Tag: ghosts

More Ghosts

It was surreal to attend a movie about Dave Grohl’s band that was built on the ashes of Nirvana on the very day that marked 17 years since Kurt Cobain’s passing.

April 5th, 1994 is a day burned into my memory, not because I was such a huge Nirvana fan, so much as I became a kind of spiritual godmother to the reams of younger people I knew who loved him, and who came to me that day in tears. Grunge hit when I was in high school, and I grew to love the dirty, loud sounds of Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and most especially Pearl Jam. I appreciated Nirvana’s loud, abrasive stance, but didn’t warm to them immediately. I never felt an urge to see them live, much less to buy their album, but I like the spirit of what they were doing. Grunge was my generation’s punk, and it was the alarm bell for a wider world in my narrow, grayishly polite suburban world.
“Heart-Shaped Box” was always a more deeply affecting song for me than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which seemed too clever and bratty for its own good. Instead of a stream-of-consciousness rant that riffed on teen experiences and peevish observations, I preferred the tortured, life-lived wariness of a scarily romantic, co-dependent love gone sour on itself:
Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of Your Highness – I’m left black
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back

There’s something awfully frightening -and thrilling -about that song, which kind of sums up the public perception of Cobain himself in some sad way.
Foo Fighters: Back And Forth doesn’t shy away from the Nirvana legacy, but fully embraces it like a long-lost lover. Grohl reminisces on life as a suburban Seattle-ite, his love for punk, his influences, and his love of a band unit. Cobain’s stumbles and setbacks aren’t shied away from but, refreshingly, aren’t exploited either. The look on Grohl’s face as he haltingly names Courtney Love and adds, awkwardly, “his… wife” was bittersweet, if thunderously sad for the bad blood it implied. Overall, I would’ve liked more 90s-formative-stuff from the doc; I suspect some Foo fans don’t understand or appreciate the huge shadow Nirvana casts on Grohl’s creative output, and to my I-remember-when head, that’s pretty key to getting what he does now. Alas, much of it was left out in favor of more Foo-centric material, though the most important event wasn’t shown at all. And that had nothing to do with the choices of Oscar-winning director James Moll.
Owing to a technical glitch (or perhaps grand design), the screening blipped when the tortured singer/songwriter’s overdose in Rome was portrayed. All we heard was Grohl, saying over and over again, “I don’t know” and a shot of the Rome American Hospital and a cop in uniform standing outside. It was like something out of the Emergency Broadcast Network, or Derek Jarman, or William Burroughs (or all of the above). By the time the screening returned (it was being shown on a satellite signal from L.A.), Cobain’s passing had already happened. A whole, wholly significant chunk of the film had been inadvertently excised. In a way, I was relieved, but in another way, it felt like a robbery, not only for me, for but the entire audience in the cinema, many of whom would’ve been toddlers at the time of the actual event. The effect of that glitch stayed with me the rest of the night, even as the meteoric rise of the Foos was shown in all its gritty, rocking glory.
“I don’t know.” It was a perfect metaphor for Cobain’s life, and indeed, for the struggle so many artists -hell, people -endure pursuing some nameless, formless sort of creative immortality. I left the theater after the screening and walked by the Chelsea Hotel, located just down from the cinema. Ghosts really are everywhere in New York. Even if they aren’t apparent, their presence is palpable. Their struggle in life pervades the energy of the city, particularly the creative energy. Forget the well-known figures; it’s all the stragglers, the strugglers, the mad, bad, broke ones I notice.

Struggle is a funny thing; it only looks good in retrospect. I thought about Just Kids and about all the artists and poets and lovers and dreamers and… me. Moving slowly down Seventh Avenue, I could feel a million New York ghosts by my side, holding my hand and asking me to look around, take deep breaths, take it step by step. I thought about the woman I’d spotted in the Chelsea lobby, slowly making her way to the door with a walker. I wondered how long she’d lived at the hotel. I wondered how many paintings, drawings, novels, letters, songs, dreams, and rejections she lived with. I wondered if she’d felt as scared, alone, directionless, confused and overwhelmed as I do now.
Ghosts -in a cinema or hotel room, on a dark street, in the creak of a floorboard or the rattles of a window pane -offer mischief, but also hope. Because within the unpredictable is the limitless. Ghosts know this. Maybe I should trust that spirit a bit more. Maybe that should be my new way of remembering April 5th: the Day Of I-Don’t-Know, the Day Of Ghosts, the Day That’s Every Day. Maybe.

Dear Lord

Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788.

Like a lot of adolescent girls, I had romantic visions and tendencies, and Byron’s work was the perfect reflection of that gooey, goggley-eyed disposition. He was the first celebrity as we understand it, and fled his home country to escape the ruinous gossip that surrounded the dissolution of his marriage and his questionable relationship with half-sister Augusta. Through all his trials and tribulations (and there were a lot, his club foot being the least of them), there was -is -something undeniably intoxicating about the way he blended the heady and the common, and his love of both the high life and his robust embrace of the gutteral, in both his work and his life.
I have a huge collection of biographies of Byron, as well as several volumes of his poetry, including a three-volume set of his collected works published just after his death in 1824. When I lived in London, I would go by where he lived at the Albany, and at one point, was even given a tour by a kind doorman; he gently motioned toward the ground-level door that lead to the apartment where Byron lived, adding that “an Hungarian doctor lives there now. He has trouble walking.” I was a regular visitor to John Murray’s offices (once located in Albemarle Street), where Gini Murray -married to the then-current publisher (and directly descended from Byron’s Murray) -would kindly welcome me with tea and allow me to wander the famous upper floor, taking pictures and looking at the immense volumes of books lining the walls, as well as the cabinet containing a few of Byron’s personal effects (including one white shirt I longed to bury my nose in). I wandered down Piccadilly Terrace, where he and wife Annabella shared their unhappy moments (and where the brilliant Ada was born), and gazed up at windows, imagining Byron popping the tops off soda bottles as his wife was in labour. I’ve been to the church where he is buried, and recalled the stories I’d read about the creepy 1938 opening of his coffin many moons ago by a group of curious investigators. The entrance to the crypt was closed, but is small and narrow, the church dark and grey and cold. It felt like an incongruous ending for such a dramatic, colorful life.

This visit to Hucknall Parish coincided with my poetic visit to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey (near Nottingham) one fresh spring day. I wandered around the seemingly-ancient quarters in a daze, touching the stones, door frames, stairs, shrubery, and avoiding the squawking peacocks (little wonder Byron wrote about their noisesome fierceness -eeek). I’ve painted and drawn countless works of art based around the photos I took there, and even now, ten years later, I’d love to return, if only to wander the gardens. Though the house is much different than it was in Byron’s day (ancestral misdeeds meant the Abbey had fallen into terrible disrepair when the poet lived there), I felt a palpable presence of … something… during my visit (a feeling akin to the ghosts in New York recently.) I left utterly appreciating just how difficult and painful it must’ve been for him to part with such a beautiful, magical place.
Still, I hate admitting that don’t read as much Byron as I once did; I’d like it to be far more often, but he asks so much energy, attention, and care. Finding the time to provide those things -in full, without scrimping or cheating -is challenging, and yet I feel it might be worth it. Every time I return to his work, I’m taken back to a specific time in my life -one I’m proud of, thrilled by, and continually in awe of -and I’m re-awakened and energized by the power of human imagination and our capacity for creation in the midst of incredible, painful circumstances. It’s no understatement when I type that Byron’s work emboldened me, opened my eyes, ripped my heart out of my chest, & put it back again whole. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of his poetry, as well as his life, and becoming so familiar with each has immeasurably enriched my own artistic output and worldview. Out of all the poems I know and love, this one has become my personal favorite; it takes me back to a specific time and place, day and face:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.


Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours – can their joy or their bitterness cease?
We repent, we abjure, we will break from our chain, –
We will part, we will fly to – unite it again!

Oh! thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt!
Forgive me, adored one! – forsake if thou wilt;
But the heart which is thine shall expire undebased,
And man shall not break it – whatever thou may’st.

And stern to the haughty, but humble to thee,
This soul in its bitterest blackness shall be;
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.

One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove.
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign –
Thy lips shall reply, not to them, but to mine.

May, 1814.

Sweet Home NYC

Peeking out the tiny window as the airplane made its way into Newark International Airport, one thought struck me: ew, brown. A large brown haze hung over the New York skyline. Yet another thought: get used to it. Buck up.

As I knew would happen, I wanted to do everything the minute I left the airplane. Going at near-sprint speed through Penn Station with baggage in tow, I quickly hailed a cab and… boom, there I was, in the thick of Big Apple traffic. Traces of the big December snowstorm were still in evidence, with curbs and corners white and icy. People were everywhere. The noise, colour, lights, and textures were a lot to take in, even as I tried to place where I was and my cab driver tried to figure out the best way to get me to my destination in Soho.
After grabbing a bite at the handily-close Dean and Deluca (ridiculous, delicious, nutritious), I made the predictable visit up to Times Square, turning onto 44th Street to visit the much-loved Belasco Theater. It was there, in 1995, that a good friend and I spent many breathless hours sighing and marveling at Ralph Fiennes’ Tony-winning performance of Hamlet. Directed by the super-fab (and super-nice, as I recall) Jonathan Kent, the show remains a favorite production of a very famous play. My friend and I got up to much mischief that hot July. Not visiting the area feels like sacrilege. I go to pay homage to a time, a place, to ghosts still very much alive.

A worker at the theater gave me a small smile as I clicked a photo outside. I always think people who work at old theaters during active shows must realize they’re working in an environment where people have memories -not just the theater crew and cast, but the audience, or even non-audience. Buildings have ghosts. I heard the Belasco had a real one. Hmmm. All the old theaters up around Times Square feel haunted by past voices, spoken onstage and off, and by the shenanigans that occur in any kind of creative pressure-cooker environment. They’re not the kind of ghosts I fear so much as appreciate. I’m going to BAM tonight to see the Abbey Theatre’s production of Borkman featuring Alan Rickman. More voices and faces from long ago and/or near-and-present? Probably. Sensing that kind of thing adds so much to the experience of live performance.
It was both a past, a present, and a very determined future I sensed colliding at lastnight’s genius performance at Zinc Bar, however. Whether it was design or chance that allowed this to happen I cannot say, but I’m grateful for this so-called “New York moment” nonetheless. The last-minute set, featuring super-musician Eric Lewis, was only announced via social media on Sunday; when I read it, I may have shrieked a little bit (only the dawg knows for sure). Lewis is a huge, huge favorite of mine, and this appreciation, bolstered by a music-loving friend’s appreciation of his work, made me go deeper into Lewis’ work and his approach to his art. I’ve seen the videos, heard about the White House performance, and follow the Facebook and Twitter updates. It goes without saying, though, that nothing compares to seeing the real thing, live and up close -especially in a cozy Greenwich Village club that calmly whispers “cool” the minute you walk down the stairs and through the door.

Opening with a raucous, rolling version of Wayne Shorter’s aggressive “Pinocchio“, Lewis, accompanied by the super-talented Ian Travis on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, delivered a performance both astonishing for both its technical virtuosity and emotional resonance. With a range of facial expressions and body signals, Lewis matches his muscular, passionate musical output with expressive physicality that borders on theatrical (in a really good way). Utterly lacking in pretension, Lewis smiled shyly and gave his bandmates equal time to shine. Tellingly, he patiently endured the microphone and sound glitches as he spoke between the (lengthy if enthralling) numbers, telling the enthusiastic audience about the composition of his bouncy original “Puerto Rico“, written in the very location some years ago over “many, many emptying Heinekens one night between 2 and 7am.”
Bouncing between an endearingly lionine sexiness, demonic bug-eyed determination, and toddler-esque wide-mouthed joy, Lewis emanated a vivacious, infectious energy -one that continued (and expanded) even with his invitation to trumpet player Marcus Printup (who was seated in front of me) and saxophone player Karel Ruzsicka Jr. to join him at various points throughout the set. It became a fascinating conversation between instruments and musicians used to blending colors, textures, and timbres with ease.

Lewis’s beautiful interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was given a tasty little spin, as well a grandly sprawling version of Breaking Benjamin’s “The Diary Of Jane.” Lewis beautifully captured the dual nature of Jackson’s paean to sensual humanity; by turns sexy, dreamy, and jauntily rhythmic, he drew out its soul-meets-jazz-meets rock hybrid nature, milking, mocking, and worshipping the creation even in its conception, slowly, slyly sculpting something sonically new, daring, and thrilling. With “The Diary Of Jane”, the former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra pianist captured the tune’s original emo bite, adding in crunchy piano power chords and aggressive harmonics that were positively symphonic in their sweeping majesty. The term “breathtaking” feels too mild; at times I would notice my mouth hanging open, my hands clutched together, my eyes bugging out. I think I may have drooled at one point. Vanity took a firm backseat in the presence of such gargantuan artistry.
By the time Lewis got to his rock-jazz version of “Sweet Home Alabama” (the evening’s closer), he looked as if he’d run a 10K marathon; with sweat pouring off him and a wide, broad grin, he confidently pounded away on the keys, solo this time, conjuring the soul of Ray Charles, the sass of Jamie Cullum, the cool of Thelonius Monk and the outright rockingness of… Jimmy Page.
What a marriage. What a night. What a bunch of noisy ghosts. What a city.
And there’s more to come, I’m sure.

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