Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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I Won An Award! (Sort Of)

Folks, this is a post I never anticipated writing. It has nothing to do with what my blog’s about, whatever that might be. And at first I wasn’t going to write these words at all, but then I took a look at the smiling face of blogger April Greene and was charmed into proceeding.

liebsterYou see, a number of years ago someone out there in the blogging community came up with the idea that bloggers would do well to recognize and encourage and promote their peers. Can’t argue with that. And that same someone decided that a good way for this to happen would be for newish bloggers to bestow an award upon other newish bloggers. And that same someone, as far as I know, also named the award. The Liebster Award, that’s what it’s called. Why Liebster?  Who knows? The award’s origins are about as clear as the waters of the Ganges River. In other words, not. Whatever, Liebster Awards have been granted to oodles of bloggers over the years. And April Greene, an excellent writer whose blog and smiling face may be viewed by clicking right here, has nominated me for (meaning, she has awarded me) a Liebster. Thanks, April, for thinking of me.

Wouldn’t you know it, though? This whole Liebster thing is a form of a chain letter, so it’s kind of a pain. More than kind of, actually. Yet, at this point I’m pretty happily playing along because, as April Greene mentioned on her website, Liebster Awards are all about spreading the love. OK, I’m ready! Let’s go!

As part of the chain I am expected to nominate other bloggers for the Liebster. I shall do so, but I totally understand if my nominees decide to bag it and break the chain, which is what my initial reaction was. In any case, let me mention that I look periodically at many relatively new blogs, of which loads are worthy of recognition. I wrote the names of those worthies on pieces of paper, placed the pieces in a big bowl and randomly pulled out three. They are my nominees. There are plenty of real good articles to read in those three blogs, as you will discover by clicking on the following links:

Runaway American Dream          Speaking Of Life         Bookmark

Naturally, the Liebster Awards come with various rules that seem to have evolved over the years without firm consensus as to what are the rules. For the sake of making things somewhat easier and less time-consuming, I’m going to modify the rules once again by reducing the number of hoops a Liebster nominee need jump through.

Most versions of Liebster’s regulations ask nominees to answer 11 questions posed to them by their nominators, and to nominate 11 bloggers for the Liebster. To that I say: “Huh? Who’s got all day to do this stuff?” And thusly if any or all of my nominees decide to accept the Liebster from me, and by so doing decide to keep the ol’ chain in motion, they need answer only three questions. And I suggest that they propel the Liebster mechanism by nominating no more than three bloggers.

And now for a Q & A session. Complying with her duties as a Liebster nominator, April Greene asked 11 questions of me, per the instructions she received from her nominator. Here are her Qs with my As attached:

  1. What’s the coolest award you’ve ever gotten? (You can say the Liebster Award if you want.) —  Hey, I’ve been awardless till now, so Liebster it is.
  2. When did you last ride a public bus? — I only take limos.
  3. Have you ever slipped when getting out of the shower and felt older than you actually are? — No comment.
  4. Which of your childhood friends are you saddest to have lost touch with, and what do you think they’re doing now? — My teddy bear. He’s exploring Antarctica these days.
  5. Honestly: Do you really consider it the three-second rule? Have you ever extended it to more seconds? If so, how many? — Thousands upon thousands.
  6. Why do you think all those houseplants have died under your care? — How did you know?
  7. Please describe the time you sung most humiliatingly in public. — It would take too long.
  8. Best popcorn topping. Go. — I like the classics (ketchup and mustard).
  9. Would you rather dream of a spider infestation or a snake infestation? Why? — Yuck!
  10. What is your least favorite color? Explain. — Only my psychiatrist is privy to this.
  11. Should 7-Eleven have discontinued their Sour Patch Watermelon Slurpee flavor? Why or why not? — No. The masses will revolt.

Moving right along, I now am obliged to ask questions of my nominees. I’m not feeling smart-alecky anymore, so the questions will be legit.

  1. What television series, if any, are you currently watching?
  2. What are your favorite fruits?
  3. What are your hobbies?

Finally, as guidelines for my nominees I’m supposed to list the Liebster Award’s general rules and regs. Here goes:

Once you accept a nomination, you are asked to complete the following steps:
– Create a post in your blog displaying the Liebster Award logo
– In that post, thank and link to the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, answer the questions assigned by the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, nominate new favorite bloggers for the Liebster Award
– In that post, come up with a list of questions for your nominees
– In that post, provide rules/instructions for your nominees in re accepting the award
– Notify the nominees
– Post your Liebster blog post link in the comments of your nominator’s Liebster post

If anyone out there has read all of this, my condolences.

Normal programming will resume with my next article.

I Was Destined To See Israel Nash In Concert, Wasn’t I?

IMG_0842Everything was going smoothly. The train I’d boarded in the suburbs deposited me in downtown Philadelphia at 8:30 PM. Four minutes later the blazing neon sign of one of rock and roll’s heavenly venues, MilkBoy Philly, stared me in the face. I snapped its picture. Then I entered MilkBoy and climbed the stairs to the second floor music hall. A band was playing, undoubtedly the opening act. They were loud, man, loud. I stopped two stairs shy of the top and took in the scene, the little of it that I could make out. The place was so dark my eyes would’ve performed no worse in the dead of night in Amazonian jungles. One light, the only light anywhere near me, turned towards me. It was attached to the forehead of the keeper of the gate, the guy who used the light to check IDs and sell tickets at the top of the stairs, and maybe to do some mining in his spare moments. I couldn’t make out his face or body. “How’s it going? Didya find any promising coal seams tonight?” I almost started to say, but decided against it. In half an hour or so, no doubt, I’d be watching Israel Nash in concert. Destiny, which had begun spinning its threads five weeks earlier, was playing out. That’s a swell word, isn’t it? Destiny. How sweetly it rolls off the tongue.

Here’s where this little saga began: On the final night of our stay in Amsterdam in June, my wife Sandy and I had dinner in a great, intimate place named Tomaz. A gastropub is what we’d call it in the States, but I don’t know if that term is used in The City Of Canals And Marijuana. Hardly matters. Sandy drank wine, I downed a couple of beers, and we each had a steak dinner and, for dessert, a chocolately, moussey concoction. A delicious meal. Our waiter was the bistro’s owner. I didn’t ask his name, but maybe it’s Tomaz.

Anyway, Maybe It’s Tomaz is a music lover. Has been for decades, like me. As soon as Sandy and I sat down I was taken with the song playing in the restaurant. I commented on this to MIT. “That’s Israel Nash,” he said. The tune was the type that will carry you away on a long, spacey ride. MIT purposely had programmed it, via Spotify, because, as MIT told me, the music he liked best these days are the dreamy, atmospheric sorts that emerge from various just-so combinations of country, folk, rock, blues and sometimes other styles. And he mentioned two more practitioners of the amorphous genre whom, as with Nash, I’d heard of but knew next to nothing about: Harry Manx and Jonathan Wilson. MIT played multiple tracks by all of them for my listening pleasure. Between bites and between conversation with Sandy and MIT, I half-listened to the songs. And eventually Sandy and I bid our music-drenched host our adieus.

Back home in the States I did some barebones research into Messieurs Nash, Manx and Wilson and checked out a handful of their tunes on YouTube. What I heard sounded very good (click here and here and here for the smallest of samples). Perhaps I’d get to see one or more of them on stage some day. That would be nice, I thought. And then my short attention span kicked in and I moved on to other important topics, such as pondering how many new varieties of Cheez-Its I might give a whirl, and whether my shampooing regimen needed an update.

I should have seen it coming. A few weeks ago, checking out a local music website, the name Israel Nash jumped out at me. Good gawdalmighty, he would be at MilkBoy in three days, it indicated. And when, in the blink of an eye, the third day arrived I looked at MilkBoy’s website to see when the show would begin. The site said 7 PM. What? The last time a show began that early at a rock club was . . . well, never. Must be a misprint. I called MilkBoy for clarification. No answer. Called again and again and again. No one picked up. It figured.

But I had a good feeling all along. It wasn’t by chance that five weeks earlier I had heard, for the first time ever, a song by Israel Nash. And in a foreign land, no less. Some elusive guiding force had befriended me that night in MIT’s restaurant and was leading me to the proper culmination of the storyline. I was meant to see Israel Nash in concert. At MilkBoy.

“Who’s this? The opening act?” I inquired of the gatekeeper. The light attached to his forehead was tremendously focused. Only a few strands of illumination were able to make their ways sidewards. But those faint rays revealed to me that MilkBoy was incredibly packed with human bodies. That night, the phrase Standing Room Only didn’t apply. Standing Room Nearly Impossible did. Not only that, the air was thicker than thick with perspiration and other inspired body odors. Any high school gym’s boys’ locker room smelled a lot better.

“No, this is Israel Nash,” said the man with the light. “He has only half an hour left in his set. Do you have a ticket?”

“Uh,” I mumbled, and turned around. Down the stairs I went.

So, what’s the thrust of this story? Is there a moral? Something to be learned? Well, those questions usually are pretty much out of my league. I’m not all that bright. However, I have a half-decent answer in this case: When destiny appears to be knocking on your door, do what the man with the light would do — check its ID.

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If I Were A Painter . . .

I’ve penned some love letters to Cape Cod on these pages, but it has been a while since last I did. Yes, I’m in love with The Cape. My wife Sandy seconds that emotion. The enormous expanses of undeveloped oceanside shorelines; the humungous, otherworldly sand dunes that run for miles within the peninsula’s far reaches; the I-never-would-have-expected-them-to-be-there woods and forests that pepper the landscape . . . Cape Cod has natural beauty up the grand wazoo. And, that being what we most favor about The Cape, Sandy and I spend lots of time poking around the great outdoors during our Cape vacations. But we also like to emerge from the wilderness and do other types of things that ring our bells. For example, we get big bangs from some of the old village sections of certain Cape towns, such as those in Provincetown, Wellfleet and Orleans. They are cute and charming. We wander on their streets, investigate their stores and stuff our faces at dinnertime in their restaurants.

Last October, in Orleans, we took in a cool event one Saturday morning. The Addison Art Gallery, one of Cape Cod’s best, organized it. Two or more times each year AAG selects an outdoors Cape area to be immortalized and invites a bunch of the artists it represents to find views that spark them in said area, set up their easels and paint away. In October, Addison chose Orleans’ villagey heart, in which it is located, as the locale. The artists were instructed to paint and complete their masterpieces between 8 AM and noon, and then to bring the canvases to AAG where they would be framed and hung on the walls and offered for sale that evening at an artsy gathering to which the public was invited.

Maryalice Eizenberg.
Maryalice Eizenberg.

Sandy and I, who haven’t lifted a paint brush since grade school, like to watch good artists at work. So who knows why we got a real late start and didn’t arrive at the five or so square block painting zone until 11 AM. By that time most of the artists had finished their jobs and were packing up or already gone. Luckily we got to see two painters who were still going at it. On a sidewalk near AAG, Maryalice Eizenberg, hooded to shield herself from our friend the Sun, was staring down a big, old, yellow Victorian house across the street. She sweetly translated what she saw, in colors deeper than those 80 feet away. We chatted with her for a couple of minutes as she worked. “Have you seen what Paul Schulenburg is painting?” she asked us. No, we hadn’t. “Take a look. You won’t believe what his subject is.” And she pointed to where we’d find him, hidden from view from her own spot, but only half a block away.

Paul Schulenburg.
Paul Schulenburg.

Now, Paul Schulenburg is an artist whose oils I have seen at AAG over the years. He’s really good. His paintings have a stillness, a sense of completeness, à la Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Sandy and I followed Maryalice’s finger and came upon him. He and his easel were positioned between two houses, and he was zeroing in on a small section of one of the houses, a large and mostly white-shingled affair. But it wasn’t the house so much that he was interested in. What had caught his eye, and had become the focal point of his painting, was a bright green garden hose. Its color contrasted just-so with the less brilliant green of the side lawn, and had plenty to say to the house’s white shingles and red bricks. “Man, this guy is something else,” I more or less thought to myself. “A hose? Yup, and he is doing it proud.”

For reasons unknown, that October day floated to the top of my porous memory bank last week, and it got me thinking. Were there any aspects of my house’s exterior or grounds worth putting down on canvas? I decided to take a look. I would use my best impersonation of Paul Schulenburg’s painterly eye.

Sandy’s and my abode rests in the middle of a typical suburban block near Philadelphia. The house is modest and is surrounded by more shrubs and trees than I enjoy taking care of. All of it looks nice, but ain’t exactly a head-turner. I mean, Better Homes And Gardens Magazine has no plans to contact me anytime soon for a photo shoot. That, however, wasn’t the point. My mission was to pay attention to the details, to notice boffo alignments of objects, neato color contrasts, whatever, that were waiting to be discovered.

IMG_0821IMG_0799IMG_0805My house? Man, I’m glad to be living within it, but, take it from me, its exterior front and sides are vanilla. Tons of bricks and stones with almost nothing quirky or asymmetrical going on. I gazed artistically at one of the few ornamentations, a tangle of gas meter and pipes near the front door, and wondered if it would make for a decent painting. Well, maybe, but  . . . eh. I then walked around back and gave the grounds there a once-over, starting with the shed. How about its doors? Their designs seemed kind of sharp. Or did they? Nah, the scene lacked pop. A blooming Rose Of Sharon in the backyard, however, definitely did pop. How many floral scenes have been painted over the years, though? Maybe 20 billion. The world didn’t need this one.

IMG_0841All was not in vain. Because attached to the rear of the house is a great-looking deck that I figured would hold out hope. Hope morphed into certainty when I spotted something on one of the deck’s supporting posts. It was a knot, golden and aglow, in the wood. That’s what I would paint if I were a painter, I decided. It was a natural, a star waiting to be born. I walked around the knot, snapping photos, checking out various vantage points. And came to think that one perspective gave the best results for my imagined painting. In that vista you see the crazy quilt formed by part of the deck’s underside and the stairs leading up. You see a bit of slate patio and brick surface of the house. The scene’s palette is muted, all wan greys and browns, except for the golden medallion that you can’t take your eyes off of.

But I did take my eyes off the knot in a bit. And then I folded up my fantasy easel and went inside. It’s good to learn things, and I came away from all of this with an insight that never had occurred to me before: A painter in search of something to paint is little different than a writer (moi?) trying to come up with a story idea. And exactly the same is true for dance choreographers, photographers, film makers, chemists, astrophysicists, chefs, you name it, all on the prowl for projects that will make them buzz. The wellsprings of creativity are thick and bubbling, though not always easily tapped.

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(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The others by yours truly. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Great Blue, Good Blue, Bad Blue: Thoughts About A Joni Mitchell Song

My well-worn copy of Blue the album.
My well-worn copy of Blue the album.

Probably it was inevitable that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue would find its way into one of my essays. That’s because it is one of my all-time favorite records. And I hardly stand alone. Blue, after all, appears high on the “greatest albums ever” lists of music critics galore. With good reason. It’s an awfully brilliant work. Joni’s naked emotions, from high to low, saturate Blue’s songs, all of which she wrote. By no means am I an expert on the Mitchell canon, but from what I hear when I listen to Blue, and from what I’ve read, Joni’s openness was at its acme during the writing and recording of Blue, which came out in 1971. As self-revealing as many other of her albums are, Blue walks away with the “Here’s What I’m All About” prize. If you aren’t familiar with Blue, you will add some wows to your day by tracking it down and giving it a whirl.

But you know what? I’m not going to write any further about Blue the album on this virtual sheet of paper. That’s just like me . . . erratic. I won’t stray too far off course, however, as I now turn my gaze to Blue the sad song. It is the final track on side one of Blue the album’s vinyl incarnation. Although I’ve heard this song more than 100 times, I’d guess, over the years, it wasn’t till last week that I paid devoted attention to its lyrics. That’s just like me, too, a guy who has had trouble figuring out the meaning of 99% of the tunes he’s listened to during his life, including Happy Birthday To You and My Ding-A-Ling (it was a Chuck Berry hit). As an aside I’ll mention that my poor levels of lyrical insight and understanding are predictable. Back in my freshman year at college I stunned my Introduction To English Literature professor with my denseness. He had to create a new grade for me. An F wasn’t low enough, so he gave me a G, which stood for Gawdawful. Miraculously, my interpretative powers have inched upward a bit since those days.

Blue the song is track five on side one.
Blue the song is track five on side one.

When I heard Blue the song last week, it struck some heavy chords with me, as it always does, and I began trying to figure out a way to work it into a story. I was all set to compare it to a couple of other sad tunes with blue in their titles. Such as Dinah Washington’s 1955 version of Blue Gardenia and Willie Nelson’s 1975 take on Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. But before I could do that I needed to examine Blue’s lyrics and attempt to decipher them. I looked at them and came away, I think, with a reasonable understanding. And that’s when an interesting thought entered my brain. Lyrically, Blue is so Joni-personal, and musically so shape-shifting, I wondered if anyone ever covered it. Nah, that’s pretty doubtful I decided. But oh so wrong I was, as some Googling revealed. Amazingly to me, lots of people have taken a crack at it, some more successfully than others. Wham! “There’s a story in there,” I said to myself. Probably many. However, we’ll save many for future days and keep the remainder of this analysis on the modest side.

There’s no better place to continue than with Blue’s words, which are relatively few. Here they are:

Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.

Hey Blue, there is a song for you.
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.

Well there’s so many sinking now,
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass.
Needles, guns, and grass.
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs.

Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though.
Blue, I love you.

Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.

Those lyrics startle me. They rock, they roll, they roil. Delicately. They paint a picture of fragile love. And until last week I hadn’t realized that they are addressed to a specific person (James Taylor, Joni’s boyfriend during parts of 1970 and ’71, is many observers’ guess) whose identity she isn’t revealing but, for the song’s sake, she has nicknamed Blue. Joni loves Mr. Blue, but can’t quite reach him. There are more than a few degrees of disconnect. A head-over-heels-in-love song for him wouldn’t fit the nature of their relationship. The best she can do is to pen a foggy lullaby to help fill in an empty space. Ouch. Love hurts.

Joni Mitchell sings Blue fervently, her voice sometimes quivering, accompanied only by the piano whose keys she hits good and hard (click here to hear the song). Her vocal is forthright and drips with pain and uncertainty. She didn’t want additional instruments or voices to distract from her message. She aimed for simplicity in her rendition.

Joni’s Blue is pretty perfect, don’t you think? The world would be just fine with no version of the song but hers. I can understand, though, why others would approach it. For some artists, Blue might cut so deeply they are uncontrollably compelled to record it. For others, putting a different spin on singular Blue seemingly becomes a challenge they can’t resist undertaking.

Roughly 100 cover versions of Blue have been recorded. And I gave a listen to a dozen of them before I said to myself: “Yo, anal dude! Enough already.” But the 12 I visited comprised an ear-opening experience. And speaking of yo . . . Yo, Kevin Sandbloom! What the fu*k were you thinking? Kevin — your jumpy Blue is wrong, man, wrong. Haven’t you ever heard of subtlety? And what’s with your vocal undulations? They send the song on a nasty roller coaster ride. Joni should sue you, man. Driver, let me off! (Click here to listen)

On the other hand . . . Yo, Dubistry! I shuddered at first listening. But your version grew on me. Who’d have thunk that a reggae-clothed Blue would work? Those crashing drums and cymbals send shock waves. But, in the end, your Blue can handle them because you didn’t allow the spirit of Joni’s Blue to disappear. (Click here to listen)

Yeah, the spirit of Joni’s Blue. I guess that’s what I was looking for all along. And I found it in the Blues lofted to us by Cat Power and Sarah McLachlan. Picking one over the other is tough, but I’m going to go with Sarah’s, which you can listen to by clicking here. Sarah does Blue proud. She sings the song slowly, buoyed by quiet and well-placed electric bass notes, by shimmering electric keyboards, and dramatically by a multi-tracked heavenly female choir. Sarah’s Blue sounds better and better to me the more I return to it. It is ethereal, majestic. A week ago I’d never have believed I might say this, but the McLaughlin Blue equals and possibly outdoes Joni’s.

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Me And My Muse: A Cry For Help (Hers, Not Mine)

Planet Earth contains over seven billion humans who are pushing hard to raise that number to eight billion. Of that multitude I’d estimate that 20 or 25 persons might recall my story from a few months ago about Erratica, one of the Greek goddesses and, more to the point, my wondrous muse (clicking here will make the tale appear). Clearly, my readership’s growth curve has almost limitless room to expand. That’s a positive, isn’t it? Go get ’em, cowboy! Yeah, you can do it!

Oh, Erratica, Erratica. She has helped me immeasurably since I took up blogging last year. Nearly every week she has materialized in my home to guide me, to prod me into getting my thoughts in order. Without her this blog would be nothing. Come to think of it, though, it’s kind of nothing anyway. Aww, shit.

Erratica
Erratica

Yes, like clockwork for the most part, Erratica has appeared on Thursdays. Except during my vacations, that is. She and I have an agreement that she won’t pop in on me when my wife Sandy and I are away, as we were for part of last month. But after we returned home, Erratica missed her next scheduled appointment. I didn’t give that much thought, figuring she had gotten my vacation dates wrong. But I began to worry the following Thursday when again she was a no-show. What was going on? Had Erratica abandoned me? If she had, I was staring the end of my blogging career in the face.

This past Thursday evening, as usual, I sat in my suburban Philadelphia home’s library. Decked out in hot pink cargo pants and my favorite bright blue t-shirt emblazoned with Wazzup, Dawgie? in neon green letters, I dazzled. Worn out from worrying about Erratica, sleep began to overtake me.

“Oh, Neil. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you. It seems like weeks since last we met,” an unsteady voice said, quickly awakening me. Erratica was in the house.

“My goddess, where have you been? I’m overjoyed that you are here. The last two weeks without you turned me into a nervous wreck. Miraculously I was able to write articles, but it was a struggle.”

I stood up and looked Erratica in the eyes. Something was very wrong. A handful of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. I had never seen her like this. She needed a seat. I brought a chair from the dining room and placed it next to mine. She took it and opened up her heart.

“Neil, I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do. You know my dad? Zeus?” she half-sobbed.

“Well, I’ve never had the pleasure. But I know of him,” I said. “Is he ill or something?”

Ill?” she cried. “He’s fitter than a fiddle, that old guy. He’s indestructible! But something has come between us. He can’t tolerate the way I’ve been performing my job . . . my bad attendance record, my lack of patience with my charges, the sarcastic barbs that I throw at them. Neil, I’m supposed to help unpolished writers like you, and for millennia that’s exactly what I did. But I’ve been failing them of late, including you. So, my dad has done the unthinkable . . . he has put me on probation. ‘Daughter, you better get it together fast, or you’re out!’ he said to me this morning. Neil, you are the first pseudo-scribe I’ve visited since he uttered those words. I need your help!”

It took me more than a few moments to process what I had heard. Then I took a deep breath, not knowing what words would tumble from my mouth.

“Erratica, somehow you have it all wrong. You have been a lifesaver to me these past many months. Sure, you can be crabby and mean, but so what? The bottom line is that your kicks to my ass have been productive. Because of you I’ve turned out a load of stories. Without you, I’d spend my writing sessions with fingers frozen to my computer’s keyboard.”

“But I need to become more reliable and customer-friendly, Neil, like I used to be. Somehow I got worn down by all the griping and whining that you and your amateur tribe are famous for.”

“Erratica,” I said, gently placing a hand on her left shoulder. “The world, on a human level, is a tough place, filled with negatives that make griping and whining seem like pablum. And I think that all of those real problems have gotten to you, even though you’re not human. If I tell you about a few good things that have been going on, might that help?”

“It might,” Erratica said quietly. “It might.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes. As you know, Sandy and I went to Paris and Amsterdam last month. We had a superb time. They are such great places. We did a lot and were with a couple of our friends for most of the trip. It was primo fun. For instance . . . ”

She cut me off. “I’m familiar with the details. Believe it or not, I read your stories about the vacation. I’m one of the few who did.”

“And you liked them?” I asked, wary of the forthcoming answer.

“Uh, they were okay. You’re not exactly Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, though, are you?”

“Be nice, Erratica.” I said. “I’m your friend.”

“Forgive me, Neil. It won’t happen again,” she said. And for some reason I believed her.

IMG_0793 (2)“And very recently we went to the movies to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s delightful. Taika Waititi, who I never heard of before, wrote and directed it. The flick takes place in New Zealand. It’s about a 13 year old who has spent his whole life in the child welfare system being passed around from one foster care family to another. At the start of the movie he looks and acts like a sullen bag of trouble. Doesn’t talk to people, dresses like a gangsta-in-training, which he fancies himself to be. Then he gets placed with a back-to-nature couple living in bush country, and his world changes. His sweetness and innocence begin to emerge, don’t ask me why considering everything he’s been through. Probably he barely knew himself that they were there. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation. And he’s not the only person who changes for the better. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything else. Erratica, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. We all need a healthy dose of healthy emotions these days, and this movie will give that to you.”

The sofa that Erratica eyed.
The sofa that Erratica eyed.

Erratica’s face brightened. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks for the boost,” she said. “Sounds like a good movie. And sounds like you’ll be banging out a story about it for your blog.” She paused for a second. “Neil, I’ve been in a bad way for a long time now. But I’m going to try hard to get back on track. My father’s a no-nonsense sort and means what he says. If he kicks me off of Mount Helicon I’ll have nowhere to go.” She walked into my living room to take a peek. I followed her there. “Could I crash on this sofa if it comes to that?” she asked. “It looks comfy. Oh my, how the time flies. There’s a nitwit in Vermont who I have to visit now. For kicks he gets a colonoscopy every week and writes narratives about them for his blog. The blog’s called Checking Up On My Innards. And it’s actually pretty interesting, a lot better than you’d expect. Somehow he doesn’t run out of things to say. Neil, I’ll see you in a week.”

And in a poof she was gone.

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Amsterdam, When Lights Were Low

This time of year in suburban Philadelphia USA, where I reside, the Sun sets around 8:30 PM and the sky begins to grow meaningfully dark half an hour later. A few weeks ago, though, during my wife Sandy’s and my trip to Paris and Amsterdam, the lighting was different. (If you click right here and right here, the previous two articles about our trip will appear). There, sunset happened circa 10:00 PM and darkness started its descent about thirty minutes after that. It wasn’t till 10:45 or so that you’d say nighttime truly had arrived. These were phenomena that took Sandy and me a little by surprise. We sure weren’t used to them. But we liked them.

Now, Amsterdam is a beautiful place in daylight, as is Paris, natch. Those canals; those old, quaint brick houses; those cute houseboats parked here and there on the waters; those many streets no wider than alleys. Man, investigating and gawking at all of this in full light was the best. But — and I’m not exactly issuing a news flash here — things looked different when the effects of our friend the Sun started to fade. Different isn’t always better, yet often it is equally good. And that was the case with Amsterdam during late evening hours.

Maybe we were under the spell of the delayed darkness, I don’t know, but in Amsterdam we found ourselves starting the evening repasts much later than at home. Most evenings we didn’t begin to eat until 8:30 or later. By the time we concluded restaurant business and moseyed out onto the streets, sunlight was approaching the low end of its dial or was gone. And that’s when our evening entertainment, nighttime walks, began. It also was when the canals put on their more formal clothes.

IMG_1465IMG_1466One night, after a dinner in the western part of town that ended at 10:15, we wandered for ten minutes in search of the still-existing house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) where Rembrandt van Rijn lived during much of the 1600s. Eventually we found it. The famed artist lived near the Zwanenburgwaal, a handsome canal. I imagine that the area looks pretty much as it did in Rembrandt’s time. And, no question, it startles at night. There was a fair but quickly fading amount of light in the skies as we strolled around Zwanenbuegwaal and other nearby waterways. The canal waters glimmered, the electric lights from within houses glowed mightily. And we were amazed by a scene that was almost too good to be true, the Moon early in its rise above an assemblage of rooftops and gables. I don’t know if Rembrandt ever painted a waterscape like that, but if he didn’t he should have.

IMG_1478IMG_1480Another post-dinner trek, along a couple of canals not far from our hotel in central Amsterdam, also was gold. This time our walk started under skies that were fully dark. Not too many people were around. And it was quiet. These were conditions that collectively, in a major city, you don’t often run into. I tell you, the vistas were something else. Reflections from house lights in the canal waters looked like cascades of glitter. And the small bridges crossing the canals were lit along their sides like yuletide shrubbery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Amsterdam is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live.

 

IMG_1388IMG_1389

But it wasn’t only late night outdoors views in Amsterdam that nabbed my attention. Things sometimes got awfully atmospheric indoors too during advanced hours. Usually in restaurants. Our first night in the city, for instance, we had dinner in the middle of town at the cozy Corner House, which serves up some traditional Dutch fare. We had arrived in Amsterdam from Paris with our friends Martine and Alan, and they were at the eatery with us. We all settled in comfortably on that rainy night, soaking up Corner House’s low wattage vibes. The subdued lighting gave the place a charm and magnetism that probably it didn’t have at lunchtime. And after dinner we stepped outside into streets hundreds of years old where, electric lights illuminating the dimness only gingerly, mystery and intrigue cast bigtime spells.

IMG_0787And talking about vibes . . . they don’t come much better than those you get, as midnight approaches, within In De Wildeman. It’s a tavern in a semi-ancient building, and prides itself on its wide selection of beers. A craft beer geek, I went there several times to drink suds from Dutch breweries not named Heineken and Amstel. There are a decent number of them, though most Amsterdam establishments don’t carry them. More’s the pity. In any event, Sandy and I popped into evocatively-lit In De Wildeman, down the block from our hotel, very late on a Wednesday night. The next morning we would fly home, and I wanted to down one last Dutch microbrew before bidding the Netherlands adieu. I did. Sort of. It was a pale ale brewed exclusively for In De Wildeman by The Wild Beer Company. It was delicious. Turns out, though, that Wild Beer’s brewery is located in England, not the Netherlands. Oh well, close enough.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Monet The Great

Well, I’ve made it to this, the beginning of Part Two of my planned three-part examination of the trip that my wife Sandy and I took to Paris and Amsterdam last month. So far, so good. For those interested, the first installment may be read by clicking right here.

And now it’s time to move past Part Two’s beginning . . . uhhhhhh, we have a problem here, Houston. You mean I need to come up with something to say? Now? What’s that all about? I tell you, this writing business ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

(The author, frustrated and close to tears, is moments away from removing his fingers from his computer’s keyboard. Shortly he will be guzzling several shots of Jack Daniels. Straight.)

Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Where's the driver?
Where’s the driver?

OK, I’m back and feeling better. I’m not gonna throw in the towel just yet. A jolt of inspiration whacked me a few minutes ago, and it was more than helpful. “Dummy, what’s the one thing you did in Paris that you liked more than anything else? That’s what you should write about next,” the jolt said to me. Wow, that was an enlightening question and an on-target statement. I put down my shot glass and thought about some possibilities. Seeing that I like being part of the In Crowd, I had to admit that eating macarons, colorful and tasty meringue-filled cookies that are all the rage in Paris, was a nifty experience. So was sitting at the front of one of the driverless Metro trains as it sped down the tracks, wondering how the f**k anybody figured out how to make that concept work.

But neither of them was number one. Nope, number one took place in a museum. And were it not for a blog that I stumbled upon a month or so ago I wouldn’t have been there.

I became a blog surfer at some point last year. Meaning, I get a kick checking out, sort of randomly, the near-infinity of blogs in cyberspace. And what I’ve discovered is that there are an astonishing number of blogs that range in quality from good to superb. Who’d ever have thought that so many perceptive/talented/creative people exist? Hey, it gives me hope. Anyway, I don’t remember the name of the website that I just mentioned stumbling upon, but stumble upon it I did while researching my Paris-Amsterdam expedition. And one of its articles made an impression on me. In it, the writer mentioned once being in Paris and absolutely loving the large canvases of water lilies, painted by Claude Monet, that hang in Musée de l’Orangerie (The Orangerie Museum). I was familiar with various of Monet’s water lily paintings — he churned out more than 200 of them over the years while living at Giverny, a country village about 50 miles from Paris, getting his inspiration from the water lilies that floated in the large pond on his property. But I knew nothing about l’Orangerie or its contents till skimming that article.

And thus when Martine and Alan, our Parisian friends with whom we were staying, asked Sandy and me what we might like to do while in Paris, I said I didn’t have a lot of specifics in mind but maybe l’Orangerie wouldn’t be a bad idea if we happened to be in the area.

Good call, Neil. In fact, a perfect call.

IMG_0548IMG_1335You know, I feel fanboy-ish and unstudied in saying this, but the eight enormous water lily canvases at the Orangerie are among the greatest paintings I ever have seen. Complex, inspiring, bedazzling, calming, mind-expanding, yes they are all of that. And their powers play off one another. Which is why their cumulative force is off the charts, in a contemplative sort of way. Right, right, I’m getting carried away here, but what can I do? I’ll try to calm down.

Monet worked on these paintings for 12 or so years, nearly up to the time of his death, at age 86, in 1926. He donated them to France, wanting them to represent peace and tranquility to a world that needed macro doses of same, as it does today. And he negotiated with the French government for the canvases to be housed in special chambers. Two curved rooms with natural lighting, quiet and elegantly simple, would fit the bill he decided. And he felt that the Orangerie would be a fine spot in which to build those rooms, whose design and construction he oversaw. But he didn’t witness the installation of his giants, which took place the year after he left this world.

IMG_0560IMG_0559Earmarking eight monumental canvases (they are six and a half feet high and average 37 feet in width) for France’s citizens, to be displayed in custom-made quarters, was a grand gesture on Monet’s part, possibly the grandest of his life. When I walked into the two rooms that the works occupy, four per room, I felt as though I were in a sanctuary, a shrine. And I was. Sandy, Alan, Martine and I spent an hour there. These are paintings you can get lost in. I know that I did, and I think the others in my party did too. The canvases are dreamy, amorphous, color-rich yet for the most part muted. Water lilies are depicted on each canvas, but they are only part of the story. Other small vegetation appears. And wispy visions of willow trees float on the four paintings, done in somber shades of violet and purple, that are housed together in one of the rooms.  Still, more than anything the works are dominated by water, sky reflections and, depending on the canvas, bright or nuanced light. All of those components, material and ethereal, are in their glory in the Orangerie’s Monet spaces.

IMG_0547IMG_0550And the paintings verge on abstraction. These are a whole other ballgame from the gorgeous hillside and seaside scenes that Monet, a founder of Impressionism in the 1860s, once painted. Monet’s sense of color, and his feel, are totally recognizable on the large canvases, but the idea of place largely is gone. Purposely. I think that what he was trying harder than ever to do was to distill the natural world, to get to its essences. An incredible endeavor for someone who began the project in his very advanced years. Monet The Great, no doubt.

Not unusual for me, I was late to the party. Obviously. I mean, millions of people know about the Monets at the Orangerie Museum. And swoon over them. A few days ago, for example, my brother mentioned to me that they are his favorite works of art in all of Paris. Ah, what can I say?

Okay, I’ll say this: The Orangerie is brimming with tremendous art besides Monet’s. The many oils there by Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo, two guys you don’t ordinarily see too much by, knocked me out. But Monet is the museum’s heart. A couple of day’s ago, Sandy reminded me of something that popped out of Alan’s mouth after we left l’Orangerie. “I guess we got our Monet’s worth,” he sagely cracked. Truer words were never spoken.

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Fun Times In Paris And Amsterdam: An Overview

We went, we saw, we had a very swell time overall, and then we came home. The end.

There’s something to be said for conciseness, don’t you agree? And maybe if I were more courageous than I am I’d write not another word beyond the 18 contained in the two masterful sentences above. But my fingers, God help them, are itching to type, so I’ll bag that idea for now. In fact, I’m going to try and bite off more than I normally can handle, by turning my wife Sandy’s and my recent visit to Paris and Amsterdam into a three-part blogging extravaganza. I’ve noted before on these pages that I have trouble enough producing one-parters. Wish me luck.

Let’s begin. In many ways I’m a lucky individual. And I don’t take my good fortune for granted. Throughout my adult life, for instance, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In the earlier of those years I somehow wandered far and wide with not much more than a few bucks in my pockets. During the last three decades they have been more fully filled with cash (and plastic). Regardless of my financial situation, though, I’ve never ceased to be amazed that I’m able to leave the home environment and rev my motor in other parts of the world. And for my money you can’t do a whole lot better than to frolic in Paris and Amsterdam. Great cities both. Beautiful cities both. And Sandy’s and my week-and-a-half-long sojourn there earlier this month came with a special bonus. Namely, we spent most of the expedition with our très magnifique pals Alan and Martine.

The view from Martine and Alan's guest bedroom.
The view from Martine and Alan’s guest bedroom.

Martine and Alan live in Paris. Have a lovely home in the city’s heart. And they not only put up with us, they put us up. I guess they like us because, after four days of that, they hopped aboard an Amsterdam-bound train with Sandy and me. The four of us spent several days bopping around that canal-laced city until the scheduled time arrived for the Parisians to return home. Alan! Martine! Don’t abandon us! We’ll be lost without you! But Sandy and I showed ’em. Yeah, maybe we stumbled and fumbled a bit, but we sure as shootin’ had three more Amsterdam days heavily sprinkled with fun. Amsterdam, I miss you. A lot.

Now, Sandy and I had been to Paris before. We’d seen most of the must-sees and plenty of the less-noticed sights too, such as the building in which Vincent van Gogh crashed with his brother Theo for two years in the 1880s. This time around we decided to let things flow organically, whatever that means. And to try and spend lots of time just strolling around, taking in the views and vibes in as unpressured a manner as we could. Sure, we couldn’t resist going to a couple of museums (The Orangerie, The Marmottan Monet), and we had a sweet dinner in a quintessentially Parisian eatery (Le Petit Colbert), the type that natives frequent. But walking is what we did the most of. Miles and miles of it. All over central Paris, on both sides of the Seine. And beyond. The entire time, indoors and out, Martine and Alan accompanied us. They are expert tour guides and really, really good sports.

IMG_0523 IMG_0511 What can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said? Nothing much, pardner. But that won’t stop me. I mean, I’ve got blog stories to create. First, if you haven’t been and have the means, you should go. As everyone knows, Paris’ appeal isn’t simply its gorgeousness . . .  the city is intriguing too. Streets come together at odd angles, a wonderful idea. Many sidewalks are narrow, an example of quaintness of which I approve. And seemingly every block has alluring buildings you’d like to live in, bistros whose tables are just made for sipping espressos beside, and perfect, little shops loaded with foods better than you’re likely to find at home. The pastries, the breads, the cheeses. Did somebody say breads? I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I know of only one place within five miles of my house where I can buy a crusty, flavorful rustic loaf of bread. Yo, when’s the next flight back? I need to be around people who know how to bake the staff of life.

Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame Cathedral.

And there’s a soul-satisfying uniformity in scale and color to much of Paris that I’d forgotten about. Most of Gay Paree’s buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s and about seven levels high and made from beige-colored limestone. Talk about a charming and serenity-inducing look. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wallowed in its aura.

It would be a mistake for me to end my brief Parisian recap without mentioning the big guns for which the city is famed. For starters: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine, the unreally-huge Louvre Museum. To first-time visitors I’d say you’d do well to examine them thoroughly, though, to be honest, you easily could live without stepping foot within the Louvre.

A snap of the fingers later, Sandy and I and our friends found ourselves in Amsterdam. I’d been there about 30 years ago, though my pigeon-like brain has forgotten many details of the experience. Sandy never had been. I’ve got to tell you, this is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live. And the fact that there wouldn’t be a language problem is a plus, as Amsterdammers speak English in addition to their native tongue. I kept looking around and exclaiming to myself and to whomever else in the party was nearby: “I love this city.”

IMG_1401IMG_1463What’s not to love? Amsterdam looks great. Most of the houses, many of which overlook canals, are cozy and cute and entertainingly gabled. Generally they stand five levels above ground and are constructed of bricks. And they are not new, the majority having been erected between 1500 and 1900. I like being in places that look pretty much the same as they did hundred of years ago. And the canals? Man, they crisscross the city gently yet semi-riotously. And their prettiness can not be exaggerated. As in Paris, the four of us walked and walked and walked. Very happily. And when we got tired of walking we climbed aboard Amsterdam’s trams, which make navigating the city a breeze.

 

IMG_0670Amsterdam is relatively compact, meaning that you can make it to pretty much anywhere on foot, though some treks might take you an hour and a half. There aren’t a ton of cars on the streets, and that’s because Amsterdammers are bicycle-crazed. Practically everyone owns a bike and uses it to get around. I’d heard about the bicycle scenario, and it was a gas witnessing it. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, loads in operation, many more attached to bike racks, bridge railings, trees, you name it. You gotta watch out where you’re going or you might get smacked by a bike. One evening, Martine received a double dose of near-trouble. It’s easy to become distracted by the loveliness surrounding you in Amsterdam, and that’s what happened to her. Stepping off the sidewalk into the narrow street bordering a canal, she nearly got clipped by a car. Half a minute later, at the same spot, a bicyclist almost broadsided her. But I’m giving the wrong impression. Back to Amsterdam’s magnetic powers.

At the zoo.
At the zoo.

The Fearsome Foursome hit some of the famed sites together (Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum) and took a groovy canal boat tour of the city. And after Alan and Martine hightailed it back to Paris, Sandy and I poked around neighborhoods and other spots, such as the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and the Stedelijk Museum, an astonishingly good modern art repository. Then, before we knew it, the time approached for us to head to the airport and return home. But I can’t wind things up without mentioning two subjects: marijuana and prostitutes. Amsterdam is famed for both, as cannabis use and prostitution are legal, within boundaries, in this enlightened and welcoming city. And they undoubtedly help make for an atmosphere real attractive to millennials (residents and visitors alike), who fill Amsterdam’s streets in uncountable numbers.

Now, seeing the prostitutes was kind of cool. They have set up shop on a smallish enclave of blocks in what’s known as the Red Light District, which my group toured on a Sunday afternoon. Barely dressed, the ladies stood in full view behind ground level doors and windows in what I assume used to be normal residences. My eyes, and those of my companions, were popping. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to indulging.

A purveyor of marijuana.
A purveyor of marijuana.

But marijuana was another story. Me, I haven’t had a toke in about 30 years. And boy was I tempted to resume the habit temporarily. After dinner on the day we arrived, Alan and I strode into one of the town’s numerous marijuana parlors, all of which, for reasons I don’t know, are called, incongruously, coffee shops. Alan strictly was an observer. The place looked like a Greenwich Village beatnik hangout. Lights were low, tables were small and occupied, and the air was filled with second-hand marijuana smoke. Inhaling deeply, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. I walked to the counter and sized up what’s what. Gazing at a menu, I saw that various strains of grass were available. The least potent varieties were described as strong. The most powerful were guaranteed to get you incredibly high. Prices for one ounce ranged, I think, from 10 to 15 euros. Not too expensive at all. One of the two girls behind the counter suggested to me that getting stoned after years of abstinence would be a terrific idea. I looked at Alan and pondered the situation. I breathed in the second-hand smoke hungrily. My buzz got slightly stronger. In the end, though, nerd that I am, I chickened out.

To be continued, if the stars align themselves properly.

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(Most photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The crooked ones are by a nerd whom she knows. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Killer Joe: The Song That Gave Me Pause

You know, I’m not exactly the poster boy for being cool. I mean, the last time that a hot chick couldn’t keep her eyes off of me was . . . was . . . was . . . yeah, now I remember. I was about two years old, being pushed around in a baby carriage. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” the girl cooed, bending down to get a better look and never taking her gaze from mine. Wow, that was the best!

But I’ll tell you something. I do know how to be cool once in awhile. Like when I hear a great tune on the radio, one so finger-snapping and head-bopping fine that I can’t contain myself. Just watch me as I rise from the sofa and strut across the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and back again. Fingers snapping. Head a-bopping. Cool, man, cool. It happens now and then.

Killer Joe. That’s the tune that got me off the couch one recent evening. As usual I was doing not much of anything, except half-listening to the radio and counting the number of Cheez-Its crumbs stuck to the sofa’s cushions. I had counted 87 of them when — POW! POW! — Quincy Jones’ version of Killer Joe came on the air. It sounded spectacular. Next thing I knew, I was stepping.

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Killer Joe, a jazz standard, was composed around 1959 by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, who has written many other songs (I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates) covered by scads of jazzbos. And Benny’s 1960 recording of Killer Joe is absolutely ace (click here to listen). Benny put the tune on wax with The Jazztet, the group that he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer, and it came out on their album Meet The Jazztet. But Quincy’s KJ is better. It’s just too, too much, though it took me awhile to settle permanently into that opinion (click here to listen). I like it more than The Jazztet’s version because it has more slinky sizzle. Quincy himself didn’t play on the tune, which is from his 1969 album Walking In Space. But he arranged and conducted it and hired some monster guys to send out the sounds. Ray Brown (bass), Hubert Laws (flute) and Grady Tate (drums), to name a few.

To me, Ray Brown’s confident, strutting upright bass is the key to Killer Joe. From the opening bass lines straight through to the song’s end, Ray Brown is walking the walk. He’s under control, yet swaggering. He’s keeping things tight and tense, but jaunty too. And Tate, his steady high-hat cymbal work somehow loose as a goose, ambles arm-in-arm with Brown. Beyond the purring Brown/Tate engine, I couldn’t get enough of the airy flute solo, the piercing trumpet interludes and the pleading voices of the female chorus. Man, my fingers were snapping big time as I did my household shuffle.

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It wasn’t till the next day, though, relistening to the song on YouTube, that I paid attention to the lyrics that the ladies sing. “Killer Joe, don’t you go/Hurt me slow, please Joe.” Whoa, what did that mean? Is this a song about physical abuse? Had I been slow-marching and bopping to a composition that contains a really nasty notion? It took me a good long while to grasp the meaning of the words. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but I believe that the hurt referred to is emotional, not physical. Killer Joe (the character, not the song) is a cad, a heel, a self-absorbed jivester whom some women just can’t resist. Smitten, they know it’s a certainty that he will leave them. And that their hearts face a sad destiny: to be broken. The ladies want to be let down easy, not hard.

Now, The Jazztet’s recorded version of KJ basically is an instrumental piece. It has no lyrics, though Benny Golson felt the need to open the proceedings with a spoken introduction to let the world know that KJ ain’t a swell guy. Nine years later, on Quincy’s version, lyrics, brief as they are, were added. Who wrote them? I’ve scoured the Web, coming up unsure as to the answer. Could have been Golson, could have been Jones, could have been both or neither of them. Regardless, Quincy’s 1969 take on the song expanded Golson’s equation. What had been an instrumental description of a me-first, ponies-playing ladies’ man became deeper, something to ponder. Quincy Jones’ Killer Joe is a swinging statement tempered with reminders about how doleful and strange and complicated life can be.

Speaking from my me-first perspective, it’s a good thing that Quincy’s KJ isn’t about women who like their bad boy to whup them. If it were, into the deep freeze it would go, never to be listened to again. I’d be a chump to support any tune that goes that far to the dark side, even if it grooves like a champ.

But all is well in my music world. Onward!

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