the Highline

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When you’re visiting New York City and your friend sends you a text message that says, “Meet me at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue right now, if you’re game—I’ll show you the coolest place in the city,” the answer should always be a resounding yes.  I texted back, “I’m in!” and walked the few blocks to the nearest subway station and headed down to the Chelsea neighborhood to meet her.

I wasn’t at all prepared for what she showed me.  It was a former elevated railroad called the Highline.  Built in the 1930’s, it had long since outlived its usefulness as trucks replaced trains as the prevalent form of freight transportation.  As recently as a few short years ago, it was still a dilapidated eyesore that many people hoped would be demolished, but it was also a pipe dream for people who wanted to see it repaired and possibly used as a public space of some sort.  Luckily, the latter idea won, and today the Highline is an elevated park that is now regarded as many peoples’ favorite place in all of New York City.

It’s designed with sustainable, native plants, and birds even have nests in the bushes and trees that line the edges of the busy pathway.  Rents in buildings near the park have increased significantly.  It’s a very romantic place, and there are lots of couples walking hand in hand and admiring the views of the city while remaining safely above the whirling traffic below.   My friend, who has lived in NYC for two or three years now, was made aware of the park when she went on a first date with a guy who took her there.  It was about this point that she had to bid me adieu, since she had an appointment to keep, but she told me where to go to see the best stretches of the park.  It’s much more than just a walkway, and there are a number of wide areas to sit, or to watch people, or to look at the city, or even to busk on the cello.

This guy was playing Bach’s sixth Cello Suite, which is extraordinarily difficult.  The Cello Suites get progressively more advanced as they go along, so the First (which is one of the most famous in all of classical music) is in the repertoire of almost every cellist, but the mark of a true professional is their ability to play the Suites in their entirety.  This guy was definitely at the professional level, since not only was he playing the sixth Suite, he was playing it flawlessly.  I had wandered in near the beginning of it, and sat across from him as unobtrusively as possible while I watched the remainder of his performance.  When he finished playing for his audience of one, I said, “Bravo,” and walked over to patronize the arts by leaving a couple of bills in his cello case.  He began to play another piece that I didn’t recognize, and I decided to continue walking and exploring some more.

A bit further along, I saw a small group of people doing what appeared to be acting.  I love the Theatah, as those of you who have spent any kind of time on this blog already know, and I used to be a member (and eventually the leader) of a play-reading group, so I sauntered over to give them a listen.  They were rehearsing Shakespeare—his style is unmistakable—and while I love his works, there are only a few that I’m familiar enough with to recognize by tuning in at a random moment.  Luckily, this happened to be one of them, and I believe they were rehearsing a scene from the Scottish Play.

I stayed long enough to figure out which play they were performing, then clicked this picture and continued on my way, since even though they were rehearsing in a public place, it didn’t seem like they wanted to be closely watched.  Plus, I wanted to explore more of the walkway and it was beginning to get dark outside.  I came to a section that was closed off and in the process of being pressure-cleaned, possibly so that a movie scene could be filmed there.

From there I took the detour path, which led to a cute little restaurant area.  I would have loved to stop and enjoy some food and wine—I’ll have to save that for my next trip!—but I was on a mission to get off the platform and explore more of the Chelsea neighborhood.  Suddenly, I heard the sound of a harmonica, followed by a horrific metallic crash.  I headed over to investigate.

It was indeed a harmonica player, and he looked as if he was looking for a specific place to sit.  He was blowing on the harmonica and throwing metal chairs around.  Hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga CRASHhoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga CRASH.  The guy sitting there next to him, in the foreground of the picture, never so much as batted an eye.

I took a whole bunch more pictures after that, but the vast majority of them were too blurry to be worth sharing.  Here’s ONE good one of a nearby building. . .

. . .and I even took a picture on the way down, but it’s extremely blurry.  I’m only sharing it because I couldn’t find another picture of the yellowish-green elevator doors, and I wanted them to be represented too, so here you go.

This is only the second installment of the myriad of pictures and stories to come from my time in New York and Massachusetts.  To be continued. . .

The City

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I don’t quite know where to start.

There have been a number of things happening recently, the biggest of which was a musical trip to New England, which included my first trip to New York City, which seems to have changed something in me.  If you’ve never been there before (or even if you have—ha ha), the scale of everything is enormous.  There are people everywhere, from everywhere.  Every place you go is crowded.  You can stand on one street corner for just a few short minutes and you may very well hear people speaking ten or fifteen different languages within that time.  Most impressive of all, however, is the scale of the architecture and infrastructure.  It’s staggeringly huge.  You can start in one part of the city, get on a subway train and ride for an hour, and when you get back up to street level, you find that the buildings are still crammed together as far as the eye can see.  Parts of San Francisco are built up densely like that, but not nearly as tall, and only in small parts of town.  New York goes on and on for miles in all directions.  Somehow it manages not to be overwhelming, though, and I actually found myself energized by the bustle.  Every street seemed to be associated with a song title, or a movie scene.  Here’s a picture from the beautiful West Village.

My goal for NYC was to see as many of the various neighborhoods as I could.  Obviously we spent the majority of our time in Brooklyn, but I had a few days to get out and explore, either on my own or with the help of one of my long-time blogging friends.  A lifelong Brooklynite, she was very familiar with the city, and she was a fantastic tour guide and host.

At some point, I’m going to want to recount the stories and pictures from the rest of the trip, but my head is still buzzing from it all and trying to make sense of everything I saw, and all of the interesting and lovely people I met, so for now you’ll have to settle for some pictures.  You can click on them to make them higher resolution.

I happened to be underneath the Brooklyn Bridge at the same time as this yacht (I think it’s a yacht; I have to confess that I don’t know much about boats, but I DO know that it’s one of the racing ones) was passing by, and another photographer and I were taking full advantage of the situation.  I love this picture, and it’s probably my favorite one from the entire trip.

From there, I walked across the bridge to lower Manhattan, all around the Financial District and to the site of Ground Zero and the new World Trade Center.  Here’s one of the new towers, in a late stage of construction.  I love pictures like this, because once the thing is built, you never get to see it ‘in progress’ ever again.  I feel lucky to have been there to see it and take this picture before it was finished.

This was a sticker I saw on a traffic signal pole in Greenwich Village near the Village Vanguard.  It may be blurry, but the message is clear.  I spent the whole trip with my camera—and indeed my entire brain—in ‘record’ mode.

After going full speed ahead for so long—and I haven’t even started writing about the Louisiana or Bay Area trips yet—I’ve found it a bit difficult to transition back into the ‘normal’ pace of life, whatever that is.  You could call this feeling the Post-Travel Blues.  Joseph Campbell might call these feelings ‘peak experiences’, which is to say that when people are operating at their highest levels of consciousness, the things they experience gain a certain amount of gravitas and significance, and settling into everyday life after times like those can be difficult.  I daresay that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would support this theory.

I think—and this is me thinking—that when you’re in the upper levels of Self-Actualization and Esteem, it’s hard to be excited about everyday things like homeostasis and excrement.  When you’re traveling, you’re pulled out of the lower realities and pitched into the higher ones, which is what makes travel so exciting.

Incidentally, I just knew that I’d have to mention excrement at some point.  I had to drag this conversation down to my level, didn’t I?  Abraham Maslow, Joseph Campbell, and excrement.  I really should have named this blog High and Low.


There’s more to come on the blogging front, and while I was coming back from the beach this weekend, I thought of a few stories from back in the day that I think will be worth your while, so stay tuned.  Don’t touch that dial or whatever.  We’ll be right back after this important commercial message, courtesy of someone I photographed in Central Park.

best of BFS&T, 2011 edition

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This post has been a long time coming.  I was in Seattle for a week or so over Christmas, and then I was house- and pet-sitting for a couple of friends, which was really fun but those two things kept me away from my computer and blogging possibilities for almost three weeks.  I did manage to capture a funny video of two of the cats doing what is lovingly referred to by their owners as Le Suck Fest.  It starts innocently enough with these two cute sisters grooming each other, but then it quickly escalates into them essentially making out.  I’ve had cats my whole life, and I’ve never seen that before.

Isn’t that adorable and strange?  (Adorable & Strange. . .hmmm.  I think I sense a new blog in my future!)  I wish I had made a video of the cats at feeding time, because the three of them instantaneously transform from lovable balls of fluff into whirling little hurricanes, and that happens at every single meal.  Love ’em.

Anyway, on to the Best Of.  I love doing these each year, since it gives us the chance to revisit some of the things that may have receded into the shadows.  Some of them are a bit on the lengthy side, as you can imagine, so grab a snack and your beverage of choice, and enjoy the most beautiful, the funniest, the saddest, and the truest entries from this past year.


calling all sausage packers

fifth and sixth

mountains and molehills


one in a million

How was YOUR day?

one in a million, part two

How do you say ‘dopamine’ in Chinese?

the pillow incident

Enigma  –  Enigma and Otis  –  Enigma and Fire


Monty Python Day

World Accordion Day

more than just a halo

they’re not for me

a strange evening

homemade Pac-Man

the cloths of heaven


As always, thank you for reading, and for sticking with this crazy blog thing into its fifth year of existence.  There is more to come.










happy birthday

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Well, huzzah.

Beautiful, Funny, Sad & True is celebrating its fifth anniversary today, and I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you for sticking around and reading.  I realize that updates and stories have been a little sporadic around here lately; I’m working on rectifying that situation.  Five years is a long time to keep a blog.  Actually, including the previous incarnations of BFS&T on Blogger and that other social network, it’s been more like eight years, which is a bit mind-boggling.

Here are some updates I can provide you with, and I’ll divide them into the quadrants that create the name of this place.

beautiful:  My friend and I started writing and recording an album together a year ago, and it’s getting very close to completion.  We’re aiming for a release date this spring.  We’re thrilled to finally have a bassist (who also plays a number of other instruments) on board with us, and an excellent drummer is in the works as well.  Exciting times!

funny:  I could split hairs and wonder if this means funny/strange or funny/ha-ha, but either way I’m at a bit of a loss on this one.   Well, okay, here’s a little joke.

JOHN:  Ask me if I’m a truck.

PAUL:  Are you a truck?

JOHN:  No.

Ha ha.  Don’t worry if you don’t get it; there’s really nothing to get.  It’s just absurdist, and you either like it or you don’t.  I happen to like it.

sad:  Holidays are tough.  I tend to get the blues around this time every year.  It’s not seasonal affect disorder, I just find myself ruminating a lot about the things in my life (or even in myself) that are missing or lacking.  That’s about all I’ll say on the subject here, but I thought I’d let you know that’s what I’m dealing with at the moment.

true:  I went to visit my dad a couple of weeks ago, and came home with two big boxes of LP records.  Almost all of them are classical, and many are the same ones that I grew up listening to.  Some I know by heart, like the Glenn Gould piano recordings and Bach organ recordings, while others are ones I wasn’t familiar with back then but am totally interested in now.  There were a few surprises in there, too, like Johnny Cash’s greatest hits (from the 1960’s! and a couple of Moody Blues and Chet Atkins records that I doubt have ever been listened to.  I certainly don’t remember hearing that stuff in our house when I was growing up.  Certainly am glad to have them now, though.  I’m totally looking forward to plowing through all of them and giving them the attention they deserve.

So that’s what’s happening on this Very Special day.  Here’s to another five years!



a strange evening

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I don’t like to jam.  There, I said it.

Musicians are supposed to enjoy jamming, it seems, but I usually prefer to work on songs with structure and create ‘perfect’ parts for them.  I do love to improvise, however, and I always jump at the opportunity to do so, especially with other musicians who can also improvise well.  I don’t know how to explain the difference between a Jam and an Improvisation, but a jam always seems so much more lame somehow.  It also implies that an actual song will come from it, as opposed to an improvisation, which exists as its own separate entity and then disappears into the ether.

The perfect opportunity came when a guitarist friend of mine used to host a weekly Not-Jam at his place.  It was all a group of professionals from various bands, and whoever wasn’t gigging that night had an open-ended invitation to come down and play.  There were two drum sets, a bunch of guitars, amps, keyboards, saxophones, percussion instruments, a full PA system, and everything.  The idea was to bring your instrument and your drink (or whatever) of choice, and everyone would grab whatever they felt like playing, and we’d all see what happened.  It was very Zen, and I miss those nights.  I’ve considered starting my own improvisational group of acoustic instruments.  I’ll play cello or accordion, and invite other string players and brass players, and anyone else who plays an acoustic instrument.

About five years ago, I was really trying hard to make a living at recording, despite the fact that I just getting started, and wasn’t quite up to that task yet, but that’s neither here nor there.  I try to carefully pick and choose the people I work with, since you end up spending a good deal of time with people when you’re in the studio with them, and I have to really like them and their music in order to want to spend that much time with it.  I would hate to slog through day after day with a black metal band, for example.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with black metal—you have to be an amazing musician to play it—it’s just not my thing, and I’d prefer to focus on My Thing.

So anyway, five years ago.  A songwriter friend hooked me up with a friend of his who I’ll call G, not because he’s a gangsta, but because that’s his first initial.  I didn’t find his songs particularly compelling, but I decided to work with him as a favor to my friend.  Plus, I needed the money.  G was (and still is) a guy of a certain age, whose songs were more classic blues-rock than I gravitate towards.  He also has a sort of ‘Earth Mother’ folky side to him that doesn’t quite jive with me, either, but he seemed to like what I did to his songs in pre-production, so we decided to work together a bit.

I told him that my usual way of working was (and still is) to record him doing his thing, and then I usually play most or all of the other instruments around what he had done.  I told him that I play drums and bass and all kinds of other things, and he wanted to hear me do that so he could assess my skills.  Fair enough.  He also had a weekly jam session with his friends, and he invited me to join them at his friend’s beautiful house near Mount Tabor.  They had all the instruments already, so I wouldn’t need to bring anything if I didn’t want to.  It was an offer too good to refuse, so I took him up on it.  I also brought my accordion and five-string Tobias bass, just in case.  I put them in the trunk of my forty-shades-of-purple BMW 2002 and drove over there.

It was quite different from the improvised music night that I’d been attending at my friend’s place, in that A) these guys were amateurs rather than professionals, and B) I suspect that they used their jam session nights as excuses to escape from their families and regular lives, rather than to express themselves musically.  I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I strongly got.   It was also different in that everybody else sat around and got high before we started playing.  I don’t smoke, myself, and I’ve found that when some people are blissed out, they occasionally overestimate their playing abilities.  That started out as one of those nights.

There were five musicians in the band, on guitar, bass, drums, piano, and organ, so whenever there was an instrument that wasn’t being played, I’d jump on it.  Usually that meant piano, but at G’s request, I played the drums a little bit, too, and played the bass a little bit.  Each song would start as a cacophony and then sort of find its way into a key.  We eventually hit our stride, played extremely well, and actually managed to create some beautifully dynamic pieces of improvised music.  After four or five songs, we all felt compelled to slap high-fives and have a group hug, which was interesting and a bit funny.

At that point, we’d been playing for a couple of hours, so we put our instruments down and walked into the kitchen to eat some food and refill our glasses.  We talked about how great playing together felt, and how amazing it was when songs spontaneously come together, almost as a form of emergence.  Suddenly, the pianist got very quiet and told us that he had a confession to make.  He had recently (maybe the week before) been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and he was gradually losing the use of his hands.  As a jazz pianist, this was particularly devastating, as I’m sure you can imagine.  This gave the evening an entirely new focus and gravitas, and Pianist told us how he would hear something in his head and attempt to play it, but his fingers were simply unable to comply.  He made a request that during our next song we go ‘all out’, in order that he could test the limits of his playing and manual dexterity.

I played my bass, and each of the other guys assumed their various roles, with the bassist switching between tambourine and percussion.  The pianist started the song as an atonal jazz ballad, and we all followed suit.  After a few minutes of atonality, my mind started to wander.  The good thing about playing bass is that you can really use it to lead and set the tone for the entire rest of the band, forcing them all to change structure if need be.  They kinda have to follow you if you’re going a certain direction.  I gradually morphed it in a very tonal, almost classical direction, and that, combined with the jazz piano, became really beautiful.  It was as if we all were creating a simultaneous homage to Pianist by weaving a colorful musical tapestry for him.  The song climaxed and wound down with a simple scale in B major, which gave everything a depth, and a certain positive overtone.  It was transcendent.

By then, it was ten o’clock, so we packed up all of the instruments and went our separate ways.  We seemed to be walking on eggshells.  What do you say when someone drops a bombshell like that?  ‘I’m sorry’ seems insulting, or anti-climactic, or insufficient at the very least.  Plus, it was the first (and last) time I ever saw any of those guys, so I was really at a loss.  I’m sure I stammered something tactful like, “Um, nice to meet you guys.  Good luck with the Parkinson’s—?”

As I was backing my ancient BMW out of the driveway, it slipped out of reverse gear, like it did occasionally.  It made a huge, metallic CLUNK sound which stopped the car in the middle of the street.  It sounded and felt as if I’d backed into something in the road, so I got out and looked behind me.  I saw nothing, so I got back in and drove home, albeit a bit nervously.  That was one of the most fun and also one of the strangest nights of music that I’ve ever experienced.

I haven’t done any improvisational nights lately, but I still think of that one.   I hope that Pianist is okay, and still playing.  I just looked up G, and he’s still out there playing.  And his music still doesn’t really do much for me.  He decided to record his album at his house, and spend the money to buy microphones and all that for himself.  I certainly can’t fault him for that, since that’s how I got started, but I do think that he’s the kind of person who could benefit from some editing and some outside influences.

And now I need to grab the cello, pack up the car and head over to tonight’s gig, but I’m glad to have been able to finally tell this story.  I really do hope that Pianist is okay, and that his Parkinson’s is under control.  I also want the best for G, and I hope that his career is going well.  I’ll keep tabs on him from a distance.  Who knows; maybe he’s doing the same for me.