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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Right Of Way

Okay, I realize my last blog may have ended on a down note. When we left our hero, he was a beaten man on a perilous promotional trail, a collision victim of public transport, days spent navigating murky UK weather, cold nights beneath a single-layer Travelodge comforter. It’s amazing what a little sun can do for your spirits. The past week and a half in and around London has been miraculously blue and clear, not a cloud in a sky. It’s equally amazing how quickly my pessimism/cynicism/realism has been replaced by a genuine optimism. Maybe it’s getting a full 8 hours sleep, or a return to boiled eggs, bagels and marmite in the morning, but there’s an extra pep in my step lately. I’ve been hitting the Piano with a renewed vigor, like a boxer coming off a knockout round. Such is the seesaw life of this self-pronounced artiste! But this would not be your typical, pontifical JV blog entry if I didn’t use my considerable writing prowess to whinge about something, specifically a British something.

As a native New Yorker, I consider walking in an urban environment to be an area of expertise, something of a birthright. I have been living in London for close to 15 months and still have no comprehension of pedestrian/car etiquette. This may seem a simple, trivial, even ridiculous matter, but I assure you, Right Of Way is a very complex thing here in England. The nation that made Darts a sport has also made the act of crossing a street a labyrinthine, mystical process. Just like Hercules’ Hydra, I chop off one of the beast’s heads only to find two grow back in its place.

Point in case: last night I was traveling through my Islington neighborhood to next-door Dalston in the pursuit of Vietnamese food. I was headed along Southgate Road, a major two-lane cut-through for drivers trying to avoid the congested Angel center. During the day, this street is pretty busy and with no crosswalks (they call them Zebras here), a force to be reckoned with for the average man-on-foot. During the evening however, the road is clear, allowing motorists to speed with no consideration for people, as I find London drivers tend to do (I have a theory this is because of all the twisting and turning. As soon as drivers see a straightaway, they gun it. I would too. Driving can’t be much fun here with all the sharp angles and speed bumps, or humps as they say. Not like I would know. I can’t drive).

Amidst my quest for Pho and Duck spring rolls, I was walking in the direction of traffic, crossing what I would call a side street, i.e. a small road leading off the main thoroughfare, one without a foot traffic light. Behind me, I felt the hum of a speeding engine, and twisted my head to see a car quickly rounding the side street, headed straight for me. To my knowledge, there are no clearly defined rules in this situation. I would like to think common sense prevails. In my mind, if I’m walking straight, it means I have the Right Of Way. If a driver, while trying to change course, sees a pedestrian halfway across an intersection (in this case the driver was coming at me from behind, making me, the pedestrian, blindsided), Right Of Way dictates the driver wait for the pedestrian to finish crossing before completing the turn. I was reminded again tonight, as I have been so times before, this is not the case in London. As Bill Hicks astutely observed, “In London when a driver sees a person crossing the street, they turn their wipers on.” If you, as a pedestrian, do not relent completely to an automobile, and thereby cause the driver to apply any degree of pressure to their break pedal, he/she will honk and gesticulate violently at you, perhaps shout something along the line of, “ For Fuck’s sake!” Before I came to this country, I didn’t know Fuck was proper noun, let alone something you can act in the interest of.

I hate to be the squeaky wheel. I believe that when you are a stranger in a strange land, you should do as the locales do, assume their customs as your own. To quote Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, “When In Rome.” But riddle me this: what kind of city gives cars the Right Of Way over people but not cyclists? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen cyclists in this town, smack dab in a bus lane in the middle of the morning rush, leisurely pedaling away with a jam-packed bus of commuters right on their tail. Bikers in London truly are the chosen people, self-righteous green priests of the environment who rule the road with an iron fist, delivering a swift and brutal judgment on anyone obstructing their path. The scolding you get for blocking a car is nothing compared to incurring the cyclist’s wrath. The few times I made the mistake of placing so much as my foot in front of a bike, my ears were assaulted by a cascade of slurs that would make even the most hardened sailors blush. These fetid tirades coming from the mouths of some the cutest, hipster women my eyes have ever seen. It’s enough to make this musician cry.

I dunno whether it’s the card carrying liberal, eco-driven mentality of powerful lobbying groups, or just they way they roll in London, but it appears bikes are indeed king, and we walkers are merely flies on the proverbial windshield, playing cards in the proverbial spokes. Last night was a reminder that while I live in this city, no matter how intrinsically bizarre they may seem to me, I must do my best to comprehend and obey the English rules of Right Of Way. But, from time to time, these Brits must forgive an instinct from deep inside my being to call out, in the words of quintessential New Yorker Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, “HEY, I’M WAH-KING HERE!”

Sunday, 15 March 2009


I’m finally relaxing on a Sunday, drinking coffee, and watching Louis Theroux dissect the phenomenon of plastic surgery. For those of you who don’t know, namely Americans as Mr. Theroux’s show is a BBC production, Louis is a TV journalist of the highest caliber who does one hour documentaries on the cultural insanities of the United States, from evangelical cult members to degenerate Vegas gamblers to hardened criminals in San Quentin prison, and everything in-between. What makes Louis so good is his innocence. He identifies with his subjects, asking them simple, direct questions without judgment. He makes people feel safe so they open up and give the camera an insight into their psychology.

My current UK tour over the past couple weeks has been, at times, reminiscent of a Theroux special. Problem is I can’t tell whether I’m Louis or one of the people he interviews. I’ve been doing a promotional work, playing each night at Living Rooms, a bourgeois chain of restaurants fitted with white digital Pianos in the bar area. My 45-minute set is routed through the house speakers, gently backing people’s dinner conversations, a gig reminiscent of my cabaret days in NYC. My mornings are spent visiting music colleges where I play for eager students who throw a barrage of questions at me, desperate for direction in the wild world of the Music Business. So far, I’ve lost my voice twice from singing through inadequate sound systems, and been in a car wreck, our van totaled by a side on collision with a commuter bus in Edinburgh. I keep waiting for my cockney tour manager, Jamie Franklin, to pull off his fake mustache and shout, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”

Jamie has been great company, keeping me sane during this sometimes torturous journey. He’s the positive to my negative, the Laurel to my Hardy, the Derek to my Clive. All the madness has been chronicled on my Video Tour Blog, its regular updates the reason this Blog is so long overdue. Throughout conversations with Jamie during the long drives, I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy. The definition of a Cynic is a person who believes people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honorable or unselfish reasons, someone who questions whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile. Reading this now, it sounds more like the description of a realist to me. I dunno if it’s the streets of New York coursing through my veins this sunny London afternoon, or watching Louis interview a Hilton Casino Marketing Executive about keeping gambling addicts at the tables as long as possible, but I find that nobody gives anybody a break. You get a break when you win it.

It’s in the midst of this self-examination and search for generosity I find myself each morning trying to give 18-year olds good reasons to become musicians. This is, perhaps, the deepest irony of all. What I am supposed to tell them? Yes it’s possible to sign a record deal, make a classic album, sell millions based on the merit of your work and live happily ever after with your supermodel wife and beautiful children, be honored at awards ceremonies for your contributions, future generations forever influences by the unflinching honesty of your music. Here I am, a 29-year old boy who can’t cook for himself, traipsing the countryside playing dinner music, lucky to be alive after a disastrous crash, all in the pursuit of some farfetched dream I had when I was their age.

But then I take another look, and I see myself as one of the fortunate ones. In a time where people are losing their jobs left and right, the world facing the darkest economic gloom of the past 80 years, here I am playing my tunes to strange people in a strange land. In the past three years I’ve toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, played shows in Paris, Amsterdam, and all across the continental United States, including Montana. Just recently, my record label put me on a plane to LA to work with some of the best producers in the business. And even though I’m in the middle of an ill-advised promo tour that feels like a massive step backwards, it still beats boarding the A Train on 172nd Street at 7:15am, traveling an hour plus in a packed car to downtown Brooklyn to teach 5-year olds how to Hula-hoop. It’s times like these I must remember that it’s the experience, with all the glorious and shit moments, that is the reward, truly the break that I’ve won.

And this is the message I try to impart to the wide-eyed would-be Rock Stars every morning. There are no guarantees in this world. People will fuck you if you let them. Life as a musician is continual series of somersaults. Your best move is to look down, tuck your chin, and perfect your form. And eventually, though you’ll be dizzy and dazed, you will get somewhere. And who knows where that somewhere is, be it commanding 80,000 people on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, or a Wednesday night in Newcastle playing Piano tucked away behind the hostess stand (yes this happened to me a week ago). Take the highs and the lows in stride, not out of modesty, but necessity. It’s survival.

If Louis Theroux asked me a few simple and direct questions about being a musician, this is what I would tell him. Hopefully I wouldn’t come off as crazy as the desperate, body modification obsessed middle-aged men I’m watching right now. However, there are no guarantees in this world.