PARIS – I highly recommend to anyone interested in either Jim Haynes, or a look at the counterculture world from 1959 to 2021 to take a look the documentary “Meeting Jim.” It is still being offered free for another three hours from the time this post goes up today. I saw it last night, and loved it for many reasons, not least of all because of all the reasons I wrote about in my post about the life of Jim Haynes after his death in early January. If you miss the free offer that goes until 7PM Paris-time today, then you can actually pay for it as you would any video on demand – and it’s still worth it. I won’t even go into any details about the film now because I want to get this post up as quickly as possible – suffice it to say that it is a feature-length documentary filmed in 2016 – but with a nice amount of historical footage too – that covers Jim’s whole life, and the above mentioned cultural period that it spanned and that he so fabulously contributed to….
PS, to see the film, when you click on that first link I put above in the second sentence of this post, you will come to a “Meeting Jim” dedicated page. Scroll down the page to see the links to watch the film free from wherever you may be in the world.
PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.
As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.
Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.
I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.
Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.
Jim Haynes Autobiography
Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.
I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)
One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.
On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!
That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.
That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)
From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.
In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.
One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.
One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.
Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”
The sudden death at age 66 in Melbourne of Charlie Whiting, the Formula One race director, official race starter, rules-writer and rock-solid leader in many other roles in the world’s premier racing series, hit me and anyone else who knew him even marginally as a complete shock. It also came in a dramatic manner the day before the new season’s first track action at the Australian Grand Prix, and while the series itself continues to pass through a transition from its old management – that of Bernie Ecclestone – to its new owners, Liberty Media. That Liberty Media asked Whiting three years ago to remain in the series just when he was contemplating retirement after a 40-year career in the series, and at the same time Liberty were preparing to fire Ecclestone, speaks volumes about the importance of this man to the smooth operation of the series.
But probably the thing that most comes to mind in all of the tributes from friends and colleagues around the world since his death last night is Whiting’s simplicity, kindness, sweetness and fairness as a human being. He was much loved by almost everyone in the series, despite having probably the most difficult job of all: to act at least in part as a rules enforcer and referee during both technical and human racing disputes. Whiting was one of the rare people in high positions who had no airs of self-importance, and he was hugely respected by the drivers – with whom he performed pre-race briefings at each event – and with the media and team personnel.
I had a wild first meeting with Whiting at the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 on the morning of the race. But it was wild for just about every external reason – later that day Formula One had the biggest multi-car pile-up in its history with 13 cars crashing in the first corner – rather than my interaction with Whiting himself being wild. I felt slightly nervous conducting this first interview with the race director – then in his second season in the role – but very quickly as I sat in his small office off the side of the paddock with the rain pounding down outside, I started to ask myself: “Does he appear to be more nervous than I am about our interview?” His manner put me quickly at ease.
I would conclude over the years that, no, he was not likely nervous during our interview. He simply had a very human, very natural way of speaking to a reporter, or a whole media center full of reporters, that felt very unlikely for a man of his power within the series. It was the same as he spoke to anyone in any circumstance, it seemed. There were no external facades put on to persuade anyone of anything. He had a balanced, calm, cool way of dealing with the problems at hand, and seemed so perfectly suited to being the dispute-defuser that he was, that it was clear to see why Ecclestone – and the International Automobile Federation – had trusted him from Whiting’s early days in the series working as a mechanic at Ecclestone’s Brabham team in the 1980s right up until today over his more than 20 years in his race director role.
Whiting, left, at press conference
As one paddock person after another (journalists, drivers, co-workers, and other related F1 people) have said today in their outpourings of grief, Whiting had time for everyone, and could be counted on. It is difficult to imagine how Formula One will cope in the coming season – or even beyond – without him.
In order to give some idea of the kind of life Charlie Whiting lived in his daily working life, I have decided to re-print on my blog the article I wrote outlining that weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 when I met him. Before our meeting on the morning of the race, I had also been invited to spend the Friday practice session in the race control tower watching how Whiting and his team worked during the race action. That, too, turned out to be something of an historic, frantic session, as the cocky young reigning world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, decided to test his manliness by taking the series’ most wicked dangerous corner at full speed, and he paid the price with a spectacular accident into the barriers.
The story, which follows here, appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 11 Sept. 1998 as the race preview of the following race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza:
The atmosphere will be tense at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, not only in the battle between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher for the drivers’ title but also because it is the 20th anniversary at the Monza track of a 10-car pile-up that seriously injured two drivers and took the life of a third, Ronnie Peterson.
That anniversary might have passed unnoticed were it not for a stark reminder Aug. 30 at the Belgian Grand Prix when 13 cars were destroyed in one of the sport’s worst pile-ups. The fact that no driver was injured is partly a tribute to the strict safety rules now applied to the cars’ cockpits, which are much more solidly constructed than they were in 1978. But it is also due to luck.
Nowhere will the off-track tension be higher Friday in Monza than in the race control tower, where the most important safety decisions are made. During the Friday practice session in Belgium, this reporter was invited to watch the scene in what is normally the privileged domain of a handful of officials who have the best seat at the track. The 20 officials sat in deep concentration watching 39 television monitors in their room high above the track, in what looks like a cross between a TV station and NASA’s Mission Control.
When a car suddenly spun off sideways into a tire safety barrier at nearly 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph) , the silent watchers sprang to their feet and spoke into walkie-talkies and cellular telephones. ”Red flag! Red flag!” called out Charlie Whiting, the race director, to stop the practice session. ”Send the break-down truck,” another official barked. ”Go to the site,” ordered another, as Whiting put on his windbreaker to go to inspect the scene of the accident.
Jacques Villeneuve, the car’s driver, climbed out of the wreck and teetered like a boxer after absorbing an effective uppercut. But within 20 seconds, Sid Watkins, the track doctor, was by his side, having been dispatched to ”corner 3” by the control tower. Fortunately, Villeneuve was not hurt, and the session continued after a 15-minute track cleanup, done by the track-side workers following directions from the control tower.
The control tower is manned mostly by local officials, the most senior of whom is the so-called clerk of the course. They communicate with about 300 officials around the track. Whiting, who represents the International Automobile Federation, the sport’s governing body, oversees them all. As race director, he ensures that the locals do things the same way in every country. He is also the official race starter, which can turn the best seat in the house into the hottest seat.
Both the Monza accident 20 years ago and the recent accident in Belgium occurred on the first lap. Two hours before the Belgian race, while the rain fell in sheets across the track, David Coulthard, the British driver, pleaded with Whiting to start the race behind the safety car.
A safety car leads the racing cars, in their grid order, around the track until it drives off, allowing the race to start in earnest. This kind of rolling start – rather than a standing start – can reduce danger of cars fighting for places at the first corner through poor visibility on a slippery track.
”We’d like you to use the safety car because otherwise a lot of us are going to go off the track,” Coulthard said, ”and I’ll probably be one of them.”
But Whiting, at noon, could not give Coulthard a definitive answer for the race that would begin at 2 P.M. He was nervous about the treacherous conditions, but said he would decide only just before the race.
”You have to address every problem individually,” he said. ”The weather can change.”
By 2 o’clock it had cleared a little but the track was still wet under a light drizzle. The safety car was not used and Coulthard’s words proved strangely prophetic: He was the first to slide off the track at the start, setting off the chain-reaction pileup.
After the race Villeneuve said the use of the safety car wouldn’t have made a difference, while Alexander Wurz said the safety car should have been used. Whiting said that the safety decisions are always ”a human thing as opposed to a machine.”
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.
PARIS – It was the first time I had invited my high school friend Mike MacDonald to my home in Ottawa, so when the moment we entered the front door we found my mother sitting on the living room floor with a glass of whiskey and tears rolling down her face as she cried while listening to a Cat Stevens album, I was instantly embarrassed.
“What’s going on mom?” I asked, Mike at my side.
“I just discovered your brother’s collection of Cat Stevens records,” she said, clearly slightly drunk. “It’s so beautiful, I didn’t know he listened to this.”
The idea was that she was learning through this musical find that my brother’s tough outer coating – he was a hard fighting football player – had a sensitive, soft inner part to it that while she certainly knew about it, she was now seeing evidence of it that she had not suspected before.
But I was still wondering how this could possibly play out, certain that my mother’s explanation would never be enough to make up for the embarrassment I felt at having Mike’s first meeting my mom being one of alcohol and tears. Yet Mike, still not yet 20 years old, was a natural comic and reader of human situations. And he found the perfect line to diffuse the tension – and potential for worse embarrassment – when he said in a slightly low, disbelieving voice, but one designed to be heard by my mother as well:
“Jeez, if that’s how she reacts when she listens to Cat Stevens, I’d hate to see what she does when she listens to something good!”
My mother broke through her tears with a bit of laughter, and I chuckled as well, and Mike and I went off to my room leaving my mother with her Tea for the Tillerman, a sad situation having been turned into a happy memory for life.
In fact, the last time I was in touch with Mike, by Facebook in January 2016, I reminded him of the moment.
“Thanks for the story–I’m glad it made your mother laugh,” he responded. “Let me know if you’re ever in the Ottawa area–I would love to reminisce and possibly jam maybe–still play the drums…”
Had he heard my music, my voice and songs sometimes drawing comparisons to Cat Stevens (from people who have heard me sing in bars)? Probably. Mike, as far as I can tell during my last 34 years living in the country where he was born as an “army brat” – France – had not changed. Through many of his own hard times, most recently with Hepatitis C leading to a liver transplant in 2013, and treatment for bipolar disorder, Mike had continued to face life with humour as the best antidote to pain.
We were not best friends, but we were mutual friends of a best friend – John Kricfalusi, who went on to fame as a the creator of the Ren & Stimpy cartoon show – and we spent enough important party nights together, and later some moments during his start in show business at the comedy clubs in Toronto, where I had had my own furtive efforts into “making it,” two or three years prior to him, for me to feel the bonds that true friendship and shared lives and experience never lets slip.
What I remember most about Mike’s show business transition from party comic to national comic was linked precisely to that moment of meeting my mother: Mike was a naturally talented, naturally funny man, but also with a sense of deep empathy. Throughout our years at Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Mike was the funny guy at the parties, entertaining us with air guitar before that term was even known, making jokes, acting strange, and generally be crushingly funny/accurate in his summations of people and situations.
Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi
As John Kricfalusi put it on his Facebook page today: “It’s a very sad day. One of my best friends from high school, Mike MacDonald has died. We used to sit in our parents’ basements during Ottawa winters and he would entertain us for hours. He could do devastating impressions of every one of us and we would laugh so much that we had tears in our eyes.”
“Mike was Canada’s top standup comedian for years, and he also did intense funny cartoon voices.”
“I will miss Mike. He’s the funniest guy I ever knew.”
When he was voted head boy of Brookfield – or student president, or whatever the role was called – I was astounded. How, I wondered, could a crazy funny party guy like him be voted into a position of responsibility and respect like that, above all the other “serious” candidates? Soon enough, I would understand that it was linked to what came later, both in terms of Mike being a popular guy, as well as in another aspect of his character, something more serious. This was a side of Mike that would also be visible later in life when he would transform himself from heavy drug user to finding religious faith, and using his comedy to help other people in emotional or physical distress.
But it is Mike MacDonald’s transition from head boy to successful standup comic that I want to talk about again: After my early, brief years in show business in Toronto and Ottawa (performing mostly bit-parts, TV commercials, and trying my hand at standup comedy, music open mics and circus) I went on a personal quest of self-discovery in England, Iran and then Africa, returning periodically to Toronto.
At one point during a period in Toronto in the late 70s, I attended one of Mike’s early shows in a bar/restaurant. He was just starting to try out his standup – after careers teaching ballroom dancing, caring for handicapped people, drumming in a government supported band across Canada, and other unrelated things – and I recall attending the show with my uncle, a medical doctor. Mike was not very funny that night, there was very little laughter in the room. My uncle remarked to me afterwards: “That man has a lot of anger inside him. He will never get anywhere as long as he is as angry as that in front of his audience.”
But this Mike was not the Mike I knew – even if the Mike I knew did certainly have anger, and anger was part of what made him funny. The Mike we had seen that night was a Mike who had decided he wanted to be funny, to be a standup comic, to “make it” in show business. Trying to be funny on stage in front of an audience is about a million miles away from being funny either on a stage in front of an audience or amongst friends. I think it took Mike a couple of years of trying to be funny before, eventually, he discovered that if Mike MacDonald simply played Mike MacDonald then it would all come together. Because Mike MacDonald was a very funny man.
When Mike began on stage to become the same Mike who made that comment to my mother, and who regaled us all with his craziness at parties, that is when the comedian was born and began having success.
Why did he never have huge success in the U.S.? He moved to California, he appeared on the David Letterman show, on the Arsenio Hall show, but he never broke out into the bigger, much bigger world of popular culture that his friend Kricfalusi did with Ren & Stimpy, “settling” instead, for a career as a well-known Canadian standup comic. He appeared more than any other comic on the stage of the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, hosted Canada’s Gemini Awards show (Canada’s Emmy Awards), he hosted his own specials on TV, he appeared in some films – one of which was written by Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs of Canada, where Mike (and Jim Carrey) – got his start.
I have no answer as to why he did not enter that higher atmosphere of recognition, or reach more people. Recently, for me, sitting so far away here in Paris, but now with greater access than ever before to what is happening in the North American standup world thanks to Netflix, when I compare some of the performances I have seen of MacDonald to those of many of the comics on Netflix, he is on another level.
I knew of his liver problems, his apparent closeness to death at that time, his battles with bipolar disorder, but when I read the news of his death this morning, I was struck by how we all live with the idea that while the world may be falling apart around us, and people we do not know personally may grow old and die – or die young – somehow we and our friends will carry on into old, old age, never succumbing to the inevitable “before our time.”
Losing Mike is a blow. But reading the comments on his Facebook page and in the media covering his death, I can only feel proud to have known him, and to see how deeply he has touched so many people. If that’s how you reacted to life, Mike, I’d hate to see what goes on now in heaven!
* The news reports and some parts of the internet record give Mike’s birth year as 1954. But his own Facebook page lists it as 1955, and my memory is that he was only about two years older than me, not three or close to 4. So I’m sticking with 1955; he would have turned 63 in June.
PARIS – I have been spending recent weeks tearing apart all the boxes and other crap in my garage and storage room, digging through a lifetime of papers and crud, trying to find anything at all that can prove to the French retirement agencies that I was employed at The Globe and Mail newspaper from the summer of 1980 to the fall of 1983. A series of emails to the human resources department of the Globe resulted in my discover that they have no record of my existence! (It led me to wonder if they even have any record of the 19 years that my father, David Spurgeon, spent reporting for the Globe from the 1950s to the 1980s! (and also made me wonder once again what human resource departments do other than fire people!!)) While I did manage to find at least one record of one period of my existence there – the last year and a half – I have still to find any official records of my own. On the other hand, I have been absolutely amazed to discover that as far as just about every receipt, metro ticket and French payslip or household bill for my subsequent 34 years in France, I have apparently been a packrat. But one of the most amazing artefacts I found was the sudden appearance last night of the actual receipt for the best meal I ever ate in a restaurant: My 1991 meal at Joel Robuchon’s great restaurant, Jamin. So I have decided to add that receipt (its nearly 3600 francs equal around 557 euros in today’s money, not counting the difference in cost-of-living fluctuations, etc.) to my very popular article about that evening, which I wrote about immediately afterwards and subsequently had rejected from many major publications many times. It has proven to be one of the most popular items on this blog, with almost daily readers from around the world ,which vindicates me a little about having been crazy enough to write it. You can see the receipt on this post, and also now accompanying the story itself in my rejection writings section under the title: A Dinner at Robuchon’s Jamin.
WAKEFIELD, Quebec – If it is Wednesday, this must be Wakefield, Quebec. Where? Yes, Wakefield. Wake up! And if you cannot wake up, go to Wakefield on a Wednesday night and attend the open mic of the Kaffé 1870. I attended on Wednesday, and while I was told it was a good one that night, what I saw was an AMAZING open mic. Of course, it helped that it was run by one of my best and oldest friends in life, Jamie Munro. And it helped that despite him being one of my best and oldest friends we had never ever played music together before, and did so that night. But I can assure anyone reading this blog, that if Wednesday night at the Kaffé 1870 as anything to go by, this is really a very cool open mic.
Wakefield is a small town about half an hour’s drive outside of Ottawa, in Quebec. It has little more than an out of use train station and track with weeds growing out of it, a scenic lake on which it is all set, a depanneur, a few arts shops and restaurants and minor lodging places, a covered bridge, a whole lot of surrounding ski resorts and … actually, it’s adding up to something now, isn’t it? And the population of Wakefield, I came to learn, is quite arty, intelligent and hip. And the Kaffé 1870 feels like a bit of Texas in Wakefield. Or something like that. Third at the Kaffé 1870 in Wakefield
It is a warm bar that feels a little like a ranch, with a neat overhanging front porch for when it is warm – one day per year – and it has a couple of rooms within and a nice, cosy, but sizeable stage with a really decent sound system. Second at the Kaffé 1870 in Wakefield
The open stage of the Kaffé 1870 has been running maybe 10 years or more, and Jamie is one of several rotating hosts. I mean, he doesn’t host it that often, but if he really wants to, it seems, he can. So it was that when he heard I was coming to town, he decided to host the open mic. And for him, that meant bringing his drum set and playing along with all of those participants who decided they wanted drums. Fourth at the Kaffé 1870
So here was I playing my songs with Jamie on drums, another guy on bass, and during my Bob Dylan finale – “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” another musician leapt to the stage and did a wicked harmonica accompaniment. It was really surreal playing on that stage with our band with an old friend with whom I have never played music, and we didn’t even think to rehearse! And I think we nailed it! First at the Kaffé 1870 in Wakefield
But if the night was only about me, then forget it. This was a hell of a night in terms of the quality of musicians and the atmosphere, and I am very happy that I was the second man to play. That role was bad enough after the brilliant fingerpicker. But had I seen the talent that would go up the entire nightlong, I’d have been much more reticent about getting up on stage.
There was a great energetic French singer, a kind of mini brass band, a super lead guitar player accompanying several other singer songwriter types, and just generally a very savvy bunch of performers and above all, above all an audience that was kind hearted and ready to dance, move, listen and jive. In fact, the whole evening was so much fun – and while the accent was on the English, there were a number of French people – that I just couldn’t draw myself away from watching, or talking to other old friends, long enough to make more than a handful of videos.
So don’t just try to figure things out with this blog account. Get over to the Kaffé 1870 the next time you happen to be in Wakefield, Quebec. Oh, yes, did I forget to mention that it felt really strange also playing there and knowing that in the 1970s my father had lived a three minute drive down the road?!
Because I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about writers not criticizing other writers in print as reviewers – “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” he said – but because I love to read good books and listen to albums and talk about them, I have started up two column categories on this blog, one dealing with albums (CDs) and called, “Brad’s Morning Exercise Music Rundown,” and the other called, the “Not-Book-Review,” in each of which I talk about the latest music or books I have listened to or read, but not as a critic, just as a guy reading or listening to music, and saying what it triggered in me. Today, due to seeing the film “Amy,” by Asif Kapadia, I have decided to start a new occasional column along the same lines, called, “A Not-Film-Review.”
So here was a filmmaker who also said that one of his biggest concerns in making a film was an overall “look” to the film, using television footage, family footage, and just whatever footage he could get – press conferences, etc. – to string together a dramatic narrative and to somehow make sure that the whole held together as if emanating from the same central source. With Amy, I realized as soon as I heard about it, Kapadia would have the same challenge, except with a completely different subject matter, and at a much later time in history, when there would likely be a lot more better quality footage than there was of Senna, given the spread of handheld personal cameras, cell phone cameras, as well as the amazing TV and concert footage that would have existed surrounding one of the most popular pop stars of the last decade.
But obviously, I had another thing that interested me here, and that was that this was a musician as subject matter, and one whose music and voice I love, and whose life and death touched me, as I knew it through the media, and videos, etc. In fact, I recalled the day I learned of her death, when I had just arrived in Cologne, Germany, for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in July 2011, in that same year that I was carrying around several cameras and recording devices with me to record my year on the worldwide tour of open mics and jam sessions, and creating the footage I am still editing today, for my own documentary!! (That day I put up on this blog the only post ever in which I said absolutely nothing, giving it the title: “A Blog Post of Silence for Amy Winehouse.” Today I’m making up for the silence with far, far too many words.)
I was also, therefore, very keen to see how Kapadia would make a music documentary, as well, using music footage – and crappy quality videos by friends and family – and blending the whole thing together into a comprehensive narrative.
Amy publicity photo
So there were so many reasons to see this film, not the least of which being my own desire to see what had gone wrong in the life of such a talented singer, and a woman who could have lived on so much longer and done so much more, had she managed to escape whatever it was that was pulling her down. At least, those were the thoughts I had since her death, and I was eager to see if the film would provide any answers. (There is a great, tragic quote from Tony Bennett near the end of the film in which he says something to this effect (as a not-film-review, I saw no need to take notes during the screening, which I saw on the film’s release in Paris last night at a Gaumont cinema by the Opera(!!!): “If I had seen Amy again, I would have told her: “Slow down, Amy, life will teach you how to live it, if you can just live long enough….”)
So how did it all pan out, then, in terms of fulfilling my expectations, or giving me things I did not expect, etc.? The first thing I want to say, is that like the Senna film, I will definitely go back to watch Amy again, and maybe even more than once. Unlike with the Senna film, I will be doing that with Amy simply because I enjoyed the film and really want to experience it all again to further my understanding of her, of the film, and simply to live it all over again. Quite simply because I know I loved the film. With the Senna film, as someone who knew the subject matter as a professional Formula One journalist, knew the subject matter like the back of my hand, and who already had copious opinions of my own about Senna, and the Senna-Alain Prost battle, and someone who had seen much of the actual footage over the years before it was shaped into a dramatic film, it took me several viewings of the film to decide that I did really indeed like the film. It had been highly rated everywhere, and when I first saw it, I admit to a little bit of a let down, in terms of, “Why has there been so much fuss about this??” I believe the reason was because for me Senna was not news, but for the general public, he was a sudden discovery.
With Amy, on the other hand, there are probably a lot of people who were close to her who have criticisms of the film, and surprises, and things that they expected to see that are not there, etc. But I could not have those ideas, not knowing anything about her. Well, except for a few general gut-reactions, such as, for instance, is it really possible that a diva like Amy could be such a “nice” character? She is only really nasty once in the film, when she has been let down by her father who appears on holidays with a camera crew, and all she wanted was to see him; so when he asks her to sign an autograph of a couple of tourists, she does so, but makes a nasty, cutting comment to the couple. I just find it a little hard to believe that such a complicated and emotional character as Amy did not also have some very nasty, angry, cutting sides to her in her personal life – and we don’t see them. On the other hand, I’m ready to accept that she was just a doll, a victim, a sad person manipulated by everyone around her, who finally succumbed to her helplessness.
That’s possible; and her hopping from guy to guy even while married is certainly not a sign of a pleasant character, but it remains unexplored in the film.
Kapadia weaves together an incredible narrative in Amy with “found footage”
Having said that, those were really my only expectations that were let down, and the beauty of this film is that Kapadia has gathered together in an even more masterful manner than with Senna the film footage and woven together a story that makes us feel really like we are living intimately with Amy Winehouse in her world. There are many moments in this film where we feel as if the scenes were shot by a director for the purpose of the story. It is exceptional for a film made of “found footage.” I’m talking, for instance, about intimate moments of film footage in cars with friends, just playing around; or when she is with her husband Blake, and talking in front of the camera as they walk down the hall of some building about the great moment to come of escaping to a toilet to make love. (The language is more raw than that, by the way.) It really feels like you’re with her, in the life of Amy.
The way he used the various qualities of footage was also a revelation for me, or no, not a revelation, but a reassurance: As someone said to me a few years ago when I was depressed about the lousy quality of some of my documentary’s footage, it’s the story’s subject matter that counts the most in a documentary, and the audience is ready to forgive a lot of bad quality if the subject is interesting enough. That person said something to the effect of what was the most electrifying, most watched and crappiest film footage that ever existed?: Neil Armstrong taking a first step on the moon in July 1969.
And that is what really shines through this documentary for me from beginning to end; the story is riveting. It is a tragedy, it is a success story, it is a beautiful woman with a giant talent, and unrealized potential. Dying young, at 27 (yes, like Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, and others), like Senna at 34.
And the music in all of this? The moments of Amy singing just shine through in a way that feels as if there is a kind of light from somewhere else in the universe that suddenly materializes and carries us away through her enormous vocal and emotional talent, shining in and cutting through the chaos and horror and sadness that was her daily life. A victim of a bad upbringing, a crappy boyfriend, manipulative father, well-meaning managers who just didn’t have a clue, through it all came this electrifying, pure and monumental voice and music.
General feelings at the end of the Amy Winehouse film by Kapadia
Which is made all more exceptional when we see her incapable of being able to sing on a stage in a concert she did not want to do after a period of good health and during a moment when she no longer wanted to sing the same songs from “Back to Black,” but wanted to advance and move forward. And the extraordinary footage with Tony Bennett when they are recording and the first thing she sings comes out sounding like some of the great female vocals of all time, and she stomps off, saying something like, “Oh, I can’t do this, I’m sorry, it’s terrible…” He rassures her, and she says, “I have to get it right….” It reminded me once again about how little good great talent ever did to the possessor of it….
The end feeling for me was, “if only.” Yes, I ended up feeling after the film the same way I did in July 2011, “If only” some little thing had happened that led her to an insight into how to live a liveable life, but still to produce great music. It makes you wonder if that is possible, but the answer is that she wrote Back to Black in a period of lucidity, not in a time of drugs to the point of overdose, and partying in Camden Town amongst the destructive “friends” who were incapable of doing anything to help her find her way.
OK, this blog post is really, really rambling now. The best thing to do is to go and see this film. Maybe you will agree with my thought that another thing this film has over the Senna film is that Amy Winehouse’s soundtrack is certainly more accessible to a larger public than the music of a Formula One engine from the 1990s….
PARIS – Today I learned the news of the tragic death of Zara Sophia. I, like most of the people who heard her in open mics in Paris a couple of years ago, met her only a few times. But her voice, her music, her emotion and her presence were something we would not, and will not forget.
Zara has died at the age of 28 years, although the exact circumstances of her death have not yet been revealed from what I have been able to find out through various sources. She went missing on the 30th May and was only found on 7 June, on a beach in England. She had no cell phone or money with her, but her car was parked near by. Although early reports said there was no suspicion of foul play, a police inquest was later carried out.
I wrote about Zara at least twice on this blog, because she touched me immediately from the moment I first saw her in the Highlander open mic when I wrote a post saying: “It was Wednesday, so it was the Highlander. I had been intending to sign up early at the Highlander, and then run over to the Tennessee to see Rafa and his band, with Les DeShane on lead. But in the end, I immediately signed up for the Highlander and met a newcomer, Zara Sophia, from England, so I just had to sit and talk and learn about her, as I had a feeling that she might have some talent. How can one have that feeling? No idea. But I did, in fact, enjoy immensely what Zara did, so give it a listen and see if you agree – in the video below.”
That was the beginning of December 2010, and I was doing my Mecano bar brunch at the time with my open mic on Sunday afternoons. So I immediately told Zara about it, and she was there for the following Sunday, which ended up being one of the best of them all – thanks to her and the American anti-folk musician Viking Moses. Fortunately, I was able to make some much better videos of Zara in the good lighting of my open mic, so I made several. I only put two or three up on my blog at the time, but I’m taking the opportunity of putting all I have up on this item, in Zara’s memory. There is one in particular, the shortest of them all, just an end-of-song thing where we catch a glimpse of Zara looking over at me, and her smile says it all about her personality.
On my blog item at the time I wrote a little about my conversation with Zara and my sense of her as a musician, and she responded in a way that surprised me, making me realize my impressions were grounded in reality: “Zara has just arrived in Paris from her homeland of England, and I had listened to her songs on her Myspace and found that with one of them she reminded me a little of Sandy Denny, the late singer for the band Fairport Convention, who also put out several solo albums. When I spoke to Zara yesterday I learned that, hey, guess what? Growing up she heard her parents listening to Sandy Denny all the time, and her mother even sang some of the songs to her. I got Zara to do one yesterday, as well, the wonderful “Matty Groves.” But Zara’s voice is anything but a imitation of Sandy Denny. In fact, there are some clear touches of it, but the rest is Zara….”
I recorded her version of “Matty Groves” at the time, but I did not put it on the blog. Now I am doing so.