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.

 

 

15 Minutes of Fame

I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.

It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.

When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.

Debbie Harry

Warhol's Debbie Harry

He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.

“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.

These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,

HS portrait (3)

through his productive New York days,

New York graphic artist

until his demise in 1987.

The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:

“…900 paintings;

Flowers (2).jpg

Lizs'

Judy

Aretha

Jackie

portraits (8)

Elvis

Skull

…approximately 100 sculptures;

brands boxes

Clouds1

…nearly 2,000 works on paper;

Campbell's Soup tryptic

…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;

8 varieties of soup

…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”

The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;

wall of fruit

skulls

…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of  female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”

torsos (2)

That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.

elephantorsos (2)

Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.

silkscreening

silkscreen

While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.

Sizing Up the Mattress Factory

The cultural evolution of Pittsburgh’s North Side began with the Mattress Factory–an anchor and incubator for contemporary art that’s been cutting the experimental edge of international expression by artists for artists since 1977.

Mission statement

Just a short walk from Randyland, the Mattress Factory factors heavily in site-specific installations occupying a collection of once-abandoned, but rehabilitated properties that have contributed greatly to the economic development and revitalization of a once-depressed community.

timeline

Not knowing what to expect, Leah and I dropped in during a transitional time for the museum, when much of the Main Building was undergoing preparation in anticipation of a late September opening.

But what we saw pushes the boundaries of form and information, while pushing the buttons of eccentric taste and interpretation.

Two outlying row houses housed separate exhibits. Our exploration began at the Monteray Annex…2nd Home statementstorage

chair on bricks

easel chair

…and continued at the Sampsonia Annex…

MFAnnex
Loper statement
Loper installation

…before returning to the Main Building, where we followed the advice of an admissions clerk, and started on Floor 3 for a look at Yayoi Kusama’s two rooms…Kusama statementcircles

Leahquin

…followed by a voyeuristic installation by Greer Lankton.Lankton statementbedroom

When the elevator dropped us at Floor 2, we paused long enough in the darkened foyer for our eyes to adjust, before feeling our way through a serpentine corridor that guided us to James Turrell’s light projections.Turrell statement3-D form

blue rectangle

We finished our tour with a stroll around a compact courtyard garden designed by Winifred Lutz.

garden

While not as exhaustive as a Whitney Museum Biennial, the Mattress Factory holds a firm place in the art world, where artists can dream and “create remarkable works of art that help us see the world in a fresh and different way.”

Defying Gravity

Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.

Riverfront Park

Its residents have been crossing its rivers and hills before the French built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in 1754 to protect their access to the Ohio Valley.

Fort Duquesne

After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.

Fort Pitt etching (2)

As Pittsburgh industrialized during the 19th century, so did its transportation network, and the bridges soon followed, connecting many of the elevated neighborhoods scattered throughout the vicinity.

3 sisters (3)
Pittsburgh’s “Three Sister” Bridges: the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Street Bridges. The “Three Sister” bridges were part of a massive series of bridge-building campaigns begun in 1924 by the Allegheny County Department of Public Works, and finished in the late 1930s by the Depression-period Allegheny County Authority. Credit: Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center

In fact, the “City of Bridges” moniker could easily be replaced with the “City of Hills,” given Pittsburgh’s challenging geography, for there are hills galore (North Hills, East Hills, South Hills, West Hills, Middle Hill, Upper Hill, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, and the Hill District); and there are heights aplenty (Northview Heights, Brighton Heights, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, and Stanton Heights); as well as a variety of lofty-sounding communities (Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Southside Slopes, Beechview and Fineview).

For me, growning up in Stanton Heights was a constant cardio workout of hiking and biking in my neighborhood. I still recall schlepping up Greenwood Street’s countless steps on my way home from junior high at Morningside Elementary School. And climbing those hills in an unforgiving winter frequently required fortitude and a layer of thermal underwear, which was sure-fire bait for bullies.

Characteristically, Pittsburgh’s reputation for having the largest collection of steepest streets in the world underscores the importance of living close to a world-class medical center (UPMC)…

whose headquarters, coincidently, occupy the US Steel Building–the tallest tower of Pittsburgh’s skyline.

steam paddle

It had been a long time between visits to Pittsburgh, so Leah and I relocated the Airstream to an RV park north of Pittsburgh for a few days, appropriately named Mountain Top Campground…

Mountain Top Campground (3)

and determined that a trip to Mt. Washington was a natural first stop for a lasting look at my hometown from the best possible vantage point.

But rather than drive to the top, we parked in a lot and rode the Duquesne Incline as tourists–

crossover

one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–

incline graphic

incline car

incline track

incline house

for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.

skyline

After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,

Canton St. Google Maps

in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.

steep st sign

Although it’s only one block long, climbing the 37% grade behind the wheel of my F-150 was somewhat disconcerting. Aside from the bumpy ride over cobblestones, the angle was so severe, I could barely see the road beyond the windshield.

steep v

A 37% grade! I can’t even imagine what it would take to climb Canton Street during a winter storm…unless you’re a mountain goat.

grazing goat (2)

But there was one last road phenomenon I needed to check out before we explored the cultural side of Pittsburgh. I had heard about a gravity hill near North Park that sounded like a too-good-to-be-true myth that needed busting.

Gravity Hill

When I reached the intersection of Kummer and McKinney, I made a hard left around the STOP sign onto McKinney Road, and passed an Audi that was there to perform the same miracle-manuever.

Kummer Road

Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied. 

rolling back

And then it was my turn.

I inched toward the STOP sign, and held the brake till I shifted to neutral. Leah stepped out of the truck to record the event on her iPhone. I hesitated for a moment thinking how crazy this seemed. Of course, the truck can’t possibly roll unhill. It goes against the fundamentals of science!

When I came to my senses, I released the brake, and the truck began rolling backwards. It was not what I expected!

I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m not a geologist, so I don’t have a reasonable explanation why the truck drifted backwards, so I consulted the experts:

According to Wikipedia, “a gravity hill is a place where a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope due to the layout of the surrounding land, creating the optical illusion that water flows uphill or that a car left out of gear will roll uphill.”

So I was on a hill that made down look like up?

Gravity road intersection

How weird…but then it occurred to me that Donald Trump runs the country the very same way, and “the 37%” who follow him, must be living on their own personal “Canton Street,” unable to see the road ahead.

Randy’s Pot of Gold

Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.

Randy

He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.

He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”

torsos and painted rocks].jpg

He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”

garden gate

Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.

red knight

Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.

swan planters

“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.

stairs (2)

But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.

“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”

The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident). 

land beach

An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.

Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.

Randy house

That was the genesis of Randyland…

Randyland entry

a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,

Welcome to Randyland

People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.

every which way

They stop by for the novelty…

belonging

for the vibe and the energy…

sandbox

and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.

knit fish

Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”

Randy with paint photo.jpg

Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;

neighbor paint

and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.

rainbow pergola (2)

What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.

Neal-Leah-Randy

Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:

“Hey, pretty mama…”

“I love your weave…”

“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”

signpost

Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.

Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.

Say cheese

It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.