Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Ks, and other Morning Music

Every morning during breakfast, I play music for our guests. I don’t play an instrument; instead, I choose tunes to pipe into the breakfast room and set the mood for the morning. This is serious business, and I put much thought into each morning’s selection: the right music sets the tone for the day, reflecting more than just my own tastes. How became not only the sous chef/dishwasher/disc jockey of the Auberge and what kind of music I choose is a story that stretches back to my inappropriate youth.

In the early morning hours of April 14, 1985, I locked myself into the on-air studio of WMEB-FM, the University of Maine’s student-run radio station, and began playing music that pleased me. It was a sophomoric act, a juvenile stunt, and although it was just after 3 in the morning, there were a lot of people listening. On a sprawling college campus like U-Maine Orono’s, there are always lots of people awake and listening in the darkness of Sunday mornings. And that was the problem.

That I’d locked myself into the on-air studio wasn’t a problem; as the scheduled disc jockey for that time slot, I was following protocol. At the time I was a junior at UMO, and a journalism/broadcasting major in love with radio thanks to my Boston roots, which were nurtured by the irreverence of Charles Laquidara and WBCN-FM. The problem was that I was supposed to be playing jazz--specifically jazz fusion, that electrified genre made most famous by Miles Davis’s 1970 album Bitches Brew. Other notables on the playlist included Weather Report, Pat Metheny, and Chick Corea. In other words, all the stuff I hated.

So instead I played The Clash, Elvis Costello, Aerosmith, and even the synth/pop band Animotion’s hit “Obsession.” Anything but jazz fusion. The program director wasn’t amused, and I soon lost that coveted 3 to 6 Sunday morning slot on WMEB. But the experience forged my taste in music (my years at the Snake Ranch notwithstanding), and informed my music selections when I later worked as a DJ for real money.

Fast forward to the 21st century and now I’m faced with the task of providing the background music for breakfast-goers. The easy default is some kind of inoffensive jazz: The Duke, Oscar Peterson--maybe even Satchmo. Stay away from the be-boppers and dissonant improvisors. They’re great, just not what I want to play at breakfast; they go better with vodka and cigarettes than orange juice and oatmeal.

Fortunately, I’ve got a decent backlog of music on my iTunes, and I’ve been able to offer a collection as eccentric as the Auberge. This week has featured French chanteuse Patricia Kaas, Je te dis vous, the aforementioned Oscar Peterson, Warren Zevon (with Warren you have to be careful of the corrosive, oftentimes sardonic timbre of his music, so I played Reconsider Me:The Love Songs, which was a big hit), and the best selling album of the 21st century, The Beatles’ 1. Up next is Sean Lyons’ Roar of Lyons, which is one of the boldest jazz albums of the last ten years. I also discovered an album in waiting in my iTunes collection: The Ks.

While combing through my music, I discovered that of all the thousands of songs I own, only 12 begin with the letter K. Since I’m partial to that letter, I thought I’d collect them all into one album, and put them in the regular Auberge breakfast music rotation. So here’s the track listing for The Ks, along with my comments.

1. “K.C. Blues,” Charlie Parker. This tune is off of my Essential Charlie Parker album. If you’re not a big fan of the early bebop pioneered by Parker and his crony Dizzy Gillespie, this is a nice way to ease into the style. “K.C. Blues” is largely devoid of the asymmetric phrasing and fast-paced melodic riffing that characterizes much of the bebop style, though at about the 2:40 mark Bird drops back into the song and gives a little taste of what it’s all about.

2. “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey,” The Beatles. This is actually a medley of two songs. The Leiber & Stoller classic “Kansas City” first hit #1 in the charts when William Harrison sang it in 1959. The song has been recorded more than 300 times. “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey,” is a Richard Penniman (better known as Little Richard) original. In 1962, The Beatles were performing at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, when Little Richard, fresh from his return from gospel music, arrived to share the stage with them. LR coached The Beatles on their stage act, including teaching Paul how to imitate his instantly recognizable “woo” holler, which is featured on this song.

3. “Kashmir,” Led Zepplin. Okay, so the grinding, nerve-wracking assault of this song might not make the best sonic backdrop for croissants and homemade jam, but it’s a K. That driving guitar chord progression was said to have inspired Robert Plant to write the lyrics after a trip to southern Morocco. “Kashmir” is from LZ’s album Physical Graffiti.

4. “Keep Me In Your Heart,” Warren Zevon. This is the gut-wrenching plea by Zevon, from his final album, The Wind, which he recorded in the fall of 2002 and spring of 2003 immediately after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, which eventually claimed his life in September, 2003. The song isn’t so much a request to remember him as it is a reminder that he’ll always be there in the wind. The song pushed his final album to number 12 on Bilboard’s Top 200 album chart, his highest showing since Excitable Boy reached number 8 in 1978.

5. “Keep On Chooglin,” Credence Clearwater Revival. From their 1969 Bayou Country LP, this song is one of CCR’s more famous jams, chugging along for nearly eight minutes. “Keep On Chooglin” was overshadowed by the more popular “Born on the Bayou” and the #2 hit single “Proud Mary.”

6. “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” Louis Armstrong. This comes from a great album called Satch Sings Fats, featuring Satchmo breaking out the Fats Waller songbook. For the uninitiated, this is a great representation of Armstrong’s style, featuring his crackling trumpet contrasting his gravelly voice, and a host of other instrument solos.

7. “Key to the Highway,” Derek and the Dominoes. This song is what’s known as a blues standard. First recorded by Charles Segar in 1940, versions of the song had been sung for decades by the early bluesmen of the South. Eric Clapton’s version comes from his Crossroads collection that I own. It’s one of the best of Clapton’s live recordings.

8. “The Kids Are Alright,” The Who. Originally released on the band’s first album, My Generation (1965), the song name was also used for The Who’s rockumentary film released in 1979. This song, along with “My Generation,” defined the Mod era and announced The Who as major players in the British Invasion.

9. “Kingdom of Days,” Bruce Springsteen. From Springsteen’s critically acclaimed Working on a Dream album, this song’s themes reflect new level of sophistication for the Boss. It still contains Springsteen’s trademark second person POV, but it slips into the first person plural and singular, invoking a totality of commitment.

10. “KItty’s Back,” Bruce Springsteen. By the time the Boss released The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Springsteen was almost there, and by that I mean he was almost at the point of writing the kinds of sprawling classics epitomized on his next album, Born to Run. “Kitty’s Back” is one of those songs, featuring perhaps the most recognizable guitar intro in Springsteen’s repertoire, along with the kind of raucous story line seen in later classics like “Jungleland” and “Racing in the Streets.”

11, 12, 13: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Warren Zevon. About the only version of this song that I don’t have is Guns’n’Roses. All three versions are excellent, but I’m partial to Zevon’s, if only because of his lifelong commitment to religious criticism in his songwriting. Some Zevon fans thought he was selling out by including this song on his final album, and you can attribute it to the old axiom “There are no atheists in fox holes,” but I prefer to believe that Zevon was just giving a nod to something he was about to face.

14. “Know Your Onion,” The Shins. I don’t remember how this song or this band ended up among the 1,312 songs of my iTunes, but it’s a catchy, up-tempo tune that owes its jangling guitars to The Beatles and The Byrds.

15. “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand,” The Beatles. This is the German language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” released in Germany in 1964. If you think The Beatles speak the German language exceptionally well, you’re right. They spent the better parts of two years living and performing in Hamburg, Germany. The B-side of this single was “Sie Liebt Dich,” also known as “She Loves You.”

And there you have it: The Ks, an original compilation, and extended meditation on music in the morning at the Auberge de Stowe.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hospitality and True Grit

A couple of nights ago Chantal and I were out at a local restaurant, invitees to a tasting of the chef’s new menu offerings. These tastings are semi-regular events in a ski-cum-restaurant town like Stowe: innkeepers and concierges from some of the swankier inns and larger hotels are wined and dined with the hope that they’ll send guests to that restaurant more frequently than they send guests to other restaurants. On this night, the food was spectacular, the wines excellent, the company extraordinary. It made me wonder what we were doing there.

It’s not that we never send guests to restaurants of that quality. In fact, with Christmas week just a few days away, it’s important for us to think about dining options for our visitors. Though we’ve positioned ourselves as Stowe’s meat-and-potatoes B&B, during the holidays people like to splurge a little, so it’s well worth our time to subject ourselves to an outstanding dining experience, if only to satisfy the research requirement. So we gleefully tolerated the lobster bisque with saffron, tender venison with a lingonberry reduction, and an apple tart thingy washed down with ice cider--which, if you haven’t had it, is like a Highland single malt Scotch crossed with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.

Between courses and satisfied murmurings, conversation among tourist industry professionals turned into a little shop talk. The gentleman sitting across the table from me, who was employed by one of the larger resorts, easily had the most entertaining story of the evening. He told of the time when one of his guests--a statuesque blonde from one of Russia’s former protectorates--accosted him one day with her laptop.

“Make internet work,” she demanded, in her best Ivan Drago voice. The gentleman, eager to please after separating madame from several hundred dollars per night, applied to the task and flipped open her laptop, only to find himself confronted with the Cyrillic alphabet. Hmmm, he thought, how difficult can it be to find the “connect to internet” button. He smiled and cheerfully began tapping away. Finally, after several minutes and much huffing on madame’s part, voila, the machine logged onto the hotel’s wireless signal. The gentleman triumphantly returned the laptop to its owner, who marched away, presumably satisfied.

As the owner and operator of my own business, it’s hard for me to get my head around this story. My hat’s off to the gentleman for throwing himself at the challenge, and for succeeding. He takes his job seriously, and it shows: he’s the best. I’m a far more imperfect man. But the exchange makes me wonder: does the amount of money involved in a transaction warrant the behavior of the principals? Or is there room for degrees of difference?

Regular readers of this blog know that faced with the same situation, I would not have allowed madame in the front door. Then again, madame’s driver probably exceeded the speed limit as she passed the Auberge on her way to Luxuryville--that’s to say she’d never stay here...unless, or course, her sugar daddy drops her, and she only has enough money to stay at a place like the Auberge. Perhaps I’m being a bit extreme (it’s my blog) but price-shifting is a phenomenon we’re well acquainted with. Over the past three years, we’ve seen many new guests come through our doors happily relating how in the past they shelled out twice as much to stay elsewhere, but now they were happy to stay with us in order to save a few quid.

The Auberge and its ilk will always be here. When young couples or families don’t have a lot of money to spend and they’re looking for affordable accommodations, we’re here. When their earning power increases and they can afford to stay at luxury places where slamming down a laptop and saying, “Make internet work!” is acceptable, we’re here. And when those same people are pinched by their pocketbooks, but they still want to enjoy Stowe, we’re here. Imperfect, uneven, impertinent, we’re here.

I’m reminded of that great scene in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, when the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf suggests that he considered kissing the story’s fourteen-year-old girl and narrator Mattie Ross. Mattie retorts LaBoeuf’s abuse of authority by telling the Ranger his untoward advances will be met with justice. This angers LaBoeuf, and in a moment of foreshadowing, he tells Mattie that she’s crossed a line. But Mattie is undeterred; she dismisses the Ranger with a tossed-off line that maintains her humanity and dignity. It’s a lesson we try to apply not only to all the transactions here at the Auberge, but in all phases of our lives, where petty demands can’t be satisfied by the shifting of a decimal point.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Charlie Brown Syndrome

I saw a friend in town the other day, and after we’d been talking for a few minutes he asked, “Are you doing any writing?” My stomach caved in on itself, which was great for my profile, but lousy for my soul. Am I doing any writing? What are you writing? How’s the writing going? All questions writers dread, unless we’ve just inked a five-book deal with Doubleday, or a sold another screenplay to Universal. Otherwise, the question provokes consternation, remorse, guilt, and hopelessness. Or, as I like to call it, the Charlie Brown Syndrome.

Good ole’ Charlie Brown, in case none of you got it, grew up to become a writer. According to an article published in Psychology Today, Charlie Brown was a classic neurotic, “prone to depression and anxiety and paralyzing fits of over-analysis.”

Well, maybe writers aren’t all classic neurotics, like our Peanuts pal, but the question of what we’re writing can make us feel that way. The problem is that we’ve gone around writing things all our lives, and so people expect us to do that--write. Many of us have foolishly acquired MFAs, raising the bar further. Some of us have even published, in magazines, literary journals, and--worst of all--books. Thus the world looks at us and expects us to write.

But that’s not why we became writers, why we pursued the classification, or why we wrote anything in the first place. No, the real reason we became writers was the same reason a lot of people picked up guitars and played rock’n’roll: To meet girls. (This is true for many women writers I know, too.) Most of the writers I hang around with are about my age (the middle age, that is), and we’ve all been paired up with significant others. With meeting girls out of the way, that leaves only the writing to face.

That, and the rest of our lives, and often it’s the rest of our lives that defeat the writing. It’s not that I’m not writing at all--you’re reading this blog post, aren’t you? And have you checked out my personal Facebook page? How about my business’s FB page? And I just built two online classes that I’ll be teaching next semester--about a novel’s worth of words there. There’s also the correspondence--sometimes I feel like one half of the Jefferson-Adams duo, scratching out my thoughts by the light of a whale oil lamp deep into the night.

But none of that’s really writing. Writing is the thing you’re working on now. The novel. The screenplay. The short story. The scholarly article for The Writer’s Chronicle called “First Tracks: Warren Zevon, Alice Munro, and the Importance of Opening Stories.” The memoir. Whatever. That’s the writing, not the other stuff.

So when I saw that friend (by the way, I was in the gym at the time, working out, which is also not writing), I gagged when he asked, “Are you writing anything?” Oh, sure, I’m writing lots of stuff. Aren’t your reading any of it?