Musical Micropause: W

Alphabet W

White Stripes: You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl) (2000)
I wish I’d seen these guys live, but hopefully I’ll see Jack White one day. This song seems to contain all the elements of a classic White Stripes song: slightly ragged but full of hooks, no unnecessary flourishes, a quirky sense of humour, and over too soon.


Waterboys: When You go Away (1988)
When Record Executives received the follow-up to the Waterboys’ international breakthrough “Whole Of The Moon”, they probably weren’t expecting an album rooted in Irish and Scottish folk music. “Fisherman’s Blues” signalled that Mike Scott’s “Big Music” was no more, but the scaled back sound resulted in the Waterboys’ best selling album.

World Party: Sweet Soul Dream (1967)
Karl Wallinger was one of the Waterboys during their “Big Music” era. As lead Waterboy Mike Scott wrote, “Having Karl [Wallinger] in the studio was like having a one-man orchestra around.” Wallinger’s departure from the Waterboys after the success of “This Is The Sea” allowed him to pursue his own music, forming World Party. “Sweet Soul Dream” is from his second album “Goodby Jumbo”, rated by Q as their best album of 1990.

Wilco: I’m The Man Who Loves You (2002)
The turmoil around Wilco’s fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was documented in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Changes in record producer, band personnel and record label all made this a difficult birth, but the resulting album became their most successful release. “I’m The Man Who Loves You” has become a concert favourite, and is now Wilco’s second most frequently played song.

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Natural History and Many Memorials – Washington DC: September 2014

National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC

Day Three:  Our first stop at Washington’s Museum of Natural History has been booked well in advance. Not far behind my mum’s wish to take her kids to Disneyland has been her visit to the Gems and Minerals section of this museum, and in particular, the chance to see the Hope Diamond. This branch of the Smithsonian Institution is the size of 18 football fields and houses over 1000 employees, but this stone the size of a pigeon’s egg is arguably the Museum’s premier exhibit.

The Hope Diamond, valued at US$220 million!

The Hope Diamond, valued at US$200 – US$250 million!

In the mid-17th century, French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier brought from India to Paris a large uncut diamond, which by the end of the century was sold to King Louis XIV of France. The stone was then cut and passed through the French royal family until 1792 when during the French Revolution it was stolen as part of a theft of the royal crown jewels. It is believed that the stone was taken to London, and cut into two pieces, the larger piece becoming the Hope Diamond. Although there is no record of ownership in the Royal Archives, the diamond is suspected to have been purchased by King George IV of the United Kingdom, before being acquired by a London banker named Thomas Hope. Now known as the Hope Diamond, the stone eventually passed to New York diamond merchant Harry Winston, who donated the diamond to the Smithsonian in 1958, sending it to the museum by US Post wrapped in brown paper. It was insured via registered mail for $145.29; it is now valued at US$200-US$250 million.

It’s interesting to hear the number of young girls excitedly squealing “Mommy, diamonds!” The taste for jewellery is clearly already entrenched. My boys are impressed, and upon hearing the value of the diamond, Dominic declares that he’d like to be a miner. I suspect he sees this as a way of cutting out the middle man, when he finds his own Hope Diamond. Their focus on the diamond doesn’t last too long – after one photo, they’re distracted by the size, colours and angles of the extensive crystal collection, ranging from Apophyllite to Zoisite.

Crocoite crystals

Crocoite crystals


Fluorite crystals

Fossil Ammonite

Fossil Ammonite

The Geology section is also very comprehensive with many interactive exhibits – the boys touch a piece of Mars, see fossils, search for New Zealand within displays on volcanos and earthquakes around the globe, hear radioactivity emitting from zircon, and try out the magnetic strength of Magnetite.

T-Rex, coming soon to a Museum of Natural History near you

T-Rex, coming soon to a Museum of Natural History near you

I’m slightly surprised to find that the boys less impressed by the next set of rooms. I had assumed that halls full of whale, shark and manatee skeletons would be a highlight. They are more intrigued by the genuine T-Rex skull – part of a display still under construction. Similarly, the Egyptian section, with wrapped and unwrapped mummies, doesn’t get the boys rushing around with cameras snapping.

Rosita the tarantula, about to have the crickets over for lunch

Rosita the tarantula, about to have the crickets over for lunch

We’re all getting a bit peckish now, but before we find our own meals, we get to watch a more permanent guest of the museum enjoy her lunch. Rosita the Tarantula seemingly never tires of crickets, and the boys enjoy a front row seat.

We’re soon justifying another quick, easy and unhealthy lunch, and I introduce the boys to Ghiradelli chocolate. I know this is going to be a winner, and the boys look as happy as a Tarantula chewing a cricket leg.

Angler Fish - Neno version

Angler Fish – Nemo version

Angler Fish - reality

Angler Fish – reality

After lunch, Mum decides she wants another look at the Gems, while the boys and I head for the Ocean Hall. We soon see a couple of Giant Squids, one a lot more giant than the other, but both very impressive. We also see an Angler Fish, which my boys and I all recognize immediately from Finding Nemo. It looks smaller and more friendly in person. But for me, the highlight of this section is the Coelacanth.

Coelacanth - back from the dead

Coelacanth – back from the dead

There are only two species of coelacanth, the West Indian Ocean coelacanth and the Indonesian coelacanth, and both are threatened, making this the most endangered order of animals in the world. But it isn’t the rarity that makes this fish special.

I remember from my childhood seeing a photo of the coelacanth, and reading how they were thought to have been extinct for 66 million years, until one was caught off the coast of West Africa in 1938. They are still critically endangered, but have been found in the Comoros, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South Africa. Fortunately for the coelacanth, they hold no value for fisherman as they reportedly taste terrible, but they are still threatened by commercial deep-sea trawling.

This museum really does have something for everyone, and one day goes nowhere near doing it justice. Sadly that’s all we have, but I intend to get back here one day.

Foggy Where?

Foggy Where?

Day Four – Our metro destination this morning is Foggy Bottom. There has to be an interesting story behind that name – and apparently this area by the Potomac River is believed to have been susceptible to concentrations of fog and industrial smoke. Foggy Bottom is home to many Federal agencies, so surely there a few jokes about the appropriateness of the name. There’s no sign of fog today, as we walk past embassies, George Washington University, and the Kennedy Arts Center, towards the buildings that I want to see – 700 New Hampshire Ave, also known as the Watergate Complex.

Watergate Complex

Watergate Complex

I had only ever heard or read references to the Watergate Hotel, but as well as the Hotel, the Watergate complex also includes contains an office building and three apartment buildings. Built in 1967, the trademark curves were intended to complement the planned Kennedy Arts Center (which later changed its design) and a proposed expressway. It looks exactly as I recall it from news footage following the 1974 scandal that lead to Nixon’s resignation.

IMG_0141While we’re trying to fit the façade of the building on our cameras, a series of helicopters seem to swoop on the hotel. There’s an open area between the buildings, and they feel so close, it’s almost as if they are flying among the buildings. They soon pass, but for an instant it feel as if something dramatic is about to happen. Is history repeating itself? No it isn’t, and we head off in search of the Lincoln Memorial.

Tom Bradley Memorial Bridge - to Arlington

Tom Bradley Memorial Bridge – to Arlington

It’s a beautiful day, and joggers and cyclists are constantly competing for the pavement as we wind our way around the Potomac. We can see Georgetown along the river to our right, while planes are constantly taking off from Arlington, now opposite us on the other side of the river. I find out later this is Ronald Reagan airport.

The team - towards Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument

The team – towards Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

We reach the Lincoln memorial in front of the Reflecting Pool, and the boys get a quick lesson on Lincoln’s place in history. Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, proposals for a fitting monument saw a series of rejections, from the initial bill passed by Congress in 1867 until acceptance in 1910. The memorial was opened in 1922, in the presence of Lincoln’s then 79-year old son Robert Lincoln. The site has also become famous for being the location of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to 250,000 people, as part of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, one of the largest rallies for civil rights in US history. A 22-year old Bob Dylan also played that day.

Uninvited lunch guest

Uninvited lunch guest


Korean War Memorial


Korean War Memorial


Roosevelt Memorial


Roosevelt Memorial

After unintentionally sharing our lunch with squirrels, we move on via the impressive Korean War Memorial to the Roosevelt Memorial. This is quite a contrast, and seem a tad underwhelming. I can’t help but wonder who is responsible for these memorials. If a memorial is proposed during the term of a President from an opposition party, how would that impact the grandeur of the monument? Maybe it’s more a question of how tight the coffers are. The design competition for the Roosevelt memorial was won in 1974 by Lawrence Halpin, but for over two decades Congress failed to find the funds. Halpin’s design was finally opened by President Clinton in 1997. Criticism had been voiced about Roosevelt’s depiction in a wheelchair, with concerns that Roosevelt was being made a hero because of his disability. The memorial also includes braille for blind visitors, but unhelpfully mounted eight feet above the ground.

We unfortunately miss the path to the Martin Luther King memorial, only spotting it across the Tidal Basin when we reach the Jefferson Memorial. They definitely knew how to build monuments in those days.


Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson was clearly a busy man – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the 3rd US President, he also found time to double the size of the United States, be fluent in French, Greek, Italian, Latin and Spanish, and following the death of his wife, he appears to have fathered six children with his slave, Sally Hemmings.

As with the other Memorials, this too had its detractors. In 1925 the site was initially proposed as a Memorial to Theodore Roosevelt but Congress did not fund this. President Franklin Roosevelt was a fan of Jefferson, so proposed a memorial to him, with more success. The building was opened in 1943, but due to wartime shortages in bronze, the statue could not be completed until 1947.

It’s been a long, hot and tiring day, and our feet need a rest. Despite all that, the boys are enjoying themselves, and seem to be taking in the significance of these grand buildings and their imposing statues. Washington is living up to all my expectations. Tomorrow – the National Air and Space Museum awaits.

Just keep walking....

Just keep walking….

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Musical Micropause: V


Townes Van Zandt: No Place To Fall – Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (1973)
I’d come across the name of Townes Van Zandt in many interviews and articles, with one quote attributed to Steve Earle getting my attention: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”  Townes’ supposed reply was “I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”
I was given a bunch of CD vouchers on leaving a job in Dublin (they knew me too well) and I was happy to take a punt on Steve Earle’s recommendation. I had no idea where to start with Townes, but a live album would hopefully double as a “Best Of”.  It was a lucky choice, and this is probably my favourite live album by anyone.  There are so many great songs to choose from here – Pancho and Lefty (covered many times by Dylan), If I Needed You, For The Sake Of The Song, Tecumseh Valley….and he tells jokes too.

Suzanne Vega: The Queen and the Soldier (1985)
It took me a while to cross paths with this song, but I finally discovered it on a trip to London in 1997.  I think I drove my friends slightly mad with the frequent repeat plays. It was also the trip where I discovered the qualities of a Gin and Tonic, so it was a successful few days. I had no idea that it had been a fan favourite for so long, and I still hope to hear Suzanne play it live one day.  I was chuffed to receive replies from Suzanne to a couple of tweets, but so far my campaign to get her to New Zealand again has been unsuccessful. I’m not giving up!

Velvet Underground: Venus in Furs (1967)
If I could travel to one time and place, it would be to see these guys assaulting the senses of New Yorkers in 1967. Not too many seem to have been listening at the time, but the Velvets have now received their recognition.  While the Beatles were hanging out in Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, the Velvets were capturing a sick and dirty lifestyle on the streets of  New York.  Their uniqueness owes as much to John Cale’s grating viola as to Lou Reed’s lyrics, and when Cale left the band after two albums, the Velvets were the poorer for it.

Velvet Underground: I’ll Be Your Mirror (1967)
Lou Reed’s songs always seemed personal, but fortunately they weren’t always about the darker side of New York life.  He gave this gentle song to Nico to sing on the Velvets’ debut. This was the first song I ever heard Lou Reed play – not a bad way to start a show.

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Washington DC: September 2014

Well this is a bit embarrassing. It feels a bit like ringing my mum having not called for far too long. I made some very nice friends in these parts, and hopefully some of them still live in the neighbourhood.  Has it really been over nine months? I don’t like to point fingers, but in this case I blame my boss. There’s something about doing the job of at least two people that discourages mental activity at the end of the working day. Fortunately those days have recently come to an end, so hopefully this won’t be a false start. So without further ado…

Guess where I've been!

Guess where I’ve been!

Day One – When a taxi driver says “that’s all I’ve got to say”, you know that there’s a lot more coming, so get comfortable. We sit helpless, knowing that only our arrival at Auckland airport can end this. It’s not that our contributions to this discourse are unwelcome; we just know that they’ll go unnoticed. We’ve tried to get back to the main road, but this former bus-driver insists he knows the best way to the airport. We’re about to board a 13 hour flight to San Francisco, so this exercise in enforced patience is perfect practice.

My travel companions on this trip are my mum (76), and my sons Dominic (8) and Sam (10). Mum has been wanting to take her grandkids to Disneyland since before they were born, probably since before I was born. It’s the boys’ first trip to the United States, and apart from a trip to Europe when Sam was 1, it’s their first experience of trying to sleep on overnight flights.

Air New Zealand - we get one of the new black ones!

Air New Zealand – we get one of the new black ones!

We farewell Mum at Auckland Airport – she has the Business Class lounge to look forward to. She’s earned that. The adventure of Economy Class awaits us. For thirteen hours…and that’s just the first leg across the Pacific.

There are advantages to travelling with kids of my boys’ age. You know who you are going to be sitting next to for over half a day, and bad luck there can make a long flight seem endless. The boys also don’t take up too much room, and at their age, they’re unlikely to cry through the journey. As long as window seat allocation is agreed in advance, in writing, there’s every chance of getting through the flight without bloodshed.

There are some seat demarcation issues between the boys, as Sam exercises his option as older brother over half of Dom’s seat, as well as his own. Dom isn’t keen on that arrangement and Sam’s feet are repeatedly pushed back to his zone. Eventually we all get some sleep – enough to arrive in San Francisco feeling in focus and ready for the next leg.  Between games of battleships, chess, tetris, and cartoons, the boys seem to be taking well to long-distance flights.

We didn't even see this much....

This would have been a nice view…didn’t happen

I’ve flown into San Francisco a few times before, and I’m sure I was able to see the Golden Gate. Sadly I can’t share that with the boys, as all we can see is fog. We spot Mum way ahead of us in the immigration line and unfortunately she misses my signals that we will join her, and she weaves her way back to us at the wrong end of the queue. We seem to spend as much time in this line as we did in the plane, but this time the boys don’t have an entertainment system to distract them. The only point of note is a woman with a dog hanging out of her hand luggage. “Madam, did you pack this dog yourself?”

We’re rapidly running out of time to make our connecting flight to Washington, and carrying Mum and both boys on my back seems the only way to get through the airport more quickly. As departure time gets closer, it’s getting a bit tense. I hear “Mrs Cold” by Kings of Convenience being played over the airport speakers, a fact disappointingly of no interest to anyone but me. Great song.

The boys barely look up from their iPads during the five hour flight across the States. We’re on Virgin America for this one, so the games are different. One that we haven’t come across before is the ability to send messages to other seats. Dom tries to send me one, while sitting next to me, but accidentally sends it to the stranger dozing across the aisle. Even asleep he doesn’t look too friendly and Dom tries to hide behind me.

We arrive in Washington late at night, and there’s a brief scare when our luggage takes an age to turn up. I’m convinced someone else has taken it, mistakenly thinking it was their own, but it eventually arrives. I track down our shuttle company and after a conversation that may have been Spanish with an American accent, or American with a Spanish accent, I give up and find the shuttle myself. I hadn’t thought of language barriers being a problem on this trip. It won’t be the last time.

The boys slept through it, but it looked like this.. Image source: Homeland, Season 1

The Pentagon – the boys slept through it, but it looked like this..
Image source: Homeland, Season 1

It’s been a very long day, but when we unexpectedly pass the illuminated Pentagon, it’s the first time I see anything that I recognize. I have one boy on each side, both asleep leaning on me. It’s a proud Dad moment. Almost there….

Day Two – At our first Washington breakfast I receive a tap on the shoulder. Oh dear – what’s happened? We’ve been making waffles – have we broken some unwritten waffle etiquette? We’re strangers here. We barely speak the language. It’s one of the breakfast staff and fortunately she looks friendly. “I like your boots”.  I’m quite proud of my boots, so the compliment is appreciated.  Washington is off to a good start, and we haven’t finished breakfast yet.

It’s time to leave the comforts of the Residence Inn, and hit the streets. And the golden rule when on American streets is: stick to the right. At least that’s the rule in countries where you drive on the right. It doesn’t take too many collisions to realise that walking on the left in the US is like swimming upstream. Similarly, standing on the left of an escalator is asking for trouble, but fortunately Washington at 11am is hardly rush hour.

Have SmarTrip cards, will travel

Have SmarTrip cards, will travel

We buy our SmarTrip tickets and my boys experience a Metro system for the first time. From McPherson Square, we walk to Lafayette Square and the back-end of the White House. Tourists are outnumbered by protesters, and the rooftop security look like they’ve seen it all before.

White House - back door. Roof Security have a great view of Washington Monument but are looking the wrong way.

White House – back door. Roof Security have a great view of Washington Monument but are looking the wrong way.

Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). Mark Twain wasn't a fan.

Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). Mark Twain wasn’t a fan.

The building next door looks interesting – built between 1871 and 1888, this is the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (or EEOB). Mark Twain described it as “the ugliest building in America.” and Harry Truman called it “the greatest monstrosity in America.” That seems a bit harsh, and Mark and Harry could have been more constructive in their criticism. It looks to me like it’s trying to be a cousin of the Louvre, which isn’t a bad ambition. It currently houses the Office of the Vice President, and the National Security Council, among others.

White House - Mum and Sam

White House – Mum and Sam

We have the obligatory photo session with the White House behind us, and head off in search of the White House Gift Shop. This is as close are we going to get to a visit of the White House.  Unfortunately we can’t find it. We probably walk past it several times, but finding lunch soon becomes more of a priority than finding a White House fridge magnet.

Potbelly hits the spot!

Potbelly hits the spot!

Dom and Sam at Potbellys

Dom and Sam at Potbellys

The Potbelly Sandwich Shop seems popular and we soon take our place by the window. I’m still having accent issues though. Something is said with a smile about my Calexico t-shirt, or at least I think that’s what was said. I nod, hoping it’s an appropriate response. This starting to remind me of needing subtitles to watch The Wire. I agree to everything they suggest for my sandwich because I can sense a crowd building up behind me. It’s probably not a combination that has ever been served before, but it tastes fine.

The International Spy Museum - recommended

The International Spy Museum – recommended

In the week we have in Washington, I’m hoping to see many famous landmarks: the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial – not a lot for kids there. I’m hoping they’ll get a kick out of the International Spy Museum. We’re required to take part in some corny identity game, which both boys and adults soon forget. I don’t think it’s needed, as the museum itself has many fascinating exhibits, more than enough to hold the interest of both adults and kids.  There’s a lot of original spy equipment from the KGB era – umbrellas that kill, lipsticks that kill, tobacco pipes that kill. There’s even a shoe phone – maybe Maxwell Smart was onto something. There are also historic examples of the use of invisible ink, and the history of espionage. The museum finishes with a temporary exhibit of James Bond memorabilia, but it’s not as impressive as the real thing. It’s an insight into a world that must still be thriving, and one day today’s toys that kill may one day be on display. I’m glad we made it here; it’s a very comprehensive museum and definitely recommended.

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Musical Micropause U: 35 years of U2 live

Just as Q is dominated by Queen, so it is with U and U2. Underworld did have a great track with Born Slippy, and UB40 were nothing to be ashamed of in their early days, but it gets tricky after that. Did Ultravox have more than one song?

With a new album coming in 2014, U2 aren’t prepared to rely on their back catalog just yet, and there are few bands whose concerts can compare to a U2 experience. From humble beginnings in Dublin, over the last 35 years Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry have performed around 2000 concerts in over 30 countries. Fortunately for us, they show no sign of slowing down just yet.

1970s – Street Mission: live in Dublin (1978)
If every journey starts with a single step, every stadium filling band starts with an embarrassing video. For reasons unclear, there’s no shortage of confidence, and Bono clearly isn’t afraid of the camera. It would be a brave bet that this mob are destined to be the dominant band on the world stage for decades.

1980s – Bad: Live at Live Aid, London
Seven years, four albums, and countless hair stylists after their first steps on Irish TV, U2 were now not just sharing a stage with the biggest bands of the eighties, but stealing the show. Bono had long been dragging girls out of the crowd for some audience participation, but at Live Aid, the “grab” took longer than planned, causing Bad to be extended by five minutes. U2 may have missed out on playing their final scheduled song, but their performance to a global audience turned them into world superstars.

U2 live in Auckland, November 11, 1989

U2 live in Auckland, November 11, 1989

1990s – Until The End Of The World: Live in New York (1992)
The Eighties turned into the Nineties, and the acclaim turned into backlash. With references to Billie Holiday and Elvis, and performances by BB King and the Memphis Horns, Rattle and Hum was perceived as four Irishmen trying to teach the United States about their own music. U2 were forced into reinvention and the result was the stunning double-hit of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. The epic performances of desert songs where the streets had no names were replaced by electronica against a wall of TV screens and suspended Trabants.

U2 live in Auckland, December 4, 1993

U2 live in Auckland, December 4, 1993

2000s – Vertigo: Live in Milan (2005)
Between 2000 and 2009, U2 released three albums, all featuring a return to more traditional guitar-based rock, complete with singles that sounded written for stadium performance. Changes in the music industry were reflected in the decreasing album sales: “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (2000) sold in excess of 12 million copies, while “No Line on the Horizon” (2009) sold around 5 million.  Touring became the primary source of earnings with U2 embarking on major tours after each album.

U2 live in Auckland, November 24, 2006

U2 live in Auckland, November 24, 2006

2010s – One Tree Hill: Live in Auckland (2010)
Whenever U2 visit New Zealand, they are expected to play “One Tree Hill”, a song written for a New Zealander who worked for the band as a roadie in the 1980s, and who died in a motorcycle accident in Dublin.  “One Tree Hill” is a real place in central Auckland, very close to where I grew up, and my kids love being taken to the summit for 360 degree views over the city.  The song is now rarely played outside New Zealand, so it has become Our Song.

On 19 November 2010, an explosion in the Pike River Mine, northeast of Greymouth in New Zealand’s South Island, killed 29 people. When U2 played in Auckland on 26 November, they included in their performance of “One Tree Hill” a tribute to the 29 miners, listing their names on the screen above the band. Being at that show, it was clear that the crowd was touched by this moving performance.

U2 live in Auckland, November 26, 2010

U2 live in Auckland, November 26, 2010

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Musical Micropause: T

TV On The Radio: Wolf Like Me  (2006)
Rated as Spin’s album of the year, no 2 for Pitchfork, and no 4 for both Stylus and Rolling Stone, it was hard not to hear the positive reviews received in 2006 for TV On The Radio’s second studio album, “Return to Cookie Mountain”. Along with Neil Young and Arctic Monkeys, they were one of the three main reasons I thought I should get to the Big Day Out 2009, and they didn’t disappoint. I think they deserved better than a mid-afternoon slot, but they soon had the crowd’s attention. I’d love to see them do their own show – but maybe not in the same year that Springsteen and the Stones visit these shores. The year hasn’t started and I’m running out of budget.

The Temptations: Ain’t Too Proud To Beg (1966)
I’m not sure if the Temptations had a minimum height requirement, but these guys all look about seven feet tall. A classic that I never get tired of hearing. The Stones seemed to like it too – this is a live version from them with Amy Winehouse on the Isle of Wight from 2007. I’d be happy to hear them play this in April.

The The
: Slow Emotion Replay (1993)
If I had to make my list of underrated albums, “Dusk” by The The would be my immediate first choice. It has everything – production that doesn’t sound too dated, poignant lyrics (although maybe not the best choice if you’ve had a bad day), and a hefty dose of Johnny Marr. That’s his harmonica at the start of this track. As an aside, I had to check the difference between “dose” and “dosage”. Apparently, dosage is the rate of application of a dose. Anyway, this track is/was great for singing to yourself on a cricket field when you’re stuck on the boundary far from the action.

Teddy Thompson: Tonight Will Be Fine (2005)
I don’t know a lot of Teddy Thompson’s own music, but I love what he does with this song by Leonard Cohen. Possibly surprisingly, Cohen’s original is the raucous version. Thompson participated in a series of Leonard Cohen tribute concerts called “Came So Far for Beauty” alongside with Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and others. The concerts were performed in New York, Brighton, Dublin and Sydney, with the Sydney show filmed for the concert film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”. This video is from that performance.

Talking Heads: Life During Wartime (1984)
I find it impossible to listen to watch a video of Talking Heads without smiling, whether from the early pre-Jerry Harrison days as a three-piece, or the ten-person live line-up for the Remain In Light tour. These guys were took the visual aspect of performance into areas no-one knew existed.  Freddy Mercury or David Byrne as the ultimate frontman? Hard choice…

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New York – first taste of the Apple: May 1994

Manhattan from Empire State Building, May 1994

Manhattan from Empire State Building, May 1994

My neighbor is very chatty, and as she’s a New Yorker, I try to get some hints that aren’t covered by the guidebooks. I’m on the countdown now. This is my first visit to New York, and I’ve managed to get the window seat. Maybe she’s a recent arrival, because her answers to my questions always start with “Barry?” Her husband is sitting on the aisle, and doesn’t seem to mind having his reading regularly interrupted. I’ve learned quite a bit from Barry’s suggestions over the last couple of hours, but I’ve probably learned more about his wife’s family, friends, eating disorders and last vacation to the Virgin Islands.

I’m going to be staying with friends who live on East 47th Street, but they’ll be working late at the World Financial Center, and they’ve suggested I meet them there. One question Barry can’t answer is how I can get a bus there at this time of night from JFK. The passenger across the aisle from Barry overhears, and asks around his neighbors. They aren’t sure, and the row in front of them offers ideas. Soon there are six or seven people, with what I think are New York accents, all debating the best way to get to the World Financial Center. It’s all a very welcoming start to my first experience of this iconic city. And as hoped, the views as we approach the city are spectacular.

The consensus is that I should take a taxi, and I’m soon sharing a ride with an elderly Jamaican lady. I wasn’t expecting that, but she doesn’t look too threatening, or mobile. If she does a runner, we can give her a head start and still catch her by the corner. The driver’s name is Mustapha – he asks me where I’m from and I tell him New Zealand. I’m not sure he’s heard of it as he looks at me as if I’ve misunderstood the question. For some reason he sees me as an expert on leather sandals, and is very keen on getting my advice. He seems surprised and a little disappointed when I admit that it’s not my specialist subject. We need to stop for petrol, and then again for Mustapha to buy some peanuts. Waiting in a taxi in Brooklyn for my taxi driver to get peanuts feels surreal, but maybe that’s what life is like in New York.

As a music fan, one of the band I associate with New York is the Velvet Underground, and I’m a fairly recent convert. There had been optimistic rumors that their 1992 reunion would extend to Australia and New Zealand, so I felt the need to know more about this band. Every artist seemed to be listing them as an influence, so it seemed time to do more research. I’d previously been given a compilation of the Velvets, but I guess my mind wasn’t quite ready. How could I not have loved this the first time around? Dark and seedy, this music was captivating. I spent a lot of 1993 listening to the Velvets and read the few books that I could find on this short-lived band. I came across Tom Wilson’s name, whom I associated with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel – names that were eternally linked to New York City. The wonderfully jarring and grating noise from the Velvets seemed a world away from the Sounds of Silence. I soon discovered the connection with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. I’d love to track down that building. And this is where Lou Reed was walking on the wild side? I need to get to this city.

It’s now May 1994, and I’ve been in New York for a couple of days. It’s just before midnight in Manhattan, and I can’t get the relentless chug of the Velvets out of my head. Maybe at the next corner I’ll find myself confronted with these guys…

Cale and Reed

John Cale and Lou Reed in New York, 1968

This superb photo of John Cale and Lou Reed, the architects of the Velvet Undergound, was taken by Joel Meyerowitz on 5th Avenue in 1968, “just a casual shot of an interesting looking guy, only to discover later on that it was Lou Reed and John Cale”. He published it on his Facebook page on November 11 2013, after the death of Lou Reed.

Any why shouldn’t I spot Cale and Reed? This is their town after all. Well, because they hate each other (again), the reunion is over, and it’s not 1968, it’s 1994. It won’t happen – but I can’t stop hoping that it might. It’s as ridiculous as going to Stockholm and hoping to run into the four members of ABBA, holding hands and skipping down the street. Who would hope for that? But that’s another story.

I spend hours walking in New York City. Partially because I’ve been warned against using the subway, but partially to convince myself that I’m really here. There’s so much to see above ground and I see many familiar sights – the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building. I start to walk the length of Broadway heading south, passing Madison Square Garden, and Union Square, and get distracted by sidestreets into Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown. Eventually I get lost, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m in no hurry – which is just one of many differences between me and the locals. It frequently feels like I’m the only one in this city that is relaxed, or at least trying to relax. This doesn’t feel like a city where you can sip a coffee and watch the world go by; I get the impression here you that you are expected to either keep up or get out of the way. No-one’s being unfriendly to me at all – quite the opposite, but I’ve spent time in cities like London and Paris, and this city operates at a completely different pace.

Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

My explorations continue with a visit to Wall Street and the NYSE viewing platform. The courts around City Hall are cordoned off as the World Trade Center bombers are being sentenced today. On February 26, 1993, a truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing seven and injuring thousands. I hear later that all four are sentenced to life imprisonment.  I keep heading south and take the Staten Island ferry, passing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s a welcome change to let the ferry do my walking.

That evening my friends have to work late once more, but their roommate is there with her boyfriend. I’m not sure if the roommate is impressed, but I spend the evening with the boyfriend talking sport over a few beers. We also cover recent mafia history and the bloody events outside Sparks Steak House at 210 East 47th Street (my friends live at 212 East 47th), as well as Woody Allen’s frequent appearances at “Michael’s”. This ends sometime between 2am and 3am. These guys can talk.

Shooting of Paul Castellano outside Sparks Steak House, 1985

Shooting of Paul Castellano outside Sparks Steak House, 1985

Most days are spent walking with visits to the UN Headquarters, Grand Central Station, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and MOMA. Clutching my bag, I even brave the subway for the first time for a visit to the Guggenheim. Clearly a tourist (possibly because I’m the only person in New York wearing purple baggy surf shorts), I attract attention, but it’s soon clear that this isn’t some cunning diversion while the accomplice grabs my wallet. People just want to make sure I’m not lost. This isn’t the first time strangers have gone out of their way to help the weary visitor – which isn’t easy when they don’t seem to understand my accent.

Times Square

Times Square

Lunch is sometimes on the grass in Central Park, where I discover that pretzels are more filling than they look. One large pretzel is plenty. Being a Beatles fan, I have to locate Strawberry Fields and the Dakota building. I notice on the billboards throughout the city that they all have web addresses listed for the product advertised. This must be this internet thing I’ve heard of, but haven’t tried yet. Maybe it will catch on at home and we’ll have web addresses on billboards in New Zealand one day.

Evenings are passed in institutions with names like Edward Moran’s, Jamesons, and the Fulton Street Cafe. One particular night is spent in a bar watching a Stanley Cup playoff match between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, with the seven match series tied at 3-3.  New York scores early but New Jersey equalises with seven seconds to go in regulation time, causing overtime and major discomfort for my new friends. We need to get home, so we make flying visits into multiple bars on the way back to get updates. The match needs 25 minutes of sudden-death play, so we’re able to get home in time for the finish. Fortunately New York wins, giving a great night out a fitting ending. I’m not sure how my friends would reacted if the night had finished with a New Jersey goal. I suspect the night would not have been so memorable for them.

TV Hockey 5

A good night to be a Rangers fan

On my last day in New York, I come across the Turtle Bay Festival on 2nd Avenue. It’s a great place for souvenirs, which double as clean clothes, so I stock up. From there, I walk to the South St Seaport, followed by a wander across Brooklyn Bridge. They take the bike lanes a bit more seriously here than at home – again, it’s a mistake I make only once. Night is again spent with friends of friends, as mine are yet again working late. I’m not sure if people ever really stop working here – even when I’ve met people for a drink on the Friday night, they have had to go back to the office later that evening. That isn’t the Friday night that I’m familiar with.

Turtle Bay Festival - May 1994

Turtle Bay Festival – May 1994

Work is the last thing on my mind on my last night in New York. The door to the roof of their apartment building is open, and I take a seat with a view over the lights of Manhattan. The spire of the Chrysler building look close enough to touch, and I reflect on how lucky I am to have been offered accommodation in this part of the city. I have my trusty Walkman, and on New York radio I hear Crowded House, a band that New Zealanders like to think of as our own. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” sings Neil Finn, but with a flight to Paris tomorrow, there’s not much I can do about that. Could I live here? I don’t think so. In the last week I’ve been to so many fantastic places that I’ve read about for years, and people have been so helpful, but I haven’t really felt comfortable. Maybe that’s unrealistic after just a week, but I’ve been to other cities where I’ve felt at ease almost immediately. I’d love to come back, but I have no ambitions for a long-term stay.

Months later, I’m back in Auckland and daydreaming about my week in New York, and I realise that I was so busy I completely forgot to look up Andy Warhol’s Factory. I find that the original Factory was on the fifth floor of 231 East 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I can’t believe it. I was staying at 212 East 47th, also between 2nd and 3rd Avenues – almost directly opposite the Factory building, and I must have walked past it every day. Now I definitely have a reason for a return visit.

Andy Warhol with the Velvet Undergound and friends in happier times

Andy Warhol with the Velvet Undergound and friends in happier times

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