Friday, March 27, 2009

Concerto for Bacon and Eggs

Beethoven's Violin Concerto
Farewell Fry-up
Regency Cafe, Pimlico, London

On my  morning in London I decided the ideal finale would be to head down to the world famous Regency Cafe for a farewell fry-up.

Apart from having featured in the fair to middling gangster movie Layer Cake (featuring Bond star Daniel Craig), the Regency is famous for being one of the capital's premier 'greasy spoon' cafes.

It serves up yer classic British fried breakfast as well as delicious pies, pasties and fish 'n' chips.

Low cholesterol it ain't.

But if it's good enough for James Bond, it's good enough for me.

I opt for the classic combo: bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes, toast and tea - with dark sauce, of course - though the huge menu hanging over the counter offers a bewildering number of variations on a theme:

"You want that with beans or tomatoes? How about mushrooms? Sausage or black pudding?"

"You want yer eggs fried or scrambled?"

" POACHED!!? What are you, a ponce!?"

I must say the Regency's high-fat feast is nearly as good as my mum's, and for a fiver it's a deal. Crucially the tea comes in huge navvy-type mugs. None of yer airy-fairy china cups here, mate.

After the rarefied continental cuisine I'd scarfed in Barcelona last week, the Regency provided a welcome touch of earthiness. Patrons included workmen on their extended tea breaks - resplendent in reflective orange jackets - office workers and a few curiosity-seekers like me.

The hearty atmosphere is delightfully offset by the classical music which comes wafting over the cafe's hi-fi. As I was expertly fashioning a bacon, egg and tomato sarnie, Beethoven's violin concerto provided a relaxing, almost transcendent accompaniment.

Although we Brits like our breakfast lip-smackingly greasy with lashings of hot char to wash it down, we're a cultured lot, too. To us there's nothing the least bit incongruous about fried eggs and Faure or sausages and Salieri.

In fact I have it on excellent authority that the great classicists were mighty partial to a fry-up. Beethoven couldn't play a note until he'd scoffed his bacon and eggs, while Brahms banqueted on baked beans and Mozart was mad about mushrooms on toast.

With dark sauce, of course.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The Beatles' London:
Abbey Road Studios and 3 Savile Row

Today I decided to play tourist and fulfil a long-time ambition by visiting two Beatles landmarks: Abbey Road Studios and 3 Saville Row.

Abbey Road Studios

Finding Abbey Road is easy. Leave the London Underground at St. John`s Wood Station. You'll find Grove End Road directly in front of you.

Walk for about seven minutes and you come to a war monument in the middle of an intersection. Turn sharp right and gasp! there you are! face to face with the most famous road crossing in the world.

You must be either insane or a confirmed Beatlemaniac - not that there's any difference - to be excited by a road crossing. But I must admit I was quite overcome with emotion for a minute. In fact tears streamed down my face as I stood on this spot.

It's no exaggeration to say that - musically and culturally - The Beatles have meant everything to me and changed my life in ways I cannot begin to describe. They represent one of the premier cultural experiences of my life and have given me more pure joy than any other performer or artist.

There are those who will scoff at that, but there it is.

Thus it was that - trying to pretend I wasn't silly - I walked across the famous crosswalk a few times to convince myself I was really there.
Just a few yards past the crossing is the legendary Abbey Road Studios where The Beatles cut most of their classic songs. This was the crucible which produced There's a Place, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, She Said, She Said, Day in the Life, and Hey Jude. Those songs are almost holy writ to a fan like me, as they are to millions of others.

Together with a few other Beatlemaniacs I stood and gaped at the nondescript white building. Seeing it is something like visiting Picasso's studio or Shakespeare's birthplace. I recognized the steps leading up to the studios from old interviews I'd seen with Lennon and McCartney.

Unfortunately there are no organized tours of the studios and entry is forbidden. Too bad. What I would have given for ten minutes in Studio One, where the band recorded.

As I left Abbey Road I had a lump in my throat and I gave thanks for the huge effect The Beatles had on my life. When I was five years old their debut album made a cataclysmic impact on me. Now I'm pushing fifty and perhaps the last music I ever hear will be a Beatles song. The circle will be complete and that'll be fine by me.

Savile Row

There isn't much to see at 3 Savile Row, but this was the original headquarters of Apple Records, background to Allen Klein's hostile take over of the Beatles in 1969 and the point where the split between McCartney and Lennon/Harrison/Starr became final. If you want to know all the grisly details, read Peter McCabe and Robert D. Sconfeld's superb Apple to the Core.

The building's frontage has hardly changed over the years, and will be familiar to viewers of The Beatles Anthology series since it features prominently in the episode dealing with the group's breakup. Assorted 'Apple Scruffs' can invariably be seen hanging around outside Number 3 in the hope of catching a glimpse of their heroes.

3 Savile Row is of course the location of the famous rooftop concert which is the band's final live performance and the highlight of the depressing Let it Be movie. The Beatles, Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, James Taylor and others all recorded in the building's basement studio.

Naturally you can't mention Savile Row without referring to tailoring. This is where The Beatles had all their famous suits fashioned by Nutters, the first shop to pioneer 'open' windows. John, Paul and Ringo are all wearing Nutters' suits on the cover of Abbey Road.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Catalan Meditation

Unknown Guitar Player
Reco de la Calma, Sitges, Catalonia

The picturesque cultural oasis of Sitges lies 35km south-west of Barcelona. It' enjoys a stunning location, between the Parc Natural del Garraf and the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean.

Sitges is a modern resort with a sizable foreign and gay contingent, and also has a a fascinating history. To wander its ancient streets is to be transported to a time when Spain and England wrestled for dominance of the seas. In the 1900s Sitges became a center of Spanish painting and during the Franco dictatorship was the only counter cultural center on the mainland.

Sitges was the perfect place for my friend and I to downshift after two hectic days of overindulgence in Barcelona. On a gloriously sunny day we wandered its streets and soaked up its historic atmosphere.

As we entered Reco de la Calma we were greeted by the gorgeous sound of acoustic guitar reverberating off the stone walls. A local guitar player had installed himself on the steps of a local church and was entertaining day trippers with exquisite Spanish-inflected versions of familiar tunes.

As a boy I would have sold my soul to be a Spanish guitar player. Thrilling to the marvellous Manitas de Plata, I felt there was no higher calling than to be a flamenco prodigy. Nothing seemed more romantic or life affirming.

As I've become older this feeling has remained. Through the years I've continued to admire flamenco geniuses like the traditionalist master Paco Pena and the iconoclastic Paco de Lucia.

As the unknown artist performed his Catalan meditations, I closed my eyes and felt the sun kiss my face. The fantasist in me came to the fore, and I imagined myself as a flamenco master, entertaining the drunken punters of a boozy Spanish bodega, quaffing vino tinto and tearing off one dizzying rasgueado after another.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guitar Great

Live: Martin Simpson
Taylor John's House, Coventry, UK

It's a long while since I visited my home town of Coventry, famous for Lady Godiva, The Special AKA and The Willie Carr Donkey Kick. But my return last night was made memorable thanks to a fabulous performance by Martin Simpson, one of the world’s leading folk guitarists.

Taylor John's House is a small, friendly venue and we were lucky to see Martin in such an intimate space. Some hilarity and confusion ensued as my friend - Jon Taylor - asked the door woman for our tickets.

Although he is a guitar wizard, effortlessly unleashing torrents of notes from his fretboard, Simpson's technical accomplishment never distracts from the soulfulness of his renditions of blues, traditional folk, and his own highly individualistic compositions. A particular highlight was a fabulous version of Dylan's Buckets of Rain.

It's not for nothing that readers of Acoustic Guitar magazine voted Martin Simpson number 12 in the world in 2005, nor that his superb Prodigal Son was consistently voted one of the best albums of 2007.

Martin is a charming and entertaining raconteur, delighting the crowd with amusing anecdotes between songs. I can also testify - following a brief chat with the great man - that he's an incredibly likable and approachable chap.

I normally avoid meeting my musical heroes for fear of disappointment, but in this case I was mighty glad to make the acquaintance of one of Britain's guitar greats.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Favorite Aunt

Line Dancing
Camarthen, Wales

From ice skating to Olympic floor exercises, from Jazzercise to synchronized swimming, music and fitness are inextricably linked.

Another example is the worldwide phenomenon of Line Dancing. With its roots in country and western line-dance, it's a communal activity which involves groups of all ages and sizes who gather to learn steps of varying complexity. These are performed to the accompaniment of different musical styles - country, pop, techno and others.

The most popular routines become enshrined as line-dancing standards, and are then performed by different groups across the globe.

Naturally this kind of activity requires a leader and choreographer, and my favorite aunt teaches several line dance classes near her home in the beautiful rolling countryside of West Wales.

My aunt has always been the positive, active type and she's carved out quite a niche for herself as Wales' line-dancing answer to Bob Fosse.

I doubt you'll ever see me in a line dance - I've never been much of a joiner - but there's no doubt it's a great way to socialize and stay in shape.

Proof of this lies in the fact that, at 66, my aunt looks sensational, with a figure most women half her age would die for!

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The Choir
Ely Cathedral
Cambridgeshire, England

On today's rainy spring afternoon my mother and I headed to rural Cambridgeshire to visit Ely cathedral, the Romanesque/Gothic masterpiece which is one of the architectural wonders of medieval England.

The great church sits imposingly atop the gentle slopes which lead away from the surrounding flatlands. As one approaches the monument, one feels - both literally and figuratively - that one is ascending to a higher plane, an effect no doubt intended by the builders of Ely.

It's a scene which I suppose has changed little in 1100 years, from the time when the cathedral first dominated the surrounding fens and the lives of the peasants who tilled the fields.

I doubt there was anything idyllic about rural existence in those far-off days. It must have been a hard life, subject to the whims of church, nature and political machinations.

Indeed, as I stood dwarfed by the magnificence of Ely, I pondered the bitter irony which lies encased in its ancient stone and mortar.

Although a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and engineering allowed cathedrals to be built, the purpose of these great buildings was not to open the minds of the populace to the revelations of science. It was rather to enslave them through a crippling fear of god and feudal dictate.

Few doubted the literal truth of a vengeful god, devils, angels and other man-made myths. Ignorance of the facts of the universe allowed superstition and blind obedience to hold sway.

And if I'd been a medieval peasant I'm sure I'd have thought no differently.

But if we're not careful, it's rather too easy to scorn the ways of the past, and the church did offer a guiding philosophy to its flock.

This is revealed with startling clarity when you immerse yourself in the sacred music of the period, as my mother and I discovered to our deep joy.

We were lucky enough to enter Ely as the cathedral choir was practicing for the approaching Evensong service. The works they performed - compositions by Byrd and Tallis - soared into the heavens, and American tourists and British weekenders alike stood entranced by their incantations.

There is surely no sound as heavenly as that of the human voice, reverberating around the walls of a great cathedral in praise of the mystery of creation.

As a boy, I sang male soprano with my school choir, performing hymns, madrigals and oratorios by Wesley and Handel. To participate in such music, whether as a listener or performer, is a holy, uplifting experience.

Though I'm not a religious believer, during my time at Ely I was overcome with wonder for the very fact of existence. I gave thanks for the charitable and communal impulses which Anglicanism has long engendered in Britain's national character.

It was this tenuous continuity between past, present and future which the cathedral choir expressed in its moving rendering of the liturgy, and I remembered - a little to my surprise - how glad I am to be an Englishman, to possess by accident of birth a connection with a long and colorful history.

As the choir ended its practice, my mother and I left the great church. It was then that the rain clouds suddenly parted, and we laughed and smiled at one another with joy and gratitude.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spinal Cracker

The Beatles (Rock)
iPod choice: Come Together (Apple, 1969)

Part 1: Manifesto

If it now seems dangerous - or even quaint - to imagine that getting stoned and screwing your brains out could free your mind, relatively few hippie intellectuals doubted the fact in 1969.

Rejection of the traditional mores underpinning western culture was a prerequisite for membership of the counter-cultural elite. And though the victories of feminism and social egalitarianism were necessary and crucial, the downside of bohemian radicalism was the relativistic "me first" attitude which continues to permeate western society.

The Beatles, above all other artists, reflected and signposted such changes, and John Lennon's spacey, stoned Come Together - the celebrated opener on The Fabs' swansong, Abbey Road - marks the point where the druggy idealism of the sixties gave way to the radicalism of the following decade.

The sound palette of Come Together is one of the most fantastic in The Beatles canon: the hypnotic, almost analgesic rhythm of Ringo's drums, McCartney's brilliantly evocative bass and piano, Lennon's urgent vocal and narcotic double-tracked guitar solo. All in all, it's a stupefying concoction.

The apparent nonsense of the song's free association lyric is anything but. Rather it's an oblique, ambivalent ode to sexual politics, hipsterism and self-mythology.

The song isn't entirely successful in challenging its audience to unchain their imaginations through the liberation of language. Lennon had already achieved this to more stunning effect in his classic I Am the Walrus.

The clincher comes when Lennon concludes: "One thing I can tell you is you got to be free."

A summation of sixties pop libertarianism, that's the only manifesto you're ever gonna need.

Part 2: Pain and Pleasure
Dynasty Barber Shop and Massage, Taipei, Taiwan

One of the most intriguing lines in Come Together is its famous "spinal cracker" lyric. It supposedly refers to the traditional practice of Japanese women walking on their husbands' backs to loosen their spines.

I had the opportunity to experience this technique on a recent visit to Taipei. As I lay prone I was pummelled and stretched by a gifted and by no means diminutive Taiwanese masseuse.

Over the next 60 minutes I discovered muscles I didn't know I had and my friends were greatly amused by the groans emanating from my pulverized frame. If you ever find yourself in Taipei, allow me to recommend Dynasty Barber Shop and Massage for a heady combination of pain and pleasure.