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andee's world: January 2006

andee's world

Hello and welcome to my blog. This space will be devoted to opinions, observations, lists, articles and whatever else I feel like posting. Subjects will include music, human nature, politics, life in NYC, etc. If I paste someone else's writing up here, it is because the author said something way better than I ever could. By the way, I don't claim to be a particularly smart guy; I'm just a musician with some opinions. If you disagree with me, that's cool -- but then, you're probably wrong.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Winter Words

I truly enjoy all four seasons in New York (or in the Northeast, for that matter). In the city, everyone loves spring and fall the best (me included), but the arrival of the summer and winter solstices is cause for certain despair among many of my neighbors. True enough, summer brings with it the harsh reality of oven-hot apartments and the stench of rotting garbage. Winter is equally confrontational, with razor-like winds whipping through the streets on harsh days, giving pedestrians the one-of-a-kind sensation of being skinned alive.

But I embrace all of this. In the dog days of summer, there is a shared misery (and a most welcome lack of clothing) that brings everyone's guard down. And the wintertime is a great time to be productive indoors. For me that means, among other things, writing songs; in the past couple of weeks, I have been locked away inside my apartment writing ridiculous amounts of new material. Were it the full flush of spring, with all of humanity out playing in the streets, could I be so reclusive and prolific? Certainly not -- I'd probably be out trying to catch a buzz in the daytime somewhere.

I also love winter because it is prime time to do some reading. I would dare say that folks from the Northeast are better read than those from, say, southern California, for this reason alone -- reading is definitely a cold-weather sport.

I run my mouth about music all the time on this blog, so I'm taking a break from that to talk about some of the reading I've done over the last year or so.

(Incidentally, I do crack open a book or two when it's warm out, too. In case you were wondering).

The Mother Tongue; English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson
This immensely entertaining and exhaustively informative book spoke to a lot of my curiosities about our very peculiar, inconsistent, illogical and unlikely language, which has, against all odds, managed to become the dominant form of verbal communication for the human race. I wasn't just whelmed, I was overwhelmed!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
I know I'm a bit behind in the Potter saga, but one only has so much time. Of the first four, this was probably my favorite. I wish these books had been around when I was eight or so.

The Big Sleep and Trouble Is My Business, by Raymond Chandler
One night in a bar, my friend Leo recommended The Big Sleep, of which I promptly bought a used copy on Two pages into the book and I was completely hooked by Chandler's brutally stark but undeniably poetic storytelling style and his flawed protagonist, the great Detective Philip Marlowe.

If the only exposure you've had to '30's and '40's detective noir fiction comes by way of movies like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, you really need to check out the books -- they are far darker and have aged much, much better.

Trouble Is My Business, incidentally, is a collection of some Chandler's short stories, of which about half feature the definitive Marlowe character. As classic as anything in American literature, in my most humble opinion. But then, I never even finished Moby Dick, so what do I know?

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiel Hammett
Thanks to Aynsley for lending this to me. Again, much better than the movie (which, in its own right, is excellent). This quintessential noir novel has all the classic ingredients: distressed dame with a duplicitous secret, creepy characters from the underworld, a labyrinthian plot line and of course, the hard-boiled detective behind frosted glass, feet up on his desk.

Rendezvous In Black, by Cornell Woolrich
Thanks again to Ayns for passing this one along. Heartbreaking, pitch-black noir which follows one devastated man's lifelong commitment to bloody revenge.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The first time I'd read these American classics, I was still under five feet tall, so I thought I'd revisit them in my adult life. I think they're even funnier and more poignant now. The moral center of Huckleberry Finn is slightly diminished by the book's length (it could have been trimmed one adventure or two), but it's fun all the way around, anyway.

Hammer of the Gods; The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Steven Davis
Probably my favorite rock biography -- I've read it many times and it never ceases to pull me in completely. Davis, a beautiful writer, not only tells the Zeppelin story in vivid detail, but also subtly plays with all of the suggestiveness and dark mythology surrounding the band. An oddysee that could have only happened in the 1970's.

Phantoms in the Brain; Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PH.D. and Sandra Blakeslee
Thanks to Dan for lending me this heady (no pun intended) peek into the mysterious corners of neuroscience. Loaded with fascinating anecdotes from a slew of Ramachandran's patients, this book shows how little we know about the human mind, or the concept of "self." Honestly, it made my own head spin a bit, but this book is, overall, very layman-friendly. It also reminded me of why I'm a musician -- I'm terrible at science.

The Alienist, by Caleb Carr
I already talked about this excellent period murder mystery novel, set in turn-of-the-century New York City. Carr writes the way a novelist of the late 1800's would write, which really adds an authentic ambience to the story. Fast-moving plot, memorable characters and rich historical detail. Loved this book -- read it cover-to-cover on the trains in Berlin.

In my pile of books waiting to be read are John Updike's Witches of Eastwick, the new Tom Wolfe novel, Isaac Asimov's Robots and Empire and various Henry Miller and Mark Twain, among others. My father just sent me C.S. Lewis's "space trilogy" in the mail (consisting of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), which I've just started digging into.

It's occurred to me that the internet is the new TV. People are wasting way too much time in front of their computers, including me. It can never hurt to shut the goddamn thing down once in a while and read a book. So what are you waiting for?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Gute Nacht, Berlin!

Back in my Brooklyn kitchen and only a tad jet lagged following my nine-day stint in Berlin. Had a great time, although I do admit I'm glad to see my cat, drink my own java, and see a blue sky again.

Some random observations of Berlin. Well, for one, thing, it sure is an ugly place. Aside from the nonstop opacity of damp, overcast winter gloom that shrouded the city during my entire visit, the landscape itself is equally monochromatic and drab. There is an astonishing amount of dogshit. More than I've seen in any other city. The sidewalks were coated with a fetching layer of dirty snow and doggie-doo (about equal parts), which in turn was peppered with litter, spent fireworks and New Years Eve confetti. Wipe your feet when you get home, kids! Better yet, just take your shoes off...

Dirt and poo aside, I loved running around town on the U-bahn and S-bahn, checking out bookstores, CD shops and thrift joints during the day. I found some cool stuff, including a fabulous kilt for which I paid only five euros (a couple of the second-hand joints sold their garments by weight -- a practice they should really adopt at Beacon's Closet). The bookstores I visited had plenty of English language titles.

The trains, by the way, operate on a curious honor system; you buy your ticket on the platform and take it with you on the train, where a ticket inspector may or may not ask to see it. If you get busted without a ticket, you get fined 40 euros on the spot.

But the confusing part (for a non-German-speaker) is that, after you buy your ticket, you're supposed to validate it in a seperate machine, which stamps the time and date of your purchase. The English instructions for this portion of the transaction are next to useless, saying only, "please cancel your ticket before continuing on your journey." Wha? What the hell does that mean?

Anyway, my friend Julie eventually explained it to me, but I must admit that, even after getting wise, I still scammed my way around the city with unvalidated tickets. I figured that, should an inspector accost me, I'd just play ignorant -- after all, it is entirely understandable how one would be confused by the whole ticket-validation process.

The authorities did finally catch up to me, late in the week. And I'm happy to say my ploy worked. The ticket checkers just dragged me off the train at the next stop and "showed me" how to cancel my ticket. I thanked the plain clothes thugs and got back on the train (which had kindly waited for me). I could tell they didn't buy my story at all.

At night I peeked into some of the shadowy corners of the club scene. Spent some time in tiny, dark drag bars as well as enormous rock clubs. The djs were, across the board, atrocious. Maybe I was at the wrong places at the wrong times, but, man oh man -- the only place I've ever heard worse abuse of music was at NYC's godawful Snitch. To a man (and woman), every dj I heard in Berlin exhibited a total lack of pacing, flow, and even the most rudimentary technical skills. Forget about beat-matching, these folks couldn't even segue two songs together without dead air inbetween, or keep the volumes consistent. It is indeed unnerving to hear Daft Punk followed directly by The Who -- but the buzzkill of hearing The Ramones get broadsided by (I'm not kidding) MC Hammer is definitely worse.

The only competent dj I witnessed was Atari Teenage Riot mainman Alec Empire, spinning at a Throbbing Gristle afterparty. His terror techno beats were deafening, but he looked bored -- he must've looked at his watch five times in 20 minutes...

I saw alot of enthusiasm elsewhere, though, which almost made up for the lack of talent. Folks love their rock and roll in Berlin, particularly, it seemed, New York rock and roll. Everywhere I went, it was Interpol, Scissor Sisters, Le Tigre, The Strokes, Fischerspooner. Overall, the clubs favored English and American rock; I heard very little German music. At the tiny dive Black Girls Coalition, the crowd lit up when the dj played the Pixies.

My native German friend Janine took me out one night to some intense lefty/punk/straight-edge bars in Prenzlauer Berg, where very sober-looking activist types sat on raw wooden benches eating plates of cheap vegan food and watched Bush-bashing/anti-Imperialist programming on a tv monitor. Already keenly aware of how much my president sucks, I wasn't really into in hanging out too long at these outposts, being more interested in drinking beer and hearing some tunes. After all, I was on vacation.

I survived on a lot of cheap Mediterranean food, and occasionally rolled the dice on some German cuisine (usually by pointing at something on the menu that I couldn't pronounce). Overall, the food was great, and super affordable. There were some great cafes where you could sit and read for hours. Of course, everyone smokes in Berlin, so all my clothes reek of smoke again, just like the old days. Ah, memories!

As for sleep, there wasn't much to be had; for the whole first week, I caught about four hours a night. Then, on the seventh day, exhaustion caught up with me and I crashed out for 17 hours straight in my hostel. From what I'm told, I didn't miss any sunshine or anything.

Got plenty of reading and playing done. My mom had given me Caleb Carr's The Alienist (top notch period murder mystery set at the dawn of the 1900's in New York City) for Christmas, which I read from cover to cover, between downtime in my room, trips on the train and extended coffee shop sessions.

For some reason I only had a handful of CDs with me -- Depeche Mode's Playing the Angel, The Replacements' Let It Be, Massive Attack's Blue Lines, The Cure's The Top and Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor -- but I listened to them relentlessly in my room at the hostel (I think the Replacements' "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" is my new favorite song). Toward the end of my trip, I bought a used copy of Ramones' Rocket to Russia (the remastered reissue with bonus tracks) at Logo CDs. Was great to hear that again -- having your favorite music with you when you're alone in a foreign city is very stabilizing.

The people were generally friendly and tolerant of English-speaking yanks like me. There were some grumpy Germans, for sure, but for the most part people were alright. In the very small hours of New Year's Eve, I befriended a fabulous bunch of Brits at White Trash Fast Food, with whom I drank unnecessarily until about 10:30 am. One of them, the lovely aforementioned Julie, had an apartment in Mitte, to which we repaired afterward for tea and some afternoon shuteye (later on in the week, these same Brits turned me on to my new favorite show, the BBC series Little Britain -- it is the funniest thing I've seen since League of Gentlemen).

Also met a severe-looking gal from Tel Aviv named Elenor in a bookstore in lower Kreuzberg (called, oddly, Another Country) where I picked up an old Updike paperback. We had some coffee around the corner and then went up to her flat to listen to Gun Club. Her apartment, like all the other ones I saw in Berlin, was quirky and incredibly spacious. It was heated by an enormous coal oven which stood about six feet high.

Around 6:30pm on New Year's Day, after I said goodbye to my new Brit friends and stumbled out onto the street in Mitte, a guy said, "hey, you're from POP*STAR*KIDS in New York!" Duly, flattered, I stopped to chat with him. He's one of many New Yorkers who've defected to Berlin to escape the Apple's high cost of living and intense pace. Many artists, musicians and performers, in particular, have gotten tired of paying New York's exorbitant rents and having their talents go largely unnoticed in its uber-competitive ocean of talent.

In Berlin, surviving is easy for an artist; the rents and cost of living are super cheap, thanks to a busted-ass economy. You don't have to break your back to stay afloat there, and it's far easier to get noticed doing whatever it is you do. Julie calls it a "city of slackers." I'm not sure if that's accurate or not; I wouldn't know. But it is a smaller pond, with a correspondingly smaller scale of opportunity. It seems like a low-pressure place to do your thing. Quiet, too. The drivers almost never use their horns, which is a bit unsettling to a tinnitus-afflicted New Yorker like me.

So, Berlin was a hoot. But I am happy to be back to the pace, the intensity, the diversity, the competition, the talent and the larger than life scale -- not to mention the open-all-night schedule -- of New York City.