Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Terrible Golden Frog

The Leopard often wonders what I could I have become other than an artist. Without much thought, I think I would have been a zoologist.
I had lots of animals in my home as a child. Fish, birds, dogs, cats, lizards. For a while my pals and I were on a tropical fish kick when I was around 13-14, spending all our paper route money on rare specimens.

The only thing I enjoyed drawing as much as superheros were animals. I have a lifelong love of amphibians and lizards, especially. Their design is so beautiful, colors so vivid, they're a delight to render.

One of the most fascinating creatures I remember reading about is the Phyllobates terribilis, the Golden Poison Frog. It's from the Amazon forest and is considered one of the most poisonous animals in the world. This frog secretes this extremely toxic venom from its glands. To even touch it can cause death. Native tribes dip darts in their poison to paralyze enemies and prey.

The interesting thing for me is the contradiction that not only are these frogs breathtakingly beautiful, but the scientists find that the poison is also the basis for a powerful painkiller--A medical breakthrough.
Paul Simon once wrote a lyric where he mentions Phyllobates terribilis. "SenÒrita with a Necklace of Tears":

There is a frog in South America
Whose venom is a cure
For all the suffering that mankind
Must endure
More powerful than morphine
And soothing as the rain
A frog in South America
Has the antidote for pain

(Click title to hear song in its entirety)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mad At Madoff

The Leopard doesn’t like to stand in judgment of others.  Since there always seems to mitigating circumstances for most people’s actions, I don’t like, for that reason, to assume I know what may have led to what might seem to most of us as heinous acts.

Having said that, I became fascinated recently with the case of Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street entrepreneur who in 2009 went to jail for masterminding a Ponzi scheme that relieved thousand of clients of over reportedly billions of dollars.

I've read many newspaper and magazine articles and one book, Madoff With The Money, which chronicles the infamous rise and fall of this horrendous hooligan, who committed the worst swindle in the history of this country in a massive Ponzi scheme that went on literally for decades. He and his wife Ruth drove around in Bentleys, owned villas, million dollar-plus apartments all over the world and a private jet - all from misappropriated funds from stock accounts owned by celebrities such as Elie Wiesel and Steven Spielberg, hundreds of charitable organizations, and the life savings of some of his own family members. Despite being Jewish, Madoff is as close to a financial Hitler as there ever was.

Unfortunately, this guy can't literally be put to death for his greedy, selfish crimes. But justice was done. He's in jail, serving a life sentence. Where once ate at the finest restaurants and wore and $7000 , he's lucky now in his orange jumpsuit to get extra mustard on his baloney sandwich in the Supermax cafeteria. For a guy like him, that's worse than death.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Fabulous Keiko Lee

It’s always exciting when the Leopard gets to hear some great new talent. Recently, I was downloading some Stevie Wonder music when I came across an out-of-print album of jazz interpretations of Wonder's music by several artists. Most of the versions of Stevie’s most popular tunes by the well known jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal are very fine,  but the standout for me was a rendition of Stevie’s relatively obscure tune “Too Shy Too Say”  from his album Fulfillingness’ First Finale that really stood out for me. The singers’ warm, husky croon cut right to my heart, and made a song I’ve know for most of my life suddenly sound new and fresh again. Stevie’s lyrics suddenly became more profound to me than ever before. I immediately Googled the source of this mysterious and beautiful voice.

It was Japanese born pop/jazz singer Keiko Lee, the who emits a sound that brings to mind great jazz singers such as Shirley Horn, Billie Holiday and  Nina Simone. I immediately downloaded everything I could find.

 Ms. Lee turns out to be an exceptionally prolific artist, with many recordings to her credit covering many genres of music, R&B, pop & rock.  Although I enjoy her unique voice in almost anything she does, in jazz setting with a small group I think she’s at her best.

(Click on title to listen to Keiko's version of "'Round Midnight")

Monday, June 14, 2010

Charlotte Gainsbourg

The Leopard has been following the career of the tall, lanky French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg for a while now, since her co-starring role in the film Science of Sleep an interesting, inventive film directed by the outrageously gifted Michel Gondry. It’s a movie I didn’t think entirely worked, but I did enjoy Gainsbourg’s understated performance.

Many people know that her mother and father as the British actress Jane Birkin and the well known pop musician Serge Gainsbourg,  and that there was some controversy surrounding the infamous “Lemon Incest” video many years ago which featured father and daughter cuddling in bed.  Surviving this, later Charlotte proved to be a fine young actor in such films as Paroles Et Musique (“Love Songs”) and L’Effrontée, for which she won a César in 1985 for Most Promising Young Actress.

Her most recent role has been in the gutsy Lars Von Trier film Antichrist. Despite being one of the more disturbing films in recent memory, it contains her finest, bravest performance to date.

Musically, Gainsbourg has taste to burn, if not necessarily the broadest of musical abilities. In her albums, she tends to choose the very best collaborators to write and produce her music while she sings/talks in a feathery whisper. On her album 5:55 she successfully teamed up with the excellent electronic group Air, and later, IRM, which was her artistic response to recent brain surgery. This new record brought her together with the eclectic  musician Beck and has been well received by critics.  It’s the type of disc you share with friends to show your musical sophistication.

(Click on title for music sample)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bats About Bats

When the Leopard was just a little cub in the scouts, I remember going camping in the Summer. We'd usually go upstate to Bear Mountain, NY.  We'd stay on campgrounds in these rustic little log cabins with bunks lined up inside like an army barracks. We were all so excited to be there that after we'd get off those yellow charter buses after a long, hot, sticky ride we'd run down the hill racing to see who'd get to the cabins first. 
With my skinny long legs, I was always there first, and as I pushed open the rotting wooden screen door, I was greeted full in the face with a leathery bombardment of furry squealing creatures. I fell back on some broken boards lying on the porch, skinning my knee and crying uncontrollably.

I  was hooked.

I read everything there was about bats in the Boy Scout Handbook that trip, in between grilling wieners and singing "Talk Of The Season" around the campfire.  Back home, I bought books about bats, drew pictures of them all over my schoolbooks (I'm sure that Batman being my favorite superhero had something to do with my obsession)and to this day, I still find myself sketching the little critters.
Recently, there have been disturbing reports about bats in this part of the country slowly dying off from a mysterious fungus in the form of a white ring around their noses, which causes them to wake from hibernation too early. this causes afflicted bats to burn through their winter stores of fat before the spring, and they in turn to appear be starving. No one seems to know precisely what the issue is, but it could be part of a bigger problem.

Bats are our pals. They are virtually harmless to humans (despite all that"Twilight" bullshit) and actually eat billions of mosquitoes every year. If they disappear, be sure you're never going to make it through a summer NOT covered with bites. Maybe the lack of predators will introduce a new strain of super mosquitoes, resistant to sprays and rubs.

Besides, they're just about the coolest things flying.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Leopard's Book Shelf

From time to time, folks ask the Leopard what he's reading. Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat complicated, because I usually have several books going simultaneously. The Leopard's reading habits are somewhat idiosyncratic:  I tend to read one book for a while in spurts, then switch to another sometimes several times a day. Often the subjects can be fairly diverse, as I have many interests. But they tend to be centered around the arts.  Were I forced to make a choice of what kind of books I read the most under torture (say, someone pulling nose hairs out one at a time with a pair of tweezers), it would be probably be biography, because I am most fascinated by what makes a person become what he or she becomes.

Here's a list of some of the books I'm reading at the moment. We'll add more books to the shelf as they become available.

1. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki A beautifully drawn graphic novel about two teenage girls in high school in a very special friendship.

2. Introducing Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz; Illustrated by Robert Crumb A beginner's guide to Kafka, magnificently illustrated by Crumb.

3. Bicycle Diaries by David ByrneA fascinating travelogue around the world on a two-wheeler by the former Talking Head.

4. It's About That Time by Richard Cook One of the many books I've read on Miles Davis, this one is notable for an LP by LP assessment of every significant ( by the author's estimation) record Miles ever made.

5. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
A collection of short stories so original that I'm re-reading them. A Wonderful quirky style. By the brilliant filmmaker/performance artist/writer/actress.

6.  Thelonious Monk  by Robert D.G. Kelley The definitive biography about the genius musician composer Monk.

7.  The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar Entertaining and superbly written, Schenkar's biography of the novelist responsible for Two Strangers On A Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and many other stories is remarkably candid.