Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Manor To Which I'd Become Accustomed

Previously, the subject of this post has been referred to as "The Manor", and I'll continue using this nom de barre, although a glance at the attached Times article will have the mystery solved.

  On Sunday a gang of us said goodbye to a bar. The closing of a New York City bar has become a depressingly familiar occurrence, and not one that would warrant more than a passing, if dispirited, mention from me. But this bar was different: this was my bar.
 The Manor was a SoHo fixture; the last authentic dive bar in a wasteland of pretentious, overpriced swank. While we're not talking New Jersey prices here, you could still get a beer for 5 bucks, and some reliably greasy bar food for under 10. The beer lines may never have been flushed, the counter doled out splinters indiscriminately, the bartenders tended towards surliness (unless they didn't like you), and after midnight it was a good idea to keep your feet off the floor so the mice didn't run up your strides. The pool table was too close to the walls to allow a decent shot (always good for an excuse, though), the jukebox played Guns 'n' Roses continually, and the bathrooms were as bad as you think they were. Actually this place sounds shit. And it kind of was- I'm sure plenty of people never made a second visit. But in a city of unchecked affectation, it was completely genuine, and for me, immensely reassuring.

The clientele was varied and the spirit egalitarian. Over the years I chatted with workmen, waiters, artsy types, businessmen, coke-dealing hipsters; and considering my contempt for most of humanity, that's saying something. And credit for this easy atmosphere has to go to the bartenders. All female, all thoroughly capable and professional, the Manor Maids (not their official title) always knew when to chat, when to leave a customer alone, when to step into a dispute, when to cut a guy off because he was trying to prove he could gargle Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General" through a mouthful of his fourth Martini. Tough as nails when they had to be, it was kind of an honor to get a welcoming smile from one of the girls, and feel like part of the family. I'm now proud to count two former Manor Maids among my small circle of actual friends.
 Over the 10 years I called myself a regular, I went to the Manor to mourn breakups, celebrate hookups, forget bad gigs, plan good gigs, avoid social obligations, to get worse at pool, to quit smoking (every Sunday for a year), and countless other reasons. But it was usually just to say hi. I honestly don't know where I'd go now to mark a moment, significant or otherwise. Maybe something will show up.
 The closing of the Manor is also another nail in the coffin of old New York, a reminder of the giant strip-mall we're slowly becoming. But that's a massive whinge for another post. So for now, I'm off to remember the Manor with four Martinis and a Pirates of Penzance songbook. Righto.

 Scenes from the final night
Closing night in the NYTimes

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You may recall that the Underside went into hiatus so I could put my limited creative energies into a thing called the Smithfield Sunday Session podcast. Marvelous fun it was, too, but we decided to wrap it up before our audience lost interest and moved on. My parents can be so fickle. So rather than deprive the internet of my inane ramblings, I thought I'd fire up the old blog again to have a bit of a natter about a little tour I recently underwent. I'll be drawing this story out into far more installments than it warrants...
Following the release of a new album, an old fashioned road trip seemed like just the ticket. I decided on the West Coast quite arbitrarily, but it turned out to be an excellent choice- warm weather, friendly people, and without a driver's license between us, an interstate bus service that allowed us to live like transients for a few days (you really must try it). My traveling companion would be the drummer and good mate referred to elsewhere in this blog as "The Attorney".
Our little adventure starts at LA international airport. It's one of the world's largest, which we discovered when our local contact kept us waiting long enough to explore all of it. What I don't know about Californian baggage carousels isn't worth knowing! (What I do know isn't of any great value either, actually.) Our man eventually turned up and took us on an historic tour of the city. It was like seeing into the past! Forget your Roman ruins and Ancient Greek what-have-yous, the streets of LA are steeped in rich history, and I know all of it- like where the Ding Dong club used to be, and where that guy who was in that movie died. What I didn't realize was that an hour spent living in the past was perfect preparation for our destination: the El Patio Inn.
I'm well aware that calling it "THE El Patio Inn" can't be right, but I find it somehow satisfying, so I'm sticking with it. The El Patio is a classic. A brown and tan fantasy. The management are to be commended for recreating 1975 with such startling accuracy. It reminded me slightly of the depressing motels from childhood road trips, combined with the setting for a low-budget murder mystery. In fact, scenes from David Lynch's "Lost Highway" (about a jazz saxophonist…) were shot there. We had some time before soundcheck, so I had some drugs delivered and murdered a prostitute. Just seemed like the thing to do.
The setting for the LA gig was the estimable Vitello's. A nondescript two-level affair, it hides on a leafy suburban street, far away from the prying eyes of potential jazz audiences. Downstairs, a comfortable Italian restaurant; upstairs, a comfortable and well-appointed jazz club. We had managed to assemble a killer group of musicians, so the gig was a gas; audience was welcoming and enthusiastic, and we hung with some lovely local folk.
Duties done, the Attorney and I were directed to a local bar to see out the evening. Called the Peppermint Club, or the Starlight Lounge, or something similarly unlikely, it was a textbook LA dive: indescribably dingy, with broken pool table, hot/surly bartender, old scrubbers in miniskirts, several possible Bukowskis... In short- heaven. We drank cheap American beer until the mists descended, then apparently made our way back to the El Patio.
Our flight the following day wasn't until evening, so we spent the day confounding the skeptics- by walking and taking public transportation! The mile walk to the nearest cafe felt like crossing the desert to some breakfast burrito-serving oasis; and when we told of our bus and train route to the airport, locals looked at us like we'd discovered some abandoned tunnel built by escaping prisoners-of-war. Eventually we escaped from LA , but not before receiving some reviews of the previous night's performance. They were uniformly glowing, although that turned out to be due to LA's record levels of Japanese radiation. Next, exciting Portland!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Excuses, excuses.

Clearly the pressure of coming up with something interesting about Switzerland was too much for me... (I'm joking, Swiss- I love your place. Relax, will you?) The Underside is taking a breather while I concentrate on the new Podcast. Hopefully I'll eventually get organised enough to do both, but for now, why not head over and check out my inane ramblings in the exciting new "audio" format: Smithfield Sunday Session Podcast!
More soon! Cheers, N

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A nice change this time: instead of writing my nonsense in a dark, airless hovel, I'm sitting before one of the most amazing views imaginable. I've just arrived in Switzerland for the Ascona Jazz Festival, and am one Swiss beer down on the hotel terrace overlooking Lake Maggiore. I hope I can figure out a way to post pictures, so you can get some idea. I did nothing to deserve this. But first, Milan...
I believe we left off last week with me in a crummy hotel room, wearing a plastic Centurion costume. I eventually discovered that this was not, in fact, the casual attire favoured by the locals, but formal wear reserved for weddings, bar Mitzvahs, etc. So on our last day, I changed back into the usual leather pants and string singlet, met our mate Pache, and boarded a train for Milan.
It's an enormous and bustling city, but without the reputation for architectural beauty of its sandal-wearing sibling, due largely to the fact that most of it was blown up in WWII. From the ruins have sprung up an industrious fashion capital, although a little behind when it comes to leather and string, if you ask me. I was there to play three gigs, and to pack an unfeasable amount of food into my gob.
First up was the Nord Est Caffe. The joint really doesn't have much to recommend it, but of all the Nord caffes I've visited, this truly was the Nordest. We were introduced to the "crowd" with the most elaborate announcement in showbiz. Pure voice-over magic, and like most of the gig, enthusiastically ignored by all in attendance. To be fair, we were competing with an excellent buffet. But speaking of introductions, the upside of the evening was meeting our rhythm section for the Milanese leg, bassist Alex Orchiari, and pianist Simone Daclon- fine musicians and top blokes. I also became aquainted with a beverage known as a Campari Spritz, which would keep me company 'most every night.
After upping stumps at Nord Est, we headed to a local pub for their weekly jam session- got to play a few tunes with the locals,and rub shoulders with a saxophonist who was a spitting image of "actor" Paulie Shore. I actually had a sneaking suspicion it was Paulie Shore, so I kept my distance.
Next up, a musician-owned, member-supported club called Sunomi. The word is Milanese dialect, and according to everyone I asked, it means "I don't know." Or else they just didn't know. A great little room, with an in-house recording studio, it was, for mine, the highlight of the Italian bit. Attentive enthusiastic audience, supportive and generous management, and even a backstage for pre-show pacing and muttering. Usually have to find a dark alley for that...
The last Italian show was on the outskirts of a town called Cremona, about 90 minutes drive out of Milan. The venue was a restaurant inside an ancient, dilapidated village church. All the action was taking place in the spacious backyard, and we were essentially supplying background music. That was fine with me, as the location was stunning, and the food and drinks top-notch and abundant. It would have been the perfect Arriverderci, had the owner not ended the evening by getting smashed, shorting us on the money, and abusing our Italian bandmates in a fervid and flamboyant manner. In fact, the swear words are the only Italian I know, and I think I caught all of it. A bit of a downer, but didn't really mar the trip too much...
Other Milanese highlights: bucatini with sardines, a glass of wine with a bloke who looked just like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld (good trip for lookalikes, so far), and a night on cheap, Chinese-made Negronis that has disappeared in the mists...
Next: something interesting about Switzerland! Righto.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

So we're four days in to our little European jaunt, and finally getting fingers in action. In my defense it's been a hectic few days, and jetlag has me feeling like a cranky, over-medicated pensioner. Some cute Italian kiddies very nearly copped it in the vegetable aisle this afternoon- and I'm sure you know how painful that can be. Anyways, here's what's unfolded so far...
 I don't want to tell tales here, but if you wanted to enter the EU undetected, Rome may be your best bet. My friendly immigration officer glanced at my passport with all the interest Berlusconi would show a bottle of sunscreen. Cursory would be an overstatement.Then a derisive wave and I was through. It was at this point that I realised that my preparedness for my Italian adventure consisted of a barely functioning, downloaded map of Rome, and a dozen or so words of restaurant Spanish. But I'd come this far, so I hoisted my horns and set off to meet some new amigos.
 I had a day and a half before the first gig, so after settling in to my charmingly drab hotel room, I went sight-seeing. Now, I'm a shitty tourist, but I knew I'd be interrogated by friends and strangers alike upon my return, so I made an effort. And to be fair, it is Rome, and they've got fascinating and historically significant gear up the gooner. First up was the Imperial Forum where I marveled at two-thousand-year-old ruins, and was attacked by a seagull. Seems unreasonable, but I have been accused of resembling a french fry before, so fair enough, I say. I was also hungry and may have been trying to steal its eggs. From there it was off to the Colosseum. Don't think I can shed any new light on that particular edifice, but I can tell you that I entertained tourists and locals alike with what I'm hoping will soon be the joint's new themesong. It's pretty much just the Addams' Family with Colosseum instead of museum, and Addams replaced by Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. Check back next week for the ringtone.
 Other Roman highlights: seeing a lumpy American teenager in a humourous T shirt smiling uncertainly for a photo, while slouching dutifully beside a statue of Julius Caesar in all his regal and commanding glory, illustrating in an instant the inexorable decline of the human race; eating a delicious meal in a restaurant with a picture of former Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone on the wall, and keeping it all down; resisting the cheap, tacky souvenirs for sale on every corner (I went off the beaten track to find this genuine plastic Centurian outfit... Not real comfy, actually- don't know why the locals wear them) ; and throwing a tourist into the Trevi Fountain, which has brought me nothing but good luck ever since.
 The gig (really the reason I was there), was terrific- swinging support from Canadian bassist Ron Seguin, and my mate Adam Pache on the drums, in a groovy little club called Gregory's (named after the little-known emporor Greg Caesar). The folks seemed to enjoy the music, and my laboured patter was met with baffled silence, so it felt just like home.
 That's it for now. Next up, Milan and Paulie Shore! Righto...

Thursday, May 31, 2012

I recently read an article by the estimable John Birmingham in the Brisbane Times. It's not often that a newspaper piece prompts me to put pen to paper, but the views expressed in Birmingham's column left me little choice. In a word: absolutely outrageous.
 The topic was toilet reading- a slightly off-colour subject for a respectable newspaper, but relatively innocuous by today's journalistic standards. But not the old-fashioned, wholesome, paperback-and-porno thunderbox fare of my day: the seated entertainment Mr Birmingham was advocating was the electronic kind: iPads! Kindles! Nooks! NOOKS!! I ask you.
 Now please don't assume that my disapproval stems from an aversion to technology. This blogger is far from a luddite- I've had a mobile telephone for several years, and am quite adept at operating the VCR. My issues are cleanliness and, as I understand it, the very real possibility of of radiation poisoning. Don't forget, you will be at least partially naked in there. In short, these modern devices are fine in their place, but let's keep them out of the toot!
 If you really need more diverse diversions than those offered by the traditional Aides de Toilette, I've come up with some classic alternatives to our death-ray-emitting gizmos: 
 It all seems to be about "gaming" these days, so why not do it old-school? Many timeless games can be adapted for throne-top use. Why not try lap-top Boggle? Or lap-top Yahtzee? Or if you're up for a real challenge, lap-top Jenga! Lap-top Mousetrap! You'll need steady knees for a game of lap-top Test Match- take a blinder in the slips while you're putting one down in the deep!
 Let's take the action down a level- there's an even playing field at your feet! Amuse yourself with a round of Pick-up Sticks! Why not construct a relaxing and bucolic scene with an intermediate-level jigsaw puzzle? Assemble a realistic WWII fighter plane out of balsa wood! And nothing says bathroom fun like solo Twister! Stay on that seat...!! 
 If you're like me, you enjoy peace and quiet in the smallest room. A break from the rough and tumble workaday world. Well, take a tiny leaf out of my nook, nothing provides tranquility and contentment like a little on-the-bog Bonsai. Relax those inner workings as you trim away your every care! Or focus your energies Mr Miyagi-style, and rid yourself of those pesky poo-flies with some precision chopstick work! 
 Want some action?! Draw a target on the shower curtain, and get some target practice with a mini paintball gun! Washes off in the shower! Practise some airborne maneuvers with a remote-controlled helicopter: build up some steam circling the exhaust fan, then execute a dramatic dive-bomb on the shampoo bottles! 
 Just because you're having a private moment, you shouldn't have to rule out two-player excitement. I'm not suggesting your other half perched on the side of the bath tub- that would be ludicrous. But The Underside's chess correspondent has suggested setting up a chess game in easy reach of the commode, making a move while you're making a move, then leaving it for the next player. For added fun, announce your move loudly as it happens: "Bishop to Rook 4!!" That'll keep visitors guessing... 
 So next time you're heading for the dunny, can the Kindles, nix the Nooks, and keep it 3D in the WC. Speaking of which, I'm off to KerPlunk!
 Next week, Ravi Shankar and some biting political sitar! Righto...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

If there's one word that will make a jazz musician go all misty-eyed; make him stare into the middle-distance and sigh wistfully; cause him to pull his head out of his arsenal of instruments and accessories, it's "Callipygian". Another word that will do it is "Residency." A steady gig. A regular. It's the working musician's holy grail. Most of us have had them in the past, and most have lost them. That pensive, pitiful silence is usually followed by the painful details of the great lost gig; It lasted six amazing months; I don't know what happened- it was all going so well; Was it me? Something I did? Something I didn't do? Did I not introduce the gig to my friends? Was it the time I blew off the gig to watch that Die Hard marathon? It was amazing- I could eat what I wanted, drink what I wanted, wear the same clothes every time... I'll never have a gig that good again...
 My friends, I know the feeling. It's been a dry spell for me lately, steady-gig-wise. Oh sure, I've had my share of one-nighters- sordid little three-hour affairs with hardened pros of the basest variety, with little or no standards- but nothing that ever felt right. Then a few weeks ago, I spent a Sunday night in Chelsea. It was perfect- a couple of drinks, the lights were low, there were lots of people watching- everything just clicked. The very next day, Dan moved his drums in. I know this is moving very fast, and I've been shown the door so many times before, so I'm being cautious- I'm not changing my Facebook status to "employed" just yet.

 The joint is called Smithfield and it's very cool- opened only a month ago in the area between Chelsea and Midtown known (by me) as the Disputed Territories. It's now a very comfortable and homey Irish bar, but in its previous incarnation it was a full-on doof-doof nightclub- I guess this explains that guy in the bathroom wearing nothing but body glitter, and the constant requests for La Bouche. Ground floor, while salubrious and welcoming, is clearly set up for watching sports- there are more over-sized, flashing TVs than Christopher street on a Sunday morning. One flight up is the so-called Market Bar, where our little shindig takes place. And above that is the brilliant Wallace room (named after William Wallace, the bumbling but lovable plasticine Yorkshireman with a love of cheese)- all leather Chesterfields, dusty books and various old-timey paraphernalia. Have to get photos of it up here soon.  One of the owners is our good mate, Ken- ace guitarist and legendary bartender/raconteur. He's put this little gig together, and will hopefully make his presence known on the upcoming Smithfield podcast! (Maybe if I mention it here, I'll actually make it happen...)  
 Rounding out the numbers are the charming and talented Champian Fulton, the Hempton Band's own Dan Aran, and an amazing roster of rotating bass players. The lease on the place runs out in 15 years- if we make it that far, and the gig's still going, it might be time to move in. No promises, though.
 Here's the bar:, and the Facebook page. We're on every Sunday from 8:30-11:30PM- come down and say "Wendsleydale!" Next week, a night with Ned Nederlander! Righto...