Baby's On Fire

"Brian Wilson wrote this song for me," Ronnie Spector said on Wednesday at her annual holiday party at Life, "but because of publishing and contracts and stuff, I couldn't record it then. But I can sing it now." And the woman who made mascara a rock'n'roll necessity launched into "Don't Worry Baby," a coupling of singer and song that should have been ordained. Like Spector's first Ronettes hit, "Be My Baby," "Don't Worry" 's chorus cascades into the most primal— downright infantile— of hooks-cum­terms of endearment. No one sings "baby" like Spector, whether she's breaking the first syllable in half or singing it river deep, as she did on Wilson's tune, sounding not like the ultimate girl-group singer, not like the original bad girl, but sounding like a man. Funny, since Wilson sang it in a falsetto.

Both songs represent more a stereotypical male perspective than female. Or maybe neurotic misfits want a woman in stiletto heels to bad-mama them. Phil Spector kept his wife shut up in a mansion, controlled her career, and pocketed the millions he made off her voice. But, looking great at 55 in a tight black feathered jacket and flared pants, the woman born Veronica Bennett still comes off as more of a tough cookie than a survivor. Lolita-like, she has always mixed innocence and guile, provoking desire that begs instant discipline. At Life, she shook her cleavage while singing "Frosty the Snowman."

Joey Ramone has in recent years been paying his debt to the Spector sound by championing Phil's ex. Plus, he and Ronnie can compare notes on being locked up by the mad producer. Joey, Lenny Kaye, Tom Clark, and D Generation's Jesse Malin all joined Spector at Lust for Life, where she was welcomed by the sort of queer crowd that has always adored Spector. A homeless-looking man with cornrow beads in matted gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face came up for the last two songs, greeted with cries of "Keef!" Apparently, "Keef" is one of those mad-genius bluesmen that people like Jon Spencer drag out of obscurity; his guitar leads on "Run, Rudolph, Run" and "Be My Baby" brought the house down. "It's not my party but happy holiday," Keef said. Spector was gone and didn't come back for encores, undoubtedly aware when a moment can't be topped. —Evelyn McDonnell

Ronnie Spector, still Lolita-like at 55, with mad-genius bluesman "Keef!"
Ebet Roberts
Ronnie Spector, still Lolita-like at 55, with mad-genius bluesman "Keef!"

Season's Bleepings

Call it neotraditionalism, or Christmas caroling for the electronica age. Last Saturday, over 40 people assembled in Washington Square Park with boom boxes and tape players, joined by at least as many onlookers, to take part in the seventh annual rendition of composer Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night." Quietly, Kline passed out cassettes, each a variation on his electronic composition. With a quick nod, play buttons were pushed, yielding a delicate cacophony of crystalline tones that oscillated through the balmy night air. Sound ebbed and flowed as the "carolers" made their way across town through shopping-frenzied streets, an effect that was both ethereal and eerie. Was it me, or did the city become strangely muted, taxi horns and police sirens caught up in a diaphanous swirl of synthetic strings, iterating handbells, choral chants, and atonal drones?

Much of the event's charm came from watching people's reactions: a homeless dread popping out from under a pile of newspapers, head cocked in puzzlement; the bum who darted from the corner of Bowery shouting "Humbug!" The piece culminated in the center of Tompkins Square, filling the hollow where the bandshell once stood with what sounded like a thousand distant church bells chiming out of sync. Rollerbladers pirouetted and a guy held up his cell phone in tribute as waves of bells twinkled around us, recalling for a moment the televised images of firecracker bombs bursting over Iraq's sci-fi green skies.

"It's kind of like live-action painting," said Kline, echoing the aspiration of composers like Charles Ives and Henry Brant to construct symphonies of everyday life. "I'm just taking those ideas a little further, to the point where all matter sings, everything vibrates and sounds at once, and you're surrounded by this sort of cosmic harmony."

Besides, Kline added, "Christmas is kind of scary." —Sarah Ferguson

In-Between Days

Robbie Fulks didn't have a lot going for him last Friday night at the Mercury Lounge. No band for this hastily arranged solo engagement. No guitar: those pesky new airline carry-on regulations had kept him from bringing his aboard, so he'd borrowed a Japanese metal-body acoustic from a pal in Five Chinese Brothers. Worst of all, if the emphatic whispers are to be believed, no record label— despite having released his major label debut, Let's Kill Saturday Night, on Geffen just three months ago. With Geffen itself being folded into Interscope after the Universal- Polygram merger, Fulks is stranded. Especially since this alt-country hero lost a chunk of his straitlaced following with the new album, which veers toward Elvis Costello­John Hiatt­Matthew Sweet­type bashed-out rock, though it's every bit as successful as his other albums song for song.

But there were no tears in the beer here. Fulks launched full bore into "Let's Kill Saturday Night," treating it as the anthem it's so far turned out not to be; picked through songs, his left hand a blur, with a deftness that might have made Alphabet City Opry leader Greg Garing glad that Fulks lives in Chicago; gave a tune about scrapple some rockabilly vocal clutches; and threw his elbows into the beat on "Little King" like a rock'n'roll guitarist should. In between songs, the tall, thin Fulks, who resembles a hard-partying young attorney (though he says he remembers the '60s), told shaggy jokes in a voice not unlike Jimmy Stewart's. One, about answering Nashville's demand that its songwriters collaborate by cowriting a ditty with a three-year-old, led to the crowd pleaser (may I never hear it on record) "Eggs Are Good." Another, about finding a song written for Glenn Miller by a relation of that Five Chinese Brothers friend, set up "Shh! It's a Military Secret."

Next Page »