Sadly (for some, happily for others) this is the last remaining Lean Years strip. The rest have been lost to time. I’ve enjoyed reliving those days with Y’all – self-indulgent as it’s been – but now it’s done. Gone like the 90s.
This week I had the great pleasure of seeing two remarkable performances in New York. They were about as different from one another as can be but were nonetheless both amazing in their own ways.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Beacon Theatre, NYC, 6/13
On Tuesday evening my wife and I drove into the city for a show we’d bought tickets for nearly a year before (while I was still stuck in Melbourne). Jersey girl is a huge Nick Cave fan. It’s safe to say Cave is to my wife what Springsteen is to me. It’s funny that I’m from Melbourne and idolise a rockstar from Jersey while she’s from Jersey and adores a rockstar from Melbourne (clearly this marriage was meant to be).
Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds were playing a sold out show at the vaunted Beacon Theatre on Broadway, an event too perfect to miss. For some reason, despite being a long time fan of his music, I’ve never seen Cave play live. The closest I ever came was attending a reading he gave when he released his first novel When the Ass saw the Angel.
It was therefore a pretty special event for me to be seeing him in NYC. After a fun meal at a crazy Mexican restaurant called Playa Betty’s on Amsterdam Avenue, we headed to the theatre and found our seats. Jersey had done us proud and we were in the orchestra section with a great view.
It’s an impressive theatre and seemed like a pretty perfect backdrop for what was to come.
From the moment Cave took the stage, we knew this was not going to be your average theatre gig. The entire audience left their seats the moment they caught site of him and rushed forward to the stage. It was literally stand up or see nothing and so all pretence of decorum was abandoned.
We had assumed that the main focus of the show would be his most recent album, Skeleton Tree which deals largely with the emmotions revolving around the death of his teenage son in a horrible cliff fall. It’s a very atmospheric album which lends itself to quiet contemplation and self examination. In that context the seated theatre venue had seemed quite apropriate but that wasn’t the gig we got.
Cave interspersed songs from Skeleton tree throughout the night but they served as the moments of quiet between raging storms. To everyone’s delight he pulled out songs from every period of his long career with the Seeds.
We were treated to stunning renditions of songs such as Red Right Hand, Tupelo, Mercy Seat, and Stagger Lee. And all the while cave strode the stage like a demented southern preacher crossed with a daddy long legs spider. The man is no spring chicken but his energy remains remarkably vital and there is still no compromise in him.
At one point he dragged a young guy up onto the stage and sang directly into his face. When he was done with this intense little piece of theatre, he simply walked away leaving the fella unsure as to what he should do; leave the stage or stay up there with the band? He shrugged in Cave’s direction and was told, “Do what you like”. Ten minutes later, there were thirty people up on the stage and that’s how the rest of the night went.
The audience having taken the stage, at one point Cave took to the floor and we beheld the humourous sight of people up on the stage taking pictures with their iphones of their idol down in the audience.
When it was all over, we left the gig in a state of semi-shock. The room had reached a near religious fervour over the course of the show. Cave is an arch manipulator and he had quickly recruited the willing New York fans to his church of soaring sounds.
Spike Wilner, Melissa Aldana, and Paul Gill, Mezzrow, Greenwich Village, 6/16
On Friday night, I travelled back into the city to meet up with my son and my good friend P from Melbourne. Both of them had come all the way from Australia to attend our wedding and, as P was flying out the next day, we decided to have an Aussie boys night out together in the greatest city on Earth.
The theme of the night was to be jazz. We had heard, from a musician friend of my son’s, about a club that has a great rep, Smalls Jazz Club in the Village and so we headed over hoping to get in (we hadn’t thought to book ahead). As it turned out, the set was sold out but we were told by the door guy that they had another club the other side of 7th Ave.
We made our way over and found the place, Mezzrow which was situated in the basement of an unassuming brownstone on W10th Street. We got in without having to wait and were led through to a table The place was tiny and we could hear the subway trains rumbling by beneath us every five minutes or so (you’d think that would have detracted from the music but, weirdly, it had the opposite effect).
Mezzrow is owned and operated by jazz pianist Spike Wilner and he was the man tinkling the ivories that evening. It was also his birthday so he had selected two very special guests to play with him. Melissa Aldana is a Chilean born saxophonist who can play like an angel struggling with its demons. And on double bass was Paul Gill.
This tight little trio proceeded to blow our minds with a set of amazing renditions of classic jazz standards and some original composition. All three musicians were exremely tallented players and I was keenly aware that to have seen jazz of this quality in Melbourne it would have been a very pricey ticket indeed (we paid just $25 dollars).
And the icing on the cake was that our Mezzrow tickets gave us entry into Smalls, so we wandered over after the gig and caught the end of a set there. I’m not sure who we saw there but it was equally enjoyable (though the room was uncomfortably packed and very hot).
By the time we got back to our digs in Brooklyn it was about 2am and we were exhausted (I’d been going since early the previous morning) but we’d heard some amazing jazz and were basking in the glow of it all.
So there you have it, two very different, very excellent gigs in one week. Who knows when that opportunity might come along again?
The relation that exists when things occur at the same time
I’ve always experienced a lot of synchronicity in my life. It comes and goes like the ocean tides. Often it manifests in small seemingly insignificant things like, for instance, a few weeks ago, I mentioned to Jersey girl that as much as I enjoyed the American beers I’d sampled, I had yet to find ‘the one’, a beer that I could think of as my old faithful as it were.
That conversation took place on the day I wrote this piece in which I reference Frost’s The road not taken with its famous lines;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That very afternoon, while perusing some of my favourite blogs, Frost’s poem came up again (sadly, I neglected to bookmark the blog and can’t remember now whose it was).
Then, later that evening, we stopped off at the liquor store where I came across this little gem.
I, of course, had to give it a try and yes, it is now ‘the one’.
As I said, a small thing but still noteworthy. I treat synchronistic moments like these as signposts which tell me if I’m on the right path and headed in the right direction.
My most recent piece of synchronicity also revolved around a poem (and a lyric, though, sadly not a beer). I had just finished writing the text of my blog post on William Carlos Williams and was looking for a title and song to go with it (I generally take the blog title from the accompanying song clip rather than the piece itself – just a strange quirk of mine).
I’d included several quotes from poet and critic Randall Jarrell in the piece and, as the post was also about Springsteen, decided to use his song Jungleland to accompany the piece.
I wanted to use the lyric The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all as the title for the piece but had a feeling I’d already used it in a previous post.
I went back to find it and, sure enough, I had used it on this piece essentially about my relationship to poetry. In the post, I reference the poem The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner – a piece that had had a strong impact on me in my youth – by none other than Randall Jarrell.
In a sense, the two posts were spiritual kin and yet, I’d had no idea until that moment that the Jarrell I’d been quoting in the one had penned the poem in the other.
There are lots of little synchronistic threads woven into this larger one. For instance, Jarrell wrote two children’s books which were illustrated by Maurice Sendak. And Sendak wrote the very first book I ever borrowed from a library, Where the wild thingsare. That book’s visual style was a massive influence on my future interest in illustration.
Even the fact that Williams and Robert Frost both died the same year I was born (just a month before, in Williams case) seems synchronistic to me. Actually, several of the people I would come to admire chose the year I was born to depart this existence; Kennedy, C S Lewis, Aldous Huxley – all three on the same day mind you, Patsy Cline, Jean Cocteau, and Édith Piaf. All died that year.
I don’t know what broader significance any of that might have, but I can say that the knowledge of it has shaped my world view in small ways and large.
Tonight I’m layin’ here But there’s something in my ear Sayin’ there’s a little town just beneath the floodline Needs a local hero Somebody with the right style Lookin’ for a local hero Someone with the right smile Local hero local hero she said with a smile Local hero he used to live here for a while
In many ways, this blog is about dreams coming true. After finding each other in this vast ocean of humanity and then being forced to live a world apart for over five years, Jersey girl’s and my dream of being together finally came to pass last month.
And last night another dream came true.
As a special Birthday treat, Jersey girl took me to Asbury Park to see the world premiere of ‘Just Before the Dawn’, a new documentary about the history of the local music scene and in particular the jam club known as the Upstage.
After the movie (which screened at the Paramount theatre), there was to be an Upstage style jam session featuring some former E Street band members including David Sancious, Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, and Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter.
I was really looking forward to seeing these E Street legends play and was thrilled by rumours that Little Steven (Van Zandt) might join them up on stage.
We arrived in Asbury about an hour and a half before the show and, after a quick pit stop (burgers and a couple of beers at the Anchor’s Bend, conveniently situated in the Convention Hall), we joined the queue that was now snaking through the Grand Arcade. After a small wait, we got inside and took our seats in the balcony with a good view of the stage and screen. There was a lot of equipment on the stage and I realised this was going to be a bigger jam than I’d imagined; all the better.
The movie was great. I’m not going to write a review but it was thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking in equal measure. I’ve covered many of the events that the movie focused on right here on this blog but this was different. These were the experiences of people who lived these events so it was fascinating for me to see how their recollections added to the historical tapestry.
After the movie, the thing we’d been half expecting was announced, “Little Steven is in the house!” Uproarious applause, then, “Southside’s in the house!”
I was ecstatic. Two of my idols! Then the curtain went up on the show and those in the know were already cheering with delight. Jersey girl was looking at a certain guitarist in the back behind Stevie. “Wow, he looks like – wait – is that?”
The man himself – fresh from his well-documented celebrity cruise with the Obamas on Geffen’s mega yacht – had made it back to Jersey for this most special of nights. The crowd, predictably, went wild and we were treated to a night of raw musicianship from some of the very best in the business.
Highlights for me included a spirited rendition of The Band’s classic ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ and David Sancious and Marc Ribler executing a perfect performance of the Hendrix standard ‘Voodoo Child’. It turns out keyboardist Sancious can shred on a guitar like a boss.
The real Boss also managed some primo shredding and, though he chose not to dominate the proceedings, certainly made his presence felt.
It’s obvious from the photos that we only had our phones with us to capture the event. Jersey’s phone is slightly better than mine and so the closer shots come courtesy of her.
I’m sure that, in the days ahead, there’ll be a plethora of wonky videos shot on smartphones capturing every aspect of the evening. Like, for instance, these…
This night was a real ‘I was there when’ moment if ever there was one. Just one month in New Jersey and the magic’s already sparking.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.