Birds Above, Mud Below

More rain, more mud. Such is early April this year. At least the grass is green, even where it’s underwater.

The season also means active birds. At about 2 this afternoon, I was out on my deck — but not for a leisurely sit-down, which was pleasantly doable on Saturday — and noticed a lot of birds in the tree overhead. Who sounded like this.

At moments like that, you feel like you’ve stepped into The Birds.

I saw The Birds on television when I was very young, sometime in the late ’60s. I didn’t see it again for more than 20 years, though in the interim I managed to see The 39 Steps, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Marnie, and even Topaz (Hitchcock’s Henry VIII; can’t really recommend it). But I never got around to seeing The Birds as an adult until the early ’90s.

From the first time I remembered the birds pecking a woman to death, and a guy lighting a cigarette and blowing himself up at a gas station, as an indirect victim of the birds. I didn’t remember that Suzanne Pleshette played the pecked woman. Hey! That’s Emily Hartley being offed by birds!

Also, somehow I had it in mind that the movie depicted a worldwide attack by birds. So I was a little surprised to learn upon second viewing that the movie was about a local incident. In the hands of a lesser director — let’s say much lesser, like M. Night Shyamalan — the attack would have indeed been worldwide, and CGI birds would have destroyed the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, just for the birdy thrill of it all. Hitch would have had none of that.

Al Stewart at City Winery

Considering his longstanding love of wine, it seemed fitting that Al Stewart appeared at City Winery in Chicago last Thursday. I don’t share his oenophilia — I like the idea of wine more than wine itself — but I can appreciate an enthusiasm like that. Still, it didn’t matter to me exactly where he was playing. Some time ago, I decided to catch his shows whenever they were convenient to where I happened to be, and anywhere in the Chicago area is close enough.

City Winery is a relatively new place, taking its current form on the near West Side of Chicago only in 2012, and as such, it was a pioneering venue in that part of the city. Just before the music started, an announcer said, “City Winery’s not just a kitschy name. We actually make wine here. All those barrels in the back are filled with our wine, aging for your consumption.”

Carefully stowed barrels dominate the back of City Winery’s music room. The place also has a number of other rooms, including a large restaurant space forming the front of the building. All together, it’s a handsome interior space, characterized by brick walls and barrels and bottles, and the acoustics are good.

I’ve seen Stewart with a band, with sidemen, and by himself. This time, he had a band backing him, the young but talented Empty Pockets. They did a set before Stewart came out, including a fine version of “Fever.” The band’s relative youth caused Stewart to marvel at one point that he was being backed by musicians who weren’t born when the music they were playing came out, but who had the jam down pat anyway. That wouldn’t be quite so remarkable in a classical or jazz context, but I suppose it still is in popular music.

Though not a member of Empty Pockets, sax man (and flautist) Marc Macisso joined Stewart and the band for the concert too. He blew his sax like a man possessed, and did a fine job on the flute as well. On a number of Al Stewart songs, the sax is a defining sound, so it was good Macisso was on hand. He reminded me of the saxophonist who killed it with Stewart during his 1989 Park West concert, who might have been Phil Kenzie (who played on the record Stewart was promoting at the time), though I’m not sure.

The set list for the City Winery concert was different than any other of his that I’ve seen. After a handful of songs — “Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” “Time Passages” — Stewart and the band played all of the songs from the album Year of the Cat in order.

The bonus was Stewart’s usual entertaining patter between the songs. “This brings me to Year of the Cat,” he said by way of introducing the songs. “It was a shock for me. I was an English folk singer playing in coffee bars, and all of the sudden people bought this thing, and I wasn’t sure why. I did begin on a very commercial note by writing a song about an English seafarer from 1591, Richard Grenville. This is a subject that most disco artists at the time were embracing.”

Stewart was being coy. If ever he did a polished commercial record, it was Year of the Cat (except maybe Last Days of the Century, which wasn’t as good). Alan Parsons produced Year, after all. The first song, “Lord Grenville,” does indeed mention Richard Grenville. He of “Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one.” I believe listening to the song in 1976 was the first time I’d ever heard of him.

About the next song — “On the Border,” a favorite of mine since I acquired the record 40 years ago — he said, “I thought we’d continue with mass popular appeal by doing a song about the Basque separatist movement, the crisis in Rhodesia and the fall of the British Empire, and amazingly this one actually made the top 40. I have no idea how that was possible. I can only assume the disk jockeys didn’t listen to the lyrics.”

For a long time I thought the song was about the Spanish Civil War, but I’ll defer to the songwriter. But it doesn’t really have to be about anything so specific.

Regarding “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” — my least favorite cut on the record — he said, “It has far too many words. If I’d known when I was 30 that I’d be singing it when I was 70, I’d have written half as many words.”

Stewart said that his favorite song on the album is “Flying Sorcery,” which was not top 40, but a fine tune all the same. “It concerns two lovers. I turned them into airplanes. They take off from the same airport but they get caught up in a fog bank and land at separate airports. Obviously that means they’re breaking up.”

I never quite took that from the song, but no matter. It has some wonderful lyrics, including, “You were taking off in Tiger Moths/Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day.” The brush-strokes of the day. What a way to describe the sky. It occurs to me that he’s done other songs with aeronautic images (not on Year), such as “The Immelman Turn” and “Fields of France.” (“When Lindy Comes to Town” talks about flight, too, but it’s a particular historic event.)

He mentioned some alternate lyrics to the song “Year of the Cat,” though not in as much detail as recorded on this Songfacts page, based on a 2015 performance. I think everyone was pretty glad that the final lyrics came out the way they did, including Stewart.

On the whole, Al Stewart was in fine fettle on Thursday. His voice is still clear and his guitar playing is impressively energetic for a man of 71. He also seems to enjoy himself thoroughly on stage, which must be why he still tours. Hope he’s got more years yet.

Afternoon Music Selections

Ann and I were in the living room yesterday, and I called up YouTube on the TV. It’s one of the things you can do with a modern TV and wifi. She wasn’t really paying attention, since she had her smaller electronic gizmo handy, so I decided to play “Telstar.” The video shows mostly unrelated space images, but never mind. I thought it might get her attention.

I was right. “What is that?” she asked. Or maybe it was, “What is that?” But I don’t think she really wanted an answer.

After it was over, naturally I had to play the Tornados’ “Robot,” whose Scopitone doesn’t look very good on a bigger screen. But the YouTube poster’s (in 2006!) description is apt: “Tornados rock the twang in a back-woods sci-fi robotic dance party! And then kiss girls!”

She wasn’t impressed by that, either.

If it had occurred to me, I would have dialed up “Trans-Europe Express” (English or German). It’s been 40 years this month since the album of that name was released. Of course I didn’t hear about it at the time, but in the early ’80s, and even then I had no idea that it had been received so well by critics, for what that’s worth. All I know is I’ve always liked it.

When I looked it up recently, I was surprised to learn that the Trans-Europe Express, as in the train system TEE, doesn’t exist any more. Probably because I confused it with the TGV, which is very much still around.

Or maybe I could have played Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” another fun tune from some other zone, or “Beatbox” by Art of Noise. If your children don’t think you’re just a little strange, you aren’t trying very hard.

Thursday’s This & That & Maybe the Other

Last night was clear and below freezing. I was out at about 10 and noticed Orion out for his evening stroll, way off to the southwest. He’ll be gone for the warm months soon.
I suspect I might not ever see him standing on his head again. That was a marvel to those of us used to the northern array of stars.

Years ago, my friend Stephen Humble told me that Turkish, which he studied to entertain himself, had distinct words for “this” and “that” but also “the other.” I’ve never verified that. I don’t think I will. Absolute certainty about small things is overrated. I overrate it myself.

Here’s one way, among so very many, to realize how little you really know: watch a few episodes of Only Connect. Then again, some of the clues are like those given in crossword puzzles sometimes, so vague as to be worthless. At least that’s why I believe I’ve never had much use for crosswords.

For something completely different, listen to a few songs by the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. I like that name. Apparently they had their moment in Athens, Ga., in the early ’90s. Their sound reminds me of some of the live music in Nashville in the mid-80s, which inspires a touch of nostalgia.

Today I read that there aren’t any Goodyear Blimps any more. Not really. Goodyear now markets itself with semirigid dirigibles, which will be called blimps anyway. I would ride in a semirigid dirigible, certainly, but that isn’t quite the same as a blimp, is it?

Iolanthe

Snow last night, first time it’s stuck in quite a while. But only a few inches, not like the East Coast.

This year the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co., a nonprofit based in Hyde Park that does performances one weekend of the year at the University of Chicago’s handsome Mandell Hall, produced Iolanthe. I have fond memories of the company’s Yeomen of the Guard, which Lilly and I saw two years ago, so we all went on Friday (except Lilly, whose spring break hasn’t started yet).

img462Like last time, we ate at Salonica’s first. The face on the telephone pole is still down the street, on the way to the theater.

The show was just as much fun as Yeomen. More, since I knew some of the songs better, including everyone’s favorite lord-marching-trumpets-braying number, which saw a mellifluous chorus of lords spill out from the stage and into the aisles and back, and the renowned patter song about insomnia and the weird dreams of shallow and disturbed sleep.

According to The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian C. Bradley, parts of which are online, “[Gilbert] had, in fact, experimented with the metre later used for the nightmare song in a poem entitled ‘Sixty-Three and Sixty-Four,’ which appeared in Fun in 1864 and which began:

Oh, you who complain that the drawing’s insane, or too much for your noodles have found it.
But listen a minute, I’ll tell you what’s in it — completely explain and expound it.

An earlier poem by Gilbert, ‘The Return from My Berth,’ which appeared in Punch in October 1864, gives a more lurid account of a Channel crossing:

The big Channel steamer is rolling,
Frenchmen around me are bilious and fat
And prone on the floor are behaving unheedingly,
It’s a ‘sick transit,’ but never mind that!

Matthan Ring Black was in fine form with the patter, and the rest of his Lord Chancellor part. Everyone else did very well, but I was especially taken with Claire DiVizio, who did the Fairy Queen, and David Govertsen, who not only amused everyone with Private Willis’ single song, but stood perfectly still in the lobby in his bright red guard uniform as the audience filed in. Perhaps that’s a G&S tradition I don’t know about, but in any case he was there.

Private Willis also got the biggest laugh of the evening:

That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!

Of course, there’s Victorian context to that, but a modern one as well.

Yuriko liked it, and Ann, who’s developing a taste for musical theater, said she enjoyed the show a lot. I never had such a taste as a teenager, though I did (mostly) enjoy the successive senior plays put on at my high school toward the end of each school year, all of which happened to be musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, The Mikado, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story.

One more thing, which if I knew, I’d forgotten: Iolanthe apparently inspired Chief Justice William Rehnquist to add gold stripes to his robe in 1995. Guess he decided that a powdered wig as well would be a bit much.

Thursday Flotsam

I think I was in the 8th grade when I learned the difference between flotsam and jetsam. Mr. Allen’s English class. He was firm in his belief that you should learn things in school. I suppose most teachers feel that way, but he was particularly adamant. Once a wiseacre named Tim asked Mr. Allen why anyone had to learn what he was teaching. “Because if you don’t know it, you’ll be ignorant,” was his answer.

Saw La La Land recently. It was everything it needed to be. Namely, skillfully made and visually appealing light entertainment, with an especial fine use of the Griffith Observatory as a setting, and an ending a bit above the usual formula. A lot else has been written about it, of course. Endless commentary. As far as I’m concerned, that’s overthinking the matter.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations weren’t right about everything, but I think they had a healthy take on song-and-dance movies. Mostly light entertainment, though there was the song that was just as powerful a weapon as any cannon or battleship in the First World War.

Speaking of war, after posting about the evacuation of Fort Moultrie on December 26, 1860, I found the digital version of The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies to see if Maj. Anderson’s telegram was indeed the first item in that sprawling compendium. It is.

I was amused by the second item, also a telegram, dated December 27.

Major Anderson, Fort Moultrie:
Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning of this report.
— J.B. Floyd, Secretary of War

Or as Sec. Floyd might have said privately, “The deuced you say! He did what?” Three days later, Floyd resigned as Secretary of War, and is remembered — when he’s remembered at all — for suspicious behavior in that office, at least as far as the Union was concerned, and as an incompetent Confederate general.

General Floyd, the commanding officer, who was a man of talent enough for any civil position was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one. He was further unfitted for command for the reason that his conscience must have troubled him and made him afraid. As Secretary of War, he had taken a solemn oath to maintain the Constitution of the United States and uphold the same against all enemies. He had betrayed that trust.
— Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

Recommended eatery in Charleston: Bluerose Cafe.

Bluerose Cafe

I started looking for dinner a bit late on a Friday night, and went to one place I’d found on Google maps. It was jammed, and more importantly, so was its parking lot. I went to my second choice. It too was full. Facing the possibility of fast food, which I didn’t really want, I headed back toward to hotel, when I noticed the Bluerose. Plenty of parking there.

The restaurant wasn’t packed either. In fact, at about a half hour before closing, only one table was occupied, with a fellow eating at a counter, and a hostess/waitress behind the counter. The place was simply decorated, but not drab, and the longer I looked around, the more I started noticing Irish touches, such as the sign that said, Céad Míle Fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes).

I sat at the counter as well, and the man eating there said, “I’ll get you something as soon as I’m finished. I haven’t had a chance to eat all day.”

He had a distinct Irish brogue. Turned out he was Denis O’Doherty, the proprietor. I told him not to hurry. We talked a bit, and he told me that he’d come to the United States a good many years ago, living in Boston quite a while, but in Charleston for the last 13 years or so, running the Bluerose. People get around.

I ordered the pan fried flounder before too long, and Mr. O’Doherty went back to the kitchen, which is visible from the counter, to prepare it. While he was at work on that, a woman came in and ordered some food to go, and talked a while with Denis as she sat at the counter. A regular customer. I got the feeling that the place had a lot of regular customers.

He didn’t let the talk distract him too much, because when I got my fish, it was superb. Which was the exact word I used when he asked how the fish was. Sometimes, when it comes to finding good food on the road — even in the age of Yelp and Tripadvisor and all that ya-ya — you just have to get lucky.

Cricket in the Northwest ’Burbs

On Saturday as I walked the dog through the park and school grounds behind my house, I saw a group of about 15 men on the elementary school blacktop. From a distance, I thought they were playing baseball, which would be a little odd. Then again, the recent rains froze in the ground and then melted enough during the last few days to make the ground squishy, which would render the ball fields in the park a little difficult for a game.

Then I noticed they were playing cricket. A pick-up game of cricket, you could say, since the pitch was clearly improvised, and I don’t think there were enough of them to field 11 players on each team (one of the few facts that I know about cricket). (And that Don Bradman was the greatest cricket player, according to an Australian I knew who insisted on that point.)

I’d never seen anyone playing cricket in that park. Cricket pitches were common enough in places like England and Australia, built into the urban parks in those countries, and I remember wandering by such places and seeing cricket players do whatever it is they do. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone play cricket in North America, though I know that people do.

For instance, Vanderbilt had a cricket team whose picture was always in the yearbook, and every jack man of them was of East Indian heritage. As were the men playing in the park on Saturday.

Thursday Loose Ends

While the Northeast is buried under snow, I look out onto a patch of northern Illinois — my yard — that’s brown. The heavy snow of December gave way to a moderate January, by local standards, and all the white went away. It’s cold out there, but it doesn’t look like February, which is usually marked by unmelted snow in some spots, or at least in the shadows.

I noticed the other day that My Favorite Martian was on demand, so I watched the first episode. I don’t have much memory of its original airing, from 1963 to ’66, and I don’t remember seeing it in syndication, so it’s essentially new to me. Verdict: mildly amusing at times, mostly because Ray Walston and Bill Bixby had some comic talent. But I don’t think I need to watch many more episodes, thus putting it in the same class as Mister Ed or Leave it to Beaver.

Reading a bit about the show, I learned that Bill Bixby’s full name was Wilfred Bailey Everett Bixby III. In our time, that would be the original name of a hip-hop star. Also, just before he died, he married Judith Kliban, widow of B. Kliban.

Hadn’t thought about B. Kliban in years. Didn’t know he was dead, but he has been since 1990. Somewhere at my mother’s house (I think) are collections of his cartoons that I bought. One is called Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head. Words to live by.

At a magazine rack in a big box store not long ago, I saw a copy of Rolling Stone. I was shocked. It was so thin you could put it in a box and use it for Kleenex. The magazine was also standard size, or smaller, not the tabloid that by rights it should be. It was like running into an old acquaintance who’s now dying of a wasting disease. Guess its real presence is online now anyway.

“Acquaintance” because I never read Rolling Stone that much. Not all together my kind of magazine. But I would pick it up and look at in doctors’ offices or from friends’ coffee tables or the like. And I have to say it often had interesting covers, even if they depicted celebrity musicians I cared nothing about.

Last Friday, I dropped by the visit the Friendship Park Conservatory, a small conservatory that’s part of the Mount Prospect Park District. Nice to see some green now, even if the pit of winter this year isn’t too deep.

Friendship Park Conservatory, Mount Prospect

Friendship Park Conservatory, Mount Prospect

The last time I remember being there was in late summer, when it was green outside the conservatory as well as inside. Back in 2005. The girls were a lot smaller then.

Friendship Park Conservatory, Mount ProspectEarly this week, Junk King paid a visit to a house on my block.
I’d heard of the company, but never seen one of its distinctive red trucks before.

The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade

I ought to go to more parades. As long as the crowds aren’t impossible, they can be worth a few hours, and at a parade you’re participating in something that must be as old as urban civilization. Parades of some kind were surely features of life in Ur.

I’ve been to parades on the occasion of First Night, St. Patrick’s Day, Patriots Day (the Massachusetts holiday), San Jacinto Day, July 4, Halloween, and Veterans Day. I’ve seen them in honor of Puerto Rican Day, Indian Independence Day, and the first day of the MacKenzie, ND, County Fair. I took in a Democratic Party torchlight parade at which I saw candidate Michael Dukakis walk by. I’ve seen them in Japan, Indonesia and Disney World, or was it Land? I even saw one including dwarfs.

But never a parade for Chinese New Year. I had that in mind when I decided a while ago to go to Chicago’s Chinatown for its parade, provided it wasn’t bitterly cold, as it was last year. The parade this year was Sunday, February 5. A little late after the Chinese lunar new year, but close enough. Temps were above freezing.

The event drew a crowd.
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadeThat image is looking south down S. Wentworth Ave., from across W. Cermak Rd., through the Chinatown Gate. The crowd that way was very thick, too thick for comfort. So we found a spot on the south side of Cermak, just west of Wentworth. If we’d thought about it more, we would have stayed on the other side of Cermak, which was the sunny side of the street, but things weren’t too bad at our spot. Eventually we were able to stand right next to the barricade.

These are the kinds of things you want to see at a Chinese New Year parade. Dragons on sticks and bright colors.

The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade

The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadeAnd the likes of these guys.

The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade

And colorful flags.
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadeWhat’s a Chinese New Year parade without the the Irish pipe band Shannon Rovers?
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade - Shannon RoversMuch of the procession included ordinary parade stuff, which a distinct Chinese-American aspect. I suspect Shannon Rovers, for their part, seldom miss an opportunity to be in a Chicago parade. I’ve seen them before, but not in a parade.

Among other groups that wandered by the viewing stand, and then our position to the west of it, were the Chicago Police — not the cops doing crowd control — and Fire departments, the American Legion, the FBI Chicago Division (?), the PRC Consulate General, Hyatt, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, the Taiwanese Benevolent Association, the Taiwanese American Chamber of Commerce, Duen Feng Midwest High School Association, the Chinese Entrepreneur Organization, Chiu Quon Bakery, the Chinese-American Service League, and the Indianapolis Chinese Community Center, who brought their own dragons on sticks.
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadePoliticos were on hand, mostly offering pablum from the viewing stand. Schools were well represented, including some by their bands.
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadeThen there was this fellow.
The 2017 Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year ParadeWonder how many parades a year that shoe is in.

Divers Content on a Freezing Cold Thursday

Inspired by yesterday’s natterings, I stopped at the library and checked out River of Doubt (2006) by Candice Millard. Subtitled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” it’s about TR’s expedition into darkest Amazonia in 1913-14. As the book makes clear from the get-go, the journey nearly killed him. Even he-man action presidents have their limits, after all.

I didn’t know until today that Andrew Sachs died not long ago. There are many clips available of him in fine form as Manuel, such as this one or this one or this one.

I’ve had these glasses for a few years now. Bought them at a garage sale for (I think) a quarter each.

Coke Cans Make of Glass

They were clearly some kind of promotional item from Coca-cola but also McDonald’s, because three of them have McDonald’s arches on the bottom. The interesting thing to me is that they’re precisely the same size and shape as a 12 oz. soft drink can.

While writing about a hotel today, I encountered something in the hotel biz known as a “spiritual menu.” The concept isn’t exactly new, but I’d never heard of it. The following is from the Christian Post in 2008.

“A hotel in Nashville will be the first known in the nation to remove the standard Holy Bible from its rooms and replace it with a ‘spiritual menu’ that includes other religious books… Hotel Preston, a boutique owned by Oregon-based Provenance Hotels, will require guests to call room service to order their religious book of choice…

“The religious book list includes the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Tao Te Ching, The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu text), books on Scientology, as well as the King James and New American Bible versions.” @#$%&! Scientology?

Hm. The Gideons can’t be too happy about being replaced. And the following lyric just doesn’t have the same ring: Rocky Raccoon/Checked into his room/Only to find a spiritual menu.