Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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

Playing with Layth Aldaene on his Oud in Abu Dhabi 10 years Ago

November 17, 2022
bradspurgeon

Laythe Aldaene

Laythe Aldaene

PARIS – Today I stumbled on a recording I did in Abu Dhabi exactly 10 years ago and I wanted to post it again to mark the occasion. It was one of my musical adventures following the Formula One season as a journalist, and that year, 2012, I had set myself the goal of recording a song with a local musician in every one of the 20 or so countries that I visited. The idea was a real challenge, and I think I succeeded in my goal, but unfortunately the sound quality of the recordings was not of CD-level quality. But what a treasure to find this one of a star oud player and musician living in Abu Dhabi named Layth Aldaene, who is an Iraqi, and who is still playing around the area and farther afield, including recently with a symphony orchestra. I decided to post this today because this weekend is also that of the season-finale 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Formula One, so it seemed a great moment to post.

This recording took place in the House of Oud, which was a community center and workshop for building ouds, teaching the oud, spreading oud culture and everything else oud that you can imagine. I suggest you check out Layth Aldaene’s web site, as it has lots of his amazing music on it, and some cool videos.

I chose as a song to play my song “Let Me Know,” which I always felt had a middle eastern sound to it. In fact, I had written it purposefully with a middle eastern sound – although the guitar chord progression had itself been given to me by Laurent Guillaume, with whom I recorded the song on my CD.

Layth Aldaene in action

In any case, this recording was done in the workshop of the House of Oud and you can hear the luthier actually working on an oud while we play the song, and read more about it on the post I did at the time. This was a real jam of my song, as we had never rehearsed it.

Also, FYI, here is a link to the song as I recorded on my CD (with Laurent Guillaume doing the lead guitar):

One Thing Again Leads to Another at the Chiringuito Jam in Scopello

August 26, 2022
bradspurgeon

Babel Tower Logo

Babel Tower Logo

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems not to matter how many times I live this lesson, I always come close to forgetting it – only to relive it and learn it again. A few weeks ago I wrote of my experience at the Chiringuito jam in Scopello, Sicily. I wrote about how one good thing leads to another good thing – and vice versa. I missed the last few jams on Wednesday nights at Chiriniguito for various reasons – a cold, a more important meeting, and, yes, inertia. I was almost going to let inertia steer me away from it again this time, but didn’t, and the reward was huge, and unexpected – as usual!

We had planned to have dinner in Scopello at the Nettuno restaurant with Ornella’s family Wednesday and then head off to the jam. But the dinner started late, many more family members arrived, and conversation and good cheer began to take over and extend the time at the table, and reduce the potential time at the jam. Then, as with the last outdoor restaurant meal with the family – last week – a sudden downpour of rain began. It never rains here in the summer. It’s not supposed to. Will not, does not. Unless we have a family gathering or a jam session to attend.

The conversation, family get-together and rain all persuaded me by midnight that I was going to miss the jam session again, and I was going to miss it for valid reasons. I had my guitar ready in the trunk of the car, I had made the “effort,” but it had failed. Once again. Then at about two minutes past midnight, Ornella said to me: “You are going to miss the jam! Go and play, Brad. Don’t worry about us.” In fact, I had been told that many of the members of the family had come to see me play, but I suppose inertia had settled in there too….

I decided not to let that get me down, and in any case, I fully expected to go to the jam – a few minutes’ walk away from the Nettuno – and find that it had been packed up, closed down, over with, all thanks to the downpour, which could have short-circuited all the guitar amps and everything else. There, I thought, I would have my excuse. Part of me had the jitters about playing the jam again also because it had gone so well the first time, and I had had so much fun, that I expected it would fall flat this second time.

I got my Gibson J-200 from the car trunk and went to the jam. It was bopping big time. The stage was curiously dark and wet, but there were musicians on it, playing to a vast crowd of manic spectators jumping up and down in delight at the front of the stage. Michelangelo, the jam organiser and MC, immediately saw me with my guitar on my back at the front right corner of the stage and he approached: “Brad, we had a problem tonight with the rain cutting out a lot of things, and we had to set up all over again, and try to make it work after that…. anyway, the point is, I had to change the format a little: You only get one song. And you are up next.”

Man! I could not say no to that. I had no more excuses! And anyway, I started feeling the pulse of excitement of the idea of going up and playing just one song and if it all failed, I had my excuse there too! I just finished a massive bacon and cheese burger, a massive chocolate Sunday, got wet in the rain, came over to the jam, had one song and got up with no warming up!

I got the Gibson out, waited, when the guy finished, I climbed up on the stage where someone said: “What chords?” I realised it was one of the other musicians – turned out to be the bass player – and he wanted to know what chords I would use for my one song. I didn’t even know what my song would be. I had, in advance, been planning three: “Crazy Love,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Wicked Game.” I thought for a moment about the simplest of them, but also I decided to go for a contrast to the crowd pleasing, foot-stomping, fast-moving, singalong song of the guy onstage before me. I chose “Wicked Game,” by Chris Isaak. It is just three chords from beginning to end, and there can be plenty of room for the jamming of the harmonica and lead guitar between verses on those three chords.

I whipped through the song with huge pleasure – and a few rough spots – and then got off the stage fast. It seemed to go fairly smoothly, and the others had lots of room to jam. I blew my voice out a little, since I had a bit of a problem hearing myself and so I forced it too much, but in all, I was really happy to have done it, and I was happy to have been able to do it fast during what was clearly a difficult night for the organiser – with that rain storm!

Now here is where the real story starts: I got off the stage and began packing my guitar away in its case when a guy approaches and starts speaking English and congratulating me. He turned out to be another musician, a drummer, and he asked if I played professionally. I said no, and asked him if he did. He said he did, and that he was also studying jazz drumming at the conservatory. But he said his band was playing in Castellammare soon, and so I should come and listen. The band, he said, was called Babel Tower. It turned out that they had played recently at Picolit, where my musical adventure began last month.

Babel Tower in Castellammare del Golfo



We talked for some time about music, his life, and the band playing around Sicily. I was still a little breathless after performing, and I had to go and find Ornella’s family. So we parted without exchanging contacts.

Then Ornella and I later in the evening went to the Picolit Pub in Castellammare, and I tried to remember the name of the band that this drummer played in, so I could speak to one of the owners of Picolit about it. Since they have a lot of bands there, she had no idea! But then I looked at the names of the bands that have played there recently, and I recognized the name “Babel Tower.” I then found the Instagram page of the band, and looked at the photos and…there I saw the photo of the guy I spoke to at the jam session.

I returned to the owner, told her it was this band, and she said: “Oh yes!!! And by the way, the singer of the band is sitting at the table beside yours!” Unsure whether I should speak to the singer of Babel Tower and tell him I had just met one of the other band members, it was again Ornella who pushed for this. I decided that, yes, I’d love to know the name of the drummer I met and maybe send him a message on Facebook.

So we approached the singer of the band, and we explained the situation. He gave me the link to the Instagram page of the drummer of the band and I followed it. Then, we got involved in more conversation with the singer, pulled our chairs over to his table, and after some minutes of talk, it began to dawn on both Ornella and the singer that they knew each other! They had not seen each other for 15 years or so, but they realized that he had been one of Ornella’s sister’s best friends! And as it turned out, he had long been trying to make contact with her, but as she no longer lives here, he had not found out how to communicate.

Another bit of Babel Tower



This happy situation then led eventually to the singer inviting me to play with Babel Tower at their next gig, in a small town not too far from here on Saturday night! Now, let us remember and realize and think about all of these happy repercussions that came form a moment’s decision as to whether I should or should not make the effort to play at the jam! Had I done the easy thing and just sat back lazily, I would never have met these musicians, never had the fun of playing the jam, never been offered to play this weekend, and Ornella and her sister would never have met this old friend! Astounding what action, and music, can do!

Babel Tower, I learned, plays nearly 300 dates per year throughout Sicily, doing all manner of rock, pop and reggae. I suggest you look them up and give a listen! And maybe you will discover something that will change your life too!

The Cinelli Brothers and Emma Wilson: From Open Mics to Top of the Blues Lists in the UK

July 20, 2022
bradspurgeon

EMMA WILSON WISH HER WELL 3000PX

EMMA WILSON WISH HER WELL 3000PX

A few months ago, a friend I met at the open mics in 2009 posted some great news on her Facebook page: A song of hers had hit second or third on the IBBA blues chart in the UK. This news was so cool that I examined the list a little closer and…I found that at the top of the list was the band of another friend who I had met in the open mics in Paris two or three years after this, and who is now living in the UK.

When I met them, both of these performers were totally unknown, had not yet had any kind of breaks, and how could you guess they would? Except that both were hugely talented musicians. But you meet with a lot of talented musicians at the open mics. So I think that in addition to their talent, what has helped both Emma Wilson, the first mentioned friend, and Marco Cinelli, the second mentioned, is that they are also hard workers, ambitious, and knew how to make the most of circumstances.

“Chew My Gum” by The Cinelli Brothers

I have been meaning to do a post for months about them, but all my other projects lately have been keeping me away from the blog and making me feel guilty about it! Because this is a great story, and fortunately for them it continues to gather power, so I can still write about it.

Both are still appearing on the blues lists, both have just released new albums, and both continue to progress at a steady rate in their careers and musically. In short, I was delighted to hear their latest stuff, which is amazing. I met Emma in 2009 on my first year of travelling the world to perform in open mics. She ran an open mic in London at a bar near London Bridge, called the River Bar, and her hosting was amongst the nicest, smoothest, and fairest of any I know. It was an intimate, basement room in the pub, and Emma made sure that spectators kept silent in order to listen to the performers.

After my performance, she invited me to do a little showcase at the open mic a few months later, and it was a huge moment for me on my first visit to play in the UK since I was a teenager! I have followed her career since then, and found her continuously developing her music, her venues, her breaks and the musicians she gets to play with. Last year she recorded two songs with Terry Reid, who is one of those music-legend Zeligs who has been around forever, playing with everyone, and also remains forever young! (A song he wrote at 14 was played by The Hollies, REO Speedwagon and John Mellencamp!) But the coolest moment from the 1960s has to be when he was invited by Jimmy Page – who was just breaking up the Yardbirds – to become the vocalist of a new band he was forming, but Reid turned it down and suggested he try a guy he knew named Robert Plant!!!

Emma Wilson’s new album

Emma is now being interviewed regularly in the music press, constantly showcased for her brilliant blues singing talent. In fact, this year she won the Emerging Blues Artist of the Year award in the UK. Her new album, just out last month, called “Wish Her Well,” demonstrates beautifully her great vocal and emotional range as a singer. Her voice climbs from the silky quiet to the belting it out hard-edged blues thing. I love this full spectrum of sounds to her voice that sets her aside from so many one-trick poney blues singers. And the album is getting great play around the world now, too, it seems, as it rose to the top of the Roots Music Report list at one point this month, and at the time of this writing is still 12th on the list.

Emma Wilson winning the Emerging Blues Artist of the Year.

Marco Cinelli was a whole different thing: He had come to France from his native Italy, and was looking for places to play, open mics specifically, and I had already developed my open mic Thumbnail Guide for Paris, so he was consulting me on where to play. We met several times at open mics, and once for a little jam in a park in Paris, and my memories of him are always that of a good guitar player who knew how to do the classic Robert Johnson kind of stuff on an acoustic, and who stood out for his quiet demeanour. Unassuming, and gentle, he would never have struck you as what the French call “a bête de scène,” which is perhaps translated as “a beast of the stage!”

But then I saw this name of this band on the IBBA blues list in the UK: The Cinelli Brothers. And I said to myself, surely there cannot be a whole lot of Cinellis out there doing blues music. I did a search and found that these Cinelli Brothers were indeed Marco as the lead guitarist and singer, and now his brother Alessandro on drums, and Tom Julian-Jones on harmonica, guitar and vocals and Stephen Giry on bass, guitar and vocals. And I found some videos and recordings, and BOOM! A bête de scène is born!

The Cinelli Brothers

The Cinelli Brothers

I got in touch with Marco – we had been friends on Facebook for years – and got the story from him and his band’s site, about how from France he had moved to the UK and started up the band and had met with some success. Their first album came out in 2018, and reached No. 2 on the IBBA chart. He told me that their new CD, No Country for Bluesmen, (a title I love for its literary reference to W.B. Yeats and Cormac McCarthy) was just about to come out, and he sent it to me. Wow! The guy has a great voice and guitar licks, and this band really has a sound and feel that while classic blues is also unique. And you have to check out this video of The Cinelli Brothers live at the 100 Club with special guest, the great Matt Schofield on lead:

Like Emma Wilson, they have been featured in the blues music media far and wide, and here’s a nice bit of information from their web site: “The legendary radio DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen has played a different track from their album on six consecutive weeks of his United Djs radio show, naming them as his favourite blues outfit, and his favourite blues album in many years.”

They tour regularly around Europe and the UK – they played at the Henley festival this month, where Tom Jones also featured – and I can only hope that in another few years, this success grows even more.

Both of these cases got me to reflecting about what it takes to succeed in music, and one of the things I forgot to mention in addition to their hard work and talent, is that always present word whenever we talk about success: Persistence! Both, of course, had started in music well before I met them a decade and more ago. Both have pushed it all to the limits and kept going, despite the times they played to empty rooms and unappreciative audiences. And both are now bringing us all the kind of sounds we love to hear – not to mention the stories!

Check out the Cinelli Brothers too!

Looking Back at Writing “Formula 1: The Impossible Collection” For Assouline During Lockdown

September 17, 2021
bradspurgeon

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection http://www.assouline.com

PARIS – The point of this blog for me is usually to write about things happening right now in my life. For more than a year now, I have kept quiet here about one of the biggest things that happened in my life during most of the Covid period we are still living through. I was so busy first doing it – and keeping my mouth closed and fingers crossed about it – and then once finished, talking about it everywhere except for here, with one published interview or review after another – I will run a list of links of those at the end of this post – that I simply did not find the moment to talk about it here! In short, I am referring to the book that I had the opportunity to write about the 100 great, extraordinary, “impossible” moments in Formula One history, since the series began in 1950 and up to the end of last season. The first 70 years of the world’s most popular auto racing series summed up in words and extraordinary images and published by Assouline, one of the world’s top luxury book publishers. So, I am coming late to it here, but since I also see this blog as a personal record of important moments in my life, I have decided that it is better late than never to talk about it!

This book project was offered to me in August 2020, when I was in Sicily and like everyone, found myself in that momentary lull between waves of the biggest pandemic to hit humankind in a century. And, as many readers of this blog will know and be able to relate to themselves, I had one part of my life absolutely wiped out by the pandemic: Performing music and doing my other theatre-related activities in public. The performing arts, as everyone knows, were amongst the worst hit – well, of course, not to mention the restaurant industry, the travel industry, airlines and airports, etc. – since to perform in public was one of the easiest and most natural things to ban. And rightly so.

But that left me, like so many musicians and actors and performers, feeling as if we might not be able to breathe if we came down with Covid, but we were not able to breathe without our moments on stage, either! Fortunately for me, I had spent decades of my life devoted exclusively to my other passion of being closed up in my room – or a media center or newspaper office – and writing. Living through words. Living in the mind and not in the outside world or on a stage.

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection promo video by Assouline (turn up the volume!)

So when in August 2020 I was offered this opportunity of writing a book about Formula One for Assouline’s most prestigious collection – the Ultimate – in the series known as “The Impossible Collection,” I didn’t just jump at it, I instantly stopped feeling any regret, pain or other horror for losing that other aspect of my life, consisting in performing on stage. Here was a fabulous project offered to me by Assouline that thrived off the lockdown isolation as it required intense concentration, research and writing at just the very moment that the second wave of the pandemic came to hit us.

First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986.  Photo Credit:  Bernard Asset

First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986. Photo Credit: Bernard Asset

Suddenly, I came entirely back to life thanks to this project. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility: The task was much bigger than I expected when I said yes. I had to come up with the 100 greatest, iconic, most important, “impossible” moments of Formula One over 70 years. I had been hired for my experience of more than 20 years covering the series for the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, and I realized that I had a responsibility for a big book that would sell for 920 euros, and/or $995, not just for an article on a piece of paper that would be used to wrap up fish the next day! My choices of moments have to be as close to perfect as possible.

Responsibility of Choosing the Impossible Moments for Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

It’s not that I doubted my ability to choose those moments. But I knew that Formula One is a series that has millions of fans who are not only passionate, but are often just as knowledgable as many of the journalists who cover it their whole lives. I also knew that any choice for a great moment that I made would also leave out several other possibilities that some other journalist or fan might feel very passionate about and cry foul!

“HOW could you not put in THIS moment!” they might say.

But that is also when I decided that, in any case, any list of 100 moments over 71 seasons that anyone made would have to have an element of personal preference or style to it, and I would have to assume that. Still, it took months to make the final choice of 100 great moments. I narrowed an initial selection down to 150, and then began eliminating, or at the suggestion of my editors at Assouline, in some cases, joining moments together – such as when I did only one moment for the two times that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost crashed into each other at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in 1989 and 1990, thus drawing their championship duel to a close.

McLaren Technology Centre team factory.  Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team

McLaren Technology Centre team factory. Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team

I also said to myself that it would be absolutely necessary in a series like Formula One to include in the great moments not just sporting moments, but technical ones – the introduction of the Ford DFV engine in the 60s that would dominate for so many years, or the first rear-engine victory, etc. – as well as business advances or reversals, new venues, etc. Formula One has so many different aspects to it, that it would be impossible to do it justice while focusing on just one part of it.

While it was easy to make my first list – I started by working off the top of my head, then I went through several histories, timelines, collections of statistics, etc., to make sure I missed nothing that I might have overlooked – the most difficult thing was really what to cut out of the list. So many things had to go at some point. It was with great regret, for instance, that I did not include Jean Alesi’s sole victory in the series when he drove his Ferrari to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995 after Michael Schumacher, who led all but the last 11 laps of the 68-lap race, had to make a pit stop to change his steering wheel, and could not engage the gear, and so handed the lead to Alesi, who kept it until the checkered flag. It was a hugely dramatic moment during a season dominated by Schumacher, and involving the two teams that would exchange those same two drivers for the following year. (Schumacher went to Ferrari the following year, while Alesi and his Ferrari teammate, Gerhard Berger, both went to Benetton.)

Michael Schumacher's first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: © Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini

Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini

There were countless moments like this that I loved, that were big, important, but it was impossible to use them all. One of the ways that I chose moments, in fact, was to try to choose them for their larger effect on the series. That applied especially, for instance, with the moments that involved fatalities. The early years were so full of fatalities, and each was as tragic as the other. As time went on and safety improved, there were fewer and fewer. But still, while I did not mention the death of Elio De Angelis in 1986 after a testing accident, I could not, clearly, avoid talking about the moment involving the death of Ayrton Senna (with Roland Ratzenberger having died the previous day) at Imola in 1994. Nor could I avoid talking about the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the 15 spectators at Monza in September 1961.

I could not, either, avoid moments that included the great records, Schumacher’s equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world titles in 2002, and then beating that record. And how satisfying and beautiful it was for the book to end on the note of Lewis Hamilton equalling Schumacher’s record of seven titles – and beating his number of victories – in the final season that the book covered, 2020, which was unfolding as I wrote it.

Catharsis in Writing the Introduction to Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

It was the work on the moments, both selecting them and writing them – in all their minute detail – that would make up the biggest part of the job. When I took on the project, I had thought it would be the writing of what became a 65-page introduction – with lots of photos – that would be the hardest part. In fact, the introduction was probably the most fun part to do, as I saw it as an opportunity to sum up and focus all of my knowledge about Formula One accumulated over a lifetime of being a fan – the first race I attended was the first Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport in 1967 – and nearly a quarter century of writing about it professionally. So in a way, the introduction – that even went into the previous era of Grand Prix racing, starting with the precursor auto races sponsored by the founder of my former IHT newspaper, James Gordon Bennett Jr. – was even cathartic, in a way.

It was an incredible bit of unexpected icing on the cake when after I submitted the completed book to the editors, I learned that both Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, and Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One, had written forewords to the book. What an honor. (But just as great an honor was my having been the writer that Jean Todt recommended to do the book when Assouline asked for his advice on who to call.)

When Formula 1: The Impossible Collection Finally Arrives

Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book.  Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre

Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book. Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre

But the day my advance copy of the book arrived – all nearly 10 kilograms of it – that was when I saw the reality that I could never truly have imagined for a book that is an absolute “bijou” as the French say for a jewel, and I could see immediately not only why it was being sold for 920 euros, but that it seemed worth much more than that in the paper and hand craftsmanship alone. Printed at a luxury quality printer in Milan (called Grafiche Milani, a favourite of Jimmy Page) and many of the photographs – the photographic research job, as well as many of the photos themselves, was done by Bernard Asset, a top F1 photographer, while the final choices of photos and images was done by Martine Assouline, of the husband and wife team that own the company – were separately glued to the pages. The cover had a soft feel to it, and a wafting sent of the printer’s workshop came emanating from the box when I opened the book package. Astounding!

Jimmy Page video of his experience with Grafiche Milani printer of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

By the time the book was completed, and published in May, I had begun to think about playing music again, and I was, in fact, able to do so at a few places, as the pandemic died out a little where I live, and the vaccination process began – I got my second one at the end of May – and then I returned to Sicily, where I was able to perform a couple of times, as I have done back home in France since then.

On the other hand, I have also been working all out on another book project in recent months, which I will also only announce when the time is appropriate! (I’m entering a virtuous cycle here!) And again, I can thank this new project for taking me through the third wave!!!

The book “Formula 1: The Impossible Collection,” is available around the world in both Assouline’s own stores, as well as some select shops. It is also available to buy online at Assouline’s site.

Great Press Coverage of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

Actually, I said the cherry on the cake were the two forewords, but there was another aspect to doing the book that I had not expected to this degree, and that was great coverage by some of the world’s top magazines, some of which involved several interviews with me…that once again showed me how difficult it can be to be on the other side of the journalistic table, as the subject of the interview rather than the interviewer!

Here is a list of links to a few of the major interviews and reviews of the book, so you can click on any one of them to read the review or interview:

  • Robb Report: Assouline’s New $995 Formula 1 Book Was 70 Years in the Making
  • MAXIM: A LOOK BACK AT FORMULA 1’S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS
  • MAXIM: RACE THROUGH F1 HISTORY WITH THIS HIGH-OCTANE COFFEE TABLE BOOK
  • BOSS HUNTING: ‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’ Is The Ultimate Coffee Table Book For Racing Fans
  • F1Total.ca : INTERVIEW l Brad Spurgeon and Assouline release ‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’, a one-of-a-kind $995 book
  • Motorsportweek: Feature: Writing the Impossible Formula One book
  • GQ Australia: 11 coffee table books you actually won’t be able to put back down
  • L’Automobile Magazine: F1: un livre collection sur les plus grands
  • L’Equipe: Un livre pour célébrer les 70 ans de la F1
  • Quattroruote (Italy)
  • Bunte (Germany)
  • Le Figaro Magazine (France)

    Le Figaro Magazine (France)

    L'Automobile (France)

    L’Automobile (France)

    FIA AUTO MAGAZINE ISSUE #34

    FIA AUTO MAGAZINE ISSUE #34

    The book was reviewed or promoted in many, many other parts of the internet, on many different kinds of sites, making me realize there is a landscape out there for talking about books and products of a size and kind that I had never even suspected existed (the landscape I mean, not the size of the books!). And so it was a fun, learning experience all over to have been blessed with this not impossible dream of writing a book about Formula One’s impossible moments for Assouline.

    “Just a Story From America:” Discovering Elliott Murphy – 48 years late – in His Unputdownable Memoir!

    September 8, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Elliott Murphy

    Elliott Murphy

    PARIS – I have a confession to make. I thought I knew just about everything there is to know about all the rock, folk, or just any musicians who count that I needed to know about. What arrogance! The last thing I expected to discover now, at my age – don’t ask what that is – was a musician who got his start in 1973 and had albums published by Polydor, RCA and Columbia Records, who was produced by people as astounding and legendary as Paul Rothchild, and who has lived in my backyard – in Paris – for the last 30 years. Of course, I HAD heard of Elliott Murphy for many years. But because I had heard of him as the American musician the French were in love with and who they thought of as an “American” star but I didn’t because I had not heard of him while growing up in Canada, I had brushed him off entirely…having never listened to his music. More arrogance. But that all changed over the last week after I stumbled upon his memoir: “Just A Story From America.”

    Not only have I come to his music 48 years late – and keep in mind that even in March 1973, a month before this was released, I was keenly aware and waiting for the latest sounds, coming home one day that month with that month’s release of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – but I have also come to the memoir late. Fortunately, not 48 years late! This brilliant memoir was published in English in May 2019, and in French last November. So I am only a little behind on that! And the way I have started this blog post will make me look quite ignorant to the millions who have known and loved Elliott Murphy’s music for nearly 50 years!

    As far as I can see, Elliott Murphy’s memoir, “Just A Story From America” is a self-published – or I should say, independently published – book in English, but with a bona fide French publisher in the translated version. And it also came out in a Spanish translation at a publisher in Spain under the title, “The Last Rock Star.” So maybe the promotion and marketing of the English edition was a little lacking. (Unless I am being arrogant again!) In any case, I have now read this memoir as quickly as I read that memoir of Steve Forbert a few years ago, or Terence Rigby’s memoir (by Juliet Ace) a couple of months ago. Forbert, like Murphy, was another of the many “new Bob Dylans” and Rigby was another “supporting role” kind of artist, which you could almost say in some small way Murphy was too. Someone who was never a household name, but played as well as the big guys, and often WITH the big guys. On the other hand, in fact, no. You can only say that the comparison between the great actor of usually secondary roles, and the great musician who was eclipsed in the fame sweepstakes by friends such as Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Billy Joel, and many more, is a great and real act of his own. End of story. So I am writing this blog post today to say to any of the few readers of this blog who do NOT know Elliott Murphy’s music AND Elliott Murphy’s writing, to please, waste no more of your life’s time and get to know him.

    While reading the memoir, I went to YouTube and started my searches for his albums, in order of appearance. There are now some 40 of them, so to listen to all of the Elliott Murphy albums will take me some days. But I was immediately astounded upon hearing his first: Aquashow, released in 1973, by Polydor. Here I was listening to a cross between David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and wait for this, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, all wrapped up into one.

    Elliott Murphy performing “Last of the Rock Stars”

    But there’s more, much more: At the same time that I discovered the musician I also suddenly discovered Elliott Murphy the writer and journalist, and there will be many more discoveries yet to come: Elliot Murphy has published in Rolling Stone, Spin, Vanity Fair, among other magazines, and written books in addition to the memoir – novels, short story collections and poetry. As a writer, he has as great a voice as he does as a singer. That voice and the story it tells so beautifully makes this memoir a touching work from beginning to end. Extremely touching. It is the highly personal story of a man who confronted the death of his father when he was 16, when his father was 48, and actually witnessed his father’s fatal heart attack, running off to find a doctor to help – too late – and then having his fairly wealthy, Long Island idyllic life disintegrate around him.

    Elliott Murphy’s album Acqushow

    His father was a show business impresario, having created an amusement attraction called Aquashow, with dancing girls and water shows, that was hugely successful; followed by a successful restaurant that hosted stars and the political elite. His mother dined with Eisenhower, met with Elizabeth Taylor, the world of Elliott Murphy Sr., revolved around high style and success. Until the heart attack showed how flimsy the world really is.

    For the boy, Elliott, known at the time by his middle name, James – or rather, “Jimmy” – it was, naturally, his whole world that fell apart. As it did for his mother, who at first tried to keep the restaurant going, but it failed eventually. Eventually, she ended up as a salesperson at Tiffany & Co. and stayed there for 20 years.

    No wonder Elliott Murphy was angry at life. But it was an anger that he channeled into his touching first album with his new name, his real name: Elliott Murphy. The album being called…Aquashow. Yes, Elliott Murphy’s Aquashow lived on.

    Without the backstory, I think that no one could have known where this album came from. Except in the authenticity of the cry of pain.

    Watching his life unfold as an artist in this memoir is a lesson in life and career: So much of his life was made by his audacity – and a little arrogance? – as he always went directly to the source of what he hoped would be a launching platform for his career. During a trip through Europe when he was 21, he stopped off at Cinecitta in Rome hoping to finagle his way into acting as an extra in films, arriving decked out in such a way that he thought they would believe his story that he was an actor in cowboy films in the U.S. Fellini took one look at him and offered him a role as an extra – actually something a lot more than that – in his film Roma!

    Elliott Murphy today

    Elliott Murphy today


    Returning to the U.S., he made a demo with his brother of some of the songs he wrote in Europe, and he headed off to Polydor, knocked on the door, said he wanted his demo listened to, and they were invited up immediately into the office of one of the A&R people who listened to it, liked it, and arranged an audition later in the week with the head of A&R. He liked it and they got a deal! Off the street in a company they knew nothing about, except that James Brown was with Polydor, as was guitarist Roy Buchanan.

    This kind of thing is repeated again and again throughout his life and career as he found himself scoring deal after deal, moving from Polydor to RCA – where Paul Rothchild produced the album, “Lost Generation,” in 1975, and where he then recorded his “Night Lights” album – then to Columbia, where he recorded his last album for a major label, “Just a Story From America,” the same title as the memoir.

    During this period, he lived a life that he turns into a dream read with fabulous anecdotes about meetings with a seemingly endless string of household names in show business, that includes such a diverse cast as Frank Zappa and Liza Minnelli. Zappa invited him into a studio while he was recording an album, Zappa’s guitar amp was in the studio, but Zappa was seated in the engineering booth with the engineer, and playing his guitar from there that was attached to the amp in the studio! Minnelli he met at a party, and the two were encouraged to sing together…but he knew none of her broadway music show tunes, and she knew no pop, rock, folk, Dylan or otherwise! He met Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was just as arrogant about him as I was (until now), who looked away from him while they shared a stretch limousine, and said: “I hear you’re a has-been.” (He regrets now that he was so pissed off at that that he did not buy any of the drawings Basquiat was selling for only a hundred bucks each. Imagine the value today – that would be a very much “living well” kind of revenge.)

    Here we see the life of a rock star up close and personal throughout the 1970s, and then the fairly sudden change for the singer songwriters when punk suddenly took over and made them all irrelevant. (How did Forbert come out and thrive at that moment?!!?)

    That period coincides in his life with the moment he goes entirely and almost fatally off the rails. Like so many others – not Zappa – he was taking drugs – mostly cocaine – and alcohol as a daily diet. He was in so deep that he did not even know it. In short, he managed to discover his own problem with the help of a freak moment meeting an attractive woman who had herself been an alcoholic, and who took him to a meeting where he discovered he DID have a problem, and he had an epiphany. He never touched a drop of alcohol or drugs again, some 30 years ago now.

    Elliott Murphy's father's Aquashow on a billboard in NYC

    Elliott Murphy’s father’s Aquashow on a billboard in NYC


    In fact, he had fallen so low that after all these successes in the 1970s, he had ended up moving back to his mother’s place, sleeping on a cot, and then working as a secretary in a law firm just to survive! But he had learned a lesson about life that he would never forget, and soon begin to apply: “Looking back, it’s hard to deny that my daily drinking and regular cocaine use had something to do with my bad decisions; what happens when your lifestyle instead of your work becomes your priority.”

    That was it. From then on, his work took precedence over his lifestyle. But his lifestyle also improved. He ended up moving to France in around 1989 – a country where he had had quite a big success that he was not even aware of for years thanks to the record company’s keeping it secret from him – and then he met his future wife – Françoise – and then had a son, Gaspard, in 1990. He has lived here ever since, worked on something similar to Bob Dylan’s “never ending tour,” – not to mention getting invited to play with Bruce Springsteen during his Paris visits on several occasions – and he has expanded that writing career too. With this memoir as the latest result. Go out and get it! I have told only a fraction of the fabulous tales this book contains. It’s a real discovery…of course, as I indicated earlier, I’m probably preaching to the converted and I’m the only idiot out here who didn’t know much about Elliott Murphy until now!

    A Not-Book-Review cum Memoir Cum autobiography etc. of Terence Rigby and his Memoir by Juliet Ace: Rigby Shlept Here

    August 11, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Rigby Shlept Here

    Rigby Shlept Here

    CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – He was one of the greatest British character actors of the end of the 20th century, early 21st century, one of Harold Pinter’s fetish actors and friend, just as adept starring in television, on stage or in cinema – a late career period with along with Julia Roberts and in Color Me Kubrick…the list of achievements go on and on for Terence Rigby. And I am proud to be able to say that for a few months in 1977 to 1978 we were briefly friends, while I was a bartender at The National Theatre in London, and he was acting in various roles as part of the company. In fact, he helped me audition for RADA, where he had started out 20 years earlier. But if my life completely changed after that, I always carried questions about who exactly was this man Terence Rigby. Many others who knew him asked the same questions. How delighted was I last week to discover a Memoir of Rigby’s life was published in 2014 and written by his good friend, the scriptwriter, Juliet Ace. Called, “Rigby Shlept Here,” it is a magnificent tale of an unusual man and a great actor. I have now written a long review-cum-memoir of my own of this book, and about this man. Follow the link here to my page in my Writers on Writers and Writing section about Terence Rigby and Juliet Ace’s memoir “Rigby Shlept Here.

    The Political World of Jean-Hugues Oppel: Another In-Depth Interview With a French Crime Writer, this Time Talking at Semana Negra

    January 23, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Jean-Hugues Oppel

    Jean-Hugues Oppel

    I am absolutely delighted to have found this interview I did with Jean-Hugues Oppel in 1997 at the Semana Negra mystery festival in Gijon, Spain, and to be able to post it on this site in my collection of interviews and articles I did in the 1990s and early 2000s about the French crime novel. This interview is definitely one of the best and widest ranging of them all. I think the environment of the crazy festival helped for it to be so much fun, and so deep. But ultimately, as you will see, it is the depth of Jean-Hugues Oppel’s own knowledge and approach to life and writing that makes the difference here in this interview.

    Genesis of All That Talk! An Explication de Song….

    January 19, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    PARIS – With the world no doubt feeling tense over the possibility of an Act II to the riots of D.C. at tomorrow’s inauguration for Joe Biden as president of the United States, and the end of the reign of terror by Donald Trump, I wanted to do a post of a kind I have never done before. It has to do with the writing of my new song, “What’s All This Talk?!” Normally I prefer to leave as many interpretations open as possible for a song I write, since I do believe that sometimes songs can be interpreted even in ways the author did not intend; so why limit it with an explication de texte?

    But as you can see from the video that I made for this song – which I will put here below again – I have already decided, by using news footage from several different sources of the riots at the Capitol Building on 6 January to give one interpretation to the song. In fact, I was pretty surprised myself how well those riots seemed to illustrate the meaning. Especially since I wrote the song in late October, early November, just before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

    And it is true that Trump was first and foremost in my mind when I wrote it. But he wasn’t the only one. I also had Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban and many other world leaders involved in the current trend for populist destruction and manipulation in mind. And I even had past such leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini in mind. But when I saw the riots at the Capitol, I said, crap, this thing is really coming to a head here, and these images are the perfect illustration for this sad protest song “What’s All This Talk?!”

    So I decided to try to string them together as a background for the song. For me, personally, it was an interesting project, because pretty much without fail all the songs I have ever composed have had to do with a broken heart, a love story, an emotional relationship with a lover, etc. The old stories. I never thought I could write a protest song about politics.

    Then something happened and I only saw it once I made the video. In fact, there were one or two listeners who when I sang them the song wondered if it was about a personal relationship rather than the politics I had intended. But now I know and understand: For the past four years I have been emotionally devastated by witnessing these political populist movements we are surrounded with and by the seeming loss of a world where the highest values are truth and beauty for one where lies and ugliness seem to reign. In other words, I did indeed have an emotional crisis; but not with any particular person, rather with our vanishing world of decency.

    So it turns out that this is only just another love song of a broken heart after all. Let’s hope for a clean and peaceful transition of power tomorrow, followed by the whole world coming back to its senses bit by bit.

    P.S. I also decided to put up the video on my YouTube channel, so anyone who doesn’t use Facebook, or who wants to link the video somewhere themselves, can have access to it. So here is that link here for “What’s All This Talk?!

    In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

    January 12, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Jim Haynes

    Jim Haynes

    PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

    As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

    Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

    I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

    Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

    Jim Haynes Autobiography

    Jim Haynes Autobiography

    Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

    I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

    One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

    On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

    That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

    That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

    From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

    In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

    Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

    Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
    Photo © Seamas McSwiney

    One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

    One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

    Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

    Time Past and Time Present are Both Perhaps Present in Castellammarre del Golfo – from an Old Time Parade to Dolce & Gabbana

    August 12, 2020
    bradspurgeon

    CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?

    I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together.
    Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today

    I took a lot of video footage of the parade in Castellammare del Golfo with my telephone camera and then we decided to make an edited video of the footage along with the reading of a poem of a local poet, now dead, named Castrenze Navarra. That was Ornella’s idea – to read the poem – after we had found a wine bar in the town that was not only named after the poet’s first published collection, Timpesti e Carmarii, but it was located in the groundfloor building area where the poet also had his photographic studio, as he was also a photographer.

    There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.

    The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.

    Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.

    But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!

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