Four Finger John

Free music!

Slowly but surely our new Whisperado CD project is progressing. This will be our first full-length recording, with a song count in the double digits! We’ll finish recording later this spring, and soon after that we’ll have a hot little product ready for download – and even available on old-fashioned plastic discs in break-y transparent jewel boxes!

But in the meantime, during a lull in the Whisperado recording process I went to Tom White’s studio in Schoharie County in upstate New York music and recorded three acoustic songs: a very tardy tribute to the late John Entwistle of the Who, a (seasonally speaking) very early Christmas song, and a folksy version of “Hand-Me-Down.” So it’s not really an album – more like an extended single, or a really short EP. Whatever you want to call it, it’s yours free – email me at music / at / whisperado / dot / com for the link to download the songs.

Burning the Future: Seeing the Lights Go Off On Broadway

The powerful new documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America explains how critical coal power is to the US economy and to Americans’ energy-greedy way of life. It also focuses on the terrible effects modern mining has on the lives of people who live in Appalachian coal country. Specifically, the film documents the contamination of the water supply and its effects on human health. It also condemns mountaintop removal mining in no uncertain terms.

This modern form of coal extraction relies on heavy explosives to get the coal from the tops of mountains, rather than using large numbers of miners to burrow underground for it. There are some who defend mountaintop mining, but a quick glance at a few photos is enough to convince many that the practice should be outlawed.

The economics and science of coal and coal mining are complex, but in terms of cost to the environment it’s safe to say that coal is a dirty source of energy. Most environmentalists believe the US should wean itself off coal.

However, the film raises another, related issue. One certainly sympathizes with people whose lands and water are being polluted, whose children are being sickened, by nearby coal mining operations. But enjoying a modern, comfortable way of life while living in relatively remote areas just might not be sustainable in the first place.

Two scenes in the film brought this home to me. Both occur on a trip to New York City taken by several courageous West Virginia environmental activists who have been invited to testify before a UN commission.

The final leg of the activists’ journey takes place via New Jersey Transit. Sitting on the train, one of them observes that she’s never been on a train before. To someone who grew up in the northeast, that’s almost unbelievable. Never been on a train? Not an Amtrak, a commuter train, a subway train? Never once?

But where she comes from, you have to get everywhere by car. Simple as that. Purchasing a car can be expensive, especially if you need a good one to get you around to all the places you have to go to in a day. However, purchasing second-hand cars from companies like autozin for example, can do the same job as a brand new car, for less money. If you’re driving around everywhere, you’ll want a reliable car.

The second scene occurs when the leader of the activists, the admirable Maria Gunnoe, stands in Times Square, looks up at the huge, brightly lit advertisements looming everywhere, and cries out for New York to turn out these lights. Don’t New Yorkers know that their incessant demand for energy is ruining the land elsewhere in the country?

It’s a powerful moment. One could, of course, point out that the bright lights of Times Square are one of New York’s biggest tourist attractions, and the city depends heavily on the tourist trade. But one can understand Gunnoe’s reaction, and one feels in one’s bones that she’s – at least a little – right.

No, the bigger point the scene raises is that, however much energy might be “wasted” keeping Times Square “Times Square,” city residents have smaller carbon footprints than people who live on houses with land.

People who live in houses need cars, every day. They have more rooms to heat and cool than city dwellers do. They might have the proverbial white picket fence, but inside their fences suburbanites waste huge amounts of water keeping their lawns artificially green. People who live in the suburbs or the sticks get none of the economies of scale that come with apartment living. And that was all fine when populations were smaller, gas was cheap, and the effects of our material prosperity on the planet were less well understood. I don’t think it’s fine any more.

In the film, one of the West Virginians worries that by the time his kids grow up, pollution may have made it impossible for them to continue living where they were brought up. I hope they can, he says.

From a family standpoint, that’s sad. But in a way, I hope they can’t. I’m certainly not cheering on the pollution, the destructive mining, or the continued dependence on dirty energy. Unless mining and burning coal can be made truly clean, phase it out, for the sake of the planet. But also for the sake of the planet, those country kids should move to a city. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb: by the year 2040, unless your business is farming, your family ought to be living in a city.

By then, I hope it’ll be really, really hard to find an American who’s never been on a train.

A Visit to Fort Totten

New York City Parks Department tours kick ass.

A few weeks ago we had a special bus tour of Fresh Kills, the huge Staten Island landfill, now closed, capped, and being planted in preparation for eventual conversion to parkland, but not generally open to the public at this point. This weekend, another Urban Park Ranger took us through the old fort at Fort Totten, a Civil War-era granite fortress on the Willets Point peninsula on the north coast of Queens.

A short distance across the water from Fort Totten, on a spit of land jutting south from the Bronx and now in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, is Fort Schuyler, which dates from the 1830s and is now the SUNY Maritime College. The two forts were built to defend against a British naval attack on New York City from the east via Long Island Sound.

In the War of 1812 the British had burned Washington, DC, not New York. But the former New Amsterdam was too important a mercantile center to risk leaving vulnerable. During the Civil War the North feared a British alliance with the Confederacy. Hence the sense of urgency. Fort Totten was hastily built – as far as it went – in 1862.

New York City's basic character – tolerant, money-centered, socially and ethnically polyglot – hasn't changed since the 1600s. It's still the financial nerve center of the nation, for one thing. That makes it target number one. The feared British attack never came, but Osama bin Laden took up the gauntlet in 2001, with nightmarish results.

Old Fort Totten Archways
Archways at Fort Totten are made of huge granite blocks quarried in Maine. The white "drippy" stuff is limestone. The floor is made from the same bluestone as you can still see on some sidewalks in neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn.

We bounced back from that. But today Wall Street has dug itself another grave, this time by outsmarting itself with smart-ass credit tricks. (Good thing we rebuilt DC after the War of 1812 so the Feds could bail out the financial firms in 2008.) New York will climb out of this hole too, of course – we always do. Four centuries of history say so.

So old Fort Totten was never used. In fact, it was never finished. Though it was a state-of-the-art fort at the time, military technology was changing very fast. The invention of rifled cannons made even the thick granite walls of a fortress like Fort Totten penetrable. Like a 21st century electronic device, Fort Totten was out of date before it could even go online.

Fort Totten Officers' Club
The old Officers' Club, almost completely restored, is now the home of the Bayside Historical Society.

However, the site became extremely important for defense and research. Underwater mine technology, for example, was developed there. (Mines were deployed off Fort Totten only once – during the Spanish-American War.) During World War II, Fort Totten became the headquarters of the Anti-Aircraft Command of the Eastern Defense Command, and later the HQ of the North Atlantic region of the Air Transport Command. During the Cold War, it became headquarters for more than half the country's Nike missile sites.

House at Fort Totten House
This old house… not so restored.

Today an Army Reserve Command remains, and the Fire/EMS department uses part of the site for training, but much of it is a park. Some of the buildings, like the Officers' Club, which dates from 1870, have been restored to glorious condition, but on the whole the site has that tumbledown, half-abandoned feel of a left-behind presidio. It has grand officers' houses, humbler dwellings, a chapel, and named streets, and people are working and playing there, but no one really lives there anymore, so it feels half-abandoned.

Over time, if will and budget allow, Fort Totten Park will be fully repurposed for recreation. But in the meantime it stands as a half-ghostly monument to the culture and achievements of the United States Military, and at the same time a demonstration of the way the human animal will instinctively repopulate and re-use a patch of land whose old function has passed.

The Politics of “Why”

Children are always asking "Why?" They want to understand what they observe. They want to know what lies behind things. They want to be able to read some order and sense into the world.

As adults, we get out of the habit of asking why. Why? Because "Why?" can be a very uncomfortable question. Growing up means learning to function in society, which requires keeping our relationships with the people around us running smoothly, avoiding offense. That's great for greasing the gears of surface society. But it's bad for real mutual understanding.

Those of us who are politically engaged find ourselves arguing repetitively during election cycles and times of controversy. Back and forth we pitch our opinions, our arguments, even allowing them to devolve into insults and spitefulness. Why?

Maybe because we've grown out of the habit of asking why.

Instead of taking offense at one another's convictions, let's ask each other why. Why do you believe what you believe? You seem so sure of it. But how is it possible that you are so sure of your position, while I am equally sure of the exact opposite position?

My view seems so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need explanation. Yours seems the same way to you. Clearly, we're both making false assumptions about what's self-evident and what isn't. So let's stop assuming. Let's put our cards on the table. Let's be honest with those we're talking with, and with ourselves, about why we hold our opinions.

Have we thought them through? Or did we just inherit them from our parents or fellow students or teachers? Do we like them because they're aesthetically appealing? Because they come from rhetorically gifted writers or politicians or fake newscasters? Because they appeal on an emotional level? Or because they make logical sense?

Are they based on current information, or on old information?

While we're at it, let's go further. Let's not be ashamed to admit the validity of an opposing argument. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of using our brains. An argument can be valid, yet weaker than an opposing argument. Just because I'm convinced I'm right doesn't mean everything you think is idiotic, and vice versa.

What makes us disagree about, say, tax policy? If we both possess basic common sense and a normal amount of compassion for the unfortunate – and let's assume we do – what makes you so sure a certain tax policy is beneficial to society, or fair, and me so sure that your policy is hurtful or unfair? Both of us can marshal some evidence to support our positions. But what is it that puts my argument over the top for me, and yours for you? What's our reasoning behind our opinions? And what are our feelings? Feelings are valid too – we're emotional creatures.

To take an even more divisive example, it's "common sense" to me that if a being can't survive outside its mother's body, it's not an individual, so a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy. And even if we do grant the fetus some rights, they obviously have to be subordinate to those of its mother, who is already a functional, independent human being.

I say "obviously" – but what that really means is, it's obvious to me. It's obviously not obvious to everyone. Some people believe that "life begins at conception" – that as soon as there is conception, there exists a new individual being with the full rights of any born person. But if that belief comes from a religious interpretation, which it usually does, wouldn't enshrining it in secular law be imposing your religious beliefs on me? Can't you understand that? I hope you can, because I've just explained the why behind my opinion.

On the other hand, if the law of the land allows abortion, and you believe abortion is murder, how can you help but oppose that law and want to change it? Can't I understand that? Sure I can, since you've explained why.

Let's try to understand. And without getting angry.

We may never agree on some issues, but if we lay out where our convictions come from, we ought to still be able to be civil to each other, get along, and maybe work towards, say, reducing the number of abortions by discouraging teen pregnancy. Or coming up with a tax policy most of us can live with.

It all starts with asking why.

9/11: In Me For Good

9/11. I don’t know how to get it out of me.

It’s been seven years since I watched, from across the river in Brooklyn, that acrid smoke billow into a sky-overwhelming blot. By the time the buildings fell, they were no longer visible from Flatbush Avenue, where I had gone out to watch. I did see the towers fall, but inside, on TV, behind the head of a shaken newscaster. Soot and stink and tiny pieces of paper and who knows what else swirled onto our windowsills, but our direct view to Manhattan was choked off entirely.

Where I live now, near Union Square, I have a north-facing view of the Empire State Building. I love the sight of it, especially in the very late afternoon when the light over the city turns gorgeous shades of aquamarine and bronze. That view comes with a slight pang, though. The apartment across the hall, where my fiancee lived when we started dating, used to have the corresponding southward view of the World Trade Center. No longer. New York has its beautiful, overbuilt Art Deco emblem still. But that less beautiful, yet just as iconic pair of towers is – still shockingly, after what feels to me more like seven months than seven years – gone.

The other night I got home late from a gig and my fiancee was watching Paul Greengrass’s powerful film United 93 on TV. I’d seen it when it came out in 2006 – I’d hesitated, but then decided it might provide some sort of catharsis – and I then assumed I’d never want to watch it again. But last night I couldn’t pull my eyes away. For once I was thankful for commercials. The raw energy crackling out from the TV and into my spinal column was spurring me to get up and stride about the apartment as often as possible, thinking up unnecessary little errands: check email, wash a mug, make a note to call so-and-so tomorrow.

As the movie ended, with the passengers rushing the cockpit and the plane spiraling down, she and I were both in tears. United 93 was the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, the only one of the four hijacked airliners that didn’t reach its terrorist target. Greengrass’s reconstruction of events on the flight was speculative, of course, but that didn’t matter to us. The tragic shock of the events, combined with the pride in our fellow citizens who fought back, had gotten us both in the gut. Again.

9/11 is still as alive today in me as it was a week, a month, or a year after the event. Days go by when I don’t think about it. But all it takes is a few images on a screen, or, sometimes, a glance out the window to bring it all back.

Really Bad Promo Copy

From the archives of the "To Read Makes Our Speaking English Good" Department here at the Indie Round-Up, we present these promotional blurbs from some of the musical artists and music services that have come to our attention.

Musical talent doesn't necessarily require facility with the written word – we understand that. Still, we can make fun of these folks, because their fabulous phrasings were submitted in official press releases or biographies, and written by people whose native language is, presumably, English.

Nevertheless, the band and company names have been changed to protect the stupid.

"Exploding onto the music scene, this amazing new guitarist is storming the industry and catching the music world on fire."

"Barrie, Ontario, Canada hasn't been and still remains an unknown entity when it comes to hip hop venues."
(Hm… nor will it have expected to becoming one upon the future, I guess…)

"Horse Pickle Entertainment, as created and launch a new website to better help unsigned artist and bands of all genres types to promote and sell there music."
(Translated by a computer from the Chinese? I wish. Amazingly, you can actually figure out what they mean. And what a fascinating, original idea it is, too.)

"Once again Big Stomp Gargoyles, the band of illegal rock combatants is embarking on a mission to spread their word by trudging westward to create awareness of who they are and what they represent."

"As the landscape of music is carved throughout time, the work born solely to contribute to that progression is something to be appreciated."

"This record hearkens the classic rock sounds while giving it a kiss of modern sounds that fans of music young and old can get into."

"The band's unique sound unraveled in the studio as their fresh songs were warmed to a timeless glow by vintage sensibility."

"While her years on this earth are few, the directions in which her life has traveled are many aiding in her ability to possess her varying musical personalities."

"I believe our strident career choices have helped us to succeed outside within the industry's new paradigm."

From an indie label: "We are driven to succeed on our own terms and bring new texture to the bland pourage that is the pop music soundscape."

And finally, this modest jewel:

"Carmine Garbanzo is making a name for himself with a songwriting and performance style that's definitely listener-focused."

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Bonet, Jeanrenaud, Citizens, True Heart, Sakata

Deni Bonet, Last Girl on Earth

Deni Bonet has always been more than the in-demand session violinist many know her as. Her new CD shows her, with her clutch of co-writers, in excellent songwriting form.

The arrangements meld 1980s plastic with new-century thump. Local luminaries like Sara Lee and Richard Barone keep everything solidly grounded, but it's the songs that make the disc a keeper: catchy and often humorous, but with a low-churning serious undercurrent tugging on many of the lyrics and musical passages. When Bonet sings "I can't, I can't, I can't get anything done / 'cause I'm having too much fun" in hollowed-out tones, there's a clear feeling of dismay tickling the shiny surface sentiment.

Bonet's strings and accordion take turns with ska-ish horn arrangements, micro-hoedowns, Martha and the Muffins vocal harmonies, and – as her stage directions specify – "moody obligatory violin areas." The result is a tingly jacuzzi of festive adult pop. "I don't need drugs, I don't need help / I'll fuck it up all by myself / Deepak Chopra kiss my ass / I've got advice for you / I say… Fuck it."

Ain't that just darling?

Joan Jeanrenaud, Strange Toys

Sticking with string players, but leaving behind the world of pop music for a moment, I have to mention the new disc from former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Its fourteen original Jeanrenaud compositions, all centered around her cello, feature plenty of looping and effects, and in some pieces, artfully situated guest musicians. They are compellingly listenable.

There are elements of minimalism, with the repetition that looping encourages. The inventive producer, pc muñoz, contributes beats too. But lyricism dominates many of the pieces, though never of an overly sweet sort, and the pieces are never less than fascinating or at least ear-tickling.

A centerpiece is the 13-minute "Transition," a quartet with a second cellist and two viola da gamba players. It begins with a deep, mournful solo cello line. Counterpoint arrives, then multiple harmonies, building a theme-and-variations movement reminiscent of early French court music a la Marin Marais. A second movement, percussive and moody, is punctuated by growling bow action and propelled by bouncy, disjointed mini-melodies that swell into modernistic, semi-minimalist moans. One half-expects a third movement, but it doesn't arrive; instead, the piece devolves to the original statement and simply dies out. Very effective.

Having grown out of improvisations, the compositions retain a sense of surprise and whimsy despite the composer's precise performances and perfect intonation. "Tug of War," with William Winant providing a kind of continuo on the marimba, is one of the best examples of this – it's like a little psychedelic jam. Winant's vibraphone intervals on "Livre" take me back to the Twilight Zone, and the brief "Blue Kite" is a gem of tight-fisted anxiety, while other pieces, like the lovely, densely woven "Waiting," are more soothing.

Actually, listening to this darn CD is keeping me from getting my work done. Damn you, Joan Jeanrenaud.

Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, You Are What You Wish You Are…

Here's why it's worth going through the hundreds of CDs that come through your intrepid reviewer's metaphorical transom. Sometimes you come across a band, like Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, that can do it all: play, sing, write, and on a more mysterious level, simply connect.

There are a lot of more or less retro influences here: Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, the Eagles, Stone Temple Pilots. But the grainy rock of tracks like "Complicated" and "Lonely Hearts Society" leap out of the speakers with a finely wrought web of sound and words that pays tribute to those influences while making their own musical statement.

The rocker "Spread Your Wings" is both elemental and lyrical, while "Brand New Dance" brings the Prince-like funk. The versatile Chris Barczynski can sing, emote, and scream like the greats. He can deliver ballads like "House of Cards" and "Beautiful Dreamer" as convincingly as he sings the rockers. The rest of the band shines equally brightly, from the ballads to the dynamic, Zeppelin-inspired "Swallow" and the blues-rocker "Wrong Side of the World."

True Heart, The Road

Speaking of the Eagles: True Heart's Ross Vick is able to sing decisively and plaintively at the same time. This magical combination breathes life into his well-crafted pop-rock songs. Though Vick is from Texas, the biggest influence here seems to be Eagles-era California smooth rock. There's definitely some Jackson Browne in his vocal tone.

Jazz-pop changes evoke Steely Dan and even Chicago, though you won't hear anyone blowing through anything here – it's all resolutely guitar and keyboard based (with dead-on bass and drums by James Driscoll and Matt Kellum respectively). Cliches overrun the lyrics, but the lilting pop melodies, sugary vocals, and expert musicality harmlessly absorb them.

Julian Sakata, See?

Another artist heavily influenced by music of the 1970s is Julian Sakata, but his heroes are the darker-tinged, artsier rockers like David Bowie and Elvis Costello (and, going back further, perhaps the Moody Blues). His best songs, like the three that open the disc, and the anthemic "Everything's Beautiful Once," are thick and muscular. Where he falls down, as in "Little Sun," is when his writing is too derivative of current pop hits, and Sakata's baritone vocals start to sound monotonous. Still, the best stuff here is well worth hearing.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Anya Singleton, Emory Joseph, Parlour Steps, Kalliopi

Anya Singleton, The Other Side

Anya Singleton's first full-length album goes a long way towards fulfilling the promise of her earlier EP, Not Easy To Forget. The jazzy sound of that disc has evolved here into a more up-front soul sound with a bigger beat, epitomized by the insistent opening track, "Don't Tell Me." When I first played on the song it brought to mind the shock to the system I felt when I first heard Dana Glover's "Rain."

The slinky but unsentimental R&B thrum of "Small Disasters" and the airy "Simple" further show the subtle songwriting skills of Singleton and her two co-writers. In "Stop This Train," perhaps the best ballad on the disc, Singleton's phrasing resembles Bonnie Raitt's. By contrast, "Replaceable" is energetically pissed-off and punked-up, while "Nevermore" further establishes Singleton's strong persona: "No more lovin', rich boy, no, nevermore."

In the ruminative "Sandcastles" Singleton modulates her strong, rich voice down a notch, making me wish she'd actually take a few more chances with the fine vocal instrument she's been blessed with; there's a certain sameness to the quality of her vocals through much of the disc. When she opens up her belt in the anthemic closer, "The Other Side," one cheers her on and wants more.

But it's already clear that the indie route has given Singleton's talent some needed time to flower. I hate seeing undeveloped artists like Alicia Keys sprint to superstardom, never getting a chance to develop the way they might have, while taking up space in the public consciousness that more deserving artists ought to have.

Singleton could be one of those more deserving ones. I caught her live recently, singing a few songs with only Ann Klein on guitar backing her up. When she broke out "Don't Tell Me," the audience, which had come to see other performers, snapped right to attention.

Emory Joseph, Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter

Emory Joseph wants to spread the word of the greatness of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songwriting ouevre. It's a worthwhile effort. A gifted singer, Joseph assembled a collection of top musicians and recorded a dozen Garcia-Hunter tunes in five days in a New York City studio. The result should warm the hearts of Grateful Dead fans. Whether Dead-haters will give it a chance is, of course, another question.

"I think these two were as good a songwriting team as America has ever known," writes Joseph in the liner notes, "and have always wanted to share them with the non-Grateful Dead fans, who don't know what they're missing. The songs they wrote have beautiful melodies and words that fit in your life when you're 15, and yet still and again when you are 60." I've always felt the same way.

Take note of the subtext behind Joseph's notes: in certain ways that matter aesthetically to many music fans, the Grateful Dead, to put it bluntly, sucked. The music rambled, the songs went on forever, Garcia wasn't much of a singer and neither was Bob Weir. "Sugaree" may be one of the Dead's greatest hits, but Emory doesn't help his cause by opening the CD with a nearly eight-minute (albeit soulful) version of it.

Listen to the whole disc, though, and you'll appreciate the youthful bounce Joseph applies to many of these hoary Americana numbers. The Dead's aggravating tendency to go on and on is somewhat tempered, although even the rocker "Loose Lucy" is scattered over five and a half minutes. The result: Joseph succeeds in putting across the material with obvious love for it, while using his wide-ranging musical sensibilities to get at the essence of the songs.

Two of my favorites are two of the least stretched out: the dark, slinky-funk version of "New Speedway Boogie," and the lovely "Loser." Other highlights include "It Must Have Been the Roses," on which the versatile-voiced Joseph warbles like John Denver, and "Brown-Eyed Women," which features a guest turn from David Grisman on mandolin paired with beautiful organ work by Jon Carroll that's reminiscent of the E Street Band's Danny Federici (RIP). Others work less well; despite excellent Buckley-esque vocals, "Black Peter" comes across as a shuffle to nowhere, and intentionally corpse-like singing don't do much for "Mission in the Rain." But despite my nitpicks, I do believe this disc is going to become part of my permanent collection.

Parlour Steps, Ambiguoso

This is smart, playful rock out of Vancouver, fractionally reminiscent of XTC. Songwriter Caleb Stull sings in a kind of moan, sometimes doubled by bassist Julie Bavalis singing in a sigh. This isn't super-musical, but with subtly layered guitars and thumping beats the overall sound is of a mostly friendly, but also skewed and thoughtful pop.

Some of the best moments come in the vocal-instrumental break sections, as in the energetic "World As Large" and the emotion-soaked "Gargoyles Passion." Desperation fuels the intense "Thieves of Memory," while stark banjo-like sounds, keyboards, saxes, and accordion (courtesy of NYC's own Mark Berube) show up often enough to add undercurrents of rootsiness and old-world charm.

There's little rootsy or charming about the angular, often angsty lyrics, though. "Doubt is a higher function / It's hard work believing in nothing." Testify, brother Stull.

Kalliopi, Around the World

This disc was a nice surprise in a humble package. Kalliopi is a Greek singer-songwriter based in London. Her three-song CD single pleasantly combines lo-fi guitars and drums with lush, crystalline vocals. Unpretentiously catchy songwriting and passionate delivery make up for the somewhat muted production. The title track rocks hard, reminding me of Elastica with a touch of Alanis Morrisette. "Naked" is a mid-tempo pop-rocker with ululating background vocals that hint at Eastern Europe or the Middle East, a suggestion that gets fuller blown in the final track, the moody and lovely "Fire and Sea."

Cern Burn

I feel vaguely disappointed that the Large Hadron Collidor, scheduled to go on line in the fall, has been deemed “no threat to Earth or the universe.” I liked the idea of scientists accidentally creating a world-consuming black hole or a cosmos-collapsing quogulum.*

Now we have to go back to worrying about environmental destruction, terrorism, and economic decline – slow, painful ways for civilizations to die. How icky.

*Quogulum (n): a big unexplained science thingie that destroys the universe. I just made it up. Go ahead, use it.

Stad Amsterdam

Took a walk over to the Hudson River today, and lo and behold, what do we discover right behind Chelsea Piers but a huge modern steel-hulled three-masted clipper ship, the Stad Amsterdam, moored there for a corporate event and open to the public. All we had to do to board the ship was to sign a waiver that we wouldn’t sue in the event of falling overboard or being murdered by pirates. Photo of Stad Amsterdam They even offered us drinks on board.

The ship is a beautiful mixture of old and new, with gigantic masts and sails, all the modern technological trimmings, in pristine condition (it’s only eight years old) and wood, wood, wood everywhere. And wood trim. The inside is like a restaurant. It’s available for parties and events – although you’d have to be in the right part of the world at the right time to book it.

It’s from Amsterdam, and it plies the seas of the world, spending April and May on the East Coast of the US. Right now you can see it – just hike over to Chelsea Piers and walk around back of the ol’ driving range.

On the way back you can check out Frank Gehry’s IAC Building. This is one of the few pieces of newfangled New York architecture that doesn’t look out of place – because the place it’s in is an old seafaring district that didn’t have any architectural identity to begin with. The IAC Building is perfect right where it is – in its own space, making its statement without ruining anything else.

Creatures of New York, Pt. 3

This edition of Creatures of New York is devoted to one very large creature. Distantly related to the Great Blue Heron and the Whooping Crane, the Huge Honking Crane can be found in many cities throughout the world. In light of the recent crane failures in New York and in Miami, it’s nice to see one of these creatures in good health, doing its thing. Despite a few highly publicized incidents, the Great Honking Crane is not endangered.

Here’s the base of a crane recently spotted in the wilds of West 15th St.

Here is the payload: a brand new water tank, which the crane is preparing to feed to its young. (The cranelings, perched on a nearby roof, are not visible.)

The crane begins lifting the water tank high, high up towards the sky.

The water tank rises higher.

Having lifted the water tank all the way into the sky, the crane gracefully swings it towards its final position.

Coming about, the crane lowers the tank towards the rooftop, where the hungry cranelings wait to guide it into position.

Artful Wand’rings

It hasn’t been all sitting in dark rooms reviewing CDs and plays. There’s also wandering around looking at art. Today we checked out the Pool Art Fair at the famous Chelsea Hotel. I’d never been in the Chelsea before except to see the lobby, so this was a good opportunity to wander its hallowed halls and see where the art is made. (Thanks to Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York for the tip.) It was just like a neighborhood studio tour, except all in one building. Here’s Elisa dashing along a corridor, anxious to see yet more art.
Chelsea Hotel Railing

We were particularly taken with Grant Haffner’s paintings of country roads and power lines. Here’s his “Leaving Mecox.”
Grant Haffner, Leaving Mecox

This one isn’t meant to be art, but I thought it made a good photo. I call it “Stairway to Nowhere.”
Chelsea Hotel Stairs to Nowhere

Back in the lobby we fought through a crowd of French tourists to get this shot of the shiny old phonebooths. Then, faster than a speeding bullet, we zoomed out.
Chelsea Hotel Phonebooths

His Highness Hollywood

Celebrity blogger Dawn Olsen (of Glosslip) and I attended a preview of investigative journalist Ian Halperin’s new documentary, His Highness Hollywood, at the National Arts Club last night. Unfortunately a technical problem interrupted the film and we ended up settling for an earlier cut, which was still rough around the edges, but it was still quite amusing – and not just amusing, for in addition to skewering the easy target of Hollywood wannabe-stars, Halperin penetrates the scary world of Scientology.

In attendance was celebrity biographer Andrew Morton, here discussing his new Tom Cruise bio with Dawn. (Hence the Scientology connection.)


Here’s Ian Halperin introducing the film:


And just for fun, here’s Dawn and me in one of those trying-to-take-a-picture-of-yourself photos. Goofy charm, or just plain silly? You decide.


Audubon’s Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species at the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society owns all of the 435 original watercolors from which the aquatint engravings in John James Audubon’s Birds of America were made. Being fragile and sensitive to light, the watercolors cannot be shown for extended periods. However, the museum is currently displaying about 40 of these magnificent artworks through March 16, and they are well worth the museum’s $10 admission. (Incidentally, that’s half the price of what many of NYC’s great cultural institutions charge, and you’ll notice it’s even less than a movie ticket.)

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ca. 1825
Havell plate no. 26.
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board.

The exhibit also includes the museum’s copy of the full-size Birds of America on a specially designed display cabinet. Though these iconic pictures are to some extent familiar to most of us, only by seeing the hugeness of the book can you appreciate the impact they originally made. (No flipping pages, though – it’s under glass.) Samples of the popular, much smaller quarto edition are also shown.

The exhibit also pairs some of the drawings with recorded songs of the depicted birds. And finally, there’s a nice gilt-framed video display on what looks like one of those led screens of a selection of the images juxtaposed with video of the same birds in nature – a marvelous way to appreciate Audubon’s achievement.

A poignant aspect of the show is that some of the birds in the paintings, like the passenger pigeon, are extinct. Many others are threatened. The descriptions also note some “success stories,” birds whose populations have rebounded after being drastically reduced.

The only downside of the show is that because of the low light in the display room, it’s difficult for aged, floater-occluded mammalian eyes to read the placards. I have this problem in all museums, but it was especially difficult at this exhibit.

Really getting my $10 worth, I also saw the museum’s small but densely packed exhibit about the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant 1824-1825 visit to the United States – a country he had helped birth the previous century, when he was only in his 20s. Objects on display included Lafayette’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, letters from him to George Washington, and this carriage, which was used to ferry him from town to town in New England in 1825.

Carriage that Transported Lafayette in 1825

The N-YHS’s more permanent displays include many iconic paintings, including Thomas Cole’s spectacular “The Course of Empire” series, as well as sculpture, silver, porcelain, and a lot more. Finally, the museum is also running a 9-11 exhibit, which includes some pieces of wreckage, interesting to look at. But I didn’t spend any time at the 9-11 photography and video displays – this is still too raw for me even after six and a half years. It’s a livid memory, not a matter of history. I would, however, recommend the exhibit for out of town visitors.

On the way home I snapped this shot of some gulls flying around Central Park. This past Friday, we had the only significant snowfall of the year so far. It looked especially nice in the park.

Central Park Gulls

Straight Talk about the Death Penalty

If only all Americans, including our elected representatives and our justices, thought like Justice William Connolly of the Nebraska Supreme Court. Writing for a 6-1 majority in a death penalty appeal that claimed execution by electric chair to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional, Justice Connolly wrote:

We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes.

“Punish cruelty without practicing it.” Seems like that ought to be a pretty self-evident truth. But a lot of people – including a lot of people in power – aren’t interested in a civilized society. Or else their definition of a civilized society isn’t the same as mine, or Justice Connolly’s. In my civilized society, we don’t torture, whether we’re interrogating or executing. Whether the death penalty in any form is “cruel and unusual” is another question. But you only have to watch an electrocution to know that while it may be relatively quick (assuming all goes well), it’s a form of torture and shouldn’t be used. I hope the strong majority in this 6-1 decision resonates beyond Nebraska.

Rivington House

The other day I played with The Kings County Blues Band for a roomful of AIDS patients at Rivington House, a long-term care facility in downtown Manhattan. The residents were very appreciative of the live music, and the cheerful staff and volunteers seemed to have an impressive ability to turn what is essentially a hospital into a not so gloomy place for people who are suffering badly from AIDS to get the care they need. The website also lists volunteering opportunities.

Best. TV Show. Ever.

I have seen the past, present, and future of television. I have seen the ultimate and fundamental raison d’être for the invention of cathode ray tube technology and its modern successors. In short, I have seen the greatest TV show ever created: Shimmy, which airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM (ET and PT) on FitTV.

Turn on this show and you will be (if female) drawn to get up and start gyrating along with the dancers’ belly-dancing moves, or (if male) unable to lower your eyes from the humming sensuality on the screen or shut out the soothing yet energizing music.

If Shimmy doesn’t change your life in 30 minutes, I will gladly refund the money you paid to read this blog entry. With interest.


I turn 45 this month and I am glad to be the age that I am. In those four and a half decades I’ve been amazed to observe staggering changes in the world. Although technology will continue to advance rapidly, and today’s children will see many changes in their lifetimes, the world may not again change in such a fundamental way. I say that because we have crossed a very significant line: the digital line, which has enabled an unprecedented level of interconnectedness.

The next leap will be to a “firmament of all knowledge” that will provide something approaching telepathy. That may be some decades off, and catastrophe could intervene to prevent it. So it’s possible that the digital line will be the last really major techno-social line we will cross for a very long time.

Since 1963 we’ve gone from…

  • 8-tracks, LPs, and cassettes to CDs, MP3s, iTunes, and Bittorrent (i.e. analog to digital)
  • Cold War, the American Century, and American untouchability to a borderless Europe, 9-11, and American decline
  • Nixon, Humphrey, and McGovern to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney
  • Moon landings and oil rigs to nanotechnology and spooky action at a distance

And in the month that I turn 45, I am setting a personal record for playing gigs with the most different bands ever in one month: five. How we get recorded music may have changed, but people still want to play it live and hear it live. I suspect live music will remain a fairly recession-proof business. No matter how high the seas rise.