Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to Britain 1: Of Banquets and Bunkers

There are three reasons why traveling to popular international destinations over the Christmas holiday is a bad idea. First, there is the weather, and hoping that Mother Nature cooperates with travel plans, which she rarely does. It also tends to be cold. Second, there are huge masses of people everywhere, more so than during other parts of the year, with the exception perhaps of peak summer vacation time. Third, things are closed on at least one, often two days during that period. And fourth—there are four reasons why traveling to popular international destinations over the Christmas holiday is a bad idea—the days are very short and daylight ends around 4:00 or 4:30.
We experienced all four of these problems when Ken A. and I did London for Christmas back in 2008—a December blizzard cancelled our outbound flight and we had to rebook flights and flats. This time, we lucked out, and outbound was no problem, and even the return happened to coincide with the one clear day sandwiched between two blizzard days. We—and more specifically I—rarely have that kind of luck, to which just about any trip to Graphics of the Americas in Florida in February stands as a testament.
For international flights, I prefer flying out of Newark, but for some inexplicable reason tickets were about $400 more than flying out of JFK, so needless to say, JFK it was. This was the first time I have ever actually been to JFK airport (although I think I took a Boston–NY shuttle to/from there in 1999 but it may have been La Guardia), and I had heard horror stories, but it was actually quite smooth and relatively uncrowded. British Airways check-in went quickly, more quickly than at Newark actually, and security was surprisingly fast, as well. We had allotted plenty of time, which it turned out we did not need, so we spent a fair amount of time in a bar/restaurant owned (or at least named after) Sammy Hagar, of Van Halen fame as well as the solo 1984 ode to reckless endangerment, “I Can’t Drive 55.”
The outbound flight was generally OK, although right behind us, a child screamed the whole way. Can’t they check children with luggage? 
We arrived at Heathrow early the following morning, and passport control into the UK was the usual level of crowded, but at least the border agents didn’t give me the third degree about why I want to enter the country the way they usually do. I guess with the UK economy in the toilet (austerity!), they need as many tourist dollars (or pounds) as they can get.
We had rented a flat in Bayswater in West London, as we had in 2008, a wonderfully ethnic and diverse neighborhood with many great restaurants. It’s also easy to get anywhere else in London from there, either on foot or by Tube. We took the Heathrow Express train into Paddington Station and, whilst detraining, my well-traveled-but-not-very-old-but-still-very-crappily-made suitcase literally fell apart (the handle ripped right out of it, tearing the top off). It had been steadily deteriorating for a while, pretty much right after its first use; the plastic used for the inner shell turned exceedingly brittle when exposed to the cold temperature of aircraft baggage holds, so after every flight the case is filled with small plastic fragments. American Tourister = Chinese-Made Crap. Anyway, I managed to wedge the handle back into the frame and it held together long enough to go the one stop on the Circle Line to Bayswater.
The first night we availed ourselves of Phoenicia, an excellent Lebanese restaurant on Queensway.
Our first point of interest in London was the Banqueting House on Whitehall, which I have been meaning to visit for the past few trips over there. Originally a palace for the Archbishop of York, and later the lavish palace of Cardinal Woolsey during the reign of Henry VIII, Henry took it over when Woolsey fell from royal favor (Woolsey was unable to get Henry his divorce) and turned it into a vast space for entertaining. The original wood structure was replaced during the reign of the first Stuart monarch, James I, with a magnificent new structure designed by architect Inigo Jones (most of London was either designed by Inigo Jones or Christopher Wren, it seems) in a grand classical style, borrowed from Jones’ visits to Italy. 
The Banqueting House then became the venue for grand “masques,” music and dance extravaganzas. When Charles I, James’ son, became king, he took to the Banqueting House, and commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint grand paintings for the ceiling. However, the paintings were potentially so sensitive to smoke that the use of candles was verboten, and thus ended the masques.
About the paintings... magnificent, yes, but they depicted James and Charles as if they were gods. Indeed, the Stuarts were big on the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that the British monarch was the human instrument of God on Earth. This didn’t go over particularly well with a lot of people and when Charles I dissolved Parliament for 11 years, well, folks began to grumble. Prime among them was Oliver Cromwell, and Civil War broke out in England. At the end of the Civil War, Charles I was charged with treason and sentenced to be executed. On January 30, 1649, Charles awaited the executioner in his beloved Banqueting House and, when the time came, was marched out an upper window (which no longer exists) and beheaded just outside. The whole thing is recreated in the 1970 film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris as Cromwell and Alec Guinness as Charles I. And you know, Charles I does bear more than a passing resemblance to Guinness. Help me, Charles I, you’re my only hope! 
After the Banqueting House, we banqueted ourselves in the Red Lion pub across the street from the Houses of Parliament, then proceeded to the Churchill War Rooms. 
I had been there before but Ken was eager to check it out, so down we descended into the underground rabbit warren of rooms where Winston Churchill and his ministers ran the war effort during WWII as bombs rained down on London. Since I had been there in 2007, they had installed a massive Churchill museum that basically chronicles every detail of his life. In the center of it all was a giant touch screen display that essentially let you tap on any date during Churchill’s life and find out what happened on that day. We gave it only a cursory look, as it was all a bit overwhelming.
By that time, it was getting late, so back to the Red Lion, and then off to Bayswater where we found a very good Indian restaurant.
Next up: Back to Greenwich.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

So This Is Christmas...

Despite the fact that I will be spending Christmas in London, earlier this month a strange burst of the holiday spirit struck me (helped by a sale on trees at Lowe’s)‚ and I decided to put up a tree of my own this year (premised on how easy it would be to find all my Christmas ornaments, which turned to not be that hard at all). Curiously, some of the old Hallmark Star Trek ornaments from the 1990s that plugged into the mini-light sockets and lit up don’t fit the string of lights I have, but happily found that the local Hallmark has an adapter. An adapter for Christmas ornaments? What, is Apple making ornaments now? iOrnament?

At any rate, have yourself a very Merry Christmas.

Certain Songs Part XVIII: Cheepnis

Yeah, OK, it has been a while. I read somewhere that the feud between Apple and Google is why Blogger has become staggeringly annoying to use on a Mac, compared to how easy it used to be. Also explains the awful Apple Maps app that can actually give life-threatening directions if you are in Australia. But then, says The Onion, “Apple Promises To Fix Glitches In Map Software By Rearranging Earth’s Geography.”

Anyway, the list continues.

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.
Part X (123–125)here
Part XI (120–122)here
Part XII (117–119)here
Part XIII: (114–116) here.
Part XIV (111–113) here.
Part XV (108–110) here.
Part XVI (105–107) here.
Part XVII (104–101) here.

Echo & the Bunnymen

I came kind of late to this particular party; while I was familiar with Echo & the Bunnymen back in the 80s, and I remember when Ian McCulloch left the band in 1988 and everyone in colleges across the country was quite upset, and I did like a few scattered songs here and there (especially “The Killing Moon,” see later in this list), I didn’t really get into them in earnest until their original five albums were reissued in the early 2000s. Crocodiles was their debut, and it has to go down as one of the best debut albums of all time. They’d get better, sure, especially by Ocean Rain, but it's hard to find a bad track on Crocodiles. Mix two parts doomy post-punk à la Joy Division with one part psychedelia and you pretty much have Echo (or more precisely, the Bunnymen; Echo was the name of the band’s drum machine that was jettisoned before they started recording). Four years before Johnny Marr appeared on the scene to reinvent the guitar sound of the 80s, Will Sergeant was creating unique soundscapes and moods. The highlight here is “Rescue,” with its chiming opening riff. “Villiers Terrace”—“There’s people rolling round on the carpets”—was inspired by a story about how Hitler used to get upset and chew on the carpet (recounted in William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). “Stars Are Stars” is also a highlight. And the closing song “Happy Death Men” does live up to its name! Their next album, Heaven Up Here, was a bit more experimental.

Roger Waters
Radio KAOS

As a crazy nuts Pink Floyd fan, I picked up Waters’ second proper solo album Radio KAOS (no, there is nothing about Get Smart on it) probably the second it was released, and I played it virtually nonstop throughout 1987. As a concept album, or “rock opera,” if you prefer (and I’d understand if you didn’t prefer), the plot isn’t so much half-baked as quite raw. Basically, a vegetable savant manages to steal a cordless phone and call an LA DJ using his mind (he can communicate via radio waves, kind of like The Who’s Tommy as conceived by Nokia), and he eventually manages to hack into the Government’s computers and scare everyone into thinking WWIII has started. Yeah.

Musically, it was quite different from Waters’ previous Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (see earlier in this list); it was a bit slicker, a bit more radio friendly (which didn’t help him get on the radio all that much), and more song-oriented. The bass-driven opener “Radio Waves” got some radio play, and “Who Needs Information” tries to advance the plot but doesn’t really. “Me or Him?” was mellow Waters, and side one closer “The Powers That Be” is one of Waters’ effective critiques of the Reagan/Thatcher era. Much of side two (or the last half of the album—that’s right, I didn’t have this on LP, I bought the CD straight away) deals with the simulated nuclear attack and its aftermath. “The Tide is Turning” ends on a hopeful note and may be the most uplifting song Roger Waters ever wrote, even if it was not reflected in reality. His Bleeding Heart Band actually does seem like a proper band (much of them had played on the latter half of the Pros and Cons tour). The usual sound effects add atmosphere and realism to the proceedings.

Actual LA DJ Jim Ladd is a character in the, um, story, and some of his former colleagues at KMET (a freeform FM station in the 70s that was taken over by a large media corporation and turned into a New Age music station) appear here and there, even reprising their “Fish Report with a Beat,” which was far more risqué in actuality than appears on the album, where it just seems strange. (A more representative version of it was included in the concert tour for the album.) Radio KAOS came out at the same time as the reconstituted Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and while I liked much of the Floyd album musically, it just fell very flat to me compared to KAOS. (Steven H. and I saw Waters live on this tour in Providence, RI, and it was a fantastic show, with Jim Ladd introducing the songs on stage. I also had the opportunity to work with Jim Ladd, as his memoir Radio Waves was published by St. Martin’s Press when I worked there in 1990. I’m even listed in book’s acknowledgements. My one claim to fame!)

Roxy & Elsewhere

Perhaps the best band Zappa ever had (arguably until his final 1988 tour) was in the post-Flo and Eddie period, featuring George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson, Jeff Simmons, and a variety of Fowlers on a variety of horns. They played on a few albums in the early to mid 70s, including the masterpiece One Size Fits All (see later in this list). Roxy & Elsewhere, like most of Zappa’s live albums, featured predominantly original songs; indeed, few of Roxy’s tracks appeared elsewhere. (Except on Vol. 2 of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, where the same band does much of the same set list in Helsinki—and it’s startling how the songs transformed over the course of the tour or, in other words, got faster.)

Each of the four sides of the original double album featured a Zappa introduction; opener “Penguin in Bondage” seems like it would have been dirtier on another album, but here is just surreal. “Knirps for moisture” was a bizarre line (I thought “knirps” was a verb, albeit a made-up one), until I learned many years later that Knirps is a brand of German umbrella. Well, I guess it’s still a strange line. “Howlin’ over to some antarticulated moon” is pretty good. “Pygmy Twylyte” is also pretty surreal and vaguely about drugs (not in a good a way; Zappa was vehemently anti-drug). “Dummy Up” features some onstage business about smoking a high school diploma. “Village of the Sun” is that rare Zappa song that smacks of nostalgia (I recall it going through my mind whenever driving past Palmdale, CA, ”out where the turkey farmers run”—that’s where Zappa grew up, in Lancaster). “Echidna’s Arf” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” are amazing instrumental showcases, especially for percussionist Ruth Underwood. “Cheepnis” opens with a narrative about the old Roger Corman grade Z movie It Conquered the World (shown on MST3K) before launching into a funny track about Zappa’s love of bad monster movies.

All of side 4 is “Be-Bop Tango,” which begins with a very complicated instrumental section (“The cowbell as a symbol of unbridled passion!”) before morphing into one of Zappa’s “enforced entertainment” events in which audience members were invited up on stage and told to try to dance to something well-nigh un-dance-to-able. It obviously went on longer; the edit toward the end is just abrupt. Just a fun, yet musically challenging record. It’s also very much a percussion-lover’s record—you’ve got drummer Chester Thompson but also random percussionist Ruth Underwood. There are moments that are quite sublime. “A true Zen saying, ‘Nothing is what I want.’”