Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The 3rd Avenue crawl

It's a curious facet of Manhattan's development that the richest bar-crawling areas are a couple of blocks in from the shore on each side of the island. You might have thought that the riverfront would be prime residential real estate, but in fact most of the shoreline is dominated by docks, and much of the area immediately inshore is given over to warehouses or other industrial use. The high-tone areas are mostly clustered more towards the middle of the island. Close to the river, it's mostly a bit of a wasteland, not much residential property, and what there is often very low-end. It's on the third block in that you start to find a lot of amenities for the working-class population. And so 3rd Avenue and 9th Avenue are the two best bar strips in the city.

The other week I hooked up with former Beijing drinking crony Dr Manhattan. Since he now works in Manhattan, and indeed near the lower middle reaches of 3rd Avenue, we arranged to meet there for a night of debauch.

On a few of my previous excursions to the Big Apple I had stayed in the Vanderbilt YMCA, which is in Mid-Town, in the upper 40s midway between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The nearest bar I'd discovered on one of those trips, and still one of my favourites in the city, is a no-nonsense Irish boozer called Muldoon's. I therefore nominated that as our initial rendezvous.

Muldoon's is, I believe, unlike so many bars of its kind in America, genuinely Irish rather than faux Irish. The bar staff always sound pretty authentic to me, anyway (and on this occasion, one of them was a dazzlingly pretty blonde girl). And it has something of the subdued, occasionally funereal, atmosphere of pubs in the 'old country', where people slump solitary at the bar, silently contemplating their own thoughts. If you feel yourself in need of a spell of gloomy introspection (and I often do!), this is just the place. It is pretty much the perfect template of a bar for me: a long narrow space, low light, lots of aged wooden fittings, and a LONG wooden bar - just the right height for leaning. 

There's another fairly similar - but rather livelier - Irish bar called O'Neill's a block or two further north, which often has some great traditional musicians playing there. Alas, I didn't get to go there this time because the Doctor was lobbying for us to wander southward. He had his heart set on a bit of country/bluegrass music at a place about sixteen blocks away, but... that's a modest walk, and it was intermittently spotting with rain, so we had to duck into another bar en route to break our journey. There were many to choose from, but I plumped for the endearingly named Black Sheep, another Irish joint, uncannily similar to Muldoon's inside: LONG bar, good selection of Irish whiskies, tasty bar meals, and a chirpy, fresh-off-the-boat barmaid (although a sceptical Dr M wondered if she was in fact a resting actress who was merely putting the accent on; I am reasonably convinced it was authentic). Its distinctive quirk is that the bar top (which must be a good 25 yards long) is entirely covered with 'pennies' (1-cent coins); trying to estimate how many coins there are in total is quite a challenge to booze-fuddled powers of arithmetic.

I could quite happily have spent a longer part of the evening there - the curly fries were excellent and the barmaid was charming - but Dr Manhattan would have his music, so we pressed on to the Rodeo Bar at the corner of 27th Street, an expansive C&W joint that I think my friend The British Cowboy would approve of. Most of the space is given over to a very decent looking BBQ restaurant (although I didn't have a chance to sample the food), but the narrower left-hand side of the establishment is more of a bar, with the long room focused on a small stage at the far end. There are live music shows every night, mostly of a country-ish flavour, and the majority of them FREE. The Dr and I were fortunate enough to catch the excellent Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band (you can check out some of their music here). I found myself becoming rather smitten with their gorgeous singer Melissa, but I gather she's married  to - or divorced from?? - one of the other band members, or something....

The most memorable thing about the Rodeo, though, is that in the music bar section their bar is actually... a chuck wagon. Yep, they have rolled a complete (well, they might have removed the engine) mobile taco stall into the bar to dispense their drinks from - check it out.

This had been a thoroughly excellent evening: three great bars, cheap drinks, superb free music - not a single disappointment. Ah, but it wasn't over yet. Oh no, this is Dr Manhattan we're talking about....

Monday, July 30, 2012

Keeping tabs

The other day (don't ask me how!) I happened across this handy online booze consumption calculator. If you input the type and brand of booze you were drinking (from a fairly extensive range of standards; though you may find yourself ticking 'other' a lot of the time - especially in China!), the approximate size of the measure, and how many of them you knocked back, it will tell you how many 'units' of alcohol that amounts to... and how many calories.

It's the latter I'm more concerned about at the moment. My weight has ballooned over 220lbs in the last year or so, and despite two months of healthy living (mostly very light beer and food consumption, lots of fresh fruit and veggies, daily exercise), those extra pounds are refusing to drop off again.

For most of my adult life my weight was uncannily stable at or a little below 190lbs. It started creeping up a bit at the end of the 1990s, but was still only about 195lbs when I moved to China in 2002. Middle-age spread and cheap Yanjing beer soon started getting the better of me here, but I was still fairly easily managing to keep my weight in a 200-205lb range until recently. Something BAD has happened to my metabolism!

But I am not going to take this lying down (tempting as that is, when you're a fat bastard!). Oh no! I am going to get back down to 195lbs... if it kills me!

Bon mot for the week

"We first make our habits, and then our habits make us."

John Dryden (1631-1700)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A culinary 'Unsuitable Role Model'

How time flies! It's nearly three years since the great Keith Floyd passed on, and I've been meaning to do an Unsuitable Role Models post in his honour ever since - and continually forgetting to get down to it.

Floyd was one of the great British eccentrics, an intermittently successful restaurateur who, in early middle age, fortuitously found his ideal milieu on television. Long before cooking became hip - essential, unavoidable - on our screens, he had one of the first really successful TV cookery shows in the UK, starting in the early or mid-80s (round about the time I started at university) and continuing for a decade or more. He amply conveyed his passion for food - and drink - but with a sincerity and an absence of pretension that few of his successors have been able to match.

He played up to his reputation of being an avid drinker, almost invariably having a glass of wine in hand when on camera and making it a running joke that he favoured recipes which called for a glass or two, so that he would have an excuse to glug the rest of the bottle himself while he cooked. On more than a few occasions, he appeared to become significantly stotious during the filming of a sequence - although he may have been play-acting just a bit.

The other distinctive feature of his shows was that he shunned the studio, choosing instead often rather challenging outdoor locations: half-way up a windswept Welsh mountain, a barbecue pit in the middle of the jungle, the galley of a storm-tossed trawler. And there didn't seem to be too much of the 'cheating' that we now regard as inevitable in such shows: the cooking was filmed in extended takes, and 'mistakes' were left in (his teasing monologues with his never-seen-or-heard cameramen ["Clive", "Richard"], constantly chivvying them to try to keep up with things in these hectic and demanding environments, was another of his endearing trademarks). It was seat-of-the-pants stuff, almost always a bit chaotic and occasionally threatening to spiral out of control; but the food always looked pretty damn good at the end of it all. For sheer bloody entertainment value, I don't think there's been a better cookery show before or since.

I hardly watched any TV in my late teens and early twenties, but Floyd was essential viewing for my generation. He was a terrific populariser of good eating, and he was the epitome of joie de vivre.

Here he is cooking up some beef...

And here making a fruity cocktail...

He had good taste in music, too. As the theme tune for his series on the BBC he chose The Stranglers' demented instrumental Waltzinblack.

When he died in September 2009, The Guardian rounded up a nice selection of tributes to the great man from today's celebrity chefs.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Del Ray crawl

Del Ray is the area of Alexandria, VA, between the historic central district of Old Town and just-over-the-river-from-DC Arlington. The main drag of Mount Vernon Avenue - which puffs itself with the endearing slogan "Where Main St still exists" - has become increasingly gentrified over the past decade: it's now awash with upmarket food shops and trendy little restaurants and coffee houses. On my last two or three visits to the States, Del Ray has been my primary crash, so I have got to know the 'hood modestly well.

The one thing it doesn't have, alas, is a bar bar.

The closest to it is the Evening Star Bar & Restaurant; but that has rather more of an emphasis on the restaurant part. It also has some problems of identity: the separate bar area at the back is supposedly called The Majestic, and I gather the upstairs bar (which occasionally hosts live music, I'm told, although it doesn't seem to have either the space or the acoustics for it) has recently been designated the No. 9 Room. Although these are reasonably distinct spaces, they are all interconnected, and this attempt to give them a differentiated branding strikes me as half-assed, fatuous, futile. I think most of the punters concur; few people ever seem to use, or even to be aware of the alternate names. I am afraid it was The Star that I (anonymously) vilified on my previous visit three years ago as painfully loud. I think a redecoration in the downstairs bar has improved the tinny, sound-magnifying acoustics slightly, but this is still a major problem with the place (and the upstairs area is just as bad; which seems to me to be a deterioration from the last time I was there!). It's also usually uncomfortably crowded. As the restaurant's reputation grows, it seems its custom is more and more spilling over into the bars - making the clientele progressively younger and more well-heeled. Many of the long-term regulars I'd met on earlier visits are starting to grow disenchanted with the place and to cultivate alternate drinking venues.

The favoured new venue for my buddy The British Cowboy and many of his cronies is DRP (the Del Ray Pizzeria, or 'The Derp', as its regulars know it). The Cowboy, of course, knows the staff, he knows the crowd, he likes that they have several TVs around the place showing sport. The food is OK too; well, some of it. However, it is primarily a restaurant, which tends to undercut the 'bar' feel: it is noisy, overlit, and doesn't have that much room at the bar.

I much preferred the Pork Barrel BBQ just a few doors along. Again, its restaurant status is slightly offputting, but this is a much less troubling factor than it is at The Derp. It seems not often to be all that busy on weeknights, and it tends to attract more couples and singles than families (and they often elect to sit at the bar to eat). The room is way overlit for my taste, but it is dominated by a LONG bar - which makes it feel like as much as or more of a bar than a restaurant. Moreover, they have all their draught beer options clearly displayed on a pillar in the middle of the bar on which the taps are mounted (unlike The Star or The Derp, where you have to hunt down a menu to find out what's available). Very good food (I think; The Cowboy, something of a BBQ queen since his days in Nashville, is not entirely convinced) and very good beer. And a very good barman! Though I suspect what appealed to me most about the place was the absence of crowds. I don't get on well with crowds. I suspect the place is fairly new, still establishing its reputation; the next time I visit, I fear it will be just as jammed out as everywhere else on that strip.

These are three very reasonable options for an evening's drinking; and, if the crowd or the ambience is unamenable in one of them, the other two are within a minute or two's walk. It is unfortunate, though, that there is - as yet - no proper bar in this area. For that, I have to hike 25 minutes or so over to Old Town.

HBH 296

Forgotten pleasure,
Tradition almost vanished:
Beer that tastes like beer.

I got a pint of Old Speckled Hen on draught last weekend, and it brought on the swoons. Such a pleasant change after weeks of suffering the 'craft beer' affectation of the Americans, which has got way out of hand in the last few years. It seems that every bar there now has 20 or 30 different brands on offer, almost none of which you've ever heard of, and almost none of which taste much like beer. I came across one that bore the name 'Blueberry'. I was assuming that this was just a quaint name the brewery had adopted for itself, but the barmaid assured me that it actually tasted of blueberries. Blueberries - all kinds of berries, all kinds of fruit - have their place; but that place is in muffins, pies, and cheescakes, NOT in beer.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's my party - or is it?

I posted this over on Froogville the other day, because I have a strand there on my more memorable dreams; but the content of this one seems rather more appropriate to The Barstool, so I'll share it here as well.

I've always been morbidly fascinated with mental derangement and distortions of consciousness, and particularly with amnesia and other disruptions of accurate memory. However, being far too nervous a soul ever to have experimented with hard drugs (I did drop acid in San Francisco once, but that's another story), my exploration of this strange territory has been purely imaginative - well, apart from the occasional morning-after memory wipe induced by excess of alcohol.

So, it is particularly difficult for me to trace the origin of the uncommonly vivid dream I had a few days ago. The emotional wellsprings are obvious enough - anxiety (the [probably futile] quest for a new Chinese visa is doing my head in at the moment), wistfulness/wish-fulfilment (ah, material comfort: yes, that would be nice!), disorientation (where the hell am I really? what is going on here?), a desire for escape/oblivion - but the specifics of it confound me rather.

I was throwing a large party in my apartment. This appeared to be an apartment, and indeed a neighbourhood (maybe even a city), I was not particularly familiar with, had perhaps only just arrived in. (There was a vague sense at times that this event was supposed to be set during the time I was a legal intern in Toronto, but this did not seem a significant factor, and the dream bore no relation at all to my actual experience there.)

I was in a very disordered mental state: perhaps anxious, perhaps jet-lagged, perhaps a bit feverish; perhaps just extravagantly drunk (there was a point early on where someone made me an enormous pina colada, which I drank very swiftly); but I had a feeling that I was inexplicably losing control, was possibly under the influence of some drug or other - I wondered if someone might have spiked one of my drinks, slipped me a 'Mickey Finn'.

And in this state of relaxed befuddlement, it didn't at first bother me too much that the party just kept getting bigger - not only in terms of the number of people attending, but in the space we were using. I was pretty sure that it had started off in my apartment, but it had somehow migrated into neighbours' apartments, until we had seemingly taken over an entire floor of the building. I started wandering from room to room, seemingly without end; and the rooms themselves kept getting bigger, until I found people serving cocktails in huge halls.

Eventually, I started getting worried by this, realised that I could no longer be in my apartment, or even in my apartment building. What was going on? Oh my - it appeared we had crashed the City Museum and were having the party there.

Now, what does all of that mean, Mr Freud?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The King Street crawl

I was in America for three weeks or so at the start of July, mostly in Alexandria, VA, just over the river from Washington, DC. I didn't go out drinking all that much (by my egregious standards), but there were half a dozen or so notable evenings I feel I should commemorate over the next few days.

King Street is the main drag of Old Town, the high tone, 'olde worlde' enclave of historic housing in the heart of Alexandria. Stretching over a mile from the river to the Metro station, it has become fairly solidly lined with boutiques, restaurants... and bars.

Unfortunately, most of those bars are expensive, and a bit shit. And most of the ones I liked seem to have closed or been elaborately revamped in recent years. On that whole strip, I think there are now only three bars I would ever bother to go to; bars that, fortuitously, are within just a few yards of each other; and bars which I happen to have known for a good many years now, since they are just around the corner from where my very good friends in Old Town used to live (though they moved nearer the river about five or six years ago).

The opening port of call - and the unlikeliest, from my point of view - is a place called Vermillion. The place invokes a lot of my hot button prejudices. It doesn't sound like a bar: that's a name for a wine bar or a restaurant. It doesn't look like a bar: its twee - and uncannily inconspicuous - frontage gives the impression that it's likely to be a tea shop or an antiques emporium (and you can't really see very much inside through the one small window in the isolated front room of the bar). And it is a bit yuppified. But... it is properly dark within; the staff are very good; the drinks and food are excellent; and it's surprisingly reasonably priced (particularly during happy hour!). The bar is rather cheesily ornate (we joked that it's the kind of bar you might fantasise about installing in your basement), and it's not the kind of place where you'd sit at the bar; definitely more a plush-booth-with-a-coterie-of-well-heeled-friends kind of hangout. I don't get on so well with the 'well-heeled' thing; but I don't hate the place. For a group meet-up, it's fine; but it doesn't work for the solo drinker. And, for me, it doesn't have any ambience.

Luckily, it is only one or two doors away from the Tiffany Tavern, one of the oldest established bars in the area, and a basic, downhome, mom&pop-owned neighbourhood boozer (I was sad to learn that the old Greek guy I'd met behind the bar on a number of previous occasions passed away a year or two ago; his widow is now keeping the place going on her own): good burgers, good draught beer, and a really LONG wooden bar (the main reason I tend to love American bars so much!). It also has a long tradition as a focus for the local music scene, with very good acoustic open mic events almost every night, and a decent band on Fridays and Saturdays (the sign in the window boasts "The best burgers and bluegrass in town", and it seems a reasonable claim).

And just over the road from the Tiffany is the Rock-It Grill (one of the very first bars I ever celebrated on here, nearly 6 years ago). The Rock-It is bland and modern and too spacious, lacking in obvious charm - but it does have a distinct personality. My previous experiences of it had mostly been during the daytime, when it's not too busy (allowing plenty of opportunity to flirt with the invariably rather cute barmaids) and the happy hour tariff is in force. By night, it is dramatically transformed: much larger and more raucous crowds flock to it - it reminds me at times of Bob's Country Bunker in the Blues Brothers film. Karaoke has become the key draw there, but the standard - mercifully - is generally quite high. Blue-collar America in the raw: occasionally a tad intimidating, but mostly rather fun.

Any one of these bars can provide you with a very entertaining - though each very different! - night out. Combining all three of them in one evening is probably a bit excessive... but I just couldn't resist.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"New roads: new ruts."

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (33)

We haven't had one for a while, and this - despite my not knowing any of the lyrics, much less what they might mean - has all the requisite elements of a great stomp-along pub tune (with occasional burbling, gurgling, and shouting in lieu of being able to join in with the words): catchy tune, boisterous attitude, and competitive acceleration towards the end. As far as I know, it is just called 'Drinking Song', and it is a traditional Mongolian party tune which has become the regular showstopper for Beijing-based Mongol folk-rockers Hanggai.

Does this mean I am getting nostalgic for The Jing? Well, maybe just a little. I'm not in any rush to get back for another month or so, though; not until after the shitty summer weather - the stifling humidity, the choking smogs, the torrential downpours - has begun yielding to the clearer skies and less intense heat of early autumn.

And here's an even better version, in which they are accompanied by the Catalan band La Pegatina, who visited Beijing last year.

Friday, July 20, 2012

HBH 295

A month of poor sleep:
Tiredness heaps up ballast.
Aloft never more.

Too much travelling, and a long stretch of sleeping - or trying to - on sultry nights in un-air-conditioned rooms, or on rock-hard beds, or in the seats of planes and buses... it's all rather dramatically caught up with me now. Even before I left New York, I had been fighting an increasingly powerful inclination to stay in bed ALL DAY; so, it's not classical jet lag; it's just accumulated exhaustion. Well, I hope it's that, and not something worse; I've hardly been able to keep my eyes open for the past few days. [I was thinking more about my spirits in that last line, not renouncing aviation!]

Monday, July 16, 2012


The 'Leaving Party' is probably a somewhat overdone genre in expat communities. Particularly so in Beijing, I would venture.

There is a peculiarly high degree of impermanence and uncertainty about our tenure here. Every time someone takes a holiday, we sense there's a chance they won't be coming back, that some bolt-from-the-blue - an unexpected job offer, a new love affair, or just the sudden, stunning realisation/recollection that pretty much everywhere else in the world is nicer than here - will abruptly deflect their lives into a new path.

Hence, we tend to have leaving parties every time we go away for more than a couple of weeks. I once had three leaving parties prior to my departure on my summer holidays.

Sometimes the rupture seems more definite, more violent, more likely to be permanent. Visas occasionally get cancelled for the most trivial infractions, or for none at all; or they simply expire, and, with the winds of official xenophobia momentarily blowing more strongly against us, we decide that it would be too much hassle or expense to try to renew them again. After a few weeks or months, we may relent, re-apply for a visa, and return once more. The new jobs and new love affairs, or the hopes of finding such, often fail to pan out as well. Even people who've gone through a definitive moment of China Meltdown, and swear that they can't take the pollution, the corruption, the homicidal driving, etc. any more, and that they will never, NEVER return... often change their minds and find themselves coming back for more within six months or so. My friend KP threw a rather extravagant leaving party a few years ago - band, buffet, kiddies' entertainer (well, er, me) - and then realised the very next day that she wasn't quite ready to quit the place after all.

Hence, we tend not to take 'Leaving Parties' all that seriously. We usually suspect that, however much someone insists they're done with China for good, they might very possibly be coming back in a little while.

This is rather where I am at the moment. I have little worthwhile work in China any more; and the prospects there seem to be drying up for me. My visa has expired, and I'm going to face a few hurdles in trying to get another one. When I left at the end of May, I wasn't at all sure if or when I would be coming back. Part of me, at least, has been hoping that I could find a way to avoid coming back (although there are certain logistical problems to be taken care of: books to pack, bank accounts to be cleared out, scores to be settled...); I really feel now that I am done with China.

Thus, my leaving party this year - just under 8 weeks ago - was the biggest, best, and most emotional that I've had, because it did seem as if it might be the last, that there was at least some possibility that this time I really was leaving for good.

I had wanted to write about that party, perhaps compile a Top Five list of the best leaving parties I've had here (there have been quite a few of those summer holiday ones by now). I may get around to that one day. But I can't do it at the moment.

The trouble with such gatherings is that occasionally there's a finality about them that you do not suspect. 

One of my dearest friends during my time in China, one of those who came out to wish me well on that night and helped to make it such a moving and memorable occasion, is no longer with us; he died, suddenly, tragically, just over a week ago. Though I could not have imagined it at the time, that party was the last time I would see him. I am very grateful to have been able to enjoy such a happy last memory of him, but unutterably sad that there will be no more such memories to be added to the history of our friendship.

A funeral service for him should be under way round about now. I am sorry I cannot be there. Here in New York, it is the early hours of the morning, but I am intending to stay up, to share a few silent thoughts with his family and friends, at the funeral and scattered around the world, as we say goodbye to a unique human being, one of the warmest and kindest and most vivacious I have known.  So long, dear friend. You shouldn't have left us so soon.

Bon mot for the week

"Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn't mean the circus has left town."

George Carlin (1937-2008)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

New York, New York

As I heard Tom Waits say on TV the other day:

"You don't have to be 'busy' in New York, because New York is busy for you."


Friday, July 13, 2012

HBH 294

A toast more poignant
Missing friends gone forever
Absence permanent

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Recommended Posts, April-June 2011

A selection of favourites from the middle of last year (a relatively quiet spell on here)...

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 2nd quarter of 2011

1)  Weekend Musical Interlude  -  1st April 2011
Middle Eastern musician Abaji visits Beijing with his amiable style of 'world music'; I offer a micro-review, and a couple of nice YouTube clips of his playing.

2)  Is it really that easy?  -  8th April 2011
An intriguing discovery from a recent holiday in Malaysia: a cheap knock-off 'whisky' with a beguilingly simple recipe.

3)  The Parting Glass  -  9th April 2011
Another in my 'Great Drinking Songs' series: three great versions of the poignant Scots/Irish leaving song.

4)  The Beatles, but not as we know them  -  23rd April 2011
Another musical oddity - a version of Come Together performed by Siberian folk-rock throat-singing band Bugotak.

5)  It's déjà vu all over again  -  25th April 2011
I lose patience with the annual farce of The Beijinger magazine's Bar & Club Awards... and offer up my own shortlist of contenders (not actually bars that I like myself, but the bars which would be appropriate for consideration for such an award). I later nominated some more detailed 'alternative awards' here and here.

The May holiday brings the first of the year's outdoor music festivals in and around Beijing... but I find I'm not enthused this year.

7)  The worst pool tables in the world?  -  12th May 2011
The chance discovery of some spectacularly grotty outdoor pool tables (long a rarity in Beijing) reminds me of some of my earliest experiences of playing pool in China.

8)  HBH 233  -  13th May 2011
One of my better haiku, celebrating the sublime meditativeness sometimes achieved on the long stagger home.

9)  Skipping the Party  -  28th May 2011
This year, I gave the 2 Kolegas Birthday Party a miss. For a long time it was my favourite live music venue in the city, but lately I'd been losing the love.

10)  Saving a tailspin  -  30th May 2011
A really horrible day is surprisingly redeemed by a chain of improbable experiences in the evening - such is Beijing life! (And here's a more thorough example of the sort of fortuitously wonderful day I sometimes enjoy here.)

11)  Wisdom of the Froog  -  7th June 2011
Some more of my insight in the matter of hangovers...

12)  How to hold a music festival (or not)  -  9th June 2011
The new Kama Love Music Festival was - even by Beijing/China standards - one of the most spectacularly ill-organized I have ever experienced. At least it provided me with a template for how one ought to do things right at these events.

13)  More musical magic  -  21st June 2011
I am bewitched by a recital by the lovely Lan Weiwei, a virtuoso of the pipa (Chinese lute), at The Bookworm, and turn up this YouTube video of a masterclass of hers.

14)  Dazed and, er, 'feasted'  -  28th June 2011
A celebration of the superb party which was the inaugural 'dazeFeast one-day music festival at 2 Kolegas (and some thoughts on the superiority - for all concerned - of free gigs).

15)  Mogwai!  -  29th June 2011
My slushy side is revealed by the impromptu rescue of the world's ugliest kitten.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me."

Fred Allen (1894-1956)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Hail to the Duck - Top Five Donald Dunn basslines

Here, as promised last month, is a celebration of the work of one of the all-time great bass players, Donald 'Duck' Dunn, who died in his sleep last month, at the age of 70, while on tour in Japan. 

In the early 1960s Dunn's childhood friend, the guitarist Steve Cropper, invited him to join him in Booker T and The M.G.s, the house band at the studio of the seminal Memphis label Stax Records. The label foundered in the 1970s, but The M.G.s continued to re-form frequently to play live shows, with and without Booker T. Jones, and also a little later became the backbone of The Blues Brothers Band. Steve and Donald made great music together for over fifty years. Although The M.G.s put out a number of albums and singles of their own, their finest work was in defining the Memphis soul sound - playing in relative anonymity behind great artists like Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave (these performers usually had all-black bands supporting them when they played live, but it was The M.G.s - a pioneer of integration in the American music scene - who played on their most famous recordings).

It's a little hard to know which basslines were originated by Duck and which just became associated with him: some of the Stax artists' hits were covers of earlier songs; Stax had complicated relationships with Atlantic and various other record labels, occasionally recording their artists for them, or using them to distribute Stax artists' records; and I've seen differing accounts of when Duck joined The M.G.s - '62, '64, or '65. And some of the songs with which he and Steve Cropper are now most associated were written by other people and first recorded much earlier; for example, She Caught The Katy and Sweet Home Chicago, two of the standout numbers from The Blues Brothers film, were written by Taj Mahal and Robert Johnson respectively.

It's also a little hard to narrow this selection down to just five picks. I may have to do another post on the Duck sometime.

But here goes....

Top Five Basslines played by Donald 'Duck' Dunn

5) Raise Your Hand (Eddie Floyd)
This bassline is rather similar to the one in Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour (a Steve Cropper composition, and recorded, I believe, by Stax, with The M.G.s, but released by Atlantic in 1968), but I think I prefer this version accompanying an anthemic Eddie Floyd song (also co-composed by Cropper) that was later covered by the likes of Janis Joplin. (A wonderful live video, this, with a very young Duck and Steve in the background.)

4) Gimme Some Lovin' (Sam & Dave)
Another one of the highlights of The Blues Brothers film! I didn't discover Sam & Dave's stonking original until some years later.

3)  Can't Turn You Loose (Otis Redding)
Similar (identical?!) to the bassline in The M.G.s' instrumental Time Is Tight (which I posted a great live version of the other day), the opening of this Otis Redding track became known as 'The Blues Brothers Theme'.

2)  Soul Limbo (Booker T and The M.G.s) 
A tough call over the possibly more famous Booker T tune Green Onions, but this irresistibly upbeat number is dear to the hearts of most Englishmen of my age as a result of its being adopted as the theme music for the BBC's coverage of test match cricket in the '70s and '80s.

Ah, but in the top spot, it could only be....

1)  Soul Man (Sam & Dave)
A few days after I inaugurated this Great Basslines series, this track happened to come on in my favourite local bar, 12 Square Metres. I hadn't heard it in years, but after a handful of bars, Mike the barman and I looked at each other with a mixture of amazement and shame that we had overlooked this magical bassline in our review of the field. "Winner!" we sighed, in unison.

Further note:  Shortly after first posting this, I turned up another interesting history of the early days of Stax and of the formation of The M.G.s - well worth a look.

Friday, July 06, 2012

HBH 293

Pleasure grows from need:
A cool drink on a hot day
Slakes more than our thirst.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Time is tight

And ain't that the truth!

I have been hoping to put together a collection of musical highlights from the career of legendary bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn (of Booker T & the M.G.s and Blues Brothers Band fame), who died this May, for the upcoming holiday weekend (7th/8th seems to be when most of the Independence Day shenanigans are going down this year), but... well, I was without Internet altogether last weekend; and I am kind of busy this week - catching up with friends, sampling barbecued food, rekindling my amour fou with beer, and so on.

However, early researches turned up this gem, the all too appropriately named Time Is Tight, one of Booker T & the M.G.s' signature tunes. This is a superb live performance from 1970, opening a concert in Oakland for Creedence Clearwater Revival (the beardy fellows glimpsed  a couple of times mooching in the wings, watching the number slack-jawed with delight, are John Fogerty and co.).

A fuller post of songs in which Duck's bass played a key role will be forthcoming... shortly. For now, sit back and enjoy this.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy 4th July!!

[That reminds me: I really must start doing more exercise.]

Well, gosh, I'm actually in the good ol' US of A for the big holiday this year. Since it's falling in the middle of the week this time around, I suspect most of the barbecues and firework displays and such will be happening on one or both of the adjacent weekends rather than today, but there's bound to be some fun to be had somewhere. In fact, since I'm on an indefinite vacation at the moment, I can party all week long!

I really shouldn't, though. I should lay off the beer and burgers, and start doing some squats and crunches. Should.

Maybe next week.

Enjoy a great Independence Day, my American friends!!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Traffic Report - the blog stats for June

Well, despite being "on the road", I have so far been maintaining my usual - excessive - rate of posting. Having a fast Internet link (and way too much time on my hands) can be corrupting!

Things are likely to be a little slower for the next few weeks while I am in the States, because there is quite a lot of other stuff I am trying to get done while I am here.

Last month, there were 31 posts and nearly 13,000 words on Froogville.

There were 28 posts and around 10,000 words on Barstool Blues.

And that's without counting my huge European Football Championship discussion thread, currently standing at 62 comments and nearly 14,000 words (at least three quarters of of them mine: I had been uncannily accurate in most of my analyses and predictions, right up until the final - when the emergence of SuperSpain took me rather by surprise; I had  been rooting for Italy, who, I felt, had been clearly the best team over the first five games of the tournament).

The other major item of business this past month was my retrospective on the changes I've witnessed in the Beijing bar scene over the past 10 years, a series in three parts (I, II, and III).

New Picks of the Month

Spookily enough, I am currently retracing my footsteps of three years ago - taking exactly the same holiday in exactly the same place (my first major holiday in three years, at that!).

From Froogville I choose this sorry tale of the difficulty so often involved in buying A pair of shoes.

And on The Barstool I nominate this Lovelorn Haiku (there's something particularly dangerous about the way a holiday stirs up the memory!).

Bon mot for the week

"If you're looking to curtail your drinking, don't hang out with musicians."