RIP Prince, One Year On

“It’s really hard to watch other musicians, because you tend to — you know, it’s like a painting you want to make straight or whatever. You just hear music like you hear it. It doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t of merit. I just hear music different, that’s all.”
— Prince, on The Arsenio Hall Show, March 5, 2014

And lucky us, we got to eavesdrop on a little bit of how Prince heard music, in the form of all the amazing songs and performances he gave us.

After Prince’s death last year, a whole host of homages sprung up all over the place. In addition to the inevitable concerts and articles and murals, people showed their love in more unusual ways as well. A couple that I came across were based in the Midwest from which Prince came.

prince crop art

Prince crop art at the Minnesota State Fair, 2016


prince christmas lights park ridge

Prince homage in a Christmas lights display in Park Ridge, Illinois

Prince is dead. Long live Prince.

A Stroll through Montparnasse Cemetery

The famous cemetery in Paris is Père Lachaise, the largest in the city limits and the final resting place for Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, among others. I didn’t make it out there on my recent trip to Paris, but I did visit Montparnasse Cemetery, which is about a 20-minute walk from Luxembourg Gardens, in the 14th arrondisement. It’s split into neat sections by broad avenues, and the whole thing is surrounded by a tall wall, so it’s a nice little respite from the bustle of the city outside.

My friends and I tried to reconcile the two maps provided, which used different labeling systems, and in the end we managed to visit each of the graves we’d hoped to see. We went through and paid homage to some great artists.

montparnasse cemetery paris

Man Ray (it reads ‘unconcerned, but not indifferent’ — quite a way to look at your own death)

montparnasse cemetery paris

Charles Baudelaire (yes, people left flowers, notes, and poems)

montparnasse cemetery paris

Samuel Beckett (so plain a tombstone that it took us several passes to find it)

montparnasse cemetery paris

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (I was surprised to find them sharing a grave, although I don’t know why that would be)

And then I witnessed possibly the most French thing ever: two men drank beers and played Serge Gainsbourg songs next to his grave, the quiet guitar and plaintive accordion echoing through the quiet cemetery on a Friday afternoon.

RIP David Bowie

Ten years to the day before I was born, the album Aladdin Sane was released; David Bowie’s lightning bolt was burned into my soul from the very beginning. When I heard on Monday that Bowie had died, I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant. I’d never even considered the possibility that he might be anything other than immortal.

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

I went to an impromptu dance party/singalong/wake on Monday night. Bowie was born in Brixton, the London neighborhood I live in, and a few years ago someone painted a mural of Bowie’s face on an alley wall near the Tube. After the news of his death, people turned it into a shrine, leaving flowers, notes, mementos. By the time I arrived at 10pm, the offerings were piled high, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I came across one woman in tears, who asked if she could hug a kindred spirit. I hugged her and told it her it was all right, the Starman had just ascended, which made her smile.

RIP David Bowie

The Ritzy, Brixton's cinema

The Ritzy, Brixton’s cinema

Because of course Bowie was an alien, he told us so himself. He was a starman, an oddity from outer space. He dressed in outlandish costumes and sang of strange worlds. He relished his position as outsider and invited everyone to join him in these new worlds of glam rock, Berlin electro-pop, and all the others.

Granted, after Ziggy Stardust he was wildly popular, hardly an outsider in terms of who was listening to him and how much money he was making. Bowie knew that, and never for a moment was he unaware of his PR or his image. You have to be calculating to be a real star. But as much as he wanted to make money and become known through his image (and what artist wants to remain unknown?), Bowie was also just interested in image creation in its own right. He was hugely into fashion, and how his look and his sound went together. He studied mime, read up on kabuki, hired cutting-edge fashion designers, watched avant garde theater, envisaged elaborate stage shows for his tours. He enjoyed so many aesthetics, and played endlessly with new looks, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, seeing what fit him in certain moods, how he felt like presenting himself at any given time.

Iman's makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural--obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

Iman’s makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural–obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

The next day

The next day

For me, when I was growing up as a fat girl in the American Midwest, I tried to say that appearances didn’t matter, that the only thing worth seeing about a person is what’s on the inside. I wanted to forget all about how I looked, what I wore, how I presented myself, because I felt ungainly and undesirable. The more I saw of Bowie’s photos and videos, the more I came to understand that you shouldn’t care what others think of your appearance, but that your appearance should matter to you, for your own enjoyment.

Dress how you feel, wear whatever makes you feel alive. If you feel like a starman, put on that glitter jumpsuit. If you feel like a lounge lizard, bust out the fedora. The idea that you could have fun with what you wore and how you presented to the world excited me, even if it took me a long time after my teenage years to try it out myself.

Goblin King, 2009

Goblin King, 2009

I often bore people at parties by listing the different Bowie personas I’ve taken on for Halloween: Ziggy Stardust, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (complete with an entourage of Sarah and Hoggle), elder statesman of rock with my boyfriend in drag as Iman. Taking on those personas, which are after all personas that Bowie himself put on, is layering my admiration of him with my desire to mess with gender. It’s also another way for me to perform, and be loud, which I enjoy. When I’m dressed as Bowie, I have a lot of wonderful conversations with people who are also fans. Any time I’m in a Bowie getup, everyone is very friendly; people respond to that joyful expression.

Ziggy Stardust (with original tour makeup!), 2008

Ziggy Stardust (with makeup as it was done on the original tour!), 2008

Even better is that I look pretty much nothing like him (I’m always joking that some year I’ll dress all in white and go as the Thin White Duke, just to watch people squirm when they ask who I am). I’m not sure what Bowie would think about my very homemade, very large costumes when he was always so immaculately turned out. I’d like to think he’d say something like, ‘Go on with yer fat self, babe.’

In 2013, the Bowie-authorized David Bowie Is… exhibit opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. My parents immediately bought me a ticket as a birthday present. It was a fascinating exhibit, an integration of sound and vision, as you wore headphones that picked up on Bluetooth signals around the room, so when you were in this area reading about the surprise hit that was “Space Oddity,” you were hearing that, and when you walked over here to read about his influences, John Coltrane’s sax wailed in your ears.

At the David Bowie Is... exhibit

At the David Bowie Is… exhibit

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

It’s no secret that Bowie’s influences are varied and wide, including German philosophers, Japanese designers, American musicians, British authors, French artists, and many more. He was a voracious learner, and he enjoyed sharing what he’d learned with others. This wide-ranging interest applied to fellow artists as well. He was always seeking out new sounds, and he generously boosted the profile of musicians he enjoyed. He did this throughout his career, at least as recently as singing with Arcade Fire when they were just breaking big.

That’s another aspect to him that some see, that he would just pick at the parts of other artists’ work that he enjoyed and suit it to his own needs. But unlike some artists who cannibalize what they claim to love, I can’t think of any instance of Bowie diminishing what he borrowed from. He approached art and expression with real enthusiasm but also an almost detached air, like an engineer who wants to put things together in various combinations until he finds the one that best does what he wants to do. Bowie took elements of soul, jazz, rock, and pop, and played with those combinations over the course of his 50-year career.

I love that he was so interested in other artists. I know too many musicians and writers who don’t do much listening or reading to others, which means they’re drawing from a very small pool of their own experiences and ideas when they create. Bowie drew from an entire ocean of artists, which is surely one of the reasons we love him so much: his sound is fuller, more complex and interesting, than artists who don’t paddle out of their comfort zone.

Brixton sidewalk

Brixton sidewalk

Bowie’s songs are all about isolation, loneliness, fear, trying to understand what we’re doing here and trying to connect with others (as he himself has said). Because after all, Bowie wasn’t an alien, he was very human, singing in his sweet, thin tenor about our human hopes and woes. He created art as a way to be in this world, and as a response to it. He wrote, sang, played instruments, danced, acted, choreographed, drew, painted, directed–there was always something to create, a new way to re-order the information in the world, a different key to express himself in.

I have always loved Bowie for the major creative force he was. He approached the world with curiosity, a healthy amount of cynicism, and most beautifully, with joy and love. His songs are all about reaching out to others, and the nearly unbridgeable gap between yourself and any other person in the world, but I never quite got the sense that he considered the task impossible. Even in an absurd and often terrible world, there’s music to be made. So I think that’s what we must do. We must name our fears, we must put them into songs and poems and films, we must share them with one another. If we’re lucky, we’ll find some of that same wonder and tenderness that David Bowie showed us.

Oh no love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone…
Gimme your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful

Keith Moon Is Turning Over in His Grave


The actual line in the song is “Hope I die before I get old,” for fuck’s sake. My feelings on this are complicated because of course Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have continued touring well beyond middle age, never mind while in the blush and fury of youth, and some of their later stuff is great, and I loved seeing them in concert in 2002, when they undoubtedly rocked.

But still. This shirt. It’s all the smugness and sellout commercialism of the Boomers in one t-shirt. Burn it to the ground.

David Bowie is…: Happy Belated Birthday to Me

Hey, remember when I did this?

Ziggy Stardust, sans Spiders

Ziggy Stardust, sans Spiders

And this?

Jareth, Goblin King, from "Labyrinth"

Jareth, Goblin King, from “Labyrinth” — tempting Sarah to join my world

I’m a big David Bowie fan, so when my mom saw that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was having a special exhibit approved by the man himself, she knew she’d found my birthday present. It was such an anticipated exhibit that when I looked for tickets in March, all of April, May, and June had sold out. I actually changed some of my plans just so I could be in London for today, July 11, to see this exhibit.

I don’t know all his music well (the Berlin period is one I really want to dive into more), and I don’t like everything he’s done (let’s not ever speak of the “Dancing in the Streets” video), but I find Bowie fascinating. He’s always trying something new, in a combination of original and appropriated ideas that no other musical artist has perfected quite as well, and he makes some damn fine tunes.

I wish you all a Bowie-filled day, whether that means “Suffragette City” or “Heroes” or “Queen Bitch” or “Golden Years” or “Ashes to Ashes” or “The Next Day.” Now I’m off to see how a Gucci-sponsored exhibit called “David Bowie is…” presents the man and the music.

Detroit: The Motown Museum is Where It’s At

It took a little wheedling, but I convinced my friends that we could postpone our river walk until after we’d visited the Motown Museum. We were in Detroit for a short 48 hours, so every moment counted, and the warm, sunny day beckoned. But after we’d been on the tour and stepped out into the sunlight, we all agreed that we’d made the right decision. Because let me tell you, dearest fellow travelers, the Motown Museum is fantastic.

The house that Gordy built

You can only visit the museum on a tour, which lasts 45 minutes and costs $10. Worth it! About 20 of us gathered in front of a dynamic young woman who explained to us that Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, bought a total of 8 buildings on this residential street (and later a building downtown) in order to house his growing empire. We were standing in one of those, an administrative building, and later on the tour we’d go next door to the white-and-blue two-story that started it all.

We watched a short video full of hit songs and former Motown employees talking about the beginnings of the business. I liked that they confined the interviews to people who talked about their own legacy, rather than outside music critics or even non-Motown artists waxing poetic about the people and sounds that influenced them. There’s enough of that out there, and fair enough, I’m just another white girl who claims Motown music for a big part of her own history. It’s only right that the museum give the airtime to the people who made it all happen.

Berry Gordy was many things: Clearly, you can see he was a looker. He was also a boxer until he decided that girls wouldn't go for a man with too many scars. He served in the Korean War and wrote songs for Jackie Wilson; getting paid pennies for those songs convinced his pal Smokey Robinson that Gordy needed to start his own company in order to keep the money he earned.

The legacy that the people in the video were careful to emphasize was that of a “positive sound.” One person said they changed the world with love and respect, “without making a big deal of it.” They “changed hearts with music and hope.” (Of course there was a lot of change going on in the ’60s, and more radical forms of protest were necessary to bring about important reforms, sure. But great music that everyone could come together for was a crucial part of those changes. Don’t knock the power of music.)

After the video, we went upstairs and our guide told us the secret to the Motown sound. She stood under a part of the ceiling that had been cut away, which created an echo effect. She sang some familiar songs–Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes–and had us sing along. Luckily, we were in a boisterous group and everyone sang along loudly. It’s no fun to be on an interactive tour if no one’s going to interact.

We wandered around the gallery upstairs, checking out the photos and gold records on the walls, and the special exhibit on Marvin Gaye, which included some of the outfits he wore on stage. Also, a fedora and white glove donated by Michael Jackson, yes! One wall was plastered with album covers. Our guide told us that when they were first starting out, they were careful not to put the artists’ pictures on the covers (can’t cross over if the white audiences won’t even pick up the record), and then when they were hugely popular their faces were all over those album covers, and then when they were promoting some white artists like Teena Marie, those artists’ faces weren’t on the covers because the label was too well-known for having black artists! What a bizarre world we live in.

After all this, we went downstairs and next door to the original house. Everything was left pretty much just as it was up until Gordy moved the whole operation to LA in 1972 (the tour did gloss over what a loss this was for the beleaguered city of Detroit), so when Gordy’s sister opened up the museum in 1985, a lot of it was already there. The front desk that Martha Reeves answered phones at before graduating from secretary to performer; the candy machine that always had Baby Ruths three in from the right so Stevie Wonder could find his favorite candy; the scrap paper with running card game scores. And in the back: Studio A.

the original garage band music

I just about grabbed onto something to keep from fainting when we entered Studio A. I’ve been to a lot of historical sites in my various travels, and some of them hit me hard while others have little impact. This was one of those places that took hold of me right away. Studio A is where all the Motown hits up til 1972 were recorded. For the entire 1960s, it was open pretty much 24 hours a day. The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, not to mention the Funk Brothers and other musicians who made those voices sound as good as they did. They all stood in this small room–a converted garage, which had a dirt floor for the first couple years of recording–and made the music that we all know by heart. It was a little overwhelming.

All the original instruments are in there. The control room still has grooves in the floor from when producers would pound their feet to the beat. A few pictures taken in the room show you how crowded it got with artists, producers, and writers. Our guide led us all in a verse of “My Girl” and had us do the Temptations dance (you know, the snapping your fingers in a swinging motion from side to side, then a little fancy spin if you have it in you). And then boom, it was over, through the gift shop and back out into the sunlight. Into the world that owes a lot to that small house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.

Yeah, that's the Temptations dance I was talking about. Being done to great effect by my friends and me.

Images 1 and 4 mine. Image 2. Image 3.

Hometown Tourist: The Lyric Opera

Hometown Tourist is a series that hears that chipper tip, “be a tourist in your hometown!” and says, “Okay!” When friends come to visit, I like to show them a combination of standard tourist spots and the neighborhood places they’d never know to look for. Why not write about all those places? If you have suggestions on Chicago places you’d like to see covered for Hometown Tourist, add it in the comments.

For the inaugural Hometown Tourist post, I thought I’d start classy: the Lyric Opera. “Ugh, Lisa,” I hear you all groan. “How boring! And overpriced!” But dearest fellow travelers, let me assure you that it is not boring! And it doesn’t have to be too expensive! I’ve seen three operas at the Lyric over the past five years, and I’ve never spent more than $75 on a ticket. That’s no pocket change, sure, but it’s maybe twice what you’d pay for a show at The Riv, and no one will be spilling beer on you or elbowing past for a better view of the stage here.

The Civic Opera House in Chicago

As to the boring part: I was raised on a lot of different kinds of music, but opera wasn’t one of them, so it’s not like I have an ear for it. But the tunes are stirring and the singing is powerful stuff. When I saw Aida on Tuesday, there were a few moments during Hui He’s solos that actually caused me to catch my breath, they were so lovely. The stories are never too hard to follow, so even when they’re told in Italian or German, they’re easy enough to follow. The emotions expressed onstage would be overblown if they were spoken in a play, but they take on more gravity in song form, and it becomes clear that the only way to truly express love or heartbreak is to devote an aria to it.

Right, so: opera can be riveting stuff, and it can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. Where do you go to see opera? In Chicago, there are a few companies that put on shows, but the biggest, most established one is the Lyric Opera. They have their own building on the Chicago River, and it is beautiful. It was built in 1929, and when they renovated it from 1993 to 1996, they kept the Art Deco style. This means that not only are you classing it up by going to the opera, you are classing it up flapper-style. What more could you ask for?

The theater seats almost 3,600 people, and when my friend Hannah and I were there on Tuesday, it looked to be just about sold out. On a Tuesday night! That’s a lot of music and theater lovers in Chicago, which warms my artsy heart.

That's a lot of aria appreciators

Where is it: Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive, on the northwest corner of Madison and Wacker

When to go: Weekday shows are cheaper, straight up. If you have a job that isn’t 9-5, they even have matinees, which are much cheaper. The season runs October through April, and show runs overlap.

What to see: Whatever your heart desires! If you wait past opening night, you can read reviews and see if something sounds particularly good. For example, Show Boat is getting raves this year. The only downside to this strategy is that tickets will be few and far between by the time the show run starts.

Cost: Tickets range from $35 to $200. Full-time students can get $20 tickets to some shows.

Some practical tips:

  • Unless you are an opera buff, you probably aren’t familiar with the various shows. (I definitely am not.) Do a little research beforehand; I always thought of opera as solos alternating with big choral numbers, so I was disappointed that Tristan und Isolde never had more than six people on stage at once. I listened to clips of operas before buying tickets this season, and found that Aida had a lot of choruses, so I went with that one. (And it did not disappoint. There were easily over 100 people on stage at one point on Tuesday, including dancers who really livened things up during the instrumental portions of the show.)
  • They are obsessive about starting on time here, so do not be late! The ushers will shut you out until intermission if you are late, so give yourself enough time to float elegantly up the stairs to your seat.
  • Speaking of seating, unless you’re shelling out, you’re probably going to be in either the First or the Upper Balcony. Try to get a seat closer to the front of the balcony, because it can get pretty claustrophobic at the back, with the balcony above crowding in on you and the rows of people in front of you partially obstructing your view of the stage. In fact, the Upper Balcony is less claustrophobic, so if you are looking at seats in the back of the Upper Balcony versus seats in the back of the First Balcony, I’d recommend going against instinct and choosing the Upper Balcony seats. You’ll get a clearer view and save money, too!

Oh look, I made a 30-second video of Tuesday’s trip to the opera.

Image 1. Image 2.

Valentine’s Day Mix (Not Mine)

Dearest fellow travelers, I had every intention of creating a Valentine’s mix for you again this year, but every time I went to Grooveshark it crashed on me. We are talking through it and expect to emerge stronger than ever on the other side, but for now it’s a difficult time. So in lieu of my Motown-heavy list, might I direct you to The Rejectionist’s indieriffic playlist? (The Rejectionist is a stellar writer and also, as it turns out, a good DJ.)

It’s manufactured, it’s silly, but Valentine’s Day can also be a time to smile more at the people you love, and that’s always a good thing.

It’s a day late, but of course I wish you the best Galentine’s Day too. Leslie 4evah.

Valentine's Day blurry hearts


Playing for Change

Several months ago, the video “Stand by Me” went viral, and the eyes of many all over the world welled up with tears at the sight of musicians all over the world playing the same song, separated by distance but united by song. Turns out the organization that distributed that video, Playing for Change, has been busy making many more such videos, touring the United States with some of the featured musicians, and starting up a foundation to build music schools in communities worldwide. The snazzy website features some fun and some touching videos, like “One Love,” “La Tierra del Olvido,” “Satchita,” and “Gimme Shelter.” And at first I was a little wary of the whole operation.

“Good grief, Lisa, will you never just be satisfied with a good thing when you see it?” I hear you asking. And the answer is no, I will always want to look critically at an organization to find its shortcomings, so that I can 1) be fully aware of what efforts I’m supporting, and 2) be in a position to offer constructive criticism to that organization. Mostly, I saw the artists page, which looks like this:

And then I saw the crew page, which looks like this:

And I thought, “Uh oh, white people, what are you doing?”

Because we are so terrified of being called racists that we won’t even talk about racism in this country, white Americans are sorely uneducated about their own privilege and what they can do about it. This leads to a whole lot of nastiness on the more conservative side of the spectrum, and well-meaning condescension of the “let us tell you how to fix your life” variety on the liberal side. None of which goes very far toward mending race relations in the US.

Granted, the whole aim of this project is to go global, to not be confined to the United States. But look at that crew, and the founder, and the company that owns their for-profit arm; they’re all white folks who are likely living a pretty comfortable lifestyle. Contrast that with the artist pages, which shows many people of color in small, poor villages, and maybe you can see why I’m wary of the relationship.

But after I looked into the site more and saw more videos about the foundation, I’m happy to say I think there’s much more good than harm going on here.

Saving the world is a wonderful goal, of course, so long as you’re aware that you can’t do it on your own or all your way. Fortunately, PFC seems to get this. They hold a passionate belief that music is a uniting force that can and will bring peace to the world. They find musicians who share the same belief, and they work together to put the ideal into practice.

Their foundation came about from asking some of the musicians who came from poorer backgrounds, “What can we do to help?” Not “you should do this” — a crucial difference. It was the musicians who said they wanted to schools to teach the next generation how to make music and be a force for peace. The people of Kirina in Mali took the money and supplies provided and built their own school; no outsider crusaders doing it for them and expecting gratitude. This is the kind of assistance — monetary, material, non-invasive — that activists the world over consistently say is the best, most sustainable kind. Kudos to PFC for getting that right.

Everyone involved in the project is devoted to the idea that music can and must be a force for good in the world, that the act of creating music is a unifying one. I absolutely agree, and it’s encouraging to watch thousands of musicians, videographers, editors, villagers, and audience members from all corners of the earth enthusiastically supporting this idea. Check out the participation page on the PFC site to see how you can support an organization supporting the work of musicians and peacemakers all over the world.

And enjoy the music.