Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

The Little Happy Theater Open Mic in Paris

December 3, 2018
bradspurgeon

PARIS – It has been a long time since I’ve been to a new open mic in Paris, so it was a strange but exhilarating experience on Saturday night to finally get over to the open stage of a little, tiny, minuscule bar/venue/theater space in Montmartre, called the Petit Théâtre de Bonheur and perform in front of the absolutely jam packed space of about 25 square meters.

I had discovered this place while working on an article about Paris’s small theaters, but I wasn’t sure the place really fit in. One thing is sure: It only just fits into its Montmartre location on a stairway steeply climbing up the slope towards the Sacre Coeur. You find yourself, in fact, on simply a midway up landing on the slope, not even on any kind of a street as such.

The venue is also jam-packed into the tiny space, and the open mic takes place in front of the seated spectators, seated in rows of available chairs as in a theater. These are moveable chairs, so while it is cramped quarters for everyone if the open mic is as well attended as it was on Saturday, you can move the chairs about to find the best squeeze…!

While I call it an open mic, they have another name for it: Cabaret Voltaire! It is open to anyone, musicians, comics, you name it. We saw several comics and the rest musicians – even some who had no instruments but just sang their texts unaccompanied.

The place is so small and intimate that I decided to perform without a mic or pickup on my guitar. It was one of the first times that I actually really enjoyed that, since it was so intimate a space, and I knew I did not have to strain my voice (or guitar) to be heard.

Anyway, it was really unlike any open mic I have attended in Paris so far. If you are looking for “different” then this is it! Not to mention the fabulous location on the hill leading up to Montmartre.

PS, This open mic was the last before they close down for a few weeks for renovations – so be sure to check the web site for the program to make sure they have reopened.

An Update to My Paris Open Mic Guide

November 26, 2018
bradspurgeon

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Just a note to say that I have updated my open mic city guide, The Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

In fact, the only update is to bring back a listing for the fabulous Paris Songwriters Club open mic of Paddy Sherlock, which has already had five editions at its new location, O’Sullivans Rebel Bar. It had previously been at the Tennessee Bar before seeking a new home for many months, and finding this fabulous, intimate place. Check it out!

Today’s Long Lost Interview is a 1996 One with Frazier Mohawk / Barry Friedman, the Record Producer, Circus Impresario, Farmer and all the rest

October 31, 2018
bradspurgeon

Frazier Mohawk and Nurit Wilde

Frazier Mohawk and Nurit Wilde

PARIS – For the second day in a row I am stunned to have found in my archives an interview I never knew I had. This time it is a long and wide-ranging one with Frazier Mohawk (born Barry Friedman), who is best known as the founder of the Buffalo Springfield band, and producer of many other albums of the 60s and early 70s. He was also the director and founder of Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus, and a friend of mine from my teenage years. I wrote about him for a special article in the Careers section of the International Herald Tribune in January 1997, and this interview – which I had forgotten I had – was done for the article. What makes it valuable to anyone interested in Frazier – and I see lots of hits for my other articles about Frazier Mohawk, like about his death in 2012 – is that it covers much of his life that has not already been covered by all the usual interviews focusing on his work as a record producer in the 60s. It focuses much on his recording studio at Puck’s Farm, and on his childhood and youth. You really get the sound of his voice here too, so if you knew Frazier Mohawk / Barry Friedman, or want to know what he sounded like, read this interview in my articles (as opposed to posts) section of this blog.

Fantastic Find of My Never-Before-Published Interview with A.S. Byatt, the Booker Winning Novelist

October 30, 2018
bradspurgeon

A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt

I was quite astounded today as I was going through my huge archive of 35 years’ worth of my writing in my computer (my first computer was a 1982 Osborne), and I discovered an interview article I did with the Booker Prize-winning author, A.S. Byatt.  Strangely – or not, given the ravages of age – I had completely forgotten that I ever did it.  I performed the interview and wrote the article in 1991 and it was immediately rejected by an editor and immediately, for some reason, relegated to my archives as of no interest to anyone.  Because it was 1991, the only way it COULD be published at the time was to submit it to print publications, and I probably had gotten tired of all the submissions I had already made for the article that inspired it:  my article about the world’s most prolific writers of books in English (which was eventually published as the lead essay on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  So I “trashed” this Byatt interview, which I also had tied in not only with the theme of prolificacy, but also with the centennial of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street.  In fact, finding it now, I see it was a lively, fantastic interview with an important British author who is still alive today, at age 82.  So no sooner did I discover it today than I decided to add it to my collection on this blog of “Brad’s Rejected Writings.”  Check it out, this 1991 interview with A.S. Byatt.  

Discovering Sharón Clark, Mattias Nilsson and the Cercle Suédois in Paris

October 19, 2018
bradspurgeon

Sharon Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

Sharón Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

PARIS – I grew up with jazz.  My father was an aficionado who not only built his own hi-fi equipment and had a sizeable collection of 78s and 33s of jazz from the beginning of time, but he also made sure to take me to concerts to see some of the masters.  So it was that I saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and I heard play and then met at the age of seven, Gene Krupa, the great jazz drummer, in a small club in downtown Toronto in the mid-1960s.  The aural wallpaper of my childhood included voices like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.  So it was that my jazz sensibilities, whether good or not, were accustomed to hearing the highest quality.  Perhaps it was for this that I have never much cared for listening to amateur jazz singers, and I go extremely rarely to jazz jams.  I just mention all of this as background to saying that I was bowled over last week attending a concert at the Cercle Suédois in Paris and hearing the astounding voice of Sharón Clark.  

It was all about her phrasing, her control, her range, her nuances.  It was all about authenticity.  About hearing so many of the songs she sang – lots of Sarah Vaughan, as she is a specialist on that one – in a way that sounded both familiar and new.  

So who the hell is Sharón Clark, and what was she doing at the Cercle Suédois of Paris?  And what brought ME there?!?!  

It turns out that Sharón, who is from Washington D.C., is on a tour of Europe – and Taiwan!! – accompanied by a fabulous, versatile young pianist named Mattias Nilsson, who is Swedish.  He is the boyfriend of an acquaintance of mine, and I was told he’d be doing this gig in Paris, maybe I’d like to go.  

I really did not expect much of anything – Mattias, Sharón OR the Cercle Suédois.  It turned out to be discoveries in every area, and proved once again how if you just get off your butt and check something out – outside of your regular stomping grounds – then you might find something really revitalising.

First back to Sharón.  Her story is fabulous.  Although she has sung all her life, starting out in church, as has often happened with American jazz and gospel singers (and she sings some gospel too), she only really emerged in recent years after she was fired from a full-time job – that she had as the mother of a now 15-year-old girl – and decided it was time to dive into the world of her passion and see if she could make a career out of her singing.  This answers the question that some media have asked, “Where has she been hiding???”  

No sooner did she fix her mind to it, than she scored a tour in Russia, and she has now made many contacts in Europe, with, in this case, Mattias Nilsson working hard with her – last week selling out the famous Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.  And to quote her web site bio, “Ms. Clark appears regularly in DC at Blues Alley and Loews Madison Hotel. A featured soloist with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony, Clark has headlined the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, the Cape May Jazz Festival and the Savannah Music Festival. Both the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and The Ludacris Foundation chose Ms. Clark to perform for their separate tributes to Quincy Jones.

As to Nilsson, I am no more aware of his age than I am of Clark’s, but he looks around 35 and has already had a 15-year long career as a pianist, playing all around the world, and from jazz to classical and everything in between, including Swedish folk music.  In fact, while it has taken me a while to write about this Cercle Suédois evening, that also gave me time to listen to his CD, “Dreams of Belonging.” 

As I told him myself in a message after listening to it, it’s real mix of different styles, even some touches of Satie sound, jazz, everything.  Moments Keith Jarrett, Scott Joplin, hints of all this, but then the main thrust which is his Swedish sound.  

At the Cercle Suédois, the two were accompanied by a French bassist they had never played with before, but he added a fabulous layer of sound behind the piano and Clark’s voice.  It was a wonderful relaxed evening in this place I had never even known existed, but which has been in Paris in the same building since the 1930s, and prior to that, in another place since it was founded in the 1890s!

The current place is in one of the iconic looking buildings lining the Rue de Rivoli, near the Place de la Concorde – which is the last place I ever expected to find a jazz concert.  It is above all a private club for Swedish people, but it offers these concerts every Wednesday, and even if you are not a member you can attend, paying 15 euros for the music.  You can also order drinks, or even a meal. (Ornella and I had the salads, hers a salmon salad, mine the haddock salad.)

As  you can see from the photo and my short video excerpt, that the place is a beautiful ornate classic mansion inside – but as I said, the atmosphere is relaxed, and it also gave me naturally a taste of Sweden, including being able to touch the desk that I was told was the one that Alfred Nobel used to sign the decree launching the Nobel Prizes.  

Now that is class!  Like Clark, Nilsson and the place itself.  

Singing, Juggling, Ventriloquising, Clowning, Unicycling and Acting with Ornella and TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnières-sur-Seine

September 16, 2018
bradspurgeon

Brad and Ornella performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.

I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.

We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.

In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).

The Inspiring Steve Forbert Memoir, or Another Great Gift From Romeo: Big City Cat

September 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Big City Cat Cover

Big City Cat Cover

PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?

Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.

Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.

Alive on Arrival

Alive on Arrival


At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.

So his influence on me was something in his performance that I continued to search for a long while and eventually started to grasp one evening while busking in London in the fall of ’77, the following year, and feeling something about how to use the whole body and express through the body and voice the fire of the emotion burning inside the gut. (It would take me many, many more years, even so, to get to any point where I could be in any way satisfied with a feeling of how to reproduce that thing at will.) So it is that I know exactly what Forbert’s eventual manager, Danny Fields, was referring to when he describes in the book what got him interested in the young Forbert:

“I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”

That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.

There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)

Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?

And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”

“I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”

But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:

“Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”

“In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)

But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.

“By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”

Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all

For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.

All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.

And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.

I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.

All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”

And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….

By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.

I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)

What a life!

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