Saturday, December 24, 2016

Notes From An Attic: The Never-Ending Vacation, Maimondes' Autograph, Promoting The Book, And More

Two months since I've touched this blog? Apparently so. And a very odd two months it's been. To recap: in early October, while on vacation in Spain, I received photos of water seeping outside the door to my house, which water proved to be the result of a toilet valve failing and 48 hours' worth of uncontrolled release of water. The landlord quickly shut it off, but sheetrock, ceiling, and wooden floors all needed replacing. He predicted three weeks or more.

More. If the most optimistic forecasts are correct, I'll have been out of the house for three months by the time I get to move back in. Christmas and New Years will be elsewhere. Fortunately "elsewhere" isn't as onerous as it might be: after a week and a half in a horrible, expensive, poorly-run "extended stay" hotel, a Facebook friend offered me one of his airbnb properties, this not being the high season, and I moved into an attic on his property. It has its down side.

First rule: don't be tall. Photo credit: Special K
Also, I packed for a three-to-four-week stay here, which meant I grabbed a few clothes and some kitchen stuff that was either in excess of what I needed or not enough. There's a stove (oven doesn't work) and a microwave, but cooking has been a problem. When the weather got cold, I had to buy some new shoes (fine: the winter shoes I bought in January sucked, and REI will take them back) and a down jacket thing (already have one, but can't get to it). Fortunately, the place is centrally located, which means I can walk a lot of places, and driving isn't quite the pain it is down south, where you have to drive places to get places. You kind of have to get out of where you are before you can start going where you're going, if you see what I mean. Here, it's a lot more like living in a city.

So I'm still living out of a suitcase, eating out much too much for my comfort (both dietary and financial), but things could be worse: the main focus of the past couple of months has been assuring a smooth launch for The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1, which has certainly been interesting. Fortunately, so far most of the reviews have been very positive, and I've mostly done interviews with really intelligent people, like Gil Roth, whom I'd never heard of before, and Michaelangelo Matos, whom I had. There have been some radio interviews, most notably on KQED's Forum, which had the most chaotic, ill-prepared, ignorant host I'd ever dealt with. He'd never so much as opened the book, knew nothing of its subject, and couldn't keep the conversation on track. Unfortunately, I had a severe attack of cedar fever just as the mike went live, so I wasn't at my best initially, either. Fortunately, I recovered. The host...maybe not so much. And there was the Bellowing Celt who called in, completely bonkers. I'm still shaken, but I suspect that's the worst of it.

That cedar fever, too, has slowed me down some: there was a cold snap in Austin and the trees went wild. Me, I went to New York and Montreal, where it was cold enough, caught some kind of flu in all the subways and airplanes and trains and whatnot, so I had to deal with that and the cedar disease when I got back. I haven't been very active, to put it mildly. Oh, and in November there was the Texas Book Fair, where all the music book writers were up against one another, so who do you think got the crowds: Thomas Dolby, me, or the woman who wrote a biography of Guy Clark, beloved late Texas songwriter, who, instead of having a panel in the Capitol building, had the Paramount Theater at her disposal, and had several local high-profile songwriters on board to do some of Guy's songs? I got to the signing tent, there was a huge line...but not for me, of course: her publisher had sensibly augmented Barnes & Nobel's supply. B&N only had 30 books for me to sign, and five were for the store. There were a lot more at Book People, though, for the official release event, and I even had to go down again to sign another raft of them there. (They have 'em on mail-order, too, if you want one).

Still there, newly renovated for your Manhattan office address. Brill himself was in the menswear biz. 

This is all pretty un-chronological, I see, but at the end of November, I went to New York for a week on a project totally unrelated to the book (but got a bit of promo, if you can call five minutes' worth of interview on an AM New York Jesus station "promo": who knew New York had a Jesus station called THE ANSWER? Who knew New York had a Jesus station at all? What can the listenership of an AM station like that be?). Before I left, though, I decided to go to a couple of museums as long as I was in town, and it really felt good.

MOMA had the first US retrospective of Surrealist painter Francis Picabia, whom I'd mostly known as a major pain in the ass to the entire Paris art scene throughout Cubism, Surrealism, and beyond. It wasn't until after I saw the show that I learned that at the age of 15, Francis, son of a wealthy man, learned to paint so that he could copy his father's collection of old Spanish paintings, replace them with his copies, and sell the originals to dealers so he could buy expensive stamps for his stamp collection. That, however, is consistent with the rest of his life, as is the excerpt from one of his writings that gives the show its title: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction. His thoughts certainly did: austere drawings of machines that actually do nothing, colorful abstracts, odd cartoon-like stuff, bland but disturbing hyper-realist oils, some of them sourced from soft-porn magazines, during the German occupation of France, and, if your feet are tired, you can sit and watch a film he and René Clair made called entr'acte, which was shown during the intermission (entr'acte) of an Erik Satie ballet. It's exhausting and goofy, and the show made my day. Heads off to Picabia!

The show I knew I wanted to see, however, was up at the Met, and I devoted a day to it: Jerusalem, 1000-1400, Every People Under Heaven.  It was a bit odd: having not quite returned from a trip to Spain to try to get a handle on the three-culture Christian-Jewish-Muslim culture there, from which Crusaders went off to try to "reclaim" the Holy Land, here I was in New York watching the story from the other end of the telescope. It's not a particularly arty show, because two of the religions involved weren't much on representational art, and also because a lot of the prize exhibits are books. Delicate and tending towards fading, they're displayed in darkish rooms, and you really have to want to look at them -- and you need to to get the show's message.  Here's a beautiful illuminated manuscript, obviously French 14th century, groaning with gold leaf, showing a biblical scene. The lettering's in Hebrew, though, and it was used by the Jewish community of Tours. Here is a deluxe fold-out map of Jerusalem, prepared for tourists -- or, rather, for a tourist, since it's hand-lettered and hand-illustrated. Of course, the guy who did it had never been there, but it's still amazingly accurate. Over here, a letter asking that some hostages be freed -- the caption says such letters are quite common from this period -- signed by Maimondes! That gave me an electric shock and once again reminded me that this story I've been chasing -- whatever it is -- spreads over a huge area. I have to say, the show is huge, painstakingly fair to all sides, and not only fills in a lot of blanks on the three-culture story for me, but also shows that the idea of the tourist trap is millenia old: lots of the stuff on display was made for pilgrims to take back to Europe with them. Only open until January 8, so get down there if you can.

Most of the rest of my time has been spent waiting for the house down south to be finished. At some time after the first of the year, I'm confident that my publisher will make an offer for Vol. 2 of the book, and I can get back to doing what I do best: writing. I may attempt a couple of signing tours -- I'm trying to work one up with Amtrak so that I can take the train up the West Coast -- which I'll have to finance myself. But that's in the future: right now I want to move back into my house, sit on my couch, sleep in my bed, and cook in my kitchen again. Three months is too damn long. When you're walking up Madison Avenue (to the Grand Central Oyster Bar: some things never change) and you realize that you're taking a vacation from your vacation and soon will be on a train to Montreal to visit friends as a vacation from the vacation to the vacation, you realize how much you miss having a home.

Of course, I've been feeling that way for about two years now, and the recent election only firmed up my decision to leave again once this next book is finished. I could, and no doubt will, go into that in some detail. But not today. Today is Christmas Eve in the attic. I have to stockpile some food for the weekend. Ho ho ho, y'all.

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