Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dessert and a Side of Cynicism (New York reflections)

I spent most of this week in New York. I went to accompany Rosa on the first leg of her journey to Jerusalem, where she is now starting a semester of high school on NFTY’s Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program. I will be writing more on this in the weeks to come; it’s a fabulous adventure for her, and for me, a taste of life as an empty-nester. But that is a much longer story for another day.

After the big farewell at JFK airport, I spent the rest of my time in New York wandering the city, enjoying its abundant sights and unique vitality, and the company of my cousin Liz, who hosted me. She has a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side and is currently covering the crime beat for the New York Times, so I got to see quite another side of the city through her eyes.

Today, though, I want to write about two things: dessert and rock opera.

First, dessert.

For lunch on Wednesday, I went to a superb sushi place in a hard-to-find basement near the UN building. The meal was terrific, but the most memorable part of the experience began when the server asked if I wanted dessert. I’d spent much of the morning walking—probably three or four miles—in bitterly cold temperatures, so I figured I had earned the right to finish with something rich and sweet.

The server mentioned a special, not on the menu, and strongly endorsed it. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was (it had a long Japanese name), but I decided to give it a try. After such a tasty meal, I thought I couldn’t go wrong with her recommendation.

Well, as soon she brought my order out, I realized that I had unwittingly entered into a different world, a haute cuisine realm of dessert, that I had recently read about in an Adam Gopnik piece in the food issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik describes new trends in desserts, originating with several young chefs in Spain but now making their way to America (OK, not the Boise part of America, but New York and LA). The gist of his piece: according to these pioneering Spanish chefs, dessert has, for far too long, been limited to butter and chocolate and cream and sugar and eggs—in other words, sweets. Today, finally, edgy and radical pastry chefs are experimenting with different tastes and textures.

Now it was my turn to experience that experiment because my “special” dessert at Sakagura turned out to be a cup of piquant chili-inflected, sake-flavored sorbet surrounded by mounds of transparent peppery, semi-sweet gelatinous stuff. Last month, when I read about this trend, it struck me as silly. I thought to myself, “This foodie fad will never come to Boise—and I won’t miss it” (unlike many New York culinary tends that I do, indeed, miss). Well, it turns out first hand experience confirms my initial instincts. All in all, I must say, following a gorgeous lunch with a rice-wine and hot pepper flavored sorbet with mucous-like accompaniment does not really seem like such a good idea. I’m glad I got to try it, but let’s face it: there is a reason that, for centuries, people have loved things like cheesecake and torte and chocolate ice cream and cupcakes and crème brulee.

The lesson I draw from this: while the courage to take risks is generally a laudable thing, not all change is good. Some things—classic desserts among them—are just fine as they are and need not be tampered with, thank you. I am an unrepentant liberal—in my Judaism and in my politics and even in my food choices (I am a pescetarian who is very thankful for advances in healthy eating—my grandfather’s steady diet of high-fat Ashkenazi Jewish food probably contributed to his dying of a stroke at the age of 69). But there are occasions when the conservatives are right, and the best thing we can do is conserve venerable traditions. I want change that I can believe in—but I also like a nice piece of pie every now and then.

Now, on to Rock Opera. . .

Later that same evening, I went to the 7pm show of American Idiot at the St. James Theater. I’m not normally a big Broadway musical fan, but this was something different—a rock opera based on the eponymous smash hit album by the band Green Day. I love that record, and have been a big Green Day fan for many years. Best of all, the band’s guitar player, singer/songwriter, and kohl-eyed charismatic front man, Billie Joe Armstrong is playing lead role in the show this month. He is “St. Jimmy,” a malevolent modern pied piper dispensing drugs and sexual favors—and his rock star verve infuses the show.

American Idiot is esentially a rock opera in the style of The Who’s Tommy or even the later play, Rent—which is to say, almost all music with very little dialogue. That is fine by me. The plot tells the story of three budding anarchist kids, who are deeply disaffected by the culture of their suburban parents in the aftermath of the election of George W. Bush and 9/11. The narrative is, by all accounts, a bit thin in places, but the show is fantastically staged and explodes with energy.

Mostly, as I watched it and then reflected on it afterwards, it struck me that American Idiot is this generation’s equivalent of Hair. Both are anti-war, coming of age stories filled with sex and drugs and rock and roll. But an abyss stands between these two plays, and that abyss reflects the enormous changes that have occurred in the four decades that have passed between them.

In Hair, sex is liberating, and drugs open and expand the mind. In the much bleaker American Idiot, sex leads to teen pregnancy and a kind of dead end life, while drugs bring death and disaster. But the biggest difference lies in the contrasting endings of the shows. Hair is about the power of youth to change the world, and it concludes with an enormous gathering of anti-war protesters singing: “Let the sun shine in. . .” (as a high school student, I dressed up in “hippy clothes” and hung out at the Mall in Washington, DC for the filming of the movie version of that scene). Today, Hair seems—sometimes it is—naïve and simplistic. And yet, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the young protestors really did help stop the war.

By contrast, in American Idiot, there is no concerted political action—just anarchy, anger, and cynicism. Kids rage against the system, but they are, ultimately, helpless. Sex and drugs consume them, and the play ends with the heroes—anti-heroes, really—returning home jaded and broken. Hair is an optimistic play about the power of youth, while American Idiot is a deeply pessimistic parade of the wounded, of young people coming to see themselves are powerless in the face of grim conformist forces. Hair, for all of its youthful hubris, is about changing the world; American Idiot, for all of its edginess, is about being crushed by it.

And yet. . .after watching American Idiot, I left the theater feeling exuberant and startlingly alive. Somehow, the force and vitality of the music, with its thrashing chords, booming bass and drums, and exuberant hooks touched me deeper and lingered longer than the despair of the lyrics and the plot. It struck me that in this manner, rock opera is very much like classical opera, in which the plots are similarly tragic—and secondary. In American Idiot, as in Aida or Madame Butterfly, the music is the thing. I don’t like classical opera at all—I find the style of the singing pretentious and, ultimately, highly irritating (much as classical opera fans would loathe the power chords and distortion of American Idiot). But the two art forms have, I think, more in common than one would suppose at first glance.

And in this, they are like prayer. Rabbis spend inordinate amounts of time debating over tiny disparities in the liturgy, pinning great importance on subtle variations of phrasing. Meanwhile, the people in the pews could care less. They mostly don’t understand the Hebrew anyway, and they find the English translation boring. What moves them is the music—and I’m with them. Words speak to the rational brain but music goes deeper; we feel it in our bodies and it moves our souls.

The music is the thing.

For a great clip from the Broadway show version of American Idiot, see:

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