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!”)
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems hardly possible that it has been exactly seven full weeks since I last posted on this blog. That has to be a record absence for me. It equals one year’s worth of vacation when I was on staff of the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper that worked under the French labor system and so gave us lots of holidays each year. I can say that these last seven weeks have not been a holiday, but the busiest time of the last year – which is the reason I have not been contributing to the blog. So here is a point-by-point recap of the main events of the last seven weeks:
1. Most of early June was spent digging out nearly 20 years’ worth of my piled up papers, paraphernalia and trash from my garage and cave in order to make space for Ornella and her TAC Teatro’s paraphernalia from Italy. Cleaning these places led to many wonderful discoveries, but also some very difficult decisions; among the many relics that I found were three never-before-used Zippo lighters with the aforesaid International Herald Tribune’s marketing department’s effort to publicize the newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. Beautiful objects that I had kept but never once used, I now find use for them, particularly for Ornella and my daughter’s smoking habits….
IHT Zippo lighter
I am loving the process of filling these classic lighters with fluid, new flint stones, etc. (I am a little disappointed at how quickly they are losing their paint job, though, as you can see from the photo of this lighter used by Ornella for just one month.) There used to be so much more “process” in the past in our daily lives…. But among the difficult decisions in this vast clean out, was whether I should keep the hundreds of copies of actual newspapers – of the aforementioned IHT – that had the print versions of my articles in them. I had always taken hard copies of the paper home to have a record of the printed work – but I had never had any use for these relics. Now, I found myself with the difficult decision of either throwing them away or else having no further usable space in my storage areas. As I knew that all of the copies existed in microfilm or other electronic form, as well as online in the online archives of The New York Times – many of which copies I also had to decide whether or not to keep – I ultimately decided to throw them all away. It was a heartbreaking moment, but also a feeling of truly moving on into the future. Like the Formula One teams that I had written so much about, I chose to look forward, rather than backwards at personal mementos.
2. Having cleared out these storage spaces, it was time to go on a brief trip to Milan in order to clear out TAC Teatro and prepare the moving van to bring to Paris all of the aforementioned paraphernalia. It was a massively busy and tiring three or four days that also involved very difficult choices. For instance, the most heartbreaking for Ornella was the decision to leave behind the linoleum flooring that she used as the floor of the theater space, and which had come directly from use on the floor of the famous La Scala Opera House, and had, therefore, been danced upon my some very famous performers. But it was just too heavy, massive when rolled up, and required a very good cleaning job, which we had no time for. We nevertheless managed to pack up and transport to Paris two tons of paraphernalia, including seating for at least one hundred spectators, a sound system, a series of spotlights, a piano, keyboard, drum, a workbench table from a famous Italian filmmaker and writer, and countless other items far too long to list here without getting anymore boring than I already risk being. The whole collection of paraphernalia ended up taking two moving vans instead of the original one that had been planned for.
3. We returned to Paris and spent the three or four days waiting for the delivery by finishing the cleanup of the storage space. (Let me note that this was happening in a hot month of June, and with all the dust from the spaces, and the pollen in the air, I wore a face mask nearly full-time to help my breathing.) When the paraphernalia arrived, we then spent two days filling up the storage spaces, but rest easy knowing we can now prepare for the future. It was also very satisfying to have replaced my 20 years’ worth of accumulated crap by this investment in the future of TAC in France.
Philosopher of Optimism
4. No sooner did we catch our breath again, barely able to believe what we had accomplished, than we departed for a quick trip to England, where it was time for some more very satisfying work: The first stop was Nottingham, where I was invited to attend the Second International Colin Wilson Conference in order to do the very first public screening of the interview film that is connected to my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Produced by a British film production company as well as the publisher of my book, Michael Butterworth, and his other company, Savoy Books, and directed by Jay Jones, it consisted of an hour and a half interview of Colin Wilson by me. Although the film was done in 2006, it was never quite finished. I recently decided to ask if I could work on the edit through my company, the perfectly named, “Unfinished Business SAS.” I was given the go-ahead, and prepared first a trailer for the film (below) and then I prepared the film for this private showing for the 55 people attending the three day conference, including the members of Wilson’s family – three of his children, and his wife, Joy. That last name is certainly the right word for me to use as well to describe the entire event, and especially the reception of the film: It was a pure joy!
5. From Nottingham, Ornella and I headed on to the Cotswolds for a brief visit to have a reunion more than 40 years after I met him with the man who created my ventriloquist’s figure, and to whom I brought the suspect in question for a facelift (and a body-lift). But on the way there we had a fabulous, three-hour long meeting and tour of the Renault Formula One factory at Enstone.
Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team
This fell the day after the team’s home race, the British Grand Prix, and at the end of the series’ horrendously tiring triple-header of races in June/July. Although it was the strangest feeling for me to be in England during the race weekend without attending the race itself, the trip was more than compensated for by both our stay overnight in Oxford – where I played in two different open mics (and can now update my Oxford guide), followed by the trip to see Peter Pullon in the Cotswolds. This aforementioned ventriloquist figure builder has become one of the world’s foremost puppet makers, having created some of Britains most famous figures: Rod Hull’s Emu, Honey Monster, the Hoffmeister Bear, Smash Martians and Keith Harris’s
Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon
Orville. I am waiting with baited breath the renovation of my figure, whose name is Peter McCabe, and for whom I have some future plans that I will talk about on this blog as they happen. (Peter most recently had a cameo role in my video of my cover song of Mad World, by Tears for Fears.
6. No sooner did we return from England than it was off to Sicily for us and a three-week vacation, during which period I have, nevertheless, been using every available moment to make plans for the future year, and my many projects for my new life in Unfinished Business…. We have been staying in Ornella’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo, and reading on the beach by day, and walking the city streets by night, occasionally finding places to play my guitar and sing. We have done a lot of tourism, as well, which we have posted about copiously on Facebook. The highlights for me have been the visit to Segesta and its ancient Greek temple and above all, its ancient Greek theater.
The acoustics of this place are astounding – although I’m not sure the plywood floor they chose to use to cover the rock surface of the stage was wise. And the most painful and touching visit was to the site of the 1968 earthquake, which killed more than 900 people and wiped out two towns. The ruins of many of the buildings remain locked in time in the countryside, and one of the towns, Gibellina, is now covered, encased, in a white concrete monument, or work of art, to mark the tragedy. Walking amongst these ruins and the monument, is a deep, difficult, but valuable experience.
7. I almost forgot to mention that in between all of these activities and right at the beginning of the month, we found a space in Paris that we are looking at as a possible future location for TAC and Unfinished Business. But it represents quite an investment, and it required us to make trips to the bank, an accountant, work on a business plan, and generally occupy all of the free time we had between the above activities! (And we have still not finished working on that.)
So as you can see, I have been busy as anything in the last seven weeks. But now I’ve had a moment to record it all in the web log, and I’m glad to have had so many rich experiences to get down here….
PARIS – A 102 year old chapter of history ended on Thursday with the death of David Douglas Duncan, one of the world’s greatest photojournalists, a man who had started his career with a photo of the gangster John Dillinger in 1934, before documenting several wars and many iconic historic events, while also making a sideline career of photographing his friend Picasso from 1956 to the artist’s death in the 1970s. It was also the end of a five-year long chapter in my own life, from when I first learned that Duncan was a fan of Formula One racing, read my coverage of the series in the International Herald Tribune and wanted to talk.
Meeting DDD – as he was often called – in 2013 and maintaining a relationship occasionally over the telephone since then was the most satisfying consequence of my 25-year Formula One writing career. It also kept me humble to think that stories I wrote would be read by a man of this stature. But it was learning from the example of the man himself that was the most important aspect of having known DDD.
You might expect a man who had met and photographed Gandhi, dined with Khrushchev, befriended Picasso, and been in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War among countless other jobs and experiences would be somewhat unapproachable, full of himself and perhaps haughty. But I don’t think I ever met a man as humble, genuine, simple in his personal approach to people, and gifted with an ability to make people who met him feel great about themselves. In fact, I was reminded again and again of a quote I had once noted in my youth by G.K. Chesterton: “There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.”
I could not believe my good fortune in having known Duncan. I learned through a common friend in Formula One that he wanted to contact me about a story I had written, which he wanted to use as the preface to a book of photos of Formula One that he had taken off the Monaco Grand Prix on the television. I got in touch at the end of 2012, and found it was a story I had written in 2000, which he still remembered the details of! It turned out also to be the most unexpected revenge – in my mind only – against an editor at the newspaper who had pulled the story from the page before publication, as he thought it was not worthy of the newspaper. (Another editor defended it, and it was published the next day.) I got a copy of the story to DDD, and then with great pride again, I watched as he prepared the book and ran my story as the preface.
David Douglas Duncan Soldier
I then went to meet him, and his wife Sheila, at their home near Grasse, in the south of France. While there, I asked him if I could do an interview with him, as just meeting him had given me the idea of running a regular column of interviews with famous Formula One fans. He said I could, and told me just to call when I was ready. He was just days away from turning 97, and quite honestly, I was very worried that at that age, I could lose my opportunity, as he might die any day. In fact, while he walked most of the time with a cane after a broken hip, he was still going around his home up and down a hugely steep and narrow stone staircase with no railing – another reason I feared for the future – and was in fact in such incredible health that, yes, he would go on to live more than five years more.
DDD’s first Picasso photo
I cherished every time we spoke – the last time was in February – even though our typical exchanges would be quite short, as he seemed not to want to intrude! So I was instantly plunged into shock and remorse yesterday when I saw the headline about his death while reading my daily New York Times.
Duncan was truly a great man, and the greatest part was what he gave to others. I recall asking him what his favourite subject to photograph had been in his life, and while I had expected to hear any of the usual things – Picasso, a war, a great leader or the jewels of the Kremlin – he said it had been one of his most beloved dogs. He had even made a book of photos of the dog. It was the genuine response of one of the most genuine people I have ever met.