Archive | July, 2012

Rock ‘n Roll Pilgrimage ( In Wellies.)

25 Jul

My wife Chris and I are sitting on a bench in Hyde Park, London. We are sipping a cup of tea but nervously keeping an eye on the grey clouds above. It’s been one of the wettest British summers on record. ( 2012)  We wear our rain gear and our Wellington boots. Past us marches a constant stream of people in a dazzling array of wellies — green, blue, pink, red, black, polka-dot, flowery and union jack patterned. Hundreds turn into thousands, turn into tens of thousands. It is like a vast rubber-booted pilgrimage, everyone marching towards the same hallowed goal. We finish our tea and join the throng. In the end there are 70,000 of us, all gathered to see the greatest live rock show in the world — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It turns out to be a fantastic 3.5 hour party.

  I first saw “The Boss” and his band at St James’s Park, Newcastle upon Tyne in June, 1985. A colleague, Ted, had a spare ticket and I took up the option despite having taken only a passing interest in Springsteen in the 1970’s.( career, marriage, babies — I have plenty of excuses!)  Part of my reason for going to this gig was to get even with my then wife, Annie, who had been lucky enough to see Bob Dylan at the same venue the previous year and had left me child minding and marking my school books. So I was a bit equivocal, more curious than excited, as Ted and I wormed our way into the huge crowd gathered on the football pitch. However, as soon as the opening chords of “Born in the USA” boomed out across the stadium and the crowd went wild, I knew I was in the right place. For 3 hours I was transported into another world and grew to understand that, although Bruce’s albums are all very good ( and “Born to Run” is a stone cold classic), it’s his live performances that are the key to understanding his phenomenal appeal. He is especially good when he is with the E Street Band.

  The music ranges from the grandiose and epic to the quiet and intimate. Yet at no moment, from the first note to the last, does it lose its intensity or feel-good factor. The whole gig is like an ecstatic party, the audience bonded by common love of the music into one huge Springsteen family. Back in 1985, as I watched Bruce and his charismatic saxophone player Clarence Clemons ( “The Big Man”) run up and down the stage extensions that snaked out into the audience, I joined the clan and have been in it ever since. Bruce helped to bring Chris and I together. It’s only when I told her that I had just been to see his ” Rising Tour” gig at Crystal Palace, that she decided to give me half a chance! We have now been to three Springsteen gigs together — all of them excellent, although I didn’t totally appreciate his Seeger Sessions phase. That makes 6 gigs in total for me. They are the best gigs I’ve seen and I’ve been to a lot of  superb music concerts in my time.

  Bruces’s music embraces a whole variety of styles, incorporating: rock, pop, country, folk, gospel, R and B and blues. His concerts offer an intoxicating, seamless mix of the whole lot. Coming from New Jersey, a state often blighted by unemployment, poverty and deprivation, many of his songs deal with social, economic and political issues. In this sense he is following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Recently, especially since the sad deaths of two long standing band members, the keyboard player Danny Federici and the mighty Clarence Clemons, his work has also taken on a spiritual dimension. For instance, his rendition of “We Are Alive” from the recent “Wrecking Ball” album, was preceded by a story of when he was taken to visit a graveyard as a kid and felt he was in contact with the people inscribed on the headstones. In an earlier gig he had declared of his departed band colleagues: ” If you’re here and we’re here, they’re here.” The performance of ” We Are Alive” moved from an acoustic ballad to a rousing foot-stomper. In a way this was a micocosm of the concert and of Springsteen’s music as a whole. He reaches the parts that most other musicians never reach, and he can do it in just one song! He has collected 20 grammies and sold 120 million records, but as I said, it’s his dynamic live performances that are the essential Springsteen. They grab you by the throat and the heart and don’t let go!

  In his own words, Bruce’s songs aim to ” measure the distance between the American dream and American reality.” He growls, snarls and hollers about the exploitation of the working man and the destruction of communities by the ” corporate jackels” and “greedy thieves.” He has previously been dubbed a “blue collar rocker” but that is maybe a bit too simplistic. His music has multiple subjects and dimensions. It can be angry and scathing, but it can also be joyful and uplifting. Much of it is anthemic, with hook-lines, call and response and repetition to draw the audience in. In the end, with thousands of people punching the air, jumping up and down and singing loudly along, it’s like being part of an enormous, celebratory family.

  I have never seen or heard of Springsteen and the E Street band give a bad show. The level of musicianship is superb as is the choreography of the entire concert. Every tune is performed with verve, brio and 100% commitment. Bruce and the band play each and every show as if it could be their last.

  The E Street band’s mission has always remained the same — ” To take the glorious power of music and shoot it straight into your heart tonight.” At Hyde Park in 2012, Bruce, at 62, showed no signs of slowing down. His declared intention was to leave the audience with ” your feet hurting, your hands hurting, your voice hurting and your sexual organs stimulated!” As usual, he delivered, despite an anticlimactic  and unexpected finale, when the organisers pulled the plug one song before the end to honour contractual obligations. To see and hear the E Street band is to experience the transcendental power of music.

  Springsteen treads the boards, his fendor guitar hanging loose on his back, gripping his mic tightly, spitting out the lyrics as if his life depended on it. It’s raw, exhilerating and inspirational stuff. The music is grandiose, heroic, with more than a nod towards Phil Spector’s legendary ” wall of sound.” The set rises and falls dramatically, carrying the audience on an exciting journey. The band moves with him, adapting to every mood and moment. Beneath the passionate vocals, the music constantly shifts and swirls. At times I  think a Springsteen gig is like a cross between a rock ‘n roll party and a religious revivalist meeting. A lot of Bruce’s stage mannerisms are borrowed from the world of charismatic preachers. His voice soars up and down — exhorting, appealing, cajoling, persuading. He controls the band with the neck of his guitar and conducts the audience until thousands of voices become one.  It’s like being in a vast choir. Everyone ends up feeling part of something much bigger than themselves. In some ways, it’s like the feeling one gets in a large football crowd at a big, dramatic match.

  Few singers deliver such long, intense performances. Bruce gives his all — physically, mentally and emotionally. He stands there, legs apart, delivering hit after hit from his huge back catalogue. He clambers down from the stage and surfs the pit, reaching out, pressing  flesh, thrusting his guitar amongst the upraised hands, choosing a girl to dance with him, choosing a teenage boy to sing along with him, making himself accessible and showing that he totally trusts his fans. Sometimes he takes guitarist Steve Van Zandt down with him. On this occasion, Jake Clemons, the late Clarence’s nephew, also came down, sax in hand, reminding us of the Big Man himself. Bruce and Jake sat on the steps in mock relaxation, chatting and laughing as if they were on the back porch at home. OK, it all may be planned and rehearsed, but it helps to break down the barriers  between artist and audience. Bruce is constantly building bridges between himself and his fans.. It is what makes his shows so special.

  Hyde Park, 2012 was as good as any Springsteen gig I have seen. It built up to a fantastic crescendo with Paul McCartney on stage with him and a spectacular firework show accompanying a rousing “Twist and Shout.” Then the plug was prematurely pulled and it was suddenly, abruptly over. Feeling bereft, we stood there in dazed disbelief. Then we all trudged off into the night in our multi-coloured wellies. It had been another epic night.

  PS —- I apologise for the hyperboles in this post. It’s difficult to describe a Springsteen show without going over- the- top. Much better to go to one!

NICE, FRANCE — Following the Rich and Famous.

3 Jul

For much of my life I would never have dreamt of visiting the French Riviera, also known as the Cote D’Azur. It had an air of exclusivity about it, a place reserved as a playground for the world’s rich and famous — the so called “jet-set.”  English aristocratics were the first to discover the attractions of its mild climate and scenic beauty, and started over-wintering there from the late 18th century onwards. They were followed by the Russian nobility, many of them drawn by the health benefits of the area’s warm, dry weather. They even built an ornate Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened by the Czar himself in 1911. It’s still the largest outside the borders of Russia.

  Previously, the south of France had just been a place that wealthy travellers passed through en route from northern Europe to Italy. Now, some of them decided to stay, to escape the harsh winters of the north. The aristocrats were followed by writers such as Andre Gide and D H Lawrence ( Lawrence actually died in Nice.) Also, famous artists such as Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Chagall were attracted by the soft light and vibrant colours of Provence such that they too lived and worked in this area. Later still, in the 1950’s, came the jet set, with French celebrities such as Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday, mixing with international film stars attracted by the red carpets of the Cannes Film Festival. These in turn were followed by rock royalty in the 1970’s when the Rolling Stones and their entourage, trying to escape punitively high taxes in Britain, decamped to a rambling mansion on the French Riviera and recorded the equally rambling album:” Exile on Main Street.”

  All these “illustrious” comings and goings made the Cote D’Azur synonymous with great expense and luxury in my mind, and a far cry from any place I could ever go on holiday to. Then came the advent of budget airlines which opened a variety of destinations to a whole new range of travellers. This has been very controversial of course and many have criticised the environmental impact of such a significant increase in air-travel. However, just being selfish for a while, I think it’s a good thing that foreign travel has at last been democratised. For too long it has been seen as the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. Why should they have all the fun? I have now been to Nice on the French Riviera twice, courtesy of Easyjet flights from Newcastle, my local airport in the UK.  Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2 and their like are often maligned but they have created a wealth of travel opportunities and experiences for the likes of “ordinary” folk like me. OK., cheap flights, along with budget hotal chains, open places up to the dangers of mass tourism, overcrowding and over-development. However, if managed sensibly, controls can be put into place and the new situation can be a boon for just about everyone. For instance, St Tropez, has introduced a ban on high rise development to try to preserve the beauty that originally attracted Bardot to its beach.

  Nice is an exciting place to visit. It is not only an elegant seaside resort in a beautiful location, but is also a big, bustling city. It’s the 5th largest city in France and is second only to Paris as a French tourist destination. The busy airport is situated on a low-lying peninsula at the end of the beach, so if you’re both a keen sunbather and a keen planespotter, you will be in paradise.

  At the other end of the  beautiful sweep of the Bay of Angels is an attractively wooded hill ( the Colline du Chateau) from which one can get wonderful views of the bay and the city, sandwiched between the azure sea and the Provencal mountains. The hill used to have a castle on it but is now just a lovely park. On the other side of it is the old port, where one can catch ferries to Corsica or Sardinia or go cruise-ship spotting.

  One reason that Nice is so exciting is that it is almost like visiting France and Italy at the same time. The city and its surrounding area: the Comte de Nice was actually part of Italy up to as recently as 1860. In that year it was ceded to France as a thank-you to Emperor Napoleon III who had helped free the northern parts of Italy from Austrian rule in the Second War of Italian Independence. Nice had been linked with Italian Savoy (Savoie) since the 14th century, but now both of them were suddenly transferred to France. The Nice change of nationality was approved by a large majority in a subsequent referendum. However, the Italian influence is still strong. Pizzas, pasta and other Italian dishes are prominant in the restaurants and the evocative old town, Vieux Nice, is an attractive jumble of colourful Italianate houses, Baroque churches and campaniles. The street signs are written both in French and in Nissart, an amalgam of French and Italian which has hung on as the local lingo and is now being officially encouraged. It’s a clear example of a political line on a map not being able to separate 2 closely related cultures on the ground. In reality, the cultures intermingle in many border areas, such that locals and visitors can enjoy the best of both worlds.

  In fact, if you’re turned on by visiting as many different countries as possible, then you’ll love the eastern end of the Cote D’Azur. The real Italy is only a short journey away by road or rail, and on the way you could pop into Monaco, which is still technically a separate state ruled by a medieval- style Prince in a fairytale castle. Monte Carlo, Monaco’s capital, is worth a look, as we did on our previous visit, with its skyscrapers, flamboyant casino/opera house, exotic gardens, expensive marina and Royal palace. It exists mainly as a tax haven for the super rich ( them again!) So while we were there, I was tensed up with excitement at the prospect of us bumping into: Bjorn Borg, Roger Moore or Lewis Hamilton popping out for a pint of milk. We never did!

  Getting back to Nice, the old town is a fascinating rabbit warren of a place. It’s perfect for pottering  around. Nearby is the Cours Saleya fruit, veg and flower market. Why is it that tomatoes, peaches, garlic and everything else are so much bigger and juicier than their equivalents back in England? Even though Nice has a reputation for being expensive, the local produce is cheap and the fruit tastes like pure nectar.

  The modern city is built on a grid pattern and looks very smart. Long boulevards lead into squares, some grand, some intimate. Pavement cafes show fascinating human life on the streets instead of behind closed doors. The boulevards are lined by impressive 19th century apartments blocks, all with intricate wrought iron balconies and pastel coloured shutters. It reminds me of Paris, except it’s underneath a blue sky and a blazing sun. The sea-front area has been planted out with palms, pine trees and exotic plants such as cacti. Along the actual bay is a wide pavement called The Promenade des Anglais — The Walkway of the English. It was originally financed by English nobility, partly as a work creation scheme in the mid 19th century for the city’s poorer citizens. It has now become the model for beach boulevards around the world.

  Walking the prom is an invigorating and uplifting experience. Not only do you get the ravishing view of the azure sea ( yes, it really is azure blue) twinkling and shimmering in the sunlight, but you also experience a whole wealth of human activities. There is a constant procession of:  walkers, joggers, sunbathers, swimmers, exercisers, cyclists, strollers and roller skaters. There are also dog walkers, but these miniature canines don’t do much walking, as they are usually carried under the arms of their owners or in special little baskets. On one side is the lapping of the waves on to the pebbly shore, while on the other, is the roar of the traffic on a 4 or 6 lane highway.

  Lining the promenade is a parade of grand, opulant buildings. These include the Art Deco: Palais De La Mediterranee, built for an American millionairre in 1929, presumably just before the Wall Street Crash. It symbolised 1930’s glamour with a hotel, casino, theatre, restaurant and cocktail bar included in its many upmarket rooms. Then there is the pink-stuccoed, graceful Hotel Westminster with its extravagent reception rooms. However the metaphorical biscuit is taken by the genuinely iconic Hotel Negresco, opened in 1913. Its pink-green cupola, uniformed doormen and art-nouveau glazed entrance-way by Gustave Eiffel make it THE landmark building of Nice. It was built to attract filthy rich guests by an extremely wealthy Romanian emigre: Henri Negresco, who made his fortune by managing the casino. In 1913 it was one of the most modern hotels on the planet featuring luxurious bathrooms and telephones in every room. The badly timed First World War changed its fortunes though and it was forced into service as a hospital. Negresco was ruined. However, the hotel was later re-opened and expensively refurbished several times. In the 1950’s for instance, it featured an outstanding art collection, staff in 18th century uniforms and mink bedspreads!

  Today the Negresco is still one of the world’s finest and most expensive hotels. It has become a magnet for top politicians and film stars and is charmingly idiosyncratic, with antique furniture, carousel horses and a kitsch souvenir shop. It also has a spectacular 16,309 crystal chandelier, meant for Czar Nicholas II, but never collected because of the 1917 Revolution. Outside is a colourful statue of a black American jazz trumpeter. We should have ventured in for a coffee but were too nervous about the consequences for our bank balances!

  Nice is in a lovely location. It has the beauty of the sea and the hills, which are enhanced by its own elegant buildings. All this, as mentioned earlier, attracted writers and artists to visit, or even base themselves there. The area is littered with first class galleries, museums and works of art. This was an extra incentive for us to visit again. On our previous trip we had visited the Matisse Museum, up a hill in an attractive area ( Cimiez) full of Belle Epoque villas, tree- lined avenues and lush gardens. The museum itself is in a mansion where Matisse actually lived. We had also enjoyed the rich collection of Raoul Dufy’s and other Masters at the Musee des Beaux-Arts. This time we ventured west by train to the Picasso Museum in Antibes. It’s a smart chateau on the seafront containing: paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics produced by Picasso when he lived there in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. We also saw a starkly beautiful chapel just outside Vence designed and decorated by Matisse in 1949. It was a labour of love and he regarded it as his masterpiece. The building is called the Chapelle du Rosaire and still holds a religious service at least once a week. Vence, by the way, has a lovely old town inside medieval ramparts and has glorious views of the Provencal mountains. It’s an easy trip by bus from Nice. St Paul de Vence just down the hill, is another picturesque and historical hill town but has been over-run by swarms of tourists, so I wouldn’t recommend that as it’s no longer an authentic French experience.

  The outstanding art gallery for me though, was Nice’s Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. Set in a pretty garden, the gallery was purpose- built and the hangings were supervised by Chagall himself. He lived in Nice for the last part of his life. He also contributed a mosaic and 2 stunning stained glass windows. This is the largest collection of Chagall’s under one roof in the world. The centre-piece is a set of 15 large biblical paintings depicting stories from Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs. These are mixed in with scenes from Chagall’s Russian homeland and the saga of the Jewish people and their sufferings through the centuries. You have to like Chagall’s unique style, but in my opinion, the colours and compositions are simply breathtaking. If you ever go, don’t forget to take your passport in order to gain the use of the excellent audio commentary, available in numerous languages. In my view, the Chagall museum is a fantastic experience.

  So, thank-you Easyjet for bringing all this within my financial reach. The beauty of the city, the coast and the mountains, the elegance of the buildings, the affable French/Italian life-style, and the outstanding art. Why should the rich and the famous have  this “paradise” all to themselves?