It was the early 1980s and Christine Lavin's longtime boyfriend, a lawyer, told her a special guest would be joining them for dinner at a Manhattan restaurant. "But he wouldn't tell me who, because he figured I wouldn’t show up," Lavin says.
How bad could it be? Ugh. "He had the worst table manners," she says. "He's eating off everyone's plate and licking his fingers, then runs his fingers through his hair. Then he grabbed a whole fistful of French fries off my plate and stuffed them in his mouth and pretended to talk, and some of them fell on the floor and he picked them up and pretended to put them back on my plate.
"And then he dropped his fork and pretended to look up my skirt."
The evening is memorialized in "What The Hell Was That?," a song from Lavin's 2017 album, "Spaghettification." And the listener doesn’t find out who the gross dinner companion was until the final two words of the song. Roy Cohn. The notorious lawyer best known for his work with Joseph McCarthy during the senator's crusade against suspected communists. And as one of the prosecutors who got Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sentenced to death for espionage. And as the lawyer for Rupert Murdoch, who would go on to become the CEO of Fox News. And, before Cohn was disbarred, he had hooked up with a young businessman, Donald Trump, who Cohn defended against charges of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent his apartments to black tenants.
Cohn lost that case.
So yeah, she probably would have skipped that dinner date if she'd known. Because that's the kind of folk singer Christine Lavin is. A frequent visitor here, she has a 7:30 p.m. Saturday show at Café Veritas at First Unitarian Church of Rochester.
Lavin readily confesses that she's easily caught in the undertow of current events, having written around a dozen songs about Trump. "But I never perform them, the news cycle is so fast these days," she says. “It’s a thankless task, I know that, I can’t bear to watch him. As soon as I hear his voice, I just have to change the channel.
“You think that he goes as low as he can go, and then he goes lower! It’s unbelievable. I barely touch on it in my live shows because people are so disgusted, and they need a break from it.”
So what does she touch on?
Lavin’s humor is up front. And she’s always written about relationships. And science, notably teaming up with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to debate Pluto’s status as a planet. And there’s “A Firefly’s Life,” where she notes that there are 2,000 species of fireflies, and uses the beauty of Latin names to list many of them.
So you learn a lot from a Lavin song. Although she’s closely associated with the New York City folk scene, she is a State College of Brockport graduate and has been an on-and-off resident of Geneva, most recently living there until 2017, taking care of her mother. The experience nudged Lavin’s career into a new direction.
“My mom had no short-term memory, so I started making videos of her to help her remember little things that she did. She died in November, she was 99. I have dozens of these videos of her in restaurants and sitting by the lake. And I just look at them now with a whole different point of view.”
Now Lavin is cranking out videos like she’s an iPhone Martin Scorsese, including some for other musicians, such as Michael Feinstein and Janis Ian, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Gene Weingarten, or instructing us on how to bake a petit pain au chocolat. Most are shot in her New York apartment, or cobbled together out of images uncovered on the internet, accompanying new songs such as “wut?” That’s Lavin’s acknowledgement that it was time to get her hearing tested.
“It took me five years to finally do it,” Lavin says, “and then I found out from my audiologist that most people wait seven or eight years. So I’m ahead of the curve! A friend of mine is dating an audiologist, she said when you start losing your hearing, certain parts of your brain are not getting the stimulation that it’s used to. Your brain starts to atrophy.”
That would not appear to be the case with Lavin. She remains prolific, as evidenced by the fact that she’s preparing to release her 25th solo album next year.
The songs keep coming. “The President Who Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies Lies.” Or “Ode to Clint Eastwood,” inspired by a 44-year-old friend who doesn’t care about his politics – he’s famously right-wingy – but just loves the 89-year-old actor. And as a goldsmith, she wants to make him a pair of cufflinks. “I’m hoping the video will lead her to a nice, normal guy who is age-appropriate for her,” Lavin says.
And there’s “The Quiet Car.” It’s about the Amtrak car where no one is supposed to talk, allowing you room for your own thoughts. Yet two strangers, a man and a woman, start texting each other, and discover they’re going to the same wedding. At the wedding, she discovers he’s a Republican, she’s not, they end up hating each other and silently ride the train home.
But when Lavin posted the lyrics on her Facebook page, you … YOU there!... hated it.
“People were outraged I would end it like that,” Lavin says. “So now it has a fake ending. It turns out I was kidding, he’s not a Republican, he’s a Buddhist! And guess what? She is too! And they’re both vegans! In the Clown Appreciation Society!”
Yes, we all love happy endings. And really, Lavin just wants you to be happy at her shows. She used to play host to a knitting circle before her concerts, now she offers a little clinic on how to fold napkins the “Downton Abbey” way. That’s the antithesis to Roy Cohn table manners.
And after all these years, Lavin still twirls a baton during the show. But now she holds off on that until the end. “After I twirl,” she says, “Nobody wants me to sing anymore.”
The arts is missing its bee stings
Although the rules were laid down at the outset of last week’s meeting at Rochester Contemporary Arts Center – the point was to “not add to the griping” – there was a fair amount of griping at last week’s “The State of Arts Writing in Rochester.”
Panelist Colin Dabkowski, until recently an arts writer for The Buffalo News, noted that newsroom decision-makers are “desperate people casting around for ways to save their business” who have a “disconnected misunderstanding of what their common interests are.” The perception at newspapers, he said, is high school football drives hits to the website. But he said his examination of internet traffic at The Buffalo News showed him there were more clicks on arts stories than high school sports.
CITY Newspaper arts reporter Rebecca Rafferty pointed out that “arts are a reflection of our cultural climate,” and provide “a conversation point.”
The arts subversives in that room see what’s happening: As one said, “Critics are like bees, but when they’re not there, you miss them.” Nor was there an answer on this night for how a city with a strong cultural scene can deal with the dearth of arts reporting here. But in looking around the packed room, and seeing the absence of representatives from the local daily paper, and city and county government, it seems clear that the arts will have to go it alone.
Jazz Festival Club Passes on sale
With the announcement that Club Passes are now on sale, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, running from June 19-27, revealed the resurrection of two of its former club venues. The Little Theatre, which has been under renovation, and its 300 seats are back, along with what’s now called the 650-seat (and nicely air-conditioned) Auditorium at South Clinton, previously known as Xerox Auditorium.
That makes for 13 club venues at the 19th annual event, along with the free stages scattered in and around the East End District. The full festival lineup is generally released in March. The concert announcements for Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre usually start showing up at the end of the year and into 2020, and are separately sold tickets.
As was the case last year, Club Passes come in three-day and nine-day versions, and can be shared if you’re not using it. The three-day pass is $154 (plus a $6 service charge, $8 if mailed) until Dec. 31; the nine-day pass is $194 (again with the $6 service charge, $8 if mailed) until Dec. 31.
From there, the three-day pass goes up to $174 through March 16, and is $194 from there on to the festival, or until they’re sold out. Same for the nine-day pass: From Jan. 1 through March 16, they’re $224, and from March 17 to the festival, or until they’re sold out, they’re $254. They’re available at rochesterjazz.com and by calling (585) 454-2060.
Single tickets to Club Pass venues without a pass will be $35 for Kilbourn Hall and $30 for the other venues, with no advance sales available for those shows.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.