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Secrets of a Dynamic Duo
by Gary Alexander

(preview of Mikhail Horowitz & Gilles Malkine
at Rosendale Cafe, Sat, June 10th)

An investigation into how a mild- mannered former newspaper editor and a reluctant musician became masters of surgical satire and metaphorical slapstick.

Mikhail Horowitz gestures toward a truckload of raw gumption, discovered in a field near Woodstock, which he would later refine into pure stage moxie at a secret home workshop.

Simple humility protected Mikhail Horowitz from critical scrutiny during his long years as entertainment editor and cultural czar for Ulster County's leading newspapers. It was a clever device. How could he, in good conscience, assign (or permit) any of his minions to review or promote any of the outrageous performances he was skulking off into the moonlight to commit with his cohort, Gilles Malkine? How could audiences be adequately prepared for the briar bush wit they would be tossed into at one of the pairís public exhibitions of social parody if not suitably cautioned by a discerning critic of contemporary onstage behavior? How indeed?

Fortunately, circumstances changed with Horowitz's defection from local media to assume a senior editor's position at a sports-obsessed corporation. (It was for the bigger bucks, he now insists, and not because he was once a large, strapping athlete, as rumor has it, who dwindled to his current stature because of too much reading.) Finally, with Horowitz's relinquishment of local media control, the literate public, as well as people like yourself, can be filled in on the sordid details of his double life.

Malkine, a moment after it is noticed that the "playlist" taped to his guitar reads "mayonnaise, anchovies, Penthouse, duct tape, A&D ointment, nose hair clippers, lute strings, grapes, Pepto Bismol, curling iron, handcuffs..."

The first clue to former czar's out-of-office conduct involves the impression that perhaps it is Gilles Malkine who is the actual twisted genius behind Mikhail Horowitz's exhibitions of preposterous humor, so our probe began with an interrogation, excuse me, interview with that source. Gilles was born in Paris, France and had to be, as he says, "imported, like a sardine" to Brooklyn when he was two months of age. Since his grandmother had worked with Emma Goldman on the latter's memoirs with Stella Ballantine of the Ballantine publishing clan of Woodstock, Gilles became a Shady toddler when a family visit turned to full-time residence about a year later.

Gilles' father, a well-known painter, fit comfortably into Woodstock's artist community and his mother, Sonia Malkine, who became Woodstock's First Lady of Song, taught him his first few guitar chords. Although he claims he now owns more guitars than he knows chords, Gilles would grow to quietly distinguish himself as a classical player. He met folkblues artist, Tim Hardin, in the summer of 1966 when Hardin was staying at a Woodstock cabin belonging to Peter Yarrow's mother. After a stint in the service, he was recruited by Hardin, first as a roadie, then as a band member in 1968 and played the Woodstock festival with him; a gig he remembers as a disaster.

Malkine (crouching, right) during the period he teamed with legendary banjo player Billy Faier (standing, left)

"The Friday night set was awful," Gilles recalls. "You couldn't see the end of the audience. It was like all humanity was looking at you, so we were a bit discombobulated to begin with...Then Tim decided to start off with a song that hadn't been written yet. He was very enthusiastic about his music, with good reason, but it didn't work. We finally got on track but there were internal problems with the band. It was pretty intense, being with Tim."

The following night they played a concert at Flushing Meadow Park with Odetta, Bill Keith and others that Malkine remembers as the finest set he ever played with Hardin, including a Carnegie Hall appearance, but it was also to be the last.

"It was back-to-back, the worst and the best sets and the next day I quit. It was too much for me," Malkine explains. "I had been suddenly thrown into the music business, which I think is just as bad as the boxing business; full of low-lifes, egos, money, crooks, druggies- or, if they're not druggies, they take advantage of druggies...and they know just how..."

In his role as Chief Abbot of the Swamp Editors Eviration Society, Horowitz hoodoos hapless scribes with a random spell for permanent writer's block as Malkine ponders the proper chords for a banshee screech.

Malkine concedes that it had its good points and he met some "wonderful people, like Howard Solomon of the Cafe AuGoGo, Richie Havens and others" but, all-in-all, he didn't want to be in the business. As he says this, there is about Malkine, an unmistakable air of dignity and refined self-possession. He has often stated that he'd just as soon just play at home and record. So, how, we might wonder, did Horowitz seduce him into not only taking part in such open displays of social ridicule and raw irony but, also, into posing in a hippie wig for the cover of their first tape release, So What Do You Want For Ten Bucks?

"Of course, I would never do such a thing without being blackmailed," Malkine responds in a blink. "He's got all the dirt on me and everything I do up there, I'm forced to do against my will...But, as bad as being associated with him as an entertainer may be, it's not nearly as bad as eating with him in a public restaurant."

But, how, we must ask, did this captivity begin? When did they meet?

Horowitz (foreground, right, with Cambodian take-out lunch in pocket) pipes to the absence of Pot and Pan at a poetry reading in the '90s.

"I hadn't met him, but I was aware of Mik through reading his movie reviews in the Sunday Freeman," reflected Malkine. "I always looked forward to them. It was just great writing; always refreshing, humorous, insightful, smart. He must have had someone helping him."

Gilles' sister, Fern, contacted Horowitz before a retrospective exhibition of their father's painting in 1989 and Gilles was impressed by the preview Mikhail typed out in longhand; "I could see right away that he was a conscientious, good person with his feet on the ground. Little did I suspect that his feet were not connected to his mind."

Wet Poets Society members Janine Pommy Vega and Mikhail Horowitz witness the outdoor open microphone electrocution of a novice colleague in Birkenstocks.

Shortly thereafter Gilles heard that Horowitz was laid up with a painful pulmonary infection and called to cheer him up by reading him the opening section of Mark Twain's 1601, wherein the author expresses his distain for Elizabethan pretensions with a courtly discourse on flatulation. He remembers hearing a continual stream of peculiar noises over the phone as he progressed but he disregarded them and kept reading. Only later, Malkine reveals with only the slightest trace of satisfaction, did Horowitz tell him that the laughter he provoked on that occasion had caused the pinnacle of agony from his chest-restricted condition. They would soon create a comedy bit based on the piece used in their first performance together on April Fool's Day, 1989, at the Woodstock Guild.

It was at this point that Malkine began to learn of his partner-to-be's background as crazed poet and incorrigible stand-up wit. There had been no mystery concerning Horowitz's regional origins. Even with the quick and often eloquent turn of tongue he displays, anyone who listens the pair's brilliant new CD, Live, Jive & Over 45, can discern by the two syllables Mikhail wrings out of the word "long" in the phrase "long hours" that he is a Brooklyn native heavily influenced by Long-ga Island. But, now, Giles discovered that Mik had stuck to the vicinity, after attending SUNY New Paltz in the 1970s, as half of a completely irreverent act called Null & Void. (Which half is still open to question). They took such utterly offensive delight in freedom of expression that they once had to be smuggled out of an Elk's Convention their mischievous manager had booked them into "in Wheezer, Idaho," by the two strippers they opened for, after dodging a hail of debris on stage.

Debuting a long overdue hip-hop version of Beowulf.

Rather than ponder whether the Elks of Idaho brought their own ears of corn to throw (and there IS a WEISER, Idaho on the map, so the accuracy of the story can be seen as ominous), Malkine reflects that "Mik's sense of humor has matured at least a quarter of an inch since then and now we're more into ideas than effect, so if we come across a Wheezer crowd, it'll take them longer to figure out he's being offensive and give us a head start."

Actually, when you analyze their performances, whether they're lampooning the state of national health care with a blues called "St.James Wellness Facility"; spoofing ethnic elan with "Ghost Rabbis In the Sky"; converting William Blake's poetry to doo-wop or mangling Beckett's "Godot" in a rap version, you're forced to recognize the element which gives wings to these notions. They're all hip. And that is the secret of how Horowitz was able to function as both a literary wildman and editor of a family newspaper.

Horowitz (foreground, left and right) employs skeptically redundant logic to brilliantly debunk the alleged doppelganger experience reported in Goethe's autobiography.

In 1958, a crafty humorist now living near Kansas City, Del Close, issued a classic "learn a language" album called How To Speak Hip. One of the criterion of hipness is sophistication, as defined by Close, in a highly developed sense of what is APPROPRIATE and that, Malkine observes, is gravity center in Horowitz's galaxy as their act adjusts on the spot to the character of their audience. Heavily influenced by the Beat movement and other countercultural considerations, Horowitz can fly on courses charted by the divine comedic poet of the Ď50s, Lord Buckley, who once led a troupe of 40 nude people through the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. This is, perhaps, not high on Mik's list of things-to-do but he sure can tell you WHY it should be done. Meanwhile, he tempers his Lenny Bruce laser with circumspect, but no less hilarious, shades of Bob Newhart.

"When I first meet Mikhail, I was told that you could not talk to him for two weeks prior to a show," Malkine confides. "He memorizes an incredible amount of very dense material and he's tied up in a knot in every sense of the word, although he doesn't like me to talk about his sex life, so tight you couldn't be around him. But, now, there's a complete turnabout. Before, every 't' had to be crossed- a false fear because he always lands on his feet off the improv tightrope- but now it's 'Here's the list. We'll do what comes up' and he's giggling before we go on and asking 'Can you believe that we, grown men, are about to do this act?' What a great way to prolong adolescence! We've thought about 'Grown Men' as billing. Or, maybe, Malkine and Mikhail but you probably shouldn't mention that to Mik just yet."

Gilles Malkine, surveying potential sites for Woodstock's downtown six-story parking garage.

Malkine, who still shudders over a lapse on live television, going totally blank in the middle of a classical guitar piece, has done some small theater acting and is remarkably at ease with the pitfalls of comedic timing and improvisation. "My instrument is myself, my brain, my mouth," he quips quickly, before anyone can ask "Well, if you're timing is so good, why weren't you born during the heyday of vaudeville?' Instead, they find themselves active in the era of the Rosendale Cafe and you can find them there as well. (Mikhail Horowitz's astonishing thought-songs are available on his The Blues of the Birth cd for the Euphoria jazz label but their work together is not sold in stores. Agoraphobics who can't make the gig can get the tape or cd by calling (845-657-2210). Malkine, who says their best audience is composed of library administrators but that they welcome anyone, thinks that the intimate atmosphere of the Cafe is ideal for their act.

"We enjoy a literate crowd but we're goofy enough for everyone," Malkine smiles. "Beckett didn't know any more about Waiting For Godot than any intelligent person who reads it. He said that in an interview and I thought that was pretty hide-and-seek of him but Mik likes to be right out there in the middle of his audience. I keep telling him it's not professional to work with your back to people but I guess he knows where his best side is..."

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on June 10, 2000

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