Black Coffee

 

Seditious brew

 

“black in colour and made by infusing the powdered berry of a plant that flourished in Arabia. Native men consumed this liquid all day long and far into the night, with no apparent desire for sleep but with mind and body continuously alert, men talked and argued, finding in the hot black liquor a curious stimulus quite unlike that produced by fermented juice of grape.”

– Aytoun Ellis. 1956. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses

 

Alcohol-free venues like Café Wha? and The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and The Upstage Club in Asbury Park have passed down into legend as places which provided early opportunities for some of the greatest musical talents of  20th Century America.

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Cafe Wha? Still very much a fixture in the Village.

 

I’m sitting here at my laptop sipping my morning brew and contemplating a passage I read yesterday in Dylan’s excellent autobiographic tome Chronicles (volume one). In said passage, Dylan speaks of first encountering the New York Greenwich Village live music scene in the early 60s. Many of the places he played were no booze joints.

“I probably played all the places at one time or another,” Dylan writes. “Most of them stayed open ‘til the break of day, kerosene lamps and sawdust on the floor, some with wooden benches, a strong-armed guy at the door—no cover charge and the owners tried to offload as much coffee as they could.”

“Talent scouts didn’t come to these dens. They were dark and dingy and the atmosphere was chaotic.”

This could be a description of an English coffeehouse from three hundred and sixty years ago. Europe only discovered coffee in the mid 17th Century and the very first Coffeehouse to open in England (in 1650) was situated in the academic capital of Oxford. This and other coffeehouses established in Oxford came to be known as penny universities because they offered an alternative form of learning to that being taught in the universities proper. Very quickly, this stimulant became the drink of choice for the fashionable, the philosophers, the intellectuals, and the revolutionaries.

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A detail from Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of the Day’ depicting Tom King’s Coffeehouse.

 

The English coffeehouse was an significant venue for one very particular reason, it quickly became an important centre for the dissemination of news. Most modern historians associate English coffeehouses with the flourishing of the printed news sheet and these fashionable dens were where people came to drink coffee as they read and discussed the events of the day.

In fact, so popular did these places become, that King Charles II grew nervous that they might be hotbeds of sedition and ordered them all shut down. So paranoid was he of any potential threat to his shaky throne, that he issued a proclamation to end the legality of coffeehouses. And this did not just affect the estimated three thousand coffeehouses either, he also banned people from selling coffee, chocolate, and tea(!) from any shop or house.

 

A PROCLAMATION
FOR THE
Suppression of Coffee-Houses.
Charles Rex

Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within the Kingdom, the Dominion of Wales, and the Town of Berwick on Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise by imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) put down and supressed, and doth (with the Advice of his Privy council) by this Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her, or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.

And for the better accomplishment of this his Majesties Royal Pleasure, his Majesty both hereby will and require the Justices of the Peace within their several Counties, and the Chief Magistrates in all Cities and Towns Corporate, that they do at their next respective General Sessions of the peace (to be holden within their several and respective Counties, Divisions and Precincts) recall and make void all Licences at any time heretofore Granted, for the selling or retailing of any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea. And that they or any of them do not (for the future) make or grant any such Licence or Licences to any persons whatsoever. And his Majesty doth further hereby declare, that if any person or persons shall take upon them, him or her, after his, her or their Licence or Licences recalled, or otherwise without Licence, to sell by retail (as aforesaid) any of the Liquors aforesaid, that then the person or persons so Offending, shall not only be proceeded against , upon the Statute made in the fifteenth year of his Majesties Reign (which gives the forfeiture of five pounds for every moneth wherein he, she or they shall offend therein) but shall (in case they persevere to Offend) receive the severest punishments that may by Law be inflicted.

Given at our Court at Whitehall, the Nine and twentieth day of December 1675, in the Seven and twentieth year of Our Reign.

God save the King

 

This draconian law was passed on December 29, 1675, to take effect on January 10, 1676, but it was unceremoniously revoked on January 8. As it transpires, several of Charles’ own ministers were themselves coffee devotees.

Thus, the coffeehouses survived Charles’ paranoia and continued to flourish well into the 18th Century. They never ceased, however, to be regarded with suspicion by those in power.

I find this connection between coffee and revolutionary thought (real or imagined) fascinating. The great protest movements of the 50s and 60s centred initially around folk music and the coffeehouses in which it was played. Beat poetry too found a ready audience in such places.

We associate pot and acid with the anti-war movements of the mid to late 60s but that other drug of choice, caffeine, played just as great a role.

Who would have thought that something as innocuous as the morning cuppa could be so steeped in controversy?

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The sad shell that’s all that now remains of the vaunted Upstage Club.

 

As a side note, on Friday night, Jersey and I will be heading down to Asbury Park to view a new documentary about the Upstage Club, that other famously alcohol-free venue which played such a pivotal role in the formation of Springsteen and the E Street band (as well as a good many others). The main beverage on sale at this all-night venue was – you guessed it –  coffee (the second floor was a coffeehouse called the Green Mermaid).

Springsteen has famously said he was a non-drinker in those days but coffee can’t take any credit for his early hi-octane success either as he revealed in his autobiography, Born to Run that he cannot abide the taste.

The Boss’ personal preferences aside, however, it can be argued that the humble coffee bean has had a significant impact on the development of our society and culture.

Words and images (except where otherwise stated) are my own.

©2017

I see red again

 

Two thoughts on dealing with the bureaucracy.

 

 

Shuffle

 

Paper

So much paper

Piling around me

Threatening submersion

Red string entangled in

Red tape

Whatever doesn’t drown you

Strangles you instead.

 

 

Life is but a dream

 

Those dreams

Where you’re trying so hard to run

But the air is thick as water

An ocean of resistance

You get nowhere

But you keep straining

Hoping the air will take pity

Release its hold

Perversely

Your arms are free to flail unhindered

Physics acting civilly

From the waist up

This must be how Elvis felt

On the Ed Sullivan shew.

 

 

 

 

©2017

Nemesis

 

 

Hate is blind
 

This ringing echo chamber

Forms thought bubbles of unreason

Hysteria the new baseline

Paranoia as fashion statement

Sanity teeters

On its very last nerve

So many strident voices

And so little self-awareness

The dinner party knives have all come out

And lines are carved deep

Into the flesh of the Body

Politic

Terror has been re-branded as weapon of

Mass justification while

By the bonfires of burning cars

The erstwhile lambs all bay for blood

That one thing the State

Is most happy to provide

Every voice implores you to ‘see’ but

Every eye now looks only outward

Signaling to the mob that

The age of introspection is over

The era of accusation has begun.

 

 

 

©2017

 

 

 

We are family

 

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So, I’ve let a week pass since my Springsteen experience. I’ve allowed the images and sounds to filter down through my psyche and settle where they may. I wanted to wait past the gushy “oh my God I’ve seen Springsteen” phase before writing about what those two amazing nights meant to me.

Here’s the thing, though, a week later I still feel exactly the same level of awe I felt walking out of AMMI Stadium. You’ll just have to excuse any excessive hyperbole (and I’m sure there’ll be plenty) because this may well be as calm as I ever get on this subject.

I’m not a young man. I’ve lived for over half a century and during that time, I’ve seen a lot of great bands do their thing live. I saw Bowie (twice), The Cure on two consecutive nights, Santana, Sonic Youth, P J Harvey, The White Stripes, The Scissor Sisters, the Church, Something for Kate (multiple times), Shriekback (twice), The Go-Betweens, Gillian Welch, My Bloody Valentine, Paul Weller (twice), The Chills, I’ve seen the incredible Steve Vai ply his trade in the dubious company of Dave Lee Roth, U2, Duran fucking Duran, Icehouse, Joan as Police Woman, Neko Case with Calexico, The Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Glenn Tilbrook (UK Squeeze), Wilco, Antony and the Johnsons, Deborah Conway, Dinosaur Jr., Ed Kuepper, The Saints, Husky, Martha Wainwright, Pony Face, R.E.M., Supergrass, The Breeders, The Triffids, and now Bruce Springsteen.

I’m sure I left a bunch of stuff off that list but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s a very eclectic mix of people and styles. My taste ranges all over the musical spectrum and so, I’ve gotten to see the many and varied ways that bands choose to present their material live. In all the many years I’ve been going to gigs, however, I’ve never seen anything to compare with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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What is that X-factor which makes a Springsteen gig so special? I paid particular attention to that question on the second night (I’d been way too overwhelmed on the first to really ask myself anything beyond, “are you remembering to breathe?”). The answer – beyond the amazing material and the supreme skill of all involved – is that Springsteen has the power to make you – among all the tens of thousands – feel like he’s communicating directly with you.

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You walk out of the show feeling like Springsteen has somehow become aware of you, that you are now a member of his vast extended family and, in a sense, you are exactly that. The Springsteen ‘family’ is a huge number of people all connected by this one man and his music (I don’t mean to play down the role of the rest of the band in this, but it is Springsteen who is the true conduit of this connection).

I’m aware that moments within the show are scripted to look spontaneous. I witnessed one of those moments during show 2 when the Boss pretended to have forgotten the chords to a song and had to get the audience to sing the melody so that he and Steve could work it out right there on stage. Bruce looked out into the audience and said, “we haven’t played this one in a long time.” The song was Waiting on a Sunny Day which any true fan knows they play almost every show.

 

It was a moment of theatre very carefully designed to make the audience feel a part of the action and it worked. Some consider this sort of thing disingenuous but I’m old enough to remember what real showmanship is and how useful it can be in building a bridge between audience and artist.

I was reminded that most of the individuals up on the stage have been doing this for over fifty years and the fact that they can still make it seem fresh and vibrant in 2017 is a credit to both their skills as musicians and their commitment to the E Street ethos.

And speaking of musical skills, did I mention what an absolutely awesome axe-man the Boss still is?

I’d believed that his days of shredding the ol’ fretboard were pretty much behind him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Springsteen at 68 still has mad skills on the guitar; I had to see him live to fully understand that. Steve too, has the fingers of a younger musician and can match his ‘Boss’ lick for lick. As for Nils, holy crap! That little guy can play! He’s a guitar virtuoso and it’s no wonder Bruce kept him on after Stevie re-joined E Street.

The immersion I felt for the entire time I was in the arena, the sense of being in a bubble of very different time to the world outside has definitely stayed with me. When you’re in the presence of Springsteen, you are in a separate universe. It’s a much nicer place than where you’ve come from and when they make you leave at the end, you do so with a profound sense of reluctance and the certain knowledge that you will be back – no matter what it takes.

I’m going to include a link to an article by Melbourne radio and TV personality Tony Wilson. It captures perfectly the amazing effect Springsteen can have on people of all ages and circumstances.

Why taking my son to Bruce Springsteen’s concert is something I’ll never forget

I’m sure there have been thousands of such stories over the many years of this band’s remarkable career.

I know for a fact that my life changed in that arena. A very familiar group of people stepped onto a stage on a beautiful summer’s evening and invited me to join their family. I think I’d been waiting for that invitation my whole life.

Words and images are my own.

©2017

Straight time

 

On my hard to find (because I totally set it up wrong) About page, I wrote that this blog is basically a love letter. At its core, it is the story of my long-distance relationship with Jersey girl.

That relationship was meant to be the main focus of the blog, the narrative arc if you will. However, as time has gone by, other elements have slipped in. Having written about a bazillion poems (I know right, WTF), I’ve managed to bury the lead as it were. In short, I had to go and get all poetical and totally diluted the love story in the process.

Today I spent about four hours doing some much-needed housekeeping on here and now the narrative has been restored to its former prominence. I have created a number of sections under the category “Love letters” which will allow new readers and old alike easy access to the full story from the beginning to the present.

If you decide to read it all the way through, I hope you find it more engaging and less a self-indulgent plea for attention. More than one reader has told me that they found some of the subject matter useful in their own lives. If that’s so, then I feel it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

I would also like to point the reader towards the two new categories “On love” and “Kingdom of days” both of which feature material relevant to the main narrative. And for a different perspective, the category “Jersey girl” features a couple of her writings on the subject of – you guessed it – us.

I’m very much hoping, now Jersey no longer works for a certain book chain, that she can get her life back and find the time to contribute more often.

Changes

 

In seconds

 

An instant is all it takes

For everything to change

Incredible that something

The size of the world

Can be flipped so easily

You’d think there would be some resistance

But no

Life rolls over like a boat in a storm

And you find yourself trapped

In just a bubble of air

Inside her upturned hull

A bubble that’s shrinking

Way too fast

When all is said and done

We’re all corks in the sea

Leaves in the wind

When forces change direction

You’d better be ready

They are relentless

Unstoppable

And they do not know your name.

 

 

 

©2017