Thursday, February 10, 2011
Tales of the road: part 9
Last night a tight modern jazz quartet played on a houseboat on the Vltava river; sax, Gibson guitar, six-string bass and a drummer whose fast hands made his sticks look like the wings of a hummingbird. Between songs the front man chatted in Czech but now and then a phrase in English dropped in - "you know what women do to men" or "we've all been on that road before" - but the music was sexy and urgent, then sly and comic, and language was unnecessary for all of us listening.
Later at U Mahello Glena, a duo was starting up just as I walked down into the basement bar. One silent Czech, one talkative Brit, two guitars, in a room for about 20 people. The Brit was the lead, about 50, and had a raspy voice shades of Joe Cocker. Between songs he went on excitedly about a reunion show with old bandmates coming up this weekend in Putney. The local crowd didn't care much about his memories - the music was the story they wanted to hear.
Music cuts across all boundaries of ethnicity and language and space and time, from the American pop in the bars of London, to the hermit-like Dutchman spinning vinyl in Amsterdam, to the sad gypsy violinist playing for coins in Prague, the classical baritone singing on the underground in Berlin - the melodies and the harmonies and the rhythms and the dissonance align and realign in my mind and in my heart.
Not every music encounter has been joyous though. A few nights ago in Berlin, Henry and I went in search of a couple of possible hot spots, and end up talking with a bartender who draws us a very precise napkin map. As we're finishing our drinks, a man with a guitar comes into this full house. He looks like the love child of a coupling between David Bowie and Bob Dylan, if they both were crack addicts. A thinning mullet, even thinner denim jeans, the obligatory harmonica holder around the neck. He begins to play an old pop song and it sounds only vaguely familiar and he mangles the words in his thick accent. It takes awhile to figure out what he's trying to play. Henry and I suddenly become aware of a creeping stench in the bar. A moment of perplexity, then the realization it is the deep, intense type of body odor that suggests a portal to Hell has opened and the smell of eternal torment is leaking out. We exchange a look of Do you smell that? There is no one new near the bar. Henry says It's him, nodding toward the musician. Six people at the table next to us ask for their check with urgency. He launches into a misguided version of "Folsom Prison Blues" and now eternal damnation is audible as well as olfactory. Another table is up and walking out. then another. We ask for our check and hold our breath as we pass to the door.
On the street Henry tells me that in Berlin, street-type musicians come into bars and cafes, uninvited, and set up shop in the way you'd expect in the subways. They may be good or they may stink - literally - but the bar managers just let them be. even if they clear the room. I understand why Berliners like to avoid conflict, but they have some things to learn about capitalism.