Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sexy Beast: Hugh Hefner

For Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, work and play are one and the same.

As figurehead of the men’s magazine since its launch in 1953, Hefner has embodied the publication’s spirit with his silk-pajama lifestyle and revolving cast of simultaneous girlfriends. At the same time, Hefner has established Playboy as a cultural juggernaut, a brand at once iconic and controversial.

But while most perceive the 84-year-old magazine mogul as a man living out a never-ending fantasy of girls, parties and luxury, there’s another side to Hefner that has remained understated throughout his career: that of the social activist.

Ask him why America may not have noticed this facet, and he'll tell you that the answer is straightforward.

"I think it's fairly obvious — It's because they're distracted by the pretty ladies, both in the magazine and in my life," he said. "Ray Bradbury, in commenting about the magazine a number of years ago, said, 'People don't see the force because of the tease.'"

Academy Award-winning director Brigitte Berman's new documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel" — opening Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema — goes beyond "the tease" and examines Hefner's history of defying and re-defining social norms. The film paints a portrait of a man who was interested in putting out much more than just a magazine filled with attractive, nude women.

From the start, Hefner has been something of a trailblazer. His 1959 television series, "'Playboy''s Penthouse," was one of the first to show black and white Americans comingling. At a time when racial tensions ran high throughout the country, Hefner wanted "Playboy" to be an integrated brand, and bought back franchised clubs in the south that refused to serve African-American customers.

It was at this time in the early 1960s, when the magazine had reached more than a million in circulation and beaten out competitors like "Esquire," that the ideology of "Playboy" truly began to shift.

"Then I realized I could include in the magazine the other half of what I was all about," Hefner said. "That's when I started doing 'The Playboy Philosophy.' We introduced 'The Playboy Interview,' and the other nonfiction pieces that helped to change the way of things."

With this shift, "Playboy" was reinvented from a men's magazine directed toward single men "with an appropriate interest for the opposite sex" to a cultural platform that railed against such subjects as the Vietnam War, police brutality and gay discrimination.

"Playboy" has always been a lightning rod for controversy, and the documentary presents a diverse collection of perspectives on the magazine, from Christian activist and singer Pat Boone to notorious KISS bassist and frontman Gene Simmons.

In the face of decades of criticism from a wide rage of fronts — religious institutions, the United States government — Hefner has stood strong. Every time he has been presented with a legal battle, he has emerged the victor. Still, there was one group whose dissent he found "troubling" at the onset of Playboy.
"When it [criticism] came from neo-feminists — early feminists — I was initially blindsided," he said. "I didn't know what they were talking about. As far I was concerned, there was certainly nothing exploitive about 'Playboy.' 'Playboy' was a celebration of our sexuality."

"Nowhere did you find a more positive view of female beauty and sexuality then in 'Playboy.' It took me time to realize that the women and the people who did have a problem with it were having problems with the whole notion of sexuality. That shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was," he said. "And the reason that it shouldn't have been is, in thinking about it historically, there's a Puritan element within everything in America. So the fact that there would be some anti-sexual, Puritan elements within the women's movement is understandable."

For better or for worse, "Playboy" has had a lasting influence on America's social climate. And while controversy continues to swirl around the magazine, Hefner is confident that, in the end, history will look favorably upon his legacy.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who had some positive impact on the changing social and sexual values of my time," he said. "And I think my position is pretty secure in terms of that."

Landmark's E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; opens Fri., $10.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Punking Out: Deer Tick

John McCauley, singer and guitarist of indie-folk band Deer Tick, cites punk rock as a chief influence on his group's onstage antics and general attitude. Given what transpired within the first two minutes of our interview, the connection is clear.

"You don't mind if I pee while we talk, do you?" McCauley asked over some questionable sounds. "Because that's exactly what's happening right now."

In terms of other sounds McCauley makes, it's hard to reconcile how the raucous, live band McCauley describes — fueled by "drunken stupidity" — can be the same group whose albums carry an introspective, mellow tone with some country flair. But McCauley has dealt with this conundrum before.

"Our live shows have kind of gained us a reputation of somewhat of a party band. People are kind of searching to understand that about us," he says. "I think when you come to one of our shows; you should expect to have a good time, and if you're expecting to hear something that sounds exactly like the album, then you better just go home and listen to the album."
Since McCauley set out on his first nationwide tour in 2005 at the age of 19 — the very same tour where he coined the name Deer Tick after taking a daytime hike in Indiana and discovering one of the little parasites on his scalp later that evening — his group has undergone several lineup changes. Now 24, McCauley says the band's current roster is what has fueled the energy of recent Deer Tick shows. So far, there have only been a few casualties.

"I got crowd-surfed into a ceiling fan once," he says. "Luckily, I went into it feet-first."

There are other changes happening within the Providence, Rhode Island-based band. On June 8, Deer Tick released "The Black Dirt Sessions," which was recorded over January 2009, just four months after wrapping up the sessions that made up last year's release, "Born on Flag Day."

According to McCauley, "The Black Dirt Sessions" is a purging of any lingering Deer Tick material. As such, the process for recording the album was straightforward, with no real planning or heavy stylization.

"It's considered our third album, but I don't think it was really put together too much like an album. That's why it doesn't have a title," McCauley says. "'The Black Dirt Sessions' is named after the studio we did it at. ...It was just kind of us cleaning out our catalog of stuff we hadn't recorded yet."

The release may also mean the last of Deer Tick's familiar, Americana sound. McCauley, who is as big a fan of Kurt Cobain as he is of Hank Williams, says that he wants to take the band in a direction more reminiscent of their live shows, with a faster, rock-oriented emphasis.
"The only problem is that I haven't really written any songs like that in a long time, so I'll try to ease my way back into it," he says. "Try to channel my 17-year-old self."

Having experimented with a folk and country-infused sound for three full-length albums, McCauley feels that the time is right for expansion.

"I think we're a little terrified of being pigeonholed in any sort of way," McCauley says. "We kind of want to flex our musical muscles that we haven't used yet. In my opinion, as a performer, I just think it's a little more fun to play rock and roll."

» Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; with Wye Oak, Gamble House, Thurs., July 22, 8 p.m., $12.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Travis Huggett

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heavy Homage: Lez Zeppelin

There are two myths that have been perpetuated since the dawn of rock 'n' roll: People in cover bands aren't legitimate musicians, and girls can't rock as hard as the boys. So when Steph Paynes decided to start a Led Zeppelin tribute band in 2004 called Lez Zeppelin, it's safe to say that she experienced a few dissenters.

"If you're going to do it and you're going to be women doing it, you'd better get it together," Paynes said, who is the group's guitarist. "I don't want to add to the myth that women can't play — which is false, and if I were to go out there with a band that half-assed it, I'd be doing everyone a disservice. If you're going to do it, you're almost going to have to do it better because everyone's so cynical."

Years later and with a few nationwide tours, appearances on TV networks such as the BBC and MTV and — perhaps most importantly — a seal of approval from Led Zeppelin's guitar god, Jimmy Page, Paynes and company have proven to the critics that they are more than just a gimmick.

One of the reasons behind the New York City-based band's success is that since its start, the group (which has had about three major lineup changes) has been hesitant to follow the traditional course of tribute bands and dive into cover-band culture.

"[Lez Zeppelin] was just [for] fun because I love the music so much," Paynes said, "but then I realized, 'My God, there's this whole scene and I'm supposed to be in this scene,' and I made a very conscious decision early on because I didn't like the vibe of it and I didn't consider what I was doing to be any sort of tribute band. ... I decided to just book my band as if it were an original band and not to sign up with tribute band agents or do any of that or play those clubs or play with other tribute bands."

The fact that everyone in it is female also has a lot to do with why Paynes doesn't see the group as a regular tribute band. The musicians can't really impersonate anyone — Shannon Conley is never going to pass for Led Zep singer Robert Plant — and while there is still a certain amount of pageantry in Lez Zeppelin (dragon suits included) the girls honors their idols by focusing on the music.

"If you're a classical musician trying to take a piece of well-known music and interpret it, that's really what we're doing," Paynes said. "We're playing a very classical canon in rock 'n' roll and we're bringing our own self to it, and the energy and the power that I feel that Led Zeppelin was about. We do try to capture that; it's sort of a natural thing after awhile, when you study it this much."

As pupils of Zeppelin, the group has been thorough in its quest to embody the sound and atmosphere of its namesake. The musicians have employed a multi-faceted approach, from procuring only vintage gear for their performances to requiring sometimes high levels of commitment from some of the group's musicians.
Bass player Megan Thomas, for example, learned to play mandolin and synthesizers for specific songs. Paynes not only had to master the technical, blues-based riffs of one of the world's legendary guitarists, but she also had to figure out how to work Page's signature tool: the bow.

"You need to hit it in the right place," she said. "It's almost like playing tennis."

In terms of their textbook, Paynes and her group draw from Led Zeppelin's live shows, which were filled with extended versions of songs and long bouts of improvisation, more than the group's studio releases.

And if you're wondering about their suggestive name, don't bother to ask because Paynes offers no answers. As to why she leaves it shrouded in secrecy, like everything else that has to do with the band, she's taken a few notes from the original.

"Led Zeppelin always did that," she said. "There was a lot of mystery surrounding that band, nobody knew for sure what was going on, and I think that adds to the excitement of a rock band. Too much is told now; I don't want to know everyone's details. ... It sort of brings people down to the most banal level. There's no imagination."

» State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; Fri. July 16, 9 p.m., $19.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photos by Kyra Kverno

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sleight of Hand: Victor Wooten

When Muhammad Ali spoke the words, "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee," to describe his unusual fighting style, he was suggesting there's a certain grace to be learned from the habits of our fellow creatures.

Bass guitar virtuoso and core member of the group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Victor Wooten, shares a similar view. He believes that developing a skill to the point that it becomes like animal instinct is necessary for mastering any trade.

"Whatever you're doing, you want to be natural at it," he said. "I don't want to have to be concentrating really hard when I play the bass; I just want to flow."

Having taken this philosophy to heart, Wooten, 45, has hosted a bass and nature camp every year since 2000 during parts of the spring and summer. Located an hour west of Nashville, Tenn., the natural environment — it's called Wooten Woods Retreat — helps students to become better in tune with their natural rhythms.

"It definitely makes you play better," said Wooten.

When he's not at camp, Wooten will be on the road this summer with his quartet, the Victor Wooten Band. This tour will be less theatrical than previous efforts like his "Soul Circus" tour, which found Wooten performing another childhood passion onstage: magic.
Though Wooten wowed audiences on that tour with feats such as levitating mid-song and making his bass disappear, his favorite type of magic involves one-on-one interactions. "That's where it blows your mind," he said.

For a man who has conquered both crafts, Wooten sees magic and music as having more in common than just a sleight of hand. "If I go to a magic show," he said, "even if I know how it's done, it's still fascinating. Music is the same way: You'll hear a song or see an artist, and it's just magical."

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Fri., July 2, 7 p.m., $25. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Steven Parke