’ve never been high, that I am high.4. Tony Fitzpatrick I study music rather extensively because it’s unnatural to me. And that is what fascinates me about it. I’m very bad with visual stuff, too, so I have artwork all over my house to try to drill it into my head why it’s beautiful. One of my favorite artists is Tony Fitzpatrick out of Chicago. I have his etching up all over the house.5. Ray Brown There are so many great bass players, but Ray Brown had that sound and that solidity and that power. He’s an inspiration and he’s one of my ways into jazz. I love his recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with fellow bassists John Clayton and Christian McBride.6. Skepticism, Not Cynicism I have fought my whole life to not be cynical, but to be skeptical. You could have many minutes of arguments between me and Bill Maher over why cynicism is bad and skepticism is good. Cynicism is attributing the worst motives to people. Skepticism is looking for the truth.7. Tiny Tim On a wall in my home, I have Tiny Tim’s costume that he wore for most of his career, the ukulele that he played for most of his career and his shoes. I love the fact that a person came along who was so honest that cynicism could not live within him. Some of the most cynical people who have ever lived — Bing Crosby, Johnny Carson, John Lennon, Howard Stern, Frank Sinatra — in the presence of Tiny Tim, they completely broke down.8. Word Processors I wanted to be a writer so badly. My mom taught me to type and I was a very good typist, but I still made mistakes and I’m a really bad speller. I finally bought a computer after Teller and I had our show Off Broadway, and within 24 hours of getting a computer, I wrote two stories that were published. I am sitting in front of the most powerful computer Mac has to offer — I could edit “Avatar” on it — but 95 percent of what I do is word processing.9. Paul Toenniges Double Bass I play the bass for an hour before Penn & Teller shows. A very good bass player named Alex Frank told me I was better than the bass I was playing. He found a bass for me that was made by a man named Paul Toenniges. He said it was very expensive but also the best bass he’d ever played — it had been owned by the late bassist Dave Stone. I emailed Teller to see if he thought I should buy it. Because the way our taxes are structured, he’d pay for half of it. The email came back within a minute and said: “We never economize on our tools. Buy it.” I hadn’t even told him the price.10. Bob Dylan I think it is possible that I’ve listened to Bob Dylan every day for the past 52 years. Bob Dylan is something we encounter very rarely, which is incredible skill, coupled with a wildness of spirit. All you’ve got to do is see a Paul McCartney concert and a Bob Dylan concert. Paul McCartney, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Bob Dylan? You have no idea. More

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    Loretta Lynn Didn’t Pretty Things Up

    The country star sang about desire, cheating, heartache and righteous revenge in three-minute vignettes that depicted lives she knew and understood.“Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em.” Plain-spoken and unassailable, that was not only the title of an album she released in 1970, but also a typically laconic summation of what made her a titan of American music.Lynn, who died Tuesday at 90, was nobody’s mouthpiece but her own, and she created an archetype that spoke to the heart of country music and reached far beyond it. Her songs were terse, scrappy and so skillfully phrased that they sounded like conversation, despite the neatness of their rhymes. With each three-minute vignette, she sketched a down-to-earth version of lives she knew and understood, refusing to pretty things up.Lynn was the coal miner’s daughter who kept her Kentucky drawl and remembered clearly what it was like growing up poor in Butcher Holler. She was a loyal wife but hardly a doormat. Drawing on the experiences of the turbulent 48-year marriage that she began in her teens, she sang about desire, cheating, heartache and righteous revenge. With anger and just a hint of humor, she set strict boundaries for both her husband and any would-be rivals in songs like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.”While mainstream country moved away from Lynn’s lean traditionalism toward arena-scale production, she persevered, earning generation upon generation of new admirers.David Redfern/Redferns“The more you hurt, the better the song is,” she told me in a 2016 New York Times interview, when I visited her at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. “You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting.”During the 1970s, Lynn chose and wrote songs, like “One’s on the Way” (by Shel Silverstein) and “The Pill,” that were bluntly and realistically resentful about the drudgery of parenthood. “The Pill” — with a narrator who compares herself to a brood hen and declares, “You’ve set this chicken your last time/’cause now I’ve got the pill” — was banned by many country stations when it was released in 1975, but reached the country Top 10 anyway.“I wasn’t the first woman in country music,” Lynn said in an Esquire interview in 2002. “I was just the first one to stand up there and say what I thought, what life was about. The rest were afraid to.”Lynn’s forthrightness — along with the homely details that make her songs so believable — has become a foundation of country songwriting over the last half-century: through Reba McEntire, the Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde, to note just a few names from a list that could run into the hundreds.Her voice helped make her songs indelible. The Appalachian traditions Lynn had grown up on lingered in her music; she wrote tunes in the familiar forms of waltzes, ballads and honky-tonk shuffles. As a singer, Lynn applied what she learned from the twang and vibrato of Kitty Wells and the torchy intensity of Patsy Cline to her own voice: reedy and tart with steely underpinnings, ready to summon tearfulness or indignation, slyly eluding the beat to hesitate at one moment and blurt something the next.Lynn was broadly comic in her duets with Conway Twitty, center, including “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”Richard E. Aaron/Redferns, via Getty ImagesShe was broadly comic in her duets with Conway Twitty, like “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” and she could open up her voice to grapple with Jack White’s electric guitar on their 2004 collaborative album, “Van Lear Rose.” Yet her more subtle moments were just as arresting.Her 1969 single “Wings Upon Your Horns,” sung by an “innocent country girl” who was seduced and betrayed — with an overlay of religious imagery that was controversial at the time — has a placid midtempo backup. But Lynn’s vocal makes every line a tangle of conflicted emotions. “You called me your wife to be,” she sings, with a bitter downward swoop on “wife”; she sings “You turned a flame into a blaze” with an upward leap on “flame” and a quaver on “blaze” that make the fire almost visible. It just sounds natural.Lynn had her prime hit-making years from the 1960s into the 1980s, as the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” an adaptation of the 1976 book, made her life story public. While mainstream country moved away from Lynn’s lean traditionalism toward arena-scale production, she persevered, touring through the decades and earning generation upon generation of new admirers.In recent years, Lynn embarked on a new spurt of recording with John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son, both revisiting her catalog and writing new songs. By the time she released “Still Woman Enough” in 2021, her voice had lowered a bit and taken on some grain. But it still held the ring of truth. More

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    ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’: Bringing Loretta Lynn’s Story to Life

    The 1976 book (and its 1980 film adaptation) helped the world see the country star’s remarkable resilience. The writer who worked by her side remembers his one-of-a-kind collaborator.When I was helping Loretta Lynn with her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” I hung around backstage while she performed. Sometimes she would call me out onstage and introduce me — “Here’s George, he’s my writer.” (In her Appalachian twang, it came out “rah-ter.”)I like to profess that I was not so much her writer as her stenographer. She would chatter away, whatever was on her mind, and usually it was pertinent, part of the emerging autobiography. She was a songwriter, who saw life in snappy couplets, most of them taken from her head-of-the-holler upbringing and later her tumultuous marriage with Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr. (His nickname, Mooney, came from his past delivering moonshine, and maybe sipping some of the product.)I had never written a book with somebody else, but I used my reporting and writing skills, with considerable help from Loretta’s memory and storytelling talents in the verbal Appalachian tradition. We’d do most of the talking in her motel, when she summoned me sometime before noon, and she usually had her own agenda. Tucked into the motel bed, sometimes she would be focused on something that had gone right or wrong in the show the night before, or family matters. But she was usually businesslike, respectful of the visitor.One day she wanted to talk about her late father, Melvin (Ted) Webb, who loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt for helping Appalachian people in the Depression. “Daddy thought he hung the moon,” she said. Then she would say, “George, you write a few things about FDR.” Yes, ma’am.She accepted me into her world. She knew I was a New York Times national correspondent based in Louisville, Ky., covering Appalachia. I wore jeans, had a beard and hair near my shoulders, and loved the ham and biscuits her fans sent into the bus. I had been introduced to country music in summers way upstate New York, where you could get the radio station WWVA — Hank Williams or Kitty Wells — clear as a bell from West Virginia.The writer’s wife, Marianne Vecsey, pushed for the book’s cover to feature a photo of Lynn in a high-neck Victorian dress.J.P. Roth CollectionBut I first heard Loretta in 1967, in the good old days when New York City had a country station. One day it played “Sweet Thang,” her duet with Ernest Tubb. It was written by Nat Stuckey, but pretty much told the story of Loretta and Mooney’s life.The man sings how he “slipped out of the house about sundown,” and his wife traces him down to the bar, “yellin’ loud enough to wake the dead.” Then Loretta sings, in an ominous feline yowl: “Well … has anybody here seen Sweet Thang?” The heart and soul of country music — cheatin’ songs. Or, at least his and hers. Even coming from the radio or the jukebox, her voice cut through the ozone, every inflection proclaiming, “This lady is different.”Now, in 1970 I was moving to Loretta Lynn’s home state of Kentucky. I started at the Times as a sportswriter but leaped at the offer from great Times editors Gene Roberts and Dave Jones to go cover Appalachia, I had read the book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by the activist lawyer Harry Caudill of Whitesburg, Ky., not far from Loretta’s Van Lear, and I wanted to follow up on Caudill’s visions.On Dec. 30, 1970, I happened to be an hour away from the horrible coal-mine explosion in Hyden. A few months later, I learned that Loretta Lynn had taken her band off the road to play a concert in Louisville for the benefit of the Hyden survivors.In the fall of 1972, I arranged an interview with Loretta in Nashville the morning after she became the first woman to win entertainer of the year at the Country Music Awards. By now country music was fused into my internal mission — telling the story of the mountains, the people, the language, the beliefs. I wanted to do right for Appalachia.The first interview was like all the ones that followed, except that she was exhausted from the awards ceremony and getting up early to be on a morning TV show. But she had time for me, a stranger. Her manager David Skepner often said, “Loretta never met a stranger,” which I would see over and over again.Loretta escorted me into her world — “mah rah-ter, George” — and I began to feel at home.I became friendly with Skepner, a Beverly Hills guy, now living in Nashville, who doubled as her bodyguard. As a city boy, I had to get used to him depositing his big iron on the windowsill when we were sitting in Loretta’s room. (“David, could you put your ball cap over the pistol, and point it toward the window?” I would ask.)I became friendly with the fans, so many of them women — particularly the Johnson sisters from Colorado, a three-person fan club — Loudilla was the leader; Kay was the heart; and Loretta Johnson was the gall.One time at a picnic, Loretta Johnson was dishing out pie, pecan, I think it was, and when I said please, she slopped it into the palm of my hand. Laughs all around. For many years, Loretta Lynn would bring up the look on my face as I lapped up the bits of pecan pie. My initiation. Welcome to the country.Mooney Lynn was my linchpin, caring for their twins at the ranch but sometimes back on the road. I liked him immensely, but then again, I wasn’t married to him. One day, sitting around their motel room, I asked Mooney and Loretta about his image, the source for the songs Loretta wrote and sang.I can still picture Mooney saying, “Hell’s bells, if it’s true, write it.”That day, the book got even better.(They never told me that Loretta had lopped three years off her age when she started performing. She said she had been 13 when she got married, when in fact she had been 16. It came out long after the book and the paperback and the movie. I never got to ask why they made her sound so young.)One other thing about the book: my wife, Marianne Vecsey, an artist, had seen a glamour photo of Loretta in a long, high-neck, frilly, white Victorian dress, and she told Bernard Geis, the publisher, that any woman would want to look at that photo. The editors, being guys, dawdled a bit, but eventually put the color photo on the front cover.When the book came out, the editors heard reports that ladies who lunch — on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue or Michigan Ave. — were picking up the book, and buying it, and buying it.Loretta and Mooney trusted me to get it right. I was her “rah-ter,” but the pretty lady in the frilly dress had put herself into the project the way she wrote songs. It’s her book. More

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    In ‘A Friend of the Family,’ Jake Lacy Breaks Character

    The actor Jake Lacy, whom I met for tacos on a recent weekday evening, has an All-American handsomeness that verges on caricature — brown hair, blue eyes, a chin so strong it must work out. He looks as though a 3-D printer were fed images of lacrosse players and then told, ‘Go ahead, make this.’ His face at rest — though, over dinner it was that way only very rarely — suggests a guy who captained a team or two in high school and then joined a frat in college. A craft brewery fan. A fleece wearer.“There’s a bro element to my look,” he acknowledged as the guacamole arrived.“He’s got this handsome blank canvas thing,” Murray Bartlett, his co-star on the HBO hit “The White Lotus,” told me. “But he’s incredibly versatile with that handsome blank canvas. He can take that in many directions.”Until recently, most of those directions — “Obvious Child,” “High Fidelity,” “Girls” — confirmed Lacy as a go-to nice guy. Vulture once created a list ranking the niceness of his various characters. Several of these characters were mere way stations or end points on some female protagonist’s journey. And Lacy — citing, in a very un-bro way, the patriarchal history of TV and cinema — liked that fine.“What a great way to start in this business,” he said, sincerely.In “The White Lotus,” Lacy played privilege personified. With, from left, Jolene Purdy, Murray Bartlett and Alexandra Daddario.Mario Perez/HBOBut he switched up that persona with last year’s “The White Lotus,” in which he played Shane, a paragon of white male entitlement in a succession of sherbet-colored polos, earning him his first Emmy nomination. (At last month’s ceremony, he lost, happily, as he tells it, to his scene partner, Bartlett.)His new show, the fact-based drama “A Friend of the Family,” uses that bland handsomeness as both camouflage and cudgel. “Weaponizing that” is how Lacy put it.He had suggested meeting at La Superior, an unassuming, Michelin-starred taco place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near a few of his old apartments. (Mid-pandemic, he and his wife, Lauren DeLeo Lacy, packed up and moved to Connecticut.) This was a comfortable spot for him, though he seemed, in a faded red T-shirt with a few holes in the torso, not entirely comfortable there, apologizing often for rambling, pausing, digressing.“He’s very earnest, not in a cheesy way; he’s just a good guy,” Bartlett had said. And this seemed true enough. While Lacy has little particular professional interest in playing likable characters, he has a personal need — a need that most of us share — to be likable. And he is. (“I’ve gotten better about my own people-pleasing,” he said.) “A Friend of the Family,” works with and against that likability, in ways more insidious and less comic than his work in “The White Lotus.”In the past, Lacy has struggled to disentangle himself from his characters. That wasn’t the case with “A Friend of the Family,” he said. Nathan Bajar for The New York TimesIn this nine-episode limited series, which streams on Peacock, Lacy plays Robert Berchtold, an Idaho husband and father who in the mid-1970s twice abducted Jan Broberg, the eldest daughter of a family that he had known for years. (This case was previously explored in the Netflix documentary “Abducted in Plain Sight.”) As the show tells it, and as Broberg confirmed in a recent interview, Berchtold, or B as those close to him knew him, used his smile, his jokes, his great charisma to insinuate himself with the Brobergs. The two families were so enmeshed that when Jan was first taken, her parents delayed contacting the FBI.(Following the first abduction, Berchtold was convicted of kidnapping. Sentenced to five years, he served just 45 days. After the second, he avoided prison entirely, serving five months in a psychiatric facility instead. In 2005, having been found guilty of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm for a later offense, he committed suicide.)Most of the episodes of “A Friend of the Family” had been written before casting began. Finding the right Berchtold was particularly daunting, because the actor needed to project an uncanny charm.“He had to have a natural charisma that would come through the screen and drop into the living room of whoever was watching the show,” said Broberg, who is a producer on the series. Because charisma, she continued, was “B’s superpower.” And yet, that same actor would also have to travel to some very dark places.Nick Antosca (“The Act,” “Candy”), the showrunner on “A Friend of the Family,” had been impressed by Lacy’s turn on “The White Lotus” and the sympathy that he brought to such an unpleasant character. An audience isn’t meant to sympathize with B, Antosca clarified. “But you have to understand how that family fell in love with him,” he said.B doesn’t think of himself as a monster, though — inarguably — he is one. Antosca suspected Lacy would be able to play both aspects at once.In “A Friend of the Family,” Lacy stars as Robert Berchtold, who twice abducted Jan Broberg (Hendrix Yancey).Erika Doss/PeacockNot every actor on a hot streak would choose to play a pedophile for his follow-up. And Lacy, who has two young sons, nearly turned down the show. But the challenge of the character attracted him, as did the scripts, and he appreciated the involvement of both Jan Broberg and her mother, Mary Ann, who is also a producer.“Had they not been involved, it would be so voyeuristic and so tabloid and not grounded in some greater purpose,” Lacy said.That purpose, he believes, is to show how grooming can operate and how abuse is perpetrated most often by intimates. Before shooting began, Broberg had left a letter for Lacy, detailing all the positive things she remembered about B — his charm, his sense of fun — while also encouraging Lacy to make the role his own and assuring him that the choices he made would not cause her further harm.“I was wildly impressed by that level of grace,” Lacy said.This allowed him to pour as much of himself as he could into the role. “He’s a very nice person and a caring father,” Broberg observed of Lacy. “You have to bring all of those things to the role for it to work.”As for the darker aspects, Lacy filled those in with research — evidence from the various trials, audio that Berchtold had recorded, material on psychology. Sometimes he had to put a time limit on that research. “Like, that’s enough for now,” he said. “Let’s not spend all night listening to these tapes of Robert Berchtold.”“There wasn’t a need to go into his thoughts,” Lacy said of Berchtold. “Because my point of view on his thoughts is so rightfully so filled with judgment.”Nathan Bajar for The New York TimesWhen it came to pedophilia, that wasn’t a place that he went to imaginatively, though he did read “Lolita.” Instead he worked through what he described as substitutions, trusting that if he looked at his young scene partners with love, the camera would read that love as something dark and unsafe. (The show doesn’t include any scenes of rape, so Lacy never had to portray these acts directly.)Neither he nor Antosca saw a need to locate Berchtold’s humanity. “He was a sociopath who kept telling himself self-justifying stories,” Antosca explained. So in nearly every scene, he said, it was enough to know what B was trying to achieve and how he was trying to achieve it without marinating too deeply in the why.“There wasn’t a need to go into his thoughts,” Lacy said. “Because my point of view on his thoughts is so rightfully so filled with judgment.”In the past, Lacy has struggled to disentangle himself from characters he has played. That didn’t happen here. “When people were like, ‘Is it hard to leave that on set?’ I was like, ‘No, it’s a very clean break,’” he said.Antosca confirmed this. “He is a super-thoughtful and technical actor, not method,” he said. “I didn’t see him struggling to get out of character.”Lacy doesn’t know what he’ll play next, if he’ll continue this particular heel turn or return to nice-guy roles or try something else. (“He has tremendous depth and this range that hasn’t been fully used yet,” Antosca told me.) He mentioned a Los Angeles project. And one in London. He is glad to have made “A Friend of the Family,” glad to promote it, but also glad to leave it in the rear view.“I’m very happy to just take a little breath and hold my kids,” he said. More

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    Suzan-Lori Parks Is on Broadway, Off Broadway and Everywhere Else

    The first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama has four shows this season. “If you can hear the world singing, it’s your job to write it down,” she said.Suzan-Lori Parks is drawn to archways. Early on in her New York life, long before she became one of the nation’s most acclaimed playwrights, she lived above a McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue — the Golden Arches. Then she moved out by Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, with its triumphal Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. Now she lives in an apartment overlooking the marble monument honoring the nation’s first president at the entrance to Washington Square Park.“It’s very symbolic,” Parks told me. “I’m always orienting myself to arches.”Arches, of course, are gateways, portals between one world and another, and Parks is endlessly thinking about other worlds.This season, audiences will have ample opportunity to join her.A starry 20th-anniversary revival of “Topdog/Underdog,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning fable about two brothers, three-card monte and one troubling inheritance, is in previews on Broadway. “Sally & Tom,” a new play about Parks’s two favorite subjects, history and theater, but also about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, has just begun performances at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “Plays for the Plague Year,” Parks’s diaristic musings on the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and a coincident string of deaths, including those of Black Americans killed by police officers, is to be presented next month at Joe’s Pub, with Parks onstage singing and starring. And “The Harder They Come,” her musical adaptation of the 1972 outlaw film with a reggae score, will be staged at the Public Theater early next year.“I’m like a bard,” she said. “I want to sing the songs for the people, and have them remember who they are.”At this point in her career, Parks, who in 2002 became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, is a revered figure, regularly described as one of the greatest contemporary playwrights.“She occupies pretty hallowed air: She’s the one who walks among us,” said the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who teaches playwriting and performance studies at Yale.“She’s the reigning empress of the Black and weird in theater,” he said. “And she really is the most successful dramatist of the avant-garde working today.”PARKS HAS BEEN TELLING STORIES since she was a child. She wrote songs. She tried writing a novel. There was a period when she made her own newspaper, called The Daily Daily, reporting on what she saw through a Vermont attic window. (She was born in Kentucky, and moved frequently because her father was in the military.)While an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke, she had the good fortune to take a creative-writing class at nearby Hampshire College with James Baldwin, who suggested she try playwriting, and, even though she feared he was just trying to politely steer her away from prose, she did. “That’s what I’m doing still,” she said. “Trying theater.”Her apartment is filled with evidence of a furiously busy creative life: shelves heaving with plastic crates containing thoughts on pending and possible projects; elements of a second novel marinating on a wallboard cloaked by a blanket; index cards in Ziploc bags; a laptop perched on a crate atop the dining table; lyric revisions in notebooks on a music stand by an ever-at-the-ready guitar. (She is a songwriter who occasionally performs with a band; this season’s four productions all feature music she wrote.)“Writing, I think, is related to being kind of like a witch,” she said as she showed me around. “Writing is magical. I loved mythology, and folk tales, and I could hear them — old stories — not in a recording of something that somebody living in my presence had told me, but if you listen, you can hear organizational principles of nature, which includes the history of people, which is narrative.”So writing is listening? “Not in a passive way,” she said. “I’m on the hunt.” By this point, she was on her feet, pantomiming the stalking stance of a wild cat, preparing to pounce. “You’re being drawn toward it, and you’re reeling it in at the same time, like a fisher.”As she talked, she kept cutting herself off, reaching for ways to differentiate her craft. “There’s a lot of writers who have ideas, and they have an agenda, and that’s cool,” she said. “I think I’m something else.”Digging in to the question of why she writes, she became more and more expansive, reflecting on the songlines of Indigenous Australians, which connect geography and mythology.“We have our songlines too — we just forgot them a long time ago,” she said. “They’re encoded in all the religious texts. They’re in African folk tales. They’re in the stories that your mom or your grandmother taught you. They’re there, and I can’t get them out of my head.”“If you can hear the world singing,” she added, “it’s your job to write it down, because that’s the calling.”PARKS IS NOW 59, and her work has been in production for 35 years. In 1989, the first time The New York Times reviewed her work, the critic Mel Gussow declared her “the year’s most promising new playwright.” In 2018, my critic colleagues at The Times declared “Topdog/Underdog” the best American play of the previous quarter century; explaining the choice, Ben Brantley, who was then the paper’s co-chief theater critic, described Parks as “a specialist in the warping weight of American history,” and declared, “Suzan-Lori Parks has emerged as the most consistently inventive, and venturesome, American dramatist working today.”“She’s a national treasure for us,” said Corey Hawkins, left, who is starring opposite Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a revival of Parks’s Pulitzer-winning “Topdog/Underdog” on Broadway.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times“She is a genre in and of herself,” said the playwright James Ijames, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in drama for “Fat Ham.” And what is that genre? “It is formally really dazzling, in terms of how she structures the play; there is humor underpinned with horror and political satire; there’s this real thread of the blues and folkways and things that are just root Black American signifiers; it’s musical, it’s whimsical, it’s playful, and it’s dangerous — all of the stuff that’s so exciting to see onstage.”Her early plays were experimental (“opaque,” Brantley once wrote). The recent plays have been more accessible, for which Parks makes no apologies.“People — not you, but people — when they ask that question, they’re like, ‘Oh, so now you’re selling out! You’re getting more mainstream and you’re not being true to your roots!’” she said. “Oh, no. I’m becoming more and more and more true. Trust me on this one: I’m following the spirit, no doubt. So, yeah, ‘Plays for the Plague Year’ looks like real life, cause it is. So maybe we ought to think about what am I writing about, and if I’m true to what I’m writing about.”Reflecting her singular stature, Parks has an unusual perch from which to work: She is a writer in residence at the Public Theater, where she receives a full-time salary and benefits. At the Public, she also conducts one of her great ongoing experiments, “Watch Me Work,” a series of events, in-person before the pandemic and online now, at which anyone can work on their own writing while she works on hers, and then they talk about creativity. Early in the pandemic, Parks held such sessions online every day.“Her great subject,” said the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, “is freedom. It’s both what she writes about, and how she writes.”Parks is also an arts professor at N.Y.U., which is how she wound up across from Washington Square Park, where she lives in faculty housing with her husband, Christian Konopka, and their 11-year-old son. For years, they shared one bedroom; this summer, they finally scored an upgrade, just 70 steps down the hall (their son counted), but now with a bit more space and that archward view.She has surrounded herself with a striking number of good-luck charms: not only the pink unicorn balance board on which she stands while typing, but also a tray of unicorn plushies; James Baldwin and Frida Kahlo votive candles; a hamsa wall hanging she picked up at a flea market; milagro hearts from Mexico; Buddha, Ganesh, rabbit and turtle figurines; and a deck of tarot cards (yes, she did a basic reading for me; I drew the high priestess card). Also: she has tattooed into one arm, three times, a yoga sutra in Sanskrit that she translated as “submit your will to the will of God.” (She calls herself a “faith-based, spiritual-based person,” and is also a longtime practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, which she does every morning, after meditation and before writing.)“All the help I can get, baby,” she said.Parks, 59, has four productions this season: a revival, a new play, a collection of pandemic-prompted playlets and songs, and a jukebox musical.Erik Carter for The New York TimesTHE MANY ARTIFACTS on display in her apartment include a shelf set up as a shrine to Baldwin, a dollar bill Parks collected when, feeling the need to perform, she tried busking in a subway station, and a “Black Lives Matter” placard she held at protests during the summer of 2020, when she also signed the “We See You White American Theater” petition, written by an anonymous collective, calling for changes in the industry.“Hey, I’m angry as the next Black woman,” she said. “And yet, to get through this, we need to also listen — listen to the voice of anger, listen to the voice of love, listen to the voice of wisdom, listen to the voice of history.”She added, “Let’s not just stand around telling people that they suck. At least where I come from, that’s not a conversation, and, at least where I come from, that’s not good dialogue.”The tone of some of the conversation around diversity in theater is clearly a concern of hers — that’s obvious in “Plays for the Plague Year,” which, in the most recent draft, contains a playlet called “The Black Police,” in which three “Black Cops” approach a “writer,” played by Parks, and say, “We’re here to talk with you about your blackness/Why you work with who you work with.”In our interview, Parks said she was troubled by “the policing of Black people by Black people, and not just in the arts,” adding, “we have to wake up to the ways we are policing each other to our detriment.”“No more trauma-based writing!” she said. “These are rules. And Suzan-Lori Parks does not like to be policed. Any policing cuts me off from hearing the spirit. Sometimes the spirit sings a song of trauma. I’m not supposed to extend my hand to that spirit that is hurting because it’s no longer marketable, or because I should be only extending my hand to the spirits who are singing a song of joy? That’s not how I want to conduct my artistic life.”She also said she is troubled by how much anger, at the Public Theater and elsewhere, has been directed at white women. “Not to say that Karen doesn’t exist. Yes, yes, yes. But it’s interesting that on our mission to dismantle the patriarchy, we sure did go after a lot of white women. If you talk about it, it’s ‘You’re supporting white supremacy.’ No, I’m not. I’m supporting nuanced conversation. And I think a lot of that got lost, and lot of times we just stayed silent when the loudest voice in the room was talking, and the loudest voice in the room is not always the voice of wisdom.”THIS SEASON, SHE’S PIVOTING back toward the stage after a stretch of film work in which she wrote the screenplay for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and was a writer, showrunner and executive producer of “Genius: Aretha,” both of which were released last year.At the start of the pandemic, she assigned herself the project that became “Plays for the Plague Year,” writing one short play each day for 13 months. The discipline was a familiar one: In 2002, after winning the Pulitzer, she began “365 Days/365 Plays,” then she did another daily playwriting exercise during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. The pandemic play is part personal history — how the coronavirus affected Parks and her family — and part requiem for those who died during that period, from George Floyd to Parks’s first husband. The play, like much of Parks’s work, features songs she wrote. “I was moved into other states, where I wasn’t just documenting what happened that day, but I wanted to sing,” she said.She’s got plenty still to come — she’s still polishing “The Harder They Come,” which will feature songs by Jimmy Cliff and others, including Parks, who said the story, set in Jamaica, “really captures a beautiful people in their struggle.” She’s then hoping to turn to that second novel (a first, “Getting Mother’s Body,” was published in 2003).She is planning a screen adaptation of “Topdog,” as well as a new segment of her Civil War drama “Father Comes Home From the Wars” (so far, three parts have been staged; she said she expects to write nine or 12). Also: she’s writing the book, music and lyrics for an Afrofuturist musical, “Jubilee,” that she’s developing with Bard College; “Jubilee,” inspired by “Treemonisha,” a Scott Joplin opera that was staged on Broadway in 1975, is about a woman who establishes a new society on the site of a former plantation.Parks’s latest play is “Sally & Tom,” starring Luke Robertson and Kristen Ariza. The first production is now underway at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis; it is expected to be staged next fall at the Public Theater in New York.Dan NormanOn a recent afternoon in Minneapolis, Parks settled in behind a folding table to watch a stumble-through of “Sally & Tom,” which is being developed in association with the Public, where it is expected to be staged next fall. The work, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, is structured as a play-within-a-play — it depicts a contemporary New York theater company in the final days of rehearsing a new play about Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, an enslaved woman. Parks has had a longtime interest in Jefferson and Hemings, and at one point had worked on a television project about the relationship that never got made; the play, she said, is not a straight historical drama, but “about how the world is made, and how we live in this country.”The protagonist is a playwright who, like Parks, is warm but exacting, and is rewriting and restructuring the show as opening night nears. When I asked Joseph Haj, the Guthrie’s artistic director, how much he thought the play was about Parks, he at first shrugged it off, saying artists are always present in their work. After the run-through, he grabbed me to amend his remarks. “I take back everything I said,” he said. “I see her all over this.”Kristen Ariza, who is playing the playwright as well as Hemings (the fictional playwright stars in her own play) said “the play is full of humor, until it’s not.”“It feels so meta, because we’re doing the play, within the play, and we’re doing all these things like within the play,” she said. “She’s constantly questioning, ‘Does this fit? Is it working? Is it flowing correctly? She’s hearing our voices and adding things and making things work better as we go.”A few days later, Parks was in Times Square, watching an invited dress rehearsal for “Topdog/Underdog.” The set is draped in a floor-to-ceiling gold-dipped American flag, meant, the director, Kenny Leon, told me, to reflect the way commerce infuses the culture.Two actors who have enjoyed success onscreen, Corey Hawkins (“In the Heights”) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen,” “Aquaman”), play the story’s brothers, mischievously named Lincoln and Booth. They share a shabby apartment; Lincoln, fatefully, works as a Lincoln impersonator at an amusement park where patrons pretend to assassinate him, while Booth makes ends meet by shoplifting. Their relationship to each other, to truth-telling, and to their shared history is at the heart of the story.Both actors encountered the play as undergraduates; Hawkins was a stagehand on a production at Juilliard, and Abdul-Mateen read a few scenes as Booth while at Berkeley. “It’s the first piece of material that I ever performed on a stage that I felt like was written for someone like me,” Abdul-Mateen said.Like many people I spoke with, Abdul-Mateen was particularly struck by Parks’s ear for dialogue. “It’s as if she eavesdropped on these two characters,” he said, “and just wrote everything down as she heard it.”Hawkins called the play “an ode to young black men who don’t always get to live out loud.” And he is embracing that opportunity — one night, he called Parks at 2 a.m. to discuss a section of the play; she has also helped him learn the guitar, which he had not played before getting this role. “There’s something very grounding about that peace that she carries,” he said. “When she walks in the room, she carries the ancestors, the people we’re trying to honor, with her.”Shortly after we hung up, my phone rang: Hawkins again, this time with a reverential plea. “Make us proud, man,” he said. “She’s a national treasure for us.” More

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    Alvvays, a Dreamy Indie-Rock Band, Cranks Up the Volume

    Molly Rankin’s group is known for emotional and melodic sophistication. Talking about its latest LP, “Blue Rev,” she reflected on how her family’s deep musical history led her there.When Molly Rankin was a child, she discovered she had some special powers. As a scion of the Rankin Family, the award-winning ’90s Canadian musical group, she adopted as her instrument of choice the fiddle, which her father, John Morris Rankin, also played.“If you play the fiddle, you’re sort of like a Jedi — you have this aura around you,” she said in an interview from her Toronto apartment, a Devo poster and a wall of guitars visible behind her. “And I was, you know, exhibiting signs of the Force at a young age, and encouraged to not squander that.”In 2011, she founded Alvvays, an indie-rock band that wraps fuzzy layers of rock instrumentation around stories of hard lives and hurt feelings. It may not seem connected to her roots, but Rankin, 35, noted that the music of her forbears emerged from Celtic melodies passed down for centuries. “They stand the test of time,” she said, “and they bounce around in your head forever.”From the 2014 release of its self-titled debut LP, Alvvays demonstrated an emotional and melodic sophistication that helped it stand out from its peers. “Antisocialites,” from 2017, was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize and led to the band’s U.S. television debut. Their anticipated third album, “Blue Rev,” out on Friday, was partly delayed by the pandemic but ultimately enriched by additional time.“Sometimes I feel like every song I write is the last one,” Rankin said, with a small grin. “I wouldn’t call that a process; I would probably call that a personality.”The slower pace benefited the band’s thoughtfulness about its own work, and its tightly woven bonds. Rankin lives with her partner, Alec O’Hanley, who co-writes the band’s songs and plays a slew of instruments. When we spoke in late September, the band’s drummer, Sheridan Riley, and its bassist, Abbey Blackwell, were staying in an apartment upstairs; Rankin’s childhood friend Kerri MacLellan, who plays keyboards and sings, is just a short bike ride away. O’Hanley compared the home’s current vibe to “Animal House”: “We’re quite clannish in that regard, but it’s not deliberate — it just seems to shake out that way.”“Blue Rev” pushes the band’s sound toward dreamier and noisier frontiers, while deepening its narrative-driven songwriting. The album takes its name from a Canadian alcoholic beverage Rankin drank as a teenager, which is not enjoyed for its taste.“I like to offset something pretty with something challenging,” Rankin explained. “I love melodies that can be sweet, but I do love when there’s some grit — a little bit of emotional weight and pain, just to make it feel complete.” She added that she was “constantly trying to make the guitars louder,” and cited Alice Munro’s short stories as a recent inspiration. “I love that she has the ability to knock the wind out of you with a 12-page short story, and you’re just left reeling,” she said. “I would love to be able to do that with a song.”The producer Shawn Everett (the War on Drugs, the Killers) helped the band break out of some old habits and refine the loud-quiet-loud dynamics in its songs. “We’re always looking to broaden spectrums, whether they’re emotional or tonal — see how far we can push something before it breaks,” O’Hanley said, referencing records by Neil Young, the Psychedelic Furs, Abba, the Cure and the Magnetic Fields as sonic goal posts. He said the band members spent a lot of time gathering unconventional influences from across pop culture, as though they were “ascending Nerd Mountain.” (Though the band is known for sober subject matter, in conversation, its members displayed a sharp wit.)The single “Belinda Says” began with Rankin messing around with chords in the basement, and lyrics that describe leaving town for an uncertain future — “Moving to the country/Gonna have this baby/See how it goes/See how it grows” — took shape. O’Hanley came up with the line that gives the song its title, which references the 1987 Belinda Carlisle hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” O’Hanley had heard “Belinda Says” as a country song, referencing work by Lucinda Williams and Deana Carter, but said that Rankin was “quite insistent on the need for some scuzz.” The resulting track encapsulates the band’s strengths: plaintive and distinct lyrics, keening melodies, waves and waves of sugar-flecked white noise that envelop without overwhelming, a triumphant guitar solo that hoists the song toward an ascendant climax.On “Blue Rev,” some of the personal pain powering the music is more explicit. John Morris Rankin died in a car accident in 2000, at the age of 40. A photograph of Rankin’s family appears on the album’s cover, which she suggested held a deeper meaning: “It’s the comfort of your parents, and they’re helping you climb onto a wharf, and then behind them is this big, ominous sky of adulthood and what the world is ready to show you.”Rankin said that when her father died, “It was a really chaotic time and obviously traumatic, but I also had brain fog for a long time,” noting she was too young to grasp all of the emotions and thoughts that accompany a parent’s death. Though she continued playing the fiddle, and even performed with the Rankin Family on a reunion tour, she eventually chose to forge her own path.Despite the sonic differences, Rankin said she channels her father’s drive. “I’m not afraid to say if I don’t like something or if something isn’t good enough,” she explained. “It’s really important to me, to not be a yes person. He certainly wasn’t one.”Everett, who was born in Canada but currently lives in Los Angeles, said he hears the Rankin Family’s legacy in Alvvays. “There’s a Northern Lights spirituality you feel growing up in Canada — the miracle of the snow, the weird difference in reality,” he said. “It’s a kind of ethereal question mark that Molly has the ability to weave.”Damian Abraham, the frontman for the Canadian hardcore band F____ Up, recalled bringing Alvvays on tour as a supporting act in 2014, and said its poise and maturity were already evident. “They had this naïve brilliance you want from a band making pop music with a punk approach,” he said. “They had real music chops in the background, but there was an edge to it that we all gravitated toward.”Alvvays moved on to headlining its own shows, and accumulating a small, though loyal, fan base. “I don’t know if Alvvays will ever be more than a cult favorite,” O’Hanley said. “We just want to continue on this pop-art beauty quest for as long as we can; if I can have a job playing music and good songs, then that’s great. I don’t have to work in a poutine bar in Toronto.”Rankin said she could be “pretty hard” on herself, and that it takes a long time to collect material that moves her, but it’s all worth it when the music feels right and resonates. “I’m not expecting a specific trajectory,” she added, with a small laugh. Even a Jedi can’t predict the future. More

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    As ‘Come From Away’ Closes, a Newfoundlander Heads Back Home

    The Canadian actress Petrina Bromley has been in the cast during the show’s surprise hit run on Broadway. It resonated because “it’s about kindness,” she says.On Sunday afternoon, “Come From Away” played its final performance on Broadway, before a raucous sold-out crowd that wept and waved. By Monday morning, stagehands were already taking down and hauling away the real trees that gave the Schoenfeld Theater its forested look.Petrina Bromley, the lone Newfoundlander in the cast, returned to the theater to collect her belongings and to talk about the show, which told the true story of how Gander, Newfoundland — a small Canadian city with a big airport — sheltered thousands of airline passengers forced to land when trans-Atlantic flights were grounded by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.The musical, written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and directed by Christopher Ashley, opened in 2017 and became a surprise hit, with its message of generosity and community resonating at a time when those values seemed in short supply.Bromley, like all members of the cast, played multiple characters, but she is best known as Bonnie, the woman who ran the local animal shelter, and wound up caring for the dogs, cats and two bonobos that had been onboard the planes. (Among the items in her dressing room: a variety of bonobo-related gifts sent by fans.)A scene from “Come From Away,” near the start of its Broadway run. Bromley said that when she first heard the creators’ idea for the show, she thought, “Good luck to you.”Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesBromley, 51, has been with the show off and on for seven years, throughout its development and the Broadway run. All told, she has been in 1,514 performances of “Come From Away,” including pre-Broadway runs in San Diego, Seattle and Toronto as well as 1,362 Broadway performances. She has also been part of two concert presentations in Newfoundland — one before the Broadway run and one last month — and she was part of the cast of the filmed version, shot during the pandemic shutdown.Her status as a Newfoundlander — she is a career Newfoundland actress who was raised on the island and is returning there now that the show has closed — gave her a unique perspective on the show. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.How are you doing?It’s a lot, right? I thought yesterday would be hard, but this is actually harder. The trees are being felled. I’ve come and gone from the show a bunch of times but the space itself has always been here. And now it’s not going to be here anymore.You wound up in the show because you met the show’s writers in Gander on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11?I was in Gander with a local theater company, Rising Tide Theater — we were doing something as part of those events. We walked into the one coffee shop that wasn’t a Tim Hortons, and the only other people in there were this young couple sitting at a table with cue cards, organizing themselves to do an interview. I had the same reaction everybody in Gander had: “Good luck to you. I’m not sure how you’re going to turn that into a show, but have at it.” We stayed in touch through Facebook and stuff like that, and they saw me in a couple of shows in Toronto, and I was invited to audition.Apparently the audition went well.I was on the other side of the doors, waiting to go in, and some incredible person with an incredible voice sang “Let It Go” so incredibly well and loud and high and my inner monologue was, “What are you doing here?” So I abandoned my book and said to them, “You know, I think considering what the show is, and who I am, and where I’m from, I should sing you a song from Newfoundland.” So I sang a very silly song about a talking goat [“The Mobile Goat,” recorded by Joan Morrissey]. I think they were a little confused by it, but it was certainly something they hadn’t heard. And I do credit that tune with getting me the job in the end.Bromley talking with fans outside the theater on Sunday. “People do tell me their pet stories all the time, and it’s beautiful,” she said.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesYou had some apprehension about how Newfoundland was going to be depicted.When you have a culture that is distinct, it’s easy for it to be stereotyped. So the accent, and being poor, and being undereducated became the marks of what it is to be a Newfoundlander. In Canada, the “Newfie” joke was a big thing for many, many years, and we were often portrayed in the media and pop culture as stupid Newfies. That was my concern: Here are some mainlanders — “Come From Aways” — coming down to tell a story about us, and how are they going to paint us? But at the very first rehearsals in La Jolla, Chris Ashley made it very clear he wanted every character in the show to be treated with respect and not to be just cartoons. And as soon as he said that, I was like, “It’s all going to be fine.”When this show was in development, there was a lot of skepticism about whether it could work commercially.Absolutely. I’ve been skeptical the whole time. I was always wondering about the sheer earnestness of it, in a world that is as cynical as our world is. And telling a story about 9/11 in New York to New Yorkers — there was a lot of concern.Why do you think the show worked for as long as it did?Because it is about community, and it’s about kindness. There are no dragons and no helicopters and no wizards. This show raised up ordinary people doing very simple ordinary things — just helping each other out — and particularly in the past five or six years, with what’s been going on here in the States and around the world, kindness and generosity are things that we’re losing sight of.You played a woman who runs the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Are you an animal person?I have three dogs. I have allergies or I would have a million pets. People do tell me their pet stories all the time, and it’s beautiful. It’s a lovely way to connect.Did you ever meet Unga, the bonobo most discussed in the musical?She passed away before I was able to go to the zoo. If the pandemic hadn’t put a roadblock up, I would have been there to meet her. But I did meet Unga’s son Gander, and her other son Jerry, at the Columbus Zoo [in Ohio]. Bonnie and I went together and watched them in the enclosure. It was incredible.What is the level of awareness of the show in Newfoundland?You can’t not be aware of it — it’s everywhere. We just did those concerts back home — three shows in Gander and three shows in St. John’s, at large arenas, which sold out in minutes. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have made the pilgrimage to come see it here or in Toronto or in places across the country where the tour was happening. It’s made its way into being part of the culture now. And everybody wants it to have a further life in Newfoundland.Bromley, center, at the final curtain call with Bonnie Harris, the woman she portrayed in the show.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesWhat was your career like before this show?I thought it was fine! I was a very employed, everyday working actor in Newfoundland, which is not easy to do. I had enough of a reputation and experience to be consistently working, mostly in theater, sometimes in TV and film. And I thought that that was as good as it gets. I still feel that way. I’m going home, back to Newfoundland, hopefully to fall back into working with the people that I love who create new, incredible work all the time.What is your career like now?I’m much more recognizable at home, which is lovely. I picked up a TV series back home, called “Son of a Critch,” and we just finished filming the second season of that. I’m a tertiary character, but it’s a lovely little gig to have and hopefully that can blossom into other things. I don’t have an agent, and I never have, and I have worked in Stratford [in Ontario] and on Broadway. But I’m probably going to get an agent so that I can work across Canada.What surprised you about Broadway?While I do have a lot of reverence for it, if you hold things on a pedestal, when you get there in a lot of ways it’s the same thing: It’s a job that you go to every day. I appreciate, being the age that I am, to have had the experience to know that it was going to have highs and lows, and that there would be ordinariness inside of the extraordinariness. And I’m always aware of the privilege of it, and the reality that none of us would have been on that stage but for the fact that a very tragic event happened and thousands of people died. And grateful that I got to tell a story, connected to them, that kept their memories alive in any way, shape or form for people who needed to hear it.What did you learn about New York City?It’s crazy. It’s great. To live in New York was incredible. But again, the layers get peeled back when you live somewhere, and you see that it isn’t just a helluva town. I found it difficult on many levels. To be in a very privileged position of working at this incredible place, but literally walking past the most desperate individuals I’ve ever seen in my life, people who are in jeopardy, on the street, asking for help, and we all walk past them and no one helps them. To come and tell this story, where giving a helping hand makes sense, and watch it not happen in reality on the street, I’ve found that hard to reconcile.Have you changed?Absolutely. In many, many ways. I like to think that I’m a bit more generous, a bit kinder than I was before this. It’s also made me a better singer. It’s made me a better actor. And certainly the cosmopolitan experience of living in a big city has changed me.Why are you going back?Because it’s home. There’s a joke about Newfoundlanders: “How do you know the Newfoundlanders in heaven? They’re the ones who want to go home.” More

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    Les Rallizes Dénudés: Unraveling One of Rock’s Deep Mysteries

    The Japanese band that emerged in the late 1960s was known for its rumbling rhythms and ear-shredding feedback — but almost nothing was known about its leader, Takashi Mizutani.Makoto Kubota is still amazed by the continuing appeal of his old band, Les Rallizes Dénudés.An accomplished producer and bandleader in Japan, Kubota spent just a few years in the early 1970s playing with the Rallizes, which by the usual measures of rock success barely made a blip. Led by the enigmatic Takashi Mizutani, the band emerged in the late-’60s haze of psychedelia and radical student politics with a scorchingly loud sound, though it ceased performing in 1996 and the handful of raw recordings the group released went out of print long ago. Yet decades later, younger musicians now press Kubota for any information about the band, and fans around the world who likely cannot understand Mizutani’s cryptic Japanese lyrics declare on social media that his music has changed their lives.“I never thought this could touch foreigners’ hearts so deeply,” Kubota said in a recent interview from his home in Tokyo.Les Rallizes Dénudés — known to insiders and acolytes as the Rallizes (pronounced “rallies”) for short — have long held a peculiar place in the annals of underground music as a group more heard about than actually heard, its reputation resting more on legend than fact. Through bootleg live recordings with rumbling rhythms and ear-shredding sheets of guitar feedback, which have been pored over and cataloged by fans, the Rallizes have come to symbolize both the sonic extremes of rock and the ways that online communities can nurture and amplify even the most obscure corners of global culture.David Novak, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation,” describes the band’s influence by referring to an oft-misquoted remark by Brian Eno that relatively few people bought the Velvet Underground’s albums at the time, but each of them (seemingly) formed a band.“The Rallizes are like that, except there was no record to buy,” Novak said. “There was just this fantasy of some incredibly abrasive, mysterious group that created this wall of impenetrable noise. The power of that story drove a huge renaissance.”Now, after decades of intrigue — and almost three years since Mizutani’s death — Les Rallizes Dénudés are getting the archival treatment. Earlier this year, “The Oz Tapes,” a set of recordings from 1973 that were part of a compilation celebrating Oz, a short-lived venue in Tokyo, were remastered by Kubota and reissued by the American label Temporal Drift. “Oz Days Live: ’72-’73 Kichijoji,” an expanded version of the original compilation, with tracks by the Rallizes, Masato Minami, Acid Seven and others from the same scene, is coming out this month.Later this fall will come long-sought reissues of three CDs from 1991, the only albums the Rallizes released during their existence. And Kubota, working on behalf of Mizutani’s estate, has spent months combing through what he called “a suitcase full of master tapes” from Mizutani’s personal archive.The wave of new releases, and related curatorial work by Temporal Drift — “Oz Days Live” comes with a 112-page book with an oral history of Oz, a CBGB for Tokyo’s early psychedelic scene — offer a chance to contextualize the Rallizes for new listeners. They can also fill in the gaps for longtime followers who have subsisted on scantily labeled bootlegs and digital bread crumbs from fan sites.BUT GETTING A full picture of the Rallizes and its reclusive leader may be impossible. Mizutani, usually pictured in a uniform of black shades and black leather, almost never spoke to the media, and some former bandmates still adhere to an unspoken omertà. Maki Miura, a guitarist, declined an interview request about Mizutani and his former band with a statement that said: “During his lifetime there was a silent understanding that no one would ever talk publicly about him. Honestly, it makes me wonder if Mizutani is pissed off.”Still, interviews with former Rallizes members and other associates of Mizutani paint a picture of a man singularly devoted to his art, and perhaps just as obsessed with cultivating an aura of inscrutability. Even the meaning of the band’s name is obscure. It may be an inside joke about suitcases, or perhaps a reference to William S. Burroughs. Kubota said he never asked about it, but that the name was understood to mean something like the Naked and Stoned. “It’s too embarrassing to say,” he said, and laughed.The band was founded in 1967 at Doshisha University, an elite institution in Kyoto, by Mizutani and other students who were members of the school’s Light Music Club. At the time, Japanese rock was evolving beyond its Beatles-inspired “group sounds” era, and Kubota said that Mizutani’s influences in those early years included the Velvet Underground, Blue Cheer, the Grateful Dead and the avant-garde rock and jazz of the New York label ESP.Mizutani was also heavily involved in the student protest movement of the time. By 1970, the Rallizes gained notoriety that would last for decades when its original bassist, Moriaki Wakabayashi, was part of a Marxist group that hijacked a Japanese passenger plane and flew it to North Korea. After that point, any political dimension to the Rallizes’ music, or Mizutani’s public persona, largely disappeared.Kubota in July. The onetime Les Rallizes member has been working on behalf of Mizutani’s estate, combing through what he called “a suitcase full of master tapes” from Mizutani’s personal archive.Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times“The Oz Tapes” — with Kubota on bass, Takeshi Nakamura on guitar and Shunichiro Shoda on drums — is a rough blueprint for the Rallizes’ sound, which would develop over years of shifting lineups, with Mizutani as the only constant. Songs like “Wilderness of False Flowers” and the 11-minute “Vertigo Otherwise My Conviction” are built over jagged, repetitive grooves that swell and recede as Mizutani plays long solos that resemble Neil Young crossed with Sonny Sharrock. Like the Velvet Underground, the Rallizes can toggle between modes of paint-peeling noise and surreal quiet, as in “Memory Is Far Away,” a mournful ballad with ambiguous lines about a lost love (“The flames of betrayal burn eternally/The shadow of redemption keeps chasing me”).“It’s almost like the people there were brainwashed by his vibrations,” recalled Minoru Tezuka, the proprietor of Oz, who went on to become the group’s manager.In time the group’s style grew more extreme, with peals of feedback, lasting 20 minutes or longer, that can be hypnotic or painful, though sometimes with intriguing reference points. In “Night of the Assassins,” those screaming guitars are juxtaposed with a bass line that closely resembles “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March’s bubble-gum hit from 1963; whether Mizutani meant that as a joke, we may never know.EVEN TO HIS bandmates, Mizutani was a cipher. “Mysterious but lovable,” Kubota said.Acid Seven, a bandleader and prankster who was a regular at Oz, recalled Mizutani interrupting his stoic silence at jam sessions only to utter existentialist riddles. He described Mizutani once taking a drag from his ever-present cigarette and proclaiming, “The smoke coming out of my mouth is extinguishing my ego,” with no further explanation offered.By being totally uncompromising about the band’s sound, Mizutani effectively exiled himself from the Japanese music industry. Shime Takahashi, who played drums with the Rallizes in the mid-70s, recalled the band once working in a professional studio, only to find that the engineer never pressed record because he thought it was still rehearsing. Mizutani had been playing with the Rallizes for more than 20 years before releasing its three albums in 1991 — two sets of early recordings, and another double-CD live set of the band at its noisiest.“It’s that determination not to be commercial, to remain underground, which is the one constant the group had throughout its history,” said Alan Cummings, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a longtime chronicler of Japan’s underground music.Yet that stance bolstered the Rallizes’ legend, making the band a sort of early inspiration for the so-called Japanoise scene of the 1980s and ’90s — a catchall for a range of aggressive and noisy rock and electronic music that flowered in Tokyo, Osaka and elsewhere — and a symbol for the perseverance of music that was anti-commercial at its core.“You might assume this is just Orientalist reverie on the part of American fans,” said Novak, of U.C. Santa Barbara. “But it’s not, because that sense of mystery is shared by so many in Japan. Rallizes came to symbolize the unknowability of the underground music scene in Japan, for Japanese fans too.”Still, the lovable side of Mizutani comes through in some of his colleagues’ recollections. Kubota remembers him cooking Nagoya-style noodles when they got the munchies in their student days. The dour eminence of noise rock could even break character at times. Kubota sounded stunned when he relayed the story of his friend inviting the Orange County Brothers, a Tex-Mex-style Japanese rock band that Kubota worked with, to spend the night at his parents’ house while on tour.“This is like the Velvet Underground having a party with Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show,” Kubota said, referring to the goofy 1970s country-rock group that sang “The Cover of Rolling Stone.”Les Rallizes Dénudés onstage in 1971.Kyo Nakamura, via The Last One MusiqueTHE LEGEND OF Les Rallizes Dénudés was arguably kept alive through bootlegs — unauthorized recordings, mostly of live concerts, that circulated among fans online and sparked new interest in the band in the 2000s. The source of these tapes has long been a curiosity, with some insiders speculating that Mizutani, or at least someone very close to him, may have been involved, given the high audio quality of some of them.To Temporal Drift, founded by two former employees of the reissue label Light in the Attic who worked on its Japan Archival Series, the popularity of those tapes proves the existence of a broad international fan base, and a potential market for new releases.“The obsession that Rallizes fans have for the band is pretty incredible,” said Patrick McCarthy, one of the label’s founders. “They’re people that are extremely dedicated, in ways you see with the Grateful Dead, where they have to have every article, every version of every bootleg.”The road to the new releases began in 2019, when Kubota traveled to New York to help with a documentary about an old friend, the Japanese folk singer Sachiko Kanenobu, who was playing in Central Park. “Everybody who was there — musicians, radio people — they asked me about the Rallizes. So I said, ‘OK, something is happening. I’ve got to contact Mizutani.’”After leaving the Rallizes in 1973, Kubota went on to a successful career with his bands Sunset Gang and the Sunsetz, and as a producer. But he had not spoken with Mizutani in almost 30 years before that summer. To his surprise, his old bandmate said he wanted to do a “last tour.” Kubota said that Mizutani also denied any involvement in the bootlegs, and expressed a desire to finally release the Rallizes’ music officially. The two had frequent conversations for a month or two, Kubota said, before their text chain went cold that fall. Later, he learned that Mizutani had died in December 2019, at age 71.Kubota then began working with Mizutani’s estate to sort through Mizutani’s archive of recordings; he declined to identify who controls the estate, saying only that it is someone who had been close to Mizutani for many years.Around the same time, he began working with Temporal Drift; Yosuke Kitazawa, the label’s other principal, said that when they began work on the project, they had no idea that Mizutani had died. In October 2021, an official Rallizes site appeared on the internet, announcing that Mizutani had died almost two years before and that a new entity, The Last One Musique — named after a Rallizes epic — had been formed to represent the Rallizes’ music rights, and would begin releasing Mizutani’s work “with far more alive and striking sound than the bootlegs that have been circulating over 20 years.”In a series of interviews this summer, Kubota said he had been working for months to sort through Mizutani’s collection, including numerous studio and live recordings.“Now I have received the material for four full concerts and started working on it,” Kubota said. “It will be monstrous.” More