Monday, March 28, 2011

The Perfect Dive

This weekend I found it: THE dive. The perfect dive -- a venue so complete in its craptacularity that it is difficult to imagine any other place combining so many elements of awfulness and still being open for business.

There was chlamydia in the air, adrift in the looming aroma of sweat and stale chicken wings. Even the gay people were unattractive.

I should note, in all the years I’ve been going out to see live music, I have been to a LOT of different kinds of places. Bars, clubs, shops, storefronts; theaters, concert halls, arenas; backyards and living rooms and churches. And oddly enough, some of the great shows I’ve seen were at places hidden in the dust and shadows of some pretty scary looking neighborhoods. Some of those venues could, I guess, be legitimately called “dives” in the informal dictionary definition; but in each case, the combination of great performance and earnest welcome so outshone the seediness of the surroundings, it hardly mattered that the place was a mess.

But this weekend I came across a bar that truly puts the “less” in “miserableness.”

It’s not so much that it was intrinsically worse than any other similarly appointed hole in the wall; it’s more the way in which this particular place managed to concentrate so much unpleasantness in such a relatively small space, over such a short period of time.

The biggest problem was the phony atmosphere -- the faux pub nonsense that so many bars now employ as a means of plastering over the unrelentingly dismal fraudulence of their decor. Here’s a clue: a veneer finish is supposed to overlay a patina of quality on a piece that is constructed of inferior material -- not just spread the shiny, plasticky awfulness around the entire circumference of the room.

But of course, in this particular case, that wasn’t the only problem. There was also the surly waitstaff; the lousy service; the stale foul smell of the food; the somnambulant bartender; in fact, there were really only two great positives: they book live music, and they have ample parking. Sadly, the second of these great attributes is only due to the fact that most of the stores in the sorry little strip mall where this place is located are already vacant -- and as I pulled away, I thought I could hear the empty retail husks calling out to the bar: “Join us, join us...”

There was a stage, and there were amps; there was a bar, and a few booths. A long wooden barrier separated bar from booth, and was designed to accommodate those who wished to stand and lean while listening to the performance -- or more accurately, to accommodate those who were asked by the waitstaff to vacate the booths if they were not ordering food, or finished with whatever food they had ordered.

It was an interesting approach, to toss customers who have paid a cover charge out of a seat because you assume they’re not willing to order food, and to then fail to direct them elsewhere.

Which, as things turned out, was just as well, given the oddness of the odors surrounding the eating area. It is difficult to delicately describe that peculiar scent; but let me put it this way: when you go over your notes after a show and find that you’ve written the phrase “Smells like urinal cakes” -- twice -- to describe the place’s ambiance, there is definitely something that is just not working in the venue’s approach to customer care.

But the mere odor and unfriendliness were just a start, as those in charge worked hard to live up to the sort of behavior epitomized by the motto Curly Howard spouts in the Three Stooges short “Movie Maniacs” (which just happens to be on TV as I write this): “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking until you do succeed.”

With no clear delineation between the musical performance and the regular melange of bar customers, the sounds of each frequently mixed together in a clot of pure, beautiful song and shouted inanities of introduction and puerile banter. This could have been easily avoided by providing a dedicated area for the music, segregated from the bar, rather than pointlessly segregating the bar from the eating area. As set up, it simply demonstrated how clueless the management is about how to properly present live music.

Meanwhile, the guy standing next to me -- more accurately, in front of me, where he partially obstructed my view of the stage -- was wearing a shirt that sported a logo that seemed to attest to his “toughness.” Except that it was actually a trademarked logo, which I guess actually attested to the toughness of the corporation that had trademarked it. And it was in yellow lettering. And the guy continually, mockingly “threatened” his friend with pretend punches and phony stabs of his pen.

I have seen legitimately tough guys at concerts. I remember the Motorhead show I went to a few years back; the only guys more badass than the ones drinking at the bar were the ones on the stage. And as near as I can remember, none of them were wearing a corporate logo, or pretending to punch anyone.

Of course none of this really mattered, because I got to see what I went there to see: the music that I love, by local artists whose work I admire and respect. In fact, that’s why I decided, as I drove home musing about what I might write, that I would not use the name of the venue. Any place that’s willing to pay local artists to perform deserves some benefit of the doubt, no matter how dubious its hygiene, or rude its personnel, or tacky its decor.

When I’m at a place like that, standing quietly, trying to remain focused on the performer, I take comfort in the thought that as a writer, I always get the last word. Long after the last tone sounds and the lights go dim and the key is turned in the door in the early hours of the following morning, I think back and recount all the dismal little distractions, only to find myself arriving finally, as always, at the sheer gorgeous poetry of having been there to experience the performance. For the way that poetry rings in my heart and my head long after even the longest evening, I am always willing to surmount whatever obstacles might be in my way...

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So Long, Oliver

I will miss Oliver Perez now that he has been cut from the Mets.

I know his time in New York was marred by bad press, uneven performance, and way too much interest in the three year, $36 million contract he signed two seasons ago, but my lasting images of him will always reflect the endearing, likable side of this earnest young man who worked his way, for better or worse, into the small group of the best paid practitioners of his profession.

When I think of Ollie, I will remember the Mother’s Day performance of several years ago (2006, I’m pretty sure), when he pitched remarkably well and then talked about how glad he was to have done well to honor his Mom on that special day. It was a lovely moment, indicative of both the sweet nature of the individual and the genuine passion he has for the game. I remember thinking about how proud his family and friends must be of him, and having known him through all the years of his youth, how they must cherish his every appearance in the big leagues, win or lose.

On that day and in the years since, I am happy to say that I have shared that feeling. I’ve rooted for Ollie on every pitch; I’ve groaned along with him when he struggled, leapt off the couch when he’s struck someone out, and prayed for his speedy recovery when he was injured and underwent surgery.

I can also recall a fair number of post-game interviews when an exhausted Oliver would stand beside his locker, squinting into the television lights, listening intently to some reporter’s question, when he would nod carefully at each point and at every nuance, as though carefully considering how to reply. Then, when the guy would finally trail off and wait for a response, Ollie’s expression of deep interest would suddenly go blank, and he’d reply, “huh?”

I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen something really dumb on TV, or been approached by someone selling something, or had someone unfairly criticize me or badmouth someone who I admire, when I have simply stared and said “huh?”

I owe that to Ollie :)

As a Mets fan, of course, I am glad to see the team win, and feel bad for the players when they lose. In Ollie’s case, though, I always saw a larger dimension to the story that played out on the field whenever he pitched. The mere fact that his exceptional talent had led him from his small hometown in Mexico to the biggest stage in Major League Baseball was compelling; and the fact that his personal journey had led him through a long string of difficult seasons before he came to New York was testament to his passion and persistence in the face of adversity.

From the first time I saw him pitch, I have always thought of Oliver Perez as a sincere, hardworking young man trying to maintain his dignity in the face of difficult circumstances, as his ability is admittedly unreliable at times. Despite the unevenness of his performance, he always appeared to be competing to the very limit that his ability would allow, and I think that is to his great credit.

I hope it provides him some comfort to know that he gave his best during his time with the Mets, and even in those moments when his considerable talent betrayed him, he maintained his dignity and did nothing to betray the faith of those fans who care for him and wish him well, wherever his life next leads.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Walk in the Park

By Patrick J. Walsh

Sometimes when I’m writing about several separate things at the same time, they all kind of end up running together in a sort of literary mashup.

Lately the strings that have come together have been the result of some fiction I’ve been writing; some poetry I’ve been reading; and some prayers I’ve contemplated while wandering in the park near my home.

The park is really interesting this time of year. Where there was ice just a short while ago, and slush even more recently, there is now mud -- a silty brown mix of wet, discarded dirt, gravelly mixed with broken bits of blacktop and stones disturbed by the flow of the frozen water melted, and discarded shards of bark that have been withered off the trees by the harshness of this tumultuous winter.

When I walk, I sometimes have no choice but to slog through the mud at those stretches in which the pavement is covered or missing, and the sound of my boots plucking through the wet mush makes me chuckle. It is a funny sound, and a welcome distraction from the chill that still clings as the last gasp of this past winter struggles to hold off the encroaching spring.

Where there was ice and slush… there is now mud — gravelly mixed 
with shards of bark withered off the trees by this tumultuous winter…
This was a hard season for many of the people I love. Their difficulties recently led me to some of the cherished reading of my youth: John Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” from “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.”

A regular feature of high school and college curriculums, the famous passage of this work is probably familiar to anyone interested in literature or poetry:

“No man is an island, entire of itself... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But there are also other elements that have struck a chord with me lately, and which seem particularly appropriate to the winding down of the long winter season.

There is, for example, the beauty of Donne’s imagery of our lives as leaves in a divinely authored book:

“...all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language... God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another...”

...and there is the poet’s somewhat startling idea of the value of suffering:

“Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors ...for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction...”

As I walk along the tree-lined passages of the park, moving each day a little closer to a time of longer light and the charity of warmness in the wind, I think about Donne’s view of affliction and amend it a bit.

In my wishes for the well being of all those who are suffering -- those close to me, and those whose trials I know of only from the accounts of others -- I hope that any ability any of us may have to “borrow” some measure of their misery, through sharing or support or prayer, might help to relieve some of the sting of that suffering.

If such borrowing cannot stop the progress of illness or injury or even death, I pray that it might at least make the passage through misery a bit less painful for those who are hurting. That has been my prayer throughout my walks this winter, and now with the burgeoning promise of spring in the very air around me, it is transformed into an audacious hope for better days -- for those in whose struggles I share, and for that great unknown mass of all humanity, in whose afflictions we are each, and all, involved.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

John Donne's Poetry (Norton Critical Editions)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Five Minutes in Space - new episode

I've just posted the third episode of my video series "Five Minutes in Space." This month's installment is about the harrowing Gemini 8 mission in March, 1966, when future moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and David Scott journeyed to the very edge of tragedy while trying to solve a malfunction in their spacecraft. Here's the link: