Friday, November 19, 2010
First thing in the morning, we took a cab to the airport for our trip to Alicante. We had a layover in Madrid and our connecting flight was delayed some, so we did not arrive until about 3 pm. Roly was there to pick us up when we landed and drove us down to their condo in Guardamar, where Sarah was waiting for us. We had a drink, relaxed and chatted on their deck. Then they drove us down to the Marina and we had a walk on the beach. Roly and I talked about this and that and Laura and Sarah probably talked about more weighty issues as they followed behind. On our way back to the car, we ran into a couple of their neighbors who were also out for a stroll. We drove back to their place to freshen up.
Afterwards, we walked into town for Dinner at one of their favorite places, a little restaurant called La Vuelta, owned by some Dutch people. We had some of the best bread that we’d had the entire time, slathered with Alioli. We followed this with Escargot and I had a nice cod. Laura had pork medallions which she said were overcooked. They had a singer, who was doing mostly old standards. He did a lot of Frank Sinatra. We all danced. It was a very nice and lively little restaurant. After dinner, we all strolled back through town to their condo.
As had become our pattern, we got up late. We drove to a nearby town to have an English breakfast, see some of the new development, past the golf course. It was another beautiful sunny day. After breakfast, we drove back in a large loop, through the south side of town. Roly and Sarah pointed out the prostitutes who would sit at the side of the road, mostly near roundabouts, wearing their hot pants and high heels, sitting on a folding chair reading. We stopped in town to walk down to the beach and see the town portion of the beach. Then we stopped back at the condo to pick up our bags and Roly and Sarah drove us to the train station in Alicante, which was about a half hour away.
We got on the 3:20 train to Valencia. Very nice ride on the high speed train (not exactly a bullet train, but pretty good speed). Arrived about 5:20 and got a cab to the Hotel Ayre Astoria Palace on the Plaza Rodrigo Botet. We walked over to the Cathedral and had a drink sitting on the Plaza. There were several weddings going on, so there was lots of traffic and people walking to and fro in suits and fancy dresses. After a bit we went looking for a restaurant that I had an Internet recommendation for, but it turned out that they were only open after 9 pm, so we decided to just roll the dice and wandered off towards the Market. We wound up eating at a fairly non-descript little restaurant. I had paella, which was OK, but not great.
We had breakfast on the plaza by the Cathedral. It was a very chilly morning, unless you were in the sun, which happened to be on the opposite side of the plaza. We visited the Cathedral and climbed the Tower (about 280 feet high). Laura did not make it to the top, since it was getting pretty claustrophobic about ¾ of the way up. There were excellent views from the top, since the tower was the tallest structure in the older part of town. The cathedral, started in 1248, houses some interesting relics and is an interesting conglomeration of styles, including gothic, Romanesque, baroque and neo-classical. One relic of interest (although we did not pay to see it) is described in Wikipedia:
One of the supposed Holy Chalices, present around the world, is revered in one of this cathedral's chapels; this chalice has been defended as the true Holy Grail; indeed, most Christian historians all over the world declare that all their evidence points to this Valencian chalice as the most likely candidate for being the authentic cup used at the Last Supper.
We walked over to the Serrano Gates, which were part of the old medieval wall of the City, and walked through the park created after Valencia diverted the river after severe floods in 1957. We looped back through the center of town and decided to take the Metro down to the beach.
Unlike Barcelona, the Valencia Metro is very difficult to figure out. Not the lines, but the price of a ticket. Eventually, we just went to the ticket agent and got two tickets to the beachfront (should have got return tickets). We took the train to the end of the line and hopped on the light rail and got off a few blocks from the beach. The beach is wide and flat and has a wonderful promenade running along it for several miles. At the near end, there are dozens of restaurants and bars along the promenade, so we decided to have lunch. Most of the places were pretty pricey, but we found a nice looking place. Laura had a salad and I had a turkey burger watching the people stroll by on the Promenade. A few young guys were setting up a volley ball net on the beach in front of us.
After lunch, we decided to take a walk on the beach. There were a fair number of people on the beach as it was a bright sunny day, but the wind was beginning to pick up so it was cooling down. As we got down to the water, it turned out to be not such a nice beach. The water was pretty dirty looking with sea weed and some trash. We walked for a while and then decided to head back towards town. Because we couldn’t figure out what the fare might be, we walked all the way back to the end of the Metro line and bought tickets and rode back to the hotel.
We had a couple of drinks at a bar on the Plaza. Then we had dinner at a great little restaurant down the street from where we ate the previous night. We split the best paella we had in Spain and some swordfish.
Friday, November 5, 2010
We had to get up early to get to the airport to fly to Sevilla. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain so the idea of taking a cab to Plaza Catalunya and standing around waiting for the bus didn’t seem that enticing. We wound up taking a cab all the way to the airport. On the plus side it was warm and dry. On the downside, it was very expensive (about 50 Euros, ouch!).
The flight was largely uneventful, but it was a bumpy ride. We took the Airport Shuttle downtown and then caught a taxi to the Hotel Bécquer on Reyes Católicos. Despite arriving at about 10am, we were able to check right in and freshen up. The hotel was somewhat older, but very clean and neat. We wandered over to the cathedral through the narrow streets and found a little outdoor café at the edge of the old Jewish quarter of the city, behind the cathedral where we had a drink and some lunch. By this time, we were really settling in to the whole Spanish experience. Conversations began to turn to subjects like how comfortable we felt in Europe and how easy it was to see us retiring there
After lunch, we walked through the old quarter, starting at the Patio de la Banderas, and a park, looping around and then back through the center of town. Across from the Cathedral, we wound up listening to some street musicians, including a jazz band with violin, guitar, accordion and percussion. Eventually, we wandered back to the Hotel and changed for dinner.
For dinner, we decided that we would cross the river and check out the restaurants and bars in the Triana neighborhood. We had a drink across the Puente de Isabel II in a bar in the old bridge tower. There was a very nice view of the city from the rooftop bar and the sunset reflecting off the Cathedral’s Rose Window, but Laura was not pleased with the wine and (since it was only sold by the bottle) the waiter, who did not speak English, wanted payment etc.
Anyway, after getting some help from a couple of American students who were able to talk to the waiter, Laura got another glass of wine (not much better), so we finished our drinks and walked down the street along the river and found a restaurant with outdoor tables.
We went inside with the waiter so that Laura could sample their white wine. It passed the test, so we decided we would stay. I had a fairly mediocre dish of paella, but the view was great and it was a pleasant evening to be outside. Particularly in Sevilla, but probably in other places in Spain, you will come across Restaurants which have these glossy menus showing the various Paellas that are available. Whenever you see them, don’t order the Paella. It’s prepackaged, possibly even microwaved. By the time we finished eating, it was starting to chill down quite a bit. We walked back to the hotel and had a drink at the bar before turning in.
It was overcast and chilly in the morning. We found a little bar for breakfast up the street from the hotel. I wound up having another ham and cheese baguette. I also had some wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice (zumo el naranja). Laura may have just had toast and coffee. After breakfast, we walked over to the cathedral for a visit.
The cathedral of Sevilla is the largest gothic cathedral and the third largest cathedral of any kind (behind St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in the Vatican) in the world. It is also very elaborately decorated in the interior, with a beautiful choir and organ and a 65’ x about 20’ High Altar carved with scenes from the life of Christ and painted with gold leaf. The Altar took about 80 years to complete. It is also the resting place of Christopher Columbus, who had quite a journey after his death. As noted in Wikipedia:
Columbus's remains were first interred at Valladolid, then at the monastery of La Cartuja in Seville (southern Spain) by the will of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola. In 1542 the remains were transferred to Colonial Santo Domingo, in the present-day Dominican Republic. In 1795, when France took over the entire island of Hispaniola, Columbus's remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. After Cuba became independent following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the remains were moved back to Spain, to the Cathedral of Seville, where they were placed on an elaborate catafalque.
Before leaving, we climbed the 330’ Giralda tower for a fantastic view of the city. The tower is unique in that it does not have stairs, but rather an inclined walkway, which is much easier on the thighs and much less claustrophobic than many medieval towers. It was originally built as a minaret for the mosque that preceded the cathedral and the walkway was designed so that a horse could carry the muezzin to the top for his 5 times daily call to prayer. The bell tower was added after it became part of the cathedral. As we got to the top of the tower, the fog and clouds were beginning to burn off.
We decided to take a walk through the Old Quarter to get to Plaza Santa Cruz. Again we managed to get ourselves pretty lost and would up at the Plaza del Salvador (?), which was farther away from Plaza Santa Cruz than we were when we started. After consulting the map, we started to make our way back eventually finding ourselves in a sunny little square (where the rest Carmela was) and then a few more turns and we were at Plaza Santa Cruz, which was a complete surprise because it was a little shaded park, rather than a real commercial Plaza. There were a couple of restaurants, but it was pretty sleepy looking, so we headed back to Plaza by the Calle Santa Maria La Blanca and sat down at a table in front of Restaurant/Bar Carmella and ordered the Plata del Dia, which was spinach and garbanzos, and some curried chicken. The espinaca was not quite as tasty as the one in Barcelona, but I sampled it and it was still good (no prosciutto and not as much garlic). I ordered a Cerveza Negra (Alhambra) which turned out to be very, very good. After this very late lunch, we did a little shopping and went back to Plaza Santa Cruz to pick up tickets for the Flamenco show at El Gallo.
We walked through a large park behind the Old Quarter and the Alcazar, towards the river. Among the highlights was a statue commemorating Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. We walked in a loop, passing by the new light rail line, past the University and a Palace by the river, and then back to the cathedral area where we stopped and listened to some street musicians. The first was a solo singer-guitar player who had a tambourine contraption on his ankle that he used for percussion as he played some pretty good delta blues. He also had a little toy attached to his foot on a string that had Bart Simpson and one of the other Simpson’s and they appeared to dance as he tapped his foot.
Further up the street, we listened again to the quintet with guitar, drums, accordion, and fiddle playing old jazz tunes and standards. Tired after a full day, we wandered back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner and the evening ahead.
That evening, we went back to the Santa Cruz neighborhood for drinks, stopping at a couple of bars for drinks before having an outdoor dinner. Then we had a drink at a little bar Las Teresas, eventually ordering tapas of fresh local cheese. There was a local fellow next to us who was ordering tapas and Laura thought one looked pretty interesting, so she asked him what it was. He spoke very little English, but was a teacher and enjoyed trying to talk to us about Sevilla and his job. He was eating swordfish in a tomato sauce. By this time, it was getting close to the time for the Flamenco show, so we paid our bill and walked down to Plaza Santa Cruz and got in line for the show.
Inside, we sat next to and talked with a fellow from Mexico, who lived in Canada, who was in Spain on a business trip. He worked for Blackberry, doing something related to Bluetooth and had been at a Trade Show in Barcelona and was taking a little vacation to Malaga, Sevilla, and Granada before heading back to Canada. We enjoyed the show. I enjoyed the guitar playing in particular. I liked to watch the interplay between the two guitar players (there were two on almost every number). I can’t really say whether this was good Flamenco or not. It was after midnight when the show was done, so we followed the crowd through the narrow streets until we got to the Cathedral and then back to the hotel.
It was another chilly morning. After a breakfast of grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee, we headed over to the center of town to tour the Reales Alcazares, the ancient Royal Palace, built on top of a Muslim fortress, which was built on top of a Christian Basilica. According to many sources (including Rick Steves), despite being built over many centuries and undergoing extensive renovations from time to time, it is one of the best examples of the mudejar style, which “denotes a style of Iberian architecture and decoration, particularly of Aragon and Castile, of the 12th to 16th centuries, strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship.” The mudejar were Muslims who remained in Spain after the reconquista, but who did not convert to Christianity. One of the most amazing features of this style is the intricate plasterwork decoration of the walls and arches, as well as the tile decoration on the walls and floors.
Another interesting part of the Palace was the rooms which Queen Isabella set aside to manage the trade with the New World. And so we were standing where Columbus, Magellan, Vasco De Gama and others met with the King and Queen and their ministers to discuss their future voyages.
We also spent a good deal of time in the gardens, some of the best in Sevilla, with a maze, tiled benches, and numerous fountains. It was very pleasant just to sit in this peaceful place.
We wandered back through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, along the wall of the Alcazar. There was a street musician performing local folk style guitar (with some flamenco influence) that I listened to for a few minutes while Laura wandered in one of the shops. We wound up eating lunch again at Restaurante Carmella. We ordered the Plata del Dia, which was some kind of potatoes in sauce, and I ordered a cannelloni tapas. There were too many carbs and it was not quite as memorable as the previous day. While we were finishing, an old guy hobbled up and sat down at the next table and pulled out a battered old guitar and started to play some flamenco or flamenco-influenced guitar. I took his picture and gave him a coin as we left. We walked back through the center of town and over to the Plaza Del Toros and Museum of Bullfighting to take the tour.
They give a brief tour of the Arena several times an hour. The stands are all made of brick and there are about 14,000 seats. When there is a bullfight the seats are categorized as “Sun” or “Shade”, with the shady seats being much more expensive. They showed us the gate where the matadors and toreadors enter the ring and the gate where the bulls are released. They showed us the Royal Box. And then they took us underneath the stands to see a small museum, with one room of paintings and drawings of bullfighting, including one by Goya that we did not get to see because they hurried us along to the next part of the museum, where they showed costumes and capes and talked about some of the history of bullfighting. According to the guide, it originated with the Romans, perhaps as a variant of the gladiator fights. It was re-introduced in Spain as part of training for the military and gradually developed into a spectator sport with professional matadors in the early 19th Century.
After visiting the museum, we walked across the boulevard to the river and walked down to the Torre del’Oro (Golden Tower), stopping to sit and have a drink and watch the sunset.
We decided to go back to the little tapas bar that we had stopped in the previous night, so we walked back into the heart of the Santa Cruz neighborhood and grabbed an outdoor table at the Bar Las Teresas. We ordered the cheese, but through a miscommunication with the waiter we got a large plate of cheese. Then a different waiter came out and when we asked about tapas, he said that tapas were only available inside. As a result, our meal was not as varied as we had intended. We ordered the swordfish in tomato sauce to go along with the cheese that we had already gobbled up.
After dinner, we walked back through the streets and stopped at another little bar for a drink. Later, on the way home we stopped at a little bar behind the Plaza de Toros and ordered tapas that turned out to be nothing like we expected. It was a soft cheese with sweet tomato marmalade, a specialty of the house. Live and learn.
Friday, October 29, 2010
First thoughts were to visit Girona and even to trace some of my father’s footsteps crossing over from France. Then we went to Cancun in July and we met a British couple there and over dinner one night we were discussing our plans and they said that they had a condo on the Mediterranean in the town of Guardamar and that they were planning to be there for a long weekend in October. It turned out that their plans and ours coincided, so we started to finalize our itinerary.
I should note here that neither Laura nor I speak much Spanish. We put together our itinerary primarily based on recommendations by the Rick Steves Travel Guides. We booked all the hotels on the internet (Venere.com).
October 9, 2010
We arrived in Barcelona about 8:30am after our flight from Washington via JFK. After picking up our bags and getting some cash, we found the Airport Bus to Plaza de Catalunya and took a cab to our Hotel, down the block from the Picasso Museum in the Ribera District. We stayed at the Hotel Ciutat de Barcelona on Carrer Princesa.
The room wasn’t ready, so we stowed our bags, got a map and walked off towards La Ramblas. We walked up and down for a while enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, saw some of the street performers and went down to the waterfront and the statue of Columbus. We finally wandered into the Plaza Reial and found an outdoor café, where we ordered some drinks and some great pollo al ajillo and artichokes. The chicken had an almost pesto-like sauce loaded with garlic. Delicious. We sat and ate and watched the people, including bike tours, listening to conversations in a half dozen languages. Afterwards, we made our way back to the Hotel, rested and freshened up. The room was very nice, clean and modern, with a queen-size bed.
Later, we went out for a walk, starting out by checking out the Cathedral. From the plaza overlooking the cathedral, we took a street that we thought would take us back to La Ramblas, but the street was curved and we took all the wrong turns at the various intersections and wound up on the waterfront, about as close to La Ramblas as where we had started out. We walked along the promenade to the Columbus Statue and up La Ramblas and watched more of the street performers in action, winding up at the Market where we wandered up and down the aisles of pastries, chocolate, fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables, fresh and succulent, piled high.
At the edge of the Market, we found a wine shop where they were doing a tasting, so we bought some tickets and tasted some red wine, white wine, and cava (Spanish version of Champagne). I liked the red, Laura really liked the white. We bought a couple of bottles of the white wine.
We walked back to La Ramblas and found an outdoor spot where we could have another glass of wine and watch the street performers. After the drink, we were getting hungry, so we started to walk back towards the hotel. Not knowing the customs of Spain, we didn’t realize that you couldn’t get a sit-down dinner until at least 8 pm. So we went into a Restaurant and thought we might have some Tapas and another drink, but then decided that we didn’t really think the menu options were that great, so we walked on, eventually we decided on a place that was about a block from our Hotel. The food was not that great, but we were hungry so it was very welcome. I was drinking beer at this point and we started to watch the drama of a young American coming on to two young Spanish women. He would talk to them together, then talk to them individually, then go off to hit on some other women, then introduce one or two other of his friends. We were at a small table just removed from the bar and this was all happening at the bar.
Eventually, we got involved (or Laura got involved) in conversation with one of the guys – I think after the women had wandered off and left the “player” alone with his mates. They were an interesting (!) crew. The American, was 23, and wearing an “I Just Got Laid” T-Shirt. He lived in Barcelona and had known the two girls that he was chatting with most of the evening about 3 years earlier (maybe in school?). One was married, but he was still interested in her. He also had an English friend, Andy, who was 29 and from Liverpool and had been living in Barcelona for about 6 years, and was currently selling advertising for Google. Towards the end of the evening, Andy got a piece of paper and pen from the Bartender and had to write down his top things to do in Barcelona. We eventually lost the list (which also had contact information), so I can’t say whether we saw everything on it or not. We definitely went to his #1 spot and a couple of others. The third member of the crew was an older man, about 50, who was from Costa Rica, but had been an American citizen and lived for a time in Minneapolis. He moved to Spain to avoid alimony from a nasty divorce. He was very happy that his kids were now gravitating towards him after years of not seeing them. Around midnight we finally had our fill of drinks and our “friends” had drifted off, so we went back to the hotel and crashed.
Sunday, Oct 10
There were no clocks in the room, which apparently is very common in Spain and we didn’t think to ask for a wakeup call. Anyway, we wound up getting up pretty late and went looking for some breakfast. We thought we’d go to the Picasso Museum, just down the street. We could tell that it was raining, but not much else. Turns out it was also pretty chilly. After wandering around for awhile, we found a little café/bar about two blocks from the hotel. We had café con leche and I wound up having a ham and cheese sandwich on a roll and Laura had a small omelet. After our breakfast, we huddled under our umbrella and walked the short walk over to the Picasso Museum. The rain had eased up a bit, but the queue for the Museum stretched almost all the way to the local church. We decided that we needed to pursue plan B (not that we had one at that point). It was Sunday morning, and it was drizzling off and on, so we ducked into the church. It felt a little strange since the service was going on and we were really just tourists, but we had a look around, enjoyed the stained glass and the interior and then ducked out.
At that point we decided we should take the Metro and see the Gaudi Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, which is near the top of most lists of things to see in Barcelona. That would potentially kill three birds with one stone. We would get to ride the Metro (a treat in itself and a test of whether you can follow a map and buy the right tickets), get out of the rain for a bit, and finally, see one of the major sites in town. We managed to get the tickets very easily from the Vending machine. We managed to navigate a transfer, get on the trains in the proper direction and wound up at the Cathedral. At the stop, there were (as there often is) two exits and we had no idea which one we should take. As we were walking up the steps Laura said something about how we probably wouldn’t be able to figure out where the Cathedral was. As she was saying this we got to the top of the stairs and I turned around and of course, it was right there across the street. Fortunately, it had stopped raining at that point. We walked through a park across from the Cathedral to get a better view of the front (so we thought). From the side we were looking at, it looks very much like an old gothic cathedral, which makes sense, since it was started in about 1880 when neo-gothic was still in fashion (think Washington’s National Cathedral). But it also has an odd look to it, almost as though the sculptures and carvings and front are melting.
It is very hard to describe. Anyway, we found our way to the ticket line, which was long, but not as long as the Picasso Museum, and the weather was warming up. The actual entrance is around the opposite side, so as we moved along we got to slowly see the Cathedral changing from Gothic to something much more modern. When you finally get around to the front (or is it the back, or neither) the entrance is very modern in design. Once inside, you are treated to beautiful stained glass windows and an inside which is at once gothic and modern. As with a gothic church you have massive towering columns holding up the ceiling. However, Gaudi used more modern principles to create columns that branch at the top to distribute the weight and that also look like trees. To emphasize that, his trees are anchored by a canopy of “leaves”, so you feel like you are standing in a forest. Also unlike most gothic cathedrals, the interior is light and airy with more windows. Gaudi worked on the cathedral from 1882 until his death in 1926, and work has continued in fits and starts ever since. Recent estimates suggest it will be completed in 20 to 50 years.
After the cathedral, we walked up the street from the Metro station and found an outdoor café (Babilonia) for some wine and a late lunch. We had a tasty meal of gambas al ajillo and hummus. After that, we hopped back on the metro and got in line for the Picasso Museum.
Again the line was long, but shorter than in the morning and since it was closed on Mondays, it was now or never. We waited about ½ an hour and to our surprise much of the reason for the long lines (aside from the rain) was that Sunday was free. The Museo Picasso is particularly interesting because it concentrates primarily on his early work, before cubism. So it has drawings and paintings starting from when he was 13-14 years old. As you see him develop over 10-15 years, you find a painter who was able to draw and paint quite remarkable realistic works and had a firm foundation and even classical training. Few, if any, of these early works would be considered masterpieces, but they are very solid and provide a completely different perspective on Picasso and his art. The museum also has drawings and posters that he created as a young artist living in Barcelona and a few later works that he donated toward the end of his life. One interesting collection are a number of studies (deconstructions really) that he did based on a painting by the Spanish artist Velasquez called Las Meninas.
We ate that night near the hotel on the Carrer Argenterias at a restaurant called Taller de Tapas. Among other things Laura had the spinach and garbanzos with a little prosciutto and a lot of garlic, which she got me to eat a little of, and I have to say that it was excellent (and I really don’t like cooked spinach). That was so unusual and tasty, that I can’t recall anything else that we had to eat that night.
By the end of the evening, if not before, we had decided to abandon the plan to take a day trip to Girona. We were having too much fun in Barcelona.
After Breakfast at the Hotel, we took the Metro to Park Guell, which was at the top of Andy’s list of things to see and do in Barcelona. It was a bit difficult to figure out how to get there by Metro and it took me a while (from the map) to figure out which was the closest stop, but we made it (take the Metro to Valcarca station). From the Metro, we followed the signs to the park and as we turned the corner, the street quite literally rose up towards the sky. Actually, it wasn’t a street, since no car could have climbed it. There were a combination of stairs and outdoor escalators (uncovered). Unfortunately, not all of the escalators were working, so it was quite a workout.
This way in to the Park gets you to the pinnacle of a very large hill, where the city of Barcelona spreads out in front of you with views of the Mediterranean, La Sagrada Familia, and Montjuic, a smaller mountain park near the waterfront. Behind, there is an even larger mountain. The Park was designed by Gaudi and was originally intended to be a wealthy gated community of about 60 houses, but only a couple of the houses were ever built and it never caught on and then World War I and other economic turmoil intervened and it was eventually sold to the city as a park.
As we climbed the last bit, to get to the very top, we encountered some musicians. One was playing an unusual instrument that resembled a covered metal serving dish. What he was playing was partly percussion and partly similar to playing water glasses and creating a similar sound. It was very new age. I kick myself later for not thinking of taking a little video clip of it. At the very top there was a guy playing percussion and didgeridoo. It was very interesting world beat sound.
From the top, we wandered down towards the large central plaza of the park. On the way, we encountered a pretty good reggae band and then on the Plaza itself there was a duo or trio playing a more traditional flamenco influenced blend of music. The Central Plaza and the Market which is underneath the Central Plaza are one of the main works completed by Gaudi in the Park along with aqueducts and other infrastructure. We walked down the steps from the market and then toured the porter’s house, which is a little museum. After finishing our tour of the Park, we walked down to the Lessups Metro Stop (definitely better than starting at Lessups and trying to walk up to the top of the Park) and headed back to the Passeig de Gracia Metro stop to see a couple more Gaudi buildings and the Block of Discord. We stopped for lunch in a trendy little restaurant, which was on the second floor of a large building. You had to take one of those old elevators up. It looked pretty fancy and the meal was very good, but it was surprisingly reasonable. Laura had some kind of salad and I had chicken skewers in an Asian Sesame Sauce. We also had some deep-fried artichoke, which tasted a bit like French fries cooked in olive oil. The Block of Discord is a block of buildings in distinctly different, and some would say clashing, architectural styles. One of them is a Gaudi. We hopped back on the Metro and rode down to the waterfront.
We took a walk through the Parc de la Ciutadella, which is near the site of Barcelona Olympic village and not far from our hotel. As often happens, we took the wrong turn out of the Metro station and wound up a little off course, but after walking for about 15 minutes, we checked the map, made a course correction and found our way back to the park, which had a lovely fountain which was built for the 1888 World’s Fair. It also has a zoo, which we did not see and several museums housed in buildings left over from the Fair. Eventually, we got back to the hotel.
In the evening, we walked over to the Cathedral and wandered through some of the back streets looking for a little bar that was a hangout of Picasso’s more than 100 years ago. After going round in circles and not really finding anything, we wound up on a large boulevard, which was crowded with people and had lots of fancy stores lining it. After about a block, Laura said that she really didn’t like the crowd, so we ducked down an alleyway and at the first corner, of course we found El Quatre Gats (4Gats.com). We went in for a drink and it’s a wonderful little place, so we had another drink. We were charging our camera, so we were not able to get any pictures. However, there was a Japanese girl at the next table and she had a great camera. We talked to her a little bit and she agreed to take our picture and send it to us (probably won’t happen).
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Click the above Link and listen to the song, a live version of "Who's This Stranger". It was recorded recently at Bangkok Blues, a funky little Thai Restaurant in Falls Church. You can vote for the song daily through August 11th. Voting just opened a couple of days ago and I was at #11 last time I checked. Pretty stiff competition, so throw me a couple votes if you can.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Listen to the song (Somebody Else's Problem) and vote (pretty please). This is one that you will never have heard before, unless you've been to one of a handful of live gigs where I decided to play it (and there, you'd be missing Greg Gosdin's sweet acoustic lead guitar).
I'm not going to push this very hard, since the song will probably get disqualified in the end (mentions alcohol) and it's not exactly a Corporate Jingle. I mean, I can't seriously think that Midas would consider this song for advertising.
You can vote daily through July 30th.
And, by the way, YOU can enter the contest to win cool prizes after you vote.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Recently, Steny Hoyer and John Boehner were meeting to discuss raising the retirement age to 70, as a way to ease the long-term fiscal problems of Social Security and to help with the Deficit. According to most studies of Social Security, its fiscal health is pretty good until sometime between 2037 and 2041, so we really are talking about a long-term issue here. As for the deficit, that’s a bit of a head scratcher.
Most economists will tell you that Social Security has little or nothing to do with the deficit, except that it makes a pretty good slush fund to make the deficit look smaller in the short-term. However, raising the retirement age 15 years from now (no one over 50 would be impacted in most such plans), would have no impact on current deficits, so it’s unclear what Hoyer is really thinking. Boehner, of course, is just trying to chip away at Social Security any way he can. It's in the Republican DNA. He can't help it.
Is this really the best use of our time in 2010? I mean, the country is still lurching towards a double dip recession, if not outright depression. Unemployment is still almost 10% (really almost 20%). We can’t get an extension of unemployment benefits through the Senate. The Gulf becomes more toxic every hour. Energy legislation is stalled (again in the Senate). The financial markets are still pretty much a den of thieves trying to suck every last dime out of our pockets. The housing market is in shambles and people are losing or walking away from their homes left and right. We’re still fighting two expensive wars in the Middle East, with no real end in sight. We need stimulus and jobs now, not even more unwanted people in the labor market.
If we don’t solve these problems, right now or soon, then it really doesn’t matter what shape social security is in 27 years from now. We probably won’t have a country in 2037, let alone Social Security. If we can’t create jobs, transition to a clean energy future and clean up Wall Street and the Big Banks, we’ll be a smoking ruin of a country in 25 years. But let’s look at the issue on its merits.
The standard argument for raising the retirement age is that people are living longer and are healthier than they were when Social Security was started. That’s pretty much true. Steny Hoyer is 71, so he probably thinks that working into your 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s is a good idea (think Robert Byrd). “Hey, if I can do it, so can you.” The trouble with this logic is that most of us don’t have as good (easy?) a job as members of Congress and we don’t have their salaries and benefits package either.
Among the long-term unemployed, a growing percentage is over 50, and many are college graduates. Many of these are unlikely to work again. So raising the retirement age could hurt a growing number of seniors, consigning them to poverty (one of the original justifications for Social Security), dumping them on their children (no Thanks), or pushing them into menial and demeaning jobs. Related to this, who’s going to employ all these 66-70 year olds? I’m sure my employer would be salivating at the opportunity to keep me around for another four (or 8) years (NOT!). Fortunately I’m old enough that it’s not a real issue and I have a good job, but I’m not sure I’d want to do it for another 12 years. And I sure wouldn’t be looking forward to the prospect of spending my golden years bagging groceries at Publix or flipping burgers (or worse).
So, Steny, what are you thinking? That you’ll trade this mostly meaningless chip for some Republican good will on a bigger issue like climate change or single payer? That might make some sense, if you were in the Senate. And when recently (if ever) have the Republicans responded to a Democratic concession with good will? Or are you just trying to get Boehner to go farther out on a limb? There might be some sort of a game here, but why not just try solving the real problems that face us today?
If you still want to trade this for something, how about something tangible like a 32 hour work week, which could ease the unemployment problem, and make worker’s lives better today. And while you’re at it, how about a mandatory retirement age of 70 for members of Congress…
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
These days, I’m more ambivalent about the technology and its problems, sometimes even willing to grant it a sort of grudging “support”, along the lines sketched out by James Lovelock. In essence, the argument in favor of allowing a nuclear renaissance boils down to: we’re all screwed anyway, so why not? I mean, it’s not like the species (particularly Homo Americanus) has shown great judgment or ecological vision or compassion. We’ve pretty much had an uninterrupted celebration of greed, selfishness and stupidity in high places, at least since the late 70’s.
But then, my own innate optimism (such as it is) takes hold again, and I say Hell no. So, I’ve dusted off a song I wrote back in the 80’s about the nuclear industry, added a new verse, and will be taking it out to play in future weeks. As I mentioned, I was a bit of a geek about Nuclear issues back in the day. Before Three Mile Island, there was a 1975 accident at a power plant at Browns Ferry in Alabama. A fire started by a candle that wound up doing something like $100 million of damage. As Wikipedia puts it: “the March 22, 1975 fire started when a worker using a candle to search for air leaks accidentally set a temporary cable seal on fire. The fire spread through the wall from the temporary seal.”
At the time that I was contemplating writing a song about TMI, I was thumbing through a book of old folk songs and came across the “Brown’s Ferry Blues”. It seemed like a perfect frame for the story I wanted to tell, though, aside from the tag line “Lord, lord I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry Blues,” there wasn’t a whole lot of the song that I could actually re-use. I did re-use half of a verse, which fits nicely with the overall flavor of the work. I revised the song again after Chernobyl, but since that time it has been gathering dust. Anyway, the words follow and I should be posting a recording of it soon. Let me know what you think and if you have verses to add, feel free to contribute.
Brown’s Ferry Blues
Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Put on you coat, get on down the road
Don’t want to be around when it shoots it’s load
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Early to bed and early to rise
And your woman goes out with the other guys
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
She doesn’t want your contaminated fingers
After it’s over radiation lingers
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Nobody died at Three Mile Island
Chernobyl was just a few commies fryin
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Got a two headed mule and a three headed calf
I go out to the barn when I need a good laugh
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Deepwater oil bearing down on the coast
As Global Warming slowly turns us all into toast
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
GE Lobbyists wading into the fray
Nuclear Power’s gonna save the day
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
One of these days it’ll be all over
We’ll sleep together in a field of clover
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
(c) 2010. Jim Heald. All Rights Reserved.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
He had pretty much vanished from the face of the earth (at least to non-friends and relatives), although he did release an album in the late 80's and another in the late 90's. Previous searches (not sure that I've tried in recent years) yielded very little, except a credit as the Music Director on a small film called American Reel.
On this most recent search, there was a link to a Wikipedia page for someone named Junior Burke. So I went to wikipedia and the mystery unravelled a bit. Thomas Burke Bishop Jr. had decided sometime in the 90's to become known as Junior Burke. Junior had recently released a CD (of old and new music - quite good, very well produced by Chicagoan Jim Tullio) and had published a novel in 2005 (the novel appears to be out of print, but used copies can be purchased through Amazon). He is also now the chair of the Kerouac Institute for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. and is working on a second novel. Check him out at www.juniorburke.com .
Monday, April 19, 2010
ARE Americans practicing Communism?
Karl Marx describes in his communist manifesto, the ten steps necessary to destroy a free enterprise system and replace it with a system of omnipotent government power, so as to effect a communist socialist state. Those ten steps are known as the Ten Planks of The Communist Manifesto… The following brief presents the original ten planks within the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx in 1848, along with the American adopted counterpart for each of the planks. From comparison it's clear MOST Americans have by myths, fraud and deception under the color of law by their own politicians in both the Republican and Democratic and parties, been transformed into Communists.
Take that George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Mitch McConnell!!!
Another thing to remember, Karl Marx in creating the Communist Manifesto designed these planks AS A TEST to determine whether a society has become communist or not. If they are all in effect and in force, then the people ARE practicing communists.
Since they are not “all” in effect and “in force” then we’re not.
The 10 PLANKS stated in the Communist Manifesto and some of their American counterparts are...
The American “counterparts” are pretty well stretched beyond any reasonable recognition.
1. Abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to public purposes. Americans do these with actions such as the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1868), and various zoning, school & property taxes. Also the Bureau of Land Management (Zoning laws are the first step to government property ownership)
Regulation is not ownership. The constitution originally did not enumerate any “rights” of citizens and constitutions in general are a “social contract”, which enumerates both rights and responsibilities. The Federal Government IS allowed to tax its citizens and regulate interstate commerce. There was no thought by the founders that States would not tax their citizens and regulate commercial activity and property as well as adjudicating disputes.
Quite obviously, private property has not been abolished in this country and “ALL” rents have not been diverted to public purposes. We wouldn’t be talking about the deficit or Wall Street Bonuses if they were. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Bob Rubin et al would laugh in your face if you made this claim to them.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. Americans know this as misapplication of the 16th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, 1913, The Social Security Act of 1936.; Joint House Resolution 192 of 1933; and various State "income" taxes. We call it "paying your fair share".
So, if we had a 95% Flat Tax you’d be happy with it? The top tax rate was about 90% in 1960. Kennedy cut it to 70%. Reagan cut it to 50% and then to 36%. Clinton raised the top rate to 39.6% and Bush cut it again. So, by historical measures, current progressive income taxes are not that “heavy”. If you look at all taxes (local and federal, including sales and payroll taxes) the US Tax rates are essentially flat and are substantially lower than the rest of the industrialized world. There is no prohibition in the Constitution for States and Local Governments enacting pretty much any tax they want.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance. Americans call it Federal & State estate Tax (1916); or reformed Probate Laws, and limited inheritance via arbitrary inheritance tax statutes.
“ALL” means all. Libertarians might consider the current estate taxes confiscatory, but we have not abolished rights of inheritance by any reasonable measure. The current laws impact less than 2% of the population, and there are legal remedies for most of them to mitigate the damage. Four or Five of the wealthiest Americans on the recent Forbes tally were heirs of Sam Walton. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Rockefellers and Kennedys are also doing pretty well.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. Americans call it government seizures, tax liens, Public "law" 99-570 (1986); Executive order 11490, sections 1205, 2002 which gives private land to the Department of Urban Development; the imprisonment of "terrorists" and those who speak out or write against the "government" (1997 Crime/Terrorist Bill); or the IRS confiscation of property without due process. Asset forfeiture laws are used by DEA, IRS, ATF etc...).
Again, “ALL” means all. People leaving this country voluntarily don’t have their property confiscated. Should “terrorists” receive due process? What constitutes “terrorism”? Most Americans have to say or do quite a bit to antagonize the government into confiscating their property and putting them in jail, unless they are poor and black. Should the DEA NOT raid and shut down crystal meth operations?
The government does have a long, sordid history of putting down people's rebellions and censoring thought and speech from the Whiskey Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790's, union busting in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, during and after World War I (anti-immigrant, anti-socialist), the McCarthy era, FBI and other agency surveillance and infiltration of the Anti-War and Civil Rights Movements in the 1960's. Are militias being unfairly targeted today? Perhaps, but they have a lot more guns than many other protesters in the past and have taken explicitly violent, almost apocalyptic positions towards the government and society.
5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. Americans call it the Federal Reserve which is a privately-owned credit/debt system allowed by the Federal Reserve act of 1913. All local banks are members of the Fed system, and are regulated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) another privately [SIC public]-owned corporation. The Federal Reserve Banks issue Fiat Paper Money and practice economically destructive fractional reserve banking.
Hamilton, one of the revered founding fathers, believed in Central Banking and established the First Bank of the U.S well before Marx was born. A second bank was also established and was abolished by Jackson. There are certainly problems with our financial system and one might want to rail against either the Fed or the Big Banks. But it could as easily be said that the Banks own the government rather than the reverse. The Fed and the government clearly don’t have an “exclusive” monopoly.
6. Centralization of the means of communications and transportation in the hands of the State. Americans call it the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) mandated through the ICC act of 1887, the Commissions Act of 1934, The Interstate Commerce Commission established in 1938, The Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Executive orders 11490, 10999, as well as State mandated driver's licenses and Department of Transportation regulations.
The Internet is in the hands of the State? TV? Radio? Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck work for Obama? There is a clear difference between regulations and a framework of law and “centralization of the means of communication and transportation”. We certainly have a problem with corporate concentration of wealth and power and the homogeneity of “corporate” media, but again you’re railing at the wrong target. It’s not the government that controls it.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state, the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. Americans call it corporate capacity, The Desert Entry Act and The Department of Agriculture… Thus read "controlled or subsidized" rather than "owned"… This is easily seen in these as well as the Department of Commerce and Labor, Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Mines, National Park Service, and the IRS control of business through corporate regulations.
Massey Energy is a good example of how the Government does not control Coal mining (and every other private business), despite environmental and safety regulations. The US certainly has a lot of public land, which it manages and leases to the Energy industry, Timber interests, Agricultural companies (grazing rights), mining companies, etc. Whether these activities fairly benefit all of the people is a question that can and should be debated. The same with agricultural subsidies. “The improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan,” is a bad thing?
8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. Americans call it Minimum Wage and slave labor like dealing with our Most Favored Nation trade partner; i.e. Communist China. We see it in practice via the Social Security Administration and The Department of Labor. The National debt and inflation caused by the communal bank has caused the need for a two "income" family. Woman in the workplace since the 1920's, the 19th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, assorted Socialist Unions, affirmative action, the Federal Public Works Program and of course Executive order 11000.
You’re against women working? You’re against women voting? You’re for discrimination against black people? Basically this “plank” means that labor is King in the communist society. This is as far from the current situation in the U.S. as possible. If you read The Manifesto as a “historical” document (ie, “in context”), this makes more sense. Poor people were essentially thrown off the land by the enclosure laws of the late 18th and early 19th century and had nowhere to go but the urban slums and, if they were lucky, factory jobs. Women started working in factories in Europe early in the Industrial Revolution. My great-great grandmother worked in the cotton mills in Manchester. Creating industrial armies for agriculture would have been a way to get people back to the land, back to “fresh” air, give them work and food to eat. In any event, we’re not creating “industrial armies”.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries, gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of population over the country. Americans call it the Planning Reorganization act of 1949 , zoning (Title 17 1910-1990) and Super Corporate Farms, as well as Executive orders 11647, 11731 (ten regions) and Public "law" 89-136. These provide for forced relocations and forced sterilization programs, like in China.
Forced relocations and sterilization? Pretty paranoid shit (and by the way, not advocated by Marx). You realize that this “explanation” is tied in to Christian end-times bullshit about Armageddon and the coming of the Antichrist (orchestrated by FEMA)? To the extent that we are abolishing the distinction between town and country, it is because of growth and sprawl, not the result of “government control”.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production. Americans are being taxed to support what we call 'public' schools, but are actually "government force-tax-funded schools" Even private schools are government regulated. The purpose is to train the young to work for the communal debt system. We also call it the Department of Education, the NEA and Outcome Based "Education” . These are used so that all children can be indoctrinated and inculcated with the government propaganda, like "majority rules", and "pay your fair share". WHERE are the words "fair share" in the Constitution, Bill of Rights or the Internal Revenue Code (Title 26)?? NO WHERE is "fair share" even suggested!! The philosophical concept of "fair share" comes from the Communist maxim, "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need! This concept is pure socialism. ... America was made the greatest society by its private initiative WORK ETHIC ... Teaching ourselves and others how to "fish" to be self sufficient and produce plenty of EXTRA commodities to if so desired could be shared with others who might be "needy"... Americans have always voluntarily been the MOST generous and charitable society on the planet.
So, you’re against public education? You’re for child factory labor? Public schools teach “societal” norms. Corporate-run schools would promote corporate values. Religious schools would promote religious values (and maybe pedophilia as a side benefit). And yes, one prominent function of schools is to “socialize” children (pun intended). In this country, we have public schools, private schools, and religious schools. We allow home schooling, where presumably, children will be indoctrinated by their parents and limited to the views of their parents. Public education has been generally a good thing, but becomes problematic when State Governments (Texas, most recently) try to censor and rewrite the history curriculum, or when Creationists in Kansas try to push Intelligent Design.
“Fair Share” – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. We’re supposed to be a Christian nation (at least that’s what the so-called Christians keep telling us). “All men are created equal”. Declaration of Independence. Socialist nonsense. Sharing goes back much further than Marx. Loaves and fishes (damned Socialist Jesus!). Think about it for a moment. When do we NOT want to get “our fair share,” our piece of the pie, etc? From the point of view of the individual and our desires, we WANT what’s ours, right? But giving someone else THEIR fair share? Heck no. We’re greedy little bastards down to the core.
Whether or not it is true that “Americans have always voluntarily been the MOST generous and charitable society on the planet,” is somewhat beside the point. To the extent that it’s true, it’s a good thing. But it hardly negates the need for government.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Another line of dissent on the movie came from folks who thought that Robert Duvall was under-utilized and a few who thought that Tender Mercies was a much better movie on the same subject (including one person who suggested that the makers of Crazy Heart didn't know anything about the music industry). I don't remember Tender Mercies well enough to comment, but Bob had a good role in Crazy Heart and I can't say that I felt a need for more of him. As for lack of knowledge of the music business, that's a real laugh. It would be hard to find a duo with more knowledge of the music world than T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, especially the working musician's world. T-Bone played with Bob Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Review, has had an interesting solo career, has been a prolific producer and has done a number of well-regarded soundtracks. Stephen was Kris Kristofferson's lead guitarist in the 70's and 80's, before settling in Austin and working as a producer (Jimmy Dale Gilmore among many), solo artist, session musician, and member of the Resentments before his untimely death last year. Supposedly, when Kris K saw a rough cut of the movie last year, he had a hard time watching it because it came so close to his own life and the lives of his friends (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash).
Playing a drunk, addict or a crazy person is supposedly a good career move for an actor and it has certainly worked in recent years for Nicholas Cage and now Jeff Bridges, among others. Interesting that it's not something that audiences or producers are willing to try very often for a leading lady (though Ann Hathaway pulled it off, in a different way in Rachel Getting Married). It's hard to imagine too many folks willing to look as bad and take it as far as Bridges does here. And as a result some folks find it repulsive, or boring, or depressing.
Thankfully, the filmmakers didn't linger too long on the rehab stint, and also didn't have Bad relapse after Maggie rejects him. And while Bad's fortunes turn positive after rehab, the seeds were sown during the depths of his condition. He makes the deal with Tommy and writes the great song while he is still drinking hard and before Maggie walks out on him.
Friday, March 12, 2010
Needless to say, my head has not been "in the game". New stuff is coming up. There's a house concert in 2 weeks on Saturday, March 27th at 8 pm (email me for directions if you are interested in joining us - email@example.com). Then I have some showcase appearances in April, May and June.
Take care. I'll be writing more later.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Hoping for a good turnout at the gig at Buzz tomorrow night, but it's not looking good.
Strike One: It's a Monday night.
Strike Two: Day after Super Bowl.
Strike Three: Historic Winter storm. Almost 18" officially at National Airport (about 2 miles from here). Picture above is the patio yesterday afternoon.
Officially, this is a worse storm than December (more snow), with wetter snow (heavy and more prone to freezing).
At least it's a sunny day today, though not expected to rise above the 20's. Big problem for the gig will be parking (can I even get close enough to unload my gear?
Oh, Well. Mother Nature always gets the final say.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Learning to play the guitar, brought contemporary and popular music back into my life. After a number of years of listening mostly to classical music, it was fun to rediscover the music of the 60’s and early 70’s and some of the better folk music. There was a wealth of good material to absorb and play. The Beatles were at the bottom of everything, since they were my original favorite group. Comparing the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, I have always chosen the Beatles. And when listening to the Beatles, I have generally been more a fan of John Lennon than Paul McCartney, although I probably know more of Paul’s songs, although I've forgotten how to play most of them.
I was pretty distraught about John’s death. It was as if one of the better parts of my own childhood had been killed. I learned Norwegian Wood to play specially at the Single File Open Stage the week that he was killed.
There were concerts at the Old Town School and I became acquainted with the likes of John Prine, Steve Goodman, Michael Smith, Corky Siegel, Stan Rogers, Doc Watson, Jim Post, Bob Gibson, Tom Paxton and a slew of other artists. I also became aware of a new generation of local songwriters like Tom Dundee, Thom Bishop, Chris Farrell and Marty Piefer. We would hang out at clubs or at the local stages during Chicagofest to hear these new artists. I particularly liked to go to a club like Somebody Else’s Troubles or The Earl of Old Town and sit near the front and watch performers play guitar. I picked up ideas for my own playing and sometimes I wound up learning a few of their songs.
During some benefit concerts for the Old Town School in 1981, I got to meet Roger McGuinn, who many years earlier had passed through the School on his way to becoming a Byrd. I really didn’t have much of anything to say to him, and it was an awkward few minutes, but it was a thrill just to shake his hand.
Some artists I got to know primarily through their recordings. Several albums by Loudon Wainwright III helped me through a romantic breakup in 1980. Songs like Mr. Guilty and Down Drinkin’ at the Bar became part of my repertoire and I still sing them on occasion.
A few years later, in 1984, I read a concert preview in the Chicago Reader for a songwriter named Bruce Cockburn. While I had already missed the concert, the article piqued my interest and I went to the local record store and bought the only thing they had of his, a cassette tape of Stealing Fire. Almost instantly, he became my favorite songwriter and remains so to this day. Over time, I have also become increasingly impressed with the emotional and stylistic range of his guitar playing. I've seen him perform a number of times over the years, both in Austin and in DC. While I've never warmed up to the overtly Religious songs (Lord of the Starfields, for example) in his catalog, fortunately they are few and far between, especially on the Albums starting around 1980.
Any list of songwriter influences would be incomplete without mentioning Bob Dylan. He was a huge favorite, as you can imagine, at the Old Town School. His songs were a large part of the teaching curriculum. I have learned, and forgotten, many Dylan songs over the years. Two have pretty much stayed with me: Tangled Up in Blue and Shelter from the Storm.
Other more recent influences include David Wilcox (fabulous guitar player, I particularly like his older less - new age material), Richard Thompson (acoustic and electric wizard), Stephen Bruton, and many, many more....
Friday, January 29, 2010
When I got back from Europe, somehow I got pointed in the direction of the Old Town School of Folk Music (perhaps my mother told me about it, I'm not sure). I signed up for the first class available after my return and the rest is almost history. Practically the first thing that they teach you is how to tune your guitar. Then they teach you how to play Row, Row, Row your Boat and Go Tell Aunt Rhody and a lot of other old chestnut songs that you can play with one or two chords. I took lessons until sometime in 1980, but after a while I began learning mostly from watching other people perform.
I met Terry and Ed in March of 1978 when I began the third set of classes at the Old Town School. Terry was a psychologist, working at IIT at the time, who was a big ham and wanted to be a Rock 'n Roll star. He was a big Elvis fan which should have turned me off right there, but they were both good guys. Eddie was a pharmacist. We didn't know it at the time, but Eddie was on some pretty serious anti-depressants. He had problems with women and also with his family, and both were tearing him apart on the inside, but he seemed like such a nice guy.
The first session we took lessons together was on a Saturday morning. We started going out to lunch occasionally and started to become friends. We were all pretty serious about learning the guitar and were at about the same level. The next session we took was on a Wednesday evening and that was really the beginning of our deepening relationship and an even more serious turn towards the music. There was an open stage on Wednesday nights at this little club a few blocks from the school and a large group of folks would go there and hang out and play after the lessons were over (maybe around 9:30).
Our teacher at that time, and for a long time after, was Bill Hanson. Bill was a country music fan who had a little group that would play regularly at the Single File on Wednesdays. None of us really liked Country music all that much, but Bill was an okay guy and we learned a lot of popular music from him. Our playing was beginning to improve dramatically and we started practicing together more. Ed eventually picked up the bass and started to perform with Bill and his group. Terry and I finally got up the nerve to get up and play a couple of songs at the File. I think originally it was mostly Terry, with me just hanging in there. Being a natural ham, he was infinitely more comfortable on stage than I was.
We performed together maybe one or two times and then Terry decided that he wanted to do things on his own(probably play Elvis songs). I started to practice my singing more and fortified by about a six pack, I began trying to play at the stage all by myself. The first time, in the summer of 1980, I was so nervous that I forgot the words to whatever song I was singing(I think it was Part of the Plan by Dan Fogelberg). It wasn't a glorious beginning.
Alvin, another teacher at the school, who was at the time the host of the Open Stage, took me aside after one of those early attempts and told me that I really should be working with Terry. He talked about how I had no stage presence, but had the makings of a good solid musician and Terry had the charisma, but needed some grounding. I thanked Alvin for the advice, but told him that it was really Terry's idea to split up, and that if I was going to get better at performing then I'd have to do it alone (at least until I found someone else to work with). I want to say that this was sometime in 1979, but it may have been late 1978.
Alvin, who knew a million songs, but wasn’t that great a performer, was disappointed. I'm sure he didn't want me taking up valuable space on his list of Wednesday night performers. But I persisted, and Terry persisted at doing his own thing and eventually we started to get reasonably good at it.
Sometime in 1979, Mike Blackburn appeared in the classes that we were taking and joined us at the Single File and later at other clubs. Mike was probably a better player than any of us and was good on stage. He'd actually lived off playing for a while in Florida when he was just out of college. He was also a cop, but a good guy none the less.
I started writing songs not long after I began playing. One of the reasons was that I didn't entirely see the point of singing and playing songs that "professional" musicians had already done better than I ever would. I wasn't much of a singer in those days. I was too afraid to open my mouth when I got outside my living room. The first two songs that I wrote, which were quite forgettable and not very musical or poetic, were Plutonium Meltdown Blues and I want to be a Spaceman (I wonder if I even still have they written down anywhere?).
I took a songwriting class at the OTS in the fall of 1978 and it was during this class that I wrote the first two songs that I still perform: The Psychologist Song and Miguel's Song. The seminar was taught by Bob Gibson (who died in 1996 in his early 60's). We started out having to write a song about the American Dream and after a few weeks, Bob didn't think it was going too well, so he had us try to write a song based on one of the stories in Working, by Studs Terkel.
I wrote Miguel's Song in the way that is somewhat typical of my songwriting. I began playing around with a chord change that I had recently discovered (A major 7 to A7 suspended 4th) and I liked the way it sounded. About a week later, I was walking home from class at the OTS. It was December and pretty cold, with a bright moon. I was passing the Lincoln Park Conservatory, watching my cold breath, when one of the phrases from the song came into my head. Then a few more came.
I picked up my pace to get back to my apartment more quickly. The walk from Fullerton to Diversey is long enough on a cold night, but with a song bursting into one's head, it must have seemed like an eternity. All I remember is that when I got home, I put the words down and polished them up in less than an hour. It might've taken me a few days to get the music straightened out, but I knew that the chord change I'd been playing with would play a prominent part.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
That's in about two weeks. Don't worry, I'll remind you more than once. Yes, it's a school night and it's also the day after the Super Bowl. Two strikes against it. But I'm practicing hard and expect it to be a very good show.
Adios for now.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Lets not even talk about Katrina, but certainly that's a subtext of this. Lest we forget about the horrors of 2005, they are replaying about 500 miles Southeast in Haiti the last couple of weeks.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
I first became aware of Stephen when he produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore's album After Awhile and other albums by Austin artists. He had moved to Austin about the same time that I did, but I really didn't know much about him and other than the songs he produced, I really never did learn much about him, or even hear him play.
That changed a few years ago, when Laura and I visited Austin and stayed with one of our good friends who suggested that we all go to the Saxon Pub (little dive on South Lamar where I had played a couple of times in the late 80's and early 90's) on Sunday evening to hear a little pickup band called the Resentments. They did a weekly show at 7 pm (very early for Austin) and packed the place. The cover was a ridiculous $5. The show was great. The Resentments were basically, Stephen, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb, and Bruce Hughes, although they weren't always there. They would trade lead vocals, pass the bass around, switch between acoustic and electric. Stephen would pull out the mandolin for some songs and then kick ass on electric lead. I bought a few of his albums and albums by the Resentments (and downloaded others - legally!!!).
We visited Austin again last spring and made another trip to the Saxon Pub. Stephen was noticeably frail and wore a hat throughout the evening. The music was still wonderful, though perhaps Stephen did less of the singing and was more in the background (or maybe that's just hindsight). A couple of months later he was gone. So, here's some of the stuff that I didn't know. Stephen went to high school in Fort Worth with T-Bone Burnett and after college began playing guitar for Kris Kristofferson, which he did for many years before moving to Austin. He's recorded a bunch of records on his own. Last year he played guitar on Kris' most recent album, wrapping production a couple of weeks before his death. Check out some of his songs on iTunes. I particularly enjoy Bigger Wheel, The Clock, Nobody Gets Hurt (Resentments) and more when they pop up randomly on my iPod.
And check out Crazy Heart as well. See if Jeff Bridges and the movie makers have captured the flavor of Austin music. We're looking forward to seeing it when we have a chance.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Some very good musicians were there performing. The guy before me, I think his name was Dan Cahill, played a cover of Purple Rain which he seemed to pull off pretty well. I didn't really catch much of his set, since I was in the back tuning up and limbering up my fingers. Then there was Mateo Monk, who does this very interesting one man band thing with looping, so he lays down some guitar, then adds a bass part, then either plays some lead guitar over it or puts down his guitar and plays some flute. Then there was a guy named Dan Fisk, who announced to the room that this was his first night as a truly "professional" musician - quit the day job and doing music to make a living. We'll check back and see how well that goes. He was a very good guitar player, interesting dynamics. I didn't really get his songwriting for the most part. Seemed a little incoherent and disjointed, but maybe that's just me. Then there was a woman with a very good voice playing some bluesy piano with a little help from the host (Ron Goad) on percussion and a guy named Sol on electric guitar. There was a very young guy named Owen Danoff, who was quite good. It's usually hard to follow songs the first time you hear them, but my overall impression was that the songs were well thought out and definitely well executed.
The night ended with a jazz, blues, reggae jam with Sol on electric guitar and vocals, Mateo contributing some lead guitar, color, and flute, the woman added some backup vocals, Ron on percussion, and a fellow that I also didn't catch the name of on piano (he also sang a blues song). As always, Ron was a very gracious host.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
I started learning to play the guitar in the late 70's when I was living in Chicago after graduating from college and dropping out of Graduate School. I took lessons at Chicago's famous Old Town School of Folk Music. After lessons a group of us would often walk a few blocks over to a bar called the Single File, which had an open stage on Wednesday nights. When I started to perform there, it was with a couple of classmates, Terry Shapiro and Ed McCarthy. If we were lucky, Alvin (the host and a teacher at the OTSFM) would let us play around midnight. Terry was pretty much the front man, since he was the ham and Ed and I were both pretty shy. We would practice together some on weekends. I can't recall how long this lasted, but eventually it got pretty difficult to find time to practice (or perhaps we were all losing interest), so I started performing on my own at the open stages.
Alvin took me aside one night and pleaded with me to get back together with Terry, since I'd never make it on my own. Besides, Alvin explained that I had the musicianship and Terry had the stage presence, so we really needed each other. I said that he was probably right, but it just wasn't working out. Anyway, Alvin relented and let me play after midnight and eventually I got more comfortable and the rest is mostly unrecorded history. Soon after this, I started to get a little bored playing cover songs and thought I should really try to write my own songs. I had written poetry in high school and college, so I didn't think it would be such a stretch (except for the music).
So I enrolled in a six or eight week songwriting seminar at the OTSFM which was being taught by Bob Gibson (NOT the famous Cardinals pitcher). Bob had started hanging around at the School, doing some performing (this was 1978). I didn't really know much about the history, but Bob was a pretty big deal in the late 50's and early 60's before drugs and alcohol derailed his career (I really didn't know any of this at the time, other than his being a "famous" folk singer in the 60's). He'd met Pete Seeger in the early 50's and quit his job to learn the banjo (and 12-string guitar) and become a folk singer. He'd been a mainstay at the legendary Gate of Horn (Chicago folk club, long gone by the time I was living there) both solo and with his sometime partner Hamilton Camp.
During the seminar, I wrote the first two songs that I still perform. The first was a song called "The Psychologist Song", which is the only song I ever wrote about my mother. Terry was also a Psychologist in real life, so it was sort of dedicated to him. I don't remember that much about the content of the seminar and only a few pieces of Bob's wisdom. He did ask all of us to read Studs Terkel's book Working and write a song based on one of the stories. I chose the story about a Gravedigger and wrote "Miguel's Song" for the assignment. Actually, it started to write itself as I walked home from the OTSFM one clear, cold night (from Armitage to Diversey) in the bright moonlight. I remember walking past the Lincoln Park Conservatory as words started to tumble around in my head, shifting the guitar from one hand to another as it got too heavy to carry. When I got home, the words tumbled out on paper in about 20 minutes and some chord changes that I'd been playing around with for a couple of weeks seemed to fit it perfectly (AMaj7 - A7sus4).
As I mentioned, I was pretty shy about performing at that time, so I never got up the courage to play either of the songs for Bob and the class. I did show the lyrics to a couple of my classmates and they seemed to think they were pretty good and eventually I started to perform them at the Open Stages. A couple of years later I took another shorter songwriting seminar with Bob and that time I did play him a song, "I'm not the One", which he was not that impressed with, although it won me a spot in the finals of the Kerrville New Folk competition about a decade later. The last song I plan to sing was written considerably later, but still has a connection to Bob Gibson. At the time I was taking his songwriting seminar, I was trying to learn one of his songs (by ear) and was having trouble figuring out one of the chord changes. So I asked Bob about it one time when I ran into him before class. Bob picked up a guitar and played the section for me, teaching me the diminished chord in the process. For years I tried to figure out how to use the chord in a song and finally did in my song "I want to live Forever".
Bob continued to live in Chicago, touring in the 80's with Tom Paxton and Anne Hills as Best of Friends. He died in 1996 from a neurological disorder similar to Parkinson's disease.
Monday, January 4, 2010
I'd like to talk a little bit about Jimmy LaFave here. Jimmy moved to Austin just about the same time that Laura and I did. I first heard him play at the Open Mike at Chameleon's in January of 1986 (can it really be 24 years ago!!!!). That night (with guitarist extraordinaire Gene Williams at his side), he did his songs Only One Angel ("in hopes that you could hear that sound, in streams of magic colors painted across the ground") and Minstrel Boy ("where roman candle people explode across the night so beautifully"). Both are personal favorites, along with Deep South 61 Highway Blues ("I've been everywhere baby, but I've never been nowhere with you") and many more. It took a few years for Jimmy to put the right band together and really break out, but he's now almost (if not) an Austin institution. He's recorded quite a few CDs, including at least an album's worth of Bob Dylan covers. He played at a Woody Guthrie tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where he reportedly shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen and other luminaries). He's played at Folk, Rock and Blues festivals across the country. He's played at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage. He's played in Europe. His music has maybe acquired a bit more of a country edge as the years and the miles have rolled along (or so it seems to me from the CDs). Unfortunately, we haven't had the chance to hear him perform live in several years. I caught him at an acoustic showcase he did at the Birchmere a few years back (with Tish Hinojosa, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Terry Hendrix), but he's been on the road the few times we've been back to Austin.
Anyway, back in the late 80's, he and I and Betty Elders (there I go, name-dropping again) shared rotating hosting duties at the Open Mike at Austin's Chicago House. We shared the stage a few times and it was always a treat. Wherever you are today Jimmy, here's to "rolling down the highway in the neon night."
Just read on Betty's page that Glynda Cox, one of the proprietors of Chicago House, died last January (about a week before my dad died, though she was quite a bit younger). I hadn't kept up, especially after Chicago House closed and then after we left Austin, but if the world has been a little less bright this past year (and who would argue that it hasn't been), then that is one of the reasons.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
We've made our plans for a Cancun getaway in late February (17th-24th) at Sun Palace (check it out at http://www.palaceresorts.com/. Should be great (again). Come and join us! Unless I get hauled off for starting another brawl at karaoke night (who would have thought that Norwegian Wood would have been so incendiary)...