Sean Altman--An Honorable "Mensch"-ion
By Cheryl Mullen - 05/17/2002 - 10:21 PM EDT
The word "mensch" is a Yiddish term which loosely translated means "nice Jewish guy". I can think of no better word to describe Sean Altman, a singer/songwriter whose career I've had the pleasure of following for the past decade.
Sean Altman is a genius. In the history of recorded music no one else has ever managed to wax so eloquently and profoundly about dick, strippers, and chronic masturbation; and do it with such charm and sincerity that you want to take him home to meet your mother.
Some of you Americans out there are already familiar with some of Sean's work, although you might not realize it. Remember that children's PBS geography game show a few years back called "Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" with its wickedly catchy theme song? Well, Sean was partially responsible for that. Sean's partner in crime was longtime friend David Yazbek. Yazbek's biggest claim to fame so far has been composing the score for the Tony-nominated musical "The Full Monty".
But wait, it gets better! Remember "Carmen Sandiego"'s house group, Rockapella? Remember that one guy with the hairstyle that could politely be described as "unique" and could impolitely be described as "Holy braids, Batman!"? Yep, that was Sean. Sean ditched the braids in "Carmen"'s final episode and ditched Rockapella a few years later in order to spread his creative wings. Said wings can be seen on the cover of his 1997 solo debut album "SeanDemonium", which features Sean's head on the body of a pigeon.
Sean's latest creative dropping, "alt.mania", is an absolute gem. With all songs written or co-written by Sean, it manages to capture the many facets of Sean's personality; from hard-driving, in-your-face cynical commentary about romance gone rancid to smooth-as-silk tearjerker balads to rudely irreverent (or is that irreverently rude?) musical quips that show off his light-years-ahead-of-you sense of humor. Even the cover art, a stunning visual masterpiece, manages to capture the "essence" of Sean. It features a small group of sperm swimming towards an egg--and all the little sperm have Sean-heads. I urge you to run (not walk) to your computer, click onto his website and purchase this CD IMMEDIATELY! This is one collection of tunes that will stay in your CD player for a long time!!
"But why?", you ask. "Why should I take this great leap of faith and spend my hard-earned sheckels on a man whose greatest claim to fame until now has been appearing on a kiddie show dressed as a giant lima bean?" Well, aside from the fact that if he doesn't turn a profit on this release there's a good chance he could end up panhandling in the subways with a hand-lettered cardboard sign that says "Will Work For Ketchup", there are several reasons why you should expose yourselves to him:
#1: HIS MUSIC IS JUST PLAIN GOOD
When I first heard Sean's original music several years ago, I was absolutely stunned. I'd never heard anything like it before. To say that it was a life-altering experience for me would not be too great of an exaggeration. It was as though I'd spend my entire life eating store-brand vanilla ice cream with the occasional chocolate sprinkle, and then suddenly I was introduced to Ben & Jerry's insert-your-favorite-flavor-here.
There are three basic factors that make his tunes so addictive. The first factor is that his songs tend to be rather short. Why is this a good thing? Well, Sean has never bought into the idea that a song should fit the standard 3 1/2-4 1/2 minute format (typical of most of the stuff you hear on commercial radio these days) just for the sake of fitting a format. Most of his tunes are about 2 1/2 minutes long, give or take. So were most of the songs done by the Beatles, a group that has had a profound influence on Sean throughout his life. But when you listen to his songs you don't really notice that they're shorter than average because they don't NEED to be longer. In Sean's mind, a song is a song is a song, regardless of its length. You gotta admire someone who sticks to his creative guns, even when (and maybe especially when) it flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
The second factor is that his melodies are very ear-friendly and very singable. After hearing a tune only once or twice, you'll find yourself humming it on the way home and for several days thereafter. Although he's been known to write the occasional tearjerker ballad and the more-than-occasional angry rant, most of his songs are catchy pop melodies that stick with you like glue. OK, so it's ear candy. But it's not your average ear candy. It's ear Godiva truffle.
The third and most important factor is his mind-blowing lyrical talent. The man is a sheer poet. This is partially because when he was born, the word fairy didn't just tap him with her magic wand, she whacked him upside the head with it and left him with an overabundant vocabulary. As a result, he can express himself in ways that few other songwriters do. Whereas an average songwriter may only have 5 ways to express a certain feeling or idea, Sean might be able to pull 20 out of his head at any given moment.
#2: HE'S VERSATILE
Ever since he left Rockapella, Sean has been playing in clubs all over New York City at a pace that would make most people drop dead from exhaustion. (I know--I've tried to keep up with him!) These gigs can take numerous permutations. For example, there's the Full Muscular Band form--Sean plus 3-4 other guys with instruments that plug into the wall and make lots of noise (and one of those guys might be the subject of a future column if he gets his musical poop together--see Matt, I told you I wouldn't forget you!). Then there's the Acoustic Phatness form--Sean unplugged. And then there's the Groovebarbers form--Sean plus several other original Rockapella members doing it a cappella.
But wait, there's more! In addition to his own projects, Sean and longtime friend Rob Tannenbaum have collaborated (or should I say conspired?) to create the What I Like About Jew series, a semi-regular variety show gathering of Jewish singer-songwriters. These productions are not only entertaining, but educational as well. Most of what I know about Judaism I learned from Sean and Rob--a fact that would probably cause most rabbis to rip out their hair.
And as if all this weren't enough to keep Sean busy, he's also part of the Losers Lounge, a group of New York City musicians who come together several times a year to pay tribute to various musical legends. The Losers have covered everyone from ABBA to David Bowie to Paul McCartney to Paul Williams--and believe me, it is well worth the cost of admission to hear Sean croon the theme from "The Love Boat" or see him in a kilt!
What, you can't be bothered to come and see Sean? Well, Sean can come to you. If you can get a certain number of people to attend, Sean will come to your home and give a nice intimate acoustic house concert right in your living room. No North American destination is too far, as long as he can map out a drivable tour route. (Sorry, European readers. But if you're willing to pay Sean's airfare, I'm sure he'd be willing to work something out! :) )
#3: HIS MUSIC IS GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YOU
Sean is the ultimate grandmaster of negative emotion. No matter how or why you happen to be feeling bitter and crappy, somewhere in Sean's vast lyrical arsenal is a line or a phrase that will sum up the bitter and crappy way you feel with frightening accuracy.
Why such bitterness? Well, there's a story behind that. You see, once upon a time Sean was married. The sun shone, the birds sang, and all was right within the universe. Then eight months later his wife gleefully ripped his heart from his chest, threw it on the ground and stomped on it, and dumped him for somebody else. Sean spent the next several years channeling his agony into his music; partially because he hoped to turn his pain into profit, and partially because it was cheaper than therapy. As a result, 99% of his songs are cynical rants about love gone wrong (such as "More In Hate With You" and "Unhappy Anniversary"). The other 1% involve the Oral--oops, I mean Oval Office ("Hanukah With Monica"), nasally over-enhanced bovines ("Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer"), and vertically-challenged deities ("Taller Than Jesus").
Sean's musical rants have not only had the effect of allowing him to process his own pain, but they've allowed others to process their pain as well--at least that's how it's worked for me. Let's face it, between coming this close to getting myself killed in a terrorist attack and being unemployed in a recession economy, 2001 gave me a lot to be bitter and angry about. Going to a Seangig and singing bitter, angry lyrics at the top of one's lungs is an excellent way to vent one's anger at the world--and again, it's cheaper than therapy. I highly recommend it. Besides, everybody's got something or someone in their love lives to be bitter and angry about. No matter what your story, Sean's got a lyric just for you!
#4: HE'S A MENSCH
As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, a mensch is a nice guy. I'd like to tell a couple of stories that illustrate why Sean is truly a mensch among mensches:
My first story takes place at my very first Rockapella concert. It was in Harrisburg, PA in January 1995. After the concert, the Rockapella guys were sitting at a table in the theatre lobby to sign autographs and pose for pictures. I was leaning up against a wall about 15 feet away from the guys waiting for the autograph line to die down a little bit, and the line was passing in front of me.
Because "Carmen Sandiego" was very popular at this time, there were a lot of young children in attendance at the concert. As I was watching the line pass in front of me I happened to notice a woman waiting in line with her little boy. And I do mean "little"--this child could not have been more than four years old. He was holding his mom's hand and being very patient while they waited in line for their chance to meet the guys. But as they got closer to the table, the boy looked up. And when he saw the stars of his favorite TV show up close, he got scared. And he started to cry. His mom quickly picked him up and tried to calm him down, but the kid wasn't having any of it. He was truly terrified.
Meanwhile, Sean was sitting at the end of the table closest to me. The table was absolutely swamped with fans vying for his attention. For some reason he just happened to look up amidst the chaos, and when he did, he saw the scared little boy crying in him mom's arms. Despite the massive crowd gathered around the table clamoring for his attention, he got up from the table and walked over towards the line. He stepped behind the mom (because the boy had his head buried in her shoulder), tilted his head to get at the boy's eye level, and said "Hi" in his friendliest calm-down-I'm-just-a-guy-with-goofy-hair voice. The little boy was so surprised at being nearly nose-to-nose with Sean that he literally forgot to be scared--and he stopped crying almost immediately. I wasn't able to hear what Sean said to the little boy after that, but it must have been pretty good because by the time all was said and done, the little boy was smiling and high-fiving all of the guys in the group--and the mom was relieved and grateful.
My second story happened a little over a year ago. It was during one of the worst weeks of my life. (The reason is unimportant, suffice it to say it was a BAD week.) Sean happened to be playing at a NYC club in the middle of that week. There was a really bad snowstorm that day, but the buses were running--so I got myself on one and headed into Manhattan.
When I got to the club the place was practically empty--probably due to the bad weather. Sean arrived a few minutes after I did and said hello. He normally didn't go out of his way to have a conversation with me, but on this particular night he did--maybe because I was one of the few people there he recognized. As we chatted he made the mistake of asking, "So how are you?" And that was really all the invitation I needed. I opened my mouth and laid a tale of woe upon him that left him with his jaw hanging. I guess he must have felt sorry for me, because he offered to buy me a drink. And after gratefully accepting his offer I did what any self-respecting groupie would do: I finished the drink, dumped the ice cubes in an ashtray, stuffed the glass in my backpack and took it home with me. It now proudly sits on a shelf above my kitchen sink.
That was the first time Sean went out of his way to do something nice for me, but it was by no means the last time. Over the past year Sean has been really good to me in lots of little ways that are too numerous to mention. Not only has he been good to me, but he's been good to others as well. Despite the insane number of creative projects he's currently involved in, he still finds time to voluntieer his talent by singing and playing with Musicians On Call, an organization that brings music into the rooms of hospital patients in the NYC area. He's also visited Ground Zero and performed for the workers involved in the cleanup effort.
Like I said, Sean's been really good to me. And when people are good to me, I like to be good to them. So that's why I chose to write about him this month and urge all of you to support the NYC economy by PURCHASING A COPY OF "ALT.MANIA"!!
Gee, that wasn't too subliminal, was it? :)
WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE:
Check out Sean's website at www.seanaltman.com and find lyrics, photos, music clips, full-sized mp3s, and hilarious profanity-laced essays. You can also purchase merchandise at the site.
And if you want to experience Sean live but can't get to the NYC area, why not do a house party? BREAKING NEWS: Sean is currently setting up a house party tour with stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. He is looking to set up gigs in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Toronto areas. If you're in one of these places and you'd like to experience the glory of Sean in your very own living room, click here to find out how.
And if you're not up for a house party, you can still sample the live Seanexperience by logging on to the Digital Club Network at www.dcn.com. Go to Artist Search and look him up. There you will find a number of his live club performances archived for your viewing pleasure. You have to be a member of DCN in order to view the archives, but that doesn't involve money--you just have to fork over your email address and fill out a short survey. You'll also need to have RealAudio installed in order to watch. Click on the archive of your choice, sit back, and enjoy your trip into the Seanosphere!
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