Saturday, March 7, 2015

Where I Live: Istanbul/Washington, DC

I live in two places: one physically, one in my yearning memory—Istanbul and Washington, DC.

I couldn’t be much further apart. One place is home; one place is home, as well.
How do I reconcile that? It’s like living inside a tinker-toy poem, constantly trying to make shapes that make sense. Love one place unconditionally; fall in and out of love with the other depending on a whim, troubled by the traffic and the wind…It’s confusing.

And when I’m this confused, I realize music is the thing that soothes, and makes my hourglass  soul make sense.

So, today I give you two songs that are both about home (homes, really), and that help me make sense, in the beatific, sonically soothing way that music helps me make sense of life (I'd be screwed without music, I promise) :

Neither song is really about the place it names—Elbow makes a giant musical palette to throw sound at, as they do so brilliantly time after time, using the name only, but using it beautifully well; and REM is singing about not DC, but the suburbs, as all of us who tell you we are from DC do, when, really, none of us are—no one is from DC; we all commute. It’s not a city, but we keep trying.

What does that mean? Who knows…it’s a lost weekend; it’s a strange life. I haven't been home in too long.

But, leaving home is strange: some people run; others are looking for adventure.
When I think of home, on my better days, I feel OK about being a little lost.

When I don’t, I listen to the music, listen long, listen deep, with a truth seeking soul and hope it  will be the reliable voice that makes some kind of sense for me. It’s never failed me before; I hope it won’t now…

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The British have always, at least in the canon of popular song, been coy about referencing our towns and cities, seeming much happier to fantasise around the US, with a decades long parade of the never traveled singing about Amarillo or somesuch. True, there are exceptions, if one enjoys paeans to the joys of Durham Town., but all pretty thin on the ground, with maybe more Yanks singing about Liverpool than actual Liverpudlians. But the field of folk is different, many of the songs stemming from a time before Uncle Sam was even a glimpse in the telescope of the Plymouth Brethren, and it is here I have had to search.

I live in Lichfield, a very small city, about the size of a market town, population about 35k, based around a cathedral (see above picture) built in between 1195 and 1249 and, yes, it did take that long, making Gaudi seem somehow less of a slouch down in Barcelona. In the English midlands, a 40 minute drive northward from Birmingham, it is close to the centre of the country. I love it and, after 12 years, feel proud to call it my home. So, songs about Lichfield?

Luckily I have one that hits all my spots, as I make no secret of my awe and admiration for the family Thompson. Richard Thompson has had a near half century of muted fame, usually happily ensconced to the side of the radar, preaching to  the converted, a hardcore base of staunch supporters stretching back to his actually only very brief tenure within Fairport Convention, to his duo with erstwhile wife, Linda, and beyond. RT has written many a song about his home country, perhaps most famously a hill in Surrey, and has become ever more English the longer he has lived in L.A. Well, this isn't about him. Nor indeed his son, Teddy, who has carved out a career singing such homegrown fare as this, showing apples don't necessarily always fall closest to the tree. No, this is another family member, daughter of Richard and Linda, sister of Teddy, one Kami Thompson. Her apple is perhaps slap bang right next to the trunk, as what she felt the 2014 world needed more than anything else was a folk-rock duo like, well, the comparisons are inevitable, her ma and pa. And so, with husband, James Walbourne, guitar on hire to many and varied, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Son Volt, the Pogues and the Pretenders, they form the Rails, their debut appearing last year. It is an unwritten rule that SMM avoids lifting music from under a decade old, even in these mp3 light, YouTube heavy days, but I feel I can get away with this, as it comes from an unreleased radio session. (Hell, without it, I would be scuppered for this piece as it so clearly references the city, my home.)

Trivia fans may also be intrigued to know that a frequent member of the larger live Rails band, on 2nd guitar, is one Zak Hobbs, Kami's nephew and, yes, RT's grandson. Here he is with grandpa.......

Of course, and there is always an of course with trad.arr., a slight problem is that many versions of the same song abound, each with a varied memory of who said what, living tradition and all that malarkey. So here, in memory of where my brother used to live, or, at least, relatively nearby, here's another version, by the seemingly now lost in action great folk hope of 2000, Bill Jones. Curiously, although she was born in Staffordshire, the county within which is Lichfield, her version talks of Southampton............

Buy the studio version by the Rails.
Or, for the full Thompson,  try THIS

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where I Live: Tarrytown


I live in Tarrytown, New York, a village in the Town of Greenburgh, in Westchester County. We are located on the eastern bank of the Hudson River by the Tappan Zee Bridge.

I grew up on the other side of the Hudson, in New City, which is in Rockland County. At the time my parents moved there it was the less developed side. Commuting to New York from Rockland was difficult—if you didn’t drive, you either took the bus and dealt with the tight spaces and traffic, or took the train, which had a sporadic schedule and left you in Hoboken, New Jersey, where you then transferred to the PATH train into the city. When it came time for my wife, young son and I to leave Manhattan, I strongly preferred Westchester, where Metro-North trains run regularly and pretty consistently, directly to Grand Central Station. I suggested to my wife that I would be willing to move as far north as Tarrytown, which was the first express stop north of Yonkers.

And that’s where we ended up, and boy, did that turn out to be a lucky break.

Although far from perfect, Tarrytown was at the time, and continues to be, a great little village. It has the river, a nice business district and excellent schools (don’t be fooled by the statistics—for many reasons, they really don’t tell the true story). Most of all, it has great people. Our village has a great mix, including people like me, who moved here to commute to New York, lots of people who were born and grew up here, and a large population of recent immigrants, many from Central and South America, making it a remarkably diverse and interesting town. Sure, we have our moments of conflict, but for the most part, people get along. And while some might disagree, things have even improved over the years—young families who previously might have moved to Brooklyn, or other nearby villages such as Hastings, are discovering the charms of Tarrytown, including a number of excellent restaurants and shops, a great coffee shop, and a relatively new riverwalk. Not to mention, one of the great live music venues around, the Tarrytown Music Hall.

Forbes recently ranked Tarrytown as one of the 10 prettiest towns in America (which is a big country, with lots of pretty towns), and the real estate blog Movato ranked it as the second best place to live in New York State (which is a big state, with lots of good places to live). Now that I work here, I’ve come to appreciate it even more.

We also have some pretty interesting history. Tarrytown is where British spy John André was captured, exposing Benedict Arnold’s plot (yes, I have worked him into this blog again). It was also the home of Washington Irving, whose Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in the village just to our north (with which we share a school district and many other things, including a superb AYSO program) has turned our area into the home office for Halloween, and the fictional locale of an entertainingly insane television show (which, while shot in North Carolina, occasionally shows an establishing shot of the real thing).  Abraham Lincoln's funeral train stopped here, and FDR's passed through on its way to Hyde Park.

Until the completion of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955, though, the area was pretty quiet (other than the occasional protest and attempted bombings at the nearby homes of John D. Rockefeller and other Standard Oil executives in the early part of the 20th century), and since then has developed like many other New York suburbs, without losing its charm. We are getting a new bridge, which is currently under construction, and the project was used as a backdrop last year by President Obama and Governor Cuomo for speeches about investment in infrastructure. I got to volunteer at the event and shake the President’s hand—although my wife’s picture made it to the front page of the local newspaper (I'm the bald guy in the back reaching out my hand).

So, yeah, we like it here.

Our song is, appropriately, entitled “Tarrytown,” although it is also called “Wild Goose Grasses.” It is based on old English (or Irish) ballads, particularly “The Butcher Boy,” which itself is based on older ballads. You gotta love folk music. It is a song about the tragic results of unrequited love, sometimes sung from the male perspective and sometimes from the female. This song is credited to John Allison, a collector of such ballads, who either wrote the words and music, or just one or the other, or neither, depending on what you read. You gotta love folk music. This version is by the Weavers, and there are others out there, including by Harry Belafonte, the Brothers Four and one from the 1970s by Pete Seeger and Ed Renehan, from an album of songs relating to the Hudson River.