Friday, November 2, 2012

Other Cities, Other Hills

And so it came to pass that I woke up this morning on a birthday whose number is of no interest except to Beatles fans, and discovered my internal clock feeling very much re-set. Knowing that this can be an illusion and that I may yet wake up in the middle of the night rarin' to go, I'm not taking anything for granted.

The pain in my legs from two very long transatlantic flights is almost gone, though. And herewith, a short recap of where I've been and what I've done.

* * * 

The purpose of this trip was a job interview, a very tempting one. A woman in San Francisco has been sharing a house with its owner, a 95-year-old woman who is still bright and active, but getting frail. This woman spends alternate quarters of the year in America and India, and is planning to go to India in mid-December, and for the first time feels that her friend needs someone in the house Just In Case, until she returns. Having been a reader of my blog and knowing that I've been, shall we say, somewhat restless in my current place, she offered me close to three months in this house, on the proviso that I'd heat up the older woman's breakfast and dinner. The house itself, literally on top of Twin Peaks, had a commanding view of the entire Bay Area on a good day -- well, on most any day, being above the fog -- and would have been a fine place to regroup my psyche. At any rate, she offered to fly me in for the job interview and to meet her friend, on whose approval everything hinged, and, since this was at the last minute, I discovered that it was cheaper to buy a train ticket to Barcelona and fly from there. 

I arranged things so that I'd have an afternoon and evening there before heading out to the airport (flights to the West Coast leave much earlier than flights to the East Coast) the next morning, and found myself wandering the streets again. 

I enjoyed myself, and hope I didn't try the patience of the kind couple who run Hibernian, a fine, typical European English-language used book store in the Grácia district. The good news is that this is a fine time to find a good apartment there, and is likely to get better (since I'm in no position to just up and go at the moment), but the bad news is that I would absolutely have to learn not one, but two new languages (Castillian Spanish and Catalán) in order to do it. (Well, that and that pesky money detail). Still, good to know, and they gave me the website of a good real-estate search engine to play with. 

San Francisco started as a blur: I arrived at nearly midnight, my debit card was inexplicably turned down by Avis' computer, and the indifferent guy at the desk, eager to get rid of me, sent me to something called Fox, which provided me with a black Hyundai Sonata. (Black Sonata sounds like a very pretentious mid-'70s soul-jazz album to me). But finally I got to my hotel, the Best Western Plus Americania Hotel (what on earth is an "Americania?") at 7th and Mission, a, uh, neighborhood in transition, which translates into the fact that you can get an organic, locally-sourced breakfast at a nice café and then step outside and buy some crack, which has inexplicably not faded away in San Francisco like it has elsewhere in the U.S. The decor of the hotel, clearly intended to draw hipsters (and succeeding), is some godawful pastiche of Midcentury Modern and Motel Efficient. 

At least it didn't glow in the dark, so I managed to get some sleep. 

Sadly, the job negotiations didn't work out. I was offered the opportunity to spend nearly three months sleeping on the couch for $100 a week, later upgraded to agreeing to pay for a used futon and frame from Craigslist (but not the bedclothes) and $125 a week. Seeing as how I'd have to pack up and store all my worldly goods here in Montpellier and pay for storage and moving as well as feeding myself (auto rental and $100/month for gas was a separate budget item), this would be a net loss. I'd also have to promise to be at the house every night no matter what, which meant no travel at all (and a sad disappointment for the hordes of women who'd doubtless descend on me when they heard I was in town), and visitors were discouraged, although not totally forbidden. Friends warned me that the whole thing was of dubious legality, and, of course it's been a while since you could last a week in San Francisco for $125. Not to mention that I couldn't ever eat out on that, in a city with ethnic restaurants out the wazoo that'd be tempting me, nor could I go to a show for which I wasn't on the guest list, or, say, subscribe to one of those streaming movie services so I could catch up on my cultural literacy. There was a degree of asceticism being demanded of me here that seemed unfair and unwarranted, so I was forced to turn the job down. 

Once I had, though, I felt better. This is going to be a hard winter here, and I'm not looking forward to it, but at least I'll be able to get a head-start on this next book proposal -- and the book, if it sells, as I think it will. The trip, and some late-paying clients (one of whom hasn't paid up yet, come to think of it), cost me money I didn't really have and as much as it was good to see old friends and revisit old memories of the Bay Area, and as nice as it would have been to have access to all of them for an extended period, it was hardly a vacation. 

Which is not to say there weren't some wonderful moments. The food I'll get to tomorrow, but there were two musical events that are worth mentioning. 

First, there was Autosalvage. This was a band that put out one album in 1968, and then, split over the issue of whether or not to move to California at the behests of their pals and labelmates the Youngbloods and make a career playing the ballroom circuit, broke up. I did a piece on them for Fresh Air a couple of months ago, and, when the only member I knew how to reach, Rick Turner, got a call asking for a photo and permission to stream the musical excerpts, he got ahold of the other three guys and they decided on a tentative reunion. One thing led to another, and they applied to SXSW. I sneakily asked the director of the music festival, Brent Grulke, if he could fast-track the approval, and, although he didn't say yes, he said "This kind of thing is my cup of tea." A couple of days later, he was dead

Three of the four guys, however (the fourth is in poor health and won't be playing with them), decided to go ahead, and their very first reunion/rehearsal was on the Saturday I was in the Bay Area, so I fired up Google Maps and picked my way up a very steep hill in Inverness to Owl Mountain Studios, where Turner's son, Ethan (aka ET), is the engineer. They were playing as I drove up, but the sound of my car's engine caused them to stop (so I still can't say I've heard them live), and they welcomed me into the studio, where the next thing would be to prepare a "bootleg" of their album for a limited release. Rick had found a mono master mix on 1/4" tape in his parents' attic, in good enough condition to run through a tape recorder again, so ET cued it up on a wonderful old Nagra and dumped the entire thing into ProTools as the guys watched, hearing the album for the first time in years -- and never having heard it exactly this way, because this mix brought out stuff the stereo mix never did!

The old mono mix

Autosalvage & Son, Owl Mountain, Oct. 17, 2012
L-R, Tom Danaher, Rick Turner, Darius Davenport, Ethan "ET" Turner
After the transfer was complete and some technical discussions about the remastering were made, the three older guys and I went down the hill to the home of Banana, the former Youngblood and auxilliary Autosalvage who'll join them for the SXSW gig: they'd gotten the acceptance letter the day before! Banana turns out to be not only a fine fellow, but an excellent cook and very knowledgeable about the wines of Italy, where he's become something of a star, much to his delight, since the gigs give him the excuse to roam around the countryside learning the food and beverages. A memorable day, a fine evening, and, almost certainly, a new start for one of the great forgotten bands of all time. 

I was staying in Petaluma by the time this happened, and my next stop, the next day, was Berkeley, where I had been invited by the current residents to stay in the former home of Ralph J. Gleason, the famous jazz critic and Rolling Stone co-founder. I was to meet my hosts at the Freight and Salvage, a venerable Berkeley folk club, at a gig by Bill Kirchen, the great guitarist, and an old friend from Commander Cody days in the Bay Area lo those forty-some years ago. Kirchen used the event as a kind of reunion for some of his old friends, bringing on athletic fiddler Heidi Clare, his wife Louise (a fine singer), and, to my surprise, reclusive songwriter Kevin "Blackie" Farrell and former Cody bassist "Buffalo" Bruce Barlow, neither of whom I'd seen in decades. 

The highlight of the show, though, was appalling, and I mean that in a good way: Kirchen and his band roared through a vicious, angry version of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" which forced me to hear the lyrics again and get angry that, 50 years down the line, they needed to be sung again and were at least as relevant as they had been when they were written. It being a Sunday night and the last night (as it turned out) of a San Francisco-participating World Series, the sparse audience was mostly people my age (which, let's face it, is a large part of Bill's demographic), and, it being Berkeley, I wondered how many were thinking the same thing I was. 

Tuesday morning came, and I packed up, stopping for lunch at Vik's one more time and on to the San Francisco airport, where I flew non-stop to Paris (thank heavens: had I been routed through the East Coast it would have been disastrous) and onward to Barcelona, where I mostly crashed. However, yesterday's train to Montpellier left close to 5pm, and I'd planned a day of a little food shopping, not realizing that it was a national holiday, as it was in France (All Saints' Day, called Toussaint in French and I know not what in Spanish or Catalán), and absolutely nothing was open. A friend's early birthday greeting, though, reminded me that he'd been urging me to go to the Museum of the History of the City of Barcelona, and this was the perfect occasion to do that. Between the jet-lag and my own incompetence, it took me two hours of walking to find the damn thing, so the idea of burning off some time worked out fine. I can't say the Old Quarter of Barcelona exactly entices me, and I still find Las Ramblas below my acceptable sleaze quotient, but the religious nature of the holiday meant that there were services, with music, in the churches, and a folk orchestra out in front of the Cathedral, with bleating shawms, and folk-dancers in circles everywhere. I finally found the museum, most of which is underground, showing the old Roman city (the wine vats in the winery are still faintly stained red) as it was excavated, with a huge bunch more still being worked on. It was a fun, touristy way to spend the day, and exhausting enough that I boarded the train back here with some relief. 

Old Barcelona graveyard dudes

Food stuff tomorrow: both California and Catalunya. 

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