An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.
Last Friday, 6 December 2019, marked the exact anniversary date three years ago that I finished working in my job reporting about Formula One for The New York Times (based in Paris, but writing for both its international and U.S. editions). It was also the day that I was invited to attend the International Automobile Federation‘s prize giving ceremony press conference at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, where Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team received their trophy for winning the Formula One titles this year, along with the other F.I.A. champions from other series. So with that personal synchronicity in mind, and as a fan of the series, I attended the press conference, wondering how I would feel about my past life re-emerging on that timely date.
Before I say more about my feelings on that, I want to mention the other synchronicity – the next day, or rather, at around 1:38 AM that same night/next morning: Saturday, 7 December. That day is my birthday – which my brother, Scott, likes to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt on regarding the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy” – and in France’s Journal Officiel dated 7 December 2019 published around 1:38 AM that day, I found the decree that said I had become a French citizen. I had been fighting for that honor for 3 1/2 years – ie, since the Brexit referendum – and that it should fall on my birthday, and precisely three years after ending my career as an NYT journalist, was beautiful – and felt full of significance.
So the whole weekend was a blessed time. Despite having to battle my way through a French transport strike and rain, arriving at the Louvre drenched in both sweat and precipitation (from running through the rain for the last 40 minutes of the journey), the visit to the prize giving was an extraordinary moment. It was the first time I found myself involved in an F.I.A. press conference while no longer reporting for my newspaper. While I did decide that I would do a few tweets and write something about it on this blog – thereby making it a legitimate invitation – my biggest reason for attending was to see the world in which I had lived for more than two decades from my new point of view as a fan only.
I was delighted to meet up again with so many of my former paddock friends and colleagues: Journalists like Joe Saward, Jonathan Noble of Autosport, Frédéric Ferret of L’Equipe, Alain Pernot of Sport-Auto and other publications, and Andrea Cremonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tom Clarkson, who interviewed the drivers for the F.I.A., or Dieter Rencken, the South African journalist; team press officers like Bradley Lord of Mercedes (who has been press officer in teams that have now won the title 8 times (Renault and Mercedes), and his boss Toto Wolff. And of the drivers, there was Jean-Eric Vergne, the Formula E champion whom I have known since he was 15; Fernando Alonso; and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. And finally, Jean Todt, the president of the F.I.A., whom I first met as the Ferrari team director in 1997, who was also present as the organizer and key officiator of the event, of course.
I guess the word best to describe the experience would be: Flashback! But for the first time attending a press conference, I felt no pressure to produce any reports.
It was, though, very strange to hear the same kinds of questions being asked in the same way by the same people to the same people. It made me wonder how it feels for the drivers and teams to confront the same members of the media year after year, decade after decade. This, of course, is the same situation we find in any media circus: at the White House, the Olympic Games, soccer or even in coverage of show business, fashion or even science, no doubt.
But I thought about how surreal it must feel sometimes for the stars, such as Hamilton and Alonso, (and even for the not as successful drivers who must sit next to these stars and be ignored by the media while all the questions go to the stars, as happened in Alonso’s World Endurance Championship racing team, as the Spaniard received all the questions from the media). How surreal it must be to see the same inquisitors asking the same questions year after year.
And I am not here criticizing the work of my former colleagues or of the F.I.A., all of whom are doing a fabulous job. This is just the nature of the beast. But having been away from it all for so long, it felt strange to find myself plopped right back into the paradigm, as if time had stopped, and all that I had done for the last three years had never existed, and I was again reporting on Formula One and other car racing series.
It was a little like how it felt a few months ago when I visited The National Theatre in London where I had worked 42 years ago as a bartender, and I found the place unchanged. And I thought, had I stayed there and made a career of it, I would have been in a world unchanged, rather than having felt as if I have lived a full, adventurous life since then….
It certainly comes down to our passions: Probably most of the people who have and will spend their lives in Formula One – or at the National Theatre – cannot imagine a life they would love better than that, cannot imagine a life without that environment. I spent 33 years employed by the International Herald Tribune and its successor, the International New York Times. While I would have happily continued, I am even happier that I have been able to transform my life into something else since then – working in the TAC Teatro theater company (back to the past?!), playing my music, writing on other subjects, avoiding much travel, and making films – while remaining a fan of racing.
These observations are probably obvious to most people, and probably I had many of them to a slightly lesser degree while in the thick of reporting on Formula One. But during such an emotional couple of days, it was all perfectly timed: The world DOES change. If we choose to make it change. I no longer cover Formula One as I used to. I still watch every session and race, and I still love it. But I am no longer part of the circus – or perhaps never really was. I am now French, after 36 years living in this country, and while I may feel like that is a fabulous consecration, I suppose that in many ways I have been French for decades.
But no wonder that the thing I found most interesting about the press conference was hearing Hamilton and Alonso talking about their life-changes, about the different worlds they live in, not just Formula One. I managed to film a bit of that, and I am putting it up here on the blog – in my role as a journalist attending a Formula One press conference again….
We had a fabulous two weeks at TAC Teatro working daily on our next show, and then crowning the work period with a demonstration of the creative process to spectators at the Petit Théâtre in Asnières-sur-Seine. There we interspersed our personal work on the next show with explanations of how we went through the creative process to come up with the scores. The whole was led, of course, by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, who was also the one behind leading us towards our individual creations.
It’s a process of work that I began wondering if I would ever come out of it with anything at all. But on the very first day, with the instructions Ornella gave us, I began to create my character and his place in the show. Can there be any surprise that the character comes from a circus background and so did some juggling, tight-rope walking and…reading of the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”?
Brad Spurgeon at TAC Teatro work demonstration
If you don’t understand a word of what I just explained there, well, you will have to come to the show when it is finished later next year. The other members of the company to perform in the work demonstration – who worked in the same manner as I just explained, but who came up with many different kinds of characters and scores – were Sara Baudry, Ioana Jarda, Marine Lefèvre, Julie Lossec, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, and Janice Zadrozynski.
Marina was the only one not physically present, as she had a commitment in Italy. But she sent a video of her work, which I place below.
Ornella Bonventre speaking to the spectators during the TAC Teatro work demonstration
Keep posted for the next steps of the work-in-progress.
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….
PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!
Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).
There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.
The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.
I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.
In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.
Back in 1969
By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!
P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….
Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.
I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!
The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.
The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.
And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café
commandments of the jam at the moonshine
Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.
Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.
In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.
house rules at the moonshine
The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976
By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!
I was quite astounded today as I was going through my huge archive of 35 years’ worth of my writing in my computer (my first computer was a 1982 Osborne), and I discovered an interview article I did with the Booker Prize-winning author, A.S. Byatt. Strangely – or not, given the ravages of age – I had completely forgotten that I ever did it. I performed the interview and wrote the article in 1991 and it was immediately rejected by an editor and immediately, for some reason, relegated to my archives as of no interest to anyone. Because it was 1991, the only way it COULD be published at the time was to submit it to print publications, and I probably had gotten tired of all the submissions I had already made for the article that inspired it: my article about the world’s most prolific writers of books in English (which was eventually published as the lead essay on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. So I “trashed” this Byatt interview, which I also had tied in not only with the theme of prolificacy, but also with the centennial of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street. In fact, finding it now, I see it was a lively, fantastic interview with an important British author who is still alive today, at age 82. So no sooner did I discover it today than I decided to add it to my collection on this blog of “Brad’s Rejected Writings.” Check it out, this 1991 interview with A.S. Byatt.
PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?
Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.
Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.
Alive on Arrival
At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.
“I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”
That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.
There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)
Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?
And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”
“I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”
But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:
“Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”
“In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”
This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)
But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.
“By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”
Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all
For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.
All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.
And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.
I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.
All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”
And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….
By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.
I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)