30 November 2007

Music In The Night

Can you guess which one is me? Of course you can; I'm the starry-eyed one. Well, the more starry-eyed one. This is my brother, myself, and another friend, taken on Sproul Plaza, probably in 1972.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with what I was going to write about tonight. When I resolved to go back to (or begin) writing in this blog every day if possible, I made a separate resolution to spend at least 20 minutes or half an hour every day playing music of some kind.

When I was marooned up on Spy Rock in the mid-80s, one of the ways I whiled away the hours was playing the piano. When I was growing up back in Detroit, we had a piano in the basement; it was ancient, cheap, and execrably out of tune, but from the time I started banging on as a 5 year old, it had an almost magical resonance for me. As has pretty much every piano I've encountered since.

But only occasionally in the years since I left home have I been lucky enough to live with one. Spy Rock was the exception: a piano came with the house, and pushed up against an inner wall, it seemed to use the entire house - itself a study in pine and redwood - as its sounding board. I hadn't played regularly since I was a teenager, but the rudimentary knowledge I'd gained of the notes and scales back then was enough to get me started picking my way through the several books of sheet music I'd accumulated.

Most of them were "fake" books, giving only the melody line and a diagram of the accompanying guitar chord. Hunched over the piano with the neck of my guitar lying across my lap, I would transpose the guitar notes onto the piano keyboard and try to turn them into an arpeggio-like accompaniment. Some days I'd be at it for 12 hours at a time, operating by candlelight when the solar-powered batteries ran low. It was maddeningly slow and painstaking work, the musical equivalent of double-entry bookkeeping, but gradually I began to be able to play some recognizable tunes. Erm, recognizable to someone apart from myself, that is.

After about a year of this, I was almost good enough to play an occasional gig at the Mad Creek Inn, a 1920s roadhouse turned hippie restaurant nestled in the redwoods just off Highway 101. The owner, widely known as Mad Mary, would bustle amid the candlelit tables in her floor-length dresses while I noodled away at the keys, half the time just plain making stuff up à la the New Age mood music that was coming into style at the time, then swinging into a bit of Neil Young or the Beatles, and, when I really wanted to get fancy, the four or five Cole Porter tunes I'd (sort of) mastered.

I don't know if the customers were all stoned to the point of non-discernment (I'm sure quite a few were), or if they were just too polite to complain, but some of them actually seemed to like my playing, and even started dropping bills in my tip basket to show their appreciation. One of them, literally the first dollar I ever earned playing music, hung on the wall above my piano up on Spy Rock for almost the next 20 years (I think I eventually spent it on a newspaper or something like that).

After leaving Spy Rock, I never again lived in a place where it was possible to have a full-fledged piano. That's not completely true; I could have squeezed one into my London apartment, but I was worried about the neighbors complaining. I had a digital (electric) piano stored back in the States, but decided it was too expensive to ship over, instead spending ten years dithering over whether to rent an acoustic or buy an electric piano and ultimately doing neither. Meanwhile, my painfully acquired piano playing skills, such as they were, slowly wasted away.

Now that I'm finally reunited with my digital piano and have worked out a time when the downstairs neighbors aren't home to be bothered by it, I'm slowly getting back into it. Sadly, I have to relearn most of what I taught myself in the 80s, the main differences being that my brain works more slowly now and that I have to wear glasses to read the notes (those years of playing by candlelight appear to have taken their toll.

Another difference is that I literally have to make myself sit down and play. In the old days, I would just naturally gravitate to the piano, often without even being aware of it. Once I start playing, it's fine, and sometimes I end up having to tear myself away for the sake of other responsibilities (blogging, for example). But it's sometimes hard getting started.

Tonight I practiced my rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," which with a bit of work should be ready by Christmas Eve, then gave a quick go-round to "Silent Night," which is literally the first song I ever learned to play, at age 9, and then gave a doleful rendering to the Potatomen's "Iceland." The latter two I can play blindfolded and in my sleep (making about the same number of mistakes as when I'm wide-eyed and wide awake), but "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is in a different key and employs different chords from those I've used in the past, so learning it is rather like the old days, minus the candlelight.

But it's nice. Heals the soul, and all that, and gives me something to write about as well. Tomorrow I've got a date with my niece Gabrielle Bell and our mutual friend Flat Sally. Gabrielle's just back from Japan, where she's been for the past two months, filming an adaptation of a graphic short story (well, "comic" doesn't sound dignified enough) about a girl who turns into a chair. Her collaborator, Michel Gondry, co-wrote the screenplay with her and also directed. The film is part of a trilogy called Tokyo, also featuring contributions from Bong Joon-ho and Leos Carax.

Oh, and Flat Sally? Well, according to her press kit, Sally is flat because "a bulletin board fell on her." She belongs to my 6 year old niece Carmen, and has apparently made it her life's work to be photographed in as many exotic locations as possible before journeying back to California to live out the rest of her days on the wall of Carmen's first grade classroom.

She's already been snapped all over Tokyo, Zurich and the Swiss Alps, and a Mexican restaurant in Greenpoint. Tomorrow night we're taking here to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and possibly the dinosaur at the Times Square Toys'R'Us. Who says I don't lead an exciting life?

29 November 2007

This Is Where I Used To Live

Looks a bit Christmasy, doesn't it? But don't worry, I'm not about to go off on a paean to or rant against the holidays. Not just yet, anyway.

This is actually a picture of my old house up on Iron Creek and/or Spy Rock Road, depending who you're talking to and the degree of precision desired. For those few of who really feel a need to know, the entire area, probably covering 50 square miles or so, was known to not-quite locals (i.e., townies or residents of other canyons/watersheds/mountaintops as "Spy Rock," because it was Spy Rock Road that led up from Highway 101 into the rabbit warren of roads, trails, and wilderness where an eclectic collection of hippies, hillbillies, eccentrics, Deadheads, intellectuals (yes, there were/are a few), ranchers, cowboys and - especially - pot growers clung to the side of some pretty precipitous mountains.

But those who actually lived up there were more specific about their neighborhoods, unless of course you looked like you were a revenuer or a bill collector: they might be from Wildwood or Registered Guest, Simmerly Road, or the Loop (Upper or Lower). My neck of the woods was generally known as Iron Creek after the rather respectable little stream that came cascading off the back side of Iron Peak and tore itself a not always gentle path down to the Eel River Canyon.

I'm not sure why I suddenly felt impelled to post a picture of the old house or wax nostalgic about it; maybe it does have something to do with the time of year, since as you can see from the photo, it was well situated for celebrating old-fashioned, country-style Christmases, the kind you see in movies or magazines but not too often in real life. That being said, of all the Christmases I spent there, only one was picture-perfect, but that one was a doozy. One of the advantages of living in the middle of a vast pine and fir forest is that you can cut your own Christmas tree (and since you can just clip off the top of a larger tree, you don't even have to kill it), and one of the advantages of a house like the one I had was its 12 to 18 foot ceilings, allowing us to have a tree that, while not quite the size of the one adorning the front of the Rockefeller Center, was, considering the context, very nearly as impressive.

Part of that context was that we had very little in the way of electricity, having to rely entirely on solar panels, which were at their lowest output levels in the dark and stormy months of December and January, and the occasionally functioning generator. Because of that, winter was always a dimly lit affair, usually limited to one or two flickering 12 volt bulbs, the kind you see in trailers or RVs. But for the couple weeks leading up to Christmas, I would pull out all the stops to store up enough battery power to run several strings of lights, some of which, like the old-fashioned bubble lights, dated back to my grandmother's day.

In 1983 I bought a new set of batteries and added two new solar panels, and the resultant light show could be seen up and down the mountainside with spectacular effect because, well, because they were quite literally the only lights on our side of the mountain. If you've ever noticed how astoundingly bright and alive the stars look when you're out in an otherwise unlit wilderness, well, the same holds true for Christmas lights.

That year pretty much our entire extended family was there, something that rarely occurred, and my sister even had a newborn baby to add to the mix. It snowed just enough to make everything look like a Christmas card, but not enough to make the roads impassable (something that happened quite often up there; I was once stranded for five weeks). Even my dad, who hated the mountain and anything even slightly rural, was temporarily content.

Christmas 1983 was such a smashing success that I tried to do it up even bigger and better the following year. Taller tree, more lights, more people, too, with Olivia coming in from England to be with her grandchildren/my sister's kids. But this year there was more sleet than snow, my dad's car got stuck, a backdraft from the wood stove filled the house with smoke, and my nearly four year relationship with Anne was visibly and painfully unraveling.

By New Year's it was over, she and everyone else were gone, and life up on Iron Creek entered into an inexorable decline, taking me with it. Christmas 1985 found me broke, despondent, and barely able to muster the energy to cut enough firewood to keep the house warm. As often as not I couldn't afford enough gas to make the 40 mile round trip to Laytonville, the nearest "town," and in my darkest moments, imagined that I would die up on that mountain. And that my petrified corpse wouldn't be found before spring, if ever.

Of course a different set of events was, without my being aware of it, already in motion, one that, as the Rancid song puts it, "no premonition could have seen." During the previous year of my discontent, I'd half-heartedly started a little xeroxed zine and a laughably amateurish but almost painfully earnest punk rock band, and before another year had gone by, they'd start leading me off the mountain and back into the city I had sworn I was leaving for good.

I guess every place and time has its crystalline moments, when you know exactly why you're there and can't imagine anywhere in the universe that it would make more sense to be. But leading up to and away from those moments often involves a long, bewildering and tortuous route - rather like Spy Rock Road itself, as it wends its way from Highway 101 up into the clouds that wreathed Iron Peak - a route that we don't have any choice but to follow if want even a prayer of getting back to those moments that define our lives and ourselves.

28 November 2007


Last night at this time the temperature was in the mid 60s; tonight it's in the low 40s and dropping. We've had a few warm days this month, but more often than not it's been downright wintry. Wintry by London or Northern California standards, anyway, which, apart from occasional brief visits to more arctic climes like Winnnipeg, is the only experience of winter I've had since the 1970s.

But the cold weather, combined with my new apartment having some cavernlike and Swiss chalet characteristics (it's a stretch, but go with me here), seems to have me feeling less and less inclined to set foot outdoors. Great, you say, then you can stay in and tackle some of those long-neglected but also long-promised tasks like creating a proper website, rewriting your book, unpacking and organizing the rest of your stuff that's still sitting around in boxes, maybe even (ahem) updating your blog.

But no, for like America under Jimmy Carter, I've been suffering from a great national malaise. It's not just the weather or the dwindling hours of daylight, though I'm sure that has something to do with it, nor is it just my own bad moods exacerbated by laziness and procrastination (though that probably has quite a lot to do with it).

Above and beyond that, though, there seems to be something in the air, a bleak cloud of not quite despondency, but certainly disillusionment and discouragement settling over the land. Perhaps it's just my imagination, but I felt something similar during the waning years of the Carter presidency and for nearly all of the first Bush (senior) presidency.

Am I trying to blame the government for my own lack of accomplishment or good cheer? Well, not exactly, though what good is a government if you can't blame your troubles on it? Seriously, I've had good times during some of the worst governments America's endured in recent decades, and miserable times during some of the best, so there's no clear correlation.

What I do note is that when things are going badly in my personal life, the sense that they are also going badly in the larger community certainly adds to the overarching gloom. That being said, I'm feeling a lot better than I was when I started this post (nearly two weeks ago). I finally reached a nadir in which nothing at all seemed appealing except perhaps playing computer solitaire and watching endless Law and Order reruns (you must understand, of course, that I'd never seen this show prior to my return from the UK, and that it is - especially in the episodes featuring Jerry Ohrbach, very good).

But as much as the prospect of being able to sit around watching TV all day might appeal to those forced to show up every day at jobs they hate, it does start eating at the soul after a while. I do know people who seem perfectly content to do nothing or something very closely resembling it, but I am not one of them. There are books to be read - and written, music to be played and listened to, people to talk to and see, but, as I'm hardly the first to observe, the more free time one has, the less of it seems to get done.

So I've had to give myself a rather firm kick in the ass, and one aspect of said ass-kicking involves returning to this blog with renewed verve and fervor. After a year or so of deep contemplation over what I should be doing for a living - or a life - I realize that there aren't a lot of things I know how or am qualified to do. A lifetime of work-dodging and angle-seeking has left me in that predicament, and while I'm currently mulling over the merits of becoming a New York City substitute teacher and/or a Starbucks barista (not sure yet which pays better), I keep coming back to one of the few things I do know, which involves putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and stringing words together in an artful or informative or entertaining fashion.

Do I have anything all that worthwhile to say? That remains to be seen. It hasn't stopped me saying volumes of it for the past 20 or 30 years, but the longer I go without writing, the more time I have to brood about my shortcomings if not downright worthlessness as a writer. So, it's up and out of my lethargy once more. Hopefully, anyway. I ran into an old friend on the subway yesterday; he asked me what I was doing and I reeled off one of my main projects/ambitions at present, only to have him respond, "That's what you were doing ten years ago."

Not too supportive, you might say, but then just a moment earlier I'd gratuitously corrected his French, so I probably got just what was coming. Not to mention that he was right: I had embarked on this exact same project - transferring and compiling all my old writing, photos, music, etc. onto the computer - way back then, and done little or nothing on it since.

Until now, that is, and if you want proof that I'm actually doing something now, check this out:

That's me when I was 17 or 18, just as lazy and sullen as I can be now, albeit with a bit more style and youthful good looks. It was taken around this same time of year, and is part of the first batch of photos from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s that I've now at least got on the computer, even if I haven't yet managed to get them onto my still-nascent website. Anyway, it's some small progress, as is the fact that I've actually succeeded in writing something on this blog again. I've resolved to try and do so just about every day from now on. Check back tomorrow and see how I'm doing.

02 November 2007

Back To "Normal"

I didn't immediately blog about the end of the Fest because I was kind of exhausted, and had to get up very early the next morning to drive to Tampa, and also because for me (and I think for a lot of people), the Fest kind of petered out on the last day rather than wrapping up with a resounding bang.

It seemed as though there weren't nearly as many as shows on Sunday, and that those that were happening tended to conflict with each other or be on opposite sides of town, forcing people to make difficult and sometimes dispiriting choices. Also, a cold (at least by Florida standards) wind blew in along with some rain, and most of us weren't really dressed for it, and on top of that, people were pretty worn out from tramping all over town and (not in my case personally, but for many others) staying up all night drinking and/or trying to sleep on bathroom floors in hotel rooms with one bed and 17 occupants (the room, not the bed, that is, though I can't vouch for every situation).

Pretty much every representative of the PPMB and New York pop punk crew was on hand for the double-barreled finale of Short Attention and the Ergs. Non-PPMB Festgoers may not have known exactly what to make of Short Attention (though they seemed to like them), but went completely insane for the Ergs. My misguided masochism led me to stand right up front for them (perhaps it was some mad macho posturing attempt to prove that a 60 year old can still handle himself in the pit), and it proved to be a bit more challenging than the Avail pit, though the stage divers and crowd surfers tended to be a bit less beefy. I still took a moderate kick to the side of the head from one doofus, but also played a crucial role in sending several others crashing to the floor.

By the time the Ergs finished - around 8:30 pm - there wasn't much else going on in the other venues. There was a Small Brown Bike reunion, but I'd never got into them the first time around, and some band called Seaweed, whom I remembered as being vaguely big sometime back in the 80s or early 90s. I think they had long hair and were kind of in that Nirvana vein, but whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me, so I stood around with the rest of the Ergs crowd outside Common Grounds, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, and trying to stay warm. Eventually I ended up in one of those 17-person hotel rooms for what was supposedly a "party," but looked more like a bunch of guys and on or two girls lounging around drinking beer while the last World Series game played silently on the TV.

It was still technically my birthday, remember, so I left on my own and got some Krispy Kreme donuts in lieu of a birthday cake (I seemed to have become immune to the smell, which was a bit worrying), and headed back to my hotel to sleep. In the morning I made it to Tampa in record time, caught a plane to Washington, and despite my aching feet, did some sightseeing, taking in the White House, the National Mall, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol. I'd seen the first three previously, albeit briefly, but this was the first time I'd ever got a good look at the Capitol. Pretty snazzy, I must say, though I'll have to go back another time to take the tour and see the inside.

In prior visits to Washington, I'd been mainly occupied in protesting (1967) or seeing an Avail show (1994 or 95), and hadn't really had more than a cursory look at anything. I did walk past the White House in 1967 - this was back when you could still get a lot closer than you can now - and imagined I saw President Johnson looking out an upstairs window with the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was later that same night when I met two teenyboppers from Baltimore down near the Jefferson Memorial, where we in turn were picked up and given a place to stay by a young man who worked for Senator Fulbright and had a picture of himself as a teenager shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. I may never be able to prove it with any certitude (unless I meet him again and ask him), but I'm about 99% certain that our host that night was a 21 year old Bill Clinton.

My sightseeing this time was cut short by my sore feet and temperatures that were way too chilly for the wardrobe I'd packed with Florida in mind. I ended up staying indoors after dark instead of investigating Washington's night life, assuming it has any (it certainly didn't in the neighborhood where I was staying, where everything, even the Subway and the Starbucks, seemed to close up by 7 pm). The following morning I caught the train back to New York and arrived just in time for the long-awaited Weakerthans show.

My friend and hero John K. Samson had grown a beard for the occasion, prompting me to ask him if he was honoring the spirit of Gainesville, though his beard would have been far too neat and kempt (I know that's not a word, but it should be) for the Fest crowd. Perhaps they in especially high spirits because of having the next day off, but for whatever reason, the Weakerthans played a full hour and forty-five minutes, something that would be unforgivable in most bands, but in this case was still barely enough. They did two encores which together added up to almost a show in themselves, and ran through nearly half of the songs from their new album, of which "Sun In An Empty Room" hit me with the most impact, especially followed as it was by "Left And Leaving."

As I explained to John afterward, the last three and a half years for me have been all about empty rooms and leaving places behind; first Spy Rock, then London, and finally Berkeley. I especially remembered the look of the Spy Rock house as I said my last goodbyes to it, with the sun spilling though the windows and splashing off the wood, looking so rich and warm and inviting and at the same time so desolate and forlorn.

And I guess I feel a bit desolate and forlorn myself at times, cut adrift from so much of what was familiar and waiting for my new life to take form. Part of my problem in the past was that while I was always ready to try new adventures in new places, I could never quite bring myself to let go of the old ones, so I'd find myself in the uncomfortable and untenable position of trying to live several places at once.

Now there's just one place, here in Brooklyn, and while my present living circumstances are not completely ideal, I can't think of anywhere else I want to be. It's still not quite home, but more and more it's beginning to feel that way. Tearing across Manhattan today on a series of errands, arguing with an intractable bank clerk who didn't want to let me open an account there because "you don't live or work in the neighborhood," zipping up my fleece and shivering slightly as another foretaste of winter blew in off the Hudson, I thought, yes, this is my life now, and you know, it's a pretty good one.