High times

Another 4/20 has rolled around, and I’m glad to say that it’s looking like the tide of marijuana legalisation is unstoppable, in the US at least. The dope business is booming in Colorado and Washington, and, more importantly, pot is becoming an uncontroversial part of everyday culture. It’s not hard to imagine that weed will be legal in most if not all of the country before President Clinton finishes her first term.

It’s not clear how much impact this will have on drug policy in Europe, but hopefully the successful US experience, not to mention the tax dollar bonanza, will nudge things in the right direction before too long. At the very least it’s given me another incentive to plan a long-overdue trip Stateside sometime soon…

Not far to reach

On one of my first trips to New York, back in the early 90s, I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in a brownstone on the upper West Side, 86th street I think. It was pretty basic, about 20 to a room, mostly young Europeans, but a good place to meet people. It had a nice big kitchen, which was down in the basement, but the building was on a hill, so the room still caught the sun through large windows which looked out on an overgrown garden.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip is standing at the stove late on a Sunday morning, frying hamburgers and eggs for breakfast, looking at the mural which occupied the whole of the wall behind the worn couches that made up the dining area. It was a seaside scene, with girls in bikinis and guys in bermuda shorts, lying on bright towels, drinking and smoking while the waves crashed on the shore, all done in a charmingly naive style, Outsider Art almost. Around the edge, forming a frame, were the lyrics to Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones, no strangers to the outsider tag themselves.

I never actually made it out to Rockaway, but ever since that day that image, and that song, have represented a platonic ideal of summer for me, a moment of uncomplicated pleasure frozen in time, out of focus, just out of reach, like a girl glimpsed through the haze of a hot day by the ocean.

This came to mind today when I heard the sad news that Tommy Ramone, last survivor of the original lineup, had passed away, another sign, if I needed it, that time keeps moving on.

That hostel is probably an upscale apartment building now, the mural long gone, my fellow travellers scattered around the world, to whatever fate life held for them. Places, people, experiences, all slip away, leaving only my memories, which will die with me. The Atlantic still washes the sand at Rockaway though, and I guess boys still listen to music and dream of days with their girl at the beach, so it’s hard to believe that those moments will be lost forever. It may be true that no one will ever stand in that kitchen again, seeing that picture just the way I saw it all those years ago, but I like to think that we are but temporary vessels for the common emotions of humanity, and that the kind of joy which rises in my heart when I remember that day will be around as long as there are people alive to feel it.

Comic archetypes

Back in what seem like the mists of time, but in fact just the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to have a well-paid job and practically no responsibilities, allowing me to take numerous extended vacations, several of which I spent touring around the US. I tended to travel quickly, too quickly in retrospect, which allowed me to cover a lot of ground (I think I managed 28 of the contiguous states, plus DC), but not really get to know anywhere well. I found myself in a near-continuous state of dislocation, and consequently latched on to anything that could give me some sense of stability. In every new city I would purchase a newspaper and turn to the comics page, one thing I could depend on to be more or less constant no matter where I went.

There isn’t really a tradition of serial comic strips in the serious papers here, so I thought no more of these stories until a couple of years ago, when I began following them again, courtesy of the excellent online comic page at the Houston Chronicle. I’ll admit that my original motivation for this was to be able to better enjoy the snarky (and very funny) commentary over at The Comics Curmudgeon, but as time has passed I have come to appreciate the qualities of a good serial narrative in their own right. I particularly like the slow pace of the comics page, where the events of one afternoon can be spun out over months of three-panel strips, providing a calming antidote to the frenetic tempo of modern culture. Of course the politics, particularly on gender issues, of most of the strips seems to have been frozen around 1952, but I guess that just contributes to the ironic charm.

Conservative they may be, but the traditional serials can still serve up surprises. Just this week, for example, we discovered that Mary Worth is a Jungian. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Bastille Day 1989

I’ve been in Paris on Bastille Day on exactly one occasion, but it was a good one, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I had read about the lavish festivities planned for the capital and had jumped on a bus more or less on a whim, with just a small bag and not much cash.

I ended up spending four nights sleeping rough on the streets, which was not as bad as it sounds, since the city was awash with young tourists too cheap to spring for accommodation, and the Gare du Nord in particular resembled a huge public dormitory. Not that I actually slept much, since it was pretty much a constant party, and every street urchin in the city seemed to have been issued with an unlimited supply of fireworks, which they gleefully discharged at all hours and locations.

The weather was fine, the crowds were good-humoured and the cops were (mostly) relaxed, so a good time was had by all. I watched the traditional military parade, and later saw President Mitterrand arrive to open the brand-new Opéra Bastille. While the great and good enjoyed the music inside, the sans-culottes partied outside until dawn. I fell asleep on the steps of the opera house, and was rudely awakened by the outbreak of a mini-riot, complete with bottle-throwing punks, volleys of tear-gas and a climatic charge by baton-wielding riot police which convinced me that discretion was the better part of valour.

The highlight of the celebrations was a grand parade on the Champs-Élysées, but the crowds were so dense that I couldn’t get closer than two blocks away, though I was able to watch it all on a giant TV screen (which was quite a novelty in those days). I wasn’t caring much by that point, as three days and nights of nearly ceaseless movement and intoxication had drained even my youthful energy, and by the next morning I was ready to collapse onto the bus for the long ride home.

I’ve been back to Paris numerous times since, and always had a great time, but I’ve never felt the city as energised as it was that week. If I’m still around in 2039 I’ll go back for the 250th anniversary. I may even stay up all night, just for old times’ sake.

Cinco de Mayo

I first became aware of the significance of this date for the Latino community in the US nearly 20 years ago now, when I found myself in San Antonio, and came across an impromptu fiesta at a traditional icehouse on one of the dusty streets in the insalubrious part of town where I was staying. Twenty-four hours, many new friends, numerous beers and a lot of good weed later I was a convert. Good times.

Diane …

It might seem that I have been idle over the last month; but not so. I have in fact composed several high-quality posts; unfortunately I am much better at thinking about things than actually doing them.

Also, I think that my reluctance to put anything down in writing stems largely from the fact that my words always seem witty and profound when they are in my head, but sadly cliched and banal on the screen.

I should maybe get a 3G phone so that I can post stuff while I am out and about. Or carry a dictaphone, like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks.

I once visited Snoqualmie, in Washington State, where they filmed Twin Peaks. It’s a nice place. They have a big log right on the High Street. I had coffee and cherry pie in the diner. Come to think of it that might have been in nearby North Bend, where they also shot some scenes. I also went hiking in the hills, and nearly froze to death. (That’s another, and altogether more interesting, story. I should write something about that sometime. Just after I type up all my other good posts).

I never did get to meet Laura Palmer though.

This ain’t the Mudd Club

The first record I ever bought was the 7″ single version of “Heart of Glass“, back in 1979. This came to mind today when I read that Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB’s in New York, had died, just a year after the club was forced to close as the neighbourhood around it gentrified. CBGB’s hosted early gigs by Blondie, and several other bands that I grew up with, like Television, Talking Heads and the Ramones, so the news of Hilly’s death produced the depressing realisation that a time that I had lived through was being consigned to the history books.

I visited CBGB’s a few times in the early 90’s, though by then the club’s glory days were long past, and the bands I saw were completely forgettable. At least the Bowery was still authentically scuzzy, and observing the street life was quite entertaining. I remember being tremendously impressed by the general grittiness of New York the first few times I visited – it was exactly how I had imagined it would be from watching Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. I hear that the city has been cleaned up a bit in the last few years, which I guess is good news for New Yorkers, if disappointing for Scorsese-loving tourists.

The last time I was in New York was 1992, for the CMJ. I saw some great gigs during the course of that event, notably The Flaming Lips and The Jesus and Mary Chain, both on the same bill at the Roseland Ballroom, and enjoyed some interesting social interaction with the local music crowd.

Now CBGB’s is gone, Joey, Johnny and Dee-Dee are dead, and the time when I would jet across the Atlantic to go to a music festival is nothing more than a fading memory. I keep meaning to go to SXSW or Burning Man, but at some point in the last decade my life became too complicated to do things impulsively, and I’m no good at planning ahead, so I don’t think it will be happening any time soon.

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