Great Prisons of the World- Skólavörðustígur
Skólavörðustígur, Reykjavík, 2009
"But the people did nothing. The people are children. They are taught that criminals live in Skólavörðustígur and not Austurvöllur. Their faith in this wavers a bit, perhaps, from time to time, but when politicians have sworn often enough and hurrahed for long enough, they begin to believe it again. People don't have the imagination to understand politicians. People are too innocent."
~ Halldór Laxness, The Atom Station
I don't think any of the politicians of the Alþingi in Austurvöllur have ended up here yet, although a few bankers have been incarcerated for their roles in the Icelandic financial crisis of 2008. This may be the most charming jail (in appearance) I've ever seen, located in the middle of the shopping district of Reykjavík. Woe be to any shoplifter caught at Eymundsson's bookstore and then paraded next door to the jail!
Great Libraries of the World, #1
A beautiful place full of books I'll never be able to read:
Nordic House, Alvar Aalto architect, Reykjavík, 2009
He Knew All the Songs
The Sorry Muthas, Circa 1970, Photo: Jerry Mat
When I was just a lad, I would play fractured blues and proto-punk rock music in the band "The Others". We were OK, but we were dimly aware of a whole world of music beyond the scope of AM radio. We intently studied Bob Dylan's music and we knew that he had played at a Minneapolis coffeehouse - "The Scholar". The Scholar Bob had played had, by then, been converted to a pizza cafe, but its name (and its spirit) had moved across the Mississippi river to the "West Bank" which was then becoming a hangout for drop-outs, hippies and folk musicians. The cover charge was 50 cents (except when Leo Kottke played- when it was a dollar!) and there were seldom more than a dozen people in the audience. We'd sip our hot honey-lemonades and get a couple of hours of entertainment and refreshment for 2 or 3 dollars.
An act which played there often was called "The Sorry Muthas", a jug band which knew tons of obscure folk songs. One of its stalwarts was Bill Hinkley (center in above picture), who became the gentle giant of the Minneapolis folk scene. He died yesterday, in hospice, surrounded by his musical friends, singing and playing when he was able, still giving little histories about the songs, still being Bill. His work as a teacher touched hundreds of aspiring musicians, his performances (usually with his long time partner Judy Larson) could happen anywhere- I was once bicycling in my neighborhood (20 miles from the West Bank) and came across a wedding in progress- Bill and Judy were playing. The last time I saw Bill and Judy play was at a sales event at an outdoor equipment store on the West Bank:
I'll let a better writer write his obituary (scroll down for slide show and audio clips).
Luncheon on the Grass
Waverly, Minnesota, 1978
Not yet naked.
Some secrets still hidden.
An unsettled tableaux.
A very fine day, nonetheless.
A play by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Peter Rothstein
Tyrone Guthrie theater, Minneapolis
Two plays in one month! There may still be hope that I may become a fully acculturated homo sapiens yet. This play is a cultural mash-up, merging elements of sexual obsession, colonialism on a backdrop of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Loosely based on a true story of a French diplomat who had a twenty year relationship with a Chinese Opera singer he thought was a woman, a singer who was actually a man and a spy for the Chinese! Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
There is an odd thing about other people's obsessions. They are, by definition, all-encompassing for the obsessed- whether the obsession is a person, a drug, or any passion that completely overtakes one's life (did I hear someone say Iceland?) They are usually of limited interest to a neutral observer.
This is the problem with this play. The diplomat's (Rene Gallimard, played by Andrew Young) devotion to the opera star (Song Liling, played by Randy Reyes) is founded on an idealized conception of the oriental woman- submissive, exotic, mysterious. The play also brings up the idea of the West seeing the Orient in the same fashion. It is all a bit much. That said, the play itself was enjoyable, the cast (as usual at the Guthrie) excellent, although the staging was a bit on the sparse side. The play picked up momentum in the second half, with a most revealing climax from the Song Liling character!
My blog pal Rose was in town for the weekend, and I was able to sit with her and her husband and her in-laws. (Thanks Rose!)
Sheet Metal Symphony
Fríkirkjan, Reykjavík, 2009
God doesn't need fancy.
Jimbo and the Server
Pracna on Main, Minneapolis, 2009
April in Paris? Not exactly, but as close as Minnesota will ever get. Table for two, me and an old band mate from years ago chanced to be at the same screening of a Swedish art film. After the show, we went next door to the restaurant which was now open to the elements, European style. The freak warm spell had everybody smiling. The server came over, wearing a t-shirt top and short-shorts under her order apron.
She was nearly six feet tall, with a good (very good) 36 inches of leg showing between the bottom of the shorts and her tennis shoes. My old pal, Jimbo, knew her.
We talked to her about business, the weather, all of it trite, I know, but still, those legs! She took our orders, stuffed her pad in her apron and, looking down, said:
"Think I should get some pants?"
Jimbo just smiled and said: "No."
I just smiled.
The Colorful House
Close to schools and churches.
Space is the Place
When I was an impressionable youth, my dream was to win the Publisher's Clearing house Sweepstakes. Their contests were a scam of sorts for you didn't have much chance of winning a not very big award (back then the top prize was only $100,000) although you didn't really have to buy anything (otherwise it would have been a lottery, which was illegal then.) Still, I dutifully tore out the stamps and sent in my subscriptions: Popular Science, Esquire (for a 16-year old!) and Downbeat. It was the only music magazine available. I knew a little about Jazz- I'd heard Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and of course Louis Armstrong- but I was pretty uninformed. When each issue of Downbeat arrived I would study it intensely. There was a section about regional clubs- New York, LA, Philadelpha, Boston, Minneapolis and Chicago- who was playing where, and with who. Every so often there would be an article about a guy named Sun Ra who had an "Arkestra." He said he was from the planet Saturn, and he was always referred to as "innovative" and "eccentric." Just the kind of music I was looking for. His LPs and 45s were never in the record stores.
Jump forward 14 years, I had been in and out of the music scene for some time, when news came that Sun Ra was finally coming to Minneapolis. A couple of us guys who had been in the same band went, and it was everything I had imagined. He, and his outlandish musicians were truly "out of this world." Sun Ra was an old man then, although he continued to perform for many years after wards. He was eccentric, to be sure, but he was a true innovator, and he was a true visionary, and he remained true to his vision. Nowadays, his music is easy to get (Amazon has more than a dozen titles) his Greatest Hits - Easy Listening For Intergalactic Travel is a good place to start.
He never came back to Minnesota- he was scheduled to play at a nightclub I used to frequently work in, but was caught in a blizzard. We were waiting at a nearby bar when heard the news, along with another avid fan- Tony Bennett.
Bárujárn, Reykjavík, 2009
In the calm before the strum, I had struck up a conversation with a local musician. I had seen her perform a lively set in this same building in 2006. She was curious about me: Why was I there? What were my interests in music? Why Flippism? We had a nice talk. She asked if I had done any recording. I mentioned that I had released a 45 in mid-seventies.
"What was it like?"
"It was horrible!"
"No, I mean what kind of music was it? Did it sound like any other group?"
"Well, I guess some people thought it sounded like the Doors..."
PBS ran a new documentary about that band last night. It was pretty good in capturing the smoky, greasy hedonism of that era- lots of vintage clips, mixed in with some modern re-enactments. It didn't glorify the band and it certainly showed the bad side of Jim Morrison, especially when he had been drinking. But the music itself remains as it was: neither rock nor jazz, not really blues either, sounding almost like a carnival or burlesque theater at times. The band as a whole was certainly greater than the sum of its parts. And Jim was beautiful and sexy and dark- he was the antithesis of the pop singers of the day. I never bought any Doors records, I didn't need to- their music was everywhere, I knew most of the songs by heart. That record which I had made in 1976 may have been an unconscious emulation of the Doors, although my dark days had been several years earlier- at just about the same time that Jim was on his downward spiral:
In an English Country Garden
Mizzards Farm, Rogate, West Sussex, 1995
Roseate glow from a slow-motion twilight
Blossoms infuse the atmosphere with intoxicating scents
Quiet, even the bees stop their buzzing
A sketch for a scrapbook
In a place like no other
New Icelandic Author!
Just purchased Alda Sigmundsdóttir's new e-book, Living Inside The Meltdown, a collection of her interviews with people who have been affected by Iceland's ongoing financial crisis, sometimes referred to as the Kreppa. Alda's interview style is invisible, she lets the people speak for themselves, giving the reader a very personal view of how their lives have been changed. This is an extremely sensitive subject for the normally taciturn Icelanders to deal with, much less speak openly about. The thoughts of Haraldur Sigurðsson, a police officer, are almost unbearably heart-breaking in their sadness and candor. Tryggvi Hannesson, a 75 year old veteran of many prior Icelandic fiscal calamities, lets fly with a lengthy tirade, most of which I suspect is 100% accurate.
The others in the book have been and are being affected in different ways, but not without a few glimmers of hope- a return to more basic values, less materialism (or perhaps that's just a rationalization for not having money to spend) and more openness in what has been a very closed society.
You can order Alda's book through her website, The Iceland Weather Report. Her blog has been the best English language Icelandic website for many years; she has been my inspiration since 2004.
Twilight of the Goddesses
Among the dozens of theater troupes in the area, Saint Paul's History Theatre stands out for its dedication to original dramas and musicals written about historical events in Minnesota's history. The play I saw Sunday, Queens of Burlesque, written by David Mann and directed by John Miller-Stephany, concerned itself with the burlesque tradition in Minneapolis in the early nineteen-fifties. Burlesque has been a popular entertainment form for thousands of years- there has always been a market for performances by scantily-clad women. Vaudeville was a cut above burlesque, and when the vaudeville circuits started to fade (along with the passing of blue laws in some communities) and with the rise of television, most of the smaller places went out of business (or, in the sixties, became much raunchier) and this style of performance passed out of popular culture, with the possible exception of Las Vegas. It didn't happen all at once- there were still burlesque shows at the Minnesota State Fair up until the seventies, but eventually these too were shut down.
But this play was more about the women who performed- "The Exotics" as they were referred to. Four women, each at differing stages of their careers, each with different aspirations and hopes, interacting "backstage" while waiting for their turn to perform on stage. This play is not a polemic, it is much deeper and wiser than that. Anyone who has ever performed for a living on the lower rungs of show business faces the same dilemmas that these women face in dealing with aging, talent, and just the breaks of life. The sometimes catty and shallow arguments they have with each other (and the manager) change over the course of the play, with the emotional high point being a moving soliloquy by the oldest dancer, "Gladys Page" (Greta Grosch) who ruminates on (but does not regret) her life in burlesque after having been fired. As she is speaking another dancer,"Blaze Comet" (Stacia Rice), is dancing another form of farewell- she's found out that she's pregnant and that she's losing her top billing to "Rose DuBois" (Emily Rose Skinner, pictured), a younger performer.
This is an unusual show, in that there actual burlesque routines worked in and around the drama. Each member of the audience will have some kind of personal reaction to this display of pulchritude- while hardly scandalous by modern standards (or the lack thereof)- the physical reality of nearly naked women dancing in a provocative manner brings an added dimension to the experience. After the performance an informal Q&A took place; some audience members were obviously uncomfortable, some were delighted, and some of the older gentlemen even shared a few personal stories about a couple of the more famous performers whose names had come up in the play. I revisited my own memories of Hennepin Avenue in the late 50's and early 60's when the few remaining clubs still had the glamor photos of their "queens" in their windows, along with a "doorman" who would try to hustle businessmen in to see the show (and would chase us kids away). My only real experience with burlesque, in Las Vegas, was so execrable that I'd never felt the urge to go again. This play may have changed that feeling.
This was a true ensemble play, the entire cast gave solid performances, with the four "Exotics" (all of the previously mentioned plus Daisy Mackling Skarning as "Barbette Delight") creating unique and multi-dimensional characters. The music (by Andrew Cooke) captured the milieu perfectly, and while the choreography by Gina Louise Woods was not over-the-top, it always fit the character- these were burlesque queens- not aerobic instructors. Gina is the leader of Minneapolis's "neo-burlesque" scene, her experience gave these routines a true sense of authenticity.
Further thoughts, after some additional reflection:
I may have enjoyed this play more than "real" burlesque because the women in it were allowed to speak. I have a pretty good idea of a what a naked woman looks like, but what a woman consists of is usually far more interesting than her appearance. None of the characters in the show were presented as being particularly deep, but they all were given a chance to express themselves. A play usually has to contrast exposition and spectacle; this play was balanced perfectly between the backstage dialog and the on stage performance. My only quibble with the play is that the men in the play- the manager and the comedian- should have been sleazier. Burlesque was probably never this nice.
Photo credit: History Theatre
1146 North Fifth Street, Minneapolis, 1978
A special place, one of those hidden oases which sometimes exist near the center of the city. In the late 70's this particular lot had been overlooked in the city's redevelopment plans, along with a handful of other rundown properties on Minneapolis's near north side. This back yard, as humble as it was, received a lot of use- parties, playgrounds, or just as a place to relax with friends.
The land behind the lot had been taken for a freeway ramp which wouldn't be built for several years. There once was a school behind the fence which, along with the church it was associated with, had also been taken for the freeway. This property was scheduled to go as well, but a mysterious last minute reprieve kept it in private hands for another dozen years.
When the property was finally taken for new development, one of the legal terms used in determining its fair market value was "highest and best use." The lawyers were speaking of monetary value. The rosy glow of nostalgia (pictured here augmented by Photoshop effects) is sometimes over stated, but not always inaccurate. This was a good place, a place of good happenings, lived in by good people. The highest and best use of any land, methinks.
You Came Into My Heart...
Buffalo - a Book and Food Review
Custer National Park, South Dakota, 1993
Buffalo For The Broken Heart
Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch
by Dan O'Brien
Slowly, very slowly, I am climbing my "Mount TBR" from last Christmas- any new books will now be considered as "summer reading", I'm afraid. This book was a gift from my eldest, along with a package of frozen buffalo (American bison) meat. The meat was fantastic- everything that feedlot beef is not. I knew already that bison meat is low in fat and possesses a delicious flavor when not over-cooked. This book explained a lot of about how modern buffalo ranching has developed in the last twenty years, and about how raising buffalo in an environmentally sound fashion not only produces the highest quality meat, but also how it can restore the prairie grasslands, and even how it could restore broken spirits.
Dan O'Brien is a veteran writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He is also a bit of a dreamer, and a modern cowboy, a man for all seasons, who took it upon himself, in the aftermath of a broken marriage, to start a buffalo ranch in South Dakota. He had done cattle ranching- which is always a sketchy proposition in that semi-arid climate- and failed, when he decided to try raising buffalo. Dan's story flows naturally as he gives background on the struggle between the people and the land, and how buffalo are suited to it, and how they can also restore it in a way cattle cannot.
There is a lot of heartbreak and anguish in this book, but there is also hope, especially in O'Brien's descriptions of the ways buffalo behave and interact with each other and the land. This is a great book, one of the very best books I've read about living in balance with the land and the animals who inhabit it.
Dan's operation is still going strong after a decade, if his prices seem steep remember; this is the highest quality mammalian protein you can get. Anyone with any kind of discerning palate will be aware of this in the first bite. There are many other buffalo operations now, we got ours from Paradise Buffalo Ranch in Bagley, Minnesota, perhaps not quite as "wild" as Dan's, but not as expensive either.
Rite of Spring
Riverside Gardens, Sherburne County, Minnesota
Old Martha, who used to live next door, always told us to "Wait until the middle of May" before we started planting our garden. This year, we could have started in the middle of April, it has been just that nice. There is an old stump with a hollowed out center that sits on the corner of our lot; the Weaver trusts me with that much soil. We visited our local nursery, a mom and pop affair, and also went down the highway a few miles to the much larger nursery pictured above (that's only the back greenhouse!) I guess it is a little early, in a couple of weeks this place will be packed, there were only a handful of shoppers when we were there Sunday morning.
Martha's words still haunted us as we strolled past the hundreds of flats, but we did manage to buy a few things, including "Supertunias" for my stump. They should be in full bloom in a couple of weeks- I'll post pictures later (if we don't have a freak snowstorm in the next few days).