for October 26
October 6 October 8
Jammin' at the Pillbug
Connoisseurs of my life and times may recall my ill-fated decision to run an improv series (neither comedy nor dance, but music) in my provincial, smug, cobblestoned, half-timbered, self-infatuated adoptive home. They will understand the sense of Schadenfreude (an American term meaning "spiteful in a German way") with which I entered and surveyed the Pillbug, a student-administered bar in the basement of the dormitory where, not so long ago, I used to visit the A. of Z. In the basements of dormitories, students conspire to sell themselves beer at special low prices, often as little as $1 for a half liter. Commercial bars typically charge up to $3. Two men familiar to me from struggling local jazz bands (I mean they struggle to play jazz -- I assume their parents pay their rent willingly and punctually) faced me from behind an organ and a trap set, looking very like musicians while three conga players, failing to do so, showed me their backs. On one was the Grateful Dead's 'Steal Your Face' logo, neatly embroidered on denim and embellished with roses. I smiled, steeped in vice, as the proceedings, propelled by some inscrutable combination of entropy and the bitter ruminations of an angry god, were joined by a red SG and a sort of Charvel flying V that I never got a good look at. The SG was my favorite, favorite sort of improviser: The kind who thinks that if he can't decide what to play, the best thing is to find a major barre chord somewhere way up on the fretboard and stick to it like glue. The flying V had noise in his heart and peanut butter in his fingers and ears, wailing chorus and distortion and a heart of brass. The SG asked him to turn down. I giggled and realized that a conga player before me was also giggling, in the style of Beavis from 'Beavis and Butthead.' For the first time, I attempted to snigger like Beavis and found that, under the circumstances, it was the most easy and natural thing I could possibly do. Alternating Beavis-sniggering with bursts of sincere laughter, I enjoyed the performance as never before. Beavis, who also had Beavis' hair, turned around to nip at his drink and we had a nice, if rather snide, conversation.
A competent drummer joined the ensemble but left after a minute or two, a broken man. In a spirit of go-getting DIY American "What the Hey," I took up a position behind the drum kit while Beavis sat in on bass and a dreadlocked white boy worked up a riff. Unfortunately, I can't play drums worth a damn, nor can I play any other instrument to speak of, but at least I know right from wrong, so it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I kept on laughing as (to my unfocused eye) about half the public left the bar, fleeing the hellish spectacle of (I assume this is what upset them) a woman playing drums as poorly as a man. In short order I declared my inability to participate in any form of the blues (actually playing the blues had been my idea, because I am a perverse, randomly destructive, curiously unselfconscious exhibitionist and forgot to remember that I can't do it) and returned to my beer. The evening retained the blues cast I had mistakenly lent it. The white boy had some chops and wasn't afraid to drown the others out. But blues is an awful bore. "Funk is key, key, key for bad improvisers, you can play the same chord for hours and it doesn't sound like shit," I told my companion earnestly, singing and miming demonstrations that he found completely convincing once I had explained what I meant by "chord."
The bar is called "Kellerassel," which really does mean pillbug. "Keller" means basement.
Bats of the Castle
Schloss Hohentübingen belongs to the university. In a quest to keep its roof from falling in, university officials filled its attic with poison, inadvertently (one hopes) killing many hundreds of cute little bats. The surviving bats looked around for another place to sleep and decided on the castle basement, which is well above ground (it's a high castle) with one high, barred window. If you stand outside the window on a summer night just as it's getting dark, you can watch the bats come out. The young ones flutter up to the bars and jump. The grownups whiz through like particles of anti-light from the parallel universe where antiprotons outnumber protons and black holes appear as bright haloes around everyday objects such as dirty sponges on the back of the kitchen sink. I saw the bats on a formal "bat tour" of the castle. The tour led from a folding table at the edge of the moat (the castle has a very deep moat) to the basement window fifty feet away. Friendly, bat-loving women and men showed us their favorite bats. We petted them and sighed. They had sweet faces and fine, soft fur. I learned to my distress that bats have no built-in protection again rain. If it rains all night, they must starve. Their powerful hearts beat 500 times a second, so that if you lay your hand gently on a bat, you feel it vibrating. During the winter they sleep in natural limestone caves and their hearts beat two or three times a minute. They love (I was told) to be petted, as it reminds them of the congenial pleasures of a closely-packed mess of bats sleeping fitfully between bouts of shoving each other around while hanging by their toes. Their wings are soft.
The bats fans stalk the basement during breeding season, plucking inept infants from puddles. Often the babies drown. That's why the attic was a much better place for them -- warm, dry, and hygienic until their mothers had time to rescue them. Volunteers raise the little bats by hand, then pair them with older bats who teach them to hunt and fish. I mean fly and eat bugs. Whatever. The charm and usefulness of bats has already penetrated deep into public awareness, so there's no point in my running it into the ground.
for October 8
We were taken on a complimentary tour of the Cotswolds. A wold is a hill. Between wolds lie dales. Stow-on-the-Wold is thus a village on a hilltop, while Bourton-on-the-Water is the Venice of England. On pulling slowly into Bourton we became aware of Birdland and resolved not to waste more time than necessary pondering the resemblance, which defies verification, between a cluster of tea rooms on a trout stream and a metropolis of cathedrals and palaces on pilings in a lagoon. We returned with all due haste to Birdland, which occupies seven acres of parkland [sic] in a neat, compact way.
Our first bird was the grey peacock-eyed pheasant. He was beautiful: Spotty grey and brown fluff arranged in Fibonacci sequences all over like a quail, but with the added bonus of hundreds of iridescent blue and green polka dots. On his tail they were especially green, and he spread both it and one wing while dancing restrainedly in a vain attempt to engage the emotions of my glove. At first I thought it was me he liked, but then I realized he is drawn to smooth black gloves lined with polyester fleece. We talked to him for quite a while, then moved on to enjoy other birds. We met several very beautiful African starlings. Their backs were simultaneously green, blue, and black, like the pheasant's peacock eyes. One had a deep, rufous, umber chest and blazing blue necktie. The golden pheasant was improbably showy. His color scheme did not seem real, and we virtually ignored him. Enormous owls stared blankly, and a caracara (a sort of Indian eagle, I think) ate a mouse. A number of king penguins marched and swam for us. When the wind picked up, we hid in the Penguin Cafe. I would give Birdland my highest rating. All the animals appeared perfectly content, even the mouse.
I've been to a place that's known as the Venice of the North (I mean Bruges) and it's fabulously pretty. Oxford also has quite a bit of water in spots. Through industrious rowing, we were able to reach the Thames. The narrow canals reminded me of the boat rides at Disneyland. I've never been to Venice, probably because once in 1985 when many large frogs were lying belly up on a mudbank in Central Park, a friend said to me, "This is just like Venice."
We did not punt. A punt is just like a Stocherkahn, only smaller and less comfortable. Whoever feels most competent to do so stands on a narrow deck at the rear, wielding a long pole. Avner and I both felt entirely incompetent, so we rowed instead.
Kfar Saba Tango
On a lovely walk we crossed a cattle guard, and Avner said, "This reminds me of those things they use to stop foot and mouth disease." He continued with a distressing tale of immunization. In Israel foot and mouth disease is endemic. A classic tune from the 20s, the Kfar Saba Tango (Kfar Saba was once a farm town) celebrates its ubiquity. All livestock are immunized (even in the territories) to stop its spread, and whoever enters a cowshed must wade through a trough of disinfectant. So why did the English refuse to immunize? Why must they slaughter everyone? Between us, we have no earthly idea, and the disease joins the swelling ranks of the deplorable. Deploring is the chief role of the citizen today now that branches of government and even entire nations are falling all over themselves to grant each other sweeping powers, so it's good to practice.
"Welcome to America," I said as we crossed the threshold into Oxford's immense Borders bookstore. I had already described to Avner how Americans welcome the arrival of each new Borders. When e.g. Wal-Mart comes into town you are fucked without a kiss, as the saying goes, but Borders destroys local businesses in pursuit of a higher goal: Customer satisfaction. Still modeling itself like a snake eating its own tail on the Ann Arbor hippie-yuppies it first co-opted, Borders brings intellectual and artistic pretension, an ethic of service, and deep pockets/vast inventory to millions of people who had been forced to shop in tiny stores that had either the latest fantasy novels, books on duck decoys, or a relatively complete selection of Ted Hughes but never all three. But Borders amuses me mostly because I was present for an attempt by workers in Philadelphia to unionize with the Industrial Workers of the World. They lost by one vote. The IWW, a.k.a. the Wobblies, is a Woody-Guthrie-style hoboes-and-raiload-men union from 1905, and its largest shop at the time was a bingo hall in Allentown with six workers, so the Philadelphia Borders would have been a real coup for the union (not a trade union -- its aim is to unite workers by industry, not by skill), which saw its last big successes around 1913. The workers there didn't want more money. They wanted more control over the book orders.
"Welcome to America," I said again as we trod the waxed flagstones of Starbucks. Three sizes of coffee drinks loomed above us like large, extra large, and jumbo eggs: Tall, Grande and Venti(TM). I ordered a venti cappuccino. It came in the same absurdly large paper cup that I'm quite sure used to be known as Grande back when Tall was Regular.
The Gap disappointed us, but only because (apparently) it's a bad year for clothes, as was last year. I had read that corduroy and other velvety textures are where it's at this season, but the Gap's buyers haven't caught the wave. I bought a fuzzy top at an English shop instead. The English seem to have realized that between the conservative and the slutty there's a spacious, underpopulated grey area inhabited by the cute.
Back in Borders, we stood for a long time listening to music on a space-age contraption that spits out the first thirty seconds of songs in response to one's scanning the bar code. I listened (for the first time consciously) to Pulp, White Stripes, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, Hefner, James, Sparklehorse, Beth Orton, and other things I'd been wondering about. I thought, "If I had this Borders in my neighborhood, I could work as a rock critic, because I'd always know what things sounded like." -- Actually I've survived multiple forced listenings of an unreleased Pulp record (due out October 22 according to the posters in Borders). The singer, Jarvis Cocker (he's a big star so you're supposed to know his name), fits the following text to an extremely simple tune: "Trees, the useless trees, produce the air that I am breathing; [the trees again] never said that you were leaving." "Does the world really need an anti-tree anthem, and isn't most oxygen provided by algae?" I thought. In Borders I listened to the first thirty seconds of each song on an entire Pulp CD entitled 'Fire' (it was the only one in the database) and I realized that I could easily learn to enjoy listening to Pulp, as Cocker has a deep voice and a straightforward delivery that doesn't much get on my nerves even when the lyrics are silly. Sparklehorse's vocals were painfully precious in comparison. In America trees are less useless than in England, where I imagine they are professionally managed by real foresters and cashed at maturity to make tasteful furnishings. In America you can sell even very small trees to be ground into the pulp needed to make cellophane (important for cigarette packs), newsprint (necessary for a free press), and rayon (unfortunately, nothing can justify it), then use the money to buy drugs or settle a debt as you wish.
White Stripes were an inevitable disappointment. Instead of penetrating an unsuspecting, insular, self-obsessed indie-rock scene from a north Jersey bar band via an East Village hair salon as I had hoped, they seem to have arrived at retro blues-metal via scenester connections more likely to get them good press, but less likely to -- what am I trying to say? "I can play guitar better than that," I said mournfully, fingering the ugly red-and-black CD. "Look at this chick. If she can be a rock star, then I can be a rock star."
"She has larger breasts," Avner replied. He was right. In a world where everybody and his brother is playing folk songs with nonsense lyrics turned up real loud, a modicum of riffage may get you hailed as a culture hero, but that still doesn't mean I can be a rock star.
for October 6
Whited Midget Sepulchre
[From October 2001 Yarnton Village News] "If you have been up Meadow Way during the last couple of weeks of the school holidays you will probably have seen me struggling with the rear wings of my white Midget. The plan was to weld in small repair panels to both rear wings and to respray the car. However, when I started cutting out the rusty metal I found much more rot than I had expected. There was nothing for it -- major reconstruction of the back end was needed. As I worked several people commented that the car didn't look that bad before I started but I had to point out that it was mainly filler hidden by white paint. This reminded me of something Jesus once said: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27). What he was saying was that it's no use looking good on the outside -- your public face -- if your heart and motives are all wrong. Just like my rusty white MG -- to be restored it has to be stripped bare and the rot dealt with. Of course we can't just weld patches on our hearts and motives but, as a Christian, I believe that by acknowledging the rot in my heart ...." [Name withheld]
AR on the Road
An elaborate literary hoax involving the fabrication of numerous short stories which have no basis in fact and an equally fraudulent novel have permitted AR's webslave, Avner Shats, to relocate temporarily to Oxford, the historic college town favored by Radiohead and Jude the Obscure. Oxford has a highly amusing free listings zine, 'Nightshift' (65 George St., Oxford OX1 2BE or nightshift.oxfordmusic.net). We would never have discovered it on our own, but two copies happened to be lying in a basket on the back of a bicycle outside the botanic garden. 'Nightshift,' as does much of local culture, takes me back to the glory days of 'Forced Exposure' (I mean the early 80s) when a reviewer could write, "Whoever miked the cymbals on this record should die face down in a pile of dog shit with an AIDS-infected needle up his ass," and expect to see his statement regarded as a mild joke. Recently I read a complete discography of Sonic Youth. Nowhere did I see the FE-subscriber-only 7" that I had always taken to be their first recording, "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick," and I suspected for the first time that I had been the victim of an editorial witticism. Anyways, here's 'Nightshift' on the subject of a demo by some band called Merralswood:
"Starts with a prolonged, epic swell of orchestral noise before opening up to a vista of, err, hmm, mopey old indie-folk bollocks truth be told. Ho hum, here we go again. The singer is semi-audible and mumbles a lot but we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's merely being enigmatic while all around him crawls slothfully from its innocuous beginning to its welcome conclusion some months later like a particularly grim take on Simon and Garfunkel. And then they do exactly the same thing again for the second track, and again on the third and we begin to marvel at their single-minded adherence to the cult of grey. And, twisting the laws of physics, each song actually takes longer to listen to than it took to write and record. It's a bleedin' miracle on a scale that even God and Einstein couldn't fathom. What we can't fathom is how they got through the whole process of making this demo without falling into a collective coma, or at the very least being shot in the back of the head by the studio engineer before he pulled his own head off with his bare hands ...."
For an evening with The Lucksmiths, The Essex Green, The Relationships and Airport Girl at the Point, October 5, 'Nightshift' predicted a "quadruple portion of indie-pop fluffiness." I.e., I knew we would enjoy it and that the bands in question would commit no grave errors of taste. We proceeded obediently to the club, buying two pints of cider punctually at eight o'clock and taking our seats on the club's two chairs. We watched the crowd. The long, beautiful hair of an Asian girl caught our eye. A discussion ensued as to whether a certain member of the Lucksmiths (an Australian trio fronted by a drummer who doesn't write the songs; the second syllable says almost all you need to know about them, and we left while they were still playing) is good looking. The cutest guy in the room, I thought, had perhaps a bit too much nerdy weediness working, but a nice shirt, bitchin' little sideburns, and (after half an hour -- even after he was calling me "Nell" I still had doubts) a definite identity: Brendan, Chris Dennstaedt's roommate. At this point I can no longer tell myself that I don't find his looks, at least at a distance of ten or fifteen feet in dim light, appealing. It's a frightening thought and I fully intend to reexamine my sexual aesthetics. He is touring on bass with The Essex Green, an Elephant Six band based in Brooklyn. He told me a nice story:
The Ennui Malaise Experience has reformed with Chris Dennstaedt (a.k.a. Ennui Malaise), Chris di Pinto, Brendan, and "two punks, but Chris kicked them out for breaking stuff." Recently invited to play the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, they wrapped up their set with "Dead People's Stuff." It was, Brendan said, "a melee." The promoters took the stage in a vain attempt to separate the band from its instruments, which include formidable weapons like the electric rake and pitchfork, and the audience threw things at them. Brendan launched spontaneously into Chris' poem "In a Perpendicular Universe" ("... the Fringe Festival would support fringe artists") and was soon in a pitched battle with the festival organizer, who tried to wrest the microphone from his hand (she kept only the cord, and he moved to another mike to recite further -- I guess the sound guy was on his side). Eventually the entire crowd was involved in the festive riot-like atmosphere, etc.
I will research and verify details as soon as I can and report back to the readership with additional highlights.
The Essex Green sounded nice -- a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. An English person in a bright red jacket said to me, "They sound, as does everything from Elephant Six, like England in 1962." Avner clapped his hands with joy to hear this, and I too tend to think that 1962 was a good, sweet year, trailing, as it does, only one year behind 1961, the year of years. The singer and keyboardist, who also played the flute, was a cute girl with a husky voice and a very 1962 sort of hairdo. Her red A-line skirt had a heart-shaped applique. The encore, from their 1999 release, was excellent.
The Relationships were, Avner claimed, 43 years old. They played a sort of college rock I haven't heard in 15 years, but they played it well. No complaints. Airport Girl had a good singer and a nice song, "Love Runs Clean," but they should change their name. When you look for "Airport Girl" on the web all the hits come from sites with names like "ToyBoXXX."
for September 27
Minimal AR for Yom Kippur
If Germany were the Jewish state, I could get on my bicycle now and ride at 30 miles an hour down the middle of the highway to Rottenburg in five minutes, but it's not.
AR Makes the Scene
I went to Hamburg for a week and saw three concerts. I saw other things too but I'll write about them later.
Tom Liwa, Slaughterhouse, September 17
In Tel Aviv you can't throw a rock without hitting a post-folk soft rocker, but Germany has only one truly Sheinkin (non-Israeli readers can substitute "Al Stewart") singer, Tom Liwa. I first got a little crush on him after his 1995 or so appearance on a compilation ("Sturm und Twang") which purported to represent the state of German rock. Generally it was a pitiful affair. Blumfeld's "Amplifier" suffered from home-taper-style production and on repeated listening seemed terminally laconic and bored with itself. The Golden Lemons' neatly made "A little murder won't kill us" is rather too tight and upbeat for its putative subject (racist violence) -- that antifascist hooray-for-our-side party atmosphere, political correctness with a baseball bat in its hand. Tom modestly led his band, Flowerpornoes, through a three-chord ballad in an odd rhythm over sounds alternating between crystalline jangling and the deepest bass since MC Latina, culminating in a long, distorted guitar solo and with a terribly adorable hug-me love-me text, e.g., "On my wall over the desk is a photograph of Caetano Veloso looking very intelligent and sad, and it expresses perfectly how I hate my friends for talking all the time and constantly reminding me of the nothingness that waits for us at the end of moments that don't want to end .... My last secret is that I have no secrets from you, and yours is probably that you really have one and aren't just pretending for the sake of coquetry ...." I didn't submit a review to CMJ because, to my mind, the project as a whole was merely depressing. "Is this the best the Germans can do?" I thought. I envisioned an exchange of recording engineers underwritten by the Goethe-Institut and the D.A.I.
Between then and now Tom apparently spent five years playing intimate club dates, salons and living rooms armed only with an acoustic guitar, and became a favorite of the red-wine-drinking set. Don't ask me what it is -- I'm just told it exists. I suppose it has its origins in the fact that red wine is served in shallow glasses with wide mouths, so that when you drink it you have to hold still, or you end up covered with stains. Once you take the first couple gulps off a Campari-orange, you're basically safe, but red wine goes on threatening you until the glass is empty. Red wine drinkers therefore look for sofas on which to cuddle up in safety, or, I suppose, if they go to a club to see Tom Liwa, they sit motionless at little round tables, gazing thoughtfully at his rather funny face. He's not a handsome guy and surely only rock stardom has allowed him the access to women that allows him to compose the knowing, experienced songs that grant him rock stardom. In a small way, at least -- he's not popular, perhaps because all the red wine drinkers are too busy getting drunk and listening to Mercedes Sosa to go out to record stores, where, direct marketing and web retail having taken over his end of the business (sub-popular indie-rock), they will find no records by Tom Liwa. Or at least, when I went to Rimpo in
Tübingen and asked where the Flowerpornoes records were, I was laughed at.
For his current tour, Tom assembled a band of three competent, reliable old friends. He started out by playing truly poor post-punk versions of his acoustic numbers, and the audience became sullen, plunged into the realization that Tom might spend the next hour wallowing in a serious error of taste, but then he switched to brand new songs no one had heard, and everyone lightened up. They sounded good and seemed to have been written with the current ensemble in mind. I couldn't understand most of the lyrics, nor could anyone else, and the tour-only CD didn't include a lyric sheet. The CD wasn't as much fun as the show. My favorite CD (I listened to them all afterwards) was the EP 'Funky Sexy,' which has ten live acoustic bonus tracks. It is not funky in the least and is only sexy if you're in the market for a whiner. If you like Nick Drake and Aimee Mann and are fluent in German, I highly recommend it.
I attended the show with someone who had to write about it, so afterwards we went up to the stage where Tom was hawking his wares. I had admired his t-shirt, maroon with a scrawled black "Tears Only," so I was a little disappointed to see that the shirts he was selling (also maroon) had a lame silkscreen of a tree in a cartouche. "You want a t-shirt?" he asked. "Yes," I said, indicating the shirt he was wearing. He offered to trade, so that now, for no good reason, I have Tom Liwa's shirt and he has a white v-necked sleeveless top from the Gap with a tapered waist and white satin binding. He looked a good bit more butch with his shoulder muscles poking out, though the waist sent a mixed message. He looked almost scandalous and I was disappointed when the next day's newspaper ran an old publicity photo over a caption about the t-shirt exchange. Probably they got the picture and no one was willing to believe it was him.
Air, Big Freedom 36, September 21
Big Freedom is a street just off the fabled Reeperbahn of song and story -- the original Times Square, where whores cavort in a Disneyland atmosphere suitable for small children. Some of the strip clubs had Vegas-style entrances (the old Vegas). I was pleased to see that one was running, on a matrix of 25 TVs in a front window, a Cher concert. She was wearing so little and wiggling in such a way that she was well-suited to the role of lap-dancing barker. Big Freedom 36 is across the street from the Beatles' first regular gig. It's an enormous hall, like Irving Plaza, but was barely able to hold the thronging millions who lined up to see the French prog outfit Air. By the time they were all inside, it was just about impossible to get a beer, but at least the price was reasonable (only $2.50 for a 12 oz. cup). I ended up in a cul de sac on a platform between a bar and a railing halfway back, and ended up diving between people's legs, but my three beers were intact. As before, I was accompanied by cub reporters delighted by my every snide remark: "This is like a cross between Styx and the Alan Parsons Project," I said. If only it had been entirely untrue! But Air was not so great. Their best song was introduced with a reference to its antiquity and importance for old and loyal fans, so I guess they used to be more like early Pink Floyd. Despite their sucking, the concert was a good time -- nice throbbing bass, and a light show of a type I'm not used to (lots of bright backlighting and red strobes and beams revolving and scattering through the haze of cigarette smoke). Afterwards we proceeded by taxi to:
Superpunk, Red Flora, September 21
Superpunk rules the waves! It's a long time since I saw a beat/mod/punk outfit be so relaxed. The Red Flora is a former squat, a factory building, huge and grungy. I danced and danced. I knew that if I stopped dancing, I would immediately fall asleep. I was right. Half an hour after the end of the show, I was curled up in a chair with my eyes closed. A loud noise of beer bottles being clanked together woke me, and I was hustled to my feet. "They don't care if you overdose, but they'd rather you die out on the street," my companion explained.