Friday, September 26, 2008

Logistics, Lights and Locks

MADRID, SPAIN—This is what happens when we place our trust in things dependent—dependent on power, dependent on operating systems, dependent on batteries, dependent on things undependable.

My own faith rested in a slim metal box—my MacBook’s hard drive. Purchased only a year ago, it has now failed three times. The Greatest Invention of the 20th Century, reduced to high-impact polyurethane and titanium, fancy words for plastic and metal.

So I sat at a table three floors above Avenida de America with a small notepad and a Pilot Razor pen, wondering how long I would have the concentration to form lines and curves into sentences. I did this until I ran out of patience and my iPod, now un-chargeable, gave up its valiant struggle. (Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood” lying on his stomach in bed, scratching away on legal pads. I should complain.)

This is my second trip to Madrid in a little over two months. I’ve come to explore the possibilities of living and working here, both of which ideas seem to be becoming less and less plausible each passing day. But anything can happen.

First, there is the logistical: Americans cannot legally work in the European Union (England, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and 20 others) without papers, and those are hard to acquire. These countries hire from within, so “immigrants” here occupy the same societal level as those in the US. Ironically, at a time when Latino immigrants are targeted and blamed, and pushed out like so many ants at a picnic, I am contemplating working in a country “illegally” as an American.

It probably won’t happen. But the irony resonates still.

Then there is the everyday of living in Europe— more things that begin with “L” this time. Like language, lights and locks.
Language. Why do I gravitate to places where I don’t speak the mother tongue? My struggles with French in Montreal are well-documented (and equally well-mocked). My Spanish improves every day, and I can shop, and say, “Can you replace my hard drive, please?” in Castilian Spanish, so that counts for something, but sometimes it’s like trying to dribble a flat basketball.
I’ve often had discussions with people where they’ll say, “Sure, they speak Spanish in Spain, but it’s not the same Spanish you know. But I think I know why no one ever actually demonstrated it to me. They didn’t know how, or only had a vague idea of what it was.

Simple. Its Spanish with a lisp. It’s Thpanish with a lithp. Thilly Thpanish. It’s “Grathias,” not “Gracias,” and “Platha,” not “Plaza.” The popular legend is that the venerated King Phillip II spoke with a lisp. Therefore, his eminently loyal subjects adopted the the style, or “thtyle.” It’s disconcerting, but believable. People have done far thtupider things in thervice to a king, so why not speak like Daffy Duck to save the National Honor?

No speech pathologist has ever really explained it, as far as I’ve been able to research. It’s all technical word noise about speech formations and derivations. But if you look at a painting of this Phillip II guy, he kinda looks like a guy who spoke with a lisp, like a guy who came up four numbers short of winning the mental national lottery.

Lights. Lights in much of Spain are motion-sensored—a nice little energy-saving trick, and certainly something simple the US could implement. But.....I didn’t know this. All I knew was that as I stood fumbling with the keys to my apartment on my first night, the lights would suddenly go out. I would straighten up, look around, and they would go back on. Probably funny for someone to watch, but for me, not so much. Part of the problem of the problem is that I was never good with...

Locks. If it has a key, forget it. Im in trouble. Who knows the reason, but keys and me never agreed. If a key can break in a lock, it will, for me. I once started my friend’s car with my car key, thinking it was the right one. You get the idea. Me and keys will never be.

Add to that little dilemma the fact that in Spain, the second floor is called the first floor. I was told my apartment was on the third floor, so, you guessed it, Peanut. There I was, at midnight, trying to open some stranger’s apartment. On the fourth floor. How fast would I have been shot in America? Faster than a speeding bullet, if you will. Faster than you could say “gun rights.” So make sure you’re opening the right door out there, OK, Astronauts?

I should have written a lot more by now. But I have lots of photos, and lots of video that I’ll put together in an epic presentation upon my arrival back in the New World. I’ll write some more this weekend, about Aranda de Dueros, about Santo Domingo de Silos and the Cathedral at Burgos. And how Madrid as a functioning city kinda makes LA look a little silly. It’s the little things, but I’ll get to that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Places That Begin With M

MADRID, SPAIN—This just in: one year goes by really, really fast.

On this date last year I had just moved into a small and shabby apartment on the dark end of Rue Boucher, a half block off St. Denis, near that weird pizza place, and eons away from Los Angeles. I spent that first day shopping for a cell phone, new sneakers and enough ethernet cable to connect myself to my landlord's computer, unspooling it out the front window and up to their second floor apartment. You might have read that entry already. Um, a year ago, right. The memory seems vivid to me at the moment, because my subconscious has been knocking on my window a lot lately, reminding of the date.

First it was Montana, then Montreal, then Madrid. All these places that suddenly and dramatically changed my life, either physically, spiritually, or in how I viewed my own everyday. Three summers ago, I was a city dude extolling the virtues of the Cowboy Life. I didn't really want to run away and join the rodeo, but in one week at a camp high in the Gallatin Mountain Range, my LA existence was stirred up just enough to suddenly appreciate the value of fresh horses and sturdy boots.

Montreal was the first simple test of a new language and a new culture—not exactly foreign, but different enough that simple tasks were a new challenge. Ride the Metro, order lunch, shop in a store, and head back home, in French. A tiny challenge, but enough to make me play bad French pop music all day on the radio, in case any phrases might seep into my subconscious. (Sadly, few French-Canadian pop songs used the refrain, 'What is the Loonie exchange rate today?" in the chorus.)

I was lucky enough to make two trips to Montreal with you, dearest reader; once in the dwindling warmth of late September and then in the frozen snowdrifts of March. Before that there was the non-White Christmas of 2006, and then the spectacular July of 2007, when there was no city in the world as beautiful as Montreal, and no street as perfect as Laurier above St. Denis.

My first two months in Montreal were equal parts magical and mysterious. My second trip was lonely and frozen. But never regretted.

Enter Madrid. This was every adventure at once. It was the first trip to Europe, a language I understood, and one I thought I did, but one that sounded as if it was "thpoken" by cartoon characters. Theriously. But Madrid is another one of those great, eye-opening cities. I've not seen Rome or London yet, and only saw the Paris airport. Those cities are on the list for this dilletante explorer, but Spain, like America, could take a really, really, really long time to fully explore.

Loyal readers in Los Angeles and far beyond already know way more than necessary about VaughanTown, this past summer's little adventure. This time, I'm creating the Podcast thing, and may not be back at Vaughantown until next summer.

Meanwhile, I've lost ALL the video from my last Madrid trip— including the groovy little iMovie video I made, and almost every important newspaper file—in a catastrophic hard drive failure over the weekend. It will take a long time to rebuild everything.
Until then, I'm beginning to learn that not only are material things not as important as we think, but digital files, too. Everything comes and goes. Attach yourself to little, OK, astronauts?

This is Day One in Madrid, Phase Two. Don't go far. There's more to read tomorrow, depending on which side of the International Date Line you get your mail.

"MadridMadrid" is also available at: and It's the same fine quality product.

Forgot your password? Click here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

This is What it Looked Like

You read all about it. Now you can experience it, as if you were there. Kinda. Not really.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Kids are Still All Right

The passageway to the stage at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, is narrow and hidden, deep amongst a maze of staircases leading away from the bar at stage right. You know you’re headed in the right direction, because there is a big sign on the door that says, “Artists ONLY Beyond this Point.” There, in a crowded fog-filled hallway, we tap our feet and make nervous little Spinal Tap jokes, our collective hearts pounding like jukeboxes, as we wait to play for a packed house.

These are the final hours, and final day, in fact,of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp’s “On Tour Summer 2008” event. From the end of July to the end of August, the camp’s sleek silver tour bus traveled fromcoast to coast through 15 cities; from Boston to Chicago, to Nashville, across the South and the Midwest to Vegas, San Francisco, and finally the campus of UCLA to teach ordinary, non-rock star people to rock with the best of them.

Unlike the usual week-long Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp sessions, today’s will be one day and one day only. It’s meet your bandmates and counselor at 10 a.m., head off to rehearsal rooms to learn three songs (!), name your band, eat lunch, take a master class, jam a litle, rehearse some more, and be ready to leave for the House of Blues at 4 p.m.

This summer’s staff is a impressive lineup of working rock musicians who’ve sold mcjillions of records among themselves. There’s Gilby Clarke of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Elliot Easton of the Cars, Earl Slick, guitarist for John Lennon and David Bowie; Glenn Hughes, of Deep Purple, and 90s big hair band survivors Mark Slaughter of Slaughter, and Kip Winger of the band of the same name. Acting as head counselor is mega-producer Mark Hudson, who by himself has been responsible for the sale of nearly 50 million records (Sure, a lot of them were by Celine Dion, but a lot of them were by Aerosmith, so there.)

The camp was created by New York entrepreneuer David Fishof, who also masterminded the successful 1986 Monkees reunion tour, as well as creating Ringo Starr and his All Star Band, and too many more successful projects to name here. Over the years, nearly every rock band or musician you can think of, has gotten involved in the fantasy camp, from Slash to Roger Daltrey to Jane Weidlin, to George Thorogood to Bill Wyman to Robin Zander to Brian Wilson, and far more than you or I can think of at the moment.

Since we’re in LA, there are of, course, a host of working actors who’ve plunked down $1999.00 for their one-day rock and roll dream cum laude. In Kip Winger’s band is Angus Jones, the kid from “Two and a Half Men,” Brandon Barash, from “General Hospital,” is the lead singer in our band, led by Mark Hudson. Other cast members from CBS’ “Cold Case,” and Showtime’s “Californication” take up seats in class.

Kristin Coleman, a Los Angeles event planner, is in a cold sweat. At breakfast, she confesses she can barely play the guitar, and can barely sing. While most of the campers come to the camp with plenty of talent, just not enough cool, Coleman is in safe hands. Despite popular notion about rock and roll attitude, each of the counselors is supportive and sympathetic, and the bonding among band mates and their leaders is nearly instantaneous.

Let’s get to rehearsal. We’re packed into several floors of the dorms at UCLA’s De Neve Plaza during Family Orientation Day, and I can only imagine the fine impression we’re giving the parents, as wave after wave of loud rock music wafts across the campus from the un-insulated rooms.

The 40 campers (plus me, ssssh) will be broken up into five bands. We’ve been given a list of songs to know before arriving, most of them tunes any self-respecting rock fan would know in a heartbeat.There is a quick discussion of butterflies and nerves, and someone describes a physical feeling too graphic to describe in a family newspaper.

“That’s called a ‘taint,’” someone a little too knowledgeable, offers.

Hudson says, “Hey, great band name!” With that out of the way, he puts The Taint to work right away.

“Okay,” he says, “This is ‘All Over Now,’ by the Stones. Everyone knows it, right? OK. I need someone to give me that Chuck Berry rhythm.”

I am so there.
He looks at me and smiles, “Yeah, you do that.”

He turns to the rest of the band members and begins handing out parts. He explains, “Guitarists, you can’t all just play the same thing, or it will be a sludge fest.” To the guitarist on the other side of the room, he says, “You do the ‘chink chink’ thing with the drummer’s beat.” The other guitarist on my left is struggling with the three chords necessary to put the song across.
But he is three chords ahead of the female singer, who is a bundle of nerves at the moment. (Names are withheld to protect the guilty.) She is clearly in over her head, but she is a trouper. She sings willfully, if nervously, and it will have to do.

Alongside me, Earl Slick, he of David Bowie fame, is cooly taking it all it in. Given his part, he sprays bursts of Excellent Loud Rock Guitar® in delicate layers all over the tune. We’re starting to sound like a band, and it’s only past 11.Hudson comes up with a spoken breakdown for the middle of the song with a chance for the singers to do a little “acting” with the band as foils. It works perfectly in rehearsal, but...

With Earl Slick playing alongside me all morning, I’m secretly hoping we’ll play “Rebel Rebel.” As it turns out, what else would we play?

He begins to play the tune’s distinctive opening riff, the drummer kicks in, the bass player does that little thing at the opening, and we sound like the radio.

Instinctively, I sing a harmony line over the bridge, and Hudson notices right away. On the next one, he is right there with me. Okay, the guy who actually played on the record is on my left, Ringo Starr’s producer is sharing my mike, and this is what the commercials and advertisements for the Fantasy Camp are all about. It’s actually kinda thrilling, and no one is even watching. Yet.

Former Monkee Mickey Dolenz visits the camp at lunchtime and tells a few rock and roll war stories, that I frankly hoped would be better, or at least funnier.

Like regular summer camp, a few of counselors get up and tell stories, only these have nothing to do with bears and a guy with a hook terrorizing young lovers in the Eastern Sierras. These are mostly about girls on the road, and stories I could never tell my kids when I was a summer counselor. (Well, maybe the one where Hudson saved Ozzy Osbourne’s life with the Heimlich Manueuver.)

Following lunch, campers have a choice of master classes in guitar, bass, drums, songwriting or producing, or a jam with Gilby Clarke.

You know where I went. As if I don’t have enough chances to play my guitar loud at home, I jump at the chance to play with a new band. This group is actually far more talented than me, and I hang on for dear life, until we get to “Bang a Gong,” something your mother should know. I was all over that one, playing the ending chorus again and again, just south of delirious.
Returning to rehearsal, Mark Hudson is just finishing his producing class.
“Remember, it’s the song first, the writer second, and the band last,” he reminds the campers. Makes sense to me.
We have one hour to learn the last tune, “Wild Thing,” before we have to pack up for the show. Hudson adds a little trick to the song, we hammer it down, and it’s time to head east on Sunset.

And there I am in that narrow little crowded hallway with my band mates, one of whom is wearing pajamas. I gotta respect that. The show is sold out, there are TV news crews in the photo pit with the shooters, and everyone in the balcony is standing. I remember once thinking about how the only way I can get into a club like this is by being in the band, and start to admire the view.

There are five bands, we go on second, and we roar like jets once we launch the set. No one makes an obvious mistake, the audience cheers after every song, girls are smiling, and I remember why anyone is in a rock and roll band.

And everything went by too fast. Like every good thing. Rock on, per se.

Rock ‘n’Roll Fantasy Camp. 1-888-762-BAND