Friday, August 27, 2010

Central Park: Six of The Best

As my time in New York winds down, I don’t have time for extended blog entries – I’m too intent on trying to pack as much into my last few days as possible. However, this blog nags at me and insists on the occasional update – no matter how occasional. So I’ve hit on the idea of a quick way to fill some space and still make entries of interest – hence, Six of The Best. Photographs, that is. Today, I’ve chosen six images taken on my rambles through Central Park.


Image: Root Canal Treatment

Image: Hans Christian Anderson statue

Image: Would you like to dance? Two nuns watch as couples dance the Tango

Image: Bethesda Fountain silhouette

Image: Model Boat Pond

Image: Bethesda Terrace ornamentation

Image: Bethesda Terrace ornamentation detail

Yes, yes, I know that's seven images, and not six. That's just the marketer in me trying to live up to the old marketing truism: Always deliver more than you promise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Iris DeMent

~ One of things I made sure I did when planning this trip to New York was look for concerts that might coincide with my stay. To my delight, I’ve managed to see three of my favourite performers while I’ve been here: Steve Forbert, Pete Seeger (see Pete Seeger - Living Legend), and Iris DeMent.

I can't remember where or when I first heard the voice of the American singer songwriter, Iris DeMent, but when I did, I was immediately captivated by the high plaintive sound of her voice. You see, I have a 'thing' about singers with high plaintive voices. Antony Hegarty (Antony and The Johnsons), Salif Keita, and several others have a way of piercing my psyche with their voices and music that I can't rationally explain.

Iris DeMent is one such singer. Iris (the youngest of 14 children), grew up singing gospel songs at home and at the Pentecostal church her family attended . She didn't start writing and performing her own songs until she was 25, and released her first recording in her early 30s.

Today, she is generally categorized as a country singer, but her songs and stories transcend that label. Her song writing covers a wide range of topics including sexual abuse (Letter to Mom), Vietnam (There's a Wall in Washington), contemporary US politics (Wasteland of The Free), her family (numerous songs), and much more. Always honest, thoughtful and filled with insight, her songs are built around great melodies delivered in her trademark 'high lonesome' voice.

This was my second Iris DeMent concert. My first coincided with my New York visit in 2008. To see Iris on that trip I had to travel upstate to Lake Placid where she was performing at the local arts center. I must admit I was a little disappointed with that concert. Maybe it was the venue or the quality of the sound system. Maybe it was because I was too far back from the stage. Or maybe my excitement at seeing Iris for the first time raised my expectations for the performance to a point where Iris couldn’t possible meet them.

Thankfully, there were no such problems with the venue, Iris, or my own expectations at the B.B.King Blues Club & Grill last night where Iris was in fine form, and took time to introduce her songs and tell the stories behind many of them. Her songs are rooted in her past, in the daily life she lives today on the farm she shares with her husband and children in rural Iowa, and they are especially entrenched in her strong religious faith.

Her singing voice is filled with emotion, and every time I hear her sing I find myself deeply moved by that emotion and the feelings she evokes. I’m sure that more than one person was literally moved to tears during the 90 minute performance last night, and that is a rare and precious thing in today’s contemporary music scene.

Take another look at the photo above, and check out the other photographs on her website. She may appear somewhat plain and ordinary, but Iris is not selling youth or false images of beauty. Iris DeMent is the real deal. Her songs and her voice have the ability to move me in ways that most contemporary performers will never do. There are some full sound files on her website you can listen to, but personally, I recommend you just go out and buy (or order online) any -- or all -- of her four albums.

Happily there are numerous video clips of Iris DeMent on YouTube. Some feature her performing solo, but many show her singing with a host of other singer songwriters including James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and John Prine. Here she is performing probably her best known song, Our Town on an unnamed television show. Hopefully, the uninitiated will get a sense of Iris DeMent's beautiful voice and fine songwriting style. Enjoy...

By the way, you may find you already have Iris DeMent in your record collection since she has appeared as a guest on many albums by some of the best contemporary singer songwriters recording today, including Tom Russell and the afore mentioned Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and again John Prine. Here she is sharing the stage with John Prine performing In Spite of Ourselves

A special shout out to Pat and Neil who shared a table with me throughout the evening. It was lovely to be able to chat before the show over our meals and share something about ourselves and what it was that brought us together at an Iris DeMent concert in New York City. Cheers.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image: Hundreds of visitors spill out onto the front steps of the Met at closing time
I haven’t done a lot of gallery or museum visits during this New York stay. In fact, after six weeks I have only managed to visit the Museum of the City of New York, and the Museum of Modern Art (both for about an hour each), and put in extended visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters (an off-shoot of the Met). It’s not that I have no interested in art or artifacts, I do, but I have been into other things this time around. However, I may yet squeeze in one or two more museums before I depart this great city.

So anyway, I did get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the ‘Met’ for short), where I spent four fruitful hours getting lost amongst several thousand years worth of sculptures, paintings and jewellery; iconography from all the major religions; Egyptian burial items, hieroglyphics and massive sarcophaguses (see image); medieval tapestries and great suits of armour; modern and contemporary art, as well as folk art from every continent; photographic exhibitions; and musical instruments – ancient and modern – including Ringo Starr’s gold plated snare drum!

Image: Massive sarcophagus. Better hope you are well and truly dead when that lid goes on!

I also headed up to the roof to take a look at the Doug and Mike Starn installation, Big Bambu, a massive structure built entirely of bamboo on which only a fortunate few get to explore via bamboo ramps that weave and climb over the whole edifice. Unfortunately, timed tickets for the guided climbs are in high demand and therefore hard to get. As interesting as Big Bambu looked, it was a bit of an anticlimax to only be able to walk under the installation rather than over it.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I wandered through room after room of priceless object d’art: at what point did ordinary objects begin to assume greater value and importance than their makers or original owners gave them? Presumably it is because certain objects have survived hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years that they acquire their worth.

For example, a modern $500 wedding ring, as sentimental as it might be to its owner in 2010, is still ‘just’ a reasonably priced wedding ring. However, if the ring was to survive 500 years – instead of say, 50 – it’s value skyrockets way beyond its initial price. Now it is not ‘just’ a wedding ring, it has been transformed into a rare and precious thing – an artifact from the 21st century, no less. But after 500 years, isn’t it really just an old worn and battered gold ring? Does it automatically become priceless, simply because it has survived 500 years?

Image: The Sphinx of Hapshetsut (circa 1473 – 1458 B.C.)

And another thing. It seems to me that every major museum in the world contains massive collections of Egyptian artifacts. Some are tiny ornaments, others are massive slabs of marble and granite that must have taken great effort to excavate, pack, and transport around the world. I couldn’t help thinking as I examined room after room of the Metropolitan’s Egyptian collection that there can’t be much left in Egypt itself for visitors to look at.

I mean, apart from the pyramids, are there any artifacts left in Egypt worth making the trip for? And what about the locals? What do Egyptians think of the massive plunder that took place during the 1800s especially? They can’t be too happy about the loss of antiquity they have suffered.

Ok. I’m rambling, I know, but these things played on my mind as I wandered through the Met. Besides, someone has to ask the questions.

Anyway, I feel much better now that I’ve shared them with you.


Image: “We are the knights that say, Ni!”

P.S. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is well worth a visit, and the admission price of $20. Just make sure you allow plenty of time to explore its extensive treasures. Even after four hours I still missed out on vast areas of its collections.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pete Seeger - Living Legend

Image: Pete Seeger on stage at the Bearsville Theater, August 2010

R.I.P. PETE SEEGER 1919-2014
ADDENDUM: February 2014. As you can see by the date attached to this post, it was originally written in August 2010, after I had seen Pete Seeger in concert for the first and only time in my life.

Singer, songwriter, environmentalist, ecologist, humanist and socialist; husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, Pete Seeger was all these and much more. When Pete Seeger passed away on Monday, January 28, 2014, it is not overstating the praise to say that the world lost one of its great champions and humanitarians. It was a great honor to see him in concert, and the greatest praise his many admirers can extend to Pete is to honor his memory by continuing to sing his songs, and to get involved in the many causes and issues that were close to Pete's heart. Much remains to be done.


I have set myself an impossible task – to capture the essence of a living legend. Not just that, but do it in a few hundred words. And rest assured, even if you have never heard of him, Pete Seeger is a living legend. He has been at the forefront of folk music – the people’s music – in America for over 70 years. Even at 91 years young, he continues to compose, perform, inspire, teach, and write. He has been a life-long activist and champion of the poor and oppressed; campaigner for the environment and world peace; defender of civil liberties and passionate advocate for human rights.

As a member of The Weavers, probably the first folk group ever to make it into the Top 40 charts, Seeger has tasted great success, but also knows exactly what it is like to fall from grace after being forced to appear before Senator Eugene McCarthy’s anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee, during the 1950s. His appearance there and the accusations he faced, lead to him being blacklisted from television shows and concert halls right across the United States.

But Pete Seeger weathered that storm, just as he has many others. He has sung in venues large and small from America to Australia, and a hundred countries in between. His music and recording career has been lauded and honored by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Springsteen released his own tribute to Seeger when he recorded We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006. And of course, Bruce Springsteen joined Pete Seeger on stage at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2008 to sing Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Here they are performing that song…

I first became aware of Pete Seeger and his music during the late 1950s via my older brother, Nick, who had some of the first Weavers albums. Unfortunately, I didn’t travel to Melbourne in 1966 to see Pete Seeger during what was I believe, his first and only visit to Australia, so I’ve had to wait over 40 years to attend my first performance by this icon of the folk music scene. This I did 0n Sunday, August 8th, at the Bearsville Theater*, just out of Woodstock, New York.

After a couple of preliminary songs from Princess Wow and Roland, a local couple intent on changing the world with their Smile Revolution, Seeger took to the stage.

Having taken to the stage, and before singing or playing anything, Seeger surprised us all by introducing two of his favourite banjo players, Eric Weissberg and Bill Keith. Eric Weissberg has secured his place in musical (and cinema) history as the composer of Dueling Banjos, the theme from the movie Deliverance. Bill Keith has spent a lifetime playing bluegrass music and has made significant contributions to the development of the instrument. Both men are now in their early 70s, and I believe both reside in Woodstock, or near-abouts.

Image: Bill Keith, Pete Seeger, and Eric Weissberg on stage at the Bearsville Theater, August 2010

As you might expect, at 91, Seeger’s best concert years are well behind him. His singing voice has virtually gone. The beautiful high vocal style that has featured on so many albums has been reduced to a battle-scarred rasp. His fingers, having plucked, strummed and picked millions of notes faultlessly for 70 years, now trip and stumble over much loved songs and tunes. His memory too, occasionally lets him down. And yet, those of us in the audience of the packed Bearsville Theater were not there to see a man at the top of his game, or to take pity on a legend who may be past his prime. We were there to honor the man for his commitment to a lifetime of music and activism – a commitment that continues to this day – and we were there to acknowledge his history, his humanity, and to say Thank you for the many years of joy and pleasure he has given us.

Of course, as always, audience participation is a hallmark of any Seeger concert. Pete has always been a great leader of songs, and early in his career he perfected the art of teaching songs to audiences even as he sang them. Now that his voice is failing him, this aspect of any Seeger appearance has assumed even more importance than it may have once had. In effect, we have to sing the songs for him. Not that I or anyone else was complaining. It was enough that we were in the same room with him, sharing the same space.

Image: Pete Seeger’s revised and updated book, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

One of the booking options I took advantage of when reserving my seat was to also purchase a signed copy of Seeger’s revised and updated publication, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

First released in 1993, Pete calls it a ‘singalong memoir’, and armed with a copy of his own book, he began working his way through the opening chapters as an aide memoir for himself.

He started with a story from 1939 when he was trying to find work with a newspaper. An aunt, who was a teacher asked him to sing to her class, for which he would be paid $5. “I took the money,” he said, “and stopped looking for an honest job, and I’ve been singing ever since.”

And weren’t we glad that he did?

He talked about the war years, and the group that was a precursor to The Weavers – The Almanac Singers, a group that included Woody Guthrie. He described Woody’s writing of the song (The Sinking of The) Rueben James, and how it originally had “10 or 15 verses,” mentioning by name all the seamen who drowned when the ship was sunk. The rest of the Almanac Singers complained that no-one but Guthrie could remember all the verses, and urged him to cut the song back and to add a chorus. Guthrie obliged by cutting the song back to five verses, and writing a great chorus for a song which is still sung today.

And thus with more songs and stories the performance proceeded into the afternoon.

On my way to Bearsville, I told myself I would be satisfied with 30 minutes in Pete Seeger’s presence. Seeing him on stage for an hour was more than I could expect. In the end, Pete entertained us with stories and songs for almost 90 minutes. More than I (or anyone else), could possible hope for. Personally, I consider myself blessed and privileged to have had this rare opportunity to see a genuine living legend during this visit to America.

As Eric Weissberg – who has known Pete for over 50 years – said at the end of this rare concert length appearance by Seeger, “How lucky are we to be on the planet at the same time as Pete Seeger?”

How lucky indeed.

Following the performance, Seeger was immediately whisked away from Bearsville by his family and/or carers. I had hoped to meet him (however briefly) to personally thank him for enriching my life with his songs and stories; his many recordings, and for his numerous books and music publications. I never got that chance then, so I’m going to do it now.

Pete Seeger, Thank you for the joy your music has given me these past 50 years. Thank you for your boundless humanity; your optimism; your humility, and for the ongoing examples you continue to set as performer, songwriter, mentor, and advocate for peace and justice. For all this and so much more, I thank you.
Pete Seeger Online:Pete Seeger’s official website, Pete Seeger Music

Pete Seeger on Wikipedia

Pete Seeger on YouTube: A search for “Pete Seeger” on YouTube seems to indicate there are several thousand videos of Pete available for you to watch and search through.

SingOut! Magazine: Ever since its inception, Pete has been associated with the American folk song magazine, SingOut!. You can find it at most Borders stores, or order a downloadable copy from the SingOut! website.

Image: Bearsville Theater, Woodstock, New York, NY

* As an interesting postscript to this entry, it is worth remembering that the Bearsville Theater was built by Bob Dylan’s first manager, Albert Grossman. In fact, Al Grossman is buried somewhere in the grounds surrounding the theater, although a quick look around the site did not reveal a headstone or anything marking an obvious resting place for this titan of the 1960s folk music scene.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan

Image: The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan
Finally paid a visit to The Cloisters, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The Cloisters is literally a 10 minute walk from my accommodations, and I’m glad I went there. It houses the most amazing collection of art from medieval Europe, dating from about the ninth to the fifteenth century.

The building itself was assembled from architectural elements that date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century. The structure and its cloistered gardens are treasures in themselves, and perfectly complement the approximately five thousand works of art housed there. The collection at The Cloisters is complemented by more than six thousand objects exhibited in several galleries on the first floor of The Met’s main building on Fifth Avenue. The collection at the main building displays a broader geographical and temporal range, while the focus at The Cloisters is on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Renowned for its architectural sculpture, The Cloisters also rewards visitors with exquisite illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries. [Source: The Cloisters website...]

Image: Floor plan of the main Cloisters building

Located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park, the building incorporates elements from five medieval French cloisters—quadrangles enclosed by a roofed or vaulted passageway, or arcade—and from other monastic sites in southern France.

Three of the cloisters reconstructed at the branch museum feature gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art, such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals.

I must say, not having a map of the floor plan during my visit made the experience of exploring The Cloisters and interesting one, in that it felt like I was walking through a rabbit warren of old passageways, dark subterranean vaults, and hidden rooms. This was especially the case when examining the exhibitions in The Treasury section of The Cloisters. Housed on a floor beneath the main building, the Treasury is particularly dark and sparsely lit, presumably to help protect the precious works of art on display there from deteriorating any further than they already have. It is for this reason too that flash photography is prohibited, as well as the touching of any sculpture or stonework.

Image: The Unicorn in Captivity

I have a book about the folklore of unicorns back home in Australia, and the image seen here of The Unicorn in Captivity is in that book (as are several of the other unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters collection). I had no idea the original tapestry was hanging in The Cloisters and was delighted to see this work as it should be seen – hanging as it might have been hundreds of years ago in a castle somewhere in medieval Europe.

Of course, the image does not do the original work justice at all. Dating from around 1495–1505, and ‘standing’ some 3.6 metres high and 2.5 metres across, The Unicorn in Captivity is a stunning work, woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads that vividly depict this elusive, magical creature.

There are seven individual hangings known as "The Unicorn Tapestries," in the Cloisters collection, and these are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. However, it is thought that The Unicorn in Captivity may have been created as a single image rather than part of the collection in The Cloisters or any other series of tapestries depicting unicorns.

Daily Garden Tours
The Cloisters museum has an extensive program of guided tours and talks scheduled throughout the summer. In addition to exploring the beautiful Cuxa, Bonnefont, and Trie gardens, these hour-long tours highlight botanical motifs in works of art. Garden Tours are offered at 1:00 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, and are free with Museum admission. Read more about medieval plants and the gardens of The Cloisters on the official blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed.

99, Margaret Corbin Drive
Fort Tryon Park, New York
Ph: 212-923-3700
Monday: Closed
March--October: Tuesday to Sunday: 9:30am to 5:15pm
November to February: Tuesday to Sunday: 9:30am to 4:45pm
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

There is a recommended admission fee of: Adults $20; Seniors (65 and older) $15; and Students $10. This includes same-day admission to the main Metropolitan Museum of Art building on Fifth Avenue. Members of The Met enter free as do children under 12 (when accompanied by an adult). There is no extra charge for entrance to special exhibitions.

However, having arrived at The Cloisters 90 minutes before closing time, I was clearly never going to visit the main Museum building ‘on the same day’. I mentioned this to the cashier and she seemed happy to accept my contribution of $10.

If was to make one recommendation to The Met, it would be to extend the ‘same-day admission’ offer to at least two days, since a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue would easily absorb a full day. Trying to visit The Met and The Cloisters in one day would be exhausting and only help diminish the pleasures to be had from devoting as much time as possible to the magnificent collections in both buildings.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

American Museum of Natural History

~ Image: Just like being there – diorama featuring a White Sheep in the AMNH

“The American Museum of Natural History is one of the world's preeminent scientific and cultural institutions. Since its founding in 1869, the Museum has advanced its global mission to discover, interpret and disseminate information about human cultures, the natural world and the universe through a wide-ranging program of scientific research, education and exhibition.” [Source: AMNH website]

Today was my second visit to the museum, and I spent a good 4-5 hours there, and that was without visiting any of the special exhibitions on offer, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, or any of the other special attractions which require a separate entry fee.

As with my previous visit in 2008, I was again fascinated by the many stunning diorama’s within the museum. As saddening as it is to see the variety and beauty of the magnificent animals now encased behind glass, the diorama’s are beautifully presented, and leave visitors with the impression that the settings for each creature are as close to their natural environment as you could hope for – short of being there yourself. But then, do you really want to be standing a few feet from a live grizzly bear, or family of wart hogs?

Pity the Poor Passenger Pigeon
~ Image: The Passenger Pigeon

Take a good look at the image on the left while you contemplate the question: Is there anything on the planet more stupid than humans?

The image shows a number of Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius – for the scientifically inclined), behind glass at the museum. Signage next to the exhibition states in part: "The Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America. The naturalist Alexander Wilson, in 1808 estimated that a Kentucky flock numbered 2,230,000,000 birds. “

No, that is not a typo. Wilson estimated the number of birds on this one flock at over 2.2 billion!

The signage goes on to add that according to Alexander Wilson: “This flock filled the sky from horizon to horizon and took four hours to pass a given point."

Unfortunately, the pigeons nested in huge colonies, making it easy for hunters to slaughter them in vast numbers. They were sold for as little as a penny each in New York City, and were even fed to pigs. A hundred years after Wilson recorded his observations, the Passenger Pigeon was extinct in the wild, with the last captive bird dying in 1914.

I ask again, Is there anything on the planet more stupid than humans?

And to think, that the early European settlers in the United States, almost wiped out the bison as well.

Free iPhone Application
~ Image: Screen shot of the AMNH’s free Explorer iPhone app

If you are an iPhone user, before you visit the American Museum of Natural History you may want to download and install the museum’s free Explorer application which contains maps of each floor and the exhibitions on those floors; using GPS you can see where you are within the building, and the app even guides you to exhibitions or displays you particularly want to see; it also comes with pre-loaded tours, and gives you the ability to create your own custom tours, and much more.

Best of all, you can use the Museum’s free WiFi service to navigate your way around the building thereby saving your own bandwidth allocation.

As you might imagine, the most popular areas of the Museum are the galleries housing the dinosaur exhibits. These were packed with children and teens, their parents or carers, and were generally of little interest to me, although I did push my way through the crush of bodies on the way to other parts of the building.

Current exhibitions include Race to The End of The Earth (through until January 2, 2011), which examines the race between the Briton, Robert Scott and the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole; and Traveling The Silk Road (closing August 15, 2010), an exhibition that maps "...the greatest trading route in history - the legendary Silk Road."

If you have half a day to devote to it, the American Museum of Natural History is a fascinating place to visit – with or without children in tow. I’m sure you will come away with a greater appreciation of the vast biodiversity that holds this planet together, and the importance of our place as custodians of that biodiversity.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer Stage: Gil Scott-Heron

Image: Screen shot from the video for I'm New Here

The first time I heard Gil Scott-Heron was back in the early 1970s. At the time I was staying in a Youth Hostel in Paris. While many of the fine details are now lost to my ageing memory, I can still remember with absolute clarity, sitting in the lounge of the hostel one day, chilling out while music boomed over the in-house audio system.

At some point, this incredible piece of music began playing. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. A mix of jazz and funk. A voice that was at once angry, insistent, and compelling. A voice that demanded attention as the performer spat out words to a poem which contained the recurring line/refrain, "the revolution will not be televised..."
The revolution will not be televised
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions...
© Copyright, Gil Scott-Heron
On and on went the voice, for what seemed much longer than the few minutes the song took to play through. I sat hypnotized by what seemed like the perfect mixture of form, rhythm, lyrics, and a performance by a man who clearly believed every word his was reciting. It was probably a year or more before I heard the piece again, confirming the name of the song, and before I finally found out who the performer was.

Gil Scott-Heron (born April 1, 1949) is an American poet, musician, and author known primarily for his late 1970s and early 1980s work as a spoken word performer and his collaborative soul works with musician Brian Jackson. His collaborative efforts with Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues and soul music, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. The music of these albums, most notably Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. Scott-Heron's recording work is often associated with black militant activism and has received much critical acclaim for one of his most well-known compositions The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. On his influence, Allmusic wrote "Scott-Heron's unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists". [Source: Wikipedia...]
Last night, Gil Scott-Heron performed in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, as part of the Summer Stage series of free open air concerts currently being held around New York City.

Gil didn’t perform The Revolution Will Not Be Televised last night, but he did enthrall an appreciative crowd of several thousand people with a 90 minute selection of songs from his new album, I’m New Here, and a number of classic songs from his recording career including Pieces of A Man and The Bottle.

It was a great performance from a man who, quite frankly, has not aged well. As little as three years ago, Scott-Heron was doing time in New York’s infamous Riker’s Island prison for cocaine possession. He looks ten years older than his 61 years. And yet. And yet, Gil Scott-Heron still has it. If his voice was any lower – it would be gravel. He still knows how to command a stage, and the audience was not there to see the last gasp of a great poet, songwriter, and author, but to see a man reborn.

As he sings in the title song of his new album, I’m New Here:
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone,
You can always turn around.
I’ve embedded the official video for his latest album, I’m New Here so you can see this great artist for yourself. The guitarist is Pat Sullivan.

Even now, over 30 years since I first heard it, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised still has ability to stop me in my tracks and distract me from whatever it is I am doing.

Click here to read more about Gil Scott-Heron and view the full lyrics to The Revolution...

You may also need to refer to this page on Wikipedia to help put many of the references in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in context.

Finally, searching for Gil Scott-Heron on YouTube will reveal a host of clips, official and unofficial, showcasing the music and poetry of this unique artist.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New York City Park Life

Image: Battery Park Gardens: a city oasis

If there is one thing I’ve noticed on this trip that did not make a major impression on me during my 2008 trip, it is the way New Yorkers love their parks. This could be because back then I visited during early spring, and the weather was not exactly conducive to the type of activities that one sees over the summer months.

I have no idea of the number of parks across New York City. Even the official government parks website states: “This is not an entirely exhaustive list of Park Properties. If you see something missing or have a suggestion of how we can improve this list, please contact us.”

Certainly thousands of parks must be listed on the site. I did make a half-hearted attempt to count the actual number, but decided I had better things to do with my life and my limited time in the city!
Image: Basketball courts found in almost every city park

While not all parks offer the same services or activities, I present here a partial list of some of the leisure activities I’ve seen taking place in New York City parks: table tennis, pentanque, billiards (on metal tables), tennis, handball, soccer games, basketball competitions, dog parks, children’s playgrounds, chess tables, walking groups and tours, family picnics, July 4th celebrations, dance classes, jogging and inline skating, film screenings, poetry readings, author talks, classical music concerts, theatre performances, rock concerts, Little League baseball, Ti Chi and yoga classes, sunbathing, swimming (a number of parks have swimming pools), boating and kayaking, bike hire/riding, and on and on.

I think it is fair to say that New York City parks are, in many ways, at the heart of community life in this amazing metropolis.

Image: Park water features are very popular, especially in summer

New York parks are filled with a multitude of colourful plants and flowers; trees of all shapes, colours and sizes; large lakes and water features (which might double as ice-skating rinks during winter months); huge swathes of well kept lawn areas and good walking and bicycle paths; and numerous statutes and examples of public art. Some have extensive botanic gardens and zoos; others house world famous museums and galleries; and all are well patronized and filled with activity, often late into the evening.

Of course you will also find restaurants, caf├ęs, and small mobile food and drink stalls throughout the parks, along with the ubiquitous mobile ice-cream vendors that seem to appear in every city over summer.
Image: Anyone for chess? Public art and concrete games boards.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shooting New York City

Image: Elevated platform on the corner of Broadway and 125th Street
As anyone who goes to the movies regularly, or who watches even a modest amount of television will tell you – New York City is a favourite location for movie directors everywhere. In America, Los Angeles is the only other city that probably comes close to New York – and maybe even surpasses it as a movie location. I’m musing about this today, because yesterday, I happened upon two separate film locations during my rambles around Manhattan.

I spotted the first movie shoot as a rode the M4 bus from Washington Heights down to Harlem. I was bussing it because I knew the M4 passed alongside a massive elevated railway platform for the 1 (One) Train which surfaces from its subterranean depths between 135th Street and 122nd Street (see image above). By the time the train passes over 125th Street it is probably six floors above street level, and I wanted to take some photographs of the massive steel structure towering high over pedestrians, motor vehicles and shops on the street.

Image: Film crew playing the ‘waiting game’ on location in New York City

Folks, if you want to know why modern movies cost 200 or 300 million dollars to make, it’s because dozens of crew members, and acting ‘extras’ literally sit around for hour after hour waiting for the shot to be set up, the sun to come out (or go behind a cloud), the rain to stop, or any one of a thousand other reasons before the director calls, “Action”.

I stood around for over an hour waiting to see what would take place, and just when I thought I might as well move on, I noticed a buzz of activity as walkie-talkie’s crackled into life, and things began to happen. The chase car moved into place. A stunt man mounted his bicycle, and a dozen or so vehicles which had been parked by the curb, suddenly roared into life; swung into position; paused for a moment like Formula 1 cars on a starting grid; and as the director called ‘Action’ the chase scene got underway – and was over before I had time to focus my camera!

I hate to think how many thousands of dollars were expended during the 90 minutes I had been hanging around on the edge of the shoot, let alone during the hours the crew must have been on location. I’m sure the chase scene will look great in the final movie, but quite frankly, standing around watching movies being made is pretty dull when all is said and done.
Image: Film crew setting up under elevated railway on Broadway, New York City

Of course you want to know what the movie is called, and who the lead actors are. All the crew woman I spoke to told me was that it was called Premium Rush. However, a 15 second search on the Internet Movie Database provided the following information: Directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush is described as "An action story set in New York City, where a bike messenger picks up a package at Columbia University and subsequently catches the attention of a dirty cop."

Aha. That explains the 20 second chase sequence between a camera car and the stunt man on the bicycle.

Image: Camera car rigged for chase sequence on Broadway, New York City

Just for the record, the film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (currently appearing with Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception), and Jamie Chung (who despite the masculine sounding name is female, and who seems to have done mostly television but is now branching out into feature length movies). Maybe it's just me, but from time to time Gordon-Levitt bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Heath Ledger!

Later in the day, I was heading towards the South Street Seaport and saw three or four film company semi-trailers parked off Broad Street, with a couple of crew members setting up a lighting rig for an evening shoot.

As usual, you can find information online about daily shooting schedules and locations for movies and television shows being filmed around New York. The best site for I have found for that is the On Location Vacations website here

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