Chase Carey of Liberty Media at Singapore GP 2016. Photo: Brad Spurgeon
This weekend marks the 10th edition of the Singapore Grand Prix, the first running of which took place in 2008, as Formula One’s first ever night race. As it happened, that first edition would take place just as the world financial markets began to fall apart in the beginning of the financial crisis the effects of which we are still feeling today. I recall the strange atmosphere in the paddock perfectly: We were gathered in the financial hub of Southeast Asia in the slickest racing environment in a downtown setting that we had ever seen, and basking in the paddock in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury. While all the talk was about the underpinnings of that wealth and luxury falling apart around us – banks going bust, the global financial system sinking into an apparent abyss, and with it, the prospect of so many of the series’ sponsors pulling out and leaving Formula One adrift in a series that survives on begging for money.
As the series continues to negotiate for a new contract with Singapore, and in a season in which a new company has taken over the running of the series – the U.S.-based Liberty Media – I thought it would be a great time to look back at a couple of the stories that I wrote in the past, as well as to start a new auto racing section on this blog. Today I am running what I feel is the biggest story I wrote about Formula One as almost classical theater, a big, world story of glamour, glitz and drama. This was a Page 1 story in the International Herald Tribune, and later ran in the New York Times, and summed up the state of Formula One at the time, at its biggest race of the season: The Monaco Grand Prix. Read the story and tell me if the series is the same today 15 years later?
Tomorrow, I will run my preview for the first ever Singapore Grand Prix, and talk a little more about how the weekends go in Singapore.
By the way, while we all thought the first night race and the collapsing financial markets were the biggest story of the weekend in 2008, it turned out that there was a much, much bigger sporting story going on behind the scenes. But that scandal would only be revealed a year later when Nelson Piquet Jr. told the world that he (and his team directors) had staged a fake crash in order to help his teammate at Renault, Fernando Alonso, with his race strategy. The help would lead to Alonso’s first victory that season, and a year later, to the banning of two of the team’s directors from the series in one of the sport’s worst cheating scandals. Last year also marked the beginning of the Liberty Media story, as the announcement of the takeover of Formula One had just been made at the beginning of the month and Chase Carey, the new boss, visited the Singapore paddock – his first ever visit to a Formula One Grand Prix.
PARIS – This has been probably the lowest month ever in terms of me updating my blog. I should be ashamed of myself, or feeling guilty, or thinking that I’m lax, undisciplined, a scoundrel in the world of blogs who is incapable of updating on a regular basis. In fact, I’m celebrating! For a month of February the blog has never had more page views. The reason? Because my Thumbnail Guide of Open Mics Around the World continues to feed the blog and give it action and interest with evergreen material. But most of all: Because I am able to announce that I will continue once again this year my 20-country (at least) around-the-world open mic and open jam session adventure. It will all start in exactly two weeks from today with a return to Melbourne, and then will follow – as usual – the Formula One world championship car racing events as I continue to make my annual trip around the world to cover that series AND continue my exploration of the world’s open mics and open jam sessions. And I will update the open mic guides that I inaugurated last year, and actually, a few years before that with the Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics and Jam Sessions. Is this a crap post or what?!?! Answer: It’s a blog and I can do what I want, and have fun with writing! Thanks for your ongoing interest!
PS: One or two of you might have noticed that I’m in the process of updating the look of the blog as well – although it is far from my desired end-result….
PPS: Oh, yes, I forgot to mention: This is the 800th post on this blog since I began it almost exactly 4 years ago. (We’re a week or two shy of that anniversary.)
I’ve been saying a lot lately that if you want something interesting to happen in your life, carry around a guitar with you. I might also add a guidebook. At least, that is what happened to me in Valencia, Spain, last night – something very fun and interesting thanks to my guidebook and my guitar. And it also happened at a very interesting place where Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall, Orson Welles and others used to hang out.
To step back a little…. I finished my day’s work at the Formula One race track at the Marina in Valencia and I decided, exhausted after a long night the night before and the travel and the work, that I would not even look for a place to play music. Valencia has never been good for my musical adventure. So I opened up my guidebook, called Cartoville and published by Gallimard in France, to see if there were any good restaurants nearby.
hemingway at la pepica
Carrying these Cartoville guidebooks is a new thing I have been doing this year after I was introduced to the books by my friend Vanessa, last year, and she took me to some amazing places thanks to these books. So I thought, why not find one for each town I go to. Tourism was never my thing – but there’s no point traveling around the world for my work and being dumb about finding places, either.
The books are great because they split up the cities into sectors, and in each sector you have only five or six choices of bars, restaurants and shopping. So the choice is done very carefully, and I am rarely let down by what I find. I looked in the area around the Formula One track last night and saw this restaurant overlooking the beach; it was called La Pepica, and the guidebook described it as a “local myth” and that it was mentioned in Hemingway’s novel, “The Dangerous Summer,” and that these other celebrities had followed him there, etc. And the food was said to be good, and the ambiance was good, and simple, too.
So I walked over to the place, dragging my luggage behind me, and with my guitar on my back – for I had still not checked into my hotel. As I approached the restaurant, I saw suddenly some familiar faces: A massive table of maybe 35 British journalists sat on the terrace of the Pepica, in some kind of get-together for before the British Grand Prix, which is the next race after the one this weekend. There they were, BBC, Sky TV, magazine journalists, newspaper journalists from all the major publications and wire services, web journalists, other television and whatever journalists – the cream of the British racing media.
As soon as they saw my guitar, two or three of them requested I play a song. In the state I was, and given that it was the beginning of the evening and still bright out and they were just being served their first course, I thought, No way. I laughed off the invitation and said that perhaps once I had eaten, I would play.
I went inside, found a table not too closely within sight of the Brits, and I had a wonderful meal. The first course alone consisted of three dishes: a Valencia salad, calamari and some kind of mini muscles, shellfish. I had a nice half bottle of Rioja, and an amazing desert of some kind of parfait ice cream. It makes me want to run right back there as I write these words.
So I finished the meal, reading my New York Review of Books and the latest issue of Rock&Folk, the French music magazine, and then I went out and wondered over to say goodbye to the British journalists. Some had already left, but I was immediately invited once again to play music. And now, I was really ready, and desperately wanting to sing. And what a place to do it in? An old Hemingway hangout in the country of the flamenco guitar….
I ended up playing perhaps a total of 10 songs, split up by periods of talking, carousing and drinking the wine they offered me. Somehow I managed not to drink so much that I would lose hold of the notes, and I must say, with the beach in the distance, the sea a little beyond that, and even the appreciative waiters at this wonderful restaurant, it was an unbelievably great way to finish my first day in a town that has never been nice to me on this musical adventure – until now.
(Unfortunately, although a number of the journalists took photos and made videos of me playing, I have none myself, exceptionally, for this post.)
It has been a quiet weekend for me for once, no place to play on Friday, no place to play on Saturday. But that has given me more time to try to memorize a new song and also to continue reading this thing I’ve been reading on my computer since the Canadian Grand Prix. And of that, I am really excited. I just love reading friends’ book manuscripts, and I can truly say I have never had one quite like this one. In Montreal, when I attended that Charnobyl Voice evening of music, I did so with a Formula 1 friend and colleague, fellow F1 journalist, Mark Hughes. During the evening Mark let out – after I complimented him once again on an amazing book he did with and on the life of a racing car driver named Tommy Byrne – that he had just finished doing another similar book. But this time it was on the bass guitar player from the 1970s band Free, whose biggest hit was “All Right Now.”
Yup, I had heard him correctly. He told me a few more of the details. The book, titled “All Right Now” (what else could it be called?!), was done in the same style as his book on the racing car driver, called “Crashed and Byrned,” which is one of the best racing memoires I’ve ever read. That story was about Tommy Byrne, who was possibly one of the greatest racing drivers to make it into Formula One but never really get a chance at a top team, spending his five races in F1 in a back-of-the-grid team despite a massively promising career in the lower series. But the key to it was the interest of Byrne’s life growing up from nothing in Ireland, of Byrne’s voice telling the story, and of Hughes’ interjections telling bits of the story in his own voice to give an added layer to the whole.
So Hughes told me that he had now done the same on Andy Fraser, who was the bass player in Free, and creator with Paul Rodgers of most of the songs – like Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards – including the big hit, “All Right Now.” He had approched the musician himself and proposed doing a book. Fraser agreed, and Hughes went on to meet him in California. So since reading friends’ manuscripts is one of my favorite activities, I immediately asked if I could read it – or he offered and I immediately jumped at the chance. The book is not yet published, but this thing is as good as the Byrne book and has a potentially much bigger public to reach.
So far the story is interesting not just to read up on what might otherwise be considered an obscure musician from the 70s – I mean, it’s not McCartney or Jagger – but also because as with the Byrne book, there’s a bigger, much bigger story here. Fraser joined and formed Free at like 16 years old in 1968. He was catapaulted to fame, never had a regular teenager’s life of discovery and only much later realized he was gay. Then he contracted AIDS. But not only did he not succumb to the disease, but he has surmounted it and lives a fully creative life. The book is full of this kind of message, and his life is an example. Fraser went on to write the hit song, “Every Kind of People,” for Robert Palmer in 1978. And he has also written hits for Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Rod Stewart and Paul Young. AND he has done solo albums, and continued to develop his music to this day. He is also nearly 60 years old and in amazing physical condition, seemingly relishing his unique life from, in his case, like Byrne’s, humble and unlikely origins.
But for me the real beauty of this book also is just to see how another musician created his life in music, and what I could not imagine when I started reading it, to have another – and unusual – look at the music scene of the last 50 years. I mean, this guy as a teenager actually played with John Mayall AND Alexis Korner. In fact, it was through dating Korner’s daughter that he met Korner and eventually got the gig with both Mayall and then met up with the future members of the band Free. While I still battle my way into the Keith Richards autobiography, I am filled with excitement in reading this one and won’t put it down – even though my computer printer is not working and I have to read it from a PDF!
I don’t know how happy either Mark or Andy Fraser would be for me to quote much from an unpublished book, but I did want to put in at least one nice bit from Andy, hoping that “fair use” copyright laws allows me to do so! Check out this bit Fraser says when talking early on about Free: “The thing that really made it feel unique was how we all gave each other space in our playing. That really stood out for me and it lent the whole sound a great power and spirit. It’s something I see in the great orators. You watch Barack Obama for example, and everything comes from silence. It starts off and you can hear a pin drop, that space in between is everything so that anything you add then has a big effect. A good speaker knows this, knows how to command silence; they begin softly and so when they start saying things with vigour it becomes incredibly powerful. We had that with Free, just naturally fell into that from the very first moment. Although people say they would love to hear Free together now, aside from the fact that Koss isn’t with us anymore, it could never be the same anyway because although everyone was talented, the most important thing was the spirit and what was in between the notes. That was derived from the respect we had for each other and the joint vision, how we each understood, without it being said, what we were trying to do. If you heard us now and there was no spirit you’d realized there were just some very simple riffs that didn’t mean much without spirit.”
My first night in Istanbul reacquainted me with the fabulous sounds of the downtown quarters of this most musical cities of the world. Everyone talks of Phil Spector creating the so-called wall of sound, but I bet it was invented in this city that traverses Asia and Europe with a brilliant cacophony of musical mixes all splashing into each other from one café and bar and restaurant doorfront to the next throughout the night.
But if I easily found several places to play in the past, this year I fear that I am heading into a less than fabulous opportunity to find an open jam or open mic situation. The owners of the Blues Live music club where I played before told me they no longer ran their official Monday night jam, but the stage remains open when musicians and the right vibe come together. They still run a band on the weekend too. But I did not feel very positive about my own chances of getting up as last night there were only two people in the place when I was there.
But my musical journey around the world has ALWAYS been about shifts from desperation to success and ecstasy as the weekend progresses and I suddenly fall into an unforeseen musical situation. Last night, in fact, I was ostensibly invited into a bar to have a beer and play some of my music, when the man outside trying to get clients saw me with my guitar and offered that I come in and play on the stage where he had a musician already. I had the beer, but I did not end up being invited to play. Nor did I insist.
Did I ever find a wonderful vibe throughout the city, however, and mostly in the Taksim and Beyoglu areas, and down near the Galatasary Tower. In fact, I decided on several occasions to do turn my handheld, Q3 HD video recorder, as I walked down the street to show you how full this place is of music. But with on musician in almost every single restaurant and bar, I suppose that is partly why the open mic and jam session mentality is not as big here as in some other cities where musicians are less often employed….
But music just fills the air everywhere here, and it is of every style imaginable, from the Blues Live rock of the Hendrix, Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Stevie Ray Vaughan style to the local rock and the traditional and classical Turkish music. Oh, I even made a brief stop in Nardis jazz club, but elected not to pay the cover charge and go in and listen. I also found some new places with local rock and jazz. I even passed a music shop without clients where the workers were involved in a jam session, and music is so well loved that they didn’t even blink when they saw me enter and film them. My hotel receptionist upon check-in wanted to see my guitar – he being himself a guitar player.
I just keep my fingers crossed that I will finally find some place for myself to play in this music-loving city.
Friday is not the best night for open mics anywhere in the world. But in Melbourne last night, it turned into a nearly comical search for a grail that would never be found as I followed three leads only to be disappointed three times, each in an odd way.
I settled on walking from the F1 circuit to ET’s Hotel, as I judged it would be no more than a 30 minute walk and my phone calls and emails to the organizer had not been answered. In fact, with the telephone calls to the hotel, there was simply no answer. But I thought I could walk there, and then backtrack to St. Kilda’s, which is also near the F1 track.
et's gloom hotel in Melbourne - closed down, no more open mic
So I walked the 30 minutes or so to ET’s Hotel hoping that I would not be let down, but when I arrived I found the worst possible thing: The hotel had turned into an extraterrestrial carcass of a place. It had closed down and been gutted and turned into a construction site. There remained posters outside for shows that had long since past. It was a little eerie. No more open mic at Et’s Hotel!
et's hotel is now a construction site
Out front of the hotel I finally managed to connect with my phone call to the Greyhound Hotel in St. Kilda.
“Hello,” I said to the man who answered, a man with a slight affectation to his voice. “Do you have an open mic tonight?”
“No,” he said. “But we have a drag show.”
I knew that the drag show had nothing to do with drag racing cars, and thanked him very much and decided to move on to trying to contact the third venue. After all, I was not prepared for a drag show, even if I do open myself up to all different kinds of open mics and jam sessions….
So I called up the Junction Hotel with the number I found on an Open Mic venue list on the Internet.
“Hello,” I said to the man who answered. “Do you have an open mic tonight?”
“What? Oh, no. You have the wrong number, I’m afraid.”
“This is not the Junction Hotel?”
“No. You have the wrong number.”
I checked the number and saw I had dialed the number from the Internet correctly.
So end of open mic story for Friday. It made me feel once again just how wonderful it is when I actually DO connect and find a place to play on this adventure. When that happens it feels like the world is easy, the trip is easy, cool, all fits, and life is a ribbon of dream. Meeting with adversity, suddenly I realize how difficult the task can sometimes be to parachute into a country and hope to find a place to play music instantly and every night.
Having said that, the hazards of travel are multiple, and I neglected to mention the one of Thursday night before I went off to perform at the U-Bar and meet Lara. I had spent a very productive day at the track doing interviews with drivers, team directors and other important people. I had used my Zoom Q3 HD video and sound recorder, the same one I use for the video images of this blog.
At the end of this long and productive day and as I prepared to leave the circuit and go and do my open mic and record with the Q3 some of the stuff for this blog, I went to the toilet. Suddenly, without the slightest warning or provocation of any kind at all, my two-month old 250 euro Q3 recorder fell into the toilet bowl. I removed it in 3 seconds flat, no more. I shook out the water and tried to dry it. I ran back to my desk in the media center at the race track – desk C13, which I had hesitated to take that very morning as it had the No. 13 and was therefore bad luck – and I promptly plugged in the recorder to my computer. The computer message read: “USB device malfunction.”
All was lost, a full day’s work, and even my ability to record the coming nights of open mic shows. Unless… I realized that although the Q3 had died through 3 seconds of toilet water exposure, perhaps the 32 gigabyte SD card that held the data had survived. It was 18:10. I did a quick internet search to see if anyone sold the Zoom Q3 HD in Melbourne.
I found a place called Mannys music store. I called them up. They closed at 7 PM. But they had six of the Q3s in stock. I asked how long it would take to get there from Albert Park, where the race takes place. The guy said about an hour with the traffic there was – or 25 minutes if there was no traffic.
I took a cab and kept the man at Manny’s informed of my progress through the interminable traffic and everlasting traffic lights.
“Tell you what,” he said finally when I told him I would be five to ten minutes late. “I will stay here for you. I will wait.”
So I arrived at Manny’s, it was closed, but the staff let me in. I bought the Q3 and I bought a Zoom H2 hand held sound recorder as well in order not to use the Q3 in the paddock. As I paid for the recorder I removed the 32 gig SD card from my pocket that I had taken from the toilet water damaged recorder, and I put it in. Eureka!!!!! My 9 interviews were all intact! I had been saved by Manny’s and by the SD card. Now all I had to do was take the cab back to my hotel, grab my guitar and get to the All Nations U-Bar as soon as possible to not miss my two dates: The open mic, and Lara.
It worked. Isn’t the life of the traveling minstrel full of unexpected barriers, which can all be overcome with a little persistence.
I debated with myself over the last hour if I should actually do a blog item even when I have nothing much to say. I’m against it in principle, and last night at the Highlander it was pretty much business as usual – except for two things, one of which leads to a third thing. So what the hell:
The first thing had to do with another fun performance of gospel by Haylen and band, this time joined on guitar by the Tom Waits of the Highlander and Tennessee….
The second thing was entirely personal about my own personal experience playing last night: Even though I had to wait until nearly 1 AM before I got to play – my fault as I arrived late – I was really, really happy with the reception for my performance. I mean, there were cheers, ovations, encores, all sorts of stuff. All right, everyone was flying on alcohol and whatever else they fly on by that point, and there were enough people to have that crowd power…. And I had befriended just enough people to have a fan club…. And I had noticed that big, popular well-known hits had been going over well – Hotel California, etc. – no matter how well they were sung. And I had met a Formula One fan and his girlfriend at the bar and she liked Cat Stevens…. Ergo, I decided to do “Father and Son” and then to continue on the hit path with “Space Oddity.” Both went over really well, with people singing along – as far it is possible to do with my interpretations of the songs – and then I did my own “Let Me Know.”
But those two subjects also bring me to the next subject, which is just a sudden realization that in a week and a half I will be heading of for Melbourne for the start of the Formula One season – and the beginning of my worldwide travels to the open mics and jam sessions. So that will mean that this blog will once again cease to become so Paris-centric as it has been for the last three months or so! Hallelujah!