One of the best songs, ever…

When I think of Levon Helm, who died yesterday of cancer at the age of 71, I think of the song “The Weight” with him and The Band plus the Staple Singers at “The Last Waltz” concert in the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco 1976.

A long time ago, but unforgettable.

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America’s president — “Sweet Home Chicago”

Last night’s Republican presidential debate cannot have made anyone happy. Many must have asked themselves, is that the best we have, is that the best the Republican party has to offer?

George Will, leading conservative columnist, does just that in today’s Washington Post, and concludes:

“Neither Romney nor Santorum looks like a formidable candidate for November.“

And Andrew Sullivan, conservative blogger, writes that the winner of the debate sits in the White House. Sullivan zeroes in on what he calls “lies” about president Obama’s foreign policy, and draws, correctly, parallels with the Iraq debate after 9/11.

”Santorum really does seem to be implying that Obama has some kind of secret agenda vis-a-vis Iran. And he pretty obviously would launch a massive war on Iran. We’re hearing the kind of language we heard after 9/11. Exactly the same language; exactly the same arguments; exactly the same paranoia.

There seems to be no memory of the Iraq war at all. It never happened. There was no error. There is nothing to explain. And yet they do not seem to realize that that catastrophic war is the reason Barack Obama is president. It’s like an etch-a-sketch party. Shake it one election cycle – and the past disappears completely! …This is a party about ideology, not reality.

…Newt attacks General Dempsey on the rational international conduct of the Iranian regime. Then Gingrich repeats exactly the same argument used for the Iraq war. Exactly the same. And blames the experts in the military for not “believing” what is apparently obvious. Romney then buys into the Santorum line that Iran wants to use a nuke against the US. He then lies about Obama “opposing” crippling sanctions. Does Romney believe that if he simply says that Obama hasn’t placed sanctions on Iran, it will somehow become true? So that’s another bald-faced lie.”

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. is frustrated in today’s Washington Post that the Republicans continue to paint Obama as an ”alien.”

“Please forgive this outburst. It’s simply astonishing that a man in his fourth year as our president continues to be the object of the most extraordinary paranoid fantasies. A significant part of his opposition still cannot accept that Obama is a rather moderate politician quite conventional in his tastes and his interests. And now that the economy is improving, short-circuiting easy criticisms, Obama’s adversaries are reheating all the old tropes and clichés and slanders.”

Dionne ends:

“We are blessed with the freedom to say whatever we want about our president. But those who cast Obama as something other than one of us don’t understand him and don’t understand what it means to be American.”

Here he is, America’s president:

Etta James is dead — here is her “I’d Rather Go Blind”

Etta James, one of my absolute favorites, is dead. She was 73 years old and a music legend.

I heard her the first time on a black radio station in Los Angeles, her birthplace, in the early 60’s, and saw her the last time ten years ago at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, also in Los Angeles. She was ill already then and sang sitting in a wheelchair. But she sang!

Her most famous song is perhaps her version of “At Last,” that Glenn Miller and his orchestra first recorded back in the beginning of World War II. But I like her best in the blues, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Here it is:

From the beach to LA’s revived downtown

Los Angeles, full of contrasts.

A day on the beach in Malibu in October and a lovely lunch with seared tuna at Paradise Cove, the hidden, little beach with a restaurant up the coast a few miles from Santa Monica.

In the evening, a chamber music concert at Frank Gehry’s magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, that long forgotten part of the big city that now is coming alive fast. At dusk, in the setting sun, the whole building turns bluish in a marvelous color display, and I experience the same stunning revelation as in Bilbao, Spain, driving into that city and rounding a corner to face that masterpiece by Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum.

A drink before the concert in the garden roof of the concert hall and the surrounding cityscape seems to have nothing to do with what we usually think of Los Angeles.

And after the concert, a delicious hamburger and a beer at Nickel Diner, a fun little art deco place right in the middle of the, by so many, dreaded downtown. Since my last visit here, it’s clear that downtown LA is changing and changing fast, even though the streets later at night are still eerily deserted except for the 700 or so who are camped around City Hall down the street showing that the Occupy Wall Street movement is also alive and well in California, a movement that gets more support from the public than the Tea Party, according to Pew Research Center’s latest poll.

Goodnight Irene!

It’s getting close to midnight and the wind and the rain from Hurricane Irene pound the house and the windows. So far, we have fared better than we expected. Electricity is still on, to our great surprise, since power cuts are legion every time it blows a bit in Washington. Lots of trees are down. The streets are empty. People are home. All the TV channels are covering the big weather story.

Out on the Atlantic coast and around the Chesapeake Bay, about an hour east of Washington, it is worse. Irene passed right over there and up along the coast, towards Atlantic City and New York. The lovely beach resorts are practically empty, at the height of the summer season, since everyone has been told to leave.

We’ll see tomorrow when we wake up what damage Irene has caused. And we will see tomorrow how New York fared when Irene hits the Big Apple early in the morning.

So, for now, goodnight Irene!

Away…to fine music and good food

Washington is warmest in the entire country, 100 degrees today, and over 100 degrees in the days to come.

We go outdoors only if we absolutely have to. Indoors, the air conditioning is humming, thank goodness, and I fear for all those who do not have air conditioning and I wonder how everyone coped in the old days, before air conditioning was invented.

On days like these you just want to get away, like the other day when we headed west to the wondrous landscape of Rappahannock County, Virginia, towards the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park.

We headed to the village of Castleton and the Castleton Festival, a relatively new place of pilgrimage for lovers of classical music in the American capital, where conductor Lorin Maazel, from the New York Philharmonic and the Opera in Valencia, Spain, bought a lot of land a few years ago and now makes music every summer. This year is the festival’s third year. Several hundred young musicians from over twenty countries spend the summer here, treating festival visitors to works by Puccini, Kurt Weill, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bizet, Gershwin, etc. in the former chicken coop that has become a nice little concert hall or in the large festival tent.

Castleton is located about 60 miles from Washington and if you want to spend the night, there are many small inns in the area. The most famous is The Inn at Little Washington. It was opened in 1978 by Patrick O’Connell, who still runs what has now become one of America’s best restaurants. The dinner after the concert is excellent and we are full of contentment during the return to Washington and no one is homesick.

Jazz on re-born H Street Corridor

My hometown Washington, DC is changing.

I was reminded of that again the other night, as I ventured over to the H Street Corridor and the new jazz club, HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues. Its name comes from a congressional resolution in 1987, which designated jazz as “a rare and valuable national American treasure.”

HR-57 had recently moved here, from a more established area in downtown, and oh, what a nice and friendly little place it was, with alto saxophonist Antonio Parker and his quartet, all local musicians, playing some strong modern jazz and with the son of an old high school friend from Santa Monica, CA, at the piano.

HR-57 is part of the revived H Street NE Corridor, also called the Atlas District after the renovated art deco Atlas Performing Arts Center from 1938. During my many earlier years in Washington, I never or rarely ventured there, because there really was nothing there, as it was pretty much destroyed in the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

The same thing happened to the area around U and 14th Streets, once a focal point for many black jazz musicians. It has made its remarkable comeback in the last decade, and, now, it seems to be the H Street Corridor’s turn. Once again, this area is popping, with H Street Playhouse and with restaurants, bars, and clubs, like HR-57, Rock & Roll Hotel, Pug Bar, H Street Country Club, etc.

Along the 1.5 mile long H Street NE, Washington’s new trolley will begin to run next spring, as streetcars are brought back to the nation’s capital after an absence of over 50 years. The H Street line is part of the first step in what could become a 37-mile citywide network, connecting the H Street Corridor with Union Station. It will likely quicken the re-birth of this area, which was once a main commercial street in the city. The transition is not yet completed, but it is on its way and it’s exciting and fun.

“Buckets of Rain” — buckets of joy

Today, Bob Dylan turned 70. He has been my musical companion for 50 of those years. What more can I say?

Let me just point you to John Bennet’s post, “Don’t Read This, Bob,” on the New Yorkers’ blog News Desk, where he features, among others, Ebony Hillbillies playing Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.”

Listening this morning to this street band’s version of this lovely song brought me such immense joy.

Have a listen!

Georgia On My Mind…

Onwards, on my trip through the South.

At the Georgia border, the welcome sign read “Georgia on My Mind,” and, of course, I immediately thought of Ray Charles and his version of the song, which is now Georgia’s national anthem.

Ray Charles came from Georgia, and so did Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom have become some of the most famous of Georgia’s citizens, deceased and contemporary, with their own places of pilgrimage, Albany and Atlanta. Two black legends of the old South…

In downtown Albany, next to Flint River, I visited Ray Charles Plaza and its statue of the music legend, born here in 1930. He sits at his piano and his songs and music flows out in the heat over the river and the city, as the entire statue slowly spins round and round…”What’d I Say. “

Albany, a town of 75 000 people of whom over two thirds today are black, was once dominated by large cotton plantations with its black slaves. The city’s old museum, once built with the help of Andrew Carnegie’s money, was closed to blacks until the 1964 civil rights law. In the early 1960s, the Albany Movement became an important part of the civil rights struggle. Martin Luther King came here from Atlanta with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but was met with fierce resistance from the white establishment.

Today, Albany has a black mayor, but downtown, despite attempts to revive the city center after new suburban malls took away most customers, feels sad and desolate. Not far from Ray Charles Plaza, a wretchedly poor black part of town can be found, with folks sitting on the porches of their “shotgun shacks”… here on America’s dark side.

A few hours north, in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1934, Ebenezer Baptist Church lies, where King was pastor until his death in 1968, and his grandfather and father before him. The church from 1922 on Auburn Avenue with Atlanta’s downtown in sight, has just reopened after an extensive renovation and is now a museum and part of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with a new, large and shining church, the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and with the King’s and his wife Coretta Scott’s graves.

I have visited the Ebenezer church before, but it was long ago, on January 21, 1986, when the new Martin Luther King holiday was first celebrated. The church was overfull. Journalists crowded on the old balcony. Everyone seemed to have come to Atlanta on that sunny January day: Vice President George Bush, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and all the way from apartheid’s South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu. Rosa Parks sat in the front row. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to sit in the back of the bus. Her defiant act was the signal to the black residents’ year-long and successful bus boycott, a battle led by Martin Luther King.

Those who came to the Ebenezer church that day in 1986, laid a wreath at King’s tomb and filled the old church with paint peeling from its ceiling and walls, and where the choir sang so beautifully to hand clapping and stomping feet.

Many memories there in the old church… where everything is now repaired, shining clean, and newly painted, and where the tourists sit in the pews and listen attentively to recordings of King’s speeches from another time in America.

“The Real Dylan in China”

I have to add to what I just wrote about Bob Dylan in China under the headline, “Did Dylan sell out in China?” and draw your attention to Sean Wilentz’ post today on the New Yorker blog.

Wilentz, a professor at Princeton University, is, you may know, the author of the superb book, “Bob Dylan in America,” so he knows what he’s talking about when he writes:

“I’d argue Dylan made a fool of the Chinese authorities, while getting paid in the bargain. He certainly made a fool of Maureen Dowd– or she made a fool of herself.”

And Wilentz continues:

“But Dylan learned long ago that he is not a particularly good conventional political spokesman. His gifts lie elsewhere, in composing and singing songs of love and loss and the rest of human experience, above and beyond politics, although politics is always there as well. His art has changed the world mightily, and not just in righting political wrongs.”

So true!