Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Gil Scott-Heron at Jazz Cafe

Between the death of Langston Hughes and the rise of Snoop Doggy Dog came the poetry and jazz of Gil Scott-Heron, who is to rap what David Bowie is to punk, the Godfather. Without Gil Scott-Heron, then Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, The World's Famous Supreme Team, Nenah Cherry and Queen Latifah might instead have developed careers covering The Platters and The Supremes, or accelerated the mutation of Disco to House, we would have missed Janet Jackson, MC Hammer, and Public Enemy incessantly sampling the music of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield (and Queen?). No matter your take on rap music, the art of Gil Scott-Heron (who was NOT one of the Last Poets) laid the groundwork of radicalism that would become the dynamic roots of the rap music of the late 1970s and early eighties.

Does nostalgia grip all of us the same way? Or, more precisely, is all nostalgia the same? Is nostalgia just nostalgia, or are some experiences that seem nostalgic more visceral and therefore not really 'nostalgic' at all?

I see David Bowie perform in concert every chance I get, and have been doing so for over 25 years. When he sings "Changes" it feels nostalgic. It feels great! I love it! It makes me giddy and happy and I want to sing along.

Watching Gil Scott-Heron invoked what seemed like nostalgia, too; but it was different. Listening to his songs of protest evokes a more passionate, less gleeful, feeling. An excitment that reminds me of social upheaval, as opposed to personal upheavel. An excitment that I remember tasting in the air during demonstrations and after police riots. It is like hearing Angela Davis speak or reading a history of the Cuban Revolution. It is like getting tattooed or pierced. It vibrates. It's tense.

At the start of the evening, he appeared on stage alone to tell a number of stories in an attempt to de-bunk all the recent publicity about arrests, court sentencing, cocaine addiction, and the like. Looking rather drawn, his skin seemingly draped over his lanky skeletal frame, his voice cracked, and his tone ringing of confusion and defensiveness, he told of a Bay Area reporter leaving a message on his answering machine asking for someone to please contact the radio station to make a statement about Gil Scott-Heron's death. Nervous laughter from the audience.

He berated the New York Times who first published the story of his legal troubles and alleged drug problem, then put the story out on the wire to be printed all over the world. "No wonder no one reads the Times anymore," he muttered and giggled for a less-than-accurate conclusion. Nervous laughter from the audience.

Next was the story of being on tour with Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana the night that John Lennon was killed.

"Why do all the people who work for peace end up shot dead? Dr. King, John Lennon, and the rest." This might have been his most coherent statement of the long, long, LONG monologue that opened the show.

The story goes: He and Stevie Wonder decided not to mention the Lennon assassination before the show, because it would serve no good purpose. At the end of the show, about 11:30 P.M., as with all the shows on this tour, all musicians came out on stage for a finale. At this time, Stevie Wonder announced to the crowd that his friend John Lennon had been shot dead. He cried and there was a stunned silence in the crowd of 17,000. Next morning, the local paper reviewed the show by saying: 'how could Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron say they are voices for change when neither one of them had the decency to mention the murder of one of their own, John Lennon.' The entourage was flabbergasted, because they had performed a remarkable, emotional, spirited encore in Lennon's memory.

How had this happened? The reporter had to leave at 11:00 to make his deadline and the Lennon tribute was at 11:30. Hence, using Gil Scott-Heron's clourful and jocular logic, the press is always wrong and we shouldn't believe them. Nervous laughter from the audience.

So, even though this 51-year-old major talent is drawn and emaciated, slurs his speech like a wet-brain, and looks twenty years older than his years, he musn't have a drug problem, because it was reported in the New York Times and the press is always wrong.

Sigh. Tedium. His is a familar, but nonetheless sad story.

Then the music started. The familiar conga-drums, electric piano, bass lines and then that voice. ". . . you know it's Wintaaaah . . . Wintah in America-a-ah . . ." deep and drawling and angry. The poems sung like lyrics over the beat, sometimes under it, the bass and percussion sounding totally unlike American pop music, but the lead guitar and saxaphone evoking that pre-fusion jazz-only sound that's as American as chicken-fried steak and Carmen Miranda.

Speaking of whom, I was always amused by the cultural phenomenon that I first witnessed in the mid-seventies: the whitest people in the room becoming strangely Afro-Carribbean once they've consumed a bit of alcohol and the music switched from white music (British, Motown, Surf, Country, et al.) to non-white music (Reggae, Calypso, Samba, et al.). The most awkward-looking white woman would suddenly be swaying her hips and waving her arms and stomping her heels in a trance that would make Sister Phillipa flip-out!

I call this the Mammasita Jones Syndrome. It is always the WHITEST people this happens to. It's as if their pink/blue skin somehow holds tightly under wraps a Brown Inner Latin Spirit, and their straight stringy hair knows it wants to be picked into the puffiest 'fro since Jonathan Jackson took out a California courtroom. Their eyes close as they leave the suburban television culture that has been (still is?) spoon fed to them, and their hips sway, and their fingers snap and you can just see them wishing they were NOT WHITE! Their eyes must always be closed when experiencing the Mammasita Jones Syndrome, because they cannot bear to see what is true: They are as white as white can be, they are watching a living symbol of all that is not white and has every reason to hate
all that is white, and everyone else in the room with them is just as white as them. By keeping their eyes closed, they can live the Afro-Caribbean magic that they are convinced is much better than the Caucasian life they know.

(I have taken a solemn vow never to tell white women who enjoy this particular form of dementia that women in those Afro-Caribbean cultures are treated only slightly better than women in Switzerland, blacks in Apartheid-era South Africa, and lesbians in 21st century America. They probably know anyhow.)

OK, so you don't share my analysis of what is happening to all those drunk white people who are trying to cha-cha-cha and meditate at the same time. Too bad! It's the Mammasita Jones Syndrome, it happens, and I know I'm right!

Back to the performance. The three-hour show was broken into two 75 minute sets with a half-hour break. Outrageously, this long show consisted of no more than ten songs. Really.

When Gil Scott-Heron's album "Winter In America" was released, I was living in Boston and probably fifteen or sixteen years old. FM radio had taken to playing the album versions of songs and it was not unusual to hear a six or seven minute song, even twelve or fifteen minutes, on a progressive FM rock station (well, there was only one progressive FM rock station in those days, which is one more than exists today). I was (and still am) a leftist. I hung on my walls posters of Che Guevera and Angela Davis and other dead or dying pop stars from the worlds of music, politics, religion, art, and literature, I read books like "Soledad Brother," "Soul On Ice," "S.C.U.M. Manifesto," and the Little Red Book, fancied Tolkien and the Red Sox and window-pane acid, marched against the war in Viet Nam, for workers' rights, gay rights, abortion rights, I listened to music by Bowie and Nina Simone and T.Rex and Aerosmith and Labelle and Roxy Music and The Supremes and New York Dolls and Eric Clapton and Jethro Tull and J.Giels (yes, even J.Giels), I talked openly that Communism and Socialism were superior to Republicanism and Capitalism, I couldn't wait to vote and hoped there was no draft when I turned eighteen. It was an exciting time. Gil Scott-Heron's music was perfect, it fit perfectly with the lifestyle I'd chosen and the sings of the times, and the radio stations would play six-minute protest songs.

Sometimes when a band performs live, I am surprised how they can take a great three-minute pop tune and turn it into a long, drawn-out, symphonic rendition mottled with guitar solos and bass solos and drum solos and piano solos. The Rolling Stones are probably the kings of this process. Take a wonderful three minute song and milk it for fifteen!

Well, Gil Scott-Heron takes this to new heights/depths. He takes his six-minute songs built around three stanza poems and turns them into twenty-minute jam sessions. Though all of the musicians: sax, guitar, bass,percussion and drums, are above-average musicians, none but the bass player carried their drawn-out solos convincingly.

Gil Scott-Heron himself was incapable of providing piano solos. Granted he is more a poet than a pianist. Sadly his fumbling with microphones and stumbling about the stage prevented him from perhaps offering some spontaneous rhymes/raps about current or historical events. There were no Gil Scott-Heron solos.

The bass player was remarkable and he offered the most solos. Each song included a long bass solo and each bass solo included familiar riffs that sounded like The Who, or the Stones, or Motown session musicians. Each time he stepped forward we were provided a roller coaster through pop music that left the audience cheering for more and allowed the singer to regroup and bring us back to a familiar verse of a familiar song. "See the black boy over there, running scared, his problem is the bo-uh-ttle."

The songs were great, the songs will always be great, and I feel blessed to have have seen Gill Scott-Heron perform them live before the crack destroys what's left of him.

At 12:15 A.M. the band left the stage. We had not heard "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The audience was not leaving. It was a Sunday night and I am not as young as I once was, so we decided to call it a night. I do not know if the band came back to perform "The Revolution . . . " but I'll bet they did.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
by Gil Scott Heron

(reprinted without permission)

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
in 4 parts without commercial interruption.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abramson and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia?
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner.
Because The revolution will not be televised, brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
or trying to slide that color television in a stolen ambulance
NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32
or the count from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers on the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers on the instant replay.
There will be no slow motion or still lifes of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
green liberation jumpsuit that he has been saving
for just the right occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant and
women will not care if Dick finally got down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow
because black people will be in the street
looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdinck or Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a germ in dove
bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution WILL put you in the driver's seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised
will not be televised
not be televised
be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, sisters and brothers.
The revolution's gonna be live.

The Jazz Cafe, in Camden Town, was much nicer than I expected. I managed to reserve seats in the restaurant which is on the balcony surrounding the club. We had seats from wihch we could see the show and did not have to mosh around on the floor straining to see the show. Once the show started, the appropriate percentage of white women rose from their meals, turned Mammsita Jones and blocked their fair share of views by gyrating and expressing themselves, all with their eyes closed.

The restaurant offered a three-course meal for £25, and the food was remarkably good. I'm from Boston, so when I think of eating food in a venue at which I will see a show, I lower my expectations. Very low. Anne had Greek Mezze Platter, Mushroom Risotto, and Chocolate Truffle Terrine. I had Smoked Duck with Thai Noodles, Lamb Kidneys in Dijon, and Summer Pudding. The service was passable (which means it was excellent for London) and the seating was comfortable. I almost want to book seats for any other show, just to have the dining and show experience which is so rare in America.

So . . . pull out your Gil Scott-Heron records, your biography of Che Guevera, your bong, and a bottle of Ripple, and remember where you came from, Mammasita!

Peace and love.

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Nice Lining

It's a nice Autumn day in London, this July Tenth. Overcast, occasional drizzle, cool breeze, about 60F . . . a bit humid, but not too damp, today. A nice day to take the long way to the tube. Why bother with a straight line, when you can walk in the breeze. I like this kind of weather.

Weather is different on the tube (subway). Remember: a beneath-the-surface public transit system is a tube, a television is not a tube, a subway is an underground walkway, not an underground train service.

Temperature below ground is about 90F and the humidity can be cut with a knife. Those of us dressed for work, in shirt and tie, are a bit warm. I seem to be less uncomfortable than some others. There are damp brows and dripping hair. The open window at the front and back of each car benefits only the person who has parked himself right in front of the breeze.

I am a people-watcher. I love to look at all people. The tube is a great place to

It's one of those days when you see some people dressed in shorts and t-shirt and others in sweaters and topcoats, with every combination in-between. A good day to get a sense of the city's fashion trends.

Today, I am admiring umbrellas. It is only two stops from Notting Hill Gate when it appears. THAT umbrella! It has been making the rounds for a couple years, now. The style is not just with umbrellas: there are bags, hats, shirts, dresses, briefcases, backpacks, socks, coats, etc. Like any popular trend, it easily becomes tedious.

When I returned to Boston, in 1979, the Barracuda jacket was popular, and the oddest twist on this fashion trend was the way young, thuggish (stylish?) Irish-American guys would sometimes turn the jacket inside-out showing the plaid lining and over-sized Barracuda logo (all finished off with a scally cap, of course). A silly fashion statement, I thought. I realized after a short time that it might be possible that after the commission of petty crime, turning the jacket inside-out made it appear that the person was wearing a different color jacket! Slip the scally cap into the back pocket, and you basically look like a different person. I do not know that this was the thought behind this fashion trend, but the theory still works for me.

But, that is not my point, is it? I was talking about the umbrella. Yes, the umbrella and the lining . . . and, by the way, what has happened to fashion?

My earliest memories of my father, and currently the pictures I possess of him prior to my birth, are of him dressed rather well in a button shirt and a suit, or stylish casual attire. These photos and memories are not of special occasions when everyone dressed-up; some are photos taken while off-duty from the Army in Panama, some are family trips to restaurants. Whether in memories of my early childhood or photos of his young adulthood, my father dressed nattily in the styles of the day. I remember that all of the men during the early sixties, when they were not in work clothes, seemed comfortably dressed in button shirts with or without a tie, wool trousers, and probably a jacket.

Later in the sixties, my father began watching golf on television. Televised golf was a big deal in those days. Arnold Palmer became a pop star in the same Warholian vein as Joe Namath.

Palmer and Namath had different fashion sensibilities. Palmer could be seen in pull-over Banlon jerseys, Namath in the skins of soon-to-be endangered species.

Suddenly, my father and his friends were dressing in Banlon golf jerseys and polyester slacks! What looked good on a golfer seen on television looked silly on my father. Unfortunately, a corner had been turned, and adult men of the late sixties, like my father, now purchased their clothing in stores like Zayres and Bradlees and Anderson-Little. Gone were the jackets and ties, replaced by sportswear. Polyester Sportswear! Ugh! My father looked silly. Is this because my father was my father and I would always be embarrassed by my parents? Maybe, a little; but, this new fashion trend was hideous. And it didn't stop for weekend dress-down!

For dressy occasions, wool suits were replaced with polyester suits (pre-Leisure Suit polyester suits); cotton Oxfords were replaced with shiny, flowery polyester shirts open at the neck with collars that looked like wings; the tie was gone. When my mother dressed us like that, it was easy to accept. I never have accepted that grown men CHOSE to dress like that.

Would I have preferred my father dress like Joe Namath? Unlikely. Namath's natural fibre turtleneck sweaters and Nehru jackets were much smarter looking than Arnold Palmer's banlon! So, maybe I would have preferred it. I wonder: Did Namath's fur coats have good linings?

The lining of a coat often points to its quality. I remember the first time I had a proper top coat with a satin lining. I loved it. It was real wool and real satin. It was very comfortable and very warm. The coat seemed expensive and its lining showed that. It never occurred to me, though, that displaying the lining of the coat could be a status symbol. It is, after all, a lining!

I once went shopping for a raincoat. A friend told me that Burberry made a wonderful raincoat. Since this was before the proliferation of brand-name boutiques, I found a department store that carried Burberry, and went for a shopping spree. Burberry was totally out of my price range and I settled for a London Fog. The thing I noticed about the Burberry was its distinctive lining. For years to come, I could tell a Burberry by peeking at the lining. I wanted a Burberry.

When Anne went shopping for Wedding Boots, she stumbled on the Burberry boutique on Newbury Street, in Boston. (Or is that IN Newbury Street?) At Burberry, she purchased a wonderful pair of boots that she wore under her wedding dress. They did not have the distinctive Burberry lining, but they were boots. When we settled in New York, I began to notice people carrying bags with the Burberry lining pattern, scarves of the Burberry pattern, and umbrellas of the Burberry pattern. It was amusing, but dull. Most of these were trendy, middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middle-management people of middling intelligence with middle-of-the-road tastes. Yawn.

Upon my arrival in London, last year, I saw this same type of person wearing button shirts of the Burberry lining pattern, dresses of the Burberry lining pattern, jackets of the Burberry lining pattern, and MY GOODNESS, topcoats with the Burberry lining pattern on the OUTSIDE! Does Burberry sell only their linings now? What a scam! I thought lining went on the inside!?!?!?!?!?

Please, please, please . . . help stop this dreadful trend and refuse to wear your
lining on the outside. Well, unless you've just committed a crime and need to change your appearance; then, simply turn your coat inside-out.

Oh, yeah, the umbrella! Two stops from Notting Hill Gate, a handsome young Japanese man boarded the train neatly closing his umbrella and lovingly wrapping it in its protective covering. It was an umbrella made of the Burberry lining pattern.

Would my father have carried an umbrella with the Burberry lining pattern? Probably not. Unfortunately, dad had gotten trapped in the golf clothes promoted by Arnold Palmer. He may be an American Icon, but I will never forgive Mr. Palmer his role in the shaping of America's fashion trends.


Monday, June 18, 2001

Stoopit American

I've gone on and on about how hard it is to get used to so many things in a foreign country. The pedestrians still baffle me, the supermarkets are a laugh, the ervice is embarrassing, and on and on . . .

One of the most frustrating has been the nifty little washer-dryer units that everyone in London has intheir kitchen. It is a single unit that serves both functions. I have referred to the machine as a permanent wrinkler. It has a little drawer on the top with three compartments for soap, bleach, etc., and only holds a small amount of clothes (2kg). We learned quickly to wash a very small number of items and have the washer STOP at the end of the wash cycle, so that the clothes could then be taken out, shaken and placed back in for drying, instead of having one ball of cloth attempt to tumble-dry in 75 minutes.

There are a couple drawbacks to these machines. You can only wash or dry at one time, you cannot wash one load while another is drying; the drum is really teeny; once you have started the unit, it is complicated to stop it; it is easy to set it to wash a second time when you intend to dry; the final rinse cycle seems to leave an inordinate (not a lot) amount of soap suds upon completion; the controls are a series of buttons and switches, most of which are heiroglyphic at best. None of this is insurmoutable, but it is all frustrating.

The worst part has been removing the freshly dried clothes, especially jeans, and seeing just a mass of wrinkles that no amount of ironing seems to remedy. This has gone on for months.

I actually enjoy doing laundry. It's not a problem at all for me. Anne, however, seems to have much more luck with this machine. When she completes a load, the clothes though wrinkl-y are not a solid mass of wrinkles; and it is soft, not crunchy.

The other night, I got home form the office early at 8:00 P.M., and decided to start laundry. I loaded the clothes, opened the drawer and accidently poured more liquid detergent thatn was necessary; about half again as much as usual. I decided that I would rinse a second time, if needed.

I did a pre-wash cycle, in hopes of eliminating some of the soap, and I checked the soap drawer near the end of that cycle. I was rather dismayed to see that very little soap was used in this cycle, and I would probably have to do a second rinse anyhow.

When the wash cycle was through, just prior to the rinse cycle beginning, there was still soap left in the drawer, and I feared that I might have to do an entire wash again, not just a rinse. When the whole thing was finished, and I was taking the clothes out to shake and reload, there was quite a bit of soap suds remaining. I sighed, shook out the clothes, put them back in, set the dials and buttons for a full wash and watched through the glass front as it all got started. Imagine my surprise when the wash was really soapy. At the end of this process, I decided to rinse one more time. Hours have passed at this point! Anne was home and, lovingly, not making fun of my dilemma and frustration.

At last, it was bedtime, the laundry had been folded and put away, and I continued complaining about the machine. Anne was kind. I admitted I had poured too much soap into the middle compartment and it dawned on me: why would the middle (second) compartment be used for soap? I asked which compartment she used: left (first)! For months, I have been putting the detergent into the fabric softener compartment and the clothes were 'rinsing' with a full complement of soap!!!

You try pressing the wrinkles out of jeans that have been rinsed in liquid detergent!

At least it's not raining.


Sunday, June 10, 2001

Names names names!

It's remarkable how important our names and monicker are to others.

I have used many names over the years. Most have been made up by me, some have been made for me by others, some I borrowed. I used them because of lifestyle or politics or mental illness. Whatever the reason, process or result, I have had to suffer the ramifications of those many names: using the wrong name at the wrong time, having different groups of people who call me different names collide in a social situation, forgetting what name you know me by, etc. These days, I am Dick Mac or Richard Mac. The repertoire has narrowed and the collision of names has pretty much ceased. Face it, there isn't a terribly wide variety in my current catalogue of monickers.

I remember a young woman attorney with whom I had become friends, we will call her Ms. Jones. She and I got to know each other a bit as she went from law school, through the bar exam, to being an associate in the firm at which I worked. We were not good friends, per se, just friendly in the office. We'd gossip and share bits of info about our lives outside the office. Though I do not recall what she looked like, I remember her as attractive, which would be criteria for being friendly with a young woman attorney in a law firm environment.

A few years into her legal career Ms. Jones and her fiancee, Mr. Smith, fast approached their wedding date. She was gone for a while on a honeymoon, and the first time I saw her in the office, it was with big smiles and warm wishes that we greeted one another.

"Welcome back, Mrs. Smith!" I exclaimed. Since I was being sincere and was genuinely excited about her marriage, I thought this was a friendly, giggly, almost girlish way to greet her.

She stiffened! Her face dropped, and she became rather stern. "I am a successful, independent, professional woman," she scolded. "I would never take a man's name after marriage."

I was a bit put-off. Many Miss Joneses keep their maiden names, but that doesn't make them any less Missus Smiths after the nuptials. I apologized and stammered that I knew she kept her maiden name, I was just referring to her by her formal married name. No offense was intended. She turned redder, became more frustrated and gave me a lecture about independence and equality and (what she passed off as) feminism. I was furious, but somehow kept my composure.

"I understand," I said quietly. "You are your own woman and refuse to take your husband's name; you've decided to keep your father's name. How progressive!" And I turned and walked away.

She never spoke to me again. She seems never to have told anyone about it; but, I leap at the chance to tell the story!

When I got married, I became Mr. & Mrs. Richard Mac, which has taken some getting used to. I am also one half of Anne & Dick Mac. Anne's maiden name has never been any difficulty for us; professionally she is Ms. D, and socially she is Mrs. Mac. It's all been rather simple.

With my history of 'name that name' I had my fears about how this marriage/names thing would work. I am totally comfortable with Anne using any name she chooses. Face it, when you've had as many names as me, it is futile to criticize another's choice of names.

Upon my return to The King's Wardrobe, last weekend, the staff was all smiles and
greeted me warmly: "Welcome back, Mr. D!"

The first time it happened, last Autumn, I wasted some of my life explaining to the
friendly and rather perplexed young man that although my wife's name was D, my name was Mac. He smiled, asked forgiveness, we laughed about it, he apologized again, I went on my way. Next time I saw him, he was all smiles: "Good morning, Mr. D!" I smiled, thought about how to politely correct him, and realized it was futile! Face it, I am Mr. D.

I have become Mr. D. Here in England, outside of my office and tiny social circle, I am known as Anne D's husband. Mr. Mac xists only as paperwork at Her Majesty's Immigration and my employer. Everywhere else, I am Mr. D! Our doormen call me Mr. D, the moving company calls me Mr. D, today the housing consultant called my office and asked for Richard D, the London company to receive our possessions calls me Mr. D, I assume this will continue!

I will keep you posted.


Friday, June 08, 2001

Sick In London

I have heard that stress makes one more susceptible to illness. I have also heard (and believe) that stress is completely man-made, that we create it ourselves, it is not God-given. Irrespective of the nature of stress and illness, I am sick; and this illness follows the rather stressful process of moving from New York, saying good-bye to friends and family, and sitting with hundreds of strangers in a pressurized tube for seven hours.

I've never thought of myself as an exhibitionist - or as exhibitionists like to say, a diarist; but, the more I think about writing these messages to America: sadly, this is what I've become. Has my vanity taken such hold that I find this therapeutic? I must be sick!

We are still in our City flat at The King's Wardrobe, in Carter Lane. Our spacious new flat in Chelstow Place will not be ready until July. The best part of our current address is that is is in a very old part of London near St. Paul's Cathedral and Blackfriars Bridge. Carter Lane is a narrow thoroughfare one block in from said cathedral's churchyard, populated by modern (1970s) office buildings at either end, a 19th century YMCA which now houses a YHA youth hostel, and blocks of 18th century residences that have, for the most part, been turned into businesses. Wardrobe Place, which is the address of The King's Wardrobe, is a small cobbled courtyard of three trees with families of birds, surrounded by six very old buildings. It is picturesque. It is quaint. It is cozy and wonderful and very unlike America (even Beacon Hill).

This was the site of Henry VIII's wardrobe: a cobbled square with six buildings that housed his tailors and storage for his clothing. The original buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and, like most all of Old London, rebuilt, as-is, in the same spot, in the same roads during the ensuing century. When London was flattened after the fire, the government wanted to re-design it as a modern (17th century) city, with a plan and a grid of sorts. However, the aristocracy (landowners) could not agree on compensation for eliminated roads and buildings, so London was rebuilt as it had been. So, you see, my fellow Bostonians, there is a lineage to our municipal ineptitude.

Boston is much like London, but that's a different story.

So, I find myself in The King's Wardrobe, today. Apartment A110. All day. Sniffling and sighing and generally feeling sorry for myself. I am not good at being sick. I have an aversion to housework, which is a detriment during a sick day, because there is not much else to do: mess the house, clean the house. Generally, I spend the first part of the sick day messing the house, and the second part of the day making a half-hearted attempt at cleaning it up so that it is a tad tidier than when I started. I enjoy some success.

I was awoken this morning by a conversation among British-sounding youths. Luckily, our apartment looks out over the courtyard. Unluckily, we are often unwelcome listeners to late-night conversations or arguments between lovers or early-morning business conversations among foreigners. Sometimes it is amusing; often it is irritating. This is a drawback to natural air-conditioning: open windows.

This morning's conversation among a seemingly large group included the clinking of tools and metal, so curiosity got me to look. (Not being an exhibitionist, I am neither a voyeur, and feel guilty when I peek out my own windows to check-out a disturbance.)

Slender Asian man with beautiful hair and looks, scruffy Italian-looking man with a beaming smile, cropped-hair English dyke with bright eyes, and a slew of others carrying photographic equipment around the courtyard. Two young men were transforming all the single-pane windows on the ground floor to six-pane windows by placing a grid brace against each pane of glass, lighting was being arranged, cameras were being assembled. All were chipper and chatty. None were thirty. Another photo-shoot to publicize the development, I assumed.

I managed to rest and read and answer email and call vendors about the move and call work a few times (no one seems to be in either the NY or UK office). I listened to the BBC Radio 4, T.Rex "Electric Warrior," and The Tubes "White Punks On Dope" collection. I ate a banana, made the bed, started some laundry, and continued my journey through Gore Vidal's "Palimpsest."

As the afternoon rolled on, I heard the famous "Quiet! Sound! Action!" call of moviedom and looked to see three Nazi officers walking through the archway, onto the cobbled courtyard, toward a doorway, and behind a lighting-scrim, out of view. Followed by: "Cut!" and the chatter amongst technicians and artists (separately, of course) that follows a filming sequence.

I am still in my pajamas and bathrobe, so I sneak peeks discreetly, because I do not want to get dressed. No one seems to notice me, or they are too cool to be seen noticing me.

My cute Asian seems to be the lighting guy. My Italian is involved with the camera. My dyke is the director, or director of photography. The actors are all blond and well-built and Caucasian and turned out in their Nazi grey which always makes me uncomfortable. They seem at ease in their roles and costumes. Are they competent actors, or do they aspire to this imagery?

My neighbors are coming and going through the courtyard in waves, as they are stopped at their door or the entrance to the courtyard and must wait for permission to pass through. None seem bothered, all are non-plussed by the equipment. Am I the only one who finds this interesting?

I miss New York. When I leave my New York office I see Radio City Music Hall. When I leave my London office I see the Lloyd's building.

The Lloyd's building is a piece of post-modern architecture that I classify as masturbatory design. It seems not to have been designed with longevity in mind, only a sense of schoolboy one-up-manship. "See how unique my building looks? I am so unique." It is as if a boy with an Erector Set was asked to design an office building. Unlike an Erector Set design, though, the Lloyd's building has no classic, if pedestrian, lines. It is designed with its innards on the outside, like the Pompidou Center in Paris. It is fun to look at, but not very attractive. The Lloyd's building has a lot of stainless steel, which I like, but it is impossible to keep clean; and the inside doors of the elevators (which are on the outside of the building) and the elevator shafts, which seem to have been originally stainless steel, are now greasy, blackened exposed one-dimensional shafts with all the appeal of the underside of subway tracks. It is not a pretty sight. At night, it is lit blue, which gives it a much softer feel. Most see it during the day, though, in its sterile ugliness.

This is not to say that I dislike all modern (post-modern?) architecture. I like the Grace Building on 42nd Street. I like Boston's Hancock Tower. Though I find most I.M. Pei designs to be the most egregious of all masturbatory designs, he did a nice job in Boston; but then, a stopped clock is correct twice a day. I look forward to a visit to Bilbao to see the new Guggenheim (which I like in pictures). Enough of this! I really did not intend to write a letter about architecture. Hell, I live in a city with remarkable examples from many centuries of design.

I miss New York. Maybe my illness is psychosomatic -- maybe I am just sad and depressed. But, that is probably not the case since I have a runny nose and keep getting hot and cold flashes. I probably have a common cold from one of my cootie-ridden companions on Flight VS012 from Logan to Gatwick.

The final week in America was fun. I attended a Mets v. Marlins game with the manager of the evil Midtown Mercenaries and had a blast. Spent days inventorying and valuating our possessions for shipment to London. Spent time with Pam, and Michelle, and Dickie. Took long walks through Manhattan. Then my brother, John, and our buddy, Fred, arrived from Boston to collect me and take me North to New England for some final farewells. I got to spend time there with Steven, and Dianne, and Albert.

The low-point of this process was selling my car. Anne's company has these fascist policies about how they will protect you against loss of your car. Unfortunately, you pay dearly for the protection as you seek multiple offers in Manhattan while working full-time and arranging the move. I finally made the sale to a dealer on 10th Avenue. Today, I discover that he has not sent pay-off checks (one of which is my money) to the bank, so I wonder if I have been screwed out of my car. Best not to think about it.

No matter how nice or generous car dealers might be in their personal lives, I find them all to be scumbags in the workplace. It may not be their personal nature, just the nature of the industry; but, I've yet to meet one with whom I would choose to break bread.

The best event of the week was a Red Chord show, at the Plough & Stars, in Cambridge, with Karen, Meg, Susan, Steve, Pat and Bob. I have been trying to get my friends to attend a Red Chord show for some time now, but most blow it off, usually under the mistaken impression that I promote this band only because my cousin, Andrea, is the lead singer. I thought most knew that if I did not think something was good, I would say so; and, if my cousin's band was a dog, I would tell her to get a different job. Maybe we are all just getting too old for long evenings in The Abbey or The Plough. Does anyone else remember that the Plough & Stars was on River Street or Western Ave.? With a red storefront? Am I imagining this?

Anyway . . . Red Chord was great. They are a band worth taking in and I was vindicated when Meg remarked over and over that she was shocked at how good they were because she figured I only liked them because it was my cousin's band.

Oh, my! Now they are pounding on the door and shouting in German! Yikes. This is eerie! I wish I had a microphone to record it for you (they are literally right outside my window): Quiet! Sound ready? Sound ready. OK. Camera ready? Ready. Roll-sound. Rolling. Roll camera. Take One (click). Action! Then the sound of heavy boots marching across the cobbles . . . a knock on a door . . . a pounding on the door . . . a deep, loud German voice shouting a command ("Open the door," is it?) . . . Cut! The Asian is now holding a sound boom. He looks so versatile. This must be a big production, because there are at least twenty technicians out here and only three actors. They are now arranging a different shot. I am probably in for some more German shouting.

I love London and I will keep you posted about our goings-on.


Wednesday, February 28, 2001

White City Old City Red City Cold City

The Mohammed V Aeroport, in Casablanca, looks like it is just another random mid-60s Florida landing strip as the jet taxis to a gate. Inside, however, one finds a lobby so dramatic in size and design that you instantly know you are no longer in Europe or the Americas.

Unfortunately, the meal on the flight was fish. NEVER eat the meal on a flight if it is fish. I have known this for decades. I think it was just one of those pieces of information that automatically appeared. No one I knew while growing up ever flew on planes. The economy was strong during the VietNam war, but not so strong that people in the projects had jobs that flew them anywhere. So, 'avoid the fish' was not a valuable lesson I learned in childhood. No, until the late seventies, I saw air-travel as a privilege of the privileged.

I remember one Summer in the late 1960s when my brother, John, spent some time with his Godmother, our Aunt Bette, in upstate New York. We had all piled into a van with the neighbors and driven (eleven of us) for days through Massachusetts and New York for a week-long visit in Rochester. At the end of the visit, it was announced that he would stay longer and fly home later. FLY HOME! I don't remember exactly how badly I responded, but I am certain there must have been a bit of whining on my part about why he got to stay, and I didn't. More than thirty years later, he has a nice life with a big family and a house and a simple lifestyle that I envy. In the seventies, I finally got my chance to fly in jets; and these thirty years after John's Rochester to Providence flight, I fly much more than I would like.

So, I do not know from where my aversion to fish on a jet originates, probably just that strangling aroma of fish being heated in the ovens that turned me off. On flight 6915 from Heathrow to Casablanca, I enjoyed the bread and crackers and dessert, but did not eat the fish. Anne did.

After passing through the dramatic and beautiful lobby of Mohammed V Aeroport, we got in the queue for passport control. It was no faster or slower than any other passport control . . . well, faster than US passport control, which I have found to be rather poorly run, in that charming re-engineered way. After getting our passports stamped, we made our way to the soldiers who would guide us through metal detectors, check our passports, and send us to the luggage carousels and uniformed porters. Anne, always a savvy traveler and wise enough at the end of this journey to nick the air-sickness bag from the seat back, dressed impeccably in high-style including a new purple suede Karen Millen coat, made her way to one of the large pillars and returned the fish to British Airways more discreetly than I have ever seen! A bit shaken, but no worse for the wear, she continued to the carousel while a young janitor, speaking French in a cross tone, directed to me to a trash can. He smiled broadly when he realized there would be no extra cleaning projects in the luggage area this evening. Hey, either you have style, or you do not: a girl with style never leaves a mess behind in a public place, no matter how bad the meal!

It has only been in 2001 that I have had the good fortune of arriving at an airport to find a man holding a sign that reads 'Mac' and I hope to have the experience more. Especially when arriving in a country where English is the 4th most common language. (I now know that I now know more French than I thought.) There he was: our driver. When we got into the car, I panicked a little as I thought to myself: oh, no, they drive on the wrong side! The long ride from the airport reminded me of journeys to the Miami Airport in the 1970s. Low flat terrain and low whitewashed buildings and palm trees. Five miles into our journey, I realized that the driver was on the correct (left) side, and I had gotten so used to London that I was confused!

I booked a suite at the Idou Anfa Hotel, on Boulevard d'Anfa. It is a Moroccan hotel primarily used for businessmen in town closing deals, or being screwed by the Algerians. I selected it because I did not want to spend my first holiday in Africa at a Sheraton, Marriott, or Meridien hotel where the room looks the same as a room in Des Moines. I was not seeking a tent or casbah, just something relatively un-American.

I was, and still am, a bit surprised at the welcome we received. The front-desk staff was a bit surly when I started speaking to them in English (my only language); but, when I said my name was Mac, two of them lit-up, smiled and in perfect English began this litany of greetings and questions about my trip. I have never had the mention of my name evoke such glee in total strangers, just ask my creditors!

I think it helps to have a wife that more-often-than-not looks like a Parisian designer or Hollywood icon or New York pop star. I don't care what I learn about my insides during my spiritual development, if you are well-dressed, people treat you well. Style over substance! American Sloth that has been passed off as casual attire is treated outside of the US with the disdain it deserves, and appearing in public dressed well, with a wife who looks like she just arrived from a fashion runway gets me all the right kind of attention from service providers.

We were brought to our suite by a uniformed bellhop and found fruit juice, bottled water, a fruit basket and a tray of pastries awaiting us. Wow! This has never happened before, even when I've paid $500 a night for a single room. The suite looks out over the whitewashed city to a panoramic view of the Hassan II Mosque and the Atlantic Ocean.

Ahhhhh, it is called Casablanca because all the casas are blanca. I get it!

Anne decided to make her way directly to bed. I decided to have dinner. I had missed the fish!

The hotel has three restaurants, two bars, and a night club. I select the dining room, because the older I get, the less patience I have with paper napkins. I was seated by the only female staff.

The dining room is a cross between 1980s New Jersey Mafia and 1950s Parisian strip-joint. The music is American Christmas Muzak. YES. It is now 'O Christmas Tree' which was preceded by a Liberace-esque 'Jingle Bells'. I am not making this up.

The room and service are French, but the spirit is Moroccan. There is a buzz that is different from French and American dining rooms: the art on the walls, the quality of service, the whole feel of the room. I recall William Burroughs novels I read in the seventies about extreme indulgences in drugs, mystery, and homoerotica in Morocco. But the whole scene is a bit absurd. Certainly the music doesn't lend any sanity to the scene of chaos that is being carried out like a ballet. Chaotic, but smooth and almost relaxing. The languages are French, Moroccan Arabic, and Spanish tonight.

I add my own twist to this scene of Burroughs meets Bunuel dining by reading an old New Yorker magazine 'Talk Of The Town' article about Matthew McConaughey arguing the merits of the American version of the TV show 'Temptation Island' with that show's 'heart throb' (?), Jim Sperber. Why am I reading this?

Is there a lonelier scene than the parties of one seated in a hotel dining room? The other parties of one are also non-Moroccan, seemingly French, definitely French-speaking. Me? I can say chateau-briand and then answer the obligatory question about my nationality being American or British by saying, in English, that I am an American living in London.

I order two courses and read more about Matthew McConaughey and Jim Sperber. Why am I reading this article? The prawns are amazing, and my inquisitor is pleased, and I realize there are no more parties of one, and I am the only piece of Euro-trash in the joint.

I now notice that none of the men will make eye-contact with me, and the maitre'd is instructing the woman in how to serve me. For some reason, though all the other tables are being serviced by the men and woman working as a team, I am only interacting with the woman. Her English is very good and the service is top-notch, so I have no complaints. My curiosity, though, is whether I am being served by the woman because the men will not serve an American (which would be odd, because Moroccan Arabs are not hostile to the West in the way as some other Arab cultures); or, do they think I prefer to be served by an attractive woman? I decide it is a question that would offend all of them if I asked, so I decide to forget about it.

My main course arrives and it is beautiful. I have no utensils. Do I dare use the Hollandaise? NO. The Christmas music ends and is replaced by a very loud recording of an Egyptian pop singer. Reminds me of August Darnell, not Om Kalsoum. Is this chateau-briand from a cow? I better not think about it.

Four large parties of Moroccan businessmen are now the only other diners. I am not moved by the disdain with which I am viewed by them, which is evidenced by their looks of contempt when our eyes meet. They eat French and drink American. I decide it's a good sign that these well-dressed men are also having chateau-briand, but I can't help but be dismayed by their selections of Coca-Cola or Budweiser as beverages. So, I get to look at them with contempt, too! The music is back to Muzak cum Liberace, and the selection is 'Killing Me Softly' followed by an un-name-able Neil Diamond-type song.

I make my way back to the room, and CNN and BBC keep me in English-language information.

Friday began with a continental breakfast in one of the hotel restaurants. I had forgotten about prune danish! Delicious. When was the last time you had a prune danish? Get one soon!

We were then met in the hotel lobby by Karima, manager of Paradise Bus. Karima provides guides and vehicles for Moroccan holiday travel. She had already provided our airport pick-up on THU evening, and she had a proposition.

Karima offered an English speaking driver to take us around Casablanca on FRI, this same driver to take us on the 3-hour drive to Marakech on SAT where we would meet an English speaking guide, then the same arrangement to Rabat on SUN, transfer to the airport on MON, along with the aforementioned THU airport transfer, for the tidy sum of five thousand dirham (less than $500). I hesitated at first and suggested 4000, but Karima was not budging and Anne thought it well-spent money. Sold.

Ali (of course his name is Ali) is our-man-in-Morocco. We even have his mobile number in case we need anything while he is at home. His English is superb and we can call him at any hour for anything.

The Hassan II Mosque is the predominant architecture of the skyline and the only mosque that allows non-Muslim visitors. It is also the largest mosque in the world. It's construction has been financed by a Saudi prince as a memorial to the previous king, Hassan II. Today being the holy day, we could not enter, but we were allowed to look inside. What an amazing sight. The tower, which I pessimistically envision as someday filled with soldiers of Allah guarding Morocco's Atlantic coast after the inevitable Jihad victory over the evils of America and Israel, stands 280 metres. The plaza spreads for acres and is dotted with fountains and populated by an equal number of European tourists, faithful Muslims arriving for prayer, handsome, fit young men studying under Imam at the adjacent medersa (Koran school) in preparation for a lifetime of service to Allah, and elegantly uniformed policemen in service to the King (Muhammad VI, son of Hassan II, son of Muhammad V) whose primary job seems to be blowing their whistles at tourists venturing too close to the seawall that surrounds three sides of the mosque.

Last month, we bought a couple of books about Morocco to learn a bit before arriving. We learned about taxis grande and petit (which is why we've dropped three hundred quid on a private guide), we read about tipping (fifteen percent in Euro-type restaurants, a few dirham in local cafes, a few dirham per bag to the porter, etc.), only accept items (especially food) with your right hand, homosexuality is illegal and gay men are imprisoned, shorts are never acceptable at any time of year for anyone, and women should avoid showing bare arms and legs. It is good to be prepared.

For your amusement, many tourists seem to have failed to read these small points and we were treated, at this mosque, to the display of two couples dressed in tacky (TACKY) summer wear, both women sleeveless and one man in capri pants! I am no fan of capri pants and on 50-year-old men they are ludicrous. This crew walked right out of an Appalachian Wal-Mart clothing department and found themselves transported to Morocco's holiest shrine. Amazing! I felt like a native.

We also read that Casa is a 'casual' city. I feared my current penchant for blazers may be a problem, but it is not so. A jacket is always acceptable. Anne, fashion-smart as always, wore a colorful full-length skirt, long-sleeved denim top and scarf.

We spent more time than I though we would, just wandering around the plaza, asking Ali questions about Moroccan politics, and feeling the cool Atlantic breeze. My hair is now so long that the breeze actually blows through it!

Next was a drive to La Corniche, the seaside resort that is half 1990s South Beach, half 1960s Revere Beach -- it is Casablanca's Riviera. You can see the glamour and the poverty without turning your head. A Saudi Prince has built a palace overlooking the beaches. There are magnificent villas. There is an amusement park and seaside hotels with waterslides and discoteques, restaurants and food kiosks. It is 70F, but this is cold in Morocco, and La Corniche is practically abandoned.

At the end of La Corniche, as the tourism ends and nature resumes, we approach a holy site where unwed women swim in the waters and pray to a holy woman (now deceased) for the promise of a husband. It looks like a miniature castle, but is a village on a tiny island that is accessible by foot during low tide. The holy woman died many years ago (50 from what I can determine) and the island is inhabited by her descendants who are very poor and suffer the reputation of being drunken louts bent on crime to subsidize their meagre existence. This situation has not diminished the holy woman's powers; but, women who visit the shrine are advised to arrive in the company of ALL her brothers. Ahhhh, holiness isn't what it once was.

Next was the park and a Spanish cathedral (long closed, but beautiful architecture), the Mohammed V Plaza (the Moroccan version of Trafalgar Square), and finally some shopping.

Ali wants to know why we are going to visit Rabat, but not Fes. Our reasons were not compelling, and plans were made to switch our Sunday plans to the site of the oldest university in the Western world.

We made it an early day. Anne took a nap, and I found the lobby bar. I was not in the bar fifteen minutes when I was invited to Miknas by a total stranger. I must relax my friendliness. How will I extricate myself from this? I have only come here for a Coke (which was served in a cold bottle), and now I must end this conversation, accept the invitation with the caveat that our trip to Fes may not allow for a visit in Miknas, without offending this seemingly kind gentleman.

After Anne's nap, I convinced her that we should visit the Old Medina, the original city which is the closest thing to what may be envisioned as Bogart's and Bergman's Casablanca. The Medina is very old and run-down, it is poverty-stricken and tense, and it is night. Anne is not enjoying it at all, and I understand. The buzz is clearly criminal, and there is nothing romantic about it. I could enjoy trekking further in; but, Anne's safety and comfort is more important than my curiosity.

We return to the hotel and have a delicious three-course meal in the dining room. With gratuity, we have just dropped all of $44.00! It's good to be an American!

Saturday was our trip to Marrakech. Everyone told us that we should stay in Marrakech, not Casablanca. But, Casablanca has been on my list since I was a teenager, and Marrakech was never on the list. The drive was uneventful. We saw farmland and industry and desert and hills. It is beautiful, because it is totally unlike anything I had seen in North America or Europe.

Moroccan cities are broken into at least two distinct sections: Medina (the old city built by the Arabs or Berbers) and the Ville Nouvelle (the new city built by the French during their enslavement of Morocco in the 20th century).

Marrakech is the red city, as it's buildings are made from red clay, not dissimilar from that found in the American Carolinas.

Rashid was our man in Marrakech. We met him in the Ville Nouvelle and started our adventure at Agdal Gardens, a reservoir and groves of olive, apricot and citrus trees created in the 12th century. Then to see the gates, walls, and plaza of the Royal Palace, which is closed to everyone but the King. The El Bahia Palace, however, is open to the public when the royal family is not present and is a beautiful place. The Ali-ben Youssef Medersa is a 14th Century Koranic school that is almost completely restored and is amazing to see. The ceramic tiles, the cedar wood cupolas, the architectural details are amazing. Rashid is very learned in the Koran and Koranic and Islamic history. He is a fount of information and we had a couple conversations contrasting medersas to seminaries. The Koutoubia Mosque's minaret is visible from most anywhere outside the souk, and at 230 feet, was the inspiration for the tower at Hassan II Mosque. The minaret is topped by three golden spheres (representing the most important tenets of Islam: Allah, prayer, Ramadan) that legend says were created from all the gold jewelry of the Mother of the sultan Ahmed el Mansour, which she offered as penance for missing fasting days during Ramadan.

What I am beginning to notice about Marrakech is that it is EXACTLY what is expected of Morocco. Everything seemed to be just like a Hollywood depiction of Arabian palaces and houses of worship and all the people seemed to be reading from a script and acting out a role from the imagination of the genies at DreamWorks.

The souk (marketplace) is a labyrinth of alleys, some open and airy, some closed and dark. I would never attempt getting through the souks, or the medina, in general, without a guide. The Marrakech souk also seemed very much like a movie set. Unreal in some way. We visited some shops, bought a rug and a Hand of Fatima, but, in retrospect, were not terribly excited or moved by our time there.

That evening, Anne played with baby cobras around her neck, and she sat on a small stool with a snake charmer who allowed me to take a picture. When she arose, the snake charmer, moved her stool and an adult cobra stood straight up and flared his neck. Scared the pants right off me!!!! Sorry, I don't like snakes, especially cobras!

An amusing sidebar: we visited a number of antique galleries. Upon entering one of them, the first photograph you see is of the proprietor with Lou Reed! A rather recent picture. Next photo is same proprietor with Brad Pitt! Amusing. Gallery was totally over-priced, like most everything in Marrakech.

Next day was Fes! My oh my! Our guide this day was Kahlid. He was young, bright, politically active, wholesome, religious, handsome, and spoke near-perfect English. He brought us first to the top of the hill at the South of Fes, where a battlement was constructed in the 14th century. From this high vantage point, we could see all of Fes spread out before us. Remarkable. Next, to the ceramic cooperative to learn how they make all that beautiful blue ceramic. Anne, of course, wanted brown and green! Why buy blue, just because that's what the city is known for! Then to the oldest university in the Western world. Kairaouine University was established in 857, and predates Bolgna and Oxford. The original building still stands within the ancient medina, Fes el Bali, and is now a mosque. The Zaouia (Tomb) of Moulay Idriss II closed to non-Muslims, but can be viewed through the arched doorway. The tomb is the site of pilgrimages for women seeking fertility and those wishing for a turn in their luck; it is also a site for official sanctuary and those inside cannot be arrested. The Fondouk Tsetouanien has been completely restored to its original beauty and was a center of commerce for caravans. The ground floor was used as a sort of bazaar and the upper, balconied floors for sleeping quarters. The view from the roof of the fondouk was absolutely incredible, as it is in the center of the ancient medina and is the second highest non-religious point. The Leather Tanners inhabit a quarter which is dominated by huge vats used for the curing and dying of leather. We got a couple of nice bags here, and you don't even want to know how inexpensive they were!

The souk (market) in Fes el Bali is everything the souk in Marrakech is not. You would never mistake these souks for a Hollywood set. Since most of the souk were built in the 9th and 10th centuries, the alleys are very narrow. Miles and miles of twisting, turning, light and dark, alleyways that you should not consider navigating without a reputable guide. There is no room for any kind of vehicular traffic, so everything is moved around by donkey and hand-cart. At one point we were in a 'square' about 6' x 6' surrounded by butcher shops displaying sides of meat, cured meats, freshly severed sheep heads, clucking roosters with their feet bound, about 35 adults trying to move through and a donkey trying to maneuver! This is not a Hollywood set!!!

There was soooo much more in Fes. You MUST see it. Fes is everything Marrakech is not.

Unfortunately, we had to return to London on Monday. It is cold in London. We returned refreshed.

Tonight, though, I will go to the Borderline to see my cousin Andrea's band Red Chord. When they return to the States after the rest of their UK/Ireland tour, they will pick-up their residency at the Abbey Lounge, in Somerville, MA. I suggest you check them out -- they are great.

Enough! It's time to sign-off.

Dick Mac (alive!)
The Only Survivor Of The National Peoples Gang

Thursday, February 15, 2001

Perpetual Autumn and Perpetual Verbosity In The UK

I grew-up in New England, and Autumn has always been my favorite season. The air is brisk and clean and refreshing. The temperature is cool, not yet cold. The mornings can be misty and damp, but refreshing still.

Today is a bright, sunny day with a brisk chill in the air so that you could see your breath, just a little. That is, until you walk a block and it is still very bright and sunny, but kinda warm now.

Yesterday was THAT London day I had been warned of: cold rainy grey foggy (is that actual fog, or is it just mist?). It was a good day to stay inside.

Last Thursday, that brisk Autumn smell of February was in the air. Well, until lunchtime, that is, when it became a balmy fifty (and stayed that way through Friday)!

The previous Friday was one of those classic London days for weather. In the morning, the air was warm enough to open the windows. Then a little rain started. As I stepped outside, the air was still warm but the raindrops were like ice-water! One short block away, the rain had ceased. Another block along, the sun was coming out.

It really is amazing and amusing.

My friend, The Crocodile, has been back in touch from the wilds of New Hampshire. He made an observation last week that he recalled Londoners using lots of words but not saying very much. I thought he was giving me a croc; but, lately I've begun to notice exactly what he means!

I get in the queue at Starbucks every morning for some strong coffee and a bad muffin (they are from Seattle, Starbucks, and like every other Seattle corporation, they will never get everything correct -- even if it's their specialty). Anyway, I noticed the verbosity today. And I realize it permeates all of London.

The two women in front of me are having a pleasant little chat about nothing. They are together and are admiring each others accessories: "Well, it's lovely, darling, but it's not very big," said Lady One to Lady Two about the latter's new bag. "It certainly wouldn't hold very much. No good for the beach." And Lady One turns 180 degrees as if she'd never seen Lady Two ever before in her life. Lady Two stood there a bit dumbfounded looking at her leather bag that she'd purchased, it seems to me, to hold make-up (not beach balls)!

I tried not to let the sound of laughter escape as I put my hand over my mouth and pretended to yawn. Lady Two, however, turned and looked at me with an embarrassed and knowing smile. I smiled and nodded and turned to the glass case with the cloyingly sweet croissants, sticky buns and dry muffins.

Like most public spaces in London, the temperature in Starbucks is uncomfortably high, and most of the surfaces get a bit steamy. I spend most of my time in a queue removing my scarf, then opening my coat, then wiping my brow, then shaking my arms out a bit to try and get some air under my suit jacket. None of this helps, of course, but the motions do create a bit of a breeze. When the door opens for a customer to depart, every face in the joint rises up and points to the ceiling, like drowning men in a submarine pressing their faces into the last bit of trapped oxygen, attempting to savor a bit of cool air.

Lady One and Lady Two eventually started another conversation as the queue moved forward. I watched the people behind the counter buzz about with the marked inefficiency that shouts: We Are An American Business Design In Action. If you think the Re-Engineering of the American Workplace was a failure in the United States, you should see it in Europe! If it wasn't so amusing to hear it done with a British accent, it would be infuriating. And I guess that gets me back to my point. Language. Talk. And The Crocodile's observation about English Verbosity.

I have spent about five minutes in line and I have decided on the Cinnamon Pecan Swirl for breakfast, as it looks a little moister than the Sunrise Muffin.

Lady One and Lady Two are now next to be served, and believe it or not, although Lady Two has returned her rather smart orange leather bag to her purse, Lady One is discussing it ferociously. The veins in her neck are sticking out, her forhead is furrowed, and she's going on about the beach and how Lady Two's bag is simply not appropriate for the beach. Lady Two is smiling pleasantly and nodding at Lady One.

It is The Ladies' turn in the queue. Lady One smiles at the server. "Am I next?" She asked with a big Helena Rubenstein smile, her wrinkly old neck pushed forward like a combination of a lizard and a Kennedy woman.

"Yes," smiled the server.

"Oh, good!" She exclaimed. Turning to Lady Two, she asked, "Do you know what you'd like?"

"I'd not really though about it," Lady Two explained. "What will you be having?"

Lady One's eyes opened wide, a conspiratorial smile exposed her yellowed teeth, and she said gleefully, "I've brought THIS!" And from her bag she pulls an open pint container of goat's milk. "I'll have them steam us both up a bit of hot cocoa!"

The server smiles at me and the man behind me and the woman behind him and the man behind her. We all smile back at the server, and at each other. It seems to be getting warmer in Starbucks, and there are no longer any patrons who will be opening the door as they depart, because everyone in front of The Ladies has been served and stolen off to work. There is now an eerie silence in this hive of American Industriousness Tainted by European Sensibility, and you could hear her breathing as Lady Two asked: "Will they do that?"

"I don't see why not," Lady One insisted. "It's perfectly good goat milk," and turning to the server, she looked at the floor, straightened her pearl choker with her right hand, inched ever closer to the counter, leaned forward with her left hand high in the air holding a container of warm goat's milk and asked, in a hushed tone: "Would you steam up some cocoa for us with this? I simply can't have the cow's milk you people pass off in a place like this, and mine is such special milk from my family's place. They're up North, you know. Of course, you generally don't do this sort of thing, but it would really be no bother for you. Really. Just use this instead of that rubbish you usually serve."

This special product can be purchased in any Tesco Metro or high-end bodega in Central London. It is about as special as a Starbucks in an urban setting, or as special as being shocked to learn that your newly-purchased notebook comes with Microsoft Windows already installed. And this opened container of goat milk has been inside this woman's purse for who-knows how long!

Lady Two was leaning forward to listen in anticipation. I was leaning forward to listen, as was every other customer and worker in earshot. The server's eyes darted from Lady One to me, to those behind me. It was still amazingly quiet. At this point, even the espresso machines and steamers had been silent so long that they seemd to go into stand-by mode.

"Of course, we can," the server smiled a big smile. There was a collective audible sigh of relief from every worker and customer in the place! "Two cocoas then. That will be three and a half, please."

Then it happened. Why, you might ask yourself, are they charging this little old lady full-price if she is supplying the ingredients?

Understanding that Lady One knows nothing about the Re-Engineered workplace, with the cash registers designed with only three cocoa keys: Tall, Grande, Venti; I am on her side. There is no key for 'hold the milk,' nor is there a number pad for a worker to enter a random price that might seem fair. It's cocoa, tall, grande or venti, or it isn't cocoa, at all!

Lady One is a woman of means. This is not a little old bag-lady here. Those pearls are real and that sweater is cashmere and the wool top coat is impecable! Three pounds fifty is not really a problem for this lady's purse; but, you can see it's the principle of the situation that has her upset. And I agree with her, not because I think she should get a discount, but because this is exactly why the Re-Engineered workplace is a failure: The Ladies can never bring the goat's milk if the computers only allow for TallGrandeVenti Cocoa. (What the f**k is this tallgrandeventi s**t anyway? I miss smallmediumlarge!) You get it this way because some Microsoft Flunkie with a great idea for a coffee shoppe has decided, and there is no other way. Starbucks offers you coffee the same way Microsoft offers you an internet browser. There is only our way and no other way. If you want it differently, you will just upset the entire network!

"It costs over three pounds for you to steam a little goat's milk for me?" Lady One asked. Another audible collective sigh. Chapter Two in the saga of this morning's cocoa was about to begin. One customer behind me swore aloud (which always sounds so quaint and dirty with a British accent) and loudly left the store. Ahhhh, a breeze and breath of cool air!

Finally, one of the other workers (they have a special name for the coffee makers and it escapes me now) stepped to the other cash registered, signalled me over and took my order of a Grande Americano No Room and Cinnamon Swirl. The conversation between Lady One, Lady Two and the server continued as I paid my three twenty-five and moved to the pick-up counter, which has a splendid view of the brewers at work.

I have become a bit friendly with the workers at this Starbucks, because I am there every morning. They recognize me and we always exchange nods or pleasantries. The girl with the pierced face, poured The Ladies' goat milk into a stainless container and looked in horror at it. Lady One came rushing down to watch that her milk was being prepared properly and saw the expression on the pierced girl's face and asked if something was wrong.

"Well, it looks like this," the pierced girl explained, holding the container up to Lady One. "And there really isn't enough for two."

"It's fine, that's no problem for us; and just top it off with a little of your milk, then," Lady One explained and retired to a stool at the bar against the wall.

Pierced Girl looked at horror and showed me the contents of the container. This was barely a cup of goat's milk, and it was so curdled that you could smell it from afar. This was the classic fish and loaves or silk purse v. sow's ear set-up. This woman arrives with three ounces of sour goat's milk and would like it made into 24 ounces of rich, creamy cocoa! Brilliant!

Pierced Girl shrugged, filled the container with plain old cow's milk, whipped up a couple of cocoa's and The Ladies sat on their stools chatting about how much better the cocoa is when made with real goat's milk!

I don't know if Lady One got a discount for the rancid goat's milk; but, I might bring some used coffee grounds from my apartment and ask the girls at Starbucks to make me a nice cup of coffee from them!

Ahhh! Another day in the life of an American guy lost in the wilds of Olde Londinium.


Tuesday, February 13, 2001


Being a New Amsterdammer can make one rather jaded. The overwhelming and exciting pace of Manhattan makes the rest of the world seem terribly quaint in all of the worst ways. One must work at staying open-minded and clear-headed. Peter Stuyvesant would likely be unimpressed by what DeWitt Clinton, of Little Britain, New York, did to that fair city during his twelve-year reign as Mayor of New York. Mayor Clinton was responsible for flattening much of the City above Houston Street and constructing the grid for which Manhattan is now famous. Fortunately, Greenwich Village was spared, and the grid really begins at 14th Street.

My favorite New York political rumour is that another Clinton, one William Jefferson Clinton, of Little Rock, Arkansas, after relocating to join his wife, the junior Senator from New York, will run for Mayor!

But, I digress . . .

The best part of my recent Four Cities In Four Days adventure was a weekend in that place where the Amstel River is dammed.

When much of Northern Europe was bombed during WWII, the Dutch capitulated to the Nazis and saved the beautiful city of Amsterdam only after Rotterdam was flattened. We each make our personal judgment of what wisdom lies where these six decades later.

I managed to get a few hours sleep in London on Friday afternoon, and remembered to order a taxi to the station before I nodded off. At six o'clock, we were waiting for our ride, when I learned that we had no reservation! It was pouring rain and the cab company would only send a taxi for a trip to Heathrow -- no cabs available for a ride to get the express train at Paddington Station. We were out of options, and the combination of frustation and exhaustion did not play well with my spirits or attitude.

Without too much whining and complaining, we made it to Heathrow and got seat assignments for the quick flight to Holland.

Our friend, Bonnie, was kind enough to meet us at the airport and take us to our hotel.

We had reservations for a double room with private bath and view of the canal at the Quentin Hotel, near the Leidseplein. The hotel is right next to the American Hotel, which we decided against because it is under construction. The Quentin is in an amazing building. It is a beautiful piece of architecture. It was listed as a three star hotel, which was perfectly fine and the rate for the weekend was a good deal.

We had read and been told that the hotel had gone under a renovation in the recent past, and was a popular haunt for gay men and rock and rollers. This made it more appealing!

Unfortunately, whoever had purchased the Quentin and decided to make it a hip, cool, downtown kind of a hotel must have run out of money. Everything about the place seemed like a good idea, it was just very poorly executed! We did have a private bath, and we did have a beautiful view of the canal; but, the excitement stopped when the bathroom was cold and run-down and the french doors that opened to provide an unobstructed view of the canal opened onto a puddle of stagnant water that emitted that stagnant water stench! Fortunately, opening a window in the room made the stench dissipate.

We did not unpack upon arriving at 2330, we hit the streets and made our way to The Dolphin, our favorite Coffee Shop. The crowd was young and attractive, the soda cold, and the walk short. Next thing we knew, it was 0200, and Bonnie's husband was ringing her mobile to make sure all was well.

We walked back through the Leidseplein and made plans to meet Bonnie for breakfast at her home, which is within walking distance. So, we made our way up the steep steps that make an Amsterdam building an Amsterdam building and slept until after dawn, awaking to realize we had not adjusted our clocks for the hour difference between London and Amsterdam!

Quick showers and cups of coffee found us crossing the canal to Overtoom for the walk to Bonnie's. We stopped along the way and bought tulips, which are remarkably inexpensive in Holland! Did you know that?

After a relaxed meal with Bonnie, Marcel and Cody, we made our way through Vondel Park to Pieter Cornelisz Hoofstraat, which is Amsterdam's best shopping area, and is near the Museumplein. We shopped and shopped and shopped until we could only point at boutiques and say, "We'll have to go there tomorrow!" The US Dollar and British Pound are very strong there, and shopping is irresistable.

We went to Cobra, a trendy place named for the arts movement of the same name at Hobbemastraat 18 Museumplein, for drinks and a bite to eat. It was a bit crowded and cramped; but the cheery and almost efficient service, which is unheard of in Amsterdam, was a pleasant surprise! The food is not a good value for your money. Because it is convenient to Rijksmuseum and vanGogh Museum, with much better food than can be gotten in those instutions, It is worth visiting between viewing the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists.

The short walk back to the hotel was the perfect prelude to a nap. No amount of coffee could keep me from resting after the four days I had just experienced!

We met Bonnie for dinner, and the three of us wandered along the canals seeking some trendy Asian joint that turned out to be a horror of rooms! So we choose wisely and moved on. I still can not bear spending my money in a restaurant where I am the oldest customer. I just can't do it! Anyway, there are plenty of restaurants like that in London, and even more in New York. We made our way to a Dutch restaurant and had a good hearty meal that lasted for hours. Part of the time was spent enjoying traditional Dutch service. If you have not had this experience, it is basically the worst service available on the planet. Service staff in Holland just do not care, and they are proud of it!

Amsterdam is really a beautiful city and is great for walking. The buildings are old and tall (taxes have always been based on the width of your home, so they are narrow and high with very steep and narrow staircases), and even the buildings with tacky lover-lit store fronts look fantastic from a distance.

We walked back to the Leidseplein, looking for a night cap. Late on Saturday night is not an ideal time to find a small table in a quiet place for a cocktail, in any city! After pushing ourselves through a couple of trendy establsihments, we made our way back to the lobby of the hotel and enjoyed ourselves there for a couple hours. Another late night made for another late morning.

Sunday was time to check out of the hotel, and found us in a taxi back to Bonnie's with our luggage. After a brief visit, we left them to their lives and made our way back through Vondel Park, to PC Hoofstraat for a final binge of shopping and a visit to the vanGogh Museum. Both were wonderful experiences. Anne got some great clothes at The Peoples Republic of the Labyrinths and the museum was a real treat.

I had never seen any of vanGogh's paintings from his 'Japanese period.' No he was never in Japan! He and his brother collected Japanese prints and he did a series based on them. Excellent pieces.

The vanGogh museum is everything a modern museum shuold be: well-lit, well-ventilated, spacious, organized, accessible, and obvious. The building is huge for the collection, which is a relief when compared to other cramped modern nightmares of design, like the Tate Modern, in London; and their older cramped counterparts like the Metroploitan, in New York. If you have not been to the vanGogh museum, please add it to your list of places to see -- the building is NOT part of the show, so the artwork is a real treat.

A late lunch at the Melkhouse, in Vondel Park, wrapped up our trip and only a short visit at Bonnie's and a taxi ride to Schiopol Airport remained before British Airways returned us to London and plunked us down at Heathrow. An express train to Paddington Station and a taxi to Wardrobe Place found us warm in our apartment, unpacking our treasures, and preparing for another week of work!

So, go to Amsterdam and DON'T stay at the Quentin!

It is now after 2200 (GMT) and it is time for me to go home from the office. I got time to write this, because a colleague in the DC office has failed to return my calls and I am going home!


Monday, January 29, 2001

Four days, four cities! Get Dick Mac To London Tonight!

This international lifestyle sure has its ups and downs!

What is most intriguing, beguiling, and dangerous is the twenty-four hour clock. I've been marching through life with the cavalier attitude that any idiot can figure out that 1300 is one in the afternoon and that 2020 is 8:20 P.M. Simple, right!?!?! Subtract 1200 from any time greater than 1200 and you get the twelve-hour (AM/PM) conversion!

Last Wednesday, I had to fly from London to Boston for a funeral. Not a happy occasion, but a necessary trip. I was able to secure a ridiculously expensive round-trip Economy ticket from Gatwick to Logan. The schedule looked like this: arrive in Boston WED at 1720, go to the wake, sleep at my brother's, go to funeral and internment on THU, fly out of Boston THU night at 2200, arrive in London FRI morning.

The brevity of my Boston trip was necessitated by previously booked reservations for Anne and me in Amsterdam. Tickets and Hotel had been purchased and were non-refundable; and our friends Bonnie, Marcel, and Cody, were expecting us. We had been planning the Amsterdam trip for months and were looking forward to it.

Like any American Irish-Catholic clan, my Mother's family is quite large, and we only seem to gather for funerals and weddings. Mostly funerals. With 40+ first cousins on my Mother's side, most of whom have spouses or partners, it is a rare treat that everyone of my generation (approaching 100 of us) is invited to a wedding. And my generation is old enough now, that two of my cousins are grandfathers; which means that some cousins have children old enough to also receive wedding invitations!!! You get the picture! So, funerals are where we gather most. It is exciting to have such a large family. When we left the wake on WED evening, we talked about how lucky we were to have such a great group of people as relatives.

Traveling to family events became much more complicated for me when I moved to New York; now that Anne and I are in London, it borders on ridiculous!

I ordered a car to pick me up at our apartment in The City and take me to Gatwick Airport, which is much further away from Central London than Heathrow. It was a long drive there, but we made it without incident. My flight, however, was delayed because of equipment failure. This is never reassuring; but, I made it to Boston at 1830. My brother, sister-in-law, and I made it to the wake in plenty of time. I then got to enjoy dinner with my immediate family, at my other brother's home, before getting a decent night's sleep. Thusday was spent at the funeral and internment, followed by a luncheon on Cape Cod. Timing is everything, and I was back in Boston at 4:30 (1630), resting for my flight at 10:00 (2200).

With a bit of time to spare, I called some friends, and even had a short visit from a friend who lives nearby. It was a very relaxing couple of hours.

My brothers got me to Logan at just after 8:00 (2000), which is exactly two hours before flight departure (the required check-in time for international flights). I prefer to be earlier than punctual so that any problems that might arise at check-in can be resolvd without the added stress of a time crunch; but, punctual is perfectly acceptable!

I was relieved to see that there was not yet anyone in line at the Virgin Atlantic counter when I strolled into Terminal E, because when the check-in staff is not hurried, they are more flexible and generous with seating negotiations. When I announced to the three assembled workers that I wanted to check-in for the ten o'clock flight to London, they stared blankly at me, all with jaws dropped.

Quickly, the supervisor avertered her eyes to the computer screen at which she had been working when I approached, and the two men began to bumble about and stammer while pointing at the video monitor and explaining that the flight was scheduled for 2020 (8:20), and was already boarded and about to leave the gate! I had misunderstood the time and written it down incorrectly! I had it listed as 2200, not 2020! My body temperature changed, my jaw dropped and everything went temporarily fuzzy! Fortunately, one of the men got right on a walkie-talkie and asked if I could be boarded. The response was an emphatic 'No'! I was now one of those idiots who failed to understand the 24-hour clock!

They were very sympathetic about my plight: there were no more flights out of Boston until Friday, which was too late to make my flight to Amsterdam! It took a moment before I snapped back to reality!

They checked the JFK to Heathrow flights and there were plenty of seats on a flight at 2305 (11:05). They checked the Delta Shuttle to LaGuardia, and there was a flight at 2035 (8:35). They became really excited and animated as they took less than three minutes to make two phone calls and rise to the challenge that became: Get Dick Mac to London Tonight!

I dashed (Really! I did! I RAN!) across the skyway from Terminal E to Terminal A, to the Delta Shuttle gate. It took just over twelve minutes (I'm not really much of a sprinter), which left eight minutes to purchase a ticket, find the Boston Coach counter to order a sedan, and get on the jet! (Without dropping of a heart-attack!)

I did it! I was on the Shuttle with two minutes to spare! Another passenger actually boarded AFTER me!

This flight would get me to LaGuardia at 9:35 (2135), leaving me 70 minutes to get off the Shuttle, to my waiting car for a drive across Queens to JFK, checked-in at Virgin, and board the plane. (You can not be boarded on an international flight less than twenty minutes before departure, so I lose 20 minutes there.) I didn't know if I could do it, but I was comforted by one particular thought: if I missed the last flight to London, I could sleep in my own bed at my New York apartment and get the first flight in the morning, which would get me to Heathrow just on-time to meet Anne for the flight to Amsterdam. I was so tired at this point, that I almost wanted to miss the last flight out of JFK and go home!

When the shuttle landed at LaGuardia, the pilot announced that there was a disabled plane at our gate and there would be a slight delay in deplaning! This slight, fifteen minute delay got us to the gate at 9:50, leaving only 55 minutes to complete the rest of the Challenge!

I found my driver and headed out of the Marine Air Terminal rather quickly. I told him the situation and he said he would do his best, but he was not certain he could get me to JFK Terminal 1 quickly enough to succeed. I remained calm! We talked about the New York drug laws. Fifteen minutes later the driver was happily explaining that he could not believe how little traffic there was on the Van Wyck Expressway, and that I might actually make it.

I got out of the car at JFK and tried to trot into the terminal and to the Virgin counter; but, I could barely walk with my scant luggage. There was a long queue snaking around the check-in area. One nice benefit to flying so much, is that I been promoted to the preferred flying club and can use the Upper Class check-in counters even though I am flying Economy. These counters are generally devoid of clientele and provide rapid check-in. Avoiding another f**k*ng queue in this condition would save my sanity, if not my travel plans.

My mouth was parched, my eyes were watering, and my hands were trembling when I handed the woman my ticket. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. She said: "Oh, Mr. Mac, we've been expecting you." I almost fainted! The guys at the Boston counter had followed-up and contacted JFK to tell them of my plight! I relaxed instantly and she asked: "Are you alright?" I nodded. "Sir, you are sweating and shaking are you sure you're OK?" I nodded, took out a handkerchief, wiped my brow, licked my lips and managed to asked if the flight was heavily booked and could I be bumped up to a better seat. This was a clear sign to her that I was not going to drop to the floor. Anyone who can enquire about a free upgrade cannot be too ill!

She could not upgrade me, but she gave me an entire row of four seats to myself. Ahhhh! A touch of luxury in economy!

After I passed throught the security checkpoint, I still had fifteen minutes before they even began allowing passengers to board the plane! I bought a bottle of water, some duty-free Chanel products, and looked out at New York and felt a little pang about seeing my apartment and my stuff and sleeping in my bed!

The flight to Heathrow was remarkably uneventful. The taxi ride to our apartment was almost boring. The rest I got before the rainstorm rolled in was fitful. The impossibility of getting a car to taxi to Heathrow during a heavy rain was only the icing on the cake! We made it to Amsterdam. Fnally, a weekend of shopping and eating and museums was mine, and I think that by next weekend, I might approach sanity!


Sunday, January 21, 2001

Darkness And Disgrace

Anne and I ventured North of London for the first time tonight. A taxi ride took us to a restaurant in Upper Street, Islington, for a bite to eat at Santa Fe, an American Southwestern restaurant. Though another restaurant in Upper Street had been recommended, we were not impressed with the menu and we managed to finagle a table at Santa Fe moments before their Saturday evening rush might begin. As we were guided to our seats, the hostess explained that we would have to be gone before 8:00 because the table was booked. Since we had plans for an event at another location in Islington, it was with pleasure that we agreed to vacate the premises post-haste. We were then seated at what has to be the ONLY non-smoking table in all the restaurants in all of London! How American!

After a hearty, but hardly memorable, meal we managed a taxi to shuttle us to The Rosemary Branch, a free house and theatre on the other side of the borough, which, according to its brochure ". . . first appears on Hole's 1594 plan of Finsbury Fields as an alehouse used by archers near the Shoreditch boundary. . . ."

The Rosemary Branch Theatre is currently showing "Darkness and Disgrace, a Musical Cabaret from the Songs of David Bowie," starring Des DeMoor, as the chansonnier, and Russell Churney, as pianist.

(BTW, this is my review that will appear in some form at BowieNet, next week.)

The small theatre was sparsely set for this two-man show which started with DeMoor sitting on a chair reciting "Future Legend," the eerie opening to Bowie's Diamond Dogs album. "Future Legend" is a post-beat pledge of post-apocolyptic allegiance to all that is decorative and shimmering, rife with canine sensuality and sexual tension, spoken over a proto-punk rendition of Richard Rodgers' "Bewitched." Who knew that two men with a piano and a couple of guitars could elicit Bowie's spirit with such simplicity. What followed made me want to giggle (which I later learned the actors would have enjoyed) as DeMoor launched into a cabaret version of the song "Diamond Dogs"! I've never heard the line "with your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump" delivered with such style!

The audience warmed-up when DeMoor spoke about how the show came into being and his own introduction to the music of David Bowie. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear other men of my generation tell their story of stumbling on David Bowie's show of bisexual transgender glamour and chic, because they tell MY story. Does every 40ish white guy Bowie fan have the SAME story?

DeMoor and Churney proceed to run through an amalgamation of Bowie non-hits from as far back as 1966's "The London Boys" and as recent as 1995's "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town."

Most poignant, is that at various intervals, the players speak to and about Bowie's fascination and personal experiences with the marginalization of the mentally ill and soceity's phobia surrounding mental illness. Churney quoted (free of sarcasm or gratuitous accent) an excerpt from Bowie's 1975 Playboy interview with Cameron Crowe where the rock god discusses his familiarity with mental illness. The medley of "All The Madmen" and "Buddha of Surburbia" became a housewide celebration of mental illness when DeMoor got the audience to clap along and sing 'Zane, Zane, Zane. Ouvre le Chien.' The duo's melding of these two songs is brilliant, and any die-hard Bowie fan would be familiar with the connection. Their stunningly creepy version of "Scream Like A Baby," which might be the best song ever written about medication and marginalization, gave me chills! The song "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town" was performed with the silouhette of prison bars surrounding the singer and again succeeded at eliciting sympathy about institutionalization.

"Please Mr. Gravedigger," released in 1967, was treated to a bit of role-playing, that lightened the creepy, murderous storyline of the song.

I do not mean to imply that "Darkness and Disgrace" is a flag waving demonstration to unveil the horrors of institutionalizaiton! Hardly! There was a dark side mixed in with all this fun!

A snippet from George Orwell's "1984," which was clearly the inspiring text for Bowie's "We Are The Dead," was read by both performers before offering the song. Again, the juxtaposition of a line like "I love you in your fuck-me-pumps and your nimble dress that trails" on a stark cabaret piano made my appreciation of Bowie's lyrical versatility run deeper!

Though the show is filled with songs that real Bowie fans would appreciate, not every audience member would be familiar with all of the cuts. So, as a treat, the show's encore is "Life On Mars" which even a Bowie neophyte knows enough to hum-along.

Other songs included in the two-act, 90-minute show include (chronologically, but not in order of performance) "Saviour Machine," "Width Of A Circle," "The Bewlay Brothers," "Lady Stardust," "Time" (a song that seems written for cabaret performance), "Sons Of The Silent Age" (performed quite differently than Peter Frampton), and "It's No Game."

I cannot say enough about this show. Every Bowie fan of any stripe in the London area, and those Bowie fans with the wherewithall to get themselves to London by 29 January, should take in this show.

After the show, we had the good luck to enjoy a drink with the performers who are charming, accessible, and enthusiastic. DeMoor and Churney happily shared their thoughts about Bowie's music, the story of building the show, and their creative interests. The honour of meeting the cast was ours because we had the good fortune of meeting the charming Blammo and Susan from BowieNet -- true stars in their own right -- who happily spent the last part of the evening talking music and politics and Bowie!

Dick Mac (alive!)
The Only Survivor Of The National Peoples Gang