Why have I done so few posts on this blog in recent months? Let’s call it a TACtic. I have mentioned TAC Teatro a few times on this blog in the past three years, and especially my activities with TAC. But as of this summer, I have been devoting a lot more time to TAC, and am now a full member of the troupe. This is part of a decision to transform all my open mic experiences into something different, and, hopefully, bigger.
When I say bigger, I mean above all in terms of range of use of the body, voice, performance. I continue to play guitar and write every day – in fact, I am working on a very big writing project that I will finish at the end of the year – but I got to the point with the open mics that it felt as if I was repeating myself. Since stopping my travel to the Formula One races at the end of 2016, I had pretty much only Paris as my stage. And as big and beautiful and great is that stage, playing the same open mics with the same songs for the same spectators began to wear on me.
But my love of performing and my need to create are as strong as ever and always. Now, invited by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, to involve myself even more than before – that is to say, with at least three meetings with the newly formed Paris troupe per week — I have found what feels like the answer to the stagnation at the open mics.
Of course, I am also continuing several other projects, such as the completing of my open mic documentary and the completing of my open mic memoir. But as far as performing goes, the idea is to build as much as possible on the physical theater of TAC Teatro. This is a kind of theater that appeals to me as it involves voice, music, physical action, acrobatics, puppetry, juggling, unicycling, text and just about every other thing you can imagine all wrapped into one.
Among its great proponents are groups like Odin Teatret of Denmark – I am also finishing the editing of a video interview with the founder of that theater, Eugenio Barba, that I conducted along with Ornella – and even the Théâtre du Soleil of Paris, and many others. TAC Teatro has existed for many years in Italy, and Ornella started up the Paris part two years ago. This year is the biggest step so far, with the recent gathering of several new performers – and you could say I am part of that wave.
In the first week of September five of us, under Ornella’s direction, put together a performance on the theme of borders, or “Frontières” that we performed on an outdoor stage at the city hall of Asnières-sur-Seine, where the French TAC is legally based in France. I am putting up on this blog page two videos connected to that event, one of which is a short video of the performance that Luca Papini, an Italian filmmaker in Paris, made.
The other video is of my own specific contribution to the writing of the performance, that did not make it into Luca’s film. All the performers created the first seeds of their own scenes, which we all then worked on together under Ornella’s directing, and so I was pleased to learn that Ornella had found in the filmed bits of our rehearsals and moments of creation, that there was a good, complete filming of my scene. (The exercise of filming the rehearsals was in order for the performers to have a more objective view of their work.) Ornella just finished preparing that segment as a video, which I post above.
TAC Rehearsal with music
We all used our personal preoccupations of the moment to create these seeds of our scenes, which were all also somehow connected to the theme of borders. My own section, called “Le Passeport,” as you will see, has to do with my personal battle with the concept of Brexit, which is affecting me to the point of madness as I wonder at how long I will be considered a legal citizen in France, as opposed to an illegal alien…. And I emphasize that word ALIEN.
So to sum up, again, my lack of presence on the blog in recent months has had nothing to do with an end to my creative projects, but rather, a reduction in the approach of the past – focusing almost entirely on open mics – and the beginning of a new approach, combining all of my interests, including playing music. I hope now I can shake myself out of the lack of contributions to the blog and back into a cycle of regular updates, but on a bigger theme!
This is the article my father wrote for the Globe and Mail about man landing on the moon – written 50 years ago today, published 50 years ago tomorrow. I, with my brother and sister and mother, were there with him at Cape Kennedy (as it was then called) and we watched the Apollo 11 spacecraft lift off toward the moon. We stayed at Cocoa Beach while he then flew off to Houston, and Mission Control, for the rest of the coverage.
At one point, one early evening, without a board, I asked my father to rent me one. He said no, but that I should go ask that man over there with a woman if I could use his, as he was not using it. I was unsure why he singled out this man, but I went and asked for his board. “No,” came the abrupt answer. Returning to tell my Dad, he asked me if I knew who the man was. Of course I did not, but he responded: “That’s Norman Mailer, Brad.” Mailer was attending the launch researching his eventual book, “Of a Fire on the Moon.”
If my father perhaps wanted to use me to meet Mailer, he did give me another unforgettable memory when while I was swimming in our hotel pool, he drew my attention to an elderly man entering a room above – the doors of the rooms faced the pool below, as in a motel – and I can still see the image of the man entering the room. “That’s Charles Lindbergh,” my father told me. And, of course, it was. Lindbergh, then only 67 years old, and the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, was still around to attend the moon launch. An extraordinary century.
But many decades later, in our own century now, my father asked me what it was like to cover Formula One racing as a journalist. I told him that it was very interesting because it was about so many different things: The drivers were heroes risking their lives and doing exceptional feats of athletic prowess; they drove cars that were the highest expression of cutting edge technology, and expensive as hell; that it was a mix of extremely rapid technological development, glamour, money and danger with the drivers as stars. His response to me was: “It sounds just like covering the space program in the 1960s.” That is when I realised that no matter how hard we try to escape our origins, our family background, our parents’ goals for us, well, we somehow end up back at the same place….
2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.
10:30 AM: Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.
11:00 AM: Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.
1:00 PM: Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).
7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection. Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.
Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.
8:30 PM: Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin. First had a local white, then had a local red. Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement. Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.
Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country. Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris. Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.
10:37 AM: Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.
4:30 PM: Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies. Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy. Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).
7:00 PM: Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things. Learn much about what it was to live under communism. Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom. Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.
12:30 AM: Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians. Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.
2:00 AM: Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires. (And copious mosquitoes present.)
11:00 AM: Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.
2:00 PM: Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county. Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles. Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it. (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz): “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)
3:00 PM: Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists. Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros. Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros. In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu. Has guitar on back. After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street. Says he owns 250 guitars. Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.” Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.
3:30 PM: Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again. Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros. Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not. But knows others.
4:00 PM: Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square. Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none. Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame. Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better. Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.
5:30 PM: Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host. Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu. Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress. We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride. In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania. My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon. He knows my name and is surprised. Nice coincidence.
7:00 PM: Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor. Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris. Nice coincidence. No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators: Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia. (See photo.) Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.
00:00 PM: Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join. I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.
8:15 AM: Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.
Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary
9:00 AM: Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory. Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds. Rundown after years without use. Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies. No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)
8:30 PM: Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar. Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music. Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind. No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies. Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them. Makes me want to quit. (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)
Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater
10:00 PM: Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music. No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.
10:30 PM: Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping. Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians. So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.
00:00 PM: Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host. Host agreed it must have been vampire bat. Fall asleep anyway, no problems.
8:15 AM: Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains. No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies. Forget all troubles. Do workshop, day ends well. Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania. Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world. Always people. Just people. Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.
More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….
Keith Botsford in a YouTube interview (before his death)
PARIS – I just had the most extraordinary obituary reading experience of my life. And I must have read obituaries on an average of at the very least once per week for the last 40 or so years. It felt at times as if I was reading satire, or high comedy, or was it low comedy? It felt often like reading something out of “Scoop,” the satirical novel of the newspaper business by Evelyn Waugh. Although I only saw it today, this obituary ran in The New York Times three days ago under the headline: “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90.” And the wild experience plants itself – as all good journalism should – right in the first paragraph (or lead, or lede): “Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.”
My first thought was that it was great that The Times decided to run his obituary despite him having died a year earlier. But then in the second paragraph I learn that his death did not really go so unnoticed as all that: “His death was noted two days later by The New England Review of Books on its website and, 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe, but it was otherwise not reported widely. The Times of London published an obituary two months later, and the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia, noted his death in its recent winter-spring issue.”
This reminded me that I had read last year the obituary by The Times of London, or was pretty sure I had. They are among the best obits in the world, and they are quite widely read and authoritative. So it seemed to me that the media that really missed Mr. Botsford’s death was more The New York Times, not really the wider world as such, as the first paragraph indicated. This was, in short, no scoop! But it led directly and immediately to the next extraordinary moment in this reading experience in the third paragraph: “The New York Times learned of his death on Thursday while updating an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2014. Reached on Saturday, his son Gianni confirmed the death.”
Wait a minute!!!! Hold it!!!! Ever since the horrendous Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, when an up-and-coming reporter was found to have fabricated a large number of his articles – i.e., made up the stories, the quotes, and even the travel expenses (as he sometimes claimed expenses for trips not taken, the stories having been written at home) – the NYT devised a number of new rules about reporting that I find absurd, and which it has in many cases stuck to ever since. One of these is to say exactly where a person was interviewed from: ie, “said Mr. So-and-So in an email” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a telephone call” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a text message” etc., which personally I have always found interferes with the reader’s experience of trying to learn about what was said and not how it was conveyed to the reporter.
And one of the often most infuriating – to me – such rules, which I remember as coming from that same Blair period, was the one about having to have confirmation from a family member or some official of the death of the subject of an obituary. So here we are with the venerable New York Times giving us an obituary in which we are told that the subject died almost a year earlier, that it was reported in several major publications and that there was even a – perhaps obligatory – death notice bought in the formerly NYT-owned Boston Globe…and we have to have the NYT call up the son of the subject of the obit and ask him to confirm the death to put the suspicious reader’s doubts at ease!?!?! Despite abundant proof that the subject died a year earlier?
This is also the point when the satire of the form of the article begins to create an even wilder mix with the subject of the obituary. The next paragraph, right below that stylistic convention in the NYT – here absurd – begins with this sentence about the subject of the obituary: “Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre.” I said to myself, “So what the hell then would Mr. Botsford be thinking now about this boundary of form of the genre, I wonder? That the NYT had to ask for confirmation from his son despite ample proof he was dead and gone…or if not ample proof, then at least nearly a year has past, which would be plenty of time for Mr. Botsford to write letters to the editors of the venerable publications that announced his death, complaining, as another famous writer had, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
We now learn that Mr. Botsford was “a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. … A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen.”
Here we begin rising even higher in this crescendo of the extraordinary nature of this obituary and its subject: Botsford’s life was a tale that might stand beautifully alongside that of Woody Allen’s Zelig, for being a man all over the map, except here Botsford’s talents are clearly exceptional, and not just some chance thing. (In addition to his literary exploits, the article tells us that, “By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”)
But then the obituary’s extraordinary nature pokes its head out again a couple of paragraphs later with our first “live” quote from the subject of the obit when describing his first meeting with Saul Bellow in the early 1950s at a party, which would lead to the two writers becoming lifelong friends and colleagues:
“It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Mr. Botsford recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2014. “I had just read ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ so I walked up and started talking to him.”
Bellow, left, and Botsford
Hold the presses again!!!! Our first quote from the deceased comes from an interview that was done by the author of this very same obituary and for the purpose of this very same obituary that we are reading. What?!?!? I may have been very inattentive in my reading of obituaries, but I feel this is the first time I have been informed that the subject of the obituary was interviewed by the writer of the obituary for use in the obituary itself. Is this morbid? Well, thank goodness they informed us in the beginning of the story that the son of this man confirmed to the NYT that this man was indeed dead. Otherwise, reading that he had been quoted here from an interview he did FOR this obituary, I might have thought him still alive and taking part in some kind of a practical joke about his own death notice….
Wild! But it also makes me feel as if someone at the NYT must have said, “Gee, we went to so much trouble to write this obit, including interviewing the guy, and we then missed his death and never used it?! Come on. Let’s not waste this. Get it in print.”
The obituary then spends several paragraphs talking about the relationship between these two men – is it more about Bellow than about Botsford? No, no. – until I get to a part where I learn that Mr. Botsford and I have something else in common aside from both being fans of Bellow: “In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.”
Formula One racing! Which, yes, I wrote about for a couple of decades for the NYT and its International Herald Tribune edition (although I have no longer been employed by either paper since 2016, and I still love reading the NYT, as this rant makes clear). But that’s just a personal thing that lit a fire for me, and probably has no place in this rant!
We find he also published some two dozen novels, and had the university education and degrees of about three or four people all rolled into one. We learn that he was born in Europe, and his family background was as fantastic as his own life, particularly the larger than life tale of his mother and her family. Her name was “Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce,” and, continues the article, “He said that his mother was a descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli and that his father’s ancestors had helped found Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in 1639. Mr. Botsford recalled his maternal grandmother employing 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.”
Wow! Love it!
Picasso and Jacqueline
He ended up moving to Costa Rica and living in a fabulous home overlooking the sea, a house designed by his son, an architect – and the very man who confirmed his father’s death to the NYT a year after it happened – and then one of the most extraordinary moments of all, the kicker, for me, of the tale of Keith Botsford’s extraordinary life: We learn that he was married three times, and that his last wife was 52 years younger than him! That stands as a record for me of age difference in spouses, far outdoing even Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill’s 36-year difference, or Picasso and Jacqueline’s 45-year difference!
So here, the subject of the obituary finally takes over in wonderment from the form of the story completely – form follows function at this point – and we are left with a feeling that this was absolutely a unique, extraordinary person, and thank goodness the NYT chose to publish this story, even one year too late.
Having said that, the subject of the obit and the tale of the obit itself, its writing form, come together again in the kicker that the NYT writer left us with. The following concept may be true of Bellow and Botsford, but it is also clearly true of the way this obit was written – whether intended or not:
“Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:”
“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”
Something tells me that Keith Botsford would have been amused.
PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.
PARIS – I have written before about Paddy Sherlock and his fabulous Paris Songwriter Club open mic. But the last time I visited it was located on Sunday nights at the Tennessee bar in the Latin Quarter. Last September it moved to the O’Sullivan Rebel bar on the rue des Lombards, near Chatelet. I have now finally had the chance to attend, and I am happy to report that the move has done it some good. It is even more intimate than it was before, so much so that at the end of the evening it suddenly turned completely acoustic, and that much warmer still.
This bar used to have an open mic on the ground floor, run by Etienne Belin, who used to run the Coolin open mic, which was the bar where Paddy had a gig that lasted around two decades until they closed the place after Apple bought it and transformed it into an Apple Store. That sentence was purposefully a mess, as I write this blog item now a few days after attending Paddy’s open mic at the Rebel bar, and I continued to think about how I can sing its praises!
The new open mic takes place in the basement, vaulted ceiling room, and not on the ground floor, and this is a stroke of genius. Or at least a natural environment for it. The ground floor, in my opinion, was never quite right. Here in the basement room, there is just enough room to make it a packed evening of music and audience participation no matter how many people show up.
The only drawback to having it in the basement is that bar patrons from above must pass through the room of the open mic in order to get to the toilets. Having said that, this is a way to rope in some extra spectators who might have decided to drop into this popular bar without considering attending the open mic, and then they can get drawn in by the music.
There was an eclectic mix of music on Sunday, with everything from the usual singer songwriters showing off their new songs to even an actress showing off her new monologue. Frankly, it has been a long time since I have played in front of such an intimate audience, and it was challenging at first, but I eventually felt at home. And I will return as soon as I can….
The sudden death at age 66 in Melbourne of Charlie Whiting, the Formula One race director, official race starter, rules-writer and rock-solid leader in many other roles in the world’s premier racing series, hit me and anyone else who knew him even marginally as a complete shock. It also came in a dramatic manner the day before the new season’s first track action at the Australian Grand Prix, and while the series itself continues to pass through a transition from its old management – that of Bernie Ecclestone – to its new owners, Liberty Media. That Liberty Media asked Whiting three years ago to remain in the series just when he was contemplating retirement after a 40-year career in the series, and at the same time Liberty were preparing to fire Ecclestone, speaks volumes about the importance of this man to the smooth operation of the series.
But probably the thing that most comes to mind in all of the tributes from friends and colleagues around the world since his death last night is Whiting’s simplicity, kindness, sweetness and fairness as a human being. He was much loved by almost everyone in the series, despite having probably the most difficult job of all: to act at least in part as a rules enforcer and referee during both technical and human racing disputes. Whiting was one of the rare people in high positions who had no airs of self-importance, and he was hugely respected by the drivers – with whom he performed pre-race briefings at each event – and with the media and team personnel.
I had a wild first meeting with Whiting at the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 on the morning of the race. But it was wild for just about every external reason – later that day Formula One had the biggest multi-car pile-up in its history with 13 cars crashing in the first corner – rather than my interaction with Whiting himself being wild. I felt slightly nervous conducting this first interview with the race director – then in his second season in the role – but very quickly as I sat in his small office off the side of the paddock with the rain pounding down outside, I started to ask myself: “Does he appear to be more nervous than I am about our interview?” His manner put me quickly at ease.
I would conclude over the years that, no, he was not likely nervous during our interview. He simply had a very human, very natural way of speaking to a reporter, or a whole media center full of reporters, that felt very unlikely for a man of his power within the series. It was the same as he spoke to anyone in any circumstance, it seemed. There were no external facades put on to persuade anyone of anything. He had a balanced, calm, cool way of dealing with the problems at hand, and seemed so perfectly suited to being the dispute-defuser that he was, that it was clear to see why Ecclestone – and the International Automobile Federation – had trusted him from Whiting’s early days in the series working as a mechanic at Ecclestone’s Brabham team in the 1980s right up until today over his more than 20 years in his race director role.
Whiting, left, at press conference
As one paddock person after another (journalists, drivers, co-workers, and other related F1 people) have said today in their outpourings of grief, Whiting had time for everyone, and could be counted on. It is difficult to imagine how Formula One will cope in the coming season – or even beyond – without him.
In order to give some idea of the kind of life Charlie Whiting lived in his daily working life, I have decided to re-print on my blog the article I wrote outlining that weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 when I met him. Before our meeting on the morning of the race, I had also been invited to spend the Friday practice session in the race control tower watching how Whiting and his team worked during the race action. That, too, turned out to be something of an historic, frantic session, as the cocky young reigning world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, decided to test his manliness by taking the series’ most wicked dangerous corner at full speed, and he paid the price with a spectacular accident into the barriers.
The story, which follows here, appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 11 Sept. 1998 as the race preview of the following race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza:
The atmosphere will be tense at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, not only in the battle between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher for the drivers’ title but also because it is the 20th anniversary at the Monza track of a 10-car pile-up that seriously injured two drivers and took the life of a third, Ronnie Peterson.
That anniversary might have passed unnoticed were it not for a stark reminder Aug. 30 at the Belgian Grand Prix when 13 cars were destroyed in one of the sport’s worst pile-ups. The fact that no driver was injured is partly a tribute to the strict safety rules now applied to the cars’ cockpits, which are much more solidly constructed than they were in 1978. But it is also due to luck.
Nowhere will the off-track tension be higher Friday in Monza than in the race control tower, where the most important safety decisions are made. During the Friday practice session in Belgium, this reporter was invited to watch the scene in what is normally the privileged domain of a handful of officials who have the best seat at the track. The 20 officials sat in deep concentration watching 39 television monitors in their room high above the track, in what looks like a cross between a TV station and NASA’s Mission Control.
When a car suddenly spun off sideways into a tire safety barrier at nearly 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph) , the silent watchers sprang to their feet and spoke into walkie-talkies and cellular telephones. ”Red flag! Red flag!” called out Charlie Whiting, the race director, to stop the practice session. ”Send the break-down truck,” another official barked. ”Go to the site,” ordered another, as Whiting put on his windbreaker to go to inspect the scene of the accident.
Jacques Villeneuve, the car’s driver, climbed out of the wreck and teetered like a boxer after absorbing an effective uppercut. But within 20 seconds, Sid Watkins, the track doctor, was by his side, having been dispatched to ”corner 3” by the control tower. Fortunately, Villeneuve was not hurt, and the session continued after a 15-minute track cleanup, done by the track-side workers following directions from the control tower.
The control tower is manned mostly by local officials, the most senior of whom is the so-called clerk of the course. They communicate with about 300 officials around the track. Whiting, who represents the International Automobile Federation, the sport’s governing body, oversees them all. As race director, he ensures that the locals do things the same way in every country. He is also the official race starter, which can turn the best seat in the house into the hottest seat.
Both the Monza accident 20 years ago and the recent accident in Belgium occurred on the first lap. Two hours before the Belgian race, while the rain fell in sheets across the track, David Coulthard, the British driver, pleaded with Whiting to start the race behind the safety car.
A safety car leads the racing cars, in their grid order, around the track until it drives off, allowing the race to start in earnest. This kind of rolling start – rather than a standing start – can reduce danger of cars fighting for places at the first corner through poor visibility on a slippery track.
”We’d like you to use the safety car because otherwise a lot of us are going to go off the track,” Coulthard said, ”and I’ll probably be one of them.”
But Whiting, at noon, could not give Coulthard a definitive answer for the race that would begin at 2 P.M. He was nervous about the treacherous conditions, but said he would decide only just before the race.
”You have to address every problem individually,” he said. ”The weather can change.”
By 2 o’clock it had cleared a little but the track was still wet under a light drizzle. The safety car was not used and Coulthard’s words proved strangely prophetic: He was the first to slide off the track at the start, setting off the chain-reaction pileup.
After the race Villeneuve said the use of the safety car wouldn’t have made a difference, while Alexander Wurz said the safety car should have been used. Whiting said that the safety decisions are always ”a human thing as opposed to a machine.”