This is the article my father wrote for the Globe and Mail about man landing on the moon – written 50 years ago today, published 50 years ago tomorrow. I, with my brother and sister and mother, were there with him at Cape Kennedy (as it was then called) and we watched the Apollo 11 spacecraft lift off toward the moon. We stayed at Cocoa Beach while he then flew off to Houston, and Mission Control, for the rest of the coverage.
At one point, one early evening, without a board, I asked my father to rent me one. He said no, but that I should go ask that man over there with a woman if I could use his, as he was not using it. I was unsure why he singled out this man, but I went and asked for his board. “No,” came the abrupt answer. Returning to tell my Dad, he asked me if I knew who the man was. Of course I did not, but he responded: “That’s Norman Mailer, Brad.” Mailer was attending the launch researching his eventual book, “Of a Fire on the Moon.”
If my father perhaps wanted to use me to meet Mailer, he did give me another unforgettable memory when while I was swimming in our hotel pool, he drew my attention to an elderly man entering a room above – the doors of the rooms faced the pool below, as in a motel – and I can still see the image of the man entering the room. “That’s Charles Lindbergh,” my father told me. And, of course, it was. Lindbergh, then only 67 years old, and the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, was still around to attend the moon launch. An extraordinary century.
But many decades later, in our own century now, my father asked me what it was like to cover Formula One racing as a journalist. I told him that it was very interesting because it was about so many different things: The drivers were heroes risking their lives and doing exceptional feats of athletic prowess; they drove cars that were the highest expression of cutting edge technology, and expensive as hell; that it was a mix of extremely rapid technological development, glamour, money and danger with the drivers as stars. His response to me was: “It sounds just like covering the space program in the 1960s.” That is when I realised that no matter how hard we try to escape our origins, our family background, our parents’ goals for us, well, we somehow end up back at the same place….
2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.
10:30 AM: Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.
11:00 AM: Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.
1:00 PM: Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).
7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection. Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.
Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.
8:30 PM: Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin. First had a local white, then had a local red. Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement. Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.
Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country. Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris. Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.
10:37 AM: Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.
4:30 PM: Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies. Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy. Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).
7:00 PM: Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things. Learn much about what it was to live under communism. Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom. Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.
12:30 AM: Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians. Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.
2:00 AM: Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires. (And copious mosquitoes present.)
11:00 AM: Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.
2:00 PM: Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county. Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles. Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it. (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz): “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)
3:00 PM: Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists. Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros. Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros. In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu. Has guitar on back. After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street. Says he owns 250 guitars. Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.” Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.
3:30 PM: Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again. Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros. Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not. But knows others.
4:00 PM: Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square. Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none. Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame. Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better. Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.
5:30 PM: Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host. Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu. Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress. We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride. In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania. My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon. He knows my name and is surprised. Nice coincidence.
7:00 PM: Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor. Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris. Nice coincidence. No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators: Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia. (See photo.) Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.
00:00 PM: Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join. I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.
8:15 AM: Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.
Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary
9:00 AM: Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory. Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds. Rundown after years without use. Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies. No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)
8:30 PM: Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar. Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music. Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind. No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies. Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them. Makes me want to quit. (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)
Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater
10:00 PM: Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music. No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.
10:30 PM: Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping. Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians. So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.
00:00 PM: Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host. Host agreed it must have been vampire bat. Fall asleep anyway, no problems.
8:15 AM: Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains. No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies. Forget all troubles. Do workshop, day ends well. Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania. Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world. Always people. Just people. Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.
More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….
PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!
Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).
There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.
The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.
I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.
In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.
Back in 1969
By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!
P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….
Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.
I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!
The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.
The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.
And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café
commandments of the jam at the moonshine
Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.
Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.
In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.
house rules at the moonshine
The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976
By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!
PARIS – Having now arrived back in Paris after a weekend in England, I have finally found a few minutes to report on our final days at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival, and what came after. (Does that sound like one of those click-bait headlines?: “…what happened next will ASTOUND you!!!”)
The final day at the Braziers Mini Indie Film Festival was highlighted by a great fun final show resulting from Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro’s Flow Zone workshop – three days of the workshop ended in a show put together by the participants – and the long shadow from the night before of a fabulous film by a 16-year-old director.
Actually, the film, called “Charlie’s Letters,” and about a voyage by the director’s great grandfather up through Italy solo trying to escape from the enemy during World War II, was certainly one of the high points of the festival. I think few of the spectators expected to find this mature work of a film done by a teenager, despite the hype around it stating that Elliott Hasler, the director, was the youngest ever director to premier a full-length dramatic film at a major film film festival in Britain, as he had already done at both the Brighton Film Festival and the Edinburgh festival.
Somehow, Elliott, with the help of his family’s financial support – with a miraculously small budget of about 7000 pounds sterling, managed to create a persuasive feature film where both the size of the budget and the age of the director is soon forgotten by the passionate story telling. It was in fact years in the making, as Elliott began it at between 13 and 14 years old and finished it just shy of his 17th birthday. He is now 18, and during the talk after the film showing at Braziers, he struck me as being as mature as all the great young and precocious Formula One drivers I have interviewed over the years – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, and many more – and made me feel that there will be great things to come from him.
I don’t want to go into detail about the film, as I’ve not got the skills of a film critic, but suffice to say that the story – with Elliott in the lead role and looking like a man in his late 20s or more – just draws you in from the first images and carries you along with expert editing, story-telling, visual beauty and acting. The only hint for me – as a non professional – of its low budget nature was the less than perfect sound capture. (So I was not surprised to learn that it was done with a mic on the camera, rather than a separate sound source.) But even this was dealt with in a way that managed to add a certain atmosphere to the whole.
My feeling was that Elliott, given the right support and continued interest (he said he started making films at around age 10) could certainly go on to become another David Lean or Richard Attenborough or…Elliott Hasler!
And from Braziers on we went to Giffords Circus in Stroud
Giffords Circus tent
It has been years and years that I had intended to attend Giffords Circus, a small family-run circus that I first heard about in 2014 when I met three of the musicians of the circus’s orchestra. I wrote about that meeting on this blog, as it happened in the context of my open mic journeys around the world. They showed up at the great Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford, and I could see immediately that they were massively talented – and entertaining – performers. I introduced myself afterwards and we continued our musical evening at a pub or two after Catweazle ended.
So it was that a light flashed in my mind last month when Peter Pullon (to be mentioned below) told me that I really should check out the circus up on the commons outside Stroud. It turned out that the final date of the circus in Stroud took place on Tuesday afternoon, and that I had just the time to attend on this, my return trip to see Peter.
So Ornella and I attended the show, and I was hoping to find my friend the musical director of the show, but he was not there for this performance! What we did find, however, was a very, very classy circus show that incorporated the best feel of the intimacy of a family-run circus along with a judicious hiring of acts from around the world to make up the non-regular acts. So in the end, I may not have met my old acquaintance, but I did meet a performer who used to live on the same street as I did in Toronto, while Ornella, who was born in Sicily, met a couple of Sicilian performers.
The show was sold out, and while I have no idea how many spectators the tent seats, it felt like it must have been anywhere between 500 to 1,000. It was smaller than many of the big Christmas shows I have seen in Paris, but bigger than the smallest. My favorite acts were the main clown, who was almost acting as a ringmaster too, the juggler, and the acrobats who launched themselves high above the ground in the second part of the show. I also absolutely loved the miniature ponies and the dachshund dog act.
The performers live at this circus in trailers, as it is a real, true travelling show. Part of the charm of attending this last show outside Stroud was to watch how the troupe began dismantling the tent and packing up the show the moment the place had emptied of spectators, as it was clearly time to hit the road. It reminded me of my life in Formula One and the biggest travelling circus of them all in the afternoon after a Grand Prix race ends.
And then back to Peter Pullon’s workshop to reunite with Peter McCabe
Peter Pullon and Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
After the circus on Tuesday we headed over to the workshop of the master puppet maker, Peter Pullon, who was giving a facelift to my sidekick, Peter McCabe. I had left Peter with Peter last month, 43 years after Pullon made Peter! Pullon is a fascinating man, having had two or three successful careers in his life, including working in theater for the decade of the 1960s, before setting up his own business as a theatrical prop builder in the 70s and then becoming the film director and producer of advertisements.
And during much of this time he also sidelined as a great puppet maker. His two most famous creations were probably Emu, the bird figure of Rod Hull, who was massively popular in the UK in the 70s, and the ventriloquist figure, Orville. In recent years he decided to put an end to the TV commercial making career and return to his great love of making puppets. So he set up shop in the Cotswolds and now devotes his time fully to making – and repairing or renovating – puppet figures.
When I approached him a year or so ago and asked if he would take on a renovation of my Peter McCabe, he agreed, and I had to just wait for the right moment. I was, of course, somewhat worried at the prospect of what might happen to Peter if I sent him across the channel and subjected him to the no doubt painful process of a face – and body – lift at age 43, but when I stepped into Pullon’s studio on Tuesday and saw the masterful job he had done, I was overjoyed. So was Peter. He apparently had a lot more fun in the Cotswolds than he usually does with me in Paris.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Peter McCabe (and me) in coming months….
In the end, our second trip in as many months, was as successful and fun as the first. We hope to do it again soon. (Peter is yelling in the background, telling me to cut the crap, he refuses to undergo another facelift for at least another 43 years.)
PARIS – Is it just my impression, or are there more than the usual number of open mics in Paris that have closed down for the summer – or the month of August? In any case, I managed to find a new open mic last night that is open all summer. The Olympe bar open mic located at the top of the beautiful Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
I have never been to an open mic in that part of Paris, and strange as it may seem, I’ve never set foot in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which is surely one of the most beautiful in Paris.
The open mic is located in a bar that clearly loves music, as there were instruments hanging from the wall around the makeshift stage in a front window with red curtains, closed to create the stage effect. The instruments on the wall were a stringed instrument like a little bouzouki, a banjo and an oud.
It was a very well organized open mic, with a maximum of 12 performers each Thursday, with the need to call up in advance and book a slot with Guillaume, the organizer of the Olympe open mic*, and with a precise starting time of 20:15, and an ending time just before midnight.
Too bad the place was not quite packed to the full last night – but that is part of the risk of running an open mic in August in Paris, no doubt, when the locals all head to the seas for the month. So thank goodness there are still a few bars that remain loyal to the residents who do not leave for the seas, and the tourists who come only for the month of August and still want an open mic!
* I have found out since publication of this blog item that Guillaume was just replacing the usual organizer of this open mic, whose name is James Z.
I have updated my Thumbnail Guide to Oxford Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. I’m happy to be able to say that I did not remove any open mics from the list, as all the ones I know are still running. The main addition is for the open mic at The Old Bookbinders pub, which I was finally able to attend in July after years and years of trying!
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….
MILAN – It was a crazy few days of a classic example of performing my unfinished business for my new company called Unfinished Business SAS, created last month and truly starting business next week. But I just had to write about this weekend in Milan, as a perfect example of how my business is now about doing all the different things I ever did or wanted to do in my life, but now, all at the same time! And so it went with me wearing my 41-year-0ld, green and orange sequinned circus costume while acting the role of a glam rocker from the 70s arriving in a special part of heaven – for women only – along with Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro at an art exhibition in Navigli on Friday; to a jam Saturday evening on the top floor of a condo to celebrate my birthday; to featuring in a conference to present the second edition of my Colin Wilson book after a 5-actor play presented at a Red Cross event, and taking a side route as the play’s sound and light man when it was discovered that the theater had not booked their person to work that night…. The whole followed by another brief jam at the Spazio Ligera before returning to Paris today…
The weekend was also supposed to include setting up the exhibition about peoples’ dreams – Acchiappa Sogni – that Unfinished Business helped TAC Teatro do a few months ago. It was supposed to be set up for the second time at a local public library, but there turned out to be a problem with scheduling. No problem. That can be done another day. I only mention it to talk about the diversity of this weekend in Milan.
Which was the most fun? That’s my point: It was all equally fun, sometimes nerve-wracking, as well as hugely gratifying. And all of it thanks to my association with TAC Teatro. Ornella Bonventre and I first started rehearsing the Friday night show in the TAC Teatro France space in Asnieres last week. At the time, I couldn’t quite believe it would turn into the wonderful event it did. By now, I can believe anything! The story of Ornella’s one-woman-show, called “Avete mai provato ad essere donne…,” is that of a place in heaven for women who have been beaten and eventually killed by their husbands. It is all about the low opinion people have of women – but all done in good humour, as in the section about how one woman was the fourth girl in a family of no boys, and the huge disappointment of the father….
Anyway. my role turned into that of an androgynous glam rock star from the 1970s – Bowie, Bolan, Glitter, etc. – finding himself in heaven, but not sure where to go. He ends up in this women’s part, and he is accepted there, and is invited to play his music as the various women tell their stories. The role just naturally wrote itself, and the final crowning touch was when I remembered I still had my glam circus costume from my days in the circus in 1976 and it still, somehow managed to fit me! It also turned out that I have a large number of cover songs from the 1970s or earlier, touching on subjects that just fit right in – “Father and Son,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Just Like a Woman,” etc., as well as some of my own songs that fit in, like the sad one, “Memories,” that we closed the show with.
The exhibition was a series of paintings and sculptures by the Italian artist, Roberta Stifano, who gave us a tour of the artworks in the exhibition, “Dal Tunnel…” and explained how they charted her experience in a relationship with a narcissist pervert, and the resulting road from infatuation to pain to torture to separation, and eventual slow recovery. It was clearly a good marriage between the exhibition and Ornella Bonventre’s monologue, entitled “Avete mai provato ad essere donne…”
And Then Came the Interlude of a Chef From Emilia Romagna
Saturday was supposed to be the setting up of the Acchiappa Sogni exhibit at a public library, and here I post again the video that I helped to make, and I edited, for that project many months ago. TAC Teatro and Unfinished Business plan to continue collaboration on this and other such projects in the future.
Saturday night, it was time for a break, and I was invited to a birthday party in the top floor of an apartment overlooking Milan, with the Duomo glowing visible in the distance. It was a private party just for me, for my very big birthday that actually happened on Pearl Harbour day. The main interest of this party was the invitation of a private chef from the great dining area of Italy, the Emilia Romagna. She prepared a fabulous lasagna typical of the region – making the sauce and the actual pasta herself. We had a roast porc and some fabulous fried potatoes that has herbs and spices that the cool would not reveal but said were a secret recipe of her grandmother. The dessert was a typical Italian tart, filled this time with fabulous fresh prunes.
After the meal, which by the way was watered by two different Italian wines from the chef’s region, I pulled out my guitar and two other guests pulled out some bongo drums, and we jammed for an hour or so. A better, more relaxing evening could not be had….
And from there, to the Binario 7 theater complex for the conference and play of TAC Teatro
The final evening in Milan was the very special one of my first witnessing of the TAC Teatro production of the play called Edipo Rap, written by Angelo Villa, an Italian psychologist who is also the author of many oeuvres. I have not only seen this play in preparation over the last year from auditions to rehearsals, but I have also helped to re-edit the trailer that contains the endorsement by Mogol, the great Italian songwriter. On Sunday, once again I watched a little bit of the rehearsal at TAC Teatro, and gave a little feedback to Ornella Bonventre, the director of the play. But I knew little else about it, and had never seen it performed from beginning to end.
So it was a moment of extraordinary panic when I found myself at the Teatro Binario 7 just an hour before the show and with Angelo Villa present, and I learned that I had been drafted in as the sound and lighting man! I at first refused, saying that not only can I not speak Italian, but I’ve never seen the play! It turned out that the Binary 7 had not included a technical guy to deal with the sound and light, and no one knew this until the moment the troupe arrived at the theater, just an hour and a half before the show.
But Ornella and TAC and the four other actors of the play are the very definition of theatrical troupers. So I was drafted in to do whatever I could to help, while the other actors filled in on the lighting and sound responsibilities whenever they were not on stage! To my great amazement, I managed to perform the lighting and sound function without a hitch, and when it was not my responsibility, the actors did the same, again without a hitch. No audience member – and there were between 120 and 130 of them in a full-house of the small theater – was aware that anything but a professional, smooth production was underway and went from beginning to end without a hitch.
Such is life in the theatrical lane!
And once my duties as the light and sound man were finished I was then invited up onto the stage in my official role – more unfinished business – in presenting the second edition of my book, “Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism,” to the audience as part of the conference after the play. The other invited guests were two emergency workers of the Red Cross, a psychiatrist and Angelo Villa. So I was among distinguished company.
Edipo Rap, in fact, is a play that deals with the problem of drugs, and ultimately, outsiders from society – which is why there was the connection with my Colin Wilson book – Wilson being a specialist on the theme of the Outsider – and the Red Cross had paid to host the play as part of a show of its new service that it offers to people in trouble with drugs and in need of emergency psychological assistance. This service is offered in Monza and Milan, and the space between.
Yes, it was strange for me to find myself performing all of these functions in Monza! For regular readers of this blog will know that I have been visiting Monza annually since 1998 or so to cover the Formula One race – until this year! And so I was back again, symbolically NOT covering the F1 but taking care of unfinished business, in the way of running a theater performance’s lighting and sound system while then appearing and a special guest author.
The play was fascinating even for someone who understands no Italian! The actors were an eclectic group that includes Ornella, who in addition to directing the play, had a small role that opens and closes the action; Cisky, a well-known Italian rap artist (and former prisoner who turned his life around with theater and music); and Jagorart Marco, who is a fantastic circus juggler trying to turn his life around into that of actor.
After the show came the conference, as I mentioned, with Ornella acting as my interpreter. I was pleased to learn that no one in the audience had heard of Colin Wilson – despite many of his books being translated into Italian – and so I was able to give a very short primer on who he was.
After the conference came a return to our local hangout, the Spazio Ligeria, in via Padova, where over a nice meal of pasta and other things, I took a moment to take part in the ongoing jam session that had been providing the soundtrack all evening.
The weekend left a very strong feeling of no unfinished business. I hope I can have many more like it….
PARIS – The Cirque d’Hiver, or Winter Circus, in Paris is one of the great treasures of the circus arts. After the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently – and, for circus lovers, tragically – closed down after more than a hundred years of existence, this Parisian tradition is one of the last remaining great, great circus attractions. Over the weekend, I decided to attend its latest show – called “Exploit” – and was not let down. I threw together some of the videos I took during the show into a single little clip that you can see below. And I also decided on this occasion to republish, on the blog, an article I wrote about this great Paris institution 24 years ago in my blog articles section under the title: Cirque d’Hiver: A Unique Tradition Under the Big Top Ceiling in Paris. It all remains so incredibly true and fresh, and I cannot be happier to report that. The show, as you will see in the video, was stupendous.