Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mojave Desert Sunset (Lancaster, CA)

I'm in Lancaster now. East of Los Angeles, in the Antelope Valley. This is where Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart went to high school. It's also where Big Dog grew up. Back then, Lancaster was just a small, dusty town in the middle of a huge desert, but today, it's part of Greater Los Angeles' urban sprawl. The "no-man's land" between Palmdale/Lancaster and the Valley has been almost completely paved over with housing developments; "protected" Joshua trees have been ripped out to make way for another Walmart, another Costco, another shopping mall.
But when the sun goes down, the houses and buildings fall into the shadows and you see just the the outline of the mountains far away and the most gorgeous desert sunset. The sky is orange and pink and mauve. A few miles away from the residences, where the Joshua trees still stand, the wind and jackrabbits take over.....

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

One Way Ticket

I keep repeating it. I love the sound so much. One Way Ticket. An Exit without a plan. A leap of faith. Oh, the possibilities!

I feel I am finally getting back on the right track. This is how life should be. Without a known destination. This ticket will take me to Los Angeles, but from there, who knows. I have no ticket back to anywhere. My life with a zillion possibilities seems like it's really starting. Of course, life is always that way in reality, but we have the conception of it being planned. We think we have goals. We think we know where we're going. But no one really knows what the future holds in store. Plus, if you hold onto the illusion of A Plan, I think you become more limited -- or rather you limit your possibilities. You avoid the red door because you think you're destined for the green. Even when the red door is pretty and lovely smells are coming through it.

It used to amaze me when friends made life plans and really strived to realize them. A good friend from university got fantastic grades because she knew she wanted to work in a bank (eeew!) and you had to have a high GPA in order to get hired. She got everything she set out to get -- the job, a husband with a good future, a master's degree, two children, stable home. Good for her, I thought. All of it took a lot of effort, planning, perseverance. Much more effort than I could ever exert. Much more brain power than I ever had. But definitely too "known" and boring for me! She knew where she was going by the time she graduated from university. I hadn't a clue. I still don't!

I pity the people who can't embrace the unknown, revel in all its possibilities, all its twists and turns. How exciting NOT to know. So the metaphor of this One Way Ticket is much, much more significant than its reality (a cheapo air ticket to LA.)

Goodbye Tokyo. Hello...Big Question Mark!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Last Full Day In Tokyo

After getting back from Europe, spent a frantic few days trying to book a flight to Los Angeles. I was supposed to go in early June, when prices were still cheap, cheap, cheap, but then the Montreux gig came and I had to fly to Paris. Now, it's the end of July, summer vacation has started, prices are sky high and seats are less available. The cheapest flight takes you via Seoul. There is something wrong in a world that makes it cheaper for you to go a greater distance and use up more fuel. But I am expecting more frequent flyer miles to go with it! But that's tomorrow's adventure. Today's my last full day in Tokyo for who knows how long, so there is much to do. Waking up at 6am was not early enough.

I had to come out to my friend's house in Myogadani where I left my luggage that's going to the US. There's a huge grey bag, accordion'd out to its maximum size, and a box containing a fold-up bike. As I write this, I'm waiting for the delivery service people to come and pick them up. I'll collect them at Narita. I hope it's under 30kilos each. I can usually tell because 35kilos is about the most I can pick up on my own. Not bad for a 42kilo weakling, I'd say.

This place in Myogadani is the formerly rat-infested house where I lived during the month of May. I spent weeks battling the rats and the roaches. There was (and still is) one of those electronic "rats-be-gone" gizmos you see Advertised On TV plugged into an electric socket in the kitchen. The former tenant had probably gotten it from a tv shopping channel. I had to laugh. I should have taken a picture of it with the rat turds scattered underneath and sent it to the manufacturer. I've kept it plugged in -- it pleases my sense of irony.

Since I'd left this house in early June, there's been another tenant but she, too, has moved out. I don't think anyone has lived here for a while but so far, no signs of the rats moving back in. Instead, we have the Mold Family. It's been rainy season and with no one here to circulate the air, it's turned into a great environment for Mold. I sat down on the leather couch before realizing it was all covered in green-grey fuzz. "Didn't you smell it?" you might ask. Yes. But the whole house smells like mold, so somehow I didn't bother to actually LOOK at the couch before plopping my butt down.

The delivery people said someone would come between 9am and noon, so I had to make a super effort to get here just before 9. That meant experiencing Tokyo Rush Hour for the first time in decades. My mother's house (where I am staying) is in the 'burbs so the morning trains are always packed solid with commuters but this morning, it was not as bad as I had imagined. Maybe they've added more trains. Or maybe with the greying population, there really are fewer people.

In Ikebukuro, it was a different story. All the various Seibu line trains (local, express, semi-express, commuter-express, etc.) converge and disgorge its contents. Businessmen and women, spewed out from half a dozen trains, all bustle towards the other lines -- JR, Yurakucho, Maruouchi... On my way from the Seibu Line to the Yamanote Line, I was swept up in a massive flow of people. We were like a giant school of fish, all heading in the same direction. Here we come! En masse! There we go! Around the corner! No one bumps into anyone else. The flow, the mass, is very graceful. And I'm a little fish, inside the greater school of fish. It was so trippy that if I wasn't as tired as all the other commuters, I would have burst out laughing.

It was especially surprising to see all the people getting off at Otsuka with me. I guess every station is the busiest just before nine in the morning, but because Otsuka is a tiny station, with tiny stairs and 2 tiny exits, it can't quite accommodate this mob. Yet, this is Japan. No one pushed or shoved. We all waited quietly in a big mass, inching slowly towards the stairs, down to the exit and out onto the wet, misty streets.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Now that I think of it, the worst thing at Montreux was when I discovered that piece of spinach between my teeth HOURS after the fact. Hours after I was on camera many, many times (High Definition no less! eeeeew!) Hours after I had interviewed Al Jarreau. Hours after I had put on my nicest smile to ask the press office to do something or another for me. HOURS AFTER BIG DOG MUST HAVE SEEN IT HALF A ZILLION TIMES!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

And now I'm back... Tokyo. It's wet but I like the way the rain sleeks down the green. Summer is so, so, awesomely green here. From the sky, the area around the airport looks like a giant moss garden.

Somebody was really farty on the flight back to Tokyo from Paris. Other than that, an uneventful flight. Most of the time, there was a glaring sun right outside the window, so the shades had to be drawn. Most adults want aisle seats but I am such a kid that given the chance, I'll happily opt for a window seat. I love looking at my home -- the earth -- from the air. (Sometimes, instead of working, I'll be googlemapping for hours!)

Besides, I'd rather be crawling over someone to get to the bathroom than have someone crawl over me. That's just the kind of selfish she-dog I am.

After Montreux, we TVG'd to Paris and spent a day there trying to round up little gifts for our respective families, then the evening with friends. I realize that Paris/France probably also has its share of problems but because I love the people we hang out with there, it colors my perception of the city/country. Our friends are fellow travelers, so even though their English is limited and my French is too pitiful to even bother with, we communicate on a deeper level. We're kindred spirits. And when you are with kindred spirits, it feels like "home," doesn't it? I'm going to miss it.

Here are some photos of B's (and now my) favorite street, Rue de Moufftard.

B, being the owner of a bar is rightfully picky about bars, but this is one on Moufftard that he loves. It's so old-timey Parisienne.

It used to be a working class neighborhood but B tells me it's been gentrified with the rising real estate prices. Still, the streets are lined with fabulous food shops!!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Best & Worst of the Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux, Switzerland)

16 days is a long time for one festival. By the end of it all, we were all a bit ragged. As the menacingly tattoo'd (but teddybear sweet) security guy who works the Miles Davis Hall backstage area said, "I'm really tired, but also sad that this is coming to an end." Me, too. There were tons of fun moments, wacky moments, aggravating-at-the-time-but-funny-in-retrospect moments. So, while my mind is still on it, here's a partial "Best & Worst of" list.

Best Surprise
Must be Sting. I wasn't even going to see the show, I'd moved so away from his music the last few years. But the producers got us a little private booth, so not being able to say "I would really rather check out Morrissey" I watched Sting. And wow! He played with only 3 other musicians in a back-to-rocker-roots dynamite show. No idea if this is going to be his new direction or if it was a one-time aberration, but it was one of the best shows at Montreux this year.

Best Discovery (for me)
Tinariwen. I'd never even heard of them, They're a Tuareg band. The Tuareg people originally lived in Mali, I think, but were expelled and lived in Algeria in exile. Tinariwen's first gig was held in a Libyan barrack! They appeared as part of Santana's not-very-blues night, "My Blues Is Deep," and blew me away. One guy plays djembe and the overall sound is very North African, but the other guys play electric guitar and bass, so it's a cool mix of western and African culture. Plus, I loved their desert robes! Must find a CD!

Worst Suprise
I knew Claude Nobs, the founder of the Festival, played harmonica with the Stars. I just didn't think he would do it in front of a paying audience. I mentioned earlier that Big Dog calls him the worst self-promoting promoter. One wall in the press room is covered with news clippings about the NobsMan. The Wall of Nobs just makes me laugh, but his appearing with every Big Name Performer is not very funny. Maybe his playing his harmonica with them was cute in a homey way when the Festival was a small, handmade affair. But it's grown and (yes, it IS because of him and his dedication that it's continued for 40 years and is now the huge international event that it is, but...) ticket prices are high enough that a paying audience shouldn't have to be subjected to this.

Best Service
Free buses! From Vevey (town on the west of M) to Villenueve (town on the east). They come every 10 minutes, run all night and shuttled us from the Casino to the Auditorium several times each day. No more walking miles and miles loaded down with gear like pack mules! Yeah!

Worst Dis-Service
The price of drinks at the bar inside the Press Room is 1 Franc MORE than anywhere else in the venue! Yeah. Stick it to those freeloading journalists! Gouge 'em! Maybe they'll stop coming to cover the festival. Maybe the world will forget there ever was a Montreux.
We stopped buying anything here. We'll go across the street to get a 1.20CHF bottle of water over the 5CHF water in the press room. We'll go next door to the nice terrasse cafe for a 5 buck beer instead of having one for the same price in the press room. So there!

Best/Worst Scam
The Jazz currency. I'm not talking about music. These are coins you have to convert your Swiss Francs into before you can purchase anything at the many stalls around the venues. They're used for food, drinks, souvenirs. And prices are high! Moreover, you can buy Jazz but you can't sell it back. See where it becomes a real scam? Someone's making a lot of money on unused Jazz. Local kids bring their own wine, beer, food. No one stops you, so you should, too.

Worst Frustration (for Big Dog)
The HDR-Z1 camera. We got this camera to shoot in HDV last year and it was our camera this year, too. Small, lightweight and shoots in HDV. Perfect, right? Not for Big Dog. "Because it's small and has no weight, I can't put it on my shoulder to steady. Handheld is a real bitch. Plus it's got too many switches and buttons and instead of the main ones being real switches and buttons, you have to go into a stupid menu. There're too many functions professional camera guys would never use. And the positions of all these teeny, itsy-bitsy switches you need itsy-bitsy fingers to push, are all wrong. Focus? You'd think it was in a place where you could get to it easier. Instead, there's a GAIN switch!" I won't (and can't) put in his entire rave but believe me, after a while, he begins to foam at the mouth. The camera is turning him into Rabid Dog.

Worst Frustration (for me)
Lean and mean is good. But when you are too lean, it makes you really mean. After the 4th day, we lose our second cameraman and our lights. for most of the festival, it's just me and Big Dog. I am audio, PA, producer, pack mule, makeup, stylist, writer and reporter. Big Dog is DP, director, lighting gaffer and grip, PA, sometimes audio, co-producer, accountant and pack mule. Both of us were always sweaty and very often bitchy. Problem was, I had to be in front of the camera.

Best of the Fest
It's the people. Most of the staff was superb. And the audiences were absolutely fantastic. Because of this, I think the musicians are really relaxed and that creates a unique environment. I loved the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic groove of the place. Unlike festivals in the US, there were very few buttheads. Even the kids behave sensibly. Like Japan, Europeans don't seem to care too much about underage drinking -- and they seem to drink more responsibly than Japanese kids!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Melting Pot (Western Europe)

I am constantly surprised at how Europe is now the melting pot that American no longer is. There are tons of interracial couples and interracial kids. There is a rainbow audience at nearly every show. It's so amazing to see people from all continents grooving to Brazilian or Senegalese or European music. They seem so much more open to different cultures and experiences than people in the US or even Japan.

I've decided that society is more "mature" here. Maybe that maturity comes from its long history. The very cool thing is that mature societies can be stuffy and conservative, but the influx of people from all over the world has helped energize Western Europe. In the US, the different cultures do not "melt" together. Minorities build their own communities, so instead of one interesting flavor, the US is a patchwork. And it should be a harmonious patchwork, but in recent years, there's a racial/ethnic tension running underneath, like a dark current, an undertow. Here, perhaps because the minorities are still that -- minorities -- there is less tension and the minorities seem to blend into the host society pretty well.

But the "maturity" I'm talking about goes beyond demographics. Even the kids are more "mature"!

"Well, in the US, lawyers and frivolous lawsuits have just about done in the concept of personal responsibility," notes Big Dog. Really! And how can you behave like an adult when you don't believe in personal responsibility? When it's never your fault and you can always blame someone else? You really start having a society of children, don't you.

Japan, on the other hand, could be a "mature" society, but it's been through so many 180 degree changes over the last couple hundred years that its sense of "history" has changed. New is revered. Old is discarded. Despite the fact that the biggest bulge in its demographics is still the baby boomer generation, marketing is geared towards the youth market. That means most of popular culture is, too. It, too, is a society of children. And its contributions to the world are all youth-oriented. Anime, Hello Kitty, Game Boys.

I think you can blame the Americans. Without Commodore Perry's Black Ships, Japan might have happily remained in Utamaro's Floating World for a while longer.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Last Week (Montreux, Switzerland)

16 days is a long time for a festival to be running. Can you imagine the production, the staff, the coordination that must take place to keep this thing going?

Only a few of us are at the festival every day for the entire 16 days. And we were here 2 days before! It gets to be a drag being hassled by "security" who have only been there for a few days. Yesterday, a guy in front of the Miles Davis Hall tried to block me from entering. The Gotan Project was sold out, and the hall was getting inundated by "staff" so I understand his concern, but we've been working there for 10 days now, so don't give me a "so, you're working here? (snicker, snicker)"

This year, I've been seeing a lot of the shows, too. Last year, we had a hotel in Lausanne which meant an hour drive each direction but this year, thanks to our producer, we are in a conveniently located 2-bedroom apartment just across the street from the Casino. It's actually quiet nice but decor leaves much to be desired. Especially the bedroom which has what looks like wedding brochure photos, framed, all over the walls. There's one especially ugly poster size photo of a Very Young Groom with a Not So Young Bride. All of them are Completely Tacky. Like the apartment owners bought the frames and left the sample photos in.

No matter. The location is great.

As with all festivals, you are left picking and choosing, hoping you are making the right choice. With 3 main venues all running at once, and one of them about a kilometer away, you pretty much have to stick to your choice, or miss everything.

The other night, I saw Ney Matogrosso. Wow. I had no idea what to expect but I certainly wasn't expecting this! He's a thin, balding singer, with a sequined shirt opened all the way to his waist, dancing like Iggy Pop (or Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs!) and singing in a strange falsetto. After my initial surprise, I really got into it. He is a superb singer and the theatricality suited him very well. Just when you thought his music was all older, more traditional stuff, they launch into something that might have been written by King Crimson. Very cool.

Afterwards, I thought I would go to the Casino to check out Chick Corea's Mozart Project (once again, no idea what kind of show that was going to be) but it was either that or getting some food. Not having eaten all day, we opted for the food and missed Chick.

The next night, I decided to just stay and watch the entire Brasil Night show at the Auditorium, so stayed there for Carlinhos Brown, Margareth Menezes and Gilberto Gil. The place was packed, sweaty and very Bahia-esque!

Last night, I was able to watch most of Santana's Drum Night. He's doing 3 nights at Montreux this year, each with a different theme. Tonight, it's the Blues Night with Taj Mahal, the Neville Brothers, etc. but last night, he had Carlinhos Brown, Ismael Lo, Mory Kante, Angelique Kidjo, Toure Kunda, the Kora Jazz Trio, and Idrissa Diop. The Africa-centric music was absolutely fab! I loved the sound of the kora, a harp-like instrument. I had to leave in the middle of Toure Kunda, though, to check out Gotan Project that everyone recommended.

They're an electro-tango group from France and the Hall was just packed solid. I'm really crowd-phobic but stayed long enough to enjoy this mix-culture band's tango-musette-electronica-disco-leonard cohen-meets-grace jones kind of music, then walked the post-midnight, post-World Cup streets, still filled with weekend partyers, back to The Apartment.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Waiting Game (Montreux, Switzerland)

Has it been a week already? The days are starting to blur. No, more like "shatter." Days past lie behind me, little pieces of colorful broken glass... The sun doesn't set before 9:30pm and the first concerts start around then, too. That means long days. We've learned to get up late... Lots of waiting for the sun to set enough to shoot scenics... Lots of waiting for artist interviews... Nearly an hour in the hallway of the Montreux Palace (where the A List stars stay) in front of Ahmet Ertegun's suite. That must have been Saturday because we were stuck there because he couldn't pull himself away from the England vs Portugal World Cup game... Same day as the France vs Brazil game. Oh yes, Marcelo D2, the Brazilian rapper and his posse, were in the dressing room lobby, all watching that game while Black Eyed Peas were on stage. Poor Brazil, but I'm glad the French won... We waited an hour for Massive Attack, too, while they watched Italy beat Germany. The game went way overtime and the interview got cancelled, but we managed to get Deftones and Al Jarreau that day, so it was a good day. I think. It's been so long since I've really had to work, I don't know anymore. And all this on-camera reporting... hmmm...

Waiting is part of the Montreux experience, it seems. We wait forever for any kind of service in many restaurants. At the festival, you have to change your Swiss Francs into "jazz," special currency to use inside the venues and the stalls around the lake. You can buy "jazz" but you can't sell it back. Clever, huh. Plus the prices are high. 5 jazz (5 CHF, about Y500 or a little less than US$5) will buy you a beer. or a Perrier. or 6 sugared churros. or a Swiss hotdog. A plastic plate of curry can be 13.

"It's a scam," complains Big Dog. Of course, it is. That's the way these things operate. But he refuses to change any more money so we've been going to the shops and restaurants away from the venues. Impressed by the fact that we could get beers at the Petit Palais Terrace across the street from the Montreux Palace for the same 5CHF as the venue, we thought we would be there all the time. Until the second time we went and we waited forever for any service, got the wrong beer, and then I had to ask for my change and receipt afterwards! Another outdoor lakeside restaurant also left us waiting forever, only to have the waiter come back sheepishly and tell us he forgot what our orders were. He kept coming back to confirm. ("Was that 2 espressos and 2 cappucinos?" "Never mind. Just bring the bill.") And a Thai restaurant that brought Big Dog NON-ALCOHOLIC BEER! Oh, the sacrilege! And when we pointed it out, the waitress asks us "What do I do with this one?" Why don't you pour it back into the bottle and foist it on the next unsuspecting customer?

"They're probably not used to dealing with this many customers," I comment, though none of the places are packed like Tokyo restaurants can be, with customers waiting for tables to empty. No, these are only half filled -- with customers waiting to get fed.

Big Dog is always hungry now.
I am missing my vegetables.

Saw half a dozen shows already... Van Morrison (great singer, but a too-short-set.) BB King on a boat that went around Lake Leman (confusingly also called Lake Geneva) filled with friends and family. He was chatty and it was like being in his living room. Saw him the next day in the big auditorium. Giant finale with George Duke, Joe Sample, Randy Crawford, Leela James, Barbara Hendricks, David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and others joining in. ...a little bit of Talvin Singh with Murcof and Erik Truffaz. We saw Talvin during his soundcheck. He is so cool. ...Massive Attack, Deftones, Raul Midon, Tracy Chapman... you can see how it all starts to blur...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tribute to Ahmet Ertegun (Montreux, Switzerland)

There are 3 main venues at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Unlike other music festivals that take place in one venue (possibly with several stages inside) the town itself is the festival venue. There are free workshops (last year, David Sanborn gave a really engaging talk about Being A Sax Player), free open air concerts in 2 locations, trains and boats on the weekend that carry people around the lake or up the mountain along with a band, bars and clubs with live music... You have to buy tickets to see any of the shows in the 3 main venues, though.

The smallest is the Casino Barriere that usually features a more jazz-oriented lineup. Then there's the Miles Davis Hall, a club-like venue without seats. The younger acts seem to congregate there. And then, the Big Hall, the Stravinsky Auditorium. The Casino is on one side of the town, along the lake, and the Hall and Auditorium are on the other, in a nondescript convention hall. The Casino is not the original Casino, either, so you really don't get any sense of history in the venues, but each year, more than a hundred artists will fill these halls with music ranging from jazz to soul, R&B, blues, rock, hard rock, heavy metal, hip hop, reggae, Brazilian, African, electronic, trance, name it. This year, we have artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Iggy Pop (hmm, maybe not as different as they sound...) Gnarls Barkley and Donovan.

The first big show, opening the 16 days of music, was the Tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Altantic Records. (I heard a rumor that Warner had "bought" the festival, so it's not surprising that there are more Warner related shows and acts.) It started off with the Great Founder, Claude Nobs, bringing Mr. Ertegun on stage for a little speech and then Les McCann and the Soul Survivors kicked off the music, joined by George Duke, Paolo Nuteli, a newcomer to Altantic, Ben E King and Solomon Burke singing the classic soul hits that made Atlantic what it was in the 50's and 60's. We had interviewed Solomon just before the show in his dressing room. He was one of the most gracious singers I have ever met! Heart as big as his body. He can no longer walk and is wheeled around by his absolutely knock-em-dead gorgeous daughters. But on stage, what a voice! Although it was just as moving to hear him sing his well-known hits, Ben E King could not hit the high notes anymore. But Solomon Burke? I think he's as much in his prime today as he was 40 years ago.

The front row in the auditorium was filled with Ahmet's friends and family and the camera often showed a black evening gowned old lady getting up to dance away. Very sweet.

The second half was produced by Nile Rogers, so it was a bit of a shock to hear Stevie Nicks doing a disco version of Stand Back and Edge of Seventeen, but the production was significantly toned down for Steve Winwood who sang Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind as well as Blind Faith's Can't Find My Way Home.

Early on, both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were scheduled to appear, so I am sure the audience thought they'd get a bit of Led Zeppelin, but Page canceled (surgery?) and Plant made it obvious from the beginning that he was there was a Honeydripper (remember them?) crooning Ray Charles numbers and other soul hits. Chaka Khan also chose not to do her own hits but sing Aretha Franklin songs.

The big surprise was Kid Rock. He started off with that country ballad (oh, I can't remember the title now!), a duet with his drummer girl (amazing voice!) and then rapped, spun disks, scratched (I think even the old folks were entertained!) played drums, guitars, and just showed us how talented he really is.

Chic's set at the end was a bit anticlimatic, but then all the acts appeared again on stage and brought out Ahmet himself. The artists gathered around him, sang a song he wrote, improvised tribute lyrics, rapped, made the old man rap... it just went on and on. I told the producer later on that it was the kind of show you'd never see in Japan. It was not very tightly produced, it was loose, and the end just kept going on forever. It felt like a family event and I was a non-family member who just happened to be there.

Meanwhile, Big Dog was ensconced backstage, shooting Kid Rock hanging with Paolo, Robert Plant refusing to be photographed, others goofing off with each other. I don't really like to be backstage unless there's a real purpose -- I feel like such a stalker/invader -- but I joined him long enough to get comments from Les McCann...and pick up a box of chocolates!

"Do you eat chocolate? Here!" He handed me his gift. Earlier, Claude had made a big deal on stage about how the artists were all getting special Swiss chocolate (from one of the festival sponsors, natch) and Nile laughed "I don't think I need any!" touching his belly. So with chocolates in hand, we finally left the venue and headed back to our apartment across from the Casino. It was nearly 3am.