Context

I’d tweeted earlier this week that one of my favorite things about vacationing in London is hearing some of my favorite songs in their original context.  By that, I mean hearing songs that were big and important hits in the UK that may not have been even a blip on the US radar.

A year or so ago we were at a bar near Smithfield Market meeting with a friend of ours when Manic Street Preachers’ “Everything Must Go” popped up on the jukebox.  It was a top-ten hit in the UK and signaled a new direction for the band after the strange disappearance of their former lead singer months previous.

David Bowie was of course a worldwide success, and his title theme for the movie Absolute Beginners was a very minor hit in the US (hitting #55 on the Billboard chart) but hit #2 in the UK.  The movie itself is somewhat based on the British novel of the same name written by Colin MacInnes — a well-loved coming of age novel set in the hip London of the late 50s.  Heard this one in a coffee shop just outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral one rainy morning.

The Divine Comedy is well known in the UK as an ‘orchestral pop’ band in the vein of Scott Walker (another musician quite familiar there but not in the US), and they wrote a song about the oversize tour buses one sees all around London.  This track would pop into my head every time I saw one of them go by.

 

I love doing this kind of thing wherever I go, come to think of it.  It’s partly to get the feel of the local sound, and partly because I’m just a sucker for rock music history.  Whether it’s getting in touch with with Britain’s quirky rock (most of which became alternative rock here in the states), or Boston’s unique mix of collegiate and blue-collar, or San Francisco’s purposely weird sounds, I love being able to not only connect with the music itself, but the context in which it was written and recorded.  It brings me closer to the real lives behind the music…it lets me understand why the song exists.

Movement

You know, it dawned on me that I don’t think I’ve gone to a nightclub venue since…well, probably since before I moved down to New Jersey in 2005, come to think of it.  I used to head to various shows in Boston all the time back when I was in Massachusetts, and didn’t think twice about driving that seventy miles, hanging out int some smoky basement dive with too-loud music, and having to leave a tad early so I could make the last Red Line train out to Alewife where I was parked.

Over the years since we’ve been here, our showgoing has pretty much remained with the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Opera.  It just sort of happened naturally, as they were well-known ensembles we were looking forward to checking out when we moved out here a decade ago.  And over those last ten years, I’ve really come to appreciate classical music a lot more than I ever have in my life.

I won’t lie, for years the extent of my classical knowledge was pretty much tied in with Warner Bros cartoons such as What’s Opera, Doc?The Rabbit of SevilleLong Haired Hare and so on.  There’s also the 80s Hollywood movie such as Platoon (Barber’s Adagio for Strings), Apocalypse Now (Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (R. Strauss’ ‘Morning’ from Also Sprach Zarathustra).

I wasn’t completely ignorant of classical music; it was just a genre that I didn’t follow as closely as I did others.  This of course has changed over the years; I used to really like Copland back in my college years but find his work kind of thin nowadays…I now find Tchaikovsky one of my biggest favorite composers.

There are certain pieces that I find absolutely stunning and will try to get to a performance if the SF Symphony is playing them.  Such as:


Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ completely blows me away every time I hear it, whether it’s the orchestral version or the original string quartet version.  I love when music has a deliberate flow to it — each melodic phrase is given time to complete itself without hurry.  It’s like breathing.


Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ is so much fun!  It starts off so quietly and unassumingly, and yet by the end, every single instrument in the house is bleating, banging and barking so loudly that the entire audience whoops with cheers when it finishes.  A silly Italian movie called Allegro non Troppo (a self-professed “low-budget” homage to Disney’s Fantasia) got me hooked on this piece in college with its unique take on planetary evolution.


Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (‘Pathetique’) is probably my favorite piece of all right now. I was thinking of it the other day when I was watching David Bowie’s final video, “Lazarus”…one kind of got the feeling that David knew the end was coming, and had decided to go out on a final creative note — a denouement letting us know how much he’d enjoyed his time in this world.  I feel the same whenever I hear the Pathetique because it was Tchaikovsky’s last piece in much the same manner…I think he’d finally come to terms with his life as well as his mortality.  This is also why I love the way the ‘big finish’ in this piece is actually in the 3rd movement and not the final; the final 4th movement ends up being more of an exhalation, a release.


Mason Bates’ The B-Sides is a relatively new piece — written by a composer six years younger than myself, I should add — and I can totally see the future of classical music heading in this direction, with a mix of analog, digital, and found sounds (check the ‘instrument’ used about three and a half minutes in!).  Bates is somewhat of a local hero here, as he’s both a nightclub DJ (as DJ Masonic) and a composer of a large number of wonderfully creative pieces that he often performs with the SFS.  Bates also recently released an album with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project called Mothership, which I highly recommend.  I have high hopes for this one!

WIS: Points of Interest II – Northampton

A few more pictures from our visit to New England a few weeks ago…this time focusing on Northampton.  Our road trips in 1987-88 often included a stop or two down here.  I obviously gravitated towards the record stores and sometimes the book stores, but there were also quite a few excellent restaurants here as well.  It’s still one of my favorite places to go when we’re in the area.  I would not mind living here either, if it were not for the fact that we’d have to deal with snowy winters!

Downtown Northampton

Downtown Northampton, north side of Main Street across from City Hall

Here’s a panoramic shot of part of downtown Northampton, as seen from across the street in front of City Hall.  That alleyway is Cracker Barrel Alley.  We used to park in the lot back there during our trips to Main Street Music, which is where Village Salon on Main is now, to the left of Starbucks.  Here’s another view of the Alleyway.

Cracker Barrel Alley...many an evening clutching my latest record purchases while walking here.

Cracker Barrel Alley…many an evening clutching my latest record purchases while walking here.

A few reasons I show this. On our trips to MSM, there was many a night’s end when we’d be walking down this alleyway and back to the car, clutching our latest spoils and already planning when we’d borrow them for further dubbing.  In fact, after our shopping we’d often hang here for a good half hour, talking about all sorts of things before we had to head back home.  It has not changed one bit, maybe aside from the repaving.

Second?  See that building in the background?  That community-themed mural has been there for decades (and touched-up here and there), at least since the 80s.  But the important part was that boring little brick wall around the corner from it.  About two stories up, someone sometime in the early 80s spraypainted the word ‘ANARCY‘ in large black letters.  No idea how they got up there, and I don’t think anyone fessed up to it, either.  But promoting anarchy to the point that you deliberately spell it wrong?  We loved that idea!  It fit in with our 80s small-town nonconformist ideals quite nicely.  I think it stayed up there at least until the early 90s when it was finally powerwashed off, but I’m sure most Smithies and other Five College kids from that era will remember and cherish that tag.

And when I was down here with family, while I spent most of my time (and money) at MSM, my dad would often go a few doors down to…

DSC04096

Broadside Books, a fiercely indie bookstore that would make City Lights proud.

…which not only is still open, but still looks the same after all these years!  This indie has always been a mix of commercial, obscure, and political since 1974.  It’s a quintessentially New England type of indie, a community-first type of store that offers the bestsellers alongside books on grassroots politics and local history.

Faces, where many 80s rock pins for my denim jacket were purchased.

Faces, where many 80s rock pins for my denim jacket were purchased.

Ah, Faces!  It opened here in 1986 during the high point of that decade’s fashion, and catered to all kinds of ridiculousness.  This was your one-stop shop for dayglo clothing, fun printed tee-shirts, whoopee cushions, fake poop, posters (album, band, and black-light), disposable dorm and apartment furniture and accessories (in their huge basement), and anything else to make your college life California flashy in an otherwise drab New England.  And also where I bought a crapton of those pins you might remember seeing on denim jackets in that decade.  I usually went for the rock band logos, album covers, and the occasional silly jokey ones (‘I’m not weird, everyone else is!’).  It very nearly closed recently, but since it’s so beloved by students and locals alike, someone bought it from the original owner and it’s still alive and well.

Thornes Marketplace Building and environs, including a boot shop that I believe is older than me!

Thornes Marketplace Building and environs, including a boot shop next door that I believe is older than me!

Just across the way from Faces is another hangout, Thornes Marketplace.  Their website states it took over the site of the old McCallum’s Department store in the mid 70s and by 1977 or so it got its present name and has been an indoor shopping experience ever since.  There are stores of varying shapes and sizes, from clothing boutiques to kitchen accessories and even an Acme Surplus in the basement!  Speaking of which, way down in the sub-basement (back parking lot level) was a huge used record store called Dynamite Records.  It didn’t so much cater to hard-to-find obscurities as it did those albums you never got around to picking up when they were new, or that one record you’re missing from some band’s discography.  This was a bit later on, I believe, maybe in the early 90s and into the early 00s, as I spent many an afternoon beefing up my back catalog with their selection.   OH!  Yes, and just around the corner on that side street to the right (Old Street) is Herrell’s Ice Cream, quite possibly one of the best local ice cream parlors in the area.

Pleasant Street, which really hasn't changed all that much...aside from the storefronts

Pleasant Street, which really hasn’t changed all that much…aside from the storefronts

This little strip at the head of Pleasant Street has changed a bit over the years.  Northampton Wools is where Pleasant Street Video used to be for decades (said to be one of the best local rental places in town, and had quite the collection of popular and obscure titles).  McLadden’s Irish Pub has taken place of the former Pleasant Street Theatre, where all kinds of indie and low-budget movies would be shown.  I never went there until the mid-90s, but I did get to see quite a few great films there.  Their basement screening room was so tiny and oddly shaped, the first two rows had 3 seats on either side.  Further up is another record store I’d frequent in the 90s called Turn It Up! Records, down in a musty basement.  I usually went here for used cds, as their dollar bins were quite choice.  They’re still there, I believe!

One last thing I want to post here…it’s another ‘no longer there’ Google Maps embed, but it’s kind of important, at least to me!  It’s one of the stores in the strip mall on King Street, north of the town center, right near I-91.

This is the storefront where Northampton Newsroom used to be, back in the 70s and 80s (and I believe into the early 90s). It was your small WaldenBooks-style store with a selection of genres, a wide selection of newspapers and magazines, as well as candy, gifts and more.  I mention this place because in late 1984 during one of our family shopping trips down to the Valley, I bought a book here called Dragon Fall by Lee J Hindle.  It was the first winner of a YA writer contest for its publisher, and when I heard a teen had written it, a light bulb went off: hey, I could do this too!  I’d written some stories here and there that didn’t go anywhere, but after seeing this, there was no helping it…I had to be a writer too.  I started writing the Infamous War Novel in earnest and never looked back.

Hope you enjoyed the tour! 🙂

WiS: Points of Interest 1

Our vacation was fruitful on many different levels, and I was able to fill in a lot of the gaps for my Walk in Silence photo database.  Here’s the first of a few posts focusing on various points of interest related to the 1986-1989 timeline of the book.  Hope you enjoy!

I used to catch the school bus from that intersection. Imagine a surly teen waiting for the moment he could pop on his headphones and blot out the inane conversations going on around him.

I used to catch the school bus from that intersection. Imagine a surly teen waiting for the moment he could pop on his headphones and blot out the inane conversations going on around him.  Usual soundtrack: The Smiths or Depeche Mode.

This was taken from the front room of my parents’ house, looking up the street.  If this picture looks a little streaky to you, it should — that was a minor five-minute flurry of snow that fell not an hour after we arrived!  But yes, this was similar to the view from my bedroom window looking north, where my desk was.  It never felt like the edge of the world, but more like a hideaway from it.  I spent a lot of time there, listening to WMUA or WAMH (or one of my many tapes or records) while doing homework, writing, or reading.

From Google Maps, as I didn’t get a decent picture:

My high school, which hasn’t really changed that much at all over the years.  A lot of memories of walking through these halls.  I still remember my locker number (103, Lower C hallway, just outside Mr. Jolly’s room).  My house was two and a half miles from here, so I took the bus (#312) and tried to avoid everyone that annoyed me.  The ride took just shy of twenty or so minutes, due to traffic and a few further stops, so I could listen to at least three or four songs on my Walkman before we got there.

Oh, and if you’re curious, this was my standard attire during my junior and senior years, as displayed on Spare Oom couch:

Not the originals -- the first duster and Smiths tee bit the dust from overwear. Duster 2 was from a friend, and I found the Smiths tee on eBay.

Not the originals — the first duster and Smiths tee both bit the dust from overwear by 1990. Duster 2 was given to me from a high school friend around that time, and I found the Smiths tee on eBay last year.

A tatty green duster (my grandfather’s) and a tee shirt showing the cover of the “William, It Was Really Nothing” single (bought at MSM and cherished as one of my favorites) was all I needed to wear to show my unique weirdness — no need for mohawks or nose piercings in my small town, not when I was already known as the resident college rock geek.

On our recent trip we also made a point to stop in Amherst and Northampton on one of the days, for varying reasons.  One was to meet up with a few friends from the area, but it was also to revisit some of our old haunts.  I’d been heading down that area since the early 80s when my family would shop at the malls down in Hadley; A. is a Smithie from the early 90s and knows the area as well.

Amherst Common

Amherst Common, where we would often congregate

The Five College area is one of my favorite places in the state.  In high school my friends and I would frequent this area all the time, hanging out not just at the mall but on the commons and in the various stores and cafés, talking and laughing and listening to great music.

Panda East - my first taste of Chinese food

Panda East – my first taste of Chinese food

Panda East was a Chinese restaurant we used to frequent back in 1987-88 (and yes, I am a bit surprised that it’s still there after all these years), often for dinner before or after we did our shopping or going to a movie.  After we ate we’d hang out in this little courtyard in the foreground and talk about all sorts of things.  I remember listening in on a conversation about college plans and silently wishing I could be a part of it.  Alas, I had one more year to go.

The former Bonducci's across from the common

The former Bonducci’s across from the common

Almost directly across from Spring Street on the common was a café called Bonducci’s. It was where that Veracruzana Mexican restaurant is now, in that right corner spot.  It was your typical collegiate café that served coffee, sodas (I always used to buy the Snapple vanilla creme, back when they used to make sodas) and pastries.  This was often our last stop of the night, but it was also where we’d often have the more serious conversations. Some of us would trade gossip, others would talk about philosophy (as one did when we tried to pretend we were being all deep and academic).  I would often be the one to initiate the conversations about music, of course.

One picture that didn’t quite come out is of the small strip of stores on North Pleasant Street.  Here’s the Google Maps version:

That corner spot where Zanna is now, used to be where Al Bum’s was back in the 80s (and I think into the very early 90s).  My dad brought me here probably around 1985 or 1986, as it was one of the few record stores I knew of that carried Beatles bootlegs.  A year later when I discovered college radio, it became an important and expected stop for finding the punk, college rock and industrial sounds that I couldn’t find at the malls or department stores.  When my friends and I headed down here, we’d almost always stop for an hour or two and dig through the bins.  Al Bum’s played a significant part in my music collecting during that time; what I didn’t buy at Main Street Music in Noho, I bought there, with a very minor percentage bought at the music stores at the Hampshire Mall.

[As an aside, there was a satellite store for Faces (more on that in part 2) that was partially hidden behind that Mobil gas station next door.  Within that was a mini-store that sold cassettes and cds called For the Record.  I bought a handful of tapes from there between 1987 and 1989.  It’s since become a dilapidated and empty warehouse.]

Holding our breaths

Holding our breaths

Lastly, a picture from our trip back in 2012.  There’s a stretch of Route 202 in New Salem that cuts through a tiny corner of Shutesbury for a few hundred feet before popping back in.  I was always amused by this little bit of ten-second town-hopping, and sometime around 1985 or so I got into the habit of holding my breath between the two town signs.  I got all my friends to do the same, so when we headed back home from an afternoon or evening from the Valley area, we’d always do this.  Thirty years on and I still do it every time I come back and visit.

Coming Up: Views of Northampton and maybe a bit of Boston as well!

BRB, Heading to Outside Lands

OH HEY I can see my house from here

OH HEY I can see my house from here

…and of course you know I’m bringing my good camera with me.

[OK, I’m not leaving just yet.  It’s tomorrow and my commute there is basically taking the 29 Muni to Golden Gate Park.  You really can see our apartment in this picture.]

Stay tuned for some cool pix of bands rockin’ out!