Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.
One hundred and fifty five years ago today a poorly equipped Mexican army defeated Napolean III’s French troops at the Battle of Puebla.
The victory, part of the Franco-Mexican War, was more symbolic than actual. A year later a French force of 30,000 defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
The symbolism persisted, though, as Mexicans celebrated Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’), casting the French defeat as a symbol of Mexican national unity and pride.
All this goes some way to explaining why many people in Mexico’s largest neighbor will spend today eating tacos, drinking tequila, and wearing questionable sombreros. Cinco de Mayo may be a big deal in Mexico, but across the border it’s a wider, and widely observed, celebration of Mexican-American culture.
It’s mostly news to me, of course. I’d been educated on the day by my wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize its all-pervasive sweep until I relocated to the States.
Thoughts of Mexico, and food, and the U.S., today bring me back to the first time I visited the country. Back in the 1990s I travelled to San Francisco for a short visit, staying with friends. My lodgings were in the Mission District, and my staple meal was the burrito.
Not just any burrito, mind you. Without knowing its legendary reputation, my friends and I ate daily at La Tacqueria, at Mission and 25th.
The burrito was my one decent meal a day – loaded with rice, refried beans, and meat, and accompanied by a bag of chips, it covered most of the food groups I needed. A steaming, satisfying, beef-laden madeleine, it was so good that I returned with my wife, on a visit to San Francisco years later, to sample it again.
I’m closer to La Tacqueria than previously nowadays, but I’m still a 90-minute flight from that burrito. I also live in a town that offers not just burritos, but burritos and beyond. And so, this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be doing the (to many) unthinkable – celebrating with a sushirrito.
So, feliz Cinco de Mayo. Or, itadakimasu!
In my mind spring always begins on February 1.
In the Irish tradition, this date is St Bridget’s Day, the day on which the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolg – the start of spring – is celebrated.
In Ireland the days begin to lengthen, the light increases, the rain is increasingly broken by sunshine.
I don’t think I’ll ever shift from this thinking, despite living in a country that heralded the season, this year, on March 20. (Spring beginning after St Patrick’s Day? That’s just wrong.)
It’s taken even longer for spring to reach the Pacific Northwest this year. Only in the past week have temperatures in Portland crawled up into the high 60s (and temporarily, at that). Only now are the longer stretches of rain-soaked days – five, six, seven at a time – disappearing, to be replaced by sun breaks and heavy showers.
The vernal season is upon us, then. And the brighter, and slightly drier, weather is accompanied by another phenomenon – the eruption of cherry blossoms. Every street in our north-east Portland neighborhood boasts at least a couple of these trees, flowering pink or red or, less commonly, white. Not since a spring trip to Japan a while back – where the cherry blossom is truly cherished – have I seen so many in one city.
The light, delicate petals are some way – in reality and in my mind – from the raw, green rushes we used to make St Bridget’s Crosses when I was a child in Ireland. The petals are prettier, but the rushes last longer.
Which one is the true herald of the season? It hardly matters – spring is here.
‘Hallux limitus’. It doesn’t sound too sore. In fact, it hardly sounds like an ailment of any sort.
But it is, and those who’ve experienced it know exactly what those words mean – and what they feel like.
The condition is a stiffening of the big toe joint, caused by osteoarthritis. Not only does the joint stiffen and flare up in pain, but a bone spur begins to emerge on top of it.
If you’re a runner this spells trouble (likewise if you want to wear those Italian dress shoes). You can hold it off for a while, by way of inserts and cutting your distances, but once it’s underway it’s unstoppable – without intervention at least.
In my case, I’ve been managing a worsening case of the problem for the past four years. Almost two years ago I wrote that it would, untreated, surely stop me running.
To date, it has not. But I run less. My onetime 50k a week is now a distant memory – anything above 20k causes problems for me at this point. This has meant more time than I ever envisaged, or desired, on an exercise bike in my local gym, and long, long, walks on the weekend.
Despite such workarounds, and the availability of cortisone shots, I’m edging closer to the day when I make an appointment with my physician to be referred for surgery.
For now, I’m running in denial – or a form of denial, at least. This is why I occasionally attempt something I used to do regularly – a handy 10k on a Saturday morning, for instance – knowing, but refusing to recognize, that I’ll likely spend the rest of the weekend dealing with the effects.
This mentality, common among pavement pounders I imagine, fascinates me. If any other activity was causing me pain and damaging my body, I’d stop. Who willingly courts pain? And if you do, what does that say about you?
For now, I tell myself that the fitness and endorphin rush payoff trumps the discomfort. But only just. And the scales will, shortly I’m sure, start to tip in the opposite direction.
Until the, and the day I make that physician call, it’s grin and bear it – and ice it immediately.
As I walked out of the RDS on the night of June 21, 1997 little did I realise that it would be 20 years until I saw Radiohead perform again.
Or that it would be in a city on the other side of the world, a few thousand miles from where Thom Yorke once floated down the Liffey.
But Portland, Oregon, where the band played last weekend, has one thing in common with that summer’s night in Dublin – plenty of rain.
My abiding memory of the RDS show is Yorke, arms extended, singing “rain down on me, from a great height“, as the heavens opened over Dublin.
Portland’s Moda Center is an indoor basketball arena, so there were no such apt theatrics last weekend. Instead there occurred a performance far more powerful than the one I’d seen during the band’s purported OK Computer heyday.
In fact, Radiohead appear to have left their most popular album behind; only ‘Airbag’ and ‘No Surprises’ were aired at the Moda Center (the latter was admittedly one of the highlights of the night, not least for the reaction to it’s “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us line“).
Instead, some 20,000 of us were treated to a loud, jittering, two-drummers-and-plenty-of-knob-twisting production that – days after Khan Sheikhun gas attack and shortly before the U.S. dropped the GBU-43/B MOAB bomb – seemed perfectly in tune with the times.
Songs like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ were full-on sensory attacks, performances whose lyrics (“women and children first, and the children first, and the children“) did little to reassure.
Even when things quieted down, during ‘Lotus Flower’ or ‘You and Whose Army?’, the tension remained, the sense of dread shifting from the public to the personal.
It erupted close to the end, with the performance of ‘Burn The Witch’, a song of round ups, gallows, persecutions, and paranoia, an anthem an the age of ICE arrests.
“Burn the witch, we know where you live,” intoned Yorke.
The Nineties couldn’t have seemed farther away.
I blame Kurt Cobain.
More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.
Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.
Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.
The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.
That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.
Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.
Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.
I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.
I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think – watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.
“She was the last real individualist around.”
So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.
What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)
Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.
Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.
“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”
So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.
The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.
Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.
She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.
‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.
Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.
Teenage Fanclub look a bit different now to how they did the first time I saw them.
Back then it was the mid-1990s, the height of Britpop – a genre that never fitted a band with C86 roots. I was 18 and all I knew of Blake, McGinley, and Love was ‘Sparky’s Dream‘, which I’d heard on a compilation tape, and the fact that Kurt Cobain had called them out years earlier as “the best band in the world”.
They played the cavernous Point Depot in Dublin, a docklands warehouse poorly equipped for sound. Nonetheless they pulled off a great show, topping a bill which included the Manic Street Preachers and Beck, and rounding out a long evening of loud music and warm beer.
(My abiding memory of that night, 20 years ago, is of a local grungy long-hair stepping onto the stage from the audience, and banging away on a tambourine as the band encored with ‘The Concept’. Rock on!)
Fast forward two decades and we’re all a little different. Gone is Norman Blake’s floppy hair, while Raymond McGinley looks uncannily like my doctor. Gone too, are the thousands who saw them in Dublin – Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, while boasting a healthy crowd, isn’t quite full.
And, needless to say, I feel a couple of lifetimes away from the teenager who nodded away to ‘The Concept’ in the Point.
What hasn’t changed is the music. In the intervening years, Teenage Fanclub have released album after album of perfectly-pitched guitar pop. The hooks never flagged, the melodies were never second rate.
They also never attained the status heralded by Nirvana’s front man but, if they had, it’s unlikely I’d have seen them up close in Portland this week.
Seeing though? More like hearing. Visuals were never to the fore for Teenage Fanclub. In Portland, just as in the Point and in Whelan’s (the Dublin venue where I caught them with Jad Fair, in 2002), they led with the songs. And what a batch – the 90-minute set covered music from their first album (set closer ‘Everything Flows’), through the middle years (‘Start Again’, ‘About You’ – a snippet of which below) to their 2016 release ‘Here’ (‘I’m In Love’, ‘I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive’).
Also in the mix is, of course, ‘Sparky’s Dream’, the song that started it all for me, and whose lyrics resonate even more now than they did 20 years ago: “That summer feeling is gonna fly – always try and keep the feeling inside”.
Teenage Fanclub? The best band in the world. Again.
Rust-colored and rust-rimmed,
Bleached by the winter snow and
Moving slow and sleepy,
St Louis shrugged.
Tired, tagged towers
Cast shadows of industry,
While the Mississippi, mighty in myth,
Seeped slowly past the Arch,
Its silver dull in the March light.
But, as dawn broke,
A row of daffodils blooming in Tower Grove Park,
Brilliant against the brown,
Silently showed me that
Spring is here.
I don’t associate Lou Reed with lifestyle advice. Nor his wife Laurie Anderson. Groundbreaking, avant garde, rule-shredding music – yes. How to maximize your living minutes – not really.
Until I came across, via an Open Culture post, Lou and Laurie’s three rules for living well. Anderson revealed these during her acceptance speech at Reed’s 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
She and Reed developed them because, as she warns, “things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on”.
The rules are short and simple.
And what better to accompany them than Reed’s great song of empathy, his “hand in the darkness so you won’t be afraid”?
There – you’re living better already.