Last week I responded to Michael Walzer’s attempt to articulate a “left” foreign policy position on the Dissent website; you can read our exchange here. And my new Nation column, “Obama’s Pundit Problem: Critics like Maureen Down of the Times live in an Oz-like dream world,” is no longer behind a paywall.
David Johansen/Buster Poindexter at the Cafe Carlyle
I somehow missed the fact that Johansen had been invited to bring “Buster” to the Carlye last Halloween. He did an interview with Vanity Fair about it at the time, which you can read here. I have been seeing variations of Johansen for nearly forty years now. It’s a weird thing to say but he is a lot more talented than he lets on. I say this because if all you heard was his scratchy voice and greatest hits, you’d think he was pretty good and that would be that. But the man is so versatile, it’s uncanny. First came The New York Dolls, about whose legend much has been written. They were not much on their instruments, but they oozed fun and charisma and a certain kind of decadence/chanciness that was crucial to the music reinventing itself in the early seventies. The first “David Johansen” album, which followed, is still pretty great, as is the much-later released Live at the Bottom Line, which I remember listening to the night it was broadcast on WNEW-FM and wishing I could be there (but I was too young, alas). Since then, David has acted a bunch (his performance in “Scrooged” is the highlight), toured playing folk songs with The Harry Smiths, and stood in for Muddy Waters (sort-of) in the late Hubert Sumlin’s band, where it was uncanny how much this skinny white guy sound like the 300 pound plus Howlin’ Wolf. Throw in Buster—the audacious creation of a cheaply tuxedoed lounge act not unlike the persona Tom Waits adopts on Night Hawks at the Diner—but with an emphasis on fun obscure jump blues and corny jokes and the man looks more and more like a kind of wonder. And though he has many devoted fans, the numbers are not anywhere where they should be. (He is kind of like Randy Newman, or before his death, Warren Zevon in this regard.)
Anyway, Johansen is at bottom a performance artist, and as Buster he has all the room he needs. Before an appropriately fancy crowd on Friday night—I saw Gay Talese and Nick Pileggi at one table, the great Danny Goldberg at another—Buster put on a typically virtuoso show at the Carlyle. He has found a line where the shtick complements, rather than overwhelms the music. (It helps that the band is really tight.) And as with the Carlyle’s biggest stars, it’s the kind of show that works if you’re sixteen (as my daughter, who went with me, happens to be) or ninety-six. Here’s hoping he gets a long stay there soon, as the man deserves to make a decent living and with the death of Lou Reed—to say nothing of Bobby Short—the title of Mr. New York is open and ready to be claimed.