Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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

David Douglas Duncan, a Great Photographer, and an Equally Great Man, Dies

June 9, 2018
bradspurgeon

Duncan and Picasso

Duncan and Picasso

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

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

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.

I am today posting on this blog the interview that I did with Duncan that day in January 2013, and in future I hope to perhaps create a kind of video of his photos and the sound recording of the actual and full interview I did with him, which was at least an hour long. But for the moment, here is the interview with David Douglas Duncan as it appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and New York Times in 2013.

Mike MacDonald, a Natural Born Funny Guy, and a Friend (1955 – 2018)

March 18, 2018
bradspurgeon

Mike MacDonald

Mike MacDonald

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.

Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, in Ottawa, Mike MacDonald died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 62, that natural funny man talent he had as a teenager having led him into a career as one of Canada’s top standup comedians. *

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

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.

Garage Discoveries, Old Receipts, Musings on Human Resource Departments and other tales of Three Star Restaurants – Especially Joel Robuchon’s Jamin

July 5, 2017
bradspurgeon

My receipt from Robuchon's Jamin 1991

My receipt from Robuchon’s Jamin 1991

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.

The Astounding Open Stage of the Kaffé 1870 in Wakefield, Quebec – and Reunions

June 11, 2016
bradspurgeon

Kaffé 1870

Kaffé 1870

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?!

Anyway, there’s no jam like home.

A View From the Stage in Fat Albert’s Open Mic in Toronto c. 1982-1983

January 16, 2016
bradspurgeon

Fat Albert's

Fat Albert’s

Fat Albert’s is one of the longest running open mics in the world. It was founded it 1967 in a church basement on Bloor St. in Toronto, the Bloor Street United Church, where it continued until 2003, run from 1967 to 1996 by the same guys, Ray Peak and his helper, Ed Matthews. It is still running today, but in a different location. I used to attend in the 1970s and the early 1980s, and last night as I was going through some old bits of fiction writing in my hard disks, I discovered this scene I set at Fat Albert’s from a novel that I wrote in 1983, and which was set in late 1982 and early 1983. The novel is about the break up of a relationship for a University of Toronto student, and his girlfriend. It is called, “The Prince.” I thought I would put this little section of – desolate and nasty – writing up on the blog, since it paints this scene from a legendary open mic in Toronto (which is still going now but in a different location), from the point of view of one of the occasional musicians, and open mics have by chance become not just a big thing in my life, but the main subject of this blog. The attitude of this character, of course, is in no way MY attitude today. But it has its historical-sociological interest, perhaps. Also, in researching background just now on Fat Albert’s, I learned the Ray Peak died just four months ago, in his 80s, so it seems right to put this up on the blog, since the “old guy” is depicted herein. What I found amusing in re-reading it after all these years, 32, 33 years later, is that the scene could have depicted attendance at an open mic today. No change! Check out my chapter in Fat Albert’s in the fiction section of this blog.

A Not-Film-Review: Asif Kapadia’s Documentary: “Amy”

July 9, 2015
bradspurgeon

Amy

Amy

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.”

I had been looking forward enormously to seeing Asif Kapadia’s documentary film about Amy Winehouse for many for strong reasons. One was because I had become a fan of Kapadia’s work through his film about Ayrton Senna, from 2010, which I had been drawn to and wrote about in my professional capacity as a journalist of Formula One racing, but not as a critic, and I was very keen to see what Kapadia would do as a follow up to that. My interest there was that having interviewed the filmmaker at the time of the Senna film, I remembered strongly him describing how one of the biggest challenges and pleasures of making the Senna film was that he was forced to use footage that was all taken by someone else, as Senna had long since died.

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

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….

In Remembrance of Zara Sophia

June 25, 2013
bradspurgeon

zara sophiaPARIS – 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.

Today as I read around through various sources about Zara’s life from other bloggers and friends and newspaper articles in England, I learned that she had actually once performed as an opening act for Pete Doherty, in 2008, who had clearly recognized her obvious talent as well. She had also travelled to India – which I recall her telling me – and affected an interesting collection of people there as she had all who met her in Paris at the open mics.

She will not simply be missed, but she will remain an example of great purity and talent for anyone who knew her.







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