Saturday, October 31, 2015

Little Sleep in Big China

I've been back from China for a couple of weeks now, which has been enough time to finally decompress, get reacclimated to my home and work lives, and get my body adjusted after the jet lag. It's been a hectic couple of weeks to say the least but I now have time to write about my trip and my thoughts on the entire experience. Since there's a lot to go over, I figured I would break this post into segments to make it a bit more palatable from a reading point of view. Also, I took a lot of pictures over the course of the trip, so I apologize in advance for slow loading times on your computers!

The Travel: When I left off in my previous post, I was sitting in the business class lounge at the Toronto airport killing time during my long layover before the flight to Shanghai. When it was time to get on the plane, I was able to board first since I was flying business class. What an experience! On Air Canada, each seat is its own individual "pod" and there are four rows in the cabin at the front of the plane. all arranged at an angle such that you get the entire section to yourself. It was plenty long to stretch my legs out fully, which at 6'5" is not an easy feat on a plane! There was an ottoman, plenty of space, a TV with loads of movies and TV shows to choose from, and lots of extra amenities. The second I sat down, a flight attendant put a glass of champagne in my hand. They handed out travel kits that had slipper-socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer and lotion, and more. Hot towels were passed out shortly after takeoff and again before landing, and the seat was able to be reclined for maximum comfort during the flight, which was great when I was reading or watching something. Even better for a guy who has never been able to sleep sitting upright on airplanes, the seat reclined completely flat so that I could actually get some sleep! On the flight over, I was able to take two three-hour catnaps...not great, but better than usual. The meals on the flight were great and the food and drink just kept coming; whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, was available...all you had to do was ask. The flight to Shanghai took about 14 and 1/2 hours and we landed at 3pm Shanghai time. As we started our descent, I really started to get anxious since we were finally arriving in China. The flight attendants handed out Chinese entry and departure cards that we had to fill out. Once we landed, I got off of the plane and made my way down the tunnel to the I looked out of the window and onto the streets below, it finally hit me: "Wow, I'm in China!"

Barely in my seat and they gave me champagne!

I could stretch out...not typical for 6'5"guys on airplanes!

When I got to Chinese customs and immigration, I won't lie...I was quite intimidated. There were so many people and the lines were long. Luckily, all of the airport personnel spoke passable English and there were a lot of Westerners mixed in with the native Chinese so I didn't feel completely out of place. I eventually got up to the window and handed my passport and entry card to the agent, who looked it over, stamped it, and took my photo so they could match it when I left the country. After getting my suitcase at baggage claim and going through customs, I exited the airport and arrived to the main foyer. Now, I had been told by the conference organizers that transportation would be arranged and all I had to do was look for someone holding a sign with my company's logo on it...sounds easy enough, right? Well, nothing could have prepared me for the absolute crush of people standing behind the barriers on both side holding up signs and speaking in Chinese. As I walked down the long aisle, I started getting more and more nervous as I could not see any signs with our logo on it, I was getting near the end, and I didn't have any cell phone service (not that it would've mattered since I didn't have a number I could have called anyway). Finally, about 3/4 of the way down the line I saw a small piece of paper being held up with our logo on it. I rushed over and was greeted by two of the event staff who handed me off to a driver. He grabbed my suitcase and motioned for me to follow him. Once in the hired car, we started to drive through the insane traffic exiting Pudong Airport to make our way to the hotel.  I tried to make small talk with the him, but my first question was met with a response of "no...English" so I settled in for the silent forty-five minute drive. The landscape was similar to any urban sprawl you can see in the US but at the same time quite different. What was more striking to me were the areas of affluence right on top of areas of abject poverty. And the thing I noticed about Shanghai over the entire week was the construction going on EVERYWHERE, and at all hours of day and night. On my first night at the hotel, I met up with a few of my group members for dinner on an outside patio, and we heard a building being a knocked down a few blocks almost ten o'clock at night.

My hotel room

View from my window...the smog...

A reminder that this wasn't like back home...

Chinese Coke, Sprite, and other drinks

Oreos in China

A Snickers bar in China

As for jet lag, I suffered really badly for the first three or four nights. There was a full twelve hour time difference from back home so my body was thrown completely off. I had a hard time staying awake past 9pm most nights but was then wide awake by 1am or 2am with no hope of going back to sleep. It got so bad that I would be falling asleep sitting at a table during a symposium in the middle of the day...luckily I found I wasn't alone as all of my colleagues from the US were having the same issues. It wasn't until the Wednesday night of that week when I was finally worn out enough that I managed to sleep from 11pm to 5am. Of course, once I adjusted for the rest of the week, it was time to go back home on Saturday afternoon. The one good thing about the twelve hour time difference was that it made it easy for my wife and I to set up times to FaceTime so that I could talk to her and the kids. Their minds were blown when I would be talking to them at breakfast time (for me) and they were getting ready to go to bed the night before!

As for traveling back to the US, I took a hired van with three of my groupmates to the airport after we had lunch at a burger bar (no joke) near our hotel. (As an aside, the burger place was...excellent! All organic Australian beef and while I had no expectations of having a decent burger in China, I was blown away by this one). After checking my suitcase and going through security, I proceeded to the business class lounge with the other member of our group who was also flying business so that we could relax, have a snack, and use the (much) cleaner restrooms before it was time to board (our flights departed within fifteen minutes of each other). This time I was flying United Airlines back to the US and the business class cabin was set up differently but I liked it better. This time, there were rows of two "pods" but they were even more spacious and comfortable than what I had on the way to Shanghai. To make it even more bizarre, I started chatting next to the fellow I was seated next to and it turns out not only was he from Massachusetts, but his sister lives in the same town as my parents. Add in the fact that I overheard the Chinese fellow behind me say that he was a chemist who commutes to Boston regularly for work and it was a very strange coincidence that I sat where I did surrounded by those two people! The flight was VERY smooth...I slept four hours, I watched two movies: the new Who documentary "Lambert and Stamp," which was excellent, and "This is Spinal Tap," a movie I've probably seen twenty times but still made me laugh so hard that I had to stifle it on the plane, tears running down my face and my sides aching from how funny it still was. 

On the flight back...even roomier!

We made great time on the flight and it was exactly thirteen hours from Shanghai to New Jersey. The only downside to arriving an hour earlier than expected was that my four hour layover before my connecting flight home was now a five hour layover. However, a computer system crash at immigration and customs meant that I had to wait in line for an hour and a half before being officially checked back into the country. At this point I was starving and exhausted, so I went to the business class lounge and killed time there with a cold beer and  a snack before grabbing a quick sandwich for dinner prior to boarding my final flight. Upon landing at home, I got my suitcase from baggage claim, found my limo driver, and valiantly fought to stay away awake on the ninety minute drive home before staggering into my house and falling into bed after 1am Sunday morning. Luckily, after being exhausted all day Sunday, I slept normally that night and was pretty much over the jet lag by Tuesday. Overall, the travel wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be although I do now know that I will only survive a flight that long in business class, if only for the ability to stretch my legs out and lay down during to sleep. I tend to get claustrophobic on planes if I'm on them for too long and business class certainly mitigated that.

The Conference: There's actually not too much detail I can get into with this since it was an internal research conference and everything that was discussed and presented is proprietary. However, the conference was great and I was able to finally meet a lot of my colleagues from around the world whom I had previously only interacted with over the phone or web conference. I presented my paper and it went very well...I got several compliments from colleagues throughout the week regarding it, which made me feel good especially as I've only been with the company a little over a year.  I also enjoyed all of the talks and symposia I attended during the week, learning a lot and reaffirming that I learn something new every day at this job, especially as I'm a chemist working at a predominantly engineering company.

My only complaint with the conference is that we were virtually trapped in the hotel the entire week. With a full schedule of talks, meals, and symposia, the entire day from 7am to 8pm was booked. Add in that those of us from the US and UK were suffering from severe jet lag (the folks from Europe adjusted easier and those from within China obviously had no problems) and it started to feel like we weren't ever going anywhere outside of the hotel. We even had two business unit outings for dinner on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights there, but they were literally get-on-the-bus-at-the-hotel-and-get-off-the-bus-at-the-restaurant outings which, while fun, didn't give us any feeling for what Shanghai was really like. That would have to wait until the final two days of my trip...

The Hotel and the Food: The conference center was on the 3rd level of the hotel so it was very convenient. It was a five-star hotel and while it was certainly quite nice, it wasn't the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. I suspect five-stars in China is on a different scale relative to elsewhere. Even at such a nice hotel, we were instructed not to drink any of the water or even brush our teeth with it, and instead only drink or brush with bottled water, of which there was an abundance throughout the hotel. As for the food, all of our meals were prepared by the hotel and spaced out throughout each day of the conference. While overall it was good, it tended to be quite heavy. Even stranger, it was a mix of Chinese and Western food, but skewed more heavily toward the latter. Now, I understand the reason for this as not everyone traveling to Shanghai is as adventurous an eater as I and many others are, but I didn't want to be in China only to eat spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and hot dogs. The Chinese food they did have was quite good and fairly authentic, but after eating the same dishes for a week, I was tired of it. I made up for it as much as I could in my final two days in Shanghai when I actually got to explore the city... 

Spicy stir-fried shrimp and vegetables

An assortment of Chinese dishes...and a Coke

More Chinese food (the duck and cabbage wraps were amazing!)

The City of Shanghai and China in General: Having felt trapped in the hotel all week, I finally got a chance to actually see a bit of Shanghai on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. With the conference ending on Thursday night, the only thing left I had to do for work was to visit one of our facilities on the other side of Shanghai on Friday morning.  Arriving back at the hotel at noon, I met up with five of my colleagues and we decided to go into the city to have lunch and sightsee. One of the most advantageous aspects of our day out was that two of my colleagues, while US citizens working in our California facilities, were both originally from China and spoke the language fluently. This paid huge dividends almost immediately as we were all very hungry and wanted to eat lunch first. After a cab ride to the Yu Gardens/Old City Shanghai section, we made our way up to the famous Nanking Dumpling House restaurant to have a traditional Shanghai meal. The line was ridiculously long and the wait was on the order of hours, but my colleagues who spoke the language managed to talk our way into the VIP room in the back and an all-inclusive meal for a fairly hefty (by Chinese) standards. Even better, they managed to talk them down on the final bill so it ended up being very reasonable, especially given the quality and quantity of the food. Dumplings of every filling, a whole fish (shown to us live in a bag for approval before cooking), soups, vegetables, appetizers, tea, beer...we were absolutely stuffed after eating and I can say that personally it was one of the best meals I've ever had and tied with dinner later that night, which I'll discuss in a bit...

Yu Yuan Gardens in Old City Shanghai

Beautiful although not many people around!

After lunch, we walked through the Yu Yuan Gardens market area, not only for the experience but because a few of us wanted to buy souvenirs for our spouses and kids before heading home the next day. The area was teeming with people, Chinese as well as Western tourists from the US, Europe, and Australia. I managed to get some great gifts for my family: I got my wife a wall-hanging for our new house, my son a traditional Chinese clay flute (a Xun), my youngest daughter a traditional Shanghai costume, my oldest daughter a stuffed panda bear wearing a traditional Chinese shirt and a good-luck panda wall ornament (she loves anything with panda bears), and my second oldest daughter a carved Chinese dragon. What made the experience so much fun is that, through my two colleagues, we were able to barter everything down to get better prices. It certainly felt like many of the merchants were initially thinking they could sucker the American tourists who didn't speak the language (most of the merchants spoke broken English at best) before our colleagues stepped in to haggle over prices. It was an absolute blast and I am forever grateful to my friends and coworkers who helped us out. Beers and meals as repayment have been promised!

Amazing dumplings and a broth-filled mega-dumpling

Shrimp steamed in green tea

Sea bass cooked whole for us...they brought it to us alive in a bag to approve before cooking

You want my Yuan?
That evening, one of my colleagues with whom I'd spent the afternoon with came with me and my boss as we set out for dinner. My boss had lived in Hong Kong off and on for several years when at his previous job and he even speaks and reads Mandarin (a most impressive feat as he's originally from the UK!) so he was a great asset to have in addition to being a great guy. We took the subway to the middle of the city and just walked and walked to see where we would end up. We eventually made our way into the fashion district, which was full of lights and people and night, it reminded me of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Feeling quite hungry, my boss read the sign of a nearby hole in the wall restaurant and told us it was a Cantonese place (Cantonese being the primary language and cuisine of Hong Kong, where not only had he lived but where his wife hails from). Being familiar with the food, he said we should try it, so in we went and up the stairs to a table. We let him order for us and we were not disappointed. What a fantastic meal it was, with pickled cucumbers and sauteed cabbages and leeks for appetizers, barbecue pork and seafood. I also had one of the best non-alcoholic drinks I've ever had with that meal: a concoction of lime sherbet, fresh mint, freshly ground lime, and soda water. It was delicious and refreshing and I'm dying to try my hand at making one here at home!

Amazing Cantonese food (and the legendary lime and mint drink!)

The only other time we went out into the city during the week for dinner was for a group dinner on Tuesday night to the Bund area of Shanghai. The restaurant was excellent but rather strange: an Italian-style farmhouse winery and eatery in the middle of China's largest city! I did get a very nice souvenir for our house: a Chinese fan with our last name written in Chinese calligraphy, done by a very old man who wrote the characters in a very beautiful style. Also, we had dessert and drinks on the roof and the view of the Pudong skyline across the river was breathtaking (although how much of the taking of breath was due to the smog is up for debate). On Wednesday night, we had a group outing to a bowling alley for bowling, billiards, pizza, wings and beer. Being in China, I didn't bowl since there weren't any shoes in my size (I wear a US size 15), so I settled for billiards, beer, and conversation. The pizza was...interesting. Not good, not bad, just...interesting. Ditto the wings.

So smoggy...

The Budweiser of Chinese beer...still, not bad

Chinese pizza and wings were...interesting

As for China itself, the smog that we've all read and heard about was real and it was pretty bad for the first half of the week. By Thursday the skies were clear and beautiful and the air was clean, but earlier in the week it was an issue. Not only did it make the views perpetually hazy, but it burned my nose, sinuses, and throat. Worse than that, I could taste it and it was not pleasant...think of a mix of automobile exhaust and chemicals. Combined with the regular wafts of sewer stench throughout the city, it didn't make for a pleasant experience. When I blew my nose, the tissue was black and I noticed a definite improvement upon landing in New Jersey (yes, New Jersey, which usually stinks in its own right! Go figure.). It was a common site to see Chinese citizens wearing masks around the city and I can only imagine the elevated rates of cancer and respiratory conditions people who live there have compared to here  in America. I hope they can fix their pollution problem (the river looked awful as well) because the landscape is quite beautiful.

The stunning view of the Pudong skyline from the Bund

The Rock and Roll Chemist in the Bund

Fan with our last name written in Chinese

The smog clearing away as the week went on...

Wow! Blue sky!

After a while in Shanghai, it started to feel like any other big city. It wasn't until I would go past one of the imposing government buildings with the red star emblems or would see soldiers guarding the doors dressed in their green uniforms with red stars under a huge Chinese flag when I would remember that I was not in a free country. Combined with the government censoring of the internet, it made for a subtle reminder than for all of the apparent similarities in our freedoms, China is still very different from America. Sure, we joked about not being able to access Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube (among other sites), and many of our Chinese colleagues joined in, but the chilling feeling that you were being monitored was always there. Even when I was texting or FaceTiming with my wife and kids over the hotel wifi, it was in the back of my mind. Shanghai was a great city to visit and I'm sure I'll be back for business in the future, but as with any trip, it was so good to get back home to the USA, to my house, my amazing wife, our beautiful kids, our two cats, and my regular routine. I have more business trips on the horizon...who knows where they will take me? As the adage says, it's not the destination so much as it's the journey, and this is something I've definitely understood more the older I've gotten and the further I've traveled.

1 o'clock in the morning, sneaking in the back door...and this was the best part of the entire trip!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Who Has an Anniversary

Apart from the years 1964-1978, this year is shaping up to be a good one for fans of The Who. The band is celebrating their 50th anniversary (which they date from the release of their first album in 1965...I consider last year to be their 50th as 1964 is when the band's line-up was solidified and their first single, "I Can't Explain," was released) with a pair of new hardbound books. These both have just been released and I got them in right before I left for China a couple of weeks ago. The book on the left is the officially sanctioned history of the band as told by the two surviving members, Pete and Roger. The book on the right is another one published by well-known author Mat Snow. Both are handsome volumes full of black-and-white and color photos on nice glossy paper. For any of my fellow Who fanatics, stay tuned as I will be reviewing these books for the site as soon as I can get to them. Coupled with the rumored released of a new career-spanning box set at the end of the year, this is shaping up to be a great year for fans of this legendary band.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: John Fogerty, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music

John Fogerty, one of the most successful and acclaimed American songwriters of the past fifty years, guided Creedence Clearwater Revival through the late 1960s and early 1970s as they churned out classic record after classic record, blazing a gloriously out-of-step trail of music steeped in early rock and roll, soul, and Americana. Their short stint as the premier American band of their generation was followed by their tragic, almost pathetically bitter and acrimonious split, which has passed into rock lore and continues to this very day, at one point even pitting brother against brother. Hank Bordowitz' excellent biography on the band, Bad Moon Rising, has been reviewed previously on this site, and former CCR schoolfriend and associate Jake Rohrer's memoir, which includes a lot of details on his time working with the band, has been discussed here as well. However, until now there hasn't been a book directly from any of the members of Creedence until John Fogerty's just-published autobiography, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music.  In Bad Moon Rising, the other members of CCR (Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, the estate of Tom Fogerty) spoke with the author, while John did not. John's book now finally gives fans and readers his side of the always-contentious CCR dispute, as well as his take on his post-Creedence career and the incredible highs and lows he hit along the way.

***Thanks to Sarah at Little Brown for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

John begins his story with the most important thing in his life: music. A short introduction has him recalling his mother sharing her love of music and singing with him and how from a small child he was interested in the process that went on behind the music: the writing, the arranging, and the performing. There is, however, a slightly cringe-inducing moment when he claims that his love of soul, blues, and jazz music can be traced back to him having a black baby doll as a child; such slightly odd little moments of candor are sprinkled throughout the book and will be touched upon throughout this review. From here, the book begins the narrative proper with John's birth in 1945 and his childhood growing up in El Cerrito, California during the the 1950s. Interestingly, while the divorce of his parents seems to have loomed large in his psyche, apart from fond memories of family vacations and mentions of some hardships (economic and otherwise) that the family endured during his childhood, this section of the book is almost completely devoid of any mention of his relationships with his four brothers. Indeed, the only two who are mentioned at all are Bob (who has been John's personal assistant since the end of CCR) and Tom (his CCR bandmate, of course), and even then there wasn't much depth. Likewise when he describes his school days, there are lots of anecdotes and memories recalled, but he makes it sound as though he, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford were barely acquaintances during their years in school whereas just about every other book and article on CCR describes them as being good friends from junior high onward. In any event, it's when John gets to 1964 and the band signed with Fantasy Records where the really interesting stuff starts to happen.

John's recollections differ markedly from those of his CCR bandmates and Bordowitz' book regarding how he came to assume his dominant role in the band: John claims it was a mutual decision that allowed him to become the sole songwriter, singer, arranger, producer, and manager of the band, whereas Bordowitz' book and the other band members have claimed that John gave them an ultimatum that he wouldn't work with the band unless they acquiesced to his demands. What's not up for debate is that they were suckered into a horrendous contract and publishing agreement by Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz (more on this in a minute) and that under John's direction, the band went on to churn out classic after classic in a remarkably short period of time without ever seeing any of their earnings. Back to their onerous contract, John throws a new wrinkle into the story by claiming that Stu, whose father Herman Cook was a prominent Bay Area attorney, lied about showing the contract to his dad before the band signed it. All other accounts state that Stu showed it to Herman, but John claims that when asked at the time by the other three members whether he showed it to his dad, Stu paused and then said "...he said it's okay" which John took to mean as a "no." Whatever the truth, it's an interesting and entirely plausible possibility.  This book really excels when John focuses on his songwriting and recording process during his CCR and solo years and when he is able to convey the joy and excitement from those moments when he knew he'd labored away to create something great. It's an almost palpable feeling and really comes across effectively (just read the section on writing "Proud Mary" to see what I mean). However, the CCR years as a whole are depicted almost as though they were a chore or a Herculean labor instead of the heady, halcyon days they were. Tom is spared many of John's barbs during this time; indeed, he spends most of his time lauding the progress of his older brother's rhythm guitar playing and his timing. The targets of his ire, really throughout the entire book, are Stu and Doug. Stu is constantly disparaged as a barely-adequate bass player (which I don't agree with based on my own ears) and a constantly negative and pessimistic personality (which I can believe). Doug is portrayed as a remedial drummer at best (again, I don't agree) and more interested in the trappings of rock stardom than the music itself (again, plausible). I have no issues with John criticizing them or his perceptions of them, but it got to the point where it seemed he was going out of his way to knock them down and honestly, it got old after a while. It also got old when he would follow up every barb with a qualifier like "I hope I don't sound like I'm being mean" or "I know it sounds bad, but it's the truth" (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea).  He had an interesting take on Tom's departure from the band and their final disastrous album as a trio. Regarding the former, he states that had he (John) been the older brother, it wouldn't have bothered Tom that John was the dominant force in the band; regarding the latter, John claims it was Stu and Doug's idea to have each of them contribute 1/3 of the album whereas again, every other account has it being John's ultimatum. The truth, as is usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle but it only highlights what a messy and inglorious end it was for a band whose music was infused with such joy and life...

...and this is where the book starts to get a bit weird. John's firsthand account of his "wilderness years"  in the 1970s when he was literally incapable of writing music is fascinating and good to finally have directly from the source. Tied down in all of the CCR-related animosity, lawsuits, and a crumbling marriage, after a couple of solo albums in the early 1970s he was unable to produce music for the next decade. He spent much of his time in his cabin in Oregon hunting, fishing, and staying out of the music business completely. Finally freeing himself from Fantasy in the early 1980s via a deal of questionable judgement where he gave up all rights to his CCR material (which he later reacquired), he had his major comeback with 1985's Centerfield album before he again stopped making music for another decade before returning for good with 1997's Blue Moon Swamp. It's interesting and telling to note that John admits to being hell-bent on playing every instrument on his albums until Blue Moon Swamp, when he realized there were other people who could play in his band that he could trust to perform as he wanted.  Perhaps this lack of trust in Stu and Doug was at the root of his need to have the ironclad control he had during the CCR days, although he doesn't really go down this road. From the mid-1980s onward in the book, though, the narrative is dominated with John's almost obsessive mentions of his wife Julie, to the point that Julie herself writes half of each chapter after they first meet.  Let me state upfront here that I love my own wife dearly and am thankful every day that I have her in my life, so I can understand John being in a good place in his life now that he's found the right woman. However, he just about crosses into John Lennon/Yoko Ono territory with how all-consuming and omnipresent it is. So much of what he writes about includes references to Julie or somehow a mention of her where she seemingly has nothing to do with the situation he's writing about. The last third of the book, where they alternate paragraphs to give their perspectives, is almost too cloying in its sweetness to be enjoyed. I'm by no means disparaging the love a husband and wife have for each other, and it's a beautiful and blessed thing indeed, but it's so overwhelming that the last sections of the book were a real slog to get through. Julie has been John's manager for the last several years, controlling his image, stage presentation, and musical collaborations (at least according to the book) so I suppose it's understandable, but it just got to be too much. As with Lennon, the problem isn't that Fogerty loves his wife so much...that's commendable and admirable. It's that it's so all-consuming that it crowds everything else out, and that includes self-awareness, the lack of which is one of the most striking things about this book.

This lack of self-awareness manifests itself numerous times throughout the book, with John finding a way to blame almost everything bad that has happened to him on something or someone else. Whether or not it's true in each case, the end result is that he comes off seeming very bitter and petty about slights and events that happened almost half a century ago. The most stunning example of this is when John gets to the debacle that was CCR's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. As everyone knows, after the rather tense speech they all gave, John played the customary concert with Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and others while Stu and Doug sat humiliated and dumbfounded in the audience, barred from joining in onstage. All accounts in the years since have claimed that John sprung this on them at a moment's notice right before they were due to take the stage. John adds a wrinkle to the story saying that he informed them days before that he'd be doing this and that Stu and Doug pretended to be surprised by it so they could go crying to the press about how mean he (John) was. This just doesn't sound plausible in the least, and again, while the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle, it doesn't result in a good look for John, especially as he again rationalizes it by saying that Stu and Doug "only cared about the money, not the music" anyway.

Creedence Clearwater Revival have always been a confusing band in terms of legacy as the joy and excitement their music conveys has always been directly at odds with the acrimony, bitterness, and anger that has continued unabated from their 1972 split to the present day. And so it goes with this book: what should be a joyous celebration of John's life and career, not to mention his musical and marital rebirth, is constantly marked by petty and snide asides directed almost exclusively toward his former bandmates (to be fair, the venom spewed at Saul Zaentz is 100% justified). There's not any one particularly earth-shattering comment made that spoils the book...rather, it's spirit suffers a death by one thousand cuts, each little chipping away until the entire thing becomes quite dour. It's a real shame as the music and the story behind it should be (and is, in the places where the book stays on track) such an interesting and happy one. That being said, this book is still a must-read for any CCR fan and, along with the Bordowitz book, essential in order to have another angle from which to view the whole story. It is, however, also a book that illustrates what is meant when fans are often warned not to learn too much about their heroes. If you're able to separate the person from the art like I am, then this book is an illuminating read (and this is by no means meant to cast aspersions on John Fogerty, who I do believe is, on the whole, a good person) but in totality his book is not the satisfying and affirming read I'd hoped it would be.

MY RATING: 7.5/10

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Robert Plant: A Life

The Golden God, one of the prototypes for just about every hard rock and heavy metal lead singer who has ever strutted across a stage in his wake, Robert Plant is still a slightly mysterious and private person. Certainly more open, less guarded, and not as intensely private as his former Led Zeppelin bandmate and songwriting partner Jimmy Page, Plant is nonetheless an intriguing figure who has spent the bulk of his life and career doing all that he can to distance himself from his old band's legacy, whose music and impact are ironically the very reasons for his current fame and reputation. In Robert Plant: A Life, author Paul Rees has attempted to tell the story of the enigmatic rock icon's life and career from his humble middle-class beginning in the Birmingham area through his halcyon days in Led Zeppelin and his rebirth as a restlessly searching and critically acclaimed solo artist always looking forward as he seemingly keeps his past at arm's length.

Author Paul Rees is a well known music journalist who has interviewed some of the biggest names in rock music over the past thirty years, as well as serving as editor of both Q and Kerrang! magazines. For his Plant book, he drew upon numerous interviews conducted with Plant over the years, as well as more recent firsthand accounts and discussions he'd had with some of Robert's closest friends and associates, some of them dating back to his schooldays in the Black Country. Starting at the very beginning, Rees tells the story of the young boy who was born in 1948 and had a comfortable and stable upbringing but who was bitten by the music bug at an early age. It was the arrival of American artists like Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly that hooked the young boy, as well as his discovery of American blues music. Much to the chagrin of his parents, Plant began singing in local rock and blues bands, causing his once promising academic career suffered. He was further smitten by the psychedelic and folk sounds coming out of the American west coast scene in the mid-1960s, slotting bands like the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and Buffalo Springfield, as well as folk musicians like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez alongside with his beloved blues and traditional English and Celtic folk music in his personal catalog of influences. There was even a short-lived and ill-fated dalliance with a recording contract with CBS Records that came to naught. By 1968, Plant was playing regular pub gigs around the Birmingham area in the Band of Joy (which included future Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) when Jimmy Page was tipped off to his vocal style. Page and manager Peter Grant were planning on creating something new out of the ashes of the Yardbirds and first things first, they needed a singer. He and Plant hit it off musically, if not in terms of their personalities, and after bringing Bonham and John Paul Jones into the fold, Led Zeppelin was born. The rest is, as they say, history and I won't rehash it as the book does a fairly good job of giving the basic story of the band; I and others have also written on it extensively, so it's not worth dwelling on further here.

What Rees does do is show how Plant seemed to grow more disillusioned with the monster that Led Zeppelin became as they got bigger and bigger and the experience grew to be more about the excesses of life on the road than the music they created. In particular, he hated what his friend Bonham turned into, as well as the way Page exerted an iron grip over the band and started to resent Plant's ascension to equal status after his initial years as the understudy. Coupled with how the latter half of Zeppelin's career was marred by tragedies such as Plant's car accident, rampant drug addiction throughout their camp, and the twin horrors of Plant's son Karac and friend Bonham dying, and it's not hard to see why he came to resent the entire experience after the band split in 1980. The book takes approximately half of its page length to get to the end of Zeppelin's career; the remainder deals with Plant's subsequent life and solo career. The portrait painted is of a restless spirit who is insatiably curious and hungry for all different types of music and how to incorporate them into his own sound, a stark contrast with Page who has seemed to have been trapped in the shadow of Led Zeppelin over the last few decades. This wandering spirit extended into Plant's personal life, where his long marriage to wife Maureen ended in the early 1980s, upon which he subsequently took up with her younger sister (whom he had long been rumored to have had a thing for in the 1970s according to many in the Zeppelin camp). The book further traces his career through his two disastrous mini-reunions with Zeppelin in 1985 and 1988, the two albums he made with Jimmy Page (No Quarter and Walking Into Clarksdale, the tour for the latter album having been attended by yours truly), and the successful and critically acclaimed run of albums he's made over the last decade, spearheaded by his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Kraus, Raising Sand. The final Led Zeppelin reunion, in 2007, is also discussed in detail and unsurprisingly, it is revealed that Plant really didn't want to do it and only agreed because of his admiration for recently deceased Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, to whose memory the concert was dedicated. Again, Plant is described by those around him as restless, a man who doesn't seem to want to escape his past so much as to just continually never revisit it.

While the book is, on the whole, enjoyable to read and interesting, it does tend to focus too much on Led Zeppelin (and Jimmy Page in particular) in certain spots. This is understandable as, to Robert's eternal consternation, the spectre of Zeppelin hangs over everything he does. Also, Plant's complicated and tense relationship with Page is central to much of his life and career. However, there are certain extended passages where it seems Rees spend too much time on Page's side of things, sections which feel like they would sit more comfortably in a book dedicated to him rather than one about Plant. Another noticeable aspect is that, while the author has done his work interviewing many of Plant's friends, families, and associates, there's very little directly from the man himself. There are numerous passages where the author mentions "Plant told me..." or "I was with Robert at a restaurant when he said..." but more often than not, the narrative relies on other common sources of information or firsthand accounts from longtime associates and friends like Ross Halfin, Benji LeFevre, Richard Cole, and others. While it doesn't make the book any less enjoyable, it definitely makes it feel like a completely unauthorized account. Many of the best unauthorized biographies can still feel like they are authorized given the amount of research and primary source material that goes into them. Robert Plant: A Life falls a little bit short of this, but it's still a valuable and worthwhile read for any fan of the legendary singer, even though the new information revealed tends to be of the small tidbit variety rather than anything too revealing. There is another recently published biography on Plant, entitled Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin, that I will be reviewing at a later date. Until I do so and can make a side-by-side comparison, I'm glad to have read Paul Rees' book as I feel I understand Plant a bit better than I did before.

MY RATING: 7/10 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Here We Go, China, Here We Go

The big day is finally here. As I write this, I'm sitting in the business class lounge at the airport in Toronto waiting for my connection to Shanghai. I've been up since 1:30am and truthfully, I didn't sleep last night as I was too anxious (and too paranoid about oversleeping!). The car service my company booked arrived at my house in the dead of night a little before 2am for the two hour drive to the airport. There's an airport only a half hour from my house but for some reason, flights out of there were thousands of dollars more expensive; it was actually cheaper for me to hire a car to take me to and from the airport, believe it or not. The ride into Baltimore was nice and could it not be when I was sitting in the back of a plush, comfortable luxury SUV? The driver was a really nice fellow and the conversation was excellent. When he dropped me off at BWI, I was groggy but quickly woke up when I walked inside: I couldn't believe how many people were there that early for flights. After checking in my suitcase, I made my way to security and then to the gate. To say I was taken aback when I saw the plane we'd be boarding for Toronto would be an understatement; I've been on some small shuttles for short flights, but this had to be the smallest plane I've ever been on! A twin turboprop that held, at most, 24 people, it was nonetheless a full flight. I was able to doze a little bit, but it wasn't very satisfying or refreshing.

Ninety minutes later, I landed in Toronto. The first thing I noticed when I got off of the plane and onto the tarmac was how much colder it was than back home...unsurprising since this is Canada, but I could see my breath here while back home it was considerably warmer. The Rush fan in me geeked out a little bit because the call-letters for the Toronto airport are YYZ (if you're not a Rush fan, look up their song "YYZ" to understand what I mean). Also, this is a MASSIVE airport. One thing I found comical was that I had to make a really long walk from the terminal all the way through customs and immigration (where the agents were quite cranky) and then on to the international terminal where I had to go through security yet again. When I finally rounded the corner to start walking toward my gate, I passed right by where I first had to go to customs! I had a little chuckle over that.

By this time I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since dinner last night and I was starving. Luckily, since I am flying business class on Air Canada, I was able to access their Maple Leaf Lounge, which offers free food, beverages, comfy furniture, clean bathrooms, and free WiFi (which I am using as I write this post). This brings us to the present, where I'm boarding in one hour to make the final leg of this journey to Shanghai. So many questions are going through my head: what will business class actually be like on the plane? Will I be able to sleep? What will the airport be like in Shanghai? What will customs and immigration be like? The hotel? The food? The conference? I have a mental list of things I'm simultaneously anxious, nervous, and excited about, but in every respect the overriding feeling I have is of great curiosity. As I finish this post, I'm reminded that sites like Facebook and Google are banned from use in China; the Blogger platform I use for this site is a Google product, so I'm not sure if I will be able to post again before coming home. If I can, I'll continue the travelogue; if not, I'll post more once I'm back in the USA. Either way, this trip is sure to be an experience I won't forget.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

CONCERT REVIEW: Ride at the Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA October 3, 2015

***all of the photos in this post (except for one, noted below) were taken by me...please DO NOT use without my permission!***

Ride have been one of my favorite bands since my friend Carsten introduced me to them around 1999/2000, but since they'd broken up in 1995 I never had the chance to see them live...until this past weekend. As I'd mentioned a while back, I finally got to see them in concert at the Paradise in Boston. What was even better was that I had a chance to go with Carsten, who I hadn't seen in a while and is one of my close friends going back to our days in graduate school. The concert gave us a chance to catch up and also gave me a chance to go back home to New England and Boston, which I miss terribly and where I haven't been in almost a year. 

The stage before the show began.

The concert was on a Saturday night, so when I finished work on Friday, I got in my car to drive to my parents' house in Massachusetts. It had been raining lightly all day which shouldn't have been a problem, but it slowed traffic down enough that by the time I got close to New York City it was the middle of rush hour. Eight hours later, a drive that should have only taken me five hours was over and I finally arrived at my their house, exhausted and starving. The next day was spent visiting with them before I drove to the Boston suburbs to meet Carsten at his house mid-afternoon. We drove into the city, checked in at a cool hotel (called Verb) where Carsten had booked us some rooms (since it would be a late night and we were going to have a few drinks over the course of the evening), and then walked down the street to have dinner and catch up at an excellent BBQ place. [Before moving on, I want to mention the hotel quickly: Verb is a rock music-themed hotel literally right next to Fenway Park in the Kenmore Square area of Boston. The place is decorated really cool with vintage stuff, loads of records and posters, and even a guitar and some amps in the lobby (I was tempted to pick it up and play but didn't know if I was allowed to or if it was just for show). A really neat place and somewhere I'd definitely go stay at again not only for the ambiance and vibe, but also the fantastic location in the city. Plus, you literally could walk twenty feet out the door and you're right up against Fenway Park!] We had our dinner and then made the long walk down Commonwealth Avenue toward the Paradise. As we walked in the blustery early evening, the wind was really whipping as we discussed all of the previous concerts each of us had seen at the Paradise. It's one of the venues I like the most in Boston and I've seen some great shows there, although while we were walking I realized I hadn't been there since 2003 when I saw Supergrass on back-to-back nights. I knew it had been renovated since then so I was interested in seeing how it looked inside now. Also, the week before I'd managed to get us on the guest list for the band's afterparty thrown by Creation Records, so we were really looking forward to that as well. 

We got to the Paradise a little before 8pm (which was when the doors were due to open) and lined up to get inside. After entering, we decided to sit in the lounge area to have a drink and catch up some more. I'll confess I was pretty damn rock and roll here as I pounded glass after glass, probably four in all, of...water! Yeah, I was dying of thirst for some reason and just stuck to good old H2O...real rock and roll, don't you think? We actually ended up staying in there chatting during the opening band, who were the Besnard Lakes from Montreal. I think it's the first time I've ever skipped out on an opening band; usually when I get to a club, I get right to the front of the stage and stay there the entire time. Anyway, we had a lot to catch up on so the conversation was definitely worth missing them, without question. After they finished, we made our way into the club area and were able to get a spot maybe fifteen or twenty feet from the stage, a bit left of center. Unfortunately, for much of the show (as you'll see in the photos I took), a support pole was in our line of sight and blocked Loz and Andy from view unless they moved around a bit. However, as the show went on and people in front of us kept leaving to get drinks, we managed to get closer and a bit more toward center such that for the last third of the show, we had an unobstructed view of everyone on stage. When Ride were ready to come on, the lights went down and some droning/feedback sounds played over the PA for a few minutes to build the excitement up before they sauntered out and waved at us, to huge cheers from the capacity crowd.  The set list is below.

Set list:

Leave Them All Behind
Like a Daydream
Chrome Waves
Mouse Trap
Cool Your Boots
Black Nite Crash
Time of Her Time
Dreams Burn Down
Vapour Trail
Drive Blind


Chelsea Girl

As you can see, the bulk of the set was made up of songs from their two classic albums Nowhere and Going Blank Again. In fact, all of their releases were represented (even their last album, Tarantula!) except for Carnival of Light. I was a bit bummed since, unlike many Ride fans, I love CoL and I think songs like "Moonlight Medicine" and "I Don't Know Where It Comes From" would have sounded great live. BUT, there is no way I'm complaining...I mean, look at the set list!  When the opening organ notes of "Leave Them All Behind" played over the PA, Carsten and I looked at each and nodded before they tore into it. We just knew it was going to be a killer gig. [Another aside: I had been warned by a couple of friends who had seen Ride on this tour that they played at ear-splitting volume. Knowing this, I took earplugs with me as I love music far too much to risk damaging my hearing so that I can't enjoy it later in life. However, from the opening note, the sound was loud but perfectly balanced and comfortable, and I didn't end up needing earplugs at all. Other than Andy's vocals being slightly low in the mix, the sound was great and I had absolutely no ringing in my ears immediately after the concert or the next day. For a club show, that might have been the best sound mix I'd ever heard]. Back to the music, they tore into one song after another, with some highlights being "Black Nite Crash" from the much-maligned Tarantula, "OX4," "Sennen," which they mentioned hadn't been played on the tour yet and which was requested by the Besnard Lakes, and a ridiculous version of "Drive Blind" that closed the set and included almost five full minutes of a feedback and drum freak-out in the middle that whipped the crowd into a frenzy before they exploded back into the song. The encores were a really beautiful version of "Today" (with Mark playing bass and Steve making the almost violin-sounding noises on his bass) and a great power-pop "Chelsea Girl." As for the band themselves, they played with an intensity and joy that was infectious to those of us in the crowd...lots of smiling and nodding at each other, even if they didn't interact much onstage; whether this is how they've always been or whether it's a way to keep the tensions that broke them up in 1995 at bay during this reunion, I don't know, but it's something Carsten and I both noticed. Mark Gardener took the bulk of the lead vocals and played the more rhythm/complimentary guitar parts while Andy Bell played more lead guitar (including lots of tasty electric 12-string) and sang lead on a several songs. When they harmonized together, though, it was magical...THAT sound we all knew and loved. They both also mentioned that this was their first show in Boston in twenty years at the same club and asked who had seen them there back then...several hands went up. In fact, there weren't too many people that looked to be under 25 or 30 was mainly made up of fans who were old enough to be Ride fans who either saw them in the 1990s or never got the chance to. Steve Queralt stayed mainly in the background but supplied that rock solid, booming, smooth bass that he's known for, while Loz Colbert was just a whirling dervish on the drums. Not only was his playing incredible but my eyes were constantly drawn to him such that I spent much of the gig watching him in awe as he worked his away around his drumkit and back again. Overall, the show was just fantastic, with an almost-perfect set list, killer performances, a crowd that was into it and appreciative (including an older guy who was REALLY into it and kept yelling for "Kaleidoscope" between songs, to which Mark said "there's always someone yelling for a song we're never gonna play!"), and a band who seemed to really enjoy the entire experience. As soon as the show ended, Loz stood up behind his kit and took a panorama of the crowd on his phone...he later tweeted it out and I managed to find myself in it (see below)...very cool!

Photo by Loz Colbert...there I am!
After the show, we made our way back to the lounge for the afterparty in the Paradise's front lounge. We hung out in there for a long time, chatting and having a couple of drinks (gin and tonic for me this time...a bit more rock and roll). The band came in and milled around and we ended up being sat no more than a foot or two from Andy Bell, Loz Colbert, and Mark Gardener. However, neither of us ended up talking to them much and even though I would have loved to have gotten a picture taken with them, I passed. I didn't want to be "that guy" going up them saying "hey man, I love you guys! I'm a huge fan! Can you sign this? Can I get a picture?" There were a LOT of "those guys" in the room doing that (and to be fair, a lot who were much cooler and laid back who just chatted with them and got a picture taken). The guys looked to be in a good mood but were understandably tired, at least visibly, and I just felt guilty that I would've been bothering them. We didn't see Steve Queralt in there but he did show up apparently as there were a few photos I saw online later where he was in there. Around 2am, which is an hour neither Carsten or I are used to staying up until since we both have jobs and kids, we decided to call it a night and took a cab back to the hotel. Next morning, it was driving back home and saying our goodbyes before I drove back to my parents to meet up with another friend for lunch before making the drive back to Pennsylvania, on which I listened to all of Ride's albums. The entire experience was great: seeing Ride, catching up with a couple of old friends, visiting with my parents, getting a chance to go back home to New England and Boston...I can check another favorite band off of my bucket list and I'll have memories of the entire weekend for as long as I live.

Mark and Andy's guitarsenal...I was drooling over these, especially the three Rickenbackers!

(As always, I'm trying to get a recording of the show since I collect tapes of concerts I've been to. So far, no luck. If anyone out there is reading this and has a copy or knows where I can find one, please contact me to let me know...thanks!)