Thursday, December 24, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Black Sabbath Songs

There’s nothing I can add that hasn’t been said about this monumentally influential band. If heavy metal was personified as the United States, statues of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward would greet newcomers to this dark land. If heavy metal were incarnated as a landscape in Middle Earth, the Gates of Mordor would be engraved with towering sculptures of Black Sabbath. In other words: they’re a Big Fucking Deal. Just how important are they? James Hetfield got choked up when he spoke at Black Sabbath’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

Sans the difficult upbringing, I can relate with Hetfield. If heavy metal and all its spawnings didn’t exist, I’m not sure I’d want to stick around. Maybe an old geezer version of me won’t agree, but that’s how my thirty-six-year-old self feels.

In honor of this band—and because I’m bored at work (No work and little play makes Juan bored, bored, bored)—here’s a list of my favorite ten Black Sabbath songs:

Into the Void Master of Reality

You will probably read this several times in this post, but this song has a fucking sick riff. If I sat down and gave it some serious thought, “Into the Void” probably has one of my favorite riffs of all-time. The song’s slow, heavy groove is so tasty. It’s like the sonic equivalent of a rich, thick and beautifully brewed porter. (I’m thinking of you, Black Robusto!)[1]

To boot, this song might be one of the seeds for stoner rock. (“Into the Void” happens to be one of my favorite songs to listen to when I’m riding a dragonfly, so to say.) Black Sabbath was so goddamn influential.

Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener Vol. 4

Dear god, it’s taken me nearly thirty-seven years to gorge on this album, but better late than Never. Gun to my head, right now, I think I would pick Vol. 4 as my favorite Black Sabbath album, and this is the song I’ve been most obsessed with lately. “Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener” is a song with two distinct parts and a ton of movements: the bluesy riff to launch the song—a riff that is never repeated—and then the simple, overdriven main verse which weaves into the slightly manic-squishy middle of the song. Like many Sabbath songs, Geezer Butler’s lyrics are exceptional. I love the crunchy sound of Iommi’s guitar starting from 3:31-3:39. It’s only eight seconds, but sweet baby Damien that part always lights a fleeting bonfire inside me; it sounds like a coked-out Iommi is grinding his teeth and striking the guitar strings as hard as he fucking can. (At least that’s what I’m going for when I inevitably air-guitar to that passage!)

And then the outro starting after the five-minute mark: ahhhhhh—pure heavy metal gorgeosity. There’s something about that riff that is sing-song-like. I can’t put my finger on it but I love it, and then Iommi basically shreds over it for the last minute of the song. Maybe it is its relative novelty for me right now, but there’s something especially epic about this epic Black Sabbath song.

Black Sabbath Black Sabbath
As far as I’m concerned, a top-10 list of best Black Sabbath songs is flawed or incomplete if it doesn’t include this song. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford—another fucking heavy metal giant—said: “To me Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ is the most evil track ever that’s been written in metal.”

I would go so far as to argue that “Black Sabbath” is the most startling introductory song for a band or musician in rock history. I could never listen to every first album ever recorded, but I don’t think this song could be topped in that respect. The opening church bell. The rainfall. The ominous thunder. The sheer evil sound of Iommi’s guitar. Ozzy’s frightening lyrics (What is this that stands before me / Figure in black that points at me) and his chilling screams just before Iommi, Butler and Ward explode again into the demonic-sounding, tritone-driven chorus.

If you were a kid—along with Britney Spears cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction—this is not a song you would want to play at night if you were home alone.

Electric Funeral Paranoid
Paranoid was the first Black Sabbath album I owned. For too many years, it was the only Black Sabbath album I was familiar with. Even after all these years, and all these changes (sorry, I couldn’t resist that Black Sabbath reference), “Electric Funeral” remains one of my three favorite tunes from Paranoid.

All that said, it wasn’t until a few months back that I realized that the song’s verse sounds like a lullaby. Don’t believe me?: try humming the riff. All these years, I now suspect I’ve been fond of this song because Iommi’s wah-pedal riff feels like an innocent lullaby but then Butler’s lyrics are nice and ominous in the imminent doom-like way.

Ever since I realized that, sometimes I listen to “Electric Funeral” on my iPod before I go to sleep. And what do you know, the song comforts me.

Children of the Grave Master of Reality
Like a film was meant to be projected on a big screen, “Children of the Grave” was born to be played fucking loud! It probably has the sickest intro to any Sabbath song. Geezer’s bass line and Ward’s drum crescendo is straight primal; it never fails to put hair on my balls (so to say). Honestly, I could be on my death bed and if this song came on I’m pretty sure it would make me feel like getting up to knock some heads.

On a related note, this is one of my absolute favorite songs to cycle or work out to. It’s like my sonic equivalent of Popeye’s spinach. It’s also pretty fun to listen to when I’m driving but the only problem is that it inevitably makes the car’s speedometer spike to +75 mph. “Children of the Grave” is like a magical incantation in that way.

Supernaut Vol. 4
Speaking of songs that put hair on your balls, few songs—in my humble opinion—can hold a concert hall lighter to Sabbath’s “Supernaut.” I’ve already written about it before in a write-up about my favorite songs about drugs.

But to recap, in case you didn’t know, Vol. 4 was like Black Sabbath’s ode to cocaine. They were getting that shit shipped to them in large speaker boxes! In his autobiography, Ozzy said, “When I listen to songs like ‘Supernaut’, I can just about taste the stuff.”

“Supernaut” is a couple of ridunkulous lines of cocaine incarnate. Iommi’s riff during the verse feels like the driving, frenetic, teeth-grinding, I’m-fucking-invincible! sensation one gets from snorting a few choice lines.

Let’s put it another way: if “Supernaut” was inserted as the soundtrack during Tony Montana’s shootout at the end of de Palma’s classic, Scarface, the movie would end with Pacino’s character standing at the end, yelling the lyrics of the first verse to all the bullet-ridden corpses lining his mansion.

Megalomania Sabotage

Over the years, Sabotage has become one of my favorite Sabbath albums.[2] Without a doubt, it’s the last solid to excellent (depending on your vantage, of course) Ozzy-era Sabbath album. I could be speaking for myself, but “Megalomania” is exceptional in that it doesn’t feel like its 9 minutes and 43 seconds long. The opening section is distinct and then the song really takes off at the 3:24 mark. A cowbell + Iommi’s wicked dirty-sounding riff = metal bliss.

For all we know, the classic “More Cowbell” SNL bit with Christopher Walken might have been inspired by Bill Ward’s cowbell playing in this song?

Heaven and Hell Heaven and Hell

“Heaven and Hell” is my only Dio era song on this list. Although I think Dehumanizer is a far superior album than Heaven and Hell (and Sabbath’s most resoundingly underrated album), this song is peak RJD and Black Sabbath. The production is exceptional—it is truly a modernized Black Sabbath for the mid-1980s. Butler’s simple but relentless bass line is perfect for this song, and Iommi is back to being his bad-motherfucker self with his riffs. His solos in the middle of the song are excellent—and a new wrinkle in his game compared to their work in the classic Ozzy-Sabbath era.

Starting around the 4:30 mark, it’s strap-your-seatbelt time with Ward’s drums and cymbal crashes driving Iommi, Butler and Dio to some mighty heights. And then, after that searing high, the song ends with the classical-influenced Iommi playing some simple yet elegant acoustic work. Black Sabbath wrote a lot of epic songs that defined the genre, but I think “Heaven and Hell” might be the one Everest of a song that stands tallest amongst them all. I think you could argue that this 6:59 song contains just about everything that made Sabbath a legendary band.

Symptom of the Universe Sabotage
What a fucking song. Every once in a while a song comes along that so evidently spawned others; “Symptom of the Universe” is one of those compositions. The fast tempo and Iommi’s opening riff can easily be heard in Diamond Head’s classic “Am I Evil” or another metal classic, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” Some people have gone as far as to say that “Symptom of the Universe” gave birth to thrash metal. I’m no metal scholar, but that definitely seems like it could be the case.

Just one song write-up before I had argued that “Heaven and Hell” possibly contained everything that made Sabbath an epic band. I think the same could be said for this song. Just give it a listen: from a musical standpoint, everyone is at their peak. Ward bangs some crazed drums in the song’s first half. Iommi’s crunching riff sounds like it could jackhammer through a fucking mountain but listen to Geezer’s punctuating bass notes throughout, especially during the interludes between verses. Second for second, minute by minute he always hits the right note. And Ozzy’s vocals are especially potent; his wailing in the opening infuses the song with a delicious maniacal spirit. (I can’t think of a better vocalist for this song.) Sometimes I don’t care for his vocals in the song’s chillaxing outro, but few Sabbath songs better display his range. All these musical elements intertwine for a truly exceptional piece.

War Pigs Paranoid
From the top-10 lists I’ve read online, “War Pigs”—Black Sabbath’s most political song—pretty much makes everyone’s cut. I can sum it up in a few lines: “War Pigs” is like the musical equivalent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (which is probably my favorite novel); as long as humans roam this earth we are rapidly destroying, this song will always be timeless. This will always be us. As a species, we will never know true peace because it’s just not in our nature. There will always be enough war pigs amongst us, and they will always creep and plot and plunder and do whatever is necessary to assume a critical position of power because enough of us will always be sheep and allow it—until we’re all wiped off this planet. You deluded optimists can call me a cynic but I’ve read enough history books to know that this is simply a realistic conclusion.

Musically, this song is epic. “War Pigs” is the template for long epic heavy metal songs.

Honorable Mentions:
Sabbra Cadabra Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Classic Sabbath. Iommi’s riff is sick. Even though the song is an outlier because it’s about love, it contains quintessential Ozzy vocals. And the musical production is perfect. With the trippy keyboards and amped-up vocals, it is a distinct offering—and no one can touch this song. Just listen to the Metallica cover; it’s awful compared to the original, which—in my humble opinion—is a rare feat for Metallica since most of their covers are so good (and oftentimes superior to the original, in my humble opinion).

Snowblind Vol. 4
Classic Sabbath. Iommi’s riff is sick. (I could say that about many Sabbath songs, right?) These British boys sure loved their cocaine!

Hole in the Sky Sabotage
Like “Children of the Grave,” this song has a seemingly magical effect on me whenever I’m driving a car because it always makes me drive faster for some reason. (And, may I add, it’s an excellent song to blast from your stereo while speeding down Highway 24!)

[1] I swear, Drake’s did not pay me for that plug. No one pays me to write except my employer when they give me nothing to do.

[2] Right now, if I had to rank my top-five Black Sabbath albums, it would be: 1) Vol. 4, 2) Sabotage, 3) Master of Reality, 4) Paranoid and 5) Dehumanizer.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Thanksgiving

I stared out to the Quarry Lakes as the BART train rolled into Fremont. The small lakes shimmered in the sunlight. A majestic heron stood on a grassy bank. Up above, a V of Canadian geese appeared to fly to the sun. John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” played from my iPod. I picked it because I felt happy and sappy, heading home for Thanksgiving. The song packed an emotional wallop. We had history. Three years before, I had traveled through much of South America by bus. I remember riding through the countryside from Uruguay into Argentina listening to “My Favorite Things.” I stared out the window as these beautiful trees that graced the highway swooshed by. When Coltrane soloed during the song’s outro, I began to cry to myself. The melody he plays during that final verse is excruciatingly beautiful; it sounds like a eulogy, a call of profound gratitude as though Coltrane were ascending into the sun’s light, turning back and expressing through his saxophone: it was a good ride. Listening to him play, staring at that Argentinean countryside, I simply cried because I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel, to see foreign lands, to feel such beauty.

On that train ride home to Fremont, I felt like I should feel a profound sense of gratitude given the deathly visitor residing in my chest. Thanksgiving was upon us—a time when I should be extra grateful to be with my family. That time together, gathered around our dining room table replete with steaming plates of yummy-goodness was not something I could take for granted. It never was. 

When I walked out of the station, my dad was waiting at the drop-off curb in his Toyota Rav. I swung the back door open to toss my travel bag in.

“¡Hola papi!” I said.

“¿Hola hijo, cómo estás?” Dad said, smiling.

After I took my seat beside him, I leaned over to kiss him on the cheek as I always did whenever he or my mom picked me up. To my surprise, I didn’t feel sentimental like I thought I would. I was simply excited to be home for the next five days while my sister, Carmen—a.k.a. Chimp-Chimp[1]—was in town. We had a can’t-fail recipe for chillaxation and family-goodness:

·      gobs of turkey gravy & mashed potatoes 
·      my sister Mariana’s yummy homemade vegetarian quiche
·      my homemade mac 'n cheese
·      2-3 days of leftovers, including my favorite: turkey sandwiches
·      mornings and afternoons in our PJs
·      reading in the backyard with our kittie cat curled up on my lap
·      multiple games of Super Mario World
·      our home at full occupancy like when we were growing up         

Once we sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner, I felt a weightiness come over me. My mom sat to my right, my dad at the other end of the table. I was afraid Mom would get a little serious, un poco emocionante, maybe even somber as she gave our food a blessing before segueing into a tangent about my cancer—how we should feel grateful to be together.

But thankfully, there was no such talk at the table. With Andean flute music playing from the stereo, we dug into our feast. We complimented each other’s dishes and ate until we were stuffed.

In the end, our Thanksgiving turned out to be like any other.

And I was more than grateful for that.

[1] That’s the childhood nickname Mariana bequeathed Carmen with. When we were kids, Carmen’s favorite toy was a chimp doll she named Bebe. She used to take him everywhere: to the potty, to stores, to the tub for her baths.

In kindergarten, my mom made Carmen a full-body monkey costume for Halloween with big monkey ears and a long tail. In photos my parents took of her, Carmen stuck out the tip of her tongue and protruded her bottom lip to make a chimpilicious mouth.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Goo Goo G'joob!: My Top 10 Favorite Beatles Songs

About a month ago, my good friend Chris and I were strolling through Central Park. Since we're good boys, we made a pilgrimage to Strawberry Fields. Once we paid our respects to one of the greatest hippies ever, I mused that it would be difficult to whittle down my favorite Beatles songs to a top 10 list. A few days later, at a bar in Brooklyn, I told my homie and fellow blogsmith, Justin “Ticket to Ride!” Goldman about this thought I had. Two pints deep, copping a fluffy buzz, Justin did not hesitate to ask the bartender for a pen. “Let's do this right now,” he said, or something like that, and off we went. Within a few minutes, this is what we produced:

The napkin with the more handsome writing is, of course, mine.
I was floored. I figured coming up with a top 10 Beatles list would be arduous, the musical equivalent of coming up with a top 10 list of favorite Simpsons episodes, which took weeks to research. But there it was—a list. A beer shit. I knew I might change my mind on the flight back home, but all in all, I figured it would stick.

Before I launch into my list, a few historical notes are in order. The Beatles have always been one of my favorite bands. I can thank mi hermanita, Carmen, for bringing them into my world. One of the sweeter memories I have from our childhood is listening to her play The Beatles: 1962-1966 over and over from her bedroom so many times that I began to memorize the songs. Because I wanted to be different, and because I didn't want her calling me “a copycat,” I bought their Blue Album and gravitated toward those songs. When I was seventeen and depressed, those songs comforted me a lot, especially Lennon's compositions. Although I don't listen to The Beatles as much as I did in my late teens or early twenties, I can still recite practically all of the 108 songs I own. And when I feel a malaise from being alive in this crazy world—like yesterday, for example—listening and singing or humming along to the Beatles more often than not still cheers me up.

In short, I can't and wouldn't want to imagine a world without their music.

But enough fluff, here's my top 10! And if you love these music lists, check out my homeboy's top 10 write-up.

I hope I passed the audition. : 0 )

10. Julia
Album: The White Album

Okay, so let me get this out of the way because it will inevitably merit discussion at some point in this post: John was my favorite Beatle. He was my favorite Beatle when I first fell in love with their music when I was a teenager, and he still is two decades later. (God, I'm getting old. That's great!) Whereas I can easily come up with a top 10 list of Paul McCartney songs that annoy me (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” would probably be my #1. And I know I'm in the minority here, but “Hey Jude” would be a top candidate as well), it's going to be hard for me to ever come up with a list of Lennon songs I outright dislike. He's my boy. Now that I think about it, I would wager that people rarely ever change their favorite Beatle. That's just my suspicion.

But anyway—Julia. What a song. I rarely ever listen to it. I'm rarely in the mood that the song requires from me, but I think it's John's most tender song. That counts for something in my book. And it's a song of such pure beauty. Fortunately for me, I could never relate to John losing his mother at such a young age, but knowing that he lost her when he was a teenager always made me empathize with his music even more.

For me, the main difference between Lennon and McCartney as composers is that Lennon was more forthright, honest, and far more willing to be vulnerable in his songwriting. When the Beatles were blowing up, John was the one who broke away from their lovey dovey boy-band material to write “Help!” And “Julia,” a homage to his dead mother, is another prime example of how he was consistently willing to play from the depths of his heart, to play from the pain to compose beauty.

Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

When we shared our handwritten lists, I remember Justin asked me why I picked this song. He told me it annoyed him, and I can see that. Plus, I just now spent a paragraph discussing how Lennon was more willing to write from the heart than McCartney, and then number nine on my list is a whimsical, not heartfelt song. Ay.

So how did this song crack my fucking top 10 list? I guess the easy and concise thing to say is that I used to get stoned on an occasional basis throughout my mid to late twenties and this song was pretty much one of my favorites to listen to on my iPod when my mind was off and floating in the dreary San Pancho sky. Call me fickle, but that's about 90% of why this song makes this list over other psyche-delicious songs like “I Am the Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The 1:00 – 1:26 section is my favorite. Dear god, that musical passage just always takes me spinning away, sober or high. And the outro has always been one of my favorite parts to hum or toot along to. Like “Drive My Car” or “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the song is infused with a spirit of playfulness, but it's different than those tunes. With its “carnival atmosphere,” I humbly believe it is truly a unique Beatles song. And like “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which was inspired by a gun magazine, this song gets yummy brownie points for being inspired from an antique circus poster.

Album: Yesterday and Today

What a surprise—another John Lennon song! “Day Tripper” makes my cut primarily because it has my favorite Beatles riff (“I Feel Fine” is a dandy one, too), which Lennon lifted from Roy Orbison's “Oh, Pretty Woman.” It's a playful ditty, and, on its sonic veneer, deceptively innocent; The Beatles wrote it in 1965, henceforth known as ABD (After meeting Bobby D), which means these mopped-haired mofos were up to their ass in weed. Paul acknowledged that the song is about drugs, which is probably why I like it so much (although that opening tambourine is quite delicious and perfect, no?)

7. Here, There and Everywhere
Album: Revolver

A few weeks ago, this song came up on random play from my iPod. Outside, the sun was setting. The sky was a soft, drab, comforting gray. I texted Justin: “If I ever did heroin, 'Here, There and Everywhere' is the one Beatles song I would listen to.”

This song is exquisite. Paul's double-layered vocals feel dreamy, and the backing vocals provide a soothing backdrop along with the bare guitar chords. “Here, There and Everywhere” feels genuinely sorrowful, melancholy and mysteriously uplifting at the same time; that's what makes it stand out for me. There's something enchanting about this song. Score one for Paul.

6. And I Love Her
Album: A Hard Day’s Night

Now score two for Paul!

This is the part of my post where I start rationalizing my selections by saying, This is one of my favorite songs to sing along to. Well, this is one of my favorite songs to sing along to—well, at least in the privacy of my car. I wouldn't ever want to sing this song in front of people because I suspect I'd get a little emotional. I am weird like that, but this song is just so gorgeous, so perfect it can make me cry listening to it. (I got this trait from my dad.) And the acoustic solo—so simple but so goddamn perfect. Not one word, not one note you would want to change from this gem. 

5. I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Album: Abbey Road

Here's the first of my three selections from Abbey Road. John wrote this song about Yoko, shortly after she began to sink her claws in him. (For many, many years, I was not resentful of Yoko and the ridiculous claims that she was partly responsible for the break-up of the band. But after I watched this clip of her singing like an attention-seeking banshee, I firmly slid her over to My Shit List. Bill Burr is spot-on with his analysis.) Musically, it's one of The Beatles' more progressive songs. Back when I used to play bass guitar, I tried to play the tablature to this song, and goddamn it's a difficult, intricate line; it's a prime, prime example of Paul's virtuoso playing—Exhibit A or B of how he revolutionized the instrument for rock 'n' roll.

From an emotional standpoint, I love the mounting despair, peaking with Lennon's primal Yoko-like scream during the third verse. And then the looping three-minute outro with mounting white noise: fuck me. Still sometimes just sucks me in, man. Though I've never played Abbey Road on vinyl, what an astounding way to end Side 1. It has to be one of the greatest end-of-Side-One songs in rock history.

Album: Help!

The world's most covered song? Probably. My favorite McCartney song? Probably.

Like many of my favorite songs, this one is oozing with melancholia. Although the song doesn't feel like McCartney was thinking of someone specific, the sense of loss he conveys feels genuine.

And score one for the power of dreaming! Like Keith Richards' riff for “I Can't Get No (Satisfaction),” “Yesterday” was a melody that McCartney awoke with.

3. Across the Universe
Album: Let It Be

If The Jesus came back, slinging a six string, I think he might have written this song.

According to Wikipedia, music critic Richie Unterberger said “Across the Universe” was "one of the group's most delicate and cosmic ballads.” What a succinct way to describe this song—a cosmic ballad. The 5th Beatle, George Martin, did a masterful job recording this song. Lennon's vocals sound spacey, and the opening guitar notes sound like a sitar. Although Lennon was unhappy with the recording of the song, in particular the usage of strings, I think it added the feel-good-cosmic feel that makes this song stand out. I think it would have been a good but unspectacular ballad if the production were sparser.

Along with “I Am the Walrus,” this song has some of my favorite Lennon lyrics. In particular, the lyrics, Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind /
Possessing and caressing me are so quintessentially John. To me, the song feels like it could have been his credo, especially the chorus, Nothing's gonna change my world. And when I listen to this song, despite all the ugliness happening out there in the world and being deposited in the Interwebs, the chorus feels like my declaration, too.

2. Because
Album: Abbey Road

I've always been a sucker for a resoundingly sad and beautiful song. “Because” is both. It feels like it acknowledges both the overwhelming beauty and pain that comes with being alive in this world. When I first listened to Lennon sing Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry, I felt a window open. The words, the tone he sung it in made me immediately understand, and it was the first time I can remember any person conveying that feeling. 

1. Here Comes the Sun
Album: Abbey Road

Originally, this was my #2 song on this list. But once I reframed it as if I were asking myself, if you had time to listen to only one more Beatles song, which one would it be?, this George Harrison song sprouted to the top. I wasn't much of a fan of this song when I was younger, but the older I get, the more beautiful and astounding this song seems to become for me.

In reading up about these songs, I discovered that in 2008 NASA transmitted "Across the Universe" in the direction of the star Polaris, using a gigantic antenna outside Madrid, Spain. Although I love that song, I wish they would have transmitted this one instead. If any alien life form picked up the signal, I think this song would be a great example of what beauty we humans are capable of.

Honorable Mentions:
Drive My Car
I'm Only Sleeping (Take One) - from The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 1
Dear Prudence
In My Life
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
Back in the U.S.S.R.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Baker Beach Bliss

photo by Juan Alvarado Valdivia, 2005

The city was scorching, afternoon temperatures reaching the upper seventies (which is considered hot in San Francisco any time of the year). Paola suggested a trip to Baker Beach. She was a sucker for the beach, which I always found endearing. I was still reeling from the horrendousness of her birthday three nights before. I gladly accepted her invitation. I was beyond grateful for it. In the four months we had been together, she had already been witness to three instances in which I drank myself to a state of oblivion. A significant part of me felt I didn’t deserve to have a tranquil afternoon at a beach with my forgiving girlfriend. 

While we drove through the city to Baker Beach in Paola’s sporty Mazda, I felt a sense of peace. Validation. I felt like a mangy mutt, picked from a pound, given another chance to prove it can be a good pet. As she drove, I held Paolita’s hand over the automatic shift. When I looked at her, wearing the big, round sunglasses she often wore, I began to believe I might have finally found the love of my life. Perhaps I had found someone who believed in me so much that she was willing to overlook those mad, drunken incidents? Those eruptions that helped to scare a few women away.

At the beach, Paola and I laid our blanket down among the couples and youngsters that had congregated there. We took off our shirts to bask in the sun. Paola wore a sporty bikini. She asked me to rub sunscreen on her back. I was eager to please. I angled my legs out like a scissor while she sat in front of me. When I finished rubbing the lotion onto her back and shoulders, I leaned over to kiss the back of her neck. She smiled and turned her head. We gave each other a quick peck on the lips. It was the kind of kiss that seasoned couples gave each other before saying something like “Bye honey. I’ll see you at dinner.” 

Sitting side by side, Paola and I surveyed the beach as we ate the burritos we brought. We watched a dog chase a tennis ball into the waves. A boisterous group of hipsters ran about the shore, chucking a spiraling football into a group of their friends. Behind them, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Peninsula loomed, beckoning to be photographed. Once we finished our greasy burritos, Paola and I took out our reading material from my backpack. We read to the sound of the lapping waves.

Though I had slept plentifully the two days before, I fell asleep with my body curled toward Paola. My copy of Bolano’s The Savage Detectives was tucked against my tummy. I awoke with a shiver. A cool wind blew over the beach. Paola was sitting cross-legged, reading The New Yorker. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and asked how long I had been asleep.

“Like half an hour,” Paola said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I felt sluggish instead of re-energized. Must be the chemo, I thought. Finally doing a number on me. I rubbed her back and kissed her shoulder before I put my shirt back on.

“Are you feeling cold?” she said.

“A little,” I said, putting a forearm out to show the hairs that stood. She gave a chuckle.

“You wanna get goin’?”

“Sure, in a little bit. Whenever you want to leave.”

With my arms stretched behind me, I stared past the murky waves to the lush green Marin hillside across the bay. A blanket of gray clouds was blowing in. The beach had become half empty since I fell asleep. People were flapping their blankets free of sand, gathering their empty six-packs.

I turned to Paola and looked at her for a few seconds while she read her magazine. I leaned over and kissed her cheek.

“I love you, sweetheart,” I said.

She smiled.

“I love you, too.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shit I Learned in New York City

me took this picture!

Last week I spent an exhilarating, bedazzling week in New York City reuniting with friends. It was my third trip to one of the world’s greatest cities. (I would argue that it’s the only great metropolis in the United States.) I learned a few things while I was there:

What’s a Suicide drag?
My good friend Chris and I hunkered down at a gay bar in the West Village called Pieces. (We’re still unsure how it got its name.) Around two or three in the morning the karaoke deejay and our emcee—a tall, muscular, irreverent drag queen—announced that they would hold a “suicide drag.” For the next fifteen minutes or so, the deejay played a relentless medley of high-energy dance songs while the limber drag queen proceeded to dance up and down the entire bar as though she was born in three-inch heels. It was quite a performance.

Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” has intricate verses
After one too many gin and tonics I said fuck it, I’m singing “Unbreak My Heart.” If you heard the song a thousand times like I did during my formative junior high years, how can you possibly forget the chorus? But even before I stepped on the stage to sing in an overly dramatic and awful Eastern European (or Russian?) accent I suspected the verses would be unexpectedly more complex than the chorus; it had been years since I really listened to the song. And boy was I right. I butchered those verses, but I nailed the chorus! (In this regard, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” is a kindred karaoke selection.)

The High Line = lovely
Being the good man he is, my homeboy, J-Oro, told me and my homie, Chris, that The High Line in the Meatpacking District is supposed to be sexy. And it was. If I didn’t need to stock up on DayQuil and cough drops, I think Chris and I would’ve gladly walked the entirety of the High Line.

view from The High Line
Life can sometimes be all about timing, and, it can also be about vantage. While we walked along the former rail tracks, I was amazed at how much more beautiful and interesting the surrounding canyons of buildings and Manhattan skyline appeared a mere twenty-five feet above the ground.

Bleecker Street Pizza Rules!
Being the good man he is, my homeboy, J-Oro, took me to Bleecker Street Pizza last year during my now-annual pilgrimage to NYC. (I’m a fortunate man.) Back then, I didn’t see what the big deal was about their pizza; I thought it was above average but nothing to text home about.

I’ve seen the errors of my ways.

This time around, I ordered a slice of pepperoni. Fuck me it was good. Now I get why their walls are covered with pictures of celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Edward Norton, Steven Tyler (who can probably fit two entire slices in his Sweet-Emotion-singing mouth), and Susan Sarandon.

Dear god, that was the only slice I ate during our three-night stay in the West Village. That feels atrociously blasphemous, man (and now my tummy is displeased with me).

Jimi Hendrix and the Alice in Wonderland Sculpture
Like many tourists, Chris and I wandered all about Central Park. We visited the delightful Alice in Wonderland sculpture on the southeast end of the park. We ended up hanging out there for a half hour in hopes of snapping some pictures without these annoying kids whose parents allowed them to treat the statue like a jungle gym the entire time. Anyway, a few days later, my buddy Justin told me that one of the rejected Electric Ladyland covers was a picture of Jimi, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding at the sculpture. I couldn’t believe it! Observe:

Jimi and The Kids!
Had I known, I would have been hellbent on cradling next to the area where Jimi chillaxed. Oh well—para la proxima.

McSorley’s is My Kind of Place (Even Though I’m Not an Irish Lad)
One of my sweet coworkers encouraged me to check out McSorley’s, the oldest Irish tavern in Manhattan. I’m glad we made it out there. The place still feels authentically historic. It was a bit of a trip to linger in a joint where so many famous dead fuckers, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant Woody Guthrie and my boy, Hunter Thompson, once roamed.

Student ID = invaluable!
After this trip, I have determined that I need to make a counterfeit student ID for myself. I can’t pass on its savings! Por ejemplo, Chris and I snagged two mezzanine tickets to Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love for a total of $54. Without a student ID, the cheapest ticket in the house was $75.

(Oh, and the play was cool. Sam Rockwell was outstanding and I’ve never seen a play with such exceptional usage of lighting.)

The Guy Who Works the Elevators on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building is a Gem
I wanna invite this man to my next party! He was great; he was a white dude in his late forties/early fifties. A bit on the portly side. Sported a classic New York accent. While Chris and I waited in line for the elevator to the observation deck on the 86th floor, this guy worked the lines for VIPs and folks exiting the building. I wish I can remember what he said to this kid in line, but me and Chris were just smitten by his banter. Honestly, I could’ve waited in line a good twenty minutes just watching and hearing this guy work all the tourists.

I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost thirty years and I can tell you that our region just doesn’t produce this kind of charm. Something about old school New Yorkers, man.

We Still Savor Sunsets
Up on the 86th floor observation deck amidst a ring of humans who were also totting photographic equipment, the sun set over New York City. The sky was clear azure. A cool zephyr blew. Chris and I couldn’t have timed our visit to the Empire State Building any better.

As the sun completed its descent, I noticed that the west and south ends of the deck was where most folks congregated. People were taking pictures of one another and the sunset with their digital cameras or cell phones. A few snapped pictures of themselves with a selfie stick. 

Despite our technological advances, despite the awkward human behavior it has helped to induce in recent years, we’re still a species that is mesmerized by a gorgeous sunset. That made me smile while I took pictures of people taking pictures of themselves. Many of us seem to be in a rush to become a cyborg, but we’re still human inside.

Hearing Old People Curse is Beautiful
This realization started back on my JetBlue flight into JFK. I sat beside an adorable man in his late seventies. (Once our plane was airborne, not before, but after, he put a blue beret over his peanut of a head. I thought it was one of the cutest things I've seen lately.) During our flight, I believe his wife accidentally cranked up the volume on his headphones when she rested her elbow on his armrest with the control console. “Ah, man. This fucking thing!” he said in response. I had to turn toward the window so he couldn't see me giggling.

And then, as Chris and I gallivanted about Manhattan, we overheard several elders—men and women—curse during their conversations. Maybe it's me, but every time I heard them curse it made me smile. It was nothing crude; it was just their typical banter—and I loved it.

Here in the Bay Area—unless I'm hanging out in the wrong places—you just never hear old folks curse amongst themselves in public. Never. And it's a shame. Old folks around here just seem too PC and polite for my taste. 

Strand’s is the bomb!
self-portrait at The Strand
¡Dios mio! The Strand on 12th and Broadway IS ASTOUNDING! “18 miles of Books” sounds about right. It blows City Lights Bookstore out of the water like Chief Brody’s bang-up job on the great white in Spielberg’s Jaws. The only bookstore I’ve seen in my life that is in the same universe in terms of size and fucking awesomeness is Powell’s in Portland.

Speaking of Bombs, Beef Stroganoff Induces Potent Gas
The beef stroganoff at Veselka is so damn good but man I think it gave me the toots. If man ever creates a methane-powered miniature rocket ship, fuck man, I think I can chow down on some righteous beef stroganoff and power myself to the moon with the rank power of my subsequent farts!

I have now visited both parks designed by the great landscape architect. Although I'm more familiar with Central Park, I humbly disagree with Olmsted. 

Gowanus—which sounds like a destitute island with unfriendly apes—is a Superfund Site!
So says my homeboy, J-Oro. And rumor is the Gowanus Canal has tested positive for the clap.


Picasso in Manhattan
How fucking bad-ass is Manhattan in its totality? Oh, they happen to have a Picasso sculpture tucked away between a few nondescript apartment towers off of Bleecker Street near Washington Square. In places like Amsterdam you have to go out to their municipal park to behold a Picasso sculpture. In Manhattan—if you’re a resident of NYU’s Silver Towers—you get to see it every time you step out of your apartment. Ho hum.

Houston Street is pronounced “How-ston” Street

The Magician on the Lower East Side = awesome!

The Magician
My last night in New York I raged with my friends Justin and Navani out in Manhattan. We stumbled upon this wonderful dive bar. The bartender was a good dude. After we left at closing time, the bouncer stepped out to hand me my camera which had slipped out of my jacket. (That would have been a vacation-ruiner.) The bar has an actual jukebox instead of one of those piece-of-shit Internet ones—and it has good shit.

That was one of the funnest nights out I’ve had in years. Sure, the surroundings have to be conducive but, of course, it really comes down to the company ye keep.

Ditmas Park is Where I Would Live in Brooklyn
A few years ago, I stayed in Ditmas Park during my first trip to The Big Apple. I really dug the quiet neighborhood then and I still love it today. The houses are beautiful. The lush canopy cover along the sidewalks makes for cozy walks. The neighborhood is a hop, skip and train away from more lively neighborhoods. It’s like being in the periphery of a mosh pit—or my kind of place.

I’ve Got a Lot of New-York-based Films to Watch
Before the trip, it began to dawn on me that there are a lot of films shot in New York due for a re-watch—films like Taxi Driver, The 25thHour (I think it’s Spike’s best film), Kids (even for me this film is fucked up), Goodfellas, Eyes Wide Shut and Rosemary’s Baby. After hanging with my peeps in NYC and reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I’ve got some films I haven’t seen to add to the burgeoning NYC queue: The French Connection, Paris is Burning, The Warriors (Time Out has this neat list of their top 100 New York films), Midnight Cowboy (one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite films), and Escape from New York.

For my homeboy, Chris, Taxi Driver is his New York film. I don’t have one but I’m leaning toward Bad Lieutenant right now but that’s because my taste for films can be aptly described as Fucked Up.

How It Feels to Get Trapped in an Elevator 
Cross that off the list of firsts this year along with picking up my first hitchhiker! And this is what it feels like to get trapped in an elevator:

Chris after we realized we were trapped.
Waving to Strangers Remains My Favorite New Hobby—and I’ve Got to Continue it
A few months back, my sweetheart and I went to Monterey for a weekend getaway. We hit up Lovers Point Park overlooking the surrounding bay. A few kayakers paddled out into the Pacific. I was feeling particularly playful that afternoon so on a whim I waved to one of the kayakers. Mari says they waved back even though I spaced out and didn’t see them. But that’s where this whole waving-to-strangers-from-far-away began and it’s been cool. I’ve picked my spots but, to my delight, I think everyone has waved back.

I got to try it out on the East Coast for the first time when Chris and I romped around Central Park. We were by The Lake where folks paddle about in rowboats. We honed in on a boat with a young couple; the young lady rowed while her boyfriend or friend or brother was consumed with texting on his phone. Chris and I thought this was a major party foul but I waited until he raised his head. When he looked in our general direction, I waved to him and he waved back. It was thrilling! And validating. Yes, I exist, and you exist! We’re alive, buddy, and look what we have to look around at!

I waved back to him just to make sure that he knew that I was indeed waving to him and that I wasn’t some cynical hipster scum. He waved back again. I thought I could see a smile on his face. I know I was.

Thanks to my friends, I carry a treasure trove of beauteous moments from this pilgrimage, but that random moment with a stranger was one of them, too. And it was free and sincere.

The Pond, Central Park (that's the dude I waved to)