Friday, December 28, 2007

Of Harvests and Rivers


In the late Thirties, a few U.S. composers moved on from Modernism (or maybe they backed away), revisiting sounds more native to America. Aaron Copland wrote El Salon Mexico, then Virgil Thomson was tapped to create folksong/hymn-based soundtracks for a couple of documentary films, the scores for which in turn persuaded Copland to go further, creating his so-called "Americana" sound, lovely and expansive, evoking the wide open spaces of America, to be memorably and most melodically found in Fanfare for the Common Man, the Billy the Kid and Rodeo ballets, and then his ineffable Appalachian Spring.

Others followed along too, each in his own fashion--Roy Harris, Lou Harrison, William Schuman, et al, plus Charles Ives, rediscovered and increasingly studied. I admire the music of all these composers, but Copland remains my favorite, his triad simplicity practically the total antithesis of complex, world-in-each-symphony Gustav Mahler, whose massive, brooding works are my other personal touchstones. Think The Tender Land Suite vs. Mahler's Symphony No.4, or Copland's Old American Songs against Das Lied von der Erde. Apples and oranges? I'd say more like grapes up against watermelons!

But what matter if the music pleases, if it captures the imagination and soothes the soul? And those documentary scores by Thomson too are delectable green grapes (so to speak)--The Plow That Broke the Plains (from 1936) and The River (1937), Pare Lorenz's famous visual essays in support of President Roosevelt's New Deal projects.

I first heard Thomson's scores on a Vanguard record 40 years ago, conducted I believe by Leopold Stokowski. In the years since, that disc disappeared, was replaced, and then newer recordings added--I remember especially an Eighties album including a third Thomson suite with the others, Neville Mariner conducting one of the esteemed Los Angeles ensembles. But I never had the good fortune actually to see the films themselves. They had become historical landmarks lost to public view...

Until recently, when enterprising Classical label Naxos not only recorded new versions of the two suites (Angel Gil-Ordonez leading a group called the Post-Classical Ensemble), but synched them up against new prints of both documentaries, which were then at last made available once more, late in 2007, on Naxos DVD 2.110521, complete with informed commentary by era survivors. And viewing The Plow a week ago immediately reminded me that I had forgotten to list (in blog posts from the end of August) one film I proposed back when I was writing for King Screen Productions--a poetry-and-music documentary on Washington State's wheat harvest.

Using a few poems written by my now-deceased friend Robert Sund (from his book Bunch Grass, I think; this was over 35 years ago), I scripted--meaning roughed-out for a cinema verite approach to the filming--a series of shots that would recreate "A Day in the Wheatfields": elegant color footage flowing from dawn beauty through heat-of-day harvesting (the big machines moving row on row), then a midday slower break from the hot sun, then a return for more harvesting, the shadows growing longer, and transport of the wheat to silos, and finally the sunset coming on across newly sheared fields--and all these elements set to Americana-styled music and straightforward harvest-scene poems.

Something like that, anyway; I have no copy of the script on file, it seems. Sadly this one too was nixed by the King Screen bosses, even though the only competing film we could find was a short produced by the federal government's Agency for International Development for viewing overseas only (no domestic screenings allowed!) in those libraries we used to sponsor in foreign countries.

I was really proud of that idea and script; I imagined myself (and the production crew) following in the footsteps of Flaherty, Lorenz, and the other documentary giants. But it was not to be. Still, decades later, now I can finally see what Lorenz at least had in mind, how the visuals, music, and poetic narration worked together, to Presidential praise, international acclaim, and a place in the history books...

Well, actually both films are very much of the Thirties, sort of American Eisenstein, or (lately) John Edwards-styled populism, with some hokey staged visuals, some inadequate framing or coverage utilizing stock footage, and with Thomson's music definitely smoothing over the rough spots and finally carrying the day. Yet they are compelling "message" films even so, and The Plow a likely influence on John Ford's soon-to-come Grapes of Wrath. (Another posting I wrote several months back included my Dorothea Lange poem, very much in the same tradition, and I shamelessly opened that poem with the homage line "The plow that broke the plains/ broke on dust and drouth..." And anyone who read the recent New Zealand post with poem about communities flooded by reservoir construction will know what I discovered viewing The River--which wrongheadedly extols just such manmade (mis)management of Nature. Look how well that T.V.A./Corps of Engineers approach worked with Katrina...)

Living on the planet is never easy, and getting more complex and fraught with unforeseen dangers all the time. The politics of Lorenz's films may now seem simplistic, but the music of Thomson and Copland and the other Americana-influenced composers still resonates, both in recent interpretive recordings and in soundtracks created for a variety of new films today.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

EnZed Revisited

'Tis the season of other demands, so today I say:

Merry Christmas to all
Readers, and y'all
Who've stopped by chance:
Enjoy the fanc-
Iful mixture of stuff.
Stay safe. Now... enough
Of me for a while;
Come back soon, and smile.


((Before we move on from New Zealand (see the previous post), I decided to offer my mid-visit journal observations, betting that things are still pretty much the same 20 years later. After all, looking around our own backyard, especially in this time of anti-immigrant paranoia, we know that nations sadly don't change radically even when they need too...))

March 19

"Why are Aussies like kiwi fruit?... They're rough on the outside, green on the inside, and too many of 'em give you the shits..." (joke transcribed from the bathroom wall of a tearoom in Murchison, en route to Greymouth).

More of the same excellent scenery, excessive sheep, farm towns and friendly folk. Is New Zealand boring or just peaceful? I can't decide. ((Twenty years later, I vote for the latter.)) So here are some accumulated observations, in no particular order:

These islands seem not to have been occupied at all until circa 1400 A.D. when waves of Polynesians sailed in from... somewhere, arguments still raging as to whether Peru or Hawaii or Asia. But these proto-Maoris settled right in and held firm through various European explorations. Then the Brits came and claimed the islands and signed treaties. Today the total population nudges three million in people, but six times that in farm animals, especially sheep--all 19 varieties, ones to eat and ones to shear, and all you ever see are sheep butts aloft and wooly heads down nibbling the grass: perpetual eating machines. (The old Army phrase about "assholes and elbows" almost applies.)

Something like 80% of EnZed's income is agricultural, and U.S. or French boycotts can hurt them quickly; they "farm" sheep and deer as they do tobacco and kiwi fruit. And the farmers are a real political force, unlike ours at home who sadly seem like voices leftover from another era, with only their congressmen willing to listen. Well, you can get tasty lamb and delicious ice cream hereabouts, but the cheeses are a disappointment. And with all the fresh fruit grown, the juices sold (except fresh-squeezed orange) all taste like sugar-water blends.

Kiwis eat so much animal fat and drink so much beer that the nation suffers from both weight and heart problems--even though, I swear, 99% of the population hikes, sails, swims, plays rugby or tennis or whatever. They are exercise crazy--the men regularly wearing shorts to work even--especially fond of their "tracks" (hiking trails), which New Zealanders recite by name as though chanting holy mantras: "Heaphy Track, Milford Track, Abel Tasman, The Routeburn..." And all the tourists go right along, taking the hikes, naming the huts they stayed at, bragging about ghastly weather. (Everyone stares at me aghast for only tromping the beaches and cities--so far, that is; I'll be in the woods soon too.) But these same outdoorsy youths ride the buses and hitch in cars and even hike the tracks ignoring their surroundings, talking only to each other or plugged in to their omnipresent Walkman decks. Yes, rock music rules the woods as well as the streets.

Meanwhile, South Island highways, the main-road links back and forth across this land of mountains and valleys, stand empty for minutes at a time. (Debate goes on: is hitching good here or not? Some have no trouble; others wait literally days for a ride.) But the distance bus drivers seem to be culture heroes--sort of the bards of the tribe, keeping oral history alive with their stories, tossing newspapers out at 40 m.p.h., grabbing mailbags from fences without coming to a complete stop. I keep imagining farm kids standing at the side of the road dreaming of driving a bus when they grow up...

The drivers talk history, local color, flirt with the women, argue with the men--and like almost all Kiwis, speaking in an accent that alters English vowel sounds shamelessly: "Yiss, thet's riiight, tuh dullers. Theah we ah." Greymouth becomes "Grehmith," just as Rotorua was "Rotarah." And it's not just the whites; Maoris are equally guilty, or inventive, depending on one's view. But the old Maori pronunciations and the language itself are dying out; the response seems to be that of the local wit who named his house in pseudo-Maori: "Wai Wurri?"

Yet racial tension is building too as the government lets in more and more Pacific Islanders, who have trouble adjusting to city life, who run up the welfare rolls, who battle the Maoris--youth gangs, that is--and so on. New Zealand's world-class rugby team, nicknamed the "All-Blacks," has none. Melanesian Fijians are about as "Black" as New Zealand will accept.

What else? Oh, the vegetation. The greenery comes in a dozen distinct shades, plus grey tones and numerous browns. Forests and ordinary "bush" are a treat, fascinating mixtures of pines and palms, tree ferns and succulents, poplars viewed as weeds and Kauri gum trees held sacred--with so much sap dripping that the amber-like, dried-up or fossilized gum clumps are collected, cut and polished as gemstones.

Finally, one of the most beautiful things I've found on either island is the painting on a building wall seen as one heads south from Nelson. Painted to seem a giant window, it looks out on a gorgeous mountain and lake/sea scape with cumulus clouds strung out above. Called "Ao Tea Roa" (for the original Maori name for New Zealand, "Land of the Long White Cloud"), the painting inveigles and teases, because there are clouds and shadows of clouds inside with the viewer as well, like a Magritte painting or some trompe l'oeil trick, I guess. But it shines and glistens and opens new vistas into and on New Zealand...

March 20

Greymouth was a nothing sort of town; Hokitika, further south, interesting as the source of New Zealand jade, called "greenstone," which one finds carved in traditional tiki charms on sale everywhere. (Think Kon-tiki book, and tiki bars.)

Here at Franz Josef Glacier the rain is pouring down. But with the hostel about to close for the day, I must brave the hiking trails regardless...

******

11 p.m. The facts are these: I tramped for five hours in rain and overcast. Missed one trail switchback (didn't see the fallen "Blocked Path" sign), so I wasted a half hour clambering high up and skulking low down along a high-cliff riverbank looking for the non-trail. Also, because I wore a hat to keep the drops from splattering my bald pate, I cleverly clonked into branches instead. But I hiked! I did see rain and rain forest and, yes, the blue-white glacier. (I just wish living in Washington State didn't dilute the novelty and beauty of New Zealand's scenic wonders.)

Then I returned to the hostel long enough to claim my pack, and set out to hitch the mere 24 kilometers to the next glacier. Well, three hours later I was still standing there, wet clothes steaming in the sun, slapping at the pesky stinging flies. The squat little rental car that finally stopped and opened a door for me looked a doubtful proposition, but inside were Bob and Esther, Yanks--I mean Rebels--from Georgia, him entering medical residency, her a nurse, both of them witty, generous, and animated. We rode for four hours gabbing, singing, reciting poetry, sharing food, all the way to Wanaka, two-thirds of the way down to Queenstown, tourist central for the southern part of the island.

This thought: it's the remarkable joy of meeting people like Esther and Bob, having a great afternoon after a drippy morning, that makes all this rambling worthwhile. Every day is a surprise, and likely an adventure in some small way.

((Looking back from 2007, I would only add that most of the charming people I met and even became friends with on that long trip were natives of the host countries, or tourists from lands other than the U.S. That particular rainy day my unexpected benefactors just happened to be Americans. Also, I had a grand time all around New Zealand (six weeks) and would recommend a trip Down Under, there and on to Australia, to anyone. Get out there!))

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sinking Down Under


In 1985, I decided I'd had enough--I'd experienced college/grad school and/or working steady since 1959, a marriage ended badly, two kids living with me in the family house who were pretty much grown, and a job that had been loads of fun and hard work (mostly Rainier Beer ads) for 12 years but seemed to be heading south...

A military brat, I'd grown up without one particular place to call home, and after more than 25 years stuck in one place, I was ready to hit the road again. I announced to my kids and the ex- and other family members and the bossman that I'd be leaving the country early in '86, probably for a couple of years, and everyone needed to start getting used to the idea.

Various unforeseen factors arose, of course (like meeting and falling in love with the woman who eventually became my second wife), but I still did succeed in escaping at the end of January 1986, flying southwest through Hawaii to Fiji and Tonga, crossing the dateline and so losing my birthday en route, then a few weeks later heading on to New Zealand and Australia, all of them the initial stops on what became my around-the-world adventure. (I had decided earlier that I would carry no camera, but would instead see and hear and write. And so for the next 19 months I kept a journal and wrote poems and did my best to document the adventure in words only.)

Midway in the adventure, I optimistically imagined that my prose was so wonderful the world would want to read a book combining my travel writing and related poetry. (As a certain rooster used to say, "That's a joke, son.") But looking back later on going-on-two-years out in the world, always backpacking it, living mostly on the cheap, staying in hovels and hostels and pensiones, meeting native inhabitants and other travellers, discovering the history and culture and arts, the money and language and local transport in each new place... all of it did prove to be an amazing, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I believe a few sights and events might be worth reviving for this eclectic, keep-'em-guessing blog. And first on my short list is the day I happened to be travelling by bus across the south end of New Zealand's south island (almost two decades before the Lord of the Rings movie makers)--and discovered I had entered an eerie place of abandoned farms and buildings harking back to construction of the great Grand Coulee Dam or power plays of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I tried to capture it in a poem...


The Death of Cromwell

The bus slows sinking, rolling
down the grade, road dropping
lower and lower as the walls
of the chopped gorge rise over us.
Simply called “The Junction”
back in its glory years,
Cromwell’s spent hoard of days
now can be plainly numbered…
just six remain, in fact.

Platted by miners who long
panned here for placer gold
where two major rivers meet,
now the town must die
before its time, while its descendents
still pluck golden-nugget
apricots from four banks of orchards
drowning in cold anticipation.
A new-risen dam some miles below

now blocks that joined flow;
and the deepening reservoir's
glacial blue won’t exempt any
who linger here testing tides of chance.
The "Roundhead"’s nominal statue
is headed elsewhere by truck,
with some few structures dismantled
for hauling to the new Cromwell
a-building just up the way.

Only crumbling foundations await
the late stay of execution
that now can't come. Frame houses
abandoned to the currents
gather the different dust
falling from bleached canyon walls.
Broken windows overlook
one last brilliant crop of roses
crimson red; lank sweetpeas dozing;

and prickly fluff from some
unknown weed gone to seed,
drifting among us like pieces
of Cromwell’s quickly disappearing
past. History claims the town,
its destiny to join ancient strata
we can almost read up there
where the rivers once wound...
But for now the future is fluid,

brightly foretold in blue acrylic
painted on those few buildings
left, perched precariously
half-way down the main incline,
too late taking their stand:
“Here and no higher, by God!”
By accident we have taken
one of the last buses to be
routed through Cromwell-That-Was.

We pause just long enough
to take on troubled expressions
and three of the local gentry
looking lost, but leaving
before the flood keeps its promise.
Then our diesel ark departs,
low-gearing the old road
up to Cromwell Redivivus,
carrying the rest of us too

to a questionable future.
A last neck-craning look back
lets us read the weathered message
stenciled along a cracked wall
of the town’s long-vacant hotel:
“Cromwell Lodge—your ‘home’
away from home…” More homeless
now, we ride bemused. But ahead,
a double rainbow arches

over the new California-styled mall,
belying the doom we feel
and dazzling us all.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Encounters in Store


Sandie and I owned a bookstore in Seattle's busy tourist-draw, the Pike Place Market, for 10 years (1992-2002). Business was fine for the first half-decade, but then the big discounters and on-line megastores started to gnaw away at our livelihood. Plus I developed arthritus in both knees and found all-day standing very difficult. So when we received an offer to sell, well... now I work happily at home, selling books and LP records on line only.

During our ten store years, mostly due to the walk-through location, many authors and celebrities chose to stop in to look around. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of those near-close encounters (oh look, he's namedropping again).

The store was called MisterE Books and Records, so of course one of our specialties was Mysteries. A great many popular mystery writers dropped by once or twice--Bill Pronzini, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, James W. Hall, Barbara Seranella among them--just to be friendly. But the crowded tourist location and enforced hours made book-signings impossible. So when Seattle's own series bigwig, J.A. Jance, came in to set up a publicity signing for her novels, I politely demurred, which caused her to sneer and never show up again. However, others like Alaskan authors Dana Stabenow and John Straley liked the store's collector contents, so each would drop by whenever she (or he) flew south to the Lower 48. (Dana usually bought a couple of books too.)

The biggest celebrity sale I made was to Bette Midler. She was in town to perform a concert, beginning a long tour. She strode in one afternoon, took a quick look 'round, and then asked me to help her pick some good books she could take on the road. We had a great time browsing the store and building a stack of a dozen or so, mostly modern fiction as I recall. I confessed to Bette that I'd had a hand in her decades-earlier Seattle appearance on stage in Pete Townshend's rock-opera Tommy (I'd given a copy of the record album, the year it came out, to the Seattle Opera's impresario-producer, suggesting he might think about staging it). She told me she'd hated that gig, but forgave me anyway.

Another theatrical drop-in was great comic playwright Neil Simon, in Seattle to try out a new play--he complimented the store and gave me an autograph but I think his purchases were tourist stuff only. Other actors wandered through too, including Tom Skerritt and gray-bearded gentleman Bill... Bill who? My mind draws a blank, but he's the familiar black character actor who gets hired when the production can't afford Morgan Freeman! (All apologies to Bill, who was a great guy to talk to.)

One afternoon the staff and I were amazed to see Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas walk in--or maybe I should say they danced in, because this was when the two had first become a couple, and they were both clearly smitten with, er, love. They were completely enraptured, and wrapped around each other, hugging and kissing while they tangoed down the aisles, not really looking at any books at all. But their smiles were brilliant and infectious, and the arm-in-arm duo effortlessly charmed us ordinary mortals anyway.

Wynona Rider was another unexpected guest. Wearing a Navy pea jacket and knit cap pulled down over her ears (a disguise, I suppose), she and a very tall female pal showed up in search of a gift for Rider's boyfriend. We discussed illustrated books, which her boyfriend collected, and I eventually sold her some nice $50-$75 item from our glass showcase. (Her public problems a year or two later were a shock; she'd been sweet and shy that day, and I know she bought rather than shoplifted!)

The one woman who didn't come in, that I always fantasized would show up, was Emmy Lou Harris. Her Nineties-on gigs were often in the downtown venues just a block or two from our store, and I thought sure she'd wander by one afternoon between soundcheck and performance. After all, we had our military brat background, Southern upbringing, and Gram Parsons all in common... but no such cosmic luck.

Instead I got to visit (briefly) with various other musicians--among them David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal, Graham Nash, Martina MacBride, Michael Feinstein, even Itzhak Perlman one amazing afternoon. And Seattle's own came by occasionally; Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, for example, shopped for Christmas books for his wife (she collected old kids books) two or three times. And Mike McCready of Pearl Jam (long before some health problems got to him) was another who visited and then artistically defaced (or do I mean enhanced?) the jacket centerspread of one of the group's albums when I asked him to sign it.

But mention of Nirvana brings me to the last person I'd like to talk about--Kurt Cobain. Grunge music's main man only ever came in the store once (that I know of), but the occasion turned out to be tragically memorable. Some time around the end of March or the first of April 1994, into the store ambled a scruffy-looking blond-haired dude carrying a toddler on his shoulders, accompanied by a male chum in a hat. The three wandered around a bit... and I was thinking everything from shoplifters to rock stars I didn't quite recognize. And then I did; it was Cobain.

He passed the child on to his friend, then came to the front, complimented me on having a Leadbelly album for sale in the front winbow, and asked if I had a copy of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch--no collector thing, just a paperback to read. I checked the shelves and said no, but we started talking about Beat Generation novels, and for no good reason, I asked if he'd read Alexander Trocchi's harrowing novel of drug addiction, Cain's Book (an uncommon item which I did have). He said no, but elected to buy it after I gave a capsule review.

At the cash register, then, I asked him to autograph a note card for me (no albums in the store), which he signed as by "Curdt Kobane." I shrugged at that, figuring I'd become un-cool, infringing on his privacy; and the three of them left.

Less than a week later, supposed drug addict Kurt killed himself--so said the coroner, as opposed to the conspiracy fans and Courtney Love haters, who believe she offed him somehow. I wondered then, and am still a bit haunted now, if the Trocchi book (and I) somehow contributed to his decision to commit suicide.

As one member of a family that experiences symptoms of mild depression, I do know how black and unforgiving the world can appear. Some days it really is too much, all of it. I'm just glad that sunshine and music and love help keep me sane, and I wish Cobain had experienced more than the chaos of too much stardom and, maybe, parenting he wasn't prepared for.

Our old Pike Market store had its problems, but some days it sure did lift my spirits...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Nights Escape Without Us


When I started this blog, it was really aimed at telling my life story a bit at a time, because I knew I was too lazy to write some sort of autobiography. I've witnessed a lot of major scenes and moments in almost 65 years, still have more tales to tell, and hope to see and hear lots more wonders before me and this thing are done!

One aspect that readers (there must be one or two of you) will have noticed is my shameless posting of the best poems I've written over the years, many of them published individually but no book ever compiled--Ed's Greatest Non-Hits, I guess. Today I present another grouping, several short, sort-of love poems joined together in one longer, multi-part suite I call...


Language of Night

I. Defining Evening

Evening comes down, and in, conjugating day
and night, separating the halves, the light left over
from the dark arriving, the planet turning away
as twilight--dual light--evens out, like lovers
meeting each other half-way, touching lips, then limbs,
clasping their opposites close in purples of descent,
shedding the light clothes of summer, easing them-
selves down, wondering where the close of day went
but not caring much now they are wearing night,
the black of the easy deaths of sex and sleep
put on as hours are, the blank in day’s despite
impossible to fill before morning keeps
its appointment in tomorrow as today,
and evening becomes a memory on the way.

II. Afterhours

Riffs of fire
split the molten skies,
pulsing through layers,
running the changes,
charring to black.

Night’s new arrangements
cool and slowly
harden. Streetlights come on
to anyone. Now
the moon blows sax,

a Pres-redential solo
floating butter-cream
over the grays: cat
can play. Lady whispers
her dream chorus—

sixteen bars of gone
reds, bone whites,
silent black-and-blue
notes. We are jazzed,
every one of us.

III. The Sending

Rise up, elusive woman,
on the limbs of my absence;
walk through the city
clothed in the shadow of my longing;
sleep each night
adrift on the dark waters of my desire…
while I lie here,
a thousand likelihoods from you,
with the scent of your shoulders
dreaming in my veins
and the pale dust of your nipples
weighing my eyelids down,
teasing my lips into speech.

IV. A Matter of Silence

The silences of the night go deep,
and deeper still, extending
to become ecstasies of the ordinary:
a whispering high up in the sycamore,
the bone-marrow buzz in the wiring,
the sibilant hairs along your mound
lifting one by one as they dry.
There are fricatives and plosives
pent-up in these minutes that I
dare not release before dawn;
the world’s geologic history retold
night after night in a dusty glass;
randy molecules of carbon and oxygen
jostling each other for space
with each whirled breath you take.
I believe in walls, in words,
in momentary lapses of memory.
Otherwise, how could I never
break down the barriers between us,
open myself to your nightly absence,
hold your heart in my deepening silence?
This is my plan so far:
I will lie here awake
for two days and most of three nights,
and then live again in your dreams.

V. In Sleep

We turn and circulate
through the regions of the dark.
All the faces we always wear
rise up as reclaimants,
surrounding this fragrant space
rich with wishes. Something tender
whispers in your breath: Open now.
Put on tomorrow, that you
waken clothed in plenitude.

Skin to skin, calf to hand,
we congregate after separation,
we wade through dawnlight
to the other side of language.
You bend me, I sleep you,
the nights escape without us.

VI. The Bends

She had gone deep,
fallen to grace
currents of sleep,
to drift in place

and dream among
fronds of desire,
nitrogen sung
in the blood’s fire,

the undertow
of ocean night.
Surfacing slow,
she bubbles light…

rises through floor
and silver sheets
to sprawl ashore,
her spaced heartbeats

declaring dawn:
the dark swim ends,
ecstasy gone
as sleep unbends.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Last Time Around (Part 2)


((Continuing with the Rick Nelson piece, we resume after the release of Nelson in Concert...))

During the next year, Rick and the Stone Canyon Band took to touring (with Tim Cetera in for Randy Meisner), even making it north to Seattle for a week's stay, at a suburban tavern/club called The Impact, which turned out to be a smash engagement with turnaway crowds for almost every performance--a major occurrence considering the Impact's size and setting. Located at the far fringe of Bellevue, that so-called "bedroom of Seattle," and populated mostly by car lots, out-of-work Boeing workers, and rising young executives ((no Microsoft millionaires yet!)), the tavern (which eventually failed) from without looked like a bowling alley or Army warehouse. I mean huge! and seating maybe a thousand inside.

Anyhow, here came Rick Nelson, and suddenly the place was doing sold-out business night after night. And the crowd's makeup was essentially the same for each performance, a freaky, fascinating array of curious college kids, scurvy c&w fans, oldsters drawn by their leftover Ozzie & Harriet memories, and--especially--legions of Ricky rockers clinging to the last vestiges of their fast-fading youth. (I plead guilty to the last charge.) The show the audience put on was almost as good as the group's high-falutin', hill-filtered rock: beehive-haired, pantsuited, giddy and giggling married women indulging their fantasies on the dance floor (and backstage); balding but sideburned husbands measuring themselves against a star image; bluecollar truckdriver types wondering "What in the hell am I doin' here listenin' to these longhaired punks?"; and all those faithful fanatics muttering aloud, "Why doesn't he sing 'Poor Little Fool' and 'Lonesome Town'?"

((I don't claim any prescience, but this reaction must have met Rick and the band everywhere they played, and it eventually led to him penning his amazing, frustrated, last great hit, "Garden Party," a year or so later.))

Nostalgia filled the air those nights like the chicken feathers around Alice Cooper. In fact, the applause for Rick's excellent new material, including several of his own songs from the still-forthcoming second album, was decidedly desultory when compared to the explosive outbursts that greeted each old hit redone. The group accepted that situation graciously, though enjoying much joking among themselves whenever called upon to deliver any past Nelson glory they hadn't already refinished, polished to a country gloss. Good humor carried the night, however, with Rick even waiting offstage to talk to the inane gaggles of (mostly) female fans.

My observations during those painful moments, plus a pair of interviews with the man himself--during which he reminisced openly and humorously about some distinctly un-Ozzie-and-Harrietish adventures--convinced me of his quiet individuality and innate goodness. (No scoffing, you cynical bastards!) After about twenty-five years in the entertainment world, fifteen of those as a star of some import, after all the changes and bullshit the music and film worlds put their people through, Rick Nelson really is--still is--a gentle man, the perfect image, nay, reality, of the decent, level-headed, All-American boy-next-door. Strange to find such a man still extant, but a pleasure.

As was his second new album, Rick Sings Nelson, which proved his prowess as producer and songwriter. ((I'll skip the full review to get to the best:)) "Sweet Mary" mixed droning and chilling electrics, driving steel, and on-rushing rhythm into a rock wall of sound excitement, while "Look at Mary" buried Rick's lead, added echoing harmonies, and then turned the bass and drums loose, heading down the highway straight east towards the Memphis Sun. ((I wonder who that Mary was...))

My particular favorite was and is "Down Along the Bayou," a swamp rocker as good as any of Creedence's forays in that area. In a quick two minutes, Rick's lyrics run the gamut from happiness to tragedy in his mock-traditional saga of a Southern kid who fell in with bad companions. Meanwhile, the band was just all-out getting off, loose and goosey, good and juicy, with a guitar blend that should have been bottled and bonded and given away free to anyone lost in the pop doldrums. Could have been a top single ((I still believe that)) but nothing ever came of it, nor of the whole album (in the U.S. anyway--Europe took some notice). Rick and the guys just rocked on, making people dance and smile and feel good, for another year.

And then came album three, Rudy the Fifth (Decca 75297), supposedly named for a brand of cheap champagne. Well, there's nothing cheap about the music within. Eclecticism is the watchword this time, with everything from baroque to gospel, Dylan to pop. I just keep puttin' it on and gettin' it on. ((skipping the details, to focus on some last observations again:)) ... Or the strings-and-flute-sweetened farewell of "The Last Time Around"--Rick's in impeccable voice, Pat's drums are prodding casually, Tom's solo wafts upwards on the subtle strings: "I know you don't believe in my philosophy/ But I thank you for the love you've given me/ This is my last time around/ And I don't know where I'm bound... (spoken) See you later, baby." Elegant shades of Tom Rush!

((One might consider this the song that summed up his life, given the eventual fatal plane crash... And the song next mentioned is another possible candidate:))

But outdone by the last track of all. Every once in a while a number comes along that has that instant shock/flash of recognition--it gets in your head and in your bones and promises to last as long as music itself. That's how I hear, and feel, "Gypsy Pilot." The arrangement leaves me numb and dumb--it's like the great-granddaddy of all electrical storms, shrieking and streaking and screaming, the steel zooming and crashing, the rhythm booming and bashing, and Rick's autobiographical lyrics ringing in your ears, building from cliche to philosophical stance:

When I was a young boy, my mama told me, "Son,
You got to keep it together, you're the only one,"
So I tried to see the sunshine and I tried to feel the rain,
But I just couldn't get it together, I was feelin' too much pain,
So I got myself a gittar when I was just a kid,
I played rock 'n roll music and I'm so glad I did,
'Cause now I see the sunshine, now I feel the rain,
And I just want to keep it together and I hope you feel the same...
When they claim my body, they won't have much to say,
"Except that he lived a good life, he lived every day,
I know he saw the sunshine, I know he felt the rain,
He loved everybody and he hopes you do the same."

Rick Nelson, folks. Still here, still rocking--rocking harder and better than ever, country steel or not. He's an original and he'll always be one. If you can't escape whatever prejudices may remain to you from Rick's old days of TV and such, then I pity you. You're missing some of the best music being put down anywhere.

So, be-bop baby, it's late but I can't help it--teenage idol Ricky-Rick-Eric is still for me just a little too much. That's all.

((One last memory: after the hit success of "Garden Party," Rick was guest host on Saturday Night Live, and the writers came up with a brilliant sketch; Rick keeps coming into some suburban kitchen back door, saying, "Hi Mom, I'm home..." just as he did on the Nelson TV show. But this time each kitchen turns out to belong to a different and unrelated Fifties family sit-com like Father Knows Best or whatever, and each wrong Mom reacts with dismay, forcing him to leave. Yeah, that pretty much summed up Nelson's place in the world by then...))

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ozzie and Harriet's Son



Here's an old Fusion piece from 1972 that I really enjoyed "researching" and writing (edited now to remove much of the record reviews stuff); if you read it, you'll understand why...


Like most other aging rock 'n' roll enthusiasts, I grew up watching Ricky Nelson grow up. As a TV actor, Ozzie and Harriet's youngest may never have been a blooming precocious Olivier, but he was about my/our age, he dressed right, and he displayed a clever/serious mien that turned out to be more than a little charismatic. I don't think we ever really believed in the platitudinous, Eisenhower Era good life the Nelsons and their chums professed to live--I mean, Ozzie and Thorny and them goofing on the tube while we huddled in the halls for school A-bomb tests, right?--but Ricky was okay: he seemed to be one of us, much less awesome and godlike than, say, Elvis.

Well, me and the world are a decade-and-a-half older now ((make that several decades!)), I'm nearing thirty though I don't feel particularly "grown up" ((nor at 64)), and terra's still going to hell in a handbasket or applecart or Volkswagen (even if we've given up on the Civil Defense bit--you can crouch in my shelter if I can crouch in yours; I said that). As for younger-than-that-now Rick, he's still growing--as a musician, I mean, as well as merely older. Eric Nelson's landed square in the middle of country rock 'n' Western roll, and on him it looks, and sounds, mighty good.

Actually, nobody should be surprised by that Late-Sixties development. After all, Rick admits he got interested in music during Presley's rockabilly Sun-days; subsequently, besides the hit ballads and Fats Domino covers, he cut numerous tunes penned by other solar celebrities like Cash, Perkins, and Lewis, plus stuff from Hank Williams and the Burnette Brothers (by the way, anybody want to sell me a copy of Johnny and Dorsey's old album together, on Coral?); and, of course, Rick's back-up band in those days was built around the high-class country picking of the ever-inspirational James Burton. As a result, many of Rick's hits had a Southern twinge if not twang, up to and including the pair of straight country albums he did for Decca during the middle-Sixties' eclipse of his stardom.

So where's the big surprise? It's 1972, and over-thirty Rick just keeps churnin' out good-feelin', good-knowin', good-ol'-boy, close-up-the-honks rock 'n' roll. Let's talk about his Stone Canyon Band instead: some rock youngsters like Allen Kemp, Pat Shanahan, and Randy Meisner, longtime musical cohorts from the Denver area (Randy's bass, of course, was featured in Poco for a while), plus Missouri-bred pedal steel guitar wizard-king Tom Brumley, who joined Rick after six years backing Buck Owens. Needless to say, the group's views on grass, peace, and police are widely divergent, but the members have managed to coexist and cohere for about three years now.

And in that time have backed three quite nice, rather rocking releases with headman Eric. The album that signaled the arrival--or return--of Rick Nelson, Country Rocker, was one recorded live at the Troubador (Rick Nelson in Concert, Decca 75162), on the heels of his smash engagement there that set the L.A. scenesters to hopping and marveling and good-mouthing. And the one cut that best announced the "new" Rick--he wrote it too--also opened the album with a welcome bang: "Come On In." While the guitars jangled and Brumley's steel danced, Rick and the dudes with their version of high lonesome harmony issued this clarion invite: "Come on in, look around/ Try to see what's goin' down/ We're gonna sing our songs for you/ Hope they make you feel good too..." With a whoop and a holler, a swoop and a foller-me-boys, there he was, back and proud....

Then too, another Dylan tune demonstrated the Nelson touch with ballads--in this case, a live version of his out-of-nowhere AM hit, "She Belongs to Me," with bubbling acoustic and cascading steel and the now-mature Nelson voice releasing all the "wonder, hurt... and love" (the phrase is Eric Anderson's) from Dylan's strange and striking song. An even better example of Rick's fresh, confident vocalizing was Anderson's own "Violets of Dawn"--starting with a soft acoustic flow, drifting through the steel's chiming like a fourth harmony part in the vocal, building at last to an overpowering rush, molten auroras of sound and light.

Yet even "Violets" was topped by Rick's incredible "Easy to Be Free"--acoustics and sticks and Tom's steel skipping and slipping up and down your spine: great, glimmering bursts of instrumental beauty while Rick's voice simmered with promise: "Did you ever want to go where you've never been before?/ Did you ever want to know things you've never known before/ I'll take you there with me/ And maybe then you'll see/ It's easy to be free/ It's so easy to be free..."

Who'd have believed it possible a decade ago--the best songs on Rick Nelson in Concert actually composed by the ex-wunderkind of TV himself? But the proof was in our ears. And added proof for the skeptics lay ahead with Rick Sings Nelson (Decca 75236), a whole album of originals....

((Part 2 in a few days, detailing how I got to meet and hang out with Nelson during a remarkable club engagement in suburban Seattle.))

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Composer Cranks, Composed Cranes


Thinking of Classical Music adventures for my previous post, and now reading a compelling new book detailing the history of such music over the course of the whole 20th Century--The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross (music critic for The New Yorker)--have reminded me of many favorite composers whose music I have been neglecting for recordings of Jazz, Reggae, and whatever else, Dvorak to Mahler, Debussy to Sibelius, Weill to Shostakovich, Copland to John Adams.

The whole of Ross's book is brilliantly written, erudite yet anecdotal, remarkably jam-packed with information, yet easily grasped and just plain fun to read--among the most interesting segments, his discussions of Charles Ives and George Gershwin; Weimar Berlin; the WWII years in the U.S., Germany and Russia; and the diverse and avant-garde Fifties and Sixties; plus his canny acknowledgment of the impact of Jazz, Ellington to Coltrane, on recent Classical composers like Steve Reich. And the detailed back-of-book notes make it clear that he has studied and absorbed thousands of scores, recordings, and pertinent ur-texts, and conducted, er, scores of interviews. An astonishing feat of scholarship and lucidity, convincingly demonstrating the Joy of Music--even the works that some might deem "noise"!

One passage in his chapter on Sibelius ("Apparition in the Woods") caught my attention in a beyond-music way: "Sibelius lived to the age of ninety-one.... One September morning in 1957, he went for his usual walk in the fields and forest around Ainola, scanning the skies for cranes flying south for the winter. They were part of his ritual of autumn; back when he was writing the Fifth Symphony, he had noted in his diary, 'Every day I have seen the cranes. Flying south in full cry with their music. Have been yet again their most assiduous pupil. Their cries echo throughout my being.' When, on the third-to-last day of his life, the cranes duly appeared, he told his wife, 'Here they come, the birds of my youth!' One of them broke from the flock, circled the house, cried out, and flew away."

Birds sometimes haunted my youth too. Generally ignorant of their lives, and certainly no serious birdwatcher, I still found them appearing in my dreams, often compelling lyric pieces from me. Poems are a kind of music too, of course, the music of words; and they may become busily noisy or lapse into silence. A lovely sentence of Ross's speaks to this: "Then he ((John Adams)) goes back to work, chipping away at the silence of everything that remains to be composed."

Here are two such poems published some years ago:


The Cypress Swamp

The cypress swamp, west
Of here, is mostly water--
Sometimes coffee-colored,
Sometimes an oily grey—
And forty-odd cypress trees.

Forty-odd cypress trees
Growing up from the swamp,
Each with its maze of roots
Searching downward, like fingers
Anchoring into the mire.

Anchored like pillars in the mire,
My tough cypresses ache
Upward, tall and barren,
To clumps of moss and sticks
Where cranes are nesting.

Where cranes are flying,
They scrawl swamp messages,
Clumsy stick letters
That tell of the lives of birds
Across the slate sky.

Up in the slate clouds
Light jumps and flashes,
The afternoon sun reflecting
On a bomber’s wings: the glint
Of a catfish in motion.

Where a catfish moves,
Silvery in the dark depths,
Like a ghost that stirs and fills
A whole room with its presence,
Ripples splinter the water.

Ripples shatter the mirror
When a kingfisher splits the air
And smashes the water’s surface;
Bubbles and tiny insects
Dance in the golden light.

I dance in golden light
Though only my eyes move--
Near the cranes and barren trees,
The catfish and the moss, here
By the cypress swamp, growing.

******

The Fishers

Anchored on sea-winds,
easily riding the air,
the white osprey balances,
mortally still and sure.
Talons arced, he stands,
a parlous barb of white,
poised there to cry praises
of his haggard sun’s glare
or shriek the lure of night.
He scans long miles of air,
tangent to sky and sea,
then leaps to hurtle freely
down turbulent piles of light.

A graying blur, the osprey
plummets. Slashes a way,
fighting each buffet of air,
piercing through to his fish
that turn in water-light.
No reflective barrier,
no bubbling gift of tongues,
can check his gleaming stare:
the killer dips and catches.

Now screaming arrogant songs
he strides back up the wind,
feeling the elements flow—
his air that burns all finned
and seaward things to ashes.
High where the dive began,
the writhing catch flashes.

On the nacreous beach below
I chafe my cold bones,
and wish, and grope for
dying fish among the stones.

******

Down below, I have supplied a link to Alex Ross's equally wonderful blog for anyone curious to discover more.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Too Late to Stop Now (Part 3)



I've been pondering the futility of trying to convey in a few paragraphs the richness of hundreds of music-going experiences over the course of 50 years. Trying to hit the highlights just leaves a long list of "not-mentioneds" as other memories surface--for example, I failed to include the powerhouse Gil Evans Orchestra conquering a club in Copenhagen, and the transcendental experience of Bill Evans curled over the keyboard, his fingers barely flicking the keys yet creating cathedrals of beauty. (Seen at the basement club where Miles Davis, Bill's Kind of Blue employer, held forth as well.)

And what of Classical Music? I spent several years with full-series tickets, attending concerts by the Seattle Symphony and guests, both before and during Gerard Schwarz's fabled tenure, as well as many chamber music events heard from here to Edinburgh and Salzburg--the grandest of those with Yo Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and a young violinist powering through Dvorak's rollicking Dumky Piano Trio. And on a different Edinburgh visit, I dreamed through Mahler's heaven-scaling Symphony No.2, the splendid orchestra that day (was it the London Philharmonic?) led by Klaus Tennstedt--though even that experience was dwarfed by the Mahler Second conducted by Leonard Bernstein, filmed in an English or Scottish cathedral, that I only ever saw on television, but that still can raise my spirits and the hairs on my neck whenever I simply think about it...

Country Music too has figured in my life all along, whether I was listening to the car radio or seeking out some "Outlaw" favorite up close and personal: Waylon Jennings (and beautiful wife Jesse), Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, all of them seen back in their prime of age and performance, as was mandolin-man extraordinaire and Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, still splendidly indomitable and proud--not to mention the many lesser hitmakers who came and went, county fair to covered dome, from John Anderson (my cousin Joe Spivey played fiddle with John for decades) to Winona Judd and her lovely Mom when they were slimmer and straight out of the chute, so to speak; wandering backstage at one performance, I nearly collided with Naomi as she stepped out of her dressing room, charmingly arrayed in a wrapper and haircurlers!

But the country woman who pushed all my buttons, and still does... Emmy Lou Harris, of course. I missed her arrival on the scene as Gram Parson's harmony-duets pal, but have been to her ever-new shows many times over the years since, whether backed by Rodney Crowell or Ricky Skaggs or Albert Lee, whether by solid bluegrass players or the alt.country Buddy Miller/Spyboys. She can do no wrong, I say, dancing, singing, or just smiling out at the always-adoring crowd. (And a word here for brilliant quirky producer Daniel Lanois, who at different times revitalized recordings by Emmy Lou, Dylan, the Nevilles, and others... not forgetting his work on U2's all-time best The Joshua Tree.)

Mention of the Neville Brothers brings back the life-affirming concert I saw by those Big Easy giants around the time of the Yellow Moon album. Wow! and wow again--Meters funk, Aaron's angelic tenor, second-line showmanship, they had it all (and likely still do). The second time I caught up to them, at New Orleans Jazz Fest, wasn't quite as stunning, but decidedly danceable fun.

Jazz Fest... only got there once, in the pre-Katrina days, but it was amazing, especially the unknown-to-me NOLA gospel groups and funk groovers and traditional Jazzsters. (By a great twisted coincidence, our lodging was a fest-time-only, not-quite-b&b run by Gram Parson's stepmother Bonnie.) I've already blogged about some major rock festivals, but I owe a big thanks to Seattle's own massive event, every Labor Day weekend, called Bumbershoot. Back in the earlier days, a weekend pass cost less than $20, and you could see scores of major and minor acts, blues giants and aging soul masters, singer-songwriters and pop stars of the moment, ranging from the Eurhythmics to Steve Earle, Ray Charles to Clifton Chenier, Joan Jett to Joe Jackson, Smokey Robinson to Bonnie Raitt, the Police to the Pogues.

I haven't been to Bumbershoot lately--too pricey, too ultra-hip and mass-crowded to suit these aging bones and ears, and now offering fewer of the older music greats--but I recommend it still to any reader of this three-chapter catalog of music's grand parade. Any given year, there will be a dozen acts worth seeing.

My idea to wind down this long parade requires revisiting three memorable events in particular--the first back in 1975 when I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time, maybe a week after his twin covers on both Time and Newsweek, "I'm just a prisoner of rock 'n roll," "too late to stop now" (borrowed maybe from Van Morrison), and other shouted phrases still echoing in my head, along with visions of Bruce running the aisles, climbing atop the amps, leaping into space playing his electric, and collapsing against Clarence Clemons just for a breath or two... A couple of days later I made up buttons with the "prisoner" quote on them that I gave away to friends! Yes, I too saw the future of rock 'n roll that night and have been a confirmed "Brooooce" fan ever since, even if the greatest concert moments now are often just Springsteen and his guitar as he delivers some heartbreaking, quietly political ballads.

Back in the later Eighties, I finally managed to get to a Dr. John gig for the first time, though hooked years before that by--rather than the voodoo gris-gris hokum--his Gumbo album of New Orleans oldies plus follow-up LP with the Meters. That night he was elegant and funky both, street-cred clever and musical to his toe-tips, and always stylish (seen over the years since) with hat and cane handy. An amazing life, that of Mac Rebennack, proving to all that a white boy could fit in perfectly with the mixed-color bag of New Orleans music, could for 50 years thrive and often take the lead and these days help resurrect. (Didn't his old hit "Storm Warning" prove too right?)

So I prize the two items I have that Dr. John autographed: my copy of Gumbo plus his spacey autobiography--the LP and book both graced by wild and woolly, and way lengthy, verbal riffs on whatever-the-hell Mac felt like writing at that moment, whole pages of rambling poetic prose (sort of his own Deep South, "Dew Drop Inn" version of Jim Morrison's drugged attempts at spontaneous poetry maybe).

Which could be said of my own musical reminiscences I guess. So let's wrap it... The four recent club sessions I enjoyed most were these: Chris Hillman, ex- of the Byrds and Burritos and Desert Rose Band, together with his lifelong friend Herb Pedersen doing their patented country/rock/gospel harmonizing; saxmaster James Carter blowing his sidemen off the stage and us audience every which way but loose; the mighty big band of composer-conductor Maria Schneider filling Jazz Alley with sounds sweet and blue, borne aloft by clouds of brass; and just weeks ago, a ticket (courtesy of friend Tom Wasserman) to see the inimitable Richard Thompson, which proved to be the third landmark event I want to convey.

Someone reading this may recall that during the summer I flew to England for the latest Cropredy Festival, this year featuring the 40th Anniversary celebration of Fairport Convention's classic Liege & Lief album. Acknowledged guitar-god and ace songwriter Thompson was the linchpin of all those events just as he was in Fairport's fairest early days. But his recent concert here in Seattle dwarfed those festive sets--the band was tighter and more spirited, and RT full of grit and fun as well as his patented doom and gloom, whether lambasting the U.S. mistakes in Iraq or rocking the fate of some ill-mannered lover. And his guitar work alternately caressed and metal-shredded even the tenderest song, with one lengthy solo showering chunks of most all he'd picked up in 40 years of playing, bits of Link Wray and Dick Dale, Blind Willie Whichever and Shadow Hank Marvin, avant-garde Henry Kaiser and homegrown Davy Graham, plus John Coltrane sheets of sound and eerie Chinese-sounding scales.

RT rules; remember that. And see him whenever the opportunity arises. I'll likely be there too... can't stop the music.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Rock Redeemed (Part 2)


I regret never having attended performances by many of America's heavy-hitters... Magic Sam, Howling Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson (the later, touchy one); Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane do all come to mind.

But for rock at any time between the mid-Sixties and the Nineties, I tried to see every act that mattered--the Beatles on their 1966 tour, moptop-cute but impossible to hear above the din of fans; the Stones many times over the years, never so right as during their Banquet-to-Exile period; Dylan with and without the Band, and later on too--but ignoring his team-ups with Tom Petty or the Grateful Dead, both groups always better on their own whether rockin' out or noodling cosmically. (Wish I'd been somewhere when Dylan sang "Blind Willie McTell," if he ever did it live. Certainly one of his greatest songs, too little known because held back for so long. But I do have an unlikely bootleg from Japan where Bob actually sang a few other major numbers with a symphony orchestra!)

I saw Hendrix and the Who at Monterey Pop, and the Who later for Tommy and then also after Keith Moon's death. Missed the Byrds but got to the Flying Burrito Brothers three times and the Doors twice; Crosby Stills and Nash with and without Young, who wowed me more both in Buffalo Springfield and then on his own tours (Rust Never Sleeps, yes!); Winged and band-running Paul McCartney in his cheery heyday; the Beach Boys with Glenn Campbell in place of Brian Wilson, but the harmonies still intact; Sonny and Cher when she was 18 and astonishingly gorgeous and he was in a tux, trying to Go On from The Beat.

I followed the changes for both Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, the latter soul-voiced kid graduating from "Stevie" in the Spencer Davis Group (yes, they played Seattle) through "Steve" in the hallowed days of jazz-tinged Traffic, to some other, more adult but kinda boring Winwood years later on his own. He also figured briefly in the shortlived Blind Faith with Clapton and Ginger Baker, both of whom I'd already gawked at in Cream. And guitar-god Eric just kept on cruising after that, first with Delaney and Bonnie and then scoring brilliantly as Derek and the Dominoes, and forever after in various solo ventures. (Backing up for a moment, I once had an interview scheduled with Delaney and Bonnie which was suddenly canceled, because Duane Allman had just been killed and Delaney was jetting back South. Loved that Southern soul duo for as long as they lasted together, and their cohorts like Leon Russell, whom I watched in amazement as he plunked funky piano while conducting the massive backing for Joe Cocker on that infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.)

Running somewhat parallel to Winwood and Clapton, I regularly checked out both Van Morrison's latest incarnation and Jimmy Page's Led Zeppelin (well, Zep twice only)--that long-gone quartet about to reunite just this month for a huge one-off fundraiser in Los Angeles (which only the celebrity charity price keeps me from travelling to see), and Robert Plant having just released his surprising and splendid duet album with perfect vocalist Allison Krause. But Van the Man was really more my style, and I love almost every one of his albums, though I gave up on him live after a couple of near no-show performances, once when he had a cold and the other time when he just didn't feel like singing!

Another major vocalist and band back then was the no-longer-Small Faces with Rod Stewart and pre-Stones Ron Wood. The group came to Seattle riding the crest of their wave and put on a high-spirited show that I remember as less raggedy than the critics always accused them of being. Rod the Mod was in fine gravel voice on song after song, and he did his other specialties, fencing with the mic stand and kicking soccer balls into the crowd. I had an interview scheduled backstage that night, not with the Faces but with opening act Family. But en route I did get to shake hands with cheerfully friendly Ron Woods and then sort of wave at totally exhausted Rod, slumped in a chair looking almost exactly like the cover of one of his great early albums! He just grunted at me.

The bigger names kept touring, but their ticket prices kept rising too, so from the mid-Seventies on I focussed more on new or lesser-known acts--for example, early cheap-price tours by snarling Elvis Costello and the rhythmic Police, before either had exploded into their well-deserved global fame; and around then too, Los Lobos ahead of their Will-the-Wolf-Survive break-out, at a student-sponsored concert on the U.W campus. Needless to say, they rocked the house. I danced more that night than I had for years, and I still try to see the band almost every time they hit Seattle, even though I don't dance as much these days! (Coincidentally, Los Lobos' producer/saxman Steve Berlin lived up here on Vashon Island for several years; and big David Hidalgo came into my bookstore one time, bought some small item I've forgotten, maybe a Billie Holiday bio, and had me special-order a poetry book for him. And did I get his autograph on a pair of albums? Oh yes.)

I would also particularly like to thank the music gods for the Clash (and the Punk Explosion in general), waking up the turgid, torpid music industry around 1977-78 and some after. I caught the Clash during their suddenly-triumphant London Calling tour, and the show was a barnburner, rousing us punters to the rafters, but also providing an enlightening Reggae experience courtesy of a black deejay playing hot cuts between the acts.

Speaking of reggae, two life-affirming concerts I was fortunate to get to were Toots and the Maytals in all their soulful, high-stepping glory, and this one: the pairing of Jimmy Cliff and headliners Bob Marley and the (non-Tacoma) Wailers. Cliff came on a half hour late or so, which was standard practice back then, and did a fine opening set ranging from slow to fast, misses to massive hits. And then we waited... and waited... and waited...

Finally, about midnight, out danced spliffed-up Marley and his I-Threes and the Barrett Brothers-led band; and Bob and friends proceeded to put on an eye-opening, body-shaking, soul-enhancing object lesson in making music and working the crowd. In minutes he had the whole two-tiered sitdown-theater crowd up and dancing in the aisles, beside and atop their seats, all of us trying to keep up as Bob tossed his dreadlocks and his body every whichaway, still playing rhythm guitar and singing his Redemption songs. More than just a night to remember, those two Wailer hours marked a never-to-be-equaled moment in spirit and time...

((Next time, a few other such moments, Merle to Bruce to Mac--no, not Fleetwood--and a possibly hopeless attempt to sum things up.))

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I Witnessed Music (Part 1)


Over a 50-year stretch of time, I've managed to see a goodly number of historically important musicians. Writing about a few of them may be of interest...

As I noted in an early blog chapter, I was living in Montgomery during the Bus Boycott and the rise of Elvis, whose original rockabilly music and later more pop-oriented records I still love today. But sadly, stupidly, I never managed to catch him live until his sorry, unhealthy later days. Still, by the mid-Fifties I was buying Long Play albums rather than 45s (Fats Domino's great Rockin' n' Rollin', The Johnny Burnett Trio's amazing lone release, the first Little Richard and Bo Diddley LPs, and Elvis's first two are a sample), but living overseas from 1956 to 1958 kept me away from the classic concerts and tours that were crisscrossing much of the U.S. in the first great explosion of rock 'n roll.

By the time I returned to the States, music was already moving on into its Folkie period, with the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, and others (I did catch Harry live then but I don't remember anything besides his fine voice and polished stage show). The most satisfying of my first live events instead was a pair of high school dances, one with Tacoma's original Wailers of "Tall Cool One" fame playing--two Wailers were students at the same school I was attending--and the other a Prom night with the astonishing, brass-blaring Stan Kenton Orchestra alternating between (to my uneducated ears) dissonant Jazz and simpler music for dancing. Also, while in San Francisco, briefly checking out the Beat Scene (I was 16), I did venture into the Hungry i for an evening of Lenny Bruce, back when he was still uproariously funny rather than stridently political, plus Barbara Dane and Glenn Yarbrough (pre-Limeliters).

Came Fall 1960 and I was off to college in the Chicago area, where I soon heard Bob Dylan on the radio, but didn't actually see him live until a serendipitous few minutes at a Joan Baez concert a couple of years later, when the pure-voiced singer brought him out from the wings for a few duets. He was cool and Chaplin-charming in his cap and black leather gear that night, vindicating (so I arrogantly thought) my early interest in his records.

I still hadn't learned enough to know Chicago as the center of urban, electrified Blues, so the only concerts I remember from that scholarship-student, 1960-1962 period were a pair situated in an odd warehouse-like venue I had heard about somehow. A ticket holder arriving at this North Side location saw a brick building with windowless facade and a ground floor door, minimally signed, which led to a long, narrow flight of stairs heading up to a large, echoing open space filled with folding chairs. But once there I got to see both ends of the popular Black Music spectrum: Ray Charles and His Orchestra, and The Modern Jazz Quartet! Margie was still a Raelette then, and the band's arrangements were brilliant and oh-so-soulful, with Ray doing his patented swaying on the piano bench. Greatness. And I loved the elegance and carefully arranged chamber Jazz of the John Lewis-led MJQ. (Saw Milt Jackson alone many years later, but his mallet control had diminished some by then.)

I soon transferred to the University of Washington, and then began writing rock criticism, so my live-music outings increased fourfold. Best to organize these "greatest hits" by genre maybe, starting with rockabilly originals I saw over the next decade or so: Jerry Lee Lewis tearing up the place, pounding the piano with his feet, dancing on top of it, and kicking his bench across the stage; garbed-in-black Johnny Cash in his great heyday touring with boppin'-the-blues Carl Perkins, June Carter Cash, and the Tennessee Two; plus Eighties wannabes like Robert Gordon and the Stray Cats.

Blues greats... While I missed out on Chicago, I did see Muddy with Johnny Winter years later, and Bo Diddly (I actually cut a commercial with Bo); and over the years I caught powerful sets by Bobby Blue Bland (his choke/snort vocalizing a soulful treat), B.B. King (in fine voice, still on his feet in those days to wrest bluesy cries from Lucille), and Ice-cool guitarman Albert Collins--Robert Cray too when his album with Collins enabled Cray's own breakout. But more importantly, in the mid-Sixties, thanks to the U.W.'s Ethnomusicology Department, a handful of Country Blues giants journeyed out to Seattle, and I got to stare flabbergasted at separate performances by elders Son House, Bukka White, and Furry Lewis, all still up to much good. (These shows were videotaped and many years later became major archival sources for Blues historians.) Lightnin' Hopkins was in there too, lazily drawling his crafty story-songs. And gravel-voiced Blues-revivalist Taj Mahal still comes to Seattle yearly.

The U.W. also hosted some amazing Jazz concerts over the decades, with the two standouts being the Charles Lloyd Quartet back when Keith Jarrett was the pianist, and the stunning earth-to-space music of the post-Ornette Coleman group known as Old and New Dreams, that great quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell, plus Dewey Redman valiantly filling in for Ornette. In a similar Free Jazz vein, I swung and swayed through a rousing, high-stepping performance by the World Saxophone Quartet--David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiett Bluiett--at a U.District tavern.

For some reason Seattle has always been a good place for Jazz--starting way back with Jelly Roll Morton, through Big Band visits in the Swing era, to Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, both of whom lived here for periods of time, to Stan Getz who got arrested here in his Fifties junkie days, and still later to local-boys-made-good Larry Coryell and Jimi Hendrix (who could play Jazz as well as every other guitar sound). Many clubs came and went over the years, but Jazz Alley's three different locations (starting back in 1979) make it the longest-lived holdout now. As a newly divorced man (1980 on), I spent many a night hanging out at the Alley in all its locations, eyes and ears opened wider, mesmerized by sets from Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner... and many many others over the ensuing three decades of the club's existence.

But I'll end today's jaunt down music's Memory Lane with two remembrances of Miles Davis... The first time I saw him was in the mid-Sixties, at a basement club in Seattle's Pioneer Square area, his backing group the famous second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams--titans all. The music was complex and sometimes stop/start jagged, but it swung me into better health, even when Miles amusingly pulled his regular stunts of turning his back on the audience, leaving the stage during other players' solos, and so on.

The second event was even better, or maybe I just mean stranger: this was about 1969 or '70, and Miles had moved on, helping to solidify Fusion Jazz. His group by then had Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Michael Henderson, Airto, and other now-familiar names--basically the band that played the famous Cellar Door Sessions. And in retrospect, now familiar with those players, I remember most of them here for his concert at Seattle Center's original Arena, with the band set up theater-in-the-round fashion.

When the lights dimmed, all the cats strolled out one by one (no Miles yet), sat down or settled into place, and started tuning up, just tootling around--or so we thought--except that they continued on, found a groove, and then out came Miles, joining right in with his spare tone and few notes placed... just... so. The one tune went on and on, maybe 40 minutes without pause. And then Miles stopped and sauntered off, and one by one so did each player, until drummer DeJohnette hit a final snare or whatever, got up and left.

The concert was over. No bows, no encore, the end! Just so cool. Miles always knew how to play a crowd...

((Next time the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and whoever--Cream to Clash, Marley to Emmy Lou.))

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Topography of the Heart (Part 2)


Poet Henry Reed spent part of 1963-64 at the University of Washington as a visiting poet-in-residence, and seemed immediately to take to the light teaching load and the English Department ways (comical pissing-and-moaning was just his way of dealing with daily existence!)--so well that he was brought back off and on till 1967 in professor/lecturer capacities, with one full year as a Visiting Professor.

I graduated in English Lit in the summer of 1964 but went straight on for a Master's, from 1964-66, so I was present during his time at the U.W., first as one of his many students and then as a Teaching Assistant in the Department, herding my own groups of kids through Freshman English and helping a couple of literature professors, including Henry, as an assistant reading poems and papers, administering tests, whatever was asked.

I remember him having us read poets like Yeats and Eliot and Marvell and then try our hand at certain forms or styles. My poor specimens somehow passed muster, however, and we quickly became something more than teacher and student, albeit less than close friends. Usually Henry kept company with or was hosted by the big guns in the Department like Robert Heilman, Arnold Stein, and William Matchett, and Dorothee Bowie, who was much more than the English Department's nominal secretary. But he was especially happy when Elizabeth Bishop came in for a few weeks; the two outsider poets saw a great deal of each other for a too-brief time. (Thanks to Henry, I was invited to meet and have tea with Miss Bishop, a cherished memory still.) He went regularly to the Seattle Opera too and dragged me along once--can't remember what we saw but, then, opera was wasted on me in those days(mostly now as well).

Henry's Seattle time was actually lived in irregular pieces, with him going back to England for a few months and then reappearing at the U.W. for another temporarily-funded teaching stint. We corresponded during those absences of course, and I still have six or eight of his warm and gossipy, carefully handwritten letters, complete with witty emendations added here and there.

And somewhere along the line, when our second child was born in 1967, my then-wife Sharon and I asked "Henny" (that's what our toddler son Glenn called him) to be godfather to Krista; he gulped, I expect, but generously accepted the charge. A Master's was all I could afford to pursue by then--with two children and an at-home wife--but I stayed on working at the University Relations Office till late 1967, by which time Henry had returned to England from his final Seattle stay.

He resumed his life as highly regarded BBC writer and translator of (mostly Italian) literature, and he began drinking heavily. He had tippled routinely over here, but the work regimen kept him upright and prepared, most of the time. I believe that Henry knew he had been blessed and damned with a certain limited success--known for a few poems, but better known and regularly paid as a radio playwright, the writing of which drained his creative energy for the rigorous craft of poetry.

Our letters slowly trickled to a halt, though he did manage to inquire after Krista and send her a small gift each Christmas for the first few years. When I finally got over to England twice in the late Seventies and early Eighties, he wouldn't allow me to visit, nor would he come out for a meal or even a drink. I was experiencing in a small way what all of his friends had come to know: Henry had become reclusive and drink-sodden, with his health dwindling away and no one allowed to interfere with his slide. He died in 1986.

Five years later, English poet Jon Stallworthy assembled a Collected Poems, which took Henry's one full book A Map of Verona and his Lessons of the War chapbook and added all the other singly-printed pieces from his later years as well as some unpublished works. (This book has just been republished in a paperback edition available from Carcanet Press in England.) A handful of those poems do show him at his best including a long dramatic monologue titled "The Auction."

Critic Frank Kermode reviewed the book in The London Review and, in passing, wrote a decent capsule assessment of Henry Reed the man: "He was gentle, melancholy and funny, and without conscious effort gave one a strong sense of his unaffected dedication to poetry, not least to Italian poetry; and also tacitly but powerfully, a sense that his life, though marked by a great deal of idiosyncratic achievement, was radically disappointing..."--to the world of literature and to Henry himself.

Henry's poem "Unarmed Combat" ends with some words akin to his own epitaph:

"... so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought."


He left me a better poet, maybe a better man for having known him. As well as a taste for good wine, he also gave then-wife and me a splendid little "inner landscape" painting by local artist Wes Wehr, inscribed on the back "To my dear Ed & Sharon with three years' love, Henry." And he left me too his six-volume boxed set of The London Shakespeare, a 1957 edition of the complete plays, bought not because he was teaching Shakespeare but just to have at hand during his days and nights in Seattle.

"Every serious poet needs to read Shakespeare," Henry remarked to me once, "for a repeated lesson in humility."


((For an astonishing, near-complete examination of Reed's life and work--scholarly but fun as well--see the Reeding Lessons blog I have bookmarked way down below. And thanks to its dedicated host "steef" for awakening old memories!))

Friday, October 26, 2007

Henry Reed in Seattle (Part 1)


English Poet Henry Reed (1914-1986) was my mentor for a time and, in the early years anyway, godfather to my daughter Krista. Here's how those unlikely connections came about...

Major American poet and difficult man Theodore (Ted) Roethke was the key figure in the creative writing wing of the University of Washington's English Department. He had been poet-in-residence for many years, with "younger" poets as diverse as Richard Hugo and James Wright, David Wagoner and Nelson and Beth Bentley, as his students and then colleagues. I had started college at Northwestern University, but the costs proved prohibitive, so I transferred to the U.W., in part hoping to study with Roethke if accepted.

In the spring of my junior year 1963, I accosted the big bear of a man in the halls one day, saying I hoped to take his class in writing. He growled a response of sorts, "See me Fall," and lumbered off. That seasonal reference became an ironic pun when Roethke died in his swimming pool over the summer, but from a stopped heart (I think) rather than from drowning.

The English Department suddenly had to scramble to fill some very large shoes. Over the next couple of years, guest poets came to teach for a quarter or a year, or simply to read/lecture briefly--we were treated to John Logan, Robert Lowell, Vernon Watkins, Elizabeth Bishop... and Henry Reed. (Already on campus, David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer quickly assumed more important roles in the Department as well.) I was a full-fledged English major by then, and a smalltime fledgling poet, so I took courses from some of them as I moved on into the Master's Degree program. (I was a Teaching Assistant and also became the Assistant Editor, meaning submissions reader, to headperson Carolyn Kizer at the well-known U.W.-sponsored literary magazine Poetry Northwest.)

Memory says, for example, that I studied with Logan, took tea with Bishop, and became T.A. to Reed. We hit it off immediately--he the cultured English gentleman with slightly fey manner (I guess he was gay as we would say now, but I believe he was also more Capote-asexual than active), and me a married grad student with one son already and a second child on the way. I helped Henry in a couple of his teaching assignments, and he immediately became part of our family; we'd have him to dinner on the rare occasion, and he would regularly entertain my wife and me in fine restaurants around Seattle, always searching for the best (but affordable) wines on the menu. I remember him routinely asking for Puligny Montrachet and then settling for Pouilly Fuisse, back in the days when neither was commonly found in the Northwest (our honored vineyards and winemakers were still some years away).

Reed was a man of letters in the old patrician manner; he wrote poems, essays and reviews, and BBC radio plays, and translated many other stage plays, from mostly Italian authors. He had become literarily famous for two things. One was his poem called "Chard Whitlow," which was a spot-on parody of the T.S. Eliot of Four Quartets fame. Many amusing quotable lines occur in Reed's poem, but I recall most (too often these days) his Eliotic mantra, "As we get older, we do not get any younger..."

But really Henry was best known for a single poem, plus the sequels or partner poems that accompanied it later: "Naming of Parts" from his sequence titled Lessons of the War. In this poem, a daydreaming WWII recruit half listens to his sergeant discuss the pieces of a disassembled rifle, conflating the military words into images of the Spring season outside, which slyly become more sexual as the poem progresses:

... And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got...

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring...


"Naming of Parts" quickly became known as THE single most important poem written by a WWII soldier, as Reed was briefly. The First War had produced many poets and great poems, but the Second seemed not to lead to poetry. However, Reed's success did soon lead to subsequent, er, parts titled "Judging Distances," "Movement of Bodies," "Unarmed Combat," and--much later--"Psychological Warfare" (not as painstakingly wrought as the others) and "Returning of Issue." These were fine and sometimes funny, but none was as astonishing as the original poem.

At any rate, Reed became a regular at the BBC, writing wonderful comic plays to be broadcast over the radio, and that's how he made most of his steady income, until called to Seattle to teach recalcitrant American kids how to create poetry.

((The rest of the story to come in a few days in my next blog chapter.))

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Love's Old Sweet Song


Speaking of failed first marriages and much happier second ones--as I sort of was last time around--reminds me that I've been waiting for a "right" moment to post my Hegelian trio of marriage poems, built around one ending and another starting. So why not today? Think of these as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; as the song says, Love is friendlier the second time around...


My Vasectomy Comes of Age


Lengthy marriages acquire an Oriental cast:
Each that isn’t Mao’s Long March,
A triumph of revolutionary principles,
Becomes instead the walk across Bataan,
With every decent impulse abandoned or dead.
I left all sperm somewhere along that road—
Marriage itself later—dying
To do my part for the regiment of populations.

On hospital TV sets, the vid of my X-
Rated operation proved a hit, the first “how to”
In ball-shaving and vas-snipping.
Blessed with worryless sex ever since,
A model citizen of that threatened state, I’ve yet
Fumbled through seventy-seven hundred nights of dread…
At worst, unmanned; at best, more vague and less
Ambitious. Or was that “the vasectomy in the skull”?

Whenever my testicles ache now, I wonder
What mutant elements coil there,
Waiting. Whoever persuaded me
That two children could be enough
Was never a father. Year after year I absorb
My own unborn, the hairs on my head grow
Scarcer, each new poem swims in grief,
Going nowhere fast.

What scrutably comes of age is this despair.


*******
In Defense of Flat Chocolate Wedding Cakes


Any time, love is a nervous condition.

On the sunwheel plaza high up each
pyramid of the Valley of the Sun,
Aztec priests got right to the heart
of the matter: the Cakes of Heaven
are seldom a body’s bread.

Nor should the hopeful couple approve
some half-baked cylinder shaped
like Chichen Itza’s Well of Maiden Sacrifice.
(Not that far removed, politically speaking.)
Imagine the usual sugary concoction,

small man atop clearly in reduced circumstances,

and the tiny woman, had she but tongue
to vent her anguish, shrieking like the Sidhe.
Neither would choose to live in such
a triple-tiered suite of dubious taste…
Let other weddings take the cake for show

biz. Our “I do’s” will not be
symbolically or otherwise consumed
at the Drive-in Chapel of Confectioners’ Dreams.
Marriage can be short and dark and give
you several raspberries. Chew on this

to remember our cock-eyed optimism.


*******
Prime Numbers


As one into two goes two,

You into me into you
Makes two ones joined together,

Equivalent forever:

A number greater than one
That yet transcends two alone.

Subtract either one of us,

The sum is the same, but less,
No better than a fraction,

One requiring correction.

Still, when rightly multiplied,
One times one won’t be denied.

Divide us by space or time,

Our total will remain prime
No matter where we two are,

Our unity rooted square.

Whether counted one or two—
You/me paired, or me-plus-you—

When the math of love is done,

Two into two exceeds none;
One over one becomes one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pilgrim's Palate


Back in the 1930's, three lads, sons of Italian immigrants residing in Washington State, got to be pals when all made it into law school at the same time; and the three then made a further pact...

That's the story, anyway, that one of them in the early 1960's used to tell his University of Washington English Department classes; the tale-teller was Angelo Pellegrini, a well-known gourmet and food critic, Shakespeare specialist, and by then non-practicing lawyer. He called it "Rosellini, Rosellini, and Pellegrini," and he regaled us students with such anecdotes along with his brilliant, Machiavellian-grin recitations of Macbeth, Iago, and Lear.

Back in their law school days, it seems, the three guys vowed that, someday, Al would rise to the governorship of Washington, Hugh would become Chief Justice of its State Supreme Court... and then Angelo would be appointed President of the U.W. "Sure enough," Angelo would say, "in the Fifties, Al was elected governor, Hugh was selected to head the Court, and..." He'd pause and smile his mischievous and slightly feral smile, then say, "And I kept waiting for the phone to ring. But the call never came."

Oh well. Administration's loss was the English Department's gain. Dr. Pellegrini (doctor of Law rather than of Liberal Arts; oh, and his Italian surname means "pilgrim") was known instead as a maverick professor, spending less time on interpreting Will and more on requiring his students to memorize and sometimes recite in class the 17th Century English iambics. Many hated this approach, but I loved it--had no trouble remembering the Bard's words, during classes or final tests. (I felt more connected to Shakespeare then than at any time before or since.) And because I could spout on demand, I became one of Pellegrini's proteges, I guess--sufficiently so that when I was getting married a couple of years later (a low-key, base-chapel affair with both sets of parents gone overseas, no friends in attendance, and no honeymoon pending), I asked Angelo to help me choose a restaurant and menu for the two-people-only wedding dinner.

He told me not to worry, he'd arrange a fine meal for us at Rosellini's 410 (Victor representing another branch of that family, I suppose), which was usually thought of as Seattle's premier restaurant back then. And sure enough, we dined perfectly that night, surrounded by elegant trappings and delectable food, including a bottle of Pellegrini's own handmade wine, the gift of which was a much bigger deal than I knew then. (I said he was a food expert; really he was an internationally known one, espousing eating fresh local foods and maintaining family herb gardens and making one's own wine and so on, a Fifties critic of America's move to pre-packaged foods and an early proponent of what's known now as the "Slow Food Movement." He wrote a handful of books too, the best known of which was/is his classic philosophy-of-food volume titled The Unprejudiced Palate.) Angelo helped launch that first marriage well...

I left academia and became a writer, lost touch with the professor. But ten years later, figuring "nothing ventured...," I called him up and asked if he would make the arrangements for our tenth anniversary dinner, back again at the 410. He remembered me well enough cheerfully to agree. But this time, things went sadly wrong; the trappings of the aging restaurant didn't seem as posh and then-wife got food poisoning from some shellfish--should have realized it was an omen for the unfriendly split ahead!--nothing for which Dr. Pellegrini bore any blame, of course. He lived on till age 90 or so and is still revered in serious food circles today.

Meanwhile, though I never did meet Chief Justice Hugh, I did once interview retired Governor Al, for a story on the do-nothing State Legislature. Al was in his Seventies by then and had a set of dentures that he clacked regularly when speaking, jerking his head back to make his plate of teeth click into place again! Those loud clacks, which he seemed totally oblivious to, made for a very disconcerting hour as I struggled to take notes and not laugh out loud. And I did think of the professor, by then most renowned of the three, who was still eating well with his own rather pointy teeth...

That's my version of the tale of Pellegrini and a couple of Rosellinis.

Friday, October 12, 2007

How I Spent My Autumn Vacation


Sandie and I returned on October 9th from our mad-dash, whirlwind tour of New England, ranging the rocky coasts and the Green/White Mountains, on the trail of red lobsters and reddening leaves.

We flew in to JFK, which was handy to our starting point--meaning eastern Long Island, the North Fork rather than the Hamptons, where my wife spent many summers as a girl, growing up among loving relatives of several generations, and where a few still reside today. Two nights and a day there, getting a lazy start (reminiscing with the kinfolk and revisiting her old haunts in our rented car), and then we were off, first by ferry to New London, and then driving on through Mystic, Conn., past Newport, R.I., hustling on to Cape Cod, Mass., for two nights.

The sightseeing day in-between took us from Provincetown, up-Cape, which was surprisingly quiet and somewhat chilly on the morning we visited (with scarcely an arty character to be seen), down through Truro and Wellfleet and Eastham; did find a fine gallery along the way specializing in the work of Cape artists and children's illustrators like Tomie de Paola, where I bought a major catalog-quasi-raisonne devoted to Leonard Baskin and Gehenna Press. We finished up the tour further around the Cape's "Elbow" in Yarmouth at the Eighties home of the late, but weird and wonderful, modern-day-Victorian Edward Gorey. The house, the fat cat meandering inside, the original illustrations displayed in all rooms (particularly various versions of Gorey's famous book The Doubtful Guest), even the man and woman hosting and overseeing the place, were all perfectly VicGoreyan themselves!

The next day took us quickly on up the Massachusetts coast (no Boston this trip) to Newburyport, which was amazingly lovely for an old seaport--wide streets, inner-harbor parks (not to mention free parking), grand old brick buildings and small-scale mansions everywhere, including the old Clark Currier Inn we stayed in overnight.

Then came Maine, the best part of the trip in my estimation. We slept two nights at Boothbay in a lovely harbor-view b&b called The Admiral's Quarters, and had a most excellent day in between visiting Rockland and the handsome, sea-shaped Pemaquid Peninsula and environs. Rockland hosts the small but world-class Farnsworth Museum, home of Maine artists galore--Rockwell Kent to George Bellows, Marsden Hartley to John Marin, Louise Nevelson to early Edward Hopper, but most especially the several generations of Wyeths. Scores of originals by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie, and a few other offshoots as well.

We marveled at originals from the Scribner books N.C. illustrated as well as a most uncommon Maine seascape he painted that shows the clear influence of Picasso and Russian prismatic Modernism. N.C.'s son and his son were wonderfully present too; the main show celebrated "Andrew Wyeth at 90," and clearly he is still going strong. Andrew's watercolors and drybrush and tempura paintings are still rather bleached-out and sometimes slightly edgy, while Jamie exhibits much more color and even humor in his subject matter. But all are remarkable.

After that we drove out to the actual and fragile farmhouse owned by the no-longer-living Olsens, Christina and Alvaro, made famous by Andrew's painting of Christina's World and many others. An amazing spot and a truly haunted, moving experience...

And then we lucked onto a Maine country store partly devoted to Wyeth family prints in vast numbers, where we spent a couple of hours marvelling and circling back and forth, and finally plopped down too much money to take away a few favorites for framing back home.

The rest of the trip actually proved a bit anticlimactic. We drove inland from Maine up into New Hampshire for a night and then over the Kankamagus Highway into Vermont for two more. Sadly, the leaves this year are slow to turn, due to a particularly dry summer that left the trees deprived of much-needed moisture. We saw lovely part-reds and other looked-for tints here and there, but the typical explosions of God's full palette of colors were absent, and maybe not coming this year at all.

The inns and b&bs everywhere fed and housed us well, the people were friendly and the meals were overwhelming and generally excellent, but Sandie and I were gradually tiring, wearing down from so much driving and looking and dining out... (Never thought I'd admit to that!) And the "Leaf Season" prices did prove hugely daunting.

Still, we had miles to go before we slept... In the latter days we visited Vermont-quaint towns, enjoyed rolling farmlands and architecturally historic buildings, saw old-time mills and new-fangled Ben & Jerry's machines pumping out the pints, dashed southward to catch a bit of the Berkshires, took quick ganders at Jacob's Pillow Dance and Tanglewood Music expanses, spent a cheery hour at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, moved on into the Hudson Valley to marvel at the Vanderbilt and Franklin Roosevelt and other New York mansions (but not the too-popular Rockefeller, sold out ahead of our visit)...

And finally crashed for a last, nearly elegant night in White Plains, Westchester County, at Soundview Manor, a private home gradually being turned into an inn by our hostess Doris, resident owner for almost 30 years and a feminist lawyer of the Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem generation, who regaled us with slightly confusing stories of those major movement days and the dwindling present. (Doris's daughter was recently jailed for six months by the Bush-league Justice Department for questioning, somehow, Alberto Gonzalez's authority.)

Then we hung out in Airportland awaiting our flight home--which actually took off on time and flew faster than expected, landing at Sea-Tac 15 minutes early! The pilot announced our ahead-of-time arrival and asked all us passengers to remember the event fondly the next time we flew and, unstated but implied, faced the usual delays and cattle-car treatment of airline travel today.

So a good (but expensive) time was had by, er, both of us. Yet there's no place like this home, on our funky island in the mild-climate, book-reading, arts-friendly, socially-progressive, anti-Bush world of Western Washington. Only Maine could tempt me East again.