Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lenox Lounge: Harlem Nights

Billie Holiday used to perform regularly in the Zebra Room at the fabled Lenox Lounge. Tonight, Yuko and I sat in Lady Day's booth as the house band rehearsed for the evening's set. Across the room, in the opposite corner, was where Malcolm X was interviewed by a young Alex Haley for his seminal autobiography. The Lenox has been hallowed ground in the heart of Harlem since it was founded in 1939.

Its founding was a result of the Harlem Renaissance, as spearheaded by such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and musicians like Duke Ellington. From the floor tiles to the light fixtures, the Lenox remains a beautiful example of Art Deco.

After a few "Miles Davis" and "Harlem Nights" cocktails, we couldn't contain our joy...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gem Spa: New York's Finest Egg Cream

The Gem Spa is an institution in New York City celebrated for its delicious egg cream. Allen Ginsberg wrote about it, as did Lou Reed...

Rain-wet asphalt heat, garbage curbed cans overflowing

By Allen Ginsberg

I hauled down lifeless mattresses to sidewalk refuse-piles,
old rugs stept on from Paterson to Lower East Side filled with bed-bugs,
grey pillows, couch seats treasured from the street laid back on the street
– out, to hear Murder-tale, 3rd Street cyclists attacked tonite–
Bopping along in rain, Chaos fallen over City roofs,
shrouds of chemical vapour drifting over building-tops –
Get the Times, Nixon says peace reflected from the Moon,
but I found no boy body to sleep with all night on pavements 3 A.M.
         home in sweating drizzle –
Those mattresses soggy lying in full five garbagepails –
Barbara, Maretta, Peter Steven Rosebud slept on these Pillows years ago,
forgotten names, also made love to me, I had these mattresses four years
        on my floor –
Gerard, Jimmy many months, even blond Gordon later,
Paul with the beautiful big cock, that teenage boy that lived in
forgotten numbers, young dream loves and lovers, earthly bellies –
many strong youths with eyes closed, come sighing and helping me
       come –
Desires already forgotten, tender persons used and kissed goodbye
and all the times I came to myself alone in the dark dreaming of Neal or
       Billy Budd
– nameless angels of half-life – heart beating & eyes weeping for lovely
       phantoms -
Back from the Gem Spa, into the hallway, a glance behind
and sudden farewell to the bedbug-ridden mattresses piled soggy in dark

Today I had my first - a frothy, vanilla egg cream on St. Mark's Place and 2nd Avenue in the East Village.

Here's Lou Reed on the wonders of this awesome refreshment...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Woody Guthrie: Coney Island Troubadour

July 14th marked the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth. Coney Island was the site of a major celebration with Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and Woody's daughter, Nora, in attendance signing her new book, My Name Is New York: Ramblin' Around Woody Guthrie's Town.

Yuko and I made the pilgrimage a few days after the anniversary and visited the spot where Woody lived with his family. The plaque above was put up in 2008 and reads:
"Folk hero Woody Guthrie and his family lived at 3520 Mermaid Avenue from 1943 to 1952. The building was demolished in 1972. When Guthrie died in 1967, his ashes were spread in the ocean one block from here, at the foot of West 36th Street."

In a recent interview, Nora recalled that Woody went out on the Coney Island boardwalk everyday. "That's why his ashes are there. I think that's where he was happiest."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Chicago: The Big Onion

Apparently, "Chicago" is a French bastardization of "shikaakwa," the Native American word for "wild onion." Whatever the case may be, from Wrigley Field in the north, to Chess Records in the south, Chi-town is guaranteed to leave a strong taste. As Carl Sandburg put it in his poem, "Chicago":
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
(@ the Chicago Public LIbrary)
Yuko and I arrived in a rainstorm and by the time we checked into our 8th floor room at the Crowne Plaza, the sky had healed. We went for a walk through the heart of The Loop, past the gargantuan Civic Opera House, City Hall and the theater district where Barry Manilow was performing an encore.

(@ Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation)
Despite Barry Manilow's popularity, Chicago's Chess Records produced some of the greatest records of the 20th century, including albums by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Little Water, Koko Taylor, and Chuck Berry.

(Chess Records @ 2120 Michigan Avenue)
The downside - brothers Leonard and Phil Chess ripped off the artists. Today, Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation owns the building and runs daily tours. The foundation, thanks to Willie Dixon, has been providing help and assistance for artists that were left high and dry by the Chess brothers.

"The blues are the roots,
The rest are the fruits" ~ Willie Dixon
When the Rolling Stones recorded the five songs in 1964 at Chess that would end up on 12 X 5, their second album, they came for the legendary sound. According to one of Dixon's many grandkids, Mick was too nervous to add vocals to what would end up being the instrumental, "2120 South Michigan Avenue" in the presence of such legends as Chuck Berry.

(The Chess studio where the sound was created)
When Berry later heard their version of "Around and Around" he said "they almost got it." The irony is that the Stones were responsible for re-introducing white America to the long-neglected Chess artists.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jasper: Maligne Lake

Nothing says "Canada" quite like a turquoise lake set in the pristine Rockies. That and Kermit Maynard dressed in full Mountie attire...

Yuko and I visited Maligne Lake in Jasper on what was one of the clearest days in years. The weather topped 32°C and the lake was like glass.

We took a boat out to Spirit Island (so-called because as one story suggests it's where the bootleggers stashed their spirits during Prohibition) and then enjoyed afternoon tea at the nearby Chalet.

On the way back to Edmonton we saw this young bear cub foraging alone along the highway...

Friday, July 06, 2012

Ragdoll: Giulietta Masina

Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is one of my all-time favourite films. Along with La Stada, 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Amarcord it occupies a place in the Fellini firmament that provides a guiding light to steer by. All those Italians from the early to mid-twentieth century - legends like Rossellini, De Sica, Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni - form a constellation that seems to burn brighter with every passing year.

I wrote the song "Ragdoll" for someone like Cabiria. Here's my video of "Ragdoll" starring the one and only Giulietta Masina.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Marlowe's Faustus: The Pursuit Of Totality

"The god thou serv'st is thine own appetite"~ Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were the Stones and Beatles of the Elizabethan Age. Both were contemporary rivals in an art form that was rapidly expanding to encompass the full range of human experience during a golden era of discovery.

(Queen Elizabeth I)
Marlowe was a wild man, an alleged spy who helped thwart a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and a bombastic reveler in life's sensuous pleasures. A transgressor of cultural taboos, he thrived during a period when people weren't identified solely by their appetites. And like Brian Jones, he was dead before 30.

Nevertheless, Marlowe left behind a body of work that continues to resonate to this day. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, his greatest achievement, is an attempt to recast the Faustus legend as a tragedy. Like the biblical Adam, Doctor Faustus wants what he shouldn't and it eventually leads to his damnation. His pursuit of absolute knowledge assumes a totality that's divine, not mortal, and therefore can't be accessed by any other means than by the offering of his soul for the elixir of genuine universality. Faustus' mistake is in assuming that this unifying knowledge is the sole preserve of the gods.

His drive to unify the atomization of the collective should be familiar - it's at the heart of recent attempts by Occupy activists to unmask globalization's relentless desire to render totality an abstraction, a futile endeavor to realize the commonality of the 99%. Ironically, it's Faustus' faith in Lucifer, an abstract divinity, that vitiates his attempt to overcome the abstraction that totality has been reduced to. He's been corrupted - or duped - into believing that humanity is at the mercy of invisible forces, or what might be referred to today as the invisible hand of the free market.