Soul Food for Thought–The History of Stax Records

After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.

Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.

In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.

Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…

which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.

Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.

Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.

Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.

The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,

Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.

Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.

Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some.  I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”

Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.

And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.

With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,

utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.

But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.

In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.

The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;

there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;

but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.

The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–

put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…

In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.

In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.

Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:

By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.

Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.

Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.

Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”

Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.

Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.

Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.

To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.

Continuing:

By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.

Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.

Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.

Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.

When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.

For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”

Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.

Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.

The Stax building was padlocked.

In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.

The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.

The Prodigal Sun

Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).

All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.

It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.

We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,

which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.

We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…

to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.

Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.

The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,

and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.

But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”

Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…

when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.

Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.

Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).

The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.

Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.

Of course, it was a smash hit…

The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.

Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.

Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.

On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.

A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.

Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.

It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.

It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.

Nashville Vibes

Minutes from Ryman Auditorium stands Ernest Tubbs Record Store, the nation’s first all-country record store located in downtown Nashville, welcoming visitors from around the world for the past 74 years.

But getting there always takes longer than it should because of all the distractions along the way:

The first thing I see is a white-painted edifice with lyrics penned by Peter La Farge and performed by Johnny Cash.

It’s intended as a grim reminder of broken promises to Native Americans.

Continuing on foot, there’s bound to be a bridal party featuring a Bridezilla…

or a homeless prophet…

and a bunch of battered, drunken drivers…

or an overheated zealot…

and a mad hatter…

until you get to Ernest Dale Tubb, an influential honky-tonk singer-songwriter, Grand Ole Opry star, movie actor, and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who began a record store in 1947.

And this is his testament.

The Midnight Jamboree hit the stage the following year, featuring Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours...

and a slew of cowboys and up and comers shooting for the stars.

And that helped to sell a lot of records. It was a beneficial arrangement for everyone.

Ernest could also promote his famous bus tour. In 1970, Mr. Tubb purchased a 1964 Silver Eagle from Trailways Bus Company and dubbed it the Green Hornet.

For the next nine years, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours logged over 3 millions miles on the Green Hornet, hitting all 48 States and Canada.

The coach accommodations included sleeping berths and a bathroom behind the wall,

while Mr. Tubb lived in the rear of the coach with a television mounted in the wall above his feet.

The middle compartment was equipped with a coffee bar and a sound system that ran the length of the corridor.

Mr. Tubb retired the bus in 1979 and donated it to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for public viewing. In 1995, it was restored to its original state and was put on permanent display in what is now the Tacky Turtle, an exotic gift shop of tchotchkes and folk art.

Leah and I went looking for it, initially unaware that it is just minutes from our RV campground.

We fed the coordinates to Jennifer and she directed us to a local strip mall featuring the Texas Troubadour Theater at the vortex of two legs, but it took two circles around the parking lot until I realized that the bus was hiding in plain site inside the gift shop. In fact, the mall was built as an enclosure around the bus!

We walked away enlightened, but disappointed having not heard a note, except the blare of mixed music bleeding from the Nashville bars.

But to our surprise, upon returning to the campground, we discovered a poolside concert by Tim Atwood, an 8,500-performance veteran of the Grand Ole Opry (old and new)…

with Jeannie Seeley in attendance to celebrate Tim’s 65th birthday.

Could it be, we finally beat the Grand Ole Opry curse? In the immortal words of Ernest Tubb, “That’s all she wrote.”

Ryman

Nashville seldom disappoints, given the music, the Broadway scene, and the local history and flavor that makes Nashville such a go-to destination for letting loose.

But here we were in Nashville again for a third visit in as many years, and again, there were no concert bookings at Grand Ole Opry during our stay, just as before.

Perhaps, we should make our own music, although we would eventually take the stage at Ryman Auditorium like so many others,

by first taking a self-guided tour of the hallowed hall before having our picture snapped by the gift shop photographer.

Very little has changed since Ryman Auditorium opened…

as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Originally built as a house of worship…

by Thomas Ryman, who made his fortune from a bevy of saloons and a fleet of riverboats,

Ryman found God at a big-top revival, and vowed to build a tabernacle, allowing Nashville folks to attend large-scale revivals indoors.

The balcony opened in 1897, raising capacity to 6,000 worshippers.

Ryman died in 1904, and was celebrated inside his tabernacle. It was at his memorial service that Samuel Porter Jones, the preacher responsible for Ryman’s conversion, proposed the name change to Ryman Auditorium.

While Ryman Auditorium continued as a religious venue, it also opened its doors to popular culture and performing arts as a means of paying the bills, often hosting concerts, speaking engagements, dance recitals and theater, and earning its reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”

The Grand Ole Opry took up residency in 1943, and sold out its weekly shows for the next 31 years, becoming “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

Country music acts performed in front of capacity crowds and reached audiences around the world through radio and television broadcasts, earning them large followings and superstardom. Artists were eager to appear despite the primitive accommodations.

Leah and I took our sweet time as we perused the exhibits note by note, and studied the memorabilia from entertainment royalty…

In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry shuttered its downtown location in favor of a larger, modern venue within a theme park setting, dooming Ryman Auditorium to the wrecking ball. But the historical importance of Ryman, known as the birthplace of bluegrass (and so much more) could not go unnoticed, until the preservationists prevailed, and Ryman was saved from demolition.

After a dormant period of 20 years and new ownership, the exterior was eventually rehabbed and the building’s interior was refurbished and modernized for artists and patrons, restoring it as a world-class concert hall that past and present music legends agree has some of the best acoustics in the world, only adding to Ryman’s mystique and continuing renaissance.

As for Leah and me, all that was left for us to do was smile for the camera and take our final curtain call…

Losing My Religion

It’s easy to forget, considering today’s smoldering political climate, that America was the best last hope for Separatists fleeing England in 1620. They were so determined to stand up for their Christian beliefs that they were willing to risk a perilous voyage and an uncertain future in the New World.

102 Puritans boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, Devon…

and 102 landed in “Paradise” (one passenger had died and a baby was born at sea during the harsh 65-day passage across the Atlantic) on November 11, 1620,

commemorated by “a great rock”…

that’s protected by a granite canopy overlooking Plymouth Harbor,

at what is now Pilgrim Memorial State Park.

Thanks to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe who forged an alliance with the Pilgrims,

the colonists survived famine and disease aboard the Mayflower–losing half their numbers–before they eventually settled ashore to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony the following year, and celebrate their first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags.

Roger Williams, a long-time friend of Massasoit was less fortunate in the coming years. He was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for sedition and heresy after questioning the legitimacy of the Kings’s charter which provided no payment for land confiscated from the Wampanoags.

Smith went on to settle in Narragansett Bay, and established Providence, Rhode Island, which became a safe haven for all the like-minded dissenters who believed in true religious freedom, and separation between church and state.

This principle was later put to the test by Jewish settlers who migrated to Newport, RI from Portugal via Barbados as early as c. 1658 to form Jeshuat Israel, the second oldest congregation in America (Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam was first in 1654).

By 1758, consideration was given to design and build New England’s first temple. Peter Harrison, a sea captain and amateur architect drafted plans for what would become Touro Synagogue, dedicated in time for Hanukkah in 1763.

The interior design was drawn from references from Isaac Touro, the congregation’s spiritual leader and others,

whose religious upbringing called for separation of men and women between floors.

Religious freedom was tested once again, when Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel greeted George Washington in August 1790 with a letter…

President Washington responded in kind…

…thus reasserting to the congregants that they enjoyed full liberty of conscience, regardless of their religious belief.

As a young Nation, the United States was a guiding light for the oppressed around the world. Folks from all walks of life risked everything to make pilgrimage to these shores in search of religious freedom. It was an idea that’s survived two World Wars, yet today stands perilously close to extinction, but only if we allow it to happen.

Wise Guys

Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.



There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

Mt Rushmore1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Helsinki–The Sibelius Monument

Eila Hiltunen’s landmark sculpture, Passio Musicae pays tribute to Finland’s Jean Sibelius, but not without controversy.

Sibelius was an internationally acclaimed symphonic composer inspired by Finnish folklore. Long regarded by Finns as a national icon, his celebrity and talent sparked a public fundraising campaign to memorialize him in a meaningful way after his death in 1957, while also fueling a public debate on the purpose of public art.

In 1961, the Sibelius Society arranged a competition among 50 of Finland’s finest sculptors. The local jury recognized five finalists with statuary proposals and gave consideration to Hiltunen’s abstract design of 600 stainless steel tubes clustered in free-form formations.

staggered pipes (2)

The second tier of judging was bolstered by three additional experts of international reputation, who ultimately favored Hiltunen’s more refined proposal, and awarded her the commission,

looking up

immediately angering half of Finland’s population who favored a more figurative solution (later added by Hiltunen as a compromise),

mask face

yet pleasing the other half of the nation looking for a modernist approach.

pipes tied together

But irony abounds when Hiltunen’s monument honors an accomplished violinist, but resembles a mighty display of scrolled organ pipes, or perhaps a birch forest or the Northern Lights to an imaginative viewer.

pipes on a rock

Nearby, Leah and I huddled for warmth inside a fanciful shoebox called Cafe Regatta, located on the edge of the park,

warm and dry

to contemplate the Sibelius monument, and enjoy a hot cocoa and donut…

Leah inside Cafe Regantta

while around the bend, on the water’s edge,

Cafe Regatta

two hearty locals dared to dip into icy waters–

1 approach to water

2 brace yourself

3 one foot in

4 two feet in

5 thigh deep

6 almost immersed

7 the plunge

reminding me that taking the plunge is risky, but the results can take your breath away.

Helsinki–Church of the Rock

With our Norway cruise behind us, Leah and I had designs on extending our Northern European adventure. Unfortunately, our plan to visit St. Petersburg hit a fatal snag after we neglected to apply for Russian visas in a timely fashion.

Originally, our flight from Bergen to St. Peterburg required a transfer through Helsinki, so Helsinki became our default destination for the next four days. Although my dream of touring the Winter Palace and Hermitage was temporarily dashed, Helsinki seemed like a worthy safety net and exciting city to explore.

But something about Helsinki was off. Ordinarily, Helsinki during winter months would be blanketed in snow with the harbor frozen over…

overview in snow

but during our visit, the landscape was fully thawed.

overview with no snow

In fact, residents hadn’t seen a trace of snow since winter’s arrival, although they were experiencing one of the wettest and gloomiest seasons on record.

And that’s exactly how it felt to us as we wandered through Helsinki’s city streets, taking in the cultural setting and the vibe.

On our first day of touring, the rain and wind was relentless, but we were undeterred. In the end, we punished our umbrellas, and rendered them useless. But they saved us from a soaking and protected my camera as we found our way to Helsinki’s 50-year old landmark, the Church of the Rock–

Entrance (2)

embedded in bedrock,

aerial

and capped by an oval dome of skylights and copper.

atop the rock

In 1961, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen–Finnish brothers and architects–conceptualized a church excavated from solid rock amidst Helsinki’s Töölö district, and were awarded the commission by a jury of their peers.

overview

Ultimately, budget constraints and construction delays prevented the project from getting underway until February 1968, but the brothers saw their vision consecrated in September 1969.

altar

The church became an instant mecca for concerts,

organ (2)

after sound engineers determined that exposing the rough-hewn rock walls could deliver an acoustic nirvana.

candle sconce

More than half a million visitors a year flock to Church of the Rock for worship, wedding celebrations, and meditation.

Leah (2)

But I came to dry off and stare at the ceiling.

flying saucer

Saying Goodbye

I lost my father on Friday and I buried him yesterday.

For the past three years, I’ve periodically chronicled his decline (L’Chaim, Swimming Upstream, The Gift), while celebrating his defiance toward the dementia that was slowly robbing him of his vitality. At the time, it became clear to me that he was not going without a fight, which was also emblematic of his life as a self-made man.

His death was not COVID-19 related, as the final weeks of his life were spent in lockdown at a “clean” memory care facility located in West Palm Beach. But because of the lockdown, it was impossible to visit him for the past month in order to protect all the vulnerable residents from a scourge that was infecting nursing homes across the country.

When the hospice chaplain Face Timed on Thursday to say that Dad’s time was near, the staff relaxed their policy–allowing Leah and me a last chance to say goodbye in person. We settled on Saturday, since it would take a day to make the necessary arrangements for clearance at the gate.

But Dad had other plans. The call came Friday morning at 7 am.

Like so many around the world, I mourned the death of a loved one, and cursed the sky that I couldn’t be there to comfort him in the end.

I felt a deep sadness for my sister, Debbie sheltering in her Vermont farmhouse, for she would have no connection to his funeral service and burial in Florida and be able to express her grief.

During the 3-plus hour ride to Sarasota, Leah and I scrambled to assemble an ad hoc ZOOM conference that the funeral home was willing to facilitate. It would be their first. We cobbled together a few dozen email addresses from our contacts, and stitched a virtual mourning quilt of family and friends who might share my father’s memorial.

Leah and I gathered at Temple Beth Sholom Cemetary with my sister Marilyn, and brother Ron (Florida residents), and were joined by an assigned rabbi to officiate the service. The graveside lecturn, usually reserved for the officiant, was now the iPad anchor for the thirty-or so members of our newly minted guest list.

Rabbi Simon began with a blessing, and soon it was my time to sing his praises…

This occasion is awkward. I’m standing here at Dad’s gravesite, while struggling to say goodbye to him in the presence of only a handful of people.

And it’s unfair, because COVID-19 has robbed us of physically sharing our grief and reflections of a life well-lived, rather than celebrating in a manner that is more deserving of Dad’s stature.

Under different circumstances, there would be a full circle of friends and family standing elbow to elbow around this plot to pay final respects, and to honor his accomplishments and his love of life.

But, unfortunately, that is not the case today. Instead, we must consider a deadly pandemic at our doorstep that attacks our strength and soul as a nation and threatens to steal our loved ones before their time.

On the other hand, I am grateful that technology has given us the means to broadcast this message around the world via ZOOM, so that many of you at this moment can appreciate my father the way I did. While it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do under the present circumstances.

Ideally, I’d prefer having Dad standing beside me while I deliver his eulogy.

If only for a shining moment—if I could—I would magically correct his eyesight and hearing, and return his once-keen memory to him, so he can realize and appreciate all that he achieved in life, and he could see all the lives that he touched with his kindness—both here and in the cyberworld.

He would be a complete person once again, instead of retreating to an insular world of darkness and confusion, where only those suffering from Alzheimer’s can truly understand, yet never have capacity to express.

Nevertheless, I hold onto the belief that these words bring him comfort, and he can finally rejoice in the light of loved ones who have left this world before him.

There’s an alphabet of adjectives I could use to describe my late father, as he was my mentor, my ally, and my role model.

But when I consider all 95 years collectively, there is one word—as it relates to me, the family nucleus, and all the people in close and distant orbits—that stands the test of Dad’s time on earth.

My father was DEVOTED…

Almost everything took a backseat to his family. Family was his anchor and his lifeline:

Dad was a devoted son to Lena and Joseph—two immigrants from Eastern Europe, who like so many, came to America with nothing more than a dream–to escape religious persecution and find a way to provide a certain future for their children. Dad would later put up the money for his parent’s corner house on N. St. Claire St. in Pittsburgh’s East End.

sailor portrait

Dad was a devoted brother to his oldest sister, Ann and his youngest sister, Sylvia. But his deepest devotion was reserved for his older brother Morrie (by only 2 minutes), who was his best friend until he passed away in February, 2012—which coincidentally, or not, was the first time I noticed any convincing symptoms of dementia exhibited by Dad.

Dad was a devoted uncle to 7 nephews and 4 nieces—always willing to celebrate their birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings. And he was always willing to offer his counsel, regardless of time.

My father was also a fiercely devoted husband to my mother, Bertel. Throughout their 58 years together, they built an enduring and nurturing marriage founded on trust, reliance, and love. They took good care of their family and each other until the end. When the last 2 years of Mom’s life became especially challenging—as she battled yet another cancer that would eventually ravage her—my father nursed her around the clock with grace, always giving more of himself than what seemed humanly possible.

wedding portrait

Dad and Mom had 2 sons: Ron and me; and 2 daughters: Marilyn and Debbie–within a 12-year span. Growing up, it was often a helter-skelter household with strong personalities always competing for attention. All too often, Mom would invoke the all-too-familiar “Wait till your father gets home” warning, but after a time, I realized that Dad’s bark was worse than his bite. Typically, our home was filled with books, music, kitchen aromas, and prayer.

The 80’s and 90’s were productive years for my family, which eventually made Dad a devoted and doting grandfather. He enjoyed time spent with my boys, Noah and Nathan, and Debbie’s girls, Rachel, Zoe and Ava. Decades later, after Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a long-term healthcare facility, Ron would add Benyamin and Baela to the mix.

Dad’s grandchildren were always his principle source of pride and joy, providing him with limitless nachas and so many opportunities for gifts and giving.

Three years ago, despite deep-seated dementia, Dad rallied and flew from West Palm to New York to attend Zoe’s wedding to David. It was a Herculean effort with all hands-on-deck, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier and prouder while bearing witness to a third-generation family marriage.

A year later, Zoe and David presented Dad with Ari, making him a great grandfather for the first time.

But my father’s devotion extended beyond family.

He was also devoted to his country. At 19, Dad enlisted to do his part in World War 2. He was inducted into the Navy on May 8, 1943, serving aboard the USS Chester. He was later transferred to aircraft carrier, USS Antietam and deployed to the Pacific warzone. Dad rose to the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd class before his honorable discharge 3 years later.

When Dad returned from the war, he entered the wholesale plywood business, and quickly learned what he could from family and competitors. After a series of sales jobs in the industry, Dad established Steel City Lumber Company in 1956, and rode an opportunistic wave of building and remodeling around Pittsburgh’s vicinity and northern Ohio.

He was devoted to his customers, offering a superior product at a fair price by reinventing the DIY shopping experience. He eliminated the behind-the-counter model of dusty hardware shelves and open lumber sheds and replaced them with airy warehouses, where shoppers could now walk shopping carts through wide aisles and select merchandise from open bays–bringing a more user-friendly concept to the attention of Home Depot. 

He was devoted to his business partners, inviting his brothers-in-law along to share in his success. He was also devoted to his suppliers, establishing extended relationships beyond the workplace. But most importantly, he was devoted to his employees, retaining many of them until he sold the business 23 years later.

Dad and Mom resettled in Long Boat Key during 1979. Rather than retire at 55, Dad embarked on a failed life of golf and sailing, and a prosperous second career in commercial and residential property investments, where his devotion now extended to his tenants.

Lastly, Dad was a pious man. He was deeply devoted to the tenets of Judaism and tzedakah, and eagerly devoted his time as Men’s Club president at Pittsburgh’s Temple B’nai Israel and Sarasota’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he was also an active board member for Israel Bonds.

Even as a resident of MorseLife Memory Center for the past 4 years, Dad was a constant presence at Sabbath services and High Holiday services until he was no longer able.

After Dad weakened so, and became bedbound during the last weeks of his life, Leah and I would periodically video chat with hospice assistance. Music became his true salvation, so we would always conduct a virtual sing along when connected.

I fondly remember Dad joining in, giving us the best of what he had left, indiscriminately shouting “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH” as we serenaded him. And that gave me an idea. If I tweaked the words just a bit, I could get Dad to participate in a Beatles classic:

Hence, we’d sing, “We love you…” and he would magically respond on cue with, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!”

last pic with Dad

Regular visits by Lisa, the hospice music therapist would often be effective in bringing Dad added comfort and solace. She would always close her visits with a rendition of Oseh Shalom. Even in Dad’s darkest hours, I could see him come alive for a shining moment, as I would watch his lips form silent words.

Dad, I love you. I miss you. And I will always carry your memory with me.

I‘d like to believe that Dad can still hear us, so I’d like to close my remarks with Oseh Shalom performed in unison…

Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ha’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
V’imru: Amen

May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.

graveside (3)

It was eerie hearing a detached  cacophony of unsychronized voices on the iPad–from across the country and from far away places like Israel, England and Belgium–yet for all the misgivings of being alone together, it was a textbook example of making the best out of a bad situation.

Sadly, there can be no traditional Jewish period of mourning, where people assemble for seven days to say Kaddish for the dearly departed. The pandemic will not allow for it. Instead, we will individually summon the voices in our heads, and offer a silent chorus of blessings.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Bergen Walking Tour

After docking in Bergen, the Viking Star’s final destination of our 13-day cruise along Norway’s western coastline,

Viking Star at port

Leah and I were ready to explore our surroundings. First we wandered through the 13th century ruins of Bergenhus Fortress,

Holman ruin

maquette (2)

courtyard (3)

before entering Håkon’s Hall…

Haakom Hall facade

to regard the 1950’s restoration of the royal banquet hall that dates to King Magnus’s wedding celebration in 1261,

Haakom Hall

and where all furnishings have subsequently been replaced to commemorate the 700th anniversary of its first use.

arches and furnishings

Our walking tour continued along the Bryggen Wharf, a UNESCO World Heritage site preserving original Middle Aged buildings from the Hanseatic League trading era,

Bryggen Wharf

and the Old Wharf–

Bryggen courtyard

featuring a sea serpent once rumored to venture out from Bergen caves during summer nights to feed on sea traders.

serpent

We strolled across the cobblestones of Øvregaten, Bergen’s one-time market for craftsmen and traders,

cobblestones

but now home to residences,

residences (2)

galleries and specialty shops.

K. Lien

Finally we reached Bergen’s most popular attraction–its Fløibanen,

Floibanen1

a funicular railway taking riders to the top of Mount Fløyen.

Finicular map (3)

We passed through three stations in eight minutes,

mid station

until we finally reached the top.

last stop (2)

Once we got our bearings,

signpost (2)

we were rewarded with a wintry chill and a view that took our breath away…

panorama

unless that was the mountain troll’s doing?

Leah and troll

 

P.S.  This post (my 351st) represents 3 years of blogging! Looking forward to another productive year.

Alta Mushing

Tucked into the Alta valley, lies a kennel of 98 Alaskan huskies that are so eager to pull a sled, that a team of six can pull their anchor out of the ground.

So much so that it took a Holmen Husky trainer to restrain them.

wanting to run

It was that kind of energy that had Leah and me so hyped to run the dogs on the trail, but only after properly outfitting ourselves…

boots

Leah posing

and learning the intricacies of mushing, as explained by Vicki from UK.

sled lesson

Most importantly, after witnessing the huskies’ enthusiasm, we focused on how to brake and when to brake!

how to use the brake (2)

After a visual review of the basic rules…

Basic Rules

we were appointed to our teams.

dog team and sled (3)

For the next 90 minutes, we rode through birch forests as the snow gently fell.

on the trail

Keeping our distance between sleds was our biggest challenge, as the dogs were more than up to the task of hauling a 25 kg /55 lb sled…

dog sled shed

with two passengers.

mush (2)

When occasional braking was necessary to prevent our sled from overtaking the sled ahead, the lead dog always turned to us, as if to say, “Why are you slowing me down?”

Why did we stop

And when Duke, one our wheel dogs sensed that his partner Nola wasn’t carrying her weight, he let her know about it.

pull your weight

Bred for speed and endurance, Holmen’s sled dogs can manage 10 to 14 miles per hour, and may travel over 90 miles in a 24-hour period, pulling up to 85 pounds apiece!

sled leads

The Holmen dogs are happiest when they are working, and even more so when they are racing.

diplomas

When our run was over, it was time to time to relax…

time for a rest

to pose…

leaders

and to cuddle.

time for love (2)

A fire, a biscuit, and some blueberry tea was the perfect nosh after our wintry mush.

fire aftermath

But doggone it, there would be no Northern Lights tonight!

Cathedral of the Northern Lights

Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,

passages (3)

and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.

Viking docked (2)

Leah and I were praying for clear skies plus a surge in solar activity–given Alta’s reputation as the Town of the Northern Lights and home to the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory (1899) for conducting scientific research.

Alta harbor

To that end, we mounted a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights to increase our chances of an anticipated sighting. However, on this temperate night, an unexpected veil of dew painted the town, offering up a cathedral bathed in shimmery titanium,

nighttime (3)

lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.

belfry

To the townsfolk, this sanctuary is as much a tourist attraction as it is a church.

It represents “a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,” according to John F. Lassen, partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen–a Danish design firm that collaborated with Scandinavian firm Link Arkitektur to win the city council’s design competition in 2001.

And there is much to appreciate about the design–outside and in. The exterior’s circular body mimics a magic curtain of light once illustrated by Louis Bevalet in 1838.

lithograph

And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.

Light shafts and altar

Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…

12 Apostles

and the 4.3 meter (14 ft) modernist bronze of Christ searching the blue-glazed heavens, imagined by Danish artist Peter Brandes. While some worshippers may claim that a hidden face lives in the outstretched neck of the subject,

Jesus (2)

the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.

Jesus with 2 looks

Consecrated in 2013, the Cathedral of Northern Lights functions as Alta’s parish church of the Church of Norway, yet remains an open forum for assembly and performance.

One-year after the first benediction, the concrete walls had settled and the pipe organ was installed. The dynamic acoustics attracted notable talent and filled all 350 seats.

organ

Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,

master organist.

Irina Girunyan

While following a complex score for hands and feet,

sheet music

Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.

organ performance with sheet music

The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,

med shot playing

and left me yearning for another reminder.

Northern Lights behind the Cathedral
The titanium-clad Cathedral of the Northern Lights (Photo: Adam Mørk/schmidt hammer lassen)

 

 

 

 

Order of the Blue Nose

Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.

“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”

Of course, we were disappointed.

Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.

But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.


Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.

While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),

Here Comes the Sun

the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.

Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:

Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.

The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.

The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.

The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.

Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”

The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…

Hear ye… hear ye….

Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.

(Applause)

Captain Nilsen continued…

This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.

We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!

I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?

drinking aquavit (2)

But I wasn’t alone.

Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.

closed eyes

What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…

red eye

pursed lip

plaid shirt

man wirth glasses

lady with glasses

grinning lady

glassy eyes

Chinese freckles

beard man

United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.

To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.

Certificate

Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.

Arctic Circle marker

Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”

Impressions of Tate Modern

Leah and I could not leave London without visiting Tate Modern, a post-industrial power plant repurposed to house a wide collection of global artists, past and present, who conceptualize their vision through a variety of mediums.

These are only a sampling of my impressions of their work and installations…

Welcome

entrance

fountain

yarn

the whole world

Who Owns What

blinds

Basalt columns

Roy (3)

Sabra and Shatila Massacre

kids and painting

missiles (2)

DM 1 (2)

Amazon innoculants

tower of music

escalators

 

 

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Entertainment

See  Part 1 before continuing…

With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.

Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,

animal people1 (2)

beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,

Cirque leads

who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.

Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters:    a skip rope team…

jump rope

a Risley acrobatic duo,


a silk curtain dancer…

curtain split1

curtain split

an audience participant…

audience member

dueling pirates…

pirate ship

a juggler…

juggler

a hand-balancer/contortionist…

contortionist

pageant and puppetry…

fish puppet

puppets

strap aerielists…

rings couple (2)

and a trampoline wall before the finale…


The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.

As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.

pets

And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.

With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,

jungle

deep within the repurposed Yucatán jungle.

 

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Eatertainment

Cirque du Soleil is seemingly ubiquitous–with a dozen touring companies scouring the continents, and 7 different resident shows selling out across the Las Vegas strip, making this entertainment company the most prolific circus producer on the planet.

But JOYÀ is different, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my family.

family portrait

Staged in a custom-built, butterfly-inspired structure surrounded by a cenote within the Riviera Maya jungle,

theater1

the 600-seat theater features a thrust stage anchored by perimeter table service, and  tiered seating beyond the waiters’ service stations.

theater

For the epicure, this production offers a dinner component one-hour before showtime that relies on gastronomic smoke and mirrors to draw the guest deeper into the Mexican experience.

According to Mexican Top Chef Alexis Bostelmann, “Each element of this magnificent show served as my inspiration, where imaginative curiosity is met with unexpected discovery,” said Bostelmann.

The adventure began with an edible menu, 

edible menu

followed by a polished slab of wood featuring a salad of edible flowers and Iberian ham, served with a lobster taco, a sweet potato, and fresh ceviche seasoned with coconut, mint and passion fruit.

appetizer platter

I said “yes” to the protein option to garnish my salad: locally-sourced chinicuiles–a salty worm that feeds off maguey roots, and is often found swimming at the bottom of a mezcal bottle. A true Mexican delicacy!

salad with worm garnish

Our featured beverage, in addition to a chilled bottle of Mecier Brut Champagne was  Dragon Breath–a signature tequila concoction that was smokin’ and refreshing!

dry ice cocktail

We noshed on a basket of bread bark,

bread basket (2)

and broccoli boughs while we waited for the second course.

bread treat (2)

My entree arrived under a meteor shell. I opted for braised short ribs nestled beside a dugout dinosaur bone of grilled veggies, and accompanied by a geode-styled crock filled with ginger, coconut and sweet potato mash. 

short ribs

Leah received a treasure chest of jewels…

treasure

accented by a fillet of salmon resting on a poblano-mint puree, elevated by a tower of grilled vegetables, and an oyster-sized seaweed salad topped with a coconut milk pearl.

salmon entree

All the while, our remaining senses were treated to traditional Latin music performed with a jazzy twist.

music interlude

After the second course was cleared, we were presented with a novel idea–

book of pastries

–a quartet of desserts plated within the pages of the Periodic Table of Pastries.

dessert box

Yum!

“My goal was to present a menu rooted in historical meaning that parallels the show’s beloved storyline so that once the performance begins, guests will connect all the details for a completely immersive theatrical experience,” Bostelmann added.

If dinner set the scene, then the show would bear more earthly delights. Noah, Nathan, Leah and I waited for the lights to dim…

lanterns

and let Cirque du Soleil transport us to a magical place, where gravity is optional.

Continue to Part 2

Ta-ta, Tulum!

GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!

But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.

According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).

“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.

All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!

While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.

I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats.
Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.

Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.

We drove to the término, reaching our destination…

Santa Fe wall

and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.

beach and ruins.jpg

We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.

Tulum envisioned

Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.

castillo and tourists

castillo signage

In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…

Tulum vista

ruins 2

ruins 4

ruins

ruins3

Temple of Paintings

temple on the hill

except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.

Leah thru the gate

Leah and Nate.jpg

After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.

hilltop view

Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…

shoreline

and that was our next destination.

Sante Fe Beach Club

Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.

Brenda

Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.

Our captain motored out to open water,

Captain of Brenda.jpg

and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.

temple by the sea

Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.

snorkeling over a reef.jpg

Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…

pelican chilling

and keeping track of my sons.

Nate snorkeling

Noah and the bird

Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.

3 amigos

Enchanted

It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places.
The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.

lit reindeer

Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,

skating (2).jpg

the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.

skating trail
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,

golden tree

and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–

dome

all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.

lite trellis

Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.

family on ice

Gabe and Dan

There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.

EMT rescue (2)

After a photo op with Santa…

Santa

we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,

Dancer

Rudolph

and stopping along the way…

poppies

to admire the fancy shapes…

snow people

or not.

snow flake.jpg

While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.

The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.

Prankster

Close to The Last Waltz

It was September 1969, and I was in my senior year at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. To my mother’s dismay, my bell-bottom jeans were torn and faded, my hair was too long, and my music was too noisy. The British Invasion was casting Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Bobbie Vinton and Lou Christie aside, although Tommy James and the Shondells were pushing back hard with their psychedelic sound.

I was hooked on rock ‘n roll, and doubled down on my commitment as a record collector by retiring my GE record player and worn 45’s in favor of LPs. Fortunately, my summer job as a yardman at Steel City Lumber funded my new Pioneer SX-1000 receiver and Dual 1219 turntable, complemented by a pair of Advent Loudspeakers. All I needed now was a record that was worthy of blasting.

My weekly allowance was meant to cover my bus transportation and school lunches for the week, but if I scrimped hard enough, I could afford an album, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP had just been released, and I couldn’t wait to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted.

However, a weekend trip to National Record Mart’s East Liberty location left me high and dry. Unfortunately, the Beatles’ much anticipated album was already out of stock. Rather than leave the store empty-handed, I took the store clerk’s advice and picked up a record from a display he was building by the store entrance.

Being unfamiliar with the group, I was reassured that this band was unlike any other I may have heard. He said these guys performed at Woodstock, and this was definitely a band to pay close attention to. My interest was piqued. On the surface, I was trading a color photo of the Fab Four stepping through a London crosswalk for a sepia-toned picture of five scruffy guys posing in the woods. The album in question was self-titled, The Band.

I couldn’t wait to get home. I slit the shrink wrap, and carefully placed the record on the turntable platter. From the first track, a romping Across the Great Divide, to the last track, a haunting King Harvest (Has Surely Come), I knew I was hooked. It was completely different from any music playing on the radio at the time. This was a melange of mountain music, blues, and rockabilly mixed with unusual signatures. The music was delightful! How ironic that four of the five players were Canadian, but their expression was pure Americana.

That was 50 years ago. Today, The Band’s iconic album still resonates. While The Band’s songbook is limited to seven studio albums of original material over a ten-year career, their legendary status as consumate musicians was cemented in their final Thanksgiving concert, The Last Waltz (1976)–captured for the big screen by Martin Scorsese–where a string of special guests joined the group on stage to make music history as one of the greatest concerts of all time.

The magic continues this November, as The Last Waltz Tour reprises The Band’s original setlist with fresh arrangements and a steller line-up of musicians.
I had admired the film and listened to the original recording, but I had to catch this performance now that it was coming to my newly adopted home town.


It was a chilly evening at St. Augustine’s Amphitheater, but the capacity crowd was warmed up for the event, as a familiar whiff of marijuana wafted through the tiered venue before The Last Waltz Overture signaled the beginning of the show.

Three frontmen took the stage,

Warren Hayes
Jamey Johnson

Jamey Johnson
Warren Haynes

Lucas Nelson1
Lukas Nelson

and for the next 3½ hours shared lead vocals and guitar riffs, and provided subtle harmonies for a trove of rock ‘n roll gems memorialized 43 years ago.
The all-star ensemble also included jazz keyboardist, John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood;

John Medeski

legendary producer and bassist Don Was, and funk-master drummer Terrance Higgins anchoring a solid rhythm section; and a New Orleans-flavored horn section powered by Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns, playing from Alain Toussaint’s original charts.

Levee Horns
Guest stars included: Cyril Neville,

Cyril Neville

and septuagenarian guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with The Band and Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz in 1976, and reminisced about performing at the concert and jamming at the after-party with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Paul Butterfield until 7am.

Bob Margolin

Such a night!

  1. Theme From The Last Waltz
  2. Up on Cripple Creek
  3. Stage Fright
  4. The Shape I’m In
  5. Georgia (On My Mind)
  6. It Makes No Difference
  7. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
  8. Down South in New Orleans
  9. Who Do You Love?
  10. This Wheel’s on Fire
  11. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
  12. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
  13. The Genetic Method
  14. Chest Fever
  15. Acadian Driftwood
  16. Caravan
  17. Ophelia
  18. Life Is a Carnival
  19. Helpless
  20. Mystery Train
  21. Rag Mama Rag
  22. Mannish Boy
  23. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  24. Further On Up the Road
  25. Forever Young
  26. The Weight
  27. I Shall Be Released
  28. Such a Night
  29. Baby Don’t You Do It

curtain call (2)

The Band’s music endures after 50 years, and may it keep us Forever Young.