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…

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

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)

 

 

 

 

Tromsø–Arctic Cathedral

Leah and I eagerly anticipated our arrival to Tromsø. For one, we were bored of cruising, having spent two consecutive days at sea after missing the port of Bodø because of high winds and rough seas (see Order of the Blue Nose).

But Tromsø, for us, provided the needed adrenelin rush to jumpstart our Norway adventure. Now that we finally arrived at the Gateway to the Arctic, we could participate in many of the off-the-ship excursions within our reach, like snowmobiling through white-carpeted mountain passes, and searching for the Northern Lights.

The Viking Star gently glided past Polaria’s domino-stacked building as Captain Nilsen steered us through the harbor on our way to docking.

Polaria (2)

While waiting for the local authorities to clear our vessel, I had an opportunity to photograph our new surroundings from our stateroom veranda, looking from stem…

Tromso Sound

to stern.

bridge ramp and beyond (2)

But one building that piqued my interest sat off the port side of the ship, nestled in the snowy foothills of Tromsø Sound–the Arctic Cathedral. Absolutely stunning!

against the mountain

Strikingly modern, the church was designed by architect Jan Inge Hovig and built in 1965. It’s roof structure was formed by concrete sheathed in aluminum panels,

side walls

as opposed to Tromsø’s other landmark church, the Tromsø Cathedral. Located in the center of town on the spot of Tromsø’s first church built in 1252, this cathedral was finished in 1861, and remains Norway’s only cathedral made of wood.

wood church city center (2)

Leah and I crossed the Tromsø Bridge by bus for a closer look.

Tromso Bridge

Likened to the Sydney Opera House, the exterior of the Arctic Cathedral is simple in shape and style,

entrance and bicycle

while the interior design is modestly appointed to accentuate: the large prism chandeliers;

altar triangles

the sparse altar rail and pulpit; and the grand glass mosaic commissioned by artist Victor Sparre–depicting three rays of light emanating from God’s hand: one through the form of Jesus, one through woman and one through man.

Altar and window

The western wall of the sanctuary is complemented by Grönlunds Orgelbyggeri’s organ, built in 2005.

The Star of David radiating through the eastern wimdow symbolizes a spirit of inclusiveness and community acceptance. (Just kidding)

organ

The organ was built in the French Romantic tradition, and was adapted to the cathedral’s architecture, providing illusions of sails and ice floes. The organ comprises 2940 pipes, measuring from 32 feet (9.6 m) to just 5 mm. Much of the woodwork is solid pine with bellows made of reindeer hide.

It’s a pity I never heard it played, as I’m certain the cathedral’s vaulted vortex provides impressive acoustics.

Back at the Viking Star, after a brief bout of daylight (6hrs, 15min.)…

Viking Star and Artic Cathedral (2)

I returned to my veranda to record the Arctic Cathedral bathed in moonlight…

moonrise over Tromso (2)

and I imagined I heard Grieg’s Song of Norway playing from its soaring arches.

at night

 

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!”

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

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.

Bayernhof

“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.

We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–

chandelier

befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.

floor mosaic

Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),

father figure

and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.

Charlie

After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.

Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.

overlook

However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–

painted glass ceiling

featuring 6 bedrooms…

guest bedroom

8 bathrooms, 3 full-sized kitchens, 12 wet bars, 10 fireplaces…

bedroom

a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…

observatory

a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,

basement cave

a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…

swimming pool

a wine celler with a working copper still…

wine cellar

a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…

pool room

a home office…

office desk

and a boardroom (only used twice)–

boardroom

his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.

Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.

A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:

 

 

 

As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.

Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.

Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…

 

 

 

and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

Charlie would have been very pleased.

I know I was.

 

 

Cleveland Rocks

The sole reason Leah and I traveled to Cleveland was to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period…

and it didn’t disappoint.

Cleveland Rocks

exterior

Leah and sign (2)

Classic rock music filled the cavernous lobby…

Power of Rock

and lighter-than-air concert props hung from cables…

Pink Floyd plane
Pink Floyd’s plane

Phish hot dog
Phish’s weiner

U2 cars
U2’s cars

It was a crusty carnival atmosphere on the outside, but we were there for the gooey goodness of the center.

Evolution of Rock

Inside was like a multi-media circus. There was so much information and memorabilia organized on the walls, on the ceilings, and inside floating kiosks that whiplash seemed inevitable. And the Hall was buzzing: with so many tourists, campers, musicians, and music enthusiasts, that at times it felt like a mosh pit, as I moved from one area to another.

To be expected, there was a tribute to Woodstock…

Yasgur Farm Dairy

Woodstock poster

and Dick Clark…

WGN TV

a salute to the 2019 inductees…

2019 inductees

and the icons of rock: Elvis,

Elvis

The Beatles,

The Beatles

Burning the Beatles

The Rolling Stones,

Rolling Stones

and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.

Jimi Hendrix sound board

Hendrix guitars

There was plenty of concert apparel to gush about…

 

Tom Petty hat
Tom Petty

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

Stevie Wonder shirt
Stevie Wonder

Elton John jumpsuit
and Elton John

And there were interactivities to capture one’s creativity, like Garage Band.

Garage Band

Most importantly, when the last lyric was sung and the last chord was strummed, it was time to shop!

Gift shop lore

Because in our own minds, we are Rock Stars, 

mugs-1.jpg

and Rock Rebels!Rock Rebel

 

This is Motown

Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.

Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.

The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.

A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.

“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.

plaque a

“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”

plaque b

“Amen!” I replied.

We shook hand and moved on.

Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.

Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps. 

Hitsville USA

Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”

The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.

I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition. 

MLK

So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…

60 years
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame display

to catch up on nifty artifacts.

artifacts (2)
Stevie Wonder costume/Fan magazine (from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame collection)

“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.

“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”

“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.

“Just like that!?” I laughed.

“You’ll see,” she insisted.

I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.

He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”

Notebook (2)

“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.

“Yup!” declared security.

Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”

“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.

Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”

When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.

We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.

Florence Banard

In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.

Diana Ross

It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…

Marvin Gaye

and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.

Berry Gordy

Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.

Gladys Knight

Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.

Eddie Kendrick

And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.

Stevie Wonder

By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.

The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.

 

One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.

“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.

“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.

(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)

 

 

 

 

Orchestrating Pop Culture

Within a span of five days, Leah and I had occasion to enjoy the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS), but in a nontraditional manner with uncommon overtones.

Dan Akroyd set the scene for our future expectations at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park IL, the CSO summer residency.

To be sure, it was a carnival atmosphere, with popcorn and green slime for sale. The Windy City Ghostbusters were on board, protecting their ride

GB Caddy

and providing plenty of photo ops…

Windy City Ghostbusters

 with props.

Stay Puft

Meanwhile, the CSO was warming up on stage…

CSO tuning

waiting for dusk and the arrival of their guest conductor, Peter Bernstein, son of legendary composer and Oscar-winner, Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the original score to Ghostbusters.

Happily, the orchestra never missed a beat, synchronizing perfectly with the film. While the band played on and the Ghostbusters faced their ectoplasmic foes, we enjoyed a picnic on the lawn with my niece Rachel and her partner, Kevin. Thanks, guys.

Days later, we traveled to Grand Rapids, MI for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Strings Attached tour. Unlike last year’s stripped-down tour (see Parody Paradigm), and stripped of shtick, this concert promised to be vintage “Weird Al”–the parodies, the costumes, the MTV videos, and 41 pieces of symphonic punctuation.

The GRS opened the show with 20 minutes of John Williams’ cinema overtures from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Star Wars…

GRO tuning

 to set the mood for a sell-out crowd that was every bit as white and nerdy as “Weird Al.”

White and Nerdy

It was the largest collection of ugly Hawaiian shirts I’d ever seen.

twine in MN

And some fans decided to elevate their look with shiny accessories.

Foil

The band was tight; the parodies are clever; the singing was splendid; and the GRS added an extra richness to the event. “Weird Al” showcased a deep catalogue of “funny,” paying homage to Don Pardo,

Don Pardo

a twine ball from Minnesota,

twine ball

weasel stomping,

Weasel Stomping

Devo,

Devo

Nirvana,

Kurt Cobain

and sending up Coolio with an irreverent Amish rap.

Amish Paradise1

The crowd was treated to a crowd-favorite Star Wars encore, á la Don McClean’s American Pie (The Saga Begins),

stars wars saga

and the Kink’s Lola (Yoda).

Wierd Al

The audience was on its feet by the end of the show, and so was the orchestra,

GRO

because their job was done and it was time to leave.

Leah and I caught up with the Associate Concertmaster as she exited the DeVos Performance Hall stage door.

“Great show, tonight,” I offered.

“Thank you. It was lots of fun,” she said.

“Did you have much practice time with the band?” I asked.

“Not really,” she admitted. “Just a couple of sessions.”

“That’s all!? You guys nailed it,” I gushed. “Any after-party plans?”

Crossing the street–“A glass of milk, and bed,” she sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it”–and she was gone.

What a nerd!

 

Thunder Mountain

From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.

However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,

Thunder Mountain

and consider it sacred land.

In Honor of Our Ojibwa Elders

Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…

plane landing

from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…

boardwalk to overlook (2)

and beyond…

Fort William First Nation

Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.

The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.

After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.

Leah and me

The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,

Thunder Bay overlook

but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.

harbor view

That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.

Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.



On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.

We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.

Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.

Welcome ceremony

It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.

drum circle

After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,

Chiefs

and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…

grass dancers

who were followed by family members…

procession

who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…

father and son

tiny dancer

showing off their feathers,

eagle feathers

their elaborate ceremonial costumes…

teal man

red costume

blue costume

and their elaborate moves…

Little Bear 2

Little Bear

Little Bear 1

After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,

WW1 Indian memorial

where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.

It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons:

Ojibwe Code

They are good words to live by!

Trump’s Folly

Photo credit: (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A political song parody…
It’s a catchy tune, so why not sing along!
(Intro)
Critics are falling on my head,

From too much rain to bother honoring the dead.
I don’t give a shit.
Those…NATO allies that I dread–

keep me bawlin’…

So I just did me some talking to my sons.
And I said, “I didn’t like the way Dems got things done–
Winning at the polls.
Those…losses are falling on my head,

they keep fallin’…”

But there’s one thing…I know.
The Blues they sent to beat me
Just defeat me.

It won’t be long,
Subpoenas now step up to greet me.

(interlude)

Democrats keep falling on my head.
But that doesn’t mean the House will soon be turning Red.
Winning’s not for me,
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the wave with complaining.
I’ll cop a plea.
It terrifies me.

(interlude)

It won’t be long ’till prison opens up to greet me.

Bad vibes keep falling on my head.
But that’s just karma coming ‘round on me, I dread…
Mueller’s got the key.
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the probe by complaining.
I’ll drop a tweet,

’cause I’m President Cheat!

Thanks to Original Songwriters: Burt Bacharach / Hal David

Rock of Aged

“Let’s get this shuttle moving!” shouts a middle-aged surfer dude in an orange muscle shirt at the volunteer driver of the tram parked curbside at the farthest reaches of Anastasia State Park’s parking lot by the beach.

“First of all, I’ve got plenty of empty seats to fill, with plenty of people still on their way. And secondly, you should have thought about getting here earlier pal, ’cause I been here since 5:30 transporting people to the concert. So stop complaining that I’m the one who’s making you late!” the driver retorts.

“Well asshole, I have no intention of missing the opening number because of you,” he bellows.

“You’re welcome to get off my ride anytime and call an Uber if you want, but otherwise, I suggest you shut the fuck up, and sit the fuck down, and wait patiently like the rest of these folks,” the driver threatens.

According to Joe and Jenny, who had come from Gainesville in celebration of their 10th wedding anniversary, the passengers on the tram were stunned into silence after this fiery exchange. The moment Leah and I took our seats on the tram, the mood seemed unusually somber for a group of mostly baby boomers who were on their way to attend a sold-out performance of Steve Miller Band with Peter Frampton at St. Augustine Amphitheater.

This was to be our maiden concert at the amphitheater–having purchased tickets over three months ago–knowing that we were taking a chance with the rainy summer weather, but choosing to risk it all for just a few hours of iconic rock and roll nostalgia.

At last the day had come, and despite the iffy forecast through late afternoon, the overcast sky had held firm, and it wasn’t long before we were on our way, barreling along the service roads…

shuttle (2).jpg

to the back door entrance of the amphitheater.

It was 7:05pm and the opening power chords of Something’s Happening were already resonating through the thick air. We bypassed the crowded concessions…

beer beer bar bar

and settled into our seats…

tent and stage.jpg

under the big top…

tent2

tent canopy

to lose ourselves in Frampton’s guitar licks.

amphiteater panorama.jpg

From the start of the evening, Frampton established a smooth repartee with his exuberant audience–thankful for the fans who’ve stuck with him through thick and thin.

At 72, Frampton has seen his share of sunsets in your eyes and lines on [his] face, affably referencing his musical longevity during the interludes between songs, and reflecting on the passage of time through his career–from his chart dominance to his subsequent free fall to his eventual resurrection.

The devotees in attendance who may have missed the ’70s, seized this downtime as the perfect opportunity for a bathroom break, but not without escaping playful ridicule from Peter..

“I wish I could pee. I really do,” quipped Frampton. Now I can only pee on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday… with the help of Flomax.

He’s willingly traded his teen-idol, cascading hair locks and bare-chested pop star status for a musician’s bald/bold appreciation of his instrument, and aptly demonstrated his guitar prowess throughout his set list:

  • Something’s Happening
  • Lying
  • Lines on My Face
  • Show Me the Way
  • Black Hole Sun
  • (I’ll Give You) Money
  • Baby, I Love Your Way
  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Do You Feel Like We Do

But the literal centerpiece was Black Hole Sun–“the best song [he’s] never written”–performed as an instrumental from the 2007 release of his Fingerprints album that garnered Grammy acclaim.

As if channeling Chris Cornell on the anniversary of his birth, July 20,

Black Hole Sun

Frampton commanded the stage with a mindful intent of demonstrating his guitar virtuosity,

Frampton makes a face.jpg

and he deftly acquitted himself in the eyes and ears of his audience.

And when the last shred had been wrung from his beloved Gibson, the crowd let him know how much they were with him and how much they cared.

 

After a half-hour intermission to reset the stage, the evening continued with Steve Miller and his band.

Steve Miller Band1

With a few exceptions, Steve Miller’s set list mimicked his multi-platinum Greatest Hits album, spanning the mid to late 70’s, and nobody in the crowd was disappointed, because they had come to sing along and Dance, Dance, Dance.

Set list

  • The Stake
  • True Fine Love
  • Abracadabra
  • Living in the U.S.A.
  • Space Cowboy
  • Take the Money and Run
  • Jackson-Kent Blues
  • Stranger Blues
  • I Want to Make the World Turn Around
  • Wild Mountain Honey
  • Dance, Dance, Dance
  • Serenade
  • Space Intro
  • Fly Like an Eagle
  • Swingtown
  • Rock’n Me

bass drum.jpg

From his early overture into blues-infused rock, to experiments in psychedelia, to a catchy collection of counter-culture anthems with mainstream melodies, Miller captured the songbook for a new generation of America in flux.

Steve Miller vocals.jpg

Midway through his set, Miller evoked a memory from 1965 that took him from San Francisco to New York for a performance of The Mother Song on NBC’s Hullabaloo with The Four Tops and The Supremes.

 

As Miller recounts, the $250 he earned from the gig gave him the confidence to shop for a new guitar at Manny’s Music, a cherished, legendary music instrument store located in mid-town Manhattan. Unfortunately, he discovered there was nothing he could afford. Rejected and dejected, he headed for the door, whereupon he discovered a cluttered barrel of buried guitars standing neck up with a posted sign: “Your Pick–$125.”

One guitar called to him–a 19-string sitar-guitar that he had to have. Along the way, Miller explained some of its unusual features: spool-like knobs, 3 pick-ups, and a mirror on the backside.

sitar guitar mirror.jpg

Of course, after 53 years it’s still in his possession, despite an offer of $125,000 from a bigwig music producer. This tale has been repeated at similar events for years and years–with fluctuating asking prices–but the audience was hooked on every word and ate it up.

sitar guitar

“Whadaya think? Should I consider selling it?” he petitioned the crowd.

Naturally, the crowd answered back with a resounding, “HELL NO!”

Miller put the instrument to good use in a soulful rendition of Wild Mountain Honey.

Thereafter, with each new tune, the audience responded with greater enthusiasm and a deeper appreciation of his classic hits.

The band returned with a raucous 4-song encore (if you consider Threshold to be a song rather than an intro)…

I'm a Joker

  • The Joker
  • Jungle Love
  • Threshold
  • Jet Airliner

And in an instant, the show was over. We were transported back to the here and now–no longer celebrating the soundtrack of our salad days from high school or college, but always reminded that “time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.”

Ironically, I spotted the belligerent surfer dude from before, who had embarrassed himself aboard our tram. Folks were filing past him to the exits, yet he seemed frozen in place–as if locked in a trance–holding onto a past that he was so impatient to embrace.

Doot-doot-doo-doo, tick-tock-tick…

Doot-doot-doo-doo, tick-tock-tick.

Mount Airy, NC

When I was eight, it was thrilling to be able to watch television. It was 1960, and as America’s new favorite past-time, television had quickly taken over as the modern recipe for family togetherness.

Early television programming came from only three channels (NBC, CBS, ABC), so the networks’ scheduling had to appeal to as many home viewers as possible to attract sponsors’ advertising  dollars needed to fund the show.  Usually that meant finding a personality with versatility and broad appeal, and crafting a show around their persona.

Aside from notable comedians (Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jack Benny, Groucho Marks), variety stars (Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey), and singers (Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland), movie actors were also drawn to television with an opportunity to increase their audience. Yet few would cross over with the success enjoyed by Andy Griffith.

entrance window

Already a star of stage…

destry Rides Again.jpg

and screen…

No Time for Sargeants swag

A Face in the Crowd poster

Andy Griffith easily transitioned to sitcom television as a guest star on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, playing a country bumpkin sheriff who arrests Danny Thomas for running a stop sign in Mayberry.

Mayberry Courthouse

jail keys

The Andy Griffith Show pilot ran on CBS later in the same year, where Andy reprised his role of sheriff,

Sheriff shirt

often playing straight man to a host of characters…

Mayberry cast (2)

Goober hat

who worked and lived in a fictionalized town patterned after Andy’s beloved hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina, where today, the Andy Griffith Museum shares space with the Andy Griffith Playhouse,

museum and playhouse

bringing fans from across the nation…

the odd couple

to follow the career of Mt. Airy’s favorite son, and enjoy a collection of memorabilia,

Take a Stroll with Andy

The Taylor House

Matlock

dedicated to a cultural icon.

Andy at sculpture dedication

Whenever I watched The Andy Griffith Show, I’d pretend being Opie Taylor (Ron Howard), Andy’s son,

The Taylors

walking hand in hand with Pa, down to the Fishin’ Hole,

Andy and Opie going fishing sculpture

while whistling the show’s familiar theme song:

sheet music

There would be lunch at Snappy’s…

Snappy Lunch

and a haircut at Floyd’s…

Floyd's Barber Shop

before heading back home, where Aunt Bee would be frying up the catch of the day for dinner.

comic book cover

Without sounding too utopian, life seemed simpler in 1960. Looking back, our role models were wholesome, our families were intact, and civility was practiced in earnest.

How many of us Baby Boomers yearn for the nostalgia we remember from classic TV, before the innocence was shattered by the assassination of JFK, and television brought us closer to the horror and tragedy that’s so commonplace today?

Parody Paradigm

Dear Weird Al,

Last night, I took Leah to see your show at the Apollo Theater for her birthday, and she loved all of it.*

Leah at the Apollo

We highly approved of Emo Phillips as your opening act, and appreciated him opening up to us about his personal life. I never knew he was married and divorced. He mentioned that her name will forever remain nameless, but only if he can manage to be unseen at her gravestone with a sandblaster. Also, I didn’t know of his interest in playing chess with old men in the park, and how difficult it is finding 32 of them at once.

And then you took Apollo’s iconic stage…

Apollo Theater

with your long-time back-up band, and you guys were as tight as a vise grip. Whether it was your impressions of Bob Dylan in Bob, James Taylor in Even Worse, the Police in Velvet Elvis, or Gordon Lightfoot in The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, and many more…

set list

the crowd was enthusiastic, and all the applause was well-deserved.

Your stripped-down version of you, known as The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, neglected the familiar fat suit from Eat It, and you never donned a Reynolds Wrap hat from Foil, or a Jedi robe from The Saga Begins. Instead, you featured composed musicians seated on stools,

the band

playing original music from your library of clever parodies that we fondly remember from the 80’s and 90’s, and we loved all 100 minutes of it… although, we would have benefitted from cue cards on your rendition of Bob, for no other reason than to appreciate your insanity just a bit more:

Your twisted vision is a true testament to a society gone crazy on Crazy Glue, and koo-koo for Coco Puffs.

red Al

Your self-mocking and lampooning lyrics are delicately designed around intricate word puzzles that tell stories of ridiculous proportions, but still manage to make us smirk at ourselves with unwitting social commentaries about pop culture, religion and other uncharacteristic conventions of modern living.

Your wink-and-nod parodies–the product of a love affair mashup of music genres and sub-cultures–are at their best when you rip off the bandaid of political correctness and hypocrisy, and generously sing about the neurosis of our society.

With all sincerity, Weird Al, you are the court jester of a generation, and for that, I thank you.

Respectfully, Neal

P.S. I have dedicated a parody of my own to you–an homage of sorts, as a tribute to your talent and imagination that is rooted in a James Bond classic, The Spy Who Loved Me:

Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Weird Al, you’re the best.

[It’s more fun if you play the audio and sing along]


Nobody doesn’t like butter.
Dairy is simply the best.
Starting out warm, straight from the bovine’s udder,

Baby, it’s a breast.


Whenever we’re beaching,

I can’t help from reaching
the strings to your bathing suit top.
I want to unbind them,
and simply remind them
of what it’s like to be there when they flop.

And nobody doesn’t like boobies,

cuz titties are always the best.
Your buttocks and legs, they only take second place.
Baby, it’s your breasts.

Whenever you’re nursing,

and people are cursing,
“You shouldn’t be flashing your breasts!”
They can’t stop their gawking,
while all the time talking–
Claiming it’s too lewd and lascivious.

Nobody doesn’t like butter

Soy milk just won’t pass the test
As for me, it’s always been half and half
Baby, baby, darlin’, it’s your breasts.

Baby it’s the breasts

Darlin’, it’s your breasts
Baby, like them best

Uh, uh, uh,

Oh, oh, oh,
uh, uh, uh, eyuh, eyuh
Uh, uh, uh,
Oh, oh, oh,
uh, uh, uh, eyuh, eyuh

*Special thanks to my son, Noah who arranged the “extra” of our extra special evening.

June 15, 2018 UPDATE

“Weird Al” just completed his 77th and last date of his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, and has released a compendium of snippets from all the cover songs his band performed as the encore of each concert.

Oh, the power of their versatility!