Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit With Dracula: 1997

For about eight years, I had an enviable freelance position as a roving cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, with a territory encompassing Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, and, occasionally, other places the other correspondents didn't want to go or where stories they had no interest or knowledge in were. I wrote a lot about art, some about music, and got to visit a load of interesting places and people. I'm thinking of doing another Kindle book with some of my greatest hits from this period of my life, but seeing as it's Halloween and this CD just showed up in my living room for some reason, I figured it's time to tell the tale of my brief encounter with Dracula.

Yup, that's him

* * *

        Dracula lives!
And, this being 1997, he lives in the suburbs, drives a car, has a cellular phone, and frets over the exorbitant cost of heating Castle Dracula in the wintertime. Some things haven’t changed, though: this year hundreds of people have left Castle Dracula minus some of their blood.
Yes, there really is a Dracula, and yes, he really has a castle. Not the sort of forbidding stone pile of filmdom, but a stately country home built in the middle of the last century by Rudolf Mosse, a Jewish publishing magnate who lost it to the Nazis in 1934. The house was commandeered after the War by the East Germans, who used it as housing for some of the tenants of the collective farm they built on the grounds. Dracula bought it for a token fee from the Treuhand, the organization in charge of converting East German state property after the unification of Germany, and now he’s stuck with it.
As readers of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, published 100 years ago in Dublin, have discovered if they’ve researched its background, there really was a historic Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome Wallachian nobleman in Romania who used to enjoy punishing disobedient subjects and “unchaste women” by impaling them on sharpened logs, often dining amidst the hapless victims as they died. Tepes was the son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon, and “Dracula” means “son of the dragon.” In the 350 years since his reign, the family grew in stature in Romania, eventually becoming the Kretzulesco family, whose status was upgraded to princes and princesses, and whose grande dame, Katharin, escaped the Communists and settled in Kansas City, where she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for her tireless anticommunist activities and work to free her native land from the Russian yoke, and died in 1994.
The story takes its current turn in 1977, when a Kretzulesco heiress walked into an antique store on Berlin’s fashionable Pestalozzistrasse, trying to sell some of the family silver. The store’s owner noticed the crest and inquired about it. The woman told him a tale of woe: the Kretzulesco line was about to become extinct, having produced nothing but women in its current generation, and they were too old for child-bearing. This was a worry, because the family was responsible for the maintenance of two palaces in Bucharest, nine churches, and eleven monasteries scattered throughout Romania. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church only recognized men as having the power to make decisions, and if the property was to remain in the hands of the family, the Kretzulescos would have to adopt a male heir. Thus, after consultation with the youngest daughter, Princess Caradja Krezulesco, the antique dealer became Ottomar Rodolphe Vlad Dracula, Prince Kretzulesco.
It was, if not quite a deal with the devil, not quite an ideal situation, either. At first, there wasn’t much Prince Dracula could do about things. The Ceauçescu regime didn’t mess with the Church, so those properties were safe, and the state maintained the two palaces in Bucharest, which were regarded as national treasures, and housed the Goethe Institut and a musical-instrument museum. But with the changes in Eastern Europe eight years ago, he seized the opportunity to buy the Mosse property in Schenkendorf, a village a few miles from Königs Wusterhausen, a town on Berlin’s southeast edge. He set about renovating the house and grounds, only to start running into problems.
“I want to paint these walls,” he told a recent group of visitors, “but the historic preservation people want me to conduct a color analysis to discover the original wall-color that will cost me 70,000 Marks ($39,600)! It’s been painted so many times, who can tell?” That, and the fact that it costs 200 Marks ($113) a day to heat the antiquated building, is just the tip of the costly iceberg.
In order to make money, the Prince has moved his antique business into Castle Dracula, and has opened a lovely beer-garden and snack bar, complete with an outdoor grill and a stage area for outdoor musical events. Even there, he’s run into problems: this year, he tried to have a fireworks display and was informed that it would interfere with nesting storks in the area. He lost his deposit with the fireworks folks, only to discover that, due to a late spring, the storks stayed in Africa longer than they normally would.
The property has potential: off in a wooded copse near the main house, Mosse erected a tower with a commanding view of the countryside, atop which he would take breakfast. This still has bomb damage, and the pond next to it is filled with muck and beer-cans, but there are plans to renovate both next year. The collective farm Prince Dracula plans to turn into a complex with a hotel, shops, and a restaurant as soon as a stubborn 87-year-old woman who lives there is persuaded to go elsewhere or passes away. But all of this will take money, and so far, Castle Dracula has been a financial black hole.
The most successful undertaking at Castle Dracula, though, has been, unsurprisingly enough, a blood drive for the German Red Cross. “They were completely unprepared for the response,” the Prince glowers. “Twelve thousand people showed up, but they only managed to have the resources to get donations from 870 of them.” In addition to the five Marks ($2.82) donors got from the Red Cross, they also got a CD of “Dracula’s Song” from the Prince. “I pressed up 10,000 of them, and there are 500,000 more of them waiting to go,” he says. “If only I could get a connection with the American Red Cross, I’d be willing to tour the U.S. promoting their blood-drive, but...” He shrugs his shoulders.
But noblesse oblige and all that. Still, another crisis looms for the 56-year-old Dracula. “It is of course essential that Ottomar produce a male heir,” his 38-year-old girlfriend Bärbel explains as she gets ready for a bartending shift. “We are planning to marry next year, but I feel a tremendous pressure, and this makes me feel terrible.” Meanwhile, the publicity machine grinds on, with a web-site (long vanished as of 2015), plans for more concerts next year, and, of course, another blood drive. And, just maybe, Son of Dracula.
(To reach Castle Dracula, take the S-Bahn or regional rail from Berlin to Königs Wusterhausen. From there, it is a short taxi ride to Schenkdorf, where the Castle is easily found.)

* * *

As much as the story above paints him as a gloomy guy, Dracula was hardly publicity-shy, and mine was certainly not the first story about him -- as a friend of mine who freelanced for them noted, People magazine had run a story about him not long before mine. But there was some truth to his worries; even today, Schenkdorf isn't exactly a tourist destination. 

I remember the visit as pleasant, with a friend's sister translating for me, and in the end, I managed to talk him out of a beer mug from Castle Dracula's beer garden. He'd never even thought of selling them as souvenirs. 

And in the process of researching this post, I found a Wikipedia entry on him, which noted that he'd opened a winery, but had died ten years after I'd talked to him of a brain tumor. He didn't even live long enough to see the birth of his son, Otti, in December, 2007. By then, the Kretzulescos had given up on the castle, and had moved out. But Dracula lives on. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stomped: A Long Weekend In New Orleans

Saturday morning, I left my hotel in New Orleans and wound up walking nine miles, which, with the interruptions, took me about six hours. I did this because I'd heard that a guy I used to know, an artist and cartoonist named Bunny Matthews, much beloved in that city, wasn't doing too well, and I'd been told that his son runs a bakery called P&Q (pies and quiches) on Magazine St. and I wanted to find out what was going on. Although I hadn't seen Bunny in years, and, in fact, can't remember when exactly the day we spent together was, I did this out of a sense of obligation, because it was he who planted the seed of my severely ambiguous feeling about this storied city so many seem to love.

It shocked me to hear a guy who was so iconic to the city due to his Vic & Natly cartoons say such negative things about the place, but if anyone should know, it was him. He talked about how the more visible denizens lived in a past they refused to let go of, and a present they refused to acknowledge. He talked about musicians who were ignored while some who were very much past their prime, but available for Jazzfest appearances, were lionized. He introduced me to the concept of the Velvet Groove, the place you get stuck, but aaaah, what the hell, it was comfortable and you didn't have to change or confront unpleasant things.

And I thought about this as I walked up Magazine St. Boy, did I think about it. Just as I'd thought about it some years back as I sat with a friend in the French countryside and watched the first two episodes of Treme, a television show firmly anchored in that past so many (overwhelmingly white, as well as Not From Here) people cling to. Katrina definitely shook things up socially, and yet this show didn't seem to be addressing that in a constructive way. I was thousands of miles away, but my sense of poisonous nostalgia was twingeing mightily.

Magazine, which was preparing for a street fest called Art for Art's Sake, seemed to have been taken over by white Millenials, a great many of whom seemed Not From Here, and sections of it are lined with stores catering to them. Lots of tchotchkes for sale, lots of boutiques offering melanges of stuff including carefully "curated" "vinyls" (the current word for LPs), which seemed mostly ironic (you're seriously charging $3 for a scratchy budget-label album of fake Hawaiian music just because it has a kitschy cover? Why, I believe you are!), lots of souvenirs of a higher quality (because made locally) than you can find in the French Quarter. There was street art, but not of a particularly interesting sort, including one stencilled sign nailed to a power pole that said "Keep New Orleans Funky." Now, there's a Not From Here. Recent arrival, too, from the looks of it.

I kept walking. And, to be fair, every now and then, some funk appeared:

I didn't take many pictures, but the ambiguity of the curve in that portico was nice.
* * *

I'd driven straight from Austin -- nine hours -- and landed at an absurdly luxurious hotel, Le Pavillon, a historic and famous place, because Priceline had it cheap. Wow. And that first night, although I was fried, I had the front desk guy make a reservation for me at Peche, a restaurant that came very highly recommended -- and was within walking distance. I was grilled at the door as I tried to claim my reservation and reluctantly led to a table, where I was eventually served by a waiter who didn't seem particularly happy I was there and wanted to get things over in a hurry. (Days later, on Saturday, I got a voice mail for them confirming my reservation that night, so the door scene might have been because somehow they decided I was coming then; there's no excuse for the waiter). I didn't think the meal was all that: sinfully, I ordered hush puppies as an appetizer, and they were fine, but the smothered catfish was very unspectacular, and the sauteed brussels sprouts with chili vinegar the front desk guy insisted I order were good, but mainly because they inspired me to do essentially the same thing with a Chinese-style sauce when I got back. The highlight of the meal was the two women at the next table, sisters from Miami on their first visit to New Orleans. I guess I looked harmless enough (heh heh) and we had a great conversation about this and that. I hope they steered clear of Hurricanes; that drink isn't for humans.

The next day, I transferred to the hotel that was hosting the Ponderosa Stomp's panels program, the AC by Marriott, so I could see the day's panels, since I had one to lead the next afternoon. This new brand Marriott's introduced is excellent, although there are some glitches (really? Only four tissues for the whole room, packed away in a designer plastic bag? Glad my sinus infection's cleared up!), with a nice modern design to the room, and, as intended, a nice European feel. The conference started with Gene Terry, a fairly obscure swamp-rocker (swamp-rock, he informed us, was "White boys playin' black music damn good," which is an excellent definition) with an outsized personality that  was stifled again and again by his interviewer, John Broven, a retired bank clerk from England who's penned a number of typically British books about Louisiana music. By "typically British," I mean concentrating on records, and clueless about context. Once or twice Terry started to tell a story about his wild years in the clubs, only to be stifled by Broven going "Yes, yes, but I wonder if you can tell us about this record." Terry apparently recorded lots of them under the influence of adult beverages and seemed puzzled why Broven would rather talk about records than hear his stories. I wasn't, but then, I've read Broven for years. Troves of information, his books. Not so good on the feel. An American headed the next interview, as Todd Abramson led P.F. Sloan through the convoluted story of how he became one of the 1960s' more neglected songwriters, despite writing "California Dreaming," "Secret Agent Man," and "Eve of Destruction," among many others. Sloan occasionally picked up a guitar and showed us how things came to pass. He also claimed to have wrestled with an angel of God for 15 hours while writing "Eve of Destruction," so yes, he's a little weird. I took a bit of a break and returned at afternoon's end to hear John Swenson interview Chuck Badie, an important New Orleans session cat, about the late Harold Battiste, one of the heroes of that city (and, like many of its musical heroes, one who eventually had to leave in order to make a living), but Mr. Badie's accent was so thick I learned very little. 

I had been informed by my dinner date, Monica Brady, whom I know from The Well, that there would be a recurring theme in tonight's dinner, since her sister Patty was visiting from Maui. We headed to yet another James Beard Award-winner, Brigsten's. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you that this place had been there since nearly forever (although it hasn't), so traditional were its menu selections. There was gumbo (good, but a bit polite for my Cajun-trained palate), soft-shell crab, cochon de lait, and, for me, eggplant stuffed with seafood. All excellent, as was the company -- Patty is a firecracker, who'd come to town to see her parents and go to the Stomp, so, gentleman that I am (shut up) I offered her the plus-one that the Stomp had given me, which was a smart move: it was tons of fun hanging with her, and she introduced me to some miscreants I didn't know, who were hanging with miscreants I did know, some of them. 

But that's getting ahead of the story somewhat. The next day's panels started in Memphis, with Preston Lauterbach, author of two superb books so far (and apparently another on the way) talking to Howard Grimes, drummer on all those Al Green records, among others requiring a silky, laid-back percussive approach that became the sound of Hi Records. They were followed by Robert Gordon, another expert on Memphis, talking to J.M. vanEaton, drummer on countless Sun Records sessions ("The thing that changed music is when guitars and drums collided," another fine observation; thanks, J.M.) and with Jerry Lee Lewis for some time. Another fun session. Then Ann Powers tried valiantly to keep two divas, Brenda Holloway and Mable John, on topic to discuss their lives during and after stardom. I got to ask Dr. John about the song I used to play on the radio in Berlin, which is a forgotten feminist landmark, "Doncha Hit Me No More," and got the story of her writing it in a car  driving between gigs with Joe Tex, whose wife had complained to her that he hit her when he got angry. Do yourself a favor and play it some time. I had to miss the next panel, Joe Nick Patoski interviewing Augie Meyers, because I had to round up my panelists, five San Antonians from the little-known West Side Soul scene from the early '60s. I was real happy about how that went: the British record collectors who make up a serious percentage of the attendees at the Stomp seemed quite interested in it all, and the guys -- Manuel "Bones" Aragon, Rudy Tee Gonzales, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee, and Rudy Palacios -- were tops. It was the last panel of the conference, and I think we went out with a bang. 

After getting myself decent, I went downstairs to await Patty and her friend Julee, who turned up in a spectacular convertible (which would have been ideal had the temperature not plunged into the 60s that day) and we headed over to the Rock 'n' Bowl, the venue for the Stomp concerts. I went next door to a New Orleans landmark, Ye Olde College Inn, which is a whole lot better than its name would imply. I could only get a seat at the bar, but that enabled me to observe the wild mix of (white) people in the place, from the bellowing guy recounting wild tales of the late Frankie Ford's gay adventures to the impeccably dressed woman in her 80s who sat next to me ignoring me until the bartender couldn't answer her question: what time the Tulane game started tomorrow. She then acknowledged my existence and asked me, and when I told her I didn't know, either, I ceased to exist. I had a fantastic wedge salad with blue cheese dressing (I know: weird, huh?) and a huge oyster po-boy, and then went to the Bowl, where the Swamp Pop All-Stars were half-way through their set, and Gene Terry came on and proved that he may be an oldie, but he's still a goodie. Next up were three divas, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and Mabel John, which was a bit of a disaster: Betty had lost a lot of range and hated the band (the Bo-Kays, no less), Brenda had a tendency to go flat, badly flat, stop and yell at the band, and start again and go flat, and only 85-year-old Mabel showed any class by doing her set well, singing on key, and only erred when it was the end and Dr. Ira Padnos, the guy whose organization puts the whole thing on, was walking onto stage and getting ready to thank her and get ready for the next act when she launched into a gospel number that seemed to last for about 20 minutes. I was exhausted, so I found Patty and Julee, said good night, and stepped into the shuttle back to the hotel. 

* * *

So that's how I wound up with Saturday's daytime off, and my walk up Magazine. Monica had suggested a walk up St. Charles, returning in the streetcar, but we'd already driven that street a couple of times and the stately trees and magnificent mansions lining it gave me the creeps. Anyway, I had to find P and Q. I'd promised a friend here in Austin a gift, and passed a gift shop that had just the thing in the window, but I pressed on, not sure how much further I had to go. Here and there, there were things that weren't ironic or superficial: this place sells posters with this observation on it:

Don't argue with Bu!

After a mighty hike -- which I have to admit felt pretty good -- I found the bakery and had a short conversation with the Matthewses, who were going off to see Bunny the next day, so I sent my regards. The news wasn't very good (and has gotten worse since then with the introduction of lymphoma into the mix), but I felt Bunny needs everyone who cares to tell him so, so I did my bit. Now to find something to eat and pick up that tchotchke for my friend in Austin. Which, as it turned out, meant walking almost the entire length of Magazine again, but although it was after 3, when most restaurants aren't serving, I found a place I'd passed on the way up, which called its food "Caribbean tapas," which had made me shudder. Well, surprise: it's actually superb (and that wasn't extreme hunger talking) and again I got into a tableside conversation as a black couple dining next to me had delivered an entire grilled flounder, which the man ate. I was astounded at that much food (me, I had a salad with shrimp in it) but he got most of it down. I forget what his wife had, but we started talking because she was curious about the Stomp wristbands I had on, and he turned out to be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so some French got talked, too. After lunch (no, I don't remember the name of the place, but it's the only Caribbean tapas joint on the street), I headed to that St. Charles streetcar. Whew.

That night's Stomp show was amazing, or the part of it I saw was. I was bushed, and, since I thought she needed my plus-one listing in the records to get in, Patty met me at the Ye Olde, where I had a light dinner at a table in the window. (The strategy worked: they put me in the window when the place was heaving, but by the time we left there were plenty of empty tables). And I got there just in time for what I'd come to see: The West Side All-Stars, the guys from my panel. After a bit of a shaky start (they hadn't performed together in years, but had had a couple of rehearsals at the hotel) they got into the groove and held it bulldog-tight until the end of the set. 

All the All-Stars, almost: r-l, horn section (didn't get their names) Rudy Palacios, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee. 
They were as surprised as the audience was ecstatic. It's rare to see a genuine unknown at a gathering like this, something nobody has heard of that knocks their socks off, and when most of the people doing the sock-knocking are in their early to mid 70s, it's a genuine pleasure. 

Rudy Tee tells another whopper

Rudy Palacios rocks out with help from Manuel "Bones" Aragon
The guys left the stage to wild applause and yelling, and a feeling that there was some more mileage in this thing. I hope so: I'm going to see if they want to play SXSW. 

I snuck out soon afterwards, said good-bye to Patty, and clambered on the artists' shuttle back to the hotel. I was very heartened by the Stomp, although the cohort of eligible artists is thinning, and the event only occurs every other year. Thanks to Dr. Ike and the crew. Like Arnie, I'll be back. 

* * *

I still have those ambiguous feelings about New Orleans, though. First, just about everyone I saw from there was, with the exception of the woman in the restaurant, white. Oh, I know I could have changed that, but I had no reason to go into a black neighborhood, and yes, New Orleans felt segregated, albeit in a strange way: most blacks and whites get along just fine, at least in the sort of circles I run in, and yet I sense that that's because the black people in that situation tend to be of an economic or social class that's middle-class and/or artistic. More worrying are those people in those fine houses on St. Charles, my fellow diners at Ye Olde. There seemed to be a bubble there, a bubble of class and money. Katrina displaced a large number of long-time black New Orleans families who, once out, opted not to come back, and tradition aside, it might well be that outside the bubble they saw opportunities and had ideas that New Orleans' velvet groove hadn't prompted them to have. In addition, a lot of the black people who stayed are angry, and the post-Katrina years have only fed the flames. Monica's story about the guy she knew who had his phone, his money, his credit cards, the groceries he was unloading in front of his house and his car itself taken from him by young kids one afternoon was hardly unique: as I walked back down Magazine, I heard a woman on the phone who was walking behind me: "Honey, they don't know where my jewelry is, and they don't know where my money is, and they ain't no more to take." This has always been a problem (remembering Bunny's story about the local TV news crew who went to Marie Laveau's grave to shoot a piece on crime in that cemetery being relieved of all of their equipment mid-shoot by some teenagers), but it's gotten worse. I can't help feeling there's a connection between this and the aged Tulane fan at the bar, implicit if not explicit. 

I dunno. It's worth thinking about. Patty told me there's no way she'd move back, although maybe Maui is a bit of an extreme distance. Another friend of mine has kept cordial relations with the city while living in Los Angeles. Me, I had to wake up on Sunday and drive to another part of Louisiana, so I waited outside the hotel with the usual riff-raff (Miriam Linna, Lenny Kaye, Roy Head, Barbara Lynn) waiting for the valet to come with the car. If anything draws me back to New Orleans, it'll be the Ponderosa Stomp. 

* * *

One reason I drove in with an Igloo cooler and some blue ice packs in my car was to stop in Cajun country and buy some meats. I drove as far as Henderson on Sunday -- just a couple of hours -- and after getting set at the motel (and an MSG-laden bowl of gumbo at the Landry's across the parking lot) I set off for a place in Scott called the Best Stop, whose stuff had been recommended to me, in hopes of getting some boudin and a couple of stuffed pork chops. After noting that everything there had MSG in it, I was actually hungry enough to order a link of their boudin, which didn't taste much like boudin and had a heaping helping of the toxic substance in it. Sweating and with my tongue aching, I went back to the motel to drink as much water as I could honk down. Fortunately, Pat's was just down the road for dinner, Pat's is still Pat's, and Dot the waitress is still Dot the waitress, so I finished the day just fine. 

And the next day, I drove to Eunice and filled the ice chest with LeJeune's finest garlic sausage, some tasso, and a five-pound ponce (sort of like Cajun haggis, but not) and then discovered much to my delight that Kermit LeJeune, who's been running the joint for 34 years, is still with us (but he was eating lunch!) and still the warm, friendly guy he's been since I first met him 25 or so years ago. It was an upbeat ending to the trip. Now I have to find someone to help me eat the damn ponce, because Mrs. LeJeune gave me her recipe. Shouldn't be hard. 

The gold standard; accept no substitute.

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