Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Doing The Math

This weekend, I got a message from Angel Dean that the great bluegrass musician, singer, songwriter and social activist Hazel Dickens had died. (I wrote about Hazel, and Angel too, a few years ago here). Angel and I corresponded about how much Hazel had meant to us, and how when we met her years back, she'd seemed ancient. And how we'd both been shocked to realize she was the same age then as we are now.

How could Angel and I know, looking at 52 or 53 year old Hazel, what incredible stores of energy and creativity and whatever else can be inside a person, even as the physical side is ebbing a bit - how could we know she was not anywhere near finished - hell, she was only getting started in a way, giving what she had to give?

God, we were young then! Oh, we could be honored, and awestruck to be hanging out with someone who'd been where she'd been and done what she'd done. But how, at the age of 28 or 29, could we imagine what someone that old had left to do on this earth?

I've been thinking about Hazel a lot the last few days, how she never stopped playing and singing but kept on performing right up to her death at the age of 75.

Then today I was in the post office, standing behind a man, who was giving his date of birth to the lady behind the counter. "Mille neuf cent soixante quatorze" I heard him reeling off. Let's see, 1900 and 60 plus 14 so that makes it 19...74.

Shit. He's young! Not even 40. I was 15 in 1974. I look at his face. He looks, um, middle-aged. That makes me...old?

If not old, older. Always, always older than I think I am.

Got back home and saw on Twitter: RIP Poly Styrene, age 53.

No! She was just releasing her first album in many years. Recent photos show a lovely, enchanting woman with lots to give. From the beginning, in X-Ray Spex, here was a brain at work, questioning, challenging everybody's idea of what a girl was, what advertising did, the modern world. Saw her play at CBGB, one of the English bands we all would've killed to see but this show was more 3D, more fun, more colorful, more energetic and exciting than anyone could've expected (I just found this recording of it). She raised a daughter, had problems and was coming back again, with experience and wisdom and power.

53. Not old. Young.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Tao of Bort

After more than four years, we finally got around to finding the Limoges Emmaus the other day. Emmaus is like the big Salvation Army or Goodwill and there's one for every city. Unlike in America or the UK, where every town has dozens of thrift shops or charity shops, people in France must hang onto their old crap (because the new crap costs so much?). The Emmaus sells disused furniture, bikes, bathtubs etc. We ain't buying anything these days, except if it helps "staging" to easier sell the house.

The Emmaus was disappointing, though we got a nice old planter for 10 euros. But it was way out in the country, and we took a wrong turn trying to get back on the autoroute. I was glad we did, because we saw this weird place, like a guardhouse, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. "Bort", the sign read. A pleasant place, disconnected from everything but the occasional curious passerby and any contact with the outside world generated by the inhabitants within.


I can't get "Bort" out of my mind. It's sort of like "Limbo", where unbaptized babies went. Cushier than purgatory. We're not out of here, but we're not over there yet. Maybe we're in Bort.

It's an oddly relaxing place to be for a little while. Whereas before I might have taken any negative or disappointing event (the mean lady in the cafe, the lousy couscous dinner in a local restaurant, the "Le Gibson" bar we went along to looking for a gig because we heard the owner loved music and had a collection of Gibsons turning out to be a tiled billiard room with a wall erected across what had once been a stage, because "music oh la la, that's too much stress and all those charges, non merci, not for us" , the overpriced market full of sunburned English people, the boulangeries putting baguettes in bags printed with ads for new fireplaces and housing developments) to heart, in my current state it's all a big laugh.

spring plants

Those broiled English are now potential clients for the house (hallooo, you wouldn't by any chance be looking for a lovely house in the French countryside would you? we may start to grab people by the arm and drag them along against their will to take a look) The couscous night was fun, because it meant not having to cook and we won't have to do it again. The cafe lady is miserable to everybody! If it weren't for the stress and uncertainty, I'd say that living like you're about to move isn't a bad way to go - we've got a clean, decluttered house with a nice kitchen, trees and garden moderately tamed, flowers in planters. The CDs are organized now, so every time I get in the car I grab something to listen to. I'm making a little money selling old clothes I haven't worn in years. I even painted the rusty cafe table and chairs for outside, something I've wanted to do for ages but couldn't find the time to make it a priority.

yellow table

We eat croissants and chocolate and pastries to keep our morale up, I drink wine when I want to, we take walks for our esprit. In other words, we're being kind to ourselves during this transitional time. While still trying to get work done.

"It's a shame," a French friend said. "You speak French a lot better now, just when you're getting ready to leave!" Because the pressure's off, it's just for the fun of it now. I don't have to integrate or fit in.

I don't know how long this calm will last.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Days Of Our Lives

Reaching for a bottle of balsamic vinegar in the supermarket yesterday, I decided to go with the smaller bottle. Not for economy's sake but in the belief that I can control my future by adapting the container sizes: if a large bottle takes up to eight months to finish, isn't there a chance we might have to throw it out when it comes time to move? Can always buy another bottle if we're still here.

It's a life of more uncertainty than usual right now as people come and look at the house. The more viewers we can get, the better - somebody is bound to want this place. But it does make it hard to know how to plan anything involving travel, or being in a certain place at a certain time.

Friday we crossed one hurdle by getting Eric's visa petition into the US Embassy in Paris. Pulling all the paperwork together, getting the correct very specific photos, showing up during the one hour they were accepting them this month...we had to restrain ourselves from doing a buck and wing and raising the roof in the waiting area when they called us back in and said they had everything they needed for now. It was pretty cute when Eric asked the guy didn't they want to quiz us on our favorite films and record albums (we'd agreed in advance that "Who's Next" was an acceptable answer).

It was perfect timing that Kid Congo Powers and The Pink Monkeybirds were playing in the city the night before - it was great getting a chance to go out and see a sharp band play. So much fun, soul and charisma from Kid and his men. The audience was a laugh too, like central casting had gotten a call "we need a rock audience!" and sent out an assortment of types: skinny goth girls, shirtless guys who do that thing where you raise your arm and shake your hand in the air while holding out thumb and forefinger, lots of men with ponytails, pouting French Lolitas, pinstripe-jacketed rockers with tight black jeans and perfect shag haircuts, your classic Paris guy in white shirt, cashmere v-neck sweater and haughty expression and inexplicably a man in white puffy shirt and heavy brown leather jerkin and knee breeches - either an aspiring New Romantic revivalist or chateau tour guide off hours.

We liked it so much we drove a few hours to see them again in La Rochelle Saturday night. I forget how inspiring it is to see and hear someone really good play live - that's something I know is missing from my life out in rural France. Got up the next morning dying to play guitar, write and record. And there was another person coming to look at the house.

Like sand through an hour glass so goes the Modena balsamic vinegar...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's A G.A.S.

cassette wall innsbruck
Wall of cassettes in Innsbruck
Back home trying to do my taxes and suddenly I'm reliving 2010 - revisiting a Starbucks in Wisconsin Dells, a Sleep Inn near Baton Rouge and a bad Mexican place in Chicago courtesy of an envelope full of receipts - when I'd hoped to be recounting the tour highlights of the past few weeks.

Is it enough to say it was a good trip? I'd always heard that Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were good places to play. Never got there until my late forties and now early fifties but I suppose that's just the way it was meant to be. The audiences are with you each step of the way, whether it's a black rock box or the swinging El Lokal bar/restaurant/club in Zurich or Dachau Cultural Center with the mayor of that infamous town in attendance.

cafe jelinek vienna
Beautiful Cafe Jelinek in Vienna
Maybe it's this widening streak of grey in my hair, or living so far from cultural activity, nightlife and civilization that when I do stick my head up from the verdant trou that is rural France I've aged another year while they keep sending in younger versions of everything else: ultra-modern rest services on the autobahn and soundmen who've gone to school to learn to do sound but lack the requisite people skills and promoters with abundant hair and chic glasses - the gatekeepers or facilitators or whatever you call em are now decades younger and I start to think we're creeping to elder territory, like "look at those cute old people, when they're in motion you wouldn't believe they've been around as long as they have!"

One night in a German hotel there was an arts program on TV with this group called Kitty, Daisy & Lewis - I think we might have played the same festival in the UK in the last year or two so I remembered the name. A guy and two girls with a rockabilly look, sitting around singing and playing. Then it showed them on stage doing a concert and they had an older couple playing upright bass and guitar. I don't speak German but it sounded like they said it was the kids' parents, then they showed a picture of The Raincoats and I thought wait, that woman on bass looks familiar - she's Ingrid, that played drums with the Raincoats! What talented kids she has, and they seem to be doing great, with some help from mom and dad whether they need it or not. Evolution.

Or a couple of times I got all excited in clubs when I heard recordings of my songs played by young women - wait, I didn't know someone covered Knapsack! Then realizing it's only a fifteen-years younger version of...myself.

When we checked into a rather downhome hotel in Mannheim, we got a kick out of the crusty proprietor and his chain-smoking wife with her big glasses, dyed red hair and hacking voice - "did you get a load of those old characters? What a hoot!" until the lovely promoters at Blau said watch-cap-wearing ex-sailor and his broad (who sounded like a German version of one of Marge Simpson's sisters) had phoned to let him know that an elderly musician couple had checked in - us.

We're the older folks now. It's been in the works for a while, but it's finally starting to make some kind of sense. But only if I can get to grips with it as a wonderful opportunity. I kept noticing, on this trip, all the songs where I'm a mother and I think "what will I be next?" What is there, before Crone?

A gig in Berlin gave us the chance to visit our French pals Nico and Sabine, who've opened a nice bar and restaurant, L'Origine Du Monde, there. It was great to see them so excited about their new life, after the sleepiness of Chalus. How brave they are - if you're in Berlin, stop in for a drink or something to eat, or for one of Nico's French film nights!

nina and nico
Nico & his daughter Nina at L'Origine Du Monde, Berlin
We had to share room in the Ford Escort with Keith Richards, I've been reading his autobiography for weeks now and it's one of the best musician books ever. I don't know how they did it but he brought a whole life and world alive - you are there, inside photos you've stared at and records you thought you knew by heart. He's made me laugh and cry and want to pick up the guitar - I honestly never expected it. What a guy, and here I'd always thought he was so cool. He's not! I guess that's what makes him the coolest of all. I'll be sad when it ends and Eric will be out of a job because he's made a near fulltime occupation out of singing the chords to Brown Sugar every time I even reach for "the book".

herr und sandalen
What would Keith do?

Okay, I've got to get back to adding up these receipts - here's one for that Premier Travel Inn. Remember that one? It was just like the other ones, only instead of the painting with the two trees, there was one with three trees.