Pet Sounds

This evening, one of the truly serendipitous events of my life happened.

To summarise: we’re wandering around Washington – which is nice and all – but, not to put too fine a point on it, we’re bored. We’ve no shows booked for tonight, none for any other night, and right now we’re having a tough time finding a restaurant. Maybe it’s just been a long walk in the cold, but there just isn’t much happening.

New York withdrawal symptoms.

We walk around the corner onto 13th street and note with interest that Brian Wilson is performing here. That’s interesting. Tonight. Very interesting. Pet Sounds. Hmmm. Well, I knew he was playing in New York the previous week so this isn’t a huge surprise and we simply assume it’s sold out – it’s a nice coincidence, but little else.

A restaurant opposite has an attractive early bird menu – with some intriguing soups – which is fine for dinner. During the meal, we toy with the idea of calling across to the box office and looking for spares. It’s right across the street and since there’s no queue outside, maybe it’s worth a try.

Finally, at 7.45, we call to the box office. There’s tickets – jackpot! They’re $55 apiece and in a good spot on the balcony – super mega triple jackpot!!!

I’d seen Brian in Vicar Street (€105), so had some idea of what to expect. He would sing during the concert, seated at a piano which he would not play. The band – who played on “Smile” – would be rather good. Tonight, he has some extra support: Al Jardine is sitting in, accompanying Brian on just four concerts for the first time in about twenty five years.

Yikes.

The first half consists of Beach Boy favourites: “In My Room”, “Hawaii”, “I Get Around”, “When I Grow Up To Be A Man”. However, this is just warm up because the second half is what we’re all here for: Pet Sounds, performed live, sung by the composer and accompanied by another fellow Beach Boy.

There’s no point over-analysing: the band was excellent, playing most of the original instruments live – including vibraphone, trumpet and flute – and the singing from Brian is fine. Basically, it’s the album. The best album there ever was? Well, my favourite at least.

The first few songs segue into one another; after the fourth (“Don’t Talk/Put Your Head On My Shoulder”) Brian starts to talk between songs; he introduces “God Only Knows” as:

My finest achievement in song writing.

(I don’t disagree – but at this point I can’t resist mentioning that, for what it’s worth, his favourite song on Smile is “Surf’s Up”; he told me so himself)

Highlight of the entire night for me is during this song, the part when the title is repeated over and over again, passing around from Beach Boy to Beach Boy. It’s probably my favourite moment from the album, too – and this time we are privileged to hear it passing between two of the three surviving Beach Boys; Brian and Al, Al sounding just like he did on the original record.

The performance takes a little longer than the album’s 35 minutes. After this, the band launch into a long string of rock and roll favourites.

Did I say super mega triple jackpot?

The Producers

The Producers has been on my “list” of shows to see for some time (insomuch as someone living in Dublin can maintain a list of Broadway shows), at least since when it hadn’t been playing on the one free night of my previous trip and I went to see “Rent” instead.

This was kind of “it” for me and Broadway: after the mediocrity of the aforementioned “Rent”, the horrors of “Momma Mia!” (deserving of a post in itself, if not an entire blog cataloguing minute by minute the awfulness) and the seeming lack of classics such as “West Side Story” or “Guys and Dolls”, I really haven’t enjoyed anything on Broadway and although last night’s “Spamalot” was fair, it neither improved nor dis-improved matters.

I had enjoyed both films (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “The Producers”) but the chief difference – and strength – with “The Producers” against the other is that it is no more than the majority of the film’s dialogue along with some good songs. In other words, everything you liked about the film along with some good, relevant, numbers penned – intriguingly – by Mel Brooks himself.

Is this a real musical? Certainly there’s much more talking than singing, but then something like “West Side Story” is the same. Whatever it is, it works: each scene from the film is realised here with a minimum of change, the sets are, for a change, interesting and varied and the songs are musically interesting with no filler. I guess that really does make it a musical, and a good one at that.

Perhaps I’m biased towards jazzy shows, but compare the songs with “Momma Mia” (every song shoe-horned in, e.g. woman searches for purse then bursts into “Money, money, money”) or even “Spamalot” where the songs are instantly forgettable (except for “Always Look…”, itself shoe-horned into the wrong adapation) and this is heads and shoulders above.

Seeing “Springtime for Hitler” performed – as the play within a play – on Broadway itself is really quite spectacular and the idea of a Broadway show playing on Broadway is something played up really well; I’ve no idea how they adapted this to the West End. Far more important, however, it highlights how it made sense to adapt this film to Broadway unlike, perhaps, some other material (or, in the case, of “Momma Mia”, no material).

The “show within a show” theme might also explain the show’s appeal to Larry David, in the fourth year of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which brought the idea of self-referencing shows to strange new levels). Indeed, it was a little strange seeing the opening scenes played out in real life, having seen Larry David’s very good rendition on the TV.

Also, in addition, there are also any number of nice touches – the nod to “Porgy and Bess” being my favourite – and the acting is perfectly fine. Perhaps not up to Gene Wilder, but at least there were no accidental Australians in this show (a few comical Irish though!) – Americans doing what they do best.

Staten Island Ferry

Owing to some confusion with the Circle Line’s winter schedule, we missed their 10am sailing around Manhattan.

However, an apparently little-known fact is that the Staten Island Ferry is free. It sails between South Ferry (a rather unusual station where the #1 subway terminates…

Passengers in the last five carriages who wish to get off at South Ferry must move into one of the first five carriages, otherwise you will be going back uptown!

…(drivers are more talkative over here) and Staten Island every half hour, a journey which itself takes half an hour.

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I guess this is the equivalent of a local bus service between the two islands; why is it free? Well, it seems strange that there’s no subway route in a city with no tunnels, so my best theory is that it’s an apology for the lack of such a route. I have no idea what the population of Staten Island is, though.

It transpired later that the Circle Line’s two hour sailing is well worth the fee, but the ferry isn’t a bad option: you get an hour’s free sailing, decent views of downtown and good views (if a bit faraway) of both the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Dramatic skies are not guaranteed, however.

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Sennheiser PXC250

They’re something of the Rolls-Royce in compact headphones, these things, and I don’t just mean for the quality of their sound.

Here we were, wandering around Times Square and – like a lot of visitors I guess – we end up inside an electronics store. There’s millions of these things all over New York: the shop signs are cheap, the windows are loaded with cameras at rock-bottom prices (as they say themselves) and inside the walls are covered in glass cabinets with seemingly infinite stocks of memory cards, camcorders and even more digital cameras.

This particular one also sold headphones; a decent selection of Sennheiser headphones, no less, including the portable PXC200s that I had been considering for some time. However, at over $100 this wasn’t my idea of “rock-bottom”, since I knew Tower Records in Dublin sells these for €80. Their noise-cancelling counterpart – the PXC250 – were an astonishing $490.

I protest my disinterest; he isn’t interested.

Look, which ones are you interested in?

The noise-cancelling ones, I guess, but they’re cheaper than that at home.

OK, $400. For you.

No thanks – but now he moves into overdrive…

Look, okay, since they are the first ones I sell – $300…no, $220!

I’m still not convinced; he moves in for the kill:

Okay, look, how are you paying?…if your credit card ends with a 4 or a 5 then I can give you an extra 10% discount.

This bizarre (and, I have to say, inspired) tactic catches me off-guard – maybe this is a bargain, who knows! After all, by this point I’ve bartered (or, more accurately, he’s bartered himself) nearly $300 off the initial asking price. In my head I know this is roughly €150 – not a ridiculous asking price for what I know are definitely good headphones – so, even if they’re not a tremendous bargain, well, I didn’t come to New York to shop for electronics: here they are in my hand, no further hunting required…I acquiesce.

Back in the relative calm of the hostel I discover – with the benefit of an internet connection – that the retail price in Ireland for these phones is €150. So, no New York saving this time, but never mind…I’ll win the next round…let’s see how these yokes perform…

The End of Tower Records

I’m not sure what type of immunity to bankruptcy the Dublin branch of Tower Records has, but over in the states it’s going out with a bang. 30% (at least) off of absolutely everything; it was worth a hike up to 66th street to check this out.

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You can’t quite make it out here, but the ticker says:

Store closing – everything must go! Down to the bare walls.

Unfortunately for me, the vultures were long gone along with the real bargains. Although I picked up one or two recent DVDs for a song, huge portions of the jazz section – to name just one part of the mighty store I rushed towards – were empty, along with other obvious candidates like The Beatles, never to be filled again.

A Morning in Central Park

Somehow, and for reasons lost in the mists of time, I manged to avoid Central Park on all my previous visits to New York. There’s really no excuse; apart from being very pretty, it’s also – at about 800 acres – huge and sits in the dead centre of Manhattan.

Oops. How you can miss it is beyond me, but I think I had a morning pencilled in for it last year only to allow a spot of rain to turn me off. Not this time!

Well, I say huge but of course in terms of pure size this is one area where Dublin wins: the Phoenix Park could easily accomodate three Central Parks and still leave room for every other park in Manhattan. However, the latter is world-famous while the former is not. There must be more to Central Park than just its size. I was eager to explore…

We entered the park from 96th street and Central Park, just at the top of the reservoir. It doesn’t have any other name; the planners wanted to build, amongst other things, a meeting place for New Yorkers and so every body of water is classed as a different “type”: lake, pond, meer, etc. There can be no confusion. Anyway, this brings you onto the running track (please walk, run or jog in a clockwise direction only!) so famous from the movies.

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We proceeded in the officially designated direction (to avoid confusion I suppose). The reservoir is very big, even for Central Park, so by the time you’ve walked it you’re already down to 85th street and – if you’ve ventured east – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We exploration of that fine institution for another day.

Speaking of planning, the park took 16 years to build. Every square inch was laboriously designed and landscaped from the swamp that was originally found here. Good work!

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Soon, you reach Belvedere Castle, a structure which predates the park and is now part of the US meterological service. It also affords pretty views of the turtle pond.

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Strawberry Fields is a major park attraction, named in memory of John Lennon, of course, who was shot just across the road on 72nd street and Central Park West. Apparently his apartment building – the Dakota Building – is so named because when it was first built in the 19th century people said it may as well be in Dakota. Well, 150 years later and with apartments starting at $20 million the smart alek name can be fairly smug with itself now.

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At this point, having seen much of the park, it was interesting to note how effortlessly the park fits into the city. With the lake, trees, running track and miniature castles and such there’s little indication that you’re at the very centre of one of the world’s great cities. Although you can see the high-rise buildings in the distance it really is an oasis amidst all the chaos.

I like to think the buildings rise in the distance like mountains in a great landscape painting; nature inverted.

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We exited the park onto fifth avenue. One minute we’re watching ice skaters, the next we’re on 59th street and stumble across the all-new glass Apple cube store. Like you do.

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So, apart from the obvious difference of one being in Dublin and the other in New York, I think we have hit on the real reason why Central Park is world famous: it’s a part of daily life in the city.

For Dubliners, the Phoenix Park is much too far away from the city centre for it ever to be a part of routine and Stephen’s Green is much too small to provide a true haven from the city. But for New Yorkers, it seems to me that if you live anywhere in Manhattan above, say, 42nd street then the park is within walking distance and provides somewhere to escape from the madness of the rest of the city.

Great madness, but great calm. I’m getting to like this city more and more.

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Bill Charlap Trio at The Village Vanguard

If pressed, I’d have to admit I didn’t put too much effort into planning this trip; for instance, I’ve already been to both cities on the itinerary before – NYC and DC – so it was easy to plan flying there and back and how to navigate between both. Similarly, prior planning for concerts, venues and other night activities consisted solely of visiting the websites of just a few venues in each city – if something spectacular was on, I’d book.

Being the location for a number of live recordings in my CD collection, the Village Vanguard was on that very short list for New York (for what it’s worth, Lincoln Centre, Carnegie Hall and some Broadway tickets website were the others).

Something spectacular was on: the Bill Charlap Trio were finishing a two week stint just as we arrived in New York, providing motivation aplenty to traipse all the way down to the East Village for a set.

I’m a huge fan of his Bernstein CD, “Somewhere”, and have dipped in and out of his Gershwin collection. I listen to various tracks on those albums a lot and would have to admit I probably prefer listening to him even to Brad Mehldau, another jazz pianist of whom I’m a big fan. This was a great chance to hear him in person, possibly up close. Perhaps Brad is more accomplished and “innovative” but I just love Bill’s treatment of the classic American songbook – or is it the American songbook I love?

First impressions of the Vanguard were suitably dank and claustrophobic: a single bright red door on 14th street sits in front of a staircase leading to a tiny entrance. A small orderly queue is ahead of us and an elderly man tells the waiter that he knows Bill Charlap’s dad, so give him a good seat! Afterwards, we’re shown to our seats, everybody crammed into the tiny space jammed with small tables. We wait minutes for a waitress to take our drinks order. Do not bother going to the bar, you won’t get served!

Right on time, Bill and his group emerge. He starts promisingly with a Gershwin piece (whose name now escapes me; possibly “S’wonderful”) and immediately moves onto some of his Bernstein transcriptions. It’s not all material from the two CDs I own, but Gershwin and Bernstein crop up repeatedly through the night. “Lonely Town” is slow and wistful, “Lucky To Be Me” quietly euphoric and “Jump” has the maddest ending of the night, with its riff repeated over and over and over, at least 24 times.

Overall, a great night. Vanguard is as you’d picture the quintessential New York jazz club: crowded, busy and – I felt – slightly imperfect; the drums were too loud, the piano amplified and the bass just a little soft. However, the atmosphere was thick and the music charged with energy: just as a live performance should be, we got moments that don’t make sense on CD (extended endings) and music we’d never heard before. It’s not just the American songbook.

The musician’s lounge is right beside the men’s room and on the way I passed right by Bill, chatting away with any of the crowd who would approach him. Just one of the guys, plays a little piano…

590 Madison Avenue

What an address, what a building.

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  • 2 minutes walk from fifth avenue and 57th street, with an entrance into Trump Tower
  • the cantilever pictured above added about $10 million in construction costs but is something of an engineering marvel
  • there’s a modern art gallery with a continuously rotating exhibition round back

What sort of idiot company would sell this?

Up, up and away

Holiday time for a while – 10 full days in the states spread between New York and Washington D.C. I made a similar trip last year and enjoyed both so much that it seemed fine to return so soon and fill in the missing pieces.

Afterwards I regretted making so few notes of what I’d done, so this time it’ll be all blogged up to the hilt.

Here’s the plane, Brighid.

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It got us there in one piece, but in two stages – the Shannon stop-over flight was almost €200 cheaper, but arrives only 90 minutes or so later than a flight direct from Dublin.

Very strange hearing all those funny western accents boarding at Shannon, but they’re only the first of many strange accents we’ll hear over the coming days…