By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff ...
— Joe Jackson, “Down to London”
LONDON — Any visit to Britain’s sprawling capital requires a proper cup of tea or two, or 10. To leave London without having tea is like going to Seattle and not having coffee or fleeing Paris without having wine. The question is only this: What kind of tea drinker are you?
Centuries after British nobility infused the tea habit throughout their culture, tea drinking in today’s London can be enjoyed two ways: dressed up or dressed down. The daily teatime tradition still thrives throughout the city — unadulterated but also with some creative, sometimes wacky, twists. Whether you take your tea with pinkies out in the afternoon or at other times of day (early morning, late night, as part of happy hour) with no jacket required, Britain’s megalopolis still offers teatime tastes for every palate.
On a recent well-steeped jaunt, we found everything from classic tea at the Ritz (all silver pots and tuxedoed waiters) to more casual afternoon teas with whiskey, gin and nearly naked burlesque dancers. Old-fashioned or newfangled, here are two different paths through the world’s capital of tea.
Where to stay: If you’re going this way, go all the way. Avoid the bustling locations of most Mayfair hotels and splurge on the five-star glory of the Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane, 44-20-7319-7139, thedorchester.com) on the east edge of Hyde Park. The old girl has been renovated recently, and the spacious rooms and suites received a nice touch of brightness in addition to all the posh. Check the hotel’s site for frequent package deals.
Shopping: Start with some shopping along Piccadilly, an easy walk east of the Dorchester. Everyone will tell you to head north for the famous Harrod’s department store; do not listen to them. Harrod’s is a zoo, so crammed with tourists it’s nearly impossible to shop, or breathe. On Piccadilly is the more stately and elegant Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly, 44-20-7734-8040, fortnumandmason.com). Each floor, from housewares to fashions, is roomy and easy to roam, and the store’s tea department beats Harrod’s hands down. Gaze at the big, gold canisters full of oolongs and darjeelings, then ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
History: Check out the first known Western-style teapot, from 1670, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington, 44-20-7942-2000, vam.ac.uk), a splendid way to spend a few drizzly London hours. The collections here focus more on everyday art and crafts, including quite a bit of teaware, such as a lovely display of pots on two shelves in the Asia gallery. Then catch a cab due east and visit the Twinings tea store (216 The Strand, 44-0207-353-3511, twinings.co.uk/footer/our-shop), on the site of the original shop Thomas Twining opened in 1717. It’s a tiny little place but contains the full array of Twinings tea offerings, including new flavor blends and teas from South America, as well as displays of historic family artifacts, from paintings of the tea dynasty’s leaders to old advertisements and tea boxes.
Afternoon tea: Throw a teacup in central London and you’ll hit at least three hotels offering a traditional afternoon tea. Book your afternoon respite at one of these two (well in advance — like, weeks). There’s the Ritz (150 Piccadilly, 44-20-7493-8181, theritzlondon.com), allegedly the standard by which all afternoon teas are judged. “Tea at the Ritz is the last delicious morsel of Edwardian London,” Helen Simpson wrote about the experience of sipping and supping in the hotel’s golden, glowing Palm Court. The tea is fair (served in wonderful heavy silver pots), the service likewise. Because the experience is entrenched as a London must-do, the Ritz packs in five seatings a day. So you can’t exactly linger. (Seatings daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., from $39 per person)
For the best hotel afternoon tea experience for the price, go back to the Dorchester. Tea in the Promenade is magnificent — excellent food (including my new favorite word: the pre-dessert), superb service (they don’t just bring you hot water to revive your pot, they bring you an entirely fresh pot) and a much more comfortable setting (opulent and formal, of course, but considerably less stiff). A tip: The Dorchester’s tea is booked way ahead, like most hotels; however, the maitre d’ told me that when the weather in London is beautiful (a rarity, granted), he gets “20 to 25 percent no-shows.” The lesson, if you’re in town without a reservation: Stop by on a sunny day; they hold reservations for half an hour, and if a party your size doesn’t show, the table’s yours. (Seatings daily at 1:15, 2:30, 3:15, 4:45 and 5:15 p.m., from $35.50)
Where to stay: Just west of the West End, near the busy shops along Oxford Street, is the Mandeville Hotel (8-14 Mandeville Place, 44-20-7935-5599, mandeville.co.uk). For a small, boutique hotel, the Mandeville is smartly appointed, classy and comfortable. Its central location (and close to the Tube) makes it an easy home base for exploring London, but it also has a restaurant and full services for when you return. Check the website for holiday specials.
Shopping: For a contemporary view of the tea world, do not miss Postcard Teas (9 Dering Street, 44-20-7629-3654, postcardteas.com), a bright, sunny shop on a small, shadowy lane just off Bond Street. The owner, Tim d’Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? “In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world,” he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like cards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea’s origin. The cheerful, chatty d’Offay cups teas for visitors to sample. Try his hearty Mayfair Breakfast blend, or the cocoa-y flavors of Yunnan Red Cloud, a second-pick summer tea (the first pick is used to make pu-erh).
Afternoon tea: London tea service isn’t all starched collars and prim protocol. Several places offer twists on the tradition, many of them geared toward attracting men. The Mandeville Hotel, in fact, offers a Men’s Afternoon Tea (3-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun., $23.50). Instead of dainty finger sandwiches, you get stick-to-your-ribs appetizer fare, such as a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer and chicken satay. Choose a stout tea to stand up to the stronger food flavors, like the smoky Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London’s Jing. It pairs beautifully with the whiskeys and bourbons on offer in place of the usual champagne accompaniment. The Palm Court at the Langham Hotel (1C Portland Place, Regent Street, 44-20-7965-0195, palm-court.co.uk), an easy walk east of the Mandeville, offers a daily G&T (seatings daily at 2, 2:30, 4:30 and 5 p.m., $41) featuring a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you receive first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it’s a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients, resulting in a strange but enticing tea, musty and musky, tasty with the munchies.
For something completely different, the Volupté Lounge (9 Norwich Street, 44-20-7831-1622, volupte-lounge.com), a self-described “decadent little supper club” hidden away in a basement near Chancery Lane, offers Tea & Tassels (about once monthly, $42), an occasional Saturday afternoon tea with entertainment: 1930s-style burlesque show. Dolores Delight belts show tunes (a stunning achievement given the tight corset), while Millie Dollar emerges in stunning gowns and then emerges from the stunning gowns, down to her pasties and tattoos. Through it all, a traditional afternoon tea menu of sandwiches and scones is served. Sounds odd? Zoe Fletcher, who created the program, says, “Well, that’s me. I like to have a gossipy tea with my friends, and I love burlesque, so it just fit.” Even stranger: I was the only male in the joint one Saturday. The rest of the crowd: all bachelorette parties. Don’t come for the tea (it’s not great) or the food — through, bizarrely, the pair of scones we got at Volupté was the best of anyplace we visited. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In September 2008, a crew of 40 artists, poets, architects, actors and musicians boarded a science vessel and set sail for Greenland. Their destination — apropos for the musicians, which included Laurie Anderson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, beatboxer Shlomo and others — was Disko Bay.
The journey was part of the Cape Farewell project, an organization that puts artists and scientists together, hoping the latter will be inspired by the out-of-the-box thinking of the former. Really, though, the goal is to get the artists to "communicate on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge."
"What I saw was a gigantic world of ice and water," says Ryuichi Sakamoto, another participant in the Greenland voyage and a pianist who operates in both rock and classical worlds. "The landscape, the wild nature — it just blew my mind. Giant chunks of ice crashing into the sea. We saw much, we learned much.
"I'm still concerned — climate change is going to be even more harsh in the future — but on the other hand, I'm kind of calmed down. This nature, this planet — it will be OK whether we are concerned about it or not. The planet will be here. Maybe some ice will be melted, but it will be back in 200 years. You get to see the big picture of it. It's gigantic. The way we talk about it — the problem of global warming is not nature's problem, it's our problem as human beings. What I'm concerned about is not the planet or nature but the harsh environment for my children and grandchildren. Nature will be OK, just fine. We're hurting ourselves, not nature."
Sakamoto, 58, is the first artist from the trip to express his Greenland experience through his music. (KT Tunstall claims the voyage inspired the "nature techno" approach of her new album, "Tiger Suit," released a month ago.) If the others get around to doing the same, they'll likely make more of a racket than Sakamoto. His two new albums are ambient, delicate affairs.
"Playing the Piano" features solo piano re-readings of some of his own greatest hits: pieces of music from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (once hailed as the Kraftwerk of his native Japan), his solo albums (particularly from the early '80s, when he was collaborating with pop figures from David Byrne to David Sylvian) and film music (the title theme from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he starred alongside David Bowie, and the Oscar-winning music for "The Last Emperor").
But it's the second of the two new discs that features sounds drawn, sometimes directly, from Disko Bay. The dozen compositions on "Out of Noise" blend soft melodies and manipulated noise to create some very discreet music. Sakamoto's career has drawn as much inspiration from Brian Eno and Alva Noto (with whom he's collaborated on three recent CDs) as from Steve Reich, John Cage, even Debussy or Satie. Here, Sakamoto turns a piano phrase into a chopped-up round ("Hibari"), weaves stringed instruments over an electronic piano background that sounds like Eno's Bloom iPhone app ("Still Life"), rings Asian bells alongside electronic transmission noises ("Tama"), even employs recordings he made of the environment itself in Greenland ("Ice," "Glacier"). It all sounds chilly and cold, icy and isolated.
"I was inspired by the sounds I captured there," Sakamoto says. "The sound of the water, of the glacier, of the ice — they are used on this CD. ... There were hours sitting in front of the computer, listening to the recordings of the ambient sound from the Arctic Sea. Hours and hours and hours, carefully listening. I found some good moments. Then I repeated them, looped and looped. Then I started trying to find the nice musical elements on top of it, going along with those ambient sounds. That's how I designed the tracks. Sometimes it was a guitar sound or a piano sound — whatever spoke from the water or the ice."
He had hoped to include native music from the arctic island, he says. To his dismay, he found none.
"I asked the local people, the Inuit, to give us a chance for us to hear their music," he says. "They arranged a party, and they started singing. I was blown away. I was sad. It's almost church music. I expected something maybe a little bit Asian. Those Inuit people came from Siberia; we Japanese and Inuit are brothers and sisters genetically. But the music they sang was almost pure church music. That was sad. Their culture — at least their musical custom — is totally Christianized and Westernized."
Sakamoto's first musical inspirations came from another island. Growing up in 1960s Japan, he was captivated by the wild, hyper-ethnic instrumental sounds of lounge musicians like Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny — the ones based on or frequenting Hawaii.
"Martin Denny was big in Japan," Sakamoto says, remembering that the first piece of music YMO tackled was Denny's broadly drawn "Firecracker." "He kind of imitated Japaneseness, and it was easy to imitate him." He laughs. "In a way, [the Yellow Magic Orchestra] kind of followed his method of imitating the image of Japaneseness. That might have been the wrong image. It's like you see in old Hollywood movies, that in-between Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese, mixed image of the Asian person. We loved it at the time. Misunderstanding is always interesting. It's good, funny and fun. Creation is always misunderstanding, maybe."
He says he experienced similar feelings of misunderstanding when going back through his own catalog, selecting pieces for "Playing the Piano."
"Every time I listen to an old song, I'm surprised at how wild or powerful it is. I don't always understand it, or at least how to recreate it. Most of it I'll never be able to do again at this age. It's the youth. Youth has its own character, in a way. I'm getting older, so there's something I can do now which young Sakamoto couldn't."
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
"One clear example is, I play piano much more festively, more carefully, more deeply in a way. I was much more technical when I was young. And stronger, more powerful. My piano playing is much more delicate now and in a way more deep."
In concert on this tour of American theaters, Sakamoto is alone — but with two pianos. Often, he plays a segment on one of the pianos, which a computer records and plays back at intervals while Sakamoto continues on the other.
"It's a duet with myself," he says. "I wish I could add a 3-D image on the second piano, a hologram of myself. ... After the ice melts, maybe that will be all that's left of me, a hologram playing the piano."
• 8 p.m. Tuesday
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $45, jamusa.com, (800) 514-ETIX
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Writing about these power-pop gods, it demands two posts each time. You need one for the guys — and they're almost always guys — who actually know who you're writing about. That's usually, let's see, you, you and definitely the guy in the back with the jean jacket and Chuck Taylors. Then you need one for everyone else, the one where I try in vain to inform without proselytizing and wind up practically berating you, dear reader, for not having discovered this genius before, you slacker.
Rock is littered with underappreciated pros, from Shoes and the Spongetones to Jason Falkner and Brendan Benson, and power pop is its landfill. Dwight Twilley is a name you might even have heard of, once upon a time. Try his biggest hit, 1975's "I'm on Fire" ("and you ain't, you ain't, you ain't got no lover!"). Or his next one, 1984's "Girls," with Tom Petty singing backup. Album after album of this stuff continued well into the '90s, beautifully crafted post-Beatles guitar pop with the consistent affectation of a rockabilly slapback on the vocals.
Twilley 2010 sees the arrival of the "Green Blimp," another dozen tracks Abbey Road-meets-Sun Records rock. (Sun's Sam Phillips was the first to give Twilley a break.) By now, he's got his formula down.
"It doesn't take me much time to write songs anymore," Twilley said in a recent interview from his Tulsa, Okla., home and studio. "Once I have the idea, it's a done deal. It can be done usually in a day. I get the body of the song in about 15 minutes. Then it's a matter of walking by it every once in a while, changing a lyric, teetering with the arrangement. ... We just have gotten better and better at what we're doing, more comfortable with the studio."
That's Big Oak Studio, a converted garage behind his midtown Tulsa home. The "we" included Twilley's wife and recording partner, Jan, plus original Dwight Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV and, on this album, guests Susan Cowsill and Rocky Burnette.
The "Green Blimp" title track is very "Yellow Submarine," a dreamy, childlike tale about a fantastic dirigible domicile. "It's kind of a hats off to 'Yellow Submarine,' sure," Twilley said. "It's a fictional kind of thing, a kind of shelter" — Twilley's band started out on Leon Russell's Shelter Records — "a warm and fuzzy thing about floating above the clouds where everything's peaceful. The album itself ends up having that theme, a kind of anti-war theme, an anti-violence message. The 'Green Blimp' lyrics go, 'All the fighting beneath us / if we're lucky won't reach us.' It's about drifting through the clouds and not worrying about being robbed or hit by a bomb. A lot of the songs carry that same message. It just happened that way. It's been on my mind. It's not like I'm a protest singer but, for the love of God, we've got two wars going on. Yesterday on the TV they said 350 kids were killed in one day. That's a lot of kids. I don't feel comfortable talking about that. I'm not a political-type person. But I can say, hey, we could all be a little less violent."
"Green Blimp," Twilley's first studio disc since 2005's "47 Moons," includes real rockers ("Speed of Light," "Stop"), breathy acoustic ballads ("Let It Rain"), some swampy boogie ("Witches in the Sky"), all of it clocking in just under four minutes. The production might sound dated, but Twilley's consistency over the years is as much an advantage in his music. And he's as forward-looking in his business model as he is in his lyrics. "Green Blimp" is available as a free download at dwighttwilley.com and in as-needed batches of CDs. His Facebook page keeps the faithful informed and raises funds for the recordings.
Of which there are plenty more on the way. "I don't want to be one of those guys who retires. I want to make records. I've got a new one and another one almost done," he said. That includes music for an upcoming film about him, a documentary being filmed by Youngblood Productions. "I have no control over the film," Twilley said. "Every now and then, they come by and do an interview. I saw the proposal, and I heard them talking about hiring someone to score the thing with music that sounded like mine. That didn't sit well with me at all. I perked up, said why don't I do the music for you? It's the only thing I have control over. The soundtrack will be done and out before the film ever surfaces.
"And it's different, it's interesting. I'm doing stuff on a biographical slant. I'm thinking about the things I did with [late music writing partner Phil] Seymour, how we got started. It's a damn good excuse to make another record. There's one song called 'Tulsa Town,' another called 'Bus Ticket.' That one tells the story of how Phil and I, these dumb little kids, just drove through Memphis with our little cassette, looking for a record company, and some guy named Sam Phillips listened to it, and we had no idea who he was or what Sun Records was. He was just this guy who sent us a bus ticket to come back and record."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Elton John & Leon Russell
Writing in the liner notes of his new CD collaboration with Leon Russell, his musical hero, Elton John details his U.S. debut in 1970 with Russell in the audience, how the two of them struck up a kinship, toured together and enjoyed initial parallels of fame as rock 'n' roll pianomen. "Anyway," John writes, "then I lost touch with Leon and our paths kind of went different ways."
That's an understatement. By the mid-'70s, all the world knew of John's crocodile rock. His body of work, it was announced last week, has earned him an entire Elton John channel on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Russell, meanwhile, served as maestro of Joe Cocker's notorious Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, had a big hit with "Tightrope," knocked everyone out with a fiery performance at the Concert for Bangladesh — and then almost all of us lost touch with Leon. He took a hard right and recorded a straight-up country album ("Hank Wilson's Back," 1973), then turned left for some avant-garde self-exploration ("Stop All That Jazz," 1974). He never stopped recording or touring, but while John eulogized princesses, became the belle of Broadway and sold out in Vegas, Russell was rolling his broken-down bus into tiny bars in small cities.
After a personal revelation last year about how deeply Russell influenced his music, John sought him out after 40 years. They reconnected, made plans to record. It could have been just another hokey duets album for John, 63, but to his credit "The Union" (out Tuesday) reunites the two piano-pounders under his stated and restated intention of injecting Russell, 68, back into at least a tributary of the mainstream.
"There's no point doing this record if it doesn't bring his work to light," John recently told Billboard. "I want him to be comfortable financially. I want his life to improve a little."
Fortunately, the resulting record amounts to something significantly greater than a charity project. It's a marriage of true love and admiration, much like "Road to Escondido," Eric Clapton's 2006 reunion with J.J. Cale. (Cale and Russell are both icons in their native Oklahoma as pioneers of the easygoing "Tulsa sound," which influenced performers from Tom Petty to Garth Brooks.) While "The Union" sags slightly under the weight of each performer's latter-day penchants, it ultimately succeeds because of the youthful energy they rediscover with each other's aid.
For this union to take place, John had to step back a bit from the obese, overwrought records he's made of late, which he seems to have done with relief and glee. "I don't have to make pop records any more," he told Billboard, indicating that "The Union" marks a new, less commercial chapter in his career. Huzzah!
Meanwhile, Russell — frail and sometimes in ill health, including brain surgery just as recording sessions began in January — had to step up his game, return to something resembling form. Russell's concerts the last decade or more have been static, lifeless affairs. He'd sit nearly motionless before a tinny little electric piano, a snow-white Cousin Itt with sunglasses, and mash out a rushed string of once beautifully arranged gems.
But he turns it around for these recordings. John, in his liner notes, celebrates the moment Russell "suddenly got his confidence again and started to play the grand piano instead of the electric piano, and all this great piano playing came flooding back and we made this incredible record."
The kick-back from real piano keys as opposed to the plastic of an electric keyboard — that simple physical resistance, that subtle artistic challenge has been what Russell's needed for years. He faces it here and comes alive again, opening the album with "If It Wasn't for Bad," as classic a Leon track as we thought we'd never get again. Over a touch of gospel and that moseying Tulsa pace, he seems to address his own criticisms in the song's central pun: "I know that you could be just like you should / If it wasn't for bad you'd be good."
Eight of these songs were penned by John and his writing partner of 43 years, Bernie Taupin. The first, "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes" voices John's own perspective on his hero: "Your songs have all the hooks / You're seven wonders rolled into one." From then on, the pair play piano and sing side by side, volleying like two tennis players trained by the same coach. Russell's feline yowl adds grit and growl to John's "Monkey Suit" (as "honky" as this cat's been in decades), while John's creamier voice leavens the slow regret of Russell's "I Should Have Sent Roses." For Russell, the proceedings often return to gospel, especially near the end of "The Union" as he shuffles through "Hearts Have Turned to Stone" with four churchy backup singers, then closes the album with the personal, organ-driven hymn "In the Hands of Angels."
"The Union" is filled out by a mutual admiration society of musicians who couldn't help but drop by the studio once they heard Russell was in town. Neil Young sings on the Civil War ballad "Gone to Shiloh." Brian Wilson sings and arranges some of "When Love Is Dying." Jim Keltner (another Tulsan!) plays drums throughout, and producer T Bone Burnett expertly guides and reins in the whole asylum choir.
Look for John and Russell on the road together this fall, starting with Tuesday's show at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Bonus: Cameron Crowe filmed the recording of "The Union"; he plans to screen a documentary in February at the Sundance Film Festival.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
A month ago, Roger Waters was in Chicago rebuilding Pink Floyd's "The Wall." One of the many themes in that show and its 1979 concept album is the barrier between artist and audience. Waters erects that barrier, building a 30-foot, white-brick manifestation of theater's "fourth wall," behind which his band continues to play. On the other side, the audience is left to watch synced animation projected onto the wall. It's true musical theater.
The Gorillaz ape a similar theatrical approach. A band of cartoon characters, created a decade ago by Blur singer Damon Albarn and "Tank Girl" creator-illustrator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz presents its live music the way the Wizard of Oz presented his edicts: A screen, sometimes a holographic projector, depicts the larger- and loonier-than-life animated players, and we're to pay no attention to that band behind the curtain making the actual music. Like Waters, the whole conceit began as a way to separate sender and receiver to make a statement about the consumption (or not) of music.
"It's a very hard point to get across, still," Hewlett said during a recent interview from his London studio. "We live in a time where, for a lot of people, celebrity is everything. We have thousands of huge celebrities who have no talent to offer, but because you see their face all the time you're conned into thinking that they're celebrities. With Gorillaz, we wanted to show that imaginary characters could be bigger than actual celebrities, who are really imaginary characters, anyway. Tough battle that one. We've persevered with it. I think Murdoc [the Gorillaz bassist] is a legitimate rock star — and believable at that, and a funny one and one of my favorites alongside Keith Richards and Tom Waits."
Gorillaz emerged from the mist when Hewlett and Albarn shared a flat and began spending evenings making fun of MTV. But it's grown beyond mere snark.
"Of course, now I'd like to think that our perspective is much larger than just poking at MTV and the idea of public image," Albarn said in a separate interview. "Now we're to the point where it feels like a comment on popularism itself, our approach to pop music and how it's relative with consumerism. On this record especially, we treat pop culture as a kind of adversary, really. Although it's a loose narrative, and plastic and rubbish is dealt with on a more metaphysical sense, there's something very much worth meditating on with this record.
"We ourselves are a part of the pop culture, but it's OK to dissect it and look at it from not necessarily an entirely positive aspect. Which is not something pop culture is terribly comfortable with. I mean, look at pop music, if you can bear to. Find me some social conscience in it."
The album he refers to is Gorillaz' third full-length effort, this summer's star-studded "Plastic Beach." The album is a set of more pop-oriented electronic and hip-hop songs, many of which make vague statements about the plasticity of culture or the literal plastic humans consume and discard. It features a range of guests, including Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Mark E. Smith, De La Soul and more, not to mention Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from the Clash. Womack, Jones and Simonon are on the tour, and others are popping onto some dates as special guests.
That's part of the reason the current Gorillaz tour pulls the cartoons back a bit, piercing the veil. With such star power onstage, why hide it? ("I couldn't entertain the idea of putting Lou Reed or Bobby Womack behind a screen," Albarn said. "I'm not that daft.") Hewlett has completed plenty of visuals for the entirety of the concerts, but this time they're on a screen that's up and slightly behind the human band onstage. There's a nautical theme. Jones and Simonon wear sailor suits.
The visuals almost became more central to the live shows, though, instead of less. The original plan was to move past the existing 2-D animation and into a concert of 3-D holograms. They tinkered with the technology and got it to work for their joint performance with Madonna opening the Grammys in 2006. Well, it sort of worked.
"It looked fantastic on TV, but that's it," Hewlett said. "Live, it's impossible to do, it turns out. You can't turn your bass up, you can't turn anything up, because it vibrates the invisible expensive holo-screen stretched between the band and the audience. The holograms go to pieces. At the Grammys, there was not really any sound in the actual theater. The [technicians] we did that with, since then, have fixed the problem, but it's too nerve-wracking to attempt."
"If it were at all possible, we'd be doing it," Albarn said of the holograms. "You just can't do it yet. It belongs to the brave new world, really. ... So the cartoons are back. It's a complete animated narrative above me now. Watching it as we're playing, it feels really strong. I think it's more satisfying, easier for people to watch us and the screen. They're a very strong presence in the ether above us, looking down on us from some kind of digital pantheon."
Albarn said "Plastic Beach" began with 80 pieces of music, so he expects Gorillaz to keep lumbering forward. After this tour, though, he's back to working on even grander stage projects. He and Hewlett collaborated on an opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West," which enjoyed an extended run in London, and Albarn currently is at work on another project "with operatic elements" about a 16th century mystic, due next summer. He also reports that he and the other members of Blur are "still in communication and are intending to do something in the new year."
• 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• UIC Pavilion, 1150 W. Harrison
• Tickets, $49.50-$95;
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
We can talk about Eddie Fisher’s singing career, if we must. In fact, don’t we have to, at least a little? Fisher’s obituaries move quickly through the two dozen hit songs to get to the scandalous affairs, the drug addiction, the good stuff. Headlines last week included “1950s Singing Star Was Brought Low by Scandalous Love Life,” “The Tabloid Legacy of Eddie Fisher” and “Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put a Gun to Liz Taylor’s Head.” But if we’re really going to talk about Eddie the Slimeball — which, of course, is what whets our contemporary media appetites — we have to discuss Eddie the Singer.
Fisher was a pioneer of tabloid notoriety; he became best known for entertaining us not with his stiff old traditional songs but with his randy new romantic exploits — a mid-century turning point for the entertainment industry. Today, fame can be achieved in Napoleonic fashion, simply by declaring oneself famous, and contemporary celebrities suffer their falls from grace from lower and lower heights. But Fisher was beloved before he was belittled, earning a level of fame equal to his eventual infamy. He wouldn’t have had so much of the latter without surrendering so much of the former.
The popularity of Fisher’s recording career confounds modern ears. His consistent run of hits from 1952 to 1956 included million-sellers “Any Time” and “Tell Me Why,” plus “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Wish You Were Here,” “I Need You Now,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” It’s starchy, sentimental stuff. Most Fisher records today sound positively antediluvian, moreso than his contemporaries (Sinatra, Crosby, Como, Bennett). The strings are syrupy, the rhythms plod and they’re presided over by Fisher’s self-described “lyric baritone,” which had more in common with Scarlatti than sock hops. The melodrama of “Oh! My Pa-Pa” is smothering — it’s the kind of record we’d expect to hear in “The Godfather,” played on a Victrola by a momentarily wistful mobster just before he whacks or is whacked.
But the timing was right for the crooners to heave one last gasp. Frank Sinatra lost his record deal in 1952, and Elvis Presley wouldn’t walk through the door at Sun Records until August 1953, so Fisher lead the charge with a parade of post-war pandering. “Tony Bennett, Perry [Como], Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole even Bing Crosby, they all cared about creating a legacy, a catalog of songs that meant something. … I didn’t,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Been There, Done That. “I recorded pretty much whatever they put in front of me.” One of those songs was “I’m Walking Behind You,” which Fisher recorded April 7, 1953. By June, it was a No. 1 hit. Frank Sinatra recorded his version five days before Fisher. Sinatra’s take hit No. 1 in October. The song’s lyric delivers a leering love letter from a groomsman who’s stalking the bride: “If things should go wrong dear / and fate is unkind / look over your shoulder / I’m walking behind.” Fisher — a fresh-faced teen idol even though a twentysomething, and admittedly not caring what the words meant anyway — delivers his reading dispassionately, by rote, like someone singing a foreign language phonetically. Sinatra’s reading is considerably coyer. He’d learned two years earlier how to hop out of one marriage and into another, ditching his first wife for twice-married Ava Gardner. Fisher’s similar lessons, in love as well as fame, were still to come.
By 1955, Fisher was on TV, starring on his own show with a soft drink sponsor, “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.” (That he was later addicted to cocaine for many years must have made that title quite the joke around the glass-topped coffee table in the Fisher living room.) He had seven Top 20 hits that year, starting with “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” an uncredited duet with Debbie Reynolds, she of the sweet and sunny face who’d become a movie star in 1952 with her turn in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Their marriage that same year boosted their visibility in the press and marked the point at which their artistic careers became a sideshow to their more entertaining personal lives. Two winsome smiles, two wholesome careers — Fisher and Reynolds became an idealized celebrity couple, the Brangelina of their day. They starred in a film together (“Bundle of Joy,” 1956), started a family, became known in the movie magazines as “America’s Favorite Couple.” By 1958, Fisher was named Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee (Congress had just made it a holiday in 1956) and was photographed smiling with toddlers Carrie and Todd on his lap. That month, Fisher was singing a six-week engagement at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Reynolds invited their good friend Elizabeth Taylor to stay with them there; Taylor was still grieving the loss of her husband and Fisher’s friend, Mike Todd. On Father’s Day weekend, no doubt to the eventual dismay of the National Father’s Day Committee, Fisher and Taylor fell in love.
What happened next hijacked Fisher’s public image for the rest of his life. News of the affair hit that fall. On May 12, 1959, Fisher finalized his divorce with Reynolds and, three-and-a-half hours later, married Taylor. His celebrity stock plummeted — but his headline count remained steady. For five years, magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Confidential splashed the various love triangles across their covers — a smiling Reynolds with the kids in a stroller, headline: “Debbie answers her daughter’s question: Won’t Daddy be with us all the time?”; Fisher and Taylor in formal attire next to a limo, headline: “How Eddie is saving Liz from her honeymoon jinx”; eventually, a photo of Taylor and her new lover, Richard Burton, and my favorite headline: “A Rabbi & Three Ministers Discuss: Love … Lust … and Liz!”
As Fisher’s ignominy increased, his singing career fizzled. “My career had leveled off to simple stardom” is how Fisher described it. The hits stopped coming in 1957, rock and roll had arrived, and Fisher wisely did not try to adapt. His recordings became infrequent and, he said, “Eventually the music simply became a means to the drugs and the women.” But the freak-show factor remained, and his nightclub and occasional Vegas bookings remained somewhat consistent. His new career was that of tabloid sensation — at which he proved to be as successful an entertainer as he was at the microphone. Celebrity rags launched in the ’20s were now going mainstream, and Fisher reliably helped fuel their new genre of inadvertent entertainment. Once Taylor eventually (and inevitably) dumped Fisher, he began a lengthy string of headline-baiting affairs — Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse, Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Mia Farrow, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Stefanie Powers — and married three more times to Connie Stevens, Miss Louisiana Terry Richard and businesswoman Betty Lin.
He wasn’t the first high-profile celeb to indulge in a reckless personal life, but he was one of the first whose tabloid infamy eclipsed any actual artistic achievements he might have started with. “It isn’t the music that people remember most about me, it’s the women,” Fisher admitted. Granted, the music wasn’t that memorable, but without it Fisher’s life story wouldn’t possess the narrative that makes all falls from grace, from the bookstore literature shelves to the supermarket checkout stand, so satisfying, for good or ill.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.