Suggested Song: The More Things Change, Bill Magill (from the Eskimo in the Sun album, 1996)
Suggested Drink: Fog Cutter cocktail: rum, gin, sherry, cognac, orange and lemon juice, orgeat syrup.

I want to thank the couple at the Hôtel Pullman, 5th Floor, Charles de Gaulle Airport, for getting my travel day started with the right spirit this past week. Their impressive exhibition of amorous congress, drapes pulled proudly wide, was a surprise distraction while lacing up my boots in the Ibis just opposite the courtyard. “This flight to San Francisco will either be totally f*cked or f*cking amazing” I thought, depending on their performance now. Allez, avec enthousiasme!

Dispatch #1 – Neighborhood Charms

San Francisco is a city of small villages, and that’s party of its intimate charm. Neighborhoods are defined by ethnicity (Chinatown), weather (the Sunset), sexual orientation (the Castro), affluence (Pacific Heights), or pharmaceutical proclivity (the Haight). It’s also a city of coffee culture and North Beach would be that tribe’s historic ground zero.

The Italians started arriving in San Francisco in the early 1900s and quickly planted their flag in this beautiful corner of the city. The young DiMaggio boys played stickball on these streets in the 40s, Beats claimed asylum in the ’50s, sleaze clubs took over Broadway in the ’60s, and the punk wave crawled out of the Mabuhay Gardens in the ’70s.

I arrived in San Francisco in the ’80s and spent my idle hours in the coffee shops and blues bars along Grant Avenue. Listening to opera singers who would casual in on Sunday afternoons at Café Trieste was always a solid backup plan, with a bottle or two of chianti and a close friend.

Focaccia sandwiches at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café, San Francisco

North Beach has resisted the techie invasion transforming many of the other San Francisco neighborhoods, sometimes for the better, more often not. And this gives me comfort. City Lights Bookstore is still thriving – it’s poetry collection on the second floor is unbeatable (no play on words) – and Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe on Columbus and Union remains safely in family hands.

We took up bar stools there yesterday and ordered hot focaccia sandwiches, with Mario’s young grandson Dario working the oven and his sister taking orders and running the till. It was a reassuring moment of escape from a world that never seems to stop losing its authenticity. Grazie, and another glass of that delicious red my friend. Now onward!

Dispatch #2 – Build It and They Will (Still) Come

I’m trying to imagine a San Francisco without illegals from south of the border. The slightest peek under the hood of this town’s booming economy shows the degree to which these crafty intruders have ingrained themselves into the gears. Build a wall, physical or virtual, and that finely tuned machine will grind to a very messy halt.

A morning stroll down 24th Street in Noe Valley means dodging prams of pale, blue-eyed babies guided by brown Aztec chicas: Illegals! Push through the swinging kitchen doors of any city restaurant – from Michelin star to burger joint – and who’s manning the burners and cleaning the plates? Illegals! (“The restaurant business as we know it , in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.” – Anthony Bourdain). Suffer the roar of (what sounds like) a million lawnmowers and leaf blowers buzzing through the grassy gardens of St. Francis Wood or Pacific Heights and who is making the racket? Illegals!

When I lived in San Francisco Valentin was our gardener, Rosa our cleaning lady, and Ana our Nanny. There is no family position requiring more trust than that woman helping with the babies. Ana was a gift from heaven. Short, wide, solid, gracious, and assured. Just let me do the diaper por favor, you got it all wrong Bill. She was part of the family but not. She joined on vacations, but rarely at our dinner table. We paid her well but not enough to escape the gang-ridden barrio of the Outer Mission. When mules arrived in Tijuana with her frail father, whom they had smuggled up from Guatemala, they demanded an additional $5,000 at the border to hand him over. When she pleaded that she didn’t have it Ana found a gun barrel at her temple.

The morning line at the Tartine Bakery.

We privileged gringos of San Francisco have first world problems: the line at Tartine Bakery was insufferable this morning, wifi was down on the Google bus, and now Hamilton is sold out! If the Illegals are dismayed by our sense of entitlement and lack of empathy they hide it well. Job security? Zero. Medical coverage? Ha! Still, they mow and clean and cook and raise our precious kids, all with a smile of gratitude. And still they come, … despite the absurdity of blame for stealing jobs that no one else wants, … and the humiliation of a wall.

I opened a new checking account at my Chase branch in West Portal yesterday. A young Gabriel Deluna was the Private Client Banker who helped me set it up, quickly and with coffee offered (how not French). It was his last day before a week’s vacation in Guadalajara. “Mexican,” I asked? Yes indeed, second generation. Did his father mow lawns? That I didn’t ask, maybe he was professor at Stanford. Somehow I doubt it. Chase, you have a star on your hands. Treat him well. Now wouldn’t that be a change? Onward!

Dispatch #3 – The Soundtrack of a City

The best cities come with a soundtrack. There’s an urban pulse and rhythm, a melodic energy that pulls us down the avenues and into old haunts, that guides us to new encounters. Our dearest memories might be triggered by old sites and smells, the childhood bedroom and mom’s kitchen aromas, but our most vivid recollections of the city sort are provoked by music.

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Paris.

San Francisco and Paris are two of my favorite towns. Feasts for the senses, cityscape museums, hip and romantic, captivating places where interesting people gather and cool shit happens, … and they have amazing soundtracks.

My Paris is Piaf, Brel, Aznavour, and Gainsbourg. When I explore the winding ruelles of Montmartre La Bohème is swimming in my head, and along the grand boulevards it is Je t’Aime, Moi Non Plus, with Jane Birkin’s erotic (okay, she’s about to have an orgasm) word play with bad boy Serge. I love this song so much I honored it with my own Linger With Me; Laëtitia Costechareyre invoking the breathy Birkin purr.

Carlos Santana in San Francisco.

San Francisco is a very different evocative jukebox. Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Huey Lewis, and Chris Isaak for starters. Janis and Credence are there too, and of course the Dead. Just as in Paris, the music is drawn from the neighbhorhood character. I was never much of a Deadhead or pot fan, but both are hard to avoid in certain quarters like the Haight. And when in Rome …

The best mode of transport in both scenic cities is by shoe leather. Down Boulevard Saint Germain, past Notre Dame, across the Seine and on to the Marais? That’s quite the hike but pas de problème, with Quand On a Que l’Amour in my imagination spilling from the cafés and animating the lovers sharing a glass en route. From the cablecar turnaround at Union Square, up through Chinatown and down Columbus Avenue to Mario’s for a sandwich in North Beach? Just another amazing walk when powered by Huey’s The Power of Love. (His brilliant trumpet player Marvin McFadden brings the brass on my 1996 release Dance Hall Girls.) These 2 songs of love couldn’t be more different; these 2 romantic cities couldn’t be more distinct.

Do you hear music too when skipping through your favorite town? Maybe you hear voices. I don’t know, I think we’re all a little crazy. And now I’m off to France. Homeward!

Bill Magill

Suggested Song: Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez
Suggested Drink: Green Ghost cocktail. Gin, Chartreuse, lime juice.

well I’ll be damned
here comes your ghost again
but that’s not unusual
it’s just that the moon is full
and you happened to call

Joan Baez performed at the Olympia in Paris last week on a stop through her final tour. Her voice was dynamic as ever, and touch with the guitar fluid and delicate. I went to the show thinking, “okay, she’s a legend so why not?” What I enjoyed was a concert of surprising grace and emotion, Baez introducing each song in flawless French, the audience reverent and hanging on every word and note. When she played Diamonds and Rust, her heartbroken dig at Dylan, it got me thinking about that particular ghost in her life; the ghosts we all suffer.

Our lives are inhabited by the otherworldly. They are spurred from memories to comfort or vex. Angels glide in when invited; our ghosts slip away only when ready.

Do they exist? They very much exist for those who very much believe. You can accept or deny their presence in your life, but cannot question this fundamental principal: we create our own realities, those versions of who we were and how we were loved, and the laws of the universe that govern our future. Did Dylan love Baez? I suspect that she was convinced yes in the early days, then a time she suspected no longer, and perhaps later doubted everything. So reality is conveniently pliant and the truth selective. Diamonds and Rust provides some hints to Baez’s own take.

It’s January in Paris and you are freezing.
I see you framed in a soft falling snow and feel warm.
How’s the weather?

I’ve started lighting a candle for my sister every evening. She’s with me instantly, glowing against the wax and flickering along the wick. She sits with me at the piano and I ask her advice over dinner. Cathy lifts my mood and lowers my tensions, like she always has. She calms and encourages, so she is real, as evident as my fingers on the keys, floating in on angel wings. And at the end of the night, when I blow out the candle, she lifts away on the last glimmer of flame until I call again.

Sometimes we confuse angels from ghosts. We doubt our memories and question emotions. We visit old haunts to call new spirits, we light candles and recite poems in the hopes of conjuring the angels of old. Sometimes they come. Other times we find nothing but phantoms and smoke.

Chambre 35 at the Hotel Emile, with its clawfoot baignoire and 3rd floor view down Rue du Roi de Sicile, is haunted. Not-yet-lovers soak in the steamy bath with rose petals and champagne. They tease and tempt and soap each other toes. He’s never seen a woman so enchanting, no moment so inviting, as her and now. Ever. He’ll do nothing to risk the spell, just lay back submerged in this sudsy bliss until she slowly floats over him, plants her kiss and smiles, “ce maintenant le lit, non?”

Have you been in moments like this, completely surrendered to the dream and memory? But when your eyes open you are alone. You had called an angel but conjured a ghost. The image dissipates like smoke from a blown out match and you wonder what was real, ever. Diamonds and rust Joan, just diamonds and rust.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Downtown Train, Tom Waits
Suggested Drink: Thurston Howl, rum, brandy, gin, pineapple and grapefruit juices. (to sooth those weathered pipes)

I’ve wanted to be rock star since I was young. I gave it the old college try as a teen, then surrendered to the odds and went off to college. But I never gave up on the dream. I kept on writing music and making bedroom demos through my 20s, and recorded a proper studio album in my 30s. It was a decent effort, but my voice just didn’t have that edgy rock n roll bark that I so loved hearing in the greats: Daltrey, Waits, Cobain, Bon Scott. I couldn’t find my howl.

A lot of us are inspired but mediocre at things we really love, particularly when we’re young. Passion and effort aren’t always enough, unfortunately. But there are plenty of examples of mediocrity flowering into something truly special in later years. Consider Czech composer Leos Janacek. He penned a respectable piece at 22 in the late 1800s, and then spent his next 30 years mostly doing folklore research. Janacek kept plugging away in his spare time but didn’t find real renown until 62, with the completion of his opera Janufa, to be followed by Sinfonietta and then many other classics.

Why his later-in-life bloom? Maybe he finally had time on his hands to immerse more deeply, or it was the continued honing of his talent, or the inspired provocation drawn from his ache for the beautiful Kamila, married and 35 years younger, for whom he took a hard tumble just about the time Janufa was in work. Love bloomed, he soared, the rest is for us to enjoy.

Another good example is Charles Bukowski. At 24 his “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” got published to some decent reviews. Then he went on a prolonged bender and deep dive into the seedier side of life. Like Janacek, Bukowski kept at his craft but had little to show for it. His real break through came at 51 with “Post Office,” which he wrote in 3 weeks after quitting the Postal Service in LA as a carrier. (I picked up a copy at City Lights in SF earlier this year. What a great read.)

I was at a Chagall exhibit in Aix-en-Provence last week, at the beautiful Hôtel Caumont in the center of town. Chagall established himself as a transcendent and successful painter early in life, and unlike Janacek and Bukowski kept the acclaim rolling. But what I admire most about Chagall is his leap into distinctly different and challenging forms of art in his later years: ceramics and stone sculpture and stained glass, starting in his mid 60s. You think I’m this, but now I’m that. Allez allez, keep up!

Maybe you’re in your 50s or older and thinking that the window of passion possibilities has long closed. That comes down to the commitment you are ready to make and embarrassment you are willing to suffer. But who cares about embarrassment? No one will say at your funeral, yeah she was great at X but really embarrassed herself at that Y thing she so loved. No, a best friend or sibling or child will say that you had a real passion for Y and immersed yourself deeply in it. You will produce something authentic that people will either embrace or reject, but everyone will respect the effort.

I went back into the recording studio last year with a binder full of songs and a talented bunch of musicians. A new album after a 25-year pause, this was my Janacek moment in more ways than one.

Why now? My confidence was buoyed by the inspired material and quality of the crew, but more than that my voice had taken on, finally, enough gravel to sing what I wanted to hear. Age and more than a few Bukowski evenings had lined those silky pipes with a rough patina of smoky leather. It just wasn’t my time at 30. It might be now. I’ve found my howl.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

it leaves me paralyzed
I can’t look away
I hold my hands up to my eyes
but I’m blind and it’s too late
it leaves me powerless
to the brilliant blazing high
the way she moves her summer dress
leaves me paralyzed

La Rondalla bar

La Rondalla was one of the best bars in San Francisco. It offered a harmonious Mission blend of local latinos, buttoned up hipsters, dykes wandering over from the Lexington on 19th, torn up punkers, hippies from the Haight, and just every day folks hanging at the dim serpentine bar, drinking high-octane margaritas under the year-around christmas lights, and listening to mariachis blow their soulful sounds from south of the border.

Big Tom Gold was my go-to drinking pal there. We’d amaze at the age range of the house band, a Mexican family led by dad on violin and the rest, 8-9 in all, strumming guitars, bowing on fiddles, or blowing their trumpets. Everyone sang. They were brothers, dads, cousins, or uncles.The youngest were under 10 and learning their craft. And that’s what makes this song interesting.

 

Eduardo Garcia (L) and Adrian Arreguin (R) of Nueva Generacion

I wrote Paralyzed after a memorable evening at La Rondalla, and when it came time to record, … well it just seemed to scream for a mariachi treatment. I reached out to one of the top bands in San Francisco – Nueva Generacion – and started a discussion with the leader Eduardo about backing me in the studio. I came to learn that his group was the younger generation of the La Rondalla house band Tom and I would listen those many years before. Eduardo was one of those little tykes all sombrero’ed out and playing guitar with his dad and cousins. It is a small world. Eduardo’s arrangement on this song really brings the mariachi sound, and the musicianship is incredible. I hope you enjoy.

Bill

walking on a bed of coals
I dive into the falls below
I handle snakes and sell my soul
anything for you
cause you’re my baby
you’re my babe

What do Adam & Eve, Tony & Maria, and Howard Marshall & Anna Nicole Smith have in common? They were irrational, dangerous relationships that confounded everyone in their sphere, … except the couples themselves. When you are willing to face the ridicule and scorn of friends and family, face all of the well-intended “what the hell are you thinking??” judgements, and the only real reply you can come up with is, “she’s my babe”, well then you know you have something worth fighting for.

Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello fame was invited to play drums on this track and it was his idea to give it a rockabilly spin. Jon Followes raves it up with a wicked flurry of lead guitar riffs, inspired by the original playing done by my good friend Wayne Ditzel, who played on the demo way back when. She’s My Babe reminds me of those great Blasters hits from the early ’80s, the golden age of LA-based rockabilly revival. I hope you enjoy it.

Bill

 

stay close to me
don’t let go
fingers gently
whispers softly
so close to me

linger2Our modern lives run on hyperdrive these days it seems. Too few of us take time to truly appreciate the important things: a great meal enjoyed with close friends or family, a long but easy Sunday wander, getting caught up over a pot of tea, or resting warmly, intimately with someone we love deeply, … particularly after the main event. It’s one of life’s divine pleasures, but too often cut short as we rush off to rejoin the tedium of our daily quotidien.

Linger With Me was recorded at the amazing La Buissonne studios in Provence, France. Sony recording artist Daniel Mille brings his special genius on accordion and Laëtitia Costechareyre delivers the french heat purred sensually through the musical interlude.

This song also serves as an homage to Serge Gainsbourg, my favorite french songwriter of the popular music era and a man who never let an excuse for provocation go unfulfilled. I’ll be Gainsbourg and you Jane Birkin, linger with me.

Bill

lift me up
don’t let me break
don’t let me lose
this life of faith
I’m tough
but tough ain’t enough

Mark Stock, Ponder

Physical pain can drop us to our knees. Emotional pain can too, and then so much more. It breaks us from within, aching the heart and stirring tears of anguish or fury. Sometimes we beg, sometimes we howl. Anything to cut the pain. Anything to stand again.

There are 2 opposing versions of How Hard on this record, placed at different points in the Last Night at the Ha-Ra story arc. I howl through take 1, a rollicking blues adaption backed by the Vivid Stage group. I asked Rie Sinclair to take a shot at the reprise version, paired with just a simple, sad piano and guitar arrangement. Her unique voice on the song is transcendent and tender. I won’t explain the song’s role in this rock drama. It’s not important. How Hard is meant as a psalm really for all of us in pain and asking why.

I hope that you both renditions.

show me what you need
spend my final dime
then tell me you need more
and I’ll glad turn to crime
live my life by your design
your wish is mine
soon you’ll find
that I’m mad

Mad is another pre-release from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album. It is an ode to the rash and reckless behaviour that stems from a mad passion for someone, someplace, or something. At some point I think most all of us have considered it, some have embraced it, and if you have no idea what the song is about then you’re not diving deep enough. The original version, in a softer arrangement, was recorded on my 1996 LP Eskimo in the Sun and can be heard here.

David Bouet joined us on drums for this track, all the way from London! The piano coda played so soulfully by David Dower replaces the guitar on the original version. David, any chance you can come up with something sweet to replace my guitar track on that outro? I’d say he did in indeed.

Enjoy.

put the needle in my arm
let it drip and I’ll be gone
in a fog of summer holidays
then plant your kiss upon my head
lay me back upon our bed
and when I’m dead
the love you see
will never be
strange

I have few fears, thankfully. Some of us spend much time suffering over the state of the planet, the incompetents in power, that mole on our back, how we are perceived by others. I do care, I just don’t dwell.

I will admit, however, to an uncomfortable fear of dementia. It comes down to the richness of life and a heavy dose of vanity. I know where I want to be interred, I know who I want at the podium and the music playing at that fateful fête (what’s on your playlist?), and I know how I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be remembered like that. No one chooses to be remembered like that.

Strange is another early release I’m sharing from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album, sung by the character Reggie to his wife Daisy. There have been suspicions and now a prognosis, and he has asked her, the partner and true companion of his long life, to think about accepting this unthinkable favor.

Strange was recorded at La Buissonne studios in Provence in February 2018 with my Vivid Stage Productions group. Jon, David, and I played various instruments depending on the arrangement, and invited special guests to help create something truly soulful and melancholy. Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions joined us on drums, Sony recording artist Daniel Mille brought his sublime feel for the accordion, and Isabelle Cordier from the Avignon Symphony Orchestra packed her cello for the drive to Pernes les Fontaines, where we had hunkered down for a week of recording sessions.

Enjoy, … and create your playlist now!