Suggested Song: Let It Be, The Beatles.
Suggested Drink: Champagne, your choice (it’s almost New Years!)
A brief aside
Few cities are more beautiful than Paris, and fewer still more magical than Paris during the winter holidays. I’m in Paris this week, with the Champs Elysees ablaze in holiday lights, the winding sidewalks through Montmartre strangely clear, tables at the trendy Marais restaurants available, and museum lines, … well there are no museum lines. Merci grévistes!
We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Conrad
I skated a lot as a kid on the lakes and streams of chilly Pennsylvania. My friends and I loved to play crack the whip out on the ice, forming a chain glove to glove and pulling a wide arc, the person on the far end holding on for dear life as the sweep of the line grew taut and picked up speed. To stay up on 2 blades as you careened around that bumpy winter glass took every bit of energy and concentration, slipping and scraping and fighting to keep your balance core. Exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.
I left some blood on the ice once, getting spun over a small damn on a frozen creek near home. You have to know when to let go and I held on just a moment too long. Six green stitches to the chin and I was lacing up the skates the next day after school.
I’ve had jobs that paid too much, girlfriends who looked too hot, and vices that felt too good to let go. They fed the ego and enabled myths about who I was and what I deserved. And then would come the realization that this brilliant sun around which I spun was instead an all-consuming black hole, and that great sucking sound was my authentic self being perverted by its massive gravity. More blood on the ice and stitches to the chin.
I find consolation in good company. Many of us suffer from this stubborn reluctance to let go of reckless situations. We know when we’re getting too far over our skates but don’t want the ride to end. As the sweep around whatever dark star is keeping us in orbit picks up speed and the inertial force pulls harder, we hold on even tighter. Ride ‘em cowboy.
The bad news is that we are ego-driven creatures prone to peril, if said ego gets a little tickle. It’s wholly unfair to blame the source: the situation, person, or vice that is wrenching us around. We step in harm’s way and convince ourselves that all is cool. Why the hell did you spin me so close to the dam god dammit? Well why the hell didn’t you just let go?
Exactly. The good news is that we’re not buckled in, we’re holding on. The moment we let go we spin off on a new trajectory of our own making, and it’s 100% up to us to decide when to release the grip. We are in total control of our next moment, next day, next year. Just … let … go.
When a lot of wild coiled up inertial energy is released into straight-line momentum, you are a radiant shooting star on a thrilling new direction. You are at the wheel, no one and nothing is tugging your chain, and a new bearing is completely in your hands. Few things in life are more invigorating than that realization.
So as the new year approaches let me ask you this: is that center of mass that keeps your life in orbit a bright shining star that lights the way and warms your heart, or something more troubling and ominous? If it’s #1 you are truly blessed and if it’s #2, .. well it’s time to let go. Just a little blood on the ice, nothing that a few stitches can’t heal.
Suggested Song: Get Up Stand Up, Bob Marley
Suggested Drink: Almaza Pilsner beer (a popular Lebanese brand)
It would be a fine time to visit Beirut. With temperatures hovering in the high 70°s and nothing but blue skies in the forecast, 5 perfect days to explore this battered beauty. Lebanese discontent was blowing warm in the days before our arrival, but the street rallies calling for a new government were being lauded for their peace & love vibe. And then we touched down.
Microclimates in an Unstable City
My old hometown of San Francisco is a city of microclimates. It can be tanning weather – all sunshine and Coppertone – at Dolores Park and on the same afternoon a blanket of chilly wet fog crawling off the sea and over the Sunset District. Beirut was marked by microclimates this past week too, but as a measure of volatility, not weather.
There are neighborhoods to enjoy and those to avoid in a city on the edge; a city confused about its intentions, undecided about its methods, and uncertain about the opposition. For 4,000 years the Lebanese and their beautiful country have been pushed around and exploited by the latest jackboot in the neighborhood: the Romans and Persians, the Arabs and Turks and Crusaders, the French and Israelis and Iranians. They’ve had the shits of it and the corruption manifest by this outside influence. To the barricades they have come, incredibly diverse but rallying together.
Circles were drawn in sharpie on our hotel map of the city. News updates on street clashes that afternoon were not reassuring and the concierge was agitated with my need for a leg stretch after the 5-hour flight from Marseille, but if Monsieur Magill insisted on exploring le quartier, then he felt a responsibility to at least steer me clear of the hot zones. He hemmed me into a tight periphery of about 4 blocks to the west and south, and insisted that I not take a left when exiting their garden courtyard. Non monsieur, pas une bonne idée de toute! His face was tight and I accepted that he was not being over protective. I walked through the leafy hotel entrance and turned right.
Most shops pull their shutters in times of upheaval and our local neighborhood felt locked down. Not surprising then that the mall I was seeking out was closed for the day. This I was told by a young woman from whom I had asked directions on the street, but yes she could get me pointed towards a place with good Lebanese beer, which, if I am being honest, was the intention from the moment my Toms hit the crumbled Beirut sidewalk.
The blocks that followed led me out of the sharpie circle of safety, but my guide felt assured that all would be cool in this part of town on this particular afternoon, and it was. I found my spot – La Ménagerie – and some fascinating conversation, because, well who doesn’t want to have a drink and share their particular episode of events with others also passing through a common catastrophe: the roll and shakes of a violent earthquake, for example, or the unnerving sense of doom when watching big planes fly into tall buildings.
On this day in this city it was the disintegration of a government – we watched the prime minister announce his resignation on TV that afternoon – and tensions swelling between the ever-pressing street demonstrators, heavily-armed Lebanese soldiers attempting crowd control, and Hezbollah militias on the prowl for outside agitators: zionists, CIA, whomever.
The climate downtown that day was hot and anxious, just past the army’s checkpoint a few blocks over. The climate by La Ménagerie was relaxed and convivial, everyone talking about what had came before and what needed to come next. While our neighbhorhood remained an oasis of calm, downtown saw its share of shattered storefronts, intimidating nightsticks, and confrontational graffiti:
If there is no justice for the people, let there be no justice for the government. LGBT Rights Capitalism kills! Legalize Hash
Given the powder keg of shifting agendas it was a tribute to all involved – the protestors, the government, its military, and the militias – that the situation remained nonviolent for the most part. A lot of venting, corralling, and jockeying for control, but no descent into anarchy. My weeklong love affair with Beirut had begun and still lingers, now back in Aix. Good beer, great people, and bearing witness to a defining moment in their history. I will be back.
If you don’t engage with nature can you care about the environment?
If you don’t engage with people can you care about humanity? Is the self-command of masturbation better than the uncontrolled abandon of sex? (Wait, what?)
Disengaging From Nature
I’m a runner. It serves as equal parts fitness, therapy, and meditation, and my most profound breakthroughs arrive while under the morning skies, putting a few short kilometers on the Nikes. Out early in the world.
Our wild environment – rural or urban – is great inspiration for the creative mind. Sites, sounds, smells, the touch; these things all get our neurons firing, and an engaged brain is a powerful thing.
Distractions are the enemy, particularly of the digital variety. Ear buds and Spotify provide a comforting exile against the natural, unruly world when out in it. Zen epiphanies are blasted off the creative neurons when rock n roll is ringing the ears, as much as I love rock n roll. The lungs at work, a flock of birds against a pale dawn sky, the crunch of autumn leaves under foot, the smell of baking bread before opening hours at the boulangerie. This is real, this is analog, these sensations are stimulating and blissfully out of one’s control.
That we are losing the war against global warming should come as no surprise. Most of us would rather plug in and insulate against the unruly world than soak in its beauty, to fully immerse. When on my run this morning I kept a tally of the ear-budded versus unplugged; the other runners I encountered en route: 4 to 1. The pluggers rule the day; masturbation on the move preferred to a rolling intercourse with nature. And the less we truly appreciate something, the less motivated we are to preserve it.
Disengaging From People
I’m a talker. When I’m at a café and someone intriguing is at the next table I’ll feel an itch to engage. There have been awkward moments but mostly not. My antennae are pretty good at sensing who will welcome a question about that book in their hands or suggestion for a city I’ve overhead them discussing.
Chatty barflies like me are becoming a rarer breed. Heck, friends don’t even talk to the friends at their elbow any more. They busy themselves instead with Instagram photos and Facebook notifications. I’d like to blame the young, and they are the biggest violators of non-engagement, but this social virus has spread to all generations, sadly.
Witness cinema attendance. It’s down 9 percent to this point in 2019 over the same period last year (which was already at a 20+ year low) and Hollywood is hurting. The appeal of Netflix from the sofa is understandable, but the art of àpres-theater debates with friends is being lost. In my hometown of Aix-en-Provence there are a row of lively brasseries just across the large boulevard fronting the Renoir theatre. Le Grillon, La Belle Epoque, Nino’s Café, Les Deux Garçons. All are great options for a glass of wine and the so what did you think? kickoff. I can’t imagine enjoying a fascinating film without that follow-up.
It breaks my heart, this preference for human isolation, for social masturbation. The less we truly value something, the less motivated we are to preserve it. Recent articles in the Atlantic and elsewhere are confirming that interest in sex has fallen sharply amongst the young, in America and most everywhere the Internet is widely available. When we no longer prize intimate engagement, when a Facebook Story on a 5” screen is more satisfying than adventures shared over a couple of pints, when the sofa and remote have replaced a cinema seat and popcorn, … sex, like with someone else?
The downsides of disengagement can be best witnessed through the current leadership in Washington: Trump, Twiddler-in-Chief. He engages the world alone, through a controlled bubble that leaves him oblivious and dangerous. Nature is enjoyed through a limousine window and global warming a hoax. Friends and allies are dispensable and critical alliances dismissed with a midnight tweet. Sex is to be grabbed between the legs (“they let you do it!”), but it’s even better to master your own domain. Okay, he might not believe that, but my gut says he’s not seeing much of Melania in the president’s chamber these days. “Go grab your own thing, Donald.”
As president, Trump leads by example and a depressingly high number of Americans are still happy to follow. Twiddle Nation and isolation. What could possibly go wrong?
When the moon is in the seventh house And Jupiter aligns with Mars
I bought tarot cards while in San Francisco recently. It was an undisciplined move for this disciple of science, but not an impulse buy. I was feeling blocked and sought a shift beyond the unusual to break through. The esoteric arts seemed just crazy enough, and the tarot was an option high on the wackiness scale. I found cards in the Haight (naturally), studied a few books over coffees or beer, started laying out simple readings at the kitchen table, and became enchanted. Here’s why.
I’m not naturally drawn to the mystical arts. I pursued physics in college and studied the theories of giants like Foucault, Einstein, and Bohr. I believe in the scientific method: imagination, observation, and verification built on empirical evidence. Yeah that sounds reasonable, now prove it.
Science does a pretty good job of explaining how things behave; tiny things like quirks and massive things like black holes. The arc of an arrow or locus of a sub-atomic particle? We got that, even when said particle is (almost mystically) in 2 places at once.
What do we do with this knowledge? A lot of good things and a few unimaginably horrible things that counter all best intentions. We heat the winters and cool the summers and tame nature at home while venturing beyond our garden of eden to uninhabitable worlds. We put men on a barren grey moon while burning our own blue paradise to a crisp. We develop an unlimited source of renewable energy and then commit its stockpiles to assuring our own mutual destruction.
So the breathtaking sweep of scientific evolution, from the earliest mathematical foundations of Babylon and Maya to their extrapolations for modelling motion and mass by Newton and Galileo, and through Einstein’s impossibly elegant mathematical reduction that relates that mass to energy through the inviolable speed of light (in a vacuum) has led us to this: perhaps two generations remain before the planet is reduced to a bleached cliff notes version of its former verdant splendor, or we blow ourselves to smithereens first.
So what is science worth if through its application we ominously degrade the quality of our existence or threaten that very existence itself? It’s a question worth considering.
Science: an astounding, evolving compendium of knowledge fundamental to making sense of the many mystifying dimensions of the world micro to massive: physical, chemical, and biological. As for providing the common sense and tools needed to harness this knowledge for the greatest benefit of everyone? Not so good. Some people lose their faith in the preeminence of religion. I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of science.
Unlike science, the mystic arts provide zero utility in understanding the physical world beyond; whether just beyond our touch or light years beyond our sight. They provide an interesting option to understanding the world within, however. Useless at explaining how things behave, but effective (for the open minded) for reflecting on why we behave in the crazy ways we do. And if we hold a clearer lens into our own behavior, perhaps we make better decisions about that behavior.
A stack of colorful cards is nothing more than that. In a vacuum (again with the vacuum) they offer no particular value beyond the pleasure of a game. But equipped with a good guide book, a glass of decent wine, and the help of a friendly ghost (now this is key for me) that stack of 78 cards comes alive in its many dimensions and possibilities.
The true power of the tarot is in its various facets and options for interpretation. Imagine gazing through a magic kaleidoscope that could clarify your past and foretell the future. Twisting the tube sent the many colors of varying shapes and dimensions into unpredictable spins; each shade, size, and trajectory open to interpretation. Now here’s the magic: that interpretation is unique to each viewer. There is no rigid set of scientific guidelines for analysis. Yes, there is a system to the tarot, but what you draw from the colors and spins will be different than what I draw, because our histories and expectations, and the burning questions in our lives are all wildly different.
Kings and queens, princesses and princes, knights and swords and cups and disks and wands, blues and reds and yellows and greys, fire and water, and then throw in the planets. These are just a few of the kaleidoscopic elements of the tarot that drive the meaning of the cards.
I have my own belief system and hope that you do too, … one that offers comfort and solid footing. I’ve mentioned in an earlier essay that I light a candle each evening for my sister and she is present in the moment. I fill her in on my day and invite Cathy to guide the cards that I select and lay out each evening. She has joined the conversation and I (want to) believe is giving the readings a mystical bump here and ethereal tug there, and from her side of the spiritual divide bringing order to the cards I’ve randomly pulled from the deck. If true then I’ve tapped into something powerful, and if not true than I’m just connecting with someone I miss and love. Either way it provides a fun system for pondering decisions about what’s around the corner; immediate or longer term.
Some believe that Jesus healed the blind and others that Moses parted the sea. Maybe Mohammad did split the moon and one particle can exist in two places at the same time. I believe that my sister cuts the cards. We choose our miracles. I’m good with mine. What are yours?
In 1982 a remarkable book was published defining the 10 most powerful global trends transforming our lives. Megatrends, written by John Naisbitt, was a blowout sensation that sold over 14 million copies and dominated the NYT Bestseller list for over 2 years, mostly at the top.
1982 was still largely the analog era and too early for Naisbitt to foresee recent technology disruptions like Blockchain or the Internet of Things (although the dissolution of consolidated hierarchies was a key theme), but his #2 on the list should give us all great pause. He was uncomfortable with an emergent invasive technology push and predicted a trend towards human balance and technology pull based on users’ true needs. To Naisbitt, high touch technology recognized that science “cannot solve all problems or do away with the need for responsibility and discipline.”
Fast forward to 2019 and undisciplined technology push seems to have missed the bulletin. That we over-connect and hyper-share is our own undoing, but organizations happy to encourage and exploit these tendencies are at best calculating and self-serving, and at worst sinister. And in the first signs of blowback two related but independent waves are forming: awareness of the loss of human touch and anxiety over the loss of privacy.
No one is suggesting an end to digital media – that genie is well out of the bottle – but there is a growing awareness of the dangers lurking therein and a growing discomfort with blind faith in the masters of this domain. Analog is cool again and rebuilding its brand.
Ubiquitous connectivity is harming the sincerity of our human connections, and doesn’t that read strangely? How can it be that the easier it is to connect, the less we feel sincerely connected? It takes no more than a walk down any city sidewalk or repose in a popular café to observe that we are ignoring the friends at our elbow in favor of remote pals with whom we can text, or whose new picture streams need to be swiped through right now.
The local highschoolers sweeping down my street every weekday at noon chatter and goof with buddies at their sides while typing away distractedly on their phones. After school they’ll hook up with their typing targets for drinks, then ignore them while texting back to their lunchtime besties.
Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to eliminate the digital distance and revel in the camaraderie of the analog moment?
Pinging and getting pinged suggests that you have a very cool and dynamic social scene going on; I get that. So then not constantly tapping implies the opposite, that you’re a lonely loser? Teenagers cringe at that particular tarring and that’s fair enough, but shouldn’t age and maturity allow the rest of us to move beyond those particular insecurities?
Yes is the answer of course, and a growing pool of analog acolytes are emphasizing that realization with a hearty Hell Yes!
That the titans of social media are poor shepherds of our personal data has been widely revealed. There is no need to spill more digital ink on that phenomenon here, but interested readers can refer to a newsletter just launched by the NYT called The Privacy Project. To quote a newsletter quote from Matt Cagle, ACLU attorney, “Privacy is really about being able to define for ourselves who we are for the world and on our own terms. That’s not a choice that belongs to an algorithm or data broker and definitely not to Facebook.”
Yet many of us are happy to make that deal: a stage to share our carefully crafted (and questionably authentic) self-images in return for the devil’s unfettered access to our personal data: interests and alliances, locations, browsing histories, and rolodex of contacts (whether or not they’ve agreed to the tradeoff).
I plead guilty but at least am not alone. And an emerging riptide is forming along the digital beach, tugging at those of us eager for that drag back to the analog sea. I’m all in.
Back to the Farm
So there is survivalist movement afoot; a back-to-the-farm redux for 2020. We can label it digital minimalism or going off the internet grid. It has nothing to do with mountain compounds or the hoarding of bullets and canned goods. It has everything to do with resistance, and who doesn’t love a good resistance movement?
As part of this nouveau vague the term analog has taken position front and center, a new cool. Just two examples include a NYT article that ran last week (I quote from it too often, but it’s one of the last truly great newspapers in America; consider subscribing) titled Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cureand a new hard cover publication called The Analog Sea Review, an offline (naturally) journal of poems, short stories and essays that can be found at your local bookstore, … and only at your local bookstore (sorry Amazon).
It’s small movement in early days, but gaining attention and it’s got mine. For the moment I’ll continue to publish my newsletters online because I want them easily found and read. And my music will remain available in Spotify and other media platforms, although compared to a CD (get yours here) the sound quality is horrible. But then isn’t that the sacrifice we make for our online social connections as well: a quality experience for casual convenience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.