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A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

Doo Wop

Travelling back home after dropping my brother off at the Burbank Airport, I was trapped on Hollywood Way heading towards the 101. Blasted rush hour!

I turned on the CD player and The Dell-Vikings’ “Whispering Bells” came ringing in. After that snappy song faded away, a baritone began singing a melody that sounded like the pounding of a huge drum, and off went The Volumes’ “I Love You.” I knew I’d be stuck in traffic for a while, and there’d be nothing but doo wop on the stereo. And I was perfectly fine with that.

So why do I keep a complication of doo wop music in my car? Well, these songs make great vocal warm-up exercises. On my way to gigs, I play the CD full-blast and sing along, usually doing all the harmonies. Also, let’s face it – these songs are so goddam catchy!

Doo wop started, like all great movements, in churches. During the 1930s, singers from the East Coast took what they learned from gospel music and walked over to the street corners. Underneath the glow of a street lamp, they would sing a cappella in three-, four-, sometimes five-part harmonies. Many of the singers at the time were African American, but in the 1950s Italian American doo wop groups started to emerge, again standing under the lamps, singing into the echoes of empty crossroads.

Now I don’t know where the name comes from. I have yet to hear the phrase muttered in a song. I’ve heard plenty of “sha-boom, sha-boom” and “sha-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na” and “shoo-doo-be doo-be-wah” and even “rat-ta-ta ta-ta-ta too-a-oo,” but no “doo wop.” I guess the name is easier to say than “Bom-be-de-bom-bom, bom-de-de-bom …”

In the still of the night, under the blue moon, feeling a thousand miles away, I was now caught on the 101 North, cars smoking around me, city lights glowing. And I was belting along with The Mystics, The El Dorados, The Hollywood Flames, The Silhouettes, The Crows, The Marcels, The Elegants, The Cadillacs, The Monotones, The Teenagers, The Five Satins, The Jive Fives, The Skyliners, The Dells, The Moonglows, The Velvetones, The Penguins, The Crests, The Heartbeats, The Pastels, The Flamingoes, The Spaniels, and my favorite, Dion and the Bellmonts. And for a moment, I was far away from the Hollywood traffic, and was standing on a New York corner, under a buzzing lamp, singing a cappella with my chums. Oh, what a night!

So how do you kill time in traffic?

The Teenagers

Dion and the Bellmonts

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I love reading your blogs…especially on a Saturday morning when I can read and watch the videos simultaneously. For someone like myself who barely has time to listen to the music I sing in the shower, it’s a wonderful finger snapping journey into music and the history behind it that I’m often unaware of. Thank you.

And as far as what I listen to in traffic? I am insanely lucky in that I rarely have to drive in it. But when I do, you can find me catching up on phone calls or singing loudly (and badly) to just about anything.

Don’t forget The Chords and my favorite Life Could Be A Dream (Sh-Boom)

Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)
If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love
Life could be a dream sweetheart
(Hello hello again, sh-boom and hopin’ we’ll meet again)

Ok~
I just need to know two more things…

Who put the ram in the ram-a-lama ding dong and who wrote the book of love?

Coffee

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…”

– T. S. Eliot

It is one of those mornings, when the body moves faster than the mind … and the body is barely moving at all.

The sun breaks through the shades and shines on my weary eyes, like a cop’s flashlight. C’mon. Let’s move along. Okay, okay. It is morning, but my mind thinks it’s still the dead of night. I wash up, I get dressed. But this heavy fog of slumber lies in the valley of my skull. The only cure to lift this darkness: Coffee.

As I fight my way through traffic, heading to a local café, this Gregorian chant echoes inside my head: O Holy Coffee! Relieve me from my sins and guide me to the blessed light!

I make it to the “chapel” – a dark coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard. It is a sanctuary for amateur screenwriters, tapping away on their glowing laptops, working on a no-budget horror flick or some indie-bromance. I am standing in line for hours. The hold-up: This Bluetooth-wearing Hollywood agent, oblivious of his surroundings, struggling through the menu: black coffee, white coffee, Americano, cafe au lait, cafe latte, cafe mocha, cafe breva, cafe macchiato, cappuccino, dry cappuccino, espresso, espresso con panna, espresso macchiato, double shot, triple shot, red eye, black eye, hammerhead, iced coffee, iced mocha, iced latte, lungo, ristretto, flat white … 

In my mind: O Holy Coffee! O Holy Coffee!

“Do you have a caramel frappuccino?” asks Bluetooth Man.

“No. This isn’t Starbucks,” replies the barista.

O Holy Coffee! O Holy Coffee!

“Okay. How about a soy latte?”

“Single or double?”

“Double? Is that bigger than a Venti?” 

O Hol— Hey, asshole! He said, this isn’t fucking Starbucks!

Finally, I make it to the register. I am prepared. “Small coffee. Black. Thanks.”

I sit down and place the cup in the center of the table. I dive right in. I disappear into the black water. I fill my lungs, my veins, my brain with sweet caffeine. I rise with the steam. Rise up to the heavens. There I kneel down and thank the ghost of St. Juan Valdez. It is accomplished. Now I can go on with my day.

So who else is addicted to coffee?

How to order coffee in Los Angeles:

Coffee as the Universe:

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I’m not addicted to coffee, necessarily. But I do enjoy my morning routine. I have a milk frother that’s separate from the espresso maker, and my morning ceremony is important to me. I also like to see the black cups my sister gave me around the house half full of foam waiting for me to finish it before I hightail it out the door. And if I have company to make coffee for? Even better.

I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to coffee either, but like agodoy, it is part of my morning ritual. During the week, I usually make it at home in a press. The aroma alone is intoxicating but the actual preparation gets me into the work/weekday mode.

Coffee~

Essential and the elixir of the gods

Used to be a total addict. Got up to 4 triple espressos a day when I was in film school. But like cigarettes and a lot of my other old ‘vices’, I kicked, or maybe outgrew, it. Now I drink coffee for pleasure. Love the flavor and aromas. They say espresso needs to be drunk within 5 secs of being poured if you want it at its peak before it turns bitter. Even a touch of cream will save it though… Last night I made affogatos for desert at a dinner party with friends and it was sooooo sweeeet!

How to Make a Grown Man Cry

So it went something like this:

A young, doe-eyed folk singer shared songs in a dark empty coffee shop in San Francisco. The songs, passed down to her by her mentors, were popular a decade before she was born and were written three, four, five decades before that. The floor boards creaked as she rocked to the rhythm of her guitar strumming. She didn’t have a great voice, but she meant every word, carrying the weight of the oppressed whom she never really met. “Still she’s overdoing it,” I thought, sipping my third cup of coffee. “But what the hell? It’s a chilly night and the entertainment in here is free.”

She began her second set, explaining the history of her next song. And the history – it went exactly like this:

In 1948, Woody Guthrie, forced to retire from performing due to early signs of Huntington’s disease, heard a radio report about a plane crash near Los Gatos Canyon. The dead were four Americans and 28 migrant farm workers, who were being deported back to Mexico. The radio announcer said the names of the four Americans but reported the others as “just deportees,” as if their names weren’t important. From this report, Guthrie did what every great humanitarian would do – he wrote a poem dedicated to those unnamed victims.

And so this young woman stopped talking and sang Guthrie’s poem, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” set to music by Martin Hoffman in 1958. Her voice shook as she stepped in the shoes of Guthrie, who stepped in the shoes of a lone Mexican worker, saying goodbye to his amigos who were flying back to the border. That flight didn’t make it to the border, but instead headed straight down into the canyon.

“Who are these friends who scatter like dry leaves?” cried the singer. “The radio said they were ‘just deportees’.” And at that moment, I felt the waterworks coming. By the time she sang the final chorus, I could barely hold my tears.

I was so unbelievably touched but I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was the way she was singing, or what she was singing about, or the fact the poet himself cared so much for these “friends” whom he had never met. Or perhaps, as horrible that plane wreck was, the real tragedy was that some people would be so heartless that they would brush off others like they were “dry leaves.” Those immigrants were human beings, for God’s sake, and to describe them as “just deportees,” well it was unspeakable.

It took me years to learn that song. I never wanted to play it, because it really hit a nerve. I just didn’t want to go there. But when I began playing at a farmers market here in Los Angeles, I put the song in my repertoire. At the market, I would run into immigrant farm workers and recalled that my own family, like so many Japanese American families at the turn of last century, worked on farms, worked there until the war started and they were placed in internment camps up and down the West Coast. Though they own their own properties, they were, and would always be, aliens in the eyes of the American public.

So I sing this song with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Because at times I do still feel like an outlaw, a rustler and a thief, but I know that on both sides of the river, we die just the same.

“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita/Adios mi amigos, Jesus y Maria/You won’t have your names when you ride the big aeroplane/All they will call you will be ‘deportees’”

So which song makes you cry?

My version of “Deportee”

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Thank you. Songs that evoke an emotional response have always been my favorites and songs that make you think and act have are to be treasured even more.

“”Billy don’t Be a Hero and “Leader of the Pack” always bring me to my knees..
Seriously, I can’t think of any at the moment, except for the version of “Over the Rainbow”.by the late Eva______ I can’ think of her last name. And when I hear “Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes I lose it. Music is powerful.

Beautiful. Thank you. And funnily enough, “Billy don’t be a Hero” can bring me to tears as well.

It’s Eva Cassidy, Graham. She rocks. I’ve never heard this song, Mark but you do it justice. It’s lovely and Woody would be proud. How I love crying to songs — let me count the lyrics ad haunting melodies.

If you have a heart, every one of these WILL make you cry-
“Tell It Like It Is” (Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers);
“Everything In It’s Right Place” (Radiohead off the Kid A cd);
“Check The Meaning” (Richard Ashcroft);
“Map Ref 41°N 93°W” (Wire);
“Never Never Love” (Simply Red);
“I Never” (jenny Lewis & Rilo Kiley);
“Dancing In The Dark” (Diana Krall);
“I Need Love” (Sam Phillips);
“The Creator Has A Master Plan” (Pharoah Sanders);
“Electric Trains” (Squeeze);
“Angels Walk” (Paul Westerberg);
“When Love Breaks Down” (Prefab Sprout);
“The Ledge” (The Replacements);
“Heaven’s My Home” (Sam & Ruby);
“Massage The History” (Sonic Youth);
“Luca” (Suzanne Vega);
“Going Places” (Paul Weller);
“Things” (Paul Westerberg)

Heard About the Bird?

The song has stuck to the wall of my mind, thrown by such force. I can hear it slipping at times, but when I try to catch it falling, it stays still … or perhaps that’s just an illusion. It has already fallen and what I am catching is the stain left behind.

It begins with the Word: “Everybody heard about the bird!”

I first heard the song when I was part of the theater arts department at Sacramento State. The school was not known for its fine arts, but lucky for us drama kids, it did provide the town’s best venue – Sac State’s oldest building, a 30-seat black box theater, which stood in the middle of the campus. The theater was truly a black box: no lobby, no ticket booth, no backstage. The bathroom doubled as a green room. Near the top seats was the lighting booth, which consisted of a stool and a rusty creaking machine that ran eight brand-new Fresnels, the only items in the room that weren’t from the early 1930s. We had to bring in our own sound system, a borrowed stereo offered by one of our classmates. Sure the theater doesn’t sound like much, and it wasn’t, but for us, it was The Place, mainly because we had complete creative control over it. No faculty ever came by the building. Ever!

My college friend Don Radovich and I put up our own plays there – short, absurdist works-in-progress, in which some of our fellow theater classmates love to participate, anything away from those great big boring musicals that the Drama Department was running in the main theater at the time.

During one midnight rehearsal there, we were working on a series of playlets, to be presented later in the semester. A freshman actor came up to Don and me and said, “There is a bird motif throughout these plays. Did you two intend that?”

“Bird motif?” I wondered. “I didn’t know there was a bird motif here.” I turned to Don. “Did you know about the bird—”

Don cut me off with his reply: “Everybody knows that the bird is the word!”

The actor walked away bewildered.

The next day, Don came in the theater and played an old cassette in the stereo. The first song: The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” There it was. That was the theme song for our production. Long after the show ended its run, I would play that song constantly throughout that year and the following several years.

The Trashmen, an obscure 1960s surfer band, could be considered the founders of the mashup genre, except they didn’t have any digital help. They connected two songs by the even more obscure R&B band The Rivingtons – “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” – to create the great “Surfin’ Bird.” I love all three songs, but “Surfin’ Bird” is the best. For a little more than two minutes, the rhythm section races down like a runaway train, as the distorted sandpaper vocals gnarls the lyrics, first chopping up “The Bird’s the Word,” then drowning in its own title, before coming up for air with “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” It’s pure punk, and nothing else.

Now you know about the “Bird.” Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-
pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-oom-mow-mow! Papa-oom-mow-mow!

So what song is stuck in your head right now?

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This plus a good shot of coffee got my afternoon in the gallery going.

Thanks!

Oh great…now my Papa-Ooh-Mow-Mow is out of alignment~

:)

Just one more listen should get me back into the swing of things~

Man… this song is the most insane ear worm to get in your head! I love it though because it brings back memories of my old man singing this when he’d walk through the door after work. I am pretty sure one of the radio stations here in Ohio used it as their rush hour traffic report music, so it was always the last song that he’d hear in the car. LOL. :)

“Faces”

Richard: Do me a favor. Don’t be silly anymore. Just be yourself.
Jeannie: But I am myself. Who else would I be?
Richard: I’m serious.
Jeannie: Definition of serious: Blah blah blah blah …

– John Cassavetes, “Faces”

A few months after filmmaker John Cassavetes’s death in 1989, someone had the great idea of showing several of his films in theaters throughout the nation. It was a fitting tribute, and a necessary one, since Cassavetes demanded that his works not be shown on television, even after his death. This request was his final attack at Hollywood.

When the retrospective came around Sacramento, I caught his 1968 film, “Faces,” at a small suburban theater in the middle of a summer day. The theater was less than half-full. The audience looked young. Probably like me, they only heard of the director’s name but have not seen any of his movies.

After the house lights dimmed, the projector rolled and the film began. The first 20 minutes were mind-boggling – the black-and-white film was grainy and at times overexposed; the sound was full of echo and … my God, was this movie overdubbed? It seemed parts of it were. The characters on-screen – two middle-aged businessmen (John Marley and Fred Draper) and a 28-year-old blonde (Gena Rowlands) – had just left a bar and were continuing their fun at her apartment. They told bad jokes, ran through horrible college routines, and sang loudly off-key. The scene felt like it’s taking for hours, then suddenly one of the men noticed that he was being left out in the fun. Jealous, he went in for the kill. “So what do you charge, Jeannie?” he asked the woman. Time came to a halt. Suddenly insults were flying and wounds ripped open. Right then the film became interesting, although I felt I shouldn’t be watching it. It was so unsettling, yet my eyes were hooked on the screen.

The first three-fourths of “Faces” are like that scene. They follow the same formula – a drunken gathering is held; there are lots of laughter, dancing, joking around; then suddenly someone says something inappropriate and all hell breaks loose. And the audience members become flies on the wall, witnessing these battles and their bloody aftermaths.

The film’s last act is the hangover. Emptiness settles in. The bathroom mirror reveals the lines on the faces. Someone tries to kill herself, but then again, all of them feel like they need to be saved. So they cling on to the closest person lying next to them.

Gena Rowlands once recalled a preview screening for one of Cassavetes’s film. She and Cassavetes were standing in the theater lobby as the film was rolling. In the middle of the screening, a man storms out of the theater. He is sweating bullets, obviously aggravated by what he was watching on screen. The man stood there in the lobby for a moment. He then wiped his brow, took a deep breath, and walked back into the theater. Cassavetes had a big grin on his face. He knew his film’s magic was working.

I knew how that stranger felt. After seeing “Faces” for the first time, I felt like I fell down a flight of stairs. I picked myself up, brushed myself off and walked out of the theater. The sun was setting, and I never felt more alive. But man, I could have used a drink.

So what film changed your life?

A short look at “Faces”:

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Thanks for turning me on to Cassavetes!!!

Night and Fog.

Love Cassavetes. Actually worked on his movie, “Love Streams”.
Some of the movies that have impacted me powerfully (“changed my life” might be taking it a bit far) are: 8 1/2, Amarcord, Apocalypse Now, Babette’s Feast, Born on the 4th of July, The Breakfast Club, Citizen Kane, Days of Heaven, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, Drugstore Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Elephant Man, The Emerald Forest, Eraserhead, Farewell My Concubine, Frida, Groundhog Day, In America, The Last Picture Show, The Last Wave, L’Aventurra, Lawrence of Arabia, Let The Right One In, Little Big Man, Manhattan, Man On A Wire, The Man Who Would Be King, Mephisto, Midnight Cowboy, Monsoon Wedding, One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest, Phenomenon, Platoon, Pulp Fiction, Risky Business, Scent Of A Woman, Searching For Bobby Fisher, The Shawshank Redemption, The Stuntman, Swept Away, Tender Mercies, Terms of Endearment, Unstrung Heroes, Wings of Desire, Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously.

The Riff

The bed isn’t as soft as it should be.

It’s a regular futon mattress up on a wooden frame, bought years ago for guests to sleep on during the cold nights in that San Francisco flat. I wish I bought a better bed – a full king-size that would barely fit the room in which I’m currently staying. But for now this will have to do.

I sit on the bottom right corner of the mattress. I am facing the dusty white wall. An old electric fan is blowing beneath my chin. The acoustic guitar rests on my leg. I lean against its back. My eyes gaze up to the ceiling as I search for the chords to an old ballad.

I now stare at a crack in the wall as if the answer was hidden there, peeking though, waiting until it is time to crawl out into the open. I strum several chords to find the right key. I hum a simple melody, which is at first stolen. The melody twists, turns, hiccups, falls into something new.

A line enters my head – a line I had heard, or misheard, a day before. The line floats inside my head. A new line follows to respond to the first one. The lines connect and dance along the melody. Then another line enters his head, then another, then another. I close my eyes.

The crack is not needed anymore. I have found the answer and am moving towards it …

A riff that led to an answer:

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Wow. You’re really good! Reminds me in some ways of the music made by one of my heroes, Paul Westerberg. Beauty and pathos combined with powerful riffage. Thanks, Mark.

~rm …encore (that’s a lit bic lighter by the way)

Pieces is so dramatic and it resonates between the ears like a silent reminder of what was and what could be.

This piece is a definite keeper~

Bravo Mark!

Thanks gang. And @ dangerousideas: Paul Westerberg is one of my influences.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

I must have been in ninth grade. My mother was driving me to Rio Americano High School in this big-ass baby-shit-tan station wagon. The radio was tuned in to KZAP-FM (98.5) with morning deejay Kevin “Boom Boom” Anderson. Good ol’ “Boom Boom,” who would years later be fired for staging a “Jimi Hendrix choke-off contest” on the air, began the hour with Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” The second the band got to the chorus, “Everybody must get stoned,” my mother blew up, cursing under her breath at “Boom Boom” for playing such a vile drug-promoting song. I’ve never seen her so pissed off.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” isn’t even my favorite Bob Dylan song – it probably ranks somewhere to the top 20 – but back then, at that moment, I thought that was the greatest piece of music in the whole wide world. Ah, the power of rock ‘n’ roll.

Years later I realized what the song really meant. Despite its title (whatever the hell it really means) and the way ol’ Bob and those Nashville session players played like drunks in a local tavern (the musicians switched instruments for shits and giggles), the song is really about suffering, the suffering of being constantly criticized for “trying to be so good,” for “playing your guitar,” for “being sent down to your grave,” and for, well, just for being human. The song uses the word “stoned” in the biblical sense, like the way the public used to execute prisoners by stoning them.

During the time he wrote the song, ol’ Bob was in the middle of his infamous 1966 British tour with the Hawks, where he was frequently booed by folk-obsessing folks for plugging in his Stratocaster. There were catcalls and death threats, and I bet Bob and the Hawks felt like the stones were flying every time they went on stage. Of course that tour ended with a concert in Manchester, in which some anti-Semite called Dylan a “Judas.” Bob called the heckler “a liar,” turned to the Hawks to “play fucking loud” and threw out “Like a Rolling Stone” like a cannonball into the protesters.

What’s an artist to do but to follow his muse, whether the public, including my own mother, liked it or not? And why not? Everybody must get stoned sometime in life.

So have you ever been “stoned” (in the biblical sense) before? Tell me about it.

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stoned and blown away the first time i heard his seven curses. and also lstening for the first time to blood on the tracks. a rock to the head.

Ah, yes. “Seven Curses” is a great unknown Dylan song. The way he sings the last verse is heartbreaking. Of course, “Blood on the Tracks” is one of the best breakup LPs.

“The Saddest Bar in the World”

Candle shaking and guttering all over the place, lower now, old arm tired, takes it in the other hand and holds it high again, that’s it, that was always it, night, and the embers cold, and the glim shaking in your old fist, saying, Please! Please!

– Samuel Beckett, “Embers”

Having drinks at The Griffin, a pseudo-medieval castle-like tavern in Los Angeles, my friend and I were talking about bars. Real bars, I mean. You know, dives. And instantly, I remembered the saddest bar in the world: The Embers.

It was in my second year in San Francisco. My brother and I walked into The Embers, a shallow grave of a joint located on Irvine Street in Fog City’s Inner Sunset district. This bar was the antithesis – no, wait, the Antichrist – of all the trendy bars in town.

There were no beautiful people inside this bar. No polo shirts, hair gel, gold watches or bright color sweaters. There were no neon signs, no mirror balls, no strobe lights. No valets, no bouncers, no coat check girls. No cell phones, no TV sets, no Internet. No business whatsoever, except the business of drinking.

The other patrons that night were two greasy-haired zombies, belching away over Marlboros and stale pretzels. The gray-haired bartender, who was wearing the same 49er T-shirt he wore before Joe Montana played for the team, served us warm beer, using paper towels as coasters. Other than that, the only things moving in this place were ghosts and spiders in the dark corners.

Pretty depressing, right? But wait, here’s the kicker: All along the walls of this bar were clown paintings. Probably 50 of them. And these oil-based harlequins weren’t even smiling.

Now you would think there would be at least a good story on how these canvases got there – like the answer to those strange statues on Easter Island. Well, you would be wrong. Someone came in and left behind a portrait of some ugly-ass clown. Then in the course of few years, patrons kept dropping off their own Emmett Kelly masterpieces, sort of as a cruel joke.

And like all jokes, there are always punch lines. In the mid-‘90s, Rolling Stone magazine interviewed the great San Francisco drinking band American Music Club. When asked about his favorite local bar, lead singer Mark Eitzel said, “The Embers, of course. It’s the saddest bar in the world. If you have a few drinks there, you feel like you’re in the last place that still exists on the face of the earth.”

That interview was the beginning of the end for The Embers. Suddenly the bar was hopping, packed with young urban hipsters, rich kids, and, egad, couples! A few years later, some investors came along and bought off the place. The Embers closed its doors in 1996 and reopened as some trendy bar, which survived only a few years. Today, a Pluto’s Restaurant stands on its burial ground.

Now that’s really sad.

So what is your favorite bar?

“Outside this bar, there’s no one alive/Outside this bar, how does anyone survive?”

– Mark Eitzel, “Outside This Bar” 

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Funny story, but sadly not an uncommon one. Being from SF, I have a handful of favorites, and most of them are in and around my old neighborhood. The Argus. And the Lone Palm– I like the old deco bar.

Thank you Mark. What a great story. Must say, you’re one of the best writers here.

Personally, my favorite bars are the ones I’ve had memorable times in. At least half of them are long gone. Now that I can’t drink alcohol anymore, not that I was ever an alcoholic, bars mean less to me than they did before. Saddest bar? Couldn’t say. I never frequented them. Too depressing. As Hemingway wrote, give me a “clean well-lighted place”. They’re better for forgetting.

Saddest thing I’ve ever seen? Other than the bodies of a few friends who died for nothing, I’d say the set of false teeth I noticed sitting next to a battered up old alto sax in the window of a Vegas pawnshop.
a Vegas pawnshop.

Thanks for the great story Mark~

I don’t get out too much these days and never really did much drinking in my younger days..mostly because I couldn’t afford to, :)

But when I did go out with friends I’d hit the Backstage on Culver Blvd. across from Sony Studios.

R~

Seattle:
For music – High Dive
For food – Toulouse/Palace Kitchen/Ocho
For drinks – Zig Zag/Bastille

LA:
For music – Club Good Hurt
For food – I forget
For drinks – I did not appreciate real drinks enough then for it to apply

Thanks for the comments, gang!
@ lisamc2010: I remember the Lone Palm, God, I haven’t been there in a while. Need to make a trip up North soon.
@ dangerousideas: I must say, that image of false teeth next to the sax, that’s pretty sad.

The Bee Gees Started a Joke

“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”

– Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot”

“I started a joke/which started the whole world crying …”

– The Bee Gees, “I Started a Joke”

 

The press room at the Los Angeles County Building was a ghost town. Decades ago, the place was hopping with nicotine-breath, bourbon-filled journalists finding unseen angles to a story. But in 2007, I was one of a few cub reporters incarcerated in individual glass cages on that floor. No one really talked to each other; we were just floating heads, staring at computer screens and TV monitors and reading endless press releases from politicians.

One October evening, after my article rumbled through the ticker tape machine, a sign that I could take a break for a few minutes, I left my office and headed down to the cafeteria in the basement. Another dead place, at least during the afternoon. The grey vault had nothing but leftover fruits, because seriously, government officials don’t eat fruit. I grabbed the least bruised apple and went to the register. The clerk was too tired to smile as she was ringing me up.

Behind her, a cheap radio was cutting through the cold atmosphere. The song: The Bee Gees’ 1969 minor hit, “I Started a Joke.” I took my apple and headed upstairs.

On the lonely elevator ride back, I stood there, watching the numbers slowly light up. And Robin Gibb’s wavering falsetto echoed in my head. What the hell was he saying?

So Robin starts this joke – is he telling one? And what kind of a joke is it? It must have horrible because it causes “the whole world” to cry. The public weeping makes him cry, which in turn, causes the world to laugh. He recognizes, only too late, that “the joke was on [him].” But what’s the joke? The same joke he told? Or does the joke symbolize Life itself?

The middle-eighth of the song is just as confounding. So he wipes his eyes and looks up. Is he walking up from a dream? Falling out of bed, he “hurts his head.” Does he bump it on, say, a dresser? No, no. He hurts his head “on things that [he] said.” But what did he say? Was it the bad joke? And does this headache lead to his death at the end of the song, a death that starts “the whole world living”? So, what, now he’s Christ?! Is this The Greatest Joke of All Time? “Dying’s easy; it’s comedy that’s hard,” as the old saying goes. But it’s not as hard as deciphering a Bee Gees song.

Okay, I’m over-thinking this. It’s just a pop song. But this song – as well as all of the band’s early works – were performed so Baroque-ly and sung so melodramatically. Before they wore polyester shirts and gold medallions and started jive talking, the Brothers Gibb sang songs about executions (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”), homesickness (“Massachusetts”), suicidal heartbreak (“To Love Somebody”), and of course mining accidents (“New York Mining Disaster 1941”). And Robin Gibb played a great sad clown – the Pagliaccio of the British Invasion.

“I Started a Joke” has been stuck in my head since that October evening. It’s like a little ball bouncing around in my psyche. Even as I’m writing this, the song comes bouncing back – Robin’s cry, the clumsy rhythm section, the joke, the mystery.

I think the joke is on me.

So tell me a joke!

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I’m not gonna tell you a joke, but I am gonna tell how much I like reading your blogs and all of the fantastic musical information you offer up. Never knew who sang this song, but I like it (actually), although I can see how over-thinking it could really rattle one’s brain :-o

Early Bee Gees!

My father is a very huge Bee Gee’s fan, and I absolutely love this song.

“Laugh and whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” I think is the whole meaning behind this song, and the whole hurting your head when you get out of bed I think is about over thinking things and the things you say,but I am no music scholar haha.

The joke is that the people that tend to make you laugh the most (aka comedians) are the one’s who tend to be most miserable.

Laughter~

Yes, it is the best medicine…

Take large doses twice daily~

I remember in the early 80’s, all the people from our electronic music studio at Hampshire College went to the Synclavier factory in Vermont to look into getting one for our school studio. At the time Synclavier was this cutting-edge extravagantly expensive sampler – it cost as much as a small house, and it seemed like a long shot that the school would actually get one. (Today, of course, you can’t give them away as paperweights or doorstops, and your average laptop can do everything it did.)

It turned out the Bee Gees had just been to the factory earlier that week to look at one too, and when we were told that, everyone started snickering and rolling their eyes. The Synclavier rep turned to us and said, “you laugh, but those guys are amazing musicians! They’ll cut you up and eat you alive!” It became the running joke among the people in the school music studio; “that guy will cut you up and eat you alive” never failed to bring a snicker.

I’d never heard that earlier song by them, interesting to hear where they came from. Thanks.

The World’s Greatest Guitarist!

Hang out in downtown San Francisco long enough and miracles will occur. Well, okay, perhaps “miracles” is too strong of a word, but I usually find something damn interesting to do there.

Ten years ago, I was killing time near Union Square and I wandered into this small gallery on Post Street on a whim. Glancing at a few abstract paintings that really weren’t doing anything for me, I overheard the gallery owner tell his friend about this music show happening upstairs that night; some guitarist named Fred Frith was going to play. The musician’s name didn’t ring a bell, but I decided to take the owner’s advice, unbeknownst to him, paid the entrance fee, and walked up the narrow staircase.

The room was as big as a water closet. A few color photographs hung on the mostly bare white walls. Five rows of white plastic chairs lined the floor, and the “stage” was nothing more than a corner of the room. By the time I sat down in the front row, a large group of old hippies and indie-rock geeks headed into the room, scrambling for some seats. Suddenly the place was packed. I was wedged between two folks who apparently decided not to bathe that day. The guy behind me is coughing down my neck. At the end of the row, someone was making loud bird noises with his teeth. Another couple was whining about the art downstairs. And all I was thinking was, when the living hell is this show going to start.

A chubby, Ozzy Osborne T-shirt-wearing, soul-patched music nerd addressed the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we are pleased to present the world’s greatest guitarist, Fred Frith.” Soul-patched Dude better be right!

Frith sauntered onstage, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but no shoes. He was completely barefooted. He smiled like the Cheshire cat. Something was cooking in his mind. He sat down on a stool. At his feet was a live sampler, used to record and loop sounds; by his side sat a small wooden box. He picked up this beat-up Gibson and strummed a few jazz chords. He paused, and then strummed the same chords again. And then a few more times. Finally he used his toes to press on the sampler and looped the chords. And then the fun began.

He laid the guitar on his lap and began pulling out random objects from the box. He threw coins on the guitar’s neck and rubbed ball bearings on its wooden body. He strung pens, drumsticks and pieces of yarn in between its strings and pulled on them until the instrument cried for help. He flogged the body with paint brushes and rulers. In between the whipping, he played an occasional blues melody or strummed a couple more cords. For over an hour, he squeezed out every little clamor from that Gibson, looping any sound he thought was worthy enough to record. Sure, this wasn’t toe-tapping music, but hell, it was riveting. Every one in that audience was fixated on every bang, howl, cackle, rumble, squeal, roar, and yawp. Frith created this sonic landscape that rocked and rolled inside that tiny room.

As a teenager, Frith played in a Beatles cover band in England. He later moved into different styles, including folk, classical flamenco and Eastern music, and helped form the progressive rock group, Henry Cow. Since the late 1970s, his focus has been on improvisational avant-jazz. When I saw him, he was the artist-in-residence at Mills College.

He has released over 50 solo albums and collaborated with countless others, such as Richard Thompson, John Zorn, Brian Eno, and the Residents. But I couldn’t tell you where to start if you want to hear his work, because I haven’t a clue. Tell you what, the next time the World’s Greatest Guitarist is playing in your town, just catch the show.

So what was the most riveting musical performance you’ve ever seen?

Just a sample of Fred Frith’s work:

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Isn’t it funny that when we keep our minds open, we experience amazing things? Fortunately I’ve experienced many amazing musical performances through the years and was going to see fairly major concerts from the time I was 13 or 14. I’ve been amazed and surprised many times, but funnily enough, the experience that this brings to mind is when a friend of mine invited me to go see Yani last year. Now the truth is, that like almost anyone else that will read this, I had never really heard Yani, but I had certainly heard of him, and not in ways that would make a young music lover (well…young in comparison to Yani’s audience!), rush out and buy a ticket. But, outside of heavy metal, there’s not much music that I don’t enjoy live, so I was totally game.

The net net is that Yani on his Voices tour was magnificent. Accompanied by 4 (or was it 6?) vocalists who performed lyrics written especially for Yani’s songs, the show was stunning. Beautifully produced with brilliant visual effects, I, like everyone else in the audience at the Nikon Theater in Los Angeles, was entranced. And reminded once again that keeping an open mind yields surprisings results.

Thanks for another great post.

I’ve had the great fortune to see some really great acts. One that sticks out in my mind was about ten years ago. This guy asked if I wanted to go see this singer/songwriter perform as he was going to be videoing the performance for work. I tagged along and sat alone in this place that literally fit 30 people.

Here comes Ellis Paul, in from Boston, with just an acoustic guitar. He begins quietly plucking and in that moment, I was riveted. I sat forward in my chair and I still remember the first three songs I heard but the first song remains my favorite, “Maria’s Beautiful Mess.” His lyrics to just about everything are too much.

Look him up on You Tube.