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!
‘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.
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.
Who listens to radio anymore? I mean, really listens? Who has the time to tune in faithfully to a favorite show, to sit down, not distracted by driving or screens or other commitments, and take it all in?
Not me. My radio listening tends to be on my morning commute, a half hour grabbed as I stop-start along the Sunset Highway out of Portland. Along with 45 minutes on the return leg in the evening.
It’s a far cry from my teenage years in Ireland, when I’d tape Dave Fanning’s 2FM evening show, or my 20s when Donal Dineen’s Here Comes The Night was required late evening listening. Dineen, in particular, was a curator non nonpareil – what blossomed into an obsession with Prestige-era Miles Davis recordings developed from his playing “It Never Entered My Mind” on a couple of consecutive summer nights back in 2000.
It’s a while since I’d experienced that sort of inspired broadcasting. Occasionally, back in Dublin, I’d pick up something new from In The Blue of the Night or, if I had time, BBC’s 6 Music, but it was a rare thing.
Then I moved to Oregon and, in the process, discovered KMHD, a public radio jazz station that broadcasts in the Portland area. Initially I listened as a breather from the increasingly-depressing news cycle; within days I had awoken to the razor-sharp music choices, and was hooked. The morning and evening shows offered a decent cut of those great ’50s Prestige recordings (way beyond Miles, I might add), mixing them up with recordings from local scene artists, modern UK, and European jazz – all sweetened with sizeable dollops of soul and funk.
A case in point – when Clyde Stubblefield died last weekend I knew Derek Smith’s The Morning Session show would celebrate his work. Then, on Tuesday morning, straight after the 8 a.m. news, I duly heard “Funky Drummer”, the James Brown side that features Stubblefield’s legendary drum break.
Now, for the first time in years, I’m coming across new (to me) music and wanting to take note of tracks, artists, and albums. Where once I sat with my finger above the ‘record’ button on my cassette radio now I search KMHD’s website and build Spotify playlists. When I turn on the radio these days, it’s not for a half-hour’s mindless humming, but to source new sounds.
To that end, here’s a short playlist of tracks gleaned from the station’s broadcasts over the past few weeks. The music’s mostly modern, with a couple of classic artists thrown in. It’s a brief, listenable testament to why I’ve fallen in love with radio again.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.
I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.
Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.
This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.
Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.
“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.
In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
One of the things I miss about living in Dublin is the sea. In the two decades I spent there I was rarely farther than a 15 minute drive to the water.
In more recent years, living close to the northern shore of Dublin Bay, I could run to Dollymount Strand in 10 minutes (if I pushed it mind you, usually it took a little longer).
Since relocating to Portland, Oregon, last year, most of my running has been on the sleepy streets of North Portland, usually in the morning before traffic gets busy. It gets the job done, but it’s not quite the same as jogging along the surf line, out among the elements.
Neither is grinding out the kilometres on a treadmill, the other option in recent times (and the more sensible one, given Oregon’s weather this winter).
After six months of this, I’d had enough, though. And so I found myself arranging a trip with my wife to the central Oregon coast, to a small town called Pacific City. It boasts a large offshore sea stack, a huge, climbable sand dune, a famous brewery, and four miles of straight, level, sandy, beach.
And it was deserted. After months of living and working out in a city, it felt strange to be standing on sands which stretched out for four miles with nobody in sight. It may have been the time of year, or the early morning, but no-one ventured past the beach entrance (the site of the brewery’s pub – which may explain matters). And so I ran on alone, in silence.
Well, anything but silence. The roar of the ocean, whipped around by a steady north-easterly, kept me company. Once I got into the zone I was not only running in Pacific City, I was on Dollymount Strand, or Rosslare Strand, or Curracloe Beach, my favorite coastal runs back in Ireland.
Without cars, street signs, people, or a phone, one beautiful natural area is like all the others – thankfully. For 50 minutes I was out of civilization and out of time. I planned to run 5k along the beach, but I couldn’t resist pushing on.
I’ll hurt tomorrow, of course, but I’ll be back on city streets then, where – nicely lit, well paved, and without the wind and the noise – running is always a little tougher.
After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.
It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.
Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.
This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.
And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.
Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.
Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.
My Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.
One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.
This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.
But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.
“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.
These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.
All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.
“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”
Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.