I’ve always fancied myself somewhat a hyphenate. You know, someone who can’t commit to being just one thing. I direct, I photograph, I write and play music. Some of my favorite artists are hyphenates. Wim Wenders (director-photographer). Bob Dylan (singer-songwriter-painter-author). Clint Eastwood (director-actor-screenwriter-composer). Jim Harrison (author-screenwriter-chef). Jon Brion (producer-songwriter- singer-film composer-guitarist-pianist-bassist-drummer). Cameron Crowe (director- screenwriter-journalist). Jeff Bridges (actor-photographer-musician-fine artist- cartoonist). The list goes on and on. People are interesting when they apply principles that they learned in one discipline to another pursuit. Jeff Bridges is a great example. He discovered a Widelux camera (a camera with a turret lens that allows for an almost 180 degree view and a completely unique image) and has documented his films photographically, producing beautiful handmade books at the end of each production to give to the cast and crew. Also included in the book are his handwritten captions, and his experiments with the camera where he moves while the lens is moving, producing eerie and fascinating double images, and unique self-portraits. His individualistic handwriting and cartoons illustrate his life in such a personal way that you can’t help but get a sense of his warmth and impish humor when you spend time with them. He is my favorite kind of artist- well rounded, unpretentious, and willing to experiment and take risks. He built a music studio on his property and has created a great collection of recordings, all self-financed. His website is pure Jeff, and purely wonderful. And it seems like he has never stopped going to school, and never started resting on his laurels. He just likes to make stuff.
I want to champion and celebrate the hyphenate in the issues and pages of Off Camera. I want to make a case for the value of the restless, hard-to-pin-down artist who finds the connections between different pursuits in order to find their own voice. These are the people that fascinate, inspire, and validate me. And when I find a conclave, or an environment that showcases or supports this kind of behavior, whether it is a metaphysical space like a website, or a physical space like a museum, studio, or nightclub, I feel at home. The air is often electric around these kinds of artists, and I love nothing more than being in their company, listening, observing, and participating in the conversation.
So, let me tell you a little bit about one of these environments: a club in Los Angeles, called Largo, run by a hyphenate named Mark Flanagan (songwriter-singer-restaurateur-impresario). I first ran into Flanagan when he was putting together music shows at a place called the Alligator Lounge, under the 10 freeway in West Los Angeles. That was where I first saw Aimee Mann and Jon Brion play live. Flannigan eventually found his own club, a small place across the street from Canter’s deli in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, called Largo. He re-envisioned it as a cabaret style piano bar (although the locals tend to think of Largo as the tongue-in-cheek haven for unpopular pop music), and created a strict no talking, no cellphone atmosphere enforced by the promise (in a streetwise Berlfast accent) that he personally would toss you out the door if you couldn’t shut up. It wasn’t long before I was spending most Friday nights standing near the back door, by the kitchen and closet-sized sound booth, taking in some of the most original and fascinating musical shows I have ever seen. Friday nights were Jon Brion’s night, and he would do a show that to this day, defies explanation—you just have to go see it. Part vaudeville, part eclectic musical instrument demonstration, part silent film music, part history of rock and roll, and part audience participation and experimental art, Jon’s shows are like watching a mad-scientist in his laboratory as he infuses life into a tragically flawed creature, only the laboratory is a stage of obscure vintage instruments, and the creature is a collection of songs that can break your heart, make you laugh, and blow your mind, all at once.
Jon produced the first two Aimee Mann records, and on any given Friday, Aimee would show up on stage and play a song or two with Jon that would have the audience in silent tears of awe. Sometimes they did her own music, sometimes a Beatles cover, sometimes an ELO blowout. But whatever they did, it was magic. Aimee was also the first artist I saw at Largo to combine the club’s roster of comedians (Monday was comedy night at Largo) with music. I will never forget seeing Aimee and her husband Michael Penn play a show where they invited the comedian Patton Oswalt onstage for between song banter. They would play maybe a morose and serious number, and then Patton would step up to the mike and deadpan a line like, “I wrote that while sitting at Yoshinoya Beef Bowl.” It floored me—not just for the humorous elements, but also for the atmosphere of experimental art that they created. I imagine that when Steve Martin first did his experiments in audience participation (like taking his entire audience out of the theater and into a McDonalds to order them some French fries), the reaction was similar– a rarified environment where the audience was part of the joke, and felt like they were part of the artist’s experience.
Sitting down with Aimee for this issue of Off Camera brought back a flood of memories from all the nights spent at Largo. I have played on the Largo stage, photographed many of the artists, and have participated in many musical experiments along the way. I’m proud to say my oldest daughter was conceived after a Valentine’s Day Jon Brion show. Heck, Aimee introduced me to Jon Brion, so in a sense, she was the catalyst for so much of my love of music. And I am reminded that here in Los Angeles, we are surrounded by hyphenates. And that is good.