PAPERBOY: Slow-Jamming The Alt-Weeklies

paperboyartthumbnail.jpgBY DAVE ALLEN Like time, news waits for no man. Keeping up with the funny papers has always been an all-day job, even in the pre-Internets era. These days, however, it’s a two-man job. That’s right, these days you need someone to do your reading for you, or risk falling hopelessly behind and, as a result, increasing your chances of dying lonely and somewhat bitter. That’s why every week PAPERBOY does your alt-weekly reading for you. We pore over those time-consuming cover stories and give you the takeaway, suss out the cover art, warn you off the ink-wasters and steer you towards the gooey center. Why? Because we love you!


CP: Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but in Philly, it seems we like things hidden and dingy. And by “we,” I mean the city government, who are withholding important information from the public despite vows to the contrary. Holly Otterbein shines the WTF-signal into the sky for this week’s cover:

It’s not supposed to be like this.

On Jan. 7, 2008, with an ebullient crowd in front of him and red-and-white poinsettias wrapped in crinkly paper behind, Nutter delivered his inaugural address. He spoke of “a renewal of Philadelphia.” He got endearingly roiled in that classic Nutter way, declaring to criminals, “This is our city, not yours!” and “Enough is enough!” He made a bounty of promises that seem, for the most part, wildly optimistic and naïve today.

But then he said something that, even in this new decade of cynicism, seems viable: “There is nothing government does that cannot be done ethically and transparently.”

For Brett Mandel, former executive director of good-government group Philadelphia Forward and a candidate for city controller in 2009, it was a galvanizing moment. “I thought, Yes! He gets it,” says Mandel. “But that’s not how he’s chosen to act. Every administration holds their cards close to their vest, obviously, but the difference is this mayor came in saying, ‘I’m not going to do what everyone else has done.’ What’s uncommon — what’s appalling — is that the way he’s acted strays so far from his campaign rhetoric.”

But at the time, Mandel and other good-government wonks, lawyers, activists, journalists, techies, academics and curious laypersons across the city took Nutter’s proclamation to mean that a politician was finally willing to halt Philadelphia’s legendary culture of secrecy. Here was someone who would let the public in on the decision-making process and, perhaps most importantly, hand over more of those shielded documents sitting in the library at 15th and Arch.

Harrisburg’s reversal on open-government is no surprise, despite Fast Eddie at the helm, but Nutter’s about-face really is both alarming and disappointing. Ed Goppelt puts it best: “If the public can’t see what kind of job their officials are doing, officials have no incentive to do a good job.” It’s a comprehensive look at a real problem, with every step of the appeals run-around recorded in detail, and it’s not just journalists who have a right to be frustrated.

PW: Full disclosure: I interviewed Stew, this week’s cover subject, about two and a half years ago while “Passing Strange” was still on Broadway. So I’m more familiar than most with his music, his backstory and his relationship, creative and otherwise, with Heidi Rodewald — I interviewed her as well. That said, I’m delighted with how well Jeff Barg pins down Stew’s musical roots and his issue-skewering takes on race and gender. Of course, Barg goes even further back with Stew than me — he caught a coffee house show in 2003 — so he can bring in an even greater sense of artistic scope.

“Passing Strange” is the largely but not entirely autobiographical tale of a middle-class kid who grows up in South Central Los Angeles feeling out of place because of his preference for French avant-garde cinema and PBS over stereotypical ghetto trappings. Spurning his mother, whom he feels is overly involved in his life, he ditches L.A. for Amsterdam, then Berlin, in search of “the real” among two compelling and very different bands of artists.

With whip-smart writing, a keen melodic sensibility and a score covering everything from punk to psychedelia to vaudeville, the show starred Stew as “Narrator,” often interacting with “Youth”—a younger version of Narrator—walking and singing through his own life.

The journey is laced with acerbic, often biting racial commentary about the nature of “blackness” and “whiteness,” the preconceived notions we carry about both skin color and nationality, and what our sociocultural upbringing entitles us to—none of which sounds nearly as fun as the show actually is. The script frequently manages to make racial-identity issues really, really funny.

For example, Youth, trying to prove his street cred to skeptical flatmates in Berlin, belligerently asks, “Do you know what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?” Narrator stops the play dead in its tracks with an amused shot through the fourth wall. “Nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.”

Or there’s the early scene in church, where 14-year-old Youth—who usually despises church—for once finds himself excited by the call-and-response of the service, which he academically identifies as descended from the tribal chants of the motherland. When his mother smacks him into submission for this embarrassing semi-heresy, he pleads, “But it was on PBS.”

A Broadway vet like Stew might seem a bit out-sized for the Fringe Fest, which tends to bring in under-the-radar productions, but Barg sizes him up just right: not a theater-type, but an outsider among outsiders with a take and a voice that sets him apart. Plus, I loved reading this: “At least five different Passing Strange productions are now in the works, including a Spanish version in Buenos Aires, Argentina.” Dios mio!


CP: Back on My Feet, bike edition. Austrian music: I prefer Falco, thanks. Look out, organized types: Drew Lazor is lusting after you. The American dream involves bikes, jokes at Stu Bykovsky’s expense.

PW: Return to Thunder-DOMA. Come meet the new BRT, same as the old BRT? All will kneel down before Steve Jobs. Rambling drunkenness: I’ll allow it.

WINNER: Gotta recognize CP for this crucial open-records piece. As much as I love and am devoted to covering the arts — which PW did a fine job of this week — investigative reporting is more important now than ever, so CP gets the nod.

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