By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Illustration by Tony Mostrom|
IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT AND I'VE JUST ARRIVED AT the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, that intense, satisfying shrine to the Past, that Mecca and cocoon for those of us in the, ahem, "time-traveling community" whose imaginations tend to dwell in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly the mysterious and sexy world of Hollywood in the 1920s -- a place where on any given night you can see a cute young woman with hair severely black-and-bobbed √† la Louise Brooks in the crowd; where excited whispers ripple across the audience whenever some vaguely familiar L.A. street flashes onto the screen during a silent car chase of Model T's and A's filmed over 70 years ago; and a place where long-accepted realities of time and mortality abruptly confront their laughing masters: the springtime of youth, health, humor, and of course the vintage 1928 beauty of Bebe Daniels.
I've earlier been tipped off that L.A.'s reigning "ukulele chanteuse" and singer of "Obscure, Naughty and Lovely Songs" c. 1910-¬≠1935, Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, have been booked to give a surprise performance here before tonight's scheduled film, Buster Keaton's Go West (1925). The theater is packed, the marquee outside says BUSTER AND JANET 8PM, and the feeling of excited anticipation among the well-dressed crowd is palpable.
Here comes Charlie Lustman, the young proprietor of the Silent, running down the aisle and bounding up onto the stage, arriving in a rolling, Keatonesque pratfall -- what is he, nuts? -- splat. Channeling the electricity in the room, he gives the crowd an energetic welcome, concluding boldly: "I'm sure you all agree that talkies are just a passing phaaase," and announcing over the laughter, "Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys!" As they come ambling onto the brightly lit, shallow stage in front of the gold-glittered curtain, the sight of Janet's eight-piece band, shining acoustic instruments in hand, carries with it a shock of recognition for those of us who stare all day at photos of 1920s gangsters: dark-blue and brown and pinstripe suits, wide satin ties and fedora hats.
A few nods, muttered agreement, then the moment of uncanny spark when the speakeasy¬≠Last Supperfrieze comes to life, belting out the 1926 hot dance number "Bundle of Love," its jumping Django-like rhythm courtesy of Billy Steele's 12-string guitar and handsome Tom Marion's steely arpeggios on a delectably weathered 1930s acoustic guitar. Beautiful Janet, a triumphant look on her illuminated smiling face, is swiveling slightly on her hips, a dainty incarnation of the '20s ballroom singer with gardenias in her hair, slim and looking more It than Clara Bow.
The tapping of the brushes on the trap set is keeping up the rhythm, and Benny Brydern takes a Grappelli-inspired fiddle solo, borne on the catchy melody as Klein swings and swoons. After the applause, Klein -- the enthusiastic collector of vintage obscurities -- announces, "This song was banned from the radio in 1934," and the lyrics to "Hurry on Down" are both cute and hot: "C'mon honey give me a try/I'm like a Chesterfield I satisfy/So hurry on down to my house, honey/Ain't nobody home but me."
More applause when Klein announces, "Here's Brad Kay!" Dapper in a cream-brown suit with matching bow tie and beret, the barrel-chested Kay -- a multi-instrumentalist and composer who loves to recall his years as a Shakey's Pizza ragtime piano player ("10 different parlors") -- smiles a toothy one, puts muted cornet to lips and growls out the opening bars of "Nasty Man" (1934), a Parlor Boys staple with the kind of bawdy strip-joint sound that's hard-wired into our veins. When Janet sings, "Yooouuu, sweet an' nasty/I know what's on your mind/Yooouuu pull a fasty/You make me sizzle, an' then you chisel," it makes me wonder how many of us know what "chisel" meant. I jot down in my notebook: "Some of these songs are sentimental, some sexual/funny/drug-related, but they all come from a time when hipness (personified in black and white jazz musicians, hopheads, sailors & other recalcitrant bachelors) had no teenage connotations at all -- this silly desire to remain an adolescent." Janet rolls her wide eyes up to the ceiling.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM, THIS PERSISTENT and recurring fascination with the '20s? Well, there's the obvious sexiness of the decade -- a revolutionary time for the female when, following WWI, heavy sackcloths were thrown off in favor of tiny skirts, and basically, lust went public and uppity. It was also the original urbanized, mass-media-soaked Smart-Ass Decade, the first one we can recognize as the granddaddy of our own civilization: Louise Brooks laughing in the face of Babbitt. Both sides of that great "culture war" -- the brazen horniness of the City vs. the traditional, chaste courtship of the Farm -- were expressed in the songs of the time. And unlike the rock & roll era, it was a time rich in songs that were meant to be funny. Hence the thrill of discovery that Janet Klein, her fellow archaeologists and their audiences feel unearthing these long-buried nuggets of our heritage that, at first blush at least, seem so alien to us now.