Tuesday, June 30, 2009

6/30/2009 Quote

“We’re too old to die young.”

“Another dream no longer in reach.”

conversation snippet

Booth Saved Lincoln at Exchange Place

One of the wildest coincidences in History, Robert Todd Lincoln was saved by Edwin T. Booth, the brother of his father’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Where I read about this first, the book had two facts wrong—one, the incident occurred during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency—the book misstated the date to well after the Civil War, which was when Robert Lincoln first publicly wrote about it. Secondly, the incident took place in Jersey City, at Exchange Place. That was left out.

Robert Lincoln wrote: “The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”

I found out about the Jersey City angle in an article in the New York Times about Andrew Carroll, 39, an amateur historian intent on finding historical spots throughout the U.S. that have not been recognized. The inspiration for this endeavor, “Here is Where,” was inspired by the Lincoln & Booth at Exchange Place incident. According to the Times, “Mr. Carroll hopes to install a marker at the site, now a PATH station.”

The marker sounds fantastic.

So, it might have been cooler if this happened after the assassination, but it is pretty cool that it happened in Jersey City. The Sleeper Cars might be gone (our local winos & junkies not withstanding), Exchange Place with the Path and the Light Rail is still a rail hub of sorts, but with safer platforms. One of the things I contemplate is if Life is Fate or Chance. Neither seems to dispute or prove a Supreme Being (AKA God), but whether things are determined or random should be thought about it because let’s face it, life seems to be both (but it must be either or, right?) The Lincoln & Booth in Jersey City coincidence—indicates that whether it is random or it is fate, irony always has the last word.

Visit: www.hereiswhere.org

Monday, June 29, 2009

Philippine-American Friendship Day Parade

The 19th Annual Philippine-American Friendship Day Parade & Festival took place on Sunday. I was unable to participate in the fanfare or the festivities, but I did catch part of the set up for the parade in the morning. “The Filipino community is filled with warm, gracious, and welcoming people,” said Mayor Healy in an official press release and my experience certainly confirms that statement. A lovely & lively bunch, the Filipino day parade (as it is informally known) features organizations representing Teachers and Nurses and other worthy professions. Such a positive segment of our community—amazing, considering how much war, repression, exploitation and upheaval that nation has endured through the centuries.The parade is meant to celebrate the day in WWII that the U.S. liberated the Philippines from the Imperial Japanese forces. I love the name, “Friendship Day,” and of course, I’ve always loved the phonics paradox—Philippine the country with a “ph”, and Filipino the person, with an “f.” I’m sure there’s some quirk of the language to explain it, but I’d rather live with the paradox.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

6/27/2009 Quote

“This love of ours... is no ordinary love. You love me as though I’d never belonged to anyone else, and I tremble for fear that with time, regretting that you ever loved me and turning my past into a crime to hold against me, you might force me to resume the life from which you took me. Remember this: now that I’ve tasted a new kind of life, I should die if I had to take up the old one. So tell me you’ll never leave me.”

La Dame Aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas Fils.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Double Decker Passenger Cars

I had my first Double Decker New Jersey Transit Train ride. I was on the Bergen Mainline. “They just started running them on this line, they’re running all the time on Dover,” the conductor told me.

The bi-level (that’s the more formal name) cars increase passenger capacity by about 20 percent. The seats are larger and more comfortable. They are also two by two, not two on one side and three on the other. Commuters hate that middle seat. I sat on the top level and enjoyed the slightly different view of the vastness of the meadowland swamps.

New Jersey Transit is considered the largest statewide transit agency, but only the third-busiest commuter rail line by rider-ship—second to the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad. According to reports, at a cost of $446,9 million, 234 of the cars have been ordered. About 30 cars are running currently; 10 per month are being added.

They have a light-rail feel to them, and they had that new passenger rail car smell. “People like them, they’re new, people like new,” said the conductor.

During the journey though, the trains did shake somewhat disconcertingly a few times. “They have some wobble to them,” said the conductor, a rail veteran. “I have to remind people to be careful, they stand on the stairs waiting to get out and the trains wobble. They always get up before the train has stopped. I told one guy to get out of the stairwell and he yelled at me, don’t micro-manage me. Can you believe that? Micro-manage, I’m trying to prevent you from breaking your neck!”

Megan & Ken – “Battered Bunnies”

Megan Gulick & Ken Bastard are Jersey City-based artists and illustrators. “Battered Bunny Holiday Snapshots” is their current collaboration project. The concept is to take famous and familiar images of historical horrors and tragedies and re-create them, through tracings and renderings, then replace the people in the pictures with Megan’s distinctive cartoon bunny illustrations. “People are too desensitized to these images that they’ve forgotten the horror. This is a cheeky way to get them more sensitized to the horror,” says Ken, who cited as inspiration, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spegleman. By using the anthropomorphic imagery, Spegleman increased our awareness of the suffering of the Holocaust, the dehumanized system that enabled the genocide, and his own story of how it affected his family and his life. The cartoon animals as people Spegelmen created made an enormous—and until Nazi Germany, unimaginable—historical event immediate and personal and poignantly, all too human. There’s an appealing punk rock flippancy to the concept; and as with the best punk rock, maybe the flippancy is a way to grab your attention, not a way of hiding the truth. It is easy to see well-known images of true horror and forget about the actual suffering of the event because the images have become so familiar. Maybe some inventive re-imagining will remind us of suffering. When I spoke with her, Megan was adding bunnies to an old photograph of a solider shooting a man in the back of his head while he stood near an open mass grave. “I’m planning to do some work with Dorethea Lange (the famous Depression era photographer) images,” said Megan. They are completing several planned lapin depictions in the series and are currently looking for a gallery. Disturbing bunnies, historical tragedies. That’s so crazy it just might fascinate.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

6/23/2009 Quote

“Francis’s heart melted with gratitude. It was one thing to be in love. It was quite another to be loved back. Francis kissed her and kissed her. They kissed with their eyes closed, like teenagers. Finally Billy pushed her away. She looked disarranged and upset. Any fool, after all, knows that two adults cannot stand around kissing endlessly. Decisions of one sort or another usually present themselves for immediate attention.”

From “Frank and Billy” by Laurie Colwin.

Monday, June 22, 2009

St. John the Baptist Festival

The first official day of summer, though windy, cloudy and a little cool, was issued in by the annual St. John the Baptist Festival, held on Brunswick & Montgomery. The event is produced by the Parish of the Resurrection, which is a conglomeration of sorts of five individual churches in Downtown. Jersey City street fairs tend to be very local, there aren’t hordes of tourists or folks from outside the neighborhood, just familiar faces. The festival is a fund raiser for the parish, but also a party for the neighborhood and a kind of end of year celebration for the Resurrection School, which is not just one of the few schools with a tag line but a school with a great tag line: “A Peaceable School.”

Even for Jersey City, the St. John the Baptist Festival is pretty low key. The food is all homemade by parishioners. This street fair has a more “Latin” flavor theme than some of the others that take place in the Jersey City summer, but like the Parish, like the neighborhood, a smorgasbord of ethnicities are represented. But America—and more importantly, Jersey City—really does make us one. So does a pleasant Sunday afternoon and a multi-generational gathering.

A beauty pageant is associated with the Festival. I couldn’t quite get a complete story on the pageant, but there was a Coronation Ball and one assumes a Coronation that preceded the festival. The pageant winners served as the festival's own sextet of royalty - Princesa, Reina, and Emperatriz - two women held each title. Six royal women (from three distinct generations) acted as festival sovereigns (ruling with mercy, kindness & good cheer). They all looked lovely. They wore tiaras and flowing gowns and they were given trophies, which resembled scepters when they walked through the crowd. The royal matriarchs certainly stood out, since everyone else was in casual clothes—and clothes don’t get anymore casual than they do at a Jersey City street fair. The priests in their collars, the royalty dressed in regal garb, and the happy peasants in their rags. Us peasants ate the peasant food, displayed deference to royalty, gave tribute to a famous Saint, and talked with the local clergy. Ye ole Jersey City!

The actual Feast Day for St. John the Baptist is on Wednesday, June 24th. It is interesting to note, that most of the Feast Days for saints the Roman Catholic Church celebrates are designated on the day of the saint’s death. St. John the Baptist’s Feast Day is celebrated on the day believed to be his birth. It is actually called the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The other Nativity is a little more famous, the Nativity of St. John’s cousin, exactly six months after the Nativity of the Baptist.

I did have my first pastelles, which is sort of a Puerto Rico version of a dumpling, except the pastry part is made with banana leaves. They are gelatinous, rectangular and flat. I work with a Hispanic woman and when I told her what was going on this weekend she said, oh I bet they are going to have great pastelles. She won that bet. I had two!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dan & Laura

Dan & Laura Maloney are friends of mine. They are also heroes. They saved the animals of New Orleans.

You don’t believe me, do some googling. I may have a few of the details wrong, but the hero thing and what they did for the people and city of New Orleans is absolutely true.

Katrina. The four year anniversary of this national tragedy and disgrace is in August. Why do we have an Obama for President? Most Americans got wise to the fact that, with the Republicans in power, every city in America was a Katrina waiting to happen. Anyone, anywhere could be the next victim of cronyism, ineptitude and neglect. The presidency of George W. Bush was more than just an appalling embarrassment, his legacy shames us as a nation. Cutting funding to fix the Levees, denying climate change and stifling any study of the ecological problems that led to this extreme weather event, his lack of leadership in responding to one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. History—Katrina is at or near the top of the long list of historical regrets Bush bequeathed us. But I am not here to spew political facts, I mean, uhh… opinions.

What is the measure of a society? Certainly, one measure must be our ability to safeguard animals. What kind of civilization would we have if we refused to take care of our animals?

I have friends and acquaintances who have never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Yankee Stadium, but I don’t know anybody that grew up and/or lives in the greater New York area who never went to the Bronx Zoo. Going to a zoo is something everyone does at least once, usually in childhood. Zoos are one way we first learn curiosity, compassion and wonder. House pets give us a similar experience, in addition to companionship. Observing and interacting with animals are among everyone’s earliest lessons of nature. Loving animals, appreciating animals, taking responsibility for the well being of our fellow creatures, makes us better human beings. Maybe that is where morality begins.

Dan & Laura are animal people. Dan is a zoologist and Laura is involved with humane services. They are part of a close-knit network of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the well being and preservation of animals. Their commitment can be awe inspiring; it is more than a job, it is a vocation. What goes on behind the scenes at a zoo or animal shelter involves sometimes very hard work, patience and an eclectic skill set—science, biology, animal behavior, medicine and nutrition, diplomacy to work with politicians, bureaucrats, donors and the public. Animal people adapt to these many demands because they are duty-bound to a single-minded goal—sustaining and enhancing the quality of life for our animals.

Danny—we’ve been friends since third grade—worked in several zoos before becoming the General Curator of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in the 90s. One of his first responsibilities was to draw up plans and policies for the zoo to survive a disaster. These emergency procedures and protocols were followed during Katrina. Look up Audubon Zoo on wikipedia, and you’ll see him quoted: “The zoo had planned for years for the catastrophic storm that has long been predicted for New Orleans."

Well, he’s the guy who devised those plans. The Audubon Zoo has more than 2,000 animals on exhibit. It is the headquarters of the Audubon Institute, an organization vital to the study of zoology and saving endangered species world-wide.

It is one thing to draw up disaster plans, quite another to implement them successfully. Dan and his staff stayed at the zoo when Katrina made land fall. For two months after the storm they never left the zoo grounds. They subsisted on concession stand food for days. The zoo is on high ground so it wasn’t submerged like most of the city. But this location also meant it was a major staging point for rescue efforts. Dan and his staff, in addition to managing repairs, healing animal injuries, maintaining the environmental control the animals required, and fulfilling the daily responsibility of feeding and caring for the hundreds of creatures (from around the world and each with specific care needs)— they had to perform these duties while avoiding interference with the disorganized mass of rescue personnel using the zoo grounds as a base.

The zoo employees had homes, families and friends in New Orleans. During the early weeks of the recovery efforts, they had only bits of information (and a ton of rumor) about the world outside the Audubon. The zookeepers had to do their job through one of the worst natural disasters in history while enduring the immense anxiety of not knowing the status of their loved ones, homes and belongings.

Reportedly, only three animals—out of 2,000—perished at the Audubon Zoo as a result of Katrina. August 29th was the date when one of the deadliest hurricanes in history hit New Orleans. By Thanksgiving, the Audubon Zoo was receiving visitors. Well before the re-opening of the French Quarter, the Convention Center or most of the casinos, restaurants and hotels, the people of New Orleans had their zoo back.

Laura and Dan met about 20 years ago as employees of the Philadelphia Zoo. After they married, they moved to New Orleans. Laura became the Chief Executive Officer of the Louisiana SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). About a year before Katrina, she led the SPCA component of a successful effort to break up a dog fighting ring. She received numerous death threats for this endeavor. She also worked for legislation in Louisiana to enact an Animal Evacuation law and to end the inhumane sport of Cockfighting.

In the days preceding Katrina, Laura evacuated more than 260 animals from the New Orleans SPCA facility to Houston. Katrina reached landfall on a Monday and that Friday, she was back in the city leading the animal rescue effort. New Orleans citizens who had to be evacuated were not permitted to take their pets. The SPCA facilities had been flooded. She coordinated the establishment of a temporary shelter and then went to work with humane society colleagues and volunteers who came to the ravaged city from across the nation to save abandoned pets.

The SPCA had addresses of an estimated 7,000 companion animals—not just dogs & cats, but also ferrets, horses, reptiles and several species of birds. These addresses were just an initial data-base; the organization received reports of thousands of other animals abandoned throughout the city. Laura and her team went through the flooded streets in search of these homeless pets, working around the rescue activities of FEMA, the National Guard and the rest of the responders. They went door to door. They pieced together information to find an abandoned animal and then had to capture the animal while bloated corpses floated alongside them in the fetid muck.

Although volunteers and others came to help, the core of Laura’s team were from New Orleans. They performed this excruciating mission while not knowing the whereabouts of family and friends, or even if they still had a place to live. Want to test your dedication to your beliefs and ideals? Try acting on that dedication while not knowing what is left of the life you led and all the news reports you see show the city you call home in ruins.

The animals not only had to be rescued, but many required some kind of medical treatment and had to be sheltered and fed before owners—themselves displaced by the disaster—could be located. Laura coordinated all those aspects of the rescue operation. Laura was on the frontline, the point person, the team leader. More than 8,000 animals owe their lives to her. Most of those pets were eventually reunited with their owners or adopted. But there were hundreds—well, likely thousands—that could not be saved. No matter what she did—and there was nothing else more that could be done given the available resources, the magnitude of the disaster and the unbelievable degree of incompetence and corruption displayed by public officials—she could only save a portion of the companion animals of New Orleans. Time just ran out. Laura has devoted her life to the welfare of animals and this devotion—and the seriousness she takes in her profession—put her in an impossible position. No matter how hard she worked, some of the animals she was responsible for remained beyond her reach to suffer and perish. She performed a duty that could only break her heart (but not her spirit).

They’re heroes, Dan & Laura. During one of the darkest periods of New Orleans (and the United States), they held their posts, went above and beyond. When the flooding subsided and the rebuilding began, people had their zoo and their pets. In other words, they had their humanity.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

6/18/2009 Quote

“Men in these parts don’t mess in each other’s business, but we know what’s happenin’ just the same. Most of us work like a pump handle all our lives, hard and hot work all of it, but we never forget those five years or so when we’re kids. When we’re looked after, I guess. Not hurt by our elders unless we do somethin’ to deserve it.” He looked back to the barn, and Sam thought for a moment that Farmer Smally was about to shed tears. “When we’re little shavers we don’t think there’s nothin’ bad in the world, and nothin’ that can make us hurt. If we do get a little pain we kin put our face on our daddy’s short or momma’s dress and it will go away, sure. I hope that’s what it’s like again after I die.” He turned back. “Them that takes that from children are robbin’ heaven from earth.”

From “The Missing” by Tim Gautreaux

Monday, June 15, 2009

First Annual

The First Annual Jersey City Street Soccer Tournament was held on Sunday on Christopher Columbus Drive. Soccer kind of bores me, but these kids were having a lot of fun. There were more than 200 youth & adult players the flier said, and the play was faster and scrappier than regular soccer. I don’t know who won the medals & trophies. My favorite thing about it was the term - “First Annual.” May hope & determination always define us.

Miraculous Sign

Dear Saint Anthony, something is lost and cannot be found. If you were raised Roman Catholic, you prayed to Saint Anthony du Padua for lost objects. He was actually born in Portugal and only died in Padua, Italy. Saint Anthony, the Jersey City church (the interior is uniquely ornate and worth checking out), located on Monmouth & 6th Street, celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. The church is called Jersey City’s ‘oldest Polish Parish’. I guess there’s nothing more cross-cultural than miracles and Saint Anthony is considered the patron saint of miracles. Soon it will be summer street festival season in Jersey City but right now is summer street festival banner season. The festival is July 10-12, but the banner was tied pole to pole on June 13th, also the Feast Day of Saint Anthony. The symmetry of ordinary time is always worth noting and who doesn’t ‘heart’ St. Anthony’s Festival? He is considered the greatest thaumaturgist (something Monmouth Street could use now) of his time. Known for many miracles, my favorite is the Padua Podiatry one: the miracle of the amputated foot. A young man, in Padua, named Leonardo got angry and kicked his own mother. Repentant, he confessed his fault to St. Anthony who said to him: "The foot of him who kicks his mother deserves to be cut off." Leonardo ran home and cut off his foot. Learning of this, St. Anthony took the amputated member of the unfortunate youth and miraculously rejoined it. Do not try this at the festival, kids!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Grateful Dead: From Hartford to Terrapin 77

I call all the releases of past concert material by the Grateful Dead, Dick Pix Dead. Yes yes, I know that technically, there are different variations—like the Vault Series or the Road Series, and this recent release, From “From Hartford to Terrapin 77,” was released through Rhino, who now handles the Grateful Dead archive. But I don’t care. They’re all Dick Pix to me. Thought I would just get that out of the way right off the bat.

In the early 90s, the Dead started releasing the unreleased stuff with Dick Picks. They basically became their own bootleggers, an idea that Dylan, the Allman Brothers and a few other acts soon followed. I ordered the first Dick Pix from their well-designed, tabloid-sized, four-color Dead Head newsletter. I even got a hand written note once by Dick Latvia, the band’s first archivist who passed away a few years ago. There’s something like 50 official Dead bootleg releases all told. I have about a dozen. Every one is excellent. Great deals too, multiple CD packages for generally less than ten bucks a disc.

I thought I had all the reissued Dead I needed—live versions of songs I only had studio versions of, a bunch of cover songs that had some renowned, hard to find originals, like Pig Pen's great soul saga, “Two Souls In Communion.” My sister in law, who lives in Connecticut, and with whom I attended my first Grateful Dead show, emailed me this article about this new release “From Hartford to Terrapin 77.” The article featured fond fan memories of Dead shows in the nutmeg state. The same week, an article about the Dead in the New York Times said this release was one of two concerts that Dead Heads claim to be the best nights for the band.

I became intrigued. The Dead played thousands of concerts and Dead Heads are pretty good score keepers. Could one show be the best? Think about this for a second. I like certain shows because my favorite songs are played, but if you sort of break down the concerts by playing, singing, and song-choice—and add to that the fact there are thousands of shows to judge—even in such a subjective universe as music appreciation, an objective ranking is plausible. I had to hear the best; I have to judge for myself.

1977. That’s when from Hartford to Terrapin was recorded. When I think of that year, the Grateful Dead seemed like some lost cause. In New York and London (and just starting in Los Angeles), the punk movement was changing Rock & Roll. Fast, terse odes of alienation were a lot more cutting edge than say “Sugaree.” In those same cities, disco music drew coke snorting crowds to clubs with the “new” invention of mindless beats and insipid lyrics. Seemed a lot cooler to do the proto-mosh pit pogo or to get your Saturday Night Fever on than reprise the stale, failed ideals of the 60s.

And, while the Dead may have had enough fans to sell out a mid-size arena, many of their peers that had lasted into the 70s were on the Top 10 airwaves. Jefferson Starship, as an example, were mega-stars, growing their fan base, winning critical attention and raking in big bucks. Oh a few Grateful Dead songs were FM staples—and they had garnered some critical acclaim—but they never had a “Miracles,” and certainly never reached the popularity of say the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton and several other acts that began around the same time. In other words, the Grateful Dead had not only remained an underground 60s band, beloved by a devoted cult following, but that underground—and the music that defined it—was considered an anachronism in 1977.

In April of this year, the “Dead” toured the white house with President Obama, who has long identified himself as a fan. They had played at his inauguration. The Grateful Dead have achieved a level of well deserved reverence and respect, but 30 some odd years ago, except for their fans, when they weren’t being ignored, they received ridicule or indifference.

In the late 60s, the Grateful Dead were an outlaw band and were hounded by the police, emblematic of the San Francisco and the Hippie Movement that those in power despised. They encountered the excessive harassment by law enforcement so common during that period. Maybe the authorities would have exerted even more pressure if they sold as many records as the Doors.

In 1987, they topped the charts with “Touch of Grey”. By then, they were selling stadiums out for multiple nights in the summer and arenas the rest of the year, and remained the most successful touring act in history until Garcia passed away.

But in 1977, they were sort of off the radar screen. The band was also in dire financial straits. Their records hadn’t sold, especially the overlooked masterpieces released under their own label, which soon failed and they had to sign with Arista. Their only consistent source or revenue was their incessant touring. This concert preceded the official release of Terrapin Station, the first album on Arista, which was meant to point forward to a new direction for the band, but turned out to be a pretty disappointing mess. It certainly made less sense to me at the time than say, Marquee Moon.

My trepidation was that there have been so many Dick Pix releases, how could any real masterpiece still be lingering in the vaults? On the other hand, the idea of the “Best” Dead concert kept nagging me. I finally broke down, bought the dang thing and when I first put this CD on and heard the strumming intro of “Bertha,” I knew this was indeed something special.

Garcia’s voice is clear, and in fact, his singing and Weir’s, as well as their harmonies aided by Donna Godcahaux are the best I’ve heard on any of the Dick Pix. The Grateful Dead are under-appreciated singers. Weir is almost always strong—few can hoop and holler, shout and scream then go instantly back to good ole singing like ole Bobby W. I love Garcia’s reedy tenor, but live his vocal chops can be hit or miss. In terms of harmonizing, captured so well in the studio—or in hybrid live/studio classics like Europe 72—can leave something to be desired on the Dick Pix CDs.

Not here. Bertha may lack some of the edginess of the version we all know, but it is also aired out—the slight mellowing suits it. The band then kicks into “Good Lovin,” a favorite concert staple and one that is on several of the Dick Pix releases—Pig Pen used to sing this and Weir adopted it a few years after his 1973 passing. It’s a jaunty, ass-kicking Weir version, Lesh pounding away at the bass and leading the incredible rhythm section the Dead often proved to be.

The next song smashed any preconception I might have possessed. A 20 minute version of Sugaree, and it is as remarkable a 20 minutes of music as there is, and that includes all those live versions of “My Favorite Things” by Coltrane.

“Sugaree” is an okay Grateful Dead song. It has one of their signature shuffle sounds. Based, lyrically at least, on an Elizabeth Cotton song by the same name, the lyrics depict a funeral. Although rarely depressing, Hunter does write a lot of songs that deal with death, and the loneliness that follows loss. Musically and thematically the song is pretty much by-the-numbers Dead; you can’t really like the Dead and hate this song. By the same token, it’s merely typical Grateful Dead. A 20 minute version just seems like a cliché—the Grateful Dead at their most excessive.

In 1977, with the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads making Rolling Stone headlines, somebody declaring a 20 minute version of “Sugaree” remarkable? That must be some damn good acid! But then or now, the unbelievers simply have not experience this textured, extended last word on this song.

Garcia is on fire and the other musicians know it. Garcia too often aimed at the stratosphere. Sometimes he gets too damn spacey on these long jams, his solos becoming a tad pointless. In this performance, he remains earthbound in the deep muddy river, yet still explores every nook and cranny of this melody and the listener is surprised in how many nooks and crannies there are. These 20 minutes are musically enthralling.

It is simply draw dropping the way after every chorus, Garcia solos away—there are a about four solos—supported by Keith Godchaux playing his distinctive chunky piano chords. Godchaux and Garcia seem be dancing together, and Garcia is leading that dance. You want to scream Go Jerry Go, and you get the idea the band wants to scream that too, because that is how they are accompanying him—with sonic encouragement.

When I picked this CD up, I rolled my eyes at the thought of a 20 minute Sugaree. Midway through the first listen, I’m at the edge of seat—what will he find next in this song? When a musician is this on fire by only the third song in the set—and everyone in that group is fanning that fire—you know this is a special night.

The Dicks Pix releases show many such genuine moments of musical intelligence and intensity. I am tempted to gush on about the playing, but what makes the Dead so damn compelling is the interplay between the musicians. Symbiotic is a word that comes to mind. What strikes me—especially on this new release—how well this group of musicians listened to each other. They know exactly when to react—and what to react with. Their talent—the cohesion of the ensemble— may be due more to their ability to listen than their vast instrumental skills.

“Jack Straw” follows, a version that is more countrified and laid back then the Europe 72 standard, but the singing is better. This song, about two outlaws on the run, is basically a dialog between Jack Straw, and Shannon—Shannon is killing people, most notably the watch man, and Jack Straw pleads with him to stop until finally Mr. Straw “shot his buddy down.” There’s an edginess to the Europe 72 version that makes that the main version, but this could be a close second. It’s classic Grateful Dead and a truly great song. The singing on this album is simply fantastic. Their voices have never sounded better live.

Next up, “Row Jimmy,” a personal favorite of mine. Another Hunter impressionistic yarn about a loveable loser in a nowhere town—“ever since they tore the juke box down.” Musically, this song has two main features—the textured percussion and the vocal harmonies of Donna G. & Bobby W. on the chorus. “Row, Jimmy, Row, gonna get there, I don’t know.”

We’re five songs into this concert, it’s the end of the first CD, and CDs are like, more than an hour’s worth of music. Do the math. It’s a night for jamming, and the musicians are on top of their game. Whether or not “rock jams” are your thing, this CD is one of the best examples of that form.

The second CD has basically favorite Dead standards. “New Minglewood Blues,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Candy Man,” etc. Each is delivered with supreme competency and intelligence. “Candy Man,” another Hunter/Garcia Invisible Republic saga, profiles a reprobate gambler, the ‘Candy Man.’ He loves the ladies the ladies and they love him—“pretty lady has got no friend till the candy man comes around again.” Besides all the gambling references – “roll them laughing bones” – murder is on his mind, he wishes Mr. Benson good morning, then bemoans his lack of weaponry: “I see you’re doing well/if I had me a shot gun I’d blow you straight to hell.” The Candy Man has just come from Memphis, and when he returns there, “They’ll be one less man alive.” The song has a loopy, hypnotic groove and since it s from the American Beauty era, the vocal harmonies are a highlight and here, spot-on, creating the feeling of a gentle lullaby down to the ending chorus of just oohs, providing a counter point to the sordid and sad life of the Candy Man. The saccharine-tinge sound of the classic studio version is gone, a tangible mournfulness is conveyed, thanks to the addition of Donna Godchaux’s voice, which underscores the sadness of the women who loved the gambling, murdering lothario.

CD 2 of this tri-disc set includes the last song of the first set—“Promise Land” – the Chuck Berry song which was a minor early 70s single for Elvis and a high-point of The Band’s Moondog Matinee—and the first song of the second set, “Samson & Delilah.”

These are two of my favorite songs ever, I have several versions of each, but still, Dead’s take on these classics are my favorites. Here they absolutely rock.

I realize the first time I heard these two songs were at a Grateful Dead concert and decades later, when I stumbled upon Blind Willie Johnson’s version, I was struck by the similarity of the arrangements. Johnson of course picks a single guitar, although it is quite fierce. It’s amazing how the Dead both expands the arrangement to suit a full band—and yet how that arrangement so closely follows Johnson lone guitar vision. Everything in Johnson’s version is presented in the Dead’s amazingly energetic interpretation—Lesh’s bass drives it at full throttle.

This song reminds us how weird and strange the bible is, especially the Old Testament. Samson is an unstoppable force, killing philistines with a jaw bone of an ass, ripping the head off a lion, smashing down castles. But, he has the deep red hots for Delilah, the sexy Philistine woman born to break his heart. Why, exactly does Yahweh give him super human strength through long hair? It’s a story that delves into primordial truths about desire—and fear of desire. Samson reacts to his betrayal of his desire—‘tear that old building down.” In other words, everyone dies and everything is destroyed. This Old Testament tale is as poignantly psychological as any Greek Tragedy. It’s our universal nightmare, as much of an archetype as Oedipus and a lot more subtext than the story we learned as kids—this heavy rocking version amps up the eroticism, adding to the subtext. When Weir sings, “Delilah sat about Samson’s Knees, tell me where you strength lies, if you please/and she spoke so fine and she spoke so fair...” well, we all know that hair is going to rhyme with fair and there’s going to be a heap of trouble when it does. But if a Delilah is sitting on your lap, what would you do?

I felt breathless after this thundering Biblical rocker. There will be no lollygagging here tonight—the Dead had yet to fall into their post-intermission exercise of “Space,” a combination of feedback, percussion meandering and electronic type noodling. But they are here to play and a suite of songs contained in one long jam is the core of the second set, beginning with “Estimated Prophet,” Weir’s disturbing Reggae song about a leader of a West Coast cult—a clever segue—old time religion meets scary Charlie Manson like religious leader. The liner notes say that the reggae rhythm uses a different time signature than other reggae songs. It sure does have that weird off-kilter feel.

This was a new song at the time, but still gets the crowd pumped. In 1977, Reggae had two followings in the U.S.—punk rockers and Dead Heads. It’s also one Weir’s best songs and here is the best version I’ve heard, filled with some really tasty Garcia licks—one thing I’ve noticed about Dick Pix CDs, some of Garcia’s best playing occurs on Weir songs. Maybe he wished he was a side-man all along.

Out of the fading reggae groove that ends “Estimated Prophet,” a swinging version of the Grateful Dead warhorse, “Playing in the Band.” emerges. An elegiac anthem to brotherhood and the benefits of camaraderie—“Some folks trust in reason/others trust in might/I don’t trust in nothing but I know it will turn out right”—“Playing in the Band,” is one of the last Hunter/Weir songs (Estimated Prophet was written with John Barlow). The melody is thick with hypnotic chord progressions; it’s a great guitar song that lends itself to a jam. The version here is upbeat and energetic, Lesh’s bass leads the charge and Donna Godchaux emits a powerful caterwaul during a concluding bridge. Optimism, solidarity—a signature Dead tune echoing their tried and true themes.

The song doesn’t peter out, but there is this not quite exploration as much as noodling as the song ends. “Terrapin Station” is next, and since this is the Dead, they don’t stop one then start another. This interim of exploration is cut in two here on the CD track listing, but it isn’t really a jam per say, although it is surely improvised. The guitars are talking to each other—albeit a clever though unprofound conversation—on-top of a loose bed of rhythm created by the percussion and key board. As the “Terrapin Station” melody begins one realizes, didn’t we just hear strains of that song in that interlude. Confusion and surprise, if you let yourself appreciate the Grateful Dead, when their improvisational jams are working, you get those dual pleasures again, again, and again.

If you aren’t predisposed towards the Grateful Dead, even the best versions—and this unquestionably is one of the best versions—are not going to convince you to get on the bus. But if you appreciate the Grateful Dead, this track will give you another reason to support your appreciation. Garcia is obviously having a good night and his guitar and vocals are commanding on this song.

The lyrics don’t make sense. Word is, Hunter actually wrote an entire cycle of songs based on this theme but Garcia only used a fragment of the complete suite. You can find the extra stanzas by some googling. If you can explain exactly what happens in this song, please email me. I can’t figure it out.

Hunter always had a touch of William Blake about him. The meaning of the often well drawn images is obscure, although the lyrics are still delightful. The song’s beginning echoes the intro of Homer’s Odyssey –“Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm/That will not forsake you, till my tale is told and done.” Characters appear—a Sailor, who “Down in Carlisle, he loved a lady many years ago,” and a Soldier, “who came through many fights, but lost at love,” and a woman, “Eyes alight, with glowing hair,” who sets up a kind of competition for her love between the two gents, “Which of you to gain me, tell, will risk uncertain pains of hell?”

If you’re looking for some kind of resolution to this triangle however, try another song. “Since the end is never told, we pay the teller off in gold.”

A kind of lilting, troubadour-ish song—the melody of the first movement, could have been written for the lute—merges into another lilting melody, where Garcia gives a great vocal to the compelling (if still obscure) lyric: “from the northwest corner/of a brand new crescent moon/while crickets and cicadas sing/a rare and different tune.”

At this point, there’s no woman, soldier, sailor or story teller and we go from this wistful and pastoral setting to iconic American (and Grateful Dead) imagery, the train and a station, for an undisclosed reason, named for turtles—“And I know we’ll get there soon/ terrapin station/The train put its brakes on/and the whistle is screaming.” By now, the lilt has been replaced by an outrageously bombastic piece of drama, with the phrase “Terrapin Station” repeated like a haunting echo.

It’s a strange song, and about as close to the “prog rock,” format indicative of some 70s, pre-punk British bands—that the Grateful Dead ever got. There is no verse, chorus, verse familiarity. The song is in three parts—distinctive movements; I’m not sure what else to call them. The lyrics draw impressions, talk about a story that is never told, sets up a love contest that is never explored much less resolved, and concludes with train iconography complete with a train station inexplicably named for, well, turtles.

A lot of jokes can be made about the Dead Head crowd. Hippies are goofy, let’s face it. The band gave folks a reason to go on an endless and usually druggy vacation, something that made a lot more sense in say 1970 than 1977, not to mention 1987 or 1993. But the connection of these fans to the music was pure; they allowed this group of musicians to indeed, “let their inspiration flow.” By now you can tell that I love this three disc set and the fact is, this set wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t such an audience for this band, an audience as enthused to hear a new song than say one of the FM hits like Truckin.

Terrapin concludes with ‘Drums,’ a dual solo by Hart & Kreutzman. The self-indulgence they sometimes displayed is thankfully absent. Drums is only a few minutes and concentrates on the Bo Diddley beat of the next song in the jam, “Not Fade Away,” a staple cover by the Grateful Dead. Here again though, during an evening of musical exploration performed by a group of musicians prone towards musical explorations, the two drummers, while never straying far from the general Bo Diddley parameters, delve into this beat. Within its basic texture, there are different timbre of drums, snares and cymbals—sometimes the unison is so complete it sounds like one drummer, then the next moment it is hard to believe that all the musical ideas being spewed forth are coming from just eight limbs. They delineate all the percussive ideas that the enormity of this beat contains.

A simple sound, a sound anybody could tap out, but also a sound with roots deep in African tribal culture, saturated with religious and social import. Then the beat was translated through American slave culture, which meant it blended with different beats of various tribal cultures. Then it was transmuted by the Negro Spirituals that followed Slavery, adding another layer of religiosity. Jazz and Big Band musicians appropriated it for their famous Jungle Rhythms—Bo Diddley cited Big Band, not Delta blues (the source for much Rock & Roll) as inspiring him. Of course, the Lubbock Texas rocker Buddy Holly slightly tweaked the beat for “Not Fade Away.”

Soon the guitarists join the two drummers to explore other hidden nuances—there is a really interesting bass run—before the whole band roars into quick and explosive, full boar Rock & Roll—“My love is bigger than a Cadillac!” Weir follows this initial lyric with this really fascinating chord change strumming, a quick thing. These guys are just bursting with musical ideas. Even though this song rocks out, the exploration continues and phases into an interlude that discovers one nuance after another. The more well known version goes right into the depression-era “Goin Down the Road,” and you hear traces of the melody in the loose jam that follows, but they don’t follow that tune. They’re deciding what to play next, but doing so within the context of the song they are still playing—or at this point, deconstructing—they explore the multitude of musical ideas at the core of “Not Fade Away,” then deconstruct those ideas and the core, then explore the deconstruction.

And, upon repeated listens, you hear—I think it’s Lesh who first plays the signifying notes—of “Wharf Rat.” You hear these moments of passage on Dick Pix discs. The difference here—and it’s worth emphasizing—this is one of the best passages and it’s almost as if—and I’m not even sure I should say almost—that the passage, the jam, the improvisational interlude if you will, is as good as the actual song. Rarely the case.

“Wharf Rat” is similar to Terrapin Station—there’s no chorus, but there is a clear story. The narrator, wandering downtown by the wharfs, encounters a homeless, blind, wino, August West, who tells the narrator his story, basically a life ruined by the betrayal of some woman—sounds like the woman seduced him then made him a fall guy in some kind of scheme and winds up going to jail for some Mother-F’ers crime (a line that always brings on the crowd applause, which it does here)—and then the narrator, after hearing this sad yarn, leaves worrying about his girl—Bobbie Lee — “I’m sure that girl’s been true to me,” and you know he’s not certain at all, repeating, “I know she’s been, I’m sure she’s been.” It’s the dark side of empathy. Lesh’s fat bass lines packs in the poignancy at the ending of the song, when the narrator “got up to go, with nowhere to go,” then darkly ponders how much he should trust his Bobbie Lee. There but for the Grace of God is the message—at one point, August West says something about “If The good lord willing, I know that the life, I’m living’s no Good,” and after hearing the story, the narrator’s world is shaken. Then, just as you begin to process the full scope of the meaning of this song, the band turns on the dime and reprises “Playing in The Band,” concluding the journey with this optimistic anthem of brotherhood.

Makes you want to dance, the reassurance of this song. The journey which began with the “Estimated Prophet,” then traveled through the tale with no conclusion but implied the secrets of the cosmos—and a Train that came to the station named for turtles—then a thorough dissection of a rhythm that contains centuries of lost history to a deceptively simple story that is really about the most complex thing in life, our heart. And now, back with the bros and doing something worthwhile – “I’m just playing in the band/daybreak on the land.”

The last two songs are almost besides the point. One More Saturday Night, Weir’s Chuck Berry like party rave and Garcia/Hunter U.S. Blues, both solid versions but you just get the feeling the concert is over, there is no equaling the concluding jam. With that in mind though, the U.S. Blues is indicative—Garcia’s voice is sounding shot at this point, and the tongue in cheek lyrics are silly—“shake the hand who shook the hand of P.T. Barnum/and Charley Chan,” a list of Americanisms meant to be a conrast to the revolutionary protest songs of their 60s peers. The entire concert—in fact, the Dead’s entire career—is a weird but abundant catalog of American music—from the honesty of Woody Guthrie to the grandeur of Aaron Copeland. Everything is Rock & Roll. The folk melodies, the country inflections, the R&B, the blues, the old time religion, the reggae.

The Grateful Dead is the most American of bands, friend to the okie & the hippie, Steinbeck & Kerouac. In 1977, must have seemed an isolated point of view—and the record that was about to be released, Terrapin Station embodied that point of view, was a strident and committed statement that ultimately did not satisfyingly express the ambition behind it. “U.S. Blues” sums it all with a tongue in cheek sarcasm even the establishment could appreciate. Might take a few decades, but there will be a president with the Dead on his ipod and the surviving members will be playing in the band at the Inaugural Ball.

The best Grateful Dead concert ever? The epitome of what they were in concert? Can’t argue with it, but I hate to agree because that ends the conversation, sort of contradicting how the Grateful Dead approaches songs—as starting points to a performance where we are all open to discovery—and the fun that happens with all the confusion and anticipation that comes before you realize a discovery has been made.

There are moments that I might prefer on other Dick Pix Dead, but as a whole, this 3-disc set is about as close a document of what it was like to see them live—the experience of not knowing what will happen next and just letting yourself be taken on an incredible musical ride. Like the audience in Connecticut that night, this CD-set lets you share their sweaty (and in 1977, obstinate) joy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

6/8/2009 Quote

“Remember that dive bar, Avenue B I think. It was the Holiday or the Blue & Gold. I drank there all the time when I lived down there, in the 80s and early 90s. I haven’t been back since then, more than 15 years definitely. A couple of weeks ago, I was in that neighborhood so I went in for a drink. That old guy, the bartender, he was still there. He was old then, or maybe he just looked old. He looks a lot older now. He squinted at me, sort of looked me up and down and said, I remember you. I told him how I used to come here all the time, haven’t been back in a while. He sneered at me and said, “You’re from Jersey and you went back to Jersey.” That was it. What an a-hole, then I remembered, he was an a-hole back then, just not to me so much.”

Conversation Snippet

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fountain in the Rain

God is love. We are made in the image of God. This life is just a fountain in the rain.

I think about stuff like this all the time. This fountain is in Bryant Park, most days when I have do the office gig I walk through this park. Last night, I was out with some good friends and we were talking about what a drag it is that at parties or similar interactions with others of our age group everybody complains about getting older, or basically, just complains. It’s okay to complain sometimes, but so many folks are relentless about it. My friends pointed out how these people can’t enjoy simple things. Getting more enjoyment from simple moments of life also happens with age, one of the upsides. I mentioned Bryant Park. It’s a beautiful park, and when you walk through it early in the morning, when it’s not that crowded, you see the seasons change. In the winter there’s ice skating. During the course of our conservation, I used Bryant Park as a personal example, that for instance I see the beauty of a quiet morning snowfall and then you get to the office, and there is somebody who can only complain about the snow. Today it was rainy and I noticed the fountain—it’s not always on full blast—and I just noticed the beauty of the spouts of water clashing with the falling rain. Maybe what I found so beautiful was the metaphor above. It’s a concept I think about a lot and maybe all we need to explain this life is this life. If we let ourselves truly see, the invisible world is present in the visible. For a moment, anyway

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

6/3/2009 Quote

“It was a bad fire, the building at the juncture. Smoke so thick you couldn’t see. There was one guy still in there. That’s what we were told. We went in. The heat was increasing, but it hadn’t reached the flashpoint. They shouted that they think the guy is by the window. Everyone else from the building was out by now. Just one guy left. We had to feel around, we couldn’t see. We only saw smoke. There’s a dog there. That’s what we find, a dog. The dog is alive, barely. We get the dog out. It’s a good sign, if the dog is alive, the guy is. We start to feel around again, we couldn’t see. But then, the fire reaches the flashpoint, which sucks all the oxygen out, and the heat just doubles. We had no choice, we had to move, we had to get out of there. The guy was found later. If we hadn’t saved the dog, we might have saved the guy but when we found the dog, we had hope cause if the dog was alive the guy could be too.”

True story told to me by a Jersey City Fireman. Thanks Steve.


No media. No mirror. Pornutopia fades like a good meal in the stomach. Trains need tracks. A no option journey. On subways the scantily clad sit next to those in black. You could be heading to Brooklyn. You could be heading back to Jersey.

Some curves are revealed and others concealed. One time, this commute, in the idealist metal that tamed the earth and linked the east to the west thus vindicating the Constitution, this woman announced the stops. She worked for the railroad. Her voice was hushed, like a Marylyn Monroe from Bayonne. The destinations were determined if not new.

Her tone echoed an innuendo promising delight. Now you're in Los Angeles. You're waiting for a plane. No trains of any kind. Someone said there used to be street cars here. You concentrate on home then see a building that looks like the one where the Jetsons lived. Hope is endless.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sword Play at Van Vorst Gazebo

An ‘Intro-Sword Fighting Rehearsal’ is how Jon Ciccarelli, Director of the Hudson Shakespeare Company explained the clashing and clanging occurring in the Gazebo at Van Vorst Park on the afternoon of the last Sunday in May. Now in its 18th season, the Hudson Shakespeare Company actors were learning how to brandish rapiers as part of their preparation for one of the bard’s more obscure works, Troilus and Cressida. “It’s not quite a romance, it’s not a quite a tragedy,” says Jon. In fact, the play is one of those “problem plays” some scholars talk about. Sorry to say, it’s one of the plays I haven’t read. It takes place during the Greek & Trojan war and has two plots, a re-telling of the Iliad, with Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax, Hector and that bunch and the other plotline is the tragic love story of Troilus and Cressida, a sordid medieval yarn and the basis of a poem by Chaucer. According to Joyce Carol Oates, “Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential...”. The Hudson Shakespeare Company will perform the play on July 16th at the Van Vorst Park Gazebo. The sword fighting rehearsal seems to have went well. “We want the sword fighting to be more like gladiators, not swashbuckling,” adds Jon.