Sunday, March 25, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Six: Petaluma, Without Pete

She was ahead of me all the way out of San Francisco and onto the Golden Gate Bridge, where I couldn't pass her, a small Ford whose license frame had these words on it: "This rush ride is my blue dream." Halfway across the bridge, I saw a cop handcuffing a perfectly normal-looking young guy as tourists passed them on each side. I was back in California, all right, where weird stuff happens all around you and nobody thinks much about it.

My destination was Petaluma, former egg capitol of the U.S., now a bedroom community for San Francisco, which is a little over an hour's drive away. It's a much more suburban place than when I was last here in the early '70s, chauffeuring my British friend Pete Frame as he interviewed Norman Greenbaum, but traces of the past do still peep out.

It's kind of the gateway to the whole Sonoma/Napa wine country, too, which made this discovery on a streetcorner stand out.

Not a message that gets much traction in a place that's not only one of America's great wine-growing regions, but also one of the centers of its craft beer movement.

It's been about a decade since I was last in California, north or south, and in the interim a number of things I used to enjoy have disappeared. My friend Bob, for instance, a talented chef and polymath who became the art director of the online magazine Salon, died, thereby eliminating a California stop as an imperative during U.S. visits during which I refuelled on his wit and wisdom and that of his wife Lori and teenaged daughter Cady. Another loss was Village Music, the record store in which I learned a huge part of what I know about the history of American popular music. It closed its doors a couple of years back and its one-of-a-kind owner, John Goddard "retired" to selling his stock via mail-order out of his warehouse. A documentary film about the place has been shot, although I'm not in it, except in the credits, where I Kickstartered in a few bucks.

But I was determined to come to California on this journey to the States, and Lori and Cady opened up their home to me ("Petaluma is an hour from anyplace you'd want to be around here," Lori said, and she's right), so I've spent the week based here. It's a good resting place after the hurly-burly of SXSW, and it's full of American stuff to wonder at and explore. (Trader Joe's: what a weird store!) Plus, it's still not built up enough to be unpleasant: the rural and the suburban still seem to have a nice balance, unlike Marin County further south, where the yuppies just rode roughshod over everything.

The farmers are still a real presence, and there are a couple of places where you can buy a bag of dogfood for your dog or a truckload of alfalfa hay for your cattle. One evening, driving to Santa Rosa, we passed a small slaughterhouse, which Lori said had had some Nimby problems with some of the folks recently arrived from the city, but for the moment was still there, providing a local, well-inspected source of meat for those who chose to seek it out: hamburger with a history.

It's a kind of California you don't get to see closer to the bigger cities, where you can see a Mexican seafood joint with crudely painted octopi and fish on its windows and go in and get a real live vuelva a la vida, that old-time Cal-Mex seafood cocktail loaded with bits of octopus, scallops, crab, shrimp and chunks of avocado in a sauce that's got tomato juice, cumin, cilantro, and citrus in it. The one Tony served me at El Playa Azul, his joint downtown, was spectacular:

Maybe that's why I used the pseudonym Petaluma Pete in the 1970s when I first wrote about food for City, a magazine about San Francisco which my friends who worked there and I helped Francis Ford Coppola acquire. Petaluma in those days sort of signified "hick," and might have been my way of taking a stand against what I thought then to be the over-fancification of the local food scene at the hands of Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse brigade. I was wrong about that, but not about the first piece Pete did for City, in which I tried a new product that was being test-marketed in San Francisco and a few other cities in the country and pronounced it a vile brew, an utter failure. I'm not sure what it says about me or the world of food that both Waters and Miller Lite have survived to the present day and I'm willing to admit I was wrong about one of them.

Certainly the Petaluma gastronomic scene has grown with the times; the first meal I had here was in Central Market, an up-to-date joint with locally-sourced food, some of which was cooked in a wood-burning oven burning almond wood, of all things. The second meal was my own pastafazool made with a local Italian sausage, that deceptively-named only-in-America adaptation of southern Italian salsiccie. With that we had a bottle of 2003 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville that was spectacular, complex, and yet not too subtle, in the grand old California tradition.

Northern California's been sunny and cold (right up to today, when it turned rainy and cold), and one day I met for lunch in San Francisco with my former next-door neighbor, the legendary Susie Friedman, who suggested we go to "new Chinatown" on Clement Street and see what we could scare up for lunch. We wound up in a classic dim sum restaurant with the odd name House of Banquet. (Although the website's English bit refers to "authentic Chinese food," the big sign announcing that they'd been chosen as one of the 100 best Chinese restaurants in America by some organization I've never heard about, called it "Americanized Chinese food," which may be, but certainly not in the chop suey way). The food was served upstairs in a mirrored room with a high ceiling, and we were about the only gwailo there. The ladies came by with carts laden with har gow, siu mai, and all the other greatest hits, we ordered a plate of pea shoots with garlic at our server's insistence, and we caught up. Good food, good company, and at the end of the day Susie snapped a decent picture of me just before I drove away.

Unfortunately, somewhere during that day I caught the cold that was going around the airplane I took from Texas, and so the next day's lunch, in Oakland with Charlie Haas, author of a wonderful novel about a vanished world (magazine publishing) called The Enthusiast, was much enjoyed but untasted. This was a shame, because it was at Nan Yang, whose business card claims they were the Bay Area's original Burmese restaurant, and it included a tea salad, which a half-Burmese friend once told me is called "the salad that promotes conversation." The fish-noodle soup was probably pretty good, too. The salad, though, did its work and after we conversed a lot, we went our separate ways and I spent the rest of the afternoon at art museums.

Charlie recommended the Berkeley Art Museum over the Oakland Museum, so I went there and it was evident that I was fated to go in because there was a parking spot right out front. (Actually, what it really meant was that it's spring break for the Berkeley students). The building is first-rate, raw concrete walls and superb lighting, suitable for a show of Tibetan Buddhist sculptures, approaches to abstract expressionism, or a huge show called State of Mind about conceptual art in California. That last is a good trick: part of the whole conceptual art deal is that it's not museum work, and often exists in the present. However, artists are usually not dumb, and realize that they're not going to get paid unless they document what they're doing, so we get several floors of videos, documents, photos, and other objects relating to the actions, and famous folks like Chris Burden, William Wegman (who was Californian before he was New York) and Ed Ruscha. I was rather surprised to find a section devoted to the Ant Farm, whom I knew when we all lived in Sausalito (they were down on Gate 5), but never considered to be conceptual artists because they actually made things, like their giant inflatables and the world-famous Cadillac Ranch. I still have a bunch of their documentation in my storage area in Texas, and this show is a spur to making me think it should maybe be somewhere where scholars can pore over it and perhaps come to the same conclusion I did all those years ago: these goofballs sure are fun.

The Oakland Museum, on the other hand, suffers from trying to do too much at once, at least the bit I saw. I walked in and there was a ticket desk, but it was closed, which I assumed was because the museum would close in an hour. However, there was a door that led to the floor with the art, so I walked in and spent a pleasant thirty minutes watching the museum juggle educating a pretty unsophisticated assumed audience about art, make statements about California, make statements about identity politics, and try to justify a collection that's even worse than the one I saw at the SFMOMA the last time I was here. I assumed that I was welcome, the two guards roaming around with iPads were very friendly, and it wasn't until one of them directed me to the floor below, where the history collection was, that I came to the ticket booth that was open and I realized I was supposed to have paid ten bucks to get in, as I had at Berkeley. Oops! But I had places to go, so I went and I hope the nice guards don't lose their jobs.

Tomorrow, I leave Petaluma for the South Bay, check in at a Travelodge near the airport, and leave the next morning early. (I didn't want to risk a hair-raising ride from Petaluma to the airport with a rent car to turn in). There'll be a Chinese meal, and then I fly to New York, to catch a rare solo performance by Dickie Landry and...well, I'm not sure what. The trip is half over now, though, and I'm already itching to see spring in Languedoc. But the U.S. Tour 2012 continues!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012 Part Five: Food, Miettes, a Camel

So you're walking from one place to another at SXSW -- the BMI party to Ray Benson's new bar, to be precise -- and, as often happens, you see a camel:

The camel is in a trailer attached to a truck. It looks unimpressed, something camels are good at.

To be continued.

* * * 

After the gruelling social events, there was, as one would hope, dinner. This time it was at a brand-new Japanese restaurant, Komé, which, fortunately enough, has opened very close to my hotel. I say "fortunately," because although they don't do it in the evening, they have a ramen and udon service at noon, and I've often found myself stumped for a lunch place in this godforsaken corner of Austin, particularly on Tuesdays, when Tâm Deli on far north Lamar, the best Vietnamese lunch joint in town, is closed. 

We ordered omikase style, chef's choice, and I specifically requested gyoza, the pan-fried dumplings, to start, because the ones I'd had in New York were so good. These had equally good filling, but tougher skins. I do wonder how the New York folks do what they do, because theirs were the best I've ever had. But the rest of what we were served -- fatty tuna sashimi, salmon sushi three ways, including a hot one with fat underneath which just dissolved in the mouth, extremely tender beef on a brochette, some beef sashimi in a very tangy garlic sauce reminiscent of some horse sashimi I'd had in Japan ten years ago, and, um, a couple of other things, including a roll made from grilled eel. Those who dared (not I) had a slice of saké cheesecake with preserved ginger for dessert. The whole thing, including alcohol, came to about $50 each before tip, the waitress (Allee, as I remember, although I could be wrong) was extremely knowledgeable, and the whole thing was perfect. They've opened recently, and seem to be doing very well, and I highly recommend them. 

* * *

One thing I've never gotten in anything like a canonical version in Austin is fried chicken, so imagine my delight the next night when I found out that dinner was at Lucy's Fried Chicken. This place has only been open eight weeks, and shows every sign of catching on. There's indoor and outdoor dining, a nice balance between tradition and innovation, and a jukebox with a fine selection of Texas music, new and old. 

I started with the fried deviled eggs, which sound better on paper than they proved in practice: the breading scooted right off of them when they were cut, and you had to cut them because they were way too big to stick in your mouth whole. The deviling part, though, was truly satanic, unlike the polite filling you'd get at a church picnic. Zowee! Highly recommended, structural flaws notwithstanding. Next everyone got fried chicken, duh. To my way of thinking the batter was too darkly fried, and it was also saltier than I'd have liked. Sides included sweet potatoes whipped with "Mexican" Coke (ie, made with cane sugar, not HFCS: I can only get the cane sugar kind in France, but Texans now have to rely on Mexico for the real thing ) and a potato salad with crab boil (a spice mixture) in it. It was fine, and I was pissed when I went outside for two minutes to guide a friend to the table (he had just gotten off a plane and wasn't familiar with South Austin) and returned to find my uneaten chicken and potato salad whisked away. The service was, as they say, attentive and friendly, but maybe a tad too much on the attentive side. Let's hope this institution survives, too. 

*  *  *

The next day, I managed a trifecta, almost a fourfecta, of legendary Texas guitarists. Billy Gibbons, of ZZ Top fame, was rolling out his new line of barbeque sauce at a local restaurant, and I now wish I had stolen a bottle, because I'm not going to be able to get this in France: it was, um, assertive, but in a very good way. I spotted Van Wilks hanging around as we came in, then as we moved upstairs to sample the sauce on some excellent barbequed pork, a trio featuring Jimmy Vaughn began to play. I mingled and hung for a while, but there was stuff to do, so as I left, up the stairs came Billy himself. We hadn't seen each other in decades, and he shook my hand and said "I'll call you in a minute, man." Still haven't heard from him, but I know how long Texas minutes can be. 

That night, eating at the Evangeline Café way south in town, Cajun food, pretty good, but not as good as I make, even in France, it turned out that there was live music after the kitchen closed, and the night's entertainment was Bill Kirchen, whom I first met 42 years ago when he played with the Commander Cody band in California. I had to leave before he started, but we're going to see each other in California next week. 

* * * 

Finally, thanks to Chef George, I can announce that I've found (with his help) easily the best Indian restaurant in Austin. The Maharaja Indian Café isn't going to win any awards for decor or art direction, and you have to order from a counter and then wait for your meal at a funky table, but oh, man, is it ever worth the wait. The folks who run it are from Goa, a former Portugese colony in the south of India, and you just know it's going to be good when you look at the menu and there's a whole entire goat section. Goat four ways! Kozhi Varutha Curry aka Chicken Chettinand, which (I didn't have it) can be skin-peelingly hot and delicious. Goan fish curry! Dosas and uttapams! And cold chaats, incuding Sev Batuta Puri, which are little balls stuffed with potatoes and spices and doused with yogurt and tamarind chutney, and the more sedate (and heavier) Dahi Wada, which are lentil dumplings given the same basic treatment. Boy, if I lived in the neighborhood, the takeout number would be on my speed dial. They've also got a very nice-sounding buffet from 11am-2pm Tues-Fri, and 12-3 on Sat-Sun, with off-menu items (and more of 'em on weekends). 

And if you're in the neighborhood, the same shopping center (8650 Spicewood Springs at 183, by the Big Lots store) has a Chinese noodle joint that's only open for lunch, which I ate at a couple of years ago and almost lost my mind, it was so good. It makes me wonder if the Mexican joint in the strip is also cosmically good. 

Almost makes me wish I was staying another few days...

* * * 

I'm not, though: Monday morning sees me flying to San Francisco for the next chapter of the U.S. Tour, and I bet there'll be more good eats there, along with some nice photos if the weather clears up some. Although rain can be a blessing: Austin's coming off of a two-year drought, and this poor guy didn't get the memo about parking under a tree where grackles roost in Texas: 

If he can see to drive to the carwash, it's going to cost him several trips through. 

* * * 

Oh, and the camel? I dropped off my 1962 Gibson J-50 guitar today, recently restored to a very fine state by master luthier Bill Giebitz, at South Austin Music, where they're holding it for me on consignment ($2800 and worth every penny -- which pennies I'm going to need before this gruelling tour is over), and headed down Lamar towards my next destination. Stopped at the light at Mary waiting to turn left, I saw the camel, happily giving rides in the parking lot across the way. He looked just as unimpressed as he did in the truck. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012 Part Four: Texas, Food and Miettes

New York sighting: The Long Island Railroad can take you from very near JFK airport to Penn Station in one nonstop journey, and on it you'll pass a large Presbyterian church. On its side, in non-movable letters, is the most enigmatic Bible verse I've seen in a long time, albeit one which sort of makes sense for New York:

"But you who pass by, to you all this means nothing."

My guess is that, if you take this back to the original Greek or Aramaic or whatever, it might just be translatable as that wonderful New York mantra: "Fuck you, you fucking fuck."

Okay, that's today's Bible lesson.

* * *

Austin thinks it's in France. After getting here and getting settled in and all, I called up Chef George on Monday to see if we could hit some barbeque joints for lunch. First stop was John Mueller's trailer on S. 1st St. The son of the legendary Louie Mueller of Taylor, John had a great shop here a few years back which disappeared after being open just long enough for me to have lunch there. Boy, was that good. Now, this place is reaping the kudos. But it's closed on Monday. And Tuesday, for that matter. Then there was the thought of hitting Franklin's, because he's doubled his pit capacity and allegedly the lines aren't as long. But no, he's closed on Monday. 

"Well," George said, "that taco truck out in Montopolis that has the quail enchiladas doesn't put on airs. It'll be open." So we drove and drove and drove and pretty soon we were in Montopolis and found the laundromat where this place sets up and it was closed on Monday. 

It's okay for the French to do this. It's part of being French: why start the working week by working? But you expect better from Texans. However, on the way to the nonexistent quail, we'd passed a place I'd never seen called Ray's. At least it was open (or at least it had cars parked in front of it). We went in the door and...

Oh, my. Tender, moist, flavorful brisket. Fall-off-the-bone ribs, including an end-piece that was pure heaven. And -- and Texas barbeque fanatics will understand this -- even the sausage was good. Ray is a genial guy with a sure hand when it comes to meat. The idea was we'd try this and then George would take home the leftovers. George left empty-handed, albeit very, very happy. As was I. Sauce from that squeeze thingy down there in the lower left was just enough to let you know it was there, but not overly obtrusive. 

Ray's is on the corner of Montopolis and (I swear) Monsanto. He's open from 11 to 3 Monday thru Friday. And yes, he does catering. 

*  *  *

Stuff always happens when I leave a place. I left Austin and it turned into a food town. I left Berlin and there are Mexican restaurants -- good ones -- there now. Unfortunately, some of the more interesting stuff I've heard of is happening at food trailers, and it's currently cold and rainy in Austin. Nobody's complaining, since they're coming out of a two-year drought, but it does make it difficult to seek that genre of food out. So instead I've been visiting some old favorites and taking recommendations from friends. 

One friend wanted to go to Hai Ky, voted Best Vietnamese 2011 by the Austin Chronicle. I guess a lot of students who don't know much about Vietnamese food must be voting, or else this is the only Vietnamese place they've ever been. There's phô, of course, and a lot of Chinese stuff as well. But my friend had a secret weapon: number 101 on the menu is something called Hu Tieu Ap Chao Chay, which is like nothing else I've had. Really thick rice noodles are cooked and laid on top of one another, and then the mass is chopped into squares along with other vegetables, stir-fried, and sauced. 101 gets you tofu, but there's also a meats version with shrimp, pork, and chicken. It's not going to change your life for $8.99, but it's worth investigating for its fascinating mix of textures and tastes if you're at one of their outlets. 

Another friend met me for dinner at a place she chose, full well knowing that I'm trying to avoid French  food, which I can get anytime in France, on this trip. I won't embarrass her, but the place we went, Eleven Plates, was, for all intents and purposes, a French restaurant. The wines (both of the ones I had were excellent, a zinfandel I didn't recognize, and an Olema Cabernet) were well-chosen, and the dishes were perfectly cooked. I remember Patricia Wells saying that if you want to scare a French chef, you should order roast chicken, so I did. It was fine. Being a nice guy, as I said, I'm not going to embarrass my dining partner, but, ahem, where are we going next? That's not French?

And in other dining-out news, my old friend Sappachai, who's had his ups and downs in the Austin food world ever since he was passed over for promotion at his grocery store job in my neighborhood, probably because he wasn't American enough for the brass 35 years ago, has had another bump in his career when his wife, with whom he managed the three Madam Mam's Thai restaurants, featuring the fantastic cuisine of northern Thailand where they were both from, divorced him. She got two of the restaurants, but I'm happy to report that Sap's Fine Thai Cuisine, at 4514 Westgate Boulevard, the one he wound up with, maintains the quality in fine style. Even though he reported to my friends last night that we've known each other for 35 years (impossible, since one look at him and you know he can't be that old), I'm going back before I leave. 

*  *  *

However, some food things in Austin never change. I was stuck in traffic (another thing that doesn't change, but only gets worse) the other day behind a car with a bumper sticker that said "I [heart] TOFU!" and, with traffic moving so slowly, I had plenty of time to think about that. I mean, there are plenty of Ron Paul bumper stickers (unaccountably, lots of the local geeks love him), and I saw one touting black powder and the NRA this afternoon, but...well, I like tofu, myself, with a good ma po do fu or homestyle bean-curd showing up often enough in my own cooking, but a bumper sticker? What kind of person gets enthusiastic enough about tofu to stick that on their car? 

Ah, well. It's only Austin. I'm slowly entering the waters of SXSW Interactive for my other blog, and will spend most of tomorrow there, if all goes as planned. And the tour goes on. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Three: Art, Travel

I wasn't quite sure what to do. The hotel required me to check out by noon, and my plane didn't leave until 8:20pm. I'm an avid enough museum-goer, but was without an idea for one to go to. Sort of out of cowardice about having to make a decision, and after finding out that the Museum of the City of New York was way the hell uptown, I settled for the Museum of Modern Art.

MOMA has always been an odd place for me. For one thing, it was the only museum in New York that I went to that charged money. Big money, too: something like $8, when I was a kid. When I worked at the Metropolitan, though, we got a Museum Employees Identification Card which got us in free to any museum in town charging money, so I'd go frequently, and ogle a first-rate, if stuck in time, collection.

Now there's a whole new building with an apartment tower stuck in the middle of it, and the reviews when it reopened were devastating, although it was so long ago now and I hadn't had any recent experience to judge the criticisms against that I can't remember what the foofaraw was about. But I had about six hours to burn, so I figured why not. There was also something I'd read in the New Yorker about a photo exhibition of John Cohen's work, so I scrawled the info onto a pad, left my luggage with the bellman at the hotel, and headed uptown.

It was a good choice. I took the elevator to the top floor, and went into the current blockbuster, the Cindy Sherman retrospective. Sherman has always fascinated me, an artist who takes pictures of herself made up as any number of other people, but never pictures of...herself. (A recent Times story had a picture of her by someone else, the first I'd ever seen. She doesn't look anything like those people!) She came to my attention via her justifiably famous series of "Untitled Film Stills," back in the punk era, but I'd only paid attention sporadically since then. Her stuff didn't seem to come to Europe, or at least not at the shows I attended, so I knew her mostly from the odd photo reproduced in the press. Seeing them all together, though, especially the post "Film Stills" period, with large, glossy color prints, paradoxically made me less, not more, interested in her than before. Other than finding newer and cleverer ways to disguise herself, was there anything happening in these pictures? There were ideas explored -- Cindy as a bunch of classic paintings; Cindy as clown; Cindy as rich women -- but besides Cindy, what was there? Invoking feminism, it seems to me, shuts off the discussion prematurely: yes, she's critiquing how women are portrayed in photography, but that's easy enough meat, and are those many shots of (Cindy as) middle-aged Long Island dowagers even critiques? Furthermore, critiques aren't exactly art itself. It stops short of art. After walking through the gallery (and love her or hate her, you'll find ample material to support your view), I felt like...I'd seen a bunch of glossy photographs of Cindy Sherman made up as a bunch of stuff. Um, okay. What's downstairs?

Oh, what was downstairs was James Rosenquist's F-111, one of my favorite paintings. It was hung in Leo Castelli's gallery in 1965, and was the subject of a brutal review in Time magazine, which I read. Some weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, three high school students from the suburbs walked up the stairs to Leo Castelli's gallery to see it, only to find the gallery closed. Castelli heard one of them trying the door, and opened it. "Can I help you?" he asked. I stammered something about wanting to see F-111 for myself, since I didn't believe it could be as bad as Time had made it sound and he ushered us all in to the gallery to take a look. And it wasn't, although all three of us were devoted peaceniks and compeltely against the Vietnam War, so we were inclined to be sympathetic. But we got the consumer critique along with the anti-war message and the message of the bright poppish colors, plus, of course, the mammoth size. Boy, is that sucker big. "Do you like Robert Lichstenstein?" Castelli asked, whipping out a soon-to-be-shipped copy of Dante with illustrations by the renowned Pop pioneer. And there was more. It was a magical afternoon, and I sure can't say anything against Rosenquist or F-111 to this day. Or Castelli, for that matter. It was nice to see.

From there it was a quick trip through the remembered favorites in the 20th Century Paintings and Sculpture galleries greeting other old friends and, as with the mammoth DeKooning Woman, meeting new ones I had ignored or hadn't figured out yet on previous visits. And I have to say, right up to where my frequent trips to MOMA ended, the collection is absolutely first-rate. The policy of switching works off meant some of my favorites weren't around (Yves Tanguy's Multiplication of the Arcs! That huge-ass black swipe of a Motherwell!), but there was certainly enough that I didn't feel cheated.

(There's Tanguy for you).

It's only when the collection gets into the era in which I wasn't visiting, basically from 1970 to the present, that I begin to wonder what's happening. Was there a boat they missed or something? Because my memory of that era doesn't really jibe with theirs. Hell, even the Metropolitan's work from that era beats some of these lackluster things. It's like there's some dull obligation to recognize AIDS and reply to the Gorrila Girls when they reminded them of how few females were in their collection, but the best works to remedy those situtations had already been sold. There are some good things, make no mistake: a first-rate Keith Haring mural, for instance, and three floating basketballs courtesy of Jeff Koons. Or maybe I was suffering from visual fatigue, although I don't think so. Anyway, from there I found the photographs, and a huge amount of space devoted to Sanja Ivekovic, one of the tiresome hectoring Eastern European post-Communist "political" artists I moved out of Berlin to avoid, and I began thinking about lunch.

Oh, but I also thought about John Cohen. Hm. Ten short blocks north on Madison. Okay, why not?

My decision was motivated by my discovery that some of the photos documenting Happenings I'd seen the day before were taken by Cohen, whom I'd first discovered as 1/3 of the great folk group the New Lost City Ramblers. I knew he made films and photos and also did field recording, but I'd been ignorant of the degree to which he'd been involved in the larger Bohemia of his era (he turns 80 this year). I also knew he was currently (sometimes) playing with Peter Stampfel (and Stampfel's 20-something daughter and some other crazed types) in a band called the Ether Frolic Mob, which I hope to see some day. It seems that Cohen gets more interesting by the day, so I rang the bell of the L. Parker Stephenson Gallery, was buzzed in, and entered a room hung with black and white photos like the above (used without permission but with a plea for forgiveness), of Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Gregory Corso, all no doubt plotting something nefarious. I was given a tour of the photos -- the earliest of Cohen's work, showing some street scenes in New Haven, taken when he was still at Yale, pictures of gypsies, and some remarkable shots grabbed at storefront churches during gospel programs -- by L. Parker Stephenson herself, which formed a nice framing parenthesis to my memories of Castelli. Gallerists: they're not all in it for the money, no matter what yesterday's stroll in Chelsea might lead one to believe. Anyway, this show's up until April 12, held over by popular demand, so get up there and check it out if you have the chance. Yes, it's early days, and yes, he'd get a far sight better, but this is still good stuff.

* * *

This proved the perfect way to waste the afternoon before heading to Austin. It occurred to me, typing the above, that the museum I need to hit next is the Whitney, because then maybe I'll get another clue to contemporary art acquisition politics in New York. I'll be back at the end of the month, but, after a 90 minute delay getting out of the gate, a short trip through the weather systems that spent most of yesterday destroying the Midwest and South, and a lot more flying, we landed in Austin after 1am, the rental car counters were all closed, and I took a cab to my friends' place. I scored a car this morning, and now I'm ready to rock, so maybe the next post will be...later. But there'll be one, no worry about that. See you then. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012: Part Two: Art, Food, Art, Food

My, how things change. There are now so many galleries clustered over by the waterfront in Chelsea that empty storefronts post "This is not a gallery" signs and this building seems to boast its dichotomy of tenants. Although really, who's to say Moleskine and Stella McCartney don't produce art of a sort?

I was over to look at a show of some early works by Ned Smyth at Salomon Contemporary, which was reassuringly difficult to find. Small room, too, although they may have more space than I saw. Smyth, whom I interviewed about a year ago, is best-known for his public art, began his career with pieces made from concrete which were quite unlike anything anyone had seen before: straight lines and arches placed in classical proportions. They were abstract, but also partook of the dimensions of the Renaissance Italian palazzos he'd seen as a kid accompanying his art historian father to Europe. I shot some pictures, and I'd like to say the reason the tops are cut off is to preserve the copyright, but it's mostly because it's the best I can do with a phone.

Another reason these photos don't work is evident from my having seen the originals: the placement of each object, simple as it is, is crucial. That third work, for instance, is way off. I stood in the wrong place, or else I was looking at it wrong, and I didn't get it. The photograph doesn't communicate the proportions. At any rate, this show is part of a series Smyth is curating for Salomon, and I'll be back at the end of the month to see one by my old friend Dickie Landry and to see his solo performance at the Guggenheim.

As long as I was down there in Artland, though, I decided to go looking for another show I'd read about which interested me at the Pace Gallery. (Also, I have to admit, the fact that it was advertised on banners attached to the lampposts didn't hurt in jogging my memory.) I'd taken part in a very late Happening by Alan Kaprow at one of the New York Avant-Garde Festivals while I was still in high school, a collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen that also involved Allen Ginsberg and who knows who else, and by "taken part" I meant that I was there. A lot of the Happenings were intended to break down the barrier between "performers" and "audience," although, as I realized when I finally found the right branch of the Pace Gallery (a very sniffy young man at the first of their locations I found gave me the address, just a few blocks away and then asked me if he should write it down, obviously thinking I was senile) not all of them were. I hadn't realize the extent to which Red Grooms and Jim Dine had been a part of the scene, either, but one thing this show did was make it crystal clear that written documentation and descriptions, and even blurry contemporary black-and-white films don't capture what it was like to be there while these things were happening. Pardon the pun.

The other thing I wanted to do while I was on the first part of my U.S. trip was to hit the Strand Bookshop. 18 Miles of Books! the awning says, but I didn't find any of the ones I was specifically looking for. Browsing, however, found a couple, thereby proving my oft-cited adage that you can't browse a bookstore with a browser. The rest of my browsing I'll save for the fantastic Book People in Austin, which is a dangerous place for me.

At that point, I realized that all this walking (I'd walked all the way from the hotel, through two galleries and gotten misdirected by Google on my phone) had made me ravenous, so I solved that with a big bowl of ramen in a spicy broth with ground chicken in it and a six of gyoza to start at a place called Ramen Takumi at 90 University Place, between 11th and 12th St. The gyoza were feather-light, crunchy on the bottom, with a flavorful pork filling, and the noodle soup was astounding. I haven't had ramen this good since I was in Tokyo in 2001. Check it out.

And I finished the day out with a visit to a Thai place which had come highly recommended, Zabb Elee, in the East Village. It was a mixed bag: the spicy mixed seafood salad had a wonderfully piquant dressing, the little hunks of pickled garlic were a nice touch, but the squid was inedibly hard. Lighter touch, folks! I'm still curious enough to go back, since it's a novelty serving food from a region in Thailand that hasn't generated a lot of restaurants in the U.S. Fortunately, it did in Austin, where my friend Sappachai and his wife Mam eventually opened three stunning restaurants featuring this cuisine. Recent news has them divorced, so I'm waiting to find out what that means to their restaurants, since she got two and he got one.

I'll find out soon enough: I leave tonight for Austin, and have a whole afternoon ahead of me to do more exploring, but I have to check out of the hotel now. Stay tuned as the U.S. tour 2012 moves to Texas for a couple of weeks.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012: Part One, Acculturating (With Miette)

And so it came to pass that it was time for my annual U.S. tour. Sunday morning I boarded a plane to Paris, and soon found myself at GBD's place high atop a hill in the formerly unfashionable 20th Arrondissement, where he and I caught up on old times, he got to play with my iPad (these things are just not happening in France, oddly enough), and we had a typically wonderful home-cooked meal, the product of collaboration between him and his partner Anne. The next morning, he drove me to a bus stop, where I saw a last vestige of Montpeller: a tesseract Space Invader, set into the screen of an old Mac icon, mounted on the Pelleport Metro station. The bus took me to the Gare de Lyon, and I caught an Air France bus to Charles de Gaulle Airport. The bus goes through some of the most hideous of the Paris suburbs, and runs a very short loop of videos. I was glad they weren't running the sex-tourism one that I probably saw 15 times during a bus-trip into Paris one time when the bus got stuck in a traffic-jam. It was about the terrible penalties imposed on pedophile (male) sex tourists, and featured a bald guy with a bunch of teenaged Thai girls getting whisked off to prison by the Thai police.

The trip was uneventful, I'm happy to say, since I was on an Airbus 380, the new gigantic double-decker plane which might just be the future of profitable passenger aviation. One very nice and soothing feature of this behemoth is that it has three cameras, one in the nose, one in the tail, and one facing straight down. That latter one makes for soothing ambient video, since the resolution isn't so hot, but you can see clouds or water or landscape in a sort of abstract way. I mostly read (this trip's big experiment is loading all the books and magazines I'd usually take onto the iPad, although I'm afraid I'm going to wind up buying some books as soon as I pass a bookstore), but I also watched The Artist. All I can say is, if that's the best movie of the year, I don't regret not going to movies. Was it better than the disappointing Midnight in Paris? Not really.

Thanks to Marie, I knew to take the AirTrain to the Jamaica Station and catch the LIRR in to Penn Station, and the fabulous (and inexpensive, thanks to PriceLine) New Yorker Hotel. The rooms are small, but worth it to stay in such a magnificent Art Deco pile. Turns out Marie works right next door, which is good, because she had my new phone, and handed it off to me before going back to work. I got the thing set up (yes! I now have a US phone number!) and after I tried to figure out how to use it, I went out to dinner with her at a pretty mediocre joint attached to the hotel. I was too pooped to do otherwise, and I had a full day ahead of me.

My plan was to go up to the Metropolitan Museum shortly after it opened and spend as much time as I could there. Along the way, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes it pays to think about popular music. The A train stops just downstairs from my hotel, and seemed to be a good way to get uptown fast. Right. It is, but if I'd remembered the lyrics to the Duke Ellington classic, I would have gotten to the Museum faster: after stopping at 59th St. it rockets up to 125th St and you're in Harlem. Which is nice, but I wanted to be at 86th St., so I turned around and got a different train back. I got off, and walked through Central Park, and soon the bulk of the Museum loomed into view.

I'd worked there in the fall-winter of 1966-67, and had barely been back since. It's grown, and there are some magnificent new additions, including a greatly expanded Egyptian area (not my favorite part, but there are some excellent things there, including this guy):

When you can spend your lunch hour hanging out with artworks, you get so you have friends you visit, and he was one of them, because the employees' cafeteria was just off the Egyptian section.

The big news there was the American Wing, recently opened and supposedly state-of-the-art, and I eventually found my way back there. It's two things in one: paintings and sculpture, and "decorative arts," ie, representative rooms with furnishings, off of which there are displays of ceramics, china, and other such things. I was interested only in the paintings, since anyone who's ever visited me at home knows that interior decoration isn't exactly one of my passions -- or talents. And the paintings are spectacular, particularly because although the Museum didn't cotton to them earlier, in recent decades, it's begun to include more "naive" or "folk art" style works. This means that there's a distinctly modern feeling to a lot of the older stuff there, as paintings made by itinerant painters are hung in rooms near rooms lined with painters of the elite. Of particular interest were some "rack pictures," in which various items are painted as if they were sitting on a board, tromp l'oeil style.

This one's by John F. Peto, but the one that really impressed me was John Haberle's A Bachelor's Drawer:

The incredible skill here is hard to see in this reproduction, but suffice it to say that the black and white girly photo there in the lower right center is, like everything else in the picture, painted. These oddities are absolutely part and parcel of American art, if only as weird footnotes, and they keep the collection from grandiosity and masterpiece fatigue. Because, as everyone now knows, Washington Crossing the Delaware is in this collection, as is Singer's Madame X, a goodly selection of Winslow Homer, and it finishes up with some superb Ashcan School stuff I'd never even heard of, and want to revisit.

The other notable thing in the Museum -- but only until March 18 -- is The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which is one of those shows I forced myself to go to because it isn't really in my sphere of interest. It convinced me. It's fascinating following the development of the actually recognizable portrait through the years. You start out with pictures which are as notable for the haircuts and clothing (and boy, did Renaissance dudes have some haircuts!) and wind up with representations you could pick out of a lineup. As a bonus, they often throw in landscapes in the background which demonstrate the growth of that art as well. Some of these artists were real cowboys: Pisanello was famous for his two-hour sittings, out of which he'd make pencil sketches and send you on your way, then get to work with the oils. If need be, he could work quicker than that. This is a fun show, believe it or not, and Berliners have already had a chance to see it. If you're in New York, you shouldn't miss it. If you do, however, there seems to be something of a virtual visit if you click the "artworks" link on the URL above.

Did I have enough culture for one day? Man, I hit the Arms and Armor, with this Colt masterpiece, recently acquired:

(click the photo and look at that decoration up close), the European Painting, the Arts of Oceania (very weird stuff, like this longboat and its prow)

and Greece and Rome, never my favorites, although this lion is a piece I have uncommon affection for because it lived very near the door where we went to pick up our paychecks.

But no, I wasn't through with culture yet. I had a 6:15 appointment downtown with Justin Kantor, one of the folks who run Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub which often presents classical music. He's going to be on a panel I'm moderating at SXSW, and I figured I should at least see what his joint was all about. He kindly let me stay for the evening's concert, a program of French music by the chamber ensemble ACJW, made up of Juillard students and at least one instructor. They started with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and ripped right along, finishing up with the Poulenc Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano, a favorite of my youth, and evidently a lot trickier to play than I'd thought. It was the only piece of the evening where there were small stumbles, but the palpable energy with which they played it made up for them. Around me, people were eating, drinking, and not talking. Dang, how civilized!

After dinner at a nearby Vietnamese place on Mac Dougal St. that Justin recommended (okay, but not great: I should have hit the Indian street food place next door), I went back to the hotel and crashed. Jetlag and considerable energy did me in.

* * * 

FOOD NOTES: So far, except for lunch, the food's been pretty disappointing. A nearby deli breakfast proved to be horrendous, the Vietnamese place, like I said, was so-so, but The Cafeteria, at the Metropolitan Museum, was a find: good value for money, excellent variety, and child-friendly (although the way the kids I noticed were acting, I wonder if it isn't too much for parents to wait until they ask to go, rather than force the experience on them). I had a nice tempura roll from a skilled sushi guy, but I could also have had fried chicken or various pasta things, or a salad. Today, I was wary of my agent's lunch suggestion of a place called Mà Pêche, which seemed to have too many puns in its name, and was run by a celebrity chef called David Chang. But it turned out to be just swell, kind of a progressive take on traditional Vietnamese ideas like summer rolls and banh mi sandwiches. I make a better summer roll sauce, but otherwise the ingredients were top-notch. I've got some other suggestions I'm eager to try, and I'll post when I do. 
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