Category Archives: Music

Life’s too short to hate (or is it?)

One of the joys of fatherhood – whether as a stepfather or as a natural parent – is the opportunity to see the world with a fresh pair of eyes. I may well be world-weary even at my age, but even something that has become the norm for you can become truly exciting again when you’re introducing a child to a whole new experience.

As a result, my elder daughter – The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest – and I found ourselves in a Thai restaurant yesterday evening, getting some much needed food ahead of a trip to Madison Square Gardens to see Alicia Keys perform live in concert.

The interesting thing about spending any amount of time alone with a 12 year old is that the conversation has a weird ebb and flow to it. For a few minutes you might sit in absolute silence as you desperately cast around for topics that might be of interest to you both. Then once you hit paydirt, you suddenly find that you can’t get a word in edgeways for half an hour, as a stream of consciousness is unleashed upon you and anyone within a 60 yard radius. And then silence again.

During one of these conversational ‘tirades’ last night, my daughter brought up the topic of hate, saying that she doesn’t understand why some people say that hate is too strong an emotion. She then proceeded to string together a list that may have included everything from her third grade teacher through to the socio-economic policies of the autocratic regimes of Central Africa. I wasn’t on the hate list, I’m happy to say, although that may simply have been a pragmatic approach on her part, prompted by my decision not to give her the concert ticket ahead of time.

Anyway, if I’d have managed to jam a metaphorical foot into her conversational door in order to squeeze a sentence in, I’d have said that I agree with those people who don’t have any time for hate. But then I realized that there is just one thing that drives me mad to the point of loathing – something that makes me angry whenever I see it, almost to the point where I feel like taking decisive physical action to remedy the situation.

Because, dear reader, violence against books just isn’t acceptable.

I grew up worshipping books – eagerly devouring every last page and twist of everything from the Secret Seven and the Roald Dahl books, to Agatha Christie and even Jeffrey Archer. And so sacred did all books become to me that I couldn’t even bear to break the spine, let alone deface them in any other way. I used to read books with the pages only as far apart as would be allowed by my thumb being wedged in at the bottom. Oh hell, what am I talking about – I still read books that way. No folded corners, no creases in the cover, and I always make sure to pick up the book that’s about six from the front in the bookshop, just so that it’s as flat as possible.

Obsessive-compulsive? Moi?

The Special One, incidentally, has a completely different view. She naively believes that books are there to be enjoyed. If she’s even in the same room as a book, its spine will crack spontaneously, in fear of the numerous pains that she is about to inflict on its pages. I wince in agony as she flattens the book completely with the palm of her hand, or leaves it splayed open while she goes off in search of a late-night snack. Hurt a book, and you are hurting me.

Recently though, I’ve noticed that more and more New Yorkers seem to be writing in their books. Maybe I’m just coming across more students, but it seems that the primary use for a biroballpoint pen these days is to scrawl copious notes (generally in green, I like to think) in otherwise beautiful and pristine books. Underlinings, rambling notes, and even doodles I’ve seen recently – is nothing truly sacrosanct these days? I’m thinking of starting a campaign for a legislative change which would allow any book being used in such a way to be snatched from the holder’s hand by any passing stranger. Watch out New York, the Book Police are in town.

Suffice to say that I managed to put aside my hatred for the course of last night’s concert, and a good time was had by all. The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest burst into tears when Alicia Keys introduced Beyonce, and shrieked at the top of her voice when Jay-Z came on stage at the end.

She must have learned how to scream from seeing me shortly after her mother has picked up a book, that’s for sure.

You win some, you lose some

I’ve always hated the word ‘expat’, abbreviated or otherwise. It’s not the word itself, I guess, but more the notion that I ever ‘belonged’ to one part of the world in the first place. And more to the point, when I think of ‘expats’, I bring to mind the likes of Frank, Doris, Ethel and Brian, who live in Spain on the Costa del Sol, and eat pie, chips and gravy in 90 degree heat. I’m sure that some people can think of nothing better than putting their car keys in a bowl and hoping that Florence, (the positively spritely 68 year old from Harrogate), pulls out the keys to their imported Volvo – but I’m not one of them.

Nonetheless, an expat I am. Although we don’t have a car, just to be on the safe side. The thing about being a British expat in America is that your life becomes a weird meld of cultures and experiences that you create for yourself over a period of time. You abandon the sacred principle of watching early Saturday evening TV, but you gain the concept that eating hot dogs from a street vendor is acceptable. You lose the horror of watching representatives of an openly racist political party get voted into positions of power, but you are forced to replace it with medical providers who would charge you for breathing within ten yards of their establishment if they could get away with it.

The point is, you accept some alternatives into your heart (baseball is a more than acceptable summer replacement for cricket) and you reject others (the day I regard corn dogs as OK is the day I pack up and go home). As a result, your life becomes a constant succession of choices as you slowly create your new normality, horse trading with yourself to ensure that you assimilate without losing your sense of where you come from.

For instance, The Special One this week had reason to comment that I am “becoming more American than an American.” No, I was not seized by an urge to invade a foreign territory, nor did I feel the need to cut somebody off mid-conversation and start a whole new topic of my own. But I did realise that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” has become one of my favourite records.

There is an arcane law in the United States that requires “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be played at least once an hour on every radio station in the country. Yet somehow, despite a music knowledge that I would regard as pretty comprehensive, I’m not sure that I had ever even heard it before moving to the United States. Now I can’t get that small town girl taking the midnight train anywhere (or the city boy born and raised in South Detroit, for that matter) out of my head, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

To compensate for this, I have been forced to declare that pretzels are a product of the Evil Empire. If Americans were truly honest with themselves, they would sheepishly admit that the big doughy knot of salt studded nonsense is quite literally ‘not all that’, and that they would actually be better off just pouring a sachet of sea salt and a tablespoon of vinegary mustard down their neck instead.

And don’t get me started on ‘mini pretzels’ or ‘pretzel sticks’. When you’ve got a perfectly sensible potato chip staring you in the face, why would you even think to pick a pack of mini pretzels off a shelf? At best they taste burnt, and at worst they have the ability to absorb all the liquid in your body within 13 minutes. Those little silica gel packets that you get in bags and boxes to suck up moisture? There’s actually no such thing as silica – it’s just ground up mini pretzels masquerading as ‘science’. I would rather eat salt studded toe nail clippings, to be honest.

Ah, the yin and yang of life as an expat. It’s not easy being this opinionated, you know.

It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right…

Defying American customs that say you will be struck down from on high if you even think about having an alcoholic drink outdoors, this weekend I managed to enjoy my first margarita of the year while sitting outside listening to an old fashioned country rock band. Contrary to New York thinking, no ill befell me, and I didn’t become an unbearable lout incapable of controlling himself. Just for your information, that only comes after four margaritas, and has nothing to do with whether I’m outside or not.

The Special One and I were easily the youngest adults at the event, with the band cracking out covers of venerable classics such as Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”, Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”* to meet the musical tastes of the gathered throngs. To be honest, half way through the second margarita, they could have knocked out some snuff metal and I’d have been perfectly happy.

Half way through probably the second number that we saw, a man and a woman got up and started dancing in that vaguely self conscious way that you generally see from the people who take to the dancefloor at a wedding reception after becoming tired of waiting for the newly married couple to take their first dance. Their bravery inevitably encouraged others to get up, and before long there were plenty of people, erm, getting their groove on.

At first I thought it was the tequila, but after a while, I began to notice that at least 75% of the aforementioned groovers were actually line dancing – performing exactly the same routine alongside each other, including complicated skips, shoulder drops and head sways in time to the music. And not just one or two people in their own routine, either – more like a dozen or more silver haired dancers racing through an elaborate routine. It was like watching the video for Achy Breaky Heart, back when Billy Ray Cyrus was just a man with an embarrassing mullet, rather than Hannah Montana’s dad.

Line dancing is one of those traditions (on both sides of the Atlantic) that I think should only be performed in an extremely controlled environment. Namely ‘in your own imagination’, rather than ‘in public where people you might know could possibly see you.’ Nonetheless, there is something faintly mesmerising about watching it, and not just because you’re laughing at Norah, the latecomer with two left feet who can’t work out the routine and ends up tripping poor Ernie half way through an unlikely linedancing version of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The strange thing is that these people had no caller yelling out the steps, but danced a perfectly choreographed routine for every song. They weren’t an organised ‘troupe’, as people came and went over the course of an hour or so, but even so, each person knew exactly which move went where and when. I kept hoping that every change of song by the band would cause each indvidual member to burst out into a different routine, but somehow they all knew inherently that if “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” starts playing, you take two steps to the right and click your heels together.

Such was the level of knowledge that I am now of the opinion that linedancing is part of the initiation procedure into the cult of America. Given that I am now going through protracted immigration proceedings, I am convinced that I am going to be tested by immigration officers not on my knowledge of the American constitution, but which steps should be performed to “Chantilly Lace”.

I’m packing my bags to go back to the UK already.

* Of course I was joking, and ‘Barbie Girl’ wasn’t sung by the band. It was ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.

My name’s A Brit Out Of Water, and I’m a cheese addict

Having been plugged into my iPod each morning on the way to work this week, I’ve realised just how many guilty pleasures I have when it comes to music. Everybody has their own guilty pleasure – that song that you know you really shouldn’t like, but somehow you can’t just help yourself. Admitting to it loses you all credibility, but – let’s be honest – having been a member of the T’Pau fan club as a youngster, I never really had much of that in the first place.

From Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” to “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, my collection is packed to the gills with the kind of songs I would have taken out of my CD stacks and hidden if any serious music fan had come to visit. Now they sit safely within the shadowy lair of my hard drive, safely out of harm’s way but still accessible to me on the long and winding road into the office.

Of course, the problem with this is like any addict who is successfully able to hide his dependency from friends and family, consumption of said addiction goes up because you think you can get away with it. So while The Special One thinks that I’m constantly listening to the latest hot young things from Brooklyn or Sheffield on my headphones, I’m actually singing along internally to “Mr Blue SKy” by ELO, or “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions.

My stealthy cheese habit extends to the dairy version too. While I love cheese in all its artisanal forms, nasty American cheese (or even the stuff they laughingly call cheddar here) definitely has its time and place. But only when nobody is looking. A good hot everything bagel with melted cheese and ham for breakfast is no substitute for a bacon butty, but it cures most known ills. And pepper jack (a heritage-less cheese if ever there was one) definitely has its place in my heart.

However, the worst sin of all – the Barbra Streisand of the cheese world, if you will – is the clandestine love affair I have with Wispride cheese balls. They look like something that you’d see on a Sky One programme entitled “America’s Worst Inventions,” but for some reason I just can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re not available in the UK (and so still have novelty value), or perhaps it’s because they’re a subconscious reaction against my adoration of lovingly crafted and aged cheeses of the world, but whatever the case, these things are like crack in dairy form. Give me some Jacob’s cream crackersTriscuits, an extra sharp cheddar cheese ball and maybe an episode of The Wire or 24, and I’m happier than a pig wallowing around in his own excrement. The only way I could be happier would be to put some love songs by Chicago on the stereo at the same time.

Actually, I really shouldn’t have put that thought in my head. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Just don’t tell the neighbours, eh?

Important pan pipe update

If you read or commented on the post regarding the pan pipe/pan flute man who ‘graces’ the L platform at 14th Street/Union Square, you need to know that the non-performing busker plumbed new creative depths this morning. Nobody – and I mean nobody – needs to hear a pan pipe version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King first thing in the morning. And certainly not being mimed to by a recorder-wielding man put on this earth to torture poor unsuspecting commuters. My ears are still bleeding, half an hour later.

Oh, and that rumbling noise you hear in the distance is Elton John and Tim Rice rolling in their graves. Dying first, obviously, then rolling in their graves.

The pipes of peace

I’ve said it before, but New York is a city packed full of people who just don’t know when to stop. As the old Chinese proverb says, “Start argument with New Yorker on Tuesday, kiss goodbye to weekend.” And if a New Yorker fails at something, expect them to keep trying until they’ve finally achieved it. Or at least until they’ve died trying.

The lack of limits extends to the workplace too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the New York branch of Workaholics Anonymous resembles HarrodsMacy’s on the first day of the January sales. I know plenty of people who spend more time at their offices than at home, and it can’t just be because of the way that that woman in accounts/man in the postmail room looks at them.

The fact is that New Yorkers play hard, but work much harder. It’s probably the only city in America where employees complain about getting ten days off work per year because it’s twice as many as they ever intend to take. Some people wonder how the city supports so many fast food outlets, but frankly if it wasn’t for lawyers and architects ordering in chicken parmigiana at 10pm, half of the Italian places in New York would close down.

Given the level of commitment to work, the buskerstreet musician on the L platform at 14th Street/Union Square is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Masquerading as a guitar twiddling, pan pipe blowing Peruvian, Manuel Pugo (I’ve occasionally had the misfortune to get up close, and have seen his CDs) is the antithesis of a New Yorker. Despite the fact that his music is blasting out every morning (generally covers of much loved classics such as ‘The Sound Of Silence’), I have yet to see him blow his pan pipes in anger, or give more than an occasional strum. It’s almost as if he’s on doctor’s orders not to perform for more than three minutes a day, for fear that further exertion will cause him to spontaneously combust.

He mimes along quite happily, and occasionally gives a muted yelp into the microphone. But mostly he talks to commuters, and gives me the kind of look that says “you’ve been coming to this platform for six months now and you’ve not put money in my guitar case once.”

Clearly I give him a withering stare in return. If he hasn’t managed to work it out yet, the aforementioned look roughly translates as “pick up your sodding instrument and use it, and I might consider giving you some cash.”

I think my money’s perfectly safe, sadly.

It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay

I’ve been a music fan for as long as I can remember. From listening to the Muppets album at my grandmother’s house as a five year old, through to playing a cassette of the soundtrack from Electric Dreams, and on to my first live gig (Heart, if you must know – credibility was a distant prospect at that point in my life), music was a central part of being a kid. Much to the dismay of She Who Was Born To Worry and Little Sis, who were forced to endure me listen to Kajagoogoo’s ‘White Feathers’ album more than was ever necessary.

Now I’m watching The Young Ones (the kids, that is, rather than Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and co) grow up with an equal love of music, manifesting itself in hours wired up to their iPods or locked in their rooms listening to The Clash and the Arctic Monkeys (The Eldest) or Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry (The Youngest). To be honest, I don’t care what they like – I’m just happy to see them care about such an important art form. Although if I have to hear the Cheetah Girls again, I won’t be held responsible for my actions. No court in the land would convict me…

Tonight as I put The Youngest to bed, we ended up in a conversation about the relative merits of being an adult or a child. Delivering her killer blow, she triumphantly cried: “Children are the future!” All this succeeded in doing was making me sing a song with the opening lines “I believe the children are our future/teach them well and let them lead the way.” After a brief flirtation with believing that the song was USA For Africa’s “We Are The World”, I finally and proudly managed to work out that it was “The Greatest Love Of All.”

“Who’s that by?” questioned The Youngest.

“Whitney Houston, of course,” I replied.

“Whitney Houston? Who’s he?”

Welcome, my friends, to the all too fickle world of showbiz.

Lord knows I can’t change

You might know me as the mild mannered janitor of this esteemed property, but I have a secret. A secret dark enough that it only speaks its name to a select few. A secret that I only shared with The Special One a few months before our wedding, for fear that she would call the whole thing to a grinding halt. It was touch-and-go for a while, it has to be said, and the secret still regularly brings her to the point of tears whenever it pops involuntarily into her head.

But now I don’t care who knows – I love “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners with a passion. Say it once, say it loud, I too-rye-aye and I’m proud.

I don’t know what it is about the song that I adore so much. Maybe it’s the feelgood intro, the “poor old Johnny Raaaaaaaay” lyrics, or the impossibly catchy piano line – but whatever it is, I can’t get it out of my head for about three weeks after I’ve heard it again. No wedding is complete in my mind without a bit of “Come On Eileen”, and the mere sight of dungarees (or overalls as I laughingly believe they’re called over here) can send me into a Dexy’s whirl.

Now clearly, not everyone is as comfortable as I am in their own musicality but I promise you that – deep down – half of Britain feels exactly the same as me. Admittely the other half would rather have rusty nails hammered into their skull, but that’s a side issue. The thing is that certain pop songs are irrevocably specific to one country and its people. Name a Brit who doesn’t know all the words to Robbie Williams’ “Angels” and I will show you a liar. As I mentioned here, the Special One is still recovering from the stampede to the dancefloor which occurred when “Dizzy” by Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff was played at a wedding we attended a couple of years ago. And it’s probably best not to talk about her reaction to the playing of the theme from “Minder”.

Obviously, America has its own selection of songs that do exactly the same thing – most of which mean absolutely nothing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times The Special One and I have been in the car, and she’s suddenly turned the sound up on the radio to listen to a top tune, only for me to find out that it’s something along the lines of “Born To Break The Levee” by Harry Walton & The Tennessee Turncoats. I count myself as a man who knows a bit about music, but here it’s almost as if I’ve had all my cultural reference points removed in a botched surgical operation that was merely meant to take out my tonsils.

However, the one epochal American pop song that I’m all too familiar with is “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mention “Free Bird” to any American, and their eyes drift off mistily to college days and their time with long-haired Megan with the impossibly flexible limbs/the night with butch quarterback Howie (and his roommate Mitch). Mention the song to a Brit, and they’ll ask “is that the one that Will To Power combined with Peter Frampton’s ‘Baby I Love Your Way’?”

The fact is that “Free Bird” is effectively the American national anthem – a statement of the country’s unwillingness to play nicely with anyone else, and its insistence on independence at all costs. And despite its dubious intentions, it’s universally loved and remains one of the most played songs on American radio.

But why for the love of all that is good and virtuous does it have to be so sodding long? The song came on the radio when The Special One and I were leaving Rhode Island on Sunday afternoon, and I would swear it was still playing when we entered New York state three hours later. I’ve had shorter relationships than that song. If US forces ever need to employ noise warfare techniques again to force Central American drug barons into the open, they could do worse than to consider the “Free Bird” guitar solo.

On song

You get a better class of crazy in this city, you know. Walking along a side street a few blocks from Times Square last night, I saw (and indeed heard) a dawdling dishevelled old man, singing at the absolute top of his voice. I’m guessing, but he looked like he was about 70 years old and almost certainly homeless, given his ragtag collection of battered plastic bags.

Nothing particularly odd in any of that – sometimes it feels like you’re part of a vast travelling choir in New York, such is the number of people who think that it’s perfectly acceptable to share their tone-deaf warblings with the rest of the world.

But how many 70 year old down-and-out guys in London would have Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as their song of choice, particularly given that it was about 75 degrees and blue skies at the time?

Actually, he didn’t have a bad voice when it came down to it. If Prince ever needs a slightly older frayed-around-the edges replacement, can I suggest he starts the search in the homeless shelters of Hell’s Kitchen?

Wheels of steel

Am just back from a long long weekend in the UK to attend a wedding in the heart of the rather gorgeous Peak District. When you mix a lovely old stately home-type hotel, a healthy smattering of some of your best mates in the world, a seemingly limitless supply of red and white wine, and the marriage of very close pals, it’s not difficult to enjoy yourself it has to be said.

Even when you’re doing some of the DJing yourself.

I’ve always loved wedding discos. For a start, whether the first dance is by Rick Astley or Luther Vandross, it’s always intriguing to find out which track means the most to the happy couple, although statistics do prove that people who choose Def Leppard tend to be divorced shortly before the honeymoon photos have arrived. And of course, it’s always great to see Auntie Ethel and the bride’s mother’s best friend getting their groove on to the likes of Duran Duran, Wham! and Adam & The Ants.

So when you get asked to DJ at the wedding of one of your best friends, there’s only one answer. And it isn’t no.

The problem though is how to assess your crowd, and make sure that you play the right thing to get as many people dancing as possible. The last few weddings I’ve been to have been largely all-American affairs, where the music of choice is far removed from that which you’d expect at a British event. I mean, is there really a place for Menudo at a wedding?

It works the other way, as well. The look of abject horror on The Special One’s face at a wedding in the UK last year, when a stampede of people trampled her underfoot to get to the dancefloor for Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff’s “Dizzy” will live with me for a long time to come.

Of course the fact that, thanks to a small inter-marital communication breakdown, all my music had been left in a bag in our living room in Brooklyn didn’t exactly help my cause. I bet that never happens to Paul Oakenfold. With my guaranteed floor fillers left, well, on the floor, I had to rely on the leftover tunes of my fellow DJs to keep the party going. Fortunately, a couple of glasses of wine removes much of your inhibitions and doubts when it comes to playing tracks by Belinda Carlisle, as it turns out.

I even got asked to play ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ by Tiffany. I wasn’t that drunk, though, I’m pleased to report.