A ‘Big Night’ of Storytelling: The Moth Returns to SummerStage

Michael H. Miller | June 30, 2011
Andy Borowitz hosts The Moth at SummerStage.

On Tuesday night, The Moth storytelling series took over the Central Park SummerStage for the first time in eight years. Pam Grier, she of Foxy Brown fame, was supposed to be the headliner for a night of stories built on the theme of “big nights,” but the actress pulled out at the last minute due to an ominous-sounding “personal conflict,” according to a press release. Cancellations aside, it was a big night — at least in terms of turnout: The place was packed — you’d have thought Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was playing (well, in 2006 anyway).

A few minutes after 7:30, a man sat on a chair on the stage with an acoustic guitar and began strumming some chords, the Moth version of “house to half.”  After a brief announcement, everyone quieted down and Andy Borowitz, the evening’s host who has performed with The Moth since 1999, told a story about the night he met met a hot lawyer with a beautiful smile. Presaging the five stories that would follow, Borowitz explained how he met this woman at a party and she began talking about a reading she went to. It just happened to be the last reading The Moth held at Summerstage in 2003, which Borowitz also hosted. Of  course, she said she didn’t remember seeing him there, despite recalling in excrutiating detail all of the storytellers that night.  They went on three awkward dates that didn’t go anywhere. At one point, Borowitz’s said the woman unzipped her sweatshirt while the two were alone in her apartment, and instead of doing the deed, they played several games of Boggle; Borowitz lost each time. Sometimes, you have to suffer through a word puzzle board game or two to get what you want.

“One year later we got married,” he said and the audience let out a collective “awww.”

Sliding back into host mode, Borowitz explained the rules: Each reader had 10 minutes before a diminished warning chord would ring out from the guitar player — the so-called “chord of dread.” Shortly after, he’d play a loud minor key note informing the reader his or her time was up. As it turns out, he was pretty lenient. As with most readings, almost everyone went long. The stories, though, were all funny, often making light of a terrible time in the reader’s life (that’s usually where “big nights” fall). Comedian Jessi Klein read about bombing as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live (when staffers for SNL don’t laugh she said it’s like “having sex with someone you really like, but they don’t make a single sound no matter what you do to them with your body”); Sherman O.T. Powell — who last year revealed his pickpocketing tips with a Daily News staff reporter — discussed becoming a bootlegger during his time as a prisoner at Attica so that he could get more candy and cigarettes; Bonnie Levison recalled making out with her new boyfriend in front of her ex-husband and his young mistress while the B-52’s played “Love Shack” at an AIDS benefit. Substituting for Pam Grier, Permanent Midnight author and recovering addict, Jerry Stahl, stepped in and recalled a “big night” of driving around L.A. while wearing Depends (because of Robitussin-induced incontinence ) to steal heroin from armed drug dealers — only to crash his car, have it stolen, and then somehow get reimbursed $5000 by a credulous insurance company. Lesson learned, Stahl ended by pointing out that he spent the money on — what else — more heroin.

But the story I liked best was by Salman Ahmad, who (against all odds) started the rock band Junoon in 1990 in Lahore, Pakistan.

“If you’re born in India or Pakistan,” he began, “Your parents give you two choices for a career: doctor or doctor.”

His family moved to New York when he was still a boy. At 13, his friend Danny Spitz, who would go on to become lead guitarist of the band Anthrax, made him buy his extra ticket to Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden; it was 1977. Ahmad said the concert somehow reminded him of the Gavali music of his youth, which he sang over the audience’s handclaps. (The words were, “That whisper in your heart has strength. It may not have wings but it has the power to fly.”)

Led Zeppelin opened with “Kashmir.” Ahmad loudly hummed the riff into the microphone. After that night, Ahmad said he saved money to buy a guitar, and then sequestered himself in his room for two years to practice. After declaring to an uncle that he wanted to be just like Jimi Hendrix, his parents shipped him back to Pakistan as soon as he graduated from high school.

Ahmad did go on to medical school. But instead of going to his dissection class, he organized secret talent shows on the outskirts of Lahore. This was a time when music of all kinds was illegal in Pakistan. He described the night that he played the Van Halen song “Eruption” in front of his fellow heathens on the same guitar he saved up to buy as a boy. The talent show was raided by religious zealots. They smashed his guitar and told him that they would kill him if he continued to play. Junoon went on to sell millions of records worldwide.

By the end of the story, Ahmad had managed to avoid the “chord of dread.” He left the stage, instead, to a riff from “Kashmir.”