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I Got the Beat – One Day in a New York State of Mind

December 13, 2009

One view of Anish Kapoor's "Memory"

Each December I go to Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking for a weekend-long workshop or meeting.  My personal tradition for the past ten years (!) has been to tack on a frantically-paced 24-hour visit to New York City before the peaceful train ride up the Hudson as the sun sets on Friday afternoon.  Past years have included seeing Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s in Hoboken for their annual Chanukah show, seeing the Eagles of Death Metal in Brooklyn or Geri Allen at the Village Vanguard, visiting the MOMA or Metropolitan or Whitney or Guggenheim, going to the opening weekend of Hairspray, late-night dining, flagons of ale at McSorley’s, book shopping at St. Mark’s Books or the Strand, all punctuated by subway trips to distant parts of Manhattan, packing more into that day than any rational person would expect to accomplish.

This year I was thrilled at the chance to see Fela! on broadway just a week after it opened.  From the moment I entered the theater, the Afrobeat music, supplied by a band including folks from the outstanding Antibalas, was grooving.  The Eugene O’Neill Theater was transformed into The Shrine, Fela’s personal concert hall and center of his political activities, decorated with images of his mother and leaders of various African and American leaders of civil rights movements.  From the start of the show, the power of the dancing and music was overwhelming in ways both dazzling and mezmerizing with its range of power.  It appealed to my love for live music as well, since it was staged more as a visit to Fela’s final performance than a story told in song.  It featured many of my favorite songs, and I know I’ll never listen to “Water No Get Enemy,” “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood,” or “Coffin for Head of State,” in the same way again, as now I hear the expression of Fela’s politics and the way the Nigerian government of the time tried to suppress them.  Some of the moments were truly devastating and spoke volumes of the difference between seeing the world through the power of music and dance and opposed to through the power of a police baton and bribe.  It’s like Wittgenstein’s “Dawning of an aspect,” never allowing something once familiar to be seen in the same way once a new layer of meaning is revealed.  Interestingly that might also affect how I think of Fela himself, who I can’t dissever from the remarkable and transforming performance by Sahr Ngaujah – several reviews have named him as a better Fela than Mr. Kuti himself.  I was lucky enough to sit in the third row for the performance I saw, and his gift of creating the feeling of spontaneity along with all of the qualities of great storytelling is something I’ll not soon forget.  I’ve been a fan of Afrobeat music for quite a while now, and have seen Antibalas, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, and many others, along with hours of listening and dancing behind my steering wheel on the highway.  The power of this music is infectious, as its combination of funk, soul, R&B, rock, and jazz, among many others, exists at the very epicenter of my musical addiction.  At a recent lunch, the whip-around question was to create our ideal concert experience, featuring people alive or dead.  A triple bill of Fela, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane should just about do it for me.  You?

The pulsing rhythm of Fela’s music paralleled the pace with which I moved through the city, bouncing from one subway line to the next as I tried to take it all in.  I roamed around the West Village after the show, into and out of a few jazz clubs, revisiting favorite places across too many years.  Benny’s pizza is still there, and now there’s a Papaya Dog in the village.  Bleeker Bob’s is hanging on but there’s a sign in the window showing the space is going to be available soon.  The late-night vinyl-buying crowd just isn’t a part of the scene so much any more, I suppose.  It feels like the most-mentioned yet least-visited place, one that people don’t want to see vanish from the landscape (don’t get me started about dozens of other lost book and music stores across the country) but don’t but enough to fully support.  Don’t worry, Dusty Groove, I’m still here with you!

The next day after a morning browse through St. Mark’s Bookshop (please stay in existence – see previous paragraph) I saw an amazing transformation as I walked through the village – as I crossed Houston, it was as if the economic downtown vanished, and the reality of the “other half” smacked me in the face like a wind-blown plastic bag.  The streets of Soho were jammed with fully-loaded (with shopping bags) buyers of everything.  Stunning to see, but not really no surprising in this odd economic have-vs.-have-not climate.  A bit ironic for me to say that as I waited for half an hour for a table for brunch at Balthazar, but you get the point.  After a leisurely brunch amid the hectic crowd with my dearest high school friend, Jennifer, we raced up town for a quick spin through the Guggheim museum and their stunning Kandinsky exhibit.  I must say something about the incredible powerful Anish Kapoor exhibit, “Memory.”  As the program described it, The sculpture appears to defy gravity as it gently glances against the periphery of the gallery walls and ceiling. However, as a 24-ton volume, Memory is also raw, industrial, and foreboding. Positioned tightly within the gallery, Memory is never fully visible; instead the work fractures and divides the gallery into several distinct viewing areas. The division compels visitors to navigate the museum, searching for vantage points that offer only glimpses of the sculpture. This processional method of viewing Memory is an intrinsic aspect of the work. Visitors are asked to contemplate the ensuing fragmentation by attempting to piece together images retained in their minds, exerting effort in the act of seeing—a process Kapoor describes as creating a “mental sculpture.”  Checkout the short video about it and consider what it suggests about the nature of memory – both our own and the access we have to the memories of others.

The afternoon finished with a frantic race across Central Park and a luckily-timed C train to Penn Station – only in New York could I dream of going 50+ blocks in less than 15 minutes on a crowded Friday afternoon.  But there it is about the city I still love so – embracing that pace opens endless possibilities – and as my friend Brian likes to say, he just holds on to my jacket and waits to see where he’ll land next.  For me the aforementioned train ride became my entry into a weekend of writing and rediscovery of Emily Dickinson, but that’s another story.

One final note: I’ve become a huge fan of Tablet magazine and through I, and Jeffrey Goldberg’s invaluable blog, I was able to find this fantastic story about Orrin Hatch’s Chanukah song.  Essential viewing and reading.

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