Gurus vs rock stars

One of the unquestioned assumptions behind the various health and fitness philosophies that are being peddled everywhere is the idea that we all want to live to a ripe old age. And even more than that, we want this to be “quality aging”, i.e. with only the smallest amount of physical and mental decline, bright as buttons, still running half-marathons in our eighties.

Whether or not this is a worthy goal is a question I’ll leave for another day, but the obsessive focus on life extension gave me an idea. Why not get a little competitive with this? Let’s pair a team of health gurus with a team of people who’ve had perhaps a slightly less healthy life but a whole lot more fun, like rock stars. Obviously we’d have to wait a few more decades to see how this entirely unscientific experiment plays out.

But in the meantime, let’s do some retrospective pairing:

Health and fitness gurus

Jack LaLanne (exercise and diet guru) died at 96

Roy Walford (Caloric Restriction guru) died at 79

Barry Groves (low carb guru) died at 77

Robert Atkins (low carb guru) died at 72

George Ohsawa (macrobiotic guru) died at 72

Jerome Irving Rodale (organics and Prevention guru) died at 72

Adelle Davis (supplement and health food guru) diet at 70

Nathan Pritikin (low fat guru) died at 69

James Fixx (fitness guru) died at 52

Rock stars

“Fats” Domino (not really a rock star, but you know what I mean) – 86, still living

Chuck Berry – 87, still living

Little Richard – 81, still living

Willie Nelson, 80, still living

Leonard Cohen, 79 – still living

Bill Wyman, 77 – still living

Jerry Lee Lewis, 77 – still living

Keith Richards – 70, still living

Mick Jagger – 70, still living

Patti Smith – 68, still living

Iggy Pop – 66, still living

Lou Reed  – died at 71

Would you take lifestyle advice from this man?

Or this man?

I know it’s not a fair comparison. But still, let’s ask ourselves the question: should we eat only coconut oil for breakfast every day and spend precious minutes obsessing over whether that bit of canola oil on our toasted seaweed will throw off our omega 3 balance, or should we stay up late, get a little drunk, sing out of tune, say things we shouldn’t say, wear pants that are too tight and lipstick that’s a little too bright?

David Johansen/Buster Pointdexter, ex New York Dolls, still chipper at 64


Gaumarjos saqartvelos

Back in 1988 when I lived in Berlin for a few months before going to college, alone, cold, and cleaning out duplicate names from a large database, my aunt-in-law invited me to accompany her to a concert. She was then a card-carrying member of the SEW, the West Berlin branch on East Germany’s state party.

This meant that she’d been to numerous trips to the Soviet Union and its satellites, and therefore interested in the cultures behind the Iron Curtain.

I was utterly transfixed by the music I heard in that concert, of an unearthly masculine beauty, by a group called Ensemble Kolkheti, from Georgia. A place seemingly very far away, entirely foreign and unknowable.

I proceeded to buy their LP and played it many, many times.

Which meant that I spent a lot of time looking at the cover, and the more I looked, the more beautiful Georgian writing looked to me.

Which, a few years later, led me to decide to learn the language. The fact that it was so different from Indo-Germanic languages and relatively useless in early 1990s Britain made it all the more alluring.

But who would teach me? Even though the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolving, no large Georgian diaspora existed.

I posted a note at a Russian bookstore in Great Russell Street, and waited.

Eventually, I did get a response. My teacher was Vasily, a man in his forties, born of a Russian father and a Georgian mother. He was the night security guard of a beautiful modernist building, an icon of its time. His job was to sit in the silent empty building from dusk to dawn, staring at the security cameras. Teaching me Georgian in the evening was a welcome distraction and he did it for free. We’d also wander through the empty building admiring its glassy expanses.

I learned how to write those beautiful letters, to master the plosives and non-plosives, to read Georgian poetry, and to begin to understand its history and unique way of looking at the world.

But I left the country and I never persevered. Now it’s just another atrophied, melancholy skill.

The mystery of far-away countries has decreased. Georgia seems reachable and understandable. I miss the times when there were places utterly out of reach.

What’s wrong with Germany?

That’s the question I often get asked by my relatives and other locals who are puzzled by my peregrinations (left 28 years ago) and nationality changes (two). After all, it’s not a bad country. It has more than its fair share of culture; of great writers, composers, artists, photographers. It’s clean, people are reasonable, landscapes can be amazing, the wine and beer are lovely.

My desire to leave Germany started early; I’d say when I was around eleven or twelve. I still have my very first atlas, an atlas which happened to contain detailed maps of major global cities. I marked up both the New York and London maps with a view to where to settle in the future.  (While I have in fact managed to live in both, I never actually could afford to live on Green Park and on Central Park West, but never mind).

So, why? It wasn’t just a case of getting away from my family – that could have easily been accomplished by moving to Hamburg or Bremen.

I think I never really like the German language in its spoken form. Many of my favorite authors – Sebald, Bernhard, Klemperer – write in German. But spoken German has always sounded harsh and unmelodic to me, with little wit or elegance. A language particularly well suited to giving orders or filling in forms. I’ve never found it easy to express affection or be funny in German. I am sure this is just a deficit on my part. But it’s why I’ve always loved Yiddish, a language I discovered at the age of 13 and that I started studying in earnest last year. It’s soft, generous, witty, tender, wistful and melodic – everything German isn’t.

And while Germany has produced wonderful classical and serious music I’ve always felt that its “people’s music” – it’s children’s songs, radio hits and other mainstream music – was an abomination. What you hear played on TV and radio lacks any kind of subtlety, there are no minor keys, no complexity, no beauty. It also has a complete tin ear. A lot of German popular music in the 1960s and 1970s was sung by supposedly exotic singers with foreign-sounding names about locations far away. I guess it was a way of reconnecting with the world after the thirties and forties. But how could anyone sing along to “Theo wir fahr’n nach Lodz”, “Das Polenmädchen” or “Moskau” and not feel a shudder?

German children’s songs are all the same few notes in the most predictable sequences. It is then not at all surprising that Germany has so miserably failed to produce any popular music of world note. Appreciation of complex melodies and complex emotions are never developed unless a child happens to get exposed to classical music or music from other countries and cultures.

Rock ‘n’roll, punk and new wave music from the UK and America were a revelation to me – they lit a spark in me, opened new worlds and made me determined to leave Germany behind.

When I was happy #1

Someone (I think it was an Arab Emperor) once said that if you add up all the truly happy moments in your life you’ll find that they’ll add up to only a few hours. It seemed an accurate observation at the time when I read it. It also now has me making a list of what those happy moments were, to see if I can begin to total them up.

One happy moment from many years ago: I had been in Colorado Springs for work, and needed to take a very early flight out of Denver the next morning. The sun had barely begun to rise across the peaks of the mountains surrounding the city. I was in a yellow cab with a driver from Ethiopia. He pushed Play on a rickety old tape deck, to fill the cab with music like this.

It made me glad to be alive.

The love that won’t shut up

29th of January 2012 is 13 years to the day when Robert Dickerson died, of liver failure caused by Hepatitis C. Having worked on a project for a new Hep C drug last year, and having talked to a lot of people with the disease, I now really understand what that means: brutal and miserable.

Anyway, Robert Dickerson’s artist name was Benjamin, and he performed in a couple of great Atlanta Bands, The Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke.

Smoke and Benjamin got their epitaph in the move Benjamin Smoke by Peter Sillen and Jem Cohen.

Photographer: Brian Halloran

Although I have a few bones to pick with this movie, it did instantly get me out of a particular kind of funk in 2000, when I wasn’t sure where my life was going and felt trapped and frustrated. I actually went to see it a couple of times, sneaking out of work to sit in a mostly empty cinema to watch and re-watch it.

It made me decide to apply for an MFA in photography (even though I didn’t have a ton of work to show), and work only part-time for those couple of years. This was the exact right decision to make at the time, and I’m glad this movie nudged me in that direction.

I’m not into the Patti Smith pilgrimage in the movie – neither Benjamin or the band needed that kind of endorsement, and a little of Smith’s faux-prophetic earnestness goes a very long way. And the artsiness of the black and white photograph is perhaps artificially somber, since Benjamin seemed like a very funny and sweet person. But I did love Benjamin’s theatrics, Smoke’s music (strange, langurous melodies and lovely instrumentation – cello, cornet, banjo); and am grateful that it helped me discover The Opal Foxx Quartet, and some of the other bands and people in that orbit.

Anyway, Benjamin would have been 52. So, happy birthday.


The saddest song in the world

When I was still living in London, in a blitzed out, wistful little corner of Limehouse, I had an upstairs neighbor from Colombia. He was studying the shoemaking business at Cordwainers College so that he’d be able to support his father who owned a shoe factory. Most days he would be fairly quiet but occasionally he’d get quite drunk late in the evening, and he’d play music at full blast. Unfortunately, Stairway to Heaven was the first song that would start off these fits of melancholia. There were other songs however. He had a fondness for Gardel, for example. There was also one song he’d play that I found mesmerizing (the ceilings were that thin). It was sad, determined, monotonous, hypnotic and long. It had some kind of Latin rhythm.

And then one day my neighbor left for Colombia and I vowed to myself to find out what that song was. Surprisingly, I struck gold early on. In the early 1990s Portobello Market used to have many vendors selling bootleg cassette tapes. At that point I had no knowledge of Latin music whatsoever so I ended up with some Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, merengue, and a live recording called “The Montuno Sessions“,  live broadcast from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, NYC, later released by Mr Bongo. The song I was after was on this tape, a version of Oriente by Henry and Orlando Fiol.

This is what Stephen Mejias from Stereophile has to say about this song:

 But what really caught my heart was the plaintive, urgent, yearning sound of Henry Fiol‘s  restoration of Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente.” The song delights me, troubles me. I say without doubt that I’ve never been moved this way. It’s stifling. Time-stopping. Indeed, Fiol’s “Oriente” is a wash of sadness and beauty, ten fleeting minutes of churning, swaying, and pleading; tres locked in dance with guiro, delicate piano backed by heartrending trumpet lines, and, above all, that mysterious, otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.” It’s magic. I could cry.

I don’t want to leave the impression, however, that “Oriente” is morose. It’s not. There is hope, pride, strength in its many movements. It ends where it begins, with a wave and a graceful turn. It, this song, feels so true to me, I’m nearly afraid no one else will understand. The thought is painful. It’s difficult to imagine another person being lifted, moved, possessed by this song in the same way.

I happen to feel exactly the same way about this song, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Live from Studio A version of the song can’t be found free online (which is just as well), only the studio version which is a little overproduced. This performance gets close but lacks the full hypnotic length.

Oriente, an indestructibly beautiful song, was actually written by Cheo Marquetti, one of the great unrecognized heroes of son. A man who was connected to some of the greatest bands of his age, but kept moving on – who knows why? – and died early in semi-obscurity. There is a beautiful version of Oriente by Conjunto Chappottin with Cheo singing.

Where did that deep sadness come from? Cheo Marquetti wrote other beautiful, classic songs – Sonero, Amor Verdadero, Labrando La Tierra – but none are as yearningly obsessed with death. If I had to select a single song of all the world’s songs to last me to eternity, I would pick this one.